I’ve been reading a series of books. They were written in the 1990s and look like they were printed on someone’s home printer and hand bound on a wire spiral.
Stories and Recipes of the Great Depression of the 1930’s is a five-book series, written by Rita Van Amber and edited by her daughter, Janet Van Amber Paske. The books read like what I believe they probably were — a labor of love.
The books are full of stories remembered by people who lived through the Great Depression. Most have to do with food — although one of my favorites is a woman in her 70s remembering her parents buying a new wig for an old doll and her mother sewing the doll a new dress. It was the best Christmas gift she’d ever received.
The books are twice dated.
The stories are of a time so long gone and so awful that they’re difficult to really conceive of. Things like mixing lard into peanut butter to stretch it or feeling grateful when a home was purchased just before the stock market crashed in 1929, because there was no more money in the bank to lose.
And they are told in the 1980s, 1990s, and very early 2000s, which is of course still dated to a 2020 reader. But I’m enjoying them. Also, I’m terrified by them.
Because I went to the butcher last week and meat had doubled in price since I was last there two weeks earlier.
And Walmart is still rationing canned goods. And I just bought half a hog, for Gods sake. (I meant to buy a quarter hog, but upped it to a half when I saw how fast the price of meat is rising.) Not for some altruistic locavore reason, which might have been true just a few months ago, but because I’m really afraid that we’re going to have a supply chain problem pretty soon and I want to be able to feed my family.
I spend most days watching the news while I work. That’s new for me, because I don’t have a TV in my office. But I do in my bedroom, and that’s where I’ve been working since mid-March.
Over Memorial Day Weekend, it was surreal seeing people actively refusing to maintain social distancing — crowding into beaches and restaurants and house parties without masks or adequate spaces between them.
I wonder if Memorial Day weekend will be the time that history remembers as the moment when we could have kept this pandemic manageable, but didn’t. If my grandchildren will learn about Memorial Day weekend 2020 the same way I’ve learned about October 29, 1929 as the day the stock market crashed and the kick off of the Great Depression.
This is all so intensely surreal.
My business is holding on so far. And I’ve had a good couple of years, so I have some cushion between my family and disaster. This is the first time in my life that’s been true, so I’m especially grateful.
I know that more nearly 40 million Americans are out of work. Probably even more than that, because not everyone who is out of work has been able to get on Unemployment. But it doesn’t quite feel real yet. So far the government is shoring those people up, and by extension shoring me up.
But what happens in July, when those $600 per week extra payments end?
What happens if scientists are right and there’s a major resurgence of the Coronavirus this fall or winter?
I wonder what people thought, in early 1930, just a couple of months into what would become an eleven-year depression. Did they feel a sense of unreality, like I do? Did it seem like the whole thing would blow over quickly? Could they have spent those first months preparing for what was coming, if only they’d seen it on the horizon?
So far, it’s the idea of food supply problems that has felt the most real to me.
Covid-19 crisis highlights supply chain vulnerability
As the Covid-19 pandemic gathered pace in March, the chief executive of Nestlé warned his almost 300,000 staff: "Get…
Probably because I can see it so easily. Pennsylvania, where I live, has a particularly high level of Coronavirus in meat packing plants. For the first time in my life, I’ve gone to the grocery store in the last couple of months and not been able to buy exactly what I wanted, when I wanted it.
My personal response to this has been two fold.
I find myself really wanting (and needing) to learn. How can I garden for more than fun? I don’t have much space, but it might make a difference.
Is raising rabbits worth checking into? I don’t think I could eat a rabbit I raised. At least not yet. I’d go vegetarian first. But if I can’t raise or get my hands on enough vegetable protein to feed my family? Yeah. I might think differently.
Is it time to get passed my fear of my pressure canner? Probably.
So — I’m reading a lot. Like those books about the Great Depression. And I’ve joined a couple of Facebook groups full of people who know a lot more about this stuff than I do. I’m learning.
And I’m acting on what I’m learning. I feel compelled to do something.
For the last month, I’ve spent every Friday working on my family’s food supply.
Canning things. Planning meals. Creating a shopping list.
I can’t unsee what I’ve seen about the way that workers are treated in meat packing plants. I can’t not know that people are dying so that Americans can buy cheap meat at Walmart. So, my family has bowed out of that entire system.
I found a local woman to sell me eggs from her backyard chickens. And like I said, I bought half of a hog from a very small-scale local farmer, who also happens to be a woman. She also sells beef, chicken, and turkey.
My second Misfits Market box will be here tomorrow. (Use the code COOKWME-GX3FSM to get 25 percent off your first box, if you want to give them a try.)
Tomorrow is Friday. I’m going to pickle the vegetables that are left over from last week’s Misfits Market box — cauliflower, carrots — with some peppers that I need to use up. I also have a bunch of serranos I’m going to ferment to make pepper sauce with. And my daughter and I are going to make tamales for the freezer.
We’re stocking up, a little bit at a time, for the possibility that there might be a year where things are dicey while America figures out it’s new food reality.
I have no idea whether what’s going on now will become something as terrible and long-lasting as the Great Depression.
I know that more than 40 million Americans have applied for unemployment — and that doesn’t include the people who were unable to get through or have otherwise been excluded from unemployment.
I know that the food supply chain issue is real and could get scary.
I know that Americans are tired of being locked down and that safety measures are being politicized. The President of the United States mocked a reporter a couple of days ago for being ‘politically correct’ for refusing to remove his mask during a press briefing.
I know that many, many Americans are much further removed from their food sources than their great-grandparents were in the 1930s. It seems to me that we are much less equipped to create our own food sources (via gardening and raising food animals) than people were during that generation.
We are less prepared for the hard, manual labor of food production, even on a home-scale.
I’m afraid that we’re just at the beginning of something that could be a longer emergency. Learning and acting on what we learn is essential right now.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation, Rebel Nation, The Astonishing Maybe, and Center of Gravity. She is the original Ninja Writer.