Fight inflation in the kitchen

The total came to nearly $90 – four painfully small canvas totes of groceries that did not include meat, cheese or eggs. Had I been shopping at an ultra-fancy Amazon-owned health-halo organic market, this might have seemed reasonable, or even a bargain. Instead, I was at the (sadly) best option in our poor, rural county: a grim, dark and untidy corporate chain store with exploitative policies, limited fresh produce and extensive displays of cheap soda, chips and cookies. Shopping here is not pleasurable, by any stretch of the imagination; both the atmosphere and the prices leave much to be desired.

Unless you’re named Musk or Bezos, you’ve likely noticed that inflation has started to bite, and to bite hard. In the twelve-month period ending this past March, the U.S. inflation rate was 8.5% – the highest it’s been since late 1981. In the simplest economic terms, inflation means that our money doesn’t go as far as it used to. The huge conflagration of various challenges we’re facing right now – a global pandemic, the pointless war in Ukraine, climate change, housing instability, supply-chain disruptions, insatiable greed – means that we’re all experiencing inflation to varying degrees. The good news is that in almost all cases, you can control how much inflation affects your individual household by adjusting your own behavior. No surprise, then, that one of the easiest places to accomplish this is in the kitchen.

Before we really start whining about grocery prices, however, I want to make it perfectly clear that the average American spends far less on food as a percentage of their household income than do most other developed nations. The best available statistics indicate that we spend about 7% of our budget on food, whereas in the U.K. it’s closer to 9.5%, and around 15% in France, Spain and Italy. On a relative basis, our food is devastatingly cheap here; this is because we have absurd federal farm subsidies and because we’re a net exporter of food, which means we produce a lot. (Our cheap food is obviously both terrible for the environment and our own health, but the system holds!) Unfortunately, we’re very spoiled and therefore accustomed to cheap food, which means that we’re far more sensitive to price increases than other countries. (See also: $90 for four tiny bags of groceries, above.)

If you, too, are starting to feel the sharp stick of inflation in your own food budget, we hereby present some easy ways to keep your food costs down, eat healthier, and reduce environmental impact. It’s a win-win-win!

There is simply nothing nice to say about CAFO meat in tubes.

Eat less meat and dairy

We’ve discussed this numerous times here at Finding Quiet Farm, and it’s so obvious that it’s almost awkward to present it as a revolutionary idea, but reducing or eliminating your meat and dairy consumption is absolutely the easiest way to improve your diet and spend less on food. Meat prices overall are up an average of 20% in the past year; the recent avian flu outbreak means that chicken and egg prices have also skyrocketed. Raising animals for meat in CAFOs is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and environmental degradation; consumption of animal products is conclusively linked to a nearly endless list of health problems and premature death. In short, eat less (or no) meat and dairy, and buy what meat you do eat from a local regenerative farm. Also, get eggs from backyard chickens – either your own or someone else’s!

Strawberries a bit soft? Perfect for baking or smoothies!

Minimize food waste & ignore expiration dates

Another subject that we’ve beaten to death over the years here – Americans waste about 40% of all food. If we want to trim our grocery spending, it starts with being realistic about what we’re actually going to eat instead of aspirational shopping that results in huge amounts of waste. I’m not at all a fan of the warehouse stores like Costco, with their massive plastic clamshells of spinach or grapes or asparagus; unless you’re feeding the Brady Bunch, it’s pretty likely that produce will spoil before you finish it. Those stores entice shoppers with their “bulk discounts,” but that’s not a discount if most of it ends up in the trash; also, their excessive and unnecessary packaging is infuriating. Unsurprisingly, most food waste is perishables like greens and fruit, so be ruthlessly honest with yourself about what your household will actually consume.

On the same topic, please please please do not ever pay attention to expiration or ‘best-by’ dates on packages. They’re not regulated and they’re designed expressly to keep you throwing things away and buying more. Use your eyes, your nose and your common sense – if something smells strongly of alcohol (fermentation) or is actively moving, probably compost it. Otherwise, trim off the mucky bits and eat it – transformed in a soup or a smoothie, if need be. Expiration dates are a large-scale corporate racket designed to keep us spending. Ignore them entirely.

What do you have on hand that you can use up?

Pantry challenge / use what you have

We’re quickly moving towards the season of abundance here, and that – coupled with inflated prices – means I’m challenging myself to use up everything we have right now, both in the pantry and the freezer. The typical American household has a lot of food on hand, but like our overstuffed closets, much of it gets ignored in favor of “new.” For a week, or a month, or whatever timeframe you can manage, challenge yourself to eat what you have. Use up that little bag of red lentils, the frozen container of chili, the rest of that pasta, last summer’s canned tomatoes. Make a frittata or a stir-fry or a soup out of the odds and ends of vegetables and herbs in the crisper. Create flavorful meals by working with what you have, rather than buying more. Also! Eat your leftovers. Plan your weekly meals thoughtfully so that leftovers (or ‘favorites,’ in our house) can be either frozen, incorporated into packed lunches or used for future meals.

Frozen summer sweet corn: the secret ingredient in delicious soups.

Use your freezer

Never forget about your amazing freezer, the greatest food-saving appliance ever invented. Brown, too-soft, overly ripe bananas and other past-its-prime fruit: frozen on sheet trays and used for smoothies and muffins. Vegetable scraps: stored in zip-top bags for stock and soup. Sliced bread: saved for toast and bread crumbs, rather than going stale and hard on the counter. Incredible sale price on organic blueberries: frozen for baking when fresh fruit is too expensive. Fresh summer sweet corn: sliced from the cob and turned into spicy corn chowder in winter. The list goes on and on – your freezer can help you save money and eat better. Use it.

Hummus is so expensive to buy but so quick and easy to make at home.

Cook from scratch

Big Food has made billions convincing us that not only do we not have time to make things, but that we probably can’t. This is completely false! Yogurt, granola, salad dressing, hummus, bread…all of these (and many more) are far cheaper and healthier to make at home, plus you can control the ingredients and you avoid wasteful packaging and shipping. Five minutes of effort yields a jar of delicious salad dressing that will last for weeks; yogurt takes a few hours but that time is mostly devoted to the slow culturing and requires no real supervision; granola can be baked in huge batches and with far less sugar than packaged varieties; homemade bread, of course, produces results that can never be replicated with storebought. Keep in mind, too, that even cooking dried beans rather than using canned means substantial savings. Avoid, if at all possible, food products where someone has done most of the work for you.

A small portion of the food we harvest each year.

Grow your own

The best way you can fight inflation, of course, is to turn your back on Big Ag entirely and grow your own food. A $3 packet of tomato or lettuce seeds and a bit of water will yield hundreds of dollars of organic food. Plastic clamshells of ‘fresh herbs’ that turn into brown sludge after two days can be instead harvested fresh from window boxes as needed with about $20 of supplies. Even the smallest backyard or sundeck can produce a staggering amount of homegrown food if managed correctly, and the satisfaction of producing your own food is unmatched. Find out what grows locally where you live, and buy seconds for freezing or canning. Join a community garden, or partner with neighbors to grow collaboratively. Plant a vacant lot. Ask who might offer gleaning in your area. There are myriad ways to obtain fresh, nutritious food that don’t involve the supermarket; it takes a bit more work, but the payoff is worth it.

Are you making changes to the way you cook and eat because of higher prices? We’d love to hear what your household is doing to adjust!

What we eat (and don’t eat)

“Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah, blah, blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises.”

I don’t pay a great deal of attention to teenagers, mostly because I’m not learning dance moves on The TikTok, but I’d have to agree with Greta Thunberg’s comments above. The preposterous dog and pony show currently taking place in Glasgow is just so much performative rhetoric with absolutely no follow-through. Honestly, the planet likely warmed another ten degrees from all of the hot air passionately emoted in Scotland. Please note that this summit is titled COP26 for a reason – because twenty-five conferences have been held previously, and precisely nothing was accomplished through any of those gatherings, either. Also, pro tip for the U.N.: everyone knows that if you want to host the most glamorous climate-change party you should invite some big-name guests, and when Russia and China both decline your invitation, your party starts to look a little sad.

Our smoky, hazy, summer wildfire sky.

Let’s look on the bright side: we’re finally, finally having some hard conversations about the devastating realities of climate change! Now let’s look on the realistic side: it’s far past time for us to acknowledge that we cannot stop or even slow climate change! The moment for that was forty years ago, when scientists first started warning of these eventualities. Countries have never once even met emission-reduction goals, never mind exceeded them, and we’re quickly headed for a far greater increase than the oft-mentioned 2°C. In late 2021, the only realistic approach is to concentrate all of our efforts on adapting to our changing weather patterns and our warming planet. It’s ridiculous to think that we can alter the current trajectory, but we may as well acknowledge that adaptation is what humans do best – it’s exactly why we’re in this doomsday scenario, because we’ve adapted to living and breeding everywhere, limited resources be damned.

What frustrates me most about a bunch of useless politicians prattling on about green economies and renewable energy – plus a bunch of shouty protesters taking to the streets with their cobalt-filled smartphones! – is that collectively, we’ve chosen to ignore the solutions that already exist. It’s almost as though we didn’t think that climate change was a tricky-enough problem, so we said, “How can we make this more difficult and more expensive?” Instead, all we actually have to do is look at the answers we already have – and the two best and most obvious both save people money AND have a huge impact on overall methane emissions. Yes! Everyone talks about decarbonization, but perhaps our energy would be better focused on methane reduction.

Lovely car, but electric vehicles aren’t going to save us. Not by a long shot.

This is not intended to broadly oversimplify the hugely complex problem of climate change, but the Environmental Defense Fund puts it like this: “Cutting methane emissions is the fastest opportunity we have to immediately slow the rate of global warming, even as we decarbonize our energy systems. It’s an opportunity we can’t afford to miss. Methane (CH4) has more than eighty times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first twenty years after it reaches the atmosphere. Even though CO2 has a longer-lasting effect, methane sets the pace for warming in the near term. At least 25% of today’s warming is driven by methane from human actions.”

And so, the obvious question would be as follows: what can we, as individuals, do to reduce our methane emissions? The answer is remarkably simple yet hugely impactful: eat less (or no) meat and stop wasting food. These are basic actions that don’t require complicated technology, new infrastructure, job retraining or trillions of incentive dollars. They also directly benefit our health and save us money.

Cheap hormone-drenched feedlot beef in plastic tubes. Yummy yummy!

According to the EPA, well more than a third of the United States’ methane emissions originate from agriculture, primarily feedlots and manure lagoons (such an attractive phrase – the American meat industry is decidedly grim). “When livestock and manure emissions are combined, the agriculture sector is the largest source of CH4 emissions in the United States.” Obviously, then, reducing the number of animals we raise for food is a simple way to reduce methane emissions. In Glasgow, however, not much was said about meat consumption, likely because at least in America, the livestock and agriculture industries are incredibly powerful. Shaking that tree is going to take quite a bit more than twenty-six international climate summits.

It’s no surprise that Americans are one of the top consumers of animal flesh in the world; we were raised, of course, on “meat and potatoes.” When it comes to our food expenditures, meat represents the lion’s share of our grocery budget. Using broad-brush statistics, Americans consumed about 265 pounds of meat per person in 2020, at a cost of $4 per pound. (These numbers are roughly averaged, as beef is substantially more expensive than chicken and pork.) That’s three-quarters of a pound of meat per person, per day, every day. Considering that we have the highest rates of diabetes, heart disease and cancer in the developed world – lifestyle diseases strongly correlated with our excessive meat consumption and shockingly poor diets – decreasing the amount of meat we eat would reduce methane and save lives, plus save us all money on groceries and health care. (The hospital industry is a huge GHG emitter, too, so if we stayed out of hospitals because we were healthier we’d again be helping both ourselves and the planet. See how it all comes together?)

Livestock should be on pasture, not in feedlots.

As an additional incentive, millions of acres of land are cleared to raise livestock and feed, primarily corn and soy. Returning these acres to natural prairie grassland in the U.S. or tropical rain forest, as in the Amazon, would also help sequester tons of carbon dioxide in the soil, rather than pushing it into the atmosphere. Raising livestock also uses astonishing amounts of water; in the American West, where most beef cattle can be found, there is no longer any water to spare. In short, the overall benefits of minimizing or eliminating meat consumption are staggering – and certainly not discussed nearly as often as EVs or taxes on oil and gas companies.

Methane is generated not only from livestock and their waste, but from any decomposing organic matter thrown into landfills. Food waste, then, is another massive beast entirely; more than 40% of all food produced in the United States is never eaten. If food waste were a country, its emissions would be third-highest in the world, after the U.S. and China; globally, food waste accounts for about 8% of the world’s total greenhouse gases. This is such low-hanging (and obviously rotting) fruit – when organic matter is decomposed properly in a well-managed compost pile, it produces nutrient-rich humus that can then be used to grow more food. When smothered in non-biodegradable plastic trash bags in a landfill, however, its emissions are greater than the entire airline industry. And the solution is just so simple and again, saves money – buy less food, don’t cook more than you’ll eat, use up your leftovers and scraps and start a compost pile. The answers really aren’t that complicated, and no one needed to convene tens of thousands of people in Scotland to figure this out. Sure looks impressive on social, though.

Composting organic matter is such a simple way to reduce methane emissions.

It’s easy to lose faith entirely when our world leaders are so smug and so hypocritical, and so intent on making blah blah blah promises they have no intention of keeping. If you’re feeling entirely depressed and hopeless about the state of the world – as most of us likely are – just know that individual choices do make a difference when taken collectively. Reduce or eliminate meat in your diet and stop throwing away food. These small actions might not seem like much, but it’s certainly a better approach than giving up entirely.

A word on seeds

“The best way to oppose a system is often to create something better to replace it.”

Scarlet runner beans, grown mostly to attract hummingbirds but also delicious to eat. Plus the beans are gorgeous.

I read a Wall Street Journal piece recently that really stuck in my craw. The article details the ongoing global supply chain challenges, specifically focusing on the Halloween season:

“Ben Wieber, a 27-year-old professional services consultant in Kalamazoo, Mich., struck out trying to purchase a miniature haunted house in-store to add to his Lemax Spooky Town collection, a line of Halloween-themed animatronic figurines and buildings. He was also broadly disappointed in the amount of Halloween décor available at stores near him.

“I went to Lowe’s, Home Depot, T.J. Maxx, HomeGoods and I’m already seeing Christmas stuff replace the Halloween stuff, which is ridiculous,” Mr. Wieber says. “I’m like, hello? Are we just skipping Halloween this year?”

This appalling anecdote immediately brings to mind two things: 1. Obviously the pandemic is over and 2. Even more obviously the apocalypse is nigh. Late in 2021, after more than eighteen months of crushing loss and death and isolation and sickness and disinformation and loneliness and unrest and economic devastation and fury, we have clearly reached the point at which all of our mental energies – and our time and gas! – can be laser-focused on buying yet another cheap trinket that we don’t need but are angry that we can’t get. I’m like, hello?

We grew spectacular peas this season.

I am particularly caught up in this obsessive need to buy tacky, energy-intensive, disposable, Chinese-made plastic holiday decorations because at the moment, much of my own time and energy is focused on saving seeds from this growing season. We’ve talked about seeds regularly here at FQF HQ, but in the wake of what’s occurred over the past year and a half, and what’s certainly coming down the pipeline (I’m like hello, irreversible climate change!) seeds have taken on a new significance.

Cleaning saved basil seeds is a bit labor-intensive – the seeds are actually those tiny black specks in the lower right – but worth the effort.

To understand why seeds are so essential to human survival, it’s important to understand just how much has changed in only the past century. For about ten thousand years, since the shift from nomadic hunter-gatherer tribal living to established agriculture, humans have saved seeds. No seed companies existed until recently, of course, so the only way to ensure food for the following year was to save seeds from this season’s harvest, and to trade and barter with neighboring farmers for their seeds. Because seeds were so necessary for human survival, they were rarely shipped and therefore didn’t travel long distances; by their very nature, these seeds were perfectly adapted over generations to the unique microclimate of the area in which they were grown. Saving seed is so painfully obvious – the ability to grow food so clearly a basic human right – that it never occurred to small farmers that a seed could be patented as intellectual property, like a song or a book.

The squirrels didn’t steal all of our sunflower seeds this season!

This system worked beautifully until Big Ag wanted in on the action after World War II concluded. To summarize an incredibly complex situation in a few glib words: much of the world’s food supply is now based on patented hybrid and/or GMO seeds. Three large multinational corporations now control over 70% of the world’s seeds, and therefore over 70% of the world’s food. It is illegal under a variety of laws to save and propagate these seeds, and in most cases the seeds won’t breed true anyway. This global movement away from seed sovereignty (“the farmer’s right to breed and exchange diverse open-source seeds which can be saved and which are not patented, genetically modified, owned or controlled by emerging seed giants”) threatens everyone on the planet, yet apparently we’re too busy looking for unavailable Halloween decorations to care about that.

Even now, there are only a handful of seed companies in the U.S.; there used to be thousands, each with their own regional specialties. Buy from Johnny’s or High Mowing and you’ll likely get seeds grown out in Maine or Vermont or somewhere else in New England. They’ll probably produce, yes, but Maine and Vermont are pretty different climactically from the high-plains desert we grow in, and I’d like to have a greater chance at success with seeds adapted to my region. And of course we all remember what happened in the spring of 2020. Seed companies were entirely overwhelmed by demand once it became clear that the pandemic was here to stay, and seeds weren’t available anyway; if they did arrive, it was long after planting season. I’m simply not willing to stake my household’s food security on the rickety scaffolding of unprepared seed companies, global panic and the USPS.

Onion seeds are easy to harvest and save, but they must be collected before they’re wind-dispersed.

Back in September, the U.N. – an utterly useless pretend mafia of pompous self-important incompetent blowhards, if you want to know my real opinion – convened the first Food Systems Summit, which was theoretically designed to “determine the future of agriculture.” Yet the small farmers who actually grow the majority of the world’s food were not offered a seat at the table. Instead, in a move surprising to precisely no one, the loudest and most prominent voices were those of Big Ag and Big Pharma, mainly companies who have committed grievous biopiracy by patenting landrace seeds and inventing GMO crops that threaten both the planet and human health. Dear United Nations: Praising Monsanto/Bayer for its breathless promises to cure global hunger – an issue it directly causes AND profits from – by patenting seeds is like praising Jeff Bezos for his commitment to solving climate change. In effect, you don’t win a prize for claiming to “fix” a problem that you directly helped create (and made billions along the way!).

All this is to say: convening a bunch of billionaires – who have probably never grown a single tomato in their lives – in some sparkly ballroom in some fancy city far from any actual agriculture isn’t likely to solve the world’s food problems. And for that reason, hundreds of food sovereignty organizations, indigenous and smallholder farmer groups, and scientists boycotted the U.N. summit, and rightfully so. It is absurd to think that Big Ag and Big Pharma would have even the slightest interest in working in tandem with small farmers on improving food systems; their respective interests are entirely at odds. Seed companies don’t make money if people save their own seeds! To maintain the very profitable status quo, power must be kept in the hands of the few, and making seed saving illegal (and useless, in the case of GMOs and hybrids) is one very effective way to maintain that power. (These corporations would still do well to remember the other side of the coin: most revolutions start when people are hungry.)

Be careful with cayenne pepper seeds – gloves are recommended!

It is so easy to feel entirely hopeless and dejected in the face of the world’s mounting problems, and to feel as though our own actions don’t count in the slightest. It doesn’t matter that we conscientiously sort our recycling and bring it to the drop-off center; virtually all of America’s “recycling” is actually dumped straight into the landfill. It doesn’t matter that we don’t use A/C or heat in our house, and instead try to maintain comfort with fresh air and warm sweaters; most of the country is now accustomed to perfectly-calibrated indoor temperatures requiring vast amounts of energy. What does matter, however, is our seed bank. Saving our own heirloom, open-pollinated seeds, and sharing them widely with other growers in our area, actually makes a difference. That classic question about what you’d save in case of a fire? It’s a real consideration where we live, and our small, compact, lightweight, portable seed bank would be at the top of the list. With those seeds, we can feed ourselves, and there is no greater human accomplishment than self-reliance.

Marigolds always remind me of our travels in India.

We save seeds here at Quiet Farm because we want control over our own food supply. We save seeds because we want to share seeds and encourage others to grow food. We save seeds because we want to steward unique, rare varieties of plants that grow well in our challenging climate. We save seeds because we believe the only way to reasonably face climate change is through adaptation. We save seeds because we do not believe that Big Ag and Big Pharma have our best interests at heart. We save seeds because anyone can claim to be an ‘activist’ while not actually doing anything – but stewarding a seed bank is a tangible, useful, productive way to protest against our rapidly dwindling power as small farmers. We save seeds because it matters.

So save your seeds, friends. You might well need them someday. And save your animatronic haunted houses too – apparently they have some value on the resale market. Try Ben in Michigan.

Kale typically only sets seed after its second growing season here.

P.S. If you’re in our area (or even if you’re not!) and you’d like to learn more about saving seeds, please consider joining the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance,  “a nonprofit organization working to assure an abundant and diverse supply of local seeds for the Rocky Mountain region through education, networking, and establishing community-based models of seed stewardship.”

Interlude: How chocolate is made

Can’t speak for your household, friends, but we need a break from the winter doldrums over here. I’d claim that it’s all grey and gloomy outside – typical February weather – but the truth is, it’s bright and sunny and windy and disturbingly warm and snow-free for this time of year. Our “exceptional drought” is no longer exceptional, it’s just the way things are now. (Or to throw down an overused phrase from 2020: it’s the “new normal.”) Our town has pre-announced water restrictions, as have many cities on the Front Range. We’re hoping for some moisture later this week, but this late in the season it’s highly unlikely we’ll make up the deficit.

To that end, we’re going on a tropical vacation. Of course I mean this metaphorically, not literally! We haven’t traveled in well more than a year, and have no plans to do so anytime soon. A couple of years ago, however, we went on a chocolate trip to Belize where we learned about the process of making chocolate from bean to bar. And so, let’s imagine that we are all calm, warm and relaxed in the tropics and that everything is right with the world.

Cacao trees are a tropical plant, typically reaching fifteen to twenty-five feet in height.

All chocolate comes from cacao trees (Theobroma cacao) which only grow in a limited geographical range: about twenty degrees north and south of the equator. This tropical belt is also where you’ll find coffee and lots of delicious fruits, like pineapple, guava, papaya and many more (coffee and chocolate are both botanically fruit). Most of the world’s chocolate comes from Africa, but a small amount is produced in Latin America.

Cacao pods are about eight inches in length, though the size depends on variety and climate.

Cacao pods are ripe when they turn a bright yellow-orange color. Not all the pods ripen at the same time, so the trees are usually harvested continuously throughout the year.

The pulp encasing the beans is often used to make a fermented drink.

Once harvested, the seedpods are opened and the cacao beans removed. The beans are surrounded by a white pulp called baba, which tastes fresh and fruity.

The smell of the fermenting cacao beans is intense and amazing.

The beans are cleaned of most of the baba and left to ferment for about a week. (Exposure to light turns the pale, creamy beans a darker violet color.) In Latin America, the fermentation is most often done through a simple yet elegant series of cascading boxes; in Africa, beans are typically fermented in piles on the ground.

Checking for readiness.

Fermenting cacao beans are sliced open regularly to determine the degree of fermentation. It takes a great deal of skill and knowledge to know when the beans are perfect.

Drying beans need tropical heat but not tropical moisture.

After fermentation is complete, the cacao beans are dried. This is an important step; if the beans are shipped with excess moisture, they’ll spoil in transit. Enormous covered drying barns are used, and the beans are turned regularly to ensure even drying. The tropical weather can make this step challenging.

Ready for transport.

Once the beans are completely dried, they’re sorted, graded and shipped to wholesalers or chocolate manufacturers. Belize produces a very small amount of cacao relative to other countries, but the cacao is of a spectacularly high quality.

Grinding cacao nibs into chocolate paste.

When the cacao beans arrive at the manufacturer, they’re inspected and cleaned again. The whole beans are roasted at low temperatures to bring out flavor (much like coffee beans), then the shell is separated from the nib (the “meat” of the bean) by winnowing. (Cacao shells are frequently used as garden mulch.) Grinding pure cacao nibs yields “cocoa mass”; applying high pressure to this cocoa mass produces cocoa butter and cocoa powder.

Conching chocolate is a complicated process of aeration, blending and kneading.

The chocolate we eat is made from cocoa mass with other ingredients added in, including additional cocoa butter, emulsifiers (most commonly soy lecithin) and sweeteners. True dark chocolate doesn’t contain any milk solids, whereas milk chocolate obviously does. White chocolate is most often cocoa butter, sugar, palm oil and soy, with no cocoa mass, and as such isn’t technically chocolate. That percentage on the label of a chocolate bar tells you the chocolate-to-sugar ratio: a 70% bar, for example, contains 30% sugar. The higher the percentage, the less sugar and therefore the less sweet the chocolate. Unsweetened chocolate is 100% cocoa mass with no sugar whatsoever; terms like semisweet and bittersweet have no defined meaning.

Finishing chocolate bars with toasted coconut.

After the chocolate is thoroughly conched, it’s tempered and molded. Tempering chocolate is a finicky process that involves carefully warming the mixture to the perfect temperature, then holding it there for a prescribed period. Tempering stabilizes the cocoa butter molecules, and gives premium chocolate its snap and sheen. (If you’ve ever opened a chocolate bar to find white spots on it, fear not – it’s simply the cocoa butter rising to the surface. It’s called bloom and is totally harmless.) The tempered chocolate is poured into molds and chilled to produce its final form, then packaged for sale.

As with all our food, chocolate production is a complicated and troubled subject. Most chocolate in the world is grown and manufactured under terrible conditions and is kind neither to the planet nor the workers involved. Spend a little more on your chocolate – look for single-origin and direct trade! – and avoid any with palm oil or soy lecithin, both of which are environmentally devastating. As a rule, chocolate from Latin America is a better choice than that from Africa. Quality chocolate costs more for good reason: read the labels and vote with your dollars.

Wishing everyone an imaginary tropical vacation this week, or at least some good chocolate.

The meat of the matter

The past two months have exposed a great number of frailties in systems we’ve long taken for granted. From child care to health care, we’ve learned firsthand that most – if not all – of our societal structures are built on debt-ridden quicksand. Nowhere has this fragility been more apparent than in our food supply, long the envy of less-developed nations.

Meat 01 sml

Mmmm…meat in tubes. Delicious.

If you’ve ever traveled in the Caribbean or Africa or Asia – really, anywhere outside of the U.S. and Europe – you know that a standard Western grocery store is a thing of miracles. The glossy, perfect produce, appealingly stacked in lush displays. With artificial thunderstorms! Acres of cold-storage, displaying hygienically shrink-wrapped packages of beef, pork, chicken and fish, none of which resemble the animal they once were. The deli abounds with cheeses and olives and overflowing dishes of prepared foods, enticingly displayed on beds of ornamental kale.  Aisle upon aisle of boxed mixes and snack foods and sodas and candy and cookies and chips, plus thousands of cleaning products and toiletries and other various and sundry items, all brightly-colored and stocked in abundance. A standard Western grocery store never has bare shelves, because that violates its very reason for existing – that we have so much, we can replenish each item before it’s even made its way to the check-out.

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The best books about food

Apparently this country is electing a president this year and probably electing some other people too, though over here at Quiet Farm we’re doing our damnedest to ignore the entire circus. One thing that still surprises (and infuriates!) me immensely in every single election cycle is that we never, ever discuss national food policy. Neither side even mentions it in passing, unless a hotdish fundraiser happens. We talk about defense, and education, and occasionally the climate crisis, and of course health care, and yet we never discuss the single issue that unites every one of us, regardless of party affiliation. We never talk about the fact that if we changed our food system, we’d naturally change our health care system for the better. And that changing our food system would be a huge step towards repairing our devastated planet. Changing our food system would also mean more military readiness, since we’re now too fat to fight. And our children would gain a better education if they had access to better nutrition for growing brains and bodies. We always ignore the food, when it’s the one issue we should talk about more than any other.

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How to save the world

Last Friday, millions of people around the world marched as part of a “global climate strike.” The march was intended to draw world leaders’ attention to the climate crisis in advance of the U.N. General Assembly taking place this week in New York City. While the sight of millions of mostly young people taking to the streets to make their voices heard is heartening in theory, teenagers in expensive sneakers carrying smartphones and pithy signs aren’t going to change the perilous trajectory we’re on.

Despite the fact that we are by far the world’s largest consumer and by extension the world’s largest polluter per capita, the U.S. is the only country in the world still debating the very existence of climate change. While other countries have their heads down working to find solutions, we’re still arguing over whether this is actually happening, and if so whose fault it is. (Spoiler alert: ours.) This disparity will be on full public view this week at the U.N.; once again, we’ll look like idiots on the world stage, a role in which we’re becoming increasingly comfortable.

Here’s the painful truth: we can’t protest the idea of large corporations destroying the planet, because we are the reason those corporations exist. If we didn’t buy their products – if we didn’t upgrade our iPhones every year, if we didn’t rob each other at gunpoint for thousand-dollar puffer jackets, if we didn’t accept and then dispose of two million plastic bags per minute – these corporations wouldn’t be able to plunder the planet. We are the problem, and by that logic we also have to be the solution.

Mental health professionals have reported a sharp uptick in the number of people seeking treatment for depression related to the environmental catastrophe we’re facing. It’s a massive, complex problem, and it’s easy to feel hopeless when confronted with its scale. On a personal level, I’ve long since graduated from severe eco-anxiety and now find myself teetering on the cliff of abject climate despair. I don’t think we’re going to be able to fix this, but we can’t choose to do nothing and watch the world implode around us. With that in mind, here are five things we can implement immediately that might just make a difference.

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The FAQ Series: Tomatoes

People think of tomatoes as a summer crop – as in June and July summer. And perhaps you live in a Magical Land of Elves and Unicorns (hello, Florida and southern California!) where field-grown tomatoes are available virtually year-round. Here in western Colorado, however, field-grown tomatoes don’t come on strong until August and September – but of course all the food blogs and magazines are telling us that it’s now time for apple cider and winter squash and pumpkin spice everything. It’s a confusing period, this shoulder season.

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Seed packets offer plenty of information – and if it’s an heirloom, they’ll be sure to mention it.

There is no debate that tomatoes are the star of the garden. They’re by far the most popular crop for home gardeners as well as the biggest seller at farmers’ markets, and more tomatoes are grown each year than any other fruit in the world – including apples and bananas. There are more than twenty thousand known varieties of tomatoes, and new cultivars are developed every year.

Like the word organic, the word heirloom gets thrown around a lot in reference to tomatoes. But what is an heirloom tomato, exactly? And why do they cost five dollars a pound?

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Things that are great, vol. 2

Modern lives contain way too much negativity, a cycle perpetrated by a fear-mongering media looking to sell us stuff we don’t need. In the interest of combatting that mentality, then, we present our second “Things That Are Great” link round-up, highlighting news stories and trends that we think are worth celebrating. (Read our first positive link collection here!)

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Photo clearly not taken in Colorado.

If you had to guess at the largest irrigated crop in America, you might well assume corn or soy. You’d be wrong; however; according to a 2015 NASA study, lawns represent about 40 million acres in the U.S., or about three times as much land as corn. All this grass comes at a steep price: 9 billion gallons of water per day, plus hundreds of millions of pounds of fertilizers and pesticides and other chemical treatments, all of which eventually end up in our water sources. And yard waste, including grass clippings and leaves, represents the largest single occupant of our landfills, too. All this for a crop we can’t even eat? Ridiculous.

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Thankfully, though, forward-thinking companies are working to change that antiquated attitude. All across the country, edible landscapes are “unlawning” America. Converting pointless, thirsty lawns into healthy, local human food? Yes, please. These edible landscapers often face a lot of resistance from restrictive HOAs, but progress is still being made, albeit slowly. If you’d like to replace your lawn with native plants, check with your local extension agent – they’re often the best source of information for what will grow best and still look nice in your region.

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RV book club

Pretty much every RV we’ve encountered on our travels thus far has had a television, and most carry a satellite dish. We’ve seen some TVs on the big rigs that would cover an entire wall in our tiny home, if we could even get the thing through the door. For us, though, no TV. And no Netflix, either, because even though we have a device on which to watch, most parks don’t have Internet service strong enough to support streaming. (Serious RVers also carry Internet boosters.) So we read, and that’s not intended as a complaint.

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A selection of reading material at an RV park.

We packed an eclectic selection of books, of course, before throwing everything else into boxes and jamming it all into a rented storage unit. We happened to be camped at the fairgrounds when our local county library held their semi-annual book sale there, so we grabbed a few then, too. And most every park we’ve stayed at has had a book exchange, typically located near the laundry facilities. I’ll confess that most of the books at the RV parks are not to my taste – they lean heavily towards bodice-rippers, legal thrillers and Stuart Woods – but truly, I’m happy when anyone is reading actual paper books and I am not passing any judgment on these. And there are occasionally diamonds in the rough. So what are we reading these days on the RV?

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