I want to eat slow food, to eat more sustainably, but I face two challenges even as I think about it. I have a small budget, and I live in New England where the growing season is short. Summer and autumn yield a bounty of affordable and healthy produce, but winter does follow.
An answer to my financial and nutritional concerns is nicely laid out in “Put ‘em Up! A Comprehensive Home Preserving Guide for the Creative Cook (from Drying and Freezing to Canning and Pickling)” by Sherri Brooks Vinton: Storey Publishing, 2010. The text is accompanied by appealing photographs (Kevin Kennefick) and illustrations (Elara Tanguy).
I have never dried produce, have always lived with small freezers, and haven’t seen canning done since I was the child step-and-fetch assistant to my mother. Vinton’s book is setting things right for me, and I’m ready to put up produce against the winter as soon as my beets and beans come in. I’m in touch with local farms and orchards where I can affordably buy produce I don’t grow in my community garden plot, and I am getting ambitious, with the optimism that brings. I can’t fail, because I now have easy-to-follow instructions, explanations, and recipes.
It is gratifying that Vinton frequently mentions why and how putting food up is a sustainable practice, from protecting our own bank accounts to the effects on Earth and its inhabitants.
Home food preservation is planet-friendly. Preserving locally grown food reduces reliance on imported produce, so it minimizes energy-intensive shipping. Locally sourced foods are more likely to come from small, biodiverse farms that do not require the chemical applications that are commonplace in large monocultures. Supporting local agriculture protects open space. Canned and dried foods are shelf-stable, so they don’t require the energy for storage that frozen foods do. Even home-frozen foods don’t require the energy-intensive industrial processing, refrigerated shipping, and storage of their commercial counterparts. (p. 13)
Vinton addresses food safety, including the chemicals in store-bought produce, the necessary attention to correct acidity and sealing of canned foods, and even how to deal with the bisphenol A (BPA) found on canning lids. She looks to avoid most plastics, and preaches the small-and-local theme persuasively. We can assume she knows what she’s talking about, as she is the founder of FarmFriendly LCC, as well as member of the Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association.
This 303-page book takes a friendly tone, but it is thoughtfully organized for our use. Storey Publishing has given us something we can lay open on the table as we cook, spilling sauces around the edges and writing margin notes as we go. This is a working book, and cheap production is never Storey’s bottom line.
Opening with a discussion of methods and the necessary equipment for each, Put ‘em Up! explains how to use refrigeration, cold cellars, and freezers, as well as how to make infusions (oils and vinegars), dry, can, and ferment. Addressing the economy of food preservation, Vinton says:
…home food preservation is an exercise in economy, not consumerism, so you shouldn’t have to invest a lot of money in new, single-use-gadgets to get the job done. …You don’t need state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line anything to accomplish these recipes. Human-scale BTUs will do just fine. (p. 17)
There is a trouble-shooting section, and we are admonished to follow recipes exactly as to amounts. The chemistry of food preservation is critical to safety and to appealing texture, color, and taste. Once we are convinced we can do this and have noted the few pieces of equipment we will need, we move into the heart and delight of the matter: the recipes. Organized alphabetically by each fruit or vegetable, the recipes start with a brief description of how the food can be served/used. No meat preservation is included, and that’s in keeping with my own efforts at sustainability. I shouldn’t be eating enough meat to require more than the occasional purchase of carefully chosen meat. My health is at stake, and I can’t ignore the effect our U.S. meat production has on the world food supply.
Within each section, recipes are followed by suggested preservation methods, along with considerations specific to that produce. When I look at a recipe in any book, finances and time constraints cause me to scan the list of ingredients before reading further. A lengthy list tells me that, however tempting, I will never get around to that one. Vinton holds to her promise of simplicity and feasibility, and her ingredient lists are satisfyingly brief. I will follow through.
With all the economy and simplicity of food preservation as taught by Vinton, some methods just take time. Adjusting to this slow-food practice is up to me, but throughout the book, I have encouragement, well wishing, and justification for the attempt. I am left with an understanding that I’m not doing this alone. All over the world, people are preserving food. Some have done so all along, while many of us are returning after long absence during which we included our food among the sacrifices made to support the GDP and to make time for wage-earning so we could keep up that effort.
Granted, most critical steps toward sustainability for ourselves and for Earth will have to be addressed at the national level (and that only upon our demand, when enough of us finally decide to pursue it), but it seems to me that a reasonable starting place is on our own supper tables. It is worth considering that sustenance and sustainability share the same (Latin) root. Susan Clare