Living off the Land in Pittsburgh, PA

I am not a doctor, nutritionist or dietitian, but I have never seen evidence that a typical food cleanse actually purges your body of toxins as many of them claim. To my knowledge, that’s what your liver does and it most likely works better when you aren’t starving.  I do, however, believe that temporarily depriving yourself of things that you typically take for granted is an excellent way to learn what is most important to you, cut out excess, and remind you to appreciate the things in your life.

About a month ago I found myself coming off of a three-month stretch of traveling for work just about every other week. I love my job and I was happy to be working on the projects that I was traveling for, but months of eating out at restaurants and sleeping in hotels left me feeling like I was made of butter. On the flight home from my final trip I was looking forward to a week of home-cooked food. Then I remembered that our vegetable garden was ready to start harvesting so I decided that I would incorporate some home-grown vegetables into my meals. This idea snowballed in my mind until I decided that I would attempt to go one full week eating ONLY foods that I grew in the garden, or harvested from the wild.

The exceptions:

  • Oil/Butter for cooking
  • Spices & Garlic
  • Caffeine (Coffee/Tea)
  • 5 cups of Flour for bread (Using wild yeast)

Below is my summary of one week of living off the land in Pittsburgh, PA.

Day 1

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One of our vegetable gardens

I went to the garden and harvested some potatoes, turnips, carrots and arugula which I ate for lunch with a rainbow trout that I caught the previous day. This was a fairly large meal and left me feeling full and confident that the week would be a breeze. After lunch, I drove up to a remote fishing hole about 45 minutes outside of the city that has such pristine water that native brook trout spawn there (brook trout are very sensitive to pollution and only survive in clean, cold water). After about an hour of fishing I drove home with two beautiful brook trout for dinner.

As pictured, brook trout, which live naturally in Pennsylvania streams, have pink flesh like salmon. While brook trout and rainbow trout are both in the salmon family (Salmonidae), rainbow trout are stocked fish in PA and have white flesh because they are raised on fish farms where they are fattened up on pellets before being released to the streams.

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Brook trout are beautiful fish, inside and out
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Average size native brook trout

Brook trout are generally much smaller than rainbow trout, but they are also much tastier. That night I ate the brook trout with baked kale chips and mulberries that I harvested from a tree that grows near our garden plot, a great meal. This meal was so good in fact that I would almost pay with my life on two separate occasions in an attempt to replicate it at the end of the week, but I’ll get to that later.

 

Day 2

I woke up and had a bowl of mulberries for breakfast. This turned out to be my worst meal of the week. Mulberries are pretty good when they are added to other sweet things or eaten in small quantities, but when you eat a full bowl of them you find that they are kind of chewy, flavorless and full of little woody stems that hide in the middle of the berry.

Later that day my dad and I drove up to a fishing spot near his old stomping grounds in New Castle, PA. To me the spot was a river, but to a person from New Castle, it’s a “crik.”  We spent a few hours there with no bites, but I still deem it a success because the area was so beautiful. We even witnessed a family of minks catching the fish that so skillfully evaded our hooks (See if you can spot one in the picture)

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Mink that was catching all of the fish (hint: it’s hiding in the wood pile)

Day 3

The weather took a turn for the worst, so fishing was out of the question. For breakfast I had some raspberries that Silvan found hanging over our neighbors fence while she walked the dogs. She claimed that some law dictates that if the fruit is hanging off of the person’s property it is up for grabs (literally). I can’t verify this, but I ate them anyway and they were delicious.

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Raspberries (Stolen?)

After breakfast I worked for a few hours and then went to the garden to harvest my lunch. I ended up eating a salad with lettuce, chives, mulberries, a green apple (also hanging over the neighbor’s fence) and radishes that we pickled earlier in the year. Day 3 was the day that I really began to feel hungry. When I started the week I weighed 210 pounds and probably ate about 2,500 calories a day. To be generous I would say I was probably eating about 500-600 calories a day for the previous three days and it was about to get a lot worse.

The salad was my last substantial meal that day and when I finished working I spent the rest of the evening watching YouTube videos of people cooking fish and meat while rain poured down outside.

Day 4

I woke up pretty hungry, but quickly stifled the hunger pangs with a big cup of caffeinated tea.  I was able to work the rest of the day without really thinking about food which I attribute 100 percent to the caffeine.  That afternoon as it continued to storm I decided to make a loaf of sourdough bread. Although I now consider this cheating, since the flour was store bought, I justified it by telling myself that the sourdough starter was wild since we grew the yeast on our own. While rifling through our cabinet for the flour, I also discovered that we had some leftover bottles of apple wine that we fermented last year from apples that we harvested at my sister’s house (from her neighbor’s tree that hangs over their yard; I guess we actually do that a lot).

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Apple wine and sourdough bread

Having only eaten a little bread, some vegetables and fish for 4 days, you probably know what happened next. I got drunk off of about 2 glasses of wine and promptly fell asleep on the couch in the glow of a YouTube video that shows you step by step how to cook the perfect steak.

 

Day 5

I woke up determined to catch a fish no matter the weather. I pulled an old jar of pinto beans from our previous year’s garden, harvested a few cactus pads from a prickly pear cactus that grows in our backyard and declared to Silvan that I was going to have a deconstructed fish taco for dinner as I walked out the door.

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Pricklypear cactus

I parked on a remote road and started my hike through brambles, fields of chest high grasses and poison ivy until I got to the game trail that led down to my secret brook trout stream. I reached the stream only to discover that it was a white torrent from the previous day’s storm. The clouds were threatening to rain again, so I figured I only had a couple hours to catch my fish. As I often do when fishing, to Silvan’s dismay, I completely lost track of time.

By the time I decided to give up, it had just begun to rain and it was almost completely dark. As soon as I hit the game trail I heard lightning crash right over the hill ahead. The closer I got to the car the more exposed I became, as the game trail gave way to brambles and eventually the field of tall grass. I now found myself in the text-book worst case scenario for a thunderstorm: soaking wet, in a field, on a hill, holding a long metal pole. I remembered an episode of Myth Busters where they tried to determine if you had a worse or better chance of being hit by lightning if you were running or stationary, but I couldn’t remember what they determined, so I sprinted back to the car as lightning crashed all around me.
That night I ate my deconstructed fish tacos sans fish.

 

Day 6

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The duck pond where I stood, a crazed man contemplating eating the ducks

Friday was another rainy day so I harvested some greens and cut the tops off of some of the mustard that had bolted. Mustard, which is in the same family as broccoli (Brassicaceae), produces edible flowers that people generally throw in the compost, but I like to sauté them with garlic like broccoli raab. I was feeling pretty weak for most of day 6 since I had wasted a lot of energy trying to fish in the rain and eaten very few calories to make up for it. I was also sore from using my muscles with very little protein or fat to help repair them. My lack of protein came to a head when I found myself by the duck pond in our neighborhood park, picturing each duck as a roast bird on a spit like I was Elmer Fudd in an old episode of Looney Toons. Normally I would have no problem eating a wild duck, but catching and eating a duck in a public park out of hunting season was not a line that I was ready to cross, so I packed up and went home to eat my greens.

 

Day 7

The weather finally broke. The clouds opened up to a beautiful blue sky that got the birds chirping and my stomach growling. I convinced Silvan to spend the last day fishing with me at my secret brook trout stream so we headed back through the grassy field, which was no longer an electrified hellscape, but a beautiful meadow, down into the brambles and through the game trail to the stream.

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“Trail” to my secret brook trout spot

After a few hours of fishing, Silvan decided to walk back up the hill so she could write in the field while I continued to fish. She had only been gone for about 20 minutes when I heard her walking back down the trail to where I was standing at the stream. I turned around to ask why she came back so soon to discover that it was not Silvan, but an adolescent black bear that probably weighed around 100 pounds. I yelled at it and clapped my hands and it scurried off the trail into the bushes from which a 250 pound adult simultaneously emerged barreling towards me. I immediately squared up, made myself as big and intimidating as I could and yelled “back the f*** up!” while I lunged toward it. Luckily, as opposed to my lightning storm scenario, this is exactly what you are supposed to do if you encounter a black bear. She changed course so quickly that she actually tripped over herself running away from me. The temporary adrenaline rush from backing down an angry bear was quickly stifled by the realization that they both ran into the same brambles which I now had to walk back through to warn Silvan.

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About an hour before the bears showed up

I stomped my feet as I walked through the brambles and yelled like a crazy person, but they could have ambushed me at any second and it would have been over. Luckily, I made it through and into the field where I found Silvan frantically yelling for me to look out because she saw three big bears walking down the hill. Needless to say we left in a hurry and once again went home with no fish.

By the time we got home I was so exhausted and hungry that I decided to end the challenge 3 hours short of a full 7 days by eating a big pasta dinner. The next day I weighed myself and discovered that I now weighed 197 pounds. As far as challenging myself to see if I could live off the land, I would say this proves it was an outright failure because healthy people don’t lose 13 pounds in one week. On the other hand, I could stand to lose a few pounds so it was kind of a win/win situation.

 

 

Final Thoughts

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One week’s worth of waste

One of the most visible side effects of the modern conveniences that I went without for the week is the amount of waste that we generate (it’s my job to notice these things). I chose to keep all of the non-compostable waste that I generated during the week in a bowl and by the end of the week it only consisted of a plastic tea bottle and the wrapper from a stick of butter. I would say that this week significantly lowered my impact on the environment through waste reduction and locally sourced food. Although I did drive for 45 minutes each way 3 times to bring home 2 small fish, this is still more efficient than driving to the store to buy a fish that was flown or trucked across the country after being caught on a diesel powered ship.

 

Looking back on the week I don’t have any profound discoveries, but I now know first-hand that living off the land is very difficult. I gained a greater appreciation for the modern conveniences that are available to me, but want to do more to mitigate their impact on the environment. I will likely do another week of living off the land in a month or so when the summer vegetables are ripe and then again in the fall. In the meantime, if anybody that reads this is inspired to do a week of your own send us an email at CarbonNeutralPod@gmail.com and tell us about your experience!

All meals are pictured below:

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Rainbow trout with potatoes, arugula, carrots and mulberries
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Brook trout with kale chips and mulberries
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Fried crappie with snap peas, turnips, kale chips and arugula salad
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Lettuce, green apple, chives, pickled radish and mulberries
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Soup with pak choy, turnips, carrots, mustard greens and basil
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Sourdough bread and apple wine
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Pinto beans, pricklypear cactus and sautéed kale
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Sourdough toast, snap peas, carrots, and potatoes with parsley

2 thoughts on “Living off the Land in Pittsburgh, PA

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