The Chicken and the Egg

Back before we relegated the television to a junk pile in the garage we used to channel surf the obscure reaches of cable television creating our own mood-leveling visual mix of Korean melodramas, infomercials and the ongoing freak show that is Los Angeles public access television (click for some Francine Dancer!). Now instead of television we just pull up a chair in the late afternoon and watch the four chickens that populate our backyard in their ongoing search for seeds, bugs and the need to sort out the pecking order. After many hours of poultry behavior viewing it’s no surprise to us that some anthropologists believe that the chicken was first domesticated to provide entertainment (through cock fighting) rather than eggs or meat.

But more important than the entertainment value backyard chickens provide is the far superior taste and nutritional value of eggs from poultry allowed access to pasture. Mother Earth News has an ongoing study comparing supermarket eggs with the eggs of pasture raised poultry and the results are astonishing. But first some definitions. Pasture raised poultry are allowed access to bugs and vegetation. The USDA’s definition of free range is just “Allowed access to the outside”. This can mean a door leading out of a massive shed to a patch of lifeless concrete or barren dirt. “Cage free” hens more than likely spend their entire lives inside and never see the light of day or breath natural air. Most eggs, however, come from chickens that live in cages, and don’t get to move around at all. The shameless flacks at the American Egg Board (AEB) like to mislead the public into believing that “free range” is the same as pasture raised and that there is no nutritional difference between free range, pasture raised and caged chicken eggs.

According to evidence from tests conducted by Mother Earth News Pasture raised chickens have 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, and 7 times more beta carotene. The AEB along with their cronies in the USDA continue to spread the lie that there’s nothing wrong with confining poultry to crammed, inhumane and unsanitary conditions and that eggs produced by factory farm hens are no different than pasture raised hens. As Mother Earth puts it,

“It’s amazing what a group can do with a $20 million annual budget. That’s what factory-farm egg producers pay to fund the American Egg Board each year to convince the public to keep buying their eggs, which we now believe are substandard.”

Now we haven’t counted our chickens before they’ve hatched. Pasture raising chickens, even in a small backyard entails more risk (mainly from predators such as hawks and loose dogs) than confining them to a cage. It’s definitely easier and more economical for commercial producers to confine chickens.

But consider the consequences of the economic and quality race to the bottom of factory farming’s economy of scale–an abundance of cheap, tasteless and nutritionally deficient eggs that like the endless flood of shipping containers full of plastic crap from China poisons both our bodies and souls.

Here’s a list of questions to ask the folks who provide your eggs.

And more Francine Dancer for those without chickens.

Happy World Car Free Day

In honor of World Car Free Day celebrated every September 22nd Homegrown Revolution presents an open letter:

Dear middle-aged office lady who tried to run me down while I was walking my dog in a cross walk across a quiet residential street,

I know you’re in a hurry to get to your job to pay for the $40,000 behemoth you use to transport yourself. Let me extend a welcome to my neighborhood which you use as an alternative to the freeway. It’s not the first time me, my wife, friends and neighbors have been threatened by folks like yourself piloting 6,800 pound death machines. It’s snarky but I have to point out our weight differential. Me and the doberman weigh a combined 240 pounds. It looks like you alone weigh that much due to your sedentary lifestyle. Add that 240 pounds to your multi-ton choice of transportation and I hope you understand why we’re angry when you seem to forget that me and the dog are living beings as you accelerate towards us.

Perhaps you just dropped off your kids at school. Too bad they’ll be suffering from type two diabetes because of inactivity, probably because when you’re not cruising around solo you’re ferrying those kids everywhere in your car. But I suppose it’s not safe for them to walk or ride their bikes to school because of all the SUV drivers like you playing chicken with pedestrians to see who can beat each other across the intersection.

I could keep ranting, mentioning the things we all know, the childhood asthma rates of our polluted city, the melting polar ice caps and dying polar bears, the 39,000 traffic fatalities on American roads, and all those folks dying in Iraq to supply the oil that feeds your addiction.

So perhaps morning rush hour was not the appropriate time for my Tienanmen Square moment of blocking your forward progress by standing in front of your custom grill to scold you for nearly killing me and my dog. How amusing that you circled your finger around your ear and pointed to me indicating wordlessly that you thought I was crazy. We’ll let history be the judge of who’s insane (I’m not putting my money on the oil addicted). In the meantime let’s focus on that tricked-out grill you paid extra for to enhance the meanness of what the designers in Detroit have already managed to make plenty sinister. Do me a favor, step back and ask yourself why you and the car manufacturers have altered the anthropomorphic features of front grills to express homicidal rage.

Oh angry middle-aged driver, would you have behaved better if instead of a cranky middle-aged eco-blogger dressed like the Unabomber and walking a doberman you had encountered a little girl on a pink bicycle with a golden retriever puppy? Perhaps this is why friends and neighbors of mine have all had the same idea of constructing a dummy child and puppy that we could fling out in the street suddenly to slow you all down. Or, is your head so brainwashed by automobile advertising that our animatronic ruse would only be a minor speed bump on the way to the office.

But let’s not end on the negative. Middle-aged office lady (I’m going to call you sister from now on) it’s time to set yourself free! Remember the words of the Situationist muse Guy Debord, “Revolutionary urbanists will not limit their concern to the circulation of things and of human beings trapped in a world of things. They will try to break these topological chains, paving the way with their experiments for a human journey through authentic life.” Break those chains liberated sister and get out of that Yukon. Slow down and live the authentic life! Remember what Debord also said, “Traffic Circulation is the organization of universal isolation. In this regard it constitutes the major problem of modern cities. It is the opposite of encounter, it absorbs the energies that could otherwise be devoted to encounters or to any sort of participation.”

Someday sister you will liberate yourself from that metal glass and plastic cage you’ve locked yourself in.

Happy World Car Free Day,

Homegrown Revolution

How Not to Grow Potatoes


Despite doing everything wrong we had a more bountiful than expected harvest of potatoes this summer season. We grew our ‘taters in a stack of tires. Used treads, due to their ubiquity along the sides of our blighted streets, ought to be named the official city flower of Los Angeles, but we digress. The idea with ‘tater tire stacks is that you add another tire as the plant grows and in so doing encourage the plant to throw out more roots. At the end of the season you kick over the tire stack, which will end up being about three to four tires high, and feast on many pounds of ‘taters.

Just don’t do what we did and try to grow them from sprouting supermarket potatoes. Experts recommend buying special seed potatoes which are certified not to carry any of the diseases that plague this member of the nightshade family. We knew better but felt lazy about ordering seed potatoes. Our potato plants looked sad, failed to flower and eventually died. Much to our surprise when we finally got around to knocking down our ‘tater tire stacks after over a month and many complaints from visiting aesthetes, we discovered a trove of potatoes at the bottom. Amazingly after stewing in the summer heat for at least a month we still had a meager harvest. And speaking of heat, we suspect that potatoes may do better here in Southern California in the winter and we’re going to try it again soon–this time with seed potatoes.

If any of you loyal readers have any ‘tater growing experiences please share them with us. And don’t worry, we haven’t read Benton’s book and won’t resort to the same cheap white trash humor.

Moonshine

Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0074685. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society

Homegrown Revolution will neither confirm nor deny that we have any plans involving the production of moonshine. Nevertheless, we were thrilled to find a new book in the library by Matthew B. Rowley called Moonshine! that offers up an entertaining history as well as recipes and instructions for building two kinds of stills, a simple one made with a wok and a more complex model involving welding that resembles the one being seized in the photo above.

As soon as things cool down here this fall we’ll definitely begin some legal fermentation experiments, but we can’t help but feel envious of some comrades of ours in France we visited a few years ago who recounted how their families used to ferment the excess fruit in the yard and take it to a licenced farmer to distill into the French version of moonshine, eau de vie. Here in the states it’s illegal to distill anything yourself but perfectly o.k., as a recent article in the Wall Street Journal points out, for agricultural corporation, Archer-Daniels-Midland to distill pure ethyl alcohol, sell it to corporate vodka producers as “product code 020001″, ship it “Bulk, Truck, Bulk Rail, or Tank” and as Journal reporter Eric Felten concluded, “Cut it with water — preferably from a source that will lend itself to a pretty picture on the label — bottle it, and you’re in the vodka business.”

As it turns out there is an art to good homemade moonshine — a far cry from the soulless mouthwash Archer-Daniels-Midlands turns out. Here’s some excerpts from an interview of ex-moonshiner John Bowman conducted by the Coal River Folklife Project from “Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia”:

Making whisky at night (mp3)

Telling the difference between good moonshine and bad (mp3)

Good water for moonshine (mp3 with rooster!)

Signalling the presence of the federal man (mp3)

More of this interview here.

Looking for the Union Label

We’ve got a bad case of Ohrwurm, a German expression translated as “earworm” and used to describe a song stuck in your head. Our earworm came after a search for union made socks and underwear on the internets recalled a highly catchy ad jingle from the roller disco era, “Look for the Union Label” (youngsters can watch it on youtube here).

We looked for the union label and we were surprised to find it via a company called Union House which carries a functional, if unexciting line of apparel. Unless hipsters take to golf shirts in an ironic fashion judo move, these offerings will never be cool like the domestically made clothes made by the union busting folks over at American Apparel. The socks and underwear we ordered from Union House arrived promptly and are of superior quality. Homegrown Revolution hecklers will, no doubt, shout us down for not sewing our own underwear and socks, but we’ll save our time for more complicated sewing projects such as the shirt we sewed a few years ago.

We’ve all got a lot of moral geometry to perform in this globalized world–the keyboard we’re tapping this missive out on was assembled in Malaysia by workers who, it’s safe to say, probably don’t toil in the best of conditions. But, taking out the moral ruler, we’ve got to draw a line somewhere and last week that was with the clothing we chose. It’s better to mark that line somewhere than not to mark it at all.

Though we prefer this more soulful rendition, we feel the need to spread the earworm around and here’s another version of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union song (with a few inexplicable bleeps):

How to Make Amazake

Who needs to bust open a bottle of hen dog when you can chill with a nice cup of moldy rice, or to be more precise, a cup of amazake. Amazake, an ancient Japanese beverage, is made by the bizarre process of introducing a fungus, Aspergillus oryzae to a batch of cooked rice. The fungus breaks down carbohydrates into simple unrefined sugars yielding a sweet and pleasant beverage that we’re proud to say we made ourselves here at the Homegrown Revolution compound earlier this week.

You can find amazake in the isles of upscale health food stores thanks to the same generation of hippies who brought tofu to the flyover states back in the 1960s. Or you can make it yourself and save some dead presidents. Here’s how:

1. Get your Aspergillus orzae in the form of inoculated rice grains called koji. We found our koji in the refrigeration cabinet of our local Japanese supermarket. Koji can also be found at some health food stores or you can mail order it from G.E.M cultures. We used a brand called Cold Mountain.

2. Bring 1 cup of white or brown rice to a boil in 2 cups of water. Turn down the heat and simmer for 50 minutes. We used sweet rice, but any kind of rice and if fact almost any grain will work.

3. Cool the rice down to 140º F (60º C). Mix in 2 cups of koji and put it in a sterilized wide-mouth jar.

4. At this point you need to incubate the concoction for 10 to 14 hours at 131º – 140º F (55º C – 60º C). We accomplished the incubation by placing the jar in a small cooler filled with water heated to 140º. Every few hours we checked the temperature and added a little more hot water as needed.

5. After 10 hours check for sweetness. If it’s not sweet enough continue the incubation process for a few more hours.

6. Once you’ve reached the desired level of sweetness you must stop the fermentation process by boiling the mixture, otherwise you’re heading down the road to making sake, something we plan on attempting in the fall. Taking a tip from the guru of fermentation Sandor Ellix Katz, we first boiled two cups of water and added the amazake to it to prevent burning. Mix well and as soon as the amazake begins to boil remove from the heat and refrigerate. You can eat it as a porridge or cut it with some more water to enjoy as a beverage. You can also add flavorings such as chocolate, almonds or espresso.

Aspergillus orzae is also used to produce soy sauce and miso, though miso making, according to the Cold Mountain pamphlet that came with our koji, will take you between 18 to 24 months. For now we’ll enjoy our amazake.

Seed Review: Thompson & Morgan Golden Berry

In a new feature on Homegrown Revolution we’ll review the success and flavor of our crops beginning with Physalis pruinosa, a.k.a ground cherry, husk cherry, or strawberry tomato. When we planted these seeds we posted on the confusing array of names that this neglected branch of the nightshade family has gathered over the years–we’ll use the scientific name in the interest of precision.

Our Physalis pruinosa, planted in April has born fruit for the past two months and seems to be nearing its end of production. We agree with Steven’s comment on our original post that the flavor is not as pronounced as some would have you believe. The fruit tastes like a slightly sweet tomato with, sad to say, a slight hint of gastric reflux. Perhaps it would be tastier cooked down into a jam but we don’t have enough of a crop to make more than one small jar. The plant itself grew easily with no pest problems, but did start to look unhappy in the heat of the summer.
We probably won’t grow it again, but will let the plant reseed itself. The chickens have spent some time pecking at the fallen fruit and seem to enjoy it about as much as we do, which is to say not all that much.

The Three Sisters

Due to the rigors of finishing our book The Urban Homesteader due out from Process Media next spring we were late getting around to planting our parkway vegetable garden. To review, the parkway is that space between the sidewalk and the street that belongs to the city but is the responsibility of the homeowner to maintain. The city, of course, wants us all to plant a lawn so that fat people can easily plop out of their Escalades unimpeded. We decided to grow food instead and despite the presence of many building inspectors reviewing our expensive foundation work nobody seems to care about the two large raised beds we installed. In fact one of our neighbors has planted her own parkway vegetable garden just down the street.

Since it was so late (July) we decided to cultivate heat tolerant vegetables and upped the ante by planting the Native American three sisters–corn, beans and squash. The three sisters are textbook permaculture, the idea being that the beans nitrogenate the soil and climb up the corn while the squash provides mulch. All plants are useful and you end up with an interdependent, self-sustaining beneficial feedback loop. Some people add a fourth sister, Rocky Mountain bee plant (Cleome serrulata) which attracts pollinating insects for the corn and squash.

We added a drip irrigation system on a timer (more on that in a later post) which has seemed to keep the plants healthier by preventing watering mishaps due to those flaky hung-over mornings. We planted corn seeds from the Not a Cornfield project, a variety of squash called Cucuzzi, and two beans from seeds we saved from last season (the tasty Borlotto Lingua di Fuoco and attractive but not so tasty scarlet runner bean).

Chicken Cannibalism!

We caught our Rhode Island Red pecking at the base of our Araucana’s tail this weekend. Fortunately we stopped this act of cannibalism before it got past a small wound and a few missing feathers and we’ve been able to isolate the victim from the perp until she recovers. Cannibalism is common amongst chickens and there are a number of theories as to why it happens including dietary inadequacies, genetics and simple chicken boredom. The most plausible theory in our opinion is that cannibalism results from insufficient opportunity to forage.

Simply letting our flock out of their run to free-range throughout the backyard seems to have taken care of the problem. Sure we may lose a hen or two to hawks and cats, but that seems a better fate than being eaten alive by one of your own kind. We’ve also switched to a higher protein feed to see if that will help as there is a minority opinion in poultry farming that chickens resort to cannibalism as a result of protein deficiencies.

Most commercial poultry farms take care of cannibalism by cutting off beaks when the chicks are around 4 to 6 weeks old. We believe beak trimming along with the associated practice cramming chickens in “battery cages”, as pictured above, to be inhumane. For more on the behavior of corporate agriculture read about the Humane Society’s Factory Farming Campaign or better yet start your own backyard flock.

We’ve taken the flowers out of our hair

Homegrown Revolution is back from San Francisco with a couple of random observations from our trip:

1. The picture above of a gas cap spotted in the Mission District demonstrates, that even in a bike and mass transit friendly city many folks take their cars a little too seriously. Let’s remember folks, we suspect that Jesus rides two wheels and takes the bus and does indeed look anguished every time we open the gas cap.

2. We took our bike with us and enjoyed the numbered bike routes that take you north-south and east-west. While not perfect (we would have preferred a few more signs to point the way) these routes help a cyclist navigate thought the city taking you down more bike friendly and less hilly streets. The San Francisco bike map (pdf) shows the routes in addition to signage on the streets.

3. Raising chickens made us appreciate San Francisco’s strident health food store, Rainbow Grocery which has a chart in their egg section to show how the chickens that produce the eggs are raised. We meant to get a photo of this elaborate chart but unfortunately we forgot the camera. Posted on the refrigeration cabinet, the chart tells you which of the brands they carry clip beaks or wings and whether the chickens have access to pasture. Rainbow Grocery was the first San Francisco retailer to carry only cage free eggs.

4. Unfortunately we didn’t see this exhibit by photographer Douglas Gayeton at Petaluma’s Singer Gallery, but you can view images from his slow-food related photo essay about Tuscany here.

5. While Homegrown Revolution promises never again to get into celebrity gossip, we’ll note that we spotted gravelly voiced alt-rock singer Tom Waits gassing up his Lexus SUV at a filling station in Berkeley. More exciting to us was discovering that our base of operations in the Mission was a mere block from the infamous Symbionese Liberation Army safe house where heiress Patty Hearst became urban guerrilla Tanya. We have a feeling we’ll see the return of revolutionary noms de guerre in the coming few years and when that happens we’ll see Tom ditch the SUV for two wheeled transit on Berkeley’s many bicycle boulevards.