From the first Fat of the Land Sea month in July, I emerged confident that the whole wild and homegrown food year was able to go the distance. It was a statement to the world of which I was proud; not just that this way of life was possible for me personally, but that it was possible at all in normal middle class workaday surbubia. Bloody hard work though. Or perhaps bloody long hours is more appropriate. If I wasn’t earning money or squeezing in family time, I was doing something about food (or documenting it), with not a lot left over.
It is said that if you find a job that you love, you will never work a day in your life. I don't like it; it is perhaps a sad indictment for an assumption that work irredeemably sucks to be something upon which our world rests. A world of cheap food, civil peace, good health care and easy money but predicated on the default position that half your waking hours should be unpleasant. Like some perverse Faustian pact in which we concede to a shitty deal without a devil even there to ask for it. I was enjoying what I was doing and doing what I enjoyed, but that did nothing to change the fact that it was a tough job. Whether I was doing paid archaeology, gardening, cooking, spending family time, foraging, hunting, fishing, whatever, it was all just part of the same ‘to do list’. Enjoyable and busy, and with my professional life not all that clearly distinguishable from the rest on a notional timesheet.
Greying out the line between work and the rest of life is generally not something that often fits in suburbia. I imagine that small scale farmers get it more; that life often involves on-farm and off-farm labour, that the on-farm stuff may occur in the house as well as in the field and that it is all just stuff that needs to get done with the family in on it to varying extents and weekends often a part of the package. Or at least, that notion worked for me as motivation to make a year of hard work a more acceptable burden, even if reliant on a wilful semi-myth of a semi-rural idyll being possible even with the lettering on the Westfield tower visible from my front door.
Along the way, pictures that I had been taking of it all became followed on Instagram (@fatofthelandandsea) by some guys in the States; because I had followed them on a more rigorous version in the preceding June, just before I kicked off. They call it “Caught not Bought” and were going for it again for the month of August, so I stepped it up and joined them through social media from the other side of the world. Out went most of my exceptions, leaving just a version of what they allow. They allow coffee, oil and butter, but as I make my butter by separating cream from whole milk and churning it, I also notionally hung onto using the skimmed milk (mostly for making yoghurt and ricotta cheese or paneer) although I rarely actually used it. They also encourage bartering for other wild and homegrown food, but as I was already committed to some bartering that includes some whole fruit and veg from a local co-op, I stretched that rule to allow for not necessarily knowing the grower. And wine, which they eschew, I stuck to – because, as stated elsewhere, I am not an animal. In my deal, with myself rather than them, wine was my single ‘condiment’; because they allow condiments while with my ability to tighten but not loosen my rules, mine remained only homegrown, wild or bartered. In any case, out went wheat grains, dry chickpeas, oats (bought ones at least, see below), garlic, bananas and sugar (for fermenting).
Early on, I got a pretty significant score. My sister Penny had been given a huge bag of oats that had damaged packaging and passed it on to me in exchange for some salt that I made. She thought that I might like it to feed my chickens, and with some of it I did (and still do), finding it a good way to frugally soak up any excess oil, stock or eggy poaching water that I think might be good for them. I also kept some for me; but then almost immediately started to wonder why I had oats as an exception in the first place. I suppose I had been thinking very practically about having a healthy grain with which to avoid unnecessary hunger, but the truth remains that I simply do not like porridge. A supposedly good, sticky mass of porridge usually strikes me more like a masonry product than a food, and without much of a sweet tooth, the common solution of dousing it with honey wasn’t up to changing that. Then I reasoned that there must be some savoury oatmeal dishes, and in a stunning case of missing the boat on culinary trends I went online to discover that they don’t just abound, but are an entirely fashionable thing in hipster circles. With some relief, I got about soaking oats in stock, stirring in kale and other green goodies during the cook and topping it with poached eggs. A bit like risotto, with an egg but without the rice. Then of course I remembered that without the saving grace of immodest amounts of aged cheese (that I hadn’t got around to making), I’m not a huge fan of risotto – ‘hot wet rice’, as they call it on a local comedic piss-take of foodie TV called The Katering Show. I always knew I would second guess some of the starting rules, and that started, one month in, with the oats. But the deal was the deal.
Citrus, at least, was abundant. I once came across a paean to the embrace of seasonal food suggesting that people should just accept that they can’t have fresh oranges in winter. A clear case of embracing sentiment over fact; winter being precisely the time for almost all citrus, while other fruit is sparse. Mine were mostly bartered and easily come by because their abundance makes them either cheap (through trading herbs into the vegie co-op) or readily shared surplus (the neighbours’ mandarins swapped over the fence for garden stuff). There were also a few late limes and early lemons coming from my row of six little two year old trees, oranges from a country friend on a hunting trip and the odd lemon hanging over a back lane fence.
The chooks had come very much back on the lay, five or six a day, and greens like foraged native spinach and homegrown kale were in excellent nick, with a few broccoli heads also coming through, a row of perennial shallots to harvest and peas starting to kick off by the second half of the month along with a few early asparagus spears. That’s how mild Sydney’s late winter is – it is better than a lot of temperate zone springs before it is even over. A freezer stocktake revealed some fish that I had forgotten that I had, and the hunted rabbit supply from a trip in July was still at a solid half dozen.
With this larder, it didn’t matter that my fresh fish efforts were largely fruitless ventures in the process of learning a new method in jigging for squid – I bagged just one small squid from five outings, but that squid was still big in its way, because it marked the entry of squid-jigging to my arsenal. At the same time, the colder weather had me less inclined to dive for shellfish. But in any case, protein wasn’t the issue, carbs were. Or perhaps my habitual reliance on them.
A whole bed of potato plants was thriving in the garden, as was another of Queensland arrowroot, but both were still too young to harvest from. So I fossicked through the disused part of the vegie garden in the process of being transformed into a bee yard to at least find a sneaky few kumaras that had missed the autumn harvest and the freezer stocktake reminded me of four full bags of at least half a kilo each of frozen mashed kumara as well. And there were a few starchy green bananas to cook. But it was really the bartering herbs into my local vegie co-op that saved me from the unappealing dreariness of hot wet oats more than a couple of times a week. Over the first half of the month I was able to get out a decent ten kilos of potatoes, carrots, pumpkin and beets in exchange for my homegrown herbs. I also got a couple of cabbages that went into a big batch of sauerkraut, although I confess that I find it to be a food only sometimes relished, while at others something taken with a sense of prescriptive duty as a daily ration.
Overall though, I was mostly hungry, even if from being short on time rather than ingredients. I was losing weight, five or so kilos in the first six weeks. It all seemed healthy enough for the time being, with a diet far too wholesome to make me malnourished and a remaining ten kilos at least of fat on me before possibly being at all undernourished. But what if it kept sliding? Would I just bottom out at “skinny”, which has never been an aspiration of mine I might note, or would I become sick? My instinct remains that it is just a reasonable readjustment. It seems logical that the me living this Fat of the Land Sea lifestyle would inevitably become healthily lean, just as the me of previous years inevitably carried varying amounts of lard, being free to have beer or pastries on needless whims.
Hunger is a mysterious thing. As animals, we are, in a way, programmed to eat when food is available in the physiological hope that hunger never comes. Because, in our modern affluence, food is always available, we eat either on schedule or because we are hungry whether we need to or not. For most of us, a life with no hunger is one in which we customarily eat more than we need; providing more energy than we use, and it is therefore no surprise whatsoever that most of us are at least a little overweight and a frightening number of us obese. A great deal of both media and scientific attention seems all aflutter about the ‘obesity epidemic’. Statements of the obvious, the simple facts of eating too much in a society where food, especially sugar, is close to free and exercising too little, bore an audience looking for an even easier equation. And so people are swayed by new fads and pseudoscience – rather ironically being fed more crap that they don’t need. While there remains more to it than just calories versus exercise, those basic truisms are still at the heart of it. Unless we can experience hunger as a background sensation that doesn’t need urgent attention all the time, we are going to be fat.
With such thoughts going around in my head, I found myself one day sitting at my desk, with two rabbits defrosting for dinner on the counter along with a cup of mashed kumara and ample options for greens in the garden, abiding with an acceptable hunger that was into its second day, only sated by a single orange in the preceding 16 hours, wondering if this was the new normal. Then I decided to get out in the garden to rustle up some greens and eggs for a lunchtime omelette. But I got dizzy when I stood up in what I presumed to be a hungry low blood sugar kind of way. Ridiculously, I was hungry because hunger was making me too lazy to do much about it. On my best days, it was true that I really had this full on wild and homegrown lifestyle covered; those being days of feasting on both quantity and quality. But on others, it was obvious that, two months in, I still had some way to go in finding the right balance – a small food-lazy consumer part of me was still not yet done for.
I resolved to eat more. To hell with the precious buffer in the freezer, I set out eat it. And hot wet oats would just have to do whether I liked it or not. September would bring the return of most of my precious Ten Things as well as spring and a more bounteous garden and inviting sea. And, one hoped, with mistakes learned from, the lifestyle that I was assuming would just eventually fall into place would be closer to doing so.
And then I went on a goat hunt with three mates. After a deer hunt in July had yielded only rabbits, hopes were high of filling the freezer back up again. Hopes were fulfilled. Six goats were down before lunch, or even reaching our camp, on the first day. Eight animals were taken all up, limited more by the job of processing them than by hunting opportunity. While I was too busy butchering to continue hunting, my mates were taking a ‘mission accomplished’ view; justifiably happy with their eskies and to put the grim task of any more rifle or knife work behind. To them, and quite possibly to you, any more hunting was stepping away from some respectful, ethical meat sourcing towards excessive slaughter. I get it, and would once have felt the same, but I now knew a hunger that made the hunt more of a subsistence imperative than some casual recreational outdoorsmanship. We found a wonderful medium with me working away on the knives while still in a beautiful riverside camp of relaxed laughter and clinking glasses where a feast was prepared. The rain came as we retired to the big tent, then it cleared as we packed up and squeezed in a good forage of stinging nettles, then had the decency to hold off until we were heading home after cutting the landowner a share of meat. Whether it should be a matter or regret or relief, time did not allow a chase of the abundant carp in the river.
The last week or so of the month then plodded along peasant-like. Meat or seafood, spuds, veg, eggs, citrus, similar again the next day, although still seasoned with herbs, seaweed, salt, chillies and brightened with wine and occasional treats like bartered honey or the odd early loquat. And I mean peasant-like in both the negative and positive ways that the word can be used: As either a dour slog of a life with only a qualified amount of freedom; and at the same time a bucolic joy with ties to the land and sea that are those of a secure mooring rather than limiting chains.
September comes with a lot of optimism. My excepted Ten Things are back, although the success of the restrictions in August will have me leaving at least a couple out every month. And perhaps most importantly, winter is over and the garden is erupting with growth. My beehive is installed (albeit as yet unpopulated), the sea beckons, my salt evaporator is almost finished and with that and warm weather will come another commodity to trade on top of the herbs. And with this optimism, I have also resolved to write a book of this Fat of the Land and Sea year – I’m in it for the long haul now.