by Mariya Strauss
Homesteaders, aspiring homesteaders, and mildly alternative-minded folks love Shannon Hayes. Her encouraging, prodding farmer’s voice has become a companion for those seeking an alternative to consumer culture. Her 2010 book Radical Homemakers was a runaway hit among thoughtful readers still trying to piece together a future out of the shards of the smashed economy. Summoning her family’s success at subsistence agrarian living alongside real-life homesteading stories, Radical Homemakers said, You can have everything you desire. Just make it yourself or get together with your neighbors to make it.
But, as my interview with her demonstrates, there are more reasons to love Hayes’ direct, positive message in these challenging times. Her new book, Long Way on a Little, generously ladles out useful, doable advice on how to make locally sourced, grassfed meat the basis of a family diet on precious few dollars per month. Oh, and there are recipes. Dozens and dozens of amazing meat recipes that I plan to try throughout this Northern Hemisphere winter. (I may have to skip the candlemaking technique that requires Tinkertoys to make a rotating wick-dipping rack.) To wit, readers, meet Shannon Hayes, the farmer-writer from Schoharie County, New York.
MTS: How would you say this book marries together themes from your previous books, which some people could say are pretty divergent? The Farmer and the Grill has a clear connection to this book, but what about Radical Homemakers? Is RH just an anomaly in a writing career that is really about cooking meat? Or is there a more unifying narrative that all of the books fit into in your mind?
SH: I know, you kind of get this image of a crunchy mom, and you don’t realize that she’s crunching on bones. These books are reflections of my life and how I live and then my research surrounding those ideas, but to someone from the outside who might be drawing conclusions about the writer, it can seem anathema. But they are interconnected.
I cannot separate myself from meat. I’ve grown up in a community that has survived because of meat. The community was considered nonviable. We were ignored during the agricultural/industrial revolution and we survived by subsistence farming. It’s very very steeply pitched hillsides. Farmers were regularly killed around here with tractors. So you needed grazing livestock because they didn’t turn over on you like a tractor. And that was the food that could be grown and that’s how we lived.
So I’m coming from a meat-based culture. Therefore it’s very hard for me to divorce my upbringing and my cultural meat heritage from my interest in sustainability and pragmatic, sensible living. So they are always going to be part and parcel. I have a lot of vegetarian readers. They seem to forgive me for it.
I am very rooted in this community and when I look at the food system, I see how my local food system was completely dependent on meat. That’s how we survived in this area. We didn’t survive by processed foods, we didn’t survive by cash crops that could be just grown and sold. So I look at things from a subsistence perspective, and the meat has played an integral part in that.
Particularly now as I see bigger broader food issues, when you’re looking at how can we have a sustainable, healthy, locally based food system that pays fair wages to the people who grow it, and that is affordable to the people who must live on it when we run out of fossil fuels and all the other things as our climate travesties play out, how are we going to do this? And I do see meat as a critical part of it.
But my argument in Long Way On A Little is we have to change how we do a meat-based diet. We cannot simply be throwing a steak or a pork chop on a plate every night for a meat based diet. We have to delve deeper into our local food resources and look at what has not been considered part of the normal American diet. And a big part, as you probably saw in one of the earliest chapters, is called Bones and Fat.
They are incredible sources of nutrients, of caloric density, of providing satiety, and enabling us to make meals that are far more satisfying with far less food. And right now in most farms, they’re going to the compost heap. So when you look at Radical Homemakers, and I’m talking about prudent, frugal living, sustainable living, and then you look at the fact that I’m on a livestock farm and I’m asking these same questions all the time, it’s a natural marriage.
MTS: So let’s talk about feasibility for a minute. In RH, you pre-empted the argument that you were prescribing a set of lifestyle changes that would be incredibly difficult for most mainstream people to implement by coming up with a range of choices that could help people shift their thinking about and their practice of homemaking incrementally. Do you see ways readers can use this book to make tiny changes that matter?
SH: I do. I absolutely do. In fact, in many ways–it is meat-centered because that’s my culture and that’s my perspective, but in many ways this is like the cookbook of my ideas. Because I’ve got people–how many cookbooks tell you to look at those scraps that your children leave on their plates and do something with them? Cookbooks aren’t supposed to be that way, they’re supposed to be clean & beautiful with great photography. And I’m saying, “Man, you didn’t finish that hamburger? I’m making soup with that!” And I talk to people about all the other ugly little wasted bits. If you’re putting up kale and you pull out the ribs, save that for your broth. If you’re roasting a chicken, save that ugly carcass, put it in the fridge, boil it into your broth.
These are huge strides toward creating a more sustainable culture in several different ways. One way is that it really helps is because you’re capturing waste. You’re keeping things from going to a landfill by recycling your nutrients into the food again. When you keep food out of the landfill and you don’t buy fresh ingredients, you’re saving money. We don’t have to buy fresh ingredients to be nutritious every day.
The other thing that I’m trying to get people to realize is, a meat-based diet as we’re doing it, is extremely wasteful. I’ll admit it. I am a farmer who is cutting–I’m in the cutting room. That’s my primary job on the farm. I will tell you, grassfed farmers wear halos, but there is so much waste because people will not buy the full realm of what we produce. So if you’re saving those food scraps, if you’re saving the chicken carcass, if you’re saving the steak bone, or the little porkchop bone, and you’re making broth with it, you are helping me make every single animal that goes through our process–it goes a little bit farther for more people. So that’s a socially significant difference.
The other difference is, it’s saving you money because you’re generating another meal out of it. You’re increasing the nutritional density of your family’s food. I had to do this because my family deals with Type 1 diabetes, so I had to approach it from a nutritional perspective–I had to increase the nutritional density of everything I put on the plate. And minimize insulin because it’s costing me several hundred dollars a month.
So with the nutritional density, it dramatically reduces your food consumption. So not only are you getting an extra meal, but by having more minerals, more electrolytes, by having the hydrophilic colloids that attract the digestive juices to the surfaces of the cooked foods in the stomach, which helps you to make better use of your food and is more healing on your stomach, by putting the animal fats back into the recipes so that you’re increasing the intake of fat-soluble vitamins, which helps your body to more efficiently take up minerals, your body is nourished on significantly less. Your’e not buying as much, you’re not as hungry, you’re sated.
MTS: Just to focus on process for another minute–I’ve noticed again one other theme in your writing–a better existence is possible, not by buying products or by being more “personally responsible,” but by relying on shared knowledge banks and support systems to muddle through the tough, scary things. In fact, you tell story after story of you yourself muddling through something incredibly difficult and discovering something in the process. Here you are offering some of those discoveries in the form of recipes; how do you see this book’s contribution beyond merely a collection of recipes in the context of lots of people being put in frighteningly precarious economic positions for perhaps the first time in their lives?
SH: Yes, muddling through. I would say I am living–I think people would qualify what I do as living experimentally. I am not following a prescriptive path by any means. And if I am living experimentally, then a certain amount of muddling is par for the course. I am willing to go out there and try this–one reason is, because the conventional path, I just completely was a dismal failure at it. So I really don’t have a choice. I’ve got to muddle through. Another reason why I do it–I happen to believe very very very strongly that the current conventional lifestyle is miserable. When I say I couldn’t make it the other way, I really couldn’t. My husband and I were completely miserable. So when I look at the fossil fuel crisis, when I look at the climate crisis, when I look at the economic crisis, I see opportunities to live better. So I am not afraid of it.
And therefore, if there is anything I want to communicate in writing to people: don’t be afraid of it. If we can move toward, if we anchor ourselves in what is most meaningful, and what we truly love, and what will make us truly happy, then we can move through. And there’s going to be something far better than what we are in right now. But we have to keep moving toward it, we cannot be afraid. And if there was a –it’s funny that you touched on that. Because if there is a spiritual motivator to my work, if there is a spiritual motivation, it is that. To encourage people to not be afraid.
And the muddling through, obviously what comes out clearly in this book–The year that Radical Homemakers came out, that was one of the hardest years of my life because my family’s health took a horrible dive. My husband lost over 30 pounds, I became allergic to almost everything under the sun, my children developed cavities when they had never even tasted soda or candy before, and we couldn’t figure out what was going on. And part of it–I was reacting to the stress, because I had written a book that people actually read, believe it or not–you know, writers are introverts! And I developed all these digestive disorders. And my husband turned up with Type 1 diabetes. And you know–I had no health insurance, so I had to sort of muddle through. And figure out how to survive. And we’ve done it. We’re doing just fine. We are really happy.
MTS: You wrote about that in the beginning.
SH: Yep. And we realized that insulin has been this touchstone in our lives. And we’ve realized–okay, we’re Type 1 diabetic, but America is Type 2 diabetic! And so insulin management is a national problem. As we talk about how to eat more sustainably, and how to eat in an economic crisis, we tend to turn more toward carbohydrates. Well, they are insulin demanders. And I am not interested in becoming a health writer. That’s not my thing. But I’ve learned about insulin. And when you have to buy all of your insulin and it costs several hundred dollars a month, you realize that what we considered cheap food is not cheap at all. It’s very expensive.
So I had to redevelop a cuisine, and realize that yes, some people are going to continue to eat grains, but a lot of us need to reduce that. And in order to be cheap we have to maximize that nutritional density instead, that minimizes the insulin demand. Insulin demand is a national issue.
MTS: That’s a great segue into my last question which is about the elephant in the room in your book. Which is about Big Agriculture. There’s at least 2 camps on that–one talks about reforming Big Ag, and the way they do things, taking antibiotics out of the feed, having more accountability for treatment of the land, soil, workers and then there’s those who want to see everyone switch over totally to artisanal small farmers like you…
Michael Pollan is saying it’s not an either-or—I read an interview where he seemed more interested in the reform camp but said both ways are the way forward. Where on that continuum do you fall?
SH: Yeah I thought that was a dead issue! That’s not an elephant in the room–it’s a dead elephant!
Here’s the issue: You can try to improve Big Agriculture all you want. And you can make improvements. Every now and then as a special treat I will go and buy fair-trade bananas for my daughters. You know, and I’m glad that there is a fair-trade, organic option out there. But the issue that we confront is that we are running out of fossil fuel, and every option that we have come up with as an alternative to fossil fuels tends to take more fossil fuel in order to produce it. We have not solved that problem. And industrial agriculture is reliant upon transport.
So we have not worked out that part of the equation. And I am not going to blindly put my faith in technology that we will. I’m not saying that it’s impossible, but I am saying that it would be shortsighted to put faith in it that we will. In the meantime, we need to figure out how we’re going to eat. Industrial ag–it’s not going to fold up and go away overnight, but we cannot ignore this local food movement. We’ve got to put our full emphasis there in order to get it to serve us as quickly as possible.
Because it’s getting more and more expensive. That industrial system, it just simply cannot continue the way it is. So what I see is, I think we’re still going to have imported spices. They can come in on boats. We’re still going to have chocolate, as long as it’s good chocolate. There will be bananas and things in our lives, but these cannot be the staples of our nutrition. They are the accents, the delights, the little things that we turn to now and then. Dry goods–we might still –there might still be some systems, but we’ll have to work at figuring out how to do that more effectively. But for the bulk of our nutrition I do think we need to build local and regional food systems. They just cannot be ignored.
And you know –the truth is I don’t have to sell books. I’m self-published, I don’t have to sell books to big mainstream audiences. And therefore I can say it. It’s not a problem. We’ve got to put our emphasis there. But there’s good chocolate in my cabinet. I won’t deny it. [laughs]