A few years after the end of World War II, M.F.K. Fisher rewrote the preface to How to Cook a Wolf, a book she’d written during the height of rationing.Â In it she wrote, “There are very few men and women, I suspect, who cooked and marketed their way through the past war without losing forever some of the nonchalant extravagance of the Twenties. They will feel, until their final days on earth, a kind of culinary caution: butter, no matter how unlimited, is a precious substance not lightly to be wasted; meats, too, and eggs, and all the far-bought spices of the world, take on a new significance, having once been so rare. And that is good, for there can be no more shameful carelessness than with the food we eat for life itself.”
As a 21st-Century locavore, several things about what she wrote jump out at me:
1. Notice that the first three foods she names are animal products. Readers of this blog will know that I am not a vegetarian by any stretch of the imagination. But if you’ve been getting all of your butter, milk, cheese, eggs, and meat from local, hopefully organic and pastured animals as I have, then you know that they are the priciest items on the local foods menu. And that’s as it should be, because they are more resource-intensive to raise and care for, even when pastured. The heavily subsidized low prices of commercial meats gloss over that fact (not to mention the ghastly realities of commercial meat production. Watch The Meatrix).
None of which means I’m giving up my animal foods. But I am eating less of them because I refuse to eat the cheap, unhealthy, environmentally destructive subsidized versions, and I don’t have an unlimited budget for the alternative.
So butter, eggs, and meat have become precious ingredients to me just as they were to M.F.K. or those cooks she mentions who were forever impacted by the years of WWII rationing.
2. Frugality. We’re bombarded with headlines about the tanking economy right now, telling us that the wolf is at the door. But so far I don’t think the need to make do with less has really seeped into our daily lives. Maybe people use the car less often, or aren’t planning to buy as many holiday gifts. But what about the kind of hard core getting-by techniques M.F.K. wrote about, such as saving the juice from canned fruits and vegetables to reuse or add to recipes?
On the local foods front, the high gas prices and tumbling economy may tip some fence-sitters over towards the need for local foods…someday. For now, Mickey D’s is cheaper than a CSA membership, and for those who are truly feeling the wolf at the door, subsidized factory food may be the only affordable option. Sustainable? Not in the long run (see Michael Pollan’s piece in today’s NY Times). But when the wolf is at your door, you may not be thinking about the long run. So sadly, under the current system of farm subsidies (which we pay for, by the way) economic hard times are more likely to send people to the nearest fast food strip mall than to the farmers’ market.
I have no words of wisdom to offer, but I do have a recipe for you.
(And you might want to read The Cost Factor for some ideas on how to buy local foods while on a budget)
SAVING STUFF FOR STOCK
Whether you eat meat or not, freeze vegetable scraps in freezer bags or containers to make stock. These can include the tough greenest parts of leeks and scallions, heel ends of onions, ends of carrots, tough parts of fennel bulbs, parsley and other herb stems. If you do eat meat, poultry, or fish, save the bones in separate, labeled bags or containers, and just add the veg scraps as you have them. When a container is full, make stock.
I like to use the slow-cooker, covered, on low, but you can also make stock over low heat on the stove. Cover your scraps and bones with water. If you like, add some additional herbs (a few bay leaves and peppercorns are traditional). Bring to a bare simmer (do not allow to boil or you will have a cloudy stock). For vegetable stock, 2 hours is enough. If there are bones in there, I like to let them cook all day or overnight. A splash of vinegar added to bone stock releases calcium, making the finished product more nutritious (you don’t taste the vinegar after the stock has simmered for a while).
Strain and either freeze or can your stock for future use. If canning, remember that both vegetable and meat stocks must be pressure canned. You cannot safely preserve them with a boiling water bath (if you don’t have a pressure canner, opt for freezing instead). Process pint jars for 20 minutes at 10 lbs. of pressure.
In How to Cook a Wolf, M.F.K. describes a comment her grandmother made after sitting silently through a long conversation about how to make ends meet in war time:
“Finally my grandmother folded her knitting and then her hands, which was unusual for her because she believed that no real lady’s fingers should ever be idle.
‘Your conversation is very entertaining, indeed,” she said with somewhat more than her ordinary dryness…’It interests me especially, my dears, because after listening to it this afternoon I see that ever since I was married, well over fifty years ago, I have been living on a war budget without ever realizing it! I never knew before that using common sense in the kitchen was stylish only in emergencies.’”
Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch: A Memoir with Recipes by Leda Meredith