“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!

3 Comments

Filed under Feasting, Putting Up

Honeyslingers

I love the idea of beekeeping — of a happy, humming hive right there in my backyard, providing honey, beeswax, and busy pollinators not just for my garden but for my neighbors’ gardens, as well. But the natural processes of bees and honey production, I admit, have always been daunting and mysterious to me.

The hazmat-suited gnome examines a frame from a super

Until, that is, this autumn when my friend Patrick, a lifelong beekeeper who lives up in my native Rabun County, Georgia, invited my family (primarily my six-year-old niece and me) to help him extract honey from his hives. Avril has been apprenticing with Pat since last year. All suited up and looking like a gnome in hazmat, last fall she helped him smoke the hives in order to open them up and examine honey production levels for the year. Patrick made sure she understood exactly what she was doing, too. He gave her a beautifully illustrated book that explained the architecture and social order of the hive, the role each different type of bee plays, how a queen is made, how they make honey, and how we come along and harvest it.  At the age of five, Avril knew more than I did about honeybees.

By the time we arrived at Pat’s house for the extraction party in late September, I had done a little bit of remedial work to catch up with Avril (Pat and I recently had spent several hours together on a driving trip, and he very patiently explained things to me and answered my questions). Pat had prepared us: wear old clothes, an apron, and a bandanna over your hair; bring some old shoes you can easily slip on and off; prepare to get sticky! He had already “robbed” the hives and brought the supers — those are the boxes that look like drawers — into his basement, the floor of which was covered with heavy plastic. Each one had a dozen frames full of honeycomb, and each cell of the comb was full of honey.

Patrick shows me how to use the hot knife to remove the honeycomb caps

My task was to take a hot knife (sizzling hot! The electrically heated knife burned the wax and honey and filled the room with smoke if I moved too slowly) and slice the caps off each side of the honeycomb cell. Then I would help Avril load the frame of open, oozing comb into the extractor.

The extractor is a giant drum that contains a basket that holds the frames vertically within, so that they sit radially from the center point. A motor turns the basket inside the drum, and the idea is to use centrifugal force to sling the honey out of the comb. Pat told us that old-timers call this device (which used to be hand-cranked!) a “honeyslinger.”

Avril loads open frames into the extractor

Avril’s job was to run the extractor. Once we had loaded it full of frames, she’d start the motor turning slowly, then gradually crank it up until the drum was shaking with speed. I opened a tap at the bottom of the drum to allow the extracted honey to drain into a bucket.

The just-extracted honey was full of bee-parts, leaves, and other bits of nature that has found itself fixed in the gluey gold. So as it drained out of the extractor, Pat sent it through several layers of filters to catch the non-honey stuff.

Another tap on the bucket allowed Pat to fill the one-pound jars. Avril capped each one, and I wiped off any residual stickiness before placing the jars into a case. All told, Pat harvested honey from nine full hives this year.

Then we removed our sticky shoes (honeyslinging is a messy job!), washed our gooey hands, and sat down to label each jar. That’s when Patrick surprised us. He’d had a special label made up just for Avril, with her name. Because she had seen the process through from the very beginning last year, he said, this was her honey. Avril and I each left with a case of honey of our own — hers with her own special label!

Blossoms on a sourwood tree

A word about Pat’s honey: his bees gather the nectar of the sourwood tree, which only grows in sufficient quantities to produce honey in the southern Appalachians. The smooth flavor of sourwood honey is as prized as the famous Tupelo honey, and like Tupelo, sourwood does not crystallize. Avril and I (and indeed, my whole family) have been completely spoiled by the flavor of sourwood. I use it daily in my coffee; have mixed it in ice cream, salad dressings, and marinades; drizzled it on a big hunk of fresh homemade bread. Most other honeys simply are inferior.

And sourwood honey is part of Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, meaning that it is considered a “heritage” food—unique in flavor, sustainably produced by methods handed down over many generations, in danger of disappearing. The ranks of sourwood honey producers are dwindling, and Pat is keeping an important tradition alive. I remember as a child visiting Mr. Neville, a beekeeper in Rabun County, to buy his sourwood honey. After Mr. Neville died, I found out during our extraction party, Pat acquired much of his equipment.

Now that I, too, am an apiary apprentice of Patrick’s, I have plans to install a couple of hives in my own backyard in the next few years (I’m still learning first!). But in Decatur, I will never be able to achieve the flavor of the sourwood I so treasure.

I brought home an extra case or two of Mr. Pat’s sourwood honey and am selling it for him for $6 (plus shipping, if needed) a pound. Contact me if you are interested in purchasing some. And in case you need more persuading, here is a little video testimonial Avril and I filmed.

1 Comment

Filed under Putting Up

Slide Down My Rain Barrel

Tomorrow, October 22, is the Southern Urban Homestead’s first blogiversary. Thank you, gentle readers, for a fun and inspiring year!


After months of relentless rain and even some snow, last spring dried up, and once again we have endured a long bout of drought. These periods seem to be coming more frequently in the past few years, along with increasing public awareness for the need to conserve water (and, rightfully, bans and crackdowns on outdoor watering). Even though it’s mostly still permissible to water a food garden from a faucet, rainwater recapture just makes more sense, environmentally and economically. So a few years ago I started accumulating rain barrels.

My first one — purchased during one of those desperate dry periods maybe six years back — had had a previous life as a shipping container for olives, and it arrived actually smelling like olive oil (yum). I set it up to catch flow from my garden shed downspout and waited. When it finally did rain, the 55-gallon barrel filled up quickly, so I bought another one and set it up to catch the overflow from the first one. And then a friend gave me a third one, which I added to the chain. And then last year, another friend gave me a fourth one (that last one is my favorite — it was actually painted by a local artist and auctioned off as a fundraiser for a community nonprofit, which is how I ended up with it.)

They got it going on in Sri Lanka

A rain barrel is a nifty thing. You fill them up by draining water off of a roof when it rains. A screen covers the barrel top to keep debris and leaves from getting inside and hatched mosquito larvae from getting out. Then you draw the water from a tap toward the base. I recently visited the water exhibit at Fernbank Museum and took this photo of a rainwater jar from Sri Lanka. It holds several thousand liters. A girl can dream, right?


My poorly installed rain barrel system


Obviously this rain barrel needed a little TLC.

I originally installed  all of mine myself, up on stacks of bricks and cinderblocks with downspout extensions feeding into them. But I didn’t do a very good job. I had put all of them back next to my small garden shed because that’s the highest place on my lot, which I’d hoped would help generate enough pressure for my harvested rainwater to flow out of hoses. But sometimes they would topple over, too heavy for their supports. My rickety perches weren’t high enough, either, so that when I tried to run a hose from a barrel to a nearby bed that happened to be slightly up slope, gravity was not working in my favor.

Then I found Ben. As in Barrels By Ben. Ben reclaims used barrels (whiskey barrels from Tennessee, recycled food-grade barrels, and recycled 275-gallon totes) and installs them in commercial and residential rainwater harvesting systems. I called him up, and together we put together a new and improved plan for my four barrels.

I have what is most practically described as a moat around the back of my house. It’s a small drainage ditch that is level with the top of the house’s foundation, so that the house sits slightly nestled into the grade of the surprisingly steep hill of my property. The problem is that the earth next to my house, because it is held up by a wall of stacked bricks and not much else, isn’t firm enough to support the weight of 165 gallons of water in three barrels — another reason I installed my barrels on the shed downspouts. The rainwater off my roof was a wasted precious resource.

Reinstalled: three on a deck over the moat next to the house, one next to the shed in the back.

Ben’s solution was to build a little deck of sweet-smelling, durable cedar off the back of my house next to a valley in my roof that would redistribute the weight of the barrels so that the ground wouldn’t collapse beneath them. And so that’s what we did. See how they are nice and high? I’ll get enough pressure going to run soaker hoses into the Squirrel-Proof Net Tent and water all day long. He also re-installed one on the garden shed downspout on a very high, very stable perch.

Now. If only some rain would slide down my rain barrel . . .

2 Comments

Filed under Conservation, Gardening

As Southern as Sweet Tea (Olive)

The Southern Urban Homestead is a feast for the senses — a sweet, ripe strawberry on the tongue, the chickens cooing and cackling from the backyard, the warm crumble of finished compost and red wrigglers spilling through fingers, the visual banquet of abundance. And aroma.

For the past week and a half, the tea olives have been in bloom. I wish there were some way to capture the intoxicating fragrance coming in through my kitchen windows and post it to this blog. The tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans) is an exclusively Southern (though originally Chinese, I think) evergreen shrub with dark, waxy leaves. The blossoms are tiny and light yellow, and they grow in dense bunches nestled behind the foliage. They bloom in the fall but also sometimes in the winter if the weather is mild for a stretch.

And oh, those blooms. Have you ever tasted real Tupelo honey? Start there. Add a hint of orange blossom (not orange flavor, but the scent of the bloom). Then add a forkful of buttercream icing as the aroma hits the back of your throat from a piece of homemade three-layer vanilla cake made just that morning. Close your eyes and think words like “apricot” and “succulent.” And maybe you’ll begin to imagine the scent of the tea olive.

Over this past weekend my friend Beth, who grew up in Chicago and now lives near Boston, came to visit. Beth had never met the tea olive. She was recovering from a cold and couldn’t smell it in the kitchen like I could. So we went outside, and I pointed to the tea olive and said, “Go over there and inhale.” After that, every few hours she would go and stand next to the tea olive and breathe. Finally I brought a few branches inside and put them in a jar on the table next to her. We were pretty much delirious with tea olive. In fact, so is my whole neighborhood. Folks would stand still in a state of euphoria whenever the breeze stirred the scent into their paths.

Beth took a sprig home with her Monday morning (I’m sure that was interesting to the TSA people). I like to think of her wafting the fragrance of tea olive all around Wellesley for the past two days.

I have read that it is possible to make an actual tea from the tea olive blossoms, but I have never tried this nor have I tasted tea olive tea. Any reports, dear readers? I’d love to have this aroma steaming from a teapot.

1 Comment

Filed under Gardening

Simmins? (or, “The Southern Urban Forager, Part the Fourth”)

Recently I took Caleb on one of our long rambling walks to a small pond where he likes to splash around. When we reached the pond, Caleb trotted up to say hi to a woman who was sitting on her cooler next to the water with a spinning rod and a plastic container full of night crawlers. Immediately he was distracted by a little pile of fried pork rinds she had spilled on the ground next to the night crawlers, and delighted (he is a Southern Urban Forager, too), he helped himself.

In the middle of my apology for my dog’s doggielike behavior, the fisherwoman interrupted me:

“Simmins?”

“Uh . . . I’m sorry?”

“Are those simmins?” She pointed to the plastic grocery sack I had in my hand, full of soft, bulging, oozing golden fruit.

Oh! Yes, they are!” I replied, suddenly understanding that she meant my persimmons.

I offered her some and she reached into my sack and took a handful. I warned her to brush them off before eating them because I had picked them up off the ground underneath a tree that was dropping them like crazy, but she just gave each one a quick blow and popped them into her mouth, spitting the seeds onto the ground. She smiled at me.  “We used to eat simmins when I was a little girl.”

I used to eat persimmons when I was a little girl, too. There was a tree across the road from our house, right next to where the school bus let us off. Before walking home in the fall, I’d go over and give the tree a good shake, then gather up what fell and cram them into my mouth. You had to be careful, though. An unripe persimmon will turn your mouth wrongside out.

Eating a ripe one, though, is like eating the flesh of the autumn sun — dense and spicy-sweet, almost warm. The persimmons that grow wild around here are nothing like the Japanese ones you see at markets. They are soft and easily mooshed — too soft for commercial transport. But that’s what makes them so delicious.

On this day I gathered up about a quart and a half from a tree we came across during our walk to the pond. I probably got as many stuck to my shoes as I got into my sack — the ground was layered with rotting ones, and my feet slid around as I gathered. It’s a good year for persimmons. The old wisdom is that a persimmon isn’t ripe until it has been frostbit. But that isn’t true — we haven’t had temperatures below 55 yet and I found plenty of ripe fruit.

I wished the fisherwoman good luck, and Caleb and I set out for home with our bounty. Then I made a run of persimmon-orange jam. I rinsed the earth off the fruit and ran it through a food mill. Even then, the milled flesh was the consistency of cake batter.

In a pot I combined it with sugar and orange juice and added a dash of nutmeg. I cooked the whole mess down until it was so sturdy it practically stood up in the pot. Then I filled five jars and processed them in a hot water bath for about 20 minutes.

Won’t this be a delicious layer in some kind of tart?

**Important note if you try this yourself: Alone, persimmons are not acidic enough to prevent botulism. The orange juice should give the butter enough acidity to make it safe to can without refrigeration, but just to be extra-safe I decided to make this a “freezer jam,” which means the sealed jars will stay in the freezer until opened, then they will live in the fridge until the stuff is gone — which probably won’t take long!

Leave a comment

Filed under Foraging, Putting Up

God in the Rot

Esther Graff-Radford with her daughter, Sophia

By Guest Contributor Esther Graff-Radford

Y’all meet my fellow Southern Urban Homesteader, Esther Graff-Radford. Esther and I connected through a mutual friend who thought we ought to know each other. Her instincts were right on. Esther lives in Atlanta’s Ashford Park neighborhood with, she says, her ever-patient husband, Daniel,  two children, Sophia and Ethan, one dog, one renegade tortoise, and eight chickens.  Her many passions include hatching chicken eggs, jellymaking, reading pop economics, and gardening. Esther educates families and children about sustainable urban farming and serves as pro bono legal counsel for the Chamblee Farmers Market.

Recently Esther and I met up at a little tea shop called Zen Tea in Chamblee, Georgia (I swear your heart rate will go down just walking into this place!), where my pal and neighbor Tom Godfrey was playing with his jazz trio one Saturday night. We were chatting about our respective urban homestead endeavors and stuff on our minds, and ever the editor, I invited to Esther put her thoughts to the page for a guest post for this blog. Read on, then help me persuade her to be a regular contributor.

A volunteer melon in Esther's compost

One recent morning, I grabbed a paper bag full of eggshells and coffee grinds off the kitchen counter and headed to the compost bin.  Cursing the folly that had prompted me to dump moist scraps into a paper bag, I tried not to strew trash all the way down the path to the bin.  My slimy burden was poised in midair, ready to become the latest addition to the rotting heap, when I suddenly encountered God.

I shouldn’t have been surprised; I often meet Her in my garden. But this time, like every time, I was filled with quiet wonder as I knelt before Her latest manifestation: a healthy squash seedling sprouting voluntarily out of the compost.  Suddenly, the whole pile with its rolypoly bugs and earthy smell shone beautiful.

This is my Easter Sunday, my moment of awareness that death giving way unto life is an ongoing quotidian miracle. In moments like this I celebrate not the absence of death, but the endless recycling of death unto life unto death unto life.  I celebrate the complex dance of soil and microbes and pitchfork and fallen leaves and bugs that takes my kitchen scraps and turns them into food again and, eventually, into my children’s brown skin and crazydazy laughs. After years of gardening and composting, I look at that paper bag on my kitchen counter and I see beauty and purpose on a level of complexity that can only be called holy.

I’m not subtle about my embrace of rot.  I take home the grinds from the coffee shop and the pulp from the juice bar. I bring restaurant scraps home for the chickens. When my business installs gardens with children, we build compost bins before we plant anything.

Over time, I’ve developed a theory. A person’s attitude toward backyard composting is a good litmus test of attitudes toward lots of other things. Conservation and consumption, for example. Ecology and abuse. Long-term stability versus short-term gain. Like any theory this one has its holes, and like any quick test subsequent observation may reveal contradictions.  But as an initial diagnostic tool, the compost test is beyond compare. If a person is disgusted by the idea of composting, chances are that person is suffering from blind consumption in other areas of life, too.

Esther's chickens feast on insects in the compost

Esther's chickens feast on insects in the compost

As a culture, we have become accustomed to vacuuming Stuff into our lives and heedlessly spewing waste in our wake. We worship youth and despise aging. We deny death and fear birth. We hide our garbage out of sight and out of mind. And we are suffering the consequences of ignoring ecology and failing to walk humbly on the dirt.

Recently, a client was put off by the idea of letting her child pile up apple cores in the back yard.  “Can’t we just buy organic dirt and have it shipped in?” she asked.  “Sure,” I answered.  “But you’ll waste $500 and miss out on countless benefits.”  Not the least of those benefits is training ourselves to use what we have instead of rushing out to buy instant gratification.  When we compost, we call ourselves to account for how much waste we produce and how we treat it.  We learn to look closely at aging and imperfection and see deep beauty and renewal. We learn to commit to stewardship of a place, replenishing what we take and more. And we learn to kneel humbly before the bugs and microbes and know that there is something greater and more complex than our understanding, and that no amount of money can create it or replace it.

In my family and in my business, I believe that a good compost bin, and time spent digging through it, is priceless medicine for what ails us.

1 Comment

Filed under Community and Citizenship, Gardening

These Are a Few of My Favorite Trades

Last fall I wrote here about my fondness for a good trade — for creating a microeconomy of goods and services that bypass the almighty greenback. I mentioned the exchange of eggs for honey, eggs for dog food, rosemary for eucalyptus, compost for compost. And since then, I have been making an effort to cultivate more good trades. Here are a few.

Eggs for wild game

Eggs for Wild Game. A neighbor of mine is a deer hunter, and we have worked out an excellent exchange of venison bologna for eggs. I even have a pheasant in my freezer as a result of this barter.

Apples for sweet potatoes

Apples for Sweet Potatoes. Another neighbor recently was given a bucketful of sweet potatoes from a farmer over near Athens. Yesterday, my parents brought me two bushels of apples from their trees. We traded apples for roughly equal the weight of sweet potatoes. Yum!

Eggs for homemade tempeh

Eggs for Tempeh. A regular egg-buying customer of mine responded to my call for interesting barters with the offer of some of her homemade tempeh, now in my freezer awaiting a stir fry.

Music for art

Music for Art. A few months ago some friends and I played an arts festival organized by a network of local artists. Instead of paying us cash to play the event, the artist friend who hired us paid us in art. Here is the sketch that now graces my home as a result of this barter.

Guitar Lessons for Make-Up. I’ve been working on my second CD of original songs, and soon I will be organizing a photo shoot for the CD cover and publicity materials. A friend of  mine was a make-up artist in a previous life, and we have agreed to a barter of guitar lessons in exchange for her doing my make-up for the photo shoot. I plan to look fabulous!

Concert Tickets for Doggie Daycare. Recently I won some concert tickets in a raffle I didn’t even know I had entered. Unfortunately I couldn’t make the concert, but I mentioned my prize to the owner of the doggie daycare where Caleb goes a couple of days a week to get his ya-ya’s out. Turns out she’s a huge fan of this artist, so she took the tickets in exchange for a bunch of doggie daycare dates. I’m happy, she’s happy, and most importantly, Caleb’s happy!

I’m always on the lookout for more good barters I’d like to know. And I have new stuff for the marketplace: since the fall, I have become one crazy knitting fool. Scarves, hats, socks, washcloths, fingerless gloves, shoulder bags, I’m even on my second sweater. What do you have? Let’s make a deal . . .

2 Comments

Filed under Community and Citizenship, Making things