Diyas: oil lamps from India


[Oops! We accidentally posted Thursday’s post today–Wednesday. Please don’t miss our regular scheduled Wednesday podcast, below.]

As readers of this blog and our books know, I’m a big fan of little vegetable oil lamps–the type that can be easily improvised with any shallow vessel, from sea shells to Altoid tins. If the tabletop aesthetic of oyster shells and recyclables doesn’t quite appeal to you, may I interest you in diyas?

Diyas are little clay lamps used in India. They usually burn ghee, but any vegetable oil works well in them, too. I just found them being sold at our local Indian supermarket. There, the fancy molded ones, like the one pictured above (one of many shapes) were 3 for $1.00. The simplest ones, which are basically teardrop shaped pinch pots, go for 5 for a dollar.

That’s a lot of fun for a dollar, and a good way to light up a party with a hundred warm little lights–if you can keep your guests from catching themselves on fire! (For more info, see my post at the first link above for all the deets on making and using a vegetable oil lamp.)

Also, it occurs to me that it would be a great lesson for kids to make a pinch pot out of clay dug from the ground, and then make some ghee and a wick, and then see how prettily butter burns.  (And whenever I say something would be a good lesson for kids, this means it’s something I want to do myself.)

Camping on Halloween Night

tent in the forest, autumn

I was lucky enough to be able to camp this Halloween weekend. While I love the costumes and the candy and the gentle anarchy of Halloween in the city, I was very happy to be able to spend this Halloween out in nature. My only other nature-based Halloween was many years ago, in rural Ireland, where I wandered the countryside alone at sunset, hoping to spot a ghost or a fairy or a faun.

Maybe it is just the power of suggestion, or maybe it’s something else, but Halloween night has always carried a charge for me–it just feels different, whether you’re on the street with a bucket of candy, holed up in the house with a pumpkin beer or out in the woods. It’s said that the veil between the worlds is thinnest on Halloween night, and I’m willing to buy that, because somehow the air always feels full of potential.

This Halloween night, I was camping at 6,300 feet in the Angeles National Forest. The weather in Los Angeles has continued depressingly hot and clear and dry, despite the arrival of autumn. On Halloween evening, though, clouds gathered in the sky, obscuring the relentless blue. Around twilight  those clouds dropped. They just fell straight down from the sky, as if someone cut their strings, and they turned into a sort of high fog with feathery, creeping tentacles exploring the tops of the pines and the cypress. And those creeping clouds drifted ever lower as the light faded, and a breeze kicked up, which sent the golden leaves on the ground a-dancing. I sat by the fire, looking down a long path lined with swirling leaves, shivering bushes and tendrils of fog and waited to see a fairy, or maybe a Black Rider.

Then the daylight vanished abruptly, like someone turning out an overhead light.  Fifteen minutes later, I couldn’t find my hand in front of my face. Darkness swallowed everything whole.  We read scary stories by the campfire and ate apples baked in the coals.

Late that night, after I was safely tucked in my bag, rain started to fall. The first significant rain of the year, the first significant rain in maybe 9 months or so. All night long the wind in the trees roared and boomed–it sounded like waves crashing on rocks. The rain sheeted down on my tent while the wind shook the sides.  (A five year old tent which has never been tested in the rain–that’s SoCal camping for you!). It did not leak, thank the Great Pumpkin.

I have to say, I have never been happier on any Halloween.

At dawn I woke up to a world soggy and remade. The rain had carved deep channels and rivulets in the hard-packed soil. The scrubby, hard-bitten plants eking out their living on the granite slopes shimmered in the morning light, free of dust for the first time in months, revealing their true and gentle colors.

I heard water and ran to the stream bed. The day before it had been dry, now it ran with water. I knew it was a temporary flow, but the sight of running water after a long dry summer brought tears to my eyes, and I remembered that Halloween is the Celtic New Year. It’s a time of darkness, and a time of death (the traditional time for slaughtering stock), but in death there is renewal, and I felt that renewal in the moist loam beneath my feet and the cheerful dripping of the trees, and I heard it in the water, and I gave thanks for the rain.

And an hour later, it began to snow.

snow on pine trees

A murmuration of starlings

I’ve discovered that there is an entire subgenre of YouTube videos on starling murmuration. This one that I’m sharing with you is short, has an exciting raptor cameo, and David Tennant, but it was hard to choose among them. I highly recommend getting lost among the starlings today.

As the poet Mary Oliver wrote in “Starlings in Winter” by (Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays), “Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us.”

And murmuration–isn’t that a fantastic word?

A new spice sensation in the Root Simple kitchen


Last night, while looking for something to spice up some roasted pumpkin seeds, I made a happy discovery:

Korean red pepper flakes + ground sumac (plus lots of salt) = delicious!

These two geographically unrelated spices share shelf space in our cupboard, but I’ve never thought about combining them before, perhaps because they come from different food families, so to speak. So many wasted years! Now they’re going on nuts, seeds, popcorn…maybe as a fish crust. Oh, the things we shall do!

Gochugaru, Korean red pepper powder (also referred to as red chile flakes), is a deep red, coarse powder or flake. Its flavor is spicy, smokey and a little bit sweet. It’s easy to fall in love with this stuff all on it’s own. Gochugaru is the primary spice in kimchi and it’s also the primary flavor in our favorite tofu dish.  You can find it in Asian markets which stock Korean items. Look for it to be taking up a good section of an aisle, and being offered in many sizes–all the way up to big, pillowcase bags of the stuff. No other spice gets this much attention! If you can’t find it, just as for kimchi spice.

Sumac is a a tart, lemony spice you can find in Middle Eastern markets, also a deep red color. It’s great on salads (it’s always on fattoush, for instance) and fish, and both tasty and attractive when sprinkled over hummus and other dip-like things. I often use it to add lemon flavor to food when I have no lemons.  And yes, while I don’t know exactly what kind of sumac is harvested for commercial spice production, it is related to our wild sumacs–it’s from the Rhus genus. So if you want to be all Grizzly Adams about your hummus, you  could forage edible sumac berries and grind them to make your own spice– just be very careful with your identifications.

The combination of the two at about a 50/50 blend makes something warmly spicy with a little lemon kick. It’s snacking gold!

I made shoes!


As regular Root Simple readers know, I’ve been obsessing on making shoes for some time now, but was not able to wrap my mind around the process without help. Help arrived this weekend in the form of the wonderful–and wonderfully patient– Randy Fritz, who taught me and four other intrepid souls how to make turnshoes over the course of the last 4 days.

Lesson 1: As we have all suspected, shoes are not easy to make. Seriously not easy.

Four full days of work may seem like a lot for a pair of shoes, but it was just barely enough for us all to reach the finish line. I think all of us walked away with a new respect for the craft and complexity of the cordwainer’s art.

Lesson 2: Cordwainer is the proper term for a shoe maker. A cobbler repairs shoes. Who knew?

Randy estimates he could make a pair of turnshoes in about 10 hours, but leading a pack of wayward newbies through the process takes 32 hours. More, really, as we had homework. I’d say 40 hours went into each pair of shoes. After doing this, I will never again balk at the price of a pair of bespoke shoes.

Lesson 3: It is, in fact, worthwhile to make your own shoes.

Turnshoes are very much like gloves for the feet. We crafted custom patterns for our feet, and the resulting shoes were as unique as we five students are in every other way. To see our same-yet-different shoes lined up in a row was to realize that how much we are cheating ourselves when we shove our feet into standardized prefabricated “foot coffins”.


Casts of our feet on their way to become patterns

Lesson 4: Crafting is more fun in groups.

I know some people are very content as solo crafters, puttering away alone in their work rooms and man caves, but for me, one of the best parts of the last four days was getting to know four other fascinating people; to gossip, bitch and celebrate together as the shoes started to take shape. As I know from outdoor adventuring, nothing facilitates bonding like shared adversity! It really was very much an adventure, and it also felt strangely like a vacation. I know many people would balk at a 4 day class, but believe me, it was no hardship. I would happily just keep on doing it.

Lisa, Lee, Pilar and Ruth, I salute you!

The Shoes Themselves

Turnshoes are soft soled leather foot gloves, very like moccasins.  I like to call them “Euro moccasins” — they are patterned on a shoe style prevalent in Europe, particularly Northern Europe, from about 900 to 1400AD. The shoe is constructed inside out, and only turned right way around in the final stages. Thus, “turnshoe.”. (The act of turning the shoes inside out takes time and considerable finger strength. We called the turning “shoe birthing” — as it required a good deal of grunting and cursing, but resulted in a beautiful newborn shoe.) The result of this technique is that all of the stitching is hidden inside the shoe, even the sole stitching. The only visible stitching is the decorative lashing around the top.

We started the process by making patterns off our feet, both tracing our soles and using duct tape (a common medieval technology) to make casts of our feet. Then we cut open and flattened those 3D casts to form the pattern for the uppers. The uppers were made of buffalo hide, which is strong and buttery soft, and the soles of latigo, a thick leather which is a traditional soling material. We stitched the leather together with strong waxed thread.

The shoes are meant to fit like gloves–and they do. As I said above, each one was a perfect expression of their maker’s foot. Mine have a distinctive duck foot shape. Don’t get me wrong–I like my feet. I think they are quite fetching in profile, actually, but years of flip-flopping and barefooting have spread my toes wide.  As a result, most shoes are uncomfortable for me. It is amazing to have a perfectly fitting pair at last.

The finished shoes were so pretty and soft that three of the five of us decided to reserve them as house shoes, for which they are ideal. I want to tramp around in mine, though, so I opted to paint a layer of protective gunk made out of shredded tires on my pretty red soles. That gunk is drying right now. I’m itching to take them on a hike!

More Shoes?

The key to mastery is repetition, so I should make another pair soon. Right now, with my fingers still sore and tingling from all the scraping and punching and pulling, the idea sounds less than appealing. As a compromise I’m going to find myself a nice sheet of felt and make a pair of house slippers with the same pattern, just to walk through the process again while all that information is still floating around my sieve-like brain. Later, though, I’d really like to make another pair. Perhaps with an ankle extension to make booties.

A Fantastic Teacher

Hats off to the inimitable Randy Fritz for teaching this class with such grace and wisdom. I cannot adequately describe the Zen-like patience he displayed as he shepherded the five us on this journey full of inexplicable and sharp tools for four full days. I think I tried him the most, because I was very good at goofing things up.  (Common Kelly phrases: “Oh, I wasn’t supposed to cut that?” and “Is this supposed to look like this?”) Randy was always there to save my bacon–and my shoes.

If you are now wildly jealous and want to make a pair of turnshoes of your own with Randy, there will be chances to do so in the future. He’s working on his website, so I have no linkage for you, but we’ll keep you informed as things develop, and announce his future classes. We’re hoping to see a sandal class from him next year!  Ooh ah. You could also send him an email to get on his mailing list, or to invite him to teach a class for a group: fritzr(at)cox(dot)net


We worship the shoe god. I’m second from the right.

Hollywood always gets gardens wrong (I’m talking to you, Maze Runner)


See, after they covered the maze walls they had all this leftover ivy… (Maze Runner movie poster)

If you know a lot about one subject, maybe gardening, or law, or the history of Roman armaments, or police procedure, or whatever, you will probably have noticed that the film and television industry gets a lot of the details wrong. I understand. They’ve got a lot to do to get a story on the screen, and most people don’t care about the details, but sometimes, it gets to be too much.

One of the worst areas of screen offense is in the depiction of vegetable gardens. I would love to gather a bunch of stills from all the ridiculous vegetable gardens I’ve seen on screen, maybe make a Tumblr of them.  (Let me know if any come to mind!)

[Erik here: see the Meryl Streep vehicle It’s Complicated for a vegetable garden that combines cool and warm season veggies all at once.]

I’m on this rant because Erik and I saw the worst garden last night in the film Maze Runner. Now, I’m embarrassed to even admit we went to see Maze Runner–but–well, there’s no excuse. Let’s just leave it at that. Yet I’m going to ‘fess up to doing so because I have to talk about this garden

[Erik here: the plot is, basically, a Gnostic Crossfit Gym overseen by evil archons and patrolled by the same biomechanical spider thingies seen in Starship Troopers.]

A part of the plot involves a pack of feral teenage boys tending a survival garden. The garden seems to consist mostly of an extensive trellis system made out of twigs. Vertical gardening! OK!  The set designers had probably picked up on some of the recent vertical gardening hoopla and were using that to make for interesting use of visual space. But what was growing on the trellis?  Cloth ivy fronds, my friends. Cloth ivy. The sort used to festoon wedding tables, or is sometimes found creeping dustily along the molding in B&Bs.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to offer a pack of hungry teenage boys a bowl of cooked ivy, much less fake ivy.

Now, of course, the intended audience, teenage girls, are NOT looking at the ivy as the hot boy leads discuss their survival problems in the garden. They are, in fact, at this moment, laughing riotously at my boring middle aged concerns. (“Plants? You were looking at the plants?”)  Yes, I was analyzing  the background foliage while yummylicious Dylan O’Brian and Thomas “Elf Boy” Sangster were talking about…something. But yeah, I was looking at them, too.

But seriously, ivy??? This may be an all time low.

And to add insult to injury, they also have an upside down tomato planter strung between two of the trellises. It’s like those plastic ones the big box stores sell, but it is instead constructed of suspicious vine material, a la Gilligans Island. To its credit, though, it did seem to be a real tomato plant, a yellowish, straggly one (and that, at least, is a realistic detail) and it has a couple of tomatoes hanging off it–though those tomatoes may well be clipped on. These were the only edibles in the scene. Seems the boys can have a tomato garnish on their ivy bowls.

I wish I had a still for you, but for some reason the garden is not featured in the publicity stills.

Since I’m rolling on this rant, after the jump here’s a few of other things that perpetually peeve me in film. Please do contribute your own!

Continue reading…

Happy Fall Equinox!

autumn leaf

Our Rodger’s Red grapevine tells us when Fall is here.

Here in LA last week we suffered a miserable heatwave: four days of temperatures above 100°F ( 37.7° C) without even the relief of cool nights. In bed, I wept as the fan swept a 95°F breeze over my body, and vowed to my pillow that I would divorce Mr. I Love LA  and move to Seattle.

Then, on Sunday, I woke up feeling in my bones that something had changed. Suddenly, I was happy and energized. The nights turned cool. I heard the crows returning to the palm trees in our neighborhood, and I realized that Fall must have arrived. I checked the calendar, and saw that the equinox would be — today — Tuesday the 23rd. Glory Hallelujah!

Autumn in LA is really just a gentling of the summer–there’s no frost and little color change. No burning leaves or apple harvests. It will most likely be hot and sunny on Halloween day, perhaps even on Christmas day–and it may never, ever rain again. Yet everything has changed. The sun is crossing the celestial equator and will be spending more time in parts South, meaning it will not beat so hard or so long upon the top of my poor head until next summer.

I cannot say how excited I am. Suddenly, I want to cook. I want to work in the garden and wander in the mountains. It’s like being let out of jail.

How about all of you in your respective parts of the globe. Did you feel the shift? Will you be celebrating the coming of autumn — or summer, if you are south of the equator?

Checking in on Kelly’s projects

tote bag

Today a tote bag, tomorrow the world!

Okay, so this is not the most useful post for the world at large, but I figure that when I mention on the blog that I’m going to try to learn something new, I should report back, to stay honest.

Mattress making:  My post on mattress making has, surprisingly, turned out to be one of our most popular posts ever. I think that shows there’s just a wee bit of dissatisfaction with our available mattress options. (Note that the post has been updated with linkage to an interesting how-to pdf).

Here at home, however, we’re still sleeping on our old mattress. We turned it again and found a side which doesn’t bother my back so much, so this very ambitious project has gone on hold until the crisis arises again. Making a mattress is intimidating, just because of the sheer cost and scale of the materials needed, and as far as I can tell, there’s no one out there to help you do it.  If I ever do make a mattress, it will be like summiting the Everest of homesteading. On the other hand, if I ever learn how, I think I could make a mint teaching other desperate people how to do it themselves!

Shoe making: Shoes are as ambitious as mattresses in their way, and very hard to get your head around. Fortunately I’m going to be taking that turn shoe class I posted about a while back.

I’ve finally realized that I am not a lone wolf when it comes to learning new things. I know people who’ve made beautiful shoes just by figuring them out in their head. I don’t have that kind of head. I like and need teachers. So from now on, I’m just cutting to the chase, kissing the confusing Internet and 70’s how-to books goodbye, and seeking out teachers. (Yes, and it is ironic, being that I’m an Internet how-to teacher.) As of October, I should have my first pair of homemade shoes.

Sewing my uniform: Sewing is also a hard-earned skill, and history has proven I’m no natural born seamstress. Yet, I want my uniform. So instead of blinking stupidly at patterns and sewing books, I’m getting some professional help here, too. I took a “meet the sewing machine” class this week at Sew LA, figuring it could not hurt to start over from scratch. I came out of it with the tote bag you see above–and I only screwed up the bobbin feed three times while making it. Yay me and my special bobbin confusing abilities! Very soon I’ll follow up with a basic skirt class or something similar. I’m on the road to being a crazy homemade dress lady, shod in medieval shoes.

Surfing:  Why do I keep choosing hard things to do??? Some small progress. I have been out a few times. I have been up. (Once. Or twice.) I really like it. And truly, I enjoy falling into the water over and over and over again, and it’s a good thing I do, because for me, surfing is mostly about that. A big shout out to my friend Ellie for being my surf mentor. Thank you, also, to everyone who offered to take me out when I first posted about it! None of you are safe yet: I may come knocking on your door soon as I’m out of the whitewater.

Natural dyes/Shibori/Indigo:  This has been a lost cause as a solo project. I’ve blogged about my plant dye failures. The furthest I got toward my own indigo was collecting a huge amount of urine in a bucket, which I then had to dispose of when it became clear I was not going to turn it into dye. Pouring out all that stale urine, I had one of those out of body moments in which I realized that normal people don’t deal with urine quite as I do.

Yet there’s hope for me still.  Some of you may recall when we posted about our friend Graham’s indigo project. He’s crowd-sourced indigo growing, and has promised some sort of community dyeing fiesta for the growers at harvest time, which should be soon.  Graham is a wizard with natural dyes and shibori technique, so any time spent working with him over a dye vat is time well spent. We’re growing three indigo plants for him, and I’m looking forward to harvesting and dyeing. I suspect that if I take dyeing up more actively, it will be after I get better at sewing.

Pottery:  I did not post about this, but I got it into my head that I wanted to learn ceramics, so I can make ollas, a clay tippy tap, a clay rocket stove, and in my wildest dreams, beautiful earthy modernist ceramics like those sold by Heath Ceramics.  I took a  wheel class earlier this summer, and I was the sorriest potter in the entire class. I am not being modest. It was embarrassing. All around me people were raising beautiful pots on their wheels and I just got lots of clay in my hair. In the end I came home with three wonky, heavy bowls that a kindergartener would shun. I’m making the cats eat out of them.

But I’m getting back on the clay horse, because I’ve never failed at anything that I actually thought, going in, that I’d be pretty good at. To be sure, I’ve tried many things which I knew I’d be hopeless at, and so was not surprised when I sucked. But with pottery, I feel like I should be able to get the hang of it, because I’m good at sculpture and plastering and that kind of thing–additive processes. In other words, I’m good at building things out of gunk. But then again, the wheel is really it’s own thing, and not an additive process at all. At any rate, I’m going to try again, at a different clay studio. I didn’t mesh well with the teacher at the first place, so a change might help.


Looking at this list, I’m realizing that I do have a tendency to choose ambitious projects. (Ya think???) All of these arts require a great deal of commitment and skill and time just gain competency, and any one could absorb a lifetime of devotion. So, I know I won’t do it all. The interesting question, though, is which of them will stick, and what will I learn along the way?