The Urbanite’s Guide to Living—and Cooking—Like You’re off the Grid
Eli Manning could throw a football from the intersection of the 134 and 210 freeways to the front porch farmstand at The Urban Homestead. It’s a sliver of Southern California land with a Craftsman-style house that the Dervaes family has been running as a self-sustaining micro-farm since 1985. It’s farm box pickup day—swiss chard, arugula, citrus, avocado, eggs, chicken, and duck meat are on offer—the goats are at the vet, and the phone won’t stop ringing.
“We’re not Luddites,” said Anais Dervaes, the oldest of the siblings who grew up in the house. “We have TV, we have a computer. It’s not like we’re isolated in any sense of the word.” The Dervaes may have Laura Ingalls Wilder aspirations—the family line-dries their clothes, makes beeswax candles, and grows 6,000 pounds of produce on their fifth-of-an-acre lot—but this is modern-style homesteading. This is Pasadena, after all. Twelve solar panels meet the majority of their power needs, and the house is equipped with an energy-efficient laundry machine and a composting toilet.
And the thing is, you could live like this too.
Relax—we’re not about to suggest rooftop bees or a grey-water bathroom renovation (but more power to you should you accept that as your mission). While the Dervaeses demonstrate full-scale commitment to a homesteading lifestyle, Anais says the same spirit of self-sufficiency and self-reliance can be accomplished anywhere—even in a second-story apartment. So for the rest of us, itchy with spring fever to grow, build, and improve our chicken coop–less lives, Dervaes offered some small ways to get headed in a homesteader’s direction.
“It’s basically about being conscious about how you live,” she explained. Which is something that anyone can do anywhere.
Make a List
“Spring is just about being excited for the new growing season, making plans, making to-do lists, saying this year I’d like to accomplish this,” Dervaes said. In other words: New Year’s resolution redux. Jot down some kitchen projects you really, truly mean to do this spring and summer, such as canning tomato sauce at summer’s end or making your own cold-brewed coffee (and saving beaucoup de bucks).
Sure, you could knock yourself out with the full-on treatment of a hot-water bath and sterilized jars. But for the less fastidious, quick jams made from farmers market fruit and easy pickles will both keep in the fridge and still feel satisfyingly homesteader-ish. They make impressive gifts for dinner-party hosts too.
Make Do, Mend, or Do Without
This Depression-era phrase is one the Dervaes family lives by, and it’s easily applied to the end-of-winter odds-and-ends we’ll call your pantry. The compulsion to do a big spring stock-up is a compelling one. But first, try cooking the cupboard staples already on hand, such as half-empty boxes of pasta, the remains of red lentils, and that lonely can of sardines. Keep pantry meals from feeling like fallout shelter fare with some fresh spring ingredients—a squeeze of lemon here, a scattering of chives there.
Don’t Buy and Don’t DIY
Dervaes is working with the same 24-hour day as the rest of us, and as her role at the farm has grown to include more community outreach, including an after-school farm-to-table program, she finds herself baking less bread and making less cheese. Instead, she tries to barter or swap.
“I can’t do everything,” she said. “But who is doing it, and what can I take from them and give something that I have? I turn to friends or somebody else and say, ‘I’ll trade you your kefir for something.’ ” So swap those successful fridge pickles for someone’s killer spice mix. And don’t limit it to the old-fashioned stuff. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be on par with Grandma goodies,” Dervaes said. “Everybody has their skills.”
Her sister, Jordanne, often trades her computer wizardry, for example. Brand strategy for pie? Why not? “That’s building community; that’s opting out of the system.”
Grow herbs in a window box or tomatoes on the patio, and then try to extend the life of whatever you cultivate. Dry leftover herbs, or freeze them into ice-cube herb bombs. Slow-roast the tomatoes and preserve them for a paste.
Gathering water in a cistern is great, but in an apartment, it’s not all that applicable. Recycle kitchen water by washing vegetables in a bowl, then using that water to hydrate houseplants (or those window box herbs). Don’t toss the pasta cooking water; use it to bind cooked pasta and sauces, or add it to stocks and soups.
Skip the restaurant, share your cooked-from-scratch food with your neighbors and friends, and have what Dervaes calls a “home social.” Instead of paying to be with your nearest and dearest in a public space, opt out of that kind of consumption by picking up the horn (pretty old-fashioned, come to think of it) and inviting everyone to stay in with you. Have them bring their dusty dulcimer and tambourine from the attic and the dinner party turns into a bluegrass jam.
Learn a New Skill, Make a Mistake, and Then Use It All Up
Anais’s brother, Justin, gave aquaponics a try and learned firsthand that he’d use a different fish next time—one that didn’t require heating over the winter. But giving a new project a whirl still results in a lesson learned, no matter the outcome. Buy a whole fish; scale it, fillet it, and make stock with the head and the bones. Or do the same thing with a chicken, finally freeing yourself from having to buy expensive packaged chicken parts.
The point is, a little homesteader spirit is kicking in every urban dweller; it might just be hidden under a pile of ironic tote bags. But spring is the time for unearthing everything.
“It’s not all about having land and chickens,” Dervaes said. “It’s important for the environment. It’s good for the community, and it’s good for yourself. You eat better. You become healthier. You obtain skills. You’re able to feel empowered.”
Her list feels like a rallying cry for self-sufficiency, echoing off the walls of a studio apartment. “Small steps have a big impact if we do something collectively.”