July 2009

I have been doing a lot of reading lately about life during the great depression. There are two completely different perspectives. In some books, The Grapes Of Wrath for example, the depression is depicted as a horrible time with the hunger, the loss and the deprivation given the face of real people. In other books like The Worst Hard Time, it is portrayed much more as a time of hardship but also one of good times, a time many people consider the best of the lives. I expect both perspectives are accurate based on individual experience. No one event is the same for all people at all times.

This led to a conversation with my husband about the future, what we expect to happen and how it is likely to impact us and more importantly, how it will impact our children and their children. Neither of us expect the the end of the world tomorrow. We do expect a gradual, or maybe not so gradual, reduction in our standard of living. We expect energy to get dramatically more expensive and food to tag along. We expect jobs to become harder to find and benefits like retirement and healthcare to no longer be a given. We believe we are dreadfully vulnerable to a great many scenarios that would change the trajectory of collapse to a far more dramatic shift from one life style to another. Any international conflict that interrupts our energy supplies is a game changer for food and heat for the average family. Rationing may be achieved by price with a lot of people faced with the choice between food and gas, mortgage or health care for the first time in their lives. That is already happening to many but it could easily become the norm. We prepared so we are able to feed our children while we transition from the life we now enjoy to one that is very different.

One of the major differences between the way Bruce and I think about these changes and that of some of our friends and even our own kids is our histories. Bruce and I both grew up poor. Not poor like I didn’t get a car for graduation but poor like no electricity or running water. Poor as in a true problem putting food on the table. Bruce was country poor and while young, I was city poor but we both come from families that knew how to make do and do without. It was not always fun but it was an education that has served us well.

We can envision a life without so much stuff and not be frightened by it. It isn’t necessarily worse, just different. If our lives had been defined by excess, that might not be the case. Sometimes I look around and marvel at all I have been blessed with and I could weep with gratitude. Most of the world would consider me wealthy. I have a lovely home in a safe community. I have water that gushes from the tap, heat that comes with a flick of my wrist. If I get sick, health care is a phone call away. My pantry is full. My land produces. My kids are safe. No one in my family is fighting in a war. I can go to church if I wish, vote as I please, say nasty things about elected officials and the police will not come bashing in my door in the night. My life is charmed.

I am not sure where I am heading with this rant. I love my life. I love sitting on my deck, watching my kids splash in the pool but I know the pool is luxury I could live without. I love lots of luxuries but my life is not dependant upon them. Being poor, even for a while, helps make clear what is necessity and what is luxury. In a different world, a peak oil world, this is a lesson that will be learned by all.


Yesterday was a very good day, food wise, for me. I consider any day a good day when we eat very well and very cheaply, primarily from our garden and what we can forage locally.

I started with breakfast. I had a bowl of my daughter’s homemade granola topped with a local maple yogurt and raspberries from my patch. Then I put in a hard day of drying peas, making sauerkraut, freezing broccoli, pulling out the snap peas and just trying to catch up after a couple of weeks under the weather. Late in the afternoon, my friend, Leni, came by and we went off to harvest a truly remarkable bunch of oyster mushrooms. It was the largest flush I have ever seen, running from the base of the tree all the way to neatly the to, a good 3 feet or so. We cut down a six gallon bucket of shrooms, took them home and divided them up. I had already taken a bunch earlier in the day so I had a lot of mushrooms to preserve. Most will be dried, some frozen in butter sauce but the rest ended up as dinner. I made some pasta (a lot of work but so worth it) with a white wine, butter, fresh peas and mushroom sauce and served it with some garlic bread. It was amazing.

I tried to figure out how much this meal had cost me but gave up in short order. I had better things to do like sit on the deck and watch the sunset, read for a while, help Karen make cookies and take a late swim. At some point I do need to sit down and figure out some basic things like the price of bulk purchased flour per cup. It pays to be aware of information like that, especially if you are trying to live debt free, eat well and prepare for coming hard times. I had it all computed at one time but prices have gone up since then.

I have a birthday coming up and, as usual, have a list of books I want. There is a new home dairy book that looks good and an old one about being independent on five acres. Other than that, I have nothing I crave other than more kitchen equipment but I am starting to feel like an addict in that department. I may have to go cold turkey and just not buy anything new for a while.

I had such a nice weekend. I was feeling, if not terrific, at least well enough to get out and about a bit. I went to the used book sale at our Community House and came home with a big stack of books for $5.00. Then I took off with my friend, Leni, for a chanterell hunt. We were successful but to early. We found a huge patch  (multiple patches actually) but the were still too young to harvest. We will go back in a bit and harvest them. I found a huge flush of oyster mushrooms too but the are way up in a dying maple tree. Even with a long handled tool I may not be able to reach them without a ladder.

I am pulling up the snap peas today, digging in compost and planting that space with some kale. I am still harvesting peas. On Saturday, after the mushroom hunt I picked a huge basket. The girls helped shell them and I got brave and put them in the Excalibur. It was hared for me. We love our garden peas and I am worried that dried will not live up to frozen for quality. But there are certainly advantages. That whole basket of peas dried down to less a full pint of tiny, funny looking orbs. I could store a years worth in my dried foods cabinet and never need to worry about power outages. They are supposed to taste as good as fresh. Now I just need to see if there is way to generate enough solar power to run the dehydrator if the power is out. I wish we had enough sun and hot weather here to just get a solar model but we don’t.

There is a lot of talk around here about the blight affecting both tomatoes and potatoes. If it is as big a problem as it sound like it might be, it could well spell tragedy for farmers both large and small. I am going to pick up some neemoil today. It is the only organic likely to work on this scourge.

I want to take a quick moment and discuss money. I hope you have some put away. A stash of small bills could be so important in the event of a forced bank holiday or an extended power outage. Plastic is nice (well, it isn’t nice but a credit card can be handy) but cash is king when you need to buy your child milk or medicine and the plastic won’t swipe. There are a lot of places that can’t operate with no power but small stores often can.

I was asked yesterday about the skills I thought were necessary for self sufficiency. It is an interesting question. Does one need to know how to tan leather and butcher a deer?Is it a good idea to be able to remove your kid’s appendix with hair clips and hypnosis ala Alas Babylon? I guess my point here is that I am never going to be entirely self sufficient. I doubt many people are. We depend on each other to a greater or lesser degree. My goal is to reduce my dependency, particularly in the area of food, and learn to do as much as possible for myself, knowing that if I need a tooth pulled, I am heading straight to the dentist.

I believe that the journey towards greater self sufficiency is a mind set, a way of looking at the world around you. Start with water. It is not enough to store some bottled water. The water will run out and then what? Do you know where your comes from, how it’s delivered to your home and what the vulnerabilities to that source are? Do you know where else in your neighborhood you can access ground water? Can you carry it? Do ou know how to treat it?

Medical care is so easy for a lot of us but by no means is it easy for everybody. If the medical system broke down, even temporarily, do you know how to treat minor accidents and illnesses and do you have the supplies to do so? Do you know the medical practitioners in your neighborhood? Do they know you? Could you call on one in an emergency? Do you have some cash or barter items on hand to pay for care if necessary?

Do you have a plan to heat your home if the power is out? Can you provide lighting and can you cook? Once the propane runs out, can you cook with wood or a solar oven? Have you actually done it? Do you know how to build a rocket stove?

Do you have the proper clothing for a life that entails more labor in very hot or cold weather? Do you have proper foot wear? Do  you have the means and ability to repair clothing and shoes?

Do you know where your food comes from? Can you grow it? Can you preserve it? Do you have the tools and the techniques down to a science? Can you bake bread and will your family eat what you make? Do you know the basics of putting together a casserole, soup or stew?

Can you entertain yourself and your family without tickets to Six Flags? Do you have books and games and puzzles and does your family use those thing regularly?

Do you have hand tools and the knowledge to make simple repairs? Do you have to run to Home Depot every time you need an adhesive, nails, screws, caulking and such?

Do you know your neighborhood and your neighbors? Who has what skills? Do you feud over every little thing or are you a true community? Do you know what grows where and what is edible? What animals are plentiful?

I know I have forgotten as much as I have put in here. My point is that, while most of us need to depend on each other, we also want to be someone others can depend on. I want to have something to bring to the table when times get tough but I want lots of others at the table with me.

Baking bread is one of those “gotta have it” skills for a self-sufficient life. Even if you still buy bread, the ability to turn out a loaf without getting sweaty palms from the thought is a darn useful thing to be able to do. I am not sure why something so simple and so much fun has been made to seem complicated. Maybe it was a conspiracy by the Wonder Bread people. 

There are a couple of important points. The first is that your ingredients matter. If you have any way to do so, get a grain grinder. I have two. The first is a hand mill. It’s a good mill and does the job but it’s a lot of work. It was so much work for me that, after struggling with it for a year, I broke down and got a Nutrigrain electric mill. It isn’t perfect. It’s electric and it’s very loud but it’s so fast that I put up with the noise. I almost always make my bread with 1/2to 2/3 whole wheat flour. The rest is King Arthur flour. I am particularly fond of white whole wheat flour that I buy in bulk from our co-op. It is amazing how inexpensive whole wheat is when you consider what you pay for a small sach of flour. Whole wheat flour has all the oil and wheat germ still in it. It is better if you refrigerate or freeze it if you don’t use it right away.

Yeast must be fresh too. I buy my yeast in a hard brick. I keep it in the original packaging in my freezer until I have to open it. Then, I transfer it to a covered dish and keep it refrigerated. I go through a lot of yeast. If I am using milk, I use a powdered milk but I do not use the box stuff from the supermarket. I use Provident Pantry dry milk in #10 cans. I get this by the case from Emergency Essentials. It is really expensive but I keep three to four cases on had all the time as part of food storage.

What follows is my favorite bread recipes. Let me say before I start that these are more guide than recipe. If I have a bit of left over oatmeal from breakfast, I put that in my bread.  I might pop in almost any leftover cereal. You can use any sweetener. I have used honey, maple syrup and molasses with perfect results. If you use black strap molasses, the bread will be dark and heavy and bitter and you will need to feed it to the pigs.

Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of yeast over 2 cups warm water. If the water is too cool the yeast won’t proof. Too hot, the yeast will die. You want it comfortably warm, a bit warmer than a baby bottle. Add 2 tablespoons of honey to this and stir it just to mix the honey, then leave it alone for about 5 minutes. The yeast should start to get foamy. This tells you it is still good and healthy. Now add 2 tablespoons of canola oil, 2 teaspoons of salt and 2 cups of flour. A purist will use a spoon but I use my Kitchen Aid with a paddle blade. You want want to mix this really well. You are developing the gluten. Now add the 2 tablespoons of raw wheat germ and 1/2 cup dried milk powder. Now I switch to the dough hook on the mixer and begin to add flour, a cup at a time until the dough looks right. If you are doing this on a dry day, you will use less flower than you will on a damp day. It’s a question of feel. When the dough is properly kneaded it should feel smooth and soft and not too heavy for it size. It should be soft but firm. If too much flour has been incorporated, the loaf will not rise well and will be dense and heavy. It is better to ere on the side of less flour than more.  It will take about 5 to 8 minutes to knead the dough with a machine, 10-15 to do it by hand. Now for my big confession: I hate to knead bread. I know it’s supposed to be meditative but I hate to meditate too. I get antsy and anxious and my mind wanders to all of thing I could be doing if I DIDN’T HAVE TO KNEAD THIS STUPID BREAD. Wrong attitude, I know.

Now transfer the dough to a bowl greased with butter. If you use oil, the bread can absorb it, cover it wih a wet towel and put it someplace to rise where you won’t forget about it. I usually set my timer because I will forget about it as often as not. It’s not the end of the world. If you find something that looks like it’s trying out for a a part in a horror movie, just punch it down and go on with the second rise. Your bread might develop a sour dough taste but you may like it a lot. After about an hour, when the dough has doubled, punch it down and let it rise a second time. If you don’t have time, you can forget this rise but your bread will have a better texture if you let it rise twice.

After the second rise, divide the dough in two and shape into loaves. I use the smaller, 8 inch pans. Grease them well, especially in the corners. Let dough rise in the pans, then put them in a 375 degree oven and let them bake for about 25-30 minutes. I always brush my loaves with butter as soon as they come out of the oven because we like a soft crust. Let the loaves cool completely before you wrap them for keeping. That is assuming you keep them around that long. If my kids are home, they slice off large hunks, toast it then slather it with good butter and homemade raspberry jam. I scold them but always have a slice too.

I woke up this morning knowing I was better as my first thought was not, “where is my inhaler?” but rather, “what the heck happened to my house?” It was so dirty! For the first time since coming down with this virus, I wanted to clean and clean I did. Then I hit the garden. I picked the peas and checked the rest and do I have my work cut out for myself. The broccolii is ready, the cabbage is ready, the cauliflower is ready, the basil must be turned into pesto and on and on. My first zucchini ready and I am busy planning a dinner fit for a king. This is my mid morning tea break and I will still take a nap but It is wonderful to feel so good again. I will post later when I take another break but for now, it is on to my garden. YEAH!!!

When it comes to my food, I am not a big risk taker. I have always frozen my peas and to break out of my comfort zone and try drying them is very hard for me. I work so hard for those peas and we are so fond of them but I am committed to trying to use the lowest energy for of preservation and drying is it for peas. So today is the day. I figure the worst that will happen is that they will not taste fresh picked and will end up in soup. Soup for me is like wallpaper-it hides a multitude of sins. I dried a bunch of raspberries last week. The surprise was how long it took.

Bruce and I are going to have a contractor come by and talk about doing some work on the house. We need new windows, a new double flu chimney and a drainage system to keep the basement drier. Of course, we can’t afford to have all of this done. We will need to pick and chose for what makes us the most energy independent and efficient. We also need to think of the work load. Every year my DH has to climb the ladder and put up and take down the storm windows. It is really not safe and will become harder as we get older. If anything ever happens to Bruce, I will have to pay someone to do that chore. It may make sense to do the windows right now. Our house was built in 1864. The windows are not a lot newer than that. They still have the wavy lines in them. I know the pay back for windows is a long time but I think there is more to consider. As energy gets more expensive, the payback time will shorten. We have also lost a good deal of our savings over the past 2 years. I would rather spend on something concrete that see it weep away in another market crash.

I appreciate the private emails inquiring about my health. I am better but still sleeping a lot and generally laying low. This is one nasty virus but so far no one else here is sick. I will pickle some beets today, get the peas in the dehydrator and make a loaf of bread. I will get the girls to pick the berries. That will be it for me.

The weather is so crazy. It is downright cold in the mornings. At least it is bright and sunny. The garden looks surprisingly good but it is late for sure. We will have to check out good season extenders to ensure a decent harvest.

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