My boyfriend and I have been playing a little game this year called 'How little food can we buy?'
Step one was planting a garden this past spring. It was my first genuinely committed effort at growing my own food. I have a past checkered with half-assed potato beds and potted herbs, but never a real garden. I was still a slave to the produce aisle and, though in the past I was delighted not to have to buy basil, it was mostly a fun novelty when I was able to use something I had grown.
This year was different. We were determined not to buy another head of lettuce. It wasn't really a question of money (though saving is always nice), but rather a question of self-sufficiency. It feels good to be less dependant on others for your basic survival needs.
This has meant foraging for miner's lettuce and mushrooms on the hillsides during late fall and winter. In the spring, we dried wild chamomile and lemon verbena, which we use for tea. We've been harvesting nettles from the creek next to our cabin year round and began raising chickens that are now starting to lay the yummiest golden-yolked eggs I've ever had. Our most recent venture in living off the land was incorporating rattlesnake into our diet -- not for the faint of heart but quite an adventure and a tasty one at that. Between the garden and foraging, we've indeed spent far less time and money at the market.
I love cooking and the culinary creativity this project has spurred is addictive. Gnocchi made with my own potatoes were a revelation. As was a snake sugo made from an unfortunate, slithering intruder and our Sungold tomatoes. Need a recipe that will use up ten pounds of zucchini? I'm your woman.
I've also taken a crash course in preserving. This morning I picking 50 pounds of tomatoes from my garden. This is the third harvest of this size I've done in the past month. And while I'll be happy to have them this winter, the daunting task of jarring batch after batch in my tiny kitchen in 90-degree heat is far less romantic than I thought it would be when we planted them.
Nonetheless, I'm embracing the task and keeping my eye on the prize. The colorful collection of preserves already lining my pantry shelves is helping. We'll be enjoying our summer harvest all year round and will undoubtedly be sharing it as well. In an age where it sometimes feels like our fingers are used primarily for pressing little keys, it's no wonder how delighted people are to be given something that you made with your own two hands. It's only August and all of our holiday, housewarming, and host gifts for the year are taken care of.
The mild climate here in Marin also allows wonderful things to grow year-round. While we jar the last morsels of summer, we're anticipating the fall by starting a variety of broccoli, onions, brussels sprouts, and root vegetables in pots, which we'll transplant to the garden once the heat passes.
We've still had to buy lettuce from time to time. We're trying to get better about re-seeding as we harvest, but that part has bested us a few times. It's not a perfect process yet.
Still, I encourage anyone with a spare bit of unused dirt to make use of it, even if it is for a half-assed potato bed or potted herb garden. It's a start. Maybe someday you'll be sweating over a steaming water bath of your own and cursing the day you found this article.
For those of you who have a garden and whose bounty is overwhelming, here are a few events that might prove helpful:
On Sept. 16, the Baker Creek Seed Bank in Petaluma is hosting an informational talk on preserves. Guests include Merrilee Olson of PRESERVE Sonoma, Elissa Rubin-Mahon of Artisan Preserves, and John Horrell, a longtime cook and food preservationist.
I'd like to say personally that if you haven't been to Baker Creek Seed Bank, take this opportunity. It's a wonderful store that boasts over 1,200 varieties of Heirloom seeds. The knowledgeable staff will help you figure out what will grow well in your area and what to plant right now. If you've been thinking about starting a garden, this place will inspire you to roll your sleeves up and do it.
For those who don't want to undertake the satisfying but formidable task of canning, both San Anselmo and Fairfax hold produce swap meets where you can find a loving home for your excess fruits and veggies and give a loving home to someone else's. Find more information and schedules here.