Simple Homesteading: Food Culture is About Sharing
Our Homesteading Heritage is About Caring for Others
I’ve always gardened and cooked for my family. But I didn’t realize how much my simple homesteading centered on them until I no longer had family to feed.
My husband had gone to the Philippines on business for three weeks. And since I had looming deadlines and little time to concentrate with my bustling and boisterous family around me, I sent the children to spend Fall Break with their grandmother. I craved time to simply work. To catch up. I figured it would be paradise.
Within two days, the counters overflowed with garden produce. Among the squash and peppers sat a stunning tomato. At least a pound, it was a beefsteak-sized beauty in a climate that makes growing beefsteaks difficult. I just couldn’t eat this by myself. So I snapped a picture and texted my friend, Bonnie.
“I grew the most amazing tomato ever and have nobody to share it with. So I want to give it to you.”
Tomatoes that beautiful must be shared.
Bonnie came right over with her husband, both of whom admire self-sustaining living. They walked out with the tomato, a huge zucchino rampicante squash, some heirloom popcorn, peppers, and a bag of Painted Mountain corn to plant in their garden. They forbade their children to cut that tomato until they could enjoy it together as a family.
Growing up, my comfort foods were potato salad, corn on the cob, and seasoned venison medallions. Most of our food came from the garden or was brought to the table during hunting season. White-wrapped packages filled both freezers, meat that had never passed through a feedlot. Mom’s canning decorated a pantry that Dad had constructed just for her. On weekend mornings, Dad woke at 4am to milk my uncle’s cattle in trade for the two gallons we drank per day.
Dad worked six days a week. Seven, if you count milking the cows. But every Sunday, after returning from the barn and changing his clothes, he started a batch of hash browns and buttermilk biscuits. He could have gone back to bed. Church didn’t start for a few more hours. And though he loved his biscuits and hash browns, he didn’t cook for himself any more than I cut a beautiful tomato for my own plate. He did it so Mom could have a day off. It was simple homesteading done with love.
From my parents, I learned that food culture is hard work, making choices and showing love.
I still haven’t mastered Dad’s homegrown hash browns, but I cook the biscuits for my husband and children, using my homemade yogurt instead of store-bought buttermilk. My husband calls them “my wife’s yogurt biscuits.” But we both know better. They’re Dad’s.
As I picked up a package of pastries in my supermarket, my husband said, “That’s very European.” He had spent two years serving a mission for our church in Lisbon, Portugal and Cape Verde, Africa. The flaky turnovers, filled with not-too-sweet dark chocolate, reminded him of Portuguese cuisine.
In Lisbon, he said, cooks visited the market often. The lady of the house was humiliated if she served day-old bread. Corn was pig food; the most he saw of corn was a bag of Fritos at a tourist stop. Missionaries often subsist on the community’s goodwill so my husband ate what the locals fed him. Horse is good, he says, but cat is nasty. The most disgusting thing he ate was sheep eyeball soup. In Cape Verde, fish, rice, and fruit from free-growing mango trees dominated the cuisine. People ate when and where they could and he lost a lot of weight while on the island. But one dish stood out within both countries: piri piri chicken, made with paprika, onions, and hot peppers. Now, when he thinks of that mission, he thinks of piri piri.
Several years later he studied linguistic anthropology and worked with the Owens Valley Paiute tribe to help revitalize and document their language. Within the reservations of Bishop, Big Pine, and Death Valley, California, he ate wild onions, saltgrass seed, and beetles. During pine nut season he accompanied tribal elders as they harvested gallons of what would sell for a fortune in a grocery store. He ate what they shared as he learned the culture. And he discovered most of it was delicious.
As I listen to his stories, I wonder how someone would describe my food culture. My identity. Friends talk about originality, of freshness and wholeness. I suppose mine would be the from-scratch foods popular with simple homesteading today. Yogurt biscuits, homegrown chicken. Vanilla extract steeped at least four months before it’s used to make homemade eggnog. As close to the earth as I can get while still living in modern times. That’s my food identity.
Whatever We Can Offer
My friend Stacy raises her own pigs. As part of our local homesteading communities, she’s my source of amazing pork. But in Stacy’s location, much higher in elevation than my cozy urban setting, soil is barren and the weather is unforgiving. Stacy gardens but can’t grow as much as I can in my little yard
But when Stacy brought a box of pork and bacon for me, she didn’t talk about money or reciprocation. “I want to share,” she said. “For people to realize how good this is and to know that they can do it, too.”
She left with a huge squash that will feed her family for a couple meals. And an agreement that she had two free sessions with me at my day job as a massage therapist. Stacy gave what she could offer and I reciprocated within my own means.
People just stepping into simple homesteading are either overwhelmed or overzealous. They expect to be able to do everything and don’t take a moment to slow down, take a breath, and consider the good things they have to offer. Nobody can offer everything.
Before I became a massage therapist, I worked warehouse jobs. My favorite part was lunch hour, and not because it was the short time I didn’t have to work. Reno has a large Hispanic population of first-generation immigrants and their children. While others sat in solitude, eating peanut butter sandwiches, the Hispanic employees gathered at the same table. One gentleman opened a bowl of rice prepared by his wife. A woman brought slow-simmered chicken molé. Two others had enough tortillas to share with the entire group. I watched in envy of the sense of community these employees shared. Then they invited me to their table. I was honored and I strove to reciprocate with something I could share. It took a few days to get the hang of it. Peanut butter sandwiches just didn’t work, but a bowl of fruit easily graced everyone’s plates.
Now, I try to tell the homesteading neophytes: “Focus on one or two good things. Go from there. Everyone has something to offer but nobody has everything.”
Some have pork. Others make amazing bread. Some are master gardeners while others’ skill is cooking what comes from the garden. I have eggs. Lots of eggs. Just today, I distributed nine dozen among friends through cash transactions or trades. Sometimes I’ll just bring a dozen to a friend who’s been feeling down. A carton of fresh multicolored eggs has amazing therapeutic powers.
As We Gather Together
Food culture is about sharing. It’s about coming together and presenting what’s delicious, what we’re proud of, and what will bless others’ lives.
My family only gathers for Thanksgiving every few years. We’re strewn across Nevada, Montana, and different parts of Idaho. Gas is expensive and time off work is hard to come by; our simple homesteading techniques don’t offer much to carry us over state lines. But this year we met at Dad’s house for the first time since Mom’s funeral over ten years ago.
Things have changed since our childhoods. And I don’t just mean the loss of Mom.
We can’t eat the comfort foods we enjoyed as kids. One sister is now allergic to corn; another can’t handle lactose. Sugar makes the third sister sick, turning pumpkin and cherry pies into forbidden fruits. Several of us can’t have wheat and the thought of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner is farcical.
Each sibling regrets how his or her needs affect others, but each is also happy to accommodate everyone else.
Last year, I created a safe, corn-free hot sauce recipe specifically for one sister. “You don’t have to do that,” she kept saying. “I know my allergy is difficult to work with.”
I told her, “You don’t realize what a joy it is to create a recipe for someone you love.”
And with that she stopped apologizing. Because it’s not a sacrifice or a burden if it’s about love. Just as our food-filled family gatherings aren’t hardships. We cook for each other, accommodate each others’ needs. And we do it joyfully.
The best cuisine is served in restaurants, where chefs prepare it for delighted customers, or in the home kitchen where it’s made for those waiting around the table. It’s grown by farmers or gardeners, with the intent to distribute it within the household or over state lines. Whether it’s within a restaurant, a large-scale farm, or part simple homesteading, food culture is about sharing with those you love.