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The New American Homesteaders

When did a basket of figs from one’s own tree become the ultimate housewarming present? Three writers who’ve embraced the DIY food trend tell their stories.

In an age when so many people are feeling trapped by technology, more and more home cooks are experiencing a powerful urge to disconnect from modern life and focus on the essentials—from growing their own vegetables and canning the harvest to raising and butchering their own meat. Call them the new homesteaders. While America’s early pioneers produced their own food out of necessity, these new homesteaders are doing it by choice.

Everyone’s story is different, but the practical reasons why so many people are playing farmer these days are all pretty similar: Growing produce instead of buying it is healthier (an easy way to get more fruits and vegetables into one’s cooking), safer (what with concerns about pesticides and the tainted food supply) and good for the environment (can’t get more local than the backyard). And anyone, anywhere—urbanites, too—can make jam, pickle, even raise a few chickens. Here, three writers share their experiences.

The Slowest Food Illo.

© Chris Silas Neal

The Slowest Food

By Novella Carpenter

On my urban mini farm in Oakland, California, I have a 4,500-square-foot vegetable plot, grow fruit trees and raise rabbits, chickens and goats. Along the way, I have battled numerous pests: aphids, cabbage moths, slugs, even opossums. And every spring, I enter into hand-to-shell combat with snails, which love to shred my delicate vegetable seedlings into ribbons. One day, while throwing snails into the busy street near my garden (it seemed as good a pest-management technique as any), I stopped and looked more closely at a particularly large specimen. I realized that it reminded me of something I had seen in France, on a plate: escargots. I started wondering about the difference between this garden enemy and food.

The answer came in the form of an educational brochure I found in a University of California Berkeley library called Raising Snails, put out by the National Agricultural Library in the 1980s. It turns out there is no biological difference between my snails and those I had paid several euros to eat while on a recent trip to France. Nobody is sure who first introduced the common garden snail Helix aspersa to America, but according to the pamphlet, we can blame either French or Italian immigrants, who came to California in the early 1800s. They brought the snails to raise for food, but perhaps some of the mollusks escaped. They have now spread all over the United States to wreak havoc on our gardens.

The pamphlet goes on to describe best practices and breeding conditions for rearing snails to become escargots, but I didn’t read that section, because my entire garden was obviously the ideal setup. I went out that night and plucked the biggest snails from my artichoke plants, and I stuck them on my kitchen counter in a large mason jar with holes punched into the lid.

My French brother-in-law advised me that the snails should be fed cornmeal for a few days to cleanse their systems of any off-tasting ingestions, like the bitter artichoke leaves they relished. So I sprinkled some in the jar and watched and waited. After a week, I figured it was time. I felt sorry for the little guys: Now that they’d been living in my house, I’d grown slightly fond of them. But I only had to remember my pillaged lettuce to bolster my resolve.

Following the pamphlet’s directions, I soaked the snails in salted water for several hours, then boiled them for eight minutes until I could pry them out of their shells to clean them. I fried eight snails in garlic and butter and served them on the escargot plates I had found at a flea market outside of Narbonne. In this case, I thought as I polished them off one by one, revenge turned out to be savory.

Novella Carpenter is the author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer.

A New York City Fruitopia.

© Chris Silas Neal

A New York City Fruitopia

By William Grimes

My wife, Nancy, and I have been farming for 15 years. True, it’s a small spread—just a few beds of vegetables and herbs in a cramped New York City backyard—but over the years, we have tilled and planted and harvested, scanning the skies for rain, dreading cold snaps and chasing off predators. And most of all, we have dreamed of growing our own fruit. So why did we chop down our thriving fig tree last year? Let me explain.

Nancy and I believe every farm worth the name has fruit trees. Even if our space limitations allowed for just a single tree, we were determined to have one. Seven years ago, nature obliged by striking the blowsy hydrangea bush in our backyard with lightning. In its place we planted a dwarf cherry tree, a North Star. The undersized orchard yielded just enough fruit for Nancy to bake one pie each summer.

This was sweet victory—sweet and brief. After two pie seasons, the city planted a new tree out front, one with light-blocking leaves that threatened to kill our rosebushes. To save the roses, we had to move them to the backyard—which meant, after much deliberation, that the cherry tree had to go.

The fruit-tree dream did not die. Nancy bought a baby fig tree (a Chicago Hardy) and planted it in a pot. It grew. And we transplanted it outdoors to a shady area with only modest expectations. The fig is a Mediterranean tree, after all. But this one put down deep roots, spread its arms, and before long—lo and behold!—put forth purple, succulent figs, intensely sweet and juicy.

For two years, those figs were the crown jewels of our garden. We ate them raw off the tree. We paired them with sharp blue cheeses. We used them in tarts and clafoutis. But the tree did not know when to quit. As it pursued imperial ambitions, its thick leaves blocked light to ever greater swaths of the backyard. We cut it back ruthlessly each fall, only to see it rebound, until, last year, we did the unthinkable and removed the tree, root and branch.

It was sad, but the fig’s former domain is now a fallow field, a new chapter still waiting to be written. And a hopeful peach tree waits in a pot.

William Grimes is the author of the forthcoming Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York.

Going Whole Hog.

© Chris Silas Neal

Going Whole Hog

By Jonathan Miles

Some years back, when I was living alone in a 12-foot-by-30-foot cabin in the Mississippi woods (Thoreau-like in theory but more Unabomber-like in execution), I shot and killed a 150-pound wild boar. This was a considerable boon to me. In my semi-monastic effort to live off the land, I had been eating a lot of squirrels, and while squirrel meat tastes dandy—cringe as needed, but the hip British chef Fergus Henderson is fond of it as well—the time and effort required for each ounce of squirrel is woefully inefficient. But a freezer filled with pound upon pound of wild boar—that noble delicacy of Europe, that bosky and savage cousin to pork—this bounty would pleasantly sustain me, I figured, close to forever.

Because I was in my twenties and overstuffed with idealism and ambition, I was determined to put every ounce of the boar to use. This included the hide, which I tanned (a complex process that involved vast amounts of salt, odd chemical brines and two tree trunks for stretching out the skin). I’m not sure what use I foresaw for a bristly black boar hide—ultimately, I put it to use as a dog bed—but I was adamant about wasting nothing. I even flirted with making string out of the sinews, as Native Americans supposedly used to do with deer, but the presence of an infinite-looking roll of twine in my kitchen, purchased for something like $1.09, sucked the purpose out of that tedious chore.

But the meat! Ah, the meat. As a hunter, I’m sanguine about gamey flavors and the unruly variations in taste from one wild animal to the next. But the meat of this boar—an elderly specimen that doubtlessly would have succumbed, within weeks, to old age had I not intervened—was beyond gamey. No matter how I prepared it—marinated, braised, smoked, smothered with exuberant sauces—eating it was always like chewing on dirty pennies. Because I had roughly 110 pounds of meat in my freezer, I invited lots of friends over. One of them, politely chewing a bite of roast that I’d glazed with a maple syrup–and–balsamic vinegar reduction, said it tasted like a combination of overcooked liver and pancakes. Like everyone else, he rebuffed all my subsequent invitations. Even when I asked those friends to merely stop by my cabin for a beer, they all turned me down. “You don’t mean beer,” one hissed at me. “You mean boar.”

Here was the unexpected, ugly downside to eating locally and living off the land: The wild isn’t consistent (that’s part of what makes it wild), and while the highs are beautifully high, the lows are... Well, the lows may involve 100-plus pounds of barely edible meat staring at you every time you crack open your freezer.

I eventually ate it all, of course—the purist in me wouldn’t allow otherwise. But it didn’t sustain me forever, as I’d giddily predicted. It only felt that way.

Jonathan Miles writes the Shaken & Stirred column for the New York Times and is the author of the novel Dear American Airlines.

Published September 2009
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