Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Last call for resolutions

So, a friend passed along this quote the other day. It comes from Katha Pollitt's New Year's column in The Nation, and since it's a New Year's column, and today January 31, this is the last day I can file a response. Among her "Resolutions for Liberals" is:

4. Don't think your lifestyle can save the world. I love slow food! I cook slow food! I shop at farmers' markets, I pay extra for organic, I am always buying cloth bags and forgetting to bring them to the supermarket. But the world will never be saved by highly educated, privileged people making different upscale consumer choices. If you have enough money to buy grass-fed beef or tofu prepared by Tibetan virgins, you have enough money to give more of it away to people who really need it and groups that can make real social change.

I find I often agree with Katha, but this... well, I have to hope what Katha means to say is that individually changing your own lifestyle is--on its own--not meaningless, but is not enough, and we need to support groups working on a larger scale.

Of course it's ridiculous to suggest that we can shop our way out of this mess by running up our platinum cards at the Eco-tique, but it's also ridiculous to discount our individual efforts as frivolous. After all, there seems little doubt that the habits and expectations of American consumers have added more than a few notches to Al Gore's PowerPoints. Unless you really believe it is Too Late--or you're a Jesus Camper and exempt from global warming--there's every reason to change your lifestyle, preferably now. Even small steps are better than no steps at all.

If it's the "upscale" part that bothers Katha, would we be better off saving our pennies at WalMart and sending checks to charities? I can't believe that's better.

The world will not be saved by a single magic-bullet Answer, but rather a combination of choices made by nations, corporations, communities, AND individuals.

It's the implied either/orness of her resolution that bothers me. True, we can't do it on our own, but we can't send in a check and expect someone else to do it for us.

So, it's hard to save the world. It's complicated. I'm finding it hard and complicated just to change my own habits. And maybe it's because I'm working so hard that I'm ready to fight anyone who says my choices don't matter. I found this article in the Guardian to be a good example of small steps based on a "low carbon diet." Some were new to me. I, for one, plan to avoid having a second fridge by keeping more booze in the outhouse for 2007.

And I resolve to keep working on my lifestyle.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Hoping the plot thickens...

Getting a ride to work today, I had the passenger's luxury of gazing out the window. I realized that a vacant lot I often drive past is actually a tiny patch of farmland, tucked into an industrial area. The land was bare, recently tilled, ready for a new crop.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

"And I am the Queen of Ramenania..."

The quote of the day comes from the NYT obituary for ramen inventor Momofuku Ando

Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. Give him ramen noodles, and you don’t have to teach him anything

Don't fear the reaper...

From a city girl perspective, there's always been something a little sick about 4H. The "love 'em until you eat 'em" concept of raising and nurturing a little lamb or piglet or calf, then willingly—even proudly—sending it off to slaughter... well, it's just kinda perverse. Of course, buying detached chicken breasts wrapped in plastic is perverse too, but I still picture those kids as thirty-year-old drunks pawning their 4H trophies to pay their bookies, dealers, or therapists... it's a brutal lesson from the cute and fluffy side of the food chain.

We're mostly vegetarians here at the ranch, so one of our first projects was building a little salad corral close to the house. A couple of months later, we have some of the most beautiful lettuce I've ever seen. I mean, these leaves are gorgeous, glossy, crisp, with some especially lovely deep merlot leaves the vegetable counterpart of the 300 lb. angus calf, and I'm thinking of those poor 4H kids because it's time to harvest the little darlings.

At least we can just nibble away a few leaves at a time. Harder to linger with your livestock...

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"Locally grown food requires local farms."

This week's EdHat Veggie of the Week column on sustainable and local foods is worth reading.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Those Lake Wobegone Days

When I was in high school, I was lucky enough to work in a café bookstore. It was poorly stocked and even more poorly managed. The business plan was to offer overpriced coffee drinks and bistro fare in an "intellectual environment" in which the books were little more than props. Since we were in a mall, we were almost entirely bestseller list. The back shelves of the store pathetically attempted to represent everything else worth reading with a chaos of mishelved anthologies and "classics." Picture the average airport bookstore, add a coffee bar, and that was Upstart Crow.

Working there, I learned about Chapter 11. Chapter 11 bankruptcy meant that my supervisors, bitter because they will never get another raise and knowing inventory is going to a liquidator, promoted the "five-finger employee discount." They wanted those shelves empty. Shift by shift, I lifted an entire library. It was one of the best jobs ever.

Every shift at least one customer--generally a silver-haired Sierra Clubber meeting for afternoon tea--would buy a copy of a book called Lake Wobegone Days. "Hilarious!" they'd say, "I've given copies to my entire family!" Intrigued, I stole a copy and read it. Then I took it back to the store. It was too boring to keep, and there were obviously other people out there that would really enjoy it. From what I could tell, nothing ever happened at Lake Wobegonney. It was perhaps the dullest fictional town ever. Or non-fictional. Whatever.

Now I come to an unexpected rite of passage: finding myself enjoying Garrison Keillor. It's easy to think that I'm the same person I've always been, and it's good to have markers that tell me I'm not. Tonight, I'm filled with a distinctly Wobegonish nostalgia that I was incapable of feeling in 1985, and it makes me realize that I have--despite some of my best efforts--changed and softened a little in my life. If that's not worth some praise songs, I don't know what is.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Three dog nights

It's been a lonely week here at the ranch. The exciting news is that we managed to lasso an eco-diesel engine that will be dropped into one of the Vegas, and sounds like it will get over 50 mpg on the freeway running biodiesel. Yeeha!

All week, the man and two biggest dogs have been out ridin' the range, leaving the three smallest dogs behind to guard the hens. It's been freezing most nights, and I've been grateful to have the three little ones cuddled up on the bed.

Most of our ranch dogs are shelter dogs. We're lucky in Santa Barbara to have an active, creative volunteer group at the County Shelter, so most adoptable dogs in the area get a chance at finding a good home or temporary foster home. One of the really cool things that the Dog Adoption Welfare Group (DAWG) is doing is taking videos of adoptable dogs and posting them to YouTube. Awwwww! So cute!

It's too bad that dogs, like gardens, have been pushed out of so many places: lots of shops, all restaurants, some parks, and too much housing is off limits. There are a lot of reasons, including irresponsible owners, "health" concerns, liability fears... it's always a bit of a trick to negotiate the civilized and natural worlds, but I don't think there's any question that it's worth it. Allowing people to share their homes and workspaces with dogs has too many benefits to ignore, CC&Rs be damned.

In today's news, yet another report about how dog owners live happier, longer, healthier lives. So even with three dogs, I guess I'm only 60% as happy and healthy this week as I have been lately. I'm looking forward to having my other two dogs back at home again. Best of all, they're bringing the man home with them.

Good dogs.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Why Johnny Thinks Microwaving is Cooking

More on the theme of "why it's important to remember that reheating a pizza is not cooking":

...Cooper has certainly taken on a daunting task. She currently serves as nutrition director of the Berkeley Unified School System, a 16-school, 9,000-student outfit in California. When she took the job in 2005, she found that the district's food-service system had completely retreated from actual cooking. "When I arrived, 100 percent of the food arrived in plastic, was reheated in plastic, and served to the kids in plastic," she says.

Overcoming an absurdly stringent budget and severely limited cooking infrastructure within school cafeterias, she has already eliminated what she calls "plastic food" and is now serving fresh, made-from-scratch meals. But she has no intention of stopping there. She would like to overthrow the logic that has made school cafeterias conduits through which convenience-food manufacturers reach children's impressionable palates.


According to Cooper, it started during World War II, when military planners discovered that widespread malnutrition among the nation's youth was hampering their ability to fight effectively. In the initial post-war decades, the school-lunch program worked pretty well, Cooper says. "There were actually real people cooking food from scratch in every public school in the country," she adds. "And no one thought about charging -- meals were free for every kid."

But economic crisis in the mid-1970s galvanized the backlash against New Deal programs that continues to grip U.S. politics to this day. As kitchen equipment installed in the 1940s and 1950s began to decay, Congress didn't allot money to replace it. Skilled cooks -- the "lunch ladies" Cooper harks back to -- reached retirement age, and their jobs went unfilled. School kitchens gradually turned into reheating centers staffed by button-pushers, not cooks, and school districts began to outsource food preparation to a booming convenience-food industry, which was just then discovering the wonders of high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated fat....

"Meet the Lunch Lady" at

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Breaking bread

I admire people who do beautiful, creative work that no one else will ever see. There's a spiritual purity to it: I imagine Buddhist monks in Nepal, making sand mandalas on windswept mountains. I imagine the Anchorite who careful sets a place at a rustic table before eating a bowl of gruel. I imagine nuns carefully polishing icons that are hidden away in catacombs. And I think, that is so not me.

Sure, the inspiration part comes, the ideals are there, but before I invest any perspiration, I need a little motivation. Like George, I really enjoy cooking and reading recipes, but unlike George I just can't get excited about cooking for myself. Nor do I get excited about mandatory daily mom-style cooking when people would be just as happy, maybe happier, with a box of mac-n-cheese. I'm working on it.

But when the motivation comes, I embrace the opportunity. Give me an occasion, and I'll give you some cooking.

My friend Noelle over at Aguayo Shed became a mother last week, and a group of friends organized to bring the new family dinner each night while they're settling in. ("All aboard the food train! Chew, chew!!!") The previously-mentioned Soup with Ingredients (including kale) was inspired by my turn as conductor on the food train last night. I also enjoyed bringing salad that we (mostly) grew ourselves, and garnishing it with some fresh chive flowers. Presentation is half the fun.

Not only is it fun to cook a special meal, it's fun to share a meal with friends. It's enough to make me rethink the word potluck, which has long been filed in my mind alongside such words as housedress and Schlitz. I'd like to have more excuses to fire up the KitchenAid Professional and make something flashy and ridiculously labor-intensive that can be ooohed and ahhhed over for a few moments before disappearing. I like to oooh and ahhh over friends' cooking. I like meals that are savored as art, celebration, and communion, but I'm not the type to practice rituals in isolation—I need a congregation to infuse them with meaning.

I'll be sad when the food train reaches its stop. And probably a little hungry, too.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Why Johnny Can't Cook

I miss home economics.

Not that I really know what home economics class was like, since even when I was just a young Princess Whackamole myself, home ec was passe. Technically it was still offered, but only paired with "consumer math," a class that supposedly included looking up information in the phone book as part of the final exam. Not the academic track I travelled. Apparently the track I was on was expected to lead to a career with a high salary so I could hire people who took home ec.

Just by chance, I was lucky enough to have cooking as a summer class during elementary school. We learned how to make scrambled eggs (including holding the bowl at an angle while whisking), orange juice, lemonade, toast, and pancakes. (Teachers, thinking ahead to Mother's Day and Father's Day mornings, know that a good breakfast in bed translates to happy parents voting for teacher raises.) If it weren't for that class, I might be living on ramen today.

The fact is, I still forget how to cook from time to time. I fall into the habit of "fixing" dinner, as though I were "fixing" my hair. I forget to use actual ingredients, and instead end up doing little more than arranging food: pouring pasta from the plastic bag into some boiling water, draining it, throwing on some Trader Joe's Vodka Sauce, and putting a handful of baby spinach on the plate next to it. Not much more than a sophisticated ramen, really. Remembering to cook in the way that requires me to chop up onions, carrots, and even kale, and make a delicious soup takes a special effort. I get stuck in the trap of convenient, nutriousish prefab food. So I blame the school system.

Right-wing, homeschooling types will say "If you leave cooking up to the public school system, we'll have a nation of limp-wristed whiskers! Cooking should be taught in the home. Ideally in Kansas." Well, maybe. I've tried from time to time to get the rest of the family interested in cooking, and it's just not happening. Dinner prep time overlaps with homework time. And what it really comes down to is: I'm lazy. If I were slightly more strategic in my laziness I would see that training a young cook to make dinner could allow for much future laziness, but a nap on the couch is worth two in the future.

So, now I'm having to face up to either teaching the young Princess Whackamole, or joining the ranks of parents sending their kids to college with a microwave and a pallet of Hot Pockets.

I know children should learn to cook, but isn't this why we pay taxes?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Rebels rollin' with the SoCalBUG

The distinguished gentleman at Big Table Blog raises some excellent points about the reason v. emotion smackdown as it relates to going green. As much as know what we should be doing, there's that inner James Dean who's half-sneering, half-daring the square inside to think about things like food miles, wind power, solar ovens, or MPG.

But we do think about those things here at the ranch. Another ongoing project is rebuilding cars, less the blingy Porsche 550 Spyder kind of rebuild than the bionic eco-Vega kind of rebuild, taking lightweight cars and polishing up the fuel efficiency a few miles at a time. Certain people here have been known to whoop in delight over finding headers on eBay that will add another five mpg. But still, gas is gas.

We're really excited about experimenting with biodiesel, though only one of our cars uses it now. Any car that runs diesel can use biodiesel, if you can find it. Until recently, there was only one fuel station in town that offered it, and that on a members-only basis. We signed up with the Southern California Biodiesel Users' Group, which got us into the biodiesel cartel. Woohoo!

Still, having to join a group to buy an expensive, difficult to find, and good for the planet fuel seems a little like having to join a club before flossing. It's enough of an obstacle to discourage folks that might be interested in trying it. That's why it's exciting news to us that the first (non-member) biodiesel station opened in Santa Barbara last Friday. Even better, Jack Johnson showed up!

So I'm looking forward to cruising down there before too long, once my little red Vega wagon is up and running. Getting away from the gasoline pump is something I should be doing, but driving that Vega is something I want to be doing. Bite me, James Dean. I'd rather ride with Jack Johnson any day.

I thought I was gonna be sick...

It seems ironic that, after writing so much about local food, food poisoning almost keeps me from writing. I feel feverish, nauseous, etc., and hid my head under the covers until late afternoon.

I suspect it was either a bad batch of salsa or reading this review of Hell and High Water.

Or both.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Where does our garden grow?

Supporting local food is pretty darn easy in Santa Barbara where we have year-round farmer's markets. It takes a little planning. since the market hours are limited, and selection limited by what is in season. There's an awesome website, Local Harvest, with a national directory of farms, markets, and co-ops that sell local foods. Unfortunately, it's still easier to stroll out of Trader Joe's with a plastic box of tomatoes from Chile.

Awareness and education have a tough battle to fight against convenience. Most of us aren't used to planning our meal around what's in season--we plan our meals based on what we're in the mood for. I just don't get "in the mood for" kale, though I know it's good for me and blah, blah, blah. But maybe it's time to get over that.

As to Patrick's question below, I think food activism begins at home, but needs to grow from there. There's a lot our local government can do to help (or hurt), but that's another entry.

We hope that by this time next year will be growing more than half of our food at the ranch. In addition to delicious salads, oranges, and tangerines, we'll have canned and dried tomatoes of our own, plus fresh broccoli, avocados, nuts, and maybe even some kale.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Dirty little patriots

Yes, I drove to the anti-Bush rally tonight. Especially since Bush started this war, I try to keep driving to a minimum and bike whenever I can. Don't care for oil companies, international oil politics... but still drive a gas-powered car. Yes, I believe our appetite has gotten out of hand. Yes, I have chanted "No Blood for Oil!"

But blood for food might be a different story. If food were scarce, it would be difficult to suggest one simply stop consuming so much FOOD.

So, where's the protest about our increasing dependence on foreign agriculture? Even in California, produce may travel thousands of miles before reaching the local market. This administration has made it clear that it intends to protect the interests of the mega-corporations. Okay, now imagine that Haliburton is in the fruits and veggies game... that's the kind of monopolistic agri-businesses that think it's okay to spend 36 times as much fossil fuel energy in transporting a head of lettuce as the lettuce provides in food energy . Right now, the market is flooded with garlic from China. Sure, that's bad news for vampires, but it's truly frightening on many levels: politically, environmentally, gastronomically... It's not a new problem, but it's fair to say it's a growing one. (Get it? Growing problem?)

I guess what's on my mind is a combination of two ideas: food miles and food production. Both link into the local food movement from different directions. One thing that is NOT on my mind is suggesting we'd be better off without Australian wines or Swiss chocolate or any of that. There are delicious things to savor about global trade. Mustards, for example. Or Belizian hot sauce.

As a community and as a nation, it seems silly to out source our food source. And as we reduce the number of miles we drive, it makes sense to look at the number of miles our food travels. It's time to bring back the Victory Garden, and support local farmers in any way we can.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Firing my retail therapist

Growing up female in Southern California, I learned soon after I got my first job how to handle stress effectively: retail therapy. A little shopping, a little something new and sparkly, and voilá! Serenity with a return-ready receipt.

I used to love shopping. Now, not so much. Boxes seem less like presents to open, and more like waste, packaging and stuff for which I'll have to find storage space. I went to New Orleans with a relief group to gut houses last spring, and saw the toxic festering piles of throw pillows, princess dolls, and mardi gras beads. Video tapes, shampoo bottles, cookbooks--all melded together by heat and toxic sludge. There used to be a stop-smoking program I heard of that showed you disgusting things as you smoked, as a way of aversion training. New Orleans had that effect on me as a shopper. The thrill is gone.

The world is full of fascinating, useful, innovative, and beautiful objects. The marketplace is packed with them, along with a lot of "cheap" and poorly-made crap, which nonetheless can have a certain appeal. I put "cheap" in quotes because, of course, it isn't really. Too often things are low priced because they are made by people working under unimaginable conditions, in countries without hazardous waste disposal policies, and sent to the US in the hulls of huge polluting ships. The more mindful I become of where these trinkets come from, the less I find retail therapy working its magic.

I wish I could say I've outgrown stress, and though there seems no good reason for it lately, I still find myself wound up to that shopping point. At that point, if I can't get out to the garden, I sometimes find myself shopping, only leave the store empty-handed and disgusted by consumer culture. I wouldn't go so far as to call it an addiction, but it's a habit. Can't stop trying to scratch that amputated limb.

This year, we tried Christmas with fewer presents, but at the end, we caved a bit. Even if we can begin to dream of Christmas without the wrapping paper and perfunctary gift cards, it's hard to resist the traditions and expectations of our families. There's a lot of yuletide inertia working against change.

So, ex-smokers chew gum. What will it be for me? How do I get rid of this phantom shopping bag I feeling dangling from my hand?

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Me! Me!

I've been encouraged to write about me! me! by my friend George over at INOTBB

  1. Name a book that you want to share so much that you keep giving away copies: One Hundred Years of Solitude, I suppose, though it's been awhile since I've sent one down the reader river... I've also gone through a lot of So Far from Gods, a book by Ana Castillo that is a gringo-chick intro to magical realism and used to seem really edgey...
  2. Name a piece of music that changed the way you listen to music: Grease, the movie soundtrack. Got a copy for my birthday, put it on Mom's stereo, and yippee! Dancing!
  3. Name a film you can watch again and again without fatigue: The Black Stallion. It's just freakin' beautiful.
  4. Name a work of art you'd like to live with: "Queen Calafia's Magical Circle" would be fun...
  5. Name a work of fiction which has penetrated your real life: My Side of the Mountain. About this kid who runs away and makes his home in a tree trunk in the Catskill Mountains. He had a trained falcon, made traps, flipped grown-ups the finger. A book that triggered many early self-sufficiency fantasies. That, and all the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
  6. Name a punch line that always makes you laugh: "Is the bar tender here?"

Oh, not "me! me!"?

What the heck is a meme? I have much to learn about this strange new blogsphere I have entered...

Monday, January 8, 2007

In the spirit of full(er) disclosure...

Because we are in the blogsphere, dear reader, and can't see for yourself, I should explain that "the ranch" is a term used somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

We love dirt. We love animals. We love gardening. Yet the more-Gabor side of us wants to be close to town, friends, and school. We're not ready to buy the farm just yet. So we are working on our own version of the urban homestead.

Our home is part of a subdivision, complete with CC&Rs and status-quo neighbors on all sides. Our half- acre lot is large by cityfolk standards, but by ranch standards... well...

In my opinion, it's an ideal Green-Acrey compromise. We're about 10 minutes from downtown Santa Barbara, blocks from the beach, and close to work. Better yet, we're close to two of the best garden shops in the county, Island Seed & Feed and Terra Sol.

Oh yeah, this is my kind of ranch...

Sunday, January 7, 2007

The Big Mountain outside the window

One of the first projects we undertook at the ranch was removing a massive Hollywood juniper, the Hindu Godzilla of patio trees. Its arms were spread out in front of the kitchen window as if the tree was guarding some celestial basketball hoop, so looking out of the window, day or night, was really just gazing at its deep forest green-black navel. It was a mesmerizing, menacing, and doomed tree.

Cutting down the tree was a huge project, and we didn't finish until after sunset. Standing at the kitchen sink, gazing into the familiar darkness, I noticed a light to the north, an unusual but not unheard of approach for airplanes coming into Santa Barbara.
The next morning, we woke up and staggered toward the coffee maker to discover mountain views. Gorgeous, cloud-capped mountains. And on the patio, a branch-strewn battleground and the thick stump of the conquered tree.

One of our missions at the ranch is to grow as much of our own food as we can. Strictly speaking, the juniper was replaced by a navel orange, two types of tangerine, a Meyer lemon, and a blueberry bush. But it was also replaced by the ridge of mountains, this reminder of all we are striving toward, literal and symbolic summits ahead of us.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

the seeds for the blog are sown. We have two huge hoops full of mushroom compost, a bale and and a half of straw, and a barrel of soaked peat moss at the ready.
Let's see what grows.