Sunday, January 23, 2011

Everyday Emergencies

For the last week my husband and children have had a stomach flu and all I’ve been doing is wiping whatnots and cleaning up unspeakables.  And just when my husband and daughter are able to mostly control their bodily functions, it has somehow transmogrified into a respiratory infection.  My poor little boy gets both problems at once.

This is our first round of simultaneous illnesses with the kids and we’re lucky that I didn’t get sick too. Yet. So I’ve been learning what everyone who has small children knows: at a time like this there are two many temperatures to take, tummies to tend, brows to cool, cries to comfort, and messes to clean up, for anything like normal life to carry on.  That means laundry doesn’t get done, bread doesn’t get baked, yogurt doesn’t get fermented, gardens don’t get weeded, jam doesn’t get made, and so on.  Certainly errands and appointments have to wait.  These are the kinds of ordinary, everyday code reds that I realize now I was unprepared for.

I somehow managed to run out of yogurt and the small jar I usually set aside to start the next batch turned out to be a jar of home-rendered lard my sister had given me at Christmas.  Where did my starter jar end up?  I don’t know but I assume we ate it at some point.  And yogurt was the only thing my daughter wanted or could keep down.

We had no juice on hand, since we ordinarily don’t drink it, and my daughter was refusing regular water.  We had nothing like Pedialite or Gatorade either.  No soup ready-made.  No crackers.  A cold front came in and tore through some tender just-sprouting greens before I could get a chance to cover them.  Laundry is piled in mountains. 

By a cruel twist of fate, for the last few months I’ve been trying to use up last years home-canned, frozen, and dehydrated foods, the bulk-purchased flours and grains, honey, beef, chicken, and pork, all to make way for the next season.  So we were low on everything.  We didn’t actually run out of any of those things, but if we’d needed to go much longer without a trip to the store, we would have.

The kind of preparedness I’d been working on, the stockpiles I’ve built, the skills I’ve developed, are useful for many things, but not necessarily for the intensity of a bunch of sick people in the house.  So now I’m thinking through how to develop preparedness for the everyday emergencies of life.

1.  Have a week of easy meals at hand, canned or in the freezer.  There are times when scratch cooking just isn’t possible or practical.  I can’t tell you how much I would have appreciated some homemade chicken soup last week, but I could never find the time to make it. I actually did something like this when my family came to stay for Christmas.  I had many gallons of soup, stew, and beans along with a dozen loaves of bread waiting in the freezer.  It meant we had plenty of time to just enjoy each other.

2.  As much as I despise the stuff, I’m going to start keeping Pedialite, Gatorade, and frozen juice stocked in the house.  Depending on the day and the mood, the kids would refuse or prefer Pedialite, Gatorade, water, my homemade electrolyte solution, or juice.  And some days, even the time to mix up the electrolyte solution was too much.

3. I also need to plan a method for rotating stockpiles that doesn’t involve letting so many things run out at once.  I’ll be thinking this through more over the next few weeks.

I don’t want to make this sound more dire than it was.  It wasn’t dire at all, in fact.  Just inconvenient.  I could have run to the store or sent my retching husband.  At any point, I could have called a friend to fetch me some things.  We still had plenty of everything, including some stores of food designed to last thirty years or more, sent to us by my sweet in-laws.  But how nice some homemade chicken soup would have been, waiting in the freezer.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

On Not Trying New Things

I started making this bread about twenty years ago, from a community cookbook that had been my mothers, and that she gave me when I left home.  It's just a simple sandwich bread, made from white flour, although over the years I started making it from mostly wheat.  

Then, after a trip to France, I fell in love with baguette style loaves, and because at that time we lived within walking distance of two very fine bakeries, I stopped baking althogether.  When we moved out to this rural area, I started trying to duplicate French style baguettes, with moderate success, using the no-knead bread recipes the New York Times went crazy over.  

Which us all well and good.  It's fun to experiment and learn new things.  But my husband really prefers sandwich bread so we ended up buying bread half the time and my trusty old recipe got mostly forgotten.  When my large family came to stay for Christmas, I pulled my old recipe out again, and discovered I was a pretty rusty sanndwich bread maker.  I wanted to have enough loaves baked and frozen so that everyone could help themselves to sandwiches for lunch.  That means I needed about a dozen loaves to get through the holidays, minimum.  The first few loaves came out kind of wonky.  I could no longer double and triple the recipe with ease.  I'd forgotten how much whole wheat I used to substitute for white, that I'd started using less yeast and letting it rise longer.  That sort of thing.  The sort of thing a cook knows how to do from years of practice or learns in the kitchen of another experienced cook.

I guess what I'm talking about is tradition.  I'm talking about the ordinary, every day traditions that we lose all too easily in a generation or so, if we're not careful.  My mother talked about my paternal grandmother's yeast biscuits, which to hear her tell it, were as big as a loaf of bread and as light as a wisp of smoke.  Maybe they were really that special or maybe they only became so in her memory but we'll never know because that recipe was lost when Grandmother left her mortal coil.  Now that my own mother is gone too, I find myself reaching for the phone sometimes still, to ask her how she made her oatmeal, and why mine never tastes the same.  My younger sister does the same thing and we both pine for that oatmeal, but too bad for us.  We waited too long to get her technique.

Too bad for the world too.  It's all too easy to lose touch with skills that were common just a generation or so ago: gardening, sewing, home repairs, animal husbandry, and so on.  In the world I grew up in,  cheap oil and the notion of an ever-expanding economy allowed us to believe we could, even should, let go of those traditional skills.  And we can't reclaim them overnight either.  It takes time to learn how to garden well, for example.  It takes season after season to learn about a particular climate and microclimate, to even begin to get a glimmer of understanding about how seasons work, how seeds like to sprout, what makes a tender plant thrive and what consigns it to failure.  It takes time to develop any skill and it's always best to learn from an experienced teacher, although books are a great source too.

So what I'm circling around to in this rambling post is that it's fun and instructive to try new things, like French style baguettes, but having a practiced, make-it-in-your-sleep skill, like I once had for sandwich bread as part of our every day repertoire cannot be neglected.