Saturday, April 30, 2011


When I was ordering seeds in February, I also ordered a few books from the Seed Savers catalogue. One that caught my eye was Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden: Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians. It is one of those interesting things about ordering books from catalogues or online-- you are never sure what you're going to receive. The reviews of the book listed in the catalogue included: "A gem of a book useful for today's gardener," (Organic Gardener); "One of the best gardening books around," (City Pages); and "Every gardener and agricultural scientist should find gems of practical wisdom in these pages, borne from an age-old tradition when sustainable agricultural practices... made the difference in sustaining life" (Foster's Botanical & Herb Review).

The Hidatsa are from North Dakota, and lived with the Mandan in a place called Like-a-fishook village. One of the Sisters at the monastery where I work, Mara Faulkner, OSB, wrote a memoir called Going Blind set in the same area, and so that further piqued my interest. And the catalogue sells dried bean seeds called Hidatsa Shield Figure beans that look interesting (for another year).

The book arrived, and it is basically an anthropological text. After a long introduction and foreword, we get to Buffalo Bird Woman's text. It is a very readable oral history of her farming life. It follows a nice structure too, including sunflowers, corn (lots on corn), beans and squashes, which they saw as the four basic foods.

I have read parts of it, but still have lots to go. But what has stayed with me the most is the part about her grandmother clearing land for a garden. She used a "digging stick," and some of the women used bone hoes (there are diagrams of course). All she was doing, really, was loosening the soil. She'd dig/pull up any plants and shake off the dirt, then gather them in drying piles. After a few days, she'd burn the piles. It clearly took weeks to loosen up enough soil to plant. What was also pointed out was, she didn't loosen all the dirt in the plot. She just loosened the areas where she put the seed. Digging down with the stick, she could loosen areas and drop seed in. Then, throughout the summer, she'd return and keep loosing more soil between the plants. When that was done, she'd start going at the land with her digging stick around the edges, so that the following spring, more land would be cleared.

It just reminds me that really, the miracle of plants is that they grow in dirt. They grow in more or less any dirt. All you need are seeds, dirt, water and sun. I spend a lot of time thinking about the nutrients in my soil. I have a mixture of compost and soil for good drainage. I add manure, chicken and cow, as well as more compost each spring. In the new boxes, Steve put a mixture of manure compost with soil dug up from near one of our ponds. It is not as rich as the dirt in my other boxes-- will stuff still grow in it??  Well, of course it will!

Recently he dumped two more small loads of dirt wher I want to grow the squashes and potatoes. Well, it doesn't go down very deep and is sure to be full of weeds. So I went out with my shovel and tried loosening up the soil, mixing it with the hard soil beneath it. I'm not as strong or as patient as Buffalo Bird Woman's grandmother.

On YouTube, there are a few humerous videos of people with backyard gardens where they grow gigantic vegetables. I would never want to eat a beet as large as large as a pumpkin, but yes, it is impressive. They pour in fertilizers, and grow in beds that have very complex formulations of earthlike substances. Some of it is even organic.

In that way, I appreciate Buffalo Bird Woman's account. Because when I look around, I can see that I do indeed have a lot of dirt! And if my seedlings can withstand the wind pounding down today, and more to come this month, it should be a good summer in the garden.

image found here:

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Best Ham Ever

It's been almost a week since Easter, but I'm still thinking about the ham. I was determined this year not just to stick a grocery store ham with some kind of glaze on it in the oven and hope for the best. I went to the cookbooks, and what I found there surprised me.

First, Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. He recommended a laborious process: soak the ham in cold water for 24 hours, then boil it for 4 hours and let it sit in the hot water another 4 hours. Then bake it at 400 degrees for 30 minutes. That sounded completely crazy to me, so I took out the Dean and Deluca Cookbook, which I like to consult about meat. It took a simpler route, but the "secret" was still the same. Boil the ham for 1 1/2 hours and let it sit another hour, then glaze it (with some kind of coffee mixture) and bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes.

They couldn't BOTH be wrong!  So on Easter morning, I stuck the free ham that we got for pooling four households' grocery receipts for a month in a big pot of boiling water. It was about as ordinary looking a ham as they come. The house smelled awful, basically like boiling ham. But after the time boiling and then about an equal time sitting in the hot water, I took it out and it looked unlike any ham I've ever seen. It looked like meat! Not compacted, cured meat that is one step away from a deli counter, but like a hunk of actual meat that might have come from an animal. The rind was loosened and you could see fat beneath it. I trimmed off a fair amount of the rind, exposing the fatty layer, into which I stuck a lot of cloves. On top I spread about a half jar of orange marmalade that I'd heated in a saucepan with 1 Tbs of mustard (per Bittman). Then in the oven for 30 minutes.

It was the best ham I have ever had. I wish I'd made two! I am not sure I can wait until next Easter, but now that I've discovered what ham can be, I might even opt for it again at Christmas. I should have taken a photo, but we had 33 people at our house for the feast. I did get some photos of people in the new kitchen, however! It was a fantastic day. Adorable children, too!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day / Good Friday

Today is Earth Day, which is completely overshadowed in my corner of the world by its also being Good Friday. I have always taken Good Friday very seriously, and so did a sort of media fast (not entirely, obviously) and listened to classical music if anything, while making a big bowl of egg salad for the weekend's meals. We spent the time from 2:30 to 4 p.m. at the liturgy at the monastery, where I felt very clear and focused-- not always the case in those long liturgies!

I also did some preparations for Sunday, when we're hosting Steve's family. We'll have 23 adults and 9 children (plus one infant!), and I'm not sure if that's larger than in previous years, but because the weather has been so bad and we can't expect the children to eat on the porch and then play outside, it feels larger.

It took me awhile in the cracker aisle to find the "Original" Triscuits I wanted for crackers and cheese. That's because the box had been transformed into an ad for "home farming." The slogan is "Plant a seed, grow a movement."

The back of the box includes a "seed card" with about 10 basil seeds embedded in it. The side of the box has a "clip and save" explanation on how to grow your basil card. Step 1: soak the card for 2-4 hours. Step 2: Peel the seed card in two to expose the seeds. Step 3: place both card pieces seed-side up in an8: pot filled with dirt. Cover the seed cards with 1/4" of dirt. Step 4: Keep the soil moist, but not overly wet. Make sure the seeds get about 6-8 hours of sunlight daily. Step 5: in about 10-12 days, the seeds should sprout and in days you'll be enjoying your fresh herbs.

Oh really? I have some really nice looking basil seedlings in my basement. They get water and lots of sunlight. They have been there for a month already. It will definitely be another month before they have enough leaves to be harvested. Maybe more. Because, unless it is July, there really isn't enough heat and warmth to grow basil. And it doesn't grow quickly. It might work better for people who buy their Triscuits for the 4th of July.

But what is so interesting to me, is the marketing. The seed packet is just part of the effort. It has more to do with their partnership with the home Farming Movement and their commitment to create 65 "community-based home farms." I'm not sure what that means, but 50 and an additional 15 this year doesn't sound like many for a giant corporation like Nabisco, which is really part of a more giant corporation, Kraft Foods.

The bottom of my box tells me that the "seeds are a product of India." They must be sold by 6/11, which means don't wait until the 4th of July shopping to get them. 

I'm all for a home farming movement. I hope everyone starts planting-- and a lot more than basil. The young woman on the front is very healthy looking, has her hair in proper farming braids and a basket of carrots, kale and cucumbers. In the back is a fine-looking raised bed of lettuce. The back of the box shows another basket of carrots, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers and zucchini.

I'm thinking when people find out how long it takes to grow a little basil plant, they might not be on board to get this movement going forward... Go on, Triscuit lovers, surprise me!

As for me, I am now a registered member of  the Triscuit home farming Web site. Hey, they said I might win $1,000 if I gave them some of my information and agreed to a very thorough usage contract that doesn't allow me to reprint anything from the site or software or sue them for any reason. I don't think they can stop me from retyping what is on my box, however. Can they? We'll see what happens.

By the way, I downloaded the image of the Triscuits from this web site: 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Three African Films

In the past week we have watched three amazing films set in Africa. Two were French and one was South African. All three focused on white characters, and so they were all about colonization to some extent.

The first, and by far the best, was Of Gods and Men, about a group of eight Trappist monks living on a mountain in Algeria who decide to stay in their monastery despite the utter certainty that they will be killed by rebels. Or, by the government-- in the end it doesn't matter, because the film is not at all about the political situation in Algeria. It is about what martyrdom means and what it means for these men to follow their vocation. Theirs is a Benedictine vocation, which puts great store in commitment to a place and a community.

This is the best film I've ever seen about monastic spirituality. It may very well be the best film I've seen about Christianity. During this time of Lent, as Christians consider the meaning of the crucifixion, it is the most meaningful expression of what it means to follow the way of the cross. One thing you will not say after seeing this film is, 'Why didn't they just leave when they could?' Without preaching or blaming or any kind of self-aggrandizing behavior, in full consciousness of the consequences of their choice, they live out their vocations. And I do believe anyone watching will understand them and neither pity nor particularly admire them afterward. They did what they were called to do. The honesty of the portrait is what cuts to the bone, and what is also transcendent.

The second film was Claire Denis's White Material. Set in a French colonial country in Western Africa, probably Cameroon, where her first film, the wonderful 1988 Chocolat was set, the film explores the post-colonial situation of white settlers being removed from their farms. Again, the film feels very real, very honest, and not as political as it obviously has to be. The rebel children soldiers moving into the area frighten the workers-- frighten everyone, in fact, but the fierce French woman who runs the coffee plantation and her son, a man-child who is unfortunate to be born white in Africa after colonialism has run its course. As one character says, "He is African, but he does not look like Africa."

The government soldiers are equally brutal and frightening. It is not, in the end, the "sides" that matter. In this case, the French should have obviously gotten out of the country when they could, but like the monks in Algiers, where, after a lifetime in Africa, would they go? The film is beautiful and compelling, with surprisingly little dialogue throughout, and paints a complex and again, non-judgmental drama of people and a land.

The third film, Stander, is South African. Set in the 1980s and based on a true story, it tells of a white police captain who, fed up with the actions of the riot police and the corruption within the force, starts robbing banks. Again, the politics is confused. The man at the center of it all, Andre Stander, is 100% white masculinity. He likes to be naked, has a gorgeous wife he knows how to seduce, and is loved by men and women alike. He's a good shot, can handle himself on a rugby field, and is utterly reckless. Lucky for him, the state of affairs in the police force is such that they just can't catch him.

He is a lost man, really. His is a moral conundrum. He wants to pay for having shot an unarmed man while on riot patrol. But the government doesn't even recognize this crime. In the end, it's hard to know what to make of him or his actions. Unlike the other characters, he has the least purpose, and that has great consequences for South Africa.

Two of these three are now available on Netflix. Stander was released in 2003, and White Material in 2009. And if watching White Material makes you want another Isabelle Huppert fix (and let's face it, why wouldn't you want to see more of her?), follow it up with the movie Home, a black French comedy about the effects of a road expansion.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Desperate Times

Twice in the past week I've encountered African American men who were begging for gas money. One was in the parking lot of the local low-cost grocery store. The other was a man who was walking with his gas can after his car ran out of gas on Hwy 23. My husband and I picked him up and drove him the three miles to the gas station. It's rather unfathomable to me what kind of night he was going to have walking those miles and back to the car before going on his way to Minneapolis. He seemed happy enough for the ride, and didn't ask for money, but when we asked him about his situation, it turned out his plan had been to get to the next truck stop on the gas in his car and there beg for money for enough gas to get back to the city. He had four dollars, enough for one gallon.

Of course, we gave him enough money to buy gas to get back to the city. Then, trained to distrust anyone who wants money from us, we tried to figure out the nature of the scam. No matter how we wrapped our mind around it, if it was a scam, it was a very bad one. He was a black man walking on the side of a rural road with a gas can. It was quite likely no one would pick him up given where he was walking. Even if they did, he wasn't likely to get much money, if any. He was right to think his chances of "begging up some money for gas" would be better at a truck stop.

We also tried to figure out what this tells us about people who are, if not poor, on the edge. He had nice enough clothes, one of those old-timey hats. Why did they head out to St. Cloud that day without enough money to buy gas to get back? What did he think was going to happen when he set out on that road with no sign of lights in either direction? With more questions, he said his fiancee was in the car, and that they'd been engaged for two years because they were waiting until things got better for them. It was so hard to get a job in this economy, he said, and even harder to keep it. We got a glimpse of a man who seemed to just go from one thing to another, just focus on the task ahead. Out of gas? Start walking. He said, "If we ran out of gas in the city, we would have just left the car and gotten on the bus, but here it's a big problem." It was a glimpse of a life of going from one complicated situation to another. Even on the way back with the gas, he was making a call to make arrangements having to do with the car, which seemed to be borrowed and had to be returned the next day. It was all confusing, and disorienting, and we were fully aware of our privilege and the order of our lives.

When I encountered the second man, in the grocery parking lot, I felt I had already given my gas donation for the week. I was in a funk, having just spent $90 on three bags of groceries that would barely last us the week. Suddenly, the price of everything seems to be soaring, and the discourse over the budget and other issues, seems very far away from the reality of people's lives. It's part of my ongoing new feeling of dissatisfaction, driven mostly by the way the financial crisis played out with no consequences for the ones who caused it, no changes in the system that led to it, and the seemingly entrenched gap between the rich and the poor.

The disparity in culture between me and the man who ran out of gas was disorienting-- I could not imagine his life. And the situation fostered distrust and a mixture of feelings. It took a week for me to figure out if it was even a story to be told at all.

I am not sure this is a story about race so much as class. I heard David Simon, who created Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire, two gritty television series about Baltimore, on Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me this weekend. The host was commenting on a scene in The Wire where two characters go to Philadelphia and their radio station fades out and comes in on A Prairie Home Companion. The two guys wonder what the heck the rest of America is about. That was the place I was visiting in the car. A deep disconnect with people who live 80 miles away from me.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why Seasons Are Important

Lately, the world has been bumming me out. The earthquake and tsunami, followed by the radiation leak that has now been upgraded from Level 5 to Level 7 toxic event, the same category as Chernobyl (skipping Level 6 while people continued to live near the nuclear power plant), has been such a bad disaster that Americans have stopped complaining about rising gasoline prices. The situation in Libya is fraught with evil upon evil, and is sure to be followed by story after story of atrocities.

The ramped up media panic about the possibility of a government shutdown, now morphing into the next big rhetorical impending disaster of not raising the debt ceiling, would be something I would ignore except that I believe from following the discourse that the Republicans are so far gone they might just go through with it. The financial crisis and the banks and companies that caused it have brought on an ever-deepening cynicism about the seats of power in my country. There are reports about ozone depletion and shocking impending natural disasters. "What will happen to the Wisconsin maple syrup season as temperatures warm?" read one headline in my inbox this week.

Given our awareness of the rapid change to the world around us, and the possibilty of loss on a major scale-- of reasonably-priced food, for example, or nutritious food (Dear Lord, watching poor Jamie Oliver in Los Angeles last night even for 10 minutes almost put me over the edge).

But then, even after a winter as long and cold as the one we just had, today there are turtles back on the log. There is a pair of geese, and nesting ducks. They have all come back. Even the ones that were in the gulf during the horrible BP oil spill.

It makes me think-- what if one were to just pay attention to what is here, what goes and returns, this plot of land? What if I were to make space for only those in my immediate neighborhood or the town around me? Would I be able to live not as a global person but as a local person? Would that offer more hope and promise than the highly-charged technological world I live in now, even out in a small town in Central Minnesota?

The seasons are important, because they remind us that change is a natural part of life, and that in all the change, there are patterns, comforting ones. The sun does come up and stay up longer, and it warms the earth. The birds and animals come back because they believe in this. It is a fact they count on. As should we.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


cherry tomato seedlings and one surprising batch of cilantro
Today I did my first outdoor seed planting. I may have gotten carried away, but I didn't put in anything that can't be replanted if it ends up getting very cold again. I'm hopeful that it won't come to that!

The soil was able to be worked, and it was the perfect day to be in the garden: in the low 60s and overcast with no wind. If only the wind would hold off for one month, the garden would be beautiful, but I know that is not what's going to happen. I didn't bother putting my little plastic row cover over anything-- these are cool-weather plants and will want rain as well. When Steve came out to see it, he had advice for reinforcing the tall pea fence, which will definitely topple when it has plants on it and the winds come.

I planted 10 asparagus crowns down the side of two beds. They can't be harvested for two years. But when they are ready, they will come up with the rhubarb, nice and early, and be finished by the time the tomato plants I'll put in beside them are starting to take off. I'm thankful to YouTube for the great videos on how to plant anything, and this particularly good video on how to plant asparagus crowns. I've also been watching lots of YouTube videos on how to plant seed potatoes. None are as definitive as this one for asparagus.

I planted a bed of onions and beets, and a bed with spinach and then my tall pea fence with snow peas and green arrow shelling peas. I'm really excited about the beets and the shelling peas, which are new for me. I disliked peas as a kid, but I think the best food I've ever eaten is a salad of garden greens with sweet peas from the Farmer's Market and vinegar and oil. I also have a great recipe for pea shoots with salmon and Asian sweet pepper sauce. There's still room for a row of something else in that bed, but I'll wait and put in something that can get going once the peas are waning, like peppers.

The most fun bed was the mixed bed. It has a row of onions and a row of lettuce, a patch of carrots (I did not buy enough carrot seeds!) radishes and the big experiment, potatoes. Potatoes take up so much room (as do onions) that I'm thinking I might still in the end want a permanent garden plot (not raised) for them. Something I can hoe and weed and treat heartily for potato beetles. As it is just an experiment, I put in four russet seed potatoes (a shame, really, when I bought a small bag) with enough space that I can hopefully get some good-sized potatoes. Next week a bag of fingerling potatoes will arrive, and I'll have to find space for them, too!

I'm not one for physical labor, so I was shocked at how fast time went. Turning over the soil, going to the barn for hose, digging trenches and holes for the asparagus-- it was great. The only thing I wanted was more room!

It's very hard for me to know how much space to leave for plants. I don't want to crowd the beds, but I do want to maximize them. I see great drawings of slanted trellises with cucumbers growing on them and under the trellis are cabbages. Carrots Love Tomatoes, about companion planting, seems to suggest you can tuck in plants everywhere if you have raised beds-- some radishes here, some carrots there, herbs all over the place. Still, when I put that little seed in the ground, I want it to have enough space to thrive, and to give me all it's capable of producing.

The good news is that the summer is long-- at least from where I am standing today. Things can be added and "tucked" in here and there. A few squash plants put on one side of a bed can snake over and go where they want out into the field! And next year, I can expand the whole operation again!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Soil That Can Be Worked

The key gardening phrase on some seed packets is "as soon as the soil can be worked." That is when you can plant your first lettuce, peas, carrots, spinach and radishes. I have a large stack of seeds I can plant then. And so I've been going out to check the beds, turning over the soil a few inches at a time as it thaws. Until I can dig my shovel down to the bottom, I won't plant. I also need to be able to turn under and then leave for a week the chicken manure I've incorporated into the top layer. It was already fairly broken down, so shouldn't scorch the plants, but I want to make sure.

The thaw has come very quickly. The snow melted faster than I thought possible, and today was the first day to break 60 degrees. Still, it feels very late. Easter is as late as it seems it possibly can be, not until April 23. I'll put in the onions and potatoes on their liturgical schedule, Good Friday.The college has plans to return the koi to their summer fountain home on April 14, which was unthinkable even on April 1. But it seems the good thing about a late spring may be less of a chance of relapse.

Mating season is in full force, and one good thing about the late spring is the ability to see all the creatures. The male sand hill crane had a little competition, but he seems to have chased him off. Each evening, six to eight deer have been coming out and grazing on the edge of the prairie. One evening a lone turkey came stumbling out of the woods to join all of them-- seven deer, the three cranes, and one turkey. The muskrat is back on the pond, and the ducks are going at it loudly as well.

We've also spotted a coyote, which we hear but never see, twice on the property. One evening he skirted just before dusk along the edge of the large pond before turning and bounding into the woods. The other time he was along the stubble cornfield our neighbor maintains east of our property.

I have a few pans of small sprouts, that I hope will become real plants in the six weeks between now and when I can transplant at the end of May. By then I'll be ready for the next group of seeds, those with packets that read: "when the danger of frost is past."