Friday, 13 February 2009

The Pantry Dwindles: Winter Diet Report

By Kate
Living The Frugal Life

It was never a formal goal of mine to become a local or seasonal eater in 2008. But it seems to have almost happened that way, largely on its own. We're not strict about this; we do still cook with olive oil, drink tea, use bread flour, and eat some chocolate, none of which are produced in our region. But a very significant percentage of what we eat is local or homegrown. This is likely a function of my insistence - on frugal, more so than ethical, principles - that we eat what we've grown first, before purchasing food from the grocery store. We're in the depths of winter here, and I thought a little confessional on our diet would be in order right about now.

We're still making soups, pasta dishes, and casseroles with our homegrown ingredients. But these days there are a lot of purchased ingredients going into our meals too. Much of what we have left of our own produce is coming out of the freezer or a canning jar. We've noticed that even store bought green salads that we eat when invited to someone else's home taste amazingly good to us right now. Despite our frozen supplies of homegrown kale and chard, there's no replacing fresh green things. This has prodded us to think very hard about ways of providing ourselves with homegrown salad greens for a longer part of the year.

We ate our last homegrown pumpkin very recently, and only the smallest, most-time-consuming-to-wash potatoes remain in the garage. Some few leeks still stand in the frozen garden. I harvest a couple whenever it gets above freezing, which is rarely these days. I will try to have leave more of them this year for winter use. Our homegrown and canned salsa and tomato sauce still form ranks in the basement. We need to use them both up at a faster rate than we have been.

There are a few items that we must now buy regularly from the store. We're completely out of fresh homegrown garlic, and there's no local garlic to be had. We will not willingly go without garlic. I mean, really: is it reasonable - or even sane - to go without garlic? It was galling to have to pay for garlic though, and to realize we won't have any of our own again until late June or July. We've always bought our starchy staples, such as rice, pasta, pearl barley, oats, and flour at the store. But this year we also have a small supply of our homegrown soup beans, which we've been enjoying. We'll grow two kinds of soup beans this year.

I've been baking a lot of bread this winter. I'm also putting more effort toward finding bartering opportunities with my homemade organic loaves. Fortunately, I've found that farmers are very willing to barter dairy products, eggs, and some other items for my bread. That has kept us in yogurt, cheese, honey and eggs through the winter months. I don't do much baking during the hot summer months, so it's especially nice to be able to supplement our diet by way of a homemade product when the garden is bare. We don't grow our own wheat for the flour, but my skill and labor are still securing food for us for very little cost.

I anticipate that as we eat through our remaining preserved homegrown foods, we will increasingly shop for produce at the grocery store in the next few months. I expect that March and April will be the months when we will be most obliged to buy non-local food. After that the earliest crops in our garden will start coming in, and the local farmer's markets will re-open. I've already been buying onions, carrots, celery, and fresh herbs at the store. This year I'm going to do my utmost to grow a large crop of onions, so that we needn't purchase the other indispensable cooking ingredient. I don't know how to cook without onions.

We still have a fair supply left of our own cider that we pressed from our untreated apples late last fall. This raw cider is a treasured drink for us, so sweet that I sometimes must dilute it with a little water. The concentrated taste of fresh apples is an incredible treat for us during the winter months. Augmented by my stores of frozen berries and dried fruits, it mostly carries us through weeks without fresh fruit. My husband has an unbreakable banana habit though.

On the other hand, I'm not running to the store for salad greens yet. Instead I found myself flailing about for strategies to extend our growing season for this year. I've decided to grow stinging nettles for their early spring emergence and their incredible nutritional qualities. This will be a plant to enjoy during a short season each year, since the plant becomes increasingly potent and unpalatable as it develops through the year. I also took the plunge and ordered a very durable row cover from Johnny's Seeds. I plan to use this very early this year to start lettuces, arugula, scallions, and spinach. Then in late spring I will use it to get the tomatoes and peppers into the ground a week or two before I otherwise would. At the far end of the year, I'll again use the row cover to raise and protect a crop of greens that will feed us through at least a few months of cold weather.

From a nutritional perspective, we're not doing very well right now in terms of getting our quota of fresh green vegetables. From a frugality perspective, we're doing incredibly well at feeding ourselves for very little money, and with very little waste. And from a homesteading perspective, we're doing a so-so job of providing our own subsistence. The upshot is that I see at least a few strategies that can help us improve both the quantity and the quality of the food we are able to grow for ourselves this year.

To sum up, our gardening habits and our diet are co-evolving. Our dietary preferences inform our gardening decisions. And the climatic and soil properties of our garden inform our eating habits to a large degree. As we go through the seasons, notice how our diet affects us, and listen to our bodies' messages about what we are eating, we adjust our plans. We'll experiment with growing and eating a few new crops this year to see how they might fit into a sustainable, frugal, healthy, and local diet. This deepening connection to our own backyard and foodshed feels right, natural, and inexpressibly satisfying to me. I don't feel any particular craving for fruits or vegetables we cannot grow in our abundantly productive region, only a keen interest in making the best use of the possibilities we have.