There’s something about spring that propels people into action. It’s an optimistic season when everything gets better—days become longer, the weather warms up, and slim crocuses open into wide blooms. Perhaps that explains the number of DIY books that hit the shelves at this time of year. Who’s up for a challenge?
Modern Pioneering (Clarkson Potter) is aimed squarely at those who like to get creative in the kitchen. The cover features a gorgeous photo of pale-green savoury pancakes topped with fresh sweet peas, along with a super-cute beverage keg made by hollowing out a watermelon and tapping it with a spigot. But Georgia Pellegrini’s book goes far beyond cooking; the subtitle—More Than 150 Recipes, Projects, and Skills for a Self-Sufficient Life—only hints at the reach. She takes the farm-to-table philosophy to the extreme: why buy vegetables at a farmers market when you could grow your own, cook and preserve them, and serve them on a table that you’ve fashioned yourself from a tree stump?
Pellegrini grew up in New York state’s Hudson Valley and learned how to be a “fearless girl” from her great-aunt and grandmother. She spent her childhood traipsing about her family’s land, gardening, and making jam and ice cream from scratch. In her book, she shares her knowledge with city dwellers who yearn to “experience things more viscerally, the way our grandmothers did, either at the stove or outdoors, often hunched over, cooking, curing, weeding, burning, or digging, even parking chicken coops in our driveways instead of cars”.
Modern Pioneering is a fun read because it covers all sorts of ground. While it’s rooted in “earth-to-table” activities like container gardening, sidebars detail practical skills like how to change a car tire, find your way in the woods without a compass, and make easy beeswax candles. There’s even a recipe for homemade lip gloss that’s tinted with beet juice and made from petroleum jelly, coconut oil, and liquid vitamin E. (While it’s a nice idea, it’s of limited practicality since it only keeps for three weeks.)
Recipes are based on homegrown and foraged ingredients: stuffed squash blossoms and ice milk made with fresh mint, for example. Some, like beet marshmallows and dandelion wine, are so intriguing that you want to make them just to taste them. The book also includes illustrated instructional pages, showing how to cut up a whole chicken, wrap meat for the freezer, render fat, and make garlic paste in a flash.
While Modern Pioneering takes a whimsical, stylish approach to self-sufficiency, Grow a Sustainable Diet (New Society) gets down to brass tacks. This is the book to buy if you’re serious about maximizing the percentage of your diet that you grow yourself. Subtitled Planning and Growing to Feed Ourselves and the Earth, this is a gardening book, not a cookbook, with an eye on sustainability and the global food supply.
Author Cindy Conner is a permaculture educator who poses the question, “What if the trucks stop coming to the grocery stores?” (It’s a timely one, considering the ongoing Port Metro Vancouver truckers’ strike.) Her point is that we need to be resilient and anticipate whatever the future may bring. Homegrown produce makes up just a fraction of what we eat, and Conner aims to help people increase that proportion for the sake of family self-sufficiency. That means considering how to maximize calories, dietary staples, and key nutrients grown in the smallest available space.
Conner looks at which food and cover crops are best suited to different requirements, how many seeds and plants of each variety you should sow, and what and when to plant, harvest, and replant for maximum yield. This is a dense book full of garden-plot maps, charts, diagrams, and worksheets. But careful planning ensures you won’t end up with a zucchini surplus in August and are rewarded with the most food to harvest throughout the year.
If gardening isn’t your thing, how about chickens? Former chef Terry Golson has kept a flock of hens in her suburban back yard for 18 years. (Check out her birds at the hencam website.) In 2006, she wrote The Farmstead Egg Cookbook, and the new edition, The Farmstead Egg Guide & Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), expands that with chapters on deciding whether keeping back-yard chickens is right for you, and how to get started.
Even if you don’t have chickens, you could buy fresh eggs at a farmers market or from a neighbour. According to Golson, these eggs are so different from commercial varieties that when she developed recipes for newspapers and magazines, she used commercial eggs rather than her own so the recipes would work for the majority of readers.
In contrast, the recipes in this cookbook were tested with fresh eggs from her own hens. They focus on dishes that let eggs shine, such as egg drop soup, spaghetti alla carbonara, asparagus with poached eggs and smoked salmon, and lemon curd.
Why keep chickens? “If you’ve never tasted a fresh egg from a happy, well-fed hen, then you don’t know what you’re missing,” Golson writes. Benefits include knowing exactly what the birds are eating and how fresh your eggs are.
It’s a good argument. And if you aspire to be a modern pioneer, it’s not a bad place to start.