Category Archives: soapbox

On sex and the barnyard

Let’s face it, people.  The male sex is not valued in the world of the farm.

It came as a shock to me.   A very parallel universe to the one I knew:  being of the female persuasion is actually highly valued if one is a farm animal.  All males are either quickly eaten or dispatched at birth/hatching.  This is NOT a hard and fast rule, of course:  being male won’t hurt your chances of growing to maturity if you’re a cloven-hooved creature, or a turkey.  You just most likely won’t get there with your scrotum intact (cattle, pigs, sheep, goats) or once you hit sexual maturity (turkeys).

I am not blind to the reason that female creatures are welcomed:  We desire the products of their reproductive organs (eggs, milk, more babies).  And even as a vegetarian I harbored no illusions that I wasn’t killing animals in my quest to have milk and eggs:  you need to get pregnant to have milk (duh!) and, the chicken DOES come before the egg…and the ratio of males to females in almost every animal grouping is 50/50, thus, for each egg-producing hen, one potential rooster chick was snuffed out.  The fact that you don’t even need male poultry to produce eggs further reduces their chances.

So it was with some sadness that I learned all three of our goats turned out to be boys.  Sigh.  And in my readings of goat-rearing handbooks, most dairy manuals were clear-eyed about this–a lot more clear-eyed than my usual gimlet-eyed self, too–that the most humane thing to do with newborn bucklings is to drown them in a water bucket.  “For every 500 males born, only 5 will find productive service as stud, and it most likely is not the one born in your barn,” is the way one manual put it.  Other suggestions were to skin them for their downy-furred pelts, or tan their hides for kid gloves.  (Eeps.  I am so not there yet, people.)

But in my usual take on the world, I knew the most responsible thing to do would be to do the responsible thing:  get them disbudded, castrated, and shot up with necessary injections, pronto.  Within their first week of life, then, they had their horns burned off, their immunizations, and their male parts disarmed.  They will all three find lives as either dinner or as cart-pulling bellwethers.  This is what is required if I want home-grown milk.

Likewise, one male turkey and one male chicken is all I require to have a self-sustaining (closed) poultry flock.  This is the first year we will not get chicks/poults from the store or in the mail, the first year then that we will have truly homegrown poultry (Thanksgiving Dinner and last year’s goslings excepted).

I harbor no illusions about what it is I am doing and what has been required of me to do it.  I am simply a lot closer to the reality of it than many meat-, dairy- and egg-eating people are; the choices pluck a touch harder on my heart-strings because I know and in most cases love these creatures.  But please don’t kid yourselves:  you’re subcontracting the killing if your hands aren’t physically wielding the knife.  And that is okay, as long as you know the animals have been well treated (for whatever their lifespan) in life and through death.  And if you don’t know, then you are, at the very least, being willfully blind.

Don’t be blind.  Support small ethically-committed farmers if you choose to eat meat, dairy and eggs.

On the hidden costs of cheesemaking

Last week’s (top) and this week’s yogurt made from our milk share

Over the years my husband and I have had a bit of a tussle over finances.  This of course is the typical marital story.  Defining our particular story is my yen to DIY, and almost every little project I undertake, financially, has a big start-up cost.  It has a start-up cost (mainly in materials) that almost always requires no huge outlay of later cash…no bubble, as it were; only maintenance money.  So I have been able to persuade him that my *needs* are, well, inexpensive if you amortize!  At this point he trusts me.

The things I am thinking of are the chicken coop, the chicken tractor, the greenhouses, the goat(s), the (so far unfinished) masonry oven.  Smaller things likewise can be considered:  the pressure canner, the grain mill, the chest freezers, the tiller.  The orchard.  Raised beds for the gardens.  All of them have paid for themselves or will do so within the first year or so of owning them.  And any of my kookier ideas also have an out, financially:  2010, to name one example, will be the first year I don’t have to order chicks because we have roosters and a tom turkey, thus, self-sufficiency in egg and meat birds.

But cheesemaking.  I mentioned a while back how I found life as a single vegetarian to be much less expensive than omnivory…mainly because I almost never bought cheese!  I adore cheese, but it was rare that I would shell out for it, despite my love of the stuff…good butter being the one exception.  NOW there’s a goat in the shed, and she’s bagging up quite nicely, and within about a month I will don the bonnet of Resident Milkmaid.  And fresh milk means cheese.  And homemade cheese means…damn, another start-up cost!

A few years back when the homemade cheese bug bit me, I purchased a starter kit from Hoegger Goat Supply.  It’s served me nicely and I haven’t gone back to that well, but then again, I didn’t try to make hard cheeses or aged cheeses.  Now, though, now I have printed out little plans for my husband to build me a cheese press (he likes to feel handy) and now I have finally purchased and read Ricki Carroll’s Home Cheese Making.  And I am discovering that that woman is a pusher.  Seriously:  is she any different than the guy on the corner who’s giving you a little taste for free so you can keep coming back to feed your habit?  I read the recipes and I think:  hmmm, thermophilic culture, I need that; how about a bag of penicillium candidum, and might as well get a bag of p. roquefortii while I am at it.  And then, well, use it up and keep coming back for more.  Yogurt sure doesn’t have this problem:  make it once, always have it (like sourdough).

Man!  What would Ma Ingalls do?  She’d culture her own.  Something else to figure out, I guess…stay tuned.

On manual labor

Until the weather turned “normal” late last week, I’ve been obsessively building something outside.  It’s something that will bring a lot of my efforts together, not necessarily effortlessly, but certainly enjoyably.  We should all aim to get a lot of enjoyment out of life.

But I wanted to talk about the process of building.  I have mostly LOVED getting extremely sore:  I enjoy this about gardening, too.  Certainly, I haven’t strained myself into a hospital visit, but solid hours of lifting anything is not part of my normal day:  at most, I lift my laptop and piles of drawings, sometimes a book…my normal work is not exactly physically demanding.  But construction!

I am trying to puzzle out what it is about manual labor that is so immediately appealing to me.  We discussed something similar to this over the Thanksgiving table.  My father in law seriously believes I should go into pie-baking as a sideline.  “But once you do it for a living, you probably wouldn’t enjoy it,” he said, taking another bite.  So:  is it the novelty of construction?  I build things all the time for a living, and though the same kind of thought process goes into it, doing architecture on the computer isn’t the same as constructing architecture with my hands.  But I think I have figured it out, why I enjoy it so much:  it’s the time required.

I believe I get more accomplished in 3 hours of laying bricks than I do in 3 hours of computer time.  It’s actually productive time, well-spent, with progress observed and felt.

Don’t get me wrong:  if it wasn’t for computers, I wouldn’t be able to work from home.  I wouldn’t have all of you in my life, and life would be a lot less easy in so many respects.  But computers are A HUGE TIME-SUCK.  Really!  This is not a unique observation, nor certainly is it new to me, but this contrast between outdoor work and computer work has been very jarring.  Computers steal time from our lives, minute by uploading minute, autosave by refresh by page load.  Somehow, we’ve acquiesced to this, we’ve agreed to spend a large portion of our lives allowing our asses to grow ever larger, sitting in front of a screen, all because we think these tools are indispensable, and helpful.  And so muscles atrophy, brain synapses misfire.  I’ve always thought the television was bad but now I am reconsidering this damned internet connection, seeing it as the black hole of time that it is.

All the more reason to pick up a hammer.

On meat-eating

P1010907Not gory, not fleshy:  last night’s salad

A call came in.

“Do you want a backbone?” asked my friend.

See, I am not missing a backbone, and never could have been accused of such:  I’m pretty spiny (in more ways than one, especially if you rub me the wrong way).  No.  This call related to a pig’s backbone, as its owner didn’t know what to do with it.  Apparently, a pig came her way (these things are known to happen if you live with your ear to the local food rail) and she got smart and called the itinerant animal killer/butcher to come over and help her out.   He did, killing and hoisting that boy onto the branch of a tree.  She took it from there, with one of her children holding the butchering book.

But I didn’t want a backbone.  Backbone of poultry, backbone of beef, yes, I wouldn’t have said no.  But pigs don’t make great stock, and that would be why I would need a backbone.  (Maybe I can smoke it, then use parts to flavor bean dishes. Hmm.)

“Do you have any meat you don’t want, or fat?  Or the head?  That, that I could deal with,” I said.

Jonathan Safran Foer has a nonfiction book out now called Eating Animals.  I have never been able to stomach his fiction, but he’s a clearer, less annoying voice when he’s researching things and telling stories from his life.  A vegetarian who’s wavered between carnivory and veganism, this book prods us to think about what it is that we DO eat.  One of the more outlandish outtakes that’s been covered in the media is his questioning our taboo of pet flesh.  (I would throw horse in there too:  there are peoples all over the world who eat pets AND horses, as you might know.)  For the most part, though, the book is a look at the meat industry, and how it has accomplished its highest goal:  keeping us away from knowing what it is we eat.  Keeping us blissfully ignorant, in fact; the average American consumes 21,000 animals in his or her lifetime.  (How so many, you ask?  Ground beef in your burgers is how:  there could be up to 400 individuals in your patty.)

As a new-ish returned carnivore (two years this month, all due to producing my own meat) I obviously have very strong opinions on this issue.  My reason for 16 years of vegetarianism is that I could not be ignorant, no matter how hard I tried.  No, it was too cruel, eating meat from factory farms; it wasn’t who I was, or am.  But I am not blind to the way my own animals live and die, and I can easily eat those of the beef and pig farmers I know.

That’s all it’s about.  Being a little less cruel.  Being a little more open-eyed to the reality of our food.  And being game when backbones come your way.

On life without the had-boughtens

P1010804Pick me!

Driving back from Minnesota last week, my husband and I were discussing some of our old friends and acquaintances.  I had a neighbor, for instance, who spoke an odd form of the American English language, and we were wondering if her verbal tics were particular to the neighbor or particular to Minneapolis.   (We agreed it might be both.)  One thing she would always say was “borrow me” when she meant “lend me.”  Another thing, and this is the one that sticks with me, is she’d say “had boughten” instead of “bought.”

Had Boughten!

I say this all the time, in its negative:  “This salad is so much better than any I had boughten.”  “My gah, this roast chicken is fantastic, better than anything I had boughten in a restaurant.”  “Okay I am going to die quite happy, this cider vinegar dressing I made is out of this world, much better than any bottle I had boughten.”  I say all these things to myself, of course, in my head:  saying such things aloud could bring some strange looks.  (Okay, I could have said them out loud to my old neighbor.)

But here’s my point:  there’s no contest between the home-grown and the had-boughten.

Why don’t people see this, know this?  Why do people settle for convenience?  Is a supermarket salad really that much more convenient than a home-grown one?  Unless it’s salad-in-a-bag (horrors), you still need to wash and separate and mix and dress it.  The time it takes me to come home, grab the salad spinner, trade work shoes for garden shoes, harvest the salad, rinse it, bowl it and dress it is STILL much shorter than me swinging by the grocery store and had-boughening the salad fixings.  I can even poach an egg for the top and still come out ahead on the clock.

And the chicken.  Granted, not everyone either wants to or can raise chickens for eggs or for meat.  But home-grown eggs are a separate kingdom altogether, might as well be from different species of animal…same with the meat of those home-grown chickens.  As is doing little things like making your own salad dressing:  clipping your own herbs, mincing your own shallot, shaking it all in your own little jar with your had-boughten olive oil and salt.

Okay, okay; so there are very few things that I get around to had-boughtening.  That olive oil, that salt, in bulk.  Boxes of pasta (in a pinch).  Butter, sugar.  Selected seafood, and not from the grocery store.  Wine.  Everything else, though, really, everything, is grown here or are things that I had boughten through local farmers:  wheat, oats, corn, cow, pig, all in bulk, all purchased and stored for the year.

I get a lot of questions, mainly because people assume I don’t work and doing all this MUST take the hours of a day job just to keep on top of it all.  “How is it that you have time to can things?  I certainly don’t have the time to garden, much less can,” was a statement (how can this be a question) from a mother at our daughter’s school.  How am I to answer that?  That I spend wonderful time daily with my daughter in the garden, in the kitchen?  That my life with her is not spent in a minivan, getting drive-through food between soccer and ballet?  That eating breakfast and dinner, seated at the table with cloth napkins and candles with my family every flipping day is the best kind of quality of life that I can imagine?  That it is a choice to live this way, to eat this way, to be this way?

To just say no to the had boughtens?  Because that is what this is: saying nonono, while greedily saying yesyesyes to the best food money can’t buy.  And I’m having the best time making it all happen: much better than anything I could have had boughten.

On being wrapped up


Some of the 150 pounds are dehydrated, some in salsa, some in jam, but most are still frozen for future snacks

Passion is a curious thing.  Its pursuit, on occasion, excludes all other things, and this can be a problem.

I’m not doing any on-the-couch time, no analysis here, but my passion for good, real food has led me to be a bit nutty as far as volunteering for our daughter’s school goes.  I am not at the point of needing an intervention, but doing the school garden and rethinking how the school supplies, cooks, and distributes its food to the children has been a rather time-consuming affair for me these last few months.

Both gardens are weedy, but both populations (home and school) are well-fed due to my efforts, as well as the efforts of many others.

Here’s the passion:  I feel absolutely HORRIBLE, and sorry, for people who aren’t eating the way my family eats.  Is this some kind of epicurean snobbery?  No.  Simply, we eat fresh, whole foods, year-round.  Minimal processing, minimal transport, tasty simply by the fact that it’s real food, not too far from its origins.

Here’s a typical snack rundown for a typical school week:

  • Monday:  Fruit day.  Apples, pears, peaches and blueberries are in season.  These are served raw.  We’ll have apples throughout the year, but we have applesauce, peach and pear butter, and lots of frozen fruit for the rest of the year.
  • Tuesday:  Vegetable, Parent-instigated food day.  Roasted potatoes from the garden are next Tuesday’s snack.  Hummous and classroom-made pita, our jam with school-made crackers or oat cakes, etc.
  • Wednesday:  Muffin Day.  We make the muffin mix (actually, the kids make it and bag it) and a child from each classroom takes the bag home.  The basic mix requires you add two eggs, a quarter cup of oil, and some water.  You can add fruit or nuts or a crumbled topping as you wish, but the mix is nice by itself too.
  • Thursday:  Chips and Salsa Day.  We’ve made salsa for the year at my house.  Black bean/corn, regular, tomatillo (salsa verde), peach, and cherry salsas are in the pantry and in the freezer.  The chips come from a reliable manufacturer in Chicago, where our students practice their Spanish when they make the monthly order.
  • Friday:  Classroom-supplied Snack Day.  We have given each class suggestions, and the school has crock pots, hotplates, toaster ovens and electric griddles to use.  So, classes might make Stone Soup (where each child brings in something to add), or even make tortillas from scratch (or at least a bag of masa harina) for quesadillas.  Either way, this is a way for the children to directly participate and also to really see what it takes to produce a small snack for the entire class.

We have other irons in the fire, too.  We are getting a milk share, and will be using the milk to make yogurt, yogurt cheese, kefir and smoothies for Monday’s Fruit Day with the older kids.  The milk will also be used for baking.  (It won’t be directly consumed because it’s raw and we don’t want the hassle.)  Trips to a beekeeper and a cider maker and a maple syrup maker (sugarer) are scheduled for October.  I have a 20-gallon crock in the Upper School’s classroom (grades 5-9, 9-14 year olds) that is currently filled with brine and cucumbers, and in three weeks will be filled with shredded cabbage for kraut.

Where is your passion taking YOU?

Mine has been keeping me away from the blog, unfortunately.  I’ve been thinking of you lately, though.

On other shoes dropping

P1000670Meet your meat

On so many levels, I am glad that the “food revolution” has begun to sink in.  I surely wouldn’t say that everyone has signed on, nor do I believe there’s been enough of a revolution (that’s the anarchist in me I suppose), but I am personally glad I don’t seem like such a crank now.  Lots more work needs to be done:  lots more movies and books, lots more profitable small farms, lots more awareness, period, that our food system is neither sustainable nor particularly healthy.  In Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ steps, I would say that we’re still collectively in Denial, maybe moving toward Anger.

Having run through all those steps myself, I do wonder what the next collective level of awareness will be.  Don’t you?  The food revolution, at the very least, has a tasty payoff.  Living life with less of what we have because, well, we’ll have to, is not something so easily changed, like just replacing our lightbulbs.  There’s lots of other half steps that will need to be taken, lots more bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.

But I still wonder what will be next.  I do foresee the day when my grandchildren or maybe our great-grandkids marvel at the idea that we flush perfectly drinkable water down our toilets.  There is so much in our world that is good, but so much more that is simply wasteful and wantonly short-sighted.  And that is it, I suppose.  We were in the dark for so long about our food:  what else are we ignorant of?  What surprises lie ahead for us as individuals, as a society?  And, perhaps more importantly, what are we going to do about it?