Thoughts On the Egg Recall

An AP reporter just called to ask for my comment on the recent egg recall. He asked if I thought more people would start backyard chicken flocks. I said yes, adding that I believed that a “distributed” form of agriculture, i.e. many more people keeping small numbers of animals rather than small numbers of professionals in charge of tens of thousands of birds, would lead to greater food safety. Backyard flocks can get infected with salmonella. But if my birds get infected only two people get sick rather than 2,000. I can also keep a better eye on my flock’s health and rodent issues than can a minimum wage employee in charge of 10,000 hens. A small farmer has the same advantages–literally fewer eggs in one basket.

I went on to get up on my high horse and suggested that our current agricultural system goes against nature. As Heraclitus puts it, “Though the logos is common, the many live as if they had a wisdom of their own.” By the “logos” Heraclitus means the underlying, ordering principles of the universe. Applied to a chicken those underlying principles are that a chicken is a bird and that birds in nature have access to dirt, bugs, sunlight and vegetation. To keep them in battery cages under artificial light is a kind of arrogance, an assumption that we humans know exactly what a chicken needs, that we have a “wisdom of our own.” Admittedly, a chicken is domesticated animal, but that doesn’t give us the right to make the kinds of sudden, radical changes in animal husbandry that have been made in the past hundred years. To go against the logos is to court catastrophic failure.

All is Fire

Photo by Olivier Ffrench

Scholar, former Wall Street trader and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb is in his native Lebanon this week shopping for olive groves, according to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal (enter “Taleb’s Pessimism Lures CIC” in Google to get around the pay wall). Taleb explains, “Healthy investments are those that produce goods that humans need to consume, not flat-screen TVs. Stocks are not a robust investment. Make sure you have a garden that bears fruits.”

Amen to that. Taleb’s book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable along with Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic and the fragments of Heraclitus are what I point people to when they ask, “so why do you do these things, gardening, pickling, brewing etc.” Invoking these stoic philosophers both ancient and modern is along winded and perhaps pretentious way of saying that I believe, along with Taleb, that the “highly improbable” is more probable than we think and that it’s best to do the things within our power to do and not worry about what’s going on beyond what we can change.

That China’s Sovereign-Wealth Fund is considering investing in the bearish (to put it mildly) investment fund Taleb advises worries me. Time to turn that RiteAid parking lot into an olive grove! I’ll rent the jackhammers–any volunteers?

Seltzer Works Doc Screens on PBS

Photo by Film First Co/ Ben Wolf

Seltzer Works, a seven minute mini-documentary about one of the last seltzer fillers, Kenny Gomberg of Brooklyn, will screen Tuesday August 24th at 10 p.m. (check local listings) on PBS’s Point of View series. Filmmaker Jessica Edwards, directed this engaging short.

Photo by Film First Co/ Ben Wolf

The thick glass bottles Gomberg uses allow him to carbonate at much greater pressure than either store bought or home carbonating systems. And the valve on those old bottles allows for dispensing seltzer without the entire bottle losing pressure. As Gomberg points put it in Seltzer Works, good seltzer should tickle the back of the throat when you drink it. And, of course, those bottles get reused over and over again.  

A publicist for PBS sent me a copy of Seltzer Works, and the shots of Gomberg’s beautiful old machinery alone are worth making sure to catch this short, which screens along with a feature documentary The Edge of Dreaming (which I have not screened).

I fondly remember seltzer delivery here in Los Angeles. Every week a deliveryman would drop off a case at the photo lab I worked at in the early 1980s. But, as far as I can tell, Los Angeles no longer has any seltzer delivery companies. As Gomberg says, “It’s not just a drink, it’s a piece of history.” I suspect that this piece of history may make a comeback. We’ve seen a cocktail renaissance of late. What about the decent seltzer required for those cocktails?

Seltzer Works website: http://www.seltzerworks.com/

Raw Milk Talk by Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures Saturday August 28th

Mark McAfee, founder and CEO of raw milk dairy Organic Pastures, will speak Saturday August 28th at 2 pm at the Altadena Community Center, located at 730 E. Altadena Drive in Altadena. McAfee is a compelling and lively speaker and the owner of the first raw dairy in California with certified organic pasture land. I heard him speak before and some of the stories he tells of raids by overzealous government agents are right out of a Western. This talk is simply not to be missed. The event is open to the public, free and Organic Pastures milk will be availiable for tasting. For more information contact [email protected].

To read more about McAfee and his dairy, see this article by the Rodale Institute, “Simple, complex and raw: the amazing success of Organic Pastures Dairy.

LA Times Calls Vertical Gardens in a Dry Climate a Bad Idea

Wooly Pockets at Homeboy Industries

Writing for the LA Times, Emily Green has penned a skeptical look at wall-based growing, “The Dry Garden: A skeptic’s view of vertical gardens.” I’m in complete agreement with Green and wrote about this silly trend back in July. Says Green of a garden in Culver City that uses the Wooly Pocket vertical system,

“The concrete wall behind the bagged-and-hung garden is wet with runoff from an automated drip system. The sacks are calcified with irrigation scale. Even in an open-air setting, get close and there is a whiff of mold. It’s hard to imagine a less savory or more whimsically destructive system for a region in a water crisis.”

Amen. We need more critical thinking like this, especially when it comes to schemes with “eco” or “sustainable” pretensions.

Plantago coronopus, a.k.a. Buckhorn Plantain, a.k.a. Erba Stella

Cruise down the produce isle of a supermarket in the United States and you’ll only find highly domesticated foods. Thumb through the pages of the Silver Spoon (the Joy of Cooking of Italian Cuisine) and you’ll discover entire chapters devoted to the use of wild or semi-wild plants.

This summer I grew one of these semi-cultivated Italian vegetables, Buckhorn plantain (Plantago coronopus) also known as Erba Stella and Barba di frate (friar’s beard). It’s a mild, ever so slightly bitter green I found delicious boiled and sauteed with garlic and olive oil. The Silver Spoon suggests cooking it with either pancetta or anchovies.

As for growing Plantago coronopus, let me put it this way, if you can’t grow it consider giving up gardening. I left some in my seedling flat and, with just three inches of soil, it produced a viable crop. It’s a weed. While I’ve seen it described as a cool weather green, it grew fine this summer (admittedly a very mild summer here in Los Angeles). Do an English language search for this plant on the interwebs and you’ll get tips on the right herbicide to use to rid your lawn of it.

Another winner from Franchi seed company!

A Hotel for Insects

To celebrate 2010, the International Year of Biodiversity, British Land and the City of London sponsored a design competition for a “Hotel for Insects.” Arup Associates won with the design above. The rules stipulated that the hotel had to accommodate stag beetles, solitary bees, butterflies, moths, spiders, lacewings and ladybugs.

Read the full article here Thanks to Leonardo of the Backwards Beekeepers for the tip.

See some other examples of attractive solitary bee habitats at http://www.wildbienen.de/wbschutz.htm.  It’s in German, but the pictures speak for themselves.

Low Sugar Prickly Pear Jelly Recipe

Few plants have as many uses as the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica). In our climate it grows like a weed, with no supplemental irrigation, and produces a voluminous amount of edible pads and fruit. In addition to food, Opuntia provides medicinal compounds, a hair conditioner, building materials and habitat for the red dye producing cochineal scale insect. As for the fruit, you can consume it raw, dry it or make jelly. Several years ago I posted a recipe for prickly pear jelly. But the large amount of sugar in that recipe, in my opinion, covered up the subtle taste of the fruit. I’ve concocted a new prickly pear jelly using low-sugar pectin that substantially reduces the amount of sugar.

Low Sugar Prickly Pear Jelly
4 cups prickly pear juice (requires around four pounds of fruit)
1/2 cup lemon juice
3 cups sugar
1 package low sugar pectin (1.75 ounces)

1. Burn off the spines by holding the fruit over a burner on the stove for a few seconds.
2. Quarter the fruit and place in a pot. Cover with water (around 2 1/2 cups). Boil for ten minutes. Crush the fruit with a potato masher.  Update 12/5/2012: I now recommend using a food mill, though the boiling technique also works. See our post on using a food mill to juice prickly pear fruit.
3. Strain through two sheets of cheesecloth placed in a colander. Gather up the corners of the cheesecloth and give the pulp a squeeze to extract as much juice as you can.
4. Pour four cups of the prickly pear juice into a pot and add a half cup of lemon juice.
5. Mix a quarter cup of the sugar and a package of low/no sugar pectin and add to the juice.
6. Bring the mixture to a full boil.
7. Add the remaining sugar and bring back to a full boil. Boil for one minute, stirring constantly.
8. Pour into six 8 oz jars.
9. Process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes.

Prickly pear fruit (called “tuna” in Mexico) come in a variety of colors. My plants make an orange fruit that matures in August. I love the taste of the fresh fruit, but it’s a bit of an acquired taste due to the abundant seeds and the nasty spines (technically called glochids).

Unlike a lot of jelly recipes floating around the interwebs, I guarantee that this one works. It basically follows the ratios and instructions for red raspberry jelly as detailed in the Sure Jell pectin box. In my experience with jam and jelly recipes, sticking with the directions in the pectin box yields consistent results. And stay tuned for a video I shot on how to make this jelly.

Update: Green Roof Grower Bruce wrote to suggest using Pomonas Universal Pectin to reduce the sugar level of this recipe even further. I’m going to give it a try. In the meantime the folks behind Pomona’s have a very similar recipe for prickly pear jelly that uses less sugarhere (pdf).
Update 8/28/2010:  I tried the Pomonas Universal Pectin prickly pear jelly recipe linked to above. It works, and uses one cup less sugar than my recipe above. The color is also more vibrant due to the larger percentage of fruit. However, both Mrs. Homegrown and Homegrown Neighbor found the more gelatinous consistency of the Pomonas prickly pear jelly objectionable. Verdict: for now I’m going to stick with SureJell or equivalent.

Self Irrigating Pot Patent from 1917

I’ve often blogged about the convenience of self irrigating pots (SIPs), containers that have a built-in reservoir of water at the bottom. They work well for growing vegetables on patios and rooftops. You can make your own or purchase one from several manufacturers. I had thought that Blake Whisenant, a Florida tomato grower and Earthbox company founder, had invented the SIP in the 1990s, but it turns out that the idea came much earlier. Reader Avi Solomon, sent me a surprising link to a patent for a SIP, dated 1917, by a Lewis E. Burleigh of Chicago. From the patent description:

“My invention is concerned with flower and plant boxes, and is designed to produce a device of the class described in which the proper moistening and aeration of the soil in it can be easily and cheaply effected by simply pouring water into the funnel with which it is provided until the proper amount is supplied, which amount will be indicated by the overflow from a suitably located aperture in the side thereof.”

Other than the use of gravel in the water reservoir, Burleigh’s SIP closely resembles the Earthbox and SIPs I have built out of five gallon buckets and plastic storage bins.

The interwebs reveal only one detail about Burleigh, that he owned a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. From this one factoid I infer that he had money and a progressive inclination. The SIP idea took another eighty years to finally catch on.

For more SIP information:

Read our many posts on SIPs

And visit our SIP gardening friends, the Green Roof Growers.

If SIP litigation history fascinates you, read a preliminary injunction and memoradum (pdf) between the manufacturer of the Earthbox (Laminations Inc.) and a company they accused of infringing on their patent, Roma Direct Marketing LLC, makers of the “Garden Patch.” SIP. I’ll also note that the Earthbox folks sent Josh Mandel a cease and desist letter related to Mandel’s DIY SIP website. My editorial: lets make the SIP open source as the 1917 patent suggests it ain’t a new idea.