food, farming, friends and family: a meditation on chosen simplicity and (in)voluntary complications – life.

Archive for February, 2010

Which Flag to Wave

25% Norwegian, 25% Italian, 25% Czech,
12.5% German, 12.5% Swedish
All-American? (couldn’t resist)
So that’s my break-down. If I were a dog, there would be little questioning my “mutt” status. But that’s a reality that I’m certainly not alone in – and it’s nothing to feel bad about.
So why do I feel badly about it sometimes?
When I travel, I love it when people mistake me as a German, Austrian, Israeli. Even though they’re completely incorrect, it feels good to be recognized as from somewhere.
Of course, the United States is somewhere. But I feel like it gives so little to cling to in terms of a cultural identity that me being an American means very little. I know that these feelings are due in part to the fact that it can be difficult at times to see and identify my own culture in my daily life. Particularly when that daily life doesn’t have a clear set of rituals – religious or otherwise – to act as cultural markers. And the idea that my ancestors come from places other than America, some from places whose borders have shifted and names have changed is also one that makes finding – and feeling – a cultural identity a murky challenge.
I went to hear Heidi Bohan, a very inspiring PNW ethnobotanist, speak a few weeks ago. She addressed this idea of attempting to identify with your ancestry. The focus of her work has been various Native tribes in the Cascadia area and the plants, animals and fibers they made use of. In her work, she has made incredible replicas of the fishing nets, the baskets, the cat-tail mats, etc that the First Nations people in our area made throughout the year. Looking at Heidi, however, it’s obvious that she is not a Native-American. She was at one point married to a member of the Haida Tribe, but is herself of Scottish origins.

Heidi spoke about how, all-too-often, it is the spiritual side of Native-American culture that non-native people try to understand and incorporate. She argued that this information, these practices and understandings, aren’t ours to take and use; they don’t belong to us. While I’m still processing that concept (and find myself leaning towards agreeing with it), I can certainly find truth in what she said next: The land is ours to learn. And we can get to know ourselves by getting to know the surrounding earth and the plants and animals that live on and in it. She herself has found connections between her Scottish roots and Native traditions in their shared reverence for salmon and salmon’s presence in the folklore of both cultures, for example.
Her talk got me excited to explore my past cultural roots and strengthen my currents ones too. I have felt attached to the ecology of this area since I first moved here nearly 5 years ago, and I do feel that building on my relationship with the land and plants and animals here is a way to grow in my understanding of myself. Another way I’ve come to know and challenge myself is through creating things – and Heidi was hugely inspirational in this too (in the sort of way that left me almost petrified by how awesome and resourceful she is).
So my next project is to see a hat from start to finish: raw wool to knitted hat. And while I didn’t shear the alpaca myself, I am going to spin the wool roving into yarn, dye the yarn (I’m thinking yellow …. possible dyeing sources include onion skins, turmeric or Oregon Grape bark), and knit the hat. In lieu of a spinning wheel, I’m using a drop spindle – an affordable and relatively easy alternative.
Here’s what I have so far:
Okay, I know this post was a long one. If you’ve stayed on this long, thanks – and I’d love to hear how you’re answering these questions for yourself. Where do you come from? And what does trying to answer that question mean to you or make you feel?

Ecological sustainability requires a patient and systematic effort to restore and preserve traditional knowledge of the land and its functions. This is knowledge of specific places and their particular traits of soils, microclimates, wildlife and vegetation, as well as the history and the cultural practices that work in each particular setting. Sustainability comes from the careful adaptation of people to particular places. This is as much a process of rediscovery as it is of research. David Orr


Lessons in Living

The more I realize how continued education in the traditional sense is probably not for me (never say never!), the more I also realize that I love being a student. And that the opportunities for doing so are as varied as the subjects.

I’ve recently gone to a couple of events – a really inspiring ethnobotany talk here in Bellingham that I’ll write about later – and a Country Living Expo in Stanwood (passes for the two of us were my Christmas gift to Neil). The set-up of the expo was a day full of workshops and lectures on self-sufficiency topics of your choice (everything from Livestock Fecal Exams to Bee Keeping to Cover Crops, oh my!)
I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the expo, and it blew me away instantly with 1) it’s size (over 800 people) and 2) the wide range of people that attended. For the most part that diversity existed in terms of age and political beliefs – “the urban liberals” to “the rural libertarians” (to employ some sturdy stereotypes), home gardeners to cattle ranchers, and everyone in between. I watched a group of older women spin wool into yarn on their spinning wheels and listened in as two teenage girls anxiously crossed their fingers, hoping they would be the ones to win the Carhartt jackets in the raffle that closed out the Expo.
It was a great day.
And I went home with a lot of information. I took an Introduction to Weaving workshop and a class on Raising Backyard Poultry. And my favorite workshop by far was Basic Home Cheese-Making, a two-part class where we learned how to make mozzarella, two types of ricotta, and feta cheese. (Blog posts with home trials are certainly coming! And yes, I used to be vegan … again, never say never!) The woman who led the class is Victoria Brown from The Little Brown Farm on Whidbey Island. From what I heard about her work ethic, her dedication to her animals, and her views on both nutrition and food policy, I would love to buy this woman’s milk and cheese on a regular basis.
In the meantime, I’m on the lookout for a milk co-op in Bellingham, some sort of communal tending agreement where everyone benefits from the work he or she puts in with fresh raw milk. I see homemade yogurt in my near future. Yours too?

Our Daily Bread

Okay, so the secret’s out: Neil and I like bread. Our days of dumpstering dozens of loaves a week at Essential Bread in Seattle are behind us (for the time being), and we don’t really buy bread, so it’s not that we eat it all that often. But when we do – ho boy! Entire loaves have been demolished in the course of a day.

Well there must have been something in the air yesterday – a drop in temperature, raindrops perhaps – but I came home, ready to bake the 2 loaves I had prepped in the morning only to find that Neil had baked a deliciously warm and warmly delicious loaf of beer bread – fresh out of the oven.

the bread trinity: sourdough starter, beer bread (half-eaten), whole wheat loaf
I’ll work on hunting down Neil’s beer bread recipe (quickly explained why there was a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon sitting on the floor – beer bread is a great way to use mediocre beer … sorry Pabst fans), but in the meantime here’s a really easy recipe I use for whole wheat bread.
It comes from Laurel’s Kitchen:
(makes 2 loaves)

Basic Whole Grain Bread

3 cups warm water
1 tbsp yeast
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
6 cups whole wheat flour*

*sometimes I’ll substitute masa or corn flour in for 1-2 cups of the flour – and some of my best loaves have come when I’ve put in a cup of cooked quinoa or rice. Experiment!
** My friend Jac has a suggestion that took this recipe up at least a few notches Рadd in 2 grated carrots.  Not only does it make the flavor more interesting, but the sugars in the carrot help the bread rise more and give it better texture.  Thanks Jac!

  1. Mix the sugar and warm water in a large bowl, and sprinkle the yeast on top.
  2. After a few minutes, the yeast should be bubbling to the top (it’s really neat to watch); Once you see this, stir in half of the flour. Give it a good stirring, making sure to get the flour clumps out and get the dough (still quite wet at this point) to a good stretchy point.
  3. Now add the salt and the rest of the flour, a cup at a time. You can stir and fold it in with a wooden spoon, but at some point you’re just going to have to get your hands dirty.
  4. I like to keep my clean-up to a minimum, so I continue kneading it inside the same bowl and it seems to work just fine – feel free to get it out onto a cutting board if you want. Knead the bread, folding it over and into itself for several minutes. You’ll notice its texture and feeling change. Once the dough no longer feels sticky and you can poke your finger into it and see it slowly spring back at you, you’re in good shape.
  5. Shape the dough into a large ball and put it back in your bowl and cover it; let it rise in a warm area until it has doubled in size (This usually takes 2 or 3 hours for me). Then split it in half and put each half into a greased bread pan. Let it rise again until it reaches the top of the loaf pan (Confession: this rarely happens for me – it gets close, but it’s usually half an inch or so below. A lighter whiter flour will get you there, but I like the flavor and texture of whole wheat).
  6. Once it reaches a height you like (be patient – you’ll notice when it stops rising), pop it in the oven at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes. I take mine out when the top starts browning and it sounds good and hollow when I tap on it.
  7. Lather it with something and enjoy!
So we only have one good bread pan. Sometimes I’ll halve the recipe, but yesterday was not the day for just one loaf (like I said, something in the air). I made the full recipe and let half of my dough rise without the crutch of the bread pan. It can fend for itself, right? … Picture Jaba the Hut in dough form – it was definitely growing, but not upward.
I did a bit of doughy improv, hearkening back to my days at The Common Grill, a restaurant in my home town that has incredible dinner rolls. I worked preparing take-out orders for a summer, and 9 times out of 10 people would come just for the rolls. I took the mass of dough, stretched it out into a log the diagonal length of a cookie sheet, and rubbed it with olive oil. I cut it several times with scissors to create the individual rolls (I love the look of it!), sprinkled salt and black sesame seeds on them, and baked it at a slightly higher temperature (400) for about 20 minutes.
And Presto!
I won’t say that they’re better than the Common Grills (seriously, they’ve recently started a 5k “Run For the Rolls” in Chelsea … I can’t make this stuff up), but they turned out great! I’m definitely keeping it in mind in case of a bread experiment SOS.
The sourdough beckons next – I am yet to bake a loaf of sourdough bread that has risen above brick level. So wish me luck (or send some advice my way!) and I’ll keep you posted.
Happy February

The Month That Was

January, you were a doozie. I’ve learned a lot about myself in this first month of 2010; and it wasn’t all good. The grey skies of winter, continued unemployment, and the 2300 miles that life has insisted on putting between my communities in Washington and Michigan made me feel like I was slogging through January.

But if I think about it again, January was a great month: Neil and I are quickly making a home in Bellingham – a beautiful one with people whose kindness, generosity, ingenuity and dedication to simplicity I really admire. And we had the chance to host our first yurt-warming with some dear friends from Seattle too. I’ve made cheese, baked bread, played piano, and knitted scarves. I’ve joined a running club, earned money doing yard work and put the wheels in motion toward substitute teaching. I saw Spring come to Bellingham 2 months early.
I’m always tempted to end each entry I write positively – and I usually do. It’s not that I’ve necessarily come to any resolution by the end of three or four paragraphs, that I’ve worked out the kinks or sorted it out. But I do know that my highs and my lows (and oh January, you supplied me with plenty of both) are so much a matter of perspective. I recognize in my mind a tendency to cling to my ruts, to get stuck in them, and sometimes dig them deeper. With writing comes my release, a chance to choose a new perspective, a lighter outlook.
So fittingly, the Angel Card for February is Release. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, it’s not because it should. I was first introduced to Angel Cards, a set of cards each with its own personal quality or essence (e.g. Forgiveness, Play, Kindness, Clarity, Abundance) a couple of years ago. Created by people at Findhorn, an intentional community in Scotland, they can be used in any number of ways – but I like to choose a card, come up with a definition for myself, meditate on it and figure out ways that I can incorporate it into my life. We did this weekly as a group at Cloudview, and it made for great conversation and reflection on the past seven days.
Now I get a monthly e-mail from Findhorn that chooses a card and and sets an intention for the following month. This month:

Let go of all that keeps you in the past or takes you into the future. This may include control, expectations, inhibitions, worry or an outdated self-image.

We are all at a turning point, one that requires each of us to release readily what no longer serves and prioritize our energies, focus, and actions in the world. And, the invitation is ongoing to set aside our doubts, preconditions, and impatience and choose instead to feel connected to life, flow, and synchronicity.

We’ll see what February holds …

(ps Pictured above: Indian Plum blossom peeking out, 2 of the newest additions to the homestead: Butterfly and Miss Fatty [downing the carrot], and our yurt!)