Ask Mr. and Mrs. Homegrown

The yodeling around here is non-stop. Photo by Elon Shoenholz

Hey Kids!

We thought it would be fun to find out what’s on your mind.

If you’ve got a question you’d like some advice on, this the place to ask. We’re best at answering questions about things like chickens, gardening, pickling and fixing bicycles. We’re not so great with questions regarding physics, Sanskrit translations or intellectual property law, but you’re welcome to ask nonetheless. If you have questions about us, our house, our garden, etc., we’d be happy to answer those, too.

Mr. Homegrown likes the widgets, so he’s putting one below that allows you to leave a voice message on the blog instead of a comment. I’m not really sure what the point of that is, but if you do it, you’ll make his day.

Seaweed, Salmon and Manzanita Cider

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I fell into temptation and bought Seaweed, Salmon and Manzanita Cider: A California Indian Feast at the Theodore Payne Foundation this week. I should know by now not to look around that book store. Like Ulysses, I should tie myself to the mast–pay for my native plants and get out. Somehow it never works.

Seaweed, Salmon is a pretty little book. Paperback, thin, but coffee table worthy, because it’s so interesting and at the same time, skimmable. A good gift book. It’s a loose collection of folklore, personal narrative, recipes and preparation tips for wild foods, well-illustrated with color photos. (It is not, however, a plant identification book.)

Yes, I’m on the California Indian/native plant train again (see my recent recommendations) but the wild foods discussed in this book are not exclusively Californian. It covers all sorts of common wild foods, like acorns, elderberries, and rosehips, as well as wild game. They discuss coastal foods like oysters and seaweed, as well as Southwest-specific foods, like yucca, agave, and our ever-prolific friend, the prickly pear.

What I like best about it are the personal stories, and after our turkey business last week, I’m drawn to the stories about hunting. There’s one arresting reminicence of how this man’s mother went into the woods alone with a gun, took down a big buck, dressed it and hauled half of it up a tree, carried the other half back to her camp, and treed that, too…and woke the next morning to find a mountain lion stalking the campsite. And I complain about picking pinfeathers out of turkey carcasses!

It’s worth a look. I just checked and found that it’s in the LA library system (doh!), so if you’re not in a spending mood, maybe you’ll find it at your library, too.

Our Happy Foot/Sad Foot Sign

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Nothing about growing or making today–sorry to go off topic (Erik is wincing a bit as I post this), but I want to talk about our Foot.  It’s a very local sort of story, but isn’t localism what it’s all about?

The podiatrist’s sign above marks the entrance to our neighborhood. It charmed us the first time we saw it: It’s a foot–with feet!  And we immediately named it the Happy Foot/Sad Foot sign. Soon we learned that other people called it The Happy Foot/Sad Foot Sign as well. The name seemed predestined and universally applied, and it was recognizable enough that we could pinpoint our location off of Sunset Blvd. by saying, “You know the Happy Foot/Sad Foot sign?”

The Foot rotates slowly, unless it’s broken, which it often is of late. But when it’s rotating, you are always tempted to check out which side is facing you when you first come into sight of it.  A happy, smiling foot is portends a good day, or at least a general thumbs up from the universe. We’ve always thought so, and come to find out, many other people also practice this form of primitive divination.

It’s even immortalized in fiction. Our friend, Anne, resident of this same ‘hood, tipped us off that The Foot is featured in You Don’t Love Me Yet  by Jonathan Lethem (2008):

Lucinda’s view took in a three quarter’s slice of the sign as it turned in its vigil over Sunset Boulevard: happy foot and sad foot suspended in dialog forever. The two images presented not so much a one-or-the-other choice as an eternal marriage of opposites, the emblem of some ancient foot-based philosophical system. This was Lucinda’s oracle: once glance to pick out the sad or happy foot, and a coin was flipped, to legislate any decision she’d delegated to the foot god.

A quick Google search shows the Foot is acknowledged (it shows up in Flickr sets and odd comments here and there) but not famous, outside this locale. However, I was delighted to find an animation called Happy Foot vs. Sad Foot. Instead of seeing the Foot as a marriage of opposites, as Lethem does, the animator portrays the Feet as two characters engaged in an endless, existential binary feud. For Sad Foot, life will always suck, while Happy Foot will always gets his way. (Note in the comments for this animation that someone steps forward claiming to be the designer of the sign’s graphics.)

Lately we’ve been hearing that our neighborhood has been dubbed “HaFo SaFo” in tribute to The Foot. This isn’t as strange as it sounds, because our neighborhood is wedged between the villages of Silver Lake and Echo Park, but technically it belongs to neither. It’s real name is Edendale, but no one knows it by that name, even though Edendale was the home of the first motion picture studios. If we claim we live in Edendale, we get blank looks, so we’re forced to either assert our property value by claiming we live in Silver Lake, or our cool quotient, by claiming Echo Park. Usually we just mumble instead. Anyway, we predict that this HaFo SaFo business is going to stick, because it is so very silly and insidery.  I can’t find any HaFo SaFo mentions on Google yet, so you heard it first right here.

Do you all have special, beloved signs or divination systems local to the place you live? Share them!

ETA: One of out commenters points out there’s an Eels song dedicated to this sign, too, called Sad Foot Sign: Sad foot sign/Why you gotta taunt me this way?/The happy side is broken now/It’s gonna be an awful day

Slaughtering Turkeys for Thanksgiving

A noble Royal Palm tom. This photo by Kevin Saff. The rest are ours.

This post is not for everyone, so we’ve concealed most of it behind the jump. This week we helped our friend, Steve, slaughter and dress four turkeys for Thanksgiving. There will be pictures, so those of you who are interested can get some idea of what the process involves.

Steve is an especially conscious carnivore, because he raises and slaughters all the meat he eats, and he does this in a small back yard in Los Angeles. This means he does not eat a whole lot of meat.


He doesn’t have the time or space to put meat on his table every night, or even every week. Beyond those logistics, he also doesn’t have it in him to slaughter frequently, because the act is intense and emotionally draining. Though Steve is now well practiced in killing birds, he has not become callous about the act. He loves his birds–he raises chickens, ducks and turkeys with care, and does not take killing them lightly. Each kill is difficult for him, and he believes that it should remain so, always. He strives to remain open to the complex emotions that accompany the slaughter, instead of shunting them aside. This, he claims, is the hardest part. And that is why he is our teacher.

Erik and I first met Steve when we were researching our upcoming book. It’s a how-to book, and we wanted to include how-to slaughter a chicken instructions, and we wanted to present the most humane technique we could find. Homegrown Neighbor introduced us to Steve, and the day we met, we helped him kill three young roosters. Well, I’m not sure how much help we were, blundering around, green around the gills and frantically taking notes. I suppose we helped with the plucking.

When Steve invited us back for this Thanksgiving slaughter, we accepted. First, it’s just neighborly to help others with heavy tasks. “Many hands make light work” and all that. And we like hanging out with Steve. And we wondered if it would be easier the second time around. (It wasn’t.)

We had a fourth pair of hands, too–our friend, Christine. Christine is a meat eater who eats very little meat, who volunteered to help because she wanted to see and understand the process.

And in this Ominivore’s Dilemna sort of world, I suppose I should also define Erik’s and my stance on meat eating, so you’ll know where we’re coming from. Erik eats meat only when he knows it was well raised. Functionally that means he never eats meat. I’ve been a “fishatarian” since high school, and I eat fish only when I go out to restaurants, or when I go home, because the parentals don’t think they’re feeding me properly unless they serve me some sort of flesh. Erik eats fish when out, too. We never cook meat or fish at home.

However, lately we’ve been wondering about eating our own chickens. This notion will need its own post to explain, but suffice it to say that we returned to Steve’s driveway abattoir in part to evaluate whether or not we could do this at home–and also to continue our training.

***

Okay, so let’s get down to business. This is an overview of a turkey slaughter. I didn’t write this to be a how-to guide, just an orientation to the concepts. It’s slim on details, but big on pictures. We describe the chicken slaughter in more detail in our upcoming book, Making It, which comes out in the spring.

The first step is to collect the turkey, quiet it with gentle words and petting, and hang it by its feet. Birds don’t seem to mind hanging like this–they are remarkably calm at this stage. Ideally, they are just as calm all the way through.

You can see how pretty this turkey is. Steve raised his little flock from eggs. They’re a heritage breed called Royal Palm, a beautiful white bird with flashy black markings.

The next step is to slit the big veins on either side of the bird’s throat, just under the jaw. Steve prefers to use an extra sharp grafting knife–sort of a disposable scalpel. This time he used a brand new razor blade, which works, but isn’t as maneuverable.

There are many ways to kill a bird, but Steve researched them all and decided this quick, almost surgical opening of the veins is the least painful. It’s the kosher method without the rest of the kosher elements. It is not, however, the fastest method. For the human, it would be easier to lop off the bird’s head and walk away.  This method requires that Steve remain with the bird for its final minutes while it bleeds out.

This process doesn’t take long for chickens, but turkeys are bigger and tougher, and have more blood to drain. All the time, Steve sits by them, talking in a soft voice and holding the neck out stretched to facilitate bleeding.

They experience brain death shortly after the cuts, because blood is no longer traveling to the brain. The death of the body takes longer, and there are some reflexive flurries of wing flapping along the way.

Even though you know the flapping is automatic, it is hard to see. Christine, as a first timer, wept while she watched the first turkey die. There is a gravity and a pathos to this moment that you can only deny if you close down all your emotional organs.

I’m very moved by the spreading and flapping of the wings, which I think of as not blind reflex, but as the body’s last protests against death, against the great stillness. Witnessing it reminds me of my place on the wheel of life, and what I feel is mostly awe–awe and sadness for the loss of a beautiful, vibrant bird. The moment hits us all differently. It sends Erik’s mind back to melancholy memories of the deaths of our loved ones.

There is a justice to this. In order to to eat another life, to profit from that death, we have to embrace our own mortality. To me, this makes sense.

Neither Erik nor I have yet wielded the blade. I’m afraid of screwing up the cuts, and making the bird suffer. I’ve never been a fan of dilettante slaughtering. But next time we help Steve, I think I will try.

The next step is to immerse the bird in hot water to loosen the feathers. When Steve slaughters, he’s got a big pot heating on a propane burner standing by, heated to 158F.  The bird soaks for just a minute or two.  Here Erik is using a stick to hold the carcass beneath the water.

The smell of wet, dead poultry is…uh…distinct.

Next, plucking begins. The big feathers come out easiest, you just pull them out in the direction of growth. It’s the little pin feathers that will drive you crazy–more on that to come.

The good thing about plucking is that it quickly reduces the corpse to something that looks more like you’d see in the market.

 
Turkey feet are pretty amazing things:

The next step, for ease of cleaning, is to take off those amazing feet. Using a blade, Steve teases the joint apart with a blade. As you can see, they separate cleanly, leaving the classic drumstick behind.


Next comes evisceration. Birds have one hole for both excreting and egg laying–it’s called the vent, or the cloaca. It’s that little button structure you see in the picture below, just above the tail. The first step is to cut a careful circle around it. It will come out like a plug, and the intestines will slither out, attached behind it. Have a garbage can ready.

Next, you can enlarge that hole and reach in to pull out the other organs. In the photo below it looks like Steve and Christine cut a second hole–and I’m not sure why they did that, to tell the truth. I was off getting a breath of fresh air, because this part is the hardest for me.

I’d have to clean a lot more birds to be able to face this stage without gagging. It’s not the appearance or even the texture of the guts in my hands–I’m pretty sturdy about yucky things–it’s the smell. It hits me hard.

Christine, however, was a complete trooper and dove right in, and by the end of the day was gutting like a pro. She even sawed off a turkey head. At least one.  I think everyone who does this will discover both their strengths and their weaknesses, and the form these take might surprise you.

At any rate, the two holes you see above merged into one at some point. It doesn’t really matter, except aesthetically.

You can see above that the organs came out in neat sack. It may not always happen so neatly–you may have to fish around in the cavity to make sure you have everything. See the little green blotch? That’s the bile sack. This has to be removed and discarded carefully–you don’t want to spill bile on the meat.

Here’s one of four big fat livers Steve collected. We tossed them in a bowl and coated them with olive oil to help keep them fresh:

Our last step outdoors was chopping off the head. Of course this doesn’t have to be done last–it could be done at any point in the process.  Unfortunately I have no pics of that.
Finally, the carcasses go to the kitchen sink for detail work. I made that my job, so that I could cravenly avoid the stinky intestines. 
(I can’t help but see this as a Lynchian baby pool)
The first thing I did was wash eac carcass well under cold running water, rinsing out the cavities. Then I plugged the sink and immerse the birds in cold water–both to keep the flesh cool and to help with cleaning. 
After the first plucking, there are a lot of feather barbs left in the skin, some of them small feathers, others broken barbs. These all have to be plucked out of the skin one by one. Some are very resistant to extraction, and have to pried or squeezed out. Some have puss at the base–sort of like turkey zits–and these are particularly disgusting to pull. It’s tedious work, very detail oriented. I kept myself vigilant by imagining one of Steve’s family biting into a barb I’d left behind. But in the end, I found it rewarding. It appeals to my nature to put final order to things, and to clean until the water runs clear. (Out damned spot?)

When you’re done, you have turkeys that look like they came from the store–except they’re not grossly inflated through the breast.

While you could slaughter and eat on the same day, if you’re new to this it might be wise to slaughter the day before. Steve finds he doesn’t much want to have anything to do with poultry after slaughtering them for a day or so. So he brines his birds before cooking. It gives him a chance to recover, and makes the bird taste better, too.
Mr. Homegrown here: Allow me harangue for a moment. My guess is that if most Americans sitting down to Thanksgiving supper had to slaughter and eviscerate their own meat we’d have a lot more vegetarians. It’s a hell of a lot of work, both physical and emotional to do this. Even the meat eaters would be eating meat a lot less often.

Gift Suggestions, from the Other Half

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Of course Mr. Homegrown didn’t ask me for input on “our” holiday gift guide. Not that I dispute his choices…but I do have some of my own.

These are the 4 most thought provoking books (in this topic area) I’ve read this year:

The first two are closely related, as they are about the horticultural practices of Native Americans in California. You might remember me writing about them earlier.  Apologies for the California bias:

Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West, by Celia Garcia and James D. Adams, Jr., Abedus Press, 2009

Co-authored by a Chumash healer and a USC pharmacology prof., both of whom write for Wilderness Way magazine. A fascinating resource documenting both historical uses and current scientific opinion on our native plants.

My post on it is here.

Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural ResourcesTending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson, University of California Press, 2006

I’m still fascinated with this book’s thesis: that California Indians actively managed the California landscape, shaping it into the verdant paradise that awed the first European settlers to arrive here. They were practicing food forestry in it’s most advanced form, as well as wild life management.

This book also introduced me to a concept I’m also still trying to wrap my head around: the idea that plants need us as much as we need them. Our relationship is symbiotic.  Paradise isn’t wild. Plants want to be tended, and they miss our hand. Seems these days we’re either entirely ignoring them or micromanaging them–mandating monocultures and whatnot.  My original review here.

***

The second two suggestions are also related to one another, being about people who are passionate about DIY living. We’ve also talked about these on this blog. And yes, in the spirit of full disclosure, we know both authors and we’re mentioned in both books. It doesn’t make them any less inspirational for me.

Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway WorldMade by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World, by BoingBoing co-founder and Make Magazine editor in chief Mark Frauenfelder

A quote from Erik’s reviewMade by Hand is not a how-to book it is, paradoxically, the most practical DIY book I’ve read in a long time. Why? Because it’s all about facing that fear of failure, the single greatest obstacle to actually getting out there and doing things.

Despite some internet flapage, the movement she describes is not about putting women back into a state of servitude, or about forcing everybody to wear hair shirts for the sake of abstract, green ideals. I think she does a fine job of showing that homemakers encompass both genders, and that these ideals are neither abstract nor trendy. Radical homemakers work from a place of deep passion and resolve. It’s not for everybody, but it’s probably for more people than we think. If that makes any sense at all. A good discussion-starting sort of book.

Oatmeal: It’s Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

(we’ve really gotta get us a live-in food photographer)

Mrs. Homegrown Here:

Okay, this is one is a little weird.  I’ll tell you right off that Erik won’t eat this stuff (it just seems wrong to him), but I love it.

I’m exploring the world of savory oatmeal. I’m sure there are savory oatmeal recipes on the web, but I haven’t looked because I’m enjoying working without a map.

What I’m doing right now is making oatmeal with seaweed in it, inspired by both my love of Japanese style breakfasts, and half remembered things about the Irish eating dulse in their porridge. I don’t like sweet cereal, so this suits me fine in the morning–but I also like it for lunch or dinner.

What I do is start the oatmeal water boiling and toss in shreds of dried seaweed. I’ve been using roasted nori, the sushi sheets, and also the flavored nori strips, because that’s all I have on hand. But there’s a whole world of more interesting seaweeds to try–including dulse. Anyway, after I shred a lot nori in the water, I add a dash of tamari and a dash of soy sauce, then the oatmeal. And finally I stir in a big pat of butter. This doesn’t jive with the Japanese thing so well, but I find butter just takes the whole thing up a notch in terms of savory, unctuous goodness.

I think this would be spectacular with a little salmon on top. And I’m going to move forward and try adding things like mushrooms, or cooking the oatmeal with stock.

Do any of you make savory oatmeal?

The Big Apple

Homegrown Neighbor gave us this gigantic apple as a gift. The smaller one is for scale, and it’s your typical smallish (i.e. not grocery store large) organic apple.

We suspect Monster Apple is not for eating, only for marveling. It’s a Gordon apple, grown at the esteemed Eco-Home here in Los Angeles. According to HN, the other apples on the tree were large, too, but this one was the daddy of them all.

Advances in Gardening: The Trough of Garlic

Remember a while back I posted a picture of Erik in a manly pose, whomping our patio with his sledgehammer? He took out a strip of concrete and built this over the hole: a new planting bed.  That’s the Germinator on the right, butting up to it and my Fan behind it.  When we’re done with all this redoing, we’ll clean everything up and take some wider shots so it all begins to make sense. For now–believe me–it’s better to keep to limited views!

Right now,  as its name suggests, this new bed is planted with garlic–and a few shallots. Rather as I had with medicinal herbs, for years I’ve been tucking garlic in here and there all over the garden. And while that’s a fine strategy, especially if you believe in its use as a companion plant, it’s a real treat to be able to plant a ton of garlic all at once.

But this isn’t a dedicated garlic bed. Remember, in gardening, you have to keep your crops circulating. Repeated plantings of the same veggie in the same place is just begging for trouble. After the garlic harvest, we’ll add the bed to the rotational schedule. Perhaps next it will hold Swiss chard, or carrots. When you’re trying to rotate crops in a small yard, every new bed helps. Even small ones. This is one reason we squeezed this one out of our patio.

Note that like The Fan, The Trough is also covered with hoops and netting to keep skunks and squirrels (and chickens) out until the plants get established.

Grow Your Own!

If you haven’t grown garlic, it’s super easy. Just break up a head of garlic and plant the individual cloves pointy end up under an inch or so of soil, about six inches apart. You’ll want to use only big fat cloves, not those skinny ones that sit in toward the core.

You can use regular old organic garlic that you’d buy at the store or the farmers’ market. Some warn against this, saying the heads might be treated with anti-sprouting agents, but I’ve never had a problem. Diseases of different sorts may also be a problem, now that I think about it. And I don’t like to think about it, because I love shoving random garlic from my kitchen into the ground. It’s just plain fun. But if you plan ahead, you can order safe, untreated garlic from seed companies, and even better, you can choose from a wide variety of heirloom and gourmet varieties suited to you individual climate.

Too late for us this year, a friend gave us an enthusiastic recommendation: a variety called Music. Check it out. Perhaps we’ll plant this one next year.

Here in LA, we plant garlic in the fall, between Halloween and Thanksgiving for a spring harvest. You’ll have to check local wisdom to find out when you should plant yours, but we’ve heard that in cold winter climates you also plant garlic around this time–the only difference being that the bulbs overwinter under the snow and sprout in the spring. Ours are already sprouting, sped up, I think, by our insane hot/cold weather cycles this fall.

One last tip: garlic likes mulch. In the bed above, you’ll see the straw mulch covering most of it. The shallots are on the far, bare end. We’ve never grown them before, but apparently they don’t like mulch.  Everybody has to be a diva.

Should you really want to become a garlic expert, there’s a book on the subject: Growing Great Garlic: The Definitive Guide for Organic Gardeners and Small Farmers.

Advances in Gardening: The Screens of Discretion

When our friend Tara helped us reconceptualize our back yard, one of the first things she did was wave toward our compost pile and chicken supply zone, and say, “You’ve got to screen off all that crap.”

Of course! We had to take control of the view. Ahhhhh…..

So Erik built this screen. He started using a pre-made trellis material, but tricked it up.  Behind it you can see the massive compost pile. The structure on the left is the end of the hen house. We’d been stacking straw bales and wood chips there. Now we can hide all that behind the screen–and maybe there will even be room for that ugly steel can back.

It’s a shady spot, but Tara thinks it gets enough light to grow raspberries. If you look close you can see two tiny raspberries planted at the foot of each screen.

Aesthetic improvement + new growing space for food = pretty cool