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Pantry Portraits

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[Photo of Mark Richards’s meat shed]

Herein, Genevieve Roth—New Yorker in residence, Alaskan at heart—chastises herself for losing touch with her survivalist roots, and peeks into the freezers and pantries of a few better prepared hunters, canners, and coupon clippers. (Unbelievably poor planning pushed this story from the pages of issue 6 to our tumblr; print’s loss is the internet’s gain.)

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, I was in Los Angeles for work, leaving a couple visiting Australian friends stranded in my apartment without water, electricity, or heat for seven days. This would have been unfortunate under any circumstances, but it was downright despicable in this one, because, heel that I am, I left them in a home that was about as disaster ready as pack of gum. 

I’d just moved back to the States from overseas and the closest I’d come to doomsday prepping was stocking a bottle of Siracha in case the delivery boys forgot to bring it. There were no flashlights. No candles that didn’t smell like frangipani. No bottled water.  No emergency blanket. No deck of cards or cribbage board. I had a just-in-case bottle of Billecart Rose in the fridge, but I don’t think it was enough to help my houseguests flush a toilet that hadn’t seen water in 72 hours.

“There should be a can of San Marzanos,” I told them from my oceanfront hotel room. “Maybe chickpeas? There’s good salt. Decent rye. Beyond that, guys, it’s pretty grim.” I felt like a shmuck.

If the run on grocery stores before the storm was any indication, I wasn’t the only underprepared New Yorker. This would be excusable for a lot of people, but it was not excusable for me. I am Alaskan, damnit. My people know how to store food. Back home I am heir to freezer footage that rivals the footprint of my first apartment. Every fall, my brother takes our late father’s guns out to the woods in search of something big—a caribou or a moose—to feed our family through the winter. My mother and stepfather spend the summer fishing until the freezers are stacked and packed with butcher-paper packages labeled ling cod, salmon steaks—MOM’S FIRST CATCH OF THE YEAR—and halibut cheeks. 

Growing up, I looked forward to hunting season the way other kids might anticipate the last day of school. For two solid weeks, dead caribou (only ever enough for the winter. In my family you hunt to eat, not play) would displace the Volkswagen in our garage. Uncles came over to butcher, bringing with them cousins and hijinx. We’d band together and set to work—salmon smoking on the deck outside, caribou being ground into sausage inside. If the year’s hunting trip had involved a boat, there would be dozens of King Crab crawling angrily across the kitchen floor.  

And all winter and well into spring, the wives would reach into their freezers and turn the harvest into nourishing, tasty meals.  

This is my legacy. And what have I done with it? Certainly nothing that would help my friends weather the storm. My brother has done a better job. He talks about his freezers with an affection most men reserve for high-school sweethearts. When describing to me the woman he now lives with, he said, “She smokes my fish! And her brine is gooood!” (Sadly, it was not a euphemism.) He does not think it charming that I go to seven artisanal markets to shop for dinner; he thinks it sounds like a pain in the ass. 

Turns out, there are people like my brother all over the country. People who believe that food tastes better if you know a little bit about where it came from, and want to be able to produce something exciting from the fruits of their own labor. They aren’t storing for the end of the world necessarily, but should it come, they’ll be in better shape than you or me.

1. Brett Roth (my brother)

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The freezer is the repository of most of my best memories of the past year as well as the fruit of a long time goal and dream. (While it’s arguably a bit perverse to feel so good about a freezer full of things that you have killed, being an active hunter and fisher lets me eat closer to home, with undoubtably the highest quality of food.) The split second of pulling the trigger to harvest the moose in the freezer is one of those memories. The moose was a blessing. I’ll never forget that hunt—it is the only successful moose hunt that I have done solo.  

My favorite memory of the year, though, is laying in the bow of my skiff under a tarp in the open ocean air under a clear night sky and “fishing” (in the sense that I had dropped my shrimp pots in the water in the dark a little bit earlier). As I lay there, drifting off to sleep, the sky lit up with shooting stars. I was completely alone in a beautiful place—not a bit of light pollution. 

The octopus in the picture is a little guy that made the mistake of climbing into the shrimp pot. It’s the only one I’ve ever caught, thought it’s not that uncommon. I figure it will make for a creative meal one day.

As for the salmon, Alaskan residents have the opportunity to do something that may be unique in the world: we get to “dipnet” for these beautiful fish.  It amounts to holding onto a net the diameter of a hula hoop and hoping the fish will swim in. This year I spent a couple days with no fish entering at all, and then went back and pretty much couldn’t keep the fish out of the nets. Two or three fish would hit the net at a time and one of the two  would sometimes jump out of the net into the boat.

Halibut is the one staple that I didn’t get enough of this year—the little that I have was a Christmas present from a lady that I coach skiing. Ate some tonight in a blackened halibut salad, in fact.

This year I did better than ever before at capturing a variety of foods and for the first time I feel I have “achieved” that goal of a full freezer. I hope that now that I have attained this “level,” I will be able to consistently maintain a full freezer and continue to live off the fat of the land, as it were.

2. Joel and Dana MacCharles 

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It’s kind of a shock to us that we’ve ended up with a shelf like this—it just sort of happened. Almost everything on the shelf was grown locally and by people we know. Most of our imports are the results of preserve swaps—we run two a year. Swapping allows us to diversify our pantry; we make a few extra jars of each batch and swap out about a hundred. Makes for good variety. 

There are some foraged/hunted goods on the shelf as well. Deer stock and moose stock from my fall hunts are part of the selection you see as are other items foraged at the family cabin including blackberries, ramps, dandelions, and more. We keep a blog (wellpreserved.ca) about the food that we make, and when I started writing about going back to hunting I lost half of our traffic. 

We have a “nose-to-tail-fruit” approach to strawberries. When we preserve them we preserve different parts of the berry in different ways. I hold the hull and use a mandoline to cut the tips as thin as I can for drying. When the strawberry becomes too small to cut comfortably, I take the remains and split them in two—the hull gets dehydrated for tea/smoking food and the middle bit is used for jam. Any excess juice from slicing is poured into a cordial or into rumtopf or other booze infusions. We do this with ramps, too. We pickle or dry the whites, dehydrate some of the leaves, freeze other leaves, turn some leaves into a salt preserve, and air-dry the roots. Vegetables and fruit, like meat, have different cuts that can be used differently to speed things up or to benefit the final treatment. I once shared this technique with Fergus Henderson who smiled and told me I was “mad.”

Photo credit: reenanewman.com

3. Dylan Tomine

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My family and I are not hardcore back-to-the-landers or subsistence foragers. We’re just a regular suburban family that happens to spend some of our recreation time outside catching, growing, or finding things we can eat. Preserving and storing the occasional bumper crop or bonanza is simply part of the process, and it also provides us with some bright flavors of summer and fall in the dead of winter and early spring. 

The top shelf in the photo shows the front rows of canned, smoked winter king salmon. We can this fish for several reasons: first, because it tastes awesome this way—my daughter Skyla and I can demolish a whole can in about seven minutes. Second, it frees up valuable freezer space. And finally, our winter kings live year-round in the industrial soup of Puget Sound, so this process allows me to strip the skin, fat, and dark meat (our favorite parts of summer kings, which migrate in from the open Pacific) where chemicals are stored, and still maintain a good-eating product.

That large amount of purple stuff reflects a crazy score on beets. We pickled them in a bunch of forms, using a standard pickling formula—sweet with ginger and cinnamon, savory with salt and garlic, etc. A relative of a friend owns an organic seed farm up in the Skagit Valley and last year, they were testing beet cultivars. When they were done, they were going to till all the roots back into the soil unless anyone wanted them. My wife Stacy wanted them. So she and a friend took a van up there and came back with a full load of 5-gallon buckets stacked three deep, all full of beets. And then it was hours and hours of canning, and we’ve still yet to put a dent in the supply. It’s worth noting here, that if you consume beets on this kind of scale, there will be repercussions involving the color of certain bodily functions, and if you forget you ate the beets, it can result in panic and, in some cases, an unnecessary trip to the doctor.

4. Langdon Cook

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The upper shelf is my fish shelf, with the last of my smoked salmon and shad. The shad come from the Columbia River, where they were introduced in the late 1800s by Seth Green, one of the nation’s first aquaculturists. The salmon are the epitome of local: I catch them about three miles from my home in Seattle. In recent odd-numbered years we’ve been getting large runs of pink salmon returning to Puget Sound rivers—a few million fish if we’re lucky. The fish congregate in Elliott Bay and then pile into the Duwamish River, Seattle’s industrial waterway, before heading upstream to more pristine spawning grounds in the Green River. Technically this stretch of working river is a Superfund site, but the salmon move through in the time it takes for the tides to change. Me and my buddies launch pontoon boats and other barely seaworthy vessels to fly-fish in the hectic channel. At the peak of the run it’s madness: we dodge tugboats and container ships while casting flies to pods of migrating fish that splash and frolic in the channel as they head upstream with the tide. A daily limit of six pinks fills my smoker at home. I fillet the fish, brine them overnight in a mix of salt, brown sugar, and garlic, and then spend a few hours tending my smoker on the back patio, drinking beer and throwing the occasional chunk of cherrywood into the fire. When the pinks are running, my friends pretty much knock off work for a week to spend all day catching, cleaning, and smoking fish that will last us through the year. 

There’s also some leftover salmon heads. I use these to make an Asian-style Fish Head Soup and also as crab bait. Just the other day I traded a guy 10 pounds of fish heads for a bottle of homemade Orangecello liqueur. The barter system is alive and well among hunters and foragers. I’ve got another friend in Seattle, an urban beekeeper who’s also a hunter. He trades me duck breasts for mushrooms. In the lower shelf you can see my wild mushroom stash: chanterelles, porcini, hedgehogs, lobsters, yellowfeet, and black trumpets. 

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This a somewhat random assortment of canned goods, most from the past year or so but a few dating back to 2004—the year we lived off the grid and produced (and put up) an absurd amount of food. You can see the last of our pie cherries from that year, from an original store of a few dozen quarts, and the last pears. Jams, jellies, and chutneys are more recent, including our sole remaining jar of green tomato relish from this summer, a new favorite that made handy Christmas presents. Huckleberry and blackberry jams are family favorites, as well as some more unusual items such as salal preserves, Oregon grape, and rose hip jelly. Lots of pickling, too: pickled sea beans (both Mexicali and Asian-style), pickled fiddleheads (a great canapé), kelp rings pickled in a bread-and-butter style, and so on. There are dried goods as well: morels, porcini, vanilla leaf for tea, stinging nettles, and figs. I dry a lot of mushrooms. The morels and porcini in particular are good to dry since they just get better with age, like a fine wine. Reconstituted in warm water, the morels make a decadent cream sauce for steak in the darkest depths of winter. I like to grind the dried porcini into powder to flavor stews and sauces. They give a woodsy bass note to an oxtail ragu.

5. Joanie Demer 

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Stockpiling isn’t hoarding. Quite the opposite. I create my stockpile by anticipating the foods and toiletries my family will use in the next 6-12 months, and when I can purchase those goods for 50–75% off retail price, I buy them in multiples. This way I dictate the price I will pay for a tube of toothpaste (fifty cents) or a box a cereal (a dollar). If I wait until I run out of my last toothpaste tube, I’m forced to pay four dollars at the drugstore.

If you’re going to stockpile, you must be organized. There’s no one way to do it. Find what works for you. I always put new items at the back of the shelf and keep the older ones in front to rotate them. If ever an item is within a couple months of its best-by date, I bring it in the house or take it to a food bank. 

notes:
  1. serolina reblogged this from luckypeach and added:
    Omg…this is so detailed. Wow!
  2. tsmrwhk reblogged this from luckypeach
  3. twosistersbakery reblogged this from luckypeach
  4. whatevernesss reblogged this from luckypeach
  5. thelittleemma reblogged this from food52
  6. saltwaterthirst reblogged this from food52 and added:
    Look at all that yummy meat! I dream of living in country where it gets cold enough in winter to have an outdoor larder!
  7. food52 reblogged this from luckypeach and added:
    Hunters and gatherers and their pantries. Great article that didn’t make it into the latest edition of Lucky Peach!
  8. letterfromnowhere reblogged this from luckypeach and added:
    I really with I was this industrious. My mom used to can her own tomatoes, make jam and pickled peppers.
  9. thesanica reblogged this from luckypeach and added:
    Because I have to worry about a household now, and not just be part of one, and because I live in an area several miles...
  10. miacosm reblogged this from luckypeach
  11. goodfoodisgood reblogged this from luckypeach and added:
    Pantry porn, comin’ up.
  12. luckypeach posted this