Category Archives: Making things

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

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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Filed under Feasting, Flockkeeping, Making things

My exciting laundry

Resurrected!

Today almost felt like spring. So I did almost-springlike things. I started a flat of seeds, fixed the Squirrel-Proof Net Tent after its unfortunate collapse beneath the weight of snow last weekend, and weeded and harvested a few bits of yum from inside it.

I hunted around for helleborus and other signs of almost-spring.

But my most ambitious act in celebration of almost-spring involved laundry. I have been excited about laundry this week.

Why, you ask, would I be excited about laundry?

A few months ago, a friend of mine gave me a recipe to make my own laundry soap. I’ve been meaning to try it and finally got around to it this week. It’s easy, and my laundry detergent now costs $.01 per load. This is the kind of thing that really excites me.

You can get all these ingredients (except the lavender oil) at most any grocery store.

So I mixed up a batch. Here’s the recipe:


  • 3 pints water (6 cups)
  • 1/3 bar Fels-Naptha soap, grated
  • 1/2 cup Super Washing Soda
  • 1/2 cup borax
  • 2 gallon bucket
  • 1 quart hot water
  • 6 cups + 1 gallon hot water

Grate the bar of Fels-Naptha as you would a chunk of cheese.  Mix the grated soap in a medium sized saucepan with 3 pints of water, and heat on low until dissolved.  Stir in Washing Soap and Borax.  Stir until thickened and remove from heat.  Pour one quart hot water into a two-gallon bucket. Add soap mixture and scented oil (optional) and mix well.  Fill bucket with additonal hot water and mix well.  Set aside for 24 hours until mixture thickens.  It will have a slight gel consistency.  Use 1/2 to 3/4 cup of mixture per load, depending on the hardness of your water (harder water, more detergent).  This is a non-sudsing, fragrance-free (unless you add the optional scented oil) laundry product.

I added some lavender essential oil I happened to have on hand. Here’s the result. (And a word of warning — if you try this, wash your hands thoroughly before putting them anywhere near your eyes. Trust me on this! But that’s a whole nother story.)

Turns into a very scoopable gel

The ultimate cheapskate: I store the detergent in a recycled cat litter container.

And then the most exciting almost-spring part. In classic Southern Urban Homestead style, I washed my laundry with my homemade detergent, and I hung it out to dry in the winter sun on my clothesline. I love doing this so much that I actually wrote a song about my laundry last year. Here, in case you don’t believe me, are the first few lines:

I like my laundry on the line;

Prayer flags in the spring sunshine.

When I get to heaven,

I’ll hang my laundry on the line.

It will be on my next CD, due out later this year.

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Filed under Conservation, Gardening, Making things

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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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Feasting, Making things, Putting Up

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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Filed under Feasting, Making things, Putting Up

Each little inch

Adorable hat my mom made

It stands to reason that someone who grows vegetables, keeps chickens, cans and preserves, and loves to cook should also be able to sew and knit and crochet and such. But I think the fiber arts gene skipped a generation for me. My mother is a skilled seamstress–she made many of my clothes growing up (actually, I was wearing her creations well into adulthood and still have a few skirts she made for me in my closet). She tried to teach me, but I had neither the patience nor the ability. Plus, I’m left-handed, and left-handed scissors hadn’t been invented when I was learning to use scissors, and so I can’t use them today, which means at best I cut badly with my right hand. You have to cut a straight line to sew. Forget it.

She also was–remains–a mad knitter. I have a beautiful black mohair sweater she knitted decades ago that I still wear. And a white mohair cardigan that shrunk to the perfect, stylish size a few years ago when she accidentally machine-washed it, then tossed it in a pile bound for charity (“I’ll take that!”). Recently she made a hat for me that is so adorable that several of my friends asked for one, too. When she tried to teach a teenaged me to knit, though, we both got frustrated. She couldn’t show me what to do left-handed, and I couldn’t work in mirror-image to her hands.

The incredible shrinking cardigan, made by my mom

It’s satisfying, however, to see the rising numbers passionate knitters recently, especially among my generation and younger. I love to watch them do their thing–it draws your attention to each little inch of pattern. I love the deftness of motion in their hands, the rhythmic clack of the needles. I love the smell of a hand-knitted garment: a mammal combination of  lanolin and the scent of the knitter, her lotion, soap, skin–it’s the odor of life itself. And what a transformation to go from yarn to garment, to know someone had her fingers on every single stitch. All that with nothing more than a couple of sticks! I am in awe of my childhood friend and now knitting guru, Theresa, who colors her own fiber with natural dyes and spins it into beautiful yarns.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I was cleaning out a closet and found a long-forgotten impulse purchase from several years back of some yarn and a pair of needles (I think it was all a dollar at Target). On a whim, I pulled it out, found a YouTube video that showed me how to cast on and do a basic stitch, and I was off and knitting. I would make a scarf! And soon would come sweaters and hats and maybe even some cute mittens. Visions of urban homestead self-sufficient beauty danced in my head.

I took my project along to the mountains on Thanksgiving day and proudly showed my mother my progress. She politely stifled a guffaw (but then couldn’t contain a cackle when I dropped three stitches at once). She saw I was struggling with needles that were too small and gave me some larger ones. She told me my bouclé yarn was impossible, but it was what I had, and so I persisted.

"Knitting" my "Thing"

I posted an update to Facebook: “Allison is learning herself to knit.” The response was overwhelming–I had no idea knitters were such evangelists for their craft. I received all sorts of good and enthusiastic advice and encouragement, including from Theresa, who also told me to ditch the difficult yarn (I didn’t).

I kept at it obsessively. It was relaxing and meditative–that simple, repetitive motion, the gradual emergence of a . . . thing . . . as I worked. But then I noticed that somehow my “thing” was getting wider with every row. I was adding stitches, and I couldn’t figure out why. And then I saw the holes. My thing was Swiss cheese.

I took my thing home and unraveled it and started all over. Four times. I tried different yarn I had gotten from Mom. I couldn’t hold the needles with my clumsy right hand. I spent hours at it, lost sleep over it. Relaxing and meditative gave way to stressful and frustrating. Almost coming unraveled myself, I quit. Bagged the whole thing to give to Mom later on. On Facebook: “Allison is not a knitter.” Lots of consoling comments from the knitter friends.

My scarf-in-progress, plus a beautiful bag my mother knitted and felted.

And then. A few evenings back I passed the little knitting shop in Decatur, and I couldn’t help myself. I stopped in, and the next thing I knew I was leaving the store with a pair of #9 needles and some rich brown 50 percent wool/50 percent llama hair from Peru. That night I started all over–about five times, but then I was suddenly getting the hang of it. No more dropped or added stitches (the yarn really was the problem, but it was also the way I was holding it) and I now have about five inches of a scarf to go with the hat my mom made. It isn’t elegant or beautiful, even, and I’m slow and awkward, but the rows are (pretty much) the same size, and the holes are few and tiny–not terribly noticeable. And it’s relaxing and meditative again.

There may never sweaters or hats or mittens from my needles, but I feel like I’m in on a secret now. It’s the knowledge of a skill, the assuredness of competence. And that, I think, is part of the reward of the Southern Urban Homestead lifestyle–knowing how to do things, to make something of value (if not quite beauty) from so very little, to provide.

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Filed under Making things