Sunday, March 25, 2012

locavore in spring: a tale of sweet potato stew

None of these backyard pictures is of food.  But that's part of the point.

March 21st :  the first day of spring.  I sort of missed it, but I imagine it’s OK to write about it anyway.  Since the change of seasons always means a change in food around here, I have a little story: a story of sweet potato stew. 

About a month ago, I cooked a stew for dinner.  It included organic CSA sweet potatoes that I stored in a box for winter, onions and garlic from my winter CSA, farmer’s market ginger that I sliced and preserved in sherry months ago, farmer’s market corn that I blanched and froze in August, tomatoes that I canned in September, thyme that I grew and dried for winter, and finally, homemade chicken stock that I made and froze when local chickens were plentiful last fall. 

This collection of ingredients, compiled over time, from so many different, but local, sources, gives a new meaning to the term hunter-gatherer, don’t you think?  We hunt out the farmer instead of the beast, we gather the food from the markets and backyard gardens instead of the forest.  We can it, dry it, cherish it.  Eventually, we get around to eating it.   

Lest you think me too much of a purist, my stew included canned coconut milk from god knows where, and a lime, yes, a lime—a bold foreigner introduced to a surprised and suspicious pot of pale and sweet Virginia spuds.  No xenophobic potatoes, here, however.  The intrusions ultimately integrated nicely, adding a bit of exotic flair to the otherwise local fare. 

Despite all of these different components, I think it only took 15 minutes to put that stew together.  The larger elements of its preparation simply came out of the fabric of our lives.  In the end, I made it because I had the ingredients, rather than the other way around. 

My satisfaction in this kind of meal is deep, even visceral.  We enjoyed our dinner, and slept soundly, filled to brimming with winter’s bounty.  So you will appreciate my dismay when "tragedy" struck.  Steve woke me the next morning and said, “I have some bad news.”  Of course, my thoughts went straight to the kids, but Steve’s tone was apologetic, not panicked.  You don’t wake your spouse and calmly announce, “I have some bad news," then follow with,  "your daughter is missing from her bed.”  So I prepared for something more along the lines of a leaky roof, or the dog threw up on the computer. 

What I got was: “We left the soup out all night.”  He said it like there’d been a death. 

Oh no.  Not the soup.  The roof is fine?

We had to decide, can you eat chicken broth after it sits out all night? 

When making these decisions, I have to weigh in somewhere between my food-safety-friend Kenny who will advise on the disposal of any food left unrefrigerated for more than an hour, and my husband, who will eat lunch meat of unknown origin out of the fridge as long as it “looks alright.”    

We knew what we had to do,  but I couldn't face it, so I left to take Olivia to school.  The pot sat reproachfully on the counter, a forlorn ladle still resting against its side.  Like the day I got rid of our dear old dog’s bed while the kids were at school, Steve kindly removed all evidence of the ruined stew while I was away. 

This stew, with its collection of labors, its compilation of anticipations, it’s flavor, its goodness, even its loss and my, should I say, grief? illustrates our relationship to food: as both sustenance and spirit.  A way of being that somehow also enhances the meaning of our being in the first place.    

If anything, the feast and famine of eating seasonally lays bare that winter food is precious. Growing, collecting, storing, preserving and stewing, makes you intimate with what you're eating.  It makes you love your food.  At this time of year, we feel that love most keenly. 

I used to regard March 21st as a blazing green light for everything spring in the produce aisle.  Eventually, as I began to buy more and more of my vegetables locally, I discovered that the start of spring isn’t necessarily the day spring vegetables become available.  It’s more like the day they begin to grow. 

Consequently, this week didn’t find anything new on our plates.  I admit that the asparagus, lined up like crisply ironed soldiers at Trader Joe’s, sorely tempted me.  I considered bringing some home for Steve’s birthday dinner on Friday.  But the stems felt weak.  The label said Mexico.  Is that any way to celebrate a birthday?  Not really. 

Whatever the sacrifices of winter, I am grateful for our way of eating.  If I was feeling any doubt, the news in recent weeks of something called pink slime in big food’s ground beef provided yet another justification for my convictions.  I posted about it at Opinionista! if you’re interested in reading more. 

So, it is without regret that we'll eat stewed black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes and all manner of tomato-based pasta sauces a while longer, but I can tell you, with the flowers blooming in the yard, and the cans of tomatoes, salsa and peaches running low, we have begun to daydream, if not a bit desperately, about what might be unfurling in the fields down the road.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

no poo part two

Who knew.  Who knew we didn’t need shampoo? 

I discovered the “no poo” movement about a month ago, when I posted Olivia’s complaint that our environmentally friendly shampoo wasn’t cool enough for her green-sparkly-coconut-‘poo toting friends at the pool.  Searching the internet for a cooler ‘poo, I stumbled upon “no ‘poo.”

Many years ago, I had a chronic chapped lip problem.  No matter how careful I was to keep my poor dried and cracked lips protected, they didn’t improve.  I blamed the sun, the wind, the cold, my thyroid, my diet, whatever.  Then one day a friend blamed my Chapstick.  “Don’t put that crap on your lips!” she said diplomatically.  Really?  "Use Trader Joe’s or Burt’s Bees," she added.  I obdiently switched, and wouldn't you know, problem solved in a matter of weeks.  How infuriating!

The first rule of marketing is supposed to be:  make people think they need your product.  It’s not supposed to be: sell a product that will make people need your product.  That’s what happened with my lip balm. It provided temporary relief, but the more I used it, the more I needed that relief. Many hand lotions do this too, drying out your skin with alcohol, causing you to need more lotion in the long term.

I already had concerns about the harsh ingredients and plastic containers associated with shampoo, but I considered it a necessary evil.  Now I’m finding out it’s like lip balm with bubbles?  Since shampoo strips your hair of its natural oils, your head responds to shampoo by stepping up the oil production, making your hair greasier, causing you to shampoo more frequently. 

Take it out.  Put it back.  Take it out.  Put it back.  Everyday.   

Meanwhile, your scalp's on overdrive and you're buying shampoo like it's bread or eggs.  What a dirty little game!  Annoyed, I decided to break the cycle and see what happened. 

There’s no sense in the blind leading the blind, so I’ll tell you straight up, if you want some decent directions about how to proceed with no ‘poo, check out  Musings of a Kitchen Witch, or Simple Mom.  If you want still more directions and some interesting history about ‘poo in the Victorian era, check out Great Grandmother’s Kitchen.  If you want to hear some bumbling tales of trial and error, don't go anywhere at all.

To restore balance, and to give my poor confused scalp a rest, I resolved to start by washing with warm water only.  I admit, I didn’t see the point of using the baking soda.  I imagined it to be a sort of token cleaner, like chicken soup for a cold (useful, but no silver bullet). 

The first day was sort of ok.  The second day was sort of not ok.  The third day, my hair felt thick and weird.  By the fourth day…you know that expression “mop of hair?”  Yeah.  Somebody was looking into the crystal ball of my future when they came up with that one.  Only make it a heavy, dirty, straggly mop.  Probably smelly too.  Thank god it was the weekend.  I looked like I’d just walked out of a swamp.

Then I thought sort of moronically, “maybe I should try the baking soda after all…” 

So I mixed a tablespoon of baking soda with a cup of warm water and dumped it hopefully over my head. 

Magic.  I could tell instantly that my hair was clean.  Not token clean, or kinda clean.  Really clean.  In fact, so clean I only used it every other day.  Problem solved!  But then my hair, which is thin and fine, quickly became dry.  Not only that, it filled with static.  Lots of it. Like you'd stuck my head on the end of your pencil and spun it around kind of static.   Seriously.

Enter:  vinegar.  Vinegar smells, but only when your hair's wet.  Also, you can steep herbs in it for a nicer aroma (can you plunge a coconut in there? Olivia would be thrilled!).  I perused my spices with interest: What to smell like today?  Rosemary? Maybe some lemon basil would be nice.  Then I wondered, what did I have for dinner last night? Do I smell like curry?  Can you use lemon basil after eating curry? 

I took a culinary risk and went with the basil.  However, I didn’t have a fine enough strainer, so the pieces slipped right through.  When I held my “strained” vinegar up to the light, bits of green swirled all around.  Hm.

I figured, between the swamp head, the grease, the baking soda, the static, what were a bunch of basil leaves?  So I stood in the shower, feeling a little bit like an Easter egg, and dumped the lot of it over my head.  I guess I'm giving new meaning to the term "flower child."

But it worked! My hair came out smooth and silky—even if I was picking basil out of it all day.

That was several weeks ago, and despite my less than graceful beginning, I’m finally in a routine. My hair feels thicker, needs less styling and less “product” (as the beauty aficionados say).  I wash it every other day (never could get away with that before), and it’s clean. The patches of dry skin I used to have above my ears (sorry, yuck) have cleared up.  It’s been a month and a half and I’d say I’m off shampoo for good. 

But here’s the really exciting thing.  I didn’t even try to persuade Olivia, and the unintended reverse psychology of that worked wonders.  Under no pressure, she got curious, called me “so weird,” then promptly converted herself.  As for her friends at the pool, it turns out no ‘poo is cooler than nerdy ‘poo any day.  Again, who knew?

I’ve yet to convert the men in the house.  They don’t know it yet, but that’ll happen as soon as that obscene bottle of Head and Shoulders they have towering in the shower runs out.  They hardly have any hair so the transition should be uneventful.  I hope so anyway, because “no poo part three” doesn’t have much of a ring to it at all. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

in like a lion?

Spring has nearly arrived.  But this year, unlike any other, I am not hungry for it.

My fuzziest socks lay unworn in the drawer, my store of tea remains undamaged by the season’s demand, my extra blanket rests lonely in the closet.   Because this year in Virginia, we saw no real snow, endured no cleansing cold. 

We didn’t hunker. 

We can think of winter as biting, painful, lonely.  But I think we also benefit from the paring down that winter asks – the trees naked, the ground sparse.  This freezing near-death of things creates a barrenness and sterility, an emptiness in our surroundings that makes way for a certain clarity of mind and spirit.  Without the clutter of outside, we turn inward. 

It’s a relief. 

And then, as with all cycles, we get tired of that.  We deplete our stores of spirit just as we deplete our stores of food.  We come to spring emptied and scoured by the cold. 


March is supposed to be the month of transformation: in like a lion, out like a lamb after all.   In this month, we dare to let ourselves dream of spring.  We wait desperate for the sunlight that will fill us up so that we feel warmed from the inside out, instead of from the outside in. 

Except this year, the lion never showed. 

I understand that we can’t measure the degree of climate change through the sporadic weather patterns of a particular day (or season) in any given region.  I also understand, however, that the place of my home in Virginia has enjoyed a documented period of cool in recent years, despite the fact that average global temperatures have risen steadily.  Until last summer, we had been largely spared the kinds of weather we can expect from a warming climate. 

So, I wonder, is this our new “winter?” Anemic. Ambiguous. Thawed? 

It’s 70 degrees right now.  By all accounts, a rare and gorgeous day.  An April day.  A May day.  I’m sitting writing this on my deck.  The birds, reunited at last, sing a welcome to old friends in the treetops; the dog, sleeping at my side, communes with her old friend, the patch of sunlight by my chair; the daffodils and crocuses we have tried for a month to coax back into their winter fortresses, have arrived early to the party, unable to contain themselves a second longer. 

Of course I’m enjoying this day, but it lacks the usual euphoria of spring.  I don’t feel transformed.  The rhythm of the season has skipped a beat, (I suppose the lion went the way of the drummer), leaving my own clock out of wack. 

This all came home to me the other day when reading a blog I really enjoy called "the spirit of the river." The author’s post, “in like a lion” shows a picture of a snowy yard and includes a poem that aches for spring called “March” by David Budbill.  It’s about how we anticipate spring before it has a chance to arrive. 

The poem, however, doesn’t work for me this year, when spring’s reality has robbed us of anticipation, preceding the dream of itself.  And it occurs to me, will the poems of winter, whether lamenting the hard, cold dark outside, or celebrating the soft warm light inside, begin to ring false?  Will winter’s words become relics of nostalgia for a season lost?  

Of all the things I thought might change with the climate, I hadn’t considered that we’d need new poetry.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

ode to 14 year olds

To be honest, I could post a charming anecdote about teenaged boys everyday.  They give us so much fodder: they’re selfish, they mumble like Neanderthals, they eat you out of house and home (or alternatively, and more charmingly, they tell you that dinner is disgusting and refuse to eat it at all), they’re big, they smell. 

But I have a confession to make.  Even though it’s all true, and it’s all really hard, I think teenagers are pretty cool.

For those of you younger mothers who might be dreading the transformation of darling to delinquent in the coming teen years, here are some rare but positive words about 14 year old boys:

They’ve grown.  Big enough to need the space of a man, but child enough to pile on top of each other shamelessly: in our van where half the JV soccer team will cram themselves like sardines in a can for a ride to practice; on the floor of our small TV room where six of them will sleep squeezed and tangled like puppies in a crate; on the couch, shoulder to shoulder so they can all see the Xbox.

They’re polite.  Well, the ones that don’t belong to me, anyway.  Visiting teens shower us with thank you, thank you, thank you.  They hold back at meals, waiting like bashful little boys to be invited for seconds when really they want to devour everything in sight.  

They sing.  With their head phones on. You can’t hear the music and you can’t recognize the song. It's terrible and endearing.

They sing some more.  Standing in front of the Xbox with friends cranking YouTube. With abandon and altogether.  With embarrassment and without.

They dance.  When you’re not looking and sometimes even when you are.  Like rappers and goof balls and super stars. 

They laugh.  With newly deep voices that rise an octave and crack when something’s really funny. 

They apologize.  Quietly, late at night, and with remorse.

They love.  In the evening, if you hold very still and make no sudden movements, they will lay their head on your lap and sigh.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

in defense of cloth: the paper towel post

I kicked my paper towel addiction around 10 years ago. 

Determined to get that disposable monkey off my back, I went cold turkey, emptying the house of every offending roll.  After all, no one quits drinking with a stocked mini fridge on hand, do they?  It was no big deal, really: I just slapped on a paper-towel-patch, endured some rehabilitative counseling in which I talked a lot about my unhealthy preoccupation with dual-ply super absorbency, and dabbled in hypnosis, where I explored childhood memories of my parents’ paper towel abuse. 

Now, I’m a woman of the cloth.  Through and through.

As with any addiction, my recovery has affected my social life—where my paper towel using guests feel threatened by my abstinence, and worse, usually expect to use when they come to my house for dinner parties.

When I offer visitors a cloth napkin, they often object, “I can’t use that!”

Don’t waste that on me!
I’ll ruin it!
Oh, That’s too much trouble.
You’ll have to wash it!

Two themes of resistance prevail. The first: cloth is too luxurious.  Second:  the energy expended on laundry outweighs the energy saved. 

In the matter of luxury, scan a list of ways to be green and you’ll come across a lot of stuff you’re supposed to give up, like electricity and your car.  Why object to this one little environmental gesture that asks you to spoil yourself?  Go ahead, bury yourself in the luxury of cotton!

As for the laundry:  I know what you’re thinking:  without paper towel, I must grab for towels at an alarming rate, use them once, then throw them into a colossal mountain of dirty cloth.  The washing machine tries to keep up.  It chugs and smokes, gallons of water glug, wasted, down the drain as I toil alongside in the steam and heat, supplementing the machine’s efforts by grinding towels over a wash board, my hair frizzy and disheveled, my prairie skirt dragging on the dirty floor.  I beat a few towels over the rocks out back for good measure, wipe a clean cloth across my sweaty brow and toss it into the mounting pile. 

OK – maybe you weren’t quite thinking all that.  I’m just trying to make the point that cloth is reusable.  You don’t throw it in the laundry like you throw paper in the trash.  More often than not, you can rinse out your cloth and use it again.   You can absolutely reuse your napkins.

Whenever we do a load of laundry, I gather whatever napkins, dish towels or dish cloths we have lying around and throw them on top of the load.  I don’t think I’ve ever adjusted the cycle from big to super to accommodate those extra towels.   

Even if I did, that energy expenditure couldn’t compare to the energy used to:

Produce the plastic packaging for paper towel
Ship the packaging to the paper towel plant
Collect paper for recycling
Treat paper with heat and chemicals to break it down
Ship the recycled paper to the paper towel plant
Produce the paper towels
Package the paper towels
Ship the paper towels all across the country

It just doesn’t add up.

So how do you kick the habit? 

Everyone has a different system.  I actually think the best thing is to go cold turkey, wing it, and see what system evolves for you.  If you agree, you've read far enough, but if you must know the nitty gritty of how we do it, here it is:

Damp dish cloths: for dishes, cleaning up spills, and wiping down counters.  Rinse in hot water after each use, replace when necessary.  We go through 1-2 per day.

Napkins: Buy color coded or store with unique napkin rings to identify whose is whose.  We reuse napkins until we feel we need a clean one.  That could be after one particularly messy meal, or it could be after several low impact meals.  If someone in the family is sick, they do not reuse their napkin.  We keep a nice set of napkins for guests.

Baby wash cloths: for little hands and faces.  Rinse immediately and wash as necessary.  I would never have used paper for this anyway.

Dishtowels: for drying dishes and other clean things, including our hands.  We usually have several hanging around.  

Damp rags: for gross stuff and floor spills.  We rinse them out immediately and wash before reuse.

We try to be practical and use common sense when it comes to germs.  No need to be neurotic.   

How to deal with gross stuff in the kitchen like raw meat and milk:

These spills are rare.  As a vegetarian, I don’t sling a lot of raw meat juice around my kitchen.  I do cook meat for my family, but I’m careful to contain the mess to the sink.  When necessary, however, we use a damp kitchen cloth to clean up after meat or milk spills, then we rinse the cloth thoroughly and wash it immediately (it’s a great excuse to throw a load of laundry in).  If you let a cloth lie around with milk in it, it will smell so bad you’ll not only need a new cloth, you just might need a new kitchen.

Really gross stuff: pee, poop, vomit

For a while I kept emergency paper towel for these things.  I just couldn’t make the leap. However, we’ve become so accustomed to cloth that it actually seems grosser to use paper now.  Use a damp rag to scoop up the gross stuff then dump it in the toilet.  Use a different damp rag with your preferred disinfectant to scrub the area. Of course it sounds disgusting, but not even paper can take the repulsion factor out of vomit.  I'm pretty sure washing before reuse goes without mention here.

Don’t spend a ton of money:
Check out a thrift store for napkins or collect them over time. Have one nice set for guests.

For rags, toddler undershirts are perfect, but you can rip up old t-shirts or undershirts from the bigger people in your house as well.  Old hand towels and wash cloths work well for heavy duty cleaning.

Think of paper towel use as a habit, an expensive and wasteful one at that.  Like any habit, it’s hard to break at first.  With time, I promise, you’ll forget you ever needed it. 

So spoil yourself.  Come on over to the cloth!

And there you have it, the long awaited, and unfortunately long winded, paper towel post.