Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Pig Share

Many years ago, back and back and back (as the Giver tells Jonas every time he tries to explain some phenomena that Jonas won't understand until he has the memory), we were trying to find ways to save money at the grocery store.

It's a typical Western response to needing to find ways to cut back on expenses (you know, instead of cutting the cable bill, or not going to the Mall on Friday night). Most of us do it or have done it. The first place most of us start trying to cut is what we spend on food, and there are dozens of ways we try to do that - from using coupons to buying in bulk to buying the cheapest processed food we can find. Joel Salatin has a great article in this month's Mother Earth News magazine about how cheap and convenient food is actually neither.

So, back and back and back, Deus Ex Machina and I were approached by one of those freezer foods companies. Their spiel was that we could buy six months' worth of food for X dollars, plus the price of a freezer. We thought we were getting this stellar deal.

Until we started adding up the numbers and doing some price comparisons. For instance, we found the same (or at least a similar enough) freezer at the home improvement store for about a third of what we paid for the one from the freezer food company.

Using the freezer food company was very much like shopping at one of those bulk purchase stores, like Sam's Club, except that they delivered. If we were just looking at convenience points, the company is a 10/10.

If we're looking at the entire package, we're looking at a 2/10.

The prices were not cheaper. At best, they were comparable, but a lot of the food was stuff we didn't buy - at least not the brands that were delivered to us. For example, there were many packages of bagels, and we often purchased bagels, but usually we bought the huge deli bagels. The ones that were delivered to us were the grocery-store freezer kind that are about half the size of the ones we usually purchased. We paid the same price for half the food ... because they delivered.

And it wasn't six months worth of food, either. In fact, I was surprised by how quickly the freezer emptied.

Perhaps it could have been six months of food, if that food is supplemented by other things, but if that freezer full of food was all we had to eat, there's no way it would last six months. The meat lasted about two months. We might have had some of the other food products at the end of six months, but not because there was six months' worth, but rather because that food item (like bagels) was not a dietary staple.

Maybe they meant six months, one meal per day for two adults, and not six months, two to three meals per day for two adults, one teen-aged boy and a toddler.

Of course, the company didn't really want us to purchase all of those other foods, anyway. They're main product was meat, but compared to grocery store prices, we were actually paying twice per cut of meat what we'd pay at the grocery store. That said, it wasn't an apples to apples comparison. They didn't sell packages of plain ground beef. What they sold was single-serve packages of seasoned meats - things like chicken breasts marinated in lemon-pepper sauce and teriyaki-seasoned sirloin steak. It was incredibly convenient. Everything was done for me. All I had to do was to take the package out of the freezer a few hours before our meal to thaw, and then, pop it in the oven or fry it in a pan. Easy-peasy.

And that's what the company is banking on - that we want easy-peasy. The slick-talking sales woman who came to our house did some Pa Kettle math on us, and we thought we were getting a deal, but as it turns out, there wasn't a lot of anything (especially meat), and the price was a lot more than we would have spent in a month on our whole grocery bill, and worse, we still needed to go to the grocery store for other stuff, anyway.

We saved nothing, and we had nothing to show for it, but a very expensive freezer.

We only ordered from that company the one time, but we kept getting calls - of course. Eventually, we stopped buying meat from the grocery store, and one day they called, and I explained that there was really nothing their company had to offer us. The prices weren't that great, and besides, we'd transitioned to a local diet. I asked, "Where does your meat come from?" The answer was, essentially, "Not here." I explained that we were raising our own chicken, and we bought beef and pork from local farmers. I haven't heard from them in a very long time. I guess they took my name off the list ... finally.

I was thinking about that company today, not because I wanted to buy anything from them, but because, when they delivered our one order, it looked like quite a lot of food when they brought it in, and I wondered, how on earth they were going to fit it all in that freezer. The guy who delivered the freezer told me that the guy who would pack our freezer was a pro. He could fit six months' worth of food in a thimble.

I picked up our pig share today. The almost 200 lb. pig (hanging weight, and so the actual weight of the pork is less), joined the half cow, the 40-something whole chickens, and the sundry other bits and parts of previous farm-shares we've purchased or raised over the years (things like organ meats I'm not sure how to cook, fat I haven't gotten around to rendering, and chicken necks I still need boil for broth).

I was thinking, it would be nice to have someone to help me pack the freezer, because I thought it was full before I brought home the five paper bags full of pork.

Now, it's really full.

We'll eat well this winter.

One of the two brown ones pictured was the pig we brought home for our freezer a couple of years ago, raised by a friend of my daughters on her three-acre, rural suburban farm.

The butcher, who now knows me by name, packages the raw meat exactly the way I want - which is incredibly convenient. He will only season the ground pork (for sausage - and it's delicious!), but over the years, I've learned to season exactly the way my family likes, using herbs and spices that are organically and sustainably grown with no chemically-derived "natural" flavorings.

We were silly to try to save money by buying convenience, and even though we were duped that one time, we did learn our lesson. Convenience does not equal cheaper, and even when the freezer is full, there's still room for a pint of ice cream.


  1. I love buying meat from our local farm shop. The taste and texture is so much better than the meat from the supermarket. But it is so much more expensive. Like you I have been trying to reduce food costs, so I have been buying from the supermarket :-(

    It would be cheaper to buy half a lamb at once from the farmshop, but I would have to buy another freezer to store it in, which means increased energy costs too. At this stage in the peak energy game more appliances doesn't seem like a very long term solution to me, but then neither are supermarkets. Dilemma.

    The amount of food you are storing, maybe you should build an old-fashioned icehouse in the garden. That way you wouldn't need the freezers or the electricity to power them :-)

    1. Our farm share meat is actually cheaper, per pound, than much of the meat available in the grocery store, but you're right - there is the issue of storing it. Our freezer costs about $36 per year to run, which works out to about $3/month. Including the pig share, we've put almost 700 lbs of meat in the freezer this year, and I calculate, including the cost of running the freezer, we're paying about $3.50/lb for the meat - all of the meat, and that includes fancy cuts like filet mignon that would cost 4x that per pound at the grocery.

      Since we already have the freezer, though, it makes sense for us to try to fill it with as much as we can, because it's cheaper to run it full than to run it empty ;).

      I think the ice house was used more for refrigeration than freezing. If I wanted to store the meat without freezing, I'd really need to get better at charcuterie ;). I'm learning ... slowly. I've made guanciale, but I'd love to make my own salami and pepperoni.

    2. I need to see if there is something similar to your farm share in my area. It sounds a good idea.

      A traditional ice house was used to store ice and ice cream for the aristocracy. There is one in the gardens of the manor house a couple of miles from us. I probably have a photo somewhere. They were completely below ground with walls several bricks thick and were round. In winter the servants would fill it with ice or snow and the door would be shut. There would still be ice in it all year round. It probably wouldn't work so well if you were adding warm food to be frozen throughout the year, although I guess that depends on the amount of ice compared to the food. Apparently it is the shape that makes it work - the one I have been in was completely spherical below the ground, with a door and stairs coming off it. It would be a bit hard work without servants, but we do have diggers these days instead.
      They are mentioned on wiki http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_house_(building)

    3. That would be such a cool thing to see!

      I don't think there's anything exactly like that here in the States ... although I do know that ice was harvested from our lakes here in Maine and transported in huge blocks to more urban areas to be used in "ice boxes" (essentially a refrigerator).

      It would be pretty cool to have an ice house and not be so dependent on electricity to do the job.