All is Fire

Photo by Olivier Ffrench

Scholar, former Wall Street trader and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb is in his native Lebanon this week shopping for olive groves, according to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal (enter “Taleb’s Pessimism Lures CIC” in Google to get around the pay wall). Taleb explains, “Healthy investments are those that produce goods that humans need to consume, not flat-screen TVs. Stocks are not a robust investment. Make sure you have a garden that bears fruits.”

Amen to that. Taleb’s book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable along with Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic and the fragments of Heraclitus are what I point people to when they ask, “so why do you do these things, gardening, pickling, brewing etc.” Invoking these stoic philosophers both ancient and modern is along winded and perhaps pretentious way of saying that I believe, along with Taleb, that the “highly improbable” is more probable than we think and that it’s best to do the things within our power to do and not worry about what’s going on beyond what we can change.

That China’s Sovereign-Wealth Fund is considering investing in the bearish (to put it mildly) investment fund Taleb advises worries me. Time to turn that RiteAid parking lot into an olive grove! I’ll rent the jackhammers–any volunteers?

On miso, caffeine and the search for a morning brew



Mrs. Homegrown here:

I am a caffeine addict. Erik is too, though he doesn’t admit it. Actually, he was only a casual user until he met me, and then became habituated to the morning brew, and eventually graduated into the 3pm pick-me-up brew. In general, I think mild caffeine addiction is not very worrisome, and pretty much built into the fiber of America. However, my own addiction has always been demanding. And recently I had to go straight (long story) — which resulted in a full week of headaches and misery. But now I’m clean, and living in a much slower, less productive, somewhat dream-like reality. Is the world supposed to be this way??? Really?

Anyway, I’ve decided two things. One, that it is impossible that I should never again ingest caffeine. No more Turkish coffee? No more Thai iced coffee? Never again a Mexican Coke? No English Breakfast teas on a cold afternoon? No crisp iced tea with a nice lunch? Riiiiighht. It will have to come back into my life in some sort of managed way. (How’s that for addict thinking?)

But before I slide back into my habits, I’ve decided to stay entirely clean for a month to see how my head reacts. See, I get a lot of headaches, so much so that I’m a connoisseur of headaches, and I’m wondering if the vascular expansion roller coaster of caffeine consumption might not be very good for me. We’ll see.

All this brings me to the point of this post. I’m looking for interesting suggestions for hot beverages that I can drink in the morning which will ease my longing for the ritualized caffeine consumption.

I do not approve of any of the myriad fruit-flavored or otherwise flavored “herb” teas in the marketplace. I have my own mint, nettles and other herbs to make tea of, but thin herb tea is just plain depressing first thing in the morning. In the morning I want something substantial. I’m not afraid of the the bitter, the strange and the strong.

Do any of you know anything about chicory or the various bitter root brews? Those old-timey, war ration, hillbilly sort of brews? This is what I’m interested in pursuing. Let me know if you have any ideas or favorites.

What’s working for me so far is miso soup. It’s an important component of the traditional Japanese breakfast, and I can see why. Miso soup is big and interesting and hearty–somehow on par in terms of body satisfaction with a nice cup of coffee with milk. Of course, it’s crazy high in sodium, but it is rich in trace minerals, and if you use real paste (not dried mix) and don’t overcook it, you also get a dose of beneficial micro-organisms, because miso is a fermented product. I throw in a few strips of nori to give me something to chew on as I drink.

A few hints re: miso:

• Buy the pure paste, not the soup mix. Buy the paste in big bags at an Asian-foods supermarket. It is much cheaper than the little tubs sold in health food stores. After I open a bag I transfer it to a plastic yogurt tub and put it in the fridge. It keeps forever. There are different types of miso (red, white, brown…) Don’t let this confuse you. All are good. Just start somewhere and you’ll sort it out. I’m fond the red.

• Proper miso soup is made with the classic Japanese soup stock, dashi. You can make it with any stock you like, or do as I do in the mornings and just use water. It’s important not to simmer miso, because heat kills the beneficial critters in it. If you’re making a pot of soup, add the miso at the end, after you pull it off the heat. If you’re making it with hot water, take the kettle off heat before the boil, or let the water sit and cool some before using.

• I use about one rounded teaspoon of paste per coffee cup of water. This makes pretty strong drink, but I like that.

Big hint: when mixing miso paste into liquid, always dissolve the miso in a tiny bit of liquid first, and then add that solution to the larger volume of liquid. Otherwise you’ll never get the lumps out. For instance, I put a spoonful of paste at the bottom of the coffee cup, add a splash of water, mix that up until the lumps are gone, then add the rest of the water.

• You can make your own miso! Sandor Katz has instructions in Wild Fermentation. It actually doesn’t sound hard to do at all. You just cook up some beans and inoculate them, then store them in a crock. I’ve always wanted to try it, but miso needs to ferment for a year in a reasonably cool place. Living in SoCal without a cellar, I just don’t think I can give it the conditions it requires.

• You can make pickles using miso paste. I’m experimenting with that right now, and will report back.

LA Times Calls Vertical Gardens in a Dry Climate a Bad Idea

Wooly Pockets at Homeboy Industries

Writing for the LA Times, Emily Green has penned a skeptical look at wall-based growing, “The Dry Garden: A skeptic’s view of vertical gardens.” I’m in complete agreement with Green and wrote about this silly trend back in July. Says Green of a garden in Culver City that uses the Wooly Pocket vertical system,

“The concrete wall behind the bagged-and-hung garden is wet with runoff from an automated drip system. The sacks are calcified with irrigation scale. Even in an open-air setting, get close and there is a whiff of mold. It’s hard to imagine a less savory or more whimsically destructive system for a region in a water crisis.”

Amen. We need more critical thinking like this, especially when it comes to schemes with “eco” or “sustainable” pretensions.

Appropriate Tech is the New High Tech

On his blog, the Archdruid Report, John Michael Greer has a provocative essay, “Seeking the Gaianomicon” that includes a link to a collection of 1970s/80s era appropriate technology handouts. The 190 page pdf Greer mentions (accessible at http://www.culturalconservers.org/apptech.php) includes information and how-to advice on insulation, storm windows, solar water heaters, super-insulated homes, simple photovoltaic systems and more.Greer is asking that readers spread the word about this resource. He also suggests starting your own library of appropriate technology classics. Both are great ideas.

Our blog, in fact, was largely inspired by just this type of literature in the form of a book by Sim Van der Ryn The Integral Urban House: Self Reliant Living in the City as well as other books such as Lloyd Kahn’s Shelter. Keeping with Greer’s idea of building an appropriate tech library we’ll dig up some more books and links. In the meantime, I can think of one other free downloadable book, David Bainbridge’s The Integral Passive Solar Water Heater Book, that you can access for free via the Build It Solar website at: http://www.builditsolar.com/Projects/WaterHeating/ISPWH/ispwh.htm

If any of you know of more appropriate tech books, blogs or resources worth looking at, please leave a comment.

And thanks to the Homegrown Evolution reader who noticed our oddball interest in both appropriate tech and western esotericism and turned us on to the Archdruid.

It ain’t “eco” if you can’t fix it

In the past month I had to repair two kitchen appliances–a 50 year old O’Keefe and Merritt Stove with a broken door spring and an expensive 1990s model “eco-refregerator” called a Conserv, with a torn freezer gasket. The winner: O’Keefe and Merritt! Why?

The torn freezer gasket of the Conserv, as it turns out, is an integral part of the door. After a painfully long call to the parts distributor’s Indian call center I found out that, to repair the gasket, I would have to buy a new door at a cost of $400.

My beef? The Conserv violates several of the tenets of Mr. Jalopy’s Maker’s Bill of Rights, a manifesto of design principles that, if manufactures abided by them, would make things a hell of a lot easier to repair. Here’s a few of the Maker’s Bill of Rights statues violated by the Conserv,

“Cases shall be easy to open.”

“Components, not entire sub-assemblies, shall be replaceable.”

“Ease of repair shall be a design ideal, not an afterthought.”

By way of contrast, the old O’Keefe and Merritt stove’s components are all easily dissembled with a screwdriver. It took just a few minutes to remove the side panels and replace the broken door spring.

In the end, I patched the Conserv’s gasket with glue and a piece of a bike tire inner tube. We’ll see if it holds. It would be a shame to junk this otherwise excellent and efficient refrigerator over a gasket worth pennies.

I propose an amendment to the Makers Bill for “green” manufacturers such as the Vestfrost company who manufactured the Conserv: “If you’re going to call something “green,” “efficient,” or “eco,” you have to abide by all the tenets of the Makers Bill.” In short, if you’re going to make eco claims you better be able to make repairs.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Buyer Beware

From the University of California Food Blog, a warning about fraud in the olive oil business:

“Researchers at UC Davis and in Australia discovered that 69 percent of the imported oils sampled, compared to just 10 percent of the California-produced oils sampled, failed to meet internationally accepted standards for extra virgin olive oil.

The imported oils tested were purchased from supermarkets and “big box” stores in three California regions: Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County. The California brands, however, were found only in the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay Area.

Defects in those oils that failed to pass muster included oxidation from excessive temperature, light or aging and addition of cheaper refined olive oils.  Other flaws may have been linked to improper processing or storage and use of damaged or overripe olives.

Anecdotal reports of low-quality olive oils lurking behind extra-virgin labels have been floating about for some time but this is the first “empirical proof” to support those suspicions, according to Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center.”

 Read the full report on the website of the UC Davis Olive Center.

Los Angeles School Board Cancels Tyson Contract

Thanks to the hard work of local food activists, including my neighbor Jennie Cook, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted this past week to withdraw its five year contract with Tyson Foods Inc. It’s a multi-million dollar loss for Tyson which provides chicken, or.what they refer to on their own website as “protein products” to the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Tyson was to have been a part of a contract divided between three other providers. All together Tyson and the other companies, who provide beef, potatoes and turkey, were to split a potential $284,450,000 over five years.

Rumor has it that Tyson representatives will attempt to win back the contract over the next month, with the activists promising to return to the next LAUSD board meeting on August 31st.

Looks like Jamie Oliver’s “food revolution” has come to LAUSD.

Clarification 7/20/2010: According to an email from Jennie Cook, LAUSD cancelled the Tyson contract because of labor practices not food quality. I’ll post more on this story later.

US Agencies Issue Fatwa on Raw Products

Image by Andres Musta

I have no kind words for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. They are, quite simply, a bunch of thugs working for big Central Valley agricultural interests who support their initiatives, enforcement actions and research. I’ve had first hand experience with their rudeness and lies when they sprayed our neighborhood with pesticides in a futile attempt to stop the Asian citrus psyllid. Now they are at it again, this time raiding raw dairy producers and sellers.

Now there are good arguments on both sides of the raw dairy safety debate (see this article at the Ethicurean for the other side) but I think that individuals should be able to make up their own minds. A recent article over at Grist “Raw Deal: Raids are increasing on farms and private food-supply clubs” has the lowdown on a couple of recent outrageous raids that involved not only the CDFA but an alphabet soup of government agencies, including the FBI and FDA who clearly need their priorities readjusted. Whatever happened to that war on terror? The raw dairy and honey raids profiled in the Grist article have one thing in common: government agencies around the US seem to be targeting private buyer’s clubs who distribute farm fresh raw products,

“They seem to stem from increasing concern at both the state and federal level about the spread of private food groups that have sprung up around the country in recent years — food clubs and buying groups to provide specialized local products that are generally unavailable in groceries, like grass-fed meats, pastured eggs, fermented foods, and, in some cases, raw dairy products. Because they are private and limited to consumers who sign up for membership, these groups generally avoid obtaining retail and public health licenses required of retailers that sell to the general public.”

Now that Michael Pollan and many others have turned attention to the miserable practices of mainstream agriculture the big guys are playing dirty. Read the rest of the Grist article for tips on what to do when they come knocking on your door. I’m not the paranoid type, but this is some scary stuff!

Vertical Vegetables

Frederick Law Olmstead’s office has a 19th century “vertical garden.” Vines!

I was somewhat dismayed to see a local newspaper article touting a company that sells a $1,000 vertical vegetable garden system to schools. The company has a plan to sell this system nationwide. The problem is that I have serious doubts about the long term viability of vertical garden walls for a number of reasons: irrigation, maintenance and start up costs just to name a few. And I’m not alone. The New York Times did some critical reporting on the subject of vertical garden systems in a recent article, “Gardens That Grow on Walls.”

For certain plants vertical growing might work. I haven’t tried it, but this DIY vertical succulent garden in Sunset Magazine certainly is striking. But vegetables? Their roots need space and you’d need to do a lot of watering to keep a vertical vegetable wall happy.

All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!But growing vertically does not have to mean attaching roots to a wall. I can think of two simple vertical vegetable garden strategies where that $1,000 would go a lot further. How about simply favoring fruits and vegetables that either grow vertically naturally, say pole beans, grapes, peas or kiwi or that can be convinced with a bit of pruning to go vertical, such as tomatoes, melons and winter squash? Mel Bartholomew has some nice vertical gardening tips in his classic book Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!. Build some raised beds next to a wall or saw cut out the concrete, plant in the ground and you’re in business.With some slings for the fruit, you can even grow watermelons vertically.

EARTHBOX GARDEN KIT GREENAlternately, buy or make some self irrigating planters (SIPs) and put them next to a wall. See the Green Roof Growers for what can be grown vertically with SIPs made from scavenged five gallon buckets. Or you can buy a commercially made SIP kit from the Earthbox company for around $50. The nice thing about SIPs is that they are fairly idiot proof and easy to maintain. A SIP is as close to “plant and forget about it” as you can get with vegetables. In short, perfect for schools where maintenance is always an issue.

As one of the vertical wall landscape designers admitted in that New York Times article, “in nature, you don’t have vertical dirt.” Why fight nature?