by Julia Powers
Like many young girls, I was enthralled by The Little House on the Prairie books. With my nose buried in the familiar yellow book jackets, I spent countless hours reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s tales of her family’s pioneering ways. The books opened up a whole new world for me (one far beyond the Midwestern cul-de-sac of my youth.) The closest I got to a farm was my family’s annual blueberry picking adventure. Although I didn’t know the term at the time, the books introduced me to the values embraced by modern day homesteaders: simplicity, self-reliance, reduced consumption, the deep satisfaction that comes from hard work, and the desire to live as naturally as possible. I have sometimes wondered why the books resonated with me and why, to this day, I keep them on my bookshelf. Perhaps I sensed, even then, that the ethos of the 1970s, with its embrace of “time-saving” processed foods and disdain for food traditions, was misguided, and that, as a culture, our losses reverberated far beyond the kitchen. Given the renewed interest in homesteading, I am not alone.
Homesteading is hot; there is a myriad of blogs, Instagram posts, and books dedicated to this lifestyle. But chances are slim that most of us will walk away from our current lives (and the jobs that finance them) to embrace the utopia of an off-the-grid agrarian lifestyle. However, we can all embrace homesteading values by living a kind of “homesteading lite” life, incorporating many practices that bring us the sense of satisfaction that Wilder so beautifully detailed in her books.
Lisa’s foray into the world of lite homesteading started with the garden. Raised by parents who were avid gardeners, digging in the dirt was in her blood from an early age. This love affair was further solidified by the summers she spent with her grandmother, an expert gardener raised in Italy. Twenty-three years ago Lisa started her own garden and, over the years, has expanded it to include vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplant, lettuce, corn, asparagus, green beans, broccoli, jalapeno peppers, kale, and squash as well as blueberries, raspberries, and three kinds of grapes. Her husband, Mike, makes smoothies from the garden’s bounty and Lisa boasts with a laugh, “I make a mean salsa.”
Upon first meeting, Kingston resident Laurie Sybertz doesn’t strike you as someone who would cook meals in her living room fireplace. And Lisa Swanson, who calls Hingham home, seems like an unlikely candidate to keep goats in her backyard. But these women aren’t eccentrics who eschew modern life. Rather, Laurie and Lisa practice a form of lite homesteading: they both find great joy in practices that, while common in years gone by, have largely faded from everyday life. So, how and why do two suburban women find time in their busy schedules for any homesteading activity? Wouldn’t it just be easier to buy yogurt instead of making it at home? Why do they bother?
For Laurie, this adventure into the world of lite homesteading started over a decade ago when she and her husband vacationed in Maine. Wanting to try something different, they agreed to eschew chain restaurants and patronize only local establishments. Delighted by both the food and the experience, they delved further into the world of local food by purchasing the meat of a pastured raised cow. After experiencing the difference in taste, Laurie was hooked. At the same time, she started researching the state of the nation’s food system and, alarmed at what she learned, Laurie slowly began incorporating more and more locally grown foods into their lives. Innately curious, Laurie began to learn other homesteading skills, including:
Cheesemaking: After taking a class by Ricki Carroll, known across the country as the “cheese queen,” Laurie began making simple cheeses, including mozzarella, ricotta, and cheddar. She also regularly makes yogurt for her husband, Joe.
Grinding grain: For four years, Laurie was part of a small co-op that purchased a grain share from a farm in western Massachusetts. Two of the members would pick up the share and then divide it among the members. With a grain mill, grinding the grains was easy and, as Laurie points out, foods baked with fresh grain “tasted so much better because, with grinding, it’s fresh every time.” The group has since disbanded, so Laurie is savoring the last of the dried corn she has in her freezer.
Canning: Laurie and her husband grow asparagus, rhubarb, cucumbers, and herbs. And, with a bi-weekly delivery from South Shore Organics and trips to the farmers’ market, there is no shortage of vegetables to be canned and fermented. In addition to the sauerkraut she has made for years, Laurie recently expanded her repertoire to include ketchup, relish, and fermented foods. Of course, she is partial to the taste. “Commercial ketchup is wimpy,” Laurie shared with a smile, “it doesn’t have cloves and all the spices.”
Beekeeping: Laurie’s husband, Joe, has four hives scattered throughout the South Shore and sells his honey through word of mouth.
Cooking with fire: The Sybertzs love to visit living history museums, and these visits sparked Laurie’s desire to cook over fire. After some trial and error, and with a few new cooking implements, Laurie can now cook more in a fireplace than many people do in an oven. “I can cook cinnamon rolls, stew, and even roast a turkey,” she said, and with a stand-alone broiler dating from the 1700s, Laurie now “cooks steaks right on the coals and the taste is amazing.”
Like Laurie, Lisa is concerned with the pesticides used on conventional produce and by growing her own feels that “at least I have control over some of the things my family eats.” But her garden also brings her great joy. “The gardening I do is partly for pleasure. There is nothing like a fresh flower or a tomato fresh from the garden with a little salt.” Since soil health is the holy grail of backyard farmers, once Lisa learned that composted chicken manure was one of the best fertilizers, she thought it made sense to get a few chickens. She started with a couple of birds, but, like the garden, her flock has grown over time. Currently, Lisa has 14 chickens in two coops and the names of the breeds she has are as beautiful as the rainbow-hued eggs they lay. Her flock includes Silver Laced Wyandottes, Blue/Red Wyandottes, Light Brahmas, Speckled Sussex, Americaunas, Olive Eggers, Barnvelder, Dominiques, Buff Orpingtons, and Lavender Orpingtons, whose eggs and feathers are both delicately tinged with lavender. Allowed to forage as nature intended, the hens’ yolks are bright orange, in stark contrast to the wan yellow yolks of conventionally raised birds. Lisa, who never had a pet growing up, lights up when she talks about her flock, especially her favorite hen, Petunia, “who is always by my side and comes when I call her. She even squats down so I can pick her up!” And, while the flock brings Lisa great joy, their composted manure serves Lisa’s original purpose: improving the soil in her garden as well as those of her friends, with whom she generously shares her compost.
Since raising chickens was such a success, Lisa decided to give goats a try. After attending a seminar on goatscaping (using goats to rid the land of invasive plants, poison ivy, and overgrowth), Lisa thought it could be an added service offered by her landscape design and management company, Zinnia Designs. As a bonus, the goat manure could also be composted and help improve the health of her garden.
Unfortunately, her two Nigerian Dwarf goats didn’t like poison ivy, instead preferring rose bushes and brambles. While the goatscaping experiment has been tabled, for now, Lisa simply enjoys the goats as pets while their composted manure is used in the garden. Both the goats and chickens require an investment of Lisa’s time. “They need water every day, and I clean out the coops once a week. It is hard, especially in the winter.” But through her efforts, Lisa reaps not only ecological benefits but is able to feed her family food that is in line with her values. In addition, her garden and animals bring her great joy and enrich her life. “I love the simplicity of coming home from work, pulling up an Adirondack chair, and hanging out with my chickens and goats. It makes you stop and think about the simple things in life.”
Simple things in life? Isn’t adding more to their already overbooked to-do lists only complicating their lives? While it may seem counterintuitive, these ladies, and others who incorporate homesteading skills into their lives, find just the opposite. Yes, gardening, keeping backyard animals, cooking on an open fire, beekeeping, and homemaking arts such as canning and fermenting do take time. But the payback is rich indeed: self-reliance, a chance to slow down, to savor the fruits of your hard work, and the satisfaction that comes from of mastering new skills. Laura would be proud!
Julia’s Busy Day Frittata
Frittatas are a great way to use eggs from your backyard chickens; they come together quickly and make an easy dinner after a long day at work. Start with a basic formula and adapt it each time to make it to suit the ingredients at hand.
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 cups of chopped vegetables*
- 10 large eggs
- ⅓ cup crumbled or grated cheese—goat, feta, cheddar, jack, Parmesan or Gruyère
- handful of chives or another favorite herb, chopped
*Try combining fresh, raw, and pre-roasted vegetables—a great way to add depth of flavor to the frittata while using up odd bits from the fridge and garden. Julia recommends asparagus and mushroom; broccoli, red pepper and spinach; kale and roasted butternut squash; rainbow chard and roasted potato cubes; and zucchini and roasted cherry tomatoes.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy, oven-proof 12-inch skillet. (Julia uses cast iron.) Sauté the onion until softened. Add the other vegetables, starting with any that need a few extra minutes, and sauté until vegetables are cooked the way you like them and any liquid has evaporated. Add a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper as you go.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs together with a pinch of salt. Add to the skillet and cook over medium-low heat until the eggs are set, about 5-8 minutes. While the eggs are cooking, run a spatula underneath the perimeter of the frittata and tilt the pan so the uncooked eggs run to the underside, keeping the bottom from browning. Sprinkle the cheese on top.
Place the skillet under the broiler or in a very hot oven for a couple of minutes or until the frittata is puffed up and nicely browned. (Keep a sharp eye on it if you use the broiler—it can go from perfectly cooked to burned in a few seconds.)
Let the frittata sit at room temp for a minute or two and then drizzle with a bit of olive oil and sprinkle with the chives or other fresh herbs. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Sweet Potato Corn Chowder
Kingston micro-homesteader Laurie Sybertz adapts this recipe to suit her guests and larder. She might skip the bacon and use a lump of butter or dollop of oil for vegetarians, eliminate the milk and double-down on the corn broth for vegans, add a chopped hot red pepper or two at the sauté stage for spice fiends, or thicken the broth with a little flour slurry for her mother. In the depth of winter she makes a shift with corn she froze back in September, substituting chicken or vegetable broth (or water) for the corn broth.
Like so many soups, this one benefits from being made a day before—the flavors meld and mellow.
- 2 or 3 ears of sweet corn (at least—more if you are using corn broth only)
- 4 ounces bacon, chopped fine (or 3 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil)
- 1 large onion, chopped fine
- 2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into ¾ inch cubes
- 4 cups whole milk (or more corn broth) salt and pepper, to taste
Slice and scrape the corn from the cobs and set aside. (You need at least 2 cups.) Put the cobs (chopped or broken up if it’s easier) in a pot and cover with cold water. Simmer a half hour.
In a heavy-bottomed soup pot, fry the bacon till crisp over medium-high heat. Remove bacon from fat and set aside. Sauté onion in fat till tender (adding a little butter if needed). Add potatoes and cover with the corn stock, adding salt and pepper to taste. Cook on low until tender.
Add corn and milk (or more corn broth) and simmer about 5 minutes. Check seasonings.
If you want thicker chowder, add two tablespoons of flour mixed with cold water to soup and bring to a boil to thicken, or, better yet, puree a portion of the soup and stir back and reheat. Ladle into bowls and garnish with bacon or maybe some chopped sweet red pepper.
Julia Powers: Forty years after she first read the Little House books, Julia still re-reads them from time to time, using them as encouragement for her own forays into “homesteading lite.”