Tuesday, June 27, 2017

How to Make Quick-Cooking Rice

Last summer, Deus Ex Machina and Big Little Sister set out on a 100 mile journey to conquer the most difficult and dangerous part of the Appalachian Trail.  A third of the way into the adventure, they had to leave the trail, because the dog was showing signs of distress.

Undeterred, they have decided to set out on this journey again, this time with Big Little Sister's boyfriend, whose blog name is Eye-Tee (IT).

Having experienced it once, Deus Ex Machina and  Big Little Sister are being a lot more careful about the weight of their packs, and they've been enjoying the conversations they've been having with Eye-Tee.  Big Little Sister says she hears their words coming out of his mouth.

On a positive note, he's started listening to them more, and he's starting to adjust his plans.

The whole experience has me thinking a lot about my own preps.  While my goal is never to leave my house, because I have everything I could ever need right here, I know that being forced to evacuate is a possibility. 

It's so hot and dry in the US Southwest this year that huge wildfires are blazing in Arizona, Utah, and California.  Unrelated to each other, but horribly devastating.  A wildfire might force me out of my home.

Weather has wreaked havoc in other areas in the past.  Tornadoes, hurricanes, and flooding have all resulted in evacuations. 

It could happen, and that's why I think about these things.

Ideally, I would be able to pack up my car and head out (and come back, eventually), which means I wouldn't need to worry about things like the weight of what I was carrying ... or even about losing too much of what I left behind.

But what if I couldn't drive my car?  What if I had to head out on foot with only what I could carry on my back?

Through listening to Deus Ex Machina and Big Little Sister, I'm learning that those packing list recommendations for Bug Out Bags are often misguided.  For one thing, they are too heavy, and they recommend a lot of stuff that would be nice, but isn't really very necessary.

It's funny listening to Deus Ex Machina talking about which shoes to carry.  The pair of boots weighs two pounds, but the pair of hiking shoes weighs only a half of a pound.  Guess which pair is going.  What I've learned is that when one is carrying it on one's back, one is counting weight by the ounce - and every single one of them matter. 

Sometimes it's validating, for me.  A few years ago, on one of those survival forums, one of the recommendations for the TEOTWAWKI medicine bag was an anti-diarrheal.  I commented that taking an anti-diarrheal on the trail might not be such a good idea, especially if one didn't know what caused the diarrhea.  Diarrhea is a symptom - not a disease - and stopping it without knowing what caused it could be very dangerous.  The best thing to do would be to pound liquids and suffer through the loose bowels.  Drinking lots of fluids would help stave off dehydration, which is, really, why diarrhea is dangerous. 

Instead of using a diarrheal, I suggested just regular, old black tea, which also has anti-diarrheal properties, but it also does a lot more.  Plus, it would force one to boil the water - which may have been the reason for the diarrhea in the first place.  If one carries a loose leaf tea mixture that includes both black tea and mint, for instance, there are a whole bunch of health and medicinal benefits. 

Plus, dried herbs used to make tea weigh a lot less than diarrhea medication.  So, there's that.

The other people on the forum yelled at me, basically, telling me that I didn't know what I was talking about, and if they had to suffer with diarrhea in a powered-down scenario, they'd be clutching their bottles of Pepto with both hands. 

Personally, I'd rather save the weight for something more awesome than the pink stuff, and I'll just pack a big, baggy of herbal tea - which is delicious and soothing whether I'm sick or healthy. 

When I was planning food to pack in my BOB, one of the items I always added to my list was rice.  For all of the good having rice on the trail would be, uncooked rice is actually not a great choice.  Aside from the fact that it's pretty heavy and the weight to calorie ratio isn't that great (the recommendation for backpackers is to carry food that yields 100 calories per ounce), it takes a really long time to cook, and it requires dishes, which can also be heavy.

So, I started thinking about alternatives, and I decided that I still liked the idea of having rice, but that I just needed to modify it a little, and I figured out:

How to Make Homemade Quick-Cooking Rice

1.  Cook rice.
2.  Put cooked rice in dehydrator.
3.  Process until it is dry and crumbly.

To Use:

1.  Put rice into a container that has a lid or can be covered in some way.
2.  Add an equal amount of boiling water.
3.  Cover and let sit for ten minutes.

If one adds other dehydrated vegetables or meats, plus spices, it would be the same thing as those packages of dried food that cost a week's pay at the hiking store.  

But even if one isn't going to go hiking or bug out, ever, having cheap convenience foods is not a bad thing.  The homemade quick rice doesn't take up any more storage space than regular rice, but on those days when dinner is going to be late anyway, it's nice to have something super quick and easy to prepare.

What's better is that the first time I made quick rice, it was because we had a bunch of rice leftover after dinner one evening.  We were already dehydrating stuff.  So, I just added the rice to the dehydrator.  It was a no-waste solution and gave us an option for a super quick meal.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Staying Cool

The last two days here in Maine were pretty hot, and while I know it's all relative, when one lives in a place where the average high temperature during the summer is in the 70s, and the mercury rises above 90°, it's hot. 

It got me thinking that I've spent a lot of time here talking about ways to stay warm, but I've neglected to address - in a post all by itself - how to stay cool.

For us, here at Chez Brown, it's opposite sides of the same coin.  We don't have central heat, which means we can't simply set our thermostat to keep our house at a regular 68°F during the winter.  We also don't have central air conditioning (or any artificial cooling for that matter), and so we can't set our thermostat to 78° during the summer.

In fact, while we do have a thermostat attached to our furnace, those who read here regularly know that it's just a thermometer.  The furnace hasn't been used since 2008.  We heat with wood, and so there's no thermostat. 

Most of the tips we use to stay warm during the winter can be used, in reverse, to stay cool in the summer.

Shade is your friend. 

Many years ago my family participated in a class where we learned all sorts of awesome outdoor "survival" skills.  The class wasn't about survival, though.  It was about reintroducing skills that our ancestors knew and used on a daily basis and helping us find ways to incorporate those skills back into our lives.

On one particularly hot day, our instructor moved us to the side of a granite-bedded stream in an area that was thickly shaded by deciduous trees.  Beside the stream bed in the deep shade of those lovely oaks and maples, we made birch bark baskets, staying cool and comfortable.

As modern folks, we've forgotten how to use shade to our advantage.

Inside my house - even without any artificial cooling - stays 5° to 10° cooler than the outside, and it's because we've learned to take advantage of the sun.

At night, we open the windows and turn on the window fans to draw in the cool, night air.  It's wonderful, because not only do we have this lovely cool air blowing over us at night while we sleep, but the white noise also drowns out the sounds of traffic on the road outside.

In the morning, when the sun is on the easterly side of the house, we close the heavy drapes and turn off the fan. 

As the sun moves around the house, we close and open windows and blinds or curtains, taking advantage of the shady sides of the house to help keep things cool.

Nothing Like Water.

One of the best ways for your body to regulate its own temperature is adequate hydration.  During the summer, we drink a lot of water and iced tea.  Yes, I do actually sweat a lot, but sweating is a good thing, as it's our body's natural cooling mechanism. 

Water is excellent for drinking, but it's also amazing for keeping us cool in other ways. 

Back to that class, we were sitting next to a stream, and we were able to put our feet in the stream.  One of the best ways I've found to cool myself quickly is to splash water on my feet and ankles, hands and forearms and face.  It's actually pretty amazing how much better I feel just from that very simple act.  

It's even better if I'm in an area where I can get a cool breeze and let the draft dry me.  It's like sweating, only without all of the salt. 

Cooling herbs.

One summer, we had a really awful hot day, and our power went out.  Not that it mattered to me, much, because having electricity didn't change the temperature inside my house. 

My neighbors, however, were an elderly couple and not having power WAS an issue for them.  I had ice packs in my freezer, which we put around their shoulders and neck to help them keep their bodies cooler.

I also filled a pan with cool water and added a few drops of peppermint essential oil. 

Several years ago, I switched to using Dr. Bonner's soaps, and one of the first flavors that we purchased was peppermint.  The first time I took a shower with it, my whole body tingled ... and felt cool. 

One day, I decided to take a bath, and I was using this soap.  It's hard to describe the feeling, but here I sat in this tub of warm water, but my body felt chilled, because of the soap.  That's when I discovered the power of peppermint to cool.

So, by the time my neighbors' power went out on that scorching day, I already knew how to help them stay cool, and putting their bare feet into a pan of peppermint water did the trick ... and the smell was lovely.

There's a reason those Southerners invented a mint-based drink for their summer cocktails - and it wasn't just an opportunity to showcase their Kentucky Bourbon.

Ice, Ice Baby

After living her entire life with a mom who is kind of over-the-top about creating a lower-energy lifestyle, Precious has learned a few tricks on staying cool when the mercury fills the thermometer.

The other day, when it was super hot here, I saw her walking around the house with a rice pack around her shoulders. 

We call them cold things and they stay in our freezer - all of the time.  When my children were younger, and they suffered a bump or bruise, they used the cold thing.  It's almost more effective than a kiss-to-make-it-better. 

In our non-AC home, we know that cooling off with a cold thing works.  So, she was putting the cold thing around her shoulders.  When I was still doing transcription, I would put a cold thing in my lap or at my feet while I typed.  On particularly sultry nights, someone is usually sleeping with a cold thing.

None of this is secret knowledge.  Most of what I know or have learned about staying warm or cool, I discovered by observing animals in nature.  When it's hot, the animals hunker down, usually in the shade.  A dog will dig a little shallow in the cool dirt and lay with his belly against the ground.  The chipmunk will dig a little burrow where he stays in the heat of the day.  A moose will find a nice stream or pond and get into the water.  The animals' techniques for staying cool work for us, too.

Humans have managed to survive and thrive in every climate on the earth for tens of thousands of years.  It's only been in the last hundred that we can no longer manage even the slightest fluctuation in our comfortable temperature range.

But if we learned to work with nature, instead of against her, our lives can be a whole lot more comfortable - even without all of our modern conveniences. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

T-Shirt to Skirt

The older I get, the more I realize my Grandmother had the right idea.  She didn't go clothes shopping.  I guess she did some mail-order for undergarments and socks, but for her outerwear, she had this pattern for a dress, and she made them herself.  Depending on what the dress was to be used for, she might add a fancy lace collar or some big apron-style pockets. 

When I was little, I never really noticed it.  It's only after thinking about all of her dresses (and she had a lot of them) that I realized they were all the same ... except for some small embellishments.

And she used different fabrics for different times of year.  Like she had this really, lovely, heavy polyester dress with a color and gold buttons that she wore to church in the winter.  She had a very light weight cotton in a pastel stripped pattern that she wore at home on her farm during the summer.   She snapped a lot of peas in that dress.

In my quest to find my style I've gone through a lot of clothes - most of which are ill-fitting and not terribly flattering.  I just don't have the body type that today's clothes are made for. 

A few years ago, I stumbled upon the Little Brown Dress project.  A Seattle woman (Alex Martin) made a brown dress, which she wore for an entire year.  That's it.  The Brown Dress was her uniform for that entire year (she actually had two dresses ... maybe more ... but that brown dress, paired with sweaters, leggings, and other accessories, was all she wore).  I guess some people would get twitchy thinking about wearing the same thing every. single. day, but I was intrigued. 

How simple would it be to get up every day and just grab your clothes, without having to worry about what one is going to wear?  It's always the same ... with, perhaps, a few embellishments. 

While I haven't (and won't) take it to the extreme that Alex Martin did, I do really like the idea of having just a very few articles of clothing that fit well, are flattering to my shape and size, and are comfortable.

I bought this pattern two years ago.  I actually bought it for the pants, because I was looking for something that would be flowing and comfortable, and this pattern looked easy enough for my limited sewing skill. It took me almost two months to finally make something.  I decided on the skirt, which I loved, but it was a bit more snug than I liked.  The cotton fabric doesn't have any give.

Then, I decided to make a second skirt out a couple of my old shirts.  Upcycling ... you know?  

I love that skirt.  I dyed it (poorly), and it ended up being this crazy-looking batik pattern.  It also developed these little holes, which polo-style shirts will do with age. 

I wear it as a work-around-the-house skirt.  It's comfortable and flowing. 

I made a third skirt with that same pattern not long ago.  This one is my favorite, AND I can wear it places.  I've gotten a few complements on it and more than one request to make one for someone else. 

Today, it's hot here.  My work-at-home skirt is in the wash.  I try not to wear my go-out-in-public clothes when I might be in the garden or just lounging around the house. 

I don't wear shorts.  It's too hot for jeans or sweatpants.

So, I decided to pull out my pattern and dig through my old clothes and scrap material box and see what I could make.  

I found this extra large men's shirt.  I'm not sure where it came from, but since it was in the bin, I figured it probably wasn't something Deus Ex Machina had been missing from his closet.    

I cut off the arms, and then, using my skirt pattern as a guide, I cut across the shirt using the bottom half (from the pectoral area and down) for the skirt body.  The sleeves are the waistband.  The leftovers (and there wasn't much) are in the rag-bag.  If I end up making enough of these skirts, I might start saving the excess for reusable menstrual pads - although at risk of sharing a little too much, I shouldn't need them much longer ;)). 
If I get really ambitious, maybe I could make the scraps into a rug, or a bowl, or a quilt.  The possibilities are only limited by my own imagination ... and whether or not my family can be convinced to use cloth wipes instead of toilet paper.
What's really cool about having used this t-shirt is that I didn't have to do any hemming, and so from start to finish (including taking a shower), it took about an hour. 

It's a cute little skirt.  It's one of those pieces of clothing that can be appropriate at any function depending on the shirt and shoes.  With just my camisole and a pair of flip-flops, it's good for working in the yard or lounging in the hammock.  Paired with some leggings and a fitted tee-shirt, it's a nice casual wear for shopping or hanging out with my daughters.  If I wanted to be fancier, I could add a suit coat or a nice cardigan.  It's just one of those styles that can be dressed up or down.

And to think, only a few short hours ago, it was a red t-shirt, hiding in the bottom of my scrap material bin.

I'm thinking, maybe, I should go find some more men's t-shirts.  Extra large.  With no logos.   

Saturday, June 10, 2017


Deus Ex Machina entertains me (and the cat, apparently) while I'm preparing dinner. 

Just a day in the life here at Chez Brown.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Increasing the Skill Set

I was going to call this post "I did a Thing", but I already have a post with that title.  These days, doing a thing seems to be my mode d'emploi.

I guess that's good.

Most of you don't know it, but I play the clarinet.  It's a long story, but the gist is that my family was poor, I wanted to be in the band, my older sister had two clarinets, and so that's the instrument I ended up playing.

I started in the sixth grade and played through high school, when I stopped.  In retrospect, I wish that I had kept playing - maybe joined the band in college, or better, joined the Army Band when I enlisted.  How cool would THAT have been?!?  Back then, though, I didn't see the value in music, and I didn't even realize that being in the band was something I could do as a soldier.  So, I didn't.

Turns out that playing an instrument is like riding a bike.  There's some degree of muscle memory that never really goes away, and it's just a matter of practicing to remind oneself of what one knows.

Anyway, fast forward a few decades, and my children are taking music lessons.  For the last several years at the music recital, we've participated as the Brown Family Band - playing one group number that we work on as a family.  Last year we performed the classic bluegrass tune, Rocky Top, which Deus Ex Machina arranged in a three-part harmony. 

This year's recital theme is the 80's.  After a few weeks of hashing it out, we finally decided that our family tune was going to be Careless Whisper - both as a tribute to the late George Michaels and because we all just like that song.

But also, because the sax part sounds really awesome on the clarinet.  We decided that I'd dust off my clarinet and give it a whirl. 

Unfortunately, a week before the recital, it happened.  The cork on the bottom piece that connects the bell broke off.

So, we ordered a repair kit.

And I did a thing. 

And it works! 
So, in a few days, when we have our recital, I'll be whispering, carelessly into my clarinet ....
Who says one can't teach an old dog new tricks?
Look out world!  I'm still learning.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Forget the Park ... Grow the Food

This graphic is bothersome. 

I don't know if it's true or not - the part about Russia, I mean, because I've never been to Russia.  But the part about the USA is probably true. 

What's bothersome is that I often hear laments about how we can't eat "good" food and how food is so expensive, and lots of other commentaries about the state of our food security in the US; and, then, I see graphics like that one ... and I look at the yards surrounding all of these homes while I'm passing through my local communities.  

What I see are a lot of wide open spaces with neatly mowed grass and a few non-fruiting trees.   Most of the time the yards are so big that they have to be mowed with a riding mower.   I always imagine what that big, old, grassy field would look like with a garden. 

While I'm all for aesthetics, it just seems a little more important, to me, especially in light of the conversations I hear as mentioned above (high cost of food; inability to eat "organic" because of the cost; the high cost of health care; the high incidence of diet-related health issues), to put aside the desire to have a manicured grassy field in favor of growing something one's family can eat.   Frankly, unless one has grazing animals, there's not a lot of need for a big field of grassy yard.  It's actually, kind of, cumbersome and difficult to manage.

I know I've mentioned a few times that I don't have a lawn mower, and that I "manage" what little grass there is in my yard using a weed-whacker with a very limited battery life.  My yard almost never looks neat.  I would apologize to my neighbors, but honestly, I'm not sorry.  My goal is not to have a park-like landscape, but rather to grow something that will sustain my family.

So, what I have looks more like this:
Potatoes growing in old feed bags

Carrots (need to be thinned and weeded :))


My "forest garden" with an understory of herbs (mostly mint and lemon balm), a shrub layer of hazel nut, an apple tree for the middle story, and the old maple cluster for the upper story. 
Herbs for seasoning and teas; hazel nuts; apples; and maple syrup!
The entire garden from the ground up is edible.


One of my 4'x 8' beds - this one with broccoli (it's still early in the season :)). 
My plan is to grow cucumbers on the trellis between the beds. 

Strawbale garden.  It's still early.  I have tomatoes and will also be planting peppers.

One of my several herb gardens. 
The plant in the back right is catmint.  My cat sleeps in this garden bed.
In the background is the Jerusalem artichoke bed, that needs to be thinned a little.

My front porch container garden. 
My yard isn't all that pretty - at least compared to a carefully manicured and landscaped English Garden - but it is very green with a lot of things growing, and it also does something more positive for my mental health and well-being. 
Aside from the fact that gardening is a very health-promoting hobby, it can also provide peace of mind.  During war times in the mid-2oth Century, people planted Victory Gardens - which gave them some control over their available calories, because in some places rationing meant certain foods were scarce.  During the Great Depression of the 1930s, those who fared best were the ones who were growing food.  They didn't have money, but they did eat.
In 2008, we experienced a small, short-lived economic crisis here in the US.  It was worse overseas.  Some European countries, like Greece, suffered a complete economic collapse.  Russia, Argentina, and Cuba went through a similar crisis in the 1990s.  Venezuela is in the midst of their own economic crisis right now.
In reading accounts from these places written by the survivors, the one common thread is that people who fare the best are the ones who could provide some of their own sustenance - i.e. those who had a garden. 
There are so many reasons to have a food garden ... and so few to have a lawn. 
Now, if you'll excuse me, I should go outside.  It's a lovely day ... and those peppers aren't going to plant themselves.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Speaking of Being a Producer ...

I came across this cute cartoon today.  

Anyone who has ever raised rabbits knows how true this is - and also knows how tricky it can be to accurately determine the gender of a pre-pubescent male ... and what happens when the rabbit sex-change fairy arrives. 

I usually get it right, but not always, which is why we currently have eight baby buns.  To combat my potential for error, we usually just keep the rabbits separated. 

If we weren't raising rabbits for that specific purpose, the fact that our doe kindled would be a problem.  I mean, what would we *do* with eight mutt rabbit babies?  

But since it is our stated purpose to raise rabbits for our table, that we have eight more is not a problem.  It's a blessing.

This poster is from the WWII era (I believe).  It is a really good illustration of the benefits of raising rabbits.  They don't take up a lot of space.  They're quiet.  And as long as their housing is kept clean, they don't smell bad. 

And they produce an incredible amount of low-fat, high protein meat.

Although, contrary to what the poster implies, you would need two rabbits - one of each gender ;).

And then, there's this. 

Raising rabbits is also pretty cost effective - as meat animals go.
Here at Chez Brown, we feed ours, mostly, a diet of commercially produced feed pellets and hay, but in a pinch, we could rely on our ability to forage for our rabbits.   Our rabbits love the garden weeds, the leftover watermelon rinds, maple leaves, and grass clippings.  Since our yard is all organic (no sprays used, ever), we feel comfortable feeding them just about anything we pull.  They even like the Jerusalem artichoke stalks.
If you're cramped for space, and you're looking for a way to add a meat animal to your food production, you can't do better than a rabbit - and most communities (including HOAs) don't, yet, have anti-rabbit ordinances. 

But if they do, you could be like Dolly Freed and raise them in your basement.  No one need be the wiser. 
As a bonus, rabbits produce the most amazing fertilizer, and it can be used as a top dressing on tender plants, because it doesn't burn the plants.  It also doesn't have to be composted first. 

Raising meat chickens is easier and faster, but for long-term food sovereignty, rabbits are the best choice.  

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Become a Producer, Not a Consumer

This picture has been making the rounds on Facebook recently.

I shared it, because we do all of those things ... well, except bake bread, but that's because we don't eat bread (we're gluten-free these days).  We also don't have a goat or a cow, because we don't have a large enough piece of land, but we do have chickens and rabbits (and we used to have bees).  We don't generate electricity, but we save a lot of energy.  Deus Ex Machina hunts.  I do a lot of cooking.  We grow a lot of herbs, fruits, berries and vegetables.  Recently, I posted pictures of the skirt I made.  It took about two hours from start to finish. 

I was saddened by some comments I saw made by people who were offended by the list.  One person commented about living in an urban setting, where this person claimed that doing many of those things wasn't possible.  This person seemed to imply that lists, like this one, serve only to divide us against each other - the "producers" versus the "consumers."

But that's really not the point.  The point is to encourage us all to do what we can with what we have where we are. 

As I said, I'm not going to be milking my cow anytime soon.  I don't have a cow.  As long as I live here, in the suburbs, I will never have a cow.  But, I can purchase raw milk from a local farmer, and I can make my own cheese, if I wanted to. 

Or I can make my own skirt rather than purchasing one.  If I want to be really creative, I can make a skirt from a couple of old t-shirts.  I've done that, too.  One doesn't need a lot of land or a large house to sew clothes.

I've also salvaged stained shirts by dying them rather than tossing them in the trash.  That, too, is being a "producer" rather than a "consumer."

I'm not much of a knitter.  I still haven't progressed beyond making squares, and really, because I knit so slow, I don't have the patience to do much more than just a smallish square.  I used to knit squares with the intention of some day sewing them all together into a blanket, but then, a few times, I stopped paying attention to how long my square was, until it wasn't square anymore.  It was too short for a scarf, but too long for a blanket square.  And that's when I found a new use for them.  I use them as dish cloths.  It takes me a few hours to make one, if I have nothing else to do.  If I'm doing other stuff, it can take a few weeks.  But in the end, I have this knitted cloth I can use to wash dishes. 

That's also being a producer rather than a consumer.  I make my own dish cloths. 

The point is to do as much as we can for ourselves rather than relying on others for so much.  Each of those things that we do for ourselves means one less thing that we have to pay someone else to do for us.  The more we produce for ourselves, the less we consume. 

We don't have to do all of those things on that list.  In fact, maybe we do a bunch of different sorts of things (like make new furniture out of reclaimed pallets ... or knit rectangles to make dish cloths ... and make guitar picks out of old gift cards) that aren't on that list, but that are just as much about being producers as any of those examples. 

There is no perfect life, except the one in which we are all doing what we can with what we have where we are.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Anti-Retail Therapy

Some days are just so ... you know .... 

That's why shopping is such a draw.  It takes one's mind off whatever is making one crazy, and it also gives us this new, shiny thing. 

The problem is that buying stuff when the dollars are limited can cause more stress than was originally present.

But even more, the feelings of euphoria we get from acquiring new stuff are fleeting.  It can be a lot of fun buying new stuff, and maybe, for a little bit after we get that new thing, there is a bit of an endorphin rush, but then, we find ourselves back in that same dump.

Or worse, we feel awful, because we've spent money we didn't have to spend.  Those guilt feelings of poor spending choices are combined with whatever it was that made us feel like we needed a new thing in the first place, and ... well, you see the spiral.

The other day I was having one of those moments.  Retail therapy would have been pretty cool, but I don't have money to waste on stuff I don't need.  While I have a very small, incidental income (since April 2016 when I dissolved my home-based office service so that I could concentrate more fully on our homestead and my girls' homeschooling), for the most part, we are a single-income family. 

Add to it that we ended up accruing a bit of debt a few years ago when we had to do some major home repairs (our roof had to be fixed), which we are still paying off. 

One income + working on paying down debt = the need to be more frugal than ever.

My daughter was looking for some fabric for another project, and she asked if she could use some of this jersey floral print we had.  I don't even remember where I got it, but I'm pretty sure it's been laying around for a really long time waiting to be made into something. 

I said, of course.  She could use whatever she needed. 

Then, I thought, I could make a skirt for myself out of that. 

And why not?  I had everything I needed: a nice fabric; a skirt pattern that I absolutely love; a sewing machine; and all of the thread and other bobbles I could possibly want. 

Two hours later, I had a new skirt. 

Being creative is an incredible stress reliever, and in the end, I got a new skirt without spending a penny, and all that whatever it was that was bugging me ...?  Gone in the calming whirr of the sewing machine. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Planning for a Future in Place

I'm not getting younger. 

I know right?  I was surprised, too! 

If the average lifespan of an American woman is 77, I'm well beyond middle-aged, and pushing hard against retirement.  I'm still "young", relatively, but this years birthday is a milestone one.  I've been around for a while, and I still have some time to go, but ... I'm not getting any younger.

I actually love that there's a real job called Certified Aging in Place Specialist.  Specifically, the job of a CAPS is to assist older people with remodeling their homes to accommodate their changing needs - like making the space wheelchair/walker-friendly and making bathrooms more easily accessible to people with limited mobility. 

A few years ago, a friend of mine was remodeling her kitchen.  Like me, she's already planned that her home is where she will live until she dies.  She's cautioned her children that putting her in an Assisted Living Facility should be done so at their peril.  She's told them that the child who takes care of her in her twilight years will be the ONE who reaps the benefits of her estate.

I've told my children something similar. 

This friend designed her new kitchen keeping in mind the possibility that she may be in a wheelchair later in life.  I thought her plan was a stroke of genius.

And as often happens to me, in one of those serendipitous moments, I recently read an article regarding staying put rather than purchasing a new home.  This article was geared toward people much younger than I am and was from the standpoint of pointing out the cost savings of staying in one's home rather than purchasing something new. 

Different audience - same message ... ish ... that I've been preaching with my bug-out in place mantra. 

I completely agree with the advice to stay where one is, especially for financial reasons.  Moving is expensive, always.  With the exception of people who are moving long distances for whatever reason, the only time one financially benefits from selling one's house and buying another is if one is in a too big, too expensive house, and one does some serious downsizing.  Unless one's circumstances make it impossible to stay, staying put is always a better idea.  Moving because one is tired of one's old house is just silly and frivolous ... and seriously, are there really people who do that? 

Over the years, Deus Ex Machina and I have looked at a lot of houses with the goal of moving.  Our reasons to move have included: the desire to be closer to those places we spent most of our time to cut back on driving (I hate driving); the wish for more land so that we could be more self-sufficient; the need to have a house with an apartment addition and more land so that we could have a place for our older children. 

Always, after a frenzied search for this better place, we realized that what we have is just exactly what we need, and while those other things would be nice, we find more and more that our current home is where we should be.  Like, if we had moved closer to those activities our daughters were doing back in those days to cut back on how much I was driving, we would be further away from some of the activities/opportunities they are enjoying today - including further away from Deus Ex Machina's job.   

More land is more work.  It would have been nice to have had five or more acres when my children were younger and to have raised all of our own meat and vegetables, but as they've gotten older and moved out, I'm realizing that the smaller space will be perfect for me and Deus Ex Machina in those years when our daughters are off on their adventures and it's just the two of us. 

One 4'x4' garden bed can feed an adult two vegetables per day through the entire growing season.  We have lots of 4'x4' garden beds.  Six chickens is more than enough to give the two of us all of the eggs we'll need.  One whole meat chicken will feed just the two of us for a week.  We have plenty of land for just the two of us to raise all of our own vegetables for the spring, summer and fall (with some extra for storage), and to get an adequate supply of protein.

If we'd had been able to find the more perfect house ten years ago, when our children were young, then it might have been a good move.  But now ... it just wouldn't make a lot of sense.

Both articles made me start thinking about some of the things that I would change about my current house to make it more future-friendly - both in terms of my aging body, but also, in making it more eco-friendly in a world that will more likely than not be experiencing resource depletion.  Those articles also reminded me that, perhaps subconsciously, Deus Ex Machina and I have been making some pretty wise upgrades to our home. 

My remodeling plans are not, necessarily, just for me, though.  My goal is actually to build a legacy for my children (or the child who takes me up on my offer of caring for me in exchange for this house) to inherit when I pass - a place they can live that is low-energy and comfortable.

In the second article, one of the reasons cited that people will move is for a "newer, shinier home."  I love new and shiny.  Getting something new actually does make me feel a little happy, at least while that new thing is still new.  But as the article points out (and as most of us already know, intuitively), those feelings of euphoria are very short-lived, and it doesn't make a lot of sense to spend thousands of dollars moving to a new place when there are some quick and easy fixes that will give one that happy-boost, while at the same time begin the process of transitioning one's home to accommodate an elderly resident.

One of the expenses listed in the second article for making a home more old-folk friendly is door handles.  The estimated expense for a new door handle is around $60.  From my experience, that's pretty accurate, but WOW!  what a difference it can make!  Plus, there are lots and lots of options for creating a super-special and unique look.  Twist handles are tough to use for someone who has achy hands ... or hands full of groceries.  When Deus Ex Machina and I changed our front door handles, we bought the lever ones, rather than the twisty ones.  I love the new handles.  They change the whole look of our door.  Seriously.  It's pretty incredible what a difference that one, little thing can make.

Another issue inside the house has to do with doors.  Regular doors that swing into a room can be tough for someone in a wheelchair, which makes the fact that the current barn-style sliding door fad all the more interesting ... and wonderful for those who are looking to adapt their home to make it more age-friendly.  A sliding door takes up a lot less space than a door that must swing open.  Plus, a sliding door is a fun place for chalkboards or hanging that collection of signed posters from all of the plays we've been in/to.

I'm a little in love with this sliding shutter window-dressing.  In addition to the cool aesthetic, it's also pretty brilliant for adding insulative properties AND privacy.  So, as a quick aside, sliding shutters inside a room (as in the picture) provides an extra surface hanging pictures, looks really cool, and would help insulate older windows, which means saving money on the cost of heating/cooling AND there would be no need to replace those old windows!  Cost savings is a huge concern for seniors on a fixed income.  This design would be a perfect solution for the window on the north-facing side of my house. 

Of course, as the linked article points out, many of these modifications are also beneficial to other people.  When I'm taking the laundry outside to hang on the line, and I'm holding a basket of clothes, opening the door to get out is awkward and cumbersome.  Plus, it allows my dogs to sneak outside, which can turn into a wild chase around the neighborhood if our big male chow is feeling particularly feisty.  A sliding door is a little easier to open and close when I have full hands. 

We've also looked into changing our refrigerator from the standard upright with doors to a drawer model, which would be more easily accessible for someone in a wheelchair, but is also more eco-friendly than a standard refrigerator. 

There's another bonus to using an under-the-counter refrigerator - for us.  It would allow us to expand our counter space, because the refrigerator would be under a counter, instead of this free-standing hulk.  We have an upright freezer already, and so we don't need both a refrigerator/freezer AND our upright freezer.  A smaller refrigerator unit under a counter would work so much better in our tiny, galley-style kitchen, and it would give us some much needed added work space. 

Even better, for us, would be a cold closet (which uses no electricity). 

In addition to those concerns above, there are other design choices that have been made in our modern housing that make those homes less friendly for our aging populations.  Wall-to-wall carpeting, which was all the rage following World War II and is still the most popular flooring choice (probably because of the cost involved - carpet is so much cheaper than the longer-lasting, more eco-friendly, and healthier wood and tile options), is difficult for people who shuffle with a walker or cane, or need to move a wheeled vehicle. 

Deus Ex Machina and I have been in our house for two decades.  Most carpeting has a fifteen year lifespan.  So, as you can imagine, we've had to replace the flooring in a few rooms.  We have always chosen wood or tile for the new floors.  Both options have a much longer lifespan than carpeting AND are easier for those with limited mobility.

An estimated 80% of older people own their own homes.  The statistic is much smaller for young people, who are more likely to be renters.  Traditionally, our elderly lived with younger people, usually relatives, and mostly, it was a mutually beneficial relationship. 

As we get deeper into resource depletion, it will start to make more sense for young people to live with their older relatives for so many reasons, the least of which being that we won't be able to afford to not share - for environmental and economic reasons. 

It makes sense to start designing newer homes to be more old-age friendly, and for those of us in older homes from which we aren't likely to move, to transition those homes so that everyone can live more comfortably.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Raising Meat Birds

It's that time of year again - chicken season.

Every year for almost a decade, now, here at Chez Brown we have raised meat chickens.  Our breed of choice is Cornish cross, because they grow quickly and provide a lot of meat.  From brooder to butcher takes eight to twelve weeks.  Ten weeks is the optimum for getting a tender bird at a good weight so that hiring someone else to butcher them for us makes good financial sense.

Marjorie Wildcraft has made a movie on raising chickens.  I linked there to the trailer.  Marjorie has a lot more land than I have, and the way she and her group raised the chickens is more in keeping with the way most people do it - sort of as a meat share.  That is, they order a large number of chicks (and note that they are also raising the Cornish cross breed) as a group.   One person with a lot of land does the daily work of keeping the chicks alive until they're ready to harvest, and then, the entire group pitches in on the designated day to send the grown chickens to freezer camp.  The group will, then, split up the harvested birds.

Here at Chez Brown, we have always raised our birds exclusively for our personal consumption.  We also don't raise a huge flock all at one time.  While everything else is probably the same as what Marjorie does, we do things on a much smaller scale.

The Brooder

Back in 2007, my daughters and I stopped by the feed store for some rabbit feed.  They had baby chicks.  My young daughters were completely smitten.  Having more money than sense, and having discussed it with Deus Ex Machina on several occasions (with no decision made whether we would or wouldn't), I decided to take the plunge and buy three chicks, one for each of my daughters. 

The young man at the store helped me get outfitted.  He suggested a standard small animal cage with a wire bottom and a pull out tray.  Then, he added a heat lamp, a feeder, a waterer, and some chick starter feed.  For less than $100, we were set-up.

When we decided to start raising meat chickens, we used the same set-up.  It comfortably fits twelve chicks until they feather out enough to go outside. 

The Tractor

Once the chicks have feathered out, we move them outside into a tractor.  They live in the tractor for a couple of weeks until they get big enough that a hawk can't carry them off, and then, we just put them in the tractor at night to protect them from nocturnal predators.  During the day, they have free-run of our backyard, where they enjoy eating bugs, nibbling grass, and sleeping among the raspberry brambles. 

There are a lot of ways to make a chicken tractor.  Ours is made from PVC pipe that we wrapped in 1/2" gauge hardwire cloth - the sides and top.  The bottom is open to the ground.  It's 25 square feet inside the tractor, which is plenty of room for the smaller chickens and enough room for the big ones when they're sleeping. 

The only issue we've had is that with a wire top, we need to cover the tractor with a tarp when it rains, which can get cumbersome.  So our plan is to use the same clear plastic corrugated roofing material we used on the hen coops and woodshed to cover the tractor.  We'll be making that adjustment this year.

The Flock

We raise Cornish cross chickens.  They are the same hybrid (not "genetically modified") used by the meat industry.  The key difference is quantity of birds and how they are raised.  In the meat industry, they pack thousands of birds into a marginallypoorly ventilated building where the birds have no access to grass or sunlight. 

We raise our birds in tiny flocks of not more than a dozen at a time, and they spend their entire lives (after they're out of the brooder) outside, in the sunshine, being chickens - eating grass and bugs, chasing humans who have food, and pecking the nose of our massive chow-chow. 

Over the course of the summer, we will raise a years' worth of chicken (a total of 48 birds which allows us to eat just under one whole chicken per week for the entire year).  Each chicken gives us about three meals and allows Deus Ex Machina to take home-raised, home-cooked chicken to lunch a couple of times a week.  We can also get a few quarts of broth with the left over bones and parts we don't eat.  The broth from our home-raised chickens is rich and hearty - not the insipid watery stuff one buys from the grocery store.

The thing is that anyone who has a little land could raise a few birds.  They are often for sale at a minimum of six at Tractor Supply or other suburban feed stores.  Six meat birds, for someone just starting out, would be plenty. 

I guess the point is that it doesn't take any particular skill or knowledge to raise one's own meat.  It really only takes the willingness to step outside of one's comfort zone. 

It's also not expensive, and for the most part, we all know that DIY is much cheaper than having someone do it for us.

A baby chick costs $2.50 (six of them would be $18).  A 50 lb bag of feed is $12.  Our butcher charges $4.50 per bird to process.  We calculated it, once.  It costs us $1.89 per pound to raise our own meat birds.  Sure, you can get chicken for less than that at the grocery store, but you can not get free-range, organically raised chicken for $1.89/lb. 

In the end the best reward is realizing that one can.

And each one of those small steps we take toward realizing that we can is one step closer to self-sufficiency.  That's not a bad thing.

Friday, May 12, 2017

When the Prepper Meets the Greenie

I was looking for some information on my blog, and I was referred to this list of non-traditional prepping items. 

In that blog post, I discuss the items suggested on the list (to which I linked in my post).  The one item that I found very clever and potentially useful was sandbags, which the author used for building. 

I'd never considered sandbags a building material, but when I read this list, that light went off.  Of course!  Duh!

I never did find a source for sandbags, but as I was reading that post recently, I realized that I, actually, have something better ... and free (ish)!  And it turned into one of those moments when I realized that the universe was looking out for us.

I purchase all of my feed from a local feed store.  We've been patronizing these folks for decades.  They used to just a few miles from my house, but moved to a different town.  When we started raising rabbits, we bought our feed from them, and when we decided to get into suburban chickens, we went there. 

They stock feed from a Vermont company.  It's good feed, at least we seem to have healthy animals (not true of some of our friends who were feeding their livestock a different brand, and switched at our recommendation), and at first, it came in paper bags, which was cool, because we used the bags as weed block in the garden.

Then, they switched to using a plastic bag.  At first I was incredibly annoyed, because the paper bags were useful, and the plastic bags were just waste.  But then, one time, it rained on the feed bag, and I was happy that the feed was protected.

Of course, the plastic bags were still waste, and we ended up with a bunch of them just lying around the yard.  Which is when Deus Ex Machina came up with the first way to reuse them:  sliced in half, long-ways, we stapled to them to the top of our wood pile to keep most of the rain and snow off the wood. 

My original plan for this year was to grow potatoes in strawbales, but strawbales cost money we don't have to spend right now.  What I do have, however, are lots of feed bags ... and compost!  So, that's what I'm using.  Et voila! Potato planters.


But the final epiphany came to me when I was rereading that post about sandbags.  If I can use those bags as potato planters, I could also use them as sand bags. 

Guess I'll be storing up those feed bags instead of tossing them.  Maybe I'll end up with a feed-bag root cellar afterall. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017


I've written some about our crazy lifestyle.  The unfortunate fact of my life is that we tend to eat very late, because of our various activities. It would be really easy to rely on fast food, which is cheap and easy, but because I'm me, nothing is ever that simple.  Desiring to consume GMO-free foods that are mostly locally sourced means that fast food is, kind of, not a possibility. 

Add to that, the fact that here at Chez Brown, we no longer eat wheat.  Corn remains a big part of our diet, but other grains are limited.  In the beginning, we made the transition without visiting the gluten-free aisle (that is, we didn't substitute gluten-free bread for regular bread, but just cut out bread altogether) and were flour-free for a long time, too, before re-adding Buckwheat (gluten-free and Maine grown).   We also stayed away from most grains for those first few months, but we've added rice and mixed grain pastas back into our diet as an occasional supplement.

As such most quick and easy meal options aren't an option for us.  Sometimes, on very busy, stressful and energy-zapping days, adhering to our rather rigid dietary choices can be tough. 

The other day I was reading some information about "poor people's diets", and I realized that we, sort of, eat that way - out of necessity.

I don't mean the Spam-on-white-bread kind of meal, because ... well, ewww!  But also because neither Spam nor most white bread is locally sourced. 

What I mean is that a basic meal for us is some meat, some vegetable, and then an assortment of pickled foods.    For dessert, we might have what we call "Half Cake" (which is really a Chocolate Delirium Torte - and it sounds like a decadent dessert, but because we have our own eggs, it's incredibly cheap to make.  It's really rich, and so one only needs a tiny slice to satisfy). 

Or just fruit.

Or we might share a bar of fair-trade, GMO-free dark chocolate.

The point is that having a busy life doesn't mean that one has to sacrifice one's budget and health to the convenience of fast food.  Frying up a hamburger patty seasoned with garlic, onion, salt, pepper, and cumin (from locally sourced beef) and then serving it on a bed of fresh greens and accompanying it with cheese slices, pickled-vegetables, boiled eggs, and olives is just incredibly delicious and super fast.  In fact, it takes longer to drive to the fast food place and pick up a burger and some fries than it does to form the hamburger patties and fry them.  Plus, while the hamburgers are cooking, one can do other things around the house, like put away all of that laundry :). 

I'm a decent enough cook, and I can make some fancy stuff ... but my best work in the kitchen is making the simple things taste better, and that doesn't require a lot of money - but rather just a bit of imagination and the willingness to pair spices. 

For those who are looking at stocking up for hard times, my best advice is to not store up 5 gallon buckets of wheat berries, but rather to stock up on spices (or better, yet, grow them), because with the right spice, even roadkill can taste good.

And if times get truly tough, roadkill might be what's for dinner.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

I Did a Thing

I have a young adult daughter.  She's one of those "Millennials" people talk about, but I think she's smart and capable and super awesome.  I read articles criticizing Millennials, but honestly, I think they have it more figured out than I did when I was that age. 

Anyway, she's smart enough to take things slow and really try to figure out what it is that SHE wants rather than what society tells her she should want.  My generation didn't do that.  I'm glad hers is.

The title of this post is in deference to her generation who give themselves accolades for "adulting."  When she (or her generation) accomplishes a task for which they felt inadequately prepared - and it turns out good - they say, "I did a thing."  I like that.  My generation never gives ourselves credit for doing things we didn't really think we could do.  I'm glad hers does.

I did a thing.  Actually, I did a few things, of which I am very proud, because we all know I'm not a handy person.   My home improvement attempts usually aren't.

But this week, with spring in the air and the too long waiting for someone else to get 'er done, I decided that the someone had to be me.  Good or bad, I intended to do a few things.

While Precious and Little Fire Faery were painting Precious' new bedroom, I grouted the tile that's needed to be grouted for a long time.  I am very proud of how awesome it looks!  It was both much easier and much more difficult than I expected it to be. 

And while I was in the building spirit, I went outside and sorted through some of the piles of pallets and such that we have, and I made a deck off the back of the house.  We've been here almost twenty years, and we've been planning to do something all of that time.  Now seemed like a good time to finally do it.  I would have loved something bigger or fancier, but I'm very pleased with how it turned out - given that I'm the one who did it.  I have a long narrow planter to the right of the deck.  I'm planning to put some pole beans in that planter (probably scarlet runner beans), and perhaps some smaller planters in the front - although I have to be careful, because the dogs and chickens will probably kill anything I try to grow.  :(

So the deck is in the back, and there's a nice spot in the front that could use a patio.  As luck would have it, we have a billion bricks and broken up pieces of cinderblock.  I started building a patio.  It will be a much longer process than the deck.  I figure if I build one 2' x 2' spot every couple of weeks, by the end of the summer, I'll have something awesome.  Here's the beginning.  It appeals to my quirky aesthetic.  
Since my home renovations have mostly been free because we're using reclaimed materials, I can accept a lot less than the $425 price tag Nordstroms is asking for their "mud-stained" jeans.  I'd take $50 for these, paint stained jeans.   Women's size 12 long.  I'll even wash them with homemade laundry soap and line dry them so that they'll smell real. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Food or Medicine? It's Both!

Many years ago I happened upon a diet theory by this doctor who wrote a book that detailed the perfect diet based on one's blood type.  It makes sense that people with different blood types would have a different body chemistry ... or at least that they would react differently to different foods. 

Whether or not his theory is correct is not my point here.

What is my point is that we all know that what we put into our bodies affects us.  Some people, for instance, can tolerate large amounts of coffee with no discernible ill effects.  I drink a pot ... or two ... per day.  Yep - somewhere in the neighborhood of five cups, usually before noon.  Then, I switch to tea for the rest of the day. 

Don't judge me.

Coffee got a bad rap back in the early part of the 20th Century, thanks to cereal magnate C.W. Post, who lied about coffee so that people would buy his breakfast drink

Thankfully the greedy, fear-mongering, liar was not successful in his bid to rid the world of coffee, and in fact, coffee has been completely redeemed.  There are even studies that show that there are health benefits to drinking coffee.

Post was wrong about coffee, but he wasn't wrong about food, in general.  What we eat can do very good things for our bodies - or very bad things.

The good news is that we have control, even down to, we can grow some of our own food/medicine. 

I love growing perennial herbs.  Usually, I just find the herb, drop it in the ground, and forget about it, until I'm in the kitchen cooking, and I want to add some flavor to my food.   Back when Deus Ex Machina and I first purchased our home and started landscaping our blank canvas, the rule was that the plants had to be either food or medicine.  I was strongly discouraged from planting anything that was just pretty.  What I found was that a lot of really pretty plants (including flowers) are edible, and most herbs are useful in both the medicine cabinet AND the pantry.

Over the years, we've mostly moved our medicine cabinet into the kitchen, because many of our health remedies also end up seasoning our food.

One herb I didn't know much about until recently was oregano, and I discovered the benefits of this herb when I was looking for a remedy for candida.  Dr. Mercola talks about the health benefits of  Oregano.  Like many herbs, oregano has a plethora of positive health effects, but it's also yummy and it smells divine.

In a separate article, Dr. Mercola shares the benefits of peppers, which come in a huge variety of types and sizes.  I LOVE hot peppers, and I eat them on as many things as I can sneak them into, but I usually add them after, because my family doesn't love hot peppers as much as I do.

Gardening season is upon us.  If you're planning your garden, consider adding some plants that are both delicious and medicinal.  Herbs are a simple, easy-to-grow choice for adding both aesthetics and functionality to one's landscape - and many of them are perennial, which is a huge bonus!  Plant once, and enjoy for years.

And if one has some time, annuals, like peppers, can add some interest and zing to one's summer diet, while also imparting some positive health benefits.  I'm planning to put a few pepper plants in the strawbale garden (with the tomatoes), and a little container garden with some herbs is never a bad thing.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

How's the Weather Up There?

The maple sugaring season is over.  For the first time since we started sugaring, we actually missed the season.  Not entirely.  We were able to harvest enough sap for a couple of pints of syrup, but we're too keenly aware that if we depended on maple syrup as our only sweetener for the whole year, it would have been a long, bitter wait for next years' sugaring season. 

Someone told me that the season was in January this year, and we did have a really warm spell, but  then, it started to snow, again, and it snowed, a lot. 

And then, it warmed up and the snow melted, and the season was over.  We ended up procuring (through barter) a couple of quarts from a farmer friend.  Hooray for farmer friends!  As it turns out, I do have something I can trade with a farmer.

So, the snow is mostly melted, except in those few places where it was piled up by the plows in shady spots that the sun can't reach.  The other day, temps were in the 70s, and we took our dogs for a long walk.  We found some snow. 


I was reading this article this morning.  I pulled this quote from it: Virtually every growing environmental and health problem can be traced back to modern food production.

According to the article, in my children's lifetime, we will no longer be able to farm the land.  The topsoil will be sterile or gone.

I have a quarter of an acre, and I know that I don't produce 100% of the food my family eats - not even close. 

But I also don't work full-time (or even part-time) at it.  If my broccoli is overrun by weeds; if I miss the sugaring season, because we're hip-deep in dance competition season; if I drop an egg on my way in from the coop; if a squirrel eats most of my apples; if the birds get most of the hazel nuts; if ... if ... if ... it doesn't matter, because I can go to the grocery store and buy food. 

And I know all of this. 

But I also know that nothing is a given, and I still work at planting a garden and raising chickens and tapping our maple trees so that we have syrup, because I need these skills - just in case. 

And if just in case doesn't happen, so what? 

I planted a whole seed packet of peas and carrots yesterday - in containers, because I'm saving the garden beds for cabbage and broccoli, and the straw bales for potatoes and tomatoes.  The garlic is calf high already and the fruit trees and nut bushes have buds. 

My annual vegetable garden this year is only going to have a very few varieties - things we eat a lot of, that are easy to cook in single pots on the woodstove, and which I can preserve in some way - peas, carrots, cabbage, potatoes and tomatoes. 

The summer is already looking like it will be very busy with lots of traveling for Deus Ex Machina and our girls.  I, on the other hand, plan to spend a lot of time outside, in the garden, growing food.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Signs of Spring

Baby Chicks


Sunny, warm(ish) days spent in work boots and torn jeans

Deus Ex Machina and I were chatting yesterday about weather stuff.  We laughed at how in the fall, when the temps dip into the 50s, we're wondering when we should start lighting the stove, but this time of year, when the temperatures climb into the 50s, we're opening the windows to invite in the warm breeze.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Gift of the Maple

Many years ago, Deus Ex Machina and I were in a hardware store.  I don't remember what we were getting.  There on the counter were maple sugaring spiles.  We knew we had some maple trees on our property.

So, I held the spile up to Deus Ex Machina and asked if he wanted to get some.  He was skeptical, but game.  Not wanting to appear too na├»ve (i.e. ignorant), we carefully inquired about what else we would need to tap our trees.  The list was pretty short.

**  We'd need one spile per tree we planned to tap. 
**  We'd need a 5/8" drill bit to drill the hole (and we only needed that particular size, because that's the size most commercial spiles are made). 
**  We'd need something to catch the sap in - any food grade bucket or container will work. 
**  We'd probably want to cover the bucket or container to keep out debris and rain. 
**  We'd need a way to attach the container to the spile.

The hardware store employees outfitted us with three spiles with the little hooks for the buckets, one 5/8" drill bit, and three food grade buckets.

And we tapped our trees.

We used plastic bags from the grocery store to cover the buckets. 

That first year, we boiled the sap on our propane grill.  It took a long time, and being an engineer-type, Deus Ex Machina studied the problem.  He told me that to get maximum efficiency during the boil-down phase, it was a surface area to blah-tee, blah, and my eyes glazed over or something.

What he meant, I discovered, was that the sap will boil the best and most efficiently if more of the pan is on the heat surface - shallower, wider pans work best.

A decade later, and we have almost twenty taps with buckets and lids.  We also have two 5" deep pans that are approximately 24" square.  We usually boil outside over a wood fire.  We end up with a really dark, smoky-flavored syrup.  It's good, and we like it.

There's not a very big learning curve for boiling sap to syrup.  Once the tree is tapped and the sap collected, all that's, really, required is a pan to hold the sap while it boils and a heating surface.  We use wood.  Some people use a fancy evaporator.  We've used our propane grill.  We've also used a propane turkey fryer.  My friend boils her sap in her kitchen on her electric stove (she has a direct vent to the outside to keep the steam from soaking her kitchen).

Today, I am boiling sap on my woodstove.  It will also take a turn on the electric stove, but while I have the woodstove hot enough to boil water, I'm using that surface to save on my electric bill. 

It will probably take longer to boil it that way, because I'm using a big, deep kettle, instead of a shallow pan, but it's okay, because I don't have anywhere else that I need to be.  It's a slow, rain-chilled day, perfect for a slow, warming activity, like boiling sap to syrup.

I made a cup of tea earlier, using the hot sap rather than water.  I didn't need to add any extra sugar.  It was sweet enough to be wonderful.

I know that I consume too much sugar. We all do.  I also know that if my family could cut our sugar consumption that with our twenty taps, even in a bad year, we could make enough maple syrup to satisfy our sugar need for the whole year.

There's so much that's possible.  Usually, it's just a matter of deciding that it needs to be done ... and then, just doing it.