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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Food for Long-Term Survival, by Sheila C.

Preserved food in Mason jarsImage via Wikipedia
Many food strategies have been discussed in preparation for a TEOTWAWKI scenario: beans, rice, MREs, coupon-based purchases and heirloom vegetable seeds, just to name a few. However, there are certain limitations to a food-storage-only strategy. MREs, for instance, are quite expensive and only provide one meal at a time. They would be great for an emergency G.O.O.D. situation, but not long-term sustainable when you are packing everything you have in the world on your back. And beans and rice are wonderful staple foods, but what do you do when you run out of them… or worst case scenario happens and you have to flee your refuge? I have to admit, I have a considerable supply of beans and rice and heirloom seeds, but I also have many years’ experience preserving food and developing meal plans for backpacking. I have found that there are numerous ways to preserve food with contingency plans. I have a passion for food, and in this article I am going to discuss approaches to raising, harvesting, and preserving various types of food with flexibility in mind.
Several years ago, while on a backpacking trek with my teenage son, I concluded that the little pre-packaged backpacking foods were not going to meet our needs. We had just spent a good part of the day hiking over the top of a rugged mountain, and were ravenous. I prepared one of those expensive backpacking meals on our little stove while my son setup camp. As we finished up with “dinner”, my boy looked over at me and asked, “Is that it? There’s nothing more?” Suffice it to say, it was time for a change.

Since then, I 've looked at food a bit differently when I buy storage foods. I think of dehydrated foods as backpacking food and I imagine how I will use it in meals on a trek. I also look at much of my planning for food storage with the thought that I may need to carry some of that food on my back someday, and how to make it lighter. So in spite of my thousand-or-so Mason jars, I always look at food preservation as a multi-faceted process – some of the food will be preserved to use at home, while some will need to be light and ready to go.

In a long-term survival situation, protein and fat are two of the most important sources of nutrition, especially for athletic people. Carbo-loading can only take you so far, and then your body will have to start breaking down muscle for energy. Meat and fish are some of the best sources of protein and fats. On my little farm, I have some chickens, goats and cows. I also live in an area where there is an abundance of wildlife. Today, most meat is preserved in the freezer, with some being jerked or canned occasionally. However, if there were to be no power, how would this vital resource be preserved? Although I have many canning jars, my strategy for meat will be smoking and drying. While I may can a few jars of meat, I will be more interested in keeping those jars for fruits and vegetables, and here’s why – re-hydrated meat in stews and some dishes can be almost as good as fresh, and it makes more sense to me to have it in its most condensed form. I have been using jerky in backpacking dishes for several years. It is light, easy to work with, has good flavor, and it provides that very important protein we need when climbing rugged mountains.

There are many ways to “jerk” meat. While the most important additive is salt, a good jerky mix with spices and seasonings is hard to beat. I have stockpiled some good seasonings, and I also grow garlic, onions and peppers that could be used if I run out of my supply. I try to buy another carton of Morton’s salt every time I go grocery shopping (at the cost of around 50 cents). My family uses a propane smoker for fish and jerky today. However, propane may be difficult to obtain in a TEOTWAWKI situation. The Native Americans sun-dried the bison and other wildlife they preserved for their winter food. Sylvan Hart (The Last of the Mountain Men) had a space between his fireplace and the rock wall behind it that he used for smoking meat. There are many ways to make jerky, and I anticipate my strategy would change some if I did not have access to modern conveniences, so I have developed several crude backup plans for drying meat. For instance, apple wood is abundant in my area, and I would use the coals from an apple wood based fire along with mason’s screen I have on hand for makeshift drying racks over the burning coals. Or I could use those screens with thinly-sliced pieces of marinated meat in the sun. I feel that I may need to improvise, based on the conditions of the world around me.

Last year, on one of my backpacking adventures, I forgot to bring the fuel for the backpacking stove. We improvised and cooked all of our meals over the fire on a small aluminum grill I carry tied to the back of my pack. I was amazed at how well I could control the heat (with a bit of effort) and how tasty the fish were when we cooked them directly over the fire. I had to be careful not to leave them over the fire too long or they quickly began to dry out. It was this experience that got me to thinking about how an efficient little drying system could be “McGyver-engineered” on the fly. I started looking around at things I have at home, and thinking about what could be used and how. My point is that there is sun, wind and fire available in most scenarios, and a person may need to get by with some ingenuity.

When I plan my backpacking meals, I always include some type of jerky-meat as the base. That teenage boy of mine can really eat, and he needs his protein. I usually try to make one-pan meals, and I start with water and jerky. I have noticed that high-quality jerky re-hydrates better. It usually takes about 20 minutes of low heat and water for the jerky to start “plumping” up, as it re-hydrates. It is at this point that I begin adding other dehydrated ingredients to the dish, because the jerky seems to take the longest to re-hydrate. The flavors in the jerky need to “jive” with the flavors of the dish, so I plan accordingly. Presently, I buy various types of jerky to match my meal plans – turkey, chicken, spicy-chicken, and beef – but I have also developed ideas about how to flavor homemade dried meats in order to be cooking ready. When I have prepared a meal, it is a solid meal and the boy is full. And it costs me less, takes up less space and is lighter than most of the fancy backpacking meals.

Last winter I used some venison jerky to make a stew in a Dutch-oven on my woodstove. I just wanted to see how it would turn out. While it was not the same as fresh venison, it turned out nicely and it made a good meal, even in the world of modern conveniences. I spent a large amount of time experimenting with woodstove cooking last winter and found that there are a lot of possibilities for food drying. If I needed to dry meat in the winter, I would use a set of racks over the woodstove. I also found that some meat tasted better when wrapped in foil and cooked inside the woodstove, so I believe there is good potential for using the inside portion as a drying mechanism as well.

Many people still prefer canned meat, and I will probably want to can some meat if I do not have the option of my freezer. For canning of meats, it is important to note that they MUST be done with the aid of a pressure cooker in order to be safe for consumption. I have eaten a number of very tasty dishes prepared with meat from a Mason jar. Canned meat has a long history in our civilized world, so I would never dismiss it as irrelevant. It can be a delicious substitute to fresh and dried meats. I have decided to limit canning meat because I like the flexibility that dried meat provides, and I love canned fruits and vegetables, so I will be keeping most of my jars for them.

I try to raise a good variety of vegetables in my garden, for both fresh veggies and for the seeds. I don’t really need the seeds right now, but it makes me feel good when I can plant something I grew last year, and it comes up and produces what I expect it to. My seed harvest is pretty simple, I leave some of the plants to go to seed and harvest them when they are mature and dried. I have some beans that will be harvested as “green beans” and I have some that I vine-dry for a mature bean harvest. Apparently (according to Mom) home-canned green beans can cause botulism if not canned in a pressure cooker. Mature beans take a lot of work to produce a pot of beans. Dried beans have to be hulled after they are picked in their dry shell from the vine. However, the work is worth it to me because they will fit nicely into a backpacking meal if need be and they are easier to store.

I also raise a substantial quantity of tomatoes. Tomatoes are almost a staple food for me, as they have great nutritional value and are used for the base of a large amount of my home recipes. I prefer canned tomatoes for most of my recipes; however, sun-dried tomatoes work nicely in a pinch and are a preferred ingredient for some of my Italian dishes. Tomatoes are another vegetable that people will tell you to use a pressure cooker for canning. I grew up canning, and we canned a lot of tomatoes without the pressure cooker, but I understand that botulism is not a pleasant experience. I was told as a child that we were supposed to boil the tomatoes from a home-canned jar for 10 minutes before we tasted them. Apparently that worked, because I never have experienced botulism.

Most vegetables can be dried and re-hydrated well, but there are many of them that really don’t do well being canned. Summer squash is a vegetable that dries well but I have yet to see someone can it in a way I would want to eat it later. Canned corn is pretty good, but dried corn is also good and can be a versatile ingredient for one-pot dishes. I was a child of the hippy generation, so I grew up tending a huge garden. We let some sweet corn dry in the husk and then hulled it. We ground some of it for corn meal and it made the yummiest cornbread I have ever tasted. We also re-hydrated some of it, and while it was not that great by itself, it tasted good in a dish with other veggies. We also dried peppers, onions and carrots for stews and flavorings. In the summer, we had large screens full of fruits are vegetables drying in the sun almost constantly. Dried vegetables are a good source of nutrition and easier to store and transport.

The root vegetables are the easiest to preserve if you are not on the move. Potatoes, carrots, beets, and onions all do well if you store them in a cool dry place (preferably a basement). In the old days, people built “root cellars” that were made for precisely this storage need. They were below the earth’s surface and therefore did not freeze during the winter and stayed cool during the summer. I lived in an old farmhouse as a kid that had a “Cadillac” of root cellars, encased in a nice concrete form with a fancy little roof on it. I think the less fancy root cellars were probably more functional, but we had a lot of space for stuff and it was somewhat clean. However, my present day root storage plan involves a dugout place in the crawl space under my house. It is the best I can do without a basement or a formal root cellar. In short, root vegetables will last for the longest if they are kept cool, dry, and away from light. Root vegetables can also be dehydrated for the backpacking adventure.

For me, there is nothing quite like a wonderful jar of peaches in January. I grew up with a fairly big orchard operation, and while I developed a resentment of canning, I also developed a lifelong love of canned fruit in the winter. Scurvy was a terrible problem for early settlers because they went for long periods of time without access to Vitamin C. Fruits are wonderful sources of Vitamin C, as well as many other essential nutrients. I think I would probably fill most of my Mason jars with fruit if I did not have the sense to stop myself. If you want to get the most Vitamin C, apricots are where it is at. They are reported to have one of the highest concentrations of Vitamin C and other antioxidants that support the immune system. Fruits are also less “dangerous” to can, in that you do not need a pressure cooker to make them safe. However, do not forget to dry a bunch of fruit in case you have to carry them in a backpack. Fruit really is (in my humble opinion) the most flexible for preservation and the most fun to enjoy.

An older woman friend of mine (a master gardener) recently said, “I am a home maker – wherever I am, I make it a home because I provide food and comfort. This is what makes a home, so I am a home maker.” That statement resonated with me because it is so real for now and in any situation we may face in the future. I make it my priority to understand food from as many angles I can because I am a home maker, regardless of where that home may be (backpacking, living in my little retreat, or running for my life). I believe the world could use more home makers.

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