Updated: May 11, 2019
The Peasant Pantry Experiment:
Six months without the grocery store - surviving the winter peasant-style.
Series Post 3
She wasn’t my first.
..But I clearly did not have the hang of this.
While the chicken thawed in my refrigerator, I had dreaded this day. Bright blood now pooled in the creases of the vacuum seal. I grudgingly placed paper towels under the cutting board.
Part of cooking from scratch meant cutting up whole chickens myself. This supposedly saved me money.
I sighed. My chef knife sliced clumsily into her little body. So much for the smooth grace of the chefs I’d watched on YouTube. As though that was ever going to happen.
Then came the sounds. Popping and snapping of joints, sawing of bone, squishing of wet flesh. Legs, thighs, and wings. Now the worst of it. I could be somewhat proud of the look of the butchered appendages, but the next part would appear more like the artwork of a knife-happy killer.
Nothing hurt my feelings in life these days quite like the separating of chicken breast meat from rib cage. In fact, I almost vomited the first time I did it. For the next few, I started crying. This would be the first time I held it together.
My perspective on meat had changed instantaneously and dramatically when I began to cut up chickens. Freshly packaged meats stacked on display at brightly lit supermarkets don’t tell us the whole story. It’s not like looking at a body that is still basically the headless, footless, featherless bird. Then you know deeper than you’ve ever known before that “chicken” is an animal. A living, breathing, small animal that gave its life, not by choice, so that someone (hopefully not a callous, ungrateful someone!) might eat for the day.
I think of food waste. When we don’t finish those last bites at the restaurant. Or when children barely touch their white-breast-meat chicken nuggets and they grow cold, stiff with gummy ketchup, and are thrown away. I think of how everyone is only interested in the delicacy – the breast meat, but no one wants the other cuts. Dark meat, heaven forbid!
Chickens are small creatures. A cow or a pig can provide much more meat. It feels as though perhaps chickens should not die so regularly as a food source. But since this chicken did die to be food, my food, I would try my best to honor the sacrifice and waste nothing, just like a peasant.
For European medieval peasants, roasting meat was only for Sundays or special occasions. By the sixteenth century, the price of meat was out of reach for them. They were left with the products of their own pig and barnyard. The pig would be butchered before the winter and was meant to last the family until spring. Meat was special, prized and appreciated.
So, how could I get the most from my little 3.5 lb. chicken? I couldn’t refreeze the individual parts because I’d already tried that, and the meat had become tough with a bad flavor. Since the bulk chickens from the farmer came already frozen, I had no choice now but to cook up the meat. I had seen a video on canning shredded chicken meat, but I had never canned before. So, I would make meals. I could make freezer meals, such as chicken noodle soup, or meals to be eaten this week.
I settled on baking the wings, legs and thighs that night, and using the breast meat for two additional meals. I made creamed chicken over mashed potatoes and biscuits the next day, the leftovers lasting another two days. And I prepared a crock pot with a chicken, rice and vegetable casserole. Those leftovers lasted a few days also. Although the recipes called for more breast meat than I had, I supplemented with extra vegetables. I don’t mind limiting my meat intake because health statistics show a correlation between diseases and meat consumption. If peasants lived longer and in better health than their overlords as a result of diet, it wasn’t a bad plan.
Meanwhile, I used the rest of the carcass for making chicken stock. I ended up with 14 cups.
But how about financially? Sure, I was supporting a Pennsylvanian Christian farmer (www.yourfamilyfarmer.com) and getting organic, pastured chicken rather than antibiotic-ridden meat, but how much more was I really paying for it?
Well, my chicken had cost $17.85.
I looked up Walmart’s online grocery store. Whole chickens on that site were priced at less than $10. So, I was paying at least $8 more for quality. However, prior to my peasant experiment, I had never purchased whole chickens before. For my entire history of cooking, I had primarily purchased bags of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. When I looked up prices at Walmart for individual parts and chicken stock, I learned that it would have cost me $16.79 to purchase exactly what I had just gotten from my bird. In a way, I was nearly breaking even.
So yes, it was worth it to me to support a healthier lifestyle, support those who offer this kind of meat to their community, and above all, to gain a new perspective. I have learned so much, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.
It has been three months of the Peasant Pantry Experiment. Three months of not going to the mainstream grocery store (except for Christmas Dinner, milk and bread). My freezer is still surprisingly filled. My cupboards still mostly stocked! My kitchen skills are increasing all the time, and my husband and I are both still healthy. Neither of us has had even as much as a cold. According to Elisabeth Luard, author of The Old World Kitchen, if any one phrase can summarize the peasant cuisine it is – good health.
This is all exactly what I thought would happen, but I couldn’t be more pleased that it has. Let’s see if I can keep up the momentum until spring! In the meantime, check out the video we made of my chicken-cutting experience (below). We will soon be posting videos to the web page as well as Castle Garden’s YouTube channel. You can see for yourself what not to do when cutting a chicken!
Meg Grimm is a writer and folklorist who loves Jesus, hot tea, history and fairy tales. In the real world, she works in a castle - at least some people think so. She is married to Max, and they have a cat-dog named Bill. One day, you'll find her living in a cottage deep in the woods writing your next favorite book.
Is it possible to be peasant-enough to stop going to the mainstream grocery store?
Objective: Stock the pantry, maintaining standards for nutrient-dense foods from local sources when possible, and cease mainstream grocery shopping.
Timeline: 6 months
Protocol: Preserve food using short and long term storage methods; limit all recipes to using only ingredients on hand.
Deviation from Protocol: Milk, eggs and bread will be purchased as needed at Aldi, Stroehmann’s, or a local farm
Hypothesis: With this system, I will spend less money and eat better. As bonuses, I will learn more about peasant-style cookery, and my overall health will improve.