060: On Food Resilience
On gleaning and "putting food by" + Jean Craighead George, Wendell Berry, and Doodle Dispatches + keep scrolling for Brandon Taylor & The Austen Connection
“I am well and healthy. The food is good. Sometimes I eat turtle soup, and I know how to make acorn pancakes. I keep my supplies in the wall of the tree in wooden pockets that I chopped myself.”
My Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George
The instinct for doomsday prepping comes pretty naturally to me.
There are a lot of tributaries: the Christian eschatology of my family and childhood friends; the Mormon eschatology of my other childhood friends; the rugged, ranching culture of my hometown; the fierce, fight-to-protect-my-children instinct that just will not go away; the three decades of coping with military deployments, dotcom crashes, near-continuous job transitions, moving every other year, stock crashes, drunken bosses; and every minute spent on the NYC transit system.
The training in poetry is also part of it. A hyper sensitivity to patterns and connections is great for creating poems and, bonus (!) useful for seeing trends in culture—NFT fashion is going to be big, you guys, seriously; politics—omg don’t even ask; and global crises—like a virus out of Wuhan, China in early 2020 or bread riots in Sri Lanka in 2022.
I first learned about gleaning—the gathering of crops that are left in the field after the professional or machine harvesting is finished—from the biblical Book of Ruth when I was five or six years old.
As the story goes, there was a woman, Naomi, who had two grown sons, both of whom died. One of the son’s widows went back to her family, but the other widow, Ruth, decided to stay with Naomi, delivering one of the most famous biblical declarations of love: “For wherever you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge: your people shall be my people, and your God my God: Where you will die, will I die, and there will I be buried” (Ruth 1:16-17).
Soon, we learn that since Naomi and Ruth don’t have a male protector, the only way they can get food is for Ruth to glean in the grain fields, which is a right that widows and other poor people have under Judaic law. But, plot twist, the field that Ruth is gleaning turns out to be owned by a distant relative of Naomi named Boaz, who somehow figures it out, tells Ruth, and invites her to glean exclusively in his fields. He also tells his reapers to leave extra handfuls of grain in her path. Which is great!
(When I was a kid it was either implied to me, or I made it up in my head, that Boaz ‘liked’ Ruth, and him telling his guys to strew some extra grain in her path was flirting—a biblical meet-cute.)
In episode 3, it turns out that Boaz is actually required by law to marry Ruth since she is the widow of his relative. But for some reason, further machinations are required to get this going, so Naomi tells Ruth to go and lie at Boaz’s feet while he sleeps. Which she does. Which then triggers Boaz to fulfill his responsibility, but only after making sure that another, closer relative, doesn’t want to do the marriage.
In episode 4: Ruth and Boaz get married and, extremely significantly, give birth to a son named Obed, who goes on to have a son named Jesse, who goes on to have a son named David, who grows up to be the young man who kills the giant Goliath with a slingshot and goes on to become the King of Israel, the author of the Psalms, and a total player.
Why am I giving you Sunday School right now? Because it shows how absolutely fundamental food is to culture, as well as survival. Food scarcity and the social mechanisms with which we cope with it have been with us since the dawn of humanity.
Gleaning under Judaic law was an effective and efficient agrarian society safety net (see Leviticus 23:22) that worked because it kept people fed without threatening property ownership. Gleaning also provided opportunities for new or revitalized community connections, some few of which provided a path back to a more stable social network, i.e., marriage.
(Sidebar: is this emblematic of a outrageous patriarchal construct? Yes. Does Naomi tell Ruth to stay with the other gleaners to avoid being ‘annoyed,’ which means raped? Yes. Would I burn this shit down in another context? Yes. Is it also a moving story of friendship and a parable of social welfare? Yes. Stories, like people, are made of multitudes. )
So, here is the good news and the bad: food is structural.
From earliest childhood, I watched my mom “put food by.” Production started in July and went on through the first week of September or so—in Wyoming you get a killing frost as early as Labor Day—and my sister and I served as unpaid diggers of potatoes and carrots, as pea shellers and general pickers. In berry season our mom made jams and jellies. Later, she canned dozens and dozens of Mason jars of beans, tomatoes and pickles, and packaged up shelled peas and berries for the sarcophagus-sized freezer in our basement. For weeks in the summer our entire house was filled with the stench of vinegar and boiled green beans.
The freezer-sarcophagus also housed my parents’ half of a 4-H beef that they bought with my grandparents, butchered and neatly packaged in white paper with the cuts labeled. This was the most free-range, lovingly produced beef you can imagine; the cows were raised by kids who walked them as extremely large pets before school and hand-fed them hay after—all toward winning a blue ribbon at the 4-H Fair. To the beef, my dad added rainbow and brook trout that he caught on the mountain and pheasants that he hunted out in the sage flats near Ucross. To store these, he repurposed half-gallon milk cartons, filling them first with the fish, still with bones and skin, but no guts or heads, or the plucked, headless bird, and second, with water which then froze around the meat, giving it an extra layer of protection. In the freezer there was also stacks of neatly packaged deer hamburger and deer sausage and, depending on the year, elk meat.
My mom also batched pizza dough flats, often as part of a Friday night feed with another family. The rounds were rolled out, separated with cardboard and waxed paper, and stacked, so that you could remove one without un-freezing the others. She made pie dough, homemade hamburger buns, and dinner rolls in batches, as well, and put up large plastic tubs of chocolate chip cookies, from which I would steal one or two a couple of times a week, which I guess is why I still kind of like my cookies frozen.
Looking back, I don’t think my parents were doomsday prepping, as such, even if the woodpiles at our house and at our cabin were large enough to last for four or five years. A certain amount of prepping was endemic to our hunting and fishing community; the rest was one of the nicer aspects of their family-centered Christian value system, ably supported by my stay-at-home mom.
I was the one who was making connections between the rows of bulk dry goods in our walk-in pantry and actual world events like the Iran hostage crisis, conflict in Israel, and the Cold War, which were things I read about in Time magazine from the time I was seven or so. World news went right into the swirl along with the Little House on the Prairie books, in which Pa and Ma are continuously struggling to house and feed their family all across the Dakotas, my grandma’s copy of Clan of the Cave Bear which was mostly about sex, but a little bit about being a hunter gatherer, and myriad stories, from Old Testament to New, about seven-year droughts and plagues of frogs and jars of oil that never ran out.
Subscriptions to SBB are inflation-resistant and only $5/month, so what are you waiting for?
Of all the pioneer/rugged individualist/cowboy-adjacent/survivalist books I read as a kid, the best was My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, (which is why it keeps coming up in Survival by Book). The story of Sam Gribley, who tires of living with his eight brothers and sisters in a NYC apartment and goes off to live by himself on an abandoned farm in the Catskills was the best story a future prepper could ever have. During the course of the book, Sam learns to build a fire, use a box trap to hunt wild game, tan deer hide, forage for mussels and edible plants, tame a falcon chick, and even improve the inside of the tree in which he lived. And, he did all of it with his parents’ permission. Yes, Hatchet is also a pretty good read about a kid figuring out how to keep himself alive in the wilderness, but Sam Gribley volunteered for his survivalist lifestyle. To this day, I still wonder what acorn flour tastes like because of that book.
My other favorite book from that time, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, has a survivalist premise even though it’s set in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Since I’ve written about this book before, as well, I’ll just say that Claudia Kincaid was—and forever will be—cool as hell.
For prepper purposes though, what really differentiates Sam and Claudia, in addition to their general badassery, is that they plan. They are both book readers who do research before they ever leave home. They both know how to defer gratification and think ahead: Sam knows he has to put up food for the winter and sets about learning how just as soon as he can reliably start his own fire. Claudia researches the museum map, opening hours and security, and budgets the whole expedition down to the last penny. And, they both cultivate a lively, curious, and problem-solving approach to everything around them. It’s not an accident that in both books, the kids end up solving mysteries that the adults around them can’t.
The other thing that Claudia and Sam already know, even though they are children, just like I did when I was a child, is that under the nice, distracting, veneer of school and work and playing basketball or gossiping with your friends, the real life and death stakes are considerably higher. All the best children’s books reckon with this—it’s almost as though we are smarter about the reality of life and death when we are kids than when we get older. Kids know that we are all, someday, going to die, and they are anxious about it a bit, in one way or another, and they build up resilience to it, in one way or another, and they also going on living at an exuberant pace at the exact same time.
Like, when my sister and our friends Jenianne and Becky used to play in our “clubhouse” (alt. title, “the fort”), all we did, over and over, was repair it, clean it, and have our snacks in it. Some primal thing inside of all of us knew that the core value of a dwelling is that it can keep you warm and dry and give you cover when you steal frozen chocolate chip cookies from your mother’s cookie reserves.
I don’t really think this is a bad thing that some kids know this. In fact, I think that a healthy survival instinct should be cultivated in kids, and maybe their parents, too. What if, faced with rising food costs and fuel shortages we did a bit less panic buying and instead dusted off some time-tested survival skills?
In his essay “On the Pleasures of Eating,” Wendell Berry writes
There is a politics of food that, like any politics, involves our freedom. We still (sometimes) remember that we cannot be free if our minds and voices are controlled by someone else. But we have engelected to understand that we cannot be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else. The condition of the passive consumer of food is not a democratic condition.
It’s worth thinking about, no? This idea that we have increased our helplessness by allowing ourselves to be dependent on the food and restaurant industries? Have you been to the grocery store lately? It’s insane how much things cost right now. Do you like being subject to this? I don’t.
Survival—especially when it comes to food—is a multi-dimensional space in which libertarianism, environmentalism, progressivism, commerce, and the common good can and should co-exist. Wendell Berry, despite having some now out-dated values, sits at the nexus of this, and always has. His concern for the stewardship of the land, his practical approach to food production and conservation, and his clear-sightedness about the work that it takes to sustain life, are pretty much as relevant now as they were forty years ago.
In “The Pleasures of Eating,” Berry gives a list of things you can do to increase your food resilience:
learn to cook—because amongst other things, it’s a lot less expensive
buy food that is produced close to home—Berry says it’s the ”most secure, and the freshest“
deal directly with a local farmer, gardener or orchardist—not only do you eliminate the costs associated with middle men and packaging, but you make new friends
learn the economy and technology of industrial food production, i.e.,know what’s in what you eat
learn to garden, even if it’s just growing herbs in your kitchen
learn the life history of the food species—by this Berry means “choose to care about quality all along the food chain.” He says, “if I am going to eat meat, I want it be from an animal that has lived an unpleasant, uncrowded life outdoors.”
When I lived in New York, my friend and I did an ‘edible tour’ of Central Park in which we learned to identify a dozen kinds of edible plants that were all just sitting around growing like crazy in the middle of the city. It was a surprisingly delicious afternoon, but more to the point, I know a little bit about what to look for when I walk around the woods, even now.
I also know how to catch a fish with a hook and line improvised from stuff you can find lying around and how to gut it and debone it, because my dad taught me. I could kill a chicken or other small bird if I had to. (I don’t want to do this—I recently made a friend come and take away the muskrat that died in my garden—but I could if I had to.) I know how to cook on an open fire, as well as on a propane stove, because what if someday we can’t get propane stoves? Or those pre-packaged campfire freeze-dried type meals that you get at REI? It’s good to know how to fashion a kind of oven out of rocks so that you can bake root vegetables in hot coals overnight.
Is there a farmer’s market near you? I’m guessing there is. If you ask, most farmers will give you a discount on bulk buys of ‘seconds’—the produce that they can’t sell to restaurants and grocery stores. This is true of a lot of kinds of vegetables, including potatoes, all kinds of squash, and berries. Some farm stands will call tomato seconds, “canning tomatoes,” because that’s what they’re for, but the point is they only have cosmetic defects. Once you get these lower cost veggies, you can use the Bible of food preserving, Putting Food By, to learn how to can them. (Or take a class at a local ag extension.) Or, you can be lazy like me and cook them down into simple tomato sauce and then freeze the sauce in 8 or 12 ounce containers and use it for a base for all kinds of things for the rest of the year. You know how winter tomatoes taste like plastic? If you can or freeze your own, you get that summer tomato goodness all year.
Berries are even easier than tomatoes, because you don’t have to worry about acidity and botulism when you can them. Also, it’s fun to take your kids to pick them and relatively easy to hull them while you watch a season of, say, “New Girl,” and then you can either make them into jam, which just means cooking them down until they are jammy, maybe adding sugar or pectin or maybe not, or freeze them as whole berries. You can also make freezer jam if you don’t want to can it.
Every year, I grow a couple of pots of basil on my deck and every few weeks in the summer I process a bunch of it with a clove or two of garlic and some olive oil and put it in 4 ounce containers in the corner of my freezer; basil paste tastes good in pretty much anything in the winter and you don’t need super expensive pine nuts to make good pesto, either. You do kind of need good olive oil, though.
Speaking of garlic, you know how it sprouts if you leave it in your fridge? Well, that’s scalable. Last year, I chucked a handful of partially sprouted cloves into a corner of my garden and they are gangbusters this year. Kale, which is rich in folate and iron, and tastes weirdly delicious if you bake it down into chips, is indestructible. It grows no matter what, even beyond multiple killing frosts; in Vermont I cut it until it is buried under the snow. Speaking of folate and other vitamin richness, lentils do not have to be boring and can be bought in bulk from bespoke growers in Montana.
Another thing you can do is keep sourdough starter around, which contrary to all the stuff you read online, can be left, neglected and ignored, in the back of your fridge until you need it. All you have to do is feed it a day or so before you’re going to use it, and it will get all bubbly and ready to be kneaded. (haha, get it?) I have never made a batard or boule that was pretty enough to be instagrammable, not once, and I’ve known how to bake bread since I was a kid, but who cares. Home made bread is delicious, even if the loaf is crooked. It feels good to know how to do this stuff—even a bit empowered. I go through seasons in my life where I barely cook or preserve, but when I need it, it’s there.
You can also form a relationship with someone who raises meat locally. In the pandemic, the local farms in my area suddenly couldn’t sell their meat when the restaurants were shuttered, so they put out the word on the community listserve that people could buy direct. My farmer packed our purchases into a row of coolers in front of his house, and we all just went and picked up our bundle on the day he told us to. He’s back to being able to sell to restaurants now, but he still lets a few of us buy direct. It’s a new kind of gleaning, if you think about it. He has his main business line—the restaurants—and he also now has a few small, cash-paying customers who don’t even require delivery service. Less waste, more diversification, more food for everyone.
You don’t even have to have prepper tendencies to start doing things like this. The supply issues that we are seeing are not going to resolve quickly, and the predictions for energy and food scarcity in Europe are starting to sound apocalyptic. In the Global North, most of us will still have what we need, but we won’t have it as conveniently or cheaply, so why not see this time as motivation to dust off some of the habits that our grandparents and great grandparents took for granted?
Here’s what I hope you glean from all of this: in the US and other wealthy countries, we still have a lot of options when it comes to how we eat, and the current market stressors—which will be catastrophic for poorer countries and people who are less fortunate than you and me—could be the impetus we need to make some changes that can improve our lives and everyone else’s.
Look, a lot of what is wrong is much more complicated than food—I can’t even bear to allude to the brokenness in the markets, governments, and all the rest right now. I’m not being nostalgic for a non-existent time when “things were better” either. Back when our great grandparents were putting food by, it was because they might have starved to death if they didn’t. Food scarcity is a travesty in the modern economy and anyone who says it’s inevitable is being dishonest.
But, food is structural, and improving how you feed yourself can have positive downstream effects. We are all pretty universally agreed that we’re sick of being online, and “add to cart” as therapy is now as expensive as regular therapy. Even in a heatwave, you can keep a couple of pots of herbs going in your kitchen, and in side seasons you can dig around a bit in your backyard or get connected with the cheerful people at your local farm. Given what I am reading about what’s next, you might even want to make friends with someone who keeps chickens—or get a few chicks of your own. You don’t have to eat them; the hens can be pets and fresh eggs are magical.
Two years ago, I accidentally planted four poblano pepper plants and something about the growing conditions meant that they all produced really well. My friend Sarah came over and made a ridiculously good recipe with a bunch of them, which I hope to someday turn into an annual ritual. Then, I took the rest of the peppers, roasted them on the grill for awhile, wrapped them tightly in waxed paper and a freezer bag, stuck them in the freezer and forgot about them. I found them the other night and dropped them on a veggie burger which I grilled together with an early, green tomato that fell off one of this year’s plants, and it was pretty good. I am a lazy and distracted gardener and cook, so if I can do it, anyone can. Just sayin.’
Judith named this “Early Riser,” but then referred to it as “manic chicken” in a text, which I liked better. You can find a lot more of this kind of glorious doodle, plus excellent writing at doodledispatches.substack.com.
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Brandon Taylor is a master of the written word, and he might not even be thirty yet. I’ve mentioned his book, Real Life, before, there’s a short story collection called Filthy Animals, and he elevates Twitter to an art form. This piece about the new “Persuasion” on Netflix has an ironic, click-baity title that presages a humorous yet tough critique, including insights on filmmaking in general, adapting novels to film, and the universality of the Jane Austen canon.
If, like me, you’ll be watching “Persuasion,” no matter how many people hate it on the interwebs, or just want to dwell in the world of Jane Austen as a pure form of escapism, then please run, don’t walk, over to The Austen Connection.
Now, About You
What are you doing to cope with rising food and fuel prices? Are you bringing back any old skills? Learning new things or using new tools? Any books to recommend?