Monday, October 25, 2010

Heartbreak on the Back 40

Cassie was born May 2, 2010. Rest in peace, little one.
This past September 30 we had 60 acres come out of the CRP after 10 years. We were tickled to finally be able to graze our Highland cattle on that land. Understandably the grass on the former CRP was quite tall and the ground fairly wild, but we opened the gates and watched them enjoy their formerly forbidden territory.
Sunday morning as we sat by our campfire sipping coffee, we noticed three (just three) of our cows up near the barn. The mister and I brooded and set off toward the southernmost pond with the dogs to find the others. We came to a clearing in the tall grass and instantly recognized it as a spot where the cattle had bedded down. However, we weren't prepared for what we saw next ... three hooves ... a ribcage ... and finally ... a calf head. There was beautiful Highland red hair strewn about, and it was still attached to the leg bones and head. We were exasperated and deeply saddened, trying to piece together what could have happened. It felt like an episode of CSI: The Prairie. 
We walked further, toward the pond, still trying to find the others. They were right where we thought they'd be, and we knew immediately who the fallen calf had belonged to: Big Mama, as hers was missing from her side. The cows cautiously followed us back toward the "crime scene" and we could tell they were spooked. One by one, they approached the calf's head and sniffed, then slowly backed away when the moment of recognition was upon them. That was the moment I lost it ... when Big Mama sniffed her baby's head and backed away. I burst out in tears, unable to remain stoic and rancherly about the whole thing. 
What we were able to deduce is that coyotes were the culprit. Either the calf died somehow, perhaps struck by lightning (the rib bones appeared "charred"), and coyotes moved in; or, a pack of coyotes surrounded a vulnerable calf and took it down. This would explain the cattle fleeing in different directions and ending up scattered the next morning. We've had intense coyote action for the last several weeks, with enormous roaming packs howling and waking us up at night. 
I'm angry. I want our calves to live. And our sheep, and our chickens and turkeys. We've got a few nasty donkeys that really hate dogs. We're thinking of putting at least one in with the cattle and, the coyotes around here are officially on notice.       

Monday, October 18, 2010

Chicken Slaughtering Day

I know these photos will invoke a bit of squeamishness for some, but I just had to post them to show people the nature of at-home chicken processing.

About 10 weeks ago, we received a batch of Cornish Rock cross chicks (broilers) to raise for our year's worth of chicken. We penned them in our previous corn patch and fed them every day, despite the fact they liked to escape and dine on grass, the pig's corn, and other farmyard delights. A friend and co-worker of my husband's also raised broilers--Freedom Rangers--at the same time, so for the second year in a row, we all got together and did the processing at our farm. Wives, co-workers, neighbors and friends all took part in various stages, each person using their particular expertise to speed up the process. 

With the help of modern equipment like killing cones (the most humane way to kill), a Featherman scalder and plucking machine, and traditional equipment like knives, plastic-covered tables, ice chests and a screened tent to aid in fly control, we all worked together to get it done. We processed and bagged 40 chickens in about 3 hours, including set up and clean up. Afterward, we ate a delightful lunch of quiche, salad and fresh-baked bread under the barn eaves and then our friends hurried home to get their chickens into the freezer. 

For me, processing our chickens at home is an experience that brings me closer to God. We have raised these birds with the intention of them becoming our meat for the winter. We have been blessed with the ability to raise our own food, knowing its origins, and we have taken responsibility for its humane slaughter and clean processing. We are surrounded by friends who are doing the same, with reverance for every step of the process. It's a beautiful thing to be in touch with God, nature, and our ancestors, all in one afternoon.   

saying a prayer



cooling down

ready for the freezer

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Rendering Lard

I just rendered my first batch of lard, made from the kidney fat from our own Mulefoot hogs. Isn't it gorgeous--there to the right? I've been reading up on traditional cooking, in particular Nina Planck's Real Food, and I am a 100% convert to "real" fats. No more "healthy" canola oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil or safflower oil! Planck documents, quite convincingly, that these oils are relatively new industrial creations, and are the real cause of obesity, heart disease and all the other modern diseases we Americans have been plagued with since switching to an industrial diet. These oils are present in just about every processed food on grocery store shelves.

As it turns out, there are all sorts of things our bodies need in traditional fats like lard, beef tallow, and butter, especially, and Planck gives us the research, the science and the dissenting views in her book. Most disturbing is how margarine is made and what's in it (metal particles, rancid vegetable oil, soaplike emulsifiers, bleach). I'll stick to sweet cream and salt, thanks, which is all that is in real butter. I will never touch margarine again, and living in the Midwest, that's not an easy thing to do if one dines out ... ever.

So, I am going to prepare some good old-fashioned country-style roast potatoes in lard, with their crispy, cracklin coat. Yum! Then some pastry shells for quiche ... then frying some eggplant ...

To render lard, all you do is chop up the fat (or run it through a food processor)--we got our local processor to do this at slaughter--and put it in a roasting pan. Roast in a preheated 225-degree oven for 30 minutes to an hour, until only liquid fat remains and a few bits of protein. Run through a piece of cheesecloth and store in a glass or stainless steel jar in the refrigerator or in the pantry. It will keep for 3-4 months this way.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Inspiration Among the Dust

A few weeks ago when my mom was visiting me in Kansas for the first time, I took her to a little town called Paxico, Kan., which is known for neat antique shops. One shop had just come into a huge collection of old cookbooks that they were selling for $3 to $10 each. Oh my, did I have a field day. This is just the kind of thing that gets me fired up!
One could look through old cookbooks and not see a thing of relevance for today's kitchen (think salad molds, Crisco, and steak tartare). However, amongst the gems I took home, including Melting Pot of Mennonite Cookery 1874-1974, BH&G's Heritage Cookbook (1975), The Art of Cooking and Serving (1937), and The Margaret Rudkin Pepperidge Farm Cookbook (1963), I found endless old-time recipes for basic, simple dishes, and some not-so-simple dishes that take a cook's intuition to figure out (love those kitchen-riddles).  
The Melting Pot cookbook features recipes from all different ethnic (Mennonite) groups all over Europe including Dutch, Swiss, German, Polish, and even Russian. It includes so many neat little histories like a detailed description of hog slaughtering day, and the meals the women prepared during it, told by a Russian man, and of course, recipes. It struck me that most of the recipes are really like peasant cooking--very little spices or adulteration and few ingredients. A Dutch vegetable soup was comprised of just potatoes, carrots and celery, and "10 kernels of whole clove" and salt and pepper. The boiled potatoes recipe (also Dutch) was potatoes, water and salt, with a note of caution that the Dutch are very particular about the texture of their boiled potatoes. "Potatoes must be flaky when dished up!" Few instructions are given, and recipes don't indicate what to do with ingredients like vegetables; no "diced," "chopped," "minced," etc. I love to study these old cookbooks and see how dishes were prepared, and really, how recipes were written. I feel like it is training me a bit by making me think about cooking and why things are prepared the way they are. I've already got scores of pages marked for things I want to try like Dutch Pea Soup (better start planning now to acquire a pig's ear and a pig's trotter), and the more easy-to-come-by corn pudding, made from our heirloom corn, Hickory King, that we're growing on the farm.  
Go hunting for some old cookbooks. I promise it will make your time in the kitchen more meaningful as you think about your ancestors and the old days. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Chance Meetings

Well I've finally come up for air and decided that I will get to my blog today, at last! The last few months have been crazy ... crazy good ... and I continue to be blessed with opportunities in my new life. A few months ago at my fiance's urging, I started a bread scheme that involved sending him to work with a few loaves of my no-knead bread for folks to try. I then created a newsletter with weekly specials, added other farm products like our eggs and Mulefoot pork, and started taking orders. Customers now place their orders via e-mail and I bake twice a week, and everything gets delivered to their desks by Hank, without me ever having to make a trip to town. Hence, the name of my little business is "The Local Loaf, Artisan Bread Delivered to Your Desk."

Over Memorial Day weekend, we attended a wedding at a friend's farm and I was honored to provide the bread. I handed it over to the caterer and accidentally left my tote bag in their van. Upon trying to retrieve it a few days later, her and I struck up an e-mail conversation and it turns out they loved the bread, and now we are in talks to provide them with vegetables, meat, and bread, all from our farm! 

And one more chance meeting ... while having a drink at our favorite neighborhood bar in Osage City, The Sportsman, a girl sat down next to us, obviously beat from a hard day's work. We asked what she did for a living and would you know, she runs a bakery down the street! She makes specialty cakes for weddings, parties, birthdays, etc. and wanted to sell bread but had no time to do it. I am now offering bread to her customers as well. So, my bread has taken on a life of it's own, appropriately, and I love providing people with homemade, wholesome food. In fact, I feel honored to do it, and I'd probably do it for free if I didn't have bills to pay! 

In addition to The Local Loaf, I've been doing lots of freelance writing, food styling, recipe development and food photography for various magazines--my second favorite line of work after cooking. With the fall issue, I'll be working as the editor of The Heirloom Gardener, Baker Creek Heirloom Seed's magazine. I adore Emilee and Jere Gettle, and it is a joy to work with people who are all on the same page, editorially and ethically. I'm in love with this mixture of work--a little desk time, a little kitchen time, a little garden time--it doesn't get much better!

If you work at home, please post a message about what you do and how you like it. I'd love to hear your story. Until next time ...

Friday, March 26, 2010

He's Bonafide

I'm happy to report that me and the mister are now ... officially ... engaged! Now how did this happen, being that we've both been in and out of marriages in the past? I truly believe that a couple must have some pretty significant things in common, mutual respect, and of course, unrelenting passion for each other and those things we love in life.
For us, we both love growing things, animals and doing as much for ourselves as possible. We get tremendous joy over silly farm things, or a new way to save money or reuse something. We think the other is simply brilliant, and we can't imagine our lives without each other. For me, it doesn't get much better than this.
This picture of us is pretty funny: him in a suit and me in a fancy dress. More like it would be the iconic American Gothic--overalls and a pitch fork. It was taken last October at my aunt's wedding in California. He led me around the dance floor all night to country tunes and I've never enjoyed a wedding more. I can't wait to plan ours, though it will probably entail a trip to the courthouse and a summer barbeque on the farm.
Did he present me with a multi-carat diamond ring? No, that would only hinder me in my daily chores (though I did get a ring I love). Our engagement weekend included driving to nearby Alma, Kansas, to purchase me my very own farm truck--a 1969 Chevy Longhorn, sage green with saddle brown interior. Though at the moment, it's parked outside my soon-to-be hubby's office in Topeka. Hmmm ... whose truck is it now?

Sunday, February 28, 2010

They Made Me Think

In the winter when "spare" time is easier to come by than in the spring or summer, reading and knitting are always battling each other in my mind for this rare commodity. But in the last few months, I've read a few books that have really caused me to think ... hard.
I gave Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford to my sweetie for Christmas after reading a blurb about it in an airline magazine. It sounded right up his alley. After he devoured it in less than two days, I took it on so we could discuss it. The author is a PhD from the University of Chicago who, after doing a brief stint as a "knowledge worker" in a cubicle, went back to doing the kind of work that really satisfied him: running a motorcycle repair shop and working as a mechanic. The book explores the value of actually knowing how to do things in a day and age where skilled hands are becoming less and less important--and hard to come by.  This book is quite heady, but I found myself nodding in understanding, alternating with looking up words in the dictionary!

My sister, Jennifer, sent me Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert for my birthday with a post-it note attached saying  "I haven't read this yet, so don't think I'm trying to send you some kind of message." Ha! Well, I skeptically began reading it because quite frankly it pertains to the near future, and I finished it in three days. The author and I had way too many similarities to count and I found her research and findings on the institution of marriage to be refreshing--and just what I needed. Marriage, in the old days, was a somewhat casual agreement between couples until the church hijacked it in the Middle Ages and made it an iron-clad contract that there was no getting out of. Through her cultural and historical anecdotes, Gilbert shows how marriage means different things in different cultures and how it has transformed through time. What it boils down to is that while marriage is good for a society (stabilizes people, procreation, families), government has always tried to interfere and prevent people from marrying because the bedroom--and what married couples do and say behind closed doors--is one bastion that cannot be controlled. The mister read it on one snowy Sunday and of course, we laid in bed--behind closed doors!--and analyzed its arguments.
Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity From a Consumer Culture by Shannon Hayes has really got my head spinning (in a good way). Detailing the history of the homemaker, going back hundreds of years, she makes the case that the homemaker is making a comeback--to the way it was way back when households were units of production, rather than simply units of consumption. You see, homemakers used to produce things in their kitchens and on their land--growing food and preserving it, mostly. But around the 1950s and 60s when all the labor-saving devices and convenience foods and products began freeing homemakers from the "drudgery of the kitchen", Betty Friedan coincidentally documented the "bored housewife syndrome." Homemakers lost their purpose in life and became chauffeurs and shoppers, consumers rather than producers. Hayes' argument is extremely well thought out and laid and I encourage anyone interested in sustainable, low-impact and simple living, to rush out and get it. Get the book directly from Hayes on her website  
Food for thought and thought for food!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pearl the Squirrel

A couple of months ago, I got the best Christmas present ever ... Pearl, the Cairn Terrier. I haven't had my very own dog since I was in high school, so I can't tell you how much this little girl means to me.
Me and the mister had talked about "one day" getting a dog, but with so much going on--the move, impending winter and utter lack of daylight--I had put the idea on hiatus. But back in December, I took a road trip to Chicago with my sweetie's daughter (that's a whole 'nother post!), and as I was driving home, I got a text message from him with a picture of "Bailey" who looked like a sweet, fluffy rat--she was about that size! He had driven several hours to the breeder's farm and bought the dog as an early present for us. But hmmm ... that name. Bailey? Not so much. So I began racking my brain trying to come up with something more fitting. Whenever I'm trying to name something, I start trying on everything for size: "Des Moines Next 5 Exits." Des? Desi? McDonald's. Mac? Maggie? You get the idea. So, as the Roxy Music song "Mother of Pearl" came on my stereo and I was singing "Mother of Pearl ... I wouldn't trade you for another girl ..." I thought "that's IT!" Pearl. Loves it.
So now, as she grows more and more into the Toto dog she is (look at her picture below in my previous post--my, how she's grown!), she picks up a new nickname every day: Pearl the Squirrel (shortened to just "Squirrel" mostly), Pearly Squirrely, Munchie (short for Munchkin), Pearl Girl, and the list goes on. Nickname potential is a very important thing to consider when picking a name for a dog, I've learned!

Monday, February 15, 2010

I Hate To Say It ...

I know this is dangerous ground to tread on, but I know a lot of you will relate. I am SICK and TIRED of social networking! I know, it's ironic that I use twitter, Facebook, etc. to get the word out about this blog, but honestly, most days the whole deal is hard for me to stomach.
You know what I'm talking about... you're perusing your News Feed on Facebook and somebody's cryptic status update catches your eye. You click on "read all comments" and try to figure out what's going on and all it is is a bunch of nonsense, each post more cryptic than the last. Then, you go to that person's page and start mining for details--info tab (has anything changed? relationship status? job? No) ... photos ... wall ... but alas, no details can be found. And then you ask yourself  ... what am I doing? I don't even LIKE this person. Why do I care? And before you know it, you've wasted an hour when you could have been doing something--anything--more meaningful than this rubbish.
And then there's twitter ... it gets worse. Anyone can "follow" you and anyone can open an account with no information attached to it, so in other words, no recourse. (I realize you can limit who can follow you and ban people.) You can say and insinuate anything you want without ever having to take responsibility for it! What could possibly be more perfect for that drunk, solipsistic cyberstalker with time on her hands?
Now, back to Facebook--I'm not done with it yet. What's the deal with all those people collecting "friends" (like who really has 456 real friends?) and the people with more than 200 photos posted of themselves--all of themselves in various poses--with sunglasses! Without! With cocktails! At a bar with hair messed up! Rolling in the grass with flesh-and-blood friends! In a hot tub! Ugh. Do all us "friends" really need to know that much about your alls lives? I just don't get this living-life-through-Facebook phenomenon that's captivating the world. I long for the not-so-distant past (like the 90s!) where a lot of us didn't even have cell phones, let alone FB, Twitter and everything else. I also long for the days of old when I didn't even feel compelled to post something on these sites when something changed in my life ... "I saw a bird out the window!" "My dog took a crap!" (Yep, I'm guilty too.)
To my readers: I apologize for the curmudgeonly rant. I'm not that judgmental. I just wanted to get it off my chest and see if anyone else could relate. Ooh... the UPS truck just drove up! :)