Monday, April 28, 2008

Preservation of food security

One of the big problems of being a consumer primarily of local food is the "seasonality problem". We have gotten used to fresh vegetables all year long. That just isn't possible unless you live in California or other 12-month growing climates (and it isn't really even true there) or unless you import food. And as we know, importing food from hundreds of miles away is costly in fuel, greenhouse gases, and increasingly, in food dollars. If we are to have "food security", that is, assurance of a continued supply of healthful food, we need to learn how to eat from what we can grow ourselves or buy locally.

Actually, it has been wonderful, this transformation to year-round fresh food. When I was a young woman first cooking for my own household, the only fresh vegetables available in the winter were celery, hothouse tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, carrots, potatoes, onions. The celery and lettuce were probably from California, maybe the carrots too, the potatoes and onions stored. Everything else was canned or frozen. Now we expect to waltz into the supermarket and get everything needed for any possible dish, any month of the year. It is a great luxury.

But it is a block to eating locally produced food. Vegetable crops can be staggered for a longer harvest but they still are intensively seasonal in our climate, available perhaps for 2 months of the year in most cases. So it is feast or famine, unless you take steps to preserve them.

The feast part is great, of course. I remember growing up in the South when every meal had at least three vegetable courses in the summer. There were squash (pattypan - zucchini was an exotic), cooked in water with a little butter; mustard or turnip greens; butter beans or blackeyed peas (both fresh, not dried, and also "cowpeas"); coleslaw; ripe cantelope peeled and cut into thin crescents, salted and peppered and served as a salad; cucumber salad made with onions, vinegar, water, and a little sugar; fried okra of course, and eggplant dipped in flour and fried till delicate in the middle and crisp on the outside; new potatoes and peas cooked together with milk and butter; potato salad (homemade, with pickle relish and mayonnaise) for picnics and grated carrot with raisins. For those who like them, fresh sliced tomatoes. And of course, corn on or off the cob in season (maybe five weeks in midsummer) and fresh green beans. Later in the season, we could have Waldorf salad (apples, celery, walnuts).

But in winter, we ate canned green beans, lima beans, peas, or spinach; the dreaded iceberg lettuce wedges; canned pear halves with cream cheese; canned corn, either straight or cream-style; canned yams, sweetened with brown sugar for holiday fare; canned asparagus when we were being fancy; and, inevitably, Jello salads with canned mandarin orange slices, canned pineapple, or bananas.

If we are to live off the land locally, either from our own gardens or from local market growers, we'll have to recapture those days when one literally ate what was in season. (If not repeat the actual winter menu of those days.) This means relearning the arts of canning and preserving. Of course, the home freezer has made a big difference too. But that's why I am pickling, fermenting, and exploring other means of preservation of home-grown food.