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On Urban Homesteading

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My cooking habits make absolutely no sense for someone who lives in New York.  Or any major city.

It started with the jam. I’d stumbled upon a cookbook of “making food gifts for friends,” with suggestions for making your own liqueurs, baking mixes, mustards, and jams; I still worked in theater then, and often needed to round up a lot of small token gifts for cast members, so I made a batch of a ginger-peach for my next show. And then a few other batches just for me. It was simple enough, and things weren’t exploding or going rotten, so I was probably doing something right.

Then there was the taste. Homemade tasted way better than the supermarket stuff; I used a little less sugar, so there was a depth of flavor that wasn’t in the supermarket jams. I could also throw in spices if I felt like it. And other people’s reviews started coming in – when I gave out the ginger-peach jam, I had cast members coming up to me all through that run raving about it when they’d each tried it. One woman simply walked up to me when she got to the theater, grabbed me by the shoulders, and fervently said, “your JAM.”  Then gave my shoulders a squeeze and walked away.  I….think it was good.

Next came tomatoes. I started canning them seven years ago, when I discovered my local farmers’ market had a “canner’s special” every summer; 20 pounds for $15. It was the same technique to can the jam, and it gave me about ten or eleven cans – just enough to tide me over for a year. After a couple years at it, it suddenly hit me that I hadn’t bought canned tomatoes from a supermarket in that same time; I hadn’t needed to. And they tasted better.

And that touched off a craze. At this  moment, I know how to make canned pie filling, applesauce, apple butter, pickles (both fermented and with a vinegar brine), pickled beets, yogurt, ricotta, granola, hot sauce, and pesto. I regularly stock my freezer with precooked meatballs and prepped-up fruit turnovers. I can make my own pizza and ice cream. Today I’m seriously considering a supermarket run for some ground pork to make two different kinds of sausage meat.

This actually isn’t all that odd for Brooklyn, though. Every third person you meet here these days is either raising chickens on their balcony or has started an artisinal chocolate sauce company out of their kitchen. There are so many food products coming out of Brooklyn now that the city is debating a “Made In Brooklyn” branding stamp. There are even farms here – three rooftop farms, in the Navy Yard, in Williamsburg, and Greenpoint – which do brisk business with a lot of local restaurants. For much of its history, too, Brooklyn was a borough of farms and farmers, selling to the rest of the city as well as producing for themselves.

I’ve considered starting a food business, and realized I simply don’t want to.  I don’t want to make money off food, I just want to treat me and the friends I feed. I want to get more into the process of cooking than the buy-and-heat approach we’re all encouraged to take these days. I want food that tastes like food – the stuff I make myself is invariably better.

I actually wish I could do more. I was never one of those kids who turned up her nose at vegetables, and I’m convinced it was because we got a lot of our vegetables out of a garden we started with a neighbor when I was about eight. My brother and I also sometimes snuck out to our grandfather’s vegetable garden and wiped out entire pea crops by picking them off the vine and eating them right away. (We only ever got a couple of mild lectures – I think my mother realized she shouldn’t be too mad about her children voluntarily eating vegetables.) I’ve tried having container gardens here in Brooklyn – I have a lot of really deep windowsills that get a lot of light – but except for a very vigorous and unruly rosemary bush and a spindly tomato plant that produced one tomato the size of a Superball before dying, I’ve not had much luck.

I’ve been wishing more and more that I had more light, or a yard, so I could start a proper kitchen garden. A small plot, with just a few rows each of a bunch of different vegetables; just enough for me and a few friends. I want to be able to run out to the yard and pick things right before I cook them. I want to taste the sweetness of a just-picked tomato, instead of a picked-and-trucked-in-to-the-farmstand one.

I want to remind myself that I’m part of the planet and its cycles of winter and summer, growth and harvest.

Unless I can figure out how to get more light to my windows, or get roof access, that isn’t happening, though. So I make due with the making-of-breakfast-sausage and the making-of-jam, and make do.


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