Cat allergies, cat hearts, cat cuteness: an update on all things cats.

Many apologies to people who don’t come here to hear about the cats.
This won’t take long.

I just wanted to give two quick updates. The first is to let you all know that Phoebe is doing amazingly well despite having an insanely malformed heart. The meds have perked her up, so she and Trout are playing all the time. To look at her you’d never think anything was wrong. So thank you so much for all  your supportive thoughts and let’s hope she stays with us a good while.

The second update is on allergies. I’ve posted about this before. When we got Phoebe I was technically allergic to cats, but I decided to push on through that little impediment, powered by the twin engines of Denial and Will, just as I’d done when we got our dog. It worked.

Then Trout came into our lives. I hoped that I’d get a pass on the allergies, as I’d already adjusted to Phoebe. But instead I had to start all over fresh with him. And it was worse this time around. Not least because Trout is super affectionate and is always, quite literally, in my face. (He kisses!)

I worried that I might have overloaded my system beyond all tolerance, but guess what? The symptoms have been gone for almost a month now, long enough for me to declare victory over pet allergies–my third victory so far.

The secret? Pig-headedness. Willingness to be constantly snotty. Absolute faith in mind over matter. I took nothing for relief, nothing at all. Not even nettle tea this time, because I was out of nettles. I think it’s important not to have a crutch, to force your body to work through it. The whole process took about three months.

I realize that there are people with worse allergies than mine, and I don’t mean to underplay anybody else’s experiences. I’m sure some allergies are so severe that they can’t be ignored. But I’m intrigued that this works, for me as well as for others I’ve heard from, and just wanted to say that it is possible to break free.

The Whip: A Homemade Moisturizer How-To from Making It

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This 2011 post has been edited on 7/8/14, also to include new tips and new pictures. Most important of these are directions on keeping the lotion fresh.

Confession: I can’t live without my homemade moisturizer.

This recipe appears in Making It as Olive Oil Whip. It’s my everyday body lotion/face cream and I figured it was about time to share it with you. It only has three ingredients. It’s safe and wholesome and very effective. It’s so basic and natural that you could eat it!

You might find it heavier than what you’re used to, because it doesn’t contain all the chemicals that the store-bought stuff employs to make it absorb fast into your skin (see the Skin Deep database for the scoop on what’s in your favorite moisturizer). But I promise you that if you use it for a couple of days you’ll get used to the difference–and then you’ll get hooked on the results. My skin has never been so happy as it has since I started using this stuff, and I’m saving tons of money. I will never go back. I don’t even like the way commercial moisturizers feel on my skin anymore.

The Whip

Ingredients:

1/2 cup (125 ml) olive oil

2 tablespoons (.5 oz / 14 g)  of cosmetic grade beeswax, either in bead form or grated and packed into the spoons. (You can use vegan waxes instead)

1 cup (250 ml) of 90°F (32°C) water, distilled is best.

Essential oil of your choice for scent, about 10-20 drops, optional

(Notes on ingredients at the end)

Equipment:

You need a double boiler. An improvised double boiler would be a heatproof bowl balanced over a saucepan. I settle a Pyrex (i.e. heat proof) measuring cup in a small saucepan, which is more like a pseudo double boiler, but works for this. If you don’t have a Pyrex cup, you could also put a canning jar in the saucepan.

You will also need a stick blender. It is possible to do this with a countertop blender, but the stick blender works better and cleans up faster. And in case you’re wondering, no, you cannot make this recipe by stirring really fast. So when the zombies come and the power goes out, we’ll have to beat back our wrinkles with salves–most likely salves rendered from raccoon fat.

A kitchen thermometer. I did not use a thermometer when I started making this lotion, but I’ve been much more successful at it since I started using one regularly.

Very clean, preferably sterilized, jars to store your lotion in. This recipe makes anywhere from 1 to 1 1/2 cups. I recommend storing your lotion in several small jars instead of one big one, and we’ll talk about that later on.

Note:

This recipe is verbose, but the actual making of the lotion takes all of 10 minutes. It’s really very simple once you have the details down: melt wax into oil, blend oil with water, pour into jars.

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The Procedure

I am going to describe my method for making this. It’s not the only way–you can tinker around to make it work for the equipment you have. I like to do everything in one vessel–in this case, a 2 cup, heat-proof liquid measuring cup.

Melt the wax:

Put all the olive oil into the 2 cup Pyrex (or in the top of your double boiler setup) and add the wax. Place the measuring cup in a small saucepan about half full of water. Heat over gently simmering water, stirring occasionally. until the wax melts and vanishes into the oil. Beeswax melts at about 160°F (71°C).

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Pay attention to temperature:

Temperature is very important for the success of this recipe: the temperature of the water, and the temperature of the oil and wax mixture. The wax melts into the oil at about 160°F, as I said. Anywhere between 160°F and 170°F is a good place to be before you go on to the next step.

If you don’t have a thermometer, you know that you’ve hit 160°F when the wax melts, so if you start blending as soon as that happens, you will be at the right temperature. Just don’t super-heat the mix, or let it cool.

Prepare the water:

While the wax is melting, get your water ready to go. I always put my 1 cup of water into a liquid measuring cup, for ease of pouring.

The water needs to be at about 90°F (32°C). I bring the water to this temperature by adding a splash of boiling water to most of a cup of room temperature water, then checking the temp, adding hot or cold water as necessary to get into the 90° range.  90°, 92°, 95° — somewhere in there. It doesn’t have to be exactly 90°

If you don’t have a thermometer, you will have to guess. The water should not feel warm, but it should not feel cold, either. You’re shooting for tepid. This is hard, because how “tepid” feels to you is going to have a lot to do with the temperature of the air, and how cold your hands are… I’ll just say a thermometer is a handy little piece of kitchen equipment.

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Get your other stuff together:

If you’re going to use essential oils to add scent to your lotion, make sure you’ve got them on hand in your work area.

Also put your clean jars in the work area.

Prepare the blender:

Get your stick blender ready to go. It helps clean-up if you preheat the head of the stick blender in a cup of hot water before you use it. If you use it cold, the wax in the oil mixture solidifies prematurely when the cold head touches it. It’s not a disaster, just a little harder to clean up.

If you are going to use a countertop blender, put a cup or two of very hot water in the blender as well, to preheat the jar and the blades so similar sticking doesn’t happen. In this case, it’s an essential step, because there’s so much cold surface area to the blender, you can end up with lots of little chunks of wax in your lotion.

The next steps happen quickly:

Add the essential oil to the wax/oil mix

Stir in your essential oil(s), if using, 10-20 drops or to taste.  Be quick about it.

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Add the water and whirl!

Still moving briskly, take the oil/wax mixture off the stove and move it to where you’re doing your blending. Don’t burn your hand on the Pyrex handle, if you’re using my method.

Put the head of your stick blender into the hot oil and start it whirrrrrring. Soon as its going, pour in all the water in a fast steady stream, and keep blending until the lotion comes together. If you’re using a counter top blender, pour out the preheating water, pour in the oil, start the motor and pour in the water.

You’ll see that lotion-like substance form almost instantly. It’s very thick and shiny, like marshmallow cream, so you’ll have to bounce the stick blender around a bit to make sure it’s all getting mixed. With a countertop blender you’ll have to start and stop it and poke at it with a rubber spatula.

The biggest trick with this stuff is getting the water mixed in. We are not using any chemical emulsifiers, which would bind the water and oil together. We’re sort of uniting them by force of will and our cock-eyed idealism. It doesn’t always go smoothly. Ideally you can get all of that 1 cup of water to incorporate in a few seconds. But sometimes it just doesn’t want to mix in. Don’t overmix the lotion trying to force the issue, or the texture will be off. This is a very fast process.

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If after a few seconds you see that you have a lot of stuff which looks like lotion in your jar, but that there’s also pockets of water in there, and the water doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere, just pause and pour the excess water off. Give the lotion another short whirl to bring up any more water that might be lurking at the bottom and pour that off as well, then call it done.

Note: You certainly may make this recipe with 1/2 cup of water instead of 1 cup–intentionally. The result is a thicker, heavier cream which is really good for harsh weather and outdoor sports, or just those times when your skin is extra dry and itchy. It also makes a good make-up remover/cleansing cream. Basically, the more water, the lighter the moisturizer, the less, the heavier. It’s all good. If you use no water at all, you’ve made a salve–and that’s good too!

Scoop the cream into jars:

While the cream is hot, transfer it to your prepared jars.  Let the jars cool a bit, and then cap them.

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Clean-up:

I have two words for you: baking soda. It’s hard to get this stuff off your tools, and you don’t want wax down your pipes. Rub with lots of baking soda, which will pick up the grease, and dump the baking soda clumps in the trash. Lots of soap and boiling hot water rinses help with the rest of the residue.

I don’t know if this is TMI, but this is the first stage of my clean-up process: I always plan to shower right after I make this, so I can take my lotion-covered cups and spoons into the bathroom and scrape out every last bit of lotion and slather myself from head to toe. Waste not, want not!

A safety note:

This recipe contains no preservatives. Any time you mix oil and water together, you run the risk of bacteria moving in and setting up house. I make this moisturizer because I want a simple product with no fishy ingredients, so I don’t want to add preservatives. I’ve never had any problems at all after years of heavy use of this recipe, nor have my friends or teachers who use it, as well, but technically it’s “unsafe” because it does not have preservatives in it. But you know, driving a car is very unsafe, but I still do it.vWith the lotion, I’ve decided the risk is very low compared to the rewards.

This is my choice–your choice may be different. If you want to use preservatives, Google will lead you to preservatives sold for home crafters. Alternatively, you could look into making skin care products with no water in them, like body butters.

All that said, you can minimize risk through a few simple precautions:

First, prepare the lotion in a clean environment, with clean tools and clean hands. If you have a dishwasher, send all your jars and tools through the sterilize cycle. Wipe down your counter with the strongest disinfectant you are willing to use, be that bleach, alcohol or vinegar, before you start working.

Second, the best way to keep the moisturizer clean is to use it fast, to stay ahead of bacterial growth. I go through a batch a month or less, because I use it all over my body. Think of it as a perishable food product, like a tub of hummus. This might seem strange at first, because we’re used to cosmetics which seem to have an unlimited shelf life. Not so with this cream. Use it up or throw it out within a month.

Third, keep it clean. Each time you reach into your lotion jar, you leave some bacteria behind to breed. If you keep all of your lotion in one jar, all of your lotion is available for contamination. This is why I recommend splitting the batch into a few jars, and only using one a time, leaving the others pristine. And of course, wash your hands before you reach in there-or even use a little spoon if you want to get all Howard Hughes-y.

Fourth, those extra jars should be kept in the fridge until you need them. The cream doesn’t spread well when chilled, but will be fine again as soon as it warms up.

Finally, use common sense. It is not a sterile product. Don’t put it on sores or wounds.

Rosemary essential oil has good antibacterial properties, so if you like you can add some –it can’t hurt, but I wouldn’t rely on it alone, I’d still follow the above advice. Vitamin E oil is often mentioned as a preservative, but it is actually good for keeping oil from going rancid, not for inhibiting bacteria.

Note that changing this recipe so that you replace the water with novel liquids–such as green tea or aloe–will make a product spoil even more quickly. I do not recommend it. If you insist on trying this, use it fast–as in, over a home spa weekend–and keep it in the fridge.

Whenever you use a homemade product, use your nose and your other senses. If the cream goes off you might notice a change in odor, texture or color.

Problems:

As I’ve already mentioned, the water doesn’t always incorporate well. The very best batches absorb the full cup of water and come together nicely and stay together. What makes them work seems to be a magical combination of temperature, timing and the blessings of the lotion fairies.

You may find a little water sitting in the jar now and then. This is not unusual, certainly not a sign of failure. Just pour it off.

In the not so good batches the amount of water that appears is epic as it comes unbound from the oil day by day. Just pour it off. The texture will be off, but the stuff still works, and is fine to use. It’s just not as nice. Try again. You’ll get the hang of it.

Notes on ingredients:

Olive oil:  There’s a lot of debate about what kind of olive oil to use. Some people wouldn’t hear of using anything but the best organic extra virgin olive oil in any body product. I don’t think it’s all that bad to use a lesser olive oil. More processed olive oil doesn’t smell as much like olive oil, which has its advantages. It’s up to you, really.

What I do like to do is use olive oil which I’ve infused with herbs, especially Calendula, which helps heal the skin

Beeswax: I use the beeswax pastilles sold by Mountain Rose Herbs. Yes, it’s a pain to have to mail order them, but it’s so worth it.  A 1 lb bag will make 30 batches of lotion. I use it to make salves and lip balm, too. It’s very handy.

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Goat Worship: A Halloween Exclusive!

Dance with me in the witches’ grove! Bwah ha…ha…er…. Well, okay, if you’re not so into that, I’ll take an apple instead.

This Saturday our friends Gloria Putnam and Steve Rudicel at the Mariposa Creamery in Altadena gave a free, two-hour class on the basics of goat keeping. I was there with bells on. I’ve always wanted goats.

It was a wonderful afternoon–about forty “goat curious” people like me showed up. Gloria and Steve’s goal in this, as in many of their activities, is to build community. They want more goat owning neighbors. They want everyone to be as excited about goats as they are.

Gloria also said that when she got her first goats, she didn’t know any goat keepers. She knew nothing. Everything she read on the Internet contradicted and confused her. The goat message boards were full of scary stories. She wants people to know that it’s not hard to keep goats. A lot of it is common sense. Good management goes a long way toward preventing the situations that lead to the scary stories you read on the message boards. As a beginner, what you really need is other goat keepers you can call on, and watch, and learn from. This is why she and Steve are spreading the good word–they want to build community–so local goat keepers can support and educate one another

Gloria produced a beautiful handout which she has given me in PDF form to share with you all out there in Internet Land. Download it here. It’s a great overview of the basics, with a list of resources at the end. It does focus on goat-keeping in the Los Angeles region, but it will be useful no matter where you live.

Lots of goat porn to follow, interspersed with some of my notes.

Steve and Gloria tellin’ it like it is to the goat curious. Steve is wearing his Altadena booster shirt. Altadena rocks! And Gloria is in her Backward Beekeepers sweatshirt, which is the fashion statement of choice in these parts.

Why keep goats? Why operate a home dairy?

Why should you keep goats? Well, for the milk, of course. And the cheese–which is milk’s higher purpose.  In an urban area (at least in this part of the world) it can be nigh near impossible to lay your hands on fresh, organic raw milk. If access to that kind of food is important to you, you almost have to be DIY. Did you know that a good milk goat can give a gallon of milk a day?

Then there’s the ethics. As many of you know, Erik and I stopped buying eggs at the supermarket because we couldn’t support the egg factories anymore, especially once we learned that “cage free” and “free range” are just marketing gimmicks. We started keeping hens to sidestep the insanity. If we had the room, we’d keep goats in a heartbeat, for the same reason. The industrial milk business is not something we want to support. We use very little milk, and the milk we do use is goat’s milk. 

Beyond this, there’s pure pleasure. Believe us, fresh goat’s milk from a well run creamery does not taste “goaty.” Nothing can compare with fresh, raw milk from animals well loved and fed and carefully milked.

Gloria also points out that for her, goat keeping provides an almost mystical connection to our ancestors, a reconnection to this ancient, ancient human activity of caring for milch animals. Again, like keeping chickens, keeping a few goats was once normative. Well, it is still is normal in a lot of the world–but here and now, it’s exotic, an almost forgotten art. And that’s a shame. Goats are wonderful creatures.

Enter the paddock! Goats are escape artists, so gates like these need to be secured–carabiners work well

A milking station elevates the goat and provides snacks, which are a great incentive toward cooperation.

Look at that foam! A good dairy goat can give a gallon of milk a day. Steve and Gloria milk their goats twice a day. Once a day is acceptable, too, but twice a day increases the yield by 20%.

This device is called a strip cup. The first squirt of milk from the goat goes in here. The screen lets you know if the milk texture is off–a sign of trouble.

How much does it cost? 

You don’t keep goats in the city/suburbs to save money. Just as it is with eggs, you’re always going to be able to buy milk at the store for less than it costs to raise it at home. However, if you’re committed to high quality, fresh, raw dairy and gourmet cheese, you know how hard it is to find, and if you can find it, how expensive it can be.  I think you can get good milk for more reasonable prices in other areas of the country, but around here raw goat’s milk goes for about $20 a gallon. Gloria and Steve estimate their own milk costs more than that, but they admit it is much higher than it need be because a) they are keeping several non-producing goats as pets and b) they are buying really expensive hay for logistical reasons and I’ll add 3) they’re paying SoCal prices for everything.

(I should insert here that Mariposa Creamery is not a commercial dairy. They are producing milk and cheese for their own consumption–and keeping goats because they love goats. So this isn’t at all about profitability.) 

They say they could save a lot of money on hay if they had somewhere to store it and could buy it in bulk, instead of having it delivered in small quantities. They’d save even more if they had time to forage for the goats. Goats actually prefer tree trimmings to expensive hay. All in all, they figure it costs them about $5 per day to support each goat, that include the food, supplements and medicines. But theoretically you could almost feed your goats for free, if they had access to forage or you had time to forage for them.

In planning your own costs, you will also need to factor in the cost of the infrastructure: fencing, housing, feeding and milking equipment. This can be expensive or it could cost relatively little. It depends on your circumstances and leanings. 

How much does it cost to buy a good milk goat? Around $300 locally. That’s for a goat with her kids just weaned, ready to milk. Of course it’s much less cash up front to raise up a baby.


Meet Mint. She’s thirsty after being milked.

How much food? What kind of food? Milkers eat 2 flakes of hay each per day. The non-milkers eat 1 flake. (There are 10-12 flakes per bale, roughly.) Goats eat hay, but would prefer some nice foraged tree branches. They also get a little grain, veg scraps, and access to the condiment bar. See the next pic…
This surprised me as a goat newbie: the goats get constant access to three nutritional supplements: kelp, mineral salts and baking soda. They nibble at these when the like, when they feel they need them.

Spontaneous still life: hay hook and a green egg

Goat milk does not taste “goaty” if handled properly. First, it has to be processed instantly: out of the goat, straight into the dairy, where it is filtered–which is what is going on in this picture–and then chilled down as quickly as possible. All the equipment, of course, is very clean.

If only my kitchen were so clean.
I admit I was kind of getting off on all the stainless steel.
But back to the point. Once the milk is filtered it is cooled down fast by being placed in a bucket of cold water packed with those blue ice brick thingees, and then put in the fridge. Submersion in ice water cools much more quickly than simply putting the milk in the fridge, or even into the freezer.
If you have goats, even just a couple, you’re going to have plenty of milk. What do you do with it?

Make cheese, of course! Aren’t these incredible? Gloria and Steve made these with their own hands. This is the triumph of the DIY spirit.

Source–>Product–>Paradise

Goats in the City and Suburbs

Goats, being smaller than cows and happy to live on forage rather than pasture, are ideal milch animals for smaller spaces. You need to keep two goats minimum, because a single goat in an unhappy goat. Three goats is apparently a very good number, though Gloria says the more the better. They’re busy, curious animals and having lots of companions keeps them happy and less dependent on you for company.

Exactly how much room you need to keep goats is one of those questions which is hard to answer. More room is always better. Gloria and Steve’s eleven goats are living in a yard about the size of generous suburban back yard. The kind of yard where you can play fetch with a big dog or toss a football–but by no means a pasture or huge space. Within that space is the goats’ shelter, a pile of logs for them to climb on, their feeding and watering stations and a chicken coop. The specific codes of your city or county might specify a certain size lot for livestock or a certain distance the animals must be from neighboring structures.

This is their first aid kit for the flock. It’s pretty straightforward. Stuff for wound care, charcoal paste for poisonings, an epi pen for allergic reactions, and antibiotics for serious emergencies. The most important item in here may be the thermometer, which is an important early warning device.
Sometimes life is just pretty
Did I mention these are Nubian goats. Their milk has the most butterfat for any goat this size.

This is my new best friend, Dot. The sweetest kid in the world. She followed me around like a puppy asking to be scratched and giving me the big eye treatment. I was seriously tempted to stuff her in the hatchback and make a getaway.
Hay, nice manger!

Dot is shaking her head, saying, “No, you cannot capture my cuteness with your tiny box. Put it away and pet me!”

A milking goat drinks 5 gallons a day. This system refills automatically, so Steve and Gloria know their goats will never run out of water, even if they get stuck somewhere and can’t get home to refill.
A log pile provides entertainment for busy goats. So do children.

Goats and chickens get along well, but goats will eat all of the chickens’ feed, so you have to protect those areas. It’s very bad if a goat is allowed to gorge on large amounts of grain–it can kill them. Yep, they can digest oak branches but grain is a problem. It turns septic in their stomachs.

This kid got up on the log pile and started posing. She’s Dot’s sister.

This is my wistful look.

Did you want a profile?

I pulled back to capture the nobility of her pose.

Seriously. Can we just bronze it and put it in a park?
All hail our Caprian overlords.

Happy Halloween everybody! (Photo courtesy of Gloria Putnam)

Emergency Supplies: It’s all about the lids

Above you see one five gallon bucket transformed into a toilet, and another into a food storage container, by virtue of specialty lids.

The toilet seat lid I have here is called Luggable Loo Seat Cover and, miraculously, it is made in Canada. I bought it at REI.

The other lid is called a Gamma Seal, and it is USA made. Do I see a trend, here? Anyway, this I found at an Army surplus store. The Gamma Seal is a two part lid that fits most 3-7 gallon buckets. One part of the lid is an adapter ring that snaps on the rim bucket. (“Snaps” is a euphemism for “Fits on after straining, swearing, hammering and finally calling for the husband.” In the end, Erik held it down while I beat it–er–I mean, snapped it into place.)  The lid itself spins and seals with a gasket. This gives it a nice, bug and moisture proof seal for all sorts of storage needs, transforming your ordinary buckets into superbuckets.

The set up above is actually a birthday gift for a friend who’s expressed interest in being better prepared for emergencies. Especially as regards what we like to call “Toilet Freedom.” Okay, so a toilet doesn’t scream birthday–but you know, she’s used to us and our ways.

We’re giving her the black bucket and matching loo seat with a plastic bag full of wood shavings inside and a tp roll, so it’s ready to rock as a composting toilet. (For more on composting toilets, see this post of ours  or go straight to the source, The Humanure Handbook.)

The green bucket holds enough preservative-filled, ready-to-eat food to hold her for a day or two without access to cooking water or a stove. I deliberately chose foods that she wouldn’t be tempted to eat prior to the natural disaster/zombie attack. Not gross things–you don’t want to be challenging your stomach in an emergency–but kind of boring things, such as plain crunchy granola bars, as opposed to the tempting, chewy, chocolate-dipped variety. There’s also some raisins in there, pop-top tuna cans, applesauce cups and peanut butter crackers.

There’s plenty of room for her to add more, depending on what she wants to be prepared for. And there are so many types of emergencies to choose from! I mean really, where do we start? She might want to add some dehydrated stuff and drink mixes for situations in which she has plenty of water and a fire source. It’s nice to have hot food, even if it is packed with sodium. Or for longer emergencies, she might want to consider storing fast cooking dry goods, like white rice and lentils, and high calorie foods, like oil, peanut butter and honey.

Sealed buckets like this are also a good place to store other things you’ll need in an emergency, including medications, first aid kits, extra glasses and copies of important documents.

A few snacks in a five gallon bucket won’t feed a person forever, but it’s a start. It can make the difference between misery and comfort for the first day or two after a disaster. In disaster preparedness, don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. Do what you can. Everything helps.

With these two buckets we’ve got food and sanitation covered. The third big category–and perhaps the most vital of all– is stored water, which our friend already has under control. For tips on water storage, see our recent post on water storage.

So-So Tomatoes Become Excellent When Dried

As we reported earlier, we weren’t thrilled with our cherry tomato choice this summer. They were just plain dull. They were also rather large for a cherry, more like mini-plum tomatoes, which made them awkward for salads. But they were healthy plants, and very, very prolific. In situations like this it is good to remember that tomatoes which don’t taste good off the bush often cook or dry well. The ratio of skin and seeds to pulp in these tomatoes made them a bad candidate for sauce, so we’ve been drying them.

And man, are they good dried. Like tomato candy. It’s very hard not to snack on them, but I’m trying to save them for the depths of winter, when I really miss tomatoes.

We have maybe a couple of quarts of them now. Several years ago we had an absolute disaster involving a pantry moth, its many offspring, and one big jar of dried tomatoes. For this reason I’m storing the dried tomatoes in a series of small jars, to offset the risk. Another good tip for fending off moths is to freeze any food stuff which you suspect might be at risk for 4 days to kill moths and their larvae.

How did we dry our tomatoes, you ask? Usually we use our homemade solar dehydrator, but this year we’ve got a friend’s electric dehydrator on loan. It seemed wicked to run the thing day and night, but it dries a lot faster, and with less work overall, than our solar set-up. (Oh, the wonders of Modern Living!) The one thing I did not like, though, was the constant noise. The dehydrator sounds a little like a running microwave, not loud, but persistent. I was always half-consciously expecting to hear the microwave “ding!” at any moment.

So, while the electric dehydrator let us process this crop of tomatoes in record time, I don’t think we’re going to ever buy one ourselves. Old Betsy, the wonky wooden dehydrator, suits us well enough.

Clean your hands with olive oil

I was just outside staining a piece of wood and got oil stain all over my hands. A bit of olive oil took it right off. These days, olive oil (or any cooking oil, really) is my first resort whenever I’ve got something staining, greasy, sticky or icky on my hands. I’m pretty sure we’ve written about this before–but it bears repeating: There’s no need to expose your skin to harsh chemicals like turpentine or paint thinner.

Usually oil alone will do the trick. For tough jobs you can grit up the oil with a few shakes of salt or baking soda. Sometimes a mix of oil and soap works better.

A sad but true story: As an art student, I was taught to thin my oil paint and clean my hands and brushes with turp. I often painted holding a turpentine dampened rag in one hand for hours on end. I wiped my turp soaked brushes on my jeans (’cause, you know, it looked cool). I cannot imagine how much turpentine I absorbed into my skin over the years. It was only much later that I discovered I could clean my brushes and hands just as effectively with oil.

Oil dissolves oil. Oil dissolves a lot of things. Keep it mind.

Scrubbin’ It

Say hello to my new friend the KingSeal Stainless Steel Scrubber, Heavy Duty Commercial Size. If you’re doing the cast iron cookware thing, as we are, you’re going to need a scrubber. And this puppy is the Hummer of scrubbers (apologies for that metaphor) and far sturdier than the usual flimsy supermarket scrubbers. It was gifted to me by Steve Rucidel, who owns a restaurant–so this is an item you’ll have to seek out at your local restaurant supply store.

Sadly, made in China–but what ain’t these days?

Now if only I didn’t have to do the dishes!

Mrs. Homegrown here:  

This is indeed a fine, stout scrubbie, but as at least one commenter says, it may not be the best thing for the cast iron. For indeed, if your cast iron is well seasoned, food should come off a rag, or a couple scrapes with a flat spatula. Unless you’ve really burnt dinner or something.  I’m laughing right now that Erik should put forth opinions on scrubbing cast iron, when in fact he’s very, very good at avoiding cleaning it day to day. He’ll do dishes, but “forget” the pans on the stove. Forget them for, like, what is it now…15 years?  He’s excited by the sturdy, attractive qualities of this object, and the fact his buddy Steve gifted him it–but he asked me to post this clarification re: the cast iron.

Broom Corn–or is it Broomcorn?

Mrs. Homegrown here:

This summer I suggested we plant broom corn for no other good reason than I saw the seed pack at the nursery and thought it would be fun to make a broom. (This sort of temporary insanity often overtakes me in the seed aisle.) So without knowing anything at all about broom corn or broom making we planted a block of the stuff. Maybe I should have done a little research into broom making before planting, but I let it slide ’til harvest time. It’s not a disaster–I’m still going to try to make a broom. But now I know more and would do things a little differently if I was serious about the broom biz.

I’m going to share with you what I know about growing and harvesting broom corn to make brooms. Making the broom will have to be another post.

What is broom corn?

It’s a member of the very useful sorghum family: Sorghum vulgare var. technicum.  It’s a tall plant that closely resembles sweet corn, especially when young. However, when it matures it sports big, seedy tassel heads instead of corn cobs. 

As its name implies, it is an excellent material for broom manufacture. It really has no other purpose, except maybe in floral arrangements or as not-so-great animal fodder. As my favorite source, Broom Corn and Brooms: A treatise on raising broom corn and making brooms on a small or large scale (1908) says:

Like cork, Broom-corn is one of those natural products that are so perfectly adapted for the uses to which they are put, that no substitute has been, or is likely to be, found for it. In toughness, elasticity, sufficient, but not too great rigidity, lightness, and ease with which it is manufactured, it excels all other materials used for brooms.

The first recorded mention of it comes out of Italy in the 1500′s. Ben Franklin is credited with introducing the seeds to this country. But really, what innovation is that man not credited with?

Broom corn and broom manufacture was a big in the States, once upon a time. In the early 1900′s the US was the only country in the world exporting brooms. Of course that’s no longer the case–I assume our brooms come from China now–and most broom corn you buy probably comes from Mexico.

It was also not uncommon for folks with a bit of land to grow a stand of broom corn to keep them in brooms. Again, from the 1908 book:

…it is often cheaper to raise a patch of broom corn and have the boys make it up on rainy days, than to buy the brooms ready made. While home-made brooms may not be as handsome as the “boughten” ones, they will do quite as good work–provided the right person is at the other end of the handle.

 I think this says a lot about our general resourcefulness in past years–as well as something about the relative price of brooms.

Broom corn or Broomcorn?

I have no idea! My 1908 manual calls it Broom-corn. I tend trust the grammatical chops of people working a century ago for print. Broomcorn is just plain strange looking. But I’m sticking with broom corn as sort of a compromise, knowing that if anyone was searching the topic they’d probably use that form. And thus I contribute to the decline of literacy via the expediencies of the Internet.

ETA: It is broom corn, according to the OED.  You see broomcorn a lot though.

Can I grow it myself?

Yes. Apparently it can be grown almost anywhere. Certainly, if you can grow sweet corn you can grow it, but it’s less fussy than sweet corn, being tolerant of both drought and poor soil. However, the best broom material comes from big healthy plants raised on good soil with plenty of water and sunshine. The midwest used to be broom country.

You definitely want to plant your broom corn in blocks instead of long rows, so you get good pollination rates.

It’s really tall stuff (up to 15 feet), and needs some support if you let it ripen, because the heads get heavy.

Where do I get the seeds?

A quick search will give you several options. Mine were from Seed Savers Exchange. It’s a variegated color variety. The picture on the seed pack promised a huge variation in color. For the longest time I thought I’d been ripped off, because the tassels came out uniformly green and stayed that way til they ripened. Then they started to turn a uniform reddish-orange color. Only at the very end of the growing season did a bit of color variation begin to be evident–ranging from light orange to rust to red to burgundy, as you can see in the first picture. Very pretty stuff, but subtle. I think the seed packet illustration included the most extreme variations they could find, plus some unripe stalks for the lighter colors.

How much do I plant?

I finally found some good instructions on broom making (links later), long after planting, and those said that you need 45 nice big heads to make a standard flat broom. Each plant yields one head. My harvest was 50 heads total, including scrawny ones. This means I won’t be making a standard broom.

Keep that number–45–in mind, and then pad it to make allowance for small or malformed heads and your own mistakes while crafting. So I dunno how much exactly…lots? 60 or so plants per big broom?

Here’s something else you need to know: you have to use long heads to make full-sized brooms. The ideal tassel, or head, measures a cubit, which is the length from your elbow to the tips of your fingers. That’s the tassel alone, not the stalk to which is attached. None of my heads got that long. I’m not sure if this is because of our cultivation, or the variety, or what. From what I can glean, substandard sized heads are the part of every harvest–these were set aside for making whisk brooms. I will be making a whisk broom.

My harvest fit in a 5 gallon bucket. This is almost enough material to make a regular flat broom.

When do you harvest?

While waiting to see if the tassels would ever turn out to be variegated in color, I let my broom corn get completely ripe. The seeds are fully formed and heavy. This makes for pretty autumn bouquets, but is not ideal for broom manufacture. My 1908 manual says that the finest broom material is green and young. I don’t think I’m totally sunk, because those 1908 folks had very high standards re: brooms. Higher than mine, I don’t doubt.

Anyway, this is what they say about harvesting for brooms. This is the only info on this topic that I have been able to find:

Most successful growers say that the cutting should commence as soon as the “blossoms” begin to fall. After the flowers have been fertilized and the seed “set,” the antlers, or male organs and male flowers, fall away, and this is called the dropping of the “blossom.” At this time the seed has just begun to form and it is in a merely rudimentary condition, and the brush at this period is not only the best color, but it is heavier…and more durable.

How do you harvest?

For broom material, cut the stalks 6 to 8 inches beneath the base of the heads. If you want the heads for floral arrangements, the length is up to you. After cutting go ahead and peel away any leaves. The old manual has much advice as to how to do this systematically in the field–for instance, this charming illustration:

But alone in your backyard, and sadly lacking the dapper headwear, you will probably just have to wrestle with the tall stocks as you think best, bringing them down so you can lop of their heads. This will leave you with a ton of compost material–or useful compostable biomass in Jeavons-speak.

Her you can kind of see how the strands that form the heads come together at the stalk. You cut 6-8 inches below that point.

Curing the material

The heads have to be dried after harvest. No one is saying how long–’til dry, I assume. The stalks should be dried indoors or at least under cover, and they should be laid out flat, so they’ll dry straight. If I kept the stalks in the bucket, for instance, they’d dry with a definite curve to them. Not good.

The problem with taking on agricultural crafts in the city is the distinct lack of agricultural facilities, such as drying sheds. (A tobacco shed, apparently, would be perfect.) Not to mention a lack of space in the house. My broom corn is currently on the kitchen table, where it will be a nuisance for a week or two.

The cats were thrilled by the corn in the bucket, but as compelling as it was as a cat toy, I had to take it away from them and lay the heads out flat to dry.

Removing the seeds

Yep, the heads have to be stripped down so you have nice clean broom straw to work with. I haven’t done this yet, so will have to include what I learn in the next post where I tell you of my zany broom making adventures. But it sounds like you have to comb them off. For small batches, the 1908 book suggests either a long toothed curry comb (’cause we all have those around!) or sawing teeth into the end of a board to make a comb, and then fixing that board to something stable, so you can really tug the heads through. Go read the manual if you want more deets. I might just try a regular comb. You can also thresh it. If you have any idea how to begin threshing–which I don’t.

One last thing to think about:

If you want to make a broom with a long handle, you can use a dowel, or a re-purposed handle, or a hardwood branch. If you like the rustic branch look, keep in mind that the branch must be aged and dry. So if you’re planning on growing some corn to make brooms next summer, now would be a good time to gather your branches. Put them somewhere dry and let them cure for a year.




Resources

Broom Corn and Brooms: A treatise on raising broom corn and making brooms on a small or large scale (1908)  I love this little book for its illustrations and wonderful fuddy-duddy prose. I read it out loud until Erik begged me to stop. Its instructions on making brooms are hard to follow and mostly unillustrated, but the cultivation info is invaluable. This link will take you to Google Books, where you can download a pdf.

How to Make a Broom, by Little John Holzwart. This is a Mother Earth News article, and the best instructions I’ve found. He doesn’t talk about growing or harvesting at all, though. Be sure to look at the photo gallery. Pictures help a whole lot. Little John sells brooms at Moonwise Herbs.

There are a surprising number of broom handcrafters on the Internets. Seems they’ve been given a big boost by Harry Potter in general and specifically by Quidditch teams needing funky brooms. Seriously. So poke around and see what these things look like.

I like seeing all the forms laid out in one place here at Granville Island Broom Company. I’m tempted to make a turkey wing whisk, a cobwebber or a scrubber. A scrubber suits my skill level.


Loofah Sponges

We talk about the joy of loofah–or luffa– (Luffa aegyptiaca) all the time, but I don’t believe we’ve every blogged about it here. I was reminded of it when we received a letter from Candace, who heard us on a podcast talking about how much fun it was to grow loofah sponges. She said:

I wanted to thank you for that part of the interview in particular.  I decided to grow some this summer and it has been a great joy.  It is a beautiful vine, and the flowers are always loaded with bees, bumble and honey and all kinds of other insects. By the way, luffa are delicious.  Mine has been eatable at a diameter of 1 to 1.5 in and a foot long with no problem.  There are several recipes on line for them as well. They are a definite interesting grabbing item to share at get togethers, pulling the skin off and shaking out the seeds.  I’ve gotten several people interested in growing them that have never grown anything before by showing them the luffa.

Thanks for the feedback, Candace! And thanks for reminding us about this great plant. It’s just fantastic to be able to grow your own cleaning tools. They’re expensive in stores–too expensive to consider using on dishes and such–and just try to find one that’s organic and locally harvested!

Most people think loofah sponges come from the sea, but they are actually members of the cucumber family and grow on vines. With their skins on, they look like zucchini sized cukes. They’re quite attractive and fast growing. The vines can reach 20 feet if they’re happy, and the fruits form on big yellow flowers. They are so prolific and easy to grow (given the right conditions) that you only need a crop every few years to keep you in sponges.

We’ve never tried to eat loofah, mostly because we’ve been too greedy for sponges. But we’re going to chill on that next time around and eat a few. 

The only catch with loofah is that they need a long growing season: 4 months from sprouting to get a sponge, 3 months from spouting to harvest the fruits to eat. This does limit its cultivation to more southern latitudes, unless you can maybe get a jump start by sprouting indoors. 

Some tips:

  • The seeds need warmth to sprout–sort of like tomato seeds. They won’t start in cold soil. Start them indoors over heat if you have to. 
  • Basic growing requirements are lots of sun, lots of water, warm weather and time. Again, three months for food, for months for sponges.
  • Here in SoCal March is a good month to plant the seeds directly in the ground.
  • Provide support for the vine: it’s a climber. The vines are long and the fruit big.
  • Some people harvest for sponges after the skins turn brown. I find that if you wait that long the sponge itself can be blotchy/discolored. This is purely an aesthetic problem. Many people bleach their sponges in a mild bleach solution, so this doesn’t matter. I don’t bleach mine, so I like to harvest while they’re still green–though I think they might be a little harder to peel at that point.
  • It might help if you throw your harvest in a trash can full of water and let it sit overnight before you peel. Then you can peel in the can, in water, because it’s a messy business. Or do it however you want. You can’t really screw this up. Don’t worry too  much about how or when you peel them. You’ll get a sponge.
  • The seeds float out under water, or can be shaken out. The later is an excellent task for pesky children.
  • Each mature loofah yields tons of seeds, but be sure to save plenty because the germination rates aren’t high. Save seeds from the best specimens.

ETA: More info here: http://www.luffa.info/