It was a light weekend so far as canning goes -- I only got 19 jars done: 13 pints of carrots, 5 quarts of sweet pickled crabapples, and 1 12-oz. jar of pickled cranberries with the leftover syrup from the apples. Of course there's more to do this week (35 pounds of grapes and over a bushel of red bell peppers to roast for red pepper spread), but we had other things to do over the weekend, so those bigger projects just had to wait. But, oh, the grape juice and pepper spread will be so worth it after I finally get around to them!
One of the things we did this weekend was go over to my in-laws' for dinner. Inevitably our latest canning projects come up in conversation when we do this, and equally inevitably we get questions like, "But wouldn't it be cheaper to buy X in the store?" (My MIL appreciates the non-monetary benefits of "slow food," but I think my frugal FIL and BIL think we're nuts!) I suppose that in a culture where the primary consideration for everything has shifted to whether it's sufficiently cheap, that's a fair question, but saving money is not why we do many of the things we do. (Or at least it's not the primary reason -- there are some things, like my herb-infused vinegars (below), that are a big savings to make myself, and very pretty to boot!)
So why do we? There's a whole laundry list of reasons. For one thing, we're trying to shift to a local diet. We're not fundamentalist about it, and we don't refuse food provided by others (we admire freegans for recognizing that wasting food in the name of a holier-than-thou food philosophy is wrong), but we've started the long process of phasing out food that can't be grown in our region and discovering new favorites that can. It's rare anymore that my grocery cart contains bananas or mangoes, or tomatoes or berries in the middle of winter, though I haven't given up on citrus as yet. We're hoping to provide our own eggs, starting buying more milk and butter from local dairies, and David is working on sourcing grains through Whole Grain Milling so we can buy ingredients rather than processed foods.
Part of this is a disillusionment with our entire food system. Both of us have spent a significant portion of our working lives working in the grocery industry in one way or another, including on the wholesale side. My father, who works in industrial refrigeration, has also been taken by his work into various parts of the industry, including slaughterhouses, produce warehouses, grocery dry goods warehouses, and large dairies, and has shared some of those experiences with us. While the grocery chain that gets food onto the shelves of your local store is an impressively efficient and accurate system, we don't really think it's equipped to face the realities of peak oil, when that really starts to hit. (And I think the way retailers have recently begun to embrace local sourcing is at least as much because they realize this as well as because of consumer demand for local products.) Nor do we entirely trust the safety of the industrial food system -- retailers, who work with customers daily, do a fairly good job of policing their shelves, and pull unsafe food quickly, but too much of the industry on the vendor side of things is under-inspected, self-policed, or just not taken to task when they do let contaminated food slip through. It's not your local grocer's fault that that lettuce or canteloupe or pork you just got sick off of was teeming with pestilence, but there's also no way for him to be sure that the food that came from Giant Industrial Farm #786700b is really safe. He can only look after his links in the chain.
All of that is fairly easy to convey, but the other two concepts are more difficult to get across: work as leisure and the up-sides of slow food. I'll come back to work as leisure in another post, but for the up-sides of slow food...how can you really make someone who almost never eats fresh produce understand the difference between it and what they normally eat? Those grapes we bought from a local farmer, and we got them within four hours of their being picked. Just sitting in their boxes in the living room, they pervaded an entire floor of our house with their tangy grape smell. How many people who buy seedless grapes from the grocery store do you suppose even realize that grapes have a strong smell? I shared some of our salsa with co-workers, and despite the fact that we do nothing special at all to make it besides use fresh, local ingredients, people were amazed by how good it was. I can't take credit for that -- that's just the difference between a salsa made with canned whole tomatoes grown a thousand miles away and which have been sitting on a shelf for six months and one made with tomatoes that were sun-ripened and picked two days ago in a field hour outside the city.
It's not just freshness that matters, it's also selection. Seeking out local foods gives us access to things you'll not find in a grocery store, because one of the major criteria that determines what produce you can buy is how well an item ships. Many of the most delicious foods -- tart cherries, several kinds of melons, heirloom tomatoes, many plums -- bruise easily or don't keep well for many weeks or don't ripen after they've been picked prematurely, so you'll never see them on a shelf at the supermarket. There are other foods that can be grown in our region that are scarce for other reasons: currants of all types, a native fruit, were largely eradicated at the behest of the lumber industry. They're delicious, productive, pest-resistant, and take up very little space. They're also very good for you. Lingonberries are not grown in large quantities in this country, but they're also very tasty, and are hardy down to a zone 3. Seaberries (sea buckthorn) are another hardy, productive shrub, and one of the potential replacers of citrus fruit in our diets, as its juice is tart, orange, and high in vitamin C. Mulberries and wild blackberries don't ship well, but they grow here in abundance, and are far better than the mushy, flavorless berries you get in little plastic clamshells. There are many other hardy fruits that can be grown without having to have a greenhouse or ship food from South America -- pawpaws, quince, hardy plums, honeyberries, juneberries, gooseberries, hardy grapes -- and we'd have tried almost none of them if we weren't trying to eat more locally. I don't like all of them, but I like many of them, and I would be missing out on a lot of wonderful food if I just stuck with imported bananas.
For all the endless choice we seem to have in giant grocery stores, there's actually very little variety. Trying to eat more locally forces you to try new things, many of which you'd never encounter otherwise.
And then, of course, there is the ethical side. We know one person who started keeping rabbits for meat because he visited a slaughterhouse and was appalled that part of his buying "normal" meat included the assumption that someone else was going to do that awful, miserable work for him. Culturally we have this huge assumption that it's okay to both demand rock-bottom prices and demand that someone else do all the dirty work of food production for you, and that doesn't sit right with me. My dollar a pound for apples grown in WA translates to rock-bottom wages and poor living conditions for farm workers, the shutdown of family farms in favor of huge industrial conglomerates, and other social issues I have a huge problem with. And the depressing of wages and elimination of jobs in favor of having a few more dollars hit the bottom line cascades through the economy, hurting us all. (A major problem I have with a lot of vegans is that they wail about the treatment of animals and then head off to the grocery store to buy vegetables and fruit that were basically produced with slave labor -- this is an uncomfortable truth of our food economy that even many of the otherwise ethically-conscious are loathe to admit.) Either I am willing to pay for the privilege of having another human being do the unpleasant parts of my food production, or I am willing to do it myself. There's not an ethical middle ground, for me.
Not that I really consider harvesting and canning my own food unpleasant, most of the time -- and there's a huge payback in the pride you can take in something you've made yourself. :)