Friday, January 25, 2008

Cold Weather Days


We're almost done with January, which is good because, we've burned through about two thirds of our wood, which we figured to be out of by the end of February when we hope to get some more. We can always switch to propane, even though I don't like the central heat because of the noise of the blowers. I also don't care for getting a big burst of heat and then nothing. The wood heat is constant, which, is nice. All seems well with the wood furnace now that the chimney is cleaned. It's drawing very well, and is burning nice and hot, which is good, since it's been snowy and chilly for a while now.

It doesn't seem like there would be a lot to do in winter with the outside, which is kind of true. Right now, it's too cold to work outside for very long unless you really need to. We were hoping to build a new shed for the goats sometime over the winter, but my recent attempt to get some lumber was unsuccessful but still kind of a good story.

We usually scrape through the end of the year on a little bit of our regular wood and on slabwood that we get by the carload from an Amish mill a few miles away. When you deal with the Amish, it is a little weird, because, generally, men don't talk to women, women don't talk if a man is around, and no one says a thing if there is an elder around. They defer to the elders, and if you're doing business with someone, only the main person at the business deals with you. No one ignores me or anything when I go to the mill, but if I were to go there with my uncle or my dad for some reason, I would just expect the men to do business with them and not get all fussy about it. No one really thinks about that sort of thing, and it's not personal. That's just the way it is.

Anyway, for this planned goat shed, my mother has been reading shed books and carpentry books and drawing out plans for months now. She has built a few things like playhouses and a chicken coop, but she wants a nice goat shed. My one thing I've ever built is our current goat shed. It's an embarassment. It's not even close to square, and the roof leaks all the time, and I didn't even really do the whole thing. I got the sides and the roof framed and the floor laid, and my mom roofed it and my sister and her husband nailed up the sides. I've been slapping great stuff and tarpaper on the thing ever since. In my defense, I built it out of scraps from an old shed that was down in the woods, and now that junk is not in the woods anymore. I spent a long time down in the woods getting rid of the old shed, and I had to carry most of the wood out piece by piece, and it's about a quarter mile. Uphill both ways. You know it.

My mom came up with a list of boards that I was supposed to take my substitute teaching check from before Christmas and go out to the mill and buy. I went to our regular mill and showed the list to one of the guys who works there. He said he didn't cut that kind of lumber there, but he told me a mill where they did cut hemlock framing lumber. He gave me really good directions there, and asked me: "Do you need it right away?" I was like, no, just whenever I can get it, and he sent me on my merry way.

This was during the January thaw. and there were amazing amounts of mud on the road where I was supposed to go to find this mill, I went and parked right on the road, because there was about one parking place there and it was about six inch deep mud. I walked up and just kind of generally asked who I could talk to about lumber. There were about five men sitting there and they all kind of point, point, point back to where the mill owner is. I showed him my list, and he had to go and add it up, but, again, he asked me: "Do you need it right away?" And I said again: No. Just whenever I can get it is fine. And he said: "Because I have my mill torn down."

When I looked around, the giant sea of mud was actually a construction site where all the people who were there were getting ready to frame a new building to house the mill. This is actually another very Amish thing, where someone will ask you a question and you answer, and then they might tell you why they asked that question, but they'll wait for your answer first. They also do not argue or haggle. At all. At my sister's yard sales in Erie, it's such a relief to deal with the Amish girls when they come to buy baby stuff. They just pay what's marked and that's it. Those darn Russians in Erie will argue with you for an hour and still not buy anything unless they can get it for nothing. My grandmother is Ukrainian, and the number of times I've had to look at her garage sale treasures and hear her howl: "I got that for a quarter!" you can't even count.

I was kind of amused, and he went to go and figure the costs of the lumber while I get very muddy petting a dirty little dog that hit me with its mud paws whenever I wasn't petting enough and watching the men lay out the foundation for the mill.

They were using "batter boards" which are like squared edges set up a little outside the planned dimentions of the building. You run string between the batter boards to find the corners of the foundation. There was one lonely "anglish" guy and about four other Amish people building the mill, and the Amish guy who was obviously in charge of construction has just had the anglish guy take all the string off the batter boards because it was pulled too tight, and the oldest of the Amish men was following around behind him telling him to make the lines nice and tight. I never found out how the poor anglish guy was going to resolve that one. Anyway, I got a price for my lumber, and when the snow melts and the mill gets running again, I'll head back down there again.

Luckily, the goat shed seems to be holding out for its second winter. We have a lot less heavy snow this year than last year, but it has been cold. I'm not that worried about the goats getting too cold. They have about six inches of hair on them right now, and when the snow lands on them, they are so well-insulated that it doesn't even melt.

The worst thing about cold weather is keeping unfrozen water out for the animals. When it was in the single digits for a few days in a row last week, I would check the water and carry a new bucket around one in the afternoon in addition to running them out water with their feed and hay in the morning and in the evening. The snow is soft, too, so that is nice. The ice when it is hard and sharp is hard on their feet, and the mud is even worse. Last year, the ground never froze, and we battled hoof rot with the goats from September through May, when of course then we had a long dry spell.

I've also been setting out water for the cats who are holed up in the garage. We have a rotating cast of characters out there, usually about three, but I've seen as many as five different cats out there. They sleep in the hay, and I hope they are at least scaring away mice and rats, though mice carried away a lot of the seeds I had saved over the summer.

I've really been doing a lot of bird feeding. I refill the feeder about every other day, and I made a batch of suet cakes recently. I discovered something really cool about the suet cakes. The first batch I made was a little crumbly. I mixed them up to about the consistancy of rice crispie treats. The last couple batches, I've let them stay a little soupier, and they set up better and last longer. I made them really thick, too, and I was getting ready to saw, saw, saw them apart when I discovered a little trick. I flipped the whole thing out of the cake pan and cut through the waxed paper on the bottom. If you score the cakes along the lines where you want them cut, maybe about an eighth of an inch deep, they just break right apart. No sawing required.

Making suet cakes made the house smell nice. Like peanut butter and things like that. Which was good, because when we get a good stretch of below freezing temperatures, there is an unfortunate phenomenon involving the pipe that sticks out the top of the house which is supposed to help make suction in the plumbing. That pipe should be about four to six inches in diameter, but our pipe is not, and in cold weather, it plugs up with frost and condensation. Now, everything still drains and flushes, but the smell from the septic seeps into the basement. the house gets very stinky and sour and smells like a combination of paper mill and farts. Not the most fun ever. One good day of sunshine takes care of it, though.

When it first happened, last year, I was a little worried until I found out about the frosty pipe thing. It's important not to overreact, though. Last year when I was out buying candles to ward off the stink, I popped into the hardware store for milk (don't ask, that's just the way it is) and there was a gentleman buying all new pipe fittings for his sinks. Now, I would bet he had the stinky pipe problem and did something bad to his plumbing or was overreacting and thinking he had a worse problem than he did. Which is my I'm spreading the news about the stinky pipe problem! It's the sort of thing no one mentions when you're getting a house with septic, and it's a really common thing to expect!

Back to the birds, we've been feeding a lot, and there are usually about fifteen to twenty birds at a time at the feeder. A few starlings have found our feeder, and some bluejays, but they aren't too disruptive. Yesterday, I saw either a kestrel or a falcon swoop through the cedars near the house where most of the little birds stay when they are not at the feeder, but I haven't seen many birds of prey lately.

Speaking of weather, our calendar from the feed mill with farmer's almanac forcasts is proving to be more accurate than the weather reports from television. According to the calendar, this weekend fair and cold but warming up with a little rain at the beginning of the week. This seems to match the forecast from the TV, but the TV forecast went from being warm and rainy over the weekend to matching what the almanac says. So there.

I have my own weather prediction methods. We have one of the those weather sticks on the porch that are supposed to point up when sunny weather is coming and down when rainy weather is coming, but it usually points up when it's actually sunny and down when it's actually rainy. For longer term weather, I usually pay attention to my dog who lays under the table when it's going to storm. Also, if the weather is changing with a low pressure front coming, about a day and a half before it changes, she gets very restless and one ear is hot and the other is cold. She's like a canine barometer. During the day, especially in summer, I use the goats as my own personal radar. Right before it rains, they rush out and eat as fast as they can and quit and go inside acouple of minutes before it even starts to sprinkle. They make a great warning system to get wash off the line before it gets rained on.

I did actually get to do some more "real" gardening a few days ago. I have pretty much picked out all my seeds, and that bit of fun is over, and I was able to get some bed composted and planted in cover crop, too. I mulched my lavender before the really cold weather set in. Hopefully, we wont get much colder, because we are approaching the temperatures which will kill off my lavender. Amazingly, I found a zone 4 lavender in one of my seed catalogs which I can't wait to try.

I have long been jealous of the big, beautiful tufts of rhubarb that the Amish ladies seem to have in their yards the second the ground unthaws. How do they do it? I read in a magazine just recently that you can force rhubarb by putting a bucket over the crown and then covering the bucket with manure and straw. I use straw for my compost pile, but I just let the goasts use waste hay for their bedding. I'm leery about using hay in my gardens. Straw is a much better insulator, and hay has hay seeds, and hay seeds are just weed seeds, and if you use hay in the garden as a mulch or as the "brown" material in a compost pile, you're setting yourself up for weed problems. Of course, in the raised bed where I have "inherited" some rhubarb from the previous owner, I can't imagine how the weed problem could be worse, so I just went ahead and buried the bucket in waste hay from the goat shed. We'll just see what comes up better. Weeds or rhubarb.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Cloned Cows and Garden Seeds


I obviously haven't got enough to do in the middle of winter. I've been writing a lot, not just here. I've decided to just riff on a few ideas that have been kicking around in my head the last few days.

I've been making up my lists of seeds that I have on hand and also coming up with ideas for things that I am going to order. I have a lot of really interesting seed catalogs. I like Johnny's the best. It is a little expensive, but it also has the best variety of seeds and a lot of organic options. They also include tips on marketing and using the different varieties, and that is very nice, as I would like to be organized and productive enough to be able to try farmer's market sales within a few years. Erie has a really nice farmer's market in summer on Thursday afternoon, and it is my goal to find some way to get sourdough loaves from my planned outdoor oven for sale there. Right now, I have the foundation built and I have been using Kiko Denzer's book "Build Your Own Earth Oven" as a guide. I'm a little leary of trying to sell bread commercially, however, because of PA department of agriculture rules. You can get certified for home baking products pretty easily, actually, but one of the rules is that there can't be any animals on the premesis. I'm hoping that having a separate outdoor oven shed will be enough to get legal to sell at a farmer's market.

I know the Amish sell baked goods right out of a little stand a couple different places, but the houses that do that are a little more on the main road than mine is. I read in a book by Eliot Coleman that his organic farm stand was situated in something of the same position as where I'm living now, a few miles down a dirt road and that his produce was good enough that his location was cancelled out by the desire people had to purchase it. I have a hard time believing that I could trick people into coming out here for a loaf of bread, however, especially when the Amish are selling their right on the main road!

Anyway, to get some inspiration for planning out my gardens for 2008, I have been reading a lot of gardening books, both of the "how to" and the more nebulous "garden design" variety. I also watched a video lecture by Dr. Vendana Shiva, my hero! She was talking about artificial scarcity. One of her main themes is that globalization and cash cropping is not a survivable system because it places too much stress on people and and on the land. Even though she sounds radical, all you need to do is remember that her main point is that the old traditional ways of doing things were good enough for the earth and the animals and humanity to make it this far, and now because of new methods and because of farming for money and not for food, we are messing things up. Whenever I think that I am ordering too many kinds of tomatoes or too many melon seeds and pumpkin seeds, I like to remember that on and eight acre farm in India, growing my traditional means, there are mover six hundred varieties of plants growing. And they are all mixed together in a successive crop system that involves up to twelve different plants all in the same row!

At a time when embracing plant diversity has the possibility of helping the poorest farmers in India (and also can preserve the countless varieties of plants we used to grow) I keep hearing about how it is safe to eat meat and drink milk from cloned cows and goats. That the products from these animals are just as safe as the other meat and milk. Now, if that is not a loaded statement, I'm not sure what is! I'll admit that I haven't eaten meat for going on fifteen years, though I have no qualms about cooking and serving meat to people who do want it, but I really don't think it is safe. As soon as I have the option, I'd like to raise something I can feed to my own personal carnivores right here and know that it has not been part of the commercial meat production system. Read "Fast Food Nation". As for milk, I get raw milk from a local farm, and if I can't get it, I get soy milk because I don't like storebought milk, and I don't want milk from cows that have chronic udder infections from being fed bovine growth hormone, which is not used where I buy my milk. Also, my milk is like milk used to be. It comes from a small herd of cows and all from one farm. What you get at the store is about three weeks old before you even see it, and it has the milk from hundreds of cows all mixed together. But, I'm getting off point.

What I actually have been thinking about this debate is how fantastically small minded it is. Is cloned meat or milk safe to eat or drink? It's the smallest piece of the debate that we could possibly have. It's not the tip of the iceberg. it's more like the slight eddy of cool water that might have brushed by the iceberg a few miles back. That question is shallow to the point of irrelevance.

We need to look a little deeper, apparently, so let's get at it:

Right now, there is little danger of any one of us actually going to the supermarket and unknowingly picking up a package of hamburger meat from a cloned cow. Cloned animals cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce. It's like the old joke about the farmer with the three legged pig. When asked why the pig has three legs, the farmer tells all these stories about how the pig saved him from drowning, rescued the family from a burning house, etc, none of which explains why the pig has three legs. That's the punchline of the joke: "A pig that valuable, you don't want to eat him all at once!" You don't eat a cloned animal that has such a high cost of production.

The cloned animals are going to be made from particular breeding stock that is considered "ideal" and those clones will go on to be used to create naturally reproduced offspring. What this means, however, is that the breeding stock used will come from a pool of animals which all carry the exact same DNA strands in their genes. I find this extremely problematic for many reasons, but I only need to go into two here.

Think of the loss of diversity in both farm animals and garden plants that has happened since the industrial revolution. There are a lot of web sites that deal with this. I was just on the web site for the American Livestock Breed Conservancy the other day looking at horse breed and turnkey breeds that have been lost, and because I'm a spinner I am very interested in rare sheep breeds, too. A lot of the books that I have been reading also touch on the huge amounts of different localized types of plants and fruits and vegetables that used to be raised in colonial gardens and which have now all but disappeared.

Essentially, nothing was "wrong" with any of these plants or animals. Fiber from different kinds of sheep and goats, even from different animals within the same breed is really amazing in its many forms. Therein lies the problem, however. The modern means of transporting food and using machines to harvest and process food and fiber require that there be certain parameters or the machinery will either not work at all or not work as well. When the human element and the eye and the hand are removed, there is not the potential for the kinds of minute adjustments that need to be made to deal with the natural variations between different breeds or even withing the same breed. Thus the need for standardizing breeds of everything. Add to this the trend of creating monoculture for cash crops, meaning a farm that used to produce the range of food that a family would consume on the spot now sells one main crop for money and purchases the necessities of life, and the pressure to eliminate anything that does not suit the forms of machine production is even more pronounced, as now machines are needed to handle the huge amount of one thing that is produced.

Food that is grown must be food that can be shipped and stored and stacked on shelves with the efficiency and regularity of cardboard boxes, no matter how it tastes compared with old varieties. Mass numbers of only merino sheep produce wool in amounts which simply can't be processed by hand as a cottage industry as in the past. The many breeds of cows have been narrowed down to only the black and white Holsteins. I was very upset to find out my favorite cow the Guernsey is considered threatened. They are little and tan and sweet and gentle and give rich milk full of butterfat, but they are also about two thirds the size of an average Holstein cow and give far less milk. Diversity and locality have been sacrified for mass production, and anyone who cannot compete on a mass production scale no longer has a place in the market.

With cloned breeding stock, things will only get worse. Within the tiny narrow range of what is considered ideal to run through production machinery, there will now be a pool of mass-breed, very closely related cattle which will allow meat packing producers to even further restrict the variation permitted in market animals. Because of the cost of creating the cloned breeding stock, the smaller operations which are not backed by mega-corporations which already control the grain and seed markets will not be able to afford to produce clone-bred animals to conform to these new standards. Like the increasing regulations on direct consumption for food that has tried to basically outlaw homemade food, the advent of cloned animal breeding will further consolidate the production of food in this country in the hands of a few very large corporations which also seek to control water supplies and power generation.

This consolidation has more physical danger than just the safety of eating cloned meat and drinking cloned milk. For a perfect example of the new threat to the food supply, we need only turn to the plant world where "cloning" has been a practise from anciant times. Roses and apples and fruit trees are all most effectively propagated by grafting a twig or branch onto an existing root of another plant. This is essentially cloning. A lot of people who defend cloning animals will often cite cloning practises in plant growing as a strategy of debate.

There are dangers in plant cloning that go far beyond whether or not it is safe to consume fruit from grafted plants, however. Simply look at the number of trees and plant varieties which fall victim to very specific blights and pests. Every garden seed catalog I receive has elaborate codes and lists of what plant resists what blight and most reputable gardening books talk about the need to move plants around and not plant the same thing in the same place every year.

I like the use the potato for an example of how badly monoculture can effect food production. A lot of people are really surprised that potatoes are in fact one of the most pesticide-intensive crops in modern production. The majority of potatoes are grown in this country for consumption in the fast food industry, and there are hundreds of fields of potatoes all of one variety which are propagated though replanting the same potatoes to regenerate tubers. These are extremely similar in size and texture, and they are planted over and over in the same fields in huge numbers every year. Because of the concentration on only potatoes in these huge fields, and on only potatoes of one variety, everything that exists in that field is a blight or bacteria or pest which preys only on that one type of potato, and there is no dormancy or crop rotation or anything of the sort to break that cycle.

To continue to grow potatoes in those conditions, the potato farmers must go through at the beginning of each season and completely kill anything that is in the soil. They have to kill the bacteria and the larvae and the earthworms and the nutrients alike. The soil itself must be dead. Then, they supposedly scientifically, can calculate the amount of fertilizer it will take to produce a crop of potatoes and add that amount of chemical nutrient to the soil and plant the potatoes under essentially sterile conditions. Potatoes are grown, of course, under the ground, and that makes it that much easier to spray the bejeesus out of the plant above ground to control pests and weeds which might steal nutrients from the potato crop.

If an increasing number of meat production animals all share the same genotype, then they will all be suceptible in the same ways to the same diseases. One little illness which might have been an unfortunate loss in a few related animals could conceivably, in a food production system dominated by breeding from masses of geneticially identical animals, threaten huge portions of the food system. And what if those masses of identical cows become susceptible to a disease which has the potential to cross the species barrier like Mad Cow Disease? If such drastic measures must be taken to control disease in the potato crop, what might be the solution to a vulnerable mass "crop" of nearly identical cattle which are already raised under stressful feed lot methods?

The Mad Cow example is extreme and alarmist, and that is intentional. But we don't need a crisis like mass numbers of people coming down with KJD to understand that diversity is a defensive strength in everything but the modern food market. Take my ongoing obsession with trying many kinds of seeds. Last summer, I planted a lot of different types of tomatoes, and we had a very dry beginning to summer and a very wet ending. I carried water to a lot of the plants, but I really couldn't do it in the amounts they needed. Some of the tomatoes were put out into the garden and never seen again. Just naturally , some varieties are drought resistant and others are not. But planting a variety of things, I was able to get something out of my garden, even when the bad weather killed off other things. For me, that was just a fun and interesting gardening season, but for people who really do depend on subsistance style farming for food, losing the staple crops of grains that will grow in drought and grains that will grow in flood or cold or heat is a serious business. And modern, standardized farming is crowding these varieties out of the world.

The market is huge and doesn't listen that much to the concerns of individuals. I'm all for letter writing, but you also have to put your money where your mouth is. I spend a lot of time and effort doing what I can to buy anything that I have to buy as close to the source as I can. I spend even more effort trying to come up with ways I can make the things I want to eat myself. When more and more people run away from the mass market and let their behaviour match what they believe, there is the opportunity for real pressure on the way the market works.

I return to the ideas of Eliot Coleman who wrote in his book "The New Organic Grower" about the concept of "One-percenters". The idea is that, given the opportunity to make a slight change for the betterment of your growing system (or your household management) you should do it, even if the change is not even perceptible. All of these one-percenters will slowly begin to accumulate and create an improvement of the whole. In life as in gardening and growing, overnight change is probably not possible, and if possible, not good. You should not expect it, and you probably will fail if you attempt to make a clean sweep and change everything all at once. The urge to make everything the same, to change everything, to control everything comes from a deep seated anxiety that is one of the weaknesses of the human condition, and one of the best ways to relieve that anxiety is not to tighten control even further, to regulate even further, to tolerate less variation. Rather, we need to smarten up, learn some coping skills and quit putting all our eggs in one cloned chicken basket!

Monday, January 14, 2008

In Which I Become an Assistant Chimney Sweep!


Well, our January thaw is over. We had a nice one. It was almost seventy degrees two days in a row, and up into the 40's and 50's a few more days on top of that. We were lucky, because we've been having wood stove issues for a week or two. The chimney which was just newly installed in October and not used until November was not drawing so well, and more smoke was coming out through the dampers as the days went on. I pulled the cap on the cleanout at the bottom of the stove and did the trick with the mirror. You kind of angle the mirror so you can see up to the top of the chimney. I assumed it was okay, because I could see light. Not a lot of light, but our chimney does wear a little metal hat, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Unfortunately, a few days after I checked the chimney and figured it was okay, smoke started coming out the bottom at the cleanout opening and also from the sides of the stove.

My mom had been chomping at the bit to pull apart the chimney and see if it needed cleaned for a while, and we had even made a trip to the hardware store and got a chimney brush. We were a little leery of spending money on the little rods you use to shove the brush down the chimney. I'm not sure how many we would need, and they seemed kind of expensive. Luckily, where we live, there a lot of people who think like we do. The hardware store guy showed us this little metal eye that screws onto the top of the chimney brush and told us if there were two people and a rope involved, you could pull the brush up and down the chimney from either end. I was like: "We have a rope!" which is a running joke in our family, and that is a story that I need to save for another day. Let me just say that our "rope" is a giant skein of macrame cord for making flower pot hangers that has served many purposes and has been the center of many funny happenings around our place, mostly because it is really stretchy and not a rope.

Note: All chimney brushes are not the same. Chimney flues are different sizes and shapes. My uncle has this fantastic expanding contraption made of metal wires that is probably thirty years old to clean his chimney which is quite wide and also round. Our old chimney was lined with what looked like flowerpot tile, and it was eight inches wide and impossible to find a proper sized brush. We were reduced to tying a hoe to a piece of clothesline and dropping it down the old chimney to get the ash and creosote to fall out. Our new chimney brush for our six inch round stainless steel pipe is made of stiff plastic bristles, because you can't clean a metal chimney with a metal brush because it will score the chimney and ruin it.

Well, once we decided to quit argueing about whether the chimney needed cleaned and decided to clean it, we were pretty much okay. Especially since our warm weather was continuing! We let the fire go out on Saturday, which was funny since my sister and her husband and the kids were at the house. They were kind enough to bring their good ladder, as we have only step ladders which aren't quite tall enough to reach anything. My sister cooked some lunch, and I made cookies with my niece and played video games with my nephew. (Since they got the wii at their house, the Gamecube has been parked down here. I haven't used it yet, but if I ever get through a day where I actually complete my to-do list, I'm going to town and getting a rootbeer and I'll drink pop and play Star Wars Legos!) While all that stuff was going on, my brother in law was down in the little patch of woods below the grape vines that we plan to clear and replant as an orchard in a few years, cutting down trees. We have a whole game plan for every inch of this place, and in the spring, we're going to have a woodchipper rental party. Everything is a party!

Anyway, right after supper, I noticed the thermometer on the pipe was cool, and we decided to start ripping the stove and chimney assembly apart. I like to describe our house as a little toy house that girls can take apart and fix. Our roof is not steep, and it's not tall. If we needed to, we could roof it ourselves, and we did have to climb up there and nail some of it back together over the summer after a particularly huge gust of wind. All the plumbing in the basement is exposed, so if and when there is a problem, it won't be hard to get to. With this in mind, we have kind of the same arrangement with the blackpipe that connects the stove to the chimney. There is actually a couple inch gap in the pipe between the chimney connector and the main length of pipe so it's easy to pull the pipe apart without having to move the stove or anything. All you need to do is unscrew a couple of bolts and remove this funny little collar thing. Of course, you need furnace cement to patch it all together in the end, but that's easy enough.

When we pulled blackpipe, a lot of ash and creosote fell out. I of course stuck my hand right into the connector hole, and I found a little creosote and a little ash, but nothing terrible. Creosote is the black, glassy stuff that builds up in the chimney and is, as our stove guy told me many times, the solid form of natural gas and highly flammable. It can be dusty and grainy or in big chunks. It's also sharp and splintery. Naturally, everyone else went up on the roof to mess around up there, and I had my three year old neice in her bare feet running around in the basement sweeping up creosote! I had to throw out the cat who is declawed because he kind of maimed the little girl of his first owner, and he was not happy about being thrown out, but he would have been less happy when he saw how the baby treats cats!

At the top of the chimney, things were not good. The little metal hat that is supposed to keep the rain out was basically tarred into place by dirty chimney exhaust. When they got that off, the chimney itself was almost completely blocked by a lump of gross junk that wasn't quite creosote or ashes or tar. My brother in law had to punch through it, and that gave me and the kid some more horrible stuff to clean up down below.

After they got the pipe cleared, it turns out that either our six inch pipe is a little less than six inches or our six inch brush is a little more, because the chimney brush was too fat to fit down the chimney. Luckily, I have seen a real, actual chimney professional trim down a brush, so I knew what to do. We called it quits for the day, however, because the kids were getting tired and filthy, and my mom and my sister's husband were sitting up n the roof trimming the brush on the spot, which was just too silly. After worrying about the integrity of our "rope" and seeing it stretch so much as we tried to get the brush down into the chimney, I conceded and made a trip into town for a new and better rope. We would try again the next morning!

Sunday morning, we had to wait until the frost was off the roof. We also had to run the little propane furnace, which I don't care for. It also scares my dog and dries out the air worse than wood heat even!

A night of preparation had my mom and I looking not half bad in the chimney sweeping department. I had a new rope. I plunked down and watched football and evened up the bristles on the brush with the ones my brother in law already trimmed. (You use regular old wire cutters for this, but I advise getting ones with a padded handle, since there is a lot of clipping involved. Also, watch where the bristles end up. If you trim a wire brush out on the porch, you'll want to catch them in something like a box or a bag, since they can be sharp, and you don't want to find them with your bare feet later.) I had also rounded up some safety equipment. We both used respirator masks, and my mom wore a pair of shooting glasses, since she was roof girl, and the draft of the chimney will send up lots of debris that just shoots up into your face while you're looking down the chimney.

After all the troubles we had earlier, everything now worked like a charm. On the ground, we found the middle of the rope, and ran it through the rings on either end of the brush. I sat in the basement next to the cleanout hole. My mom on the roof tied a wrench to the rope to get it to fall down the hole. We ran the brush (which actually might be too small now) up and down the chimney. When I heard more junk falling in a certain spot, we would pull either end of the rope to scrub the brush back and forth. After things quieted down, we ran the brush up and down a dozen times or so just to make sure. The trick with the mirror revealed a nice, round hole of light up the chimney. If it's still dirty in places, theoretically, you can spot blobs and lumps in the side with the mirror. We put the cap back on and swept up downstairs. We also gave the stove a good clean out and replaced the blackpipe. My mom spread furnace cement in the joins. It is like black, high temperature spackling to fill in any gaps between pipe sections. We waited a while for the cement to set and started the fire back up by afternoon. It drew well, and everything has been good!

We were all shocked at how dirty and dangerous the chimney had become. It was hard to believe that with a new stove and a tight, new chimney, burning seasoned hickory, there would be so much creosote. The only thing that I can think is that during the holidays, we were running around a lot and weren't home to make sure the fire was buring at the proper temperature range for most of the day. And, I believe that the buildup in the chimney probably followed one of those exponential event curves, meaning, as more and more built up, the fire burned cooler, and the effect of the problem increased the severity of the problem. Like a sinking ship or something. Slow beginning, quick end!

I also got to see an unfortunate side effect of a poor chimney in action. When we were looking into getting a new woodstove over the summer, the gentleman who sold us our stove and relined our chimney told us that the chimney was more important than, and that if we hooked a new stove to a bad chimney, the new stove would just rust out. I wasn't exactly sure why, but I did see a light coating of oxidation formed over the interior of the stove when the chimney wasn't drawing well. I tried to find a reason for this, and it may be due to corrosive gases not being consumed or flushed out of the burnbox. A nice, hot fire will make a clean burn, but you can't get the kind of convection you need to acheive that without a good draw.

We have a date in early March picked out to pull the stove apart again and give the chimney a good scrub. Hopefully, that will take care of it until fall, and the weather will be good!

A Housekeeping Note:

My older dog had an accident on one of my spot rugs in the kitchen this morning. It has a rubber backing, so I didn't want to throw it in the washing machine because of weight and also, I didn't want the backing to get knocked to pieces by the washing machine. So, I ran hot water into the bathtub and added a little laundry soap and a little borax to kill any dog pee smell. An older friend of mine told me a story once about how when she was just married and her husband was in the navy, he had only one set of dress whites. She didn't have a washing machine, and she didn't have any money or time to go the the laundry every single day, so she washed his dress whites in the bathtub using a toilet plunger, soap and bleach.

I'm a big fan of the toilet plunger story, and before I had a washing machine, I plunged the wash a few times myself. I recommend washing the plunger first or even having two: one for washing and one for the original purpose. If you're going to handwash larger amounts of everyday wash, a toilet plunger is better than a washboard. I've used both, and a washboard helps if you don't have a wringer, so you can squeeze more water out of the clothes, but the plunger gets things cleaner with less scrubbing and bending. And for large items like rugs, you can't beat the toilet plunger.

Monday, January 7, 2008

A Note About Baking Ingredients: Flours


A quick update on seed saving:

So far, I've had mixed but mostly positive results with my saved seeds that I have been testing. My yellow Friench beans had nearly 100 Per cent germination rates, and it looks like the green Frenchies are going to follow suit. Two varieties of heirloom tomatoes: Amish Paste and Olpaka are showing more than 75 per cent germination rates. Another variety looks to have been a bad tomato, and hasn't had any little sprouters yet. But my broom corn, which will be the centerpiece of a really great garden of tall plants this year (if I can keep things from eating the sunflower seeds before they can grow) had good germination rates, too. However, it lookms like I will be buying watermelon seed this year, as none at all of the very many watermelon seeds I was testing have sprouted. I might try again and try and keep them warmer, but decision day as to what I will be ordering in terms of seeds this year is coming quick.

I had a lot of things that I was thinking about this week. Even though it is winter, there is a lot to do. We had a bout of actually cold weather, and it puts a little twist on the day, that's for sure. The animals have to be fed and cared for differently, and keeping the house warm is a challenge. But I decided to dip into baking, instead, and the reason is that I have kind of gotten back into my usual routine for that, and it's a good time to go over the kinds of things I use around the house.

I bake most of what we eat myself. Occasionally, I'll make crackers, but I do tend to buy those, and I do use cake mixes most of the time, though I can make a really good bunch of cakes from scratch. But I only buy bread when the schedule is a little hectic, and I really don't buy cookies unless I'm getting girl scout cookies from my cousin. Other than Carr's ginger cookies filled with lemon (those I recommend without reservation!), storebought cookies are just diappointing, and I figure store bought cookies have as much or more fat and sugar in them as homemade or even really nice bakery cookies. Why not have something that is actually good? Who really thinks those Chips Ahoys are better than even cookies from a mix?

When I buy cooking and baking supplies, I usually approach them in terms of catagories like fats, leavening, flour, sweetening, spices, seeds and grains. Then there is the extra stuff like chocolate and add-ins and things like that.

Flour is probably the most important ingredient, and while it seems like the simplest, in fact, I would say that my flour buying is one of the more complicated elements of my baking. Flour takes up the most storage space by far. For basic everyday cookies, pies and everything like that, pick a good brand name unbleached white flour. My sister uses Gold Medal. She bakes about once every week or so. She's a penny pincher and really a very normal person, and she gets good results with it. I prefer King Arthur. I think it takes less flour to make the recipes turn out, and it's really high quality flour. An additional benefit to King Arthur is that the all-purpose can in a pinch do double-duty as bread flour if the recipe just a plain old white yeast recipe. Don't try to substitute all purpose Kind Arthur for bread flour in like a crusty French bread recipe or sourdough or anything like that, but for a daily loaf, you can use the all purpose, which I would not try with Gold Medal. And I know for a fact from taking to my father about his failed baking experiments that you can't use things like Robin Hood for bread.

Which brings us to bread flour. I also use King Arthur bread flour, and it is amazing in recipes that call for higher gluten content flour. I have used other kinds of bread flour, but there is no comparison. Yes, it's expensive, but if you think what you pay for a "homestyle" white loaf from the bakery at the grocery store or even in the bread aisle, you are saving just by making your own bread. You should at least get the good stuff.

Wheat flour is in the midst of getting a bad rap. I kind of understand why. I know people with gluten sensitivity, and it is a hard thing. I switched from all wheat bread baking to a mixed flour content when my mother visited a homeopatic doctor who advised her to go on the Type A blood type diet. If you believe that kind of thing, the guidelines for eating by blood type suggest that wheat gluten is okay for type A's, but the other parts of the wheat can basically cause snot.

I don't like whole grain baking, especially with bread. I'm not good at it. Things don't turn out, and even if they do, I want things to taste the way I remember them tasting from when I was a little kid. Even though throwing in whole grain flour is good for you, there is more to eating (and to baking) than getting enough bran! I like kneading silky, squishy loaves of bread that are practically bouyant on the counter. You don't get that with whole grains. I know there are a few new whole grain baking books out there, but I haven't found a copy at the library yet, so that will have to wait for another day.

I've made a few nods to newer ideas about what people should eat and what I really want to eat. My compromise healthier bread loaf contains about one fifth high gluten wheat flour to help whole the loaf together and give it a rise. Other kinds of flour I always have on hand just to make the bread more interesting are: rye (stoneground is okay, dark is great), whole spelt, soy, and rice. My compromise for healthier cookies is oat flour. When I measure out flour for cookies, I'll put scant a quarter cup of oat flour in the bottom of a one cup measurer and fill the rest with white flour. Sometimes, I'll add a little brown rice flour to the cup. It's kind of gritty and grainy, but in a good way. If you use more than one fourth oat flour to make cookies, they'll just be too cakey and breaky and gummy and not well-textured, even though oat flour in cookies is very tasty. Oat flour shouldn't really go into bread, as it is too flabby and makes the bread fall too easy. If you want oat taste in bread, soak some rolled oats in hot water for an hour or two and stir them into the bread dough. When adding water to the flour for the bread dough, take into account the water you already used for the oats.

I've never used the Cornell flour formula, but for anyone interested, a gentleman named Clive McCay who was a nutritionist at Cornell University in the 1930's invented a combination of flour that supposedly boosts the nutritional content of baked goods. In the bottom of every cup of flour you add to any recipe place: 1 tablespoon of soy flour, 1 tablespoon of dry milk, and a teaspoon of wheat germ. There's no reason why this shouldn't work, but I don't bake with wheat germ or with dry milk because of allergies/special diets, etc.

Last, but not least, I use quite a bit of graham flour. We have pancakes every Sunday. I would suggest to anyone that they should develop "days" for certain foods, especially breakfast. Pancakes are a great breakfast, because they are "expandable". You can really easily double a batch, even in the middle of cooking if someone is really hungry that morning, if you have guests, or if someone shows up for a visit that you weren't expecting. Now, pancakes are the one thing that I have found that is actually improved by replacing half the all purpose while flour in the recipe with half whole grain flour. For that, I use graham flour, and the result is better than just white flour.

While I'm on the subject, while not really flour, cornmeal is also a nice thing to have around the kitchen. You can whip up cornbread with just the usual ingredients to have around the house. I don't care for white cornmeal, but I keep a can on hand for dusting the pan when I'm making round and free standing loaves of bread. I also use a little yellow cornmeal boiled or soaked in hot water as the base for my multigrain loaves of bread.

When stocking your kitchen, you need to ask yourself: how much do I really need? This is a really complex question, as well. I know it sounds corny and terrible and awful, but on the morning of 9/11, I had to ask myself, if there was a problem with the food distribution system of this country, even for just a few days, would I be able to help my family or would I be one of the people who are standing in bread lines whenever there is an acute crisis? I know, it's depressing to think about. I had to answer "no" at the time, and I decided to change my behavior and my shopping habits so that the answer was a little closer to "yes", if not a whole hearted "yes". Also, there is a little personality and geography involved. If you don't bake a lot, maybe just one five pound bag of all purpose flour is all right for you. My sister buys a bag at a time, and doesn't mind dropping by the grocery store when she needs more, even in the middle of rolling out a pie crust. Of course, she lives a block and a half from a large twenty four hour grocery store. I live thirty miles from the nearest 24 hour grocery (Walmart doesn't count) and almost ten miles from the nearest grocery store of any kind. So, I never feel comfortable when my all purpose flour bucket that holds ten pounds of flour isn't full. I also like to have at least ten pounds of bread flour in the bucket and ten pounds of all purpose and bread flour on the shelf in the basement. I'm less particular about how much of the other flours I have on hand. If I find Kind Arthur flour on sale, I buy a lot of it, just because it does tend to run high and doesn't go on sale that much.

So I would say: look at how much you bake and look at how much you would bake if for some reason you couldn't get flour at the store for say a week. Also, where do you have to store flour? If it's not relatively dry and secure, can you afford airtight containers or even just a few storage totes? I keep ten pounds of each bread and all purpose flours in my big plastic buckets, and the rest of the flour bags tied up in plastic shopping bags. As soon as I can get them out of the basement, I do, though, the vacuum sealer should help in being able to keep things nicer during long-term storage. I know there are a lot of lists of what you should have on hand if a crisis should arise, but, for me, cost is definitely an issue, so if I can keep about thirty pounds of just wheat flour on hand, I consider that okay. For a "normal" household with a little less preoccupation with a "survivalist" mentality, I still think you need to have one five pound bag of flour in reserve, no matter how much is left in the opne bag, just for the sake of conveinience.

Okay, after all that: what would you do if the country collapsed? talk, I'm going to share a couple of recipes. They both take all purpose flour, and they are good, basic things that anyone can make with good, basic kitchen ingredients.

Sunburst Yellow Cake

This is fine as cake and great as cupcakes. We used to get these in our lunches for school when money was short, and I always enjoyed them. If you want an idea of the sort of basics you should have in the kitchen, this recipe is a great place to start.

Preheat the oven to 375.
Grease and flour a 9x13 pan or put cupcake liners in a regular sized cupcake tin.
1 1/2 Cups sugar
1/2 Cup Shortening or Margerine
Add: 3 eggs
1 teaspoon rum or Vanilla extract
1 cup milk
Sift together and stir in:
2 Cups Flour
3 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg

Bake until tops spring back when touched.

Basic Pancake Recipe

This is bascially the same one that comes out of the 1970's Betty Crocker cookbook. I make it all the time, and it's really easy to remember: put in one of everything! This is the one where I substitute one half of the all purpose flour with some graham flour. The pancakes are a little more delicate to flip but they taste a lot better. Most of the recipes I use, I leave the salt out. For pancakes and biscuits, however, I use salt. Salt tenderizes the dough, and also, people are really used to Bisquick biscuits and pancakes which I find unbearably salty. A little salt, even a few dashes, will go a long way towards making the homemade biscuits and pancakes taste a little more like what people who are used to mixes expect!

1 Cup flour
1 Cup Buttermilk
1 egg
2 Tablespoons white sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon of baking powder
1/2 teaspoon of baking soda

Mix all ingredients just enough to combine. Fry in a greased skillet. My aunt uses butter or Blue Bonnet, but I prefer more oil. Martha Stewart says for fluffier and more tender pancakes: let your batter just sit for twenty minutes before you cook it, but Martha never had to put up with my mother hovering around waiting for her breakfast.