Now that I am a fancy breeder, I understand why the cat lovers call their kitties these long names with detailed clues to their parentage. This year's pumpkin harvest was amazing, and it is still continuing. This year I tried another experiment. Last year, I planted Rouge Vif d'Etampes pumpkin (my favorite for how cool it looks), and also the standard Butternut squash varieties (my favorite for eating). Both varieties are in the group cucurbita maxima, so I had kind of an idea (and a hope) that they would cross. I was interested in a smaller pumpkin than the fancy French kind that I now usually just call "Cinderella". Every time I wanted to boot one up, I had to find even more room in the fridge or find 20 friends to share it with. This year I even resorted to removing the produce bins to get some of a leftover pumpkin into cold storage. So, to this aim, I planted the saved seeds, and put the plants very close together, and hoped that the larger Cinderella had crossed with the smaller Buttercup and I'd end up with a smaller really cool red pumpkin that is still super tasty. Well, so far, I am declaring success, even though I haven't actually tasted all of the varieties I came up with. Both potential parents are legends in the taste department, so I had no worries there. I probably ended up with about 10 plants and around 16 giant pumpkins. I got several shapes: the traditional Cinderella squat shape, a higher and boxier shape more like the butternut, and a round kind. All are the same bright orange-red color as Cinderella. Now the round ones are interesting. They have more of a green tinge at the bottom, and being almost perfectly round, have to rest on their sides. Though they were some of the first to fruit, they took more than a month longer to ripen than the others. And though the largest round specimen is only 8 inches wide, it weighs in at a hefty 12 pounds. I am notoriously bad at keeping track of my seeds. Now to keep track of the 3 new varieties? This year I also planted some buttercup, but it didn't do too well, so I don't expect much additional crossing. In 2012, I'll probably plant last year's seed again, so I can get some additional selections. Oh, and the curried? It's not about the color. I almost forgot. I also planted one Red Kuri pumpkin last year. It's also a maxima. Come to think of it, my round pumpkins look pretty close to them, only without the neck and all the fussiness. Note: I got the above photo from Seeds of Change, where I also got the original seeds.
Yes, we have all heard of fractal cauliflower, but fractal brussel sprouts????
I don't really go over to the brussel sprout plant very much anymore. It is over two years old, and is basically a snail condo right now, and overshadowed by a grove of sunchoke plants. But with the cooler weather, I decided to take a look and see how things were going
I found lots of sprouts, but upon picking them, I noticed that at the base of each sprout, there were a few new, baby sprouts. They were around a millimeter or two wide. Very cute!
I think if I had a magnifying glass, I would find that at the base of these sproutlets, there would be even more and more, tiny and tinier sprouts. Sprouts all the way down.
Kris Young recently blogged about growing and eating cactus. I have a lovely cactus plant in a pot that he gave me 2 years ago. It is doing well.
When I took the plant, I thought I would eventually eat the fruit, but I was unprepared for how beautiful the plant is all by itself.
Last weekend, I enjoyed freshly-prepared nopales in Monticito, where the prickly pear cactus grows in large and sprawling groves near the older homes. The nopales dinner reminded me that it is always a good thing to work towards getting and using plants that don't need so much water.
Enter purslane. I didn't know that it was edible until a few years ago. It has become my favorite spring salad plant, hitting the plate after the lettuce, and before the cucumbers. It's a succulent, and, like the prickly pear cactus plant, it is considered not too pretty. I disagree, and I like to think of it as a trailing jade plant.
I pick and nibble on a bit of purslane when I go out to the garden in the morning. I let it go to seed. It is everywhere, and that will be so for years.
When I moved away from college in the '70's and started cooking and eating natural foods, a co-worker told me about the Genesee Co-op, located in an old firehouse in Rochester. I used to drive there on Saturday mornings, oftentimes picking up a load of free-range eggs or fresh milk from local farms as part of my monthly work requirement.
In addition to the food store, the co-op building contained a macrobiotic restaurant called "The Regular Restaurant", and an upstairs store that sold household items. They had macrobiotic cooking equipment, hand-crank juicers, 100% cotton clothing (way before organic cotton was available) and a wonderful selection of baskets and small home furnishings. In later years, the selection morphed into mostly greeting cards and scented candles, still nice to visit, but not as helpful for the urban homesteader as in the early years. There was a small community darkroom, a book bindery, a pottery studio and even a savings and loan office upstairs.
I had a great time visiting the co-op, and met lots of great people there. Its here that I learned how to store and cook tofu, and they even had nigari when it was my turn to make my own from scratch.
The co-op provided the only market for small home-based food processing businesses in the area. Vendors would bring in small batches of home-baked goodies and nut butters on the weekends, when the crowds were larger. On some winter Saturday mornings, we would even have to close the co-op to new visitors because it was so crowded.
The original fire pole still went from the home goods store down to the food store, right behind the cash register.
In recent posts, I spoke of the people, the real urban pioneers, who have blazed the path to - uh -(whatever) and made me the urban homesteader that I am today. In coming posts, I will talk more about the people and organizations who influenced me the most.
Today I want to talk about Aunt Louise. She was a great aunt, and while she originally lived in a semi-rural area, eventually, urban sprawl caught up with her. She sold off bits and pieces of her small amount of land to neighbors, who built "modern" suburban-style homes in the corners of what used to be her large garden. Today, it looks like a regular urban street with tons of airport noise, with her little house in the city still tucked away behind the modern brick homes built in the '60's.
Aunt Louise was married to a much older man, a teamster who worked for a haberdashery in the city. So I imagined that originally, the homestead contained a barn and a place for the horses. Aunt Louise never drove a car, but she did accept rides from others after her husband died.
Her little house had only 4 rooms, and was built in a square. It had a living room, dining room, kitchen and bedroom. There was a dug-out basement that could be entered only from the outside. (We weren't allowed to go down there.) She had a really cool spool table in her kitchen, made from saving years and years of wooden sewing thread spools. She was a goddess of thrift.
Aunt Louise had some health problems in her advanced years, and during those times, she stayed with us. I just loved these times! She taught me how to make my first yeast bread, which I thought was even more amazing because she had never used a recipe! I was in awe of the process, her seeming lack of care or concern about the ingredient proportions, and the quality and taste of the outcome. We made a couple of "cinnamon coffee cakes" in some pie pans and devoured them both by the end of the day.
Though Aunt Louise had lived there quietly and trouble-free for years, eventually the authorities caught up with her and forced her to install a 5th room in her home, a bathroom complete with a flush toilet and running water. Before the government intervention, we used to go outside the back kitchen door and pump water from the well. If we needed a potty break, we had to walk over to the other side of the property where she had installed a low-water composting toilet. She called it an OUTHOUSE(tm).
Aunt Louise had to spend 5 thousand dollars for the new plumbing and the remodel. The new bathroom took a chunk out of her large bedroom, and one of the windows. She wasn't too happy about this. It was from my Aunt Louise that I learned that where you pee or poop or pump your water doesn't have to define your intelligence or station in life.
When Aunt Louise died, she left me many of her old kitchen tools like a hand-crank mixer; her sewing gear, a really cool lamp, and her full-length mink coat. And, of course, her contrarian spunk.
So here's to Aunt Louise, as we raise a glass of home-made blackberry brandy (her favorite treat that she'd let me try). Cheers!
Many urban homesteaders will probably recognize this scenario, that of a promising project turning not-as-planned, and then becoming comical.
A couple of years ago, while doing the Eat Local for One Year project, it occurred to me that instead of spending so much energy trying to grow a European-style diet for myself, I should just learn to eat like people already here had done for centuries. Several of us locavores decided that we would try gathering, processing and eating acorns, the traditional local staple.
I gathered quite a few acorns from my own yard and all around town. I stored them in a number of boxes and baskets all over the kitchen and living room. These places were already filling up fast with winter squashes, bushel baskets of corn, dried herbs, basket fiber and seeds. Soon, various rooms were looking alot like a country store, minus the mini-spotlights and a cheese-sampling table covered with gingham.
I finally did try to make some acorn flour this summer, but I was not too successful. The flour eventually flowed out of my home-made leaching bag so much that yield was tiny. It managed to permanently stain everything in the process, including pyrex. Then it looked like it was moldy (this was hard to tell because of all the staining). After three days of leaching, it didn't taste that good, so I threw it away.
The rest of the acorns continued to sit in their baskets until I mustered up enough courage to try again, or find a friend who would take them all.
This fall, disaster struck again. I smelled something funny in the kitchen and discovered that my last Cinderella pumpkin had rotted, and the pumpkin liquid poured next door, over to a huge basket of acorns.
So, I put about 20 pounds of acorns outside, resolving to sort them out and hose off the basket before everything rotted.
Then it rained!
I just left the basket outside for a few days, and every day took a handful of nuts and threw them on the patio for the squirrels. It wasn't long before they found the basket. Now for the last three days, the fiber animals have been quite entertained watching the squirrels climb into the basket, fiddling with the nuts, and scurrying off to the various hiding places.
Most of the hiding places are in the 40-odd planters I have out on the patio. Every spring I have to pull out 2-3 baby oak trees before refreshing the soil and replanting. This year, despite not being so smart about saving the acorns, I was smart about adding compost. I just put it on top of the pots and I am letting the squirrels do my digging for me.
The events of the past week have caused me to reflect on my life-path, how I got to here, and why. And of course, I have been thinking about all the folks who have helped me along the way, and those people who were the most influential. I have written here about my food heritage, and have a topic category for it, and you can read about some of it here. But today I feel I need to explain it a bit more deeply, and more personally, than before.
I had mentioned that my parents and other ancestors had a huge impact on my life as a homesteader, but my parents also scraped together enough money to send me to a private Christian school. It was there I met several teachers who made quite an impact on my life, both spiritually and vocationally.
I first met Jim Schrader in 1971, my freshman year. His English class sat next to my band class in morning chapel, and we became friends. I was in his English class during my sophomore year, and in two of his classes my Junior year, advanced comp and creative writing.
Jim (he insisted we call him by his first name) had an interesting life. He was a pre-med student at Valparaiso University, but one day, while he was swimming, he felt exhausted and almost drowned. They discovered that he had cancer. So, instead of going to med school, he decided to use the short life that was allotted to him as a high school teacher.
He was the first Urban Homesteader that I knew. He and a group of friends and family had moved into an old and derelict part of downtown St. Louis. Many of the hippies of the time ended up at Lafayette Square, buying and refurbishing fine old abandoned homes and building a community. It was full of children, gardens, walking streets, and lots of wheat germ brownies. Jim talked often of his commitment to community, non-violence and vegetarianism. He was building a very good life from a bombed-out mess that the inner-city had become.
For Jim, urban homesteading wasn't about rejecting, resisting or revolting. It was about restoring, renewing and respecting. And of course, re-planting and a bit of rewiring!
I'll never forget the last day I saw him. We had heard that he had entered the hospital again. I remembered the Bible verse about visiting people in the hospital when they were sick, so I convinced a friend to drive into the inner city hospital with me. When we got there, he was all ready for us, and asked us how the summer was going. I mentioned that I had applied to several engineering colleges. Jim had such a crestfallen look on his face, as if his star pupil had just purchased a one-way ticket to the military-industrial complex. I assured him that I wouldn't let engineering corrupt me.
A few weeks later, school started, and Jim wasn't there. He died a couple of weeks later. I wrote the eulogy for the school newspaper. I continued to be mad at God for a long time over this, refusing to write or create or allow myself to be involved in any type of religion.
Eventually I finished school and got a job in industry, but I could never forget Jim's words about how we should live. I kept finding myself pulled towards the homesteading community. I joined a local food co-op for vegetarian staples and started a little garden in my backyard. Throughout this process, the WWJD question was never "what would Jules do?", it was always about what I thought Jim would do.
And, I asked myself that often. Is what I'm doing what I should be doing? Shouldn't I not worry so much about how many clothes I have? What would Jim think about that? What would Jim think about Whole foods, Real Goods, solar panels? Would he be surprised and pleased at all the changes in the homesteading movement since the 70's?
A few years ago, as I was re-evaluating where I wanted to take my life, I had a dream about Jim. In the dream, he had died, and had continued to live his life in an other-universe, working as a physician. I had an opportunity to visit his new homestead. He lived in a larger, more modern home, and it had solar panels and a rain barrel. There was a small greenhouse in the back yard, with lush greenery, all in pots. I was surprised to see that he had chosen to purchase a home with a patio for the backyard. He told me that we do good things with what we have, even if it is just with one small pot. I realized that one could do good work in the outside world, and still be doing good work on the urban homestead. I woke up refreshed, and certain that Jim would probably approve of my urban homestead, even with its never-ending patio and livestock ordinances.
Last week I also sported that crest-fallen look, as the promise of the homesteading movement seemed to crumble before me. I have recovered since then, and I am confident in our ability to move forward towards the dreams that Jim had pioneered, and to create a more just, secure, refreshed, renewed and peaceful world.