Seasonality and Natural Rhythms: Why Growing and Preserving Your Own Food Matters
When I think about food preservation, I have a mental image of Laura Ingalls Wilder as a young girl, playing with her doll among piles of pumpkins in the log cabin buried under Wisconsin snow. I imagine the braided strings of onions, bunches of herbs tied in the rafters, sausages hanging along a wall, jars of pickles and jam.
I always had a sense that growing at least some of your own food was a normal thing to do, and in conjunction, that food preservation was a normal thing for people to do even though neither was a definite marker of my annual rhythms growing up.
We had fruit trees growing up: plum, apricots, orange, peach, pear, apples. Some years, my mom kept a garden. (Some years, when she didn't want to garden, the cherry tomatoes propagated themselves and popped up unannounced, to my delight.) There were always summer snacks growing in the yard.
I remember my dad making jam when I was a kid. I was young enough that I mostly remember that jam happened, that it was tasty, and that it was sometimes messy and splattery—none of the specifics of the process. I remember jars of strawberry jam lining the top of our cupboards. I remember a delicious batch of grape jelly, from grapes grown along the fence in our backyard.
There were a couple years that my parents used a small dehydrator to make various kinds of dried fruit and fruit leather—I remember the chewy banana chips and apricot fruit leather best. My mom says it was too small of a machine to be very helpful, since we tended to eat everything as soon as it was done. With that in mind, when Randy and I bought a dehydrator this summer, we got a big one. It has 9 trays, about 15 square feet of drying space.
The seasonality of gardens and preserving produce
I appreciate that growing and preserving our own food has a seasonality to it. We grow, we eat what's in season, we preserve what we don't eat, we eat the preserves, we start growing again. Although our garden is relatively small on the scale of everything we eat all year, it contributes to the natural rhythm of the year. It brings us closer to nature, the patterns of weather, the turning of the earth and its revolutions around the sun, the cycles of the year.
Over the summer, I read Little House in the Big Woods aloud to my 4-year-old. The book spends so much time talking about food and the change of seasons: hunting, smoking meat, Pa finding a bee tree, harvest, turning maple sap into syrup. So much of that seasonality has disappeared from modern life. Our grocery stores have the same foods year round, and while prices may fluctuate a little based on seasonality, there's little rhythm and little variation.
I think humans need some amount of rhythm. We need to be connected to the natural world. (There are entire books about how we need to get out in nature more.)
For our part, we try to make our daily activities reflect the season. We spend far more time outside in the late spring, summer, and early fall: playing, planting, gardening, harvesting, raking leaves. We spend far more time inside on colder, darker winter days: drawing, painting, baking, reading, making. We try to eat foods that are in season: garden salads, then apple pies, then pumpkin breads. Winter soups versus piles of fresh fruit and berries. This summer, for instance, we picked blueberries at a local farm three separate times. Each time, we hauled back close to ten pounds of blueberries, which we ate in about a week.
This year's food preservation
Our garden produces more herbs and produce than we can eat in the summer. We preserve what we don't eat. This year, we replicated our favorite jams (lots of rhubarb jam!), we tried new recipes for pickles and relish, and we put our new dehydrator to work.
Most of our canning this year was jam: nearly 10 gallons of jam! As I discussed last week, we got a lot of rhubarb, plums, and cucumbers from the garden, but not as many tomatoes.
- Strawberry rhubarb jam (our rhubarb plus berries from the store, or picked locally)
- Mixed berry rhubarb jam
- Dill pickle relish (homegrown cucumbers, dill, and coriander)
- Apple jam (picked locally)
- Roasted tomatoes (from the garden)
The first batch of apple jam was a surprise. In mid-September, we were going for a walk one morning and happened upon a sign proclaiming, "free apples!" We followed the sign to a wheelbarrow parked in someone's front yard, full of apples.
We took some apples home. We made jam and will be taking a jar over to the house as thanks for sharing their excess of apples.
We also picked apples at a local orchard in the early fall, bringing home around sixty pounds. We made more jam, apple crisp, and ate a bunch—ever since the orchard, our 4-year-old has been eating apples for breakfast.
I wanted to learn how to ferment things this year. Sauerkraut sounded like a easy place to start. Because I didn't plant cabbage this year, I chopped up a store-bought cabbage. If our sauerkraut experiment was successful, I figured I could try growing cabbage next year.
To make the process easy for a beginner fermenter, we got two mason jar lids specially designed for fermenting, with tiny holes in the lids to let out gas, and springs to press the cabbage down into the brine. One large cabbage filled two quart-size mason jars. That first batch is done, but we haven't tasted the results yet. Stay tuned.
I also tried making pickles. I got a lacto-fermented pickle recipe from a friend. They've been on the counter for a couple weeks. They're probably done. We'll have to have a tasting day soon.
Drying and dehydrating
The past two years, I only dried herbs and a small batch of tomatoes. This year, we bought a dehydrator.
The first foods I dehydrated were bananas and tomatoes. I like the chewy leathery banana chips (store bought are always so crunchy), so it was fun to make those. Dehydrating tomatoes was more efficient than I expected—the trays hold a lot! If I turned the dehydrator on in the evening, it was ready by morning.
I dried some zucchini. I'm not sure what I'll do with it: snack on it as is? Make soup or casserole? We'll see.
We dried some apples: wedges, circles. We made cinnamon-sugar apple peel chips with all the peels leftover from making jam.
I dried ginger, which I plan to use in winter teas.
I either microwave-dried or air-dried most of my herbs in small batches for cooking and tea (basil, oregano, thyme, sage, marjoram, dill, chives, peppermint, lemon balm, etc). I did try putting some in the dehydrator. While it was nice for the amount per batch, it took far longer, and I had to put one of the mesh tray liners on top of the leaves to prevent the dehydrator's fan from blowing the leaves around too much.
In conjunction with the dehydrator, we got a vacuum sealer, so we're properly sealing up all our dehydrated foods in plastic vacuum sealed bags. As it turns out, dried apples are pointy; we learned the hard way that we should wrap the apples in something (like a brown paper bag) prior to putting them in the vacuum bag—fewer punctures that way.
All in all, it's been a fun season. I'm looking forward to eating homemade jam on pancakes all winter!