Convenience vs Community

I am doomed. I started making homemade pasta regularly and I can no longer stomach store-bought. It simply can’t complete with the hearty, toothy, delicious and filling homemade version.

Okay, so eating more delicious food isn’t a fate worse than McDonald’s but I have now created more work for myself. Because in addition to store-bought pasta, I can’t stomach store-bought bread, store-bought crackers, store-bought granola, store-bought kombucha (Really? Five bucks a bottle?), store-bought ginger beer, store-bought salsa… pretty much store-bought anything. Homemade tastes so much better. My younger daughter also wants me to start making Bootsy homemade cat food again rather than feed him bulk crunchies—a job I’ll farm out to her. And of course I also cook dinner from scratch (but not a new dish every night…too time consuming…thank goodness for leftovers). Oh and I make my own deodorant, toothpowder or toothpaste, mouthwash… I can easily make those in large quantities that last for months and months. But still. I can do only so much. I have a job, one kid at home, a needy cat that now apparently requires home-cooked meals…

I do understand the appeal of convenience food. Purchasing food processed, pre-cooked and shrink-wrapped in plastic—a material which devastates our oceans, and ends up in our seafood and even in our drinking wateris convenient but if you want to buy only that stuff, you wouldn’t be reading my blog post right now.

So I’ve been thinking of ways for people to cook and eat and live as more sustainable makers rather than waste-generating passive consumers—and still have time for everything else they have to do in a day, plus some of the other things they may want to do—in my case, reading, yoga and writing this blog (I’ve given up on staying on top of social media).

As I’ve turned ideas over in my mind for the last couple of weeks, one word keeps popping into my head—community. What if we share the work? It seems like a radical idea when many of us feel that we have to do everything ourselves—and do it perfectly. (You may like this post: “Don’t Be Perfect.”)

Speaking of going it alone, if we do choose to do everything ourselves and cling to that idea of every-man-for-himself individualism, manufacturers and retailers can sell us more stuff because each single-family—rather than, say, multi-generational or communal—household will need to equip its kitchen. Disconnection boosts the GDP. (That’s another post…)

5 ways to harness community to feed ourselves

1. Form a buying club

Many people have told me that they have no access to bulk bins where they live. I have access to great bulk bins but few options for unpackaged cheese. I sometimes buy whole wheels when I can find small ones covered in wax only rather than wrapped plastic. But I mostly find gigantic wheels that cost a bundle. If you form a buying club, you can purchase huge quantities of staples—like bulk items and cheese if you partake—and divvy them up. Yes those large bags that hold 50 pounds of beans will likely end up in the trash—exactly where they end up when you buy them from bulk bins. But you do generate way less trash overall than you would buying a bunch of individual packages of beans.

2. Plan a potluck

My neighbors and I had potluck dinners more often when our kids were smaller. My older daughter used to ask often, “When are we having another mom dinner?” Each of us brings a dish to share—just one thing to prep! It can be a salad or bread or an entrée or a dessert, whatever. And if one of us shows up empty-handed, that’s okay too. It all evens out eventually.

3. Move to a commune

So not everyone will do this but I have to tell you that I love living in an intentional community. (You can read more about that here.) We have community vegetarian dinners four nights a week and sometimes I’ll teach my neighbors how to ferment something in our kitchen or we’ll get together to make sauerkraut for the kitchen. In my community, you can cook or clean if you want to for a discount on your meals but you don’t have to. Some people cook very simple dinners. Others (like my daughter MK) work in there all day long preparing a feast. (Find a commune, co-op, intentional community or eco-village here.)

4. Specialize and share

Soon after I went plastic-free, I started fermenting more foods. I am convinced that people who reduce their waste will start to cook more—and many of them will stumble onto fermentation. How else will you get your vinegar? But again, one person can do only so much.

For a while now, I have envisioned forming a group of fermentos to trade with. Each of us would specialize in certain ferments—one person would make the kombucha, another the sauerkraut, someone else the kefir, and we would make enough for the group. I have four starters on the go right now—five if I keep my mead going by backslopping it into a new batch (I made my latest batch from honey that friends harvested from their hives!). Starters—like pets—will die without proper care. I am maxed out. But if I bake the bread and someone else makes the kimchi, we both will have saved a pile of time—while not sacrificing taste or quality (we’ll save money too).

Some of my starters and favorite fermented foods

5. Form a cooking group

Do your friends and neighbors cook? You could get together once a month—or however often you want to—and cook a pile of food. You’ll need to plan what you’ll cook and when and where, and write one list of ingredients and another list of equipment people should bring with them—including reusable containers to bring their food home in. If you create a closed Facebook group, you’ll avoid a bunch of emails back and forth and prevent people you don’t know from joining—unless you don’t mind having complete strangers in your home (I do). One or two people can do the shopping and at the end of the cooking day, someone does the math and everyone pays their share. You could choose a couple of entrées that freeze well. Imagine that! You hang out with friends, have fun and bring home, let’s say, five meals. Sign me up!

At one of my fermentation workshops, a woman told me that as a girl growing up in a rural area, her family and her neighbors would get together at someone’s house at the end of the harvest and chop and prep vats of sauerkraut. A few weeks later, everyone would return with their jars to pack up and take home months’ worth of kraut. Tomato season would be a perfect time to can piles of tomatoes together. A hard cider party during apple season would be fun—but maybe not as fun as the party for distributing the finished hooch… Really anything preserved would make a great candidate and you’d have that particular food on hand for months.

14 Comment

  1. Trudy S. McCann says: Reply

    I have not made sauerkraut in many years. I have a case of wide-mouth jars, and will start that in the near future. I also plan to make Kim Chi, maybe half of the dozen jars. I have never made Kefir, look forward to that idea. Does store bought Buttermilk classify as a fermented, preferred food? I lived in the back-country of Idaho in the late ’70s, made my bread, yogurt, alfalfa sprouts, homemade stock, and created Chutney from my garden. Using pumpkin, raisins, spices, vinegar, wine, and many things I forgot to make/keep a recipe. It was fabulous, I was told I should make it to sell. I made it in quarts, canned it, and stored for future use.
    There is a book out”The Art of Fermentation” by Sandor Katz, he recommends a huge ceramic vat made in Germany. I look forward to your posts, you are so inspiring.
    Thank you.

  2. I just want you to know how much I value your blog. Thanks and keep up the good work.

  3. I do love your blog, it is so inspiring to me. Please keep posting! Thank you so much for sharing your techniques and recipes. With my sister and one cousin we have been discussing several times the idea of forming a cooking group. I am sure that also at least two friends would join. We all love cooking, but do not like to eat too often the same food. What has prevented us from starting is actually the fact that I do not have a freezer, and I could not store my part of food. The idea is to make lasagne, ravioli, vegetable loafs and balls, sauces, and share. Our idea is to meet once a month, on Sunday morning, bringing ingredients partially prepared, for instance the ravioli filling, finish the food preparation and cook everything. I love the idea of fermenting food, but I am not yet sure of the technique. Where I live, in Genoa, Italy, it is easy to shop daily, in small quantities, fresh food, from bulk bins, even living in a city centre. But in general it is not possible to bring your own tissue bags or glass jars, the law does not allow to use them for fresh food. So you must accept little plastic bags, biodegradable, and I try to reuse them as many times as possible.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Rita. I think I want to move to Genoa… that all sounds so delicious! I can shop at my farmers market only once a week. I would like to shop more frequently. Do you have a cool space to keep fermented food? Because if you have something like a cold cellar, you can store the food there and not in the refrigerator. I’m assuming you may not have much space in there since you don’t have much room in your freezer. Fermenting something like vegetables is very easy and very safe. I have lots of posts about it and a few videos on my “Webinars” page. Buon appetito! ~ Anne Marie

  4. Great article. I truly believe that it will our community connections that help us sustain our sustainable life. Have you considered using the Spare Harvest app as a way of creating your fermented community. There are already people using it to share Scoby starters. We all don’t have to do it all ourselves.

  5. Wish I could be in a cooking group with you, Anne-Marie!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      I would love that too Annie! It would be fermentation and food-waste-prevention heaven!

  6. Wonderful thoughts. I just heard a good idea on radio program on food waste, and wanted to ask if anyone has experience with. It’s an app called Olio — you post when you’ve got food to share (I think typically food that would otherwise be wasted — eg, you’re about to travel, or you bought / made too much, or…) and someone can reply that they’d like to pick it up. Probably works best in a high-density neighbourhood (not the widely-spaced suburbs I live in, grrrrr). The radio program was BBC, so the app might be only in UK/Europe at the moment.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      I have heard of this! I love OLIO. It is global but I seems to be bigger in the UK. I wrote a post about the real sharing economy a few weeks ago added the OLIO app (and several other food-sharing sites/orgs) just yesterday (I had forgotten about it…). If you’re interested, here is the link to that post: https://zerowastechef.com/2017/09/14/the-real-sharing-economy/

  7. Keep it up! You’re fighting a good battle 🙂

  8. Can you really use mead as a starter for more mead? My husband makes mead and that would be pretty cool.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Clare, Yes you can use a little bit to kickstart the next batch. Just mix it as usual and add some finished mead. I add 1/2 cup to 4 cups mead. It starts to ferment much sooner. ~ Anne Marie

      1. claredragonfly says:

        Ah, so it doesn’t replace using fresh yeast? I’ll still mention it to him–could be useful!

  9. A very thoughtful post! The commune idea sounds good to me. To be honest, cooking is psychologically painful, at the moment. I still do it, but I’m going through some kind of transformation in my life that demands all my energy. I no longer derive pleasure from cooking, but keep in mind that I’ve raised three kids, and I’m still raising a fourth. I’ve cooked mostly from scratch during all this child rearing, and I’m burned out. I so appreciate that you acknowledged the need for there to be other ways to eat well with no waste. Even feeling the way I do, I seldom eat out. As I meet more people in my new community, the sharing idea seems to be the most realistic solution. After all, I’d like to one day play my guitar again!

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