Keeping Our Food Local, or Keeping Our Local Food by Alex Herbert

Alex Herbert was the chef and owner at the wonderful Bird Cow Fish in Sydney, and now sells ‘breakfast and stuff’ at the Eveleigh Market. I first discovered her offering little morsels of food ethics in 140 characters or less over on twitter, and had the pleasure to enjoy a meal from her delicious local, sustainable, ethical menu before she closed Bird Cow Fish. This is a talk Alex posted on Facebook yesterday that struck me as a beautiful reflection on the meaning and value of local food, and a great contribution to the discussion here on Food Ethics. You can follow Alex on twitter where she’s @birdcowfish

I was asked to give a little talk at the Sustain Northern Rivers Forum the other day. It went something like this….

“To bee or not to bee? That is the question”

There was a young woman called Sarah, say in her early thirties who had taken up the practice of ceramics many years before. She had been taught by a master and had acquired rapidly diminishing skills. Her work was unique.

She had held down several jobs at once to try to make ends meet but she had now decided that she wanted to concentrate on her ceramics full time and pass on her skills and knowledge. She was faced with the new challenge of trying to make a living solely from her craft which she had studied and practiced for many years.

She created a series of beautiful plates but when it came to deciding what price to sell them for she was at a complete loss so she asked the advice of a friend. This friend knew nothing about the value of ceramics but she responded with a series of questions.

“Tell me, how much money do you want or need to make a year? $65,000

“Now tell me how many weeks a year do you wish to work? “I’d like to have four weeks off a year.

“How many days per week do you wish to work?” Well I would like to try to only work 4 days per week.

So you need to make $340 dollars per day after costs.
How many plates can you make per day?

I could probably make 10 plates per day by the time I do all my other stuff and each plate costs me about $10 in materials.

Right so you need to sell $440 of plates per day. So that’s 10 plates, so each plate needs to cost at least $44

The young woman was shocked. She thought no one will pay that for my plates?

The Food Industry like the Arts is one that is built upon a whole heap of passion.

All the way along the Food Chain we can hear the wonderful stories of how people came to be involved in it. And when I speak of the food chain I am referring to all the elements that link the food from the farm to the table.

Many are born into the family business whilst others like myself seemingly fall haplessly into it then only later realize that the love as in my case for cooking was in fact always there bubbling away below the surface.

Of course there are two parts to the Food Chain. There is the Boutique and the Mainstream. Each however faces the challenges of “sustainability” which I will take as meaning being able to survive economically, socially, environmentally and politically.

One of the problems facing many “ Boutique” producers is just how much do many subsidise their product through their passion. How many days a week do most small business owners work?

One of the questions that hang over more mainstream, commercialized operations is just how much are other factors such as the health of the land and its people subsidizing the product? The horror stories of Indian farmers taking their lives because of being locked into seed contracts with Monsanto despite failed crops and escalating debt is an extreme but real example of what can go terribly wrong when profits are put before everything else.

So despite these two extremely different scenarios one question is still appropriate to both.

What is the True cost of food?
What are the long term risks that we face?

Well we know that farmland is getting scarcer. The lure of property dollar value can be an overwhelming temptation especially when viewed alongside declining margins and the fact that many of our children would rather work 9 -5 on a good weekly wage than become their hardworking parents.

So we are losing land and skills that are going to be almost impossible to get back.
What can we do about it?

Well we can try and take responsibility for it.

We are all part of the Food chain some as producers and distributors but we are all consumers. I am sure there is some old saying that goes something like “good housekeeping starts at home”.

The title on today’s invitation read “Keeping our food local”. I would like to propose that it is even more important to “Keep our Local Food”.

I had dinner last night with two friends, Pete and John. They were amongst my original Eveleigh Market customers from over four years ago when the market first started and now they live in Byron.

They moved into their new house in March of this year.
Within a few weeks of moving in they noticed that they had a lot of bees at the back of the house. As the bees swarmed their suspicions were aroused. Finally they found that the wall of the upstairs bedroom was very warm. Very, very warm. So they searched down a bee keeper.

Yari was found and confirmed that there was a hive between the outside brick and inner plaster wall.

The bees had to go.

A fumigator could have done the job but fumigation would have also left behind a trail of dead bees and honey locked away forever.

Yari however offered to remove them and so he was engaged to perform the daylong task of rescuing the bees and their honey.

Bees are precious. We know that they play a crucial part in the pollination process. Yari knows this but he also just loves bees. The bees now live in Nimbin. Over 10kgs of honey comb was gathered and shared from a hive that had been growing for years. Peter has wonderful pics of everyone from the day sitting around diving out the honey comb. The wall has been plastered up.

Yari returned for two more visits following the initial rescue to collect the straggler bees. Small swarms of bees collected over the subsequent days. Peter has pictures of them attaching themselves to the wall where the hive used to be. Hiveless, Queen less bees. It was so sad. Yari managed to collect many of these but the remaining died.

So this is a pretty good example of local food right?

It’s a really good example of preciousness that had no money value attached to it. ….Priceless in other words.

How do you put a $ value on saving some bees and sharing some honey?
How do you put a value on cooking a meal? (I will come back to this later)

When I had my restaurant Bird Cow Fish I held many Regional Food and Wine Dinners. They were wonderful dinners where we were able to showcase producers and products that weren’t ordinarily available to us. These dinners along with having been a Delicious Produce Awards judge for the last three years has exposed me to many wonderful local foods.

So here is my take on local food. On a micro level it is imperative that we support out local producers but I do not believe that it should be at the exclusion of other “local foods”. I’m not an exponent of the 100mile ONLY rule.

Sourcing, selling and eating local foods means we are more likely to have a direct relationship with those who have grown it. We are more likely to know their story. We are more likely to place greater value on that product simply because we are connected to it.
Supporting local food provides these producers a base from which to build from. It can create an acknowledged Food Bowl, community of collaboration and support.

Supporting local food also means that the elements in the food chain are reduced. The less hands involved in the process generally means the smaller the gap between what the primary producers earns and the final cost of the sale product.

That being said I also believe in supporting all local foods and not just those that are local to me (easier said for me as I live in a city). But the reason for my thinking is not just because of my circumstance but because diversity is important as is promoting regions who specialize in certain foods. The sustainability of many producers’ business means that they cannot limit themselves to only supplying a local market. Finding a like minded distributor can be the key. Feather and Bone in Sydney are an excellent example of a distributor who works with his producers to educate and distribute the product.

But transportation and logistics are a huge challenge. I remember on of my dinners The Hilltops Region in NSW with Brian Freeman’s wines I wanted to use this magnificent Texel lamb. I did eventually get it but not until bob had dropped it at his mates place Len who then took it to Max at the pub and then Joan his wife who was driving to Sydney delivered it to me. The most gorgeous lamb that was being sold at the local supermarket with no hint of its origins or quality.

Wendell Berry, a highly regarded writer and farmer who lives in Kentucky in the US said “Eating is an agricultural Act”.

I think that one of the main keys to local food is not just supporting what is local to you but also wanting to know the story. Where has my food come from regardless if it is from over the fence or across the river? What makes it taste so good? Why does it perhaps cost more than other like products? What makes it valuable?

These are questions as a chef that I am used to asking my suppliers.

I now cook breakfast and stuff at the weekly Eveleigh market in Carriage works at Redfern in Sydney. I am surrounded by producers. The products that I use in the food that I produce are all sourced from the market. My customers ask me all the time whose eggs do you use? Whose bread? Whose milk? Just as much as they ask me HOW I made something.

They are interested in the stories like the wonderful collaboration between John Fairleigh from Country Valley Milk and Pierre from Pepe Saya butter who uses his cream. These two me are a wonderful example of how local producers are working together to value add to their products, educate the end consumers and have a lot of fun along the way.

I firmly believe that education is the key.
Educate people about the product and how to use it.

Michael Pollan in his book “Cooking” argues that “To cook is to vote” To cook at a time when one doesn’t have to is to make a conscious decision to be a producer and not just a consumer”

So back to “To be or not to be”

“To cook or not to cook” perhaps that is the question?

For me as a chef I agree with Pollan. I believe cooking is empowering. It means that I am in control. I can feed myself and my family. But this food security is dependent upon being able to source food locally, regardless of where I am.

As Wendell Berry said in his Jefferson speech, it turns on affection, 2012 “There is no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people. When one is abused the other suffers.”

The value of being able to shop for locally produced food, the value of being able to cook, the value in sharing a meal are all part of belonging to a community. Its hard to put a dollar value on these attributes but one that we need to if we are going to preserve them.

So back to our lady friend Sarah who wanted to make plates.
She realized that if she wanted to make her plates for a living that it had to be sustainable. She had to be able to support herself. She couldn’t just do it because she was passionate about it.

She had to understand what the true cost of her time was in the making of the plates. She had to appreciate and value the time and energy that she had put into learning her craft over many years.

She had to accept that the market for her plates was probably going to be quite small as she was only a very small artisan producer and could not compete with the larger, industrialised producers of similar but not the same plates.

New markets could be found but only through communicating her story to a wider audience. She needed to educate them as to why her plates were so special and worthy of their price tag.

And when she did all this suddenly her plates didn’t seem so expensive any more because she had taken into account their TRUE value.

Butchering a steer (Our meat is real, part 3)

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‘What’s this bit then?’ asked Bron. ‘Err, brisket? No, blade!’ I hazard to guess after scrutinising the MLA cut poster for the 107th time. This was on Saturday. By Monday, I was naming unidentified cuts ‘pirate fillet’. So. Much. Beef.

As you’ll recall, this year we’re only eating our own meat here on the farm, and so a couple weeks ago we butchered our first steer with only a poster, an English butchery book and an Australian video as our guides. Oh, and youtube, when the internet was fast enough. NBN anyone?

My butcher told me I was crazy, and I told him to be more optimistic. Turns out we were both right, I’m crazy, but optimism pays off. So do knife skills, perseverance, and a strong back.

The steer was hung for a week at the abattoir before Stuart brought it home in quarters. Our cattle are Lowlines, a breed stemmed from Angus, but short in stature with a high feed conversion ratio, so we got a 209kg carcass back. This sounds a lot (and trust me, it’s a lot to cut up), but compared with many other breeds, it’s pretty small. I hadn’t considered how grateful I would be for that smallness when it came time to butcher it! It still took us three nine-hour days…

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So following on from my growing experience of butchering pigs, I had an armoury of sharp knives at the ready, and a few buckets and bins for all the trim that would become mince or soap (seriously, we planned to make soap with the tallow we would render from the fat… sadly, we failed to do this. It’s on the list for next time though…), and for the glorious bones (I may have shouted ‘phở!’ when I boned out the first leg…). I didn’t think through the irritation of using a book from the UK and an Australian video, so that when I followed one initially, the subsequent cuts wouldn’t match the first ones… ‘live and learn’ was a bit of a mantra…

It wasn’t just me – I had Stuart, my dear friend Bronwyn, and 13-year-old amazing son Oscar to help on Saturday. Sunday was just me and Oscar while Stuart did pork deliveries and dropped Bron back at home.

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Monday was just me in the morning, with Stuart re-joining after farm chores for the final stretch that afternoon. I just want you to know these details so if anyone else reads this thinking a very inexperienced smallholder can just ‘cut up a cow in a day’ you’ll know you really really need more people, not to mention more skills! It’s a Very Big Job to cut up a cow*. (*Never say ‘cut up a cow’ to a farmer, who will make you feel a right idgit for appearing not to know the difference between a cow and a steer.)

So we started with a forequarter. No matter which way I looked at it, it a) wasn’t a pig, and b) didn’t look like any of my butchery instruction pictures.

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Sure, I made the first cut okay, but then it was all just ‘soooooo, I’ll just follow *that* muscle…’ Seriously, though, when Stuart cut the first osso buco, I was totally sold.

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If some brisket was mislabelled as chuck, or blade as brisket, I can live with that – we know it’s all muscle meat and will cook it accordingly. As the first cuts slid into the cryovac bags, the satisfaction of the 2013 Our Meat Is Real project hit full force. Not just pigs anymore, we’re now self sufficient in beef and pork, and soon we’ll be adding lamb to our repertoire – amazing!

As we moved along the first half of the beast, things got more exciting, if only because who can’t identify a rib eye when they see one?! And just as it is with the pigs, it’s very useful to learn just how little of this prime cut you get from one steer, and why it’s therefore so prized. I’ll be cooking these with reverent joy in the months to come – and I reckon each one can feed about four people!

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The flank was also easy to identify, but if you think this section of the carcass went more quickly, you might be wrong as sawing through beef bones (phở!’) is really hard work.

The first hindquarter was also rather daunting – it’s a lot bigger than a ham!

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And then there’s the matter of ‘top side’ or ‘top round’ and ‘bottom round’, as distinct from the rump, and which bit is silverside again? So, yeah, we have some lovely roasts that may not know their top from their bottom, but will surely all taste delicious. We brined three pieces – two for corned beef (we ate the first one last night, actually, and it was sensational cooked up in a pot with kohlrabi & celeriac, onion, garlic, peppercorns and cloves), and one that I’ll be smoking this week for pastrami, along with a streaky bacon… the joys of home butchery and curing! And then there was the second osso buco! Yessssssss…

We finished up around 6pm, washed our hands and faces, and dashed off to our mate Cait’s 40th with a bunch of freshly butchered ribs and the first tenderloin, which we barbecued very simply with salt, pepper and olive oil. It was fun to regale everyone with our amateur efforts, and the beef was as well received as the few pork chops we also brought along in a marinade of plum sauce, soy, and star anise.

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Day 2 dawned. Half a beast remained. Stuart and Bronwyn left Oscar and me with encouraging words…

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One thing I won’t do again, I think, is start at the middle on the second half. My brain is perhaps too linear, but I should have repeated the pattern I did the first time and started at the forequarter. As I was still trying to work all the cuts out, jumping around led to extra unnecessary confusion in an already confusing job!

Straight to the ribs we went, though, cutting out a scotch fillet roast this time instead of individual rib eye steaks. I left it intentionally big in anticipation of a lovely winter feast with a large group of friends… who don’t seem in short supply when they hear there’s Jonai meat on the menu!

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While it was much slower going with only two of us to cut, Oscar was a marvel of knife skills, and served diligently as Chief Trimmer all day. He can trim the silverskin off a cut with less waste than any of the rest of us, I’m proud to report.

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On this side, rather than pulling out the tenderloin (or eye fillet as we usually call it here in Oz), I cut out porterhouse and t-bone steaks – and without a bandsaw, I left them reaaaaallly thick – dinosaur steaks! Each one should easily feed our family, though I suspect there may be some competition for the tender eye…

The porterhouse end...
The porterhouse end…
The t-bone end...
The t-bone end…
Dinosaur steaks!
Dinosaur steaks!

This is also where I realised a mistake I was making all along – I trimmed off too much fat. 🙁 There are different sorts of fat on cattle, and without an experienced butcher to guide me, I sort of just fell into a habit of trimming most of it off, much to my later dismay when I sat back and thought about it. We love fat – fat is flavour! Nick Huggins was quick to point out the error of my ways on Facebook, and I’ll certainly do that differently next time.

When Stuart got back from doing deliveries all day in Melbourne, he found Oscar and I a mere halfway through the second side of beef, and pretty knackered at that… a very quick dinner of garlic and cashew stir fried Jonai beef served with sweet & sour vegies was our reward before an early night to bed…

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Day 3. For those still with me here, yes, I said ‘Day 3’. I woke to tight shoulders, a sore neck, and growing forearms, feeling pretty pleased with myself. Stuart of course thought this was an opportune time to juice 150kg of windfall apples with our lovely WWOOFer for the week, Arata, and the kids. Oh, how he loves to test me…

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For those wondering where we kept the carcass these three days, it was hanging in the shed. Temperatures were cool, but by the third day we were very conscious that this meat needed to get colder again! The pressure was on…

The two littlest Jonai made it home from a few days with their grandparents and cousins down the coast the night before, so were now ready to help with the home stretch. Atticus quickly discovered just how hard it is to saw through a leg bone…

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As we were cutting the final forequarter around 5pm on Monday night, I carved out a brisket roast, browned it off in my cast iron, chucked in an onion, some lovely Angelica organic garlic and rosemary plucked from the garden, and poured a bottle of Stuart’s homebrew dark IPA over it, then popped it in a low oven for three hours.

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Stuart sawed the fourth and final osso buco (have you noticed I quite like osso buco?), we washed everything down, and sank wearily but happily into our seats to feast on the most delicious roast I think I’ve ever eaten. Cutting up a whole beast has that effect on flavour, I reckon. 😉

I do look forward to the next steer, though it will be nearly a year before we need another one for our own consumption, we think. I also look forward to doing it with a coolroom at my disposal, and a fully fitted out boning room, including a bandsaw!

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If you’d like to support our efforts to become skilful, local butchers of our own meat, in a facility we’ll also make available to other smallholders like ourselves, check out our Pozible project to crowdfund a boning room here on the farm!

2013: Our Meat is Real

In 2010 it was sourdough. This year it’s meat.

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My journey into the world of breadmaking resulted in a life of no bought bread, and I anticipate this year’s meat venture will do the same. In short, if we haven’t raised or caught the meat ourselves, we won’t be eating it at home.

As those who’ve been here before already know, I was a vegetarian for seven years and now I am a free-range rare breed pig farmer along with my hypercompetent husband Stuart and three orsmkids. I was not a vegetarian because I thought humans shouldn’t eat non-human animals. It was because I couldn’t bear to be complicit in the realities of industrial meat farming – ‘Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations’ or CAFOs, where animals are never given the opportunity to dig, scratch, munch on grass and otherwise express what Joel Salatin calls ‘the pigness of the pig’. I don’t want to make animals suffer throughout their lives so that they can end up on our plates, and nor do I want to participate in the environmental degradation caused by intensive systems. So when I came back to meat, I stuck with ethically raised, until ultimately we decided to take our ethics and our advocacy to the next level by becoming producers ourselves.

So as smallholders, we are in the luxurious position of being able to raise our own animals as part of a healthy agroecological system, whereby some of them are for sale for the economic viability that allows us to live here, and some are for our own consumption. The pigs are our tractors, efficiently turning the soil in preparation for the next season’s fodder crop (and for our expansive vegie garden), the sheep and cattle manage the grass growth and keep our paddocks healthy and safer from fires, and the chooks convert our kitchen scraps into a plentiful supply of eggs (and we eat the excess roosters).

On our 69 acres, we’ll ultimately have about 10 rare breed Large Black sows, two boars and an ever-fluctuating number of weaners and growers, and then we also currently have a dozen Lowline Angus cattle and seven Lincoln sheep. The very awesome Ellie also just brought us about 100 rainbow trout fingerlings that we’ve put in the Home Dam and are hoping won’t be eaten by cormorants… and then there’s the ever-expanding flock of heritage and common chooks.

We will, of course, be slaughtering pigs regularly as that’s our primary farming business, so I think there will be a ready supply of pork, both fresh and cured. However, we tend to serve lovely pork roasts only for gatherings here on the farm, and we eat mostly cured pork in small doses as a flavouring for otherwise vegetable-based meals, plus the occasional sausage. In short, just because we’re pig farmers doesn’t mean we’ll be binging all year on pork.

Our aim is to slaughter about one cow per month and sell the meat locally, which will also mean we’ll have access to beef when we want it, but I’m going to record our consumption and we’re aiming to basically eat one cow this year.

With the sheep, we have one ram and four ewes, all of whom had their first lambs last winter. One had twins who died of exposure the first night and another was killed by either a fox or more likely, our dog Maya, who sadly had to be put down as she was a menace to small animals. 🙁 That left us with just two lambs, a ewe and a ram (which Stuart castrated so is now a wether). As our original ram is not the father of the ewe lamb, we’re keeping her so we’ll have one more breeder, leaving us with just the wether to eat. And so what might have been as many as five lambs to eat this year was reduced to one, and that is what we’ll eat.

It’s these vagaries of supply that we lose touch with when our only connection to the meat we eat is through the butcher or the supermarket. Have you ever thought about how many lambs it took for your annual consumption of cutlets? Chicken thighs? Pork belly? And who eats all the parts you don’t like or know how to cook? I’ll be in a much more knowledgeable position as the year progresses to tell you what a smallholder can produce for home consumption in a year, and also which cuts become the real treasures when they’re only enjoyed once or twice in the entire year.

Roast chicken used to be an annual event, not a weekly one. And there’s a good reason for it – it’s bad maths (in both global and domestic economies) to eat too many chickens, and good maths to eat lots of eggs instead. We won’t be killing the goose, we’ll be collecting the golden eggs. Only surplus roosters that grow from eggs hatched by the broody bantams will be eaten here on the farm, which means very little chicken in our diet. And when you think about how many lives we take for consumption, one cow goes a hell of a lot further than a chook.

An exciting aspect of this adventure is that I’ll be butchering whole carcasses myself with Stuart’s help. I figure I need to so that I understand the cuts better before sending subsequent carcasses to the butcher with my cut sheet so we can have confidence in what we sell. I butchered our first pig last month and it was fascinating and extremely useful to understand more deeply how many pigs it takes to sustain a household of omnivores. Next up is a cow, which I’ve been sternly warned to have quartered at the abattoir to make it possible to handle!

In short, I’m hoping that through our year of what we propose will be a sustainable amount of meat eating in an ethical, smallholder system, we’ll be able to demonstrate how much meat (and the diversity of cuts and animals) is sustainable for the planet and its many inhabitants. We expect to continue our habit of roughly 50% vegetarian dinners, and of course small portions of meat at omnivorous mealtimes. In fact we’re starting the year with nothing but a slab of our bacon in the fridge as we wait for the next slaughter, so are looking at a purely vegetarian couple of weeks, which is fine with us, and a great season for divine salads full of nuts and berries!

But you don’t have to live on the land to eat like you do. Hopefully this will be a model for city dwellers and country folk alike, because we’re all living on the same planet. Here’s to a tasty 2013!

Who has time to make bread? You do.

Nearly two years ago I set out to make reliably good sourdough, and in the last two months I think I got there. There have been many months of experimenting, unreliable record keeping, distracted successes and focused failures along the way, and for those of you who don’t want to wait two years to make good bread, I’m going to give you my recipe.

I use a stand mixer for mine, which does save time and makes working with a wet, sticky dough a lot easier, but it can easily be done by hand without a lot of extra time required as I use a minimal kneading technique. I’ve learned that supermarket, stock standard flour doesn’t make great bread – these days I’m using 12.5kg bags of pizza flour from UCG Wholesalers. Pizza flour is a ‘strong flour’, that is, it has a higher gluten content, which is better for bread and pizza. Low gluten flours (which are typical of most self-rising and plain flours in the supermarket) are best for cakes and pastries. As I bake almost every day, I get through 12.5kg every three weeks or so, and it’s great value from UCG (there’s one in Melbourne CBD and one up on Bell St in Preston). I play with other flours occasionally too, especially rye, but my results are a lot more variable to date.

As for my starter, Fran, I feed her about a tablespoon of flour & a bit less of water each day, give her a quick stir and leave her on the bench with a lid loosely perched on the plastic honey jar in which she resides. In really hot weather I usually pop her in the fridge or she gets a bit manky (we must be related). It took me ages to learn not to add too much starter to my bread – the acidity keeps the gluten from making a lovely, stretchy, chewy crumb.

I’ve stuck with adding a bit of commercial dry yeast to get a reliable rise, and if I need to speed it up (when there’s no time for an overnight rise), I just add a bit more.

The key to sourdough is long rises, not loads of labour, in my experience. Hence putting a dough on in the morning, popping it into tins before bed, and into the oven in the morning seems to work perfectly, with minimal effort on my part and maximum time for farming all day. 🙂

Recipe

1T starter (give or take – I often make double quantities, but only up the starter by about half)

2C pizza flour

1C tepid tap water (I reckon our rainwater has improved the bread too, by the way)

pinch flake salt

1tsp dry yeast

drizzle olive oil

Method

Pour starter into bowl. Add flour, dry yeast, salt, water and oil. Knead on lowest setting or by hand for about 1 minute – just until combined. Let stand 15 minutes. Knead again for about 30 seconds.

Brush a light covering of olive oil on top and leave to rise (prove) for 6-10 hours. The wetness of the dough and temperature and humidity in your house will determine the right length of time, but you can also make it suit your schedule. If you get home late from work, it may have fallen from the top of its rise a bit, but it doesn’t really matter, you’ll still get great bread from the second rise.

For the second rise, I don’t really ‘punch it down’, I simply pour it out of the bowl and fold it over like a book, turned at 90 degrees repeatedly, to form bubbles inside until it’s quite tight and doesn’t want to stretch any further. Then I put it into a lightly oiled (and usually with polenta on bottom) bread tin for the final rise. NB oil your hands and the board for this bit to avoid loads of sticky dough everywhere. Allow to rise overnight.

A quick note on stickyness – I love the results of a wetter dough, but too wet and it doesn’t rise with structure (so needs to be in a tin, not on a tray), too dry and you get dry bread. A really wet dough may rise beautifully but collapse before you hop up in the morning to bake it – the result will still be good, but just a bit shorter with a tougher top crust. Keep experimenting until it’s how you like it best.

Sunken loaves from a wet dough left to rise too long - still noms!

My favourite bit is waking up with a gorgeous sunrise washing through the house and turn on the oven to warm the kitchen.

I bake my bread on the lowest rack at max temp (which on my oven is around 250C) for about 20 minutes – until the top is golden & the bottom makes a hollow sound if you tap it. Occasionally I remember to put a water bath on the top rack or spray some water in for more yummy holes in the bread.

Enjoy your warm, fresh loaves every morning and take time to reflect on what a mood enhancer they are.

There’s no doubt that making bread feels good – it’s homely, nurturing & nostalgic – and if you’re making good bread, it’s especially satisfying. And given I devote around 10 minutes prep time to mine (that includes all stages), I no longer believe anyone who says it’s too hard or too time consuming, or that it’s some Little House on the Prairie anti-feminist practice.

What’s the best thing since sliced bread? A whole loaf you made yourself.

Mood leaveners

Kids in the Kitchen

Every year it’s the same. ‘Mama, what do you want for your birthday?’ is answered with ‘for all of you to be lovely to me and each other for the entire day, and you could make me brekky…’ with hopeful eyes. This year surpassed my wildest expectations as my dear elder children (aged 11 and 10) made me (and Stuart and his parents) brekky, lunch AND dinner. And folks, it wasn’t tea and toast.

It was a beautiful Sunday and all I wanted to do that day was work on pig-proofing the fences in the first pig paddock.

A happy birthday girl, out fencing.

And so when the kids started menu planning the night before I was delighted, but anticipated the need for a fair bit of adult assistance during the day. They chose their recipes from the wonderful Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Cooking with Kids, which does an excellent job of being thorough in its descriptions without being patronising or pitching too low. Every recipe we’ve used from this cookbook has been delicious!

Shortly after sunrise they were at work on brekky – baked eggs with spinach, herbs and tomato, served on the sourdough I’d made the night before. They had a little bit of assistance from Stuart with managing the 10-inch cast-iron frypan, but that was about all. And wait for it… Oscar roasted and ground the cumin seeds in the mortar and pestle. Most of my adult friends don’t do that!

The meal was delicious – truly great flavours and textures as one would expect from experienced cooks. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the skills, patience and love from my children and in heaven at the result!

Out to fencing we went, and the kids commenced almost immediately on lunch. They worked away cheerfully, only pausing to enjoy the luscious almond chocolate cake for morning tea made by Nana Ros with Atticus’ help.

If we thought brekky was impressive, lunch knocked me out. Oscar made falafels, once again toasting and grinding cumin and coriander seeds, and fried them beautifully as Antigone made fresh pitas – pointing out to us that she made the dough by hand as the stand mixer was full of dough for that night’s calzone.

They chose to make a selection of dips as accompaniments: hummus, guacamole and pico de gallo, all served beautifully on a platter with fresh capsicum and wedges of lemon. In fact, their presentation was as flawless as their flavours. Once again, I was blown away, as were Stuart and his parents.

Surely they couldn’t top all that with dinner? Well, in fairness, I wouldn’t say they topped it, but dinner was equally delicious – a herb and cheese calzone served with tabbouleh. The only help on this one was that I put a sourdough on for them in the morning with a little commercial yeast to speed the rise. As the adults were still working outside through until dinnertime, they had no help at all with dividing, rolling, filling and cooking the calzone, nor with cooking the bulgur.

As we sat there sated and raving about their efforts for the day, my awesome pair hopped up and quickly whipped up some lemon crepes for dessert. Yes, I’m serious.

To what would I attribute this display of skills and showering of love from my much-beloved children? I can give the obvious answer that they’ve cooked with both Stuart and me since they could stand on a chair at the butcher’s block, and that in our house cooking is definitely a way to show love.

But a really important ingredient in their success had nothing to do with me – and that’s Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Kitchen Garden program (and no, I don’t work for them!).

We tried to get the program into our old school but a resistant Principal (thankfully now retired) thwarted the Council’s best efforts. But at the kids’ new school there is a thriving kitchen garden program with wonderful teachers. Oscar and Antigone had each had one class before my birthday. One class was all it took for their confidence to click – and I think the fact that Oscar’s class had made falafels and tabbouleh that week gave the level of familiarity he needed when they searched the recipes. But they’d never made baked eggs, I can assure you, and we’ve always made calzones together, as we have pita (and other) breads. They’re dip makers from way back, but new users of the food processor, though I saw no signs of uncertainty!

So was this the best birthday ever? It just may have been (though last year’s Gala de Tammois was pretty amazing too…). I was well worked, well fed, and well loved, with the added feel-good bonus of thinking I must have done something right to get such great kids. What a perfect balance, making for a very very happy day.

I am one lucky Mama. Thank you, Jonai kids!

The banal pleasures of cooking

I was recently asked to peer review an article about gender and food preparation, and it brought me back to an old pet peeve when it posited ‘food prep’ as separate from ‘leisure time’. I’ve written about this before in a variety of ways, but the central point for me is that cooking is leisure sometimes, and when it’s arguably not, that is, even when you simply have to get dinner on the table after a long day, it can still be a very pleasurable activity if that’s how you frame it.

Banal activities are too often framed as ‘chores’, ‘exhausting’, ‘tedious’ or even ‘hard’. While I reckon not many people love vacuuming (though I know some who do), cooking has all the ingredients to be anything but boring or a chore. It’s a creative process, it’s nurturing, it can require dexterity and finger memory, linking one to family traditions and far flung places once visited. To reject cooking as leisure or pleasure is a life sentence of perceived drudgery. What a waste it is not to take pleasure from something most of us need to do every day of our lives.

This brings me to the summer holiday we’re on at the moment down at Stuart’s family’s beach house. We gathered here for Christmas with the family, and all up we have been eight grown ups and five children. Summers here are always full of good food and wine, with a heavy emphasis on seafood. This year I arrived with a clear desire to cook myself back into a homely space after a very busy year that saw me interstate constantly for work. And cook I have! I actually feel a bit guilty at my total dominance of the kitchen, and only hope I haven’t kept anyone else from cooking when they really wanted to (though they assure me they’ve been happy with the constant stream of dishes…). I’ve barely even sat down to read for a week, as my mind constantly ticks over what ingredients are in the fridge, formulating new combinations even as the last meal digests.

It started moments after we arrived, when I learned that a family friend who traditionally gives us loads of prawns, crayfish, mangos and cherries had in fact come through with the noms (though we got lychees instead of cherries as I understand this year’s harvest was destroyed by the floods – I wish all the farmers out there better luck next season, and hope the disaster wasn’t too debilitating for you). Immediately ‘shrimp and grits’, which I so enjoyed in Mississippi last year and have made a couple of times since, sprung to mind. I had polenta (grits being rather hard to come by in Oz), a selection of lovely cheeses (I used an aged cheddar and pecorino) for the ‘cheese grits’, and a beautiful eye of Fernleigh Farms free range bacon. A hint of cayenne pepper, plenty of garlic, the prawns and a garnish of spring onion finish the dish off.

Christmas Eve it was time to play with the crayfish. With a decadent half a cray each, obviously I needed to make aïoli. 🙂 Some small sourdough rolls made from leftover pizza dough (which were actually like little stones, oops!), lightly steamed asparagus and a fresh salad was the perfect dinner the day before the real feasting would begin. We concluded dinner with a fabulous round of D’Affinois provided by my generous father in law, who is renowned for his excellent choice of sensational cheeses. Lucky us!

A highlight of Christmas was receiving a KitchenAid mixer, leading to even more bread making than usual, and much dreaming of the sausage attachment. But let’s get onto Christmas dinner…

We had two small turkeys (only about 3kg each) – one free range from Birregurra and one conventional turkey, which was a lot plumper than the rather lean organic one. I did two different styles – one the way my American brother in law shared with me from Thanksgiving, and the other roughly following what I remember of Stephanie Alexander’s that I’ve been making for years. My version of the recipe from Gary involved cooking at a high temperature (220C) for about 45 minutes with no stuffing under an aluminium foil tent, then out of the foil at 200C. It produced hardly any juices and was a bit dry, but still tasty with the onion, garlic, olive oil, butter under the skin, salt and pepper.

The other turkey goes in at about 210C on its side with a stuffing I made from onion, garlic, free range bacon, bread crumbs, red wine, parsley, thyme, salt and pepper. After 15 minutes you flip it onto its other side for another 15 minutes, before popping it on its back at about 195C for the final hour. It was totally delicious, as was that stuffing. In fact, I reckon I’d be happy to just eat stuffing for Christmas dinner every year.

For sides I did green beans with toasted almonds and a balsamic reduction, roast beetroot with feta and pepper, smashed potatoes with rosemary, salt and pepper, and someone threw together a simple roast pumpkin. And of course there was a huge free range ham that we’re still enjoying in many forms.

Boxing Day lunch was a very simple affair of ham and fresh bread with a coleslaw made of cabbage, capsicum, spring onion & Stuart’s olives, dressed with more aïoli and the leftover balsamic reduction. Wayne brought out the D’Affinois again, as well as a lovely English Stilton and a Saint Agur – in the war of the French and English, I reckon the French win in the soft cheese department.

For dinner that night I was inspired by a recipe in one of Stefano Manfredi’s cookbooks, Seasonal Italian Favourites, to make a parsnip soup with the lovely turkey stock from the day before. Parsnip, leeks, garlic, Swiss brown mushrooms and a few potatoes made a glorious soup, topped off with a dollop of yoghurt and a few fried slivers of the ham, served with a fresh loaf of sourdough and luscious Lurpak butter.

My KitchenAid also inspired me to attempt croissants for the first time, which is rather hilarious as the mixer is only useful for the initial kneading, and after that, all the fiddly work is manual. Fiddly it was, but I was pleased with the results of my first attempt. Antigone helped me roll them and reckons next time we should roll them out thinner and then do a looser roll – and I think she is exactly right, the clever girl!

For breakfast the next day I did a simple omelette with the ham, tomato and mozzarella, served with another fresh loaf of sourdough, which I’m finally working out how to give a chewy crumb. I’ve been adding too much starter, I think, creating too acidic an environment to get strong gluten, so I’ve reduced the amount and kept to minimal kneading and long proving times (usually overnight). Thanks to Steve and Collette for your advice on the twitterz!

Lunch was inspired by a visit to the local fish shop, where we found Coffin Bay oysters and local mussels. Obviously this called for a simple Provençal style mussels as we had loads of gorgeous tomatoes asking to be eaten up. Onion, garlic, tomatoes, white wine and a hint of basil, served with sourdough sliced, coated with garlic and olive oil and toasted into crostini. Mollusc heaven!

My last effort was to finish off the kilos of prawns, so I made a tom yum goong last night. I had a quick look at the Gourmet Forager’s post on David Thompson’s recipe from Thai Street Food, and adapted it to what I had to work with. Inspired by Stuart’s desire to make a prawn stock with all the heads from our copious bounty, I fried off of the heads and skin briefly, then added water and coriander roots and brought it to the boil. After 15 minutes I strained it out and there was my base stock. I also grabbed the final leg of turkey and made a small stock with the bones & gristle, plus some celery in want of using. I only had it on for about an hour and a half, but it still contributed to deepening the flavour of the prawn stock, which would otherwise have been a bit insipid.

Into the stock went a bit of sugar, then bruised slices of galangal, lemongrass, lime skin (I didn’t have kaffir lime leaves) and chilies. Once I got the piquancy of the chilies, I added quartered mushrooms and tomatoes and cooked for about five minutes, before adding some of the delectable Phu Quoc fish sauce I hauled back from Vietnam and lime juice. A few little flavour adjustments to ensure I had the sweet, salty, spicy, sour combo right, and then I threw in the pre-cooked prawns just long enough to heat them through before serving topped with coriander leaves. I cannot explain how happy I was with the result of this soup!! Years of cooking and paying attention has finally paid off, and constant tasting throughout preparation has got me to a point where I can wing it like this and pull it off. Happy happy happy!

For those who’ve read this far, thank you for indulging me. 🙂 I love writing and thinking about cooking almost as much as I like doing it. Having developed such a profound love of this banal activity has been one of the most rewarding choices I have made in my life. Thank you to all the eaters who provide me with the opportunity to indulge my passion.

What are ‘good parents’? or ‘Thanks, Dad & Ma!’

I recently missed yet another Thanksgiving gathering with my American family, leaving me with the annual dose of longing for my favourite holiday (food and community, no presents, my idea of heaven!). I have occasionally hosted Thanksgiving here in Australia, but it’s just not the same. For some pretty self-evident reasons, there’s just no sense here of a national imaginary of gratitude that fourth weekend in November, and I’m sure the lack of a four-day weekend doesn’t help.

But Thanksgiving and this year’s many achievements and defeats has led me to think a bit more about what I’m grateful for, and who I should really thank. The list is pretty long, so I’m going to focus on my lovely parents, without whom I wouldn’t be me (for better or worse, eh?). So really, this is a post about parenting and a little filial gratitude.

What are good parents? People bang on about ‘good parents’ as though you’ll find a definition for them in the OED, and many (most?) worry a lot about it once they’re parents themselves. Although I’ve engaged in the rants and ulcers myself, I’m conscious that most responses are rather limited and judgmental, not to mention heavily class laden (and don’t get me started on the gender issues). For one person, being a good parent means keeping kids to a schedule, sending them to a renaissance variety of lessons, or reading with them every night. To another, it might be sending them to the best schools, teaching them to play cricket or making sure their uniform is clean. For some, it may simply be providing a home-cooked meal each night. For most, it’s a mixture of things, of course, and they vary a lot over the course of a child’s life.

Ask children what they think is good parenting and you’ll get a variety of responses as well, and ask those children when they’re adults what was good or bad about their upbringing and the answers will continue to evolve, or even simply to shift depending on their own levels of happiness each year or decade.

As I was thinking about what I appreciated about my parents, I decided to ask my three children (independently) what they think makes good parents. This will be a fascinating list for us to revisit periodically, I suspect. Here were their answers (in their words):

Good parents according Oscar (11yo)

niceness

happiness

cheerfulness

sometimes saying ‘no’

playing

loving

Good parents according to Antigone (9yo)

listening to your children & deciding things as a family

teaching your children how you think things should be (A’s example is: ‘cook your own food’ instead of ‘buying all your food’ – no guesses whose values!)

notice what your children are good at

Good parents according to Atticus (6yo)

look after you well by keeping you safe

are nice

make good food

make sure you have a shower sometimes

tell you when you do something well

let you play how you want

make sure you go to bed on time

I was particularly struck by how most of what they thought was good parenting was about parents’ emotional engagement with children – whether we relate to them positively, acknowledge and applaud their achievements, and respect their autonomy. In fact, I asked Oscar what he thought about giving kids opportunities for lessons, and he said, ‘well, no, that’s just about the choice of the kid, really. I know people who just make their kids do swimming lessons and don’t listen to them not wanting to, so that’s not necessarily about good parenting.’

The point here for me is that even as young as my children are, their sense of ‘good parenting’ seems to be clearly about respect and kindness, rather than procedures or consumables. Obviously, any kind of ‘good’ parenting will involve some of the latter, but I was gobsmacked at the kids’ emphasis on and ability to articulate the former.

My own parents were/are unabashedly proud of us. They told us they loved us every day of our childhood, and we still finish phone conversations or part ways with ‘I love you’. They applauded our wins, and demanded we work hard for them. They let us self select our lessons, sport and the like, but then expected us to attend when they were on. Report cards from school were scrutinised and merit was rewarded – the mark for ‘effort’ was noted as was the actual grade, so an ‘A’ that came with only a ‘good’ for effort usually attracted a lecture about our work ethic.

Dad in particular would sit us down regularly to ask us what we wanted to be when we grew up. (In Grade 6 I chose doctor over lawyer, the only two jobs I could imagine one got after university, which is perhaps unsurprising as our generation was the first to attend.) He’d then discuss the ways we might achieve our goals, and ‘hard work’ always figured highly. My first job, typing for Dad, was the summer I was 12. I worked every summer after that, at first in the family businesses, and as soon as I had a driver’s licence (16 in the US then), for a local car wash. The family had plenty of money, but Dad wanted us to know how to work for our own.

They both taught us to believe in ourselves, and when we failed at something, reminded us of the old adage, ‘if at first you don’t succeed…’ Ma in particular taught us to roll with the punches – that woman is unflappable. And her unconditional love for all of us is breathtaking, and fundamental to my sense of well being. Nothing was too hard, no dream too big, no obstacle insurmountable. Dad was adamant on this point, and has always believed in the power of positive thinking, citing his own journey from a childhood experience of poverty to subsequent financial success.

I don’t want to debate the finer points of class and who has ‘real’ choices in this world, something I’m happy to continue doing elsewhere – it’s not the point of this story. The point here is that I’m glad my folks told us to believe in ourselves. I’m glad Dad taught us to fight for what we think is right, and against what we think is wrong. And I’m glad he asked us to think about what those things are.

There have been plenty of times when Dad and I have disagreed on what’s right or wrong in the world. You can imagine the consternation when I made a rather sudden shift to the other side of politics from the one with which I was raised during my third year of university. The shift would have been enough, but moving out of my share house to sleep in front of the library at UCSD with a few dozen others to protest the Gulf War in 1991 was a pretty significant manifestation of my newfound political activism for the left. And a rather shocking one for the daughter of a Republican.

It was admittedly a rocky start to our political divide, culminating in a lengthy interrogation after I dropped out of uni entirely. And the outcome? Dad thanked me for explaining my rationale, said he was pleased to better understand my motivations, and that he respected my decisions. That can’t have been easy, as a former Marine and police officer from Alabama watched his privileged offspring walk away from the opportunities he was providing me to work out how best to participate in the world. But letting me go, and respecting my right to make that choice, was one of many acts of what I think of as an Impressionist’s canvas of ‘good parenting’. It strengthened our relationship (trust will do that), and let me learn for myself within a year that I really wanted to go back to uni and finish my degree, which I obviously did (and kept going back…).

So what am I most grateful to my parents for? They taught us confidence, drive, responsibility and respect, and always made sure we knew we were loved. Ultimately, for me, these things resulted in resilience and self reliance with a strong sense of justice. I really appreciate these gifts from my parents.

Thanks, Ma & Dad. I only hope I give my kids as strong a foundation as you gave me.

No Need for New: Some principles for reducing consumption

As I read through our primary school’s newsletter the other day, I had the annual moment of excitement over the Smith Street Xmas appeal – ‘Yay! We can contribute!’ And then I had the annual moment of deflation when I read that all donations must be new. ‘Why?’ I moaned at my secondhand computer monitor, as I pictured the box of toys and clothes in perfectly good condition but no longer of interest to my children, sitting in the shed waiting for a trip to the Salvo’s.

I decided to check my response with the twitterz, expecting replies of ‘don’t poor people deserve new stuff?’ And the twitterz didn’t disappoint, but mercifully a number of the likely suspects joined a thoughtful discussion about the issues – consumerism, the lived experience of poverty and being ‘marked’ by secondhand goods, the practicalities of sorting through secondhand donations, the pleasures of the handmade gift, and questions of sustainability.

Why do people think we have a right to new things? Why do people make others feel bad if they don’t buy new things? I’m not such an ascetic as to suggest there’s no place for wanting something that is new to you, nor that in some cases new will simply make better sense than secondhand, whether for reasons of efficiency, practicality or some desired aesthetic. But having ‘new’ as your default position is, quite simply, wrong.

Logical fallacy #1: New Things Will Make Us Happy

It worries me that people think any of us ‘need’ or ‘deserve’ new stuff. In a civil society, you have a right to a roof over your head, access to clean water and nutritious food, good health and to be treated equally and fairly, and not much else.

There is clear research that shows that buying or having new (or more) things does not make us happy beyond an initial rush. In fact, the research indicates that the more affluent a society becomes, the less happy it is. Increasingly, we are being encouraged to spend our disposable income on experiences rather than things, as we work out that identities need grounding in memory, belonging and discovery, not the shirt on our back. I would add to this wisdom that many experiences cost nothing.

Logical fallacy #2: New Things Are ‘Nicer’ Than Secondhand

An unwanted gift on its way to the donation bin

So many new things are simply bright, cheap plastic – things that caused unhappiness in those who worked to make them, those who worked to deliver them, and those who must work to dispose of them. These things cause little more than a flash of ‘oh! Bright and shiny!’ in the children/adults who receive them, followed by the pallid realisation of how little joy can actually be found in such superficial ‘small pleasures’. These items fail the hedonistic principle at every stage – one should seek pleasure, but your pleasure should not be at the expense of another’s.

Obviously there are lovely things that are new. Handmade gifts can be a great pleasure for the maker, giver (who may or may not be the maker) and the recipient. Good quality items with an ethical production and distribution history can ensure you are comfortably and fashionably clothed, or perhaps using durable and effective cookware without breaching the pleasure principle for anyone (though many such things can also be found secondhand, obviously).

Bookshelf bought at auction, filled with old books inherited & bought.

We all have certain things we prefer to buy new – for me it’s shoes, which I buy very seldom, but always new. And who wouldn’t love to receive a brand new barbecue after two decades of the uneven heat and rust of hard rubbish versions? Last year we asked Stuart’s folks to withhold our birthday presents for the year and pile them into a Xmas present so we could cook entire meals outside for the next 30 years with fantastic results. We took years to decide a new one was a defensible choice and have not regretted it.

The pleasures of well-made old things.

Yet nearly all of the most treasured items in our house came to us secondhand. Bookshelves are a great example – some bought at auctions and some on eBay, some found in the hard rubbish – why would you buy shelves new? Our old hand beater is one of my favourite kitchen implements – my mother-in-law bought a new one a few years back and ended up vastly preferring a secondhand one we gave her. When our 50-year-old fridge didn’t survive our last move, eBay came through with an excellent secondhand one. I know loads of people who buy secondhand books, so what’s with the stigma on kids’ toys? If they’re in good condition, why not choose them over new, both for your own children and to give to charity? And nearly all the clothes I buy the children are from Savers.

Logical fallacy #3: Giving Secondhand Items to Charity is Patronising

Why would this be an unacceptable gift?

Some folks on Twitter suggested it was patronising to insist we give secondhand items to charity, arguing that ‘poor people deserve nice things too’. See Logical fallacy #s 1 & 2 for my response. However, obviously there are resonances of the First World having a First Class Freakout of What Happens when the Developing World catches up on Over-Consumption. Of course that would be patronising if it was my point, but what I’m suggesting is far more radical.

We all need to make secondhand our default position rather than seeing it as a deficit model. In fact, the default position should really be ‘why buy anything at all’, so that purchases are in fact only made when truly necessary or when one really desires to give a gift (birthdays being the most obvious example), and secondhand (or homemade) should be our first thought. New stuff should be a last resort for many consumables. How much waste could we avoid if we actually put a lot of thought into gifts, rather than marching into shopping centres like automatons who believe we might insult someone by giving them something that already has a history?

Imagine

Now imagine that those who can afford new things regularly make the choice to buy secondhand. Suddenly those who can’t afford new things don’t stand out for buying old stuff, and nobody has to feel bad about giving a secondhand gift. Of course any gift you give should be clean and not broken, as should any donation to charity (though there’s another post in what some consider irreparable and others will resurrect – our society is so de-skilled and accustomed to planned obsolescence it’s shameful the things we throw out).

When I was interviewed for the Salvo’s Buy Nothing New Month article that ran in Woman’s Day in September, I was asked how much money we save by choosing secondhand over new, and my immediate response was that we don’t think of it as saving, we think those who shop for leisure or choose new over secondhand are wasting money. We need to reverse our thinking – instead of a world where refraining from shopping is some kind of hardship, we’d all be better off if we saw shopping as the hardship – something we occasionally just have to do when we’d rather be gardening. In terms of both social and environmental sustainability, it’s the right thing to do.

How do you do it? On good cooking and finding time.

This is not a post to make others feel guilty about what you’re not doing, though it may have that unintended effect on some. I apologise in advance to any who take it that way. But while we have a quick look at the life of the Jonai, here’s a brief bit of background:

I was raised in a family with two working parents who outsourced most domestic labour, including quite a lot of what cooking was actually done (very little, in truth). Our ‘junk cupboard’ (full of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Chips Ahoy, Ruffles potato chips, etc) was precisely half the size of the ‘real food’ pantry, which was stocked with tins of vegies, soup and other highly refined items. There was minimal fresh produce in the house beyond bananas and apples. My mum hated to cook, but would occasionally produce a dinner of pork chops cooked to cardboard consistency (to ensure we didn’t get salmonella) and mashed potatoes (made from real potatoes). Many dinners were toast or a bowl of Cheerios we made ourselves, though we could sometimes convince Ma to make french toast, waffles or pancakes (from Krusteaz). She also made oatmeal to order as we all chilled out in front of the tv at night.

Stuart, on the other hand, was raised in a family where fresh food was paramount and readily available. Hardly any refined foods sullied their pantry, and his mother was a steady and plentiful cook of quality meat and three veg. Neither of our fathers cooked, though mine would man the barbecue at parties (Stuart’s still doesn’t like to do so) and mine also taught my mum to whip up a damn fine southern-style fried breakfast (he’s from Alabama).

The point is, I certainly wasn’t raised with any cooking skills, let alone positive food memories from childhood, except for the beautiful restaurants my folks would take us to during our regular travels. Our housekeeper did teach me a lifelong love of quesadillas, which I have passed on to my own children, though with many added vegies and my own refried beans.

So here we are, late thirtysomethings, both working full time, with three children. I work as well as doing my PhD, and this year my role as President of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) sees me interstate on average one night a week. Yet this year is the year I am learning to make sourdough, it is a year we are slaughtering chooks and eating them, a year our garden has proven extremely bounteous (and we rent, by the way), and we manage to put a home cooked meal on the table nearly every night. How do we do that, we’re often asked?

I’ve written plenty on the importance of skills – competence is the friend of efficiency. The other thing I’ve written about is the pleasure of competence, and the need to take pleasure in the everyday, including ‘chores’ such as cooking, gardening and tending the chooks. Finally, I’ve also pointed to the benefits of teamwork and the further efficiency of a larger household to reduce waste, a point supported by last year’s report on household waste, which showed that smaller households waste more, though large share houses that are not families still tend to waste more as well. Just briefly then, here’s how we do it:

  1. We don’t do exhaustion. Our philosophy is that everything is achievable if it’s a priority, and cooking when you’re tired can actually be a way of relaxing if that’s how you see it. For Stuart, this extends to foraging on the way home, doing a bit of harvesting or staking tomato plants, etc, and for me it extends to finely chopping a number of ingredients for a quickly fried Thai basil, chili garlic fish instead of ordering takeaway. This is not to say we never get tired. We do, but perhaps we think of it differently to others, and reasonably expect ourselves to still cook a meal for the family, which may be something as simple as rice and avocado on a really lazy night. (NB We do order takeaway sometimes – perhaps once a month.)

  2. We share the shopping, and make do with what’s in the house when necessary. Stuart pops into the Vic Market once or twice a week on his lunch break to pick up mostly fruit or a bit of meat. I stop in at the butcher, Italian grocer, organic grocer or fruit shop in our local shopping street after dropping kids at school on a day when I work at home, or on the way home from working in the city. When we’re really low on fresh food and too busy to go get some, we raid our freezer, which is always full of stock, homemade pasties and sausage rolls, and frozen meat for ’emergencies’. Plus we keep a lot of beans, both dried and tinned, for quick and simple meals. Having chooks means we always have eggs on hand, and my breadmaking obsession keeps us in bread!

  3. Although I’m the primary and more passionate daily cook, we share the cooking as well. Like I said, if we’re very busy, sometimes the meals are incredibly simple: rice and avocado, pasta with a jar of passata from last summer’s harvest, lamb chops with roast potato and a simple salad, or Stuart’s stir fry, much beloved by the children. When there’s time to do something more, we do. I love nothing more than having time to get into the kitchen by 5pm so I can serve something delectable between 6:00 and 7pm. Sometimes I’m overly ambitious and dinner is late – in which case I let the children graze on nuts and fruit to tide them over.

  4. But you even make bread during the week? Yes, and I can do this because I believe in a lackadaisical approach that makes it possible. You can see my post on how I wander through the kitchen, giving a dough a quick knead here and there, before letting it rise overnight to pop into the oven when we get up. This takes me no more time than someone else might spend reading the paper or watching the news (in fact, much less). Much of my bread is fairly flat because I leave it to rise for too long – it’s still totally scrumptious! Stuart also regularly brews beer of an evening, and does so quickly and efficiently after more than a decade of practice.

  5. What about all the preserving? Harvesting and processing the masses of plums, tomatoes, pumpkins, olives, apricots, and more is one of the pleasures of our ‘down time’, though some of it can be rather tedious as well (ie pitting plums!). We do most of this on the weekends, though Stuart, who never rests, will often do some after work as I make dinner (does this cause some tension in the kitchen occasionally? Yes. ;-))

  6. How do you manage to have a social life, take children to lessons and sport, and do any exercise, etc? Okay, a confession: I’m a little allergic to exercise. When I commute to the city I try to ride my bike (8km), so I get exercise that way sometimes, but admittedly not enough. Stuart rides every day, rain or shine, so does about 20km a day. He also brings crazy amounts of stuff home on his bike, so perhaps he is a little superhuman and not everyone is inclined to do what he does. We socialise plenty, but often by having people over or going to their houses for dinner. Our kids are not heavily scheduled, though Antigone now does gymnastics (shared between 3 families, so only have to drive once/three weeks) and piano (the teacher comes to us). The boys aren’t keen to do lessons, and we don’t push. We’d rather have more homely time here, cooking, reading and playing, which we think will give them what we regard as more important life skills than many other things we could outsource, though we’re not knocking the value of those other things – they’re just not priorities for us.

So how can everyone ‘find time’ to cook more delicious and nutritious foods? First of all, through practice. The ability to use limited time well requires skills. Skills lead to competence, which is pleasurable. It feels great to know you’ve dashed in with a few ingredients and knocked up a lovely meal for the family, which leads to you wanting to do it again. Rushing in and throwing a frozen or takeaway dinner on the table doesn’t feel that great, but you’ll probably do it again if you don’t know how to cook something better, leading to a dreadful cycle of bad food and related guilt/bad feelings. It’s a no-win cycle, but skills are the way out.

An important part of this skill-building is reframing cooking and food shopping as ‘fun’ and ‘relaxing’, leading to ‘delicious’. It’s also great to spend time as a family doing the harvesting and cooking – we think it’s ‘good parenting’ to cook with your kids. 🙂 Ultimately, the creative process of imagining what’s in the garden/fridge/pantry and how you might transform it into a meal to nurture yourself and others is deeply and viscerally joyful, in my experience. ‘scuse me while I go knead the bread…

Check out other awesome food posts over at Food Renegade!

A Rant: Raising Chickens is Good (or, on the Stupidity of Industrial Agriculture)

I wrote this poem last year, but given my recent posts on why and how we raise and eat our chooks, as well as other sustainable homely practices, I thought I’d share it here. Warning – this is not intended to be scholarly – it’s an ’emoticons off’ rant.

A rant, or
F*&king stupid people f*&king up our world not an ounce of sense or personal responsibility wanting to own dogs & cats but not allow productive small animals like chickens stupid pointless people need to f*&k off now turning me into a bloody misanthrope when I really want to like people (that is not the poem).
16 July 2009

It started with 3 chickens
3 clucking
egg-laying
bug & weed-eating
fertilising chickens
in one suburban
backyard.

They cost her 7 dollars apiece
and gave her
2169 eggs
in their pleasant quarter-acre lives
worth a conservative 1100 dollars
leaving her 1079 dollars to spend
on organic fruit
she wasn’t already growing in her own
backyard.

The chickens
meant she needed no
pesticides
no herbicides
& needn’t pay for any
fertilisers for the food she was growing
in her own
backyard.

She called the chickens
John, Deere, and Tractor.

Over the fence lived
a couple with a dog
a bright green lawn
a 4 wheel drive
a sedan
roses and no food growing
in their
backyard.

The husband worked
for agri-business
who’d been stung
when their bagged spinach product
killed four
left 35 with
acute kidney failure
due to e coli contamination
in their Salinas Valley
industrial scale
vegetable fields.

So clutching his values
his greed and his fear
he sat in his boardroom
and agreed
that a scorched earth strategy
was the only way
to ensure that he
and all his successors
could live in good conscience
that they would never again
be held liable
for what was contracted
from once-living products
now wrapped in sterile plastic
in somebody’s
fridge.

And so
if a squirrel ran along the edge of a field
everything within 10 metres
had to be
razed
eliminated
scorched
including
the pest-deterring
coriander
planted by the organic grower
in the next
field.

And then he went home
and he heard a strange sound
not really unpleasant
but definitely
indubitably
belonging to
something un-hygienic
in somebody else’s
backyard.

He peered over the fence
and stared in shock/rage
at John, Deer and Tractor.
3 clucking chickens
alive, eating and shitting
in the neighbour’s
backyard.

It didn’t take long
to garner the cries
of the neighbourhood association
who contacted the council
who knocked on the door
of the woman with chickens
in her
backyard.

This will not do
they said
you must be rid of these animals
who have no place in the suburbs
if you want to have livestock
move to a
farm.

Your chickens
they said
are unsanitary
unnecessary
and a temptation to
the dogs
in others’
backyards.

And by the way
you must stop dumping your food waste
in that bin up the back
it attracts rats
and foxes and possums
in droves
and your grey water system
well it just won’t do
it contaminates all of those vegies
you grow
here in this outrageously
farm-like
backyard.

You must buy food that
we know is safe
you can get it at Coles
where it has been sprayed with
47 chemicals to ensure its
sterility
and bagged in clear plastic
so you can see it is safe
though you must wash it at home
just to be sure
it hasn’t been tainted somewhere
along the industrial line
by some unhygienic worker
who probably looks and acts
a lot like you and your
unsanitary
backyard.