Saturday, September 29, 2007

No Harassing The Chipmunks

The Mister has lots of rules regarding living in our house: no harassing the chipmunks, humingbirds or finches; no clawing clothes; no pawing pens as we write; if you stay here you can't have kittens.

The plain weird thing is that these rules are being expounded to a small cat who may have a home with one of our neighbors, does not have a name, and clearly makes both of us itchy-eyed.

While she may not look like a terrorizer of chipmunks, that is the Mister's midsection she is napping upon. Her winsome ways and loud and hearty purring have clearly bewitched the humans of this household. Who knows what she might do to its rodents?

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Half Mile Diet

From within half a mile of our house, The Mister and I have recently eaten:

  • chicken of the woods (a.k.a. "sulfur shelf) a super-tasty mushroom sauteed and folded into a fritatta.

  • chestnuts roasted in the oven

  • paw-paws picked by a student. I love the custardy fruitiness of a paw-paw

  • apples from the vacant lot peeled (because they are incredibly scabby) and baked into a pie and then others cooked with a little port and sorghum (hand-milled in Eastern Kentucky) until soft

  • tomatoes, squash, okra and herbs from our garden

  • habeneros from a student's garden

Of course, there are deer, squirrels, pigeons, Canada geese and ground hogs in the vicinity, but we've abstained from eating our rodent friends and their friends.

Who needs a whole 100 miles?

Sulfur Shelf image from the Sierra Club of Maryland Hiking Log, which you can link to here.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Locavore Delights

A sampling of the local (either locally grown or a specialty of a place) that the Mister and I were able to sample on the Road Trip.

Baked Goods

Butter Tarts in Ontario: a tart somewhere between shoofly pie and a pecan-less pecan pie, but buttery-er. One had raisins in it.

Pasties in the UP: labeled as both Cornish and Finnish, depending on where you buy them, we had both traditional pasties (with rhutabaga, beef and potato) and some newer variants (with carrots in one and with egg and cheese in another).

Indian Tacos at Crow, MT, Wall SD and in the Badlands. Since the stand in Interior, S.D. that used prairie turnip flour in their Indian Tacos closed, I think that the Trading Post across from the Little Big Horn Battlefield Site has the best Indian Tacos available.

Caramel Rolls (both with and without nuts) in South Dakota. They are certainly not unique to South Dakota, but there were unusual quantities of them available and almost nothing labeled as a "Cinnamon Roll".

Grape Pie in Naples, NY. Naples was a bit out of our way, but if we couldn't make a long detour for grape pie, what sort of grand road trip were we on? We ended up buying a set of four small tartlets from Cynthia, who was selling them out of her front door. We should have purchased a pie, to better see how the grapes work as a filling, but the tartlets were definitely yummy.

We also sampled non-regional baked goods made with regional fresh produce: our mothers' apple crisps, peach tart from an orchard stand on the Niagira penninsula, tart cherry gallette on Door County and, while not on our road trip, Imitation Ice Queen (who was in town for the weekend from Philadelphia) and I baked a very tasty apple pie using mostly scabby apples from our very own vacant lot apple tree yesterday.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Mein kleine Mäuschen grows up

My favorite human rodent is growing up. Das Mäuschen, the little mouse, my elder niece, started kindergarten today.

It wasn't that long ago that she was charming her way into other families photos as the very earnest 3 1/2 year old flower girl at our wedding. Nor was it all that long ago that she was scaring the neighbors shrieking from her stroller as I took her for walks.

The mouse, most definitely has improved with age, as has her equally charming younger sister, the little lion. It's just that I'm not quite ready to be the aunt of a school girl, not that I have any choice.

So, Macht spaβ, Mäuschen!, and don't grow up too very fast.

Monday, September 3, 2007

That Local Diet That Everyone's Doing

Dirtdog, my dear friend of 21 years (ack! We're getting old. People born on the day I first saw Dirtdog walking into my freshman physical science class and thought "Please don't sit with me, nerdy boy with the strange hat," can now legally buy alcohol in all 50 states.) mentioned something about that "local diet that everyone seems to be doing" as we were drinking New Glarus, WI beer, grilling Waunakee, WI brats with Waunakee, WI mustard sitting in on a deck in Waunakee, WI. Certainly there are signs that locavore lifestyles are proliferating among people of my acquaintance. One sibling's family belongs to a CSA, the other buys wondrous arsenal cheeses from an organic farmer's market. Then mention the 100 mile diet website in on-line conversations. Both sets of parents grow vegetables, although this is nothing new. The Mister is finding sources of WV pasture raised lamb. Slow Food and Heritage Food articles are reaching the Salina, KS newspaper. The Gorgeous Biologist Knitters left in Lawrence run into each other at the farmer's market every week, and those removed from Lawrence moan about the lack of a new local equivalent. People may be starting to take where their food comes from seriously.

If I thought this was entirely true, I wouldn't promote Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable Miracle about a year of eating locally, so heartily. My experience, however, is that my friends and family are a pretty non-random sample of the American population (I believe the most recent studies suggest that the median number of books read last year was 1 and the mean 4 for adult Americans. This is not true of my friends and family). Beyond that, people of my acquaintance may talk about eating locally but I'm not sure how much we do it. The Mister and I, for instance, have bagged spinach from California in our refrigerator, bananas on the counter and coffee in the pot as we speak. So, while Barbara and I may be preaching to the choir, the choir still needs the message, not just to hear their voices.

As previously mentioned, like every other biologist wanna-be novelist I know, I want to be Barbara Kingsolver. I could do without the failed marriage and horrible insomnia that led to her earlier novels, but still I want to be her. So this is not an objective review, but I suppose it says something that after writing my book, (food, family and environment being my domain [Barbara can have single motherhood, Arizona and African missionaries in the '60s]) I still want to be her, because she wrote my book as well as I would have, perhaps better, because I don't think that there is anyway I'd venture into turkey sex.

Whether Barbara, myself, or many other authors write it*, the case for eating locally is strong. I was planning on expounding on the many benefits, but I find that my blogging time is well-past used up, and I am interfering with far too much of my entomology learning time as I write. So I will limit myself to two points. One: there are compelling environmental, social, and taste benefits from eating locally in season. If you cannot think of them, I would be happy to expound in conversation (or would direct you to the 100 mile diet web site if you don't want to read Barbara's book). Two: I know that vegetables at the farmers market cost more (at least sometimes), that most of us don't live near any source of chocolate, coffee, or tea and might not make it without them, that your local grocery store is hideous (couldn't be much worse than ours as far as local produce goes), that you don't have space for a garden, that convenience foods are convenient . . . I know and I'm not asking you to become an exclusive locavore.

I am asking that you

  1. buy (or grow) more locally in season

  2. "put away" some local produce for the winter. Among people I know this ranges from drying apples to canning tomato sauce. Like many of you, I am not up for canning, but I am going to buy a bushel of chili peppers at the market next week and freeze most of them (sticking them in the freezer whole because the mister and I are too lazy to prep them). I am going out this afternoon to pick basil to make pesto to freeze and I hope to dry some tomatoes.

  3. If you live anywhere where you can purchase a large box of good Colorado peaches, do it now. Eat them, two a day and think of me. Or make a cobbler or a pie. Or freeze some.

  4. find local apples this fall. I have been shocked to find WV apples are as much better than grocery stores (WA and New Zealand) apples as garden tomatoes are from store tomatoes. Scrumptious.


*One criticism I've heard of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is that the idea is not novel. This is definitely true. Ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan writes regularly on the subject, most notably with his 2001 Coming Home to Eat chronicling a year of eating locally (moderately recommended; good points, tiresome reading). His involvement with RAFT (Renewing America's Food Traditions) helps ensure that Slow Food USA is an ecological as well as gastronomic movement, and I can support his Buffalo Nation treatise because it cites two of my local eating mentors, Kelly Kindscher and Alma Hogan Snell. Without at any point telling readers they should eat locally, Michael Pollan does an excellent job of explaining where our food does (and can) come from in Omnivore's Dilemma (very highly recommended). Jay Weinstein takes the opposite approach: little explanation, many directives, in The Ethical Gourmet (mildly recommended, a bit too much "Tell your cook not to buy bottled water" and "here's how to source coffee at high end stores in Manhattan" for my budget or location, but very clear priority lists for eating ethically). Vandana Shiva, Wendell Berry and to a lesser extent Wes Jackson have all written about the social and economic consequences of different agricultural systems. I haven't read the 100-Mile Diet (Plenty is the American title) yet. I will someday, but when I picked it up in Toronto, I was a bit displeased with the commentary on the back stating that Smith and McKinnon were introducing us to the idea of a food shed. It's petty on my part, since the authors themselves didn't make this claim, but as I have been reading and discussing foodsheds since my fabulous 2000 Geography of American Foodways class (and then it wasn't a new concept, just new to me), I was annoyed at anyone so disrespecting the vast foodshed literature : - )

Another Good Mouse Book

Just to ensure that Prairie Quilter and I were not romantically nostalgic about the wonders of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, I recently re-read it. It's still fabulous.
While that assessment does not demonstrate that I am not romantically nostalgic about it*, as I know I am, I feel I am unbiased enough to proclaim:
Book ---very good, stands the test of time well (and portrays lab science reasonably accurately)
Movie--- bad, and much worse for having been made from a great book.

One thing I think that Robert C. O'Brien does very well is to promote the value of human intelligence (reading and creating things) while portraying animals without such intelligence as smart, capable and compassionate creatures in their own right.

An interesting concept suggested by the books which underscores the debates among the rats is the idea that agriculture makes creatures civilized. This is not in the standard historical sense, that agriculture led people to living in one place, led to food to supply cities, led to civilization, but rather that, however ornamented their habitations may be (the rats have stained glass windows, elevators and libraries), creatures are uncivilized thieves until they grow their own food.

*My fifth grade year was, for the most part, a disasterous failure of a social experiment. My elementary school, built in the early 70s, had open classrooms called pods. K + 1 in red pod, 2 +3 in white pod, 4 and most of 5 in blue pod, and a few fifth graders and the 6th graders were in gold pod. Pods had 5 teachers, mixed grade home rooms (called "record group", not home room) and tracked language arts and math classes. Except the year I was in 5th grade in gold pod. Instead of mixing us in with the 6th graders, the 5th graders in gold pod were entirely isolated with one teacher in the one closed classroom in the building all day. We didn't interact with other fifth graders (blue and gold pod were on entirely different schedules), we were scorned by the sixth graders (with whom we never officially interacted, but had lunch and recess), and our teacher wearied of us very quickly. As far as we could tell, the 28 of us were equally divided between those who were "academically ready" for gold pod (i.e. had been in the advanced math class with mostly 5th graders when we were in 4th grade) and those who the blue pod teachers wanted most to get rid of. It was a truly crazy year in that classroom, but I'm not sure if there have been 28 people I've had such strong reactions to ever since.
The one thing our teacher did very well, however, was read to us. He chose excellent books and knew a good stopping point when he it. As he read Bridge to Terabithia to us we left one Thursday thinking, "Leslie can't be dead," then Friday "Can it really be all a dream?". Mrs. Frisby was a shockingly suspenseful book the way Mr. Rivet read it to us, and if he's out there I'd like to thank him for it.