Saturday, July 5, 2008

Life and death on the farm

According to Vegetarian Times, 3.2 percent of Americans are vegetarians (about 7.3 million people). For many of these people, being a vegetarian is a moral choice. People who have a very visual mind and were raised on pixar films often can't stand the idea of killing an intelligent, emotional creature for their own consumption. Others take vegetarianism as a matter of health, and a select few just can't stand the stuff. I was a vegetarian for about six years, but largely for practical reasons. I couldn't abide the fact that we've cleared 260 million acres, lost 64% of our top soil, and loose approximately 1,000 species a year; all for hormone-ridden, two year old, bad tasting meat that might give us cancer. In my mind the deal seemed, oh, a little peculiar.

That said I still had a little trouble when my boss told me that, at some point, we'd need to bump off the white ducks.

We had five ducks. Three of these were big and white. Two of these white ones picked on the other three pretty thogoughly. For those of you out there who aren't familiar with duck society, monogamy is relegated largely to the mallards. What we would consider rape is a common thing for the ducks big enough to bully the others around. The third white duck had gotten a gimp leg from the constant attacks and I'd named him Gimpy.

For a few months I'd been staring at the two bullies. They'd gotten the vibe and whenever I came around they herded the other ducks away from me. If I got too close, the big one would run. I looked at the featherless, bruised heads of the other ducks and the bullies' full plumage thinking, 'your days are numbered.' Still, when the day came to get rid of the ducks, I was glad that I only had the job of butchering them.

It wasn't pretty. By that point Gimpy had become Super Gimp and the two bullies were pretty paranoid. They ran for the far end of the farm when they got out of the pen in every morning. Gimpy could hardly keep up. Finally we had a quiet afternoon and got sent out to take care of the ducks. My co-worker (an over-zealous Marine soon-to-be) had the job of beating them in the head with a baseball bat until dead.

Like I said, it wasn't pretty. After it was done and we had to start cutting them up somethign strange happen. Seeing the two bullies and the gimp duck they'd picked on lying next to one another in a line, I couldn't tell who was who. They'd had good enough lives for ducks, done no significant top soil damage and harbored no carcinogens. Death had forgiven whatever morals or ailments imposed upon them. It wasn't something I was happy to be doing, but more than anything it felt like a part of being a member of the animal kingdom.

Vegetarianism is a responsible choice, considering the statistics (, but eating a local and sustainable diet does include meat. It includes much less meat than a 99c double cheese burger meal, but arguably you get a lot more with it. Very few people enjoy the act of taking life (from anything) and I think that's a good thing. It's natural for us to value life, and if each person had to kill what they ate then I doubt very much that America would be meat over-eaters.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Oats, Peas, Beans, (but no barley yet) grow...

Hurrah! We found Maine-grown oats at Royal River Natural Food in Freeport, Maine! I used them to make breakfast cookies, which get eaten pretty quickly! We also found sheep's milk yogurt sweetened with maine maple syrup -- it was fantastic and the milk didn't give me a belly ache! We visited Cold River Vodka Company next door, who uses Maine grown potatoes and water in their vodka. It was really fun to be able to tour the distillery, where they use copper in the distillation process which makes the vodka quite smooth.

It's funny -- people always assume that because we're eating locally, we must not be eating well -- but I feel like we've been eating in a pretty gourmet fashion every night!

We've also had an adventure at Browne Trading Company on Commercial Street here in Portland. We bought haddock (amazing!) and wine from Winterport Wineries -- Strawberry Apple. Divine.

Saturday at the farmer's market I bought salsa! (which didn't last for very long!), carrots! (you can eat the tops, too!), and escarole! (oh, how nice that in soup with local beans will be!)!!!. Ha.

That night, Andrew called and said he had...STRAWBERRIES from Dole's to make jam! We had bought canning jars and Andrew got the pectin and sugar. There was a recipe that came with the pectin that required no lemon. We hulled, mashed (with both hands and a food processor), boiled, and added sugar to the strawberries. Then we put them into the sterilized jars! We get to taste it tonight, although we might just eat it all out of the jar. I've always wanted to make jam, so I felt quite happy and accomplished afterwards!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

More colors on our plates!

Last Wednesday I was lucky enough to have the day off -- the Children's Museum gives a free vacation day the week of all employees' birthdays! I woke up to a cloudy damp day and headed first thing to the farmer's market. It was pretty exciting to see lots of new food -- and the farmers are excited as well! I tasted Apple Salsa, Apple Sauce, and Apple Butter made by Pastor Chuck Orchards. The apple salsa was intensely wonderful and Pastor Chuck himself told me that it was something new he is offering this year (you can't even buy it on the website yet!).

I also found someone who was selling sheep's milk yogurt -- flavored with Maine maple syrup! I didn't purchase any then because I wanted to research the lactose content in sheep's milk. Supposedly, although sheep's milk does have lactose, it's a different chemical make up than that from cow's milk. Also, sheep are smaller animals so their protein strand size in their milk is shorter, making it even easier to digest for creatures smaller than cows. So next time I'll have to try it!

Other new items at the market were brocolli and cauliflower -- the brocolli was such a deep green that the florets were almost purple. They've been a wonderful addition to my lunch salads. Rainbow Chard was also something I purchased, although I admit I haven't used it yet. I've honestly never had it, so I did some research. It's a member of the beet famliy, and supposedly has a spinach-y flavor. The leaves can be prepared like spinach and the stalks like asparagus. Although called Swiss, the first varieties of chard have been traced back to Sicily. So I"m gonna have to do something with this!

I also bought more rhubarb, because more rhubard is always necessary.

Andrew has started to bring back strawberries from his farm (Dole's Orchard!). They are the most intense flavor in a small package that I've ever tasted. We're looking into this freezer method of making preserves and jellies, so hopefully soon our freezer will be full of strawberry jam!

I also found this cool link: Mango Power Girl. She lives in Seattle, and is all about good, local and ethnic food!.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Rainy Days

When I woke up this morning at 5:45 to get going the first thing I did was look up. It was overcast. The clouds had that homogeneous gray tone which sends one, immediate message: we're sticking around a while. I called my boss and he told me to come in anyway, but the day wound up being a short one. By around noon a steady drizzle had begun and the pick-your-own strawberries had yet another half-day to ripen without disruption from foraging jamemrs, munchers and pie-makers. They closed up early. Despite needing the rain, the first two days of the season (and possibly the rest of the week) is a wash-out.

The weather isn't something that affects most people these days. Working in-doors, one can brave the densest of downpours, the most savage of blizzards and the most sweltering heatwave to find a box of climate-controlled stability. Conversely, a day of rain on the farm means that not much gets done. For this reason, the farmer's focus on the weather was often cited as somewhere near the level of paranoia.

To the end of controlling the effect the weather has on crops (and the farmer's poor, tired mind) books like the Farmer's Almanac were compiled. Amongst an array of other divination tools, this handy book has been predicting weather patterns in America since 1818. Things followed certain cycles; patterns of change that allowed farmers to plan around a probable norm. Disasters happened, floods came and went but things were stable enough to keep a majority gain.

This probable norm has, however, changed. Whether or not you believe in global warming or climate change, there's no arguing with my boss. "This year has been weird." Not two inches of rain for the first few months of growing season. Irrigation running every day. Now, just as the season starts, we get overcast skies with continuous showers. There may not be a Zeus up there mocking the burgeoning fields, but the emerging pattern certainly isn't a productive one.

Anyway, the point is this: thinking locally is a circular sort of logic. Something as simple as cutting back on gas mileage can help a local farmer. How? Well, the irrigation pumps don't run themselves. They run on gas. Prices are skyrocketing and so is food. Most spray pesticides, fungicides and herbicides (even organic ones) have oil in them--a highly refined oil that's very expensive. That oil has helped to tripled in price of sprays in the past two years. Lastly, by cutting back on mileage you can help reduce the peculiar weather patterns witnessed in recent years. At least that's the hope.

So, at the very least, save a few dollars and avoid the car. When you trade in that SUV or even the modest sedan, consider something that gets those extra miles to the gallon. Weather predictability might not be coming back anytime soon, but every little effort can help to balance things out.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The season is almost here!

Things at work have been getting busy. Busy and hot. It was 85 today with some high humidity. We bring bottles of water with us while weeding or picking flowers in the strawberry fields, but there is a new bonus on the horizon. If I look carefully beneath the low leaves of the strawberry plants, every twenty feet or so, I'll find a delicious and mostly ripe strawberry. It'll be a week before the bulk of the crop is out but it's just in time for the hot weather. A little packet of sugar, flavor and water waiting beneath every leaf! Those will be shortly followed by blueberries then raspberries and finally apples in the early and late fall.

Unfortunately, despite the heat, today I couldn't eat any of the berries. My boss had sprayed and while the spray isn't particularly harmful to mammals, it's not something I'm interested in ingesting. This led me to examine the moral conflict most people consider (who consider food morals) between Local and Organic.

Growing fruit in Maine is like playing a trick on nature. One grows the babies in southern states or hot-houses around January. The plant, lacking our keen senses, thinks it's California (where most of this would flourish on its own). Then one stick them in fertile Maine soil when the weather gets good. Shortly after that the plant meets the neighbors. Plum curculio, clipper, and a host of other insects along with numerous fungi and diseases stop in and punch the smiling new-comer straight in the bud. Outch. What's to be done but launch a full-scale biological attack on all native species?

Well, to combat critters and disease there are a number of organic sprays and methods. However, for fruit, they are highly inefficient. For example, to prevent apple-scab the apples must be sprayed with sulfur after every sprinkle, shower or thunder storm. The amount of diesel this eats up makes up for any savings on the environment. Secondly, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are applied (in smaller farms where people are actually paying attention) in quantities small enough to get the job done, but no bigger. Trust me; this stuff is expensive as hell. No small farm wants to waste it. Thirdly, most things only need to be applied once. If you use something at the exact right time, that's all it should take.

Ironically, also, two of the worst sprays are used not for any pest or disease. They're used for customers alone. People demand perfect looking fruit and two common fungi cause blemishes that are entirely superficial (don't damage flavor or fruit). They change the apples color or leave little marks on the skin. Without these pesticides, though, farmers wouldn't be able to sell their goods.

So, despite not being able to eat strawberries for a day, I understand. Go local and organic if you can, but also trust the small farm. These folks want to spend money and time on pesticides even less than you do.

Rhubarb and Sunchokes and Jacob's Cattle Beans

So I've been trying some new Maine things!
After soaking Jacob's Cattle Beans in the fridge for 24 hours, they cooked up in about 25 minutes and were quite tasty with dinner last night. It's cool that a vegetarian form of protein is local to Maine. We purchased two other kinds at Whole Foods, so we'll have to sample and see which ones we like best. My cousin's wife mentioned to me that they know of a tofu maker, and I'm curious as to if it would work with other beans besides soy beans. hm....

Also, I finally did something with the rhubarb! I've only had it once before in a pie with strawberries. I tasted it raw, which was curious. Celery-like in texture, but both sweet and sour. I cut it into 1 inch long pieces and put it in the microwave with a bit of tea (I thought i'd be creative, and I had some black tea with me at the time) and a teaspoon of brown sugar for 4 minutes -- holy moly! It tenderizes that way and absorbs the sugar. It reminds me of a really really good apple. While I was boiling my local eggs, I threw in a peeled Jerusalem artichoke/Sunchoke that was locally grown. It's like a potato, but sweeter. They last for a month in the fridge, according to my Vegetable Love Cookbook, so that will be great for buying in bulk. I'm not a big fan of the potato, but this was a bit more unique. Also, according to wikipedia, in the Baden-W├╝rttemberg, Germany, over 90 percent of the Jerusalem artichoke root is used to produce a spirit called "Topinambur“, "Topi“ or „Rossler“. Quite curious.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Great links, great mussels

Eden Vegetarian Restaurant
Yeay for places that suppot local farmers!

Sea Coast Local A blog where you can discover information about eating locally. All entries are categorized by topic.

Informaiton about why it's awesome to eat locally

Wineries in Maine

Upper Valley (NH & VT) Localvores

Last night we made mussels! We just steamed them in water. We served them over spinach, tomatoes, and radishes.
This morning we went to the farmer's market in Deering Oaks park. There was still a fog over the city, making the air slightly damp and filled with the scent of the ocean. We saw our friend Matt (former Coffee By Design barista) who is working for a farm that will be selling mainly sunflowers. It's pretty inspiring to see so many people in their 20's working on farms and being apprentices to learn how to support themselves and the community. There were so many tomato plants there too! Varieties I've never heard of in all sorts of shapes and sizes. We found 2 plants that we will use for making sauce in August. Ah, how I love tomato sauce!
We also found radishes in a variety of colors, spinach, and sweet muselin greens.