January 2010


I have been going through my mother’s old recipes, looking for things to include in the notebooks I’m putting together for my daughters. It certainly brings back memories. We were poor as in we lived in a dreadful tenement in Stafford Springs and there was not alway enough to eat when I was a kid. My mom used to stuff the crackers between the floor and walls with rags soaked in ammonia to keep the roaches out. This is where I am supposed to say that we were happy anyway and the food was always wonderful and that was sometimes true.  But the truth is, there was not enough food and it’s no fun to be cold at night because you couldn’t pay the oil bill. There was no fuel assistance and no food stamps in those days but there was government food. I do recall a canned pork that was dreadful and a canned chicken that was pretty good. We ate something we kids called Puffed Air. It was actually Puffed Rice. A huge bag was something like $.17 cents. Graham crackers were a big treat and we only got one a day. One thing that was cheap was eggs. We got them from friends of our parents who had a farm and I am pretty sure they gave them to us for free. Naturally, we ate a lot of eggs and eggs dishes. I remember one night we only had a little bit of flour and some canned milk and a couple of dozen eggs. My mother made a kind of pancake out that was a bit like a popover. We had no syrup but we had picked some wild blackberries and she stewed those with the last of the sugar. It was delicious. Having had only a bowl of puffed air with powdered milk for lunch would have made much worse fare taste pretty good.

Beat six eggs slightly. Add a can of evaporated milk. Add 1/2 cup flour to make a very thin batter. The recipe card says to cook in a hot, cast iron fry pan until puffed and browned. I can’t remember if mom baked it or fried it and the recipe isn’t clear. I think she baked it but you could probably fry it too. Served with a fruit sauce, this makes a filling supper for hungry children.

I think it’s harder to be poor now than it was 50 years ago. There is so much out there now to cause wants that we had no idea about as we had no television and all of our neighbors were poor too. I remember that my mother still managed to hand out crackers and watered down Kool-aid to the children in the project and seeing that bit of charity made me feel rich and generous. I do not recall ever resenting the food my mom gave away nor do I recall being ashamed of talking those free eggs.

On a different note: It took hours but I got my seeds cataloged and organized. I really don’t have to buy much. I still need carrots, sweet green peppers, onion and sweet potato sets and Sungold tomatoes. I purchased some craft sticks and I already have indelible markers. I’m going to make plant markers today and coat them with a light layer of wax to keep them from rotting too quickly. I also have to redesign the herb gardens now that I see what I have. A number are perennial which pleases me. I also have watercress, winterberry and bayberry that I want to naturalize down by the stream area.

One of my goals is learning to save seeds from plants I have never bother to save from before. It’s one thing to save dried beans but I want to save from annual herbs too. I got some small manilla coin holders that are just the right size for this.

Our dear friends, Dan and Kathy, stopped by last night for a dinner to celebrate a recent award and brought with them, not wine or flowers or chocolate or some other traditional hostess gift but rather a treasure trove of seeds. I am talking 439 seed packets!!!! And not just any seeds but heirloom, open pollinated, rare variety seeds, painstakingly place in categories and even entered into a computer program with information on planting times and so on. The seeds were not all for me of course but Kathy is starting to pass them around to those of us who are serious gardeners in the hope that we will plant the seeds, harvest and eat the food and save the seeds for the next generation.

One of the goals of our permaculture guild is to start a well-organized seed bank and library. I heard a disturbing statistic this week. 6 seed companies control 98% of the seeds in the whole world. As most of the seeds sold are hybrids, they will not breed true and can not be reliably saved from year to year. If there is any bigger threat to the survival of the human race than the lack of genetic diversity in our food system, I don’t know what is. I also read that although there are hundreds of thousands edible plants,  most people only eat about twenty varieties on a regular basis. What are we missing? I aim to find out. Kathy and I spent hours going over the seeds in her collection. I took samples of as many as I thought I would be able to get in the ground this year as well as some that will store well for future plantings. Onions are the only seeds that only save for one year. I now have 22 varieties of tomatoes and 15 kinds of dry beans. I can’t wait to try the new (old actually) leeks and the many kinds of lettuce. Today, I have  tomake a run to town. I am going to stop at Staples and pick up some small manilla envelopes so I can begin my seed library. I will also be on the lookout for a file cabinet to hold them. Some seeds will be vacuüm sealed in mason jars and held in the freezer. I am also thinking about a file card system that can be collated by starting date and cross referenced by category. This may sound like overkill but when I read about Monsanto and Dow and their death grip on my food supply, I do think this is too much.  Preparedness for the future means having a way to grow food. The time investment now will be my investment in my future and yours. If our kids are to have food security, we can not afford to let our biodiversity go the way of the dinosaur.

It happens. I went to check out the supplies in my car and found almost everything was gone, used up or used elsewhere and not returned.

On Sunday afternoon, what was supposed to be rain started as freezing mist in our hilltowns. In a few hours the roads were coated with black ice and travel became downright dangerous. The police could not get to the reported accidents except on foot and finally, Rt. 9, the main thoroughfare, was closed to traffic in both directions. The closing left many people stranded in their automobiles. That was what got me to thinking about my own car supplies and how I would have fared had I been the one at the bottom of the hill with a couple of kids and nothing but time on my hands. Needless to say, I will get the car restocked today. Everyone’s needs are different but I can tell you what I consider necessities.

Winter gear: It gets cold outside and I don’t always want to wear my bulky winter clothes ooot and when I’m driving.

Some bottles water, trail mix, raisins and candy   

A book for myself and some activities for the kids

A flashlight

A charged cellphone

Those are just the basics. I hope you also have a care repair kit, emergency flares and a few first aid items. I always have my leatherman, a lighter and few camping supplies as well as a couple of wool blankets, space blankets, rain ponchos, an umbrella and a shovel. I carry several other things but these are good start with. In the summer, I add sun screen, bug repellant and a hat. A box of tissues comes in handy too.

I attended my permaculture guild meeting last night. I ordered Paw paw trees and some rock minerals. The meeting was wonderful. We are signed up for a class on pruning and grafting trees. I am hungry for spring.

I meet a lot of people dedicated to the idea of family preparedness. Like all people, they come in different flavors from those who want some food, water and candles on hand for the occasional power outage to those who are planning for a breakdown in society. I am always dismayed at the ones who believe that they can to go it alone, whatever their view of the future. Humans are pack animals. With few exceptions, we crave a tribe of people who care for us, a clan we can call our own.

Somebody has to do the work. When the 911 call comes in the middle of night, somebody has to roll out of bed and man the ambulance. Somebody has to devote the hours each week to school committee meetings. Somebody has to arrange the bake sale, lead the scout troop, work at the food pantry and teach church school. As budgets are slashed, a lot of chores that used to be paying positions are now volunteer and there is work to be done to keep out small towns, churches and schools operating.

Like everybody else, I crab a bit about being busy and I am. I complain when I realize that either Bruce or I have meetings 4 nights out of 5. When one is out, the other is left with evening dishes and tuck-in time. Right now, Bruce volunteers at the food pantry, does church maintenance, is on the leadership team (church), helps out at the Creamery functions, goes to a men’s group (church), is on a committee for a land preservation project and takes classes in woodworking and bee keeping. He generally counts votes and serves as fence viewer and field driver.

I go to permaculture guild, serve on the Creamery Co-operative steering committee, help organize the sewing center, teach classes in food preservation and volunteer for school projects. We both go to Sustainability Group and go to church each week. Most of these meetings take place within a 1/2 mile of my house and those that don’t have good carpooling set up.

Just like healthy soil teems with life that is not always apparent at first glance, healthy communities are also alive with activity. There has been a lot of talk about why people chose not to get involved anymore. We are too busy, too tired, already overcommitted but often, those are excuses. People have always worked hard. They have always been tired at the end of a busy day. But the work got done. I urge you to look around. See what needs doing. If  you love books, maybe your library needs you. Love antiques?  How about the Historical Society. I know there is a house of worship that would welcome you, a school that is desperate for someone to help with a spruce up day, an elder who could use a visit.

It does no good to complain about the state of the world without being willing to work to make  change happen. As judiciously as we stock up on supplies and equipment, we need to stock up on relationships. Whoever you are, whatever your skills, there is a match out there, someone who needs just what you have.

First, I want to thank all of you who bother to visit here, occasionally or every day, and then take the time to comment. I know how busy your lives are and how many good blogs there are out there. Your comments are really helpful in figuring out just where I want to go with this and how it could be the most helpful. I am toying with an idea of having a topic for each day. One day would be eating better for less money as that seems to be a popular topic. I know that for me, making the meal is not the problem. Coming up with something interesting is. I have been coming up with meals for 37 years. It’s a lot of meals.

One of the tricks I use to stretch an otherwise rather pedestrian meal is to take a page from the Amish book and include one sweet and one sour at every meal. The rumor is that do 7 sweets and  7 sours but that isn’t true. We always have one of my home canned fruits (sometimes I cheat and use commercially canned pineapple ) and one pickle. I have a pantry filled with applesauce, peaches and pears and pickled beans, beets, carrots, mixed veges and, of course, bread and butter pickles. I also make a lot of biscuits. They take almost no time and I will often cut the lard into the flour in the morning so all I have to do is put in the milk and get them in the oven at dinner. In a real rush, I add a bit more milk and make drop biscuits rather than rolled. This is also a chore that fairly young kids can manage. Phoebe loves to cut out biscuits. I don’t make biscuits unless I am already using the oven for something else so it’s already hot. If I am making a stove top casserole, I would substitute dumplings for biscuits. I make a raised roll dough once a week. The recipe makes a huge batch of butterhorns and you only have to pull off the amount of dough you want and leave the rest in the refrigerator. This is good because butterhorns are so good and so rich, we will all eat too many if they are sitting there. Phoebe calls this curly bread because I make crescent rolls with the dough. Any good, basic cookbook has recipes for refrigerator rolls, muffins and biscuits. If you don’t have a basic cookbook, go to the Salvation Army or Goodwill and buy one. Don’t pay more than $2.00. I have my old Betty Crocker Cookbook that I got as a wedding present. It looks terrible, all spattered and stained, but I use it more than any other. It’ s my go-to wedding present for new brides.

One of the problems with giving out recipes is that I often fly by  the seat of my pants. I substitute based on what I have to work with. What follows is one of those ” a little of this, a little of that” recipes.

Black Bean and Corn Burritos

In a hot skillet, brown some corn, canned or frozen. The amount can be stretched to feed a few more. Add some black beans. You will save money if you make these from scratch but I use canned a lot. Make sure you rinse them well. Now add a jar of salsa. I have my homemade salsa but any jarred will do. I use a mild one as my kids are not fans of too much heat. Next, throw in a bit of left over chicken. This a good way to use the last bits on a carcass as the chicken is not the star in this dish. I have made it once using a canned chicken. I didn’t care for it but I have also used my home canned chicken and it was just okay. I prefer the chicken to be a bit on the dry side for this dish and my canned stuff is really moist and tender. Now add some seasonings. I make batches of mexican seasoning and have those ready but in a pinch you could use a tablespoon of taco seasoning from a packet. This is pretty expensive and with the packaging and the additives, not something I would recommend. Heat up a flat bread and fill with the corn/bean mixture and top with some shredded Monterey Jack cheese. My kids love these and can make them up themselves. I can also make the filling in the morning and then just heat it up to fill the flat bread at dinner. This is actually better heated up. I love it for lunch the next day served with taco chips.

If I have to stretch even more, I make dessert. With some canned apples or cherries on hand and a jar of struessle topping in the pantry, I can whip of an impressive looking finish in just a few minutes.

Rather than repost yesterday, I spent a lovely and productive morning with Fedco and Seeds of Change. I went over my seed collection (thank you Andrea) and found I really do not have to order much. My seed plan is this. I have several cans of storage seeds. They are expensive but will provide the basics of a garden for three years should I not be able to access any other new seeds. I have a box of seeds that I keep for a maximum of three years. (I don’t have many that are so old, mostly beans. I buy too many beans). I use the oldest seeds first but I do try germinating several before planting to ensure freshness. Each year, as seed go on sale in our little store, I pick up new varieties and multiple packs of old favorites. With this system, I rarely have to pay full price for seeds and always have plenty for myself and enough to share should the need arise. On nasty, cold afternoons I sometimes just peruse my seed catalogs and dream of spring.

Yesterday was our anniversary. We went out to dinner last night, splurging on steak (we don’t generally eat beef). It was really delicious. There is something to be said for making some things special occasion foods. As we don’t raise beef and find the local, grass-fed stuff out of our price range for the most part, beef falls in that category. We also walked through the mall on a hunt for a living room carpet. It was sad and a bit scary.  Bruce and I don’t go to the mall as a rule, shocked at how empty it was. Old Navy-gone. Limited 2-gone. 5 other empty store fronts and a lot of bored looking clerks who probably knew their days of gainful employment were numbered. Then we went looking for a restaurant. Closed, closed, closed. Pittsfield, Mass has been a town on the way down since the General Electric pulled out. There is reason we rarely go there, preferring the Northampton, in the opposite direction.

My post yesterday was about a notebook I am putting together for my daughters and daughter-in-laws. It is a kind of thrifty mama’s guide to food shopping. I had a bunch of office supplies I had gotten from some clearance rack. I only had the 1 inch notebooks. Three inch would have been easier to work with but taken up a lot more space. I divided the first section of the notebook into categories (dairy, staples, meat, condiments, toiletries, ect. Each section has a page of information on shopping possibilities ( grocery store, bis box, co-op, discount house, local farmer and so on and the price point in each location. Then I put in a place so the girls can calculate the best price possible. Here’s an example.

Peanut butter

Grocery store: name brand, store brand, price with double coupon coupon, bulk purchase, co-op price. If they add in the price they find in advertisements as well as the price from the other sources, they should be able to calculate the best possible price and stock up only when the price is at the lowest. It is really just a fancy price book but it has some extras. I wrote a short essay on remembering to calculate the environmental cost of food that is shipped rather than local and the rewards of supporting small businesses over Wal-Mart.

After the price book part of my notebook, I added pocket folders for a section on coupon use, complete with a resource listing all of my favorite coupon sites, a folder for menus and a final one for recipes. I put in a some of my favorite cheap eats and cards with the recipes for making mixes too. I am having a lot of fun with this project and I hope the girls will get a lot of use from it.

All of this leads to an important point that I would not have added without my experience in Pittsfield last night. We  eat good food. We can because we are blessed with land and skills and the time, will and experience to garden. The few things I purchase, I can afford to pay a premium for to indulge my desire to east local, organic food and to shop at small stores when I can. If I was a dad who had just lost his job and concerned with keeping a roof over my family’s head or a single mom feeding her kids on food stamps, these would be luxuries I could not afford. It is easy to talk about feeding your family on rice and beans but if these foods are not familiar nor do you know how to properly prepare them, it will feel like a deprivation. I only spent a few hours in a depressed environment last night and it was not personal. I did not talk to the unemployed nor see anyone who looked hungry but it still weighed on me. I think that what looks like lack of initiative is often depression. What can seem like lazy is really just the inability to see how your actions can affect real change.

Okay. So it did this really great post this morning. Then my computer froze and I lost it. I just do not have the energy to rewite it right now. I will try later when I quit fuming.

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