Monday, April 30, 2007

A completed challenge, and a new personal one

Well: The Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge is over, and I'm kind of glad, really, because we eat approximately 75 percent local all the time, and it's kind of nice not to have to think too hard about that remaining 25 percent. The temptation is to cook something really spectacularly unlocal tonight as a reminder of all the wonders the modern world makes available to us (at the expense of petroleum usage and general wastefulness), but actually I'm just going to step outside of the frugal part of the challenge by heating up some local smoked brisket (a special treat at about $8 a pound). There's no need to range far afield on the veggies, either--I'm thinking slaw and sweet potatoes.

At any rate, here's how we wrapped up the week:

Breakfast yesterday was my Nana's rice pudding, made the previous night with Carolina Gold rice, South Carolina milk, and (yes) a dab of white sugar. Soooooo good. For those who didn't write the recipe down last time I mentioned it, that's:

Mix together 1 qt. milk, 6 Tbs. sugar, and 4 Tbs. rice. Bake at 325 degrees F for 3 hours. Do not be alarmed at caramelizing/ballooning action.

If all recipes were that simple, people might actually cook! Heh.

At dinnertime, we rounded out the challenge with a quiche filled with eggs, milk, a little bacon, purple sprouting broccoli, and garlic-basil goat cheese. I had never put soft goat cheese in a quiche before, and OHMYGOD it's the best thing ever.

So now that it's all over, the s.o. and I are talking about setting out a new challenge for ourselves. We thought of it when I was making the rice pudding. Before Nana died, she compiled a cookbook of family recipes for all us grandkids. Many of the recipes in it are as familiar as the back of my hand (her pie crust, which I use more than weekly; the abovementioned rice pudding). Others I know, but it's been years since I tasted them (broccoli salad, strips-of-beef casserole). Still others are downright weird--is that WINE I see listed as an ingredient in zucchini cake? And what exactly is a potato chip cookie like? Have I eaten that, at some Christmas past?

We are going to make them all. All 30 of them--or rather, 28, since we've just made the pie crust and the rice pudding. No time frame is imposed, but I'm hoping we can knock it all out in a couple of months. All mentions of "oleo" will be reinterpreted as "butter" (this, at the insistence of both of us). All "Crisco" will be read as "organic palm oil" (a very good substitute, if I do say so myself, and full of healthy monounsaturated fats). Brazen usages of corn syrup, cream, and MSG-laced chicken noodle soup mix will be replicated faithfully.

Hmm. I can see already that I am going to have to buy some sour cream.

We will report on our progress. In the meantime, does anyone know the best way to grind raisins?

Saturday, April 28, 2007

You sank my battleship!

So we were doing really well at the Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge, and then...

What to my wondering eyes did appear at the farmers' market, but small $5 bowls of tiny unsprayed strawberries, grown by my Hmong friends!

I bought two bowls. I am weak.

This doesn't cause us to exceed our monetary limit for the week. But I still feel that I'm doing something most people couldn't do. See, every day I cook in a super-frugal way that, realistically speaking, is not practical for most working people. For example, last night I dug two chicken breasts out of the deep freeze (unusually cheap because they were part of an unneeded rooster, which we had previously parceled out into several other meals), thawed some pureed tomatoes from last summer's garden, simmered it all with onions and garlic and a bit of frozen basil, and at the last minute tossed in a few handfuls of freshly homemade egg tagliatelle. Who does that?! Well, a few of us do. But not most folks. Not everyone is privileged enough to work from home and be able to intersperse cooking with typing.

Most of our meals cost very little. This leaves us room for occasional wild splurges...such as $10 worth of strawberries at a time. I love that, and I think it's very important to my quality of life, but I don't know if it proves anything about whether "normal" people can eat locally on a budget.

Your thoughts?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The rose of neglect

I've never been able to figure out why roses are supposed to be hard to grow. Yes, black spot disfigures their leaves. Yes, aphids descend on them. But they are definitely not the high-maintenance princesses they are made out to be. They are a lot of joy for a very little effort.

I do absolutely nothing for my roses. I think the s.o. might occasionally throw some fertilizer on them. But they all seem to do pretty well. I have a Don Juan, a Yellow Rose of Texas, and a Volkswagen-sized bush of stunning hot-pink roses that came with the house. I plan on planting more because they are such a pleasure.

This rose, a Cardinal de Richelieu, is in a particularly awful spot--a patch of unforgiving crusty silt, fire-ant-invaded, unmulched, baking in the sun on the south side of the house. We are in a drought, and this is the area we mostly reserve for prickly pear cacti, rosemary bushes, and ornamental banana plants. But the rose thrives anyway. It has put on about 20 buds this spring--twice as many as last year--even though I think I forgot to prune it. I don't think the picture captures its deep velvety purple color. It definitely doesn't capture its alluring grapey smell.

The only thing I can figure that this rose really has going for it is deep roots. It was one of the very first things I planted during our first spring here, in 2003. It's my favorite rose.

Cream of Unbought Merchandise

Week two of our tiny nascent farmers' market has come and gone, and we're really happy with the way it's going. There are only a few vendors, and there aren't a huge numbers of customers, either. But there are customers--and they buy very enthusiastically. And thanks to L2's husband, we're getting some free local newspaper coverage. We can't wait to see how things shape up as tomato season kicks in.

Yesterday as we were packing up our tent and table, I joked to the s.o. that we were having "Cream of Unbought Merchandise" for dinner. And that's sort of what we had. There was a gorgeous bunch of chard that hadn't sold, so I chopped it up and sautéed it in olive oil. I thawed a few slices of our home-brined ham, and I poached two duck eggs to serve on the greens. The total cost is extremely hard to judge, but let's estimate 1/2 lb. @ $3.50/lb. for the ham (the pork was only $1.50 per pound in its raw state, but the brining ingredients--including a veritable sea of hard cider--increase its cost considerably), $2 for the chard, and 50 cents for the duck eggs.

This morning, already kind of tired of cornmeal products, I opted to make a batch of whole-wheat pancakes. I used locally milled spring wheat flour, chicken eggs, raw milk soured with a dash of vinegar, honey, and leaveners. I served it with about a quarter-cup of south Georgia-made fruit syrup, which, at $4.50 per smallish bottle, might have cost more than the pancakes. (I think we used about a sixth of the bottle.) In retrospect, I could have used my own jam and been much more frugal.

I'm wearied by all the calculations I'd have to do to figure out an actual price for the 'cakes, especially because I only used about a third of the batter today (the rest is in the fridge for tomorrow morning). And not all of what I used was consumed by humans; nearly half went to our dogs, who are gradually being switched over to a home-cooked diet.* So the math is beyond me. After all, I am only on my first cup of coffee.

Oh! Coffee. Whatever that total might have been, let's add $.50 to it.

By the way, I trust you all remember that I am also blogging about this challenge elsewhere?


* Is anyone else considering home-cooking for their dogs? The recent contamination issues have been a big part of our decision, although to be honest, I've been uncomfortable with the filth that goes into dog food for a very long time. So this was more of a catalyst. We've ordered a few of the top books on the subject (Dr. Pitcairn's, etc.), have done a ton of internet research, and are planning a consultation with our vet just to be sure we're doing it right. From what I can gather, dogs mostly eat like people on the Zone Diet. They get protein and carbs and veggies--they are true omnivores.

I think home-cooking for pets might be unwieldy for a lot of people, but considering the way we cook and eat, it seems like a good fit for us. It doesn't really add any work to my day to put some stew in the crockpot and some rice in the rice cooker. And there are a lot of things we can share with them...we just have to be careful about certain ingredients they mustn't have, such as onions and raisins.

Dog pancakes for everyone!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

My PELC so far

I'm back! And I'm exhausted. Stew and I are both wondering why our backs hurt so much--we spent much of the weekend traipsing around farms, but it's not as though there was heavy lifting involved...unless maybe you count our cooler.

The cute baby animal quotient on the farm tour was absolutely through the roof. And as if that wasn't reason enough to attend, I was able to buy a rather stunning amount of cow and sheep cheese, plus a pound of whey-fed pork breakfast sausage. (We have pork here, yes, but I haven't managed to make any breakfast sausage yet this year--just Italian sausage. Things are so hectic that it may be a while before I can set aside more time for charcuterie.)

For the Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge, I'm doing what I did during my first Eat Local Challenge in 2005: declaring that "local" is wherever I am or have been during the normal course of my week. So some of my Georgia-grown stuff ended up in Stew's fridge, and some of the North Carolinian goodies I picked up have already made it into my home cooking. The point is that I was actually on the farm where these things were produced. You know--"Know the Farmer," etc.

Yesterday Stew and I kicked off the Challenge with a brunch of asparagus omelettes and cornbread. In the afternoon we went to Locopops for two paletas apiece (kind of a PELC budget-breaker, even though the popsicles are less than two dollars each). And at dinner, Stew's pupusas and curtido (the Salvadoran kind) were stunning. She was totally winging it--had never made them before in her life--but worked some kind of magic on the simple ingredients. We also served some locally made Mexican chicken sausage.

We came out at $13 apiece and panicked (we're aiming for around $10 per person per day). But then we remembered that there were a ton of leftovers that would end up as part of the next day's food. Stew has half a loaf of cornbread socked away, and she sent me home with half of the sausage, three pupusas, and about a third of the curtido. That brought us down to $9.30 apiece, which was right in line with our ambitions. And there's more: When I left yesterday evening, she was using the caramelized pan juices from the sausage to make a rich, delicious gravy. Thrifty!

This morning I woke up wanting Kashi Strawberry Fields cereal in the worst way, partly because it was something I couldn't have, but partly because I happen to possess a gallon of really gorgeous raw milk from just over the border in South Carolina (it's illegal to sell raw milk in Georgia, so we are having it brought in via a buying club). The s.o. tasted the milk side-by-side with grocery store milk and said there was no comparison: "It's like Maker's Mark next to Old Granddad," he quipped. I agree. I had some of the cream from the top in my morning coffee, and it's outrageously delicious, very meadow-y and cow-y. It also costs only $4.75 a gallon, which is totally in line with grocery milk prices right now.

Since I wasn't allowed to have my Strawberry Fields, I cooked up some locally milled grits ($4.50 per 2-lb. bag, and you only use a half-cup per two servings, so impossibly cheap...will have to weigh it later for an exact cost) and then added $.90 worth of basil-and-garlic chevre from the blinged-out goats of Celebrity Dairy. (For the record, in case anyone is concerned about our double-dipping of Georgia and North Carolina products, we can get chevre made about 30 minutes from my house.) Breakfast for two, decadent and cheap!

Lunch will be leftovers...which I am very much looking forward to. So far so good on the PELC.

Monday, April 23, 2007


Stew here! I am hijacking this blog because Jamie left herself signed in on my computer. He he he he he he he he he.

PELC on the road!

My dog pal Silver and I are at Stew's place in North Carolina, and the humans among us have embarked on our first day of the Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge. We've also been on several local farm tours this weekend (this was my favorite), and we've been planting seedlings in Stew's garden. What a blast!

I'll be home tomorrow, and your regular 10 Signs programming will resume...

Friday, April 20, 2007

Sorry so slack...

...but I've had all kinds of administrative stuff that had to be done this week. Whole days disappeared without my permission.

But I'm off to Jenny's in the morning--woo hoo! I may write from there if I have a chance.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Disaster mitigation

Total chick death toll: 5. All have been bantams except one.

I called McMurray Hatcheries this morning, and the woman I talked to said that because of changes in plane schedules, not to mention horrible weather, a lot of chicks are getting chilled in transit and coming down with pneumonia. "It's always pneumonia when this happens," she said. She was really helpful. I am supposed to call again tomorrow morning to update her on our progress.

The chicks are getting Terramycin* in their sugar water for the next five days. They'll be getting some PediaLyte mixed in there, too. The remaining peeps look pretty strong, and I have high hopes for them all.

* I am very much against using antibiotics prophylactically the way many in the livestock industry do. But when it comes to actual illness, the test I use is this: Would I take antibiotics if it were me? Most of the time, the answer is no--in fact, I can't remember the last time I actually filled a prescription for antibiotics. But in the case of pneumonia, I'd be insane not to say yes.

Monday, April 16, 2007

PELC alert!

Next week is the Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge, a one-week experiment in which participants try to answer the question of whether eating local foods is really possible on a typical American budget.

Stew and I will be kicking off the week while I'm visiting her in North Carolina. Then the s.o. and I will continue when I get home on Tuesday.

Our budget goal will be $144 for the week, which is supposedly what the average family of two or more with two wage earners spends on food. It's basically $20 a day, which may be easy or hard, depending on what we want to eat!

Our definition of "local," for the purposes of this challenge, will be a 200-mile radius. We'll need a few geographical exemptions (coffee, chocolate, lemons, spices, and possibly oil/butter), but the cost of these items will still be included in our weekly total. And we'll do our best to reduce the impact of those exemptions, choosing organic fairtrade coffee, etc.

It's all too tempting to say a lot of what we eat is "free"--after all, we produce our own eggs and most of our own vegetables. But we know better than anyone that it's not free! We'll charge ourselves fair market value, i.e., what we'd charge for it at the farmers' market.

The biggest challenge: No white sugar for a week. I keep telling myself that it's only a week.

And of course, I'll report on the PELC here and on the Eat Local Challenge site. Anyone else want to join in?


The first shipment of our baby chicks arrived this morning. This is the group from McMurray; we're expecting our Cackle order in a day or two.

Last year our McMurray order was fulfilled perfectly and arrived in perky condition, so I wasn't quite prepared for this year's bunch. One (I think a Black Star or a Barred Rock) died in transit. Two (one each of our beloved Mille Fleur and Porcelain bantams) look really sickly and can't seem to stay standing. One Red Star has a crooked neck, and the s.o. says he thought he saw a chick with an eye problem, but I can't find it in all the kerfuffle.

I'm not sure they sent us the right Brahmas, although, to be honest, I'm having a heck of a time matching the catalog pictures to the chicks (I do know that we have the correct number of feather-footed beings in there). And to top it all off, instead of one bonus rare chick, we have eight extra yellow Easter chicks. None of the rare chicks look like that. I'm wondering if they are White Leghorns or Cornish crosses or something similarly industrial-strength.

Somebody's first day on the chick-packing line, maybe?

To be fair, they also noted on the page that they had added one free extra chick each of Dark Cornish, Dark Brahma, Light Brahma, and Black Langshan, which they appear to have done (subject to the Brahmas turning out to be what they are supposed to be). That's awesome--you all know how we love our Asian feather-footed chix around here.

Chaos reigns! Well, at least most of them look happy and healthy.


The Porcelain has died. The Mille Fleur is still holding steady, although not able to get on its feet. :-(


Now the Mille Fleur has died as well, despite our efforts to save it. Yes, McMurray will replace them, but I'm still awfully sad to have lost them.

In other news, I noticed a smudged stamp on the invoice that says (I think) "RED STAR MALES HAVE BEEN ADDED FOR WARMTH." So that's what the yellow Easter chicks are. We had already bought Dark Cornish birds for meat, but I guess now we'll be having a lot more chicken dinners this year!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Mixed media

I have a theory about Netflix: It's very important to organize your queue so that at any given time, you have two very different sorts of movies in hand. The worst thing you can do is end up with, say, two very depressing dramas or two collections of similar TV episodes. If you do that, you'll inevitably find that you are not in the mood to watch what you've got--but of course, you can't get anything new until you return them. It's what I call a Netflix Blockade.

(Yes, I know one could simply return the offending movies without watching them, but I can't make myself do it. It seems wasteful.)

For several weeks I have been locked in a particularly bad Netflix Blockade: Two serious, potentially rage-inducing documentaries. One, The Future of Food, I still haven't forced myself to watch. J recommended it to me, and I know I very much need to see it, but I can't quite commit to it just yet because I have a pretty good idea how it will make me feel.

The other, though, I finally watched this morning: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. It was recommended to me a long, long time ago by someone I interviewed for a business article, and over time it filtered to the top of my queue. It was fantastic and infuriating. I guess before I watched it, I never fully understood the shell game Enron played with the California utilities during the power-grid crunch...or, for that matter, what exactly was wrong with the way the company did its accounting. Now I know, and I'm pissed. Better late than never! Everyone should watch this movie.

And now I can watch The Devil Wears Prada!

Meanwhile, I've been reading. I've just finished Bill Buford's Heat, which I absofreakinglutely loved. For those who haven't heard of it (I hadn't, before I miraculously discovered it on the New Arrivals shelf of our tiny local library), it's a memoir about a writer who apprentices in Mario Batali's restaurant Babbo, then goes on to apprentice with all the people Batali apprenticed with. It reconfirmed for me that I would hate working in a restaurant kitchen (that's not cooking!!!), but it also hit all the right notes about the importance of small, local, artisanal food production.

Now I am embroiled in Beryl Bainbridge's The Bottle Factory Outing, a novel with (I'm guessing) all the potential for hilarious trainwreckiness.

For me, reading and movie-watching are like all my other leisure pursuits. I'm either full-speed ahead, staying up late and immersing myself in them; or I can't go anywhere near them for weeks at a time. Knitting's that way, too. Right now I can feel a rush of knitting coming on, but I haven't quite gotten there because I'm way too busy.

And, on that note, I'd better go plant some more vegetables, if the rain will hold off. Not that I have anything bad to say about rain--we need it!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Opening day at the farmers' market?

Maybe. Maybe not. Look at this weather report for a nearby town and tell me what you think. We have a picnic shelter, but it looks like it'll be absolutely pouring between 4 and 7 p.m. I wouldn't go to a farmers' market in that kind of weather!

I think I'll call my vendors and see what they think...


Yep, we're postponing until next week. Thunderstorms are just not conducive to hanging out in the park! It's just as well, really--the freeze hurt most of our vendors way worse than it hurt us. This is going to be an interesting spring.

On the bright side, our friends are now eating free slices of rhubarb pie. :-)

Monday, April 09, 2007

Better weather on its way

Well. They say our cold snap is over--the low will be 37 tonight, and after that, it isn't supposed to dip below the 40s again. Thank goodness.

I managed to save plants I thought I'd never manage to save. We rescued almost all of our peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, and eggplants, and the tender young fennel is unharmed. The zucchini made it through, too. On the other hand, I am going to have to replant a few cukes, and I am going to have to reorder violet podded beans altogether. It was a wholesale bean slaughter, despite the sheets I tented over them. I should have dug them up.

What's strangest about this untimely freeze is that even though it never got colder than 26 degrees, I lost some cold-hardy plants that had stood all winter. I think it was the harsh, dry wind that did it. My lovely Italian escarole, which was planted in the fall and has withstood far colder temperatures, is suddenly a gelatinous mass of garbage (sob!). The lemon balm was killed back to a third of its previous size. And although they're still alive, my peas, chard, and radishes are all badly burned and will not be as presentable as I'd hoped.

So! Onions, turnips, and collards at Wednesday's market, then. Let us soldier on.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Winds of change

I don't want to talk about the vile, horrific weather. It may look sunny enough when we glance out the window, but we are currently in the middle of a four-night stint of shocking record-low temperatures. The wind howls nonstop, and my sinuses are bleeding. I was forced to unplant several rows of garden vegetables, troweling them into Dixie cups so they could spend the night in safety indoors. Other tender plants are wearing protective sheets or mini greenhouses made of Mason jars. So far it all seems to be working.

In the midst of all this, I took several boxes of vegetables, herbs, hot cross buns, etc., to the Oconee Farmers' Market this morning. It was 31 degrees, and despite my parka, mittens, neckwarmer, hat, New Zealand opossum socks, and four layers of clothing, my Raynaud's still kicked in with a vengeance. I never managed to put up my chalkboard sign because my hands were too stiff and blue to grasp a writing implement! Business was slow, but the most of the regulars trickled in one by one. I eventually sold enough to make it worth my while.

The cold did me an unexpected favor: It helped me get to know some of my fellow vendors. Part of the morning I spent huddled next to a gas-powered smoker, eating little sample bites of delicious brisket courtesy of the Clarke-Oconee Cattlemen's Association. And when the cold became too much to bear, I took off for the restroom, which the market manager had revealed was heated. I found it full of Asian women--a family of flower and vegetable vendors who, like me, had been slowly freezing to death.

The women turned out to be Hmong and, further, turned out to be fellow ex-residents of St. Paul, Minnesota. There's a large Hmong community there, and I'd known several during my college days up north.

We started sharing reminiscences. Then the talk turned to our current situations, which are remarkably similar. They have a small greenhouse; we have a small greenhouse. They have 30 chickens and aspire to have about 100; we have 30 chickens and aspire to have 75. We have ducks and turkeys and (soon) a few geese; they have ducks and geese and a few guinea fowl. We both succession-plant--in the case of the Hmong family, all through the winter. ("Mom starts the carrots way early, under buckets. She's crazy.")

When we finally left the restroom, I visited their table and bought this story cloth.

It takes four 10-hour days of patient needlework to create a record-album sized piece like this one. It depicts, they explained, "the way things used to be before everything changed."

Maybe it's romantic of me, but I feel drawn to this story cloth. I feel connected to the tiny embroidered people who are feeding chickens, hulling rice, picking squash, and carrying baskets to the market.

I don't want to live in a stone-age culture--who does, who has an opportunity to live in a society with flush toilets and the internet? But at the same time, I am glad there are still people who remember that kind of life and are trying to hold onto what's good about it.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Work in progress

This is Chicken House #2 after two days of work! I helped with the measuring and leveling--and apparently got it within a sixteenth of an inch (!). Then yesterday our friend S. helped the s.o. with the framing. The s.o. says there's about two more days of work to do.

As with Chicken House #1, this one has a floor fully lined with hardware cloth to prevent any pests chewing their way in. The right-hand portion (the part furthest away in the pic) will be a brooder house, and then the main part will be for adult chickens, with doors out into two pasture pens. The windows and door and a lot of the lumber were salvaged; the door is the thing you see leaning against the back wall.

Very, very excited. New chicks are coming soon!

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Slight oversight

Er, hi. Sorry for the lapse in posting. A friend and I went to Savannah for the weekend (we had a great time--even spent some quality time on the beach on Tybee Island!), and I didn't manage to check in before I left.

Allow me to vent. I'm absolutely grinding my teeth over my new farmers' market project. Basically, my problem has to do with culture. When we northerners come down here and experience the massive freedom and potential of Georgia's growing season, we tend to respond by gardening year-round. We constantly succession-plant throughout the year for maximum output. That's how most of the organic market gardeners I met at the Georgia Organics conference do it, that's how I do it, and that's how I assumed everyone with a big garden did it. I mean, it makes sense.

Now I've come to find out that most gardeners in this area--even the ones who grow six or seven acres of vegetables--divide the year sharply into two big plantings. There's one in August for the winter greens, and there's one that occurs right about now for tomatoes and corn and okra and squash.

I was sheltered and knew only the Georgia Organics crowd. So not fully appreciating the local culture, I decided that April 11 would make a great opening day for the farmers' market. Now I find that all my new backyard gardening friends (the ones I'm trying to encourage to get in on the action) have pulled up their winter vegetables all at once (!) and have nothing but bare earth and flats of tiny seedlings. They won't have any more vegetables ready until July. Gaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh.

Why on earth would people do that? When you plant everything simultaneously in this climate, it encourages bugs and diseases to wipe out your crops. And you get one big glob instead of a sustained flow. It makes absolutely no sense, but that's what everyone seems to do. Am I missing something?

I can't see how I could be. My garden is really productive at this time of year. I'm not trying to be a smartass or to act superior. The last thing I want to do is be That Yankee who thinks she has all the answers. (I actually have a lot fewer of them than I'm comfortable with!) But at the same time, I do think the results speak for themselves. It's what our few sustainable market gardeners--who are perhaps not coincidentally mostly from other parts of the country--do in order to ensure constant production.

So we will be opening with a very few vegetables, some live plants, some homemade soaps, some crafts. I hope the damn thing survives. It's a long time until July.

*slaps forehead*