The rhubarb is up. And it has me thinking about democracy, justice and what to have for dinner. We’ve talked here about how the opposite of poverty is self-sufficiency, and why it is that self-sufficiency is our best bet going into the future. But what does that actually look like? How do you live? What do you do? What do you eat? What is it like to live that way? And what, perhaps most importantly, would change about our culture if we ate that way?

I was lucky enough to know one of the people on the earth who knew the most about this, Carla Emery, author of The Encyclopedia of Country Living: An Old Fashioned Recipe Book. Before her death in 2005, Carla was traveling the nation trying to help people get ready for a life with much less energy. She’d done almost everything in her book (and it is a big book) at least once, and new more than anyone I’ve ever met. Here’s what she says about how she makes sure her family is fed,

All spring I try and plant something every day – from late February, when the early peas and spinach and garlic can go in, on up to mid-summer, when the main potato crop and the late beans and lettuce go in. Then I switch over and make it my rule to try and get something put away for the winter every single day. That lasts until the pumpkins and sunflowers and late squash and green tomatoes are in.

Then comes the struggle to get the most out of the stored food – all winter long. It has to be checked regularly, and you’ll need to add to that day’s menu anything that’s on the verge of spoiling, wilting or otherwise soon becoming useless. Or preserve it a new way. If a squash gets a soft spot, I can gut it out and cook, mash, can or freeze the rest for a supper vegetable or pie, or add it to the bread dough.

You have to ration. You have all the good food you can eat right at arm’s reach and no money to pay…until you run out…

People have to choose what they’re going to struggle for. Life is always a struggle, whether or not you’re struggling for anything worthwhile, so it might as well be for something worthwhile.

Independence days are worth struggling for. They’re good for me,good for the country and good for growing children.”
(Emery, 493-494)

Her “Independence Days” were the ones in which her family ate from their own land and gardens. She was right in this – independence is worth striving for. Not only is it worth striving for because it is good for us, our nation and our families, but also because someday we may depend on these skills and knowledge – and right now we might have a better country if we did this.

I’m no Carla Emery, unfortunately, although I work at being as much like her as I can. Every spring, I sit down and inventory our food stores, particularly the things I put up the previous year. At the back of my mind is this question: “If we had to live on what I could produce, could we?” And the answer is generally, “not as well as we’d like.”

Some years that was because of the CSA – in years when we’ve been short on a crop, all of it, or the best of it goes to our customers. We eat the tomatoes with the bird pecks, or the two eggplants left over. Sometimes the problem is that I didn’t put up enough, or harvest things at the right time, and sometimes there’s something else. One year we lost most of our potatoes, all our strawberries and a heck of a lot of other things to heavy flooding (the first two years we lived here were drought, so we didn’t discover until year three that one of our large garden patches lays wet), another year Eric accidentally left the door to the storage area open on a bitterly cold night – poof, four months worth of potatoes, onions and apples were gone. I think this last year the problem was that I forgot that four growing boys keep growing.

All of which is just a way of saying that after years of practice, I still don’t have the feeding ourselves down to a perfect science. I’m still embarassed about the year I made blueberry jam and didn’t check the seals – every jar was moldy when we opened them. I’m not perfect and I have made every mistake you can possibly imagine. The good thing about all those mistakes is that eventually, you get to the point where it isn’t as hard. We still buy some of our grains and beans, and are still grateful that if the potato harvest doesn’t measure up, we can go to the local farmer’s market and supplement our needs, and we enjoy bananas and citrus as much as the next person, along with spices and seasonings from far away. But we also keep trying to feed ourselves, and we get better at it every year. We’re now to the point where most years, we probably could survive, we just wouldn’t be eating our preferred diet.

But here’s the thing – even if we never achieve perfection – if we never manage to raise every single thing we want to eat, there’s a great deal of satisfaction in putting by and getting better at it. Because even right now, every bite of food we don’t purchase is a gift – it represents money we don’t have to spend on groceries and can devote to other things. Every bite closer we get to feeding ourselves means we eat better.

Americans tend to believe that hunger could never come their way. They forget that just two generations ago, during the depression, as many as 25% of urban school children were malnourished, and people stood in bread lines. They forget that the experience of privilege we’ve known in these wealthy nations is very odd – a historical anomaly. That pretty much all human beings starting with our grandparents and going back knew periods of food insecurity – and that the majority of people in the world know hunger at some point in their lives. Should we bet the farm on the notion that this magical immunity to the plague of hunger will go on forever?

Growing your own food is only one part of the project – the next is preserving it, and making sure you have enough to eat, and things you like. Most places in the world have a period where you can’t grow much food, either because it is too hot or too dry, too cold or too wet. So we have to put up food for those times. And then there’s the job of resource management – if I left things up to my kids, I’d have strawberry jam every single day, until there wasn’t any more, and then they’d complain until the next year’s strawberry harvest. Someone has to be the one to say, “ok, apricot this time – let’s save some of that strawberry for early spring when we’ll all want something sweet.” Someone has to look at the apples and the pears and take the ones that are getting soft off and make them into sauce or dried apples before they rot and spoil, literally, the whole barrel.

The thing is, being involved with your food means being really seriously involved with your food. It means changing the way we’ve come to think about the world back to the way that we once did – revisiting a life of seasonality, with a time to plant, a time to sow, a time to harvest and a time to rest. It isn’t just a song, or a Bible verse, it becomes a way of life. And that’s ok, because that link to nature may be the thing that we’ve been missing in our lives. There’s growing evidence that people who work in the dirt, live with the seasons and connect to nature are happier and healthier than those who in more artificial circumstances.

So like all springs, my job now is to figure out how many cucumbers I need to plant next year, so that this time, the pickles (devoured by my three pickle-fiend sons) make it all the way until July, when I can make more. And how many potatoes to grow – and can I grow more of the cranberry colored ones that everyone liked do much? And I want to grow more of my own animal feed this year – the cost of corn is rising, and I’d like to stop buying feed altogether. How much room in my garden do the chickens need? How about the rabbits? Which of those weeds can I dry for hay? What I can I grow for them?

Preserving food is every day work – it begins now, with the first rhubarb that will be dried or canned or made into sauce (and a reminder that I still have a bit left of last year’s to eat). Next come the strawberries (I don’t bother to preserve asparagus – doesn’t taste as good as fresh), and nettles (very nutritious dried in tea), and then the cycle begins in earnest. It really doesn’t take much time, once you get into a routine, and is well worth it. There are always some busy days in the summer, but it isn’t too hard to put berries in the dehydrator after work or mix up pickle brine while making dinner.

Even if you don’t grow your own, preserving what is seasonal and fresh can provide you with a great deal of economic and food security – if you go to the farmer’s market at the end of the day, you may be able to get bushels of produce for almost nothing. Then comes the work of dehydration, or canning, or pickling. But the work is worth it – both because it enables you to eat a local diet and frees you from dangers in the food supply, but also because it means you don’t depend on corporations or others to provision you.

And that last point may be the most important. Food preservation, and food production are keys to democracy. We accept that a politician who is dependent on the money special interests provides cannot be wholly independent in their thought, and know that no matter how much personal integrity they may have, their intentions are fundamentally corrupted by being beholden to others.

Well the same is equally true of individuals – as long as we depend on large corporations to meet our basic needs, we’ll never be able to judge them fairly or recreate our society. That is, we cannot simultaneously call for an end to multinational monoliths and also pay them to feed us. As long as we admit we are dependent on corporations, any attempt at reform or culture change will fail, because we ourselves are corrupted by that dependence. We cannot deplore McDonalds, and then complain because poor people cannot buy their food from the equally troubling industrial organic producers who sell through whole foods. We need to recognize that our food dependence affects not just what we eat, but the fundamentals of our democracy and our political power.

We should not owe our lives to entities we deplore. And the only possible escape from that bind is to declare food independence – to meet as many of our basic needs as possible ourselves, and through small, sustainable farms with which we have real and direct relationships. And that means not just growing food, but ensuring a stable food supply, reasonable reserves and a dinner that depends on no one. Worth struggling for indeed!

I’d best get cracking!