Santa Rosa plum tree 2.jpgIt is terribly easy to become depressed and hopeless in times of war or when tsunamis unleash death and nuclear instability on the world.  Death trudges on its determined route and we sit stunned while counting our sorrows.  What have we got to look to for hope in times of darkness?

gang of tulips 2.jpgDon't ever dismiss the simple answer.  Never assume that the small things don't count or can't weigh against the big things meaningfully.  Maybe the bright coral of a tulip can't bring back the loved ones you've lost.  No one is going to argue that.  But can you not see the joy that nature offers us, the color she splashes across our path to arrest thought, to provoke laughter?  Can you not recognize a path there to light?

elephant heart blossoms 2.jpgWhat about the fruit tree that has hitherto never produced more than a meek smattering of blossoms and suddenly plasters itself with creamy flowers reaching sky high for the impossible spark of life?  Can you be blind to the hopeful ignorance of war and death your plum tree claims?  Listen.

volunteer violets 2.jpgListen to the life around you.  See the fractional evidences of love and hope the world gives even in the grimmest hour.  There will always be grief.  We will always be losing ourselves in graves and the calamities that bring us down to the surface of soil.  We will always be mourning for something.  Therefore we must always be looking for light to mitigate the dark. 

elderberry buds 2.jpgThe most life affirming gift I have ever received in my life were elderberry cuttings from a dear friend who is like a sister to me.  This very elderberry you see, budding as though it was a large-hearted lion of the landscape is nothing more than a sproutling declaring its love, its scrappy will to live, to thrive across continents, between friends.  This cluster of buds is promise, it's new life, it's a message of continuity and peace.

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Never relinquish your most private dreams because even if they never play out in your life they will inform your hope, your ability to move forward, and your  belief that you deserve every scrap of love you have.  Never stop believing in the power of the small voice, the sliver of light in the dark, or in the regenerative power of the earth beneath your feet.

I don't care what your creed is, what your political views are, or what your country of origin is.  There is a universal truth to recognize.  It isn't weakness to love.  It isn't weakness to want peace.  It isn't weakness to want to help your neighbor.  It isn't weakness to listen to the early spring white violets call out for pale sunshine.  It isn't weakness to stop to listen to them.

What's important in life is elemental and not the least bit complicated.  Don't be afraid to love without sophistication.  Just love.  It isn't all you need but it's the best foundation on which to build a rich life.


And bury your hands in soil once in a while.

Urban Homesteading: you can't own who we are

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I have been calling myself an urban homesteader for years.  I knew it was a movement a decade ago.  In fact, it was a movement started in the sixties with my mom's generation of people "getting back to the earth". 

Urban homesteading is a growing movement of people re-learning homesteading skills on a city-scale.  There is a fairly well known website of a family who's also been a part of this movement who believe they are solely responsible for coining the name of this movement, so much so that they have trademarked the term "Urban Homesteading".

I have never personally liked the "Path to Freedom" website run by the Dervaes family but I was happy enough to see another website where people could get information about growing food on small city lots.  I have always thought that the more people talking about urban homesteading and sharing ideas the better.

Now I'm angry. 

The Dervaes family is trying to enforce their dubious trademark on the term "Urban Homesteading" (and "urban homestead" too, I believe).  I don't know all the details but I don't need to know much more than that it is a betrayal of this movement to try to own its name and control its use. 

The spirit of the urban homesteading movement is a non-commercial, non-corporate approach to self sufficiency on a small scale.  What part of this movement is about ownership of its name?  What part of this movement is about owning what and who other people are?  None of it.  What I have loved about urban homesteaders across the board is their willingness to share information for free, their encouragement to others to come join the fun, to explore self sufficiency with the goal of becoming less dependent on corporate America.

Supposedly all of us who have been calling ourselves urban homesteaders for years must no longer use that term.

Trademarking the term urban homesteader and urban homesteading is no different than trademarking these terms: housewife, animal husbandry, homesteader, farmer, plant conservationist, home gardener, city dweller, marathon runner, anarchist, American citizen, nurseryman, self sufficiency, dairy farmer... and this list is infinite.

You can't own me.  You can't own who I am.  You can't own the life I lead and my ability to succinctly describe it to others.  You can't own a grassroots movement.  If a movement can be owned at all (which I don't believe it can) the minute someone owns any part of it it is no longer a grassroots movement but a business.  You can't own what people call themselves.  You can't own the words that describe what a person does and what they believe in.

Trying to own the term "urban homestead" in any of its forms is like trying to own the term "Christian" and then forcing all Christians to come up with some other way to identify themselves and what person on earth is arrogant enough to try to own the faith of others?

Urban homesteading is my faith.  It's my spirit.  Growing my own food and herbs, raising chickens, sewing my own clothes, recycling, composting, choosing open pollinated plants, building raised beds and coops, making my own medicines... this is who I am.  It's what I believe is more important than anything else.  Even when I'm not able to work on all the projects I want, even when all I can do is dry some of my own thyme and cook great food for my family, I am still an urban homesteader and no one can take that away from me.

No one can own me.

No one can own you either.

Please read about this and if you can donate to the Electronic Frontier Foundation who is helping to fight this issue, please do.  If you have a blog or a website and can write about it- please do.  Everyone who has ever considered themselves an urban homesteader should speak up and shout out. 

Riding the Fences of the "Urban Homestead": Trademark Complaints and Misinformation Lead to Improper Takedowns 

Urban Homesteading

Take Back Urban Homesteading

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Spring Approaching

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This is my latest baked bean batch.  I've been working on developing a good vegetarian baked bean dish for ages.  I'm closer now than I've ever been.  Philip and my mother loved this version.  It's almost ready to share.

A lot has been going on around my farmhouse.  We still don't know if the bank will refinance and we're at nine months of not knowing now.  My campaign to unload a lot of junk was going well (did I already mention I got rid of 6 boxes of craft stuff from my office alone?) and then my mother moved in with us permanently. 

Her moving in was a decision we reached mutually for a lot of different reasons.  The number one reason is that she couldn't afford to live in Portland any more.  She loves it there but it's just too expensive.  Another reason is that if the bank refinances our loan she can contribute to our mortgage.

The less official reasons are that her health isn't great and neither of us wanted her to be so far away that if anything happened I wouldn't be able to help out.  She's had bronchitis for a month and has been experiencing vertigo and has been ordered by her doctor not to drive.  So now she's on a leave of absence from work. 

The minute she moved in it's been complete chaos.  Not because of her.  My mom is pretty easy to live with now, something I never thought I'd say ten years ago, and she has a magic way of arranging and organizing things that I was not blessed with.  So she moves in and suddenly we have an amazing living room.  No dead space.  It's wonderful!  What's chaotic is how we've all been getting sick for a month and the pet situation is complicated and extremely stressful.

We love pets.  We are all animal people.  By animal people I mean to say that we aren't people who feel life is complete without animals being part of our family.  My mom arrived with two cats and two huge dogs.  My dog who has never chased her own kitties is suddenly responding to a cat-hunt vibe with the youngest of my mother's two dogs (a big boy named Angus) and our cat Penny is really upset and is now peeing on things. 

Angus is really the apex of all the trouble.  He can reach anything at all and is constantly chewing on whatever he can get his maw around.  Any boots or shoes left around are decimated in minutes.  He'll eat everything in the kitchen.  I roasted a very expensive baking sheet of organic fennel and turned my back for less than three minutes and he had licked over it all and already eaten half of them.

On the plus side my mom got our dishwasher fixed.  I don't mind hand washing dishes but I confess that it gets overwhelming doing dishes here and never more so than with one more person living here.  Not only did she get our dishwasher fixed (it's been broken for over a year) she actually cleans the kitchen every couple of days! 

Stitch and Boots is meant to be my homesteading blog but lately I realize it's mostly been my cooking blog.   I am not going to officially change the focus because I keep hoping to do some other household projects to share here.  I'm using this place as my flame of hope, if you don't mind me saying such a silly thing.  I have not really done any garden planning for a year while writing my novel and working and trying very hard to hold everything together with thin threads. 

I was reinspired the other day by a talk I had with my Kung Fu teacher and a couple of other students at our school about GMOs and though our talk was angry (not with each other- with the situation of not being able to keep GMOs from our own diet due to no labeling and contamination of non-GMO crops by a growing number of GMO crops) out of the anger I remembered something fundamental: growing your own food matters.  Growing my own food matters. 

Even though I might have to leave this house mid-season, it's also true that I might be here (in limbo) for as long as another year and in that time I can grow at least two crops in my garden.  I already have the beds, they just have to be cleared of quack grass ("just" is not doing justice to the problem- remember I broke a shovel on that stuff?!).  So I talked to my mother who is largely responsible for having given me a passion for gardening in the first place and she's going to help me.  We're going to do a small vegetable garden. 

It will be an act of good faith that we'll hopefully still be here a year from now.  Two years from now.  A decade from now.

She has requested one whole bed for her own experimentation with square foot gardening.

There is nothing more important than for all of us with yards and balconies to grow open pollinated food.  With all my house and life turmoil I lost sight of that.  I'm watching the spring bulbs surface and though I'm sad to see winter winding down I am feeling the excitement of spring and all the new growth it brings with it.  I'm excited to clean out the dead growth from my strawberries and let the new leaves up into the light.  Snow watch 2011 is over. 

It's time to plan the only part of my future I can be sure of which is that no matter where I live I will always grow food.  It's the best offering of hope I can make.  It's the grandest gesture of love I can share.

Extreme Picky Eating: The Max Diet

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My kid may be an extreme picky eater but while the number of things he'll eat is small, his food rules are complex.  Part of what makes feeding him so complicated is the fact that there are distinct cycles to his eating habits which change frequently and suddenly.  I am going to lay out (for your interest, not your criticism) all his food rules and the foods he eats to give others an idea of what it's like to feed him and, more importantly, how hard it is for him to eat.  Other parents of picky eaters may find solace in reading this account.  Either you'll realize your kid is way pickier and I've got it easier (but feel less alone) or you'll realize your kid is easier to feed and maybe find things to appreciate about your own experience by comparison.

The Rules:

Only one food on a plate at a time.
  Any condiments need to be in their own container in order to avoid touching the food before it's time to eat it.

Plates, bowls, and glasses are frequently scrutinized for cleanliness.  Any suspicious speck will contaminate the food on the plate and it will be refused.

Hand washing.
  Occasionally requests are made that we wash our hands before feeding the kid.  This always insults me and is met with a lecture about how my hands are always cleaner than his.  The truth is, he's not worried about germs, he's worried about unauthorized foods still being on my fingers such as the essence of cheese which may transfer to his food and make him lose his appetite.

Food needs to be as even and same sized as possible.  This is one of the reasons why he likes crackers and other predictably uniform foods.  Most foods are amorphous and irregular, this is repugnant to him.  Holes in toast, for example, used to be met with panic and then a flood of tears.  Now he is much more polite about refusing to eat toast that isn't "perfect".  There must be no rips, shreds, stringy bits, dark specks or anything ruining the appearance of his food.

Texture.  He mostly likes things to be crunchy and firm.  A limp carrot is an abomination.  A stale cracker is unacceptable.  mealy apples or crumbly anything is not okay.  Tater tots slightly underdone are an insult.  Texture is a very serious thing to Max and the wrong texture (such as a wet spot on a cracker) can be traumatic.   

With a few exceptions (which remains a mystery to me) sticky textures
such as jam or soft peanut butter in a piece of bread aren't tolerated because if he gets it on his hands he panics (and used to cry).  He will eat cornbread with honey on it (this is one of the exceptions) and will immediately run to the bathroom to clean his hands afterward - should there be an impediment to his getting to the bathroom he will freak out.

He does not eat at the table.
  He eats while watching movies.  I fought him from the time he was a baby in the highchair until he was about two years old trying to get him to eat at the table.  He would constantly try to get out of the chair and no food would be eaten.  I would give up and give him a snack while he watched a movie and the movie would keep him still and calm and I found he'd put food in his mouth and not examine it as closely.  This is true to this day.  I don't care what any other parent thinks of me, if it weren't for DVDs my child would not have enough distraction to eat.  It's like needing white noise to sleep (which he also needs).  I am at peace with this.

Flies or insects.
  If a fly or insect is seen in the same room in which he is eating he will lose his appetite for at least an hour, sometimes several.  For some reason ants inside the house, especially in any room he's eating in, are disturbing to him.  He doesn't mind them outside but he has nightmares that they are crawling on him in his bed. 

Food odors.  He cannot tolerate the odors of most food he doesn't himself eat.  He refuses to eat his food in the school cafeteria (a fact he didn't tell me until I found out because he got into trouble trying to eat his protein bar in the hallway).  He finds most food visually disgusting with special disgust for all pasta dishes, beans, and pizza.  He is usually neutral about people eating salads near him.  He is still very rude in dealing with his strong food odor/visual aversions though we keep working on it.

Temperature of foods matters.  If something like toast is supposed to be warm he will not eat it if it isn't the right temperature.  He doesn't eat much food that's meant to be hot except for tater tots.  I don't really blame him for not liking his tater tots cold but he's pretty dramatic about how disgusting it is.  He likes his cold beverages to be really cold, but not iced. 

"Old" water or old anything.  If it takes him too long to drink or eat something (say, longer than a half an hour) he will refuse to eat them because they've been sitting out for too long.  This drives me insane.  I do know that water grows stale but he is so sensitive to it that I have wanted to strangle his handsome little neck at constant requests for "fresh" water or new food.

Unopened bags.  He has started requesting that all Goldfish be brought to him in an unopened bag because he believes they don't taste right when they are opened by us though it seems to be fine if other crackers are put in a bowl by us. 

One left on the plate.
  One of whatever he's eating that is considered his "real" food (as opposed to snacks) must always be left on the plate.  For years he would always (ALWAYS) leave one tater tot or one carrot stick or one piece of apple.  Even if he was hungry enough to ask for more, one must remain uneaten.  He has, very lately, eased up on this.  I've asked him many times over the years why he does this and he would just tell me he had to do it.

Food Cycles.
  There is a distinct cycle to his eating that I haven't scientifically mapped but I can tell you that at one end of the cycle he'll have about fifteen different foods in rotation that he'll eat and at the other end of the cycle he'll have only two foods in rotation.  There are mini cycles within the bigger cycles.  He'll eat a few things obsessively until he gets a (literally) bad apple and then he won't be willing to try that food again for a month, sometimes more.  So what foods he'll eat are constantly changing.  This makes my head spin and my patience thin.

Brand specific.
  Don't switch brands on this kid.  He always can tell.  Have him try three vanilla ice creams without seeing the packages and he can tell you which one is the one he usually eats, which one is vanilla bean (which he hated for the specks in it), and which is the off brand you bought because they were out of the usual one. 

The Actual List of Tolerated Foods in the Max Diet:

Sugar toast.  Whole wheat toast with butter and brown sugar.

Egg toast.  (this only makes the rotation rarely).  Whole wheat toast with a fried egg and ketchup.  (this is hard to make "perfect" so comes with a high chance of being rejected.

Wheat hot dog bun with ketchup.

Cornbread with honey.  When he loves it he LOVES it and usually he will only eat  few slices before it's out of rotation for a long time.

Tater tots.

Apples.  Texture is extremely important.  The slightest bit of browning and he will stop eating them.  We've used lemon juice sometimes to help this.

Carrots.  Only likes the "baby" carrots because they're pretty uniform in shape and size.  Though he recently tried cut carrots again, unfortunately they didn't taste that great.

Grapes.  Only red grapes when they're in season.  Mostly just the red grapes we get from a friend of ours.  He'll eat bowls of those.

Cucumbers.  But only in season.  When they're good he LOVES them.

Watermelon.  Only the seedless kinds.

Strawberry "milkshakes"
made with milk, frozen strawberries, and a little sugar.

  An ever changing list of packaged crackers (organic saltines, Ritz style, Goldfish, Pop chips, and a few others that once in a while enter the rotation)

Energy/Protein bars.
  This is his main source of protein.  We only buy Luna and Cliff because they don't use corn syrup and are mostly organic.  Right now Cliff bars are NOT OKAY.  In each bar type he only likes two flavors and usually eats one flavor exclusively until he is sick of it.

Juice popsicles.  Concord grape only.

French fries.  When we go out to dinner we feed him at home and then let him order fries which are not good enough for him to eat 75% of the time.  When they're good he really likes them.

Peanut butter cracker sandwiches.  I put peanut butter (very smooth) between two natural Ritz-style crackers.  He's not eating them now but it was a great favorite for at least two months.

Peanut butter "breakfast" cookies.
  I adapted my peanut butter cookie recipe to have less sugar and wheat flour so he would eat something with protein in the mornings. 

Home baked cookies.  A few select recipes I use are approved.

Gingerbread.  He loves gingerbread. 

Ice cream.  All kinds of ice cream (except not fruity). 

Hot cocoa.  I count this as food because I make it with milk which has actual protein in it.  He doesn't like it often because he hates milk but sometimes it hits the spot.

Frozen yogurts.  But not the healthy natural ones.  He likes the tube yogurts made by Yoplait.  I hate Yoplait for having made them appealing to kids and then putting total crap in them.  Luckily, I guess, he seems almost to have permanently taken this off the acceptable foods list.

  Ten grain pancakes with a bucket of real maple syrup.

Popcorn.  Not a lot of nutritional value but at least it's something.

Potato chips.  We don't let him have these often but he loves them. 

That's 25 items total that he will eat, including desserts. 

Remember that most of the time there are only 5 to 10 of those items in rotation. 

Right now there are three:  Peppermint Luna bars, tater tots, and grape juice popsicles.

Food is emotional for most people and necessary for everyone.  I was prepared to love my child if he was born without all his limbs, to find charm in him should he be born a dwarf, and forgiving should he grow up to be a jock... but I was not prepared for a picky eater because I believed, as most parents do, that as long as I always put healthy food in front of my kid he would eat what I gave him (barring the usual disdain for broccoli and kale that many kids have).  I believed that it's parenting skill that makes good eaters, not something mental or physiological. 

Every time Max rejects the food I make for him he rejects a part of me.  He doesn't see it that way.  For eight years I've experienced his rejection of my tireless efforts to nourish his body and mind with good food.  I have compromised, worked hard at coming up with clever ways around his issues, and I have also given up a thousand times.  There have been times when I was so desperate to get him to eat anything that I let him eat crap that I don't eat myself.  No normal parent will let their kids starve.  Many parents of non-picky eaters love to say that no child will starve themselves so if you hold out and insist they eat what you want them to eat with the threat of no other options they'll cave in and bend to your awesome parental will.

My child would rather die than eat soggy toast.  I know this to be true.  How can I know?  Because I would rather starve myself to death than eat any kind of meat.  Anyway, I don't personally respect the kind of parenting that pits a parent's will against its child's with starvation as the threat.  I want a better relationship with my son than that.

Now that Max is much older he doesn't cry over his food issues, we discuss them and we work on them together.  I can't change the fact that he's picky, and neither can he, but he is more willing to try new things than he used to be and since he was diagnosed with OCD two years ago we know that many of his food issues are directly related to his OCD and this makes it easier for me to not take his food rejection personally and it helps Max to understand that his many frustrations with food aren't his fault. 

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Extreme Picky Eating: The Beginning

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Max's Thanksgiving Dinner

For most parents what picky eating means is that their kids don't like broccoli or spinach or papaya.  For the privilege of being able to complain that my child won't eat a few vegetables or exotic fruits I would happily amputate my foot.  You think I am being melodramatic but I assure you that missing my foot would be worth the pain in exchange for my kid eating most things besides a few vegetables or fruits that most children don't like.  To me that is not picky eating.

For some parents picky eating means their kids won't eat most vegetables or fruits and prefer a steady diet of pasta with butter, potatoes in any form, chicken, beef, cheese, milk, cereals, breads, rice, eggs, and sandwiches.  I definitely feel for parents with kids who won't eat any produce but will eat grains and meat and dairy.  I still envy them enough that if I had a ransom to give in exchange for my kid eating such a wide variety of foods, I would happily be poor but able to feed my child.  Sadly, I'm already poor and my child won't eat most of those foods.

Then there's the few of us with kids who eat 10 or less food items at any given period of time.  Think about what that would mean to you.  What if your child didn't like meat, hated nearly all dairy, choked on almost all fresh produce, disliked most cereals, bars, nuts, and grains?  What would you feed your kid?  How would your kid grow up to be healthy?  How would you deal with the fact that your child would prefer it if all food but dessert and a select few other items could simply be swallowed in gel-cap form?  How would you feel?  How capable of a parent would you consider yourself?  Would you blame your child?  Would you fight your child over food every single day?  Would you give up trying?

When my kid first started eating food as a baby he ate almost everything.  He ate pureed greens, carrots, squash, fruit, and cereals.  There were few things I put in front of him that he wasn't willing to eat.  I mashed bananas until he could eat them himself, he ate almost a banana a day until he was two years old.  He liked peanut butter and jam sandwiches, baked beans with grilled cheese sandwiches, lentil and chard soup pureed and scooped up on crackers, feta cheese, avocado, melon, pears, peaches, and he would even eat potatoes.

The change happened so gradually I can't possibly say exactly when we realized Max's palate was changing.  It wasn't overnight.  Slowly he started rejecting foods he previously liked and no power on earth could make him swallow a banana by the time he was two.  Other things were happening at the same time but the most dramatic was his powerful refusal to wear denim.  Later, when he could talk, he told me it was because it didn't feel good.  It was rough.  Anyway, slowly his diet whittled down to mostly carbohydrates and we consulted our pediatrician.

The pediatrician said it was a fairly normal stage many children go through.  Her advice was to continue to offer healthy foods at every meal and he would probably grow out of it.  He did not grow out of it.  Another year and another pediatrician visit and more advice to always offer healthy food but not to freak out if Max only wanted to eat crackers.  We already noticed other troubling trends in our child and considering these the doctor told us that we had a choice to make food a daily battle (I was making it a daily battle and crying all the time over the fact that he wouldn't eat much of what I offered) but warned that I could potentially create an eating disorder by fighting at every meal with my child. 

A child like Max.

She suggested we be careful about choosing our battles with him.  She told me that my job was to never give up offering him wholesome food.  If he chose only to eat crackers he probably wouldn't die, would most likely grow out of it, and we could give him multivitamins. 

I have never given up trying to get him to eat wholesome food.  I am an excellent cook and the biggest crime I commit in my diet is too much fat.  We eat a lot of fresh produce, whole grains, not much packaged crap, not too much salt or sugar, and we eat a truly varied diet.  To have an extreme picky eater for a child has been an enormous emotional strain on us and on our budget.  Packaged crackers aren't cheap.  Instead of growing out of the picky eating it has simply grown worse. 

I started writing about this issue on Dustpan Alley and have realized that it's time I write about it here.  Not for people with kids who will eat some things they don't like with some applied parental pressure or threats or promise of dessert, I want to write about it for those parents like us, who have struggled so hard over the basic job of feeding our child, who have shed a lot of tears, torn out a lot of hair, and thrown out a shameful quantity of rejected food. 

I get so angry listening to parents telling me how to get my kid over his picky eating.  There is a general assumption out there that if you just keep forcing your kid to try something (they say it takes twelve times) they will eventually like it.  Or that if you just refuse to feed them outside the meals you cook for yourself they will eventually just choose to eat what you put in front of them ("no child will ever choose to starve themselves").  Or that if a child doesn't like much food it's because the parents don't eat good wholesome food themselves.  Or that they aren't good cooks. 

There are a lot of assumptions out there about picky eating and most of them are made by people who don't have picky eaters for children.

I would like to address a lot of these assumptions and offer encouragement to other parents with extreme picky eaters because I need it myself and there's precious little of it out there.  I can't do it all in one post.  I will tackle it in several.  In the next post I will write out every single eating issue my kid has so that anyone who doesn't know the full scope may learn what my kid goes through and consequently what I go through trying to feed him.

I would like to offer some general advice right now:

1.  Never stop offering healthy food for your child to eat no matter how exhausting it is and how frustrated you are.

2.  Give your kid a multivitamin that includes iron.*

3.  If your kid only likes packaged food (crackers and things like that) be careful to read labels and don't allow any high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, food coloring, or other harmful ingredients into your cupboards. 

4.  Don't let other parents make you feel like a failure.  I once had a neighbor suggest that the reason my kid didn't eat healthily was because I wasn't cooking good enough food.  I have rarely had such a terrible urge to slap another woman as I did at that moment.  Her kids would eat kale raw and she assumed it was her awesomeness as a mother that made her kids like everything.  Most people will view picking eating as a failing of the parents or of the child or both.  Don't let them get under your skin.

5.  Be compassionate with your picky eater and with yourself. 

*Even finding  multi-vitamin my kid will take has been a miserable ever changing drag.  The flavors of most multi-vitamins are repugnant to him.  He finally begged for a pill to swallow but the one I found was enormous and the serving size was three a day and he could taste them going down.  I have finally found a multi-vitamin in a gel-cap which goes down more easily and he can't taste.

Fry Cook

spring rolls 2.jpgThere's no denying that these were better than the baked version, but worth the stench and the danger? 

Until last week I had never fried anything in my life.  I don't think my mom ever fried anything in my life either.  We have always reserved our fried food eating for going out or for the occasional packaged potato or corn chip.  I'm hardly a paragon of healthy eating, what with my cheese habit and my beer gut, but the truth is that fried food doesn't make me feel good.  Every six months or so I'll eat an apple fritter and predictably I'll feel icky afterwords.  I can eat fries once a week, but I have been known to get fry burps afterwords, a real sign that fried food doesn't agree with me.

I have one frying ambition though- spring rolls.  I have made baked spring rolls but I think it makes the wrapping kind of tough.  I finally broke down last week and decided to fry some home made spring rolls.  Frying is easy, right?  You just heat up a bucket-load of oil and throw food into it until it turns golden...

Apparently there's a learning curve with frying.  First of all, I can't bear the thought of filling any of my pots and pans with inches of oil.  What do you do with all that oil when you're done frying?  Do you dump it down the drain? That seems wasteful and also unhealthy for the drain.  Do you filter it and save it?  Do you make it into oil burning candles?  I couldn't do it.  I put about a quarter of an inch of oil in a large frying pan. 

I heated it up.

Till it was really hot.

I added some spring rolls which sizzled satisfyingly.

But soon the rolls were frying too quickly and burning a bit.

The kitchen was filling up with a slight smokiness. 

The oil was looking a little suspect.

Turns out you should turn your oil down once you have heated it up.  I came very close to catching my kitchen on fire.  Apparently frying is much more of an art than I imagined.  Even if I hadn't almost made my oil catch fire, the kitchen was filled with fried-smell for hours afterwords.  Usually my kitchen smells great after I've cooked.  How can the smell of fried grease smell so good when you're eating the food and then smell so very wrong when just the grease smell is left?

I've decided that I'm not going to cultivate this kitchen knowledge.  I'm going to experiment with rice wraps next.  Perhaps I'll make thin pancakes to eat my spring roll filling with.  I make a plum dipping sauce and I want to eat more of it but I need to find a way to eat this without baking or frying.  Pancakes might be the ticket!

I think it's nice to find some things I don't need to master in the kitchen.
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My photo book is finished- come look!

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my book cover.jpg
I have taken a break from writing my novel to create a book of my photos with some of my very best observations, meditations, and advice from my years of writing Dustpan Alley.  Please come take a look inside:

Preview of "Straight from the Jugular"

I had intended (and worked hard) to get it done in time for Christmas ordering but unfortunately I didn't make it.  Doing it well was more important.  I'm not gonna lie to you, I'm very proud of this book.  Even if you don't buy it, go check it out and leave a comment if you like it.

Here's the introduction to the book which explains the connection between writing and photography and what I look for in photos:

When I first started taking pictures for my blog, Dustpan Alley, I committed all the usual photo crimes: lots of flash, not quite in focus, poor lighting, and no working on the pictures in Photoshop later. I am, above everything else, a writer, so at first I just used the photos to punctuate and illustrate posts in a perfunctory manner.  The writing was all that counted to me, but something happened along the way; I started playing with the photographic possibilities.  I started caring about the composition of my pictures.  I took pleasure in getting a sharp picture, a picture with its own story, a picture that could stand on its own.

My pictures still mostly sucked until I got my first good quality point and shoot.  My Canon SD850 took sharper better quality pictures than my ancient point and shoot could.  I could take much better macro shots and it was faster, capturing natural light better.  Suddenly my pictures were speaking to me, guiding my writing, inspiring posts rather than simply punctuating them.  I took my camera with me everywhere keeping my eyes peeled for anything interesting to capture, anything that might bring me more words, that might have something to say to me later.  Getting my first DSLR camera was a fresh revelation and though much bulkier to drag around than my little point and shoot, it takes even better pictures so I am rarely without it.

This is a book of my photographs that have sparked narratives and uncovered stories.  As is true with my writing, I'm not interested in capturing only the pretty or the awe-inspiring.  I'm not interested in self portraits that show me always at my best or pictures of other people that they would put in their school yearbook.  What I look for is motion, color, transitory moments; I want to uncover the blood and the guts, the trash, and the paint underneath the paint.  I want to see the sting, the opening, the flight, and the dreams that live and die just beyond our sight.  I want to revel in the minutiae, the detritus, the flecks of light that catch us, and follow the eye where it goes when we're not thinking too much about it.  I want to find the humor, the daily irreverence, and the jubilation of daily life.

Just like my writing, my photographs come straight from the jugular.

I have collected in this book some of my best and each picture is paired with observations and thoughts I've taken from my writing.  The words don't always immediately seem to go with the photographs and I'm not going to tell you why I paired each one as I have, I am only going to say that in each pairing there is something that binds them for me, whether it is mood, color, texture, or narrative.   

Home is Wherever My Hands Get Dirty

Pinny who never moults 2.jpgAfter five months of applying (and reapplying) for a HAMP loan to stay in our home, we've decided to let it go into foreclosure.  It could be many months before the bank will even look at our continually resubmitted paperwork and in the meantime we've had time to consider the direction our life has been going in, what our true needs are, and what "home" really means.

We've been homeowners for 10 years and I admit that I fell into the faulty belief that if I owned a home I would be stable, wouldn't ever have to move, and I could plant fruit trees and watch them mature.  When I moved into my first home and gushed to my dad that I would never move again he said I was wrong, that I would outgrow that house and move at least once or twice more.  Turns out he was right.

I've planted fruit trees in three out of four homes I've owned in a decade and seen not a single one mature because we have either outgrown our house, been forced to sell it in order to not to lose our equity in it, and then two more homes later and we just keep moving, just keep moving.

Curly-Sue or Mo 2.jpgOwning a home gave me the freedom to discover cooking, gardening, housekeeping, and keeping hens.  It gave me the inspiration to learn to can my own food and it taught me to ask what I can do for myself so that I can avoid calling someone in to do it for me. 

Owning a home guarantees nothing.  Most people don't own a greater percentage of their home than the bank does.  Most people don't live in the same home for more than a few years because in spite of how far civilization has come, people are becoming more nomadic again. 

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I have had this hunger to "settle" for as long as I can remember because I resented moving so much as a kid.  I hated it.  My son is learning to hate it too.  I kept thinking that the best thing in life is to have a little plot of land of your own to grow food on and a house you love and will grow old and die in.  It's a combination of an American myth and my own fairytale.  It's what we're supposed to want.  It's what we're supposed to work ourselves stiff for.

I had the house I never wanted to leave.  I had the house I wanted to die in.  I had it all.  I had every bit of that dream and life carried it away from me on a foul wind.  Ever since losing the house of my dreams I've clung to the same ideal, trying to recreate what I had.  Every time I try to recreate it rips right out of my hands and leaves me with a wrecked foundation and a bunch of matchsticks to start over with.

I knew there had to be a message in there somewhere.

Sometimes life has to kick you in the head until you learn to duck and cover.  Sometimes you have to stop trying to rebuild the same thing over and over again.  Sometimes you have to look at everything differently and under the bare-bulb light of raw interrogation.  What if what you think you want so bad isn't what you need and what if creating the life you need leads to to a life you really want?

Home is not about ownership of property.  Home is not about owning anything at all.  Home is about what kind of a life you can make with the materials you are given and that you are able to find.  Home is about nourishment.  It's about self sufficiency.  Self sufficiency isn't just about having a garage full of tools or a field of wheat, though those things are good if you have them and can keep them.  Self sufficiency is about rolling your sleeves up no matter where you are or what you're doing and asking what you can do to improve a situation, a person, or a place.  It's about rolling up your sleeves to make things with your own two hands.  You don't have to own a house to make things with your hands or to fix situations, places, or people.

I despise the old saying "Home is where the heart is" because it's such a shameless oversimplification and meant to provoke a warm (predictable) emotional response from people and the people who say it usually aren't homeless or heartbroken.

Home is where you nourish yourself and your family.  Whether you do that in a house you own, or a rental, in an apartment, or in a commune.  Home can be the shelter you took your kids to to be safe and warm.  Home isn't anything as simple as your heart. It's earthier, harder, and primal.

As we've been waiting and waiting for the bank to answer our plea for assistance I've had a lot of time to ask myself what I need and whether what I need is what I want.  They aren't necessarily the same thing.  What I need, and what my family needs, is to reduce our responsibilities and burdens.  We need to cut out about fifty percent of our belongings.  We need to pare down, lighten up, get back to the core things we need in order to take care of ourselves.  We need a living space that's half the size of what we have because we can't take care of what we've got with our limited time and income.  We need to either have a postage stamp yard or no yard because as passionate as I am about gardening, that's not what I need right now.

We need to have time to enjoy each other's company without constantly dealing with all the little/big things that are falling apart right now or the things we've obligated ourselves to do or the things we should be doing as homeowners and can't and are therefore constantly stressed out about.

The decision to let the house go into foreclosure hasn't been an easy one and though I have to admit that it's making me more emotional than I like being, it already feels like a tremendous load is about to lift from my life.  It feels as though this is the first right decision I've made in five years.  It isn't easy to pry my fingers from the ghost of the dream I spent ten years fixated on.  It's hard to let go of something everyone else thinks you should die trying to hang onto.

A house is just a house.  I can't live my life as though an apocalypse is about to render all people without acreage into starving vagabonds.  A house isn't a home if it keeps you from doing what you're really supposed to be doing.  A house isn't a home if it drains more from you than it fills you with.

The only truly sad thing about this decision is that I must find a home for my 9 loved hens.  The oldest three, Dot, Flower-bud, and Pinny are my sweet old biddies who have served me so well and who will take hens that are at the end of their laying cycles to let them retire in comfort?  I'm heavy with the need to relocate them but there's no question about it and there's so much to do to prepare for the future move, the sooner they get settled somewhere safe and good, the sooner I can deal with the change ahead.

My life has never been settled and I see now that it doesn't matter.  What matters is that the best day of every week is when Philip, Max, and I go out to dinner together.  What matters is that I can cook amazing food and support local growers and sew and nourish my family in any shelter.  What matters is that I finish writing my book and get it published.  What matters is that I teach my son not to dogmatically hang onto ideals that don't work for him as an individual. 

What I hope for is a cottage no bigger than one thousand square feet, a tiny yard for my pets to enjoy, a good kitchen, and a corner to write in.  Or perhaps we'll find a cool old apartment downtown above the stores.

We won't likely move until late spring so I have time to weed through and curate my belongings down to an essential collection.

Yesterday Max asked me what I most want.  What thing do I really really want the most?  I couldn't think of anything I want.  I need some new sheets but that's not what he meant.  I don't want anything.  I haven't got an appetite for things the way I used to and it reminds me of when I was first married and I was filled with earthly wants and desires.  I remember burning with the desire to own a home when I was living in our sweet old apartment in San Francisco and here I am, seventeen years later, on the other side of it all.  What I'm remembering is how amazing my apple green vintage kitchen was. 

I've been in a lot of different kitchens and I expect I'll cook in a lot more before I die.

Home is wherever my two hardworking do-it-yourself hands dig in and get dirty.

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So Much Abundance

best fennel 2.jpgI think it's funny that when I'm in the middle of canning it's almost impossible to prepare actual meals.  I end up eating a lot of sandwiches and easy food.  Back when we had more money it was a great excuse to order in from restaurants.  This week the best thing I ate was this pan of roasted vegetables all of which I got from the two organic farms I buy from.  The tofu isn't organic and came from the regular market. 

I cut up two sweet potatoes, a few small Yukon potatoes, an enormous fennel bulb cut into six wedges, one whole block of tofu, and an entire head of garlic on my roasting pan.  I cut everything into (roughly) 1.5" size pieces.  I sprinkled it with salt and pepper and drizzled a generous amount of olive oil over the whole thing.  I cooked them at 400 degrees, turning them about every ten or fifteen minutes for an hour.

Best meal I've had all week!  I'm not usually a huge fan of fennel but I have to say that eaten this way has changed my mind.  I can no longer remember how I've fixed them in the past.

The best thing I ate the previous week was a pasta sauce I made with chanterelles and caramelized onions added to a sharp white cheddar cheese sauce.  The sauce was so thick it worked well to spread on toast and broil. 

All my other meals have been breakfasts of eggs, cheese, and tomatoes or lunches of cheese tomato sandwiches. 

best roasted tomatoes 2.jpgI did make (and freeze) some tomato soup.  I consulted friends for herb ideas and everyone has something different to suggest.  I ended up using fresh thyme from the garden and the very last of the fresh local basil.  I thought it was really nice but Philip preferred it as a dip for a grilled cheese.  He didn't love it on it's own merit, which is why I didn't bother posting my recipe here.  It needs work.  All soups should be worthy of standing alone. 

Vespa pack mule 2.jpgI made my annual trip to the local farm Bernard's this year for tomatoes, summer squash, and eggplant - all upick.  I ended up getting some jalapenos even though I promised myself I wouldn't.  Here's what I packed on my scooter:

74 eggplants
3.5 pounds jalapenos
34 pounds green and red tomatoes

All of this food cost only $36.95.  I am not kidding.  The eggplants were 25 cents each, the tomatoes were 47 cents a pound, and the jalapenos were comparatively expensive at 99 cents a pound.

free walnuts 2.jpgLast year my friend Laurie brought me a box of walnuts she'd collected from her mother's tree.  I put them in the freezer and only just cracked them all open in the last few weeks.  I portioned them into vacuum sealed bags and put them back in the freezer.  Walnuts are expensive to buy and I can go through a lot making this recipe for walnut pesto sauce.

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The pickles.  This was not my year for pickles.  There weren't any pickling cucumbers available for upick so I decided I'd make dilled beans.  When I tried picking at the farm it was not a great moment for them either.  So I resolved to just make extra cauliflower pickles.  I love dill cauliflower pickles so I figured I'd be just as happy eating these as the usual cucumber dills.

The day I brought home my giant bunch of dill-heads I was so giddy with excitement that I got chatty with the Rite-aid check-out guy who could be expected to have no interest at all in pickles.  To my surprise I was wrong.  I said "Dill!!" and he said "Pickles!" and I spazzed out at him when I found out his grandmother makes cauliflower pickles and it turns out this barely-twenty-something kid is a fan of cooking blogs and home canning

Those dill-heads would turn out to be a grim* reminder of the superiority of insects.  For anyone who doesn't know, it is generally best not to wash herbs any time you can get away with it.  I have been pickling for 4 years and have never had any problems with my dill.  I've grown complacent and careless, apparently.  I canned 17 quarts of pickles and every single one of those jars has a few tiny floating pickled aphids in them. 

I thought I was going to have to dump the jars out and cry over a very large beer.  Luckily my husband and my mother are more intrepid eaters than I am and have declared that they are perfectly happy to rinse the pickles before eating. 

I obviously had to make some aphid-free cauliflower pickles for myself.  I got more dill heads, really nice looking ones that didn't seem to have any aphids on them.  But I wasn't going to take any risks so I soaked my fresh dill heads in vinegar for a few hours thinking this might make all the aphids die and let go.  It worked!  (Yes, there were aphids on these ones too.)  But then I made the mistake of taking them out of the vinegar and waiting to use them the next day by which time they had developed a truly suspect odor.

In the end my last 14 quarts of pickles had no dill-heads.  Instead I used a quarter teaspoon of dill seeds and a quarter teaspoon of dried dill leaves.  I have no idea how they will turn out.

I am now done with my preserving season!  I am ready to concentrate on actual cooking, curtain making, and writing. 

*Possibly an overstatement.
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Thoughts on Fitting Food Preserving into a Busy Life

organic apple 2.jpgI have been doing a lot of preserving in the past month.  It has been my intention for weeks to hang up the jar tongs and get back to seriously writing the second draft of my book.  I have this goal that I will have the second draft finished by January 1, 2011.  Instead of writing I've been making batches of pesto (I'm up to a little over 20 batches in the freezer), canning stewed tomatoes (17 quarts this weekend), making quadruple batches of enchilada sauce to freeze, and yesterday I made an enormous batch of soup using the last of the summer vegetables (corn, green beans, summer squash, tomatoes, new potatoes, and fresh basil).

The elderberries are winding down now.  I've got 11.25 cups of elderberries getting sauced in 2,250 ml of 100 proof vodka in the pantry.  I have at least another 6 pounds of foraged elderberries in the freezer.

I could be done now.   I could throw the towel down and leave the ring.  But if I did that I wouldn't have any dill pickles.  There weren't enough pickling cucumbers for me to make cucumber pickles but right now there are these giant locally grown cauliflowers and cabbages that I can pickle the same way I do the cucumbers.  I made the cauliflower last year and it was an enormous success- not only between myself and my husband but all of our friends who tried them loved them also.   

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I have another nagging ambition: I want to make a green tomato salsa.  I want to do it just like the tomatillo salsa I made a couple of years ago.  Tomatilloes, like tomatoes, had a rough year and I didn't manage to get any through u-pick.  But I have a Mexican cookbook that mentions that green enchilada sauce can be made with either tomatillos or green tomatoes.

I want to try it!

There's more.  I saw a recipe for dill pickled green tomatoes that I think I'll regret not trying all year if I don't make them.

And what about the eggplants?  They're 4 for a dollar at Bernard's and I wanted to grill a huge bucket of them for the freezer...

I keep telling myself to stop, but the truth is that doing these preserving activities makes me feel good.  It makes me feel more hopeful and excited about the coming months during which time anything good or bad might happen but one thing's for sure: I'll be eating home pickles and making soups from tomatoes that have no pesticides on them.  When I'm feeling low I can make a pasta with grilled eggplant and pesto. 

So the book takes a little longer to write.  I've been thinking a lot about my characters as I preserve, thinking about how important these same activities are to them.  More so since they can't just buy things from a grocery store the way we can today.  The inspiration for the story originally came from doing urban homesteading activities and asking "What if oil didn't completely run out but became so limited and so costly that the average person couldn't drive a car because they couldn't get oil and what if they couldn't buy anything plastic?  What if no one could afford to buy imported foods except on rare and special occasions?  What would you have to know how to do in order to survive being more isolated in the community you're in?

These are the things I think about while processing 50 pounds of tomatoes. 

What I've realized is that preserving as much food every year as I can, at least in the fall, isn't just a silly little project I enjoy doing, it's a big project that I feel a deep need to participate in.  I need to know how to preserve food I have now so I can eat it later.  Because I already mostly eat seasonally my choices in produce are about to become much more limited.  I buy a few things out of season, but not much.  No green beans, no corn, no out of season fruit (except for Max), no summer squash, no tomatoes, no eggplant, no asparagus, no peas, and no fresh herbs I can't still get out of my garden.

It isn't a fancy rich person's hobby.

I'm not rich and I'm not fancy.

It isn't an indulgence as I've been telling myself it is just because I know I have other things to do.  It's one of the most important things I do for myself and my family every year.

So I'm reminding myself, and anyone else who needs a similar nudge, that preserving your own food (no matter how much or how little you do) is using the kind of knowledge that allowed humans to cross the ocean.  Practicing this knowledge is what allowed humans to settle down in one place.  Unfortunately it's also what allowed armies to march far enough to conquer and oppress other countries.  Food preserving is responsible for so many huge changes in human history.

It's something I look forward to every year.

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