Category Archives: Community and Citizenship

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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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Feasting

Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree . . . Yet

When a big ole oak has an enormous gash in its side and is oozing black goo, you might suspect that it’s time for the tree to go. Since the tree in question was in the easement between the sidewalk and street in front of my house, the city sent over a service to remove it. It made me a little sad to see it leave in chunks the big truck, but it was also an opportunity.

A neighbor a few streets over has two apple trees in her front yard, right on the road, that are usually loaded with fruit every late summer/early fall. She sends out a friendly note over the neighborhood listserv inviting folks to help themselves.

I love the idea of sharing this kind of gift with one’s neighbors, so when I saw that the oak had left a nice, sunny spot rich with ground up stump matter, I ordered two dwarf apple trees to go into that little strip of earth. Three weeks before the trees were scheduled to ship, I went to work on the spot, testing the soil pH, mixing in some lime to neutralize the acid, adding in heaps of some marvelous chicken poo compost I’d been saving just for this sort of thing.

The trees arrived the week before Thanksgiving: one Gala and one Fuji — you need two trees of different varieties in order to achieve fruit. Pre-pruned (so that the newly planted tree will focus its energy in the root system), they looked like little more than twigs, about four feet high, with tiny stubs of branches off the main stem.

I followed the planting directions carefully, digging two generous holes to allow the bare roots plenty of space. I planted them about twelve feet apart. I gave  them deep waterings and piled up about eight inches of wood mulch at the base of each, taking care not to mound the mulch around the trunk, which might cause rot.

There’s little else to do now but wait a few years. Planting a fruit tree is a long-range investment. Next year, after the trees have grown a few inches and new growth has emerged, I might train the new branches to grow upward by clothes-pinning them to the main stem. In another year, I’ll do a little pruning. After a few more years of training and pruning and feeding, maybe I’ll start to see flower buds for my first crop of fruit. And maybe by the time I retire there will be enough to invite neighbors to share in.

Because that is a long time to wait, and because the trees are so little now that there is still plenty of sun between them on all that good soil the oak tree left behind, I gathered up some leftover seeds from my fall gardening and cultivated a little patch for radishes, winter salad greens, Swiss chard, and cilantro. The seeds came right up the following week, and maybe in early spring they will have wintered over and started to mature, and I will be able to invite my neighbors to pick a few greens and radishes for a salad.

Waiting for the apple trees, those few months don’t seem nearly so long.

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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Gardening

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.

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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 . . .

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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Making things

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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Gardening for the Long Haul

Recently I read about a guy in a big city who spent more than $10,000 to “buy” himself an urban farm for his yard: tons of imported top soil, seeds and seedlings (when his own failed), a chicken coop and chickens, a rabbit hutch and rabbits.

From the article it was clear he really had no idea what he was doing. His seedlings were light-deprived and leggy. His rabbits suffered maggot infestations and heat stroke. One of his children accidentally injured a duckling so badly that it had to be euthanized. His laying hen ate her own eggs. And that’s just for starters. But he spent a month eating only what he had grown and from that, landed a book contract.

This is an extreme example, and I am so turned off by the gimmick and extravagance — not to mention the suffering he caused his animals because he couldn’t be bothered to learn to care for them properly before purchasing them — that I won’t offer a name or location that might give him any sort of free publicity. But it seems indicative of a trend of “just-add-water” urban farms that has sprung up out of that classic American desire for instant gratification. In the Atlanta area alone I know of two companies who for a few hundred bucks will come to your home or business and install a garden complete with raised beds, lining, irrigation (the garden hose kind, not the recycled rainwater kind), soil, crops, and mulch.

A recently installed raised bed not doing so well.

They may be out there in plenty, but I have yet to see a successful installation of this sort. One company dropped some raised beds on the grounds of a new local business recently. They got a very late start in the season, however, and the plants, which are under-mulched, have been stunted by heat and drought. And a neighbor of mine purchased raised bed kits from a similar service, but the soil she received was so unbalanced that most of her summer vegetables didn’t make it.

It’s difficult to superimpose a garden on a place. It’s much easier to cultivate one from the ground up, but it takes longer. You enter into a commitment, an ever-evolving relationship with a piece of land, and you accept that your garden is never “done.” The blueberry bushes you planted five years ago are only now beginning to bear enough fruit to make a pie. The asparagus crowns you buried this year won’t provide harvestable spears until 2012.

Raised beds are a reasonable short-term concept, but you have to pay attention to the soil you put in — its nutrients, its pH — and you have to monitor and maintain it. When I dug out some sod and expanded my own vegetable garden two years ago, I knew that it would be several years before that newly cultivated soil was up to par. But I’m digging in for the long haul, and each year it gets a little better.

Unexpected gift 2010: green tomatillos

Please don’t misunderstand me: I want more people to learn to home garden and to reap its many gifts. But one of those gifts is the pleasure of delayed gratification. Insta-gardens may provide some insta-reward, but it is short-lived. You also learn to receive the gifts you are offered, rather than the ones you expect. This year I started some purple tomatillo seedlings, but they were ravaged by the rat in my shed, so no purple tomatillos for me. But last year I had such an abundance of green tomatillos that they reseeded themselves from the fruits that fell on the ground last year, and this spring I pulled up probably a hundred volunteer tomatillos in my garden, leaving four sturdy plants. And now I have another bumper crop of green tomatillos that I didn’t plan on, but boy is it beautiful, as is my salsa verde.

I picked these figs last week from a tree that has been in my yard longer than the sixteen years I have lived here. The best thing that's ever happened to it was a tree falling on it during Hurricane Opal in 1995. The perfect natural pruning job improved its production.

Another gift is deep knowledge of a single place accumulated over time. Some years are better for some crops than other years, and history gives you a unique understanding of how things grow. This year, because of our rainy spring, was the fruit year. Last year it was tomatoes and tomatillos. I still think longingly back to the summer eight years ago when my basil plants — for reasons I still don’t understand — grew 3 1/2 feet tall. And you learn through the years to watch how your garden changes, and you adjust accordingly. The trees in my neighbors’ yards have finally grown so much that they throw too much shade over my back bed, so this will be the last year for a summer garden back there. It will be a fine spot, however, for some cool season crops to overwinter while the leaves are off the trees.

I realize not everyone will agree with my message here, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from installing raised beds. But I do encourage starting small and simple, seeing it not so much as a finished project but a beginning, and celebrating and building on successes.

Study your plot over time. Be at peace with some failure. Garden for the long haul, for deep knowledge and unexpected gifts.

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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Flockkeeping, Gardening

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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The Southern Urban Homesteader Takes A Very Slow Road Trip

Caleb-dog and I took a lovely little road trip to the Georgia coast for a few days. We made it slow and easy; I decided in the interest of fuel economy to drive no faster than 65 miles per hour most of the way down on the Interstates. I loaded some audiobooks on my ipod, packed some snackage, and off we went. The trip down took about 5 1/2 hours, and I definitely got better gas mileage, but I got tailgated, honked at, and gestured at for going 5 miles under the speed limit. It took an act of will to maintain my steady pace. This while millions of gallons of oil spew into the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps in addition to raging at the BP machine, we should examine our own sick need to drive everywhere fast and consume more fossil fuel than necessary.

On the coast I stayed with my dear friends the Spratts, who own a bed and breakfast in Darien, Georgia. If you are ever looking for a beautiful place to stay in a sleepy little coastal Southern town, please check out the Open Gates Bed and Breakfast. Jeff and Kelly are both trained biologists and know much about the area’s rich natural resources. They can point you in all kinds of fun directions. They will also serve you some amazingly sweet locally caught wild Georgia shrimp (the area’s major industry) with grits for breakfast. I stopped by the Georgia Shrimp Company market and brought home five pounds of large shrimp and froze them in one-pound batches.

Oh, and saltwater swimming pool? Best thing ever — no chlorine!

We had a brief but thoroughly relaxing few days of early morning runs, a visit to the beach at Jekyll Island, a couple of dips in that marvelous pool in the heat of the day, and just hanging out and visiting. I goofed around with Kelly and Jeff’s kids a good bit. Here is a song that Hank and I wrote last year. We thought it deserved its own video.


Yesterday instead of trudging back up the interstate, I decided to make the journey part of the destination and took a meandering backroad drive home, going about 55 most of the way. Including some protracted stops, it took about 6 1/2 hours to get home. We broke up the trip by visiting some farm stands, where I picked up some Vidalia onions, peaches, cantaloupe, and pecans.

And as we passed through Milledgeville, on impulse I turned off US 441 into Andalusia, Flannery O’Connor’s beautiful 544-acre farm there. We spent an hour or so walking the  verdant grounds and spotted all sorts of wildlife, including four deer. Caleb happily sunk himself into the cool mud at the edge of the pond.

A self-portrait Flannery O'Connor painted in 1953. Gotta love a woman who loves her birds.

And joy to my heart, the peacocks are back. Flannery O’Connor was a passionate keeper of chickens, ducks, and especially peafowl. This is one of the reasons I feel a particular affinity for this writer. In her honor, we have a hen named Mary Flannery.

I have read that peafowl are wonderful for mosquito control, and indeed, I didn’t see — or slap — a single skeeter during the hot and humid hour we spent walking around.

Also captivating was Flannery’s mother’s milk storage house. Early on, Regina actually worked the property as a dairy farm and stored milk in this little structure. It was restored last year. I love the bottles in the windowsill.

Between the slow drive and staying with friends, it was just about the most frugal vacation I have ever had — yet completely enjoyable. Because of the money I didn’t spend on gas and lodging, I was able to take Kelly and Jeff out for a big splurgy seafood dinner my last evening there. Another mountain of shrimp followed by vat of peach cobbler and ice cream.

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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Conservation, Feasting, Flockkeeping

The Pie Goes Viral (or, “The Southern Urban Forager, Part the Second”)

Melanie, this one’s for you. Happy retirement, and may you bake lots for and with that new grandbaby!

Last weekend Caleb had a sleepover with his favorite troublemate, Next-Door Katie, whose family was away for the weekend. One Australian shepherd plus one German shepherd equals more than two, so I was looking for ways to burn off some canine hyperactivity. On Sunday I took about 12o pounds of dog for a long ramble in an open field bordered by some woods and a pond not too far from where I live. The walk came with an unexpected bonus: mulberry trees in full fruit.

I took one of the many, many empty doggie poop bags I had brought along and filled it with these deliciously ripe purple berries. Mulberries look like blackberries, but their flavor isn’t quite so sweet or intense. And there are no briars to contend with. Mulberry juice is deeply hued, though, and it stains liberally.

Mulberry trees grow everywhere around here — they’re considered trash trees — and can be found all along the streets our neighborhood. This year they have been groaning with fruit; I have never seen such a bounty. Kids love to pick and eat them right there in the playground across the street from my house. The fruit is so heavy it falls off the branches and has turned the asphalt of my little street purple. I have tracked mulberry muck onto my kitchen floor by my shoes. The birds love them, too. There is purple bird poo all over my white car at the moment.

I brought my berries into the kitchen with a recent Facebook post from a friend of mine in my mind. Esther had been on a mulberry kick and had made three pies in three nights. I messaged her — could she send the recipe? And did I have to pick out all those little green stems? She shared the recipe (it’s easy and it’s here) and told me not to worry about the stems, that they seemed to dissolve right into the pie.

I modified the recipe a bit — used tapioca instead of flour, added a pinch of allspice and cinnamon, and cut the sugar back to a scant one cup. And I confess to using storebought frozen crusts because I’m terrible at pastry dough.

But that pie. That pie! The perfect, melt-in-your-mouth, not-too-sweetness, a quick surprise shot of the spices, the firm yet berryish texture. It’s impossible to describe the flavor, but it’s nothing like any other fruit pie I have ever had — not quite blackberry, not quite anything else.

We now speak of it reverently in hushed tones as The Pie. The Pie is the boss of me, and I do not worship alone. I posted pictures on Facebook, and the next thing I knew, The Pie had gone viral. Another friend was collecting mulberries from the tree in her yard. I sent Sheryl the recipe that Esther had given me. (Sheryl’s tree was so loaded, she said, that her dog’s butts were purple from sitting beneath it. I forgot to check Caleb and Katie’s.)

I inherited my paternal grandmother’s cookbook collection. Retracing her culinary steps over the years, I discovered the phantom cookbook: all those scribbled notes in the margins of the “real” cookbooks, the index cards with handwritten recipes stuck between two pages, a scrap of personal stationery with a note at the top in the back — “Marjorie’s Meatloaf, but I cut the tomato sauce in half.”

Sheryl's Pie, which is much prettier than mine

In a way, we are doing the same thing, aren’t we? We are, electronically now, passing along our favorite recipes, sharing our tricks and tweaks with one another (Esther recommended cutting the sugar; I suggested the cinnamon and allspice to Sheryl), so that they evolve into something personal, yet with a history. Our grandmothers did this on index cards and scraps of stationery. We are doing it on Facebook.

Yet while our grandmothers’ mulberry pie recipes went viral in one another’s kitchens over coffee, I have never even met Esther in person, although we live in the same city (we connected through a mutual friend who thought we ought to know each other). And even though Sheryl lives two blocks away, we’ve only visited face-to-face a couple of times.

Are we closer or more isolated in this digital world? It still feels like a community to me.

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The Southern Urban Homesteader Takes a Holiday

No post this week, my friends. I’m going on a little holiday! In the meantime, I leave you with this promise of sweet things to come . . .

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