Archive for the ‘Meanderings’ Category

And So I Cook

HarrietA series brought to you by Harriet Fasenfest, author of A Householder’s Guide to the Universe and a Portland area local. Harriet will be writing regularly about the farmwife movement and responding to readers’ own experiences and questions. If you’d like a question answered on a future blog post, send your letter to the email address at the bottom of this essay.

Okay August, it’s on. I’m on, you’re on, we’re all on — the bounty, the harvest and full court preserving.  With July behind us we are well underway.  Jam pots have been filled and freezers packed with berries.  Yes, July gave us pause but nothing like what stands before us.  August, my friends, is where the rubber meets the road as stone fruits, beans, squash, cucumbers, pepper and tomatoes fall in mad succession. This is our proving ground, the time farmwives earn their cred, the time the reasons for the season make themselves known.

I’ve already mentioned some of the reasons, let us call it the farmwife initiative.  But other reasons exist – tasty ones, frugal ones, smart, farm-wife cooking ones.  This matter of cooking is, at the end of the day, what food preservation is all about, but I do not hear enough of it.  Not in the manner that befits the cause and that concerns me a bit.  Because without cooking food preservation floats perilously in the modern world of trending and trends do pass.  Before long jars of pickles and jam will saddle up between knitted hats and macrame plant holders (if you’re that old) to gather dust and mock our fleeting fascinations. I do not want to scold, but form without full-bodied function is our culture’s folly and the death knell of many a movement.  Which is why I am up in arms touting cooking – day in and day out cooking, solid simple everyday cooking, cooking from our (own) stores, cooking from the food we have put up in volume and farmer direct, cooking as the motive and logic behind this movement because without that important piece our movement is open to what may come.

I’ve thought long and hard about what may come and I don’t think I’m far off.  You see, without our deep and continued support small-scale farmers will need to look evermore to the market place for their survival.  To a certain degree they already do but in the long term the marketplace (with its long established operational systems) will demand an ever greater participation in a system that belies the heart of this movement.  The culprit (if I’m to call it that) is something called economies of scale and without going into it’s operational raison d’être, (if only because other posts will cover it) I will simply tell you that small farmers ain’t got it and likely don’t want it. What they have in it’s stead, however, is the proverbial swimming-up-stream scale because being small in an economy pegged to big is way more than an ideological stance — it is a challenge of unparalleled proportions.  Hourly wage???  Don’t ask.  So why do they do it?  Well, because they’ve looked at the land and the soil and the environment and figured out that of all the many things they could do in this life farming, honest small scale farming, might be the most ethical.  At least that’s how I figure it and I sorta agree.  Which is why I love them and love imagining I am a part of that life but not without understand my responsibility in the matter.

You see, to allow them to shoulder the weight of some pastoral mystique without standing shoulder to shoulder in the effort is blatantly unfair, and so I cook.  To leave them alone to deal with the cost of land today, the cost of start up, the learning curve, the merciless hours, the back breaking work is unfair, and so I cook.  To imagine they can sustain all the hand work and trips loading and unloading at farmer’s markets or management of weeds or watching produce gone to seed or chores left undone or a house left to disrepair is unfair, and so I cook.  To assume that it is fair that they cannot pay for help or take a weekend off is unfair, and so I cook.  I cook because I’m afraid what will happen if I don’t.   Because if I don’t then I cannot blame them for looking elsewhere.   Soon they will be open to whatever port in a storm is available to them.  Soon specialization will creep back into the lexicon.  Soon (and this is beginning to happen) they will be approached by big business (the brokers and big chain supermarkets) telling them to quit all that silly small farm diversity stuff and grow an exclusive main crop at guaranteed prices before season’s end which will mean, as it has meant before, pennies on the dollar.

Soon competition will increase and payments decrease.  Soon get big or get out will repeat its rationalizing mantra.  Soon farmers will see their crop shipped or trucked hither and thon or mixed with the produce of other farms to end up as private-label, value-added stuffs marketed as “organic on a budget” which will, at first glance, appear fair but on closer consideration will reveal the principles of economies of scale and efficiency systems and vertical integration come full circle. Soon it will be production, distribution and consumption as usual if only with a brand new organic and local party hat and frankly, who could blame them?  I mean you try being a broke ass hard working small scale farmer for a couple of years and then talk.  So I get it, see it, and fear it.   We is why I yammer on so much about farm direct purchasing and farmwifery, food preservation and now cooking.  It is why, if you haven’t figured it out, I say we farmwives are important, no, VITAL, bookends to this movement and that we have to show up, put up, be counted and cook.  If not do not be surprised when the revolution is packaged and sold on your grocer’s shelf.

But what’s that you say?????  You’re too busy to cook.  I know that rationale and I will not jump into that briar patch except to say busyness is not particular to our generation but rather, as a generation, particularly based on the presupposition of leisure.  And leisure, as it has been handed down to the people (particularly during the growing season) is the rationale of efficiency systems, cum industry, cum economies of scale, cum marketing, cum chicken Mc nuggets or, at the other end of the spectrum, fancy hand-crafted foods that speak the language of a movement many times removed from the economies of small scale farming.   Leisure, as it turns out, is based on a certain lie and either costs too much or too little and, dependent on class, is feeding a people either filler or hype.

Yes, yes, we are busy or perhaps only seduced by the easy flow of food stuffs brimming from street carts to grocery stores (in fact Heat-and-Eat family meals is one of the quickest growing segments in grocery sales) or because we imagine cooking a mystery.  My sense is we’ve made too much of cooking or maybe just fancy cooking.  But farmwife cooking ain’t fancy, it’s real!

Perhaps one day I’ll get around to writing a cookbook that shows just how simple it can be.  Then again, there are plenty of books out there that can give you the basics and as I’ve written before, all you really need is one “how to cook everything” cookbook and you’re set.  The Joy of Cooking is still my go-to favorite, but the point is you don’t need to complicate things.  Really, all you need is a willingness and commitment to cook your meals.

I guess I’m lucky.  I hail from a generation whose parents still cooked.   Utility was the point, frugality was the reality.   There were no recipes, in fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mother look at a cookbook.  What she had was a repertoire.  Most nights there were baked potatoes set on the dinner table, and no one ever decried the repetition.  They were easy to make, affordable and tasty; a virtual farmwife trifecta. Vegetables were simply steamed with a little meat roasted or broiled to the side.  Dessert was simple.  Applesauce or fruit compote – that mystery of stewed dried fruits reconstituted with a bit of lemon peel and cinnamon.  A miracle of thrifty innovation.

Beside my mother I have sat at the table of older farmwives.  Women I have met since moving to Oregon and from whom I’ve learned both the simplest and most profound style of cooking.   Biscuits or cornbread cooked in the flash of an eye and repeated infinitum.  A jar of pickles brought out at every meal or that here-to-fore odd but soon to be revived (if I have anything to do with it) mixture of frozen mixed vegetables cooked in a flash.   Sausage, steaks, ground beef or chicken defrosted and simply cooked (if you go that way) keeps it easy along with a bit of mashed potatoes.  Canned fruit sauces (apple, pear, plum, whatever), served to the side of many a pork chop or for dessert or in baking – miles and miles of baking in muffins and cake – is simply utility unbound.

Yes, this is August, the season of our madness.  As you continue with your bad selves let me encourage you to think seriously about how you cook, what you cook, how much you cook and, most importantly, why you cook.  Choose items to preserve or store that will go the distance.  Put on your farmwife hat and think utility more than fancies.  And on that note I offer you mom’s recipe for stewed fruit.  Couldn’t be any easier.

Dried FruitSonja’s Ever So Delicious Stewed Fruit

In a pan put an assortment of dried fruit (the fruit you dried over the season)

Suggestions: – Prunes, apples, apricots and pears

Add a stick of cinnamon and a few slices of lemon peel

Add water to cover

Bring to the boil

Turn off heat, cool

Put in a jar and let the fruit sit overnight to make it’s own syrup

Eat as is or served with yogurt or cottage cheese or on pancakes or, or, or.

Will stay good in fridge till a very long time!

Harriet Fasenfest

Urban Farmwife

Please send your letters, comments, and questions for Harriet to info@homesteadsupplyco.com, including farmwife in the subject line. We look forward to hearing from you! 

Greetings from the Urban Farmwife

A new series brought to you by Harriet Fasenfest, author of A Householder’s Guide to the Universe and a Portland area local. Harriet will be writing regularly about the farmwife movement and responding to readers’ own experiences and questions. If you’d like a question answered on a future blog post, send your letter to the email address at the bottom of this essay.

HHarrietowdy all and welcome to what I hope becomes a healthy conversation between friends.   I’m so excited to be a part of this movement which, since the publication of A Householder’s Guide to the Universe, has not only grown by leaps and bounds but taken on many names. For some the term urban homesteading fits, for others it is radical homemaking. My own term “householding” has expanded to include urban farmwifery; a phrase as apt to my life as it might be controversial.

I’m not sure exactly when the term came to mind but at some point in my evolution I considered the phrase “farmwife” as distinct to the larger notion of farming itself.   You see, for a number of reasons I had stopped “farming” much of my own food. I credit age (and a weakening back) as part of the reason but I also felt ever more inclined to support a young farming movement. With so many of the next generation looking to farming in response to socio-economic and environmental concerns and, too, as a way to make a living, I felt obliged to support them. Which does not mean I have given up growing food all together (I’m definitely a lifer) but just those things I need in quantities my backyard space could not supply.

As some of you might know, I’m a serious preserver. Yep, if it grows I want to can, dry, freeze or store it for winter use. Which is why the householding or preserving CSA model worked so well for me. Instead of the normal weekly or bi-monthly CSA shares, I receive large one-time installments in quantities that work for my preserving needs. You know — ten pounds of green beans or cucumbers for pickling, 100 pounds of tomatoes for canning. The model works well for me and likely would for others with limited space (preserving shares are getting more popular so speak to your farmer) but while I was not quite as busy in the garden growing food I was just as busy in the canning kitchen, even busier.

You see, the closer I worked with farmers the more I realized how little time they had to put up their own stores or, for that matter, cook meals during the busy growing season. I realized what was missing in their lives was the farmwife; that here-to-fore unheralded partner in a farm system. Now don’t get upset at me. I’m not speaking gender here but skill sets. We cannot really speak of farm “husbandry” without recognizing the role and value of farm “wifery” at least I doubt any farmer would deny it. In fact over the years I have had more than one farmer “propose” marriage to me and not because of love.  Of course I’m being cheeky here but men and women (together and separately) have begged me to marry them if only in recognition of what my role in their lives meant.

To come home after a full day in the field to a hot meal or, in the morning, to a breakfast of eggs and biscuits is no small thing. To be able to reach for (after spending countless hours growing food for others), your own canned tomatoes or pickles in winter is a joy but this is not always what farmers can do. No, more likely they are so busy out in the field that they miss the opportunity to do this. Which is why, how and when I realized that I was a freak’n farmwife. Sure I lived in the city and was divorced (another story) but I was wifering myself all over the place and loving it.

I was the one in the farmhouse cooking up meals and calling farmhands to lunch (and darn if I did not ring that triangle thingy). I was the one cleaning out the fridge (you know the one that looks like a poltergeist came to call?) from the endless “we’ll get to this later” food stuff in waiting.   I was the one making meals and freezing them for later or canning up whatever else those poor besotted lovers of the soil wanted me to do. I was, in essence, an angel, a farmwife angel.

If I have taken on this role it is not simply because I like to cook or preserve or, maybe, just like being a friend, but because they, the farmers, need us. Not just to cook meals or can up stores but to support them in the type of direct purchasing they need. Which is another part of this farmwifery thing. We are the bookends to an economic system. Just as they grow the food we must use it, cook with it, put it up in quantities that get us through the year. We must give them an ever greater share of our incomes because they need us to. We cannot compare the food they grow to the stuff we can buy at the store. Economies of scale (small scale) will mean big prices and we need to be at peace with this. But we can mitigate the costs by staying outside the box. That’s another fine and fabulous thing farmwives can do.

Every year we haul out the old jars (or buy new ones to start our supply) to do what we have been doing for generations before, that is, rural wisdoms got turned into big supply chains. Every year we step outside the packaging and distribution chains most foods must rely on. Every year we learn more about the seasons and what it really takes to grow good food — the victories and the gains and we share that with our farmers. They need us and we, by golly, need them. Which is why I say we farmwives are bedfellows and bookends to the farming movement. Both of us are trying to create a new model, a new economy, the home economy (which I mention only as a tease for future letters.) We are the new dynamic duos – farmer (urban or rural) to farmwife (urban or rural). Oh heck yes. Yep, I am a radical urban farmwife and darn proud of it.

So that’s how it happened. That’s how this householder became a farmwife and why I encourage you to try the name on yourself. Remember, this is not specific to gender. And just like farming itself, farmwifery has been dumbed down and co-opted by industry. Frankly to be so excited about the young farming movement and say nothing of farmwifery is it’s own sort of gender bias and I’ll not have it. Nope, let’s just say I’m old enough, ornry enough and, well, smart enough to know better.

So tell me your name, send me your letters — what you do, what you think about and how you are moving this movement forward. I promise to read them all and respond as time and space permits on our blog. Let’s start coming together to teach each other, support each other and keep this movement going and growing. Rural and urban, farmer and farmwives and everyone and anyone in-between and by any other name. Oh yeah!

Harriet Fasenfest

Urban Farmwife

Please send your letters, comments, and questions for Harriet to info@homesteadsupplyco.com, including farmwife in the subject line. We look forward to hearing from you! 

It Takes A Village To Make An Omelet

I know it’s fall in Portland because when I woke up yesterday, it was so dark and the clouds were hanging so low I had to look at the clock to be sure it was morning. It was morning, Sunday morning, the one day a week that I make an effort to cook a nice breakfast for the two of us. I made it to the kitchen with eyes partially shut and that stiff, Frankenstein-like walk that seems to get worse with each year I make it past 45. I had nothing planned, so it meant standing in the middle of the kitchen and looking around to see what I could come up with.

The first thing that caught my eye was the carton of duck eggs from Chris Chulos’ farm near Oregon City. He delivers chicken and duck eggs every Friday to the shop and I’d never tried duck eggs before. I snagged a box before going home Saturday night. There they were, the beige and green eggs staggered in a checkerboard pattern in the carton. Perfect. An omelet it would be. Now, what else…

Last Friday Doug had a day off from school and Martha, our manager, agreed to work the whole day so that Doug and I could go to Newberg and Dundee to do some wine tasting. It was a fabulous day, but the best part of our trip to wine country was the last stop of the day when we drove out to the Beroldingen Farm for fresh goat cheese. It’s a small family farm off NE Bell road in Newberg – not easy to find, but well worth the hunt. As you drive up the driveway, you see a little red and white shed next to the big house. There are chickens wandering everywhere and little pens of goats scattered all over the property. Inside the shed is a small refrigerator and a money box. It’s the honor system, so we make sure to bring enough cash for our goat-cheese habit. Now, I’ve been making goat cheese for a few years from the milk of our little Nigerian Dwarf goats, and we both love our homemade cheese, but the cheeses from Beroldingen are possibly the most delicious goat cheeses I’ve ever tasted. The Chehalem is a mild soft-rind cheese that I tend to favor, but we always get a container of the fresh chevre for cooking – you know, like omelets.

This was a good start – eggs and cheese, but I needed more. Anyone who’s been to the shop and met Doug probably knows that he’s the conversationalist in the family. ‘Nuf said. So it’s probably no surprise that when Doug noticed a couple of guys walking past the store carrying a basket of mushrooms, he had to go chat with them and find out what the deal was with all those mushrooms. Twenty minutes later, we had some new friends and a bunch of chantrelle and bolete mushrooms. Yum – mushroom omelets!

Now we just needed a little extra flavor to help carry but not overpower the mushrooms. Voila – sitting in the onion basket, three beautiful grey shallots that Connor from Diggin’ Roots Farm brought the other night when he came for dinner. Of course, the blueberry wine and Asian pear juice Connor brought were long gone (and much appreciated), but I still had those lovely shallots with their shiny red skins and mild garlicy-onion flavor. Since Connor and his wife Sarah had just finished giving a class at the shop on growing garlic, I knew they were expert Allium growers and that these shallots would be delicious. Yes, the perfect accompaniment for the mushroom and chevre omelet.

Finally, a little of the fresh cow’s milk that we pick up each week from Colleen’s farm in Molalla and some fresh parsley from the neighbor’s garden and there it was, a perfect omelet – with the help of some friends.

The point is that we sometimes tend to equate homesteading with self-sufficiency – the idea that we have to do it all ourselves. But you know, I don’t raise duck eggs, or make amazing goat cheese, or know where to find beautiful chantrelles, or even grow shallots. But I don’t have to do all those things because I’m part of a community that shares such abundance. We each have different abilities and resources to bring to the table. The most important part of homesteading is to actually come to the table, be a part of the community and share what we have to offer. In the long run, it’s the help of friends and neighbors that gets us through the tough times. So get out there and start forging those relationships. And a huge thank you to all the friends that helped make our Sunday omelet. It was delicious!

Answering the Question

On Tuesday morning, June 14, we opened the doors of Portland Homestead Supply Co. quietly, with no fanfare, to see how our shop would be received.  We were, as one customer put it, pretty stealthy about it. On that very first morning, a woman walked in, took a quick look around at the canning jars, cheese molds and grain mills and said, “Who on earth would ever want to do all this stuff. I’m a city girl and we pay people to do this stuff.”

As I frantically tried to fire up a few synapses and come up with a witty answer to her question, she wished me good luck (not a real good luck, but the kind that means ‘good luck you poor fool’), took a sip of her triple caramel macchiato and was gone. So, two and a half weeks later, I thought I would take this, my first blog, as an opportunity to answer the question posed on our first day. I’ve given up on any attempt to be witty, and decided to turn to the most practical and eloquent gentleman on earth and borrow a much overused quote from Wendell Berry and his essay “The Total Economy”:

“What has happened is that most people in our country, and apparently most people in the ‘developed’ world, have given proxies to the corporations to produce and provide all of their food, clothing, and shelter.  Moreover, they are rapidly increasing their proxies to corporations or governments to provide entertainment, education, child care, care of the sick and the elderly, and many other kinds of ‘services’ that once were carried on informally and inexpensively by individuals or households or communities. Our major economic practice, in short, is to delegate the practice to others…The trouble with this is that a proper concern for nature and our use of nature must be practiced, not by our proxy-holders, but by ourselves.  A change of heart or of values without  a practice is only another pointless luxury of a passively consumptive way of life.”

So that is it then. That is why people might want to do all this stuff – as a way to navigate out of our ‘passively consumptive way of life’. That, I guess, is what modern homesteading is all about, and that is why we’re here.

The self-doubt of that first morning evaporated quickly as more people stopped by and shared their enthusiasm for the store and for learning the practical skills of keeping a home. In fact, I’m not sure we could have landed in a more accepting and supportive community. We’re so glad to be here and look forward to meeting all those who are ready to start on this homesteading journey. Happy Homesteading!