An update on Phoebe

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A whole lot of animal lovers read Root Simple, and so we get a lot of inquires about how our special cat, Phoebe, is doing. Because we know so many people care–and at risk of making this a maudlin sick pet blog–we wanted to let you know she’s in the hospital tonight (Monday night) and will probably be there most of tomorrow. She started having trouble breathing today, and needs to spend some time in a box full of oxygen, while her genius veterinarian, Dr. Zimmerman, does some tests and re-jiggers her treatment program.

Phoebe is in heart failure–and has been for almost two years now. That’s a really good run for a cat born with a ridiculous handbag for a heart. We can’t hope for too much more. It is possible that her heart simply can’t function well enough any more to sustain her, but we’re hoping that an adjustment of her meds will buy her a few more good months, and we’ll be able to bring her home tomorrow night. We won’t know until tomorrow.

It’s hard to leave a pet behind in a vet’s office, even such a good vet. Poor Phoebe will be sleeping in big plexiglass box with oxygen inputs and hand-holes, like The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. But she was looking mightily pissed off instead of sickly by the time we left, which means she felt much more herself. And at least we know she won’t be suffering tonight, fighting for air.

Now we are home with our other two cats, Trout and Buck, collectively known as the boys. Compared to them, Phoebe is a silent shadow, the most invisible of cats. Yet tonight, the house seems quiet and empty, even though the boys are galloping around in circles like idiots, yowling, like they always do this time of night. Without us realizing it, Phoebe quietly filled up a big space in our house. It’s the same in our hearts.

Primitive Grain Storage Technique

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When thinking about technology, I like to play with the idea of what is the absolute minimum you need to get the job done.  This may be because I’m not very handy at building things, but yet have survivalist tendencies. So while I’m pretty sure I’ll never actually have any need for these skills, it’s fun to think about how I’d get by in a DIY world.

So I was delighted when I ran across this minimalist grain storage technique on the BBC documentary series, A History of Celtic Britain (2011), hosted by Neil Oliver of the Delicious Scottish Accent. (I am watching it on YouTube. Fingers crossed the BBC will not take it down before I finish it!)  I love this technique because while it is simple, it is far from stupid.

The technique is described by the Dave Freeman of the Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, where they’ve been experimenting with grain storage iron-age style (c. 400 BCE.).  Turns out all you need to do is dig a pit in the soil. The pits they dug are circular, and look to be 2 or 3 feet in diameter, and maybe 3 or 4 feet deep.

So you may ask, how can you pour grain into a hole in the ground and expect it to keep? The secret is a clay cap on the top. In the screen grab below you can see the cap and some feet for scale:

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If you go to YouTube,  you can watch this sequence starting around 52:36, but what Freemen says is that when the grain goes in the pit and is sealed with a clay cap, the clay blocks out moisture, air and light. Moisture is still available at the sides and bottom of the pit, of course, especially as they are in green Hampshire.

The grain touching the sides of the pit sucks the moisture out of the soil at the edges, and uses it to attempt to germinate. The germination process sucks up oxygen and releases carbon dioxide, effectively clearing the chamber of oxygen. At that point, as Neil puts it, “Time stops.” Nothing can grow, nothing changes. The grain cache keeps for at least a year, perhaps two years, and provided a very handy safety backup for hard working iron age farmers. And some very basic appropriate tech for modern armchair survivalists to ponder.

Bad Forager: Mistaking Hemlock for Fennel

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Hemlock (courtesy of Wikimedia)

Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) are in the same family, the Apiaceae or carrot family (which also includes dill and parsnips and chevril and cumin and anise and corriander and parsley and Queen Anne’s lace and more–a very nice family, all around). Hemlock and fennel share characteristics of that family, having those distinctive umbrella shaped flower clusters which beneficial insects adore, but otherwise they don’t look a whole lot alike.  They do grow to about the same size and have similar growth habits, which means they look sorta the same if you look at them with squinted eyes. But fennel foliage is thready, whereas hemlock leaves are triangle shaped and lacy. And fennel has yellow flowers while hemlock has white flowers. If you bruise a hemlock leaf or sniff a flower it smells kinda nasty, whereas all parts of the fennel taste and smell deliciously like anise/licorice.

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Fennel (courtesy of Wikimedia)

Really, all in all, it’s easy to tell them apart.

Except when they are all dried out.

When they’re all dried out, as they are here after a long, bitter summer which has left everything brown and gasping, they look a lot alike. They are both whittled down to nothing but tall brown flower stalks with a few seeds still clinging to the uppermost stems. In this state, they can look remarkably similar.

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Fennel or hemlock seeds? (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

And so I was fooled while out on a food forage hike last week. It was grim pickings out there! Acorns seem to be the only thing left to eat in the wild until the rains come. I’d sampled something unpleasant which lingered on my tongue. I wanted to clear the taste and spotted what I thought was the remains of a fennel plant. I pinched off a couple of seeds and put them in my mouth. They didn’t taste like fennel. They didn’t taste like anything at all. So I think I spit them out. Maybe.

As I was in the midst of doing this, I said to our teacher, Pascal, “Here’s some fennel?” As I said it, I wasn’t entirely sure, because the seeds didn’t taste right.

He said, “That’s not fennel, that’s poison hemlock.”

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Free Biodynamic Composting Seminar in LA on November 16th

Image: Plan for Opportunity in Flickr.

Image: Jennifer Cowley in Flickr.

“Get perfect results without turning, fussing or worrying in 6 months!”

A Root Simple reader has turned us on to an excellent opportunity to learn about composting from a master of the art–for free!  We’ll be there.

And here’s the details:

Learn the Secrets of BioDynamic Composting from Jack McAndrews    

Recognized as one of America’s leading experts on biodynamic organic agriculture, Jack’s biodynamic composts have been the secret behind some of the most beautiful and healthiest gardens in Hollywood and on the Westside. And now you can learn how to create this black gold in your own backyard.

Maria C. Linder, Professor of Biochemistry at CalState Fullerton says, “There are very few people in the country with [Jack’s] experience and expertise… Bio-dynamic composting is more scientifically based than most and is by far the most impressive method I have encountered. Jack has studied the process for many years, and with the best Masters in the business.” (Excerpts from: http://bio-dynamic.info/).

Biodynamic compost is made with precise specifications and is a fundamental component of the biodynamic method of growing food. It recycles animal manures and organic wastes, stabilizes nitrogen, and builds soil humus to enhance soil health.

“This is recognized as the finest recipe for growing crops in the world,” claims Jack. “You don’t need any other fertilizer or pesticides. This form of agriculture is ahead of its time. It grows the best quality food known today.”

Come and be amazed at what you can grow!

The seminar will be 2 to 3 hours long, but feel free to come and stay however long you can

Grubs in your acorns? Meet Curcuio, or the Acorn Weevil

I’m pretty fascinated with acorn weevils these days, since I’m seeing a lot of them while processing my acorns. I finally looked them up, and it turns out they have a fascinating life cycle.

There are two types of acorn weevils (beetles), long snouted and short snouted, Curculio and Conotrachelus, respectively. They both plant their eggs in acorns, but the short snouted one seems to do this in cracked acorns once they are on the ground. The long snouted variety is the one that you’re going to run into acorn processing, because unless you’re drinking your bathwater for breakfast, you’re not going to be picking up cracked acorns.

The female weevil, whose snout is as long as her body (about 3/8″), digs a hole in a green, developing acorn with tiny appendenges on the end of her snout. She sucks the oily nutritious juice out of the acorn, and thus fortified, lays her eggs in the hole, and plugs the hole with her own poo. The grubs hatch in the continuous buffet which is the acorn, and snuggled up in there, snacking, until the acorn falls from the tree. By this time (as Nature is smart) they are ready to leave the acorn, and they take the fall to the ground (which must be quite a shock) as a signal to start chewing their way out of the acorn. How fast this happens depends on how thick the acorn’s shell is — anywhere from a few hours to three days.

The grubs always chew a perfectly round, 1/8″ hole. It’s just big enough for their head, and they have to squeeze and wiggle their fat, shiny acorn-stuffed body through the hole to escape. Once they fall to the forest floor, they hurry to bury themselves in the soil before something comes along and eats them. If they make it, they take a multiyear nap underground (I’ve read anywhere from 1-5 years). They don’t eat, but they somehow metamorphose into their adult beetle form. When they wake one fine summer day, they crawl out of the soil, mate soon after, and start the process all over again.

There’s some points to be taken here for the forager. The first is that just because there’s no hole in the acorn doesn’t mean that there’s not a grub in it. A hole means a grub has already emerged. It may have siblings which will also be emerging soon. Or not. Or if the acorn has been on the ground for a while, another insect may have moved in. No hole means nothing.

However, if you’re collecting fresh acorns, you’re going to know that you’ve got about a 3 day window in which you may see larvae emerge from your stash, leaving their distinctive holes behind. (You may even see individual acorns in your stash wiggling, like giant jumping beans!) This is not a problem, just something to know, for the sake of storage, or squeamish loved ones.

The acorn they emerge from may or may not be useable. You can open it and check it out–or opt not to. It will be likely to be at least 50% spoiled, in any case. It may also have more fresh grubs in it, trying to make their way out. You may well chop them in half with your knife, and feel oddly bad about the whole thing.

Gourmet Foraging and Advanced Acorn Processing

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It’s acorn season in Southern California. I’ve long been interested in acorns, knowing that they were the staple food of the native people who lived here, and I’ve gathered and processed them before. However, once I have the acorn meal, I’ve never known exactly what to do with it. It’s highly nutritious, but I thought (wrongly!) that it was somewhat bland, and all I could do was incorporate acorn meal into baked goods. This weekend, however, I’ve had my eyes opened to the possibilities, thanks to Pascal Baudar and Mia Wasilevich.

pascal and mia at a picnic table

Pascal and Mia putting out a spread: acorn sliders, acorn and tapioca pudding, red cabbage and red onion slaw with wild juniper berries, chocolate truffles infused with white sage and dusted with dehydrated raspberry powder, plum membrillo and beer hopped with yarrow. We were there to learn about acorns, but they fed us well!

Pascal and Mia are high caliber foragers and foodies.  Check out their sites, Urban Outdoor Skills and Transitional Gastronomy, and if you live in the Los Angeles area, you’ll definitely want to experience their forages and food workshops. Their Meetup groups are The Los Angeles Wild Food and Self-Reliance Group and Foraging Foodies LA.

It’s rare to find folks who combine deep food know-how with a love of wild foods. Too often wild foods are considered mere survival foods. Pascal and Mia are using them to develop a uniquely Californian cuisine. Just check out this gallery on Transitional Gastronomy to get a quick picture of what I’m talking about.

On Sunday, Erik and I attended their acorn processing workshop, where we learned some valuable tips regarding acorn processing, and were privileged to eat the finest vegetarian burgers we’ve ever tasted — sliders made with acorns.

acorn sliders

I’ve downed a lot of veggie burgers in my time, and I’ve come to think of them mostly as excuse to eat bread and condiments. I’ve never had a veggie burger good enough to eat on its own. The acorn burgers they treated us to were not just “good for veggie” but some of the tastiest food I’ve ever encountered.

It turns out that acorns have umami qualities, that savoriness that characterizes meat and mushrooms, along with a delicate sweetness. You just need to know how to bring it out.

Mia did say that acorns have unique qualities in how they hold and absorb moisture, so she’s been learning how to handle them. Like any new food, it takes a while to learn the ways of acorns, but it’s worth it.

Here’s a recipe from Mia’s Transitional Gastronomy site for acorn timbales. If you serve these on a bun, instead of in a pool of (amazing looking!) nettle veloute sauce, you will have the acorn burger I experienced this weekend.  Do be sure to note the part where she asks you to refrigerate the mix before cooking. She told us that if the mix doesn’t have time to set up, the patties will fall apart. The recipe doesn’t specify how long to chill, but I believe she said overnight. (You could also make a log of the mix and freeze it for later, like cookies.)

I’m going to forage some acorns of my own this week and see if I can replicate those sliders. In the meanwhile, after the jump  I’m going to share some processing tips that I picked up.

Let us know if any of you process acorns,  and if you have any tips or recipes!

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Book Review: The Urban Bestiary

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Humans in our culture operate under a rather crazed delusion that we are not a part of nature. We fight nature. We defend nature. We pack up our tents and visit nature. I am as susceptible to this delusion as anyone else, but I do try to remember that I am a creature of nature, living in a vast human habitat which exists as part of a web with the entire ecosystem. Remembering that I am not apart from nature sometimes requires a little mental judo–and some well chosen bedside reading.

Thus my recent reading has included books like Being Animal and What the Robin Knows (reviewed here) and most recently The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of the excellent Crow PlanetThe Urban Bestiary is an exploration of the intimate intersection of humans and other urban animals, such as coyotes and raccoons and opossums and squirrels.

In The Urban Bestiary, Haupt introduces us to our close neighbors, the animals which share our land, and sometimes even our homes. She gives us a naturalist’s overview of their behaviors, physiology and life cycles, interspersed with personal anecdotes and interviews with wildlife experts. The resulting animal portraits are as fresh and delicately drawn as watercolors.

The chapters cover:

Coyote • Mole • Raccoon • Opossum • Squirrel (and Rat) • Black Bear • Cougar • Birds  • Starling, House Sparrow, Pigeon • Chickadee • Crow • Hawk and Owl • Chicken • Tree • Human
The truth is we think we know all we need to know about these animals–these pests which overturn our garbage cans, scare off the native birds, eat our cats or scare the bejeezus out of us on the porch late at night–but we don’t, not really. We see what we want to see and understand very little.
This book goes a long way toward filling in that knowledge gap. And with knowledge comes understanding–and maybe even peace. With some understanding, we can appreciate  for the bits of wildness our animal neighbors bring into our lives. Haupt is not saying we should romanticize them–and am I- but rather that we can see them with a naturalist’s eye, enjoy encounters for what they teach us, and using our knowledge of an animal’s behavior, mitigate the conflicts that arise when our needs clash with theirs.

If there is anything controversial to be found in such a lovely book, it will be in this idea, which runs like a thread through the chapters. Haupt shows how common “solutions” to our backyard clashes are short sighted, and don’t even work, and offers alternate suggestions and strategies.

You see, if we kill or relocate an animal from our yard, a new one will simply move in to fill that niche. It’s a losing game. (And trapping and relocating is no kindness at all, believe you me.) Unless we plan to embark on a mass eradication program on a bison-like scale, the solutions lie with us, and our own behavior and attitudes.

Most of this is commonsensical, and not scientifically controversial. It is basically the practice of IPM (integrated pest management).  We can bring in our cats and small dogs at night. We can seal up our attics and basements. We can stop leaving pet food and garbage outdoors. We can build sturdy chicken coops. Name your pest, and there’s something we can change about our environment to make it less attractive to them. As they say, the best offense is a good defense. Beyond that, we can accept occasional messes, losses or frights as part of what it means for us to be alive, to be animals interacting with other animals in the world.

I’m writing this with a particular passion right now, because recently someone in our neighborhood (not our near neighbors, but our general area) hired a company to set snares for coyotes, and a video of a coyote thus strangled surfaced on a local news blog. I don’t doubt that those neighbors were driven by fear, or grief, to hire this trapper, but the death was so cruel and ultimately so pointless and stupid, given the number of coyotes in the area, and the incontrovertible forces which are driving them here, it made me very sad.

To be clear, The Urban Bestiary is not an no-kill polemic. I’ve perhaps put too much emphasis on the aspects of the book which focus on management and co-existence. The great majority of the book is about the animals themselves. Imagine you had a friend who was a naturalist who could explain the mysteries of the familiar yet unfamiliar wildlife which flit and shuffle through your backyard over a nice cup of coffee.  Someone who could offer you an introduction to their world, and a chance to see your own world in a new light. This would be that book.

Fabulous Postcards from HenCam

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From Vintage Chicken Photographs. Terry says this picture reminds her of Erik. It reminds me of our friend Craig at Winnetka Farms. Whichever! Let’s hear it for tall handsome gentlemen holding poultry!

Our friend Terry over at the great chicken site HenCam has produced three lovely sets of postcard books based on antique photos of people with animals. One set is people and chickens, the second is people with other livestock, and the third in people and their dogs. (She promises she’s trying for a cat collection, but it seems kitties were a little too sly for early cameras, making good pictures (as opposed to cat-shaped blurs) hard to find.)

She tells us she spent two years collecting pictures for these collections, searching everywhere, from flea markets to eBay, parsing through thousands of photos. Her favorites are collected in books of 30. She picked good ones. Every card tells the story, and most of them leave me with questions, too.

Also, I really like how the pictures show the intimacy of people with their pets and smallstock, and their pride in these animals. Though few of us are farmers now, most of us come from farm people if you go far enough back. The land is in our blood, and as those of us who have rediscovered the joy of keeping smallstock, whether those be bees or hens or goats, our connection with animals comes right back, too.

And of course, we love our dogs, whether we’re farmers or townfolk. That goes without saying!

So we thought we’d give a shout out to Terry for her great books. They are heavy, 5″ x 7″ cards bound into books, but bound so that the postcards can be lifted out cleanly and used, in any order. They have a photo on the front and the back has the classic postcard layout. If you’re looking for easy presents for the holidays, or a set of nice postcards, so you can treat your friends to an actual handwritten note, go check them out at her store. They cost twenty bucks for a book of thirty cards–that’s about 66 cents per card.

A couple of more pics after the break:

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The Lament of the Baker’s Wife

flour pile

This our flour collection, The Leaning Tower of Pizza.  Erik collects flour like Emelda Marcos collects shoes. The collection is  taking up a good deal of the floor space in our kitchen. Supposedly it will one day be moved to our garage–after the garage is remodeled–but waiting for the garage remodel is somewhat like waiting for Godot, or the Armageddon.

Speaking of which, if Armageddon does arrive, you know what that means? Pizza Party at Root Simple!!! Woot! We could feed the neighborhood for a month. Those are 50 lb bags. They are propped against 5 gallon buckets. A five gallon bucket holds about 30 pounds of flour. I think we’ve got at least 200 lbs of flour piled up here. And where will it all go eventually? Straight to my hips, sweetheart!

And I know I shouldn’t complain. “We have too much food!”  “There’s nowhere to put it!” “All this artisanal sourdough is making me fat!” Boo hoo. This the lament of the baker’s wife.

How to save tomato seed

tomato seeds rotting in water

Seeds fermenting in water. Not pretty, but pretty important! The jar got shaken up while walking it outside for its photo op., so it looks a little cloudy and messy. In your jar, you should see a layer of scum on top of the water.

I can’t believe we haven’t posted about this before–it seems like we have, but I can’t find the post if this is so. Perhaps we wrote about it in one of our books…the old brain is getting foggy.

It’s easy to save seed from your favorite tomatoes. Seed saving in general is actually a little tricky. You can’t just save the seed from any old vegetable in your garden and hope that it will yield plants like the parent. Cross-breeding is an issue. Professional seed savers use all sorts of sacks and screens and boxes to ensure that busy bees or flirtatious winds don’t make romance happen where it ought not. Otherwise you get acorn squash crossing with melons and who knows what not. It depends on the type of vegetable you want to save seed from–as well as what else you’re growing around it.

Tomatoes, however, are a pretty safe bet for seed saving. They are self-fertile, and the structure of their flowers makes cross pollination difficult. Our seed saving Bible, Seed to Seed, says that there are only three types of open pollinated tomatoes that you can’t save seed from (without putting them in isolation):

  1. Currant tomatoes (L. pimpinellifolium)
  2. The potato leaved varieties of L. lycopersicum
  3. Any fruit born from double blossoms on Beefsteak-type tomatoes. Double blossoms are prone to cross-pollination.  You can save seeds from fruit that came from a single blossom

Odd, but simple! You can basically save seed from almost any heirloom/open-pollinated variety you’re likely to  be growing. You cannot save seed from hybridized plants. These are the type you are most likely to find in the nursery–plants bred for performance, not seed saving. This would include popular breeds like Early Girl and Better Boy and Sun Golds.  If you’re not sure if your tomatoes are hybrids or not, just Google the name. The Internet is wonderful that way.

The process of saving tomato seed is simple. All you have to do is rot off the protective gel sack which surrounds each seed. This gel inhibits germination, keeping the seeds from germinating while still in the tomato. In nature, the gel rots off while the fallen tomato sits on the ground. Here, you will speed the process along with some water. In addition to removing the gel sack, this fermentation process also kills many seed-borne tomato diseases.

How to Save Tomato Seed

  1. Choose your best, tastiest tomatoes for seed saving.
  2. Scoop out the seed pulp and drop it into a jar. Or just squeeze a whole tomato over the jar.   It’s best to just squeeze cherry tomatoes. (You can use food processor, too, if you’re doing big batches.)
  3. Pour a little water over the pulp. It should cover the pulp by say, 2-3  inches or so.
  4. Cover the container and let it sit for a few days (3 days, roughly–weather makes a difference), until white or grey mold forms on the surface of the water. If you do a big batch, you will smell the rot. Don’t worry about it–just keep the dogs away! Watch for the mold to form and continue on to the next step. The mold may be impressively fuzzy, or it may just be a slight opaque slick on top of the water. Don’t let it sit in this state too long, or the seeds will start germinating in their bath.* If you’re in doubt as to whether it is ready, it’s ready. Far better to stop a little early than to let the seeds accidentally germinate.
  5. Pour off the moldy water, reserve the seeds.
  6. Add clean water back to the seeds and give the water a swirl. Let it settle. Any bad seeds will rise to the top. If they do, pour them off.
  7. Strain the seeds with a fine strainer (a teas strainer is fine for small batches) and spread them out to dry. They need to dry on something which will wick water away, because it is important that they dry quickly–otherwise they might germinate. Coffee filters work well, as do pieces of window screen, or paper plates. Tomato seeds stick to paper towels, so if you use those you may end up having to plant the seeds on their little bits of towel.
  8. Once they are bone dry, transfer to envelopes or glass jars for storage. Be sure to label!

*I just lost a batch to germination. I blame the heat. It didn’t seem like they’d be fermenting that long, but after I drained my seeds I saw the tiny little white nubbins poking out of the seeds. Now I have to begin again. This is one reason why you should not wait ’til your last tomato to think about saving seeds. Also, this is a reminder to keep a close eye on your projects!

ETA: We’ve had some comments from what I’ll call the Paper Towel School of seed saving, and I thought I’d amend this post to point out that another method is to just spread some tomato pulp on a paper towel and let it dry out. The seeds will stick to the towel, so you store the whole towel and when planting time comes next year, you tear the towel into tiny pieces and plant the pieces. This does save steps. The method described above is the Official Method, and the method I’ve always used. I’ve not tried the paper towel thing myself, but it seems sensible. However, as  I understand it, the fermentation process in the water bath method kills diseases, so it is considered good etiquette to put your seeds through this process if you plan to share them with others.

Also check out the comments for more on the mystery of cross-pollinating tomatoes!