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Archive for July, 2011

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. That’s the title of my latest read by Barbara Kingsolver, talented author of the widely popular novel The Poisonwood Bible.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is, in itself, a sort of bible. A food bible. It’s the true story of one family who moves from Tucson to the Appalachians, and vows to feed themselves for an entire year from what they could grow on their farm, and what they could get from other farmers within their county.

It’s important to take Animal, Vegetable, Miracle at face value. If you expect something more than it is, then you may be disappointed. It’s not a how-to manual, nor is it an exciting dramatization of events. It’s not particularly funny, and it doesn’t explain every aspect of farm life, though it does do quite a thorough job with some of those aspects.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is simply one woman’s explanation of why she and her family decided to become locavores, and her story of how they went about it.

The pros of this book:

It is very well written. Many reviews of this book complain that Kingsolver is “preachy,” and beats her food principles into your head mercilessly. I can understand this concern, but I don’t agree. Kingsolver reiterates her main point many times, but always in the context of the topic she is discussing at the time. Her main point being? Namely, eat local, because a lot of fossil fuels are burned in order to transport food unnecessarily; and because foods that are shipped are bred for shape and toughness, not for flavor; and because knowing, in the most direct way possible, where your food comes from, is the surest way to make good choices toward living a healthier lifestyle.

At least, that’s what I got out of it.

But Kingsolver delves into so much more. She investigates the concept of food culture, and the fact that America’s food culture seems to be based on fast food and anything processed. She explains why processed foods make people overweight, even while they are less nutritious—because they consist of empty calories, making us fat without providing enough of the nutrients we need.

And honestly, how many times a week does the average person you know eat vegetables? That leaf of iceberg on your cheeseburger doesn’t count; nor do those french fries. I can remember a time, really not more than a year ago, when I could go for several days straight without eating any fruits or veggies. I only realized this because I would get a weird craving for a cucumber or an apple, or something of that nutritional caliber. And I know I’m not the only one who can manage to feed myself for a week without stopping to make sure something I ate was fresh, or even something that used to be fresh, once upon a time. The thought of how I was feeding myself, and how millions of others feed themselves, is really scary.

Back to the book, though. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle offers a great deal to think about. Kingsolver formats the book by dividing it into chapters based on the consecutive months of a year, describing the foods that were available and in season throughout. This concept of “in season” foods was, sadly, a foreign one to me. Before picking up this book, I never in my wildest imagination would have been able to tell you when asparagus grows and can be harvested. But Kingsolver makes this one easy to remember by starting off her book with this very first vegetable of spring.

Kingsolver and her co-author and husband, Steven L. Hopp, explain some of the stickier issues concerning food. Why not eating locally is highly unsustainable; why GM foods are impractical, and even bad in the hands of producers like Monsanto. Why genetic diversity in food sources is important, and how shockingly streamlined our food variety has become. They work together to link the over-busy, detached, self-gratifying mindset of our modern lifestyle with our bad food choices as a culture. I can’t even begin to list all the interesting topics they have touched upon and explained at length.

Additionally, Kingsolver’s daughter, Camille, contributes her own anecdotal chapters to the story, offering a much more personal and down to earth view of the trials and joys of one family feeding themselves. But the best part is that she provides recipes of many of the dishes that are discussed in the main part of the text. I have tried a few of the recipes, and earmarked several for future reference. All I can say about that is: just wait till I get my hands on some pumpkins this fall.

The only real criticism I have of this book is Kingsolver’s stance on tobacco farmers. She acknowledges that cigarettes are bad for you, but goes on to say that, as U.S. tobacco crops are dying off due to lack of federal financial support, the poor tobacco farmers are going out of business. Apparently, the government has been helping tobacco farmers “stay on their family farms” as recently as 2005, when the price supports were ended. Kingsolver’s idea is that we, as produce consumers, should be willing to pay more for our produce in order for those tobacco farmers to figure out what else they can grow in order to remain farmers. Except, she puts it like this: “If people out in the world were irate enough about the human damage of tobacco, why wouldn’t they care enough—and pay enough—to cover the costs of growing vegetables?”

Um, yeah. Now I can understand that complaint about preachiness. Most of us are just trying to get by on ramen noodles and frozen veggies, and Kingsolver thinks we should help subsidize anyone who has been making their living off of growing tobacco until now. Not exactly the shining moment of the book, in my eyes. I understand that farming is a way of life that needs to be protected, but I also believe that there are millions of people who have had to adjust their professional lives to accommodate growing and diminishing demands from consumers—or, as Kingsolver puts it, “people out in the world.” I’m pretty sure the tobacco farmers will figure out what to do with their energy, much like the other millions of people who have lost their livelihood in recent times.

That part of the book, however, represents a mere two pages among 350 pages of otherwise wonderful and informative reading. I highly recommend this book to anyone. It will teach you things that you never knew you didn’t know about. It will open doors and will, hopefully, convince you to start thinking more about where your food comes from, and why it should come from places close by. I am sure to keep this book around as my wealth of food knowledge grows and I become more adept at feeding myself. There is so much crammed into this one book that I simply cannot absorb it all in one reading.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

“Heirloom vegetables are irresistible, not just for the poetry in their names but because these titles stand for real stories. Vegetables acquire histories when they are saved as seeds for many generations, carefully maintained and passed by hand from one gardener to another.” ~p.46

“In just a few decades the out-of-season vegetable moved from novelty status to such an ordinary item, most North Americans now don’t know what out-of-season means.” ~p.48

“Bizarre as it seems, we’ve accepted a tradeoff that amounts to: ‘give me every vegetable in every season, even if it tastes like a cardboard picture of its former self.;” ~p. 55

“Routines save time, and tempers.” ~p. 128

“Physicians will tell you, the great majority of lactose-intolerant Americans don’t even know it. They just keep drinking milk, and having stomachaches.” ~p. 138

“The Roman Empire grew fat on the fruits of huge, corporate, slave-driven agricultural operations, to the near exclusion of any small farms by the end of the era. But when Rome crashed and burned, its urbanized citizenry scurried out to every nook and cranny of Italy’s mountains and valleys, returning once again to the work of feeding themselves and their families. They’re still doing it, famously, to this day.” ~p. 178

“Eaters must understand, how we eat determines how the world is used.” ~p. 211

“Food is not a product but a process, and it never sleeps.” ~p. 270

“Value is not made of money, but a tender balance of expectation and longing.” ~p. 287

“Most of us agree to put away our sandals and bikinis when the leaves start to turn, even if they’re our favorite clothes. We can learn to apply similar practicality to our foods.” ~p. 311

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I went by the State Fairgrounds this morning to drop off my drawing for entry into the non-professional art exhibition. After several hours of additional work, my drawing is looking considerably different than it did just one week ago…

I’m pretty happy with the results, though as usual I feel that the drawing is far from being truly finished.

While at the fairgrounds, I took the time to nose around and see what preparations were underway for the big opening this Friday.

Honestly, there’s a ton of work to be done.

Heads will roll.

At least there's no line at the Pork Tent.

The calm before the swine.

These guys are ready.

 

The fair is a veritable smorgasbord for ferals.

A week from now, the country’s sixth oldest fair will be hosting nearly 90,000 guests a day. So get a good look at those empty streets while you still can…

 

 

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We’ve given away dozens of tomatoes in the past week. Still, our kitchen is piling up with these overripe fruits. We needed a tasty solution…

One of my favorite parts of Thanksgiving is the dish my dad always prepares, which we have come to call Mexicali corn. It’s a fairly simple dish, and my dad has streamlined it to the point where it consists of a mere two ingredients, combined in a crock pot and easily transported to any family affair. With a jar of salsa and a large bag of (thawed) frozen corn kernels, you can make a delicious and healthy dish that is extremely cost effective. If you want to go for a meal that’s even more economical, try using a can of diced tomatoes in place of the salsa. It’s all delicious.

For the purpose of using up some of our garden goodies, I decided to attempt an all-fresh version from scratch.

First, I prepared my precious handful of black beans that I lovingly harvested from the garden. Fortunately, I had the good coincidence to come across a blog earlier today which proved to be an important part of my meal process. Apparently, legumes contain a toxin called phytohaemagglutinin. Kidney beans have the highest concentration; so high that eating only five improperly cooked kidney beans can cause poisoning! Eek! Black beans have a considerably less amount, but I didn’t want to take any chances. A crock pot does not get nearly hot enough to remove the toxins, and in the case of kidney beans can actually increase the potency of the toxin fivefold.

Who knew?

This is a pretty picture I found of the protein structure of one of the components of the toxin.

Anyway, it’s pretty simple to rid the beans of toxins. Just soak the beans for a few hours (at least five for kidneys), rinse, then boil them for ten minutes, and rinse again.

While my black beans were soaking, I also soaked six ears of fresh corn in cold water. I then used a knife to carefully cut the kernels from the cobs.

If you are skilled, you should be able to get about a cup of kernels from each ear. I got about five cups from my six ears.

I also chopped up a red onion from my cousin’s garden.

*tear*

I used almost 1/4 cup of the diced onion, plus 1 teaspoon each of garlic salt and chili powder, and mixed it all together in the crockpot.

Oops! Don’t forget some diced ‘maters.

Please, take some home with you!

If you are careful to save the juice from both the corn and the tomatoes, there will be plenty of liquid to stew in the pot, as you can see:

So,

5-6 cups corn kernels

1-2 cups black beans, boiled for ten minutes

1/4 cup diced onions

3-4 cups diced tomatoes

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon garlic salt

Mix in crockpot and heat on high for about 3 hours….

The result?

Deliciousness.

I can’t say my results are any better than my dad’s, though. 🙂

Yummmm.

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I’m an extraordinarily lucky girl, you know.

Sometimes, all I have to do is wish for something…

…and it appears!

POOF!

I must have a Fairy Godmother, or something.

Now, if you’ll excuse me…

I’ve got some more wishes to make.

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I have finally finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (review to come soon), and I’m excited to get to move on to some lighter reading. And since one good obsession deserves another, I’m moving from food and farming to…kitties!

I claimed an old paperback copy of Tailchaser’s Song that I found mainly because I was highly amused by the idea of a novel about cats. I didn’t realize I was getting myself into something so serious. Turns out Tailchaser has quite the fan club, and the novel itself is brimming with invented cat mythology, cat language, cat geography,  cat bravado, and funny cat names. It is rumored that it is being made into an animated film. It will be interesting to compare Tailchaser’s Song with Watership Down, which is the only other fictional novel I have read thus far in 2011.

I haven’t gotten into the meat of the story yet (still just starting on the introduction), but I wanted to share a poem from the very first pages of the book that I thought was clever, and indicative of all the things that cat-lovers love about cats.

This poem is written by an 18th century poet named Christopher Smart. Smart reportedly spent a substantial amount of his life in an asylum, after which he spent his last days in debtor’s prison. He wrote under names such as Kitty Smart, Mrs. Mary Midnight, and Ebenezer Pentweazle. This is his tribute to cats:

For I will consider my cat…

For at the first glance of the glory of God

            in the East he worships in his way.

For this is done by wreathing his body seven

            times around with elegant quickness…

For having done duty and received blessing

            he begins to consider himself.

For this he performs in ten degrees.

For first he looks upon his fore-paws to see

            if they are clean.

For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.

For thirdly he works it upon the stretch with

            the fore-paws extended.

For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.

For fifthly he washes himself.

For sixthly he rolls upon wash.

For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may

            not be interrupted on the beat.

For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.

For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.

For tenthly he goes in quest of food…

For when his day’s work is done his business

            more properly begins.

For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night

            against the adversary.

For he counteracts the powers of darkness by

            his electrical skin and glaring eyes.

For he counteracts the Devil, who is death,

            by brisking about the life.

For in his morning orisons he loves the sun

            and the sun loves him.

For he is of the tribe of Tiger.

For Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel

            Tiger…

For there is nothing sweeter than his peace

            when at rest.

For there is nothing brisker than his life

            when in motion

For God has blessed him in the variety of

            his movements…

For he can tread to all the measures upon the music…

—Christopher Smart

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Bebes

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I harvested thirteen tomatoes today. Even so, I felt a little sad because each day I harvest is one day closer to the end of summer, and the end of gardening.

But alas, I am still learning. What I have found out is that, if you’re crafty, you can plant a garden not once, but twice in one year! Typically, about six to eight weeks before the first expected frost, gardeners start planting their cool-season crops. Anything that grows underground is fair game, as well as greens, broccoli, and cauliflower.

Hot diggity.

Now I’m eyeing my waning garden with a critical eye, taking note of where exactly I can make room for my new seedlings in late August. I’m looking forward to trying lettuce again, and I haven’t had a fresh carrot all year. I might even plant some beets for my sweetie.

(“Beets for my sweetie!”)

I might even grow and eat some crazy things I’ve never had before, like chard, and arugula.

With all this new green activity, I should manage to stay busy right up until November, when it will be time to start ordering seed catalogues and getting extravagant ideas.

Not only that, but I’ve had a few revelations about my yard that have got me started thinking about next year…

This is a picture of the unused portion of our driveway (ignore the ridiculously magnificent garden on the other side of the fence):

As you can tell by the shade of the grass, that’s basically 100 feet of landing strip for sunlight. And, silly me, I tucked my little garden bed away around the back corner of the house. It still gets enough sun to grow tomatoes and a plethora of sun-loving flowers, but it doesn’t get nearly as much direct sun as the Landing Strip. Hmmm, there’s enough space there for 16 more garden beds!

But, I do like to try to keep things manageable, so I might try for two, maybe three more beds next year.

Actually, make that this year. If I get my new beds built this fall, I can fill them with leaves and compost and get a head start on enriching my garden soil.

See, I’m starting to catch on to this whole gardening thing.

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Just six more days til my State Fair art contest entries are due. As usual, the deadline has sneaked up on me and I feel totally unprepared. I did get one of my photos printed and sent to me, but, alas, I am never satisfied with the way that digital prints look. Digital photography is really best viewed in a digital format, not on paper. And since nothing can compare with the beauty of a real silver halide print, I have decided to forego entering the photography exhibit this year and plan to cook up some good old analog images by the time next year rolls around. Besides, it’s been far too long since I’ve enjoyed the quiet cave-like feel of a dark room.

Nevertheless, I still want to enter something, considering that I’ve paid the entry fee already, so I’ve decided this is the perfect motivation to finally finish one of my long lost drawings from three years ago. I have a long way to go before the final product is ready to be revealed, but I wanted to share a few details in process…

It’s been a while since I’ve sat down to spend a substantial amount of time on any one drawing. I always gravitate toward the same set-up when working on an art project, and have been doing so since before I can remember. Basically, I sit in the middle of the floor and spread everything out around me. Only difference now is that my mom’s not around to make me clean it up before I go to bed.

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As a wildlife rehabilitation volunteer, I’ve had the very unique opportunity to foster two different litters of orphaned opossums at my home over the past year. Even though I didn’t need any more reasons to love opossums, the amount of fascinating things I have learned through my experience has given me a deeper respect and appreciation for one of Earth’s most unique creatures.

Here are ten of many reasons why everyone should love a ‘possum.

1. They are All-American. It doesn’t get more American than opossums. They are the only modern marsupial native to North America. Not only that, but they’ve been around since the time of the dinosaurs. Nowadays, while Europeans can only marvel at and adore their captive opossum specimens like the famous Heidi of Germany, we can boast the privilege of seeing them nearly every evening picking through our trashca—er, in their natural habitat.

2. Feats of birthing. When opossum babies are born they are about the size of the tip of an eraser. They are basically little embryos! Even as such, the tiny creatures have to somehow make their way, unaided, up their mother’s belly and into her pouch. Try accomplishing that 13 days after you are conceived.

3. They have lots of teeth. That ain’t no rodent; opossums have more teeth than any other land mammal—50! This makes for an impressive display when an adult opossum feels endangered. In reality, the opossum is pretty defenseless, and would rather play dead than take on an attacker. I wouldn’t recommend getting bitten by one, but they aren’t as scary as they pretend to be. Those 50 teeth are great for eating, which opossums are terribly fond of. They take the term “omnivore” to the next level, feasting on anything from coffee grounds to ground snakes, and everything in between. They eat a great deal of pests such as snails, slugs, rats, and carrion. There have been studies done that suggest that declining opossum population are partly responsible for an increase in lyme disease infection among humans. Opossums are so good at grooming themselves and consuming the ticks they find, that they can actually help prevent the spread of lyme disease.

4. They get a clean bill of health. It is thought that the low body temperature of opossums is what gives them their unique ability to thwart off viruses. Opossums very rarely catch any form of contagious disease, including rabies. So of all the wild animals that you could have hanging out in your yard, opossums are likely to be the cleanest of them all by far.

5. They are agile. With the help of their prehensile tails and their four little “hands,” opossums can get around surprisingly well. They have opposable thumbs on their front and hind feet, which not even humans have.

6. They are cute as a bug! I think baby opossums look like Mickey Mouse. Even if you disagree, you can’t resist their beady little eyes, crinkly soft black ears, and tiny hands that make them look like they are wearing gloves with the fingertips cut off!

7. They are (relatively) smart. In certain types of intelligence tests, opossums score higher than dogs. Despite their tiny brains, they are more on par with a pig in the smarts department.

8. They are quiet and unobtrusive. Unless you have a chicken coop, or leave your garbage out at night, you probably won’t even notice that opossums are experts at cohabiting with humans. They are silent, slow, gentle creatures of the night who are just looking for a quick bite to eat before they move on. Unlike other “nuisance” wildlife, you probably won’t ever find an opossum nesting in your attic or setting up camp in the walls of your home. You let opossums be, and they will just be. No need to disturb them.

9. Cats are cool with them. I’ve never met a cat who had a problem with an opossum. In fact, they don’t ever seem to notice each other much at all. My cats express a mild interest in the babies that I foster, but after a few sniffs they seem to know that it’s nothing to fear or hunger for. It’s an odd sort of acquaintance, but it seems to work out well for both species.

10. Opossums are extremely adaptable. You could say that the definition of a highly evolved animal is its ability to adapt to its situation. It’s simply a matter of natural selection, and opossums are top-notch at figuring out how to cope. There are few wild animals who possess the ability to survive, even flourish, among humans in cities. Opossums are as comfortable in the alleys among high-rise apartments as they are in secluded forests and wetlands. Nobody in America is deprived of the opportunity to know the opossum in all his glory. Opossums are truly remarkable creatures.

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If you’ve been to google today, you may have noticed the funny little figure above the search bar. And if your browser is hip enough, you may have seen the funny little figure slowly rotating. This nifty feat of programming is google’s homage to Alexander Calder, who was born today 113 years ago.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking, “Oh yeah, Calder, the guy who makes those mobiles. Big deal, that is so Art History 101.”

The fact is, I first became familiar with some of Calder’s works when I was ten years old, and wasn’t terribly impressed at the time. It’s easy to take for granted the fact that someone, somewhere, actually had to invent the mobile. What did babies do before the early 20th century? But now I know, with no small amount of humility, that Calder was making kinetic sculptures by the time he was nine. Take that, pompous fifth-graders everywhere!

Calder is one of those artists that I’ve never really taken the time to get to know, but whose artwork is strangely, almost subconsciously influential to me (along with most Modern and Post-modern artists of all types). Far beyond the invention of the tranquil, slowly spinning mobiles that hang in the stairwells and lobbies of all the most prestigious art museums, Calder was prolific and whimsical in ways that most people haven’t had the opportunity to appreciate.

Take, for example, these Calder drawings:

So simple and striking that you probably think your children could have made it. But your children didn’t, and neither did you—Calder did, and now he’s hugely famous.

I, for one, think they are beautiful, even in their apparent simplicity. Especially in their apparent simplicity.

Calder was a linear type of guy, which I really dig. Even when making sculptures out or wire and steel, he was essentially just drawing in three dimensions. He had a thing for fish..

…and faces…

Until more recently Calder was lesser known for his jewelry. You had to be a real art insider to know enough to appreciate the inexpensive pieces that Calder sold or gave away to family and friends. Most of his jewelry was exceedingly simple in process, made simply by twisting and bending wire into complicated shapes and curlicues. No welding or soldering necessary in Calder’s world.

Some of his more elaborate pieces are downright comical, which is exactly what Calder hoped for.

Only Anjelica Huston can pull off a piece like that and still look perfectly dignified.

Above all, it is Calder’s attitude as an artist that appeals to me the most. Calder wanted to make people smile. Calder didn’t want his jewlery ever to be mass produced, because to him the artistic process and the hands-on creation by the artist were paramount. Calder wanted to find value and make beautiful things out of scraps and bits that others thought ugly. Calder emerged way before his time, influencing many of the artists of the ’60s, but really getting his creative start way before any of the other Modernists.

Calder, you are an inspiration, and a hidden gem among the run-of-the-mill Art History 101 crowd. I hope this blog gives you a little bit more of the credit that is due to you, because you are fantastic. Happy 113th Birthday.

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