Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Self sufficiency, family history and potatoes

Self sufficiency 
Self-sufficiency is an interesting way of living.  I've been working on finding out about my family tree and that has prompted a lot of thinking about the way that many of those people lived.  Some were relatively well-to-do, but many were "agricultural labourers" around Essex,  Wiltshire and Dorset.  (These are the Anglo-Saxon branch of the family,  anyway.)  I can only imagine how they lived.  Some ended up working in other people's houses,  some in the workhouse... and some,  obviously, emigrated to Australia.

In thinking about how some of these people lived,  it made me consider the current notion of "self-sufficiency" that is mentioned frequently in articles about energy, climate and other matters.

An agricultural worker in Dorset around 1800 would have qualified as "self-sufficient" these days.  No doubt the amount of work that these people supplied would have been enough to maintain themselves, their families and the more affluent owners of the land upon which they worked.  Most of their work would have been physically labouring, with the help of animals,  but no "oil-based" input of energy.  Life expectancy was lower,  though for many, especially men, once they reached an older age, seem to have lived into their 80's or thereabouts.  Their diet must have been adequate.

One particular family that I have been following seem to have worked for a few different landholders, all within 15 or 20 miles,  and must have been able to move (indicating few possessions) with their growing family of up to four children.  I imagine that payment might have been partly "in kind" if food was being produced on the land that they worked….  and that money would have been spent on ingredients that were not locally made or grown.  It makes sense also that wild foods would likely have been useful… especially "pot herbs" that would have supplied nutrients that are needed for health.  I imagine also that seeds collected from useful plants or foods would have been planted near any home-base, much in the same way that date seeds (probably from dried dates bought for food)  have always been planted around farmhouses in arid areas.  Those date palms are often there long after the house is deserted and falling down.  I wonder how pot herbs and root vegetables (the easiest to grow) were added to the diet.  Much of the information about foodstuffs from earlier times are more likely to have been what middle class or wealthy people used because these are the records and writings that remain.  Even Mrs Beeton's book of household management would have had little relevance for the poor even in her time.

Self sufficiency is the current catch phrase.  I don't buy much food from the supermarket and  I have been going to the local farmer's market for the items that I can not produce.   Gradually, this has been becoming less and less.  These days,  I only go there for fruits and some specialty items that I can't grow…  coffee (locally roasted) tea (blended locally) and some fruits and grains.  Most of my food comes from my garden.

I have experimented with growing grains and with a few "new to me" vegetables.  many of them have been successful,  though the easiest vegetables to grow, with the greatest calorific reward, are potatoes and those root vegetables that do well in winter.  This may not be the most innovative way to go,  but in terms of self sufficiency, those "old" varieties that were no doubt planted by my "agricultural labourer" ancestors remain the most productive when "calories in and calories out" are considered.

This year I have planted  quite a large area of potatoes and I have been "bandicooting" enough to eat regularly for quite a few weeks.  (More about potatoes and how to eat them later.)

Over the past couple of weeks I have planted a selection of root crops and winter peas and beans.  The area that I have planted is quite large because with winter rain,  I am hoping not to have to irrigate very much.  The rain that we have had over the last couple of days has been well timed.  I plant the seeds relatively thickly, and thin them once I can see what they are doing.  I also "fill in" any gaps with a few more seeds if necessary.  These "late germinators" are not a problem for me,  though they would be for a commercial crop where harvesting is usually done altogether.  For me,  having a few early or late specimens of anything is useful as I only want to harvest enough each day for current use.

Potatoes…  and their nutrients
Potatoes are one of the vegetables that has "lost" the most nutrients over the past 50 years or so.  The data that I have found is from Canada, and included in an article by Andre Picard, a Public Health Reporter for the Globe and Mail...

The potato " has lost 100 per cent of its vitamin A, which is important for good eyesight; 57 per cent of its vitamin C and iron, a key component of healthy blood; and 28 per cent of its calcium, essential for building healthy bones and teeth.
It also lost 50 per cent of its riboflavin and 18 per cent of its thiamine. Of the seven key nutrients measured, only niacin levels have increased."  (Andre Picard, 2002)
I am sure that the same,  or something similar is the case in Australian potatoes as production has become industrialised here in the same way that it has in Canada.  There are similar statistics for quite a few other fruits and vegetables..
To put this into perspective, back in 1951, a woman could get her full Recommended Daily Allowance of Vitamin A by consuming just 2 peaches . Today, she would need fifty-three (53) peaches! Or how about the fact that you would have to eat eight oranges today to get the same amount of Vitamin A in just one orange in 1951. (Renu Arora, Dietician, Ontario.)
There are several things to consider here.  First of all,  it has been suggested that humans have cravings for particular foods, depending upon the nutrients that they are deficient in.  There is some evidence to support this.  If this is true,  and if the level in nutrients present in some foods is decreased, then could this be one of the causes of some eating disorders that lead to high calorie intake and obesity.  I have wondered about this for some time. Secondly,  there has been a significant increase in pesticides being added to crops during the same period.  When pesticide levels increase and nutrient levels are reduced,  when do these products cease to be food?
"It would be daunting, if not impossible to try to plot the hundreds of foods, the hundreds of nutrients in them, mathematically on one graph.  But if we couldl, those trends - declining nutrition and increasing toxicity - would form an X, and the point where the two trend lines intersect, the crux of that X, ould be a point of no return, the point where food has minimal nurtritional value and serves chiefly as a toxic poison - the point, literally, of the End of Food."  (p 79, "The End of Food",  Thomas F Pawlick)
 Why potatoes?
In this business of self sufficiency, there are a couple of things to take into account.  One is this issue of nutrients, and the other is the requirement for sufficient calories to maintain growth, health and the energy to work.  I have found that the easiest calories to produce are root vegetables of a number of kinds, and particularly potatoes.  Potatoes are just the easiest calories to produce.
Of course, when potatoes are on the menu regularly,  it is important to be able to produce meals that taste good too.  So far,  I have made potato fritters, potato salad, roasted potatoes, barbecued potatoes, potato dumplings, potato gnocchi, potato curry, potato bread, frittata, fried potatoes (in butter with herbs)  and I have found a recipe for a souffle that I am going to try.  Self sufficiency is interesting to consider and it can lead from family history to interesting and exotic recipes to be tested for dinner.

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