Posted on October 5, 2013
It’s been tough for Seed and Salvage lately. New product testing did not go well – at least at first. I’ve invested (read: wasted) more money than I’ve brought in now – pretty sure. I keep telling myself this is all normal, what happens to anyone establishing anything. There will always be unforeseen costs, growing pains, things gone maddeningly wrong. Then and only then do things start to look up. Right?
But as I dumped out cases of “bad pickles” and cleaned the jars of wasted opportunity to fill them with a new batch – 130 pounds of the most beautiful cucumbers I’ve ever laid eyes on, I regained focus. Rather than start freaking out (read: because I have been), it made me think back to the beginning, oh I guess about this time last year. How did I get here, and why am I doing this?
I know, I know my problem is I didn’t start this to make money at all. I’m an entrepreneur I know, but reluctant, no doubt. I know this is a problem, having read The E-Myth book several years ago and remembering in the back of my mind I vowed never to be that girl who opens a bakery because they love to bake. I’m mistrusting of that book now. And when people offer advice with my business model I am a little shocked they think I’m trying to build a business in the first place. I would have been far more serious had I been serious at this. It’s just a hobby business, and for some reason I struggle with the process of commercializing it. I don’t want to manufacture or set a five-year-plan, ever. I’m not even sure I want to be a business. So you can see it’s been more than a pickle problem this month. It’s been existential. Oh, lord!
So. Why am I in the kitchen in the first place? Well, let’s see.
That finally started coming into focus last week, the moment I handed over cash for a carload of cucumbers.
When I pick them up, I usually go out in the field and talk with the farmer I buy from, Cecil, about the plants. I really appreciate the full meaning of this opportunity to be connected to food by being there, though it’s unpredictable and costly for us both to do it this way. It’s why families got out of farming. It’s insane, rebellious, revolutionary to be farming this way today – as an independent food seller.
Cecil likes to show me the plants, how they’re doing. We both joke about the number of striking gold flowers cascading down the rows – how if they would only all produce we’d be millionaires. The plants are lush and bright, flowing out of their beds so much that it’s nearly impossible to walk the rows to pick their fruit. Something about a fall garden is glorious in a place like Texas where scorching heat just about destroys summer crops. Wouldn’t it be nice if all of the U.S. had a coastal Oregon climate?
It’s that extra 30 minute, sometimes hour conversation about the weather, the pests, the seeds he’s testing out in this region, that I enjoy most. Having spent his career growing vegetables for market in southern Louisiana, where he’s from, he’s still new to the north Texas climate and learning what does well here as he goes, just like I am. This is the kind of conversation that reminds me of how important food used to be when there were no supermarkets – because it’s so hard to produce on a small scale.
Turns out the intentional de-commercialization of the process is what I like, I realize after talking with him. It’s making good food for myself and my small community and supporting a local food supplier like Cecil that keeps me working. I feel good about providing him with a market beyond just what fresh produce he can sell. And I like being able to share that with the neighborhood that’s built up around the Southside Urban Market.
So I’m more about promoting participating in a different system, than about the business, which is just a byproduct. I’m providing a change to switch systems. Okay, okay, so it may sound like replacing one artificial system with another, I know, and much less likely when you look at the market forces involved. Yet WE are the ones who choose that market, which system we value more and want to participate in. For decades WE’VE valued convenience and low prices. It was the new shiny gig. Today, more and more I see communities valuing community over those two things. It may be the new gig, it may be impossible, unrealistic, unsustainable even, but so is the current system.
There are still food systems in the world that are more connected than we are, and it is not costly. I spent two years in the former Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic buying and eating food the way we did a hundred years ago, a baker, butcher and vegetable market in every neighborhood. Despite access to supermarket systems and products, packaged pasta was a novelty, this way of eating seems to remain and thrive as the predominant system, perhaps due to its closed economy – there is no McDonald’s and even access to Coca-Cola has been interrupted. And yeah I’m not a fan of socialism, no worries there. But it does come as one of the subtle ironies of what capitalism hasn’t got us compared to what food looks like in say the more “socialist” societies abroad. oooh. That’s a whole other post, uh-hem, book.
Still, it is not convenient, whether it is the only choice, or a significantly unique choice.
I recently stumbled on a farmers market out of state, very small in size and similar to the one I participate in. Rather than collect produce from a nearby CSA (community supported agriculture share program, what Cecil operates to support his farm), they’ve gotten together and developed their own barter system, each member growing whatever they love to eat in their own backyards to swap out at the market for what other members have grown. I love that idea. It is certainly a lifestyle choice they have made, and sure you could argue only retirees have time for it. But I like the notion that taking back control of your food system is just that close. You can turn your front yard into a community garden. People are doing it. And feel that it’s worth the effort.
This is why I’m here.
With my philosophical crisis somewhat resolved, it doesn’t bother me that I’ve still not had time to process the tomato I’ve put up in the freezer or the pounds of onions still waiting to be made into soffrito. I know I’m lucky to be living in the food culture I’m in, and I do have the power to change it. It’s costly and slow to switch habits and develop new food systems. But I think what we want our state to look like in the future depends on these little ventures, as crazy as that may sound in the face of the odds stacked against changing our local food culture. It may be a long shot, but I’m happy to participate and slowly switch my own habits despite the odds. What could our local food sources look like in 30 years? It’s got to only get better and better, right?
While I have had to throw away several trials of sun-cooked strawberry jam, soffritto, and hot pickled okra (and felt the guilt of not composting), some things have been worth the effort. Sun-cooking strawberry jam rather than slow-cooking them. Completely. Changes. The Flavor.
It’s amazing. When you get it right. So problems sometimes are worth pushing through.
And it’s not so difficult to do yourself. I followed the recipe I found published in The New York Times.
Sun-Cooked Strawberry Jam
Adapted from Georgianne Mora
Time: 20 minutes plus at least 6 hours’ maceration and 2 to 4 days’ sun-cooking
2 quarts ripe, unblemished strawberries, rinsed (or raspberries, blackberries or blueberries)
1 1/2 to 2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice.
1. Watch the weather: sun-cooking requires two or three full days of sunshine and temperatures above 80 degrees. Trim stems or leaves off berries and taste; if they are very sweet, use smaller amount of sugar. Toss berries and sugar in a glass or ceramic bowl. Let sit for at least 6 hours or overnight. Stir occasionally to distribute sugar as it dissolves.
2. Transfer berries to a nonstick or stainless steel pot and add lemon juice. Gradually bring mixture to a boil, then immediately reduce to a high simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Pour into a large stainless steel or plastic tray (or several, depending on size) into a layer 1 to 1 1/2 inches deep.
3. Set in direct sun and cover with netting or cheesecloth to keep bugs out and to allow evaporation. Stir gently every few hours. Leave out all day, or at least eight hours; bring indoors (or cover securely) at dusk, set out again in the morning.
4. Watch for syrup under berries to thicken. Depending on weather, this will take two to four days. Mixture may bubble as it heats, but if it starts to foam, can it immediately and use as syrup. (Foam indicates the beginning of fermentation; syrup will still be safe and delicious.) If weather changes, or if mixture does not seem to be cooking, proceed with slow-cooking, below.
5. When all syrup thickens, pour it and fruit into a pot and gently bring to a boil. Pour into sterilized glass jars; tighten lids. Place jars in a deep pot with water to cover. Boil jars for 10 minutes, then remove from pot with jar lifter or tongs. Let cool on counter, untouched, 4 to 6 hours. After 12 to 24 hours, check seals: lift each jar up by the lid, and press the lid to make sure the center is sucked down tight.
Store in a dry dark place for up to one year. Refrigerate after opening.
Yield: About 2 pints.
Note: Jam can be slow-cooked instead of sun-cooked. After macerating fruit in sugar, gently simmer mixture in a large pot, preferably nonstick, for 1 to 2 hours. Stir often; do not boil. When thickened, proceed with canning.