Eat Food, Mostly Plants, Not too Much

In the course of writing and researching our book, The Urban Homestead, coming out this June, we learned a lot about contemporary agricultural practices. And what we learned sure ain’t pretty. It has made our trips to the supermarket, to supplement the food we grow at home, a series of moral dilemmas. Where did this food come from? How was it grown or raised? What are these mysterious ingredients? Our book contains practical how-to advice for ways to deal with these supermarket conundrums by learning to grow your own food.

Journalist Michael Pollan, author of the Omnivore’s Dilemma, recently wrote an editorial, “Why Bother” in the New York Times Magazine arguing that it’s time for us all to think about planting some vegetables. He has a new book, In Defense of Food an Eater’s Manifesto, that addresses the ethical decisions we face in our trips to the supermarket. In this engaging, hour long lecture at the Google headquarters, Pollan gives some practical advice for navigating those dreadful supermarket isles. Put it on while you cook dinner:

Cargo Bike Roundup

With May official bike month in the U.S., we’ll begin the festivities with a roundup of cargo bikes and trikes courtesy of Berlin corespondent Steve Rowell. These puppies answer the common objection to biking, “but I’ve got shit to carry!”

We imagine this sturdy old model, pictured above, delivering barrels of sauerkraut, blood sausage and hefeweisen to the local Bier Garten. The bike equivalent of the sturdy old Frau behind the bar at our local German watering hole, the Red Lion. This is Utility with a capital U.

Sadly, Mr. Homegrown Evolution has forgotten every word of his college German, so all we can make out is that this bike represents the Grüne Liga, some sort of environmental organization. Don’t know if this trike is an ad, or if the Grüne Liga uses it to distribute literature or environmentally correct currywurst.

We imagine this bike belongs to some way eurotrashy DJ dude who uses it to shuttle his 100 kilo collection of Eurodisco hits to all the hot Berlin nightclubs. Gotta say that while we dig the European commitment to biking, health care and the environment, it’s their terrible music that keeps us firmly planted in America. If you don’t believe me, spend some time watching this Eurovision song contest clip by way of an example.
Via Facebook, Russell Bell wrote us to ask about the trike pictured above manufactured by a British outfit called Cycles Maximus which Russell wants to use to deliver produce to a local farmer’s market. Go Russell! We had to plead ignorance never having used one of these things, but as long as you don’t have any big hills or angry motorists it should work just fine.

Sadly in our corner of Los Angeles we have both big hills and angry motorists, which is why Homegrown Evolution uses the amazing Xtracycle for our cargo trips since I can’t imagine riding a wide cargo trike in L.A. With the Xtracycle, cargo cinches up tight in the back making for a narrow profile. This allows passage through tight spaces, such as our substandard bike lanes and busy traffic. You pretty much ride it like you would any other regular bike. Surly has recently come out with a sturdy frame/Xtracycle combination.

Local biking comrade Josef Bray-Ali just picked up a Dutch cargo bike called a bakfiet similar to the one pictured above. You can read his review here. A local Los Angeles dealer, bucketbike.com has started importing bakfiets and other European style bikes to America.

We’ve found hauling cargo on a bike to be tremendously enjoyable. It’s an entertaining challenge to see how many ridiculously heavy things you can carry. Sixty pounds of dog food, bags of concrete, soil and many loads of groceries have all traveled on our Xtracyle. It’s allowed us to get rid of one of our cars and save thousands of dollars. While many of the bikes above are on the expensive side, if you replace a car with them you’ll come out way ahead. And again, it’s just plain fun, which is all that really matters.

California Dreaming

Mr. Homegrown Evolution had a dream earlier this week in which we sold our crumbling Silver Lake bungalow (to an entertainment industry schmuck? see ad above) and moved into an apartment. The owners of the apartment building had torn up the parking lot and had converted every spare bit of space into a mini-farm. There were impressive rows of cabbage and other greens all planted in plowed rows. The crops took up so much room that there was, in fact, very little space left to even walk. It seemed, at first, a pleasant dream of a utopian future of efficient urban land use with an emphasis on growing tasty and healthy food. But when I awoke I realized that this idyllic vision was actually a nightmare. Those rows of crops were there because they had to be there. The proverbial shit had come down and desperation had set in.

The dream capped a week of gloomy news both personal and national. My 83 year old mom broke her sternum in an automobile accident, making her yet another victim of a city designed for cars that forces everyone to drive, even for distances of less than a mile. After the accident, many hours were spent dealing with doctors, auto body shops, insurance companies and the vile Automobile Club whose lobbyists, by the way, are busy in the state capital pushing for the auto-centric planning that ruins our cities and victimizes our children and parents.

While I dealt with the phone calls and paperwork, record breaking hot temperatures challenged our vegetables and chickens. A symptom of global warming perhaps? Yet another reason to suggest that the car-centric planning might not be a good idea?

To continue ranting, this played out against the background of rice rationing at Costco and Wal-Mart stores due to poor harvests and food price inflation in Asia. How about the continuing unraveling of Wall Street’s depraved casino, not to mention food riots and energy shortages?

Solutions? I’ve got some ideas, but after seeing this reprehensible ad from Farmer’s Insurance it’s obvious that there’s a hell of a lot of work to do. It will be hard to counter the status quo without, as James Howard Kunstler puts it, “appearing ridiculous, like an old granny telling you to fetch your raincoat and rubbers because a force five hurricane is organizing itself offshore, beyond the horizon.”

And yet I don’t want to fall into the gloomy, apocalyptic trap of some of the other folks in the urban homesteading movement. After a enjoyable evening last night at a fundraiser for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, my dark mood lifted as I was reminded that good things are happening out there. Change comes slowly, one step at a time, requiring great patience. Like gardening, bread baking and home brewing there will be mistakes and setbacks. But there will also be a slow accumulation of knowledge, a gradual revolution. Someday, perhaps, that apartment mini-farm seen in my dream will become reality for all the right reasons.

Nettle Mania

“out of this nettle, danger, we grasp this flower, safety”
-Shakespeare, Henry IV, part 1, Act II Scene 3

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are a common weed with a bad reputation–the plant has tiny spines that inject, as Wikipedia puts it, a “cocktail of poisons.” Miraculously when you boil the plant the spines lose their punch and you’re left with a tasty green consumed plain or incorporated in a number of dishes, from soups to ravioli, to the German cheese pictured above (thanks to Berlin corespondent Steve Rowell for the photo). When dried, the leaves make a damn good tea, with a rich, indescribable flavor. If that ain’t enough, nettles pack a powerhouse of vitamins, minerals, and are perhaps the vegetable with the highest protein content (10%).

At the risk of contradicting yesterday’s anti-media screed (After all, Marshall McLuhan once said, “If you don’t like that idea I’ve got others.”), we’ll end with some links to an obscure sub-genre of youtube videos, nettle torture stunts. Mrs. Homegrown could drone on about the psycho-sexual implications of these clips, but that would be fodder for another blog. In the meantime, thanks again to Steve Rowell, here’s some nettling to fill your evening hours: here, here and here (just three of what may be hundreds).

TV Turnoff week April 23 – 30, 2008

We don’t come from the sackcloth and ashes wing of the urban homestead movement. There’s no forced austerity around the Homegrown Evolution compound, no sufferfests, no “more-meek-than-thou” contests. It’s about pleasure not denial, after all. But, to use the “d” word, one thing we denied ourselves for many years was television. And during this TV Turnoff week, we thought we’d share our struggles with the tube.

Ten years ago, when we moved into our humble dump, we discovered that the cable tv company could not get past our neighbor’s bougainvillea, which fully ensnared the utility pole. The result–free cable. Unfortunately, that’s like leaving bowls of blow around Keith Richard’s party pad. Free cable meant many hours of channel surfing and, when Mr. Homegrown commandeered the remote, poor Mrs. Homegrown would be subjected to hours down in the video gutter viewing L.A.’s notorious public access (such as this – view at your own risk!).

At some point we decided to give up the TV cold turkey. For a week it seemed like a close friend had died, but soon all those evenings quickly filled with activities. We learned fencing, print making, bread baking and countless other skills. We never regretted exiling the TV to the garage.

Recently the tube’s come back into our lives with a certain DVD mail service, but we feel like we’ve tamed the beast and can heartily recommend living without TV (definitely without cable and broadcast). It’s become a shock to see cable or broadcast television when we visit relatives. It seems stupid, crass and violent, with the quick cutting particularly annoying, befitting a culture with no patience for the pleasures of the slow life. A friend of ours, who teaches at a Waldorf school, tells us that she can easily tell which kids live by the school’s no TV rule. In short, the TVless kids own their own imagination, rather than the entertainment industry. They’re better behaved, faster learners and more patient.

But with the explosion of the internets and gaming, TV Turnoff week has become a quaint reminder of the past, almost like opposing Selectric typewriters. The excesses of television, and the resulting consumer culture, seem fairly benign compared to a medium like the internet which allows governments and corporations to easily track our very move and target advertising on a deeply personal level. We’ve found that many of the hours we used to spend in front of the TV are now spent in front of the computer. While we heartily endorse TV turnoff week, it’s well past time for internet turnoff week.

How about we all turn the damn computer off for awhile, bake bread, make some beer, ride our bikes, or just go get into trouble?

iBullshit

It’s amazing how insidious is the real religion of our age, brand allegiance. In the PC vs. Mac argument I often find myself, unconscious and zombie-like, coming to the defense of a company run by a turtle neck wearing multi-billionaire.

Sweater wear aside, Apple’s got a lot to answer for on the environmental front. In a provocative earth day post, bike-riding comrade and Apple store employee Mikey Wally calls out Apple for their green bullshit. Read it here.

The New Urban Forager

On a hot, humid day along Houston’s Buffalo Bayou, in the shadow of four abandoned concrete silos, a maggot infested corpse of a pit bull lies splayed across a sheet of black plastic. Nearby, a pile of asphalt roofing material blocks the path I’m taking down to one of the most polluted waterways in Texas. Not a promising beginning to an urban food foraging expedition.
(Read the rest of our foraging essay via Reality Sandwich)

A Tour of the Homegrown Evolution Compound

It’s about damn time we gave an overall tour of the Homegrown Evolution digs, at least to dispel some misconceptions out there (more on those at the end of the post). Let’s begin with the front yard, pictured above.

Our house sits up about 30 steps from the street level. Running the laundry water out to the front (using Oasis Biocompatible Detergent), has really made the plants happy. The front yard has a mix of prickly pear cactus, Mexican sage, wormwood, rosemary, lavender, California poppies, and nasturtiums. All low maintenance, drought tolerant, hardy stuff. At the top, not visible in the photo, are the fruit trees we planted and described in an earlier post. Due to extensive foundation work (note to potential home buyers: don’t buy a house on a hill!) we’ve only recently been able to work on the top part of the front yard.

Next the backyard, pictured above (click to bigulate). The extreme wide angle makes it look a lot bigger than it actually is. In reality, the backyard is about 35 feet by 50 feet. Starting on the left and moving right, is an arbor occupying the former space of a terrible add-on that we demolished (and carried down the stairs by hand–once again, don’t buy a house on a hill!). In the background is the chicken coop and run, with the herb garden in the foreground. Just to the right of the chicken run are several large artichoke plants. Behind that and out of sight, is a 4′ x 8′ raised bed for vegetables. Next to the shed is a small orange tree, just planted, that replaced the fig tree we tore out. Dominating the right side of the photo is the avocado tree. Next to that tree is a small dwarf pomegranate, and on the extreme right is another raised bed with strawberries, garlic, mint and a native grape vine, just about to leaf out.

Now to correct some misconceptions:

Our place looks like Versailles. Truth is, at some times, our garden looks terrible. It depends on the season, and the amount of time we have to put into it. It looks good now, but in December it looked like crap. We try to plant things that do well in our climate and provide food, medicine or habitat for birds and beneficial insects. But we’ve made plenty of mistakes, and continue to do so.

We’re survivalists. Can we live off our yard? No. Can we make a meal with stuff from the yard? Yes, but we go to the supermarket just like everybody else–there’s no room for a wheat field after all, nor do we grow coffee or a host of other necessary staples. But, we seldom buy greens at the store, and almost never buy herbs or eggs–we’ve got that taken care of in the garden. In the summer we have lots of tomatoes, and right now we have a few avocados. When the fruit trees mature in a few years we’ll have fruit.

We’re hippies. Don’t get us wrong, we love hippies. We have no problems with cob ovens shaped like psychedelic snails, but that just ain’t our style. We’ve tried to keep things low key, just like our humble 1920s bungalow. This grape vine trailing up the arbor we built sums up our visual style:

Lastly, we like to tuck in a few attractive edibles (packed tightly, as you can see) wherever we can, like this magnificent cabbage, so beautiful we hate to harvest it: