"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Little Altars Everywhere

Beltane altar

My religious background is very complicated. I was born Jewish, because my mother and her mother and her mother were Jews, albeit secular ones. My mother used to say they were just Jewish enough for Hitler to want them dead. I don’t identify as a Jew though, because I don’t practice Judaism, and I do practice some other religions. In fact I believe that according to orthodox Jewish law, I stopped being a Jew at the age of eight, when my father had me baptized into the Mormon church. 

While my parents were married, which they weren’t anymore very shortly after said baptism, we used to go to Mormon services fairly often. After the divorce Dad would still take us once in a while during our weekend visits, while we were still small. I remember long boring services and lots of cookies.  But he fell away from the church, and he fell away from his kids, and stopped taking us to church, or anywhere else. Mom never set foot in a Mormon church again, as far as I know. I myself haven’t been to a Mormon church - except for my cousin’s wedding - in thirty five years. 

In fact I didn’t set foot in a church of any kind for over twenty years, unless it was as a tourist in Italy or Mexico. But I nonetheless had a spiritual life. It was centered, as most of my life has always been centered, around books and learning. In community college when I was sixteen I took a class called the Power of Myth, that used Joseph Campbell’s work as a textbook, and I’m here to tell you it blew my mind. 

Litha Altar 

The year I was twenty-one I was pregnant with my first child. I spent months that year reading the White Goddess by Robert Graves. Among the many things I learned in that book was the sacred tree-calendar of the Druids, and I named my daughter Rowan, after the tree that ruled her birth-month of February. Since then, I’ve more or less considered myself a solitary witch.

It’s true that I attend my local church, a tiny ELCA congregation called Zion. After many solitary years I felt the need to worship with others, and I wanted a deeper connection with my neighbors. I was attracted by the aesthetics of Zion, I admit: a small, whitewashed building with a steeple and a real bell, and a real graveyard, sitting alone in a green valley near my house.  It took me years to screw up my courage and attend a service. 

It so happened that at that first service, the young woman who was pastor (a good sign!) gave a sermon in which she said “a church is not a place where a bunch of people sit together all believing the same thing” which was auspicious. At coffee hour afterwards I introduced myself. I wanted to come back but I was very conscious of the fact that I wasn’t actually a Christian. I wanted to ask if I could come as an interfaith visitor - but of course I didn’t know those words and what came out of my mouth was “is it okay if I come here as a Pagan?” 

But although I go to church two or three times a month, and I find it nourishing, I’m still a witch. The main way that I practice my path is through observing the sacred calendar of the earth - the solstices and the equinoxes, and the cross-quarter day’s in between them. The names that I attatch to these holy days are Celtic or Neo-Pagan, but it really doesn’t matter to me what they are called. If I knew the names in Ancient Greek or Mayan, I might use those names. 

Samhain Altar 

Observing the holy days means laying an altar for them. Over the years in this blog, I’ve shared pictures of my seasonal altars many times, and I’ve shared observations of various holy days such as Mabon and Imbolc. But I haven’t talked about the practice of keeping an altar. 

Some people are very formal about their altars. They have set places for them, with well-demarcated boundaries and lots of rules for which items belong on the altar at which seasons. You can probably guess I’m not one of those people. I do have certain icons that I like to use for certain holidays - usually my own paintings that evoke the season or a particular deity. One of my very long term goals is to eventually paint enough icons to have an entire set for all seasons. But for the most part, I play loose and fast with the idea of an altar. 

The shelf above our hearth is my main altar, and I have a smaller space in the kitchen for a kitchen altar. But an altar has no fixed position. As Black Elk said, “the sacred mountain is everywhere.” And so, wherever you lay your altar, you are really laying it on your heart. And if it isn’t laid in your heart, then it isn’t laid anywhere and you are just playing with leaves and stones. Not that there’s anything wrong with playing with leaves and stones. 

Altars even spring into being all by themselves, and I think these may be my favorite and most sacred type of altar - the ones that emerge organically from the life of the household. When I notice that my ordinary life, the simple repetitive rythyms of my days, creates little altars everywhere, then I feel especially blessed and feel that I must be doing something right. Then I feel that Hera, Goddess of hearth and home, at once the royal Queen of heaven and humble housewife, has come to visit me and is incaranate in the work of my hands. 

Spontaneous altar that emerged on a side table 

Monday, November 19, 2018

Practicing Thankfulness (a look back)


A repost from a few years ago follows.  Although we have no turkeys this year, and many other things are different as well, it’s always, always, always good to give thanks. And sometimes, if I have a hard time coming up with things I am presently thankful for, it’s good to be able to look back on this blog and find what I was thankful for in another time. 

So right now, I’m thankful that I have diligently recorded my seasons on this piece of land. I’m thankful for my own past hours spent on that endeavor. I’m thankful for the technology that lets me easily and quickly find the bits of my writing that I am looking for, or to peruse those I have forgotten I ever wrote. I’m thankful for the technology that lets me record and share the beauty of this place I live in. I’m grateful for my artist’s eye that lets me see beauty in my mundane surroundings, like the frosted leaves above, and for the ability to share that frozen moment with all of you. 

Here’s what I was grateful for in November of 2013. 

1) The turkeys. We will be eating our own bird thursday, a beautiful creature who dressed out at 19 pounds. I sold two other turkeys, for $4/lb, a very decent price. Well, one of them I accepted half cash and half groceries, and some of those groceries will be on the thanksgiving table as well. In particular, I'm thankful for

2) the quart of dried morels I accepted as partial payment. I love wild mushroom gravy. The last turkey I decided to donate rather than stash it in the freezer for Christmas or something. Calling around, I found out that

3) the Lighthouse Mission in Bellingham will be serving a Thanksgiving meal on friday for those who missed out on the big day. I'm thankful they are doing this, and also that they can legally accept my turkey. Anybody looking for an easy way to help out the homeless and hungry this year could do worse than to donate to this hardworking organization.

4) I'm thankful that my mom is coming up from Seattle and we will have a crowd of family around the table. I'm sorry my sister won't be here, but I am thankful that

5) I don't have to make a gluten free, dairy free Thanksgiving meal.

6) I'm thankful that the buck is sold and the boarded does are gone home and that all my goats are probably pregnant and that goat breeding season is over for another year!

7) I'm grateful that the cold snap is over and I no longer have to water the animals with a five gallon bucket but can go back to using the hose like a normal person.

8) I'm grateful for my nieces, who are sweet, cheerful, hardworking, and funny. They are doing so well in school and making friends. I am grateful they are enjoying their time here and I'm so grateful for the trust that their parents put in me and Homero. It's a blessing.

9) I'm thankful for the beauty of my part of the world. I'm so grateful to be able to look out my window and see the mountains and the trees and the sky. I'm constantly amazed at the natural beauty with which I am surrounded.

10) I'm thankful for this house, drafty and creaky as it is, it's still shelter, and it's home.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Salvaging the Impalatable (Fermented Seal Guts)

April and May is goat cheese season, year after year. This past spring, however, I spent even more time than I usually do making cheese. That was because I knew that we would be spending the two months of high summer far from home, in Oaxaca. Whereas I would usually use most of the milk making fresh, easy to make and easy to use simple cheeses like queso fresco and chevre, this year I made more hard cheeses, intended for storing. 

My hope was that I could make enough hard cheese, and store it effectively enough, to have cheese in the late summer and fall when we came home. I made mostly cheddar, with and without flavorings such as chives and red pepper flakes, and I used my vacuum sealer to seal it up and store it in the fridge over the summer. In past years, I haven’t had great luck with this method - the cheese inevitably molded even inside the vacuum sealed pouches. This time I took more care to cure (air dry) the cheeses well before sealing. Then I packed them into the coldest part of the fridge, crossed my fingers, said a prayer, and flew away. 

Upon our return I was delighted to find that none of the packages showed any signs of mold. The seals were tight; thee was no evidence of air inside the bubble, and when I opened a package, the cheese smelled fresh and good. 



I still wasn’t happy with the “final product.” In my mind, an aged cheddar should have a distinct taste and texture  - “sharp,” piquant, and maybe a bit crystally, ever so slightly crunchy under the teeth. It ought to melt well. It ought to smell wonderful, and to be appetizing even to those who aren’t the biggest fans of aged cheese. At the very least, it ought not to be offensive to the taste (except to those weak-stomached fools who hate any strong flavored cheese). 

The cheeses I have opened so far have been a bit hit or miss, according to these criteria. Mostly, they do melt well and have a very good texture. The problem is their extremely strong, rather goaty flavor. The “goaty” flavor in aged goat cheeses is due to certain compounds known as Caprine flavor compounds. Apparently, they tend to concentrate over time. What went into the fridge in May as a nice, smooth, mild-mannered green cheddar came out in September as a rugged, aggressive, stinky, crumbly goat cheese. It is simply not something that most people - more to the point “we” - would choose to eat as a stand alone product. 

That’s disappointing of course. I’ve made myself eat a few slices on crackers, with grapes or apples and the soothing influence of fig jam or plum preserves, but it just isn’t a truly pleasant experience, if I am honest. So I am left with the question of what to do with several pounds of extra-strong stinky goat cheese that represents a silly number of hours of labor that I am simply not willing to chalk up to experience and toss in the trash.

Today I solved that problem by making calzone. I had some herbed pizza dough courtesy of the gleaner’s pantry, and our own pantry provided various strong flavored ingredients such as kalamata olives and marinated artichoke hearts, with which I intended to mask the Caprine compounds. 

Paloma helped me roll out the dough and I took the opportunity to educate her a little (read, bore her to tears) about the historical necessity of making do with whatever ingredients were available, regardless of their objective edibility. For most of human existence, nobody had the luxury of turning their nose up at “stinky” food. Willingness to eat what was available was quite literally the difference between life and death, or at least between health and malnutrition. 

“Some people in Greenland had to eat fermented seal guts,” I told her, “and eventually, it became a delicacy. Necessity is the mother of invention.” 

Her expression showed me she wasn’t convinced. 

“It’s always been a woman’s job to take whatever was at hand and turn it into something, if not delicious, at least something that her family would eat,” I continued. “And that’s the origin of haute cuisine. Seriously - all culinary creativity is based on using the dregs, the ugly bits, the stinky bits, and making it beautiful and desirable.” 

This, as I grate the too-stinky-to-eat goat cheese onto the rolled out calzone dough, and cover it with chopped olives, artichoke hearts, parsley and marinara sauce. I tell Paloma, and I cross my fingers that I’m not lying, that the cheese’s too-strong flavor will, in the company of all these other flavors, enhance the calzone and actually be an asset to the finished product. 

I’m sure that dozens of generations of women have made this same argument to their skeptical families regarding dozens of equally dubious ingredients. I mean, seriously. Natto? “Thousand year eggs?” Shrimp paste? The first Gorgonzola? We ladies have simply had to brazen it out, and time and history have largely vindicated us. Except for the fermented seal guts. 

The verdict on the calzones was that they were delicious. The goaty flavor of the cheese melded well with the salty, briny olives, and all the calzones disappeared with alacrity. 

One cheese down, several cheeses to go. 

Monday, October 29, 2018

Apple-anch, 2018

It’s apple season again, which means I’m too busy to write about it. These lovely specimens were part of a farm glean courtesy of the Gleaner’s Pantry. I’m hoping the weather holds and we can haul out the press this weekend, but in the meantime I’m dehydrating, making sauce and pies. 

Enjoy fall!! 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Fermentation Files (Plum Edition)

Italian plum trees are known for having an alternating harvest: one very heavy year alternating with a very light year. As everyone who has an Italian plum tree knows, the heavy harvests are very heavy indeed. In 2016, the last heavy harvest year, there were so many plums on the tree that branches were breaking from the weight of all the green plums, and we had to strip off and throw away hundreds and hundreds of unripe plums.

Last year, true to form, the tree produced very few plums. I am actually glad that the Italian plum tree provides its owners with a rest every other year, because dealing with literally thousands of plums all ripening at once is a ton of work.

Of course, we cannot possibly make use of each and every plum. That's just a silly proposition. Even if we were to dedicate ourselves to preserving plums 24/7 in season, inevitably many, many plums would fall to the ground and become a feast for wasps before we could make use of them. And that's just fine. After all, wasps need to eat too.

My sense of duty, however, and overdeveloped guilt reflex, mandate that I make a valiant attempt every year to utilize as many plums as possible. There are lots of ways to use plums: eating fresh (we eat a lot); dehydrating - the dehydrator is going day and night in mid-september; cooking in pies and crumbles; giving away to friends and neighbors; and wine. For using up a whole lot of ripe plums at once, there is no preserving method superior to winemaking.

In 2016 I made my first attempt at plum wine, and it was fairly successful. By which I mean I produced a quaffable product that would reliably get you drunk, not that I produced a product worthy of bottling and bragging about. Surprisingly, the wine was a light, orangey rosé, not the sort of deep, velvety purple you would expect from blue plums. It was pleasant, quite dry, with a bit of a sour tang. It was good enough that when faced with a similarly overwhelming number of plums this year, I decided to repeat the experiment.

One of my many failings is that I am constitutionally incapable of taking notes, keeping records, and thus reliably repeating successes in the kitchen. I can't remember - and didn't write down - what type of yeast I bought in 2016, nor whether or not I used yeast nutrient (which is something you usually have to add to wines that aren't made from grapes), nor how long I left the wine in the primary fermenting chamber (AKA food-grade plastic bucket) before putting it into a carboy and air locking it.

So, basically I was starting from scratch. I followed a recipe from one of my books, more or less - I decided I would forgo the reccommended yeast nutrient because I was making the wine on a weekend and didn't want to wait until the home-brew store opened on Monday. And I made a few other tweaks - I added honey instead of sugar, I didn't have any Camden tablets - okay, I basically ignored the recipe entirely and winged it 100%. Fruit + sugar + water + yeast + time = alcohol. Right?

I do - always - sterilize equipment with boiling water. That's a non-negotiable. And I used a real wine yeast (Chablis, if I remember right), not baker's yeast. But I think this year's batch may have suffered somewhat from my lackadaisical attitude. After putting the wine into a carboy and air locking it, it bubbled vigorously for a few days, but then stopped entirely, rather than just slowing down as it should do. I left it in a cool place to keep doing its thing for two more weeks, but then I sat down and stared at the airlock for three minutes. No bubble. That is pretty definitive that the fermentation has stalled.

Stalled fermentation isn't the end of the world - not even the end of the wine. There are things you can do to try to get it going again. I decided to rack the wine off into another carboy, thereby aerating it. Tasting the wine as I transferred it, it was pretty thin and sour tasting, so I decided to add a bit more sugar. I replaced the airlock, and now there's nothing to do but wait three or four months and then taste it. It will either be drinkable or not, and either way it's experience. The tremendous abundance of plums makes it cheap and low risk to experiment with winemaking, just as the tremendous abundance of milk in early summer makes it cheap and low risk to experiment with cheesemaking. If, next spring, I have a few gallons of nice plum wine, I'll be happy. If I have to pour a few gallons of weird plum vinegar out onto the compost, well, so be it.

There is another, much lower risk, delicious way to ferment a few dozen plums, though, and I did that too this year. A plum shrub. A shrub is basically a sort of fruit concentrate - you put chopped ripe fruit to macerate in sugar for a few days, and then pour over apple cider vinegar to cover. The shrub will keep in the fridge indefinitely, and can be mixed with water - still or sparkling - to make an elegant and yummy non-alcoholic drink. Of course, you can also add a jigger of rum or vodka or gin to your cocktail. I made a half gallon of plum shrub flavored with rosemary, and it was delicious, with or without spirits.

Looking forward to a year off. 2020 will be soon enough to get elbow deep in plums.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Preserving Log 9/18

Arrived home from Oaxaca ten days ago. In that time we had a lot to do to get the kids ready for school- go shopping for supplies and clothes, adjust their schedules, etc. Paloma made a schedule and posted it on the fridge:

We did all that. Also I started a serious job - ten days of full time, 8 hour days interpreting for a student enrolled in he Washington state Caregiver’s training program. I have done this same course several times before. It’s very demanding; after eight hours of simultaneous interpretation my brain feels like a bowl of cold oatmeal. But it pays well and after our expensive summer abroad I couldn’t turn it down. 

Meanwhile, the pears and the plums and the early apples just kept on coming. Here’s what I’ve done in the way of preserving in the last ten days, more or less in order:

1) dehydrated two gallons of pears and two gallons of plums

2) canned six quarts salsa ranchera

3) canned four quarts pear/apple sauce

4) three gallons lacto-fermented pickles

5) made three gallons of plum wine - currently undergoing secondary fermentation in a carboy on the mantle. 

6) made three pounds chevre

7) canned eight pints blackberry jam

8) froze a gallon blueberries

Planning on picking up several pounds of peppers for canning later this week. That’s about it for now. I want to hit the farmers market and look for wild mushrooms - chanterelle season is in full swing, and I’d like to dry a few pounds. 

Happy Mabon to you all. 

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Making Up for Lost Time (Mabon Again)

We arrived home late the night before last. Or perhaps more accurate to say, early yesterday morning. We finally opened the door to our home at about 1:30 am Friday morning, to a couple of very happy dogs. 

After sleeping in quite late, we set about cleaning the house (my daughter Rowan did a wonderful job taking care of the farm and keeping the place operational, but she apparently didn’t sweep the floor or scrub the toilet once in seven weeks). I had cleaned out the fridge before we left, so there wasn’t much food in the house. 

A quick reconnaissance of the orchard revealed that there is still a heck of a lot of fruit to cope with. The greengage plums are done for this year - though a neighbor friend picked a bunch and dehydrated some for us - but the Italian plums are still a week or so away from ripe, and the tree is loaded. 

Pears are falling all over the property. I think I may have mentioned that I have FOUR pear trees, which is a ridiculous number. The Bartletts are ripe, and the Comice pears are not far behind. The Seckels and whatever the fourth one is (I forget) have a ways to go. Today I picked up a few dozen fallen Bartlett pears that were still firm and  fragnrant and tomorrow I will haul the dehydrator out of storage and scrub it. The girls love dehydrated pears in their school lunches. School starts Tuesday. 

The cider apple tree is covered with apples. Cider season will be soon.  The other Apple trees, still quite young, have a few dozen apples apiece. And the Asian pears trees, planted two years ago, and a half have a few pears on them. 

Today I went to Gleaners’s Pantry. Came home with the crate you see above - about twenty five pounds of tomatoes and peppers. Tomorrow I will can. I’m guessing there’s a good dozen quarts of salsa in that box. 

Tonight I spent a few hours making good use of other produce fromGleaner’s. Roasted hatch chiles, red onions, corn on the cob, and fresh tomatoes became this beautiful salsa: 

I also brought home a half dozen loaves of ciabatta bread. I like to cube it up and toss the cubes with a mix of olive oil, herbs, garlic, salt and pepper, and bake until they are crunchy croutons. Store in a ziplock bag in the fridge. 

 Not pictured here is a new experiment - plum shrub. A shrub is a fruit based concentrate, made of any fresh fruit macerated with sugar for a few days and then mixed with apple cider vinegar. That makes a storable concentrate that can be mixed with fresh water - still or sparkling - for a delightful refreshing non-alcoholic beverage. If you like, of course, you can also add a jigger of vodka or gin. My first attempt at a shrub is a half gallon of chopped Italian plums and a few springs of rosemary. I expect it will be delicious. 

I missed a lot of preserving season this year - for the very worthwhile reason that we were in Mexico with my husband’s family - but I am making up for list time. Mabon is upon us, almost, and I intend to embrace the motto of the season and be prepared. 

Besides, I love it. Putting up food is just about my favorite thing ever. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Quince Años for Hope

Hope will turn fifteen in October. Fifteen is a major, major birthday in Mexico - in the old days it was the traditional coming of age birthday, when a girl would be “presented to society” and declared eligible for courtship. And it was marked with an extravagant party for the entire community.  Rather like a debutante’s “coming out” ball. 

Hope will have her quince at home in October, but her abuelita wanted to throw her a party here as well. It was a lovely affair, just family and close friends, but that amounted to about thirty-five people. We cooked vats of posole (Hope’s requested meal) and Homero surprised her with mariachis. 

Opening the Waltz with Papa

Posing with the mariachis. Hope has become quite a good guitar player, and after the mariachis performed they sat down to eat - as is traditional - and Hope played a few songs. As they were leaving, the bandleader stopped Hope and told her that she has an enchanting voice, plays well, and should never stop. 

Last waltz with a doll.... this tradition symbolizes “putting away childish things” and becoming a grownup lady. 

There’s a lot to be said about Quinces, and I’d love to write a whole post about them. Maybe later, as right now I have to get downstairs and start helping with the tamales. 

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Cooking in Oaxaca (Improv Style)

Meatballs in red sauce 

I love to cook, but cooking here presents some, ahem, challenges..  

We are staying at my mother-in-law’s house and that means I am cooking in her kitchen. Which, I will say, is pretty well equipped. Four burner gas stove with a cast iron comal; functional fridge and freezer. Decent selection of cookware, by which I mean there is a small skillet and a large skillet, stockpots of various sizes, cutting boards, and a full range of implements like spatulas and strainers. A pretty good blender. 

But most of the equipment is.... not of a quality I would buy at home. Pots and pans are aluminum, or whatever that sheet metal-covered-in-blue-enamel camping ware is. They are warped and don’t sit flat on the burner. Knives are cheap, dull, and plastic handled. There is theoretically an oven but it hasn’t been used since we lived here five years ago and is crammed with stuff I wouldn’t attempt to remove and find other space for.

Then there’s my mother-in-law’s organization system, or lack thereof. Now, I’m no neat freak and I know my own kitchen falls far below the standards of those of many people. So I’m not being judgemental, I’m just explaining why I have a hard time sometimes. 

Mamá keeps everything in plastic bags, usually opaque ones, twisted shut, knitted at the top, and thrown into the cupboard. There are probably a hundred such bags, and I can’t tell what’s in any of them. There are big bags, small bags, bags that crackle when you pick them up, as if stuffed with dried twigs, and bags that are heavy and solid enough to be full of sand. The knots are so tight I can never undo them, and I don’t want to tear open the bag to see what’s in it. 

The fridge is the same, as is the freezer. So of course I just buy my own food. I brought home a bag of rice and a bag of beans and mama says “No no no! Why did you buy rice! We have lots of rice!” Yeah - probably eighteen separate bags of rice, but which ones? 

And next time I look for the rice, or the beans, or the yogurt, or the cheese I brought home, it’s disappeared into little opaque bags. Some of her kitchen habits leave me mystified. I bought a loaf of sliced bread for sandwiches, and when I went to look for it, she had put it in the freezer and it was frozen solid. 

Mealtimes are also different here than at home. A fairly hearty breakfast whenever we stumble downstairs (we are not early risers), prepared by Mamá, who does not believe us when we say we prefer to eat lightly in the mornings. At home, we have coffee when we wake up, and then lunch a few hours later. Here, we are presented with tamales or quesadillas or chicken in mole or beans and rice with scrambled eggs first thing. 

Dinner is late, usually sometime between 8 and 9. If I want to cook - which I often do, both because I like to and because the children ask me to - I have to work with what I can find. Within walking distance, there are only very small stores in people’s homes that carry a quite basic supply of ingredients: rice, black beans, a few canned goods like tuna and evaporated milk, and a small selection of fresh produce. And a decidedly wider selection of junk food, mostly Bimbo products. 

Cooking Mexican food would not present much of a problem, obviously, as long as I stuck to simple recipes. But Mamá does all those dishes so much better than me that I prefer to leave them to her, and my kids often ask for dishes I make at home. So I improvise. 

Hope asked me for chicken and vegetables in Thai peanut sauce like I make at home. I told her I’d do my best. 

Chicken: no problem. It’s tough free-range ranch chicken, but it tastes good. So I boiled the heck out of it with garlic, onion, clove, allspice, and salt and pepper and shredded it, saving the broth. The corner store had green cabbage and green beans, so those were the vegetables. 

The peanut sauce was the tough part. I had to wait until Friday, when they hold the neighborhood tianguis (street market) to get ginger. There was a bottle of soy sauce in the fridge that I’m pretty sure I bought myself two years ago. 
The hardest thing to figure out was fish sauce. If there’s no fish sauce, it’s not Thai peanut sauce, full stop. Finally I had a brain wave. 


These are dried anchovies, or charolitos, as they are called here. They’re super tiny, less than an inch long, and dried crisp. I got them at the tianguis. Six or eight of them reproduced the flavor of fish sauce, at least somewhat. The tianguis also provided a young coconut, skillfully removed from its husk in one piece, with the water still inside, like a perfect snowball. The man does it with a machete.  

Mamás blender was not up to the task of turning roasted peanuts into a smooth paste, even with the admixture of chicken broth and coconut milk,  so the resulting peanut sauce was a bit gritty, but it had the right flavor profile. Hope was happy. 

Today I had a craving for spaghetti and meatballs. The carnicería right next door was closed, but I was determined to have meat balls so I took a mototaxi up to the big butcher about a half mile away. I asked for three-quarters of a kilo of ground beef. The butcher hacked off a few pieces of very lean meat - I have no clue what part of the animal it was, but there was zero visible fat - and ground it for me. I would have preferred a coarser grind as well as a piece with a little fat on it, but oh well. 

Back at home I mixed the meat with a couple of eggs and some very fine bread crumbs (Mamá had bought a bag of bread crumbs to fry fish the other night) and salt and pepper. I looked in the spice drawer, saw twenty or thirty little plastic bags of various colors, and sent Paloma next door for three pesos worth of oregano. 

No olive oil, so I fried the meatballs in vegetable oil. 

Making a red sauce was fairly straightforward except for the lack of olive oil. Garlic, onion, more oregano, whizz up some lovely ripe tomatoes in the blender. 

When we went to the big grocery store last week (it’s accross town always) I had been delighted to see Parmesan cheese in the green can, just like at home. I bought it, and set it on top of the fridge, but since then it has disappeared into the depths of some cupboard or another and I couldn’t find it. So I used the cheese I have, which is quesillo. It’s basically mozerella, but stringier. It’s basically string cheese. It melted into the red sauce in a lovely gooey way. 

I’m looking forward to seeing how my improvisation turned out. 

Friday, July 13, 2018

Guelaguetza in Oaxaca

Of all Mexico’s thirty-some states, Oaxaca is the one with the most indigenous groups and the most indigenous languages surviving. There are at least sixteen distinct peoples with at least sixteen different living languages, with speakers numbering in the hundreds of thousands. 

As everywhere, indigenous culture and language is under threat from the tide of global monoculture, but more than in most places, Native culture is still vibrant here. And one of the main ways that Oaxacans show pride and maintain their indigenous heritage is through the Gueleguetza. 


The entire month of July is given over to parades, music, dancing, and displays of craftsmanship. On any given evening, you can sit on a bench in the zócalo or on the stone steps of an ancient church along main pedestrian avenue downtown and listen to a choral group singing traditional songs, or watch ladies in gorgeous embroidered costumes twirl to the sound of drums and trumpets. 

Today, Paloma and I were wasting a few hours downtownnwhile Mamá was at her danzón class, and we ran smack into a calenda. That’s a parade of musicians and dancers attended by giant puppets and huge paper mache figures. 

The Guelaguetza culminates in two day-long performances by dancers and musicians from each of Oaxaca’s indigenous groups, at a beautiful amphitheater high on a hill above the city. People come from all over Mexico and indeed all over the world to see the pageantry and feel the pride. 

The work that goes into the Guelaguetza is mind boggling. All over the state, children take classes of baile folklórico; women weave and embroider and sew fantastic costumes; artisans create all the enormous and breathtaking accoutrements: fireworks, castles made of straw, fifteen foot tall dancing puppets. 

Yes, there’s an element of tourism. Yes, there are financial incentives. Of course there are. But the Guelaguetza, which is a word that literally means “cooperation” or “mutual support,” or even “an offering” is a tradition that is much older than the modern tourism industry in Oaxaca. Tribes have been gathering on el Cerro de Fortín for a summer festival of trade and celebration since colonial times. In its opulence and ostentation, the Guelaguetza has something in common with our more familiar Potlatch. 

But the concept of Guelaguetza is much deeper and much more embedded in Mexican indigenous culture than any one festival could be. It refers to those beautiful, complicated webs of mutual aid and obligation that are formalized through the compadre/comadre system. Whenever a baby is baptized in Mexico, or a couple is married, or a grandfather is buried - whenever any kind of rite is performed or celebration held - this web gets activated. 

Someone buys the baby’s christening gown. An offering. Someone pays for the engraved glasses that guests take home as souvenirs. An offering. Someone puts a bottle of mezcal on every table at the wedding reception. An offering. Someone brings the flowers to decorate the church for the quinceañera’s mass. 

And at the next christening or wedding or funeral, everything is shuffled and everyone reciprocates and somehow, all these offerings - even offerings of tacky plastic doodads and orange soda and tarps to cover the street in case of rain - somehow all these offerings add up to an extremely durable and flexible and beautiful system of mutual dependence and friendship. 


Sunday, July 1, 2018

All the Fruit We Won’t Be Eating

The cherries are just getting ripe. Paloma and I went out and picked this basket of cherries in about four minutes flat, off of one of our three cherry trees. These cherries are perfectly ripe right now - but the Ranier and the other dark cherry (Lapin? Sam? Stella? I can’t remember) still have a few days to go. 

Homero is leaving for Mexico in the truck day after tomorrow; the girls and I are flying down a week later. We can gorge ourselves on cherries before we go, but there isn’t time for me to do any processing. It’s eat ‘em now or forever hold your peace. 

At least we get to enjoy the cherries before we go. This is shaping up to be a great year for the orchard, and we will miss out on some of my favorites. I’m especially mourning the loss of the greengage plums. That tree is finally starting to bear a respectable crop, after years of me wondering what was wrong with it. I guess it just needed time. Right now the branches are loaded with hard little green balls, which will ripen in August into luscious, sweet, golden orbs bursting with juice. And we will not get to enjoy any of them. 

Nor the raspberries. All of raspberry season will pass with us far away, and so we will not have raspberry smoothies this winter. I hope we will be home in time for the Italian prunes - that tree is absolutely jam-packed with little green plums. I adore Italian prunes, all ways - fresh, stewed, dried.  This year I was thinking to make wine again. It was delicious last time. But unless the weather is extraordinarily cooperative, we will miss Italian prune season as well. 

Blackberries are more hopeful. We will be home the first week in September. If the rains hold off, there will probably be blackberries still, although the best of the season will be ending. 

Apples and pears. Hooray! Apple cider season will take place as scheduled. The Comice pears will be perfect for eating out of hand, inshallah, and of course there will still be the farmers market and its late season bounty of tomatoes and squash.

And of course let’s not forget that I am traveling to the land of cheap and exquisite fruit. Mangoes. Tunas (cactus fruit, not fish). Watermelons. Avocados. Passion fruit. Papaya. 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Long Live Hippies (Trade Network ‘18) S

We are currently getting about three gallons of milk a day from my two best dairy goats, Polly and Christmas. I have been making cheese two or three times a week, but the milk piles up even so. This morning, there were seven half-gallon jars full of milk in the fridge, as well as a few pounds of chèvre and several vacuum sealed packages of hard cheese. There are also eight or so pints of canned cajeta in the pantry. 

As I have written before, we will be spending most of this summer in Oaxaca, so any and all cheesemaking activity needs to take place before we leave. Obviously, we want to maximize the benefit of this shortened milk season. To that end, Homero and I have both been seeking out possible trade partners. 

A few miles from here, between our farm and the shore of the Salish sea, there is a bona-fide commune. It’s a beautiful piece of property inhabited by five or six families of hippies who live in school-buses, RVs, and trailers of various sorts. Somehow, several years ago, Homero became the de-facto hippie commune schoolbus mechanic for the entire colony. He has been quietly and cheaply keeping their vehicles running for years now. This year, the relationship has paid off in a new trade partner. 

Today, a couple of nice young white people with dreadlocks appeared on our porch with a big bowl of strawberries, a bag of lovely lettuces, and a bunch of radishes. In exchange we handed over a gallon and a half of fresh milk and a pound or so of chèvre. After chatting for a few minutes about cheesemaking, I also loaned them a book of cheese recipes and a teaspoon of mesophilic starter. They were delighted, and promised future zucchini, basil, and raspberries in exchange for more cheese. We even talked about them possibly coming to milk while we are gone and thereby keep at least one of our does lactating. 

Forging relationships with my neighbors always makes me happy. I do love striving for self-sufficiency, which is one of my long-term goals,  but to me, that term does not and never has meant providing all our family’s needs alone. No man, and no homestead, is an island. True self-sufficiency has always meant cultivating mutually beneficial relationships and creating networks of mutual support with neighbors. Sharing resources, whether those resources be material goods like tools, canning jars, and pasture, or whether they be knowledge and experience, books and knowhow. True wealth lies not in hoarding stuff but in creating and maintaining friendships. 

Friends are the real wealth. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

Bloodsuckers (Parasite Problems)

Dairy goats are plagued by parasites. It's just a fact. Some areas of the country are worse than others, and in some areas resistance has become a problem; in other areas its less serious. But anyone who raises dairy goats will have to develop a parasite protocol and be on the lookout for signs of infestation.

I've had my troubles with parasites before - our wet weather and lack of hard freezes some winters contributes to the issue. We've had lungworms and stomach worms and coccidia. For the most part, these have been passing problems, and with vigilant treatment otherwise healthy goats shake off the effects and continue to thrive. I do know by now, however, what a wormy goat looks like.

-Diarrhea. Primary symptom. May be intermittent or constant.

- Skinny. Weight loss is the main symptom (after diarrhea) and it happens not just because the parasites leech energy from the host, but because if the host is losing enough blood they will become anemic and then the rumen doesn't get properly perfused, doesn't work correctly, and you get malabsorption syndrome. Then it doesn't matter how much quality food you are feeding, the goats can't benefit from it.

- anemia symptoms: lethargy, pale gums and conjunctiva

- lowered milk production, if they are in milk

- rough, coarse coat. I don't know why this happens.

In the middle of winter, when it's cold, and all the forage is gone and the goats are subsisting on just hay, and they are pregnant, it's fairly normal for them to lose a little weight. But they shouldn't get really thin. This past winter my goats kept losing weight no matter what I fed them. In fact, they were skinny as rail fences, and generally looked run down and wormy. They started pooping green glop, instead of nice clean pellets. I figured I had worms and dosed everyone with the standard medicine, Ivermectin.

When they didn't improve after some time, I repeated the ivermectin, and when they still didn't improve I thought I might have some resistant worms on my hands and switched to a different wormer that works by a totally different action.

Well they just kept losing weight. Spring came, they gave birth (Flopsy to quadruplets again) and the babies were all healthy, but the moms went downhill, trying to feed all those insatiable little monsters. I brought fecal samples to the vet and, maddeningly, they came out clean. Negative for everything. Repeat fecals came out clean as well.

I discussed the issue with my vet, on the phone, but all he suggested was increasing their ration of grain and buying some alfalfa hay. He seemed to think it was a feed issue, and indeed it certainly looked as though my poor goats were starving to death. He said "Parasites are not your problem," but I knew he was wrong. I know an anemic goat when I see one.

I don't know when the light dawned. Maybe it was when spring was far enough advanced that I started letting the goats out to graze in the front, and began spending a lot more time in close proximity with them than I did in the winter, when I would just go out for a few minutes twice a day for chores. I noticed that their coats weren't just rough, but that they actually had bald patches and that they were rubbing themselves along the fences. BINGO! A lightbulb went off in my head.

Not all parasites are internal. There are external parasites as well. Lice. Probably brought here by the buck I used to serve them last fall.

As the parent of three children who went to public school, I have had my fair share of experience with human head lice. As obnoxious and disgusting as they are, in people, lice are not dangerous. They do not carry and dangerous diseases, and being confined to a small percentage of our total surface area, they can't really suck enough blood to do us great harm. In goats, however, the case is different.

A serious lice infestation can act exactly as a serious internal parasite infestation - the insects can suck enough blood to cause serious anemia, and then all the sequelae are the same as that of a worm-induced anemia - malabsorption syndrome, weight loss, even death by starvation. My poor goats were being sucked dry by thousands of tiny vampires.

Luckily, the treatment is easy and cheap. It's actually the exact same medicine used in people - Permethrin - but at a higher concentration. You can buy it at the feed store under the name "Ultraboss," You dose the animals at 3mL/100lbs at a 5% concentration, laying down a line along their spines, just like applying flea medicine to dogs. As in people, it requires a minimum of two doses given two weeks apart, because Permethrin kills live lice but not eggs. Now my goats have received three treatments, and I may still have to give them a fourth. This was a very heavy infestation.

Almost immediately they began to improve. Their energy level went up quickly, and they began to gambol about and bounce like healthy goats do, instead of hobbling around arthritically. Milk production skyrocketed (another post will follow - I am drowning in milk). Their coats began to fill out and regain their gloss. Only the diarrhea is still hanging around. I think that probably the severe anemia actually did some damage to their rumens and it will simply take some time for them to heal and perform optimally again. That's just a supposition. If the diarrhea persists for another couple of weeks, I will have to bite the bullet and actually have the vet out to look at them.

But for now, I feel pretty proud of myself. Yes, it took me a while, but I diagnosed the problem despite poor veterinary advice, and was able to treat my ladies and help them get better. It makes me trust my eye and my instinct better than before. Little belittle, I am becoming a real farmer.

for more information about lice in goats:


Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Annual Opening of the Blackberry Blossoms