In her excellent book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich points out that one of the biggest problems for the working poor, when it comes to food and nutrition, is that many of them have no place to store surplus food, even if they can afford to purchase it. I won't disagree. I lived in what can only be described as "transient" housing while I was in the military, and while my situation was significantly different and slightly more stable than someone who lives in a motel room, with regard to storing food, it wasn't much better.
Of course, being who I am, I can't simply accept that as the final answer, and I think, for those who look deeper, there are solutions.
One of my favorite, all-time, television shows, and, indeed, the one that got me started on this path to suburban self-sufficiency and homesteading, is the 1970s BBC classic, Good Neighbors. The story is about a man who reaches his forty-second birthday and, suddenly, realizes that nothing he does is meaningful. He gets up in the morning, goes to his job where he is a (top) designer for the plastic toys that end up in cereal boxes, and then, he comes home at night to his lovely wife, has dinner, and the next morning, wash/ rinse/repeat.
He decides he wants more from his life, and so the show begins.
In one episode Tom (the protagonist) goes fishing with his buddy and next door neighbor, Jerry (the foil - sort of). Tom is fishing for sustenance, and everything he catches will feed him and his wife, Barbara. Jerry is fishing, because it's relaxing and a nice departure from his high-stress job as a corporate executive. Tom has a good day at the pond, and he brings his fish home, where he cleans them, and then, stores them in the freezer (which is powered by a methane digester, which is fueled by pig-waste). Unfortunately, Tom has some mechanical problems with his generator, and his fish is in danger of thawing. So, he runs next door to ask Jerry if he can store his catch in their freezer, but Jerry informs Tom that the grid is down. Thus, the episode ends with rotting fish.
What I loved about that particular episode from my "doomer" perspective was that it was a reminder that dependence on modern, electrified conveniences could be very bad - even if we believe we can power those things ourselves. Tom had his own, home-made methane digester to provide some electricity for his home - specifically, to power the freezer in which they planned to store much of their food (including the pig, who provided the fuel for the digester ;). He believed himself to be independent of the grid, but when his home-made generator failed him, he realized he needed the very thing he'd eschewed on principle.
If he had thought beyond the obvious, Tom would have realized that he had other options - other than freezing the fish, or watching it rot when he couldn't use his neighbor's freezer.
Several weeks ago, my daughters and I went to the Old York Museum, which is a living history museum in southern Maine, where I discovered salt-dried fish. I came home, resolved to try it for myself, and after my successful attempt at salt-drying fish, Deus Ex Machina bought the book Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning ..., which I have been skimming.
And it got me thinking about people who are living on a very fixed income in very small quarters and who don't have space to store traditionally preserved foods. They don't have a huge freezer (grid-powered or otherwise). They don't have a root cellar, and often not even an extra room that's in a cooler part of the house. They don't have lots of cabinets or a food pantry.
Further, they don't have the cooking facilities to can 2 dozen jars of applesauce.
So, what's the option?
And that's when I had my Aha! moment, when all of the pieces clicked together, and I thought, if I could suggest one thing to people who might be in a position where they needed to have some food stores, but simply did not have the space or the facilities to preserve them, I would tell them to get a food dehydrator.
This year, Deus Ex Machina and I harvested almost 100 lbs of "wild apples." We made cider out of most of them, but they could easily have been peeled, thinly sliced, and put in the food dehydrator.
In the past, we've bought cheap cuts of meat, sliced it very thin, marinated it in a seasoned brine, and then, dehydrated it.
A few years ago, a local farm store had 50 lb bags of potatoes for $15. Yes, that's right. FIFTY pounds of potatoes for FIFTEEN DOLLARS! If I had no way to store or cook 50 lbs of potatoes, a good alternative would be to thinly slice the spuds and dehydrate them. My family and I might get sick of potato soup, but we wouldn't be hungry.
What's funny is that most of us never think about dehydrating our fresh food, but most of us, in this processed food generation, regularly cook with and eat dehydrated foods. Instant potato flakes, "just add boiling water" soups, flavored instant oatmeal ... raisins.
There's nothing mysterious about dehydrating foods, and when it comes to preservation methods, dehydrating can, actually, be the cheapest way to process the food we want to keep. When Deus Ex Machina and I bought our dehydrator over a decade ago, we bought the cheapest model available. It's not a heavy-duty commercial quality, but it does the job, and we paid less than $40 for it. From the bit of sleuthing I did, it looks like similar models are still available at a similar price :).
The food dehydrator Deus Ex Machina and I have is electric, but it takes far less energy - even with the dehydrator running full out for the two days it takes to dry meat - to dry four trays of meat than it does to store it for months in the freezer. The dried meat also takes up less space than an equal amount of fresh meat, and if it's kept in an air-tight container, it will last for months (maybe years) - even through a power outage :).
We use an electric food dehydrator, and for people living in a motel or a small apartment, an electric dehydrator is probably the best answer, but dehydrating food does not require electricity - just so you know.
Unlike canning, which requires monitoring through the whole process, most of the process of dehydrating requires no effort on our part. There was a commercial a few years ago for some "As Seen On TV" Ronco product in which they declared "Set it and Forget it!" That's how preserving food by dehydrating works - for the most part.
Dehydrated food can be rehydrated and cooked, as we all know from our days of eating "just add boiling water" soup packets, but it can also be eaten as is, which makes dehydrating food, probably, one of the best methods of preserving.
As for Tom Good, I wish I could tell him about my salt-dried fish. It was delicious in chowder, and salt-drying or even smoke drying his fish would have saved the all of that food he caught.