Lynne Irons’ pantry looks enviable these days: floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with her own canned tomatoes, pickled beets and onions, bright green beans, applesauce, grape juice, chicken stock, sauerkraut, and more. Nearby baskets hold onions and garlic. The freezer stores produce like shelled garden peas, plus pork and chicken she’s raised. She still has leeks and carrots in the ground, and lots of fresh kale in her hoophouse.
“I probably have three months of food,” says the 74-year-old Vineyard Haven resident and landscaper by trade, who is now feeding her daughter and granddaughter as well as herself. “I have always planned for this. I’m not a doomsday prepper or survivalist, but maybe I am,” she says after a moment’s hesitation.
The times, she says, call for new behaviors. “I think with what’s happening here, we really have to do something different.”
Irons is far from the only person on this Island working toward self-sufficiency, but she is among the most visible, between articles written about her and her own weekly gardening column in the Vineyard Gazette. More than a few Vineyard residents have been asking to come over to learn about “some of those food things” they know she’s been doing. Irons gently reminds them she isn’t hosting guests at the moment.
I thought of Irons myself, right after rearranging my own pantry filled with canned beans, boxes of DeCecco pasta and Raisin Bran, but sadly lacking in any real fruits or vegetables.
For her, it started in Pennsylvania’s Appalachian mountain country, where both her mother and grandmother regularly put up food and wasted nothing. Now she’s starting up this year’s vegetable garden. Flats of kale, cabbages, and onion seedlings are already growing, nearly ready to be moved from her small greenhouse to a hoop house.
“I grow everything from seed. You kind of need 50 of everything you do, if you’re talking about feeding yourself year-round,” she calculates. To make her sauerkraut after last year’s growing season, she drove a truck full of cabbages home from her off-site vegetable garden. She and her granddaughter played music and talked while cutting the cabbage and “squishing” it in crocks. She ended up with a shelfull, about 25 jars of sauerkraut.
“I’m talking volumes when I do things.” Some chores bring more joy than others. Making grape juice from her own grapes is an involved process and a pain “in your ass. If I sold them you’d have to pay me $25 a quart.” But when done, she has 12 pints and something to serve guests who’ve come to love the special juice.
What Irons preserves varies from year to year. Each year might be a bit different. Last year, a good apple year, she picked bushels of apples from an unused Island orchard. She made 50 quarts of applesauce. Her favorite use lately has been applesauce over yogurt.
For canning, she alternates between a water bath method (using a very large pot) and a large pressure cooker. Any foods containing vinegar, such as her dilly beans, get a water bath canning. Everything else — low acid vegetables and anything where a tiny bit of dirt could remain, gets pressure cooker treatment to remove any harmful pathogens.
“I have all the jars you can ever want,” she notes, some of which she’s used for the 40 years she’s been canning. People drop off extra Ball jars and sometimes she finds “new” ones at the thrift store. She purchases new lids every year and panicked slightly when Cronig’s recently had none in stock, but she has time.
During this coronavirus crisis she says, “I go between feeling smug — reasonably secure that I have what I need — and really freaking out. “ At this point, she says, there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground.
“Everybody has to start thinking about growing their own food. This is when we’re grateful we can live here and can grow things.” Start small, she suggests: sprouts on the windowsill or fresh herbs in the kitchen. After this is over, she says, when you go to the market to buy a can of beans, buy two, to prevent empty shelves in the future. “We have to be thinking ahead, that’s kind of the message I’d like to give, just thinking ahead. We did when we lived in caves, we planned all summer for winter. We’ve gotten so far removed from that.”
Her own expertise in both canning and gardening came after many years of trial and error, she notes. When she first arrived on the Vineyard in 1970 with her then boyfriend, she was a hippie with notions of back to the land, and not much else. She turned to Organic Gardening magazine, and got started.
She and her best friend, Sharlee Livingston, took up canning together when their kids were young. “There were always babies crawling around while we were canning. We made a million mistakes, but we just kept at it.” She still uses the same copy of her canning bible: “Stocking Up: How to Preserve the Foods Your Grow Naturally.”
“We killed our first chicken together. I’ve never eaten a store-bought chicken since then. It doesn’t matter if you do it,“ she said. “You just need to know how to do it.“
To live self-sufficiently, Iron says, “You have to make a commitment, a lifelong commitment. I had to make a lot of mistakes, I can’t even begin to tell you. But this is an opportunity for the whole country to take a little more control and charge of our lives, stop depending on take-out, stop depending on pre-made food.”
Start with the dilly beans, she suggests to me, they’re easy. It’s her own famous recipe she runs each year in her column, with crunchy green beans from the garden and her own dill and garlic. I will, I promise myself. Maybe others will, too.
Lynne Irons’ Dilly Beans
Bring three cups of water and one cup of apple cider vinegar to a boil. Add two tablespoons of kosher, pickling, or sea salt, and several cloves of garlic.
Fill sterilized pint jars with clean, raw green beans and two heads of dill.
Take a couple cloves of garlic out of the vinegar mixture for each jar. Cover the beans with the hot liquid, leaving one-half inch head space. Adjust the lids and rings and then put the jars in a water bath for 10 minutes. Enjoy them all winter.