Category Archives: Community and Citizenship

I’ve been in the garden.

Remember me?

photoIt was a little bit of a shock to see the date of my last post to this blog, nearly one year ago. It’s not that I haven’t been living the urban homesteading dream—in fact, I just got a food dehydrator for my birthday and have produced jars and jars of dried apples and pears. Next up will be the grey dove oyster mushrooms coming in in a few weeks. The chickens are cackling and laying, I canned tomatoes, green beans, pickles, five different kinds of jams,  blackberries in bourbon, and applesauce this summer. John has been brewing lots of delicious IPAs and red ales, and we cured duck prosciutto and pancetta in the basement last winter.

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I’ve been knitting like crazy, too. It’s been busy and productive around here.

But I have spent most of my time in the past year in a different kind of garden. A garden nonetheless, but one with recording equipment, computers, instruments, and musicians. Finally and at last, I have grown a second CD of my original music.

SongsGardenCoverIt is titled, of course,

Songs from the Garden.

There is a direct line of inspiration from my little Southern Urban Homestead to the songs on this collection. It winds through the vegetable patch and around my laundry line, and it even pauses for a visit with the chickens. And there’s food–oh, yes, there’s food. And love. Here’s a little sampler:

If you’d like to own the entire CD, they are available by mail order right here:

Allison Adams: Songs from the Garden

Or you can download it:

Allison Adams: Songs from the Garden

Or if iTunes is how you roll, that is right here.

I hope you enjoy Songs from the Garden. And I promise to be a better blogger!

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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Gardening, Making things

I am the Supreme High Goddess of the Temple of Meat.

Urban homesteading is, in part, about independence—learning skills that will decrease your reliance on systems and entities you abhor. But sometimes it’s about interdependence. And lucky for me, I have an amazing bunch of friends. Friends with superpowers, in fact. Beer-making, meat-curing, bread-baking, food-pickling superpowers.

A few weeks ago, my good friend Shannan (who is definitely invited to live at my house during the Zombie Apocalypse, because she makes bacon jam and can build useful, pretty things with wood and tools) formed a new obsession—meat curing. She read and researched and imagined and fantasized, and she posted her meat musings on Facebook. Pretty soon, there was a long thread amongst three of four friends about the hows and whys and wherefores of charcuterie, and the only thing holding them back was the where. While a closet will do in a pinch, what you really need, it turns out, is a basement, kind of humid, dark, good air circulation.

That’s when I chimed in. Since my Sweet Feller set up his brewery in the basement kitchen, things have gotten much more clean and organized down there. In fact, there’s a shower down there that isn’t hooked up to plumbing at the moment. It’s the perfect space to cure meat.

So Shannan, who is fiercely organized and determined once she sets her mind to something, set up a Doodle calendar so we could find a date for  meat hanging. She happened to mention, just in passing, that she had made some bacon jam recently, and would we like to taste it? (Of course we would!) I had visions of eating bacon jam by an open fire, so I suggested we start a blaze in the fire bowl in the backyard. Which brought about the suggestion of marshmallows. Then s’mores. Then s’mores with bacon jam. With John’s homebrew. (Like I said, superpowers.)

I had recently placed an order for blue dove oyster mushroom grain spawn and thought I might start the spawn that same afternoon with my friend Connie (maker of homemade tempeh — yep, superpower), who split the grain spawn order with me. The spawn didn’t arrive in time, however, but I told Connie she should come on over, anyway, since there was bacon jam and charcuterie. As it happens, she had recently come into a wild boar ham, so she was interested in attaining curing skills, too.

So here we all were—Shannan, Jen, Connie, Rachel, John, and me. Shannan had salted and seasoned a hunk of pork belly with salt and pepper, rosemary, and a bunch of other stuff and let it sit in her fridge for a week until it was firm to the touch. She wrapped and tied it in cheese cloth.

Today she brought it to my house. I had put a suspension rod over the top of the old shower stall for her use, and there it hangs. We discussed air circulation (she judged it to be adequate), temperature (just right), humidity (also good), and light (it’s quite dark in there once the light is out). She will check in on it every few days over the next several weeks to monitor its drying. Once it has lost 30 percent of its weight, it’s pancetta. All of this was just fine with me, on one condition–that she address me as the Supreme High Goddess of the Temple of Meat. When she had agreed to that, I gave her a key to my basement.

Then we moved outside into the backyard, where John had the fire going. We passed around the Charcuterie Bible and talked recipes, superpowers, and other possible things we could learn from and teach one another. Connie had brought a beautiful loaf of homemade bread, and Rachel walked in with two jars of her pickles. We opened the bread-and-butter pickles and ate them on top of slices of bread with bacon jam. Then we washed them down with John’s IPA and honey porter. A.Maze.Ing.

Bacon jam s’more. Photo by Shannan Palma

(Also amazing, it turns out, are s’mores with giant super-sized marshmallows, dark chocolate, and more bacon jam. Shannan burned her hand with a melted bit of marshmallow, but she finished her s’more before treating the burn. That’s how good they were.)

Jen’s happy meat clap

While I am secure in my status as Goddess of the Temple of Meat, Jen really is the Meat Goddess. Over the weekend, she bought a wine refrigerator on Craig’s List brand-new for practically nothing.

Duck prosciutto curing in wine fridge. Photo by Jennifer Kuzara

It’s perfect, she says, as a meat-curing chamber. She also owns a 19th-century cast-iron sausage press, and she has been using this baby for years to make savory goodness. It took no time at all for her duck prosciutto to go right in to its new chamber. When Jen talks about these things, she gets a rapturous look on her face and does a happy meat clap.

These are the people you want to know anytime, because they are so cool, but in an apocalypse, you really want their skills and knowledge. That is why we are calling today Session 1 of the Apocalypse Academy. Today we covered meat curing. And next time, we grow mushrooms. When it’s the End of the World As We Know It, we’ll feel fine.

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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Feasting, Putting Up

Up On the Roof

I work as a writer and editor at a large university. My office is on the top floor of a six-story building, which sports a generous, sun-drenched rooftop patio overlooking our forested back campus and the city skyline in the distance. Recently some of my colleagues and I began to notice a lot of scurrying in and out of a vacant room near the patio. It was actually two members of the building’s maintenance crew. Curiosity finally got the better of us, so we inquired. It turned out that they had an arboretum going in the room’s large, light-filled windows — orchids and houseplants of all sorts being rooted and nurtured.

My colleague and I got to thinking. Surely these two green-thumb types wouldn’t mind if we added a few growing things to the rooftop patio, would they? So she casually asked them one day — would we get in trouble if we just put a few pots out there? One look gave us our answer: in fact, she would be the person we would get in trouble with.

Then she promised to water things while we were away. That was all we needed to hear.

First, we brought in a bush tomato plant. Then we scrounged a few more big pots and added a pepper plant and a Thai basil. The basil was a little tender for that windy rooftop, so I let it hang out in my office for a couple of weeks before moving it to the patio.

Not a week after we had put the first two pots out, a heavy nighttime hailstorm broke the main stem of the tomato in two, and the largest leaves on the pepper were severely damaged. I took the top half of the broken tomato plant home and rooted it, and it’s now growing at home in a container. But in the full sun of the patio, both plants recovered, in spite of a little July heat scorching. The basil did well, too.

So what the heck. we added an eggplant and a summer squash vine. Then one day, a cabbage plant mysteriously appeared in a pot next to the pepper. I suspect the building maintenance crew.

It’s not easy to casually drag giant pots full of soil and plants through the lobby of a tall building, onto an elevator, and across a common area to a patio. So my colleague and I have an arrangement. I call her from my car as I am approaching the building with the plants. She meets me out front with the office hand truck. We unload the goods, and she takes them up on the lift while I park. In spite of our best efforts, we always seem to attract attention and a few laughs.

Other people on our floor have watched our little guerrilla garden with curiosity, then later with delight as some tomatoes popped out, followed by peppers and eggplant. Everyone wants to try the basil. The squash isn’t thriving, but to my surprise, the cabbage is looking quite happy.

I think we will set up a crock pot and make soup for lunch one day in the next few weeks. Either that or a pop-up produce stand in front of the building.

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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Gardening

Dog-Eared: My Favorite Urban Homestead Reading

Many years ago I picked up a little green book called Noah’s Garden, by Sara Stein. I have written here before about how that book transformed my relationship with my garden. Before reading it, I thought I had to attack the soil with my rototiller, then defend the conquered earth against the onslaught of weeds the tilling then cultivated, only to have to repeat the entire battle over again the next year after my labors had tamped the earth into a hard pack. After reading Noah’s Garden, I traded the sword and the ploughshare. Instead, I mulch deeply with layers of organic matter and let the worms do all the work. My soil stays more microbially rich and aerated as a result.

I thought I’d share a few more of the most beloved titles from the collection that guides and inspires me. Some are very practical how-to’s, some are philosophical manifestos, some are just damn fine stories.

Pragmatics

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day, by Zoe Francois and Jeff Hertzberg. I heard a segment on The Splendid Table about this book in 2010, and I don’t think I have bought bread in a store (except for when we were in Italy, duh!) since. It is the easiest, quickest thing in the world to make bread with this method, and the variations are endless. I have made pita loaves, hamburger buns, olive bread, pizza crust, ciabatta, plain white loaves, wheat loaves. I have loved this book to pieces — literally. The spine has cracked in three places.

The Backyard Goat: An Introductory Guide to Keeping and Enjoying Pet Goats, from Feeding and Housing to Making Your Own Cheese, by Sue Weaver. A very practical and detailed guide to acquiring, caring for, breeding, and benefitting from goats on a very small scale. It was just the thing I needed to show me that this is, perhaps, a project for my retirement, when I have lots more time.

Keep Chickens! Tending Small Flocks in Cities, Suburbs, and Other Small Spaces, by Barbara Kilarski. When the idea first hatched in my head in 2004 that I wanted to keep a few chickens in my backyard, this is the first book I acquired. It was a great and accessible introduction to the ins-and-outs of flockkeeping, and I have loaned it out and referred to it time and again over the years.

Living with Chickens: Everything You Need to Know to Raise Your Own Backyard Flock, by Jay Rossier and Geoff Hansen, was my next acquisition in the chicken care library. Also very practical and accessible, and offers much more detail than the Kilarski book, including butchering advice. For 200-level flockkeeping studies.

Chicken Coops: 45 Building Plans for Housing Your Flock, by Judy Pangman. I own a copy of this book because I helped the author with one of the designs. She uses the coop at the Oakhurst Community Garden (now the Wylde Center) in Decatur as one of her plans. So I connected her with some information, and my neighbor Bill contributed some photos. It’s an excellent resource — another that I have loaned out several times.

Clark Howard’s Living Large in Lean Times: 250+ Ways to Buy Smarter, Spend Smarter, and Save Money. Okay, I know he isn’t exactly Mr. Back-To-Nature Homesteading Make-Your-Own-Granola Man, but I am a total Clarkhead. He is the ultimate penny-pincher, and if you have read any of this blog, you know how I love me some frugality. This is the man who will make one disposable razor last an entire year by drying it off after every use (it turns out that it’s moisture more than use that dulls a razor). And yes, I now dry off my razor.

Manifestos

Small Wonder: Essays by Barbara Kingsolver. This marvelous little 2002 volume predates her better known Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, but for me, it was the more important book. It’s an unflinching but loving and holistic look at the earth in all its glory and woe, from the Grand Canyon to Kingsolver’s vegetable patch. One essay in particular, titled “Lily’s Chickens,” was especially inspirational for me, and it helped me understand and articulate the reasons large and small I wound up helping to start a chicken revolution in Decatur.

(I also count the aforementioned Noah’s Garden amongst my favorite manifestos . . . manifesti?)

Damn Good Stories

A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food, by Elizabeth Englehardt. Read this book not just for the damn fine stories but also for some serious scholarly illumination on the complex issues that weave together women, food, health, power, class, race, and region. There’s moonshine, cornbread, biscuits, and more. I especially love the chapter on tomato clubs. In fact, I want to start a tomato club. Who’s in?

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, by Novella Carpenter. I have written here before about this delightful tale of how Carpenter took over a vacant lot in a sketchy part of Oakland, California, planted an insane overabundance of fruits and vegetables, and started keeping chickens, bees, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, goats, and pigs. I think of her when I need to remember why I want goats — and why I should never, ever want pigs.

What’s on your bookshelf?

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Emory Magazine: Recalculating the Cost of Living

I am pleased to share this essay, adapted from a blog post on the Southern Urban Homestead, now in the spring 2012 issue of Emory Magazine. I especially love the illustration. Check it out:

“Recalculating the Cost of Living,” Emory Magazine, Spring 2012

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It takes a village to do my Christmas shopping.

Y’all know I love a good barter. What I hate is shopping. Malls make me cry, and Wal*Mart makes me hyperventilate.

Over the years, however, I have managed to get my Christmas shopping down to a stress-free science. My goal is to give Christmas gifts that are full of love and joy, that support the local economy as much as possible, and that recognize who the recipient is and what they need and appreciate. Pardon my bragging, but yes, I can do this without ever setting foot in a mall or a big-box store.

My approach changes slightly every year. Always there are the homemade jams, and in more recent years I have added knitting. This year, however, I actually did go somewhere. I walked two doors down, to my neighbor Emily’s house. Talk about keeping it local!

Genius at Work

Earlier this year, Emily decided to do what she does best. In the past, she has been an excellent teacher, and briefly she was an advocate for families of children with learning disabilities in a law practice, but Emily’s true gift is at the sewing table. I have never known anyone with her eye for bringing together color, texture, and pattern in completely new and beautiful ways.

Today the mother of three really cute children, Emily learned to sew years ago as a newlywed living in rural New Mexico, worlds away from anything like the neighborhood where we live now — where our houses sit a few feet apart and where we don’t hesitate to walk into one another’s homes to borrow milk, pine nuts, a glass of wine, a can of tomatoes or beans. I love this about my little street in Decatur. We have impromptu parties all the time. We are all up in one another’s business, and it’s great. This village is my family.

I have had a front-row view of Emily’s process of turning a self-taught hobby into a cottage industry (literally — she sews in the front room of her cottage). Baby clothes, coffee cozies, lavender-scented eye masks, teddy bears, fabric-covered journals, shoulder bags — stuff just started pouring out of her sewing machine and filling up her house. So she secured a booth at a local arts fair last spring and started selling it. Then she did it again at another crafts fair. Suddenly, her business was taking off.

I said, “Emily, you need a website.”

So one night last summer over a glass of wine, she and I worked out a barter — a website for her in exchange for Christmas shopping for me.

Here is Emily’s business website (the business is called Two Peas): http://twopeasbyhand.com/

And here are some of her creations. (Don’t ask me whether it’s stuff I got in our barter, because you might be on my Christmas list, and I’m not telling!)

   

  

Emily is on Etsy, too. Check her out! She is still cranking out adorable things (cashmere bunnies! Owl heat packs from recycled wool sweaters!), so you can still place Christmas orders.

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Upside-Down Economics

For me, one of the great rewards of the “urban homesteading” lifestyle is that it enables me to live pretty frugally. Or perhaps “frugal” is not exactly the right word. More accurately, I have greater control and choice over where my hard-earned dollars go. It shifts some of the variables in the cost-of-living equation.

For example, instead of spending lots on utility bills and things like Tide laundry detergent, I use a clothesline and make my own laundry soap. There is some meat in my diet, but it isn’t a daily thing. I get a lot of protein from other sources (eggs, beans + grains, and my dearly beloved cheese)—which is much less expensive, so when I do buy meat, I can splurge on something local, sustainable, grass-fed, and fabulous. If I grow a lot of my own food and buy from local farmers, I’m putting my money into a local organic chicken feed co-op and Saturday farmer’s market instead of the fossil fuel industry.

One of the conundrums, though, of the “locavore” movement is that it has upscaled quality basic ingredients. Restaurants that feature locally and sustainably grown foods tend to be very pricey. Unless you are at a certain income level, a McDonald’s hamburger meal is still going to be the more practical option than, say, a Farm Burger  meal—which is an incredibly good value but still more expensive than McDonald’s. I love that Decatur’s local farmer’s market accepts Electronic Benefits Transfer  (EBT — the electronic version of food stamps from the state) cards and that it is strategically located within easy walking distance of the city’s public housing development. But then again, if you’re stretching your EBT allocation as far as it can go, and you can get a much bigger bunch of carrots at Kroger, where would your common sense take you?

These complicated questions about food, sustainability, class, culture, accessibility, and economy are beginning to filter into the media. NPR recently ran this story about Hardwick, Vermont, a town many think of as a kind of epicenter for local food production in the Northeast. But as one Hardwick high school student observed, “There’s the side of the town that’s for the local food movement, but I think there’s an even greater side of the town, with more people, that can’t afford the local food. I work at our local supermarket grocery store, and I see most of the people in town there.” One farmer in the area is responding to this concern by introducing a more “industrial” edge to his processing: more frozen, pre-washed fruits and vegetables that will be packaged specifically for the local supermarkets.

And yesterday, a piece in the New York Times about locavore queen Barbara Kingsolver’s husband, Steven Hopp, who has struggled in the last several years to start a restaurant in Meadowview, Virginia, where they live, in the heart of the Appalachians. The concept for Harvest Table is noble: locally sourced produce, meats, and cheeses; other stuff that they ship in is organic and/or fair trade. His vision is egalitarian, “built by and caters to the community,” the article explains. But Harvest Table has yet to make a profit in its four years. It’s too expensive for the locals. The average annual income in the area is $15,750. From the article: “‘If you go over there and eat, you have to pay $20,’ said Kay Thomas, 69, who has been farming in Meadowview with her husband for a half-century. ‘You can go to Pizza Hut and eat for $6. With the economy the way it is, you have to watch what you do.'”

What kind of upside-down economic system renders the most basic, most simple, most easily produced food the least accessible? What can you do to turn it aright? For me, it goes back to that question of redirecting my resources — and it goes to thinking about my lifestyle in simple economic terms. If I make some kind of purchase for my garden — for instance, a Growcamp that I spent $600 on earlier this year — I think of it in the long-term, and as an investment for future food production. Last year I hired someone to help me improve my rainwater catchment system — a significant up-front expense, but I haven’t watered my garden from a spigot on the house at all this year.

Maybe “frugal” is the right word, after all. I want my food to be cheap. So I consider the flow of goods and funds in a different way. If I sell a few dozen eggs, my fancy organic chicken feed is paid for. As regular readers know, I’m always on the hunt for a good barter and the alt-economy it helps create. The value of goods and services seem more real somehow, and so maybe in some scheme it helps bring the greater system back down to earth.

And while I love and appreciate  the upscale restaurants that have embraced the local food trend, especially the ones right around here in Decatur, I also love preparing great meals at home with food I have grown myself. They are very cost-efficient if I think about what ingredients I have on hand and build a menu from that: Flour, water, salt, and yeast. Mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant from my garden.

Suddenly, my pizza is cheaper than Pizza Hut’s, and much more delicious.

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