"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Out of Order (Pain and Pride)

I haven't been writing about the farm because I haven't been taking care of the farm. I've been pretty much confined to bed the past 10 days as the result of a tonsillectomy at the ripe old age of 43. After battling strep throat three or four times a year for the past several years, my doctor referred me to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist who told me "you are a walking advertisement for tonsillectomy." I meekly agreed and scheduled the surgery for a few weeks out.

Looking back, I think why didn't I keep in mind that he is a SURGEON and makes his LIVING removing tonsils? What else is he going to tell me?

I'm not being fair. Obviously I did need to get my tonsils out. I saw them after the surgery, and they were disgusting - scarred, blackened, weeping pus, enlarged. I could tell at a glance that those hideous diseased lumps of flesh were better off thrown into the trash than staying in my throat, seeping toxins and harboring god knows how many strains of vicious bacteria yet to be described by science. I am optimistic that having them removed will result in overall better health and a decreased need to ingest vast quantities of Amoxicillin on a weekly basis.

But I am still resentful and angry at my ENT. He lied to me. He looked me in the eyes and said the recovery would take a week. "It's a week of a really bad sore throat," he said. "Then it's over."

A few days before the procedure, I did some online research. No website I saw - including Medline, The Mayo Clinic, and other well-researched sites - stated any recovery period of less than two full weeks, and some said recovery takes up a month. I perused several forums for adults recovering from tonsillectomy and saw a disturbing number of repetitions of the phrase "the worst pain I've ever had."

The day of the surgery, in the two-and-a-half minutes that you get to talk to the surgeon before they put you under anesthesia, I said "I'm really concerned about pain control afterwards."

"Don't worry," he said, "we'll take care of you."

That first night, I didn't sleep at all, because any time I started to drift off, I began choking on my saliva. The pain, even when I had taken the maximum dosage of pain killer he had given me, was a solid 8 on a scale of 10. At 6 in the morning, after exactly zero minutes of sleep and several hours of weeping, I paged the doctor, who more or less told me to suck it up.

"I can't give you any more pain medicine." he said. When I said I thought I was going to aspirate on my own saliva because I couldn't swallow, he said "that's normal."

I won't go into all the details. If you've been through it, you know what it's like. I'll just say that as of now, my personal pain scale goes from 0 to tonsillectomy. No, it's not the worst pain I've ever experienced - that would be unmedicated childbirth - but it's the worst pain I've ever experienced that lasted more than an hour or two. It hurts more than all of these things which I have actually experienced:

- three broken ribs and a medium-serious concussion
- a completely severed ACL
- viral meningitis
- having all 4 wisdom teeth out at the same time
-second degree burns over 5% of my body

the pain is approximately equal to:

- being 7 centimeters dilated
- having three broken vertebrae
- the worst migraine headache in the history of migraine headaches

But whereas most of the above conditions are either of short duration - a day or two at most - or taken seriously enough to be prescribed heavy duty painkillers, this pain lasts for weeks at a time and warrants only standard Vicodin. In the US, anyway. Some of the forums I was reading are from the UK and apparently there adult tonsillectomy patients get morphine and liquid lidocaine.

I consider myself to be pretty stoic about pain. When I had knee surgery last year, I took approximately 1/4 of the pain pills I was prescribed and turned the rest back in. I suffer from a hereditary chronic pain condition and I am accustomed to being in some degree of pain more often than not. Additionally, I am a migraineur and am used to terrible, debilitating headaches a couple of times a month. I like to think I handle all of that pretty well, with a minimum of whining. I have never had a regular prescription for pain killers in my life, and I am ridiculously loath to ask for more pain meds.

It does annoy me - no, I'll be honest, it seriously pisses me off - that I was given one weeks worth of pain medication for an operation that is universally described as taking two or more weeks to recover from. I hate being put in the position of having to ration my medication, of being eternally anxious about what to do when it runs out, of having to call and ask for more and risk being seen as a "med seeker."

In nursing school,  I was taught that adequate pain control is a fundamental human right. I was also  taught that adequate pain control is a prerequisite for optimal healing. The former may be debatable - the latter I know is true. I have lost 12 pounds in 10 days, because I am unable to eat. At the peak of my medication's effectiveness, I can force down a few spoonfuls. Otherwise, I can only drink Ensure and plain water. Not that losing 10 pounds is a tragedy for me - I see it the only silver lining to this situation - but it is a measure of how poorly my pain is controlled.

I am wavering about calling tomorrow and asking to speak to the doctor. Aside from pain, I still can't swallow correctly - liquids keep pouring out my nose. I have been so conditioned not to complain, not to make a fuss, not to annoy anybody with my personal needs that so far the idea of calling and asking to be evaluated is more uncomfortable than the pain I am in. I can't decide if it is more ridiculous to ask for medical care or NOT to ask for medical care.

I once read an article about a woman who died of a ruptured bladder when her request to use a restroom on a public restaurant was refused. Rather than demand access or - god forbid - pee in the alley where she might be seen, this woman simply stood there and allowed her bladder to literally split open. When I read this, I shook my head and wondered how it was possible for a grown woman to so ignore her urgent bodily needs, but really it isn't hard for me to sympathize.

Obviously I don't think I am going to die. I'm certainly going to heal and be okay. But... why, in the absence of any medical reason, ought I to suffer severe pain? Why shouldn't I have a few more days of pain medicine? Is this a moral issue? Why shouldn't my inability to swallow correctly be evaluated? At what point would it be considered "okay" to ask to be seen? After how much pain? After how much weight lost? After how many weeks of liquid dribbling out of my nostrils?  And who is stopping me here? For all I know, if I were to call the surgeon, he'd schedule me the same day and call in a scrip.

How much am I going to make myself suffer before I ask for help?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Testing testing 123

Just installed Blogger on my phone - seeing if thus old luddite can figure it out.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Tomato Slavery (Canning for my Soul)

Ever since I first moved to this farm, one of my main motivations for raising animals and putting in a garden has been to try and eat more ethically. I think this is a common concern - most of us care about the ethics of what we put in our mouths and most of us make some sort of effort to source our food with ethical concerns in mind.

For some of us, our paramount concern might be animal welfare, and our concern might lead us to vegetarianism, or to sourcing ethically raised meat. Some of us eat all organic, not just for our own health, but for the planet's health. Most of us try to avoid eating endangered species, and look for sustainably harvested seafood. Recently, many people have become concerned with the carbon footprint of their diet and look for locally produced food that isn't trucked or flown thousands of miles from the point of production.

These are ALL laudable goals, and what I am about to post is in no way meant to suggest that anybody ought to abandon their priorities for mine. We all do what we can to behave ethically - I hope - and I firmly believe it is impossible to refrain from all evil in all our actions.

That said - consider this quote:

"Since 1997, the Justice Department has prosecuted seven cases of slavery in the Florida agricultural industry — four involving tomato harvesters — freeing more than 1,000 men and women. The stories are a catalogue of horrors: abductions, pistol whippings, confinement at gunpoint, debt bondage and starvation wages." 
(for the rest of the article, see here)

Did you catch that? Here in these United States, in the past couple of decades, there have been cases of SLAVERY so egregious that they have been prosecuted as such by the Justice Department. Not "Wage Theft;" not "exploitation," but SLAVERY. For those of you who won't follow the link, the article details the commonplace practices of imprisonment, of people being forced to work at gunpoint, of hostage taking and threatening the families of those who try to escape. For the each of the seven cases that were prosecuted, there were (and are) literally thousands of cases that are never documented.

Following are two more links. I especially recommend the first. It was originally published in Gourmet Magazine in 2009, and it was the first time that the problem of widespread slavery in our agricultural system got serious mainstream press. It is the article that opened my eyes to the scale of the problem.



More recently, there has been news coming out about conditions on tomato farms in Baja California in Mexico. Nearly all of our winter tomatoes in the US come from either Florida or Baja. The large plantations in Baja are not owned by US companies, but they are contracted to large US companies and those companies have moral responsibility for the conditions, which are, again, tantamount to slavery.

This past winter and spring, farmworkers on these plantations have begun to protest the practices and conditions - enforced confinement behind barbed wire and electric fencing; forcing workers to purchase all of their food and water from the company store, which charges exorbitant prices and puts the workers into debt-slavery; lack of running water or plumbing; and as retaliation for protesting, beatings and starvation.

The LA Times ran an expose on the situation, which you can read here:


Aside from labor practices (what a tame and euphemistic phrase), our current system abuses farmworkers by poisoning their bodies with pesticides which they must apply to the fields, often with inadequate or nonexistent protection. The wells from which they must drink are tainted. Their children are subject to birth defects and chronic illnesses as a result of exposure to dangerous agricultural chemicals (see: http://afop.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Annual_Publication_FINAL_English1.pdf)

In short, I have come to a decision. This decision is going to cost me a lot of time and effort. I have decided that I can no longer purchase tomatoes from Mexico or Florida. I realize that it is impossible for me to entirely wash my hands of my participation in our evil (yes, I said evil) agricultural system. Just as I cannot utterly refrain from the evils of the systems which produce my clothing, electronics, or transportation needs, I cannot keep 100% "clean" in my food choices either. It's simply not possible. But I can make a few choices that make me feel better, even if they do not do much to dismantle the systems themselves. This is one of those cases where the only effective action is collective action, yet I can only take individual action.

We eat a lot of tomatoes. After onions, I think tomatoes are probably the single most important vegetable ingredient in my pantry. They go into at least a third of the meals I cook at home. I will continue to buy tomatoes when I can verify that they were produced locally. And I will continue to accept tomatoes from the Gleaner's pantry, no matter where they come from. That is because - similarly to buying secondhand goods - my using those tomatoes does not materially benefit the producers. Exactly zero of my dollars are going to the growers if I collect the tomatoes after they have already been thrown away.

But if I want tomatoes in the months of November through March, I am going to have to preserve them myself. That means I am going to spend a large number of hot August afternoons washing, blanching, peeling, dicing, and canning tomatoes. If I can get my hands on small Roma tomatoes, I can freeze them whole, which is the easiest way of preserving tomatoes. But no matter what, my tomatoes are going to be more expensive from here on out - expensive in terms of time, certainly, and maybe money too, if if we factor in electricity and canning jars.

But what price, after all, a clean conscience? Moderately clean. at least. Moderately.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Harvest Ethics (Am I a Thief?)

Returning from Tucson at the beginning of the week, I found that the High Harvest has definitely begun, as signaled by the traditional anonymous box of squash left on the front porch. Last night's dinner was squash fritters topped with goat cheese. Now there are only six big zucchini left to deal with (until the next influx, anyway).  I will probably do what I did last year and bake a bunch of zucchini bread for the freezer. I defrosted the last of last year's zucchini loaves a few days ago, and it was in perfect condition. The trick is to wrap the loaf tightly in aluminum foil and then place in a ziploc bag. There are still a few cups of organic pecans in the cupboard leftover from a trade several weeks ago, and the zucchini bread plan will use those up as well.

Pickling cucumbers have appeared in the stores, and so I made a bunch of pickles. Four pints of bread and butter canned pickles, which are not my favorite but beloved by Paloma and my mom. I also started a big jar of lacto-fermented dills - but without any dill! I have yet to find any dill weed. I just used plenty of garlic, red pepper flakes, and a whole bunch of grape leaves to stop the pickles from getting soft. My children were aghast when I spotted an enormous grapevine growing up into the trees on the side of the road and pulled over to pick some leaves.

"Mom! You don't know who those belong to!"

"Nobody cares if I pick a handful of leaves off this vine, honey, it's gigantic. Besides, nobody can see me behind the trees."

"MOM!!! You're a THIEF!"

"Oh, relax, if anybody comes out I'll ask them nicely. It's not like I'm taking the grapes."

I also take apples and plums off of abandoned roadside trees. And the sour cherries off those branches of my neighbor's trees that hang over the fence onto my property. I'm unrepentant. Everybody knows that the fruit hanging in your airspace is fair game. As is the fruit off any tree growing in the ditch beside the road if there's no house in hailing/waving distance.

In Seattle, I had a beautiful young Bing cherry tree that I planted in the front yard, which was unfenced. I didn't mind if passersby took a small handful of cherries as they walked by - the temptation was strong - but I did draw the line when I saw people bringing bags and picking into the bag without asking. Once I actually caught a couple of young men UP IN THE BRANCHES, picking all the cherries they could and stuffing their shirtfronts. I yelled at those guys.

In apple season, I often cruise around looking for trees. I like to make apple cider and it takes a LOT of apples. As I said above, if the tree is not within sight of a house, I consider it free fruit. If it is in someone's yard or planted on the road near the driveway, I will knock and ask before taking any fruit. Oh - and obviously I only do that if I see that the apples are falling on the ground and not being picked up. If there are no apples on the ground I figure the owner is using the fruit. And if the owner says "yes, by all means, take all the fruit you like" I always offer back some cider or applesauce in return. I have some elderly neighbors who offered me all the apples I want in exchange for cleaning up the windfalls.

I truly believe I am acting well within the social norms of my region, but I'm very curious to hear what people from other parts of the country say. Am I a thief? Do you have to hike up a quarter mile driveway and knock before you take a handful of grape leaves? When is a tree abandoned? Is it open season on vacant lot trees? Can you strip them bare or is it good form to leave some fruit for the next person? Tell me in the comments.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Heat Wave (Here and There)

The last week has seen temperatures in the high 80's, near 90, every day. The skies have been bright and clear. As close as I live to the Canadian border, I often listen to Canadian Public Radio, since it comes in better than NPR. Thanks to them, I know a new term: UV index. This is a number which calculates - basically - how quickly you will burn if you are dumb enough to stand out in the glaring noonday sun without sunscreen on. I am often that dumb. I must be either a mad dog or an Englishman. This past week, the UV index has been - well, high. I can't pretend I understand (or even remember) the actual numbers, but true nice Canadian weather lady said it was very high.

Accordingly, we have spent the last couple of days at the lake, splashing about in the cool water and exposing our tender flesh to the unmitigated rays of the sun like frigging idiots. No; actually our local park is delightful and among its amenities are several mature maple trees that provide ample shade, even on these hottest days when everybody is spending time at the beach at once. The water, so far, has remained cool and clear.

But there's only so much time you can spend at the park. Alas, we still have to sleep at home. Newer houses in our area may have central air - some of them - but for the most part air conditioning is still regarded as a silly luxury in my part of the world, and certainly no 60 year old farmhouse is going to have it. We have a couple of oscillating fans from Walgreens in our bedroom, but they aren't much good.

Last night the thermostat told me that the air temperature inside my house was 82 degrees. I slept with a wet towel slung over my back. I know those of you who live in most other arts of the country are laughing at me, just as you do when I complain about the freezing 20 degree temperatures in January, but there's no need - tomorrow I am bound for the hottest hellhole in North America.


My Dad lives in Tucson (because he is CRAZY) and I have to visit him for 9 days. In July. Don't ask why - the timing is not up to me. I have TOLD my dad and TOLD my dad to please not schedule any health crises for the summer m months, but the stubborn old bastard just won't listen. The temperatures in the Tucson region hover in the mid 110's for three months straight.

My only hope is that by the time we return home, the weather will have turned here at home.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Pig and Cow (Major Meat)

Long summer evenings and good weather have us out in the yard until late in the day. I haven't mowed the back yard in a few weeks; partly for the benefit of the bees and partly to have a nice carpet of clover available for fattening up the cow, who will be meeting her destiny as a meat animal as soon as this summer is over. Today when I let the goats out to graze, the cow came barreling out as well - nearly knocking me over - and so I grabbed a rope and tied her up smack in the middle of the clover-carpet. 

The rope was maybe too long, and the cow was overexcited at being out of the back pasture for the first time in her woefully short and dim memory. She capered about, knocking over the burn barrel to eat the salty ashes, upending the ferret's play-cage, and generally wreaking havoc. She trampled the new lawn game I bought last week (ladder ball) and now we will have to repair it with many yards of duct-tape. As annoying as all that was, it was also hilarious and delightful to watch her happily kicking up her heels. Homero was moved to try and ride her, with the results you see above. 

We have a new pig. It's been years since we had a pig - I'd have to look back over the blog to see exactly how long it's been and exactly why I swore off pigs forever. I remember doing that, but not precisely why. Since I have belonged to the Gleaner's Pantry, it almost seems a sin not to have a pig, when I have access to a literally unlimited amount of fresh clean bread and produce. Also, it being high milk season, a nearly unlimited amount of whey from cheese making. The waste-stream to which I have access is abundant enough to support a half-dozen pigs - I have been partaking only minimally, but now I will have to up my participation.

There is a local farmer, a neighbor of mine, an older gentleman who has lived around here since Hector was a pup and who in his retirement still raises pigs and chickens and who imparts wisdom to all and sundry via the medium of the local Facebook Farmer's group. I'll call him the Livestock Guru, or the L.G. for short.  This week, he was advertising barbecue pigs (100-150 lbs) for the fourth of July, dressed out and ready for the spit for $350. At the end of the ad he added "or you could raise them out for meat." I asked, "same price live or dressed?" and he answered that I could have a live one for only $200.

Considering that a 40-50 lb piglet goes for $125 to $140, and they usually sell out in minutes, that seemed like an extraordinarily good deal. I consulted with Homero and he agreed. He spent today fixing up the old pigpen - putting new hinges on the old broken gate and hauling the calf-hutch over from the pony's pasture.  Around 6 pm, L.G. brought over a beautiful, healthy pink pig who immediately went to town on the pile of compost in his pen.

If all goes well, he ought to be ready for slaughter at about the same time as the cow - late September, when the grass is dried up. I have heard that I ought to get on the waiting list at local slaughterhouses, as it isn't always easy to get a slaughter date in those prime weeks at the end of summer.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Tidbits and Fruit Update

Beautiful evening out with the goats. They are all (all four of them - the fewest number of goats I've had in years) looking fat and sassy. I'm trying to decide whether to keep the same buck for this coming year or not. Advantages - he's proven, impregnated two of my ladies last year with pretty, spotty babies, and he's healthy, and free. Disadvantages - Iris doesn't like him, didn't let him breed her last year. Also, if I don't separate him (or get rid of him) he will impregnate the does in late summer and I will have babies too early again. If I don't use him, I'll have to find another buck and pay for him.

The cherries are ripening. As usual, the birds are striking the cherries just before they are ripe enough for us. Long term, we have to figure that out. Short term, we are enjoying semi-ripe cherries and looking forward to ripe cherries with a few bird strike scars. Also the neighbors pie cherries are getting ripe, hanging over the fence, and I need to harvest those and make a quart or so of cherry-and-mint infused vodka. Just add club soda and you have what we have named a Cherry Mindy.

Earliest year on record for berries. I took the girls out to pick raspberries today. Unheard of. Strawberries are already done, everywhere. Zion holds its yearly Strawberry Social June 28th (I WILL win the quilt raffle this year, I WILL) but they will have to use frozen strawberries for the sundaes and shortcake. As I was driving around the county today I even saw blueberries ripe on the bushes. Blueberry season usually starts in August. The blackberries are still in blossom, barely. Mostly the bushes are covered with hard tiny green fruit.

Looks like it will be a decent year for pears, but for some reason the Italian Prune hasn't set a single plum. Not one. Last year was a good harvest, and it is one of those trees that usually alternates a heavy year with a light year, but NO fruit seems weird to me. Oh well, here's hoping some of my neighbors will have extra.

I'm headed out of town next week to care for my dad in Tucson. Tucson in July is a trial; it's been over 110 degrees for over a week now. At least he has a pool. By the time I get back, it will be full on harvest season, and I will be consumed with canning for a month or so. I've made a fateful decision, this year, that I can no longer buy tomatoes from Mexico (an upcoming post will detail why- for now, one word will suffice: SLAVERY) and so instead I will be seeking out a shit-ton of local tomatoes to can. I expect the Gleaner's Pantry to help me with that.

The solstice was yesterday. The longest, prettiest days of the year are here. These few short weeks are why I put up with months of mud and freezing rain. I am enjoying them to the fullest extant.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

State of the Farm Summer Solstice (Drought 2015)

There are still almost two weeks until solstice, but with the weather we've been having, it feels very much like summer. In fact, it feels like midsummer - late July or even early August. It is as though the calendar were turned ahead a month.

The blackberry blossoms opened two weeks ago; now they are nearing the end of bloom time and there are hard little green berries on the terminal buds. White clover is in full bloom, and a few red clover blossoms are opening here and there. Full-summer flowers like oxeye daisy, lupine, and tansy are starting to bloom.

Record breaking heat - high eighties - for several days in a row has brought on the berries early. Strawberry season is in full swing and the commercial raspberries will open for U-pick in another week or so. Lack of rain combined with high temperatures has made the berries smaller than usual, but with an unusually concentrated sweetness.

Drought is a major concern this year - the winter was much warmer than usual and snowpack in the north cascades is one-third normal or less. When I look across the valley to the north at the Canadian Cascades, I see deep blue peaks with only flecks of white here and there - which is how the mountains typically look in September. The grass is already starting to dry up, and all of the neighbors are haying. This year I saw people haying in May, which I have never seen before.
We have only bought one truckload so far - 25 bales - but I would like to buy more than usual at early-season prices because I think we will be feeding hay very early this year as the grass disappears.

Though there will be fewer animals to feed over the winter this year. The cow is nearing the end of days. We will be scheduling a butcher date for early fall. I think she is about as big as she is going to get. We have started feeding her alfalfa pellets and bread from there Gleaner's Pantry in hopes of fattening hear up a bit more. I am frankly shocked at how much grass one stunted dairy calf can eat. The big pasture looks terribly skimpy, because the cow has been vacuuming up all the grass all by herself. In years past, I have had the same number of goats plus two ponies on this pasture and it was more lush. This year, the ponies have stayed in the sacrifice area and we stake them out to graze in the front yard. As far as I can tell, one dairy cow equals two ponies and then some. I only hope she tastes good. People who know have told me that Jerseys make good eating, but not to be alarmed at the yellow fat. 

Today I boosted Paloma up into the hayloft to look for eggs. She found a nest with twenty-two eggs in it. We floated them in the stock tank and they all sank, so it's time to make some quiches and freeze them. And egg salad for sandwiches for the last week of school lunches. And maybe some goat-milk ice cream for these hot days. 

Ordinarily, I don't put Demeter on the alter until midsummer (Lammas), but the grass heads are turning golden and my shoulders are all sunburnt and the tomatoes are in flower and the roses are in bloom. It seemed churlish to stick to an artificial calendar rather than honor the actual fact of the season which has clearly arrived. And it may be a brief season this year, so there's no sense in wasting time. Welcome, generous lady! Welcome, abundance! Welcome, Summer!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Making Mole (Happy Birthday)

Tomorrow is Homero's birthday, and we are having a party. Nothing as huge as last year's - no Mariachis, no rented canopies - just a few families coming over to eat some goat barbacoa and drink beers around a fire. Homero will butcher Bambi, our smallest goat, tomorrow and give it to our friend Carlos' wife to cook.

I was surprised and a little hurt when he told me he was having somebody else cook the goat.  I had been poring over my cookbooks looking for some good recipes. However, I consoled myself that I would have plenty of cooking to do with beans, rice, three different salsas, aguas frescas, etc. I guess can I can get over the disappointment of not having to watch a giant stewpot full of goat meat all day long.

Then Homero began to fret that there wouldn't be enough food. I seriously doubt that - Bambi weighs about 85 pounds on the hoof and ought to provide a good twenty to twenty five pounds of muscle meat. Shred that up and it will make a lot of tacos. Homero, though, lives in terror that the food will run out, or that even if it doesn't, it might look like it could possibly run out and he will be nervous. He, like my mom, prefers that when a party is ended there is approximately 80% as much food on the table as there was at the beginning. So I suggested that I could cook a turkey (there's one in the freezer) and make mole.

Homero raised his eyebrow at me. He said "You want to make mole? You've never made mole before."

"I know that," I said, "but I think I can do it."

"Okay," he said skeptically, "but when my mom and sister make mole it takes two days."

"So I'll start today. If it doesn't work out, there will be plenty of time to go buy some."

Just in case anybody doesn't know what mole is, I'll do my best to explain. Mole means "sauce" and so it is.... there are many, many moles, and they vary wildly, but all of them have in common that they are a thick, smooth sauce made from a mixture of chiles, nuts, spices, and fruits. Probably there closest analog of mole in the American culinary lexicon is barbecue sauce - it's complex, savory and highly flavored, and everybody has their own secret recipe. Mole can be yellow, red, black, or even green. But what most people think of when they think of mole is Mole Poblano, the famous dark brown glossy version that contains chocolate.

I looked through my cookbooks. I looked up recipes online. I must have read through a half dozen recipes for mole poblano, and no two of them alike. Some contained tomatoes, others not. Some called for plantain; some for prunes, some for apple or raisins. All called for some kind of nut but in some cases it was peanuts, in others pecans. Other constants were sesame and chocolate, but in differing amounts. I decided I could simply use what I had and add one more variation to the theme.

Here is my recipe - although I will probably never make it exactly the same way twice!

15 guajillo chiles, 10 ancho chiles, and 2 chilpotle chiles. Break open and shake out seeds, reserving seeds. 

Toast chiles on a dry cast iron skillet about 3 minutes, turning. Do not let scorch! Put in a blender and cover with boiling chicken stock. Let soak 1 hour. 

Meanwhile: on same skillet, toast 4 roma tomatoes, one yellow onion (quartered) and 4 cloves garlic until blackened in spots. Get some good char on them. Set aside. Also toast 10 allspice berries, 10 cloves, and a teaspoon cumin seed and set aside. Toast the reserved chile seeds separately, until quite dark, and add to the other spices. 

In another skillet, heat 1/2 c. of lard. Okay, you CAN use vegetable oil, but I don't recommend it. Fry 1/2 c. of raisins, a cut up apple, and a quarter cup apiece of peanuts and pecans. Add three torn-up corn tortillas and a slice of bread. Yes, that's what I said. In the last minute, after everything else is fragrant and fried, add 2 tablespoons sesame seeds and fry another minute. Remove from heat.

When chiles are soft, blend well and then dump the blender into a really big bowl, and add ALL the other ingredients. Also add 3 oz chopped Mexican chocolate (or semi-sweet baking chocolate if you can't find Mexican chocolate) and 1 tsp. cinnamon, 2 tsp salt and 1 tsp black pepper. Mix well. What a mess. 

Working in batches, puree this big mess in the blender. This will work best if you have a heavy duty blender like a vitamin, but if not just keep blending. I blend each batch for a full minute on "ice-crush" and then dump it back in the same big bowl, stir, and scoop up the next batch. That way each batch keeps blending and re-blending some of the same stuff and it gets smoother. 

You will probably have to add a little liquid - use chicken stock. The final texture will be thicker than ketchup but not as thick as peanut butter. 

Now you can store the mole in a jar in the fridge for practically ever. When you want to use some, heat a little oil in a saucepan, add a cup of mole, and thin with hot stock to the consistency of heavy cream. Serve as a sauce for chicken or turkey, or cheese taquitos. VERY rich.

We had enmolados for dinner last night - just heat some corn tortillas and when they are soft, grab with tongs and dip in the mole. Fold onto a plate, and top with crumbled queso fresco. Makes a very satisfying vegetarian (almost) dinner. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Baby Birds (Wild and Tame)

My property is apparently the perfect habitat for killdeer.  I love these handsome, graceful birds, with their piercing calls and their swift, low flights across the fields in the twilight. They show up every year in February, and begin a months-long process of finding a mate and rearing young. They like to nest in flat, open, gravelly areas. For two years running, a pair of killdeer has chosen to nest in my sacrifice area, where I keep the horses. It has been delightful to watch the devoted pair incubating eggs - both male and female sit on eggs, and take turns guarding the nest - and especially delightful to see the tiny babies hatch. 

Killdeer babies are identical to the adults, but smaller, about the size of a golf ball. As soon as they hatch, they begin to run about, with that peculiar killdeer habit of running in short, straight lines and stopping abruptly, as though by a traffic light. The parents stand nearby, watching and, if anyone comes too close, pretending to be injured, dragging themselves athletically about and screaming, to distract a potential predator from their young. 

The nest in the horse pasture hatched out about three weeks ago, and the babies are already half the size of the parents. There were four eggs, but only three juveniles. However, there is another nest now. A pair got started late, I guess. This new mama found herself a supremely unsuitable nest site - right smack dab in the middle of my driveway (see above). When one of my broody hens nests in a poorly chosen site, I wait for dark and then move her, eggs and all, to a site of my choosing. Obviously I can't do that with a wild bird. The girls set up barricades made of pallets, instead. Luckily, killdeer are not much frightened by bustle and hubbub. Even when we (carefully and slowly) drive right by the nest, the parent bird only moves away a few feet, and then returns immediately.  I am looking forward to observing this new family. 

This year, we ordered 8 turkey poults. Turkeys are one of the more profitable animals on the farm - if I can keep them alive until Thanksgiving, and grow them out to a respectable weight, I can sell them for $4/lb, which means each bird is worth somewhere between $50 and $75. These poults, broad breasted bronzes, cost $6.50 apiece. 

Because I belong to the Gleaner's Pantry , I can feed them very cheaply indeed. I always start them off on expensive Game Bird food, but soon enough they can eat scraps, bread, and get out on pasture to forage. Last year, we lost two full grown birds to coyotes, which was a blow, but even so, the entire turkey operation turned a profit, and provided us with our own bird for the holiday. This year, we will have to repair the fences and make an effort to keep the predators away. On each bird that I raise to full weight, I can expect to make a minimum $40 profit. 

That's better than I can expect on a goat kid! 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Spring Swaps

Spring is a good season for trading. I have eggs, milk, and cheese, and am on the prowl for anything to make gardening easier, as I get stiffer and lazier every year. Here are a few recent trades that made me happy:

- A pound and a half of assorted cheese for a dozen big, vigorous raspberry canes. I am slowly turning my garden patch into a raspberry patch. 

- A couple pounds of assorted cheese for credit towards future pruning for my fruit trees. The orchard is growing - that part of it not mutilated by tent caterpillars, anyway - and will need to be pruned this coming fall/winter. This fellow is happy rot accept cheese all season long and keep track of what he owes. It's a bit of a gamble, since I haven't ever traded with him before and don't know for certain he won't just stop returning my calls as soon as I run out of cheese. However, I have so much cheese I can't possibly eat it all and so what am I really losing, here? I know I'm making somebody really happy, so that's a gamble I'm willing to take. 

- Disbudding baby goats for various sundries. Since I acquired my own iron and started disbudding my own baby goats, other nearby goat-folks have been asking me to help them. I can't charge for the service - that would be "impersonating a veterinarian" - but I am not averse to accepting a small gift in exchange for my time. First, of course, I give a long spiel about how I am NOT a vet; that disbudding is an inherently dangerous job; that there is always some risk, of infection or brain damage; and by the way, did I say I am NOT a vet?

After I am convinced that the owner is aware of and willing to assume the risks, I am happy to help. It only takes a minute and so far, I haven't injured or killed any goats. And as far as I know, none of them have grown scurs, either; I tell everybody that if they do, I will repeat the procedure, but nobody has complained yet of an incomplete disbudding. 

One lady traded me a few cuts of grass fed beef and two jars of home-canned venison for the job. Another, my friend M., traded me several pounds of shelled, organic pecans from her uncle's farm in Texas. I made curry with the venison and pecan pie with some of the pecans.

I have a long list of people waiting for cheese. I have suggested, in trade, such things as canning jars, vegetable starts, jams and jellies, or meat. People have offered me other things - some interesting, some not so much. I have no use, for example, for evergreen tree starts. But sewing lessons? Yes, I think I might just enjoy that. 

I love trading with my neighbors. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Homero's New Toy (the Craigslist Chronicles)

A few weeks ago, Homero made a spectacular find on Craigslist - a Case loader for under a thousand dollars, more or less in running condition. He has wanted a tractor for ages - he has major tractor envy of our neighbor, who has a small, spanking new Kubota with a loader and a backhoe. But the truth is that five acres does not a tractor justify, not unless you have some sort of intensive revenue-positive business on your five acres that requires a tractor. An occasional need to move barn-litter or patch potholes in the gravel driveway does not count.

Our neighbor, by the way, also has five acres. When he bought his Kubota, complete with field mower and rototiller attachments, he spent week after week going over his land, converting it fairly quickly into dust, which blew away in the wind or ran down into the ditches with the rain. We shook our heads, but what can a neighbor do? What is a friendly warning about erosion, compared to the seductive smell of diesel exhaust? 

Homero sensibly sold me on the idea of buying the Case by explaining how he would make a few minor repairs and then sell it for triple the purchase price. Maybe that will happen. Who am I to say? What do I know about the value of small farm machinery? Not a whole lot.  Meanwhile, Homero has been enjoying playing with the loader.

My brother in law brought a load of chips recently, which had stayed in a pile in front of the barn for lack of a way to spread them. Done - a neat, four inch thick carpet is laid over the muddy area. The barn litter, which I had simply forked out through the window into the old pig yard has now been moved over to the compost area. And best of all - the old compost pile has been turned and turned and turned again. 

Some of the compost goes back five years. I guess it can fairly be called topsoil now. Grass had grown thick over the top of the oldest mound. I certainly wasn't going to try to turn it by hand, with my creaky shoulders and my obstreperous lumbar region. There it sat, a four foot high mound, fifteen feet across, inviolate, until today. 

Homero spent the last hour of daylight this afternoon practicing with the loader, going over and over the compost, turning it and turning it again. When he was done there was a pile of beautiful loose dirt - black as a devil's food cake; moist, crumbly, squeezable, and absolutely heady with the smell of freshly turned earth. I cannot doubt that it will work magic in the garden. Somebody's garden, anyway - I plan to offer it for sale on Craigslist. Turnabout's fair play. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Three Easy Cheeses (From One and a Half Goats)

Polly and Iris

This year I have one-and-a-half does in milk. Sounds weird, but it's about right. Polly (black and white, above) had twin babies born early during a snowstorm that didn't make it. She is a good milker and is now giving me about 3/4 gallon of milk a day. This isn't as much as last year - she ought to be at peak production about now and I expected closer to a gallon a day based on last year. However, with the addition of the cow, the pasture is not as abundant as it once was; maybe I am not making up the difference with quality supplemental hay. It doesn't matter much to me - she has good body condition and I don't need to squeeze every last drop of milk from her.

Flopsy had a single buckling a month later, a spectacular spotted boy. It's nice that Flopsy had a single this year, because she is more usually given to throwing triplets, and as a "half a doe" she can't raise triplets. Years and years ago, Flopsy had a serious case of mastitis and lost most of the production on one side of her udder. If this were a commercial operation, we would have had to cull her. Luckily, this is a homestead and I can make decisions that aren't ruthlessly practical. I decided that since Flopsy is fertile, healthy, a good mother and a good kidder, and still capable of raising twins on one teat, she's worth keeping. Indeed, Flopsy brought in the only cash income of the year, with the sale of her flashy buckling. Flopsy adds about three pints a day to the milk total.

Iris didn't get pregnant at all last year - a first. She is the best milker I have and also usually throws triplets. I don't know if it's her age - nine - or the fact that she clearly didn't like last year's buck. She ran away from him and wouldn't let him mount, even though she was in full, raging heat. It's okay though -together, the in-milk does are providing me a little over a gallon of milk a day, which is a lot.

I have to make cheese about three times a week to keep up. This year I have been pretty busy with a new job and so I have settled into a routine of making easy cheese that I am already very familiar with rather than trying to experiment with tricky recipes. Here are my three go-to cheeses, in ascending order of difficulty:

1) queso fresco. Just heat a gallon of milk to 180 degrees fahrenheit, add 1/4 cup of distilled white vinegar, and when the curds separate, strain through a clean cotton cloth. When drained, you can place cheese in a bowl, cut or crumble into small pieces, salt, and then wrap and press (in a press or under a stack of books) for several hours until firm. If you like, add chopped herbs or red pepper flakes when you add the salt. Good for quesadillas.

2) chèvre. Heat a gallon of milk just to blood temperature, no higher. Add mesophilic starter, 1/8 teaspoon and gently stir. Cover and let sit several hours. I like to add two to three drops rennet for a slightly firmer cheese, but if you like it very soft and spreadable, omit this step. Continue to let sit undisturbed for a full 24 hours at room temperature. Then drain through a clean cotton pillowcase. I like to hang my pillowcase up on the clothesline to drip. It will take several hours or overnight to drain sufficiently. Remove cheese and salt, mixing well. Takes about 1 level tablespoon salt per gallon of milk, less if you have drained the cheese until it is very thick and dry.

3) "cheddar." This is probably not really cheddar; it's my simplified recipe that I have developed over the years. For a gallon or up to two gallons of milk. Heat to blood temperature and add 1/8 tsp mesophilic starter. Cover and let sit undisturbed about 2 hours. Add five drops rennet and gently stir. Wait until curds separate into a cake with whey floating on top - about two more hours. Check for a clean cut with a thin-bladed knife. Make three or four cuts and then wiggle the pan - the cheese should separate cleanly with sharp lines. If not, wait longer, up to 8 hours if room is cool.

When you have a clean cut, use your knife to cut curd into small cubes - about 1/2". Heat gently to about 105 - warm bath temperature but not hot. Stir. Curds will firm up and whey will get clearer. Stir continually for as long as you have available - up to 45 minutes. Curds will become rounded, shiny, and firmer. Drain through a clean cotton cloth. Salt well, using hands to turn and knead for a few minutes. Then wrap in the cloth and press under firm pressure - about 50 pounds. You will need a press for this - a 50 pound stack of books is very wobbly.

Press overnight. Turn cheese and press under even firmer pressure - 75?- for another 10 to 12 hours. Remove cheese from press and let air dry (under cheesecloth to protect from flies) for about 2 days, turning once. Then cheese may be waxed and stored at cellar temperature. My oldest "cheddar" is now about 10 weeks old, but I haven't broached it yet so I can't tell you how it turned out.

It goes without saying that all of your equipment ought to be not just clean but sterile - use only stainless steel or tempered glass, something that can withstand being washed with boiling water. I keep a small pot of water simmering on the stove for my spoons, thermometers, etc. Only the cotton cloth cannot actually be sterile - but after each time I unwrap cheese, I wash it and wring it out in very hot water and then hang it up to dry outside in the breeze. I wash it again in hot water just before use.

Two of the above recipes use unpasteurized milk - that is up to your discretion. The recipes will work equally well with pasteurized milk. Just heat milk to 160 degrees. Boom, it's pasteurized. If anyone who might eat the cheese is pregnant or has an immune deficiency disease the milk MUST be pasteurized. Not to do so is to court Listeria, Salmonella, E. Coli, and other dangerous diseases. Even healthy, well-cared-for animals harbor these bacteria in their gut. I wash my hands!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Canning in April (Gleaner's Pantry)

My kitchen table was a housewarming gift from my mom. It is absolutely beautiful - twelve feet of knotty pine, seats eight comfortably or ten in a pinch. Here it is covered with produce from the Gleaner's Pantry today. Aside from the boxes and bags you see here, there are also three or four boxes full of animal food in the van - trimmings and waste, wilted lettuce and yellow greens and apples with bad spots and rock-hard bagels.

Everything in the photo above is human-quality food. It just needs a little love. The grapes, for example, might have a couple of shriveled specimens hanging on that need to be plucked off and thrown away. A bell pepper might have a crack in it, or an onion could be sprouting a bit. In a five pound bag of mandarin oranges, a lone moldy orb renders the whole bag unfit for sale. For the most part, I can't even tell why the food was deemed unacceptable for the grocery store - it all looks good to me.

Today I brought home a lot of food. The flat of tomatoes on the left is, as we speak, being turned into salsa ranchera and I will can it as soon as I finish this post. Canning tomatoes in April: imagine. Several loaves of fancy crusty organic sourdough bread are slowly becoming croutons in the oven right now, bathed in olive oil, herbs, and garlic. A massive bag of chopped organic kale is in the oven, too, and will soon become crunchy kale chips, a favorite after school snack.

Three heads of Napa cabbage will be kim chee. I'm going to chop it and macerate with salt, garlic, ginger, and red pepper flakes. Nobody likes kim chee but me; but I like it a lot. Fermented food is good for the gut.

Dinner tonight is cream of celery-root soup. There were two gigantic celery roots on offer and I have leftover chicken from last night with which to make stock. Celery root makes the most wonderful silky smooth soup, you hardly even need cream. I will be enriching mine with chèvre, of which I also have an abundance this time of year.

After everyone had taken as much food as they wanted and could carry, there was still so much food leftover! A few people who raise pigs took crates of produce and leftover baked goods. But even after that, there is still good, edible food going to the landfill, simply for lack of people to take it home and eat it. It's amazing what goes to waste because of the difficulties of logistics and our "just-in-time" food system.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Best Friend Goodbye

"My heart has joined the thousand, for my friend stopped running today." - Watership Down.

Today I have a heavy heart. Our dog Ivory, who has been with us for almost fourteen years, since before my children were born, died last night. Ivory has always been a healthy dog, she has hardly been sick a day in her life. Even this year, people who met her would remark on what a beautiful dog she was, and when I said she was thirteen, they would be amazed and say how good she looked for her age.

Just two days ago, she was still dancing at the door when I went out to feed the animals, eager to accompany me and do her job as she saw it. However, we had noticed just lately that she seemed without her usual energy, and that sometimes she panted without having exercised. She had a normal appetite and certainly hadn't lost weight or anything like that. We said "maybe we ought to get her in for a checkup soon." 

But then yesterday morning when we woke up we could see instantly that something was very wrong.  For the first time ever, she didn't want to come out for morning chores. She wasn't interested in food or water. She sat up on her sternum and her flanks went in and out as she labored to breathe. The vet said to bring her in right away. 

I had to work, so Homero took her in. When I called on my first break and asked what the deal was, I could hear the sorrow in his voice as he said "amor, it isn't good." 

The vet took an X-ray, and it showed that one of her lungs was entirely filled with fluid and her heart was radically displaced. They aspirated the fluid, and it was blood. But not normal blood; it didn't clot. Given that, and her age and her breed, the vet said it was almost certain that she had advanced angiosarcoma - a common cancer of the blood vessels that causes disseminated bleeding in the thoracic cavity. 

I said "How can that be? She was fine until this week." But she said that it is actually quite common - normal, in fact - for a dog to show virtually no symptoms until the end is near. "They go along, compensating quite well, until all of a sudden the bleeding is too much and they can't compensate any more." Ivory, the vet told us, had at most two or three days to live. Her lungs were filling up with blood and she would soon drown. 

We talked briefly about further testing and options, but the vet told us that frankly she doubted if Ivory even had enough time for bloodwork to come back. There was clearly no option but for us to help her end her suffering as soon as possible. If we did nothing, her death would be very uncomfortable - in the words of the veterinarian "not gentle." Our friend and veterinarian Anne-Marie  helped us and provided the service of ending her life in a private and gentle manner.


We buried her last night beneath the dogwood tree. This tree is my favorite on the property - slim, graceful, and elegant, beautiful and delicate, it reminds me very much of Ivory. She used to lie beneath this tree in the shade on hot summer days and watch Hope and Paloma jumping on the trampoline. It comforts me to think that in the years to come, Ivory may actually become a part of this tree, and we may sit in her shade and remember her. 

Believe it or not, I have reached the age of forty-three without ever having lost someone I greatly loved. I suppose that is a blessing, although right now I think I would have benefitted from some practice grieving. I guess Ivory is my practice grieving; and long may it be before I have to put it to use. We are going to miss Ivory for a long time, I know. We will never ever forget her.