Category Archives: Feasting

Meat

As a little girl I used to stand in my pajamas at the utility sink in the laundry room and watch my father clean fish after an evening on the river. He would empty a creel of eight or so trout under running water into the sink — brookies, browns, rainbows. Sometimes they were still faintly flapping and gasping. Dad would take a fish in one hand, and with a sharp knife in the other, he would slit its belly from gills to tail.

He would slip his finger in, and out would slide the guts and organs into the sink. Sometimes we’d find eggs close to the tail of the females. He would scrape scales off the skin and cut the head off. Then he would pack the cleaned fish along with several others in an old milk carton or plastic bag, which he would fill with water and stash in the freezer.

I watched my father catch, kill, and clean a lot of trout, and I would feel sorry for the trout. I also ate a lot of fried trout. I have long lived with an awareness of the conflict, but it has never kept me from eating trout (or fishing for them myself).

Lately I have been greedily devouring a wonderful book by Novella Carpenter called Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. Ms. Carpenter lives in a section of Oakland, California, that is so beset with poverty, homelessness, drugs, and crime that no one seems too worried about the goofy white girl who has taken over a vacant lot next door to her apartment and planted an organic utopia of fruits and vegetables and is keeping a slightly illegal array of chickens, bees, geese, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, goats, and (once) pigs.

Her story is compelling and funny. Ms. Carpenter is earthy in many senses of that word — from her impressive growing abilities to her language to her fearlessness with livestock.

She is raising animals for meat. Ms. Carpenter is not insensitive to the full implications of breeding and caring for a creature for the purposes of killing and eating it, and her telling of the life and death of Harold the Thanksgiving turkey is detailed and unflinching. In the course of the book she kills and eats other animals, too. There is always a moment of breathlessness, in which she seems to step outside of herself and watch her own actions with horror and fascination. It is not unlike the sensation I experienced watching my father clean trout.


While she seems unresolved about the act of killing a sentient being and consuming it, I would argue that Novella Carpenter  is courageous — more courageous than most of us. Generally speaking (and faithful vegetarians notwithstanding), we modern carnivores don’t want to see, don’t want to know about that moment when a creature’s throat is cut, or when a body shudders in death throes, or when the eyes cloud over. We don’t want to know about plucking or flaying or bleeding out or viscera. Yet those moments have occurred so that we may eat what we crave. What we want to know is cellophane-wrapped protein that is completely disconnected from its life source — cold and bloodless, with little resemblance to an actual animal.

Foraday (background), Lucy (the redhead), and her sidekick, Ethel (blonde) enjoy a sun-dappled dustbath

My chickens have names and chickenalities. I know them, I nurture them, I even love them. People sometimes ask me if I would ever kill one of my chickens if I got really, really hungry. The answer is yes, I would. I have considered raising birds for meat, but I’m not sure how my neighbors would feel about the bloody mess the process entails. And truth be told, I’m not sure I’m up to it yet. I still see the fish flapping and gasping, but those were my father’s hands, not mine.

Angora Bunny

Recently I have been thinking about rabbits. Some say that rabbits are the new backyard chicken. I’m not so sure the analogy holds up, but then I got to thinking about knitting, and yarn, and spinning, and angora rabbits. So I’ve decided to do a little research. A couple of friends have offered to help me learn to spin fiber. Wouldn’t it be interesting to harvest angora and spin it into yarn?

Whether this would be a step closer to meat or a step further away I am not certain. But it is a step closer to an awareness of the interconnectedness of all life — and death.

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Cilantro Mountain

What do you do with a mountain of cilantro?

First, you make pesto (with some fresh chives, mint, olive oil, toasted pine nuts, salt, pepper, and lime juice). Some of this you will freeze in an ice-cube tray.

Then you make an enormous batch of guacamole.

Then you get creative, and you swirl the cilantro pesto into some homemade bread. It works beautifully.

Yet you’re still left with half a mountain of pesto and more to come. Other ideas?

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Starting With What You Have: Stir-Fry with Udon Noodles

This week I collected the last bits of broccoli from my fall plants and then pulled them out of the ground for compost. It wasn’t enough for a major broccoli project (a broject?), but combined with some other ingredients I had on hand, plus some particularly good garden bounty, they wound up in a delightful lunch today.

I’ve had a spectacular cilantro crop this spring—a result of my late summer planting. I’ve had harvest after harvest this month (and if anyone has any ideas for preserving cilantro, let’s hear it!). Also have been pulling quite a few carrots lately.

There are some ingredients I just like to have around because they keep well and are easily combined with other things. These include some that I used today:

  • Pasta (in this case, udon noodles)
  • Extra-firm tofu
  • Raw cashews
  • Onions
  • Sesame oil
  • Peanut butter (in the sauce)
  • Limes

So here’s what I ended up doing today. I sliced a half an onion, the broccoli,  a carrot, and a cake of tofu. I also chopped up a massive quantity of cilantro.

I scrounged in the fridge until I found the leftover spicy peanut sauce I had made last week for another dish (this sauce was so easy and delicious and versatile that it wound up on a grilled pork chop a few days ago, too. I substituted chives for the scallions called for here because I have tons of chives growing right now).

While the udon noodles cooked for about eight minutes, I heated some sesame oil in my wok on very high heat and stir-fried the tofu until golden brown.

Gradually I added in the other veggies, starting with the onions, then the carrots, then the broccoli, then finally the cashews. I stir fried everything until just cooked through. Then I poured in the peanut sauce (it was just enough!).

That’s when things got crazy.

Instead of draining the pasta and just topping it with the vegetables in a bowl, I decided to stop the pasta al dente, drain but reserve about 1/4 cup of the liquid, and then mix the pasta into the veggies and sauce in the wok, along with the reserved pasta liquid. Everything simmered and sizzled for about 45 seconds, then I turned off the heat, threw in the cilantro,  squeezed 1/4 of a lime on top of everything, and pronounced it done.

I call it “A Wok Through the Garden with a Couple of Nuts.”

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The Land of Ooze

Mud pie, mud in your eye;
Mud on a snake bite, don’t you die;
Take a little rain, take a little dirt,
Make a little mud, get it on your shirt.
We’re all just slogging through the mud.

—Guy Clark, “Mud”

Songwriter and truth-teller Guy Clark was never so right — after a year of record rainfalls following years of dusty drought, we are all just slogging through the mud. It has rained here for most of the week. Most of the month, maybe even. The cats don’t like it, the dog doesn’t like it, the chickens don’t like it. Everyone’s getting a little crazy from it. And Georgia’s small farmers have been devastated by flooded fields and lost topsoil and fertilizer (to contribute to the Georgia Farmer Flood Relief Fund, please click here).

Me, I just pull on my big yellow galoshes and get out there. I miss my garden, and I want to watch the broccoli grow. There is only one way to get scraps out of the kitchen, and that is to slop through the mud to the compost bin at the back of my lot. We try to keep the floor of the coop dry with a box fan mounted overhead, but this much water seeps in under the foundation, and the mucky mess needs to be scraped and shoveled out. The hens stay inside or up on roosts as much as they can, but they can’t help but get some of the ooze on their feet and feathers.

"Please dry my feet."

Yesterday I dragged Caleb out into it for a brisk evening trot around the neighborhood. He protested at first, but we both resigned ourselves to getting wet, and I am quite sure it was glee I was seeing on his face as he shook all that mud onto my kitchen floor and cabinets when we got home.

You have to get out there. You have to get a little mud on you. It helps if you remember that we came from mud — the primordial ooze. We all just crawled out of the mud, Guy sings.

But we enjoyed coming in from the rain and mud, too. Caleb loves a good toweling off. For me, it was dry socks and the braised cabbage, roasted sweet potato wedges, and biscuits I had made earlier in the week.

Maybe I’ll make a mud pie for dessert.


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A Paean for the Pea

I try to heed the wisdom in not wishing one’s life away, but I confess my chilled bones are giving a little leap of joy at the prospect of January finally ending this weekend. February should bring a little stir of activity — my seed orders have arrived, and I’ve begun to clean out the potting shed and make room for flats on top of the warming mats and beneath the grow lights. Soon they’ll be chock full o’ Swiss chard, salad greens, kale, arugula, and cilantro. For starters.

Sugar snap peas, a cool season joy

And in keeping with my grandmother’s no-fail practice, a ritual I have adopted as my own for the past sixteen years, I will plant four rows of peas — sugar snap peas, to be precise — on Valentine’s Day.

Indulge me for a moment whilst I lift my voice in praise of the pea. There is so much about it that is gratifying. The pea is eager to please — the sugar snap, in particular. Peas aren’t picky about soil; they like a generally balanced pH and whatever you may happen to have put in their bed in the way of compost a few months before. And in fact, peas themselves are fertilizer.  After harvest, if you turn the spent vines back into the soil, they happily bestow a bit of nitrogen for future crops. This is what we are delighted to call “green manure.”

You can plant them in a spot that is shady in the summer, because right now, all the leaves are off the trees and the sun fills your prospective pea patch. Pea seeds are relatively large, so if you spill some in planting, they are easy to recover. They sprout quickly and consistently. As you know, dear readers, I have had many problems with squirrels consuming my crops, but the peas they don’t seem to care about. If you want to be extra-sure, though, a layer of human hair clippings over your rows seems to keep them unmolested.

My friend Daphne julienned fresh, raw sugar snaps from my garden last year . . .

You can start eating almost within a couple of weeks after planting. How is that, you ask? You have planted your pea seeds an inch apart, and now you need to thin the seedlings. Who knew those pea sprouts were so delicious? I love them in a stir-fry with lots of other veggies and some tofu. Eager to please, those peas!

The only real TLC your peas require are some good trellises to hang onto as they grow. I use my tomato cages folded out flat. They work well because by the time the peas are done, the tomato plants are ready for caging. You might want to watch the weeds, but a good layer of mulch (I just use newspaper and leaves) will keep that from being an issue.

This is when the peas really start to show you some love. Lest you think Valentine’s Day is just too darn early to plant a spring crop, I remind you, Southern Urban Homesteaders, to trust the pea. It knows what it’s doing. A cold snap? Worry not. The peas love a good freeze. It seems to invigorate them. March winds and April showers? The thriving pea does a happy little pea-dance. Pests? None that I have ever encountered. Disease? Nope.

. . . which she then put into cous cous along with some garden mint, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. We ate it with our fish and salad. Amazing.

And then the best part. One mid-spring day, tiny little pea blossoms turn into tiny little pea babies, and then a week or so later, you’ll find yourself standing in the midst of your pea-patch, plucking a plump sugar snap and taking a crisp bite, hull and all. The sweetness! The crunch! You think you want to eat them all right then and there, but they grow so abundantly, you have plenty to bring inside for even more stir-fries. Or you might steam a few and drench them in butter. Or saute in a little garlic, or maybe ginger. And still they will be sweet, crunchy, pleasing little peas.

All we are saying is . . .

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A good yarn

Some weeks back, I reported on my feeble attempts at learning to knit. It wasn’t an easy start, but I am beginning to appreciate the zen of the craft. Once you figure out the pattern, it transcends thought. There is a grace and rhythm that visits your fingers, and all you do is relax and let them take over. And then you wake up, and you have a hat.

Entangled in texture and color

Or maybe three or four or more. Once I figured out the nifty hat trick, I lost all self-control. Partly it was the yarn. I love a good yarn. I found this super-bulky woolly stuff in great colors on sale, so I bought piles and piles of it. But I had a reasonable justification: this coming weekend is the Rabun Rendezvous, the big annual fundraiser for the Rabun Chapter of Trout Unlimited, a wonderful natural resource conservation organization that my family has been involved with for nearly twenty-five years. Every year I try to come up with some interesting and creative items for the silent auction — a gift basket, some homemade goodies, one year I contributed two dozen eggs. This year, it’ll be hats and fingerless gloves.

Energized by my purchase, I started giving my creations names: a red hat was “Ruby,” a green child’s hat is “Li’l Peahead.” Then I began mixing and matching colors and bestowing flyfishing inspired names: “Riparian,” “The River,” “Hemlock Grove.”

"Keepin' Warm Kit"

I decided I needed to put together a couple of gift baskets. One is called a “Keepin’ Warm Kit,” and it includes a bundle of fatlighter (courtesy of my dad, who found it in his yard and split it up so it’s just like the stuff they sell at L.L. Bean), hot chocolate, some spicy cheese straws and a jar of homemade green tomato relish to go with them, and a knit wool cap. The other is “Sweet, Spicy, Savory”: the muscadine jam I made this summer with plain cheese straws (the “sweet”), homemade roasted tomatillo and tomato salsa with chips (the “spicy”), and more of the green tomato relish with some rosemary crackers (the “savory”). Bounty from the Southern Urban Homestead.

"Sweet • Spicy • Savory"

I still want to make a few more hats — I can probably turn out two or three before the weekend: “Foam is Home,” “Out Past Hiawassee.” And I’m making fingerless gloves to go with some of them (I actually sold a pair of those recently to a very gifted artist friend whose studio is not heated). I am trying hard not to turn into Madame Defarge or one of those sweet but dotty ladies with cats and a house full of precious knitted objects.

That’s why I keep giving things away. I am blessed with understanding friends who have accepted my slightly eccentric creations.

The Rabun Rendezvous is this Saturday, January 23, at the Dillard House in Rabun County. The Dillard House smokes a whole pig, and we’ll pick at it starting around 5 p.m. Come on up and join us — there’s a ton of good stuff on the auction and raffle tables, incredible food, fabulous entertainment, and a superb program.

Friend with slightly eccentric creation

Plus, you’re supporting a grassroots organization that does great work cultivating the next generation of  stewards of our region’s trout fisheries and conserving, protecting, and restoring its treasures.

And you’ll definitely hear a good yarn or two.

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Giving summer for Christmas

Our old family friend, the pressure canner

Most of my canning supplies — my standard canner, my jar lifters, my pressure canner, my 1932 edition of the Ball Blue Book of Canning and Preserving Food – belonged to my mother. Before the pressure canner was my mother’s, it was my paternal grandmother’s. Before it was hers, it belonged to her next-door neighbor. And since I now live in the house that belonged to my father’s parents for more than fifity years, that pressure canner has come full circle, from Decatur to Rabun Gap then back to Decatur.

This to say that despite its rustic reputation, canning and preserving food has never been just a rural thing. The US Department of Agriculture encouraged urban homemakers to put their Victory Garden bounty up especially during wartime. (An aside: my friend Elizabeth Engelhardt, now a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin, is finishing up a fascinating book on the subject of southern food and gender titled A Mess of Greens, in which she touches on the girls’ “Tomato Clubs” of a century ago–can’t wait to read it!)

Muscadine jam (purple), green tomato relish (yellow), and roasted tomato and tomatillo salsa (red)

The locavore movement has recently brought about a resurgence of interest in home canning amongst my generation. I was delighted to learn that my next-door neighbor, who is my age, asked for some home canning equipment for Christmas this year. For years, though, I have been giving her my canned goodies for Christmas — pear butter, apple butter and apple sauce (none this year — the apples and pears come from my dad’s trees, and the deer got most of them); fig jam and preserves; pickles.

This year, I’m giving muscadine jam (the CSA vines were bounteous), green tomato relish (made from my green tomatoes and cucumbers, along with Vidalia onions and CSA cabbage), and some of that roasted tomato and tomatillo salsa. It’s the summer harvest at its ripest peak, sealed and delivered for the holidays. The gift of summer flavor and color on these chill, bleak, brief days.

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“Even girls can be farmers?”

One morning this past week, at the request of a friend who teaches at the elementary school near my home, I hosted a visit of the school’s kindergarten class. According to our state’s department of education, as a southern urban homesteader, I apparently count as a “community helper.”

Kinder in the garten

The first thing the kids saw when they arrived was the garden. I explained that some plants like lots of hot weather to grow, and some plants like cool weather. And since this was November, what was growing right now was broccoli and salad greens and beets and Swiss chard, because they like it cool. (I also explained about the Squirrel-Proof Net Tent, and that squirrels eat more than just acorns. I tried not to use bad words, but it was not easy.)

Tasting vinegar and salt in homemade dill pickles

We then moved on to the canning and preserving demonstration. We talked about what happens if you pick some green beans in the summer and then leave them in a bowl in your kitchen, thinking you’ll eat them in November–you get rotten green beans. Then we talked about how salt and vinegar helps keep food from going bad so quickly. Finally, everybody got to taste some homemade dill pickles made with homegrown cucumbers: salt and vinegar.

Mutual curiosity

After the taste test came the highlight of the visit—the chickens. There was lots of chicken talk and good questions (“What do the chickens eat?” “Are there baby chicks in those eggs?” “Why do they peck?” “Do you have any roosters? Why not?”). The chickens were just as curious about their visitors as the visitors were about the chickens. We looked at how different colored chickens lay different colored eggs. We also talked about how the eggs weren’t the only benefit from the chickens, but that their poop is great for fertilizer for the garden, so the chickens help the vegetables grow, and then they get to eat some of the vegetables. We cracked an egg open so they could see that it looks just like the ones they eat, only better!

We got the guitar out (apparently this fulfills another state requirement) and all sang a chicken song together. This is a little tune I wrote for my adorable niece. It has many verses, but here’s the one we sang:

Bok bok baaack!

What do the chickens do all day?
Peck and peck and peck and peck!
What do the chickens do all day?
Peck and peck and peck and peck!
They peck outside, they peck indoors
Take a little break then they peck some more
They’re happy and they never get bored
Peck and peck and peck and peck!

Then we sang a verse with the chickens, in their own language:

Bok bok-bok bok bok bok bok bok?
Bok bok bok bok bok bok bok!
Bok bok-bok bok bok bok bok bok?
Bok bok bok bok bok bok bok!
Bok bok baaaahk, bok bok baaaahk!
bokiebokiebok, bokie bok bok bok!
Bok bokie bok bok bok bok bok,
Bok bok bok bok bok bok bok!

It was quite the rousing chorus. Some even threw in a few funky chicken moves.

As they were leaving, one little girl asked, “So this is a farm?” I said, “Well, it has gardens and animals that are living and growing and giving us food, so I think it counts as a farm, even in the city.” Then she asked, “Even girls can be farmers?”

Here’s hoping that’s a seed sown.

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Starting with what you have: homemade pizza

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I had some sweet peppers, some tomatoes that had ripened on my kitchen counter, and garlic. In the bowl are the tomatoes, the garlic, some pesto I had made from my basil crop last summer and frozen in ice cube trays, plus a little olive oil and salt and pepper. Great bruschetta or pizza topping.

Sunday night, and once again I want to take something yummy to my weekly gathering with musical friends. The rest of those green tomatoes have turned a lovely red, and I have lots of garlic from the CSA. I also have some sweet peppers that I picked last week.

Pizza, anyone?

I have a simple and delicious recipe for pizza dough from the Everyday Greens cookbook: yeast, sugar, salt, flour, olive oil, a little cornmeal if you have it (and I do). Once I have gotten that started, I turn to the toppings. I decide to make two different pizzas.

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Roasted sweet peppers

The first is a kind of bruschetta mix: the tomatoes chopped and mixed with minced garlic, plus some pesto I had made and frozen in cubes back during the summer from my garden basil. I mix that with a little extra olive oil and salt.

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Picked and minced some oregano from the garden

For pizza number two, I roast, peel, and slice into strips the the sweet peppers. I caramelize some onion and add that to the peppers, along with a balsamic vinegar reduction. I run out into the garden and pick some fresh oregano and mince and add about a tablespoon. Then I open a can of black olives and chop them in.

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The pepper/olive/onion/balsamic/oregano mixture for one pizza

The pizza dough goes down on parchment paper sitting on a wooden pizza paddle. I add the topping, then throw some shredded mozzarella, parmesan, and asiago cheese over both pizzas. Each takes about 15 minutes at 400 degrees in the oven on a pizza stone (preheated in the oven).

And the reviews are in: one Sunday jammer said, “It was so deliciously beyond mere pizza . . . mmmmm.”

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Voila!

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Starting with what you have

Tonight I’m getting together with some friends to play music. We do this weekly, and usually we try to bring a bit of something to munch on as we socialize before we sit down with our instruments.

tomatillos, tomatos, and cilantro

tomatillos, tomatoes, and cilantro

This afternoon, with the evening in mind, I did a study of those tomatillos in the bottom drawer of my fridge (if you’ve been following the harvest, then you know they’ve been collecting for some time now). I also have a number of green tomatoes on my countertop, collected from the vines before I yanked them up a couple of weeks ago. Some of them—surprise!—turned red before I could bread them and fry them.

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Roasted tomatoes and tomatillos

Then I recalled the cilantro seeds I’d tossed into the dirt back in September. They’ve sprouted and are coming along nicely in this cool weather, so I pinched a few leaves. Add to that a couple of the jalapeño peppers I picked a few days ago,  and what do you have? The start of a mighty fine salsa.

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Jalapeños and garlic roasting

So I roasted the tomatillos and tomatoes under a broiler, and I skillet-roasted the jalapeños along with some garlic (from my CSA) on top of the stove. Chopped a bit of white onion and the cilantro.

I scraped the tomatillos and tomatoes—juice, skins and all—plus the peppers and garlic into the food processor and pulsed until it was chunky. Added in the onion (which I had minced and rinsed), cilantro, a pinch of sugar, a generous teaspoon of salt, and a squeeze of lime juice. Darn tasty, and took about 20  minutes.

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Voila!

Instead of thinking, Now, what do I want to take to the Sunday jam tonight?, I started with what I had: tomatillos that were going to rot if I didn’t use them, the last red tomatoes of the year, jalapeños, garlic, onion. Add to that stuff I keep around anyway (salt, sugar, limes), and it’s not too difficult to get creative and come up with something delicious in about the same amount of time it would have taken me to drive to the store and pick up something for tonight. It was cheaper, too.

Of course, it’s just luck that I happen to have a bag of tortilla chips in the pantry to go with it!

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