Category Archives: soapbox

On the numbers


This guy was on to something

Our child received a DVD of 101 Dalmatians this week. I’m no Disney fan, but the kid, she likes her cats and dogs.

“How many puppies were there, kid?” I ask her after we watch it.

“Millions, Mama!” she said, proud of herself.

“How about one less than a hundred?” I ask her. We then went on to discuss numbers (again, as it’s a recurring theme with a 4 year old), especially the idea of tens. And it got me thinking about the spending we’re doing on this particular war in Iraq. We are, as you know, approaching the fifth anniversary of its beginning. Its cost in pure dollars can stagger the mind, or rather, it staggers THIS mind.

Think about this: What is it you have that you have a million of? A billion? How about a trillion? So far, we have spent a trillion dollars on this particular endeavor.

I tried to make it simple on myself and wrap my mind around the number “one million.” I thought about what it is that I could physically count. I know, for example, that millions if not billions of microbes make their home on my very person. They’re arguably too small to count without great aid, and rather disturbing to think about. Going outside, the grains of sand or, in my yard, particles of clay are likewise uncountable. I then look over to the wooded section of our land and wonder about the evergreens there: if I counted, there might be a million pine needles. We have almost two acres of pines.

Our driveway is gravel. I suppose there’s a million pebbles out there.

What else do I have a million of? Blades of grass? Check. How about leaves? Now, there is something interesting. If I looked in my vegetable garden, there’s a countable couple of thousand there in the high season. Likewise the perennial gardens and (bingo!) wow, there sure are a lot of leaves in the herb garden. (Think about a clump of thyme and you will see what I mean.) So if I count them all, I would bet I have a few hundred thousand leaves in my gardens. Probably nowhere near a million, unless I counted the trees which ring the house.

But this is war spending I am talking about. A trillion is a million millions, if you count the way we Yanks count. Other than things I cannot see with my naked eye, I don’t think I have anywhere near a billion (a thousand million) of, much less a trillion (a thousand billion) of. But what is a gardener to do, to understand the concept of the dollars we are spending (and borrowing to spend) in this war?

I am thinking of that image of that young guy placing flowers into the gun barrels of some National Guard soldiers during a protest of the Vietnam war. FLOWERS! That’s it! There’s an idea as we start our sixth year of this war. How many of us gardeners would it take to make a million flowers? A billion? A trillion? Go down the list of your flowering plants: hmm, my asters sure sport a lot of flowers. Buddleia, calendula, dahlia, echinacea, foxglove, gaillardia…keep going. We’re getting up there! Then you can cheat when you look at compound flowers like sunflowers; each head has as many flowers as it has seeds. But I am still looking at only a few thousand flowers.

Let us then grow some flowers for this war. Maybe we can have a flower sale, and send our earnings to the Treasury. But better yet, let us grow them and know that, for all our fallen, for all our injured, for all their fallen, for all their injured, for the lives changed and the dollars well spent, squandered, lost, wasted… It will take a lot of gardeners sowing a lot of flowers to make a trillion flowers to equal the trillion dollars we have spent.

Maybe a million gardeners. Maybe more. Probably, a lot more.

On obstacles to gardening


More greenhouse parsnips from 2006 seed

It occurred to me, when I wrote my latest seed-saving post, that I mentioned an obstacle to seed-saving that might just stop some of you from doing it altogether. There is a very human tendency to glom on to a problem first and decide, forthwith, that this problem is insurmountable, so, well, I won’t seed-save. I say, get over it.

So I would like to talk about the concept of “obstacle” as it seems to be such a hindrance to so much in our lives. The particular obstacle I mentioned in re: seed-saving is the separation required between plants to result in pure (unadulterated) seed. Well, dang: the way to get around that is to only allow one variety, say, of carrot to blossom, and then make sure you keep its wild cousin, Queen Anne’s lace, mowed down during flowering season. Or, just be like me and don’t care.

There are so many other quasi-urban legends out there that somehow stop us from doing decent gardening. Urban gardeners might become spooked from planting anything edible in their yards because they have heard that many urban soils are lead-filled brownfields. A soil test or four will confirm or deny this: then, go plant out some raised beds with imported dirt and use lots of homemade leaf mold and compost and (non-chemically-treated) grass clippings…and do some research about which plants might be more prone to taking up ground-borne dangers. Then research lead sensitivity, period: it’s infants through 8 year olds who are the most sensitive. If you live in an old (pre-1978) house, you should get your children’s blood checked for lead levels anyway; there’s much more of a risk of exposure living in a house with flaking window paint than there ever will be than with the few carrots you’ll pull out of an urban garden.

And then there’s the I-can’t-have-a-rainbarrel-because-of-my-asphalt-shingle-roof fear. Well, how old is that roof? The ones on our outbuildings are 40 years old (yep; time for a change, anyone have a spare $20K they wanna give me?) so I don’t have much worry. So, is there something there there? Well, there might be, if the roof is new, and/or you’re downwind from a coal-burning power plant (how about some heavy metals in your rain, folks?) but in general I don’t understand how people can honestly think that fresh rainwater from a rainbarrel will somehow poison your veggies to inedible levels. The key here, of course, is FRESH. Don’t let the water steep in the barrel like tea if you’re at all concerned.

And I guess that brings me to the crux of my rant. I finished reading Michael Pollan’s latest book about a week ago. It is an indictment, rather scathing, of the way we eat. (I’ve blathered on about Pollan for a long time now. I appreciate the man because his Bullshit-O-Meter is finely tuned.) With all these “obstacles” to home-grown vegetable production, people still somehow blindly trust the contents of their grocery stores. Do you have any IDEA how those things were grown? Sure, it might even say it’s organic, but… Anyway, I think we have absorbed the fear and confusion we have toward our purchased food (“high fat” “trans fats” “low carb”) and have transferred that fear to gardening. We’re somehow too spooked by some unseen unknown (lead in soil, cooties in rainwater, cross-pollination) to dare to plant a bean.

All I am saying is be educated, and exercise some common sense. Evaluate the risk against the reward. But even if there’s nothing scary in front of you, don’t let something stop you: most likely, you have the keys available to you (soil tests, etc.). And you will find your home-grown veggies will still be better than anything you could ever buy. They’ll be more nutritious, certainly; they’ll be fresher, they’ll just plain taste better. What’s the risk in that?

On boring blogging: a muse


Some dangerous things in the world of botany are prickly: castor bean pods

I’m kind of going through the push-pull of blog direction that I know happens every year at this time if one writes a mostly gardening blog. I have friends from my past life (my city, pre-farm life) who drop in and read this blog and are bored silly…and admit it to me. So hmm, I think: should I write more personal information here, as that’s what they’re looking for, fully knowing they care not for my lovely greenhouse’s contents? Or should I slog on, bragging about the greenhouse (as it IS the only place things’re happening this time of year) and thus annoy the purely on-line friends who begin to think I am just all-greenhouse, all the time? Or what?

It’s just that somnambulent time of year for a gardener. I kind of go through my days dreaming green thoughts: I look out the window and it’s only white that I see, white and maybe a blue but mostly a gray sky. I think about writing about food, I think about writing about family, but both these things seem so personal and I guess I am just not too comfortable sharing “that side” of my life. Not that I don’t admire and enjoy blogs who do: in the main, that’s what’s on my blogroll.

So I readily admit that it’s going to be chickens, seeds and greenhouse for a while yet, until I get inspired (or more comfortable) otherwise. I do need to tell you about our Slow Snack; I should tell you about my co-op finds and friends; I should tell you about some new things I have discovered with bread-baking. I could trumpet my environmental bona fides and tell you about the initiatives we’ve implemented here on the homestead. But I know I disappoint my non-gardening friends. Dang, I don’t even talk about architecture here, and only occasionally about art, and nearly never about our daughter. Those things ARE my life, frankly, and my gardening and chicken-ranching are the supports of my life; the windbracing, as it were, to a whole and fruitful existence. And they might be boring to some, but they’re important…to me. And they’re important enough that it’s what I choose to blog about, to the exclusion of almost all else.

Hmm. Old friends? Just pick up the phone, or drop me an email, okay? You’ll find out a lot more about me that way.

On seed choices: a pro-diversity rant

I’m a bit dissatisfied with what I find in this year’s seed catalogs. Maybe I am a seed snob.

I think of all the flower/ornamental gardeners out there. Do they have an issue with seeds? I think it might be different: their plant suppliers are constantly hybridizing and upping the ante, keeping things fresh, or at least garish. Also, flower/ornamental gardeners often expand their holdings by getting plants and bulbs, not seeds. I know many a great gardener who deigns not plant seeds. This does not make them any less of a green thumb.

It’s not so if you’re a vegetable gardener. Seed sowing is something you danged well better be able to do, or you’re…well. You’re toast, or you’re certainly going to spend a lot more cash to get a garden going. (Your choice, I’m just saying.)

But maybe I should simply cut myself some slack. Am I a snob if I just want…choices? Like, LOTS of choices, lots of NON-HYBRID choices? I stand here atop this small mountain of seed catalogs (and rhetorically so, with my online sources) and I just KNOW it’s not even the tip of the iceberg, botanically, of what is out there. Any one featured variety of seed is simply the one variety that has somehow outdone its challengers. We weren’t all Homecoming Queen, yet that’s what our seed catalogs feature: beauties of some stripe or another (best taste being only one possible criterion). What about the REST of the class, I’m asking you. Where are the runners-up, where are the nerds and Goth chicks who wouldn’t have gotten chosen.

And then there’s the other also touchy issue of seed marketing. Yes, I’m going to talk about anti-Americanism. Actually, I am just going to bash traditional American seed choices. It’s, er, touching that most catalogs have finally gotten around to featuring open-pollinated Asian vegetables. Considering that part of the world has been gardening continuously on the same patch of land for millenia you would think that we’d have raided more than a couple of mustards, pac choy and tatsoi for our gardens, yes? What about all those beautiful little bitty pea-sized eggplants I saw with such regularity at the Hmong stalls in the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market? But maybe Asia is too foreign: well, let’s just go back to Europe, where many of us originally hail. Why only three or four choices of chickory in most catalogs? Where are all the other greens, turnips and beets? Whither the rampion? Are they simply not American enough?

I know that food preference is just about the last thing that people change when emigrate/immigrate to a non-similar country. I also know it’s the hardest thing to change if you start out life (and are thus encouraged to be) a fussy eater. “Oh, geez, he’s got to eat something, let’s just shut up and fix him a hotdog, okay?” I know, in other words, that food is a…tetchy issue, as my esteemed Southern friend Tim says. I live with a fussy eater who has enormous food issues, a ton of them garden related. (And no, it’s not our daughter. She eats anything.) And I am also sure that traditional American food choices is a factor in the limits I see even in my favorite catalogs. But we know how badly we as a country eat: why would we WANT to replicate our grocery stores in our gardens?

Seed companies, like all commerce, are going to sell what freaking sells. I know that, too. Does it make me happy that all they sell are Homecoming Queens, or F1 copies of the Queen with the Homecoming King? Nope, not in the least. And yes, I seed-save, and yes, I am a member of a seed-saving organization, and yes, I have a lot more choice ahead of me than I let on. It’s the rest of YOU I worry about.

I think we all need to fight for bigger, deeper catalogs. Especially so if you’re a new gardener, fed up with grocery store holdings and now itchy to dig. The world is sadly diminished if all you’re offered are Kentucky Wonder and Fortex pole beans.

This really should just be a garden blog…

Not edible, but pretty

…but I seem to have other food-related interests, though, especially during the non-food-growing winter months. Could it be I simply have more time on my hands?

Anyway, I thought I would share some “food activist” things I have been doing.

My daughter goes to a private school. There is no lunch program, so lunches are up to a child’s caregivers, but snack (yes, snack) is up to the school. Last year and the year before that, I worked with a friend of mine to do an organic box scheme wherein we got lots of California veggies and fruits and sold them, in boxes, to some interested families in the school two times a month. This was fun, but…let’s face it, it wasn’t local, so I felt pretty guilty about those boxes. Our reason for doing was twofold: any profit we made went right back into the snack program, AND our buying power enabled us to buy the kids lots of wonderful fresh fruit and veggies for their midmorning snack.

So this year, well, we kind of dropped the ball by dropping the box (scheme). And now? Now the kids get things like knockoff Chex mix for snack. Chex mix, and #10 cans of pears. (Egads, how far we have fallen.)

This made us a little angry. We’re now back at it, this time by starting a Slow Food Convivium that is centered in the school itself. It seems there is a convivium already in our area, and that it was actually the first one in the U.S., but their mission (dinners and wine) and ours (child/parent nutritional education) is different. So, starting in January, we’ll be doing Slow Snack two days a week.

Another thing I have recently done is start a buyers’ club. A local buyers’ club! One of the places we get things from is a new co-op in Grand Rapids. It is a virtual farmers’ market: there is NO bricks-and-mortar store. Monthly, members simply order their items online and then pick them up about a week later at a warehouse. This co-op is fascinating, as it is ONLY LOCAL ITEMS from local farmers; grass-fed meats, organic veggies and fruits, home products, knitted goods, soaps… And, get this: they thought I lived too far away!!! So I said the magic word (“buyers’ club”) and bingo, I am now a member. I place orders with 4-5 of my friends.

Other places we’re getting our goodies from are an organic farm near Lansing that mills their own grains, grows their own beans, etc. (They have been my primary source for flour for a while now.) We can still use our California organics source for things like kiwi, avocados, and citrus fruits. And we also “know a guy” (always helpful) who roasts coffee as a hobby, and is able to get fair-trade organic coffee at the fairly traded price, thus charging us only $6 a pound.

Again, my point in telling you all this is to give you some ideas. Child nutrition is a no-brainer in my mind. That my child doesn’t know what a marshmallow or a hotdog are is something I’m proud of, frankly. And as for the buyers’ club, it helps to pool resources, I think, as there’s lots more purchasing power in big orders. (By getting flour delivered to my house in hundreds of pounds, for example, I am able to save big bucks than if I only bought 25 pounds of the stuff.) And as you all know, I think food is very, very important: especially good food. So I put my money where my mouth is.

On apostacy

Me, outstanding in my (septic) field: view from Mont Merde
Apostacy: from Greek αποστασία, meaning a defection or revolt, from απο, apo, “away, apart”, στασις, stasis, “standing”

I understand dogma, I understand rules. Rules are out there for many very good reasons: for social cohesion, for safety, for clarity. Dogma is an interesting nut. It throws rules and religion (or at the very least, orthodoxy) into the works.

What does it mean to cheat, though? Cheating has been a purely academic exercise for me for a while now. There is nothing that stirs me up enough that I feel I need to cheat at it. There is nothing in my life (and I consider myself highly fortunate to have achieved this state) that I wish to cheat on, or from. No strictures, no bridles, no ties from which I wish to loosen myself, nothing that I feel I am denied or in want of that I need to bend, or break, life’s rules to get, or to achieve. Again, I feel fortunate.

But (and there is ALWAYS a “but”)…but, in this life I lead now of living with less, in so doing, I am continually restricting my access to “the great more” that is out there. I cut up my credit cards before I went to grad school. That was nearly twenty years ago, so I suppose I am out of the habit of credit spending; should I go out and get one, and go wild? Should I buy a gas-guzzling vehicle, just because I have denied myself the pleasure of driving one, these last ten years that I have had my miserly one? Should I leave a light on all night? Should I plug the dryer back in?

Should I eat meat again?

Ah. There is the rub. We’re plumbing the depths of my own personal orthodoxy. I have been a vegetarian for, what is it now, either 15 or 16 years. A long time, in other words. I have been a vegetarian on moral grounds: I really did not think anything needed to die to keep me alive. (And yes, that, like any orthodoxy, is hairsplitting: how many poor little fieldmice and bunnies had to die to cultivate my grain and bean meals?) My main reason for it is I just did not want to eat anything that had been badly treated, and let’s face it, the vast majority of the meat animals in this country have lives of horror and pain. I just couldn’t turn a blind eye to CAFOs and continue to enjoy a rare steak.

But now, now in this world, there are animals that have been humanely raised, pasture fed, living their lives out the way they naturally would have lived, or at least how they’d lived on farms of 100 years ago. And this meat is available widely, if you look.

My new dogma, or rather my walking papers, are another big nut: local eating, low impact lifestyle, thrift, living close to the land, doing things ourselves, permaculture. I grow my own food, I raise my own chickens for eggs. This spring, I will raise my own chickens for meat. Turkeys too, and maybe ducks.

What has come over me? A hard look at our household, that is what. I’m looking at things like the nutritional needs of a growing child. I am looking more to traditional foods. I am also looking at the fossil fuels that are expended to continue to supply my Michigan-based vegetarian diet. Some studies have stated that omnivorous lifestyles actually use less land than pure vegetarian ones do…and that is intriguing, in these trying times. I am all about having a smaller footprint on this earth.

I am often asked if I ever really missed eating meat in all those flesh-free years. Yes, I did cheat on occasion: our annual family clambakes were my once-a-year binge on molluscs, and there were times I tried bites of things off others’ plates. But I never went through Wendy’s drive-thru or anything. (Bleck, the idea gives me the willies, frankly.) It just did not appeal; my life, and my palate, were well sated on the diet I have had.

But it is with some reluctance that I here admit that I have become an apostate to the vegetarian lifestyle. We are now practicing a diet of meat from one animal every other week or so. I usually stretch things far, so the beast’s sacrifice is spread over many different meals. It is my goal to know the animals I will kill and eat. But now, we are only eating animals from farms we have visited, from farmers we know. We have seen them alive. In a couple of cases, like our turkey, I have seen them killed. For our family, for our life here, this is just enough syncretism to make complete sense to me: occasional meat-eating is the answer, frankly, to the trajectory of the life that has led me to this farm.

Stalking the Amish

I said I was going to stay away from religion in this blog, but today I am making an exception.

My friend Michele is a writer. This summer, in Ohio, she had a week to kill between dropping off and picking up her daughter and niece at summer camp, so she decided to avail herself of some of the local Amish community.

“Thinking I will learn something, I visit Amish country. Sure enough, there is nothing to do. As promised, I see people in buggies and on bicycles. I see boys fishing in ponds. I see people walking up and down roads. Everyone seems cheerful. I find a windmill maker, a birdhouse maker, a chair maker, a broom maker. None seem particularly anxious to sell anything.

In Yoder’s store, where I buy a few hand-drawn coloring books, there is a small index card with writing, in script: ‘Newlywed Special. 10% off furnishings for all newlyweds, to set up your new house. To be used by your first anniversary.’ There are cups, and bowls, and plates, and coffeepots. There are dishtowels, and trivets. There is, in this small set of rooms where the only sound is that of a ticking clock, everything one could need for a house.”

So I asked Michele about her experiences. Had she gone specifically to learn something, or had she gone merely to observe? Is she, as I asked her pointedly, a seeker?

No, she said, she is not a seeker. There is a Buddhist phrase she asked me if I knew of: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, haul water. After enlightenment, chop wood, haul water.” In other words, do things one at a time; they need to be done. She went looking to see if the Amish live their lives one task at a time. She did not come away with one answer.

I am struck by the image of that general store. It was not the Town Square general store of our minds a la Little House on the Prairie; it was a man’s house, a few rooms of which were devoted to commerce. Can you imagine finding all you need to set up your house and live your life in one store? Sure, Target or Wall*Wart fit the bill, and, of course there are charity second-hand stores like Goodwill that could, too. But the idea of parsing your life down from what you want to what you only need? Now there, there is a thought to live by.

I believe we all find something inspiring in a willful existence. Unplugging from the hurly-burly craziness of 21st century life for an 18th century one sounds appealing to those of us trying to declutter and simplify our lives. It may not be THE answer, but there is something small there to learn. Chop wood…

On ranting

In need of defense

Some very interesting comments came out of my Wednesday post on how the world is a-changing, and how some of us are doing something about it, and others, well, aren’t.

Here’s a comment: My friend Tim, in an email, said “The list of things not to be discussed in polite company (this includes the internet) now includes ‘consumption patterns’.”

I agree it’s a touchy subject, especially when one trains one’s sights on one’s relatives as examples. (OUCH. Believe me, things’ve cooled considerably in my own household after that post; I’ve done a lot of mea maxima culpas to those affected.) But, (and Tim knows this about me) BUT…polite company aside, isn’t discussing religion, politics and now consumption patterns at least really INTERESTING? Maybe it started in college, where I was one of maybe 6 Democrats in a student body of 7,000…maybe that is where I honed my combative skills. (It was the Reagan era: tough time to be a liberal, believe me.) But maybe it’s a personality fault, or something, but I do like a good argument; I do like to poke the hornet’s nest, to rattle a cage here and there.

Why consumption? Here is the thing: here is why: we are all connected. That Big Mac you had for lunch? It has global implications. It really does. And how good did you feel after eating it? Did you feel as good as you did when you ate your last homegrown tomato?

Big Macs are not the Great Evil, nor is a homegrown tomato a kind of Grail (though close, if it’s a Brandywine). But it’s a small, small, shrinkingly small world out there. By 2050 there’ll be 9 billion of us calling this little planet home. You don’t need to be an economist, geophysicist or even a farmer to realize that having India and China on a Big Mac diet too is just not going to happen. Our world is too small for this kind of consumption pattern. And we have to face this fact. Collectively. Together.

Our leaders are not leading on this issue, much less any other. Detroit continues to roll out vehicles that get only 18 mpg. We keep doing things as if there were no Katrina, no fires, no drought; that these were fickle aberrations of the weather. So, well, I will be discussing consumption patterns (and politics, but will stay away from the third rail that is religion) here. Why? Because enough of you have told me you do take a little something away from my rants: encouragement, head-shaking disagreement, something. And because someone needs to stand up for homegrown tomatoes!

What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?

Sunset, Wednesday night

I can’t seem to shake this feeling of dread, this the-world-is-f***ed-up dread. But I am able to appreciate things, like this beautiful sunset. The wind brought in our first frost too Wednesday night: little glittering bits on the pumpkins, and look at the tiny damage it’s done to the seeding basil. One little blackened leaf. It’s like a stay of execution, you know?

I hope to be out of this funk soon.

I am the bridge

The source of guilt AND motivation.

This post has been floating in my head for a long time now.

I was on the phone with my mother Sunday, trading tales, when she said, “don’t you just love this [mild] weather? I guess global warming does have an upside, doesn’t it?”

Now, my mother is a terminal optimist. Her motto, quite seriously, is Marty Feldman’s line from Young Frankenstein: he played Igor, and, when queried by Gene Wilder’s character about his hunchback, said, “What hump?” She cannot help herself. That said, she does understand that coal-burning power plants like her own really do compel you to save electricity by at least buying compact fluorescent bulbs and adjusting the thermostat all year. She has reset her sprinkler system, and I am trying to wean her off her green lawn love. It is a small gesture.

But frankly? My mother and [name redacted for family peace] have an enviable lifestyle. The [redacted ones] especially, God love them, don’t practice conspicuous consumption, practice instead what I call Entitled Consumption. You know: we worked hard all our lives dammit so therefore we SHOULD be able to…fill in the blank consumptive habit. Maybe they are tinged with a bit of planetary guilt, but in reality, they won’t live long enough for their lifestyles to be changed in any measurable way to them.

Me? LOADS of guilt. Especially since I became a mother myself: I realize SO VERY WELL that my daughter will not live in the same cushy world her grandparents, uncles, and parents had. The damage, in so many ways, was done long before she was born. Whether she grows up to resent the hell out of those who have gone before, soiling the planetary nest as we go, is yet to be seen.

I can only do what I can do. Moving to this farm has helped lighten our load (and my guilt) considerably. Thumbing my nose at industrial agriculture by growing my own has helped both our health and our wallets, and it certainly has challenged me in many ways to both show how easy it is to do, and to progressively do more. This blog is my small attempt to buck up and teach. But really, our lives, they are going to be a-changing. And I unfortunately have not inherited my mother’s optimism. It is a lot more work, I know, to be a pessimist, but people, there is no quick fix to our problems. There are small gestures that, if taken collectively, will make a small impact. With the rest of the developing world following us by imitating our lifestyle, from hamburgers to SUVs, our little gestures are but a trifle, a drop in the ocean.

I am the bridge between the used to be and the future. I will see my parents’ generation die off, and hopefully will see their habits die with them. I will see my daughter grow up in a world where consuming less won’t be a matter of personal do-gooding preference but a matter of global imperative. Who knows if I will live long enough to see my daughter’s own progeny be born and grow, because, let’s face it, at 38 I was an old bat to be giving birth to her. But if I do live that long, I hope some solutions have been undertaken, Manhattan project-wise, going-to-the-moon-wise, to solve some of our global screwups, because, really, I don’t want my succeeding generations to be cursing my name.

And I know my kid will at least know how to grow her own food, raise and slaughter her own chickens and make her own bread. This, this I can do.

You know, I do wish this blog could be something as light and simple as a documentation of the pretty flowers and luscious vegetables I grow. Maybe this could’ve been the case 15 years ago. But fifteen years ago, there were no blogs, and I didn’t own a farm. I apologize to all of you whom I have potentially offended here in this post. I simply do not see enough being done. We’re all still arguing about if things are really changing, whilst we still go about with our spendthrift habits. (I am not above reproach myself, jetting about hither and yon.) But really. Let’s all get busy, doing what little we can do.

Lightening our load

Nabbed from a website.

SO! We have successfully made it through a summer without air conditioning here at Old Vines. The a/c window units are still gathering dust on their shelves out in Tom’s garage. I am glad. We’ve used the whole-house fan some, but in general, it’s fortunately not been a really hot year. If we have felt the heat, a dip in our daughter’s kiddie pool or a swim in the lake have helped us deal with it.

That said, when Canning Season rolls around, I am compelled to turn on the stove and heat up the place. We know this will just have to happen. The house came with an old cookstove that can be hooked up to a propane tank: I suppose I could resort to that with my canning madness. But general cooking? Hmm, we still need to do a lot of that.

SO, again! What can we do that’s environmentally sound? How about a solar cooker? I married McGuyver, after all: I have sent him searching out this task. These things can be as simple as a cardboard box and tinfoil. He will most likely put something together that’s far more elaborate than that. And the best place to put it? Atop the chicken coop! It’s on a 35* angle facing south.

And then there’s the idea of a bread oven. We’re investigating a purchase of land adjacent to our house (mainly so no yahoo builds on it); this land is a woodland now. A wood lot. Wood. Oven. They go together. When I was a Minneapolitan, I helped a couple different friends build their own pizza ovens. I had friends who were chefs, and this was an obvious extension of their breadmaking abilities. We also plan on building one for my daughter’s school here, too. So, why not one here? Why not. Let’s just do it.

I’m sure I will keep you informed about all this nonsense.

A manifesto of sorts

Manifesto: from the Latin manus (hand) + festus (struck, stuck)

So, I have done some thinking.

I am always doing “some thinking,” frankly. My mind is like a hamster on its wheel: constantly churning, sometimes realizing I’m going nowhere, but liking the motion just the same.

This blog is as its by-line says: a garden journal of sorts. I’m a big picture person, though; the garden is but a wee slice of my life. Food is a bigger part, and the garden has been servicing that bigger part since I dug it up. “Eating local” is an exercise that I have enjoyed mainly because it is something I love (food) mixed with something else I love (avoiding both the car AND shopping). In other words, it’s an exercise slanted very heavily toward reward in a risk/reward sense.

I realize that what I do, what we do here at this house, is not for everyone. We are both artists, although it’s Tom who makes the money strictly with his ability: I only dabble now, getting paid instead to do architecture. As artists, though, we favor craft, we favor working by hand. And craft is exactly what we do: we craft our living. And craft, frankly, requires one thing above all others: it requires time. There are no shortcuts. We take the long view on most of our undertakings, be it cloth diapering our child or making our own bread or building our own buildings. Craft comes easily to us. The long way is the preferred one. The long way generally reaps the greatest rewards, too, longevity-wise, consumption-wise, and, best of all, it’s rewarding in and of itself.

Knowing, then, that our long view and way is antithetical to the modern way of living, I am not out to seek converts. I am also not really out here to do anything but perhaps document how my gardens affect our small, plodding lives here on the farm. IF I am a nag, and I can be, it’s only because I do not understand how people can honestly prefer HotPockets to a homemade pasty (half my family hails from Michigan’s U.P.). Do people really worship at the altar of their microwave ovens? Or are their lives so stretched, time-wise, that they have to shortcut their lives, one bad microwaved meal at a time?
Food sustains us. I value my life, therefore I value the quality of food that sustains our lives. That it sometimes takes longer to prepare is not a sacrifice. I suppose I’m just doing the work that the HotPockets workers are doing, just without paying a middleman. Middlemen usually mean shortcuts and poor quality, but you’re paying for quicker service. I prefer absurdly high quality, patient service, therefore…I do it myself. By hand.

It’s not for everyone, all the time: but really, people. Try making a pasty sometime instead of reaching for a frozen box. Try kneading your own dough. Try growing your own garden. Just try.

Wait: maybe I am out to seek converts, after all…

Call me a peasant

This monster made a lot of salsa yesterday. A LOT.

I have always loved food writing. Always. I remember learning about M.F.K. Fisher in college and was hooked, even though my preferred diet at the time was diet Coke and peanut M&Ms (oh the stupidity that is youth). Food plus culture? Even better. So writers like Barbara Grizzuti Harrison and other Europhiles became my escapist reading. But then I found Frances Moore Lappe and I changed my life.

Today, while rolling out tortillas over my lunchbreak, I thought again about my current reading jag: local foodism. It is true that what most attracts me to cucina povera is the fact that there is a local food culture that backs it up. Sure, it’s immensely obvious that the Greeks’ hilly, sunny clime was an excellent place to have goats, grapes and olives. Or that the arid climate of northern Mexico and the American Southwest enabled its people to cultivate the native corn, peppers and squash. Or the grassy beauty that is central Europe allowed those people to have the most wonderful dairy cattle, sheep and goats. I could go on: the leftovers that weren’t good enough for slave owners became the fatback, collards and cornbread of its slaves. All these foods were amazingly whole, and amazingly healthful to those who ate them.

So I look at culturally loaded things like French food and I see through it to the farms that initially produced it: the mother sauces, after all, were simply ways to sex up the common, daily cuisine. Crepes, like tortillas, dosa, injera, pita and countless other flatbreads, are simply using what is at hand to both fill the tummy and extend what little protein is available.

With all this floating in my mind, I do wonder where I am going with all this research. I complained to my uncle a couple weeks back that I am kind of in a reading rut. He, like many of my family, is a voracious reader, and his advice was that this is no rut: you are simply working through something.

And I do know where I am going with it, at least tangentially: I am looking to produce my own food culture, whereby we can live, mostly, off what we produce here on the farm. And that there is a whole tide of generations who have done it before me is both daunting, and really, really inspiring.

And it’ll be much better than M&Ms.

I’m going to take a few days off from blogging to do some thinking.


Well, the calendar says I have been blogging for a whole year now. (Where did that year go?)

My main objective in this blog thing was garden journaling. Of course, I have fallen far from my goal, and instead have had a number of detours instead, mostly soapbox-worthy things regarding the quality of our food. Besides, a journal of “X bloomed on Y day” is really insufferably boring copy, even to its gardener!

But memory fails, often, especially regarding the garden. So I will give you all a tip. I expanded my veg beds considerably last fall, and now it’s far too large for me to keep on top of it all, especially as a sketch on a piece of paper. So here is my answer. Recycling.

This is a cut-up piece of a vinyl miniblind. Yes, it’s recycled, but from GoodWill: our farmhouse was last decorated in the days way before miniblinds, frankly. If you cut them at 6-7″, and write on them with a permanent marker, these things will be legible through the season. A deciphering of my scrawl lists the seed variety, the plant date, the point of origin of the seed, and the date I got the seeds. I usually bury them to a height of 2″, and hill mulch around them enough so I don’t have to look at them, unless I really want to.

Where this blog will go is a mystery. It has been an enjoyable morning routine for me. I have really enjoyed “meeting” all of you, as that has been the biggest surprise of all: readers!


Little wooden soldiers at work

When I lived in Minneapolis, I co-owned a couple of sailboats. (In the land of 10,000 lakes, a few can actually be sailed, and some of them were in town even.) I was much better at the important things like drink orders or boat repair routines than I was a sailor, however. One boat was all wood (a Melges C-Scow, 1968). It was held together, quite literally, with epoxy, and thus its name was the Epoxymoron.

Nowadays, well, I live on a much bigger lake. I neither have the motivation nor the deep pockets to continue my sailing habit. But I still know how to catch the wind.

This is how I do it now.

The wind is very consistent here, coming west off the lake. In no time at all, our clothes are dry and smell just wonderful. I do use vinegar in the rinse cycle to keep the towels from getting stiff, though a crunchy towel can be an acquired taste. Part of the clothesline is in the sun, but most is in the shade. And sometime around Mother’s Day Tom bought us another line: an umbrella-type one. (I try hard not see the significance of buying a household item for a holiday, as he has yet to buy me a vacuum for a birthday, though for my 40th I did get a tiller….)

When we bought the house, we had the basement plumbing redone to accommodate a decent laundry room. It took a while for us to get the new dryer hooked up. (I’ve been a huge fan of the Whirlpool Duet line, having had them in our city house, too. Lots less water and soap used, and it spins things super dry.) We had a cloth-diaper-wearing baby then, and it was winter, then spring, before we had everything completed. We hung everything out to dry then, too, though we had to string up lots more lines in the (warm) basement. I do remember, though, that every time I would get the damned diapers on the outdoor line, it would rain. The neighbor would chuckle and call us and say, “El, we need rain, why don’t you hang those diapers out again?”

Well, we’re doing it again now, but it is not for lack of a dryer. Global warming has something to do with it, though.

(But I can still fix a mean drink.)

On variety

Purple Sprouting broccoli

One of the disconcerting things about industrial food production is that its methods, above all, are reductive. Go to your local grocery store even during apple season and count the types of apples you find there, for example. Is that number four, or six, or (outlandish) eight? And do you know how many types of apples are out there, fit for human consumption? I can tell you plainly that number is probably closer to eight to the eighth power (i.e., pushing 17 million) than it is to eight.

I mention this because, by growing things from seed or buying saplings from heirloom growers, our household, at least, is not beholden to the limits of Big Ag. We’ve got five different apple cultivars, and room for many, many more. Perhaps I am a bit of an oddball, but there are five different types of broccoli growing in the spring garden right now. There are six types of garlic, four types of onions, two of scallions and two of shallots, if I were simply to mention the allium family…though I am only growing one form of leek (poor neglected leeks). Each one has its purpose. I like the fact that we mix things up around here, that our biological footprint is a broad one. Like microbes, I appreciate the many.

I mention this likewise because traditional food cultures EXPECTED variety. I have a book that lists the forty-five different types of cabbages that the average French farmer or shopper would know; granted, this book was first published in the 1860s. But really. The world offers much more produce than that found in your local grocery store! Do you crave variety, but don’t have five acres? Join a CSA and get it sent to you, support your local growers, or grow your own.

Slippery slope time

As the ground is still frozen and I am housebound, I thought I would ask you all a question that’s tangentially farm-related.

I recently purchased this saltcellar, and it is causing me great worry.

It is highly unusual for me to purchase anything; I am most definitely not a shopper. I never feel bitten by that “gotta have it” bug with the exception, maybe, of things for the farm. Yes, you could say this little (and I mean little: it’s less than 3″ high/wide) is somewhat farm-related; we’re chicken keepers, after all. It has utility, and it will be well-used, as we love our sea salt here. But I am distressed nonetheless.

And I really don’t mean to offend my relations and friends and any of you by saying this, but is this the straw? That breaks my back? That makes me a purchaser of All Things Chicken? Because though I understand the desire to collect things, I really do not understand the…need? desire? to…well. To decorate for every holiday!!! I am really concerned that the purchase of this small thing will lead me to start decorating my house for every (and I mean every) holiday. My mother is at this moment probably gathering all the storage boxes labeled EASTER right now, and into them will go all the rabbits and eggs and all ephemera that she has seen and somehow said “gotta have it.”

Should I be concerned?

I’m here for the vegetables

Michael Pollan wrote the cover story in The New York Times Magazine last Sunday. Confused about healthy food? Read this article. Otherwise, take his nine tips to heart, or rather, to mouth.

1. Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Sorry, but at this point Moms are as confused as the rest of us, which is why we have to go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of modern food products.) There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.

2. Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims. They’re apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best. Don’t forget that margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim that it was more healthful than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks. When Kellogg’s can boast about its Healthy Heart Strawberry Vanilla cereal bars, health claims have become hopelessly compromised. (The American Heart Association charges food makers for their endorsement.) Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.

3. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed.

4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. You won’t find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmer’s market; you also won’t find food harvested long ago and far away. What you will find are fresh whole foods picked at the peak of nutritional quality. Precisely the kind of food your great-great-grandmother would have recognized as food.

5. Pay more, eat less. The American food system has for a century devoted its energies and policies to increasing quantity and reducing price, not to improving quality. There’s no escaping the fact that better food — measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often correspond) — costs more, because it has been grown or raised less intensively and with more care. Not everyone can afford to eat well in America, which is shameful, but most of us can: Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation. And those of us who can afford to eat well should. Paying more for food well grown in good soils — whether certified organic or not — will contribute not only to your health (by reducing exposure to pesticides) but also to the health of others who might not themselves be able to afford that sort of food: the people who grow it and the people who live downstream, and downwind, of the farms where it is grown.

“Eat less” is the most unwelcome advice of all, but in fact the scientific case for eating a lot less than we currently do is compelling. “Calorie restriction” has repeatedly been shown to slow aging in animals, and many researchers (including Walter Willett, the Harvard epidemiologist) believe it offers the single strongest link between diet and cancer prevention. Food abundance is a problem, but culture has helped here, too, by promoting the idea of moderation. Once one of the longest-lived people on earth, the Okinawans practiced a principle they called “Hara Hachi Bu”: eat until you are 80 percent full. To make the “eat less” message a bit more palatable, consider that quality may have a bearing on quantity: I don’t know about you, but the better the quality of the food I eat, the less of it I need to feel satisfied. All tomatoes are not created equal.

6. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. Scientists may disagree on what’s so good about plants — the antioxidants? Fiber? Omega-3s? — but they do agree that they’re probably really good for you and certainly can’t hurt. Also, by eating a plant-based diet, you’ll be consuming far fewer calories, since plant foods (except seeds) are typically less “energy dense” than the other things you might eat. Vegetarians are healthier than carnivores, but near vegetarians (“flexitarians”) are as healthy as vegetarians. Thomas Jefferson was on to something when he advised treating meat more as a flavoring than a food.

7. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are. Any traditional diet will do: if it weren’t a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn’t still be around. True, food cultures are embedded in societies and economies and ecologies, and some of them travel better than others: Inuit not so well as Italian. In borrowing from a food culture, pay attention to how a culture eats, as well as to what it eats. In the case of the French paradox, it may not be the dietary nutrients that keep the French healthy (lots of saturated fat and alcohol?!) so much as the dietary habits: small portions, no seconds or snacking, communal meals — and the serious pleasure taken in eating. (Worrying about diet can’t possibly be good for you.) Let culture be your guide, not science.

8. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden. To take part in the intricate and endlessly interesting processes of providing for our sustenance is the surest way to escape the culture of fast food and the values implicit in it: that food should be cheap and easy; that food is fuel and not communion. The culture of the kitchen, as embodied in those enduring traditions we call cuisines, contains more wisdom about diet and health than you are apt to find in any nutrition journal or journalism. Plus, the food you grow yourself contributes to your health long before you sit down to eat it. So you might want to think about putting down this article now and picking up a spatula or hoe.

9. Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet. The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases. That of course is an argument from nutritionism, but there is a better one, one that takes a broader view of “health.” Biodiversity in the diet means less monoculture in the fields. What does that have to do with your health? Everything. The vast monocultures that now feed us require tremendous amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep from collapsing. Diversifying those fields will mean fewer chemicals, healthier soils, healthier plants and animals and, in turn, healthier people. It’s all connected, which is another way of saying that your health isn’t bordered by your body and that what’s good for the soil is probably good for you, too.

On polemicism

John William Waterhouse, The Crystal Ball, 1902
Being a polemicist is hard work, I will have you know. It’s so much easier to post a cute pic of one of my chickens.

If I had a crystal ball, this might be what I would see for the food future in this country. (Please file this in the “if wishes were horses” category.)

If health care became nationalized, it would be in the government’s long-term financial interest to promote healthful food. A country of people eating good food (and also exercising regularly and avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol) has a better chance of having less costly chronic diseases like Type II diabetes. In other words, the government might look at the financial calculus of its subsidy system of things like soya and corn and perhaps, maybe, help smaller farmers and better uses of land. And then of course people would need to be educated regarding what constitutes healthful food, and the making thereof, so nutrition and home economics classes would again become standard curricula in the public schools. (Oh, and recess, too.)

But I don’t have a crystal ball. Because we are a nation of consumers, companies are always pursuing the cheapest (excuse me, “most cost-effective”) way of doing things. They’re also hep to following trends: thus, even Y’All-Mart is selling organic produce and meat/dairy. And even tomatoes can be trendy, as we have seen. And the government is only going to do the will of its people: we get what we deserve, especially considering how few people actually exercise their right to vote.

My friend posed the food issue (specifically, the organic food issue) in a socioeconomic light by challenging me to come up with a budget for a fully-employed family of five living at/below the poverty level. Regarding the lower class, yes, there’s a certain amount of paternalism that we, and our government, usually adopt towards people’s poor food choices, especially when children are involved. There is no easy answer here.

But my argument is that our country’s poor food (production, selection, availability, subsidies, etc.) is NOT a class issue. It’s a national issue, and it affects Paris Hilton as much as it does Reagan’s welfare queens. It’s also a cultural one, and culture, as we know, is exportable: thus, one finds Starbucks in the Forbidden City, McDonald’s in North Korea. So we’re exporting our bad food choices, and others are embracing them, because somehow being American is “cool.”

I am encouraged by the small instances of pushback, the little steps others have made, like the French farmer who bulldozed a McDonald’s and the great work Carlo Petrini and his friends have done with Slow Food. In particular, the idea of terroir is probably the only one I feel will probably stick in this country of stripmalls: the idea that one’s special place on the globe can produce, and has a tradition of producing, a great food commodity. (We are a nation of consumers, after all.) Thus, Washington apples, Michigan cherries, Minnesota wild rice, Texas grapefruit: isn’t that as patriotic as seeing your local highschool team’s photo on the wall of your local Applebee’s? But then maybe I am naive to think that “place” is something one can still feel strongly about, especially with the highly mobile nature of the average American family.

I am also encouraged by things like Eat Local challenges. In fact, I am most encouraged by the internet in general, and blogging in particular. (You have found me, haven’t you, and I certainly have had much to learn by all that you have had to say, whether it’s here or on your own respective blogs.) This is a conversation we are having, and hopefully, it’s a conversation we will continue to have, whether it’s at our own dinnertables, at our kids’ schools or homeschool groups, and hopefully, with our own elected representatives. We can vote with our pocketbooks, too. In fact, it’s our money that seems to speak even louder than our votes. SO if there’s something that chaps YOUR hide regarding our food, make sure you get out and shout out. Do something!

A challenge

My hero, Howard Beale.*

I am not sure what it’s going to take to get people worked up about the crappy quality of their food. Education, surely. A little effort. Maybe less time spent in front of the t.v.

I got an email from a dear friend yesterday. (Funny: I had considered using his daughter as an example of the sorry state of meat in this country. They moved back here from France, and he sent her to the meat aisle at their grocery store to pick up some chicken, and she returned saying she couldn’t find it. He went to the meat aisle with her and pointed out the chicken. “That’s not chicken, that’s turkey,” she said (in French).)

Hi sweetie,

I have a challenge for you, or I should say, an interesting problem. I’m following your blog rants and nodding so hard my neck is stiff. What’s amazing to me is that there is a need for this discussion.

I’ve heard several debates on this and doing the quick math in my head tells me there is something here worth figuring out.

However here’s the challenge:

Assume two heads of household earning minimum wage each at a full-time, no benefits, job. Assume one has another half-time job eating up evenings, weekends etc. Assume three kids between 10 and 4. Assume this family lives in a place like C_____ (i.e. far from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and maybe even a real truck farmers market). Assume they have one car. Assume whatever patchwork child care is in place consumes a considerable portion of the week’s budget and that the care-givers can not contribute to household chores. Assume there are no huge debts or expensive problems from the past. Assume everyone is healthy but using the clinic for care. Kids are public school and get subsidized breakfast and lunch at school.

Design a menu for one month. Logistics obviously must be accounted for.

No fair inventing a local mom and pop organic grocer who give away food. Kids can’t be relied on as garden tenders. And there’s no cow out back.

I think, frankly, that much has been lost in our access to the “progress” our modern grocery store represents. Finding nutritional, unadulterated food WITHIN a grocery store is also something of an art. And then there’s family pressure (kids, relatives) of those who really aren’t willing to go along with “new foods.” Whole foods take longer to cook. Time’s a big issue for people who love their televisions. And then there’s that very un-American thing: cooking! Cooking without opening a can or a package, cooking without the microwave. Cooking has also died a slow death, despite the rise of cooking shows on t.v.

So I don’t know how to respond to my friend’s challenge. Do you?

*he of the movie Network, and the tirade “I want you to go to the window, open it, stick your heads out and yell, ‘I’m as mad as Hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!'” The problem with Mr. Beale of course is that he ranted and ranted, and then nobody wished to listen to him after a while.

The end (?) of the rant

Not me. Me.

In life, I really am not a Chicken Little kind of person. Sure, I am a pessimist, but I am not…extreme. But still. When things are waved in front of my face, I’m not very adept at pretending they’re not there.

This article, for instance. It points up that by heavily investing in speculative agricultural futures, we’re basically one (more) mad cow away from a collapse. “The flood of investment has raised concerns among grain traders and agricultural producers that speculative money is gaining an undue influence over their markets, which help set the prices of raw commodities for a host of consumer food products.”

I think it’s the behind-the-scenes stuff like this that really galls me. This, and our acceptance of “dirty” meat, and now “dirty” spinach, etc., and then the general bad food choices the majority of us make. Sure, I have the option of retreating back to my little farm and pretending it’s still 1925. Or I can take a tip from Dr. Strangelove: I can simply learn to stop worrying and love the trans fats!

Why aren’t people more upset?

A good pile of crap: a compost heap (I am still on a tear; bear with me. I will be back to regular old garden blogging soon, maybe. You’ll have to wait until the storm clears.)

Again: why aren’t people more pissed off about the crappy quality of their food? Why doesn’t it upset them that people die from eating fast food, either quickly via e. coli or slowly, via coronary artery disease? And how about some salmonella in your eggs? You know that means the chickens themselves have the bacterium, and they pass it to their eggs as they form them, not as they lay them. And how about ground beef, and wiping down your counter with bleach after you make a patty?

I don’t know. I have made my choice, so this is not about ME. I just am too much of a bleeding heart to take a “let them eat cake” approach to this: “let the idiots eat their twinkies,” as it were. I still think our food supply, though plentiful, is awful. A D+ on a good day. And people accept it. WHY?

My hide is still chapped.

I ranted so much in my own comments this morning that I decided to make a post about it. This thing doesn’t look ugly to me. Unfortunately, it still probably tastes like nothing I’d eat.

Okay, here’s the deal. I am torn. It’s not for me that I protest the protest about UglyRipe tomatoes; I haven’t tried them, and I won’t try them. I eat tomatoes in season, as the ones grown commercially aren’t even a simulacrum of “tomato” in my mind. And I do have qualms about Big Government roughing up Big Ag, but that is mostly because I don’t see an alternative. My kid goes to my in-laws’ house and eats blackberries the size of strawberries and strawberries the size of plums, and they both taste like sawdust, but my kid is a kid and therefore just plain likes fruit. I even tasted some chicken not too long ago…Tyson, or some such…at someone’s insistence and it wasn’t chicken, it was gum. Hours-old JuicyFruit. I understand the idea of eating what people are “used to,” but damn. Do people not have memories? Was a madeleine biscuit just a literary conceit Proust employed to write 7 books? I think not! EAT=MEMORY.

Why settle, is my question. Why think you are getting a bargain if that ginormous head of lettuce or that 7-lb chicken tastes like…water and gum!

And why DOES the government throw up obstacles to small farmers producing good food. Why CAN’T I get raw milk anymore. Why CAN’T farmers slaughter their pigs, sheep, goats and cows on-site, if poultry is okay.

I understand that the object of all the regulations and all the hurdles is consistency. Consistency, and blandness. That, and a splash of e. coli and a touch of salmonella. No big deal!

Some things chap my hide

Some things piss me off, especially pre-coffee readings like this one. A committee? Approving a tomato? Worried about precedents and concerned that tomatoes that taste good will somehow upset the whole industry?

Here’s a good article. My head hurts from trying so hard to wrap around the idea that people really LIKE bland, highly processed food, but it seems they do. Call me a food snob. I have no problem with that. And I have read enough Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Tom Pawlack, Eric Schlosser, Nina Planck, and Peter Singer to fully understand what has happened to farming and food in this country. I just, as usual, don’t understand people.

I will tell you this: if someone tastes our jam, or eats our tomatoes, or sits down at our table to share a meal, their enthusiasm for what they taste is not simply politesse: they are not trying to humor me! The stuff tastes good!

Not everyone can give up their city life and move to five acres and grow their own food. But we can do things, easy things, like write our congressional representatives and senators let them know how we feel about the 2007 Farm Bill. And it won’t hurt to rattle your state representatives, too, especially if you’re a meat eater.

Seed ordering

One place will be getting all my seed moolah this year.

The problem, of course, with ordering from only one place is that later catalogs come along and you get tempted. I mean, do I really NEED Egyptian (Walking) Onions? I might just.

And then I might just need to order more Asian vegetables. Especially yard-long beans.

Reading Fedco’s catalogs is an education. They avoid Frankenseeds. Their refund policy is exemplary. Their organic seed is well-researched. They tell you how heirlooms perform against “improved” and hybrid varieties.

But I will tell you this: even though it is out of my zone, and even out of my area of the country, Fedco is a cooperative, and they culitvate heirloom trees, especially cold-hardy apple varieties. We’re in the market for an orchard, or rather about 18 trees. And even though I live right in the middle of the fruitbelt, apples are not as big here as peaches, or blueberries. And it’s apples I love…and apricots, pears, plums…

And IF it’s peaches and blueberries I want, I know where to get them, locally.

Shifting zones

On Christmas Eve the budding naturalist and I went out looking for deer tracks in the mud of our land. Considering there is no snow to track them, it’s mud that’ll work (and does). We burned off some housebound pent-up toddler energy, then I selected a place to lie down in the sun. Our neighbor’s dog had been barking at ours (we’d been tossing the ball for her) and so our neighbor came out with his dog, a puppy, to see us. I didn’t hear him come, as I was lying down with my hat on my face.

“I thought you had fallen down. But instead, it looks like you found the only dry spot to lie down on,” he said. “And what’s she doing?” he asked, meaning the budding naturalist.

“She’s picking me a dandelion bouquet,” I said, indicating the large pile she’d amassed on my stomach.

It appears our little slice of earth has moved from a zone 6 to a zone 6-7. Christmas Eve, and we’re out picking flowers. Are there still people out there who doubt the world is getting warmer?

Timely food in the NYTimes

I am not alone on my soapbox, it appears. This article is in the Business (!!) section of The New York Times this morning.

Now, I take most articles, especially food-related ones, with a grain of salt when they come from this paper because it has, well, an urban, Eastern (and when it comes to food-production, Californian) slant. But there’s something there. The spinach fiasco earlier this fall has really alarmed some folks, and rightly so. If you can source your spinach from a guy down the street or a girl two towns over, you should do so.

I will say that homegrown, like that broccoli above, is infinitely better. The cool weather has made it so sweet! We paired it last night with some potato/kale soup and this fabulous (also NYTimes) bread recipe…I changed the flour mix to 1.5c unbleached white/1c spelt/.5c whole wheat. Crackly crust that shatters, incredible soft “tooth” for better butter holding…bon appetit, everyone.

More food talk

When the average North American sits down to eat, each ingredient has typically traveled 1500 miles. Call it the Diesel Diet or simply “the way things are,” but facts are facts. Your carrots are better traveled than you are.

The one thing I have tried hard to avoid in all this blogging is a Holier-Than-Thou attitude, and I really feel like my last post was laden with a large dollop of holiness. The 100-Mile-Thanksgiving, like its predecessor the 100-Mile-Diet, is an exercise in both restraint and in reach. It is HARD. It is NOT FOR EVERYONE. But not everyone pauses to consider the consequences of one’s daily choices, especially in terms of diet. I am trying to pause, and to consider. The people at my Thanksgiving table are not converts. They’re mostly family, and mostly, they indulge me my peculiarities. They all (we all) like to eat. That each item of food they’ll eat is local will be mostly immaterial to them. They’ll mostly care if the food is good. That I can share it with them is a joy to me; that they’ll enjoy it is my reward.

I guess all I am saying is it is really important to stop and consider. Thanksgiving is an opportunity to do just that. If you can bring just one dish to your own celebration that is made from locally produced ingredients, you are doing a lot to help your local farmers, and your global community.

Let’s talk turkey day

The primary source of our Thanksgiving meal

This year, we’re participating in the 100-Mile Thanksgiving.

Our reasons for moving to a farm are many, but the primary reason is that we could produce some of our own food. Those of you who know me know I have a thrifty streak, and obviously, if I can spend $.10 on a pound of homegrown leeks versus the $5 I pay for organic ones, I am liable to do it. Knowing how the food was produced and having a very short commute to the table also means this is the freshest, most nutritious, most personally gratifying produce possible. Our weekly boxes from the CSA when we lived in the city were great; this is even better.

But we are having 8 people and one small person to our table this Thanksgiving. So I have been hoarding, trying to keep all foods within a hundred miles from our table…and that means I am cooking (and freezing) that cauliflower soup now, baking that bread for stuffing now, while I can still get that fresh cauliflower and those freshly ground grains. The turkey has been ordered. I need to make butter from our raw milk cream. Oil and spices will somewhat come from far away. Other irreplacable things like celery in the stuffing will be substituted (lovage and lots more onions, I think). It is all a grand experiment. But it is also something I can do, and in so doing, hopefully I can teach others the importance of local food.


Berries and stolen apples

As a fee for my playing nursemaid to her while she recovered from her broken nose, I sent my poor ailing mother out to the Back 40 to pick autumn olive berries yesterday. She LOVES picking berries of all kinds, so it wasn’t much of a chore for her. She was doped up with bug spray, sunscreen, and her happy meds, and she came home with 32 cups of berries, more or less.

From that 32 cups I cooked 16, which produced 12 cups of pulp which, when sugar was added, made (12) 12-oz. jars of jam. Tom found a nifty hand-blending food mill for making apple sauce this last weekend; he picked it up at a thrift store. I used that to squeeze the berries.

I also purchased a fruit picker. It helped in my theft of the neighbors’ apples, and it will help with all the pears I see in an abandoned lot on my way to the kid’s school. It’s basically a wire basket on the end of a 10′ long wood pole.

It is so fun, avoiding the grocery store.