Originally published at Substack, 9/13/2020
When I was young and very broke in NYC, I figured a girl has to eat, and so cooking became my main source of entertainment. And because I was brokety broke broke broke on my $8/hr editorial assistant salary, I started researching the cuisines of places where folks didn’t have much money. Books like Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed, or Linda West Eckhardt’s American Gumbo, and even the James Beard Theory and Practice books — all of these taught me how people who liked to eat had gotten through lean times.
Lean times are upon us. Here in the West, everything is on fire, and this spring demonstrated how fragile the supply lines are that bring supplies from afar. We’re lucky here in that we’re still an agricultural community, and one that has, since the 2008 crash in particular, been working to build a robust local food system. We have lots of meat, from game to pork, beef and local chicken producers. Vegetables are a little trickier, although we’ve seen several recent MSU Ag school grads go into hydroponic greens production in the Bozeman area (I suspect those greenhouses are actually investments in a future when pot is legal here, but for now, we have lettuce).
I’ve gardened and canned since I moved here in 2002, and in fact, it was one of the reasons I did move here. Joan Dye Grussow’s great book This Organic Life was my north star as I learned to grow and put up food. And then, since what I can grow best in this climate is greens — Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Greens taught me how to cook with them. (Although I’m currently in love with Samin Nosrat’s Persian Kuku Sabzi). Most of the project of building gardens and learning to put food up is documented over on my blog Livingsmallblog.com.
I think what we’ve been through the last six months is just the beginning of a long, rough period in our history. The upcoming election promises chaos at the least, probably outbreaks of violence in places (including, I fear, here), and if we can’t displace this current kleptocratic regime, we’re looking at both real political repression and accelerating climate crisis of the sort that currently has the entire West in flames. This could get quite bad.
And so, as I did all those years ago when I didn’t know how I was going to pay rent and feed myself, I’ve turned to cookbooks written by people who survived. Right now, I’m deep in cookbooks from the former Soviet Union — a place where folks survived political repression and huge food supply problems largely through a culture of growing and making food outside the official channels.
Olia Hercules is a writer who grew up in Ukraine and moved to London as a young woman. She’s written three cookbooks now, and Summer Kitchens has been on my bedside table all summer long. It’s been so hot here the past few summers that I hardly cook inside anymore, and I bought a new gas grill setup in part because it had both a pizza oven attachment, and because I can take the grill box off and use the 30k BTU burner for the huge canning pot. Once Himself builds me the platform he’s promised, it will be a sort of outdoor kitchen that I can use for both dinner, and project cooking.
Mostly what I cook from Olia’s books isn’t even cooking — it’s fermenting. She has so many great techniques for fermenting and then preserving vegetables, from fermented green tomatoes stuffed with garlic and herbs, to perfect dill pickles. Her Instagram is a great appendix to her books, for it’s there she really shows us how these foods work in everyday life. Her soup method is one I’ve completely taken on the past couple of years. Make a broth, then use the fat from the top of the broth to sauté up some onions and perhaps some carrot and celery. Add some of the meat, a little sourness from one of the pickle ferments, perhaps some greens. She has real recipes in her books, but what I’m always looking for in cookbooks from cultures different to mine is techniques. The ways you can use them to cook with what you have. The entire landscape of food has become so restaurant and recipe focused the past few years, and that is very much not how I cook. I’m much more interested in looking around, seeing what you have, then finding ways to make something delicious from that, than I am in going to a grocery store with a list and trying to recreate some restaurant meal.
The other writer whose techniques I’ve been studying is Irina Georgescu, who like Olia Hercules lives in London now, although she’s Romanian instead of Ukranian. Her book Carpathia: Food from the Heart of Romania is another one I’ve been reading over and over. Both books are filled with stories of the writers’ parents strategies for finding, cooking and preserving food in tricky times, and both come from food traditions that seem to prioritize technique over the specific recipe. For instance, Georgescu has a dough recipe that’s used for all kinds of pies, savory and sweet — and I’ve been using it to make hand pies from leftovers. A little leftover chicken or sausage or hamburger? Leftover mashed potato? The dough is easy to pull together, and not as high in fat as pie crust — a quick rest, roll out some circles, pop a few tablespoons of leftovers and a sprinkling of cheese inside and it’s a new dinner, or, in my case, a lot of them have gone into the freezer for later. Georgescu also has a whole section on Pickles, Preserves, Compotes and Drinks that I’ve been poring over.
There were two fabulous Russian cookbooks that came out recently — Salt and Time by Alissa Timoshkina who grew up in Siberia, and Beyond the North Wind by Darra Goldstein. Again, the emphasis is on fermented flavors, and since I’m currently in a phase where I’m obsessed with dumplings, there are Piroshki, and soups, and crunchy salads made from winter vegetables. As we go into a very uncertain winter, reading about how people kept themselves fed and warm during longer, darker times is helping me feel like I’ve got a plan.
And more than just having a plan to keep me and my Himself fed this winter, learning how to grow and preserve food outside the corporate systems that currently have us all hamstrung feels like a set of skills I can use not just for us, but for my neighbors. I’m casting around to figure out mutual support networks. Who has what skills? Who is willing to share what resources? How can we all keep one another safe as a period of real political and economic and, here in the west, physical danger descends on us? If we haven’t been already, it’s time to start making plans.