Yesterday afternoon we put our work aside and drove down into the Schoharie Valley, at least as far as we could go. We wanted to check on friends in the area, and we had called down to Schoharie Valley Farms to see how they were doing and also ask about the status of the flowers I had ordered for a bar mitzvah this weekend. Despite the fact that just about everything else they had was destroyed, the flowers were unscathed. Moreover, they told us that since no one in the town had power, lights or time to preserve, we could come down and buy anything they had to preserve. So down we went, and came back with a few boxes of tomatoes and peppers and some sweet corn.
This was hardly altruism (although one thing you can do for some flooded out farmers is buy any produce they had picked before the disaster and preserve it, since they often won’t have a market in place and need the money!). Most of my garden was destroyed by the flooding – the tomatoes I bought for them may be the last ones I get this year. I know there are other farmers, but I suspect they will be inundated with requests, and most of our sources of additional produce had it worse than we did. If you’d like to make a donation to those flooded out in Schoharie County, please do so – you can go here to donate, and just earmark your donation for flood victims. I suspect they’ve got other things to do besides update the website, but they are accepting flood donations. (Hat tip to Emma and Deb for pointing this out to me!!!)
The other project for today, besides making roasted yellow tomato salsa and freezing chopped up peppers is salvaging what I can out of my garden, and doing what I can to preserve it. Some of the onions can probably be dried before fungal diseases take them. The squash are hopeless, but there are a few lingering cukes, and the corn can be fed as fodder to the goats at least if I cut the stalks by hand. There are tomatillos still viable, and green tomatoes that can be pickled.
n her superb book _This Organic Life_ writer Joan Dye Gussow talks about making do with flood damaged produce – and why she doesn’t just go out and buy fresh, perfect stuff.
“We harvested 37 pounds of onions, but despite my best efforts, some of them cured with soft spots where mold had gotten underneath the outer layers and would work its sway through the whole onion if we didn’t stop it. So we had to cut up many onions and freeze the good parts – or cook them. All of which accounts for the fact that a year and a half after we arrived in Piermont, I found myself one morning cutting up a half-rotten onion to salvage, and realized that a year earlier I would have thrown the whole thing away.” Gussow, 103
“The lesson I take away from the realization that our crops will sometimes be drowned is not that those of us who live in the colder states can’t be relatively self-reliant; we can. And although Alan and I would have been wise to choose higher ground, I’ve seen no sensible agricultural scenario that suggests that anything can be done to insulate food production from the vagaries of nature. If we wish to feed ourselves from our own regions, and allow others to do the same, we will need to try and adjust our choices and our appetites to what Nature will provide in a given year. We need accept the fact that in some years we won’t have al the potatoes and onions we want. On the other hand, we will sometimes have more raspberries than we can eat, and the crops that succeed will be both safe and tasty.” Gussow, 107-108
Why spend my day out among the rotting vegetables looking for the good ones? Most simply because it is food, and you don’t just waste it.
This, I think, is a mindset that is worth getting into early on. It would be easy to say “oh, it was a terrible crop, why bother.” Or perhaps to say that the birds can have the last of the sunflower heads – and perhaps they are entitled to a share of the grain as well. Fair enough, but now they’ve had their share, and I’m taking mine. Even if it is imperfect. Even if it wasn’t what I dreamed of.
We live in a world that throws away nearly half of all the food it produces – and a world where we increasingly struggle to feed everyone. There’s a connection there – the food I don’t salvage is lost, and I buy in the markets. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the markets, but everything I waste, that is lost that doesn’t have to be costs us something.
The ability to make something of vegetables caught by frost, flooded, stunted by drought, partially eaten by some creature is one of our gifts – food preservation methods can mean that something that would otherwise have been lost can be saved – onions that won’t store well can be dehydrated or frozen, as Gussow points out. Or new recipes arise for green tomato pickles, the outer leaves of cabbage and green pumpkin pie. It is food, and you don’t waste it.
Today, in front of the woodstove, my children and I will draw back the husks of what corn survived and hang it up to dry further in the house. Most of the ears are full, some are not, but we will save what we can – because it is our food. When we committed to growing it, we committed to this – that we will regard our food as primary. I’ve no sorrow in buying to replace a lost crop when needed, but if I grow it, and I possibly can, I will eat what I grow before I rely on other sources.
It is hard to believe how differently people who live through food scarcity regard food – in some cultures, to tread on a piece of dropped bread is a sin, and a deep one. In Elizabeth Erlich’s superb memoir _Miriam’s Kitchen_ she observes her Holocaust survivor mother-in-law using her thumb to ensure that every drop of egg white was removed from a shell. When she enquires, her mother in law observes that her own father died of starvation – how could she ever waste food? We blur and grey the fact that there is a connection between the food lost to waste and the hunger of others – it is not as direct as “children are starving in India so finish your twinkie” but what you buy and grow and use shapes markets that transform the lives of others.
We are told that the only good and safe and healthy food is perfect – we are lied to and told that perfect looking is the same as tasty, safe and healthy. Up to 20% of all produce in the US is discarded and wasted simply because of cosmetic imperfections. We thus lose the old habits of thrift and care, and the value that says “this is food, we do not let it go to waste.”
So out we go, to scavenge in the mud for our food. And then back to the kitchen to transform the muddy, imperfect and nearly lost into the delicious and perfect – the roasted tomatillo sauce, the green tomato pickles, the peach jam and leather, the spiced plum chutney, the roasted corn salsa. There is treasure in the mud, good food for the claiming, and we will not let it go.