Herbs for meate and medicine in North Carolina

The following is slightly adapted from a talk I gave at Duke Homestead State Historic Site in Durham, North Carolina, in June 2012. I have not included citations as there would be quite a few and they likely aren’t desirable in this context, but if you’re looking for a reference, please contact me.

herb garden
The herb garden at the George Washington Birthplace. Photograph by Virginia Travis licensed Creative Commons.

Few Americans today venture much deeper into herbal medicine than the occasional cup of chamomile tea or bar of oatmeal soap. We don’t even cook with herbs nearly as much as we once did, unless we’re cooking Mediterranean, and hardly anybody has an herb garden. But a hundred fifty years ago or more in North Carolina, you’d have used herbs for food, for medicine, for aromatics, and for dyes. And many herbs had multiple uses. You’d have used thyme to flavor a stew or enhance a salad, but you might also have used it to (as the great herbalist Nicholas Culpeper said) “purge the body of phlegm” or eliminate intestinal parasites. You might have used bloodroot, a local wildflower, to make a red dye for clothing, but it could also be used as a mouthwash. Roses smelled sweet, as Shakespeare famously said, but they could also flavor cakes or cure a headache. From the common pine to the lovely rose, from wild lettuce to English thyme, almost every plant North Carolinians have known has found a use at the table or in the medicine chest — and sometimes both, because food and medicine were often one and the same. Continue reading “Herbs for meate and medicine in North Carolina”

Raising backyard ducks: Final thoughts (for now)

Much has changed since I first started raising ducks and chronicled my experiences here in 2002. Then, backyard poultry was almost unheard of, a thing of the past I was fighting to revive. At the turn of the century few urban places in the U.S. allowed poultry in residential areas; now, in many mid-sized cities, it’s become common, or at least not surprising, to hear the bwaaawk of a neighbor’s chicken. In 2002 the Internet was still a fairly new medium, and it was hard to find and share personal experiences with the few people who did know something about raising poultry. As resources I had a book written for professionals, a couple of skimpy websites, and a veterinarian whose workshop at a sustainable agriculture conference first got me thinking about ducks. For day-to-day details I was on my own.

For the first few years, I received hundreds of emails from around the world — literally, six continents and, if I recall correctly, more than forty countries — from people asking questions and sharing experiences. Those conversations with fellow “new agrarians” was the reward for building this website. What I wrote here seems to have helped a great many people get started raising ducks on a small scale, and for that I’m grateful.

Over the years, what I built in 2002–03 seems increasingly dated (hard to believe, but those tiny movies were high-res back then), even though the information and advice is still perfectly sound; and there are plenty of other places to get help. Moreover, I no longer keep ducks — that’s a long story; I hope to again someday — and I have no more experiences to share. My “Raising Ducks” collection has become effectively an archive. But I’m going to leave it here and preserve it, in hopes that it may still help someone. If you have questions or thoughts, do feel free to email me and I’ll try to get back to you.

To close it out — for now, at least — I’ll stage a brief interview with myself about the experience of raising ducks. There’s also a movie below the jump. Continue reading “Raising backyard ducks: Final thoughts (for now)”

Efficiency, waste, and backyard chickens

I finally read the NRDC’s report on food waste in America, the one that concludes we waste 40 percent of our food, and I noted that most of the report is framed in terms of “efficiency” — we waste food because our food system isn’t efficient enough. Which leads to language like this: “A recent report by consulting firm McKinsey ranks reducing food waste as one of the top three opportunities to improve resource productivity.” Or this gem: “Increasing the efficiency of the U.S. food system is a triple bottom-line solution that requires a collective approach by decision-makers at every level in the supply chain.” Eh, maybe. I mean, sure. Whatever that means. I’m not sure who they’re speaking to, here.

There may well be big solutions worth pursuing. But big solutions tend to create waste; in fact the pursuit of efficiency itself can create new kinds of waste even while limiting other kinds. Let me give just one example of why: Chickens. Continue reading “Efficiency, waste, and backyard chickens”

Scientifically sound? Maybe. But wise?

“Let’s start the new year on scientifically sound footing,” writes Jane Brody in the New York Times (“What You Think You Know (but Don’t) About Wise Eating,” December 31), and quotes “one of Canada’s brightest scientific minds” to the effect that “chemical” shouldn’t be a dirty word, because all food is made of chemicals and there’s chemistry going on everywhere. True enough. Sadly but predictably, she (and, one has to presume, Joe Schwarcz, the scientist she cites) jumps straight to the conclusion that food is nothing more than a bunch of chemicals, and uses it as an excuse to justify industrial food and fling barbs at the alternatives. Continue reading “Scientifically sound? Maybe. But wise?”

A diversity of gardeners

An article in last month’s National Geographic examines the loss of genetic diversity in the world’s crops, and this infographic, in particular, has been making the rounds of the Internet, at least in the corners where foodies and activists lurk. It shows the decline in diversity of common American garden vegetables between 1903 and 1983: more than 90 pecent of the varieties in existence at the turn of the twentieth century are now long gone. That loss of diversity has consequences beyond our inability to sample the flavor of a long-lost apple: with so little genetic stock available, changes in climate or a new disease might easily wipe out an entire crop, such as wheat, and we’d have no way to rebuild it.

It’s a lovely graphic, well designed and (if you aren’t already familiar with the issue) appropriately shocking. Like too many such graphics, though, this one doesn’t inspire much beyond despair. What can I, or anybody, do about it? The accompanying article gives the answer: I don’t have to do anything, because there are institutional “seed banks” working to preserve the genetic stock still remaining on the world’s farms. I’ve been shocked and then duly comforted; no need to get out of my reading chair. Let the experts handle it.

Except that this isn’t the right answer, or at least isn’t enough of one. Seed banks, valuable and worthwhile as they are, can only preserve the remaining — let’s say, as a round number — ten percent of the genetic diversity that once existed. But that ten percent is dangerously little. And institutions and experts can’t rebuild the remaining ninety percent, because they didn’t build it in the first place. Continue reading “A diversity of gardeners”

Why plastic chicken is not the answer

Mark Bittman writes in this Sunday’s New York Times (“Finally, Fake Chicken Worth Eating”) that he has decided, at last, to endorse fake meat, because he believes that Americans ought to eat less meat and because certain new soy- and mushroom-based fake meat products are, in certain circumstances, nearly indistinguishable from industrially produced chicken breast.

On its own, Brown’s “chicken” — produced to mimic boneless, skinless breast — looks like a decent imitation, and the way it shreds is amazing. It doesn’t taste much like chicken, but since most white meat chicken doesn’t taste like much anyway, that’s hardly a problem; both are about texture, chew and the ingredients you put on them or combine with them. When you take Brown’s product, cut it up and combine it with, say, chopped tomato and lettuce and mayonnaise with some seasoning in it, and wrap it in a burrito, you won’t know the difference between that and chicken.

Bittman’s uncritical acceptance of the way Americans consume chicken breast, moreover — which is to say, mechanically — is disappointing from a man who has done as much as anyone to teach Americans how to cook and eat real food in simple, practical ways. There’s no indication that the product tastes good, only that it isn’t terrible. Nor does it promoting it in this fashion aid the cause of good cooking or of thoughtful, intelligent consumption. To embrace the consumption of “meatlike stuff” produced by a “thingamajiggy” is, I believe, to embrace the error at the root of modern industrial agriculture, and therefore, in the long run, to worsen its effects. Continue reading “Why plastic chicken is not the answer”

What you can grow in Durham, 2011-12

Intrigued by Thomas Jefferson’s calendar of the Washington city market (see the previous post) and liking the design, I decided to use it as a model for mapping produce available right here, right now. So with some help from Erin Kauffman, market manager for the Durham Farmers’ Market, I compiled a produce calendar for Durham, North Carolina, 2011. Continue reading “What you can grow in Durham, 2011-12”

What you could grow (and when) in 1800

Thomas Jefferson was a man of many interests, and being President of the United States doesn’t seem to have deterred him from pursuing them. If from the White House he couldn’t putter in his beloved garden at Monticello, he still managed to keep up with the business. During his eight years in Washington, he kept track in his journal of the produce available month by month at the city market and drew up a chart showing each item’s earliest and latest availability during his residence — a fascinating, if a bit foggy and bubbly, window into early American gardening and vegetable consumption.

Because I’ll not be out-geeked by a two-centuries-dead president, I’ve made an HTML version of Jefferson’s chart. His handwritten original was quite clever (you can see it at low resolution on the Monticello website) and I’ve preserved the basic design while adding a bit of interactivity: for now just the ability to mouse over headings to highlight rows and columns, but eventually also to view definitions and commentary on various items of produce. Continue reading “What you could grow (and when) in 1800”

What’s a chicken worth?

Occasionally I see arguments to the effect that eating red meat is dangerously damaging to the environment — red meat specifically, as compared to poultry. For example, that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, but only 800 gallons to produce a pound of chicken. (“Only” is relative here.) Or that 27 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced for every pound of beef consumed, but only 7 pounds of CO2 per pound of chicken. The figures vary so wildly that I won’t bother citing sources: I assume these numbers are inaccurate; I offer them only as examples of the argument being made, which is that eating chicken is more “environmentally responsible” than eating beef.

I wrote recently about my objection to this sort of bean-counting, this reduction of lives and complex realities to mere data. Here’s another example of what I meant: linking pounds of meat with pounds of CO2 or gallons of water ignores the fact that those pounds of meat come from once-living creatures, which somebody has to kill. Continue reading “What’s a chicken worth?”

More tender morsels

The matter of grass-fed beef and dental hygeine has me thinking some more about the connection between cuisine and agriculture, or between what we might think of as personal or cultural preference and the on-the-ground facts of how food is raised.

A couple of weeks ago Melissa Clark had a recipe in the New York Times for boneless chicken breasts — essentially chicken cordon bleu with sauerkraut, which cries out to my Alsatian-Rheinischer soul, but equally interesting to me was her hand-wringing about white meat. Continue reading “More tender morsels”