Wednesday, December 24, 2014


We're smack dab in the middle of holidays, but thankfully we're in the home stretch.  Hanukkah was wonderful as usual with music, song and latkes, and now it's Christmas Eve and we're happily here at home, waiting for tomorrow when we'll have some Prime Rib and all the usual sides you have with a traditional English Christmas dinner.

This is my favorite time of year, and I hope you and those around you are enjoying the season.

On the 26th, there will be chicken coops to clean, seeds to plant, orchards to fertilize and vines to prune, but for right now sitting in the glow of the pretty lights with family is perfect. Hope you are doing the same.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Monday, December 22, 2014


So here are two of my favorite scratch recipes, which I talked about in my "Food Wars" post a couple of days ago.

The first is George Washington's Colonial EggNog.  The only thing President Washington left out was how many eggs to use; I use a dozen in this recipe but often cut the whole thing in half too, meaning only six eggs and half of everything else. I also add more sugar than he did; my advice is to taste it as you go along and and see how much works of you. I like my eggnog sweeter than old George did I guess, or maybe sugar was at a premium and was therefore used sparingly back in the Colonial times.

The second is for my absolute favorite mac and cheese of all time.  Rich, creamy, tangy, and so good. It is heaven.  High calorie heaven, but once in awhile it's worth it and this is one of those times.

George Washington's Colonial Egg Nog (probably Martha's recipe)

"One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, 1/2 pint rye whiskey, 1/2 pint Jamaica rum, 1/4 pint sherry—mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently."

Hot Flash Homestead's Favorite Mac and Cheese
4 Cups cooked small conchiglie (shell-shaped) Macaroni
16 ounces (2 cups) shredded sharp cheddar
8 ounces (one cup) grated parmesan
3/4 cup cream cheese
3/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup milk
One stick of butter, melted
salt and pepper to taste
Fresh, sliced tomatoes or bread crumbs (optional)
Preheat oven to 350.  Combine cooked noodles and butter, then add hard cheeses first (while noodles are still hot) cream cheese and sour cream, plus heavy cream.  Stir, taste and then season with salt and pepper to your liking. Add sliced tomatoes or bread crumbs as toppings if you wish.
I'll be honest here; I usually eat it at the point, sans toppings, but my traditionalist family prefers having it cook in the oven for approximately 30 minutes before eating it. Which works too. Try it both ways and see which you prefer!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Tis The Season (for Food Wars)

Living the life we do means that most of the time we eat very natural foods, almost always made from scratch.  My egg nog recipe has real raw eggs, cream, and lots of liquor in it.  I have similar scratch recipes for other foods which became popular in their commercially-processed states -- stuff like Sloppy Joes, Egg-McMuffin type sandwiches and sodas.  

When you commit to living the simple life, the former convenience foods you loved are suddenly no longer convenient since you're making them from their most basic ingredients, and leaving out all the stabilizers, artificial colors, and preservatives. And sometimes they are worth it. And, yet, to be honest, they often do not taste quite the same. 

Real eggnog
Both Big Ag and myself grew up eating at least some  of what the 1960's and 1970's offered in terms of convenience foods, so adjusting to some of those taste changes when we've "gone natural" has taken time.  But after awhile you get used to it, and then when you pick it up again in its processed form, you actually notice certain flavors are missing -- the ones you first reacted to when you made it naturally.

I remember the first time I bit into a chocolate-chip cookie made with whole wheat flour instead of white and the wheat had a much stronger, nutty flavor than I was used to. I felt vaguely cheated, like my previously delightful sin had somehow been made more respectable and therefore less tasty and fun.  But now, I love the stronger flavor whole wheat has, and much prefer it to white flour in almost everything.

The taste change also happens if you switch from chocolate to, say, carob and if you change from white sugar to honey or agave nectar. I've heard nightmare stories from people who switched from coffee to chikory, although most got used to it after time.

Real mac and cheese
And some foods you cannot reasonably replicate.  The carob-for-chocolate swap is one shining example. It just never tastes the same, and is never as good. Another one happened here this afternoon, when I made my homemade egg nog.  I think it's awesome, but I know that tomorrow or the next day, Big Ag will stop by the supermarket and come home with a carton of that awful, artificially-flavored egg nog from the market because it's what he grew up with and therefore what he prefers.  And my oldest son, who I call TrainMan, will be staying with us after he has some dental work done after the holidays and has already asked that I stock up on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese -- that's right, the bright orange boxed stuff.  Sigh.
Un-real mac and cheese

The fact that I make a killer gourmet mac and cheese with three different kinds of cheeses does not matter, because no matter how hard I try I will never achieve the orangey, tangy, velveeta-textured goo that TrainMan feels is a mandatory part of the Mac and Cheese Experience.  And since its him who will have the sore mouth, who am I to turn a blind eye to his wishes?  (For the record, I never made Kraft Mac and Cheese at our house, but evidently it was on the menu at friends' houses enough that he developed a taste for it.  I guess I should just be thankful they weren't serving meth.) 

So tomorrow I will go to the store and buy some stupid, boxed Kraft Mac and Cheese, grimacing as I pull it off the shelf and throw it into my cart.  And I will also grit my teeth when the artificially flavored-and-colored "egg nog" shows up in the fridge next to my fabulously-natural Colonial Egg Nog (made from a recipe penned by George Washington himself!) as I just know its going to. It's a holiday tradition, just like bad sweaters and Christmas songs by The Chipmunks.  These are all things that must be endured as we plow through the season.  

Un-real eggnog

One thing that makes me feel better is remembering a story natural food guru Michael Pollan told once, about walking through the grocery store with a box of Fruity Pebbles cereal in his cart (for his daughter, who insisted on it) and someone noticing and saying something to him about it.  His response was that, although natural is better, if we have spouses or children we also have to acknowledge that sometimes we're going to have to compromise, and to pick our battles.

Which I guess means that although Kraft, Knudson, and Kellogs may win a round or two here and there, we natural cooks are still committed, long-term, to winning the food war. And so next week I will temporarily surrender on the Mac and Cheese front, open that packet of orange powder and make something that makes my son happy.  

But I have not given up the war. I'm just surrendering, temporarily, on one front.  A gooey, artificially orangey one.

Battleground Lost.

Monday, December 15, 2014

...and NOT going into town

Weather on its way in.
We're finally getting some decent rainfall here on the Central Coast, which is wonderful since any amount we get puts a dent in the colossal drought we are currently undergoing. We're not out of the woods yet, not by any stretch of the imagination, but at least we have green hills again and the fire danger has dropped.

But this rainy day also reminded me of the other side of my town/country double life, which is the days I do NOT go into town, for weather-related reasons.  No, we don't get huge Polar-Vortex storms or below-zero temperatures here, but California is flood and mudslide-prone, so we're not completely safe from weather-related problems when it rains a good amount.

Not everyone has the sense to come in from the rain.

It doesn't even bother me that I can't use my solar oven or my clothesline right now due to the weather.  Hanging wash in front of the fire is a practical solution and, to me, a fire is no less cheerful than a sunny day. We get enough sunshine to last a lifetime in one year out here, so believe me when I say I don't miss it on the days it's absent.

Indoor Task #1: Laundry detergent making.

On days like this, it's honestly just safer to stay home because of my fellow man as well. For some reason, we have some of the worst drivers in the country living here (too hard to explain why right now, but maybe in a future post) so when the streets get wet, it's good to not be out there if it's not absolutely necessary. 

There are always plenty of accidents and crazy behavior happening on our highways and roads on days like these, and avoiding all that is one of the joys of living in a place with dirt roads that tend to wash-out in a good storm.  It's a great excuse to stay home. We have a lot of spontaneous creeks which spring up in very inconvenient places along the roads as well, along with minor mudslides, so driving around these grapevine-covered hills on the way into town can be a definite challenge -- even if you are a good driver.

I am actually one of those people who plans their week around the weather; if a storm looks significant, I will be on the internet  checking to see when it will arrive, and make a serious attempt to be back home, inside, with chores done by the time it starts. Our view also gives us a great view of the squall lines of approaching storms, meaning you can time your retreat back to the Great Indoors with perfect timing on most stormy days.

Today's Deep House Day has been about making a huge batch of homemade laundry detergent (enough to last until next summer, I believe, but we will see), some pumpkin bread with some of October's pumpkins, and later on, (I hope) reading some of the library books I picked up in town last week. Oh, and wrapping presents as well.  All good things.

Indoor task #2: Pumpkin bread.

Tomorrow I'm sure the sun will be back out, like a predictable old boyfriend who just keeps coming back around despite the fact that we take him for granted.

  But today is all about the dark skies, the thrumming of rain on the roof, and All Things Indoors.  Fine by me.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Goin' Into Town

Most days I write about the simplistic and very romantic perfection that wine country life can be. But there is a price to be paid for all this open space and bucolic pleasure, and that is that in order to have it, you can't live too close to town. 

We actually live 20 miles away from the nearest small town, 60 miles away from the nearest medium-sized one, and 120 miles away from a metropolis large enough to have things like big furniture stores or a Macy's.

The actual reality of the weekly trip into the small town and the twice-yearly trip to the metropolis is one of the things I wish someone had told me about before I moved to the country; while it would not have changed my mind, I certainly would have been less romantic about it. 

For some reason, I saw my in-town days as vignettes, with me strolling the streets of the boutique-y parts of our lovely downtown, stopping at gourmet food stores while maybe sipping a latte and enjoying all the pretty things in the store windows. 

Only that's not really how it is. Going into town for the day really consists of driving to many different large stores on the other end of town, pulling in and out of parking spaces, facing traffic stress and lugging bags of stuff into the car. And it pretty much takes an entire day, if I want to save gas and make it a weekly trip.

And that's the dirty little the secret about rural life:  When you live out of town, your days in town are spent dashing from one place to the next, in order to make the most of your time and gas money. No leisurely strolling here, folks. It's a Supply Replenishment run.

Not my home, but you get the point.  Country here, city way over there.

All this driving does make me appreciate the efforts many urban planners are putting forth to create pedestrian and bike-friendly cities, where residents can actually get the things they need without having to own a car.  But to live in an urban environment as it is now, you have to be willing to give up the biggest pleasures of being out of town: seeing the Milky Way at night, having a property large enough to keep livestock, grow food and have an orchard, and last but not least, being able to be outdoors without the constant drone of lawn mowers, police helicopters, traffic and noisy neighbors.  

That's a huge sacrifice, and not one I'm willing to make right now.

And so, at least at this point, we will continue living out here in the country and just hitch up that old wagon (aka the car) and do a 10-stop Errand Day once a week or so. 

And on those days when I need to head into town, I leave early yet still seem to always get back home later than I'd like.  A much better writer than I am, Robert Frost, once wrote about kind of journey, saying in part:

 "I have errands to run and promises to keep.  And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep."

Sometimes, on the days when I'd rather be here on my quiet hilltop than fighting for parking spaces in town, I would definitely agree with those sentiments.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Cleaning up

Tomato beds are cleaned out and awaiting compost.

I waited to clear the tomato plants this year until December, with the idea that having some late tomatoes would be a good idea. Unfortunately, this is another one of those DIY lessons; even though our days are warm and sunny, our nighttime temperatures dip into the low 40s and even upper 30s.  So while the tomatoes look beautiful and freshly vine-ripened, they taste like tomatoes that have been in the refrigerator for a few days....just kind of bland and mushy.  Oh well.  It was a noble experiment. It was nice to be able to put them into the salads at Thanksgiving, but honestly, they were no better than crappy store-bought tomatoes, gassed with ethylene or greenhouse grown -- okay, but definitely not like a delicious summer tomato. Everything really does have a season I guess.

For fall 2015, I'm thinking it will be better to just add some fresh onions and carrots to next year's salads and call it a day.  The tomato thing did not work.

So now they are gone (there's one last pile you can see in the right of the pic).  So it's time for making some rich, lovely soil by compost-adding, ryegrass planting (for green manure) and fallow time.  Perfect, since inclement weather is expected and being out in the elements is no fun. I can just sit inside with a glass of wine and watch my spring soil being made from the warmth and comfort of the house.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Join The Club

So this last weekend I detailed my encounter I had with the lady at the cash register at Target, who spent a huge amount of energy attempting to sign me up for her store's debit card (bad), credit card (worse), or just get me on their email list so they could send me notifications anytime they wanted (let's not even talk about it). 

Oh, she also wanted me to download the smartphone app as well, so I could spend my happy hours in her store walking around scanning those square app codes into my phone for additional deals as well.

Because obviously I have no other life, right?

This encounter represents a huge trend in retail marketing today, which is to offer customers some kind of "Club" card.  Once you give them your most personal information -- email, phone number, possibly even bank account information, you receive coupons, specials and other discounts not available to the general public. It's all, supposedly, for the greater good of saving you money when you come into the store.

But here's the thing:  It's not designed to save you money.  it's designed to give these companies access to your life, and give them a way to encourage you to spend even more time shopping there. They know that the time-honored way to get you to give them more money than before (above and beyond their "savings") is to:

 1) force your loyalty by giving you a Club card that makes you feel like you should shop there in order to get the best deal.

2) get you, the consumer, to give said corporation enough access to your life, via your personal email, your phone number, smartphone texts and apps, that they can bombard you with advertising, specials and other goodies all designed to bring you in to shop even more than you are now.

The corporation is not doing you a favor -- they are doing themselves one.  Think about it ... they are not in the business of weakening their bottom line, so obviously there's a profit motive in all this "club" membership.  The fact is, having "club" members makes money for them, above and beyond what they'd normally make.  And it comes from YOU, the Club member. It's as simple as that.

Of course in my mind, there's also the "Homestead Law," which states that the more time you spend at home making and growing your own goods, the less time (and inclination) you will have to be out shopping and buying all the things you are quite capable of making/growing yourself. That will save you more in a year than a whole truckload of purchases on your "club card," believe me.

You also have to ask yourself if you are comfortable giving a corporation like Target permission to track your sales purchases, to have access to your bank account (their new debit card ties directly into your own bank account) access to your email, and access to your phone.  Would you give that information to anyone else you do not know?  Do you want them to have that kind of personal information about you on file?

Back in our old town, the chain supermarket where I shopped did this:  After I paid with my debit card, the register would spit out a bunch of coupons, specifically aimed at me.  Some things were for items I used, but most were things that I had not yet purchased, but an algorithm in a computer somewhere back at the Home Office indicated I might buy them, if encouraged to do so.

I found this interesting, but what was even more interesting was that after I began paying with cash only, the coupons for non-purchased items stopped.  There was no way for the company to track my sales history if I did not use a card to pay for things, and so the advertising in the form of coupons just stopped.  

I found that I liked the anonymity of shopping just as Customer X, with no purchase tracking and no history for them to collect on me.  And so I will continue to be Customer X at most stores, with nary a Club card to be found in my purse.

 If I ever do carry a club, it will be a billy club -- the kind I can use to smack people over the head with who badger me to join their Savings Club.   Yes, I am Customer X and I am free. Welcome to MY club.  Whack!

Saturday, December 6, 2014


So the lady at the checkout counter at Target yesterday gave me a huge lecture/sales pitch about how getting a Target Debit Card, a Target Smartphone app and using scanning codes to generate coupons could save me a huge amount of money.  I then lectured her about how growing your own food, making your own soap and other household goods and not buying into consumer culture could save you even more, thereby eliminating the need to have a Target Debit card and Smartphone app.  


Thursday, December 4, 2014

A few days away

Tenaya Lodge

Big Ag and I took advantage of the slow season to head up to the mountains for a few days of rest and relaxation.  We stayed at a lodge close to Yosemite National Park, thinking we'd go down to the valley floor and see the sights for a day or so.  But Mother Nature had other plans and we were rained out.  Which meant we were forced to spend the two days at the lodge huddled up by the giant fireside reading books, in the basement playing pool, sitting in the hot tub, eating great food and then working it off at the gym while the rain poured down outside. 

I know.  First World Problems, right?

Yosemite Park is ready for the holidays.

All in all it was not a bad way to spend a vacation.  We've been to Yosemite many times already, and unless the ancient rock formations have changed, I'm thinking we probably didn't miss much down in the park.  But sitting around at the lodge was a lovely way to kick off the holiday season, and although we love where we live, the brief change of scenery from provencal-style vineyards to Alpine pine forest was great.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Surprise late harvest!

I was down in the pasture yesterday spreading around some chicken manure in approach of a coming rainstorm when I found these late harvest red grapes, in perfect condition and ready for picking, two months after harvest officially ended.  They are super-sweet, and a perfect end to the 2014 growing season.  I have no idea when these appeared but am very glad I found them before the freeze sets in.

Sometimes nature gives us a bad surprise -- gophers, disease, or other damage. And sometimes, she gives us a sweet treat long after we thought the season was over and done with.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving 2014 -- Warm sand and crappy pie dough

Even though I prepared most of our Thanksgiving feast on Tuesday and Wednesday, somehow Thursday felt as chaotic as ever, except for the morning, when we headed to the beach to throw the Frisbee around for an hour or so.  It was a gorgeous, sunny day and I was loathe to leave and return to the kitchen. It felt good to get some exercise too, ahead of the food-fest that was to come, and so we may have found a new Thanksgiving tradition.

Safe to say that this new tradition was discovered in part because the temperature was 20 degrees higher than normal; we were in the low 80s by lunchtime.  All day long the sun shone, we kept the windows open, and we donned summer clothes for the afternoon, as we stood around the barbecue as the turkey was smoked and cooked.

Here's an interesting note on the heat, however ... for the first time I had a tremendously difficult time getting my pie dough to perform properly.  I just couldn't make a cohesive dough, and making my pumpkin and ollalieberry pies was extremely frustrating.  It turns out that if your kitchen is too warm, the gluten in the dough does not bind properly. (Hence the instructions in the recipes about chilled ice water and cold shortening -- there is a reason why they all ask for this.  So add to your notes that a cool kitchen goes a long ways towards helping the pie crust-making process, too.)

So with one homemade and one last-minute, store-bought pie crust (oh the shame), things still worked out and everyone was happy and extremely well-fed.

If the weather is like this next year, I am making one thing for Thanksgiving -- reservations at a nice restaurant in town, with outdoor seating and cool drinks.  That will give me more beach time to throw the Frisbee in the morning, and I will save myself the frustration of pie dough that shrinks and falls apart, not to mention the hot kitchen. The whole holiday of Thanksgiving is not designed for summer weather, I must say.  So next year if it's like this, I'm taking the hint and opting out of the cook-fest.

Hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

It's starting

How do your Thanksgiving preparations generally begin?  Mine usually starts with an emptying of stored food from our garage freezer...stuff we harvested or made just a few months ago, much of which was stored specifically with Thanksgiving 2014 in mind.  

I will be honest with you; the months of August through November are not pretty ones for my freezer.  It seems like every day during summer I try and fit more and more of my harvest into it, and it's not pretty; we've had arguments erupt over freezer space. For instance, last week Big Ag brought home two extremely large bags of enchiladas from the cook at the ranch, and finding space for them was a huge issue. Big Ag wanted to save them for the kids (who are coming from college this week) and I wanted to eat them now -- just to save freezer space, of course. Of course.

Anyway, today began with taking out a couple of big bags of last summer's ollalieberries, most of the spinach and a quart of broth, among other things, which took my freezer from the "overflowing" category back to just "pretty damn full." 

I'm going to begin fixing things today and putting them in the fridge so I can just pop them in the oven on Thursday and heat them back up.  This will include my spinach casserole, maple pecan yams, cheesy potatoes, pies, cranberry sauce and stuffing. That will leave just the turkey and Yorkshire puddings to fix on Thanksgiving day.  This is a strategy which will hopefully leave plenty of time for games of Cards Against Humanity, Scrabble, a long walk on the beach and maybe even a nap on the back patio, in the sunshine.

And I have already made my usual pronouncement that I am not helping with dishes.  Three days of cooking is enough work for this "holiday," although even with all the work, I must confess that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Greens, reds and rainbows

One thing I'm fond of doing (as I'm sure most of you are as well if you have any kind of edible plants growing on your property) is snacking as you walk through the garden.  Right now the pineapple guavas are ripened and falling off the bushes -- what wonderful treasure to find under the trees!  I am sure I get a good part of my body's micronutrients from these and the pomegranates that are also ripe this time of year.

Sometimes I lament when it's too late in the day to get outside and pick some lettuce for an evening's salad, but with some of these fruits sitting in a bowl on the counter, there's no reason I can't boost my "fruit and vegetable" servings just a bit by snacking on them in the evening after work, instead of something more processed and unhealthy.

And while those short days do make me feel like I don't always get enough time out in the garden, the winery has its own set of pleasures, like this late-afternoon rainbow we saw over the vineyard a few days ago.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Is being alone always a good thing?

Is solitude over-rated?

This morning I am wrapping up chores so I can go to the winery a little later on for my afternoon shift.  I love my job, but there is no question that on cold, cloudy mornings like this my first instincts are to hunker down in the quiet comforts of pasture, fireside and kitchen instead of heading away from the homestead for the sometimes crazy, lively bustle of life behind the wine bar.

There are even times when I think I should go ahead and retire, or at least find a job where I can work from home; standing behind the bar all day and sometimes lifting cases of wine is difficult physical labor, especially if you're over 50. It's especially hard on the feet, legs, and back.  But like exercising and cooking dinner, I can honestly say that my job at the winery is something I enjoy once I'm there.  

And usually, once I'm in the midst of pouring Rousanne and discussing the finer elements of Rhone varietals or telling out of town visitors about the great restaurants in town, the thought of being at home becomes a distant memory -- something I know is there for tomorrow, or the next day, but which can wait.

The bottom line is that I intend to keep working, the same way I intend to keep exercising, and for the exact same reason:  Social skills are like muscles, and once you stop using them, they atrophy -- they shrink, they weaken, and it's much harder to get them moving again, when you need to. 

I'm thinking of several women I know who have moved to the country in search of new, more rural lives, who are not the better -- at all -- for all that tranquility and time alone.  For some, I have seen an actual break with reality -- the desire-turned-into-wish-turned-into-belief they are living the fictional-type life of a movie or book character, or that they are living in a certain era, with an exclusion, suspicion, or outright derision of all that lies outside of that restrictive boundary.  

A couple of others I know decided there was no longer any good reason to bathe regularly or wear clean clothes.  And sometimes, the prolonged isolation just shows up through a distinct lack of social skills, which can sometimes get rusty as the person spends more and more time with only their own company to keep and only their own opinions, thoughts and voice to listen to.

I'm not knocking time alone -- I am, by nature, an introvert, and after any social gathering I tend to find myself physically craving several hours of peaceful time alone to balance the scales.  But like any balance, the scale can also tip the other way at times, and sitting atop my hill, performing tasks alone and only seeing my husband for companionship become things I realize I need to break away from, in order to keep my "social muscles" flexed and strong so they are toned and ready to put to use when I need them.

  My rural life might be different and less isolated if I had several kids of school age running through the house, as we did years ago, but as I've grown into an almost-empty nester, I've realized more than ever that I don't want to give in to the eccentricities and quirks that come from rarely interacting with another human. And it's easier to do than you'd imagine, when you live in a place where you can avoid actual human interaction for days or even weeks.

And so, it's into the car, down the hill, and then behind the wine bar I go in order to chat, schmooze, joke around, and generally pretend I'm an extrovert for a few afternoons a week.  It's the equivalent of a gym membership for my social skills, and they're muscles that usually feel good to flex, once I put myself out there and do it.  

It's use it or lose it, whether you're talking about your biceps or your ability to shoot the breeze.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

At Home

I'm telling you, this is absolutely my favorite time of year.  There is a deeper blue to the sky which only happens when the sun is sitting farther to the south, plus we get more clouds than we do in summer. I just feel my soul sing when I look up and see it. 

This afternoon it's been brisk and breezy here at the homestead, and I've happily been cleaning out the chicken mansion and adding fresh bedding.  In the outside run I've added about five inches of straw, just to give the girls something to scratch through and to break down and make some good compost, along with their own waste products. Changing out all the bedding has been moderately good exercise, and something I can easily do without needing the heavy-lifting capabilities of either Big Ag or Groceries, both of whom are occupied with putting rain gutters on the new barn as we speak.

So I've been happily trundling back and forth from the chicken coop to the fallow vegetables beds with a wheelbarrow filled with old bedding, just feeling the cold wind on my face and smelling the deep, comforting smell of burning oakwood from one of the neighboring farm's fireplaces.

This is the life I have chosen, and I can't imagine being happy in any other kind of life.  Dirt, manure, blue skies, white clouds, woodsmoke and flannel.  It's beautiful.

When you homestead, it's easy to take for granted the things that once thrilled your soul, and its important not to let that happen. Like religion, love, or anything we discover and pursue with passion, we can easily lose the fire, so to speak, once we've arrived. 

So it's at the moment we arrive (as well as all the moments afterward) that we need to begin a quest for continual revival in our souls -- a deliberate and conscious stirring up of the passion for those things we brought into our lives because, once upon a time, we couldn't imagine living without them. 

The fire can't be permanently renewed from new toys, new animals, new hobbies, or new projects.  For the long term, you have to be able to renew that fire just from what you have right now.  If it requires a constant influx of  the new or the different, you are destined to be a wandering, hungry ghost in this world, no matter where you live.

 This week I made soap, made some homemade Bailey's Irish Cream (recipe to follow next week) and did a lot of cooking from our canned goods and stored veggies from summer.  It's easy to just consider this the daily grind of country life, but I think its important to stop and think about each task, remembering the thrill I had the very first time I did each of them. Because for me, the country life is not the life I started out with.

This morning while I was inside, I was listening to a station called "Mellow Miles" (Davis) on Songza while I did my chores, and the soft and low tones of the saxophone reminded me of another life -- a life of late evenings spent in low-lit restaurants high above the city, watching the reflection of rain on the streets below, changing through liquid golds, greens and reds as they caught the lights of the traffic signals and streetlights. That was a beautiful life too, just not the one I ultimately chose. But the honeyed tones of a low saxophone playing a slow song can bring it all back, and I still see the beauty in it I saw way back then.

There is beauty to be found in many places, at different times in your life, and as long as you can look out your window and see something that makes your soul do a little flip-flop of happiness, or you can step outside and catch a whiff of fresh air and it smells like comfort and peace to you, then you are where you need to be in the here and now. 

If you are in the right place, that's all it will take to renew your passion and purpose in your life...whether its the deep blue of a country sky on a November afternoon or the reflection of a city traffic light on wet pavement at 2 a.m., set to a soundtrack of Miles Davis.  That's all it will take.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Season of Green

Green is slowly returning

November typically marks the return of green to our area, after what always seems to be an endlessly long and brown summer.  We've had an inch and a half of rain over the last couple of weeks -- not enough to end our drought, but definitely enough to replenish the dry ground to a point where the green grasses and other native brush are just starting to emerge again.

Not just grass, but roses too!

When people come into the winery at the end of the summer and I tell them that in November all those brown hills will emerge in a kind of green haze which will grow and become more colorful until we positively look like Ireland by springtime, they always look at me like I'm slightly daft. After all, the vineyard grapes are turning various shades of brown, orange and yellow by then, which is what most folks typically equate with fall. But for us, November not only marks the end of the grape-growing season, but also green season for everything else -- everything native -- and this will last until about June.

And even the backyard vegetable gardens start to spring forth with new life again, as winter gardening is not only possible, but quite popular here. Truly, fall, winter and spring in this area are the seasons of life. Summer is for surviving. 

I know some folks love fall for the beautiful turning trees and the coming of snow, but for me, I'm always excited to see the return of green after many long, brown months.

Pretty red pomegranates, ripe for the picking.  

Onions, scallions and lettuces are coming up, too.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Soap-making and other catch-up chores

I've known for awhile now that our soap supplies were winding down, but wanted to wait for a cool day before voluntarily standing at the stove melting the solid oils that are part of my soap recipe (which changes, depending on my mood and what I have on hand, but there is always at least one solid oil and one liquid one). 

Depending on the oils you use, sometimes it can take awhile and besides, there are so many summer activities that beckon during the warmer months... there are tomatoes to can, greens to harvest, tomatoes to can, beaches to walk on, and oh, did I mention tomatoes to can?  

Ya, but that's all over now. Soapmaking is a great fall/winter activity.

I generally make enough soap to last for about a year, which means that I can choose the day I make our year's supply of soap.  I generally wait until I have about three bars from the last batch left, as soap takes several weeks to cure, so a little time to sit in the cupboard will only result in a more gentle and mild soap -- a good thing for those of us with sensitive skin.

 Soapmaking is not difficult at all, but does require fairly careful calculations in order to assure your soap will be of a firm consistency and not too strong -- after all, lye is a caustic and if you're going to be using it to make something which will come in direct contact with your skin, you just can't be too careful. And it does require a close adherence to the directions, or the results can range from disgusting to downright dangerous.

But if you are willing to follow directions and observe a reasonable amount of comment sense, soapmaking is easy and fun.

The most amazing thing about making soap is that you can take a caustic substance and a bunch of oils and through a miracle called "saponification,"which happens when you mix the oils, the lye and the water together in a specific way, it renders the oils totally non-oily and renders the lye gentle enough to clean your skin without irritation. In short, it makes an entirely new substance.

This time around, I decided to make a deliciously fragrant soap out of cocoa butter, shea butter, olive oil, and vegetable oil.  The house smells wonderful right now, and soon I will have lovely bars of soap curing in their molds.

If you have any interest in soapmaking, there is a great website which can take you through each step, and which also has a great lye calculator so you know how much lye and liquid to add to your oils, as well as how to safely do it.

It's here:

Later this afternoon I am harvesting some pomegranates for fresh juice (always a pleasure to have at this time of year) and planting some more onions.  It's nice to have an entire day devoted only to the homestead.  

Monday, November 3, 2014

It's all about the judges, baby.

If it moves you, baby.

This is the time of year when newspaper reporters, bloggers and Facebook posters all send out this popular message:  You need to vote!  Exercise your American rights at the ballot box!

From the admittedly cynical point where this 50-something lady now stands, there is only one reason to vote, but that reason is not the commonly held idea, which is to elect the politician who have made the most appealing promises or smeared their opponent the best, or the proposition which you think is a necessary and good thing (although that last one can be important in many cases, if it's a legally sound idea).

Oddly enough, the people you vote for that have the greatest impact on your community and your state are -- by far -- the judges up for election or re-election (who almost nobody pays much attention to), and, also, the people who have the power to appoint judges, at the state or national level.  That is, in my opinion, the most powerful reason to get out there and vote.

Judges have more power in this nation than anyone else, mainly because at the appeals level they can affirm or strike down convictions, rulings and even majority-voted-in laws which might or might not end up being constitutional, depending on the judges' viewpoint.  

Look at the recent striking-down of gay marriage bans, the upholding or defeat of anti-abortion laws, or any search and seizure or privacy rights case that's gone to the state or supreme court level to see what I mean.  Look at locally-passed laws which make their way up through the court system as they are appealed. These are the decisions which can affect your county, state or nation, as well as you as an individual.  Sure, we may vote for this law or that one, this proposition or that one.  But ultimately, our decisions can be swept away or affirmed in a heartbeat by one judge's or appeals court's ruling.

If you decide to vote tomorrow, which is totally up to you, don't forget the judges and those who appointment them.  Those are the folks who absolutely will be making final decisions on things which will affect your life and the place you live in over the next several years, possibly longer.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Slow Time

"Cozy Cabin," by Judy Gibson

The clocks went back an hour yesterday, meaning that we're once again on Slow Time.  Many years ago, some folks in the midwest began calling Daylight Savings Time "Fast Time" and Standard Time "Slow Time," which I think is a marvelous and incredibly accurate description of both.

All day today I've felt like the day has been longer, and that I've accomplished more than I had in the rush of activities that comprised my days for the last several months.  When the time changes over to Daylight Savings Time (Fast Time), for instance, I can often be heard muttering, "Holy s#it, I can't believe it's this late already," as I dash out the back door to bring in the wash from the clothesline at 7 p.m.

But all that's over now... at least for a few sweet months.

As a fitting crescendo of Fast Time craziness, the last few weeks have been a blur of activities for Big Ag and myself.  We had a busy harvest season at the winery.  We hosted two parties here, one a sit-down dinner for 14 and another a pot-luck for 40.  And a charity I work part-time for had a big event I managed.  

I also had three minor events happen to me in the last week -- small things, really -- which lowered my spirits and made me long for a few days to lick my wounds, deep house.  First, I almost got my car towed on Halloween, through a mistake that truly was not my fault.  Second, a weird friend started acting even weirder than usual.  And lastly, my boss corrected a mistake I'd made at work in a way that stung, even though it was admittedly my own fault.  

But when it's Fast Time, it can feel at times like there's no time to heal from the minor bumps and bruises of life, something which is best done away from everyone and the crazy social agendas we sometimes foist on ourselves (or have foisted on us). And for the record, it's not the major tragedies which I think account for the sadness and malaise modern living often inflicts upon us. It's the little things, over and over, which eventually just add up to feeling sad, frustrated, and feeling like you just can't catch a break (although not getting my car towed was a huge break, I realize). 

I'm sure the Roman Empire did not end through one catastrophic tragedy, but rather through a slow erosion of fortunate circumstances. And so it is with our moods sometimes.

And so today, on this first day of Slow Time, I've found myself incredibly happy to be at home, deep in the comfort of the familiar, with no one to entertain, to make lively conversation with, or to answer to. Big Ag is napping in his chair, and the pellet stove is keeping us warm with its familiar clinking sound as the pellets fall into the hopper, giving us a cheery fire. The ground outside is wet from a good, soaking rain, and the so-called "civilized" world (generally not known for being particularly civil) feels far away. 

Slow Time is good for listening to quiet music, good for reading, making casseroles, and good for getting home at 4 p.m., in order to feel tucked into warmth and comfort by the time the sun sets. There's nothing wrong with long nights spent in a comfortable chair with a good book or your Kindle, in my opinion.  It's hugely under-rated activity by most folks, but not here at the homestead. 

Even though there are still tomatoes and eggplant on the vines and more onions, lettuce and scallions to plant, that's OK.  There's more than enough time to do these things in Slow Time and not feel rushed. The newly-ripe pomegranates will also get harvested in due time and there will be sweet, tart  juice to brighten up the cooler days. There will be more rain, more darkness, and more time by the fire. And wine, of course.

It's Slow Time, once again.  Hallelujah.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Christmas Eve for CA Farmers!

There's a lot of green on the regional radar today, meaning there is a good chance of significant precipitation within the next 48 hours.  And I do mean significant, nothing like the drizzles and sputters we've had over the last 190 days or so.

That's right.  Here in the mid-latitudes of the great state of California, it's been 190 days since we've seen any rain whatsoever. And the six months or so before that only gave us about 5 inches or so.

To say it's dry is an understatement. But all that's going to end tonight, meaning today feels like Christmas Eve, for farmers anyway.  All day long we'll be watching the approach of the storm like children waiting for Santa, seeing if the front is strengthening (great!) or weakening (no!) and looking for those squall lines heading in our direction.

Most of us in this area are on good, deep wells, but our water has a very high minerality that, over time, can damage both the soil and the crops that are grown in it.  Minerals like calcium and magnesium are fine in small amounts, but without several good downpours, they will remain in the soil, next to the roots, and eventually diminish yields and damage fruit.  So we need rain.  Boy do we.

Of course we have not yet made it to Home Depot to buy our big rain barrels for attaching to our downspouts, but with 190 or so days of dust, dirt and who knows what else built up on our roof, perhaps the water from this first gully-washer is not the best water to save anyway.

But hopefully it's the start of a long and wet season for us.  We're hoping Santa brings us an early delivery of water that just keeps on coming.  That's all this farmer wants for Christmas, anyway.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

To Vet or not to Vet


Our dog Sputnik recently took a spill off Big Ag's lap onto the hardwood floor and developed a limp earlier this week.  Since I spent some time working in a vet's office as an assistant in the past, I knew how to examine the leg and his joints to make sure nothing was broken or his hip dislocated.  But the question always comes up when you own either livestock or pets:  When do you call in the services of the vet?

One thing I can tell you about vets today that was probably not widely true 100 years ago is that "growing your practice" is a huge goal among many new veterinarians.  There are constant advertisements and junk mail which arrive at your friendly neighborhood vet's office encouraging them in this.  Breakout sessions like "how to increase your profit margins," "how to effectively have your existing clients increase your bottom line," and "how more testing = more profits and better care" is not uncommon to see. It's all quite out in the open.  Some vets buy into it, some do not, and for us pet owners the trick can be telling the difference before our checkbook becomes drained.

But it's a little more complex than that too, because the ones who do buy into it -- who have taken the workshops and seminars -- actually have a good justification for doing so.  After all, spending more on each animal that comes through the door is not only good for business, it's good for the animal.  Tale this example scenario:  

You bring your dog into the vet with what seems to be a bladder infection.  An old school vet will send your dog home with an antibiotic or sulfa drug and tell you if it's not better within a few days to come back in. Hopefully that will fix things -- most of the time it will -- but not all the time.

 A new school vet will insist on running a blood panel to check for infection and kidney function, while also strongly encouraging you to allow them to do a bladder ultrasound,  in order to rule out cysts or tumors.  

The visit to the old school vet will cost you about $60 bucks (office visit plus meds).  The visit to the new school vet will set you back about $400 that or more, if you agree to their diagnostic protocol. But there's no question that all those tests improve the chances of diagnosing your dog's issue correctly.  The question is, do you want to spend that much, or take your chances on the pills and see what happens?

We're now in the position where we can provide first-world health care to our pets, if we so choose.  If your dog has a tumor, you can now see that he gets chemotherapy. But is that kind of care in the pet's best interest?  That's a highly personal question for the owner, and delves into a moral area that's as grey as a foggy day at the beach. I'm not sure I could put my pet through chemotherapy, because I'm not even sure I'd want to do it myself, if I had a serious case of cancer.

Of course if you're raising livestock, you also have to draw the line on what does and does not warrant a large-animal vet call.  We would not call the vet out for a chicken, for example, but would for a sheep or goat.  We would not do expensive MRIs or ultrasounds on any outside animal, and only on our inside pets if it would lead to a simple and damn-near guaranteed successful treatment protocol. 

We euthanize when necessary, whether it is a dog, chicken, or horse that is suffering and not expected to survive. But if the animal could survive, then we will do what we can, within certain financial limits.  We've spent good money treating colicky horses because it's an easily treated condition with complete recovery and many more years of life possible afterward.  But when faced with end-stage incurable Equine Cushings disease (this after many months of providing hugely expensive imported prescription meds to try and treat the lesser symptoms of it) we chose to have the vet come and euthanize our horse, rather than allow her to suffer.

So you do what you can and try and trust your instincts.  Regarding the most recently injured animal here, my own instincts were thankfully correct; after giving Sputnik half a baby aspirin and making him rest for a few days, his strained leg appears to be healing rapidly. But in this day and age, it's very difficult to know how much its appropriate to spend on a sick animal, whether it's the sheep out in your field or the cat on your lap.  

But I think the motto of not wanting our animal charges to suffer unnecessarily is always a good yardstick.