When the Zombies Come We'll Eat Quinoa and Jam

This post started out as a poem with the same title.  The poem failed to survive the birthing process.  It happens sometimes.  I was taken with the line, though, so I ended up with this instead.

Years ago I made some comment to my mother about my friends with survivalist bents. She–who in her early 30s moved to the country, grew vegetables, and raised chickens–scoffed that anyone thought they had much chance in the case of major permanent supply-disrupting catostrophe. “When society breaks down,” she said, “you won’t be able to get rings to seal your canning jars.” Her point was, perhaps, not that I should learn to pickle. I live, after all, in a climate with no hope of rain 40% of the year (and only a very small chance of rain for another 25% of it). When civilization collapses my throat will turn to dust nearly as quickly as the first generations of Lactobacillus, crucial for turning cabbage to sauerkraut, begin to reproduce. Still, as I play more with food and learn more about fermentation, I think often of this conversation. Of course if I can just magic up some water when the end-times come, I won’t need to worry about keeping food since, with enough irrigation, you can grow something in LA in pretty much any season. And one of the things I find fascinating about living here is that I know so many people who grow something, even if it’s just one fruit tree’s worth. It is strange to me to live in so urban an environment but yet have gardening be an entirely normal thing among my friends (obviously this is, in part, because I select friends who garden; but enough coworker’s grow things too that I don’t think it’s entirely selection).

My experiments in food preservation actually have nothing to do with disaster preparedness (I will even go so far as to confess that though I have pretty much all the trappings of an earthquake kit, they aren’t all gathered in one place; and, indeed, some of the useful camping equipment is in the garage, which is inaccessible without electricity). I think I am more motivated by curiousity than anything else. I would like to understand what food might have looked like before trucks shipped water-logged tasteless tomatoes in February, a time when vegetables weren’t seasonless and locationless. This curiousity probably explains my tendency to sometimes attempt jams that require no commercially prepared pectin (but they typically require lots of citrus which, if you’re attempting to eat local, results in a recipe that’s pretty narrowly geographically appropriate).

My obsession with jam is probably really rooted in our kumquat tree. It grows in a square patch of dirt surrounded by concrete patio. I don’t water it more than a handful of times through the summer. I fertilize it sometimes. When I remember in spring time. And I mulch the soil with the fallen camelia flowers from the other side of the patio (because it is faster to sweep them into the square around the kumquat tree than it is to gather them for the compost pile). For this paltry effort I am rewarded with nearly infinite kumquats. Ignoring them seems wasteful, but when you can pick until you’re bored to tears and still not have made a dent in the supply, what are you supposed to do? My answer to this question is marmalade. This turns out to be a terribly labor intensive answer. However, this problem has a solution, too. I set up a cutting board on the coffee table and chop endlessly while filling my brain with stupid TV (my soap opera of choice lately is Grey’s Anatomy; somehow in less than a year I have watched through the first 7 seaons and by fall I’ll be watching it in real time). I’m pretty sure this was not my foremothers’ solution. On the other hand they probably recruited their older children to help with the cutting. Also, my foremothers were midwesterners so they didn’t have infinite kumquats to contend with (nor did they have day jobs and long commutes to suck up the time that could otherwise be used for canning). And so, winter before last, when I discovered that I could turn some of the infinite kumquats into something tasty that is pretty much impossible to buy at the supermarket I was hooked.

What I’m saying is that I cook and preserve food because I find it fun and interesting, and because I enjoy producing something that’s different (and often better) than what I could grab off a shelf somewhere. I don’t do it as a hedge against economic troubles. I don’t even really do it because I think it’s healthier than other alternatives (but it often likely is). I just do it because I enjoy it. Thus, I have become the kind of woman who regularly roasts a chicken on the weekend and then turns the carcass into soup to eat for lunch during the week (soup often crammed full of local organic veggies). The fact that I have a lot of friends who share my joy at making interesting food means that I often find myself with new sources of inspiration and new obsessions. Obsessions like shrub (also known sometimes as drinking vinegars). Fruit+sugar+vinegar=shrub. Add this sweet and tart syrup to soda water and it’s magical. (Also, I might add, a good thing to do with infinite kumquats).

I’ll admit, though, that I hoard food. You would never know, looking at my cupboard, that I don’t think of myself as hero material, that I know that I’m going to be bitten by a zombie at the beginning of the movie, and that I accept this. If you look at my cupboards you’ll think that I’ve stocked up and am prepared to fight to the end. The truth is my collection of non-perishables is not a concious insurance against anything. Or rather it is, but it’s a protection against having to go grocery shopping when I don’t want to (or having to eat something other than what I decided on before walking into the kitchen) not an attempt to stretch my money further or prepare myself for societal collapse. Somehow I go through these phases of buying lots of things I don’t want to run out of (note that this is not helped by the fact that he who does most of the grocery shopping in our household does this too).

Lately I’ve been stocking up on quinoa. I like quinoa a lot, a fact I frequently forget. So then I don’t cook it much and then I don’t buy it much and then I run out. And then I’ll go through a phase of buying it and cooking it a lot because I remember that I like it. Somehow, in the span of a month or two, I managed to forget I just bought quinoa enough times to end up with something close to four pounds of quinoa (which is about 40 servings worth). So no, I’m not planning for the apocalypse, but if the zombies come I think I’ll be able to survive on quinoa and jam for quite awhile, which is interestingly at the same time a stereotypically Californian and stereotypically Midwestern situation to be in.

The Revolution* will not be trademarked

There’s been a bit of a hubbub online lately about the Dervais Institute’s trademarking of the terms “urban homestead” and “urban homesteading” and their subsequent attempts to get bloggers and organizations to stop using these general terms. This would be totally laughable were it not for the fact that they succeeded in getting the facebook pages of organizations using the words in their titles pulled. They’ve also apparently sent a letter to google contesting (presumably in the inclusion of search results) an amazon author page that includes the book The Urban Homestead. The book was published in June, 2008. Dervaes Institute filed their trademark registration for “urban homestead” in September, 2008. Unsurprisingly, this sort of behavior has led to a rather large backlash against the family and their urban homesteading blog.

On their blog they claim that they did not actually send out cease and desist letters. However, the letter that they show clearly states that if you’re referring to them and their services on your blog you should add the trademark symbol and link to their website. And if you aren’t? Well then you it’s “proper,” they say, to use a more general term. One example of a more general phrase they give is “modern homesteading.” The problem, though, is that urban homesteading is a general term that predates any of their published work. Mother Earth News, for instance, used the term in the 1970s. (As a side note they don’t advertise on their website so I have no problem with sending plenty of traffic their way. People should read what they’re actually saying and they won’t make any money off it).

This would be nothing more than a somewhat amusing case of a business entity trying to enforce rights their trademark doesn’t actually give them were it not for the reasons that the Dervaes family gives for having pursued the trademarks in the first place. On the faq on their website they note their concern at big business using the phrases “urban homestead” and “urban homesteading” in green-washing campaigns. They claim that they trademarked the phrases for the good of the movement, to prevent big businesses from taking ownership of the phrases and taking them from the people. I wonder if the people they had in mind would include the Institute of Urban Homesteading in Oakland? Their facebook page was shut down because the Dervaes family complained and claimed it was a violation of their trademark. Arguably, given that the institute is giving classes and such they are in direct competition with the Pasadena-based Dervaes Institute. However, trademarking a term as general as urban homesteading, which was used frequently before you even began writing about it, and then going after others writing about it in the same way is pretty much akin to a business that serves pizza trademarking “pizza parlour” and then going after everyone else using that as part of their name.

The LA Weekly blog has a nice discussion of the whole thing. Ultimately what it comes down to in my mind is the fact that strategies involved with being a savvy business person are very often directly at odds with the strategies involved with widely promoting a social movement. This, by the way, is why I laugh at people who trot out Google’s old “don’t be evil” motto. Evil has nothing to do with it. The very point of publicly-traded corporations is to make money for their share-holders. And the way the rules are currently set up, often doing things that will maximize profit look evil. That strikes me more as an indictment of the system than it is of the corporations within it. On the other hand, insisting that you’re trying to promote a social movement and stand up for the little people when you’re behaving like a savvy, but blood-thirsty business person? It may not be evil, but it’s certainly hypocritical.

The other thing that jumps out at me about this situation is that Facebook’s policy seems to be act now ask questions later. So even if none of the organizations that have had their page pulled were actually infringing on the trademark in any way that would hold up in court, their pages are still down. The lesson here, seems to me to be that if you’re running a business and need to communicate online for said business, make sure you’re doing so someplace that you host and have more control over. Sure, have a facebook page but don’t make that be the primary place that you’re publicizing.

*I’ll note as an aside that I’m a gardener. I’m not urban homesteading (or suburban homesteading given that I live in an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County). I grow a little bit of food because I enjoy it. I don’t necessarily think that personal food-production is the revolution we need for food security (or any of the other food-related social problems that exist or may exist in the future). It’s not my movement but as someone interested in gardening and food and what local people are up to, I happened to follow the Dervaes facebook page (since removed) and came upon the controversy. Whatever I may happen to think of the politics of urban homesteading as a movement for social change, I still recognize it as a movement largely independent of what the Dervaes family has accomplished on their Pasadena lot (which is, undoubtedly, impressive; but then again if I had four adults working full-time on my yard it would be a paradise too). As for revolution, if it’s trademarked and/or a major source of profit, I’m going to go out on a limb and say it probably doesn’t fit my definition of revolution.

In defense of meat (or why your ancestors probably weren't vegans)

Sustainability is all the rage these days. She who buys the greenest stuff wins (no I won’t comment on the practice of running out to buy the coolest most environmentally friendly widget out there when one could just reuse an old widget or go without widgets entirely). One of the places where this comes up a lot is food. Eat local. Eat organic. To a point I think those are both very good ideas and deserve attention. And then we get to meat. There are those who argue that meat is never sustainable and argue that the only sustainable course of action is for everyone to go vegan, which is a bit ridiculous given that all the physical and historical evidence suggests that humans as animals are omnivores. (In the interest of full disclosure I will note that this post was inspired by the comment section of this post).

Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s a great deal wrong with factory farms and how we get our meat, milk, eggs, cheese, etc. (but I think there’s a great deal wrong with how most people get their vegetable matter too). Here’s the thing, though, animals play a pretty important role in feeding people. In fact, in some climates a local diet that includes no animal products would be pretty much impossible. Animals have the power to take things that we can’t or won’t eat and turn them into things we can and will eat (as a tremendously oversimple example, cows turn grass into milk). Arguments against eating meat for environmental reasons inevitable cite the number of acres necessary to produce food for a given animal versus the number of acres necessary to produce an equivalent number of calories from beans or other high protein plant product. Those are compelling arguments, but the thing is that they only work if you assume that all the land that would be used to feed the livestock could be used for agriculture. In practice the way things are set up now that assumption is usually true. Most animal feed is grown on land that could be used to feed people. However, if you want to be “sustainable” our current system of heavily irrigated and artificially fertilized agriculture doesn’t fit the bill. And once you start trying to produce the vast majority of food locally, in most areas you’ll find bits of land that aren’t well suited to agriculture for whatever reason but can produce things that animals can eat. And I suspect that many people trying to live off small acreage would find that supplementing your soybeans with eggs (and the occasional chicken old enough to not be a good layer anymore) is a good use of space.

Of course the problem with these arguments is that sustainability is pretty much a pipe dream given our current population levels and lifestyles. Current agriculture is based heavily on cheap oil. Our day-to-day lifestyle in this country is based heavily on the availability of cheap calories. There may be technological advances in the future that allow us to continue to produce sufficient cheap calories to allow most of a population of the current size to spend most of the day not worrying about procuring and preparing food but in the meantime pretty much nothing about our lifestyle is sustainable. Meat probably isn’t even likely to be the worst of it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for trying to eat lower down the food chain and paying attention to the source of your food and all that stuff that populates your life. But eating organic and local isn’t going to save us. Not even if we brow-beat others about how unsustainable eating a single chicken and a pound of ground beef per month is.

This is cool, but …

The LA Times has a photo spread today on the burgeoning roof garden at Blue on Blue. This is a really cool idea and I do sometimes have fantasies of a restaurant or cafe with fresh garden food from right outside the back door (but before I let that fantasy take up too much head space I need to manage to get my cooking and growing well enough linked that we’re eating significant quantities of garden food from the back yard). Container gardening with earthboxes (or homemade equivalents) in an otherwise unused area (like a roof) makes great sense. The thing that disheartened me, though, was the caption on photo 4, which ends “To start, he planted seedlings that lend themselves to garnishes — mache, basil and mint.” They also talk about arugula. Though the story doesn’t specify that this was also grown from seedlings, I suspect it was. Ok people, mint from seedlings is fine (mint can also easily be started from cuttings so if you have healthy mint and just want another container of it that’s an option). But why, oh why, would you not grow basil, mache, and arugula from seed? They’re all easy to grow, and particularly in the case of basil there are so many more varieties available in seed form than in seedling form. Seriously, if you’re intrigued by the idea of fresh herbs, consider starting some of the easy ones from seed. Then you can be like me and own something like eight different varieties of basil seed. Collect them all!

The frosting on the math puzzle

So one of the side effects of living with a math/computer geek is that often reading material I would never encounter on my own appears around the house. For instance, Communications of the ACM, which I found open to the last page, title “Puzzled: Circular Food.” Skimming this my attention was drawn to the second puzzle. Now I’m not really a math type by any stretch of the imagination* but even I can tell you that the following puzzle is unsolvable as written:

A cylindrical ice-cream cake with the most scrumptious chocolate frosting on top is sitting on a table. As an expert cake cutter, you choose an arbitrary angle x and proceed to cut one wedge after another, counterclockwise, around the cake, each of angle exactly x. However, each time you cut a wedge, you turn that piece upside-down and slide it back into the cake. This puts the frosting on the bottom at first, but as you work your way around and around the cake, the frosting comes back up to the top, then returns to the bottom, and so forth. Your mission is to prove that after some finite number of slices all the frosting will be back on top of the cake.

So what’s the problem? There is an assumption embedded in this problem that is patently not true. If you really were to flip a single piece of frosted cake upside down and then right side up again you could do that an infinite number of times and still not end up with all the frosting back on top. The one exception, perhaps, is if it had something like a rolled fondant frosting. However, I argue that the specification of a “most scrumptious chocolate frosting” rules out fondant. Besides, fondant doesn’t freeze well so it would be an odd choice for an ice-cream cake. I think the author here is assuming that frosting on an ice-cream cake is solid enough to resist squishing and sticking to the plate when flipped upside down. I think, though, that this demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of cake physics.

I would revise this problem as follows:

An unfrosted cylindrical two-layer cake with a bottom layer of white cake and a top layer of chocolate cake is sitting on the table….

Then substitute chocolate layer for frosting in the rest of the problem. The cake won’t be as tasty but at least the question works. Besides if you’re eating hypothetical math cakes you have bigger problems than the relative tastiness.

And yes, I know that the fact that I obsessed enough about this to figure out how to make the problem work makes me my own type of geek. I’m ok with that. And no, I still have no idea how to go about solving the actual problem.

*Note that I don’t mean I’m not a math type in comparison to the general population since I imagine a lot of people would conclude that, given that my work all involves statistics, I’m a math whiz. I mean I’m not a math type in comparison to B. and the many friends I have who might have some idea how to start thinking about these puzzles (in a way that doesn’t nitpick the puzzle itself).

Forget slow food, or local food, let's talk volunteer food.

I garden. Those who know me personally may have noticed that I have a tendency to fall behind when walking or occasionally drift off during conversations outside. When walking I get distracted by plants, wanting to know what they are. volunteer tomatoesWhen talking I get distracted by space, start fantasizing about how else it could be landscaped, or what little things could be done to improve the existing landscape features. You might think that these tendencies would mean that I’d have a nice pristine back yard with a productive vegetable garden. This impression couldn’t be further from the truth. My back yard is a disaster area. Everything is in flux and anything I’m not currently working on establishing has pretty much been left to its own devices. In Southern California this basically means lots of brown grass. I haven’t mowed the back area since May, but since we typically only get rain October through May this hasn’t resulted in the overgrown jungle that an ignored area can become in less arid climates. I have a couple of areas where I’m actively trying to get native and low-water plants established, which look a little better, but not much. Meanwhile my vegetable garden, which does get regular water, is a tangled patch of green. It is producing food, but not nearly as much as I might hope. In part this is due to neglect (it’s hot and I’m lazy). In part it’s because we had a hot spring and I did a bunch of traveling this summer and I just haven’t been able to catch up on fixing the problems that started early. And in part it’s because I didn’t realize that cutting back some of the branches on the neighboring tree in the spring wouldn’t prevent said tree from sending out more branches and leaves over the garden spot, causing many of my plants to end up in much deeper shade than I’d anticipated. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the garden I planted is a failure but it’s certainly a bit of a disappointment.

However, the garden I planted is not what I really want to talk about. What I want to talk about is the garden I didn’t plant, the things that came up on their own, what gardeners call “volunteers.” This year I succeeded in growing spaghetti squash and tomatoes without even really trying. They came up in non-ideal soil, received infrequent and irregular water and thrived. The bowl shown here is what I picked this morning, and there’s plenty more where those came from.

Continue reading “Forget slow food, or local food, let's talk volunteer food.”

Plea for book/article suggestions

Ok, so people who know me know that I’m pretty obsessed with food. I always have been. Fortunately lately I’m obsessed with growing food, cooking food, and exploring new food. This is a great improvement over when I was fifteen and obsessed with the calories in food and how to avoid said food without my mother noticing. And it’s also better than my first couple of years of college when I lived on a very limited dorm-food diet (most of my protein came from dairy and eggs because the meat was scary) and was obsessed by fantasies of tasty home-cooked food, particularly my mother’s vegetable soups.

I’m slowly reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral and I fully intend to get to Michael Pollan’s two recent food books soon as well. I’ve also been reading a lot of gardening blogs and the great sociology blog on food, critical eating. All of this has me thinking a lot about where food comes from, the connections between farming and the environment, and the general politics of agriculture. Well, I’d like to be thinking about the general politics of agriculture but I don’t really know enough to form any sort of coherent analysis. I know there’s a whole system of subsidies. I know this country has shifted to a lot of factory farming. I know that understanding some of the ins and outs of free trade requires understanding farm policy. But beyond that I’m virtually clueless, which is pretty embarassing given that I grew up surrounded by farmland (though my family never farmed).

Can anyone point me towards good histories of farm policy in this country? I’d like to understand what the current policies are, where they came from, and what interest groups were involved. I don’t really have a clue where to start, short of combing through syllabuses online for pieces that look interesting. Since I’m shortly going to be heading into a period of unemployment and job searching it seems like a good time to put together a reading list to expand my knowledge on the subject.

p.s. Yes, I know, asking for reading suggestions implies that I think I actually have more than a small handful of readers. There is no evidence to support this assumption but I’m an optimist.