Monday, June 25, 2012

All Knit and No Perl

People think I'm kidding when I tell them that the only thing I can knit is squares ... or rectangles - but generally straight lines, back and forth, on one needle and then on the other.

Knitting is still a very complex skill to me, and for me, the fact that I can knit anything is still pretty remarkable. I can't even wrap my brain around knit patterns, and my teenager, to whom I explained the first steps in learning to knit, has surpassed me by leaps and bounds. If we were racing, I'd be the lazy rabbit, and she'd have crossed the finish line days ago.

Unfortunately, I don't have the attention span for much more than a square (or a rectangle). I don't sit still very well. There just always seems to be something that needs to be done, and I haven't mastered the skill of knitting with my hands while looking elsewhere. So, I couldn't knit while I was watching a movie or at a ballgame, for instance.

I can knit while listening, and over the course of a couple of years, while we were enjoying the talents of the late Robert Jordan with his Wheel of Time Series, I knitted many squarish shapes.

The problem is that I couldn't find much use for my talents. I didn't have the patience to make something big enough to wear, and since, especially early on, I wasn't adept enough to figure out how to make all of the same size squares, making a blanket wasn't really going to happen either.

So, I just had all of these knit squares laying around, while I continued to practice knitting, and not really making any progress beyond back and forth, swapping needles.

A friend offered novice knitters (and experienced, too, for those who were interested) an opportunity to do some good with our (lack of) skill, and invited us to participate in knitting squares (6"x6") that would be sewn together by her 4-H group to make blankets. It was a great project, and one I was pleased to be a part of.

And I finally learned how to make multiple squares (mostly) the same size :).

But that still didn't give me a use for all of the squarish pieces I'd already knit.

Then, one day, while I was looking at the nasty sponge Deus Ex Machina liked to have for doing the dishes, it dawned on me. Those knit pieces fit nicely in hand and were, actually, just the right size for washing dishes.

We've been using knit dish clothes for some time now, and I love them for so many reasons.

I like that they're reusable, because they can be laundered. Unlike the cellulose sponges we were using previously, these don't have to be thrown away after a month of hard use.

I like that they can be made using remnants - that is, for serious knitters (from whom I have received many tiny balls of leftover yarn), who might, occasionally, come to the end of a project with not enough yarn to start another, knitting dishcloths provides a use for what might, otherwise, be waste.

I like that if they get a hole, they can be repaired and, then, used some more. So, they're longer lasting, even, than a washcloth.

And I like that I can make them.

Knitting is one of those low-energy, low-impact skills that has a lot of value. I've seen all sorts of things knitted using all sorts of materials, including knit market baskets made from recycled plastic grocery bags.

If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, I'd ask my grandmother to teach me to crochet ... and I'd actually learn, this time.

But since I can't, I'll keep plodding along with my knitting secure in the knowledge that, at least, I can make something useful.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Perfect Nanofarm Animal

My granddaughter told me this morning, while I was getting her a snack of my home-grown strawberries (she wanted candy ... we compromised ;) that she told her teacher her grandma "grows all of her things."

While we don't meet 100% of our needs here on our quarter acre, I have long maintained that it is possible to meet a significant number of them - even on as small a space as we have. And I'm always acutely aware that we could do more than we do, if we just had more time.

The key to self-sufficiency on a small space is to learn to take efficiency to a new level. Because there is room for fewer "things" in small spaces, those things have to serve more than one purpose. So, my bicycle is transportation, but it also generates electricity.

In our nanofarm system, our animals also have dual roles. Our recently deceased chow-chow was a family companion, a protector of our farm, and her fur could be used as fiber.

The other animals on our farm have similarly dual roles.

Recently, Deus Ex Machina found this website on handspinning which discusses raising angora rabbits for fiber. We've had an angora bunny before, and so we know how amazing the fiber is, but what was most cool about the site was the fact that it validated my assertions regarding how perfect rabbits are as animals for nanofarms, like mine.

Rabbits only need a small space, they're easy to care for, they have wonderful personalities, they're quiet, and as long as their living quarters are kept clean, they don't create a "farm" odor, like some animals will.

They can provide meat and fiber and fur.

But even if they're kept as just pets, they're still beneficial to the nanofarmer, because they have one of the best manures for use as a garden fertilizer, and unlike some other manures, theirs does not have to be composted before it's added to the garden. The low nitrogen levels will feed the plants without burning them.

Which makes rabbits the perfect animal for nanofarmers.

We've had rabbits for most of the decade and a half that we've lived here, but if we were limited by convenants or ordinances that prohibited other farm animals, rabbits would be the one animal that we'd raise.

We've recently added a new member to our rabbit herd.

This is Gizmo. He's an English Angora and is still just a youngster at only four months.

One angora bunny can produce 8 to 12 ounces of wool per year, and while we don't, yet, have enough experience to speak with certainty about what our rabbit will produce, some preliminary research suggested that one ounce of fiber yields, on average, 100 yards of yarn. The one caveat is that angora fiber is very fine, but it's also very warm.

Sounds like I need to learn to knit socks.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Dandelion Green Pesto

Deus Ex Machina and I are really stepping up our efforts in foraging food.

Let me just say, first, that I love the whole concept of foraged food. Like, it's cool to have some knowledge of plants so that if I get lost in the woods, I won't starve.

But to take that one step further and put it into practice as a suburbanite is a little more tricky. Eating plants gleaned from the woods or from other undeveloped areas is just ... well, discomfitting.

Worse, is to decide that, not only, will those plants be actively sought, but will also become a part of one's regular diet.

So, while on the one hand, I'm very excited to be learning this new skill, it's not without some large degree of trepidation that I've embarked on a quest to forage my dinner.

Perhaps the most difficult part, though, is not in getting over my very middle-class notions about what food is. Neither is it learning to trust that the plant I see is what I think it is, and knowing that, if I eat it, it won't hurt me. The most difficult part is making that leap from seeing the plant in the wild, and then, transforming it, first in my head and then in my kitchen, into something we can eat.

Last night's dinner was a rousing victory in leaping that final hurdle, as I traipsed out into my yard, and in a section that is not visited by the dog or the chickens, I snipped a handful of enormous dandelion leaves that grew, unassisted but unmolested, in my "forest garden." To the bundle, I added some mint leaves and garlic scapes and then came back into the house, where I made pesto to serve with pasta.

For me to be truly comfortable with any food, I need to be able to prepare it without having to consult (often complicated and nit-picky) recipes. For me, the foods that tend to most often end up on our plates are things to which I can simply add a few seasonings: a whole chicken seasoned and roasted; potatoes roasted or baked or boiled or shredded and fried; eggs; fruit served cut-up and raw; baked apples with oatmeal topping; lettuce topped with garlic-seasoned yogurt dressing.

In short, I do better with foods that allow me some (huge) margin of error ... or rather without needing to consult a recipe.

For the dandelion pesto, I followed this same sort methodology: I winged it.

Pesto is actually pretty simple. It has four, basic, ingredients*:

An herb
Olive oil

I used the last of my winter store of garlic the other day, but the garlic I planted last fall is huge and beautiful, and the scapes are curly. So, I used those.

My herbs were the dandelion greens (I snipped ten or so very large leaves - more than half of which had veins as big around as a #2 pencil) and mint leaves.

The nuts were actually seeds - roasted and salted pumpkin seeds. Many recipes call for pine nuts.

I put the garlic scapes in the food processer. Then, added the herbs and drizzled some olive oil, and whizzed everything until it was all chopped up.

Then, I added more olive oil and the nuts and a bit of salt.

Then, I added more dandelion greens, but it tempered the garlic a little more than I liked, and so I added another garlic scape and some more olive oil.

In the end, it was very tasty - not bitter at all. I was surprised by how delicious it actually was, and served over pasta as an accompaniment to one of our home-grown chickens, it was a delectable meal.

Getting to know some of these common plants as food is certainly going to be a challenge, but there's a great deal of comfort in knowing that if I want pesto, I don't have to struggle with growing basil. Dandelion, which grows prolifically and happily every where I look, will suffice ... just as nice :).

*For pesto, some recipes also call for a very hard cheese, like Romano or Parmesan.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Chicken-y Chicken

Hey, check it out! A chicken that has the audacity to act like ... a chicken.

One of the chief complaints regarding the Cornish-X chickens is that they don't "act" like chickens. A lot of people call them "meat blobs."

Well, here they are, the "meat blobs" acting exactly like one of the laying hens ... taking a dust bath on a hot day.


I watched this video the other day and, then, shared it with my local librarian. It's a really good example of what we parents like to call "reverse psychology", wherein, the child wishes to engage in an activity that we believe might not be the wisest or healthiest choice, and we convince them to abandon their goal by agreeing with them - sort of.

The gist of the linked video is that a small, award-winning library was in need of additional funding and was requesting a tax increase of *point* seven percent. Some of the Town's people disagreed with a tax increase to support the library and started a "Vote No" campaign, to which the library supporters responded with their own "Burn the Books" Campaign - with the final message being "Not supporting the library is like burning books."

The campaign was successful. The idea of burning books is so reprehensible. In fact, Heinrich Heine, a 19th Century German poet and writer, is attributed with having said: Dort wo man B├╝cher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen (translated as: Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings).

I'm a small government kind of person. I believe the less the government intrudes in my personal life, the better. I'm not opposed to paying taxes, but it galls me when my taxes are going to support people who recommend legislation that invades my personal space ... or when laws are passed that would require additional resources to enforce those laws, which increases my taxes. It's especially galling when those laws affect only a small portion of the community, but cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Some things are, obviously, important, but it seems to me that we've reached a level of ridiculousness in legislating our lives. Like seatbelt wearing? Seriously? While it may be true that wearing a seatbelt saves lives, why is it the government's business to "save" my life in that way? And now, not only has the government decided that I WILL wear a seatbelt in my personal car, but I, as a taxpayer, am required to pay for the additional law enforcement personnel to monitor whether or not I am complying with the law.

More and more our government seems to get bigger and bigger and the laws more and more invasive as our leaders take on more of a parental role to the populace.

Throughout history, the most effective way governments had of controlling their populace was in limiting the dissemination of information. In the Middle Ages, people weren't taught to read, and because they couldn't read they were dependent on those who could to tell them how to live.

During the cultural revolution in China, anything related to the West was outlawed. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for the government to continue its anti-democracy campaign, if the people were permitted to see the actual way Westerners lived.

Where ignorance is bliss, knowledge is power, and by keeping the people ignorant (as in "unaware", not as in "stupid" - because they are two very different things), governments have a great deal of power, and wield it mercilessly, if they believe it will gain them some advantage.

There is only one publicly funded institution that was, actually, designed to combat total government control, and that's our libraries.

I guess it's not a surprise, then, that the library is also the one institution that is, historically, the most poorly funded, and, when money gets tight, one of the first to see its funding cut.

I'm for smaller government and fewer controls. I'm in favor of smaller schools. I'm in favor of police departments in which the police can worry about true public safety, and not whether or not I'm wearing my seatbelt, or if the plants in my yard are too tall (or the wrong kind), or if I'm drying my clothes outside instead of using an energy-sucking appliance in my house.

But I'm also for preserving and disseminating information, and for that, we need libraries.

Without those ... well, look to past to see our future. It will be very dark.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Summer Vacation?

Most people who know us know that we homeschool, and within the first few minutes of encountering us, most people we meet know we homeschool. In the decade that we've been "officially" homeschooling, I've fielded all sorts of questions. People are curious, and because I love what we do, I don't care to answer those questions.

One of the most common this time of year is "So, have you finished school, yet?" The easy answer is a simple no, but there is a reason. The reason is that the dance year ends with the recital, which is, traditionally, on Father's Day. Since our outside class schedules define our "school year", we don't end school until those classes end. So, for us, "school" doesn't end until the end of June.

Of course, we don't really begin or end school, not really. The summer is different from the fall, but the fall is different from the winter, and nothing is ever quite like the spring.

Our life is very seasonal, and we're always doing things that I feel like should be part of our portfolio. The question became, for us, to which "year" do we add the summer? And then, a few years ago, we settled on the answer - the next one.

So, when I'm asked, "Have you finished school, yet?" The answer in June is, "Not until after recital ... and then, we'll start next year."

The other question I hear a lot, especially this time of year, is "Do you take summer's off?" The simple answer to that question is no, but as with most things in my life, it's not quite as simple as yes or no.

I was having a chat about portfoliios one day. For new homeschoolers, especially, there's always a question of what the portfolio should include. The portfolio I prepare for my homeschool each year is, basically, a scrapbook. It has a lot of pictures, some lists of books the girls have read, ticket stubs to movies or plays, brochures from museums or field trips, and a summary of the year's experiences. It serves, not only, as an indicator that we've met the States' requirements, but also as a memento to my children. It's modeled after a school yearbook, and my girls enjoy looking back over the years to see how much they've changed, to see photos of old friends, and to remember some of the really cool things we've done and places we've gone.

As unschoolers, our philosophy is living is learning, which means everything is "school." Because we do so many very cool activities over the summer, I wanted to be able to also add those activities to our portfolio. I guess I felt like, since we homeschool, and since life is learning, that it didn't make sense to have a three-month "summer vacation gap" in our portfolio.

In answer to the question, "Are you finished with school?" I answer no. We're always unschooling ... and it never gets boring or tired, because each season there's something new to see and do.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

To College or Not To College ... That is No Longer the Right Question

We've been talking about college on our homeschool groups. I know some people might find it odd, but homeschoolers often go to college, and, at least from my experience with the colleges my oldest daughter applied to, many colleges like having homeschoolers - at least they don't really seem to care whether the incoming students were homeschooled or traditionally schooled as long as they have the right documents.

I got into trouble a few years ago on a radical unschooling group when I came out wholly in favor of college. The question was "do you want your children to go to college?", and I answered - at that time - yes, I wanted them to. I endured an immediate and extremely harsh backlash from people who told me it was none of my business to "want" anything for my children except their enduring happiness, and if they were happy living in a cardboard box and eating cockroaches, it was my job to be supportive of that choice (assuming it's a choice and not an unhappy result of poorly executed choices).

The irony is that I wasn't pushing any particular educational ideology on my children. We're unschoolers, which means our basic philosophy is that living is learning and requires no formal education. It was just talk among parents, and I thought it was okay to voice my (perhaps, misguided) opinion. While, certainly, my beliefs often seep into my actions - as do everyone's - I work very hard to allow my children the freedom to explore their own interests and minds.

That was a lot of years ago, though. Since then, a lot has happened, not just in my own little bubble existence, where everyone is a pony and they all eat rainbows and poop butterflies, but also the world at large.

Unemployment, even (maybe especially) for those with college degrees is still pretty high, and those degreed people are, invariably, not working in their chosen fields, and they also aren't making the kind of money they were promised if they finished their college degrees, which would allow them to pay off student loans. The result is that we have a lot of highly educated people who are heavily in debt and can't find a job.

It's worse than just high unemployment, though. The problems facing our youth are going to go much deeper than just not being able to find jobs. As the economy continues to buckle, globally, even those with traditional kinds of jobs will find it more difficult to sustain the standard of living most of us have come to enjoy.

The price of gasoline is bouncing between $3/gal and $4/gal here in the US, and it will continue its trending upward in price with big bounces up and little bounces down, until it reaches a point where most people just don't even bother trying to afford it anymore and really start looking for other options.

The cost of food has continued to explode. I saw some figures the other day that seemed to indicate that feeding a family of four is double what it cost a decade ago.

The reality for many folks is that making more money is just allowing them to keep their heads above water, but it's not improving their overall lives.

The reality is that those with college degrees aren't, necessarily, in a better position than those without. In fact, the jobs that I, now, do (blogger, author, transcriptionist) don't require a college degree, and I could have done any of those jobs without my educational credentials.

That's not to say that my college degree has been worthless. Because I was a college grad when I enlisted into the US Army, I was immediately promoted to E-4, Specialist, which means I was paid, from the beginning, an average of $500 more per month than a brand new recruit, which equals $2000 more pay in the first four months of service.

Because my degree is in education, I was able to apply for and receive a provisional certification, which allows me to perform portfolio reviews for area homeschoolers, but, more importantly, for my own children, which has saved us between $45 and $150 per year on the cost of having someone do it for us.

Having my degree might, also, have gotten my foot in a few doors that would have, otherwise, been closed to me, but I don't know that for certain.

The question is, are those few things worth the kind of college debt most kids are getting into these days? Is it worth $50,000 and half a lifetime of debt-servitude to be able to wear that badge that declares I'm educated?

When the discussion came up recently, and I was asked a similar question do I want my children to go to college, I answered differently, this time, because it's no longer a black and white, this way or that way, question. It's no longer the same argument.

Back then my response was based on the belief (and it was supported by a great deal of evidence) that, on average, a person with a college degree makes more money than a person without. The core of my argument, at that time, had to do with the very middle-class supposition that the ability to earn money dictated one's future happiness.

My core belief has changed, and I no longer believe it's about the money. I've come to realize that having a job to make money does not guarantee comfort, safety, or happiness. Those things only come with a sense of knowing that one is capable of caring for one's self. Those things come with being self-sufficient and independent from the violent fluctuations in our economic system. Dependence on needing to earn money is the trap I hope to help my children avoid.

My answer to the college question, these days, is that if they want to go to college, then I will support that decision IF they can do so without accruing any debt. I won't help them into an indebted future just so that they can hold that piece of paper, but be saddled like a beast of burden with a debt they can't easily repay.

The problem with asking the question regarding college, though, is that, as a society, it seems like there's only one answer. Even with the economy buckling like it has been and kids with college degrees protesting around the country because they can't find jobs that will support them and pay off their student loans, we still seem to be having the same dialogue about our children's futures, as evidenced by the question: do you want your children to go to college? To me, it's the wrong question.

The question is, what are our children's passions, and how can we help them cultivate those passions in building their futures?

The question isn't should they go to college, but rather, what do they wish to do/explore/know/learn, and is college necessary in the pursuit of those interests?

For those who don't know what they want to do, college is a good place to explore and discover, but with the cost of a higher education, might there be other, cheaper, options that would provide the same opportunities?

When I was twelve years old, I knew two things about my future: I knew I was going to go to college, because that's what we did, and I knew I wanted to be a writer.

I believed that college was not just paramount to a successful future, but a guaranteed ticket to the land of Dreams-Come-True.

But, really, I just wanted to write, and throughout junior high and high school, write is what I did - poetry, short stories, journal entries - I filled notebooks with the stuff that teens are made of.

And, then, I went to college, and while I continued to write, mostly academically, any dreams of actually writing for a living were, pretty much, squelched with the need to make money.

I wonder, occasionally, what if, instead of going to college, I had been given the opportunity to hone my craft? What if, instead of paying for a four year degree in English, I had been able to take a few writing classes at the Adult Ed center or signed up for some writing workshops or had a subscription to Writer's Digest or entered writing contests? What if, instead of going to college, I had just been allowed to write? Might I have not had to wait twenty years to realize my dream of carrying the title "Author"?

I'll never know the answer to my "what if", but what I do know is that we need to change the question for our children, and it needs to not be about how they're going to earn money, but about how they wish to live. We need to have the dialogue centered around what they want to do, and not what they want to do to earn money ... because the most fulfilled people in the world have found a way to do both.

The rest of us are still muddling through looking for answers.


How to Help Your Children Earn a College Degree and Keep Them Out of Debt

As I said, though, if my children do choose to go to college, they will do so with my blessing *only* if they can find a way to do it without getting into debt, but I do have some ideas for ways my children can earn a college degree - if that's what they wish to do - without accruing educational loans.

The Ultimate Plan would include my helping my child purchase a fixer-upper that, once it was remodeled, would have a lot of equity, and my child could, then, borrow on the equity of the house to finance her college.

If this were 2002, when the housing bubble was just beginning to expand, and it was easier to get housing loans, this might be a workable idea, but in today's climate, even people with good credit scores are finding it difficult to be approved for housing loans. As such, unless I can pay, outright, for the house (not likely), this idea probably won't happen.

So, the back-up plan is, simply, that my children live with me while they study. Deus Ex Machina and I will continue to pay their room and board, and they will find ways to earn money to pay for tuition. At most public four-year colleges, tuition is not expensive. It's being able to afford to live while studying that results in the exorbitant costs associated with a college degree. In fact, information in this article while principally about the rising costs of tuition, shows that room and board is almost double the cost of tuition.

Going to school part-time, taking some courses at community colleges, and living at home could greatly reduce the overall cost of getting an higher education and, really, make it affordable to anyone ... with parents who are willing to live with their adult children.


Blake Boles, author of Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree, does a really interesting talk entitled: What You Can Do With $20,000.

I wish I'd taken more time to think about these other options back when I still had the freedom to do something besides following the usual path.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Something, something showers ... and something about flowers

I planted a bunch of seeds.

And then, it started raining, and I went inside.

And when it stopped raining ...

They're not visible, yet, but corn and beans were planted in the bed with the trellis ... so that maybe they'd have a fighting chance of survival against the sunchokes and milkweed.

The spinach-chia tower. Broccoli and carrots were planted in the top of each. It looks like there's a couple of yummy meals-worth of spinach ready to enjoy :).

I finally found something that will grow in the tires - nasturtiums, hubbard squash and beans. I wish all my beds were as prolific.

Last year, we raised around 800 lbs of food (including chickens and eggs). This year, we're hoping for more ... and we'll be adding foraged food to our overall "food self-sufficiency" totals.

Some day, I'd like to see our total exceed a ton of food. Now, wouldn't that be impressive! 2000 lbs of food grown on a quarter acre in a place with a five-month growing season.

Reckon we'll need to grow heavier food ... like hubbard squash and potatoes ;).

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Exploiting the Sweet Tooth

In nature, sweet things are very rare, and in their natural state, most things that we buy as sweet aren't really so much. Many fruits are sweet, but also tart, and many other plants have a hint of sweetness. The only substance I can think of, right off the top of my head, that is truly sweet, without any help from humans, is honey, but to get to that honey can be necessarily painful, and maybe a little dangerous. As such, it is a very precious and highly desirable substance.

Sweet things are rare, but the other very interesting thing about sweet stuff in nature is that it's not poisonous. So, if you come across a plant, and it has a sweet flavor, it's not going to kill you.

The result is that we are genetically programmed to prefer sweet stuff, because in a world in which people live *with* nature (as opposed to one in which we try to control nature), those sweet things will not be deadly.

Perhaps this is intuitive knowledge, and we know it, but on a kind of unconscious level without ever really thinking about it. I'd observed the phenomenon in my children, who always preferred the fruit-based baby foods (banana was a favorite) to the less sweet vegetable-based baby foods (although sweet potato and carrots, which are made sweeter with cooking, were also favorites), but I never really thought much about why. As a personal preference, while I like sweet-flavored things occasionally (and I love combining flavors and textures - like salty, crunchy peanuts with smooth, creamy ice cream), mostly if I have a choice, I'll go for salty, but I think that my personal tastes are not usual. Most people prefer sweet.

Perhaps food manufacturers just observed through trial-and-error that sweet stuff sells better.

Or perhaps food scientists actually studied the phenomenon and have been manipulating processed foods for the better part of the last century by adding sweetners to make the food more appealing to our human palates.

Whether it's an insidious plot or a concidental occurence, the fact is that sugar or some other highly processed sweetner is added to nearly everything that one buys in the stores these days. Check out the labels - corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, or sugar is in just about everything: chicken sausage, tomato sauce, flavored corn chips, and bread all have added sugar - and those are foods that aren't, necessarily, supposed to be sweet.

What makes the whole thing so stomach-wrenching, to me anyway, is the fact that food manufacturers are now making *sugar* out of things that should not be sugar. Most of the white sugar in this country is made from GMO sugar beets, and most of us know we should be avoiding high fructose corn syrup, which is a highly processed sweetner usually made from GMO corn.

As a culture, we have, perhaps, been conditioned to like life a bit sweeter, but perferring a sweet nectar to a bitter pill is more biological than cultural.

It's just a sad reality of our society that someone discovered a way to get rich off of a biological fact.

I wonder if we'll ever stop allowing ourselves to be manipulated by those who only wish to profit from our humanness ....

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Little Things That Make Me Smile

Sometimes I need days when things don't go so well to remind me of the wonderful life I really have, and when the craziness threatens to consume me, I need to just step back and remind myself that it is those little things

... like ...

Cut flowers growing wild on the side of the road;

A glass (or two) of the foraged apple wine made with apples Deus Ex Machina and I foraged last year with our girls;

And an amazing gift from my tap teacher - taps on my combat boots ;).

... that make life so incredible.

I have an amazing life ... and I'm a very lucky woman.

Sometimes, it really is the little things that matter.

Bottoms Up!

Among the beverages that no longer make it into my house are (most) soda products (we buy a locally hand-crafted rootbeer) and juice (except for locally pressed apple cider - the non-alcoholic variety).

I know most people, especially parents, shake their heads at me for being such a tyrant, because juice is okay, right? Well, in many cases, it's not. In fact, in most cases, the "juice" parents buy is really no better than soda, and any nutritional value in those juice boxes is added back in in the form of "fortifying."

It's what manufacturers have done to most of the processed food that is sold - strip the original food of all of its nutrients and then add them back in after the food has been fully processed and sterilized into an unpalatable, no-longer-recognizable-as-food blob.

When it comes to juice, really, one only has to read the label to understand that what's in the bottle isn't juice, but rather something other than. Most juice products in the store, even the ones that claim "100% fruit juice" really aren't. What they are is diluted fruit syrup.

I know, you're asking, "Say, what? The label says apple juice from concentrate."

Yep, and that concentrate is syrup.

In fact, it's the same stuff Deus Ex Machina and I make every year in February and March when we tap the maple trees. We harvest the sap, which is slightly sweet, but mostly water, and then, we boil off all the water until what we have is, mostly, sugar.

It's the same principle, and pretty much the same process, for juice makers. They squeeze the juice out of the friut, pour the juice into a big vat and boil it down until what's left is mostly sugar (if they boil too far, they have jelly), and then, they add water to the syrup and bottle it and call it "100% fruit juice."

What's worse, though, is that some fruit is simply not sweet enough to pass the sweet-enough-for-a-kid test, and so many of those 100% fruit juices also contain other concentrates (grape and apple are two of the most oft used for increasing sweetness levels). It's all fruit concentrates, and so, technically, it's still 100% fruit juice, but labeling a bottle of cranberry juice as 100% fruit juice with the implication that it's 100% cranberry juice, and then, adding a bunch of other juices to make it palatable is a very fine line between truth and fiction, in my opinion.

While it may be true that what they're selling has only the juice concentrate and water, that's not 100% juice - not any more than my maple syrup is 100% maple sap, and I could try adding back water, but I'd never get it to the same taste and consistency as the real sap. It will always be sweeter than what comes out of the tree. For maple syrup, that's exactly what I want, but I don't drink maple syrup as a daily beverage.

In an article I read this morning, Dr. Weil recommended adding water to fruit juices to dilute the sugar content.

I'd actually go a step further. Instead of bottled fruit juices (some of which also contain toxic preservatives and most of which are bottled in poison-leaching plastics), make juice from real (local) fruit, boil it down (like maple syrup), and then, allow the kids to add it to water themselves. They'll learn to dilute it to their own tastes, and if other kids are anything like mine, the result will be a lot more water and a lot less juice concentrate than is in the store-bought varieties.

As an occasional treat, store-bought juices are probably okay, but they really aren't the best choice for a daily beverage. And, for me, when I have to read product labels on every bottle to ensure that I'm not paying for things I wouldn't want my children to consume, it becomes too cumbersome of a task to deal with, and I just make different choices. With juice it seems like manufacturers are trying to sneak in all sorts of stuff, and so I just avoid all of it ... except the fall treat of locally pressed apple cider ... 100% apple juice and never from concentrate.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

For Granted

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to be born in the Western world have a tendency to take things for granted. Anything we want is usually a quick trip around the corner.

Case in point: the other day, Little Fire Faery was not feeling well and wanted potatoes in her chicken soup. There's a problem with that. It's summer. Potatoes are not in season right now. We've used up what potatoes we had stored from last fall. I might have been able to find storage potatoes at the Farmer's Market ... except it was a Friday, and there are no Farmer's Markets open on that day here where I live.

Sorry, sweetie. There are no potatoes.

But there are potatoes ... down at the store ... two miles away. They have potatoes. I could have bought some potatoes.

Except that I can't.

It's true, I occasionally buy produce at the grocery store, and sometimes it's not even Maine-grown produce, but the rule is, if it grows in Maine, we buy Maine-grown *period*. So, sometimes we'll have oranges (when they are in-season in the US - which is around Christmas time), and I actually bought cherries the other day, because they're in-season in places where they grow here in the US. Generally, though, eating locally and in-season means that when it's not growing here in Maine, if we don't have it stored, we don't eat it.

So, she didn't get potatoes. She had plain chicken broth with bits of chicken and seasoned with some salt and a whole lot of garlic powder.

And after she ate, she felt better.

The other day, I had a talk with a friend about drinking alcohol.

*It's related, honest, bear with me*.

I mentioned that I enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, and my friend confided to being a teetotaler. Alcoholism is a fact in my friend's family, and this friend wishes to allow the cycle to stop with this generation. I admire and respect that decision.

I wonder, though, if like so many things in our society, we haven't also corrupted the whole idea of drinking alcohol, and like so many things in our society tainted something that's actually beneficial.

Some time ago, I was reading some articles about corn. From what I recall, corn became a cash crop early in the history of our country - right around the beginning of the 19th Century. The problem was that there was more corn than there was market, and so, they had to figure out what to do with it all.

Someone discovered that corn distilled very nicely. Unfortunately, distilled corn is pretty potent stuff, and so the new nation suddenly found itself with a bit of a problem, which heralded the Temperance Movement of the 1830s and is attributed with eventually resulting in the 1920s Prohibition.

The problem is that there is a very big - HUGE - difference between distilled alchol and beer and wine.

Specifically, distilled alcohol has no nutritional value other than providing calories. By contrast, both beer and wine have proven to be healthful. Everyone knows that drinking a glass of wine a day is beneficial, but now research is showing that beer may well have some of the same effects consumed in moderation (i.e. one or two a day - not a whole six pack in one sitting ;).

Unfortunately, all alcohol has been lumped into the same category - as bad for you - and that's a problem, I think, because rather than being a pleasant accompaniment to good food to be savored and enjoyed - like eating chocolate cake -, wine and beer have been relegated to some place that is inhabited by social deviants.

The other problem is that fermented foods (including wines and beers) have been a part of human history for ... well, all of humany history ..., and not only are fermented foods (including wine and beer) healthful, but they are also a great way to preserve a harvest for the future and prevent waste when there's an abundance of one food or another.

Deus Ex Machina and I brew our own beer. We also make hard cider (aka apple wine) every year, and our crowing glory in brewing was the five gallons of cider entirely from foraged apples. Recently, we bottled mead (made with the honey from our bees) and what we call "freezer berry wine", which was made using berries that were in our freezer and needed to be used up before we start harvesting this years' crop (we also made raspberry jam, and it was delicious!).

It takes, a minimum of, four weeks to make beer. It takes MONTHS for cider, wine and mead to be ready to drink.

It's a long process. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of time, and it's made us understand that, like so many things in life, we shouldn't take it for granted.

It's true, we could go to the store, and we could buy beer or wine or potatoes, on any day of the year, but we don't, because we want to savor the process, we want to enjoy the potatoes when they are in season, and we want to enjoy pulling the cork on a bottle of wine we made from berries we picked from brambles we grew. Knowing what an incredible amount of work that went into that single bottle of wine and knowing that the person who made that beer or wine and who grew and/or harvested the ingredients of those products, makes consuming those beverages that much more pleasurable.

We want to savor the thrill of tasting our creation and knowing that it was more than just a "job" that made those things.

I am currently reading Gabriel Thompson's Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do. In the first section, he worked in the lettuce fields of Yuma, Arizona. In the second section, he worked in a chicken processing plant in Alabama. The sheer volume of product that is turned out boggles my mind.

His crew harvested 10,000 heads of lettuce per day.

The chicken processing plant where he worked processed 250,000 chickens per day.


So much ... and because of the enormous quantities produced, there is an equally enormous quantity of waste. He describes chopping up heads of lettuce and leaving them on the ground, because the machine was going to fast, or dropping the bits and parts of the chicken on the floor that will simply be discarded, because the machine was going to fast.

It's too much ... too fast.

Living locally and in-season, growing our own, and brewing our own has made me realize how precious is the each. We don't waste it, because it took too much of our time and energy to get it in the first place. We're too intimately aware of how much goes into growing a head of lettuce or raising a chicken to simply toss it in the trash because we were going too fast to care.

We work very hard not to waste, but more, we don't over indulge, either. We don't gorge ourselves on food until, like Mr. Creosote (from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, we're in need of a bucket.

It takes six months to go from apples to apple wine, and there's a finite amount of wine available between the seasons, which means that, not only, do we savor every drop, but that the temptation to guzzle a bottle at a time is eliminated.

To not take things for granted is one of the best lessons we've gleaned from our experiences with living locally.

But when we forget, the reminder is acute ... like the dog eating our dinner, or lingering spring rains making it more difficult to dry the laundry, or a hot dry summer killing the bean plants.

We strive to be grateful for each gift ... even when we're not sure what we've been given :).