Sunday, January 29, 2012

Day 48: Becoming My Own Beer Lady


I remember the beer lady of Kircheimbolanden. It’s been more than 25 years since I rang the bell to purchase a case of her craft, but that first hefeweizen lingers on my tongue. Kircheimbolanden tucks neatly in historical Rhineland, situated about 30 km north-east of Kaiserslautern, Germany and near the French border. I visited Kircheimbolanden this summer, but everything had changed.  I couldn’t find the house where the beer lady once lived. Cobblestone streets and her doorstep were swallowed up in the modernization of the 1368 village.
At nineteen, I knew nothing about beer. Stationed with the Army in a remote nuclear physical security site, I had plenty of time to learn. Some of the best cultural opportunities are wasted on the youth. Cultivating my beer taste buds on the beer lady’s labor was one of these wasted opportunities. I never knew just how good I had it.
Becoming my own beer lady is an exciting prospect to entertain. My original beer lady was slightly older than I am now, a touch heftier, and of fair hair and skin. But her hands were like mine – working hands, short, wide and void of manicure, like a young boy’s hands.
I feel a little embarrassed about using a hopped malt concentrate. If my beer lady were here, and if she spoke English, I imagine she'd give me an earful. But everyone needs to start somewhere. So far, the process has been easy, a little too easy. I boiled water, opened the can of extract, added it to the boiling water, and then added some malt. The process was not too different from making a bowl of tomato soup for lunch.
Adding yeast once the mixture cooled created a little more excitement, but not much. My next step is the waiting game. I’ll wait a week and then transfer my batch into a clean carboy, and then I’ll wait another week before bottling. I predict the longest wait will be the two weeks between the bottling process and the drinking process. In the meantime, I’ll be reading recipes and learning about techniques to wean me off the concentrate.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Days 45-47: Beer & Cake

I’m not one to waste time, not even when I’m sick. I’ve been sick, nothing serious, just a good wallop of the common cold. Perhaps two nights digging clams in the freezing rain lowered my immunities. The good thing about being sick is that it slows my routine. Couch bound for two days, I read a lot about beer.

Beer is important to me. I know beer doesn’t fall into the whole hunting, fishing, gathering, and growing theme, but making beer is about sustainability and self-reliance. So, I think it falls in the realm of my project. God forbid another prohibition or zombie apocalypse, but I’ll be ready.
I dropped by a brewers’ supply store in Bremerton after taking my kid, Jaden, to his orthodontist. Jade and I browsed shelves of carboys, flexible tubing, stoppers, and books. We peered down through plexi-glass covered barrels of barley, hops, wheat, malt, and other bulk consumables. The place held a wholesome waft of a feed store.
I’d never been in brewers' supply store before. The smell was familiar and comforting, but I couldn’t find my bearings. Discerning what was what was almost as tough as figuring out what I needed to purchase.
Two men worked the store. One looked like a younger version of the other. I assumed this was a father-son operation. At first I appreciated the distance the men showed me, allowing me to shop without pressure, but after a while, I felt lost. The older man shuffled off to a back room as I approached the counter, leaving the son to assist me.
“I’d like to learn to make beer.”
“Next class is February 12th.”
“Darn I won’t be in town. Perhaps you might show me a kit, or a book, or…”
“Most people need a class.”
“Yes. I’m sure it helps, but I’ve been reading a lot about beer. Do you have a particular kit or recipes you could recommend?”
He handed me a flyer outlining basic equipment and pricing. “It’s expensive to start."
“I actually have most of the equipment, but I’m stumped on ingredients.”
“Beginners should start with malt extract, make a foolproof batch the first go.”
He led me to a shelf of giant soup cans full of extracts, but walked away before I had the chance to formulate questions. The lack of interaction confused me. The guy didn’t seem rude or condescending, just indifferent, like he couldn’t decide if he wanted to help.
I picked a can of Cooper’s Irish Stout and struggled to gather the rest of the supplies. His eyes lit up at my selection. “You’re gonna like that Stout. Good pick.”
"I'm a Guinness fan, so I'm hoping..."
"You picked the right can, alright." He warmed a little, and gave me the low down on bottle caps and sifting through recycle bins for bottles. For a moment, we connected. He even helped Jaden load my purchases in the Subaru before wishing us luck.
Jade and I hit the road, but the transaction stayed on my mind. I tapped Jade's earphones to signal my desire to conversate.  “Hey, don’t you think it was kind of weird how those brewery guys acted toward us?”
“Not really. They’re just really into beer."
“I like beer too.”
“Yeah, but  not like they like beer. Beer is their art, their whole life.”
“That’s very perceptive of you.”
“No offense, Mom, but you don’t look like the beer type.”
“Really? What do I look like?”
“Cake. You look like you make cake.
“Wow, that kind of stings.”
“It shouldn't. Cake is good. You make good cakes, especially cupcakes.”
“You don’t think I can make beer?
“Yeah, but probably not good beer. Make beer cake. I bet you can make a good beer cake.”
“Thanks, buddy.”
“No problem.”
Jade slipped his earphones back in. I slid on a pair of sunglasses, cranked the heat, and opened the sunroof. I freed my pony tail from an elastic band and adjusted the rear view mirror, so I could watch my hair whip through the opening. I smiled at a cake-face reflection, wondering at what age I began to look like cake instead of beer, and was it possible to turn a cake life around.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Day 44: Back-Alley Squid Dealings

It’s been nearly two weeks since I jigged for squid. Squid are on my menu, but I feel reluctant, maybe even embarrassed to keep trying. In my three evenings jigging, I spent 6 gallons of fuel and way too much money on gear. I only managed to personally catch two of the smallest squid passing through Bremerton.
As far as pride goes, it stings. But I’m not much of a quitter, so I’m stuck obsessing about tide, weather, technique, rods, line weight, and jigs. Armando and Manny, the Filipino gentlemen I met on the pier, recommended a new pole, new line, and new jigs, basically all new rigging expect the swivels.  
Armando insisted on handmade jigs sold at a little Korean store near the bank on 6th street in Bremerton. I drove up and down 6th for the past few weeks. I couldn’t find the store. Bremerton is not a major metropolis. I searched online and through sports stores in Silverdale, Bremerton, Shelton, and Olympia for jigs that looked like the ones the guys used. I got nothing.
I hit 6th street again. I drove up and down, and like usual, found nothing. I pulled into an alley near the bank to switch directions. I saw it, glass door encrusted with grime and void of transparency. Above the door in oriental-script font was the word, Oriental.  I figured this must be the place.
An aging Korean man with an oxygen tank by his side and tubes up his nose worked the front counter. He bowed slightly as I entered, and then slipped out for a smoke break. The place was an eclectic gold mine. My eyes scanned dingy cooler doors and dust laden shelves of cleavers, garden spades, woks, refrigerated kim-chee, canned lychees, chopsticks, laundry soap, bags of black beans, mung beans, azuki beans, frozen pig heads, sacks of rice, lots and lots of rice, ramen, fortune cookies, dried squid, gallons of sesame oil, Hello Kitty toothbrushes, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and those wire, mesh sink-strainers that are so dang handy. I saw lots of things I wanted to buy, but no squid jigs.
I loaded a half-gallon of sesame oil in my basket, along with a toasted rice tea, dried haddock strips, and a couple of those sink-strainers. I moved to the front and waited for the shopkeeper to return. When he returned, I asked him about squid jigs.
He tilted his head to the side. “How you know about jigs?”
“Illahee Pier, the Filipinos sent me.”
He crossed his arms in front of his chest. I was missing something, some secret code or handshake to access the jigs. I started to ramble. “Well, I just started jigging, you see. I’m not great at all. But Armando and Manny said…”
“Yes, Sir.”
“I see.” He reached under the front counter and pulled out two rectangular jewelry cases. Sparkles caught my eye when he removed the covers. It’s hard to explain the beauty of glass beads and glitter bedazzling a collar of silver hooks. I gasped. He smiled.
“Do you make these?”
“My wife.”
“Please tell her these are the loveliest jigs ever.”
 I selected six, three for my line and three for my son, Jaden. He packaged the jigs in tiny jewelry boxes and rang up my purchase. I slid the credit card, and he bowed slightly.

Day 43: Getting Wild with the Neighbors


I may have thrown a wild party or two back in my youth, but tonight was my first wild dinner party. Luba and Alex are my friends and next door neighbors. Both know about my project, and to my surprise, both accepted the invitation without reluctance, or at least they didn’t seem reluctant.
Two nights of digging produced enough food to feed six of us for two or three meals. I knew Luba ate shellfish, but I wasn’t certain about Alex. It didn’t really matter, since I needed to prepare another protein source for Jim.
I started the meal with a soy version of New England clam chowder made from horse clams dug last night. My sons claim to hate soy milk, so I didn’t bother telling them about the substitution. They shoveled the chowder down, and will eat the leftovers tomorrow night.
Cockles the size of tennis balls, sautéed in white wine, butter, and shallots proved a show stopper. The meat inside is large, oddly shaped, and maybe even intimidating at first. It’s my lobster of clams, and Alex described the meat to taste a bit like Dungeness crab. The chewy and then tender texture is a different story. The cockle takes a certain dedication, but it’s worth it.

Other dishes included smoked paprika corn muffins, butter clams, steamers, and roasted venison with demi-glace atop dilled mashed potatoes.
Luba brought her famous very-veggie salad, and outdid herself with a hyper-local cobbler of plums, strawberries, and raspberries picked from her land. A local, dry Riesling from Saint Michelle winery in Woodinville, Washington complemented the meal. Okay, so maybe I'm the only one that drank wine, but it was an excellent match. I still have more than half the bottle for tomorrow night.
The wild food, stimulating conversation, Washington wine, Seabeck cobbler, and next door neighbors made for a thoughtful night. Everything we needed to pull off a successful evening was in one of two pantries. Luba and I could have fed another 6 guests. Perhaps next time we shall. We discussed a block party of sorts for the Super bowl, and tonight finds me already thinking about what I can kill.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Day 42: Geoduck Quest


I paced around the house yesterday willing time to pass. I know I ought to embrace the precious few hours of daylight in a northwest winter, but my mind was on the prize. I busied myself with a little laundry and light house cleaning and contemplated steaming some of yesterday’s clams. But my boys are out for the weekend, and I really want to share my killer catch with them. I’m planning a major clam feast for our Sunday family dinner, and hoped to present the King of Clams, the mighty Geoduck.
For an early dinner, I roasted a modest cut of venison with mushrooms, celery, and onions, and  then caught up on reading. The blinding light of a migraine hit me around 2PM, and sent me scampering for the tranquility of my bedroom. Armed with Maxalt, sunglasses, and an audiobook version of Michael Pollan’s, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I wiled away the afternoon and evening trying to shake the damn thing before it ruined my nightime plans. I’m sure Jim thought he was in the clear. It seems he doesn’t really enjoy digging up the beach at night like I do.
Tonight’s forecast promised a miserable dig, but I didn’t care. I wanted the migraine to lift so I could get on with life. I waited 42 days for a tide low enough to dig geoducks. I wasn’t going to miss it. I felt better a couple of hours before low-tide, so we gathered gear and loaded in the truck. I can’t drive on migraine days, so reliable Jim was certainly stuck.
The thermometer in the truck read 33 degrees, as a nasty slush fell from the sky. Great dollops of rain, ice, and snow splatted the windshield like seagull droppings. The temperature warmed five degrees as we dropped in elevation and hugged the canal.
We hit the beach an hour before the lowest tide. According to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website, a geoduck bed was located just north of the parking lot and marked with yellow, fiberglass posts that could be seen at the -2.0 water mark. I scanned the beach for posts. I was an hour early, but expected to see at least parts of posts sticking up in the surf. I walked north and then further north and then further north. I’m not sure what “just north” is supposed to mean, but we walked north for a very long time and never saw a post.
At 930PM, we walked south, back toward the parking lot. I walked the tide’s edge searching for anything that might look like yellow posts. I got excited a few times when my flashlight caught something bright orange in the distance. Orange is almost yellow. The orange was always a starfish. I must have seen 50 truly impressive sea stars, orange, red, and purple, some with the standard 5 arms but most with at least 20. I wish it was legal to collect and eat them. If they tasted decent, I could eat forever off Shine Beach Park.
Freezing rain blew sideways and stung my cheeks. I pulled my hat down and lowered my head. The tide was coming back in, and I hadn’t started to dig for geoduck. My inner bitchiness swelled. I hate losing, but more than I hate losing, I hate being a cold loser. I caught myself snapping at Jim, who didn’t want to be out on the beach anyway.
Neither of us knew exactly what to look for, and both of us researched separate sites with different information about what a geoduck siphon dimple should look like. To put it mildly, we bantered and finally settled on a rectangular shaped hole that looked quite promising. I sunk a shovel and a burp of water shot in the air. I knew we found the money spot.
And so we dug, and dug, and dug. Geoducks are known to be buried four-feet down. We dug deep at first. Then we dug out the sand from collapsing walls. Walls collapsed faster than we could dig. Which I’ll tell you is a not that fast at all. My neglected abs twitched and moaned as I pulled shovel-full after never-ending shovel-full from the hole. Jim and I dug a kiddie pool worthy of a dozen toddlers. I couldn’t resist any longer. I was going in.
I flopped on the beach and stuck my head, shoulders, and arms in the hole. My hips pressed flat against the compacted shore above to serve as a counterweight to keep my whole body from sliding in. The beach mud sucked in my hands, then my elbows, and then my upper arms. I felt around in the goo below for anything clamlike. Despite the dampness, the hole was warm. Sand buffed my check, and when I let my imagination get the best of me, I was certain I smelled sewage.   
Jim continued to clean away the sand from collapsing sides, careful not to scrape me with his shovel. I was about to pull out of the hole when I felt it. “I got it, I got it.”
“Where?” Jim readied his shovel.
“Right here, but he’s stuck.” My gloved hand rocked the oval top a football-shaped object, trying to get a better grip. Most of me slid in the hole while I fought to free the giant below. Finally I felt it release and pulled my prize to the surface. I thrust the thing in the air like a t-ball trophy. “Ha! Look at this big bastard!”
“Good God.” Jim, a man of few words and even fewer emotional outbursts, looked stunned, almost impressed even. But his Ohio sensibilities killed the moment. “Nasty. You really gonna eat that?”
“Hell, yeah. He’s chowder, Baby.”
“Well, good for you. We done yet?”
“Yeah, I just wanted one.”
We walked back toward the car. Jim was ahead of me because my eyes scanned the beach for potential geoduck shows. I really only needed one, but two would be better. I found what looked like a siphon hole. “Hey Jim, take a look at this. Maybe we try just one more time.” He may not like clams, but he understands the thrill and addiction of the hunt. He slid his shovel into the ground without argument. In about 15-minutes, I pulled up a slightly smaller, monster clam.
Jasper barked his head off in the truck, begging us to come back to the parking lot. Our limits were partially full of smaller species. We tossed in butter clams, macoma clams, and cockels as we sifted through the sand from our two big digs. The tide moved in and it was time to go. I was muddy, sandy, wet, and if I let my imagination get the best of me, I’d swear I smelled of sewage.
Jim opened the back of the truck, and I was busy knocking sand off my boots when I heard him startle.
“Evening folks,” said a figure with a flashlight. “Been watching you on the beach for a while.” He flashed a badge affixed to a dark-colored parka. “You mind putting down your shovels and letting me inspect your catch?”
I squared off in front of him. We were about the same height and maybe even the same thickness. It took me a couple of air-head moments to figure out why he shielded his face from me. My headlamp was still on. “Crap. Sorry, Sir.”
Officer Balasza inspected our catch, complemented my huge geoduck, but said the smaller version was a horse clam. I doubted him but remained respectful. Apart from size, the two clams shared all the same features. He quizzed us on size requirements and limits for each species. We passed with an A+. We know the rules. I rambled about my blog. He pretended to be interested. I inquired about the yellow fiberglass stakes, and he’d never seen them.  We thanked Officer Balasza for his service, and  he sent us on our way.
 Of course we were clean. Finding sustainable food is what I’m living for. I’m not about to act like an ass and poach on these beaches or risk depleting the food sources I love. I’ve been all sorts of bad in my life, but I’m not that kind of girl, not that kind of bad.
When I got home, I laid out the catch. We had 10 cockles, a couple handfuls of macoma clams, and a few butters. I plopped the biggest cockle on kitchen scale, 8.5 ounces. I followed with the night’s prize. The digital scale flashed 27 ounces, and I danced around the kitchen.
I put the two monster clams on the stovetop, under the overhead light to get a better look. I pulled up images and read descriptions of geoducks on my laptop. I’ve read them a hundred times before, but this time I noticed something my clams were missing. My heart sank.
According to description, the geoduck’s body is so large that neither the siphon nor the mantle (behind) can fully retract into the shell. Stubby necks popped from both of my specimens, but the rest of the bodies were fully tucked. I looked up images of horse clams as my enthusiasm waned.
I failed to capture the iconic Washington Geoduck. I’m a little sad about that, but on the brighter side, the quest is still on. I have to wait until April for a tide low enough, but April will come and I’ll try again. In the meantime, I’ll chowder-chop these horse clams and invite my neighbors for supper. Maybe one evening, I’ll be able to feed my whole neighborhood at my wild table.  

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Days 40 & 41: Recovery & Clams

1/19/2012 & 1/20/2012

Yesterday was the One Woman Spewing Spree. I won’t go into great detail, but I spent a decent amount of time inspecting the porcelain. Maybe a 24-hour bug or a lousy pistachio? Not sure, but I don’t want to go through that again.
Garret smoked the Guinness oysters for me. He and Jade ate several and claim them to be amazing. My stomach is still too queasy to give them a go. The nice thing about smoking is that the process increases shelf-life. The oysters will keep until I’m fully recovered.
I could have spent the whole day on the sofa trying to recover from yesterday’s purge, but there was a clam tide to catch. I needed a lift, and not the kind of lift one gets from a pantry filled with garbanzo beans, quinoa and other healthy stuff. I needed that vitamin-fortified, sugar-boosted, comfort food of youth, Lucky Charms.
Lucky Charms and soy moo served as morning medicine. It’s been years since I’ve indulged in the marshmallowy-magic. I remember when it was just pink hearts, yellow stars, and green clovers. Now, the bowl is full of all sorts of colorful crap. It’s a wee bit overwhelming, but I choked it down. In an hour, I had enough energy to tackle a dirty house, do the laundry, and tidy up my bedroom.
Lucky Charms was life’s elixir, but I knew better than overdo. One bowl, fine – Two bowls, fear. Overdo the Charms and suffer sugar-hangover. I was still ready to rock as night fell and the tide retreated.
Jim and I made the trek up Highway 3 and across the Hood Canal Bridge to Shine Beach Park. The parking lot sets north of the bridge, just above the high-water mark.  Looking up at the bridge from the beach was a first. This bridge used to be a part of my life, but I never viewed it from this angle. There was something kind of Christmassy about the bridge. It was more than just the twinkling red glow of tail lights. The bridge made me think of family, my old Coast Guard family.
I’d seen Shine Beach Park many times through binoculars, scanning for potential threats as I rode in the center of the canal, high and dry on a Coast Guard vessel performing an armed escort for Navy submarines transiting in and out of the Hood Canal. The bridge was the pucker point of our transit. I dreaded this spot, sensing if anything bad were to happen, it would happen here. Fortunately, three years traversing left us incident and accident free.
Time spent with Coast Guard shipmates and Navy submarines was fascinating, and by far the most important military mission of my life. And as much as I’d love to tell you more, it’s best to cut it short. Just know that our waters are full of dedicated women and men taking care of business and keeping us safe.
I watched the twinkling lights of the bridge and waited for the water to recede. When it was time, I fought my way into a woodland camouflage, water-resistant jumpsuit. The jumpsuit, a recent purchase from Cabela’s, is more of a sleeping bag with arms and legs, definitely not figure-flattering, but warm as hell. In my mind, I look cute, like a militant snow-bunny, but I did take a short gander in a full-length mirror at the store. Horrible. Sasquatch-like, but less hairy.
Between the jumpsuit and the Boggs (boots), I was exhausted. Getting dressed shouldn’t remind you that you need more cardio-time. But it does, and I do.
I waddled out to the beach early to see how low was low enough. The low enough question is still evasive. The minus tide of -1.7 wasn’t predicted for another two hours, but I’ve learned that edible critters are sometimes found as high as the +3 portion of the beach.
I poked around in the cobble substrate for about 20 minutes and dug up about a dozen native little neck clams. The beach is known for its thriving populations of manila and natives, so I wasn’t surprised, but what I really hoped to find where butter clams, cockles, and horse clams. Of the three, I had only found one cockle in all my previous diggings.
Butter clams pose a unique challenge because they store marine bio-toxins longer than other clam species. Paralytic shellfish poisoning, also known as red tide, builds up and remains in butter clams long after other clams expel. The same goes for man-made pollutions. There are several beaches up and down the Puget Sound that are closed for Butter clam harvest, but still open for oysters and other varieties of clams. Shine Beach Park boasts healthy, edible populations of Butters, and I hoped to find a few. I know I’ve eaten Butter clams as a kid, but I can’t remember the taste. They are larger than the steamer variety I’ve been digging and found a deeper.
I followed the tide out, digging holes to sample populations, and refilling the holes as I chased the water down the beach. The composition changed from cobbled substrate to sand, allowing me to dig much deeper. Jim and Jasper joined me, and in a couple of hours, we filled our limits, 40 clams each or 10lbs, whichever comes first. One of the best things about digging with Jim, apart from his dashing good looks and expert driving skills, is that he doesn’t eat clams. His limit is mine, or at least mine to share with the boys. That makes Jim one hell of a guy, don’t you think?
Butter Clams

We found 10 Butter clams, 2 Horse clams, lots of Natives and Manilas, and a small species I’d never seen before, the Macoma clam. The Macoma is native to the Chesapeake Bay and a staple in New England clam bakes. So what's it doing hanging out at Shine Beach Park on a fjord of Puget Sound? My best guess is that Macoma arrived in the Pacific Northwest in the very same way that the Eastern Softshell clam arrived, by way of oyster seeds purchased from the east. I'm looking forward to treating this foreigner to a little local wine, lemon, shallots, and butter.
Macoma Clams

The best find of the night were cockles. The cockle has a scalloped shell and may be patterned with splashes of grey, maroon, and cream. It’s my lobster of all clams, and I have a dozen to eat.

Tomorrow night promises a -2.0 tide. I plan to return to Shine Beach Park, and hopefully have a repeat of tonight’s success. The extreme low-tide brings a new target, a target I’ve been waiting a whole month on a tide low enough to dig. Tomorrow, I hunt the iconic Washington Geoduck. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

R.I.P. Rico Suave

It’s a snow day. The kids are home, and we are house bound. There’s a low tide at 6 PM. I was counting on getting out and gathering seaweed. But the remote beach roads are harsh, and I best stay put.
But in the meantime, I’ll tell you a chicken story. My oldest son commented on my Chicken Check-Up blog and reminded me about a wee bantam rooster that once ruled the flock.
First of all, let me get a few facts straight. Hens (females) do not need a rooster (male) to produce eggs. Roosters copulate with hens to fertilize eggs. The hen will lay eggs with or without his services. Chicks develop only in fertilized eggs. I can’t speak for the other poultry populations, but I know this for sure about chickens. Common grocery store layers never get laid. But if you’ve witnessed chicken sex, you probably see this fact as a blessing.  It’s not a romantic moment.
But let’s get back to the story. I started my flock a few years ago with eight Rhode Island Reds and a Silky roo named Ziroshanae. Fuzzy black feathers bedazzled his feet and 3lb body in the most peculiar way. My Russian neighbor lady named him (I’ve phonetically spelled his name, but have no idea how should be written). There is no direct translation for Ziroshane, but it’s the way a guy looks in the morning after a horrible night of hen-pecking. 

Ziro was a great little bird, and as far as chickens go, I loved him. He was tiny, about half the size of my hens. He thought he was really something, making love to his big ladies. The girls kept right on scratching for grubs, hardly aware of his presence. To put it delicately, his anatomy made sexual contact impossible. But he was beautiful to look at and provided the sound track for barnyard mornings.
While I was in Mexico for the summer, a coyote ate Ziro. Jim was in charge of keeping the coop, and at first, he tried to find a look-a-like, but Silky roos are not a dime a dozen. He replaced Ziro with a colorful Chochin bantam, and sent a confession email to Mexico.
I named the new roo, “Don Julio,” after the tequila I’d been drinking. Jim called him Rico Suave, and it stuck. Rico was a mean little pimp. He was smaller than Ziro, but his attitude was bigger than the cartoon rooster, Foghorn Leghorn. He bossed the girls around, clawing at them and blocking paths to control movement about the coop. He was an ass, but chicken social skills are not my specialty, so I didn’t get involved. The only human Rico took a shine to was my oldest kid, Nick.

Rico treated my younger boys like his bitches. He jumped on their heads when they entered the coop and attacked them in the field on free-range days. I figured it was a guy thing. But then, the nasty little man attacked me. I punted him across the yard, more of a startled reaction than a show of anger. I tried to stay out of his way, collect eggs after dark, and avoid conflict. Rico had to push it. He sought me out.
I consulted back copies of Mother-Earth News and Backyard Poultry and surfed the Internet for answers. The best advice was to not fight back. As it turns out, Rico didn’t think I was his bitch. He thought I was a dude rooster trying to steal his girls. According to popular advice, his aggressive behavior would cease if I let him attack me a few times. I put on a thick pair of Carhardt overalls, and let him have his way with me. We kept up this routine for weeks, but the aggression never stopped.
Several months ago, Ricco hid behind the water container while the girls grazed in the field. I assumed he was outside too. I stooped down to fetch an egg. Rico sprang to life and sliced the back of my thigh open with his spurs. He snatched a beak full of ponytail and clawed at my neck and face.
I ordered the hit, contracting Garret to snuff out Rico for a handsome bounty of $15. Garret asked how. I recommend an ax. Garret wasn’t fond of blood and wondered if a good twist wouldn’t do the trick. I didn’t see why not. I Googled, “how to kill a chicken,” and found neck-wringing a common practice.
Garret performed the hit and returned to the house 20-minutes later. His eyes were red, and his voice was soft.
“You okay?”
“Yeah, that sucked.”
“Where did you put him?”
“Neighbor’s dumpster.”
“You wanna talk about it?”
“What can I do to make you feel better?”
“How about a bonus $10 bucks?
I paid Garret $25, and hoped his career as a hit man was over. We didn’t talk about Rico over dinner, and by bedtime I almost forgot about the violent act. To be truthful, I was glad he was dead. He was a miserable little man.
I heard a rooster crow at 0530 the next morning. At first it didn’t register. Rico always crowed in the morning. The crow grew louder and louder, as if Rico found a megaphone. I thought I was dreaming, misguided by guilt or something. But then the Russian neighbors called.
My neighbors speak English better than most American-born folk, but when they get angry, overly excited, or frustrated, English goes out the window. I heard quips of English commingled with complicated gusts of Russian. From what I gleaned, Rico was in the dumpster, alive as the day he was born, and ready to fight the neighbor guy.
Garret swore he killed Rico, but what he really did was put him to sleep for a several hours. We took Rico back to the coop, nicknamed him "Hard-2-Kill, and let him live to die another day.

Another day came sooner than expected. Rico attacked, Chris, the teenaged son of my Filipino neighbors. (We are the world on my little lane). Rico also attacked the son’s girlfriend. I heard the shot, followed by an apologetic phone call. Rico was no more. I half expected to hear him crow in the morning from the Filipino dumpster, but all was quiet.
Lately, I’ve been scanning Craigslist for a couple new hens to keep up with egg production. I’ve noticed a few mated pairs for sale. I’m tempted. Hatching chicks would be fun, but I just don’t know if I need all that testosterone in the hen house again.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Day 38: Sacrifical Guinness

I adore Guinness. I’m not crazy over the canned stuff, but Guinness on tap is not existent in my neck-of-the-woods. I like to drink my Guinness like I eat my oysters, fresh. It’s funny, I never thought of eating oysters with Guinness, not until oysters became such a big part of my daily diet.

Washington is home to great micro-beers, and I like this fact. I just wish one of these local breweries would make a beer like Guinness. There’s a little redneck bar down the road that serves Irish Death, brewed in Ellensburg, WA. Irish Death is dark, smooth, slightly sweet, packs a punch, and kind of looks like Guinness. It will do in a pinch, but falls short on the mellow, creaminess scale.
We have two relatively new brew houses in Silverdale, Silver City Brewery and Hale’s Ales. A third, The Hop Room, is opening in few days. The first serve only in-house beer. I’m sure that will be the standard for The Hop Room too. Nothing offered even remotely leaves the frothy brewstache I love.
Hale’s Ales conveniently tucks into a corner of our mall and serves as refuge for men who don’t wish to sit outside dressing room doors, holding ladies’ handbags. It’s genius with one flaw. After a couple pints of Red Menace, it's hard not to honestly answer the million-dollar question, “Do my new jeans make my butt look big.”
Silver City Brewery leaves me cold. It’s loud, overpriced, and nauseatingly fashionable. The bar portion is overcrowded. I have to push aside meticulously groomed, metro Navy dudes, poured into sparkle jeans and douched in cologne heavy with limey top-notes. I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s a lot of hassle for a hopped-up beer. What I really crave is a reliable Irish Pub.
I visited several nice pubs in Edinburg last summer, while attending school. I’m pretty sure I earned enough credits to graduate already, but I’m thinking about returning this summer anyway. I may not need the classes, but I could sure use the beer-run. I suppose it makes more sense to jump the ferry and hit Seattle. I know of a few Guinness serving pubs on that side of Puget Sound.
So, my Guinness comes from the grocery store, and while it’s not my favorite version, I still hold it precious. Jim picked up a 4-pack for me this weekend. I drank two while watching the Packers get their asses handed to them. Only two cans remained. That’s why I argued with myself about an idea to brine oysters in Guinness and smoke the oysters on my Traeger. There is just no way to recycle Guinness after it serves as swimming pool to raw oysters. Reluctantly, I did it anyway.
I mixed oysters, Guinness, organic cider, and a good dose of homemade hot pepper sauce. I soaked the oysters overnight and sampled a couple for breakfast. Not bad, but not as good as I dreamed about last night. I think the slimy little coating on the oysters prevented the brine from fully permeating.
I read a few tips on oyster smoking and realized I should have blanched the oysters first to remove the slippery nectar. I blanched the mullosks and cracked the final can. I wasn’t about to waste the whole can. So, at 9 AM, I took a couple decent swigs and poured the rest into a mixture of local honey, hot pepper sauce, and sea salt. I’ll brine the batch for 24 hours, and toss and turn throughout the night thinking about Guinness abuse. These better be some damn fine oysters.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Day 37: Imagining Spring

The first dusting of snow covers the yard, sugar-coats the fir trees, and forms an icy crust on top of the greenhouse. Winter often finds me pajama-clad mid-snowstorm, reaching recklessly beyond the commonsense zone of the step-ladder to sweep snow from 10-foot tall hoops with a shop broom. Despite my balance dysfunction, I have little to no luck recruiting help. The sense of urgency is mine alone. I worry about the weight of snow on the structure, but the forecast is in my favor tonight, and at least for now, the greenhouse and I are safe.
I like the snow, but like it best as frosting on my view of distant Olympic Mountains. Every now and again, I appreciate a good, school-closure downfall, heavy enough to drop a branch on a power line. The kids stay home, and we sled, build snowmen & snowwomen, cook soup on the woodstove, sip hot cocoa, and play Scrabble. Life slows down, if only for the day.
It’s hard to imagine spring with snowfall predicted over the next four days, but the seeds I started 12 days ago are germinating. The cabbage popped up first, followed by Brussels sprouts, then the romaine, and the chard. There is no sign of the red onions or the celery, but I figured as much. I’m predicting the celery will take another two weeks. It’s tough to grow, even in the heated office window space. The onions are anybody’s guess.
My hens have the beds worked up, and it won’t take much for me to transplant these seedlings once the brunt of winter passes. It’s probably wise to hold off until the middle of March, a week or so before the first day of spring. Spring seems like a long way off, but these fine spindles of green hold a promise of fairer days.

Day 36: Chicken Check-Up

Day 36: Chicken Check-Up

I started the Great Chicken Eperiment two weeks ago by moving the hens from the coop into my 800 sq. ft. greenhouse. The chickens seem to be enjoying their spacious, indoors-outdoors home I don’t know why it took me so long to realize that the best space for the birds in the dead of winter was in the hoop house. The greenhouse is a good ten degrees warmer than the coop. It’s bright, draft free, and full of grubby little insects to snack on all day.

 It’s a relief not to worry about their water freezing over, or if they are warm enough when the night dips to the low 30s. I do try to select cold-hearty heirloom birds like Rhode Island Red and Barred Rock, but I adopted a little old banty hen, and I couldn’t resist this white-crested Polish chick last spring. The kids named the Polish chick, David Bowie. She has the most ridiculous plume of white feathers adorning her head to complement a green-hued, black body. I tried capturing a snapshot of her, but she’s crazy wild and won’t hold still. She’s nothing like the other curious and docile hens. David Bowie has some sort of personality disorder, probably because she is so different and sits at the bottom of the flock pecking order. She was always flighty in the coop, but now she actually has enough room to fly. She goes airborne whenever I enter .
When I relocated the birds more than 2 weeks ago, I had about 4 cups of chicken feed pellets left in their feeder. I finally refilled it today. Before the big move, they went through four cups in less than four days. The eggs taste better now too. It’s a little gross, but worms, potato bugs, and slugs make for tasty eggs.

The hens are more productive than ever, but they are not keeping up with demand. The boys eat four eggs almost every morning. Eggs are my primary source of protein, and will continue to be until I improve my hunting and fishing practice.  I’m scanning Craigslist tonight to see if anyone in the area is unloading full-grown hens. I need a couple more girls to keep us satisfied.
People buy feed-store chicks all the time, only to find out chicks eat, poop a lot, and need a decent amount of attention. The best time to load up on free birds is shortly after Easter, when the thrill fades and that fluffy chick is nothing but a peeping pain-in-the-ass. I picked up a couple of lovely Laced Wyandotte chicks from a neighbor two weeks after last Easter. People ought to stick to the marshmallow version, unless they really know what they are getting themselves into.

So far, the Great Chicken Experiment is a great success. Egg production is rolling right along. There's been no trouble with coyotes, yet. I'm serving up less purchased feed. I have not had to pack hot water from the house to defrost the watering device. My raised beds are worked up quite nicely. There is no poop to shovel, and best of all, the girls are dryer, cleaner, and content (except David Bowie, but she's just crazy like that).

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Day 35: Shucking in the Sun with my Son

Winters are dreary in the Seattle area, and I think my little hamlet of Seabeck gets the worst of it. When the first snow falls in Seattle, you can bet I’ve already accumulated six inches in the front yard. I don’t mind the snow much. At least it is something different. What really drags me down Depression Alley is waking up day after day to the drizzle of battleship-gray skies.
But the sun came out today. I took care of a few morning chores, stalling until after noon to head out to my office. Taxes are on my to-do list, but I really didn’t want to do taxes, especially not when the sun shines. I pulled out the tide book, just to make sure I wasn’t mistaken about the lack of minus tides until the middle of next week. I wasn’t mistaken. The next minus tide, a -0.5 is scheduled for the 18th at 6:53 PM. Today’s low tide was a 3.2 at 2:55 PM.
I tossed around the question: How low is low enough? After a month of watching tides, I am pretty sure that it all depends. Oysters must have water coverage to survive, so they aren’t going to be growing at parking lot level or near the beach access point.
Jaden was up for a drive and hoping to redeem his self-esteem after taking a beating on his squid jigging night. We drove by Seabeck Bay around 2:40 PM. The water was a little high. I didn’t see oysters or abandon shells along the shore.

If the day hadn’t been so pretty, I might have headed for home. I read about a sweet spot a half-hour from the house. Kyle, the neighbor kid, confirmed the spot’s sweetness, telling me it was his Dad’s secret picking site. Well, it’s not his secret anymore.
I wanted to see the beach during daylight. It makes nighttime harvesting easier if you have an idea what kind of terrain you’ll be bumping over. It’s also good to check out the beach. Lots of beaches in the area are muddy. I don’t have the balance I used to, so when the bay sucks in one of my boots, I usually wind up on my butt trying to get unstuck. This is where Jasper comes in. He is a great assistance dog when it comes to keeping me on my feet. He’s also great at pulling me after a fall.  I sliced a hand open on barnacles trying to unstick a stuck boot, so I no longer go without dog or kid.
We arrived at the beach late, 3:30 PM. The tide was coming back in. A family stood together out on a long finger of rocks, picking oysters. We were not too late. A 3.2 tide was low enough for this particular honey-hole. They packed up as we came down the stairs. I said, “Hi,” to the Dad as we passed, and gave the sportsman head nod to his 3 kids and wife. The wife carried a huge bucket of oysters still in the shell.
I understand the benefits of keeping the oysters in the shell. Oysters on the half shell are killer on the grill. Shucking on the beach is tough. It’s cold, windy, and wet. But shucking on the beach is the right thing to do. It’s also the law. Oyster shells are full of spat, seeds that will grow new oysters. Oysters often grow in large clusters. Tiny oysters, no bigger than a penny, piggy-back on large oysters. The Pacific oyster can reach 12”. Each licensed harvester may take 18 oysters measuring at least 2.5 inches long. Kids under 15 may harvest without license, but must carry their own limits. In fact, each harvester must have a separate container to carry the oysters off the beach.
A 5-gallon bucket of oysters, carried by one harvester is recipe for a rather large fine. The fine for over picking starts at $75 plus $10 for each shellfish over limit. So, there lies the problem of not shucking. Each oyster cluster may house dozens of tiny oysters. One clump might easily put a harvester over her limit. I can’t imagine how many illegal oysters she carried in that orange Home Depot bucket. I’m sure they know the rules, and if they didn’t, a placard is posted at the head of the stairs. I’m guessing that is why the family skedaddled as Jade and I walked out onto the rocky finger.
Picking was easy. It was difficult to take a step without stepping on oysters. We pecked around for 15 minutes, selecting single or doubled oysters and avoiding the barnacle-encrusted clumps. Single oysters are way easier to shuck.
I taught Jaden to hold an oyster in his left hand with the tip pointing towards his chest, and the flattened top facing skyward. I put a shucking knife in his right hand and flinched each time the knife slipped dangerously close to his fingers. Sticking a rusty oyster blade through the palm of your hand is a bad way to begin a harvesting career.
We shucked for an hour to fill two limits. The sun dipped, looking like a warped egg yolk peeking over Douglas fir. The water took on an olive sheen, contrasting with a periwinkle sky. Warmer would have been nice, but this was about as good as a winter’s day gets. I could have stayed on the beach until dark, watching the periwinkle grow deep purple, but Jaden’s teeth chattered. Mud soaked through his Converse and wind whipped through his long hair. Why he wouldn’t wear the boots and hat I packed, I’ll never know. Experience is the primary teacher out here, so perhaps next time
We ate one limit tonight, sharing with Garret, and saving the rest for tomorrow’s breakfast. Jim grilled himself a turkey burger, while I sautéed oysters in a roasted tomatillo-peach salsa that I canned last fall. Smoky tomatillos, peaches, and jalapenos imparted a complex sweet-heat that was borderline addicting. Now that I know how low is low enough, Jaden and I plan to become regulars at our new honey-hole.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Day 34: A New Twist on Friday's Chowder


I’m not Catholic, but I always enjoy Friday restaurant offerings, especially when the Soup de jour is clam chowder. The big challenge I have in making chowder these days is that I'm not eating dairy. Apart from opting out of the industrial meat market, I also opted out of industrial dairy and eggs. I don't like how many dairy cows and egg layers are kept, and I'm not convinced that these products, laden with hormones and antibiotics, are good for me. I'm looking for alternatives to dairy, like a local source of organic raw-milk from grass-fed cows, but I've yet to nail that down. I do have chickens, but I can't keep a cow or a goat. So this means no milk, no cheese, no yogurts, no butter… I find it almost easy to live without the meat, but the dairy deal is tough.
I collected some beautiful Easter Soft-Shell clams and a few Manila clams. I also picked two varieties of seaweed. I picked leafy green sea lettuce, and burgundy-colored Turkish towel. Or at least I think it was Turkish towel. I like the lettuce seaweed better because its tender and flavorful, whereas the red is a bit like chewing rubber.

The red seaweed was the unexpected secret ingredient. Red seaweed is loaded with carrageenan, a natural thickener that is released when the seaweed is cooked. I knew what carrageenan was because I’ve looked it up years ago, after seeing it listed as an ingredient on my yogurt container. Carrageenan is found in many foods, but I had no idea the Turkish towel frons tapped a primary source.

The sea lettuce created an oddly chickenish-flavored broth, naturally infused with sea salt and surprisingly hearty. I added a diced potato, an onion, a couple of carrots, a huge pinch of dill weed, black pepper, and a few celery stalks. Once the mixture was near boil, I tossed in the clams.
Now, I’m a bacon-lover. Crumbled bacon gives chowder a sweet and smoky taste. Bacon was out of the question, so my chowder lacked that just-like-mom-makes taste. A small portion of flaked, wild-caught, smoked salmon remedied the problem.

Jim, not a seafood or seaweed eater, tried a spoonful and said, “it doesn’t suck.” He ate a bowl of Cheerios for dinner. The boys each ate a large bowl of chowder and went back for seconds. My neighbor kid, Kyle, ate three bowls. Kyle wants me to make a fresh seaweed and miso soup. l promised to give it a try.

I loved my gluten-free, low-fat, low-sodium, dairy-free, seaweed chowder. Typical clam chowder contains bacon, bacon fat, flour or cornstarch for thickening, butter, and cream or milk. I didn’t run the caloric numbers, but I know my creation was strikingly lower in calories, fat, and carbs with no sacrifice in taste. In fact, I think I like my version better than the chowder I grew up on, and way better than any I’ve eaten in Friday visits to restaurants. As a bonus, my chowder was loaded with fiber, lots of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. I’ll definitely make this again, but I’ll have to wait a week on a tide low enough to gather my ingredients.