Your Guide to Reading Between the Tines

Book Review: Food Security for the Faint of Heart by Robin Wheeler

Robin Wheeler’s new book, Food Security for the Faint of Heart: Keeping Your Larder Full in Lean Times, may be a mouthful of a title, but that’s appropriate when you consider that the author’s purpose is, in fact, to keep your mouth full when the going gets tough.

Wheeler has a background in the kinds of skills that are just plain handy, whether you’re in a crisis situation or not.  A Canadian, she teaches traditional skills (like canning and seed saving), gardening, and medicinals in British Columbia.  She also started the Sustainable Living Arts School in Roberts Creek, British Columbia, and has previously written one other book, entitled Gardening for the Faint of Heart.  Considering that, perhaps it’s not surprising that the structure of Wheeler’s book reminded me a bit of an eclectic neighbor’s garden: a patch of earth richly populated with the old stand-bys, some intriguing and unexpected nuggets here and there, and an unusual twist on some staples.   She covers a surprising amount of ground, going from how to salvage as much food as possible when the power goes out indefinitely, to how to plan and plant a garden.  She talks about water collection, cooperatives, and how to cook a surprisingly good meal out of what you can scavenge from your surroundings in a disaster.

Wheeler breaks down food security into a few key areas for the purposes of this book: finding or creating a local, sustainable food community; storing food and disaster preparedness; and how to successfully navigate a crisis such as a severe earthquake.   When I began reading the book, the foremost thought in my mind was that it smacked of a different era—Depression Era in some ways—as she described how to forage edibles from your yard and the Great Wide World beyond your yard, how to use every little odd bit of food, and how to store food when you had an overabundance so nothing would go to waste.  In other ways, it recalled Cold War Era thinking—how to establish and maintain a hearty stash of survival food, how to plan for disaster, and how to react if disaster were to strike.  Initially, I was taken aback by how freely she laid out disaster scenarios and what steps to take to be secure in such an instance.  Let’s face it—voicing the idea that people shouldn’t operate with the unshakable assumptions of working appliances, inexhaustible food sources, and dependable food transport is likely to get any one of us labeled as extreme.   As I read on, however, I soon became aware of something I had overlooked in my initial reaction:

Hope.  Hope and humor.

Wheeler’s book, while not flinching away from the facts that natural disasters can strike and economies can collapse, is humorous, upbeat, and very, very generous.

Food Security for the Faint of Heart is funny, friendly, and smart, and Wheeler freely shares the tips she’s acquired from experience, print resources, friends, and colleagues.  She praises the books that helped her, she acknowledges the people from whom she learned, and she hands you the foundation to help establish your own food security.  In the pages of this book, you will learn to do all of the following, and more:

  • rethink the boundaries between garden and landscaping
  • can, pickle, brine, or dry a variety of food items
  • buy sustainably-produced or organic food on the cheap
  • work with others to share skills and create a disaster-resilient community
  • understand basic medicinal plants and learn to store them
  • waste nothing…or as close to it as you can get

While I persist as an optimist, there’s really no reasonable argument against the kind of preparedness Wheeler advocates in this book.  Undoubtedly, you will have to adapt it for your situation.  After all, those of you living in studio apartments aren’t likely to have dozens of jars of home-canned vegetables and fat sacks of potatoes and apples stashed in your shoe-box-sized kitchens, and others may not have a place where they can set up rainwater collection.  However, the magic of this book is that Wheeler doesn’t just lay out a to-do list and expect you to jump on board.  Instead, she works to cultivate an understanding of what you are trying to accomplish and why, then she plies you with a list of options or diverse possibilities to make it happen.  Haven’t got space for a garden? Have a disability that keeps you from gardening?  Wheeler is ready with suggestions of community gardens, windowsill gardens, container gardens, and encouraging a trade by offering space in your untouched lawn to someone who wants to garden or vice versa. While you may not be able to implement every suggestion she makes in its grandest incarnation, there are suggestions and tidbits for which everyone can find a place.

The two caveats I have about the book are minor.  First, Wheeler focuses on the Pacific Northwest where she lives, which is sensible.  However, that makes a certain portion—but certainly not most—of the information she offers limited in usefulness down here in the Gila-monster-infested climes of the Sonoran Desert.  Obviously, someone needs to write a companion volume for those of us in the desert!  Secondly, as a plant geek and former botanical garden tour guide, but (I confess) mostly as a middle school teacher, I would encourage a little more caution than Wheeler does when she suggests experimenting to discover which plants are edible or inedible.  If you are really looking for edibles in the wild, you need to have a systematic approach in order to know how your body will react without running unnecessary risks.  Specifically, use a guide or guidebook and be very careful about the sample size and the time you allow to pass before judging if you will react to a specific plant or not.  While Wheeler does mention reasonable caution when discussing experimentation, she’s frankly just not as heavy-handed as I tend to be about such things, which is a consequence of years of giving instructions to large groups of tweens and then watching what inevitably happens with a handful of them. That said, touching, smelling, and tasting plants in the wild is one of the things I most enjoy, and searching out wild edibles adds a truly enjoyable element to any hike.  Experiment, but be smart about it.

In short, the book is a solid and highly readable resource.  Though, based on the picture at the back, Wheeler’s obviously far too young to be my grandmother, reading her book is like spending several afternoons with a hipper version of my gram, learning how to can, how to grow things, and how to make something tasty out of almost thin air.  Wheeler records a variety of survival information that most middle and working class families used to know a couple generations ago, but which has drifted out of common knowledge because it hasn’t seemed so important with our shiny, modern lifestyles.  Food Security for the Faint of Heart may be just the book you need to invite it back in.


4 Comments so far

  1. Michelle @ What Does Your Body Good? November 19th, 2008 11:26 am

    That sounds like a very cool book. I’m interested in this ‘wild edibles’ thing but not enough to start eating things off the street in Boston. Maybe I’m more of a canning gal!

  2. Laurel November 19th, 2008 2:46 pm

    Wild edibles are really fun. Because most of us have gotten so used to getting our food in supermarkets, there’s something incredibly satisfying about pulling vegetables right out of the dirt at a farm or gathering berries, greens, herbs, or nuts as you walk. Think blackberries from a bike path, mint from a hilly hike, or tasty handfuls of wild onions. Once, I had the fortune of walking in unfamiliar terrain (Los Alcornocales in Spain) with a botanist friend who spent the trek gathering ingredients for a spectacular lunch salad. Or, you know, you can do urban edibles like I do in my own concrete jungle: mesquite pods, pomegranates, and citrus from the overwhelmed neighbors, rosemary from the bush in front of the gym, that type of thing. As long as you know it’s coming from a clean source, give it a whirl. :)

  3. [...] funny–this is exactly the sort of giving that Robin Wheeler advocated in Food Security for the Faint of Heart.  I just wasn’t expecting such a warm reception in an urban landscape.  It seemed the sort [...]

  4. [...] a great book to consult about general food storage is Robin Wheeler’s Food Security for the Faint of Heart, which you can order through New Society Publishers if you want a copy of your very own.  She [...]

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