Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Nebraska, the Good Life

This past week, Ute and I were visiting my parents. As many of you are well aware (let's face it, 99% of you, my precious few readers, are friends or family), I hail from a smallish town in Nebraska, population approximately 25,000. I didn't grow up on a farm or anything. Rather I would be considered "city folk" by the majority of Nebraskans since there is a Kmart AND a Walmart in my hometown. But I did grow up on the edge of town across the street from an alfalfa field, began working in the corn fields detasseling seed corn at the tender age of 12, was a member of 4-H, and raised rabbits. The latter was actually illegal. I often marvel at the fact that I would never be able to raise my current critters within the city limits of my hometown. Even though our house was situated on a rural route for mail delivery, we were technically within city limits and therefore could not keep small livestock animals within a 50 yard distance of any dwelling. And for those of you out there who are spatially challenged, 50 yards is like a long distance, even in land o' plenty small towns.

Whenever I return to my roots, I expect to eat the typical Midwestern diet and engage in the standard activities, respectively eating fast food, fast food, and more fast food, and sitting in an overly air conditioned home watching television. Well, when in Rome. However, this last visit held so many unexpected culinary and pastime delights. Here are some of the highlights:

swimming at the super awesome water park with Grammy Betty,

admiring the neighbor's flower garden on evening strolls around the block,

eating local cuisine (I was so shocked to see that this trend has reached the Midwest.) at places like The Back Alley Bakery,

which carried a wide array of locally grown, organic grains

and fancy cheeses,

and, hands down, the best kolaches I have ever eaten,

feeding ducks and ducklings at the park,

watching crazy thunderstorms with dark ominous clouds on one half of the sky and a bright shining sun on the other,

gallivanting around the county fair

where I took Ute and her cousin, Zane, on throw-up rides,

watched the 4-H pygmy goat show,

with some pretty uncooperative goats,

and saw this cute little boy win Grand Champion for his cockerel at the poultry show,

visiting my friend Dan's cabin on the North Platte River where he took us pontooning,

and frog catching,

and wading in the lovely river,

and best of all, spending quality time with the Kooy family.

What a wonderful trip! But I'm glad to be back on the farm. I know my DDF is relieved. Taking care of all the plants and animals, working at his regular construction job, and simultaneously helping build the retaining wall in the backyard has really taken its toll. And there's so much for me to do here at home. All the animals' quarters need cleaning, the chickens need feed, Miss Lorraine needs to start her 3 day injection of antibiotics for her eye infection that is not clearing up, there is a tree full of apples that needs to be picked, and a couple tons of apples that need to be processed or stored. Come to think of it, I better get off this computer and get to work.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ingredient Based Cooking

The other day my friend Juan was elucidating on the two main methods of cooking: ingredient based verses recipe, he being a fan of the former. I find myself partial to using a combo of the two, demonstrated by today's latest concoction. So what does one actually do with slightly under ripe-ish sour apples, overripe plums, and perfectly mature peaches? Make a crisp, of course!

Here's my basic recipe:
  • Fill a pie pan with fruit like strawberries, blueberries, any kind of berries really, peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots, apples - whatever strikes your fancy. Feel free to make wild combinations. You really can't mess this up. Although I don't know if I would recommend melons or citrus.
  • Make a crumble topping by combining 1 stick of softened butter, 1 cup of brown sugar, and 1 cup of flour. I usually use my hands to mix it really well and make it crumbly, but a fork or one of those pastry blenders that gets the butter and flour to stick together work well too. Sometimes I add oatmeal, cinnamon, or nuts. Pour crumble on top of fruit.
  • Bake at 350 for 45 minutes, or 1 hour if you've got apples in there.
It's so yummy, especially fresh out of the oven. Just ask Ute. Look at her, she can barely wait for it to cool.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

This Is a Really Happy Post about Free Stuff

I realize that going into graphic detail about chicken executions and calling folks names has the potential to alienate my readership. Therefore, I promise that this will be a pleasant roundup of the past week's events. But just for the record, in the future when I use the word "you", it's like the collective you, not the individual you. So don't take being called a pussy so personally. Up until last week, I considered myself amongst that ilk. Well enough of that. Let's move on to the topic of free stuff.

I went to the Farmer's Market this past week, looking for apricots to make my absolute favorite jam recipe. Frankly, I don't care too much for fresh apricots. Too mealy. I believe they are much better cooked in crisps, tarts, and jams. The apricot season was nearing its close and the organic fruit stand that I am most loyal to had only about 10 tiny orange pieces of produce drowning in their over sized crate. I asked if this would be the last week for the apricots and as the stand attendant said it might well be, I spied 2 boxes of damaged fruit. The man told me I could take as much as I wanted. Since you don't need pretty fruit to make jam, this was like Christmas in July. I hoarded as many of those sticky nuggets that I could fit into my bag, discarding any that had disintegrated to complete mush. I got 6 pints out of my lot gratis, which should get us through the year.

This summer, in lieu of cable TV, we've been relying heavily on the goats for entertainment. Unlike the former, it's free, which is always welcome in a recession.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

I'm Not a Virgin Anymore

And I don't mean sex, you perverts! I popped my killing cherry today and let's just say that there was a lot more crying with this one. More like hysterics, but that's beside the point.

Last night I came to the conclusion that Pearl was not just suffering from an upper respiratory infection, as she had become completely paralysed in the legs over the last few days. I searched and searched the web for illnesses that included both cold symptoms and paralysis and came up with nothing. I had thought she might have Coryza because her breath and boogers smelled like a strong cheese, but when I brought Pearl into the barn, I mean garage, she didn't stink up the whole place with the putrid scent of rotting meat. Apparently, that's how you know for sure your bird's got Coryza. I used some VetRx to help with the upper respiratory crud, which helped her to breathe through her nostrils, but she was quickly losing her ability to stand on her legs. When I pressed against her feet, she had no reflex response. Pearl was not great at roosting, having never been able to quite grasp that bar with her claws. But I chalked that up to her being a bit runty. And though she was a feather legged Cuckoo Maran, she was scant in leg feathers. These 2 things were a sign of something much more hideous and insidious than Coryza. This was the dreaded Marek's. Prior to the introduction of a vaccine in the 1970s, Marek's, which is a herpes virus and a cancer, caused huge economic losses for the poultry industry because of its high mortality rate and the fact that once infected, a bird is a carrier for life. In the 80s and 90s, super virulent strains of this disease began to sweep across the U.S. and Europe, and is so widespread today that the title of an article I recently read sums it up entirely, "If Your Chickens Breath, They've Been Exposed to Marek's". I believe Pearl probably came from a hatchery in Iowa that purposely doesn't vaccinate in order to breed for resistance. In theory, I agree with this method, though it did put me in a bit of a pickle.

Some birds recover from Marek's. I was hoping that Pearl would be one of them. But last night when I checked on her before I went to bed, I knew this wouldn't be the case. She was laying on her side, gaping her mouth wide whenever she drew a breath. This was a problem. You see, my DDF was not in town. Having hunted with his father when he was a kid, he's like a professional compared to me when it comes to killing stuff. But he had taken our daughter to Fresno; she is staying the week with her grandparents. I prayed that Pearl would pass in the night. It's a funny thing for an atheist to do, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I knew I couldn't keep her alive like this, but I was also too chicken to do the deed (pun totally intended). But I told myself that if she was still with us in the morning, I would have to put her out of her misery.

Well if there is a god, he clearly doesn't hear the prayers of atheists. For a split second, when I first checked the box after my morning chores, I thought Pearl had gone. She lay on her side stiff as a board. But when I looked at her face, she was still breathing. I began to cry. I couldn't get out of it now. I promised myself I wouldn't let her suffer one more day like this. I picked her up and held her. Told her in a sobbing voice how much I loved her and that she was a good chicken. My sobs turned to hysterics when I began my litany of apologies for what I was about to do. I asked for her forgiveness and that I hoped I could do this as painlessly as possible.

I wasn't exactly sure how to kill a chicken without any blood shed, but remembered the self-explanatory sign language description that my father-in-law performed for me at last week's 4th of July family gathering. This entailed a quick whipping of the chicken over one's head like a cowboy throwing a frantic lasso from which I read, twist neck fast and hard. I held one hand on Pearl's head and the other at the base of her neck, readying myself to do the wringing, but by this time my crying had reached a feverish pitch interjected by pathetic pleas of "I don't want to do this. Please don't make me do this." But I knew I had to. I couldn't let Pearl go on like this until the DDF returned later in the evening. I jostled her to see if she would suddenly open her eyes and stand on her own feet again, as if my shaking had some potent magical powers. Sadly, I have no such powers. I tried again, hands in position, but failed to complete the act when I had suddenly awoken to the fact that I was going to kill my daughter's pet with my bare hands. I once again drifted back to pathetic pleading. I didn't allow myself to go on for too long. I drew a deep breath, counted to 3 and twisted. I heard the disturbing crackle of breaking bones and began to relax thinking that my job was done. Like I'm that lucky. Pearl was still breathing. How could that be possible? So I quickly twisted again in a panicked effort to put an end to this. Her neck wobbled and she oozed a thick liquid from her mouth, but she was STILL FUCKING BREATHING! At this point I found myself screeching "Die Pearl. Please die!" Obviously I hold no juju in the life and death arena. I couldn't think of what to do next. I couldn't bear the fact that I was drawing out her pain. Should I get a shovel and smack her over the head? Way too violent. I settled on covering her nostrils with my fingers whilst holding her beak closed. She continued to make efforts to breathe, flapped her wings, then released a foul smelling fluid from her vent and went limp. It took at least a minute. I don't have to tell you that this was the longest minute of my life. But I had to do it, right?

I cried like I've never cried before, howling near the door of the garage. It was the only place I could think to do the killing where the other animals wouldn't see what I was doing. The goats are already distrustful. No need to add any fuel to that fire. I walked out the back door to look for a box in the yard. I was trembling from head to toe. The goats stopped their goaty games and eyed me suspiciously. I went back to clean up the residuals of Pearl's death throws, placed her in the box, and brought her to the far corner of the backyard where we will bury her under the cement retaining wall that is being built this week. I wretched for a solid five minutes. Good thing I hadn't eaten breakfast.

I'm sure you all are wondering why I gave such a gruesomely detailed description of "the deed" without even a warning. Frankly, I think all of you pussies divorced from the reality of growing food should have to take a good hard look at how that food gets to your table. There's a lot of killing that goes on out there, even when it comes to eggs, which I'm sure a lot of you have assumed involves no killing at all. Wrong. Go read Michael Pollan's The Omnivores Dilemma. It's a real eye opener in regards to the egg industry. And all you vegans out there sitting on your high horses thinking you have no blood on your hands, think again. Growing vegetables, even on a small scale, involves a great deal of death. And I'm not talking about bugs. Gophers, moles, voles, rats, mice, birds: they all want those vegetables. They'll do what they have to do to get those juicy treats. And the farmer will do what she has to in order to prevent excessive crop loss. Chew on that the next time you're crunching on a carrot with your pompous "I don't eat meat" swagger.

R.I.P. Pearl. I'm truly sorry.

P.S. I'm sorry I called you pussies. I don't mean to take it out on you, but it's been a rough day. I need a hug.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

This May Be More Than a Trend

I'm so excited for Hobby Farm's new magazine, Urban Farm, to hit the stands in August. Maybe one day Itty Bitty will be featured in it. Well I can dream, can't I?

Just goes to show that this urban farming business may have some staying power, if someone actually wants to devote an entire magazine to it. I, for one, am thrilled that there is enough interest to make this happen. Finally, a magazine for me and my kooky ways. See mom and dad, I'm not the only crazy one out there.

But seriously, the world is changing. We are pioneers of future city life, ripping out our yards to make room for things that will nurture our bodies as well as our souls. Maybe more of us will find ourselves gardening our little plots of earth, connecting ourselves to our food in a more intimate way. My dad says I'm an idealist, but really I think I'm very practical. We all know industrial agribusiness is an unsustainable future. Viva la granja urbana!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I really wanted to write an upbeat post about all the delicious foods I've been whipping up in my fabulous retro kitchen. However, the vicissitudes of life on the farm preclude me from doing so. There is much to report since my last post. I will try to be brief.

The Good

I made a lot of great stuff from scratch, like these loaves of bread:

And these precious 3 jars of loquat jam. About a third of the loquats came from our tree and the rest from a friend's backyard.

Ute and her friend Zoe and I went to pick Ollalieberries in Pescadero, but the crop this year was completely abysmal. After 2 hours of picking in the hot sun, without a lot of help from the short set, I gleaned approximately 2 pounds of berries. No Ollalieberry jam this year. So we went next door for some strawberries. Again the girls didn't quite take to task, as illustrated in their mostly empty berry baskets.

But I got some more red juiciness for the freezer and a few pints of jam out of the deal.

Other foods included pita bread, hummus - cooked those chickpeas and everything -, and yogurt, which turned out a bit grainy. Tasted fine, but I guess to get that real creamy texture that you find in the store you have to add pectin, gelatin, guar gum, or other additives. I used an electric mixer to smooth it out. It kinda worked.

In other news, we are making a lot of progress in the backyard with the help of our friend Daymon. He's building the fence, digging trenches, pouring concrete, and moving crap around so that we can move the animals to their more permanent location in the yard.

The little chooks have finally graduated to the big house. I wasn't quite ready to do that since Pearl is still sick, but it was either move them out of the garage or end up in divorce court. I chose my marriage over the chickens, which I hope is happy news to my DDF (Dear Disgruntled Farmhand). And after just under a week of separation from the flock, foot soaks, and antibiotics, Sweet Pea's toe is doing great.

The goats are fabulous. They are not tame yet, but are eating out of our hands. We are moving in the right direction.

The Bad

Poor Sweet Pea. Her toe was getting so much better and then I had to go and almost kill her again. I must have some weird karmic relationship with that bird because I keep inadvertently trying to do her in. I was cleaning out the chicken house, keeping the birds on the other side of a low, makeshift partition - think scrap plywood board - and things were going swell. I had to move in and out of the coop to bring the hose and the bucket of soap, etc., but I checked the door every time to make sure I wasn't squishing any meandering peeps. On my way back from one trip, I noticed that Lorraine was trying to fly over the partition and sneak out under the coop (usually this area is blocked off by aforementioned plywood board). So I pushed the run back, hoping to keep her in for a few seconds longer so I could get the board back in place. I went to put the board back, opened the door and noticed that Sweet Pea seemed stuck between a cinder block and the bottom board of the door frame. Then I realized that she wasn't stuck between, she was jammed underneath the run, the entire weight of it crushing down on her little body. I freaked. I screamed. Loud. Probably scared the neighbors. I swept Sweet Pea up and brought her into the garage so that Ute could tend to her. Ute starting crying that Sweet Pea was going to die. I assured her that she just needed to rest after her ordeal. She was still breathing. A little limp, but breathing. Meanwhile the hose that I was using to wash down the coop was leaking, spraying water everywhere. The chicks by now had all escaped, running underneath the coop and out into the neighbor's yard. It was utter chaos. But don't worry, this tale ends well. I collected the chicks, turned off the water, secured the coop, and brought Sweet Pea upstairs to watch Barney with Ute. The TV worked like a charm and Sweet Pea is again right as rain. Ute... well I will put some money in the therapy jar for this one.

The Ugly

This is the most difficult news to report. Pearl is not doing well. This morning she seemed more lethargic than usual and extremely stuffy and sneezy. Miss Lorraine recovered from this cold/conjunctivitis thing rather quickly. Pearl just seems to get worse every day. This afternoon I went to take some photos and I found her looking miserable. I picked her up and she drooped in my hands like a rag doll. I laid her down while I went to find a box to separate her from the others and she went limp on her side. I thought she would die then and there, but she continued to breath. She is now closed off inside the kitchen where I've been keeping her hydrated and dosing her with Sweet Pea's antibiotics. Normally I wouldn't give a chicken antibiotics, but since they are not laying yet and I don't have a very large flock, I want to prevent as much death as possible. Although I didn't suspect Coryza at first, I'm now thinking that this may be what is going around the flock as Pearl is displaying the telltale sign of foul smelling breath along with the other upper respiratory symptoms. Three of the young chicks seem to be immune to whatever this is. I keep hearing her sneezes and croaky chirps from the kitchen so I'm assuming Pearl is still giving it a fight. Please think healthy thoughts for this poor chook. Ute will be devastated if she loses her chicken.