Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Day 94- How I Choose My Foods

Eating on a super-tight budget doesn't come naturally to most people. It requires a lot of preparation. Some of that preparation can take years, like learning to cook well or confidently (different things, strangely enough). Some just takes a lot of time in front of a computer or talking to people.

I can't lend you the person who taught me to cook- my mother was, up until fairly recently, a very New England sort of cook. We're still not sure where this wild streak of food experimentation came from. I can only assume it's from the vegetarian thing. But the basics- how to make something good with what you happen to have- that is a pretty standard thing to see in New England. So that's where that comes from.

Think of it this way- in the northeastern US there are (growing wild) onions, berries, clams, deer, lobster, and a bunch of types of fish. Grass grows well, so cows (or goats) have long been affordable to keep for milking. Root crops and squash also grow well, and berries of all types seem to love the weather up there. So people in New England grow up (and have for a long time) eating stews flavored with onion, and salt, and (maybe) some fresh garlic. After all, meat, potatoes, carrots, onions, and water are (or were) locally grown and affordable. Berry cobblers are a similar idea- berries are free for the picking, a bit of sugar, some butter, a bit of grain, maybe some hoarded cinnamon and an egg, and you're done. Clam chowder? Again, until recently, clams were cheap and you don't have to use clams in chowder. Onions, potatoes, carrots, milk- are you noticing a theme here?

So that's the basis of my cooking, and it still pops up pretty often- I never met an onion I didn't love, or a potato I couldn't work into my food somehow. But how do I (or you...) take ideas from a hunter/ gatherer/ farmer based food world and make them work anywhere, with whatever you can find?

That's where the interwebs come in. There are three main groups (with some overlap) who are interested at getting the best food, to last the longest, for the best price- other than couponing mavens. Those are survivalists (who seem to prefer being called "preppers" now), standard food-storage types (including Mormons), and long distance sailors. Weren't expecting that last one, were you?


Surprisingly good resource, after I learned to ignore all the bits where they rant on and on about people of different political or theological beliefs. In amongst the gun talk, and the tin-foil hat plans there is a lot of information. These are the people who got me interested in the idea of canning, who sometimes grow their own food, who may even turn their entire yard into beautiful edible landscaping.

Is there a lot of crazy mixed in with the useful stuff? Absolutely. But there's also information that, if I were shopping for more people (since eating on the super cheap scales up really well, but down not so good) would be more useful than you can imagine. like buying your own grinder and getting (unmedicated) feed grain from a feed store. And recipes and rotation ideas, so that I don't end up eating nothing but plain rice for months on end- I'm not so good with this idea.

They are also an outstanding resource for out of print, out of copyright, ancient cookbooks. You know, the type they'd have carried across the prairies. Buried in the stories even, there are sometimes really good ideas, like pacing and timing for making whole meals from scratch. Admittedly most of it hasn't been tested for more than a week or so at a time, and they do focus more on the idea of "after an apocalypse", and living in bunkers with limited or no mod-cons, but it was still useful at some point.

Food-Storage Types-

Again, sometimes I have to skip over philosophical differences, but this is where I probably learned the most. Again, I've ignored a fair bit of it due to price constrains when shopping for one. This, though, is where I learned all about freezing grains before storing them, what people in other parts of the country (or world) were paying for staples, and what to do *with* those staples.

Since people store food for a bunch of reasons- because it's part of their belief system, because they've been out of work before and like eating, because it's just cheaper, or because they live in an area where food is sometimes tough to come by (think snowed in, roads rained out, tornadoes took out the grocery store)- there's more variety in suggestions. The most important one, though, seems to be "store what you eat, eat what you store," and that's the one I seem to have ignored the most here. After all, if I were to buy only what I'm used to eating, my house would be full of potato chips, vegan sour cream, frozen fake meat, boxed pasta, and jarred pasta sauce. Easy, lazy, fast.

While I don't follow that "rule" all the way- I haven't been the healthiest eater, after all- I do follow it somewhat. Before starting out, I made a list of all the things I like to eat that are easy to make, or that I had made, from scratch. I think my list had probably 40 items on it when I was done, and I only listed the more affordable options. I love mac and cheese made with boxed pasta and cashew "cheese" sauce, but cashews are (very) expensive and I don't use them in much else, so it didn't go on the list.

I learned from the Food Storage ladies (and occasional gentleman) that you need to have every part of a recipe, or know what to substitute, or you could be SOL, with a pile of useless ingredients. So once i had my food list I wrote out the "recipes" I use to make them, then counted how many times I used each ingredient. Oil and salt turned up in just about every one, lemon juice showed up around 8 times, tofu 3, soy in some form or other around 12. If I were working from a "storage of food for the future" standpoint, I'd pick up a soy milk maker, a tofu press and coagulant, and a big bag (or 3) of soy beans, and make those things myself from scratch. But the buy in price is too high for my budget- decent soy milk machines run about $100, and I have better things to spend that money on. Like food.

Right, so I made my list, tallied how often each item was used in those recipes, then took out a couple recipes, or modified them, to get rid of the odd ingredients that only get used once. Right before I started this whole thing, I googled a bunch of food storage sites, looking for their *best* prices, and their average buy prices. There are people blogging about storing food all over the web, so I was able to get a range of prices, including ones for my general region- but most of them are in Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho. Where there are more Mormons, or a better chance of getting snowed in, there are more people taking about storing food. I'm sure there are also food storage blogs and sites from people in Alaska and Hawaii, but the foods available to them are pretty far off what's available here- or in some cases what I eat. There's a lot of wild game getting eaten in Alaska, after all, and the only "wild game" I'm interested in is Hockey.

Which brings me to

Long Distance Sailors-

Kinda the odd man out, but really, the only group that has real experience with the "eat what you've got, and like it" way of living. After all, when it's a mile or more down to solid ground, and three weeks to dry land, you eat what you've got or you starve. On a boat there is only so much space, so information on provisioning for sailors is based on what takes up the least amount of space, provides the best nutrition, requires the least fridge or freezer space, tastes best, and produces the least waste. Useful, right?

Since I'm sharing my kitchen with two (or more) other people, I can't go crazy with stocking up on big items. Twenty pounds of flour got rotated through the freezer as there was room, and I try to use as little of the fridge space as possible- mostly just the veggie draws and half of one shelf. Ways to manage food so that it doesn't have to go in the fridge are useful here. Sailors get that. There's also a lot more information on being flexible with your food choices on sailing sites- milk in the Caribbean is ruinously expensive, and buying foods that are cheap at home but cost a lot where you're provisioning can cut a long term cruise short.

They're also amazingly resourceful when it comes to keeping what they *do* have fresh. Without a fridge, or with limited refrigeration space (marine fridge's are, of course, super expensive to buy and run, and take up a lot of very valuable storage) keeping food fresh, often in tropical climates, is a huge topic, and there's a lot of information available. Like using cabbage by pealing the leaves, rather than cutting off chunks- no cut edge means it stays fresh longer.

I know I've used other resources over the years to build to the point where I can do anything close to this. I also admit that most of the time, rather than make something good with what I have using what I know, I make stuff you'd expect to see a 20 year old guy eating. I think, though, that the knowledge is the important bit. As I start using it more my diet should round out better, but like anything else in life, it takes time.

I'll get some links and put them up on a resource page, just as soon as I dig them out of my old, dead computer or hunt them down on the web. Might take a week or two, though.

On yesterday's food-

I was pretty fooded out from Monday, so after finishing the bean and catsup monstrosity for breakfast, I went until almost 9PM before making some noodles with veggies. Probably cost about 53 cents, over estimating on cost of noodles, onion, and soy sauce.


  1. i like this post because im moving to PA in july from CA and am really interested in how the 'other half' lives! Now I have an idea in my head of lots of wild animals and plants running around and lots of easterners running after them and making stews. cool! and your blog inspires me that I, as a vegetarian, will not starve to death and die when I move out of California. Gracias!

  2. Oh, it's not quite like that. There are wild berries, and out in fields and the mountains there's a lot of wild stuff just growing, but.. well, the population density is pretty high up the east coast. They have farms, and it's some amazingly productive land (cows per acre rather than acres per cow), but it's *not* total wilderness.

    I've lived on both coasts, and the northeast isn't that different from the California coast, food-wise. They have vegetarian restaurants, farmers markets, and co-ops. Heck, I find a bunch of specialty stuff here in South Carolina- home of Piggly Wiggly (which sells every strange pig part known to man- and some that shouldn't be)- and we have two *big* "health food" stores, a couple old hippy co-ops, and two or three Farmers Markets. Heck, I heard there's a vegan restaurant around somewhere- I just haven't found it yet.

    I managed in (an admittedly liberal town in) Wyoming. PA should be a cake walk. Just remember your due diligence, ask if there's lard in the pie crust, and have a good time.

  3. PA is the Mid Atlantic, not New England, although the two regions are highly similar. Keep in mind that this is the part of the country first settled by the Dutch and English. You're moving to one of the first 13 colonies. While there is lots of agriculture all up and down the East Coast, this is a highly industrialized region as well, the cities have high population densities, and the suburb was invented on the East Coast. There are also lots of port cities on this side of the country, so there's a lot of ethnic diversity.

    Aside from local architecture, the weather, and local plant life, a highly populated area on the East Coast is going to be very much like a highly populated area on the West Coast. Except of course, it's better here. *born and bred NYer currently displaced to Missouri, with a serious superiority complex.

    As for food culture, I learned to cook from my mother as well, and the spirit behind it was one of necessity. My mother grew up poor, her parents were poor, my father's mother was a poor immigrant from Italy in NYC - you had to know how to cook, you had to know how to do a lot with a little. It inspires a creative spirit that encouraged me to try new things, and to really break recipes down to get an understanding of why things taste the way they do, and what different processes and ingredients do when you use them. I know what will happen when I add oregano to something, I know the difference between baking and broiling, I know the difference between a stainless steel pan and a cast iron one. Once you have those kinds of basics down, you can pretty much mix, match, and create with reasonable success.