Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Day 81: Worth the Wait

I flew home from Guanajuato, Mexico on the 24th, and then spent the past 5 days in a Thera-Flu funk. I don’t know what I caught, but I felt it coming on a day or two before I left. It’s a lot more than a common cold, maybe even pneumonia. I’m giving it one more day before I head to the Doc’s for antibiotics.

But for now, I have another healing elixir in mind – Beer. I bottled my first batch of beer before leaving for Mexico. The idea is to let the beer sit for a couple of weeks before drinking. This would have been difficult to do had I not been out of the country. I’m impatient. I’m the kid who peeks in cupboards and digs through closets for Christmas gifts.

I popped the first top and heard no fizz. I panicked a little, grabbed a glass and poured. Flat. Ugh. I grabbed another and popped. Lots of fizz. I’m hoping the first bottle’s failure to seal was just a fluke, and that I don’t end up with half a batch or more of flat beer. I won’t waste flat beer. It will make for some fantastic pancakes, biscuits, or Irish soda bread.  The dark caramel color and toasty flavor adds hearty elements to routine recipes.

Beer may not be the medicinal cure that I need tonight, but it’s what I have available, 48 pints. I’m about halfway through the first bottle, and I think I’m feeling better already.  If I pop a second top, I may not feel any better, but I sure won’t care.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Day 74: A Lap Full of Ash Wednesday

I travelled from San Miguel de Allende to the city of Guanajuato today. I’ve done this before, but this time was different, way cheaper. I usually hire a driver, Rafael of Raffa Tours. It’s great to rely on the same guys to pick you up when you land and leave Mexico and handle all major travelling in between. I believe it is the safest way, but with safety comes expense. A one way trip from San Miguel to Guanajuato by private car is $65. That’s not a lot to pay for safety, but if I’m going to do this world travelling thing, I’ve got to try a little harder, spend a lot less, and get a whole lot braver. So, today I took the bus. It wasn’t an ordinary bus. Primera Plus is a deluxe, 1st class kind of ride and at 90 pesos, or less than $8, it was a total steal.
I struggled to communicate when buying my ticket, and I admit to being a little intimidated, but I did it. Once aboard, I enjoyed a comfy seat with way more room than any airline. I watched the beautiful Mexican countryside from my high perch. I spotted a farmer tending a field with a horse drawn plow, and a family splashing in a narrow ravine that disappeared into a jagged hillside. Towns with taco stands, beer signs, and children too close to the road flew by my window. And then the bright pinks and blues of Guanajuato signaled me that my stop was near.
With the money saved, I upgraded to a sweet suite at Hotel Luna in the main square. Mariachi music pipes through my balcony window in deep timbers and falsetto yips. It’s really quite lovely. I’m pretty sure I’ll still like it at 2am, as warned by the hotel desk clerk. Guanajuato feels more Mexican than San Miguel, if that makes any sense. Of course both cities are Mexican, but one caters to rich, white expats and the other to rich Mexicans on vacation from the big city. I am neither.

 I took the bus to save money, but splurged on an elegant hotel with marble goddess statues and crystal chandelliers. I guess I’m not quite getting the hang of this thrifty-travel business. To counteract, I decided to forgo restaurants and eat on the street. I couldn’t have been luckier with the decision. I stumbled on a church fundraiser and celebration dinner for Ash Wednesday.
The site of the women preparing food to feed their community made me homesick, but not for my Seabeck home. I felt homesick for my childhood home, and homesick for the kitchen women of Clarkes Methodist Church. I can almost see the ladies with pie laden spatulas and spoons full of green jello-salad with mini marshmallows and pineapple tidbits. Pie and jello salad, that’s what I remember of church.
But in Guanajuato, the church mamas fry up tacos and gorditas. They hold ladles of hot pasole, and heap red rice on a plate to nest a chili relleno or an enchilada. There is no pie, but there are ladies with spatulas loaded with cake and squares of wiggly flan. This must be Methodist heaven, or at least my Methodist heaven.
 The church steps and square were packed with families scrunched together and eating from laps. I didn’t see anyone like me, meaning another Gringa. I might fit in if I never opened mouth, and if I wasn’t taller than most. But I figured my money was welcome as was my soul, at least temporarily. I purchased 100 pesos worth of script to trade for food.

You wouldn't imagine 100 pesos or $7.76 would buy much of a dinner, but some three hours later, I'm still stuffed like the litttle piglet Mexico seems to make me.

 I hit the chili relleno table first. I sat next to a group of ladies and tried my best not to make those grunting sounds that slip out when something tastes so crazy good. Perhaps it is an exaggeration, but I am sure that I have never eaten a relleno so fresh and delicious and probably never will again. The pepper was cooked al a dente. I wrapped it in a handmade tortilla to pick up and eat, because my plastic fork just wouldn’t do the trick.

The chili and rice made more than a meal, but I braved on. A plate of three tacos filled with bean and potato, topped with cabbage shreds, dolloped with crème, sprinkled with fresh cheese, and sauced in salsa verde made an exquisite second course. I was full. But then I found shrimp cocktail looking nothing like I know shrimp cocktail to look. For a moment, I entertained the trace-ability of the shrimp. Were these shrimp wild or farm raised? Were mangrove forests cut down to build aquacultures somewhere in Indonesia? I didn't know how to ask, and the mama serving probably didn't have the answer. I justified. I was eating for Jesus, a fundraiser to keep the church strong. Humans are rational beings entertaining irrational arguements. We often spin in our favor. I put it out of my head and dove in. A zesty tomato broth hosted hunks of avocado, diced onion, sprigs of cilantro, minced chili, and pink shrimp as chubby as my thumbs.

A table of ladies giggled and pointed my way as I slurped the last drip of broth from my plastic cup. My cheeks reddened a little, but they just smiled and waved. It was a welcome of sorts, warm and accepting like the church ladies from home. A come-as-you-are, little piglet noises and all, I waved back and waddled in line for cake.

Day 73: Truffles & Wine


I’m leaving San Miguel de Allende in the morning for two days in Guanajuato before flying home. Just writing this line makes my heart dip. At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, I find magic and inspiration in this city. Colors warm and excite. Crumbling foundations of history entice me to imagine. Romance perks from the city gardens, religion pours from church doors, and bells clang hourly to remind you to keep faith.
I spent the afternoon and packing and polishing off the wine and chocolate. You can’t take it with you, right? And I’ve never been one to waste. I missed Valentines’ Day with Jim this year. It has happened many times. One of us is always traveling, usually him, but this year it was me. He’s not into Valentines’ Day in the way that I am. I am into Valentines’ Day a little too much. But he thoughtfully packed a Valentines’ package to go– Red Velvet by Cupcake winery and dark chocolate truffles by Godiva. Twelve truffles, one for each day that I am away from home, pretty romantic don’t you think?
After too many dinners and desserts out, I fell behind. Today was a good day to catch up on chocolate and think about home. Since I was on a roll, I went for chocolate-overload with a visit to San Augustine’s for Española Chocolate and churros. Yikes. No amount of hill climbing is going to walk this day off.

Day 72: The Hunt for Sopa de Azteca


Food is stunning in San Miguel. Hunting has never been easier, especially when my hunt has been for the best Sopa de Azteca. Aztec soup is made with a rich and zesty tomato broth. Strips of crisp tortillas swim in the bowl with cubes of avocado, crumbles of queso fresco, diced onion, cilantro, and smoky dried chilies. Everybody makes it a little different, but those are the basic elements. And its dirt cheap for a huge bowl, anywhere from 30 to 60 pesos depending on how fancy the kitchen.
 Pesos are nearly 13 to 1 right now. It’s amazing to eat dinner out for under $5. I spend more than that at home on fuel to drive down to the squid dock or to my oyster beach and back. I’m going to be so damn lazy and spoiled when it is time to go back to beaches to fend for myself again.

For breakfast this morning my hostess made chilliquies rojo with frijoles (beans). There are beans every morning, no matter what. Chillliquies are a special treat. Crips triangles of fried corn tortillas swimming in a tomato or tomatillo salsa, topped with queso fresco and crema. It has been easy to avoid meat during this trip, but it’s difficult to avoid dairy products. I admit that I haven’t tried very hard. Foregoing Elvia’s cooking is a punishment I can’t endure.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Day 71: Carnival!

The San Miguel Writers Conference has been a little more intense than expected. I’ve had time to ponder food choices and eat consciously, but not much time to blog. Posting blogs has been challenging as internet is hit or miss at my casa. It’s more miss than hit, but at $35 per day for a studio apartment in a clean and safe casa, I can’t complain.
I pulled away from the conference early this afternoon to catch some sun and visit the Jardin. The park in front of the big pink church is always buzzing with family on Saturdays and Sundays, but today was unreal. Today was the start of Carnival. I heard the roaring laughter and screams two blocks away. As I approached, I noticed the park was pinked with confetti. The sidewalks were pinker than the church. Children, teenagers, and a few “grown-ups” chased each other in what looked like a game of tag. Folks selling hollowed out Easter eggs, egg-headed puppets, and bright paper flowers lined the perimeter.
I bought a bag of eggs for 5 pesos. Money exchanged hands just before I was accosted by a band of egg brandishing boys. Three eggs filled with confetti crashed on my head.  I didn’t think twice. I ran after them, and amazingly I caught up and crushed an egg on the slowest boy’s head. And then I was attacked from behind and took off running in a different direction. I loved the inclusion, loved the chase. I breathed a sigh of relief after each crack and cascade of paper. I feared being taken for a bad egg and receiving a hit full of flour, mayo, or worse, raw egg.
 I went through several bags of confetti eggs and never received any of the nasty sorts. I crushed my fair share for an hour or so, but got the biggest kick out of handing side-lined children their own bags of eggs. It was like I had given the best gift ever, the chance to play. 5 pesos buys a lot of happiness for a kid without enough money for such simple indulgences.
I decided to bring a little happiness back to the conference. My first victim was potential agent, Andy Ross. He’s interested in my manuscript, and while I’m sure egg-smashing breaks professional writerly-code, I let him have it. He liked it so much he asked for another, another egg that is.
Poet, cook-book author, and San Miguel resident, Judyth Hill was my next victim, but only because she requested my services. She was having a tough day and told me that it had been a long time since someone crushed an egg on her head. The ritual cheered her so much, that she too asked for another.
I had three eggs left. Two were designated for a mentor/mentee double-crush between Krista Iverson and me. It is way more fun to give than receive, and I wanted Krista to have the opportunity for both.
The final egg was for potential agent, Kathleen Anderson, of Anderson Literary in New York. She was the first agent I pitched to. I was so nervous that I totally choked, and almost cried. She was kind enough to distract me with questions and small-talk until I got myself back together and finished the pitch. She was amazing, amazing enough to ask to see my manuscript and amazing enough to earn an egg.
Krista, Andy, Kathleen, and I went out to dinner after, as we had one evening before. I’ve learned that agents are people too. Some are much more fun than others. While I may not sign with either, I have conquered the fear of talking about my work. I learned a new tradition to bring home to my grandkids, and I made myself and lots of other kids in the Jardin happy. These are good accomplishments for any new writer. Be true to yourself, and you’ll always have at least have one friend.  

Day 68: Market Meal

I love San Miguel’s artist and farmers’ market. If you want to get close to your food, this is the place to do it. Today’s pickings were handmade gorditas filled with black beans, fresh sheep’s cheese from the woman that actually owns the sheep, an avocado and a bunch of cilantro, cactus flower buds, and homemade chili sauce. I brought my gatherings back to the casa to construct a terrific lunch.
The cactus buds are new to me and grown totally wild. They taste a little like unripe kiwi fruit or a strawberry eaten way too soon, tart along the edges, but sweeter toward the pink center. In the summer the buds turn red and are sweet all the way through.
The trick to eating fresh produce from the market and not getting Montezuma’s revenge or a host of other gastro-nasty ailments is to wash all fruits and veggies in Microdyn. Microdyn comes in a 15m dropper bottle and is an antimicrobial disinfecting wash. The magic potion can be purchased at any pharmacy  or at a stand in the market. Just 8 drops in a gallon of water and a fifteen minute soak kills the things that can kill you.
So, how can organically-grown fruits and veggies be dangerous? Organic fertilizers are often poop-based. The poop can come from any living being, even untreated people poop. It’s not uncommon for treated human wastes to be pumped on fields in the US, but we are not talking about treated poop here. We are talking poop-in-the-raw, Poop Fresca.
As a chicken hobbiest, using poop on my garden beds is a no-brainer. I mean, why would I waste such a nitrogen-rich source? But I can’t imagine using people product or even dog doo. I just can’t. I’m not that thrifty. But it begs the question, why not? Poop is poop, and all poop carries potentially infectious and deadly bacteria.  Poop snobs must consider the sources of mad-cow and salmonella.
Okay, well I suppose that is enough about poop. Time to clear the mind and enjoy my market creation, Gordita a la Christina. Yum.

Day 67: Eggs & Dairy, Stepping Down from the Soapbox

My Spanish is poor, so I blame myself. I communicated with Elvia’s kitchen staff that I would not be eating meat, eggs, or dairy products during my stay. Breakfast is included in my room, but my food-issues are making me a huge pain-in-the-ass. These ladies work long hours to make La Casa de Elvia a comfortable place. I don’t want to be the bitchy gringa that makes their lives more difficult.
Yesterday I was served scrambled eggs with bits of cactus, and topped with cheese. When I attempted to explain the food issues again, my cook patted my shoulder and reassured, “no carne, no carne.” And when I didn’t eat the delicious looking plate of eggs, she looked distressed, insulted even. She went back into the kitchen and made me a large parfait of fruit and yogurt topped with granola. I felt like an ass, so I ate it.
Today I stayed in my room, ate a vegan energy bar, and sulked as I listened to other patrons dining on the terrace outside my window. When it was almost too much to bear, there was a knock on my patio door, and a lovely girl presented a breakfast tray complete with coffee, juice, toritllas, beans, and eggs in ranchero sauce.

I had planned to avoid eggs and dairy, but I’m finding it impossible. Impossible is probably not the right word. Everything is possible, but the restrictions are huge. I cannot even eat a cookie or a slice of cake without one or the other. Mexicans love eggs. Did you know that Mexico is the largest consumer of eggs per capita? Eggs are a big damn deal. One egg per person is eaten every day in Mexico. Now I’m sure some folks eat two while others eat none, but Mexican eggs are an inexpensive source of protein.
My decision to eat eggs and dairy is not totally altruistic. I do care about making my hostesses lives easier, and I don’t want to be rude, but I also really love what folks do with eggs around here. Eggs are never just eggs. No. Eggs are sauced in red and green, sweetened and baked into flan, rolled up into tortillas, combined with cactus or potatoes or peppers, sprinkled with cheese, dolloped with crème, and used to encase my favorite Poblano or Ancho chilies bulging with cheese.
Giving up dairy and eggs was wishful thinking. I’ll straighten my act up when I get back home. But for now, in the case of these items, I’m stepping down from the soapbox.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Day 66: Back in Love with San Miguel

Visting the Market on Valentine's Day:
It is easy to eat vegetarian in San Miguel de Allende, but it would be easier to be a carnivore. Meat is everywhere. Slabs of fried pork skins the size of preschoolers stacked on countertops. Taco stands adorn cobblestone street corners, and everywhere you look, a man sells meat on a stick or wrapped in tortillas.
 Cow feet, pig feet, and yellow chicken feet stand in formation in a deli case, and hogshead with a rose in its mouth stares back at me through the glass. What kills me is the mixture of beef, pork, and chicken parts stored in the same case, stacked so that the juice of one can run into the juice of another. Perhaps it is not the water that needs avoiding.

Curtains of sausage hang on a bar in the open air. Flys swarm. A woman with a cleaver hacks up chickens to order.
Meat is even in the Jardin, heavenly burgers right in front of the San Miguel Archangel church. A hamburger patty, a thin sheet of ham, a few strips of bacon, a fried egg, a slice of cheese, and hot pepper rings stack on a bun fried in bacon grease. I know it sounds gross, but trust me; the burger is a religious experience.
The boys and I ate a few on our last trip. We sat quietly under a tree in the Jardin. It was a bonding moment the three of us will never forget. I won’t be eating a heavenly burger over the course of my visit, but maybe that will keep me off the antibiotics this time around.

Day 65: Valentine's Eve in San Miguel

Rafael, my driver, dropped me off at La Casa de Elvia tonight after 7pm. A transformer blew, leaving the entire block in the dark. I dropped my bags in the room and made my way to the Jardin, a garden and pink church landmark in the center of town.
Streets glittered with bouquets of heart-shaped Mylar balloons carried by vendors. Young men weaved in and out of shops searching for that last-minute gift for a sweetheart or a mother. Romance infused this eve of Saint Valentine. I don’t think there is a Spanish translation for the word, “corny,” and I’m glad for that.
 I stopped by El Pegaso for supper and to see Cesar, Refugio, and Hugo. These men have fed since my first trip in 2009. I always wonder if they’ll recognize me, and they always do.
Cesar threw his arms open. “Ah, Christina. You came home.” There was an exhibition of hugging and kissing, as I passed from one amorous waiter to the next. I’ve got to say, I didn’t hate it. The affection was refreshing and welcome. We don’t kiss enough in the United States. These guys kiss a lot, and right on the lips.

Cesar and I caught up on the latest familial news, while I drank Negro Modella and ate scallop ceviche and Aztec soup. I scanned the menu before I left, fumbling through the Spanish words, and wishing I’d taken my Rosetta Stone software a little more seriously. Shark tacos, octopus cocktail, and at least fifteen vegetarian or wild seafood entrees caught my attention. I had just eaten, but reading the menu made me hungry again. I stumbled over cobblestone streets on my way back to la casa. I dreamed of food and planned a Valentine’s dinner with my waiters of El Pegaso.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Day 64: Saying Goodbye to My Girls


I topped off my bulk chicken feeder and refreshed the 7-gallon watering tank for my girls. The boys do a pretty decent job taking care of my hens when I’m away, but not without prompting. I worry that while I’m in Mexico, the girls will be forgotten. But I also know that an empty egg carton at breakfast time will remind my sons to collect eggs and care for the chickens. In the meantime, I want to ensure they have enough food and water to make it through potential neglect.
A turtle pond in the greenhouse serves as a secondary water source. Bugs, worms, and grubs are an excellent secondary food source. The girls won’t starve.
I’ll miss my fresh eggs, and I’ll miss the hens. They are curious and almost social. I enjoy my visits with these comical ladies.

In my post yesterday, I mentioned battery cages used in US and Mexico’s egg production. It dawned on me that some folks may not know what battery cages look like, and how such accommodations affect the well-being of egg layers. I’ve attached a clip produced by the Humane Society. Check it out and compare the hens in the video with the pictures of my hens in this and previous posts. The quality of life is dramatically different. Ask yourself which birds produce the healthier product.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Day 63: Killer Abroad


I’ve been remiss on my killing spree this past week. I’m leaving for San Miguel de Allende, Mexico on Monday to attend a writers’ conference and work on my craft. Getting the house in order, kids in line, schedules communicated, hens cared for, beer bottled, seedlings watered, and clothes laundered has eaten up my killing time. Fortunately, I have some wild freezer fare from beach combing, fishing, and clam digging. Trust me, I’m not starving.
A big consideration while travelling abroad is what to eat. It’s my Omnivore’s Dilemma International. Fortunately, Mexican staples of beans and rice and tortillas are not only wonderful, but vegan. I’ll do most of my eating out with writer friends. San Miguel is a gourmand’s paradise. I’m sure the traditional foods of Mexico combined with the local catering to ex-patriots will offer many options. Again, trust me, I won’t starve.
San Miguel has a beautiful Mercardo full of farmers’ market quality fruits, veggies, and animal proteins. I’m thrilled about the produce, especially the fresh avacados and mangos, but I don’t know these farmers, and I don’t know these animals. Small scale farming and slaughter practices are customarily more humane than the industrial animal protein market. Of course this isn’t always the case.
Industry relies on efficiency. Efficiency, or the quick and cheap manufacture of product, often leads to animal abuse. Reduced to a product, the animal loses rank as a living being. Small farms rely on the symbiotic relationship between farmer and animal, not farmer and product. A well-cared for animal lives longer, needs less health-care interventions like antibiotics, and produces better quality proteins.
I won’t be eating domestic animal proteins while abroad. I will eat wild caught fish and shellfish. I was on the fence about eggs, until I learned that Mexico is the world’s second largest producer of eggs. United States is the first. Mexico adapted the battery-cage system used by the US, and to me that means industrial efficiency trumps the well-being of the laying hens. Like the stateside hens in commercial egg production, Mexican hens are a product and not a living being.
While researching Mexican eggs and dairy practices, I learned that Mexico has almost no animal cruelty laws. I found this concerning, but just because we have laws in the U.S., doesn’t mean that abuse doesn’t run rampant. And what constitutes abuse? If you dare, check out this video captured by hidden camera at one of our nations dairies subsidized by your tax dollars. WARNING: Before you click the link, you need to ask yourself, “Do I really want to know?”

Day 60 2-Month Check Up

Wow, sixty days of eating wild. It’s been easier than imagined, maybe because I keep a moving target of what success looks like. I’m not trying to starve with this project or create undue hardship. I want tighter control and awareness of what’s going into my body, and that goal is a work in progress. It’s taken me a while to hone in on what I want to change, and what I can do about it.
Originally, I thought about eating only wild or homegrown food, but that idea didn’t mesh with travel schedules, family needs, social pressures, alternate food availability, and finances. These factors make boycotting the grocery store difficult, but I do enjoy pushing my cart right on by the meat, deli, and dairy sections. By avoiding industrial animal proteins, there is flex in the food budget for organic produce. I imagine that avoiding other grocery store isles will get easier as the seasons change and I’m able to grow and gather much more of my food.
So far, my non-plant proteins consist only of eggs, shellfish, fish, charity venison and squid. My hens provide some of my protein, as does the sea, but the bulk of my intake is plant-based in the form of legumes, nuts, and tofu. I’m enjoying my industrial meat boycott, and at the risk of sounding cliché, I feel cleaner. I’m not exactly sure what part of me is cleaner. It may be literal, like a cleaner running machine. Or maybe I mean mentally or spiritually, like my conscious or karma. Whatever it is, I feel a sense of lightness that has nothing to do with the higher than healthy number on the bathroom scale.

Day 59: Bottling Beer

My first batch of Irish Stout is now two weeks old. Today was bottling day. I siphoned off a pint to test while completing the bottling preparations. I know it is way too early, but the sample tasted good, hefty and bittersweet, like dark caramel. I’m looking forward to the finished product.
I think the most difficult thing about the beer making process has been the bottling. I needed an extra couple of hands to help get the beer in the bottle. I recruited Garret. I suppose recruiting my kid to make my beer eliminates me from the Mother-of-the-Year race, but I probably wasn’t a contender anyway.
The next step is to hurry up and wait. The bottled beer needs to rest in my coat closet for another two weeks. Fortunately, I’ll be out of country during this time, so that will keep me from prematurely popping a top. It’s a solid plan just as long as Garret doesn’t raid my stash.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Day 56: Super Bowl Substitutions

For the most part, I have not missed industrial meats, not even bacon or that amazing Columbia salami we buy in bulk at Costco. I owe my success largely to the abundance of Hood Canal beaches. It’s hard to feel deprived while enjoying some of the world’s finest oysters and clams, not to mention the killer steelhead from the Kalama. I mean, I’m not starving, or eating road kill, or trapping squirrels. Although, I’ve thought about the squirrel as stew after reading an article recommended by writer friend, Kathleen Alcala.
 The truth is, I don’t need the squirrel or the road kills because the shoreline provides my very favorite proteins. But I will admit, I’m getting a little too comfortable with all the digging and harvesting.  It sounds horrible, but I'm looking forward to upping the tension of the kiling spree.
Food events, like the Super Bowl, do pose some problems. Our community football feasts have always been meat heavy, and this year was no exception. Chicken wings, sausages, little smokies, burgers, and pork ribs are mainstays. Chips, guacamole and salsa are welcome, but no one brings the veggie tray.
The good news is that there are so many vegetarian options to take the place of traditional meat fare. Veggie burgers, tofu dogs, veggie corn dogs, faux chicki-nuggets, and even texturized-vegetable protein hot wings may be found in the frozen food section and sometimes the produce isle. The bad news is that these substitutions taste nothing like the meat item they are supposed to replace. The secret to enjoying these replacements is to NOT think of them as a replacement. Do not think of a hamburger while eating a veggie burger. Do not envision a bratwurst while chomping into a spongy tofu dog. You’ll be deeply disappointed.

As kind of a joke, my husband picked me up a package of pretend hot wings. I’ll admit to being a skeptic. Soy protein shaped into flat drumsticks soaked in hot sauce barely resembled true hot wings. The color was right, as was the smell, but the shape was silly. Not wanting to be the laughing stock of the party, I left my wings at home for a little post-game celebration.
After the game, I fried the drummettes in a pan as directed, cracked a beer, and enjoyed. They tasted nothing like chicken wings, and nothing like chicken nuggets. In fact, there is nothing chickeny about texturized-vegetable protein. It tastes like soy, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Soy protein, buffalo sauce, and beer tasted pretty damn good together. I'll eat them again, but what I really need to do is hunt small game. I wonder what buffalo squirrel tastes like...

Day 55: Beer Check-up

It’s been a full week since I started my batch of beer. Today was clean carboy day. It’s good to finally have a use for the 6-gallon glass carboys I purchased at a hometown church rummage sale. I picked them up in 2005, after buying a house with 2 beautiful apple trees. The plan was hard apple cider. But like most plans of my past, the military got in the way. I relocated and sold the house before the first apple fall. But I held on the jugs, knowing one day I’d fill them.
I planted 15 fruit trees after purchasing this property in 2008, but fruit trees are slow growing. The deer successfully wiped out a quarter of the orchard in the first year. I’ve picked a handful of cherries, a couple peaches, five lovely red pears, and about a dozen apples. My trees have a long way to go before I’m making cider or wine. In the meantime, I’ll make beer.
I transferred the fermenting beer from the original jug to a clean jug. The idea was to siphon off the beer from the sediment collecting on the bottom of the jug. This extra step is supposed to create a cleaner, smoother beer.
The amount of sludge left over after removing the clean beer surprised me. There was more than a quart. I siphoned a little clean beer into a glass just to check the progress. It’s too early to tell, but so far so good. I can tell you one thing for sure; my hens really enjoyed the gift of scratch corn soaked in beer sediment. Happy, happy birds.

Day 54: Smoking Steelhead Supper

Several years ago, I bought a Traeger. I don’t know if the Traeger is more of a bar-b-q that doubles as a smoker or a smoker that doubles as a bar-b-q. My parents have owned a couple of these hybrids over the past decade. Upon their recommendation, I bought one. At the time of purchase, the $600 price tag seemed justifiable. I planned to grill all our dinners on the thing. Well, you know that didn’t happen.

I’ve used it off and on in binges, but by no means has the thing been worth the cash. Not only does the Traeger require electricity, but also special wood pellets that are not the easiest to find. I live remote, in an area where power-outages are common. So, of course, I keep a gas grill too. My small deck looks ridiculous with two, rarely used, appliances rusting away in the corner.
I pulled off the Traeger cover, used a wire brush to remove rust from the grill, loaded the hopper with hickory pellets, and fired the thing up. I will say, just the smell of the thing burning hickory pellets made me hungry for summer. Once the grill was hot and smoky, I plopped on a steelhead and shut the lid. In 20-minutes, without turning, I pulled the fish.
The boys and I picked the fish off the bone without the formality of plating or dinnerware. We literally ate off the foil-lined countertop with our fingers. Sounds horribly unsophisticated, but it was one of the best meals I’ve enjoyed since starting the killing spree.
I need to become better friends with the Traeger. Was it a waste of cash? Maybe. But I haven’t given the thing enough time. I’m looking forward to spring salmon season and smoking long planks of fish. Grilling brings the boys down from their rooms. I’m counting on more family meals huddled around a countertop.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Day 53: The Clamburger

When I got home from my fishing trip, I still had 7lbs of butter clams to deal with from Monday night’s dig. The clams were still alive, shooting streams of salt water all over the garage. Jim was less than impressed.
I figured the boys would eat the clams while I was away, but I figured wrong. I should have known better. When I’m gone, Jim and the boys live on Johnsonville brats. I guess it’s better than hotdogs, but only by a slim margin.
Jaden is sick of eating soup, so making chowder wasn’t a great option. I thought about clam cakes, a creative version of crab cakes. But I’ve never been a huge fan of crab cakes. I find them kind of disappointing, tasting mostly the cake and only a hint of the crab. But I wanted to do something different with these clams and decided to create clamburgers.
The shelled clams produced 2lbs of meat. It was less than I imagined. I minced the clams, reserving the juice, and mashed them with cooked sweet potatoes, a bunch of chopped green onions, organic eggs, steel cut oats, cornmeal, and a few good shakes of Old Bay Seasoning. I formed large patties and pan-fried. I cooked Jim up a package of pre-pressed burgers bought a long time ago at Costco. He argued with me, swearing I was feeding him turkey burgers. I promised they were beef, and then went on a dissertation about downed dairy cow, and the poor quality of industrial meat. He seemed to digest without trouble.
Meanwhile, the kids dug into the clamburgers. And can I just say that my creation was fantastic. The sweet potatoes were perfect binder and complimented the slightly nutty clam meat. The oats and cornmeal added depth and crispiness, and the old bay and green onion proved flavorful. But best of all, the clamminess really came through. I made 12 burgers and tucked half in the freezer for a future meal. The meal experiment has me thinking about the versatility of clams as a ground meat. You know, instead of ground beef. I’m thinking lasagna, spaghetti, and enchiladas. I’ll be hitting the beach for more clams soon. I can’t wait to try out this sustainable and healthy protein source in new ways.

Day 52: A Measure of Success

After fishing with Mark near Longview, Washington, I debated driving 3 hours north toward home or 1 hour south to visit my folks. I wanted to get home, wanted to show my boys these fabulous fish, but I’m also a Mama’s girl. I knew Mom and Dad would be darned impressed with my catch. I also knew I’d be lucky to get a grunt of appreciation out of either boy. It’s a roll of the dice with teenage boys. Sometimes we connect and other times they could care less. I try not to take it personally, because it’s not personal. It’s all about them. I was like that then to my folks, and sometimes I still am.
I called Mom after loading up in the truck. I was excited to tell her about the gift certificate I purchased for her and dad to float the Kalama with Mark Ervig during the spring salmon season. My mom loves to fish, but I know it’s been a few years since she’s been on the water. My parents will celebrate their 51st anniversary this spring, and I thought the fishing trip would be a great way to honor such accomplishment.
 There was something not quite right in her voice. Sadness stifled her usual enthusiasm. My plans were made clear, and I headed south. Whatever was dragging her down; I figured a nice supper, a fish tale, and a shared bottle of wine ought to do the trick, or at least provide pleasant distraction.
I stopped by the grocery store to pick up a few ingredients like sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, sesame seed, sushi rice, wasabi, and Nappa cabbage. My cooking style is different from Mom’s, so I knew she would not have these things in her pantry. On the way to the checkout, I snagged a bouquet of red and yellow variegated tulips. Nothing promises spring like early tulips.
Over a dinner of seared, sesame encrusted steelhead served on a bed of crisp, shredded cabbage, and accompanied by a nice scoop of firm rice, I learned that Red, their cattle dog, was in the animal hospital. The prognosis was poor. My parents love that crazy dog, even though he bites through tires and sometimes poops in the house as acts of revenge. He gets angry when Mom goes to town and doesn’t let him ride along. Vengeful pooping is bad enough, but ripping into truck, tractor, and car tires is expensive. He’s ruined several sets. Red’s mystery illness took them all by surprise, and he wasn’t expected to live through the night.
I slept in Papa’s big chair that night and woke in the morning to hear a one-side telephone conversation with the vet. Red had made it through the night and was doing a little better. The illness was still a mystery, and the prognosis was still poor. But Red is a heeler, and heelers are tough little dogs.
My parents appreciated my fish and the meal that half of one fish produced. I froze the remaining fish overnight before loading up the cooler for my trek north. Mom slipped in a few packages of deer steak for my non-fish-eating spouse. She spoils him something fierce.
As I drove north, past the first Longview exit, the unexpected sunshine lured me back to the river. I almost didn’t want to go. I left the river yesterday feeling successful, but I wanted to try bank fishing on my own. I took the pressure off by deciding that this was only an experiment, practice. Could I find the secret spot along the river’s route hosting a deep pool of calm water and tree-free beach? And If I found the spot, would I remember how to set up my line? Could I cast without Mark’s coaching?
I wondered if I had learned enough to go it alone. Turns out, I had. I parked up from the river and meandered through a cow pasture and then through a thicket of brush to find the beach described as a steelhead honey-hole. I set up a bob and jig, and sent out the first cast. Not too shabby. Mark would say, “You’re doing great, Christine. You’re doing just great.” But he would say that even if I wasn’t doing all that great. He’s very supportive.
The sun lit up the river and warmed the beach. I practiced for about an hour. It was good practice, but it was only practice. I caught nothing, and that was all right. I found the secret spot, rigged my pole, and casted for over an hour without snagging a tree.
I picked my way up through the brush and back to the cow pasture. I walked to the truck enjoying the sunshine and open field. I realized on this first day of February, I was doing exactly what I wanted to do. I had provided a good meal and comfort to my folks, and I was headed home with enough food to feed my family a few meals. I'm a good daughter and a good mom. If that is not success, than I don't know what is.

Day 51: Steelhead Fishing Take II (Sans Bananas)


I haven’t eaten a banana since the rookie mistake of packing two in my lunchbox on a guided steelhead fishing trip down the Kalama. Evidently, it’s common knowledge amongst fishermen that bananas equal disaster. My guide, Mark Ervig, assured me that it didn’t really matter. He believed his skills and the river’s fruitfulness would outweigh my flirt with lady luck. He was wrong. I left the river empty handed, but I promised to return the next time Mark had an available seat on his boat.
Mark’s calendar is packed as hatchery­-bred and native steelhead return from the sea to spawn. I’d been on standby, waiting for a cancellation when he sent me an email Monday evening. I jumped at the chance, packed a bag, loaded the truck, and hit the road way too early on Tuesday morning. My plan was to fish all day with Mark, and then drop south into Oregon to visit the folks, and hopefully feed them a steelhead supper
The usual January drizzle subsided, and a shy sun peeked from a blanket of pouting overcast. I unzipped my woodland camouflage, leaned over a bright spot on the water, closed my eyes, and welcomed the sun’s reflection to warm my face and exposed neck. A waterfall cascaded down layers of sedimentary rock and dripped on carpets of wooly moss. Oars cut softly through the river. Morning birds rustled leaves and conversed in muted chirps.

I had slipped free from the hustle of freeway traffic and tucked deep into the tranquility of the river. The moment was spa-like. Caught up in the vibrations of nature, I forgot about fishing.
“Christine! Right pole! Right Pole!”
I opened my eyes to see the right pole dipping in sharp juts. I scrambled to my feet, grabbed the corked handle, and started to reel.
“Tip up, tip up. Keep it steady, Christine. You’re doing great, just great.”
The boat quaked under our movement but remained a stable platform. My mind raced to the Sportsman show and the little, blue drift boat I had admired. Yes, that drift boat would be perfect for me. I scolded myself to stay on task and focus on Mark’s words. Excitement blurred. The tranquil spa vanished. Moss and water and silver fish swirled in a great jumble of adrenaline.
I heard Mark jumping up and down behind me. My mind swooshed out of bounds again. Could Mark really be as excited as I was? I mean, the guy catches fish every day. Fishing is his job. How cool is that, fishing as a job?  He teaches crazy women like me to fish and spends his days swapping fish tales and life stories. My little fish-fight should be boring him to tears. But it wasn’t. Mark was all in.
“Tip up, tip up. You’re doing great.” Mark’s words brought me back to the moment again. Which is so weird, you wouldn’t imagine that I’d be anywhere else, but I was. I flitted in and out of my fish fight like a butterfly on the breeze.
 An iridescent flash broke the water, twisted in air, and slammed back under the surface. I marveled at streaks of pink, silver, white, and mottled olive green. My fish was striking and powerful. The fight surprised me. Mark continued to shell out advice and encouragement, but as the fish neared the boat, my attention tunneled. I can’t recall most of what he said. But I did hear him say, “Native.”
Mark had spotted the adipose fin of a native steelhead. Mine was not a hatchery fish. Mine was truly wild. This would not be dinner. I relaxed for a moment, and just like that, the little native popped free from my hook. I had failed to set the hook properly, and was glad. I felt a sense of relief as the silvery streak swam away. The fight had been exciting, and my fish survived unharmed, or at least not seriously harmed.
Two weeks ago, on my original trip with Mark, I toyed with the idea of releasing my first fish as a gift of gratitude to the river goddess. But since I caught nothing, there was nothing to give. It’s custom amongst some indigenous cultures to return the first prize to the sea as offering. I wasn’t sure I’d be strong enough to do that this time. I really wanted to catch a fish and overturn my banana luck. But my little fish, by the very nature of his upbringing, demanded sacrifice. I obliged with bliss.
We had only been floating for about 10 minutes when the native fish hit the line, so I knew we were in for a great day. A mob of Canadian geese sounded a honking alarm and lifted like a quarry of steely boulders from a nearby cow pasture. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a larger formation. I watched the geese near the river’s edge. I pulled on my hood to prevent wearing any fallout from the flock.
The geese moved into position. The next thing I’m going to tell you may sound crazy, but the birds flew in the formation of a giant fish, a steelhead even. Ridiculous, I know, but I swear it’s the truth. I pointed the fish out to Mark and he caught the tail just as it slipped behind a berm of trees.
“Ha, you see that, Mark? Now that’s a sign. The River Goddess is pleased.”
The right pole twitched slightly. I reached to grab it.
“Wait,” said Mark. “Give it a minute.” The pole dipped. “Okay, Christine. It’s on!”
I grabbed the pole, jerked hard to set the hook, and reeled. The fight was gentle, lumbering. A chubby burst of white hit the surface. “Oh my God, I caught a whale.” The thing was huge, or at least it seemed huge. I lugged it closer to the boat one rotation of the reel at a time. Mark cheered me on. I felt much calmer than the first round. The fish almost came freely. I say almost because when it neared the boat, and Mark readied the net, all hell broke loose. It’s like my fish flashed on the realization that he would soon be somebody’s dinner.
There are a couple of ways to kill a steelhead. Neither is very nice. Common practice is to issue a good bonk on the head with a bat. The bonking may stun the fish or knock it out for a while. Bonking doesn’t always kill. The goal was a quick kill, so I opted for Mark’s method. He showed me where to slip my finger beneath a silvered flap just behind the eyes. I threaded my index finger through the loops of fleshy gills, gritted my teeth, and tugged. The loops broke free and blood gushed in my palm. I stifled a scream, allowing it to leak out as an almost inaudible gasp, and then swallowed the lump growing in my throat. I had killed a lovely fish with my bare hands. The lump swelled again, but I fought back. I high-fived Mark with a bloody hand, and we celebrated for a moment before moving on to the next spot.
"See, the geese knew. They gave me the sign. I still can't believe they flew in fish formation."
Mark examined large green splats on the once pristine interior of his boat. "I can't believe they shit all over my boat."

I caught one more steelhead before the day was done, and liberated a large, white cooler from a tangle of hazel brush growing along the shore. With cooler salvaged, my fish would make the trip to my folks free of trash bag, and riding first class.

Mark offered to clean and filet my catch. I guess it’s a customary service, but I passed. Instead, I asked him to watch over my shoulder and coach me. It wasn’t as gross as I suspected, but there were a lot of guts. My largest fish was over two-feet long and really fat. I’m guessing he weighed at least 10lbs alive. The second fish was almost the same length, but not as well-fed.

I stumbled through the first fish, but felt confident as I slit the belly of the second. I ran a cupped hand up through the cavity and tore out a line of viscera. Mark gasped.

“What? Did I do something wrong?”

“No, Christine. You’re doing great.”

“Then what was all that about?” I peered up at him through blood-speckled glasses.

“I’ve just never seen anything like this. That’s all.”

I took his gasp as a complement. Through Mark’s coaching, I caught, killed, and gutted my limit of steelhead. I washed the gunk from my hands, tossed my fish in the salvaged cooler, stripped off layers down to yoga pants and tee-shirt, loaded the truck, and headed to Oregon feeling much wilder than yesterday.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Day 50: Clams, Parenting, & Multitasking

Foraging does not equal free food. I mean it sounds like it would, right? You go out to the woods or beach to pick, dig, and scrounge for food. As idyllic as foraging sounds, it’s not free. It’s not even cheap. Not at all. Okay, it seems free if you own property, and I do, but the only things forgeable right now are dandelion greens. There are probably other things too, but I don’t know about them yet. But even on my own land, the dandelion greens are not free. After all, I have a mortgage and property taxes to pay. Add it up over a year, and that’s some damn expensive salad and tea.
Apart from gear and proper licensure, foraging elsewhere almost always creates a carbon footprint. How are you going to get to the forage site and home again with your haul? My big expense is transportation costs. Fuel is around $3.50 a gallon in Washington and my truck gets down the road about 15 miles before that $3.50 is vaporized. Yes, the answer seems to be a more fuel efficient vehicle, but replacing a perfectly useable Ford 150 seems wasteful and costs money too.
On the surface, and with my rose-colored glasses on, wild eating seems to be an ecologically responsible decision. I’m having my doubts right now, and I hate that. I’m less than two months into the project, and I’m questioning the sustainability of such a venture. I mean, I know it is not an answer for most of America. For one, wild eating takes an amazing amount of time. Early retirement affords me the luxury of time, a precious commodity most folks hold in short supply. I thank the military and my resolve to stick it out when I spend the day in nature while others are stuck in the office. I do not take for granted how fortunate I am.
Another realization, and kind of a no-brainer, is that there is not enough wild food left on our planet to feed everyone. But for me, at least for this year, going wild is a process I plan to see through.
So, how do I justify fuel spent chasing fish, squid, oysters, and clams up and down Puget Sound and beyond? I multitask, or at least I try to. I align my life with the tides. The alarm clock no longer rules my day. I’m moved by the gravitational pull of the moon. It’s really quite efficient. Take Monday for instance. Jaden was coming home on the Kingston Ferry after a 3-day weekend with his dad. Kingston is a good distance from my house, about 30 miles one way or $14 in fuel. I scheduled his return just after low tide and hit a beach park for clams along the way. I dug 7lbs of butter clams valued at about $4 per pound in the grocery store. My beach success offset the trip cost, a trip I had to take anyway. I saved money. But this doesn’t always happen.
Another cost to ponder is the systemic effects my eating has on the actual creatures and plants consumed. I carefully pluck seaweed frons, so not to destroy the giving plant. I’m mindful of my feet on the beach and the beings I may tread on. But for the clam, the cost is huge, irreversible. How do I measure the life loss of a lowly bi-valve versus a graceful deer versus a tidy package of hamburger? I can’t. The math is too difficult for this omnivore’s contemplation.
And how do I adjust the costs with assumed and tangible benefits? I’m not sure, at least not yet. The benefits of going wild are multi-faceted and realized on a daily basis. I gathered $28 of clams on Monday night. Easy. But I didn’t do it all alone. Garret, my son, drove me to the beach, helped refill my dig sites, and kept me company with his constant bitching and moaning about how cold and bored he felt. When we finally arrived in Kingston, Jade’s ferry was late. Garret and I sat in a pub. I drank Guinness. He drank root beer. I watched him scrap the last spoonful of clam chowder from his bowl and pop it into his mouth with true gratitude. He was warm, smiling, and conversational. This is rare form for a high school senior amidst finals, district swim qualifications, and the pressures and obstacles he endures while attempting to visualize life after graduation.
I’ll gladly pick up the bar tab, listen to belly-aching, and burn gas money for another chance to watch him polish off a bowl of chowder. A content teenager is a lovely sight to behold. And on a cold winter night in January, my beautiful son was happy. Priceless.

Day 48 & 49: The Washington Sportsman Show

1/28 & 1/29
Ever wonder what goes on at those hyped-up sportsman shows? I wondered too. I listened to promotions promising seminars, demonstrations, new products, and rock-bottom prices. I bought a two-day pass, packed a backpack with snacks, water bottles, camera, and pen and paper to take notes. I stuffed a handful of credit cards in my front pocket, loaded up the dog, and rented a hotel near the event to minimize driving time and maximize learning time. My expectations were a little high. I know this now.
I planned to buy a new pack for my dog, Jasper. I pictured a snappy red saddle bag with room for his water bottle, treats, and poop baggies. I planned to browse the camp cooking tent for innovative ideas for preparing clams and oysters. I’ve been eating a lot these lately and need a new twist. I knew I’d get caught up fingering lures, jigs, and bobbers, and knew I’d sit at the helm of boats I could not afford. I had no intention of purchasing a boat, but dreaming is free, or I should say that $18 buys a two-day dream pass.
I’ll get to the point. The Sportsman Show was a buzz kill and the hotel hot-tub was out of order. Talk about a disappointing weekend. I scoured three buildings at the Puyallup fairgrounds for something to buy, something to learn, something to entertain. I found nothing for Jasper and almost nothing for myself. The cook tent was uninspiring to say the least. Seminars were sales pitches, and not the learning opportunities imagined.
I did chat with interesting folks, mostly guides trying to entice hopeful clients with their One-Day Only Specials. There was nothing really all that special, rows and rows of guides offering the same thing. There were even several safari guides with worn-out, taxidermy lions, tigers, and other exotics.  
I like the idea of a guide, especially if the guide teaches and shows you were to hunt or fish. To me, that knowledge is worth paying for. But I have no space to contemplate a guided tour of an elk farm and killing a trophy while the trophy munches a flake of alfalfa. I won’t gun down a wild hog while it eats at feeder in the fenced perimeter of a California ranch. There were plenty of those operations promising the hunting opportunity of a lifetime with a guaranteed kill. I’ll pass. First of all, I don’t want to fork out 4k to shoot a tame Elk, or 2K to fire on a content, well-fed hog. To me, that’s not hunting. That’s butchering a captive animal, like slaughtering a farmer’s cow in a pasture.
Some things held my attention. The fishing gear was bright and alluring, and I climbed into several boats. I also met a sweet couple running Big Salmon Fishing Resort in Neah Bay, offering tours off the northernmost point of Washington. It’s a spring and summer sort of thing, and $200 bucks will get me on the water for a chance to stock the freezer with 12 ling cod and two salmon. The wife keeps a blog of fish tales. I promised to look her up, and you can too:
My big purchase was a new app for my iphone. Sportsman Big Game Reg is an app that puts yearly state hunting regulations and updates at your fingertips, provided you have cell signal. Through this app, a user may purchase a license, report a poaching crime, read up on rules and regulations, and research a hunting area. The creators have included several states besides Washington, and plan for expansion. It’s all pretty darned impressive. I picked up the app for the discounted price of 99 cents, and begged them to develop a fishing version.
Basically, the weekend was kind of a bust, much less infomative than I anticipated. But Jasper seemed to have a decent time. He received a wealth of attention, plenty of pats, and numerous scratches behind the ears. He remained immune to sales pitches and socialized with vendors like a rock star. There was also a flood of little kids for him to pet (lick), and Jasper adores his tiniest fans.