New Year’s Resolutions

It’s a week for formulating New Years resolutions and I have two that stem from reading Ferran Adrià’s A Day at elBulli. Adrià is one of the main proponents of “molecular gastronomy” (though he rejects the term) a style of cooking that involves not just unusual ingredients, but the creation of entirely new forms of cooking. Think dry ice, freeze drying and culinary thoughtstylings such as “Spherification.” But back to my two resolutions which are:

1. Read, listen to and experience more divergent opinions. I checked out A Day at El Bulli from the library expecting to hate it. I’m all about quality ingredients (preferably homegrown) prepared in simple, traditional ways and will never attempt any of the ridiculous recipes included in this big picture book. That being said, I came away from thumbing through the book with an admiration for Adrià’s creativity even if I agree with Mrs. Homegrown description of the entrees looking like “dog vomit.”* It’s all too easy in the age of Google to succumb to “confirmation bias,” the errors that come with finding only what you’re looking for. While I wouldn’t buy a copy of A day at El Bulli, I’m glad a librarian chose it for the library and I’m happy I took the time to consider Adrià’s point of view even if I disagree.

2. Speaking of Adrià’s creativity–he spends half the year developing new methods in Barcelona and the other half the year working at the remote El Bulli. Making the time for creative thinking is essential, I believe. Even after co-writing two how-to books I find myself spending too much time answering emails and not enough time growing, tinkering and building things. Adrià has it right: if you don’t make that time for creativity it will fill up with unproductive duties. Of course Adrià has someone else to sort through the 2 million (no exaggeration) annual reservation requests.

* A clarifying note frome Mrs. Homegrown: I used the term dog vomit specifically in relation to their signature dishes based on flavor-infused foam. Many of their dishes are strikingly beautiful, art without doubt. But speaking as a dog owner, if you present me with a plate of chunks of food swimming in yellow foam, my mind is going one place and one place only. And when the foam is white instead of yellow, I’m thinking about spittle bugs, or pond life, or stinky beach foam. But you know…whatever turns your crank.

And speaking of those 2 million reservations, Mrs. Homegrown and I are taking a few days off to catch up with things–we’ll be back soon.

Looking for a Hardware Store Interview Subject

Image from the new CLUI Morgan Cowles Archive

Hey all, I’m working on an article for the May issue of Urban Farm magazine on the subject of businesses to patronize before they disappear. One of those businesses is your local independent hardware store. If you either own or work at a hardware store and have opinions, I’d like to interview you. Send me an email at [email protected]. For the rest of you, if you have an opinion about the types of businesses I should profile leave a comment.

Have any ideas? We’re rewriting the anniversary gift list

Okay, this has almost nothing to do with the post. But Anne, mentioned below, and her broody hen Big Wig, are fostering kittens. Yes, the hen sits on the kittens. You might die of the cuteness if you saw it. If you live in the LA area and need a fluffy, chicken-identified kitten, drop us a line.

Our neighbors Anne and Bill are about to have an anniversary. Anne was thinking about a gift for Bill and referenced the traditional anniversary gift list–you know, the inscrutable wood, paper, tin list, as well as the updated list which includes clocks and tablecloths–and was less than inspired. Instead, she’s thinking about taking a class that will be beneficial to Bill, and the relationship– a cooking class, perhaps. I hope I’m not spoiling any surprises! (She had other ideas, Bill…just in case you’re reading.)

Her instinct toward classes jives with an idea Erik and I have been kicking around for a while: that money should not be spent on objects, but on experiences.

We never regret money we shell out for experience, whether that be trips, workshops, lessons or strange adventures, while we often regret the acquisition of knickknacks and gadgets. Knowledge and experience are our most important possessions. They cannot be lost or broken. They form the stuff of our souls.

So we’re interested in rewriting the anniversary list in one or two ways, and would love it if you’d pitch in ideas for Anne and I to consider.

The first option is slightly more traditional. It would be a list of gift items, arranged per year, but we could try to rewrite it to be genuinely useful from a “homesteaders” point of view. I know I was just talking about the importance of experience, but we do need good tools in a functional household, and a list could be built around that.

The second option is the experience list. What sort of skills and knowledge make up a self-reliant household–and a good relationship? How would you prioritize that knowledge on a year by year time line? Can we think of 50?

And maybe there’s a third option–feel free to toss out anything you like.

Is Peat Moss a Sustainable Resource?

Two very different views on the ethics of using peat moss: one from garden writer Jeff Ball via Garden Rant,

Here are the simple facts. Canada has over 270 million acres of peat bogs which produce peat moss. Each year the peat moss industry harvests only 40,000 acres of peat moss mostly for horticultural use. If you do the math that comes to one of every 6,000 acres of peat moss is harvested each year. And here is the cherry on top. Peat bogs are living entities. The peat bogs grow 70% more peat moss each year than is harvested. With that data I consider peat definitely a renewable resource.

But Ball’s single source for these facts seems to be the Canadian Spaghnum Peat Moss Association. Linda Chalker-Scott, Ph.D., Extension Urban Horticulturist and Associate Professor at Washington State University in an article, “The Myth of Permanent Peatlands” (pdf), writes,

Peatlands degraded by mining activity do not revert to their former functionality; changes in hydrology and physical structure are hostile to Sphagnum re-establishment. Recently, degraded peatlands have been restored through the blockage of drainage ditches, seeding with Sphagnum, and application of a mulch layer to reduce water loss. When degraded peatlands are restored, the ability to hold water is improved but CO2 continues to be released by high levels of bacterial respiration, which represents the decomposition of mulch and other organic matter. It takes a number of years for the photosynthetic rate of new peatland plants to outpace the respiratory rate: until this happens, even restored peatlands represent a net loss of carbon to the atmosphere and thus contribute to greenhouse gas production.

Chalker-Scott goes on to list a number of peat moss alternatives including composted bark, coconut coir and paper sludge to name just a few. I use peat moss as part of a homemade seed starting mix. Reading Chalker-Scott’s article has convinced me that this is not an ethical choice.

The peat moss alternative I hear most often suggested is coconut coir. But I’ve heard an equally contradictory argument on the ethics of coir. And this study shows poor results for coir as a peat moss alternative in a seed starting mix. I tried my own comparison last summer and came up with the same results as that study. Oh, how this all gets so complicated!

So, I’m going to throw this open to you, our dear readers. I’m interested in hearing your opinions on peat moss. I’m also interested in hearing if any of you know a good peat-less, homemade seed propagation medium recipe, preferably from a reliable source. Leave some comments!

Accidental Garden Design: Pomegranate and Prickly Pear

Can good garden design be taught or is it something you’re born with? If it’s inherited I didn’t get that gene, unfortunately. But at least a garden can sometimes put on a good show despite the gardener’s lack of design sense. Above, the view out our front window of our pomegranate tree (Punica granatum ‘Wondeful’) against our overgrown prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica).

These two plants have a lot in common. They both produce abundant and nutritious food in a dry climate with little or no attention other than yearly pruning. They combine beauty and free produce with no work. Both are rich in symbolism. I could go on, but the photo says all that needs to be said.

Fading into the Soft White

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Honeybees congregate on our floating row covers to die. Every day, two, three, four or five will choose to land one last time on this billowing white fabric that covers one of our garden beds. There they will cling while their strength wanes, until they fall off to be lost in the mulch.

I know worker bees don’t live very long. They work so hard that by the end of their lives, their wings hang in shreds. Their little bodies just give out. And I know that I should not think of them as individuals, but as expression of the will of the Hive. Still, there’s something melancholy about the way they ride these white waves. Perhaps their fading senses lead them to the brightest place they can find.

Is Kombucha Safe?

We love to ferment things, with one notable exception: kombucha. During the last kombucha craze, in the mid-90s, we picked up a “SCOBY” blob and dutifully fed it tea and sugar until we stumbled upon an article written by mycologist Paul Stamets, “The Manchurian Mushroom: My Adventures with “The Blob.” In that article Stamets tells a convoluted story of having a kombucha culture tested by a lab. He didn’t tell the lab what it was.The lab was very excited about the results on this mystery substance, and Stamets soon finds himself “sitting in a board room of a pharmaceutical company with lawyers and contracts discussing the particulars of patents, sub-licensing agreements, market territories, and dollars running into the millions—if FDA approval was granted for a novel drug.

Then the folks in the meeting turn to Stamets and ask him to reveal the identity of this culture:

I told them that, as best as we had been able to determine, from analyses by several independent mycologists, that the Blob was a polyculture of at least two yeasts and two bacteria, living synergistically.

The silence was deafening.

“Say what?”

Perplexed looks crossed their faces, soon followed by exasperated expressions of deep disappointment. Which of the organisms are producing the potentially novel antibiotic? Was it one or several? Was it one in response to the presence of another organism? Was it one in response to several organisms? The sheer numbers of permutations would complicate trials and given the FDA’s disposition, a polyculture is de facto contaminated.

The meeting was abruptly adjourned.

So kombucha does indeed have medicinal properties–including “novel antibiotic” properties– but therein lies the problem. Stamets concudes,

Those who might benefit from Kombucha need a credible and experienced professional who could best prescribe and administer it. I do not see the advantage of taking Kombucha by people in good health. Given the detrimental effects seen from prolonged exposure to antibiotics, the repeated, long term use of Kombucha may cause its own universe of problems. I wonder about those people who have adverse reactions to antibiotics? What about those with sensitivity to the microorganisms in Kombucha? I personally believe it is morally reprehensible to pass on this colony to sick or healthy friends when, to date, so little is known about its proper use. At present there are no credible, recent studies as to the safety or usefulness of Kombucha, despite decades of hype.

Stamets also expreses concern over contamination. A German study found three out of 32 samples of kombucha cultures taken from German households to be contaminated with Penicillium spp. and Candida albicans. While describing the contamination rate as “low” (nearly 1 out of 10 samples seems high to us) it goes on to recommended that immunosuppresed individuals buy commercial kombucha instead of making it at home. A literature review conducted by the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth in the UK concludes, “the largely undetermined benefits do not outweigh the documented risks of kombucha,” said risks including, “suspected liver damage, metabolic acidosis and cutaneous anthrax infections.”

We’re all for fermented foods, and support the home fermentation of classic pro-biotics like yogurt, sourdough and lacto fermented vegetables. The last thing we want is for people to get spooked away from home fermentation. But kombucha is different. The problem, as Stamets notes, is that kombucha’s sugar and tea medium is a kind of open house for cultures, some good, some bad. Yogurt, sourdough and salt brines are very selective mediums in which to ferment things. With komucha it’s much more of a crap shoot.

Basically, like Stamets, we’re intrigued with the notion of kombucha being tested as a medicine and used with care by both western medical types as well as herbalists. And even if we were guaranteed a pure culture and a solid methodology for keeping the culture uncontaminated, we’d still be too leery its antibiotic properties to consider it a casual beverage. So we just don’t do the kombucha thing.

Ramshackle Solid is on Etsy

Photo by Ramshackle Solid

Those of you who follow the goings on at Ramshackle Solid know they have a really simple, graceful way with crafts, and with making new and making do around their place. Now they’re selling some of their stuff. Their debut offering is a line of these super cute bamboo flatware caddies that you can take with you to school or the office or on a picnic. Say goodbye to nasty plastic utensils, and hello to good living.

We’re looking forward to seeing what comes next!

Check out the Ramshackle Solid Store at Etsy.