Tuesday, August 31, 2010


It is canning and drying season again. The dryer hums most nights in the back yard (or in Mark’s office, if he wants a little heat) and the two canners – one steam for fruits, pickles, and tomatoes and one pressure for everything else—sit in the dining room for easy access. At the beginning of summer, I looked at what I set aside last year, what we ate, estimated what I needed to process this year, and made a chart. As each fruit comes into season and is set on the shelf, I cross it off. So far, I’ve done plums, blueberries, green beans, peaches, and blackberries as well as several types of pickles. Two buckets of apples for sauce are waiting in the hall, along with half a bucket of pears; figs and tomatoes are not yet ripe. My goal is ninety percent of fruit eaten in our house is locally grown and gleaned. This means that we eat a lot of dried fruit out of hand in the winter and canned fruit in yogurt, with an occasional banana or mango thrown in when we need something exciting. We are jam, salsa, and pickle independent. I’m working towards tomato independence, including salsa and dried. I just about made it last year.

I did not grow up eating like this. I was a Wonderbread and Oreo child, eating frozen broccoli and peas and pale pink tomatoes on iceberg lettuce all year round. My mother did have a small garden some years and I ate young carrots with the dirt still on them, but none of it was saved for the winter. Even when I grew my own gardens years later, they began around Memorial Day and ended with the first frost in late September. I then went back to the grocery store veggies wrapped in cellophane. Older people made jam or bread and butter pickles and gave a jar or two to my mother, but we never canned anything. You could die from it!

In the back of my mind, though, I was always intrigued. I loved Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, with her specific descriptions of the labor involved in raising your own food and making your own clothes. I wanted to dig potatoes and take my pumpkins to the State Fair. I am also inherently cheap. I hated to see all of that fruit going to waste, falling off of people’s trees into the street, not being eaten by anyone except the local possum and raccoon populations. Apples. Plums. Pears. Wasted. So I made applesauce and canned it using the huge pasta pot I scored when the Italian restraunt next door to the bakery closed. It was easy! No one died! It was tasty, too. And pretty much free. What’s not to like?

Since then, I’ve expanded my operations. I read the Joy of Cooking on jam-making and made so much five years ago that we’re still eating it. I poked in the Ball Canning jar pamphlets and learned to make Dilly Beans and Bread and Butter pickles; last year, I experimented with pickled plums and beets. I can fruit. I slice and dry fruit. I make chutneys with tomatoes and peaches, savory jam with tomatoes and figs. I read books on the subject all summer long, pondering the various ways to save red currants and rhubarb. I am obsessed.

I prefer canning and drying to the more common freezing; we do not have a large freezer and I don’t really want to buy one. I worry about losing power and my food spoiling. That won’t happen with dried fruit in a mason jar. I also like to gloat over the jars on the shelves.

Occasionally someone questions the carbon footprint of my fruit—doesn’t it use a lot of energy to dry all of those peaches? The electric bill does go up a bit in September, it is true, but I haul most of the produce on my bike and glean it from abandoned orchard trees. I buy some of it from local farmers, at the farm, where it is literally half the price of the farmer’s market. But I’m not too worried about the carbon footprint, especially when I consider all of the bananas and imported apples we are not eating. Someday, I’ll attach my kill-a-watt meter to the dryer and calculate the energy I actually used. I’m not sure how to measure the footprint of a prune from the co-op…

So, for the next month, most nights, I’ll be putting something by for the winter. The house will smell of tomatoes, or pears, or salsa. There will be jars on the cellar stairs, lids on the top of the fridge, rings hanging off of the doorknobs. The shelves will slowly fill up until a damp night in October when the figs will split from rain and signal the end of the preserving season—and the beginning of the eating.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Backpacking-- do I really need this?

I love backpacking, even when I am climbing up a pass at 7500 feet, leaning into the hill and the work, right on the edge of panting, but not quite. It’s a balancing act to keep going, not to pause, but to move into deep breathing and slow plodding, steady uphill. My pack fits as perfectly into the curve of my back as it did the day I found it, almost twenty five years ago. It creaks softly in my ears as I shift the weight forward, pulling in the shoulder straps, for the climb at the base of the pass. My left hand grasps the same walking stick Noel made for me on one of our first hikes—I nearly lost it on the Wonderland Trail, but the park rangers sent it to me at the end of the summer. I use it to haul myself up some of the steeper slopes. We are almost to the campsite and I’m ready.

As I climb, I’m considering the weight of the load—mine and Mark’s, as he is falling further behind as we climb higher. I am intrigued by the ultra light hikers, but have never come close to achieving their weights. Do I really need everything in here? Raingear—yes, even if there is not a cloud in the sky, there are no clouds because I have my rainpants. Leave them behind and it will pour. Long underwear? One clean shirt? One extra pair of socks? Fuzzy? All needed. I’m not carrying extra clothing. Sleeping bag and mat—oh yeah. My sleeping bag may be old, but it’s down and light. And yes, I do need to pack it in the garbage bag—warding off the rain spirits once again. Stove—it’s tiny. Pots, folding bowl—all needed. Rope and a few other basic tools. Water bottles. So that leaves food…do we really need those fresh green beans that I picked right before we left Corvallis and threw in because we had not eaten them yet? Do we really need that extra bag of peanuts that Mark insisted on, because he does not want to starve at the peak? Did I pack too much dried fruit again? Will I ever give in and eat those freeze-dried meals rather than couscous and pasta? I think we can do something about the food, I vow.

And then I remember what is in the bottom of the pack—two books. Not just Walden, the battered paperback version that I read in high school and read to Mark on the trail at night, but a novel, too. A trade paperback—not a penguin, which are small, with tiny print, but a larger paperback. I threw it in, as I always do, thinking that there would be time to read on the trail. There never is. I haul a novel with me every time and I never read it. I think I see the problem here… printed matter. And Mark is carrying last week’s Economist, which is lighter, but still…Next time, the books stays home, I vow, as I wait for Mark at the crest of the pass.

We stand at the top of the world for a moment, backs arched against the packs, letting the breeze blow through, drying the sweat. There is no one else around. All we hear is the wind, maybe the quiet rustle of the wilderness permit attached to my pack. Everything we need for three days is there with us. I love backpacking.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Signs of Mid-Summer

1. Warm days, cool sea breeze at dusk.
2. Zucchini and green beans every day for dinner.
3. Food dehydrator is running; the house smells like warm plums.
4. Greywater system is up and running, watering the back flower gardens.
5. Cats do not come in at night.
6. Three books piled beside the bed to read at once.
7. The hiking is excellent.
8. Outdoor shower, with hot water, is set up and in use.
9. The hammock is very appealing.
10. No school. No papers to read.
11. Zucchini every day for lunch…

Monday, August 2, 2010

Honey Harvest

I harvested my first real honey this week. I looked on line to find out how to remove the honey from the comb and it seemed quite straightforward. Once you have the comb out of the hive, crush it to open the cells, place it in a quart mason jar, put a mesh screen over the opening, and tip the jar over another. Duct tape them together and place in the sun. As the honey warms, it will leak into the other jar. I can do that, I thought, and headed for the hive, dressed in heavy white shirt and pants (from Goodwill), my lovely beekeeper’s hat, and sneakers. No bees stinging my feet!

Opening the hive was straightforward enough. I have very calm bees and I’ve done this before, just to check on progress. The first bar was full of honey—my goal. I slowly lifted the bar out of the hive, no sudden moves, stay calm for the bees, breath deep, watch what you are doing….slowly, slowly…and, slowly, slowly, the comb pulled away from the bar and sank into the hive. Bees went wild. I stepped away from the hive for a moment to think. Now what? The harvest was sitting in the hive, leaking out all over and the bees were not as calm. I tiptoed over to survey the damage. There was no mention of THIS in that honey removal posting…. Bees were all over the comb. Bees were mad.

Well, I thought, I think I’ll need some more space to work in… and I think I’ll try the smoker, as well. Smoking the bees is not a one person job—someone has to puff the gadget constantly to keep the smoke going—and Mark is still not keen on standing too close to the hive, so I usually don’t even bother with it. If I smoked them, and had a platter to catch the comb, I could haul the next bar out and make some space to rescue the first… I gathered equipment for the second assault. The bees were suspicious, but distracted by the leaking honey as I returned. Slowly, slowly, I pulled the second comb out and moved it towards the platter, watching it slowly pull away from the bar. The comb hit the ground. Bees flew up everywhere, looking for a place to land. Not up my pants leg I thought , and retreated rapidly to the corner. But now there was honey on the ground. Armed with platter and hive tool, I scooted back in under the bee flyway, pushed the comb—and some weeds—onto the platter, and headed out of range.

It was easy to crush the comb and arrange it in two jars; I didn’t even have to duct tape them together, just set a narrow mouthed jar into a wide-mouthed one. The mixture of honey, comb, bees, and weeds drained peacefully on our new picnic table for several hours, producing almost two quarts of honey (the rest was in the way backyard, being rescued by bees). I slipped in and put the lid back on the hive, ignoring the other comb. Three days later, I was back, beekeeper’s hat, big bowl, and long heavy gloves, to lift the first comb out of the hive. It went remarkably smoothly; the comb just pulled out of the hive, still covered with bees, and landed in the big bowl I’d set right on top of the bars this time.

I have two and a half quarts of honey from two combs. If I had not lost some to the weeds, I would probably have another quart. There was some bee death involved—how do you encourage the bees to leave the comb before it hits the platter?—and the processing got a bit sticky with bees falling into the bowl during the draining process, so I clearly have some more research to do. However, the honey is light and minty and quite lovely. And I was only stung once.