A couple of years ago, I went back to the land. Not the farm I grew up on in north Idaho, but my residential lot in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My housemate and I built raised beds for our organic vegetable garden and a coop for some laying hens. Last winter, I borrowed a rifle1 , killed an elk, and then took up waterfowling, which soon led to dog ownership, a fancy Beretta over-under 12-gauge, and explaining to my girlfriend that I'd paid $100 for a robotic duck decoy that flaps its wings reassuringly. I stashed the feathers from three Canada geese and a bunch of mallards in a large garbage bag beneath my kitchen sink, vowing that someday I'd sew them into a comfy pillow. That way I could claim I'd used the entire animal you know, like the Native Americans.
Pop culture has been egging me on in this self-sufficiency kick. In 2007, The New Yorker developed an inexplicable fascination with rooftop beekeepers and urban poultry farmers. Recently, the New York Times profiled a woman who'd turned the basement of her Harlem brownstone into a root cellar. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's folksy 2001 River Cottage Cookbook entered its first American printing in March 2008; a review in The New York Times Style Magazine cooed over a section called "Owning a Shotgun." Two well-known authors recently published books on the voguish hundred-mile diet, and this spring, food writer Eugenia Bone is coming out with Well-Preserved: Recipes and Techniques for Putting Up Small Batches of Seasonal Foods.
It's tempting to view this trend as a collective premonition of leaner times to come, but I think something else is going on. The back-to-basics craze hit the mainstream because we had too much money and time on our hands (up until last year). Hunting, gathering, and backyard farming make for good recreation, casual dinner-party bragging2 , and too many yellow squash, but they're not always smart home economics. Now that widespread layoffs and actual hardship are upon us, it's more obvious than ever that only memoirists and a few millennial holdouts should try to produce everything they consume. The rest of us should try like hell to keep our jobs so we can still afford to buy local, hormone-free beef from farmers who raise it for a living.
Way back in 1776 when making your own lard was a necessity, not a hobby Adam Smith got it right in The Wealth of Nations: If everybody specializes in what they're good at, we're all better off. If we ignore logical divisions of labor and all try to be our own butcher, baker, and brewer, it's a short, slick slope to hoarding duck feathers and living in suburban petting zoos.
The math breaks down like this: Let's say you spend $250 on lumber and chicken wire to build a coop3 . You get 16 chicks, six of whom turn out to be roosters, and then become rooster stew as soon as a neighbor complains. The remaining ten eat $11 worth of scratch per month and, for some unknown reason, produce a dozen small eggs before going on strike for the winter. That's about $25 per egg. Each of four tomato plants produces about 50 red fruits, but then your girlfriend teaches your hunting dog to eat them ("Look, he's a vegetarian!") and daily irrigation boosts the water bill by $40 over four months. Elk, shot in-state without too much driving, turns out to be a real bargain at a little over $1 per pound, but duck? There isn't a French restaurant in the world that charges what I've been paying for confit de canard.
By the time Well-Preserved hits shelves in May, it's likely that the recession will have revived public appreciation for that humble yet time-saving invention, the tin can. But just in case, here are a few hard-learned notes of caution that rarely get ink in the "I did it and so can you" genre: Chicken dung smells like rotting mayonnaise, and hens are loud, too. Citrus-based pesticides might as well be lemonade as far as aphids are concerned. There's no such thing as a "clean kill." We're a generation removed from 4-H, and I'm here to tell you that your backyard and rooftop are not good places to cultivate your unlived childhood.
I'm not suggesting you shouldn't indulge in any foraging adventures or volunteer on a local farm, but as they say in pickup sports: Keep it fun, and do it in moderation4 . Go ahead and saw your own firewood and dip your own candles. Just don't plan on heating and lighting your home for the entire winter with them or you'll start feeling less like a modern-day Thomas Jefferson and more like a poor schmuck with scorched fingertips and a sore back.
Footnote Intervention from a Colleague
- You called in a five-pound carbon-fiber sniper rifle for "gear testing."
- Yes, we all noticed the six dead ducks you brought to Thanksgiving dinner.
- No, this is not a hypothetical.
- Clearly, you have yet to take your own advice.
—Abe Streep, fellow associate editor