Monday, February 29, 2016

Self Sufficiency: The Real Work Put Into Your Bread

Last year I spread wheat straw over my garden. Much to my pleasant surprise, there was enough seed leftover in the straw to sprout, and it grew several promising clumps of wheat. I can't say what kind of wheat it was (any baker worth her salt knows there are several types), but I was able to gather just under 50g of ripened grain, and thought, why not experiment? I have chickens, and they LOVE whole wheat for scratch grains, so why not try growing it?

Ripened wheat "ears" the seed heads of one of the most
popular grain crops grown in the US.
Then I got to thinking. What if I grew the wheat for myself? I'm a baker at heart and by training; I could make my own bread, free from pesticides and other gunk associated with industrial wheat and commercial bread making. However, that would mean buying a flour grinder, because I don't currently own one. In my journey towards a more self reliant lifestyle, I've always wanted to try grinding and using my own flour. It gave me pause, and really drove home to me just how difficult being self sufficient really was. 

Lets have a simple meal like, oh... bread, cheese, and salami, for example. Easy to prep and eat, right? Just make a visit to the local deli, grab a plate, slice some stuff, serve. Presto! Easy meal. And if you run out, the grocery store is just down the road, isn't it?

Not so, however, if you're producing the same meal as a totally self sufficient person (the keyword here is 'totally'.) Google provides a straight forward definition of the term:
Self-sufficiency (also called self-containment) is the state of not requiring any aid, support, or interaction, for survival.
That's a pretty hardcore concept when you consider how dependent so many of us are on the local and global economies, and the collective brainwashing of capitalism pushing us to buy, buy BUY! all the stuff we supposedly 'need' to survive daily life.

A totally self sufficient lifestyle is pretty impractical, and impossible for a large percentage of people these days, sadly. But when the world population was smaller, back before machines and other technology arose to do things for us, our ancestors did many of the same things that we do today, the big three being eating, drinking, and procreation (we'll just stick to eating for now).

So, we're totally self sufficient, and we want to bake a loaf of bread. What do we have to do? Bread at it's most basic is yeast, water, salt and flour.
This can be as simple as dipping a bucket in the local stream or other body of water. Or, it means someone has dug a well, or built a rain collection system, or has otherwise devised a system for water collection and/or storage, so that we can make our bread, wash our clothes, and quench our thirst. Water- easily done.

Salt is fun one. The most common source for salt is the ocean, right? So to get our salt, we have to collect sea water, which means we have to get to the ocean by some means, collect the water, and then find a way to evaporate it. We could leave it in the sun in shallow pans, or maybe boil it in a pot. Or, you could try extracting it from other sources, such as from hickory roots. Salt- sorted.

Our bread is sourdough bread, which uses wild yeasts, instead of dry, instant or fresh yeast bought commercially. It's pretty sustainable on its own, just flour and water, and can live for months or even years so long as you tend to it regularly to keep it alive. It is an easy to maintain resource for a self sufficient kitchen. Starter is simple to make: just a mix of flour and water set out for a few days until it starts to bubble and smell sour. Eventually, it'll collect enough wild yeast to create a colony, and will stabilize to a few strong local strains that make good tasty bread. Sourdough Starter- ready and waiting.

Oh, wait- to make the starter, we need the flour, don't we? That's the hard part.

Bread is commonly made from wheat flour, so for the sake of simplicity, I'm using that as our example. Wheat is a grass crop, one of the more popular grains grown industrially in the United States. I won't go into all the details that involve how much acreage to crop yield you need- lets just say you need a block of land large enough to grow a decent amount of wheat for the year (I assume you like daily bread). So: a piece of land.

Wheat needs to be able to grow without much competition from weeds, so you need to prepare the land; this means plowing some how. Since we're truly self sufficient in this example, this means we're not relying on petrol driven tractors (seeing as the tractors, the fuel and the gear associated with them have to come from outside our self containment). What are our options? We can plow the entire field with a foot plow (a huge amount of work for one or several persons, which would take days to accomplish) or an animal drawn plow, which would speed the process considerably, and take just one or two people to do in a few days. (Never mind that we also have to care for our horses, oxen or whatever animal is pulling the plow, and someone is needed who can make and maintain the plow, and so on.)

Now that we've plowed the field, we can plant. These days a massive tractor fitted with a special attachment can sow the seeds in perfect lines with computerized accuracy, but not so for us SS farmers. We have to sow the seeds in a less mechanized manner, either by using another animal drawn device meant for this job, or by broadcast sowing (basically, casting handfuls of grain leftover from last years crop over a wide spread area). There are small hand cranked devices that can scatter grain as well. That ideally wants a few people to pull it off in a reasonable amount of time, with plenty of grain, because we have to take into account that the birds will get at it even as we sow it. Now it's a matter of tending to it just enough to see that it grows well. 

Ripe wheat seeds
When the grain is ripe, you have to harvest it. This means either collecting the seed heads by hand as you walk through the field, or cutting the crop down by sickle or scythe (that has the added benefit of collecting wheat straw, which is useful in many other areas of an SS farm). The wheat has to be properly dried before you can thresh and winnow the seeds to free them from their husks, and finally, you need a place to store the seeds until you can get around to grinding them- so that's a shed or cellar or other storage area that someone had to build. Overall, you're looking at a lot of work for quite a few people, and we haven't even made the flour yet!

The flour itself (finally) needs to be made. We have to grind it into a fine powder suitable for bread, and we have a few tools available to us. We can go the way of the native Americans or other tribal peoples around the world, and use a mortar and pestle, or a round, hand cranked grinding stone. This is extremely labor intensive, but was used to grind a small amount of grain or other food to create a daily allotment. Every day more was ground for that days ration of bread. If we want a larger quantity, for a bigger community, we can build a mill. A mill is, generally, two large grinding stones powered by a windmill, a waterwheel, or an animal, such as a donkey, horse or ox. Of course, this means people are needed to design and build such a mill, and the resulting large quantity of flour needs to be bagged and stored- which means someone making flour sacks; the fabric for flour sacks is also needed (never mind growing the fiber to make the fabric... see how much work this SS stuff is?)

Finally, though, we have our flour!

Baking the Bread
Oh yes, it's not over yet. We've mixed our ingredients, and now we have to bake the dough. We can do this in the coals of the fire in a cast iron pot- so someone has cut the wood and forged the metal- or in a bread oven, which would typically be constructed from brick or stone, with clay mortar. 

Once we've baked the bread though, we can finally eat it! Let's get the cheese and the salami and -oh. We have to make those too, don't we?

A Lot Of Hard Work
Self Sufficiency is put on a pedestal as some kind of idealized lifestyle, but the reality is that being properly self sufficient is very much a community venture, because it's a lot of hard work. All that labor would be completely over whelming for a single person or a small family. This is not to say that you shouldn't strive for it; if you can pull it off, or at least as much as you can manage with your current situation, then more power to you! You have my respect and admiration.

I hope this blog worked to walk you through the exhaustive process of getting the loaf of bread that we so take for granted in this age of modern convenience, and hopefully I've even encouraged a few of you to think about how you too could be a little more self sufficient or self reliant.

As always, please continue to live, learn and love, and have a great time, no matter what you're doing!

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