Remembrance of produce past

When I was young my mother tended a small garden. I’ve forgotten most of what she grew. I assume there were tomatoes (why have a garden if you’re not going to grow tomatoes?). Probably zucchini. My father would have insisted on parsley. There were peas, which I remember because when I was about five years old we ate them for dinner on the Saturday before Easter when the temperature reached ninety-three degrees. (Why we remember certain things from our childhood and not others is a subject for another posting, but suffice to say that nearly all of my most vivid memories from before the age of seven involve food. I can always tell you what we had for dinner the night of any major event.)

What I remember most from that garden are beets. In the early spring, when they were young and tender, we ate beet greens with butter and salt; later in the season my mother pickled them. By the time I was nine or ten she no longer gardened, and I was an adult before I tasted beet greens or home pickled beets again. You can’t buy baby beets with their greens still tender in a supermarket, and store-bought pickles never stack up.

We didn’t plant beets this year — an oversight — but this morning I bought a bunch of baby beets at the farmers market. For dinner I steamed them with their greens If my mother had been here she would have enjoyed them, but I had to enjoy them for the both of us. I offer the recipe (such as it is) in case you are lucky enough to have them available.

Baby beets steamed with their greens

For this recipe, the beets should be no bigger around than a penny and the greens young, tender, and bright green. They should come as whole plants, pulled from the ground, bunched for sale.

  1. Thoroughly wash the beets and greens. Trim the long roots and cut the beets from the stems, discarding the tough part where stem meets root. If necessary, cut the beets into small pieces (no larger than 1/4 inch). Chop the stems and set aside with the beets. Chop the greens and set aside in a second pile.
  2. Place the chopped beets and stems in a pot and barely cover with water. Add a half teaspoon of salt per bunch. Bring to a boil and cook until tender (about five minutes). Then add the greens, return to a boil, and cook another two to three minutes until they too are tender. (It may take longer to cook the greens, but if it takes longer than five minutes, they were probably too old.)
  3. Most of the water should have boiled off, but if some remains, drain the beets and greens. Add a tablespoon of butter and a few squeezes of fresh lemon juice per bunch. Taste for salt and serve hot.

But all the cool kids are doing it

I read today in the New York Times Magazine that Alice Waters is on a new crusade to make school lunches in Berkeley organic and to have kids grow their own food in school gardens. A middle school garden she created has an outdoor wood-fired pizza oven in it, so the kids can bake pizzas from the produce they grow. Taste, she argues, and not health concerns, is what drives kids’ decisions and will make them support local and organic produce. That’s in contrast, I’d note, with adults, who buy organic food — if they do — overwhelmingly out of concern for personal health.

Now I’m all for giving kids something decent to eat at school, although I wonder how many parents would be willing to cough up five dollars a day for an organic lunch program. And while I’m all for school gardens in principle, I’m not sure that this is a case where change will start with the young. Nearly everyone I know who grows their own food or is a dedicated farmers’ market shopper either grew up in suburbia with no exposure whatsoever to this sort of thing, or else grew up on a farm. They’re either doing what their parents did or reacting strongly against what their parents did. I can’t think of any serious moral or cultural decision that anyone I know has made because their teachers told them to.

Eddy the duck

Raising ducks: The second year


Eddy the duck
Eddy, still the smartest and best-looking of the bunch.

As spring and the close of our second year with ducks approaches, I should offer an update on our experiences. I apologize for its somewhat random nature, but that’s life with poultry. Or with anything else, really. Covered here are molting, a hawk attack, duck first aid, and a new house.

car smashed by trees after the ice storm

Gourmet survivalist

car smashed by trees after the ice storm
(Photo by Justin Watt)

Last December we were hit with an ice storm unlike any storm I have ever seen. It began as snow early on a Wednesday afternoon as I draped the last of the Christmas lights over the holly bushes. By dusk the innocent snow had turned to the dreaded “wintry mix” that FCC regulations prohibit meteorologists from calling by a more appropriate term. By bedtime the trees were groaning; at 2:30 we were awakened by a vicious tearing sound and a crash: a tree had fallen on the power line to our house and ripped the line, assembly, and electric meter from the back wall. We called the electric company, an act of purest pollyannism. When the storm subsided, eight inches of ice had fallen. The evergreen boughs of our Southern pines caught much of that ice; weakened by months of drought, more of them lay on the ground (and on cars, and on houses) than after a category two hurricane six years before. None of the crashing limbs caused irreparable damage to our own property, but we lost running water for four days, electricity for nine.

two ducks

Raising ducks: 6–12 months


two ducks
Eddy and Bubble keep an eye on suspicious humans.

The ducks have been with us for a year. I have to say that our experimental backyard poultry operation has been a rousing success! We have wonderful eggs, enough to sell some to friends; we’ve found a routine that integrates the ducks into our "halfway homestead," and we’ve been able to keep the ducks happy and healthy.

The Halfway Homestead

For several years, since we were first married, Kathy and I planned a future in which we would buy more land where we could have big gardens, livestock, pasture, barns, a workshop, and a bigger house. At one time, we thought we would be there by now, but we are still working on it. For the time being, we have a house that is small but nice enough and an acre and a half of land, most of which is wooded, in a suburban neighborhood.

As we progressed from a two-bedroom apartment to a tiny rented house to our present home, we’ve picked up homesteading skills. Kathy has expanded the garden year by year, growing small quantities of a large variety of crops, learning to grow them better, discovering what she enjoys and is good at growing. Now we have three good-sized raised beds, two small plots in the process of being sheet-composted, a pair of potato bins, and a pile of logs we hope will grow shitake mushrooms. I call it the experimental garden. She has the lettuce, greens, herbs, beans, and peppers down; this year she’s trying to expand her mastery of tomatoes.

When I was still in college, I made apple butter for my friends for Christmas presents, mostly, I guess, to see if I could. My girlfriend thought I was nuts: nobody makes their own apple butter, she told me, so I dumped her, went to graduate school and met Kathy. Each year I added varieties to the rotation, and now I make all of the jam, jelly, marmalade, pickles, catsup, and sauerkraut that we eat, and also can fruits for winter pies.

My woodworking began by accident. Before Kathy and I were married, her roommate moved out and took their coffee table, and she needed to buy a new one. We were disgusted with the quality of the tables we found in her price range, and I remarked that I could build one better than that! So I did, after re-inventing the dado and dowel joints and swearing in many (I’m sure) fascinating ways at my countless mistakes. For a first effort with cheap tools it wasn’t bad, but with better tools, more shop space, and a lot of practice I’ve gotten much better. I’ve now built much of the furniture in our house, including a set of cherry side and coffee tables to replace my first effort.

We have a few other homesteader’s habits, too: brewing beer, knitting, making curtains. We cook everything from scratch; this has become a matter of principle now. I don’t think either of us ever wants to produce all our own food, but it is interesting, and rewarding, to add one activity at a time.

But there are limits to what we can do in a backyard, and as the "homestead" kept getting pushed further into the future, we started growing frustrated. The problem with dreams deferred is that they can quietly become dreams forgotten: you have to keep moving toward what you want, even if by baby steps. And I felt that we were stalled.

Then, a year ago, in a fit of mild insanity, we got a flock of seven ducks. They live under our second-story deck at night and in a portable grazing pen during the day, and they lay eggs for us. We simply decided that we were tired of waiting for our homestead, and that there was no reason we couldn’t have at least a halfway homestead while we waited.

It was as if a dam burst. Now we’ve refinanced our house and committed to staying here at least another five years, while we save money and decide what exactly we want. We’re going to clear about 2500 square feet of woods by the street and use the space for more gardens and a second shed so I can have a dedicated woodshop. Kathy is working hard at growing mushrooms; if she succeeds, we’ll be eating little else this fall but mushroom omelets. We still don’t have room for llamas, so it isn’t a permanent solution. We’ll keep working on that. In the meantime, we’ll have our halfway homestead.

After all, every homestead is a halfway homestead. No real homestead ever quite lives up to the dream; life is a compromise between ideal and necessity. We can never be or do everything we’d like — but that fact doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to try. So we try, every day, and we move forward by baby steps. And ten years, twenty years, a lifetime of baby steps adds up.

Too many of us who want change in the world envision the world we’d like to live in but never figure out how to get there from here. It is daunting to think about a divide so great, so I advise trying not to think about it. Keep the end in mind, but focus on the small things you can do rather than the big things you can’t.

And so the halfway homestead is our answer to the question What can we do right here, right now? It’s about putting down roots where we are, rather than holding back until we’re where we think we’d like to be. It’s about taking the scenic route, enjoying the ride, and holding open the possibility that we might find a better destination than the one we had in mind.

Raising ducks: 4–5 months

The maginificent seven.

The ducks have been laying eggs for five weeks now. We found the first two on September 28, and found at least one egg every day after that. After a week we were averaging three a day; after a month five a day. Now we get five to six each day, and we believe that all of the ducks are laying, so each of them lays an average of five to six eggs each week—pretty impressive, I think.

Duck movies!

I edited and posted these movies in 2002, when bandwith and processors weren’t what they are today, so the videos are all fairly small.

Summer’s end

The cherry tomatoes, undeterred equally by months of drought and by the torrential rains that followed, still bear more fruit than we can eat. Planted two to a pot and having long since outgrown their stakes, they intertwine with their neighbors for mutual support and have strength to spare for the morning glories, whose blue and purple flowers now swarm the fence, clashing riotously with the orange tomatoes.

But even these prodigious plants now weaken as the first frost approaches: we found three tomato hornworms this week devouring the green leaves. One was healthy, plump, nearly the size of my index finger; we pinched off its chosen stem and sent it to face our avian death squad. Saffy, the adventuresome eater, tasted it first but dropped it when bossy Eddy arrived. Through a fascinating combination of slurping, tossing her beak, and dabbling in the pool, she was able to choke down two-thirds of this huge worm. The last third, snipped off in her bill, fell to the ground, where Francie quickly plucked it up and swallowed it.

Raising ducks: 3–4 months

The ducks have completed their second molt, so they have their full coat of adult feathers. The new feathers look just like the old ones, but there are more of them: the ducks have finished growing now.