That's (Rural) Life  

Posted by Dave in

Okay folks, sorry it has been a while since I have posted, but it has been so hectic around here. Without going into long detail, my family has been a bit under siege on just about every front lately. Yeah I know, poor pity us, you just filled up with gas and it looked a lot like your mortgage payment - if you are lucky enough not to have an adjustable...

Well anyway, as my son is crying about the frog he just volunteered to let loose in our creek and my daughter is lamenting the seeming destruction from a devastating septic tank and water purification project that has left virtually no part of our woods, yard, creeks, field, picnic area, and life untouched - even as I contemplate everything that has piled up - I suddenly realize...that's life, man. I know it is a bit trite to say that I counted my blessings, but it is true. I have most of my health, good friends and more importantly my kids are still free to catch frogs and lightning bugs. I am still engaged to the single greatest woman in the world (really, I checked). We still have our raw milk and most of our foods is still local and seasonal at a time when most folks are paying a premium for those things if they can even afford the luxury (like the folks who are paying tens of dollars to have raw milk delivered, clandestinely, or travel many miles to get fresh berries that we can pick on the way up our lane). The woods and the yard will grow back. My friends and family will survive and thrive as long as I keep the will and, I suppose, the faith.

Everybody gets a little down sometimes, but I wouldn't trade living in the country, in this country, close to the land and close to my family, for all the money we owe. I hope John Boy Walton is proud...

I promise more informative stuff soon, recipes, techniques and the all important backpack. No I haven't forgotten it, I just want to make sure I get it right for you. Also, look for the book soon. "The Indigenous Gourmet and his BackPack Bistro Walk Through the Seasons" is due in ebook form soon. Print copies with beautiful color photos taken by the lovely Kelly, suitable for coffee tables and art houses everywhere, is not far behind!

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Not My Typical Berry Picking Adventure  

Posted by Dave in

The character of the blackberries varied from area to area. When I had first started picking them, they had seemed rather uniform in size and shape. The only difference I noticed between them was the level of ripeness each berry had achieved.

As I picked all the ripe berries from each spot I moved to another. Gradually I noticed that some berries, while of similar size, were composed of more, but smaller, individual seeds while others were larger than average, but with fewer seeds. Others, even when ripe were small and hard. On tasting, I found these to be tart and strongly flavored. These grew in an area that was sunnier, and so, I surmised, drier. But then, just beside these, and in almost the same mini-climate, were blackberries that were longer and larger and composed of larger seeds. These literally fell off the bramble at the slightest touch. Often the act of picking one caused several to fall beyond reach into the depths of the brambles. When tasted, they were so juicy and sweet as to seem an almost different breed of berry altogether. I was tempted to risk the scratches and thorns to reach the fallen ones and not waste a single drop of the glorious nectar.

A few steps more and I discovered similar gorgeous berries. They were not as long, but rounder, with the seedpods just as full and heavy with juice. There were more of these ripe berries here, as if no one had dared to pick them. I hesitated a moment as if I were about to profane their virtue. Gently I reached and found resistance. I pulled harder, and again harder. Even the greatest tug could not free them as they would not give up their hold on the vine, but instead squashed into my fingers leaving only pulp and juice. Licking my fingers to clean them, I tasted what I felt must surely be ambrosia. I paused. Surely this was reserved for someone other than the mere mortal I was. I reached again. Greedily I began pulling at them as if milking tiny but succulent breasts. I sucked my stained fingers as the deep purple juice ran down his arms and chin. In a frenzy, I reached again and again, pulling and sucking, I continued until there were no more.

Standing there breathing heavily, my blood pounding in his ears, I felt at once a deep love along with the exhilaration of an intense lust. I had never felt so whole before, or more alive. I felt the heat of passion combined with the comfort and safety of the womb. I felt that for the first time I really understood everything, and yet could never express what I knew to anyone - a deep sadness tempered with the calm satisfaction of really belonging and perhaps really mattering to the universe. Seeing a patch of grass in the shade of a nearby grandfather oak, I collapsed and fell into a deep, profound sleep. Dreaming of the Blackberry Shortcake I would make with the berries I had found.

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Searching for the Milk of My Youth and of Human Kindness  

Posted by Dave in

I originally started this blog to document and share my experiences as I return to my roots in the country and in the kitchen. You see, I grew up in a rural area, with a depression era mentality. Even though it was the 1960's and 1970's, we grew and foraged much of our food, and we purchased seasonal produce from local farm stands and canned or froze or dried it for the upcoming winter. Stocking our pantry was as much a part of the daily rhythms as the the sunrise or the need to eat. Anyone can tell when its suppertime without a clock, and so with blackberry time or any other time we were aware of. The years were filled as a progression and and our pantries expanded and contracted with a regularity of a long comfortable breath.

As the years went on, like most kids, I left home and headed for the city, and so gradually lost touch with much of my food supply. Oh, I still picked berries and made my own jelly, but it was easier to spread it on some of the cake like substance the chain stores market as bread. I grew my garden and canned a few tomatoes, but the bulk of my winter vegetables came out of a can rather than a mason jar and were grown in some anonymous distant place rather than out back.

Blessed with such a healthy childhood I took for granted my reasonably decent health. But Occasionally I noticed how many of the folks I worked with battled chronic weight issues, or had minor skin ailments, or perhaps high blood pressure. Health issues were often the topic du jour around the coffee pot as everyone stuffed themselves with "healthy" bran muffins rather than the ubiquitous offering of doughnuts. Some of the younger trendier types even eschewed the coffee for a nice morning pick me up of diet soda of even water flavored with some artificial stuff I could not spell much less pronounce.

Gradually the years went by and we all aged, and more than a few of us passed from the standard illnesses of the industrial age, cancer, diabetes, heart disease. We all accepted these losses as part of the attrition of life. Like the divorces and corporate failures we endured them and moved on.

So now I find myself back in the country, in the mountains of my youth. And I begin to rebuild and restock my pantry. But my blackberry patches have been replaced with condos and my walnut trees cut for some fool's firewood. Little by little I begin to rebuild worn out soil, to search out foraging spots. I reach out to find local sources of the food I need to feed my family, only to find many of the old farms and farmers gone. Those that remain are beset on all sides. Market forces and big agribusiness have all but eliminated all the sources of local food. Tomatoes are available year round, but even in August are not from around here. Even the laws are seemingly against simple local food.

Recently I was looking for a farm to buy milk from directly. Most of the farms I worked on or around in my youth have been replaced by Housing developments and blacktop, so I asked at the Mountain Herb Shoppe when I went to buy some multi-vitamins for my kids. The folks there were so nice, and really wanted to help, but there simply was no farm locally that was selling milk directly. The reason it seems, is a fear of raw milk.

As a kid we generally drank fresh milk right from the farm. Those days we knew each cow by name and habit, and if anything was off in her health or behavior, we were sure to investigate. and if anything accidentally fell into the milk, we fed it to the calves after a serious scolding against our carelessness.

Daily we brought our jugs and, at the end of the evening's milking, we filled them from the bulk tank, a stainless steel refrigerated tank that held all of our, and the cows, efforts. The milk was fresh and creamy. Though the tank had a motorized paddle that stirred the milk to cool it more quickly and to keep the cream from separating, an hour or two after it was in the bottle, it need to be shaken to remix the milk and the cream.

Sometimes we would draw off the milk from a tap in the bottom of the jug and take the cream fro our coffee, or to make butter or ice cream, or even for whipping and serving on dessert. The skimmed milk that was left was not completely free from cream, and still tasted nearly as rich as the store stuff anyway.

Seldom was it ever wasted. Even though in its raw state milk tends to not stay fresh as long, it was not as nasty nor as harmful as the store bought stuff when it was "sour". It could still be used as sour cream or in a recipe where the slightly off taste would be noticed, heck, you could still drink it, especially if you added a bit of flavoring like chocolate or a bit of vanilla and sugar. Worst case, the dog would promise undying loyalty for just a taste.

Store milk is another story. First off, the store stuff is nowadays produced on farms that milk in a continuous, 3 shift day, from cows that are given drugs to speed their production of milk and so require more than the morning and evening milkings traditional for thousands of years. The cows are more or less simply an input in an industrial process and not a member of the extended family as were most of the cows on the farms of my youth.

Next this milk is Pasteurized, or cooked, to kill any nasty germs that may have fallen into the milk. This could happen in the barn, in the tank, in the truck on the way to the factory, or during any one of the many processes through which it undergoes. To be fair, this could happen, and probably does happen on smaller farms. but the ability to oversee and correct such problems is worse on an industrial scale. In addition, the cooking creates a nearly sterile product that has a much longer shelf life to enable shipping long distances and sales for a longer period of time.

The milk is also mechanically separated from its cream, much of it being diverted to other products and uses. A portion of the cream is forced through small screens under high pressure to break the fat particles into unnaturallly tiny pieces that can not separate when they are added back into the milk at controlled ratios to create the various percentages of milk from whole, one percent, two percent and so on.

Trouble is, the Pasteurization kills beneficial bacteria as well, and without the enzymes and bacteria that have for thousands of years helped people to digest the milk, many folks find they can not drink milk at all. Some yogurt companies have made fortunes by adding the same bacteria back into the milk and loudly proclaiming their health benefits. (They are probably right, but why kill them in the first place? But I digress). In addition, the smaller particles of cream can pass through the stomach lining of many humans and cause even more health problems.

But you see, as a large scale industrial material, milk is a controlled substance. That's right. That white liquid is subject to search and seizure and can even be classified as a hazardous waste if it has been produced, sold or consumed outside the system.

Now, I have never been any kind of an activist. I prefer to take care of my family and friends, educating as many as I can reach, but never overstepping the bounds of social propriety. I don't view store milk as a poison. It is convenient and easily available and better than nothing. But I prefer milk fresh from a farm I know, and that is now illegal in much of the country. Similar battles are cropping up in other types of food as industrial meats and vegetables are being eschewed for locally produced varieties, even as the terms "organic" and "natural" and others are coopted and diluted by the same large concerns. Caveat Emptor. But the buyer can not beware if he has no choice. I don't care if you drink cooked milk, why do you care if I drink mine raw?

Please visit my other blog, The Raw Milk Underground for news and views as I have time to post them, and in the meantime please visit The Weston A. Price Foundation and for more and better information. Everyone who eats is being dragged into this battle, and even if you don't know it, decisions are being made for you that could affect your health more than any other single thing. What you eat is ultimately more important for your health than any vitamin or exercise program.

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How To Relate to Animals, Part 1  

Posted by Dave in

WARNING: The following post contains scenes of graphic (and hopefully humorous) violence. Further, it may contribute to the portrayal and perception of "Ugly Americans", especially as related to rural living. Any views construed to be against animals are not the views of... OK, maybe they are...

Ok, so we don't get a lot of company up here. Friends speak of the drive, or the weather, but perhaps there is another more subtle reason. Let's talk about last evening.

My daughter had a town girlfriend up for a play date, and by coincidence another adult friend stopped up for a surprise visit and found me cleaning up tiny mouse droppings from behind the toaster. Since I was also in the middle of making supper while simultaneously preparing several dishes ahead for the freezer, I continued to work while the other adult played with the children and pretended not to notice.

My cabin is actually a series of additions to an original small cabin, and there are a few places where the occasional field mouse sneaks in for a small taste of whatever the children drop on our floor. I am not really a messy pig. No really. Seriously.

Anyhow, while I listened to the chatter and worked as quickly as I could, I raced around the kitchen rattling pans stirring pots and searching for ingredients. Upon discovering I needed an onion, I slipped on my work boots and ran out for it. Getting out there, I chased an errant jake turkey out of the garden, grabbed my onion and raced back inside.

A pot of chicken stock was boiling a bit too hard, so without removing my boots, I stirred down the boil and reduce the heat. I turned away for a moment to check on the kids, and when I turned back, a movement on the wall behind the stove caught my eye.

Now, in the interest of full disclaimer, I feel compelled to admit that, like Indiana Jones, one of my few irrational fears is snakes... Like the large, dark one that was now crawling from behind my stove and headed across the counter between my fancy vinegars and up behind my corner cupboard. Startled, I called for my friend to take the children and leave. Although neither she nor anyone else could see the snake, she shot me a look of irritated disbelief, rolled her eyes and went, taking everyone into the living room.

Using the chicken tongs, I grabbed the tail of the rapidly disappearing snake and pulled. The irritation of the snake manifested in a reversal and striking motion (rather than an eye roll), so I quickly (understatement) flipped the snake onto the kitchen floor.

Now at this point I need to add that most of what follows was related to me after the fact, as I have little or no direct recollection of many of these incidents. So as the snake tried to decide whether to strike at me again or to head underneath the freezer or the refrigerator, I made the decision for it and began to try to jump onto its head with the heel of my boots. The dance which ensued can best be described by the steady stream of obscenities that issued from my mouth as I alternately jumped up to avoid the snake's parries and down in the attempt to catch its skull. At least once, it caught on my pant leg and was flung into the air only to turn, ready to strike again. Alarmed by the commotion, my friend came out to the doorway, and seeing the battle, shouted "Use your Knife!!"

Rather than explaining the foolishness of that suggestion, I - apparently - calmly, explained that I would if it weren't trying to bite me, and continued to jump and lunge like a scene from Riverdance while she beat a hurried retreat back to the living room and began to hug herself and rock on the couch, with her feet well away from the floor I hasten to add.

All epic battles do eventually come to an end, and this was no exception. As I hurriedly picked up the still twitching carcass with my tongs and headed outside, I passed through the living room. The scene there is testimony to something, but as I have not yet finished analyzing it, I leave it to you to judge. The adult friend and the other town kid were huddled together on the couch, shaking, while my daughter sat calmly texting someone on a borrowed cell phone and my son was loudly complaining that he wanted to finish playing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I cleaned up the mess and served dinner quickly, trying to distract. But our company seemed to have no appetite, and quickly left. Even though I noticed the mouse sized bulge in the belly of the snake, I can't help but wonder how long it will be before we have company again. Good thing I love the solitude.

P.S.: For those who may be harboring thoughts that I may be "anti-reptilic", or that I have commited a hate crime, I hasten to add that this morning I rescued a yellow box turtle from a blind curve on the road to town. In fact, some of my best friends are reptiles...

Does that help fix my Karma?

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How to Read the Weeds and Learn a lot About your Soil  

Posted by Dave in ,

As I look over the sad scene of destruction that is, or rather was, my garden, I can't help but notice that the weeds are doing well despite the demolition work of the deer, and the poor soil. I remember that the soil can be "read" by paying attention to the weeds that grow there. Often the best plots are those that can support a lot of weeds. After all, if weeds can grow there untended, your vegetables, with the added attention and care that you can give them should thrive!

As I survey the damage, I also see an awful lot of buttercups. Despite their humble beauty, I know they are poison to some foraging and grazing animals such as the goats we have been thinking of getting (more later). Buttercups, as well as the dandelions and plantain I see growing here are an indication of heavy soils as are some kinds of dock, which I don't see right now.

If I had the mosses may apples and joe pye weed, which I have down below but not up here in the garden area, I would know that the drainage was poor, so that is not necessarily a problem here. Up by the road I see some cornflower, and chicory so that soil must be a bit lighter, though sandy and probably not too fertile.

Oh how I long for the soil of many of my former gardens, light and humusy, well drained and rich. Usually the purslane and chicory grew right there on their own, and if the dandelions didn't, I planted them.. Not only are they delicious and nutritious, but their long tap roots reach down and break loose minerals and such that are too deep for the vegetables to reach. All of these "weeds" and some others also regularly found themselves on the menu for they are as healthy as they are easy to grow!

If nothing was growing there I'd know that the soil was not too fertile, or had been poisoned in some manner. Still, that truckload of manure I didn't get this spring when my old pickup broke down would have been well received, and I make a note to get it as soon as I can. It may be a bit late to save this crop, but the soil will still benefit from it, and can have the whole autumn and winter to digest and enjoy it and get revitalized for next year.

Now, I have to go finish picking the wild black raspberries and see if i can scare up enough to make a bit of jam. Have a safe and Happy 4th, and don't forget to ponder just what it is we should be celebrating. Hint, its not just a great burger.

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