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Starting Seeds in a Time of Darkness

Starting Seeds in a Time of Darkness

Tray Seeded with Chickory
Seed Starting, Chickories

So — the greenhouse room has pretty much become my office, which means I’m starting seeds on my desk. This wasn’t the plan when we built this room, but it’s so nice out here that well, I colonized it. I think some of the geraniums might have to migrate back into the house because this year, I think the garden is going to be more necessary than ever before.

It’s very scary out there. The President is rapidly rolling back norms we’re accustomed to, from the assault on the ACA, Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security, to the tacit approval of bomb threats at JCCs and desecrated cemeteries, to banning the legitimate press from the White House press briefings. It’s gotten to the point that my mother called the other day and said “I was outraged by something, but I think there have been two more somethings since I called you yesterday.”

And so, I’m planning a better garden this year than last year. Last year I had ankle surgery in the beginning of February, and it wasn’t until August that I could walk normally again. Planting was mostly a matter of flinging seeds for hardy greens into beds overgrown with Bermuda grass and hoping for the best. I was really laid up for a lot of the year, and so stressed out by that job I wound up quitting, that I neglected the whole thing. I grew some nice greens, the beans came in very late but were delicious, and I had a lot of flowers. But it wasn’t one of my better garden years.

As I was looking in the seed box thinking about what greens I could start early, I found a whole array of chickories — red ones and green ones and some beautiful varigated ones — all from Seeds of Italy, one of my favorite sources. I just put an order in with them last week actually. So — chickories. They’re a cool-weather crop so if you don’t start them well before the last frost, they’ll bolt when it gets hot. Fingers crossed this year for a crop of nice crunchy chickories. I also started two kinds of chard and some spinach. Those do fine outdoors, but again, its a season thing. I didn’t do a hoop house this year, but if I start them inside, once the ground thaws, I can transplant them out and I’ll have about a 3 week jump on things.

It’s the thing about growing your own — it spoils you for store produce. I’m too cheap to pay the premium for the hydroponic organic greens that our local foods store carries these days — although I do splurge once in a while. They had some lovely baby bok choi and some beautiful spinach (one of the few vegetables Himself enjoys). And well, I’m really broke this year as I try to stretch out my savings long enough to finish this book manuscript, and build up a new freelance business. So, I’m going to need my own food in the backyard (also, looking forward to falling heat bills as spring arrives). I keep reminding myself, this was the plan. Pay off the debts. Pay off the house. Build a garden. Get chickens — all things that free me up from needing cash so I can write more. So, planting seeds, writing the book,  and keeping on keeping on even as the nation burns down around us.

LivingSmall Reboot

LivingSmall Reboot

I started LivingSmall in 2002 not as a lifestyle blog, but as a political statement. My original tagline was “Thoughts on Literature, Food, Faith, and the Subversive Power of Living Small.”

I moved to Montana not only because I could afford a house here, a house I managed this summer to pay off, but because I wanted to deliberately disconnect from the terrifying engine of consumer capitalism that I saw devouring the Bay Area (and pretty much the rest of America).

This has always been a political project, and now, as we see the monster who is us — the big baby in the highest office of the land, a man who does not read, who cannot carry a thought from point A to point B, who is an avatar of consumptive greed and the puppet of white supremacists and foreign dictators, a creepy rich man with a golden apartment in the sky who has, like some villain out of a superhero movie, taken over the Republic, well it seems that the real work of LivingSmall might be relevant again.

So keep an eye out here, or subscribe in the sidebar to be notified when a new post is up.

Tomorrow, we’ll have a non-political recipe for garlicky dinner rolls.

On Paying Off My Mortgage

On Paying Off My Mortgage

Livingsmall Goal # 1 Done! House is paid off!

On Friday, I wired the last payment on my house.

I own my own house. No one can make me move, ever again, if I don’t want to. For someone who went to six grammar schools and moved pretty much every 2 years until I was 35, this is huge.

This has been the primary goal of LivingSmall since day one. I moved to Montana because it’s beautiful of course, but primarily I moved here because I could buy an inexpensive house. A house I could afford to pay off.

I did my masters degree at UC Davis, where I applied in large part to study with Gary Snyder. I’m not a poet, but I figured if Gary was there, something cool must be going on. Gary’s biggest advice to us budding writers was not about poetry, or even about writing. “Find a cheap house,” he said. “Someplace you can pay off. If it’s cheap and you want to live there, there’s probably also other artists there.” That’s what he did all those decades ago on the Yuba Ridge, and what I was looking for in Livingston was something similar.

So that’s what I did. I came up here in 2002, seeking a cheap house, and a found one in a town full of artists, and writers, and musicians, and fishing guides, and electricians and carpenters and schoolteachers.

I built a garden, and fixed things up bit by bit. I paid cash for everything I did on the house and while I’ll need a new roof next year, and I have to repaint some things, and while there are always things I want to do in the garden, I own my house, free and clear.

In the process I built a life. A life that as some of you who have followed me a long time know, was nearly derailed entirely the first year I was here. As I tell people when the story comes up, if you’re going to have a disaster, have it in Livingston. Everyone came. My kitchen filled up with people that first night, and they’re all still here. I’m still here. We are all here together. We’ve seen one another through other disasters. We’ve all brought food to the Elks club for funeral parties, but we’ve celebrated kids birthdays, and book launches, and year after year of rodeo parades.

It was not a mistake, my project of living small. There’s more big news to come, but for now, I’m going to take a moment in my back garden, where the beans are shooting above the trellis, where the sunflowers and hollyhocks are blooming great shoots of color into the sky, where the chickens I just deloused are clucking around in their coop while I wait for Himself to come home for dinner and a Red Sox game on TV. It is not the life I thought I wanted, but it is a better life than I ever could have envisioned.

If you’d like to come along for the ride, please subscribe on the home page.


CookBookSlut vs. the Economy

CookBookSlut vs. the Economy

My new CookBookSlut column is up over at Bookslut — I take on cooking and urban homesteading as one approach to the continuing implosion of the economy and the unabating high unemployment rate. I mean, if we’re not going to have jobs anymore, we’d better learn to grow our own and cook our own and take care of our own. (Rant alert, btw.)

Here’s a list of the terrific books I discuss this month:

Another Season, Another Redesign

Another Season, Another Redesign

Here’s to a cleaner design, and to more regular posting. There’s probably going to be less cooking and gardening around here in the future (if only because after eight seasons in this house, I sort of feel like I’ve written just about everything one can about my garden, and about what I’m eating for dinner) and more writing about books, and politics and economics.

One of the things I can’t seem to get out of my head is Shannon Hayes book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture. I wrote about it for BookSlut in last month’s column The Revolution Starts Here, and then the Bookslut herself, Jessa, wrote about it in her Smart Set column this month: The Home Front. One of the things I found fascinating about Jessa’s column is how different Hayes’ ideas look to someone a decade and a half younger than I am. I’m old enough to remember the hippies of the 1970s, the back to the land movement, and to have seen both of those not as a joke, but as a possible way of life. In college I hung out with oddball types who were leading canoe trips and trying to figure out how to support themselves without ever having to come in from the woods. In other words, I’m old enough to have come of age before Ronald Reagan, when the world still held out some hope that making money and buying stuff wasn’t the ultimate project to which one could devote one’s life (although I also haven’t forgiven Bill Clinton for repealing Glass-Steagall and allowing the banks and Wall Street to gamble our economy in to ruin).  I liked Hayes’ book a lot, and I loved the portraits of so many people trying to figure out how to live richly without buying into the fear-based money economy, the one that wants to keep us on the hamster wheel forever, always chasing that thing that is just out of reach.

But I have to say, a lot of it didn’t seem that radical to me. Anyone my age who wanted to be an artist or who never wanted to come in from the woods knew that they were never going to make much money. I like to say that I moved to Livingston because of Gary Snyder, who showed us all in grad school, by his example, that if you bought a place to live that you could afford to pay off, then you had a huge amount of personal and artistic freedom. One of the things I find the most touching in Hayes’ account, is how torn she felt between the path that academic success opened up for her, and the lived experience of that life. She’s smart and got herself scholarships and, like I did, went all the way to the PhD. — only to discover that the life that opened up for her was going to require sacrifices in her personal life that she wasn’t able to make. I know that feeling.

It’s unsettling to feel out of the mainstream. I’ve gotten more comfortable with it as I’ve gotten older, partly because I’m old enough now that I sort of know what my life is, I’m past that point where you’re always worried about what you’re going to be when you grow up. And I don’t know that I’d be as sanguine about it if I lived someplace more “normal” — if I was surrounded by subdivisions and shopping malls and all the stuff that I fled when I left California (where I was very lonely, in part because I didn’t care about any of that stuff).  I do know that it’s folks like Shannon Hayes (and Jessa and everyone else out here blogging about how to live closer to the ground) who are asking the right questions, who are finally starting to crack the buy-buy-buy ethos that have caused us, over the past several decades, to run ourselves into the ground.

Practice of the Wild, Video

Practice of the Wild, Video

I’m lucky enough to have gotten to know both Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison over the years — I studied with Gary at UC Davis where we were also both involved in the Art of the Wild workshops at Squaw Valley, and Harrison, well, we have a bunch of friends in common, and he’s a neighbor here in Livingston. I actually first met Harrison when he came to Davis to do a reading and to visit Gary. Snyder was teaching a course in Zen and Chinese, Japanese and American poetry — it was one of those courses where several professors sat in, including Alan Williamson who used to gently chide us when we turned the Romantic poets into straw men for our arguments. Harrison came to visit, and then years later, when we ran into one another again here in Livingston, it’s that class that still stands out. That one course was worth all those years in grad school, all the hassle and pain and even the thousands of dollars I’m still paying off.

One reason Harrison came to Davis that spring was that he and Gary have been corresponding since 1965, about Zen, and poetry, and all the rest of it. Will Hearst had them down to his spectacular chunk of the California coastline and filmed them pretty much just walking around and talking to one another. The movie’s available on Amazon now, and it’s only $19 dollars, so I went ahead and bought a copy. And while I wish they’d gotten a little more of both writers’ humor in to the piece, it’s well worth investing in a copy if you’re interested in Zen, or the California school of poetry, or the challenges of representing nature in the written word, or Harrison or Snyder.

The Snack Issue …

The Snack Issue …

So I was browsing around this morning and came across A Year of Inconvenience, a blog written by a woman who manages a food co-op and yet, who after watching Julie & Julia, and reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, decided to see if she could spend a year avoiding the central aisles of her own store, the place where the “convenience” foods reside.

Like a lot of these “project blogs” I would probably quibble with some of her definitions of “convenience foods.” As far as I’m concerned, canned tomatoes, canned beans, pasta, and reasonably plain crackers (I’m a big fan of the Stoned Wheat Thin) are staples. And I’m not really her target audience — I rarely shop the middle aisles, and when I do I’m in there for staples like flour or rice or pasta or beans, or Asian condiments. I don’t buy mixes, or “simmer sauces” — I don’t even like spaghetti sauce in a jar because it tastes too gloppy to me. I just don’t think about cooking that way, in part because I like my own food better than most prepared stuff, and I’m cheap — the pre-packaged stuff seems so expensive most of the time for what you get. But this is all ground we’ve been over time and time again.

What struck me reading A Year of Inconvenience is how ubiquitous “snacks” have become in our society. One of her concerns is replacing the snack foods — and to her credit, she goes ahead and makes hard pretzels!

I was raised by parents who were deeply opposed to snacks. We got three squares a day, and in Junior High and High School a very modest after-school nosh, but the concept of something like a “snack drawer” or “snack closet” in our house was unthinkable. Even after-school snacks were something like a toasted bagel with cheese, or homemade cookies (an ongoing source of war between Patrick and the not-yet-beloved Stepmother in junior high — she believed in rationing, he’d sneak them from the bottom of the tin). We never had chips, or store cookies, or packages of stuff in the house, just as we weren’t allowed to drink pop as kids. My parents were so pro-milk/anti-pop that even at the horse shows my mother ran when we were little, the catering guy, the legendary Mr. Pasquesi, kept those little cartons of milk in his ice chest for my brother and I, and wouldn’t sell us pop.

So the explosion of snack foods is something I’ve never really paid any attention to, and since I don’t have kids, I’ve been spared the tyranny of snack duty for school teams and activities. I still don’t fundamentally understand snacking. We eat dinner really late around here, so sometimes I’ll have some olives, or cheese and crackers around five (it’s a long time until our 9pm-ish dinner time), but the appeal/lure/siren song of snack products is something that’s thankfully lost on me.

The struggle with weight is one I’m not unfamiliar with, but it seems that this idea that we need to have food at our fingertips at every moment of the day (like the idea, pushed by the bottled water people that if we’re not clutching a beverage at all times, we’ll perish of thirst), is one of the reasons our population is growing larger and larger and larger. And perhaps, as we start weaning ourselves from packaged food in general — the frozen dinners, the “mixes” the sauces in jars, the horrible pre-cooked meals in the meat case (really? you want a pot roast cooked in a factory somewhere?), the snack issue will begin to recede as well. Once you start seeing food in boxes and bags as odd, and full of weird ingredients and too much salt, then “snacks” start to look weird too. I don’t know, if you need a “snack” make some popcorn — on the stove, in a pan, with a little oil. It’s really good.

More School Lunch News

More School Lunch News

More news about school lunches:
High School kids in Chicago protest the junkiness of their school lunches to the school board.

When school officials defend serving a daily menu of nachos, pizza, burgers and fries, they often say they’re just giving students what they want.

But you wouldn’t know it by listening to an angry coalition of high school students who plan to speak out on Chicago Public Schools meals Wednesday at the monthly Chicago Board of Education meeting.

One of those students is Teresa Onstott, a sophomore at Social Justice High School who last week practiced a speech that details the “sickening pizza, chicken sandwiches and nachos” the district serves each day and urges the board not to renew the contract for the company providing the food.

Kids who bring a sack lunch, are less likely to be obese:

Compared with kids who brought lunch from home, those who ate school lunches:

  • Were more likely to be overweight or obese (38.2% vs. 24.7%)
  • Were more likely to eat two or more servings of fatty meats like fried chicken or hot dogs daily (6.2% vs. 1.6%)
  • Were more likely to have two or more sugary drinks a day (19% vs. 6.8%)
  • Were less likely to eat at least two servings of fruits a day (32.6% vs. 49.4%)
  • Were less likely to eat at least two servings of vegetables a day (39.9% vs. 50.3%)
  • Had higher levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol
  • The good news: The Senate Agriculture Committee voted yesterday to increase the 17 billion dollar budget of the school food program by 4.5 billion dollars over the next decade

    The measure, which now must go to a full Senate vote, would overhaul the $17 billion school lunch program. It would call for the USDA to set new nutrition standards for food served in the cafeteria and vending machines, improve training for cafeteria workers and accelerate recalls of contaminated foods. Some 23,000 children ate food at school that made them sick from 1998 to 2007, according to USA Today. The bill also aims to increase the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

    The bad news:They’re planning to pay for it by cutting farm conservation programs while leaving big commodity crop subsidies in place:

    “Pitting kids against clean water instead of looking for savings in the much, much larger crop insurance and farm subsidy accounts is just wrong,” said Craig Cox, an official with Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. “It’s more than wrong, because it also reduces the increase in child nutrition funding that could otherwise be achieved.”

    Tester Takes on E.Coli Problem

    Tester Takes on E.Coli Problem

    This morning’s Billings Gazette had a story about Senator Tester, with the help of a local slaughterhouse owner, taking on the lack of accountability in the nation’s meat testing protocols. Montana’s one of the few states where small slaughterhouses still exist, which is a good thing if you want to buy local meat. I have a friend in Colorado, for example, who has a ranch, but doesn’t raise cattle for her family in large part because they’d have to be sent to a big feedlot operation to be processed. What’s the point in that? How would you even know if you got your own meat back?

    From the article:

    “If nothing changes, we are virtually guaranteed there will be ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls as a consequence of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s unwillingness to trace contamination back to the source,” said John Munsell, a former Miles City butcher and advocate for reforming food safety laws.
    Eight years ago, a USDA inspector found E. coli in beef at Munsell’s family meat processing plant, Montana Quality Foods. Munsell told the USDA the contaminated beef came from the slaughterer ConAgra Beef Co., but under existing food safety laws, the government’s investigation stopped at Munsell’s plant. Federal regulators said they couldn’t positively trace the bacteria back to ConAgra despite records offered by Munsell.
    Munsell recalled 270 pounds of hamburger. Months later, ConAgra Beef was caught in an 18 million pound meat recall, one of the nation’s largest.
    Munsell has been lobbying for regulatory changes since 2002. He helped write the bill Tester is introducing. Currently, inspectors are not allowed to document the source of the meat they sample on the same day they collect material to test, Munsell said. Once the test results come back, enough time has lapsed that inspectors can’t say for sure where the meat originated.
    “Why have they always required policies that intentionally delayed evidence gathering? Who are they trying to protect?” Munsell said. “In five days, the trail of evidence grows cold.”

    Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution

    Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution

    I caught the first episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution last night (full episodes available online here). I like Jamie Oliver — I realize he grates on some folks, but he’s got great energy, and unlike a lot of “foodies” he seems genuinely concerned for the well being of people who don’t eat in fancy restaurants, for kids, and for lost adolescents. His enthusiasm, and his perennial conviction that cooking “from scratch” is a skill that anyone can learn, and that by learning and practicing it we can improve the quality not only of our meals, but our health and well-being, is something I’ve always appreciated. (And I have some serious envy for his outdoor oven he featured in his show, Jamie at Home.)

    At any rate, I thought there were a couple of things worth mentioning. First of all, the school he invaded has a whole crew of lunch ladies, who actually know how to cook, and who have real kitchen equipment: ovens, and stovetops in particular. As many of us who are interested in school lunches are learning, this has become increasingly rare in American schools, most of which don’t have full staffs of people who actually have cooking skills, and even more of which only have microwaves and steam tables. So he’s got one leg up on that front — that he’s dealing with some truculence is less surprising. It’s standard “reality show” fare — set up a “villan” at the beginning, who must be vanquished by the end. That part I found really tedious. Seems to me that with a pep talk at the beginning, pointing out how far ahead of most other schools they already are, and some genuine work to bring them aboard, a lot more could have been accomplished. If he’d woo’ed the lunch ladies the way he woo’ed that nice overweight mom and her kids, the whole project might have been off to a different start.

    I also felt like the chicken-vs.-pizza cookoff at the beginning was unnecessary. Oliver did this experiment already in England. He knows going in that the kids will almost always prefer the food they know, processed, salty, sweet pizza or chicken nuggets to the unfamiliar tastes and textures of real food. So why not build on what he did in England, instead of doing it all over again — perhaps the assumption was that referencing the English version of the show would alienate American audiences. Seems sort of odd to me, but then again, I don’t create reality shows.

    The other avoidable mishap was not taking a little more care with people’s feelings. Surely it can’t be any big secret that Appalachia has a proud history of repelling invaders? That they’re used to being the butt of the joke, and that repeating over and over again that they’re the “unhealthiest” (code for fattest) people in America might not be the most useful way to get through to them. I don’t know, the confrontational aspects of the show just felt off to me. Oliver has always struck me as sort of a sweetheart, one who is passionate about is cause, but who knows better than to rub people’s faces in their shortcomings. So why start the whole project off on such a confrontational note?

    Or did they? It might just be the editing. At any rate, it’s a great opportunity to bring the dismal state of most school food to the attention of more people, and I’m sure by the end of the six-episode series, we’ll have scenes of people happily eating and cooking real food. Who knows? Jamie might even bring the lunch ladies around.