Ever since the idea of going locavore, or eating local on 100-mile diets, tiptoed into the mainstream a couple of years ago, more people have chosen to support their local farmers markets and to eat fresh food in season. The old chorus continues, however: "What can a locavore eat in the winter?"
Well, quite a lot, really.
Sharon Astyk tells you how in "Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage & Preservation." A former academic turned writer, subsistence farmer, activist, and prolific blogger who farms in upstate New York with her husband and four children, raises livestock, and grows and preserves vegetables, Astyk previously wrote "Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front," about peak oil, and "A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil."
This, Astyk's latest book, is her most practical in scope, but is still seasoned with considerable analysis of why locavoreanism matters. Those who pursue local foods end up following "a typical order of things," she notes in "Independence Days," starting with eating seasonally and gradually learning to make do with what is available, or to preserve seasonal foods for the off-season. "Food Preservation and Food Storage are logical steps in locavore life... to keep the links going all year around."
The title of her book comes from an idea espoused by the late Carla Emery, who declared "independence days" those times when her family ate their own homegrown food or food from other local sources, making them more self-sufficient. Food independence is a vital necessity in a time of global climate change, economic insecurity, and corporate control of the national food system. So while one aspect of the book encourages people to expand their local eating beyond the harvest season through food preservation, Astyk's secondary project is "protecting and insulating ourselves from the limitations of our fossil-fueled, ecologically damaging and uncertain food system" by practicing food storage. Though she defines the two separately, she acknowledges that both are inextricably woven together, "and it is hard to sort out which one we are actually talking about at any given moment."
Astyk herself initially delved more deeply into growing, preserving, and storing food as a response to our energy crisis, but instead of being daunted by the prospect of all that work, she set herself a challenge "to do one little bit every day or week," just as Emery had proposed. She dubbed this the "Independence Days" challenge and invited her blog readers to join her in a weekly review of what was planted, harvested, and preserved each week, as well as the ways in which she minimized waste, stored food and other goods, cooked something new, managed her household reserves, and worked on building local food systems. "Preserving food is everyday work," Astyk stresses.
As the new guru of low-energy food preservation, Astyk could make it look easy. But you can hear the self-deprecating laugh in her response throughout the book, emphasizing that she makes mistakes, too: overplanning the garden, not getting around to preservation quickly enough, not storing enough for a family of growing boys, and so on. But she makes several sensible points about food preservation and storage that will help anyone make those first steps toward their own "Independence Days":
1. Start with the principle of eating seasonally. If you recognize that certain foods are best eaten fresh in season, you learn to adapt your food preservation accordingly and "concentrate on giving yourself a small, luxurious taste of summer in winter."
2. As you learn what is seasonal in your own area, you can manage your food preservation activities and schedule better. Know how best to preserve various foods — Astyk reviews all of the major and a few of the minor preservation techniques and offers a table of preferred preservation methods for most fruits and vegetables — and know what you and your family enjoy most. After all, why spend your time putting up frozen green beans if you prefer them pickled, or vice versa?
3. Learn what staple foods are native to your area, and include those in your food storage preparations. Whether you rely heavily on wheat for baked goods, or on corn, potatoes, or other staples, you will want to learn what suits your diet best and how to prepare these staples (especially from whole grains) in multiple ways to vary your off-season diet.
4. Integrate the food you store into your everyday cooking, and replenish those stores on a regular basis. Astyk heavily emphasizes this point: if food storage is not used to continue your everyday cooking, you lose almost all of the advantages such as saving money and trips to the store, keeping a nutritional backup in your pantry, or being able to manage a crisis at home. (The flip side of this, then, is to avoid storing what you really don't want to eat: MREs or survival packets might sound like a good idea, but when a crisis hits, you'll need familiar comfort food.)
In reviewing the reasons for food preservation and storage, Astyk addresses the need to find low-energy ways of continuing to grow, prepare, preserve, and store the harvest. Not only can we reduce our energy use by choosing a solar dehydrator over an electric one, or by sharing a freezer with a friend or neighbor, but we can also learn to extend our harvest seasons, keeping things fresh until we're ready to eat, and to use root cellar techniques to preserve other foods. In almost every case, she adds, "you will be reducing your fossil fuel dependence in total when you put up food, no matter how you do it."
The final point that Astyk makes repeatedly is that food preservation and food storage serve not only our basic needs and our own food security, they are a key element of community food security. "Ultimately," she notes, "our own security in both a pragmatic and a moral sense depends on not having our neighbors go hungry either." By preparing a bounty in our own pantry, we also have enough to share with others. That generosity, she adds, is absolutely vital to building and nourishing community: "The dollars we spend now are investments in future food systems, and these are the systems we will need to feed us in difficult times."
Astyk sprinkles the book with related recipes from friends or from her own family that highlight the various food preservation techniques or the possible staple foods that form the basis of pantry storage. All of the recipes are fairly simple, but — and my cookbook pet peeve raises its whiny little head here — several have jumbled ingredient lists that don't follow the order in which they are used in the recipe. Additional resources appear at the back of the book, though Astyk herself notes that due to the length of the book, many more were relegated to her website to save paper.
Skeptics will ask, when it gets right down to it, is putting food up for winter really going to save the world or make much of a difference? No, maybe not, admits Astyk.
But collectively, a movement of ordinary people shifting their ordinary activities –- moving their dollars away from corporations and towards home, not eating food grown with artificial nitrogen or shipped from far away, living more simply, using less energy — can cut off the economic lifeline of the corporations that both undermine our political power and try to force us to depend on them.
That's real independence. And yes, that's worth the effort.
So if, like me, you've been looking to take your locavore habits to the next level, to find more ways to preserve summer's bounty and to simplify your meal preparation, take a look at "Independence Days" to discover more ways you can declare your food independence. Pull up a chair and visit with your new food preservation friend Sharon, and enjoy the practical humor and reassurance she brings. Try to follow the Independence Days challenge and see how else you can reconnect with the source of your food. And by all means, keep sharing the bounty with others.
Editor's note: The Ethicurean maintains a comprehensive list of books about sustainable food and agriculture and related topics at Goodreads.com. You can see what we're reading via the Goodreads widget in the righthand column (and if you click on one of those book covers to purchase it via Amazon.com, you'll be helping us out financially, at no extra cost to you.) To browse our collective library and read previous reviews, visit our Goodreads bookshelf.