“Hey, we were planning on getting together later today, right?” I asked my friend.
“Yeah, but after dinner.”
“Can we push that back to later in the week?” I was exhausted from Can-o-Rama and the idea of a social commitment after dinner was more than I could handle.
“Sure. What’s up?”
“I’m pretty tired. I stayed up until 2 in the morning yesterday wrapping up a weekend of canning.”
“Um….why?!?” my friend laughed.
I muttered something about trying to have my year’s supply of canned tomatoes be home-canned.
“Wow, ok. You’re really crazy!”
Why? Why do I do this?
I ask myself this question with some frequency, actually. When I have a list of a million things that all need doing and very short windows of time in which to do them, I ask myself what the point of playing urban farmer really is.
Chickens, crops, children, canning, cooking – not necessarilly in that order.
Chickens, crops, cooking and canning are entirely optional (children are optional too, I suppose, but only before you have them). Most people don’t do these things. I have realized this lately. Most people don’t even cook. Maybe they heat stuff up, but balls-to-the-wall, from-scratch cooking? That’s more unusual than the popularity of cookbooks and Food TV shows and cooking blogs would lead you to believe.
Most people consider real, honest-to-God, from-scratch food to be entertainment, not a thrice-daily reality.
So, why? Why can my own tomatoes? Why grow my own lettuce? Why make my own deodorant? Why use cloth diapers on my son? Why cook from scratch? Why check the thrift store first?
In a nutshell: why voluntarily take on the complications and efforts of the productive home when the economic system I live in means I simply don’t have too? Why make life harder?
There’s a lot of answers to that question floating around the world of the self-proclaimed Radical Homemakers, Urban Householders and Punk Domestic badasses.
A lot of the answers are political-economic. You’ll hear that we owe it to local farmers to source directly from them and provide them with a market for their goods. You’ll hear that rejecting industrial food undermines soul-less corporate interests and is, therefore, a radical political statement. At the micro-economic level you’ll hear about the money that can be saved if you can your own tomatoes (a dubious claim unless your garden is putting out a lot of excellent-quality canning tomatoes).
There’s rallying cries about supporting different markets – local markets, sustainable markets, alternative markets. Anything but the international, corporate-dominated, local-to-nowhere market we currently enjoy.
“Occupy your food supply! Make your own jam!”
“Be prepared for Zombies! Grow a garden!”
“Take out insurance against Midwestern crop failures – support your local farmers!”
These claims are how the lifestyle of the productive home is sold. They say: be a part of something bigger. Be a part of a movement. Help to change the world. Join our gang, we jump you in with homemade scones and really delicious bing cherry jam. You’ll love our global fight for justice! We wage our battle at at the fair-trade, shade-grown coffee shop!
All these motivations are very good reasons to attempt to make your home a place of greater productivity and less consumption. And I’m not saying the world couldn’t use a little changing.
But all that political spitfire, as much as I enjoy it occasionally, isn’t really why I do any of this. I don’t bake my own bread to fuck over Wonder Bread (owned by Hostess) or can my own tomatoes to stick it to Muir Glen (owned by General Mills).
While I do have some grave concerns about the just-in-time food distribution system that connects most people with their calories, I don’t expect hoards of zombies to suck my brains out or neighbors to take my butternut squash at gunpoint any time soon.
The drought in the Midwest is bad. It’s going to be very, very bad for farmers and ranchers and very bad for companies and consumers that rely on cheap cereal grains and products made from them. It’s going to cost taxpayers a bundle, even though most will have no idea that they are paying for it, and the knock-on to the supply/demand curve will send grocery prices higher more-or-less across the board.
But that has almost nothing to do with why I visit the farmer’s market, or buy boxes of fruit in season from the family farmer just over the mountains in Central Washington.
Really, I can my tomatoes, make jam, keep chickens, bake bread and – perhaps most consumingly – grow a rather large garden – because I enjoy doing these things. Even if once a year in late August that means a few late-nights in front of the canning pot, I still enjoy this life.
I think, against the backdrop of big reasons why productive homekeeping is A Very Important Movement and all that, the simple pleasures that come from nurturing and creating in the home are sometimes lost.
When we feel like we are obligated to do something, because doing that thing is how we make our political statement in a world gone mad, or keep our families safe against unseen, unknown, and as-yet-unrealized threats, or protect our assets against the vagaries of a complicated global economic system, we are acting from fear or from anger.
We are stretching out our hand to try to take some measure of control back from that which seems so out-of-control.
We are saying with clenched fist, “You and your peak oil and BPA and your global banking crisis and your housing collapse and your high-fructose-corn-syrup, pink-slime, diabetes-nation food system, you can push me into the dirt. But I will rise back up and when I do, I’ll be holding these homegrown, organic cantaloupes, motherfucker! Yeah!”
There’s nothing wrong with this, to a point. Anger that changes behaviors and fear that motivates people to examine their deep values can be a catalyst for great and positive change. But at the end of a long, long, long day of canning, or weeding, or sowing, something greater than fear and anger has to carry you along.
After 16 hours of processing tomatoes, if you have the energy to be fist-raising, passionately upset about anything, you should look really into anger management classes.
Nah, when push comes to shove, you have to do this stuff because you like it. You have to like patiently reducing strawberry syrup to get just the right texture in your jam. You have to like bullshitting with farmers and ranchers and going out on field trips to where the food is grown. You have to get a small thrill when you harvest an egg that is still warm, or find yourself covered with sticky gold from the beehives you’ve helped along.
You have to be in love with the miracle that is a sqush seed – no bigger than a fingernail but able to produce 100s of pounds of food in a single summer with only a little help from you, the gardener. You have to find a certain calm prayerfulness in the act of working your earth, even as your To Do list presses in on you ceaselessly.
You have to love food enough to work for it, and not in an abstract trade-space kind of way. Not in the, “An hour writing this code for the latest version of Microsoft Excel pays me enough to buy a month’s worth of hamburgers on the road!” kind of way.
You have to be okay getting your hands dirty, and your brow sweaty, and your forearms scratched from the cuts of a thousand blackberry brambles. You have to not just survive that kind of labor, but revel in it.
Right now, we do have a choice – those #10 cans of tomatoes are cheap and easy to buy. Those pears from Argentina are available in June. That feedlot ground beef is on special for $2.49-a pound. McDonalds is on the way and Hot Pockets and Lean Cuisines are in the freezer section.
So why go to all that trouble? Why not run out and grab a can of crushed tomatoes and a jar of jam right alongside the Lean Cuisines and Hot Pockets?
Because I have a pantry that reflects a summer spent in relaxing work and joyful creation.
Because cooking dinner makes me proud.
Because the food is delicious.
Because this kind of work makes me happy.
That’s why. And that’s enough.
Why do you do it?13
Elin above mentioned a connection to ‘The Ancient Ones’ and I totally feel this 🙂 It is easy, during internet research, to get sucked in to other people’s reasons and personal passions; BPA, Organic, Anarchy, ‘healing the gut’… but for me it comes down to this: I get a thrill each time grab something from the garden to put into our dinner. I get a thrill when I open up a jar of homemade passata to make a simple pasta sauce for dinner. I love that I can go out side today, harvest a couple of savoy cabbages and turn it into delicious kimchi. It provides me with JOY!
Very few people that I know can relate to why I do what I do. I Loved your post and reading all the comments. Fun to see other’s explanations. In my case, I know it is definitely because I love it. Being self sufficient is my hobby – the learning, creating, freshness, deliciousness as well as the connection to a rhythm of life, something bigger than me. I go further than most with having my own cow – which adds a whole ‘nuther layer of ‘why in the world would you do that?’ Same reason… I love the lifestyle, the cheese, butter, oh, and the ice cream! I love having food independent of the grocery store . I love eating fresh food and putting the rest up for later… So fun to know there are others out there like me!!
Erin @ she cooks, she gardens says
This post made my heart sing, Erica. Thank you.
I do because like you, I love it! I like making bread, seeing rise, smelling it bake and making DH a delicious sandwich. I like looking at all of those jewel colored jars of jams and fruit butters. But then again, I also like folding laundry, changing the bed with crisp clean sheets, cleaning up the kitchen each evening and stepping back and looking at the heart of my home. I always said I was born about a century to late. I love being a homemaker. I’ve never really wanted to do anything else. I was quite successful in my unchosen field by necessity, but now at the ripe old age of 53 I get to be what I’ve always wanted to be…a housewife. A housewife who makes anything I can from scratch, who knits, crochets and quilts in between house cleaning, gardening and canning projects. I’m in heaven and thankful for it every minute of every day. This is what my destiny has always been. I know it isn’t PC anymore to say these things but I think the world (especially the USA) would be a lot better off if women took care of their own children and homes. Well…that’s my 2 cents worth for the day! Happy Homemaking!
There is something so incredibly satisfying and real about it. Sometimes all the busyness can feel so meaningless, but picking a ripe tomato and popping it into my mouth, communing with the chickens, hearing my son chatter on and on about growing his own food. Those things are grounded and meaningful.
Another great post Erica. I don’t know why generally people are horrified by the commitment of growing harvesting, storing- living by the seasons- especially with a high profile ‘real’ job that takes me off farm five days a week. Then one of my colleagues will sidle up to me in the tea room and say- um, tell me how did you get all the flavour into that pie/cake/bread/OMG is that cheese you made……from a cow……..
But it is who I am. And one day I will not have to work in the corporate world for an income and I will still get up super early and do it because it’s what I do. I love it. And I do it for my kids and their kids. Setting up the structures and rhythms that will resonate with them one day just as natural a part of their lives as breathing is. These skills need to be passed along, yes that’s true; but the journey is just so so DELICIOUS!!!!! Rain, hail or shine…..it’s a satisfying life.
Calamity Jane says
Awesome, awesome. I LOVE that there are other people in the world who get off on this weird work. Having a partner who does not, however, has taught me that the other side of this revelation is that those who love it should be proud to do it, and those who don’t love it should be proud to do something THEY love. With mutual respect all around.
Glad you’re still pumpin out the good stuff. Via canned tomatoes and wise words.
Terri Jensen - Brown says
LOVE IT! I love your attitude. I love the way you approach this topic.
In reading your post, I thought to myself – why do I put myself through canning, cooking and curing my own salmon? Why do I love working in the kitchen for 4 hours to sit down exhausted with a group of friends and a *few* bottles of wine? First off, it’s the simple satisfaction of a tangible accomplishment. The fact that you did your best and put your heart and love into the food that will be nourishing those whom you love. And second- because it TASTES BETTER! I live in SF (but grew up in Seattle) and I only eat out infrequently at fancy restaurants now (and a few good cheap eats) because I know the food will be better or different than what I can prepare at home. There is no greater disappointment than dropping a shit ton of money on a meal that you could have made yourself. But you’re right, so many people think that dinner comes from a can, a take out restaurant, a microwaveable tray.
Another point, is cooking at home and preserving takes sooooo much time. I typically spent 2+ hours a night cooking and cleaning up from dinner. When you work full time (which I luckily am not currently doing), its hard to spend so much time in the kitchen.
But thank you for your blog. I love how honest, open and down to earth you are!
Seriously, you’re the best. I love the honesty.
Great post! Yes, I do it because I enjoy it. And because for me it is a creative outlet – to some it might not be as significant as their insipid watercolour or wonky piece of ceramic, but I find ‘home stuff’ as it is known in this household, to be a rewarding expression of creativity. With the added practical bonus of developing skills just in case there is a zombocalypse. Not many other creative skills will get you through that 🙂
This came around at the perfect time for me, as I stress about NEEDING to get the applesauce put up right in the middle of finals madness for summer term.
Yes, I love this life. The food that I make with my own two hands is delicious and feels respectful of all of the goodness in the world.
It gives me a purpose, creative outlet; provides food for thinking (planning, problem solving…)
Because I like my chickens happy and eggs blue and white and tan and speckled…
Because I like to grow brown cucumbers, fuzzy peach tomatoes, blue-green corn, tri-lobed green pumpkins, purple speckled beans… I like to expand my kids horizons: Orange does not define a carrot or a pumpkin; brown does not define a potato.
THis is why I love making my own jams and pickles, soaps and candles, and why I knit (and want to eventually learn to spin). It makes me happy to provide for myself and my family. It gives me joy to cook up big batches of food at my boyfriend’s house so that he and his son can have healthy, home-cooked meals when I’m not there (long-distance sucks). It gives me a thrill when my kids bite into a fresh-from-the-oven banana bread and close their eyes in delight.
That’s what makes it worth it. The fact that I’m supporting my local farmers more directly is a plus, and it also makes me proud to buy things that are produced locally (honey, cheeses, meats, etc.), but the real reason is the happiness it brings me 🙂
“Join our gang, we jump you in with homemade scones and really delicious bing cherry jam.”
I keep going back to that line and giggling…teeeheee!
Sister X says
Beautifully put! Thank you for reminding me why I spent my entire evening after work the other night canning rhubarb. 🙂 I can lose track of that in the midst of all my canning frenzy. (Carrot pickles this night, rhubarb that night, cherries, jam, peaches…ack!) But now I’m reminded that in the darkest depths of winter (which do get quite dark here), when it’s -30 or -50, it will be lovely to pull out one of those cans and make a gingered rhubarb crisp which tastes like summer. And just for a few minutes, winter won’t seem so dark and cold anymore.
How do you can your rhubarb? I always freeze in pieces for use in pies and cake, sauce etc. I can for jam only.
I’ve definitely been called a housewife more than once, and it’s often frustrating when I can’t clearly define what I do. I get condescending looks if I talk about being busy, which I’ve stopped saying when talking to family members. The look that says [B—, you don’t know what busy is!] In addition, many people can relate to the SAHM, but not *just* a radical homemaker/householder, so without having kids, I appear to be crazy. Or lazy. Or just plain avoiding ‘real life’. As a retired-after-6-years high school teacher who needed to get out of the conventional educational system, people are always saying ‘…but we really need GOOD teachers! They need you!’ Trying to explain that my brain doesn’t work right if I don’t have my hands in the soil usually gets blank stares. THANK YOU for writing a positive reminder that there are many of us, though we are spread out, and that we’re supported to keep doing this because it’s the best way we know to be happy, fulfilled, active in our communities, and supportive to our loved ones.
Sarah C. says
I LOVE this post! I just about fell out of my chair when I got the the organic cantelope portion – which isnt good since I was sitting at my cubicle! I have reached a point in my life where I believe all your reasons for doing what you do have been missing from my life. The good thing is that I have realized it and am doing my best to take strides that will allow me to be happy BECAUSE I am canning, or growing, or hatching rather than watching endless hours of foodnetwork after hours of sitting on my ass at work. Life is looking up!
I’m grateful to you for saying this. I am a farmers market manager and see folks every day who don’t know what certain fruits and vegetables are. I see it as a colossal failure on someone’s part to educate people and do the best I can to help. However, as a farm kid who did exactly what you’re doing now, there was a loooong period in my life when I wanted to turn away from all that. The work on a farm is so, so, so hard. The days are so long. You are constantly at the mercy of a million factors beyond your control. My farm-wife friend says she gets up with one plan every morning, then goes into triage mode and half the to-do list gets chucked aside. And that’s the real truth of a real farm. But everyone doesn’t have to go whole hog. Everyone, even in a tiny apartment with a balcony can do something. Grow a tomato, plant some herbs, buy in bulk to can for yourself what you cannot grow. And now, as an almost 36-year-old responsible for feeding a daughter and spouse and looking with worry at our food supply, I find that I am very strongly being pulled back around to the farm life where I started. While I will not say I am doing it out of a place of fear, I am doing it for a sense of control. I know the food I prepare my family won’t make us sick. I know I can can, I can raise chickens, I can take care of bees. I was brought up being able to do this all and so much more. Why do we rely so heavily on others to do it for us when nourishing ourselves is perhaps the most important task there is? I saw a quote from Joel Salatin today that said something like “You think the cost of organics is high? Have you priced cancer lately?” And while that seems extremist, it also rings of truth. Right now we live in town and have two small (to my eyes anyway) gardens. People comment on them all the time. If we were allowed by our town to have chickens, we’d have some as well. I may do it anyway. Let them write me a ticket. But I can see in my future the way back to a bigger yard with more time spent taking care of my own food supply. Partly because I know I need to (for 1000 reasons) but partly because there’s some peace to be found in front of the canner that I do not feel at the store. Thanks for being an inspiration.
There is a certain pride and sense of accomplishment from producing for one’s self, whether putting up food or building a set of shelves, that one does not get from spending your “hard earned money” on some item at a store. People who have never really produced anything for theirself have never felt that inner satisfaction and so have a hard time understanding it. “Mommy, look what I did!”
Yep. It makes me happy and fills me with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. It (all of it–from amending the soil to hearing the pop of the lid as the jar takes the seal) connects me to my own existence, to being alive. It makes me feel close to, and grateful for my first mother: Gaia. Those are the deep, primal, psychological reasons for it. The added benefits of being healthier, of having a smaller ecological footprint, of being able to turn away from the consumption crazy lifestyle that has become the general norm in this country… those are good, too. Oh, yeah. I do it for my kids as well; so that they have a chance to put down some emotional roots in the earth while they’re still young just by seeing where food comes from and by getting their hands dirty as they engage in the process with me. Even if they “turn away” from it all for a while, those roots will be there to anchor them later in life.
My mother made me learn how to do all of this.. I hated it, I didn’t want to do it… I thought microwaves were the new space age future. Roll forward 40 years.. Oh what an idiot I was.. Thank goodness for the lessons, as now I am addicted. The act of growing, the canning and then eating something that I planted is nectar to my taste buds. I don’t care if I have spent more money than the shops… It’s mine.. Created by me, and I am damn good at it. I don’t even mind the backache of standing next to the stove for hours waiting for the the right smells and textures to come together resulting in me taking a long, deep, chest filled breath, of heaven in a jar.
I wanted you to know that we read this article in my freshman writing seminar at UCSD, and I’ve cited it in two out of our three essays so far. I even wrote my third essay about how your method of thinking creates a hybrid between past ideals and modern practices in order to create the best thought model for the future. While I must admit the subjects you cover really don’t factor into the interests of an 18-year old boy, I enjoy your writing style and appreciate the wealth of knowledge that you share with the world. When we discussed the douche-waffle blog, I couldn’t understand why people would be so critical of you until I realized that in a way, you’re a revolutionary. You have ideas that would upset the social norm, and even though you are not trying to force them on anyone, this scares the sheep of the world. I hope you get to read this. Have a good life.
Sara B says
There are days when I have to stop and ask myself this question, when the kids have been melting down for hours and the cucumber pile looks like we haven’t touched it, no matter what the cooling jars say. I enjoy the process (usually) even on those sweltering days in August when you think you might melt from the heat, even if I don’t always like getting up the next morning after a late night canning session. I like eating stuff I made. It tastes good. I like sharing/giving gifts of what I’ve made. I have always loved being in the garden, getting my hands in the dirt, watching things grow. I love using what I have. And I love the practical, physical productiveness of all of it—as my shelves and freezers fill up, I see what I’ve done. And then I get to eat it.
Jennifer Akes says
A little over 2 years ago I lost my dad to a very rare form of cancer. He went from a 6’4″ man who radiated health and wellness to a shell of a man in less than 3 weeks. As I watched the man I had grown up and truly believed he was superman minus the cape die I came to the realization that although he did none of the “Red Flag” things that made him a likely candidate for this disease. According to his doctor at least. That something had to have caused this illness. My Dad’s weakness was ready made meals and on the go food. He was a single father for most of my life and although he loved to cook he rarely had time between working a full time plus job, as well as all of his community involvement. It wasn’t unusual for his only real meal to come at my house on Sunday. I was at the time of his illness a full time returning student pursuing my college degree. In the class I was taking at the time of his death I was required to read a book regarding our food and what was really in it, an English class if you can believe that. It made me look at my food in a whole new light. I began to learn about all of the chemicals they add to our premade foods, the antibiotics and genetically modified animals they put on our plate and the horrible conditions under which they were kept. I made an active decision that for my family and myself I didn’t want to lose another member of our family to this dreaded disease. I know rationally that Cancer can hit anyone at any time. That it can and will take whomever it chooses regardless of what steps we may take to avoid it. But it is also like standing in front of a speeding locomotion and saying I dare you to hit me. So I made a healthy lifestyle change and began raising our own food. Our first year we had 20 chickens and a small garden. I learned to can and dehydrate and how to cook from scratch. We are going into our third year with this growing season. I saw our first sprouts of the season today in our plants harvested from heirloom seeds and we now have 47 hens, 3 roos and 2 ducks (the ducks are pets not for eating by the way, Donald and Daisy Duck). I have a greenhouse in which I winter over our plants and we eat what we raise and we save our seeds for the following years crops. We aren’t large, we aren’t high tech. But we are much healthier and we share our bounty with friends and family and our community. I even have an egg run now for those who want humanely raised and pasture kept eggs that aren’t being laid by hens sitting in dark warehouses and being slaughtered as soon as their prime laying days are behind them. I have a beautiful garden that is chemical free and I have no fear when my grandchildren come for a visit and pluck a ripe tomato straight from the vine and into their mouths. I love our life. My husband works a very demanding job and helps out when he can but I raise our food. I cook our food, and I preserve our food for enjoying year round. We harvest a lot from our local countryside and nothing beats the taste of wild blackberries picked that moment of ripeness and consumed standing in the middle of a blackberry patch. I can proudly say I have had berry stained hands and berry stained lips and am loving it. Loved your blog and shared it on my wall, hopefully it will help some of my facebook friends who are convinced my train has left the station without me why I do what I do and maybe just maybe they will be motivated to take similar steps to take back their own dinner table and provide their families with the freshest and healthiest food possible.
Beautiful. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks for putting to words what I think of, but haven’t been able to express by myself. That’s why we moved to an acreage in the country, and that’s why I spend long hours digging around in the dirt outside to convert neglected pasture into a garden, rain or shine. Not because I really, really need to, but because I really, really *want* to, and enjoy all of it! And there are tomatoes in the end, which is a bonus. 🙂
Penny, or as I’m sure the neighbors call me by now, “That crazy girl next door is digging in her yard in *this* weather. Again!” 😉