Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

April 3, 2013

Horrid Orange

Filed under: food — Tags: , , , , , , — paragardener @ 10:41 am

The other day, I held a beautiful fresh mandarin orange in my hand, purchased from CostCo. Tired of getting orange fibers under my fingernails, I decided to start opening the peel with my teeth. Big mistake! My mouth filled with a cloud of corrosive vapor, burning the back of my throat. I gobbled the orange just to wash my mouth out.

Earlier, I had attempted to shred some orange zest into a gallon of soon-to-be mead, failing on account of the grater not working with the orange. Had I succeeded, I would have destroyed the entire batch (apparently when I bought the oranges I was not paying for the rinds, as it was clearly assumed that no one would ever think to use them.)

Later on, I noticed that the dogs took no interest in the peels laying in the trash. These scavengers will eat orange and banana peels, used snot-rags, and disgusting things you’d never anticipate. Whatever chemical was on these oranges, it is rejected by insects, dogs, and humans alike, and by inference, there is likely no animal on the face of the Earth that would not recognize it as a noxious poison.

Even as much as I cultivate contempt for the government regulation of food and drugs, this event undermined the faith I thought I didn’t have. A simple law that stated “thou shall not poison food” would unambiguously protect from the horrid orange, since even the dogs recognize it as poisonous. Instead, we enjoy a structure of thousands of pages of regulation that somehow enshrine the horrid orange as acceptable food. Forgive me if the thought of hundreds of FDA scientists and bureaucrats working on my behalf does not fill me with warm feelings of security.


March 18, 2013

Frontier Beer

Root Beer:

Simmer 1 oz. sassafras root bark in 2 q water for 25 min.
Remove from heat
Stir in 1¾ cup brown sugar ‘til dissolved (or more, up to about 2½ cups?)
Stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1 pinch cinnamon
Let cool ½ hour.
Awaken ale yeast (gently mix a packet of yeast into warm water with a little sugar for 15 min.)
Bring sassafras brew to 1 gallon volume w/ cold water
Add awakened ale yeast, mix.
Pour through small, fine sieve and funnel into plastic pop bottles
Cap tightly
Let ferment 16-48 hours, squeezing the bottles to feel the pressure.
When the bottles are almost totally firm to the hand, refrigerate or pasteurize to cut off fermentation.

(adapted from BethTN’s recipe, and Stephen Harrod Buhner’s book “Sacred and Healing Herbal Beers.”)

This is a frontier beer, distinctive of America. You can make it this way to create a soda pop, or you can ferment it fully like beer (for example, ferment for 10 days in a jug under a fermentation lock, then bottle with priming sugar.)

To remind everyone, alcoholic fermentation is what happens when yeast organisms consume the sugar in a watery mixture and convert it to alcohol and carbon dioxide. So, you can ferment for alcohol only and let all of the carbon dioxide escape (to make a non-sparkling wine), or trap some of the carbon dioxide in the bottle for fizziness (champagne or beer), or you can let the yeast just barely get started in a sealed bottle to make carbonated non-alcoholic beverages (the tiny amount of alcohol created compares to the alcohol in “non-alcoholic” juices and pops you would buy at the store, perhaps about 0.5%.) Some people simply mix carbonated water into the recipe, or you could use a whipped cream whipper to crack open a pressurized carbon dioxide cartridge and carbonate the pop mechanically.

Root beer can also include wintergreen or birch sap, sarsaparilla, molasses, spikenard, or whatever you like. (If I were to make one tweak to this recipe I would add wintergreen, perhaps 1 oz. of the fresh green.)

A beer glass full of dark amber rootbeer with a light head.

Here’s to the wilderness and the wild people!

This creative beverage is part of a tradition of herbal beers for fun or medicine, which was almost stamped out in Europe by prohibition laws, but which flourished among free American settlers. Another famous formula is ginger ale, made of ginger, water, and honey. Besides the fun of herbal pop and beer, beer is pretty useful as medicine. Medical plant essences typically dissolve better in water with at least a touch of alcohol in it, and beer keeps for a long time, so herbal beer is an elegant and low-tech drug delivery system (or “dietary supplement” delivery system if you don’t do drugs.) Some beers carried specific remedies but others supported health in a more general way: dandelion greens were brewed to reinvigorate the body in Spring, spruce branch tips were brewed to ward off scurvy in Winter, and sassafras seems to be one of those rare herbs that just makes people feel better, whether they are healthy or ill. Hops is a sedative, makes you pee and blocks male sexual response, and it is a very weird choice of medicine to be included in every standard beer.

All beer must start from sugar. Apples were an option on the frontier, having enough sugar and flavor in them to make hard cider with no additions, although that’s more of a wine than beer. Perhaps you have heard of making beer from malted barley, but that was no option on the fringe. The pioneers came from Europe’s brewing tradition, where “maltsters” developed sprouting, drying and roasting barley into an intricate art form. Americans were generally intimidated away from the specialty. Malt also requires long soaking in hot water (for an enzyme in the sprouted barley grains to finish its job of converting seed starch into fermentable sugar), a “required” step that intimidates some away from brewing.

Root beer generally starts with brown sugar, and sometimes molasses, as its yeast-feeding sugars. Brown sugar and molasses were fairly cheap commodities across much of frontier America, or a family could make their own from sorghum, a sugary cane that grows in the temperate zone. White sugar is not recommended for brewing beer, but it’s probably fine if you are just brewing pop. Birch or maple sap is acceptable — apparently, wintergreen in modern root beers is sort of a substitute for the flavor of birch sap. Birch sap was convenient to people who were “handy” and lived in the woods, but if you are purchasing ingredients in today’s marketplace, wintergreen is going to be a lot easier to come by. Honey is a good source of sugar, with its own distinctive flavor and medicinal action, too. A certain Roger Beverly described America’s home-cobbled beer scene circa 1700: “The richer sort of Americans generally brew their small beer with malt, which they have from England, though they have as good a barley of their own as any in the world, but for want of convenience of malt-houses the inhabitants take no care to sow it. The poorer sort brew their beer with molasses and bran, with Indian corn malted by drying in a stove, with persimmons dried in cakes and baked, with potatoes, with the green stalks of Indian corn cut small and bruised…”

My pop-style root beer is good, but not as sweet as commercial pop. It is frothy and sweet with candy and clove herbal flavors, but on the other hand, it’s not that sweet, lacks body, and it’s a little bit astringent. It tastes like… it tastes like… it tastes like freedom!

Once, America banned all brewing, and the result was a terrible degradation of our brewing culture. Hucksters sold inferior homebrew malt that resulted in a mud-like product, the OTC “bath salts” of beer. Underground brewers stretched their product to the thinnest and cheapest possible, counting on steady black market profits, thus creating America’s anomalously thin style of commercial beer. Many herbal beers were forgotten or survived only as pop. Due to “clerical error,” homebrewing remained illegal from the beginning of Prohibition all the way up until 1978. Since then — since people were once again allowed to develop their brewing skills independently and cheaply at home — our brewing culture has much recovered, and even Coors and Budweiser are selling richer beers these days.

Still, sassafras is illegal to sell as food or drink in its natural form. In 1960, FDA found that the sassafras oil content in root beer is carcinogenic — almost as carcinogenic as the alcohol content in any beer. Genuine root beer is a sort of gray-market thing, something you can pass around at family gatherings but never sell at the farmer’s market. Your average corporate root beer would be artificially flavored for cheapness anyways, so the regulators have no concern about the liberty lost by restricting sassafras. They can’t hear any money complaining at all.

It’s sad that the root beer at the store is sassafras-free or chemically stripped of its best molecule (safrole), but the silver lining is that this restrictive FDA policy inspires some productive explorations by those skirting the law. Reed’s, a California company, makes “Virgil’s Rootbeer” organically, approximating the flavor of sassafras root beer with a combination of many herbs including sarsaparilla and wintergreen. Another response to FDA is seen in the conscientiously patriotic American exploring herbs, pop and beer at home. One can legally homebrew beer containing wormwood, the infamous absinthe ingredient, or medical marijuana (if you are duly licensed), and fall outside of the jurisdiction of the FDA and its various superstitious anti-witchcraft regulations. You don’t even need to know how to make proper beer, if you are willing to experiment with pioneer-style sugar-and-syrup-based hooch. Hazards of crafting your own pioneer beer may include a hypomanic state characterized by euphoria, brief moments of ego inflation and a sudden undue interest in aspects of science, culture and history one had been ignoring until now…

February 16, 2013

Plants Talk, but Who Listens?

Plants and fungi communicate with animals, and each other, through chemical signals. An apple skin fills with pigment to announce its ripeness to animals that might eat it and excrete the seeds far from the tree. A flower’s smell carries on the breeze and attracts just the right butterfly to spread its pollen around.

The worldwide web of chemical chatter helps to keep habitats vibrant. For example, if a tree limb is invaded by insects, it will not only pump pesticides through the vasculature of that limb, but also emit a signal chemical to alert other nearby limbs and trees of the threat. If the forest is on the brink of killing off an insect species, it may select a tree to cease pumping pesticides and serve as an insect sanctuary — thus maintaining a balance between trees and their pests, and preventing both killer infestations and the evolution of pesticide-resistant “superbugs.”

Humans are animals. We are affected by plant talk — it’s how we decide what kinds of fruit, vegetables and grains we like. Yet, we are not lately respecting what plants have to say. We tend to think of food plants and medical herbs as something to buy preprocessed at the store, with no roots in the Earth. In consequence, we don’t know how to act on this planet. As a species, we’ve become like someone who is way too drunk for this early stage in the party, talking too loud, not listening, and obliviously stepping on everyone else’s toes.

A variety of tropical plants speak through caffeine, a chemical deadly to insects, desired by humans, goats, and certain other animals. It is entirely appropriate for sub/tropical peoples such as Arabs and Han Chinese to live symbiotically with coffee, tea, or cocoa trees. Yemen is a land of dry, rocky mountains, but some valleys are terraced and planted with lush coffee forests. Yemenis use coffee “cherries” as well as beans, since they live close enough to the tree to utilize the fresh fruit. Yemeni men stop to gather and drink coffee between morning prayers and the start of work, and men and women drink it throughout the day. Coffee inspires prayer and poetry.

Qat farming in Yemen

Actually, these farmers are raising Qat, Yemen’s other stimulant with its own traditions and rituals. A number of old Yemeni poems concern the debate between coffee and qat.

“Oh Coffee, you dispel the worries of the Great, you point the way to those who have wandered from the path of knowledge. Coffee is the drink of the friends of God, and of his servants who seek wisdom.

No one can understand the truth until he drinks of its frothy goodness. Those who condemn coffee as causing man harm are fools in the eyes of God.

Coffee is the common man’s gold, and like gold it brings to every man the feeling of luxury and nobility….Take time in your preparations of coffee and God will be with you and bless you and your table. Where coffee is served there is grace and splendor and friendship and happiness.

All cares vanish as the coffee cup is raised to the lips. Coffee flows through your body as freely as your life’s blood, refreshing all that it touches: look you at the youth and vigor of those who drink it.

Whoever tastes coffee will forever forswear the liquor of the grape. Oh drink of God’s glory, your purity brings to man only well-being and nobility“

–Sheik Ansari Djezeri Hanball Abd-al-Kadir, 1587, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul

There are no significant caffeine plants that grow in the temperate latitudes. Yet, we have a large proportion of caffeine-dependent people (myself included). In order to pull caffeine from its natural place in the order of things, Western powers imposed insane colonial policies on the tropical nations, forcing people out of villages and small farms and onto plantations that raised coffee, cocoa, tea, or sugarcane — the last, largely so that even the humblest of Westerners can add sugar to their coffee or tea or afford the occasional cheap chocolate bar. People in the global South are held in poverty and oppression for our cheap perks. Although we typically use caffeine in a fairly healthful way, caffeine expresses a negative social consequence of making long, dull work days more tolerable and tolerated. I rather suspect that things on Earth would run a little more harmoniously if caffeinated plants were known in the temperate zone as exotic novelties, instead of almost a human right like water and food.

Sugar, the sister of caffeine, sets an example of a substance casually ripped from its physical and chemical plant matrix, a different sort of distortion in the ecological chatter. Sugarcane is native to Southeast Asia, where it was grown to be chewed or juiced from about six thousand years ago. By a few centuries after the time of Christ, Indians were crystallizing sugar from the juice. Greeks were using expensive imported sugar in medicine. By the Middle Ages, humans had plainly lost perspective over sugar, with Arabs irrigating the desert to grow the water-loving cane. People all over ate it until our teeth rotted out and we died of diabetic complications.

Wisely applied, we can use a little chemistry to extract the good stuff from plants and make better medicines or flavorings. Yet, our tendency is to go all-out in purifying something all the way down to a white powder or a volatile liquid, regardless of the results. We believe in the myth of the “active constituent” that supposes only the most predominant, loudest-speaking chemicals in a plant are of any interest. Our economic mindset is scarcity, so we always try to get the most “bang for the buck.” Dosages and nutritional values are distorted, and secondary chemicals that enhance a plant’s flavor or effects are purified away. White flour is little more than starch, cocaine is hundreds of times more problematic than coca tea, clarified beer and wine (fungal products) lack protein and B-vitamins, and so on and so forth.

“Yellow butterflies,
Over the blossoming virgin corn,
With pollen-painted faces
Chase one another in brilliant throng.

Blue butterflies,
Over the blossoming virgin beans,
With pollen-painted faces
Chase one another in brilliant streams.

Over the blossoming corn,
Over the virgin corn,
Wild bees hum;
Over the blossoming beans,
Over the virgin beans,
Wild bees hum.

–Hopi planting song

“High fructose corn syrup is nearly identical in composition to table sugar.” — Corn Refiners Association

The processed food around us has been designed to taste good, store forever, and come cheap. In order to fulfill all three requirements, food technologists have essentially been forced to engineer deceptive food. This food compensates for the lack of fresh, quality ingredients with chemical artifice. A few kinds of fats, salt, sugar (often chemically bastardized) and sometimes MSG provide flavor in place of the cornucopia of interesting herbs and vegetables that would make for healthy food, but require care and freshness. Plants mainly tell the truth, and food technologists mainly lie.

We have two human systems at work here that are incompatible with the web of life. Our system of science places a premium on isolating variables, on taking things out of life and into the laboratory to see how the smallest parts work in isolated conditions. We need to orient ourselves more to field observation to learn how things actually work in nature — biologists of many sorts need to be listening to plants, not bombarding their genes with crude inserts.

The second problem, and I would guess the much larger one, is our model of industry. To a subsistence farm family among the Amish or ancient Celts, pigs have a certain role on the farm: eating scraps to produce meat and fertile feces. To industrial people, a pig is a component in a production process, consuming costly inputs to produce a return on investment. It makes sense to farm pigs in tiny cages in warehouses, feed them a diet that causes them to bloat up, and dump their waste anywhere you can get away with, because only money is real. This degrades the environs around pig farms and brings us flavor-and-nutritionally depleted pork, but again, only money is real. A similar ethic affected industry under Communism, wherein Moscow would decree certain production goals, and Soviet managers would aim to meet those goals regardless of who or what they destroyed in the process. But, farmers who live among their plants, who are not economically forced into planting-by-numbers, are sensitive to the needs of the environment around them and degrade it very slowly, if at all.

Field edge boundary hedge - - 1001684

Half-wild hedges between fields represent a fine compromise between ecological needs and immediate human needs. The hedges can be a source of wild food, medicine, and pollinators, not to mention protecting soil from erosion and preserving species from extinction. English hedges are full of the plants you will find in old English songs and literature: holly and ivy, wild roses, oaks…  photo by Dr. Duncan Pepper

What would our culture look like if it listened to plants? I could imagine a permacultural utopia and present it here, but that would be relatively boring. The real point is to learn about that from the plants themselves, anyway.

One change we might make is to drop the use of coffee from the Eastern US to take up sassafras instead. Sassafras is a tree used as medicine in both native and settler traditions. It is the root used in genuine root beer, or it may be consumed as a tea. Sassafras was emblematic of the American colonies, being widely seen as one of the great delights discovered in the New World. It was used to feel warm in the winter, get vitamin C, resist colds and flu, and to reinvigorate oneself in the spring. It is thought to be a subtle stimulant or mood lifter and to help maintain a general state of well-being, as well as offering cures for a number of more specific ailments. Sassafras sounds like just the thing to lift the cultural malaise resulting from the coffee-structured work day, making us healthier in the winter and more cheerful, instead of aggravating anxieties. We could be supporting polycultural farmers here at home instead of practically enslaving workers on plantations abroad.

Sassafras seedling.

Naturally, the FDA bans the use of sassafras in regulated food and drink. In a laboratory setting, sassafras oil was administered to rats (biologically similar to beavers, a natural enemy of sassafras trees) at such high doses that the rats experienced chronic kidney irritation, and subsequently developed kidney cancer, which is somehow interpreted as demonstrating that the substance is a dangerous carcinogen in humans at any dose. The DEA even takes note whenever the essential oil is purified from the plant, because of the oil’s chemical similarity to MDMA (ecstasy). These organizations are dedicated not to the logic of nature, but to the logic of reductive laboratory science and profiteering industry. Consider the US government’s alphabet soup of agencies and their strange relationships with tobacco, as well.

One could still plant a sassafras tree in the backyard and harvest from it quietly. You would get to know that tree, its growth habit, even moods that affect its oil production. More than merely exploiting a means of production, you would be bound to the tree as an ally, giving it space and water in exchange for its beneficent presence.

Even the weeds in your lawn have something to say for themselves, if you will but listen.

Fringing cypress forests dim
Where the owl makes weird abode,
Bending down with spicy limb
O’er the old plantation road,
Through the swamp and up the hill,
Where the dappled byways run,
Round the gin-house, by the mill,
Floats its incense to the sun.

Swift to catch the voice of spring,
Soon its tasselled blooms appear;
Modest is their blossoming,
Breathing balm and waving cheer;
Rare the greeting that they send
To the fragrant wildwood blooms,
Bidding every blossom blend
In a chorus of perfumes.

On it leans the blackberry vine,
With white sprays caressingly;
Round its knees the wild peas twine,
Beckoning to the yellow bee;
Through its boughs the red-bird flits
Like a living flake of fire,
And with love-enlightened wits
Weaves his nest and tunes his lyre.

Oh, where skies are summer-kissed,
And the drowsy days are long,
’Neath the sassafras to list
To the field-hand’s mellow song!
Or, more sweet than chimes that hang
In some old cathedral dome,
Catch the distant klingle-klang
Of the cow-bells tinkling home!

–Samuel Minturn Peck

September 8, 2012

Making Pickles Ain’t Shit

Filed under: food, gardening — Tags: , , , — paragardener @ 11:46 pm

Pickling: a dark mystery lurking in deep shadows.
First of all, understand that grocery store pickles are all counterfeits. They are cucumbers dunked in vinegar and pickling spices, sealed in a jar. Real pickles ferment in anaerobic brine, like a creature that crawled up from a coastal swamp. The sour element is not vinegar, but lactic acid. Many folks have never tasted an actual pickle.
Making my own pickles was simple, and it makes me wonder why doing it is rare. I took my giantest plastic bowl and threw some full-sized cucumbers and green beans in there. I added water, salted to 3/4 Teaspoon per cup. All I had for spice was black pepper and garlic powder. Real garlic and fresh dill are much preferable. Then, a fistful of grape leaves, though a black tea teabag will work just fine.
I put a small bowl inside the big one and weighted it down with a glass to push the vegetables under the brine. Finally, a towel goes over all to protect from dust.
You can peek under the small bowl every few days, but you might as well wait a week or more at the start of the process. Scary molds will grow on thew surface of the brine, but you can scape ’em off with a serving spoon and compost them. Also, you may have to top up with new saltwater.
Viola, it’s pickles! Not the worst I’ve ever had, though the recipe certainly deserves some tweaking (thanks for the pickles, Mom). It only takes about as much work as assembling a salad. Man, making pickles ain’t shit!

July 27, 2012

Vigilante thugs keep beating crap out of raw milk provider

Filed under: food, Soapbox — Tags: , , , , , , — paragardener @ 4:22 pm

Last year, Rawesome Foods was raided by LAPD and associated forces. Illegal unpasteurized milk was dumped, records were seized, people were seized.

James Stewart, the retirement-aged kingpin milkman, was taken to the LA County Jail and tortured for eight days for his terrible crime of providing raw goat milk to people who wanted it. As is usual, he wasn’t told what charges he was being held on, wasn’t fed for a day, and generally was bullied into extreme compliance as he was processed into jail.

Then, an Officer Sexton interrogated him, asking him over and over, “are you a sovereign?” Stewart replied “what are you talking about?”, yet he was still given a red armband to indicate that he was a terrorist and a danger to the general population. He was then shackled with his hands cuffed to chains around his waist and to a bench for two or three hours while waiting for medical tests, which he was put through while still handcuffed. After hours of medical testing, he was held in a cell in an empty area of the jail with a temperature around 55 degrees F, with only basic pants and a T-shirt to wear (hypothermia as torture was pioneered by the British Army for use against the IRA, and has recently been used by US intelligence against terror suspects). He was finally sent to his own cell and fed a few cookies. Raw sewage flooded the cell, and several hours passed until trusties came by offering squeegees. After a day and a half in the filthy cell, he was woken up in the middle of the night and sent back to the cold cell for six hours, from where he was finally shipped to Ventura County Jail and treated as well as a common criminal.

Incidentally, Stewart’s family and attorney were trying to find him, but he wasn’t allowed a phone call and officials were claiming that he was “lost in the system.” Anyone who thinks you can’t be disappeared in Obama’s America had better pay attention to that point. Once the local enforcement machine admitted to having Stewart, his bail was set at $1,000,000.

On July 19 of this year, Natural News broke a story revealing that “cops” who participated in the raid had never signed Oaths of Office, and therefor have no immunity from charges of assault, theft, malicious destruction of property, or kidnapping. The perpetrators were nothing but vigilantes impersonating cops! Even the Health Department official who signed the search warrant had not signed an Oath of Office, making the entire sordid affair extralegal. Amazingly, the DA attempted to fend off these charges by releasing Oaths of Office with signatures redacted for privacy! Um, so it looks as if the Brownshirts are exercising free reign over there in LA and Ventura Counties.

On July 27, James Stewart was assaulted, pepper sprayed and taken by bounty hunters. Inexplicably, these angry dudes were driving brand-new luxury cars with no license plates. They refused to produce their legally-required certificates of training and proved what kind of people they are by calling a filming eyewitness a “retard.” Way to take down an old milkman! Was anything about this legal, or was it (another) kidnapping?

You can annoy the Ventura County DA’s office by following the contact information here. Ask them to end their insane crusade.

Thanks to Mike Adams “The Health Ranger” for doing basically all the original reporting on this story.

July 18, 2012

Food Stamps for Independence

Over 46 million Americans use food stamps (or SNAP or EBT, also called the Bridge Card in Michigan), or over 15% of us. I think that you could say that the program has grown beyond a “safety net” function and become “life support for the rest of the economy.”

And what is the nature of that food-stamp-dependent economy? It seeks to rip off the rest of the world à la the United Fruit company, and then redistribute some of the spoils according to a humane, human welfare model. How can we support multinational companies exploiting all of the people and resources of the world and yet stay comfortable and well fed at home? Equilibrium will be restored, by jobs leaving the country, immigrants sneaking in, or by the financial powers that be putting us in the austerity sights. An EBT that is basically helping its user buy into the corporate food chain is supporting not only fruit company plantation imperialism, but also Monsanto, and Monsanto’s biological weapons, beehive death, and the degradation of the world into sterile salt flats. On the other hand, an American family gets to eat for another month, which is no small thing.

Food stamps don’t have to support imperial trade practices or shitty farming. SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has a couple of neat wrinkles in it that promote independence, particularly independence from the abusive corporate food chain. Firstly, food stamps can be used to buy fruit and vegetable seeds wherever they are accepted (as at a grocery store with a rack of seeds). Secondly, Michigan residents can receive bonus tokens for spending their Bridge Card money at various local produce markets. It’s as if someone has been listening to Michelle Obama.

Food stamps could buy seeds since 1973, yet the fact has not been much publicized. Senator James Allen of Alabama explained at the time:

The recipients of food stamps would thus be able to use their own initiative to produce fruits and vegetables needed to provide variety and nutritional value for their diets.

While this amendment does broaden the definition of food items which may be purchased with food stamp coupons, I would expect that the food stamp recipients would be able to purchase the seeds and plants they need from grocery stores who are now participating in the food stamp program.

I would not expect the Department of Agriculture to undertake the administrative costs of certifying those thousands of additional stores to supply the seeds and plants that food stamp recipients might wish to purchase.

The amendment would allow the food stamp recipient to purchase with his food stamps seeds and plants for the purpose of growing food  for consumption by himself and his household.

It would allow a person to buy  $1 or $2 worth of seed or vegetable plants and possibly have available a plot of land and be able to raise $50 or $100 worth of food for himself and his family.

It would encourage industry on the part of the food stamp recipient and it would be at no cost to the Federal Government.

Now, Senator Allen left out the best part. If someone raises $100 worth of vegetables from $2 of seeds, they’ve just denied the corporate food chain $98. SNAP Gardens is an organization promoting food stamp gardens, and providing information to gardeners. I suggest SNAP non-recipients visit the page to absorb some of its enthusiasm.

The idea of being independent of the Ugliness Economy doesn’t mean everyone must become an atomized individual sewing their own clothes from thread they spun themselves from a sheep they fed from their own garden. Clearly people need to support each other, with gifts, barter, and fair, localized commerce.

In Michigan, some farmer’s markets have a Bridge Card tent where you swipe your card, and then the cashier tells you that the card won’t scan, so you stand there and ask them to manually punch your number in (well, that’s how my Bridge Card worked after a couple of months). Anyways, they give you tokens representing food stamp money to spend at the other booths. And the cool bit is, they double your money up to $20 per day. The program is called Double Up Food Bucks, and if you follow the link you’ll find a list of participating markets. (Thanks, Wilfrid Cyrus, for pointing this one out to me.) These markets are much nicer places to spend money in than, say, Walmart. Other states may have similar programs — for instance, in Rhode Island, you can spend WIC credits at farmer’s markets.

I would love to see a Homesteader Card program, which would give out money for soil, fertilizer, planters, fencing, homebrew gear and all of the other good stuff that allows people to take care of their own household needs. Since that would undermine growth of “the marketplace” — people would get used to getting $100 of vegetables for only $2 — the government would never do such a thing. Oh, well. In the meantime, SNAP gardens and Double Up Food Bucks can still be used to undermine the Ugliness Economy.

Garden for victory!



June 22, 2012

English Cottage Beer

Filed under: food, Vinting — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paragardener @ 5:41 pm

Herein I will show you the way the English made beer in 1780 or so, before England started taxing malt and hops, subsidizing tea, and even banning the sharing of brewing utensils. It also happens to meet the German Purity Law. I “translated” the recipe from William Cobbett’s 1823 book “Cottage Economy,” wherein Cobbett exhorts British workers to maintain a productive homestead, rather than fully buying into the industrial, globally-ambitious economy of the Empire. Cobbett intersperses a lot of political rants into his instructions, goes out of order, uses strange old words and writes sentences that go on for paragraphs, so it would be quite hard to make beer by thumbing through the book as you go along. In other words: disorganization and high reading level don’t make for clear instructions, so I had to write this just to figure out the recipe for myself!

My translation is faithful to the original, it’s for a really big batch of beer, and you need some special equipment such as a 40-gallon copper kettle and a bundle of birch twigs. With no modifications, the recipe might help a historical re-enactor. My next step towards making this beer it to scale down the recipe to use junk available at the local homebrew shop.


Water: Soft water from a brook or river is best, and a pond fed by a rivulet will do just fine. Hard water, or mineral-rich well water, is advised against. For the modern brewer, water from the tap is likely fine, as long as it isn’t too full of minerals. In some areas, there is so much chlorine in the water that it will kill your yeast, but you can remove the chlorine by boiling or filtering the water through charcoal (the latter method will also remove hardness and other minerals).

Since you’ll be boiling it, go ahead and use water contaminated by cholera and dysentery.

Malt: If you are so fortunate as to have a local maltster, look for barley that is fully malted — all the kernels should be sporting sprouts, and float rather than sink. The shells should be thin and the interior mealy — hard and steely is bad. Whether you like light or dark roasted malt is up to you, depending on your taste in beer. This recipe is for two bushels of malt.

Alternatively, you can make your own malt from fresh barley

Soak the barley for three days. Pour it out onto bricks, stone, or concrete. Watch for the roots to shoot out, and the above-ground shoots to advance about halfway through the inside of the barley seed. Dry the barley, such as by roasting it at a low temperature.

Making your own malt was a criminal activity in the England of 1823… I can imagine Cobbett writing books about growing marijuana if he lived today!

Hops: You are looking for the cones of the hops plant, pure and free of leaf and vine. The cones should not be brown, but between yellow and green, free of mature seeds (big, hard, dark seeds), have a lively, pleasant smell, and have lots of resinous powder. Anyone who has bought cannabis should have a good handle on what to look for in hops, although good hops is described as slippery rather than sticky. This recipe uses two pounds of hops.

Yeast: Cobbett recommends making yeast cakes once per year, during a hot, dry stretch of summer.

3 ounces good fresh hops

3.5 ounces rye flour

7 pounds corn meal

1 gallon water

Boil the water. Rub the hops to separate it into the water. Boil 1/2 hour. Strain into a big bowl.

Stir in the rye flour while the water is hot. Cover with a loose cloth and leave out for a day.

Stir in the corn meal. Pull out the resulting stiff lump of dough and knead it well, “as you would a pie-crust.” Roll it out at about 1/3 of an inch thick. Cut out 3-inch round pieces of dough. Place them on a board in the hot sun; turn them every day and protect them from wet (I imagine you have to put them out every morning and take them in every evening.) When the yeast cakes are as dry and hard as ship biscuits, they are ready to be stored in a dry place.

To prepare liquid yeast from the cakes, take 2 cakes, crack them, and drop into hot water. Leave in a warm place overnight.

Froth from fermenting beer is also good, traditional yeast — but it’s only available when you already have some beer going!


40-gallon copper kettle

60-gallon mash tub with a 2″ drain hole located at the center. A tapered stick, a bit taller than the tub, serves as the stopper. A bundle of birch sticks or straw is used as a strainer. You must weight the straw into place with something you can move the stopper-stick through — but please don’t follow Cobbett’s suggestion to use a leaden collar! “The thing they use in some farmhouses is the iron box of a wheel,” if that clears things up.

An “underbuck,” a shallow tub to go under the mash tub.

30-gallon “tun” tub

2 to 4 big shallow tubs, for cooling hot liquid.


Big, bowl-like ladle

3 18-gallon casks

Stir stick: somewhat larger than a broomstick, with two or three 8-10″ sticks pushed through perpendicularly near one end.

A very large piece of cheesecloth or some burlap sacks sewn into a sheet.

Strainer (such as a clean wicker clothes basket)


Baking pan


Coarse linen

Boil the Wort

Fill the 40-gallon copper kettle with water and bring to a boil.

Set up the mash tub. It should be up on stools or sawhorses or the like, so that the underbuck can be placed under the drain hole. The straw or birch filter must somehow be set into place, and the stopper-stick shoved through it and into the drain hole.

Pour water into the mash tub, sufficient to stir two bushels of malt around in (perhaps 20 gallons?). Top the kettle up and keep it boiling.

Allow the water in the mash tub to cool to 170 Fahrenheit. Add two bushels of malt, ground, into the mash tub, and stir well with the stir stick. Leave the mash this way for 15 minutes (stirring occasionally?).

Add boiling water until the mash tub is a little more than half full — about 30 gallons of water, total, should have gone into the tub by this point, though much will be absorbed into the malt. Stir the mash well again. Cover with loose fabric, such as burlap sacks or cheese cloth, and leave for 2 hours.

Little by little, pull out the tapered stopper-stick, so the wort drains slowly into the underbuck and your filter catches the malt. Ladle the wort into the tun-tub (or use a hose and a submersible pump, I don’t care).

Start the Small Beer

Beer for hobbits? I guess you could use coffee grounds twice, and call the second batch “small coffee.” We are going to take the wort we drained out and make it into ale, but first we’ll extract the last goodness out of our malt to make small beer.

Plug the mash tub drain hole back up. Pour 36 gallons of boiling water into the tub, and stir well with the stir stick. Cover with loose cloth, and leave stand for only one hour.

Ale into the Kettle

Pour the wort from the tun-tub into the empty copper kettle. Add one and a half pounds of good hops, well rubbed and separated as you add it. Boil from one to one and a half hours.

Remove from heat and pour into the shallow cooling tubs, straining out the hops (and saving them for the small beer).

Small Beer into the Kettle

The small beer wort in the tun tub is now returned to the copper kettle, with the lightly-used hops you strained out of the ale wort. Add half a pound of fresh hops, and boil for an hour.

During this time, you need to watch for the cooling ale wort to reach 70 Fahrenheit, as well as clean the mash tub out and set it up for another use.

Ale into Tun Tub for Primary Fermentation

When the ale wort (in the shallow tubs) cools to seventy Fahrenheit, pour it back into the tun-tub.

Put a half-pint of yeast into a gallon bowl or jar, then fill the container with wort. Stir in a handful or wheat or rye flour. Pour the mixture into the tun-tub and stir it all together.

Cover with a loose cloth and place in an area as close to 55 Fahrenheit as possible.

Fermenting the Small Beer

Put out your fire, and strain the small beer wort from the kettle into the mash-tub. Throw the hops into the compost, or onto the dung-hill if that’s your style.

Let the wort cool in the mash tub.

Put three half-pints of yeast into a gallon bowl or jar, then fill the container with wort. Stir in a handful or wheat or rye flour. Pour the mixture into the mash-tub and stir it all together.

Cover with a loose cloth and place in a cool area.

Treat as in “Fermenting the Ale,” below, but cask the small beer while it is still a little warm from yeast action.

Fermenting the Ale

Let the yeast work and skim off froth every twelve hours or so, until no more froth is rising up.

When the beer is as cold as its surroundings, it is ready to cask. Block the casks with the bunghole up but slightly to one side, so that any runoff goes down the one side into an awaiting pan. Then, pour bucketfuls of beer through the funnel into the cask, leaving a couple of gallons behind for topping up. Allow the beer to work for several more days, and top up the cask as needed. When the bubbling is really, finally over, turn the bunghole straight up. Add a handful of hops, and fill the cask completely full. Put a piece of coarse linen around the bung and hammer it into place. You may weight the bung into place with a sandbag, if desired.

Leave beer in the cask from about two weeks to the limit of your patience. Small beer may be ready in a couple of weeks, but ale benefits from longer aging and is said to keep forever. Modern wooden casks feature a replaceable “keystone” through which you hammer a tap. Drink the beer. Be sure to seal the cask tightly back up when you are through with the beer, or you will mold the cask and ruin it!

Clean the cask by pouring it out, scalding it in several changes of hot water, and rolling it about with a chain inside.

That’s how you make beer. What a project — no wonder American pioneers preferred hard cider! Cobbett says that you can brew beer in one day, if you start at four in the morning. So, uh, seize the day. Or just enjoy knowing something new.

Have a happy summer, y’all!

May 12, 2012

Repairing a Rusty Cauldron and a Scratched No-Stick Pan

Filed under: food, science — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paragardener @ 4:40 pm

The other day, I allowed my cast iron Dutch oven to rust. How was I to know I shouldn’t store it in the fridge?

Rings of rust on the counter, clearly left by a "Lodge" brand pan.

My cauldron left these rust rings on the counter.

The thing is a tad rust-prone. You ordinarily scrape it clean with water and no soap, and dry it right away.

In case of rust, you soap it up and scrub with steel wool or an S.O.S. pad (I used a “green scrubby”), dry it, wipe it with vegetable oil, bake it upside down at 400 Fahrenheit for an hour, and finally turn the oven off and let it all cool down gradually.

The bottom of the pot is now rust-free.

The repaired cauldron is ready for its next brew.

The other day, I shredded chicken with two forks in my Teflon no-stick frying pan. How was I to know that I would scratch the no-stick coating?

In case of scratches, throw out and buy new pan.

I feel kind of stupid to be taken in by the space-age New Pan, when the 300-year old pot design is more durable, no more sticky, and will not emit a cloud of poisonous pet-killing gas if accidentally overheated. Every year, cars get better gas mileage, microprocessors shrink and become faster, and pans from the very dawn of the Industrial Revolution remain supreme in the field of pan technology. Makes we wonder what other post-optimal technologies I’ve bought into.

April 30, 2012

Tea: the Drug Epidemic that Ruined Families and Home Breweries

Filed under: food, Vinting — Tags: , , , , — paragardener @ 4:06 am

This isn’t the first time I’ve floated caffeine as a hard drug. In The Devil’s Bean, I imagined a world where caffeine is illegal, and people see it as an addictive, life-ruining drug.

Too bad I hadn’t read William Cobbett’s tract on homebrewing — I could have really punched up my anti-caffeine propaganda. Cobbett, political champion for the poor and a noted hater of potatoes, wrote a book published 1824, called “Cottage Economy.” It’s basically a DIY manual for England’s laborers, who have a little land to grow their own crops on. In it, he argues that England’s poor are being ruined by a switch from homebrewed beer to tea.

“Only forty years ago,” laments Cobbett, “to have a house  and not to brew was a rare thing indeed.” By 1824, money printing had eroded workers’ purchasing power, and the sale of malted barley and hops was severely taxed. Yet, “even at present prices , home-brewed beer is the cheapest  drink that a family can use, except milk , and milk can be applicable only in certain cases.” (Note that drinking water was out of the question!)

Tea, subsidized by England’s global imperial might, was generally replacing beer. Tea has no nutritional value, and “besides being good for nothing, there is badness in it, because it is well known to cause a want of sleep in many cases, and in all cases, to shake and weaken the nerves. It is, in fact, a weaker kind of laudanum, which enlivens for the moment and deadens afterwards.”

By Cobbett’s analysis, workers spent approximately one-third of their income on tea and the associated sugar, milk, tea tackle, and fires. “But I look upon the thing in a still more serious light. I view the tea drinking as a destroyer of health, an enfeebler of the frame, an engenderer of effeminacy and laziness, a debaucher of youth, and a maker of misery for old age.” Any good and scary drug steals peoples’ money, health, and drive. Tea takes its users all the way down into the moral ruin, as well, since “the gossip of the tea table is no bad preparatory school for the brothel,” and England was filling up with hopeless young women who knew no skills except the tea-making ritual.

Tea causes workers to arrive late and die early: “He was up time enough; but the tea kettle kept him lolling and lounging at home; and now instead of sitting down to a breakfast upon bread, bacon and beer, which is to carry him until the hour of dinner, he has to force his limbs along under the sweat of feebleness… … to the wretched tea kettle he has to return at night with legs hardly sufficient to maintain him; and thus he makes his miserable progress towards that death which he finds ten or fifteen years sooner than he would have found it had he made his wife brew beer instead of making tea.” Wow! I think I’ll pass on tea and stick to methamphetamine and crack! (Scientific studies pretty consistently show that caffeine has no effect on overall life expectancy. It can, however, exacerbate stress.)

It’s funny how Cobbett’s Evil Tea story sounds just like an Evil Marijuana story, or an Evil Cocaine story, or so on and so forth. The real-world differences between drugs seem to be infinitely mutable to tellers of tales. That said… imported tea was probably a worse staple beverage than home-brewed beer. It is less nutritious for those in search of calories, and taking it with sugar causes tooth decay (did laborers in 1824 brush their teeth?). The worse tragedy was for people in Britain’s empire, who often went from some kind of homesteading, village life, into hard labor on sugar and tea plantations.

I had to share my weird encounter with the opposition to tea, there. What I’m more excited about is Cobbett’s homebrew recipe — it’s from before the time of Louis Pasteur, sterilization and the dried yeast packet! That’s what you might call a traditional sour-mash method of brewing. Until I get that going, I’ve got a Mr. Beer kit with its plastic barrel fermenter (bubbling away on an end table in the living room), and envelopes and cans of premixed ingredients. At least that will be enough to keep me away from drinking tea!

April 15, 2012

Day of the Dregs

Filed under: food, Vinting — Tags: , , , , , , , , — paragardener @ 2:44 am

The day before yesterday, I took an exploratory look at three gallons of cider I’d left in the basement and forgotten about all winter long. For several weeks last fall, I’d let the stuff ferment in its plastic milk jugs, venting the caps when native microbes had puffed up the jugs with carbon dioxide gas. Then I just left ’em there. I figure that they experienced temperatures from 55 to 75 degrees F (two of the gallons were near both the furnace and an exterior wall), over the months.

I siphoned the cider off the sediment (aka lees ) by mouth, taking a drastic risk in the process. Would I be sucking hard cider, vinegar, or some sort of unspeakable spoilage? It turned out to be hard cider, some sour, flat, alcoholic cider. Thank goddess I hadn’t lost gallons of potential booze. The cider is off the lees, in new jugs under a cap or fermentation locks.

Gallon jugs and mug if cider

The cider that lived!

The cider hasn’t resumed fermenting, despite the addition of some sugar water and a few granules of yeast nutrient. I think that the yeast in it is truly dead, and it needs a new surge of freeze-dried microbial troops to get going again. A good second fermentation with the right additives might make this into a really nice batch. One of the gallons might be turned into vinegar, by inviting in aerobic bacteria. It seems like a shame to destroy perfectly potable booze, but hard cider goes by the glass, cider vinegar by the tablespoon.

In the meantime, I am left with a big blob of sediment: it’s the sort of deceased yeast that vegans use as a nutritious substitute for Parmesan cheese, and New Zealanders press into Marmite. I remembered that Sandor Katz used it in “Wine Dregs Soup:” when I looked it up in Wild Fermentation , the idea of the soup is to substitute out 1/4 of your veggie, chicken or beef stock with wine dregs (“dregs” = the lees and left-behind wine/cider after siphoning). Katz suggests French onion soup.

I nabbed a recipe for Onion Soup from Mark Bitman’s “How to Cook Everything,” and promptly bastardized it into something I could manage on a day’s notice (no “real croutons” or homemade beef stock.) I took 6 sweet onions and sliced them up as thin as I could, then melted 1/4 cup of butter in a cauldron and tossed the onions in. I cooked them about 40 minutes over medium heat, turning them occasionally so as to have less browning and more turning-into-jelly.

Cooked Onions

Cooked 'em Onions!

Next, I dumped in a quart of Kroger beef broth, a pinch of dried thyme, three chopped sprigs of fresh parsley, and a bay leaf. Finally, the scary ingredient: the leftover stuff from the cider production, the sediment at the bottom of an old milk jug. I swirled the dregs into a homogenous cloudy substance, then measured out a cup and a quarter into the soup. I brought it to a simmer for fifteen minutes, during which time it gave off a most awesome smell of apples, onions, and alcohol.


Do you really expect me to eat that?

After the simmer, I tossed store-bought croutons, shredded mozzarella and parmesan from a can onto the soup, and stuck the cauldron in the oven at 400 degrees F. After awhile, the top resembled a well-baked pizza (this isn’t the authentic way, but Tamara said that if she was eating the crud from the bottom of that jug, she was going to get a proper American proportion of cheese!)

Although she had to block out the memory of the jug, Tamara liked the soup, and I did, too. It’s very rich. In the future, we’ll use a better quality beef stock, and a little more liquid. I’m satisfied with the experiment: I learned that there is really nothing wrong with the dregs!

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