Sunday, February 28, 2010

HAY BOX COOKERS - heirloom crock pot for simple living and sustainability

Simple living, frugality, self sustainable, even survival or post industrial – all of these terms apply to the concept I want to talk about today. I am talking about the HAY BOX. I cannot seem to pin down when it got called that – seems to have acquired the name hay box during pioneer days. But the idea of insulated cooking goes way, way back and is also the basis for the big clay ovens that have been in use, well –forever. What is a hay box? Shockingly, it is a box filled with hay. What does a hay box do? Ah, now there is where interesting things start to happen. You start by getting a pot of water boiling hot, then you place it in the box. With an insulated lid (or more hay) on top, the pot is snuggled into the middle of the box. The hay and dead air space slows the loss of heat and keeps the water hot for a very long time. Think about it, once you get a pot boiling on the stove the only reason you need to keep the burner on is to replace lost energy.  If you can slow that energy loss with insulation, then there is no need to constantly add more.  That’s it I’m afraid. No magic, no convection, no microwave – but also, no more energy other than that used to boil the water.

Now why, outside of historical curiosity, would I want a hay box today? Many reasons occur to me. If you really want to practice simple, sustainable or green living, then this is for you – it reduces energy use by 75 to 90 percent. If you are frugal, the energy savings equal lower bills. If you enjoy the ease and taste of slow cooking, then the hay box delivers. If you just want to have access to a way to prepare food with a minimum of fuel used – say during a hurricane or other disaster, then the hay box is the simplest, most reliable way to stretch your cooking energy. Seriously, for such a primitive idea, it really does find its way into many modern situations.

Friday, February 26, 2010

HOE CAKES - simple living at its best - fast food with a homestead heritage

As I try to find a simple way of living, I find myself drawn to simpler ways of cooking. A great old heirloom recipe is hoe cakes. I remember them with my nanny’s collard greens and I still relish my mom’s hoe cakes with lots of butter and dipped into homemade soups. I can think of no easier or quicker way to prepare homemade bread.

But, what exactly are hoe cakes? As our memories grow fainter and homemade food becomes more and more rare, recipes are blurred and forgotten. Many of the old recipes went by nicknames and these were muddled to start as different regional cuisines used the same label for items which sometimes wildly differed. Now, with the passage of time many names and recipes have become almost hopelessly tangled.

Hoe cakes are a perfect example. Although almost any southern family can provide you a recipe, you will also find recipes from New England and the Cherokee Indians. Frustratingly, these recipes seem to wander all over the place. Well, I am going to clarify this a little and give you a purist recipe straight from colonial times and then a slightly modified version that is great if you’re not trying for historical recreation.

Hoe cakes got their name because they were cooked on the blade of a hoe heated by a small fire. The farm hands would not always be able to return to the house for lunch. So they would carry a small pouch of cornmeal out with them to the field. When lunch time came, they would mix the meal with a little water from the fields and place the thick batter on a hoe blade that was being heated by a small hot fire of twigs. This quick, filling meal could be prepared in this manner with no fuss and get the farmer back into the field as soon as possible. This is the true hoe cake and it is similiar to the New England Johnny cake, learned from the native americans. Almost certainly, the Johnny cake was the ancestor of the southern hoe cake.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Banks and your money: bailouts from the taxpayer while profiteering from the poor

Overdraft fees and the latest in let them eat cake.  Does anyone besides me see the irony in banks lobbying so hard to keep overdraft fees?  Can anyone think of any large overdrafts lately?  Not the kind measured in pennies and caused by bouncing a check at the grocer or gas station, but the kind measured in trillions and caused by greed and arrogance.

After taking their bonuses off the top, like good little MBAs, the banks are busy right now spending money on lobbyists at the highest rate in history. No amount of our tax money is being spared in the effort to bribe our congressman into voting against the national interests in favor of the banks. Should banks be more regulated? – heck no. Should risky investment strategies continue to be backed by government guarantees as if they were pennies in a piggy bank? – of course. How about a tax on excess bonuses paid with taxpayer money? – socialist! Should banks that were “too big to fail” be broken up as part of a taxpayer bailout – communist plot!

But it does not stop there – having already lost any sense of shame, the bankers are now lobbying to keep their piratical overdraft fees in place. I mean – are you kidding? Banks have received bailouts worth more than centuries of their old fashioned profits. They overspent their accounts by an average of 32 to 1. All of this and yet they have the hubris to whine when congress tries to prevent them from forcing individual taxpayers into bankruptcy by charging wildly inflated fees for overdrafts. Mere humility would suffice for banks to realize how brief and small these public overdrafts appear next to the bank failures. AIG for example, received a bailout equal to 14 times the amount of profit its previous chairman had managed to earn from 1968 to 2005. Banks lost the equivalent of centuries and centuries of their total capitalist profit and the taxpayers made up for it, in one huge welfare check for the rich. Yet, despite this rather substantial overdraft, they paid no penalties – none, what so ever.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Earth Worms - the home garden's best friend and simple living heros

Earthworms – great ally in the home garden – a simple living solution to healthy soil in the backyard homestead.  Let me tell you it is not the early bird that gets the worm, it is the wise one.  There can be no one single better helper in the garden than the earthworm.  They are the simple solution for simple living gardens.

Worms, not perhaps the most romantic of images. But not that many years ago, when I turned up my first worm while planting in the backyard garden, I thought – “how lovely”. Yes - lovely, oh no, not because I have some attraction to slimy crawling things. Worms were a sight for sore eyes because they meant I had healthy soil and it was going to get healthier. You see, when I bought Shadows End, it had become a very sad shadow of the bright little cottage it was when it was built for a new bride in 1924. The back garden had been turned into a white gravel “beach” for an above ground swimming pool and the only organic matter it had was cigarette butts. In truth, somehow, against all reason, a bleeding heart still clung to one corner of the house, and an old rose hunkered, sad and thorny against a corner of rotting fence. I always felt like those represented the spirit of the man and wife who had carved out a long life in this cottage. I imagined the two lone survivors of a lost garden clinging to the place they created and waiting for renewal. Waiting for the day their memories could dwell once again in a place of bright blooms and scented summer nights.

So, it was in that meaning, that I found my first worms to be lovely. For they heralded a new beginning; the conversion of that rocky, barren “landscape” into something living and fruitful again. Worms meant that the bleached horror of the gravel beach was slowly receding into the deep recesses and that real soil was forming. Well, some of the soil was being formed, but in truth, much of it was bought and paid for. Bags of cow manure and peat toted home in the trunk of my Saturn and worked into the new flower beds my friend Ray and I were creating. Some was bought and some was crafted from the leaves of the oaks which once shaded the land around my cottage. No one’s lawn clippings were safe, we would drive around and night and sweep up bags of leaves and grass and bring them back to toss into the yard. I remember how careful we were to raid only the better neighborhoods because they would be neatly bagged and free of cigarette butts or cans. Sorry for that bit of sociological snobbism – but there you have it. The great gravel desert seemed unconquerable, but little by little, soil came back to Shadows End. As I look back, it would have been easier and probably cheaper to have the backyard excavated and new soil brought in wholesale – but we did it the old fashioned way – bit by bit.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Asparagus a simple living garden perennial that can reward some basic effort with decades of healthy, delicious vegetables

Mom, the dog is eating your ferns again – I remember that from my mother's asparagus patch and my alaskan malamute who was notorious for foraging all the backyard garden for treats at just the right edge of ripeness.  She would test the tomatoes and the muscadine grapes each morning to see if they were ready and she never ate one till it was perfectly ripe.  Many many gallons of grapes and almost all my mom's asparagus, disappeared into Loki's tummy.  Well, the point of this post in not malamutes, although, I do love them,  But, we are going to discuss asparagus.  Asparagus, is one of the luxuries of simple living. The slow job of starting an asparagus bed and its place in the home garden is well rewarded in the harvest of years and years to come.

I am about to try and reestablish Asparagus in my homestead garden. My first attempt came almost 5 years ago when I tucked a few heads into a clearly wrong spot. The poor things got very little direct sun and so, of course, they sputtered around for less than a year and finally expired from lack of interest. That was a great shame- for Asparagus, like so many good things, takes an investment in time to earn its reward. It can take 3 years or more to get your first decent harvest, but if properly prepared and cared for, an asparagus bed can be productive for decades.

Asparagus is one of the very best crops one can grow under the principles of permaculture. The concept is basically that we plant permanent or long term plants and substitute efficient foraging of these crops for traditional sow and harvest agriculture. Permaculture is an attempt to minimize out need to input time and chemicals into the soil and maximize the food output. Permaculture plantings would include fruit and nut trees, perennial vegetables like asparagus, and some very alternative root and seed plants not native to our culture. Well I must say I find the idea of permanent plantings of fruit bushes and fruit and nut trees to be excellent and in keeping with the cottage garden heritage of our ancestors, On the other hand, I am not keen on the idea of most of the other plants with the exception of asparagus. But without a doubt, permaculture in general and asparagus specifically can play a good role in the simple life of a small homestead or just the backyard garden. For now, we will leave the idea of permaculture and just focus on asparagus.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

VIKING CAPITOLISM – from investors to looters - how wall street raiders destroyed American Industry and how corporations are finishing off the American economy today with a leveraged buyout of congress and one last rape of a looted economy.

The rich are getting richer. This may be old news, but the story has changed over the last few decades and is reaching a climax here and now.  The rich are getting richer, but not through investing their own money, creating jobs and earning a profit. Not even through the slow and inexorable accumulation of tax benefits which has fueled most of the last quarter century’s gap between us and the wealthy. No, these methods have become old and tiresome. The corporate elite have always seen to it that they reap their share of profit. But not only have their taken more and more than ever before, but now they have figured out a way to make profit out of failure. Before, they were willing to reap the slow steady benefit of special tax breaks and government contracts. That was in a slower, more studied world where the long term was at least taken into effect. The rich lived off the economy but they did not take too much for fear of killing the golden goose.

Well, that was yesterday - today its Foie Gras is on the champagne buffet. Modern financial types have become the ultimate short termers, nothing matters but the quarterly profit – hell, the weekly quota. Starting way back in the 1980s, the financial class in America became addicted to short term profit. Exxon sold its headquarter building and rented it back from Japan. Boeing and GM turned over all their industrial power to China in exchange for some cheap parts to improve the end of the year bonus for a few dozen billionaires.

Capitalism was supposed to be based on investing your money in a company, buying equipment and hiring employees to produce a product and make a steady profit over time. Starting in the 80s American finance moved to a different model – modeled closely on the Viking raiders who looted the monasteries of the middle ages. The new capitalism worked something like this. You created some fake bonds with no backing whatsoever except the potential for loot. You sold those bonds. Now you used someone else’s money to buy a thriving company. Instead of investing in equipment – you pawned it off to pay back the money you borrowed. Instead of hiring employees, you fired them to reduce cost and make the company look better for a short term sale. Soon the useful parts of the company were sold off bit by bit to fill the pockets of the corporate raiders.  As to producing something - what a laugh, that is a job for 9 year old chinese, not American workers. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

MOVE YOUR MONEY - punish big banks for their abuse and help make small banks safer

*** note - the links on this post will transfer you away from VFSE - if you right click and open in a new window you can view the links and stay here with me at the same time - im sure there is some way to automate that, but I am clueless at this time


The one action we have left to us in this time of the largest transfer of wealth to the wealthy in history is the ability to control the money left to you after paying taxes. Our taxes go largely to corporate welfare or to support the military industrial complex, but we still get to handle the money in our own checking accounts – so far.

We have set helplessly by as the corporations cashed in their best investment ever – the congress. Banks created a corrupt system and abused it. When the system began to fail, they yanked their money out of the system as fast as lightning. They demanded that the US taxpayer put his money on the table while the dice were rolling. Wall Street only plays its chips after the wheel stops and the winner called. We socialize the risk and privatize the profit. Hell, that is almost a cliché today and still nothing is done about it. Why – because your congressmen is bought: lock, stock and barrel. No matter how much you deny it the congress serves corporations first, second and last.

I can easily argue that we have no power left to us and nothing will change anything. But having been robbed of some much by a corrupt system, I will be damned if I give up hope. Hope from the hopeless is probably the single biggest affront to fascism – economic or otherwise.

So, we determine to retain hope, now -what do we do with it. This is one thing. Take your money, that which the government has left you and move it. Take it out of the giant – too big to fail – hand in the puppet – lobby wielding – banks. By the strictest definition this would be a list of 6: JP Morgan/Chase, Citibank, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo and the two phony banks Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. These are the banks that benefited from trillions of dollars in taxpayer bailout then cut loans to the people by over 100 billion, while increasing their spending on lobbying congress and of course their own bonuses.

Open up an account in a smaller local bank and support them, while the government has been bailing out the giant banks it has been closing hundreds of smaller banks that tried to work with the system and for the most part did what banks are supposed to do – help people prosper. If the bought and sold congress will not aid the small banks it is up to we the people to do so. If you want information on local banks there is an excellent website set up by the people who started the Huffington Post MOVE YOUR MONEY campaign. Here is a link to the bank site :

Following are 7 easy steps to make the transfer. I also got this information from the Huffington Post.

1. Open your new account.

In most cases, you should be able open a checking account with an initial deposit of between $25 and $100. At a credit union, you’ll also become a member and co-owner at the same time.

2. Order your new debit/ATM card and checks.

These typically arrive within 1 to 2 weeks. You may also want to apply for a credit card from your new local institution.

3. If you use direct deposit, ask your employer to reroute your paycheck to your new account.

When you open your new account, ask the bank or credit union for a direct deposit authorization form that includes your new account information. Give this form to your employer and anyone else who makes direct deposits to your account. It may take one or more pay cycles for the change to be made, so keep your old checking account open and watch for the switch.

4. Contact companies that direct-debit your account.

Using your last bank statement, make a list of any businesses that you’ve authorized to directly debit your account. Ask your new bank or credit union for an automatic payments authorization form that includes your new account information. Send this to the businesses on your list.

5. Set up online bill paying for your new account.

If you like to pay bills online, set up bill payment information for your new account. Meanwhile, stop any automatic recurring payments you have established through your old account.

6. Close your old account.

Once you have started receiving direct deposits into your new account and are sure that there are no outstanding checks or automatic debits that need to clear, close your old account. Warning: do not just withdraw the last dollar and assume the account will fade away on its own. Your old big bank may start charging you fees for having an empty or inactive checking account. Instead, follow the bank’s procedure for closing out the account.

7. Enjoy your new local banking relationship!

Think about the level of control big money has in our lives. Do we intend to stand idly by? Now review those 7 steps. Do you see anywhere on that list – lose your job? lose all you possess? be arrested? be tortured? put your and your family’s lives at risk? No, these things are not required. Although millions of people HAVE done this and more, struggling and usually failing, to reach the freedoms we have enjoyed in this country. Is it so much to ask?  Can we not at least try?

Sure, your money may not be billions, but it is an action. We have to do something or we continue to signal the corporations and their pet congressmen that we will stand by for anything. We have become as inert and helpless as any peasant ever trod on by an arrogant lord. It is time to show them we can still act and we will act. This action in isolation is a tiny prick. But perhaps, if we act in mass, we can prod the congress into listening to us. At the very least we will have made big banks smaller and small banks more secure. Take the time to act. Act now and spread the word. We will retain hope even in the face of hopelessness.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The phantom stock market recovery - all that glitters is not gold

The2009/2010 stock market recovery – addiction to flashy ideas and shiny profits and how the Wall Street tycoons are getting ready to drive us over the cliff all over again.

The Dow Jones Index is over 10,000 again. Everyone is hailing the return of the stock market. Profits are up on Wall Street, bonuses are rewarding them one and all. The government points to it as signs of a strong economy, and the media tells us “all is well, go forth and shop”.

Well, pardon me but I think a piece of sky just fell in my lap. I will not make this post long and complicated because I want people to try and understand the danger we are in. I will not pepper it with my heartfelt believe that the men and women who run our nation’s finances are a bunch of uneducated, inbred idiots with talent no greater than the average car salesman. In fact, I would say that is an insult to car salesmen – these people are carnies. Whoops – seems I did slip just a little diatribe in – had to for medical reasons.

Ok, so straight to the point. When the US taxpayer, (that would be you and I, since 72% of corporations pay zero taxes), bailed out Goldman Sax and the rest of the financial “industry” we placed no meaningful conditions on the funds. We all have seen how much of the money was used to keep their absurd bonuses in place and then to fund the largest lobbying year in history. Let us take that as given. You can ignore that obscenity for now. Nor did we place any restrictions on their conduct, nor reduce their size so they could afford to fail on their own next time. (Remember this happens about every 10 years, derivatives in 2009, savings and loans in the 80s, international loans in the 60s – we used to send the marines in like when we occupied Haiti for Citicorp, but now we simply bail the banks out 100 pennies to the dollar with extra thrown in for bonuses.) No let all these giant omissions lay and assume the position for the next bailout – because it is coming and it will be caused by the very same derivatives that created the first one.

Yes, exactly, the same derivatives- note, bond and bundled nonsense. For among the numerous things we did not do is to require those firms to write off the bad debts and phony investments. We simply handed them enough money to cover all their investments and then some. They were not required to liquidate any of the fake wealth they had on their books – they simple wrote it down to a penny here a dollar there. Same thing you say, writing down the poison to pennies when it was once labeled in the thousands would seem to be the same thing. Perhaps it would, if we were a thoughtful people and they were honest managers. Neither is true of course. The truth is we are as careless as crows, blinded by the gaudiest, shiniest, piece of trash in the yard and fighting each other for the chance to pick it up – and as to bankers being honest, blog policy, common decency and my mom would prohibit me from uttering a word on that topic.

The Government did not require the banks to burn the trash and now we as a nation are gleefully picking the same rubbish up that we just so recently dropped. One cannot say exactly, but indications are a great amount of the very same financial instruments that led to the collapse are being rebundled and sold in exactly the same way as before. The first stock market collapse was created by the financial industry but it carried all firms down with it. However, during the crash, not all stocks suffered the same level of decline the overwhelming bulk of the loss was in the financial sector. Strong profitable companies with cash in the bank like Wal-Mart and Exxon suffered only minor blips, McDonalds stock actually went up. The anchors dragging the market down were the financial corporations. They suffered anywhere from 50 percent declines to total collapse. So finance led the crash, well guess who is leading the recovery?

These very same banks and pseudo banks run by the very same people who drug us into financial meltdown. Moreover, how are their stocks rising? The market is rising because the very same companies, run by the very same people, are doing business the very same way, selling the very same crap. They are repackaging the “best” of the derivatives and selling them as conservative investments. Not that they are writing off the worst of their garbage. No, no, the greatest inflow of money has been into junk bonds and hedge funds.

Have they at least learned anything? No, all the firms still owe much more than they would be worth if liquidated. Several, like Chase are back to 32 to 1 debt ratios. That would be like earning $34,000 a year and owing over a million – make sense to you? Have they reduced the dependence on tricky hocus pocus finances? No, the latest derivative Wall Street is offering is based on the finance of individual movies – want to bet the nursing home on the latest CGI blockbuster – only to discover that Nichole Kidman has been cast as the lead?

This should be funny, but I find it hard to laugh. Are we this stupid? It can be argued that the bankers are geniuses, simply concluding “hey we were too big to fail before and now we are even bigger”. It seems that banking crises always come along to siphon off any wealth the middle class may have accumulated and these crises seem to be coming closer apart so perhaps they think 2 years is enough time before coming to us for another bailout. Anything seems possible after this. We can claim some secret intelligence for them – but what is our excuse? We are walking the very same path to ruin we followed before and all we can think is “hey hey lookee there shiny! SHINY!”

Monday, February 15, 2010

The boiling pot - ancient way of cleaning clothes, still brilliant idea for simple living

Into the boiling pot – another heirloom idea from the past that we can use to bleach our whites here in the simple living present.

Boiling water is a glorious thing and it can play a major role in a simple life. Water is the universal solvent. Water can dissolve more things than any acid or chemical every dreamed up. Adding heat to water makes it even more effective and then even the tiniest addition of soap or bleaching agents will be immeasurable more effective.

In the “good old days” laundry was an all day affair and I do not harbor any blind nostalgia for that process. No, I do not relish pointless physical labor. And I am not calling on you to trot out vast tubs of boiling water every single week to do your basic laundry. Bless the machines and use them while you have them. But there are times and situations where otherwise insoluble laundry problems can be remedied by tossing them in the boiling pot. Let me warn you, one cannot get the same results just by using the hot water cycle on your modern washing machine. Usually, by the time the tub is full, that “hot” water is tepid at best. No, it is not nearly the same thing. No a large pot, some water and a lot of heat are the way the old folks dealt with stubborn issues and it is still a great heirloom skill to learn and use. However, time consuming, there are elements of old time laundry that can still serve us today whether we are building a small homestead or just trying to get garden stains out of our jeans. For numerous special needs a good boiling will work wonders with your laundry.

What kind of needs you may ask. Well, sweat stains for one thing, that dingy grey buildup that accumulates over time, musty smelly towels and things exposed to infectious disease – all of these can be well treated by some time in boiling water. How about dingy pillow cases and dull stained kitchen towels. White socks really can be white again. Ring around the collar can be a lost memory for your favorite shirts. Also washing in boiling water make the effectiveness of regular bleach improve a dozen fold. Perhaps the last, but not least use for boiling clothes and linen is as a way to treat infestation of lice or other critters. Do not laugh, in a world of bed bugs returning to America, boiling your linen once in a while doesn’t seem so silly.

The process could not be easier – now in older times the water was boiled outside in giant cauldrons upon an open fire. The giant cauldrons would certainly be roomy and have a certain retro chic cachet, but the idea of tending a great smoking fire is not too appealing. Fortunately, we can avail ourselves of all the modern conveniences and still benefit from this simple technique. Here is the basic method.

First, get the largest pot you can find – you may use as many as you have burners on your stove and if necessary, you can do two “loads”

Second, fill the pots about ¾ full and bring the water to a brisk boil

Third, add the clothing, towels or linen slowly and stir into the water using a large spoon – wood is preferable because it does not conduct heat well and is easier to handle. The longer the handle the better and in fact a long wooden dowel or piece of broom stick would be ideal. Be sure not to overload the pot – you need room to stir.

Fourth, to wash the clothes and or remove smells and grimy stains add a small amount of detergent – there is much debate on how much to add but I feel that half the amount listed on the detergent is usually plenty for any purpose. If you need to bleach this is the time to add it – but do so very conservatively, you will not need near the usual amount of bleach in boiling water. Stir frequently. Now allow the clothes to remain at a low boil for between 30minutes and an hour – no longer.

Fifth, remove the clothes from the pot using your long handled spoon. Rinse them thoroughly in warm water and then again in cold. Remember, cloth shrinks more from going to one extreme to the other so do not douse them in cold water, if you fear shrinkage.

Finally, when they are rinsed free, treat them like regular laundry at this point. I always hang them out to dry in the sun and complete the process of refreshing them the old fashioned way.

NOTE: if your items are prone to shrinkage you can add them first to the pot and let them heat up with the water – shrinkage is most prone to happen from sudden temperature changes so start them slow and rinse them slow and you will be less likely to have trouble

SECOND NOTE: If your friends are queasy you can use a separate pot for the laundry than the one you cook in. Or alternatively, just scrub it well and tell a little white lie – people are silly.

Using hot water has of course some risks – It can shrink and it can cause fading. You may not want to use this technique on all your laundry. But trust me, if for nothing other than white socks, underwear and bed linen, it is the best possible way to brighten and freshen them. The old boiling pot, it’s a brilliant heirloom skill and one that I have been practicing for decades.

FINAL NOTE: If you read my other post on using boiling water to cleanse and clear drains – this is a good use for the water once you pull the clothes from it. Just be careful, the pots are heavy and water still scalding – but pouring it down drains will clean them, deodorize them and help melt away fatty soap deposits. It’s a great way to kill two chores with one idea.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Simple living solution to slow drains and clogged pipes - an heirloom skill that works wonders today.

In a world of simple living, we are all looking for green solutions to problems. Here is a great heirloom skill and the ultimate green answer to slow drains and clogged pipes

Boiling water – the simple living green cure for backed up pipes

Slow draining tubs, sinks that gurgle and spit while draining – these are the kinds of slow torture that the world throws at you while you are trying to turn your little homestead into a new garden of Eden.  Well, the scream of your tea kettle as it reaches full boil can be the last scream that needs to be heard regarding stopped plumbing woes. My cottage was built in 1924, and so it has cast iron pipes and very small ones at that. So far, I have found no leaks. However, after 86 years of use, the pipes have become clogged with gunk and buildup. When I moved in the tub drained slowly and the bathroom sink moved slower than molasses and had a faint sour smell. The sink became worse and worse and finally, I had to do something. Hiring a plumber was out of the question for many reasons, money not the least.

I was afraid to use any of the common chemical based ones you find in the grocery store. Not only were they not “green”, but I feared what effect all that caustic chemical would have on antique iron pipes. Finally, in desperations I replaced the entire U trap under the sink. It was then that I noticed the smell. Oh god, it was the worst smell ever. Even the guys in the hardware store were turning green and you know they must be used to some mighty foul smells. Finally, the U trap was replaced with spanking new PVC. I turned on the water and…. Slow drain.

It was obvious I could not replace all the pipe- I had somehow to clean them out and open them up. I wanted to use old fashioned methods and I was afraid of corroding my pipe with strong chemicals, so I took to home remedies. First I tried snaking and plunging. The snaking was a total loss and the plunging only succeeded in bringing up brown smelly gunk up into my sink. No matter how many times I used the plunger there seemed to be an unlimited amount of brown flakes.

The next thing I tried was baking soda and vinegar. I put the soda in first then added vinegar. It was the classic science fair volcano and it was totally useless. Then remembering my mom using vinegar as a rinse to clean all kinds of things, I decided to try vinegar all by itself.  I tried massive amounts – a full gallon, of pure vinegar. Honestly, this seemed to help. The drain ran noticeably quicker. I felt like I had a success. But in a matter of minutes the drain was back to a slow gurgle. In total frustration, I reached for a container of drain cleaner I had bought just in case. Iron pipes be damned – I snatched the bottle up and poured it all into the slowing draining sink. The thick liquid sunk to the bottom of the sink – and remained there. Unbelievable. Not only did it not cause the water to rush down an open drain, but it actually just sat there. The drain was completely stopped now. This was impossible – how could modern science fail me?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Leather Breeches – drying green beans - A simple living method of preserving food from a small garden

Today I will hand on an heirloom way to preserve the harvest after the main crop has been picked and the plants are still producing but only sporadically. Bean plants do not just drop their harvest all at once.  They dwindle on.  They may not generate enough beans at one time to justify the effort of canning. However, that did not mean they had to go to waste. An ancient method of storing beans and other vegetables is to dry them. The method used for green beans is particularly interesting and ancient as the hills.

Well, this is another piece of useful information I picked up while listening to my nanny recount tales of life on her family farm. On the homestead, vegetable gardens where an essential element of self sufficiency. The very same” waste not” attitude can serve us today as we strive to grow our own vegetables, whether as part of a full backyard garden or a tiny strip of potted tomatoes. In high summer days, my nanny would spend many mornings out in the garden listening to the taskmaster tune of cicada while picking bushels of beans and squash and all the bounty that nature - and hard work, could provide.

This first harvest would be rich and full and a great quantity of the produce would be preserved in the coming days. Things would be canned, dried, stored in sand (another story), pickled, fermented or otherwise put aside for the leaner days ahead. This wild rush of picking and preserving could go one for many weeks. The vegetables stacked up on the back porch before supper, would soon be on the way to resting in brilliant display in the pantry. Gleaming mason jars of emerald green, dark rich reds, and pale gold would line the shelves in neat rows and remind all that work was rewarded and comfort them with the knowledge that their stomachs at least would not be poor, even in the height of the great depression. Seeing the pantry fill with those hard won gems can make even the most skeptical, straighten with pride and wonder a bit at the glories of the natural world.

But, eventually the pickings became leaner. Leaner- but did not stop all at once. For the harvest was not an on and off affair, one could always find a few more limas and a few late squash if you maintained a patient vigil on the garden. As a child, that was one of my nanny’s chores. After the main focus of the family had shifted from picking the first bountiful harvest, the children would be tasked with gleaning the tail end of the crop so that none was wasted. Her job was to walk the rows and collect any stray or late gift of the harvest. What the family had brought to the kitchen in bushels, she would bring in baskets, and baskets became wash pans, and by the end they came in tucked up apron skirts or simple handfuls. All was welcomed and none was wasted. Much of the late harvest of course was simply cooked into that night’s supper. But some was added to the winter stores.

It is here that I get to the heirloom skill lesson of this post. For, the methods they used then are still fully functional today and can be revived easily if we share the knowledge before tricks like this fade into cloudy memory and vanish into history. So here is a wonderful skill for the homesteader to learn. It is a simple living skill that can help you make the most of your home garden or even the large, cheap bundles of vegetables that flood the farmers markets in summer. Specifically, I refer to what was once called leather breeches. That is the colorful name for green beans that have been dried whole in the wholesome air of late summer.

Monday, February 8, 2010

THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy - lazy, flawed writing praised solely due to celebrity status.

A review of Cormac McCarthy’s ”THE ROAD”   - a unimpressed review of the pseudo-intellectual fawning over an ill written, instant award winner with a razor thin plot, a ridiculously contrived ending and enough gods from the machine to depopulate Olympus. THE ROAD is a testament to how shallow and addicted to herd thought American literary criticism is today.
If imitation is the sincerest for of flattery, then repetition must be the clearest form of vanity. Did the ink even dry on the first copy of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” before it was acclaimed and exulted? Lined up like fashion critics at the unveiling of the emperor’s new clothes, the reviews heaped praise upon the “stark beauty” “dark poetry” “grim allegory” “epic minimalism” etcetera, etcetera ad-nauseum. No one jealous of their credentials dare to challenge its power.

Well, that is where I come in. I can imagine the reception this review will get. However, I am sorry, but if I hear stark beauty or dark poetry one more time I will wretch. The amount of praise heaped on this book is as loud and uniform as the genetically enforced buzzing of drones for the queen bee as she proceeds to lead them on a chase. Not to be glib, but… if I were to patent the phrase “that’s stark” ala Paris Hilton, then I would undoubtedly be as filthy rich as she by now.

Once upon a time new authors were routinely funded and encouraged on a broad scale. Advances were a mere few thousand dollars and a hundred thousand was something reserved for epic work. Swarms of authors published and made a scratchy living - few if any were multi-millionaires. But now with the cost of mega-marketing and the expectations of mega-profits only the most bankable and pre-approved authors are cultivated. The advances equal third world GNPs and each of the handfull of authors churns out predictable clones of their first number one seller over and over. This continues until they have exhausted their fame and are finally put out to pasture or the Hamptons, if they had wise accountants.

There has always been commercialism and academic elitism. However, lately the two have merged in some sort of unholy alliance. Once an author has managed to produce a single valuable work they are swept into the pantheon of revenue gods. Their work is lauded automatically and prepaid for with huge advances and lucrative contracts. The unholy covenant is: you keep turning out work like the original and we will keep turning out the praise and publicity and the money will follow.

Having read his previous works, I took up “The Road” with the expectation that it would be dark, and thinly plotted – because that is what is expected of a McCarthy novel. It is not like I should be surprised. I mean McCarthy’s shtick is dark minimalism. Truthfully, terse dialogue is one thing and it has its place. But he has made it a cult and with this book it has really gone over the top. In fact, on opening the book, one feels there has been a typographical error. It was printed all left justified and one line of print to each line of dialogue.
“are they the bad guys?””yes”
“are we still the good guys?””yes”
“are we going to die?”
“are you lying to me?”
“would you lie if we were dying””yes”

As if death were the worse alternative in this drear and meaningless world McCarthy has concocted. One great advantage to this format is that it immediately lets you know you are dealing with “artistic” work and it quickly fills the 250 pages required to be considered publishable.

Friday, February 5, 2010

HOMELAND SECURITY, politically correct nonsense mixed with a good dose of old fashioned incompetance, yep its the full monty


How much more incompetent can homeland security be

So, after the Christmas underwear bomber, we learned that young Islamic men whose fathers have reported them as a likely threat can purchase one way tickets to America with cash, cross the Atlantic with no luggage and not be considered out of the ordinary. On the other hand, if you happen to have the same name as someone on the “list”, then you are considered a high risk traveler and must be individually scrutinized including a full physical search. You are subjected to this search despite the fact that you are an 8 year old American boy. More amusingly, you remain on that list despite the fact that they have been running you through this travesty numerous times, starting when you were 2 years old. There is no end to these searches, no matter how many times you are cleared. Apparently, Homeland Security does not learn from its mistakes, which is a shame, for if they did, they would be very wise indeed.

Yes the Transportation Security Administration has been making America save from Jihad for the last 7 years by frisking an American child, over and over again. Actually, the fun started when Michael was a baby, the family had to have the baby cleared by officials to get him a ticket to Florida to meet his grandparents. Baby Michael stayed on the list.  The first time he was physically patted down, Mike was 2 years old. Apparently, he betrayed some underlying threat by having a suspicious emotional response to questioning. He cried - and he stayed on the list.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Garden fever – it happens to all real home gardeners. Spring sneaks up on us and suddenly, the need to plant and nourish become over whelming. Our dreams of the simple life and little homestead gardens overpower mere ordinary concerns and demand attention. We drop into a chair and stare into seed catalogs, click for hours on the websites - or unwilling to be denied immediate gratification- we grab our coats and head out to the garden shops.

Yes, I fully understand that the nation is currently in the grip of a huge winter storm. But, this is Florida and no matter how temporarily cool it may be, we Floridians understand our spring is upon us. In order to survive the blasting heat of summer we home gardeners must plant early. In fact, many of us plant a winter garden and for some it is their main or even only garden. Given that I have a tiny 1/8 of an acre plot and much of that covered in tree shaded gardens, my vegetable garden must be small. In fact, I barely have 100 square feet of garden and much of that is devoid of sun.

This time of year, the wheel turns and the whispers of spring can be heard even on the coldest night. The morning of the world is coming again and it beckons to us hope and light in the last days of darkness and uncertainty. It is the rebirth of more than just the elms, with this season, life itself seems renewed in all its promises. Not that hope and optimism are not found in other times. But it is easier to believe in new beginnings when they are accompanied by the singing of birds. Their music on a bright clear morning can do much to wipe away doubt and encourage hope.

These first few sign of change, however small, are awesomely powerful. They are subtle hint of changes coming -from dark to light, from stagnation and decay to birth and growth. To us who dwell in touch with the earth, it is an exciting time. Almost as a child before Christmas, those of us that cherish the simple life begin to dream of the first plantings. Visions dance in our minds of rich warm earth and seedlings peeking into the warming air to begin another cycle of life.

Similarly, like a child making his Christmas list we sometimes get a little carried away. Our wishes for old favorites, new varieties and dreams of bounty from our own soil can often take us on a wild chase. Whether looking at a seed catalog on a chilly night or standing in front of the sales displays on a crisp morning, we get excited.