Wednesday, April 8, 2015

I wasn’t hibernating

In the past, I’ve put up posts around this time of year sort of apologizing for a recent lack of activity here on the blog. This year I’ve had a longer absence than usual, but for once it wasn’t from a lack of energy. No, rather than hibernating, I’d say I’ve been pupating.

It doesn’t sound very attractive, but I’m imagining a butterfly’s chrysalis. Wrapped up out of sight, the intriguing caterpillar within seems to be sleeping, but actually all kinds of interesting changes are happening inside. While I’ve been off this page, my three-dimensional life has been, well…interesting.

What has been going on since my last post in January? I have to turn to my photos to recall…thus the risk of letting my blog go unattended.

In February we had one of the area’s infamous ice storms.

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Not having a regular job to head to, it didn’t inconvenience me much. In fact, since Miss Chef’s classes were cancelled for a day or two, we had a lovely little mini-vacation together. Although, to be honest, Miss Chef was itching for some alone time. Having an under-employed family member is hard on everyone.

I say underemployed instead of unemployed, because I’m carrying on with my freelance writing gig. February also saw me visiting a farm I know well, for a lengthy interview. My two-week trial as a delivery girl for Tega Hills’ lettuces turned into an article about the behind-the-scenes action that gets local food from farm to table.

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I’ve had several other stories going out recently: a personal favorite about a chef who hits three local farmers markets every Saturday morning, promotional pieces about a couple of chef-owned restaurants, a farmer profile, and some coverage of a dining event that will become relevant a couple paragraphs down.

While writing kept me from sinking permanently into a pile of fragrant pajamas and potato chip crumbs, March was the big climax of my pupation, when everything seemed to coalesce at once. A former colleague from my old banking job recommended me for a temp-to-perm position through a staffing agency, doing the exact kind of work I’d been doing before. For 9 years. While everyone in my life told me I needed to do something more meaningful with my talents. Still, my savings were dwindling, and the prospect of a good, regular paycheck floated in my imagination like a desert island in a sea of impending bills. So I grabbed on—did two interviews in one day, got the job and signed on the dotted line.

At the same time, I was invited to a press event for the beginning of an annual chef competition here in Charlotte. This was a remarkable, eye-opening experience for me. First, I was invited—I didn’t have to hunt this story down, it came to me! Second, I’d never been to an official press anything, so it was interesting to see how these things roll. It was a little surreal seeing some chefs I consider good friends put on their PR faces for the cameras.

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Third, people knew me. One of the other well-known food writers in town—who I wasn’t sure even knew who I was—greeted me as a colleague and complimented my writing. Two or three chefs I knew via Facebook or reputation approached ME just to say hello and shake hands. It certainly gave my spirits a lift, and I drove home giggling, “I’m famous! People know me!”

Don’t worry, I won’t let it go to my  head.

Still, this event highlighted for me how important my mini writing career has become to me, and that I’m actually starting to play a role in Charlotte’s local food scene. It was going to be tough arranging interviews and menu tastings around an 8 to 5 job, but I was determined to keep a toe in, and keep that creative bug alive.

Then things got interesting. A position I’d been hearing about at a local farmers market was finally posted for applications. The local spice shop where I’d inquired in December about part-time work suddenly had an opening. It was temporary, maybe 6 months, but it created a possibility I hadn’t had before. I’d been very occasionally delivering bread for a baker I’d done my first print story on almost a year ago. If I could get him to promise me a steady number of hours, maybe I could pay the bills with two part time jobs, or hold on to see if the market manager job came calling, and still keep a flexible schedule for writing.

I’ll spare you the drama—and it was a ridiculously dramatic week—and tell you that’s just what I did. I opted for 13 hours a week doing deliveries, 16 to 20 hours at the spice shop, with random interviews and deadlines in between. All paid well under the hourly rate I’d have gotten sitting on my ass in front of a computer. (The farmers market job is still up in the air for now.) For the third time in my life, I made a decision based on my heart rather than my head. The other two had made me happy, so I was hopeful this would too.

Then we Gathered.

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Yes, it was time for our next quarterly underground dinner, and I was fully in charge of “Front of House” again. Miss Chef was concerned with some execution problems we’d all had at the previous dinner, so she limited this one’s ticket sales to 16 guests. That made things easier for me, plus she had a former student come along to help out wherever we needed her.

The dinner went very smoothly, and I was pretty happy with my side of service. The tables were set before our first guests arrived (a big change from our fall event), and I was more or less ready to handle any hiccups along the way. I even had time to cut some daffodils and greenery from our front bed to make the tables elegantly festive. Or festively elegant.

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I don’t want to fill this post with all the food pictures from the evening, but I have to share the inspired dessert table that Miss Chef and Chef Lynn came up with. The venue has a huge work table in the middle of the room, so they covered it and created edible art with the flavor profile of chocolate, orange and ginger.

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There were smears of chocolate, dustings of cocoa, dribbles of caramel, oozings of toasted marshmallow, pillows of nougat, pillars of gingerbread, and smashings of orange cremeux. We handed our guests dessert spoons and glasses of port, and watched as an otherwise genteel dinner turned into a party full of laughter and lingering conversation.

I’d call that a success.

Then I took advantage of my last week of unscheduled freedom and bugged out for a visit my parents on Jekyll Island. I only had 3 days or so there, but it’s always good to check in. Besides, they needed some dog time, and Rosie can always use some beach time.

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I worked remotely a bit too, pitching stories, finalizing edits and managing the donation station I run at a farmers market (another little side job that nets me about $50 a month). But once I came home, I hit the ground running and haven’t stopped since. I’m adapting to having a schedule again, after nearly a year of controlling my own time. I’m getting used to standing for eight hours at a stretch, learning new roads around the outskirts of Charlotte, memorizing 170 spice blends (and where the over 400 pure spices are arranged on the shelves and in the storage room), and trying to figure out how many half-days I need to write a story.

Somewhere in there, I got the spring garden started.

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It’s a bit sparse looking, but you can just see my peas coming up under the trellis. There are also about 50 onion bulbs scattered around (not to mention the bajillion marigold volunteers and hundreds of ‘mater volunteers sprouting too). The greenish clumps in the pots are my herbs that wintered over, and the fringe of green around the edges is my beloved garlic crop I planted in the fall. You can see one of my broccoli plants on the bottom left corner, too. I’m hoping I have enough space for tomatoes, beans, peppers and squash when it comes time for the summer garden to go in, which will be soon.

Between digging in plants, lifting crates of bread and standing for hours at a time, my feet hurt, my back is sore and the rest of my muscles are stiff. I spend my days trying not to forget emails, phone calls, meetings and deadlines I mustn’t miss. Mornings usually find me waking early and lying in bed worrying about how to craft a lede or whether the Piri-Piri spice is in Exotics or Curry.

And I couldn’t be happier. I was really worried about whether I’d regret the stability of that desk job—and I still don’t know if I’ll meet May’s mortgage payment—but I’m thrilled to be working with like-minded people again. I may be earning a pittance, but my employers respect me and I finally feel like my professional life matches my personal life. I guess I feel whole again.

And now this newly-emerged butterfly has to flit off to another interview. Who knows when I’ll be back here? I hope it will be soon, if for no other reason than to keep track of the garden’s progress for my own future reference. I’ve got to have some consistency in my life, after all.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

January Garden

I’m not so sure how I feel about this year-round gardening thing. Sure, it’s great to pull some fresh veggies out of your backyard in the middle of winter, but I kind of miss the winter break. Not that I’ve been working too hard out there!

So, to recap, for the first time I tried a fall “garden.” In August I planted broccoli, a few brussels sprouts seedlings, and tried to start some onions from seed. In theory, the brassicas enjoy the cooling weather of fall, giving harvests between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The onions sprout and, like the garlic, winter over for a summertime harvest.

As you’ve probably guessed, it didn’t work that way.

The brussels sprouts hunkered down and did nothing. One of them disappeared without a trace by September. Three attempts at seeding onions resulted in a half-dozen feeble seedlings which all got buried under the great Poop Drop in November (they were too small to work around). The broccoli did slightly better, but they were not about to adhere to my mental time schedule.

It wasn’t until the beginning of November that the broccoli started acting like broccoli.

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Barely. I have been deeply grateful that I have real row cover material this year (thanks Mom & Dad), so I was able to leave it over the plants without worrying about them overheating, or being blocked from sunlight and rainfall. When we had a week or so of nights above freezing, I could easily enough uncover them for a little sunbathing.

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The flower pot is to protect the cover from the pointy-ish end of the support stick. I took this picture the first week of January, so you can see it took nearly two months for this crop to get anywhere near harvest size. Or five months from planting, which was probably another month or two after seeding.

These are some well-aged broccoli.

There was a little bonus under there, too. Over summer I let some of my springtime lettuce go to seed, and these guys came up close enough to the broccoli to include them under the cover. So I had a little fresh January greenery on my sandwiches for a week or so.

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Another week after these photos we were hit by a serious deep freeze, with temperatures in the single digits and wind chills around zero. (Yes, it does get cold in North Carolina, just not for long.) So I harvested everything I could…four decent-sized heads.

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They’re smaller than the ones the farmers grow, but they are beautifully compact with a lovely dark color. I assume that means more vitamins.

I immediately blanched and froze them, filling a quart bag and a little bit more. I was surprised to find this hitchhiker during the process.

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I then checked all the other heads and didn’t find a single other worm! That’s amazing, and a big benefit to “fall” gardening.

I wasn’t sure if broccoli could survive a deep freeze under cover (I actually have two layers over most of it), so as an experiment I left behind the smallest main head, along with the decapitated plants. If they do survive, I should get a fair number of secondary heads, bumping up my harvest a bit. At the moment, the results are surprisingly indefinite. Some of the plants look completely dead, others have some dead leaves and some healthy ones, and most of the small heads are looking ok for now. I think the one main head I left is a loss. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about “fall” gardening, it’s that things happen at a much slower pace than in spring and summer, so I’ll let this experiment play to its end.

A week after my pre-freeze harvest, it was time to do this.

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Yup, I just started seeds for spring! And while the old generation gives its last gasp outside, the next one is just getting started inside.

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To quote my favorite author, “So it goes.”

Friday, January 16, 2015

How did that happen?

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Last week I was joking with a friend about how misleading my typical grocery store cartload looks. “There’s absolutely no produce,” I said, “but it’s because we buy all our vegetables at the farmers market.”

It wasn’t until today, as I pondered my most recent grocery list, that I realized how little we really buy there anymore. Every week or two I have to pick up dog food, milk and orange juice. More often than not I add some deli meat and cheese slices. And the rest is pure Guilty Secret food: Coke, potato chips, bologna.

But that’s about it. If you get rid of the junk, all we need from the grocery store is milk, orange juice, dog food and sliced things to put between bread. Everything else we have found ways to source locally and affordably.

This seems incredible to me, because it happened without my noticing. I became aware years ago that during the summer I would generally wheel my cart right past the produce section without slowing down. Since we had started to eat seasonally, it was simple to find salad fixings, potatoes, and squash at any of our local markets, at least during the high growing season.

Then about a year ago, a last-minute menu change necessitated a run to Harris Teeter for boneless chicken breasts. (Normally we get locally-raised leg quarters, or whole birds that we roast or break down ourselves.) After perusing the brightly lit shelves of the Poultry section at the grocery store, I hefted a packet of mostly-unfrozen breasts and carried it to where Miss Chef stood by our cart. “I can’t really tell, but I think there’s eight in here,” I told her. “I think there’s another layer underneath.” She gave me a patient, if somewhat pitying look and said, “No, there are only four. That’s how thick they are.”

I didn’t believe her. She still handled industrially raised birds at work, but I had gotten so used to the reasonably-sized breasts of pastured chickens—you know, the ones that are actually capable of holding up their own body weight—that my brain absolutely could not conceive of the size of these monsters. It wasn’t until we got the package home and unwrapped that I was really convinced. I was also a little freaked out, and wary about eating such freakishly overgrown meat.

That was my first hint that I was on a completely different rail than the average American eater. Our first forays into eating seasonally and locally came as an “every little bit helps” effort. Even if we still bought industrially grown bacon, at least our eggs were sustainably produced. Little by little we found new markets and vendors—Uno Alla Volta brought us mozzarella to go with locally grown tomatoes, Carolina Artisan Bakery made the bread to go around those sliced things, farmers started raising more laying hens to meet demand. Fish markets have exploded, mushroom growers are competing for most exotic varieties. And we’re swimming in it all, stocking our pantry with local flour, butter, potatoes and beans.

Somehow, when I wasn’t looking, we largely opted out of the mainstream food culture. We’ve made the mental adjustment to consider which farmer has carrots this week, rather than assuming we can always pick some up at Harris Teeter. And I don’t even go into the meat section of the store anymore (well, except when I’m having a craving for a bologna sandwich).

So no, we’re not perfect local eaters. We eat out way too often during the week, and not at the fantastic local restaurants I’m always promoting online. I am addicted to Coke (the legal kind). And I eat way too many sandwiches when I should be cooking some of that local pork in our freezer and cabbage in the fridge.

But the very fact of our shortcomings gives me hope. Because my concern about our local food movement today is that it doesn’t reach 90% of Americans. The people who want the most for their dollar still have to be convinced of the value of fresh, seasonal foods. But if we allow for imperfection in everyone’s food choices, maybe we can use the taste of ripe local tomatoes as a doorway drug. Maybe that’s the foot in the door that will lead them to try some of those carrots and pasture-raised eggs. Then maybe, like me, they will find themselves 10 years down the road with a grocery cart empty of everything but orange juice and Coke.

Because, c’mon, we all need a bad habit, right?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Garden Update: Before, After, After

It seems that Thanksgiving is, for me, more than just a time for feasting with loved ones.  Not that I have any problem with the whole feasting part of it.

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Say, er, goodbye to Falstaff. He was one of the “lucky” survivors of the 50 turkey poults I saw arrive at Carlea Farm back in July. Running an obstacle course of disease, owls, hawks and coyotes, 27 of the little buggers made it through to November. After four months of slow growth on pasture, gobbling up grass, weeds, bugs and some supplementary feed, Falstaff made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could enjoy a traditional harvest meal together.

As you can see, Miss Chef honored his sacrifice by making him both beautiful and delicious. Thank you, Falstaff.

Now it just so happens that the month of our harvest celebration is also the month best suited for me to ensure future harvests. Even with my first experimental fall plantings in place, the garden bed is mostly dormant right now.

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In the back, hiding my slow-growing broccoli plants, is my jerry-rigged row cover.  The material was purpose bought, but the posts are leftover from my raised-bed projects, and the edges are held down by a motley collection of rocks, pvc pipe sections and spare lumber. Most of the greenery you see is herbs—lavender, rosemary, oregano, sage and thyme. There are a few carrot fronds hanging out; they can survive all but the most intensely cold winters. As the trees lost their leaves, I used them to cover the soil in a couple inches of free, natural mulch. Some of my neighbors even helped out, though they didn’t know it.

By the way, did I mention Miss Chef recently bought a pickup truck?

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Not only is it super handy to haul home seven large bags of leaves plucked from a neighbor’s curb, it also serves perfectly to gather up some black gold for the garden. As I had two years ago, it was time to head on out to my favorite goat farm, Bosky Acres.

Michele, my favorite Goat Lady, has a herd of about 50 diary goats who provide her with the primary ingredient for soft goat cheese and feta. They also provide an infinite supply of manure, which gets piled up in a back pasture, where it slowly breaks down into rich compost, complete with lots of earthworms. Last time I took advantage of this free garden booster, I had to shovel it into double-bagged trash liners and load them into my trunk. I barely had enough to cover the whole bed with a scant inch of it. With the truck, I was determined to do it right this time.

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I had to back Miss Chef’s shiny new truck into a back pasture, next to this grass-covered mound. (You can see the big, open-air goat barn in the background, and Michele’s house on the right.) I didn’t want to transplant all that grass into my garden, so first I had to pull back as much as I could by hand. And here I thought my weeding chores were mostly done for the year.

Then it was time to start shoveling.  And shoveling. I spend most of my days sitting in front of a keyboard, so my arms, shoulders and back were quick to let me know they weren’t feeling up to a whole lot of this activity.

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I had to stop for a break after a while. I posted the above photo to Facebook with the quip, “Right about now, I have to ask myself if stamp collecting wouldn’t have been a better choice for a hobby.” One of my northern friends commented almost immediately on the sunlight, which kind of put my aching muscles into perspective. So I got back to shoveling without further whining.

I stopped before I was completely tired and sore, because I knew there was only more shoveling on the other end of this trip. It was hard to judge from the spread-out pile in the bed just how much I had, but I was pretty confident it would at least cover the main garden bed. I wasn’t sure if it would be enough for a couple other side-projects I had in mind.

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The truck was parked uphill on soft dirt, and I had a little trouble getting moving. Fortunately, my years of winter driving in Ohio transferred well to Carolina clay. I backed up to a more level starting place and pulled out of there slow and steady, just like up an ice-covered driveway I once knew well.

Of course, I did stop to say hi to The Girls who provided me with such lovely fertilizer. Goats are curious creatures, though, and hard to take pictures of.

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“Is that phone tasty?”

Back home, I got out my trusty orange wheelbarrow and got to work. As I spread the compost over my bed, I started getting pretty excited when I saw how rich and fertile it looked. I also realized that I’d shoveled more than I’d realized, and I definitely had enough to put a good two or three inches over the entire garden.

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You know you’re a gardener if that picture makes you jealous. However, nature doesn’t like bare earth, so I pulled from my bank of dry leaves to mulch it over once more.

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Now, after two hours of driving and as much time shoveling, it looks just like it did before!  If you look at that white pot half-buried in the bed, though, you can tell that the dirt level is higher. But that’s about the only sign of all my hard work. At least for now. I’m hoping that come spring I’ll be able to see the difference in happier, more productive peas, broccoli and carrots.

That was all on the week before Thanksgiving. The day after, my black Friday wasn’t focused on hunting down deals on consumer electronics. It was spent shoveling the rest of that black gold onto some other beds, and creating new ones around our remaining blackberry plant and at the base of my favorite tree out front.

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No more weed-whip marks around this baby’s tender trunk. And yup, that’s the truck that made it all possible. Right now, though, I’m mostly thankful I got this job done.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Pet Peeve

A friend’s recent post on Facebook dredged up a pet peeve of mine.  It’s still rankling around in my brain, so I thought I’d put it down here.  Not my usual subject matter, but when I started this blog six years ago, this was its original purpose.  (If you’d rather read about another amazing dinner event, click here to read the latest post on my food blog.)

Here’s the video that triggered my disbelief.  You can watch it or not; it’s a bland little instruction manual about folding fitted sheets.  It’s the very first line that caught my attention: “One of the biggest challenges you're going to face in your life is folding fitted sheets.”

Really?  I mean, yes, many people do spend their lives mystified by this modern convenience, but if it qualifies as a major event in your life history, you’re pretty darn sheltered!

This strikes a nerve with me because it resembles the kind of statements you hear on tv commercials all the dang time.  I think I’m particularly sensitive to them because, at an earlier stage in my life, I spent a surprising amount of time watching tv with no sound. 

It was mostly at the gym, where I preferred to listen to music while tracking miles on an elliptical machine stationed in front of a battery of suspended screens.  I might switch to a program that interested me, but was too preoccupied to bother channel-surfing, so got to watch plenty of commercials without their accompanying dramatic music or cheery narration.  Often, I had to imagine what intriguing product might follow shots of dimly-lit rippling sheets, or the fascinating conversation two people could be having to lead one of them to suddenly flourish a tube of medicated cream.

Once this separation of narration and image occurred to me, it was permanent.  So now, even with sound and picture running together, I still pay more attention than most to the smoothly delivered lines drilling into our nation’s subconscious day after day. Do any of these sound familiar?

“Now your pores can be practically invisible.”  Since when has it become shameful for women to display the fact that their skin is a living, breathing organ?  Are visible pores a sign of bad breeding or hygiene?  Do women who replace their skin with plastic become better sex partners?  Are wide pores on the TSA’s list of suspicious signs of terrorist involvement?  I must have missed a memo somewhere.

“Keep tiny hands germ-free and healthy.”  No.  Just, no.  Study after study has shown that children exposed to the horrifying messes of pets and—*gasp!*—the outdoors develop stronger immune systems and fewer allergies.  Yet the makers of disinfecting products continue to meet success with the message that keeping a white-tiled, sterile home is the only way a loving mother would raise her children.  (In spite of all the progress we’ve made, how many Lysol commercials feature Dad wiping down an otherwise spotless counter with a self-satisfied smile?)

“…the luxury and dependability you deserve.”  Really?  Do you know me?  Have you seen the dirty dishes on my counter, the projects on my desk I’ve been putting off, or the unanswered emails required difficult decisions?  It’s not like I’ve led the federal government to a new cost-cutting way of saving lives or feeding the homeless.  I’m not Ghandi, Warren Buffet or even Mary Poppins.  If my personal achievements aren’t relevant, it must be true that you believe anyone able to sit up and pay attention to a tv commercial is worthy of wearing a Rolex or driving a Bentley. So then, why don’t you just give me the damn thing, if I deserve it so much?

Go ahead, next time a commercial pops onto your tv, listen carefully to the assumptions it’s asking you to make.  With practice, you too might separate from the party line, and suddenly find that your list of “needs” gets cut dramatically.  As a bonus, you might even find some entertainment in these ridiculous sirens to our consumerist culture. 

Although I have to admit, my amusement is tempered with frustration when I realize how thoroughly brainwashed most of my fellow citizens continue to be.