This post started out as a poem with the same title. The poem failed to survive the birthing process. It happens sometimes. I was taken with the line, though, so I ended up with this instead.
Years ago I made some comment to my mother about my friends with survivalist bents. She–who in her early 30s moved to the country, grew vegetables, and raised chickens–scoffed that anyone thought they had much chance in the case of major permanent supply-disrupting catostrophe. “When society breaks down,” she said, “you won’t be able to get rings to seal your canning jars.” Her point was, perhaps, not that I should learn to pickle. I live, after all, in a climate with no hope of rain 40% of the year (and only a very small chance of rain for another 25% of it). When civilization collapses my throat will turn to dust nearly as quickly as the first generations of Lactobacillus, crucial for turning cabbage to sauerkraut, begin to reproduce. Still, as I play more with food and learn more about fermentation, I think often of this conversation. Of course if I can just magic up some water when the end-times come, I won’t need to worry about keeping food since, with enough irrigation, you can grow something in LA in pretty much any season. And one of the things I find fascinating about living here is that I know so many people who grow something, even if it’s just one fruit tree’s worth. It is strange to me to live in so urban an environment but yet have gardening be an entirely normal thing among my friends (obviously this is, in part, because I select friends who garden; but enough coworker’s grow things too that I don’t think it’s entirely selection).
My experiments in food preservation actually have nothing to do with disaster preparedness (I will even go so far as to confess that though I have pretty much all the trappings of an earthquake kit, they aren’t all gathered in one place; and, indeed, some of the useful camping equipment is in the garage, which is inaccessible without electricity). I think I am more motivated by curiousity than anything else. I would like to understand what food might have looked like before trucks shipped water-logged tasteless tomatoes in February, a time when vegetables weren’t seasonless and locationless. This curiousity probably explains my tendency to sometimes attempt jams that require no commercially prepared pectin (but they typically require lots of citrus which, if you’re attempting to eat local, results in a recipe that’s pretty narrowly geographically appropriate).
My obsession with jam is probably really rooted in our kumquat tree. It grows in a square patch of dirt surrounded by concrete patio. I don’t water it more than a handful of times through the summer. I fertilize it sometimes. When I remember in spring time. And I mulch the soil with the fallen camelia flowers from the other side of the patio (because it is faster to sweep them into the square around the kumquat tree than it is to gather them for the compost pile). For this paltry effort I am rewarded with nearly infinite kumquats. Ignoring them seems wasteful, but when you can pick until you’re bored to tears and still not have made a dent in the supply, what are you supposed to do? My answer to this question is marmalade. This turns out to be a terribly labor intensive answer. However, this problem has a solution, too. I set up a cutting board on the coffee table and chop endlessly while filling my brain with stupid TV (my soap opera of choice lately is Grey’s Anatomy; somehow in less than a year I have watched through the first 7 seaons and by fall I’ll be watching it in real time). I’m pretty sure this was not my foremothers’ solution. On the other hand they probably recruited their older children to help with the cutting. Also, my foremothers were midwesterners so they didn’t have infinite kumquats to contend with (nor did they have day jobs and long commutes to suck up the time that could otherwise be used for canning). And so, winter before last, when I discovered that I could turn some of the infinite kumquats into something tasty that is pretty much impossible to buy at the supermarket I was hooked.
What I’m saying is that I cook and preserve food because I find it fun and interesting, and because I enjoy producing something that’s different (and often better) than what I could grab off a shelf somewhere. I don’t do it as a hedge against economic troubles. I don’t even really do it because I think it’s healthier than other alternatives (but it often likely is). I just do it because I enjoy it. Thus, I have become the kind of woman who regularly roasts a chicken on the weekend and then turns the carcass into soup to eat for lunch during the week (soup often crammed full of local organic veggies). The fact that I have a lot of friends who share my joy at making interesting food means that I often find myself with new sources of inspiration and new obsessions. Obsessions like shrub (also known sometimes as drinking vinegars). Fruit+sugar+vinegar=shrub. Add this sweet and tart syrup to soda water and it’s magical. (Also, I might add, a good thing to do with infinite kumquats).
I’ll admit, though, that I hoard food. You would never know, looking at my cupboard, that I don’t think of myself as hero material, that I know that I’m going to be bitten by a zombie at the beginning of the movie, and that I accept this. If you look at my cupboards you’ll think that I’ve stocked up and am prepared to fight to the end. The truth is my collection of non-perishables is not a concious insurance against anything. Or rather it is, but it’s a protection against having to go grocery shopping when I don’t want to (or having to eat something other than what I decided on before walking into the kitchen) not an attempt to stretch my money further or prepare myself for societal collapse. Somehow I go through these phases of buying lots of things I don’t want to run out of (note that this is not helped by the fact that he who does most of the grocery shopping in our household does this too).
Lately I’ve been stocking up on quinoa. I like quinoa a lot, a fact I frequently forget. So then I don’t cook it much and then I don’t buy it much and then I run out. And then I’ll go through a phase of buying it and cooking it a lot because I remember that I like it. Somehow, in the span of a month or two, I managed to forget I just bought quinoa enough times to end up with something close to four pounds of quinoa (which is about 40 servings worth). So no, I’m not planning for the apocalypse, but if the zombies come I think I’ll be able to survive on quinoa and jam for quite awhile, which is interestingly at the same time a stereotypically Californian and stereotypically Midwestern situation to be in.