"Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a farm and live entirely surrounded by cows–and china."

Charles Dickens

January 23, 2012

My Farmer, Outstanding in His Field (and out sitting, too)


You come back when you're ready!

Catherine

PS And I hope some of the readers who have returned here after reading my "Paula Deen" post (which got about 500 hits in five days) have come back for more. Usually it's more about farm life and frolic and recipes around here than it is about essays on celebrity. So, welcome!

January 17, 2012

Paula Deen is not the problem !

Paula represents all that is homey, buttery and sweet
in Southern cuisine. She is a true confection and even
preaches moderation. My one criticism is that she is often
too reliant upon cake mixes and canned soup in her recipes.
Food snobbery and elitism are alive and well in America. So Paula Deen has Type-2 diabetes. That's unfortunate, and curable, and she'll likely be making some lifestyle changes to try to reverse this: something from which everyone in her situation might also learn. Did she handle it well by announcing it with a commercial endorsement for a diabetes medication rather than coming out a few years ago when she was first diagnosed? Probably not and as a person in the food world that would have only helped her situation. (However no one is bashing Sally Field for needing and endorsing Boniva®) But to use this as fodder for more Paula bashing? Or the inevitable "See, we told you so-s!" or that Southern food is fat-laden, disease-creating poor man's slop? None of it is either accurate or fair.

This is like killing the messenger. Food has become a spectator sport in the United States and Food Network (and everything Martha Stewart) has helped fuel why we all love to watch food shows or read about food or photograph and blog about food. No wonder we are a nation of extremes in eating and food obsessives: denial, binge-eating, obesity and anorexia (or fitness anorexics) abound, there is gluten and lactose intolerance and diabetes is rampant. It's not because of the food but because of what's in the food (or that has been taken from the food). Since the middle of the last century, we've stripped our food down and filled or modified it with preservatives and chemicals and now we're reaping the consequences. Choice is also involved, too, but at the basis of this issue is our gradual departure from, and slow return to, whole and real food in the American diet. As a culture we also love to hate fat people: we applaud when someone loses the weight and then, just as easily, we turn on them for embracing their new bodies and being "all that." Or, just forever fat.

I come from a hale and hearty clan of German and Victorian era English-Americans from industrial Ohio on one side and mainline WASPs, via Boston and New York, on the other. Genetically, and in other ways, I am very much my father's daughter: clinically obese, stubby little elfin hands and feet, rather short and short-waisted. Could I be healthier? Yes. I'm sure I could fight my genetics kicking and screaming for hours each day by running or lifting weights. But in my life so far I've mostly chosen not to (and it's no surprise that I was never more fit before I owned a car and lived in Boston in fifth-floor walkups and still ate whatever I wanted, in moderation). I've never been athletic and I've always found comfort in food and in cooking or preparing it for my family and yes, even eating it. Unapologetically. I'm working on the "move more" part but I also realize, especially when looking at family photos, that I yam what I yam.

My father died in his mid-60s of complications that were surely triggered from decades of untreated sleep apnea. Most of my other relatives on his side lived into their 80s, 90s and beyond. Some died of cancer, from smoking, or from other reasons, but none related to their heftier genetic predispositions. Their hearts were strong! My father never had diabetes, despite his size, or high cholesterol or blood sugar or major heart trouble. In fact, I never heard of diabetes in my family. I am exactly the same as I approach fifty.

Meanwhile, my mother's side of the family is small and wiry. My maternal grandfather died at 63: he and my grandmother moved from suburban New York in post-war 1946 to live on a New England farm, raise their children and their own vegetables and farm-raised food. He was lean and fit, as were his six offspring. But he had a lifelong heart and cholesterol problem (I used to enable him when I learned to make chocolate chip cookies: he'd drive me uptown for the supplies on the down low!). My mother has inherited this, too, and had a massive heart attack in her late-50s. Now through exercise, diet and medication she is monitoring this disease. And yet in my family I've always been pointed towards as what you don't want to be: the poster child of the fat girl. Even as a teenager I was told, "Cathy, if you only lost 15-20 pounds..." Then what? If only I only had fifteen pounds to lose now!

Here in Kentucky we've befriended many in our local Old Order Mennonite community who still render their own lard, drink whole milk and make butter regularly from their own farms, make their own baked goods, and eat more than we do most of the time (large breakfasts and even larger noon dinners). They bake a lot of "treats" and don't eat fast food (perhaps an occasional special treat while shopping). They also grow most of their own produce and meat. So it is no surprise to me that they don't have a lot of obesity, or cancer or diabetes in their community. American farm families have traditionally been healthier when they eat their own food and often work it off, too, during the course of a day. Our big problem today in terms of health is inactivity and poor food choices. Not fat. It's just important to remember that not everyone gets fat, or diabetes, because they sit around all day, feasting on junk food, Coke and greasy main dishes (I am testament to that: we eat real food in our house and raise our own meat, eggs and some produce–or buy it locally). And we all know people who are thin and eat nothing but awful food.

Virginia Willis, an Atlanta-based chef and food writer, said it so beautifully in today's article on the subject in The New York Times:
"No one vilifies Michelin chefs for putting sticks of butter in their food," Ms. Willis said. "But when a Southern woman does it, that's tacky." (however) "Paula's food often reflects modern cooking and convenience foods more than Southern tradition...she feels like she cooks for 'real people' and for better or worse, that is how many people in this country chose to eat."
So the point of all of this is that we should not be quick to judge people based on their size or their diets or where they hail from in food world. There are plenty of healthy looking people out there who probably have all sorts of diseases based on their genetics and lifestyle choices (or addictions from alcoholism or smoking). I doubt Paula Deen eats fried chicken and three-layer frosted cakes 24/7 and lately, it would seem, that Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman blogger who now has her own Food Network show, is putting Paula to shame with all of her fatty, over-buttered recipes. (Do you think she really cooks for all of those ranch hands every day without additional staff?) Where is the outcry there? And no one is saying that Ina Garten should cut back on the rich foods in her kitchen or that Giada should maybe eat more. (And neither should they: Ina is a Food Goddess in my estimation and, like Paula, another self-made cook who started in the trenches of restaurants and catering.)

Food Network has become a circus and has only fed our food snobbery and elitist mindsets about the food foibles of American cuisine. If you want to read about the lusciousness of real food, without the guilt, anything by M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child, or Laurie Colwin, Alice Waters or Elizabeth David will fit the bill. They embraced, or still embrace, real food. Whole food. Good food–and usually without benefit of a sexy photo. [Further back there are the delightful Mrs. Appleyard books, the Blueberry Hill cookbooks by Elsie Masterston, and, of course, my particular favorites: those few books by Mary Mason Campbell, whom I hail in my book, The Pantry. And then there is the incomparable Della Lutes who wrote the best-selling classics The Country Kitchen, Home Grown and other books and domestic-related articles during, and before, the Great Depression.]

There's room for everyone in food world and I hope that this isn't just another excuse to beat on Southern cuisine from both coasts. Paula Deen has worked hard for her fame and fortune, starting from her own kitchen as an agoraphobic single mother peddling sandwiches. Let's cut her some slack and support her quest for better health as we all try to make our own lifestyle tweaks (or not). And if she has some fried chicken on occasion, so be it. Butter and lard and sugar are not the problem with the American diet: chemicals and preservatives and high fructose corn syrup have created the food crisis we are having now. And fast food super-sizing, no doubt. It's always about moderation in all things.

But well-intentioned home cooks who might happen to become food celebrities, who are just keeping it real in their kitchens and sharing the love, even if it involves a bit of fat and sugar on occasion? They will never be the problem with the American diet.

You come back when you're ready!

Catherine



January 15, 2012

Housekeeping

It's that time of year! 2012 is upon us and I'm doing some major housekeeping: of our home spaces, my office, and my blog and web presence. I have a new personal author site that I will now be able to keep routinely updated at CatherinePond.com. In the next few months I will also be uploading and linking direct PDF links to published magazine articles and online articles. You can now browse pantry-related things on a new tabs feature on my In the Pantry blog.

In honor of this organizational frenzy (which includes my actual pantries) and a new self-imposed frugality (I haven't spent a penny on anything since before New Year's, including groceries), I am happy to announce that copies of my book, The Pantry, are now available for only $10, plus shipping! This is not a book you'd want on an e-reader and, at this price, it's worth having it on your coffee table. They make a great gift or inspiration for your own home.

Why am I doing this, you ask? Several years ago my publisher was going to remainder the books, originally sold at $16.95 (and a bargain at that price). I knew there was still a market for The Pantry, based on people who follow my blog and who often ask me pantry-related questions. And, it remains the only book exclusively on pantries and their history and design in the American home. So I bought all copies back from the publisher that hadn't sold, save for a few they held back for Amazon (about 100 and I believe they are all gone now), and have been selling them ever since.

It's hard to write and market your own work but there it is. I just want to share something with you of which I am proud and that I also believe in: a pantry, of some kind, in every home. And to thank you for your loyal readership over the years: at my blogs and elsewhere.

Now available for only $10.00 (plus $4.95 shipping and handling) 
exclusively from the author (sent media mail with delivery confirmation). 
Click "Order THE PANTRY" for more information, or order directly below.












Includes autographing and/or inscribing, if desired, 
Inquire about wholesale discounts or other sales at info@CatherinePond.com

January 14, 2012

Cute Animal Files: Edgar Time!


We know that Edgar is a cow and that our purpose here is to raise grass-fed calves and beef cattle. As Edgar was abandoned by his mother, we are left to raise him. Right now he resides in a straw-strewn makeshift manger in our cattle-sorting building. He is fed twice a day and often has the doors open for sunlight, or to roam around outside (he just follows whomever he is with) in a larger paddock. When he is a bit older he will be let in with the other calves. Yet he will always be more comfortable with humans. 


As he will remain a bull, we will never be able to trust him entirely when he is fully grown. We will keep him here on the farm but we can't do this with every orphan. It's a reality I'm learning to accept. We raise meat, not pets. I only name the ones who stay with us.


But Edgar is now clearly a pet. And cute. And somebody's baby. That's the humanized element to raising animals that we don't eat. The reverse is that we eat some mammals and others we domesticate. It seems odd when you really think about it. For many years buying meat in the grocery store, which we still do on occasion, just made it a more abstract reality. When meat is portioned and pieced and slick-wrapped you don't necessarily think about where it comes from.


This is changing in our food world. People are thinking. They are asking important questions, wanting to know how an animal or vegetable was raised or where and with what means? If they choose not to eat animal products, that's fine, too. But for those who do there are solutions to factory farming. There are sustainable ways to raise or grow our food.


There are studies out now that show how beneficial grass-fed beef is compared to those raised on grain on a factory-farm. It doesn't necessarily have to be organic, either (very few farms are able to be 100% organic but many are close without being official: we are trying to get years of chemicals out of our pastures). Grass-fed beef has lower cholesterol, lower fat, better vitamins and minerals. And the cows were likely happier–although we're not exactly in a position to ask them or even determine this human emotion as applied to bovines.



That is perhaps the main reason we are now living on a farm: we want this sustainability in our own lives and for our children and to live from the land without depleting it.

You come back when you're ready! 

Catherine

January 13, 2012

Hearty Seafood Chowder


Being from New England, I have learned the fine, but easy art, of making chowder. Recently I wrote a guest blog for a fellow Kentucky Food Blogger, Mindy Wilson, while she is tripping around Europe, tasting Viennese pastries and all manner of wonderful foods, with her professor husband on a college class excursion. I had suggested corn chowder, knowing that January can often be perfect for such meals (well, at around 55 degrees until the past few days, it's actually been quite balmy). Click here for that recipe and blog post at The World in My Kitchen. [And yes, I really did spill chowder on the Mayor of Lincoln, England in my first, and last, catering attempt!]

It is versatile and the basic chowder can translate into corn, seafood, fish or clam. What was fun was writing down the recipe, at last, for Mindy's blog, and then realizing I could, with a few minor tweaks, make it into other chowders. While I made the corn chowder for The World in My Kitchen before Christmas, the other day I finally made our Christmas Eve Seafood Chowder (for New Year's instead). And, I was pleasantly surprised that about $15 worth of frozen seafood (cod, shrimp and scallops) at Walmart was practically indiscernible from using fresh (which would have been far more expensive here in Kentucky: although Lexington Seafood is the place to go for a fresh splurge, which we do about once a year).

This is a hearty milk-based soup with New England origins–perfect on a cold winter's day with a loaf of crusty bread (or better yet, oyster crackers). You can also use this recipe, with minor changes, to make any number of *chowders [see below]. In about an hour, from start until serving, you will have a big vat of chowder to feed many appetites––and, if you are lucky, you'll even have leftovers for the next day. Chowder is even better once the flavors have had a chance to meld.

The roux, as it is thickening, before transferring to a larger kettle.


Hearty Seafood Chowder
  • 12 oz. (3/4 pound) diced bacon (we prefer using smoked bacon and usually our own)
  • 1 heaping Tbsp. minced garlic
  • 1 large sweet onion, chopped (you can add a bit of red onion, if desired)
  • 1 cup celery, chopped (include some leaves)
  • 1 cup diced red bell pepper (OPTIONAL: I did not add this because my husband does not care for red peppers)
  • 1/3 cup chopped parsley
  • 4 large baking-sized potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 quart fish or lobster stock (if not, chicken stock will do)
  • 1 Tbsp. Kosher salt
  • lots of fresh ground pepper
  • liberal dashes of sweet Hungarian paprika
  • 3/4 cup flour, or more, depending on how thick you'd like it
  • 6-8 cups whole milk (you could use other kinds of milk but whole works best)
  • 2-3 pounds assorted fresh (or uncooked and previously frozen) seafood in any combination: scallops, shrimp, tilapia, cod, clams, lobster, etc.
  • 1 cup heavy cream (or half-and-half, if you must)


  1. On medium high heat in a Dutch oven, large skillet or heavy-duty stock pot, cook bacon, with garlic, until almost done and starting to crisp up a bit. Stir frequently and do not drain!
  2. Add onions, celery, parsley (and red bell pepper, if desired) and cook until translucent.
  3. Add salt and pepper. Stir.
  4. Add diced potatoes. Stir for several minutes.
  5. Add the flour (3/4 cup if you want a slightly thicker chowder) and stir well.
  6. Add 1 quart chicken stock and stir until thickened and bubbly.
  7. Add paprika (about one large teaspoon).
  8. Set to low, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are done, but not too soft (about 15 minutes).
  9. Transfer your chowder "roux" to a large 2-gallon kettle. 
  10. Heat on low, with 6-8 cups whole milk until just before boiling (do not boil!). Stir well as mixture will start to thicken somewhat from the roux.
  11. Add the seafood, chopped into bite-sized morsels (frozen is fine and you don't have to thaw it unless shelling the shrimp: the cod or tilapia will likely flake on their own).
  12. Cook on low, stirring frequently, until nicely heated.
  13. Shortly before serving, add heavy cream and stir in.
  14. Serve with homemade croutons, a good crusty bread or old-fashioned oyster crackers.
I like to turn off the kettle when the chowder is done, cover it, and take it off the burner. This will keep it warm until supper but will assure that the soup doesn't boil. You can also freeze this. It makes almost two gallons, too, so perfect for a crowd or for a stretch of easy meals.

And remember, you can take the girl out of New England, but you can't take New England out of the girl!


NOTES:

*The wonderful beauty of this chowder is, with a few minor changes, you can readily make it into a Corn Chowder, New England Clam Chowder, or Fish Chowder (or any number of things: mushroom, hearty vegetable, etc.) Here's how:
  • For CORN, use 1 quart chicken stock and eight cups canned, frozen or fresh corn (or a combination) in place of seafood;
  • For CLAM, use 1 quart clam broth and 1-2 quarts fresh shucked clams (or canned);
  • For FISH, use 1 quart fish stock and 2 pounds chopped up fresh (or frozen) fish (Cod works best as it holds up well in the soup).
  • For OYSTER, use 1 quart fish stock (which can include the oyster "liquor") and 1 quart of fresh, frozen or canned oysters. Oyster Stew uses whole oysters without the potatoes and bacon etc. and Oyster Bisque is when the oysters have been cooked in their own broth, and milk, with a bit of seasoning, and then put through a blender: we always had this for the soup course at Christmas Eve at my grandparents' in Akron. Wonderful food memories there!
[You can also use chicken stock instead of fish stock, which can be harder to find and more expensive.]

You come back when you're ready! 

Catherine

January 11, 2012

Connected

Image of a woman writing at her desk from www.louisamayalcott.org
I have been going through some cathartic times in the past few months. Call them midlife gurglings, spoutings, truths or triumphs. Call them growing pains or upheavals. Call them the grumblings of a cranky, perimenopausal middle aged woman who, like Howard Beale in the movie Network, is "mad as hell and isn't going to take it any more!" A few weeks ago this was originally going to be a blog about giving up blogging (or at least shelving it for a while). Lately I've been questioning why I blog. You see, my first blog, In the Pantry, was started after I got my first book deal–a bit backwards, yes? And I haven't really written much, aside from many blog posts or the occasional paid article, since the publication of The Pantry in 2007. Throw in a major move and other stuff, and, well, here I am: on a ridge in Kentucky. Writing, farming, adjusting.

My early writing mentor and friend, children's author
Elizabeth Yates McGreal at her home in New Hampshire.
The book, and the blogs, have brought me many new friends and acquaintances (and all but one have been wonderful and true). I have always been real with my readers but I'm tiring of the false pretense put forward by so many bloggers: I'll call it PWS (Pioneer Woman Syndrome). Real bloggers don't do it all, and can't possibly. We blogging women––farm bloggers, Mommy bloggers, Christian bloggers, homeschool bloggers, style bloggers, book bloggers, writing bloggers, food bloggers, craft bloggers––are putting our wares on the table and hoping you'll notice. I believe that true authenticity shines through the best blogs and sometimes it is hidden by glimmers that one wants us to see. But I was getting weary of the show circuit and just wanted to go back to my desk and my chickens (and my family, of course, when they are home), without its more immediate connections to the world. To write and communicate the old-fashioned way.

A Lady Writing a Letter, Jan Vermeer Van Delft, 1665-66,
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
I've learned that true friendships must be cultivated in real time–not on the Internet or on Facebook, but with letters, cards, phone calls and actual visits. Social media is just a support system to real friendship while, in the worst of times, it can encourage snarky, mean, and childish behaviors (yes, I've been there). Perhaps the greatest irony of our times is that the more we connect "on line," the less connected we are to each other in real time, or the less inclination we might have to doing so. I'm more isolated here in Kentucky, by geography and circumstance (farmwife on the farm on our own lane with neighbors close enough but not within eye or ear shot…and we like it this way!), but I can't let that be an excuse for my reliance upon internet behaviors and connections: for good and for bad. I used to be a regular and passionate letter writer–it's time to return to that, at least with little notes and nibbles. After all, the U.S. Postal Service needs us! What a retro, patriotic act: to just write a letter or send a card to an old friend or someone whom has meant so much to you!

Jane Austen at her desk, early 1800s.
Blogging has been wonderfully fun. On my two personal blogs it has been like a virtual scrapbook of my life for the past (almost) seven years–or at least, aspects of it: the things that I wanted to show or to share, usually the icing. While glimpses, they have been real: my stuff, my food, my homes, my family, my world. Real 100% Catherine Grade A Authenticity. No bullshit. No pretense.

At the same time, there is just too much noise from the Internet. It's a magnet for me. I don't need to run to it when I want to "Google" more useless information to further clutter my mind. I don't need to post something fun, snarky, and sometimes negative, on someone's Facebook wall (even if they upset me) or on my own. I don't even need to be blogging! [And Lord knows I don't need more recipes...or to be spending any money right now, "free shipping" or not!]

Print by Charles Dana Gibson, early 20th Century


I'm not surprised that the Internet now has its own addiction discussion in the psychological field or that Facebook is having its own kind of quiet backlash. I grapple with this daily, or should I say have. Is there a 12-Step Program yet for recovering social media addicts? This about says it all: "The Photographs of Your Junk (will be publicized!)". We all want validation but do we need it from the entire world? All of the blogs, tweets and Facebook posts out there are really about wanting to be heard. "I'm here!" It's kind of like that Dr. Seuss story, Horton Hears a Who! ["even though you can't see or hear them at all, a person's a person, no matter how small."] Meanwhile, I blog: therefore I am should really be I live and sometimes I blog about it.

Writer Susan Sontag by Annie Leibovitz
The world that you see on my blogs, and arguably most other lifestyle blogs, is neat and tidy: it is my own free-content lifestyle magazine, so naturally I usually put my best face forward. What I photograph is real, but like any magazine shoot of someone's home it is styled and you don't necessarily see what's hidden in the dusty corners of the room. [I've been on many shoots as a writer and sometimes as a stylist: they can take a day or days to make something camera ready--just remember that! It's not worth comparing yourself, or your home, to what you see in a magazine because it is not the day-to-day reality.] And let's be brutally honest: everyone who blogs regularly knows how time consuming it is. There are the photos and the formatting, the writing, the information gathering, the fact-checking, the good design (which, to me, is just as important in blog land as what is said). Even though I just usually write off the cuff, as it is, it still takes time and then time again to format the blog and tweak it (I am, as ever, a perfectionist when I want to do something right). And this is time away from doing all of the great stuff that we tell you about! Time away from our houses, our families, our gardens, our quiet time, our reading time, our hobbies. And I don't even Tweet! Or have a cell phone! (I hardly even use the phone, however, except when necessary. Perhaps this, too, will change.)

Painting by Frans Van Mieris, the Elder, 1680
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
So because I seem to have my priorities mixed up, I'm going back to basics. My farmer husband recently attempted, and gave up, on learning about computers at our local library (and note, I have not volunteered to teach him, either: that would be like teaching your own child to drive a car). He is as aware, as I am, that the Internet has been on for most of our nearly sixteen year marriage. It is the other "man" in my life. I told him that his timing was perfect, that he doesn't need to give up his card-carrying Luddite status just yet. Meanwhile, our 14 year old son will still not be getting a Facebook account, despite his pleadings–and his mother will try to set the example by being on it less–probably until he is 18. Yet we will continue to have computers as word processors and archival repositories (a major photo project, any one?) in our home.

But really, after almost seven years, I was tired of feeling I have to be "on" or "on-line"––what, really, is the urgency? A few months ago I was close to sending in the paperwork to be a part of the "BlogHer" network, which would have involved allowing advertising (and possible revenues, and certainly more blog hits), but in December, when I decided to take the month off from blogging, more or less, I changed my mind. Why do I care if more, or less, people even read my blog? As wonderful as these friendships are, and having readers like you who come here, I shouldn't feel I have to be here. This isn't a job: it's a hobby. If people make revenue from their blogging, I applaud them, but it doesn't necessarily make them a writer, it makes them a paid blogger or provides reward for providing an excellent delivery system of interactive content.

It is time for a reread of one of my favorite books on
writing, and being: 
A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf.
I will be 50 in October 2012 and there is still much that I want to do in my life. If you don't know about so much of what goes on in it, that's alright, too. I have children and a husband who share me with the World Wide Web and want me back. Since moving to Kentucky my virtual world has been, at times, more captivating to me than the real world around me: it's been my friend, my place to go for succor and validation, or to vent. It has been the water cooler that I don't have in my daily life. That's not really a good place to be in: a virtual water cooler? Especially one where you are not paid for your working moments? So how about a real one, instead: where I connect with the real world more often. "Only connect," wrote E.M. Forster in Howard's End. If only he could know how those words would resonate within me these past ten years where real connection has been largely lacking, where family connections have fallen away, and where virtual ones have filled their spaces.

Ultimately, and this is the plan, if I focus hard and eliminate other things I can write again for the printed page: the occasional published magazine article, and hopefully more books. I have to harness that energy into a workable body of my writing without benefit of the world watching. I have much to share and publication involves a high degree of discipline, marketing, and a willingness to tolerate rejection (or editors--even the ones you know--not always responding). The freelance life is not a friend to non-routine and laziness, or even complacency. So it's time for a drop-kick boot camp in that realm in my life. Last month, during the holidays, I gave myself permission not to blog. It felt wonderful. I felt liberated! I did post two more small posts, after saying I wouldn't, but that was because I wanted to and didn't feel obligated.

My favorite American novelist, Willa Cather, who 
had no benefit of Internet, blogs, Facebook or Twitter.
A friend of mine recently conducted a Facebook study by friending several famous authors and following them over the course of a year (living writers, of course!). She concluded that, try as they might, their (extremely active) Facebook and Twitter presence did not seem to be affecting sales of their new books. Many established and newer writers are being lured in by the false promise of social media. And where is it getting them, if not away from their real writing or craft? Probably to a pleasantly diverting virtual water cooler.

And yet...I was fully prepared to give up our Internet via expensive satellite at the end of 2011. We could use our fine county library or a cozy café with WiFi, I told myself. But the reality is much different. I have realized that I still want this kind connection with the world, right from my own cozy home. The trick is to manage it better. So now, when I don't want to be on the computer or need to be doing other things, I just turn it off.

The other day all of my thoughts about to give up the Internet, or not, were answered. Our local phone company, Windstream, contacted us about wanting two easements on our farm for DSL terminals (as I've always suspected, our farm is about half-way down our 8-mile ridge). Many of our neighbors have wanted DSL and have been asking for it, repeatedly, before we even moved here. I had it back in New Hampshire in our village home: it was fast, immediate, I could download things and upload photos without any problem. And, best of all, it was affordable (about one quarter the price for maximum bandwidth satellite internet). We are now negotiating with them to get this party started. It was almost like a strange kind of answer to something with which I'd been struggling: and isn't life often that way?

If you have gotten this far in this most unbloggy musing, I applaud you! But most of all, I thank you for your readership over these past seven years. It is so wonderful to connect here and wherever else the fates may allow. And if I don't blog for a stretch, you'll know I've just turned it off and am connecting in the real world.

You come back when you're ready!

Catherine

January 9, 2012

Using What We Have

Cairns, overlooking Loch Loyne, in Scotland (by Tim Wood, Flickriver).
New Year's resolutions are always well-intended. As this is my 50th year I decided to make some changes and implement goals, in both my personal and family life, that will hopefully extend well beyond 2012. As I am not the major breadwinner of the family, and we're in the farm together in terms of investment and outcome, what I can do is be more of a conscientious penny-pincher on the home front.

Here are my "lifestyle tweaks," in no particular order:
  • I am no longer buying food (even if it's a "good deal") or what we do not need. As for necessities, I am just buying milk and dairy products, when needed; gas for the cars (which I don't drive as much); and, in season, fresh local and affordable produce (that which we don't grow ourselves). Our pantries and freezers are full from lots of hard work and raising our own meat (and we have eggs a'plenty). We have other necessaries on hand, too. There will be few reasons to visit the grocery store (or any "box store" in 2012: sorry Target and Sam's Club!). 
  • I will be making our own bread most of the time from a stocked baking pantry (and we're eating less of it any way).
  • As my husband and I have plenty of clothing in a variety of sizes and styles (we're not trendy so stuff lasts), we will only buy clothes for our boys when they need them. (As Henry has grown four inches in a few months, this is unavoidable!)
  • We have many (many) books and DVDs. If we don't have a book that I want to read, I will get it at the library or use inter-library loan for those harder to find items. If I really want a book to own, I will put it on my birthday/Christmas list for later this year. Amazon will no longer get my business (too easy, too cheap, too tempting with free shipping and door-to-door), even though we are 90 minutes from the nearest independent bookseller.
  • MAGAZINES! Because I write for several of them, and also enjoy them, I tend to oversubscribe or overbuy. Rather than throw out a lot of older magazines that I've found here and there (unread, I might add), I've sorted them by season and will spend 2012 reading magazines from the past few years––then donating them as I toss them. I will also be tossing old clippings and putting my own published articles into a portfolio and PDFs rather than stockpiling them! And who needs thousands of clipped recipes, house and garden ideas when there is the Internet and now this online bulletin board called Pinterest where you can organize your bookmarks and other clippings? Which I don't dare get on...yet. [Ok, I did. You can follow me here. What fun and what a help for organizing on line clips, images and links! (And thanks for the turn on, Teresa!)]
  • I want to connect more in real time (letters, phone calls, visits) so I am already on Facebook much less. So far, I have prewritten many blog posts in 2012 and posted in advance (a lovely feature of Blogger). I still don't need a cell phone and will use one of our shared family track phones if traveling solo (and travel will be minimal this year, too).

Gifting–let's just say that Christmas 2012 is almost a done deal already:
  • I want to knit again and will be tackling some unfinished projects (and wrap up those finished projects that I found from before our move in 2008). There is nothing like the gift of a handmade, and practical, knitted item.
  • I have many surplus pantry goodies that I make throughout the year (and percolating vanilla, as we speak): homemade and home baked gifts, at any time, are a gift of yourself.
  • I have started a pile of practically-new books of all kinds that I will pass along. What isn't a treasure to keep (I will always have a house full of books!) will be donated–and at some point I might open an eBay or Etsy store for old, vintage cookbooks. (Stay tuned!)
  • I have found a box of squirreled-away gift items from prior bouts of elfing (and sales) with various people's names on them.
  • I resisted all enticing post-Christmas sales and have been using up our wrapping paper stash (and many, many greeting cards I've picked up here and there) for several years. But I'm a sucker for tags, so...
  • I'm making my own gift tags out of Christmas cards that we have received from the past, ahem, four years. I want to send out Christmas cards again in 2012, after a several year hiatus, so maybe I should get started...

With all of this in mind, it will be easier to:
  • plan meals ahead, based on the ingredients and pantry/freezer items that we have on hand;
  • dissolve and "bust" the clutter;
  • donate what we don't need or can no longer use;
  • cull out closets, cupboards and tackle unpacked "mystery" boxes from our New Hampshire move. There wasn't the time to go through everything as I would have liked in 2008 and, because we moved ourselves–and the contents of one packed home and our garage-barn–in two box trailers, it was just too easy to say, "Throw it on the truck!" Now I am a borderline hoarder but still a clutterer-piler, much to the chagrin of my patient husband. They say you should just chuck it if it hasn't been opened in six months or a year but that doesn't work when you moved without much organization in the first place;
  • make more time to exercise;
  • take long farm walks with the family and dogs;
  • be more mindful in the task or preparation (including meals and "mindful eating");
  • make the time to write more regularly again (and for income!).

If there ever is a catastrophe, we'll have plenty to help feed our neighbors, too. And did you know that "stockpiling" food for more than seven days can get you branded as a terrorist? Don't get me started. These policy makers clearly didn't grow up on a farm.

What are your goals for 2012 or beyond?

You come back when you're ready! 

Catherine

January 8, 2012

Old-Fashioned Macaroni and Cheese ~ Creamy, Rich, Easy !

The reason this mac and cheese appealed so much, apart from the obvious creamy cheesy factor, is that it reminded me of the baked macaroni dishes that were brought to church suppers in Akron (and that my grandparents' cook used to make, too).








A dear friend and I are always seeking the "perfect" recipe of something. This same friend and I used to spend hours on the beach reading cookbooks together, comparing recipes, while her grandsons and my boys played happily near the water. [LINDA! I miss you!]

Friends, I have found, after many years of looking, the perfect mac and cheese recipe. Yes, on the back of a box of Mueller's® (that I got for 35 cents a box at a local discount food place––I love discount food places). Naturally, I stocked up on pasta boxes. I like Mueller's® and remember it, along with Creamette®, from childhood. I suppose they are good American pasta mainstays (although in recent years I've preferred several Italian brands). My next task will be to try this with different kinds of gluten-free pastas (as wheat is not something I'm supposed to have very often).

I photographed the recipe as it appeared on the box because it is as I made it, except:

  • I doubled it (and used 16 oz of small elbows);
  • I used real butter in the roux;
  • I used a heaping teaspoon of dried mustard (this gives it a nice snap);
  • I mixed up my cheese into a blend of sharp cheddar and milder Colby-American type mix;
  • I used buttered bread crumbs for the topping.

My youngest son, who is always shoving boxes of Annie's® at me (especially on the occasional fish or seafood night), even approves. I also judged this recipe based on its reheat value: it is just as creamy as the first time, especially when you infuse it with a bit of milk or cream and a few little pats of butter.

The ultimate comfort food! Diets be dashed!

You come back when you're ready! 

Catherine

January 6, 2012

Epiphany: What We Need

Haying time in June on our knob mowing.
There has been much hype about the world ending this year on December 21st. What we do know is that the Mayan calendar ends on that date. Some reports say there will be an unusual planetary alignment which will place Earth right into the center of the Milky Way galaxy for the first time in some 20,000 years (at 11:11am, to be precise: 11:11 is a whole other thing with me as I've been seeing it regularly since 2000). We are––contrary to what my grade school science teacher told me and despite my third grade protestations––already a part of the Milky Way galaxy. It is so vast that it encompasses our entire Solar System but we are not in or near its center (it is thought to be a spiral galaxy and is 100,000 light years across). Therefore it is impossible to even photograph it as a complete galaxy.

The Andromeda Galaxy is the closest spiral galaxy to us, but still over 2 million light years away.
When I am overwhelmed and need perspective, I just look to the heavens and realize we are but a speck.

I was raised by an amateur astronomer and geographer, professional banker and numbers man, and a brilliant organist all rolled into one. My father had an inner compass and always knew where we were in the world just as much as he loved to watch the weather and the heavens–or a good old-fashioned disaster movie: double feature matinee of The Day The Earth Stood Still or The Amazing Colossal Man, anyone? There are also other mathematical theories and ideas about why 2012 is "it." My father and I would have discussed them all, with just a dash of sarcasm and levity in case "they" all happen to be right. Either way, for a bit of reason, here is NASA's take on the whole 2012 thing.

This was widely circulated on the Internet this winter.
Prophecies of the End Times have been around for centuries. I don't need to list them here or the historical precedents of burning one's farm to await the Rapture, which, according to the Bible, no one is supposed to know when it hits, "not even the angels in heaven." I'd like to think that 2012 will be the beginning of better things for the world: of how we relate with each other as citizens, neighbors and individuals. More tolerant, perhaps. More sharing of what we have or what we know or have learned. Less prone to fits of anger if we don't get our way. Less envy. Less aggression and more compassion. More connection in real time and less via texting on Facebook or Twitter. Instead of blocking or unfriending someone on Facebook or in Facetime (unless they are truly toxic beings), perhaps opening our hearts to the possibility of the knowledge and love of each other. Or just listening to different opinions and ideas. One can hope. We all struggle with these things in our modern world. I do know that connection, tolerance and being neighborly begins at home. Or through good karma [these Twenty Ways to Get Good Karma by the Dalai Lama are applicable to any person or religion]. Or on a blog! [Believe me, I've been grappling lately with why I blog and if I should even continue and I've decided, for now, to do so. Someday I might share more about why, or why I considered giving all of this up.]

This winter I have realized, quite plainly and perhaps for the first time, that the only things that I can really control in my life are what goes into my body and what comes out of my mouth (or my pen). I can also control my environment to some extent (and sometimes not at all: but that is a choice, even though I live with two boys and a husband who, for the most part, are neater than I am). I can also control how much time I spend connected with the world via the Internet (gladly, I do not have a cell phone). I can control when I move or when I am still. I can take joy in the quiet, or, as one of my great-grandmothers wrote to each of her nine children: "Remember, loved ones, the ruthlessness to rest." She didn't just mean for the body, but for the soul.

I occasionally dream of the house that we used to live in and the houses of my past: fine and glittering places. "Palaces" of family or of the stuff of generations but all places of memory and homeplaces because of the people in them. Christmas especially conjures these places and the sorrow that they are no longer in our lives. But they are places, not people, and even the loved ones with whom we shared those homes are no longer in our lives. So what would those places even be without them? "You can't go home again," echos Thomas Wolfe in my head, always, like a sonorous, yet clanging, temple gong.

Now we are here on a ridge in Kentucky, on a farm that we've made in four years and that continues to grow in terms of what we are trying to do. So here I can create a loving home. I can shape a fine home, cottage or even a doublewide with what we have. I can focus on my writing and time with my children and my husband. Real time where I am present and not distracted. I can provide nourishing and delicious food for my family from our ample pantries and freezers. I can spend less, especially now that we've stockpiled much. I can read more and start with the books in my own home library (even though much is still in boxes)–or go to the library more instead of bringing in more books. I can be a better friend and neighbor. I can sing and dance more, just because (and OK, Santa brought Momma an iPod Shuffle this Christmas...). I can pick up my knitting needles again and have-at that yarn box!

I half-joked with my husband and some friends that this year, apart from monthly bills, I would only be spending money on gas, seeds, local produce and the occasional bottle of milk. We have so much on hand that really, apart from occasional clothes for the boys (my husband and I have clothes in several sizes and in classic styles and aren't fashion victims so we'll be fine), we don't lack for much.

In fact, we don't lack for anything.

I have this Wendell Berry quote under my header photo but it bears repeating again:
"It may be that when we no longer know which way to go that we have come to our real journey...And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here."
Yes, what we need is here. Now. Perhaps one day in Heaven, too. But for now, today, this is all I know. And this is all I need.

You come back when you're ready!

Catherine

January 3, 2012

Abandoned

Most mothers in the animal kingdom are excellent mothers.

Not all mothers are good mothers, some are even horrible mothers. We know this exists among humans but it happens in nature, too. Sometimes a mother cow will abandon her calf, despite its bleating. Other times a mother cow will die in childbirth or soon after, despite the best interventions, thus orphaning her young. It is sad but you can't linger in the sorrow of it or it might consume you. I have developed a thicker skin since living on our own farm, especially after the loss of three dogs (to our own naiveté about the predators on the farm, including other neighbor dogs), many chickens, and several cows (and deer, raised from birth, who have returned to their natural nearby habitat, as it should be). Rule number 1 is for a reason: don't name your farm animals.

Inevitable loss is a part of farm life that isn't often shared. While we raise beef cattle that are well-cared for here at Valley View Farm, they will eventually end up on someone's dinner plate. This is the reality. What we can do is provide them a good life while they're here. I concur with Wendell Berry: "I dislike the thought that some animal has been made miserable to feed me. If I am going to eat meat, I want it be from an animal that has lived a pleasant, uncrowded life outdoors, on bountiful pasture, with good water nearby and trees for shade." Hypocritical? Perhaps. I do not claim to be a vegetarian but there are times since living on our own farm when I have questioned my predilection for meat.

Wilbur is often by himself in the calf pasture.
Last winter we had several calves born during a cold bout of snow and miserable conditions that persisted into January. Most of those calves were abandoned by their mothers from death or circumstance. Each was bottle fed and only one has lived this long. But he exhibits many characteristics of "failure to thrive": he is smaller than his peers, he is a bit slower, and he doesn't look so well. We were going to ship him but I asked that he remain here on the farm for the rest of his days. He may not make it or he may. I didn't even have to pull my best Fern Arable. My husband agreed. Of course, we'd named him Wilbur and his small black Angus companion, Charlotte. This summer we found Charlotte on her side, dead in the creek. She had been separated from Wilbur and I think that she was lost without him, even though she had been surrounded by other cattle. The two were often spotted off by themselves. Since that time, Wilbur has been with his own peer group but is often alone, seeming to prefer his separation from the herd.

Meet Edgar Meeker Pond! (Yes, I'm nuts.)

Just after Christmas we had our first truly abandoned calf. A newborn Hereford calf was found bleating in the pasture behind the house. For days my husband, boys, and some men hired to help move the cattle, went looking for the mother. No luck as no one was coming forward. It normally would have been easy to spot her: she would have seemed frantic, bellowing and carrying on, especially if she had heard the cries of her own calf. So they brought the calf over near the sorting shed and we've been bottle-feeding him ever since. I've named him Edgar (an old untapped surname on my mother's side). And yes, he's staying. He and Wilbur will have their own "pleasant, uncrowded life outdoors, on bountiful pasture" for the rest of their days.

You come back when you're ready!

Catherine

Eggs Benedict Pond

I have no idea where the name Eggs Benedict hails from (Benedict Arnold?). I'm sure I could Google it and provide you the answer but I'm too lazy tonight.

We enjoyed this favorite brunch meal at 2:30pm on New Year's Day after our farm chores were complete. Our menu consisted of Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise sauce (which is rather like a savory zabayon, so the drippings on the plate near the strawberries were not a problem)–complete with our own eggs (my hens have been laying since the Solstice on December 21, probably lured more by the warmer days than the day itself)–and our own pork bacon on the side. I also served a combination of strawberries–fresh and locally-grown frozen ones–and we had a pitcher of Bellinis (made with chilled apricot nectar, instead of peach, and champagne: next time I will use our own canned peaches, as peach is traditional in this Venetian cocktail).

It was by far the most delicious batch of Benedict we've ever had–even better than breakfast at the (former) Ritz Carlton in Boston (often a special treat on day trips to the city). Perhaps it was that we were all very hungry by mid-afternoon or that using our own eggs (and bacon) really raised the bar a bit more. Either way, it was a most delicious way to ring in the New Year after a late night. I even had three (halves). As my husband often says, "Hunger makes a kingly sauce." As it turns out, so does Hollandaise. I used Julia Child's reliable recipe for Hollandaise sauce, which you can also use on fresh steamed vegetables like broccoli or asparagus. She is the queen of sauces and her two-volume The Art of French Cooking is a must for any cook.

To prepare the Eggs Benedict you'll need a good egg poacher (my husband is expert at making poached eggs so I leave this to him), some lightly toasted–and buttered–Thomas' English muffins, some good sliced ham–gently warmed–and a small pot of simmering sauce on hand for the last touch. You can also garnish with cayenne pepper and a smattering of chopped herbs. And don't forget the fresh ground pepper: grind liberally over the eggs just before serving. As for the cholesterol, well, our counts are low in that realm of numbers and I suppose I don't worry about it so much given that I know what my hens eat. Besides, it is Sunday and we never worry about what we eat on Sunday.

Julia Child's Hollandaise Sauce
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 Tbsp. water
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice, or more
  • 6-8 ounces very soft unsalted butter
  • 1 dash cayenne
  • salt, to taste
  • fresh ground white pepper, to taste
  1. Whisk the yolks, water and juice in saucepan until thick and pale.
  2. Set the pan over medium low heat and whisk at a brisk speed, making sure to get bottom and insides of pan.
  3. Keep heat moderated by taking pan off and on burner. You don't want the eggs to cook too fast (I used a thick Le Creuset sauce pan which avoided this problem, but you do have to keep whisking and watching).
  4. You can tell when the sauce is near done when it thickens and feels more like a custard.
  5. Then, add the butter in chunks, whisking after each addition. When it is the consistency that you want, stop adding butter.
  6. Season lightly with salt, pepper and a dash of cayenne, whisking well. Add more lemon juice if desired.
  7. Serve warm.
Happy 2012!

You come back when you're ready!

Catherine

January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!

I love the New Year! The holidays have come and gone (and a season of birthdays in our family). I start to eye new projects around the house. I welcome a cozier January and February to be indoors and getting things done (without "garden guilt," as I like to call it). And yet seed catalogues are arriving by the day and **plant-dreaming-deep sets in while doing other things. After a long few months of rain and mud–and balmier temperatures–I'm actually hoping we have a bit of winter this winter.

My resolutions this year are to be more in the moment in all ways and to check off some long term goals that I've had in the realms of health, well being, sorting the past (vast photo and archive project), and getting my house in order. I don't mean manic bouts of cleaning–although I have been looking forward to some good organizational frenzy in several areas. I mean the house of my body and my soul. I want to connect more with myself as well as the world in real and authentic ways: this means less Internet and Facebook and more Face Time (or good old-fashioned letters and notes via the U.S. Postal Service).

It's still technically Christmas in our house
until the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th.
Plus, it's too hard to take down the decor before
then, especially when I got it up so late last year!
Our farm has been growing and my husband is doing a great job managing it, my boys are busy at school and on the farm, our daughter is happy and well in her life back in New England. We are reasonably settled here now and I have no more excuses not to write more for publication (and to dust off some old fits and starts and try new ideas).

2012 should be interesting in all ways. I'll try to pop in here with more "bloggish" (rather than essay-ish) postings when I can, even if it's just a photo or two, a recipe or something I want to share.

You come back when you're ready!

Catherine
**to borrow from the poet May Sarton