Thursday, December 30, 2010

Films of 2010

I've been cruising the Web this morning looking for Top 10 movie lists to fill out my Netflix selection. It's sometimes hard to navigate the recommendations. I'm not sure why, but it seems like movie reviewers have become more and more subject to their particular, individualized taste. Maybe there are just too many films, or not enough trustworthy national reviewers-- if you have recommendations of Top 10 lists worth paying attention to, please post. Mostly, I don't want to watch dark underground slasher/horror films or Sundance-type indies that go nowhere. One reviewer's list was loaded with "relaitonships on the verge of collapse" films, and another was too gory for consideration. Still, I gleaned a few I'm looking forward to that I would not have otherwise heard about.

After seeing The Fighter before our Christmas trip to Chicago, we have been having a little Christian Bale film festival. Steve hadn't seen The Machinist or American Psycho, which, taken together, do show an interesting range by Bale, and if nothing else, his attention to his own physique! I'm going to add Laurel Canyon to our viewing, and we're thinking of rewatching Empire of the Sun as well. I have another on "video on demand" from Netflix, All the Little Animals, which is also supposed to be a stellar performance.

One of the films that stood out on lists, and that was among the best we saw this year, was actually three: the Red Riding series. I first saw it listed as part of the Palm Springs Film Festival when we were there last January (what a great way to start the year that was!). Reminded of it later in the year, I added it to my Netflix queue. If you like the murder mystery series done by the BBC over the last three decades, you are in for a treat with this series. A tale of police corruption and serial killings in gritty Northern England, the 1970s period is captured stunningly well and the films have excellent performances and a rich feel. The first one stars Andrew Garfield, who costarred in The Social Network and is a young actor to watch.

Although the reviewers are saying that 2010 was a good year for the studios, I have to disagree. I don't remember a year where I had so few films to put in my queue, or so many weeks when we would have liked to go see a film and couldn't find a single thing we'd go to the theater to watch. It is possible that more and more often, the good films come out in Jan-March of the following year, to focus the Oscar buzz, but I can't say I've even heard about more than a handful of films I'd go out of my way to see. When I'm anxiously awaiting Toy Story 3 to come out on DVD so I know we'll have something worth watching, the studios aren't doing a good job.

It's hard if not impossible for me to imagine life on the farm without Netflix, especially Netflix Watch Instantly. I remember when I moved from Chicago to Joliet with my first husband, how nervous we were about the loss of movie options. There was an amazing video store in Joliet, with no organization-- as films came in they just gave them a number and added them to the collection, which would have been chronological except they were also acquiring older films as they went along. That place kept us busy and provided lots of entertainment. Now, though, every year is a good year with access to the Netflix catalog. It's just a matter of finding the recommendations.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Venison Chili

It is mid-December, but the temperature barely creeps above the zero mark and the day begins after I rise and is over before I leave work, so it certainly feels time to start the venison chili going. Because my friends won't be grinding their venison until January, I put a note on the campus bulletin board looking for someone who had extra. I knew I wouldn't hear back from any of the professors, but surely a staff member somewhere had deer meat to spare.

Sure enough, one of the administrative personnel just down the hall from me (on the college side, not the monastery) had about 50 packages of ground venison and couldn't imagine eating more than 30 of them. How many would I like?? I think five will get me through until my friend gives me more at the end of January.

I have always loved meat chili, and haven't found a better recipe than the simple one. With this 50/50 mix of venison and pork and chipotle chilis with adobo, it is smoky and delicious.

Venison Chili
Saute a chopped onion and chopped garlic in oil until translucent. Add about a pound of venison/pork mix and brown. with a few chipotle chilis with their adobe sauce from a can, as well as a liberal dose of chili powder (2 Tbs at least), salt and pepper. When meat is brown, add a large can of tomatoes, two small cans of red kidney beans, and some frozen corn. (You can also add barley, but cook it first, because it takes too long to cook in the chili.) Simmer until ready to eat!

At the noon hour, unable to listen anymore to politics on NPR, I turned on the local college radio station. A woman was talking about carnivorous culture-- basically, the horror of meat-eating. The jargon was so over-the-top, and rolled so melifluously from this woman's tongue, that it was like we don't live in the same country or speak the same language. She was talking, of course, about meat production in this country, factory farming, and the attendant evils. OK. I'm down with it. I did feel incredibly lucky to live where I do, having options and being able to know how the animals are more or less raised and killed. I am taking control of that in our kitchen more and more. Then I thought, "If I lived in Chicago, would I ethically have to become a vegetarian?" Hmmm. I just don't see that happening.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Thin Ice

This is the season of people falling through the ice in Minnesota. On Mondays, I read the weekend's newspapers, looking for items mentioning the monastery, and each of the three papers: Saturday, Sunday and Monday, had small items in the margin of the "Local & State" section about people falling through the ice. They are headlined this way: "Cushing Man Goes through Ice;" "Man Falls through Thin Ice"; "Car Goes through Ice."  The car was actually an accident-- the woman lost control and her car tipped sideways into the lake. Two people came to her rescue.

The other two were not so lucky. One went into the lake, ATV and all, as he was heading to an ice fishing spot. The other, an elderly man, had gotten off his ATV and was walking to an ice fishing spot when he went under.

It is early December, after all. And though we've had some very cold weather, we've also had some not-so-cold weather. For the rest of the week, the paper ran warning stories about thin ice, including a pre-weekend spread with a large graphic that showed how thick ice needs to be to support a: human; b: ATV; c: automobile.

I think it's best to think of Lucy Van Pelt and her declaration that she never eats December snow. Except for ice skating on local shallow ponds, with supervision, it's probably best to stay off the ice until January, even in Minnesota.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Winter Projects

Here we are, more than halfway through Advent, and I have not much in the way of baking or cooking or even spiritual reflection to offer. This year things are moving hard and fast. I find I still have trouble transitioning to when Steve comes in from outside. When the ground freezes and the landscape season is over, the house that I usually pretty much have to myself most of the year gets retinhabited by Steve. And he comes inside with energy and the house turns upside-down.

Last year, Steve had an idea for a book, and spent the time up through Christmas pretty much reading and thinking. This was easy for me to warm up to. Two years ago, making paintings was the project-- with big canvases being stretched and tarps and lights and photos to be taken-- there was a lot involved.. This year, making furniture is the name of the game. There is welding, and a new set of kitchen stools, preceded by prototypes (one of which collapsed under him at dinner) and with seemingly endless consultation. Then came the slabs of wood, the discovery of new designers and web sites. The few pieces of furniture we have get rearranged, and everything is on the verge of being destroyed/revised. There are elaborate plans for a kitchen remodel to follow.

Let's just say, it was easier when writing books was the project. This is not a contemplative season. The stools are beautiful, and so is the slab of oak that will become our new coffee table. AS for the kitchen, we'll see how I do through the upheaval. It will probably help my diet!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

On the Edge of a Diocese on the Edge

On this first Sunday of Advent, we went to Mass at the tiny, half-empty church in Menahga, Minnesota. We were spending our first overnight visit to the Kluesners' log cabin, built by Paul Kluesner here on the farm and moved up and assembled on a lake near Wadena.

There are two choices of Sunday Masses nearby: the 9 a.m. in Park Rapids and the 10:30 a.m. in Menagha. We chose the later Mass, for obvious reasons. Menahga's Assumption Church is at the farthest northern edge of the St. Cloud diocese, a full two hours from where we live. It is one of three churches in a "cluster," including St. Frederick Catholic Church in Verndale and St. Hubert Catholic Church in Bluegrass. St. Frederick have a Mass on Saturday at 6 p.m. and St. Hubert's Msas is at 8:30 a.m. every Sunday. Until recently, the cluster was served by a young priest, but he has taken a break to discern his vocation, questioning, it seems, his commitment to celibacy. I'll tell you one thing-- it would be a very difficult thing indeed to be alone on this edge of Wadena County.

We were uncertain who would be presiding at Mass, so I was excited and very pleased when I turned and recognized Father Eberhard Schefers ready to process down the short aisle. This was a treat I thought I might not have a chance to experience: Mass with Fr. Eb.

Fr. Eb lives in St. Joseph, where he moved a little over a year ago when he retired from parish ministry. He then agreed to participate in a process at the monastery to consider and plan for the future of on-campus ministry at the monastery in the face of declining numbers of Sisters. He is a kind, quiet man, one of the priests of a certain generation who spent his whole life in faithful service wherever he was sent, to the people of Minnesota.

When he registered that I was in the pews, he smiled, and he offered me the Eucharist with a smile and by name. Things like this make me so happy, and remind me of the privilege of living where I do, working where I do, at this moment in history.

The night before, our discussion had turned naturally to the question of what will happen to the church as the numbers of clergy decline. What would be a good solution? Married clergy? Women ordained? The four of us agreed that both would be positive developments, with in fact a more immediate support of women clergy. Bringing a family seems more complicated somehow, although plenty of churches have not only made this work, but benefited from the blessing of having a minister who was married and had children. There are, in fact, already married priests in the Roman Catholic Church (widowers and converts).

At stake here, ultimately, is the accessibility of the sacraments. But even now, we can see the extraordinary situation unfolding-- not just for our parishioners. Here is retired Fr. Eb Schefers, who had told us at our final committee meeting in August that he hasn't really been to more than a few Masses in St. Joseph, because very weekend he's been called upon to give Masses in other parts of the diocese.

What does that mean exactly? Well, that morning it meant a two hour drive, about 125 miles, to celebrate a Mass for about 80 people, in a church that was neat and serviceable, with minimal aesthetics and an organ better suited to a living room. Fr. Eb, beting who he is, gave a wonderful homily, drawing on the readings and telling two engaging anecdotes that the congregation responded to audibly.

After church, we invited him to join us for brunch back at the cabin. Unfortunately, he couldn't come. He had to hit the road because he had another Mass, at 3:30 p.m. in Clearwater, Minnesota, 20 miles to the East of St. Cloud, at a nursing home.

Bless his soul, Fr. Eb Schefers. We will not see his like again.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Black Friday Rant

I've had a rant simmering for a week or more. I resisted because it was Thanksgiving week and I knew I should be thankful, not ranting. And I am thankful, for my wonderful husband, the farm, family and friends, my connections with the Sisters, a good and secure job, great food, and these days most immediately and consciously for a garage to put my car in each night!

However, what has really been bothering me is the sudden appearance of the Keurig single-cup coffee maker. Where the heck did this thing come from?? Why is it so popular?? People all over are spending over $100 for a new coffeemaker and buying these ridiculous plastic cups of coffee that are being produced by every coffee company in the world (it seems).

It just seems like a huge step backwards, in terms of recycling and simple living. While people are working very hard to eliminate plastic water bottles from the system, here comes a new source of plastic garbage. When people are working to get folks to purchase fair trade coffee and make life better for coffee growers around the world, here comes a way to jack up prices for those who need and deserve it least in the production chain. I just can't get my head around it.

Now, of course, I shouldn't talk, since I was most outraged as I was walking past the display of K-cups and brewers at Kohl's on my way to buy a brand spankin' new red KitchenAid mixer. I am certainly no model of anti-consumerism. This just annoys me to no end. I wonder if it is what passes for "innovation" in this country, and getting our economy back on track. More products for the masses that they don't need! I wish people would save their $169 toward something more useful or transforming... if not a solar panel, maybe a nice raised garden bed!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Simple Pear Tart

Pears are a problem. I really like pears, but go from hard to over-ripe in 60 seconds. They don't stay ripe and firm for a long time like apples. I bought five pears last week, and they suddenly were ripe yesterday. I'd seen a recipe for a pear tart in this month's bon apetit magazine, but it looked kind of complicated. Instead I searched epicurious and found this beauty. You make it in a skillet with just a few ingredients. It is fun-- you get to flip it over at the end-- and gorgeous, and not at all fussy. You don't even have to do things like weigh down crusts with beans and etc. I never make my own pastry dough, I use "Pappy's" brand which always turns out great and is made with lard. I recommend upping the cinnamon significantly and adding a little vanilla to the pears... (I could have eaten the whole thing last night.....)

Carmelized Upside-down Pear Tart

4 large firm-ripe Bosc pears (2 pounds total)

1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla

Pastry dough

Peel and halve pears, then core. Heat butter in a 9- to 10-inch well-seasoned cast-iron skillet over moderate heat until foam subsides, then stir in sugar (sugar will not be dissolved). Arrange pears, cut sides up, in skillet with wide parts at rim of skillet. Sprinkle pears with cinnamon and cook, undisturbed, until sugar turns a deep golden caramel. Add vanilla near the end. (This can take as little as 10 minutes or as much as 25, depending on pears, skillets, and stove. Be careful not to burn the sugar.) Cool pears completely in skillet.

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 425°F.

Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface with a floured rolling pin into a 10 1/2-inch round. Arrange pastry over caramelized pears, tucking edge around pears inside rim of skillet. Bake tart until pastry is golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Cook on rack 5 minutes.

Invert a rimmed serving plate (slightly larger than skillet) over skillet and, using pot holders to hold skillet and plate tightly together, invert tart onto plate. Serve tart warm or at room temperature.

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Prodigal Summer (Review) and Butter

I've been reading Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer, and although I'm not disappointed in it, I am surprised by how didactic it is. I had high hopes of a book that would be full of details of rural life in Virginia, especially after reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. In the opening chapters, we're introduced to a woman who is struggling to shape herself to the "family farm" she's married into. Lusa's husband Cole is out on his Kabota, and she is smarting over an argument from breakfast. This tugged at my heart, as Steve also drives a Kabota and, although we don't argue over breakfast, he usually bears the brunt of my ongoing adjustments to life in this house and on this piece of land.

I was looking forward to where that storyline would go, but it didn't go far-- Lusa becomes a widow by chapter two. And she begins to raise goats.

I was also looking forward to the goat-raising stories. After AVM, I realize I'm looking most of all for stories of simple things people do-- reassurances that none of it is very difficult. It all just takes time. My head is full of goats and chickens and cows. I just need some more instruction-- a picture I can begin to incorporate to see how this thing goes.

Unfortunately, Prodigal Summer kind of devolves into a series of lectures on pesticides, herbicides and coyote poaching, as well as a more poetic treatise on fertility. It's a fine, accomplished book, but it has a little too much of an agenda to be truly successful.

Meanwhile, much more to my liking was a set of videos I found through the e-newsletter. Each month, cheese guru Ricki Carroll shares a blog or some other information on people out there making cheese. This woman in Texas has made a number of really charming YouTube videos about life with her cow. It makes me happy to see them, and I've decided now to start laying in equipment, and looking for a raw milk source nearby. I'm going to begin with a piece of equipment I've always wanted: a KitchenAid mixer, a splurge with the advance from the Saint John's Bible book. Next stop: wood butter molds.

Enjoy this video on making butter from the woman in Texas!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Fall Cleaning

One thing I very much did not like about living in California (both Northern and Southern) was not getting to change out my clothes seasonally. Although I always tend to buy clothes throughout the year, so it wasn't like I never had any changes, it just wasn't the same as unpacking clothes put away for the season.

Today I did some major fall cleaning-- most notably clearing my desk off completely and filing/recycling/ tossing lots and lots of papers-- and changed over my summer to winter clothes.

It's hard to believe I could forget clothes I packed in a suitcase just a few months ago. Noneheless, I always smile to unpack items I wasn't counting on. This time, it was the black corduroys, which I wear a lot in the winter but forgot I had. I was also happy to see all the turtlenecks and other plain, knit shirts I depend on under sweaters. I do like my clothes, which are simple and durable, and it was good to arrange them on the closet shelves and in the dresser. The sweaters seem to dramatically increase my wardrobe as I hang them up, since I've been depending on the few "in-between" items I keep out year 'round.

And as I put my t-shirts and shorts and all those lightweight things into the suitcase, I can guess what pleasant surprises will greet me next June. There is the pretty recently purchased beaded, crinkled top and the Gap capris I've wore all the long, warm September. After winter, I'll enjoy unpacking my two pink cotton dresses just as much as I enjoyed pulling out my snow pants today.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Walk in the Pasture...

milkweed pod on the prairie
 I am still thinking about beef cows. Reading the "grass" chapters in The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan is not at all convincing me that it will be easy to raise cows, but it isn't dislodging the idea from my brain either. Now that I've read that my old fellow Park Forest/Grinnellian friend Alison Hayes is living in North Carolina with three water buffalo and scything her own hay, I think even more that I might be able to do it. Or something like it. We're in the exploratory stage here.

One thing you'd notice about Steve if you stayed here any amount of time is that he loves to walk around our property. He wanders around a lot, mostly looking at grasses and weeds and wildflowers. Probably also dreaming and planning.

If you've read my blog at all, you will know that I stay inside a lot. I am surprised that I've taken to gardening as much as I have, and that the gardening makes me walk outside and visit it. Even when there's nothing to harvest (though I picked the very last of the spinach today-- and some fresh dill that has sprung up-- so harvesting has continued to the very end of October) I find myself going out there just to take a look at the soil, the boxes, pick up a few rocks and turn over the soil and compost, walk over and check out the new apple and pear trees, etc. I always think about how much I want more raised garden beds and looking at where I will extend the actual garden plot next year.

Today, after reading awhile, I put on some old shoes and went off to walk around on the property, looking for pastures, or what could become pastures if I got a cow.

The only time I usually walk around the property, except for the few times Steve and I have gone "walking with guns," otherwise known as hoping for pheasants, is on snowshoes. I do love to tramp around in snowshoes. But for most of the year the land is full of plants, particularly thorny ones. After last week's land hurricane, though, every tree and bush is bare, the grasses are dead and lying down, and it seemed possible.

This view shows the rows in the fescue
in the commons that Steve and Tim
have spent lots of time growing this fall
and spots to be expanded to prairie.

I started down a path (I have no idea what makes the path-- deer? a cart brought through when they harvested the nearby cornfield?) along the Eastern edge of our property. A large hawk took off ahead of me, and I soon came upon the rabbit it had reduced to fluff. Only one leg remained with any meat, and the fur actually kind of made the shape of a whole rabbit, which struck me as funny and odd.

After awhile, thinking I was well beyond the wetlands, I turned in. I was really enjoying myself, coming into a large space I was thinking of calling the "pine pasture" since it is just behind a grove of pine trees, when I hit water. Not much water at first, but soon enough up to my ankles. So this is what is under the snow! I tried walking farther south, but the water only got deeper. And it was cold. I was at the southern edge of the property, and still more than ankle deep in water. So I trudged east, back to the cart path. Isn't this where Steve said this morning the cow would graze??

I made a wide arc around the wetlands, and headed back into the interior. Soon enough, though, I reached a pond. At this point I gave it up and made my way northwest, toward the houses and civilization. Back, unfortunately, to the land that to me already feels completely possessed by Steve and Tim and their prairie restoration activity. I thought about walking over to the tree nursery, where Steve was transplanting trees and I could see and hear his machinery. But my feet were pretty cold so I headed back inside.

I don't feel discouraged, but I do feel a little chastened. One thing I know about myself is I tend to keep "raising the bar" in a way that keeps me anxious and on edge. Maybe I should concentrate on the gardening at least a few more years, before I give way to these visions of moving cows from pasture to pasture with my portable electric paddock, bringing in the chickens behind them and transforming swamp into pasture and a very large amount of beef and eggs.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Ever since I finished Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Mineral I've started making cheese. I got the ricotta and mozzarella kit from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company and have made three batches of the mozzarella. It's the most fun to make because it only takes 30 minutes and involves stretching the cheese, which is then an elastic little clump you can slice for bread and crackers or shred into dishes. It's delicious and simple.

I am still daunted by the hard cheeses, if for no other reason than that they require a lot of equipment. There are molds and presses and wax and all that. So far the only thing I've had to buy is the ingredients and the thermometer delicate enough to register accurate temperatures of 86 degrees...

Today, I'm making my foray into another kind of cheese. I bought some mesophilic starter so I could make lactic cheese, a soft cheese that I think will be kind of like chevre (though not made with goat milk) or that yummy spreadable cheese, Rondele. To make it you work with the milk at night, bringing it to 86 degrees and adding the starter and rennet. Then in the morning it looks like yogurt and you strain it through a colander lined with muslin. You wrap the muslin and hang it (I'm using two barbecue skewers poked through the muslin) over a pot for another 6-12 hours. Then you add salt and herbs (if desired) and put it in a serving dish.

I can't wait to try it tonight with Steve's homemade bread.

The recipe recommends it takes shape in a 72 degree kitchen, but it's cooler than that in here today, what with the land hurricane and all. Still, as the author of the Chickens in the Road blog, Suzanne McMinn says, lactic cheese is very forgiving, another reason I decided to try it!

Land Hurricane

Every few months I seem to hit a sort of wall and need a day more or less in bed. Last night I came home from work and went to bed, got up to eat and watch a little television, then was back in bed. I've had a headache and felt achy for a few days, but it hasn't turned into a full-blown illness. Still, I knew when I went to bed last night that I'd probably be calling in sick.

The weather is probably part of it. We're experiencing what the weatherman called "a land hurricane," with gusts of wind over 50 mph. I could feel the top half of the house shaking as I lay in bed, and it ripped the door off our screen porch with lots of banging and bluster. If you're going to stay home, today is a great day to do it.

I'm starting The Omnivore's Dilemma, which I've avoided reading until now. Part of it is that I have trouble getting through non-fiction books, although I am encouraged by how much I enjoyed Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea to try another. After reading the introduction, though, I skipped over the 100 pages on corn. I already have this story and could see paging through the amount of data that is in that chapter. At the end of the day, I like a narrative, which is why I liked Kingsolver and Mortenson's books so much. Give me a story and I'm yours. But I'm not a fan of the new journalism that has resulted in the history of fire, salt, guns, orchids, germs, storms, etc. I figure I can get those stories by listening to the author on Terry Gross's Fresh Air and move on. Thus, the chapter on corn. I went right to the second chapter, on grass and cows.

Mostly I dug into this book today because of our trip to the cow farm. Our friend Tim was telling me on Sunday, when I said it seemed to me the rancher's job was mostly about managing the manure and pasture, that it sounded straight out of Omnivore's Dilemma. I want to learn more about raising cows, so I'm going to read it.

Which brings me to our steak dinner on Monday night. I hate to say it, but our first try with the grass-fed steaks was a disappointment. The meat was not tender. It was tough. I'm not sure that I know how to cook steak properly, but I do have this special Le Crueset grill pan for the stove top and cooked it on a low temperature... The meal was still fantastic, with a baked potato and the sauce from the beets we had the night before and Brussels sprouts from the last farmer's market of the season. And despite the lack of tenderness in these particular sirloins (perhaps I should try a more quality cut), there was no question that the meat had a completely different flavor than beef from the store. It was delicious, and had a full, real animal flavor-- not gamey but more like game than store-bought beef. So I will not give up. But it did bring home the risk in growing a cow for beef-- that is a hell of a lot of meat on one animal, and so much higher risk for having a good harvest or bad.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

British White Cows

Yesterday, many from the Heymans clan came out to the farm on the pretense of going to the St. John's football game. It was spearheaded by Steve's dad, who in the end listened to the first half on the radio and then decided not to go to the second half, because it didn't seem like much of a contest. It probably didn't help that it was in the 50s and drizzling on and off all day.

One of the family members in town was our nephew Paul who built the log cabin. He is now working as a  handyman, self-employed and loving it. He and Steve were talking about machinery and projects, and Paul mentioned that he wanted to look at some dump trailers. I remembered that I'd put a notice in the newsletter for Common Ground Garden CSA (the Sisters' community supported agriculture operation that ended it's season this past week) for an open house on the farm that offers their beef share. I really wanted to go out and look at the cows.

Let me just step back and say that I never thought I'd write a paragraph like the one above. Truly, the things I now know and the place I now live is an astonishing surprise to me.

Anyway, instead of going to the game, Paul, Steve and I headed out to Avon, Minn., only 6 miles up the road. First we looked at dump trailers, and Paul told us about the ones he'd seen at the State Fair as well. Neither place was open, so we just looked around without getting prices or anything. I could now explain to you the relative merits and workings of a dump trailer.

Then we headed out toward St. Anna, and west 2.5 miles toward Albany to Rolling Hills Traeger Ranch. I'd been to their Web site before, first looking for a photo of a British white for the newsletter, and later because I found it so interesting. It is a single mother with three daughters (age 15, 13 and ?). They have 140 head of beef cattle, mostly British white but also some Holstein crosses. They breed them and feed them on grass pasture their whole lives.

We were met by Christina, the mom, who grew up on a dairy farm and is incredibly smart about cows. Her whole life, it seems to me, is spent thinking about manure. She keeps her cows out on the pasture as long as possible, after others have brought their cattle in, and leaves the hay out on that pasture as well. It's been baled, so she has to go out to the pasture every few days and feed the hay to the cows.

Most farmers bring their cows and the baled hay back to the farm so it's easier for the farmers to feed them. But Christina wants the manure from the hay to stay where the grass was grown and fertilize the pasture for next year.

To the same end, she keeps them in paddocks throughout the summer, moving the paddocks and cows around. This way, they poop where they eat, and the whole field gets fertilized.

The British whites are beautiful and docile cows. Even the bulls are docile, and Christina's girls ride the one bull we saw around. Today, though, the two older daughters were wearing their best black cowboy hats and mostly carrying around kittens they were hoping to give away that day. Each year, they give away a heifer calf through a competition. The winner agrees to raise the calf on grass only, and breed it, and donate back the first heifer calf that is born. You get to keep the bulls (to raise 18 months and then have butchered for meat) and after the donation back of the first heifer calf, the cow is yours free and clear.

Of course, that is what really intrigued me, and why I wanted to go see the operation. After leaving, I was feeling a bit discouraged. Although they're lovely and docile and I adore the idea of raising a cow, it also seemed like a messy, hard job. Paul and Steve, however, were more sold on the idea. They were ready to put up fencing and get me started.

We left with packages of beef too, of course. I bought sirloins and stew meat, and will let you know how it turns out. And I will be going back to buy more from her freezer and talk more to Christina, and get to know those cows a bit better as well.

All in all, many paragraphs on this page I never thought I'd write. And continued good field trips within 10 miles of our house.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

My Winter Project

I'm getting ready to embark on a writing project, the third volume of Art of The Saint John's Bible. I finished writing the second volume almost three years ago, so it was with some trepidation that I picked up the massive Historical Books, the sixth of seven volumes of The Saint John's Bible to be published and one of two volumes that will be covered in this book. [It's confusing, I know. The Saint John's Bible is being published in seven volumes. My book is in three volumes, covering a set of them as they are are released.]

The final volume of The Saint John's Bible, Revelation and Letters, will be available to me in summer 2011, with a reproduction volume scheduled for Spring 2012. The hope is for my book to be released at the same time.

This morning I sat down with Historical Books and a pad of Post-its to start marking the artwork throughout the book. My book will basically go illumination to illumination, laying out the Biblical context and describing and annotating the artwork.

I started writing these books basically a week after I took a full-time job as an editor at Liturgical Press four years ago. Alongside writing the volumes, I was also copy editing other projects, and one of the best of these was being able to edit all of the revised Old Testament commentaries for the Little Rock Scripture Study. I love the Bible but had never spent so much time, book by book, with the Old Testament. It was a great crash course, and I learned a lot. I also just really enjoyed the stories and the richness of the books.

One of the most reassuring and pleasing aspects of this morning's exercise with the Post-its was realizing how much fun it will be to spend time once again with the books of the Old Testament. As I paged through, not reading, I felt renewed excitement about these stories of good and bad kings, and warmed by the thought of spending time with those Israelites in exile as they wrote and read their own history. That is the lens through which I see Historical Books: not as accurate history so much as the story a people told themselves when trying to explain how they could have lost the land God gave to them.

As a Christian, there's also the genealogy of Jesus unfolding, the continuing story of God choosing the least likely of his servants and the great promises of God for restoration of the kingdom.

The leaves are off the trees, a cold wind is blowing, and I'm looking forward to a lovely winter project.

Friday, October 22, 2010

We Made the Police Blotter!

An entry on the local newspaper's police blotter was about a call to our property.

October 9: 6:50 p.m. Fire. 95th Avenue. A resident called to report something burning in the area. Officer arrived and could see flames across the field. Officer checked with 53-year-old St. Joseph homeowner who was burning brush with a valid burning permit. Officer left a voice mail with caller of findings.

I'm so proud.  Next fire is scheduled for Saturday, October 30, on the biggest brush pile of them all!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Ponderosa Steakhouse

I'm definitely loving kale. I think part of the appeal is my past history with it. I worked at Ponderosa Steakhouse  in Chicago Heights, Ill., when I was in high school. I could walk there-- cutting through the hedge at the end of my street-- and Ponderosa had been part of many minor childhood adventures (sneaking in and getting paper cups of water from the fancy water fountain) and suburban legends (the bullet holes in the side of the building and stories of armed robberies). For about the first six months, I was on salad bar and bussing tables, the first step before becoming an order taker and eventually, a cashier.

It is amazing that the hedge was the only thing separating us in Park Forest from Chicago Heights, which was all around a much more "dangerous" place. Meaning it was more urban and more poor. Crossing through that hedge put us within a block of the corner of Lincoln Highway and Western Avenue. That corner was a gateway to a number of places. Of chief interest to us as teenagers were White Castle, Dunkin Donuts and Brunswick Bowl.

You really weren't supposed to walk across any of the intersections at this junction, or so it seemed to me at the time. It was a pure car environment, meaning a mass of strip-mall type entrances with people driving in and out, parking, multiple lanes of traffic, etc. Given the fact that most of my childhood was spent on my bike traveling safely and without any harrassment from cars, in Park Forest and then into the leafy neighborhoods of Olympia Fields and Flossmoor, Chicago Heights represented a certain very concrete (in both senses of the word) form of inaccessibility. And since I was making sub-minimum wage, $2.90/hour, at Ponderosa, it wasn't like I could afford more than the occasional donut or slider anyway. Looking back, I think there was also a movie theater over there. I think my sister and I saw Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure there when we were stuck at home without a car later on in life. Once, stir-crazy in a snowstorm, we walked to Brunswick Bowl. Otherwise, it truly felt like my world ended at the hedge at the end of Farragut Street, with an exception made for slipping through to go to work at Ponderosa.

I do find it sad and kind of a symptom of what's wrong with our food culture that I did not learn a single thing about cooking while working for two years at a restaurant. The only food-related things I learned was 1) the tomato shark is an essential piece of kitchen equipment, and 2) Fruit Fresh would make my hands itch and swell up to twice their size. I also developed a lifelong dislike of French dressing, which seemed to ooze from my pores after a night of working the salad bar.

Fruit Fresh was pure MSG, and we'd soak kale in a clean tub of cool water and the stuff before putting it out as decorative garnish on the salad bar. I liked the look of kale, and the texture, but it seemed clear to me that no one ate the stuff. It was soaked in chemicals to keep it from wilting and then placed over ice. At the end of the night we'd wash the spilled French and blue cheese dressing off of it and put it away, in the tub of fruit fresh, in the cooler for the next day. It seemed some part rubber, like a fake plant, and I wondered how someone came up with the idea of putting kale as decorative garnish on a salad bar. I remember wondering once, also, where it came from. Iceberg lettuce, I knew, came from California. Hard-boiled eggs came frozen in a carton and were very popular, so you had to make sure to get them thawed before you ran out or customers got crabby.
I look back on my Ponderosa experience fondly, entirely as a social experience, because of the people I worked with. I did also learn there how to smash a foil-wrapped baked potato with the heel of my hand and push on the ends to make it flower open. I burned my hand on roll pans, like the boys who worked the grill burned their arms on racks of baked potatoes. But cooking? Hmmm. If you run out of coctail sauce, you can substitute ketchup with lemon juice. And, uh, I did make quite a few gigantic trays of jello. When it wouldn't work out (something about the temperature, it would sometimes get hard on the bottom), we'd slurp it down and once has a jello fight in the kitchen with the dishwashers.

My friend Michael Parks talked me into applying for the job, with tales that turned out to be not so far-fetched about the antics of the employees. I liked the uniforms, which for girls consisted of a brown polyester jumper over a not-itchy flowered knit blouse and a matching flowered hairband. I would wear my hair in looped braids with the hairband and Michael called it my "Princess Leia Hair."

An essential part of our training for the job was learning what to do in case of an armed robbery (I thought this had been a myth, but I was wrong). We were very well-coached to give the thief the money, not do anything stupid, and tell the thief, for example, that someone might come through the swinging door to the kitchen, so don't get alarmed and shoot him, please. I remember the training vividly. It included a video.
Michael was working the day there actually was a robbery, and I was not. The cashier was ordered into the manager's office, behind the cash register, where they were made to strip to their underwear and open the safe. Michael walked in to find out how many Ribeyes he should take out of the freezer and realized something was wrong. He also had to strip down, and the thieves left with the money from the safe, into which they locked the employees' clothing. I thought this made them very professional.
I never faced a robber, but one afternoon an old man who I waited on in the empty restaurant from order through cashier, died of a heart attack while I was at his table delivering his food. He sort of communicated without speaking that I should stay with him, and I did, and then he had the heart attack, and I went through his pockets for medication, which said "Take with orange juice," and then he was slumped over in the booth. I went for the manager, and it turned out the only other customer in the place was a nurse. She did CPR until the ambulance came -- which was fast, this being Chicago Heights -- I'd just turned 18 and it had a very large impact on me.
The next day when I came in, the manager said, "Hey Susan, I was just telling Mr. Henry here how you killed that guy yesterday." That's the kind of people are managers at Ponderosa. Another one of them delighted in telling us stories of "sucking up villagers' huts" with his plane in Vietnam. I don't know if he was bombing them or what, but he said he was close enough to see them running around trying to get away as their homes went up in flames. Another one loaned me stacks of record albums, all of which, in the end, with the exception of The Kids are All Right by The Who, which I asked him for, were terrible. (They included such prizes as Manfred Mann, 10cc, LSD (Lake Shore Drive) and a couple by this cocky young telephone line worker from Indiana, John Cougar.) 
My experience at Ponderosa Steakhouse, in the end, had nothing to do with food. It had very little to do, even, with my everyday life. When a customer, a tough-looking Hispanic kid, asked for my phone number, Michael pointed out that he had a gang tattoo and told me to never give my phone number to a customer (as if I would!). I remember when a family who used to come in quite regularly asked me, near the end of my final summer, if I'd be going to college soon. I told them yes, and they said, "We thought so. You are clearly a bright girl with a lot going for you. You really shouldn't stay here." (As if I would!) By then I was up to $3.35/hour, after being bumped up a quarter when I threatened to quit earlier in the summer.
I also remember this: one of the cooks, my good friend J.T. Berkley, who is now an engineer for Ford Motor Company working on hydrogen fuel cell technology, was fond of pointing out that the steaks came all the way from Australia.
Oh, and if you don't have a tomato shark, you REALLY should get yourself one. They make great stocking stuffers!

Kale, Leeks, Mushroom and Barley Stew

This recipe comes straight from, who have it by way of Bon Apetit from December 2009.

I wish there was a cooking magazine that was actually in tune with seasonal garden vegetables. Even Local Flavors, the popular cookbook by Deborah Madison focusing on farmer's markets and thus, somewhat seasonal cooking, is not really very helpful. The recipes call for too many things that aren't straightforward, or there are several recipes for things that you'd buy in bulk at a farmer's market say, if you lived in California, or a major urban area, but not at the St. Joseph Farmer's Market, good as it is. Things like figs and kumquats.

I suppose a magazine like this would be kind of boring, or limited, but I really wouldn't mind having 20 simple kale recipes in October. Or to be encouraged to bake a new kind of bread and make an apple crisp (or be reminded just to pour some of those peach preserves from September over ice cream for dessert). I now have three excellent kale recipes, given yesterday's soup, a fantastic Kale and White Bean recipe in Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, and the following stew recipe, which tops them all but is also a bit time-consuming. This is enough for me to use all the kale I managed to grow this year.

I made more cheese today, and since this recipe definitely required good bread, I made two loaves of something called "Feather Bread" from the back of the recipe book that came with my cheese making kit. It's bread made with whey and butter (the whey is a biproduct of making cheese). It was a good, homey meal, especially since everything in the stew was local except for the garlic, chicken broth and barley. (I need to find a local source of garlic, which I know are out there, because I noticed at the grocery store yesterday that the garlic comes from China!!)

Kale, Leek, Mushroom and Barley Stew

1 tablespoon olive oil, divided (I used local sunflower oil.)

1 1/2 cups chopped leeks (about 2 small stalks; white and pale green parts only) (garden!)
1 8-ounce container sliced crimini (baby bella) mushrooms (local Forest Mushrooms)
4 garlic cloves, pressed (China, boo)
2 1/4 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary (garden!)
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice (canned from the garden)
1 cup pearl barley (Quaker brand, boo)
4 cups (or more) vegetable broth (I used chicken broth, which was very yummy.)
1 bunch kale (about 8 ounces), trimmed, center stalks removed, leaves coarsely chopped (about 8 cups packed) (garden!)

Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add leeks; sprinkle with salt and pepper and sauté until leeks begin to soften, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms, garlic, and rosemary; increase heat to medium-high and sauté until mushrooms soften and begin to brown, stirring often, about 7 minutes. Add tomatoes with juice; stir 1 minute. Add barley and 4 cups broth; bring to boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until barley is almost tender, about 20 minutes. Add kale; stir until wilted, about 1 minute. Cover and simmer until kale and barley are tender, adding more broth by 1/4 cupfuls as needed for desired stew consistency, about 10 minutes.  (Again, the garden kale is not as sturdy as store-bought kale. I increased the cooking on the barley and had the kale in there for only 5 minutes. A little white wine would also work well in this recipe, once the broth runs out...)

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Kielbasa, Kale, Leek and Potato Soup

The October garden is still giving me fresh vegetables for dinner. It's wonderful to cut deep green leaves of kale this late in the season, and pull up the leeks, which took longer than anything else in the garden to come to maturity. There's also sage and rosemary. I went looking for a soup that would use all three, and though I didn't quite find it, I found two others (one for kale and beans and one for kale and potatoes) and made this hybrid that was just delicious.

Kale, Leek and Potato Soup

1 ring of kielbasa
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, diced
4 small-medium carrots, cut in small rounds
vegetable oil
2 potatoes diced or thinly sliced
5 cups chopped kale
4 small leeks, cut into rounds, white and light green parts only
1 quart chicken broth
1 cup white wine
water as needed
2 tsp chopped rosemary
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper

Cut the kielbasa in rounds and saute it in a frying pan, about 3 minutes each side. Drain grease (1tsp or so) into a soup pot, add vegetable oil and sautee the onion, garlic and carrots until onions are soft and translucent. Add chicken broth, white wine, rosemary, bay leaf and potatoes, bring to a boil and then simmer 10 minutes until potatoes are soft. Using an immersion blender, puree some of the soup for a creamier broth. Add kielbasa, kale and leeks and cook 5-10 minutes until kale is cooked through. Add more water or chicken broth as needed with the kale, kielbasa and leeks to make a real soup.

I think it would be nice to finish with an immersion blender, but you really only want to puree the potatoes and maybe the greens, not the kielbasa! When I made it, I skipped the blending and had a good, brothy soup (the white wine really helps). Next time I'll use the immersion blender before adding the final ingredients to produce a little creamier soup, though this isn't necessary.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom: A good book but overrated

The reviews and weeks of over-the-top media hype (his face on an ipad commercial) had me thinking that Jonathan Franzen's new book Freedom was akin to Tolstoy's War and Peace or The Great Gatsby or what I consider an even greater Great American Novel, Grapes of Wrath. Talk about a family, an American crisis of epic proportions, true drama, full characters, political commentary and a moving portrait of a landscape, historical moment and how it revealed and affected American character.

Well, this book, despite critics' claims otherwise, has none of that. It is a well-written book. Franzen is a great writer and his prose is second to none. What bothered me about his first two books (27th City and Strong Motion) is that he seemed to start with a political idea, a polemical premise, and work from there. His characters have not seemed compelling to me, and I didn't really like the Berglunds much either. But the biggest problem with this book, for me, is a key writer decision, one of narrator and structure: who and how are you going to tell the story.

The parts of the book in the third person are wonderful, but when he hands the story over to Patty Berglund and we get her 160-page therapy journal and then a 30-page final missive to her husband, the book becomes a total slog. For me, it just doesn't work. Not only is her narrative voice annoying, the point of view is difficult to follow and maintain. Unlike a novel like Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which really does read like a letter/diary, everything I know about Patty Berglund tells me she is not a skilled or eloquent writer and storyteller. And I kind of resent having to put myself in the hands of an amateur, especially one with issues, when all she's going to do is tell me, straight up, what happened.

In the Time magazine cover story, reporter Lev Grossman writes "He wanted to write about the environment, but most nature writing bores him. He wanted to write in the first person. Philip Roth does, so why couldn't he? But he couldn't. He hated everything he wrote. He accepted, and then punted, a deadline of fall 2007." For the complete article, click here. (Despite much being made of how prescient this book is, how it took him nine years to write but it so accurately saw the issues of our time, he clearly states in this article that he started the current version in 2008, after the economic collapse.) Finally, he found a "voice," the voice of Patty Berglund.

The story is much more enjoyable, meaningful and interesting when it goes back to the third person for the central part of the novel. It can expand to show us and follow other characters in the book who are much more interesting than Patty: Richard and Joey, for example.

My sense of Franzen is that what he enjoys and what he's good at is building up a world around carefully researched and thought through details. The rock-and-roll life story of Richard Katz, for example, is a great intellectual construction based on a number of similar musicians (Alex Chilton comes immediately to mind). His places and milieus are full of great details and a sense, without parody, of place. He chooses Minnesota and then he's good at getting a character built there, the character of Walter. There's nothing surprising about Walter or Patty or Richard or Joey (I must admit, I never could get a handle on Connie's character). Often Patty and Walter don't even feel real to me (even as she's speaking), just a collection of attributes.

Franzen is accurate, and it makes for a great read, but it is in no way epic. Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible is in every way more epic, even in how it reveals American character through the perspective of different members of an American missionary family. And look, she does it all in the first person.

I think Franzen should do what he does best, write these meticulous and exceedingly well-written books about American famlies acting out American neuroses that are both political and personal. There's not enough good writing out there, and his books are important to American literature for that reason.

And the media should just let him be what he is, a good writer, and not try to make him a genius or even a classic. When I think of the book Freedom most resembles, I think of Don Delillo's White Noise. I never could quite figure out how to teach that book in an English Literature class, although there was plenty of criticism out about it and even a compact critical edition. I would imagine Freedom, now dubbed an instant classic, will generate a similar amount of literary criticism. And I feel kind of sorry for the students who will be asked to prove how it fits in the pantheon, when they could be reading something truly amazing, like Alice Munro's short stories . or the truly Great American Novel, despite it's very limited scope of time and character, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Burnished Season

We've had two weeks of absolutely gorgeous fall weather. The trees have suddenly changed color, and everything has this burnished feel. Everything is metallic: copper, silver, steel, bronze. Hanging clothes on the line yesterday, the rusted metal of our clothes line struck me as quite beautiful and in tune with the season.

Warm fronts come through and cold fronts come through, but not with the violence of summer storms. The  autumn sun truly holds its own, cutting through the cold nights and lighting up the trees, the grasses, the few remaining fruits in my garden. Yesterday I harvested the mature spinach, another big bag full, and last night I covered the remaining baby lettuce and spinach with a blanket. There was a possibility of frost, even greater tonight. That will do in the zucchini plant that has suddenly and too late decided it wants to produce. It will sweeten the kale and leeks that are reaching full maturity. I'm not sure what it will do to the pumpkin vine, which has two more small, well-shaped green fruits on it.

I'm anxious to plant some bulbs in the flower garden, but when I go out, the alyssum and snapdragons that have finally gotten plenty of space now that the lilies are all dead and cut back, look so happily alive I can't bear to remove them just yet. So it is still a matter of "one more week" and waiting on the gardens. In the prairie, the purple asters have been more prevalent than we've seen them, and they're hanging on as well. I cut some for a vase yesterday as well.

The frost predictions-- last night mid-30s but tonight they're saying high-20s and low-30s--let us know that October is the month the cold weather arrives. Last year we had snow in October, and I remember how bundled up we were during the chicken butchering last Halloween. Of course, those pictures also show that the bright autumn sun was still with us, just losing it's ability to heat things up.

Two weeks ago, when we were having our little blast of Indian Summer, I got hot enough gardening to want to jump in the swimming hole pond one more time. Steve walked over with me but wouldn't go in, knowing how cold it would be. It was indeed bracing, but as inviting as it appeared. Clear and cold like Lake Superior or the mountain lakes I love. The ponds and lakes are their most beautiful now. They are like gems, and the cold must be part of that beauty. A pond in summer is not nearly as beautiful as a pond in fall. They are startling both as mirrors and when you look into their clear depths.

So I'm thinking of fall this way, the struggle between the heat of that sun and the cold of those ponds. By the end of the month, the ponds will be winning, and that is not at all a bad thing. It has its own beauty, seen in the ponds and also tasted in the sweetness of the kale.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Web 2.0 for the Sisters

This past week I was at a conference in Denver, one very specific to what I do. It was the National Communicators Network for Women Religious (NCNWR). It was attended by 114 communication directors and others from Roman Catholic women's religious orders. It was a great conference, in part because they always get very good speakers to talk about technology and social media and in part because it is very interesting to be with that many people who do exactly what I do.

I get to hear about what others are doing and always learn about some online program I can use in my job. And I usually hear in depth about something that I had only barely heard about before. This year, it was mobile phone media. What you need now, it seems, is a Web site that people can read on their phone. The mobile Web site, it seems, is actually a blog that consists of short bursts of information (your Facebook updates and Twitter feed) and a few links to longer things that are on your regular Web site or blog for those who are really interested. Once they click, of course, they'll have to read the piece they're interested in on their little phone.

I'm not happy about this development. It takes away the photos and design and any substantial length from the Web. Nor am I happy about the advice to not really communicate anything in an e-newsletter anymore, but just make it into a set of links to your Web site or other places where information is stored, for those who are really interested. "Click-throughs" are the measure of success.

I run a very successful e-newsletter for the Sisters. To see a sample, click here. I write all the articles except the brief, introductory piece by Sister Gen. There are links to videos I've posted on Youtube or registrations or our blog or the secure online donation form. People do indeed click through. They also open it at a rate of about 40%. Our open rate was even higher six months ago, when we had 2,000 subscribers. As we get more subscribers (now at 3,000) we get a lower percentage of opens, but still a very large number of (950-1,100) opens. What we get very few of is "unsubscribes." Maybe 2-3 a month.

Maybe it's because our audience is composed of readers. Or because they're interested in the Sisters. I like to think the newsletter is interesting and is changing some people's ideas about what nuns are like. I like to think it's because I don't waste anyone's time and have interesting content and good photos.

I know about the other kind of e-newsletter. I get one of these from my college's alumni office and the alumnae office at the college near the monastery. Sometimes I click through, mostly on links to articles in the New York Times or other big publications where my college was mentioned. If not a set of links, the Web 3.0 newsletter is what this expert recommended instead: one message, repeated over and over in each paragraph with a different wording that is also a link to what they want you to do-- click through to the donate page or information-gathering page on their Web site. I get several a day these days, now that political season is upon us. I give to one candidate regularly, and am happy to have a Web link to do it more easily. The rest I summarily delete. I barely glance at the subject lines.

The world has changed, even for the Sisters and their communicators. I am watching it-- both at a distance and up close. Learning to communicate in the new world in a new, and yet, I hope, meaningful way.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

County Road 51

It's fall, and the best time of year for long bike rides. Cool and crisp and no wind, just blue skies. The views are starting to open up, the fields are still beautiful and, of course, the trees. Last year I took my camera out to record the ride from St. Joseph to Avon along the Lake Wobegon Trail. This year, I wanted to chronicle a ride along County Road 51 between St. Joseph and Collegeville, toward Avon and Cold Spring.

One difference on this route is the traffic. Although the road was recently widened, and there are solid shoulders, cars race down this road at speeds of 60-70 mph. The other difference is the hills. They don't call it the Avon Hills for nothing!

I think of this road as an artery of what is best about this area in terms of entrepreneurs in the local food business. I decided to make the bike trip after driving it this morning to get apples. When the road ends, you can turn left to get to Hidden Cove Orchards, which has the best Honey Crisp apples around, or you can turn right to get to Collegeville Orchards, an energetic family farm with a petting zoo and the attraction of pumpkins and the full force of fall. I'd purchased my apples and toted them home, had lunch and then headed out for the ride.

I didn't take a photo of the first sign you pass on this road, turning off Route 2 after passing under I-94. The first sign is for Flaten Taxidermy, an established old business to be sure, but probably not one I'll be patronizing.

The first local food place is Dancing Bears Company, Jim DiGiovanni's farm. It's an organic farm with a bed and breakfast attached. Lately they've also started selling lamb meat and wool at the St. Joseph Farmers' Market, where they have a popular and well-stocked stand. I bought Jimmy Nardello's sweet red peppers from them last week for my yellow tomato salsa.

The next property is not part of this story, the private home of a young, local cardiologist. He is Steve's best customer, and Steve is currently working on a big swath of prairie restoration for them. It's nice to see that it is kind of the ethos of CR 51 to restore prairie.

Farther down the road is one of my favorite businesses, Forest Mushrooms. The mushrooms are sold at all area grocery stores, but this is where they grow them. They used to be at the St. Joseph Farmers' Market, but have moved on to bigger and better things. Which is a shame, because I loved buying their special combinations of mushrooms, which I don't see anymore. One thing they do is dump all the old mushroom bales out in front of this barn for local gardeners to pick up and use. These are hay bales with a coating that was used to grow the mushrooms. The bales are smaller now, which makes them less friendly to work with, but to have access to free mushroom mulch is pretty great!

A couple miles farther down the road is Collegeville Artisan Bakery. This is a favorite at the Farmers' Market and known for their bread and also their almond croissants. It's the home and business of Steve and MaryAnn Nelson, who are good friends with my sister-in-law Amy. My husband Steve made this logo for him when he was starting out, after breaking from a family business down the highway a bit. That was a popular truck stop with lots of fresh baked goods, but not really the vision Steve and MaryAnn had for their baking operation. People take classes in bread baking here and, of course, buy baked items. Their bread is also now available at the St. Joseph Meat Market, which is a plus.

The final stop in terms of popular businesses is Thomsen's Nursery, a great source for plants. I've decided to buy all my tomato plants here (why grow from seed when you can get 4 for $1.69 already started?) and their plants are famous for heartiness and quality.

Across from Thomsen's I saw this great sign: "Rocks for Sale." If that's not the sign of an entrepreneur, I don't know who is. Stearns County is known for its rocky fields, and there are many field stone churches in the immediate area.  Still, I would imagine many people driving out to Thomsen's might appreciate some small fieldstone to border their new beds.

A few hundred feet from the end of the road, you can turn in to a nicely kept, trim house and buy maple syrup.

At the end of the road, if you're not turning left or right for apples, you can pull over for a visit to the Virgin Mary at this extensive shrine. Built in 1954, it is a Queen of Mary shrine, with Mary wearing a really nice crown. For a shrine not attached to a church or any visible landmark, it is very well-maintained and elaborate.

On the way back, I stopped to photograph the Saint John's Abbey apple orchard, and then got lured into a Johnny football game where I stopped and visited with Father Cletus for a few minutes. Finally, it was over the bike/foot bridge and back to the Wobegon Trail, which was much flatter and an easy ride home.

For a complete album of my ride, click here.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Orchard

Logging in today, I realized I forgot to publish the State Fair entry-- it was written back around September 2, but here it is the 13th...

What I saw instead was the entry about keeping the farming under control. Which I haven't been so successful at, since I find myself now in possession of another preserving book, Deborah Madison's Local Flavors and a cheese making kit. And tonight I ordered Wendell Berry's Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food, Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Vegetable Miracle (since I have to return the one i borrowed and read), and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Also, I spent more than an hour tonight going through the Seed Saver's catalogue 2010-- seeds that I can not even order-- and marking what I want to buy for next year.

Of course, that's all intellectual pondering. So I wouldn't be worried, except that this past weekend I did buy four fruit trees and Steve and I planted them in a newly tilled area near my garden. There is room for more trees if these work out. Basically, an orchard. Or at least, in the near term, room for the blueberry and raspberry bushes I want to put in next spring. I got Honey Crisp and Macintosh apple trees, which I'm completely excited about, and two pear trees which may or may not make it. One did have actual pears on it already, but juicy, edible pears seem like a long shot to me.

Really, I'm not usually like this. And I am giving myself periodic talks. It's about local, not growing it all myself. On that front, I may have found a venison source, and so can look forward to venison chili and stew this winter. Steve also pointed out in church on Sunday the dairy farmer who rents some land from us a few pews in front of us as a possible source for milk for that cheese I want to make. Why would anyone pluck chickens when organic, local chickens are about $7.00 at the meat market? And at the farmers' market last week I actually bought a half-gallon of locally-made sunflower oil for the price of Trader Joe's olive oil. Let's just say, this is local food mecca, but also, well, it could take over one's life. At least for a little while.

Steve's putting in three more raised beds for me this fall, since I really hate weeds and think that big garden bed will be harder to maintain, not to mention how great things grow in deep, rich compost. I do feel like a sponge-- and there's plenty out there to soak up. Tonight watching one of the PBS cooking shows (my favorite is New Scandinavian cooking, though I'd never cook anything they do), I saw part of a show that starts on an organic farm and moves to cooking. The farmer rotates his crops: leafy/fruity/roots. Good to know! I think that's one of the things I like best about this revolution-- the progression of the crops and the way one behaves in the kitchen because of it.

So here we go. Taking it up a notch. Or two.

Still in the garden: butternut and acorn squash, leeks, kale and spinach...and the end of the sage, rosemary, oregano and basil. And could it be a few more pumpkins that might mature before the first frost?

Great Minnesota Get-Together

Thursday, on a day that felt like fall, Steve and I went to the Minnesota State Fair. We haven't been there for three years, though we think every-other-year is the perfect balance. Last year we tried to go-- on a Saturday. We were a couple miles from the fair when I had a high-level anxiety attack. The car traffic alone was more than I could handle. Instead, we went to see his brother Mark's new baby and walked around the lovely campus of the University of Minnesota, which was for some reason deserted. And vowed to only go to the Fair on a weekday.

The main event of the fair for me is the food. Between the two of us, we ate a buffalo kabob (bland, not worth it) followed by cheese curds and then a great dish at a booth with no waiting, a jerk chicken roti.
The booth is Harry Singh's in the food building. It wasn't just good, I also love it from a colonialist perspective. The presence of Indians in the Carribean has resulted in some great dishes, and this hot jerk chicken wrapped in a lightly fried corn tortilla was truly delicious.

For dessert, I got the key lime pie on a stick. By far the best thing I ate all day. Homemade pie dipped in dark chocolate and frozen. 'Nough said. For Steve, we found a very good cup of coffee (with an extra shot) and a strawberry crepe. Then we were fortified and ready to see the farm buildings.

In the 4-H building, we saw the gigantic pumpkins and my favorite, the crop art. This is basically framed art, most of it political or pop-culture based, made out of seeds. I like the political art the best, because it is surprising to me that people will spend so much time making something so topical. In a year, or certainly five, none of these pieces will have any relevance at all. The best one this year was the Alice in Wonderland/Tea Party commentary, which was even 3-D. There was also a gorgeous hat covered with seeds.

I was on a mission at the fair, and that mission was to see what I had missed last time: the dairy princesses carved in butter. I guess this is standard fare at fairs, but I had never seen a 250-lb butter sculpture. When we finally found it, the exhibit far exceeded my expectations. One of the princesses was in the process of having her likeness carved, while she took questions from the crowd. The other princesses, including Queen Kay of the Milky Way herself, stood outside the rotating, refrigerated booth, and worked the crowd. Working the crowd involved taking questions and also handing out collector cards of themselves.

All the princesses, let it be said, had gorgeous complections.

Questions reflected the fact that the fair is in St. Paul, Minnesota, unlike the many state fairs in rural areas of the state. They included: "How do you tell your cows apart?" (The answer: "That is a good question. We tell them apart the same way we tell people apart. They look different and have different personalities.") It was clear that the princesses had their work cut out for them and were providing an important public service.

The barns closed for cleaning just as we were getting started-- we only got halfway through the sheep barn before an earnest 8-year-old came up and asked us, "Will you please exit the building?" We did get to the kind of rodeo building, a fine piece of engineering with a broad, unsupported, cement-block ceiling that has the appropriate dim lighting with spotlights on the dirt-floor arena. We watched young boys wrestle young steers to the ground. It's a very defined culture, the "rodeo" culture. These boys all wore cowboy hats (not FFA or John Deere caps) and ironed button-down shirts tucked into deep blue jeans. The shirts were pin-striped, pink, blue, green, etc. It was oddly beautiful and even formal attire for wrestling calves in the dirt. After getting the calf down, two adult cowboys on horses would come out to guide the animals back to the paddock, and the boys would jump up and brush the dirt off their shirts and jeans.

All that was left was buying an overloaded bucket of fresh, warm cookies at Sweet Martha's and touring the art building, and we were done. We did almost buy a vermicomposter (worm composting) system and stopped and talked to a dealer about a 6' rototiller for Steve's business. We also looked at some fine used dump trucks and discussed their merits at length (I really want Steve to get a new truck, but he insists he's replaced every moving part and really, there cannot be any more breakdowns).

It was a fine day at the fair, and when we came home, we ate gigantic green salads from the garden to balance the eating we'd already done.

For other photos from our day at the fair, click here.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Keeping the Farming Under Control

No one can say I haven't thrown myself into rural life, at least the cooking part, with gusto. This year's garden is bigger and better than last year's, and I can add pickling to my new set of skills.

Perfectionist that I am, I am discouraged by the lack of zucchini (how can that possibly be?!) and the scarcity of my herbs. (My two types of mint shriveled up and died last week, which I never would have expected-- I thought the stuff was basically a weed that would take over if you let it.) I need a system for herbs and many other things. I will finish the season with paltry stores and though I'm improvising on some things to try to not waste any of the produce I've grown, my energy at this point is flagging. If I had a week off from work, or two, I would throw myself into this more heartily. Alas, such is not my current state.

I also am ready for next year, not jut adding some more plants but also knowing how to get an earlier start on fresh produce. But like I felt this time last year, the yearly cycle is too long for my impatient soul. I want to implement my ideas, like, right now. I'm ready to plow under and start over-- now. But they aren't even selling seed catalogues yet. That's obviously a good thing.

In this mindset, I started reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and have not been able to put it down. I do, however, have to talk myself down on a regular basis. Let's face it, growing food for a family of four, or even, I suspect, for two adults, means running a small farm. And, I have to keep telling myself that she grew up with this, is from generations of people with gigantic gardens, if not farms. She'd been growing asparagus, in a variety of climates, for 25 years before she took on this task. Not that I want to take on this task. But the name of the game with vegetable gardens is more, and more ways to store and preserve the food you grow.

I, on the other hand, grew up with a flower gardener. We did have a bed of strawberries, which seemed miraculous, and now and then some fresh carrots my mother tucked into the bed along one side of the fence. But these were beds in our small suburban lot, socked in behind railroad ties-- still much more life than I ever saw in any of my friends' or neighbors' yards, but not a garden like the ones I pass now on my way to work. Also, I came to understand early as an urban adult, on the basis that I cannot keep a houseplant alive, that I do not have "a green thumb." This turns out not to be true, but it's still a deficit I'm working from. I never grew anything but a few tomato plants in pots until three years ago. (There's no question my mother was ahead of the game in terms of food co-op and healthy food. She did make her own yogurt, granola, and avoided sugar and packaged foods on and off.)

I keep taking stock: from our "farm" I can get eggs. And I can get good, local meat: beef, pork and chickens. At the farmer's market I can continue to get potatoes through November at least. (The St. Joseph Farmers' Market moves indoors in October and the winter market every two months has mostly maple syrup, jams, meat and, for awhile, potatoes and onions.) That's without doing any work at all. The first thing is to set clar goals: local is the first goal, and that can mean beyond our 80 acres.

When you boil down two whole countertops' worth of tomatoes and end up with one quart of tomato sauce, you realize that there is just no going there. Best to do my bit of canning (9 quarts of tomoatoes this year) and drying (5 bags of shriveled romas in the freezer) and eat the rest as we are able to keep up. Kingsolver does say you can freeze them whole on trays for throwing into stews in the winter, so I might try a little of that, now that I have a gorgeous new freezer.

When I read in chapter two or three that she was planting three 70-foot rows of potatoes, I realized I needed to not start identifying with Barbara Kingsolver too closely. I take pleasure in every chapter (although now she's hit zucchini and tomato harvest, late July for her and August for me, and I'm exhausted just reading about it). I'm also incredibly psyched about the idea of making cheese this winter-- and so happy she gives the link for where to get the supplies I'll need. (FYI, here's the link.) Telling Steve about it, he immediately wants to go into the cheesemaking business, and wants to know what kind of equipment we need, what kinds we can make, etc. Steve also often makes it hard to keep ideas under control. I know what I'll get him for Christmas, and can't wait to make our own mozzerella. But I am not becoming a certified artisan cheesemaker.

The name of the game, as she says in her chapter where she visits Amish friends, is boundaries, limitations. In this chapter she seems to mean staying home and driving a buggy so you guarantee the local side of things and are around to milk the cows at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m., and taking the time to plow a field with horses and enjoy the birds and bees and fireflies. I don't mean that. I wasn't raised for that and don't think my body and time management and skills are going to adapt to that kind of life in the near term.

I mean doing what I can do, enjoying it, and knowing when to quit-- retire to the hammock and read a book.

Note: the web site linked above,, is not just a place to learn about and/or buy the book. It is full of amazing recipes, links and etc, just in case you're thinking of edging into a life change...

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Yellow Tomato and Tomatillo Salsa

The great yellow tomatoes from my garden have made me really want to make a yellow tomato salsa. I knew it would have tomatillos in it, which were available at the farmer's market yesterday. So were beautiful, long curly sweet red peppers, small sweet onions and, well, almost anything else your heart could desire.

So I came home and fiddled with a recipe, making a salsa that is my own, and so delicious it is clear I will not have enough chips! (The photo does not do it justice-- trust me, it looks good, too!)

Susan's Yellow Tomato and Tomatillo Salsa

4-5 yellow tomatoes, chopped (I put them in the food processor for 6 or 7 pulses, but that was a mistake. Would be better if they were more chunky and if I'd drained off some of the juice.)
8-10 tomatillos, peeled and washed
2 small, sweet onions
1 clove garlic
2 long, red sweet chili peppers or one regular red pepper (there's no heat in this salsa, so if you want that, add jalapeno. I like to taste the tomatillos)
olive oil (a few tablespoons)
white wine vinegar (a few tablespoons)
salt to taste

Just put the tomatillos, onion, garlic and peppers in a food processer and finely chop. Chop and put tomatoes in a bowl, spooning out some of the juice if you want your salsa thick. Combine all the ingredients and mix. Enjoy!!! (Note: cilantro and lime juice would be appropriate to add to this salsa. But I really like this combination of flavors and think the white wine vinegar adds the right zing.)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Future

I spend and have always spent a considerable amount of time picuring the future. This may be why I was able to move around the country so easily for so many years. I love the art of imagining a life yet realized. I wouldn't say it interferes with my current life or keeps me from being contented in the present, although maybe it does.

In any event, it's not a behavior I plan on changing. It means that I spend my bike rides thinking about the future, what I will do when I no longer need to work full time. I spend time while canning tomatoes thinking about the garden I will plant next year, and what I need to do to improve the soil in my garden, and what might work better in the raised beds next year, what out in the plain old bed.

These days, what I think about all has to do with life in this place, because for the first time in forever, I plan on staying in the place I'm in.

I think a lot about my writer's cabin: how it will look, what it will be like to go out there and write, what of my furnishings I've managed to hold onto so I can put them in there. I still long for a space that feels fully my own and which I can decorate the way I like to decorate.

Much of what I think about is completely mundane. I want to have one of those 5-gallon water jugs out there, because I drink a lot of water when I'm writing. I want a wood stove, and I wonder if I'm the kind of person who will go out there and light the stove in the cold, face the cold until the cabin warms up.

In this, the heart of harvest season, I also think about the next steps for living off the grid. I'm about to start reading Barbara Kingsolver's book, Animal Vegetable, Miracle: a Year of Food Life, about her year eating only local and seasonal food. I'd like to do that, but realize mostly the limitations of my growing season and my interest in hard work! After all, I only managed to can nine quarts of tomatoes, and really don't see how I could do another five (not that I have enough tomatoes for that!)

At the same time, I live in a place of real abundance in terms of good food. On our farm, Annie and Tim provide us with eggs. We have amazing local bakers, the Nelsons, and Steve also loves to bake bread. On the same road as the Nelsons live the Doyles, who are mushroom farmers. There is the St. Joseph meat market where you can buy large bundles of local beef and pork to keep in your freezer. If you want to really go crazy, there is a local producer of fine, grass-fed beef. The Willenbrings of Cold Spring keep us in asparagus, strawberries and corn (I do plan on growing my own raspberries, which they also provide at the farmers' market). Then there's the yak farmer, Mr. Hooper, who we sat next to at a wedding a few weeks ago. People swear by his yak steaks. I'd really like to find a source for ground venison for winter chili.

There is plenty to think about, as I let myself get deeper and deeper into the yearly cycle of this place. Just learning to balance eating the fresh harvest with the canning and pickling and freezing is an art all it's own. New garden vegetables are calling out to me: beets and radishes and arugula and the raspberries and blueberries. Someone said they have had good luck growing tomatillos, too.

As life continues to unfold, I will hopefully have the life I'm imagining now: writing and gardening and with good project work now and then, time to think and make things and eat and exercise and read all the Library of America volumes I'm laying in store for those days-- especially the cold days with the wood stove burning and a lamp on.