Pure Vegan

Root Simple pal Joseph Shuldiner has pulled off something of a miracle with his new book Pure Vegan: 70 Recipes for Beautiful Meals and Clean Living. You’ll find no bizarre attempts to mimic meat. Ted Nugent might even dig the recipes in this book if you didn’t show him the cover.

Shuldiner has no agenda other than cooking up pure deliciousness. The recipes in this book just happen to be vegan. What you will find are some of my favorite ethnic foods: a nut mixture called Dukkah and roasted red pepper paste from Armenia called muhammarah. There’s also an idiot proof bread recipe that I teach at the Institute for Domestic Technology that Shuldiner runs. And, do I need to mention the vegan cocktails?

Full disclosure: Kelly and I helped test a few of the recipes in this book. Neither of us are vegans, but I’d happily make this book a part of our library and use it when the Nuge comes over for dinner.

The Return of the Fraternal Society

A member of the Woodmen of the World with his ceremonial axe from phoenixmasonry.org

Archdruid John Michael Greer, by his own admission, likes to dust off forgotten ideas and give them another chance at life. One of those dusty notions Greer has mention in passing is the fraternal organization. Greer is both a Druid and a Freemason. In this time of economic uncertainty, I suspect that Greer is on to something. It may be time for the revival of the fraternal organization.

Fraternal societies provide a number of benefits:

  • A “third place,” i.e. a gathering spot outside of the home and work.
  • A social safety net.
  • Moral and spiritual guidance.
  • A model for and way to practice self-governance in small groups. 

We have very few non-commercial “third places” in the US. Starbucks calls itself a third place, but you have to pay and follow the company’s rules while you sip your latte. As to our social safety net, our nation’s debt levels call into question the long term survival of things like Social Security and Medicare. And, fraternal groups have a long history of providing a model for how to run a meeting as well as non-sectarian moral and spiritual wisdom.

There is, of course, a downside to fraternal organizations. One need only think of the KKK to recall a long history of racism. But, I believe, fraternal organizations could be revived and reformed along more egalitarian lines. And it might be wise to act soon to get alternative support networks in place should times get worse.

A Very Brief History of Fraternal Organizations

Nineteenth century America had hundreds of different fraternities, everything from the Knights of Pythias to the Order of Owls. The grandaddy of them all is, of course, Freemasonry. Take a look at the rituals of any of these 19th century organizations and you’ll see that most of them are simply offshoots of the Freemasons.

Yes, there are women Freemasons

What we now know as Freemasonry grew out of mason’s guilds sometime in the 16th century, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Women, incidentally, were made Freemasons in France beginning in the early 18th century. In the French, Spanish and Italian speaking parts of the world Freemasonry is co-ed.

Freemasonry in the US lost much of its political, social and spiritual content in the wake of a scandal that took place in the 1820s. From that point on it became what some have called “Rotary with ritual.” That is, just a social club with some strange outfits and, in the case of the Shriners and after-hours “side degrees,” some silly rituals like riding a fake goat or driving around in tiny cars.

The baby boomer generation simply did not join fraternal organizations and membership swiftly declined until just recently. To some extent, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have fulfilled some of the roles fraternal organizations used to play. And women entering the workforce means that there is less time for the after work hijinks of the lodge room.

A new generation of men now reaching middle age is looking into Freemasonry once again, and some of the original values of “the craft” are being revisited (see this article from the LA Times for more on changing Masonic demographics). Freemasonry is also growing in continental Europe and is very important in Spanish speaking immigrant communities in the US (again, continental European and Spanish speaking lodges are sometimes co-ed).

Why is a Homesteading Blog Talking about Fraternal Organizations?

The urban homestead movement is, in part, about forming networks to boost the resilience of our communities. This includes self-help and mutual aid–benefits provided by fraternal societies prior to the New Deal era. It seems risky to assume that our current social safety net will be in place forever. I think we need a backup plan. Religious institutions can be part of that backup plan, but fraternal groups can provide a crucial link between people that cuts across religious, racial and economic divisions.

But if fraternal groups have any hope of success they will, this time around, need to stress racial and gender equality and not repeat the discriminatory errors of the past (and unfortunately the present). Meetup.com is a great tool to develop communities unified by interest, but it does not guarantee that you’ll meet people different (by race, economic class, profession) than yourself. And Facebook is just about making Mark Zuckerberg rich.

Fraternal organizations may or may not be the best vehicle for building community, I’m not entirely sure. But I think we will see their revival soon. I’m very interested in hearing what you think of the idea. Do you belong to a fraternal group? Do you think it’s an idea whose time has returned or something that should be relegated to the dust bin of history?

For more on the dozens of 19th century fraternal groups that used to be active in America see the online Masonic Museum

Kelly chimes in on Erik’s thoughstyling: While I agree that grass-roots based social safety nets may be invaluable in the future, I’m not as sanguine about fraternal organizations as Erik. Why? Because I am female. It seems to me that these organizations would have to be reinvented from the top down to be of use to 50% of the population–and I’m only talking about gender here, not race, which is a complicated issue I’m not as qualified to speak to. And it’s hard to reinvent a living organization full of people who like the organization exactly as it is. Although I’ll admit I’m mostly thinking about American Freemasons when I say this, because I know some other societies have gone co-ed. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about a revival, because I like the idea of people of all sorts getting together, sharing ideas (and ideals), sharing face time and helping each other, but…well…I’m skeptical that existing fraternal societies will be the vehicle for that. Maybe with the right leadership. Or perhaps one started from scratch would be more viable. (The Homesteaders? The Canners? The League of Public Transport Aficionados?) Also, I’m also wondering if face-to-face meetings can ever compete with the isolating siren-song of the Internet. I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Clicker Training Chickens

Our new pullets aren’t as used to being handled as were our last flock of hens. And because they don’t come when called, they can’t leave the chicken run to wander the yard.

So I’m working on training them. I know I could do more, but for now all I’m doing is taking special treats to them once a day and feeding them while making my chicken call (cheeck-cheeck-cheeck). They’re beginning to associate me and the call with treats. This doesn’t mean they trust me yet, but at least they have started making greeting noises when they see me. I hunker down in the run with the treats and hold very still. I put the treats close to me and make them come near to get them. The boldest one will sometimes take a treat from my hand.

This may work eventually. Or I could step up my game. Do you know that chickens can be clicker trained? My dog trainer friend tells me that in dog training seminars, trainers are often taught clicker training (a form of positive reinforcement) with chickens instead of dogs. This is because chickens are 100% food motivated and learn fast. Also, using hens takes away the potential mind games that occur between dog and trainer. Free of that distraction, the trainer learns the correct rhythm for training. It’s pure stimulus-response–reward.

Here’s a video of a chick learning the basics. You can find others of this sort on Youtube:

You might be able to find a chicken training seminar in your area, probably under the banner of dog training. With the rise of urban chicken-pets I think there is opportunity to be had in offering classes for would be chicken trainers. Googling around, I found this one in Lake Oswego, Oregon which is booked months in advance.

Have you trained your chickens to do anything?

Saturday Linkages: Of Sewer Hunting and Fermented Lemonade

Fermented Lemonade: http://thecultivatedlife.wordpress.com/2012/07/06/ho- 

http://Bedroom Almanac: Wall Decor Changes With Lunar Cycle dornob.com/bedroom-almana 

How to Sew on a Button | The Art of Manliness http://artofmanliness.com/2012/06/28/sew 

Sewer hunting–the worst job ever: http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/history/2012/0 

Silver Lake’s Vertical Garden Gets Peeled Away: http://www.theeastsiderla.com/2012/07/silver  

10 Tips for Dealing with People Who Dominate Your Meetings http://wp.me/pKcwR-71 

Follow the Root Simple twitter feed for more linkages.

Scrambled Eggs, Tomatoes and Bulgar

I believe we’ve mentioned Vegetarian Dishes from the Middle East by Arto Der Haroutunian here before. Given our obsession with our local Armenian supermarket it’s a must-have reference in our house. Lately we’re overwhelmed by eggs. I went to this book looking for something new to do with eggs and whatever basic ingredients I had in the pantry. I tried this recipe and liked it very much. It’s not pretty. It’s quick and tasty comfort food. I think it will be going on regular rotation.

The description says it was served in taverns throughout Turkey and Armenia early this century. I like to imagine sitting in a shadowy cool tavern eating this with fresh flat bread and drinking a cool beer.

It’s basically a simple scramble made substantial with bulgar wheat (aka burghul). See notes below for more on this ingredient.

Havgtov Tzavar (burghul with eggs)

1 onion, finely chopped
About 1 pound of tomatoes, either canned or fresh ones which have been blanched, peeled and chopped
4 ounces of fine bulgar wheat (the package may read #1/fine) (aka burghul)*
6 eggs
Spring/green onions for garnish, chopped
oil and/or butter for frying
salt, pepper, chili pepper

Two frying pans, one with a lid


Start by frying the onion in oil until soft. Then add the tomatoes and salt to taste. Simmer for about ten minutes, stirring occassionally, until the mixture thickens some.

Meanwhile put the bulgar in a bowl and rinse it with water until the water runs clear.  When the tomatoes and onions have had their 10 minutes in the pan, add the bulgar and stir it in well. Then put  a lid on the pan and set it aside for 10 minutes or so. (This is all the cooking the bulgar needs.)

Go to your other pan and scramble the eggs– be sure to add salt, pepper and a little chili pepper or powder for heat, if you want.

Cook the eggs until they’re just set, then dump them into the pan with the the tomato mix and toss.

Transfer to the serving dish immediately, garnishing with the green onions. Enjoy

*Regarding bulgar wheat aka burghul: This is whole wheat which has been parboiled, dried and ground. You may be most familiar with bulgar as the grain found in tabbouleh salad. Look for it in health food stores and Middle Eastern grocery stores or in the specialty aisles of some supermarkets. In the U.S. (and maybe elsewhere) it is sold in 4 different grinds, #1 being the finest and #4 the coarsest. These numbers are on the packaging. This recipe calls for the fine grind, which almost looks like Cream of Wheat, but is not quite that fine.

**Regarding substitutions:  I know there will be substitution questions, because there always are. Fine bulgar is really fine and creates a very specific texture, so I don’t know of any direct substitution. Couscous is the closest, but not quite the same. So while I’d say you can’t recreate this recipe exact to spirit without fine bulgar, I will also say that scrambled eggs tossed with pre-cooked grains of different sorts can be quite good–even if they are not Havgtov Tzavar. Try using cooked leftover rice, for instance, and see what happens. I also like the old Italian trick of scrambling eggs with leftover pasta (and leftover sauce if you’ve got it), which is something different altogether, but quite good.

News from the Kat Kingdom at Root Simple

Meet Buck.

Warning: Shameless, meandering cat narrative ahead. If you don’t like cats, all you can do at this point is turn away and sigh.

The big news here is that we’ve been suckered into taking another kitten–but there will be no more! We will not turn into crazy cat collectors. As it is, keeping three cats in this tiny house is ridiculous. They’re always everywhere, always staring at you, or tripping you, or sitting where you want to sit. We’d sworn only to have two cats, but two factors intervened. One is our neighbor Anne. The other is the shadow of the Grim Reaper.

Factor 1: Anne is a dangerous neighbor because she almost always has a kitten (or other needful creature) on hand, and can be quite ruthless in her drive to find them homes. The story behind this particular kitten is that a neighbor girl came to Anne and led her to a tiny kitten laying cold and dehydrated in a driveway, somehow separated from its litter. Anne said he was so far gone as to be stiff, and she thought he was a goner, but given some milk and warmth he rose up like Lazarus himself. (Or as Lazarus would be, had Lazarus been blessed with four white paws a perky little tail.) I saw him that same day and fed him a bottle. Anne is very good at tricking one into getting emotionally involved with the foundlings–this is how she got us to take the other two.  And to cut a long story short, that is how she got us to take this one.

Factor 1-B: I should mention that the kitten was a dead ringer for Trout at that age. I think they share genetics, as they come from the same street. It was very hard to reject a mini-Trout.

Factor 2: Phoebe seems happy and well enough right now (I don’t think you’d guess she was sick if you saw her), but medically speaking she is in decline. She has officially commenced heart failure, which means her lifespan is now measured in months. In fact, at a recent visit to the vet we found out she has not one but two distinct heart diseases, and the newly identified one is very rare in young cats. The vet is fascinated by her case. But it doesn’t change her outcome much, just makes it all the more inevitable.

Obviously she doesn’t have a lot of energy, but Trout does. The resulting dynamic between the two of them had become slightly worrisome. She could play with him for a bit, but then needed to rest. Trout didn’t understand that and would regularly disturb her naps by pouncing on her. She is pretty good about holding boundaries, and Trout is not too much of a jerk, but nonetheless when this kitten offer came around we realized a kitten would be an excellent distraction for Trout.

So yes, we basically we adopted this kitten as a toy for Trout– a toy that looks just like him. For some reason this reminds me of little girls with their American Girl dolls, dressed in identical outfits, playing in a solipsistic world. But anyway, it’s worked out well.

Of course we were worried about the “what ifs”  –  What if Trout and the kitten didn’t get along? What if the kitten beat up on Phoebe? But we trusted what we knew about all of them to believe it would all be fine.

The transition went like this: We threw them all together, but watched them. Trout was thrilled and stalked the kitten for the first day. The kitten was less than thrilled and bristled and yowled at Trout, and Trout would back off.  On the second day, someone threw a magic switch and all of a sudden the kitten and Trout were chasing, then they were wrestling, then they were spitting on their paws and promising to be blood brothers for ever and ever.

Phoebe, on the other hand, was horrified by the new arrival. She clutched her pearls and hissed and wouldn’t be in the same room as the kitten. But she would avidly watch him around corners. And after two days of sputtering indignation she got bored and came out to observe the kitten from high spots. After four days she and the kitten were playing chase games. At the end of the week all three cats were sleeping on our bed. We decided we would definitely keep him.

We named the kitten Buck. He’s bold and affectionate and eats like an alligator and though he is currently Trout’s toy, will likely rule the house very soon.

The two boys play and snuggle together as Phoebe and Trout never have. Phoebe is dignified and standoffish, whereas Trout is a goofball. In Buck he’s met his match. As a pair they generate cuteness levels that can actually make you lightheaded. They play all day, every day, and then sleep together in adorable postures. We spend far too much time watching those cats with glazed, stupid looks on our faces. Household productivity is way, way down.

Meanwhile, like us, Phoebe seems genuinely entertained by watching the boys. If Buck is Trout’s toy, the two of them together are Phoebe’s television set. She gets to sleep unmolested, and when it suits her, she plays with both of them. So all is well.

Phoebe kindly attends to our filing, to make up for lost household productivity

Five Gallon Ideas: A Blog Devoted to the Five Gallon Bucket

I’ve got a new favorite blog: Five Gallon Ideas which is, as you might have guessed, devoted to what to do with five gallon buckets. Incidentally, my favorite place to find five gallon buckets is behind bad bakeries–the sort that go through buckets of crappy frosting. My favorite use for five gallon buckets? Self Irrigating Pots, of course!

Let us know where you scavenge five gallon buckets and what you like to do with them.

Qualitites of a Good Outdoor Room

Our front porch.

One of the features of gardens that I like is that they tend to be divided into smaller spaces, what has come to be called outdoor rooms. The Ecology Center, that we visited on Saturday, is a nice example of how to arrange a large space into many smaller ones. Just like the Huntington Ranch, the Ecology Center is subdivided into distinct spaces that host school visits and classes. Well designed residential gardens, like guest blogger Nancy Klehm’s, also leverage small outdoor rooms to make a small space seem bigger and to provide pleasant spots to read, meditate, use as an outdoor office, or host gatherings.

Our arbor and earth oven.

Outdoor rooms can be as simple as an area of mulch or gravel surrounded by shrubs. Or they can be much more elaborate affairs incorporating arbors, tables and decks. Their greatest benefit may simply be in getting us outside to commune with nature for at least a few minutes a day.

My ugly outdoor home office near the chicken coop.

We’re in the middle of a year of re-designing our garden and there’s still a lot of work to do. As a part of this process I’ve been trying to figure out why I prefer sitting on the front porch to sitting in the backyard. I came to the conclusion that the front porch works better as an outdoor room than the spaces we have in the backyard. I think it’s because the porch better embodies qualities that make for a successful outdoor room. Those qualities are:

  • A sense of enclosure or shelter
  • A view
  • Some shelter from the elements (in our climate that’s the sun)
  • A ground treatment that sets it apart from the rest of the yard (could just be mulch or could be concrete or wood)
  • A place to sit
  • Art, objects, i.e. some human touch

With these ideas in mind, how can I improve the outdoor spaces in the photos in this post? On the front porch I could add a small table to hold a book and a glass of beer. The space with the stove needs shelter from the sun during the morning (in another year the grapes will cover the arbor but until that time maybe I need to string up some shading). The earth oven we built definitely improved the “roomedness” of this space, creating a sense of enclosure and providing a focus. But I clearly need to construct something to hold the wood for that oven so as not to create a cluttered view. The last photo, of the area by the chicken coop, is obviously a disaster. Cleaning up will help, but the space also needs more of a sense of enclosure and a larger footprint to accommodate the table. A vine to cover the trellis would also help.

So what do you think makes for a successful outdoor room? Is there something I left off the list? What is your favorite space to sit in the garden and why do you like that particular spot?

The Ecology Center of San Juan Capistrano

Kelly and I had the privilege of doing a short talk this weekend at the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. If you’re interested in Southern California food forestry, greywater, chickens, you name it, this is the place to visit. They have an amazing garden, classes and a well curated gift store. When people ask us how to design garden and house systems in SoCal, we’re going to send them to the Ecology Center.