A Dangerous Business

Sithean May 11 2019

“It’s a dangerous business, walking out one’s front door”

– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

If I could sum up in three words how I feel about the general state of our world right now, it’s the shift from ‘I don’t know’ to these words.

Very well, then.

To me, these are three words that speak volumes.  They are used when we’ve established the facts of the matter, and it’s time to stop ruminating, to make a plan.   Grieving for the people we are losing, and those that are hungry or in danger of losing their homes will go on, but now it’s time for us to lace up our boots and get to work figuring out our new normal.  Grieving time for our past world is coming to an end, more or less, and it’s time for us to get on with things.

It doesn’t make what we’ve lost less sad, just that there’s only so much dwelling, in both senses of the word, that we can do.

Covid-19 is not going away.  We are not going to hug or go to concerts or return to normal, mask-free life for a long time to come.  A vaccine is wildly optimistic at 12-18 months, so it’s likely we’re looking at years.  And while the curve is flattened in many cases, the virus has not agreed to negotiate, there’s no white flag raised.  A resurgence is almost inevitable, once we all leave our bubbles.

Like those who have been subjected to a prolonged bombardment, we are emerging to both sunshine and rubble, but emerging knowing it isn’t safe to do so yet.  Still, sunshine calls.

Very well then.

This is where we are.  If we cannot go back, we must learn to live with it.  And so now comes the endless decisions about what to do, and what not to do.  And how to do it to balance our need to do things (work, school, care for family members and so on) and safety

I find myself changed.  I miss restaurants and still have no desire to be at one.  I miss working with my team, but I don’t see traveling to see them for months yet, maybe even not this year.  Financially, we are battening down the hatches. We have hundreds of decisions to make, small and large ranging from whether to get a haircut – equal parts fear and oh please yes – to whether to postpone our long-planned house reno.  I’ll probably bite and get a haircut at some point, and we will push out the reno a year.   I will likely learn to cut the kids hair, at least for now.  Will we go on vacation?  Summer camps?  Can the kids see their friends and be safe?  I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.

I’m watching, waiting and talking to the adults around me about the plan.   As it formulates, I’ll share more.  Until then, I’ll stay here with my family, and my garden.   But always thinking about how and when to do what’s next.

Very well, then.  

 

Self-Sufficiency, or the Lack Thereof

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All of a sudden, spring finally arrived at Sithean.  The cold nights have gone away, the days hover near 70, everything is so very green, and the lilacs are finally starting to bloom, weeks late.  The asparagus bed is producing almost more than we can keep up with, meaning we’ll be making some well-received donations in the coming days.   The chickens get to roam most days, with leaf cover protecting them from hawks and it being time for them to do their job of bug-eating.

For us, as we see states reopening and infection rates and deaths continue to grow, we’re slowly formulating our plans.  It seems likely that I won’t be traveling for work until fall, at least, and our social schedule isn’t going to resume anytime soon.   Everyone is still working, at least right now, and I don’t see that changing either, thankfully.   The economy gets worse every week as well.

So budget and sustainability are top of mind, and we definitely are not alone in that.

On our rocky, tree covered acre and a quarter, complete self-sufficiency isn’t a likely option, even if we turned the entire front yard into food-producing crops or grazing land.  And for me, what that equals to is exhaustion and a zero-enjoyment life.   At least right now, radical food production isn’t on the table.  What is?

Taking the long view and making the investments a little at a time.   Investing in the things that we believe to be the most financially rewarding as well.  And re-looking at our budget for more radical cost-cutting.  I call it the ‘go easy’ method.

How does that work?  Every year, as time and budget allow, we add.  Sometimes it works out, sometimes not.  Baby fruit trees, even with protective cover, don’t always survive the winter.   Last winter we lost one of the apricots, the fig, and an old apple tree that finally died.  We put in 3 apple trees and 2 cold-hardy cherries this year, and we’re going to replace the fig and apricot next season.  One more older apple tree looks to be dying as well, and I want to add at least one more peach tree, as well as more asparagus crowns.  But that’s next spring.

Last fall, when gardening supplies went on sale, I bought 6 tomato cages, and I’ll get a few more gratis from my neighbor.  I have 2 metal cucumber trellises as well, and we’ll build some bean supports.  Other than the additional bricks we need to finish garden beds, and some compost and grass seed, our investment in the garden is complete for the year.

I have plenty of seeds, and other than onion seeds and a few other things, most seeds last more than one season, so I’ll need fewer next year.  I’m also, 4 gardening seasons in, starting to learn what works for us and what doesn’t in conjuction with our CSA, although I may have to rethink it a little, depending on how CSA pickup works this year.  And we have our Misfits Market box every couple weeks, but we’ll put that on hold most of the summer.   Our chickens are likely self-sustaining at this point, and at some point we’ll let them raise a batch of babies.  I don’t expect to have to buy any eggs for many years to come.   I think this year we’ll can enough salsa and pasta sauce to get us through the winter, along with pickles to give away.  And those fruit trees – we already get apples, and this year I’m going to manage to protect at least a few peaches from the squirrels.

We have infinity raspberries, and hopefully at least a few strawberries this year.  I don’t buy asparagus ever, because the stuff from the store is tasteless compared to the fresh-picked spears from my garden, so it’s become a seasonal thing, although hopefully we will have enough to freeze for a couple of winter meals.  In short, I don’t have everything planted, but we do continue to grow our repertoire so there may come a day in a couple years when buying fruit is a rare thing for us.

What I’ve learned over the years is if I try to do it all, we fail.  There’s simply not enough of us to go around.  So our planning involves a cadence of expenditures of both money and time.  We paint and patch around one room a year.  When we renovate, we’ll do a lot at once, but trying to do it all at once sends both our budget and our time completely off kilter.  We want to be as self-sufficient as possible, but we also recognize that our limited family time is precious.  Life is often about what you choose not to do as well as what you choose to.

Is this a lot of work still? Sure.  But these are investments, and in the long haul, they will pay off.  Instead of paying someone to cut the lawn, this year we spent $3600 on a really good lawn tractor and another $200 on a string trimmer and we will do it ourselves.  In 2 years, they will pay for themselves because we are no longer spending money on a service, and after that, it’s money in the bank.  So too is it with fruit trees and raspberries and seeds.

So self-sufficiency homesteading – is it in the cards?  In total, no.  But carefully chosen elimination of dependencies on the outside world is.

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The Sanity-Saving Magic of Planning Meals

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This morning I woke up to snow outside, and my relentlessly blooming Hibiscus gazing out the window, as though it was longing for summer, not unlike the rest of us.  It’s May already, and Mother’s Day is tomorrow.

Fortunately the snow dissapated quickly – by the time I sat down to eat around 11 am, it was gone and the sun was shining, but there’s a frost warning in place for tonight, which meant we needed to cover up our delicate baby fruit trees and flowering shrubs.   I brought in firewood and sent my wonderful husband to the hardware store to get something to cover the garden beds.   We spent about 45 minutes tacking plastic over the trench bed, the front garden, and the baby snap peas and lettuce in the gardens, as well as covering our fruit trees.  It wasn’t work I planned today, but I’m grateful if it keeps my gardens safe.

This past week found me overwhelmed a lot.  Between work, kids and life in general, plus the fact that my energy levels nearly 5 weeks after last feeling truly ‘sick’ are not back to normal.   I have the energy to walk in the mornings, but after work and dinner, I’m wiped during the week.  I needed a reset.  So on Friday after a couple of morning meetings, I called it, signed off for the day, and proceeded to spend some time doing non-work things like housecleaning and spending time with the family.  

This morning I woke up refreshed, and decided that I needed to better plan to get more control over my time and energy.  Key to that is a meal plan.

I made a menu through next Saturday.  I tried to focus on the things we have, but even then I needed some additions.  So then a grocery list, and even found a store with a pickup window for this morning.  I’ve been experimenting with delivery, as well as going to the store, and drive-up-and-they-put it-in-trunk style grocery acquisition, and I have to say I like that last one best.  I’ll still need to go in stores occasionally, but the combination of meat and vegetables delivered every few weeks plus a few trips out seems to be keeping us well-stocked.

And honestly, while I don’t want to over-buy and reduce what’s available to those that need it, making sure our pantry, refrigerator and freezer stay full is part of my plan now.   We are in uncharted territory from an economic and disease perspective, and I am behaving as though an abundance of caution in almost every aspect of our life is necessary.   We are in for a long road, and my eternal optimism is becoming tempered.  Food, we will spend money on.  The garden too – we planted 2 cherry and 2 apple trees this year, and Mulberry and Witch Hazel trees are both on the way.  Add to that my lemon tree, which I will work to keep alive during winters in the house, the existing fruit trees, chickens and the garden, and we start to become just a tiny bit more self-sufficient every year.

To our Walden Local Meat subscription, as well as Misfits Market, we now get bread flour on subscription too from One Mighty Mill.  Sustaining a more local food supply is necessary, even as we see more and more supply chain interruptions.  True, it can be expensive, but right now it’s an expense worth extending for.  For those of us who can afford to weather the storm right now,  local food and farmers are great places to put dollars.  I don’t like to indulge in fear-based thinking, but I also don’t think there’s a fast path out of this.  None of us will be unscathed at the end.

But if this is a long-haul situation, anything that gives a sense of control is good.  And to that end – the meal plan I mentioned.  It helps in myriad ways – I can do food prep early in the morning to ensure that food is ready at dinnertime, just as I am wrapping my work day, rather than stepping away from my desk and staring vacantly into the fridge, as if hoping that amongst the peppers and tofu is a tiny, chilly Oracle with an idea of what we should eat.  It means that we’re typically eating healthier, as from-scratch food is almost invariably healthier than packaged.  And it means we’re working our way through the vegetable drawer, which is critical to conserving dollars and preventing waste.

So what are we eating this week?

Tonight, a pot of chili, some popovers, and veggies.
Tomorrow my husband is in charge of food, with me trying to do as little cooking as possible
Monday through Wednesday it will be just Eli and I, so one night we will have fish with tumeric-roasted cauliflower, and another night sticky chicken meatballs and sauteed veggies with salad, and then a bbq chicken Cobb salad saved for whatever night is warmest
Thursday and Friday will be kid-friendly, with spaghetti and meatballs taking center stage one night, and homemade pizza another.  Either Friday or Saturday we’ll do our once-every-few-weeks takeout.  So far, Indian food is the greatest hit, but we also got all the ingredients to make Onion Pakoda, and we’ve mastered butter chicken and saag already so maybe we’ll opt to skip the taking out.

In a world where every choice we make is possibly deadly to our loved ones and to our wallets,  simplification is important, as is controlling what we can.

May you stay safe and healthy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the Love of Food

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The other night, my husband and I were alone and simultaneously not consumed by work taking up our attention 24/7 for the first time in weeks.  Spring is exploding all around us, even as the worldwide deaths climb to nearly 250,000, 65,000 in the United States alone.  Massachusetts is a hot spot, and we remain in lockdown until at least May 18, but perhaps longer.  As we hear the news around us, and continue to isolate from the people we love, we are trying to focus on the things we can control – working hard, taking care of the kids and the house and yard, tending our animals, each other.

And like so many others, our focus is often in the kitchen.

Since we were alone and wanted time together more than anything, I made Beef Burgundy in the instant pot, and we settled in to start watching Julie & Julia, a movie I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade and he hadn’t ever, and we realized something – Julia Child’s obsession with food was much like my own, and Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of Julia and Paul Childs reminded us of ourselves to an almost silly degree, only I’m not as tall or permed or talented as the amazing Julia was.

But the love of food, on that matter, there’s no question.    No matter what is going on, if I settle down to fresh eggs from our chickens or a delicious home-cooked meal, it invariably makes it better.

I love food, the process of making it, the magic of turning flour, water and yeast into the most delicious bread imaginable, the delight of mastering a new recipe, the joy of when someone says “More please!”.

Almost everything I do is surrounded by food.  Hence the regularity with which I exercise.  And also, while so many people around me focus their charitable dollars on medical research and other important things, for me, it’s making sure children and families eat.  All the places we can put our dollars matter, but for me, it’s the basics.

Without food, we cannot thrive.  Without food, our brains don’t develop or function correctly.  Food is a basic requirement of our survival, and so many lack it.  Food is literally right there with shelter, water and bathing.  It’s a basic building block for all of us.

Yesterday while talking to a neighbor I may never agree with politically, we both worried about famine as a result of our new reality.  Here.  Food is something we can all agree on –  we all need it.  In a polarized world, food may be a common ground we all can share.

It’s also why I’m endlessly driven to the garden, to find yet another local food source, to source from another local farm.  Because as much as I love the grocery store, and oh,  I do, I also know our food chain is fragile, dependent on shipping, low-paid workers, and the continuation of farms that we need but seem, as a society, not to value nearly enough.  For those of us who can, diverting our food dollars – even a few more than we usually spend, to local food makes a huge difference.  It ensures a safer food supply – Tyson doesn’t need your dollars, but these guys do.  Find someone near you at LocalHarvest.org.  So does Onemightymill.com, who grinds wheat in Lynn, MA, right down the road from me.  And WaldenLocalMeat.comhas been supplying our meet for 6 months now.  It’s honestly some of the best meat we’ve ever had.  That Beef Burgundy?  Made from there, with the produce mostly from our Misfits Market box.  I love my MisfitsMarket.com box – they rescue organic produce that the grocery stores think looks too imperfect to sell.  We use them in the winter now, while our CSA and garden aren’t producing.  While it isn’t as local as I would like, it’s preventing food waste, and they are trying to add SNAP to their list of ways to pay.  I like a company with morals like that.

We are about to enter the season where food is plentiful in the northern states.  Snap peas and lettuce are peeking out in the garden, and either today or tomorrow we’ll harvest the first asparagus.  We’ve been relentlessly planting fruit trees.  I’ve begun hardening off our seedlings on the porch, and dropping extras to friends.  We have several friends and acquaintances on our regular egg consumption list.  I cannot feed the world, but I can provide a dozen fresh eggs to a short list of people every couple weeks.  And help out our local food pantry.  And start extra seedlings.  For me, feeding people gives back.

I can cook for my family –  a physical demonstration of love for them.

Tonight, I stir fried ground beef with rice noodles, onions, broccoli and fresh chives from the garden, which are always amongst the first things to come up.

I added to that Connor’s fresh bread, and if anyone gets hungry later, we have leftover chocolate pistachio cake, dropped off as part of the Mom’s weekly baking program, and sliced strawberries.  Sometime this week I’ll take my parsnips, sweet potatoes and turnips and turn them into latkes.  I have several mangoes lying around, so I’ll make a simple mango salsa.  What are we going to put it on?  Who knows, maybe the latkes.

I haven’t thought that far ahead, but maybe we’ll grill some scallops in brushed with Chimichurri sauce.  As soon as there’s enough up, I’ll make Half Baked Harvest’s Sesame Roasted Asparagus with Whipped Feta.  I drool just thinking about it.

The love of good food and cooking is one of the best ways I can think of to cope with the loss of normal life.  Getting lost in the growing of it, and the creating of it is, to me, a reminder of the infinite blessings we have.

And if you want to feed those in need around you, here’s some ways.

 

 

 

 

In the Land of Suspended Animation

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It’s been a chilly, wet spring, with very occasional days of sunshine interspersed with mostly cold and rain, even snow far past the point of normalcy.

Normalcy.  I think up until mid-March, I could probably define what that is.  Now, I’m not sure.

Eventually, we humans normalize everything.  And so it is here, as we, along with so many others, have adjourned from most human contact.  We venture out very little, and when we do it is masked, gloves and with cleaning wipes in hand.  It’s nearly impossible to imagine that just 2 months ago we were sharing food with friends and socializing.

I’m accepting of our new normal, but I miss our family and friends.  And as I find my energy again I’m torn between loving some of this pause in the eternal busyness of my life, and wishing it would get back to normal for all of us.

Whatever normal is.

Despite that wish, there are so many joys in what I call the Land of Suspended Animation.  Finding a free weekend day for yard work is no longer a problem.  Feeling overbooked, or too busy other than my current work schedule is a nonissue.  Since even a trip to the grocery store is a fraught experience, and up until recently no one could go anyway because of quarantine, we’ve opted for delivery for the last month, saving us time and energy, if costing more in tips for the hardworking Instacart delivery folks, to whom I am profoundly grateful.

Eventually we’ll have to venture out, but not yet.

Despite the odd pause that much of humanity is taking, Mother Nature is not.  The world continues to bloom around me, despite the ongoing chill.  The birds begin to sing in advance of dawn every morning.  While the heat is still on inside, outside is becoming a riot of color.  Myrtle is blooming everywhere, with tiny purple flowers among the deep green leaves,  and naturalized daffodils and violas spring up in the strangest places. I check daily in the hopes of one tiny stalk peeking up, the harbinger of Asparagus season kicking off.  And yesterday, there it was.  It will be a few days before we can harvest, but there’s nothing like it to tell me that the world is moving on whether humanity is or not.

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Spring is my best reminder of how many lifetimes Sithean has seen.  The asparagus was planted over 60 years ago, the peach trees are older than that,  It’s almost impossible to know how long the trench bed has been there.  It may have been part of the original gardens back in 1850, long before the house moved to it’s current location, about 200 yards from where it was built.  It gives me perspective on our relative impermanence here in the world, and how humanity is just a component.

This is just a moment.

My seedlings are getting big, and I transplant them to larger pots and containers at every opportunity.  The tulip bulbs Eli and I planted last fall are starting to come up, including the checkered tulips, or Fritillaria meleagris that my neighbor and I were enchanted by during an outing for her birthday last year that bloom with their heads hanging down.  I searched for until I found some for both of us, and we planted them last fall.  “They’re up!” captioned a delighted picture from her a few days ago, so I went hunting for mine in the rain.    I think I’ll add some more this year.   It’s hard for Eli and I to get excited about digging into the rocky soil here in the chill of fall, but it’s worth it as each spring more and more flowers bloom because of it.

But despite all the movement and growth, here we sit.  For as long as it takes, without having any idea of how long it will take, like hedgehogs in a perpetual winter hibernation or caterpillars in their chrysalis  .  Unlike hedgehogs though, our heart rates are fast, and anxiety is often high.  Still, we have adjusted to the confines of our smaller world.  I remind myself always to enjoy these moments, for they too, shall pass.

We cook.  We talk.  We work.  What comes next I don’t know and there’s much I can’t control.  But the garden will still grow and the flowers will still bloom, and for that I am grateful.  This place is our stability from the storm, which may last far longer than all of us hope for.  There’s so much I miss, but I find myself so grateful for this place and my family with me.   We are tethered to this tiny piece of earth and one another, and it fills me with hope, always.

I wish the same for you.

 

 

Springtime Chill

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Despite the fact that we woke up to snow Saturday morning (which was then sleet and finally rain), the sun came back the next day, just in time for springtime preparations here on the farmlet.  Sunday we spent a good chunk of our morning in the yard, cleaning up leaves and debris, planting some snap peas, and a few other projects that have been lingering.

Like every year,   there’s good news and bad news.  Only one of the two baby apricot trees made it through the winter.  The fig tree didn’t survive either, but we have 2 new apple trees and a couple cold hardy cherry trees as well, and a mulberry tree on the way.  On the good news front the Seckel Pear tree seems to be budding, all the bulbs Eli and I planted last fall are coming up, and my hibiscus trees, bought on discount last year as I went to order wedding flowers, thrived in the dining room over the winter.   Which has indicated that perhaps I can also keep citrus trees that way, so I ordered a Meyer Lemon tree in a mad rush of optimism.

I’m technically done with quarantine, but taking it very slowly as I re-enter the world, and of course we’re doing that as little as possible.  I’m still exhausted a good chunk of the time, weeks later.  Still, I and my family got lucky to be minimally impacted, and I’m grateful.

While I had to pace myself, gardening and yard work is somewhat meditative for me, and I find it more relaxing than tiring, even though I could clean up the yard for months without stopping and there would still be more to do.

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Still, after 2 wheel barrels full of leaves and debris, and some snap peas in the ground, it was time to take a break.  Alice the chicken apparently thought so too.

Monday was back to chilly and grey, and I got up early to go for a walk and get dinner into the Crockpot.  This time of year, when it’s warming up but all too slowly, it’s the perfect time for a Crockpot meal.

I took a 3-lb pot roast and sprinkled it with salt, and pepper and then pan-seared it, before putting it into the crock.  Using the same pan, I added more olive oil, chopped a couple onions, 4 cloves of garlic and a carrot, and sauteed them until soft.

Then I took a large can of crushed tomatoes, a cup of red wine (cooking wine works just fine here) a teaspoon each of Allspice and Cinnamon, and a half a teaspoon of ground cloves, plus some salt and pepper, let that cook for a few minutes to meld flavors, and then poured it over the roast in the Crockpot and let it cook for 8 hours.

The kitchen smelled amazing – the combination of tomato and red wine with spices more frequently used for baking is not to be missed.

I served it over cauliflower mash, and honestly, it was just the thing to start the week off.  Today is due to be warmer and there’s plenty of pot roast leftovers, plus some chicken soup with rice to finish off as well.

I hope you and yours are staying safe.

 

 

Breadmaking in a Time of Pandemic

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It seems like everyone has re-discovered their kitchen these days.  With lots of time at home and a need to limit contact with others, cooking and baking are on the rise.  Here’s some simple things you can make in quarantine, with things you probably already have in the kitchen.

I’ll talk more about my own experience with C19 later.   Let’s just leave it for now, as I still waffle between bursts of energy and profound exhaustion.  Still,  I finally found myself back in the kitchen, profoundly grateful to be able to be where I was.  While I recognized that my relative youth and good health were in my favor during my comparatively mild experience, there’s nothing like a bout with a virus that has killed over 100,000 people in a couple short months to give you a reality check.

I felt nothing but blessed to be back amongst my cookbooks and cooks tools.  And given the challenge that finding flour is, I was deeply glad I buy mine in bulk.  We had the better part of 20 pounds of organic white flour (I buy 30 lbs at a time) lying around, plus a few variations.  Still, if you need some, I highly recommend One Mighty Mill, right down the road.

Connor and I, who have been reading the Little House books,  with the intent to make everything in the Little House Cookbook as a result (He hasn’t been into homeschooling.  Food, he’s into, so I decided it was better if Mohammed goes to the mountain, so to speak) dove in to his first recipe of homemade bread.  In this case we veered off of the Little House so for something simple that might pique his interest, and it did, and then some.  On and off for well over a decade I’ve been making the recipe from Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day, and it’s a great starter recipe for anyone who hasn’t got tons of experience with baking.   Years ago, Kiera titled it ‘Mommy Bread’ but now it’s officially ‘Connor Bread’.  His pride in his breadmaking skills is profound.

I veer off the recipe link in a few ways.  One, we add different flours.  Typically about 1 cup of the 6.5 cups in the recipe are a combination of whole wheat, buckwheat and oat flour.  This is healthier and richer than plain white bread.  The other is that I use a regular old baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal to prevent the bread from sticking.

We ate it with Rosemary Ranch Chicken, salad, couscous and another so-easy-anyone-can-do-it recipe, pickled onions.  Pickled onions have been something of a trend in the last couple of years, but they are very easy.  All you need is cider vinegar, sugar, salt an onion and some time.

You will need:

1 red onion, sliced thin (you can use white too, but you won’t get the awesome pink color)
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Mix vinegar, salt and sugar until the sugar is dissolved.  Add onion slices.  Let sit for a couple hours, until soft, periodically stirring.  Eat.

Today, we’re going to prepare for Easter by making birdseed eggs for our bird feeders.  These are a great project for kids too, and super easy to do.  A bit messy, but that’s not bad, if you can take the mixture outside, all the better.  Birds can then help you clean up the mess.

Keep safe all.