Living Off the Land

Hard times call for simple measures

When food prices rise, living off the land crosses everyone's mind. It is a healthy thing to keep in mind even when living is easy. In the time it takes to boil noodles, you can make spaghetti sauce that beats anything in a jar, using canned tomatoes, fresh herbs and a sauteed onion. No one is truly rich unless oregano and thyme grow on the porch and an onion sizzles on the stove in olive oil with a few cloves of garlic. If all you have is a porch, a couple of pots of herbs constitute living off the land.

One tomato plant can keep you stocked for weeks, and basil is as easy to grow as any mint. Even with generic cheese and bread, that is a fine sandwich. Stuff it with bacon if you must, even if you have no room to raise pigs. We live off the land where we can, when we can. It is not an imperative, merely a virtue. If you want to raise pigs, tend acres of crops, and turn your kitchen into a cannery, you can live entirely off the land. If you just want to save some dollars or be better connected to the land, there are many approaches.

Gardening is the spiritual core of the effort, even if it is just a pot on the porch, but most of what we live off comes from someone else's land or from some other country. Purchasing decisions can make a big difference in how close to our land we live. Some supermarkets make the effort to stock local produce, but your neighborhood grocer is usually the best source for locally grown food. Farmers' markets get you even closer to the land.

There are local dairies and cheese makers. You can't grow coffee beans in Tennessee, but there are several local roasters. Bakeries abound, and we have chocolatiers and a meadery. The local wines I am not so sure about; they might be better distilled, intrusive federal government notwithstanding. There are a few butchers and delis around town that stock local wild and exotic meats. Whatever your poison, you can buy it homegrown if you try.

Harvesting wild foods can be inspiring if gardening is not your thing. Maybe you know of a morel patch big enough to pick from, or maybe your lawn sprouts violets. As long as no one is spreading herbicides or pesticides, a dozen violet flowers make any salad beautiful, and the leaves are edible too. You know what a campfire can do to a hot dog, and a backcountry hike in the Smokies in early spring can be an opportunity to learn what fresh ramps can do to a package of ramen noodles.

Many local plants can be cooked as greens. Others yield roots or fruits. Wild mushrooms can be better than anything you can buy, but they can also kill you, sometimes slowly. Plants can do the same. Poke weed, a local favorite as a cooked green, has lethal, purple berries, and the red stems can also cause serious harm. Yet tender, day-old leaves eaten raw are a refreshing nibble with a peppery kick. Bigger leaves need boiling and a change of water to be eaten in quantity.

While you are busy learning the difference between dangerous and delicious mushrooms and noxious and nutritious plants, keep an eye on the price of fresh mustard greens at the grocery. Cook them with reverence. Your efforts in gardens and forests connect you to the land, but there is no shame in buying a bushel of Grainger grade-outs, snipping oregano off the porch, plucking hot peppers from your hundredth-acre plot, raiding the supermarket at 2 a.m. for discounted meat and having the loved ones over for chili and the Olympic soccer finals.

That is living off the land.