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Book Review: Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage & Preservation by Sharon Astyk by Sharon Astyk

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Unless you keep current on peak oil predictions, you already live off the grid, or you entertain notions of a coming apocalypse, you probably haven’t given much thought to your pantry or how long you could feed yourself without making a trip to the grocery store. Most of us, myself included, could go a week. Maybe a week and a half, at the most. In Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage and Preservation (2009), Sharon Astyk encourages us to shed some of the negative assumptions that come with storing food for the future and makes a rational case that all of us should give far more thought to feeding ourselves, independently of the current “just-in-time” supermarket system.

Although she made her name in writing about peak oil, Astyk points out that there are any number of national, natural, or personal crises that would make it difficult — or impossible — to procure food. This could be because we can’t get to the food (due to such common occurrences as blizzards or hurricanes), because there is no more food on the supermarket shelf (due to national disasters that interrupt distribution), or because we no longer have the means by which to purchase food (due to job loss or rising prices). The US Department of Homeland Security and the Red Cross both recommend having a two week supply of food on hand. Based on the length of recent disasters (such as Hurricane Katrina) Astyk thinks that a three month supply is more realistic and she herself stores a year’s worth of food for her family.

In a tone that is funny and approachable, Astyk answers all of the basic questions about this process. She offers several sample lists of what a three month supply of food contains, suggestions for how to go about buying that food when you’re on a budget, where and how to store it, and how to prepare it. The goals that she sets are realistic and doable. Key to her argument is that she is not only encouraging us to think about the future, she wants us to change how we eat in the present. This isn’t about vacuum sealing 100 pounds of wheat berries for possible use down the road. We should store what we like to eat and learn to make easy-to-store foods the basis of our diet. This may sound difficult or even unappetizing, but she offers us recipes in each chapter, made with pantry ingredients, that sound absolutely delicious. She makes it clear that even though her family of six eats a pantry diet, they are in no way depriving themselves of good food.

In addition to the dry goods that should be kept in bulk, Astyk explores all of the possibilities of home food preservation for garden fresh ingredients. From season extension, to root cellaring, to freezing and canning, she gives us the lowdown on each process, foods that are best suited for each, and an analysis on which are the most sustainable options. Finally, she sees this whole process as a community affair and gives suggestions for how to talk to your neighbors about food storage and how to make sure that our communities — not just ourselves — are insulated from hard times.

Independence Days is absolutely jam-packed with information, but it is well-organized, easy-to-read, and useful. Astyk is witty, very intelligent, and her advice comes from personal experience. I was left feeling the important pressure to be more mindful of knowing how I’m going to feed my family, but I was also given the tools and the confidence to be able to do what’s necessary. Astyk closes by calling for a return of the “Chatelaine” — the person who in years past held the keys to the pantry and was responsible for its contents. As the local foods movement continues to grow, it’s hard not to see the importance of answering this call.

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