Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Nothing Significant to Say

Things have been hairy here for a while now. I can sum it up for you with two phrases - "personal stuff" and "nobody died". Or maybe that's one phrase if I move the quotation marks around a bit. This happens when I am writing a book, it seems. The closer I get to deadline, the more things fall apart. So things started to fall wildly apart, and I got myself and some of the things back on track (the ones I had control over anyway) and right now I am not good for much more than casual conversation. So that's what you get!
I am looking forward to three days of work in a row, no interruptions. Except to share a little glimpse into life outside of and around the insanity.
After weeks of craziness, I declared Monday Big E day. For those of you not local to New England, the Big E is also known as the Eastern States Exposition, and is a weeks-long regional fair that just happens to be about 50 minutes from my front door. And I love fairs. I had no date so I called my mother in law and she was delighted to come along.
She likes birds. And these are really cute houses for birds.
I generally have an agenda at the Big E which usually involves browsing the state buildings and indulging in certain retail activities within them.
This ranges from the very specific salmon on a stick in the Maine building to the more vague "something else really bad for me".
I saw a lot of Whoopie Pies - these from Wicked Whoopies come in a string of flavors as long as my arm - but they are made with wheat, so no-go for me.
We did stand in a very short potato line in Maine - this one is half-loaded. I cannot believe how much stuff they put on those potatoes! I decided that half-loaded = "bad for me", so this about terminated my eating, except for the tastes of spun maple sugar in three of the buildings and the samples at Halladays that are required eating. As is buying a stack of their dips, which this year I managed to keep at three (Scampi, Spicy Garlic Dill and Garlic Chipotle). They're not just good dips (which they are...). They are also excellent for days when food prep is decidedly minimal - a tablespoon of one of these in the crock pot with some vegetables and maybe a meat, and dinner is decidedly simple.
We found these - Pushovers from Bigfoot, Inc. Would that I had a stack of them by the front door in a variety of sizes.
We saw and talked with beekeepers. I wonder if my customers would be interested in small strips of cut comb in their one pound jars? Judy thinks this is a bit of genius. I love comb honey. We will have to try it next year.
We saw an intelligently placed solar trash compactor outside of the Massachusetts building. Because all solar things work best in the shade.
And the most adorable shirts in Vermont. The one on the far right says "Vermont: we were green before it was cool." I love the tie-dye one, but I am a sucker for tie-dye.
As we stood debating what to do after our whirlwind tour of New England states, a parade came by. Not just any parade. A Mardi Gras parade, complete with bead throwers. I explained to my mother in law what is generally required to obtain beads at a Mardi Gras parade, and also that on this occasion I doubted that the general means would be required. I did state, however, that a certain amount of aggression would be required. Hands up, jump around, yell, and dive for them when they fly.
I created a bead maniac. We raced from one end of the fairgrounds to the other, dodging through buildings to get ahead of the parade route. She flattened little old ladies and small children in her quest. No football player with big shoulders would keep her from her strings of delight. When it was all over she was as decorated as a tree at Christmas.

Since I was a small person (no smaller, like 3' or so) I have lusted after, sighed about and in general desperately wanted a Vita-Mix. I just know that a Vita-Mix will solve all the problems of life. it would probably make me grow to 5'6" tall, remove all my stretch marks, and possibly cause me to lose weight. I just know it. I love to watch the demo, nod knowingly (since I've about memorized the thing) and run to the front for samples of freshly made dairy-free frozen treats, or peanut butter so new the peanuts are still weeping, or soup made hot in what some people call a glorified blender. I, of course, know better. The Vita-Mix is not a mere blender! It makes food processors look weak. It can BOIL WATER for crying out loud! Every year I watch the Vita-Mix guy and every year I am persuaded or constrained or in some other manner forced to NOT hand over my Visa and NOT head to the gate at a dead run in search of ice cubes and whole fruits with the seeds still in them so I can whip up a fresh, organic smoothie. I've sold them, not literally, but just by my obsessive and effusive adoration, which inevitably rubs off on someone near me. But I still don't own one, and if Mr. W. has his way I never will.
When we entered the Better Living Center the first thing I saw was the Vita-Mix guy. We must, I said, watch. Judy must see for herself the glory that is the Vita-Mix. Now my mother in law, is not much on spending. She's very good at saving, scrimping, and in fact makes me look like a spendthrift (and I reuse tinfoil and plastic flatware, so we're talking hard-core cheap here).
She bought one!!! Red. With a second bowl thing. AND a DVD and a recipe book. My mother in law now owns what I consider to be the grail of appliances. I still do not.
They say I will recover in time. This helps:
On a dare of sorts I made marshmallows over the weekend, and let me tell you this was not only easy, it was also fun and they are quite delicious. My candy thermometer bit the dust, but I like to test sugar in cold water anyway - I think it's more accurate. I used this recipe, although I did adapt it a bit to fit the day. For example I had no light corn syrup. In fact the presence of corn syrup here is somewhat miraculous, and I suspect that the jar this came out of was legal to vote in all states. Combined.
So I used the dark corn syrup I had here.And white sugar? Not so much. Cane sugar. White sugar goes to bees and hummingbirds. I also cut the vanilla by half because I have this vanilla on crack that my mother gave me, and it's dangerous in food if used as directed. When they say double strength, they mean it. There were three unopened big bottles in her house when we moved her and a few open ones. It will be a very long time before I require new vanilla. A very, very long time.
I also used a silicone mat to line my 9x13 pan because I had this vision of failure involving a chisel and rock-hard sugar goo. I did not need to fear. They de-panned beautifully, and were cut into appropriate sized cubes and are now...well...gone. But while they lasted they were perfection and I highly recommend the activity to anyone. Great fun, great gifts (I know because I gave them all away), and they do taste like marshmallow.
That's all the thrills and chills for this week. I need to get back to the grind, churn out this book, then take a nice long break in which I shall knit endlessly and bore you with pictures of knitting, DIY home projects (like my mudroom floor), and probably more food. Definitely more marshmallows!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Dear Squeamish People: Don't Read This Post (Except Maybe the End)

(there's knitting toward the bottom - if you're squeamish, scroll fast until you see yarn)
I cooked feet. Chicken feet, mind you, not people feet. We had livers the other night, but really that's kind of passe by comparison and so there was no real need to blog it. The only notable bit was that I cooked them in bacon fat, and somewhere a good Jewish mother cried. Feet on the other hand...feet are emotionally charged. They bring out strong opinions. I have strong opinions of my own. Maybe it's because I come from a long line of wise and frugal people who didn't waste. Maybe it's because I grew up in a family well-populated with Depression era women who's sole goal in life was to wring as much meal as they could from the smallest amounts of food possible. When all you young folk start canning and saving your giblets, I laugh a little. In my world, who doesn't can and make giblet gravy and boil necks and bones for stock? Why would you peel the root vegetables when that's where all the good things are? And so it is with feet.
I've been asked about the feet - do I think it's gross? No. I think it respects the animal that I killed to feed my family. If I threw away useful parts, if I wasted things, that would be disrespectful and that would be gross. Don't I think they're dirty? Yes, but often so are my own feet after a day around here. Once they're washed, they are no longer dirty. The same applies to chicken feet. In fact I was amazed at how quickly they came clean.
When we slaughter birds, anything that can be used is used. The blood and feathers make excellent compost additives. The entrails and heads, minus gizzards, hearts, livers and feet are taken well away from the house and laid on the surface where wild animals eat them. It's all part of a cycle.
I believe strongly that animals are here for us to care for and to use. I believe equally strongly that this entails a responsibility on our part to care for them wisely and well, and not waste what we have been given. Chickens have feet. Feet have tremendous nutrients. Waste not, want not.
After viewing some recipes online I decided to begin with stock. Although this recipe for Hot and Spicy Chicken Feet was appealing, I am feeling more like it's a soup day today - obviously fall, a nip in the air and a good breeze, the leaves changing gently from green to gold and orange and red, a little overcast with breaks of sun. The day says soup. Soup begins with stock, and today stock began here,
with chicken feet. Apparently there is more to this than just hucking feet in a pot as I'd imagined and secretly hoped. Although frugal to the point of discomfort, I am also lazy. The preparation is minimal, however,and quickly accomplished. First the feet are rubbed well with Kosher salt - this assumes that you have clean feet. Ours were well-scrubbed before they were put away for later use.
Next the toenails are removed. This is apparently more about aesthetic than necessity. I chopped them off with my super cheap ($3!) and super-wondrous knife from the Asian Market in Hadley. I debated disposing of them, but really I don't think I care if there are toenails floating in my stock, and it all gets strained out later anyway, so into the pot they went. First though, I blanched the feet to remove the membrane. This was a total fail. I suspect I let them blanch just long enough to adhere the membrane to the leg, making removal impossible. I ended up making longitudinal shallow slices down the sides of the legs and feet to help release the goodness inside.
Into the stock pot it all went, with two carrots, an onion, and some herbs. No celery here - Mister Wonderful and celery are old enemies. Now we wait and simmer slowly for an hour or two. Tonight we dine on animals we knew well. It feels good.
In the meantime, I wandered out to find herbs and discovered that I could get away with a late harvest of the perennials. Since I was slacking about this all summer being otherwise focused, I was glad to come back inside laden with sage, oregano and thyme.
Now the kitchen smells doubly good, with simmering feet and piles of herbs waiting to be laid out for drying.
The yarn, Buffalo Gold Moon (yum, yum, yummo!) came for my shawl for the oldest's wedding in October. I have also silver lined E-beads, and a swatch.
I want to start it today but I need to get some work done. I think this will be my weekend project for a while. Once it's done I will write it up, I think. The plan is simple and quick, but lovely with enough bling and drape and halo to gain lots of compliments.
The brilliant Barbara Parry, author of Teach Yourself Visually Hand-Dyeing and shepherd at Springdelle Farm recently asked if I would like to design a sock in her new yarn. I jumped at the chance.
The yarn is lovely - and new so not yet on the Foxfire website - but when it is you will want some. Warm and wooly and delightful with excellent stitch definition and dyed subtly and beautifully in earthy colors - I am smitten.  Madly and deeply. The pattern is finished, but not yet available - I will let you know when and where it is.
Simmering chicken feet, squishy warm wool in my hands, the promise of a tomorrow filled with silver beads and bison excellent day for rest and reflection, I think. may your day be filled with the same.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Waiting Game

Once upon a time there was a girl, a young one, who fell in love with a boy. Not in the way you’re thinking, mind you. This wasn’t a romantic kind of a love affair. This girl fell madly in love on one August morning with a boy much smaller and younger than herself. She was too young to understand then just exactly what this new love would do to her life. She only knew that he was small and soft and smelled like new things. He began to grow, as many small things will. For a long time the relationship was pretty one sided. She carried, he threw. She fed, he burped, pooped, and on occasion threw up. She gave. He took.

It changed a little at a time, slowly, over months and then years. One day he smiled at her. Another day he said her name, her new name, “Mama”, as if he meant it. She still gave, he still took. But the giving was never as hard as it maybe should have been and the taking never seemed selfish, only necessary. He walked when she showed him how. He learned to blow bubbles, wave bye-bye, and from her masterful example he learned to talk more than most humans ever do. She showed him letters and numbers, and he learned to use them. He got very good at writing things like “I hate you Mom!” on pieces of paper and leaving them on the kitchen counter for her to find in the morning. She sighed, and made him his breakfast, and waited for him to grow some more.

People never seemed to understand this boy in the way she did. Some people made excuses for everything he did and said she was too hard on him. Others said she wasn’t hard enough, that she gave too much and he took advantage. She didn’t care so much. She followed her heart, and she waited some more.

Twenty four years went by in the blink of an eye, faster than she ever thought they would, faster than she thought even possible. He left her one day, which was fine in its way because it was time. It hurt a little, but she knew it was right. He rarely called. She worried, she wondered, she checked in now and then to see how he was. Boys, it is true, must find their way in the dark world, and a person once called “mama” isn’t always who they need to shine that light for them. They have to do a lot of it themselves.

She learned more about herself in those twenty four years than she thought possible. Ugly truths, gentle and tender secrets, deep things and shallow. Loving that boy made her a different person in the best and worst of ways. It was painful, scary, joyful, delightful and unbelievably real.

In four days, more or less, she will begin a new wait, and he will begin a new chapter of his life. The tables have turned; the demanding infant has become the young man willing to sacrifice himself for his country. In a uniform she’s not sure how she feels about some days, this boy will stand in front of her and swear allegiance to the country in which she reared him, the one she taught him to love and respect, the one she believes in, way deep down inside. He will become the property of a nation, the servant of a people, the protector of a country and she will be proud and scared. Mostly proud.

When you see him in his uniform in an airport, on your tv screen, in your newspaper you’ll look at him and think, depending on your politics and opinions, that you’re proud, or shamed, or angry, or sad and scared for his future. You will see a man you don’t really know, and you’ll think you do know.

But you don’t. While you see all of that or some of that, and think all of that or some of that, I will see and think only one thing.

Once upon a time there was a girl, a young one, who fell in love with a boy. Not in the way you’re thinking, mind you. This wasn’t a romantic kind of a love affair. It was motherhood. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Best Part? This Time, No One Died.

We did not start out to become beekeepers. In the beginning it was an experiment in self-sufficiency more than anything else. Could we produce enough of our own food not to starve to death if the food system ran dry?  Gene and I both excel at paranoia, so the whole Y2K thing really got us thinking. Of course nothing would happen on 01-01-2000, and we knew that. But the general panic and paranoia made us ponder a lot of what if's. What if there were no more grocery stores. What if there were grocery stores, but everyone panicked and we couldn't safely get to one? What if you couldn't get romaine lettuce in a four pack in January any more? At the time it sounded like we had lost our minds, and many friends and family lost no time in saying so. Today, they're not so negative.

Two weeks ago some 550 million eggs were recalled for contamination with salmonella. The number of "bad eggs" is around half a billion now. In the wake of this I am hearing bits of information about sketchy management practices, but what's been most alarming is the number of articles and op ed pieces laying the blame on nature - rodents and wild birds nesting in the area - rather than on the unhealthy and dangerous management practices of our country's commercial farming system as it struggles against nature to produce vast and unnecessary quantities of cheap food. I have rodents here. And as for wild birds, well, they're everywhere here. You can't swing a cat without hitting one, and heaven knows that cat would love it if I'd swing him out there so he could catch a few. In one article I read a blurb about "bio-security" that made me think more of a military operation. But I digress.

Then there was the peanut butter recall, and the spinach e.coli outbreak, and on and on it goes; monthly, weekly, daily something happens that brings our attention, momentarily, to our food supply. We may sigh, search our cupboards and refrigerators in panic for potential offenders, then accept that the FDA and USDA know best and go back to our daily lives.
All of these things are developments that have arisen out of our alleged need to control nature to produce cheap food. It's a battle we won't ever win, but we keep trying.
Someone (Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin, Mark Twain or Rita Mae Brown, depending on who you ask) once said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. If that's true, then the food industry has reached all new levels of insanity.
When I set out to see just how much food I could wring out of our quarter acre in Northfield, MA, I may have looked a little crazy and definitely eccentric. Judged against the passage of time and the current manner in which the vast majority of us acquire food, I am beginning to look not just sane, but prescient and wise, too.
Back in the late 1990's when we'd begun focusing on self-sufficiency and food production, my daughter came to me with a great plan. Why, she said, could we not keep bees ourselves? It became her obsession.

She read everything she could get her hands on, subscribed to American Bee Journal, got a ton of catalogs, made lists of what she needed to get started. She explained to me over the years about varroa mites, Italians versus Russians, the benefits of a started nuc over a package of bees. She begged, wheedled, and saved. They would, she said, be her bees. She would manage them all on her own, we would need to do nothing. Anyone ever had a kid beg for a dog? They will, they swear and promise and vow, clean up after it, train it, walk it, feed it. But who ends up doing all of that, usually? We had four kids. We'd been down this road. We said no. No bees. We had visions of her entering the bee yard for the first time, getting stung, and deciding that beekeeping was not for her. We had no interest in keeping bees, although we both appreciated the dangers of Colony Collapse Disorder, chemical inhibition of bee development, ignorance and intolerance in the human population that led to the destruction of thriving natural hives and so on.
Shortly after we moved here she inherited a hive, devoid of bees, from a relative. She also inherited 2 cases of brand new honey jars. She spent some time cleaning up the hive parts in readiness for the bees she knew we'd let her get now - it had been ten or more years of relentless begging and we were ready to give. She and Gene attended bee classes. We ordered a nuc. When the bees arrived we were all excited. On her second or third trip into the bee yard, in a lousy veil that we have since thrown far, far away, ten or so bees got into her bonnet. The colony we now call Armageddon (as in "they will live through it") was beginning to show some of the aggressive attitude that gives it it's name. Being trapped inside a net with a bunch of angry bees centimeters from your face is an extremely unpleasant experience, as I personally can attest. It creates a sense of panic that is nearly impossible to avoid. Your panic creates smells and tension that the bees can sense, and they respond accordingly. You are, obviously, here to kill them and steal their honey and their babies, and they will show you exactly why that's not ok. By the time we got her out of the veil it was pretty clear that she was not, at least not right now, going to be the beekeeper. As I ran for Benedryl and her face flushed deep pink and puffy, and a huge welt rose up on her neck from one sting and developed a rock-hard nodule the size of a golf ball, I decided that really, that would probably be ok. She's allergic to everything. It was a risk we'd taken, and her body's reaction even with a ton of Benedryl on board proved what I'd suspected might be the case. While not allergic in the true sense, her sensitivity to bee venom is enough to make her a bad candidate for beekeeper of the year.
But now what? Now we had bees. And we had choices to make. We could certainly find someone to take them. There was no shortage, is no shortage of people wanting to get started with bees, or already started and wanting to expand. We could call Dan at Warm Colors and report our big fail, and beg for mercy. Or... Or we could take the reins, keep the pollinators, and become the beekeepers.
Mostly we did none of the above. We both thrive on denial and procrastination. Ask my editors. We ignored the hive. We added honey supers when they looked about to swarm. We never went down into the lower parts of the hive, ever. We never did anything you're supposed to do. We messed up everything. Occasionally we'd wander out to the hive and take a look, throwing a super on if they looked nudgy or crowded. That was about it. As the honey supers piled up on top of the hive, and summer stretched into fall, we decided we needed to grow up and try to make this bee thing work. We just made it worse. We took the honey all right. And almost lost the whole hive. Suddenly the balance shifted. Everything changed. I felt an attachment to them in a new way. A few hundred thousand tiny chickens? I think that they became that on that day. it was no longer about this burden of bees we'd been stuck with. It was about our failure, my failure to husband them in a manner that reflects who I am as a person, and who I want to be as a farmer. it was shameful. All of a sudden losing them seemed like the worst thing we could allow. I did what any rational and already overextended woman does in a situation like this.
 I convinced Gene to be the beekeeper. Really, he has the perfect personality for it. Just like a new puppy, or 140 chickens, or a new-used car; sometimes you have to just put a thing in front of him and wait for him to accept it. And he has accepted it.
So this year things are better. We have two hives, Armageddon and a second one that's struggling a bit as most new hives do - Armageddon's success in the first year is not typical, and let's remember that last year was a cold and rainy one. The hive we call New Hampshire (because that's where the package came from) is surviving, and growing. But Armageddon, who taught us so much about who we really are and how we really feel about bees takes my breath away regularly.
This year we harvested 52 pounds of honey. Not without incident, of course, because nothing here is ever simple or dull. Here's what you do on harvest weekend, if you're us:
In order to "steal" the honey from the bees, it's best to get the bees away from the honey. They seem to think it belongs to them (wonder why) and will be quite aggressive in protecting it. There are a few ways to move the bees. Some involve chemicals and fake smoke products, but my favorite involves the use of a bee escape or confuser which allows the bees to leave the supers as they normally would, but makes it very difficult for them to get back into them. The honey supers are lifted and moved to the side. Somewhere in there it's important to drop a full super, just for the effect of the air filled with angry bees. I do wish I had a picture of that. They do not like vibration or loud sound. Dropping part of their house counts as both.
The escape board is then placed between the honey supers and the lower part of the hive, where the queen resides.
In the full hive picture above, the escape board is the white band about halfway down. Everything above that we consider ours - the three honey supers they've been filling with goodness since spring. The duct tape is covering a crack at the base of one of the honey supers that we did not think was large enough to allow bees in and out. We covered it for harvest because they'd indeed been using it as a back door of sorts. Everything below that white escape board we consider theirs, and we continue to spend as little time in their as possible. I have suspicions about Colony Collapse and human interference, so I actively encourage the beekeeper man to let them do their own thing in their own way without rude interference. We can tell, roughly, what's going on by what happens above.
After 48 hours with the escape board in place (or 24 if you don't read the directions because you think you know everything) you return to the hive and remove the bee-free honey supers. If you read the directions. If you didn't, then you go out after 24 hours and discover more bees still in the honey than you'd expected. You spend a lot of time grumbling and insisting it wasn't like that last year, and your husband spends a lot of time shaking bees off of honey frames one at a time while you pop them into a bin under a wet towel to discourage bee interest. Repeat until all honey frames have been removed.Take off the empty supers and the escape board. They'll be ready for you to remove that, believe me.
They were doing everything in their combined and not frail intellectual power to get back into those honey supers.
Give them one super with some empty frames to keep them busy for the remainder of the summer.
Then take your ill-gotten gains, since really you deserve nothing for your two years of failures and mishaps and mishandlings and flubs, and run to the house - or roll in a wheel barrow at a leisurely pace, either will be effective.
Take the frames full of honey into the carefully prepared honey harvest space (as opposed to last years' very stupid garage-with-open-window technique).
Uncap the frames using an uncapping knife - an item which I have learned by negative experience is both very hot and sharper than you'd expect.
Place the frames into the extractor and get someone else to crank it so you can "take pictures". This part I thought was particularly effective.
 Wait. Watch. And wait some more.
Then cheer as you watch the golden-amber flow of honey from the extractor into the strainer and ultimately into the bucket below.
Repeat until all frames are empty of honey. Then take the now-empty frames back to the bee yard and put them on top of the hive. Within 24 or so hours, they will be clean and dry and ready for storage for next summer's hopeful bounty.
Yarn soon. I am still in the throes of book 3 and really don't feel like I can talk about knitting any more than I already eat-sleep-breathe it. For me, posting about bees is a break from work. Soon, when knitting is less like work and more like play it will take a more active role here.
If you're in the Atlanta, Georgia area over this Labor Day weekend, stop by the AJC Decatur Book Festival and say hello! I will be speaking at the Eddie's Attic Stage on Saturday at 12:30. There's also a lot of really wonderful things going on all weekend long; kids activities and readings, workshops, lectures and authors of all kinds. I am very excited to be a part of it, and can't wait to get there!