The idea of growing and preserving your own food is intoxicating. Instead of buying packaged foods shipped from halfway around the globe, you can just stick some seeds in the ground, watch the plants come up, and there they are—the beautiful fruits of your labor. And then later in the season, it’s so exciting to complete the process by preserving the fruits and vegetables into canned and frozen goods.
Except, is the process truly complete?
It is easy to get so completely caught up in the frenzy of creating food that we can forget the whole point of doing it. The natural grace of fresh food, the way it contributes to saving the planet and saving heirloom seeds and saving us from chemicals, the way it’s cool and trendy and rewarding—but then what? When there are rows and rows of beautiful canned tomatoes and exotic chutneys and spicy sage jam and peach honey gracing your pantry shelves, it’s tempting to sit back on your heels and feel smug about your work for the season being done.
But now you have to eat it. And for people who are accustomed to preparing and eating food that is uniformly packaged and universally available, that is hard.
I remember my Master Food Preserving instructor telling the class to “be sure to can and freeze only what your family will eat.” At the time I thought, “DUH.” Of course.
But like so many people who like to preserve food, and no doubt formed the aggregate which inspired my instructor to offer such basic-sounding advice, I got swept off my feet by the need to can everything.
And I mean everything. I had a bumper crop of zucchini that year. I could have tried to give them away, but it has been my experience that when I am having a good year for a certain crop or a bad year for another, most people I know are having parallel successes and failures. I could have just composted the squash or fed it to animals, but that just feels wrong. In the same way that people don’t accept just enough of their salary to pay their bills that month and then discard the remainder, I wasn’t inclined to throw out any food simply because I couldn’t eat it up immediately.
Since there are no recipes for safely canning summer squash by itself, I used a recipe from the Ball book to can zucchini in pineapple juice. Sure, I had to go out and buy pineapple juice in cans specifically for this project, which flew in the face of my commitment to buy only local and minimize packaging waste, but I consoled myself with the fact that I was using up my zucchini.
We had young steers that next winter, and it turned out they loved home-canned zucchini in pineapple juice. It was a good thing, because nobody else liked it at all. And we had a ton of it.
I should have listened to my instructor’s advice, which was to enjoy zucchini while it’s in season and let it go when it’s gone.
In fact, I have come to learn that the ephemeral nature of home-grown food is not only not a barrier to enjoying it, but is actually one of the best parts. I love the way we spend a week or two drowning in fresh baby chard—braised, au gratin, on pizza, mixed with sausage and pasta, and flash-fried—and then come up for air briefly before being sucked under by the abundance of some other garden delight. We have corn week and cabbage week at my house, and enjoy sides of tomatoes and green beans and broccoli all summer long.
It has been a steep learning curve. I had to change my whole way of thinking about food, starting with menu planning. Most people nowadays decide what they want to eat, and then go buy the ingredients to make it. As a homesteader, I reverse those steps. I look at what I have on hand—the stuff I worked so hard to grow and preserve—and plan my meals around that, buying only what I need to fill in the gaps.
The other big challenge was learning to cook. I’ve been a recipe-follower all my life, and it has worked well overall. I read the recipes, made a list of what I need—a 6.2-ounce can of this and a 14-ounce frozen bag of that—and bought it. It didn’t matter to me that the recipe called for apples and I was making it in April, or asparagus in November.
I have been forced to make modifications. Betty Crocker and Mark Bittman don’t call for 8-ounce jars of homemade tomatillo salsa or a zip-top bag of frozen broccoli. I’ve had to figure out how to substitute what looks yummy in the recipe with something equally delectable from my larder. Peach chutney is a thing of beauty, but incorporating it into everyday meals isn’t always easy.
Preserved food sometimes gets eaten in waves as well. For example, if spring is approaching and we still haven’t eaten many of the parsnips that we harvested and froze last April, nobody is surprised to find a lot of them on the menu. Fried in butter, or added to soups, or snuck into a pot of mashed potatoes.
If you are one who is contemplating growing your own food or you did so this year, I applaud your endeavors. And if you are taking it a step further by preserving some of your garden bounty, even better! But remember—put up only what you’ll eat, shop in your own storage room before hitting the grocery store, and happy eating!