Saturday, December 31, 2011

Celebrating New Year and The Nearings

I can't think of a better way to celebrate the coming New Year than with gratitude to those who helped set my Path.

If I had to pick any one thing that pointed me in the direction I try to walk, it would have to be my exposure to the work of Helen and Scott Nearing, back in the early 1970's via their books published by Rodale Press. There was no internet back then and information was difficult to find, but once I heard of them, I read everything I could by (and about) these 2 remarkable people who promoted self-sufficiency and sustainability. 

Who were Helen and Scott Nearing?GLC_pic.gif

The Nearing were two of America's most inspirational practitioners of simple, frugal and purposeful living. In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, Helen and Scott Nearing moved from their small apartment in New York City to a dilapidated farmhouse on 65 acres in Vermont. For over 20 years, they created fertile, organic gardens, hand-crafted stone buildings, and a practice of living simply and sustainably on the land. In 1952, they moved to the Maine coast, where they later built their last stone home.
Through their 60 years of living on the land in rural New England, their commitment to social and economic justice, their numerous books and articles, and the time they shared with thousands of visitors to their homestead, the Nearings embodied a philosophy that has come to be recognized as a centerpiece of America's "Back to the Land" and "Simple Living" movements. (Source)

Their best known books (those they wrote together) are Living the Good Life (1954) and Continuing the Good Life (1979). The first of these is often credited with being a major spur to the U.S. back-to-the-land movement that began in the late 1960s.

Before they moved back to the land in Vermont in 1932, Scott Nearing had been a Professor of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, and Helen Nearing had been trained as a classical violinist.

I was (and remain) fascinated, first by their technique for building walls with movable forms, concrete, and rocks from their property, and later by their walled garden with the sunken passive solar greenhouse that provided food all year even in the coldest winters of the NE USA. Precursors to Eliot Coleman, in my mind.

I now realize I must have absorbed some of their views on corporatism, as I continue to rail against Monsanto et al.

Here's a short clip on the Nearings. The last scene was apparently filmed after they were much older and no longer living on their farm. (Just mentioning that so you do not mistake their suburban-looking home as being the one at the farm.)

Friday, December 30, 2011

Still growing some winter veggies...

In an unexpected warm spell, the day after Christmas was 50ºF!  I opened up the hoop bed so I could cut back the lower leaves on the Brussels sprouts, enabling the plants to put their energy into sprout production rather than leaf production. They are struggling, but still continue to grow slowly. Same for the purple cauliflower in the hoop bed. Plus, a few beets are actually growing some leaves since the fabric cover has kept Br'er Rabbit from munching. (I did leave the cut Brussels sprout leaves accessible for the rabbits outside the hoop bed.)

Being out in the yard on such a nice day, I decided to "tour" my other garden areas. I found some red swiss chard still producing leaves large enough to eat, a few remaining leeks I failed to harvest, and some flat leaf parsley and rosemary. 

The biennial artichoke I planted in June hasn't died back completely yet either, although the other one I planted didn't make it through the summer.

The shallots and garlic I planted in late October are showing 2-3" of growth, which means they are putting down roots; the tops will die back when winter finally gets here, but the roots will keep them alive until they can resume growth in spring.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Health Care vs Illness Care

We should start naming things as they really are, not what someone would like us to believe. What we really have is Illness Care, NOT Health Care. Very little money is ever spent to promote "Health Care" because Health is NOT profitable.

The human body is extremely complex, and we have hundreds of thousands of internal interactions going on at any given moment from our 400 hundred trillion cells. Those interactions are also interdependent, and although our bodies have the ability to fabricate some of the components, we still need some raw materials for manufacturing them.

Jump rope, Photo from tedkerwin

For a different picture for understanding, think about the group children's game we call jump rope; when typically done by 3 or more children it's called long rope jumping. If you have 3 children and a rope, you can play. Remove any one component, and there's no game. 2 children and a rope but no jumper... no game. 3 children and no rope, no game.

Micronutrients (meaning we don't need much of them) like the fat-soluble vitamins have a 'game' (interaction) going on in our bodies too, and if any one of them is MIA, the 'game' suffers. Please note that these essential fat-soluble vitamins can only be dissolved in saturated fats in the body (hence their name). A healthy liver will store any excess, unlike the water-soluble vitamins which we rapidly excrete in urine. 
Vitamin A (egg yolks, liver, whole milk, cheese) is needed for eyesight, in other words "essential for the neural transmission of light into vision". All the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) need a bit of all the others to function (play the game) properly.

I find it interesting that the amount of Vitamin A in egg yolks in the Netherlands is more than twice the amount in the US. I wonder why? What they are fed (non-GMO?) and how they are raised? Curious. source

Photo by Peber the Swede

Photo by andrewmalone

Vitamin D (from sunlight, or oily fish like herring, salmon and sardines) helps the body absorb and use calcium, but you also need to ingest enough of the right kind of calcium for it to work... and then it takes Vitamin A to make the interaction work, too. (Vitamin A binds the Vitamin D receptors). Likewise if you take calcium supplements but don't get enough A or D, the calcium is useless.

Gluten-free (coconut flour) Fried Oysters, by NourishingCook

Oysters Rockefeller, photo by Argyleist

For Vitamin D to work, it also needs the minerals magnesium (green vegetables, nuts, whole grains), zinc (oysters, wheat germ, liver) and boron (green vegetables, fruit, nuts). The other catch is you also need enough Vitamin K (green leafy vegetables) to regulate the entire fat-soluble system.

The fat-soluble vitamins (except E) come from the very animal foods the "health care" industry tells us to reduce or avoid altogether: eggs, butter, and organ meats like liver. (BTW, coconut oil is considered a good saturated fat but contains almost zero vitamins and minerals. The main benefit in coconut oil is the Lauric Acid content, which promotes the "good" cholesterol, HDL.) 

There are many, many other nutrients which are equally essential for good health, and our bodies can utilize them all much better in the form of real food rather than supplements. However, just like the fat-soluble vitamins, most are interdependent on a host of others for maximum nutritional function. Who tells or teaches us that??

It seems the best way to have real health care is in our own hands. If we don't take responsibility for ourselves and our health, who will??

Try this: On your own, research some foods for their nutritional amounts. Research your own nutritional needs for the foods that supply them. If the information comes from research, find out who paid for the research; it is too often biased. Look for the sin of omission, where they tell us the part they want us to know rather than the whole picture.

The spin on many industrialized foods now being promoted as "healthy" is just that: spin. I have to be vigilant about reading labels on foods. A package of crackers I picked up in the natural foods market last weekend had huge advertising all over the front of the box exclaiming "Now made with whole grains!". When I read the label, sure enough there were whole grains... but last on the list just before the chemicals (labels are required by law to list ingredients in descending order of the quantity). The first ingredient was "enriched white flour"... I put it back on the shelf. Deceptive advertising, in my opinion.

Getting and staying healthier is much harder when the truth is so hard to find amongst all the hype. In my opinion, food labels should also list ALL the vitamin amounts, as well as all the herbicides, pesticides, irradiation and chemical washes the food has endured.

I repeat: It seems the best way to have real health care is in our own hands. If we don't take responsibility for ourselves and our health, who will??

Monday, December 26, 2011

Real Currants or Zante Currants?

Black Currant Photo by mwri

The first fruit bushes I ordered when I moved here 5 years ago included 3 black currant bushes and 2 gooseberries. Soon thereafter, I also planted several red currant seedlings, and a couple of "buffalo" currents from a friend. Slowly but surely they have all withered away. (Not sure what that's about, but that's not the focus of this post either.)

The compelling reason for growing black currants is my love of currant scones, and the very healthy benefits of currants. Black currants have some amazing properties... high in antioxidants (almost 2X most fruits), potassium (one cup has more than a small banana) and Vitamin C (one cup has more C than 3 oranges), plus iron, calcium, magnesium, and manganese.

Finding I had less than a cup of black currants from this year's pitiful harvest (I finally trashed the bushes) saved in my freezer, I picked up a box marked "Zante Currants" in the local grocery store so I could make some Christmas scones. 

Well, Pooh!! It turns out that Zante Currants are NOT currants at all, merely a very tiny dried small grape (a seedless variety of Vitis vinifera named Black Corinth), containing very few of the healthy properties of real currants, which are a Ribe. Now I wonder about the "dried currants" I buy in the health food stores since misnaming is so common.

There is a semi-legitimate reason for all the confusion in the name. A hundred years ago (1911), the US government outlawed growing currants (and gooseberries which are in the same family). It was believed that the White Pine Blister Rust threatening the pine lumber industry needed to have currants or gooseberries to complete it's cycle, and that the disease would wipe out the white pine lumber industry if those fruits were not banned. The ban was actually lifted in 1966 but few were ever aware it was lifted. (Regardless, the belief that currants are the cause persists even today.)

So, for a hundred years, almost no one in the US grew currants, and now we in the US really don't know much about currants at all. Very few are grown today, although there are improved varieties that have eliminated any possible connection to the pine disease. Happily, NY state is now seeing a few currant farms spring up. Well over a century ago currants were a huge cash crop in NY, and may be again!

The confusion about Zante Currants started about 90 years ago when a small Greek island named "Zante" exported a tiny dried grape called Black Corinth to the US. It was 1/4 the size of a normal dried grape (aka raisin) and accidentally named a "currant" due both to similar size and to language barriers at the import docks that changed the word "Corinth" into "currant".

Almost any American recipe originating in the last hundred years calling for "currants" surely intended "Zante Currants" and not real currants, since that's all that were generally available. I encourage you to try the real thing! (Besides, earlier this year a report out of Tuft’s University announced that “Black Currants may thwart Alzheimer’s.”) Source

There is a noticeable difference in the plants. Currants grow on a bush and are tart, and grapes (of all sizes, including the tiny Zante/Black Corinth) grow on a vine and are sweet. I am satisfied that what I bought and planted are true currants because they were bushes, but I'm not so sure that what I buy in bulk are real currants. Clearly, though, the box of Sun-Maid Zante Currants doesn't say anywhere that they are raisins. I guess it's implied when they say in the very tiny print that "raisins are mechanically processed and may have some stems".

(BTW, Crème de Cassis, the favored drink of the fictional detective Hercule Poirot created by Agatha Christie is made from black currants, as is the popular wine cocktail Kir.)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Celebrations of the Day

For my Pagan friends, the Winter Solstice has passed but I trust your celebrations will help bring us all a fruitful spring planting leading to a bountiful harvest;
For my Jewish friends, wishing you wonderful celebrations for the remaining 3 days of Hanukkah; may your lights continue to burn brightly;

and for my Christian friends, Merry Christmas, and may His Light bring us all Peace.

(If I have missed your religious group it is only out of not-knowing on my part that you celebrate this time of the year.)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

All Through the Night

My favorite song at Chrismastime: All Through the Night

Though not a Christmas song when the music was first published in 1784, this Welsh tune has survived for over 225 years. Harold Boulton wrote the 'Christmas' lyrics to it sometime around 1900.

Sleep my child and peace attend thee,
All through the night
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping
Hill and vale in slumber steeping,
I my loving vigil keeping
All through the night.

Angels watching ever round thee
All through the night
In thy slumbers close surround thee
All through the night
They will of all fears disarm thee,
No forebodings should alarm thee,
They will let no peril harm thee
All through the night.

Wishing everyone a peace-filled and joy-filled holiday!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Celebration is Celebration

Christmas is Celebration, and Celebrations are Instinct in the Heart!

The Christmas Celebration to me means sharing the abundance we have been given. Some of us may not have much materially, but we can celebrate with the gift of an open heart, and share the wonderment all around us. There is the wonderment that grows from tiny seeds, whether they are the seeds of love and inspiration, or the miracle of "seeds" that grow to produce our children and loved ones who nourish our hearts... or the seeds that grow the animals, fruit and vegetables that nourish our bodies.

These are the everyday miracles we have been given, and we celebrate them. I like to celebrate by sharing the gifts of food treats, but the best is sharing a meal and conversation around a table of congenial companions.

MFK Fisher summed it up nicely: "Dining partners, regardless of gender, social standing, or the years they have lived, should be chosen for their ability to eat -- and drink! -- with the right mixture of abandon and restraint.

They should be able, no, eager, to sit for hours over a meal of soup and wine and cheese, as well as one of 20 fabulous courses.

Then, with good friends of such attributes, and good food on the board. and good wine in the pitcher, we may well ask,"When shall we live, if not now?"
I can think of no better way to celebrate the day than being with friends and family, sharing good food.

"Christmas IS celebration, and celebration is instinct in the heart. With gift and feast, with red ribbon and fresh green bough, with the sound of music and merriment, we commend the day– oasis in the long landscape of the common.

This Christmas mend a quarrel. 
Seek out a forgotten friend. 
Dismiss suspicion and replace it with trust. 
Write a love letter. 
Encourage youth. 
Show your loyalty in word and deed. 
Keep a promise. 
Find the time. 
Forego a grudge. 
Forgive an enemy. 
Apologize if you were wrong. 
Try to understand. 
Flout envy. 
Take up arms against malice. 
Examine your demands on others. 
Be kind; be gentle. 
Laugh a little. 
Laugh a little more. 
Express your gratitude. 
Cry out against complacency. 
Welcome a stranger. 
Gladden the heart of a child. 
Take pleasure in the wonder and beauty of the earth. 
Speak your Love. 
Speak it again. 
Speak it once again."

Source: a long-ago bit I copied from either a Life or Look magazine about 1960...

Monday, December 19, 2011

Laid-back Christmas Decorating

Photo from one of my friends who does animal rescue. This dog is a "ferocious Pit Bull mix".  

Yeah, Right.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Nutrient loss in Our Vegetables

A good friend recently sent me a note that there is a story in the current Mother Earth News concerning the serious decline of nutrients in vegetables. Loss of nutrients in vegetables isn't news to me because I have been long aware of the published (and hard to find) data by the USDA on the declining nutrients in crops since the 1950's/1960's. (I used to have the USDA chart on my computer, but I lost it when the last hard drive died, and now it is not easy to find.)

Several "causes" have been cited in the research literature, ranging from overall loss in our soil nutrients, to the specific varieties chosen to plant. It certainly appears true that veggies remove micronutrients from the soil which are never replaced by the additions of just the popular NPK.

However, the loss of nutrients by the "choice" of planted varieties has me stumped. From what I read, some varieties that are chosen to grow quickly with a minimum of amendments to the soil might indeed result in a great crop of pretty and marketable produce, but lacking on the nutrition scale. Personally I am more inclined to believe the soil deficiency idea.

In 2008 I wrote a post on DavesGarden called "red tennis balls" which listed some USDA stats on nutrient decline in tomatoes. Here's an excerpt:

Taking statistics from the USDA comparing a tomato in 1963 to a tomato now (2008) shows that 100 grams of 'fresh' tomato has:

30.7% LESS Vitamin A
16.9% LESS Vitamin C
61.5% LESS Calcium
11.1% LESS Phosphorus
9% LESS Potassium
9% LESS Niacin (B3)
10% LESS Iron
1% LESS Thiamine (B1)
65% MORE Lipids (fats)
200% MORE Sodium
Vitamins E and K are not measured, nor are essential micronutrients like molybdenum and selenium.

Broccoli has lost 45% Vitamin C.

80% of the tomatoes grown in Florida now comprise just 5 varieties, and one of those 5 counts  by itself for 35.9% of all tomatoes (the variety is Fla. 47).

In the last 50 years, the Canadian potato has lost 100% Vitamin A, and 57% Calcium, 50% Iron, 50% Riboflavin (B2) and 18% Thiamin.

So, its not just Red Tennis Balls that are nutritionally deficient...

I've been working on increasing nutrient density (measurements aka Brix, and also taste in the veggies... the better the taste, the higher the nutritional value) in my own garden for 4+ years now and I still don't have a good handle on it, although my results are getting better. I DO believe that sufficient micro-minerals, good compost and an excellant microbial population are a big part of the equation. I hope to have some increased positive reports this coming gardening season.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Antibiotic Spices

Many of us use certain spices for their antimicrobial activity; I know I use garlic and onions a LOT in my lacto-ferments... and I know that other spices have some degree of antimicrobial properties, but I've never had a clear picture of which ones, nor how much benefit is available. Given that many pathogens now come packaged with our industrialized foods like fresh produce, I thought the information might be helpful.

Cornell University did a survey on food-spoilage microorganisms and spices a few years back. The news release about the survey is here. (Full report: "Antimicrobial Functions of Spices: Why Some Like It Hot," Jennifer Billing and Paul W. Sherman, The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 73, No.1, March 1998.)

"Garlic, onion, allspice and oregano, for example, were found to be the best all-around bacteria killers (they kill everything), followed by thyme, cinnamon, tarragon and cumin (any of which kill up to 80 percent of bacteria). Capsicums, including chilies and other hot peppers, are in the middle of the antimicrobial pack (killing or inhibiting up to 75 percent of bacteria), while pepper of the white or black variety inhibits 25 percent of bacteria, as do ginger, anise seed, celery seed and the juices of lemons and limes."

Top 30 Spices with Antimicrobial Properties
(Listed from greatest inhibition to least inhibition of food-spoilage bacteria)

1. Garlic
2. Onion
3. Allspice
4. Oregano
5. Thyme
6. Cinnamon
7. Tarragon
8. Cumin
9. Cloves
10. Lemon grass
11. Bay leaf
12. Capsicums
13. Rosemary
14. Marjoram
15. Mustard
16. Caraway
17. Mint
18. Sage
19. Fennel
20. Coriander
21. Dill
22. Nutmeg
23. Basil
24. Parsley
25. Cardamom
26. Pepper (white/black)
27. Ginger
28. Anise seed
29. Celery seed
30. Lemon/lime

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

1st Ever Carrot... Please Don't Laugh

Today it was warm enough that I pulled open the end of the hoop garden bed to see what's really going on inside. We've had several nights in the upper teens and I wasn't sure what to expect.

Then I picked my first ever carrot, and since I've never successfully grown something that could be called a carrot by any stretch of the imagination, I consider it a milestone! I forget the variety; the seeds came free with a seed order that I think was from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

You may remember I posted that the flooding from TS Lee (or was it TS Irene?) washed away most of my seedlings in this experimental hoop bed, and by then it was too late to replant.

The faint white circles on the photo above outline a few beets, carrots and spinach that have survived despite chewed-off tops. (I should have used a heavier line weight for the circles on the photo, but it's too late now.)  

The larger plants down the middle are Brussels sprouts, and purple cauliflower towards the far end; the seeds of everything in there were planted at the same time. I believe most of the insect damage seen in the front Brussels sprout plant is from before I closed up the hoop, although the chewed off carrot and beet tops are clearly the work of Br'er Rabbit when the hoop still had gaps.

The Brussels sprouts are not filled out yet, but certainly much larger than 2-3 weeks ago when the clamps to fasten the fabric properly against Mr. Rabbit (and the weather) were installed.  

All in all, I'm not a bit disappointed in how bed has functioned thus far, even though there are very few plants inside of it. The weeds are also doing great; too bad they are not edible weeds!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Freezing Eggs

I was thinking about storing eggs because I bought 3 dozen for Christmas baking and have decided not to bake, lest I eat too many sweets. Last year I put 6 dozen eggs in my root cellar in January, and still had fresh eggs in early May (when the root cellar began to warm up with the outside temps).

What I did to keep them fresh was to line the inside of the cartons with plastic wrap, and then coat each egg with lard, and add a layer pf plastic wrap over the top. The idea is to keep the eggs from drying out (as well as keeping them cold). Fresh eggs straight from the hens have a protective coating that does the same thing, but most folks wash the farm eggs they sell so they "look pretty" but they don't keep as long as they do if unwashed.
Did you know you can also freeze eggs? It's simple, and if you raise your own eggs, the frozen extras will come in handy when production slows down. 

Crack eggs into a small container or freezer bags in the quantity needed for recipes, such as "X" number of whole eggs, or yolks only, or whites only. Be sure to label, including quantity!!

If you don't use them for baking, they make great scrambled eggs.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

It CAN Happen Here

There is a long history of populations saying, "It can't happen here..." and then it does. There is a new food bill pending in New Zealand that takes away the human "right" to grow food and save seeds, and instead makes it a government-authorized "privilege" that can be revoked on any pretext.

I've heard for years about the freedom hazards of adopting Codex Alimentarius, which is a world-wide attempt at regulating foods, vitamins and OTC medicines/herbal medicines, and now even water. Codex is what's behind the move to take supplements off the shelves in the US and make it necessary to get a doctor's prescription for vitamins.

The spin on Codex is food safety, but I believe it is more about control pushed by BigAg, BigPharma, and BigBusiness in general. For sure, food safety is a major concern to all of us, but that phrase is used to push the buttons on an uninformed public to get legislation passed. We'll pass almost any ridiculous Law if it guarantees food safety, even with a great but hidden expense to our freedom to choose.

I get frequent email updates from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA/FSIS), along with updates from and and every week we move closer to full acceptance and implementation of Codex here in the US.

Here are 2 quotes from the article I read about the New Zealand Bill

"I read that the bill is being brought in because of the WTO [World Trade Organisation], which of course has the US FDA behind it, and of course that is influenced by big business (Monsanto and other players). It looks like this NZ food bill will pave the way to reduce the plant diversity and small owner operations in New Zealand, for example by way of controlling the legality of seed saving and trading/barter/giving away; all will be potentially illegal. The best website to read about the problems with the new bill is".

"- The Government has created this bill to keep in line with its World Trade Organisation obligations under an international scheme called Codex Alimentarius (“Food Book”). So it has to pass this bill in one form or another." (emphasis mine)

Already in the US, new regulations about cleaning seeds (Multi-million dollar special equipment now required for each seed type) has put many non-GMO seed sellers out of business.

I just downloaded the 252 page Codex bulletin on milk. It will take a while to read and decipher because many regs are based on mandates listed elsewhere on Codex, rather than in the brochure. Typical legalese! I suspect I will find the USDA push against raw milk has a foundation somewhere in Codex. JMHO.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Walk the Talk

As much as I continually suggest we should all eat nutritious, real food... I fell off the wagon a year ago. Actually I didn't fall... it was a very long, slow descent, adding a few empty calories here and there... until the additives (which are designed to addict) took over after a few months. I even lost the habit of taking my few daily vitamins. As a consequence, my energy levels are down and my weight is up. So it's time to get back with the program.

I don't have the disorder known as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) but I can sure tell the difference in how I feel on bright, sunny days, even in winter. My self-diagnosis is a shortage of Vitamin D3 (the sunshine vitamin) and I started taking it again this very morning. I take about half a teaspoonful of fermented cod-liver oil in a gel that's mixed with a high-vitamin A butter oil made by Green Pastures. Mid-day and evenings I take a less expensive D3 gel cap.

A good breakfast had fallen by the wayside too, giving way to something high-carb and/or high sugar with my 2nd cup of coffee. I picked up 2 dozen farm eggs (from chickens fed NON-GMO feed) and some decent organic bacon this weekend, but not enough for the whole month because I didn't intend to start this until January, after the holidays. (It may still be just half-measures over the holidays.)

I'll need to make another trip to the nearest natural foods store (80-90 miles one way) later in the month to re-stock, plus buy some fresh yogurt to inoculate/make my own. I should order some kefir grains too. Mine were stored in milk in the fridge but unmarked, and I accidentally discarded them. Probiotics are an important part of a good food regime for me.

I don't expect the first several weeks will be easy, and I know that every time I nosh on something not good for me, it will just lengthen the time of adjustment back to well-being. No doubt I'll be cranky as a bear much of the time, but the Vitamin D3 should help.

I can't promise this change won't affect my every-other-day postings for the next few weeks. I will do my best, but they may contain some rants against the food companies where their designed use of addiction additives helped my fall from the wagon.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Through the Looking Glass: Culture Shock

I had occasion to travel a bit out of my corner of the state the week before Thanksgiving. It was a great time with friends, but also some culture shock (seeing how the other half lives) when we went for a drive on the Parkway.

Château Morrisette Winery

Château Morrisette Restaurant, photos from their website

We stopped to check out Château Morrisette, and while I was sitting on a bench outside the winery on that gorgeous sunny day, I had the chance to watch folks drive up in their status-symbol imports, town cars, Hummers and fancy SUV's... and leave with multiple cases of wines. Not too many years ago, I might could have been part of that crowd, complete with designer jeans and a fresh manicure (and in the Mercedes I drove).

The exposure and the culture shock of seeing my life "then vs now" really got me to some hard thinking over the last 3 weeks, and to some honest reflections in my mirror. I'm still somewhat of the consumer 'mindset' (minus any credit cards), albeit now more for tools, equipment and other things geared towards survival. AND... I still love good wines and gourmet foods. It's hard to believe I used to think nothing of buying anything I fancied. I freely admit to champagne tastes, only now with a Near-Beer pocketbook. (Do they still make Near-Beer? It was all we could get, or even afford, in college.)

It took me a few days to realize and admit that I still had have some residual internal pique at not having that kind of discretionary income anymore. (Actually I thought only the rich still had much discretionary income in this economic downturn. I guess I don't get out of Dodge enough.)

The reason I am in an economic pit despite having made good money is due to naively believing that economic growth would always continue, that corporations were honest, and that Life was fair. Add in the governments' manipulation of the social security fund and the rules that changed during the few years before I retired, and it reduced my "estimated [by the government] SS income" by 75%... which necessitated bridging the gap for living expenses with my assets until they ran out. The government did not single me out; there were many tossed in the same boat. Factor in the economic crisis of the past few years and you have enough added weight to sink many lifeboats.

I have had to really take a hard look at what I have been doing with my life over the last few years: my goals, and what things give me satisfaction in order to balance out the pique I felt. Would I go back to that lifestyle if I could? I doubt it. Of course, a little extra cash now and then would be nice. :)

I suspect I'll never get over my taste for international and gourmet foods, since I spent most of my whole life traveling, and tasting new foods... but I've worked out how to still have them. As for the wines, designer jeans and fancy cars... pfffffttt. My 20 year old, high-mileage pickup truck gets me where I'm going (most of the time!) and if someone is going to judge me based on what I wear or drive, that's their problem. (Besides that, 2 Buck Chuck can taste pretty good.)

I'm learning that many of the things I love and can no longer afford are things I can make myself; the list is much too long to list here other than a couple of examples below. BTW, I did make some decent champagne this year from wild elderberry flowers; it cost me some sugar, water, yeast... and my time. Not Dom Perignon, but drinkable.

Buying $30-$50/pound cheese is not in my food budget, but I AM learning to make cheese. I may never make cheese anywhere near that good, but I can sure keep trying. Meanwhile, I make lots of tasty, real cheese for the price of some milk, a few small expenditures for cultures, and my labor. I make butter (from 100% Jersey cream) as good as, and much cheaper, than imported butter costing $7.95 for half a pound. Actually mine is cheaper than even American store-brand butter, too.

I buy whole pork belly and season then cure/smoke it myself, and wind up with a tastier product than store-bought organic smoked bacon for a fraction of the price. The pastured, free-range meat I buy isn't cheaper, but it's much healthier and tastier. And I discovered the cheap "odd bits" that most folks never buy (or even see) anymore make some outstanding dishes, equal to or better than imported patés, terrines and rillettes, and much cheaper than buying them.

I plan to try to make pancetta and proscuitto which are not in my budget either; after all someone makes them... how hard can it be to do what average people have done in France, Italy, Spain, and many other countries for centuries?

I find a great taste satisfaction in snapping a tomato right off the vine and eating it while standing in my garden, the juices dribbling down my fingers and chin. You cannot buy that "yummy fresh taste" in a store.

My home-grown herbs, fruits and vegetables are free of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, chemical washes and irradiation. Anything I cannot eat fresh does not go to waste. I have a pantry full of home-canned, lacto-fermented, dehydrated, and frozen goods. Plus I always grow some vegetables that will keep over winter in my root cellar.

However many things I can make, there are still some things I either must buy, or do without... because of my location and gardening zone. Wild Alaskan Salmon is high on the list, as is good olive oil... and spices that won't grow here, like vanilla (a tropical orchid), cardamom and cinnamon. However, I can grow the most expensive spice (herb) in the world, saffron, for the cost of a few fall saffron crocus bulbs (Crocus sativus), which will multiply and give me more fresh saffron every year. Paella, YUM!

In the final analysis, the trade-off is that for every tasty morsel I can make myself, it frees up money in the budget to occasionally buy some goodies I cannot make. Nothing is so wonderful as something sinfully delicious straight from the stove or pantry, even if NOT ALL the ingredients are homegrown.

Who said "back to basics" aka being poor, has to be dull, boring and tasteless?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Where's the Sun on YOUR Garden?

Wow, what a cool app! With this Google Maps hack, you can find the path of the sun across your own garden for any day of the year. Just plug in your address in the search bar.

According to the description on the site:

    SunCalc is a little app that shows sun movement and sunlight phases during any given day at the given location.

    You can see sun positions at sunrise (yellow), specified time (orange) and sunset (red). The thin orange curve is the current sun trajectory, and the yellow area around is the variation of sun trajectories during the year. The closer a point is to the center, the higher is the sun above the horizon. The colors on the time slider show sunlight coverage during the day.
The default is set for the current day, but I was able to change the dates and get the trajectory for both the shortest day of the year in winter, and the longest (summer) day. Knowing the winter trajectory makes a big difference in where I should locate cold frames and a future, wished-for greenhouse. I had a good idea of the summer sun's path although I was a little bit 'off', but I was woefully off on the winter sun. Probably because I grow nothing in winter so I don't pay as much attention.

Since I have hopes of eventually doing some winter gardening a la Eliot Coleman's Winter Harvest, this little app is a treasure for planning. It gives me a great location for a possible greenhouse when I win the Lottery! Sure wish I'd had something like this when we first looked at this property... the gardener in me might have passed on buying it.

I will also use this online calculator in planning the placement of a solar collector for heating water when I can get to it as a project.

Update, just after Thanksgiving: I plugged in the shortest day and the longest day again for my house today, and took a "Grab" screen shot of them. There is a choice in the app on the upper right for a road map type image, or a satellite image, and by looking at both images on those 2 dates, I now know exactly where to plant 4-5 deciduous shade trees for optimum shading of this house in summertime. Cool, huh?

For less trouble, there is a little gadget available (photo above) that you can place in a container or garden bed for 24 hours and it will give you total sunlight hours (categorized as full sun, partial sun, part-shade, shade), although it will not tell you whether it is hot midday sun, early morning sunlight, or late afternoon sunlight. It would be handy in the garden, esp. if taller plants tend to shade another, lower plant.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Traditional French Onion Soup

Michael Ruhlman posted this Traditional French Onion Soup over on his blog recently. It is made without a beef stock base, and I wanted to try it for a weekend party because we had a vegetarian in our group. Let me tell you, it is a great tasting soup! I liked it better than the typical French Onion Soup made with canned beef broth... but to be fair, I've never tried the stock version with homemade beef stock.

I made a double batch to take to my pre-Thanksgiving vacation weekend with friends. The pot of onions shown above is just the start of one batch, about 5 pounds of Vidalia onions in the pot, which is what I had on hand, rather than Spanish onions the recipe calls for. Vidalia onions are sufficiently sweet for this soup, although not always available all year long.

The onions cook down slowly in a bit of butter. Here's what they look like (above) after 6½ hours at a low simmer.

The next step is to slice and toast some baguettes or french bread, and grate half a pound or more of Emmanthaler or Gruyére cheese. Set the toasted bread rounds and cheese aside, and preheat the broiler.

To the pot of onions, add the water and sherry, bring up to high heat, and adjust seasonings to taste. Fill oven-proof soup bowls with soup, float the baguette slices on top, cover with a generous amount of grated cheese and stick under the broiler to melt and lightly brown the cheese.

In all our dinner hubbub, no one took photos if the individual bowls as they came out of the oven, but the photo on Ruhlman's blog is great.

Serve immediately. YUM!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hoop Garden Bed aka Rabbit Hutch

After Thanksgiving when I went to check my small, experimental winter hoop house, I found a rabbit in it (it got in via a clothes-pinned seam the wind had blown apart). Darned cat and dog were just observing the rabbit munching away on the beet greens. My snap-clamps had finally arrived so I fixed the hoop house fabric securely, and fastened the edges against tunneling.

Unfortunately the battery in my camera was dead so I have no photos.

BUT, I am happy to report I spotted some small budding Brussels sprouts on a few stems, and I saw a few carrot shoulders protruding. Plus, there are a few baby spinach leaves the rabbit didn't munch down like the beet greens. Considering that we've had more than 2 dozen nights below 25ºF (and who knows how long that seam had been open), I'm pleased to see some growth, and no apparent frost damage.

So far, I am encouraged to do it again, but with better planning next year. One thing is the need to get seeds started sooner and planted earlier, so the plants have more root growth before covering when cool weather sets in.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Admiring a Man for Standing Up

Photos from The Bovine

Y'know, regardless of where you stand, or even if you have no opinion on the matter, there's something admiral to be said for a man who stands firmly on his beliefs, and in the case of Ontario dairy farmer Michael Schmidt, his belief in food rights. 

Although found guilty on appeal, fined over $9,000 and placed on a year's probation, he argues raw milk has greater health benefits than pasteurized milk, and that consumers should have a right to decide what to put in their bodies. The judge at his hearing told the court, “(Mr. Schmidt) is a man of principle. He’s willing to fight for his principles. There’s a lot to admire about Mr. Schmidt.”

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Black Friday Blues: Electronics Purchases

Lose your sleep before your decision, not after it
By Scott McLeod

This year's Black Friday was violent in many places, and some Buyers didn't get as good a deal as they might have at another time.

I came across this great website to help anyone decide on the purchase of electronic items. A professor who is an expert on data mining (he sold an airline fare program to Microsoft for $115 million) has a start-up website that studies all the pricing data on electronic products like TV's, computers, cameras, Home Theater Systems, and more... it also looks at new models coming soon, and then it figures out the best time to buy.

You just plug in the name of a product and it will search prices and tell you if you should buy now, or wait. I looked at one camera just to see how it works; it told me to wait, as there is an 83% probability prices will drop in 2 weeks.

Decision Making Landscape
By toprankonlinemarketing

If you are planning to buy a big ticket item, could be quite handy to both save you some money, and any regrets you didn't get the best deal!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Bartering and Crop Swaps

Kate, over on Living the Frugal Life, recently wrote a nice piece on bartering, which prompted me to review some "crop swap" information I had downloaded earlier.

Barter Theater, photo courtesy of Southern Foodways Alliance

Bartering achieved some notoriety around here locally (in the next county south of me) in 1933 when the price of admission to the  Barter Theater  was 40 cents OR an equivalent amount of produce. Four out of five Depression-era theater-goers there paid their way with vegetables, dairy products and livestock. (It's still an active live theater today, but I don't think they barter for admission anymore.)

So Bartering and/or Crop Swapping is nothing new, but perhaps our ideas about it deserve another look in the light of the current economy. The USDA now reports that storable foods costs have risen by 60% in the last year. Many vegetable crops are easily stored: cabbages, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, carrots, parsnips, beets, rutabagas, turnips, and more. Those should all be pretty easy to grow, store and/or barter. 

It might be harder to barter for sugar, salt, flour, or toilet paper unless you live near a processing facility and know one of the workers who may be able to get "seconds" which are generally packaging defects, not product defects. On the other hand, a surplus of those staples might be quite valuable as trade items if those things really get scarce.

I'd be interested in starting a trial crop swap group on a small scale here where I live... but I don't know enough people who might participate for it to be worthwhile. That's sad, actually. I threw away about 400 pounds of winter squash the first year I had a garden here; the food banks couldn't take them, and I didn't know any of my neighbors or any other place to put them to good use.
Sarah Henry, over on the shareable network blog, has written a few posts on how to set up crop swapping, including one directed at some of the legal aspects. I also know there is a barter section on Craigslist; unfortunately none of them are near enough to me to be to be economically viable. I did trade some cheese I made from goat milk to the farmer who supplied the milk, but it cost me $10-$12 in gas every time I went to pick up just 2 gallons of milk. So it wasn't the best good win-win situation; had he been closer it would have been wonderful.

I'd barter cheese or something else in a heartbeat for frozen free-range duck, even it it meant postage (which is still cheaper than gas). Actually I'd consider bartering lots of things, duck just came to mind because no one local has free-range duck to sell.

Anyone have suggestions or experience with bartering?

Edited the day after Thanksgiving to post a link from a friend on Barter Sites.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Wine and Cheese Tasting

Thanks to a friend, a very small group gathered at a mountain rental cabin near the Blue Ridge Parkway for the weekend before Thanksgiving and an early Thanksgiving Dinner. Almost everyone there (except me and maybe one other person) will get to have another Thanksgiving Dinner on the "proper" day with Family, but since I basically live alone, I appreciated being able to share in the traditional "turkey day meal" with friends, and Giving Thanks for all we have.

It was a great time away from home and everyone brought great food... in fact, an abundance of foods! I may post about all the foods if others send me photos they took, but for now, here's our Saturday adventure...

We loaded ourselves into a couple of cars and went over to the Blue Ridge Parkway on Saturday to both a winery and a cidery I've wanted to visit for 2-3 years. The Château Morrisette wine tasting was really quite lovely, and very entertaining thanks to our bartender. Other than the omission of any palate cleansers for 12 different wines (including 2 ice wines), it was both professional and great fun.

One wine I would normally have never tried actually surprised me by being quite tasty; it was made from Scuppernongs, aka Fox Grapes. I generally shun sweetish wines but this was nicely complex rather than sickeningly sweet. (The winery gave us the glasses with their name etched on them that we used for tasting and several of our group bought multiple bottles of wines to take home, so their excellent presentation and marketing paid off!)

The Foggy Ridge Cidery (hard ciders) tasting was disappointing. Being just 3 miles down the Parkway from Château Morrisette, they probably need to do a better job of marketing at the cidery site itself if they continue to be on the "tour". You never know just who may drop in for a taste!

It was the same cost to taste 5 hard ciders as 12 wines from Château Morrisette, but the cider samples were barely a teaspoonful and the bartender was not fully educated on the products (at least not on the fortified ciders, nor did she present how any of the ciders could be served or used in recipes)... also she was not very personable. I will excuse her as she may have been having a bad day from many tastings earlier, but if that's the case they should have a back-up plan.

I did like the Pippin Black, a brandy-fortified cider made with Arkansas Black apples and Newtown Pippins.
The Thos. Jefferson / American style cider was tart but not dry, but I liked the English-style cider better as it was dry and not too tart. I wouldn't even taste the sweet cider one. The fresh raw cider I bought and fermented last fall was too sweet for my taste after it fermented, even with no sugar added. To be fair, that fresh cider I bought was made from eating apples whereas good hard cider is a mix, but other than sweet, it was good. I just don't like sweet drinks as a rule. (We didn't get a cidery glass etched with their name to keep, either.)
Once back at the cabin, we had our own private cheese tasting with wines everyone had brought along for the weekend. All three of my homemade cheeses (gorgonzola, farmhouse cheddar and a young Caerphilly) were well-received, plus we had about 8-10 imported cheeses our friends had ordered online.

I have to brag a tiny bit and say I finally made an edible blue cheese... the gorgonzola dolce shown above, which the blue cheese lovers deemed a success. (Remember I had to toss out my first 3 attempts at making a blue cheese?)

The imported cheese varieties (which I had helped choose from a short list of cheese specials) were tasty and interesting but not great, excepting the very stinky and well past it's prime Tomme Crayeuse we had to re-wrap quickly... but the selections didn't contain any cheese that I think any of us would particularly order again except possibly the 2 year old Avonlea Extra Sharp raw milk Cheddar from Canada (very dry/crumbly almost like Parmesan because of the age, but would be lovely grated on certain dishes). 

I guess it's my fault for not knowing the vendor who is not a cheesemonger... nor did I know anything of the creameries/artisans for each cheese. I take full responsibility since several were cheese types I wanted to try in case I wanted to try to make one.

One of the imported cheeses was a Welsh Caerphilly [cheddar], and VERY different from the ones I've made so far. It was a lot softer, creamier and not as traditionally salty; it was rather more like an American mild cheddar. But at leasdt now I know I need to work on "creamier" in general when I make more cheese.
As a surprise gift for me personally, our organizer had ordered a wedge of Rogue River Blue straight from the Creamery because I had said rather emphatically I wanted to try it sometime. (Is that a great friend or what??) I put it out to share along with the other cheese, and everyone who liked blues raved over it. If you like blues at all, you really need to try this cheese sometime when you have a special occasion; IT IS OUTSTANDING!!! No wonder it won Best in Show in combined American, Canadian and Mexican competitions for 2 of the last 3 years.