A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Fall crunch time

     Fall is here for sure now in Missouri. It has been here for well over a month, but I have been in so much denial that it has been anything more than "late summer" going on that it has almost passed me by. Thanks to Mike's erratic organic inspection work schedule, and multiple friend and family visits to usher in new marriages, and new babies, our fall projects and work have been sadly neglected. Now an undeniable chill in the air and increasing numbers of bare branches just can't be argued with any more... our season of "doing" is drawing to a close. Ready or not, fall is here!

     In accordance with the shift in weather, we have been scurrying about trying to eek out a little more firewood for the stack, play catch up in our garden beds to harvest the last peppers, the last broccoli, and dig up the sweet potatoes before the frost gets the best of it. I deposit my daughter in the sandbox and run to fill a wheelbarrow with compost and straw to put one more bed to sleep before she notices I am gone and starts calling for me. What our garden lacks in storage crops we easily make up in bulk purchased local produce, but this year, I have to blink and pinch myself that we finally have a decent fall garden-- straight rows of mature leeks, beds full of dozens of varieties of hardy greens (bok choy, tatsoi, mizuna, komatsuma, etc.--none of which my auto-spell-checker seems to like!), and root crops like beets and carrots and daikon radishes coming on strong. We actually have bell peppers for the first time ever--the big sweet red ones that cost a fortune in the organic section of the grocery store! The last of our amazing purple-podded pole beans are hanging on too, ending their staggering four months of ample production. I am now convinced that a garden is the single greatest way to get kids to eat their vegetables, since Caris grazes her way around its labyrinth beds, snagging beans and lettuce, and biting right into ripe cucumbers. I am also now convinced that giving our soil some love and care at the end of a season in the form of composted animal manure is well worth the hassle of throwing on boots, grabbing a shovel and wading into our Amish neighbor's goat pen!

      Another fall ritual is awakening our cookstove from its summer slumber. When we started noticing how cool our house was getting inside, we realized that we needed to hastily clean our chimney pipe out and get the firebox ready if we were to have any warmth going forward. Would Mike climb on the roof (with a bruised and torn hamstring) and I disassemble the stove pipe and hold a bag to catch the ashes? Or vice versa? And who would sooth our freaked out daughter? Nothing a pair of handy, strapping, young Amish neighbors can't solve in a pinch... Amos and Rudy helped put on our roof years ago with the sure-footedness of mountain goats, and the way they throw up a ladder and go bolting up a steep pitch is nothing short of awe-inspiring (at least to this novice homesteader!) A half hour and a sooty chain later, the deed is done and our stove is lit, and with all of their easy confident advice ringing in our ears--you don't have to do it every year, just when the draw slows down... hold a mirror below the pipe... drop the chain down--and their sincere refusal to take a single penny in compensation--We are happy to help you out! No, we won't take your money, Julie, put it back!--we are as warm with gratitude as we are with warmth from our stove. (We of course figured out how to slip them a few bills later!)

      We aren't alone in the fall rush to get things done--I notice our neighbors also pushing on their projects, squeezing in a little bit more work on weekends and evenings. Regina and John, who are expecting a baby at the end of November, are especially pushing to finish renovation work that will allow them to accommodate more guests at their Catholic Worker farm--installing a shower, bedrooms, a sink and new stove. The sheetrock is flying up thanks to work parties and our handy neighbor Brian just helped them get their plumbing fit just right. I know that baby-count-down well from our own final house push before Caris was born... no such motivator like a woman's pre-baby nesting instinct! Another set of friends also have been working on their cabin, hosting a one-day-plaster-party-marathon before the frost set in. It had been well over a year since the last time Mike and I sunk our hands into a bucket of plaster, picked up a trowel, and set to a wall, so it felt good to stretch those muscles again, joking the day away with the good company of friends in a tight, muddy space.

      But what about our big fall projects? I'll admit that forging ahead on our homesteading dreams to-do list has mostly taken a backseat to keeping up with daily maintenance and chores. But in the small gulps of productive time that appear, unspoken for, I dash outside with a drill and hammer to eek out the next step on our garden shed, and we recently rented a mini tractor to try to accelerate the process of moving our top soil pile (marooned years ago next to our pond from that excavation process)to the various places it is needed on our rather infertile, clay-heavy land. Nothing like an earth-works project to convince oneself that big progress is being made! We are setting ourself up for a spring project cultivating an outdoor kitchen area with covered cooking/serving area, a grape arbored sitting area, adjacent herb/medicinal garden bed, earthen pizza/bread oven and kid treehouse nearby as well as a garden expansion. Yes, a lofty goal for sure, but slowly and steadily I am sure we will get there. I can almost smell next year's wood-fired pizza!

     Another fun fall event that we attended was our sister community's 20th year reunion celebration at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. We have formed many friendships with similar-minded folks there who are also engaged in the work of building homes, growing food, raising families and cultivating community. It was amazing to us to reflect on what can be created from a bare patch of land and a founding dream, 20 years later. We walked down neighborhood streets, toured homes, gathered in common spaces, joined in games (village-wide capture-the-flag?) and danced to the music of several bands, all while our daughter frolicked with a small herd of other children, freely wandering the meandering car-less paths. It is always renewing for us to be there and get encouragement and ideas to return with to our fledgling community. Will we ever get there? Here are some photos from the weekend, to give you a glimpse--


    Last but not least--acorns! Where we live in Northeast Missouri is the most ridiculously acorn-filled ecosystem possibly imaginable. Oaks sprout like weeds everywhere and anywhere, mostly an irritating nuisance to be dealt with when trying to cultivate a patch of something else, like lettuce, or a path, or a flower bed... something far less productive in terms of caloric generation. My mother once visited and sighed a wistful "I wish we could grow oaks this easily... all the ones I have tried to transplant just die!" Really? I remember thinking, these old things? But they truly are an abundance and every year we promise ourselves that next year will be the year we really get out acorn-harvest on. Well, folks, this year was the year! Thanks to Shaina, a transient, acorn-loving volunteer, who headed up a big acorn experiment with our friend Adam, we now know a lot more about acorn harvesting and processing and cooking! She invited all the women and kids of the community to come out one gorgeous Saturday to hang out and shell acorns, nourished as we went by hickory nuts (another thing we have in ridiculous abundance). It was absolutely lovely and felt so natural, a ritual probably practiced in every primitive culture around the world for all of human history. We ate an acorn pancake potluck feast for lunch that clinched our appreciation--acorns flour is just so good! 

     So why aren't acorns a staple crop on par with wheat or corn or anything else that requires yearly cultivation? Oaks yield a staggering 6,000 lb. per acre without any of the tilling, combining, threshing, etc. Probably because the processing work they require is a bit finicky. Some acorns are "bad" or insect-damaged (these will generally float in a bucket of water), and additionally, once shelled (which goes much quicker with a hand-cranked nut sheller, from Davebilt Co.) they need to be ground (with a simple Corona hand-cranked mill) and leached of bitter tannins. This can be done in a number of ways, from hanging a mesh bag full of ground nuts in the tank of your toilet (I know!) or in a stream, or some other clean, flowing water source. Then the meal can be dried and used a la flour! Suffice to say, the nutrient profile of the acorn is pretty darn good and many native american tribes considered them a staple, basing up to 50% of their diets on them. Who knows, perhaps they will make a come-back. They certainly are in our neck of the woods!

    So with that I will end with a note of small regret--that I am perpetually forgetting my camera and failing to capture the most breathtakingly gorgeous of images that constitute our daily life. For example, Regina driving a team of horses across the pasture, with her full pregnant belly and a full wagon load of wood that will heat their home (and her baby) for the winter... The women of our community shelling acorns in the sun... Caris and Mike coming back from the mushroom logs with their daily "discovery," huge smiles stretched across their faces.... The wild geese crossing the glowing evening sky on their way south.... and so on. But every once in awhile I am able to snatch a sweet moment in time, like this one, that I will leave you with! Happy fall!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The wild and wonderful world of plants

Foraged and gleaned pears and mushrooms

Canning, canning, canning!
      Time has passed way too quickly this past month, mostly claimed by the every day demands that make up the stuff of parenting: runny noses, bath times, swings to be pushed, and meals to be coaxed into picky mouths. The balance of our days has been spent frantically trying to keep up with the bounty of our garden and land. With little warning beans and cucumbers become too big and need to be picked and canned (now!) or become compost. A neighbor calls with the offer of an overflowing pear tree, available for harvest if we can get there in time. A flush of mushrooms will go to waste if we can’t find an hour to pick and process them. There is abundance all around us, and I find myself marveling at the miracle of the plant world: one tiny seed transforms itself over the course of months into a fruit bearing hundreds of more tiny seeds. There are such generous design principles at work in the natural world, and we are their lucky recipients. “As it is, plenty,” writes WH Auden. If we can only keep up! Although I do not possess the green thumb of a master gardener (evidenced by a yearly toll of dead house plants), one aspect of homestead living I love is learning more and more about the flora growing all around us: a seemingly never-ending education!

Beating the birds to the elderberries down by our creek

     Though our annual vegetable garden keeps us plenty busy, the longer we inhabit our land, the more we come to appreciate the uses of all the diverse native plants that already exist without us lifting a finger. One of those realms of use has been medicinal. As I write that, even my mind jumps to marijuana, which I am not talking about in this case! I am talking about the dozens of plants like elderberry, echinacea, goldenseal, St. John’s wort, mullein, comfrey, garlic, hawthorn, ginseng, yarrow, and so on. The list is long, and learning about their medicinal properties and how to prepare them has been one of my goals this year. I am not alone in this endeavor as many other folks in our community have been on a similar learning journey. We have been joining forces in making tinctures and salves and such of late.

     Surprisingly, the medicinal used of plants is also a point of common interest with our Amish neighbors. One evening when I was out on a stroll with Caris down the lane to a little bridge flanked by elderberries, we heard horse hooves approaching. Ira and Lena’s buggy pulled into view and as they passed us, they stopped and Ira hopped out with a knife and bag. “You weren’t going to get those elderberries, were you?” he asked me. Although I had been eyeing their slow progress ripening with exactly the thought of harvest in mind, it was easy to let them go to neighbors who have been very helpful and generous to us. Lena and I had begun comparing notes about medicinal herbs and their uses this summer, and when I lent her my copy of Rosemary Gladstar’s book Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health, I think it must have opened up another world of possibilities for her. She meekly apologized now for not having it to return since she had lent it to a series of other Amish women who she thought would be very interested. “Where could we get more copies?” she asked me now. Without book stores or internet access, I realize this sort of information doesn’t easily make it into Amish communities. Without hesitation I offered to help her as I understand exactly her enthusiasm!

Horses making a compost delivery

     So, if all goes as it went last year, this winter I will be trying out garlic-mullein ear oil for Caris’s ear infections instead of plying her immediately with antibiotics, and elderberry-echinacea tincture instead of cough syrup, and black walnut-chapparal salve for ringworm (instead of whatever over-the-counter thing it was I reluctantly applied despite the pharmacist’s total ambivalence about whether it could be used on babies.) I confess to feeling rather clueless during our daughter’s first year in the realm of home medicine; her first fever sent me into a total panic, something I am sure every parent is familiar with. It feels good to be a little more empowered and educated in this one area, and to know that the arsenal of conventional western medicines are still available to us when needed as backup. If you too are interested in learning a little more about herbal alternatives, I have found a great online resource is Aviva Romm’s website- https://avivaromm.com. And if you are reading this having a little skepticism about deviating from the canon of western medicine, I offer this consideration: our water, soil, food-supply and medicine cabinets are now considerably contaminated from over-use of antibiotics (with no new strains available to us) and bacteria is only gaining in its resistance. Europe has much more progressive policies regarding use of antibiotics in livestock (ie-only used when animals are sick vs. to help animals put on weight more rapidly) and in their use with humans (ie, children are not automatically given them for ear infections). Clearly we still have a lot to learn, or perhaps relearn!

Caris paying a visit to her favorite Aronia berry bush

      Aside from the properties of plants useful for healing, there are scores of plants that are wild and free, edible and chock full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants for building up our health and vitality in times of wellness too! Some of the most nutrient dense plants our there are those considered to be weeds or are otherwise not found in grocery aisles. Dandelion greens, Curly dock greens, stinging nettles, Aronia berries, and the wide world of edible mushrooms. We just learned this year that Aronia berries are now classified as a cancer-fighting treatment because of their extremely high antioxidant content. This is nice validation for us for having planted a dozen Aronia bushes around our property. And despite their astringent, slightly bitter sweetness, Caris makes a beeline for them every time we go outside in the morning. She is a quick study in the department of wild edibles, and we munch our way through long stroller walks—black locust blossoms and clover heads in spring, mulberries and dewberries in early summer, wild grapes, Aronia and serviceberries in late summer, perhaps rosehips and autumn olive berries in late fall. Beats paying for Flintstone’s chewable multivitamins!

Sarah spinning natural dyed wool
     Last on my review of the amazing properties of plants, I cannot forget to mention their dye properties! For some reason, this is a realm that has always fascinated me, and thus I have been experimenting and studying about all that can be done with plant dyes. Plant dyes are the most stupidly easy thing to learn (obvious to anyone who has accidentally given themselves grass or berry stains) and also quite a complex thing: though plants rich in tannic acid (think acorns and oak galls, black walnut, barks of various kinds) have no problem fixing themselves to the fibers of natural materials (like wool, silk, cotton), most other plants need an intermediary chemical to bind with fibers and become permanent. Those chemicals are things like iron, alum, copper, oxalic or tannic acid, and several more toxic ones. Each chemical, or “mordant”, reacts slightly differently, altering the color sometimes considerably. So from one plant (or flower, bark, nut, wood, etc.) you can get a huge range of color. Those are the basics, and start throwing in different techniques of printing and wrapping and using hot or cold baths and so on and you have a hobby that could keep you busy for a long, long time! One fantasy I have is of planting a whole dyer’s garden specifically to cultivate dye flowers and plants. What keeps holding me up is the fact that our land is already so full of wild plants, flowers, and trees ideal for dying that I have more than enough to work with already! Here are some of my latest experiments, learned just this summer, to show what is possible with printing rather than straight dying.

Some new natural dying techniques using light sensitive willow bark dye, and maple leaves/ St. John's wort plus iron

     With my apparent enthusiasm for the amazing powers of plants, perhaps it will come as no surprise that one project I have been chipping away at the past month has been planting dozens of perennial bushes, vines, and plants around our house, focusing on things that are either edible, medicinal, dye-yielding, or that provide habitat and nectar for native bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. With any luck, next spring we will be bursting with new growth and new possibilities to keep us busy for a long time to come!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Five Years Anniversary

     July is tough month to leave the homestead. In the past few weeks, both Mike and I have found ourselves called away for various periods of time (for work and family visits mostly), and though our home economic situation is starting to pan out as we had hoped it would, our homestead has suffered for our inattentions. When we finally returned a few days ago, we found that in our short absence, nature had filled the vacuum. The electric strand fence that we had proudly strung around our corn, confident that it would keep marauding raccoons at bay, had shorted out due to the growth of weeds underneath it and the corn had been ravaged, almost down to the last ear. Our tomatoes (my favorite vegetable to grow and generally my baby in the garden) were under attack from above by tomato horn worms and below from blight, reduced in places to skeleton vines. Noooo! An hour’s work culled the majority of dead leaves and produced several dozen fat green worms that Caris and I gleefully fed to the fish in the pond. Still, the tomatoes have clearly taken a hit and look much sadder for it. It is hard not to feel overwhelmed by all of the demands of the homestead at this time of year. It is the turning point where all of our spring gardening fantasies crash and burn as they confront the realities of pest pressure, weeds and neglect.

      Not everything has been a loss though, and fortunately, we were welcomed back to the greetings of many friends and neighbors at a community potluck where we swiftly had a week’s worth of meal invites, parties, game/social dates (for the adults), and play dates (for Caris) lined up. Many others in our community are feeling overwhelmed too, and we realized if we could team up and share in the work load, we would all be happier and more productive for it. So group canning sessions have commenced, and the hope, at least, of more work party rotations in weeks to come.

Sunday game day has become an institution

Corn cooked in the solar tube
     One of the big take aways for me from this experiment in homestead living is that living in close community is the way to go. I could reluctantly leave many other parts of the lifestyle—the animals, the garden, the orchard, house building and all of the many other physically demanding aspects of the lifestyle. But if Mike and I were alone endeavoring to do it all, we wouldn’t make it. Instead, we are regularly saved by the good company, help, and wisdom of friends living close by, sharing in our ups and downs. From several older and more experienced neighbors down the road, for example, I received the good advice to triple strand our electric wire around the corn patch and scalp the earth underneath it. We received a trunk load of free organic corn, excess to the farmer who grew it who was happy to see it go to a human mouth and not a raccoon. Another kind neighbor walked me out to her corn patch and picked out a half dozen ears for our supper when she heard our bad news. Instead of feeling devastated, now I feel buoyed to try again next year with my newfound advice and my belly full of delicious corn.

     This isn’t the first time we have felt overwhelmed with the demands of our life here. It has been a constant refrain since we began this project five years ago. Sometimes I only have eyes to see the half done projects and all that we don’t have time or energy to accomplish on our to-do list. I was taken aback by the praise of a neighboring homestead friend who pointed out how impressed she was with what we had built and created in our five years here. “Yes,” I countered, “but our gardens aren’t doing that well and we haven’t made headway with the last big pieces of house construction. We haven’t been able to even make a chicken coop!” (My dream of having chickens has been on hold for years!) She countered back with, “Your bean trellis looks amazing, and sweet potatoes vines are spilling everywhere, your garden looks great to me. And your house… you’ve done SO much.” It is the first time that I stopped to consider that she might be right—maybe I just don’t have eyes to see it. As I considered what we have accomplished, and what might be reasonable to encourage other to try and create from scratch, I decided to do a short survey of our five years of major projects and review what worked and didn’t, what we would do differently. I thought it might be useful information for anyone else who might be considering starting down the adventurous road of homesteading!

     Although the pond we had dug on our land our first season did not involve much time or sweat labor on our part (we hired an excavator to dig it in three days for around $3000 which we fundraised), it has turned out to be a great asset to our land and a great decision to make at the outset. Our pond helps us stay cool, attracts wildlife, is home to our growing fish nursery, and best of all, is a reliable, free source of water for irrigation downhill, which we use all the time. When we started thinking about the layout of our land, we hadn’t consulted an excavator specializing in ponds (there is some logic to their placement in terms of catchment area and damming possibilities), so I feel lucky that it worked on our land to have it uphill from our cultivated land. If I were doing this again, I would try to choose a piece of land that did have pond site possibilities uphill from where I wanted to move water to. We also lucked out with our Missouri clay-rich soil that holds water effortlessly. I know what the hassle and expense of installing a pond liner or attempting other methods of water retention in other soil types, so it is something to take into consideration. What would I do differently? I would have had a plan ahead of time for moving the mound of top soil that the excavator removed to the side for us to use later as it is a HUGE hassle to move it when we need some elsewhere.

     Our hugelculture swales are another big earthworks project we started in our first year, by hand digging trenches along contour of a hillside and slowly planting fruit trees into them. They were a big expenditure of time and energy to do by hand, even with the help of friends, so something I would DEFINITELY do differently is to rent a small backhoe to expedite the process. We could have done a month’s heavy work in a day for several hundred dollars more. I would have used that saved digging energy to plant cultivar fruit trees in our first year, instead of in our third. Another lesson learned is to fill a vacuum faster than nature can, so I would have quickly planted a ground covering on top of the swales instead of procrastinating and having many times the work weeding later. Still, the fruit trees we did plant in the swales are all doing well and putting on their first fruit this year!

     Clearly, our house is where we have spent the majority of our time, energy and money thus far. So I was surprised when I tallied the results of all of our construction expenses thus far and found that it came to a grand total of…. drum roll please… $22,500! (That doesn’t include our cistern and we are still building, so I think it would be safe to round up to 25K.) Where did we save the most money? On labor costs first and foremost—we have done most of the work ourselves, and only around $2,500 of that is for paid help during our fall crunch trying to get the roof on. But that saved money translated into four years of our lives working quite hard, which isn't for everyone... We also saved quite a bit scouting used windows and doors, second hand wood for interior framing, subfloor and the underside of our roof, and really cheap local lumber for everything else. Also, the bulk of our walls are strawbales, which cost $1,000 in total and plastered with clay and sand on the cheap. It took forever, but saved us quite a bit. The most expensive part of the house was the roof, costing us $7,000 total from rafters to metal and some labor costs. But no leaks yet!

     What would I have done differently? One thing I definitely consider is whether it was worth using timbers from our land for our timberframe. Visitors and tour groups always rave about the cool look of live-edge round logs, but in a sense, it cost us a year extra of work, rather than just ordering pre-milled square timbers from our local mill. If we had taken the short cut, we could have built our frame our first year instead of our second. And although I love our house with all of its character, and I don’t exactly regret the cool learning process of working with roundwood…. I just can’t say I would recommend it to anyone else. That was a tough year. It also occurred to Mike and I, as we are in the process of throwing up a simple stick frame garden shed, that if we were to build another cabin on our land, we would NOT make it strawbale. Working with straw bales (and plastering them) was another time-costly and frustrating process. We would build stud frame and infill with lightly clay-coated straw or recycled batting insulation which we would plaster on the inside and find used siding for the outside. We probably could have saved ourselves another year doing it that way. Still, the thermal properties of the straw bales have been amazing, and we went through not even two cords of wood to heat our home last year—not bad!


     Our water systems are one thing I feel glad we have tackled early and have good, redundant systems for. Our rainwater catchment cistern behind our house is one such system. It works well, almost too well, since our cistern is always full. The cistern so far doesn’t leak and last winter, our water supply line to the house did freeze but didn’t burst and we thawed it back out quickly with a heating coil we had pre-installed. So all in all, everything is working smoothly and cost us (including pump and plumbing and some labor costs) around $5,000. What would I do differently? One thing we didn’t consider when installing it all is the future of hot water in our house. We would love to try a solar hot water heater, but we would need a pressure tank that could always be kept full to resupply the hot water as it gets used. Currently with our beloved hand-pump, we can pressurize a water tank, but it slowly dissipates until empty and we pump it back up again. So we are trying to figure out other options, and it seems like the easiest is going to be some sort of manual system, at least for now.

Our dream garden shed is finally happening!

     We have slowly been expanding our gardens and trying different styles—raised beds on contour  in one area, flat beds in straight rows in another, etc. Lately I have been wishing that we had invested right away in getting a detailed soil analysis done and remineralizing and fertilizing the soil for a year before planting. Maybe even planting one year of a fertilizing cover crop. I know that soil fertility is something that takes time to slowly build up, and so maybe there is no short cut. But just getting things planted takes quite a bit of our energy, so fertility and compost making are almost always last on the list of what gets done. Still, we continue to eat out of our gardens and produce at least some extra to preserve for the winter. What we are learning is that yet another plus to living where we do is that there are lots of very cheap options for local, chemical free produce and grain (thanks to Amish farmers especially). We just bought a 5 gallon bucket of essentially organic tomatoes this morning from our neighbor for $4 to help off set our beleaguered tomato plant’s lower yields. I think that might buy one fancy heirloom tomato in the city. If it were on the small side…

     It has been a long road home and we are still going, but for now, I am celebrating the five years of hard and wonderful work that got us here. Writing this post has actually been a great reminder that we HAVE done a lot and I am not taking a a minute of it for granted! Maybe I will kick up my heels for the afternoon in our beautiful house and actually rest a little. Well, maybe....

Saturday, July 1, 2017

What to eat?


     I was flipping through a magazine a few weeks ago and was shocked to read an article about pacific small fish populations plummeting due to overfishing and sea temperatures rising. These are fish like sardines, anchovies and herring, and they are at the bottom of a whole marine food web, so declining numbers are causing seals, pelicans, puffins etc. to starve or face adversity like never before. Crap! I thought, this is the last straw!  Earlier in the year I read an article about very high levels of arsenic in rice that sent me into a panic. All rice. Even the organic stuff. I read about it just when we started feeding our baby rice gruel exclusively. Cross that off the list. Now sardines…. Sardines are the one meat I can reliably get my picky toddler to chow down on, and given that just about every other type of fish is now considered too toxic or endangered to eat, I thought we were safe sticking with sardines. But it turns out our consumption is part of the problem. And now it just doesn’t seem right to eat them anymore… my child growing chubby and healthy, while a baby puffin slowly starves? Ack!

     The sardine dilemma is just one piece of a huge food conundrum… what are we supposed to eat anymore? The ethics of food just seems increasingly complex once you start factoring in the footprint of fossil fuels used to grow and transport it, the varying level of toxins that could be in or on it, how humanely it was raised and killed, not to mention whether it is healthy or going to give you a coronary heart attack. Or diabetes. Or celiac disease. Or just a headache standing in the grocery aisle trying to decipher a long and complicated ingredients list. What to eat and what not to eat seems to be one of the most confusing things facing us poor Americans these days.

    Strangely enough, one question that people ask Mike and I a lot when they hear about our off-the-grid lifestyle is whether we are vegetarians or not. The answer is that we are not (you, clever reader, probably figured that one out from all the pig butchering references!) I have finally come to understand the vegetarian question to mean, “you live a lifestyle deeply motivated by ethics of decreasing your fossil fuel use, so do you also base your diet on a similar set of stringent ethics, i.e. vegetariansim?” In that case, yes, we do think a lot about where our food is coming from and make choices accordingly. We aren’t alone. Just about everyone in our community eats with a different health or ethical philosophy in mind, ranging from extreme paleo-style to vegan. Some people eat meat from only local, grass-fed sources. Some people don’t eat any food that isn’t local or organic because it has a smaller footprint ecologically (even coffee and chocolate are out!) There are a range of wheat, dairy, and nut allergies that factor in too. It all makes for one heck of a confusing potluck. Increasingly I find myself bringing salads to be on the safe side of everyone’s preferences because I simply can’t remember it all. And I am not alone—I remember one potluck when someone proudly announced their “vegan burgers cooked in lard from their pigs!” before realizing their error and apologizing to the disappointed vegans.

Mike making pizza in our neighbor's wood fired oven

     I know we aren’t alone in our food confusion. Food writer Michael Pollan pins the blame on the pseudo-science of “nutritionism” (and the poor journalism, manipulative food industry and government policies that prop it up). He says we are so “anxious and confused about even the most basic questions of food and health, [that we have] a steadily diminishing ability to enjoy one of the great pleasures of life without guilt or neurosis.” Unlike the rest of the world, we  Americans don’t have the weight and guidance of a long food tradition either, the way other cultures do to simplify their choices.
     I learned this first hand years ago when I was hired to be a cook for some diplomats in Italy, along with another young Italian woman. We would make elaborate traditional meals out of dusty, old Italian cookbooks, fetching our ingredients from shops in town—fresh meat from the butcher, bread from the baker, divine pecorino cheese and olives from another shop, and all the vegetables and fruits we prepared came from the garden and trees of the estate (figs, peaches, and plums, oh my!)  Even the wine and olive oil was local and bought in bulk direct from the vineyard. If I ever tried to deviate from a recipe and improvise a bit, my Italian friend would scold me and say, “you Americans always ruin food!” She made things the way her mother did, and her grandmother, which was the way the cookbooks said to make them too. A surprising number of recipes started with melting a chunk of pancetta in the skillet before adding “tritate” (finely diced onion, celery and garlic) and seasonings to get things going. At the time I thought pancetta was a bit gross (a hunk of pork fat just melting in the pan?), but now Mike and I have come full circle to doing pretty much the same, often cooking with lard. Yet being the confused American I am—tossed this way and that by food trends over the years—I grew up on butter, then margarine, then a blend of hydrogenated oils in a little tub, then olive oil, then coconut oil to finally graduate back to pork fat from our pigs. Full circle back to good old saturated fats.

     So we are trying to take a card from the Italian’s book by eating mostly local things we grow or raise ourselves (or our Amish neighbors do). We aren’t too rigid about it though, because, let’s face it, some things are worth importing! So we do buy some specialties from the grocery store and we also have a wild card, an Amish run “Bent and Dent” store a few miles away, carrying a very random assortment of food items that are rejected for whatever reason from grocery stores and sold at a steep discount. You never know what you will find there, but fancy organic fair-trade coffee is a reliable bet. Another sector of our diet comes seasonally from our land—we have a sizable wood nettles patch and wild mushroom and wild berry harvests are frequent. This year, our community is planning on conducting a big acorn harvest experiment, to see how hard it will be and what yields we can get from the many oak trees surrounding us. Mike and I are also experimenting with growing some varieties of corn—flint corn for polenta and grits, and flour corn for pancakes and breads. Our neighbor John is experimenting with popcorn. Our friend Iuval is experimenting with growing and pressing sunflower seeds for oil. Another neighbor, Brian, has been tinkering with cured pork products and hard cheeses. Some of them are really good… I bet they would even pass muster with my Italian friend! As a community, we are slowly recreating a regional cuisine tied to the land and its seasons, and relearning a set of skills that have mostly been forgotten in recent generations.

Andrew giving a fermentation workshop on wild wines

    In that same vein, a former community member, Andrew, is visiting us now and inspiring us in the direction of fermented food and beverages, which he now makes and teaches about professionally. Fermenting things and eating them is a great way to feed your gut microbiome, which the latest health research seems to be indicating is linked to myriad health issues—as in, a robust microbiome is a good thing! So after delving in with Andrew on some recipes over the past few days in our newly finished kitchen, I thought I would share with you his kraut recipe—my answer to the question of "what to eat?" It is infinitely adaptable, something you probably can’t buy in the super market, and super delicious and good for you. Make that GREAT for you.

Sweet potatoes, cabbage, onions and kale in the garden
     We just happened to have lots of cabbage, carrots and beets ready to go in our garden, so we got to work chopping those up for this recipe, but it will work with any type of crunchy vegetable really: radishes, onions, kale or chard, cauliflower or broccoli, kohlrabi, chinese cabbage, bok choy, etc. You will also need a few spoonfuls of non-iodized salt (look for kosher salt, canning salt, or sea salt) and some jars or crocks to pack it in.


Kraut Recipe- 

1. Start by chopping or shredding up your vegetables into a big bowl. You can experiment with bigger or smaller chop size.

2. Once it is tossed together, it is time to measure and sprinkle on salt. You want just enough salt to keep certain kinds of bacteria from growing, but not enough that the good bacteria can’t grow. Andrew recommends 2 1/2 Tablespoons per 5 lb. of cabbage (or whatever).

3. Now that it is salted, squeeze the vegetables and mash them a bit until it starts looking like some liquid is coming out of them. Andrew gives it the “squeeze test” to check. If you are working with something too firm to produce liquid, like a bunch of carrots or radishes, Andrew recommends making a separate brine that he pours over the vegetables in jars. For this, he uses 1 Tbsp salt: 1 cup water.

4. The next step is packing the jars. We decided to experiment a bit with blends of different veggies, adding some fresh garlic to one jar and more beets to another. Andrew then packs quart jars full of the juicy vegetable mixes, sort of mashing them down as he fills to eliminate air space and make sure the liquid gets in everywhere.

5. To keep everything safely submerged under the brine, Andrew folds an outer cabbage leaf into a square and tucks it down on top of the rest to help keep it all from bobbing above liquid level. The liquid should cover everything. If you don’t have enough because, say you used an older, drying-out cabbage, then just make a bit of brine to make up the difference.

6. Now you can either rubber band a piece of cloth on top of the jar, or screw on a lid and place the jar in a bowl because it may overflow a bit as it gets fermenting. You should put it aside and check it maybe once a day or two to “burp it” (if you went with the lid), and check for bubbles. By day 3 or 4 you can taste it. It will likely be pretty salty and young still—crispy and mild. You can eat it at this stage, or let it go longer. Maybe by one month, you might start noticing a white scummy something on top. Don’t freak out, this is normal. Just skim it off and let it keep going, making sure that everything is still below the brine level.

     We Americans tend to be a little mold-phobic, but consider that this very vegetable ferment is what Captain Cook packed into barrels and brought to sea to feed his crew for two years. They were fine. They didn’t get survey because of it. Eastern Europeans consider any kraut younger than six months to be pretty much just coleslaw—too crispy. It softens as it ages, which is where you get the type of soft, stringy kraut often piled on brats and such. If you are the type of person for whom the very thought of some living, burping, blooming thing in a jar gives you the creeps, then you can always ask someone else who knows what they are doing to check your stuff out for you. Or you could just buy some from someone else who makes it. But at any rate, don’t short change your GI system, eat fermented vegetables! Kimchi is basically this recipe with some different things added— ginger, Korean hot pepper powder, fish sauce, and usually daikon radishes too. But I think the fun is in the experimentation, and if you make small batches, you have less to lose if something goes wrong or doesn't taste that great.

Mike making a batch of elderflower wine in our newly finished kitchen

     Happy fermenting! And if you are intrigued about trying out more fermented things, Sandor Katz is the best source for more information-- Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation, his books, are staples in our kitchen. Andrew Cobb, our friend who guided us through this recipe, ferments and brews kombucha in the Houston area and sells his delicious stuff under the name "Sipping Sister," perhaps one day available at a store near you!