Introduction by Kerridwen Harvey
In 1969, Jocelyn “Josh” Harvey, born in the American Midwest, moved to a farm outside of Barry's Bay, Ontario, with her husband, David Harvey, who, ever the punster, dubbed the farm Gopherwood, and their one-year-old daughter Kerridwen. There, the two former full-time English professors who taught in upstate New York, embarked on a politically motivated project of "living off the land" — or attempting to do so.
Part 1 sets the context and recounts the author’s struggles through her first winter on the farm.
Spring Brings Food-Foraging Relief
When spring finally arrived, as slowly as it can when you are desperately hankering to eat fresh greens, we did a crash course in wild foods and discovered which of these were most appetizing. Sheep’s sorrel, winter cress and fiddleheads were up first, and are quite good. Plantain and burdock came next, and, when we could find them, morel mushrooms were sensationally tasty.
None of the other greens, we thought, were as good as young dandelions, picked well before they blossom. These we had in such abundance that we could easily eat them cooked or in a salad twice a day, in fact, that we relish them now even when money allows us to buy salad greens all winter long.
Euell Gibbons cites many excellent dandelion recipes in Stalking the Wild Asparagus. He translates the Latin name of the dandelion as “the official remedy for disorders,” with good reason. Dandelions have more calcium per cup than milk, they are fairly strong in vitamin C, higher in iron than virtually any other plant source, and tremendous providers of vitamin A — in all cases better for you than spinach. And they are surprisingly subtle and wonderful cooked or raw, if you pick them before blossoming and cut them properly, just below ground level, so that you get the crown (the best eating portion) and can clear off the root and shake out dead grass clinging to the leaves.
A year later we were to spend a good month depending heavily on dandelions, for though we had put in a successful garden the previous summer, we ran out of vegetables in the spring and had to survive on eggs, milk, cheese, potatoes, and dandelions for four weeks. I can’t help but find the dandelion a miraculous vegetable — and the fact that it is weeded or sprayed in certain communities is a terrific insult to its remarkable qualities.
An Expanding Garden, Black Flies, and How to Store the Harvest
The second summer we had every possible incentive to put in a large garden. The plot we dug and seeded was about 100 feet by 35 feet. Each following year for three years we added about 25 square feet to this initial garden. Our soil was moderately welcoming, sandy loam, certainly tillable, but filled with Scotch grass and countless rocks, small, medium and immense, and pieces of the formidable Canadian Shield thrust upward.
We had no tractor in those days, so the whole patch, after being plowed, had to be slowly cleared by hand, in the height of what in our parts is “the black fly season”. There is probably no other way to deal with that damnable Canadian nuisance, unless you either stay in the city or go to the country dressed in the Eskimo’s remarkable bug-season attire, than to have to put a garden in.
If you’ve chosen to go for a walk in the woods when the Canadian spring finally comes, you’re likely to find yourself turning red, itchy, and impendingly bulbous and grotesque — and run home as fast as possible. Why not? On a walk one expects friendly treatment. In a subsistence farm garden, one expects, by God, the worst, and the worst, therefore, is relatively painless. Anyway, when else can you put in a garden except at the height of the black fly season?
All summer long our neighbouring Polish farmers, who had been born and raised in the vicinity, wore their green shirts buttoned at wrist and neck, heavy work pants, and boots (and, I always suspected, long johns as well) — their version of Eskimo clothing. We must have looked like city dandies to them, for, no matter how thick the flies, we couldn’t bring ourselves to such uncomfortable extremes of self-protection. In fact, we got by without even using bug spray until our fifth year, when a grant gave us a good deal more money — we softened measurably — and the bugs became more bothersome.
The garden grew something of almost everything. The exceptions were chancy plants like melons, peppers, eggplant and artichokes — non-essentials, really, and even they might mature another year in a plastic greenhouse. We concentrated on potatoes and green vegetables, especially several sorts of lettuce (Romaine, escarole, chicory and leaf lettuce, all much more interesting and nutritious than iceberg), but rural Ontario is perfectly suitable also for crops in the cabbage family, and so far we have never had any problem getting plenty of warmer-weather vegetables like tomatoes, corn, squashes and pumpkins.
One year we harvested 141 winter squashes and pumpkins, and the real problem was how to give them away. Some of our best discoveries were accidental, though other people had made the same discoveries much earlier. Brussels sprouts make fine eating if frozen in the field and harvested when they are to be eaten. Parsnips and carrots overwintered in the garden are especially sweet. That unusual, delicious plant kale, which rivals dandelions nutritionally, keeps firm and crunchy long after it is heaped with straw and covered with snow. We dug it out when we needed it in mid-winter, and it kept us in green salads or fresh cooked vegetables for months.
Our reading introduced us to the marvelous weed every gardener knows at least by sight, lambs’ quarters or pigweeds, which come up with dull green, nearly four-sided leaves, often with a purplish cast on the underside when young. They belong to the spinach and beet family and are a bit like spinach in flavour, thought milder. Nutritionists claim they are highly valuable greens. We grew to eating them in salads when they were no more than four inches high and cooking them when they grew larger. Frozen they were more luscious than any other green. Our younger child, John, born while we lived on the farm, ate them pureed all during his first summer and thrived on them.
Abundance at Last
With the garden produce frozen, canned or dried and with our new-found affluence in the shape of a hundred-dollar monthly check, we found the next winters more comfortable. Our list of stores read like a page from an old farmhouse cookbook: turnip and beet greens, Swiss chard, collards, kale and lambs’ quarters; canned tomatoes and pickles; homemade jams; frozen and canned apple sauce, berries and rhubarb.
A few years later, when we had built a root cellar, it held potatoes, carrots covered with sand, beets and turnips, cabbage and Chinese cabbage with their roots planted in soil, such wine or brandied liqueur as was “making”, and maple syrup put up in old sherry bottles.
In the house there were dried herbs and teas and dried mushrooms Dave gathered from the spruce forests nearby as he learned how to distinguish edible mushrooms and found out which were the most delicious. The chanterelles and boletus mushrooms, which grew in great quantities in our region if the season is fairly wet, excel store-bought mushrooms as much as wild strawberries excel the pithy, dried-out cultivated kind, but of course they required close attention and a great deal of patience to learn and to find.
We continued to ration our meat-buying parsimoniously. Perhaps twice a month we ate meat, aside from an even more occasional chicken, too old for egg-laying and vastly in need of long stewing in a pot heavily laced with garlic and herbs. Once a friend of ours moved in to the valley and decided to raise goats and a milk cow, we had fresh milk as well, and invaluable experience, because they were a rare, almost inimitable combination of gourmets and health food experts.
That combination once seemed implausible: between Gourmet magazine and soybean cookery there was nothing in common. The health food buff scorned gourmet cooking as decadent — all those wasteful calories, that unnecessary display, that overcooking, all those sauce disguises. The gourmet scarcely acknowledged the existence of most health food cooks, those people who seemed to think if you boiled all kinds of fresh vegetables in water you a decent soup, and not just vegetable water, at the end.
But in the last years I seem to have noticed a change in these attitudes. People shopping for wheat germ and mung beans are increasingly likely to be fine cooks. They are usually not wealthy but often solidly middle-class. They are interested in health as well as economy and good food. (Unfortunately, it is precisely among the poor that nutritional information is least distributed, so that the people who need most to learn how to budget and yet eat well have no ready informant at hand.)
Our cooking at the farm came to resemble a combination, harmonious on the whole, of instincts from both “gourmet” and health food traditions. On the one hand, our foods were as fresh and nutritious as possible, and our use of recipes was pretty eclectic: If we didn’t have an ingredient, chances were we couldn’t afford it, so it had to be omitted or something else substituted for it. If the missing ingredient was an herb or an onion, the substitution was easy — you ended up with a slightly different dish, but the difference might be appealing and wasn’t likely to be entirely unsuitable.
Most of our soups we called, ambiguously, “garbage soup” because they were concocted of yesterday’s leftovers. Some of them were barely acceptable, some of them were delicious. (Even the delicious ones, alas, were unrepeatable.) In times past, I have also ransacked cookbooks for eggless, milkless, or butterless recipes and found or devised them. None was ever very satisfying, but in needy times one’s demands lessen. And one becomes frantically “imaginative”: I have made cookies with leftover marmalade when I had no sugar, with extra flour in place of eggs, with skim milk and butter in place of cream, but my strangest concoctions usually substituted wild greens for cultivated ones.
The most outlandish was Dandelion Omelet (in place of spinach); it was a deadly mistake, but lambs’ quarters, we found, made a lovely substitute in the same dish. Like all subsistence farmers, we specialized in certain foods too when they were in season, sometimes eating so much of them we became satiated.
I remember once going to a communal party of “country freaks” during the late fall. Everyone there had brought an apple dish – there must have been fifteen or twenty of them, apple dumplings, apple cobbler, apple jelly, baked apples, apple bread, apple muffins, and several apple pies. I couldn’t touch any of them. All I could think of was how dearly I would love a hot dog and a good cold potato salad.
Eating Well Cheaply Using Traditional Kitchen Skills
As we gradually got our feet under us — learned how to grow food and how much to grow, how to preserve foods, what we had to buy for our satisfaction as much as health — we were able to eat very well indeed. We cooked all our own baked goods, made yogurt and cottage cheese, and sprouted beans, of course, but we also learned how to make homemade noodles and tortillas and flat breads.
The pasta machine I bought from an Italian grocery store for under $30, was worth its weight in gold, because we all loved Italian food, and noodles homemade are as superior to “bought’ noodles as homemade bread it to store bread. The machine pays for itself very quickly, too, for your need only 2 cups of flour and two or three eggs for a batch of spaghetti or lasagna that feeds a family of four. The tortillas, put together from nothing but corn flour, wheat flour and water, allowed up to relish beans in tacos or enchiladas instead of despising them, and again, made highly nutritious and economical foods.
Eating well cheaply means, of course, cooking a great deal more than most people so far prefer, but we may all have to learn how to do some fundamental cooking if the prices of foods and the world food situation continue to deteriorate. What can a city cook learn from the country person’s experience?
First, of course, if garden space is available, even a little of it, plant some seeds, whatever you love most or find most costly to buy. Even a small plot can appreciably decrease food costs during the summer, and the bigger the plot the better, providing you can take care of it and preserve what you don’t use immediately.
Second, buy fresh fruit and vegetables in season, in place of more expensive canned or processed foods. If you are willing to go a bit further, investigate bulk-buying of flour, oil, rice, etc. from cooperatives or health food stores. In bulk these places are often cheaper than supermarkets and have more nutritious products available.
Stretch your meat-buying by combining small amounts of meat or dairy products with pasta, rice or bread. The animal proteins supplement the deficiencies in grain protein, and make a whole protein count that is larger than the sum of its parts. Such recent cookbooks as Diet for a Small Planet and Recipes for a Small Planet from Ballantine and The Meatless Oxfam Cookbook from Oxfam Canada, explain how to obtain a proper protein allowance without meat. Look into Euell Gibbons and other wild food experts for plants which may be available in waste places near your home or in the country. Outside my city apartment as I write is an ugly vacant lot which has at least six types of edible plants growing wild.
The difference between a costly habit of eating and a more economical one often depends on whether you invest money or time in your food. Most patterns of modern living require an investment of money, but not time, and they depend on our belief that time is the one commodity we don’t have (partly because we are spending the time earning money!). For a city person earning a salary, this cycle is not completely escapable — but many of us, men as well as women, do have time, and using it to grow a garden, bake a loaf of bread, or prepare a real meal can be a thoroughly exhilarating experience.
Jocelyn “Josh” Harvey was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and accomplished arts administrator and advocate, working for many years at the Canada Council for the Arts. This story is provided to MOTHER EARTH NEWS by Josh’s daughter, Kerridwen Harvey.
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