January 2011

Charlotte Freeman


The Land Was Ours Before We Were the Land's

Thereís nothing like watching sixty-five people you know, some of whom youíve worked with for more than ten years, many of whom are working at the absolute top of their game, get laid off just before Thanksgiving to put you in the mood to rethink, once again, our fucked up economy. The Big Corporation where Iíve worked a day job for the past decade axed and outsourced an entire job category (and then the outsourcing company started interviewing those whoíd been laid off that very same week -- Ho Ho Ho, hereís your job back for less money and no benefits). So much for those good corporate jobs the culture keeps telling us we should find, the ones with the insurance plans and the 401(k)s that were supposed to sustain us all and our American Way of Life. Personally, Iím OK, since I got laid off a year and a half ago, and have found a niche job contracting part time, but it did remind me of the terror of getting laid off -- and the further terror, once the unemployment ran out, when I realized that my blog and my little freelance writing life were not going to sustain me.

And so, I did the only sane thing I could think of, I dove back into the literature of survival -- books about making more with less, about growing your own, about cooking real food from real ingredients that more often than not, didnít come from the grocery store (donít even get me started on what used to be the meat counter at my local BigChainGrocery, a place now stocked almost exclusively with pre-cooked pot roasts and stews from some factory in Iowa). It is a dark, dark time of year, when some of us recover from the holiday glut by trying to figure out how we can get get through the upcoming year by spending even less.

Good thing there are writers like Harriet Fasenfest, Joan Dye Gussow, and Darina Allen to lead the way. Along with the seed catalogs just arriving in the mail, they might just help me keep my head above water, because at least these three have a plan for keeping body and soul together in the face of the collapse of corporate capitalism.

Harriet Fasenfest and I first struck up an email correspondence about butchering. She was having trouble finding a butcher who would cut the pasture-raised animals sheíd bought, and I told her my story of miscommunication with the good folks who sell us a 4-H fair pig every summer (you canít make pancetta out of 1-pound packages of sliced side pork, and my processor had never heard of anyone wanting an uncut pork belly). When her book arrived last fall, I gobbled it up like a thriller, because itís so full of good information, and I wanted to see what she was going to do next. A Householderís Guide to the Universe: A Calendar of Basics for the Home and Beyond isnít a strict DIY book, nor is it just a memoir, nor is it solely an examination of how corporations have colonized even the most personal corners of our lives -- itís all of those and more.

The book is organized by month, and each month contains three chapters: Home, Garden, Kitchen. The Home chapters tend to contain her most theoretical bits, ruminations on family (including frank discussion of her eldest sonís addiction issues), and the ways that the concept of home extends beyond our individual lives to encompass our communities and the earth itself. Really, itís not nearly as woo-woo as it sounds. The Garden and Kitchen chapters are the most practical, filled with tips about starting and keeping a productive vegetable garden, for cooking with what you grow (or glean, once Fasenfest noticed the waste from her own pear tree, she couldnít stop seeing fruit going to waste all over the neighborhood). There are practical chapters on how to keep a budget, how to get out of debt so you donít have to work much of a day job, how to make your home not just the place you sleep, but the productive center of your familyís livelihood. I am particularly jealous of her outdoor kitchen. My sweetie brought me home an orphaned utility sink from a job last summer, so now Iím scanning Craigslist for a deep-fried turkey set (perfect for canning). Because she lives in mild and wet Portland, Oregon, not all of her monthly garden advice will apply -- for instance, winter gardening is pretty much out of the question here, even under a hoop house. Once it goes below zero for a week, things are hosed. Thereís so much practical advice in here, as well as pointers in the sidebars to so many other writers who are thinking about ways to get off the grid, whether partially or entirely, that I have to say it gave me a little bit of hope that my attempts at backyard agriculture arenít just spitting into the wind, that they might actually matter a little bit.

Decades before Harriet Fasenfest was bopped on the head by a pear in her backyard, Joan Dye Gussow was already digging up her lawn on the other side of the country, ignoring her childrenís pleas to not be such a weirdo. Gussowís This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader is the book I foist into the hands of anyone who expresses a shred of interest in ripping up a chunk of lawn to plant a veggie garden. Itís a classic and tells two stories -- how she learned to garden while raising kids and restoring an old Victorian house, and how that effort led her back to school and into a thriving career in academia where she has spent decades preaching that our American Way of Life is inherently unsustainable and that weíre killing our planet and ourselves. Itís also the story of selling that house, of downsizing when her kids were gone and of building a garden on a semi-urban plot beside the Hudson river in Piermont, New York.

Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life and Vegetables begins with the death of Gussowís husband of forty years, and her own surprise at how well she weathered it -- indeed, while she missed her husband, what she mostly felt was relief and an overwhelming sense of freedom. The book also chronicles the destruction of her garden when the Hudson overflowed its banks in 2005 and filled her garden like a big bathtub. The garden was entirely destroyed, and Gussow found herself, in her eighties, rebuilding from scratch. Ultimately, as much as I loved This Organic Life, I found Growing, Older disappointing. Many of the essays seem to be reprints of magazine work, and while I appreciate her rants about things like the unreliability of modern appliances, I didnít find the story of getting her ears pierced nearly as shocking as she seems to have. Growing, Older felt to me like a welcome letter from an old friend -- it was nice to see how sheís doing, and itís good to see that a lifetime of growing plants and butting oneís head against conventional wisdom does indeed sustain one in an interesting old age, but it doesnít compare to the depth and breadth of This Organic Life. Thatís the book I reread every couple of years, and the one Iíd recommend if like me, youíre looking toward spring and trying to figure out how youíre going to live both a richer and less expensive life this year.

And then thereís Darina Allen, who has run the world-famous Ballymaloe Cookery School for over 25 years. Sheís old enough to have spent summers in the Irish countryside with relatives who butchered their own pigs, made their own hams and bacons, as well as having grown up during an era when her own parents kept a house cow, a vegetable garden, and a flock of chickens to help feed their nine kids. And yet sheís young enough to have not only lived through, but to have largely led the revival in Irish cooking thatís taken place over the past 25 years. Allen's recent Forgotten Skills of Cooking: The Time-Honored Ways are the Best - Over 700 Recipes Show You Why came about, she notes in the introduction, when she caught a cooking school student who was about to dump a bowl of overly whipped cream into the hen bucket, entirely unaware that what sheíd just made was butter. She was shocked to discover that her students, people interested in food to begin with, had no idea that butter came from cream in the first place. Sheís also seen over the years as groups of schoolchildren come to tour the farm and garden that more and more of them can no longer identify fairly common fruits and vegetables in their natural state. And so, she started a series of Forgotten Skills classes, on subjects like keeping chickens, and basic creamery and growing organic vegetables in order to bring back these basic skills of thrifty householding.

This is a big, fat, glossy book, and an expensive one, but I have to say, of all the cookbooks drifting around my house, this is the one I keep turning to. I love this book. Iíve been reading it not like a grown-up novel, but like a childrenís book, over and over, paging back and forth, looking at the pictures, wishing I had enough room for a couple of pigs (and that my sweetheart was more amenable to livestock), and remembering fondly my senior year abroad in Ireland, where the woman I lodged with, a remarkable television journalist in Dublin who spoke four languages, nonetheless fed us apple crumble nearly every night because her garden tree had produced a bumper crop, and she wasnít going to let all that free food go to waste. I still miss that cream -- thick, yellow, gorgeous cream weíd dribble over the top.

But enough reverie -- this is a marvelous book filled many practical instructions for making real things, written by my favorite kind of person, a slightly bossy woman who is determined to reduce the level of waste and lack of common sense she sees all around her. There are chapters on topics ranging from Foraging to Preserving to Eggs and Poultry and Household Tips as well as more conventional chapters on Fish, Game, Beef, Desserts etc.. The fish chapter made me blind with landlocked envy, while the instructions for making a prosciutto in wooden wine box filled with salt have me secretly plotting to hold back one leg from next yearís pig. And itís not just the techniques, Darina Allen and Ballymalloe House are famous for their cuisine for good reason, and this book is filled with sophisticated recipes for delicious food. Sophisticated delicious food you can make with ingredients you can grow in your yard, or forage from the land around you. Really? What more could we want for the beginning of 2011? Maybe things arenít looking so dark after allÖ