February 2012


I have been slogging my way through Mrs. Curtis’s Household Discovery and Cookbook for a couple of days now and I’m gleaning a lot of excellent information. I have, for instance, learned that if I’m ill it is permissible to refrain from ironing my sheets assuming I hung them up properly after hand-washing them in my home-made soap. I know you all feel better now. I do.

All kidding aside, I often find myself running across bits of information or directions for doing something that I know I want to keep. Often, that information is from an on-line source or buried in a lengthy book. However, not being able to lay my hands on the information I need when I need is just the same as not having it at all. This is where your notebook comes in.

I am getting in the habit of printing out information as I come across it. If the power was out, you couldn’t go running to the computer to find necessary information. It’s an easy task to punch some holes in it and pop it in a 3-ring binder with some divider tabs. I have a lot of books but if I’m in a rush, I don’t want to be searching through 6 books for that one thing I know I read someplace. I have seen a lot of directions for making a rocket stove. I want to do this with my 4-H kids this spring. Do you think I can remember where I saw the really easy directions for a very small stove? That’s just one example. I got my notebook several years ago and it’s getting pretty full. I love all my books but my preparedness notebook is often my go-to place to find what I need.

Last week, I wanted to make bread on my wood stove. It has a good cook surface and I wanted to make better use of it since it’s going anyway. I had printed off the directions for baking bread in a Dutch oven and used those to bake the bread. I put a rack in the bottom of the Dutch oven and heated it along with the lid while I got the bread ready to bake. The dough was then placed in a round cake pan. This works best with free-form loaves. I did have to watch the bread as there is no way to monitor the heat. One problem was that the bread just about reached the level of the lid and didn’t brown as much as I would have liked. I would probably have had better luck with a smaller loaf or rolls. I made an artisan sourdough dough that’s one of my favorite recipes and calls for nothing but starter, flour, salt and water. If the power was out, I would be mighty happy to have the makings for this bread and a way to cook it right on hand. If i didn’t have a rack I would have used some old canning rings.

Speaking of canning, I just read that Ball is making 1 1/2 pint jars again. I love this size. A quart is often too much for me and a pint not enough. I love pickled asparagus and it fits just right in these tall, narrow jars. They use wide-mouth lids. I’m so glad to have an excuse to buy more jars. As you have probably figured out by now, I’m a jar junkie. I can’t resist them. Bruce used to look at me funny when I would bring home yet another case of jars but when he started keeping track of how many we go through each week he decided I was right rather than crazy. 1000 jars may look excessive but I have three sons and 4 grandkids who all live within spitting distance in addition to the four of us. If I go through three quarts of food each day (1 each of meat, fruit and vegetable) it begins to look reasonable. Add in cider, syrup, jam, pickles, applesauce and tomatoes and you get a pictures of just how many jars I need. Now I will say that I don’t have all the jars full all the time. The syrup is going into the jars emptied of cider. Spring asparagus is going into the jars emptied of pickled carrots. Strawberry jam will go into the recently finished apple butter jars. It’s a cycle. Still. If the power went out, I would have a freezer full of pork and chicken to can up, not to mention all the beef left. You can never have too many jars.

This is the title of one of the books I picked up at the tag sale this week. I spent some time thumbing through it the past few days and I’m just fascinated. So much of what is recommended as proper household management makes so much sense, some is founded on principles of reduce, reuse and recycle and some is just plain dangerous. I’m not thinking I’ll be buying asbestos by the sheet to turn into potholders and table trivets any time soon. Still, I found a lot of tips I’ll be putting to work. She says to scrape all dishes to remove traces of grease, put the grease on newspaper and burn that in the stove. This keeps your dishwater cleaner and keeps the grease out of pipes. That sounds reasonable. I am reading about candle making right now and actually learning a lot about the making of different kinds of candles and the pros and cons of each. One thing that occurs to me is that women worked all the time. There is a section on daily tasks that is mind-numbing. Just keeping the stoves and lamps clean and fired up must have consumed a couple of hours each day. She claims that dishwashing for a large family could take up three hours a day. At first that seemed excessive but when you think about it, maybe not. Then there was the laundry. When you consider that killing the hog to get the fat to make the soap, not to mention starting the fire to boil the water and the back-breaking work of the washing, rinsing and wringing, you can see why you only did it once a week. Then ironing. Heating up the sad iron and mixing the starch took another day to complete. The good old days may have had much to admire but it certainly wasn’t all fund and games. I was tired out just reading about what was accomplished.

I did enjoy the frugal use of every small thing. String was sorted by size, then the small pieces tied together and used again and agin. All fabric was either remade for another wear or used to make quilts, pot holders and carpets. Sheets were cut in two and resewn with the worn part on the edges to get every inch of wear from them. Collars were turned and socks darned. Paper was pressed, ashes and fat made into soap, wash water poured on the kitchen garden.

We tend to be so full of ourselves and our green choices but reading this book makes me feel like a fraud. It’s pretty easy to use a stainless steel water bottle and pat myself on the back but I’m guessing that, if I had to haul the water from the well I would be farm more careful of it’s use. I may drink raw milk but I don’t need to first milk the cow, then churn the butter and make the cheese in between sewing the sheets and hand washing the diaper that I had sewn the night before by light from the candles I had made from the fat I had rendered from the pig I had butchered. People ask if we are self-sufficient here. Not a chance. Not by a long shot.

I’m feeling a bit silly. I managed to walk into a glass door at the hotel we were staying at last night and I now have quite a shiner and a nose that looks like I may have taken up boxing as a hobby. The hotel had neglected to replace the sticker that indicated the door was shut. I won’t be posting any video for a couple of weeks.

I have included some pictures of our set-up for sap boiling. The summer kitchen is perfect. 40 gallons of maple sap boils down to 1 gallon of syrup so obviously, a lot of steam is generated. You do not want all that steam in your kitchen unless you were thinking of replacing the wallpaper anyway. I’m delighted to keep the whole sticky mess outside. We have done syrup before. Like a lot of streets, ours are lined with maples. We asked permission and were able to place enough buckets within walking distance to do this. We boiled on an old box stove. It wasn’t a pretty set-up but we did get syrup for our trouble. We now have enough maples along the back fence line to tap without using street trees but if you wanted to boil, think about what’s available. We got buckets, spiles and lids for a dollar a set on Craig’s List. A lot of people have switched to tubing and are happy to get rid of the buckets so you just might find a deal. Once the sap boils down I’ll bottle it in Mason jars. If we were counting the labor, it might seem that this a silly way to spend our time but here’s the thing. I’m not going to be curing cancer or writing the Great American Novel in the next few weeks. This is as good a way to spend my time as any other and I like knowing how to do it and I like having the equipment to keep us in syrup each year.

There was a tag sale here in town this week. The estate of an long-deceased resident has finally been settled up and the house sold to a couple who want to put in a raw milk dairy and cheese shop. The house is one of those 200-year-old treasures, chock full of cool things and the prices were beyond right. I picked up this amazing crock for just $20.00. The books were just a couple of dollars each and Bruce got a painting of the barn from the Bryant Homestead. We used to live there and that barn holds a special place in my heart. I remember getting up early to walk down there and gather eggs or bottle feed a new calf. The air was so still, no traffic noise disturbed the peace. The calf would nuzzle my arm, drooling all over my barn coat while polishing off his morning feed. There is no sound quite as sweet as the soft, happy cackle of a hen who has just laid breakfast for you. One of the barn cats was always rubbing against my leg looking for a hand-out and the dog would be tugging at my jeans hoping I could be persuaded to play for a minute. I knew that the huge old cookstove would have heated up the kitchen some by the time I got in. Coffee would be waiting and I would fry up the morning’s egg haul. They were good days. We were poor as church mice but I don’t think I ever thought of it that way. Anyway, I would have paid a lot more than $10.00 for that painting.

I’m heading out to help Bruce boil. Actually, the stove is doing the work. We’re just enjoying the warmth of the stove and the smell of the maple. I sure wish I could paint. Maybe my girls will remember these days, remember how good it feels to be cold when you get to set by a stove to warm up and how good it feels to be hungry when you get to fill up with food from the labor of your hands.

Yesterday, Michelle Chandler and I spoke to 300 students at a UMass Sustainable Living class. The talk went well. I really enjoyed watching Michell’s powerpoint presentation of her yard’s transformation from typical suburban desert, flat and featureless, to a food producing oasis. She manages to raise rabbits (lots of rabbits), chickens and goats along with fruit trees, berry bushes, perennial food plants and annual vegetables in the space most people fill up with swimming pools, hot tubs and lawn ornaments. It was really inspiring. I left Michelle’s house with a rabbit (freezer ready) and four dozen eggs as my chickens are just not laying well. With that bonanza, I might make custard tonight.

On my way home, driving alone in my warm, dark car, my mind wandered around what I had heard and what I offered. As usual after these talks, I thought about what I had left out, what I wish I had said, would have said had there been more time or if I had not been afraid of offending or crossing some line. Here is what I wish I had said.

Look around you. Everything you touch, everything you’re wearing, every bit of food you put in your mouth today is a product. Your computer and cell phone, those jeans and the backpack, the water bottle and the water are all possible because someone has mined the soil or oceans or the rocks to pull out a resource that energy has transformed into some thing that you can probably not imagine life without. There was a bounty of riches out there and we have figured out how to use those riches up to make our lives easier and more comfortable and lots more fun. But we’re like the trust fund kid who squandered the gift. How shocking to find that you can’t keep on taking and never returning. What a concept. The bank account eventually runs dry. We have fouled the water, depleted the soil, wasted so much of the energy and now we’re overdrawn.

When you meet someone, the first question usually asked is, “What’s your major?” Once you graduate that morphs into, “What do you do?” That may not be so easy to answer in an energy constrained world. Occupations like social worker or travel agent are likely to be far less relevant than farmer or welder, seamstress or carpenter. Now is the time to be thinking about that. You’re going to need real skills. Whenever possible, do for yourself. You must realize that the service economy is only possible with cheap energy slaves to do for us. So bake some bread and ride an old bike. Mend your jacket and change your oil. Buy some books on gardening and cooking. Find out what grows where you live. Get used to living with less. Have some fun that does not require electricity. Figure out a plan B. Have a plan C. Watch the news and read some things that are out of your comfort zone. There is always more to a story.

I don’t want to be a fear monger but here’s the truth of it. Life is going to change. It will be smaller and require more physical work. We aren’t special and we aren’t entitled. The laws of nature and physics and mathmetics could not care less about what you want or think you deserve. The dumbest commercial ever produced says, “Go ahead. You’re worth it.” You wanna bet. Our hair color and piercings, our clothing and taste in music will no longer define you. What are you good at? How do you contribute? Really. What do you do?

I’ll be posting on preservingabundance this week. I have a lot going on and I’m a bit behind schedule becsuse my computer decided to have problems with the battery. I’m using the the big desktop and it’s a collasal pain. For one thing, it’s in my bedroom. My bedroom isn’t cool. It’s downright cold. The light is awful. I like to post at 5:00 AM but my DH, for some reason, finds it irritating to have me turning on lights and picking away at the keyboard that early. Anyway. Enough whining. I hope you’ll pop over and wander around for a bit. You might find something interesting.

This is going to be a short post as I have an early appointment. I’ll be posting over on preservingabundance.com later today with the details of the pantry pictures and giveaway. But for just a moment, I want to talk about peaches.

Yesterday was gloomy. I tried to brighten things up with a few fun projects. I made a lot of candles. I pruned my fruit trees. I set up the sewing center in anticipation of a 4-H sew on Saturday morning. Still, no matter what I did, the general sense of ennui pesisted. I needed sunshine. I made a very good dinner. We had chicken with mushrooms in wine sauce, rice and peas. But we wanted a little something sweet so after dinner I opened a jar of peaches I had canned last summer.

As soon as I tasted my first bite of peach I was transported to an August afternoon. The day was warm and pleasant. My good friend and neighbor, Judy, called to say that she was overrun with peaches and did we want some. Ben, Magggie and I pulled out some baskets and headed up the road. We spent maybe an hour climbing trees and picking peaches. The bees buzzed around the ripe fruit and the smell of those peaches perfumed every breath. Back home with our haul, the next several hours were spent peeling and pitting peaches, packing them in light syrup and getting them canned in anticipation of a February day, sunless and cheerless. We didn’t just eat peaches last night. We ate summer and sunshine, memories and anticipation in a jar. The differnece between a commercially canned peach and the ones I put up myself is the difference between what’s real and what only passes for real. My slices were not perfect in the same way a factory farmed peach is perfect but they were perfect the way nature and Gaia are perfect. On this day of clouds and cold and damp chill I toast you all with a perfectly imperfect peach.

With the lengthening days I find myself with energy that was sorely lacing on those dark January days. January is the time for dreaming but February is the time to begin doing. My seeds are sorted and I have joined a seed saving guild. I have a tentative garden plan drawn up and I have ordered 20 new bushes and trees. The list includes Mulberry, Elderberry, Nanny Berry, Hazelnut and high Bush Cranberry. A friend has rooted sassafras for me and Bruce is looking for at least two large Basswood trees to purchase. Basswood is an amazing tree. The leaves are tasty and bees are attracted to the blossoms. It provides firewood and it can be coppiced with excellent results. We often purchase tiny trees to save money but we are willing to spend big to get big trees this year.

Today, the final work on the stove in the canning kitchen will be finished and we can begin tapping trees. Bruce got it all polished up and it looks great. I just need to locate a pan that’s big enough for boiling. I stopped at a Goodwill yesterday but had no luck.

Bruce and I drove up through Vermont and New York yesterday. It was a gloomy kind of day but we had a lot to discuss and the drive flew by. We went to Better Bee to get the supplies we needed to set up the new hives. The bees will be in early in April. I got a lot of candle making supplies. I’m loving the candle making. Once I feel confident I’ll move on to soap making.

On Thursday evening, I’ll be speaking about permaculture and who knows what else) on HerbalPagan’s radio show. Could you please give people the listening info Emily and I’ll post it here and on PreservingAbundance. Speaking of PreservingAbundance. I’ll be posting the details of the Pantry Book Giveaway on Friday. That will be followed by a Tattle Ring giveaway and then another book giveaway. I’ll be asking for people to mention my blog on their own blog and then picking a winner from those who respond. I would also appreciate it if all of you read regularly and have blogs to comment over a preservingabundance and leaving their links. I hope to get a blog roll going. I’m especially interested in blogs related to frugal living, gardening, permaculture, food preservation and preparedness. I’m staying away from political blogs. I want this to be a place where all feel welcome and where we don’t argue but support and inform.

Speaking of information. I have completed the first two canning videos and hope to get the third done tomorrow. I will then ask Maggie, my DIL and techie extraordinaire to get them all posted. They won’t get Oscars but I think they may convince beginning canners that the process is safe and easy.

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