Dear flour friends,
Happy official fall! I hope you are enjoying this season, whether you are scrambling like me, to tuck away a bunch of foods, or not. My kitchen is full of pickles & jams, and things waiting for their moment of preservation: apples, paw paws, zucchini & peppers.
The apples came from a tree near us. On a walk, I took a sample home for tasting, and once the deliciousness was assured, I Huck Finned some gatherers. Our roommates Jac and Gus climbed the tree, and we came home with three bins of apples. Just looking at those giant Granny Smiths made my heart full. They were something in and of themselves – free fruit! Giant fruit from a yard, not an orchard! Tart! Terrific! – and they held the promise of being something else, so their magic expanded.
We had a similar windfall of peaches, extras from the food pantry that needed a home. Now they are safely housed in several jars, and in bags in our freezer. I have a batch of hot pepper chutney ready to can. Even though I love this stuff, sweet and spicy and full of garlic, ginger and raisins, I haven’t made it in years. The gap in production is partially due to my chronic tendinitis, which limits arm activities. The gap also reflects burnout from an earlier obsession to DIY our food supply.
The first decade I was a mother, I felt compelled to make every food I could. I was already an urban homesteader as the locavore movement grew. We gardened, had chickens, and made our own bread and yogurt. Mealtimes often included debates about having pigs or cows – you can have them in Troy, just can’t have any neighbors’ complaints about them, so that’s a risk. Inevitably, someone referred to a 19th century law that remains on the books:
“It shall be unlawful for any horses, cattle, sheep or swine to run or be at large in any part of the City, or for any person to suffer or permit any horses, cattle, sheep or swine, owned or possessed by him or of which he shall have charge, to run or be at large in any part of the City.”
Provisioning was part of us. We were not off the grocery store grid by any means, but our life revolved around food. I still recall a statement that our eldest, Francis, made when he was about 10. I was washing dishes and he came in from the yard and said to me, very seriously, “Mama, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to grow all my own food.”
What? You won’t ever have to, I told him. There will be stores and farms and lots of ways to get fed. But I was worried. Had I given him the message that we needed to provide for ourselves, in a selfish way, to the exclusion of all other resources? I began to investigate my need to provide.
I was teaching classes titled INDUSTRIALIZE YOUR FOOD SUPPLY because from reading books and articles, and from absorbing popular culture, I’d decided that factory food was the very devil itself. As my kid articulated some tenets of our inadvertent religion, I wondered why was I romanticizing those labors?
I began to research back-to-the-land movements, and learned that they first happened way before the 1960s and 70s. I discovered that community gardening had roots in the mid-1800s, as America industrialized. I interviewed people about Garden Way and Troy Bilt Rototillers and the enterprises that spun off from them – Gardens for All and Gardeners’ Supply. I wrapped all this up into a proposal for a book about food self-sufficiency that I never wrote. But I’ve never stopped thinking about the obligations that I feel about feeding my family.
These days I read a lot about home economics and the concept of home, studying history to measure my impulses. The entirety of “The Making of Home: The 500 Year Story of How Our Houses Became Our Homes” by Judith Flanders is intriguing, and this paragraph really struck me.
“But with the arrival of store-bought flour, low-rise breads became food for the poor, or slaves, while yeast-breads were what every family would have if they could. Yeast breads involve far more time, labor and planning: flour could be bought in bulk and then stored, but a trip to buy it had become necessary:…”1
The low-rise breads referred to were cornmeal cakes. This echoes Sylvester Graham’s prescriptions for the right bread, which I wrote about here. I’ve also read about technological advances twisting social expectations in “The Baking Powder Wars” by Linda Civitello, but each time I encounter my myths and shoulds about baking bread and cooking in general, I am surprised. How can I separate what I’m doing from the ideas I absorb about what I should do? Are you canning diligently or joyfully? What emotions do you feel when you’re baking bread? Do any of these many questions simmer in you, too? Please tell!
On the cusp of love and obligation,
Flanders, Judith. (2014). The Making of Home: The 500 Year Story of How Our Houses Became Our Homes. Thomas Dunne Books. Page 112.