Thoughts on Food Part 1

by Jenn @ Frugal Upstate on July 24, 2013

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about food.  What we eat.  How it’s grown.  Where it comes from.  How it gets to us.  It’s amazing the complex system that we have created to accomplish all of this.

Note:  this is a long, rambley, sort of stream of consciousness post.  You have been warned!

For most of us, our food is grown THOUSANDS of miles away, in huge monoculutures (ie only growing a single thing).  It’s a hugely centralized system.   The system relies on outside inputs in order to function–synthetic fertilizers and irrigation in order to grow the crops and then labor multiplying devices such as tractors, combines, balers, and probably many more that I’m unaware of in order to plant, maintain and harvest them.  These devices require additional inputs of fuel.  The food is then shipped to factories to be canned or frozen and then further on to our store shelves.

As a logistician by training (I’ve actually got my masters in business with a concentration in logistics) I look at this centralized and resource heavy system and see the possibility of “multiple points of failure”.  For example, when most of a crop is of a single varietal and grown in the same region then the effect of poor weather, disease or pests could be significant.  Also, when you have a commodity traveling over long distances you have more chances of being effected by fuel prices, trucker strikes, road/bridge maintenance issues, weather. . . well you can see what I mean.

And you can’t just flip a switch and change the system.

This is part of the reason why I believe it’s important to grow at least some of my own food.  When I grow a garden I get the freshest food(and therefore tastiest and most nutritious) possible.  I know exactly how the food has been treated–what variety it is, if any pesticides or fertilizers have been used.   While of course my own garden can be affected by pests, disease, or poor weather–I can keep an eye on it and try to make adjustments where possible to mitigate those effects.  And the distance from garden to table can be measured in steps!

Of course I can’t possibly grow everything I need.  I’m on .52 acres, in a village, in the northeast.  If I planted wheat (which would be a pain to harvest anyway) it would take up my entire back yard to get enough to equal a couple of bags of flower.  Not an effective use of my resources.  Other things–take citrus or coffee for example–simply can not be grown where I live.  Growing things take time and effort–and the amount of space and labor it would take for someone to be completely self sufficient is impossible.  It would just take more manpower then most of us can accomplish.  Even people with extensive homesteads who produce most of what they use depend on outside inputs.  Fuel.  Feed.  Medicines for livestock.  Building materials.

I feel that even if it’s not possible to be totally self sufficient, it is worthwhile to be MORE self sufficient then most of us are today.  The easiest place to start with that is with food and growing a garden.

The funny thing is, when you decide to be more self sufficient and grow your own food you wind up changing what and how you eat.  You really can’t say “well, I want to keep eating exactly the same way I was before, just with food I’ve grown myself”.  Gardens don’t exactly work that way.  Even if you have the skills to preserve foods–canning, drying, root cellaring etc. . . well there are just times when certain things aren’t in season.  Or when you have a glut of a particular item.

What I’ve realized is that when you are cooking from your garden and eating seasonally your menu really does change.  I always want to try to use what I have in the garden.  I spent all that time and effort growing it, I don’t want it to go to waste!  So when the cucumbers are in season I wind up eating cucumber spears sprinkled with salt as a side dish, putting cucumber slices in a sandwich, tossing together a marinated cucumber salad or even sauteing cucumbers in some butter and serving warm with salt and pepper .   All of these things are good–but not all of them are great.  For example the sauteed cucumbers are good–but not good enough that I’d ever bother going to the store and paying money to buy cucumbers just for that preparation.  But when I’ve got a lot and I need a vegetable side dish it is perfectly acceptable.

Isn’t that an odd distinction?  There are perfectly good foods out there that have gone out of fashion simply because they weren’t quite good ENOUGH to bother with once you were no longer growing your own.

Here’s another example.  When turnips are in season I will eat them raw, sliced with a bit of salt.  I will also shred them and make a cole slaw or pickled salad out of them.  I’d never bother buying a fresh turnip just to do either.

On the flip side there are some things that are so expensive to buy in the store that you save them only for certain presentation and uses.  Many fruits fall into this category.  When you have to buy fresh pears at the store you are either going to eat them fresh to savor their “pear-ness”, or maybe do a special dessert like a red wine braised pear.

You probably aren’t going to make pear jam.  Or pear chutney.  Or pickled pears.  Or “pearsauce”.

But when you have a pear tree, well, suddenly you have a wealth of pears–and you can turn some to more mundane uses.   The same with figs, raspberries, blueberries and more.   I mean really–would you ever buy enough blueberries at the store to make blueberry JUICE?  That would be some really, really expensive juice!  But grow your own (or even pick them at a pick your own place) and suddenly it becomes a reasonable endeavor.

I know this is sort of disjointed, but I’m really just “thinking aloud”.  I’d love to hear from all of you.  What do you think?


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