August 2010


I have had a painful night, not made any easier by the knowledge that I brough it on myself..

I found myself with a boatload of produce to preserve over the weekend. After blanching and freezing, canning and pickling, I decided to do a final once over in the garden to get a few mature things harvested, There were just enough beans, onions, peppers and such to add to the broccoli and cauliflower I had left from the morning’s freezing to make a jardineire, a mixed Italian pickle that we are all fond of. While the vegetables simmered in the brine, I added a couple of cloves of garlic to the bottom of each canning jar. I had two  peppers left over; small, dark red oval things I don’t even remember planting. I seeded and cut those up and added them to the jars too, thinking a bit of heat might be a nice addition. I can see you smiling. You know where this is going.

My hands started to sting a bit during clean up. Not bad, but letting me know I should have checked out those peppers a bit more carefully. I finished the pickles, processed them and  got the jars out of the canner then took quick swim before starting dinner. Things were fine in the pool but when I got out my hands started to really burn, especially the tips of my fingers. I tried all the home remedies I could think of. Jewel weed, milk, olive oil and lemon juice. I got enough relief from Germ-X, a waterless hand cleaner that’s loaded with alcohol, to go to the Creamery for dinner(no way I could cook) and advice. By this time, my throat was burning and my mouth felt hot. A bowl of clam chowder helped that a lot.  Alice and Amy, the owners, suggested bentonite clay for my hands. Fortunately, they had some in the herb aisle.

I was willing to try anything. Just touching my clothing set of new waves of searing pain. I mixed up the powder into a gloppy clay and caked up with that. The relief was quick. I suspect that the clay absorbed the capsaicin oil that was the problem. I let it dry, rinsed, scrubbed my skin, lathered up with more Germ-X and caked on more bentonite. I took some Benadryl and slept on the couch with my poor hands resting on a towel. Every once in a while, I woke up and used more Germ-X. This morning, things are much better. I’m tender but my hands look and feel nearly normal.

When will I learn? I know better than to seed hot peppers without gloves. I teach classes on this stuff, for goodness sake! But this brings up a very valuable homestead, self-sufficiency, preparedness point. It is so easy to get complacent when you  work around inherently dangerous things like livestock and fire and tools. Familiarity breeds sloppiness sometimes. This time, it only led to an uncomfortable 12 hours. Another time, it could lead to something far worse. Hubris is a bad thing and I will be sure to remember that.

On another subject. Just because you don’t grow something doesn’t mean you can’t preserve it. I had almost no bassicas this year. I order a case of each form the Creamery. The price was good as I bought in bulk (and promised the produce manager a jar of pickles. It was a chore to cut, blanch and freeze so much all at once but over two days, I got 50 bags of vegetables put int the freezer. If you have a small, local grocer it might not hurt to ask about bulk prices on things you want. I have friends who run a store and they get a lot of bulk purchase things for me. I am thinking I should spread out from beyond food into things like shampoo and soap. My idea of heaven would be to never go into a supermarket again.

I have a lot of turnips. Now we all love baby turnips but what I have are anything but babies. They’re large and getting tough. I made the  mistake of planting way too early and they are ready for harvest long before my root cellar is cool enough to accommodate them. In desperation, a few weeks ago I shredded a bunch and put them in a crock with some salt and waited to see what would happen. There was a time I despaired of the mess ever being fit for consumption. The whole kitchen was starting to smell a bit like a load of dirty gym socks but I was patient and yesterday, wonder of wonders, I was able to can 6 quarts of delicious turnip slaw (sauerruben). I saved a small jar to eat fresh with a tuna sandwich. It was really good! Bruce liked it too. A friend stopped by and she not only loved the turnip, she even loved the juice. There are all sorts of healthy things in fresh pickle juice. It’s in the same category of foods like yogurt and has all sorts of probiotics that aid in food digestion.

Knowing how to pickle is so important in food preservation. You can pickle almost anything and you need nothing but salt. I store a lot of salt and I’m thinking I should get a lot more while I can. Salt is cheap, it stores forever and has dozens of uses. The only downside is the weight. 80 pounds of salt seems to weigh more than 80 pounds of almost anything else. The first time I got an order, I thought I would pop a vessel before I got it in the house. I’m way to old for this nonsense.

When canning the sauerruben, I tried a way I have not used prior to this year. Rather than the twenty minutes at a full boil I went with 20 minutes at 180 degrees.I found that just below a simmer was just right. This has the advantage of keeping the beneficial bacteria alive while still sealing the jars for long-term storage. What I need to experiment with is just keeping the stuff in the basement root cellar without sealing it at all. I kept jars of mixed pickles for weeks on a kitchen counter last year and for months in the refrigerator. I don’t know how long would have lasted as my son, Nathan, loved the mixed vegetable pickles and ate them by the jar every time he came over.

I am more and more interested in preserving food without fossel fuel inputs. I wish I could come up with a dehydrator that would work in our humid location but I have only had success with my Excalibur. Even the old round dehydrator I picked up at a tag sale didn’t do the job unless I babysat it, rotating trays and turning food.  The Excalibur is fast and easy. It’s loud and it throws off a lot of heat so I have been drying out on the deck. It’s cool enough to use inside now but the noise gets to me after a bit.

Welcome to all the new visitors. I read all of the comments each day. It is one of life’s little pleasures for me. In answer to the folks who have asked about my kitty problem; we are managing to keep the cat inside and I guess he’s getting used to it. He goes out in the middle of the night for a few hours and sleeps on the deck swing. It isn’t ideal but it has solved the bird issue. he yowled for a few days but that seems to have settled down. The egg recall has sparked a lot of comments. The crazy rules about keeping poultry only exist because of the unique place we are in history. As we relocalize those rules will become relics of a lost age.

I have a post script: I just got my new Lehman’s catalog. It’s the best one ever and right on the front page is an oil press! It’s $189.00 which is no small investment but it’s made in America, uses no electricity and can produce 8 cups of oil in an hour from a variety of sources like sunflower seed, grape seeds, walnuts and hazelnuts. Oil is a problem for long-term storage as good oil gets rancid quickly and it’s really expensive. I had just been talking with a friend about the problem the night before I got the catalog. I don’t think that everyone needs an oil press but it does seem like something a groups of neighbors, a church group or a relocalization organization might purchase together as an investment. An added benefit is that the cake left over from oil pressing can be feed to animals so it’s a zero waste process. I have got to get me one of these. I can grow sunflowers here in quantity. I can even see someone with enough nuts to make this into a nice little home based business. Too bad I can’t grow olives.

It’s that time of year. The air is cooler and I have the energy to tackle some big projects like organizing the closets and food storage buckets. I really want to spend some time on refining our plot plan too. I like to have goals to work towards. It helps me focus which is important to my ADD brain. I want to know exactly what I plan to order come January and exactly where I plan to put it. I ordered way too much last year and ended up scrambling for space. I know some things didn’t do well (like the hops) and there are some things I can’t find at all. We have the space for two 10×20 beds for blueberries and strawberries. Now I want space for three times the elderberries I have and a whole lot more blackberries. We are enlarging the raspberries so we will have enough to sell in the next few years. The grapes produced this year and I want to have more of them as well.

I am learning a hard lesson about this homesteading thing. You can’t have everything, at least not all at once. I want an orchard but I am not at all sure that my site is right. My friend Sal, an expert on all growing things, says it may produce apples and plums but because of airflow and frosts patterns, peaches will probably never produce here. I know I have to stick to what I know will do well and plan to barter or forage what won’t.

I want a barn too but I can’t afford to build one until my MIL’s house sells and that doesn’t look likely. Even the usually optimistic folks on CNBC are sounding less convinced that a recovery is around the corner. People don’t want to buy homes if their jobs are not secure or if they believe prices have further to drop.

This egg recall thing has gotten my dander up. I fear it will be the cause of yet more regulations that will make it harder for small egg producers to stay in business. I firmly believe that packing thousands of hens into cramped quarters and depriving them of the ability to forage while stuffing them full of antibiotics to fend off the resultant diseases is a recipe for disaster. It’s the farming practices that have to change, not the number of regulations. I swear I will never purchase another factory produced egg. It is a pure pleasure to find eggs in the hen’s boxes each morning.

My church was invaded by a biker gang last night! No leather, no motorcycles, just college kids on mountain bikes crossing the country from Portland, Oregon to Boston to look at food; who’s growing it, how they’re growing it and how far it travels before it hits your plate.

It rained here this weekend. Poured actually and the kids were supposed to camp at a state park near us. But they were cold and wet and hungry and looking for dry sleeping quarters. Our church has a big vestry and we let the kids sleep there. I brought them over a pan of brownies after supper and stayed for a chat. It was nothing that I didn’t already know. Mainly, we talked about the coming food crisis in this country and how we would all be well served to begin to source local food today.

It was serendipitous that I should have this conversation at this time. Bruce and I have been talking a lot about selling our honey and what price we should ask. We both know we should raise the price to reflect the inputs of time and money and the cost of jars but if we do we run up against the competition from imported honey. Chine sells honey for much less than we can sell honey, even when you factor in the cost of transport. Why? Because it’s often cut with corn syrup and because the workers are poorly paid. The honey is often routed through India. When you go to market and find honey for $3.99 a bottle it looks like a steal compared to the $5.00 Bruce has to charge. And it is a steal. It steals our local economies and local food sheds.

While I can grouse about the honey I know I make some poor decisions too. Every time I buy from a chain rather a local vendor just to save a couple of dollars I become a part of the problem. I need to be more mindful.

To end on a pleasant note; it’s raining!!!! It started on Friday night and has been raining pretty steady since then. It’s cool too. There is actually a fall kind of nip in the air. The rain is too little to late for many crops but it’s welcome none-the-less.

Thanks to Andrea’s generosity, I have the most amazing crop of tomatoes ever. She sent me saved seeds from chicky-bit-run last year. We have been feasting on Arkansas Traveler and Purple Cherokees for weeks now. I found myself with a batch of tomatoes stewing in a pot but no real plan for them beyond sauce when it hit me that I had never made ketchup. I added vinegar, sugar, celery and onion along with some salt, chili peppers, cinnamon and cloves and let the whole thing simmer. After a couple of hours it occurred to me that I was going to be in the kitchen an awfully long time so I added a couple of cans of tomato paste to thicken things up. The result was a dozen jars of fabulous ketchup. I processed them for 15 minutes in a water bath canner and added some fancy labels that came with jars. These are definitely gift quality. I am now wondering if I could make mustard. I think a basket of ketchup, mustard and relish would make a great gift. This was another one of those things that makes no sense to most people. I could buy a year’s worth of ketchup for maybe twenty dollars but I am so tickled at knowing how to do it myself.

The lack of rain has been a problem for a lot of gardeners this year. I know I have some reduced yields. By early September I am going to be making some runs to local farms and farmer’s markets to insure I have enough food to put up. I may be short potatoes and I know I’ll be short sweet potatoes. The brassicas were a complete bust. If I was planning to get through a year on what I grew, we would all be mighty hungry by January.

I have started to go to the monthly bee meetings with Bruce. Bee keeping is fascinating. The more I learn the more I want to know. Bee keepers are an interesting bunch. I think this has the potential to be as much fun as my perennial food and sustainability group. This a short post today. It rained last night (yeah) and I want to go for a walk in the cool, fresh air before the kids get up and my day begins in earnest.

As I shucked and boiled, stripped and packed corn for the freezer las night, I did a little math, Bruce spent about 2 hours tilling the new corn patch (it held root crops last year), adding a load of rock minerals and laying down the corn mulch. We all helped with the planting. That probably took another hour. We never had to pull weeds because of the mulch although we did have to water some but there is no more labor the hose over. I have worked about 3 hours each of three nights with getting the corn into the freezer. I should say that harvesting and shucking was a family affair with the girls helping too. There was the added labor of cleanup but it didn’t take that long. We spent almost no money other than the seeds and we could always save seed if so inclined. Anyway. The point is that I have enough corn to eat a quart each week until mid July when the new sweet corn will be up.

I suppose that if I were to calculate a wage, I could have bought 50 bags of corn for not a lot more money. But the thing is that I like doing the corn. We had a good time working with the girls and I get a lot of satisfaction out of a job well done. I like knowing my food comes from back yard and I had to be doing something with those hours anyway. I’m actually looking forward to the first crisp, late fall day and making a big pot of corn chowder.

It was a momentous day yesterday. Our chicks laid their first egg! Phoebe was so excited to find the little pullet hidden in the box. I love the feeling of friendship I have with theses birds. I know this sounds crazy but I think there are particularly nice chickens. They are so sweet and funny when I bring them corn or watermelon. This is another place where one could argue that the time invested is not worth a couple of dozen eggs a week but I would disagree. The value of chickens goes way beyond eggs for me. Next year, I want some birds that can set on a nest.

I have started keeping a notebook in my car. As I drive I am marking the places with apple trees and mushroom stands so I can go back. I can’t wait for apple season. It looks like a great crop this year. We are planning lots of cider saucing parties. Fall must really be in the air for me to be thinking cider.

I was never so glad to wake up to the sound of rain. This looks like real rain too. It won’t be the end of the drought; it will take many days of substantial rain to do that, but it’s welcome none-the-less.

My friend , Heather, suggested I do a post about meeting the needs of family members or friends who might be staying with you during an emergency. We were having a conversation about the balancing act one does between being a good host and holding firm to budget lines and belief systems. For instance, I don’t allow anybody to smoke in my house and if you smoke outside, I want you to pick up the cigarette butts. I have no problem enforcing this rule. We don’t purchase bottled water or much of anything in plastic bottles for that matter. But my son is a big soda drinker and when he leaves after a visit, I’m stuck with all of his plastic to dispose of. I have not said anything to him because the bottles would  have to be dealt with an any case and it is no hardship for me to do it.

Here’s what I don’t feel obligated to put away for potential guests. Cigarettes, disposable diapers, soda, junk food or beauty products. I do have cloth diapers, baby bottles, formula and cold weather gear like hats, gloves and boots. I also have a good supply of toothbrushes, razors, combs and hair brushes and sanitary supplies. I keep clothing in various sizes and lots of extra blankets, pillows and a couple of air mattresses. I used to be able to sleep 13 here comfortably but we are rearranging space upstairs and I will not longer have as many beds. I guess I will have to compensate by adding more air mattresses.

The trickier part of having people stay during an extended crisis is dealing with behavior. I have few things I really don’t like. Loud music, shouting, cursing and rough housing inside are a few of those things. I hate a messy house and extra people adds clutter. I need the house quiet after 8:00 as I have a kid trying to sleep. When my adult kids return home for a visit, I let some of this stuff slide as their time with us is limited and I don’t want to spend it in conflict. That would change if they were staying here. The truth of it is that it’s my house and my rules. I would be assigning chores and work schedules and setting limits on the noise.

It’s a good idea to think about this stuff ahead of time. Will you be accepting pets as well as people? What about pet food and waste disposal? How about caffeine? If you aren’t a coffee drinker are you still willing to put a jar away to prevent your mother from suffering from a withdrawal headache? Are you going to let someone come with a bag of junk food that you would rather your kids didn’t eat? What about alcohol? How about discipline of children? One of my kids is stricter than I am. Another is much less so. We pretty much let the parents rule when they visit but for a longer stay, we would have to do some negotiating. I think it’s important to have consistent messages from the adults so I might have to bend on some things and stand firm on others.

I have actually been dealing with this lately. My 18 yo foster child has been bringing home some things like pre-sweetened cereal and poptarts. I don’t buy these and you can imagine that my younger girls are pretty jealous when breakfast for them is oatmeal and J is eating fruit loops. I have let it go as she is moving on Saturday and the problem will no longer exist. Otherwise, I would have to say she couldn’t do it.

I don’t think there are right and wrong answers. It has to do with comfort levels and tolerance. But on the whole, my house is, well, my house and my rules go.

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