Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Pooch Stew

Years ago, my oldest brother gifted me a copy of Ragnar Benson's book, Eating Cheap. My particular copy was published by Paladin Press, and the copyright is 1982. Like many of Benson's other books, it is not a very long book, coming in at 114 pages.

       While you can find collections of Benson's books online as free PDF downloads (see, e.g., here), I've yet to come across a copy of this particular book. I suspect it is because the book didn't approach food from a post-Apocalypse perspective, but is directed more at the person or family that has fallen on hard times and financially struggling, and so did not garner the commercial success or interest of his other books. In any event, paperback copies are available on the used market, although probably for a lot more than someone that is struggling to feed their family could afford.

       The book is an overview of the philosophy and techniques of eating on a limited budget, discussing such topics as gleaning, cheap meat sources, scrounging (including dumpster diving), raising a garden, a discussion of wild and "semi-wild" game, and, probably the most valuable portion of the book in my opinion, a discussion of DIY butchering of large game. He ends the books with some of his favorite recipes, including some for wild and "semi-wild" game.

       The philosophy section of the book really boils down to two principles: (1) beggars can't be choosers, and (2) you may need to expand your definition of what constitutes "food." For instance, it may take swallowing your pride and putting aside your dignity to ask a farmer if you can glean his fields, or to crawl in a dumpster to gather the food that is being thrown out by a grocery store or restaurant. Your definition of food may have to grow to include the friendly squirrels that chatter at you from the tree in your front lawn or other furry or feathered denizens of your neighborhood.

        Somewhat ironically, given the current COVID-19 panic pandemic and the theory it originated in a Chinese "wet" market, Benson uses India and China as examples of picky eaters versus those willing to make the best of their resources. He points out for instance the constant threat of hunger stalking India, but the significant and widespread religious rules limiting what types of food can be consumed. He then contrasts this with "the Chinese [who] eat anything and everything as long as it is clean and nutritious."

       Benson next touches lightly on food storage, mostly to illustrate the point that, like the ants in the Aesop's fable of the ants and the grasshopper, we need to set aside food in times of surplus so that we have it available in times of shortage.

       He then moves on to the issue of nutrition. He points out that Americans consume far more calories than we need:
As a general rule, male humans require about sixteen calories per day per pound of body weight to stay in good health. Females need about fourteen calories. Alone with this, humans must also consume a basic package of required proteins, vitamins, and minerals. These minimum daily requirements have pretty well been defined by scientific research. ...
He acknowledges that selecting a diet that has the right balance can be difficult and, for that reason, recommends taking daily vitamins, and suggests a diet heavy on rice and lentils or beans. To this, you can round this out with fruits, vegetables and meat scrounged from various sources. But, he warns:
Keep in mind that while much of the protein you will require can come from pulses like pinto beans, garbanzos, or peas, some amino acids will still be missing. That's why the early settlers cooked beans with salt pork and why pea soup is better for you with a chunk of meat cooked in with it.
       His next major subject is gleaning. Gleaning is the collection of food after a harvest. Historically, gleaners would follow the harvesters collecting what fell to the ground or was discarded. Gleaning was an activity protected by the Law of Moses, but today will get you in trouble for trespassing if you don't get permission first. I doubt that most farmers would allow it--at least, not without charging you for "picking your own"--due to either greed or liability concerns if, for some reason, you were to injure yourself while on their property.

      In any event, Benson's initial point as to gleaning is that you need to realize that no one area produces the panoply of fruits and vegetables we find at the grocery store. There may be a few crops that grow very well in your area and a handful or two of other varieties that grow okay. Much of it will depend on climate. For instance, in my area of Idaho, corn (aka maize), onions, wheat, sugar beet, hops and fruit trees such as cherry and apple do very well. Other areas of Idaho, as you might guess, are major producers of potatoes. There are also vineyards not too distant from Boise. From my own gardening efforts, I know that tomatoes, squash, zucchini, and raspberries grow well in this area. (Although corn is widely grown in this area, even in fields less than half a mile from where I live, I have never had any success in growing it myself). Thus, it pays to know what crops are grown in your area so you know what can be found, and to know what is not available so you don't waste time trying to track down something that is unobtainable.

       His next point is that any produce harvested with mechanical harvesters will likely have plenty of gleanings left over, but this may not be the case if they use manual labor to pick the harvest. Couple a narrow harvest window and the cost of running the harvesters, and it is unlikely that farmers will bother with going over old ground to get the produce missed in the first pass or produce that has fallen to the ground. In this regard, he notes examples of cabbage and tomatoes that he was able to glean simply because it wasn't picked at the initial harvest, and the farmer was more than glad to have it carted off by someone just so the fields would be cleared for the next scheduled planting. He relates: "A good workable rule is that perishable produce or crops requiring additional processing or packing can be gleaned. Feed grains or products that essentially go from the farmer to the consumer ... must be purchased."

       In my mind, this plays into the consideration of whether it would be worth the effort to try and glean. If you live near a potato farm, that would probably be a good source for gleaning because there will be a lot of potatoes that are too small or get cut up in the machinery and drop through to the ground. The growers may also discard potatoes that are perfectly edible, but grew in odd shapes. I know about the potatoes because I walked through newly harvested fields when I was a kid and picked up the potatoes that had fallen from the harvester machines. I suspect that other root crops would be good sources of gleanings. Grain would probably be less productive because of the relative efficiency of the combine harvesters, unless there was simply small areas and corners that the combine missed while turning around, or small piles of grain that have dumped from the combine while offloading to a truck.

       Continuing with Benson's writing, however, in addition to knowing the crops you also need to know when they are harvested in your area. The idea is that you need to swoop in after the farmer completes his harvest, but before the food spoils (or the farmer plows it all under to plant another crop). Although he suggests several sources of information, the easiest will probably be your local extension office, farm organizations, or even food processing plants and/or granaries. Benson warns, however, that these dates are not fixed and may vary from year to year. So you need to know not just the general dates, but the specific times for the current year.

      Next is obtaining permission from the farmer. As Benson relates, this may not be as straightforward as it seems because you need to ask the farmer that owns the crop, and this may or may not be the person that owns the land. Small farmers likely lease their property to a larger farming outfit. The person in the field may be a custom farmer, and not the owner of the crop, someone from the seed or fertilizer company checking on the status of their crop, a ditch rider, etc. And large "family" farms are often owned by family trusts, limited liability companies and other interconnected business entities. But, once you get to the farmer that actually owns the crop, Benson suggests that you always ask if you can pay for collecting the gleanings. He contends that most farmers won't accept payment, but it is the offer that is expected. Also, make your request as specific as possible:
Ask if you might pick up the cull potatoes after they run the digger through, pick up apples under the trees, buy some of the pumpkins left after harvest, pick the beans again after the field hands are through, and so on. As I said before, all of this requires a good working knowledge of the agricultural picture in your area.
Although not technically gleaning, you may also try to find people in your church or community that will let people pick the excess from fruit trees or berry bushes. For instance, I was in a congregation where lived an older couple that had a large patch of raspberries--far more than they could ever pick or use--who would invite members to come and pick and take home the berries. Every few years or so, our cherry tree will go crazy and produce far more than we can use, and we certainly invite people to come get what they can while they can.

      Benson next moves on to discuss cheap sources of meat. Frankly, this section seems oriented toward two strategies: finding farmers or ranchers that are willing to sell defective (e.g., the runt of a pig herd) or injured animals, but this requires timing or luck; or to go to a slaughter house or processing plant to purchase unwanted bits and parts, such, as he specifically mentions, chicken hearts, livers, gizzards, backs, or the diaphragm from cattle. He specifically advises that you tell them that the items are being purchased for consumption by a dog or cat as there are very specific regulations concerning how products for human consumption must be handled. Similarly, if you are near a fish packing plant, he suggests that you might be able to pick up "culled" fish for cheap.

      Scavenging or scrounging is the collecting of food from the other end of the food-production and sale cycle--gathering the food that has been discarded. Due to health and safety laws on food freshness, as well as simple appeal to customers, grocery stores, bakeries, restaurants, and so forth, discard a surprisingly large amount of food. For instance, one source I consulted indicated that "[s]upermarkets throw away 43 billion pounds of food every year." Much of this is edible, but is discarded because it has passed its "sell by" date, is stale (but still edible), or simply not wanted because of some cosmetic defect or damaged packaging.

     For instance, when I was a missionary in Japan, we took advantage of the fact that the Japanese had no interest in buying or eating the heels of a loaf of bread. Many bakeries would slice off the heels and put them aside to give to people to feed to their dogs. We would go around to a few of these bakeries once a week to collect this free bread and use for our cooking or sandwiches.

      In another example, I was working in an office building that had a small cafe which sold various gourmet meat and veggy sandwiches that the owner would put together each morning. Any that were left at the end of the day were simply thrown out. A co-worker was going to check to see if the owner of the cafe would be willing to donate the unused sandwiches to the local homeless shelter, but I don't know what ever came of that.

      Scrounging is not as easy as it once was. For one thing, again because of potential tort liability, stores have taken measures to keep people from crawling into dumpsters. Thus, the dumpster may be located behind fences and/or locked so you can't get into them. In addition, both stores and organizations assisting the homeless or poor have wised up to some of this waste, and so food banks or homeless shelters may collect some of this food. Nevertheless, if you go in at the right time, you may be able to get some of this food free or at a greatly reduced cost.

     In any event, as Benson points out, you need to be aware of the timing of when food items will be discarded and when the garbage truck arrives. He notes that "[m]ost successful supermarket scroungers work their routes late in the evening till early morning," but cautions that it is easy for good items to be buried by other waste during the day, and so, if possible, it may be worth checking a dumpster "often" during the day.

      As far as restaurants go, Benson recommends fast-food restaurants and high-end restaurants over middle-of-the-road restaurants. Having done my stint working in fast food when I was younger, the reasoning for such places seems straightforward. The hamburger chain I worked for, in order to make sure that the food was "fast" would cook patties and other items ahead of time. Generally we would ramp up before an expected busy time or rush, and cook through the rush, and then slow down as the rush ended. However, the chain had a strict policy how long the patties could be kept before being made into sandwiches. I don't remember the time now, but I believe it was 15 or 20 minutes. After that, it was discarded. So, if you mistimed a rush or overestimated the volume of customers, you could end up with a fair amount discarded. And, of course, if an order were messed up some way ("I wanted only ketchup on my burger!"), the products were discarded.

     Obviously, the fancy restaurant is not going to operate in the same fashion (at least, I would hope not). Rather, as Benson suggests, these are going to mostly be left overs from a meal that was not wholly consumed, or because of a mess up in an order.

     The best source, according to Benson, are the waste from in-flight meals served by airlines. However, I doubt that this is a viable option anymore. For one thing, in-flight meals are not as prevalent now as when Benson wrote his book. Second, because of increased security around airports, I doubt that you could get close to key dumpsters.

     Benson's next topic is foraging. He focuses on a few edibles in particular--cattails, acorns, walnuts, and dandelion greens--and then focuses on a few less common items. One of the latter is asparagus, which caught my attention because when I was a little kid, my family actually would go along roads and ditch banks collecting asparagus. At that time and place, it was basically a weed as far as most of the locals were concerned.

     From there, Benson goes on to discuss gardening. Frankly, even as Benson admits, there are a lot of books and sources out there on home gardening, and he didn't have room to discuss it in great detail. He gives his recommendations as to the best crops for some of the different climate zones, some general tips, and finishes off discussing berry bushes and fruit trees.

    Now we get to what I consider the meat of the book, if you pardon the pun: wild and semi-wild game. "Let's face it," Benson writes, "culture and aesthetics have to be put aside, if you are going to eat for next to nothing." And so we have to consider non-traditional American foods, even if that includes "critters that look fluffy and cute to you now." His primary suggestion for collecting cats and dogs is the local pounds, but I doubt that is a worthwhile source since modern animal shelters seem to charge quite high "adoption fees" to cover the costs of having the animal neutered or spayed, as well as the vaccinations. It would be cheaper on a pound-for-pound basis to buy beef at a quality butcher's market. As an alternative, Benson suggests making use of newspaper ads listing free pets in need of a home. But, he cautions, "[b]e double-damn sure you don't give addresses or telephone numbers where you can be found" in case the former owner decides to check up on how "Fluffy" is doing. Again, this may be harder to do now where, instead of newspaper ads, we use Craig's List and, at the least, exchange email addresses. Thus, the most viable approach would appear to be trapping stray or wild animals, whether cats, dogs, squirrels, rats, pigeons, blackbirds, possums, raccoons, nutria, muskrats, and so on.

    And this brings us to the most valuable part of the book (at least to me because of my relative inexperience): the section on butchering or dressing game. I'm going to skip over the section on birds and small game to go to larger game or, perhaps, a a heifer or calf that you have purchased.  Benson writes:
     Through the years, I have developed a speedy method of butchering the meat into practical cuts. The result is not quite the same as you would find in a butcher shop, but our motives are different. The commercial butcher wants to hide the largest bone in the smallest amount of meat. I want to bone out the meat in the quickest, easiest manner possible and save as much room in my freezer as I can.

      To help a bit, we have included a diagram that corresponds with the eight steps that follow:

1.  Using any wood saw--even a dull one--cut the carcass down the middle of the backbone into two halves.

2.  Cut off the two front leg shanks at the last joint.

3.  Cut the front hams off, taking as much meat with them off the rib cage as you can manage.

4.  Saw the neck off where it joins the back bone.

5.  Starting at the top, saw down through the ribs. Depending on the size, the cuts start one-to-four inches from the back bone. The ribs may be cut into sections and broken in half again with an ax if necessary.

6.  Remove the small pickle-shaped piece of meat lying next to the backbone under the ribs. This is the filet mignon.

7.  Cut the loin strips out in two sections. The loins are the strips of muscle that protect the back bone.

8.  Saw through the rear shank, separating the rear hams.

      After that, if you want to, you can use a fillet knife to bone out the large chunks that make up the top rounds or hams.

     All game must be chilled quickly after the animal is slaughtered. In summer it must be sawed into chunks, boned if need be, and frozen immediately. In winter it is wise to leave the halved carcass "on the rail" overnight in a cold garage or shed. The cool meat cuts easier and won't overwork the freezer. 

     If the weather promises to be in the 40s for a week, I will age beef. Aged goat and sheep meat doesn't taste very good, in my opinion.

    Small game must also be chilled. ...

He goes on to note that hogs are generally handled differently, primarily because the meat is better if cured (i.e., soaked in salt brine for a time) and smoked. He explains:
      Curing and smoking pork is much easier and better if the skin is left on the animal. The hair has to be removed form the hog hide first by scalding. When we scalded hogs, we used a fifty-five gallon steel barrel full of water that we heated with an open fire using an old tire for fuel. Four of us stood on benches set around a barrel and dipped the hog down in the the boiling water till we could scrape the hair off with a minimum of effort using a piece of 16-gauge tin.

      Then we hung the critter in the great, old Chinese elm in the barn lot and scraped the whole thing clean. After that we gutted it, halved it and sawed the animal into pieces just like any other Benson butcher job.
      Benson concludes his book by offering a suggested $5/week (at the prices of that time) meal plan using only store bought items. Needless to say, it is heavy on pulses and grains. Then he moves into favorite recipes for various foods, including, but not limited to, rice, wheat, corn casserole, pea soup, dandelion greens, and various wild and semi-wild game. And because one of these served as the title to this post, here is his recipe for "pooch stew":
1  pound dog meat
1  large eggplant (zucchini may be substituted)
1  green pepper
1/2 pound mushrooms
1  medium onion
2  12-ounce cans tomato sauce
1/2 cup cooking oil or bear lard
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons meat tenderizer
1  clove garlic
salt and pepper
1  fresh lemon

      Bone and cut meat, removing any tendon or gristle. Sprinkle with tenderizer and let stand several hours. Brown in oil or lard, add finely chopped garlic, cover with tomato sauce and simmer several hours.

      About one hour before you think the meat will be done, chop onions and peppers, brown in some more lard till onions are translucent and add to meat mixture. Add mushrooms which have been cut in half. Brown the eggplant (zucchini) which has been cut into one-inch cubes. Garnish with sliced lemon. Simmer gently till eggplant pierces easily with a fork. Do not overcook--you don't want the eggplant to turn to mush. A little red wine in the sauce makes a nice addition if you have some. 

      Serve with boiled potatoes, boiled white, brown, or wild rice, noodles, or boiled wheat. Serves four people.
Bon app├ętit!


  1. Another way to stretch you food dollar is to find "day old" bread stores and food salvage businesses. I assume it is still the case that large name-brand bakeries (e.g. Wonder Bread) had stores where they sold off bread that was past its expiration date - it's cheap and doesn't taste too bad. Locally, there is a food salvage store that sells food that is about to expire or has reached its expiration date - it is still safe to eat, it just costs less. At that store, I once picked up bags of salad that were expiring that day. The salad couldn't be sold at a regular grocery store because of the expiration date, but had been stored under ideal conditions and was in prefect condition.


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