A journal can be so many things. A place to collect thoughts or memories, a record of the days and years that make up our lives. Throughout my life, I’ve sporadically kept a personal journal, taking pen to paper when my thoughts needed sorting in a way that only the written word can do.
Although some folks write in their journal every day, for me it was always primarily a way of processing big emotions or life changes, something not to be done on a schedule, but in the moment. While I always admired the people who made their journal a daily practice, such regularity was never for me.
Over the years, however, I have found use for another sort of journaling.
Homesteading, however the term is used, generally implies some level of self-sufficiency, a do-it-yourself spirit that generally involves lots of… projects.
The more fully one embraces the DIY ethos, the more necessary a sort of record-keeping becomes. Enter the homestead journal.
It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. And no doubt, each one will be different from the next, reflecting the particulars of time and place, as well as the individual journal keeper. No matter the form it takes, a good homestead journal is a place to record the fruits of our labor.
Our monthly Mountain Feed journal helps us do just that. It's a record of the months as they pass, a record of the seasons and the projects that fill our days. You, dear reader, are included here, too, because your questions and projects are always fueling ours.
Already, we find ourselves scrolling back, to see what the weather was like in April, what was in season and what we were thinking and doing. As the years glide on, we hope to see this record growing steadily, branching out like a young fruit tree, becoming just what is is meant to be.
There’s a certain kind of satisfaction, in seeing everything in one place, a list of accomplished projects, that reminds us of the progress we have made.
It’s also immensely helpful for planning purposes. So a good journal looks both forward and backwards in time, connecting the seasons and the years, collecting the fruits of one season and preserving them for the next.
As a gardener, I want to know how many tomato plants to grow, in order to be able to make enough soup and salsa to keep the pantry stocked all year.
How many jars of salsa does my family eat in a year? How much soup? How much of that can I reasonably expect to make myself? Am I able to grow enough food to meet these goals, or should I expect to be buying flats of fruit from the farmers’ market?
All of these are questions whose answers will vary from household to household, year to year. Beginning a personal homestead journal is the first step in grappling with all of these questions, and more.
Seasons, like all circles, have no official starting point.
Sure, the calendar marks solstice and equinox, and these are relevant and important, but as every gardener knows, each year is different, each month uniquely it’s own, never to be repeated.
So start a journal, wherever you are in time or space. You’ll end up a year from that point, 365 days later, with a year's worth of recorded history to learn from. Keep going.
I began my first personal homestead journal entry in May of 2009.
As it happens, May is a great time to start recording all of the food preservation projects for a season, as winter has depleted the pantry and the garden is just starting to warm up and produce.
All through that year, I kept a record of every food preservation project that I undertook, with brief notes included about the process.
Nothing too fancy, unless you're inspired to get super detailed. The important things are: a date, a recipe, the quantity of food produced and any additional relevant notes.
SOME OF MY EARLY JOURNAL ENTRIES...
Haphazard at first, the journal gradually taught me what I needed to know, what questions I needed to ask. I learned that the salsa that seemed too vinegary at first, mellowed considerably after a few months.
I learned that my family does not eat grape jam at nearly the rate at which I can produce it; at the start of next year’s grape season, I still had a whole raft of purple jars, taking up space in the pantry.
So it was, that I learned the importance of a year-end pantry census.
No matter how delicious that apple-spice chutney looked on the page, if there’s still 6 pints of it left on the shelf at the end of the year, it’s probably not worth making again.
I learned that we can eat about a half-pint of salsa a week, but that all my friends loved it, too, so that I needed to make at least 50 pints to avoid having to buy salsa from the store.
I can’t grow that many tomatoes in my woodland garden, so I began first to buy flats from the farmer’s market stands, and later to trade with a tomato grower, flats of heirloom tomatoes in exchange for roasted, canned tomatoes.
A spate of green tomatoes that didn’t ripen one year led me to make green tomato salsa in December.
I roasted the hard, cold green fruits on the barbecue, hoping for some smoky sweetness, and was amazed to discover that it was the preferred salsa for that year.
The delicious smokiness of the roasted tomatoes led me to roast more veggies before canning them, and it was through that exercise that I discovered how well the caramelized sugars of a roasted onion can counter-balance the sharp acidity of a vinegar-based salsa.
I began roasting all my onions for salsa projects, and recorded the results in the journal, as well.
The journal expanded, at the revelation of Green Fire Roasted Salsa, to include recipes of my own design. I base my variations on existing recipes, and make sure to pH test the finished products to ensure that they are safely below 4.6.
Note: Testing the vinegar brine alone does not give an accurate reading of the pH, since the food itself affects the acidity, too. Blending up a small sample in the blender can give a more accurate reading of the true pH. Always make sure you are following all safety guidelines outlined by the USDA when canning anything.
Sometimes the variations are simple, just a dash of turmeric in the relish, or a portion of the vinegar replaced by lime juice. Over the years, I have become much more comfortable, halving or scaling up recipes, or modifying them to fit the ingredients at hand.
My journal anchors me in time. Dry as the entries are, they are a record of what else is happening in my world.
Having a concise record of every recipe also freed my creative side.
I so liked the sound of Green Fire Roasted Salsa, conjuring as it did, green fire, that by the time I had finished labeling all the 26 jars, I was writing only, Green Fire Roasted, as the Salsa part didn’t fit as well.
Thus was born my penchant for crazy preserve naming. Why call a roasted tomato salsa, Roasted Tomato Salsa, when you can call it Roasted Monday?And if you add 4TBS of chipotle powder to the second batch, just to spice things up, why, obviously you should call that salsa Big Bad Wolf.
If I ever got confused, there was the journal, waiting on the shelf, to remind me what the difference was.
Although this method will appeal to some more than others, it allows a little sparkle of individuality to shine through on every label. I like to think my grandchildren will be amused. At the very least, I amuse myself. And I can’t help but think that some of that mischievous joy is infused into the food, as well.
In fact, I know it is. I can taste it.
There’s something sentimental in even the most mundane of these journal entries.
I think of my grandmother’s spidery hand tracing out recipes in her well-thumbed book of notes, and I begin to understand why. The act of cooking, of preserving, is at it’s root an act of caring. It is tangible proof of the fact that someone cares enough to spend the time to create this food, that will nourish others in the months to come. Now that she is gone, her recipes are also a link to the past, a record of the vagaries and fluctuations in her own garden, and her own life.
Of course, Mountain Feed is an entire community of folks, not just a single person.
Yet our monthly journal is no less a reflection of time and place than my own journal, or my grandmother’s. We are made up of so many incredible people, each one of whom brings something to the table.
We include you in this community that sustains and nourishes us. We invite you to follow the recipes we post as the months and years go by, and contribute your own favorites as well.
Perhaps these installments will encourage you to create your own homestead journal. Yours will certainly look different than my scratchy pen on paper, and different again from the lush photographs that fill the digital screens of the online Mountain Feed journal. But at heart, they will share a common theme, a record of time spent in that rich and challenging and rewarding space, where the garden meets the kitchen.
No matter the form it takes, a journal is a record and a testament of dedication. To food, to the act of creation, to the impulse to preserve and to nourish, to the time it takes to do all of these things, and the priceless, timeless value of that energy, which is beyond measure.
We salute and support you and all of our companions in preservation, and look forward to many more seasons of delicious exploration together..
It’s part of our mission here at Mountain Feed to help you make delicious, sustainable, homemade food more often. Stop by and say hello on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest. Or, as always, you can do it the old fashioned way and come by the store to speak with one of our in-house experts.