cooking in a camper



If married life were a stone crock, filled slowly and methodically with the vital ingredients that eventually transform a food from raw to fermented — wholesome, nutritive, and new — then Mark and I just started chopping the cabbage that will one day, God willing, become sauerkraut. Likening marriage to sauerkraut may very well be the worst analogy I have ever conjured, but if I have learned anything in my twenties it's that you have to do whatever works. Thinking of marriage in food terms provides a measure of calm for my aching heart. As I have relied so heavily on my husband's strength of heart when I feel anything but strong, it seems the best I can do is offer food sustenance. 

The truth is I have hardly felt myself since returning from The Vacation About Nothing. The foremost thoughts that fill my brain are deep feelings of longing for my family, most especially for my sister who is becoming a nun. (At first I wrote 'feelings of loss' but quickly corrected to 'feelings of longing' because this is not death; this is not true loss). I have sobbed with abandon at night on my husband's chest, quietly wept in the middle of the work day, and cried joyful tears during moments of peace in the Mass. I know the proper words are forming in my heart and will make their way here, but today is not that day. Instead, today is a day for writing a bit about the fermented Meditteranean pickles we made a few weeks ago. They take 20 minutes to prepare and will carry you through a month in the refrigerator. No matter what the month holds, you will have pickles.

Throughout our summer blog posts, we peppered in mention of Lehman's Hardware, a truly exceptional homesteading / off-grid hardware store back home in Ohio. They sent us a 3-gallon stoneware fermentation crock for putting away food for the winter sans refrigerator. Three gallons of anything is a seriously hefty portion, so we decided to practice with a 1/2-gallon of something that would not get us sick if we screwed up. (Although, a few years ago I made a questionable batch of sauerkraut that sat on the counter for weeks and my dad still ate the whole thing in one go.). This recipe calls for the cucumbers to spend three to four days on the counter and then — once they are up to your pickled liking — place them in the fridge. You could even scale down to a pint jar if you have just one cucumber and not ten, like we did. Refrigeration acts as a preservation method rather than using a hot-water bath or pressure canning. Avoiding use of the stovetop was a very important consideration for us in the camper. An average pickle benefits greatly from zesty Mediterranean spices, something I learned from Yotam Ottolenghi's cookbook Jerusalem. Really, the world is your pickle oyster.

makes 1/2 gallon jar

5-6 sliced cucumbers, not too seedy
1 bunch fresh dill
1 T. dried dill
1 T. dried coriander
2 bay leaves
7 cloves garlic
1 t. dried fennel
1 t. salt
6 or so cups of water, for brine


—Sanitize your jar by filling it up with boiling water and allow to sit for a few minutes. Dump the water just before filling with ingredients.
—Bring water and salt to a boil. This is your brine.
—Meanwhile, fill your jar with spices first, then sliced cucumbers. I was liberal with spices, and frankly could have added more. 
—Slowly and carefully pour the brine over the cucumbers, leaving about 1 inch of headspace. 
—Set pickles out on your counter and taste one on the third day. If you want them more pickle-y, leave out for another day. Otherwise, store in your refrigerator for up to a month (or so).





For working day-in and day-out at the first level to create high-quality, delicious food for others, it would seem ironic that we, the ones working on a farm and devoting ourselves to food, have failed to eat well. But we have, or we did. It is the paradox of so many farmers we have talked with or heard from: too tired, too consumed, too overcome to prepare a good meal. In our case, we managed to spend our first month back in Vermont eating canned beans almost every night. Sometimes eating nothing until supper. Eventually, and rightfully so, our bodies and brains revolted. Sam broke down in tears, unable to pull the grain bin up the ramp—an ordinarily menial task. 

Our food did not have enough nutrition, was not very tasteful, and was not at all aligned with our life's passion and ethic. But there we were — strawberry season gone, garlic scapes almost gone, turnips and other early brassicas (Sam's favorite genus of vegetable) on their way out the door — with another ill-flavored can of black beans in our bowls.

We were decidedly overambitious. Plans of finding a full-season CSA** and foraging every other day were terribly unrealistic in the context of all that we had on our plates already. Making sure to eat breakfast would have been a better goal. The Grain Bin Incident is what we now refer to as the moment we reached 'critical mass', from which time our eating habits improved tenfold. Unsurprisingly, so did our moods and therefore our marriage. The ol' one-two punch.

Living in a camper without lights and with very limited space to move around in made cooking daunting. The prospect of reaching an arm into the back of the oven to light the pilot light, with the gas running, was sort of horrifying in itself. This camper is from 1986 and will surely blow up, we thought. So for four weeks we forwent using the oven. But Sam's self-named Pink Birthday was fast approaching, and the plan was to cook a “Mediterranean Farmstead” supper for our gang of pals—complete with a lemon olive oil cake with rosemary buttercream icing. We buckled on our proverbial boot straps and Mark lit the pilot light (his arm is fully in tact!). Conversations about nourishment of body, ecology, and economy returned. Our opinions on food are many, but the gist is this: we are incalculably privileged to research, to understand, and to eat what food we choose. It is our responsibility, then, to make good on that privilege. Eating need not be a difficult business.

So we found a CSA with a model that we could afford. Our kitchen is full of in-season produce once again. A veggie farmer taught us how to shuck and skin fava beans, but not before he had us touch the impossibly fuzzy, beautiful casing the beans rest within. Chalk that up as an experience we won't forget. Two days ago, we shared a Pennsylvania peach and proclaimed to the heavens that this, the first peach of the whole year, was glorious and worth the wait. Mark cracked open tins of tomato paste from Greece, a can of imported San Marzanos that we found at our local grocer, and cooked an exceptional shakshuka with eggs from the farm. This is what we call our “Mediterranean Farmstead" way of eating, where culinary aspects of our homes near and far coexist.

On the subject of canned versus “fresh” foods, we believe whole-heartedly in opting for a quality canned tomato over one that was harvested too soon. Quality canned goods preserve freshness — and preserving bounty has been the modality for staying alive for millenia. This is in contrast to the black beans we were buying, which were stripped of nutrients and merely a means to an end: becoming full. Good food knows no category. There are good canned foods, and bad ones. There are good fresh foods, and bad, not-actually-fresh ones (think corn in the winter). In partnership with Lehman's Hardware, who has generously supplied us with the tools needed, we are in the midst of embarking upon a few age-old food fermentation projects. The plan is to put up the summer bounty in order to make it through winter a little more color on our plates (many blog posts to come!).

As Pink Birthday came around, so too did the comforting feeling of full coffers and full stomachs. If we have learned anything at all, it is that we should listen to our stomachs; go with our guts. In a world where food is analyzed endlessly—where butter and eggs are bad for you one day and good for you the next—it seems that we would be better off to acknowledge that there are few hard-and-fast rules that apply to us all. Good food could be any food that makes you feel good and sustained; that which gives you sustenance and allows for your body and mind to function in good health. On certain mornings that looks like farm fresh eggs cooked over-easy in a cast iron skillet sizzling with butter, while on others it is strained, full-fat yogurt — always full-fat for us — with a drizzle of raw honey and a topping of dried dates. So goes it and so go we: in search of good food, as producers and consumers. In the words of our favorite Liverpudlians, "It's getting better all the time."

**Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, is a partnership whereby the consumer pays an upfront sum to the farmer, who uses your money to invest in necessary growing supplies: seeds, equipment, irrigation, etc. In return, the consumer receives a hefty amount (typically weekly) of what the farmer was able to harvest that week. By investing in the farm directly, you commit to the ups and downs of the farm (one week might be an exceptional harvest, while the next is awash from drought). CSA is a model of farming that sustains so many farms that otherwise could not exist, and it allows the consumer to truly impact their local farming economy and know exactly where their food is coming from. It is a partnership that greatly benefits both sides. To find what CSA farms are in your region, try here.