Monday, May 24, 2010

The Tree Butchers Came Again

I got up before dawn this morning and just could not go back to sleep. I decided to fix a cup of tea and see what time the chickens get up. So I sat out in the garden and watched for a head to pop out of the coop. I waited, drank my tea, ate more cornbread and molasses and waited still more. Gee whiz I thought hens were early risers. The soft glow of dawn began to lighten as the sun peaked over the horizon and sent hints of day creeping over the treetops into the garden. Finally a full bright ray of sunlight slide down past the honeysuckle and ivy and into the chicken run tucked in the tiny space between my house and the neighbors.

Still no chickens. Well heck, I thought and I must have actually voiced out loud some complaint because at the sound of my voice out they came. Bouncing and colliding with each other like overdressed fat ladies in a three legged race Millie and Abby came bounding out. It is so comical to see the way they walk in unison each leaning into the other so that they merge into one clucking unity of cuteness.

Well for the sake of the moment I will skip over the rest of the event. That would be the two of them flinging themselves against the pen door. Jumping up and pounding the panels with their chests like drunken frat boys celebrating a new release of rockstar and demanding to be let loose in the garden. They really are getting spoiled.

Well, from there I went on to hanging winter blankets on the line so that I can fold and put them away finally. I moved on to other chores – mopping, waxing and was generally pleased with such a good start to the day. 
Then I heard the truck. Somehow I swear I felt a shiver go down my spine. I went to the study windows and peered out onto the street. Sure enough the Huns were back. There parked right in front of my house was a tacky red truck with a cheap sign declaring “tree cutting”. I was half panicked and half furious. Surely, they did not think the city was going to put its ham handed butchers loose on my crepe myrtle. I marched barefoot to the sidewalk and asked what their purpose was. One annoyingly polite young man pointed to my neighbor’s drake elm. I felt a guilty sigh of relief.

That poor tree had been hacked into an unsustainable shape by an earlier crew. Now that they had torn it into a ragged wreck they were shocked to find that it was sending out limbs willy nilly and had dared to encroach upon the miles of wire that we drape our world in. The bright faced fellow assured me that my tree was fine and in no danger. I was repelled by his good nature; I would have preferred a dour dirty little creature to be wreaking this ruin. I thanked him and went back into the house. I sat back down at the desk and tried to work. But every crash I heard brought me peeking through the window blinds to see what they were doing. They moved the truck several times and each move had me convinced that they were preparing some sneak attack upon Shadows End. I do not think I did anything at all for the hour they spend trimming the sad remnant of that tree. Finally as they were finishing I had to see it for myself. I sortied out to the mailbox and gathered a week of junk mail. The smiling assassin waved across at me and said they were done. I smiled back and said good day while staring at the poor tree and imagining what it must be like to live where power lines are kept underground. In a city with the outrageous rates we pay you would think our lines could be safe and secure and unintrusively placed underground. But no, the nice young crew will go on trimming trees. Honestly, they did seem to have some knowledge and they corrected some of the worst butchering of the past. But still the tree is amputated and unnatural – truly sad to see.

They ruined my morning. So I sat down to write this post. When I am done I am going out to water the 9 baby winged elm children of my tree Jack. Soon some moonlight night they will be planted randomly in the city. My own secret war of guerilla tree planting will continue. Although I know each individual sapling I sneak into some alley or roadside hedge has little chance of surviving at least it is a chance. In my own pursuit of simple living this is my own version of rage against the machine.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Gimme some mo Molasses please

This post starts with me sitting at the table on an early Sunday morning in May. The sun just rose a few minutes ago. The hens are making a racket to be let out in the garden because they can see me through the kitchen window. I really should let them out but this is a busy morning for me. I could not sleep well last night and today is a big day at church for me. Plus I woke up starving to death.

An hour ago when I first woke up, I tried to roll over and go back to sleep. But between the cat and my anxiety it was no use. So I decided to watch television and all that was on were cooking shows. 10 minutes later I jumped up from bed with a craving for ribs. Well, ribs were not to be found in my refrigerator – nor was much of anything else but cheese and eggs. Not fancying an omelet, I considered making some grits or Irish oatmeal for breakfast. No, nope that wasn’t sounding right either.

Frustrated by my hunger I decided to take a chance on making biscuits. Biscuits are a true southern food, the essence of good simple living meals and the bane of my existence. I have never had so many trials and tribulations with any other food than biscuits. True, lately some of my attempts have been quite good. Far from the heavy over short bricks I used to bake. In fact my first biscuits may have served as heat tiles on the space shuttle.

I snatched down my old Ohio pottery mixing bowls, hoping they would bring me luck and prayed for success. A few minutes later, the biscuits were rolled, cut and on the baking sheet waiting for the oven to heat up as always. Grimalkin the cat was sitting there with his paw covered in flour and yet still trying to look innocent as I wiped the counter clean.

Finally the oven came up to temperature and in went the biscuits. I washed up and went out to toss some corn to the chickens. When I got back in the kitchen was filled with a delicious smell of fresh baked biscuits. I prayed and opened the door – they were lightly golden and seem nicely risen. I love nice soft high rise biscuits. Soon I had them off the pan and onto an old plate from my grandmother I always serve biscuits on. Butter was on the table and I went to get jam. I was craving strawberry but there did not appear to be any. I shoved aside 2 kinds of apple butter, pear butter, plum jelly and tons of blueberry jelly and jam. No strawberry – this was not a morning for my cravings to be happy.

So I decided to forgo jam and jelly and just do honey. I reached for the honey and as I was taking it off the shelf I knocked off a jar of molasses. Thankfully, I caught it before it hit the floor and I decided that was a sign. It has been years since I ate molasses and I thought – oh why not. So now there I was with fresh hot biscuits, fresh orange juice and a saucer full of molasses. I took one of the biscuits to slather on the molasses.
This would be a good time to tell you how delicious molasses is on cold cornbread. Yes, you guessed it the biscuits were heavy and undercooked. So while the hens were busy eating my erstwhile breakfast I was planning on breakfast in a restaurant. Then I remembered church and I sat down in utter frustration. This was going to be another granola bar breakfast – ugh. Resigned to eating what seemed to me like chicken feed with sugar I opened the refrigerator to replace the butter. There sitting in front of me was a few pieces of cornbread I had made Friday.

Ok, so now its cornbread and molasses. I buttered the bread well and then put a spoonful of molasses on it. Thick and rich and dark as dreams of avarice the molasses slowly spun down onto the cornbread. I poured myself a huge glass of milk and sat down - sat down to bliss. Gosh I had forgotten how delicious molasses and cornbread was. For years the two southern specialties had been the breakfast of poor families, busy farmhands and impatient children. It may have been a matter of economy or time back then but let me tell you – today it is delicious, as well as cheap and quick.

For those of you who do not know about molasses it is the dark super thick product of boiling down sugar cane or sorghum syrup. The first boiling goes to make light syrups. But in the strict waste not world of small farmers, they would add more water and reboil the cane or sorghum several times. These boiling would result in molasses. Each batch darker and richer than before. By the time you had made blackstrap molasses it was black and smoky and so thick it would set on a spoon forever. To get it off you have to claw it out with the back of another spoon. Blackstrap is not for beginners. But for those of you with a taste for history and adventure go out and get a jar. It can be bought everywhere from factory made in the store to home made in farmer’s markets and country fairs.

Molasses is great on cornbread. It is like cream to strawberries – a match made in heaven. But it is also a key ingredient in real baked beans. It is essential to gingerbread and it makes delicious moist cookies. For the price of a cup of coffee at Starbucks you can have a pint jar tucked away in your pantry waiting to explain to you in slow dulcet tones just exactly what simple living is all about.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bok Choy Surprising Simple Living Success

Early this spring, I planted my first ever patch of Bok Choy. It was a pleasant surprise from the beginning. First it responded very well to some simple care and very little of the kind of pampering lettuce requires here in Central Florida. The plants grew well and did not seem to mind a little neglect now and again. The soil I planted them in is not near as rich as that in the flower beds. Very little organic matter in it so far. I have never seen earthworms in the vegetable garden and that is the ultimate sign of soil health to me.

Other plants have rebelled at the poor conditions which also include very little good sunlight. The vegetables are crammed into a small garden on the east side of the garage. A giant oak shade them in the morning and the garage blocks late afternoon sun. Still the bok choy prospered.

With the summer heat approaching I should have began harvested a week or two ago. I meant to, but the side of the perfectly symmetrical heads of light green leaves was just too pleasing. Salad greens are a hard thing to grow in our subtropical heat. So far the bok choy is exceeding the performance of the Swiss Chard and it supposed to take heat far better. Well, today I had to quit admiring and start eating. One head bolted this weekend and that is a sign the greens are getting bitter.

I harvested 3 heads late this afternoon. They were crisp and clean and I loved the sight of them in my harvesting tub. I use a galvanized washtub to harvest it. My Nanny always used one and it makes me feel good and proper to use one of my own. Plastic would be easier but just all too wrong. Hauling the greens and a few radishes and tomatoes into the back yard I was swelling with pride. I brought them to the tiny patch of grass that yet remains under the maple. There I spend a lot of time washing and rewashing them. It is amazing how many leaves and dirt can get stuck down between the tight circles of bright bok choy leaves.

After cleaning, I whisked them off to my mom’s where I prepared a nice Chinese salad with sesame ginger dressing. I dressed them with small strips of chicken breast dredged in flour, finely chopped pecans and 5 spice powder. There was a small disaster with the first batch of chicken do to an uncooperative stove. But the second was bold and crisp and served to make a full meal of the bok choy.

I think they would have been sweeter if I picked them earlier. But I intend to use the remaining heads to make a simple stir fry with sprouts and broccoli and a white sauce. I am going for a moo goo gai pan type of thing. Hopefully it will work, but in any case bok choy has proven to be a simple living winner and will be a new staple in the home gardens of Shadows End.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Home Sweet Home

Holy cow! I just got back home from my mother’s house and as I was opening the gate to the back garden I almost fainted. They home is sweet home – but this place is ridiculous. The confederate jasmine is in full honey scented bloom as it has been for a month. The sweet olive hedge surrounding Deidre’s patio is back in bloom with that luscious sweet apricot smell. The cloying scent of honeysuckle is drifting over from the bunny trail. That is three very strong very sweet smells and I have been used to them but tonight is different, tonight the gardenia has decided to open up its first blossom.

The gardenia is new to Shadows End – it was put next to the inside gate to replace a hibiscus I lost during the freeze. It has been doing very well and lately has put forth a dozen huge blooms. Well gee whiz; this is too much of a good thing. If the night blooming jasmine starts to bloom I will have to seek shelter.

I guess I should not complain – the honeysuckle blooms very sparingly since it is on the side fence in a very dim and dry area of the garden. I know it will eventually wreck the fence but I just love the smell of honeysuckle it reminds me of the vine outside my bedroom window as a small child. Now the sweet olive is probably only blooming because I am once again threatening to replace it with something a little more interested in putting on leaves. My sweet olives are twisted sticks scantily covered with leaves but every time I plan to replace them they burst into bloom.

Well to be alive you need to fully exercise all your senses and I think breakfast in the garden tomorrow will certainly be an experience in sweet smells. One of the greatest joys in simple living is breakfast in the garden.  But tomorrow, I think I will skip the jam and just have biscuits and butter.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Life Returning to Normal in the Gardens of Shadows End

The back garden at Shadows End is normally packed with as many plants as I can squeeze in. The long freeze of this last winter put quite a dent in it however. Even though more and more it is coming back to life as the summer approaches, I still miss the great swaths of grape ivy that hung upon the fence. All the periwinkles that line the fence along the alley are gone and not yet replaced. Many old friends are gone.

The one that has me the most worried is the bleeding heart. She was from the old homestead plantings and I fancy her to be the spirit of the woman who along with her husband built the cottage I know call Shadows End in the 1920s. That bleeding heart has survived and prospered from the day I first began to bring the garden back to life. It has managed to force a coexistence with 2 confederate jasmines on the large arbor entryway to a side yard. It has always been so vital and strong – anything that can beat back confederate jasmine has to be vigorous and determined. No freeze ever touched her much until this year. So far, I have seen no sign of revival. I water and I pray.

But not all is bad news. The freeze killed so many plants that the soil in some areas is exposed to sun for the first time in years. Amazing visitors from the past have sprung up in surprise. The little patch of flowers right where I enter my car now has several successful wild primroses fluttering among the strangely unsuccessful thyme patch. The Swedish Ivy was on a big comeback until the hens discovered it. I really do have to do something with those girl’s feet. Native Florida violets are again peeking up in strange little places all over the yard. God I hope they spread again, I just love the shape of violet leaves and mine used to bloom very large and bold for violets. Again, the violets are a big hit with the hens - sigh. Even an old potted rose I had thrown out has burst back into renewed vigor and is back in a place of honor by the red gate..

So all in all, I guess we are slowly shaking off the disasters of those 11 days of freezing. I worried so much when it was over. My garden looked horrible. I had just lost a long battle to keep the school I ran alive and it was a most depressing time. Mood and money were missing for a big start over and I just reconciled myself to a smaller plainer garden. But William Alexander Percy (uncle of Will Percy) once wrote of his preference for old fashioned gardens that thrived versus the hybridized over colored spectaculars of modern breeding. As he put it “After all, life is a primary color”.

The realities of deeper shade every year from 4 major trees all within spitting distance of each other and the depredations of my killer hens notwithstanding, it seems Shadows End will continue to have her gardens. She is bringing them back on her own, without my money and despite my mourning. I really only have to sit and watch in awe. Well, and do something about those two wrecking machines Millie and Abby.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Buttered Eggs - Heirloom Skill From County Cork

This is an intriguing way to help keep eggs fresh. It is an heirloom skill from the homesteads of county Cork in Ireland. The small farmers of Ireland had to be extra careful with every resource they had at hand. Chickens have always been the best friend to anyone trying to be self reliant. They are an excellent and cheap source of ready protein both as eggs and “that other way” (I’m writing this in the garden and Millie doesn’t like to hear the word ).

But even with the best efforts of our hens we sometimes run through dry spots where they just do not lay as well as usual. This may be associated with extremes of weather, age or sickness. But whatever the reason, a sudden drop in egg production can leave a small farmer in a real fix if they depend on eggs for a food source.
The grand old ladies of county Cork found a simple and elegant way to solve this problem by stretching the amount of times that eggs can be kept fresh. They would take their eggs – preferably still warm from the hen and rub them with butter. This coat of butter would seal the pores in the eggshell and thereby reduce the exchange of air in and out of the shell. This worked to slow day the natural aging process. The original purpose of buttered eggs was to preserve eggs without refrigeration; but I see no reason why it would not work in modern kitchens. In fact the constant drying flow of air in a refrigerator is almost as bad for eggs as keeping them cool is good for them. Many people never refrigerate their eggs at all – but I wager they don’t live in Florida.

Butter really is a wonderful thing – it has amazing abilities to seal and protect. Do not underestimate the ability of this to help a small homestead in its search for self reliance. The original concept of potted meats came from medieval cooks mincing up meat into fine pieces, packing them tightly into small crocks and then sealing them in with a thick layer of butter. Before the modern hygienist in you begins to rebel - listen to this – butter is highly resistant to bacterial growth. That was the reason old people used to put butter on burns – not to act as a lotion, but to act as a barrier to infection.

The best way to use butter in this type of role is to clarify it. Clarified butter is simply the clear yellow part of butter separated from the little bit of white that shows when it begins to melt -think pancakes. In fact clarified butter called Ghee in Indian cooking is a stable in their cuisine and will remain good even in tropical heat. To produce clarified butter, you simply slowly melt butter and skim off all the solids, leaving only the clear yellow liquid. This is Ghee or clarified butter. The solids are loose proteins and they are what can allow butter to spoil. Remove them and butter is sterile and will last indefinitely.

I cannot imagine a better way to merge heirloom traditions with modern needs. Honestly, I am not sure how often I would use this idea since I get more eggs than I can possibly eat. But even if you are not trying to extend the shelf life of your eggs further into the future, delaying the aging process would mean eggs stay fresh tasting longer. The artisan food movement is huge in modern Ireland and the people there report a big return to this tradition. The claim is not only do eggs stay fresh longer, but that the butter imparts a subtle flavor to the eggs.

An heirloom trick to eat better for longer– that’s sounds like a win/win to me. I am going to try buttering my first batch of eggs this week. I will have to set up a simple experiment. I will butter 8 eggs, and then cook them 2 at a time in 2 week intervals. This way I should be able to compare 2, 4, 6 and 8 week old buttered eggs against eggs laid that very day and compare freshness. I will report back to you on how it fares. So science marches backwards to the Middle Ages in search of simple living here at Shadows End.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Richilieu Gets A Girlfriend

I have known Richelieu (don’t laugh - his parents were exotic), since he was first born. Heck I helped his mom out all the time when she was pregnant and I helped his dad get into their first house. I had known his dad for years and years and I watched as he and his mom raised Richie. They we over at my place practically all the time, so it sort of seemed like Rich was my little one too. Recently, mom and dad have not been around as much, they moved to a new place last year. But now Richie has moved back here into their old place and I have been looking after him a little while they are away.

Well, this may be silly- but I am worried about Richie's new girlfriend. She seems awful old for him. Richie is barely out of adolescence. Sure he was raised by two very careful and diligent parents. Certainly, he has shown great maturity in sticking close to home and places he knows and understands. But lately, he has gotten, well let’s just say colorful. No, no tattoos or piercings yet but that hair! He wears it in a giant upswept mound that reminds me of Flock of Seagulls from the 1980s. Also he has changed it from a nice normal brown to bright red. Not golden or auburn or even just Irish red – but god awful Chinese firecracker red.

Mind you Richie is a very attractive young male and I am sure he would be sought after by many females. He has many talents, he is quick witted and diligent, and he gets up very early to go to work each day. He does spend a lot of time hanging out and singing - but only after he is back from work. Actually he sings very well and really much better than his mom who was the one who taught him to appreciate a good song years ago.

Maybe that was what attracted – “her”. Certain women have always been attracted to the boys in the band. Richie definitely croons a good love tune. But this new lady in his life just doesn’t feel right to me. Heck I do not even now her name even though she has come over dozens of times lately. One day I walked in and she was just helping herself to everything she could find to eat. I mean I always say make yourself at home – but gee whiz. Richie had brought her over because his place never has any food and he knows I’m always stocked up. But still, who start rummaging through your snacks without at least saying: Hi – I’m so and so.

Plus, I just really think she is much older than he is. She still has a nice face but she has already started fading a little here and there. Oh and god knows her tail end has definitely started to spread. Oh yeah, ok now here is the clincher – she is constantly nagging Richie to take her out to eat all the time and she is a total pig. I do not know how she is in public, but she was eating some sunflower seeds at my place and just spit shells everywhere. Of course so did Richie, but I mean what else does a 2 year old cardinal do?

I dunno maybe I am over reacting. But I still think that hussy is too old for him. Just wait till I see his parents.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


I finally planted my radishes while the moon was waning ( declining from full moon to new) as I was instructed to do by my grandfather ages ago.  I never followed any lunar cycles in planting and have generally been a blessed gardener.  The one glaring exception to that has been root crops.  Year after year, I've planted onions, carrots, leeks and even radishes and been stunningly unsuccessful.  This year I planted with the waning moon and by golly - success.  Today i noticed real live swelling at the base of my leeks and I ate my first home grown french breakfast radish.

The plan is simple: plant above ground producers like pepper during the waxing (rising from new to full moon) phase.  Conversely, you plant below ground producers like radishes during the waning (declining from full moon to new) phase.   Simple, clear and precise - I should have listened to all those old people all these years.

Pappa was right and I finally get to break a decade long drought on root crops.  I love all types of root crops and this will lead me to retry beets and turnips this fall.  Obviously, my sweet little radish is clear proof that higher powers do exist and will work with you if you will work with them.   I am going to set out a bowl of cream for the faeries and see if I cannot get a house brownie to ignore my 23 pound cat.

The debate over diety is resolved.  Praise be to the shining ones and all the spirits of the soil! At least for me - I mean dammit radishes don't just pop out of the ground.  Well, I mean - well you know what I mean.  Go get a farmer's almanac and plan on fine meals of roasted beet and onions in the first cold nights of winter.

Homestead wisdom, or folk tale - it does not matter to me.  All I want is root crops in my home garden.  One cannot be self reliant with lettuce and tomatoes only.  Simple living can mean taking the simple way out and it looks like planting by the moon is the way to go for me.

In faith, from Shadows End

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Mayday Tomato Celebration and Confession

Well, Saturday was Mayday 2010. I celebrated but weeding my home garden. May 1st is not only associated with Mayday celebrations in their modern form but it is the ancient Gaelic celebration of Beltane. Beltane is a cross quarter day, that is it marks the transition halfway from Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice. This made it the very heart of the growing season for the ancient Celts. The day varied from year to year but May 1st is close enough.

Unfortunately, I think this May 1st marked the very last of our pleasant and cool spring and the beginning of hot humid Summer here in Florida. But that is not the reason for celebration, I would think the heart of growing season is best marked by the very first fresh tomato of the season. On Saturday evening as the bonfires of Beltane were being lit I picked two crisp scarlet grape tomatoes and fed them to Abigail and Millicent. They seemed to enjoy them immensely and the feeling of first harvest was really extraordinary. Sure I have had some salad greens and radishes already but the first tomato seems a serious start to the harvest season here in my tiny homestead.

So that was the celebration of tomatoes as harbingers of the garden season. Probably this would be a good time to make my confession. I grow tomatoes very well; I grow a wide variety and usually get good to excellent results. I have canned them, dried them, sauce and juiced them, I have feed them to worms, chickens, and birds. I have grown them in water, pots and in all kinds of soil. I have grown huge ones, thick Italian one, green one and even some purplish ones – and I have hated every single bite I ever took of any fresh tomato I ever ate.

I cannot help it. I like the taste of tomatoes and will consume them in any way they can be processed. I love ketchup, tomato sauce and paste – heck I even like the taste of tomato juice. But biting directly into a fresh tomato will send chills down my back. The flavor is not the problem – it is the texture. Fresh tomatoes feel exactly like rotten fruit and that is exactly the way I register them every single time I have ever tried to eat one.

Shocking confession and one I regret to make. Tomatoes are such a homestead staple it is a shame to waste them at their peak of flavor. Believe me I have tried, from a tiny boy at my Nanny’s table to a grown man staring down his own fears, I have clinched by jaw and bit into them. Uck - yuck - pooey – I real am sorry but no way. I love the simple life and I’ll keep on growing tomatoes, but I’ll be eating them over pasta or in soups and not fresh from the vine with salt and pepper.