Peak Moment 203: Soccer mom prepares for the unexpected
“I have a ball preserving food with my friends!” And at the same time Kathy Harrison is making sure her kids can eat if storms knock out power or roads. The author of Just in Case: How to Be Self Sufficient when The Unexpected Happens gives practical tips on storing food without getting overwhelmed. She looks at dehydrating, canning, and root cellaring; finding and preserving local food, and buying food at discount. For Kathy, preparedness is an empowering, community activity. (justincasebook.wordpress.com)
Janaia Donaldson: Hi, welcome to Peak Moment. I'm Janaia Donaldson. My guest today is Kathy Harrison, who's talking to us via skype from the east coast of America. Kathy, thank you for joining us.
Kathy Harrison: Thank you for having me.
JD: Kathy is the author of a book called Just in Case: How to Be Self Sufficient when The Unexpected Happens. I want to tell you, Kathy. This is a fabulous book. What I find wonderful is that it's laid out, it's accessible, it's friendly. You cover a lot of topics. It's not daunting. I read it and don't feel like "oh, this is too much." You've really made it friendly.
KH: Thank you. That is exactly what I was hoping to do.
JD: Give our audience a little sense of what you covered in here. No, first, why did you write this book?
KH: I think like a lot of people, right after 9/11 and then certainly Katrina, I was struck by fact that the America that I knew as a child, that safe and secure place, wasn't always safe and secure. And I was also struck by the fact that the cavalry does not always ride to your rescue. Ultimately we're all responsible for our own safety and our own protection.
So like a lot of people I went looking for books. Which I do, because I'm a bookworm. I bought them all, and read them all. There were some very good ones, but to be honest, most of them didn't really speak to me. I was a middle-age soccer mom with a pile of kids and a mini-van. I didn't have a retreat, and I didn't own a gun, and I wasn't afraid of people particularly. I didn't expect the mutant zombie bikers to come after me. I just wanted to make sure that no matter what happened, that I could feed my kids. That I could keep them warm, that I'd have water and lights. So when I looked for that book, I didn't see it anyplace. And I decided to write it myself. I was lucky enough to run into editor at Story. It's a publishing company that I admire (more than any on the planet, I have to say).
And this book grew out of my own needs — what was it I was interested in? Well, I was interested in how one acquires this much food. It seems so scary. I wrote what I wanted to read.
JD: I'm going to guess, from my glance at it, that you wrote the book that a lot of families in your position would want to read too. You're looking at everything from two-week blackouts to, if longer term things need to happen, like hurricanes, evacuation. You've covered all the bases.
KH: I tried to.
JD: One of the things you've said that was close to your heart right now is about preserving food. It's on a lot of peoples' radar right now — food security. Talk with us about that.
KH: I'm certainly not new at preserving food. We've lived on small farms for most of our married life, which is a long time. So I've always done that. It has been part of my behavior. But I did it more as a hobby, as a fun thing to do. But I was pretty used to, if I need something, I could go to the supermarket. It was there. It was beautiful, spread out. I could get strawberries in January if I wanted them. But over the past 8-10 years I started taking preserving food a lot more seriously. I started preserving food as though this is what I planned to eat. In fact, that's become what we do.
In fact, we have a little family ritual. When we sit at the supper table, rather than a traditional grace, most of the time what we do is go around the table and talk about what's on our plate, where did it come from, how much of it did we grow, what did we gather, who helped with the preservation. And if it came from someplace besides my house or my community, a farm nearby, then we talk a little bit about who sacrificed what in order for us to have this. I'm not saying we never eat a strawberry in January, but I will say that if we eat one, it's a really special occasion. And I make sure that my kids know that in order to get the strawberries, somebody had to do without water. Because that strawberry required a lot of water. And it had to be shipped across the country. It took a lot of energy that now is going to be more expensive. So for our abundance, there's a sacrifice on somebody's part. I think when you look at food like that, it is the deepest kind of grace.
JD: Yes. And what an education for your family. I'm sure their awareness of where the food comes from, and how far...and I would imagine the stories together of "remember the green beans we got from the farmer next door," is part of your bond together.
KH: It sure is. And it has made them I must confess into a little bit of a food snob. For instance, none of my kids want to eat a school lunch, because they know it's not very good food, and that's factory-farmed meat. Oh my goodness, at our house we don't eat factory-farmed meat. So there's always a price to pay for education. "No good deed will go unpunished."
JD: On the other hand, they're going to end up being healthier than most. Because they know what not to eat as well as what they eat at home. If somebody's going to think about preserving, if it's something new to them, how do you get them started?
KH: I try to look at it from a couple of perspectives. One of those is, where do you live? I live in the damp, cold a lot of the time, northeast. So for me, the easiest way to preserve food is in the basement. We have great root cellar, it didn't cost a lot to put it up. So if I'm talking to someone locally, I'd say let's look at the things we can acquire locally that store in the cellar. Root crops - potatoes, carrots, celeriac, cabbage, apples, pears. That's the easiest way. it requires absolutely no energy, no effort on my part except harvesting and putting it in the basement.
Now if I lived in Mexico, I'd be looking at dehydrating. Because the air is hot, it is dry, you've often got that hot dry breeze. And there, you can dehydrate things and not put calories of energy into the process. So that's the thing number one — I'm lazy. Be lazy, figure out what's the easiest thing you can do.
Beyond that, look at what you like to eat. My family is big on pastas. We eat a lot of tomato sauce, use it in pizza, tacos, spaghetti. Tons of it. So okay, if I'm going to use three jars of sauce a week, that's 150 jars of tomato sauce [in a year]. I don't grow enough tomatoes to make 150 jars of tomato sauce. But last year with the blight it was pretty slow, I probably got maybe 50 quarts of sauce. The year before was a great year, and I was able to put up 77 jars of sauce. So I think, okay, what is it you really eat? Because there's not a lot of point in canning 85 jars of relish. Really, how much relish are you going to eat in a year?
So we look at that: where do you live? What do you like? And what do you have access to? If you have raspberry bushes, let's talk about the different ways you can preserve them. You can make jelly, you can dry them, you can freeze them. But always at the bottom of any thought processes: how much energy is this going to take? Some things take more energy than others. I have a big old freezer, but I'm aware that freezer uses a lot of energy.
JD: I'm going to stop for a second. That thought about energy, which has not tended to be in our thoughts as much, because we take energy for granted. But it's going to become more expensive. I'm glad you're thinking in those terms, as well as the others. I've done canning, and didn't think a whole lot about the propane to cook [and process]. It's noticeable.
KH: 1001 It is noticeable. Fortunately, we've got an outdoor fireplace that we can use. My husband's job this summer is to build me an outdoor kitchen so I can do this with wood if I have to. And I have a plan. If that big old freezer becomes impossible for me to use any more, it becomes too expensive to use it, we'll just dig a hole and bury it and I'll use it for more root cellaring. That'll be my new root cellar. So I really do think about those things.
I tried to dehydrate with a homemade dehydrator. It was just not successful. Around here, you just simply can't count on the weather. It can be beautiful at 2 o'clock, and at 3 o'clock it's a torrential downpour. So I did buy an electric dehydrator. But if I couldn't use it, I'd think of another way to dry those things I really like dried.
JD: What I hear in there is a good old pioneer spirit, of improvisation, that you work with what's here, the resources you have, and go from there. Where I am in California, where we do have good dry summers and the breeze, the fall rains begin too early for me to dehydrate everything from the season. So I put it [drying racks] up above the woodstove. So we work with what we have. A root cellar is harder for us.
KH: You asked an important question, and that's how to get people started. One of the things that matters to me a lot is that people not go into this with the thought of preserving food. Any idea about food — whether acquiring it, preserving it, storing it, eating it — as a solitary endeavor... You know, women didn't used to do basic things [alone], they did things cooperatively, and I think we need to do that again. I would not have wanted to try to use a pressure canner for the first time all by myself. I was fortunate that I had someone who knew a lot about it, and walked me through the process until I was comfortable. So if you don't know how to use it, check around. Churches sometimes, you might find women, or men sometimes, who've used a pressure canner and are totally comfortable with it. I think that that is a huge piece.
I think about food security on the community level. I have a ball doing food with my friends. It's the most fun to have a group of friends to do it together! We get together and we enjoy a wonderful meal, and we do it with laughter and wine, and camaraderie. This is not a chore, this is not drudgery for me. This is fun.
JD: That sounds so inviting. Let's have a canning party, or cut up fruit and have a dehydrating party. And then share it, I imagine. Always have to take nibbles.
KH: And when we make wine, we always make wine with a group. There's usually five or six of us, we gather the ingredients, put it all together. And everybody goes home with their carboy of wine, and it's something we look forward to all year. Dandelion time is a good time of year. I never curse them, I always say, yay, dandelions are out.
JD: Dandelion wine, all right! One of the starting places for people is — do they have to grow their own food? How do they get the food they're going to preserve?
KH: Interesting question. I think a whole lot of people assume that if you don't have a big huge garden in your back yard, then food preservation isn't for you. But look around. If you don't grow a garden, is there a farmer's market? Do you have farms within driving distance? I make applesauce every year, and I make at least 50 quarts of it. I never buy an apple. We live in New England, and there are abandoned apple orchards and apple trees everywhere. I ask my neighbors, "do you mind if I pick those apples up out of your yard?" And my applesauce is essentially free.
If that's not possible, look at farms that will sell you things in bulk. So you use five pounds of potatoes every week? Well, okay, so 5x50 weeks = 250 pounds of potatoes. They would be a lot cheaper if you can buy them in bulk all at once from the local farmer. You're keeping your money in your community, supporting a local business, plus you've got really great potatoes. Now obviously, we come from Massachusetts where we're a little potato-biased around here. That might not be something you'd grow in southern California so much.
Beyond that, you can go to your local supermarket. Would that be my first choice? No. Would it be my last choice? Not necessarily. I think it makes more sense to look at your markets and say, "Can I get a better deal on that if I buy ten crates of it?" And we have a little local grocery store, and I call them often to say, "Hey if you find a good deal on, say, spinach, I want to dry a lot of spinach. I actually don't have great luck [growing] spinach around here, it tends to bolt too quickly when it grows. So I buy spinach in bulk from my local supermarket. That works.
And I buy in bulk from a food cooperative. I think we need to get a little creative about it. I think also we have to look around and say, where can I grow food? If I can't grow food in my back yard, could my school be turned into a little garden? Last year our PTO [Parent Teacher Organization] put together a project that, at the end of the [school] year the kids planted potatoes, carrots, turnips, onions. They had a wonderful little garden. When they came back to school in September, they had a big harvest party, cut up all that stuff, and we had a wonderful vegetable soup dinner. The kids really took on ownership of that. What about your church?
JD: I can imagine. It's theirs and it won't taste the same.
KH: It won't taste the same. And all of those kids who helped with that garden ate vegetables. You know, look around. Even in your yard, if you've got a row of daffodils and they bloom once for two weeks, and everybody loves daffodils. But could you replace these with a row of tomato plants, which will be beautiful, I guarantee. Tomato plants are gorgeous, they smell fabulous. You can get quite a lot of tomatoes just from a sidewalk. Think about how you landscape. Could you remove those boxwood bushes and put in some blueberry bushes? Just as beautiful, and you'll be eating blueberry pie in January.
JD: Looks like there'd be a lot of neighbors who'd like to camp next door to you. I imagine part of what you're trying to do is encourage your neighbors to do likewise. Because you mentioned food security won't work unless your neighbors aren't hungry also.
KH: I don't own a gun. I don't plan to shoot anybody to keep them out of my garden. The truth of the matter is if I was overrun with mutant zombie bikers — honey, I'm the first person in the stew pot. I'm a middle-aged woman with a pile of kids. What am I realistically going to do? What do I realistically do? I belong to a permaculture guild. There's a big group of us that meet every couple of weeks. We order plants together, and teach classes, and preserve food together. We have a perfectly wonderful time. Last night our little chickens were delivered, so we sat around looking at our itty bitty little chicks, and it was so much fun.
We talk about this. We talk about it at church, we talk about it in our store, we talk about it with our neighbors. We swap plants. So I'm surrounded with people who grow food. And I think that we need to take it seriously, not just because we want to eat, but we have a responsibility to our neighbors. So I'm thinking about the elderly man who has lost his wife. And you know he's not eating well. He never cooked a day in his life. Your church can grow tomatoes, and put together a canning afternoon, can enough sauce, and once a week deliver a spaghetti dinner. This is about caring about each other. I think preparedness is not an isolating thing, I think it's an empowering thing, and I think it's a community thing. You have to be in this together.
Our ship is sinking. People may have noticed things are not going particularly well right now. It is time to hold hands. It is time to hold hands.
JD: I think that people are sensing that even if they're not articulating that. Feeling that things are shakier. People seem to be a little more anxious. I love your image of holding hands and taking care of each other. That's basic and human. But we've been raised in a culture that says you're not sure you can trust other people.
KH: Isn't that true, though? And it is amazingly sad. What a scary and isolating thought that I couldn't trust the people who live next door to me. I've known them for thirty years. I have to trust them. This is my lifeboat — this little town is my lifeboat. And I just couldn't be happy eating if I know my neighbor is hungry.
JD: If we duplicate that all over, we'll all be taken care of, won't we?
KH: There is plenty to go around. It's about not having it all, but having enough. And you know what? If I have just enough, not too much, then the guy next door can have enough, too. And the woman next door to him. And the family down the street. We have enough to go around.
JD: Kathy, in our last seven minutes, are there other tips you want to give folks— where do we begin? Certainly you gave us some guidelines, but do you have a lot of equipment? What are the concerns so you can reduce hurdles for people?
KH: Sure. I think that it doesn't do you any good to look at too big a picture all at once. Think about one week: what do you eat in one week. Jot down seven breakfasts, seven lunches, seven dinners, seven snacks. What would you need to have on hand right now to provide yourself with spaghetti one night, quiche the next night. Just go over, what is it you actually like to eat? Over the next few weeks, put away that one week of food. It's got to be stuff that stores. It can't involve lettuce, which isn't going to store, and put that in a bin someplace. And you know you're okay for one week or two weeks, whatever amount of time.
Then go a little bit longer. When you get up to a month, then you can start thinking about other things. Gee you know, if I've got all this food, it might be a good idea for me to have an extra camp stove and some propane cylinders so I can cook for those two weeks. Because raw spaghetti isn't very tasty. What would I do about water for those two weeks?
Once you get that piece done, you might start looking at the bigger picture. So you might say, Gee, I eat a lot of oatmeal. And I can buy oatmeal in a container, but it gets a little expensive after awhile. Or I could buy fifty pounds of oatmeal in a great big sack. I can pack that away in some six-gallon buckets. And then I've got it for a lot less expensive. Hmm, while I'm doing that, I might as well put away some brown sugar and raisins and powdered milk. If I have some orange juice that I can mix up from a powder, then I've got breakfast, and it would do me for a couple of months. My kids can have breakfast no matter what.
And here's an important piece: once you start doing that, you need to use the food. I know people who've put food in storage and it sits there, gathering dust. You know what you put in storage - eat it. Okay, once a week, have a complete meal from our food storage. So it might be salmon cakes, because you've stored some canned salmon. You can do bread crumbs.
You need to take things in bite-sized pieces. If you thought for an instant "I have to put away a year's worth of food — how could I afford to do that?" So one of the things that I do is that I buddy buy if I go to the market. "Gee, canned pineapple. You know, I actually eat quite a lot of canned pineapple. Everybody likes it, it's relatively inexpensive, it's got some fiber in it that's good for you." I'll see it on sale and I'll actually buy a case of pineapple. One can goes in the cabinet, the other eleven cans go down in the basement. I usually every week pick up a couple of pounds of dried beans. Really cheap, easy to prepare, incredibly versatile, a lot of protein, especially if you add them to rice, tons of fiber, which is really important. And so, once a week, make sure you eat with those dried beans. My goal is to have 150 pounds of dried beans on hand, which I do right now. But I eat the dried beans. They're easy to put in the cabinet but you can't forget that you've got them.
Now if I didn't have a way to cook them reliably, I would probably get canned beans, which are actually a reasonably good buy. A lot more expensive than dried. But think about you. I know people who've gone to the big box stores, and they've bought gallons of mayonnaise. If the power's out, what are you going to do with a gallon of mayonnaise? I'll tell you what you're doing to do — you're going to throw it away! You're better off with small jars of mayonnaise that you can use up in a couple of sittings, because who uses a gallon of mayonnaise or pickles? Get those in smaller pieces.
And I guess the last thing I would leave with people is that life is supposed to be fun. It's supposed to be a joyful experience. You can't let preparedness turn you into a person who is fearful and scared all the time. My saying is "Don't be scared — be prepared." For me, when people say, "Isn't this bad for your kids? How can you stand living like that, worried about this?" I don't worry at all. I'm prepared. I'm ready for anything anybody throws at me. This is empowering to me. And I have turned it into a joyful experience. And I would hope you'd all look at this as a place where we can do some community-building. Gain skills, which everybody likes to know how to do something and do it well. And feel that you're prepared.
You wouldn't drive your car uninsured, I wouldn't think. I don't think you'd have a house you didn't insure. We all sort of really prepare for things. Now we really need to be prepared to be food secure.
JD: I love the sense that you have that being prepared — you can just do it incrementally, as you're already shopping, already going to the market. That it doesn't need to be Another Big Project that we really don't have time for. That's really nice.
KH: And something we can't afford. Most of us can come up with another $5 a week. On $5 a week, you can start putting food away.
JD: And especially the notion of buying in bulk, buying things on sale.
KH: Or with friends. Which is another important piece. I didn't want to close without saying this. The equipment can be daunting for people. A dehydrator is expensive. A pressure canner costs a lot of money. Think about your community. Okay, you don't have $250 to spend yourself. Would your church spend that kind of money? What about your Mother's Group? Could you go in and do it together? In our case, we bought a cider press with four other couples. How fun is this? We have cider press parties all fall — it really is fun. We share equipment all the time. It takes the financial pressure of you. It requires fewer resources. Does it make sense for everybody in the neighborhood to have a canner? No. You really need only two or three canners for a whole neighborhood. So get creative around this stuff. Think about the groups you already belong to: PTOs, mothers groups, parents groups, family centers, churches, synagogues. Use them.
JD: It's a great image: community and food and taking care of each other. I'll vote for you for president, thank you.
KH: (laughing) I don't want to run for president, so don't bother.
JD: No, you can run the world, thank you. This has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you for all of the practical tips, and your fun. It shows.
KH: I wish you were my neighbor. We could make some dandelion wine together.
JD: You're on! When we come to the east coast, I will expect to do that.
KH: All right.
JD: You're watching Peak Moment, Locally Reliant Living for Challenging Times. My guest is Kathy Harrison, whose work with food preserving and being prepared for emergencies should be a shining model for all the rest of us. Let's all join her in the fun. Thanks for watching.