Sunday, January 8, 2012

Streak of lean.

The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery © Ryan Schierling
The beginning of a new year is a devilishly potent time for reassessment. First, after the whirlwind that is the holidays, it's finally time to take a breath, reevaluate and regroup. Second, it's the one time of year you are forced to look back at your finances (if for no other reason, to file your taxes), consider your actions and examine your priorities for the coming year. If you keep record of your income and expenses using a computer, you may run reports which either highlight your budget achievements, or glaringly expose your weaknesses.

Little surprise, but our weakness is food. We are bad planners when it comes to meals, too. We indulge our cravings, and when we are inspired to cook something, we try to capitalize on that creative energy as immediately as possible. We don't typically buy expensive ingredients, but this habit of following our whim often prevents us from making best use of leftover ingredients. Too often we are on to the next fun thing before we've finished what we just made, and there are times our refrigerator looks like six people live here and cook completely independently.

Our disparate schedules further inhibit our ability to plan. We don't have your typical work week with regular weekends off together. In fact, it can be a week-to-week surprise. The one day we usually have free together is a day we would rather go out and play than plan detailed menus and budget for the week ahead.

When we long for more time to accomplish it all, we recognize in ourselves how deeply we value the traditional arts of homemaking or homesteading. Some things – like saving money by doing everything from scratch – have inherent rewards, but they really do take more time, availability and patience to fully commit to in an ongoing way. For example, we would love to have chickens and would enjoy stretching into more complex baking, but we limit ourselves to what we are confident we can do justice. Right now that means simply tending a generous but very low-maintenance herb garden, several pea-patch sized raised beds for vegetables and an old-school compost heap we call Marjorie. It is these simple connections we've cultivated which elevate our experience of food with little time and expense.

This week seemed the right time to pull our 1984 paperback edition of The Firefox Book of Appalachian Cookery off the shelf and take a few moments for a mental "reset." This is one of my most treasured cookbooks. Not so much for the recipes – though there is a recipe for vinegar pie that I'm planning to try – but for the stories. It is simply a wonderful read. Personal accounts of generations-old ways of growing, preserving and bringing food to the table are refreshingly told in their own words. I envy the riches of time and intimacy with these seasonal food preparations inherent in this way of life. And I am in awe of the tremendous work and unique skills required to get it right every year. The very thought of having a season's labor spoil is heartbreaking.

Modern amenities are relative. © The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery
While we may daydream of more time for planning and tending our household, we are epically thankful for our modern gas range, running hot water and the convenience of reliable refrigeration. Our kitchen may be tiny, but next time I'm tempted to grumble because I can't find the space to set a second baking sheet, I can open this book and meditate on the images of humble kitchens where thousands of loaves of bread and biscuits have been baked in an oven heated by devotedly-tended coals.

Our aspirations are not lost. We are only inspired anew to be more conscientious about doing more with less while putting food on our table that is both delicious and appealing to the eye. It is the age old quandary of "time versus money," and finding a lifestyle that balances these needs successfully is an inexact science, at best.

Will we try fried squirrel and churn our own butter? Probably not. Seek more adventures with regional food sources and a bit of local foraging? It's the least we can do.

So, we start this year endeavoring to make beautiful food that won't break the bank. We may have to forego curing fatback in the shed, but we'll gussy up simple whole ingredients and basic pantry items with our own proverbial "streak of lean" – like fresh basil or rosemary from the herb garden. Maybe some of this intention will stick long enough that a year from now we'll be able to take pride in how creatively we've utilized our resources, and how wisely we've invested our time.

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