Big City, Little Homestead

Living rural in the city.

Month: January 2011

A quote from Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soulcraft”

“What follows is an attempt to map the overlapping territories intimated by the phrases ‘meaningful work’ and ‘self-reliance.’ Both ideals are tied to a struggle for individual agency, which I find to be at the very center of modern life When we view our lives through the lens of this struggle, it brings certain experiences into sharper focus. Both as workers and as consumers, we feel we move in channels that have been projected from afar by vast impersonal forces. We worry that we are becoming stupider, and begin to wonder if getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on getting a handle on it in some literal and active sense.

“Some people respond by learning to grow their own vegetables…raising chickens on the rooftops of apartment buildings in New York City. These agrarians say they get a deep satisfaction from recovering a more direct relationship to the food they eat. Others take up knitting, and find pride in wearing clothes they have made themselves. The home economics of our grandmothers is suddenly cutting-edge chic – why should this be?

“…the new interest in self-reliance seems to have arisen before the spectre  of hard times. Frugality may be only a thin economic rationalization for a movement that really answers to a deeper need: We want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it. This seems to require that the provenance of our things be brought closer to home. Many people are trying to recover a field of vision that is basically human in scale, and extricate themselves from dependence on the obscure forces of a global economy.”

cooking at the original homestead…

I am in Bradford, Ontario right now, visiting my parents for a few days. Tonight, we had some lovely Beretta Organic Farms’ tenderloin for dinner. Now, I’m almost entirely vegetarian, so I only had two bites – I don’t need meat, and less meat consumed stretches out the duration of meat portions for people who do eat meat, especially if they too cut down their portion sizes. But, my parents are lifelong omnivores, and meat, especially in ground and sausage form, is a convenience food for the masses and for the elderly. Their diet is significantly meat-based. Knowing this, what says “Happy Birthday!” to a meat-eater like sending them on a scavenger hunt to a shed on a farm to find a box of organically farmed, grass-fed beef? That’s what my Dad got for his birthday.

Here’s how I cooked it: I made a mix of black pepper, chili, paprika, salt, and brown sugar, and I coated the meat with it. Then I put it in an oiled cast iron skillet – the old fashioned kind your grandmother ought to have used – under the broiler in the oven until it was browned on one side, and turned it over for the other. Then I shut the oven off until the rest of the dinner was ready. I made a gravy out of oil, onions, and flour and water using the same cast iron skillet I broiled the meat in. How’d I get to be such a good cook? My (overly self-critical) mom, who had a secret interest in food, and who made sure our family had a sit-down three square meals a day, no matter how aggravating the arguments got.

Cast iron skillets, especially if it’s a set of three in small, medium, and large, are an essential tool in the arsenal of a vegetarian chef. This is the case for any chef, but particularly for vegetarians, as trace elements of iron make it into the food you are cooking, and iron is a mineral we need for hemoglobin, the protein in blood that carries oxygen and carbon dioxide back and forth from the lungs to our tissues.

You can use the large skillet as a dutch oven by inverting it over a hot burner and heating tortillas on the underside. In the oven, you can roast vegetables or even freezer Crispy Fries in them instead of ruining (eventually) a pizza or cookie sheet, and you can make delicious cake-like omelettes. Regular frying on the stove top is its expected utility, but making various sauces is a consistently successful endeavour, from vegetarian poutine sauce (miso, oil, flour, water, soya sauce, spice), to wine sauce (butter, shallots, wine, salt + pepper) to tomato sauces for pizza and pasta. And, you can take them camping.

In short, to cook a good meal, you don’t need a battery of cookware, you just need a big soup pot, a medium sauce pan, and a few of these skillets that can fit the pot and pan’s lids.

I received my set of skillets from a friend who couldn’t keep the food from sticking; it is because you first need to ‘season’ the skillets by keeping them oiled and keeping them hot – such as leaving them in the oven every time you use the oven, such as cleaning them quickly without letting them soak for long, and then drying them on the stove burner with a little oil added once the rinse water has evaporated. If your pans ever lose their seasoning by being burned on empty, left dirty, or left to rust, you simply repeat the cycle of cleaning them, oiling them, and heating them.

Meet my squirrel!

This little guy, or girl, comes by my backyard every day and raids my two bird feeders, once in a while in the company of another squirrel.

Because it has mange, I’ve been concerned about its winter survival. Mange is treatable with ivermectin, selamectin, or any of the class of avermectin insecticides that kill mites and other topical parasites that cause itching and fur loss and diminished immunity (not to mention opportunity cost for food gathering, and the added risk of transmission, which I certainly don’t want for the birds).

It may be illegal for me to have done this, but as my dog, Daisy, died this year and couldn’t take her HartGard pills with her on her journey, I shaved off a slice of one of the pills and wrapped it in frozen peanut butter. I put one out for the squirrel about a month ago, hoping it would take it, and started occasionally feeding it a tidbit or two. The mange cleared up, but in the past week, it has come back (probably the eggs in the nest have hatched and new juvenile and adult mites have latched on). So today, I followed up with a second treatment. This tidbit I was sure the squirrel would go for, as it has stopped running as far away as it could whenever I open the patio door – it knows something edible is going to come flying out and land somewhere in the garden. Sure enough, it made a beeline for it!

I had friends in the suburbs who used to feed a black squirrel. They named it Buddy. It would come right up to them. Then Buddy disappeared – for a little while. It turned out Buddy was a new mom, and she brought her babies around to visit. I wonder what I’m getting myself into?

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