Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Maybe I just need a little more exercise

Okay, I've been back in the District for a little over two months now and I'll admit it: I'm having a little trouble reintegrating into regular life. The general "ahhhhh" feeling of being back home, sleeping in my own bed, and catching up with friends and family has run its course and now I'm starting to feel pretty antsy. The job search continues -- a number of friends have forwarded along ideas, contact information, and links to great articles and organizations -- but I suspect that the lack of gainful employment is partly behind my restlessness. (Well, that and the fact that I've never been particularly adept at sitting still.) But recently it occurred to me that maybe I'm not getting enough exercise. Biking 2.5 miles to meet a friend for a picnic in Farragut Square isn't quite a 60 mile day scaling the Appalachian Mountains, you know?

Yesterday I attempted to implement Operation Tire Myself Out, which during its planning stages included biking 19 miles to Clagett Farm, putting in a 4-hour workshare shift, and biking home with a couple panniers of veggies. Well. The best laid plans of mice and men.... After I got lost along the Metropolitan Branch Trail, then in Northeast DC, then Southeast DC, then nearly again in Upper Marlboro, I started to reconsider. I think I hit every hill in the District during what turned out to be a 5-mile extension of the trip. So, okay, fine, it wound up being 25 miles to the farm -- wasn't the point to tire myself out? -- and it was a beautiful, sunny, early autumn day. After an emergency stop for snacks at mile 22, I arrived at the farm and got to work hauling around crates of eggplants and tomatoes to be weighed, then lugging and washing box after box of watermelon radishes. I think I personally scrubbed over 100 of them, and boy are those greens scratchy.

(Recall that I am not a huge fan of radishes, but I'm getting there. I'll be trying out some radish finger sandwiches on friends coming by for dinner tonight, along with a basil-radish green-pecan pesto that'll be part of the main course. Well, what else am I supposed to do with the greens? But seriously, aren't these radishes gorgeous? They look like turnips on the outside and almost like figs on the inside. Beautiful, but let's see how they taste....)

After the piles of radishes were washed and made presentable for the afternoon's CSA pickup, I was tasked with weeding the herb garden, ripping up all kinds of grasses and dried out plants to prepare things for the coming cool weather. After 14 months of working on organic farms, I must say I am pretty darn good at weeding. I was wailing away on the invasive foliage until I accidentally upset an underground wasps' nest in the lavender patch, at which point I decided it was time for another snack and some hot pepper harvesting. By the time 4:30 rolled around, I was pretty spent. And there was still the 19-mile bike ride home with a load of vegetables in DC rush hour traffic....

As I was telling my friend Tom the other night, I may have biked around the country, but I am not any kind of road warrior. As I said during the post-Baltimore search and rescue ordeal, I am not too proud to ask for help. My friend Mike had sent me a message earlier in the day offering to give me a lift back from the farm if I found myself stuck in horrid weather or just too worn out for a return bike ride. (Weather? Bah. Tired? Yes!) God bless Mike. He came by just as I'd finished clipping some okra and assembling a bouquet of zinnias. With Ollie stuffed in the back seat and a trunkful of produce, we headed back into the city. I took a wonderful, hot shower and then got cracking on dinner: pasta with some leftover turnip greens with mustard sauce, parmesan, and cherry tomatoes. Washed down with a glass of Carmenere, I was, at last, content.

Last night I slept like a log.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Adventures in wormsitting

I now know how parents must feel when they leave their infant with a babysitter for the first time. Certainly they interview a few candidates, and I did as much for the person who would be watching my worm bin. (My own interview process consisted of mentioning that I had a worm bin and gauging each person's reaction: "Really? Worms? Ew! Do you have to touch them?"... Next.) Leaving the kids with a trustworthy individual is important, but after a series of reassurances the sitter is left with 47 ways of contacting the parents in the event of an emergency....

Okay, fine, before you get all offended, let me revise that: maybe worms aren't quite on par with a child, but somewhere between houseplants and a puppy. But still, someone is left in charge of a living thing (or in the case of my worms, about a pound of living things) near to my heart and they are completely dependent on this other person who is not me for their very survival. During my little ten-day jaunt around Chicago and various Michigan locales recently, I entrusted my friend Mike with my beloved worms.

I felt pretty confident that "Uncle Mike" -- as the worms refer to him -- could handle them. He'd been hearing about the red wigglers all along, had contributed some lovely food scraps, had even peeked into the bin once or twice with me -- I can't imagine why I am not more popular in social circles with this habit of showing dates my worm bin -- and was not an avid fisherman (and thus not tempted to "borrow" a few plump ones). Since he had otherwise not interacted much with them, Mike came by the evening before my departure and I gave him the rundown, or what I like to call Worm Care 101, and then he took them home.

We talked through general care (what, when, and how much to feed them), things to look out for (standing water, fruit flies, weird smells), and what to do in the case of emergencies (call me). What's that? Yes, I said worm emergencies... like a mass exodus of worms attempting to evacuate the bin. They're pretty low maintenance, but there are things that can go seriously wrong. Aside from opening the bin to find a worm graveyard, seeing a whole mass of worms trying to escape means something is seriously amiss. (A rank smell emanating from the bin can also be a concern, but Mike had learned from my ill-advised inclusion of shrimp shells a few weeks ago to stay away from animal-based food scraps.) I felt pretty good about turning them over into his care for a week and a half. He seemed capable.

You can tell a lot about a person by how they react to challenges. Some are proactive troubleshooters, others call friends in a panic, still others stand around swearing or simply do not react. Mike falls into the first category, I think. (Whew.) Once, when he noticed a few worms slinking up along the sides of the bin, he guessed there was too much moisture and tossed in a few coffee filters to absorb some of the excess liquid. Then came the experiments with trapping the growing (but not unmanageable) fruit fly population. I do believe he is looking forward to setting various fruit fly traps when he will be left to worm caretaking once again, for a solid couple of weeks as I venture to New Orleans and Torino next month.

When he brought my bin back to my apartment a few nights ago, after joking about giving them a bath before my return or playing whack-a-worm, my faithful wormsitter said that he rather enjoyed having them in his care during my absence. To quote an e mail from yesterday: "I'm happy you're back but I sort of miss the worms."

Welcome home, my little wigglers. I've missed you, too!

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Urban roots

This past week marked my first time in the great state of Michigan. Though I did not travel by bicycle to *get* here -- no, it was a combination of planes, buses, and automobiles -- since I did traverse the city of Detroit on a slightly too large, rusted-in-a-single-gear mountain bike, I am counting this as the 28th state on the bikeable feast.

In the midst of the (deep and frequent) potholes and abandoned buildings, hope has quietly been taking root in these parts, most notably in the form of community-based food production. It is in this most unlikely of places -- a postindustrial town known nationally for things like rampant unemployment, the regular burning of cars and buildings, and, okay, Eminem -- that a new kind of city is emerging. A greener, more equitable one, and very possibly a model for other urban revitalization projects around the country.

Yes, you read that right: Detroit. The work that folks are doing here in the Rust Belt takes words like "community" and "collective" and "food justice" to whole new levels. I learned this first hand during a mini bike tour of community gardens and small-scale production farms around the city this past Monday with Nicki, the friendly and knowledgeable outreach coordinator for The Greening of Detroit. (That's a mini tour on bikes, not a tour on mini bikes. Anyway....)

As I rambled down neighborhood blocks on the borrowed mountain bike and wandered through a hefty handful of family and community gardens, Nicki (on her day off, even!) told me about the Garden Resource Program, a true community-based program that is garnering the talents of new and experienced gardeners around the city since 2003. Over 900 organic family, community, market, and school gardens are supported by the Garden Resource Program. (I'm going to be talking about it a lot here, so let's just go ahead and abbreviate it to GRP....)

Years ago, the city of Detroit was divided into 8 "clusters" (plus Highland Park and Hamtramck) for the purpose of providing more regionalized social services, and I learned from Nicki that the GRP programs are divided among the same groupings. Any garden that joins the GRP (membership runs $10-20 annually for a garden, regardless of size or number of gardeners) receives a bevy of seeds and 3 batches of seasonal transplants. Each cluster has 4 meetings per year -- a resource meeting, 2 community workdays, and a potluck/barbecue -- and any community member who attends at least one cluster gathering is considered an active member, meaning s/he is eligible for additional equipment, soil testing, tools, mulch, compost, additional plants. That's a pretty sweet deal. Detroit boasts perhaps the most collaborative model I have ever witnessed in terms of food access. Most gardens have no fences, and there is no "ownership" of particular plots within the garden space. Everybody plants, weeds, waters, mulches, harvests. In many cases the profits from market sales are shared as well, but I'll talk more about that when I get to writing about Grown in Detroit.

[It's a group effort, similar, in fact, to the navigation assistance I experienced when I found myself completely l-o-s-t in downtown D-town on Nicki's bike when I was riding solo through the city on Wednesday morning. I'd stopped one woman on a street corner to ask for help, but after some iPhone fiddling she asked a garage attendant who tried to direct me to Lafayette St. As we were standing there looking around, an older gentleman in a business suit paused to ask if we needed assistance. In the end it took four of us, but they sent me off with perfect directions toward Earthworks Farm.]

In a town that continues to amaze me with the way people are working together, it seems natural that the GRP draws on expertise and manpower from many groups: The Detroit Agriculture Network, The Greening of Detroit, Capuchin Soup Kitchen/Earthworks Garden, and the Michigan State University Extension office provide information and resources for gardens around the city. They also run an intensive nine-week Urban Roots program that fosters community gardening leaders through horticulture and community organizing training.

Detroit has a long way to go to rebuild in the midst of whole city blocks of dilapidated buildings and a mass exodus of residents, but the growing urban gardening scene promises to address some of the critical needs of the area, including food access, community empowerment, and job creation. Seriously, why aren't there programs like this in every major city?

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Detroit: a love story

Why am I in love with Detroit? It's not because of the harsh and seemingly endless winters, that's for sure. It's not the reputation for violent crime. It's certainly not the pothole-laden streets. No, it's the sense of community and determination to make things just a little more beautiful and equitable that has captured my imagination here in this otherwise rough Midwestern town. I'm not planning to uproot from my little DC apartment just yet -- good heavens, Ollie and I've only been back about two months! -- but I'm a little smitten with this largely vacant yet surprisingly vibrant city.

Maybe the last, sunny days of summer have folks feeling more personable than usual, though I learned from Nicki, my guide to the city, that the pervasive friendliness and willingness to chat on the front porch is quite common and may be explained by the migration of many Southerners to the area during the days of the automobile manufacturing boom. (Ah, yes, there's that southern hospitality that I remember.) But still, I wondered, with all of the desolation and crime around, why do people seem so... hopeful?

Well, for one thing, there is beauty to be found, green spaces tucked away seemingly around every corner: flowers and food crops bursting from between abandoned buildings, in school yards, back yards, former parking lots. There is also the oldest and largest public food market in the country here each Saturday, with a variety and price range to suit just about anyone. (Yes, I actually missed it, as I was in Lyons, MI for a wedding over the weekend, but I'll be darned if I met even one person in the city who didn't rave about it.) And, perhaps most importantly, collaborative programs like The Greening of Detroit, the Detroit Black Food Security Network, and others are cultivating a new generation of food activists, slowly making the city into a model for revitalization that other formerly bustling industrial towns like Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore would do well to watch. (Calm down, readers who hail from these cities, I'm just saying that there's quite a number of good ideas that may translate well to your hometown. That's part of what I'm trying to do here with the bikeable feast: raise awareness and celebrate groups that are improving local food systems.) Detroit is on its way to becoming a safer, more equitable, and desirable place to live, though it's not exactly a smooth ride.

As I immerse myself among small-scale growers, urban food education programs, and gardening entrepreneurs, stay tuned for a series of posts on this most surprising of food justice hubs....

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Vampires beware!

It's always an epicurian adventure when I visit my cousin Caroline in the Poconos. It was here that I first made pumpkin ale, first tasted venison meatballs, where I made a crown of garlic scapes and scape pesto, and where I have visited in the late summer months in time to help clean garlic for sale at the fall festivals.

For a few years now cousin Caroline has been dating Gary, an outspoken and passionate organic garlic farmer. During their courtship she's been involved in the planting, harvesting, and selling of organic garlic. For her, autumn means garlic season. For my part this September marks the first time I have had the opportunity to help out at one of the garlic festivals I had been hearing about for years (during the aforementioned garlic cleaning sessions). Over Labor Day weekend -- obviously this post is, like my library books, a little overdue -- my friend Mike and I drove up for a visit and learned more than I ever thought one could know about garlic. And we ate lots of it. Raw.

The weekend turned out to be quite a family affair. My Aunt Martha -- whom I hadn't seen since Ollie and I made our way through Queens over a year ago -- was there, along with a couple of Caroline's friends and Gary's sister, all of whom had come to help out at the festival. Here's a pic of Caroline and Aunt Martha midway through the bustling Sunday morning. Check out the snazzy garlic corsage, fashionably affixed using a handy binder clip. No doubt you'll be seeing them in GAP ads soon.

The most popular items for sale at the Mountaindale Farms stand that weekend turned out to be the garlic chocolate chip cookies. (Yes, you read that right. And I have grand plans for garlic truffles and chocolate covered roasted garlic next year. Yes, maybe with a little sea salt. Yum.) There were also four varieties of garlic bulbs and something called "Garple Elixir" (which was an intensely flavorful and healthful tonic of apple cider vinegar, maple syrup, and, of course, garlic, and which I have constantly been incorporating into salad dressings since Caroline sent me home with my own bottle of it). Aunt Martha's garlic shortbread flew off the table as well -- I must get my hands on that recipe. When I wasn't refilling platters with cookies, I spent most of my time at the raw garlic tasting station explaining to curious festival attendees the differences between German White and Music (both longer storing, milder porcelain varieties) and the spicier Siberian Red. Nibble, nibble... "Oooh, that is spicy...." Some of them asked me for cooking recommendations (and got more than they bargained for in some cases: I can talk recipes all day long, but it may have been my garlic breath that they walked away remembering). In the late morning, I wandered over to watch part of a cooking demonstration put on by high schoolers enrolled in the culinary program at MCTI (a local technical school). You know by now how I have a soft spot for youth cooking programs, so I dropped a few bucks and bought some garlic rolls from the MCTI fundraising table (a treat I hoped would placate the hungry, hardworking team at the Mountaindale Farm booth that I had abandoned for nearly an hour to watch the cooking demo). By evening, we were all exhausted and returned to Caroline's for much-needed rest and lots of food, including, wouldn't you know it, a big bowl of pasta with some garlicky cashew and basil pesto and a few of the garlic chocolate chip cookies that were mysteriously broken during transport and thus unsellable. (Darn.)

After a Monday morning visit to Jeff and Mary Jean's farm with my friend Jim -- lots of exciting new developments since my visit a year ago June, including the addition of a hilarious herd of dairy goats and construction of a cheese making facility -- Mike and I hit the road, bound for DC. The car was riding a bit lower thanks to the bags and bags of produce from Caroline. Pumpkins, tomatoes, potatoes, shallots, and lots and lots of garlic. As if it wasn't already leaking out of our pores... Vampires beware!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Lactobacillus: your friend and mine

So apparently one can ferment just about anything. In fact, experimentation was encouraged by the fermentation workshop leaders at Common Good City Farm last week and in the book they so often cited, Sandor Katz's "Wild Fermentation" (which is now officially on the ibti wishlist).

Fermentation's easy. Basically, you just stick some veggies and whatever spices you want in a jar with salt water and let the naturally occurring lactobacillus on the surface of the produce do its thing. Salt keeps other kinds of bacteria from growing, and water on top keeps mold from forming below the surface. (I do believe I've talked about mold a bit already.....) Stay away from metal or plastic equipment -- so, in other words, stick to glass and enamel storage vessels (and wooden mashing implements if you're making sauerkraut or kimchi) -- and you're good.

So when I found myself with a pile of beet greens -- left over from five bunches of beets that Mike and Boris and I'd pickled and canned a few days prior -- and a bag of fresh cucumbers from my friend Liz over at the Ft. Totten garden, I got myself some jars and heavy flower vases and got cracking.

One can make kimchi from cabbage, so why not beet greens? (Also, I had to figure out what to do with the pile of greens before leaving for Chicago, and with no basil around and a shortage of walnuts, pesto was right out.) Into my sadly underutilized flower vase went some minced ginger and garlic, a few chopped scallions, and the chopped up greens from about 10 or 12 beets, some salt, a hot chili pepper from cousin Caroline (which reminds me: I need to do a little write-up on the Labor Day weekend trip to visit my dear cousin and help out at the Poconos garlic festival), and lots of sea salt. About 10 minutes of mashing with a wooden spoon and viola: Beet green kimchi! (Isn't it beautiful? I almost want to keep it out on the dinner table to impress friends and loved ones with my eye-pleasing culinary prowess.)

Phase 2 resulted in three jars of fermented cucumbers, featuring garlic (of course), scallions, whole peppercorns, salt water (roughly 1 tablespoon per 2 cups), dried dill weed (still unsuccessfully trying to locate dill *seed*), and some fresh parsley I was also needing to use up.

The key to crunchy pickles, I'd heard, was including a few leaves containing tannins. Yep, like the stuff in red wine. The best things to use are apparently grape leaves, but after a jaunt around Columbia Heights with Ollie, scouring my neighbors' yards for any sign of a grapevine, I returned home defeated. Actually, cherry, horseradish, oak, or currant leaves would also work, but I didn't read this until I got back with a handful of what I thought were perhaps some form of maple leaf and which I thought looked innocuous but potentially tannin laden. Don't worry, in the end I was too scared of accidentally poisoning someone to integrate them into the pickle mix. In fact, I discovered a grapevine in my friend Alicia's yard later that evening during a garden consultation and made my way giddily home with a mittful of leaves to crisp up my pickles.

My fermenting beet greens and cucumbers only had a day on the counter before they were tossed in the fridge yesterday morning -- I had to leave for a friend's wedding in Chicago this weekend (and, no, I didn't bike here this time, sadly) -- but I'm looking forward to some taste testing when I get back in about a week and a half. After a little detour to check out the burgeoning urban food scene in Detroit.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Aw, just scrape the mold off, it'll be fine

I admit that I have myself uttered these very words (to myself, under my breath), usually in relation to a nice cheese that I'd lost track of in the fridge that I couldn't bear to throw out or, depending on how flat broke I was, stale bread that I would run under some water and then toast. (Now I just stick the hunk of stale bread at the bottom of a bowl of hot soup and pretend I'm French. Scraping any mold off first, of course. I mean, I have some standards.) The mold scraping is something I would only do in the privacy -- okay, the secrecy -- of my own kitchen, as mold on things is generally frowned upon and not something to admit to in public. (I would never serve mold-scraped food items to others, mind you.) But last week I attended my first workshop on fermenting foods at Common Good City Farm and wouldn't you know it, mold scraping one's food came up. Turns out it's nothing to be embarrassed about. (Whew!)

Now, in the case of homebrewing -- which I hope to undertake as soon as I get my hands on the remaining materials -- mold getting into things is cause for concern. But for fermented fruits and veggies, it seems, mold growth is quite common, especially in warmer temperatures, and its presence is no big deal. The key to mold prevention is to keep the fermenting produce under a layer of liquid -- usually brine (aka saltwater) -- "But if mold appears on the surface," our workshop leader, Bradley, smiled, "simply scrape it off and dig in. Everything's fine." Yep, skim off the mold and keep eating. Sounds kind of, I dunno, contrary to our modern, shiny, germaphobe culture. But who am I to judge? (The Ledroit Park folks likely already have us pegged as a bunch of dirt-loving, food-obsessed, activist hippies, which is not entirely off the mark.)

Bradley, and her capable co-leader, Dave, talked a group of us through the basics of fermentation: ingredients (produce + salt + water), equipment (glass or ceramic vase/jar + mashing implement), techniques (mashing + submerging + covering), things to watch out for (smells like dead rodent; otherwise ok). Then, after having us taste and discern between canned vs. fermented pickles, the pair demonstrated the process of making cucumber pickles and kimchi. The workshop concluded with the fermentation newbies making our own little take-home batches of kimchi using chinese cabbage, scallions, chili pepper, and minced garlic and ginger. And lots of salt and elbow grease. Mash, mash, mash, add salt, mash, add salt, mash.... If you mashed hard enough, and the produce was fresh enough, you wouldn't even need to add water. (Sounds like good stress relief to me!)

Ollie and I brought our first fermented food back to the apartment and I checked my little jar on the counter regularly for the next two days. (I think the worms were glad to be out of the spotlight for a couple of days, frankly.) When Mike and I tried the inaugural kimchi as part of yet another eclectic what's-in-ibti's-fridge dinner we agreed that it was pretty good. Hooray!

With this early success, you'd better believe I promptly got things together for my own lactobacillus experiments. Stay tuned for part two of fermentation madness....

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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Can do

Meet Boris.

He's an industrial-strength canning pressure cooker. Feast your eyes on all that steel. Those dials. The serious clamps. That... pressure. To be honest, he makes me a little nervous. (What's that? Yes, I have named my friend Mike's pressure cooker Boris. Paolo -- my espresso machine on loan -- finds this perfectly normal. Betty -- my food processor -- agrees.)

At the height of the summer produce bounty, I have begun to dabble in the food preservation arts. I've made ice cream and am getting better with the dehydrator. (Round two of the figs went much better, certainly less shoe-leathery. I've dehydrated and frozen tomatoes with varying degrees of success.) And now I'm teaching myself to can. All it took was a crate of really ripe peaches from one of my favorite local farmers, my friend Mike's recent investment in a pressure cooker, a 12-pack of mason jars, and a few books from the library and I was off ...or was I?

Mike insisted that I read an article on botulism before we got started. I suspect this was so I wasn't tempted to "wing it" like I do for other kitchen-related endeavors. For you see, appropriate acidity levels, temperature, pressure, and cooking times are critical. I'd hate to accidentally kill anyone off with a lethal birthday gift of homemade jam. Then there was the danger of incorrectly sealing/removing Boris' lid. We read the manual. Twice. As we were gathering our materials to make the first batch of lavender peach preserves, I began to wonder: would the first canning-related injury be in the form of food poisoning or a loss of flesh/limbs from an exploding pressure cooker?

As it turns out, I was so nervous about getting it wrong on my first go round that I wimped out and used Boris as a giant water bath (for warming jars) rather than as a pressure cooker (for processing them). This meant that the jam would be cooked but would have to be refrigerated. Yes, I realize this defeats the purpose of having a pressure cooker, the main point of which is to preserve food so that you can store it without refrigeration, but come on people, you must know by now that I am chicken-hearted. Sure, I flambe my risotto, but I always have a fire extinguisher handy. (I'd also deviated from the recipe, cutting the sugar portion in half -- I mean, really, 4 cups of sugar for 4 pints of jam?? It makes my teeth hurt just thinking about it. I know, I know: "Stick to the recipe, Ibti....") As soon as the jars of preserves were cooled they went directly into the fridge.

But a few tote bags of heirloom tomatoes following a workshare shift at Clagett Farm and a crate of tomato seconds from a generous farmer at the Crossroads farmers' market last week prompted us to try again. This time we decided to really do this.

We agreed to divide up the tasks: Mike largely handled the pressure cooking and timing pieces while I prepared the tomatoes and jars. Everything went into the pressure cooker in an inch and a half of water. Once it started steaming, we put the 10-pound weight on. Twenty minutes later -- the recipe called for ten, but you know that botulism article was pretty frightening -- we turned off the heat and let the pressure drop to zero. Mike loosened the lid and lifted the processed jars to the cooling racks while I stood a safe distance away. (I mean, one of us needs to be able to call 911 if something happens, right?)

I was nervous about the acidity levels even after adding the 2 spoonfuls of lemon juice to each jar and processing them for 20 minutes, but they looked alright. The lids seemed sealed, anyway. In the end, there were no explosions or poisonings, just a tired but triumphant pair of novice canners and 7 jars of preserved tomatoes.

Next up: pickling.

Friday, September 3, 2010

How ya' bin?

Today marks 10 days since my darling red wigglers arrived! They seem to be adjusting alright, squirming around and slowly digging into the (perhaps overly ambitious) pile of food scraps. I've limited myself to one (or maximum two) times each day when I open the lid for a moment and look at them. Things are coming along. Susie tells me it takes as long as a month for some worm bins to get going. My little guys must be overachievers -- type-A worms, if you will. Maybe it has to do with all of the healthy, diverse, organic food scraps. And a bit of coffee now and again.

My friend Mike was over the other night to help me can tomatoes -- I know, I know, I still need to write about that -- and I proudly showed him my nascent vermiculture operation. He seemed impressed with how low maintenance the under-sink worm bin has been. (This is good because Mike is slowly being groomed to be my wormsitter when I head to New Orleans and then Torino for conferences in about a month. He only is beginning to suspect this.) Without any prompting, he even commented on how surprised he was that it doesn't smell. Thank goodness: that was one of my concerns, too. In fact, in my informal surveys one of the most common reasons folks seem uncomfortable with the idea of an indoor worm bin is the potential for unsavory odors. I am acutely sensitive to smell. No, really, I have actually turned down dates with people who just, well, smelled funny. Not bad, just... not appealing. Or who happened to be wearing the same cologne as my dad. True story, it happened once in college. But I digress....

Last night, as I returned from a lovely evening of drinks and theater with my friend Ronn, I noticed that something smelled a little funny in my kitchen. Sure enough, when I opened the cabinet under the sink the ripe odor was stronger. And once I took the lid off of the bin: phew! Clearly some anaerobic action was underway. (Also, I noticed that some plants had sprouted -- would they be tomato plants? peppers? melons?? Speaking of melons, here's a pic of a little bitty watermelon that I just noticed starting up in the garden this morning when I was out watering. Woo hoo!)

The smell is starting to get to me. Arkady and I were distracted by it tonight while concocting our roasted tomato tart and tomato corn salad. I lit a candle on the kitchen counter, hoping that it would have the same effect as candles did in stinky shared college bathrooms, but it didn't seem to do much to alleviate the stinkiness. So of course I started researching....

According to the Worm Ladies (and other vermiculture experts concur), if you're doing things right the bin should not smell. (Apparently the worms are the overachievers, not me.) The most common culprits behind unpalatable aromas are too much moisture (maybe I shouldn't've put in quite so many melon rinds) or too little ventilation (maybe I need more air holes) or adding in animal-based products (so the handful of cooked shrimp tails on Wednesday may have been a bad idea). It's too hot for me to air out the bin outdoors -- oh, that DC heat! -- nevermind the brazen rat population that would welcome the self-contained buffet, so for now I've fished out the rancid shrimp shells (while holding my breath), added a bit more shredded paper, stirred things up to create some air pockets, left the lid partially open, and put a box of baking soda under the sink. It's smelling pretty rank, but I am hopeful the damage is not irreparable. (I'm also hopeful Mike isn't reading this.)

The core message I have taken away from my various, slightly panicky e mail exchanges with the calm, reassuring Susie (of the Worm Ladies) is that the best thing I can do is leave the worms alone and let them do their job. So, now that I've checked to be sure there isn't standing water in the bin, I'll let them be. I'm heading out of town for the long weekend and the worms seem to have plenty of food and adequate moisture in there. We'll see how it goes....

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Not just surviving, but thriving

So in case you're wondering, I'm still looking for gainful employment. I've applied for a few promising positions, but nothing's come through yet. (I know: who wouldn't hire me on the spot? Thanks, mom.) In the midst of cover letter writing and tomato canning -- yes, yes, I'll get a post up about that soon -- and post-apartment-flood repairing I've continued to volunteer at a fair number of impressive programs in the DC area. In addition to a few shifts at CulinAerie, this has meant a return to Clagett Farm (where this time I weeded a gigantic patch of sweet potato plants and first heard of the wonderful idea of sauteing sweet potato greens), a workday at City Blossoms' Marion Street garden (which I left with enough pesto-destined basil strapped onto Ollie that I half expected us to topple over at a stop sign on the ride home), and a morning meal shift at Thrive DC (where I found myself not in the kitchen as I'd expected but instead handing out towels and bandying about my Spanish quite a bit). Handing out towels? Yes, folks, I do sometimes find myself doing things that don't directly involve food... or do I?

I'd first heard of Thrive DC from Mike -- a friend of mine who used to work with Alicia, the organization's executive director, on gun control issues a few years back. During an initial meeting with Alicia I heard of a few openings for assistant chefs amid the soup kitchen's restructuring. I later attended a volunteer orientation and signed up for a kitchen shift that brought me back to the organization's church basement location from 8-11am yesterday. (Yes, I, self-proclaimed night owl, chose a morning shift. Once I got a cup of coffee in me, things went pretty smoothly, actually.)

Thrive DC centers around shared daily meals for the homeless, but the food is a means as much as an end, providing an opportunity for other critical services like showers, laundry, counseling, computer access, and friendly conversation. (Food as a means for social gathering. Hmmm, I do believe I've mentioned the importance of this on the blog before. Yes, maybe once or twice.) My initial interest was in the kitchen operation, but since I spoke Spanish I was recruited to help out at the laundry/shower station instead. While registering people for bathing shifts and handing out towels and toiletries, I came to understand that Thrive DC is about so much more than hot meals. It's about relationship building and reaching out to help the whole person (not just his or her tummy, though with regular donations of delicious prepared food from Pret a Manger, their tummies are sometimes quite happy). In addition to the regular appearance of housing advisers, counselors, mental health specialists, nutritionists, job coaches, and Veterans Affairs representatives, there are activities each evening ranging from group therapy sessions to movie nights to yoga. There is some talk of an art therapy component being developed, modeled after a program at Miriam's Kitchen -- another partner in the DC-area homelessness and food justice arena. I was impressed by this model of collaboration, this program so successfully drawing on the diverse strengths and interests of its staff, partners, and volunteers.

There are many ways to get involved with Thrive DC. They welcome individual and group volunteers in the cafeteria and the computer lab. You can make a traditional donation (money) or a less traditional one (toiletries, food, professional skills). You can help the small but devoted staff develop additional activities or facilitate connections with other partners around town. I am myself trying to figure out if there just might be a way to harness some of the excess food from local farms and farmers' markets for use in the kitchen that serves around 150 meals each day. And I have already (repeatedly) expressed my willingness to be a recipe consultant. What can you do with 50 pounds of donated sweet corn? How can you prepare 10 crates of tomatoes as part of something simple, nutritious, and delicious? Call me.

Hmmm. A recipe consultant. Know any paying jobs along those lines?