How Living Sustainably Can Make Our Lives Richer: Food

I may be writing more articles on this subject because there are so many facets to living sustainably in which, though it may seem we are giving up something we need, we are actually enriching our lives. I invite others at DR to write their own articles for the blog telling of the ways in which living more simply and more sustainably can make our lives richer while at the same time reduce our impact on the planet.

Many people these days would have a hard time imagining life without refrigeration. No doubt refrigerators can be extremely useful, but somehow people managed, and even thrived, without them in the past. Over the past century, our food systems have come to rely more and more on refrigeration for preserving food, while many long-practiced traditions of food preservation have faded from our culture. Because refrigerated food can be shipped across the world and has made food production on an industrial scale easier, it has contributed to a steep decline in the diversity of unique local foods. With this loss of diversity has come a decline in flavor and nutrition. As well, modern chemical engineering has produced food additives to take the place of old methods of preservation, all part of an effort to extend the shelf life of industrially produced processed foods. Since refrigeration consumes a huge amount of energy, this trend has led to a bigger environmental footprint for our foods.

While reading my home cheesemaking book recently, I was intrigued by a recipe for a sheep’s milk cheese called Tomme d’Arles, which is a perfect example of an incredibly creative food designed by the need to preserve milk abundant during part of the year for times when milk was not available.

Cheese curd

Cheese curd for mozzarella

Though it may not seem obvious to us in our refrigerated world, cheese was traditionally a method of preserving milk. Dairy livestock had a natural cycle of breeding that meant the females were producing offspring and thus milk at a time of year that was richest in available nutrients. Milk was produced from the grazing of lush spring pasture, so cheese was made at that time to be available for eating during the rest of the year. Modern methods of diary production along with refrigeration have taken away the seasonal nature of cheesemaking, and today we can get any kind of cheese at any time of year.  But people who know good cheese know the best cheese is made from the milk produced during this spring burst of pasture growth. Our local organic dairyman down the road, who provides the milk I make my cheese with, says all his customers comment on the change in flavor of the milk when his cows are turned out to pasture in the spring after a winter of feeding on stored hay.

For Tomme d’Arles, lambs were raised on spring milk until they were sent to market in late spring, after which the cheese was made from the milk of still lactating ewes. The cheese was salted, dried, and stored in jute sacks. When you wanted to eat the cheese, you rehydrated it in a marinade of local brandy and bay leaves, then aged it in a cellar for 2-3 weeks before eating. Though the cellar is akin to a refrigerator, it uses the natural temperature of the earth to keep the cheese cool while allowing for the growth of microorganisms that add flavor to it. This cheese’s unique combination of flavors is the result of a cheesemaking practice that in no way requires refrigeration.

I mention Tomme d’Arles because it is an example of how great things can come from trying to accomplish a goal (preserving milk) without the use of fossil fuel or massive energy inputs. Those who invented this cheese, and the many thousands of cheeses in the world, were not consciously avoiding using refrigeration, because it was never available to them. But they were still able to accomplish the same goal, and in the end made a unique product that never would have come about had they been using refrigeration to preserve their milk.

Last year the Milkweed Mercantile hosted a workshop on fermented foods taught by Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation. Attendees, me included, learned about how people extended the life of vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy products without the use of strange chemicals or artificial refrigeration. One of the great things about natural methods of food preservation is that they allow us to make the most of our local foods. Instead of eating “fresh” produce or animal products grown out of season and shipped from across the world, we can eat our own local foods preserved as pickles, salted or smoked, or turned into dairy and meat products.

Tatsoi

Tatsoi

This fall I had an abundance of tatsoi, a mustard green, and to preserve it this winter, I’ve fermented it naturally in a brine (salt) solution with garlic, onions, and hot peppers. You just throw all the ingredients in a crock, or in this case a bucket, and let it sit in a cool place. No starter culture is needed as the pickle is fermented by local bacteria. This common Korean pickle, kimchi, is a traditional way of preserving fish (normally an ingredient), but it also uses Chinese cabbages and radishes. It is ready to eat in as little as 3 days, but can be stored in a crock in a root cellar for months. According to my pickling book, kimchi pickles produce bacteriocins, antibiotics that can target harmful bacteria such as listeria and botulism.

Tatsoi kimchi

Kimchi made from tatsoi

These foods are just a couple examples of the diversity of delicious creations that are the product of the need to preserve food in the absence of refrigeration. The advent of refrigeration has led to a decline in the diversity of foods and flavors available to the average person, but do not despair. You can take part in the revival and rediscovery of traditional foods that is happening today by buying them from local producers or by making them yourself. Groups like Slow Food, with their Ark of Taste, are working to bring back traditional foods and employ artisans in producing them. Even in the United States, the diversity of farmstead(regionally unique) cheeses has grown dramatically over the past decade. Just imagine a world-renowned, regionally distinct cheese called Dancing Rabbit, or even Pittsburgh,  instead of Cheddar or Brie.

To learn more about unique regional sustainable foods and food politics, I recommend BBC Radio’s Food Programme podcast.  Every time they talk about food, it is with an eye to producing it sustainably.  Though it is about British food, it is still relevant and inspiring in the US.

5 thoughts on “How Living Sustainably Can Make Our Lives Richer: Food

  1. Wow, I was thinking about that in the last months, wondering how about many food we eat was developed by our ancestors as a way to preserve it and now days we barely notice it because refrigerators. I’m so happy to know that I’m not the only one that think about such things.
    Congratulations for your way of living!

  2. Food is a very important part of my life, I have spent 15 years cooking professionally have run my run buisnesses and worked for many different food estblishments. Over the years there has been a huge decline of fresh product being used in our modern resturants. I had seen early on the influx of genitically altered foods. Imagine a potatoe the size of a football with hair all over it sounds freaky but true, was really asking alot of questions the first time i was peeling those spuds for mashed potatoes to go on the menu that night. Chickens which have been altered to produce huge chicken breats sometimes i wondered if the breast i was preparing came from a chicken that can peck your eyes out. Now more and more resturants have to lower thier costs by buying the cheaper processed foods. When i unload the truck and put away groceries I take notice where the food is comming from usually Brazil, Mexico, and other regions in South America. The other thing that concerns me with modern day farming is the lack of saving seeds anymore. Old time farmers use to save the seed from thier best plants to grow the next year. This old time practice had its benifits, the crop from generation to generation becomes more resistant to pests and conditions in the enviroment. Today farmers dont have much of a choice other than to buy from the big seed companies that have gone out and put a patent on all thier brands of seeds. Seed seperating machines well you cant find them anymore majorty of areas they are illegal to own, thanks to the wondeful lobbyist from the big seed companies. Now farmers have to buy seed that hasn’t devloped naturally from generation to generation producing natures own resistances to the surrounding enviroment. Which in turns makes farmers resort to fertilizers and pesticides to make a good crop every year. Now we have genitically altered crops that produce thier own toxins to fight off pest’s but unfortuantly these toxins don’t reconize the diffrence between a worm, a honey bee, or a butterfly. Since the widespread use of these kinds of crops Honey bees have taken a beating, more and more honey bee keepers are having to move thier hives away from farms. It is a sad thing knowing that our food supply has run out of control and our future of what we eat is being altered for thousands of years. Eventually nature will find a way to work these things out of its system. My biggest concern is the spread of pollen from these altered crops, If things dont change I can see all Organic growers having to work from inside a greenhouse to keep outside harmful pollen from contaminating the genes of thier own crops. These are big fights between farmers and the big seed companies. The big seed companies arn’t held responsible when thier pollen contaminates a crop and altering it’s genetics. Chances are when this happens the company can actaully sue you for patent infridgement because they had found thier patented gentic DNA in your crop. Well anyways I don’t mean to ramble on but i must say the Dancing Rabbit is awsome for living the way they do and educating others on reducing thier impact on the enviroment.

    • Thanks for the comment on our messed up food system. The genetic modification of food crops is a huge threat to the future of our food. Seed saving worldwide is becoming less common as people with a connection to the land are brought into a more modern lifestyle and seed production is taken over by huge corporations. Supposedly of all the wheat grown in Europe, the vast majority is of only 4 varieties, whereas there used to be thousands of land races of wheat, each adapted to its local conditions. Contamination of organic crops by GM crops is a huge problem, and one agribusiness is consciously causing because they know it will do away with their competition. I’ve recently been learning about how Colony Collapse Disorder, a disease of bees that is wiping out millions of hives worldwide, is thought to be caused by the use of systemic pesticides on conventionally grown crops. These pesticides contaminate the pollen bees collect and weaken the bee’s immune system. There is hope though. The diversity of domestic plants is being preserved by seed saving organizations like Seed Savers Exchange, who are collecting and maintaining varieties from all over the world. And if we can get the US government to outlaw systemic pesticides, like many European countries have, we might be able to preserve the honey bees in this country that are so vital to the production of food and other crops.

  3. Pingback: Sustainable Food Preservation

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