The Austerity Pantry Revisited

About a year and a half ago, I posted on an an experimental approach to food in Austerity Measures and the Simplified Pantry.

I had challenged myself to pare the contents of our pantry down to 35 items including herbs, spices and beverages. It still seemed extravagant in the face of this family’s meagre week’s worth of groceries.  Having switched to a vegan diet for ethical reasons with comparative ease and a minimum of fuss 20 months earlier, I was keen to see what other possibilities opened up:

  • To eat a nutritionally sufficient, wholesome diet at a much lower cost
  • To eat a delicious diet without recourse to rare and exotic ingredients
  • To align our diet to global norms rather than those determined by our gluttonous society
  • To prove it possible to eat well on £15 per head per week
  • To save money by buying ingredients in bulk that would definitely be used
  • To cultivate an enjoyment of a simpler palette of tastes
  • To remove fatty and processed foods from the menu altogether
  • To flirt with the tantalising possibility of going fridge-free
  • To minimise trips to the supermarket

Well …

I have to admit a number of additional ingredients and indulgences have crept back onto the shopping list in the intervening months due to bad habits and convenience,  but not due to necessity. I also discovered a couple of new delicious dishes that didn’t fit the restricted pantry. Nevertheless, there seemed to be something attainable here that just slipped away.

Three particular areas were especially challenging:

Bread – I wanted to commit to only consuming bread that I had baked myself. The plan was to get a sourdough going that would not require yeast to be replenished as one of the 35 items. In reality, sadly my life is too hectic for sourdough and bread products on supermarket shelves proved irresistible.

Spices – These are relatively cheap and add instant variety, and 25g of most things lasts a good while, so the spice rack was never really reduced.

Staples – Under the heading of  “rice”, I managed to sneak in four different varieties (that’s cheating), and I  started exploring quinoa. I have since decided that quinoa is a “no-no” because it has become stupidly expensive and the poor Bolivians who grow it can’t even afford it.

However …

 

Bean Slop and Polenta
Bean Slop and Baked Polenta

I was recently summoned to view the multicoloured spreadsheet of household finances that my wife painstakingly keeps in order. It was there in black and white (or rather pink, green and blue) that I have failed on numerous promises to bring the wayward grocery bill under control. A few hours later, my reflection in a shop window provided an unwelcome reminder that the mirror on our landing is unreliable and distorts my wayward girth in a flattering way, too.

It is time to recommit to “The Austerity Pantry”.

This time, I am anchoring it to a rolling menu of eight or nine basic evening meals with porridge for breakfast and  soup or jacket potatoes for lunch. For the curious, this is how it looks at the moment:

  1. Lentil hotpot
  2. Pasta and sauce (generally prepared with leftovers)
  3. Chilli beans with rice
  4. Savoury rice (pilau)
  5. Chick pea curry (type and strength varies)
  6. Roast vegetables with polenta or couscous
  7. Bean slop (this is somewhere between a soup and a casserole and goes well with leftover polenta)
  8. Lentil dal
  9. Risotto (with mushrooms or whatever vegetables are to hand)

In theory, this regime can be sustained on a monthly bulk-buy of pulses, staples and spices, supplemented with a weekly selection of local organic veg … and a fridge is not really needed …

WIN!

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Barefoot Colleges

In spite of the fact that we risk information fatigue as we are overloaded with data from the web and other media, I can’t help noticing that sometimes something I see among the hundreds of pages and pictures and clips that I view every week “sticks” and begins to embed itself on another level. This TED talk from Bunker Roy is one such sticky thing. It fed my soul, reawakened something, pulled some threads together. I’ll let it speak for itself for this is one of the most inspiring and heartening things I have seen for a long time:

 

Personal Experiment: Going Soap Free (it’s the new “clean”)

Soap
Soap? N.I.M.B. (Not In My Bathroom).

I’m trying this as an experiment. I am on day 5 of using no soap or shampoo, just water, to wash and shave with. This may come as a surprise to anyone who knows how fond I am of natural plant based and home-made soaps.

Why give up soap?

From the top of my head, I think people might want to give up soap for two reasons, which they might place in a different order of importance. For me it is primarily the first reason and the second reason is like the icing on the cake.

Firstly, people give up soap because it might not be necessary and, therefore it is one less thing to consume. It is like another area of my life that I can take back from the powers of consumerism that want to convince me that “you have to buy this” otherwise you are going to stink and have no friends. It never occurred to me that soap might not be absolutely necessary, although I discarded shaving foam and shampoo a couple of years ago when I figured out that they are basically soap that is given a fancy name so you think you need to buy it to do a job that soap does very well. But does it really …

The second reason is that it is probably much better for your skin. The bare naked truth is that soap dries out your skin. We all know this. This gives the cosmetics companies the chance to sell us moisturisers to undo the damage that their soap did. Some soap bars and products now have moisturiser added in to counteract the effect. But what if our skin is never getting the chance to establish its own balance and all the time we are rushing to buy another product to try and replace the natural functions and qualities of our skin that took millions of years to evolve. Cosmetic products create a need for themselves when they interfere with the body’s normal way of providing for itself.

But don’t you stink and have no friends?

No … and nor do the numerous other people who have also gone soap free, including:

Paleoblogger, Richard Nikoley of Free theAnimal, all-round-lifehacker, Sean Bonner from BoingBoing, and the two vegan tweeple who woke me up to this in the first place, Ronda Vanderzanden (@funerealwaif303030) and Kristiina Stromness (@MsKristiina282828).

How do you get clean?

With water, the most glorious element on the planet, also known by chemists as “The Universal Solvent”. I get clean using water and scrubbing.

Scrubbing brush and flannel have made a triumphant return to me cleansing arsenal. Finally the annual flannel, that appears half way down the Christmas stocking, is getting a regular outing.

One of the ways soap functions is by leaving a dirt repellent layer on the skin that supposedly means you stay cleaner for longer. This may mean that being soap free requires that washing/bathing is more frequent.  I can easily get away with missing a wash for a day or two when I have a layer of soap on my skin and I can use various other products to smell sweet – but being soap free does give an excuse to indulge in getting wet more often (that being once a day).

Basically, to get clean, I have found I have developed almost a ritual that makes sure all of me is scrubbed in a certain order starting with a clean flannel on the face, and ending with the … ahem … areas.

Actually I was shocked, when I took my first “soap-free” bath, how much gunk was left in the water. It was as if I had had a proper wash for the first time although this may have been more to do with the very thorough scrubbing that the lack of soap.

What about hair?

Yep, hair can do fine without keratin enhancing super shining shampoos with “advanced molecular science” (oh, may we be delivered from shampoos with “science” in them). I guess I can’t speak for people with long hair but I have it on good authority that it is a bit odd to start with until everything settles down.

Received wisdom from those who have gone before also advises that it may take a couple of weeks for the body to balance out generally. So a little perseverance is required.

Complimentary practices for soap-free hygiene.

I think that going soap-free is not just a case of giving up soap. There is a more conscious approach to hygiene that can be explored here as to give up soap is to give up one of the crutches that has helped us to “feel” clean for years.

Firstly, diet plays a massive part in what is secreted on the surface of our skin and how we smell. I am not a physiologist but anyone can wake up to how true this is with the help of their own nose. We all know garlic comes out in the sweat but since giving up dairy products I have become sensitised to the fact that everyone else smells of cheese – literally – because of the dairy they consume. However, raw vegans (people who only eat uncooked plant matter) consistently report that they can discard with deodorants because their sweat is virtually odourless. I am monitoring this at the moment, subsisting on a plant diet as I do, I have almost entirely discarded deodorant products although I do occasionally use an essential oil.

Drinking lots of water also becomes much more important, the idea being that a well hydrated body will be better at eliminating toxins and sweat will be less concentrated.

Secondly … re-think clothing. Feet are not smelly, it’s socks and shoes that are the problem. Some of the clothing we wear, shoes being the best example, provide a close moist environment for bacteria to grow so it is little wonder that feet smell. Going barefoot as much as possible will actually lead to hygienically cleaner feet. Wearing looser clothing made from natural, breathable fabric also makes hygienic sense.

Other plus points to giving up soap

Apart from sticking up two fingers to The Man and making a bid for healthier skin and hair, there are a few other advantages to giving up soap:

  • No more “soap scum” on the side of the bath or shower
  • Saves a few quid a year
  • Contributes to a reduced demand for wierd toxic chemicals and the industrial processes that make them
  • Burn more calories washing/scrubbing
  • Declutter your bathroom from a whole lot of junk

Milk Monday: Dairy in the Days Before Pasteurisation and Refrigeration

In Biblical times, what was a land “flowing with milk and honey” given that that land was very hot and they had no fridges to store the milk? It sounds pretty smelly to me.

For thousands of years before the invention of pasteurisation and refrigeration, nomadic peoples had found ways of storing dairy in a hot climate and while moving from place to place. Among cultures such as the Masai and the sheperds of the Caucasus, these techniques are still the only way to keep milk. For such people, the word “milk” never means the homogenised cold white stuff we love to quaff by the glass and pour on our cornflakes. Rather, it is some sort of sour, fermented derivative that is nutritionally enhanced and partially digested by the bacteria it contains.

Lacto-fermentation and Kefir

Culture complexes of yeasts and bacteria are used the world over to create kefir, yoghurts, and cottage cheeses – each region historically developed their own unique cultures. When added to the milk, these cultures go to work, in some ways speeding up the decaying process of milk but keeping it safe to drink. The growth of the “good” microorganisms is vigorous enough to repress the development of other harmful ones and often renders the environment too acidic and hostile for the “bad” bacteria. Many products now available in western supermarkets and marketed as health drinks with “friendly bacteria” or “probiotics” are simply derived from these traditional cultures and can easily be made at home.

Photograph - 90 grams of kefir grains in a dis...
Kefir Grains (via Wikipedia)

Kefir is a “grain” treasured by shepherds in the caucasus region and enjoying a resurgence among health food enthusiasts. The culture itself can be divided and passed on from one person to another, often taking on unique regional characteristics. Added to milk, kefir grains cause fermentation, acting on the sugars to produce acidic by products and alcohol. Kefir drinks can be made and kept at room temperature, varying in thickness and alcoholic content according to the specific culture and how it is treated. It is often mixed with salt or sugar to make a refreshing drink.

Lacto-fermentation is also the process that results in yoghurt which can also be made on the windowsill in a warm climate but using a different starter culture that usually includes Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus.

Lacto-fermentation has been described as “the poor man’s refrigerator.”

Raw and Curdled Milk

The Maasai people of Africa are one of the oldest pastoral cutures on the planet and their entire life revolves around their cattle who provide milk and blood and, only very occasiaonally, meat. In spite of consuming more fat than would be healthy for a westerner, cardiovascular disorders are virtually unheard of.

For the Maasai, the primary way of storing milk is in the cow. A Maasai is never far from the source so can just squeeze out some raw milk and drink it on the spot, sometimes mixed with blood. To preserve it, milk is kept in hollowed out gourds that are blackened inside with smoke that may go some way to keeping the contents. The milk is then allowed to curdle and is still different to the foul smelling lumpy stuff we get if we leave the milk bottle out, by virtue of it having a rich complex of microorganisms in it to begin with. I have spoken to people who have had the dubious pleasure of drinking this stuff and by all accounts it is not to everyone’s taste, although highly nutritious and prized by the people themselves.

Slate and Teracotta Fridges

In the pantries of old victorian houses it is still possible to find a huge slab of slate on which dairy would have been stored. In temperate climates, the cooling properties of slate were sufficient to keep cheeses and milk at a low temperature for every bit as long as in our modern refrigerators. The victorians also made use of terracotta pots that had been soaked in water. As the water evaporated off from the porous material it would carry heat away, keeping the contents cool.

A “pot-in-a-pot” fridge is simple to construct using unglazed terracotta pots and sand, and this technique has been used in arabic countries for hundreds of years to preserve vegetables and dairy products. The Arabs call this type of refrigerator a “Zeer” pot.

Given that the refrigerator is only an invention of the last sixty years in human history and that it consumes up to 20% of our household’s energy, we could do well to learn how to live without it for the sake of the planet and discover a range of new tastes and techniques in the process.

Should I live Without a Fridge?

The Pot-In-A-Pot Fridge: Zeer from goselfsufficient.co.uk

How Local Communities Can Dial Down Dependence on Burning Carbon

(c) 2010, Seymour Jacklin.

Every single individual can make changes in their household, work and family life that will help to reduce their “carbon footprint.” The idea of a carbon footprint is an extension of the term “ecological footprint”, which was an indication of how much land was required to sustain a given human population.

Fossil Fuel
Reducing Dependence on Fossil Fuels

Your carbon footprint is how much Carbon Dioxide is released into the the atmosphere by you and the activities that sustain you. Carbon dioxide is one of the “greenhouse gasses” contributing to global warming. A large proportion of your carbon footprint is caused by the burning of coal and oil to generate the electricity you use or to run the vehicle you drive. As well as reducing our contribution to global warming, decreasing our dependence on carbon fuels will benefit our planet in other ways, undercutting the dependence of the world economy on oil and promoting the development of less polluting alternatives.

Although changes can be made on a household, by household basis, whole communities can band together to tackle carbon dependence to far greater effect. In the United Kingdom, concerned individuals can respond to the challenge by comitting to participate in a national network of  “Transition Towns” and developing a collective plan and vision to de-escalate carbon dependence.

Here are some of the ways that you can go about making a difference:

  • Form a group and begin networking with others with a common interest. This will enable an inventory of skills to be made and it is surprising what creativity and expertise will become available from people who grow food locally, to those with political influence, from artistic and design abilities to trades and educational experience – all of which can be harnessed as part of the collective strategy.
  • Community groups can raise awareness by setting up information points at local events and inviting people to talks by local and national activists, showing films and distributing literature through existing networks.
  • Create forums for discussion and collective problem solving, to look at the specific issues in your area. For instance, is there a dependence on importing goods by road for local consumption when many of these could be locally produced? Could commuters viably set up a car sharing scheme?
  • Run courses using expertise that you have to educate people in skills that they can apply such as growing food, building sustainably, hand-crafting, foraging, woodland management and waste management. These can be run using expertise within the group or arranging for others to come in from outside to deliver teaching and training.
  • Form relationships with local government representatives to enable your concerns to be taken to broader political platforms or influence local planning. Engage in letter writing and advocacy to people in positions of influence or perusuade them to participate in your group.

The net benefit of this collective endeavour goes far beyond merely transitoning your community to a more sustainable future, it brings people together and creates friendships and the opportunity to learn new skills. It can open your eyes to the potential in the people around you and the beauty of the place where you live and work. You may get to revive an old hobby or pass on your knowledge to other people. It may even save you money as you find ways to use less electricity and fuel. You will get to be part of a growing movement that will inhibit the destruction of the planet and the enhance the quaility of life in the society in which you live.

Checkout:

The Durham Transition Network Initative

Man the Gatherer: The Foraging Instinct

Raspberry Picking
Foraging: The Matrix of Human Communities?

I spent a lovely couple of hours picking wayside raspberries last evening with a few good folk from The Durham Fruit Group. This group is a growing network of people in the Durham environs who are connecting over local fruit, wild and cultivated. Among other things, we are currently mapping fruit trees and soft fruit bushes growing around the city and sharing knowledge about just about anything to do with local fruit.

The Durham Fruit Group is an offshoot from a loose network of good folks in Durham who are creating, sharing, growing and learning together about how to work towards a sustainable future for the city.

Foraging in a group is a profoundly therapeutic activity and this is no surprise as it is probably one of the most primitively wired activities a human being can do.

In late 1998 I spent five weeks studying a troop of Cercopithecus aethiops (that’s Vervet Monkeys) in the wild. My original plan was to look for links between the diet and fertility of the females, I ended up studying the formation of the group and their social habits around their foraging patterns. The point of this was ultimately to be able to say something about the kind of socio-ecological conditions under which the very earliest human groups might have formed. Obtaining food by wild foraging is possibly the matrix of human communities.

The stereotypical perception of “Man the Hunter” is worth questioning. If I recall correctly from my undergraduate Anthropology lectures, among the scattered remnants of hunter-gatherers on this planet, more than 80% of nutritional needs are met through foraging /gathering and “hunting” has a more supplementary and religious role to play. It’s also worth noting that the gathering is generally practiced by women on behalf of the group – yes 50% of the group do 80% of the providing! I must say, as I sat for many days, with my notebook, watching my little troop of Vervets idly picking fruit and socialising, I prefered this peacable vision of our earliest ancestors to Robert Ardrey’s “Killer Ape” theory.

Raspberries
Wild: half the size but twice the flavour

Where am I going with this? Well:

  • Going to the supermarket for raspberries will not feed the psyche of your inner gatherer and you are also in danger of forgetting what a real raspberry tastes like because shop bought fruit may be twice the size but has half the flavour of wild-picked.
  • As long as we perpetuate the myth of our “savage” hunting origins we will continue to justify an unsustainable meat-eating addiction and make excuses for our cruel and violent streak towards animals and each other.

Enough said.

Time to Turn it Off and do the Fridge Free Fandango?

The contents of my fridge.
What is it good for? Ratatouille, Mayo, Spread and Milk.

Here is a picture of the inside of my refrigerator at the moment. Is this what writing does to you? Leaves you with so much cold, white space to feed your starving artistic temperament?

No.

Although I was pretty startled to look in there and see it so empty, I think this is the inevitable quiet accumulation of the effect that a few simple lifestyle choices has had. I wake up to the fact that my core convictions have slowly turned against everything that the fridge stands for to the point that it stands virtually empty. I suppose when you give up meat and dairy the fridge is soon to follow. I do struggle to think of anything ultimately good that this gadget has contributed to humanity so I put this article/rant out there as my contribution to the global fridge-free movement:

Would Everyone be Better Off Without a Fridge?