On War, Gardening, and Cooking for Bad Times, by Elizabeth B.

Thursday, Nov 6, 2008

Wars are forever. The memories seem to never end for families. They are passed on from generation to generation.The Civil War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Iraq.
What remains is not even so much who won or lost, but rather the memories of war center on beloved family members that died and the foods of these times…

I’m only in my 50s, yet our family oral traditions date back earlier than 1860, but that is where I will start.
My great-grandfather’s two brothers marched off to fight in one of the major Civil War battles that no one can even name today. They were never heard from again. My grandmother’s half-sister, whom I knew very well as a child, worked as an attendant at the Home For Confederate Widows in Austin until it closed and she retired. I was born in 1951. My parents who both died after the year 2000 yet knew many Civil War veterans in their hometowns. They remembered parades where the vets were honorees. That war is remembered as the time they boiled the dirt from the smokehouse to retrieve salt. The girls and women of the family scratched vegetables out of the kitchen garden. Soldiers used the clothesline to hold target practice on china teacups. It was a hungry time.

My father’s father enlisted in the waning days of WWI but did not deploy to France. That war is remembered as the time when the family moved off the farm to the city, yet still continued to go back home in the late summers to spend several weeks canning, pickling, and putting up produce. Daddy wrung chickens’ necks for the cook pot in the backyard. It was a transition time. My mother’s [first] husband, the father of my sister, was shot down in a plane over Germany one month after the D-Day invasion. That war is remembered by its Victory Gardens, the ration books for sugar, the rationing of milk for a pregnant mother, and meatless Tuesdays. It was a time of want.

The coming bad times will also be a war, or likened to a war. It will be a war for your personal survival, a war for our future, and a war that determines the path humanity will take on our planet. Global warming, acid rain, rampant species extinction, and the collapse of fish populations and pollinators are in our immediate future.

What does the food of struggling people around the world have in common? Peppers! Think about food from India, Thailand, Mexico, China. All these cultures have developed foods spiced up with native peppers. In a survival situation, it will take about one nanosecond to get tired of beans, rice, pulses, corn, and potatoes on a daily basis. However, with the use of peppers and a couple of herbs and spices, you can spice up your daily fare.

Fortunately, peppers are among the easiest of all plants to grow. Nothing is much more forgiving than a pepper. Pepper plants are actually perennials, not annuals as they are sold in the stores. Where I live in south central Texas, a pepper plant can live for years. If the winter is mild, there is no problem. If the winter is a bit more severe, just place some rags around the roots, cover with some plastic and weight the entire thing down. In the spring, you will be rewarded with a delightful blooming pepper bush that will supply until the next winter arrives.
Right now, I have Big Jim, jalapeño, serrano, and ancho growing. But the king of my garden is the lovely volunteer chile pequin that sprang up from the forest behind my house. Chile Pequin is a native of south central Texas. Interestingly, this is a pepper well known by Hispanics in Texas. Most families have their stories of growing up with mother making very hot chile from the abundant chile pequin, a free gift from nature. However, huge numbers of the rest of the population have lived alongside chile pequin growing wild without ever knowing how delicious this little spicy number is.
Chile Pequin is a tiny little pepper, often no larger than an apple or orange seed, although mine can grow larger than that. Due to the fact that I live in San Antonio and peppers are called “chiles,” that is how I will refer to them from this point forward.

Confusion abounds as to what is the difference between chile, chili, chile con queso, salsa, and pico de gallo. Pico de gallo means “rooster’s beak.” It is tomatoes and chile plus onions, garlic, and cilantro. Chili is the saucy meat stew which may or may not contain beans. This is also called chili con carne. I prefer no beans, but for survival, of course I would opt for beans. Pinto beans, never those tasteless little pieces of chalk: red kidney beans. Salsa means any type of hot sauce made with tomatoes or corn or fruit such as mango and chile such as chipotle (dried, smoked jalapeños) or fresh jalapeno. Chile con queso is a melted cheese sauce cooked with chile peppers. If sausage is added, it is called “flameado.”

Molcajete
Every kitchen needs a stone mocajete or molcajete, not a fru-fru ceramic item bought at a gourmet kitchen store. This should be a workhorse in your kitchen. In traditional Mexican families, the mocajete sits on the table so mother can concoct the chile to specifications or requests from the family according to what is being served. In English, it is called mortar and pestle and is used for classic hand grinding. Decades of grinding will smooth the mocajete out. Chile is served with every meal. Today Hispanics do not cook this way so much, but it is how many were brought up. Times have changed all around and the family sit-down meal is ebbing away into memory in many cultures.
Depending on how much chile goes into the mocajete influences how “pico” or hot and spicy the chile turns out to be. One chile pequin is enough for one
tomato.

Comal
The comal is a flat cast iron griddle that goes on the stovetop. You can grill (blister or blacken) chile or more commonly, cook fajita meat and its veggies such as onions, bell pepper, and tomatoes. Americans have gotten out of the habit of using cast iron to cook, but it can’t be beaten. I grew up with cast iron, but my children are ignorant of its use and care. Cast iron is also a source of iron in the diet. Jalapeños can be grilled to produce chipotle, if you like that flavor. Tortillas can be re-heated.

Recipes

If you prefer no skin, briefly boil the larger chiles and tomatoes to slip off the skin. Grind as usual. If you are lacking enough fresh tomatoes, add a little tomato sauce or canned tomatoes. Rinse the mocajete well with water after each use, checking the crevasses for lingering pieces.

Your garden needs to be growing parsley, cilantro, and various peppers. I have not mentioned bell peppers because they are not my favorites, but they deserve a place in any garden for ease of growing, beauty, and flavor. Chile gardeners are known for sharing peppers in order to share the seeds. If you meet a pepper you like, save some seeds or ask for some. People are unfailingly willing to share.

More Food for Bad Times
Greens are making a culinary comeback. One hundred years ago they were a staple. Now you find chard in many restaurants. The taste is acquired, so now is the time to begin to learn to cook and enjoy greens and teach your family to eat them. My family ate spinach and mustard greens when I was growing up. Kale, beet, and collard greens will supply vital nutrients to your diet and are easy growers in the home garden. The addition of bacon or bacon grease, red pepper flakes, vinegar, garlic, or sugar can add kick to a bland food. Experiment until you find the taste you and your family prefer.Okra has earned a bad rap due to bad cooking. As a child, I would not touch okra as it was often simply boiled and it became very slimy. Due to the proliferation of fast food fried chicken eateries, many people now know that okra is delicious served fried. Okra is a vital ingredient of seafood gumbos. I don’t eat seafood, but you make gumbo with sausage and rice and it’s wonderful. With my family roots going back to Civil War days and all the privations involved, we had many poor people food recipes handed down. Tomatoes and okra was a favorite of both of my parents. You can lay a piece of soft bread down first in a bowl as a sop and add the cooked okra and tomatoes. Naturally, sprinkling cheese of any type such as parmesan, romano, or cheddar would greatly enhance this humble dish.

Succotash is a vegetable concoction that is rather like a kitchen sink recipe. If it grows in the garden, add it in. Succotash traditionally utilizes corn and lima beans. Depending on the cook, you can add tomatoes and okra. Just don’t forget the herbs and chile to make it edible.

Use it All: Chicken
A whole rotisserie chicken will last for a week at my house.
Day 1: warm sliced chicken served as main entrée with skin and fat pulled off and fed to the dog who loves chicken day
Day 2: cold chicken pasta salad with finely diced/shredded broccoli, carrots, mayonnaise, ranch dry dressing (available in a big plastic container from Sam’s Club), and cayenne pepper, salt, pepper
Day 3: cold chicken salad with plenty of fruit such as raisins or currants, apples or grapes, toasted almonds, celery including the tops, a little onion, curry powder; use mayo as a binder
Day 4: baked chicken spaghetti topped with cheese
Day 5: boil bones and veggies for soup, add rice or noodles
This seems like a lot of meals for just one chicken, right? It’s because you are basically using the chicken as a flavoring. Americans eat way too much meat, so you’ll be doing just fine. Focus on flavors and carbs.

More Use it All: Ham
Buy an uncooked ham, cook it, and it lasts seemingly forever.
Day 1: warm sliced ham for entrée; delight clever dog by sharing scraps.
Day 2: ham sandwich
Day 3: omelet with ham and chile
Day 4: add diced ham fat cooked into your beans or peas or lentils
Day 5: fried ham for breakfast
Continue this way until meat is all used up.
Boil the ham bone for cooking beans or peas or lentils

Grease, Fat & Butter
In the old rural days, there was never a shortage of grease or fats. If you have ever read Poland by James Michener or The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, you will remember a recurrent theme was the lack of and longing for fat in the diet during the lean times.

If you have backyard chickens or a source of eggs, you’ll be fine. However, even a steady diet of lean rabbit meat can lead to “rabbit starvation” as the human body requires a small but steady input of fats for proper metabolism.

In my childhood home, bacon grease was kept in a special closed can for flavoring beans and corn. All other grease was put into a separate can for disposal. Just keep in mind if the bad times arrive, you will need to be mindful of your fat intake.

Finally, remember, everything is better with chile. If you don’t like spicy, it’s time to learn and develop your palate. A daily dose of beans and rice will get old very fast if you don’t do something different. If you really can’t go “pico,” then opt for bell peppers. They are in the same dependable plant family and won’t let you down. They dry easily in a food dehydrator and keep and reuse well.
I advocate growing your own chiles, since it is so easily done. Try different varieties from different regions. See what works well in your garden, zone, climate, and soil. Chiles grow well in containers,too. .

Recommended "Easy Growers"

In conclusion, a great variety of vegetables exits that can be grown in your area. I have listed a few I know from personal experience and find foolproof. Many, many foods await your experimentation. Try something new today. Compost your fruit and vegetable scraps to improve the soil. In fact, don’t let any biomass go into the waste stream. You do have permission to toss out bones and meat scraps. Use everything for compost and mulch. Harvest your rainwater. You will feel very good about this, I promise.

Just remember: buy heirloom seed only, avoid the hybrids, and diversify, diversify, diversify. Change your eating habits. Picky eaters are not survivors. Complainers are not survivors. Survival will depend on your head, hands, and heart. There is no time like now before the Stuff Hits the Fan to change. We don’t want to awake to find a changed world that could be likened to the war times of the past. Later, it could be a misery, today it can be an adventure.


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