Most modern cookers run on gas or electricity supplied by the national grid. Despite the convenience of having such easy energy sources on demand, neither of these are particularly efficient or sustainable ways of cooking, and they certainly aren’t moneyless. According to Greenpeace, the UK’s “centralised model of production and transmission wastes an astonishing two-thirds of primary energy inputs, requiring us to burn far more fuel and emit far more carbon dioxide than necessary”.(221) Out of every 100 units produced in this centralised system, 61.5 are “lost through inefficient generation and heat wastage at the source”, while 3.5 units vanish in distribution on their way down transmission lines. But the wastage doesn’t stop there – because this energy seems infinite to its end consumer, coupled with the fact that we have to take no personal responsibility for producing it, we waste another 13 units (of the remaining 35 units we have left of the original production) through carelessness and the inefficiencies that come with not really caring.
How we choose to cook our food matters. Not just to the state of the biosphere and those who live on top of these resources we like so much, but to ourselves. Cooking on a conventional gas or electric cooker gives us no sense of a deeper connection to the Earth, our holistic selves, whereas there is something about sitting around a camp fire, gazing into the flames, which triggers something primal in us. It makes us acutely aware of the cycles of life and death and the power of Nature, and it intimately connects us to what we consume.
If you live somewhere that allows you to have a campfire regularly, I’d highly recommend it. This option is certainly not the most efficient way of cooking, as a relatively high proportion of the energy created is inevitably lost to the atmosphere. Despite this, the fact that it has zero reliance on industrialisation and its flotsam scores high in terms of ecological footprint and moneylessness. All you need is some tinder, wood and a spark. To cook the food you can make a simple tripod (three straight and sturdy rods tied with some cordage will suffice) from which you hang an old pot. However, my preferred method, due to its simplicity, involves supporting the pot with a horizontal rod that is suspended over the fire by the use of two vertical branches with V-shaped ends staked into the ground.
If you have the stones available to hand and want to make the most efficient use of the heat generated, I’d recommend creating a keyhole fireplace. You start your fire in the main ring area. As soon as it gets really hot you transfer some of the coals into the smaller rectangular bit at the bottom. This allows you to have good control of your heat source, and a pot (or a large skillet if you have one) will get all the support it needs from the surrounding stones, whilst still allowing air to circulate.
For the first two and a half years that I lived without money, I cooked on a rocket stove come rain, hail or shine. They are easy to make, taking only an hour or so to construct if you have all the materials, and they can be made completely out of consumer waste, of which there is much to choose from. All you will need is an elbowed flue pipe (you should find one at the tip), some catering sized tin cans (15kg olive cans are good for a large rocket stove, ask your local café or deli for these), and some insulating material (ashes are the ideal from a permaculture perspective). To make one,(222) go to www.permaculture.co.uk, type ‘rocket stove’ in the search box and choose the model best suits your needs.
The main problem with these stoves is that you only have one ring – I like to minimise that problem by steaming my vegetables on top of the pot that I am boiling my potatoes or barley in, or by using a hay box.
The hay box is a very useful tool for anyone serious about living without money, or at the very least cooking without bills. Think of it as an energy-free slow cooker, which you can use inside or outside the house. It is free to make (though dependent on the waste of civilisation), and once constructed it is the perfect complement to a rocket stove, as it will save you a lot of wood, time, and effectively gives you an extra ring.
All you need is a box of some sort – this can be a wooden chest or a medium size cardboard box (24 x 18 x 14in is good). Insulate this first with anything that is at hand and not being used – tin foil or old tiles are good. Once that is done, you can create the majority of your insulation using polystyrene, shredded paper, or as the name suggests, hay (the latter is my preferred option as you can produce this yourself). To keep the hay from going everywhere, I recommend shoving as much hay as you can squeeze into some small string onion bags (ask your local greengrocer for these), but this is by no means necessary. Leave a space in the middle of your insulation for a large cast iron pot, one with a lid and two small handles on each side if you have it. And that’s it.
In terms of cooking with it, it’s equally simple. Bring your pot to the boil on whatever it is you use, or at least to the stage where you would normally simmer it on a conventional cooker, depending on the food you’re cooking. Making sure the lid is on securely, stick it into the space left in your prepared hay box, cover with as much hay as you can pack in, and close the lid of the box. For extra insulation, you can put a rug over it or bury it in a hole in the ground.
How long it then takes depends on the food – barley takes about four hours, vegetable soup about an hour, whilst fish will take at least an hour and a half. If you use this method it is necessary to plan ahead, so if you want barley or rye for lunch you should bring it to the boil at the same time you make your morning tea. Once it’s fully cooked, you may want to slightly reheat it again, but this isn’t necessary.(223) The good news is that if you forget about it, the food will never burn.
Cooking is one thing, baking another. If you fancy moneyless bread, pizza, foccacia and the like then you are going to need a wood-fired oven, which can be fuelled using locally grown or scavenged wood. If this sounds like it’s the best thing since wood-fired rye sourdough, I’d recommend reading Build Your Own Earth Oven(224) by Kiko Denzer before going any further.
The key to making an earth oven is ensuring that you give it enough time to dry; depending on the season, this may take weeks. To speed up the process, you can light little fires in there regularly. The good news is that it will not only give you years of great, moneylessly baked food, it will become an attraction for many people in the local community who fancy making their own pizza or bread from it. Why not make its construction a community event in the first place, drawing on the skills, knowledge and resources of all involved? An earth oven will not get used very often by one family, so sharing it with everyone in the community is a beneficial act on every level – personal, social and ecological.