Saturday, April 01, 2006

Food After the Peak: Part 1: Domesticity and Common Sense

About a year ago I posted a series of articles on the ROE2 newsgroup about how to eat in a peak oil future where we are all poorer, food surpluses are smaller, and the energy we rely on for things like electric stoves, refridgeration, etc... is out of our means. I'm reprinting it in slightly modified form here, in case anyone is interested. The pieces are not in order - this was originally part 3.

If you were born after the 1940s, you were probably raised, to one degree or another, to believe that domestic work, including foodproduction is monotonous, brain numbing, unskilled, and pointless. In many cases we believe it is ideally performed, assuming you make enough money, by either a non-white, non-english speaking private employeee, or a non-white employee of a restaurant. At best, home food production issomething to fight about, a tedious conflict at the heart of your family life where you and your spouse debate yet again who will microwave the macaroni and cheese, and clean up afterwards. None of it is worthy of your intellect, of course.

If you are a 40 something, middle class liberal in your average American city, you probably would deny you think the above, but would point out that yourhigh powered job/busy schedule means that you can't help picking up fast food or pizza or eating out three nights a week, putting your kids in daycare, and hiring a lawn service and house cleaners. Of course it is more important, you argue, that you are working and paying all those people (whose skin color and/or gender is pure coincidence), and, of course, voting for the social changes that will inspire the eventual improvement of their situations. If you are an American conservative of the same approximate demographic, you probably want to know what my point is ;-) ;-).

Some facts about Americans and food.1. The wealthiest 20 % eat out for more than 60% of their meals. The poorest 20% eat out for the exact same percentage of their meals. The difference exists on only three levels - 1. how likely the restaurant is to be a fast food chain and how nutritious the meal is; 2. how many cookbooks that they never cook from are on the shelves of the kitchen they do not enter; and 3.How likely they are to say they "love" to cook, without ever actually doing it (in America, people who say they "hate" to cook actually eatin slightly more often than people who "love" it.)

2. One out of every 3 Americans eat in a fast food restaurant on any given day. More than half of all Americans eat 6 or more meals per week at a fast food restaurant. Think about that.

3. Of meals eaten at home, 65% involve the use of pre-processedor "prepared" ingredients, and 75% involve a microwave. 70% ofAmericans have no idea how to make stuffing not from a mix, 61%cannot make mashed potatoes from actual potatoes, rather than a box,and 90% buy boneless chicken breasts because they can't figure outhow to debone them.

4. A vast majority of American meals involved at least two of the following 6 ingredients - white bread, chicken breasts, ground beef, potatoes (more than 75% of which come in the form of either boxed potatoes, chips or frozen fries/tater tots), milk, ketchup.

I suspect a lot of people on this list feel rather superior at themoment. *I* bake my own bread, we say. I don't eat out that often. I never, ever go to McDonalds (just Taco Bell, and that only once ina while, right before a meeting, you know.) Ok, now imagine yourselves required to do the simple job of makingyour own food for a month. Piece of cake? Here's the deal. You haveto produce three meals a day, plus beverages and snacks entirely from whole foods in your storage, garden or barn, or easily obtained from local producers within 25 miles of your home. You must do so using sustainable methods, no microwave or electric stove. You cannot goto the store - you must use what you have, and ensure that it willlast. You have no refrigeration, so each meal must be precisely the right size to ensure no waste. You need to pay special attention tothe dietary needs and palates of the sick, elderly, children, pregnant and nursing mothers. You need to be sure that everyone gets enough to fuel increased physical labor (ie, walking places instead of driving, growing food in a garden) and a balanced and varied enough diet to make sure they remain healthy. It also must be palatable enough to ensure lack of waste and adequate consumption.

Meanwhile, you have to stretch limited food supplies, and limited supplies of fats, sugars, eggs, dairy and meats to ensure you will not go hungry later, if food supplies tighten. Of course, part of the job is the logistics and planning - did you start the sprouts on Friday, so that they would be ready for today's salad? Is the next batch of yogurt ready as the first one runs out? How early did you need to get up to get the bread baked before lunch? Did you plant a next crop of lettuce? How long can you keep those eggs warm? Did you grind enough flour for the pancakes, or do you have to go back and do it again? Are you sure that you've left enough baking soda for birthday cakes? Meanwhile, besides the ordinary work of food production, you have to inventory, maintain, track, manage, preserve, protect and prevent rot on the food you have in storage and coming in. That means that besides three meals a day, you need to keep track of how much sugar is left, to make applesauce when the last apples start to soften, dry and can those strawberries that come flooding in when the season starts, walk the six miles to the food market that is likely to have live chickens this week, forage for wild greens, make six gallons of sauerkraut, figure out away to make up for the absence of vanilla, white flour and eggs in your child's birthday cake, plan for extra guests and hospitality, as well as festival meals and special occasions.

Unskilled labor indeed. Try it for a month. Seriously, it will not only give you new appreciation for the value and creativity of domestic labor (and for the work done by human beings through most of history and in most poor cultures today), but it will also point up the fact that only part of the project is knowing good recipes for whole wheat. The rest is figuring out how to make good, interesting, balanced, varied food out of what you have 3 meals a day, 365 days a year, with your own hands,sustainable methods and local resources. If you don't know how to do it going into peak oil, you can expect your transition to be more painful, hungrier and harder all around.


Sharon (who hasn't managed to do it either)


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