Best of Edible: Living off the grid

grid(Edible Twin Cities occasionally places its best magazine stories online. Here’s a story by Carol J. Butler — pictured at right — from the January/February 2013 issue of Edible that focuses on how living “unplugged” changes the way Butler cooks.)

By Carol J. Butler

Ten years ago, our family left the comforts of Minneapolis because it was a dream of my husband’s to build furniture from his own trees. So we came—young, idealistic, wearing our city shoes, and carrying our small appliances—to an off-grid homestead in the woods of northern Wisconsin. Our house sits out where the power lines end, the only electrical bright spot for two miles in any direction. We split our firewood, pump water from a well and make our own electricity.

When you are no longer connected to the public utility lines, you set up your kitchen a whole different way. At first I was eager to be shod of all my modern conveniences. I imagined it would be good for me to whip up cookie dough with a fork and knead bread by hand. We have been researching wind and solar but for now, our electricity is made by a diesel generator that charges and stores power to batteries. This means that certain appliances such as toasters or blenders should only be run when the generator is on, or you risk burned-out capacitors and a total electrical shut-down. Other appliances, such as microwaves, should not be run at all.

We went through a series of experiments involving coffee makers that don’t use electricity. In our early morning stupors with baby on hip, we fumbled and shattered at least three of those pretty glass press pots, and the thermal kind never stayed hot enough for me. We settled on a stainless steel espresso maker that brews what my friends call “big girl” coffee. We secured an old 1940s gas range that doesn’t contain a single hidden micro-chip. All those little electrical clocks on appliances really add up when running off batteries and I always preferred cooking with a real flame anyway. I have become attached to my beat-up old stove, but I have to say, I didn’t always feel this way.

Truth is, the biggest learning curve thrown my way as we set about growing our family and conserving our resources was the lack of available take-out.

It didn’t matter how tired I was at the end of the day, ordering out wasn’t an option. There’s simply nothing down my road but deer and porcupine, and who wants to drive 60 miles round trip for a cold meal at home? I had to figure out some way of coming up with dinner and I had to do it night after night. The temptation to order out was removed and because of that, something wonderful happened over the course of 10 years. I got pretty good at cooking.

My definition of good, however, is a bit different from the one I had when living in the city. My focus out here is efficiency. I consider a meal a success if there aren’t a lot of dishes to wash and if I somehow manage to start another meal at the same time. For example, when baking lasagna, I throw in a couple of potatoes to grate for hash browns the next morning; when making chili, I reserve two cups for a later batch of enchiladas.

Really all this requires is something called planning. I’m not a naturally organized person, but my dinky refrigerator runs on propane and my freezer is the size of a shoebox. So I spend about 15 minutes a week writing down what we will have for dinner, and when, so I can rotate my food properly. I find myself relying on tricks and customs employed by our grandmothers. I can’t run to the store when I run out of something, so I learned how to make the things my kids consider essential, such as pancake syrup and ketchup. Basically my kitchen is simple and no fuss. The natural result of cooking this way is a reliance on the goodness of whole foods for nearly every meal.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t give myself little breaks. As a working mom, I’ve realized that I don’t have to do everything the long way. There are some modern conveniences available to me that our grandmothers didn’t have, and on busy school-nights, I use them. Frozen peas, baked fries and vegetables already cut-up are my version of “take-out” foods. I don’t always cook a big meal, but I am always planning ahead. That might sound like a lot of work, but it has become second nature to me now, and a way of life. In my off-grid kitchen, dinner doesn’t have to be complicated to be good.

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