Lost Arts Kitchen: Slow Food Traditions for Modern Life

You don’t have to look far to find people doing special things to make sustainable food a real and tangible part of more people’s lives.  From the growth of community supported agriculture (CSA) programs to home-based businesses, we are getting a glimpse at where food is heading, at least in a number of market niches.

Since posting “10 Innovative Sustainable Food Retailers,” I have received a lot of feedback on other companies doing great work, so I set out to write a follow up on several west coast innovators.  After looking more closely at Lost Arts Kitchen in Portland, OR and learning more about Chris Musser’s vision, I couldn’t resist focusing exclusively on her story.

The Oregonian newspaper opened its February 19, 2009 article on Lost Arts Kitchen with the following temptation:

If you think you can’t afford a diet of organic, locally grown whole foods, think again. All you have to do, Chris Musser says, is change the way you source, store and prepare your food.  Musser spends about $530 a month to feed her family of four. They eat nearly all organic produce, grains and legumes; locally raised pork, lamb and grass-fed beef; raw milk from grass-fed cows; and sustainably harvested seafood. 

Ms. Musser has accumulated secrets over the years, and she’s now sharing them with others through a series of cooking and sustainable home economics classes, sort of a triple bottom line approach for household kitchens (cool).  Her small, hands-on classes are quickly winning over fans, and, more importantly, giving people the confidence to operate outside the industrial food system (even cooler).

What’s so wonderful about Ms. Musser’s curriculum and vision is how it helps people gradually evolve the way they experience food.  Comparing it with cooking shows on The Food Channel and elsewhere, it’s easy to see why spending time in Ms. Musser’s kitchen is the better option for anyone wanting to get beyond passive food entertainment.  That’s probably because there is something instinctively familiar about what people are learning from Lost Arts Kitchen (again from The Oregonian article):

Generations ago, people got foods from local farmers, ate seasonally and locally, and preserved foods at harvest to enjoy throughout the year. The format of the class — a group of women gathering to share knowledge, tips and lunch — also harks to the past, fostering a sense of community.

I asked Ms. Musser to help me and my readers understand more about the Lost Arts Kitchen.

Q:  How would you characterize your family’s diet, e.g., seasonal, raw foods, fermented foods, local, etc.? As a father of four, my wife and I have exposed our kids to lots of different foods and preparations of those foods, but I don’t think we are in the same class as you, especially in terms of preserved foods.

 A:  My biggest concern, as a meat-eater and cheese-lover, is making sure that the meat and dairy my family eats comes from sustainably, humanely raised animals that have been allowed to eat their natural diet. We buy all of our meat farm-direct, from people who are practicing rotational grazing and the like, and follow Bittman’s “less meatarian” suggestion . Between buying meat in bulk and eating less, we save a LOT of money and that makes room in our budget for buying things like raw milk, which I use to make yogurt and soft cheeses (my dairy products costs me less than they would in a store). Hard cheeses I buy mostly from local cheesemakers. Eggs we get from our backyard hens.

For produce, we eat mostly in season and local, which isn’t hard to do in Portland. BUT, by February and March, the pickins are admittedly slim and then I am really glad to have a store of lacto-fermented foods, which bring a lot of brightness to what can be a rather base diet of roots, grains, and legumes.  I rely on a combination of food preservation techniques, including canning, lacto-fermentation, freezing, drying, and cold storage. We buy organic/sustainable dry and canned goods in bulk–grains, legumes, spices, Rapadura, chocolate, cocoa, powdered milk, flour, yeast, nuts, canned tuna, salmon, tomato paste, olives, etc. What we can’t get locally, we buy organic/fair trade.

Our food budget is smaller than that of most families with young children that I know. We currently averaging about $530/month, including what we’ve already spent on food we bought and preserved in the last year. Our actual monthly spending right now is about $350/month, which includes dairy, fresh produce, and restocking pantry items.

 Q:  Do you consider your business an extension of doing something you love or are you on a bigger mission?  For example, do you envision Lost Arts Kitchen growing beyond your capacity?

A:  Hmmm…both? This is definitely a labor of love, something I started because I saw my friends struggling with how to put into place what they were learning from reading books like Animal Vegetable Miracle and Omnivore’s Dilemma. I feel very much called to serve so, I’m on a mission in that sense.  I want to help people feel less stressed about cooking, to enjoy it and the benefits of connection and community that come with eating local. 

Beyond that, I am working on a cookbook. I’ve been working on it for years but really, I’m going to have a proposal finished by the end of summer. I’m open to new possibilities, but right now, I am somewhat overwhelmed with what I’m already doing, plus being present for my kids (who are 3 and 6). I do sense some urgency out there–I hear from people all over the US who want what Lost Arts Kitchen is offering and I want to help, but I am only one person and at this point in my family’s life, I don’t feel I can give more than I already am without neglecting my kids.

Q:  Have you established partnerships with farms, companies or organizations in your local market?  If so, how have those relationships helped you grow your business?

A:  I am just beginning to collaborate and can’t really speak to how they have helped me grow or what they’re getting in return yet. I’m talking with some local farmers about demonstrating how to prepare their products at home, e.g., offering seasonal recipes and tips on small batch preservation to go along with CSA shareholder boxes, classes to CSA members, or providing demos at farmers markets.

I am working with an environmental education organization that wants to start a homesteading program for homeschoolers. This is where I can help kids get excited about growing, cooking, and putting up real food–and have my own kids along for the ride.

I’m also just dipping my toes into the local food policy scene and hope to encourage policy makers to develop strategies that will help educate adults about real food and how to prepare it at home. One of the problems I see is that many home cooks are working in complete isolation. It’s hard to learn this way, but when we get together and share what we know, learning becomes less of a struggle and more of a joy.

Q:  Having lived in Portland in the late 90s, I know how great the population generally is in terms of sustainability.  How have people responded to your business?  What do they think you should do beyond what you are already doing?

A:  The response here has been overwhelmingly positive. People here really get it. They understand immediately why what I’m doing is needed. We can grow all the organic, local food the land will produce, but if people don’t know how to cook it or preserve it at home, it’s just going to become compost. I’m offering a wide variety of classes, from stocking and cooking from a pantry, bread baking, and soft cheese making, to buying meat in bulk and preserving foods using a variety of techniques. I’ve been asked to put on cooking demos and give talks about eating local, which I’ve enjoyed. There’s interest in doing cooking parties for expectant moms to stock her freezer with ready-to-eat meals, made by friends and family.

 Q:  Is it realistic for an average household to stop shopping for food at supermarkets (assume they still might buy non-food items there)?  How might someone accomplish that?

A:  I’d say my family’s pretty average: educated, but still saddled with student loans, middle class, living in an average city with somewhat above-average access to local food.  The biggest difference between my family and some others is that I have stayed out of the paid workforce for the past six years and both my husband and I know how to cook. I know for many, staying at home isn’t a choice, but I also see a lot of people who say they “can’t” but also drive new cars, wear new clothes, pay other people to take care of their kids…a lot of “can’t” is really, “can’t imagine.” We need to imagine a different way of life for ourselves, one that is simpler and more sustainable.

I spend a lot less time procuring food than I used to and the time I do spend is far more enjoyable.  I spend more time in the kitchen than I used to, but less than you might think. I have a weekly meal routine that relies on intentionally creating leftovers then using them in new ways, so we’re not just reheating last night’s dinner (though we do some of that too). Making yogurt, cream cheese, mayo, ketchup, doesn’t take up much time and isn’t something I do everyday. When I preserve foods, especially canning, I’m putting in a lot of up-front time, but then I’m saving time (and of course money) in the long run.

Can the average American family do this? Of course, but the average American is impatient and expects to transform overnight. Learning to find and prepare real food takes time. Figuring out how to incorporate real food into your life takes thought and planning. We can’t just re-learn these lost skills in a week or a month, or with a couple classes. It can take years to understand your region’s annual food cycle–and that means staying in the same place for a while–which is something else the average American doesn’t do well. So, yes, the average American can get real food on the table everyday, but she has to stop thinking and acting like the average American to do so.

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8 responses to “Lost Arts Kitchen: Slow Food Traditions for Modern Life

  1. Inspiring interview. And timely. Carlo Petrini (the founder of Slow Food Toronto is in town (Toronto) next weekend.

    I was in Portland last year. Gorgeous town, great food.

    Can men go to the workshops? Canning, pickling, preserving–hell anything I can eat seems like work anyone should be able to do. My wife can go put up the barn or whatever men were doing while women were congregating in the kitchen.

  2. Pingback: Lost Arts Kitchens « Farm To Table: The Emerging American Meal

  3. Rob,
    really beautiful post. Your such an elegant writer!
    I’ve linked to you!

    • Zachary, most of the credit goes to Chris. Her thoughtfulness, passion, and energy that she is dedicating to her mission is what you and others are reading. Thank you, Chris!

  4. Barry–Men are welcome and have attended my classes, but the vast majority of my students are women.

  5. I’m pretty much in the same position as Chris, and we do pretty much the same things. I probably spend $400/mo feeding my family of four locally-raised, pastured meats, raw dairy from grass-fed cows, locally-grown organic veggies, home-preserved out of season fruits & veggies. People have asked how I’ve done it, and it’s just like what Chris says: buy in bulk, buy direct from farmers, and eat fewer animal products.

    We still shop at the supermarket for our “cheats”: out of season fruits (sorry, but the kids need bananas & apples year round), coffee, wine, wild-caught fish (canned & fresh), and the occasional cheese or butter when we run out of our own homemade versions.

    The point is: this is able to be done!

    More people need to know they can make these choices.

    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  6. Rob, thank you! Such a nice introduction and I’m honored to be featured here on this terrifically informative blog!

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