"United we bargain, divided we beg."

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.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Things I Have Seen Lately

A chantrelle mushroom as big as my hand. I thought I mad missed chantrelle season, but was lucky enough to catch a guy selling the last of the season's chantrelles fro $6/lb. I bought three pounds and ate myself sick.
My daughter Hope washing her face in a bowl of pumpkin guts. She goes crazy every year for pumpkin guts. That child is weird. Next year we are going to empty all the pumpkins into a kiddie pool and have her put on her bathing suit and swim in it.

Lots of fall harvest decorations. This handsome storefront (I'm showing only a small part of a large, gorgeous display) is that of a bakery in Lynden.

Gigantic pumpkins. These were in front of the bank in Lynden and their weights were labelled. Can't remember, unfortunately, but it was in the eight or nine hundred pound range. We tried to grow giant pumpkins this year but they all rotted on the vine before they even hit fifty pounds. Don't know why.

An amazing sunset. We are blessed with great sunsets fairly often, but this one was pull-over-the-car-and-stand-staring beautiful.

That some people are still enjoying grapes. This was actually a couple of weeks ago. I took a long walk through a bunch of alleys in a cute neighborhood in Bellingham, just to check out people's garden. I am a garden voyeur. I was surprised by all the things that were still out - kale and hardy greens, of course, but also tomatoes, grapes, winter squash.

It's still a season of pretty sights. There's still light out until nearly six o'clock. I'm counting my blessings.