Figuring out first-hand food
I always thought of myself as a city mouse, but it wasn’t until I left Manhattan for a very rural part of Cape Cod that I realized I didn’t know jack about mice.
Three years ago my husband Kevin and I traded in our Upper West Side condo for two wooded lakeside acres and a house that puts the ‘shack’ in ramshackle. When we moved in, we discovered that we had insects taking up residence in our floor joists. We had woodpeckers bent on turning our siding into Swiss cheese. And, naturally, we had mice.
But we also had land. Land!
I’ve been a food writer for nigh-on two decades but, until we moved to the country, just about everything that I cooked, ate, and wrote about had passed through someone else’s hands. But having land meant we could put an end to all that. Land means food!
We can grow it, we can raise it, we can fish for it in our back yard! We’ll garden, we’ll compost, we’ll can! We’ll hunt, we’ll gather! Primitive peoples have been doing it since time began —how hard can it be?
The answer, of course, is really bloody hard. You have to get up early, and spend your days doing dirty, difficult jobs. You have to battle the elements and the insects. You have to know things like whether your soil is acidic or alkaline and what kinds of bugs trout eat in April and which mushrooms have “death” in their name. The spirit was willing but the skill set was weak.
What I needed was a goal. A reasonable, achievable goal to give my efforts some structure. Just such a goal occurred to me, coincidentally, on New Year’s Day of 2009. I thought it was a pretty good idea, so I ran it by my husband. “Honey,” I said, “do you think we can go the whole year and eat one thing every day that we grow or fish or hunt or gather?”
Kevin is always supportive of me and my work, likes the idea of living off the land, and is possessed of an irrepressible can-do attitude. “Not a chance,” he said.
Not a chance?
“What are we going to eat all winter?”
He had a point, and those first few months are still referred to in our house as the Winter of Clams — shellfish being just about the only food available for harvest on Cape Cod in February. As spring approached, though, our efforts widened, and so did our horizons.
Beginning on that first day of January, 2009, we have eaten something we’ve procured first-hand every single day, and I’ve been chronicling our efforts at my blog, Starving off the Land. We’ve built a chicken coop and raised a flock of hens. We’ve installed two beehives in our backyard. We’ve taken heroic measures to amend the sand that passes for soil in our part of the world so we can grow things to eat. We’ve raised our own Thanksgiving turkey. We haven’t shot a deer yet, but we’re trying. We fish, we shellfish, we lobster, and we’re Cape Cod’s newest oyster farmers.
I’ve learned a lot since I left New York. I know how to drive a boat, how to handle a shotgun, how to break a broody hen. I can split wood, slaughter turkeys, use power tools. Along the way, I’ve talked to other fishermen, hunters, and gardeners, and the thread that runs through all their efforts is the profound satisfaction of harvesting food first-hand. If you catch it, grow it, find it, or shoot it yourself, it’s more than just dinner; it’s an accomplishment.
We tend to put food acquisition in distinct categories. Gardening is different from beekeeping, raising chickens is different from catching bluefish. But the life-long hunter has something important in common with the first-time gardener, and it’s that moment when you put the fruits of your labors on the table.
Do you know that feeling? The satisfaction of knowing that you coaxed that food out of the soil, or the sea, or the woods, that you spent time outdoors getting wholesome, healthful food to feed yourself and your family? That’s what’s at the heart of first-hand food, and it’s a feeling I never knew as a city-dweller.
I think I’ll stay for a while.