Category Archives: Feasting

Time to Eat

In the past week or two the sheer volume and scope of food rising out of the earth has exploded. One can literally make a meal standing in the middle of the garden, picking, and eating.

Lots of what is ready in my garden never makes it into the house (the strawberries especially), but I did manage to get enough basil into my basket to makethe first batch of pesto of the season on Monday, tossing some into some cappelini and fresh sugar snap peas and freezing the rest. On Wednesday I harvested kale, cilantro, more sugar snaps, and mushrooms for a stir-fry with ginger and tofu. I have also picked six pints of strawberries this week; two went into the freezer for ice cream I’m planning to make for a special party the week after next, and the rest will go into some jam.

The mulberries are starting to come in, too, and a lot of folks have been picking them off the trees that hang heavy over the streets in my neighborhood and making pies. I picked about three cups today during my long morning walk with Caleb, and when I got home I decided I wanted to try making some scones. I modified a recipe I found for oatmeal scones, adding a touch of orange extract and using the mulberries instead of currants, and here is the result. In a few minutes I will  take a few of these next door to my neighbors.

The sugar snaps are copious and remarkably sweet this year. I love them in the pasta and stir fry, but I also love them fresh and crunchy, right off the vine.  That’s the experience I had in mind when I took a platter of them to a little farewell gathering this week for a friend who is moving away. I mounded some hummus in the middle of them, tossed on some kalamata olives and feta cheese, drizzled it all with olive oil, and sprinkled salt. Here’s what the platter looked like.

Enjoy this lovely day! I’m going to pick more sugar snaps.

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Filed under Feasting, Foraging, Gardening

Things that make me go “Yay!”

All of these photos were taken over a three day period. Everything is waking up!

Baby apple tree with new growth

Parsley by the mound

Fungal goodness

Stir fry with my broccoli and mushrooms

 

Big, fat, hairy chives

Arugula without end

Sweet potato-apple muffins (my sweet potatoes, dad's apples)

Camelias on my table

Good egg production on organic feed

Yoga socks (what a great idea!)

A giant pot of wheat straw pasteurizing on my stove (for more mushrooms)

Salad greens and cilantro

Flats of seedlings in my house, away from marauding rats

The last of last fall's collards

Sugar snap pea sprouts

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Filed under Feasting, Flockkeeping, Gardening, Making things

Eat • Play • Love

It’s early evening on a Sunday. I have been in my kitchen all afternoon, and four mounds of homemade pizza dough sit rising in a large bowl covered with a towel. The counter is arrayed with a bounty of toppings: mushrooms from my mushroom growing project, a bowl of sauce made from tomatoes I canned last summer, local chevre, pesto I made from my basil and froze in August, prosciutto and Italian sausage from a nearby charcuterie, onions, peppers, olives, more cheeses. I have also made an enormous salad with arugula and radishes I harvested from my garden that afternoon.

The sideboard is loaded with stacks of plates and napkins, and two big tumblers hold knives and forks. Several bottles of wine stand open on the counter bar alongside rows of glasses, and a cooler in the floor is brimming with beer. There’s a gallon of my specialty, mint iced tea, in the fridge.

Folks start to arrive around 7 o’clock, their arms full of desserts and more drinks, instrument cases slung over their shoulders. I help unburden them. We set the desserts on another counter corner, and jackets and instruments go in the living room. We gather, of course, in the kitchen.

By the time a dozen or so people are chatting and laughing, drinks in hand, I have pressed out the first of the pizza doughs onto a peel and have invited a few of the hungriest ones to load it up with their desired toppings. Into the oven it goes, followed shortly by a second one, then a third, then a fourth. A half an hour later, with steaming plates piled high, we are seated at the bar counter and around my broad square maple table, laid out with the red, yellow, and blue straw placemats I picked up in Mexico not long ago and some camellias I cut from the bush out front and tucked them into a cluster of bud vases.

This tastes good.

Flavor, to my palate, is about more than ingredients. It’s about the environment around the food as it comes into being, the emotions of the cook who is preparing the meal, the mood of the room in which it is being served. Our awareness of all these things, I believe, affects how food tastes, even how it nourishes one’s body during the rest of its journey.

Now, I love to fix myself a solo dinner and tuck in with my veggie and noodle bowl and a cold beer, my doggie or kitty, and a movie in my big kitchen chair, but one of the joys of my life is sharing the Southern Urban Homestead bounty with friends. We gather, we feast, we take pleasure in the rich and subtle flavors of the food lovingly prepared, company warmly welcomed.

On this night it’s pizza and a dozen folks, but it could  be venison chili (thanks to my neighbor, the hunter, who is willing to barter game for eggs) and eight people. Or it could be a frittata with my girls’ eggs and my garden veggies for two or three people. But the ritual is the same: after we have eaten our fill and rested our full bellies a little while, we complete our celebration of good flavor with a kind of sonic dessert.

Many of my friends are musicians, and they are good, appreciative eaters, too. Our spirits are high from the meal and congeniality of this loving group of people. Our resident piano player has recently acquired an accordion, so we launch into a raucous rendition of “Mama’s Got a Squeezebox” in its honor: guitars, basses, ukuleles, harmonicas. Warmed up and tuned up, we then settle into an around-the-kitchen routine of taking turns at leading a tune.

We play for several hours–some of our original songs, some covers so beloved we’ve practically worn grooves into them. Because we’ve played most of them together before, everyone falls easily into their parts. For the others less familiar we take a moment to teach and learn. The house is full of music and the lingering good aromas from dinner. Caleb is asleep in the middle of everything, adding his sonorous snores to the din.

Around 10:00, we stand up, stretch, nibble on leftover cold pizza and the chocolate chip oatmeal cookies someone brought, and start to pack up instruments. Warm hugs farewell, talk of gigs coming up. A few folks linger to chat and help load the dishwasher. The house is quiet and empty by 10:30, but my heart is full.

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“Sauce and Butter, that’s my plan . . .”

A blog entry in song and pictures

I got a peck of apples from the Georgia hills,
I made a pie and I ate my fill –
So ripe and sweet, it’s a shame to toss ‘em;
Guess it’s time to applesauce ‘em.
Sauce and butter, that’s my plan;
Why? Because I can.

– “Because I Can,” from Redbud Winter (2007)

 

Addendum: Looky what Southern Fried Curry did with her applesauce!

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Filed under Feasting, Putting Up

Sally

Photo by http://www.twmeyer.com, friend and neighbor

In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.
— “Down by the Sally Gardens,” William Butler Yeats

Ten years ago this month, I was passing through some upheaval in my life. I was going through a divorce and finishing up a graduate program, and really I was trying to figure out how to reconstruct my life from the ruins. Instinctively I knew I needed to get outside of my own head, where things were pretty confused. I wanted to get involved in the community, do some volunteer work for an environmental cause. A friend connected me with the executive director of the Oakhurst Community Garden Project, who was looking for someone to help out with their communications efforts. In many ways, over the next decade, Sally Wylde would inspire the Southern Urban Homesteader in me.

Sally called me up and invited me to lunch. We sat for two hours at Our Way Café over heaping plates of veggie comfort food (I love that macaroni and cheese is a vegetable in the South), and she asked question after question about my life history. Then she told me hers. A native New Englander who had made her way to Georgia to attend the Candler School of Theology, Sally was a seeker. She was an artist, had raised two amazing daughters, been widowed, had completed a master’s in theological studies at Emory, and several years before had remarried a wonderful Atlanta man and planted herself in Decatur soil. Her rural Massachusetts upbringing had cultivated in her a profound connection to the natural world. She had grown up knowing, as she put it, “secret wild spaces for children.” And that knowledge lay at the heart of her passion that gave rise to the Oakhurst Community Garden.

When Sally moved to Decatur in 1993, she witnessed a troubling phenomenon that to her emblematized the urban dweller’s increasing separation from nature. Every afternoon, children leaving a local elementary school cut through the yard of one of her neighbors in the Oakhurst district and trampled the neighbor’s beloved garden. Instead of involving the police, Sally and her neighbors invited the children to become caretakers of the garden. The children watched with delight and amazement as their plantings flourished and something ordinary turned into something special — a process they had never noticed or understood before. The group went on to create another garden in a nearby median strip. The children were honored for their work at a ceremony with the city’s mayor. And even after the work was finished, they kept coming back for more.

After a big fundraiser in the Garden in 2004 — friends, fun, and dogs. And martinis!

So the following year, Sally and her husband purchased a nearby, undeveloped half-acre lot that was at risk for development in the rapidly gentrifying Oakhurst. That piece of land became the Oakhurst Community Garden Project. As the Garden matured into an established grassroots nonprofit organization with Sally at its helm, the lot transformed into an urban oasis with vegetable and floral plots, a pond, art installations, beehives, animals, restored native habitats, and full program of environmental education for urban youth. For me, it was the endeavor that made Decatur truly my home. I found a loving, smart, energetic, optimistic community of people who shared an understanding of how a garden could unite people and save this stupid, beautiful planet.

Helping with the Garden’s newsletter and other communications was a wonderful way for me to learn its story and wisdom. And what was clear was that the Garden was really a manifestation of Sally’s spirit—radiant, colorful, inviting, fertile, imaginative, artistic, chaotic, spiritual, vital, visionary. It was healing work for me, and I fell in love. A year later, I joined the board of directors of the Garden. Another year later and I was board president. I remained board president for five years and after stepping down from that role, I remained on the board for another year still, two years after Sally retired from the Garden in 2005.

Sally had a magic way with animals

During those years, Sally and I spoke on the phone almost every day. Often after work I would ride my bicycle to her house, where usually there was food. Sally had this way of feeding people. Once a month the entire Garden board would gather at her home, and unfailingly she would have some delicious meal prepared for at least a dozen people — some kind of stew and bread, or maybe pasta and green salad. Always with garden fare. Always fresh and delectable. It was nourishing in more ways than one, and I knew I wanted to embody that same spirit of hospitality and generosity in my own home.

I remember arriving at her house for one of those amazing meals and watching her make pesto from an enormous bouquet of fresh basil. I asked where it had come from, and she told me, “From Gaia Gardens CSA.” “What’s a CSA?” I asked. So went my introduction to principles of local, sustainable agriculture. And six or seven years ago, she took a group of us to the Southface Green Prints conference dinner. It was more than your average conference banquet; it was a sumptuous affair with multiple courses and wine pairings. But more than that, it was my introduction to what food could be and what it could signify. A full-immersion baptism into the ecology and geography of good food. We took our time eating and enjoying the conversation around the table. We were told where each dish came from, who the grower was, what the particular terrain of our region contributed to the flavors we were experiencing. In some cases we met the grower. We talked about why it was important. It was a revelation. I went home sated but hungry for more of this new way of thinking about food. I will never forget that dinner.

Sally made this gourd chicken head and wore it to Cluckapalooza a couple of years ago

The first time I visited Sally in the Garden, she was weeding. Surrounding her were three hens, happy to help her dispatch the tasty green stuff and the insects she was unearthing. They were completely relaxed in her presence; her movements were gentle and unthreatening to them. Their soft, contented clucks and coos charmed me. This was 2000, and it was the first time I had ever seen chickens in the city. That scene took root in my own imagination, and four years later my neighbors and I had modified a shed in my backyard and acquired our first five chicks.

Sally taught me much about urban gardening — some practical, some aesthetic. She once told me that a garden needs something tall and upright in it — some kind of visual contrast rising up out of the earth. She had an artist’s eye for growing things. Mindful of that admonition I have always tried to erect something that towers in my garden. She also was a master at mulching. Before she left Decatur in early July to spend her customary summer months at her lovely family home in Massachusetts, she mulched her home garden deeply and well. Even weeks after we heard that the breast cancer she had been battling since 2008 had spread to her bones, liver, and lungs, and that she would not be returning to Decatur, her garden thrived through brutal heat and drought. It is still thriving.

Sally had more energy than anyone I have ever known. I’ll always remember the email she sent me some years ago after she ran the Marine Corps marathon: “I ran the damn marathon” was all it said. She was also a writer, a teacher, an activist. She took piano lessons. She got involved in an improv theater group. And illness didn’t stop her. Her husband used to joke two summers back about how the steroids she was taking to boost her immune system during her chemotherapy souped her up, and the result was the most elaborate garden she had ever grown. But even without the steroids, Sally just left life and beauty in her wake. One of her responses to her illness was to co-create a performance art piece titled “Lump Journey” with a group of friends. The performance at a local art gallery in 2008 was packed with friends and loved ones.

This painting of Sally's hangs in my house

Sally died last Thursday evening, August 19. It doesn’t quite seem real to me yet. It feels more like she is still in Massachusetts until Labor Day as usual, and I’ll see her in the fall after she makes the long drive home with her husband and her beloved canine companion, Red Dog, and we’ll have lunch at the Universal Joint. Knowing the reality will sink in hard as time passes, I want to keep her essence alive in my own life  — by sharing nourishing food and hospitality, bounteous gardens, creativity that inspires and transforms. Food, gardens, and art connect and heal us in a world that is struggling against its own toxicity.

After she retired from the Oakhurst Garden, Sally returned to her first calling and began making art again. I attended a show of her work and came home with this piece, which now hangs in my home. Sally had wings, and she inspired others — including me — to flight, too.

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We Found Our Thrill . . .

This week I took my friend Kelly’s 10-year-old daughter, Hannah, to the mountains for a few days. She had a particular desire to pick blueberries, so we spent the night at my parents’ house in Rabun Gap and raided their bushes.  Then a couple of days later we went to our friends Hank and Susan’s house out Hwy 76 and raided their bushes.

This is a lot of blueberries. And seeing as how 2010 is Fruit Year, I’ve been dreaming up ways to use lots of blueberries. And seeing as how it’s been too hot for too long this summer, I dreamt up a blueberry ice cream recipe.

There are quite a few blueberry ice cream recipes out there. But years ago my mom gave me a blueberry pie recipe that included cinnamon, so I decided to try adapting that flavor into my ice cream. Here’s the recipe I concocted:

Auntie Allison’s Blueberry Cinnamon Ice Cream

  • 1 cup of fresh blueberries

  • 1/4 cup of sugar (more depending on sweetness of berries)
  • 1/2 tsp lemon juice
  • 3/4-ish tsp cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 cups regular cream
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • another 1/2 cup sugar

Combine the berries, the 1/4 cup sugar, the lemon juice, and the cinnamon in a saucepan over low heat. Mash some of the berries and stew them until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and set aside for the moment.

Combine the milk, cream, vanilla, and 1/2 cup sugar in a small bowl and whisk until sugar is dissolved. Drain some of the liquid off of the stewed blueberries and pour the liquid into the milk/cream mixture.

Put milk/cream/berry juice mixture into your handy kitchen countertop home ice cream maker and let it do its happy little rumbly churny dance for about 25 minutes. Then add the remainder of the blueberries and let it churn for another 5 or so minutes until thickened to soft-serve consistency.

Makes 1 quart of delicious ice cream.

My intrepid Australian Shepherd, Caleb, also was amazed and delighted to discover that he likes blueberries, thanks to Hannah’s and my mother’s teachings. They also taught him to eat them right off the bush.

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Peck A Little, Talk A Little: More Chicken Chat

Your pullets getting picked on? Wondering what makes a hen happy? Questions from backyard flockkeepers just keep pouring in! Here is the second installment of Chicken Chat.

Q: Any advice on our pullets? They hide in the coop ALL DAY LONG, and appear only to eat and drink when I close the door so that they have free rein in the coop. The big girls are so mean!

A: Give them time. You could try setting them out among the big girls in a cage for a few hours a day. But really it just takes time.

Follow-up: All right — we’ll try to be patient. The pullets must be bored out of their skulls.

A: Just remember how tiny those skulls are. They don’t require much entertainment. Throw them some extra handfuls of something tasty when you feed them and they’ll be thrilled.

Q: Someone just asked me how you can tell chickens are happy. If they’re not they won’t lay as much, right?

A: I think you can tell a lot from their general health and physical comfort. They also know when they are safe from predators. Those are two conditions of their well being, I’d say. Their laying rate is dependent on lots of things — weather, light, diet, breed, and age, for starters — so I don’t think you can really count on that as an indicator of hen happiness.

Can you tell which one is our egg and which is commercial?

Q: My next-door neighbor gave me some eggs from his chickies, and the one I prepared this morning (softboiled) had a very tangy and unpalatable taste. I only ate one bite and threw out the rest. Do you think it was something the chickens ate, or was the egg spoiled? It smelled fine, so I’m hoping no GI distress lies around the corner.

A: It’s said that if you let your chickens eat pungent foods such as cabbage and garlic and onions that it will flavor the eggs. We have kept these foods out of our birds’ diet and have never had strange-tasting eggs (at least to my palate). You might ask your neighbor if they’ve had any of those things in their diet.

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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Feasting, Flockkeeping