Earlier this week I wrote a rather long-winded email to a friend on the subject of seasonal food storage, which I’ve adapted some of here. It’s canning season after all, the time of year when many of us think about filling our larder.
I really think about food storage on an annual basis, with some key times in the cycle. August and September are canning months, I order meat in quantity from the local farm in October around the same time that we are butchering a deer or two from hunting season, and dry goods have a quarterly cycle depending on what’s been used. This past weekend I did my annual “inventory” of the canned goods situation, and so I’ve got my list of everything that needs putting up before this time of fresh (and less expensive) produce is over.
I have a few general principles that guide my pantry stock-up:
1) Eat and replenish your supply on the regular. Canned items and dry goods may have a long shelf life, but they aren’t particularly *good* if they sit too long in jars and bins. While it’s true that you can eat a ten-year-old quart of tomatoes to no ill effect, they will be pretty unappealing (and don’t get me started on grey peaches – no one wants to eat those). Similarly, grains like to be rotated through as they can grow stale over years even in tightly sealed buckets.
2) Only put by food you and your family will actually eat. This second principle flows from the first. I used to put up a lot of canned fruit, but then after several years realized that it never got eaten (hence, grey peaches). Ergo, I stopped wasting my time and pantry space on canned fruit (except applesauce).
3) Always be canning/dehydrating: We tend to think about canning as a summer activity, but I look for produce deals at the grocery year-round and do small batches of canning or dehydrating as it makes sense. I do small batches of stock whenever we have leftover bones or enough veggie trimmings collected in the freezer, January is marmalade season, red cabbage is always available at the grocery for pickling. This approach spreads the work out over time, and allows you to take advantage of deals that come up over the year.
Now – onto the specifics of my pantry – which I hope helps in you are thinking about your own food storage and security needs and desires:
Throughout the year I purchase dry goods in bulk through a distributor on Gabriola Island. I used to purchase them through a co-op in East Vancouver when I lived there. If you don’t have a bulk distribution service where you live, I understand that many grocery stores will do special orders, and your local grain mill likely also has 10kg and larger bags of oats/wheat/barley for sale. Point being, there are sources for bulk goods but sometimes you have to hunt around for them.
I purchase my dry goods in bulk for two reasons 1) It’s much cheaper than buying smaller quanties and 2) I like to have a six-month food supply on hand at any given time. Purchasing dry goods in bulk requires a place to store them, and sufficient (rodent and insect proof) containers to store them in. I use the opaque-white 5-gallon food safe buckets with Gamma Seal lids which allow for easy access to contents. (A 10 kg bag of something fits into a 5-gallon bucket.)
I’m lucky to have a pantry which accommodates twelve of these buckets in which I keep:
Why these particular dry goods? These are all ingredients I cook/bake with regularly; some have been specifically selected for longevity (whole grains store indefinitely), and some for ease of nutrient availability (oats and barley can be soaked in water to become edible if there is a fuel/electricity shortage for cooking). Foods that are both a protein and carb source (legumes and quinoa) offer full-spectrum nutrition in the event of food shortages.
In addition to the large quantity dry goods, I purchase smaller (1-2 pound) quantities of nuts and seeds, dried fruits such as apricots and dates, pastas and other grains which I store in sealed glass jars. Nuts, seeds and dried fruits all have a shelf life of six months or less, so you only want to buy what you can use in that time period. They key to all of this storage is containers (plastic or glass) that have gaskets which keep out insects and pantry moths. Check jars and buckets every couple of months to ensure you haven’t brought any critters in with your grains as that is often where the problem starts.
Seasonal canning begins for me in May when I make my first batch of rhubarb ketchup. Then throughout the season I attempt to get canning quantities of veggies and tomatoes to fill the larder with the following staple recipes:
(Pressure canning is for low-acid foods such as legumes and low-sugar veggies, tomato sauce with additional ingredients such as onions and garlic, meats and fish. Everything else on that list is done in a steam-canner which uses the same processing times as a boiling water canner.)
In addition to the canning, I do a lot of dehydrating in a productive year as well. Tomato skins from the canning process become a powdered add-in ingredient akin to using tomato paste in a recipe. Apples get turned into rings, and plums halved to become year-round snacks. In the winter we do citrus slices in the dehydrator for easy cocktail and sparkling water add-ins.
And there is always at least one fermentation project – usually sauerkraut which gets stored in the fridge after fermenting for a few weeks in a crock. It can also be canned, but my preference is to keep the active good bacteria alive through cool storage.
In the summer and throughout the year, I pressure can a lot of “meals in jars”. Everything from soups to chicken pot pie base and curried chickpeas. Meals in jars are handy when you don’t feel like cooking or when the power goes out (which it does here frequently and sometimes for several days) – they also make legumes readily available for weeknight dinners. What follows is a list of safe pressure canning recipes that I like to have on hand:
When choosing pressure canning recipes, it is important to follow instructions from a safe canning website. As home food preservation has become more popular, there are an increasing number of recipe books and youtube channels promoting unsafe canning practices. Food safety is extremely important when canning meat and low-acid veggies. Read more about botulism here if you don’t believe me.
Both Bernardin Home Canning and Healthy Canning are reliable online resources for canning tips and recipes. The USDA also offers a complete guide to canning in PDF form and recipes found on US Extension Offices websites are also tested and safe. Stay away from any Facebook canning groups unless they promote stringent food safety – not only are they full of dangerous advice, the individuals promoting that advice are often less than pleasant when challenged on it.
Storage basics: Only purchase what you can safely store and keep free of rodents and insects. Do not bulk-order food you don’t have a solid storage plan for or you will find it quickly over-run with critters. Similarly, do not store canned goods in unheated sheds or crawl spaces; freeze/thaw cycles lead to burst cans, broken jars, and bad rodent infestations (leading to hazmat level clean-outs). Food should be stored in easy-to access containers that are in range of your kitchen; cycling through your stored supplies is key to keeping them renewed over the long term.
Supplies: Use only tested canning supplies from reputable companies. Having the appropriate equipment really does make a difference! Some items, like pressure canners, are best purchased new (unless you know enough about them to restore and test old ones). A reputable Canadian company selling goods that support survival and food security without too much super-fringey messaging attached is the Good 2 Go Co. They carry food safe storage buckets, reusable canning lids (Tattler lids), silica packets, water filtration systems and pretty much everything else you can think of. From time to time they have decent markdown sales as well – which is a good time to stock up on the pricier stuff.
Long-term food planning and storage isn’t just a summertime activity by a long shot – it’s something I build into my annual cycle. But it wasn’t always this way! I started out wanting to make jam for Christmas presents when I was 22, and my practices have evolved from that point over the intervening (27) years. Your own food storage and security practices will rely on your own needs, experience, and access to space and resources. While I try to maintain six months of whole foods supply for myself (and a few friends), someone else might just put a few flats of canned tuna and lentil soups under the bed and call it a day.
During the pandemic, we had our first real taste of supply-chain issues which were compounded by the hoarding behaviours of a few. Being food secure and putting stores away over time really cuts down on the impulse to overshop when the supply-system is stressed, and leaves food on the shelves for those who really need it (and can’t do storage for any number of reasons). But ultimately I don’t kid myself about our level of survivability. The truth is, if food systems are knocked out for more than six months and we haven’t come together on a local level to figure out how to provide for ourselves collectively – then I’m not sure that’s a world worth surviving in. Mostly the preserving and storing of food fits a different kind of practical-aesthetic in my life: the ability to feed lots of people on a moment’s notice; the security of never running out of necessary items; the ability to control the amount of sugar, salt and preservatives in my food; the lessened environmental footprint in terms of packaging and water use. A wave of self-reliant feeling washes over me when I put another batch of jars on the shelf, my world feels a little less frail when I know I can always feed someone at my door.
So far it’s been a summer of not getting what I want. Or what I think I want. First of all – the sellers turned away from our offer on the lodge we want to buy for an artist residency project and then, the job with my union I’ve been on contract to for the last three months was offered to someone else past the summer (an internal candidate) which means I’ll be returning to my old job in September.
On the plus side, August will be a much more chill month than it would have been if either of these thing came to pass – and I’m taking advantage of that with a couple of unscheduled weekends and then a couple of shows/parties and a mini-vacation on the horizon. I do have to work most of the month, but given that my job isn’t continuing past the 23rd, I don’t have to work all that hard.
I am a bit sad the lodge deal hasn’t come together yet, but I won’t count that possibility as dead until the end of October because I think it’s entirely plausible that we could still end up with that or another property to base a residency and arts center out of. But if not, then we’ll move onto projects on our home that we need (a new roof) and want (a house length greenhouse on the south side) – continuing to make this our home to love and host people in.
I feel a lot of possibility right now, coming out of the weird few months since having Covid and leaving the “really good job” that was supposed to define my career back in April. There has been a lot of shift and bump in my life of late, but rather than derailing me, it’s helped me investigate my core drivers with a lot more attention to the details.
Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly confused about the difference between “meaningful life” and “importance in career”. As though the former relies on the latter. Consciously I know that’s not so, but I’ve been nagged by the feeling that because my work doesn’t speak directly to my core purpose, I’ve been doing something wrong. The rise of the gig economy over the course of my adult life hasn’t helped. The mantra “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is tricky. Even as I recognize it as a craven message of a system advantaged by people moving around trying to find the job they “love” while never staying long enough to demand a pension plan or unionize their workplace, it also makes me feel deeply insecure about the fact I don’t “love” my work.
But the fact is, there is tons of work that I do and love – it’s just not the stuff I get paid to do! And that’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately – how I can continue to dial into my core needs and drivers to make a meaningful life within the context of the workaday – at least for the next five and a half years until I get to retire and pursue my interests fulltime. The pursuit of Hummingbird Lodge and the union gig this summer have revealed to me that at my root I am inspired by projects that convene community, and am endlessly curious about the human condition (and problem-solving it). This last year has also shown me that all-consuming paid work is not for me (and ultimately is bad for my health), because I have so much of the rest of life I want to explore.
I feel really excited to have remembered these things about myself because it means that I’m ready for the next opportunity – whether it be another location for the artist residency, or a collaborative fibre arts project with some friends on the island. I don’t really know where things are leading at the moment, but I have a lot more tools to evaluate my life direction when the next fork in the path appears. That feels like more self-knowledge than I’ve had in a long time, and for the first time in forever I don’t feel dictated to by what I “should” do or driven by another’s definition of success. So you know, we don’t always get what we want but if we try sometimes……
We get what we need.
I’m attempting to manifest a big thing right now and I’m not sure if we can make it happen or not. But I’m going to let you in on it anyway because the more I talk about this big thing, the more real it becomes (it’s a long shot, but there is a slim chance of pulling it off). Perhaps you have an idea that can help make this a reality, or you can just send good vibes our way.
The big thing we are working on is purchasing a property that could be used to expand the Birdsong vision Brian and I have been working on for the last six years. In our current location we have done that by building a welcoming space for musicians and the community to come together for concerts and gatherings, as well as offering a small-scale residency program in our home for songwriters. The vision for the residency was limited a bit by Covid, but we are preparing to welcome our second “resident” this fall and hoping to offer a more structured program in the near future.
Folks who have come to Birdsong for our shows know what we are doing is important and culture-sustaining work. In a time when musicians have few outlets for concerts, and streaming services rob them of their cultural production, we provide a no-cost venue and have built a community around our shows that ensures a decent-sized audience limited only by the space we have available. We put our performing musicians up overnight and feed them at least two meals (sometimes more), and residents at Birdsong get a room and a songwriting studio all to themselves during the time they stay here (also for free). We see ourselves as providing a community service for both musicians and our neighbours who get to see award-winning musicians in an intimate setting. We have the privilege of good jobs which allows us to fund these activities out of our own pockets.
Anyhow – back to the property for sale. It’s just down the road from us and has been on the market for over a year now. It’s ideally outfitted to expand Birdsong into a functional non-profit residency for creatives of all kinds. Purpose-built as a B&B, it has 3 large guest rooms with lots of space for working in, as well as 2 large living spaces ideal for hosting concerts, dinners, community events, and workshops. There is even a perfect lawn area for an outdoor stage for summer shows, and another spot where a garden could go in to help feed our household and residents.
There is a history to why we haven’t previously offered on this property – though we considered it once – it was snapped up far out of our price range (and has since sat empty the current owners decided not to move in after all). Its status of “out of our price range” still holds unfortunately, which is why this really big thing is somewhat daunting to me at the moment as the possibility isn’t clearly in view just yet. We have a potential partner in this project, and even if we sell his place and ours, we will still be half a million short of the current asking price. While a small mortgage is possible, anything onerous will negate the vision of being able to offer low-cost and free residencies to artists. And so it goes – as I said, this isn’t clearly in view yet.
There is a part of me that feels foolish for reaching in such a way, for wanting to move from the comfort of my current life to the next big project that will surely be stressful and require a great deal of work on my part. But the felt sense of this is persistent and steady, the project I have dreamed of (on and off) all of my adult life going back to my twenties when I schemed for a ranch in the Interior of BC to which all my East Van community could move to and get out of the confines in which we lived. It’s never been enough that I get out or provide for myself (something Brian and I have done well together), I want to create something that helps sustain others as well – and nearing fifty this feels urgent. To dig my shovel into the ground now before the time for grand visions has truly passed from my life.
But even as I feel foolish (and anxious), I also am certain the world needs our shining lanterns to burn brighter against the darkness right now. By which I mean we need to find ways to become beacons to one another, to climb up out of the despair and offer a hand to the next person struggling to do so. That is really the vision for Birdsong now, and for the way we would like it to evolve in our community over the next few years – whether we get this property or simply continue what we are doing at the home we have now.
Whatever happens, I will post about it here, for I am aware that things unfold as they should, and this may only be the first thought in a long line that comes to fruition in a totally unexpected way down the line. In the meantime, I am working out ideas for structure and governance, and re-writing the vision until I can very clearly articulate what I can already see unfolding.
“A fulfilling writing life is one in which the creative process merges with other necessary processes of good living, which only the individual can define.”Melissa Febos, Body Work
Noticing and gratitude are two things which spring to mind here – two things I am trying to practice with more attention. Or better said, two things I am trying to practice. To do every day so I get better at them.
Recently I’ve gotten better at living with less discipline and rigor. These are supposedly good traits but they have a tendency to produce moralism and rigidity. I am not interested in an inflexibility of spirit in my life or creative work and yet that’s the kind of structure I had erected around my life. Post-illness (covid), I don’t have the energy to rebuild those edifices – and approaching mid-life transition, I’ve got other places to be in my mind right now.
Without my structure though, I find it hard to fit in everything I want to do, let alone should be doing. I’ve had to narrow down on things somewhat, or simply practice them half as often. I don’t weave and sew every single night anymore. Sometimes I write instead because I didn’t get to it in the morning. Writing and physical exercise have remained as daily non-negotiables – though I am treading water with both a bit right now.
It’s interesting to see what remains when we get more spare with our lives.
This week I went to a ceremony for new judges being welcomed to the BC Supreme Court, as a friend of mine was appointed to the bench just prior to the start of the pandemic. We had been invited to this ceremony back in March of 2020, but of course it was cancelled in that flurry of early days when no one knew what they could or should do in the face of a deadly virus. Walking the Vancouver streets at rush hour on Monday I noted that even with many activities having resumed, the city is not nearly as busy as it was when I still lived there and went from office to home by public transit or bicycle every day.
This becoming-a-judge thing seemed like a big enough deal to travel over for, to see this old friend in their robes in an official proceeding, and congratulate them in person. I am impressed, of course. It’s not a simple thing to achieve this kind of social standing – and it’s a big commitment to public/civil life. As a judge, you give up a certain right to a private life in the sense that what you do reflects on the office, which is a big responsibility to carry around.
When I was in regional union leadership, I felt a shadow of this in my own life. Putting oneself in front of others in any capacity invites appraisal and criticism after all, and I found that aspect of leadership exhausting. I also found that my time was no longer my own, and that the role demanded I spend time with a people who I sometimes didn’t like very much. At a certain point I had enough, and I left union leadership at that level to pursue a Master’s degree and spend time with my partner and his child – all things that were much more satisfying to me on a day to day level than flying back and forth across the country and living out of hotels. It was 100% a choice that I made – to step out of office and off the treadmill of political ambition – nothing that was forced on my through losing an election or any other mechanism.
And yet…… sometimes when I see people in political or civic office these days, I feel a kind of envy, or perhaps it’s more that I feel like I have not done enough with my life. I’m not really sure if that’s the right way to describe the feeling. What do we call it when we feel we have not achieved anything of importance in our lives? And further, what do we call that feeling when it is groundless – based on social ideas that we don’t find particularly relevant to our own beliefs about society and how life should be lived? I feel like there must be a Japanese word that describes this combination of envy and disdain for accolades of life, but when I Google that phrase nothing turns up.
I have long struggled with the feeling of not being enough, and having quit my big career opportunity in May (for excellent reasons and I am not sorry I did), I am once again facing feelings of inadequacy. It’s ridiculous, as my partner likes to point out, especially as I have a good job to return to and another opportunity that I’m trying out at the moment. I want for nothing material, nor do I want to make more money or have more things. But I suppose it comes down to being at this mid-point of life, almost fifty, and wondering if anything I do is relevant, or carries weight outside of my own tiny sphere. The answer to that is not really, but that is true for almost all of us on the planet, and so I’m not sure why it should be any different for me.
My union is having its convention virtually this week and I’ve been watching the speeches and debates off and on in the background while working. I know everyone running for office, having worked with most of them in years past, and I know what it feels like to be in front of a large audience answering questions about what one brings to the leadership table. When I watch them perform for the audience, there is no part of me that wishes I was in that spot, or that I had made different choices in my life years ago. When it came down to running for the next political office, I chose not to so that I could spend more time with my partner and his step-daughter, and then I went on to get a Master’s degree which lead to meditation and Zen Buddhism, writing, weaving, and eventually (somehow this is all connected), moving to Gabriola Island.
And this is what I have to remind myself when I feel a bit unaccomplished – that I could have spent my life in a single-minded pursuit of one thing, but by nature I am a generalist and I would never have been happy doing that. Instead I’ve wandered all over, using my (sometimes boring) job to fund the rest of a life that has kept me engaged, and hanging out with people I actually want to be around. Though these regrets are transitory, they remind me that so often we struggle with the what and why of existence. We seek things that are unhealthy; we strive for things that take us away from our purpose and our joy. And in so doing, we fail to be present for the real truth of our life. This is a lesson I return to over and over, hoping one day I’ll learn it so I can move on to the next one.