Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Long Winter

Last fall, my husband and I made a pledge: we would eat only local, seasonal produce year round, including winter. We wondered whether we could truly survive the dark days of December, January and February. (Veteran locavores, here is where I ask you to smother your guffaws and let this greenhorn tell her story.) I had visions of eating blackbirds and green pumpkins a la Laura Ingalls Wilder or, worse yet, resorting to Whole Foods' jet-setting produce.

As it was almost October, I did not have much time to set aside food for the long winter to come. Nonetheless, I did my best. I spent evenings away from the television or Internet, methodically stirring strawberries and sugar into a thick, honeyed jam that I was forced to taste over and over again. As you might imagine, homemade jam is a different beast than the tamed jars found on supermarket shelves. No, the stuff I made was different and, unfortunately, converted my jam-despising niece into an addict who asked for only one thing for Christmas: my jam. Even though her gift came at a price - a cut into our winter reserves - I did as any good auntie would. I hope she enjoyed it.

I froze two huge batches of pasta sauce, simmered from fall's cornucopia of tomatoes, carrots and onions. I purchased a dehydrator and dried every fruit I could get my hands on as well as some tomatoes. Still, it was nearly November now. I hadn't much fruit left to dry - the season's dwindled strawberries, hearty apples and my mother-in-law's persimmons. I stayed up past midnight making a harvest chutney and had no alternative but to pass the hours in the silent house by reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter as the chutney stewed and bubbled on the stove top. I devoted an entire week to cleaving hulking pumpkins and squash, baking and pureeing them and stuffing the freezer with their coral colored masses. Yes, indeed, preparing for a local winter absorbed several hours of my time and, even then, we only filled our small dishwasher-sized freezer and lined a few garage shelves with canned goods.

As Christmas passed, we saw the farmers' market taper off. Nonetheless, we were the lucky ones. A dozen of the heartiest local farmers still showed up, bundled under umbrellas, indifferent to cold, rain, hurricane force gales. Their fare shifted from the toddler-sized melons and cobbled corn of summer to carefully stored apples, root vegetables, brilliant watermelon radishes, citrus, greens, broccoli, herbs and peppers. They were but a shell of their October-selves.

I stalked the market religiously and carted home my findings. We survived one of the coldest Januaries on record, subsisting on greens and potatoes, spicy cilantro chutney, homemade corn bread with honey butter, homegrown carrots, fresh veggie-loaded salads and jeweled toned root vegetables. One farmer warned me, though, "the apples are running low. I'm not sure how long we'll last." He smiled kindly to blunt the news.

Then we hit February. This would be the true test, I thought. Braving rain, wind and the occasional sunny day, I kept haunting the farmers' market. Every week, there was a new casualty. First the honey lady started coming only every other week. Then, the mandarin man disappeared. Who next? Again, the apple farmer warned me that he was almost out. "Not to worry, miss," he comforted. "Cherries will start up in mid-April." Mid-April? Good God? That was a lifetime away. My winter preparations flashed before my eyes. Had we gnawed through all the dried persimmons? What could I make with the frozen pumpkin? I greedily packed two bags full of the apples and swore I'd ration them out. We'd last through mid-April, dammit! My family would never go hungry, again! Well, I guess we hadn't gone hungry yet, but, we wouldn't, dammit! For extra measure, I stocked up on pastured eggs and then raided the cheese guy.

At home, we eeked through February. We had no choice but to delve into the winter reserves. We choked down some caramelized onion winter squash tart and pumpkin souffle. The local chocolate chip cookies buoyed our spirits as did the purple cauliflower soup, the home made pizza, the lemon bars, the homemade bread and strawberry jam and, oh well, you get the picture. We very nearly almost starved.

At the end of the month, I met with my book club to discuss Animal Vegetable Miracle. One member noted, with interest, how the month of February was called "Hungry Month" by Native Americans. I nodded sagely. "February was not too bad," I assured, "but March . . ." I shook my head for effect. These people needed to understand what was to come. "March," I repeated, "I think that will be the real hungry month." I confided the dire warnings of the farmers. How apples would soon be gone. That mandarins had already disappeared. That I hadn't seen a decent winter squash in, gosh, a couple of weeks. These women needed to know what we were up against if we were to eat local in March in Northern California.

March 1 was a Saturday. I loyally loaded my canvas bags in the car, counted my cash and headed to the farmers' market. The March sun burst through the meager clouds, teasing us with spring. Sparrows danced through my cover crop and tiny buds peeped out from the maple in our front yard.

When I arrived at the market, I was momentarily confused. It had doubled in size since just last week. I couldn't park next to the stalls but had to walk. Fellow shoppers bustled about, filling bags with produce and baked goods. Something red and shiny winked at me from across the parking lot. Are you kidding me? A tomato! A local tomato! The next stall down hawked organic strawberries, grown right here within my 100 mile radius. The true harbinger of a new food year, though, was the asparagus. If that was here than truly the dark days were over and spring had come. Every other vegetable vendor flaunted neat little bundles of asparagus, standing at attention front and center in their stalls.

I closed my eyes. Sighed. Opened my eyes and made a beeline for those little green soldiers. They were dinner tonight, and probably tomorrow night too.

It appears that we did it. We ate locally through the entire winter. Oh, I know, there will still be some gloomy wet days of March, but, heck, we need the rain and really "Hungry Month", if you can call it that here in the Bay Area, was over - without even a speed bump, a jostle or a missed meal. The "long winter" was over.


CindyW said...

I stuffed myself and my children with apples, mandarin oranges and kiwis throughout the winter months. We had broccoli after broccoli, mixed with some unnamed leafy vegetables, squashes. I have to say so far I have been quite satisfied - largely because I LOVE broccoli, green leafy veggies and squash. Of course, I'd be all over tomatoes and peaches and berries when the time comes. But strangely I don't feel very deprived. I just feel incredibly lucky living in the temperate and fecund northern California and having 5 farmers' markets within 5 miles radius.

Spring is coming.

Burbanmom said...

Whoa. Talk about close. Sounds like you guys almost starved to death there. ;-)

Glad to hear the glorious produce is BACK! Can't wait for things to start sproutin' here in soon-to-be-warm-again Virginia!

Jennifer said...

Glad you made it!

I do envy you that have farmer's markets in MARCH (and FEBRUARY!). Ours don't start again until JUNE... the CSA's stop delivered winter stuff in February, but don't start again until JUNE, too. The perils of living in Colorado!

Chile said...

Please work harder in the kitchen this year. It'd be awful to lose you to starvation. ;-)

Green Bean said...

Cindy - like you, I've hardly missed a thing. As soon as I say goodbye to one fruit or vegetable, a new equally enticing one is there to take it's place.

Burbs - yours should be there soon. Hope your CSA is delivering yummies to your home.

Jen - don't worry, you'll be much happier than us when climate change hits! There are some advantages of Colorado - HIGH GROUND!

Chile - I'll do my best, my dear, but it truly is drudgery.

Raw Vegan Mama said...

Why did I ever leave the Bay Area???????? :(

Still snow here and not even a tulip in sight....



Mandy said...

Good for You!! Not sure I could do it!!!

Raw Food Diva said...

I just dont know how people survived before we had all the modern ways to preserve food. It must have been such a hard life.

Chile said...

Having just rewatched Frontier House, set in 1883, they did use food preservation. People have been preserving and storing foods for a very long time with root cellars, dehydration in the sun or air, and fermentation and pickling. I believe canning is the most recent development but it's been around quite a while too.

But yes, it was a hard life!

Theresa said...

Congratulations on making it through!

I read wistfully of your apples and winter squash though. There is nary a farmers market around here (Edmonton, AB, Canada) from December through mid-May. Reading about your rejuvenated March market gives me hope that Spring will come back here too, one day!

Donna said...

Poor you! :) That's great that you had some sort of farmers market all winter. I had hoped to use a couple farm stands that remained open, but it didn't work out. One stand had a calculator and scale left out and everything was on the honor system -- weigh the veggies yourself and leave your $$ in the box. I thought it was so quaint until I realized there was nothing even a thief would want!

Susan said...

Wow! I am so impressed by your dedication and hard work:)

Julie Artz said...

We, too, are trying the 100 mile challenge, but here in Colorado that's pretty rough. My canning bath, dehydrator, and new vacuum sealer are a great help (as is a large extra freezer!), but frankly, I'm not sure we could make it through the winter on apples, squash, and potatoes.

I do have a plan to grow leafy greens in my basement next winter (I started some in January that are almost big enough for baby salad right now), but man, this 100 mile stuff is hard.

Congratulations on making it through to the farmer's market, and think green thoughts for those of us who still have two months to go before we can return to the market.

:) Julie

Chile said...

A simple green addition for winter is sprouts. Not that I'd want to live on sprouts alone, but they could fill in between greens grown inside.

Green Bean said...

RVM: perhaps it was our cheap housing that drove you out? ;-)

Mandy: depends on where you live. in the Bay Area, piece of cake!

Theresa: spring vibes coming your way.

Donna: your comment made me smile!

RFD: good point. It didn't dawn on me that almost all the ways I used for preservation were basically modern conveniences. Chile, I too watched Frontier House! Interesting show. Yes, there was lots of pickling, sun drying and such. Wish they had talked more about it. And great idea on the sprouts! I always forget those.

Susan: thank you!

Julie: it sounds like you guys are doing wonderfully! northern california is a cakewalk but 100 miles in colorado? go girl!

Shannon Hodgins said...

Ah, durn. Your post was very inspiring.....there isn't a farmers market in sight in Illinois since like October. I am feeling rather indequate in my food buying ways and can't wait until gardening this year to change some of them.

My neighbor grew up in Bulgaria under a Communist regime and survived really horrible conditions. She was telling me ways that they survived by harvesting green tomatoes and keeping them in a celler on racks with sheets and towels. You bring them up to light when you want them to red during cold months.

I think there is a world of info there that I need to explore. how amzing to know all of these techniques.

Julia said...

You're lucky! Here in New York, March is proving to be a hungry month. Spring vegetables haven't started yet, but winter vegetables in storage are beginning to dwindle and go bad, like the moldy garlic I need to stop buying at my farmers market, and the carrots that have disappeared from the markets.

Julia said...

You're lucky! Here in New York, March is proving to be a hungry month. Spring vegetables haven't started yet, but winter vegetables in storage are beginning to dwindle and go bad, like the moldy garlic I need to stop buying at my farmers market, and the carrots that have disappeared from the markets.


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