Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Movements

Kalapana, January 2006 | by Jim Gupta-Carlson


My husband Jim recently resurrected a photo he had taken at Kalapana, Hawai'i, in early 2006. We were newly married and had recently decided that we would leave Hawai'i, where I had lived for ten years and he for about five, sometime that following summer. I had wanted to try and visit all the islands one more time before we left, and to make the two-day hike along the Kalaupapa trail on the Na Pali coast of Kauai, a trek I'd always swore would be my parting hike from Hawai'i. As it turned out, the winter and spring of 2006 were unusually rainy, with flash floods occurring regularly across all of the islands. Tears, perhaps, from heaven that paralleled my own sorrow over the departure. The rains coupled with a crazy schedule and a lack of funds meant that Hawai'i was the only island -- other than O'ahu, where we lived -- that we were able to visit.

I didn't remember the photo initially, but as I looked at it more intently, memories floated back. The steam rising through vents in the volcanic rock, the sparse but energetic vegetation, the haunting sunset. I had first visited Kalapana in 1996, and had been struck by what I perceived as its lifelessness. I am not sure of the actual details any longer, but the story holds true: a massive corporate development had been planned and would desecrate some areas that the Kanaka Maoli held sacred. Madame Pele intervened, and in 1986, the lava from the Kilauea flow rolled in, destroying the town and a series of subdivisions.

Ten years after the flow, there was little life. You could drive to the edge of the lava field, walk on the rocks and feel the heat. Steam vents were common.

Ten years after that, in 2006, nature was doing its part. Life was returning to Kalapana in the form of vegetation and a small amount of what seemed to be locally based commerce (as opposed to the corporate tourism that seems to dominate so much of Hawai'i) to the town.

The revival made me happy. And it heightened my sadness over my pending departure from Hawai'i.
I am not a person of permanence. I was born to immigrant parents, and within the first ten months of my life, I had lived at three different addresses. The moving continued through my childhood and young adulthood years, from Iowa City to Cleveland, to Muncie, to Chicago, southern Illinois, Fort Worth, northeastern Pennsylvania, Kansas City, Seattle, and then Honolulu. By 2006, I was forty-three years old. The longest I had lived in any one place was fifteen years in Muncie, where I grew up. The second longest was ten years and the place was Hawai'i.

I never intended to remain in Hawai'i. From the outset, I considered my presence there to be morally inappropriate as it was continuing a colonialist practice of outside settlement and exploitation of fragile resources by those non-native to the islands. I tried to be as politically supportive of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement as I could as a doctoral student who was earning her keep by working as a journalist for a newspaper whose ancestral ownership included members of the business elite that masterminded the illegal 1893 overthrow of Hawai'i's monarchy. I was constrained by my job from overt political participation. Nevertheless, I taught the politics of colonialism and U.S. imperialism as they pertained to Hawai'i in courses in the political science department at the University of Hawai'i and used my time in the islands to learn what I could about the theories and practices of decolonization from a bottom-up perspective. And, in what feels today from the pragmatic lens of the crusty, cynical Northeast as an overly superstitious view, it seemed as if for years I was being asked to stay. After deciding I would leave, the wheels would be stolen off my car, symbolizing the fact that I wasn't going anywhere as yet. But when my rent began to climb beyond the point of affordability on a part-time salary and I began to realize that I was spending more time working at my job to afford to live in Hawai'i than I was actually living in Hawai'i, I knew it was time to go.

The decision pleased my new husband, who had not shared many of my experiences of the islands, and had questioned the truth of aloha spirit. But it tore me up. Even though I put on a pragmatic face, I wasn't ready to leave quite yet.

We left on July 12, 2006, two days after I defended my doctoral dissertation. I finished the revisions in Seattle the following fall and spring, and flew back in May 2007 to graduate, just as that Hawai'i-born senator named Barack Obama announced his bid for the presidency. Today, I feel that I live very far from the world I inhabited from August 1, 1995, through July 12, 2006. Yet, there are parallels. The ground today -- on this today -- is lifeless, blanketed by a thick crust of snow. Smoke rises, not from steam vents in lava rocks but from wood-burning furnaces, stoves, and fireplaces that people in the rural part of northeastern New York where I now live use to heat their homes. Yet, underneath the snow, there is new growth. Nature will do its part as it did in Kalapana to restore life.

I look at the photo, and I love it. I suggested that we get it printed for my office, where it -- like the 88-cent calendars from the Long's Drugstores in Hawai'i that two friends loyally send me every year -- will remind me of what I learned in Hawai'i and inspire me to continue the work I began there in the social justice activism that I, now no longer working in mainstream journalism, am free to express publicly. Jim wants it framed and hung properly. I want it as a poster, stretched out in a horizontal 20 x16 portrait and affixed to the wall with thumbtacks, scotch tape, and/or duct tape. He protests that I don't know how to treasure things of value. I retort that I am not a person of permanence. The story behind all this is how I want to engage with the photograph. I want to press my nose into the landscape and smell the sulfur from the vent. I want to trace my finger around the tree that forms the dominant subject. I want to touch the mountains in the distance and imagine the feel of that sun burning my skin with memories of its warmth. I feel as I look at it that the land -- the tree, the steam, the sunset -- was telling me something that perhaps I couldn't understand then and am only beginning to comprehend a little now. That life is mobile and dynamic. That land is life. That we should keep moving forth.

There's an addendum to this story: In doing a bit of Internet fact-checking on my memories of Kalapana, I was reminded that Pele had released the lava in the area again more recently, this time in 2010. What life was rekindling may now be snuffed. Yet, like the frozen life beneath the snow in my backyard in New York, there is a promise of rebirth.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Staying up for Santa

It's a little before the midnight. Santa will be arriving shortly, though one can make the argument as adults that he's pretty much always here.

I woke up late this morning in a bit of a down-in-the-dumps mood. I felt as if the year were rapidly drawing to a close, and my results toward my goals were, well, close, but didn't quite hit the mark.

Morning pages helped pull me out of the funk as the habit of three-pages-longhand, stream of consciousness writing so often does. I found myself reflecting on the over coding that holidays produce. You're supposed to be celebrating yourself to exhaustion when the best celebration is perhaps sitting by the fire and reading a book and getting a full night's rest. You're supposed to be giving gifts when perhaps the best gifts were those that were given throughout the year. You're feeling crestfallen because your house contains no Christmas tree and no pile of gifts when perhaps the gifts you received throughout the year are gestures, items, and acts of love and caring that you'll never forget.


A few minutes ago, I told my husband jokingly that he was like Santa Claus. He reacted with mock offense. I responded that he did all the things that Santa Claus does, although his weakness is that he isn't very good with lists. That got me thinking about lists, and goals, and resolutions, and what's at stake when we make them. And if we might see all of these things as the everyday acts of kindness that many of us strive to carry out but often -- when the pace of life and the crisis of the moment strike -- we neglect.

I can't get the generosity of the farmers who sell at the Saratoga Farmers Market where we often work as volunteers out of my mind. We were leaving the market Saturday, when suddenly our table was piled high with a palette full of baked goods, cheese and yogurt delicacies, and farm-fresh meats and foods. "We appreciate the work you do as volunteers," said the market director, a berry farmer in the summers and a tree vendor in the winters, told us. "We don't always show it."

I had gotten a hint earlier that a gift might be in the offing from one of the other farmers, a woman who simply cannot keep a secret. And, because I've gathered donations from the farmers in the past to support musicians and other artists who perform during the markets for free, I knew that what was given to us wasn't a great deal from the individual farmers' perspectives in a material sense. It was a lot, however, in an emotional sense. It left me feeling stunned.

Stunned in a good way, in a way that left me resolving to continue to try and do whatever it was that I was doing. The gifts were immaterial, if one sees gifts simply as transactions of obligation. The building of a better world is what matters, which is where the gifts become relevant.

Earlier this year, I wrote an essay about finishing a triathlon in last place but not minding that at all, and feeling appreciative of the huge number of people -- who knew me only by my race number of 82 -- cheering me on. That essay and this past weekend reminded me of an Ecstatic Dance Group I had joined for a few months in 2007 when I had returned to Seattle and was trying to get the revisions to my doctoral dissertation done. I had shared my struggles periodically in the brief shares offered in a closing circle over those months, and had joined the practice of ending the sessions by introducing myself with my first name. The group was large and only a couple of people knew me outside the circle, yet when the dissertation was finally done, signed off by my advisors, and submitted to the graduate division, I introduced myself one Sunday impulsively as "Dr. Himanee." One person laughed, another clapped, and then the realization of what I'd just announced dawned on the collective consciousness of the circle. The applause, cheers, foot stomps and shouts of joy lasted for about a minute. I couldn't believe the generosity of the anonymous could be this huge.

But that is perhaps where it lies. In Washington DC, on the weekend leading up to President Obama's second inauguration ceremony, the National Day of Service took place on the Mall. Participants were handed pledge books and were encouraged to make a commitment to volunteer a set number of hours in 2013. Earlier, I had created a pie chart of priorities and because service to community was among the eight pieces, I decided to put down a pledge of 240 hours or 20 hours a month. Given that I already was spending two to four hours a week at most of the weekly gatherings of the Farmers Market, I didn't think this number would be difficult to fulfill. As weeks and months wore on, my efforts to find ways to volunteer to tally up the hours made the figure feel more and more formidable. And, then, at some point, I just stopped counting and just said, "yes," when asked if I could help. Volunteering ceased to be an obligation and turned into a way of life. In a sense, it became a gift. More of a gift to me than a gift I felt I gave someone else because whenever I did help out, I was pulled out of myself. I got engaged with a community; I talked to people; I learned something. I had fun.

So that's why we're staying up tonight waiting for Santa to make his annual red-jacketed appearance with his antler-heavy entourage. It's not so much for the gifts (or lack thereof) that we expect tonight. It's for the gifting that circulates all around us -- giving and receiving -- throughout the year.
 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Advent Ghosts: 2013

(I wrote the following stories as part of an Advent Ghosts writing project in cyberspace, organized by Loren Eaton at http://isawlightningfall.blogspot.com)

Free for all
The Hungry line up outside the church. Damien frisks each one of them before letting them in.
            Inside, plates fill.
Turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes.            
            Shouts erupt. Fists bang. The line becomes a mob.
Damien locks the doors.
"Would you like a dinner roll?" Abdullah asks a man.
            "No white bread. No white food."
            "Yams?"
            "Yams, yes. God's first food."
            The man has black hair, a feather dangling with a bead. Eyes wedged with grit. "Jesus died for all of us."
            Abdullah leaves his station and walks toward the door. He overpowers Damien, lifts the latch, and lets the Hungry in.


            Last Words
Johnson was irate. He was on TV and Jeanie missed it.
She worked late. Again. She didn’t call home. Again.
Johnson hurled his hurt like a whip. “You self-absorbed, selfish ego-maniac.”
Jeanie took the lashes, and poured some wine. And more.
She switched to vodka.
She started retching and passed out.
When she awoke, Johnson was penitent.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m sorry. I made a mess.”
The voice was not his wife’s. He looked at her and saw bloodshot eyes, and a contorted neck. She laughed. A diabolic laugh.
Her arm whipped forward and Johnson’s world went dark.

 Violations of Trust
            Shep met Avery on Philbin Street, while photographing the streets. Avery was reciting verse.
            They started talking, and Avery showed him his Book of Words.
            Shep left the area, and months later Avery saw his picture with a story about the homeless. The photo angers him, and he turns to drugs while waiting for Shep to return.
            On Christmas Eve, Avery sat with his nose in a sack, his eyes glazed but watchful.
His patience was rewarded. Shep returned.
            Avery crept up.
            “Do you remember me?” he asked, as the Book of Words formed a noose around Shep’s cashmere swathed neck.

            

Friday, December 13, 2013

Bean stomping

It is almost mid-December. The winter solstice is eight days away, the date that signifies the first day of winter and the return of light. Snow is falling sporadically, and deep freezes have turned our ground hard. Still, our garden keeps giving in amazing ways.

For the past four weeks, I have trekked out to the remnants of the summer garden two or three times a week to break off kale, collard, and brussels sprouts leaves from their stalks. I also have snapped baby-sized brussels sprouts off their stalks. I use the words "break" and "snap" literally. The leaves and the sprouts are frozen, but they are still green. We let them sit in our mudroom for a few hours, rinse them well with cold water, and cook them quickly with a little bit of oil, leek, garlic, and cumin. They taste almost better than they did at the height of the season.

Herbs also are still valiantly alive. This afternoon, with the temperatures barely making it out of the teens, I snipped sprigs of thyme for a crockpot stew. I also have been continuing to harvest basil, lemongrass, rosemary, oregano, and marjoram from pots that we wisely stored this year in the mudroom -- which is less well heated than the main part of the house -- instead of indoors. The cooler air and the absence of hot air filtering up from a wood-burning stove or forced air heating vents seems to be suiting most of the herbs well. As long as we can remember to mist them every two or three days, gardening guides tell us the plants will make it into the spring.

And then there's the dried beans.

We ended our season with a joyful outcome on beans. After losing nearly all of our crop in 2012 to deer, we vowed to do a better job this year of protecting them and invested in a solar powered electric fence. The fence surrounded most of our garden and was considerably cheaper and less physically intrusive than any other barrier. I worried about deer getting hurt from the shocks of the fence, but they seemed not to be bothered in the least. The fence prompted them to alter their paths and gave us a wonderfully rich supply of winter beans.

Most of which remain in the two large cardboard boxes we stashed them in after harvesting the dry vines in October.

I had visualized quiet winter nights by the fire, listening to music, sipping tea, and shelling beans. That image worked well until I realized how slow the process of bean shelling is. Three or four times, I've sat by the fire for one or two hours shelling away. The end result is usually a few healthy cups of brilliantly colored legumes, a huge pile of brittle pods, aching shoulders and chapped fingers, and minute debris from leaves, splintering vines and other yard material scattered everywhere.

In the meantime, the load of beans that remains to be shelled seems to have barely diminished, to the point that my husband Jim remarked tonight that there was no way I would get through the beans before next year.

I decided there had to be a better way, and consulted the Internet.

Happily, there is.

A couple of colleagues once shared with me a practice of laying the bean pods on a sheet, donning clean socks and stomping all over them, crushing the beans n the process. Apparently, bean stomping is a time honored tradition with gardening enthusiasts, homesteaders, and small farmers offering suggestions. One from Mother Earth News that dated back to 1983 involved putting the beans in a burlap sack, tying the end, and placing the sack in an area of a house that sees a lot of foot traffic. After a few days, the pods are crushed and the beans are "de-podded". Once the beans are freed from their pods, the author noted, one only needs to give the burlap sack a few good vigorous shakes. The beans settle down on the bottom and you scoop the chaff from the top.

Other suggestions included putting the bean pods in a trash can and weed-whacking them until the pods were crushed, then using a leaf blower to disperse the chaff; donning work gloves and crushing the pods one by one, allowing the beans to fall into a container; and putting the pods in a pillowcase and beating them with a stick.

To be fair, I did try a modified version of the pillowcase method about a month ago. I loaded an armful of beans into a pillowcase that happened to zip close, put it on the floor and walked all over it. It did work, but I found separating the beans from the chaff to be quite laborious. Looking over these suggestions, I realize that shaking the  pillowcase and then finding some sort of way to dump out the crushed pods and other debris without losing the beans might have helped.

So, empowered by the tradition of bean stomping, I am hoping tomorrow to create a modified version of my colleagues' sheet method. I'll load beans up not in a pillowcase but in a chicken feed sack. The sacks we receive our feed from are made more of a vinyl material than burlap, but they are tough and should be able to withstand some rough handling. Plus, we buy 100 pounds of feed at a time so I'm figuring that we can fit the rest of our harvest into one or two of the bags. I'll tie the ends, take the bags upstairs out of our cats way, and stomp away. Perhaps I'll dance on the bags a little as well. Afterwards, I'll give the bags a shake (or get my much stronger husband to do so), and prepare to scoop out a big pile of debris … all good compost material that so minute and dry that it will take little to turn it into new soil. And, then, we'll see what lies below.
 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Some real costs of food

Last night, I started to write a story that I had envisioned that I would post to my Sustainability blog. It was supposed to be about finding abundance by creating multiple meals from a single farm-raised animal, in this case, a duck. The story, as it evolved, turned out to be something different and I ended up sharing it not on my Sustainability blog but on my Short Stories blog. The story that I ended up writing was less about finding abundance and more about honoring animals through the meat that we eat. It tried to intervene in the debates over whether being vegetarian was a more proper ethical choice than eating meat. You can read it here: http://guptacarlsonshortstories.blogspot.com/2013/12/honoring-animals-we-eat.html

It struck me later that not acknowledging this story as a story of sustainability was buying into certain perceptions of what constituted sustainability. By categorizing vegetarianism as an ethical or religious preference (a belief I inherited from my parents) and as a practice that would prolong the life of the planet, it seems that I might have been creating an assumption that non-vegetarianism had no ethical or religious grounding and no sustainable value. It also seemed that I defended non-vegetarianism as a practice that could be sustainable if done in certain sustainable terms: eating only as much meat as your body needed and not engaging in greedy overindulgence; doing your best to ensure that the animals you consume have a good life before they are slaughtered; and honoring the life that the animal did live by using as much of the animal as possible and not merely throwing away the leftovers after one meal.

So, I'm not sure I see ethical or religious justifications for eating meat, any more than I understand how abstaining from meat is an ethical or religious stance. I appreciate that abstinence is a moral choice. What makes the choice moral … well, all I really can say is that some people (including my parents) see the choice as a moral one and I honor the right to do so. I especially honor the right of my parents because they are firstly my parents and they secondly extend a reciprocal gesture to their many friends and relatives (including their children) who do not follow their ways.

But, ethics, morality, and religion aside, it seems that the arguments I made for how to eat meat sustainably could be applied just as appropriately to the production and consumption of fruits and vegetables. In other words, one can be vegetarian or vegan, it seems, and still be highly destructive in one's actions in terms of self, community, and the planet if one is not considering the sustainability of the foods one eats.

Let me offer one example. A few years ago, I was part of a dinner gathering for which I had prepared several vegetable dishes. Many of the vegetables went uneaten, and the hosts, instead of packing up the vegetables to be consumed later as leftovers as they did with the leftover meats, breads, and beverages, simply threw them away. I cringed as I realized too late what had happened because I knew those vegetables alone could have made at least one -- if not two or three -- light, nutritionally balanced, wonderfully tasteful meals. I also knew that the loss of the vegetables was a bit of an economic loss: about one-third to one-half of what I was spending back then on groceries (before beginning to grow my own food) was on fresh produce. The example also reminded me of other parties and dinner gatherings that I'd been to in the past where beans, carrots, shreds of corn, salads, and other highly wholesome foods end up in the refuse bin from guest plates uneaten.

Growing my own vegetables now alerts me to the use-value of most of what I eat. Or, to get away from the language of Marx, I know what it costs in terms of labor to raise a single vegetable from seed to harvest.

Let me offer the example of garlic. I am choosing garlic because I currently am preparing a few hundred cloves of garlic my husband and I raised last year for dehydrating and ultimate grinding into a powder. My husband and I bought nine pounds of garlic last year through a cooperative arranged by a local farmer for $90. We broke the garlic bulbs into cloves and planted 400 of them. After that planting, we had probably another extra 100 or so cloves, some of which we used in our own cooking and some of which we gave to a friend who was interested in planting her own garlic. Sticking just with the figures of $90 and 400 cloves, each clove -- or "seed", if you will -- cost about 22.5 cents. We had a great harvest, which yielded about 400 bulbs of garlic, as well as some 400 garlic scapes, some of which we enjoyed for severals months in saut├ęs, stir fries, and pestos, and some of which we distributed to our garlic scape-loving friends. So, perhaps, we can assume from these statistics that each bulb of garlic that we grew cost us about 15 cents, especially since the success of the crop meant that we didn't need to invest an additional $90 this year in garlic for seed.

A single garlic bulb sells for between $1 and $3 at our local farmers market. Based on these figures, the fact that our own garlic cost us just 15 cents seems like a great deal.

Except for the labor, soil, and fertilizer costs.

I personally am not at a point yet where I can figure the per-plant costs of soil, water, and fertilizer. But I can speak a bit about labor: It took me about four hours to prepare the bulbs for planting. It took my husband about sixteen hours to turn the soil and prepare the section of our garden where we decided we would plant garlic. It then took the two of us about six hours to plant the cloves. Cutting scapes in July took me about eight hours. Harvesting the garlic took the two of us about twenty-hours. After harvesting, the garlic bulbs needed to cure for about six weeks before I could snap the bulbs from the stalks and store them away. The post-curing snapping and storing took about six hours. Part of that process also required separating the bulbs into ones that we wanted to use for fresh eating, for drying, and for the seeding of the next crop. And, as noted, the process of dehydrating has only begun. So looking at our labor hours, totals up to 60 hours -- spread over a time period of about nine months.

Labor analysts estimate that a current living wage for our economy should be about $15 an hour. I'll be frugal and use the minimum wage of $8 an hour, which is set to go into effect in New York State in 2014. Our labor costs for the 400 bulbs of garlic we raised were $480, or just a little over $1 per bulb, the low end of the going rate at the farmers market. So if we look at the seed cost of 15 cents per clove and figure that an average bulb of garlic has six cloves, we can see that growing one bulb of garlic cost about $1.90.

Before this discussion gets too "economic," I want to reiterate that growing garlic is a joy. It's typically planted in the late fall between the time of the first frost and the point where the ground freezes. It lies dormant under soil and snow and begins to sprout its first leaves in about mid-March, one of the first plants to grow. Growers can savor the particularly pungent flavor of "green garlic" by pulling a few stalks as early as mid-May, before the scapes start coming into full bloom in June. The first mature stalks that we pull have a robust, creamy flavor that when roasted lightly on an outdoor grill are unparalleled in taste. Garlic retains its freshness for several months, so reminders of the previous years' harvest can stay with you through the emergence of the new leaves in the following spring.

With this in mind, imagine what happens when we do not honor our produce and let it go to waste: to rot in fields, to go uneaten on plates, to be thrown away after a meal instead of saved for another? Garlic is just one example of the costs that growing food entails. It seems that like meat it is most ethical and most sustainable to grow it and share it and to make sure the whole plant is consumed.

I should mention the stalks on which garlic grows, as well as the papery skins that surround each raw clove. They generally dry until they are brittle, and broken up in a compost pile, they decompose quickly, forming an excellent component of the topsoil in which all of our plants grow.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Honoring the animals we eat

A secret little jar has been tucked into my refrigerator for the past week. It is a cooking item that came from an unlikely place: the fat off of a duck we enjoyed in at least four different ways over the Thanksgiving holiday. I like to think of that duck, which we purchased from Bob and Mary Pratt of the Elihu Farm in Easton, NY, as the gift that keeps on giving.

My husband Jim and I visited the Pratt's farm about eighteen months ago, and saw the ducks they were raising skipping around in a field and scooting off into a pond. We had gotten a duck from another one of our favorite farmers last winter and had prepared it Chinese-style, as a Peking-style duck. We loved the preparation so much that we decided that we wanted to do it again for Thanksgiving. The Pratt's had had some of their flock recently returned from the butcher, and were happy to reserve one for us.

The Peking-style duck, done the right way, is actually three courses. It takes about a day and a half of advance preparation, and can be a pretty heavy eating experience. Jim and I love to eat, but we don't like to gorge so we split the three courses into three or more meals, which makes the intense level of preparation worth the effort.

But how did I end up with a 16 ounce jar of bright yellow duck fat? The answer begins with a description of how the duck is prepared.

The first step, after washing and patting the duck dry, is to pour one quarter of a cup of vodka over it. The vodka helps dry the duck skin and enhances its flavor a bit. We put it in the vodka and let it marinate overnight. The second step comes the next morning: the duck is rubbed with honey and then hung by the neck to dry in a cool, breezy space for at least four hours. We put it in our mudroom with an electric fan blowing gently next to it, and let it dry for about six hours.

Then, comes the roasting. The duck is placed on a roasting rack over a pan of water and roasted at 375 degrees for about thirty minutes, then at 300 degrees for about an hour. One then turns the temperature back up to 375 and continues to roast the duck until it is tender. We had a 4-1/2 pound duck and expected the cooking process to take about three hours. The duck was done, however, in about a half hour after we turned the heat back up, or in about two hours total.

The first course is served with handmade mandarin pancakes, which are simple crepes made of flour, water, and sesame oil, and with either hoisin sauce or a fruity jam and some onions on the side. The meal looks deceptively light; in reality, it is quite filling. After we ate, I cut the remaining meat into pieces that would be suitable for a stir fry and stored them in the refrigerator. I also wrapped the carcass into a plastic bag and stashed it away, as well. The stir fry was to be the second course, enhanced with crisp green beans, carrots, garlic, and onion. The carcass would make a rich brothy soup for the third course.

As I was putting away the first course, however, I lifted the roasting rack off of its pan and noticed a rich golden residue had gathered in the water. A quick finger taste revealed that fat from the duck along with the honey and perhaps some traces of the vodka had accumulated to create a rich savory mixture. It seemed too good to throw away so I carefully poured it into a small cooking pot, figuring I could make a gravy with it later.

Chinese style stir fries and American style gravies, however, are not exactly compatible in a culinary sense. When we made our duck stir fry a couple of days later, I did it as a fairly dry mixture because the meat was so rich with fat. The liquid sat in the refrigerator for two more days, and I fully planned to throw it out.

And then a friend suggested I save the duck fat for cooking such things as hash brown potatoes and pie crusts. Suddenly, it seemed that we had gained a few more additional meals from the duck.

I got the pot out of the refrigerator and immediately noticed that the fat had congealed. I scooped it out and put it in a small jar, marveling at its vivid yellow hue. And, underneath the fat, lay one more find: a defatted light golden-brown broth. I resolved to use it to cook risotto.

The lingering remnants of honey, duck meat, and vodka combined to create a deliciously light flavorful broth that the starchy arborio rice used in risotto eagerly soaked up. We scraped the pan clean of the risotto, and began looking forward to meal number four: the traditional third course of a Peking-style duck meal, which is a noodle soup.

And, in the meantime, the duck fat formed the basis for a crust for an apple pie, oil for frying potatoes, and a moistening agent for the leftover duck stir fry. About half of the bottle still sits in the refrigerator, waiting to be used, and we have requested another duck from the Pratt's to eat over Christmas.

So what is the point of such a story? There is some back story to this question, too. Last spring, I was at a health and wellness conference sponsored by my college, and found myself chatting with a student who had decided she no longer wanted to eat meat. She told me that one of her reasons for going vegan was reading the grotesque accounts of the Chicago meat-packing industry in the late nineteenth century that are documented in Upton Sinclair's classic book The Jungle. I knew those accounts well, and when after a four-year period in my own life in which I stopped eating meat I decided to resume eating meat, the industrial practices of the early twenty-first century factory farms weighed heavily in my mind. I grew up in a family where my parents are lifelong vegetarians but, as immigrants from India, wanted their children to acculturate to American life and saw eating meat as a way for us to do so, figuring that we could make the decision later in life whether to keep eating meat or not. Because of this experience, I never have had ethical qualms about eating animals, though I certainly respect those who do. I do, however, do not like to see food of any sort going to waste -- especially if the source of the food was once a mammal, a fish, or a bird. And I don't like to see animals suffer in life, even if they are being raised with the intention of being turned eventually into human food.

As a result, my husband and I have tried our best to buy meat from farmers or fisherman whom we know personally and often have taken advantages of opportunities to visit their farms. From these experiences, we also have learned that one can honor an animal that one eats not only by giving it a good life while it is alive but also by ensuring that as much of it is consumed as possible so that it's life is not one that was considered expendable. I realize that this is a hard concept to get across in the polarizing debates over vegetarianism and veganism, but I feel that it is an important point. There are plenty of good reasons why one should not eat meat -- ranging from personal religious and ethical beliefs to the planet's sustainability and lifelong health. There also are plenty of good reasons to eat meat -- including nutritional benefits, the gaining of personal energy, and lifelong health. Where the bridge exists between these extremes is perhaps in the degree to which one consumes meat and the how. How much do you eat at a single meal? Are you overeating or are you taking in just the optimal amount that your body needs? What are you doing with your leftovers? How much of the animal are you consuming? Can you honor the meal more by stretching it into four, five, six, or even more meals? Are you doing what you can to ensure that as little as possible goes to waste?

For those reasons, the jar of duck fat feels like a gift. It is a reminder to me of how the abundance of a life can be sustained.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Now That The Ground Has Frozen ...


November entered my life very quickly this year. With it came Diwali and a nine-course meal; a four-day trip to New York City to attend the Hip-Hop Education Center's third Think Tank and to do archival research at the Schomberg Center for Black Culture; a quick rush to get our garlic planted before the ground froze; a sprint to finish harvesting and storing all of our root vegetables; my birthday, the Veteran's Day holiday, and beginning tomorrow another round of festivities: the annual Squashville bonfire, Thanksgiving, and the day before and day after, and then it will be December.

I have been gardening less, and writing and cooking more. Along with everything else, November brought National Novel Writing Month, and with that came a determination to begin a long-delayed task of trying to assemble together all the research I've done on community based hip-hop over the past four years into a coherent fashion so I can see what I've got along with a determination to complete the similarly delayed task of completing revisions on my other book manuscript.

These projects are moving along pretty steadily, but tonight cooking is on my mind. Specifically, I am wondering how to create a wonderful, filling easy meal out of four featured garden ingredients: radishes, sweet potatoes, squash, and collard greens. And, along with that, how to create a dessert from a quince.

Radishes were a surprisingly sweet success in our garden this year. We did a planting in the spring, and ate both the greens and the radishes themselves in stir fries, roasted, or raw. After we harvested our garlic in July, we did a second planting of several quick-growing crops, radishes among them. Then, because August was filled with eating tomatoes, summer squash, eggplants, peppers, beans, peas, and all of our greens, the radishes grew bigger and bigger without us noticing much. When I finally got around to looking at the radishes in mid-September, after our first light frost, they were bulging out of the ground in hues of pink, bright red, purple, and beige.

I didn't think they would taste very good because radishes tend to lose their crispness if they're left in the ground past their prime. But when I picked one particularly large pink bulb and cut it into slices, I was surprised. The sharp, almost peppery taste that young radishes often carry had matured to a sweeter, more mellow flavor that lingered sensually on the palate. When roasted, the sweetness grew even more pronounced. We began trying to figure out how we could preserve these flavorful roots for winter use.

Some local farmers had told us that radishes don't store well in anything other than a refrigerator
and that even when refrigerated they would only be good for about eight weeks. Then, we discovered a tactic used by a backyard farmer in the Yukon to preserve all of his root vegetables. He placed them in large containers such as garbage cans, covered them with peat moss, capped the cans, and stored them in his cold basement. The method is meant to simulate the underground growing environment that helps radishes, turnips, beets, carrots, leeks, onions, and potatoes thrive. The cans keep the space where the vegetables reside dark and cold (but above freezing) while the peat moss provides both the texture of soil and enough dampness to let the vegetables stay fresh and crisp without turning
moldy. The plan made sense to us, so in mid-October we invested in several large aluminum garbage cans and three jumbo-sized bags of peat moss. It cost about $150, but we figured that even if the tactic failed, nothing would go to waste. The peat moss would help freshen up the chicken coop in the spring, which in turn would help generate more and better compost and fertilizer for our soil. And garbage cans are always going to find a use, one way or the other.

So far, our root vegetables that have been stored in this way have retained both their crisp textures and their sweet flavors. They do require a fair amount of cold water rinsing and scrubbing, but they're otherwise intact. In the meantime, however, we also found ourselves with refrigerator bins filled with carrots, turnips, and radishes that we didn't want to store because these particular vegetables were too small, too soft, or bore cracks that might have resulted from pest damage or weather changes. Such issues don't make the vegetables inedible so we've been going through them first. And in the process I've discovered that the steady cold air of the refrigerator seems to be especially good for the radishes. Every time I've pulled out a few to roast or to eat raw, they've seemed to taste better and better.

And, so I decided, some night before November ends, I would like to make a meal in which radishes are not a casual side dish but one of -- if not the one -- focal point. A couple of days ago, my husband Jim decided he wanted to hold our annual backyard bonfire tomorrow night -- this is an event in which the two of us burn the brush, old wood, and other yard debris that accumulates over the year in one fell swoop. The bonfire lasted four nights during our first year in our current place. This year, it'll probably burn good and hot for several hours but probably not more than one night. At any rate, the bonfire creates an opportunity to eat outdoors at a time of year when it's usually too cold to do so because the warmth of the fire keeps the immediate area warm for a few hours. It also is a large controlled fire, which is joyous in and of itself. Before I quit drinking, the bonfire involved swigs of wine and vodka; now, I'm anticipating seltzer water and possibly hot chocolate -- along with a meal that features four vegetables, one of them being radishes.

A few Internet searches revealed a variety of intriguing recipes that I look forward to trying out as winter deepens. Tomorrow, however, I'm thinking I'd like to keep it as simple as possible: radishes wrapped in foil and baked in the oven; sweet potatoes, boiled and perhaps mashed; squash diced up and stir-fried; and greens cooked down with a little water. The quince -- supposedly the apple that Eve bit in the Garden of Eden -- is a purchase last week from the area's top apple growers: Saratoga Orchards. Our research has produced a slow-cooked approach: 250 degrees for about four hours. It seems that it will emerge from the oven just as our bonfire embers are cooling, ruby red and sweet. A perfect dessert.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Practices and processes

It's one hour and twelve minutes before midnight. It's crazy to admit this, but my heart is thumping with excitement. In just 72 minutes, National Novel Writing Month will begin! About three hundred thousand writers around the world will spend the thirty days of November trying to belt out at least 50,000 words on a book-length project of their choice. A world of social media, coffee klatches, and daily e-mail pep talks will provide fuel for the fire. In honor of the event, I changed my Facebook cover photo and profile picture: Let the writing begin.

For now, for one hour and three minutes now, it is still Hallowe'en night for a lot of friends and I've been enjoying the array of costumes showing up on my Facebook feed. But for me, tomorrow is the real big day. It's the first day of November, the descent into winter's darkness and all the festivities, resolutions, and bookends of beginnings and endings that accompany it.

I am a Scorpio, and I celebrate my 51st birthday on November 9. This year, I'll celebrate it in New York City, partly in conjunction with the Universal Zulu Nation's celebration of its 40th anniversary. I am grateful for this birthday, partly because it -- unlike last year's big 5-0 -- is not a milestone. It's simply another birthday, and a marking of another year of enjoyment of this life and this planet. But it is a milestone in some other ways. For the first time in a decade, I am weighing in at my ideal body weight. For the first time in my adult life, perhaps, I am feeling a sense of balance in all of the areas of life that matter to me most.

I went to work today dressed as a runner. That meant that despite rain that poured down all day, I had to run. It was a pleasure to log the miles, and to enjoy a dinner of homemade seafood gumbo, quinoa and beans, and cornbread afterwards. It was a pleasure, too, to spend the day of costumery and charade grading papers, working on a video project, and getting my Nanowrimo project set up for launch tomorrow.

This November will mean more than one challenge. Besides belting out 50,000 words (I'm actually hoping for 60,000 or more), I am scheduled to wear a different piece of clothing every day of the month, participate in a one-month plank challenge, repeat my wall sits challenge, log 100 miles of walking and running, and finish typing the longhand version of my father's life story. When my head starts to visualize the work, my eyes start to blur and I gasp. But when my heart works with it, I just feel vibrancy and excitement. All of these challenges are truly challenges where the real reward is not an end product as much as it is a dedication to process. And, process, I've discovered over the past year, is a synonym for practice. Practice yields results.

Behind the heart-pumping excitement of the month-to-come has been some feeling over the past five days of utter exhaustion. Work has felt like work. Chores have felt like chores. Life has felt somewhat lifeless as I've indulged a little more than I like to in candy, sugary sodas, and not-so-wholesome eat out food. Even with nine hours of sleep last night, I woke up feeling tired and moody.

I searched out the source of my malaise and located it in my writing. It hadn't been happening. I hadn't felt inspired. I was chugging out words, but I wasn't liking the words. I was figuratively wadding up the electronic documents of words and tossing them into my laptop's trash icon. Because writing constitutes much of both my life and my job, it was easy to see how its lack of flow was creating an analogous clog in my life.

In the spirit of trying to snap out of it, I looked at two activities that have become metaphors for life: running and raising food. I realized that both of these activities are processes and that I treat each one a little differently.

Each run is about a certain distance. Three miles, four miles, seven miles. I decide the distance on the basis of how much time I think I have and how my body happens to be feeling on a given day. But when I start running, time goes out the window. Everything else is put on hold until I've logged the miles. I am very gentle and kind to myself: if I start running and feel sluggish, I allow myself to slow down to a walk. If things are going well and I'm in one of my dancy-prancy moods, I'll loosen up and pick up the pace. I run with my iPhone most of the time, mainly to log the miles and to check in on how I'm doing, time-wise. But it's never the clock that ends the practice session for the day. It's the distance.

Raising food, by contrast, is a practice that I measure not in tasks completed but in hours spent. I start my gardening sessions (or, more recently, my root-veggie storing, pepper-drying, or bean-shelling sessions) with a list of desirable things I'd like to get done on my to-do list. But raising food is an endless and always evolving process. It can be like never leaving the office, if one allowed it to be seen in such a way. So I usually approach the process in terms of time that's available for me to give to the garden for the day. As with running, once I venture out into the garden, everything else is on hold until I've put in my time. Also similar is the kindness and gentleness I bestow unto the self. If it's colder out than I thought, I will drop everything to run back inside for a jacket or an extra shirt. If I feel thirsty, I will stop to take a sip of coffee or water. And, if I develop a case of the sniffles because an allergen is lurking, I'll take a few seconds out to get a tissue. I see all of these activities as meeting basic human needs; I don't see them as wasteful distractions or disruptions of my time. A successful day in the garden is not everything crossed off the to-do list. A successful day is two hours, three hours, or forty-five minutes -- completion of whatever block of time I promised myself to spend.

Often, I have thought of running as a metaphor for writing. If I can complete a marathon -- with the self-discipline and diligence to train -- surely I can write a book. Steps run on pavement have equaled words penned or typed in this logic. What I realized this morning is that perhaps the metaphor only works part way. That a successful day in terms of mileage might not always be success measured in verbiage.

A couple of years ago, I created a video for a teaching and learning workshop as part of a Wabash Center Fellowship of which I was fortunate to be a part. The video was represent some facet of "Why I Teach." I used a hip-hop song and a series of photos of our first year of gardening to showcase gardening as a metaphor for teaching, equating the planning of a class and the writing of a syllabus to the ordering of seeds and planting; the planting, initial growth, and harvest to the unfolding of the class; and the final rest after the season ends and snow returns to the submitting of grades and the wind-down. It struck me today that perhaps this metaphor of food-raising might be apt for writing, too. One can commit to a list of intentions, but creative processes do not always find fruition in a designated number of words or even on a day's to-do list. Perhaps a successful writing day is showing up to write and being gentle and kind to one's self in order that one can write.

In the end, I am not sure if I reached conclusions, beyond the fact that being kind and gentle to one's self might be more beneficial than anything else. And, so as November opens, I look forward to challenges -- and to enjoying the processes and not allowing a fear of failure to stop me in my tracks.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Growing affluence


Years and years ago, I encountered Marshall Sahlins' essay "The Original Affluent Society". Sahlins, an anthropologist, argues in this piece that the so-called primitive cultures are decidedly more affluent than the settled-in, modern groups because they acquire so little. Acquisition is in fact a burden in the original affluent societies because assets weigh one's body down, require the carrying of cargo, and, because assets must be maintained if they are not to be lost, one's ability to engage in the basic hunter-gatherer instincts for survival becomes increasingly restricted.

The end result as another man -- Karl Marx -- maintained was alienation. One loses touch with the activities that lend life its meaning and become engaged in a constant struggle of earning through the selling of one's labor enough money to survive. The richness of life becomes increasingly impoverished as hours in the workplace increase and wages -- even if they do not shrink -- become more and more inadequate to cover the basic needs of life.

I used to think of the original affluent society as a metaphor for late twentieth and early twenty-first century life. Building on the understanding of "less is more," I would do my best to keep my worldly possessions down to a lean, mean level and I would try to live my life in a way that would enable me to have "just enough". Over the years, other philosophies intervened, however, and I began thinking about stockpiles, nest eggs, retirement accounts, and of the abundant society as being the generous society where one always had so much that one could always be giving. Giving money, giving food, giving possessions, giving time.

I liked the concept of giving -- and still do. As our gardening efforts grow more abundant, I think about the joys of giving gifts of produce to those who need food and gifts of seedlings and seeds to those who want to start their own backyard farming ways of living. I encountered the Christian church in my 40s, and gained a deeper appreciation for the concept of tithing -- or at least my interpretation, of it. The idea was to give at least 10 percent  of what one earned, and to do so unconditionally. The idea that some advocated was that unconditional giving would result in a return of what was tithed ten times over.

The issue that I have today with unconditional giving is an uncomfortable one. I put it into words with some hesitation. My basic feeling is that it doesn't work if it involves money or sacrifice. If it involves these latter things, one is back to the state of alienation (though arguably one might never have left it at all). One is left without one's basic needs covered, and is left to fend in a hostile society for one's self.

I'm not worried about whether tithing results in a return on investment. That seems not to be the point. I'm worried about what happens when one gives and gives and gives, and finds themselves without enough to subsist on. I have confronted this issue with a rather odd blend of anger, shame, and guilt in previous years as I've found myself shaking my head "no" to kids selling candy bars for school fundraisers, artists launching kick-starter campaigns for new projects or pressing supporters to purchase their work, and runners raising money to finance their marathons as well as children's hospitals, diabetes treatment, and cancer fighting efforts they are running in support of. Often, the bare fact has been that giving up the money to buy the commodities being marketed means giving up something else. Maybe it's a worthy sacrifice when that something is a candy bar that might have been purchased instead in a grocery store or a scarf to add to a collection of 17. But what happens when the sacrifice is a more personal luxury -- a much-needed new pair of running shoes, a dinner out with your spouse, a flea treatment for cats? What happens when the sacrifice is a necessity -- the mortgage, the phone bill, the credit card payment?

I feel like the original affluent society might be helpful these days in sorting out some of these dilemmas. Perhaps the underlying message behind what Sahlins proposed was that one is affluent when one learns how to limit one's needs but -- significantly -- takes care of those needs first. After the needs are met, the rest can be shed -- and should be shed because that is the secret to affluence: not accumulating stuff.

Growing food creates a joy that is unparalleled in life. Not even running, the meditative metronome of rhythmic breathing in yoga or swimming, writing, or communing with friends can equal the happiness of a harvest that fills boxes, bins, crates, cans, and freezer-wrapped packages to the brim. Each night, as I pick collards or kale or chard or bok choy; slice up a plethora of colorful fresh vegetables, and prepare dinners with produce so flavorful that no spices are required, I thank the stars, the moon, the sun, and all the higher powers that may or may not exist for blessing me with a life that rotates around writing, teaching, exercising, and food. I feel in my heart a sweet little chirp as I open the refrigerator to retrieve an egg and find the refrigerator socket that's meant to hold a dozen overflowing with eggs from the backyard encased in shells that are green, brown, beige, white, and sometimes almost blue.

I also feel joy when I load up a bag of greens and a dozen eggs to take to the local food pantry at the Franklin Community Center. These are only the fruits of land and labor (mostly my husband's), but somehow the practice makes me feel richer than writing a check. I am able to give something unconditionally that the recipients need.

I remember at times the first farmers we got to know at markets in Honolulu and Seattle as well as the farmers we feel quite grateful for knowing now. The farmers -- in the tropics, the Northwest, and now the Northeast -- all share something in common: Generosity.  They are not generous in the sense of handing over free food but free knowledge. They sell us food, but they give us for free the knowledge, advice, and wisdom about how to grow it ourselves. I sometimes wondered why they were being so open and helpful; wouldn't telling other people how to grow food put them out of business? Michael Kilpatrick, a twenty-something farmer, laughed when I posed that question to him during a forum last fall. "We get so excited when we see people growing their own food," he replied. "It means we don't have to do it for them." In other words, those who use what they need and put it to good use are giving back a gift ten times over.

We have thought about selling eggs, and some friends have hinted that they'd like to be occasional customers. But I keep thinking, "What would happen then if we ended getting caught up in selling eggs?" Would people who needed food still receive food? Would we still we meeting our basic needs? Or would we be giving up the way of the original affluent society? So as with the offers to buy candy bars (which sometimes retail for more than a dozen eggs), I find myself shaking my head "no" to offers to join the capitalist market. And, somehow, for now at least, just thinking about re-creating the original affluent society seems to be working out well. I almost never have cash in my purse. But every day I find time to write. And usually to work out. And every day we have a meal that is like a feast.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

And the shelling begins



It's finally time to harvest our dry beans. For months, we've been walking through the bean garden, watching the plants sprout, shoot up, form flowers and pods. We've been fingering the green pods gently, willing them to turn dry and brittle -- the sign that the beans inside are mature and ready to eat. We've been watching the weather forecast for frosts, and we've been watching the ground for footprints, hoping that deer, which devoured our fledgling bean garden last year won't try and make a repeat performance.

And, finally, we decided this Saturday was the day.

The weather was perfect for harvesting beans: cool and crisp in the morning but hot and sunny in the afternoon, and dry enough that we didn't have to worry about traces of dew marring the pods. I came outside with a pair of scissors and a few salad-spinner size baskets. Quickly, as I lifted the drooping vines from the ground, I realized that I was going to need something bigger than baskets. These vines were drooping because they were so heavy with beans. My husband Jim cracked one pod open. We whooped with joy, as we saw six black turtle beans nestled inside. We had success!

Harvesting the beans has been a joyous and labor-intensive task, especially after my husband Jim decided he wanted to leave the plant roots in the ground so that they could continue to return nitrogen to the soil and hold down the topsoil we have worked so hard over three years to build. With the roots in the ground, the soil is more protected from erosion and windstorms than it would be otherwise.

But the work -- like so many other things -- is intense. We started yesterday afternoon, thinking that we'd be able to get about half the beans picked by sunset. We hadn't even cleared one row by sunset; the plants were that laden with beans. We resumed this afternoon, and got through perhaps a quarter of the field.

"At this rate," Jim said, "We might be done in a week."

"Well, you probably spent a week planting the beans," I replied with a laugh. "It seems only appropriate that you would spend the same amount of time harvesting them."

But harvest is more than just picking the pods. The pods ideally should be laid out on sheets or screens to dry out, before the shells are removed. Our pods are fairly dry so we have decided that we can shell them en masse once they're all picked, but shelling itself is quite a labor-intensive task. And after shelling comes sorting and sifting out the chaff.

And then the eating ... well, that takes time, too. Unlike the fresh beans that can be plucked off the vine, quickly rinsed, snapped, and steamed, boiled or stir fried for about 90 seconds before being ready to eat, eating dry beans also is an investment of time. They need to be soaked overnight, and will need to be cooked for anywhere from one to three hours afterwards. In other words, you can't just come home at 5 p.m. and say, "Oh, let's have black beans and rice, or chili tonight" and run to your jars of richly colored beans and have it all together within the hour.

Yet, this time-consuming stretch from farm to fork is one reason that our bean harvest excites me so much. Like many vegetables we now grow, I never cared all that much for beans until I started getting them fresh from local farmers. Growing them myself took freshness to an even higher level, and now as winter approaches, I see several nightly meals of black, red, white, purple, and speckled beans as a wonderful way to evoke summer and appreciate anew the value of home-grown food.

We ceased our work for the day in the bean garden at about 4 p.m. Jim went for a run, and I decided to visit the area where we had planted our summer crops, an area that we are now preparing to turn partially into space for our fall planting of garlic and partially lie fallow next year so the soil can rest and rebuild. The summer gardens are now mostly empty, but I brought out a basket anyway, thinking I would clip a little more stevia to dry and use as a sweetener and see if I could glean just a little more.

It turned out that there was quite a bit. Cherry tomato plants had dropped hundreds of firm, rich
red bite-sized fruits. Gathering them up felt like being a kid on an Easter egg hunt who had stumbled into the treasure trove. Two tiny eggplants hung resolutely onto their vines, and several small yellow summer squash were still poking their way out of the three sisters hills. I gathered these plants up, envisioning a last-of-summer stir fry to accompany a mushroom and wild rice pot pie I was planning for dinner. And, around the edges of the three sisters hills, were fresh green and purple beans growing, still growing and still as sweet and as tasty as ever. I snipped off a handful, and brought them indoors. Stir-fried with summer squash strips, tiny eggplant rounds, fresh tomato, and a little bit of olive oil and cumin, they tasted wonderful and crisp.

        After the meal, I picked up another basket and for an hour shelled dry beans. It seemed like an appropriate transition from one season to the next.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The not-so-expendable tops


My husband Jim and I decided a few nights ago to make a meal out of roasted root vegetables. He lit the grill, and I headed for the garden, where carrots, turnips, radishes, and beets were all bulging their way out of the soil, waiting to be picked.

We are extremely pleased with the success we have had this year with these vegetables. Learning from past mistakes, we planted the vegetables early and often in successive sowings. While we did some early pickings in the spring and early summer to supplement meals, we mostly let the root vegetables grow down deep into the soil, feeling that the longer they remained in the ground, the bigger and richer they would become. Our efforts paid off, and sometime in the next week or two, we will be doing a mass picking and figuring out how to create a makeshift root cellar so we can enjoy these vegetables throughout the winter.

Tonight, however, I am puzzling over a slightly different matter: how to make use of all of the "expendables": specifically, the root veggie tops. For our meal, I picked two large healthy beets, two large radishes, and about five carrots and a half-dozen turnips. I left the harvest on our deck table at sunset and went for a run. When I returned, I discovered that Jim had chopped the tops off the vegetables, washed the roots well, and was in the process of cooking them slowly in foil over the grill. I knew our dinner would be colorful and delicious, with the red sweetness of the beets complementing the creaminess of the turnips, and the tart taste of the radishes. The orange carrots would integrate these different flavors with their sweet, juicy blend. But equally attractive was the residue lying on the table: the feathery fern-like carrot tops, the rich green and red-stemmed beet greens, the bright green and slightly prickly turnip and radish greens. I gathered the greens up in a large massive bouquet and put them in my refrigerator's vegetable crisper. They filled the crisper to the brim.

The tops of root vegetables rarely get much attention. Grocery stores usually sell the veggies with the tops clipped, and even local farmers will ask me at the market if I want them to remove the tops when I make purchases. I usually agreed until there was a brief period when we had a pet rabbit whom I discovered loved carrots, not for the orange roots but for the tops above them. Even after the rabbit passed away, I began keeping the tops, figuring that I could add them to broths or at least make them into topsoil via the compost pile.

Now that we grow most of our own vegetables, my attitude toward tops has changed. Like the roots below them, they are loaded with nutrients and often with flavor. The challenge is to eat them before they wilt into oblivion.

We ate the beet greens last night. The sweet red stems complemented in color and flavor a hearty lasagna made of butternut squash, roasted garlic, quark, and mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. I might still dry roast the turnip greens, chopping them into small pieces that I will cook in an un-oiled skillet with mustard, cumin, and fenugreek seeds.

The remainder -- a blend of carrot, radish, and a few lingering beet and turnip greens -- will go into chicken soup. Two days ago, at the farmers market, Jim and I bought another "expendable" item: a soup chicken, which is essentially a hen who had aged to the point of no longer laying eggs. Hens made into soup chickens generally are two or three years old, and consequently, their meat is considerably tougher and more stringy than the younger "meat hens" that farmers typically market. The meat isn't considered good for eating in anything other than soups or pot pies, but when cooked slowly at a low simmer in plenty of water, they do produce a flavorful broth.

Arnold Grant of the M&A Farm sold us the soup chicken. He also gave us his "secret formula" for making chicken soup. The formula is fairly basic: two cups of everything: chicken, potatoes, carrots, celery, and onion, along with a quarter-cup of barley. (I'm going to substitute wheat berries because I happen to have some on hand.) The secret behind the basics, he said, is to cook the chicken first, with a few vegetables to get the broth flavors going. After cooking the chicken, remove it and the cooked out vegetables from the broth.

Arnold cuts up the chicken into small cubes to add to the soup at the end. He also adds fresh vegetables and his barley.

The idea of two batches of vegetables in one soup doesn't sit well with me, however, especially with one batch ending up in the compost bin without ever having been eaten. So I decided that instead of the "starter vegetables" I could use their tops. That would add plenty of flavor and nutrition to the broth without letting the vegetables we have so lovingly grown go to waste.

In investigating the uses of root veggie tops further, I started doing some searches. It turns out that carrot tops, which I had read once were potentially toxic to humans, are not so at all, and can be used in a variety of ways ranging from bitter greens additions to salads to pastas, juices, and teas. Recipes posted to a U.K. web site called The World Carrot Museum open up a stream of possibilities, and I am now contemplating ways of merging the sweet redness of the beet stems with chocolate.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A frightfully beautiful truth


"How are you going to celebrate your anniversary?," a friend asked me yesterday. "Do you have a special bottle of ... oh, that's right, you do not drink."

"I do not drink," I said.

"Not even to celebrate?," she asked. "Not even on your anniversary?"

"I will drink ginger ale," I replied.

We both laughed to forestall any tension that might crop up between friends.

"Hey," she said. "Don't think I'm trying to get you to drink."

I didn't realize that yesterday, the day of my wedding anniversary, marked my 300th straight day of not drinking until this evening. I was out running and counting the joys and blessings of life, and in that moment, counting the days of alcohol freedom just seemed to naturally come up. My mind went to a feeling that returns often these days, a combination of "what if ..., wouldn't just one be okay ..." to "Oh, thank goodness I didn't."

I did realize when I got home from work last night that we were out of the two beverages that have evolved into my drinks of choice: plain seltzer water and ginger-ale. I told my husband I was going to run out to get my libations, and he understood that I did not mean wine, bourbon, or beer. But to pick up my plastic-bottled $1.09 beverages, I needed to walk past a liquor store, one that for two years I had frequented regularly and the store staff knew me well.

"Hey," I thought to myself. "Why not pop in and say hello? Why not see if they have something bubbly, something celebratory, that's non-alcoholic?"

I shook myself, and walked resolutely into the Stewart's convenience store next door.

I find that it's easy to celebrate without alcohol in a manner that is perhaps a little muted but decidedly more sustaining. I enjoy the flavors of food in a way that I hadn't before, and I relish the feeling of being outdoors amid a night chill and being able to savor and embrace the chill, not shrink away from it entirely. I welcome the exhilarating feeling of being exerted during a run as well as the knowledge that I can calculate the quantity and quality of my energy stores in a way that's clear-headed and not under any other influence. I know that when I sleep late, it's because my body genuinely needs the sleep, not because something else that was pleasant and intoxicating lingered into my system.

Still, it's harvest season now, and I find myself thinking about beer and wine almost daily as invitations to wine tastings, grape crushings, Oktoberfests, special prix fixe pairings bombard my in-box. I contemplate home brewing beer. I consider making mead or dandelion wine. I think about religious traditions that sanction -- and even celebrate -- the moderate consumption of alcohol, and I shake my head. Not now. Not yet. Maybe never again.

And, I wonder, is this non-drinking abnormal behavior? Do my friends understand me? Or do they fear me? Do they think I'm being up tight, that a couple of drinks might lighten me up? Will my marriage continue to thrive, in a relationship where one of us is now a non-drinker and the other has cut back but still counts beer as being among life's luxurious necessities?

Over the past several months, I've surreptitiously searched the Internet, wondering how people who quit drinking without being forced to in something like a detoxification program or through support from groups like Alcoholic Anonymous that still seem scary to me manage to cope. Tonight, my searching under the googled phrase "life without wine" revealed some interesting hits: One person created a blog to document his "year without drinking," a year he had yet to start. Another hit turned up a quote from the Bible's book of Ecclesiasticus that insisted that one who has no wine in his life has no life, for wine "was made to make men glad." A third hit revealed another blog where the author was off the alcohol but still running with a literary and artistic crowd of serious drinkers. The author woke up from a party feeling "hung over with happiness" even though she had not touched a drop of the booze. I questioned the wisdom and truth of that experience, having found myself in positions a few times over the past couple of months of being at parties or receptions that I've simply had to walk out of because the smell of the alcohol and vibe of the crowd was too overpowering for me to endure. Regardless of whether the source is happiness, wine, nature, or some other substance, I've had enough experience with hangovers to know that I'd rather not have one at all.

And, that, I have to confess, is  my frightfully beautiful truth. It is indeed a scary thing to put into print. It helps me understand something basic and simple: I might not have been a heavy drinker. I probably am not an alcoholic. I might be able to live some day again with a "just a glass, once in awhile" kind of mentality. But taking that sip is a step onto a slippery slope. I think of how I have steadied myself with writing, gardening, swimming, bicycling, walking, and running over the past 301 days. I am in no mood to stumble for a moment of intoxication and pleasure.

A final story that I read via the Internet came from Oprah.com. Entitled "My name is Amanda and I might be an alcoholic," the piece documents the author's journey to "manage" her consumption of wine, only to find out that even if she didn't appear to be drinking much at all, she was drinking in a way that felt like too much to her. Her strategy went from management to abstention. She quit. Her story resonated, and offered reassurances that in a world where celebration means lifting a glass, I, in avoiding the glass, am not entirely alone.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Babies! We hope


An unexpected event occurred in Club Poulet over the weekend. One of our hens -- whom we have named Bonnie -- went broody. In the language of the non-chicken raising initiated, she is going to try and make babies. This means that she has stopped laying eggs and has chosen instead to sit in the community nest shared by our 14 hens in an effort to make the eggs underneath her warm feathered body hatch.

My husband Jim realized that Bonnie had gone broody after noticing her sitting for longer, more intense periods in her nest over the past couple of days. Not fully aware of what was happening, he simply reached underneath her to retrieve eggs. When he tried this tactic on Sunday, Bonnie wouldn't budge and she snapped shrilly at him. That was the sign. According to Harvey Ussery, author of the book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, a broody hen "takes on a deeply settled, Zen-like intensity." If you try and pet her, her hackles will rise and she'll screech "Skraaaawk!"

"That's pretty much what happened," said Jim with a laugh, as I read him Ussery's quote.

The prospect of baby chicks in the henhouse excites both of us, even as it filled us initially with some concerns. We have talked about raising baby chicks in the way that many farmers do, by obtaining day-old chicks that were hatched in an incubator from a hatchery and growing them to egg-laying size. I wasn't sure we were prepared, however, to take the step of raising babies from birth. Baby chicks raised in this way require almost constant feeding and eighty degree heat. Most of the farmers we know raise them in special brooders that are set apart from the henhouse and are equipped with heat lamps. Our next door neighbor has done so, by bringing the babies indoors and letting them grow in a cage in her sitting room.

The expense of a brooder and a heat lamp, coupled with the prospect of chicks in a house where four cats roam fairly freely, was a little unnerving for me. I had hoped we could delay a decision on this step for a year or so until we were ... well, "ready." Ready was code in my mind for being able to raise them outdoors in the barn or some other protected area, with the heat lamp on and all prospects of fire dangers and potential life-threatening conditions for the babies under control. That's the kind of "ready" that can be put off for years.

Bonnie, however, made the decision for us. And, as we are discovering, it might be the best possible outcome.

We visited the Elsworth Farm this morning to buy a fresh bag of chicken feed. After mentioning the broody hen to owner Bill, he gave us some reassuring advice: Don't raise the chickens yourself. Let Bonnie do it.

      "She'll keep her chicks close to her body, and her body is about eighty degrees," he said. "You won't need anything else."

"We don't need to do anything?" We were slightly dumbfounded.

"Just let her take care of her chicks," he said. "Stay out of her way. She'll protect her babies like no one else can."

He also told us that the hen would roll any non-fertilized eggs out of the nest, and that if we tried to put some fresh eggs into her nest (in an effort to get more chicks hatched), she might protest by rolling them out, as well.

He also warned us to be a little more wary of the rooster during this period. Our rooster, 'Aina, has been a good bird. He does plenty of early morning crowing, but he takes very good care of the flock. He also is fairly amiable toward the two of us, and even lets Jim pick him up from time to time. This friendliness might change as the hatching time draws nearer, Bill said. The rooster might get more protective and peck at anyone who seems like they're going to threaten the mother and her young.

The babies are expected to hatch in two to four weeks. After their birth, the mother typically forages small bugs for them to eat, which Bill suggested might be a bit hard for her to find since cooler weather is coming. He recommended that we supplement their diet with a starter feed.

Jim and I are both hoping that the eggs are fertilized and that the chicks hatch in a safe and healthy way. We also hope that they're able to thrive as babies and grow up. But we're also feeling as if this is a situation outside our control. We didn't plan for baby chicks right now, because we were not "ready." Bonnie, however, was ready, and went broody. And, so now we watch and wait.