How to Store Bulk Goods

Our present Covid conundrum has a lot of us thinking about bulk goods. Collectively, we’ve had our illusions about the reliability of our food system shattered. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Our “efficient” market system turns out to be not so efficient when there’s a crisis. As David Harvey puts it in A Companion to Marx’s Capital,

By rationalizing the way in which space is organized, you can save on movement costs. So the whole space-time structure becomes an organizational question of how capitalism works. This was the big innovation that the Japanese introduced into the labor process in the 1970s with just-in-time production, the tight scheduling of flows of goods in space and time such that you had almost no inventory anywhere in the system. This was the innovation which gave the Japanese car industry its competitive advantage over all others during the 1980s, and the Japanese raked in the ephemeral form of relative surplus-value until everyone else caught up. The downside of this system is that it is vulnerable to disruption. If one link in the spatiotemporal chain is stopped by, for example, a strike, then everything has to close down because there is no inventory.

So what to do for our households and communities? Buy food in bulk and eat from it. Restock as you eat.

Need some tips on how to store food? Utah State University has you covered. I’d emphasize the importance of buying foods you like to eat. And watch out for pantry moths. UC Davis has a nice fact sheet on dealing with pantry pests.

Lastly, share resources and techniques with your neighbors. Knowing the folks on our block, thanks to our neighbor Jennie’s monthly happy hour parties, has been helpful. We check in via Zoom once a week, trade food and backyard fruit and run errands for folks in deep quarantine. We need not equate emergency preparedness with the sort of destructive individualism partly responsible for getting us into this mess.

FlicFloc Sticker Shock

The Covid crisis has bulged by inbox with questions about many of the topics covered in our two books. Once again, people are baking bread, planting gardens and worrying about the fragility of our food chain.

In recent years we got a bit lazy around the old urban homestead. There were a few too many meals out and an over-reliance on convenience foods. But at least we had experience growing and processing our own foods. When the yeast disappeared from the store I got a sourdough starter going within a week. So I’d say that experience trumps equipment when it comes to the living from scratch lifestyle. It’s never too late to learn. If you’re just getting started baking bread or starting a vegetable garden now is always the best time to begin.

An interesting example of technique over tools comes with today’s blog post. I had intended to write about one of my favorite kitchen tools, the KoMo FlicFloc Oat/Grain Flaker. It’s a manual device that turns whole oat groats into rolled oats. You can then use those oats to make oatmeal, müsli or granola. I had assumed that I’m saving money by rolling my own oats. It turns out that’s not the case.

I bought a 50 pound bag of oat groats for $54 from Central Milling via a bulk order run by the King’s Roost. Already rolled oats are, for some strange reason, a dollar cheaper per bag at $53. Properly stored rolled oats will last up to 30 years without losing much nutritional value according to Utah State University. So here’s the lesson: start with bulk goods in buckets (that you actual cook from) before obsessing over kitchen gadgets (Johnny of Granola Shotgun already pointed this out on his blog). My monkey consumer brain just leaps to the fun gadgets before I consider the prosaic five gallon bucket, time in the kitchen cooking from bulk goods and, ugh, doing dishes.

That said, I still like my FlicFloc. It’s a beautiful object and there’s a certain amount of self-satisfied smugness that comes from turning the crank to mill your own breakfast. Perhaps the freshly rolled oats taste fresher but I can’t prove that. And you can flake other grains such as wheat, rye, barley, millet, spelt, rice, sesame, flax seed, poppy and spices. I can also use the oat groats to make oat flour with my flour mill (another gadget that I’ll cover in another post). Of course, maybe I’m just justifying an expensive euro-trashy kitchen gadget.

But before we leave the sphere of oatmeal I’d like to note one nice hack that Josey Baker suggests in his book Josey Baker Bread. Josey suggests soaking a mix of whole oat groats and flaked oats in water on the counter for a day or two at room temperature. The time at room temperature causes fermentation and gives your oats a pleasant, sour flavor. You can make a batch of it ahead of time and put it in the refrigerator after it reaches the right amount of sour funk. Baker suggests adding nuts and maple syrup to make your oatmeal more interesting.

Lastly, let me add that, back in 2015, I compared the results of the FlicFloc vs. a cheap, surplus store grain cracker. If you want to do your own flaking (I guess that makes you a flake) the FlicFloc works better.

Participate in the Science of Sourdough Project

If you missed the short sourdough lecture I linked to last week, you can watch it above. To summarize, researchers at North Carolina State’s Department of Applied Ecology are attempting to figure out the biodiversity of sourdough cultures from around the world. One of the questions they’d like to answer is how the type of flour you feed a starter influences its taste and viability. This is where you can help through their Science of Sourdough Project. Using the simple instructions on that site, you create a new starter with whatever flour you have on hand, record the results and send that data back to the researchers. If you’re a teacher or a parent this would be an easy science project for our days in quarantine. I’m going to participate and share the results on this blog.

Quarantine Meals From Jennie Cook

Jennie Cook, our dear neighbor (and podcast guest), is a caterer. Covid erased all of the events and weddings that she depended on for income. So she pivoted back to what she used to do: cook home meals for pickup and delivery.

Her food is delicious and the portions are generous. If you live in the Los Angeles area consider ordering some food from her. It will support Jennie and her employees and you’ll get a break from cooking.

On Saturday Jennie sent over a package with an Easter ham dinner. While I’ve enjoyed cooking from scratch for the past four weeks it was nice to have a special meal for a change. Jennie’s delicious dinner really lifted my spirits.

If you’re not in Los Angeles, Jennie has some great recipes on her blog.

Fermentology: Mini Seminars About Cultured Food

Many thanks to Carol Bornstein of the Natural History Museum for this tip on a series of short fermentation talks coming soon. The 20 minute talks will cover sourdough, cheese, beer, history, biology and even something called “zombie medicine.”

Join us for a series of short talks (20 minutes on average, some shorter, some a little longer) for anyone hungry to engage in food, culture, history and science–but in the context of what you have at home.

This project is sponsored by the Department of Applied Ecology at NC State University, the NC State University Libraries and the Center for Evolutionary Hologenomics at the University of Copenhagen.

All talks are Thursday at 4 pm EST, unless otherwise specified. All talks are virtual and will be recorded and available afterwards on the Applied Ecology Youtube page.

Registration here!  Follow us on twitter or facebook for updates.

A closing note: I’m fortunate to be able to stay at home, with plenty of food, and watch fermentation seminars. Many are not so lucky. I have a friend and neighbor who runs several farmers’ markets through a non-profit called SEE-LA. They are soliciting donations to support families sheltering in place in South LA. Your donation will help both those families and the farmers impacted by this crisis. The donation form is here. Please join me in chipping in!