(Forward by HJL: This article presents some controversial subjects such as milk and eggs without refrigeration. Make sure you perform due diligence on any concept presented as the issue may be more complicated than presented.)
Getting started being prepared isn’t hard, but it does take tenacity. It’s not always easy and can be downright mentally and physically draining, at times. There are busy seasons, and there are slower seasons (usually winter). Always looking ahead (what to plant/grow/harvest) and keeping one eye on the weather. What we can’t change, we just have to roll with what nature brings us, but we can try to make things a bit better and easier for ourselves.
Reading, learning, and then doing gives you a set of skills. No one learns everything right away; there’s plenty to learn, and it’s never-ending. No one person knows everything (even if they think they do!) Ask three people how to make sourkraut, and you’ll probably get three different, yet similar, answers. Experience in DOING is how you gain your own set of skills, and they are invaluable.
Be Producers. One-time use items aren’t so good. (Think paper towels, toilet paper, or femine hygiene products.) You need things that have more than one purpose or that can be re-used. It helps with keeping things simple, and the big thing is having things that are sustainable. Having X amount of toiletries, duct tape, or packaged food stored is great, but being able to produce more is what you need to know. We are consumers because we have basic needs, and we need to eat. We must learn to be growers to feed and take car of ourselves!
Grow Ingredients and Make Your Own Bread. Things like boxed cereals, instant rice/potatoes, or pre-made noodles (macaroni and spaghetti) will run out and are hard to reproduce without special equipment. Knowing how to make noodles, and knowing what grains/rices/beans you can plant and use to make better breads is a must. Keeping simple recipes for breads, biscuits, and tortillas will go a long way in making things easier. (Keep in mind yeast breads might not always be practical. So, keep alternative recipes on hand.)
Dehydrate/preserve. If your most used recipes consist of items like: dry packages of ranch dressing or dry seasoning vegetable flavoring mix, velveeta cheese, mayonnaise, canned soups, and pre-packaged gravies/flavorings, they aren’t going to get you far. Knowing how to substitute or make your own (with what you can grow) will help keep foods from being boring and will also keep you from “flavor shock”. Learn how to make foods from scratch and how to make broths and gravies. Then, learn how to dehydrate/preserve them. Mayonnaise is made with oil, eggs, and vinegar and sometimes will be hard to make, because the raw ingredients might not be available.
Preserve NOW! Even after you are tired from tending to or gathering your food(s), you still have to process it to keep it from going bad. Each set of foods (fruits, veggies, meats, milk, herbs) takes a different approach to preserving it; so knowing at least the basics before hand helps! Dehydrating is simple, but doing a mess of different foods at once can lead to mixed/off flavors. If you don’t know how to can/preserve foods, learn NOW. There will be many challenges. The more you can learn and do in the present, the easier things will be for you in the future.
Process Live Foods. Knowing how to process live foods is a must. Even doing it just once gives you an idea of HOW to do it and what it all entails (and help one get over the gross/pet factor). It’s not glamorous, and folks need to learn to stop paying someone else to do that particular dirty work. Start out with cleaning fish and work your way up to bigger things.
Grow Your Pest Control. Flies, mosquitoes, mice, spiders, and other creepy crawlies are things many forget about. They add to our aggravation and are called “pests” for a reason. Know what herbs help repel biting insects and then plant some of these herbs to have on hand. Keep food covered in containers away from bugs and mice. It’s disheartening to work so hard on your food to discover others (ants, mice, weevils, or flies) have already been eating on it.
Repurpose. Old pillowcases (turned inside out) and hankies work well for making some cheeses (used as an alternative to cheesecloth) and straining milk, or whatever else needs strained. Keep in mind things that can be re-purposed and re-used. There might be a time that you just can’t “throw it away and buy a new one”, either due to finances or location. Things like bacon can be put in a colander (set on a plate) to drain. I try not to get my cloth items greasy from meats because it’s extremely hard to get all that grease out.
Build a Clothesline. Clotheslines are a must. Sunshine naturally bleaches things, which is good if you need things whitened or bad if you don’t want things faded. Granted it takes a few days to accomplish this, but it can be done. Washing clothes by hand is hard on the hands, back, and arms, but keeping a “wash water” container and a “rinse” container will make it easier. Drip dry is fine! Research homemade soap recipes, and keep the ingredients/supplies handy.
Vinegar. Vinegar is a must to have on hand AND know how to make. A few basic ingredients can go a long way in preserving foods. Learning what is important and to stock up on could save you a big headache in the long run. Vinegar is not only a cleaner, add it to your rinse water as a “fabric softener”. It will also help you make pickles, kraut, and even cheese (Queso Blanco). If you don’t have cucumbers, make Dilly Beans (pickled green beans)! Think outside the box! There may be times you have weeks of green bean or pea eating– only because it’s what is ready. Mixing some with grease/fat (something you should have saved up) and a bit of vinegar in a skillet puts a new twist on a ho-hum item. (This also works with lettuce for “wilted lettuce”, but one can use spinach or other greens, like lambsquarters).
Onions/Garlic. Know what your family likes to eat and plant/harvest/deal with those foods. Even if you don’t eat onions or garlic, they are usually used in some type of food preservation. It’s always good to keep “ingredient items” in the back of your mind.
Eggs. As you read up on preserving foods, you’ll learn quirky little things like that eggs do not have to be refrigerated. We keep ours under the sink where it stays cool; others keep theirs in the pantry. As long as they are not washed and are kept in a cool environment they will be fine and keep for weeks. Not washing them keeps the naturally-protective “bloom” on them and keeps bacteria out. If you get a dirty one, wash it and cook it up. Often, I boil those and smoosh them up with leftovers to feed back to the chickens. (They love it most in the winter, when there’s no fresh food or bugs.) You can dip the eggs in melted wax to preserve them for even longer.
Milk. Another quirky not-so-known food thing involves milk (raw/real milk, not store bought/pasteurized milk) that is left out. It turns to “clabber” and is similar to yogurt. It’s still food, just in a different form. Clabber can be used to make sour cream; strain it in a hankie and you have a type of creamed cheese. Butter is made from cream. The skimmed milk makes awesome cottage cheese, with some proper heating and simple ingredients.
Build a Root Cellar. Keeping foods cool/cold can be a challenge in some seasons. Those store-bought cans and home-canned foods can go bad fast if frozen or kept in high heat for extended periods of time. A root cellar is almost a must to keep foods cool or kept from freezing. Plans abound on how to make one, each adaptable with your terrain and what materials and tools you have to work with. I think a combination storm/root cellar would be most optimal for some. (Tornado Alley comes to mind.)
Fats and Oils. Save your bacon grease/drippings in jars, and keep them in a cool spot. (Chipped jars that are no good for canning have more uses, like for storing grease.) You can get beef, lamb, or pig fat and render it down. This is another easy skill to learn. Just don’t burn/scortch it! Use that far to make tallow (beef/mutton) or lard (pig). “Leaf fat” from around the kidneys should be rendered by itself; it is whiter and tastiest and makes the best (pie) crust. Once rendered (which means melted down and filtered), it can be kept in jars. It will turn solid in cool weather. If you have a milk supply, butter can be made but isn’t always available, so your fats will be important.
Embrace Fats. Toss all those mainstream cholesterol and/or fat “no-no” ideas out the window. REAL fats are good for you, and you’ll need those extra calories when doing more work. You also need fat to help keep warm in the winter. (Oh, they didn’t tell you that?) Plus, it helps you digest the food you eat. Eskimos purposely eat seal oil with their foods (like a dipping sauce) in the winter for these two reasons. (I personally would rather cook with it!) Keep in mind each fat has its own flavor, no matter if it’s butter, tallow, or lard. Lean meat (like rabbit) needs fat added to the meal or eventually digestion issues will abound.
Spices. What exactly IS in those “spices” in the jars on the shelves, like “Pickling Spices”? Understanding what is in those little containers that you can grow and harvest yourself not only saves you money but provides a fresh alternative! Mustard seed is a big ingredient that gives pickled food flavor. Try to replicate what you like to use and grow it. Black pepper is simply ground up peppercorns. The cilantro plant makes coriander seeds. If you know what plants produce what, you can use that knowledge to your advantage. Dill is easily tossed somewhere to make a patch; dill seeds and the leaves (ferns, which are often called “dill weed”) are used in pickling. For some items that aren’t available in your region, stock up on them and store them properly. These may include cloves, cocoa, vanilla beans, bay leaves, and cinnamon.
Foods that re-plant themselves (perennials) make things much easier for us. Most anything left to go to seed will come back the next year. Dill, cilantro, mustard, and mints are just a few examples. Every year I have volunteer tomato plants from seeds that overwintered, even when the garden has been tilled. Some species can be invasive, but those can be bartered/traded, if needed.
Critters. Having “critters” that are dual-purpose is always a plus. Chickens are for eggs and meat. I use my old non-laying hens and excess roosters for food, and when a hen hatches out babies, ineviatebly you’ll get plenty of roosters. They are food as well or can be bartered. Rabbits and chickens are good foragers, but keeping wild (or domestic) animals from killing and eating them can be a challenge.
I keep a milk cow for milk, and I try to raise an extra calf for food. I like goats but prefer cows’ milk better, and she is easier to keep in the fence. There are pros and cons to any food product. There is no “right” or “wrong”. It’s what you can handle and like. (Goats reproduce faster than a cow, but cattle provide more meat. That can be a problem if your time or skills are limited come butcher time).
Know that any food you grow takes time– months, not days or weeks. So trying to keep food planted/growing in succession (animals born at various times of the year or replanting certain things again weeks after the first planting) will help keep you “in food”. February was often referred to as “the hungry month” by Native Americans for a reason. They had gone through most of what they had preserved for the winter (and getting tired of eating the same things over and over), as nothing was growing yet with the cold weather, and wild critters hadn’t migrated back or had been “hunted out” already.
Bartering. The more you have, the more you can barter. The one who can barter with items instead of money, will be king. If I have 20 quart jars of tallow or extra jars of honey, I can barter a few to someone who needs them. (Don’t forget that the jars themselves have value as well.) Others might have had an abundant year of chickens, firewood, peas, tools, apples, lambs, or potatoes. They’ll make a trade for whatever both parties find is a fair trade.
The unspoken barter rule is: It is NOT the “dollar value” that is placed on barter items, it’s the “what I need and have/what do you have and need” value. There will be times where things like labor, building supplies, tools, fresh milk, eggs, canning jars/lids, or even salt will be worth much. Trying to swindle others because you know they need it is the absolute wrong mindset. One day it might be you in desperation, so keep it fair and honest. All you’ll have is your reputation, and if it’s no good, no one will trade with you when you need it!
Know and Do What’s Most Important First. In an emergency situation, fire, water, and shelter are the three “big ones” to do first…not food. Know where water sources are and how to purify it with basic minimum of supplies. Your fire not only keeps you warm, it cooks your food and boils your water. Your shelter can be simple; just be ever mindful of changing weather. A dutch oven is a great cooking tool and can cook/boil foods with high flames or coals. It’s versatile, yet can be heavy. Learn how to use a variety of cooking methods– on a wood or rocket stove, or an open fire. Watching it on television or reading “how to” in a book doesn’t prepare you for the smoke, a fallen tripod, or improvising green sticks for pot holders!
Weaponry. You need to be familiar with yours– whether to dispose of a rabid critter, use it for self-defense, dispatch of a critter that is hurt beyond saving (or ready to butcher), or for use in hunting. A gun or bow and arrow are generally the top couple of ideas that come to mind. There are knives, Atlatl, cross-bows, and a myriad of what is classified as a “weapon”. Guns range from traditional black powder guns (that generally shoot once and must be reloaded with patch, powder, and ball) to pistols (also called handguns) or rifles and shotguns. If you don’t know the difference of any of these, it’s time to learn.
Weapons Courses. Sign up for classes in your area (sooner than later) to learn about different weapons and how to use them. Larger cities have classes for beginners. It’s cheaper to learn what you like/don’t like with their bows and guns (not cheap!) and ammo. Where I live, there are plenty of folks willing to go out “ker-plinking” in the back ’80 acres to teach you. ONLY trust those whom you know. (Don’t put yourself in a dumb or dangerous situation.) There are tazers, mace/pepper sprays, and stun guns, but those are for you to use and then quickly get away.
Weapons Practice and Supplies. Some weapons are silent; some aren’t. Some allow you to be further away to use, while others require you to be up close and personal (in a “danger zone”). Do some research and find what you like, then practice, practice, and practice more to become proficient with it. Learn how you can make ammo and what is required. Guns need bullets/powder to reload; bows need arrows, which you can make as well.
Supplies and Tools. Keep first aid kits and plenty of medicines on hand. Even over the counter medicines are better than nothing. Extra clothing, blankets/pillows and (practical) shoes all become assets as well. Keep a supply of sewing items and simple tools. Anything we use to repair an item or fix an issue, keep on hand. Non-electric hand tools (shovels, axes, hatchets, saws, hoes, and so forth) will be essential to make your work easier.
Adaptation. You must be able to experiment and adapt. Those who are always “on the go” with activities and always expect things to go as planned will be hit with a loss of social withdrawal and have the hardest time with the simplicity. Those who assume others will just automatically help pitch in or think people will just do things for you or fix “it” are in for a rude dose of reality. Everyone will be in the same boat, so to speak. Folks who are used to “making do” and who are not afraid of hard work and using their imagination will thrive, because there is less of the “learning curve” for them. Those who have skills and have prepped will suddenly become the wealthy. Money will simply be pieces of paper with numbers on them, and you can’t eat it!
Always remember: Perfection is not the goal, and there are no “failures”! We learn what not to do (or should do) the next time. This is where doing things NOW adds to your skill set and doesn’t waste precious items or time. Take baby steps and get started. Something is better than nothing. There is no Today Tomorrow (because Tomorrow will be Today).
Build A Library. I strongly suggest you keep books and manuals on hand, because sometimes we need a “refresher” on what we are doing (or about to do). I have written notes in a notebook when I’ve needed to. Seek out books on butchering, canning, preserving, smoking (meats), wild edibles (weeds), herbs/herbal remedies, and “how-to” get things done in an efficient manner. One doesn’t need to go buy a whole library, but getting one here and there over time is the cheapest and easiest way to accomplish this on a budget. Sometimes, thrift stores can be a treasure drove to get needed items and even useful books. A few book suggestions:
- Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emory. This book has tons of “how to” info in it that should be on everyone’s shelf. She tells you how to make things you use everyday, like soaps; it also has recipes and how to preserve foods, using a root cellar, build fences or coops to raising animals, butchering, and everything in between. You can learn to live off the land easier with this book. (Any edition is fine; the 40th Anniversary edition was the last, as she passed away in 2005.) Hands down this is the number one book I recommend for folks wanting to learn more.
- Basic Butchering of Livestock and Game by John J. Mettler, Jr., D.V.M. This book covers beef, veal, pork, lamb, poultry, rabbit, and venision butchering. He also covers what tools/set ups are needed and how to smoke, salt, or preserve it. It’s easy to follow with step-by-step instructions and has illustrations.
- Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine: the Definitive Home Reference Guide to 550 Key Herbs with all their Uses as Remedies by Andrew Chevallier. I like this book simply because it has wonderful descriptions, along with great color photos and plenty of “how to make” recipes (with photos). Unsure of what to use for a healing salve or how to make it? This book will show you how with “weeds”. (Many weeds ARE herbs).
- Herbally Yours by Penny C. Royal is a good, solid, herbal reference book to have on hand. It has what herbal combinations help with healing. It contains no photos, but it’s good for a fast look-up on a variety of herbs and their healing properties.
- Ball Blue Book is a must for canning foods properly and has plenty of recipes. There are a myriad of editions out there; any newer one will do and is usually not expensive.
- Fanny Farmer Cookbook (also known as The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book) by Fannie M. Farmer: there are 13 editions available. Getting a depression-era or before is good. This is because around the late 1930’s is when “modern agriculture/mass food production” started coming about and pre-packaged items (soups, cereals, boxed items) became main staples and more affordable. (The 5th edition was published in 1930.)
- Real Food by Joann Grohman. This has been out of print for years, but a recently updated edition is now only available on Amazon. In her mid eighties now, Joann shares insight of what is real food and how to accomplish getting it on your table, and she practices what she preaches. She doesn’t pull punches and makes total sense of why our forefathers ate the way they did, why the animals were raised “normally back when” and why we should simplify our food and follow suit. She also shows us why “cheap food” isn’t always the best for our health.