Monday, December 1, 2008

The Holiday Season Begins, and I Make My Own Soap (Kind of)


It is still snowing!. We had a little break over Halloween, but since then, we have had a few major snow storms. My adopted hometown of Corry, PA actually made it onto the Erie news as a trivia question a couple of days before thanksgiving in a kind of “Guess How Much Snow They Got?” capacity. The answer then was 58 inches, but we’ve piled on a little more since then. We've had a bit of a melting period, however, where a lot of the icicles broke off the house and the snow has settled a little so that it’s about knee deep instead of waist deep. I’ve been pretty annoyed lately with the whole weather service which will predict snow when we don’t get any and also an inch to a coating when it will turn around and give us half a foot. Today is the first day of deer season, and it is an unofficial holiday. The road is covered with snow, and it was just ice yesterday, but the only answer for it is slow down and try to stay on, since the guys who run the plows are all out hunting today. Sounds like a war zone out there.

One more thing about the weather and then I’ll go on to the next thing I’ll ramble about. The almanac predicts heavy snows in the northeast the 12th through the 15th of this month. I’m going to hold them to it!

I did Black Friday shopping this year in Erie, even going into Walmart. (I didn’t buy anything. I just carried stuff for my sister.) I kept hearing a lot of horror stories about how bad it would be, and I guess in other places, there were deaths and injuries from people trampling to get inside the store, but in Erie, it was just crowded. I recently went to a “Twilight” book and movie party at the bookstore there, too, with a younger cousin, and my aunt ( her mother) was not keen on going because she thought it would be a lot of shrieking. In fact, it was mostly giggling. We’re from Northwestern PA, and we are kind of stand-offish. We want the cheap DVD players and laptops, but it’s just not nice to bump into other people to get them.

Getting down to brass tacks, here is another edition of “I Try It”.

Everytime I go through my recycling, I’ve been noticing the greatest portion of my junk is those stupid plastic containers that some genius thinks that cat food should come in now and laundry soap bottles. I can change brands of cat food and if I fee the need for a plastic container I can buy or reuse one I already have, but I was pretty much stuck with laundry soap. I keep trying to use powder or even those little dissolvable tablets that I think come from Amway, but powdered soap just doesn’t rinse out well enough, and underclothes are enough of a bother already without added itching factors.

People have tried to overcome this whole laundry soap thing for a while now. they have double concentrated soap which is an okay idea. I remember back in the ‘80’s for a little while you could get little super concentrated things of soap that you dumped into your old bottles and mixed up with more water. That didn’t last too long, but it was a good idea. I’ve seen little containers of homemade laundry soap for sale at the Amish store, but it was powder based and also had bluing in it, which I’ve heard of but never actually used. Which come to think of it, is probably why most commercial laundry soap is colored blue even though the color really does nothing.

In a recent issue of Countryside magazine, however, I noticed this part at the beginning where the readers write in with questions and tips a recipe for homemade laundry soap. I tried it because I actually had all the ingredients on hand anyway.

The recipe:

1/3 bar of Fels-naphtha soap, grated
1/2 C. washing soda (not baking soda, though it is made by Arm and Hammer)
1/2 C. Borax
1 Tblsp. essential oil (optional)
2 gallon jugs (vinegar jugs)

How to do it:

Grate soap into a large pan with 6 cups of water, heat until the soap melts. Add the soda and the Borax and the scent. Stir to dissolve, heat another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Take of the heat, let it sit another 5 minutes. Divide this in half into each of the gallon jugs. Fill the jugs halfway with plain hot water. Shake and then fill to the top. Let the jugs set overnight, and it will have a gelly consistency, and you can use 1/2 to 2/3 cup per load, letting the water fill up the machine with the soap in it first and then adding the clothes. Add 1/2 C. vinegar for fabric softener.

Now, this is basically the information contained in the original rec ipe. Shopping tips: Fels-Naphtha soap is actually pretty easy to find. You can keep it in bar from and rub it on as a stain remover. The book that I read called “Little Heathens” about little kids growing up in the Depression describes wash night where the grandmother grated up a whole bar of Fels-Naphtha soap and put it with water in the bottom of the hand crank washer. First they would do sheets and then underclothes and then basically work their way out from nicest to dirties so that everything was washed in the same water, but barn clothes were washed last and needed least to be clean. I’m guessing the formula of the soap was different back then because of laws about phosphates and things like that, but it’s still a nice, retro cleaning experience. Likewise, washing soda and Borax are usually available in the soap and cleaning sections of most grocery stores even if you haven’t noticed them before.

I have vinegar bottles on hand because when I’m ambitions about making yarn, I do some dying. I’d guess with all the hot water that water or milk jugs would not be p to the task, but old bottles from commercial soap are. And you definitely need a funnel. I also invested a dollar on a separate grater so i wasn’t mixing food and soap, though I did just use one of my junkier pots and made sure I had all the soap rinsed off it really well. Essential oils can get expensive, and I chose orange, because it was cheap, but a person who really wants to personalize everything may love a project like this because you can create your own customized laundry scents. it also smells just fine with no scent.

But how does it work?

I’d say, not bad. Things seem to come clean with no problem. The least successful washing I’ve done with the soap has been a thermal undershirt I had to wash a couple of times after I swept the chimney in it, and even after I bleached it, it didn’t really come clean. Soot is more like grease than it is like dirt. The homemade soap is also a lot cheaper than buying soap. A bar of Fels-naptha costs about $2, washing soda about $2.50 and Borax about $3. That is plenty of ingredients for three batches of detergent, that’s six gallons for about $10. You don’t need scent but if you want it that adds about a dollar a batch in costs. One time purchases include a grater and a funnel.

I have actually made a second batch of soap and plan to keep on using it. Please let me note that this was mostly because I hated having soap bottles clog up my recycling sorting place in the garage and not because I think there is some kind of imminent threat based on the recent elections where Barack Obama is going to take away soap. I talk to all kinds, and one of the things I’ve noticed is people who didn’t like him during the election are now afraid that he is going to take away _____ (fill in the blank) with guns, coal, gas, cars, money, God, etc.

Speaking of gas, cars, and money, I had a recent rather heated discussion with an individual at my place of employment where people were just shooting the breeze and someone mentioned using biodiesel. I reminded them that they were still responsible for paying fuel taxes if they were using the roads, that there were taxed and untaxed uses for fuels, and that more than a few people who were cooking up biodiesel or who had converted their vehicles to run on used cooking oil were finding themselves with tax bills because they had not been using their vehicles for untaxed purposes. This particular person (who is a lazy SOB and can’t be bothered to brush his teeth judging by their condition, let alone whip a mini biodiesel laboratory in the garage) went absolutely ballistic, insisting that sales tax paid on cooking oil was tax enough. As if someone would rush out and pay $6.50 a gallon for vegetable oil to get out of paying for gas. Which just goes to show you the average person will argue til they’re blue in the face about nothing they know anything about. Which just goes to show you that it’s a lot easier to talk than it is to go do stuff, and as writing is akin to talking, I’ve done enough timewasting today, and I’m off to do something!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Saying Goodbye to Fall


It’s been while since I did this, and of course a million things have happened that I could go on and on about. I’m still cleaning up the tail end of my gardens. The other day, I fenced in some of my landscaping trees and bushes to avoid their being eaten to death by bunny rabbits, which almost happened the first year I had them because I thought the rabbits would not be so bold as to come up into the year area and snack on the tree. I was wrong, and I did not exactly lose my fancy Siberian quince bush, but I lost a good portion of it. Luckily, the rabbits went in on top of the deep snow and instead of ringing it at the base, they got the top portion of the tree instead. The rest has been recovering nicely for a couple of seasons now, but I’m still putting wire fence around it this year.

My berry bushes got a little neglected this year. We had a lot of blackberries, but they mostly went to snacking and a lot of them didn’t get picked. The rule of thumb on all kinds of blackberries and raspberries is to cut the spent canes as soon as they bear. I’m not sure if I’m repeating myself about berry bushes, but if I am, bear with me.

Trailing berries like blackberries and raspberries grow in a two year cycle. The first year, the canes are called “primocanes”, and they sprout and grow over the summer. The second year canes I just refer to as the fruiting canes, because I can never remember what they called. I know it’s not “fruitocanes”, though. When the canes bear fruit and are done, they die off. It is very important to trim off the spent canes and dispose of them. “Garden Magic” says by burning. Don’t put them in the compost. Berries are too susceptible to disease, and you should not let spent canes and fruit lay in the patch and decay.

The one exception to this rule is the “everbearing” varieties of raspberries. An everbearing raspberry actually gets a small crop of fruits on the tips of the first year canes, right up until the frost. A lot of books about berries will tell you to plant a patch of traditional berries and a patch of everbearers. Use the traditionals for your summer berries and the everbearers for year fall crop, lop off the canes as soon as they both bear. I think it is sufficient to just trim the tips of the everbearing first year canes in the fall, though. The spent tips should still be burned, but the middle and lower parts of the canes will bear fruit in the summer. I would guess that the same holds true for ever bearing raspberries as it does for strawberries. You get the fruit at two different times, but all added together, the total amount of the harvest is about equivalent to the same as you would get with a traditional plant that bears all at one time.

In the fall, when I trim off the spent blackberry canes, I occasionally notice a few of the new canes that have a lot of thick, bunched up leaves:

Last fall, there were quite a few of these. I trimmed off most of them and experimentally left a few. This year, I have been very aggressive with them, however, since I did find orange rust on some of the canes. The only thing you can do for orange rust is chop out the effected berries and burn them. The crinkly leaf problem is like one of those corollaries: not every plant with crinkly leaves got orange rust, but every plant with orange rust had crinkly leaves. I’m not sure whether the leaves area preliminary of orange rust or the rust took advantage of a weakened plant that had another problem, but pruning back plants is kind of like deciding if you want to have a man around. If you’re not sure, the answer is probably no.

There are still a few more berry patches n the lower part of the yard I think I can fence in. Why am I just sitting inside and typing on the computer when there is all this yard work to be done? Because we are in the midst of our second major lake effect storm of the year. I think the weather has arranged itself to be extra terrible since I have to drive out to Jamestown for work now. This is a picture from our first major storm of the year, which was actually a few days before Halloween:

I have fooled the weather, however, since the first thing I did when I had money from my job was not shop for clothes or buy videogames or even sign up for broadband by satellite internet. I went a got a big truck. With big mud tires. Which of course my mother drives every day while I get stuck in the snow. But, one of these days, I’m going to read the weather report before heading off into the dark, snowy night to listen to people from Hawaii complain that their broadband internet is not broadbandy enough (oh, boy is this definitely not the kind of job that you take home with you and worry that you did well enough!), and I’ll be able to use the truck to get home and actually make it up the hill. It just hasn’t happened yet. Though that night I spent in the parking lot at the public library wasn’t too terrible, considering. And I had a rental car with these crazy performance tires on it that were absolutely impossible on anything but dry road. Because I’ve already hit a deer this year and had my car in the shop for a couple of weeks. I literally have not had to ever do the radiator flush and fill winterizing thing on that car, because the front end has been bashed out by deer twice now.

The same week, we got snowed in for the first time, I also had to have my dog Zora put to sleep. I’ve had her for more than 12 years, which is impossibly old for a Weimaraner. I almost lost her about a year and a half ago when she had a horrible hepatitis. As a younger dog, she was just hell on wheels crazy and lots of fun, too. Since she was about seven, she mellowed out and really got (for her) affectionate and cuddly. In the last few months, she had a little neuropathy in her feet and couldn’t hear very much, but she still went for walks with my mother for miles just about every day. She must have had a stroke overnight, because she was having trouble standing up, and that’s why we decided to call it a day, but even the day before, she was barking and hopping around and picking up my yarn and throwing it at me, so I can’t really complain about that. I’m looking to get one or two Weimaraner puppies to take her place. Right now, some of the garage cats have moved into the house, and I’m about ready to throw them back out again.

I took this picture about a week before Halloween which is when we had to take her to the vet:

I know all about the whole don’t buy from pet stores or breeders, get shelter dogs, they’re just fine thing, but I’m a little shallow about these things, and I want a pretty dog, not some goofy looking stray. Weimaraners are the prettiest dogs, and Zora was the prettiest of the pretty, and someone else can have a bug eyed hound-pit bull-jack russel mix that came to us here at the shelter because it ran away from home and was too dumb to find its way back, thank you very much. I’m getting the one that looks nice and was bred by insane perfectionist Germans to be the all around best dog in the field there is. Weimaraners are miles smarter than labs. They have better stamina, they point and retrieve, and they are physically sounder. Labs are better in the cold, but that is the one advantage. And labs are just not as pretty.

Beyond that, though, I’m going to have to do a couple entries here about using over the counter remedies and first aid tricks for dogs, since, between Zora and her naughty sister Peaches (who was a very pretty yellow lab but so phenomonally stupid she’s now legendary) who ran away into a summer’s night last year never to be seen again, I have a whole arsenal of things to do that can reduce trips to the vet for any number of injuries and incidents.

On a happier note, it is getting around toward holiday time again. Every year, I always come up with whatever the trendy crafty present is and make a ton of them for my nieces and younger cousins. A couple years ago it was those tie ended fleece blankets. I made a pile of those, they were really fun. This year, it is felted “Lucy bags” from “Two Old Bags” yarn patterns. Those are those bit, round purses with a short strap that flips over the long strap and holds it closed. I bought the paper pattern from a local yarn shop, but I know they have a web site, too. Hopefully, the next time I sit down a the computer to type mindlessly, I will have some examples. One is done but not felted, the other, I just started.
Speaking of which, Martha Stewart is on, and I’m going to knit and watch Martha! What else is there to do on a snowy day?

Monday, October 20, 2008

We Can Do It! Don't Get Scared! (How did I become the cheerleader for optimism?)


Okay. The “they says” are taking over. I know that people are stressed and everything because of the stock market, etc. But look at the short term. Gas is down. That means food will go down. And is anyone really not going to Christmas shop? Really? My sister and I have been roiling our hands waiting for the Black Friday ads to come out on this special website she goes to where they post all the flyers as soon as they go to press. Except no one’s posting them this year! I know, I know. Buy Nothing Day and all that. I have Buy Nothing Year, and I actually like to shop the day after Thanksgiving. It’s like a giant party. With DVD’s for $3.00 that usually cost $20.

Anyway, I keep hearing all this horrible stuff. No one will be able to get a loan. No one has cash to get paid. Blah, blah, blah. Did anyone really not get a pay check last week because there was no cash? I think we would have heard more than just the random “they says” about it. The whole thing reminds me of this story that we read in 4th grade about the Depression. (I know it was 4th grade, because that was my favorite year of school. my teacher gave me a pile of her textbook samples and a couple reading books from the high school side of the building and told me to finish them by the end of the year. It was the last year I learned anything in school. She also gave me great books to read like the ones about the little kids who smuggled the treasury of their country out from under the Nazis buy sledding the gold bars one by one down the hill to the port. That was a great one.)

The gist of it was a guy had a hotdog stand and was doing good business and went out and worked hard all day and sold all he could get. When he went to expand and maybe hire someone to run another stand, all he heard was about how there was a Depression, and he shouldn’t spend money. So he didn’t expand his business and he cut back on what he bought to sell, and he didn’t go out to work as much, because there was this Depression, so he didn’t make as much and wouldn’t you know it, the Depression ruined his business. The moral of the story being, don’t believe the “they says” until you see if for yourself. Don’t be reckless or anything, but if you’ve got a good thing going, go with it until you see something different.

I have been preparing for the “next Great Depression” since I was about eight. It’s not weird. I grew up with stores about how my grandfather only got an orange for Christmas and had to go and live in a CCC camp in Pittsburgh so he could send money home to his mother. He served stateside in the war, so he didn’t have any WWII stories he could repeat over and over. And, again, most of my teachers in elementary school were kids during the Depression, so they had some really harrowing “when I was your age” stories. At least they sounded awful to a seven year old.

Needless to say, student loans have ruined my finances, have for years, and I was able to finance an older truck at a good interest rate and, contrary to what the TV news was saying this morning, I was also able to finance a warranty plan for it. You don’t need $3100. You don’t need a 700 credit score. Yes, I had to join a credit union. It was one extra piece of paper I signed when I picked up the truck. If I’d listened to the “they says” I would have been paying high rates at a U-Pay-Here or I would have been roped into buying a vehicle that cost two or three times as much as the one I ended up with. I am not Miss Optimism. But Plan A worked this time, and if it hadn’t? That’s why there’s 26 whole letters in that alphabet.

Speaking of which, about Plan M came through on that goat shed, and it’s done. Except for a door. Here is my mom with her fantastic architectural creation. (And some appreciative goats who will not have frost on their furry behinds this year!)

But, in response to the “they says” I’m going to have a little episode of what I call “They Say if You ....” I have a couple of these up my sleeve, so I’ll label this one:

Experiment #1: They say you can make your own vanilla, and it’s cheaper than in the store.

Yes, it’s true. Kind of. If you use a lot of vanilla, which I do.

How to do it:

1. Plan ahead. Save an old vanilla bottle. My mom threw mine away, so I actually bought an empty bottle at the Whole Foods Co-op. It also takes about 6 weeks to get started, so if you expect to have homemade vanilla for holiday baking, START NOW.

2. Get 2 (or so) vanilla beans, some vodka, and a pint jar. Later, you’ll need a funnel and a coffee filter. The vodka should be okay, nothing too expensive.

3. Slice the vanilla beans from end to end. Stuff them in the jar. Fill the jar with vodka. Shake.

4. Put the jar in a dark place. A cupboard, closet or pantry should be fine. Give it a shake every few days. After about a month or so, you should have vanilla-y vodka in the jar that you can use in recipes like normal vanilla.

5. Line the funnel with the coffee filter and pour the liquid through so you don’t get beans and seeds in the finished product.

6. When you end up with more vodka than vanilla, fish out the beans, and add fresh beans.

Is it cheaper? One ounce of fair to middlin brand name vanilla extract costs about $7.00. To get set up with vodka, vanilla, and a funnel, it’s about $15-20. I buy the beans in bulk for a couple of bucks a piece. If you don’t have bulk vanilla available they can be a lot more, though the expensive ones that come sealed in glass taste better and last longer. You get a lot more than an ounce when you make your own, though. I run through about one bottle of vodka every six months. I bake everything at home, and I also make a lot of vanilla flavored frosting for cakes. I definitely save money. Tastewise, they are about comparable if it’s real vanilla extract and not imitation. But if you’re short on cash and all you can get is imitation vanilla, you’re better off using that than nothing or not baking at all.

There are a ton of things out there that are like this, and I’ll definitely be trying some more “You can make your own ___” experiments in the future. But on this one, “they” are right!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Wood Burning Heat, Pt. 2


Here’s part two of my ongoing story about wood heat. Which I am writing as I should be actually moving a load of wood into the house. I’m sure the gorgeous fall weather is not going to hold. and there’s the wood, just sitting there!

If you’re going to burn wood and not pellets, the whole woodburning heat scene gets a little complicated. You can go about getting wood a lot of different ways. You can buy loads of just long logs that you cut and split yourself which have to be delivered on a log truck. You can buy precut and split wood. You can get “slabwood” which is basically the leavings from when sawmills square off the trees they are cutting for boards. Again. the slab can come in long planks or cut. Ideally, you can be cutting firewood all the time from your own wood lot or one closeby where you live where you have permission to cut downed trees.

There are a few considerations when deciding where you’re going to get your wood, the most important being, will it burn right? Do not use evergreen wood in your wood burning stove. The wood is full of pitch and sap, and that will gum up your stove and chimney when it burns. A gummy, flammable chimney is a very bad thing. You can get hemlock slabwood a lot of places around here because it’s a good rough framing wood (our new goat shed -ha! ha! We did get something done around here! - is made of rough sawed hemlock) but I asked my uncle who is my mentor on all things wood, and he said don’t burn hemlock slab.

The next consideration is if the wood is dry enough to burn. Ever since we’ve started with the wood heat, and we’re going into our fifth winter now, we’ve burned trees from summer blowdowns about three year s previously. We live in a wooded area, there is at least one bad windstorm a year, and the big trees that com down during those storms are excellent firewood after they are on the ground a couple of years. My uncle does maintenance on a wood lot for his neighbor who is a retired forester, and they get along really well. You would never guess that the woods around the house over there were actually really heavily utilized, providing heat for about five different households. All he does though is cleans up down trees and trees that are unhealthy or hanging.

The wood had to be properly seasoned for a couple of good reasons. Wet wood doesn’t burn as hot, and isn’t as efficient. Also, the greener the wood it, the more creosote will build up in your chimney. Creosote, as my stove man has told me many the time, is the solid form of natural gas. It’s like a shiney, bubbly, glassy layer that builds up in the stove pipe if you’re burning green wood at lower temperatures, and it is the reason that chimneys catch fire. Even a little creosote burning can make a greasy, tarry buildup in the chimney that can never really be scraped off. I’m not sure if the creosote buildup have something to do with greener woods just never reaching the temperature of burn they need to be at or the chemical combination of the wood before it has aged, but firewood needs to be seasoned.

If you can feel a dampness in a newly split piece of wood or notice a big color difference between the inner core of the wood and the outer layers, the wood could be dryer and should be set aside long enough to dry out better. Seasoned wood can have been rained on, and still burn fine, but you need to make sure the moisture is dampness because of rain or dew and not “tree juice.”

Guessing how much wood you need is tricky and kind of scary if you are going to rely on wood heat entirely. it’s one of those things that you really can’t have too much of, though. If you’re cutting from your own wood lot, just keep cutting. It won’t hurt to have like a year’s supply of wood on hand just in case something happens, and that way you’ll never have to worry about a lack of cut, seasoned wood. My grandfather was a poor planner when it came to wood, and tended to get enough wood to last right up into the middle of winter. My poor mother and uncle were traumatized as children having to scrape snow off logs and get them in the house so they could get some heat. We’ve never really hit the right formula for getting a whole winter’s worth of wood yet. Our old stove ate wood so much that even twelve pickup truck loads was not enough. With our new stove, I’m thinking ten will be plenty, but of course I only got eight last year and ran out in March.

When you buy wood, it is generally measured by the “cord” which is an even stack of split wood 4’ wide by 4’ tall by 8’ long or 128 cubit feet. A “face cord” is a little more subjective: 4’ tall by 8’ long but only as deep as the individual pieces of wood, which brings me to a really important point:

You need to know what size wood fits in your stove.

If you have a door, the wood needs to fit in. If you have an open fireplace, the wood can’t just stick in kitty corner or it could fall back out. Find out what size wood your stove should burn and made a “template” either a stick or a dowel or a piece of yardstick that you can hold up against the wood to make sure that it fits inside the stove.

You can always ask for advice about how much wood you need to get to make it through the winter, but I guarantee that you will not get the same answer twice and those answers will be so far apart that it’s not even funny. The answer should be: get as much as you can get someone to bring to you fro the price you can afford. If it’s too much, you can always burn it next year! If it’s not enough, just make sure you have a backup heat source.

If you get your wood delivered already cut and split, you will pay a lot for it. If you have a chainsaw and can get a triaxle to deliver logs that you cut yourself, it costs less. You can also have the logs cut to size and then spilt them yourself. I’m five feet tall and a total wimp, and I can split wood., so anyone without major physical disabilities should be fine with this, if they’re motivated enough.

To split, you need exactly two pieces of equipment (three if you count work gloves): a splitting wedge for tough pieces and one of the best tools ever. The head of it looks like an axe on one half and a sledge hammer on the other. In the south, they call this a “maul” but in PA, we’d call a tool like that a “go-devil”. These come in different weights, and I have kind of a medium weight one at 8 pounds. It’s little heavier than some of the ones I’ve used that belong to a lot bigger people than me, but I also don’t put as much oomph into it as a bigger person can, so I need to make up for that in weight.

Splitting is one of those things that someone should just show you. Essentially, there are little stress cracks in the logs. Hit a crack really hard. If that doesn’t do it, hit it again. Try to hit the same place. If the wood doesn’t split, use the hammer end to pound in the wedge and just keep hitting that wedge. They have mechanical splitters which is definitely an option if you’re doing a ton of wood and you have health problems, but you can split a lot of wood with a go-devil before you need to think about getting a hydraulic splitter.

Getting around to splitting, this is as good a time as any to talk about exactly what kind of wood to use. Again, never burn evergreen in your stove or fireplace.
Ash splits the easiest and makes a nice fire. Locust wood, if the tree is too big for fence posts can be burned pretty well after it’s seasoned. Locust has a distinctive green stripe in the wood grain. All the nut woods are okay, but they split hard. Hickory burns really hot and had a great smell, but it splits hard and also really tends to pop very forcefully, so if you have a rug or an open fireplace, it might cause some problems to have coals explode out of the fire. We have mostly red maple and sugar maple this year, and as long as they are nice and dry, they are both good wood. Sugar maple splits hard, though. Cherry wood makes decent firewood. I have burned cotton wood, too, and it’s okay. Of course, you never cut down a walnut tree or a cherry tree for firewood. Plenty break and fall down all on their own, all people need to do it clean it up after it already falls down.

Edwin Way Teale in his book A Naturalist buys an Old Farm has a really sweet chapter about wood and his fireplace, and he gets into all the different colors and sounds and smells of different kinds of wood. The book is not terribly exciting, but it is really nice and kind of a good depiction of the sorts of things that people do to amuse themselves when they have a lot of nature around.

There is also a nice web site called (copy and paste, I don’t feel like trying to make a link). It’s obviously propaganda placed on the web by a stove dealers’ and chimney sweeps’ PAC, but the information is still good.

I guess there are a lot of rules and regulations about whether or not you can have a wood stove if you live in town. And you are not technically able to have a mortgage or house insurance unless you have something other than a wood stove for your primary heat. I’ve talked to more than a few people who were fiercely against wood heat because of pollution, but if a stove is smoking enough to cause bad problems for people in the neighborhood, there’s a problem with the stove. A hot fire in a well built stove and chimney will be nearly smokeless. And if there’s not a problem with the stove, the complainers are just never going to be happy about anything anyway!

That’s why we live in the country. We can light anything we like on fire and shoot guns in the yard. Yes, it’s a little hard in winter and the roads are bad and all that stuff, but I can fish in the back yard, and the kids next door walk all of about a quarter mile from the house to go deer hunting, and I have room to plant anything that comes into my head, even if the rabbits just eat it. And I can also drag the chainsaw back into the swamp and cut down some trees to keep my house warm for a while.

Monday, October 6, 2008

First Frost, Garden Wrap-Up, and a Woodstove Primer

The first frost of the fall season was the other night. I was coming home from my incredibly silly job, and there were quite a few cars parked out on the street with a lot of frost on them. It seems very counterintuitive, but on those clear, still nights in fall, the cold air just lays in the valleys and they get a harder frost down there than we do here. It was 29 when I passed the bank at 3:30 AM, but I think it was a hair warmer up at home, because I was able to get my plants moved in off the porch without them getting frost damage.

In my Three Sisters garden, most of the pumpkin leaves withered up and called it quits. I only have a few pumpkins down in there, though I was still picking ears of corn. We had some with Sunday lunch yesterday, and it was okay. I planted “Incredible” this year, and it turned out really nice. My grandmother planted some freebee corn seed I got for ordering early from a seed company. They sent peas and beans and corn and cukes and something else which I can’t remember. Oh, yeah, tomatoes! All the varieties were really good, small and tender. Unfortunately, they were just labeled “Early Experimental” so unless they come out and say what they were that was that for those.

Tomatoes have been over for a while. I still have some corn standing, and it seems that the goats have eaten my popcorn, so I won’t be trying that this fall. Three are still some peas and spinach in the garden, both of which have not bee affected by the frost. I need to dig potatoes and carrots, but I haven’t resolved my carrot storage issues from last year. That, and I dug a whole bunch of carrots for a snack a while ago, and one of the kinds I planted tasted just like dish soap. Awful! I need to find out what they were and make a black mark in my garden notebook about that one.

I don’t know what the problem is with the pumpkins. I have had no kind of luck with them. next year, I’m going to just have to load the hills with every kind of manure I can find. I’m also thinking about getting bees, and if I do, I’ll park those hives right by the pumpkin vines. The vines got lots of flowers, and on vine crops like that, you can see the little balls that will become fruit at the bases of the the female flowers. The baby pumpkins on my vines just got yellow and fell off, though. Just like they did last year and the year before that and the year before that and the year before that. I think this was a difficult year for pumpkins and for pollinators, though, since it was hot early and when the growing season actually started kicking in, it was cold and wet, then hot and wet, and then very dry and neither hot nor cold in August when things should be growing out really well. When the weather is wet, understandably, things don’t get pollinated like they should because bees and other pollinating critters are hunkered down in their hives and hidey holes.

My uncle has been bringing firewood a lot this fall. Ever since we moved here and started heating with wood, we’ve been kind of silly about it. We just kind of pop off into the winter all half cocked and end up running out and having to do things like go down to the swamp in three feet of snow and cut damp snags or make a run out to the sawmill and bring loads of slabwood home in the back end of the station wagon. i know a lot of people are thinking about heating with wood this year, because everything is going up, but it is something that needs more planning than a lot of people are used to. I mean, if you’re going to use gas or electric, you just turn it on and hope you can pay your bill. With wood, you need to actually go out and get it or find some one to bring it to you or you don’t have heat.

We have a plain firebox that can be used for coal or wood. You can get stoves that are either EPA rated for emissions or not. The rated stoves are more expensive, but according to my stove guy, the difference between them it the rated stoves are approved for a longer burn time, and the non-rated ones just have a few extra draught holes drilling in the door so they burn faster and don’t have to be EPA rated. Of course, we don’t care what the EPA says (just kidding) but we do want to be able to leave the stove for eight hours and still come back to a live fire. To get around the cost issue but still get a longer burn time, you can try to go through a dealer that also stocks repair parts and have them sell a non-EPA rated stove with a replacement door with no extra holes.

A lot of people are putting in pellet stoves, which is kind of a nice choice. They burn these little pieces of pelletized sawdust that you can have delivered by the ton or get a few hundred pounds at a time. The town where I used to live has a pellet manufacturing business, and they are absolutely thriving. With pellets, you don’t have to chop wood. They’re clean. They are also regulated so that you get a specific amount of heat from a specific amount of wood. When you are burning raw wood, you get vastly different amounts of heat from different kinds of wood. Also, most pellet stoves have an electric hopper that feeds a controlled amount of pellets into the stove which regulates the temperature and keeps the fire going when you’re not home. You can even get a little adaptor which allows you to run the electric hopper off a car or boat battery for several days in the case of power outage or national emergency when nefarious government forces cut the electric in midwinter to freeze the rebellious population into submission.

The drawback of pellet stoves it that they only burn pellets. A few winters ago, when the pellet stove craze really took off, there was a bad pellet shortage, and a lot of people were stuck with no way to get fuel. Similarly, there was a big craze that year for corn burning stoves, which has backed off a lot since corn has gone up so high. Another problem with corn burning stoves is their propensity to Explode! if the chaff isn’t cleaned off the corn and the dust builds up inside the stove. This isn’t just one of the things that “they say” can happen. My sister’s husband works with a guy whose corn burning stove blew up, luckily with no injuries.

There are also these outdoor stoves that look like little outhouses which you can hook up like a boiler. You can use them to pipe heat into multiple structures, but they are not cheap, they use a lot of wood, they take a lot of electricity to move the heat, and you still have to have a backup furnace installed in your house to get insurance. I have also read a couple different places (and this is a “they say”) that outdoor furnaces can burn up and still take your house with them, that some states won’t give you insurance if you have them, blah, blah, blah, but I think that might be kind of like conspiracy theory stuff. (ha.)

You can get really nice and fancy stoves. Really pretty ones that also have like built in cook tops and brass picture windows so you can see the pretty fire. You can also get stoves that look like a plain old heater but they open up and have a fire inside. You can get really high tech ones like the “woodchuck” that, if I read the literature right, will completely vaporize the wood at high temperatures and convert every bit of that wonderful stored solar energy into heat for your home. You can get blowers and thermostats and everything that you expect from a regular furnace but just have wood as your heat source. I don’t have any of that. I have a box with fire in it that sits in the basement. Warm air goes up stairs and up through a vent in the floor of one closet. It works for me. Of course, it has only frosted once or twice and daytime temps are still in the fifties and sixties, so I haven’t needed to run the stove, have i?

In our next episode, I’ll talk about what types of wood to use in a wood stove or fireplace. And it really does matter!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Try Cedar Grove Cheese


I usually don't go in for picking a brand name something or other and insist that it's wonderful. Branding of anything has really gone to far with all the fetishing of labels, Nike etc.

I like sports despite the constant brand reenforcement, and I really think that one of the main reasons that NASCAR is pushed as a sport when it is not really a sport is because of the sheer amount of advertising that goes on. Really. And I think that soccer is not pushed as a sport in America (and to some extent this applies to hockey, too) is because the format of the game is not conducive to excessive advertising. The most they can manage for soccer is like a little Snickers bar logo around the time clock. With hockey, they kind of conceded to the complaints of advertisers and if you listen to the games on the radio, you'll hear the commentators say several times that they are on a television time out.

Speaking of which I was watching the Wimbledon men's final on a DVD the other day (vamos Rafa) and it was just presented in the British broadcast version with almost static camera, very little commentary and no stupid computer graphics and sound effects. I liked it. When you watch old football games, they don't have the whole screen crowded up. I remember watching some of the Wimbledon and French open coverage at my sisters' and there were so many graphics and crawls that when the commentators were oohing and ahhing over Federer's footwork, you couldn't even see his feet. This trend has kind of maxed out and probably should be dialed back a little. The whole "crawl" thing constantly came in right about 9/11, and I think, psychologically, it may be an attempt to push people into a permanent state of crisis mentality, but that's just me.

Anyway, I do recommend that anyone who cares for cheese give Cedar Grove Cheese a try. They have grass fed cows with no bovine growth hormone. Actually, so many farmers and food companies have phased out the use of rBGH that Monsanto even sold off it's brand to a smaller company. That's what they get for abusing the endocrine systems of the American people! Cedar Grove also has a really nice little web site at, of course, where they tell all about how wonderful their environmental practices are. I think that if Cedar Grove's six year aged grass fed cheddar (it's called "Prairie Pride", or something like that) required some serious environmental damage to produce, it would still be worth it.

The extra aged cheddar is a special cheese experience. I can never find cheese that is sharp enough. All the of the commercial American cheeses that are "Extra Sharp" are getting to the point where I can taste them. Some Canadian cheese are okay. But the Cedar Grove cheese six year aged cheddar is the most wonderful cheese I've ever had. It's fill of these little brine spots and has a taste that is tart, bitter, sweet, and musky before the true cheddar taste even hits. Their other cheeses are very nice, too. I like a milder, softer mozzarella, but it's still fine, and the other hard cheeses are just amazing.

I buy this at the farm store at the dairy where I get my milk. I guess you can do a direct order, too, but if you get the chance to try especially the aged cheddar, it's a must.

PS. I can hardly imaginve being in a situation where you'd have access to aged cheddar and no toothbrush, but there are substances in aged cheese which kill tooth decay germs. So, if you are done with a meal and can't brush, snack on a piece of real aged cheese, and you'll give your teeth a little protection.

PPS I keep seeing where there is more and more information coming out about the digital TV conversion. I keep hoping that some of the channels that I pick up now will adopt stronger signals, but in infact, as we get closer to the time, I am getting poorer reception on fewer channels that I did when I originally set up that converter. PArt of that is due to the fact that that broadcast equipment of the local PBS station is kind of broken right now, and won't be fixed for a few weeks until they get an out of state team to come in, but I hate PBS anyway. I will kind of miss seeing House in Febrary since we can't get digital Fox.

I'm getting more than a little fed up with stuff like that. Every time the powers that be "improve" something, it's like not being able to see Federer's feet. All this digital, HD stuff, and all of the new features on everyone's web sites? Can't use 'em, can't see 'em, they take too long to load, and I just move on to a different site that doesn't take too long to load. One of he news sites that I used to visit quite often because it was just text headlines go the genius idea of adding video to their page, and now I just don't visit that site anymore. That's fine, because I didn't really agree with their politics, and they were just starting to annoy me, but I dhave a little bit of news gap.

I hate to be a whiner about this stuff, but there you go. I used to think it was so important to check tha tnews so many times a day. Now that I can't get it to load on my computer, it just all goes on without me. Kind of like the stupid PBS station. They really just don't care until it turns out they want money from you, and I say, nope, I just spent my spare cash this week on some cheese that has spent the better part of decade in a cave in Wisconsin!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Spending Some Time Thinking About David Foster Wallace

I've referenced David Foster Wallace before, I'm sure, when I talked about going to the fair earlier this year. Back, back, back, through the sands of time when I had pretensions of becoming a writer or an English professor I actually presented a scholarly paper on Infinite Jest at a conference and all that kind of thing. Just about the only constant between that period of my life and now is I still like Wallace's writing. Reading an article in the Buffalo News reminded me that I had heard a radio broadcast of a talk/reading Wallace gave at UB some years ago. I remember it was kind of funny and also very cool because he was basically pulling out pieces of writing that were in very rough form and just letting the audience in on what he'd just been writing possibly fifteen minutes before the talk was scheduled to begin. He also seemed to be in the midst of a constant, midlevel anxiety attack, but that didn't make the reading any less remarkable. This is what I wrote a few days ago:

I’m deeply upset all this week. I know it’s not all about me or anything, but I just want to riff about David Foster Wallace who is one of my all time favorite writers. One of the ongoing themes of his writing was always about depression and mental illness, and one of the things that I read in the Buffalo News about hearing that he was gone was that his eventual suicide was a shock but not a surprise. Instead of just writing about what this means to me, I’m going to just say that, even if the writing is difficult, anyone who wants a one of a kind reading experience should pick up any magazine article, essay, short story or novel by this man and give it a try.

There are two main reasons why people have been so deeply affected by the loss of David Foster Wallace. I would say that the main quality of the writing is a kind of deeply personal connection. In his novels, there is a tendency for him to get caught up in his own word games and plot devices. There are long sections in Infinite Jest which are just experiments in voice, where plot information is advanced through the point of view and the language of a very minor character who then never reappears in the narrative. These little pieces of editorial indulgence are some of the features of the writing which have drawn criticism.

If the reader will turn to the nonfiction essays, however, where Wallace is writing ostensibly in his own voice, there is a deeply personal connection which develops. Part of the reason for this is the format and the premise of the writing. A good deal of these essays and articles were the result of a mundane assignment: go to the fair, go on a cruise, etc. which Wallace then approached with an interesting and slightly disturbing mix of hypervigilance and a willingness to minutely document the variety of thoughts which sailed through his unusual bean while he was in the midst of these events. The fact that he had the ability as a writer to cobble together this giant ball of experiences and maintain an identifiable point of view is a testament to his creativity more than either of his long and difficult novels could ever be.

There are tons of blurbs on web sites all over the world that say how brilliant his writing is. The citation which I find most interesting, however, are the negative criticisms of the writing. Few people had bad things to say about Davis Foster Wallace’s writing, but his work has on occasion been accused of being ugly and just technically monstrous. I think this is absolutely valid. This is the second, and maybe more important thing, which is notable about the work of David Foster Wallace. Plenty of writers have developed an impeccable use of personal voice, but very few have created a style of writing that is instantly recognizable.

Wallace is best known for his pioneering use of footnotes, end notes and massive digressions which are tacked at odd angles all throughout his work. Think of the ways we are traditionally taught to write. I worked for years to learn how to carefully fold one thought into the next, outlining and trimming and rewriting. Wallace’s writing is grammatically correct, but each sentence is so elaborately constructed, so linguistically packed with bizarre references and games (some of which only become clear if you take the analysis of specific word choice down to the Latin root and the subsequent historic usage of a word), that it hardly matters that there are technically no rules actually being broken. The overall structure of the writing is , conversely, entirely transparent. The paragraphs appear under headings. Instead of a carefully planned segue, the writing just stops, a new theme is introduced under a title which often takes less time to explain than the actual length of the title.

The writing is like a giant Pull Me Push You machine constructed out of spare parts from a Dadaist found objects art installation, designed to go in about five directions at once while still having been cleverly constructed so that integrated cutaway sections allow any observer to witness the internal meshing and clashing of disparate parts. And then there are those digressions and foot notes and end notes which are tacked onto the work like so many beer cans dragging behind a car on its way to a firehall wedding reception. Reading Infinite Jest requires something of a wrestling match with the actual book. By the end, the spine of the book has gone wobbly, there is so much flipped between the main texts and notes and references. While the “rest of us”, as writers believed that if there was not an orderly way to integrate thoughts and events and observations into the body of the work, those things just didn’t belong, no matter how good the writing was and how central the thought was to understanding what was actually happening, DFW found a way to make his writing into an actual physical thing that not only communicated but was shaped more like the actual thoughts that it conveyed. How fantastically wonderful that throughout his career as a writer, he also consistently taught writing to undergraduates.

The writing is fun, too. It’s not depressing. Even the parts in various books which discuss suicide, depression, mental illness, substance abuse, and various crushing phobias, all of which obviously he wrote from a position of experience, have a spark of humor to them that is not just irony but true humor in the Shakespearian comedic sense. It’s not about the irony of the human condition, more like the humanity of the ironic condition, which is an entirely different thing.

Right now, though, I’m thinking of the end of Infinite Jest which kind of collapses and does not end into a kind of scary nightmare where everyone is kind of ruined and everything that people hoped would never happen to them basically does happen. But whole thing still has that kind of wonderful mental palate cleansing effect that happens when you come in contact with a real piece of art.

I hope that the relatively small body of work he left behind doesn’t cause his really valuable contributions to both literary and popular writing in America to fall by the wayside as a mere premillenial oddity. Too many artists and writers and musicians who end their own lives become the objects of a kind of morbid hipster/poser cache, and if that were to be the fate of David Foster Wallace, it would be a shame that the end of his life would unfairly color the way people are able to read his work from now on.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Food From the Late Summer Garden


It is a cool and misty morning, and we are trapped between a slow front that is the end of Gustav and the fast moving rainstorm of Hannah. Hannah is a palindromic name which is cool. And it am pretty cheery, as I’m getting some days off this weekend. And I’m using this time to get what I can out of the garden!

This time of year, that means tomatoes!

Let me explain this photo: There are various tomato activities which can take place at this time of year. The large white bowl is filled with ends from sauce tomatoes which are oblong and not actually very good to eat. Sauce tomatoes are usually hollow and dry and don’t have a lot of seeds. They are good for sauce because the flavor is really concentrated, and also there is less juice so there is less boiling down to get thick sauce. The big saucepan is full of quartered sauce tomatoes which have to cook about ten minutes before they are soft enough to strain for sauce. In this case, I’ll take all the cooked tomatoes and dump them into a different bowl and clean the stockpot. Then, I dip cooked tomatoes out of the bowl and into a sieve and let the juice and pulp go back into the stockpot. I like to stir the cooked whole tomatoes around in the sieve with a metal spoon to really squeeze the liquid out of it. I guess those saucers and ricers are really great for this, but I’m here to say a sieve is fine.

In the teacups are seeds which are being saved. I’ve written about this before. Things to remember: no hybrids, soak in water a few days to loosen the pulp, good seeds sink, bad seeds float. Seeds still need to be tested sometime over the winter to prove they’ll sprout. This year, I put a good amount of space between my tomatoes rows to avoid any chance of cross pollination.

In the little china serving bowl are two kinds of salad or slicing tomatoes I grew this year. The pinky pink ones are called “Momotaro” and this was the first year the seeds were available from Japan. The red ones with the yellow ring around the top are “Cosmonaut Volkov” a Ukrainian heirloom which I grew because I loved the description on the seed catalog and I’m Ukrainian on my mother’s side (with a little Georgian, and I’m Irish on my dad’s side, so people just need to watch out!) Cosmonaut Volkov tomatoes are really red underneath and yellow around the stem. They are really fleshy and have few seeds and a lot of juice. Just a surprizing fruit.

I didn’t put these in the sauce because we’re having lunch at my grandmother’s house tomorrow, and one of my cousins is going to stop by. So, I’m going to make a very special tomatoes vinaigrette which it will I share here:

Apple Cider Vinaigrette

Stir together:

1/2 tsp. dry mustard
1 1/2 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. white pepper
1/3 c. cider vinegar
1/3 c. veg. oil
1/3 c. olive oil
a few Tblspn. puree fresh herbs (or just use parsley)

I like to go for a walk and pick a nice handful of different varieties of basils, oreganos, and parsley, even a lovage leaf or two would be okay. I throw them in the little mini chopper and then just add as much as I feel like having to the vinaigrette.
Cut tomatoes into bite sized pieces and let them sit in the sauce for a while before serving. You can throw more tomatoes in after they get eaten, and reuse the vinaigrette for a day or two.

I’m going to quit writing now, because I have things to do other than mess around with the computer. Though computer messing is quite fun. I need to pick some corn from the three sisters garden. Very exciting. I got an article from one of the local newspapers were a gentleman planted a three sisters plot at the Wilder Museum in Irvine, PA. Tho’ he used manure instead of fish. He had manure. I have fish. That’s why you pick what you pick!

Speaking of which. Don’t microwave corn. It’s a travesty.

Cook corn like Betty Crocker says:

Husk out corn. Put in a pot and cover with water till it floats. Add a few tablespoons of sugar and a little lemon juice. My aunt Teena just squeezes a whole half a lemon right in. I use bottled juice. Bring to a boil and boil two minutes. Turn it off and sit ten more minutes. Eat it. It’s good!

Speaking of which, and this is the last speaking of which: Freezing corn is almost exactly like freezing beans. Blanch the corn for a couple minutes while still on the cob. Run under cold water to stop cooking. Take a serrated knife and slice off the kernels. Toss them in your handy dandy sieve. (People should not have to go through life without a wire sieve, I swear, I use mine twenty times a day.) When the corn is drained, pack into zipper freezer bags and freeze. You can’t can corn without a pressure cooker. It will just rot in the jars and get you really sick. Corn relish is different, though, and you can just use a recipe and a boiling water canner for that.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

August Was Busy. September Will Be Worse!


Gosh, it's been a while! I had to get a full time job, so I've been realloting my time to other things. I actually worked in a factory for about three weeks before I found a cushier job where they actually cared whether or not I had actually graduated from college let alone high school. One good thing about the factory was I was able to earn some money while looking for a better job, and I’ve given up cussing. I’ve seen where these things can lead, and I’m done.

A quick note about “American manufacturing”. The town where I live is a really typical rust belt town with a lot of little machine shops and steel mills which are only still there through a combination of miracles and ruthless management. (And, judging by the number of government vehicles that park regularly outside one of the forges, the defense industry, of course.) None of these factories maintain more than a token human resources department and instead, bring in waves of people through a bunch of different temp agencies.

The job that I was doing involved assembling presewn pieces that were brought in from China. Literally, it was the job that wasn’t worth having the Chinese do and absolutely depended on having a high turnover among the workers. There was no way to do that job without getting severe repetitive motion stress on your arms and hands, and if anyone was able to actually work as long as you had to work to get on the real factory payroll, there would be so many workers’ comp claims that the business would go under. The majority of the permanent people were men, the majority of the temps women. Men who came in as temps at the same time as the women who came in the same week I did were already getting bumped up into shipping while the women were being threatened with lay off because they weren’t meeting the number of pieces completed an hour that management wanted. Meanwhile, we were all getting paid what people in Erie get paid for working fast food because the temp agency gets contracted to provide a certain number of workers and then pays a smaller salary than what people would have earned had they been employed directly by the factory. Additionally, the temp agency is able to further skim the workers’ pay by offering “health care” for $18.00 a week which, of course, if you were too sick to work and actually needed, you’d no longer be purchasing. I’d like to see some of the political candidates this year address stuff like this!

But that’s not why I’m here! I’m here to tell you that food prices are going ot spike in September. Things seemed to have stabilized over the summer, but that’s not going to be the case anymore, and now is the time to think about stocking up, even if you’ve never done it before. I took my first full pay from the factory and went to the dry goods store. I didn’t buy the finest little hat in the store, but I did get a lot of dry cereal and sugar which I spent the day vacuum sealing into quart jars. Oh, people mock now, but when the fit hits the shan, they’ll be asking me for my jars of oatmeal. (And I’ll say, sure, glad to keep you from starving.)

I really couldn’t read Cormac McCarthy’s latest book “The Road”, even though I usually just pounce on all of the stuff he comes out with. I thought it was too horrible that the man was just wandering around with his starving kid and everything was dead and ruined, and I would rather just sit in my basement and chew on old cornmeal if things are going to go that way. I’m not sure that I’ll even go and see the movie of that book, despite the fact that it has Viggo Mortensen and was filmed on Beach 10 up at Presqueisle. They also filmed in Conneaut Lake Amusement Park which is partially burned down, and I happened to be at the movies down that way one night over the spring and I saw the filming truck coming in which was cool. I love movies, and the only bad thing about living in the country is the seventy mile round trip to go and see a movie.

But I’m not here to tell you this! I’m here to tell you that you need no special equipment whatsoever to freeze beans!
And if you’ve seen the prices for frozen beans lately, it may be time to give bean freezing a try. Everything is late this year, and there’s a good chance that you can still get beans either out of your garden or out of the garden of someone who is tired of them and just wants them gone before you even need to think about buying them.

Here’s how you do it:

You need plenty of cold water, a stove or heat source, a colander or sieve, a pot, and zipper bags. You can also use bags with twist ties. When I was little, we always used a vegetable freezing kit that you could get with bags and little white boxes so your frozen veggies looked kind of like the boxed ones that came commercially and stacked up in the freezer better. I’m not sure they even make those anymore. Then, of course, you need beans. Green, yellow, filet, bush, pole, flat, doesn’t matter. Also, the amount doesn’t matter, either. That’s what’s great about beans! Some beans freeze better than others, but they’re all okay as long as they’re pretty fresh.

Prepare the beans: Wash them, of course. Then, snap the stems. I usually snap the tails, too, and them break them into about one inch pieces. French beans don’t freeze too well, but they’re still nice in the middle of winter, so just snap the stem and leave the beans whole on those. You can also go to the kitchen store or even an upscale grocery store and get a bean “frencher” which is a neat little gadget you can run beans through end to end and get long strips like French cut beans. That’s a good option and easier on the hands than snapping pounds and pounds of beans, but we are talking no special equipment here, so you don’t need one.

Get a nice big pot of boiling water going. Then, you want to blanch the beans. This just means boil them for a couple minutes until they turn bright, bright green but are still hard and uncooked on the inside. Make sure the water is really hot before you dip in the beans. Blanching breaks up the enzymes in the beans that makes them ripen, so you are kind of freezing your beans in time before you freeze them. You can’t skip this step!

Take your bright greeny beans (or they could be yellowy) and dip them out of the water with the colander. If you’re not doing multiple pots of beans, I suppose you could just dump the water, but I usually have to use the same boiling water three or four times before I am done with my beans. You don’t have to boil new water every time. Run cold water over them until they get cold. This keeps them from actually cooking and holds them at the blanched stage.

Shake off excess water. Stuff whatever sized portion you think you would like to cook when it is time to cook into the plastic bag. Squeeze out excess air. Seal. Throw in the freezer.

Congratulations, you’re done. You just gave the Man a thumb in the eye. Especially if your beans were free.

Canning beans is much, much different. Unless you are going to make a pickled or a dilled bean, you can’t use regular canning methods to put beans in jars because they are not acidic enough, and you need to can them under pressure. A pressure canner is not cheap, and I don’t have one yet, but my aunt cans everything from beans to venison stew. But she is also the one that I have to borrow a bean Frencher from, as well

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Oh, Yes, it is Fair Time!


It is true. I’m a sucker for county fairs. I love them. I want to marry them. Last year I went to three different county fairs plus the Spartansburg Fair. On multiple days. From the time I was a little kid on, I used to enter all sorts of things in the fair. Flowers and flower arrangements and pictures and painted ceramic animals. When I was older, I switched to baking and needlework. I want it on my tombstone that I once won the blue ribbon in drop cookies at the Warren County fair for my gingercream cookies. That is some cutthroat competition, I do not lie. I haven’t entered in lately, but I really plan to get back into competing at the fair within the next year or so. My ultimate dream in life, more than publishing a book or having someone who actually says things that I believe getting elected President would be to win the big homemaker award at the fair which is a special ribbon for a person who has the most wonderful all around fair entries in the household goods department. I’ll never do it, because I’m such a poor seamstress, but I can always dream.

Okay, it is easy to be dismissive of fairs and everything like that. David Foster Wallace wrote a really, really funny essay piece about a trip to the Illinois State Fair that was kind of meant for the non-fair-going audience which really kind of played up the hickiness and oddity of the whole thing. But, if you look at the fair as kind of a trade show for people who live in the country, it becomes much more plausible. Because, really, that is what it is. At the vegetable competitions, you can see what other people are growing. You can stop by the commercial buildings and learn about different water systems and banks and electric companies. All the big ag tractor people set up and show off their new models. All the state, county, and federal land management agencies have informational booths and tables. The political parties are there handing out freebees and registering people to vote. At the Spartansburg Fair, the local medical clinic sets up and does health screenings and even gives out free tetnus shots, which I will definitely take advantage of this year as I'm coming due.

You can check out new breeds of chickens and ducks and geese especially, and a lot of people offer rabbits and things for sale right at the fair. It’s great for kids, because they can sell the animals they raised all year at the the livestock auction, and it’s especially great for people to get around animals and walk around all day and realize that there is a lot more to do in life than just watch things on TV and play video games. If you want to plan on moving out of town, it’s really inspiring, and if you are already set up with a little land, it’s a good way to “shop” for things you might want to fill it up with. And like at a regular trade show, there are usually a lot of fair specials where you can get discounts on anything from a tractor or a four wheeler or a fancy sewing machine.

I never got over being horse crazy. I can’t understand how these people have all these horses, though. I know they cost a lot, and then you have to take care of their feet and take get vet care, and the tack costs a lot, and they eat a ton. Horses are surprisingly fragile, and you can’t just blow off buying hay and chop spruce boughs and throw them in the pasture like you can with a goat. And you have to have a real fence, because a horse can go a long way when it gets out, and, also unlike a goat, when it gets into things that aren’t its regular food, a horse can get very sick and die very fast. My goats have been known to snack on latex gloves with no adverse effects at all. And when they "run away", I never have to look much farther than the nearest piece of landscaping or a tomato patch. The goats stay better than dogs. They walk with me better than the dogs, too! When I want the edges of the pond trimmed down, all I have to do is drag Don the goat down there with his brother Matty and let them rip. I take a book and have a nice old time. Les chevres preferent Proust, naturelment! Pardon my French! I can't spell in English, let alone French.

Eventually, I want to get a pony to have up here. For my nieces and nephew. “Yeah, right, whatever,” as my four year old niece would say. I’m pretty sure that I could pick out a good pony that I could ride, too, as the the munchkins are starting to catch up with me in size. They definitely are getting their height from someone other than my sister who has been having the “I’m taller than you!” argument with me since we both quit growing at about age eleven. And we were not tall eleven year olds!

So, right now, until I can get the lower pasture cleared and fenced and get a barn built down there and be able to take care of a horse well enough to not get called in to hooved animal rescue, I really look forward to the fair. I like to watch the shows in the ring, but also, they have harness racing at Crawford and sometimes at Erie which is a lot of fun to watch. the draft horses are the best, though, and for drama and excitement and competition and (a little bit) of danger, I go to the draft horse pulls as often as I can.

I’ve never been to a tractor pull, and people keep thinking that I would go just because I like to watch things pull heavy things, but it is not so. In a draft horse pull, teams of two hitch up to a load and try and pull it a set distance. If they can do it, there is more weight added, and they try again. These are some big horses. The heavyweight teams have horses that easily go a ton apiece. They also wear a couple hundred pounds of harness and just walk by, jingling. They have they slow way of stepping, but they are so big they still go by fast.

The early rounds are almost casual. At the lightest weight, drivers can even skip pulling at all. Depending on the competition style, the horses are either pulling a dynamometer truck that has a mechanism in it that creates as much pressure on the wheels as they are pulling that round or, more commonly -- I’ve heard it called “Ohio” style -- they pull a boat or sled with concrete weights ratcheted down to it on a packed clay track. I’ve been to both kinds, and they each have an appeal, but when the boat is used, and the weights get high, the horses can see that the sled is bigger, and they get more excited. Then, you get to see who is the better driver and which teams work together. There is a lot of drama because, even though the drivers and teams get three chances to move the load, the horses are living creatures. If they get flustered or get on a bad night, even the best team can get knocked out relatively soon in the competition.

At the end of the competition, some of the horses are so worked up, they try and bolt away. Sometimes, you get to sit quite close to the pulling track, and I’ve had to leave my seat more than once. I’ve seen horses throw shoes, snap harness, step over the traces and even slip, but I’ve never seen any terrible injuries, which is one of the best things about the competition, because it is tense and exciting but not really risky for the animals. By the end, it all gets very dramatic, because you’ve been watching the drivers and horses come out for sometimes a couple of hours, if it’s a big competition. You’ve picked your favorites and the horses are usually pretty fired up. And there’s a whole weird, professional golf element where, especially at the end, you just try to sit as still as you can while the horses are pulling because if you were to make a mistake and clap too early or make any sound like saying “go”, the horses might hear “whoa” and quit before they pull the distance. The drivers’ helpers often follow along behind the sled, holding up their hands to the audience to remind us to keep quiet, and, I kid you not, you can still hear people gasping and “ahh” -ing, it is just so darn exciting!

The Warren County fair is this week, and it is about the earliest in this area, and it has a great horse pull where the competition gets up to 10,000 pounds on a regular basis. It’s inside under the lights in the same building where they have the big country music concert earlier in the week, and you can sit at floor level if you want. But the Crawford County Fair, which is the biggest in the state is coming up soon. I like the horse pull at Warren, but I try to get to Crawford for everything else at least twice during the week of the fair. I bet I’ll spend the equivalent of a week of days at different fairs this month, and I’ll enjoy every second of it!

Here’s a recipe for officially blue ribbon winning cookies. Even my molasses-hating sister can’t resist these if I put the frosting on them!


1/4 c. Shortening (or soft butter)
1/2 c. white sugar
1 egg
1/3 c. molasses
1/2 c. water
2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt (I always leave the salt out of everything!)
1 tsp. ginger
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. cloves

Temp. 400

Cream together fat and sugar. Add molasses and egg and cream. Blend water on a low speed. Sift together flour, soda, and spices into wet ingredients and combine. Drop by teaspoons onto a greased cookie sheet. Cook for 8 minutes until middles are springy like cakes and bottoms are just starting to get some tan color.

Let cool.

Frost with a thick glaze of confectioners sugar and milk. Put a couple tablespoons of milk in a shallow bowl and add confectioners sugar. For extra yumminess add a couple drops of almond extract to the glaze. Dip the tops into the frosting bowl and shake off. Frosting should be opaque but not spreadable. If you can see through it or it runs off the cookies, it’s too thin, add more sugar. Top before the frosting sets with a sprinkle of ground ginger.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bad Beans and Black Locust


I can’t believe its late July already. This is the week where reality set in for me in terms of what is going to grow and what isn’t going to grow. The good news is, my three sisters garden is thriving. I only had one hill where some pumpkins didn’t come up, the rest at least have some. The random gourds I threw around between the sunflowers and the broom corn are also growing great. The main garden is okay, but my fancy onion sets are disappointing. I may even write to the company I got them from to mention that they were disappointing. My onions from seed are coming along slow, too, but they also didn’t cost like those sets cost, and I’ve already gotten my money’s worth from just green onion tops and little baby onions.

My sister’s husband planted carrots and onions in flowerpots this year, and they’ve been eating fresh onions and carrots for weeks and teasing one of uncles about it mercilessly. They just used potting soil and any old seed from Home Depot and leftover pots from the hanging plants my sister kills every year, and, viola, instant carrot snacks. I work and work, and my uncle has a garden you could take a picture of and put in a magazine it’s so nice, and neither of us have seen a carrot yet this year. It’s kind of funny. Just recently, I was having a conversation with a gentleman who lives and works on an organic farm in Panama, New York, and we were talking cropping systems and raised beds and soil building techniques and cover crops and all that stuff, and another girl joined in and was really proud of her garden, too, and she was like: “I just put miracle grow on it! It works really well!” So, there’s more than on way to skin a cat!

Unfortunately, it looks like all of my melons are going to be a wash this year. Nothing wanted to grow! They have little tiny buds on them , but I just don’t see how the plant is going to be big enough ever to support fruit. That is a shame because I had lots of heirloom type melons I was trying, and I ‘ad ‘opes, I tell ya. I ‘ad ‘opes. But I’ve never had anything like luck with pumpkins before, and it looks like they are going strong.

Speaking of dashed hopes, it looks like my beans are also too damaged by bunny rabbits to bear this year. Luckily, I saved the seeds for my fancy French beans that I didn’t plant. Bean seeds should last three years, so I probably won’t have to rebuy French bean seeds, though I’m going to have to start over with bush beans. I tried a new variety last year, and, unlike the original beans I planted my first and second garden years, the seeds didn’t breed true. They were Burpee Kentucky Wonder, and they bore well last year, but the saved seeds were no good. I have noticed that Burpee seeds don’t even keep from year to year in the package which is why I don’t have any salsa peppers this year. I had a whole half package of them, but they never grew. Makes me reconsider whether I will buy many Burpee seeds next year.

Anyway, my large task of the day was to cut back and clear the black locust sprouts away from the pond edge. When we moved in here, three years ago, the previous owners had allowed the pond edge to grow up in black locust. They also let the landscaping escape, and trees that should have been trimmed back to shrub size had really sprung up.

The problem with having trees on your pond dam is pretty simple. The roots infiltrate the dam. In the short run, they hold back erosion and the trees keep the pond from getting too hot, after the trees get big, the roots start breaking things apart. And if you cut the trees or the trees die or fall down, the decaying roots can weaken the dam.

For this reason, maybe it was a mistake to cut the locust trees around the pond, but they were also obscuring the view, which is very nice. When we first came to look at this house, my mother figured there would be a view, but it took imagination.

This is a picture of two of my many cousins fishing by the pond the first year we got here:

This is a picture I took this afternoon after chopping down the sprouts off the tops of the locust stumps:

For clearing brush, I use a pair of by-pass loppers, and I would say get a good pair of by-pass loppers, but I’m now convinced that there is no such thing. We started out with Fiskars, and they were okay. They chopped a lot of stuff and had a lifetime guarantee, which was good because my mother destroyed her first set inside of a year. We’ve had them replaced twice, but we eventually gave up. They have a design flaw where the handle just keeps breaking, and instead of fixing it, they just started making them in China. The loppers wore out and broke quicker, and they just made them cheaper so that they were cheaper to replace rather than making better loppers. We gave up, and I’ve been using a pair of Martha Stewart loppers with solid wood handles. They don’t that well, but there are fewer parts to break!

Anyway, I have at least one more day of chopping to get the sprouts from the swamp side of the pond, and I ended up with about a truckload of branches to give the goats. I’ll wait until they eat down what I gave them a little.

Other than messing up the view and possibly ripping the pond dam apart, I think that black locust is one of the best trees you can grow. It’s a fast grower. We counted the rings on the trees we took down, and most of them were less than ten years old. I don’t know if the locust was deliberately planted around the pond, but it does spread really well and has these pretty, feathery leaves. It also has really wicked thorns, but that is beside the point.

Most fast-growing trees, especially ones that grow in wet or less than ideal areas are just junky, but locust is a pretty hard wood. You can use it for firewood after it dries, but the best use for locust is as fence posts. It grows nice and straight, and when you cut it, you can peel the bark right off like a banana peel. If you miss the really wet stage though, it will com off easy after it completely dries, as well. Locust fence posts will last anywhere from twenty to forty years in the ground with no chemical treatment whatsoever.

We got a lot of use out of the locust trees we cut that first year. Most of them went into the snake rail fence that appears in some of my other posted pictures, though we did burn some. Even though the sprouts are a nuisance, they make good fodder for the goats. One year, before I had hay and snow was setting in, I drove the goats into the swamp and had them eat the leaves still on the locusts for their roughage.

One of these days, I’d like to have a locust stand farther down the hill where they won’t be in the way, but right now, the woods are almost all evergreens.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Midsummer Day's Dream


We’ve kind of reached that point in summer where the hard work is really over and the rest is just trying to keep everything balanced. The greenhouse is empty and down with plants either plunked into empty places in the gardens or tossed into Plant Heaven at the edge of the yard. I’ve been staking tomatoes and tying up vines and of course weeding, weeding, weeding.

Right now, my biggest problem is varmints! Something, probably raccoons, has been raiding the compost pile. We’ve been eating a lot of those cute little seedless watermelons, and the rinds have been irresistible to critters. I’ve tried burying the pile in tons of hay and straw. I put wire over the top. Nothing works. The wire is always peeled back or the little guys just drag stuff out right through the wire! I’m going to have to raid the scrap lumber from the goat shed to make a sturdier, non peeling-back cap for the pile. I’m a bad builder, but I’m going to have to get over that, because the old particle board closet that was left behind here that I moved into the basement and have been using as a storage cupboard is on its way out. The damp down there has finally gotten to it, and it is bowing out, and the shelves have started to drop.

Speaking of critters, I have finally taken care of a bad muskrat hole in the walkway on top of the dam on the pond. Muskrats will dig in at the water level and then build a big den uphill from the entrance. A lot of times, this will cave in, and that’s what happened here. It was getting treacherous to go over the top of the dam with the lawnmower, so I was working on getting some better drainage around the garage by chopping down the sod and regrading the yard off the cement pad there and ended up with a couple three hundred pounds of dirt and sod. I wasn’t aware that the hole was so big, but almost all that dirt and sod went into making the walkway flat again and building up the side of the pond. I always keep a good amount of grass seed and cover crop on hand to use when I do my yard repairs. It is easier than running into town every time I throw some dirt around, and they don’t always have grass seed at the feed mill. I refuse to pay what they charge for grass seed at Tractor Supply. My A-Number-One money saving tip for saving money is never buy anything there. Don’t even set foot in the store to look. Everything is overpriced, and everything is made in China.

The last thing I bought at Tractor Supply was a hose nozzle, and it was too expensive and didn’t work. How can a hose nozzle not work? Then, when I was looking for an exchange for it, I found the exact same thing in the sale bin for five dollars less except for the one that I was returning was tied to a card and the cheaper one just had a sticker on it. Same manufacturer. Same weight and features. I just returned it and went someplace to purchase a reasonably priced, made in America hose nozzle. I know they cheat people by charging too much for stuff you can get at real farm supply places, but this was a little too far, and I haven’t been there since.

Anyway, I’m lucky that the muskrats seem to have abandoned the pond. The only way to get rid of them, really is to off them, and I’m not quite ready to do that. Though, I might shoot some bunnies here very soon! They are really doing a number on my lower garden away from the house, and I really like beans. The rabbits are cute, though. They play little jumping games on the yard in the mornings, and maybe a cat will eat them and I won’t have to try and actually hit anything with my gun, though I bet I could get my sister’s husband to do it. She had a raccoon in her garbage right in town the other evening, and it was all she could do to keep him from shooting it. He really wanted to. It would have been perfectly safe. He’s a firearms instructor and a good shot, but it would have been just too hard to explain if they had actually got in trouble for shooting in the city

My uncle who was born in Kansas in the ‘40’s said that they used to catch rabbits in sacks in the summer when they mowed hay. They would mow in a square and the rabbits wouldn’t run out of the long grass, so they could just pick them right up and pop them into feed sacks. They ate rabbit all summer to the point where they couldn’t even look at rabbit, but a lot of times, that was all they had for meat in summer.

We have stray cats out the ears right now. Two mother cats brought their kittens ot the garage. Three of the kittens are really gentle and nice, and the four from the other litter are wild. We’re going ot have to figure out what to do about all those cats, but I’m hoping they keep down the mouse problem. Last year, I was on the verge of getting a few cats from the farm where I buy milk. They have really pretty cats. A lot of calicoes. However, I have ten garage cats right now and one house cat. My cousins named the older little all weird names from comic books, but the nice cats are Boots, Smokey, and Billi. Billi used to be named Whitey, because he has more white than any of the other cats, but we decided he needed a less culturally fraught name, and so I called him Billi which is Whitey in Ukrainian. My grandmother always has grey cats and they are always named Sivvi, which means “grey”. She’s on about Sivvi IV or V by now!

That’s about everything going on here! I’m going to start fall crops of broccoli and cabbage very soon and the lettuces are about over until it cools down a little, too. I paid a visit to my other uncle’s garden the other day, and I may change my mind about using black plastic , since the cool weather has really slowed down my melons and peppers and he says the plastic keeps the soil warm as well as cuts down on weeding. I’ve done two batches of strawberry jam and two batches of currant jelly, and my kitchen is starting to fill up with jars. hopefully, the bunnies will leave me some pickling cukes because I’d like to try that this year.

I need to go and hang out a load of wash which is another great way to keep the electric bill low over the summer. I even hang out clothes in the basement over the winter next to the wood stove. In Ontario, they have actually made it illegal for planned housing communities to write bylaws that don’t allow people to hang out wash in an effort to keep down the drain on the grid. My sister runs central air in her very large house all summer but hangs out her clothes, and her bills are the same in summer as they are in winter! That dryer costs a lot to run! Interestingly enough, the yearly report from the power company says the peak draw for our area in 2007 was actually in February when the weather was so cold. My cousins from down south can’t believe how few people in PA have AC in their houses. We actually have an air conditioner. It’s one of those ones that hang out the window, and it’s still in the box it came in. Up on the hill, it is consistently 10 to 15 degrees cooler than it is in town, and there is always a breeze. We bought the air conditioner for my brother who was too lazy to install it even though he was living in my aunt’s upstairs apartment which was melting hot, and it’s just been passed around between different family members, none of which have actually used it!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008



We’ve been sitting through a bout of pretty bad weather the last few weeks. After it was so hot in late May and early June, it’s been cold and really wet since then. My poor melons which were outgrowing their greenhouse pots have been sitting in the ground actually getting smaller since it’s been so cold and wet. We’ve had nights in the forties and yesterday, it barely made it out of the sixties. Though all my lettuces and cabbages and left over cold weather crops are doing quite well.

Another thing doing well is berries. It is getting close to currant time, and I have also already made two batches of strawberry jam from berries in my own patch. I’m tempted to get some more from one of the berry farms around here, but I was not impressed the last time I did pick your own at the big local farm. The berries were not good quality and there were so many rules! Don’t pick any with white tips. Don’t pick across the row. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. And worst of all, they actually did not allow people to bring kids younger than twelve with them to pick. Of course, who wants their kids to be rooting around in the kind of chemicals they spray on things these days, but one of the reasons why I enjoy picking and jamming and and jellying is because that’s one of the things I used to do as a little kid with my grandparents. Even my very short stint as a strawberry picker on a big commercial farm didn’t ruin it for me. Unlike my job I had as a baseball card sorter! I hate cards. I don’t think I’ve even thought playing war or solitaire or Sorry! was any fun since then. Memory card games are sheer heck, I tell you, and if my niece starts putting non matching cards into different piles, I get really uptight.

Anyway, I did end up plowing under my patch of honeyoe strawberries. They were just disappointing. They took up too much space for the three berries that were actually picked from than patch in two years. The sparkles are really great, but I have a lot of deformed berries. Strawberries can get into really funny shapes and get stunted from even a whiff of herbicide, and I didn’t realize my next door neighbors were going to spray roundup on everything that grew when I situated my strawberry patch right next to their property line. That is definitely something I will have to revise when I do the next patch. I guess next spring or at the latest the spring of 2010, when I put in more strawberries and get rid of this bunch, I’ll need to situate a patch somewhere a little less likely to get herbicide blow off from either the corn field or the neighbor’s.

Speaking of my “conventional” gardening neighbors who use pesticides and fertilizers all over their garden. Their stuff might be bigger right now, but my dirt looks better. Theirs is all pale and tan and dried up looking, and I know they have been irrigating even with all the rain, and mine is all rich and red and moist. Ha!

Anyway, about jam. I really think it’s actually pretty easy. Jam is easy. Jelly is hard. Because you need cheese cloth and a strainer, and you need to juice the berries before you make jelly. Jam, you just get the leaves and stems off and mash em up. I luckily found sugar on a good sale a few weeks ago, less than a couple dollars a bag, which is what it cost a few years ago. Though, I was prepared for jelly and jam season when they had all the sugar and baking things on sale over the holidays last winter. I bought up a whole bunch of sugar and vacuum sealed it. I used the bags you cut to size and left an extra few inches on the tops of the bags so I can reuse them to seal more sugar later. The vacuum sealer has been very wonderful. I made two giant pans of lasagna for a party way back in March and froze and sealed the leftovers into individual packages, and they are still as good as they were back then.

Back to jam!

Jam and jelly are really one of the few things that I can’t put off. When the fruit is ripe, you need to put it away. Everything else gets put on hold. Luckily, the first thing that comes in is strawberries, and they are not hard to deal with. No thorns, no seeds, no tiny little stems. Elderberries are so time consuming, and blackberries are just painful.

You need good sugar to make good jam. A brand name like Domino. It really makes a difference. The last couple of years I used Wegman’s store brand sugar for jam, and it made the jam just fine, but it didn’t store well. I got the really big bag, and and the bottom of the bag, there was just a rock hard piece of sugar that was too solid to even knock apart with a hammer. If sugar gets chunky or hard, usually I can still shove it into a measuring cup and use it that way, but the big, solid pieces that clumped up in store brand sugar were just too big! I usually store even sugar that is not vacuum sealed wrapped in a few layers of plastic bag because my basement gets so damp in summer, but even this couldn’t keep the store brand sugar from turning into a rock, so I’ve stuck with Domino ever since.

A tip for saving chunky sugar:

Pour sugar with a lot of lumps in to a metal bowl. Use a dry, sturdy utensil to grind up as much as you can. A pestle or a really thick stoneware teacup will work. Pour ground sugar through a sieve and either back into the empty bag (as long as it’s dry) or into a storage container. Save any stubborn sugar lumps for the sugar bowl where you can put them in tea or coffee. Or use them in recipes. I make a loaf of bread that calls for sugar cubes dipped in cinnamon to be baked right in. Use smaller lumps to put “snow” on decorated Christmas tree shaped cookies. In airtight containers, sugar has an almost unlimited shelf life!

Like a lot of things, you really don’t need that much to do jam. Jars, of course, but you can reuse other jars as long as they have the metal lid with the “button” on top and you can get the smell of whatever they used to have in them out. You need two big pots and also a saucepan. One pot is for cooking the jam, and the other is for jar sterilization. The jar boiling pot can be any old stock pot. The jelly cooker should have a thicker bottom. You can get a hot water canner with a little rack inside for lifting jars in and out almost anywhere. My mom got mine for me at a yard sale for fifty cents. You can buy new, but check yard sales and estate sales or your older relatives’ basements first!

Also, that fruit pectin, is the same whether you get the brand name or the discount stuff. It is also sealed really well, and keeps a long, long time. I bought about forty boxes a few years ago, and I just pull one out and use it whenever I like. I do orange marmalade in the winter when the citrus fruit is on sale, and if I didn’t buy ahead and stock up, I’d have a hard time finding pectin powder in the middle of winter. I get generic “Jel-ease” at Save a Lot instead of getting the name brand, and it is like a quarter the cost and does the same thing. also, the recipes for a million different kinds of jams and jellies come on a little paper right inside the box, and it’s really good resource for getting ideas on how to preserve things.

Other helpful things for jelly and jam that you don’t need but which make things easier:

1. Long handled wooden spoon
2. Tongs and/or jar lifer to lift jars out of hot water
3. Canning funnel

And that’s it!

Basic jam steps:

1. Get fruit. The pectin you choose will tell you how much. Strawberries take two quarts. Jams don’t take a lot of fruit. Jelly takes more.

2. Get other ingredients. Generally this is just sugar, but strawberries and other less sour fruits also call for lemon juice. The acidity is what allows the fruit to be preserved. I buy the big bottles of lemon juice from concentrate. Lemons are too expensive, and those little lemon shaped squeezy bottles are not accurate.

3. Get jars ready. Count up your jars and make sure they are clean and have matching lids. I also like to have one ore two extra jars prepared just in case the recipe turns out more than I expect. There are a lot of variables involved here including size of fruit, water content and things like that. I usually get more than what the recipe says. Jars can be prepared in one of two ways. You can either put the jars in the canner and just boil the heck right out of them for ten minutes and then leave them in the hot water, or you can fill them with water and set them upright in the canner which you then fill just to cover the jars and bring to a simmer. This second way, you need to reboil the jars for ten minutes after you fill them. This is supposedly safer. I have started doing this because I think it is faster, and easier even with having to process the filled jars. I grew up just boiling the jars and filling them with hot jam and calling it good. The idea being that if you have boiling hot sauce in boiling hot jars, you can’t get any germs in there, but I guess thinking on that has changed. Though, I use the “new” method just because I don’t like to have to wait the whole time it takes for the jars to boil up empty for the whole ten minutes.

4. Measure the sugar. You need to measure the fruit later, but measure the sugar first because the ratio of sugar to fruit is actually really important. The same measuring cup that you will use to measure the fruit should be used at the beginning when it is clean and dry to dole out the sugar. Jam is serious scientific business, and if you skimp on the sugar or blow off the lemon juice, it won’t work.

5. Prepare the fruit. The recipe will tell you what to do with specific fruit and how to prepare it. Basically get rid of leaves and smash. A potato masher is good for this, but also that pestle or stoneware cup from the lumpy sugar incident can be employed in smashing up berries. Especially if you have a cheesy “modern” potato masher that is just like a curvy piece of steel instead of a nice round one, then just use the teacup. Measure the fruit out according to the recipe. If you’re short, you can pad that with a little water.

6. Do the cooking. The jars should have simmered or boiled or whatever for their allotted times and should just be hot now. Still sitting in the other big pot, waiting for the jelly. Mix up the pectin and lemon juice and boil. Then add the sugar. Make sure the pot is big. Jelly making involves bringing many cups of sugar to a full rolling boil for a couple minutes, and there is nothing funny about letting seven or eight cups of molten sugar boil all over your stovetop. A cousin of mine also ruined her ceramic cook top by trying to scrape off burnt sugar. I have a ceramic cook top, too, which I have dumped sugar on, and the solution is just keep cleaning it regularly and let the sugar wear off. It will eventually. But a nice big pot will also cover up the burner, and protect it from stray sugar. A “full rolling boil that cannot be stirred down” is the phrase on the jelly instruction, and it’s like anything else, you’ll know it when you see it. If you’re going to reprocess the jam, let it boil a minute. If you already sterilized the jars for ten minutes, let it boil two minutes. You need to stir all the time during this part. Nothing can scorch or stuck or burn or everything will be ruined.

7. Get the lids ready. The lids need to be clean and hot and pliable, as well. In the saucepan, get them hot fast with just a little water.

8. Jar up. Pull sterilized jars out of canner. (Why you might want tongs.) Use your funnel to direct the sauce into the jars. I’ve used a ladle, but just dumping the jam into the funnel right from the pot is quicker and easier. Long sleeves are a good idea, though, in case of hot splashes. If the jars were boiled ten minutes empty, slap on the lids, and turn them upside down on a dishtowel for five minutes, and you’re done. The “modern” method where the jars are just simmering in the canner: take out the jars and fill them and put on the lids. Drop the jars back into the hot water. Do it one at a time, so the jars don’t get a chance to cool down and explode! when you throw hot sauce in them. Then, make sure there is an inch of water over top of the jars and put the lid back on the big canner pot. Bring to a boil and boil ten minutes. This sounds like extra work, but it really isn’t. And also supposed to be safer!

9. Let hot jars sit in water for five more minutes. Lift out. (This is where the jar lifter comes in handy.) Let set for a day.

This sounds like a lot of work, but it really isn’t! Maybe two hours tops, counting doing the washing up and the picking. And it is a lot cheaper and better than storebought which with all the preservatives and high fructose corn syrup is kind of like jellified pop!

Energy and water and time saving tip:

Use the hot water left over in the canner to clean up. I usually dump it into the sink or the jam cooking pot. Nothing but hot water and jars ever goes into the canner so there’s n chance of getting soap on things that are finished.

I know there are ways to make jellies and jams without commercial fruit pectin. I keep reading about boiling tart apples. I haven’t tried it yet. I may, but right now I’m well stocked with powdered pectin! I have also not yet tried any jelly recipes with organic sugar or raw sugar, which I would like to do at some point in the future when I can afford to experiment and make mistakes, but right now I'm too poor and food is too expensive! Tried and true is the way to go, as long as tried and true actually works! Which in this case, it does!

Three Sisters update:

It looks like at least some of my corn is going to be “knee high by the Fourth of July” and my pumpkins and squash are starting to come up. So far so good!