Archive for January, 2012

Yes, I know it’s fifty degrees out and there are snowdrops blooming. It’s still January (and that’s weird, though I’m not complaining, but a little confused)… so let’s just pretend there’s a blanket of snow on that barren ground out there. It will be back, I promise.

How do you like 'dem apples?

We still have a little less than half a bushel of apples from the cider pressing (we picked through the best ones that were left at the end of the day and spared them from the grinder), still holding fairly well, though their skins have thickened slightly and some are turning wrinkly (we’ve tossed the few off ones to the chickens). They’ve been sitting in our spacious walk-in cooler/root cellar that is our currently unheated house (we have space heaters in the bathroom and under the kitchen cabinets, and heat tape on the pipes to keep them from freezing)… no sense really trying to heat the place till we have insulation, and walls, and other such fripperies, (not to mention the fact that the furnace really ought to have a proper chimney before we fire it up- the woodstove does a good job taking the chill off the place though). Besides, if we want to be warm we can go to the studio where it’s an even 60 most of the time (and thankfully that’s where the working shower is, even if it occasionally requires moving a keg or pile of soap stuff out of the way), and if we heated the house, then where would we store the apples, winter squash, and potatoes? The basement, right. We’ll have to remember that for later… and at some point unbrick the walled-off former root-cellar area under the porch stairs on the north wall of the basement, with a borrowed or preferably hungry feral cat handy to catch the rats that will almost certainly run out as that’s why it was bricked up in the first place. Lovely. Let’s save that one for another day, shall we?

But the point of this is those apples. They’re still good, but won’t stay that way forever. I sorted through them, set a big bowl of the nicest ones aside for eating and pies and decided to make sauce with the rest. I cored them all and chopped them roughly, weighing out 6 pounds in one pot and three and a half or so in another. Add a little water to each (roughly a cup and a half in the larger, and a cup in the smaller- double the suggested amount but i figured they’d have lost moisture in storage since they’re not waxed), a hint of good cider vinegar and cinnamon in the big pot, and a handful of frozen cranberries, a pinch of ginger, and zest and chopped flesh of one orange to the other. Simmer each, stirring frequently so they don’t scorch, until they’re nice and mushy. I added a tiny bit of honey, a couple tablespoons to each pot- the cranberry one probably could have used more but I was feeling lazy and didn’t want to get out the bucket to refill the jar. I’m planning to pair that one with pork chops or roasted meats anyway, where the tartness will be refreshing.

Kitchen slang for these is "trolling motor". This one is for a very very tiny boat.

I pureed the plain sauce with an immersion blender- these are so handy… we got a nice one for $20, I kid you not, from the food scientist who invented Cool Ranch Doritos (though he preferred the term “wizard” to scientist I believe) who was closing down his business awhile back- Alefellow found him while searching for stainless on craigslist and got some useful stuff- like a stainless tank with castors, that helped bring the world Coke slurpees, or something like that, but which we usually use for the far more humble but important job of chilling wort- put a secondary immersion chiller in it, fill with ice and water, and recirculate the hot water coming out of the copper coil in the big kettle with a high-temp pump, and you keep a LOT of water from getting dumped down the drain… and end up with a tank full of hot water at the end of it, good for washing brewing dishes, filling the mop bucket, watering plants, or just keeping around as a nice temporary heat sink in winter.

Cran-Orange top left, apple cinnamon, front and center.
Oh yeah, applesauce. Right. Ladle into clean jars. I used half and quarter pints (eight and four oz) so I won’t have to repack them into smaller containers for lunches- kinda like those snackpak things, but refillable), check for air bubbles and run a spatula around the inside of the jar to dislodge them, wipe the rims, put on the lids that you fish from the bowl of hot boiled water with a handy-dandy magnet on a little plastic wand- take that, food wizard! (or tongs, or your quick fingers if you were a cook, chemist or moonshiner, or otherwise lack feeling in your fingertips- I think of the scene from “My Stepmother is an Alien” where she reaches into the pot on the stove each time I do this and laugh a bit). Tighten down the rings (tight, but not too tight- any trapped air needs to be able to escape after all) and stack them into your preheated canner- boiling water bath or pressure works, just make sure you sterilized your jars first by boiling to be on the safe side if you’re not using a pressure canner. Close the lid, vent the steam for 10 minutes if pressure canning, or wait for your water to come up to a vigorous boil if not, and start your timer. Kill the flame when it beeps, fish your jars out of the boiling water bath if you used one (jar lifter tongs are really nice here, though regular ones do in a pinch) or let your pressure canner slowly cool down- don’t open it until the dial reads zero, or no steam escapes when you tap the weight, depending on which kind you have of course). Processing times and a more concise but scientific description of method can be found here:

Ta Da! You're done. Let 'em cool, and remove the bands for long storage. Label them so you don't forget what's in there or what year you made 'em... although I'm sure we'll go through these pretty fast.

So that’s all there is to it! I can cross that off my to-do list, and refer back to this next year when it seems overwhelming and I’m trying to do two or three times as many or more. You don’t even have to do it all in one go if you don’t have time- make the sauce the first night, throw the whole thing in the fridge (make sure you use a nonreactive, aka not aluminum pot if you’re storing it this way), pull it out the next day, back on the stove, get it good and hot again all the way through, and proceed as if you’d just done hours of work. Lots of canning jobs can be broken down this way, and some are better if they are (canning stock or anything meaty and saucy that wasn’t super lean- then instead of skimming fat you can just peel or scoop it off the top once it’s cold and it won’t keep your jars from sealing later).


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Tired Ghostly Town

Album art by Damara Kaminecki



Shameless plug for a friend- go listen to this now. Try it, you like it, you buy it. Yes, you will… if you have a soul, and a hankering for “country bluegrass folk punk” as this has been described (and who here doesn’t?). There are previews of a few full songs (Working Dream is my favorite) on his site: http://www.alscorch.com/

Unfortunately looks like it’s not yet available online (word is, sit on your hands till March or get thee to a show), but we have a handful of copies of cds to distribute, locally or perhaps paypal payment and shipping could be arranged- email me if you need one, $10 (plus shipping if necessary), all of which goes back to the band! If you come over to pick it up, it comes with a free beer or three. Such a deal! Al’s on tour in Ireland and England currently, but will be back home in mid- February… come home soon, son, and come on over! Bring Chris! I’ll make biscuits! We’ll all drink beer! It’ll be grand!

You can buy a 7″ vinyl earlier release that comes with a free live album-length download of some of these, and other songs, hhere… haven’t listened to this yet, but it’s on my wish list. :-)

Backyard bonfire banjo-drum jam at Brew not Bombs IV, vocals by Al, Chris, Daniel, and Everybody. Photo credit to whomever took this amazing picture.

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For the record, chickens LOVE pie. Pumpkin pie, past its prime is deftly devoured and disappeared down beaks, after a bit of squabbling, wing flapping, and “hey, that’s my pie!”, “no, you seem to be mistaken… you ate yours… this is MY pie. Nomnomnom.” (no, they didn’t get that whole thing, just the last piece that sat on the counter too long and sprouted three fuzzy dots of mold. Chickens don’t give a cluck!).

Pie is a hit, but they are indifferent about nipples. Specifically, the “poultry nipples” which dispense water, mounted underneath a hanging five-gallon bucket with a submersible aquarium heater on a temperature controller that turns on whenever it’s below freezing, to free us from the worry and chore of constantly defrosting their waterer- they now have liquid water available in their coop at all times (added bonus- the design makes it impossible for them to poop in the thing, fill it with bedding, or otherwise muck it up, which chickens are adept at). Only problem? Getting them to use the darn thing. They’re red, like the base of their other waterers, which is supposed to be an “attention-getting” color for chickens. Mine didn’t get the memo. I’ve tried tapping it so that drops of water come out as they watch, which results in them pecking at the ground where the droplets fell but remaining oblivious to the source above them. I tried holding them and gently touching their beaks to the fount- mmm, tasty magic trick on my part apparently, no hoped for Helen Keller-AHA-moment… w-a-t-e-r… WATER! Hey, did you know there’s water in here? And its nice and warm, and here we’ve been eating snow and freezing our little chicken tongues off? Bitchin! I’d try finger-spelling it to them but I know that’s hopeless.

Yes, weird mammal over there. Why are you squawking about the nipples on that bucket when there's water in this dish? And solid water under that? I am chicken. I care not for the care you (or that other human) put into building the waterer to ensure my care. Now how about you throw us some of that nice corn and then go clean off the poop tray under our roosts?

How does the waterer work? Picture a water bottle for rabbits or other small animals- if you had a hamster or guinea pig as a child I’m sure you’re familiar with the mechanism- little ball bearing at the end of a metal tube is held shut by gravity and water pressure (sorry, not an engineer, people) and releases small drops of water when tapped. These work the same way, but with a little peckable stick thing that releases the water on a diminutive threaded valve that can be installed on the underside of just about any container. I keep hoping maybe they’ll run into it one day, get water on their head and finally look up, and that the one clumsy or bright bird (whichever) will figure it out to teach the others. Till then they persist in eating snow and ice with apparent relish, and drinking from dishes whenever I set them out for them. Any tips on training them to use the wonder waterer? I’m at a loss. They look like this, http://www.avianaquamiser.com/chickennipple/ (though we bought ours for about $12 for a 5-pack from an amazon seller, as we didn’t need the whole “kit” or pre-assembled ones that they sell, just the nipples thank you very much) and if I can get the girls to take to them would highly recommend them over the traditional style of waterer. I have yet to try the grape trick listed in the manufacturer’s troubleshooting page (http://www.avianaquamiser.com/troubleshooting/) but will give it a go… any other suggestions for titillating treats (sorry, couldn’t help myself) that will stick on the underside of the fount but not gum up the works?

In other news, we have a new member of our flock of three (now four). “Goldie Hen”, who was described as maybe a Buff Orpington, but maybe Minorca (she’s a wee thing, with a comb that flops slightly to one side… though her pale brown egg and gentle demeanor give credence to Orpington), was a rescue listed on the Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts list by a neighbor of her former owner. He’d gotten her as a chick last Easter and kept her in a cage as a house pet, and called her Colonel Sanders until she started laying eggs. Apparently the novelty of a chicken in the house wore thin (I can’t imagine- our three lived in an oversized dog crate in the kitchen for three days before we finished the chicken tractor, and it was three days too long). He was going to turn her loose “for the coyotes or whatever” but luckily his neighbor found us first and brought her over. We’re keeping her separate from the other girls, in the chicken tractor which is totally stuffed with straw that she can burrow in to keep her warm until she acclimates to being outdoors all the time. I’m not sure what he was feeding her, but she can’t get enough good organic layer mash, scratch, slightly-off aquaponic arugula, and oyster shell… I wonder if maybe she was eating birdseed before? We’ve gotten one adorable pullet egg already and hoping that she and the other ladies can get along so she can stay with us- I’m a little worried about her holding her own, as she’s a little timid and hasn’t been around other chickens before. Pictures coming soon!

La di dah, scratching in straw...

Wait a minute, who's this? (Goldie Hen has never seen another chicken before. Weird!)

"whotheheckarethey I'mjustfineinhere thankyouverymuch".

Someone's been sleeping in MY bed (this from the chickens who'd totally ignored the smaller coop since moving to the Chicken Palace of Luxury). The straw is always fluffier on the other side...

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Happy hog hinds (future pork rinds?) at Blue Moon Community farm just ourside of Madison. This was one of the stops on the annual Bike the Barns ride a few years back... few friends and I drove up to help make grilled bruschetta and homemade ice cream sandwiches to serve to the riders at this stop- it's an annual fundraiser for local farms and a traveling feast for riders who nosh at each farm stop!

Sometimes I wish we had the space to do this… (warning, not for vegetarians or the squeamish): http://coldantlerfarm.blogspot.com/2012/01/pork.html

Maybe someday, if we get more land, or most likely out of the city we could pull this off… but perhaps our neighbors’ silence could be bought with bacon, or a winter pig tucked away in a garage, none the wiser?  After all, it worked for Nigella in Oakland, and if GWiv from the LTHforum has hog hooks in his backyard and posts photos of backyard butchering, perhaps one could pull it off without offending near neighbors, but then again those hogs of his come in dead, split, bloodless and eviscerated, their last squeals and the shot out of earshot (though if you timed the kill precisely, a New-Years eve pig dispatching would blend seamlessly into the din of drunken firearm owners illegally exercising their second-amendment rights into the sky, although it would be a rather hazardous work environment (what goes up, must come down… but otherwise just about perfect for a Hogmanay blót) but certainly a far cry from living next to one for weeks or months… but still… an invite to a pig roast might buy a bit of collusion?

All conjecture, of course. And completely crazy. Don’t worry neighbors, I’m daydreaming, not scheming… then again, there WAS once a plywood pig smoker in our backyard before we bought the house, now in our neighbor’s yard- they’d rented our place for awhile before moving to another similarly-sized but finished house across the street, leaving the smoker temporarily where it sat (it’s still there in my first pictures of the yard taken back when we were looking at the house, and then seemingly-forever in short-sale limbo) until they needed it again. This being a small town (for a big city) they are friends of friends, and invited us to their annual pig pickin’ late this summer, a clamorous affair with luscious porky sandwiches and all the trimmings, a rockabilly band on the back porch, roller derby queens, blissful babies toddling, kids and grownups alike throwing water balloons with abandon and two rescued pitbulls displaying heroic feats of strength at rope-tug and gnawing contently on pig ears (which in due precaution, all the children were dutifully warned against approaching while they were eating “their favorite things in the whole world”).  Welcome to the neighborhood.  They’re not the ones I would worry about offending though, but rather those near ones on either side.  You can’t have a pig, girl.  Get over it (no, not even one of those potbellies or teacup pigs, which while cute are too expensive and tiny to eat anyway, which kinda defeats the point in my book).

I raised a pig for an FFA project in high school- his name was also Bacon (I suspect it’s a common porcine moniker).  He spent a summer penned on a near-acre of woods below our house, fattening on acorns and hickory nuts, and mud wallowing. After the fair my dad bought him from me. He asked first if I would mind, or if I’d rather sell him to someone else, but I couldn’t imagine that- it seemed right that if he were to be eaten, it ought to be by those who’d cared for and respected his pigness… which was why I’d named him, as both a reminder of and testament to his future deliciousness. It felt good to help provide food for my family, from the farm that had fed us for generations in its small way.

The hardest part was getting him to go back up the ramp into the trailer- he remembered that sucker from the trip to the fair, and no sir, wanted no part of it, or the associated road rumblings followed by concrete stalls (well bedded with shavings, mine immaculate, getting the “Good Housekeeping Award” for the youth swine barn), baths with shampoo, rubdowns, and finally a parade through the arena- where were his oak trees? His melon rinds? His water trough (built by my dad and I before he arrived, hand mixing and pouring the cement into plywood forms filled with rebar and rock) whose two concrete compartments we would find him straddling on sweltering days, front end in the north half, hind end to the south- a hot ham roast, brining himself in coolness and contentment)? No sir, not getting back in that truck without a fuss. He came back frozen, wrapped in butcher’s paper- other than occasional deer, nothing larger than a catfish (and one memorable chicken, back before my granny and poppy gave up losing most to hawk and coyotes, that my brothers and I watched being cleaned with rapt curiosity, disappointed, but secretly relieved that we were barred from watching the hatchetwork and flapping) was butchered on our farm in my memory (days before my memory or existence saw many hog killins i’m sure, but I don’t think anyone was sorry to outsource that job.  I’d want to if I raised large animals again and it were possible- it’s so much less stressful for the animals to not have to travel to their ends). Never ate a happier blue ribbon pig, or more delicious pork than those chops, cornmeal-breaded and fried in a cast-iron skillet, with warm homemade applesauce from the trees in our yard on the side.

My grandparents would raise two or three hogs each year when I was a kid- they’d send them to a small local abattoir to be processed and fill all our families’ freezers, but sadly those little  community processors willing to take in a handful of hogs or beeves are now harder and harder to find. Joel Salatin writes about this at length in “Folks, this ain’t normal” (read it, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, kick some pillows, hopefully yell at some bureaucrats and maybe roll your eyes a bit occasionally, but the guy makes some great points) and the difficulty this creates for local, small-scale meat producers… I’m glad to read that mobile processors sized to the needs of very small farms are out there! Kudos to the chef-instructor who commented after this post that she is educating her students about the loss of small processing facilities in her culinary school gastronomy class. Chefs, cooks and eaters need to know about this real barrier to market access which is a major limiting factor to the scalability and profitability of the local, small family farmers that most are cheering on (and hoping to buy from).  Sadly, the very regulations meant to protect consumers from the abuses of industrial agriculture are also prohibitively expensive to comply with for most smaller, slower, arguably safer meat packers and farmer, either putting up huge barriers to entry or putting them out of business altogether. Well-meaning and intentioned (and for CAFO-scale, very necessary!) rules enacted to keep consumers safe can ultimately rob them of choice- I can sell my neighbor a chicken, and I can give them a live or dead one, but I can not legally sell them a dead one that has not been government-inspected and slaughtered in a licensed and approved facility (which are prohibitively expensive to build and operate, and must do enough volume to keep a USDA inspector on site during all butchering), and even if it has been processed painstakingly, while they watch, tests free from the harmful drug-resistant bacteria, manure, and chlorine residues that plague “safe” supermarket meats… it might be fit to eat but not for commerce as far as the USDA is concerned, which limits your ability to advertise and reach potential customers- you could be advertising for a gun-toting swat team to raid your farm and throw away any uninspected food, raw dairy, or other “hazardous” materials (perhaps a bit ironically, we actually have a neighbor who is on the SWAT team… and has dressed a few birds in their yard when necessary- they have about a dozen hens, and one remaining (from 5 this spring) turkey who lays enormous eggs that their daughters won’t eat). Crazy, right? This actually happens, all the time… http://www.farmtoconsumer.org/farm-raids.html

Even here in the city, small food producers (ice cream and candy makers and caterers to name a few) using licensed and inspected shared commercial kitchen spaces have been raided by the health department for technicalities and had hundreds of pounds of safe, locally-produced and preserved (frozen fruit purees, destroyed in the winter and putting one confectioner out of business until the next growing season- she couldn’t even save the food to bring home to eat herself)… all dumped into trash cans and covered with bleach because they lacked receipts and invoices for this food, which had been bought directly from small organic growers at farmer’s markets. It had never entered the Sysco supply chain, or any other distributor, and thus was labeled contraband. There was nothing wrong with this food until the health department destroyed it. Another tiny-batch ice cream producer (Nice Cream) has had to close up shop until she can find a dedicated ice cream only kitchen, and find some way to reconcile her recipes to the regulations- the fresh, local organic strawberries in one were deemed hazardous (might have E. coli or salmonella!) and the inspector suggested that if she’d replace them with an artificially colored, artificially-flavored, highly processed high-fructose commercial strawberry syrup or puree it would meet the acceptable “food safety” standard. I am not making this up. This stuff makes me furious, and really really sad.

After growing up eating mostly meat raised or hunted on our farm, I became a vegetarian after moving to the city for college- I knew where that dining hall meat came from, and it wasn’t appealing. I held out for awhile before taking the plunge, and wondered aloud to some friends, “Can I be a vegetarian who only eats bacon and ribs?  Because I really like bacon and ribs.”  We all laughed at the absurdity of a “vegetarian” gnawing on pig bones and I said farewell to a few of my favorites for awhile. put PETA stickers on my notebooks, and felt very real nausea at the idea of eating flesh.  I was never an evangelizer though; my least favorite thing about my new diet (which was certainly cheap, healthful, and simplified menu-choices at restaurants for this slow-decider) was the constant need to explain myself.  No one goes around asking omnivores why they eat animals (ok, I know some people probably do) so why should I have to constantly explain why I chose not to?   I stuck with it for four years, during which time while home for holidays my brothers took much delight chasing me around the kitchen, waving bloody steaks and chops in my face, and other good natured forms of ribbing and torture.

“But you still eat chicken, right? Chicken’s not meat.”, said my mother one Thanksgiving early on, grasping at the concept (or rather, what to feed me). Growing up, we bought chicken from the store like everyone else, and ate lots of it- this was after all, in the Ozarks, the poultry capitol, home and headquarters of Tyson, body and belly of the beast, where confinement poultry houses dotted every other hillside (and stank up twice as many). My aunts had worked plucking chickens in high school, and a common refrain and threat was to get good grades or you’d wind up working in a chicken plant (slitting throats, rather than than envelopes in the front office, which is what many hoped to do, and some did, which sounded equally dreadful to me… but I digress).
After tiring a bit in my conviction to not eat anything with a backbone (I broke this rule only for sushi, which I could only very occasionally enjoy- beans and eggs are cheap, handrolls are not), I broke my meat-fast late one night with weakened resolve while hanging out listening to records and drinking beer with a good friend, whose freezer contained only ice cubes and pork potstickers, and so… it seemed like as good a time as any.  They were delicious, and I ate them with soy sauce and perhaps not enough trepidation, for they took their revenge with a wicked belly-ache. The first meat meal I ate after that I prepared for myself with much intention- a cornish game hen, stuffed and roasted on a bed of rice in a covered clay pot. If I was going to eat meat again, I wanted to fully acknowledge the animal origin, and could think of nothing more undeniably carnivorous than dispatching a small whole bird. I carved it mindfully, chewed long, and made soup with the leftovers. I still remember the first burger, weeks later at a barbeque on a friends porch overlooking the beach on the far north side of the city… I still eat a vegetable, grain, and bean-based diet, but use meat and meat products liberally as seasoning and celebrations.  I buy very little but consume quite a bit.  It’s not a perfect world, but it’s alright.

As far as the offal (sounds like she did keep the best bits, heart and liver, after all) I’ll second someone’s suggestion that she add head cheese to her repertoire in the future… I was always skeezed out by the sound of it until we made it in class: garde manger, taught by a rotundish and somewhat stern Frenchman, who could work miracles with pork fat and chicken livers in a robot coupe (“roh-bow-coo” = fancypants food processor), dispatch a side of pork at 6 AM into various components of sausages, sides of bacon, primals and chops, and then carve a fruit into a flower, basket, or birdcage by noon with only a half-hour break for breakfast)… but you do not need to repeat such feats. Homemade souse is as simple as simmering the heads (cleaned and split by your butchers) with spices, straining the broth, chopping the meaty bits which are now fall-off-the-face tender, and putting it all back together again to cool, sans bone.  If you throw the pigs feet in with the head halves, the broth may not even need additional gelatin- hooves are mostly collagen which gives good stock its unctuousness (as are cheeks, snouts, ears… you get the picture- this is rich stuff!).

Actually, even if you don’t make head cheese (time, always more scarce than projects…) or have the time or inclination toward pickled pigs feet, save the trotters to throw in your next batch of stock (or any long-braised meat or bean dish, really) and you will have the most ridiculously rich, almost aspic-thick broth. Then you are only a hot saute pan and a half hour from a delicious dinner: pan sear a pork chop, set it aside, deglaze the pan if you want with some wine or good beer, then ladle in some of that super-stock, simmer for a minute, and finish with cream, mustard, or mushrooms for a fancy but fast dinner that’s easily done for one. Ok, now I’m hungry.

Stock is one of the easiest things to home can if you have a pressure cooker (and you’ll free up a lot of freezer space if you do) and so much better than anything you can buy in ascetic foil boxes at the supermarket. Freeze your bones and vegetable scraps until you have enough saved up for a batch (or until you need your freezer back… whichever happens first), then do up a big batch at a time. Put it all in a big pot, throw in a bay leaf and some whole peppercorns, cover with cold water, and bring it slowly up to a lazy bubble. How long depends on the bones, and whether you want a light or a strong stock, and could be two or many hours. Further complexity comes from roasting some or all of the bones and veggies first. Stock is cheap or almost free to make, fills your home with yummy soup-scents, and is the building block to flavorful stews, sauces, and starches (rice, polenta, and other grains are great prepared with stock instead of all or part of the water)- you’ll be glad to have it in your pantry ready-to-use!

I’ll leave you with some images of our much-missed (move back!) friend Fox slicing his all-day smoked brisket and ribs (shortly before doing a deft deep carve into his fingertip… thankfully, the meat was fine, and the cut was was quickly sanitized, then superglued in lieu of sutures by our resident scout medic).  What a trooper.  In the background is a white pyrex bowl of “meat butter”, softened butter seasoned with ground dried chiles, lime juice, and a bit of the spice rub reserved from the meats- equally amazing on a roll prior to topping with slices of brisket, or on grilled elotes… and the best popcorn topping ever invented.  Enjoy!

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A friend of a friend is trying to sell their rowhouse (it’s lovely, but unfortunately a bit snug for their growing family), and sadly, only one of the viewers who has come to see their house so far had considered the palatial chicken coop and run in their postage-stamp backyard a desirable amenity. So, a bit sadly, they adopted out their four hens, and were left staring at an empty coop. A very large, very well built behemoth, partially wedged under their deck, with a hardware cloth bottom buried under four years of *ahem* well-amended compost. What to do? They could have taken it apart and left it in their alley to be parted out for scrap metal and wood (which probably would have happened quite quickly), or find someone willing to come help deconstruct it and reuse the pieces for their intended purpose, sheltering pampered poultry. We were those people, thanks to a lead from the friend who helped us build the chicken tractor that had previously housed our gals. It’s a great little coop (both of them are, actually, and the tractor will be especially useful to acclimate new birds when adding to our flock, although it may be destined as a bunny hutch someday) and we’re happy to have them! It was no little task.

We stopped by, with a growler of homebrew to assess the situation. I had only seen the coop briefly before in the dark, and had thought it might be simple enough to break down and reassemble… though it did seem a shame to undo all that work (this thing is solid) only to have to put it back together again on the other end… but the gate was small, and the coop was wide- there’s no way it was going to fit through intact, or even in several large pieces. After briefly considering the daunting possibility of lifting it over the fence, the men decide, with glinty gusto, that the best attack is to detach a section of fence behind the coop-run (which was a later addition to the main coop, and was built with the wood fence serving as it’s backside and rear frame braces. We could then cut apart the roof(through plywood and asphalt shingles) between the original section and the addition, and tilt one section at a time through the opening in the fence, and then put the fence back together. A good trick. The actual execution was more difficult than it sounded that evening, and required substantially more homebrew, gruntwork, helpful hands, and a bit of high-tension boom-hoisting than we had encompassed in our initial planning session, but we earned our sore muscles and cold beers that day.

The main coop is now in place, and the girls love their new digs. We still have to move the shipping-pallet woodshed (formerly to be a coop, now superseded by The Chicken Palace of Luxury and better suited to firewood drying than hen housing. It took quite a few friends and log rollers to get it where it is now, and will certainly require the same to move it across the yard close to the back steps (for easier wood toting, and because that’s one of the few open spaces in the yard). This will of course be further complicated by the fact that in my haste to fence in the girls from predators, I already dug a trench, pounded fenceposts, buried 24″ hardware cloth a foot deep in said trench with the remaining foot affixed to the fenceposts, and backfilled the trench with bricks and rocks at the base to deter digging, and for good measure, dirt, crocuses and daffodils. Once the woodshed is out of the way, we can reattach the run (after framing out the back-side that was formerly affixed to the fence as it will now be somewhat free-standing… still with its back to a fence, but not one that’s particularly structural). THEN I can finish the hardware cloth, chicken wire, and mesh enclosure, so that I can let the birds out into a bigger run during the day but keep them off of whatever is left of the henpecked “lawn” aka woodchip mudpit,while reseeding the backyard with clover, rye, and other tasty and soil-enriching groundcovers.  Once that’s taken root a bit, we’ll give them free reign again on the hopefully lush chicken-salad bar.

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A friend of mine shared this article on facebook recently… it brings up a current divide in the Slow Food movement about whether “good, clean, and fair food” also must be expensive. Some pit fair wages for farmers against the needs of those on a budget.

And here’s a response by Slow Food’s president, Josh Viertel, whom I met when I was a youth delegate (youth meaning under thirty, which I was a the time, and delegate meaning we cared enough to get there, and were given spots in the homes of locals to unroll our sleeping bags) at the infinitely inspiring Slow Food Nation event in 2008 that he mentions in the article.  He’s in my notes as “the Yale guy” though the direction he’s taken the organization is not the one that that title might suggest.


Edible Gardens in front of City Hall at SFN'08

Three Sisters and the Dome

My thoughts are, you can spend money, or you can spend time. Most people have some of either, or could shift their priorities and make it happen. The trick is making them WANT to make it happen. I’m a member of Slow Food, but only because of their “any gift makes you… a member” campaign, and because I could afford a student membership while in school. I wish the Chicago chapter had more low and no cost events like, say, Madison… about the only events I can afford to attend (or am interested in) are potlucks at the honey coop and whatnot. Expensive dinners downtown? Not in my budget. Unfortunately that’s what most people think slow food is about.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other as the first article suggests… you can support local farmers with fair prices AND eat cheaply. I’ve bought organic wheat for anywhere between forty cents and a dollar a pound by buying bulk 50# bags. You have to buy a mill (get a well-made used one, they last FOREVER) and have a little bit of room to store it, but you get food security (grain in the pantry), food justice (the farmers get the money, not middlemen, and you don’t have to be rich to afford it) AND amazing quality. If you bake no-knead bread, you don’t need a lot of time, skill, or an expensive mixer or bread maker- just an oven safe pot and an oven, about 10 minutes of active time, four ingredients (flour, water, salt and yeast), and a little planning ahead… presto, you now have a $5 loaf (or more) of real bread for pennies.
(one of many excellent how-to’s for this baking technique is here:

No-Knead Bread (this one with walnut fudge chunks- a fantastic save for a batch of siezed candy)

It’s attainable and as cheap or cheaper than ramen (don’t get me wrong, without ramen I would probably not have made it to adulthood, or at least would be skinner and have lower blood pressure, heh… but homemade whole foods are a much healthier alternative). I’d like to see more inexpensive workshops for this sort of thing as activities. I guess that means, get up and make it happen rather than just talk about it, huh.

Organic arugula (or kale, or lettuce, or whatever) from the store is expensive. Organic greens from your backyard are almost free. Good food does not have to cost a lot, and I’m glad they’re breaking this myth down. Yes, if you want to buy the organic equivalents to processed foods, you will break the bank. Learn some life skills (cooking, growing, buying in bulk, menu planning, food preservation) and you can have a rich diet on a poverty pocketbook.

Another friend raised a very valid point: “but one can’t have a rich diet on a poverty pocketbook without a wealth of knowledge which many folks don’t have access to.”

And this is so true. Most people didn’t grow up on farms with quasi-hippie parents and Rodale Press Home Food System encyclopedias on the shelf. I was baking yeast breads at home (which I learned from books- my mom only made quick breads),… reading about cheesemaking and daydreaming about a dairy cow while the pre-teen next to me on the school bus was reading Seventeen. But you don’t have to be that out-there to figure a lot of this out… you do need knowledge, and access to information. We still have libraries, albeit with shorter hours… but most people aren’t going to do this until someone reaches out and shows them first that it’s possible, and second, why they should bother, and then, how. Organizations like Share our Strength do a good job getting kids into the kitchen and cooking from scratch… I realize that a school system that is struggling to get our kids up to snuff on basic reading and math is hard-pressed to fund Home Economics. One of my resolutions for this year is to reach outside my comfort zone and do more teaching and skill-sharing.

Even when you're living paycheck to paycheck, eating should be hand to mouth (or teat to mouth- notice that this milk is bypassing the bucket)... the less steps between your food's origins and you, the more affordable and healthful it is likely to be.

I’ve been thinking a lot about food access, food justice, and the knowledge gap that keeps most folks with limited means from accessing a healthy diet. There’s a heated debate going on in the local food and urban farming community about the best way to address this problem. Our mayor and some others think that getting local foods and fresh foods into Walmart and Walgreens is the easiest solution to the problem. While, yes, this may help put a bandaid on it in the short term, it won’t solve the root problems of poverty that are the real cause of the problem, and the knowledge gap that prevents people from making healthy choices when they are available and affordable. Local businesses with ownership in the community will be better able to meet the needs of their neighbors and keep scarce dollars flowing in the neighborhood economy. No, not every neighborhood can support a Dill Pickle coop, but there has to be a happy middle ground.

People need access to resources and educational programming to teach them how to be more self-sufficient. Growing, cooking, and preserving food at home isn’t hard if you know how… these are basic skills our grandparents had, and vital if we’re going to meet the demand for local healthy food and overcome the health problems associated with poor nutrition- obesity and diabetes are serious problems that can only be solved by changing the way we eat.
This is a really good examination of the issue on a national level:


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OK, aggies! It’s on. (actually, it WAS on… this is the invite and recap from Cider Pressin’, 2011… we will hopefully do this again next year, so stay tuned if you missed it!). We had a lot of questions. Now we have solutions!

So, we have the makings of a “whizbang” grinder (new garbage disposal and small stainless sink from the ReBuilding Exchange, small tabletop with opening to mount the grinder… just need to mount the disposal, wire a cord, and test it) {CHECK}. We also have a sweet lunker of a screw-driven fruit press that I’ve been itching to try out! We have big mesh bags to line the press (these are retired, after repairs will be usable for hop bags and such, but even the jumbo brewing bags were too small for the press and thus kept bursting at the seams. Save yourself $5 and the hassle and stitch up the hem and sleeves of old tee shirts, if you’re doing this at home).

We have a source of apples- Molly Breslin from Earth First Farm (owned by Tom and Denise Rosenfield) in Michigan will provide us with organic cider apples! If you missed the pressing, you can buy their apples and their cider already pressed at a few places around town… check their website for more information: http://earthfirstfarms.com/ ! She can deliver them to the Logan Square farmer’s market… I’m going to order our apples Tuesday the 24th, so let me know before then if you’d like to reserve a bushel or two for the pressing! You can pay me back the day of the workshop… I’m ordering 3-4 for us for the workshop (unless enough other people want apples- you should get 2-3 gallons of cider per bushel- bring a new bucket or jugs to get it home!). I’m planning to make 5 gal of hard cider, drink some fresh, and maybe try some vinegar if we get enough? We’ve got buckets of honey, so I think a cyser is also in order! I also plan to can applesauce with a half-bushel or so- that could be another workshop if folks are interested? It’ll probably be nippy, so a the first gallon or so should definitely get mulled… maybe on the woodstove if it’s extra chilly!

And we have a date: Sunday, November 6th, rain or shine (we have a pop up tent we can press under if the weather is anything like today). 11 AM-?
Location: Alewyfe Farm (the red brick cabin). Email me if you need the address!

Bring a snack to share, warm clothing, and if you have them, your shoveling muscles- in the interest of future pressings, we have two apple trees that have spent the summer in large pots- they need to get heeled in (or planted if we determine their ideal spots?) before the ground freezes. Also, we have bees, so though they’ll probably be mostly tucked away for winter, they might be interested in apple pulp… heads up if you’re allergic. We’ll have some homebrew on hand (Trappist blend with Logan Square crabapples from last fall) and if I pull the taps now so it’s not gone, a little bit of the hard cider I made last year with Seedling Fruit cider- dry, tart and tasty! Knowing me there will also be some eats…

Please RSVP… that way I can tell the chickens how many deviled eggs we’ll need.
Also, if we have more willing hands than apple jobs, and folks are inclined, we’ve got tools and there are tons of things to do! We’ve got a “barn” that needs raising (a shipping crate that needs stilts to stand on and to get tarped… fences to hang… mulch to move… branches to chip… but mostly we can stand around and have fun figuring out how this apple thing works- washing, chopping, grinding, pressing, and sampling!

We got through 12 bushels on the group press date in about as many hours- should go a lot faster next time now that we know what we’re doing, and have a feel for how fast to feed the apples without overheating the grinder! To all who came, thanks for your willing hands and good cheer… hope to see you again next time!

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