Sunday, September 21, 2014

Hiatus ... Not Gone

Blog posts are brewing - I swear. Unfortunately, the time to actually sit down and get them from my brain to this page is limited.

  • We've just had a portion of our roof rebuilt, and we're trying to figure out what, exactly, we want to do with the inside of the room - which had to be completely gutted to rebuild the roof. The room is currently occupied by some furry visitors we fostered over the weekend - much to my daughters' and granddaughters' delight.
  • This picture, taken in 2008 or so, is the "before."
    . This is after the first full day of work by the team that rebuilt the roof ;).
  • Part of the roof rebuild also included our need and desire to paint our house, and being the cheap-ass DIYers we are, we are, of course, doing as much of the work as we can, by ourselves. And so, I'm painting.
  • The garden is in its final throes before the first frost, and it's all out time trying to get everything in and buttoned up; plus, with the roof rebuild, we will also be transitioning the gardens with the plan to get all of the animals to one side of the house and all of the food production to the other side of the house, in the hopes of increasing the food production by protecting it from the animals, which means moving garden beds and fence posts.

And then, there's the usual stuff of life: we're down to one car because our "farm car" is not holding up well to Maine's harsh winter roads (the bottoms of most cars tend to rust out because of the salt used on our roads, which is why finding old cars is very difficult here in Maine). We can't repair both the car and the house at the same time, and so, it's compromise time. It will work out just fine. We just have to adjust.

We both, still, do "outside work", which, occasionally, has to take priority over other stuff we'd like to be doing - like blogging ;).

Homeschool co-op starts next week, and dance class started up last week.

So, it's busy.

But just so you know I haven't forgotten this space, here are a couple of articles I've been reading and pondering.

In this article about tiny living that appeared in the Mother Earth News magazine online, the author proposes that everyone be allotted 500 sq feet of living space.

There is a pretty serious virus running rampant through several West African countries right now. It's the stuff nightmares are made of, and there has been a lot of fear mongering around what we should be doing. In addition to the efforts by the US government and the CDC to, not only, find an effective treatment, but also develop a vaccine, we also have soldiers (!) on the ground in Liberia. Sierra Leone, which has been hard-hit by the virus, has just imposed a three-day quarantine for its citizens, in an effort to allow health workers to move among the populations and find hidden infections and/or dead bodies. Today's report from Sierra Leone states that residents are complaining of food shortages

Move to a tiny house or adapt in place - even if you have a big house?

Is it time to get ready for a global pandemic of a virus that kills 35% to 50% of the people who contract it? Would you get the Ebola vaccine if it were offered?

What do you think?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Summer of Local Foods - Wrap-Up

So, Labor Day was the end of our Five-mile diet and Foraged Sunday challenges. Both were interesting experiences, and yes, we learned a thing or two.

What we learned is that we can eat pretty well on what grows within five miles of our house, but as the realtors intone, it has everything to do with location, location, location. We knew, but were reminded of, how very lucky we are to live in our particular location. Even with all of the headaches of living in suburbia and all of lack of and challenges that come with living on such a small piece of land, every time we look for a larger homestead, something reminds us that our location is perfect, even if our homestead is not.

We are lucky to live near some farms that supplied a lot of the food we ate during the month, and that, in truth, we eat most of the time. Milk, meat, and vegetables are all available at these farms, and while the selections were limited to a few vegetables (zucchini, corn, peppers, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes), there was always plenty of food.

Being gluten-free (per Deus Ex Machina's doctor's recommendations back in April) made things easier, because, at least for the first part of the transition, we opted not to replace wheat-based products with their gluten-free grocery store options. That is, we decided not to switch to gluten-free bread or rice pasta like most people do. Instead, we just avoided breads and pasta, and the like, and so during the month of August, we weren't Jonesing for a big sandwich, because we hadn't been eating those kinds of foods anyway. It made the challenge easier.

We did cheat a couple of times and have some take-out, but for the month of August, if we say that we ate 60 meals (two meals per day for the month), only 5% of those meals were not food grown within five miles of our house. It's not perfect, but it's not horrible, either.

We continued Foraging Sundays during the five-mile challenge, and we were always successful at limiting our meals to what we could forage. We've decided that it was easier to stick to the foraging challenge, because it was only one day each week, and we figured we could get through just one day, but for the whole month, on days when we were just too busy to cook at home, we had a hard time sticking to the five-mile limit.

An important lesson was that if we had no other choice, we could eat well enough on what grows within five miles of our house, but the fact that we do have other choices - a LOT of other choices - hit home pretty hard during the month. It's just too easy, in our culture, to pick-up something while we're out. Eating became a very thoughtful exercise. I even found myself obsessing over food, at least in the beginning, always trying to figure out what I was allowed to eat and dreaming of what I would prepare for Deus Ex Machina and I for dinner.

The other difficulty was that we didn't require that our daughters participate in the challenge, and so I found that I was cooking one thing for them, and something different for Deus Ex Machina and me on some nights. It's not different than we eat anyway, because Deus Ex Machina and I are gluten-free and our daughters are not, and so, sometimes, I fix them something that we won't eat, and so I have to prepare something different for us. During the challenge, though, sometimes the food they ate would be things we could have eaten, but couldn't have, because it wasn't local.

We also have a pretty well-stocked pantry, and some of the food - okay, a lot of the food - is not from within five miles of our house. Strawberries from the PYO farm, buckwheat flour grown in Maine, Maine-grown beans, local artisan cheeses, ice cream - all local stuff, by most definitions, but not within five miles and so out of the diet for the month.

I won't lie, I'm glad it's over, and I'm not sure that it really accomplished anything - at least for me (Deus Ex Machina lost weight over the summer - either from not eating as much food in general, particularly on Sundays; from getting more exercise while he was out foraging; or from eliminating gluten ... or all of the above. He lost weight, but I found it, but I didn't eat much before the challenge, I'm not sure gluten is an issue for me, and I didn't do much foraging, because I usually stayed home to work). We didn't stay within the five miles on several of the days, because it was just too much of a bother. We have very busy lives, typical of the kind of environment in which we live, and we are, now, hyper aware of how much the modern culture forces us away from concentrating on food to fixating on things that, in the greater scheme of things, have absolutely no bearing on our survival as a species.

I'm not going to say that the five-mile challenge was a waste, but I think we learned a lot more on Foraging Sundays, and it also reinforced some things we knew, but didn't think enough about.

We've been hearing (and repeating) that hunter-gatherers only have to work for three hours a day finding food. That may be true, but our mistaken assumption has been that hunter-gatherers work for three hours per day filling their bellies and then, languish around for the rest of the day weaving baskets and creating cave paintings. While it may be true that hunter-gatherers didn't toil in the same way agrarian cultures do, to assume that they don't work is inaccurate.

There are two parts to eating wild foods. The first part is finding it. The second part, the hardest part, is preparing it so that it could be eaten.

We, truly, do live in a fast-food culture, and it's not just the proliferation of restaurants, like McDonalds, where a meal can be purchased and consumed in less time than it took for Gilligan and the Skipper to have their weekly adventure with the rest of the Castaways. Every bit of our culture is designed so that food is quick and easy and done, and then, we have more time to do stuff that doesn't matter.

Early in the challenge, it was easy to gather enough greens for salad in about fifteen minutes, and Deus Ex Machina could go out and bring back the ingredients for a nice, spring soup during a half hour walk. The whole meal process was pretty much what we knew from the kind of life we lead as suburbanites. Those were the good days.

What we knew, but didn't think enough about is that as the season progresses the landscape changes. It's not like grocery store grazing, where any ingredient one could possibly want for any meal (with very few exceptions - like fresh cherries which are only available for a short period in the late spring) is readily available all of the time (salad in winter? You bet! Where's the dressing?).

In the real world, not the one made up for our modern enjoyment, plants don't grow that way. That everything has a season is not just a song by The Byrds (or an Ecclesiastes). We knew it, but when depending on what we could find and having such a limited knowledge, the transitive properties of plants hit home, pretty hard, more than once. After the first weekend, we hit our groove, and we were having some delicious soups and wild greens, and then, the plantain was stringy, and the dandelions were bitter, and the Japanese knotweed was too big ... and we were wandering around wondering what to eat.

The most profound discovery was how important our stored foods would be. Over the years that we've been foraging, we've always made a point to save some of the food for later. So, we had blackberry jam, which we ate as a side dish with sautéed greens. One weekend I found the last of the Hen of the Woods Deus Ex Machina had foraged the previous summer tucked back in the freezer behind some chicken parts. We had sautéed mushrooms to accompany the steamed Periwinkles. It was one of the fanciest meals we'd ever eaten.

Gifts from friends also played a huge role. Deus Ex Machina harvested the above mentioned periwinkles with a friend, who had become interested in our project, and even gave us a Striper he'd caught. It was one of the best meals we had during our project. The plum wine was made with foraged plums another friend had given us the year before. Fish that friends had caught ended up in several meals. We were really grateful to those friends who supported us in our efforts to eat only foraged foods.

We also expanded our palates and knowledge during the challenge. In particular, Deus Ex Machina learned to identify and harvest several different mushrooms, including: Reishi (which is really a polypore and not a mushroom per se), chanterelles and black trumpets. He also noted that, contrary to what we had come to believe, mushrooms are not just a fall treat. Chanterelles grow through much of our summer. One just has to know where to look to find them.

Much to the disgust of some of our acquaintances, road kill ended up on our plate, and braised groundhog is absolutely delicious. If I had to say what it tasted like, I'd say it's like duck - a dark, very greasy meat. I was surprised at how greasy it was, but it was very tasty, and while I wouldn't go out of my way to kill a groundhog, I wouldn't turn my nose up at it, either. We had groundhog for two Sunday meals and one weekday meal (as a mock-chipped beef gravy over mashed potatoes), and Deus Ex Machina took groundhog leftovers to work for two days. One groundhog fed two people the equivalent of three meals, each.

If I had to condense the experience into bullet points, I'd say:
  • It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be.
  • Being a local, seasonal eater requires a commitment to food preservation.
  • The whole experience reinforced and strengthened our commitment to localizing our diet.

We are going to continue to forage and to harvest from our garden and to patronize the local farms. We are going to continue to reduce our dependence on the grocery store. We are going to continue to explore new ways to preserve food.

And we're more committed, than ever, to accepting the bounty nature provides.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Home Gardened Food Can Cure the World (?)

I have this theory.

Everyone knows that for allergy and asthma sufferers honey from local bees is said to be beneficial in treating the symptoms. In particular, those with allergies to pollen, because whatever the bees do to the pollen to make the honey allows the allergy sufferer to digest the pollen, and then, acclimate his/her body to it. The theory is that consuming honey made with pollen from trees to which one is allergic allows one's body to build up an immunity to the allergen. It's like Westley, from the Princess Bride, who consumes small amounts of Iocaine poison over a five year period to build up an immunity ... and it's also the theory behind immunizations.

I think it works even further than just honey, though, and I think consuming plants that are grown in one's area, plants that are subjected to the same daily barrage of toxins, pollutants and irritants, can be medicinal.

An article that appeared in my local paper a few years ago referenced a study that showed maple syrup to be high in antioxidants. According to the article: ... the [trees] naturally produce compounds to protect themselves, and these compounds are flowing in sap.

It stands to reason - for me, at least - that the same principle would work for other plants, and that plants, grown to maturity in a particular area, will produce antioxidants that help the plant (and its progeny ... and prey) to survive in the area where it was grown.

Maybe I'm grasping, but it does make sense.

It also supports the idea that a local diet is healthier, and it makes growing food even more appealing and important.

I live in Maine, and for four to six months of the year, we have snow on the ground, but that doesn't mean we can't grow stuff. Even without high energy inputs from heated greenhouses, we can extend our season, and if we choose plants that will thrive in our particular climate, those crops can also be stored for our long winter.

This article, written many years ago, details a few things that are particularly suited to life in the northeast.

What's pretty awesome, though, for those folks who don't live up here in winterland is that many of the crops that do well up here, thrive there - in the winter. Peas and Kale can handle a light frost, and even a bit of snow. They could be grown in places that have warm winters. With just a little protection, some lettuces and other greens (see Eliot Coleman's book The Four Season Harvest for inspiration) will provide a steady diet of high nutrient foods - many of which are perfect in cold-weather soups.

I guess the point is that many of us hail from agrarian roots, and we all seem to have it ingrained in our psyches that the time to grow is summer and the time to let the land lay fallow is winter, but I think that it's not true. Here in Maine it's true, because most things don't grow here when it's below freezing temperatures, but in other parts of the country, winter might be the best time to be out in the garden.

And it's also about choosing the right plant, because, guess what? We can grow some warm-loving perennials here, like Kiwi and figs. The key is to pick a variety that is cold hardy, and to understand that the fruit will probably be a lot smaller than the varieties that grow where it's a lot warmer for a lot longer.

My figs aren't very big, but they are completely delicious!

The idea is to just try to do something, and if you're like me, a not-gardener who has a garden, you might even surprise yourself by how much you can do ... when you try.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Expanding the Quarter Acre

I used to garden only once a year. I planted in the spring (Memorial Day is the traditional planting day in Maine), and then, I harvested - ideally all at once - sometime in August. By October 1, the garden beds were neatly "put away" until next spring.

Then, I wanted to plant garlic, but garlic is planted in the fall and harvested in early summer.

And then, I started learning about succession planting, which makes a lot more sense for me, because of the very small space I have in which to garden.

Even now, in September, we could be planting a few things here in Maine. The garden isn't done, and if we have the ability to protect the plants we can increase our options even more.

I thought this was a pretty good article that lists a few things, even, we Maine gardeners, could be planting right now to harvest in October.

I guess, the lesson for me, a novice and "Adult Onset Gardener", is that the season isn't, necessarily, neatly ordered and chronological. All of it can be happening all at once. It's a delicious lesson.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Dinner Prep Chatter

Big Little Sister is making dinner tonight. Her specialty is Dragon's Breath Pizza, which she makes, totally, from scratch, including the crust. It includes hot peppers as one of the ingredients*.

I'm sitting in my office, tapping away at some transcription I'm doing, and I hear from the kitchen, "Can you get me a hot pepper?"

Little Fire Faery goes out in the yard to the container that has Hungarian peppers and harvests one for her.

Can I just say how much I LOVE having a garden?

*She's making a gluten-free entrée with some corn pasta, local vegetables and left over steak for Deus Ex Machina and me, because we don't do pizza crust. She's a pretty talented chef. Maybe she's started on a career path ... ;).

Security versus Resiliency.

I'm working on my wrap-up for August's Eat Local Challenge, but ... you know ... stuff.

Anyway, I didn't want to leave everyone hanging (like I've been doing too much of, lately), and so I thought, instead of a real post, I'd post a couple of links.

I think, when we look back on these times, the word we will use to describe this time period will be "resiliency." We all seem to be striving for just that, and today, I read a really great article by Nick, husband of the amazingly talented and wicked smaht, Erica from Northwest Edible Life. It's about having Income Resilience, which he calls an Income Quilt, using the phrase coined by my friend, Lisa Kivrist.

It's a great article.

I also wanted to link to an old article I wrote about resiliency. The focus of my article is on the kind of resiliency that comes from making one's living arrangement more self-sufficient (i.e. growing one's own food, collecting rainwater, having a secure shelter).

Nick and Erica are producing a great deal of their own food, as well, and when I spoke with Erica last week for an upcoming podcast, she said that having their food stores has been essential for their peace of mind as they transition to this more resilient, but less "secure" lifestyle.

Of course, the idea that being employed by someone else makes us more secure than the kind of entrepreneurial (and resilient) lifestyle that Nick and Erica have really is an illusion, isn't it?