It’s long past midnight and a white, American woman from Arkansas is guiding me around her pantry via YouTube. The first time my evening wound up like this it was an algorithm-led accident, but this time I came willingly.
The pantry isn’t the full-height cupboard that middle-class kitchen dreams are made of, but an entire room, with shelf after shelf stacked high and deep with jars. Ketchup and plum tomatoes; jams and chutneys; broths and vinegars; apple rings and dried leeks.
There are vegetables too: mounds of squash and cabbage, and beetroot still buried in their dirt. Bunches of onions and garlic are suspended in bags or strung up with string. All of it is home grown, home cooked, home preserved, home canned. Women in other videos – and there are hundreds of them; there’s even an annual conference, the Homesteaders of America – proudly show the camera their dehydrators, their cheese fridges and their herbal tinctures.
These women and their families avoid the supermarket wherever possible. They grow their own food and stock their larders before winter, collect eggs from the coop, milk their cows and churn their own butter. Some raise animals for slaughter, too; one woman says she “rears beef” rather than cattle, a detached turn of phrase that makes me, a vegetarian of 15 years, balk.
They come from all over the US: from Wyoming, Michigan, Texas, Washington State – and have acres, not balconies, to play with. Most of them are young, white and attractive. Many have a wincing number of children and are willing home-schoolers. A few have stories about health problems that led them to clean, organic eating, like a kind of Deep South Deliciously Ella. And some of them are not women at all, but men. All of them entrance me.
I have stumbled upon the homestead movement. The motivating principles are obviously attractive: to live self-sufficiently and off-grid, to be a producer rather than a consumer, to use your hands to work the land rather than scroll. It’s a unifying offer that appeals to farmers, conservative Christians, hippies and climate-conscious millennials. And, apparently, to me.
My kitchen is a 20-something Instagram cliché: my cupboards are stacked with mason jars that I top up at my local refill store; and I – a white woman who has never been to Korea – make my own kimchi. But my fingers are decidedly soft and flesh-coloured, not green, and I have no intention of wresting myself from my keyboard and my weekly trip to Morrisons to grow my own potatoes. So why am I still watching?
Pantry tours are lulling and strangely reassuring. There’s security and satisfaction in a well-stocked cupboard, especially in a time when the accruing and consuming of food is one of the few novelties available to us. The videos remind me of the infinite variations and possibilities of flavour, and make me want, if not to grow my own onions, then at least to try pickling them. But while homesteading may be wholesome, there’s a darkness to it, too.
The word “homestead”, also sometimes called pioneering, is unavoidably linked to the 19th-century Homestead Acts, by which American citizens could apply to the government to be given land to work, often displacing indigenous people in the process. (On one message board, a poster shares that he prefers “permaculturist”, or the tortuous “edible landscape proponent”, because of the term’s associations.) In an era of Brexit and pandemics and disrupted supply chains and scuffles over loo roll, the idea of relying upon no connections but those to your family and to your land seems like solace. But there’s something apocalyptic and bunker-like about stocking your pantry for the winter and bedding in with your closest kin to see it out. Homesteading may be romanticised, but it’s also isolationist and libertarian.
These women, with their farmland and in their pantries, offer a way to find security by leaving behind the institutions and conventions that we’re taught will provide it. I, too, am hungry for comfort, for the promise of permanence. And right now, simply hungry.
This article appears in the 24 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks