Easy as Pie

October 31, 2013 § 9 Comments


Someone was asking in the comments the other day for our applesauce recipe and that, coupled with the fact that we just finished putting up the last of the season’s apple-y concoctions, prompted this post.

First off, I’ll say that we don’t often buy apples. We have in the past, and we may in the future, but generally we get by with what our handful of fairly young trees produce and whatever we can glean off the wild trees in the neighborhood. This was one of the best apple years in recent memory (which in my case means in any memory at all); Melvin says that means it’s going to be a hard winter, and I hope like heck he’s right. All the wild trees around us were loaded, and we didn’t have to travel more than a quarter-mile to get all we needed. Our general technique is to spread a tarp on the ground, hoist Penny or myself into the tree, crawl out onto the most prolific branches and start shaking the bejeezum out of it. Instant apple rain.


For all the apples we pick (shake?), we don’t actually eat that much of the bare fruit. Oh, sure, the boys’ll stuff their faces for a few days, until their bellies go on strike, but for the most part, our apples are processed into one of three products: Applesauce, fruit leather, or dried loops.

The asked-for recipe is both really freakin’ simple and also sort of hard to explain. That’s because it’s pretty much never the same thing twice, and how we make our sauce depends on all sorts of things, such as what we have on hand, what else we’ve got going on, and whether or not it’s the sort of day we’d rather spend doing something else. If we’re in a hurry, it looks like this:

Quarter apples and throw ’em – peels, cores, and all – into 5 gallon pot with 3 cups of water so apples don’t stick

Simmer until soft, and run through food mill

Add cinnamon, nutmeg, and maple syrup to taste

Process in steam canner

Coring and slicing for dried rings

Coring and slicing for dried rings

If it’s a rainy day, and we’re not chomping to get out into the world beyond our windows, we make it the way we really like it:

Peel and core (we use a device that looks like this minus the ridiculous apple shape)

Chop whatever size you want for chunky sauce

Simmer with water as above

Add cinnamon, nutmeg, and maple syrup to taste

Process in steam canner

We also make a version with peels by simply coring and putting the cored apples in the food processor with just enough water to make it blend smooth. We then cook to the consistency we want. There is probably some nutritional benefit from including the peels, which may explain why I grew 4-inches last year.

Ah, one more version: Chokecherry applesauce. Easy as pie. Put the chokes through the food mill and add the pulp to the simmering sauce. Good stuff and it’s got that whole “foraged wild-crafting” cache.

Chokecherry pulp

Chokecherry pulp

For fruit leather, we cook our applesauce ’til it gets real thick. You wanna get as much water out as possible without burning it. We spread it out on a dehydrator tray or cookie sheet about 1/2″ thick and put it in the oven at 150-degrees ’til it holds together. Then we take it off the tray and set it on the rack until any stickiness is gone, cuz stickiness = water = mold. Stores real good in plastic bags or glass jars.

Or keep peel on, core ’em with one of these adding just enough water to blend, and dry as above. Sometimes, if we’re feeling rich and have nuts lying around, we’ll mix in a cup or so of homemade nut butter to make an apple-nut-butter-cracker sort of thing. Hell, yeah.

Drying on the cookstove

Drying on the cookstove

Finally, the path to dried apple ring enlightenment: Core as above, slice rounds 1/4″ thick, slide ’em over sticks the boys brought home, and dry over the cookstove.

The winter pantry. Or a fraction of it, anyway

The winter pantry. Or a fraction of it, anyway: Apples, mushrooms, veggies, medicinals

Thank Me Later

October 30, 2013 § 8 Comments


We have been noshing inordinate quantities of this non-heading variety of broccoli we sourced from Fedco. It’s called piracicaba (peer-a-sea-cah-bah), and it’s sorta halfway betwixt a heading broccoli and a broccoli rabe, both of which are fine and all, but ain’t got nuthin’ on this baby. It’s wicked tender, a little sweet, and soaks up the butter like nobody’s business. It grows gobs of small side shoots that have been producing for months on end and which the boys are prone to plucking and eating raw on their way to raise some sort of hell or another. They’re also great steamed. The shoots, not the boys.

This bugger is so prolific we haven’t even been able to keep up with the 8 trial plants we seeded; a bunch of it went to flower and we were gonna lop those off to get more shoots growing, until Pen noticed all the pollinators hitting the flower bar. So we let ’em go because bees are approximately the most important creature on this little farm.

Anyway. Piracicaba. Plant some in the spring, and thank me later.



It Is What They Do

October 29, 2013 § 17 Comments


The boys were up and out before first light to run their trapline, their headlamps bobbing and darting as they waddled down the field under the weight of their provisioned pack baskets. The baskets themselves are a product of their own hands, loaded with axes and traps and lure. Wire and water.

Trapping season opened on Saturday, and they spent the entire weekend (and I do mean every freakin’ hour of daylight) setting traps across our land and Melvin’s. On Sunday morning, I walked the line with them; it took better than two hours. When we got home, we ate breakfast, and the boys headed out again.

This weekend, up to our elbows in piggy bits, Penny and I got to talking about our sons’ learning experiences outside the formalized education system and how so many of those experiences have been enabled simply because they have the time to pursue them. This led to a quick calculation regarding how many hours they would have passed in school, were that to be their fate. For Fin, we tallied up 8400 hours; Rye, being approximately three years younger, would clock in at about half that. That’s before homework and before the 34 hours American children spend drooling in front of the television each week (Fin and Rye watch none). Add in the TV, and you’re talking – over just the past 6 years Fin would have been in school – upwards of 19,000 hours captive to either the classroom or the idiot box. Nineteen thousand. If you figure the boys are awake for about 14 hours each day, that’s 1,357 days or 3.7 years of my older sons’  waking life. The mind boggles.


How much of that time is truly productive, not merely in regards to learning and developing, but in terms of feeding emotion and spirit, in terms of fostering connection and a sense of a child’s place in this world? It’s a rhetorical question, because I don’t know the answer, and I don’t know that there really is an answer. How can you measure such things? I’m not exactly sure, but I strongly suspect pop quizzes, final exams, and mastery of pop culture trivia ain’t it.

After we got good and depressed dwelling on the math of modern childhood, a funk that only copious sampling of our latest batch of maple sausage could remedy (maple syrup, diced onion, garlic, salt, mustard powder and the piece de resistance, a generous splash of our friend Paul’s bathtub wine), we got to talking about what our boys have learned from trapping, all of their own passion and volition. Don’t get me wrong, much of what Fin and Rye learn is facilitated; There’s a pervasive notion that unschooling is about letting your children run wild and directionless, but of course nothing could be further from the truth (I won’t say much more about the subject of facilitated unschooling, because I don’t want to fritter fodder for a future post… crikey… awesomely abundant alliteration, already!). Our children do run wild, as every child should, but there’s a heck of a lot more to it than that.

Mind the crack!

Mind the crack!

Anyhoo, here’s the list we came up with:

Money management: How many traps they need and can afford, how much to spend on books and lure, how much to save for future needs

Time management: Balancing chores and other responsibilities with running the trapline each morning

Earth Sciences: How the natural world surrounding them works

Biology: Understanding the relationship of animals, their habitat, season, etc

Anatomy: Yeah, I think they got this one nailed

Physical Education: Humping over hill and dale for hours on end, carrying 30-pound packs

Math: Mostly relating to money management, but also considerations of wildlife carrying capacity


Awareness of advertising/corporate messaging: We talk all the time about how the contemporary fur market is dominated by corporate interests selling furs to China, which are purchased by individuals who’ve bought into a fashion trend

Ethics: Using all parts of the animal (newsflash: deep fried ram balls are not all that tasty), giving thanks, not trapping more than they can actually use/consume, using traps designed to minimize pain

Teamwork/cooperation: They do all this together

Geography: Using maps to determine who owns the land they want to trap, understanding topo maps, etc

Reading and Writing: Letters to landowners seeking permission, books on technique, etc

Human Relations: Approaching landowners, and even knocking on doors to ask permission

Success, failure, perseverance: Obvious

As Penny pointed out, they’ve even had the opportunity to memorize useless information just to pass a test, given the oft-inane nature of the so-called “knowledge” one needs to pass the trapper ed certification class (“what clothes should you wear while trapping?”)


My point is not to brag on my boys. They are, like all humans, imperfect creatures, with gaps in knowledge and character that only time can fill (and none of us live long enough to fill them all). I merely wish to make a point I’ve tried to make many a time in this space: Children learn. They do not need to be told to learn, or taught to learn. They sure as hell don’t need to be forced to learn, because it is what they do.

We just need to let them.

It’s Right There

October 28, 2013 § 10 Comments


Side o’ bacon

Thank you for all the thoughtful comments pertaining to Friday’s post. The wheels are slowly beginning to turn. Stay tuned. 

We’re on something of a food production bender, what with it being October and all. Last weekend, it was kimchi and the lambs we relocated to the freezer, plus a passel more of applesauce and dried kale and whatnot and so forth. This weekend was all about the swine.

We’re big on pig. For starters, they’re eminently likable animals that when managed properly can do a whole lot of good and important work. With only minimal effort on our part, we’ve turned and cleared numerous acres of pasture with our hogs, land that was recently forest but now grows sweet, lush grass our cowsies and sheepsies covert to copious quantities of milk and meat. Furthermore, pigs are what’re known as “easy keepers.” They’re an unfussy species, prone to contentment. I like animals that are prone to contentment, perhaps because they remind me of how I might best make my way in this world. Furthermore again, pigs are relatively easy to slaughter and process at home, eliminating the complication, inconvenience, and expense of transport and butcher fees. Further furthermore again, there is no tiring of sausage, at least ’round these parts. Finally furthermore, we have access to quantities of organic waste milk and colostrum, significantly reducing the primary expense associated with critters whose sole purpose for living can occasionally seem to be the snarfing of exorbitantly expensive grain products.

Brine bucket

Brine bucket

We made 60-odd pounds of sausage yesterday, a process that actually began on Friday. In order to facilitate cutting, the carcass must cool for at least a dozen hours, because hot meat is just too soft and squishy to cut. So we killed on Friday afternoon and left the big fella hanging from the tractor bucket overnight to stiffen up a bit. On Saturday, we hauled him inside (if you ever want a good laugh, you ought stop by and watch me and Penny laboring to get a 150-pound side o’ pork through the front door), splayed him across the counter, and commenced to hacking. Chops – check. Bacon in brine – check. Loin roast – check. Shoulder and ham chunked for grinding – check. Leaf lard bubbling on the wood stove – check. Organs cleaned – check.

We’ve been doing pigs like this for the past decade or so; oh, we did pigs before that, but there came a point when it occurred to us that we might’s well just keep the whole process in-house, so to speak. Our friends Ralph and Cindy taught us how to kill and dress (by-the-by, my favorite chapter in my first book is by far the one on Ralph and Cindy), and we were off to the races. It would be difficult to overstate how anxious I was the first time I approached the pigpen with a loaded .22 in my hands. I could not imagine ever slaughtering a large animal with confidence. I still experience a particular heightening of awareness in the moments before I pull the trigger (or, as has been the case for the past half-dozen or so pigs, the moment Fin or Rye pulls the trigger), but it is no longer from lack of confidence. Rather, I think it is from the sense of responsibility I feel toward the creature whose life I am about to take. I understand why many people are not comfortable being so close to this responsibility; it forces one to face something in themselves. It compels intent and intent can be discomfiting. I think it might be easier to live without intent. Poorer, to be sure. But easier.

Pig and lamb hearts for the sausage

Pig and lamb hearts for the sausage

Over the intervening years, we’ve slowly invested in handful of used commercial-grade processing implements – a grinder, a slicer, and a sausage stuffer that was actually a gift from our buddy Pete. We still do our cutting with a handsaw and a cleaver, and as such, our chops and roasts can be a little, um, inconsistent. Which is to say, if you come for dinner and we serve pork chops that are an inch-and-a-half thick on one end and three-quarters-of-an-inch thick on the other, it’s not because we were drunk when we cut ‘em. Well, it’s not because Penny was drunk, anyway.

I can’t say I love killing and processing pigs. Frankly, it’s hard work, and it takes a lot of time. Between set-up, killing, dressing, and cleanup, Friday’s slaughter took us about two hours. Cutting and wrapping took maybe three hours. And yesterday, what with all the grinding and mixing and stuffing and tasting and wrapping and cleaning, we’re talking at least five hours.

But there are compensations, and they are not limited to the abundance of meat in our freezer or the bacons brining on our porch. Because while the boys scoured the woods for the entirety of the weekend (trapping season opened on Saturday, and they are in a state of high agitation), Penny and I cut and sliced and ground and wrapped. And as we did so, we chatted, our hands slick with fat. We talked about the kids, about work, about our farm, about us. We chuckled about the fact that our notion of a date had somehow evolved to this point: A dead pig in pieces before us, our sons deep in the forest, their pack baskets laden with the implements of their trade. “Hey, at least I’m a cheap date,” said Penny. Damn straight, and only one of the many reasons I love the woman.

Penny on the stuffer

Penny on the stuffer

As someone who is still perhaps best known for writing a book about the local food movement, I frequently hear from folks who want to “get closer to their food” or some version thereof. Good for them, I say, with all sincerity. But the truth is, I know something they don’t: It’s not their food they’re looking to get closer to. Rather, it’s that same slightly uneasy sense of responsibility and intent I feel in the moments before I pull the trigger. It’s that same sense of satisfaction Penny and I feel as we wield our respective blades against the yielding flesh of the hog laid out before us. It’s that same sense of togetherness and common purpose toward the fundamental necessity of feeding our family. It’s that same sense of gratitude and awe that a meaningful life really can be as fundamentally simple as all this. I said “simple,” not “easy.”

So, yeah, it’s not food these people are looking to get closer to. It’s themselves. And the beauty of it is, it’s there. It’s right there.


October 25, 2013 § 22 Comments


There were some kimchi/kimchee related questions in yesterday’s comments that I will address soon, Also, at some point in the not-too-distant future, I intend to post about soil amending in more detail, partly in response to vpfarming’s occasional queries about the process that has resulted in our absurdly abundant gardens.

The issue of specific questions on this blog dovetails with the steadily increasing volume of other correspondence I’m receiving in relation to this site, my written work, or just life in general. Let me say right off the bat that I love hearing from folks. I mean, really, who wouldn’t? You’d have to be even more of a curmudgeon than I to realize it’s at least a minor honor that people take the time to reach out, either because they’re engaged enough to ask questions, or simply because something you’ve said or written has struck them. Besides which, whilst it may seem as if my life is just one raucous social event after another (this is a joke, because of course it couldn’t possibly seem like that), the inherent truth of the path we’ve chosen is that it’s, well, quiet. My paying work is primarily a solitary affair, occasionally bordering on lonely, and while I am immensely grateful for the company of my family, friends, and neighbors during day-in-day out goings-on of this little farm, I am also a gregarious fellow who sometimes craves more human interaction than this drowsy hill is capable of providing.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that I am struggling a bit with how to navigate the realities of the increasing readership of this site and to what extent I should devote my energies to satisfying that readership. I have to date invested only modest amounts of time and energy into this blog, and primarily to serve no one’s purpose but my own. But as traffic increases (don’t get me wrong, it’s still a humble fraction of what Jenna or Katz  or Amanda sees on a daily basis), I can’t help but consider its future. I am not quite so selfish as to not wonder if there might be ways I can make this space feel more inclusive, or simply useful. In other words, what purpose, really, should this site serve? Should I just ignore all the questions, because answering them takes time away from my paying work, or from the multitude of unfinished and unstarted tasks that await me? That’s hard for me to do, honestly. I like people. I enjoy sharing the knowledge and experience we are fortunate enough to have gleaned over the years, just as so many have so generously shared their knowledge and experience with us.

Complicating all this is the sticky reality of money. I try very hard to take my own advice and not allow money to master my emotions and spirit. Mostly, I think I’m pretty good at this. But I’m not so good that I can just will the stuff out of my life. That is not my reality, any more than it’s yours. I passionately believe that time and money should not be conflated, but I do not inhabit a society that shares this belief, and on some level, I must submit to the reality that the time I spend on this site, or answering questions via other mediums is time I can’t spend on the work that pays my family’s way in this world. We are not supported by  a trust fund. I did not cash out of a job in finance or tech. There’s nothing wrong with those paths; they just aren’t mine. What you see on this site – the books I have written, the links to magazine articles I’ve penned, the conferences and schools I’ve been lucky enough to speak at – are it. They are what pay for all the things we need but cannot provide for ourselves: Property taxes and diesel fuel, tractor parts and toilet paper. Soil amendments and snow tires.

Enough, already, eh? I hope none of you take this to mean that I don’t want to hear your questions or thoughts, because that is emphatically not the case. Truth is I want to hear more of them, though I might not always be able to reply. As has become my habit, I am merely using this space as a white board to work out the small questions of my life. And as always, I appreciate your support.

The Reward of Being Alive

October 24, 2013 § 23 Comments


On Sunday, we put up our annual kimchi harvest, which means that right now, there are 50-odd quarts of vegetables fermenting in the kitchen, and the house is redolent with the fetid odor of dirty socks. If you’ve done any quantity of lacto-fermenting (or been within a half-mile of Fin and Rye when they kick off their rubber boots on a July afternoon), you know exactly the smell I’m talking about. It is one of those smells – like cow shit, or the hot innards of a nice, fat hog – that I used to think of as unpleasant, but now consider emblematic of a very specific time, place, and process and therefore have come to appreciate.

Kimchi is a staple food for us; it is a large part of answer to the question I field frequently: “What do you do for green vegetables in the winter?” We eat a couple quarts of kimchi per week over the winter months; by April this becomes tiresome, which is mighty convenient, since by April we’re grazing the first early salads in the big, season-extending greenhouse off the southwest wall of the living room. It has been many years since we’ve purchased fresh vegetables in winter (which means it’s been many years since we’ve purchased fresh vegetables at all), and while I’m not suggesting anyone emulate this habit, I can report that’s it’s really not so bad. We’ve got the kimchi. We dig brussels sprouts and kale from under the first big snows. Carrots in the season-extending hoop house. Fermented green beans. And of course all the root crops. So, yeah, don’t come here in February expecting a plate of those trendy “micro-greens” or nothing like that. But if you want a big ol’ baked ‘tater with a dollop of summer gold (aka “butter”) and a side o’ fermented-something-or-other, we got you covered.


Our kimchi includes cabbage, kale, onion, garlic, ginger, radish, carrots, and, of course, salt. Penny’s none too big on spicy foods (the poor, deprived girl), so we throw matchbox peppers into a few quarts for me n’ the boys, but mostly, it’s pretty tame stuff. In fact, our kimchi is renown in our small circle of fermenting associates for being particularly sweet, a quality I can only attribute to our soil revitalization efforts. Every since we began amending seriously, all our vegetables have gotten sweeter. And bigger: Crikey but the cabbages we harvested this year. Behemoth things. We’d already planted fewer rows than ever before, knowing our yields were going through the freakin’ roof, but this year topped ’em all. Pretty soon, we’ll be growing a single cabbage each year, which we’ll harvest with Melvin’s round bale grabber.


Kimchi is one of those seasonal rituals we’ve always tackled as a family, every since the boys had to propped up in a corner to drool and coo and piss their pants. Oh, sure, the boys are prone to drifting in and out of the process, which is understandable, since we chop everything by hand (including, this year, the tip of the ring finger on my left hand, which escaped removal-by-knife by only the scantest of margins. Gonna be a hell of a scar, but Penny’s already told me she digs scars) and by the time it’s all chopped and pounded and jarred and whatnot, it’s a full day’s undertaking. But we’re glad for their help and I cannot deny gleaning a degree of satisfaction from the simple fact that they enjoy participating in work that is so tangibly productive and so essential to the health and well being of our family. And that they know the process so intimately – from the planting, to the tending, to the harvesting, to the processing, to the eating – and are fully aware of their role within it.

A typical scene: Penny working, me leaning against something

A typical scene: Penny working, me leaning against something

I have written before about ritual and about the need for children to contribute to the family and community in ways that are not merely abstract, but result in something both tangible and essential. But of course it is not merely children that need such things, and the older I get, the more I recognize how it is precisely that work which is tied to seasonal routine and results in some fundamental building block of my family’s survival (and perhaps even a handful of people beyond my family) that is most rewarding to me. Kimchi. Firewood. Haying. Sugaring. And so on.

I’m not sure exactly how to say it other than to note that there is something so damn real about these tasks. They are the ones that cost us little in money, but plenty in sweat. They cost us in sore muscles and, as evidenced by the bandages currently gracing my left hand, occasionally even blood. But the return is so much greater than the sum of all these small tolls. It is greater than all those bubbling, stinking jars of winter’s sustenance. It is greater, even, than the simple pleasure of my family coming together toward a common purpose. For me, anyway, it is nothing less than the reward of being alive. 



Gimme Shelter

October 22, 2013 § 10 Comments

Rye's latest

Rye’s latest

The boys are relentless shelter builders. Not infrequently, I’ll be walking in the woods and stumble across one I hadn’t even known existed, some little tucked-away space stocked with kindling wood and made weather tight by spruce boughs and layered leaves. Usually, they go to the trouble to fashion a small stone fire pit, over which they’ll cook some scrap of meat or a fresh-caught brook trout as fuel for the labor of construction.

In truth, they don’t spend much time in their shelters, and I often wonder what need or desire the act of building them fulfills. Perhaps they fantasize of escape, or maybe like Penny and me they derive an inherent satisfaction from the work itself. I don’t know, and I don’t ask. Nor does Penny. The shelters are theirs in full.

I’m glad the boys like to build shelters. So much of what children do and learn these days – hell, so much of what adults do and learn these days – is built on abstraction. It is relevant only to the extent we grant it relevance. Don’t get me wrong: Fin and Rye get plenty of this learning, too. That is good, because life can much, much more than what is strictly necessary. And besides, who’s to say what’s strictly necessary, anyway?

Still, I believe it is valuable for kids to do and learn in ways that are not abstract, that involve the body as well as the mind, and that result in something real and tangible and perhaps even better, of service. A shelter where once there was none. Food in a freezer that was previously empty. Or even just a piece of clothing mended by their own hand. Interestingly, this is precisely the sort of learning that is rapidly disappearing from public education in the wake of diminishing budgets and immersion into the the abstraction of technology.

One night last winter, in a January storm, Rye and I overnighted in one of his shelters. It was tight squeeze, but we slept well, and in the morning we awoke to six-inches of fresh snow. We made hot chocolate over a fire, and sipped it in the falling snow. Then we packed up our sleeping bags and skied home.

Where Am I?

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