muddy feet memoirs

The Chronicle of My Comeback

Category: Food

A Time for Culling and Planting

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The garden is an embarrassment.  Tall, dead weeds tower over my head, apples on the ground, tomatoes past their prime seeding the beds with next year’s volunteers.  Yes, I can blame grief.  But it’s September and it’s time to get out there and reclaim what’s mine.

It’s also time to cull some livestock.  Five young rabbits and a turkey need to be killed, and a few small hens need new homes or to become stew.  I haven’t killed anything since Jay died and I find myself reticent, but I must get back in the saddle and do what needs doing.

I’m parring down, looking at my garden with new perspective.

I like planning the garden in September, though the clean-up is always daunting and this year even more so. I’m also designing for two eaters, not five, so I am thinking differently about my priorities when it comes to veggies.  And meat.

For instance, historically I wrote off certain crops because they weren’t productive enough – kohlrabi, for instance.  A kohlrabi plant grows one globe, and once harvested is done producing, so it seemed a less viable use of garden space than it’s similar but more productive cousin – broccoli.  Broccoli would win the bed, though kholrabi is Stella’s favorite.  Not this year.  I’m growing for two now, not five – I can afford to devote a 12ft bed to kohlrabi if I want to.  New life, new garden.

Other crops for the Sept/Oct planting window:  12ft bed of carrots (a kid’s garden can never have enough!), a 4×4 bed of shallots (my last attempt after two failed years – hoping a new vendor will do the trick), the final 12ft bed split between broccoli and cauliflower, two rotating 4×4 beds of potatoes with shelling peas along their trellises (yes, I plant peas in October), and a final 4×4 bed for garlic.  I will let the remainder of the beds rest, pumping them up with rabbit poop, chicken coop hay, and wood ash throughout the winter.

My few remaining laying hens will live in the small coop as I prepare the larger one for Spring’s meat bird influx.  Until then, we will pray for rain and enjoy the quiet.

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The Chronicle of My Comeback

Unmade Bed, Sally Strand sallystrand.com

“Unmade Bed”        Sally Strand

 

This morning I changed the tagline of this blog.  It used to read “Growing Kids, Raising Vegetables, Building Family, and Facing Cancer.”  Now it simply reads “The Chronicle of My Comeback.”

My first blog post was written right before I collected Jay from the hospital, just after his first lung surgery.  In fact I was late picking him up because I was so enthralled with the start of it!  Muddy Feet Memoirs was meant to be a forum to explore our backyard farming and self-sufficiency experiments, but over time it became a cancer blog more than anything else. Now I’m not sure what it is.

I’m back down to one kid, Stella, though I look forward to when Quinn and Mac decide to run away from their awful mother and come back.  Door’s always open.

My garden has gone to seed, though Food Rescue keeps me pretty well stocked with produce.  It’s hard to relearn how to cook for one or two, and I feel kind of deflated when I garden without Jay, but my backyard homestead is the cornerstone of my future, so back in the saddle I climb.

I am writing a book.  I am finishing Jay’s book.  I am raising a daughter alone.  I plan on selling heritage meats (chicken, turkey, rabbit), teaching canning workshops, stocking my larder and reclaiming my backyard farm.  I will grow herbs for my cancer-patient friends.  I will finish the grey water system and survive the drought.  I may or may not run for office again.  I’ll occasionally leave the house and make the scene.  I still wear my wedding ring and sleep on my side of the bed.  I will learn to enjoy solitude.

These are a few topics for Muddy Feet Memoirs 2.0, the chronicle of my comeback.  I’m actually starting to look forward to it.

 

Springing Forward – Today in Pictures

rabbitToday my first baby rabbits were born.  I’ve counted 5 so far.  They are little squirmy fingerling potatoes buried under hay & the fur of their mother.

hungry jay

Baby Jay continues to grow.  She has shed most of her down and started to fly a bit yesterday.  Today she is in a larger cage so that she may stretch her wings.

tomato bed

The tomatoes have been planted.

pickled cauliflower

Pickled cauliflower kicked off the canning season.

roses

The roses fill the air with perfume.

apples

Apples have gone from bud to fruit.

drying rack

Garlic and onions dry on the rack.

artichokes

Artichokes beg to be featured at every meal.

eggs

The chickens continue to pay their rent.

potatoe starts

Potato starts cure in anticipation of being planted this weekend.

quan Yin

And Quan Yin quietly keeps watch over the rosemary and favas.

Life goes on.  Thanks for stopping by.

 

Freezing Caramelized Onions

Today I am caramelizing onions again.  Since I love this recipe I thought I’d post it under a more descriptive title. It was originally entitled “More on preserving onions.”

 

 

Our mediocre onion crop has propelled me to explore how to best preserve onions when they cannot be stored long-term in a root cellar.  Many folks just chop & freeze them for use in future soup stock.  I can see the benefit in this if your family eats a lot of soup, but ours does not.  We plan on doing that with our substantial onion greens, but not our actual onions (see “Making the most of the meager”).  Tonight we tested my first frozen onion alternative – caramelized onions – and I have to say, it rocked!

To make it I filled a Crock-Pot with yellow onions, drizzled them with olive oil & “crocked” them for about 10 hours.  I started on Low but increased it to High some hours in because they didn’t seem interested in getting brown…   when I nail the timing I’ll re-post.

I then made “steak-sized” bundles on a cookie sheet and froze them as-is.  The entire Crock-Pot made 12 bundles of caramelized oniony goodness.  Once frozen into bundles I vacuum-sealed them with our food saver and put them in the deep-freeze.

Tonight we defrosted one package (two bundles) and included them in a yummy frittata with our fresh eggs.  They presented as if they were caramelized this evening!  Fresh, rich & amazing.  I can’t imagine not incorporating these delicious bundles into every meal we eat!

Author’s confession:  With the work we do through our non-profit Food Rescue we have a number of food agencies in Vallejo we serve.  One of our favorite agencies received a HUGE shipment of onions quickly going bad and had a hard time unloading them.  We experimented with those yellow onions, not the pathetic onions we grew in our own garden.

We are not ashamed to say we are a struggling family, and think this is a fine avenue for other struggling families when faced with a bumper donation of nearly-not-OK onions.

Bon-appétit and thanks for stopping by!

This Is What I Have Time For

Wet Garden

Late June rains – a delightful anomaly in Northern California, especially with the drought threatening our summer crops.  I can feel the garden growing!  Tomorrow I will attack the weeds that have entrenched themselves, and forage through the beds for the spontaneous produce brought on by the heat and the rain.

Jay’s cancer is spreading.  Like the weeds in the garden, some can be yanked out and some need to be poisoned.  I don’t use herbicides or pesticides in the garden, but I’m afraid it’s chemo time again for Jay.  Our last treatment option.

The canning season has begun in earnest with dilly beans, bread and butter pickles, and ketchup.  A bag of quickly rotting onions needs to be caramelized and frozen asap.  Soon the produce will start to pile up around us!  I must build more shelves in the basement – our pantry is already spilling out onto the floor.

I have started a farm – another farm – behind a cemetery where I will raise turkeys for Thanksgiving.  Heritage turkeys.  I have 3 attack geese (very friendly) and will one day have heritage hogs, maybe breed chickens, maybe ducks…  there are 4 sheep there now.  Quite a little laboratory!  I will take it slow, however.  I must remember that I can only handle so much these days.  The future needs me to hold a spot for it.

The kids are 2 weeks into summer vacation.  Much like 3 years ago, their summer will be shadowed by cancer and their fear of losing a parent.  They don’t know yet and I savor this transient fact.  Tonight Jay and I will listen to records real loud,  probably self medicate.  Maybe watch a comedy.  Be grateful for our life.

This is what I have time for now.

Food Stamps at Whole Foods

Groceries

Jay and I just got food stamps – in California it’s called CalFresh.  This was not something done out of desperation but out of excitement and zeal.  We continue to master the art of living well on very little, but still, there are some compromises I’d rather not be making.

For instance, cheap non-organic bread flour is about a quarter of the price of the ginchy stuff I prefer, so I tend to bake with Con-Agra instead of Giuisto’s.  CalFresh is going to change that.  Another example will be seen in our pantry this winter; through our non-profit Food Rescue we tend to supplement our garden’s produce with cast offs from the local Farmers’ Market vendors, but much of that produce is not organic.  CalFresh is going to change that, too.

Are you shocked?

I know there is a stigma to accepting assistance.  I think somewhere in the back of our minds – whether we identify as the Us’s (foodies with a budget for fine fare) or the Thems (impoverished folks with little taste and less money) – we know the roles each group is supposed to play.  Those who “need help” should be using their government money at discount grocers, buying commercially manufactured food in boxes and cans.  Scraping by.  When we realize we’re behind them in the grocery store line we critique their food decisions – is that a case of soda and a bag of chips?! – yet I bet we’d be more shocked if they were buying imported French cheese.

Which is exactly what Jay and I did today at the Whole Foods in Napa (the hub of aspirational shopping), along with two full bags of whatever we wanted worth $185, and for which we paid absolutely nothing.  Are you feeling uncomfortable yet?

As anyone who has read this blog can attest, I think of “living well” as canning organic pears and pickles, making bread from San Francisco’s finest flour mill, storing enough organic strawberries for jam and smoothies all year long – not extravagant  luxuries like God’s Own Roquefort.  But hell, is there any reason why low income folks should never enjoy fine things?

I think the taboo around using government assistance to purchase Really Good Food is that our culture views people on assistance as failures of the American work ethic.  They should be ashamed when using their “handouts,” not gleeful – and certainly not refined!

Since we can everything in our pantry, make our own bread (etc, etc) we are already way ahead of the curve financially.  We aren’t “needy” in any way, though we are clearly low income enough to have qualified for ~$450 a month, so why shouldn’t I use this new resource to improve the quality of what I feed myself and family?  We all agree that GMOs are bad, artisanal is good, and that every person deserves fresh, nourishing food, but somehow these practices are still (subconsciously) considered the pervue of the privileged.   I reject that.

Tonight we dine on our french cheese, Acme bread, and our favorite olives – our idea of date night when the kids are gone.  Tomorrow we will harvest plums (green, Italian and Santa Rosa), possibly as much as 500 lbs worth.  We will also collect excess from the Farmers’ Market vendors, also likely to weigh in at ~500 lbs.  All of this fresh produce will find its way into the hands of our neighbors, through food agencies and networks of generosity.  What would half a ton of produce be worth at Whole Foods?  Certainly more than our monthly CalFresh allotment.

Receipt

That’s it for now.  Thanks for stopping by!

The Livestock Gardener

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I don’t mean to split my readers, but I’ve started another blog called The Livestock Gardener.  This is where I will chronicle my forays into meat – raising it, housing it, humanely slaughtering it and consuming it.  I’m at the start of quite an adventure, so if you’re interested in following it please check out The Livestock Gardener at livestockgardener.wordpress.com.

Home Economics

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There aren’t a lot of essentials in life.  Food, of course.  Water.  Shelter.  Love.  I think that about covers it.  Money is the way most of us secure these things – or in the case of love, sometimes we chose money over it – but Jay and I have taken a different approach.  We look for ways not to need much money.

These past few years we have focused on food – growing it, gleaning it, sharing it, butchering it, preserving it and enjoying it.   We’re hardly experts, but our backyard gardening skills are getting honed and through networks of generosity we essentially have all the fresh produce we need without having to buy it.   Livestock and poultry find their way to us for slaughter – roosters, old hens, turkeys, even a pig – and our freezer is filling up with a lovely array of meat for the table.  Ten young hens lay eggs for us every day.  We’re doing alright in the Food department.

Water is our next project.  I can’t say much about water conservation except that we plan on installing rain cisterns and redirecting the laundry water into a grey water system sometime this year.  With the apparent drought we’re facing we might have to jam on that grey water system!  Will the grey water flood the backyard?  Will the rains from next winter be sufficient for our garden the following summer?  I promise to keep you apprised of our mishaps and victories!

Third on the list is Shelter, which is a tricky one because it will always demand money.  Currently we’re trying to modify our home loan through the new HAMP program (brought to us by our beloved President Obama).  This should lower the interest rate and reduce the mortgage to something manageable in relation to our very low income.  In previous posts I have fantasized about walking away from this house for something even funkier in the country – something we could buy outright – but reality set back in and this is our best option.  We love our drafty old house with the big-enough backyard.  It fits the five of us nicely, and with the basement being built-out possibly another soul could join our adventure one day.  We’ll have to be discerning about who we invite to do that of course, as recent events have taught me.  I’ve been known to be naive about these things.  I think of myself as idealistic, but sometimes the theory doesn’t pan out in practice.

And lastly Love, which probably doesn’t need description, but I believe it is how we’ve made any progress with the 3 “essentials” listed above.  I can’t grow all the food we need in our relatively small backyard (.15 acre), but I don’t need to.  We share with friends and they share with us.  We’ve created a community built on friendship and abundance.  These friends have helped with plumbing and construction, advice about our mortgage, are drafting the plans for our water systems…   and we help them in turn.  They love our children, and so can watch them while I accompany Jay to his doctor’s appointments.  We are trustworthy and honest with them and they return the favor – family in the truest sense of the word; a community greater than the sum of its parts.  Ironically, Love is the cornerstone of self-reliance and yet cannot be achieved alone.  At least that’s true in my world, and I mean to keep it that way.

That’s it for now.  Thanks for stopping by.

Turkey for the Table

It’s been two days since I killed the turkey.  I didn’t raise it, so I didn’t really know it, but it had round dark eyes and what seemed like a sweet disposition.  It lived tucked away in the hills of a local cemetery – the mortician as its caretaker.  Twice a day Ed, the mortician, would don the cut-off sleeves of an embalming shirt and hoist the bird towards food and water – it hadn’t walked in 3 months, its top-half having grown too great for its legs.  I arrived Thursday afternoon and took the bird from Ed.  It spent its last night in the base of a dog crate in my basement.

Turkey in crate

The turkey was purchased at the Solano County Fair’s 4-H auction last August.  A turkey hen was thrown in and the birds went to live at the cemetery.  Time passed, Thanksgiving came and went, and the turkeys continued to grow.  It is a sickening thing we’ve done to certain poultry, breeding them to have so much breast meat that their legs break under their own weight.  The bird’s caretakers where not aware of the pressing imperative to slaughter it.  We all shared a sad relief when I agreed to do it.

The bird had no name in life, but in death we’ve named it Toodles (in honor of a certain pig called Noodles, the subject of an earlier post ‘Nearly Free Meat’).  Toodles weighed 50 lbs on his day of slaughter and dressed out to 33 lbs clean.  Toodles, like Noodles, will feed our family nicely for a while.

Turkey carcass

It’s strange to think of these birds, or that pig, as urban food waste but that is exactly what they would have become had they not been slaughtered.  It’s even stranger to consider the odd niche I’ve found myself in – the recipient of that food, the bringer of death and filler of freezers – but it fits perfectly into my home economic plans and I am grateful for the generosity of the animals and their owners.

Toodles was a strong, healthy bird despite his condition.  It took two of us to humanely end his life, many minutes for the life to leave his body, and all afternoon to clean the carcass.  I will collect the turkey hen (Mrs. Toodles?) in the next week or so – before her legs give out – and repeat the process again.  Slaughtering something this size is physically and emotionally taxing, but I am thankful every day for the food it brings to our table.

Reclamation

Spring of 2010 was the first time Jay got a hold of the garden.  It had weeds 3 ft high, and two pathetic raised beds buried in what we would later call The Back 40.  The backyard was a living example of the collateral damage of my divorce – an expanse of pure neglect.

Then Jay found it.

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We weed-wacked our way down to the soil and started our slow reclamation of the backyard.  That first year we focused on The Back 40.  When Jay was diagnosed with cancer we set up the hammock so he could look onto the lush veggies spilling out of the beds.  The rest of the garden sat dormant, but The Back 40 showed tremendous promise.

The following Spring, 2011, Jay was still in treatment.  He recovered from his colostomy surgery and his chemo came to an abrupt end in March.  We built more beds and grew more food.  The kids named our garden Muddy Feet Farm.  In the Fall we built a chicken coop and started Food Rescue.  We were literally tripping over the abundance in our home.  This was the life we had both yearned for.  We were so happy.  Then Jay was re-diagnosed in December with advanced stage 4 cancer.

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Spring of 2012 was emotionally bleak, but the garden was beautiful.  Jay planted peas and green beans, chard and carrots.  The plants grew.  There may not be anything in the world more hopeful than a Spring garden.  As Jay and I contemplated his death we tended our mini-farm, raised our kids and prayed a lot.  Jay was meant to eat those green beans and carrots.  We left our inept oncologist and found our way to Napa, where the fates delivered a team of angels.  Food Rescue idled at times, but never stopped.  The garden expanded in the Fall to include most of the backyard.  We passed through the year alive, grateful for every moment.  We were married in October.

Spring 2013

We spent yesterday afternoon in the garden.  We planted more broccoli, chard, kale, nasturtiums, favas, and beets.  Today’s rain has brought all our plants to attention.  Packets of peas, cilantro, chives and zinnias wait for us on the dining room table; one should never squander a warm rainy day by failing to plant!  Jay is waking from his daily post-radiation nap.  He has 10 more radiation treatments left, zapping the spot of his second, most recent lung surgery.  We feel hopeful, and the garden is full of promise.

That’s it for now.  Thanks for stopping by!