Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Day 121: Defining Diet – The Not-So-Temporary Pescetarian

Wild! Steelhead Sashimi

When I explain my killing spree, most folks are intrigued, but some are grossed out. Almost everyone wants to know what I eat at home and how I dine out and keep up a busy travel schedule. Common questions range from: "Oh, My God, are you  like collecting roadkill?" to "Isn't it hard to get enough protien?" I don't eat roadkill, and it wouldn't be so hard to get my protien if I was a little better at what I do. But I'm improving. While there remains a significant lag in my killing skillsets, I eat plenty tofu, legumes, shellfish, and freshwater fish.

I am one-third of the way through my killing spree year, and I haven't killed a mammal yet. The more I contemplate eating animals (and er –killing and gutting), the more I like  plants, and the more I like the idea of sustaining on Hood Canal protein sources of clams, oysters, mussels, crab, squid, shrimp, and fish. Eventually I will shoot an animal to eat, but I’m not looking forward to it and am starting to question the necessity.

Sometimes people ask me if I am getting tired of eating seafood. And I’m not. The canal offers such versatility. It’s hard to get bored. It is true that eating steamed clams every night can get old, but it’s in the same way that choking down strips of smoky bacon gets old. It takes a lot of time to tire of bacon or shellfish, especially when infused with a little kitchen creativity.

Availability and timing of the tides are probably the biggest challenge to living a wild, pescetarian life. Pescetarianism is a term recently added to my limited vocabulary. The term is NOT included in the 2,662 pages of my unabridged copy of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, copyright 2002. And the word is not spell-checkable with my current software, but it is findable on Wikipedia.

The etymology and spelling of pesectarianism are debatable and inconsistent. The word is most likely a neologism formed from pesce, the Italian word for “fish,” and our English word for sustaining on a plant-based diet. I’m sure I heard the term a time or two before my killing spree, but never contemplated origin until I inadvertently became one.

I am temporarily living the pescetarian diet, mostly because I have failed to shoot anything fury to eat. So to me, pescetarian really means “lousy hunter.” Hmm. Even so, I’m enjoying this new lifestyle. If I do become adept at the arts of stalking, shooting, and butchering, I still plan to be more of an omnivore-piscivore, my own neologism for a plant and flesh diet relying more on fish than bird or mammals.

When I started this experimental spree back in December, I had no idea what I was getting into or what I would become. The goal was to get closer to my food chain. I’ve done that part well. I also imagined I would be hungry and subsequently grow skinny. But so far, that hasn’t happened. There is a lot to eat out there.

What I failed to imagine was the skill and knowledge repository required to become proficient at wild living. I’ve learned so much, and yet in the depth and breadth of killing, I know nothing. It’s a humbling challenge, one that is as academic as it is emotional and physical.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Days 119 & 120: Easter weekend and the Illusive Geoduck

Jaden & the horse clam
4/7 – 4/8

I’ve waited months for a daylight tide low enough to dig for the infamous Washington Geoduck or Panoepa Generosa. Geoduck, sometimes spelled gweduck, goeduck, or goiduck and prounouced, “gooey duck” is the poor transcription of g’wideq, the Nisqually word for “dig deep.” And by digging deep, the Nisqually tribe meant well over 4-feet down.

Geoduck is a clam, a really big clam. In fact, it’s the world’s largest burrowing clam averaging around 2.5 lbs but capable of growing to a record 8lbs. Contrary to Seattle folklore and tee-shirt characterizations, there is nothing duck-like or gooey about this clam.

The clam is native to Washington and British Columbia and was a staple to first peoples. The clam is not a popular “fresh catch” feature in local restaurants. This is mainly due to Asian export demands where the clam fetches over $150 per pound.

Overseas demands have led to unsustainable foraging, poaching, failure to follow Department of Health regulations in regards to consumer safety, and the depletion of natural shoreline through the practice of Geoduck aquaculture. Exporting contaminated clams to Japan, where the clam is served raw in sashimi-style, raises serious global health concerns. The Geoduck is as controversial as it is delicious.

Geoduck deliciousness remains only a rumor to me. I regularly eat the Geoduck’s stunt double, the Horse clam or Tresus Capax. The horse clam is great, but it’s not the trophy-hunt thrill I’m looking for when dreaming of Geoduck success. Many diggers confuse the two clams and leave the beach feeling successful with a catch of horse clams, not Geoducks. Ignorance is bliss. I too left the beach one winter’s night delighted with my Geoduck only to learn, after close examination, that my Geoduck was actually a horse clam. Horse clams, like Geoducks, are huge and cannot retract their siphones all the way into the shell. But horse clams, unlike Geoducks can retract their entire mantels, or behinds in the shell. The Geoduck is so huge that it hangs out on both ends. There is some slight differences in shell shape and striations, but the big difference is in the tucking or un-tucking of the behind.

So what’s the difference in taste and quality of the two clams? I have no idea, because I failed yet again to capture one on Easter’s low tide. But it’s not for a lack of real effort and grit.

Garret and I spotted the siphon protruding from a silver-dollar sized hole in the sand. We knew by the size of the hole and shape of the siphon that we were not dealing with a horse clam. This was truly a Washington State trophy.

We dug a child-sized swimming pool to retrieve the Geoduck. Noticing other diggers using big, bottomless metal garbage cans to keep the whole from collapsing, we realized a little too late how unprepared we were for the fight. But we fought anyway.

 My arms were buried well beyond the elbow. My face hovered dangerously near the muddy substrate, and my hands held fast to the behemoth neck of the dinosaur lurking below. The tide was coming in. I knew that calm was mine to lose.

Garret mucked buckets of mud sliding from the sides of our swimming pool. It was all he could do to keep up. I held on to the clam for dear life, trying to wriggle its football-sized shell free.

The excitement was too much for Jasper. Intent on helping out, he leapt into the hole to dig. But his 90lbs of romping black lab-ness caused a total cave in on all sides. I was buried up to the neck, my chin resting in the mud. It was me now, and not the Geoduck that needed unstuck before the tide washed in.

Garret knew that I was his to lose. Unsticking a mother buried in the sand is an interesting proposition. The thought of leaving me crossed his mind. We had argued and fought the entire dig, nothing serious, mostly me crabbing at his sloth-worthiness and lack of shovel finesse. I might have left me too, but he didn’t. I gave him one hand and he pulled. The other hand still held the neck of the clam below.

“Pull,” I yelled.

“Give me your other hand.”

“I can’t. We’ll lose him.”

“Give it up, Mom. You’re gonna drown.”

“I can’t.” My voice cracked.

“Oh my God, are you crying.”

“Just shut up and pull.”

Jasper licked my forehead. Garret reefed on my arm. I wiggled the clam a few more times before letting go. It took some doing, but Garret got me out of the hole. I sat on the surface, watching the tide gush into our swimming pool and wash over the legs of my hip waders. The clam was free, free to live out his life of at least 168 years, provided that some other crazed woman didn't get a hold of his neck.

“You’re a total dumbass, Mom.”

“No. You just give up too easy.”

“Really? I could have left your butt in the mud. You could have drowned. You take this whole shit way too serious.”

“Might be right, but don’t ever call me a dumbass again.”

“Sorry. You just frustrate the hell out of me.” He offered his hand, “Need help up?”

He pulled me to my feet with much less effort required to pull me from the hole. “You’ll get ‘em next time,” he said and patted my shoulder.

I sniffed, leaned into him, and wiped my nose and eyes on a dry patch of his sleeve. He gave me a playful shove. “You’re gross.”

“I know.” We walked toward the truck, both of us feeling a defeated. The day had not been a total loss. We had dug 40 butter clams and cockles, and we did have seven fine horse clams. But we fixated on the one that got away.

“Who needs a stupid Geoduck anyway?” I said, trying to sound convincing. But I knew who needed a stupid Geoduck. I did.   

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Day 113: R.I.P. David Bowie & the Girls


David Bowie at 1 week old

I’ve stayed away from the blog for about 10 days, trying to wrap my head around a recent tragedy and trying not to come off overly sentimental. But even after a separation, I’m still ridiculously emotional about the horrific bloodshed in my hen house.

I had been away from the hens for a couple of days, handling some business at my folks’ house in Oregon. When I got home on Sunday, I walked the wooded path to my coop to check on the girls and collect eggs. David Bowie and two salt and pepper speckled hens were MIA. Another two black and tan Laced-Wyondotes were dead next to the feeder with their throats ripped out. This was no April Fools.

Poor Henny, an old bantam far too old to lay eggs, and Lucy, a black Astrolope I’ve never really liked, stood stunned as statues in the middle of the fenced in run. Garret hauled away the two black and tans and I searched the woods for David Bowie and the others. I found a hole dug underneath the run lined in blue-black feathers. I knew David was dead.

From what I could piece together, some small animal dug under the fenced yard, entered the coop through the chicken door, and killed 5 girls, dragging 3 of them away. I examined the hole littered with feathers. The hole was too small for a coyote. I thought about fox, raccoon, opossum, and skunk. There are so many coop predators.

Opossum and skunk usually eat eggs first. A large hen is a bit too much of a challenge, but it is possible. A dozen tasty eggs filled two nest boxes, making me think it couldn’t have been the skunk or opossum.

My most common chicken enemy is the coyote. But in my experience, coyotes run in, grab a hen, and run off, often completing the kill somewhere in the cover of the woods. It’s a rather bold predator that wipes out nearly the whole coop, killing for the sake of killing.

Fox are rare in these parts. I’ve seen a couple down by the waterfront in Seabeck, but never on my own property. The hole was about the right size for a fox, and I’ve read that fox will come in and kill everything in the coop, but drag away only what it can eat. With the exception of David Bowie, the birds weighed about 6lbs each. A 6lb bird is more than a meal for a fox. David Bowie, a Crested Polish so named for her white plume of feathers topping a jet black body was not as large, only about 3lbs. I can’t imagine a fox eating David and two big ladies.

Garret and I filled the hole with large rocks and reinforced the chicken wire. Raccoons can be tricky, or so I have heard. I researched raccoon attacks and read a few articles featured in Backyard Poultry. Raccoon seemed possible. They often work in tandem, so carting off more than one bird made sense. But I wasn’t sure.

I read how raccoons reach their hands through the smallest openings in the wire and pull a bird through. I didn’t worry about that in my coop. The coop is a fortress and the outdoor wire mesh run had been fortified. The only holes remaining were quarter-sized octagons constructing the weave of the wire. Surely a raccoon couldn’t snag one of my girls through a hole that small. Wrong…

In the morning, I walked down to check the remaining two girls only to find Henny’s headless body pulled partially through a quarter-sized octagon in the mesh. Some creature reached its hand through the wire and caught her off guard. The animal then gnawed off her head and neck, exposing her wishbone. Only Lucy remained. Lucy is the least-loved of the flock, but evidently she is also the fastest. I bawled. Lucy squawked.

After a raccoon has a successful night’s hunt, like in my chicken coop, it will return to the scene of the crime again and again until it’s wiped everything out. I didn’t love Lucy, but I wasn’t about to see her dissected through mesh fencing like Henny.

I grabbed the axe from the woodpile, deciding to eat Lucy before the coons got to her. I sat with her on a stump for a good while, trying to remember how I had once seen my mother kill chickens some 35 years ago. I googled: “how to kill a chicken,” on my iPhone. I even watched a little U-tube. Lucy cackled at my selection of short clips.

I remembered reading a quote once, something to the effect that you can kill a chicken and eat for one day, or you can let it live and eat for many. I decided that one fresh egg per day was better than none. Besides, I could not see myself swinging Lucy in large circles until she passed out, so I could then lop her head off. I put Lucy back in the coop, boarded off access to the outdoor run, and heaped a large ration of golden corn on top of her nest box.

Lucy lived through a couple days of terror, and then I almost killed her. Locked in the safety of her coop, the extra helpings of corn soothed her. By the third day, she dropped a reddish brown egg with a marigold yellow center. I poached it for breakfast alongside a razor clam. One egg a day is better than none and much better than one meal of stewed hen.

R.I.P. Henny. You were a sweet little bird

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Day 108: A Day of Fucus, Fondant, & Wedding Cake


Fucus is a genus of brown algae or flat leathery fronds found in intertidal zones of rocky seashores. Most of us know it as seaweed, and many of us have at least heard of the medicinal and nutritional properties of this abundantly natural super food.

Fondant, not to be confused with fondue, is that melting, white stuff found inside of a York peppermint patty, a mixture of powdered sugar, water, and sometimes gelatin, flavor extracts, and color. It’s the pink or orange tinted goo crawling from the cheap, half-eaten chocolates in the bottom of your heart-shaped Valentine candy box. You won’t throw it away, at least not for a month or so. You save it, just in case a chocolate craving leaves you desperate enough to eat the crap. I know all about this too well. Six weeks post-Valentine’s Day, four bitten and discarded fondant candies in a nest of waxy, brown wrappers rest patiently in my pantry for such dire moments.

I would venture to guess that most of us have eaten fondant more than a time or two, even if we didn’t know the name. I also assume that most have consumed some sort of seaweed, maybe in the form of sushi, or as carrageenan, a polysaccharide-rich food additive derived from red and purple seaweed and commonly used as thickener and emulsifying agents in ice cream and salad dressings.

Consumption of seaweed dates back to at least 5th century China. The medicinal use has only a slightly shorter history. Yet even after all these years, there is still much to learn of its wonders. In 2005, scientist discovered the bacteria hosted on fucus fronds had the capability to kill the MRSA superbug. Amazing. And one cannot walk into a decent supplement or health food store without seeing the latest capsulized kelp peddled to treat a myriad of ailments from diabetes, goiter, hypothyroidism, constipation, depression, and obesity.

Too much fondant may make you fat and elevate blood sugar, while fucus may make you thin and treat diabetes. I think it’s high time to combine the two – a seaweed Valentine confection. Yum. But that’s not really what I was working on today.

I was multi-tasking, and the kitchen was a wreck for it. Today found me elbow deep in a sink full of fucus fronds, while powdered sugar dusted my hair, eyelashes, and overalls. Both fucus and  fondant proved messy and ambitious undertakings, especially at the same time.

I gathered close to 10lbs of fucus during an early low-tide, then soaked, rinsed, and trimmed it before arranging on screened shelves to slide into my food dryer. I love dried seaweed as a snack food, especially the bladder wrack variety with its bunny-ear shaped puffs that pop on the tongue when dried.

I don’t love fondant. Apart from Valentine candy and the occasional peppermint patty, my experience with fondant has been purely commercial, that was until my siblings elected me to handle the anniversary cake for my parents’ 50+1 celebration.

My folks decided to wait an extra year before throwing down the golden gauntlet of marital bliss. Waiting the extra year pays tribute to a long-standing joke. It was my Grandma Crawford who first espoused that the marriage would only last one year. Each anniversary, my parents make a toast to just one more year. On April 21st, we will celebrate that first year plus an additional 50.

I have no idea how many people will attend the event. My parents are popular folk deeply entrenched in community. On the safe side, I want a cake that will feed at least 250. I checked bakery prices first and learned that wedding-type cakes run anywhere from $2 to $12 a slice. Even if I go cheap, which is not really like me, I’m still looking at $500 for a cake.

The can-do voice inside of me, that same voice that started this year-long killing spree said, “Make the damn thing yourself.” And of course I listened. Among the many things I’ve learned in this past 100 and some days is that I’m capable, capable of feeding myself, capable of foraging, capable of digging, cooking, cleaning, and killing wild food. I’m growing confident in my ability to self-sustain. I’m sure the hell not going to let cake kick my ass on the quest to master self-efficacy.

And yet there is one small problem. It’s the same problem I run into again and again on this adventure. It’s an issue of skill, or more appropriately, skill sets I lack. Oh, I’ve made dozens of birthday cakes, everything from a cinnamon Red-Hots spewing volcano to chocolate-mint ice cream cakes. But I’ve never piped frosting roses or pumped perfectly sculpted borders.  

I am a researcher, and that is where the process began. I examined hundreds of Google wedding cake images and watched UTube videos. I don’t know what people did before the Internet. Cakes I admired the most, the ones I found to be modern yet classic and esthetically pleasing, were finished with a thin layer of rolled fondant and embellished with fondant flourishes. As I watched the videos of professional bakers manipulating fondant into flowers, I thought of Play-Doh. In my 25 years of parenting, I’ve mastered the art of Play-Doh sculpture.  I knew I had found the answer to the sag in my decorating skills.

My main goal was to find a fondant recipe that actually tastes good. I need the consistency and workability of modeling clay, but I don’t want that sickening sweet gunk that makes me want to shave my teeth.

Marshmallows. When it comes to fondant, I’m a cheater, a bit of a short-cutter. Instead of boiling sugar to the softball stage and working in more sugar to reach desired consistency, I learned that a 16 ounce bag of melted mini-marshmallows, mixed with 2 tablespoons of vanilla extract, 2 tablespoons of water, and about 2lbs of powdered sugar makes a quick and pliable dough that tastes good enough to eat, almost like marshmallow peeps. I practiced by whipping out a few dozen realistic looking calla lilies and leaves. It was easy. My years of Play-Doh history are really paying off.

My fondant flowers tasted decent, considering my former despise for the foodstuff. But by the end of the day, the sugar overload did me in. I felt sticky, icky, hyped-up, and in desperate need of a toothbrush.

 A hot shower, Colgate, a pint of homebrew and a bowlful of dried seaweed revived the fragile homeostatic balance. My cake decorating confidence is still shaky. But I'm thinking that I might be able to pull off this latest sustainability stunt. It's risky, given the importance of the event. But even if I fail, my folks will appreciate the effort. They are Do-it-Yourself types and my role models for all things of love, marriage, and gutting a deer.