Monday, December 3, 2012

Q & A: Living Off Grid (Part III)

Winter Food Supply
Copyright 2012 by Lori-Ann Willey

It is a completely different world in here come the time for plunging temperatures.  Winters can be very long in Maine.  I have literally seen it snow every month of the year except for July.  I have seen accumulating snow as early as the first week of October, on through the middle of May.  One stretch here at camp we were snowmobiling to and from camp 10 of 17 months.

Unlike most people who use their coolers during the warmer months of the year, living here at camp means that we use coolers throughout the year.  During the warmer months, we use them to keep our foods cold, and keep things like fruits and vegetables from bruising due to the bumpy roads, etc.  During the winter months, they keep our foods from freezing, too. We buy frozen vegetables versus the fresh ones, with the exception of onions, celery, squash, and potatoes.  Paul makes sure he always has fresh fruit no matter the time of year.  We have so many coolers that I honestly have lost count just how many we do have, but for the most part we use them all.  Coolers of all sizes are for not only food transport as mentioned above, but also we have one that we use specifically for our baitfish, etc.

Due to the cold winter temperatures, it is easier to buy and transport ice cream, whereas during the summer, the ice cream gets very soft, despite being in a cooler with other frozen items.  During the summer months, it is easier for us to buy boxes of freeze pops in the plastic sheaths or simply make our own ice cream.

We use snowmobiles as our main mode of transportation once the snow starts flying.  We have to snowmobile eight miles to our truck, park our sleds, shovel off and around the truck and trailer, load our snowmobiles, unhook the trailer, and then head toward town from that location.  Our trip back toward camp is easier because we already shoveled out the truck and trailer.  However, instead we have a snowmobile tote (35”x74”) that we fill with supplies such as groceries and gas upon our return.  Messing with all that is just about as tedious as the shoveling itself. 

I prefer to bag my own groceries, because items need bagging in a way to survive the trip behind the snowmobile.  You have no idea how many times I have had to re-bag groceries because of a bagger who insisted on bagging my groceries for me.  When asked if I need help bringing out the groceries, I always decline their offer saying that I have to sort into coolers, etc.  Some understand this…most do not.  

If possible, we do not purchase foods in glass jars during the snowmobile months, as we are afraid of breakage.  Glass becomes another problem during the winter, too.  Glass does not any room for expansion, so once the contents inside freeze, jars often bust.  If given the option between two of the same items at the store, I will pay more for the plastic container than for the glass jar.  Unless the contents inside the glass have an alcohol content (I forget the percentage needed), or laden with salt or sugars, items do freeze.  Therefore, storage then becomes an issue for us.  I know of no one that wants a busted jar.

Years ago, I gave up bringing eggs into camp via snowmobile.  They never survived…neither did our breads!  Since then, I stock up on lots of eggs for the winter months, and make our breads.  I love a good fried egg in the morning, but due to rationing out the eggs during those long winter months, we do not eat many eggs, but I seem to get my fill come warmer weather!  I also modify some recipes so not to use many eggs even in my cooking.  Luckily, most bread recipes do not call for eggs, but I do like making our own pasta, and that takes six eggs per batch.  Each batch is two large meals.  It is cheaper and easier to buy pasta already dried, but homemade….err camp made is always better.

Foods such as potato chips are gently held in place by bungee cords in the back of a snowmobile so they get a gentler ride.  Since living here, I have all but stopped drinking sodas or beers simply because they are just one more thing to have to load into the tote and then unload and carry through the snow into camp on a cold winter day.  Then, there is that whole thing of taking up extra room in an already too crowded camp due to winter storage.  When someone visits for a few days during the wintertime, we manage to move things around to make room for them the best we can.  They never seem to mind our winter crowdedness.

Each time we leave camp for more than a day, the entire camp has to shut down due to no constant heating system.  I will get into that later.  Thus, any jars that are “bustable” from the freezing temperatures, we try to find room for them in the refrigerator.  This is also where the extra coolers come in handy.  We place the coolers in the warm camp for a few hours before placing glass jars into them and then covering the coolers with a wool blanket, and then set them near the sunniest window.  So far, all that has worked.

Part of shutting the camp down also means to fill the teakettle, and a few pots and pans with water.  Upon our return, we will simply have drinking water by turning on the gas-cooking stove and starting a fire in the wood stove.  Our current cooking stove does not have a pilot light that stays lit like our previous stove.  That pilot light kept the oven and stove top at about 90 degrees so that was perfect for storing my oil paints, etc. when we left.

Before we decided to purchase a laser printer, we had an inkjet printer.  Those cartridges couldn’t freeze, so each time we before we left, we’d remove the cartridges, place a piece of scotch tape over the ink dispenser part, place them into a zip lock bag and they’d go into my pocket and travel out with us to the truck that way so they wouldn’t freeze.

Unbelievably, even our propane refrigerator has issues during the winter months.  Due to limited “electricity” from our solar panels, our gas stove, chest freezer, and refrigerator runs off propane.  Because the refrigerator is an ammonia system without a thermostat control, if the camp does not stay above the freezing point (32 degrees), the heat from the pilot light will cause the ice in the freezer section to melt.  We discovered that the first time with a freezer full of foods.  Therefore, if we are to leave for more than a couple of days, we empty the freezer section.

We tend to stock up on many soups for winter meals.  Soups are great for lunch, and each day we spend out at the ice shack our main meal is a can of soup each along with a couple slices of bread, both of which heat up on the heater that heats the ice shack.  I prefer beef soups to Paul’s preferred chicken soups, but we take out with us what we choose.  We simply put the can on the heater and when it is hot, we crack the seal if it gets too hot before we are ready to eat, ‘because otherwise, that top lid will start to heave up on us.  When we are ready to eat, we pop the lid and eat from the can with spoons.  One type of soup to stay away from is any that is milk based such as chowders or creamed soups.  Once they freeze, they separate into clumps that are impossible to smooth out again.  We have thrown away many of such cans due to that.  Nowadays, we just avoid those types of soups altogether except for maybe a can or two during the summer months.

The best part about the wintertime and food storage is when we can place leftovers outside in the wood crib, which does freeze, but usually not within a few hours.  Often I fill up ice cube trays and set them outside on the deck to freeze that way.  They seem to freeze more quickly out there than in the freezer itself.  I think that whole evaporation process speeds things up, because if forgotten, the next day, having ice is not a problem, it’s having enough ice because those cubes will evaporate rather fast and you’ll be left with ice cubes half their thicknesses otherwise.

Then, there is the issue with the chest freezer.  For a few years, we had that outside in one of the sheds.  This was perfect during the dead of winter because we would simply shut it off and let the cold from the elements keep things frozen for a few months.  However, we discovered the HARD way, that high winds when turned on, would blow out the pilot light through the vented pipe.  We have lost a LOT of food once because of that.  Luckily, we had the means to get out to town and resupply albeit during the wintertime.  We were NOT happy, and what a mess that was!

Food storage at camp can be iffy simply because if there is a crack somewhere, a mouse or mice will find their way inside.  Canned goods are safe on the open shelves, but anything in boxes or plastic must go inside a metal cabinet. Things like flours, sugars, etc., are stored inside a huge cooler as I buy that stuff in bulk sizes if I can.  We like to buy gallon jars of pickles during the summer months and keep the jars for things like dried macaroni, spaghetti (broken down to fit), noodles, oatmeal, cereals, popcorn, etc.  Therefore, scattered about camp we have gallon size jars filled with foodstuff to include our supply of candies, dry drink mixes, etc.   

I am sure there is more I could write, so if you have any further questions, or if I think of something later, I will mention it in another blog segment.  Feel free to ask questions of any type.  I will try my best to answer. 

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