Unschooling: The Skill of Preserving Food

Like most years, our autumn has been a pretty even mix of deliciously sunny, warm days, and alarming dips in temperature that send us racing to stock the firewood pile and dig out the snow boots. Today was no exception, and though the sun graced us for a few hours in the morning, by the time afternoon came around the wind had stirred up into a wild frenzy and the sky was ominous.

That didn’t stop me from sending my 11-year-old twin boys out to the front of our 5-acre property to harvest the last of our apples before they all blew away. And although they couldn’t help emitting a few moans and groans as they peered out the window and switched their light sweatshirts for waterproof windbreakers, I could tell that the little boys in them were delighted to be sent outside for what always proves to be a rowdy fun job. The storm only egged them on and they burst out the door like Tasmanian devils, racing to the tree with grocery bags in hand.

Of course, it wasn’t the first fruit harvest outing of the season. We have made a tradition of picking the apples, plums, and pears, as well as elderberries and other medicinal plants, from the “feral” trees and bushes in our area for many years. When we were more transient, as we were for the first 7 years of the twins lives, this would include driving around whatever town, valley or mountainside we were inhabiting to find trees perched in just the right location- between a fence a road is ideal, as such land is often dubiously owned and generally overlooked. At times we have found overloaded trees on private property and ventured a knock on a door to assess if the fruit can be shared, which invariably has turned out well. It’s amazing how many people don’t use the fruit growing in their own yard- something modern life doesn’t often support. These days we have enough spots that we have gone to for several years that we don’t have to do much searching, although we did “branch out” (sorry) and locate a pear orchard on a fabulous website called “Falling Fruit”, just to diversify.

As our lives have gotten progressively busier, what with soccer games, plays, recitals, a toddler, and a more demanding homeschool program, it is sometimes difficult to take the time to gather fruit, and especially, the time to preserve it in some useful way once we get it. Though it can be a source of stress at times (what isn’t?), and the boys occasionally point out that our survival doesn’t in fact, depend on canning jars of apple, pear, or tomato sauce, pickling zucchini, or drying rolls of fruit leather every year- I have never really considered letting go of the ritual. There are some years when our harvest has been almost negligible, a truly symbolic gesture- but the thought of going a year without putting up any of the bounties around as has always felt, well, just wrong, somehow.

When I stop to think about why exactly I am so attached to this ritual- since for all intents and purposes it is more ritualistic than practical- I can get into pretty murky philosophical thinking. Although there certainly are some practical benefits of preserving food in the modern-day- saving a bit of money might be one, depending on what you preserve and how calorically or financially significant it is- they don’t necessarily account for the strong emotional tie that I, and I would venture to say, many others, have to this old world practice. If you have ever been to a county fair, for example, or browsed the Home and Garden section of a major bookstore, it’s clear that there’s a whole culture of food preservation, along with many other homestead type skills, alive and thriving. There’s something about the process that seems to have captivated our collective hearts.

One of the reasons I think this is true has to do with how completely present one must be with the land and seasons in order to successfully put food by. As with any food cultivation, timing is everything when it comes to harvesting, and in a world where virtually anything can be bought and shipped to you at any time of the year, this variability brings the natural world around us into focus. Beyond the prime harvest, preserving food also demands that one pay close attention to the environment in their home or wherever they keep producing. If it is too humid, too sunny, too cold or hot, or heaven forbid accessible to ingenious rodents of any kind, the whole process can be sabotaged.

There is also a methodical quality to this old art that, although a reason why many scorn it, can actually be quite soothing. In my post entitled “Why Crafts are Educational”, I talked about research demonstrating that many crafts stimulate a specific type of brain wave that also occurs in states of deep meditation. I would theorize that the relatively monotonous tasks of chopping fruit and vegetables, cleaning and filling jars or dehydrators and other related food preservation tasks have a similar effect on our consciousness. What’s more, preserving food is a decidedly communal task, one of those things that is just so much easier, and more fun, if you do it with friends. Have you ever attended a community cider press? If not I highly recommend it! There must be a gene- (or many) that thrives on doing things with food in large groups, complete with laughter, frolicking children, and plenty of treats to go around.

For all of these reasons, I have always felt that preserving food is a wonderful thing to share with my kids. It’s a great activity to incorporate into a homeschool day, especially in the afternoon when kids get antsy and the information processing centers of the brain need a break. Keeping track of local harvest cycles and weather patterns, learning to use practical skills and follow through with projects that are often long, arduous and time-sensitive, and getting hands-on experience with work that was vital to our ancestors survival- and could possibly be vital to our survival some day-are all reasons why canning, drying, pickling and other types of low tech food preservation are a worthwhile endeavor for both parents and homeschool kids. And who knows, maybe someday your family will learn to love the ritual- just because.

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