Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Food - It's Everywhere

When folks start talking about collapse scenarios, a faltering economy, the end of the world as we know it, the first response is always fear, followed quickly by denial. I see it all of the time, especially in the early days of my blogging, when I would mention that things were getting bad and would likely get worse ... and probably never return to normal. This was before the real estate bubble burst, the oil price spike of 2008, the increasing unemployment, and the worldwide economic disasters we've been seeing for the past four years.

Denial was fierce. Sometimes the fear is palpable.

I'm not sure what scares people the most, what loss of what they most fear. For most people I talk to, our way of life isn't so wonderful that the average person really wants to keep it, but whatever other they're imagining seems much worse than what we have, and of that change, there is a great deal of fear.

. For me, the fear was not in losing jobs or money, but in not having food to feed my family. I live on a quarter of an acre in a place where our growing season is about five months long - if we use season extension. I still believe it is possible to produce a substantial portion of our nutritional and caloric needs on our quarter acre, and in fact, we do grow a lot of food, and we have room to expand even more. Sometimes it's not about what's possible, but a juggling act between what can be done and what we have time to do.

In the kind of TEOTWAWKI scenarios that are most popular, we wouldn't have to worry about the juggling thing anymore, because we wouldn't be stuck in this duality lifestyle, where we still have jobs, because we live in the suburbs and we still have expenses that can't be bartered for a bottle of lavendar mead (like this Internet connection, for instance). In those scenarios having an Internet wouldn't be an option, and neither would paying for electricity or town water or garbage pick-up, because those things would not be available. In those scenarios, we wouldn't have an outside jobs, and we would have plenty of time to do things, like planting, harvesting and preserving.

I can grow a lot, but the fact is that I don't have to, and really, it takes about the same amount of time to go out every few days and forage as it does to plant and tend a garden. In an ideal world, I would do both.

In his book, 1491, Charles Mann describes the impressions of the Europeans as they reached the shores of New England - where I live - and met the native populations. The Natives were described as being incredibly hardy folk, and the thing that seemed to strike the sailors most was how well-fed they were. Imagine, people who live completely off the land, in a place that is dead and bare for three-quarters of the year, being described as "well fed." It kind of boggles the mind.

For the Europeans, who were perpetually on the verge of starvation, it must have been quite a sight. Mann goes further to estimate that the average daily caloric intake of the indigenous tribes of the northeastern part of what-is-now-the-USA, was in the neighborhood of 2500 calories per day, per person!

At first, I thought how incredible, and that perhaps the numbers were misinterpreted. Then, Deus Ex Machina found 5 lbs of hen of the woods mushrooms (Maitake) and shot a small turkey hen. He followed up his foraging with looking at the calorie counts of those two items. Together, they equaled 4500 calories - or enough to feed two people for a day.

So, maybe those reading this are thinking that's not a lot, but, actually, it is. The natives in my area subsisted partly on what they grew (mostly, the Three Sisters, from what I understand) and partly on what they foraged.

There's a lot of food out there, and it doesn't take a long time to find it, either. I think when most of us think of foraging, our thoughts linger on things like dandelion greens and berries, which are wonderful foraged foods, but not terribly calorie dense. The natives had a lot of other, much more substantial things they foraged, including mushrooms, and some roots, like sunchokes, that aren't found wild very often, anymore, but are native to the northeast and are very easy to grow. Those things made hearty, wonderful, calorie dense meals.

Still do.

In fact, for dinner the other day, we had creamy chicken-mushroom soup - some of it foraged, some of it homegrown.

The onions and mushrooms were cut into tiny pieces and sauteed with the pan drippings from the roast chicken we had over the weekend night. The carcass of said chicken was in another pan boiling to make broth. When the onions and mushrooms were soft, I added several cups of broth and some sunchoke flour to thicken it a bit.

I also added milk to mine to make it creamy, and the soup was served with corn fritters (made with boiled corn meal that was pan fried in olive oil). If I hadn't added the milk, the meal could have been something that might have been eaten by my region's native ancestors - right down to the corn fritters.

It's interesting to realize that five years ago, I was struggling to pull an all-local meal together, and now, not only are we eating local foods in every single meal, but there are many nights when the food we eat is very similar to what the people who lived here four hundred years ago ate - people who never had access to a grocery store - who wouldn't even have been able to conceive of a grocery store - or would have never thought to pay for food.

Perhaps in our quest to eat seasonally and local, we've gone a bit off the deep end here at Chez Brown, but in my mind, worstcase scenario, I'm comforted that we will be like those natives whom the Europeans first encountered when they reached the shores of what I call my home.

Even if there is no worst case scenario, with our locally grown and foraged, seasonal diet, my family will still be like those ancestors in the most important way ... and that is, well fed.


  1. This is my biggest fear to - not being able to feed or care for my family. It's the first place I go when I'm freaked out, and is the reason for the big pantry, the saved seeds, and a whole pile of other things that I do.

    I'd like to get better about finding more local foods around here. Ideally, I'd like to find a foraging group or guided tour, but I've got my eye on a few identification books to get going. I'm sure there's far more around here than I'm aware of, and I'd love to figure out what grows locally that we can eat.

  2. How good it must be to look back on that journey and see how far you have travelled, and how many skills you have learned. Me, I'm still at the beginning of the road, but learning new things all the time.