And So I Cook
A series brought to you by Harriet Fasenfest, author of A Householder’s Guide to the Universe and a Portland area local. Harriet will be writing regularly about the farmwife movement and responding to readers’ own experiences and questions. If you’d like a question answered on a future blog post, send your letter to the email address at the bottom of this essay.
Okay August, it’s on. I’m on, you’re on, we’re all on — the bounty, the harvest and full court preserving. With July behind us we are well underway. Jam pots have been filled and freezers packed with berries. Yes, July gave us pause but nothing like what stands before us. August, my friends, is where the rubber meets the road as stone fruits, beans, squash, cucumbers, pepper and tomatoes fall in mad succession. This is our proving ground, the time farmwives earn their cred, the time the reasons for the season make themselves known.
I’ve already mentioned some of the reasons, let us call it the farmwife initiative. But other reasons exist – tasty ones, frugal ones, smart, farm-wife cooking ones. This matter of cooking is, at the end of the day, what food preservation is all about, but I do not hear enough of it. Not in the manner that befits the cause and that concerns me a bit. Because without cooking food preservation floats perilously in the modern world of trending and trends do pass. Before long jars of pickles and jam will saddle up between knitted hats and macrame plant holders (if you’re that old) to gather dust and mock our fleeting fascinations. I do not want to scold, but form without full-bodied function is our culture’s folly and the death knell of many a movement. Which is why I am up in arms touting cooking – day in and day out cooking, solid simple everyday cooking, cooking from our (own) stores, cooking from the food we have put up in volume and farmer direct, cooking as the motive and logic behind this movement because without that important piece our movement is open to what may come.
I’ve thought long and hard about what may come and I don’t think I’m far off. You see, without our deep and continued support small-scale farmers will need to look evermore to the market place for their survival. To a certain degree they already do but in the long term the marketplace (with its long established operational systems) will demand an ever greater participation in a system that belies the heart of this movement. The culprit (if I’m to call it that) is something called economies of scale and without going into it’s operational raison d’être, (if only because other posts will cover it) I will simply tell you that small farmers ain’t got it and likely don’t want it. What they have in it’s stead, however, is the proverbial swimming-up-stream scale because being small in an economy pegged to big is way more than an ideological stance — it is a challenge of unparalleled proportions. Hourly wage??? Don’t ask. So why do they do it? Well, because they’ve looked at the land and the soil and the environment and figured out that of all the many things they could do in this life farming, honest small scale farming, might be the most ethical. At least that’s how I figure it and I sorta agree. Which is why I love them and love imagining I am a part of that life but not without understand my responsibility in the matter.
You see, to allow them to shoulder the weight of some pastoral mystique without standing shoulder to shoulder in the effort is blatantly unfair, and so I cook. To leave them alone to deal with the cost of land today, the cost of start up, the learning curve, the merciless hours, the back breaking work is unfair, and so I cook. To imagine they can sustain all the hand work and trips loading and unloading at farmer’s markets or management of weeds or watching produce gone to seed or chores left undone or a house left to disrepair is unfair, and so I cook. To assume that it is fair that they cannot pay for help or take a weekend off is unfair, and so I cook. I cook because I’m afraid what will happen if I don’t. Because if I don’t then I cannot blame them for looking elsewhere. Soon they will be open to whatever port in a storm is available to them. Soon specialization will creep back into the lexicon. Soon (and this is beginning to happen) they will be approached by big business (the brokers and big chain supermarkets) telling them to quit all that silly small farm diversity stuff and grow an exclusive main crop at guaranteed prices before season’s end which will mean, as it has meant before, pennies on the dollar.
Soon competition will increase and payments decrease. Soon get big or get out will repeat its rationalizing mantra. Soon farmers will see their crop shipped or trucked hither and thon or mixed with the produce of other farms to end up as private-label, value-added stuffs marketed as “organic on a budget” which will, at first glance, appear fair but on closer consideration will reveal the principles of economies of scale and efficiency systems and vertical integration come full circle. Soon it will be production, distribution and consumption as usual if only with a brand new organic and local party hat and frankly, who could blame them? I mean you try being a broke ass hard working small scale farmer for a couple of years and then talk. So I get it, see it, and fear it. We is why I yammer on so much about farm direct purchasing and farmwifery, food preservation and now cooking. It is why, if you haven’t figured it out, I say we farmwives are important, no, VITAL, bookends to this movement and that we have to show up, put up, be counted and cook. If not do not be surprised when the revolution is packaged and sold on your grocer’s shelf.
But what’s that you say????? You’re too busy to cook. I know that rationale and I will not jump into that briar patch except to say busyness is not particular to our generation but rather, as a generation, particularly based on the presupposition of leisure. And leisure, as it has been handed down to the people (particularly during the growing season) is the rationale of efficiency systems, cum industry, cum economies of scale, cum marketing, cum chicken Mc nuggets or, at the other end of the spectrum, fancy hand-crafted foods that speak the language of a movement many times removed from the economies of small scale farming. Leisure, as it turns out, is based on a certain lie and either costs too much or too little and, dependent on class, is feeding a people either filler or hype.
Yes, yes, we are busy or perhaps only seduced by the easy flow of food stuffs brimming from street carts to grocery stores (in fact Heat-and-Eat family meals is one of the quickest growing segments in grocery sales) or because we imagine cooking a mystery. My sense is we’ve made too much of cooking or maybe just fancy cooking. But farmwife cooking ain’t fancy, it’s real!
Perhaps one day I’ll get around to writing a cookbook that shows just how simple it can be. Then again, there are plenty of books out there that can give you the basics and as I’ve written before, all you really need is one “how to cook everything” cookbook and you’re set. The Joy of Cooking is still my go-to favorite, but the point is you don’t need to complicate things. Really, all you need is a willingness and commitment to cook your meals.
I guess I’m lucky. I hail from a generation whose parents still cooked. Utility was the point, frugality was the reality. There were no recipes, in fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mother look at a cookbook. What she had was a repertoire. Most nights there were baked potatoes set on the dinner table, and no one ever decried the repetition. They were easy to make, affordable and tasty; a virtual farmwife trifecta. Vegetables were simply steamed with a little meat roasted or broiled to the side. Dessert was simple. Applesauce or fruit compote – that mystery of stewed dried fruits reconstituted with a bit of lemon peel and cinnamon. A miracle of thrifty innovation.
Beside my mother I have sat at the table of older farmwives. Women I have met since moving to Oregon and from whom I’ve learned both the simplest and most profound style of cooking. Biscuits or cornbread cooked in the flash of an eye and repeated infinitum. A jar of pickles brought out at every meal or that here-to-fore odd but soon to be revived (if I have anything to do with it) mixture of frozen mixed vegetables cooked in a flash. Sausage, steaks, ground beef or chicken defrosted and simply cooked (if you go that way) keeps it easy along with a bit of mashed potatoes. Canned fruit sauces (apple, pear, plum, whatever), served to the side of many a pork chop or for dessert or in baking – miles and miles of baking in muffins and cake – is simply utility unbound.
Yes, this is August, the season of our madness. As you continue with your bad selves let me encourage you to think seriously about how you cook, what you cook, how much you cook and, most importantly, why you cook. Choose items to preserve or store that will go the distance. Put on your farmwife hat and think utility more than fancies. And on that note I offer you mom’s recipe for stewed fruit. Couldn’t be any easier.
In a pan put an assortment of dried fruit (the fruit you dried over the season)
Suggestions: – Prunes, apples, apricots and pears
Add a stick of cinnamon and a few slices of lemon peel
Add water to cover
Bring to the boil
Turn off heat, cool
Put in a jar and let the fruit sit overnight to make it’s own syrup
Eat as is or served with yogurt or cottage cheese or on pancakes or, or, or.
Will stay good in fridge till a very long time!
Please send your letters, comments, and questions for Harriet to firstname.lastname@example.org, including farmwife in the subject line. We look forward to hearing from you!
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