Saturday, August 27, 2011

Weaving the Fabric

This post is a sort of continuation of my last post and an extension of some thoughts generated by some comments left.
I don’t intend to hammer away at people who own a food processor, Magic Bullet, vacuum cleaner or bread machine, but let me give you some sound reasons to put them away or use them less. We live in an age of unprecedented ease, never have such large amounts of people had to work as little as what we do. And yet, yet, we’re so unsatisfied. Something is missing from our lives; I touched on this in the post What Would You Give In Exchange? “Community” is a cry I’m hearing a lot, more people are waking up to the fact that truly no man is an island and they’re groping for a way to regain what was so carelessly tossed away by those of a generation or 2 ago. However, trying to rebuild community is putting the cart before the horse. Without the proper building blocks you can’t build anything that will last. The building block is the family and until the family is experiencing “community” you will never be able to replicate community on a larger scale. The best you’ll be able to do is to reenact it. Family community is built on need, Father and Mother need the children just as the child needs its parents and you can’t need somebody that you don’t know and never spend any time with. Let me present an example: we preserve a lot of food, right? :-) I’ve written about the tools that we use so you know that there isn’t a whole lot of mechanization being used here. Why would we choose to make it so hard on ourselves? Family community.


When we're making salsa somebody is washing tomatoes, Mr. G or Katie or Levi is cranking the Victorio Strainer, Elisabethe or Abigail is putting the tomatoes in the hopper, Aleks or I are dicing peppers, somebody else is cutting onions etc. We’re together, working to get an important job completed. It’s the same when we’re canning corn. Aleks picks it, Katie puts the water on to boil, Levi, Micah, Tabitha, Rebekah, Elisabethe and Abigail begin to husk it and remove the silk. Asa tastes the corn cobs to verify that they’re edible. And then Aleks, Katie and I cut it off the cob. Mechanization means not only noise that prohibits conversation, but it erases opportunities for us to work together. I need my children, we could not live this life without them and that needing them in turn grounds them to a real life. We're weaving more of the cloth that binds us together everytime we work together.

What kind of child abuse is it to turn a child loose to have their character shaped by their peer group? To substitute meaningful work for a virtual reality and passive existence: watching actors pretend to have relationships and act out immorality, listening to somebody else sing, watching other people play football, listening to somebody else read the Bible and explain their interpretation of it. Entire childhoods marked by passivity and then when they should be adults we wonder why they aren’t. We’ve set them up for failure by denying them a real childhood. “Fun” should be replaced by these two questions: is the task meaningful? and is it satisfying? Of course I’m not saying that we should never have fun, but it shouldn’t be a god that we worship. Enjoy spending time with your family, whatever your family happens to be; build that community first.
The two images shown are both of corn husking bees, the top image is a scene painted from the Island of Nantucket in 1876 and the bottom is a photograph taken at Hog's Jaw, a small community on the Cumberland River in lower Whitley County Kentucky about 1910. Friends and neighbors once gathered to help each other for such things as house raisings, quiltings, stir-offs, and bees. As it brought people together, it was considered as fun in those days and friends came from miles around. The work was often followed by a delicious meal and perhaps an evening of square dancing or games. Community building was happening all the time without there being any special effort to “create community”. Need compelled people to rely on each other, nobody was self sufficient but communities were to a large extent. If your very survival depended on your small town blacksmith, shop keeper, wagon maker, and midwife you would be much more careful to tend those relationships. We have so many more choices today that the “need” has been removed, or at least it appears so. But be not deceived, your survival still depends on others, they're just a nameless and faceless other that doesn't care about you as an individual. The Bible says that "My people perish for want of knowledge", you can apply that many ways to this situation, but it's not a stretch to say that God desires parents to work with and impart values to their children and also that He wants us to build communities.





Thursday, August 25, 2011

Domestic Economy



Summer is slowly, almost imperceptibly winding down; I can feel the change in the air though the workload is still as heavy as it ever was. We finally finished canning green beans, but the corn and carrots are far from done. We try to do a few canner loads every day and that way it isn't overwhelming and the jars do add up little by little. I'm thankful for the ease and convenience of having home canned foods on the shelf, meals can be made in a hurry and I know they're wholesome. I want to can some corn with red and green peppers in it, we'll add that to cornbread sometimes and we really like it that way. I also want to make a batch of salsa using all Green Zebra tomatoes, green salsa will be different and I do get tired of the same old things all the time. Home canning is a relatively recent invention, at least canning as we understand it today is- though people have been preserving food for later use since time immemorial. Our understanding of cooking has also undergone a radical change in the last hundred years. It’s rare today to find a woman who cooks meals for her family at home, much less a woman who has the knowledge of how to cook from scratch. We’ve gone from a nation of self reliant women to a nation of women who don’t cook or can’t cook anything more involved than Shake-n-Bake chicken and Stovetop stuffing. Obviously there are multiple nutritional benefits to cooking wholesome food from scratch, but there is also the satisfaction of knowing that you aren’t relying on Proctor & Gamble or SaraLee to decide what your family ought to eat.


By the same token, relying on a lot of "labor saving" devices might prove unwise if you are unable to cook without them. My "modern"kitchen equipment consists of a blender and a Victorio Strainer (we just got the Victorio this summer). That’s it. All of the canning/preserving we do is done with those 2 tools, we dice all fruits and vegetables by hand and cut corn from the cob with a knife. We've canned 430 jars this summer so it is feasible to do all this without a lot of extra gadgets. Our philosophy has been to learn to do jobs the old fashioned way with the least sophisticated equipment and only then switch to more modern methods/equipment. If nothing else this certainly makes us appreciate how easy we have it!
I think that it's a beneficial exercise to study old cookbooks and try to cook sometimes using these receipts and ingredients that our Foremothers would have used. Maybe we will never find ourselves in the position of needing to rely on these books and methods, but it's certainly better to be prepared and never need the knowledge than to find ourselves in a desperate situation with "if only" on our lips. Several receipt books that I enjoy perusing are Miss Beecher's Domestic Receipt Book 1850, The Great Western Cookbook 1857, The Frugal Housewife 1830 and The New England Economical Housekeeper 1845 . In addition to the usual recipes you will find directions for cutting up and preserving meat, keeping flies out of your house, remedies for illness, how to choose a domestic servant and other quaint advice. My plan is to print these books out and put them in pages protectors in a 3 ring binder, I prefer browsing through an actual printed book rather than on a computer screen. Today is the day to turn our energies toward acquiring useful skills that will serve our families whether it be canning or cookery, sewing or knitting, animal husbandry or gardening.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sumac Lemonade

So Gentle Reader we find ourselves again prepared for another exciting installment of "Everything You Never Knew You Could Eat". That's right, Mrs. G- connoisseur of boring historical minutiae and purveyor of the same, is ready to conduct you on the first leg of your tour of edible weeds and scrub bushes.

I'm assuming that at least for those of you in the Eastern U.S. that the several varieties of Sumac are easily identifiable, yes? If not, stop right here and get some good field guides or do some internet research and before you eat anything be positive of what you're consuming. If you're bright enough to get yourself dressed and use a computer then you're intelligent enough to learn to positively identify Sumac. Poison Sumac tends to get all the press leaving its humbler cousins in obscurity, but differentiating between the poison and non-poison varieties is very easy. Smooth Sumac and Staghorn Sumac both have red berries, whereas Poison Sumac has white berries, simple. You can use both the Smooth and the Staghorn varieties pretty interchangeably but you should be aware that the Staghorn has more vitamin C than the Smooth. For this recipe I used Smooth Sumac because it is what was growing at the side of the road, "hey that's Sumac STOP THE TRUCK!" and Mr. G dutifully jumps out and twists off 6 berry clusters for me. Some sort of clippers or trimmers would have made the job easier by the way.

You will need to remove the berries as the stems give a bitter taste if you don't. The outer berries will come off easily but the inner ones don't, you can dehydrate the clusters to make removal easier and to store berries for the Winter. Because Sumac berries are high in vitamin C, higher than oranges even, you should keep plenty in reserve to combat colds this Winter. The Native Americans used Sumac extensively for this purpose.
You then boil 1 quart of water and pour it over 1 cup of berries and allow to steep for 15 minutes. Strain the tea through a cloth to remove all debris, sweeten with up to 1 cup of sugar and enjoy. If you've never imbibed Sumac before go easily at first as some people allegedly have a mild allergic reaction to it. The tea can also be combined with elderberry or red raspberries to make a jelly though I've never tried it.
As an aside, many folks on the survivalist forums recommend on stocking up on Vitamin C, but these people's idea of survival tends to involve generators and fossil fuels etc all in the attempt to maintain their current comsumer lifestyle. Our family's plan tends to center around learning to live without or learning to make our own reasonable substitutes and if you share that philosophy then Sumac meshes in nicely with that.
















Friday, August 19, 2011

The Taste of the Genuine



Everybody loves sweet corn, it's the quintessential summertime vegetable. Preserving corn was one of the very first foods that I learned to put up. Back then we froze our corn, which is the way that most home preservation families still do it; even among families who can they will still freeze their corn. Frozen corn tastes almost exactly like fresh off the cob, definitely worth the trouble. However, I no longer freeze corn. Once we made the decision that we wanted to move away from reliance on electricity and freezers we needed to come up with a different variety of corn to grow. Almost without exception the corn you buy at a grocery store or Farmer's Market is one of the modern super sweet hybrid varieties with the sugar enhancement gene. These types, Incredible being the most common one grown here, don't lend themselves to home canning as the sugar content caramelizes when canned resulting in brown corn. We finally settled on Country Gentleman, a late 19th century shoepeg variety.
The kernels aren't in rows but are placed hodge podge all over the cob. The taste is different than what I'm used to but we knew that going into it, we are exchanging hyper-sweet for a more realistic corn taste. Because the sugar in any corn begins to turn into starch the minute the corn is picked we strive to get our corn into the canning jars within an hour of being picked. I try to have the exact number of cobs picked to fill the 7 jars. Today it was 46. The children immediately begin to husk it and pick the silk off (we save the silk too). Then the kernels are cut off with a knife, there are specialized tools for this but I've not found any that I thought were worth the money and hassle.
For each 4 cups of corn I mix in 1 teaspoon of salt and then the corn goes into the quart jar to be immediately covered with boiling water. So we go, jar by jar, until the 7 are done. They are then pressure canned for 85 minutes at 10 pounds pressure.


When I open the jars I will sometimes add 1 tablespoon of brown sugar to each quart, this is completely unnecessary but I think it will help ease the transition to this more humble repast. I think we'll get about 70 quarts of corn this year, interspersed with corn we are still canning carrots, both plain and candied. Though I realize that canning corn isn't something that you're going to sit up at night fantasizing about, you might want to file this information away so if/when the day comes that you do need to try it you'll know how to go about it.