Sunday, May 31, 2009
I made my way over to Mill Creek Farm in western Philadelphia this morning with my water bottle, a sandwich, and some sunscreen to help out at one of the community workdays. On my walk over, I even managed to cajole a few of the neighborhood boys into helping out for a few hours. (They were the hardest workers there! Not that the rest of us were slackers or anything.) While Jade managed a group of folks doing their regular shift on behalf of the Mariposa Food Co-op (I learned that members have the option of working in the garden instead of staffing the co-op -- very cool), Jo gave me and a group of volunteers from a local Jewish community center a tour of the farm.
To say I was impressed would be an understatement. Mill Creek is truly a model of sustainable living, from it's cob constructed shed to the living roof to the composting toilet to the solar panels. It's also a model of community collaboration, with a recycled materials mural created with students from a nearby arts high school and plans to begin construction of a grey water system with another local school under development (using bathtubs that had been donated to the farm). The farm itself is split into 2 main sections: one for community members to grow food for themselves and one for the farm volunteers to grow food to sell (to the local community, to the local food co-op) or donate to food cupboards. The whole point is to cultivate a sense of community and provide a space to produce and provide healthy, sustainably grown fresh produce to a neighborhood that would not likely otherwise have access to it. If this place doesn't embody what a community garden is supposed to be, I don't know what the heck else the ideal place would look like.
The farm is in the process of advocating for the land to be permanently designated as a critical green space in west Philadelphia. The idea is to get the land that the Mill Creek Farm maintains along with the adjacent community garden (which has been around for more than 30 years) put in a land trust with the Neighborhood Gardens Association (NGA) to get the title transferred from the City of Philadelphia, which currently owns the property, to the NGA.
This place rocks. If you want to help support the work here, swing by for a community workday, sign the petition to rally support from the local councilwoman, stop by one of the produce stands they have set up outside the farm on Wednesdays and Saturdays and purchase some of the delectable vittles. If you can't come in person, you can still donate online (not that I am in any way trying to divert funding from my own project, but this is one truly worthy cause.)
I'm hoping to learn much more about the burgeoning urban gardening scene in Philadelphia this week. Stay tuned!
Thursday, May 28, 2009
I played with proportions, cooking times, adding spices at different points in the process. Even making only about 1 cup of each (1/2 cup uncooked), we wound up with quite a lot of cooked rice. You would think we would be having rice for dinner tonight, but no.
"Why not?" you might be thinking.
Well, I got a little sidetracked part way through the cooking extravaganza when I heard Nancy muttering, "What will we do with all of this spinach? Our new batch of CSA produce just came in this morning." Of course I immediately started scheming. Yep, lots of varieties of fresh basil out back in the garden... a big bin of chopped pecans above the fridge... olive oil... some garlic... just need to pick up some grated cheese and presto! Or, rather, pesto!
Monday, May 25, 2009
There was no alcohol at the barbecue. No, really, it was the sun. I think Susanna noticed I was getting a little loopy, so after my toy truck escapades wound down she assigned me to designing a new portion of the tea garden, which emerged as something of a recycled kitchen garden with a number of different varieties of basil, with food-related equipment as planters:
Pretty fun. And it reminded me of my dad, the pesto maestro of the family, who would perhaps shed a tear of joy at the basilicious* possibilities here.
So aside from gardening, I've been preparing for the next leg of my trip: making calls, mapping out bike routes, locating state parks, rearranging my gear. I'm heading to the next destination in a couple of days and was just going through my stuff to determine if there is anything -- ANYTHING! -- that I can mail home. Or donate. Or somehow otherwise remove from the pile of accoutrement that weighs more than I do and that I am dragging around on poor Ollie. (She's a trooper, but still, a few pounds off would be nice, especially since I have another week or two of Pennsylvania hills to traverse before I get to New York.) My digital camera stopped working a few days ago, so now I'm down to the blackberry camera. That should shave off, what, 7 or 8 ounces? Maybe one of the sweaters can go. That's another, say, 8 ounces. There! A pound! Ha ha -- victory! Now my ride will only weigh... well, I haven't actually weighed Ollie loaded, but I can't lift her.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Yesterday, I traveled with the friendly folks at The Rosemary House to help out at the annual Herb Festival in Baltimore. (Yes, Baltimore, putting me just about a day's ride from where I started nearly a month ago. Don't think that little detail escaped my notice or that of my dad who could not help but point out that my route thus far has been less... efficient... than it could have been. I noticed the same thing when traveling through Bedford and seeing the "Cumberland: 34 miles" sign last week. This journey is about learning, so I'm hoping I become a better mapper as I go along....) Anyway, back on point, the festival was pretty cool. While my master plan to secure for myself a cone of lavender ice cream (my current obsession) was foiled, I did learn quite a bit. David -- an amazingly knowledgeable herbalist -- on the drive down helped me clear up some confusion surrounding my understanding of the relationship between "natural medicine" and "homeopathy." I had always equated the two, but it seems this is a common misconception. (The fact that I did not sack out on the drive down -- we had woken up at 4:45am to drive to the festival -- is a testament to the engaging and thoughtful nature of David's conversation.)
At the festival itself, I spent most of my time devouring a quart of fresh strawberries and (wo)manning the used book section of the Rosemary House booth. I was in my element. I mean, used books on gardening and cooking?? I think I did a fairly good job on sales, but I also managed to read up on using plants to control various garden pests and got somewhat sidetracked thumbing through a book on using herbs and flowers to make natural soaps. I also had a bit of a reprieve from the heat when I went to a talk in the chapel called "Enhancing your health with culinary herbs," given by near-Dr. Andrew Pengelly, a charming and somewhat self-effacing Australian gentleman. It was here that many of my instincts surrounding the curative and preventative nature of herbs and spices were confirmed. I learned new things about some of the health benefits of some of my favorite spices, too. Of note were
- garlic (eating as little as a half of a raw clove per day has been shown to reduce cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood clotting, never mind that your garlic breath keeps most swine-flu-bearing folks at a safe distance)
- parsley (high in iron and also good for GI issues)
- ginger and turmeric (anti-inflammatories -- I still stand by my claim that tea made with lots of chopped, fresh ginger and honey cures just about everything from sore muscles to insomnia to allergies)
- cinnamon (believed to help prevent/control diabetes due to its glucose/insulin-moderating properties).
I also learned about some preliminary clinical studies on the health effects of various herbal extracts. In Asia, for example, a study of the elderly in relation to the amount of curry they consume -- lots, some, or none -- seemed to have a direct correlation to their cognitive function. Now, obviously there are many factors and biases inherent in such a study, but imagine -- just imagine! -- if we could prevent or drastically reduce the onset of Alzheimer's, dementia, or other memory loss afflictions by periodically consuming curries and other flavorful food. I believe in modern science and medicine (ahem, Justin) but I also can't help but note that for so many years and in so many other cultures there are natural, food- and herb-based remedies that work. (Don't worry, Rudy, I'm steering clear of coffee enemas....)
I'm hoping to learn much more about the growing, storage, and use of herbs over the next few days. For those who might be interested in lavender ice cream (and making me green with envy: I will be somewhere in Connecticut by then), you should check out the PA Lavender Festival, which runs from June 19-21.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
One point that Phyllis brought up that keeps turning in my mind is the idea that all life has value, be it plant or animal, and that animals raised in a happier environment are not only healthier for us, nutritionally speaking (less fatty, less likely to get sick and need medicine or hormones to survive), but they have a different energy that is passed along to us when we consume them. Matter cannot be created nor destroyed, right? I think of life energy along similar lines, but more... karmic.
Now, I'm not getting all New Agey here. In fact, most of the "life force" stuff I have stumbled across is too out there or flaky sounding for me to incorporate into my worldview. (Perhaps it's my literary critical nature: "The Celestine Prophecy" was the first work I had come across which dealt with these issues, but even reading it in high school I felt it was too poorly written for me to buy into some of the ideas; "What the Bleep?!" on the other hand, I saw more recently, and it got me thinking a bit, but again some of the attempts at a dramatic presentation were a bit ham-handed.) Nonetheless, the idea that the energy of formerly living things that we consume is transferred to us makes sense. Life is comprised of more than molecules and electrical currents. Is it so strange to think that food is, too? Years from now, I would not be surprised if science bears this out. (In the meantime, it can't hurt to continue singing to your plants. You never know.) ;)
Sunday, May 17, 2009
I'm not just talking about supporting your local food economy by keeping your dollars in the area, or the carbon footprint bit -- all of the fossil fuels used to process and transport produce from large-scale, so-called "industrial organic" operations -- that might recommend more local food acquisition, though both are very valid reasons. I mean that when you are presented with organically grown stuff from somewhere far away, it may not be in line with the kind of practices you want to support: wasteful growing, harvesting, and packaging. Take Trader Joe's, for example. I love -- love! -- their stuff, and much of it is organic, even free trade, but it is shipped in from all over the place (and "organic" -- never mind "sustainably grown" -- in one country more than likely means something different in another) and there is the issue of packaging. Oh, the packaging! I shudder at the image of the tons of saran wrap and styrofoam they contribute to landfills each year. (Then again, if TJ's didn't shrink wrap everything, the dumpster diving culture would probably wither and die of malnutrition.) I try to stick to farmers markets and food co-ops as much as possible, as they tend toward high quality, seasonal stuff without all of the packaging, and the pricing is comparable. (I do make the occasional stop into TJ's -- but not for produce, if I can at all avoid it. Nobody's perfect, certainly not me. Hey, even Michael Pollan buys Fruity Pebbles sometimes....)
More to the point, though, is the sketchiness surrounding what it means for meat (and animal products such as milk or eggs) to be "certified organic." It apparently *doesn't* mean that animals are raised or slaughtered humanely. It doesn't mean they're any less crowded or stressed than their conventionally-raised counterparts. What it means is that they are fed organically-grown corn and are not pumped up with hormones. This is a good start, but it's not good enough. What's better? Talking to the farmer or rancher directly, asking questions about their practices. If you can, visit the farms, see how the animals live. Do they have a place to roam, walk in the grass, feel the sun on their faces? This -- a happy animal life and a humane death -- is the best a meat eater can hope for in her food. I am grappling with issues related to eating meat again these days, so I suspect there will be future posts as I try to flesh things out. (Oy.)
Friday, May 15, 2009
As we worked, I had the opportunity to get to know some of the full-time folks at Maggie's: Phyllis, Eric, and JJ. (Cliff was on mowing duty for pretty much the whole day, so only a few jokes and sarcastic comments back and forth there.) Inevitably, the conversation turned to food. Sure, I can talk about all kinds of other things -- books, music, art, film, the need for universal health care coverage, the decline of the public education system in our country, the evil powers responsible for the inane Washington Sports Clubs' member cancellation policy (and how a lack of a forwarding address should not bring the system to a screeching halt) -- but food is my favorite. And as we worked in the cooler for hours with gorgeous, newly-harvested produce, I began to brainstorm. Arugula pesto. Sauteed chard with garlic and nutmeg. Roasted asparagus with mint and lemon juice. Baby beet salad with mustard vinaigrette.
[Writing intermission: snack break.]
Clouds lingered after lunch and the weather seemed iffy, so I worked with Phyllis for a few hours on the "Defragging Phyllis' Brain" project -- essentially, it was a download of a lot of information from the farm manager's brain onto a working spreadsheet to map out weekly, monthly, and seasonal plans for the farm. Again, during lulls in the work, food occupied the majority of the conversation, so once we got to what we deemed an appropriate stopping point for the day, Phyllis let me into her kitchen and I fiddled with some of the miscellaneous organic ingredients in her refrigerator and some herbs I'd snipped from around the farm. I'd cut some fresh lettuce in the greenhouse and we proceeded to enjoy an herbal salad dressing sampling for the prototypes I was working on, each one featuring a seasonal herb: oregano, chives, sage, and thyme.
It seems both Phyllis and I liked the thyme one best, which had fresh orange juice, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and mustard; I seem to have overdone it on the chili powder in the chive vinaigrette; the other two were fine, but nothing too crazy. As we nibbled, Phyllis told me of a gentleman in town with 6 Jersey cows who sells raw milk. I think I may have been out the door and let myself into her car and had my seatbelt on before she finished that sentence, but I can't be sure. Raw milk! We picked up a gallon, stopped for a few dozens free range eggs from another neighbor, and headed directly back to the farm....
I am perhaps a little overzealous about my affinity for fresh, plain yoghurt. It's hard to find these days outside of farmers markets. (I wouldn't characterize my frequenting of the 3 dairy suppliers at the Dupont Farmers Market as "stalking" per se, but I would get a little panicky when the supply of plain yoghurt ran low as I tried to wait patiently in line.) Phyllis pulled out her recipe and we got to work. The next morning, it was ready... and ridiculously delicious. We devoured about half the quart between us, garnished with raspberries frozen from last summer. And it was so easy!
If you want to make it yourself, here's the recipe:
- Heat 1 quart of raw milk (or store-bought milk is fine, too) in a saucepan to 180 degrees.
- Remove from stove top and cool milk to 116 degrees.
- Stir in 2 tablespoons of plain yoghurt culture. (This can be the last 2 TBSP of previous yoghurt batch or simply 2 TBSP of store-bought, plain yoghurt, preferably organic)
- Pour into a glass container and cover. (We covered a large glass jar with some tin foil.)
- Store at 116 degrees for 6 hours or overnight. (We wrapped the covered jar in a small towel, then a wool blanket, and placed it on a wooden cutting board set atop a small, metal space heater set on low overnight.)
- Chill for an hour or two. (This may apply to you, but certainly applies to the yoghurt.)
Soooo delicious.... and easy. I'll bet it would be a blast to make with kids. But then you'd probably have to set a good example and share some of it. Hmmm.... maybe make two batches.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
I've been playing around with some numbers -- mostly as a way to distract myself from the lactic acid build up in my hamstrings on hills #14-37 yesterday -- and thought I'd share a few stats.
Since starting the official Bikeable Feast on 26 April:
- 335 miles biked
- 14 hills totally or partially walked hauling Ollie + accessories
- 3 flat tires
- 1 ditch dive
- 1 bike computer + 3 fender parts lost (in ditch)
- 3 slow motion crashes directly attributable to clipless pedals
- 15 phone conversations with my parents (not mentioning crashes)
- 3 straight days of motown on the mental mp3 player
Also, I just checked the site stats and since mid-February (when I installed Google Analytics) and there have been over 800 unique visitors to the blog! Whoah. I mean, mom and dad, you guys must be working hard to create so many fake identities to log in with. Or maybe the word is spreading.... :)
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Sunday, May 10, 2009
Friday's action included an extended stop at the annual May Market, held on the grounds of the impressive Phipps Conservatory. There were dozens of garden clubs and urban farmers selling all manner of seedlings to throngs of local greenthumbs. It was also where I had a chance to meet Susanna, one of the Grow Pittsburgh movers and shakers, who gave me a rundown on some of the local gardening programs around the city. There's some great work going on here, including a fledgling Edible Schoolyard program (modeled on Alice Waters' famed Berkeley pilot project that integrates growing and eating healthy, sustainable food into the public school curriculum). Good stuff.
Saturday provided a chance to check out "Farmers at the Firehouse" - the farmer's market in the hip and happenin' downtown Strip. Unfortunately, my morning dilly dallying meant that Will and I arrived too late to get in on the wild mushrooms, which had sold out hours before our arrival. And my chat with the 2 Jonathans at the mushroom booth has not yet yielded an invitation to go morel hunting with them. I guess I shouldn't be surprised: Michael Pollan alluded in The Omnivore's Dilemma to the secret-of-life degree of guardedness among avid mushroomers. C'mon, I can keep a secret. Just toss me a few chantrelles and mum's the word.
After a sandwich and a stop by REI for the much-needed rain cover for my bike helmet and shoes (I had foolishly mocked helmet cover wearers in the past, but 6 days of biking in pouring rain changed my tune), Will and I poked around the Friendship neighborhood's Folk & Flower Fest. Here at last I met Barb, one of the founders of Mildred's Daughters, and managed to snap a picture of her and a few of the other workers and volunteers at their seedling stand. I had been to the farm earlier in the week and learned about the rare history of the 5 acre plot (which has been farmed since the late 19th Century) and working group alternative program to traditional CSAs. From here, we walked to the nearby Montessori school to check out their vegetable patch and then it was off to the Frick Greenhouse, where we encountered a good variety of seedlings and seasonal produce.
Ah, but the story of Pittsburgh was not over yet. Sunday morning found Ollie and I pedaling back to the Landslide Community Farm for - you guessed it - the brunch. Really, can I resist an opportunity to be around good people and good food? No, clearly I can't. They even let me into the kitchen, where I proceeded to sneak garlic into just about everything but the french toast. And I'm glad I loaded up on carbs because I needed them for the cross-town, hill-laden trek to Braddock Farms. (Oh my, did I say hills? I think I looked *down* and saw Mount Olympus from my vantage point on Forward Avenue.) The farm was alive with asparagus, garlic, lettuce, tomato plants, and strawberry shrubs. Pretty sweet, and oddly, but somehow fittingly, ensconced next to one of the city's few remaining steel mills.
I managed to navigate a different route back, with considerably fewer hills, that took me once more past the fantastic East End Food Co-op. I picked up a few last goodies and headed back to Steve's apartment. After dinner and a hot bath, I think it's time for a mug of tea and some flannel pjs. My legs are going to be sore tomorrow - I can tell.
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Thursday, May 7, 2009
Maybe I'm just swept up in the beauty of today. After all of the menacing weather reports last night I thought I was going to be waiting out a virtual monsoon. (Seems to be the pattern these days.) But no, by a bit after 11 this morning the grey clouds dissolved and opened up a sunny, warm afternoon -- right about the time Ollie and I arrived at the Landslide Community Farm (http://www.landslidecommunityfarm.org/Landslide_Community_Farm/Home.html).
My friend Will who works with the women over at Mildred's Daughters -- another urban farm here in the 'burgh -- had been kind enough to introduce me to one of the lead farmers at Landslide yesterday. When I learned that today was going to be a community work day, I pulled out my Bike Pittsburgh map (courtesy of my friend Don) and charted out a route. I arrived at the site to find 5 or 6 volunteers already digging in some of the raised beds and jumped right in. Crystal taught me the basics of potato planting; Tom helped me refine my knotweed-pulling technique. (He and I marveled at the tenacity of the invasive plant, which seems structurally quite similar to bamboo or asparagus. "Why couldn't it have been asparagus that had taken over this city?" I wondered, hungrily.) I loaded up buckets of mushroom mulch for where the plum trees were being planted, pulled knotweed, and considered the joy of having my hands in the ground at last. I learned from the others about the innovative acquisition and use of the property that had literally gone through 2 major landslides in the past half-century -- land which the creative folks at the site had purchased from the city and are hoping to expand to help nurture and feed the larger community just east of the Birmingham Bridge (http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07225/809050-53.stm).
Speaking of feeding, I'm hoping to make it back over there in a few days to partake in the weekly Sunday (mostly vegan) brunch. I'm hoping Elijah will recant his vow to save all 20 varieties of organic garlic for next year and toss some in with the tofu scramble...
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Monday, May 4, 2009
While I did enjoy many things about the C & O trail, especially all of the historical tidbits, I have to admit that the quality of the trail itself was inconsistent. Once we made it onto the Allegheny Passage, I couldn't help but marvel at how much more well kept things are here in PA. It was almost like biking in a different country. (As we crossed the Mason-Dixon line yesterday afternoon, Ollie couldn't resist pointing out that we almost *could* have been in a different country. She's still holding on to a little confederate money, honey - in this economy, you never know.) The campsites, too, were much nicer. Probably because you have to pay $20 and scale a medium-sized mountain to get to them, they are relatively unspoiled.
After biking 30 miles in a downpour, I was looking forward to pitching my tent, peeling off the damp bike gear, and making some hot soup. But first it seems I needed to go through the litany of swear words I knew in every language I could summon as I dragged a fully loaded Ollie about 1/4 mile up the gravel suicide slope. (Who knew I remembered any Italian or Arabic?) It was not one of my finer moments.
I never did find the campsite. At least not until the next morning, when the ranger approached the waterlogged tent I had pitched just off the trail in a fit of frustration and impending darkness. Like something out of a movie, I had given up hope just about 100 yards short (still uphill, mind you) of the campsite. Everything inside and outside of the tent was soaked and I couldn't find the lighter for the stove. So today, after slogging through another 30 soggy miles - this time with plastic bags over my socks, which conveniently trapped the cold water that dripped through the small gap between my socks and rain pants directly next to my feet for 5 hours - I decided it was time to dip into the small discretionary fund I had allotted for the trip to rent a room for the night and order a pizza. I had to drag Ollie up another big hill (the one in the photo is from about half way up, right about where I coughed up my left lung), but at least it was paved. How's that for a little perspective?
And so, dear readers, I should sign off. After a hot bath, an episode of the Simpsons, and most of a medium pizza, I'm getting a little drowsy....
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Saturday, May 2, 2009
I must say, there is nothing quite like a hot bath after 3 nights of not being able to stand the smell of damp laundry hanging above one's head in a tent as the cold rain beats down. For better or worse -- better for cooking; worse for crowded metro buses full of folks who clearly didn't use Dial -- my sense of smell is intense. I can almost taste the honeysuckle as I bike past. Or the dank 2-day-old socks as I pull them on, grumbling. Or the stagnant water in the Canal. Blech.
Anyway, I spent this morning catching up on some e mails, making a few calls, airing out the camping gear, and loading up on calories. (Like I said, trying to bulk up and my Aunt Barbara is a fabulous cook.) I also had the chance to clean Ollie and make a few minor repairs -- replacing the duct tape on her rear fender with some new, stronger duct tape and substituting the stick that had been holding the front fender on with a screw, washer, and bolt. I was feeling pretty handy, actually, and Uncle Clarence was a great technical advisor. This afternoon is set for a trip to the post office, a visit to a local park service office, and maybe a nap. I'd better watch it or they'll try and talk me into staying another day. Must... resist....