Thursday, June 27, 2013

Here it comes

111 degrees on Saturday.  Could I be more excited?  No, I think not.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Pick and Eat

So it's been two years since I was really able to plan menus around what we were growing.  Last year we'd barely moved in here and had no time to put in a garden, so we ate out of the grocery store and farmer's market most of the summer.  

But this year....ahh, this year is the culmination of a year's worth of planning, building, digging and seeding.  And it feels so good to me, this routine of heading out into the garden with a big basket to pick ripe zukes, eggplant, onions, scallions, cukes and squash, then heading inside to make something fabulous out of it all. It feels healthy and it feels self-sufficient.  Add to that the 15 or so eggs we're getting a week and we're in the food business, at least for ourselves.

I'm a little sad that in another three weeks or so, we'll be demolishing the kitchen, at which point my kitchen meals will become camping meals, as I try and suffice with no counters, no sink, and no stove or microwave.  But I'm taking it as a challenge, because obviously, the ripe produce in the garden cannot wait until the cabinet and counter installers are done here.  Things will still need to be picked and eaten.

But for now, I'm loving the routine of pick and eat, pick and eat.  It feels so simple and so natural, deep down inside.  It's this kind of food that's good for your soul (not to mention your pocketbook).

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Saturday, June 22, 2013


Today at the winery I was pouring wine alongside one of the owners when he opened a new bottle of 2009 Syrah, smelled the cork and grimaced.  "It's corked," he said sadly, pouring a glass and inhaling a large whiff to make sure.  "Not too badly corked, but still not what we want to serve," he said, setting the bottle aside and going into the wine library for another.

Good wine going bad via the cork is something new that I'm learning about in my days working at the winery, but I do have first hand experience with it from last year.  We sampled a delightful bottle of wine at another winery last fall and decided that was the wine we had to serve at Thanksgiving dinner.  It was an expensive bottle, but we figured it was worth it.

About a half-hour before Thanksgiving dinner was served, we opened the bottle to let it breathe, and then filled everyone's glass as we started carving up the turkey.  When we toasted and took our first drink, my husband and I exchanged glances at each other.  What we tasted was not vinegar by any stretch, but definitely nothing close to the delicious wine we'd sampled at the winery we'd bought it from. It was so disappointing. I didn't know it then, but we must have gotten a corked bottle of wine.  

Putting corks into filled wine bottles is historically successful way to preserve and store it, but it's not foolproof.  Approximately one percent of corks have minute amounts of bacteria on them, and this bacteria eventually multiplies, getting into the wine and causing the wine to go "off," sometimes in a big way, sometimes in a subtle one.

The best way to save yourself the disappointment of pouring a corked wine is to smell the cork carefully when it's first pulled.  It should be fruity and sharp.  If it smells musty, or like wet cardboard or an aluminum can, the cork is contaminated and the wine will probably not be good.  Usually if you've bought from a reputable winery or wine dealer, you can return the corked bottle for a good one.  And wines that are bottled using screw tops never have this problem, which is probably the main reason many wineries would love to use them instead of cork stoppers.  But there's a public image that expensive, good wines must have corks, not screw-tops, so there is some resistance to moving over entirely to screw tops.

So another lesson learned....I always figured the types of people who smelled a wine cork in a restaurant were poseurs, who knew nothing about wine but wanted to make it look like they did.  And while I'm certain it was probably true for some, there is actually a very good reason for smelling a cork if you know what a bad one smells like.  

Mold.  Wet cardboard.  Aluminum can.  If your cork smells like any of these things, send the wine back.  I don't know if life's too short to drink cheap wine, but it's definitely too short to drink a "corked" bottle.

Racial slurs and butter, y'all

So where do you weigh in on the Paula Deen controversy, y'all?

Do you love her down to earth charm, like me?  Did you find her original show to be home-y and comforting, the way your grandmother's house used to be, filled with frying goodies and sweet treats?  I did too, at least until last week.

Anyone with internet or an television knows the story that went national a few days ago, in which TV food chef and southern restauranteur Paula Deen answered several questions regarding her use of the "N-word," truthfully I would guess, in a taped deposition for an upcoming race-and sex discrimination trial.

She admitted she'd used the term in the past, and also that she'd considered staging her wedding with a "southern plantation" theme, including having waitstaff composed entirely of middle-aged black men and women, dressed in the traditional attire of house slaves from the Civil War era.  Really.

 Forget the butter.  The whole thing is enough to give any good public relations person a heart attack, just by itself.

I'm not from the South, so clearly there is a cultural chip I am missing in all this.  I grew up in Los Angeles, in a racially integrated neighborhood, in the 1960's.  No one -- I repeat -- no one, ever, said the N-word in my presence.  It was as taboo as the "F" word, maybe even more so.  I never heard it at home, at school, or on the street.  It simply was not said.  That is not to say people were without prejudice where I lived, but at that point, in my neighborhood, it was just no longer socially acceptable to say anything like that out in the open, and since my parents were open-minded folks with friends of all races, I didn't hear it in private, either.

For that, I am thankful.

For all the rhapsodizing that's done about the south and its culture, from a longing for the plantation days and those "Gone With The Wind" times to the flying of the Confederate flag, I sometimes shake my head and want to ask those people what in the world they are thinking, down in Land of Dixie.  It's not so much a lack of acknowledging those things happened, but the fact that some things, like that freakin' flag, seem to celebrate them.  

I admire Paula Deen for speaking honestly under deposition, and I also have no doubt that her own prejudices have waned as times have gone on.  To be character-asassinated for something you said 30 years ago seems patently unfair.  But for her to still not understand how deeply offensive the "N-word" and the idea of bought-and-sold human beings working in the plantation system are?  That puts her a little bit out of touch with the pulse of the nation, here and now.

Of course black people can call each other the N word, the same way I can tell Jewish jokes and my gay friends call each other "her," queens, or bitches.  That's the one and only advantage to being a minority of some kind, believe me.  The slur is about you, so you can take it and make it into a joke, if you wish.   Maybe we Jews are good with money.  Maybe some gays do sometimes act like women, haha.  When we turn the joke on ourselves, somehow it serves to take the sting off it a little. 

Maybe when one black person calls the other the N-word, it's in the spirit of taking the hate out of the word by using it regularly.  Which is fine, as long as you happen to be a black person.

But if you're not in that cultural or racial sub-group, you're expected to hold your tongue and be respectful, and that's what I think Paula Deen does not quite get. One of the most telling things was that she said she disapproves of the N-word being used in a negative way.  But the fact is, if it comes out of a white person's mouth, it won't be perceived as anything but negative.  There's too much blood, death and history for it to be otherwise.

I have no doubt Paula Deen's core supporters will help keep her restaurant open and her bank accounts solvent, but perhaps it's time to retire from the glare of the public spotlight when you haven't kept pace with where the rest of the country is regarding racial or cultural slurs.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The goodness of summer

The best days of summer are when we can enjoy a meal like this, grown from our garden.  Beans, potatoes, and a big salad.  And a glass of port wine, chilled with sparkling water added to it to make a kind of fruit soda with a kick.

Bon Appetite!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

This was me, too.

Anytime you set out to write something, sometimes it takes on a life of its own, becoming what it needs to be rather than what you had necessarily intended.  It was true when I wrote a newspaper column for a living; I would sometimes sit down to write on one particular topic and end up with a column about something completely different.  And usually, my best columns were the ones that happened that way; something about the spontaneous upwelling of an independent, unforeseen idea meant that idea came from the heart and was somehow more original and true than whatever I'd originally planned to write about.

So it's no surprise that this blog about homesteading occasionally meanders off into other topics.  I am a homesteader, but have not been one my entire life.  The fact is, I've been many different people in the 52 years I've lived on this earth.

In 1978, for instance, I was this:

If you look to the right of the screen to a girl dancing in blue shorts and a white blouse, it's me.  Really. I spent two years dancing on the television show, "American Bandstand."  They were fun, glamorous years spent at nightclubs, in dance contests, and staying out until dawn with my friends.  I couldn't have put a plant in the ground if I tried, because my life was spent in the concrete of the city and had nothing to do with growing anything other than my dance repertoire.

I recently reconnected to this aspect of my past when I met up with my friend Mark from Bandstand and his husband John for dinner. Then the next day, my childhood neighbor friend Lori, who used to also go dancing with us, came and stay with us for a few days.  They tell me I am nothing like I used to be, and this is probably true.  Yet the girl in the photo above does still exist someplace inside me, and she is a valid character in my past.

And since my own dance partner, Paul, died of AIDS in 1985 and my neighbor friend is suffering from terminal ovarian cancer, I have been thinking a lot about the people we used to be, the people you see in the picture above.

And my conclusion is that I feel sorry for people who have been or are only one thing in life.   My life is richer for the various experiences I've had and the lives I've led, all of which have led me to this point. And if there's 12 different people inside you, all with different passions and interests, it's nice if they can all come out to play during one's lifetime, which none of us really know the length of.  I've been a dancer, a yuppie, a mother, a scientist, a teacher, a writer and a farmer and none of those people I was are any less valid than any other.  To claim they are is to negate a part of oneself.

Yes, I guess I am like a column that started out as one thing, then veered off towards a path no one could have predicted. My path is not what I intended it to be when I started out.  It began with glitter and glitz and is now filled with dirt and animals and sweet berries growing on the vine.  And that's a good thing.

Yet the glitter and glitz still exist somewhere down deep inside, because I do sometimes crank up the disco on my iPod and do a little New York Hustle in the pasture.  Because the girl you see above still has to dance sometimes, and it's only fair to let her get out and let go once in awhile.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Dried Apricots

Ratio of good (in jar) vs moldy (counter) apricots

The dried apricots were a mixed bag of success and failure.  Most of the pieces dried out quite nicely, but some of the larger ones looked like they had mold spores growing on them, so I chucked those and put the dessicated ones in the freezer to further preserve them until I need them.

All the pieces are a bit less sweet and a little darker than commercially-found ones, but they still taste great so I personally don't have a problem with it.

My take-home lesson from this is that next time, I will not follow the instructions, which say to cut each apricot in half before placing it on the drying rack.  The most nicely dried ones were cut into quarters or less, which made them dry faster since they were smaller. So smaller pieces equals better drying.

I am looking forward to making some Moroccan Chicken though, and being able to reach into the freezer for some naturally-dried apricots to add to the recipe.  Regular, sulphured dried apricots give me an asthma attack, so this is a great and much healthier alternative.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

An anniversary

So exactly one year ago today our family was a makeshift convoy composed of four cars and a Budget rental truck, loaded up with everything we owned, heading to this new life on the Central Coast.  It's been a full, joyous year, filled with outings, concerts, new friends and neighbors, as well as fixing up our new place.  

As I write this, our home has been unpacked for quite awhile, is relatively neat, and currently filled with the smell of the sea, brought in by a strong on-shore wind blowing straight from the Pacific.  This is part of what we came for. The changes to the house are almost done, as far as renovations go, with just the kitchen to go, tentatively on calendar for early next month. The vegetables, vines and trees we've planted are flourishing.  The livestock is, too.

But more importantly than the changes in the house and property are the changes that have happened to us, internally, since we moved here.  Basically, we went from a kind of hermitude to being active and involved in what's happening in the county, everything from charity work to concerts to winery events, parties and dinners.

Sometimes you hit a point in life where you venture inward, in order to retreat from stressful or uninspiring surroundings or circumstances, and it is within the deep green reaches of our solitude that we first imagine a better future for ourselves and our loved ones.  Then, if we allow it, the images surface and begin gently moving us toward that future, like a gentle current, unimpeded as long as we don't begin working against the flow, paddling back in the direction we came from out of either fear or disbelief that we deserve a change for the better.

Today I pause and reflect on these things, and read again a truncated Bible verse I kept pinned to my mirror the two years it took us to plan our move and make it:

"For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land; a land of vines and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive trees and honey."  (Deut. 8: 7 - 9)

Friday, June 7, 2013


No, I don't think so.

Short photo series in Modern Farmer today hit a chord with me. ( ) 

Somehow it seems totally creepy to spin livestock's story to where it's a tale of creatures who really enjoy being served as food and simply cannot wait to land on our plate. Doesn't it to you?

The other end of this story is the homesteaders who will butcher animals and then say things like "we did this with a hushed, serious reverence,"as if the animal somehow appreciated their taking the whole thing so seriously, or "we feel (enter the name of said animal here) would be so proud to have graced our holiday table and fed so many people," or something equally stupid.  No matter what you are eating, it's a pretty good guess that it didn't really want to die and be consumed, whether you were somber as you killed it or not.

Both mindsets stem from a fundamental need for modern people to delude themselves about their food, in my opinion.

Listen, if you have to die in order to feed something else, which most creatures on the planet do (excepting large carnivores) you probably 1) Do NOT want to die in the first place, as I said. Healthy, young, living creatures generally don't. 

Which leads us to 2) If you do have to die, as painless and stress-free (read: quick) a dispatch as possible is a kindness, even though you are not given a choice or preference.  The last one is just a guess on my part, due to biases about my own eventual demise.  If I had a choice I'd rather die quickly and painlessly than in a drawn out, uncomfortable manner.  So I also am transferring my own thoughts to the animals, but it seems like if it shortens pain and suffering, that is not necessarily a bad thing.  But I don't go further than that into my food's thoughts and mindset.

Because to start interjecting emotions into it -- animals gratefully climbing onto our dinner plate, or understanding and agreeing with the whole predator/prey cycle because their butchers are so freaking reverent about it, all those things seem both delusional and stupid.

Like my gopher post said yesterday, death in the food cycle is inescapable, but how we deal with that death says a great deal about how in touch with reality we are. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Natural Born (Gopher) Killer

Maccabee gopher trap

Some people who move to rural environments find they enjoy hunting game and vermin, and even killing livestock for their personal consumption.  I am not one of them. 

Yet when the gopher population began to creep up in numbers here at the homestead, I went through a gradual process that, yes, has finally turned me into an unapologetic killer at times.  Sure, I may still save flies and put glass cups over moths and spiders who make it into the house, returning them all outside to live another day. But gophers have become to me what red fire ants have always been:  Something that doesn't need to be living anywhere close to where I work, walk or grow my food.

Yesterday, I successfully trapped and killed the gopher that had been making inroads into my potato, onion and pumpkin patch down in the field. It was a double victory for me, because I used a Maccabee trap to kill the gopher, which is the same gopher control method used at the winery we belong to.  That means no poison is used, which means the hawks, lizards, coyotes and other wildlife are safe from either finding the poison pellets or the poisoned gopher corpse and dying from ingesting either.  It also means that the same poison will not be working its way down through the dirt into the aquifer, as strychnine does .  A trap may be primitive and violent, but at least it only kills once, when it catches its intended victim.  You can't say the same thing about poison.

But it also occurred to me that if the winery uses these traps to keep their vineyards pest-free, vermin killings occur everywhere, whether it's in our food, the cotton that makes our clothes, or even the grapes that produce the wine we drink. There is, truly, no food we eat where something has not probably died in order that it could be brought to us.

I was a vegetarian for years and never thought of things this way.  Sure, I did not consume animal flesh, but that doesn't mean animals didn't die to bring me my grains and vegetables.

There is no getting away from this anywhere on Planet Earth, sadly.  If you eat food, mammals have been killed so that it can grow, be harvested, and brought to you.

So while I hate to think of myself as being a responsible party in all this, I am, whether I am the one placing the trap or not.  I eat food, I wear clothes, I drink wine. To believe I have no culpability in it all would be magical thinking.  

Perhaps in the next world killing will be a thing of the past, but in this one, it seems unescapable. Yet I have to say I never really realized it until I picked up that trap and held that lifeless gopher in my hands.  It's not the first gopher I've killed.  After all, I've eaten commercial food that was probably protected with traps just like this one.  But this was the first time I've actually realized my role in it all.  Natural-born killer.  Me.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Some garden tips are correct....except when they're not.

So for the last few days I have been battling the nefarious pill bug, or rolly poly, as we used to call them as kids.  They have killed two of my cucumber plants by gnawing them off at the base of their stems, where the plant meets the dirt.  I know it's them because both times I caught them in the very act.  They have actually damaged all the cucumber plants by doing this, but only two have been gnawed through to a point where it killed them.  Obviously this is unacceptable.

So here's the rub:  We're always told to mulch around our plants, because the organic matter is good for enriching the soil, plus it protects the root systems of the plants themselves by keeping them cooler in summer and warmer in winter.  Those are good things.  Yes.

Yet when you have pill bugs killing your plants, when you go on various websites to determine why they exist in such abundance in your garden beds, the blame is immediately foisted on you for having put mulch down, which creates a nifty environment for said bugs to live in.  Because mulch is moist and rich in organic matter.  

So mulch is a bad thing. Yes?

That's the thing about gardening and sometimes, life in general.  Everything is the correct thing to do...until it isn't.

I will be applying some Spinozad to cull the pill bug population tonight, hopefully before any more cucumber plants fall prey to them.  Sigh.  We also have gopher traps set for whomever is attempting to get into our pumpkin patch and vegetable beds.  

I'm getting adept at killing things, which is usually a bad thing. Except, of course, when it's good.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Alex DeGrassi and the future

When I was 22 I moved into my first solo apartment.  It was a one-bedroom, ground floor apartment in a big complex, on a gritty, busy, treeless street in the smoggy San Fernando Valley area of Southern California.  I remember I used to sit inside on Saturday or Sunday mornings, drink coffee and open the windows (if there weren't too many children screaming up and down the stairs or teenagers blasting their boomboxes by the swimming pool) and listen to this album.

It made me think about places far away from any city, places with clear, blue skies, lots of open space and precious little concrete.  

It took me many years after that to finally leave the city and go and live someplace where the skies were actually clear and there was more to see out the window than a concrete deck and swimming pool, surrounded by towers of other apartment buildings just like mine where people would live, spend their free hours, grow old, and eventually die in.

I'd like to think I always knew I would make it out, but in truth, those Saturday mornings in my crappy little apartment were more about dreaming than about practical planning.  

Well, at least I thought I was just dreaming.  Now I look out over our land and wonder if perhaps I knew that somehow, I belonged out in those open spaces, and that one day I'd be there.  I wish I could go back in time and tell my 22 year-old self to hang in there, keep listening to music like this, and imagine the possibilities that would one day become reality.

Pretty cool

Today we were blessed with cool, breezy weather.  In the last four days, we've gone from a high temperature of 102 to the high today of just 66 degrees, and I am not complaining.  Mainly because my chores run by the weather.  And I needed a cooler day to accomplish some tasks I could not do without Mother Nature's cooperation.

First on the agenda was transplanting next fall's butternut squash into the ground, along with some late season tomatoes and some marigolds (the last purely for color and decoration).  A cool day is a perfect one for transplanting.  If temperatures go much above the low '80's, plants here will struggle as they try to recover from both heat and transplant shock, and I've had many plants either die this way, or just barely hang on, producing nothing, because I planted them while it was too warm and they never quite got over it.

The other task I needed to do was put up some of the apricots Big Ag brought home over the weekend.  I did two quarts of canned fruit, and four pints of preserves this morning, which used up about half of the apricots I had.  The other half I am going to dry, because there is nothing better than the sweet but tart taste of dried apricots, either on their own or in recipes which call for them, like a Moroccan Chicken recipe I like and make a lot.  Since commercially dried fruit usually has sulfites, it will also be nice to have some apricots on hand that won't induce an asthma attack in anyone.  

But I'm waiting on drying the fruit until later this week, when it is supposed to warm up once again.  I can't say I'm looking forward to having the heat back, but I'm glad I will get at least a couple more days of cool ocean breezes before it comes back.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Winery weekend

If last weekend was a trial by fire of sorts, as I spent my first two workdays at the winery training during a time of unprecedented, huge crowds, this weekend was exactly the opposite -- much slower than normal weekends are.  But the lull gave me time to work on things -- learning more about the wines our customers taste, and sampling some myself in order to be able to describe them.  This is not casual drinking; it's being able to describe to customers the difference between Rousanne versus a Marsanne-Rousanne blend, or the difference between the '09 Cabernet and the '10 vintage year.

I also got to spend time visiting with each customer a bit more, and chatting with them about what had brought them to the area for the weekend and what else they were planning on doing.  Last weekend was all about bussing tables, delivering plates to the kitchen to be washed, and making sure glasses were filled on time; this weekend was about chatting with customers, answering the phone, and lingering over the counter, polishing glasses while giving people directions to good area restaurants or other wineries.

I realize you need to have a fair amount of busy weekends in order to have a successful business, but I have to say that the slow day was heavenly.  Some jobs are boring when they are not hectic, but a slow day at a winery really lets you take a breath and appreciate where you are and how lucky you are to be there.

My life is in a nice balance right now, where some days I hang with my chickens, my livestock and my plants, who aren't really chatty, and other days I am at the winery, where it seems like I'm always talking to someone.  You need both in life, I am convinced.  If you have either one of those things exclusively -- hermitdom, or constant company, with no balance between the two, and a person will go mad.  

Seen it happen, not going there.