Friday, April 30, 2010

You're an anti-tentite!

[This subject heading's for you, little brother.]

What is it with camping in this part of the country? I may look like a vagabond, but I'm no kind of riffraff. Harumph.

Take Winnie, TX, where I slept just a few nights ago. The one RV park in town wouldn't allow tents. "Discrimination!" I spluttered. "How am I penalized for not needing a giant space and sewage hook-up for my gas-guzzling mobile home??" (Okay, that was an interior monologue, I was actually very polite.) Luckily there was a well-traveled, and thus fairly safe, city park, which aside from its lack of showers (or doors on the bathroom stalls) worked out just fine. There were even water spigots and electrical outlets at each site. And it was free. Not bad. Stinky but safe: it could be worse.

[Note: I am not anti-RV. In fact, I have a number of friends who travel by mobile home. Some of them are actually kind of snazzy, like Joel's veg-powered trailer. But come on, if I'm willing to pay too much for an RV spot to pitch my little, no-impact tent, why can't I camp there?]

Then there was Orange, TX. I had hoped to make it over the border to Vinton, LA yesterday, but the stormclouds roiling overhead for hours had me nervous that a major storm was going to break before I covered the final 30 or so miles. (I'd already biked more than 50 and wasn't moving too fast.) So I decided to stay in Orange for the night. Oh my. Again, the one RV park I found online refused to allow tents. Suggestions I received from folks when I stopped in at the Farm Bureau office to ask for help included:

1. Tenting on a boat ramp: on the bad side of town. This was suggested by an older guy who worked for the county and who admitted that *he* wouldn't camp there, but at least it was lit up at night. Thanks, sir.

2. A homeless shelter: they take anyone. Except I'm not technically homeless, and also it was run by a pretty evangelical church group that would probably feed me pentacostal bible teachings along with my boiled collards -- no thanks. Also, we couldn't find a number to call them. And there was the issue of the woman giving me directions there being, well, terrible at giving directions. (She'd insisted it was only 4 miles to Vinton, Louisiana; in fact, I learned when I passed through there earlier today, it was 35. Thanks but no thanks, lady. I'm glad to have dodged that bullet.)

3. The city park: this, in a town known for assaults and shootings. It was another winning suggestion from the gentleman who came up with the boat ramp scheme. Does this guy have it in for me? He seemed nice enough....

4. The hospital: if I stashed my bike somewhere -- where?? -- I could pretend I was waiting on someone to come out of surgery and doze in the waiting room. This was suggested by a not-particularly-helpful, not-quite-local woman.

Seriously, I know I've slept in haylofts and on plastic tables in abandoned gas stations, but these were the worst suggestions I'd ever heard. I didn't mention my research, but maybe they sensed that I was plotting the end of conventional agriculture as we know it....

Luckily, a stop by the local Chamber of Commerce office set things right. Danielle called the other RV park in town and Sallie, who runs things there, said I was welcome to pitch my tent for ten bucks. Not only that, but there was a laundry room *and* a shower that I would be more than welcome to utilize. Ah, it's good to have friends in high places.

There are some challenges I'd foreseen before I started this trip, but I had no idea how challenging finding a place to sleep would be. I mean, nearly all of California's parks had closed due to budget cuts, you may recall, but not allowing tents at campgrounds that are open in other parts of the country? I'm hoping I have better luck avoiding anti-tentites as I make my way through The Deep South in coming weeks....

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Vagabondage: year one

[Thanks to Mark for the post title suggestion. I have a funny feeling it will bring a lot of disappointed teenage boys and misdirected S&M traffic to the blog. Who knows, maybe it'll get a new demographic interested in sustainable food.]

Ollie and I passed our "one year on the road" milestone just a couple of days ago. A year! I know!! And I still love what I'm doing. Imagine that. Mom and dad still tease me that I'm their vagabond daughter. I say, "Embrace the vagabondage!"

Now, by this point most of you can probably guess that I love any opportunity to celebrate -- remember Margarita Tuesdays in college, Mare and Feliss? -- so I thought I'd take a little space here to celebrate a few things from the first year on the road.

Most bike-friendly state: Oregon, land of the wide road shoulders and $5 hiker-biker state park campsites. (Least bike-friendly state: Massachussetts, land of aggressive automobiles and $40 campsites.)

Best bike mechanic: my cousin Laith (Austin, TX)

Funniest compliment: Told by a former marine that I had big cojones (Santa Barbara, CA)

Most humbling moment: Being given freshly harvested broccoli by a refugee farmer from Burundi (Burlington, VT)

Strangest meal: Fried squirrel (Santa Cruz, CA) Sorry, Squeazle.

Best meal so far: Ha! As if I could narrow it down to one. If I could combine a few perfectly delicious moments into one dream dinner, it would look something like this: the cheese course at T'afia (Meghan and Andrew's wedding dinner in Houston), seared brussels sprouts (Easter dinner with David and Cynthia in Fredericksburg, TX), broiled Taylor Shellfish oysters (Kendall and Kirsten's place in Bellingham, WA), chantrelle soup (Bear's house in Santa Cruz, CA), Clay's fish tacos (Mack's house in Los Osos, CA), and lamb curry (April's farm in Pleasant Springs, WI). Dessert would be a meal in itself: Derrick's peanut butter cake (Jeff's apartment in Chicago), the divine candied orange peel ice cream at Chez Panisse (Berkeley), and Maggie's vegan cheesecake (Marana Heritage Farm, AZ). Funny, I was never a big dessert person before. No, really, I think it's the biking.

Favorite farm: As if. I've narrowed it down to... 25?

Most alarming question: Pretty much all the way through Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, a number of folks have asked me if, as a woman traveling alone, I'm "packing." Packing heat, that is. Honestly, it's about the only thing I'm *not* packing. (Incidentally, a year into the bikeable feast, the number one most asked question remains, "How much does that loaded bike weigh??" What, am I supposed to leave the chef's knife or the dancing shoes behind? Hardly.)

Most unexpectedly awesome state: Iowa. (Calm down, New York, I *knew* you'd be great.)

States visited: 20. Tomorrow Ollie and I are slated to cross over into our 21st state of the tour: Louisiana. Woo hoo! Mind you, we've enjoyed the past 40 days exploring the great state of Texas, especially the central region, but this last leg across the Eastern part has been a bit dicey. (I probably shouldn't say too much until I am safely across state lines. Then again, safety is relative: I'll be trading the salt prairie's fire ants for the bayou's alligators. Hmmm. Oooh, the fire ant bites itch, though....)

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Friday, April 23, 2010

Reading, writing, and 'rugula

It all started with a return phone call this morning from Linda. Not a wedding photographer by trade, though she'd agreed to take pictures for Meghan's wedding last weekend, I learned that the artist generally photographs wildlife and, more recently, organic farms and community gardens all around the Houston area. (What luck!) Linda, unperturbed by the babbling of the bridesmaid with the bike glove tan, shared some of her thoughts on community strengthening through gardening in the region. It was she who directed me to Urban Harvest (a local nonprofit that cultivates farmers' markets and community gardens) and encouraged me to get in touch with the folks involved in developing school gardens in the city. It was almost lunchtime on a Friday, but I started making phone calls....

I spoke first with Susan who filled me in a bit on the history of Urban Harvest and its partnerships with local schools. She talked me through the financing, development, and management of the gardens: it seems the work has grown from the inception of the original 3 gardens years ago and quite a few now have transitioned from after school projects (largely funded by 5-year 21st Century Community Learning Center grants) to programs integrated into the school curriculum, some with their own paid, part-time staff. From local community grants (like those from Home Depot, Shell Oil, and Chase Bank, as well as small businesses) to school budget allotments for garden instructors, funding for these programs continues to shift as the outdoor learning spaces thrive beyond their initial start-up phase. At the conclusion of our conversation, Susan recommended a few interesting school garden models right in my neighborhood. Well, within a 30-minute bike ride, anyway.

[Sidenote on biking in this town: I've learned pretty quickly that Houston is not so biker friendly. Automobiles don't seem to acknowledge the faintly marked bike lanes or the clearly posted "Share the road: bicycles are vehicles, too" signs. Probably hard to see them over the giant truck hoods. And why, in a city so dangerous for cyclists, does nobody wear a helmet?? I've been here over a week and I can count the number of bike helmets I've seen on one hand. End of rant... for now.]

After a quick stop by the post office, Ollie and I arrived at Travis Elementary, supposedly the oldest documented school garden in all of Texas. Principal Walker (not a Texas Ranger) welcomed me to the campus and introduced me to George (parent of two Travis students, professional photographer, long-time Urban Harvest garden volunteer, and part-time staff gardener at the school) who happily showed me around and explained how the gardens had grown over the course of many years. The parents and PTA have been avid supporters, he told me, and with the principal's blessing George exercises quite a bit of creative oversight of the green space between the teacher parking lot and the classrooms. There are dozens of raised garden beds -- considerably more skillfully designed than my first attempt in Meghan's yard (though I am rather proud of it) -- and the beginnings of an orchard. There is a small outdoor amphitheatre. George shared his plans for a fish pond, an interactive environmental data collection center (with a computer, electronic microscope, and camera linked to classrooms and the internet), and a project to develop a series of mini ecosystems to foster a wide variety of wildlife. The sky's the limit, the plans are drawn... now it's just a matter of patience and garnering funds.

As things stand now, each class has a raised bed to cultivate. So does the maintenance and kitchen staff. George is hoping to involve neighbors, inviting them to start small plots and help manage the garden during summer months when school is out. Truly, it is a place of beauty, learning, and community. While we strolled about, a teacher brought her class of fifth graders out for a ladybug hunt: apparently the auditorium was overcrowded with students showing off their "science super hero" costumes and she wanted to give her kids a little peaceful outside time on this beautiful afternoon. See, these are exactly the kinds of impromptu learning experiences that successful school gardens allow. The students excitedly but respectfully inspected each garden plot for the elusive aphid hunters and at least twice a student shyly approached us with a question about a particular plant in the garden. "Is that crazy looking flowering one a broccoli or a brussels sprout plant?" one girl ventured. It was the latter, though they're closely related. (Seriously? I'd never even seen brussels sprouts growing on the plant until about two years ago. This kid was at least 20 years ahead of my own learning curve. I am humbled, yet again, by a ten-year-old.) A bit later, George showed me one of the butterfly gardens, including a simple wooden trellis he'd constructed after noticing monarchs building their chrysalises on similar beams near the garden shed. The hope is that the butterflies will populate the beams outside the classroom window, where students are learning about monarch butterflies in science. I departed with butterflies (of the excitement variety) in my stomach.

With less than an hour left in the school day, Ollie and I hit the road again, this time for Helms Elementary, where a veteran science teacher had found herself talked into spearheading a school garden and wildlife preserve more than a decade ago. Welcoming me with a big hug -- I love huggers! -- Lindy asked her colleague, Mary (a longtime community volunteer at the school and active member of the gardening team), to show me around while she got the students set up for a review session in the computer lab. (Next week is the big statewide science exam for fifth graders. Let the record show that I am refraining from ranting about the ludicrous nature of high-stakes standardized tests... for now.) Mary showed me around the vegetable garden and guided me around the wetland preserve. An engineer had seen the pond's small wooden bridge a few years back, I learned, and insisted that he design another one that allowed students to see the water and turtles underneath... a sturdy metal walkway now stretches over the waterway. Mary then introduced me to the turtles and explained recent trouble with the overworked water pump... a plumber friend had volunteered to help fix things, but it was going to be a few weeks, she confided. While there have been a series of small grants along the way, it turns out that most of the supplies and expertise have come from friends, neighbors, and local businesses. Now, isn't that how it should be? (Kind of reminds me of the Noyo Food Forest's successful community partnerships.) Much of the garden building had been done by students and volunteers, I later learned from the science teacher, with most of the heavy lifting courtesy of juvenile offenders doing community service hours. Rather than being phased by their prominent tattoos, Lindy was overjoyed by the strength of the young men. (It's all a matter of perspective, she laughed.) There are plans here, too, for expanding the gardens little by little, funding and leadership permitting.

Lindy, Mary, and I chatted for another hour or so as students tutored each other in the humming computer lab. By five o'clock it was time for Ollie and I to head out. I was hungry and also excited to capture some of what I'd learned today in writing. Food education is slowly taking root in Texas, and the kids are clearly thriving on reading, writing, and a little romaine. (Which is good, because history education is taking a nose dive: the board of education just cut Thomas Jefferson out of the textbooks last month. Ah, Texas....)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

You've made your bed...

Oh my, has it really been more than a week since my last post? Um. Ummm... I blame an amazingly fun group of people and distractingly delicious food. After the excitement of Meghan and Andrew's wedding, it's taken me a few days of nibbling on chocolate and cheese and sipping a few local brews to help me refocus. In recent days, I've had the chance to visit a number of farmers' markets and garden supply stores here in Houston -- more on those later. Right now I'm cracking open a nice cold St. Arnold's brown ale to celebrate the construction of my first raised bed, completed just this afternoon.

Many weeks ago, I had decided that I was going to build a garden for Meghan and Andrew as my wedding gift to them. (I'd gotten the idea in the middle of a long day of cycling. Was I suffering from sunstroke that day? Was I delirious? I've worked at a number of farms and community gardens by now, many of which have sported raised garden beds. I've seeded them. I've weeded them. But have I built one? Negative. What was I thinking??)

So on Monday morning I started researching, poring over a wide range of gardening websites with instructions (but, ahem, very few diagrams) on raised bed construction. Apparently you can make them out of just about anything: wood, stone, brick, concrete blocks. While I walked Olly and Penny around the neighborhood -- I'm dog-sitting this week while the newlyweds are honeymooning -- I took notes on creative garden bed arrangements we passed. Lots of interesting models, but how the heck would I transport enough flat rocks or concrete blocks on my bicycle? Actually, could I even lug one concrete block? Then I got to thinking. Meghan and Andrew are among the most environmentally aware people I know -- these two had things like rain barrels and compost bins on their wedding registry. How cool would it be to use recycled materials? I visited a few nearby antique stores. $175 for a wrought iron panel? I'd need 3 or 4 of them. Eek. And there was the challenge, again, of transport.

Back at the homestead, I came across a few bags of organic topsoil and fertilizer. Small piles of bricks lingered along the driveway and to the side of the deck. Last weekend's open house meant there were some local beer bottles in the recycling bin.... A trip to the shed out back yielded all of the tools I would need: rake, shovel, trowel, measuring tape, saw. Okay... okay... this was looking promising. I laid out my materials as the dogs watched from the bedroom window, casting puzzled looks in my direction. ("Why is she burying bottles? I mean, you can't even chew on those. Oh, and she's only half burying them. What an amateur....") I measured out the space -- 8' x 3' seemed like a reasonable starting size for a small vegetable garden (and also was the maximum size I could reasonably construct with the materials on hand) -- and started digging.

Once the brick-bottle-miscellany frame was built I rummaged around the recycling bin again for some weed-suppressing, soil enriching cardboard. (Hopefully Meghan wasn't planning on returning any mailed wedding presents....)

Then I shoveled a mix of soil, all-natural fertilizer, and mulch on top...

But I didn't have enough soil to fill the whole bed. (Clearly there is a learning curve here.) Also, I didn't have the plants yet. I'd bought a pepper plant from a backyard gardener at Saturday's Urban Harvest market downtown and a lovely tomato seedling at yesterday's Rice University market. Two plants. Not exactly a cornucopia of vegetables. Ollie and I visited no fewer than 4 garden supply shops this afternoon, finally finding the breadth of selection and helpful advice at Buchanan's. Here's a pic of Keith with the basil and an okra seedling he talked me into purchasing. (What? Okay, so okra wasn't on the original list, but it's so very southern. Plus I couldn't resist after the friendly salesperson shared a recipe for a lovely sounding vegetarian okra saute. He promised it doesn't taste slimy.)

I had to bike home and bring the car, as the additional 14 plants and 3 bags of compost were too bulky to haul home on Ollie. (Notice I didn't say "too heavy" -- I'm not altogether unconvinced that the load weighs less than the gear I've been schlepping for over 5700 miles now.) If you're interested, the following plants somehow launched themselves into my cart along with the okra and basil: heirloom Turkish eggplant, crookneck squash, summer zucchini squash, garlic chives, lavender, chocolate mint, cilantro, parsley, marigolds (good pest deterrents to plant near tomatoes), nasturtiums (a beautiful, peppery addition to salads), and a crazy variety of coxcomb (I couldn't resist). It was too late in the season to plant lettuce, I learned. Drat. I'm hoping it can take over parsley's spot when the weather gets cooler....

Anyway, to make a long story short, after a little elbow grease, a lot of compost, and a moderate amount of watering, here you have it: my first raised garden bed!

I'm hoping Meghan gives me regular updates on how things are growing. (And not too many updates on how the raised bed is falling apart. I mean, bricks and beer bottles...?)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The tip of the iceberg

It seems that most non-Texans have the impression that the lonestar state is nothing more than a vast desert filled with oil executives, massive pick-up trucks, cattle, and shotguns. Some have perhaps based their preconceptions largely on the 80s TV drama, Dallas. (English-language television options were limited where I grew up overseas.) Wide open spaces. Ten-gallon hats. As I've made my way from El Paso to Austin, I have come to discover that western and central Texas towns have a lot more going on than the omnipresent guns and trucks might suggest: renewable energy (it's the #1 state for wind power... mostly headwind... in the country and a lot of work is going on harnessing solar as well), small business development, community gardening, and amazingly diverse local food. It is the last item that I'll focus on here, but should any of my loyal readers want to hear more about the others, drop me a line.

During my time through (aptly named) hill country, I had a chance to spend a few days in Fredericksburg. Thanks to my kind hosts -- David, co-president of the town farmers' market, and his lovely wife Cynthia -- I met a number of key players involved in the thriving local market and food scene. We had lunch with Kelly (founder of the farmers' market, going into its third year), chatted with the town sanitarian (the woman in charge of public health matters like temporary health permits for market food vendors... not to be confused with the sanitarium) at city hall, visited a few farmers in the region, and cooked up a storm. My kind of folks, those two.

We ate locally to a degree I hadn't previously experienced. Nearly every meal's ingredients came from a day's bike ride away: strawberries we'd picked at Marburger Orchards, brussels sprouts from Engel Farms harvested barely an hour before my arrival, burgers from Thunder Heart Bison, a finger of Texas bourbon (the first licensed outside of Kentucky) sipped while watching the NCAA men's final. I was eating locally, and remarkably well, but this was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of Texas' food culture.

The breadth of local ingredients got me thinking about the wide variety of food and drink that Texas, nearly a country in itself (it has its own national beer), produces. It seems odd that in a state with so much to offer, Texas ranks last among the 50 states in terms of food stamp programs (according to an article published a few months ago in Austin's local paper). At the other end of the spectrum, I recently read a Men's Fitness article from 2008 that claimed 6 of America's 10 most obese cities were in Texas. This expansive land of plenty has its work cut out for it. It's going to take more folks like David and Cynthia in Fredericksburg working to build a strong local foodshed, and innovative farmers like the ones I met at Sunday's urban farm tour here in Austin growing healthy food and teaching their neighbors how to grow their own, to reroute the Titanic that is Texas onto a path to avoid the twin icebergs of malnutrition and obesity. Otherwise, I fear, this gloriously large and diverse state will be a sinking ship. (What? Was the metaphor too forced?)

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Monday, April 12, 2010

(Incr)edible Austin

I've been hearing about the sheer awesomeness of Austin -- described by locals as being "so great you forget you're in Texas" (ouch!) -- for the better part of the past ten years. Many point to the live music scene as the city's prime attraction, but I would argue that the food around here is a comparable selling point. Seriously. It's something of a foodie paradise, and considerably more affordable than, say, San Francisco. (Incidentally, I understand there is quite a bit of cross-pollination between Texas' state capital and the Bay Area. That explains the food. And the thriving hipster culture.)

It's the birthplace of Whole Foods (or "Whole Paycheck," as my former partner, Kelly, likes to call it), but still, there's so much more here than I'd expected in terms of local, sustainable producers. Whole Foods has started climbing onto the locavore bandwagon in recent years, but the majority of products are still sourced much further afield. Around town, however, I have been regularly surprised. I mean, really: urban pasture-raised chicken eggs? local rum? goat milk feta? olive oil? Check, check, check, and check. All produced within Texas' borders. Apples, wine, grapefruits, sourdough. Some I purchased at the Wheatsville Co-op when Laith and I biked over on Friday, others I sampled at the Saturday and Sunday farmers' markets, and quite a few of the local delicacies were offered at this Sunday's farm tour. All have earned the bikeable feast "deliciousness seal of approval." Yum.

I was fortunate enough to be invited by Marla, publisher of Edible Austin magazine, to join her and her husband at yesterday's East Austin Urban Farm Tour. The event allowed me an opportunity to visit a handful of successful urban farms, meet the farmers, and sample farm-fresh goodies prepared by some of the city's most talented local chefs. (Yeah, I love my life.)

Ollie and I started out yesterday afternoon's activities at Boggy Creek Farm, nursing a pepperita (a rum and jalapeno-based cocktail) and nibbling on a broccoli and goat cheese tartlet as Carol Ann gave an inspired tour of her farm. Knowledgeable, unpretentious, and eminently personable, the farmer pointed out unusual varieties of heirloom fava beans and tomatoes, shared recipes for parboiled broccoli leaves, and apologized for the chicken-pecked brassica row ends. Since she and Larry started farming nearly two decades ago, they have grown food for themselves, then also neighbors, then even Whole Paycheck. They have mentored neighbors, including farmers at the next three stops, who continue to approach them with questions about composting or choosing crops or raising chickens.

[Speaking of chickens, Carol Ann wrote a hysterical one-page piece in the most recent issue of Edible Austin on the joys and challenges of having backyard layers. It ends with her urging readers to "take your favorite hen with you when you go hiking in the wilderness--if you become lost, she will demonstrate what is edible in your surroundings. In addition, while stranded on a mountain, she will lay an egg for you almost every day." I think even MacGuyver would do well to bring a chicken with him after this sound advice. He'd probably figure out a way to cook the egg using only toothpicks and a stick of gum.]

With chickens on the brain, Ollie and I next biked over to Springdale Farm to meet up with Marla and admire rows of veggies and flocks of chortling poultry as we sampled Dai Due sausage and sipped on cups of Live Oak brew. Next, we hiked over to HausBar Farm (the third stop on the four-farm tour) where Eastside Cafe chef/gardener Dorsey kindly gave me a personal tour of the farm. The property, I learned, was converted less than a year ago by Dorsey and her partner Susan. You'd never guess that the fabulous chicken coop was formerly one of three crack houses on the property, or that there were once weeds ten feet high where chickens now placidly wander near rows of lush, leafy kale. That these two managed such an impressive transformation so rapidly and successfully is an inspiration for novice food growing city dwellers like me. (I have complained about the rats in the alley behind my little studio apartment in DC: at least the ground wasn't littered with crack pipes and used needles when I moved in!) I was impressed by Dorsey's intensity and her infectious enthusiasm. I've visited the farm, but if I'm truly going to understand the full spectrum of this food expert's, er, expertise, I might need to make my way over to her popular organic garden-sourced eatery before I hit the road for Houston....

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Kitchen sink cookies

So I was just reading my friend Beth's food blog. As my mouth began watering -- reading about elk and pineapple kabobs will do that -- I started looking around and noticing the miscellaneous food items around Laith and Jenna's kitchen here in Austin. (They're out with 2-year-old Lucas and I'm left here at the house, ostensibly catching up on some research and writing, but nothing helps me focus better than when there's something simmering on the stove or baking in the oven. No, I'm serious.) I started rummaging around here for things that I can use to make a little baked something or other. I first came across a rather ripe banana. Then a handful of walnuts that escaped the fate of last night's arugula walnut pesto making extravaganza. A stick of butter. A bit of fair trade dark chocolate -- my emergency bar -- among the biking supplies piled up in the corner of the living room.

I got to thinking about the year I spent in Mexico experimenting with whatever the heck I had around to cook with. You may laugh, but while produce was abundant, it was hard sometimes to get good eggs or feta cheese. Go figure, I lived in a little mountain village about an hour east (by car) from Mexico City. God help anyone in search of indian curry spices or decent peanut butter. I did a lot of fiddling in the kitchen in those days. Tortilla pizzas. Chili de arbol and guava marinades. And lots and lots of baked goodies, some of which made their way to friends' houses. It was the point at which I think I began to cook primarily by touch and smell and taste, rather than by measurement, and improvising. Let's see, what's that in the back of the cupboard? That might be good in a pie.... More often than not, things worked out deliciously, and the results were never quite the same twice.

With a stick of butter, an egg, and a cup of flour, you've got the beginnings of many a tasty vittle. To help me focus on the research for tomorrow's East Austin Urban Farm Tour, I threw together a bowl of batter and warmed up the oven for a cookie concoction I first made back in my kitchen in the little village of San Nicolas Tlaminca:

Kitchen Sink Cookies
(as in "Everything but the...")

Preheat oven to 350F. Butter (or lightly brush with olive oil) a cookie sheet.

Combine in a medium bowl:
-1 stick room-temperature salted organic butter (not margarine or the kitchen gods will spit in your general direction, and don't even think about using Crisco...)
-2 TBSP local honey, maple syrup, or agave
-1 egg (preferably from pastured chickens: I'm telling you they taste better and the structural integrity is far superior to conventional chicken eggs. A subject deserving of its own blog post, to be sure.)
-1/2 tsp vanilla (er, this is kind of approximate...)
-1 very ripe banana, peeled and mashed

Mix well with a fork, then add in:
-1 cup flour (I actually measured it this time)
-a handful of oats
-1/2 tsp (?) baking powder (sorry, not exactly measured)
-a large pinch of ground cinnamon

Stir in:
-a handful of chopped walnuts
-a bar of good dark chocolate, preferably fair trade, broken into pieces

Drop by spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet and bake for about 12 minutes (maybe longer, depending on your oven). Makes about 2 dozen, assuming you don't gorge yourself on the batter.

They are simply delicious. Kind of like the cookie version of Chunky Monkey. I'll bet shredded coconut would be good in here, too. Now time to get back to the research proper....

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The mystical world of plants

There are people who believe that Nature, if left to her own devices, can heal the land; the best we humans can do, according to these folks, is get out of the way (or, barring that, try to mimic the natural cycle of things as much as possible). There are some who embrace practices from an earlier time or faraway places that seek to transform the land through a series of somehwat pagan rituals. There are some pretty out-there ideas, theories of farming, accepted by a decent segment of the population, that rely on lunar calendars and mineral preparations and buried cow horns. There are some who garden barefoot, believing that this way the soil comes to know them and provide for their specific nutritional needs. I don't know what to make of some of these ideas, so different from my previous views of the human-earth-plant relationship. But while I tend to seek out logical explanations for why and how things flourish, modern science doesn't account for everything. At least not yet.

I got to thinking about more mystical explanations of the interactions between people and plants while working with Deborah at her homestead in Uvalde, TX last week. Deborah's interest in eastern philosophy informs her book choices as well as her organic farming practices, and while I was there I leafed through a number of unconventional, back-to-the-land paperbacks with titles like "The Secret Life of Plants" and "Gaia's Garden." Among these cursory book skimmings, I came across a chapter in "Secrets of the Soil" that my hostess had mentioned during one of our morning chats over goat milk lattes. It discussed a soil purification ceremony originated in India that involves burning cow dung, rice, and butter in a copper pyramid while chanting. I was intrigued.

Stay with me here, I haven't gone off the deep end. (Do insane people know that they're going insane? Hmmm.)

Scientists cited in the book, admittedly written in the 1970s, confirmed significantly reduced levels of radioactive activity in areas where these soil purification ceremonies -- known as Agnihotra -- were performed. This was true in a variety of formerly infertile locations around the world. I mean places as improbable as Chernobyl. Claims of a boost in the nutrient content that the burnt offerings contribute to the soil (carbon, nitrogen, and all kinds of minerals) don't seem so far-fetched, considering the nutrient-rich things being burned. There's a bit more of a leap of logic required to accept proponents' claims that scattering the resulting ashes cuts down on pests and weeds, but it's somewhat plausible, maybe similar to mulching. But then there's the chanting of a mantra at sunrise, sunset, and other important moments during plants' circadian rhythms. This is the most hard to swallow element of the whole shebang for those of us schooled in western science. And yet...

Most scientists may not concede that singing to your plants will help them grow, but many of us still do it. Does it actually affect the plants? (I swear I saw my basil plant wincing on the windowsill once or twice when I would hum while watering, perhaps slightly off key. "The Beatles again??" it lamented, shrugging its foliage.) Why not? Maybe the extra carbon dioxide we're exhaling in close proximity to the plants gives them a boost. Maybe it's our pointed attention focused on the plants, rather than the singing/breathing specifically, that actually helps them grow. I'm not getting all "Celestine Prophesy" on you: many well-respected people, from professional athletes to surgeons to particle physicists, put great stock in the power of intention, one's ability to influence the outcome of an event through positive thought. It works in sports and in medicine -- why not farming?

And how about the sound vibrations themselves? Maybe it's the pitch that's the key. (Har, har.) The vibrations from the chanting, as I imagine it, seem strikingly similar to the group chant with which many of my yoga instructors would open and close class. The "Ohm" supposedly is the sound the universe makes, and by joining in we are aligning ourselves with the collective energy around us -- energy that can, some believe, heal us. (It's no wonder that the places I've read about where agnihotra is practiced tend to be ashrams.) There might be a scientific explanation for the effects of the sound as well: maybe it somehow stimulates a reaction on a molecular level that we don't yet know how to recognize. Frankly, I don't know quite what to make of it. But I'm curious.

I'd love to spend a few days working at a place that practices agnihotra. This purification-by-fire ritual that I read about taps into a realm of possibility that is pretty improbable. But what if...?

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Sunday, April 4, 2010

You can call me Ol!

It's April. And it's Easter -- my favorite holiday, filled with good food and good people here in Fredericksburg, Texas. Happy Easter, all! However you spend the day, I hope it's filled with tasty, local, springtime goodies (like the luscious strawberries we picked yesterday at Marburger Orchard).

April means Ollie and I are getting close to a year on the road. (A year!) I sure do wish I had another bottle of the lovely biodynamic muscat we shared at Bear's house back in Santa Cruz. And, okay, I am still daydreaming about that chantrelle soup we had with it....

I was going to wait until the official one-year mark on the 26th of this month to share this song that's been stuck in my head for the nearly the entirety of our two-day, hilly ride from Uvalde to Fredericksburg, but I think the only way to get it out of my head for a spell is to share it. (Now bits of it may be stuck in your head, too. Heheh.) Because Ollie and I seem to be cultivating a Weird Al streak these days, we give you:

You Can Call Me Ol

A girl bikes down the street, she says,
"Why is there glass in the shoulder now?
Sharp nails and glass in the shoulder when all four car lanes are clear!
Where's the "share the road" sign? How 'bout a [censored] bike lane?
Don't want to end up with a flat tire
Now that all our spare tubes are gone, long gone,
Put the last one on in Marfa, Texas,
Had to use pliers to dig out the spike."
All along, all along there were incidents and near accidents,
There were spills at the stoplights...

If you'll be my steady ride, stick by me for the long, long haul,
I won't call you Limpy, oh, no, my fearless partner, I will call you Ol!

A girl bikes down the street, says,
"Why are the hills all uphill?
Shouldn't there be a downhill sometime, since every hill has two sides?"
What's that barking sound there? Getting louder now.
Can't we bike any faster? Not with the load that we haul, we haul.
Dogs in the sunlight, not far away, their snarling jaws approaching...
Go. Faster. Go! Faster!!
Get these mutts away from me,
You know, I don't find this stuff amusing anymore...

If you'll be my steady ride, stick by me for the long, long haul,
I will treat you better, pump your tires and grease your chain, my dearest Ol!

A girl rides down the street,
It's a street in a strange town,
A home-on-the-range town, with not a road sign in sight.
She doesn't have the accent, holds a buck in quarters,
She is a stranger here, she is surrounded by the sound, the sound
Of cattle on the roadside ranches, scatterings of speed limit signs.
She looks around, around,
Sees that the wind's picking up now,
Maybe it's a tailwind...
She says, "Hallelujah!"

If you'll be my steady ride, stick by me for the long, long haul,
You can call me crazy (though others call me Ibti) and I'll call you Ol!