Friday, June 27, 2008

Locavorism: Pre-week I

With the month of locavorism officially beginning in four days, we have done a great deal of prep research and practice. Although I've only committed to pure locavorism for a month, I fully expect many of our eating habits to change for the long term. Like my pioneer forebears, I now see food transported from a long way away as a luxury item. I hope to eat things like mangoes, or Italian cheese, with full awareness of how far they travel to get here, and the unseen petroleum cost I pay each time I eat one. I hope to be more intentional about when that premium is really worth something to me, and when it isn't.

So it's cherry season here in Washington, and we are swimming in luscious, delicious cherries. But cherry season passes in a flash. One week it's Chelans, then the next week Rainiers, and then Bings. Thinking about the long winter and spring, ahead with no fresh fruit - it'll be all luxury items from October to June, except for the cold-stored apples and pears which grow blander as the months pass - I decided to can some cherries, to have a local fruit treat available for the winter.

Now I've only canned for freezing before, so I first spent time reading up on water bath canning (which is sufficient for fruits, all too acidic to spawn botulism), and purchased a 21-quart canning pot along with fresh jar lids. My first batch were the lovely golden Rainiers - because whoosh, the Chelans were done already! - and I canned about 2 pounds, which produced four pretty pint jars:

On the same day, I finally mastered a decent buttermilk honey wheat bread, too:

Buoyed by my success, I bought an extra couple pounds of Bings the next week at the farmers market, richly red, and set up for more canning. I had also purchased a steam juicer, so I came home with a pound of "apriums" - a cross between apricots and plums. Canning takes so much water - most of it hot - to heat and sterilize the cans and lids, to clean and soak the fruit, to prepare boiling syrup, and to immerse the cans in boiling water for (in the case of cherries) a full 25 minutes. So I figured, I might as well do the steam juicing right after the canning, to re-use some of that boiling water.

Alas, this time all did not go as smoothly. I overfilled the jars, and they overflowed during canning, which means the seals cannot be considered reliable. One jar did not seal at all, so I chopped those cherries up and put them in with some applesauce I'd made with last year's cold-stored apples. As I poured those cherries into a colander, I kicked myself for letting all that beautiful, thick cherry syrup go down the drain. Two jars were sealed but I could tell they'd boiled over during canning, so I froze them just in case. (Little bits of food under the seal can be enough to cultivate unwanted organisms.) Only one looked like a clean seal.

On to the juicer, then. My pound of apriums, supplemented by some strawberries from the garden, produced less than a quart of juice. I regretted the squandered cherry syrup even more. The juice was bitter, but good - more like lemonade - and delicious with a bit of honey. More attentive to waste now, I scraped the remaining fruit oodge from the steamer, and added some honey to make a fruit compote for yogurt.

Apart from learning how much water goes into canning, and the importance of respecting jar head space, I am learning other things from this. First, now that I am putting more thought and work into obtaining my food, I eat smaller portions. It takes more work to get the food, so I think hard about how I'm going to use it. Plus, I rarely cook more than we need to eat, because the fresh food tastes so good.

Second, I have deeper respect for the skills of the pioneer or peasant woman who had to think through what she had, how she could use it, and what she might or might not have on hand later. Slowly, I am getting the pioneer spirit: waste not, want not. When the only fruit available is mealy, cold-stored apples from last fall, you make applesauce. If the seal on your canned cherries fails, you throw them in with the applesauce, and retain the syrup for something else. A little bit of high-quality bacon adds a lot of flavor to those nutritious collard greens. And juice - good heavens! The amount of fruit and energy required to make a glass of juice! Talk about a luxury.

When reading my great-great-aunt Lou's diary, I noticed the attention she paid to what she ate. In the winter in Winnipeg, she would comment when they opened a can of cherries for a treat. She commented on how many pickles she ate with tea, and the joys of a lovely fresh salad in summer. I think I'm beginning to understand why those things deserved valuable space in the single-page daily entries of her journal - writing space being carefully rationed, just like everything else.

Why am I doing this? Partly, it has piqued my curiosity. Partly, I am committed to eating local most of the time, and that means stocking up now for winter. And partly - I must confess - I see the deepening economic clouds, which seem frighteningly close to moving us from simple recession to true depression, and I think - it can't hurt to learn these skills now. Who knows when I might need them. Maybe that's crazy, but I just can't shake the feeling.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Looking for reading recommendations

My lackadaisical (sp?) blogging of late has reduced my readership such that I will probably get no responses to this, but - here goes anyway.

I would like to educate myself some more about two period in US history, in order to better think about the state of our democracy today, and what we need to do to heal it.

Specifically, I am interested in:

  • The earliest days when the structure of our democracy was put into place - the questions the founders thought about, how they thought about them, their inspirations, why they concluded what they did, and where they disagreed. I think we need to go back to some of that original thinking - even though the social norms have changed considerably - and revisit some first principles about democracy, and the conditions and safeguards required to sustain it.
  • The "progressive era" between the Guilded Age and the New Deal - that populist uprising in response to obscene concentration of wealth and corruption of power, which yielded women's suffrage, the labor movement, the Grange movement, and a whole host of other innovations by the people, for the people. Plus, there was a depression in there, which also seems relevant to our current circumstances.

There are a jillion well-known books about the "founding fathers," and not many about the progressive era, so on both fronts I'm not sure where to start. Recommendations would be welcome.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


I have been telling people the story of our recent run-in with the law, and everyone except my husband says: Fight! Fight the man, sister. Don't take this obstructive-vegetation-charge lying down. My minister says: If it were me, I would feel compelled to find the neighbor who did this. And then get all mafia on their ass. Which doesn't mean it's the spiritually sound thing to do, but hey. I'm from Boston.

Enrico's take is: Cut down the tree branches. Rip out the lavender. Take the high road, and let it go.

Which just goes to show how saintly Enrico is. Because a whole bunch of people are working their little gray cells right now, trying to come up with an elegant way for me to to fight back. Awww, shucks. It's good to have friends.

I called the inspector who cited us. Somebody phoned in dozens of these complaints in our neighborhood. Which is a relief, actually, because I was worried that we had inadvertently pissed off a neighbor who is now on an anonymous passive-aggressive campaign to get back at us. In which case I would want to mend fences asap.

"It must be some person who's a walker, and who's read the code in detail and gotten religion about it," the inspector said. Ok, that makes me feel a little better. So I asked him: Are you obligated to follow up on all such complaints? Because I've been doing a little drive-by math, and I'd say 60 to 80 percent of properties are in violation of this particular code. It is clearly an unenforceable standard, in the sense that the city could never realistically enforce it evenly, and thus cannot enforce it fairly.

To which he cheerfully admitted that he didn't have a whole lot of work to do that day.

Here are some of the responses that have come to mind. I welcome others.

  1. Get all gandhian on their assess. When a law is unjust, or is enforced selectively or punitively, the Mahatma said: Fill the jails. Force the authorities to enforce the letter of the law, thereby demonstrating the absurdity of the law by overwhelming the system. Thus, I could start phoning in hundreds of complaints, all over the city. The upside to this is, it's Gandhian! (Recognizing that Gandhi would never have stooped to worrying about something so unimportant, unless obstructive vegetation laws were used to oppress a specific class of people.) The down side is, I might bring this same irritant down on the heads of others, and that seems like bad karma. The filling the jails strategy is only authentic when the jail-fillers consent to participate.
  2. Organize. Go door to door. Have you recently been cited too for this absurd thing? Want to do something about it? Compile a statistical report of houses out of compliance with this standard, and send it to city council members (one of whom happens to live on my block, so with a little luck she's already been caught up in the sweep!). Organize letter-writing and phone calling. Call the newspaper. Point out the inconsistency between our mayor's bold proclamations about combatting climate change, and this mandate that will reduce helpful, carbon-sequestering plant life.
  3. Smoke out the snitch. Organize a block party, or better yet, the long-delayed block watch meeting. Strike up casual conversation about the person who is obsessively measuring the size of our lavender plants. Surely this person is is suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, or early onset dementia, and is in need of care? See if anyone starts to squirm.
  4. Get over it. Cut down the tree branches, rip out the lavender, and focus all this creative effort on something that actually matters. Like, hunger. Or homelessness.

Monday, June 23, 2008

THIS? Is why people hate government

Today we received a citation warning in the mail from the City of Seattle, informing us that one of our neighbors had filed a complaint about us. A complaint which will result in a $500 fine if we do not take corrective action by July 7. And what is the terrible offense that we've committed against the neighborhood? Loud dogs? Naked limbo parties at all hours? No, it's worse. I offer you photographic evidence of our crime:
Yes, we have been cited for "vegetation obstructing the public right-of-way." The vegetation in question being lavender.

But wait, there's more!

You see the problem here, right? Nope, it's not the "for sale sign" that somebody else put on our property without our permission. No, we have also been cited for "vegetation that overhangs a public sidewalk within 8 feet of the ground" AND "vegetation that overhangs the street or alley within 14 feet of the ground."

To the neighbor who took the time to call this in to the city inspector, I say: BITE ME.

To the city inspector who took the time to drive all the way out here, photograph our property, and issue us a citation, I say: Dude. Seriously. Get a life.

And you know, the irony is, for 14 months we have lived directly across the street from this:

A burned-out arson hulk, site of crack-smoking, all-night cat orgies, indigent copper salvagers, waist-high grass, and flurries of asbestos-filled ash when the wind really kicks up. But the REAL neighborhood blight? Is obviously our unsightly lavender flowers.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Lost crafts

I can distinctly remember reading the feminist classic The Women's Room by Marilyn French just after college, and really appreciating for the first time just how hard women's work was prior to the era of modern conveniences and broadened professional horizons. All that time cooking from scratch! and canning! and good heavens, the effort required to launder anything.

This last point has been reinforced every time I watch one of those PBS-style reality television shows, where families have to live in the Victorian or Pilgrim or Pioneer eras for a month, or whatever. The men get to build stuff, and at the end of the show they're all, "This was the most fulfilling experience of my life! I totally found myself!" But the women? Every day they wake up at dawn, cook, clean, labor, churn butter, cook, clean, make cheese, cook clean, sew, drop exhausted into bed - and wake up the next day to start the whole cycle over again, relentlessly. And the worst, absolute worst days, are laundry days. By the end of the show the women are all, "Get me home to my washing machine or I'm going to fricking kill somebody."

So I grew up in the era of convenience, and I appreciate how much these things made the lives of my mother and grandmother, and me, easier. Yet here we are as a society, confronted with the unintended consequences of some of those conveniences - they consume too much oil, they produce too much waste, the resulting eating habits cause too much diabetes and obesity.

Which is ok, because I believe we can find a new balance, with all that we've learned along the way. But as we've tried to make adjustments, I'm struck by just how many skills and crafts have become rare or even extinct.

For example, we've long had a manual push-mower for our little tiny yard, and it was amazingly hard to find somebody who could sharpen the blades. "Oh, that's a real skill," said the woman at one mower repair shop. "My dad tried to teach me, and I never got the hang of it. We had one guy who could do it, but he died. There's another guy across town, you should go there." So we did - he was old, too - and the mower came back better than new. Snicker-snack! went the blades. "That," said Enrico, "was $50 well spent."

Another example - I am thinking of doing some canning this summer, due to the local food experiment and the price of food. I would love to have some Washington cherries year-round. I have jars, purchased over a decade ago when we were poor and energetic, and canning from our garden seemed like a good idea. But I need new lids (you have to replace those every time). I tried three grocery stores, two drug stores and a hardware store - none of them sell canning supplies. It's like the art of canning has just disappeared.

I find this again and again. A clothes-drying rack and clothespins. Replacing the ripped canvas on our deck chairs - who does that? The metal frames are just fine, no need to send them to the dump. Why don't more of the local dairies go back to re-usable glass bottles with a deposit? I'd do that. I'm glad I kept my vintage edition of Joy of Cooking, because it explains basic things about food preparation that the newer cookbooks don't bother with any more. Even getting my clarinet refurbished, I learned that the last of the apprentice programs for this skilled trade was shuttered years ago, and now very few people really know how to do it well. Instead there are quickie community-college courses that barely scratch the surface of the art.

So perhaps there are a host of new, old careers and trades that will open up again as a result of our forced simplification. Maybe this is a good thing - maybe there are people out there who would much rather master the art of tool-sharpening or musical instrument repair than sit in front of a computer all day. Just like artisan bread-baking has come back, and quilting. Maybe we'll end up with a world that's both more sustainable, and more interesting to live in.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Preparing to Go Locavore

The day is quickly approaching when Enrico and I will start our one-month experiment with (almost) pure locavorism. Locavore is the term coined for people who emphasize eating local. It was the Word of the Year last year for the Oxford American Dictionary (following the related "carbon neutral" in 2006), and the concept was further popularized this year by the publication of Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Locavorism is becoming increasingly popular, even mainstream. Why? Well, a variety of reasons:

  • the 1,500 mile distance that the average meal travels to our plate (emitting carbon dioxide all the way)
  • the dependence of large-scale industrial farming on petroleum, toxic chemicals and antibiotics
  • the nutritional superiority of fresher food
  • loss of genetic diversity in our produce and livestock
  • the genetic freakishness and miserable existence of lifestock animals, e.g. turkeys genetically modified to have such big breasts that they literally topple over if they try to stand up - which they can't do anyway, since they're packed into cages that don't allow them to move.
All of these things are concerns for me too, and so we've been preparing to make July Locavore Month.

Because I needed to do some research into where we would find various food items, in fact we are well on our way to locavorism already. I've been hitting the farmer's market every week, just like last summer, and oh! the beautiful, tasty produce. One big revelation is meat. Though we have been largely vegetarian for years, that was not about a moral objection to flesh-eating, but rather about all the things noted above, the unsustainability and unseemliness of meat production in this country. But buying some beef from a happy, field-raised cow or chicken grown by a friendly farmer nearby feels different, and possibly a better ethical choice than tofu made from industrially produced soybeans.

So I finally stopped in the local meat market in our neighborhood, Bob's Quality Meats - and why have I never done this before? The proprietor is a third-generation butcher, getting his meat from ranchers in Eastern Washington who supplied his father (the eponymous Bob) and grandfather before him. None of the meat comes from feed lots, and most of it is organically fed (though he was quick to explain that "organic" can only apply to the grain that's fed to the animals, since you can't control the grass; plus, chickens are omnivores). I bought chicken! and bacon - oh my god, real bacon. It's a revelation, really. Next time I'm going to try some of their sausages, made on-site.

So what's a locavore to eat? Happily, we live in a place that provides a lot. We've chosen Washington state as our foodshed for this exercise (as opposed to the more restrictive 100-Mile Diet).
  • So far, I have identified sources for: vegetables, fruits, milk and cheese (butter is proving elusive, but I'm optimistic it will turn up), eggs, honey, jam, pickles, vinegar, wheat flour (I'm particularly proud of my find on that one), rye and emmer flour, beans, lentils, wine, beer, seltzer, and juice (though we're going to pay through the nose for that, and it's going to be apple, apple, and more apple). We're practicing baking our own bread, and plan to give flour tortillas a whirl soon, maybe even pasta. We may have to make our own ice cream.
  • Items likely to be off the menu, unless something unexpected turns up, include: sugar, molasses, all corn products other than fresh ears, citrus fruits, bananas, avocados, tea, most nuts (including peanuts), olives (ouch!), balsamic vinegar (double ouch!) and pomegranites.
  • Items that are still unclear - the search continues - include tofu, at least some form of nuts, and grapes (lots are grown in this state, but likely only for wine). And seafood - what constitutes a locally caught fish? Something will, but my test here is transport/carbon emissions - so we clearly don't eat Alaskan salmon, even one caught by a Seattle fisherman. Shellfish are probably easier.
  • Amazingly enough, pre-processed foods are not necessarily off our list - there's a place in town, Eat Local, that has pre-made meals and desserts made entirely of local ingredients.
  • Exemptions: We're exempting light-weight base ingredients like salt, baking soda, baking powder, yeast, and most spices (though we'll use fresh herbs as much as possible). I figure, people have transported spices for a long time, and I don't think that's going to break the Carbon Emissions Bank. We're also each giving ourselves two additional exemptions, and I am choosing coffee and olive oil - though the oil will come from California rather than Europe. Enrico is leaning towards olive oil and chocolate.
Part of what I'm coming to appreciate too is that we've not only lost touch with where our food comes from and how it's grown, but also basic cooking and preserving skills that were a matter of survival and good eating for milennia. I can't tell you how many times I've arrived home from the farmer's market with something and thought, huh. I wonder how you cook that? So I'm thinking I might follow up Locavore July with a focus on preparing and preserving food in August - making cheese and yougurt, juicing, canning, drying, etc.

For those interested in playing along - join us this summer!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Ok folks, in case you thought I was kidding about the Queen of Narnia plunging us into Eternal Winter here in Washington state, just take a look at this picture, showing blizzard conditions just up the road a piece. I can't even continue to joke about it, because the blizzard claimed the life of an experienced day-hiker on Mt. Rainier, and two others are stuck up there with severe hypothermia while rescuers wait for a break in the weather. This is just madness.

But, out of the blue, I get a call from my sister offering me an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii. It's not until mid-July, but I have no reason to think that the Queen of Narnia is ever going to release us from her curse, so I'm sure it will be just as welcome then as today. I am practically weeping in gratitude for my brother-in-law's dislike of flying. I know the weather isn't punitive, but this sure feels like weather karma.

Plus, I'm annoyed with Enrico at this moment for giving me the go-ahead to make a lovely dish for dinner that requires a very precise cooking time, and committing to be home at a very specific time in order to enjoy said dish, and then deciding to go out with friends for a drink without bothering to call me to say, "Hey! Take that pot off the stove. I'm running late." This is a cardinal sin of marriage, no? But once again, karma will out. Because who's the one going to Hawaii for free? ME, baby. That'll learn ya.

Monday, June 09, 2008

It's hard out there for a bird

A couple of weeks ago - on that one weekend that was actually sunny and warm, remember that? Vaguely? Before we returned to the wet 55-degree gloom without end, like when Narnia was plunged into constant winter by the evil queen?

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago it was warm. And I was cleaning up our patio and planting flowers for the summer season which might theoretically arrive, someday, when the evil queen is vanquished. I noticed Toby carefully inspecting a big tub full of junk that had been sitting by the patio for months. Actually it was full of blue-glass wine bottles which I've been collecting for years with which I plan to someday create a fabulous border around my flower garden. That is even less likely to happen than the vanquishing of the evil queen, but I digress.

I noticed Toby sniffing around in there and it occurred to me that the bottles probably contained really nasty stagnant water, and since Toby is one of those dogs with an inexplicable taste for really disgusting things, I shouted at him to leave it, because by golly I wasn't spending a rare sunny day on yet another trip to the damn emergency vet. But he ignored me. And next thing I knew, I saw him making that unmistakable snapping motion with his head, the motion of a predator attempting the knockout plow to its prey.

I'd seen this move before, when Toby killed a rat right before our eyes a couple of years ago, and I immediately assumed he had another rodent trapped in the plastic tub. So I grabbed his collar and began gingerly pulling bottles out of the tub - only to find a clutch of four baby wrens, flapping about in a panic.

Now, rats are one thing, but I draw the line at baby birds. We have a long history of giving shelter to bird families on this property (see here and here). So I hauled Toby away by the neck and stuck in him the house. Then I went back to the tub and pondered my options, with Toby howling his protests from inside the house, and the mama wren screaming hers from around my head.

I gingerly pulled the bottles out, because the poor birds were flailing against them in panic and I was afraid they'd hurt their little wings. With obstacles out of the way, two of them managed a wobbly, low-elevation flight to safety beyond our fence. But two remained, and they didn't seem to have the skills to get out on their own - which begs the question of how they got in there in the first place? Because there was no sign of a nest in there, or of eggshells. Perhaps they'd run in through the drainage holes at the bottom of the tub, I don't know.

Eventually I managed to help all the babies get beyond the fence, and I could hear the frantic family reunion off in the bushes. I let Toby out; he made a big show of pouting. Later that night, I heard chirping on the front porch and peered out to see three of the young ones assembled on our doormat. For a while, I'd see the family around the property, but I've lost track of them now. They're probably all grown up and indistinguishable from all the other wrens.

This morning in the wee hours we heard a crazy cacophony of birds. The racket was coming from a tree across the street, and Enrico stopped by on his way to work to see what the fuss was about. There he found a raccoon, calmly eating a bird. He said the raccoon was surrounded by all manner of birds - crows, wrens, starlings, robins, flickers - angry and protesting with all their might. Many of them would normally be enemies - I've seen crows raid other birds' nests for a snack - but they were all united against the raccoon. Not that it made much difference. Not much they could do against such brazenness, not to mention the opposable thumbs. I hope the raccoon wasn't eating my little wren friends.

And, on top of that, the peregrine falcons who live downtown on the Washington Mutual tower lost their entire brood this year. All three babies died. Falcons have been nesting in that tower for almost 15 years, and each year the good people of Puget Sound follow their adventures excitedly, thanks to a video feed. Remember the year Stewart had to raise the chicks alone after his first mate, Virginia, died tragically after crashing into another glass skyscraper? Oh, how we cheered him on, that plucky single dad. Our hearts were warmed when he came back the next year with a new wife, Belle. But this year, there is tragedy again. The scientists are investigating.

It's hard out there for a bird.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Photos from France

It's taken me forever to post these, and I swear I thought we had more, but - whatever. We didn't take a lot of photos because it was generally dark and overcast, and we spent a lot of time indoors where it's better to just buy the pre-made photo books. I thought we had some more photos of Paris proper, but - here are pictures of our apartment, the marathon, Versailles, and one of the rare sunny days at the Luxembourg gardens. Enjoy!

Oh for heaven's sake

It's supposed to be hiking season already. We're two weeks from the summer solstice. What the hell is this??

Snow forecast for Olympics, North Cascades

Snow is in the forecast for the higher elevations of the Olympics and north Cascades. The National Weather Service says up to two feet of new snow are possible by tonight, creating avalanche danger and hazardous conditions for climbers or hikers in the backcountry.

While most of the accumulation will be at higher elevations, the Weather Service says the snow level will drop to about 3,500 feet. About three inches of snow are possible at the higher mountain passes: Stevens, Chinook, Washington Pass and roads to Paradise and Hurricane Ridge.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Suddenly wide awake

Now that it's happened - now that Barack Obama has the presidential nomination of his party locked up - I find that all my ambivalence and fatigue is gone. I want this person to win, I want it so badly that I'm ready to get on a bus to some state that's not so solidly blue, and do whatever the campaign office says it needs. Need me to make photocopies 12 hours a day in West Virginia? Make phone calls in Texas explaining that Barak Obama is not actually a Muslim? Need me to beg and cajole some of Hillary Clinton's die-hard older women supporters in Ohio, state of my birth? I'M THERE.

Because damn, I want him to win. And not just in a dear-god-heal-us-from-the-Republicans kind of way. I am genuinely psyched.

If Clinton had been the nominee, I would have been psyched too. I'm back to my earlier state of mind, thinking - holy CRAP! Take a look at what might happen here! We might actually elect somebody like that for the first time ever! How can we possibly let that pass us by?

Of course, what's happening to me is exactly what all the pols said would happen: That Democrats would unite. We'll see. I've seen heard shockingly hateful, racist scree from some of those older, female Clinton supporters. I hope they change their minds, I really do. I might even be willing to get on a bus to help convince them.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Mission accomplished

I'm relieved to say that I did just fine at the big speaking event. Which included stalling when the governor was late, and then cutting her off when she talked too long. A useful skill to develop, I suppose.

I'm pretty tired and might post more if I can figure out how to create a coherent narrative out of this whole thing, which really wasn't about the governor at all, it was about THE PEOPLE, and there were some pretty inspiring moments. But for now, I leave you with an illustration of my spectacular finger-pointing skills.