"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Saturday, December 31, 2011

How to Make the Most Beautiful Pinata (Mexican Photos Part Two)

The pinata is the universal celebratory item, is it not? I don't know if the pinata is a purely Mexican invention that has spread around the world, or if the idea of the pinata is a kind of cultural universal (I suspect the latter) but in either case, a pinata is a lot of fun and a must-have item for all festive occasions.

My children broke seven pinatas on this trip. That's by their own count. I kind of lost track. Pinata making is a cottage industry in Mexico, and many is the family that makes its living with newspaper and paste. The sad little cardboard factory made things that pass for pinatas here in the states are pathetic by comparison, and I hate buying them. Pinatas in Mexico are truly works of art, even if most of them are based on Disney characters and one might question the tastefulness of beating the little mermaid to death with a stick.

My sister-in-law Temy and her children made the most beautiful pinata I have ever seen - with small help from us. It is in the form of a branch of grapes, and is molded on a clay pot and covered with blown, confetti stuffed eggs. If you count the time it takes to save up so many eggshells, this pinata must have taken months to make. I hope to make one myself someday, so I documented the process. This pinata is truly for those with the Martha Stewart gene, so be warned. But if you want to make the mothers of the friends of your five year old swoon with envy, make this for her birthday party. Just start four months ahead of time.

The girls covering the clay pot with strips of newspaper glued on with a paste made from water and cornstarch. Since you are unlikely to come across an unfired round clay pot here in the states (and may also wish to avoid the risk of concussion), mold your pinata base on a balloon.

For several months ahead of time, anytime you use an egg, be careful to crack it only at the top, preserving as much as possible the shell. Set the shells aside to dry. When you have about 150 of them, buy a bag full of confetti and fill the eggshells with a spoon.

Use small strips of newspaper and paste to cover the openings of the filled eggs. Set the covered eggs out in the sun to dry - this will take a few hours to a day, depending on solar availability in your area.
Turn the pot upside down - or, if using a balloon, cut off a small opening on the top for filling with candy. Then turn upside down. Roll a piece of thin cardboard into a cone and attach to the bottom of the pinata (the top, turned upside down - get it?) with newspaper and paste. Let dry completely. Poke four holes in the rim of the opening and run twine through in a cross pattern. This is to hang the pinata later. When eggs and pinata are dry, use a hot glue gun to attach the eggs, covered side in, to the pinata. Start at the tip of the cone and work your way down on a spiral, trying to cover the pinata as closely as possible. When all are attached and dry, carefully turn pinata right side up and hang with the twine outside somewhere.

Use spray paint to paint the pinata grape-colored. This pinata has leaves made of cardboard covered with green crepe-paper, which is a nice touch. The hardest part is transporting the pinata after it is filled, so if possible make and fill the pinata on the same site where it is to be broken. Once it is turned right side up and filled, a strong person has to hold it at arm's length so the eggs don't break until it can be strung up.

It feels like a damn shame to destroy such a beautiful, painstakingly constructed object. You will not want to. I didn't. But the children have so much fun, they are so delighted with the crash and the shower of confetti and the candy. And there is something both terrible and elating about the violent destruction of beauty, especially of a beautiful object that embodies so much time and effort.

Breaking this pinata is like a tiny lesson in mortality. In all endeavors, natural and artificial, complexity occurs slowly and with effort, but can and will inevitably be reduced in a relative instant. Breaking the pinata is ritually laughing in the face of death, a beautiful celebration of ending. To break the pinata is to bow to the inevitable, but to do so with grace and spirit and joy.

How very Mexican.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Mexico Photos Part One (Shout Out to Rowan)

The trip home was almost interminable - we were up at 5 am two days in a row - but is it finally over. We arrived back at the farm around two o'clock this afternoon, to some very excited dogs and other animals. Everybody is fine and healthy.

Rowan did an amazing job taking care of the place and deserves some public props. For almost three solid weeks she was fully and solely responsible for feeding the horses, goats, chickens, dogs, rabbits, and cat twice a day. For the first week we were gone, the hose was frozen solid and she had to haul warm water in buckets, a nasty job. She kept the house clean (or at least cleaned it before we got home) and even threw a Christmas party for a bunch of teenage friends without wrecking the place. She dropped us off at the airport (125 miles away) when we left and picked us up when we arrived home. She did a bang-up job, and I'm extremely proud of her. Thanks, sweetie.

According to my iPhone just now, I took 488 pictures while I was gone. This is what happens in the digital age, I guess. I am old enough to remember buying three or four rolls of film before a trip and being choosy about what I photographed. Nowadays everyone - including me - just walks around with a camera raised to their face pretty much all the time. This actually drives me batty, in much the same way that people breaking off a conversation in mid-sentence to answer their cell phones irks me, but I am nearly as guilty as everyone else, so I am ashamed to complain.

However, the compensation for seeing Mexico on a three by three inch screen is that I do, in fact, have a lot of very nice pictures. In the old days, I used to come home and eagerly develop my precious 36 frames, usually to discover that 22 of them were complete crap. I specialized in pictures of my own feet. Now, even though the crap:pleasant ratio is about the same, I have a lot more to sift through and can come up with a few pictures worth sharing.

Here are some of them, in no particular order:

Homero sitting on a wild horse. Not kidding. This was during our trip to Crecencio's village to deliver some gifts to his family (A Visit to La Mixteca Baja, Mixteca Trip Part Two, Take Three, Damnit!). The young man holding the horse's head actually went out into the hills and captured that horse, brought it home, and broke it and trained it himself. He is seventeen. The boy, not the horse.

On the way out to Crecencio's village, we stopped to visit the ex-covent of Yanhuitlan. Passing by, Temy, my sister-in-law, noticed it was open. She yelled "Stop!" Apparently, it is almost never open. It was well worth the delay. This enormous and beautiful temple-complex (I don't know what else to call it) was built in the mid sixteenth century by the Dominicans. Well, actually, as the caretaker told us, by six hundred native Mexicans working every day for twenty five years. I have my doubts about whether a single Dominican priest ever lifted a single stone. But breezing right by that (shall we) it is a place of extreme beauty. To be honest, now that I look at the above picture, I think it is probably not of Yanhuitlan at all, b ut instead of one of the apses in Santo Domingo in Oaxaca City. Hmm. So many beautiful churches in Oaxaca, they blend together after a while. But Yanhuitlan's beauty is austere, and Santo Domingo's is baroque. Well. Either way.

Ahem. Moving on. Below is a very ordinary, typical street scene in central Oaxaca. The streets are cobblestone; the buildings are stone or stuccoed adobe, still habitable and functional after five hundred years. The native stone that much of the city is made of is called cantera, and is usually a beautiful light green, though sometimes rosy pink as well. The building on the left is made of cantera. The small fountain in front is operational, and is a favorite place for young lovers to pass a few minutes "tortorleando." Literally: acting like lovebirds.

Below: street corner on the edge of the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, which is the main central market. Plenty of people still shop there for their daily goods, but it has largely become a tourist attraction. That is not to say, however, that you should pass it by if you happen to be in Oaxaca. By no means! Go! The market is a real experience. It may give you a migraine from the press of people, the competing music blaring from adjacent stalls, the mixed up smells of raw meat, rotting flowers, fresh herbs, copal, and sweat, but if you go to Oaxaca and miss the central market, you may as well not have gone.

Besides, the other option is the Mercado de Abastos, where the majority of city residents go when they want to shop (those that don't go to Wal-Mart, that is) and that place is scary as hell. The Mercado de Abastos is for professional adventurer tourists only. There you can hire a brujo to take a curse off of you, or get a pirated version of a movie that isn't even out in theaters yet, or buy anything from a live chicken to a pair of fake monolo blahniks, but you can also get lost irrevocably in the vast labyrinth of tarp-backed puestos, and I am here to tell you that that is not a fun experience. Once was enough for me: now I stick to the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, touristy though it be. It's plenty colorful enough for me. Look below and you'll see.

Senora Maura's garden. Although her patio is very small - perhaps only 10 by 30 feet or so - she has managed to create a very serene and beautiful haven. The concrete walls are dusty pink, and dozens of terra cotta pots are planted with flowers and edibles. The two trees in the photo are a papaya (left) and a pomegranate (right). She also has a chayote vine (that's mirliton to you southerners) and a chile de arbol. A bird of paradise plant blooms along the other wall, and night blooming jasmine scents the evenings. It was a beautiful place to spend a few hours on a warm December night, chatting and drinking mezcal.

In my experience, if I may generalize, Mexicans have a gift for creating beauty in small, intimate spaces. As tourists, many Americans never have the opportunity to get behind the two-story wall of concrete that lines every Mexican street. From the perspective of a tourist, Mexican towns can seem loud, dirty, and claustrophobic. Those damn unbroken walls of cement! There are no sight-lines - all views are blocked by walls. The noise of unmuffled trucks and loudspeakers announcing God-knows-what at high decibels bounces back and forth against the concrete walls. The walls are decorated with spray paint, much of it artless graffiti or poorly drawn representations of Disney characters.

What the unlucky tourist may never know is that just on the other side of each of these walls is a shady, serene courtyard. Every home, no matter how humble, encloses a central space open to the sky. In the city center, the most gorgeous, expansive colonial homes may have three or more courtyards, gardens, fountains, balconies, trees - but none of that will be evident from the outside.

Mexico, somebody talking about sex once said, is not a prudish culture, but it is intensely private. I think that is true of its houses, as well. Homes which are closed up tight as an oyster yield lush, sensual hospitality once you are granted entrance. There are no people on earth as generous, as fun loving, and as welcoming as Mexicans - but you might not guess that from the impassive faces you see in the street. Mexico has a great poker face. But get it to crack a grin - and it's the most beautiful smile you've ever seen.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Almost Over (Recreation)

This may have been the shortest three weeks ever. Oour time in Mexico just sped by, we were busy just about every day. Anyone who has moved far from home, but whose relatives mostly stayed put knows that a visit home isn't really a vacation. There are so many people to visit, and the holidays superimpose their own hectic schedule.

Christmas was nice. Homero's grandmother hosted. Abuelita Adelina doesn't know how old she is, having been born in a time and a place without birth certificates, but her oldest child is well into his seventies. Adelina has slowed down, of course, but she is still capable of getting up at six am and making enough tamales to feed a crowd. Dinner was tamales, roast chicken, a delicious and interesting potato/apple salad, and ponche. Ponche is basically a whole lor of fruit - mostly things we don't have at home and that I didn't even recognize, such as tecojote and ciruela and guayaba - thrown into a kettle with cinnamon sticks and boiled for a while. It was very good, especially with a little "piquete."

I used the children as an excuse to go home and go to bed around midnight, but of course the party went on. As it did in the streets all around us. Mexicans love fireworks, the bigger the bang the better they like them. It sounded like Christmas in Afghanistan until about three a.m. Oddly, I've become accustomed and can sleep through most of the fireworks, the packs of howling dogs, and the rediculously loud music. At home, I sleep with blackout curtains and ask everyone to please use headphones after eleven. I am only a few steps away from Michael Jackson, sleeping in a sensory deprivation tank. Truth is, I'd LOVE a sensory deprivation tank. Here, I guess I've acepted the fact that there is absolutely nothing to be done about the noise. I can make my own dog stop barking at home, but a chorus of raggedy ass Mexican street curs? Not likely. Pull the covers over your head and shut it out.

The weather has been pretty much delightful the entire time. The first couple of days was very hot - maybe 90? - and I wasn't careful. I took a long walk and didn't hydrate enough and ended up with the most massive migraine ever. I thought I was going to die, but luckily our resident physicians (my brother and sister in law) went to the pharmacy and brought back something that killed the migraine in fifteen minutes flat. I know the Spanish name but not the English name. I plan to bring some home, if I can. After the first few days, the weather has been terrific. Still hot enough to be aware you are in Mexico, but not can't-move hot.

Yesterday, Mama and I took all four little girls out to a water park some twenty miles out of town. It would be a small water park by US standards - it isn't a third the size of the birch bay waterslides, for example - but it was heaven for us. Three tall waterslides (even though one of them gave some pretty hefty electrical shocks when you first step in) and three pools for swimming. The air was hot and the water was cold and they sold beer and snacks and I had sunblock with me and it was great.

After the waterpark, we went to see some nearby ruins that Mama had never seen before. There are so many prehispanic ruins around here that only the largest, such as Monte Alban, ahve any kind of national or international name. The entire state is covered with medium and small ruins that were once towns or noble houses. This was a heavily populated area before Europeans arrived. The ruin we went to see is called Yagul, and was probably once a pretty good sized town. It has a very well preserved ball court and the remains of a rambling palace that they call the labyrinth. For good reason! We ran around the inside, up and down narow corridors, finding small courtyards and shouting to each other over the shoulder-high walls. we could see each other's heads, but we couldn't reach each other in the twisty passages. The children adored it.

Today we are having a quiet day, relaxing at home and sorting through our luggage preparatory to packing up. Later on this afternoon, we will take the children downtown and take a tour through the city botanical gardens, something I have meant to do on every visit but haven't yet. Tomorrow is our last full day here. We leave at 6 am thursday, first taking a six hour bus ride to Mexico City and then two flights home, with a two hour drive home from the airport on the other side.

I am ready to go home. I miss Rowan, my oldest, who stayed home to watch the farm. I miss the farm. I miss my dog and my goats. And my sister. Not necesarily in that order.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Honeymoon in Chiapas

Everyone should wait and have their honeymoon after they've been married several years. That's when you will need it. Think about it - before you get married, before you have kids, it's all honeymoon, all the time. A decade after the wedding, when you have two or three kids, a mortgage, jobs... when you have to squeeze making love in between putting the kids to bed and washing the dishes. In our case, we took our honeymoon for our tenth anniversary. It was supposed to be Hawaii, but well, here we are in Mexico again.

I don't miss Hawaii one bit. Someday I'll get there. For now, we had Chiapas. Alas, we only had three days. We could have easily spent a week. Ten years ago, Homero and I and then-seven-year-old Rowan took a week long car trip around parts of southern Mexico, including some of Chiapas. We went to Palenque, one of the largest and best excavated Mayan cities in Mexico. An amazing sight. On this trip, I had hoped to be able to visit another Mayan site, either Bonampak or Tonina. There just wasn't time. Even though new superhighways have sprung up all over Mexico, linking once remote places, the distances are just too great.

As a matter of fact, we spent most of our three day honeymoon driving. It took us eleven hours to get from Oaxaca to Chapa de Corzo, the small town on the banks of the river that runs through el canyon de sumidero. But we weren't hurrying. We stopped here and there to look at this and that, to eat, to take pictures. And we like driving, even on these incredibly mountainous, curvy roads, where every quarter mile there is a litle cross set up to show you where somebody plunged 500 feet to a grisly death. The views are awesome. Once again, I apologize for not having pictures up, but I still can't figure it out. When I get back home I'll put up all the photos at once.

One of the towns we passed, Matatlan, is famous as the world capitol of mescal. If you don't know what mescal is, the easiest way to describe it is as Tequila's countrified cousin. Both are distilled from fermented agave, but the name tequila is restricted to that produced from one species of agave and produced within a certain area, mostly, I think, the state of Jalisco. Oaxaca is where the greatest quantity and variety of mescal is made, and much of it is still made in small family run operations that produce mescal in small quantities, the old fashioned way. We stopped at one such operation, and watched the pit roasted agave hearts being crushed by a stone wheel driven by a donkey. The fermentation and the distillation all takes place on site. We bought a liter of mescal fresh from the still for 30 pesos, or about $2.50. Of course, the good stuff is aged in oak for three years or more, and we also bought a liter of that, for the rather more exorbitant price of 110 pesos, or about 9 bucks.

We packed a lot into our one full day of no driving. In the morning we took a tour through the canyon, which is narrow and very deep. At the deepest point, the walls tower 300 meters above the river. The walls are sheer, just about perfectly vertical, but nonetheless cactuses, aloes, orchids, and even trees grow out of the rock face. We saw four alligators. One of them was about three meters long.

After the tour, we jumped into the car and drove to San Cristobal de las Casas. This beautiful, colonial town has become too famous for it's own good. Fifteen years ago, it leapt onto the world stage as the home of the zapatistas, and ever since it has been inundated with tourists of every description, from well-meaning journalists and anthropologists to culture-vulture hippies and "extreme" adventure tourists. The houses, streets and churches are all as gorgeous as ever, but now you walk shoulder to shoulder with crowds of sightseers.

Nonetheless, we enjoyed it. The zolcalo was lit up for the holidays, and a marimba band was playing. We danced in the street alomg with several other couples. Homero bought us a ride in horse and carriage through the old streets, and the guide pointed out sights of interest. We ate pizza and bought a ridiculous number of tchatkes from tiny children in traditional clothing. It's hard to say no to a five year old selling painted clay animals for five pesos apiece, especially when said five year old has eyes the size of dessert plates.

Some ten miles outside of town there is a park, located in a pine forest (that tells you how high San Cristobal is, to have a pine forest in the tropics). In this park is the entrance to a limestone cave. It is a living cave, and there is a half mile long walkway built inside, with some few and far between lights strung up. They are nothing like the Oregon caves, for example, but still ´pretty impressive. I try never to miss a cave, wherever I am. I love caves. The entire lower half of Mexico is riddled with caves, and I'm sure this one goes on and on beyond the place where the walkway ends.

The next morning we drove back, again ambling along stopping here and there along the way. The children didn't miss us at all, says Mama. They had a wonderful time playing with their cousins and eating as much candy as they could stuff in their faces.They went to three posadas and broke three pinatas and stayed up till all hours. They are probably sad we are back.

Time flies. Less than a week left. Christmas is the day after tomorrow (they celebrate Christmas eve, not Christmas day). Then just a couple more days to pack, buy last minute gifts, and we,re off back home. I know Rowan has been taking excellent care of the place, but I´m still anxious. I want to see Rowan. I want to check out the animals. I want to cook in my own kitchen again. I'd even like some cold air - it's been above eighty every day here, and at night it cools down to about sixty.

More later.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Take Three, Damnit!

RRRRGH if i acidentally move the cursor I can't get it back it goes to the beginning of the post and I can't move it. Okay here we go I was takking about wild horses.

..... they are not truly wild but they know the touch of man on only two occasions - when they are caught and branded, and when (if) they are caught and brought to the village to be tamed. I was told, though I find it hard to believe, that a man will rope a horse and run it down and grab it by the ears and bring it to the ground. It's true they aren't very big - this one was about twelve hands, and small framed - and also that the men are ncredibly tough, but even so. I can't picture a man wrestling a horse the way they wrestle steer in the rodeo.

This teenager, however, was the absolute picture of an old fashioned Mexican charro. It was a real pleasure to watch him ride. He had a saddle - a gorgeous hand tooled leather saddle, and a bridle, but the bridle had no bit. It was pure neck reining. I have a photo but I can't upload it until I get home.

I also enjoyed seeing the harvest of corn laid out on the houses sroops to dry. The whole year's harvest was piled up in mounds to dry, and soon the people will seoarate the seed coen from the food corn and will twist the seed off the cob. It is very easy to do - I tried it, and also put a handful of seed in my purse. Next year I intend to see if criollo oaxacan corn will grow in northwest washington.

There is so much more to write, and I'm so frustrated with the limitations of this stupid keyboard. Tomorrow morning early Homero and I are off on our honeymoon trip. Three days in Chiapas. We are driving from here to Chiapas de Corzo, and then el canyon de sumidero. If we have time, I,d love to see Bonampak, but that deoends on how the children take to being left alone with abuelita and their aunt Temy.

More to follow!

Mixteca Trip Part Two

sorry about that folks, im trying to type this on a tablet and i haven't got the bugs worked out yet. I can't seem to go back and edit, so any mistakes i make will just have to stay.

ok, we arrived in San Pedro Nopala at about noon, and were greeted like kings and queens, with tamales and cold beers and wide, delighted smiles. The village itself is not one of the most pictaresque, but it is typical of the region, and the setting is gorgeous. It is nestled into a narrow valley among high, eroded hills, covered in scrub and scattered trees. The earth in that region is very strange, almost white. San Pedro Nopala has a small, stone church with a handsome courtyard planted with roses, and the streets climb the hills at alarming angles.

Up one of these steep hills we were welcomed into a traditional kitchen, separate from the rest of the house, with an open fireplace for cooking, on which a giant pot of tamales was bubbling away. About fifteen people were there to greet us, not counting the half dozen young children tumbling about. After distributing our gifts, we passed the time chatting and drinking beer while the children played outside. A teenage boy, younger brother of one kf our friends, arrived with his horse and gave the children turns sitting on it.

No ordinary horse, this was one of the wild horses that runs in the hills surrounding the village. I asked how many horses there were, and got a vague answer, maybe somewhere around a hundred. They are not exactly wild - there are no true wild horses in North America - but they are a free-running, free-breeding herd that knows the touch of man only on two

A Visit to La Mixteca Baja

Oh how annoying it is not to be able to upload photos! Bro, if you read this, please tell me again how to do it on my iphone. Doesn't blogger have an iphone app?

Yesterday we went on a daytrip to a tiny village in the mixteca baja region called San Pedro Nopala. Our good friend Crecencio is from there, as is his wife and cousins. When they heard we were going to Oaxaca this christmas, they asked us to bring gifts for their family. This always hapens, by the way. If you know any Mexicans and you are going anywhere in Mexico, expect to be regaled with backpacks and cellphones, jewelry and cameras and such to deliver to your friend's loved ones.

In our case, we were convinced to bring a backpack full of gifts and an electronic piano, which must have weighed a hundred pounds, in a hard case. The relatives would have sent someone to Oaxaca city to pick up the gifts, but Crecencio was excited for us to see his village and meet his parents. "If you think I can barbecue a g
oat, "he said, "wait until you try my father,s barbecue. No, hombre!"

About an hour north of Oaxaca, we turned off the autopista at Noxchtitlan. We stopped at an incredible ex convent that happened to be ooen at a place I can't remember, but it was pretty incredible. The caretaker there told us it was started in the year 1550 and that 600 men worked for 25 years to complete it. Six hundred poor indians, I thought, but did not say. And though I feel terrible for even thinking such a thing, it occurred to me that through force and torture had emerged a thing of eternal beauty and power. Though surely the means does not justify the end, I couldn,t help but marvel at the finished product.

We only got lost once on the way to the village, which lies some twelve kilometers off the paved road. We stopped and asked an old man resting next to his burro in the fields and he set us straight. As an aside, this particular trip was an eleven donkey trip. Whenever we go on a roadtrip in Mexico we count the donkeys we see by the side of the road. There are fewer now than there were a decade ago. When i first came to Oaxaca, this would surely have been a twenty donkey journey.
e a goat," he said, "Wait untik you have my father's barbecue. No, hombre, no hay nada asi."

Thursday, December 15, 2011


The trip took 22 hours, but we made it. Well, if you count from the time we left our house, it was more like thirty six hours. We picked up the girls from school on monday and drove down to my moms house, where she had prepared a beautiful Christmas dinner and gave us our present. A very nice present, this Zoom that I'm writing on. Its a little more limited than a laptop, and i haven't yet figured out how to put photos on the blog, so those will have to wait.

After our Christmas with mom, we drove to the airport and found the closest, cheapest hotel we could find, drew the curtains, and set the alarm for 4 am. Our flight left on time, at 6:00, and we had no trouble with security or anything else. However, we had a plane change in Dallas, and it was a very tight connection. In fact, the boarding time listed on our pass was five minutes after the landing time of the first flight! And I had never been in the Dallas airport before, but it is by far the biggest airport I've seen. Of course, the gates were as far apart as they could possibly be. There's a train, but even on the train it took a full ten miutes to get there. We arrived at the second gate sweaty and panting, but in time.

Landing in Mexico City, we were supposed to meet my brother and sister in law, who had driven up from Oaxaca to pick us up. That's a six hour drive. As my sister said, when I told her, "That's like driving from Bellingham to Eugene Oregon to pick someone up at the airport!" Yep. That's what Mexican families do.

However, we couldn't find them. We spent a very nervous half hour sitting on our luggage in the main terminal and fending off offers of "aid'" while trying to decide what to do if they didn't show. Find a hotel and stay overnight? Rent a car? Try and get a bus? We couldn't make our cell phones work and no-one was answering the house phone. Homero was more worried than I was, I figured they were waiting at a different door somewhere. As it turned out, they were circling the airport to avoid having to park and stopping in to check each time they came around to the loading zone. And they found us before actual panic set in.

By the time we got outside of the city, it was sunset, and we had a gorgeous view of the two mountains, Popocateptl and the other one that looks like a sleeping lady, pink and glowing in the hazy late afternoon sky. The drive was long, but enlived by lots of happy talk and gossip, and the batteries on the Zoom held out so the kids were okay, and we arrived at Abuelita's house about half past midnight.

Of course Abuelita had food and cold beers waiting for us, and after we carried the children to bed we stayed up talking and eating and drinking until about two in the morning. Then we fell inro bed and slept like the dead unril noon the next day.

I hope I can figure out how to add pictures from here. If not, I will add them when I get home. We have so many great things planned. Homero and I are going on a short honeymoon for our tenth anniversary to el Canyon de Sumidero (google it, it's gorgeous). Our goat butchering friend Crecencio is from a small village not far from here, and we are going there to bring his family some gifts he sent with us and to attend - what else - a goat barbecue feast in our welcome. That is sure to be interesting.

It being Christmas, there are all sorts of things gojng on in the centro - parties, concerts, shows and displays, church processions, posadas, and of course the night of the radishes. Three weeks seems like a long time but it really isn't. Not when there is so much to do! More later, it isn't very east typing on this zoom thingy.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Speed Christmas (I've Doubled my Trouble)

In my last post, in which I described a few Mexican Christmas traditions I was looking forward to on our vacation this year, I mentioned that I was relieved to not have to participate, this year, in the frenetic endurance test that is the modern American Christmas.

Ha ha ha, and of course, Ho Ho Ho.

Opting out of Christmas is not an option, even if you will be out of the country. In fact, planning to be out of the country only increases the Christmas related stress, because all your relatives will insist on having a pre-Christmas Christmas with you before you go. At least, that is what happened in my family. So I still had to make, buy, or otherwise scrounge gifts for everyone while simultaneously trying to organize and pack for a three week trip. And wrap them, because there is no greater shame, in my family, than handing over a gift - no matter how expensive or thoughtfully picked out - in a plastic bag. So the annual rummaging-through-of-the-drawers for scissors and scotch tape was held as usual.

Then my children, who are in the prime Christmas years of their lives, being eight and six, became alarmed that they were going to miss out on things like a live Christmas tree and visiting Santa. For some reason, regaling them with tales about the joys of midnight mass did not relieve their longings. While I wasn't going to buy and decorate a real live tree, I decided to resurrect a tradition we had when we lived in the city and had no room to plant a Christmas tree every year. I went down to the Learning Store and bought some thirty feet of green butcher paper, cut it into tree shapes, and the kids and I decorated them with potato stamps and glitter glue. Then we taped them to the walls to make a Christmas tree forest.

Last weekend, we attended an annual event that we enjoy very much - Old Time Christmas at Pioneer Park in Ferndale (City of Ferndale - Parks - Pioneer Park). Pioneer Park is one of the coolest parks around - the city has moved some fifteen original pioneer homes to the park and furnished them with authentic period furnishings - everything from stoves to bedsteads and quilts. In the summer, you can tour the homes with a docent guide for the measly sum of $3 per adult and $1 per child, the best bargain in the county. The park is closed in winter, except for one weekend in December, when the cabins are all decked out in Christmas decorations, there are activities and crafts for the children, and Santa is there to hear your child's wishes. You can even take pictures - for free.

I wouldn't miss old time Christmas at Pioneer Park for a stocking full of bourbon and cash. The kids loved it.

But Christmas before Christmas wasn't over yet. Hope wanted to have a Christmas themed slumber party before we left. Frankly, I just couldn't face that idea, so I haggled her down to a Christmas cookie decorating party. That was today - thank God for sugar cookie dough in a tube is all I can say. I had six children over and we decorated about a thousand cookies. Even now, some four hours later, my kids are buzzing around the ceiling on a sugar-cookie and purple frosting high.

But at least I have something to leave in the neighbor's mailboxes before we go. Green angel with pumpkin seed wings, anybody? Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas in Oaxaca

We are leaving for Oaxaca in one week. I have done exactly nothing to get ready. That, however, is a story for another post. Today I would like to inform you all of a few lovely Christmas Season traditions that I am looking forward to. Firstly, I am delighted that the Christmas consumerism we all love to abhor has yet to take hold in Mexico. There really is no tradition of gift giving on Christmas. A couple of weeks later, on Three Kings Day (Epiphany), small token gifts are given to children only.

Given that there are also no Christmas trees or Christmas lights, one might be forgiven for wondering just what Mexicans actually DO for Christmas. Well - and I know this going to be hard to believe - for most Mexicans, Christmas is still a religious holiday. They celebrate the birth of Jesus by following the biblical story. The major ritual that Mexicans enjoy is that of Las Posadas.
Beginning on December 16th, various houses in a given parish will host the nativity. The manger scene is set up in the first home, and then people dressed as Mary and Joseph will proceed from the church to that home, stopping at other homes along the way to sing songs and ask for lodging. They will, according to the script, be denied until they reach the home where the nativity scene is. Of course, as they journey through the streets, they acquire a long train of local families and children who follow along with lit candles and join in the singing.

At the appointed home, the entire train is finally allowed entry, and there is a party with hot drinks and snacks, and perhaps a pinata for the children. This happy scene is repeated at a different home every night until the 24th, when the creche is installed back at the church. The holy family arrives at the church at midnight on Christmas eve, and midnight Mass is spoken.

After THAT, most families go home and have a feast in the wee hours of the morning. The children drop where they may and are carried to bed. On Christmas day everyone sleeps until mid afternoon, which may be a source of envy for American parents whose children wake them up at first light, even if they have to stab them with forks.

Another picturesque tradition, this one unique to Oaxaca, is la noche de los rabanos, or "the night of the radishes." About one hundred and fifty years ago, there began a tradition in Oaxaca of people creating nativity scenes out of various local materials such as dried flowers and straw and displaying them in the zocalo, or main square. The most unusual such material was the giant Mexican radish: a truly gargantuan root that can be as big as a man's leg.

Over the years, local folks have taken this tradition to astonishing extremes, comparable, perhaps, to the fanciful, enormous gingerbread houses created and displayed in the states. For two nights, the 23rd and 24th of December, thousands of people crowd into the zocalo to see the amazing displays made out of radishes.

Some of these displays are really incredible: scale models of the city cathedral; troupes of dancers in native costumes; beloved religious icons.

I am looking forward to Christmas in Oaxaca. Christmas in America is the 800 pound gorilla of holidays - the holiday which must be appeased. For many of us, a great deal of the joy has been leached out, as we run ourselves ragged and spend more than we can afford to give our children an experience which we secretly doubt is even valuable at all. I cannot, for example, bring myself to entirely "deprive" my children of Christmas as they know it - we will be hanging stockings in Abuelita's house, and Santa will stuff those stockings. But I hope and expect that my kids will enjoy Christmas as it is practiced there. That they will experience the kind of joy in family and giving that we give lip service to up here.

Here are a few links to other posts about our trips to Oaxaca, both at Christmas and at other times.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Unwelcome Drama in the Goat Breeding Business

For the last two years, breeding my goats was very easy: I had my own buck. Storm Cloud was handsome and healthy, but alas, as with all bucks, his usefulness was only a couple of seasons long (The King Must Die (Goat Breeding and Divine Kingship)). This year I had to look for a buck.

I started out with high hopes - I advertised for a spotted purebred Nubian. Weeks and weeks went by, and no responses, except for one. I lowered my standards and simply looked for a Nubian. Same thing - no responses except for the same one. A problematic response. A response from a person I know, and would rather not work with.

D* is a local, small scale goat breeder. She is, in fact, the first goat breeder I met up here, and she was very helpful, giving me tips on general care such as hoof trimming and which worming medicines were most effective for local parasites. I was grateful. However, it didn't take me long to take a rather sharp dislike to her. I didn't like the way she spoke to her toddler child. I didn't like the way she vigorously badmouthed other local goat folks, people I didn't know. When I visited her home, to bring her a gift for her new baby, I was truly shocked by the conditions she was living in - not just squalid but actively dangerous for small children. And as time went on and I did meet other goat folks, I learned that everyone who has had dealings with her has had serious troubles.

I can't give too many specifics without identifying her, which I do not want to do, but various people told me of dealings with her that resulted in hard feelings, at best, and police involvement, at worst. I also heard that the Humane Society had removed some of her animals. You can see why I would prefer to have my does bred by somebody else's buck.

But I just wasn't finding one! A few people called me with bucks of other breeds on offer, but D*'s was the only Nubian available. Time went by, and I realized that if I wanted to breed my does to a Nubian buck this year, I would have to see D*.

There were immediate issues, but mostly minor annoyances. She insisted on current CAE and CL tests for all of my does (reasonable) but when asked for test results on her buck, she couldn't provide any. We talked about my boarding her buck for a few weeks to impregnate all the does at once (my preference), but I ended up transporting my does to her. She wanted to charge me a $3/day boarding fee for my does, plus a few bales of hay, but when we were talking about my boarding her buck there was no talk of her providing hay. In fact, she wanted to charge me a $10 transport fee, each way!

I ignored all this, because I really wanted my does bred, and the buck was actually quite handsome. Black and white spots, tall and big bodied, just what I was looking for. I brought over three of the four does (the fourth was waiting on test results - which cost me $48). All went well on the first go round, and I brought my does home after about a week. D* was paid the full stud fee for the three does, although of course we didn't know yet if they were actually pregnant.

Just a few days ago, I called D* to schedule bringing over my fourth doe, along with one of the original three, who was showing signs of heat, which would mean she wasn't pregnant. D* told me to bring them by anytime, but that the buck I had used before was no longer available and I would have to use her junior, unproven buck. Turns out, that first buck wasn't even hers, she was boarding him for someone else.

"Um, okay," I said. "That's not what I was expecting. How about a price break on the stud fee?"

"No," she said, "I'm already discounting the fee for multiple does. Take it or leave it. And bring some more hay."

I was pretty pissed off at this point. I felt that D* was trying to gouge me at every turn, and also that it was pretty duplicitous to collect stud fees on a buck that wasn't even yours... although of course I don't know what agreement she might have had with the buck's actual owner. However - it was now December, and goat breeding season is drawing to a close. I really wanted this particular doe bred, because she is a first freshener and already a little old for it. Also she is Storm Cloud's offspring, the only blood of his I have on the farm, and a spectacularly gorgeous animal. I don't want to wait another year and a half to see what she produces.

So I brought the goats. D* wasn't home, but she had told me where to leave them, and I did. I also brought a full bale of hay. The string on the hay broke as I was trying to unload it, and so I had to move it in several armloads, which I piled up on in the barn next to the rest of their hay. Then I went home.

A few hours later, I got an e-mail. It said "You have to either bring me more hay or pick up your goats tomorrow. This amount will not compensate me for my time and labor." Immediately following, there was a second e-mail: "disregard first message. Come get your goats now, we don't want them here."

Well. The woman clearly has issues. Anyone who so consistently creates chaos and strife in all their relationships is more to be pitied than hated. I say that now, after a few days cooling off time. In the heat of the moment, I was furious. I'm afraid I have to admit to firing back a long and ungracious e-mail, in which I told her some of the things I've heard about her in the past, and how I should have listened to those people and stayed far away. I am definitely not proud of sending that e-mail - I should have just shut up, collected my goats, and chalked it up to experience.

Also, as my sister told me, it wasn't very smart to send that e-mail while she still had physical possession of my goats. In any case, we got our goats back without difficulty. I told Homero I wanted him to come with me, just in case there were problems. There weren't: D* didn't come out of her trailer. The goats are back home, still unserviced, and I still have no leads on a Nubian buck.

But I have learned a lesson. I hate gossip with a passion, which is probably why I disregarded so many stories about D*. But when three or more people have similar stories to tell about an individual, maybe it isn't just gossip. Maybe it's worth a little caution. At least, in my case, there was no harm done and no police involvement! I'm counting my blessings.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Fall Photos (Book Review and Old World Roots)

Just going through my recent photos, I noticed these beautiful autumn images. It's now December, and the gorgeous autumn leaves have long ago turned into compost, but I wanted to share these pictures nonetheless.

This hasn't been a particularly beautiful Fall. Even when it is a particularly beautiful Fall here, it isn't, compared to Fall in some other parts of the world, like Vermont. We in the Pacific Northwest are accustomed to our soggy, brown, moldy Autumns. If we are lucky, and paying attention, we might see one beautiful weekend. Here is our beautiful weekend 2011.

These photos are already some five weeks in the past. Today was the first sunny day in weeks, and I let the goats out to graze. One sunny day does not make up for weeks of rain; I stepped in the ankle deep mud, freezing and clammy. I have simply had to resign myself to the fact that the reality of life, currently, is cold mud, even when the sky is clear blue and the mercury unseasonably tops forty-five degree.

Today, the first sunny day this Fall warm enough to entice me outside to allow my animals to graze, was really lovely. I brought a book: Miriam's Kitchen, a book about a woman rediscovering her Jewish roots, and read it while I relaxed in a canvass chair with an oak-stick resting gently against my knee. The author tells the story of growing up the child of holocaust survivors, and marrying the son of holocaust survivors. All four of her children's grandparents are immigrants, refugees, and formerly orthodox Jews. One side of the family assimilates, and the other doesn't. The author grows up in a "culturally Jewish" family, a family which observes Hanukkah and Passover but doesn't keep kosher. She marries into a traditional family which does keep kosher and which is observant in ways her family was not. The book is the story of her slowly reconciling the two sides, mostly via the kitchen. I highly recommend it for anyone who is attempting to create or maintain a spiritual tradition for their children.

I am fairly certain I will never decide to do the hard work of rediscovering my own Jewish roots. My mother's family were Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated at the beginning of the twentieth century and who lost their traditions over a couple of generations of living in America. My family has ignored their roots to such a degree that much of my own generation doesn't even realize they have Jewish roots to rediscover. All I have left is a better-than-average Yiddish vocabulary and a wry sense of humor.

My sister has chosen to resurrect (ha!) the family's heritage to the extent with which she feels comfortable. I wouldn't presume to speak for her, but I believe that she has found a rich spiritual vein to mine, one that lives and speaks to her. She has chosen the rituals that she practices because they have something to say to her, something she believes valuable to pass on to her children. I have chosen other rituals from other traditions that I believe pass on similar lessons.

Few Americans of my generation were raised in a faith tradition. There are good things and bad things about that fact, and I'm not going to debate them. Personally, I am happy to have the freedom to develop, organically, my own faith. However, I recognize that that freedom comes at a cost, a cost that I can never even fully understand. Most of us, those of us who have no ingrained faith but who nonetheless long to instill a living spirituality in our children, must search our family backgrounds for traces of a tradition hardy enough to resurrect. Or, if our background yields none, then we must search the general landscape, a landscape which is becoming more and more sterile over the years.

I found Zion Lutheran, a small country church with a century long heritage of ministering to local farming families. The congregation is tiny, and elderly, but the tradition is unbroken. In the pews each sunday sit couples who were married in the same nave a half century ago, and every year there are a few funerals for members who were baptized there a hundred years before. Zion offers a beautiful, traditional liturgical service and close observance of a sacred calendar. I joined in order to worship with my neighbors, but I have also found great joy in seeing my children baptized there. On any given sunday there are few children in attendance, and the baptism of young members is a special occasion. I find a surprising amount of happiness in braiding my family into this small local faith tradition.

This is blasphemy in nearly all traditions, I suppose, but the truth is, I really don't care what particulars a faith teaches. I don't care if my congregation worships Jesus or Allah or
Buddha or freakin' Zoroaster. Every faith I've ever studied espouses more or less the same universal values: kindness, love, reciprocity, forgiveness, and honesty. That is what I want for my chikldren: that they be kind, honest, and loving. It so happens that I believe those values are best transmitted through an intact faith system. Or an intact mythology, if you prefer.

I also believe in the value of prayer. I don't think it matters much who one prays to: I have a household altar and many different deities have made an appearance on it. I don't think God cares about names. I think the impulse toward the sacred is universal, and universally valid. Certain images have resonance for me, and I assume different images have resonance for others. That should threaten me? Why?

Here's my prayer for the day: God reaches out towards all people at all times. May all of us recognize the divine when it stretches into our hearts and lives. May all of us honor it. May all of us feel the blessing and the beauty when we reach back out towards God, however God appears to us.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Annual Duck (Harvesting Breasts)

Our newest Christmas season tradition around here is wild duck for dinner. A very generous duck hunting neighbor of ours (hereinafter Duckman)has taken to stopping by on his way home and dropping off a few ducks for us. I guess he likes hunting duck more than he likes eating it. Also, he heard that my husband really loves duck - which is true. Me, I could take it or leave it, but Homero adores duck. Above is a lovely brace of mallards we were given yesterday.

Duckman showed me, the very first time he gave me some ducks, how to cut out the breast, which is the only part he eats. Last year, when Homero's family was here, Mama and Temy cleaned all five ducks and we roasted them whole, but I am just not up for that. If I could have convinced Homero to get the livers out for me, I would have used them as well, but since I was on my own, I only harvested the breasts.

It sounds wasteful, I know, but seriously, the breast comprises about 60% of the meat on a wild duck, anyway. The liver is another 20%, and the rest of the carcass is pretty much a mass of splintery sharp bones.

The nice thing about plucking duck breasts is how easy it is. No need for hot water, just grab and pull. The feathers come out very easily, and the small fluff left over can be singed off with a wooden kitchen match.

Do watch out for shotgun pellets!

To remove the breast, take a very sharp knife and cut down at an angle as closely to the keel bone as you can. Follow the natural curve of the muscle. It's not difficult at all to get the breast off in more or less one piece, with a nice cap of skin still attached, for roasting up crispy.

These four breasts are now submerged in a mixture of soy sauce, honey, and rice wine vinegar and will be quickly broiled and served over the wild rice and fennel salad leftover from Thanksgiving. Homero usually gets them mostly to himself, which makes him very happy.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Getting Ready to Go (Travel Expenses)

We try to make it to Mexico to see Homero's family every other year. We used to try to go every year, but travel has simply become too expensive. Ticket prices have more than doubled in the last several years, and we now have to buy FIVE tickets. In years past, we could put a child or two on our laps and save money. This years trip is costing us more than twenty-five hundred dollars in tickets ALONE.

It doesn't help that Homero's family lives in Oaxaca, a relatively inaccessible city. We never fly all the way to Oaxaca - it would double the ticket prices. We fly to Mexico city and take a seven hour bus ride. That adds a day's travel on either side of our flight date, unless we want to bite the bullet and do the whole shebang in one stretch - leave home five hours before flight from Seattle, take two flights, land in Oaxaca, take a cab across the western hemisphere's biggest city to the bus station, wait for a bus, and then ride seven hours to Oaxaca. A further half hour to Mom's house, where we cannot fall into bed, but must first endure the celebration dinner she has prepared for us (it doesn't matter if we arrive at 3 am) and exchange gifts with all twenty-six relatives who are there to greet us. In recent years, I've decided that there will be a night in a hotel somewhere along the way. I'm getting too old for that non-stop shit.

There are more costs than just tickets, of course. We always have to go for a minimum of three weeks, and that is rather a lot of lost income from Homero's time off work. Then we have to make sure the barn is stocked with feed and the propane tank is full and the bills are all paid up so we won't come home to a cold, dark house and a bunch of starving animals. Here, from a past vacation, is a non-comprehensive list of the things I did to prepare for a previous vacation:

Our annual vacation to Mexico to visit family (postponed lo these last three years due to straitened circumstances) are fast upon us. We leave in something like three weeks. I have managed, thank the Lord, to hire a seemingly competent babysitter for the farm (Farmsitters (Just Whose Expectations Are Too High Here?)). Other farmwives will understand when I say there is no level of certainty that will allow me to relax and enjoy the vacation as I should: specters of mastitis, wormy anemia, and footrot will haunt me no matter how far I may wander.

That being the case, all I can do is my best to prepare for the worst. Here is my list of "things that must be done" divided into two categories: House and Farm:


1) pay bills. We don't want the electricity shut off (or the water, or the phone) while our house-sitter is here.

2) Clean the shit out of everything. If I were housesitting for someone, I wouldn't want to discover a moldy refrigerator drawer or a smelly secondary toilet. I would want plenty of clean towels and sheets.

3) Make a set of keys. Currently, I don't even own a set of keys for my own house. 'Nough said.

4) write instructions for everything - how to use the washer and the dryer, the TV remote, et cetera. Plus such things as how much to feed the dogs and where to put the food for the elusive cat.

5) work up a set of emergency numbers - which means contacting a bunch of shirttail relatives and begging them to be available in case of emergency. If they were readily willing to be available, I wouldn't be hiring a stranger, now would I?


1) stock up on animal food: full 50 pounds of goat food and chicken food, three or four bales hay, ditto straw for bedding.

2) make stop-gap repairs on barn floor: the floor is totally rotted out but a permanent fix is beyond our means at the moment, so a temporary fix would be something along the lines of:
a) break up and remove rotted plywood flooring
b) scrape and clean out subfloor as much as possible
c) lay cheap-ass treated particle board over studs
d) lay in a supply of straw for bedding

3) set up an account with both the veterinarian and the farm-store, so that any emergencies can be addressed by the farm sitter without a personal outlay.

4) Fix the lawnmower (again - don't ask) and do a final mow of both the lawn and the evil weeds. More to say about the weeds - next post.

5) Trim goat hooves. A long overdue task that haunts me in my dreams.

6) Write a detailed instruction booklet for milking and feeding. I know it sounds easy - "squeeze tits until milk stops flowing" but actually there's just a bit more to it than that. Things like "Goats will most likely jump up on the milking stand alone, but to get them off you must sling your arm around their neck and use the crook of your elbow to haul them down and guide them out the door..." as a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure instructions like the preceding are better demonstrated than explained via the written word, so I should

7) schedule a practice run for the farmsitter (compensated, of course) .

That's about all I have time to think about right now. No doubt there's a great deal more, which I will most likely heartily regret failing to address when I am on the beach in Huatulco and my farmsitter is sending me messages marked "urgent."

And finally, we have to pay the farm sitter. At least this year we don't have to find one: Rowan has finally reached the age whereat she is responsible enough to be left alone for weeks to take care of the farm. I am eighty percent certain she won't 1) burn anything down; 2) move in a bunch of loser friends; or 3) let any animals actually starve. Luckily, my sister and her family are in the area, so they will be an emergency backup.

Vacations are supposed to be relaxing, aren't they? Oh my God, I can't think of anything more stressful than preparing for vacations. But I usually do enjoy them once I get there. For your perusal, here are a few vacation-related posts from the past:

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pig Farming is Not Sexy

I'm sorry to disappoint those of you who were dreaming of a glamorous existence raising a few hogs in your perfectly manicured back yard, but I have got a news flash for you. Pig farming is not sexy. Not remotely. There are no paparazzi, there is no jewelry or red carpets, and there is no fanfare or glory.

There are only pigs, and mud.

this is reality.

Pig farming is not romantic. Piglets are cute, I'll grant you that, for about six weeks. Then they turn into pigs, which are not cute. They are not adorable; they do not make friends with other animals like Wilbur from Charlotte's web; and they are not clean and pink.

this is a fantasy. this is not reality.

Pigs are large, aggressive, pushy animals with teeth. They WILL knock you over, and you WILL land on your ass in a pile of pig shit. Pig shit, by the way, is one of the more offensive types of shit. Like that of other omnivores, pig shit is stinky. By comparison, horse shit smells of newly mown grass. Goat shit is practically invisible, and smells like nothing at all. Pig shit smells like an open sewer on a hot August day. And pigs shit every two minutes, on average.

Pigs are not easy to move around. It is a struggle to get pigs to go where you want them to go (this is also true of goats, but a little less so). Like goats, pigs are escape artists, and like goats, they will ruin your fences. Goats ruin fences by mashing them down from the top; pigs ruin fences by crumpling them up from underneath.

A pig's nose is like a mini-bulldozer. By the time a pig weighs fifty pounds, it is stronger than you are. I don't care if you are Arnold Schwarzenegger on his best day: a fifty pound pig can lift you right off the ground with it's nose. They are fast as deer, too: older folks might remember that county fairs used to have greased-piglet-catching contests. Whoever took that ribbon home earned the hell out of it, I'm here to tell you.

oh, you aren't scared of pigs? really?

Pigs are destructive to pasture and -God forbid - gardens. Ten minutes in your vegetable patch and you can kiss your harvest goodbye. Wherever pigs are, mud is not far behind. Put a few pigs on a major league baseball diamond and in a week flat there will be nothing but brown soup.

There is only one thing that justifies keeping pigs, and you already know what it is. It is their unearthly deliciousness. If a more delicious animal than a homestead-raised pig roams this earth, it hasn't been discovered yet. I pity the person who has only tasted supermarket pork. Pastured pork may be hard on the pasture, but is is heaven on the plate. Pork is one of those few products, like sweet corn or tomatoes, that when raised at home is simply in a whole different league than the commercial product.

In the past, we always raised one pig at a time. Then somebody told me that the pig must be terribly lonely, that more than other animals pigs need the company of their own kind. Also this person said that many of the obnoxious behaviors I complained of, such as screaming and biting, were probably related to loneliness and that two pigs would actually be easier than one.

twice as much bacon; twice as much hassle

This made some kind of sense to me, as I have myself noted that two children are usually easier than one. However, I am sorry to say, this fellow was just flat out wrong in our case. Two pigs are twice as noisy, twice as hard to manage, and twice as scary as one pig.

Here's hoping they will also be twice as yummy. :)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Cheap, Homely, and Comfortable (Winter Food... OK, and Me, Too)

"Cheap, homely, and comforting..." yes, those adjectives could be used to describe me just as easily as they could be used to describe the food coming out of my kitchen in these dark winter months. It's true, and I can't deny it.

The average man might be happier to describe his dinner this way than he would his wife. The adjectives "cheap, homely, and comforting" just sound better when applied to a bowl of cock-a-leekie soup than they do when applied to a forty year old woman. On the other hand, the adjectives "Thin, hardbodied, and high-maintenance" don't really sound enticing applied to dinner.

While we are on the subject, there's a small, slightly amusing anecdote I'd like to relate. Before Homero and I were married, but far enough into our relationship that I was shopping and cooking for him regularly, I found myself complaining to my girlfriend about my future husband's atrocious taste in bread. I was - and am - a fan of whole wheat artisan bread, but Homero was - and is - a devotee of Wonderbread.

"He just loves squishy white bread," I told my girlfriend. "All he wants to eat is squishy white bread." She looked me right in the eye and said "lucky for you, sister."

I love you, Char.

Potatoes. Potatoes are the very cheapest and most comforting of winter foods. We still have half of a five gallon bucket full of our own home grown spuds, but those will soon be gone and we will be relying on grocery store potatoes, like everyone else. I don't know about you, but here, at this time of year, we can get a twenty pound sack of Russets for six bucks. Put those out in your cold storage shed and you are good for a month.

Tonight we ate roasted potatoes - our homegrowns are Rose Finns and Russian Bananas - both dense, nutty fingerlings. They are best simply scrubbed, sliced in half in large, and doused with olive oil and a little salt and roasted at 375 for an hour. Ten minutes before they are done, open the oven and add the juice of a big fat lemon, some minced parsley, and fresh ground pepper. It's pretty much a meal in itself, though a wedge of cheese and a glass of beer doesn't hurt.

Apples are wonderful. Apples are nearly free for the taking in a good year - there are so many old, abandoned trees about on the roadsides, you can pick at will. Even if you haven't got the guts for that, there are you-pick farms and roadside stands where you can get as many apples as you like for about $0.25 the pound. A few days ago I picked a laundry hamper full (as much as I could carry) for $15. Twenty minutes work on my part keeps us in eating apples and pie for a month. Once again - a cardboard box in the shed where they will be protected from freezing, and they will keep through January, at least.

Simple Pie:

Buy some crust. I know - it's sacrilege, but if it's the difference between apple pie for breakfast and no apple pie for breakfast, I guarantee everyone will come down on the side of the sacrilege. Slice up five decent sized apples in a bowl and toss with 1/4 cup sugar, a full teaspoon cinnamon, juice of a small lemon, and a full teaspoon corn starch. Roll out the crust into a greased pie plate and heap up apples. Add second crust on top and cut a few vents. Bake at 375 until crust is deep golden brown and apples are bubbling out of vents, about 45 minutes. Serve with hot coffee and clotted cream.
Cabbage is the cheapest green vegetable available throughout the year, but it is actually at it's best in early winter. If you haven't got your own, you can get a nice big firm head at any market for about $2.00. That's enough cabbage to feed the whole family for a week. If you do have your own, store it - you guessed it - out in the cold storage shed. Other members of the cabbage family that are their best this time year include kale, collards, and brussels sprouts.

Real beef is a seasonal product. We recently bought a side of beef from our neighbor, who raises 100% grass fed cattle on his forty-acres. You might not be lucky enough to have beef for sale that you can see grazing out your front window, but nonetheless, almost everybody has access to grass fed beef in bulk these days, through the magic of the internet. A side of beef is a huge amount - we will be passing a great deal on to friends and family. In general, I'd say a quarter of beef will feed a family of four for seven or eight months - as long as it lasts in the freezer.

Grass fed beef is seasonal because here in the northern hemisphere, grass dies in the fall. After the first frost, grass' nutritional content is pretty much kaput. Any cattle that you want to keep alive through the winter must be fed on hay - either purchased or produced on your own land, which, of course, reduces the grass available for grazing during the summer months. That's why slaughter time is October around here, and that's why our freezer is full to bursting.

Carrots and onions, along with beets, parsnips, celery root, turnips, rutabagas, and other humble roots make up the rest of the cheap, homely, comfortable larder of winter. Even if you don't grow any of these yourself, they are among the cheapest foods available in the grocery store between september and march. And the most versatile.

I myself am a big fan of stews. There are many delicious, traditional soups and stews developed ages ago to nourish the family through the long, dark, European winter. Pair a hearty borscht or beef stroganoff with a loaf of home baked sourdough rye and you will feel ready to go into hibernation well-fed. My husband, coming as he does from the sun drenched equatorial lands, has no inbred dread of long winters and therefore no congenital appreciation for the kind of serious food necessary to bear one through the long, depressing months of darkness. He has been known to complain when I serve soup and bread three days running. Silly man. Where do you think you are, Mexico?

Here is one of my favorite compromises: a hearty root vegetable stew that hails from a hot sunny clime and uses plenty of wake-you-spices. I am happy because I have used only seasonal veggies and pantry staples, and Homero is happy that he gets to eat a fiery delight.

Aimee's Peanut Stew, Winter Style:

1 yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 inch ginger root, minced
6-8 carrots, depending on size, chopped
1 Tbsp oil
1 tsp hot red pepper flakes
1 chicken bouillon cube
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 can diced tomatoes
1 qt water
lime wedges
salt and pepper
sour cream

In a large soup pot, heat oil and sauté chopped vegetables and spices. Crumble bouillon cube and add to pot, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add peanut butter and stir vigorously until fairly smooth. Then add tomatoes and continue stirring. Add water and bring to a fast simmer. Cook until carrots are quite soft, about twenty minutes. Use an immersion blender to blend until smooth, or use a slotted spoon to transfer veggies to a blender and blend until smooth. Return to pot.

Let simmer gently to meld flavors. Serve in bowls, passing cilantro, lime wedges, and sour cream to garnish.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Small Jobs Add Up (Laziness)

I've been lazy lately. That's not unusual - actually I am congenitally lazy. I come from a long line of lazy people (not every last one, of course! Relax, industrious relatives. I didn't mean you.). When given the choice between, say, cleaning out the rabbit hutch and watching the newest episode of Breaking Bad, well - let's just say that's not a tough choice for me.

I am so lazy, I have even figured out many ways to work and be lazy at the same time. Most of us, I am sure, have a hierarchy of hatred when it comes to housework. You might not mind laundry so much, but flinch at the thought of cleaning the bathroom. Or maybe dishes are your bugaboo, but you kind of like yardwork. Perhaps you enjoy the satisfaction of really clean windows, but just can't stand vacuuming day after ever-loving day.

I hate almost all of it. God I hate housework. Here is a comprehensive list of the jobs I don't mind doing so much:

Grocery shopping
Cooking (including Preserving)
Goatherding and Milking
My "wifely duty" (yes that counts)

That leaves this much larger list of things I loathe:

sweeping and vacuuming
scrubbing of any kind
balancing the checkbook
paying bills
mending clothes
PTA meetings
mowing the lawn
All yardwork really
yelling at the kids (yes that counts)

So here's the (transparent) strategy I've worked out... I've elaborated those tasks I actually enjoy into complex undertakings and creative expressions that take utter precedence over everything else. I like to cook: I've become a gourmet home-chef who bakes our own bread (never will storebought bread pass my children's lips), makes our own cheese (don't call it a hobby), and grows many of our own vegetables.

Under the guise of providing for our food security and reducing our carbon footprint, I spend hours in the garden and at local farmer's markets, procuring enough vegetable bounty to spend many more hours preserving food for the winter, like some kind of hyperactive squirrel. Oh yeah, forgot to mention, I am also saving us boatloads of cash, because we will be giving our friends and relatives pickled asparagus for christmas. Or maybe beets, if we don't like you much.

As you can imagine, all this industriousness on my part leaves me little time for - say - trimming the goat's hooves, or going to the dump. Cleaning out the refrigerator. Pulling weeds. Setting mousetraps (yes, we have a problem). Sorting through the kid's clothes to make sure they don't go to school looking like extras from the set of Little Orphan Annie.

This strategy works surprisingly well, most of the time. It is only about twice a year that the backup of work that legitimately belongs to me gets so large that I can no longer ignore it. Oh, I try to fight it. Before I will recognize that I need to spend a couple of days catching up, I will try mightily to convince my husband that HE needs to go to the dump... rake the leaves.... turn the compost pile... take the kids to the dentist....

But eventually, I have to give in and recognize that my husband is too busy fixing cars to make us money so I can go to the farmer's market to do all the mundane daily tasks that I am supposed to be doing. Then I have to have a day like today.

Things I did today:

-Sorted a pile of laundry the size of Mt. Kulshan. Threw out a pile the size of Mt. Shuksan.
-Trimmed four goat hooves - long overdue and totally disgusting. Did it without, however, cutting myself, so that's a plus.
- cleaned out the rabbit hutch. LONG overdue and totally disgusting. I had to use the hoe. 'Nough said. Will make nice compost, however.

Doesn't sound like much, maybe, but for a lady as lazy as I am, it's a lot.