A basic principle used by wise householders the world over is “use the worst first, put the best by.” That’s entirely contrary to what’s preached at us by advertisers but it’s how most generations before us survived. They passed down traits like fortitude, patience, and the ability to go on no matter how bleak the prospects. The hardy genes they gave us are surely flummoxed by fast food and passive entertainment.
“Use the worst first, put the best by” these days doesn’t necessarily mean we save the best for seed stock or dig through a root cellar to make sure the rutabagas going bad are fed to the cows (although I happily save seeds and feed rutabagas to cows). It simply means the apples going soft are the ones selected to make pie, leaving crisp ones for another day. The blemished celery stalks, wizening carrots, and wrinkled peppers inspire a soup. And the cut of meat that’s nearly past the “use by” date is quickly turned into an entrée.
This frugal advice inspires me to try with enthusiasm that’s easy to maintain because I know the grocery store is only 20 minutes away. Still, I check the pantry and refrigerator regularly, employing my subversive cooking powers to create meals from whatever needs to be used up. And living on a small farm I also do my best to put up what we harvest. Despite bushels of homegrown potatoes and hundreds of canning jars filled with tomatoes, jellies, applesauce, and juices it’s clear that I’d make a horrible pioneer. Blight and powdery mildew regularly hits my garden. Cows get sick Chickens are killed by predators. Cheese doesn’t turn out right and a dozen jars of pickles are inedible. My family would starve.
Complete self-reliance isn’t my goal. I’d rather cozy up on the couch with a stack of library books and beverage of choice than work hard, even if I do appreciate the genes bestowed on me (and you) by stalwart ancestors. But the attempts I make are teaching me something about what feast and famine might have meant to people who really relied on food they put up themselves.
After a few months of storage my potatoes begin to shrink into softness and my garlic turns dark and hollow. My dried peppers become fragile as dust. My fermented cabbage and pickles start to taste strange. If I lived about 200 years ago I wouldn’t know about home canning and would have to rely entirely on techniques like salting, drying, lacto-fermentation, and root cellaring. These methods are no real assurance that food will last. Several hundred years ago I’d have to balance out my family’s hunger with the need to save enough to get through the winter. I’d have to check regularly to make sure the dried fish and fruits were free of infestation, the salted meat wasn’t getting slimy, the grains weren’t spreading mold, the root vegetables hadn’t frozen. At some point, probably around early to mid-winter, it would be clear to me and to every other householder making the same hard choices, that some of our food wouldn’t last no matter what we did. Everything degrades.
And so we’d make a decision based entirely on faith and goodwill. We’d entend, through our own hard won food, the kind of hope that is of the body itself, the kind of hope that has a close acquaintance with hunger and death but goes on anyway. If I were a woman of this time I would take from storage a bounty of foods not likely to last through the winter anyway. I would cook and bake and invite people to feast with my family. The table would be filled with plenty, even if it meant in a few month’s time I’d be feeding my children soups made with nothing more than salt and beans to tide them over and scrounging in desperation for the first greens to emerge as the snow melted. I can almost picture this woman heaping food on plates. Such a feast would be celebrated with faith that we talk about these days but don’t know in our bellies. It has to do with reverence that’s forever tied to holiday meals.
I’ll be thinking about this woman as I put dinner on the table tonight, relishing the welcome sight of my loved ones eating what I’ve worked to prepare just as she must have done. That’s what “put the best by” is teaching me.