My transition from urban-dweller to backyard farmer began with a pickle.
I’d lived in Los Angeles for 10 years before I began to miss the traditional foods I’d left behind in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. So I forced my mother to ship me homemade sweet pickles, grape jelly and the country ham that my dad cured in his basement. And that was more than enough. For a while. After giving birth to two daughters it dawned on me that I couldn’t FedEx the foods of my childhood to California forever. I wanted to discover and share the knowledge, skill and experience of making these beloved foods with my family and friends.
More from Zester Daily:
So I shopped for cucumbers at the local farmers market and persuaded my mother to teach me how to make sweet pickles when she came to visit that summer. It would have been far cheaper to buy a jar of pickles from the grocery store. But that wasn’t really the point. I didn’t want pickles. I wanted my mother’s pickles.
My homesteading campaign continued, as I coaxed my mother to teach me how to make Granny Willie’s grape jelly and Betty Sheetz’s apple butter. My urban farming campaign continued as I earned a Master Food Preserver certificate. But as I studied and cooked and preserved, I realized that the recipes I loved so dearly came from a very specific time and place: the “foodshed” of the Shenandoah Valley.
But my family and I live in a different foodshed. So I turned to the natural resources growing in our own backyard.
Home preservation traditions
Our suburban Southern California house has trees that produce loquats, oranges, grapefruit, lemons and plums. My husband and I carved out a tiny plot of sunshine amid the trees to plant tomatoes, Swiss chard and a variety of herbs. In spring we make loquat butter and loquat leather, which my youngest daughter eats as fast as I can make it. During the summer months, we can tomato sauce and tomato preserves. When winter rolls around, we make marmalade, my husband’s favorite toast-topper.
All of these treats use the natural resources of our environment, but they aren’t the basis of our day-to-day diet. In fact, my grandparents might think the entire urban homesteading concept is simply silly. They were farmers. Real farmers. They grew most of their food on 80 acres, and they had a lot of kids to feed. Growing food and preserving it at home was the cheapest way to maintain a consistent food supply for a large family throughout the year.
My parents grew up on farms but moved into a small town. Yet they continued to grow their own food. When I was in high school, my parents bought an empty lot down the street and still plant a massive garden on it every year. My father plants most of the vegetables they eat all year long. My mother cans dozens of quarts of green beans and tomatoes each summer. She fills up several freezers with endless pint containers of peas, corn and lima beans that she cleans, shells and blanches with help from my father. My parents do this work by choice. They know they’d still eat if their crops failed and there’s a world of comfort in that thought.
Discovering your foodshed
I don’t have the time, space, or inclination for that type of garden. Our backyard simply isn’t large enough for food production on such a grand scale and luckily for us, it doesn’t need to be. But with the wealth of food options in Los Angeles, I still want to keep a connection to my family’s farm heritage, tenuous as it may be.
Our foodshed is radically different from the one I grew up with, but it is resilient and satisfying in its own way. I’ve connected with folks who see food in similar ways by joining the Los Angeles Bread Bakers and the Master Food Preserver Program of Los Angeles County. My children have their own set of special treats from the garden, like picking ripe strawberries from our tiny strawberry patch and eating sweet cherry tomatoes still warm from the sun. When my husband finds an abandoned grape vine in a hidden corner of a parking lot near his office, we make grape jelly. And if the cucumber patch fails, I’ll grab some from the farmers market and start a batch of vinegar syrup. Because I still love sweet pickles.
I don’t have an urban farm by any stretch of the imagination. And I certainly don’t have the wealth of information and tradition that my parents and grandparents grew up with on their family farms in Virginia. I do have fresh, healthy food and preserves made by hand (and sweat) that reflect the foodshed I find myself in. And that’s a tradition I’m proud to pass on.
The Shenandoah Valley creates some of the world’s best apple butter. Here is a twist from the Southern California foodshed: loquat butter. This recipe is adapted from one I received from Ernest Miller, a talented chef and fellow Master Food Preserver in Los Angeles County.
Yields approximately 6 half-pints
4 pounds ripe loquats (approximately 12 cups)
¾ cup bottled lemon juice
1 cup water
1 organic lemon, cut in half
2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped into three sections
3 cups sugar
1. Wash loquats and cut in half. Remove ends, seeds and white interior membrane from each half. Do not bother to peel the loquats.
2. Place cleaned loquat halves in a heavy, non-reactive saucepan with the lemon juice, cup of water, lemon halves and ginger. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, and cook over medium heat for approximately 30 minutes. Remove lemon pieces and ginger after 30 minutes and continue cooking until the loquats are very soft.
3. Purée in a food processor or food mill. (Using a food processor will increase the yield, but will result in a more textured, opaque loquat butter. I prefer using a food mill to achieve a more transparent end product, although the yield will be smaller.)
4. Add loquat purée back into the pan. Add sugar and stir to combine. Cook loquat purée and sugar mixture for 15 to 20 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally until mixture reaches desired consistency. To test for doneness, remove a spoonful and see if it mounds slightly on the spoon. You can also put a small spoonful of loquat butter onto a plate that has been chilled in the freezer. Watch to see whether a rim of liquid forms around the mound. If it does, continue cooking until a spoonful of loquat butter mounds on the plate without creating a puddle of liquid around it.
5. While loquat butter is cooking, sterilize half-pint jars.
6. When loquat butter is done, pour it into hot half-pint jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Wipe the rims of the jars and put on lids and screw rings. Process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath following USDA recommendations.
Top photo: Loquat butter ready to eat. Credit: Susan Lutz