I eat food: do you?

I love food. I love the flavours, textures, aromas, and nutrients. I love the stories behind the food. I love when my little balcony garden is thriving and I can pick greens two minutes before I make a salad. I love snipping fresh herbs to cook with, and hanging the rest to dry for use in winter soups. I’m still very new to growing food, so occasionally the seedlings die and I have to learn from that. Sometimes, the last few plants that survived a storm are eaten by bugs. Sigh. It happens. Until I’ve learned to grow food reliably, and until I have access to enough soil to support this household, I’ll be buying most of my food from farmers …like most other people in the global north.

Flowers, beets and chard grow side by side in this diverse cool-weather garden.
Image from BC Farms and Foods – check out their list of local farmer’s markers

Have you seen the documentary Food Inc? If not, today may be the day to watch it. If you eat meat and don’t know precisely who raised the animal, how it was raised, what it was fed, how it was killed, how the carcass was processed (into steaks/filets/burgers/bacon/wings/sausages), who was hired to complete this work and how they were paid and treated… well, odds are you’re eating horrendously cruel factory meat and should watch this documentary to catch up on what you’re putting into your mouth. Apply that to dairy and eggs, too.

If you eat vegetables or grains, there are equivalent considerations: who grew the seeds and how, who grew the plants, how and where; what fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, infrastructure, fossil fuels, and tools were used; when and how was it harvested; how has it been stored and shipped? Are the seeds owned by a corporation, or are they public? Have those harvests undercut farmers in other countries, leading to unemployment and famines? Have those harvests been deliberately introduced at low cost (or free, under the guise of food aid) to other societies to create market demand for those products?

Subsidies and incentives blow food prices out of relationship from the nutritional value of the food and the dollar cost of farming: in a popular example, “a McDonald’s burger that costs about $5 to purchase would actually cost $13 without all the subsidies” (Common Ground). While we considering subsidies, growing just the patty took the same amount of water as a 90-minute shower (Just Eat It), the cow’s methane belches contributed to the 24%+ of total greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture (IPCC 2014), and the poor cow’s digestive system was turned into a breeding ground for deadly-to-humans E. coli colonies that were washed downstream to coat spinach and other produce.

Some of us have enough discretionary income (money we can spend on whatever we want) to buy vegetables on a regular basis; some of us can choose to buy all-organic foods and more-ethically-raised meat. Many of us, however, are in financial situations that severely restrict our food choices: our goal is simply to eat something, whatever we can afford this week. With the exception of deliberate fasts, longterm hunger feels awful. Hunger after months or years of malnutrition feels downright terrible. So yes, it’s completely understandable that low-income consumers will buy whatever’s least expensive, even if they feel ashamed of the corporations that they’re supporting. Those of us who can make respectful and responsible choices should make those choices. Those of us who can engage in collective action to shift subsidies toward nutritious and responsible foods should do so, so that those of us who are focusing on day-to-day survival can also afford healthy and safe foods.

Neoliberalism puts financial and political power into the hands of massive corporations, giving them deep influence on governmental policymakers and legislators. That drives these imbalanced subsidies and the ‘food aid – oh I mean free samples‘ ploy. That’s also where we get madness like massive corporations suing small farmers for (unintentional) patent infringement even though “53% of the world’s commercial seed market is controlled by just three firms – Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta” and “In the US some 93% of soybeans and 86% of corn crops come from [patent-protected seeds]”.

We as consumers have some influence: ‘voting with our dollars’ has some effect, as we see in grocery stores shifting to offer more organic options and large corporations buying organic companies in response to consumer interest. We can direct our discretionary income to local, organic, ethical, farmers …which will result in us eating more-nutritious food, which is definitely a bonus. We can choose to eat far less meat (or none) and have the excellent side-effect of reducing deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.

We can engage in opposition, cooperation, and collective action (brief review here) to push back against mega-food corporations.

We can work with local food rescues. We can join community gardens, gleaners, and collective harvesters to reconnect with food, how it grows, how much effort goes into tending it, and how truly amazing fresh food tastes. We can grow something, anything, in window boxes and balcony gardens; we can tear up our lawns and plant food. We can share delicious meals with our friends, family, community, and colleagues.

The closing statements in Food Inc are these: maybe something here will resonate with you? “You can vote to change this system three times a day. Buy from companies that treat workers, animals, and the environment with respect. When you go to the supermarket, choose foods that are in season. Buy foods that are organic. Know what’s in your food. Read labels. Know what you buy. The average meal travels 1,500 miles from the farm to the supermarket. Buy foods that are grown locally. Shop at farmers’ markets. Plant a garden (even a small one). Cook a meal with your family and eat together. Everyone has a right to healthy food. Make sure your farmers’ market takes food stamps. Ask your school board to provide healthy school lunches. The FDA and USDA are supposed to protect you and your family. Tell Congress to enforce food safety standards and re-introduce Kevin’s Law. If you say grace, ask for food that will keep us, and the planet, healthy. You can change the world with every bite.

Harvesting sea salt at home

I made sea salt! Well okay, you’re right, Nature made sea salt …but I totally helped, and now I have a plate of perfect, locally wild-harvested, salt in my kitchen. Check it out!

I was reading Harvesting Sea Salt – The Canadian Way, from BC Farms and Food, about nearby small companies that are harvesting and selling sea salt. It made me look at the salt in my kitchen, the packaged salt from all around the world, and wonder, “I live on an island …why the heck am I not making my own salt?”

I could reasonably choose to support those lovely local companies and buy their salt, encouraging localized economies. Alternately, I might feel that having a selection of salts from around the globe is important for my culinary experience: as we read around the internet, the terroir of salt (sometimes called merroir) lends its own flavour and some folks can really taste the difference. For me, though, learning to walk down to the sea and collect my own salt –one of the fundamental necessities of healthy living– is so appealing and common-sensical that I set out to try it.

In this part of the world, the Vancouver Island Health Authority samples seawater at recreational beaches through the summer, specifically for levels of enterococci. Not wanting to sprinkle enterococci all over my food, I was delighted to discover that BOḰOĆEN (Coles Bay), just up the road from my apartment, has had consistently low counts this year. Woohoo! That doesn’t mean that it’s pristine water, though; far from it. People here have seen, in only a few generations, radical loss of reciprocity between humans and non-human beings. W̱SÁNEĆ peoples have lived here for 30,000 years, and only in the last two hundred years has “water stewardship” stopped being a part of daily life for every human and community, and become a political talking-point. Contrary to dominant-culture belief, humans have the proven ability to enhance ecology as participants in a biome: ask any permaculturalist, anyone who has lived closely with nature, or scientists who are finally noticing.

That being said, I was lucky to have fairly-clean water nearby, so I grabbed a jug and headed out. I’ll admit that I also brought a spare pair of trousers just in case I fell in. (I truly love the ocean, but I’m a better swimmer than wader.) (I didn’t fall in, by the way. Win!)

Alright, so how do we “make” sea salt? The best way, in my opinion, is to use passive evaporation. As we see in many parts of the world, sea salt is carried into evaporation pans (like little ponds) and evaporates in the heat. Harvesters rake up the salt to let it dry, and then it’s processed, packaged, and shipped.

I timed my salt-making adventure rather unfortunately. We’re in the cool period between regular-summer and bonus-summer, so my balcony won’t get very warm this week. Oh, and we’re in wildfire season, which means the skies have been full of smoke, with all of the incinerated household contaminants that get carried along with it. It didn’t seem like a good time to leave food outdoors. (Yet again, this is making me think that I should build a solar cooker: that would be so useful!) Anyhow, I went the other route and used a stove and a cookpot to work through most of the evaporation for this first batch.

I started with a large cookpot full of seawater that I had poured through butter muslin to remove any noticeable critters. I know there are microsopic dudes in there, but that’s part of sea salt, right?

Some folks recommend boiling the sea water for 6-10 minutes, to kill any bacteria that can be killed through high heat. That sounded like a good idea. so I kept this at a rolling boil for a while before reducing it to a low boil.

After a couple of hours, the water had reduced most of the way. I kept checking, wondering when salt crystals would start to form. I don’t know much about chemistry, so I can’t tell you with authority whether or not this was useful, but when the water was about 3/4 inch (1.5 cm) deep and I could see teensy little salt crystals forming, I turned off the heat so the water would be calm as it continued to evaporate. My theory was that the crystals would form into more stable shapes if they weren’t disturbed? Before I went to bed, I put the still-warm cookpot into the oven (with no heat on) so that it would stay warmer than my cool apartment overnight.

Anyhow, it seems to have worked. As you can see below, the photo on the left is of the cookpot last thing in the evening; the photo in the middle is the cookpot first thing this morning; and the photo on the right is me boldly lifting out a piece of fleur de sel. The crystals totally grew! They’re beautiful!

Thank goodness for all of the videos of people raking piles of sea salt. I might have been worried about disturbing the salt if I hadn’t watched those. 🙂 This morning, I needed the pot for cooking so I scraped everything into a pile and poured it into a silicone baking dish to continue evaporating in the oven. I turned on the heating elements for a couple of minutes every couple of hours to keep it warm and evaporating nicely.

The first question that people asked me is, “how much salt do you get from a gallon of seawater?” Well, that depends on the salinity of the water. I hear the water hereabouts is less salty than water near the equator, so my yield was on the low side. That being said, how much salt do we use? A pinch for a meal, a teaspoon in a batch of muffins? Seems to me I can harvest regularly enough to keep up with my salt use.

The very last step was probably unnecessary, but it felt nice. When the water had evaporated and all I had left was wet salt, I put it onto a plate and set that out in the sunshine to finish evaporating.

Will I continue to harvest salt for my home? I sure as heck will! It helps to connect me with the waters on which we’re reliant, which in turn helps to connect me to the soil through which our human biological outputs are meant to be filtered. Can I reduce my impact on the lands and waters, and support others in doing so, so that I can keep wild-harvesting (and breathing)?

Yes.

Salvaging composty fruit

Mmmm, composty fruit. 😉 Once a week for a couple of months this summer, I joined LifeCycles to sort fruit. I felt über-rich with my weekly haul of composty fruit! I know, “composty” and “fruit” don’t sound especially appetizing together, but let me tell you about it and I think you’ll agree the end products are delightful. Maybe you’ll be inspired to try this in your neighbourhood? 😀

At LifeCycles, volunteers pick deliciously ripe fruit from backyard fruit trees throughout the city. Tree stewards/homeowners keep some of the harvest and the rest is distributed to food banks and other community groups. That, by the way, is flat-out awesome: back in the day when my family was reliant on (and grateful for) food bank donations, we sure as heck didn’t have fresh fruit!

Harvests are sorted into three grades:

  • “A” are the beautiful fruit that we’re proud to share with food banks and community groups;
  • “B” are the bruised fruit that will last a few more days before community groups can process them into sauce, cider, and so on;
  • “C” are the composty ones, the wormy and broken ones that won’t last another day.

Although genuinely moldy fruit still goes directly to the worms, anything that we can salvage from the C grade by trimming off the bad bits and processing today goes home with the sorters (like a C+ grade). Some of us make jams and chutneys or freeze the fruit for smoothies; I’ve been separating mine into juice for homebrewing and pomace (pressed pulp) for baking.

I saved the most beautiful little pears from the latest C+ batch for a photo. Each one has a cut, a deep bruise, or a worm hole on the other side that‘s easy enough to cut away but would rot tomorrow, so they came home with me for immediate processing.

First tip: food-safe bins for the win! I carted home the first batches of composty fruit in cardboard boxes, and to my total chagrin, forgot that the rattle and rumble of cycling would squish the soft fruit. Not surprisingly, the boxes were soaked through and made an aromatic mess …plus, I wasted good juice! I dug around until I found two small food-safe bins that fit nicely in my bicycle trailer and that I can expect to use for decades. Those bins dramatically improved the whole experience. Conveniently, they also have lids and handles.

Second tip: cut, freeze, and thaw before pressing. Because I go to work right after volunteering, I only have a couple of hours in the evening to process the fruit. My goal that day is to cut away the bruises, worms, weird bits, stems and seeds. As I’m doing that, I chop the fruit into mid-sized pieces and pack it into one of the bins. The small bowl of rotten bits goes into the worm bin on the balcony, and the lovely bin of fruit pieces goes into my freezer for a couple of days. The big win here is that freezing and thawing the fruit leaves it so much softer and easier to press!

Third tip: blend, then press. Did you know that some entrepreneurs travel from orchard to orchard with mobile fruit crushers and presses? That sounds like a super-fun job! You and your community could do something similar, buying sturdy tools and taking turns using them, or setting up a community fruit mill.

I’m not in a position yet to participate in that kind of network, plus it’s COVID year and we have to consider social bubbles, so I did the next best thing and bought a torchietto from Consiglio’s Kitchenware. This is a sturdy little tabletop fruit and vegetable press. It fits in my cupboard between presses and will clearly last longer than I will. Between that and my old mini food processor, pressing fruit is easy – and really quite pleasant.

I know, I forgot to take a photo of the torchietto in action, and borrowed that shiny photo from Consiglio’s website.

The process is easy enough to describe, though:

  1. Thoroughly grind (or blend) the thawed fruit.
  2. Transfer it into the torchietto basket, lined with butter muslin. If you haven’t used this before, it has a tighter weave than cheesecloth and is excellent for keeping pulp contained.
  3. Tighten the press; pour out the accumulated juice; then wander away for a little while. Return and repeat. Wandering away invites the magic juice fairies to do some of the work for you, I’m sure of it.
  4. Repeat that tightening step until no more juice can be extracted.
  5. Loosen the press; remove the basket, and remove the muslin-wrapped brick of pomace. When you unwrap it, you should have a fairly solid, dry, block of fruit pulp. Use your experience from each unwrapping to learn how far you can press the next basketful of fruit.
  6. Repeat those steps until all of your fruit has been pressed.

Fourth tip: freeze the pomace in muffin trays. It didn’t take long for me to start looking for recipes to use up this pomace. Agricultural uses include mixing it into animal feed or into lovely compost piles, so those are options …but it’s food, right? Of course I want to find a way to enjoy all of that fibre and vitamins. Between juice-pressing-day and baking-day, I needed a way to store this. I decided to use silicone muffin trays to mold the pomace into manageable sizes, freeze those solid, peel them out of the muffin trays and stack them in a container in the freezer. Voila! Ready for baking day.

The juice is being brewed, one mini batch at a time. It’s my first year of homebrewing, so I’m all about experimenting. I’ve followed some classic recipes, and have made up some variations of my own, trying to find the right balance between juice, honey, and water (and wild or cultured yeasts) to end up with about 5-6% alcohol and a fairly dry beverage.

The pomace has been made into bread and muffins, and as usual I’m keeping my ears open for other ideas. If you have suggestions, I would love to hear them!

My favourite bread recipe so far is adapted from Juice Pulp Bread by Florida School of Holistic Living. I like to double the batch, and have adjusted the ingredients slightly.

Pomace Bread
based on Juice Pulp Bread by Florida School of Holistic Living
Makes two loaves of delicious, slightly sweet bread with a consistency similar to muffins or banana bread. You can halve the recipe; I don’t have a heck of a lot of free time, so I bake twice as much, less frequently.

Ingredients:
3 cups thawed fruit pomace (any kind, feel free to mix them)
1/2 cup of vegetable oil
1/2 cup of organic honey
4 eggs (the original recipe suggests chia/flax substitutes)
1 tbsp vanilla extract (look for fairly traded vanilla, and don’t buy the sugary extract if you can avoid it)
3 cups flour, ideally from freshly-milled spelt, emmer, khorasan/kamut, einkorn, buckwheat, and other grains that are high in flavour and nutrition (the original recipe says you can use non-wheat flours here)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder (yup, both soda and powder in this recipe)
1 or 1.5 tsp salt (I like extra salt) (look for locally-produced or at least fairly-produced salt) (or heck, make your own)
3 to 4 tsp cinnamon (I really like cinnamon)
1/2 to 1 tsp nutmeg (I really don’t like nutmeg)

Can you replace the cinnamon and nutmeg with pumpkin spice? Sure! Could you add some crushed nuts? Sure! You’re in charge of this lovely bread.

Instructions:

  1. Beat, stir, or whisk together the liquid ingredients: oil, honey, eggs, vanilla.
  2. Stir the pomace into the wet ingredients.
  3. Stir or whisk together the dry ingredients: flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg (and any other dry things you decided to add).
  4. Incorporate the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. The whole thing will be pretty gloppy, similar to a muffin recipe.
  5. Grease two loaf pans. I used (local organic) butter for this, and it was extra-decadent. Mmmm.
  6. Pour the batter fairly evenly into the two loaf pans.
  7. Bake at 350oF for 45-60 minutes, or as long as it takes for the top to get nice and crusty. Your test of “done-ness” is, as usual in Western baking, to insert a toothpick and see if it comes out clean. If some damp dough sticks to the toothpick, cook your loaves for a few more minutes and test again.
  8. Let the loaves cool completely before slicing.
  9. I sliced mine thickly and froze them right away. That way, when I want a couple of slices, I can pop them into the toaster oven, warm them up, and serve with or without a little bit of butter.

Variation on a theme: My latest brilliant adventure with pomace was a completely random, whaaaatver-fits-in-the-bowl, oatmeal pumpkin spice muffin. I couldn’t tell you what ratios I used, except that I estimated 1 whole egg per 1 cup (or so) of pomace; then a bunch of pumpkin spice, some salt, some freshly-milled quinoa, and enough oatmeal to absorb the obvious moisture without making the whole thing dry. I threw in some organic raisins, mixed it all together, popped it into silicone muffin trays, and baked at 350oF until the ol’ toothpick test came out clean. I ate one while it was way too hot, and regret nothing: it was delicious!

Spelt and Slow Living

Know what I’m doing tonight? De-hulling spelt, one seed pod at a time. It’s beautiful, calming, and totally inefficient. Glorious.

Spelt seed heads from my little community garden plot

I have no idea what’s been grown in my little community plot before I arrived this year, but rumour has it that spelt will help heal poor soils so I planted a little strip in the north-west corner. I didn’t know what to expect, though having recently read Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture I’ll admit that I had visions of old-style grains waving in the gentle alpine winds of a terraced, tree-lined field… so of course I was entirely delighted to discover that it grew quite well, about as tall as me. It threatened to lodge (fall over due to rain or wind) so I propped up the margins with an adjustable plant cage, opened up like a fence. That not only worked well, but made me look like a conscientious garden neighbour, keeping the path clear of my towering spelt. 😉

When it came time to harvest, it didn’t seem prudent to pile sheaves in my living room, so I just put the seed heads in a bag to dry and left the straw for the garden and some of the seeds for the critters. You can see those lovely seed heads, now nice and dry, in the photo above.

Now, the plan was never to de-hull this by hand. People have had brilliant de-hulling tools (or “hulling”, if you insist) for millennia, and I could have made a fair approximation of a flail or thresher and smashed the little spelts apart. I could have walked out to a quiet spot on a windy day and winnowed, blowing the chaff around like a snaggy snowstorm. For that matter, I’ve pre-ordered a hand-powered grain mill from Fieldstone Organics* and one of my first adventures could have been an attempt to adapt the mill according to the “hand operated spelt wheat huller” plans from EAP at McGill University.

*I’ve discovered the extraordinary flavour and nutritional boost in freshly-milled organic spelt, kamut, emmer, einkorn, etc., and will no doubt have many entertaining tales when that mill arrives.

Tonight, though, I decided to tackle this the slow way: using my fingers to pry apart one seed pod at a time. Why? Because it’s fabulously calming. Focusing on one very small action at a time, moving slowly so as not to snag my fingers too dramatically on the toothy ridges, and enjoying the evening. Connecting with each little spelt berry, adding emotional value to each one: I know that no matter what I bake with this, it’s going to be even more delicious and more thoroughly appreciated for having been individually liberated from the hulls.

Yes, I’ll also laugh at myself when I finish all of this, but you know what? I spend a lot of time in life rushing from one thing to another and racing to meet deadlines. School is starting up again next week, and it’s going to be another fairly intense few months balancing work, school, homecraft, gardening, volunteering, and maybe-possibly a little bit of art. So, for this evening, I think I’ll deliberately slowly down.

Yup – sounds about right to me.

The first few teensy spelt berries

Kombucha! (An ode to healthy microbiota)

Have you tried kombucha? Was it from a store, or did a friend share their homebrew with you? Both are delicious, though you won’t be surprised to read that I love my homebrew for the flavour, very low residual sugar, super-low waste and costs, and happy guts. Allow me to introduce you to this particular joy.

Freshly-bottled kombucha and freshly-fed SCOBYs. Yum!

There are hundreds (thousands?) of books, articles, and knowledgeable humans who can tell you about the benefits of drinking kombucha, kefir, and other probiotic fermented drinks. I’m not a biologist or medical professional, but I can tell you about my experience over the past few years and invite you to explore this for yourself. 🙂

For as long as I remember, I’ve had dodgy guts. I tried a handful of gut-friendly diets: they didn’t make much of a difference for me, but they were interesting experiences. I did discover that removing modern wheat from my diet greatly reduced pain and discomfort, and removing all added sugar for about a year also made a marked improvement in my physical and mental health. (From humanitarian, ecological, and personal health perspectives, massively reducing our sugar intake can be a powerful change. I’ll talk about that in another post.) However much those changes helped, though, I still couldn’t quite find my happy place.

I started to research gut biota, the complex and fascinating world of microbes living in every person’s intestines. Humans have evolved with and alongside bacteria and yeasts (and fungi): we need them to thrive so that we can thrive. We need a rich mix of microbes to support larger beings, whether that’s lovely vegetables fed by healthy colonies in the soil, or lovely humans fed by healthy colonies in our guts. There are some nutrients that we wouldn’t be able to access through our own mechanical and chemical digestion, so we rely on microbes to make those nutrients available to us through their digestion; some nutrients are only available in low amounts in food and our best source is our friendly gut colonies.

This microbiota, as the trillion-cell collective entity of microbes associated with each of us is known, digests food into nutrients our bodies can absorb, synthesizes essential nutrients so we don’t have to obtain them from food, protects us from potentially dangerous organisms, teaches our immune system how to function, and regulates many of our physiological systems in ways that we are just beginning to recognize. Not only are we dependent on microorganisms, we are their descendants: […] microorganisms are our ancestors and our allies. They keep the soil fertile and are an indispensable part of the cycle of life. Without them, there could be no other life.

Sandor Ellix Katz, Wild Fermentation. (2016) See also www.wildfermentation.com

With all that in mind, we can’t just eat for our own pleasure: we must also eat with our healthy gut colonies in mind. We’re caring for them as much as they’re caring for us.

So – where does kombucha fit in? See those floaty things in the jars, in the photo above? They’re called SCOBY: Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast. These lovely, rubbery, pancake-shaped colonies turn tea and sugar into kombucha, a delicious drink for humans. As the scobies digest the sugars, they leave behind nutrients for us, along with microscopic free-floating bacteria and yeast, some of which survive the journey through our stomachs to join and enhance the populations in our guts.

I first tasted kombucha from a local company, having bought it from an ordinary grocery store. I tried a few flavours over the course of three weeks, and was legitimately amazed by the positive impact this had on my gut health. I felt a marked reduction in swelling and pain; to my surprise, food started to taste more flavourful. Evidently, my gut biota appreciated the new arrivals: I wish I had known about this years ago! (See other posts in the Fermentation Festival category for more of my duh-piphanies about fermented foods and gut health.)

There were only two things that I didn’t love: buying beverages in bottles that I wasn’t likely to reuse, and injecting unnecessary sugar into my diet (I was still doing the no-added-sugar thing, and kombucha for the general public is usually sweetened after the first ferment). I started looking for recipes so I could try this at home.

The guide that made the most sense to me at the start of my fermenting adventure was this one, from Traditional Cooking School/Ask Wardee. I bought two gallon jars, two starter-SCOBY, some butter muslin, a couple of stick-on thermometers, and a dozen grolsch-style reusable bottles. Some of those items came in a kit that included ph strips, which I found helpful when starting out because I had zero experience with fermentation and it was reassuring to have a way to measure the acidity. Because we don’t heat the apartment all that often, I bought a seedling mat to warm the kombucha in the winter.

You know what? The first batch was so easy! I have to say, though, it took me a while to get up the courage to taste the kombucha that first time. “What? You want me to …put a straw in this jar with this alien pancake …and drink? Uhh…” 😉 Of course, it was delicious.

Since then, my recipe has evolved. I keep two jars going all the time, using a mix of green and black teas for flavour. I use honey, but far less than most recipes call for: I want to feed the colony but I don’t want leftover sugars to feed me. I prefer that it not be fizzy, so I don’t add sugar/juice/dried fruit for a second ferment or to flavour the final product. Lastly, I delight in leaving each batch to continue the first ferment until it develops a lovely vinegary tang.

Kombucha, Diane-style:

  1. In two 4-cup (one-litre) vessels, brew tea. I use about four teaspoons of loose-leaf organic fair-trade green and black teas in each vessel, about half green and half black. Sometimes I’ll use a flavoured tea, like chai, earl grey, or green with dried blueberries.
  2. Leave the tea to steep longer than usual. Let’s be honest, I often forget about it for a couple of hours. I’m certain that I’m offending tea-drinkers the world over by admitting to that, but it makes for an epic kombucha flavour.
  1. Pour the tea through a strainer to catch all of those tea leaves – we only want the liquid. Compost the leaves.
  2. Pour the tea liquid into the fermenting jars (one vessel of tea into each jar). There should also be about 2cups (500ml) of leftover kombucha from the last batch in those jars.
  3. Fill the vessels (the ones you used for tea) with 3cups-4cups (750ml-1L) of warm water (not hot). Stir in 1/2 cup (125ml) of honey, locally-produced and organic if you have access to it, until it dissolves. Take a moment to consider what type of honey you want to use: a clover-type honey won’t alter the flavour much, but a buckwheat-type honey will add that deep, rich flavour as an undertone to your kombucha. Experiment; have fun!
  1. Add the honey-water to each jar.
  2. Fill the jar at least to the shoulder with more warm water. Some of the water will be lost to evaporation as this ferments. Give it a stir.
  3. Cover the top of the jar with a cloth and fasten it with a piece of string or an elastic band. This keeps flies and dust out of your kombucha, and lets the SCOBY breath. It’ll be outgassing a bit, but the aroma isn’t very strong.
  4. Put the jars in a warm place where they can ferment. Various people recommend 22-32oC, which my thermometers say is 72-90oF. My scobies have shown me that they like 28oC internal-jar temperature, so like I wrote earlier I put a seedling mat under them in the cooler months, and wrap them in a snuggly towel in the shoulder season. In the summer, they’re quite happy on top of the freezer, away from breezes and making use of that bit of heat exhaust from the appliance.
  5. Lastly, leave the jars to ferment for anywhere between 5-15 days, very much depending on your goals and environment and colonies. Mine have settled into a happy 7-10 day cycle: at 7 days, the kombucha is ready to drink, and at 10 days it has a lovely vinegar tang.

When it’s time to bottle the kombucha, I like to use a siphon. That way, I don’t have to juggle gallon jars, floating SCOBY, funnels, and bottles. You can use any food-grade tube to achieve the same goal.

Clean each bottle and rinse with boiling water; when they cool a bit, fill them to the start of the neck with your epic kombucha.

Leave about 2cups (500ml) of kombucha in each jar, along with the SCOBY, to start the next batch.

Some people like to add sugar, juice, or dried fruit at this point and leave the bottles in a warm spot to complete a second ferment, so their kombucha is fizzy and sweet. That’s not my preference, so at this point I call it done.

I’ll add three more considerations:

  • I like to drink the kombucha first thing in the morning. It can be a little intense, though, so I tend to mix it with equal parts water. With that extra water, it’s an entirely pleasant first flavour of the day.
  • Fermentation doesn’t stop in the bottle until all of the sugar has been digested. That also means that the microscopic bacteria and yeast that are floating around in the bottle continue to find each other and form a colony. So …. be aware that sometimes, you’ll have a gelatinous blob in the bottle – a baby colony. Because I’m not a fan of surprise goo, I pour my kombucha through a strainer into a glass before I drink it.
  • With every batch, you’ll get two bonus products: more colonies, and yeast poo. Neither of those will harm you, but they clutter up the jar. Filter out the yeast poo occasionally (it’s the cloudy brown stuff at the bottom of the jar), and ask around for ideas about what to do with the old SCOBY alien-pancake when you have a lovely new one ready to take over the jar. I hear that goats like to eat them? <shrug>

Happy fermenting! May you become best friends with your symbiotic microbiota, and thoroughly enjoy every flavourful adventure along the way.

Mmm, bone broth

For most of my life, I was a vegetarian. I fully enjoyed it, felt comfortable and healthy, and I recommend it to anyone who’s interested.

However, things happened and meat is part of my life for the moment. Thankfully, we live just up the street from a butcher (Carnivore Meats) who sells only locally-raised, free-range, grass-fed and grass-finished beef, and other equivalently-raised meat. Until we can get back to #vegetarianlife, we’re supporting these fine folks.

I looked into hunting, which is arguably more ethical and environmentally reasonable than raising animals on ranches, but I’m several educational steps away from being a reliable and successful hunter, so for the moment thank goodness for thoughtful butchers. Yes, my vegetarian friends, I know you just gave me side-eyes. 😉

So, where am I going with all this? Straight to the question of “what do I do with the bones? These are valuable commodities: a wealth of nutrition!” I’m glad you asked. The answer is easy and delicious: bone broth!

At its simplest, bone broth is just bones simmered in water. That’s boring, though, right? Of course we add salt, usually coarse sea salt (we’re harvesting our own now), for flavour and to unlock some of that nutrition. Freshly-ground black pepper is a winner. I found a bottle of mixed herbs and ground-up dried, organic vegetables (update – we’re drying our own herbs now, too, mmmm), and started pouring some of that in, too. The bone broth started to smell more delicious.

Ah but wait, there’s more! Know what really gets this going? Onion and celery! I’ll write out the steps below, and essentially, this turns into a glorious, nutritious cup of soup to which we add a dash of MCT oil (“braaaaiiiiiinnnnnn food”). It’s epic. We make a couple of gallons at a time, freeze it in batches, and thaw the next few days’ worth to store in the fridge, in single-serving Mason jars.

Step one: bone collection. Keep a bin in the freezer and toss your bones into it. It’ll take a while to fill. Whatever size is the largest pot in your house, might as well wait until you have enough bones to fill it about halfway. Toss in all the weird bits of your meat, too: cartilage, stringy bits, whatever is “perfectly good” but kind of grosses you out.

Step two: initiate the boil. Put all of those bones into your largest pot, cover them with water, and bring to a boil. I tend to add the salt, pepper, and random herb/dried-veggie mix at the start so it smells lovely as it heats up.
Get some water boiling in a kettle and set it aside to top up the pot as required.

Step three: simmer the heck out of it. Rumour has it, some people simmer their bones for upwards of several days. We do not. We tend to simmer them for the rest of the day, and often set them to boil and then simmer again the next day. Let’s say, about 16hrs of steady simmer. Add hot water as required to keep the pot reasonably full.

…interlude… is this wasteful? Dude, I don’t know. We don’t have a solar oven, but that would clearly be a better choice than running the stove at a simmer for this many hours. If we had a wood stove to heat the apartment, we could put the pot on top and have this merrily simmer away incidentally. If we had a slow cooker that used less energy than the stove, that too would probably be a better choice. Oh, and there are quick-cookers that will probably do this more quickly. What we have is an electric stove, long-established hydroelectric power, and the desire to make the most of animal products while we’re consuming them. For us, the choice today is to use the bones or throw them away. …now back to your regular programming…

Step five: okay, now you can throw away the bones. Theories abound about what can be done with the bones at this point. I imagine that perhaps one could grind them into bone meal for the garden? I don’t know that for a fact, though, and am not necessarily suggesting it; just saying that there are lots of ideas out there and some of them sound reasonable. To be honest, at this point we just pour the broth through a sieve, leave the bones to cool, and then throw them away. (Keep the broth.) Unfortunately, we can’t compost them.

Step five: fry and simmer the vegetables. We take a whole large onion and chop it into pieces. That, some oil, a pinch of salt, and maybe a couple of cloves of chopped garlic, are tossed into the bottom of the large pot. Heat and stir until the bitterness has come out of the onions. Add a whole head of celery, also chopped. Stir around for a while. When it all tastes amazing and the celery is starting to soften, add hot water to cover.

Step six: do you have any random drippings to add? Some folks like to barbeque or roast their meat. Some folks like to save those drippings. If you’re one of those folks, this is a great way to use them! Add those to the veggie soup that you just made, so they melt down and add all that roasty flavour into the soup.

Step seven: blend the heck out of it. At this point, you have two parts to your bone broth: the bone broth itself (the liquid left over from simmering the bones) and this lovely vegetable soup. Run the vegetable soup through the blender until all of the chunks are gone. Mix the bone broth and blended soup together in a large vessel if you have one, or just aim for half and half in your storage containers.

Step eight: cool, freeze, thaw and serve. Let the soup+broth combo cool and then pop the majority into the freezer. This is super-rich and filling, and we’re about to make it even more rich with the (optional) MCT oil. We like to use 250ml (1 cup) Mason-style jars for single servings. We just cover the bottom of the jar with MCT oil (medium-chain triglycerides, rumoured to be excellent for fuelling the brain) and fill the rest with this lovely broth-soup combo. We keep enough in the fridge for seven days, and tend to drink one with lunch. One of us likes it cold; the other enjoys warming it by placing the jar in warmish water for a half-hour before lunch.

When we’re about two days away from emptying the stock in the fridge, we take out one of the frozen containers and leave it to thaw. Fill seven days’ worth of jars, and the fridge is once again restocked.

Popular question: but is it worth the effort? Can’t I just buy bone broth from the store? Try it and see whether you prefer your own. I know we do, for two main reasons:
1. I adjusted the recipe until we love it. 😉 It’s exactly to our taste.
2. That fabulous butcher down the street sells bone broth, and I’m a big fan of it as a product …but then what do I do with the plastic bag in which it was sold? And what do I do with all of the bones that we’ve saved?

Happy, healthy, nutritious and satisfying broth luck to you! I hope you enjoy this – and would love to hear about your experience and adaptations. 🙂

Why yes, that is six bottles of homemade liquid soap

Okay so, COVID’s a thing, and we’ve all embraced this thorough handwashing habit. I myself am perfectly comfortable with bar soap (handmade by me, of course) but my partner is more a fan of the liquid soap. This, my friends, is all the excuse I needed to learn to make low-impact liquid soap.

I made a batch a year or so ago, so full disclosure this was my second batch. However, if you’ve ever made soap before, you know that the lye evolves slowly over time, even in ideal storage, so every batch is a bit of an adventure. 😉 That, and I may have forgotten to mark the page of the first recipe that I followed….

First off, let me say that Liquid Soapmaking by Jackie Thompson is one of the few books that I’ve seen recognized again and again by the online soapmaking community. I’m not saying there aren’t loads of other fabulous authors out there, just that Jackie seems to have figured this out. I’m not a fan of paper books and have very few on my shelves (most are e-books) but if the end of the world happens, I’m thinking that soap is one of the things I’ll want to be able to make 😉 so you better believe I have a paper copy of this book.

Have you ever made soap? No? Dude. It’s easy. Well, in this modern world it’s easy, because we don’t have to burn a barrel full of ashes and steep them in water for the lye, and we don’t have to grow a bunch of oleaginous plants and smash them for the oil. Plus, because of global capitalist colonialism, it’s quite easy to get our hands on ingredients like coconut oil. Aaaanyhow…

All that aside, because I live in this current world, I’m looking at three choices:

  1. do the ashes and plants thing;
  2. buy bulk organic and fair-trade oils and order some chem-lab lye, to make my own soap and store it in recycled bottles;
  3. buy factory-produced soap made from the lowest-bidder oils and sold in single-use plastic bottles.

Until I can produce my own oils in large enough quantities (I’m looking at about a handful of flax seeds from this year’s garden), it feels like my organic-fair-trade-oil homemade-soap plan is the lesser of two realistic evils.

So, you’re all excited about making your own soap, right? Quick tip: Jackie writes this tiny little tip all tucked away for the engaged reader to find, and ermagerd does it ever work:

Jackie Thompson – secret to WAY less work when making liquid soaps

Usually, soap making takes quite a long time. It’s totally worth it, but there’s this stage at which you’re waiting for the oil + lye + water mix to come to “trace” (to thicken, as it undergoes a chemical change and magically becomes soap) and that can take anywhere from a while to a looooooong while. 😉 This tip? Seriously? Brought my last batch to trace within four minutes of initiating the blending stage. That’s QUICK.

The liquid stage, after having sat all night waiting for The Blending Stage.
The solid stage, AMAZINGLY QUICK after trying the Jackie-approved overnight method

How awesome is that? High five, Jackie, wherever you are. 👍

PS: those shop towels became my painting rags after I made soap. Didn’t harmed my brushes, and gave them a thorough second life before garbage. Next batch will use washable towels. I learned the error of my ways.

Okay so, how difficult is soapmaking? Not. Not difficult at all. I had a kick at making bar soap first, and that was loads of fun. I suggest spending some time learning about oils and their properties, because some oils make foamy soap and some make slimey soap, and the internet is heckin’ full of ideas, resource, and guilds. It’s easy to get caught up in the fancy swirly sparkly soap, and I suggest buying gear that will either last your whole life or will make a friend very happy to inherit. I lucked out and exchanged most of my fancy-soap-making gear with a colleague for some of her fancy-but-less-useful-to-her yarn and that was a win for both of us.

As it happens, liquid soapmaking is just a easy as solid soapmaking. At the end of the day, you’re mixing lye with oil and water to make soap. You cook the heck out of it, and then you add more water. Then you ignore it for a week so it can finish its process. At that point, you can bottle it (I like to save alcohol bottles with corks, because a) they’re lovely and b) they’re free if you drink alcohol, or know someone who does) and store it for however long it takes to use up. We use a little bit of pickling salt to thicken the soap, and then we use reusable foaming soap dispensers to create a fabulous, simple, COVID-destroying, none-hand-drying, handwashing experience.

Side note: every time I go to the community garden, I’m expected to wash my hands on entry and exit with an industrial brand of soap. It’s …well… gross. I strongly dislike the aroma and the slimy leftover feeling. Homemade soap has none of that. It’s clean, it scrubs well, it foams up nicely, and then it rinses away. Done. Awesome. Success 👍😍

First-ever Sauerkraut!

Sauerkraut waltzed into my life years ago, when we were living on Tancook Island, Nova Scotia. The good people of Tancook have generations of expertise and wowza, do they make a heck of a sauerkraut. It’s so good, in fact, that companies advertise Tancookstyle kraut!

Anyhow – I had never made it myself before now. I thought it was mysterious, complicated, science-magic. I was mistaken: it’s simple and downright glorious! My first batch was a total winner. Somehow, the timing and temperature were entirely perfect and this delicious fermented goodness tastes satisfyingly rich, even buttery. (Oh, I agree, I would never had said “buttery” and “sauerkraut” in the same sentence before today.)

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Sauerkraut day! Yum!

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I ended up with two batches, one litre/quart size that I started eating after four days of fermenting and which has lived in my fridge for a month and a half, being steadily devoured. In Wild Fermentation, Sandor Ellix Katz writes that sauerkraut can be ready anywhere between four days and several months, so just for the heck of it I left the smaller batch (about a cup) out for a little over a month. I don’t know what I expected exactly, but had the vague suspicion that the yeasts might make it a little alcohol-ish? Little drunk cabbages? It wasn’t that. 🙂 It is, however, delicious. I’m not sure that it’s so epic that I would refrain from eating the kraut for a month while it does its thing, but I would say that if I accidentally forgot a batch I would happily still eat it a month later.

Sandor also writes that many cultures (as in humans, not yeast) insist on a few mouthfuls of fermented food with every meal. Adding daily kombucha to my life a couple of years ago was a gut-changer (dude. so much better. if you have rumbly guts, give vinegary kombucha try and see how it feels. See here for a recipe and more info) so I decided to try Sandor’s plan and have been making a point of eating fermented foods at least twice a day. It has been entirely lovely, my friends.

Want to get your sauerkraut game going? I heartily recommend Wild Fermentation as an intro guide and general awesomeness. If you’re in a hurry and can’t wait for the paperback to arrive, Kindle and Kobo both have an e-book edition. All you’ll need is a cabbage, a knife and cutting board, a bit of salt, and something to squish the cabbage. Your hands will do just fine for that last bit. 😉 If you’re feeling fancy, there’s a company called MasonTops that makes a kit with the essential fermentation tools and I can recommend them from personal experience: Fermentation Kit with weights, packer, and one-way vents. Just add Mason-style jars.

Okay so anyhow, in a nutshell you do this (see photos above):

  1. Buy a beautiful cabbage, ideally grown locally.
  2. Slice the cabbage thinly. Save one whole outer leaf for step 5. I like to quarter the cabbage so the slices are short, not like sauerkraut spaghetti.
  3. Salt the cabbage in a big bowl (I use my trusty popcorn-party bowl, not classy but has been with us for decades). You’ll only need a tablespoon or two of salt, depending on the size of yo
  4. Squish the cabbage: the squishing and salt will bring out cabbage juice. Keep going until you can squeeze the cabbage and juice comes out: see Sandor’s book for an excellent photo and be sure to pose like Sandor to impress your friends. You’ll feel mighty.
  5. Pack the cabbage tightly in a jar and be sure that it’s covered by its own juices. If you had an obnoxiously dry cabbage, add a bit of water to cover. Place a piece of the whole outer leaf on top of the sliced cabbage, to keep the little bits from floating over the weight (step 6).
  6. Place a weight on top, then some kind of one-way venting lid (or at least, a cloth to keep out dust and curious flies).
  7. Leave the jars in a room-temperature location to ferment. Walk away. Feel good about your awesomeness.
  8. Check it after a couple of days, and keep checking every couple of days until it’s amazing.

Enjoy! Epic, delicious, bio-active, freakin’ nutritious, gut-happy sauerkraut that is head and shoulders above anything you’ve ever bought in a store.

The Majestic E-Bike Trailer

I bought a bicycle trailer! Let me tell you all about this majestic addition to the urban homestead. Here we are on the trial run this morning, with a light test load:

Let’s be honest: I’ve done well enough over the years carrying silly things (small appliances, rugs) on my motorcycle and more sensible things (groceries, furniture) in my partner’s car. My bicycle has a front rack and small panniers, and that box of apples that I hauled last week didn’t fall off, so you could say that I don’t really need a trailer.

Once I had the idea in the back on my mind, though, I kept seeing moments where a trailer would make all the difference, allowing me to run errands, stretch my legs, and be out in the sunshine. Hauling wood to build planters, or hauling tools to help a neighbour build their garden? Hmmm… a bike trailer would be excellent. Ferrying plants from my balcony to be transplanted in my community garden plot? From experience, the small, bouncy, windblown front rack is a rough experience for the plants, but an encloseable trailer could be much more pleasant (and I could carry more than three plants). Carrying too many groceries to walk, but I’m only a few blocks from the store so the motorbike seems wasteful? You guessed it – bike trailer!

Know what convinced me, though? The steps that I’ve been taking to reduce my impact and make daily choices to live a human-scale, community-scale life. Buying a trailer that was made in another country and shipped from the retailer to me clearly isn’t community-scale …but what if I buy this and pay off the ecological expense by reducing my impact in the years to come? What if I leave my motorcycle behind more often? What if I use this for my eventual dream permaculture business, helping folks to heal the land that they steward through rich soil and clean waterways? What if I buy a trailer that I can repair in the future and use for the rest of my life? I started to research.

The market is full of designs, and from my perspective they can be grouped as follows:

  • Fairly unique designs, like a single wheel with a large pannier on each side (we bought one fifteen years ago for what would have been a cycling trip around Ireland, if only our bicycles hadn’t been destroyed on the flight. Turns out the trailer was perfect for the friend who inherited it.)
  • The single-wheel, flat-bottom, V-style attachment type of trailer like the Bob Ibex: iconic, right? The newest model has shock absorption to reduce rattle and bounce, and seems pretty fabulous. Similar trailers have two-pronged kickstands and turn into wheelbarrows.
  • The steel-bottomed, steel-caged, two-wheeled trailers that will probably last forever but are heckin’ heavy. Rumour has it they’re rattly. I haven’t heard one myself but I don’t love the idea of waking the neighbours and terrifying the deer as I cycle past.
  • The fabric-body, metal-frame, lighter-weight with sturdy carrying capacity, style of trailer like the Burley Nomad. This and their open-ended trailer are impressive and I looked into buying one, but they seem to be sold out …everywhere. COVID year is a weird year, and I wish the Burley factory folk continued health; hopefully they’re just selling out faster than they can make trailers.
  • Hats off to the many homemade trailers out there. 🙂 Plywood and boards, PVC pipes, metal pipes, rattan: I had a lot of fun exploring ideas and reading peoples’ experiences, considering how I might build my own from recycled bike wheels and various parts. High five to everyone who has shared their plans online!

I realized that I was getting a little obsessed, so I took a break and observed real life for a while. This is what they say, right? That you put out your intention, then sit back and wait for the right thing/person/opportunity to arrive? One day, by luck or fate, I stumbled across a new trailer and it had all of the features and specifications that I was hoping for: Everyday Bicycles Cargo Trailer. (This blog isn’t sponsored: I’m just sharing my experience.) It has a couple of cons which I’ll identify, but I ordered it and am overall quite pleased. I took the majestic bike-and-trailer combo for its first 44km ride this morning and will be taking it to its first fruit-sorting event with LifeCycles later this week.

Fog on the fields this morning, just after dawn, during the test ride out to my little community garden plot.

Pros:

  • Easy to assemble, wheels pop off for storage, light enough to hang on the wall if you’re into vertical storage.
  • Steel frame with removable cloth body (rubberized on the bottom).
  • Folding rear wall so you can boldly carry longer items.
  • Beautifully balanced and turns smoothly.
  • Six attachment points for straps or bungee cords, a cargo net, or the optional weatherproof cover (which I totally purchased – it rains here).
  • A spring hinge in the tow bar to allow for a smoother ride.
  • The tow bar has two dedicated positions: trailing behind a bike, and trailing behind a human. If I bring a load of plants to the garden, I can unhook the trailer from the bike, adjust the tow bar, and walk the plants to my plot in one trip.
  • Advertised to carry up to 100lbs.
  • The company sells replacement parts, and there’s a complete parts list (with ID numbers) in the manual.
  • I’ve towed this over gravel, broken concrete, lovely paved roads, and it’s all been easy and smooth.

Cons:

  • The company doesn’t publish the dimensions …? That’s so weird. It’s 18″W x 25″L internal dimensions, plus 5″ on each side for the width of the wheels.
  • The axles pop out along with the wheels, which sounds sensible, except that to allow for the sprung bearings at the end of the axles that hold the wheels in place when mounted, the inner ends of the axles rub against the fabric body ..? The trailer has harder plastic patches on the body behind the axles …but it appears that when the trailer is loaded, the fabric body sags a bit and the plastic patches are no longer aligned. I imagine I’ll be patching that someday, or finding a preventive reinforcement option.
  • There’s nowhere to store the cover …? I’ll add a pocket, which isn’t a big deal in my mind, but I imagine folks who don’t like to alter their purchases would be disappointed.

You know what, though? I’m down with this trailer. I’m going to use the heck out of it, and it’s going to last a lifetime, even if I have to get a little creative in a few years to replace the cloth part. I’m okay with creative, and honestly, learning from a designer’s best guess is a great place to start. Let the adventures begin!

Update: I took the majestic trailer out today for a 52km ride, and it performed admirably! Hauled many pounds of squooshed fruit (for homebrewing fruit wine: it would have been composted otherwise) from the LifeCycles fruit sorting extravaganza, and two things were immediately apparent: I couldn’t have hauled this home without the bike trailer (there was too much and it was too juicy) and the rubberized bottom on the trailer is a total win! Kept the juice contained so I didn’t leave a leaky trail through the hallway of my apartment building when I wheeled the sodden, delicious-smelling load up to my apartment. There was even room for a harvest from the community garden, which I visited on my way home. Rad! Mmmm, now to get some brews going…

Deliberate degrowth

I’ve just finished reading Degrowth in the Suburbs, by Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson. It was captivating, eminently well-timed with this COVID19 situation, and an affirmation that my efforts to make, mend, grow, and choose to make do, are not only worthwhile but rational choices in an energy-crazy world.

Have you heard the terms “peak oil” or “peak energy”? In short, these describe the point at which energy demand outstrips energy availability. Once upon a time, societies would increase when more energy became available: more food, more warmth, more health = more babies. For the past few hundred years, however, energy-hungry societies (with a special focus on capitalist-colonial societies) have expanded well beyond that basic survive/thrive balance and turned to measuring available energy by the amount of available combustibles like carbon and fossil fuels. Demand has increased exponentially, which has in turn driven more fuel extraction, which has allowed for more growth, which people have embraced …you get the idea.

This ever-expanding energy use is so much a part of everyday culture that we rarely question it. Ask your grandparents how many people had a family car when they were little; then walk around your neighbourhood and count how many cars, trucks, boats, motorhomes, quads, motorbikes, ride-on lawnmowers you see. Now ask your grandparents how often people walked or cycled around town when they were growing up, and think about how often you do.

Agreed, we have life-saving vehicles like emergency-response helicopters and fire trucks, and I think most people agree that those are worth the energy expenditure. However, consider how much energy is being used for completely unnecessary things …like plastic-wrapped cucumbers. (If you haven’t see this before, it’s super-common here in British Columbia, Canada. Why? Whyyyyy?) Think of how many people, vehicles, factories, mines, and fuel, went into making that single-use plastic wrap that will last for hundreds of years, all so a cucumber will stay crisp for two more days in a supermarket.

“We begin by reminding readers that fossil fuels, which currently make up 86% of global primary energy consumption, are finite, and therefore carbon civilization, one way or another, has a time limit.” (p.36)

I think we’re all aware by now that fossil fuels won’t last forever. Globally, a peak oil crisis was narrowly averted in the past decade because extraction from tar sands and shale was underwritten by fossil fuel companies that were running out of more familiar options. These are marginal sources, and we’re pushing toward peak oil again. Knowing this, we as individuals and societies have the opportunity to pause and rebalance. We can decide how best to use these remaining fossil fuels, how to decrease our individual and collective use. Will we spend today’s fuels on creating, transporting, assembling, and establishing renewable energy systems (solar power, wind turbines, and so on) so that we’re no longer reliant on combustibles? …Well… one certainly hopes so. I like to believe that we can transition gracefully and maintain the services that enrich our global wellbeing: medicine, rescue vehicles, international knowledge exchange.

The thing is, capitalist-colonial societies by definition are short-sightedly extractive, competitive and focused on maximum profit. Change isn’t likely to happen unless we each change ourselves. I know, it can feel like one person’s changes have very little effect. Think about that earlier example, though: the switch from automobiles being rare to families owning several personal vehicles happened one person at a time.

So, here’s where deliberate degrowth comes into play. We can either keep burning combustibles as fast as possible, until rather suddenly we run out and we’re horribly unprepared for that abrupt change… or we can start weaning ourselves off them today.

Reduce personal consumption: these choices are right in front of us. Walk or ride a bicycle instead of driving a car. Buy bulk foods instead of packaged foods; buy a cucumber that isn’t wrapped in plastic! Sit in a restaurant instead of ordering takeout, or visit restaurants that invite you to bring your own takeout container. Make, mend, and reuse objects until they can’t be used any longer, then recycle them conscientiously (and make sure they’re actually being recycled). Don’t buy what you don’t need. We’ve heard all of these before, and they’re still true. Hold each object in your hand and really think about what you’re holding. How many ways can you reuse that peanut butter jar, and for how many years? What will you do with this shirt when it has a stain or a tear: will you mend it, cut it into quilt pieces, compost it?

Reduce upstream and downstream consumption: these are the “less obvious” choices that we’re still responsible for but have been trained to ignore, because ignorant people are more reliable consumers. Make what you can make, and keep learning to make more. Partner with others in your community to share knowledge, tools, skills, time, and other resources. When you do buy something, spend time thinking about where it came from: all the way from the field or mine to the factory, through transportation and packaging, through the store where you bought it. How often will you use that object and how will you share it? How will you fix it when it breaks? What will you do with it when it’s no longer fixable?

Do you really need a gas-powered ride-on lawnmower, or can you hire your neighbour’s kid to mow your lawn with the push-mower that she borrows from the neighbourhood tool-lending library (and learns how to take care of, thereby increasing her skills)? Heck, can you change your lawn to a garden to feed your family? Can you shift your lawn to wildflowers and feed local bees to help your neighbour’s garden?

Grow food. It genuinely doesn’t matter whether you start with herbs in your windowsill or a six-acre farm: grow something. Start today. The internet, the library, your neighbours, family, and friends, are all potentially excellent resources. Find a community gardens and join a worker-bee day to connect with gardeners; visit a farmer’s market and look for plant starts (little vegetable plants that are ready to be planted in pots or in your garden). Buy seeds from a local supplier; ask around and see if anyone has soil, compost, or worm castings (that’s worm poo; it’s wonderful for plants) to share with you.

When you want to learn more about permaculture, which is far more than gardening but definitely includes gardening and degrowth, there’s a world of resources available to you. Take a look at the permaculture posts on this site, for a start. 😉 Alexander and Gleeson refer frequently to Retrosuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future, by David Holmgren, so I’ve bumped that higher on my to-read list.

Do you know what might be the biggest change, though? Slow down. Change your expectations. Choose a more peaceful, more joyful lifestyle that’s far less reliant on things and far more reliant on experiences. Breathe. Make, mend, create, grow, and find joy doing it.

Hugs and carrots 😀