Back in 2012, Kevin and I set a goal of getting 20.12% — OK, call it 20% — of our calories from what we grew, hunted, fished, and gathered. I kept a monthly tally and added it up at the end of the year. It was an interesting exercise.
We did it because, the previous year, we’d spent an inordinate amount of time on procuring our own food, and the calorie total came to an anaemic 11%. After all that effort, 11%! It was demoralizing.
We’ve never aspired to self-sufficiency. In fact, in an interconnected world, I’d go so far as to say aspiring to self-sufficiency is kinda dumb. There are so many wonderful foods out there that other people grow, and that I want to eat, that I see no point in eating turnips all winter just to prove I can.
Besides, even if you’re getting every last calorie first-hand, you’re not self-sufficient; you just rely on a different set of people. Instead of Oscar Mayer, it’s John Deere. You’re wholly dependent on the people who make your equipment, your firearms, your fencing, and your freezers. Oh, and just what are you feeding your animals? Sure, we raised our own pigs, but some other, better, farmer grew the corn and the soy that were the bulk of their diet. Yes, it’s possible to cut your reliance on other people way back, but what on earth is the point?
But still, 11%.
So, in 2012, we went at it with a will. We planted an ambitious garden. We got those pigs. We bought a bigger boat. And we succeeded. The end-of-year tally had our first-hand efforts at 28% of our total caloric needs. Somehow, though, it didn’t feel like a triumph. If we had also tallied the time and the money we spent procuring that 28%, the per-calorie cost would undoubtedly have meant that we could, instead, have gotten 28% of our calories from Kobe beef – and that’s taking into account the fact that our time’s not worth all that much. (Boats, though, have a way of running up the tab.)
The 2012 data (I use the term loosely), though, revealed more than just how hard it is to get your own food. A quick look at the which foods provided which calories made it very clear that the path to self-sufficiency, or some facsimile thereof, does not lie through the garden. Calories from vegetables add up very, very slowly. There are crops that can make a meaningful dent in your calorie total – sweet potatoes, corn, beans – but you need a lot of area, and probably some skill, to grow those in quantity. And, of course, if you have fruit or nut trees, those numbers add up fast. For the rest of us, though, it’s animals that move the needle.
We harvested just over a half-million calories that year, and 202,000 of them were meat (One pig, six turkeys, one duck, one rabbit, one very unappetizing raccoon). Another 117,000 were fish (mostly striped bass, bluefish, clams, and oysters). Our laying hens provided 126,000 in the form of eggs. The bees came through with 28,000’s worth of honey. The remainder, a measly 33,000, came from plants. (I should mention that we didn’t eat everything on the list. Some, we put down. Some, we gave away. The point of the exercise was to get a sense of the scale of our food production.)
Kevin and I are a bit behind the 8-ball in the plant department because we have sand for soil, but you could double or triple our production and it’s still not the calories in one pig. Which is not to pooh-pooh the growing of vegetables. They provide nutrition that pork can’t touch, and I’m all in favor of growing as many as you can. They just don’t stack up in the energy department.
We also found that getting those half-million calories was exhausting. Keeping pigs, and turkeys, and laying hens, along with finding time to garden, fish, and hunt, all while working an oyster farm and a journalism gig, left us somewhat overextended. And so, in 2013, we took a break from livestock. No new animals.
This year, a funny thing happened. We weren’t focused on any particular project. We had no goal. But we’ve been doing all this food procurement long enough that it’s become just what we do. At dinner last night, Kevin and I did a back-of-the-envelope tabulation of the food we’ve gotten this year, and it was substantial enough that I thought I’d transfer it from the back of the envelope to the eternal repository that is the Internet.
Our list this year is anchored by two firsts: Kevin caught his first bluefin tuna (140 pounds, yielding 56 pounds of meat), and Kevin and I both shot our first deer. After those, the biggest contributors are non-tuna fish (500 pounds of it, about 200 of which are filets), eggs, and the meat chickens we sent to the Cone of Silence last month (which averaged 8 pounds, dressed — about five pounds of meat). We didn’t have honey this year (the norm, for us), and the only meaningful plant crop was tomatoes. We also got some cucumbers, raspberries, and shiitake mushrooms, as well as herbs in quantity, but those don’t add up to much. So, the grand total:
Bluefin tuna: 56 pounds at 650 calories/pound = 36,400.
Venison: 70 pounds at 700 calories/pound = 49,000.
Fish: 200 pounds at 500 calories/pound = 100,000.
Oysters and clams: a lot of them = 10,000.
Meat chickens: 13 birds x 5 pounds, at 640 calories/pound = 41,600.
Eggs: about 1000, at 75 calories each = 75,000.
Tomatoes: 30 pounds at 80 calories/pound = 2,400.
That’s just over 17% of the 1.8 million calories (give or take) that Kevin and I eat every year. Not as good as our 28% high-water mark, but significantly better than that demoralizing 11%. What’re remarkable to me about it is that we weren’t really trying. We were just fishing. And hunting. And raising a few chickens.
The reason I started Starving, and the reason it’s held my interest all these years, is that finding new ways to get good things to eat has kept me on the steep part of the learning curve, a place I like to be. Some of the things we do are complicated and varied enough that the learning curve stays steep for a very long time. We’re pretty good at catching some fish, in some spots. Other fish, in other spots, are maddeningly elusive. Some things are simpler. Once you’ve raised chickens a couple of times, you pretty much get the hang of it. That’s not to say we’re expert – far from it – but we know enough to take it in stride. This was our first year with meat chickens, but we’ve had turkeys, ducks, and laying hens, so how hard could it be?
What’s happened, over the years, is that we’ve gotten accustomed to growing, raising, and catching food, to walking outside to get eggs out of the coop or downstairs to get venison out of the freezer. It’s lost its sense of adventure as it’s become standard operating procedure, but trading some of the adventure for a little bit of mastery has satisfactions of its own.
I know a lot of you who visit here do some of the same things we do. If you do the end-of-year tallying exercise, I’d love to hear what your year was like.
November 23, 2014 By Tamar
When you cook something you’ve never cooked before, there’s always trepidation in the first taste. I get that I-sure-hope-this-doesn’t-suck feeling every time I try something new, whether it’s a dish I’ve concocted or a recipe I’ve followed to the letter (that noise you hear is Kevin snorting from across the room – his way of expressing incredulity at the idea that I have ever, since the dawn of time, followed a recipe to the letter). There are factors that increase the … [Read More...]
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It’s been six years and change since Kevin and I moved to Cape Cod and, in that time, we’ve killed a lot of things. Hundreds of fish, dozens of birds, three pigs, assorted varmints. (No deer yet, but this is my year. I can feel it.) Yesterday, we added 13 meat chickens to the tally. We take killing seriously around here, and we do it with care. We give our animals the best life we can, and we try and make sure death comes to them with as little pain and distress as possible. Slaughter day … [Read More...]
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I want to tell you about a book. Before I do, I have to warn you that I am biased in the matter of this particular book. Its author is my friend. She and I have written for the same editors, in the same publications. Kevin and I have been the lucky beneficiaries of her skill in the kitchen. But none of that stops this book from being the best book on preserving that I’ve ever seen. It’s Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving, by Cathy … [Read More...]
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October 2, 2014 By Tamar
The subject of the e-mail was ‘“soon”???’ The e-mail itself went like this: “Your definition of "soon" must be waaaay different from mine. Since Aug 11, virtually every day, I go to "Starving", to see the new post, and it's never there. I'm aware that you also write to make a living, but it seems to me that a nice person [emphasis hers] could spare a few free words for a harmless (voyeuristic) old lady.” Helen, my correspondent, added one of those sideways winking smiley faces to … [Read More...]