Monday, May 27, 2013

Farewell Jeannette

Today Several Gardens' Farm said goodbye to our oldest animal and dearest animal buddy, Jeannette.

Jeannette was our first goat. She came to us in 2002, a friendly six year old goat who kidded twins the following spring. She was a La Mancha, naturally without ears. I was forever being asked where her ears were, and got in the habit of explaining it before anyone asked.

Jeannette was a good mom, but typical of many goats, when her kids reached a certain age she seemed to stop identifying them as family and simply treated them as other goats. Oddly enough, it was Meggie, who was not her daughter, that she took to the most. Meggie's mom Gloria had a strong preference for her other kid, Streak. Gloria didn't encourage Meggie to nurse, and didn't help her much as she learned her way around.

It was always Jeannette who was out with Meggie, and to the last they were inseparable. I know Meggie will probably grieve too, in her way.

Jeannette had a thick, heavy coat that crows and robins liked to grab for their nests.

I often looked out to see a crow riding around on her back, pulling out great beakfuls of fur.

Far from minding this, Jeannette seemed to feel like it was attention and grooming for her - two things she loved.

She let chickens sit on her back too.

In general she was very tolerant of birds.

Jeannette preferred being brushed to anything.

She let anyone brush any part of her, even her beard, which must have pulled a little.

She just stood staring into the distance, lost in her own world.

When I got Jeanette, I decided to try something called "milking through". Normally people breed their goat every year. After having kids, the goat's milk is very abundant. Over the year, it plateaus, then drops in production, and eventually either the goat dries up on her own, or the owner dries up her milk supply so she can put her energy into having kids.

When milking through, you don't breed each year, instead milking continuously for two years between breeding. I didn't realize that two years is usually the longest time people do this. I just kept milking her. When Jeannette finally stopped giving milk, five and a half years later, she was twelve years old and getting arthritic. I didn't want to breed her at that age but I've always regretted not realizing how special it was that she made milk for so long. Ironically, the trait of making milk for years without having a baby meant the gene was less likely to be passed on.

I'm a natural pessimist. When her arthritis first made her reluctant to jump up on the milking stand, I began the process of grieving, but in fact she had many happy years after that, slowly losing ground but still enjoying life.

Every time I went into the barn and saw her sleeping, as she does in this picture - head floppy, body motionless - I felt a rush of panic that we'd lost her. I felt this off and on for years. Because goats are very deep sleepers, and they really look a lot the same as dead goats.

I experienced her loss like a long, grey Seattle rain. You don't know when it starts, and it just goes on and on, until you don't remember a time without it. And you don't notice when it slows, and stops - until suddenly you look and the sun is back.

David is the family optimist, who doesn't look for trouble ahead but handles it when it arrives. He was sad like the first spring rain in a dry place - a healing, fresh scented shower that leaves you feeling better when its' over.

Noah is sad like a flash flood. When he confronts one sad thing, it makes him remember everything he's ever been sad about in his life. He cried for his grandparents who barely got to know him before they passed - for my grandparents who doted on him for a few years - for our cat Tumbleweed - for the golf ball he dropped in a storm drain years ago.

A torrent of debris washes down from his stored memories, some of it things I didn't even know he could remember. Then just as suddenly, he's better.

The vet let the other goats see Jeannette's body before we moved her. They sniffed her, and I believe understood what had happened.

Jeannette has always eaten from one dish in one spot. Lightning always wanted that spot but either Jeannette would drive her off and bite her ears, or toward the end, I would stand guard while Jeannette slowly finished as much as she could.

Now that Jeannette's gone, Lighting seems to not believe she's allowed to eat out of that dish, much as she wants to. She's shy and nervous of it, maybe because it's been forbidden in the past, or maybe out of whatever the goat equivalent of respect for the dead.

I was grateful to have a vet who came out to the barn and euthanized Jeannette right where she had spent her life. Moving an animal of her age would have been much less peaceful.

Once she was gone, we had decided not to bury her but instead to have her cremated.

This meant hauling her 90+ pound body out to the car and delivering her to a clinic that would do the service.

As we transferred her to a gurney and brought her inside, four or five teenage boys were walking by. I saw them look, and do a double take. Then I saw their brains working extra hard at how to react. They wanted to be cool and indifferent - should they joke about it? Be shocked to see a dead goat? Should they walk by like this happened every day or gawk?

Typically of Jeannette, something about her gentle and loving demeanor seemed to settle over the group even though her spirit was gone from her body. They stopped and watched us move her, with quiet, respectful manner.  And one offered to hold the door.

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Saturday, May 11, 2013

Modrian and Bees

When you pass by a bee yard you are apt to see something like this:

A housing development of identically or randomly painted hives. Identical because painting so many boxes is a lot of work, uses a surprising amount of paint, and beekeepers are frugal with resources and often don't have time to get creative.

Seriously, do the bees care?

Home - but did she find the right hive?
When they leave the hive in the morning, bees use the direction of the sun's light to point them toward known or prospective sources of food.

They fly out fast and high, and they head in the right general direction, then search for the exact food source once they get there. Which flowers are in bloom changes incrementally every day. 

psychidelic purple hive
The return flight is different. Home should always be exactly the same place. Like many people, bees navigate their way back to the hive by memorizing landmarks. When a lot of similar hives are clumped together, this makes it harder for the right bee to find the right hive. So beekeepers traditionally orient each hive slightly differently. The bee knows that her door is centered ten degress west southwest and just to the right of that fence post. That's the hive she returns to after a hard day's work.

However there is a trend for hobby beekeepers to lavish their creative spirit on their hives, and we are no exception. When each hive has a unique color or design, the bees get a wayfinding boost, and the keeper gets to enjoy an original and expressive bee yard.

This year David is opting for a Modrian look. He wanted to pay tribute to a beloved artist, but there were other reasons besides.

The bees should have an easy time recognizing the unique set of colors in their own hive. No two are the same, but the overall look is harmonious.

David wanted a design that would be recognizable from a distance and hopefully bring a smile to people's faces as they pass it. The bees will be seen by many, but just a glimpse each. 

Because there is little time to view, he wanted a pattern that would accentuate the boxy shape of the hives, not obscure it. The eye may register "art" or it may register "condo". A split second later, the brain should sort it out "too small for a condo - what lives in boxes? Bees!  I didn't know there was a beekeeper here!"

As they move on with their day, perhaps they will remember our colorful hives and take a moment to wish the bees well in their endeavors.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A troubling bit of dialogue in Pride and Prejudice

Warning: this post is unrelated to farming except that I was thinking about it while uprooting weeds from my brick pathway. I had to think about something, this is what came up.

When I first read P & P back in high school, I thought it was a flawless book. The glut of movies and other tributes had not come out yet, and I could imagine Lizzy and Darcy however I wanted to. Which was nice. Very nice.

But upon a re-reading a few years later, two lines near the end of the book troubled me. In one, Elizabeth has informed her sister Jane that she (Elizabeth) is marrying Darcy. Jane is shocked enough to doubt her. Elizabeth has always professed dislike for the man. And she is know for occasionally teasing or tricking her family. Jane wonders if Lizzy is joking. And because Darcy is very rich, she wonders but tries not to believe that her sister may not be joking but worse - marrying without love, for money.

Jane is too sweet to accuse, but she earnestly questions her sister, asking is she sure she really loves Darcy enough to marry him. To which Elizabeth responds

"You will think I love him too much when I tell all...I love him more than I do Bingley (Jane's fiance). I'm afraid you will be angry".

Jane begs her to stop teasing, and eventually Elizabeth gives her actual assurance that yes, she wants to marry because she loves Mr. Darcy.

The other line that bothers me is in a letter from Elizabeth to her dear Aunt Gardiner, who assumed that Darcy had proposed to her weeks before he actually did. Lizzy put off answering because she was mortified at the whole situation. Waiting in vain for her previously spurned suitor to ask a second time was causing tension that rippled beyond her and led to other encounters such as a furious scolding from Lady Catherine.

So when she finally has the proposal, and then is too busy communicating with her immediate family to write, she realizes she owes her aunt a great letter.

Before making the announcement, she teases a bit. And one of her teases is:

'But now suppose as much as you choose; give a loose to your fancy, indulge your imagination in every possible flight which the subject will afford, and unless you believe me actually married, you cannot greatly err'

She then goes on to more openly state that she's engaged.

When I reread these passages I was in for one of those mild Austen shocks one sometimes gets.

I thought to myself - this suggests that 'something' happened between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. That - not to put to fine a point on it - they got together in a physical sense. In what other sense could she love her future husband "too much". Lizzy is toying with Jane by implying that she and Darcy misbehaved very badly.

Similarly, the married, experienced Mrs. Gardiner's flight of fancy regarding every possible interaction between a man "violently in love" and her niece would probably include the gentleman taking liberties and the lady encouraging him to.

REALLY, Miss Austen? Is that what you meant to suggest?

My earliest reaction was that no, this was not what she meant. Either Austen, or her heroine, was so innocent that she could make these suggestions with nary a hint of sexuality.

But then could I believe that much innocence in Miss Austen? Or that she thinks Elizabeth is so unworldly?

If Marianne Dashwood had asked her sister to indulge her fancy and imagine 'anything short of marriage' going on with Willoughby, Eleanor would have had to conclude that her sister was doing something she shouldn't.

Or to stay within the context of the book. Imagine Lydia writing to her sister Kitty that "you will think I love Wickham too much when I tell you all...". This sounds very much like a young woman whose passions were stronger than her principles.

If neither of these scenarios is enough, imagine Mary Crawford tormenting Fanny with either of those lines.

     Mary:  Oh, you will think I love Edmund too much when I tell all.
     Fanny (alarmed):  Indeed, Miss Crawford, in that case perhaps it would be better for you not to tell.
      Mary: Alright then, just give a loose to your fancy, indulge your imagination on every possible flight which the subject affords...

how could we not suspect that poor Edmund has been mercilessly seduced by the wiley and athletic little Miss Crawford?

So in another Austen context, these quotes would have been suspiciously sexual. Coming from Elizabeth, we are strongly inclined to give them the most innocent interpretation. This is because she has often proven her integrity and her ability to overcome passing fancies for young men. After all she resisted Wickham, who later seduced her sister. And when Colonel Fitzwilliam briefly flirted with her, she let herself feel attraction and then quickly shut those feelings down when she saw they weren't going anywhere. This woman can control.

But it is also because of her know inclination to tease her family. So we assume that she is innocently teasing, and that the implication of premarital shenanigans is muted by her excellent character and playful nature.

But I have to doubt this - or at least I doubt that Lizzy is naive enough not to recognize the implication behind her banter.

Why would Lizzy, whose man-crazy baby sister has just been sunken in society by her forced and sinful marriage, be oblivious to something like that? And why make the joke to Jane, who had borne the brunt of every one's anxiety in the aftermath of the elopement. Jane is incarnate goodness and we have no doubts she will keep her virtue for the day she marries Bingley. The idea of Lizzy abandoning her principles like this would be painful to Jane. And if there is one thing we know for a fact, it's that Lizzy would do nothing, ever, to hurt Jane.

So here we are then. Lizzy seems to be consciously implying that she slept with Mr. Darcy before marriage. And I at least am pretty sure she actually has not. She is (briefly) causing Jane unnecessary pain and toying with her own reputation. Why?

My hunch is she does this to protect Jane from a far worse suspicion - that she doesn't love her future husband. When Jane asks if Elizabeth loves Mr. Darcy ' enough to marry him' - she means among other things, enough to be intimate with him for the rest of their lives. We have only to imagine life between the Collinses, the Wickhams, or even the older generation of Bennetts to realize how miserable this could be.

Jane is imagining a loveless, mercenary marriage, in which her idolized sister has trapped herself and an honorable man. In contrast, Lizzy's hint that they love each other too much - that their passions got ahead of their vows - is meant to be a relief.

Essentially Jane needs to hear that Elizabeth has thought about sex with Mr. Darcy and is looking forward to it. And because Jane knows the part about loving him 'too much' is a joke, she can interpret it as Lizzy's embarrassed confession that she really is ready (eager?) for married intimacy.

If Jane desperately needed this backhanded reassurance, the same cannot be said for Aunt Gardiner. She saw Darcy and Lizzy together and concluded that her neice was exaggerating her dislike and that he was madly in love. She trusted Mr. Darcy to propose and Lizzy to come to her senses and say yes. And Mrs. Gardiner herself is a partner in a happy, respectful marriage. She would have far less reason than Jane to worry. Jane witnesses daily her own parents' failed union. Mrs. Gardiner has no such cause for doubt.

The Gardiners spent a good deal of time cleaning up Lydia's reputation after her premarital antics. They just experienced the problems of letting your passions get ahead of your mind. Why on earth would Lizzy tease them by suggesting she's done the same?

My guess is that Elizabeth is making amends for not writing sooner. Mrs. Gardiner did more than anyone else to bring Lizzy and Darcy together. She believed the match would happen at a time when everyone else was in doubt. She was discrete about it, but she appeared to be utterly confident. Lizzy owed her a great deal for this. On top of that, she and her family owe the Gardiners for their role in rehabilitating Lydia.

I think the hint of misconduct was meant to show how completely Lizzy felt that Mrs. Gardiner trusted her. She could toy with the idea of pre-marital relations, and know that her aunt would  never believe it of her. And she wanted very much to show that she was back in her teasing high spirits again.

Mr. Bennett was deeply opposed to the marriage when he first learned of it. Why didn't Lizzy try this method of convincing with him?

Probably for two reasons. First, he's her dad. Talking about sex - even in a most circuitous way - would be awkward.

Second, he really doesn't like Darcy. Jane and Mrs. Gardiner may doubt that Lizzy is ready to experience all aspects of marriage with him, but they respect and like him and hope or wish she could love him.

Mr. Bennett thinks his favorite daughter is about to make a horrible mistake. So Elizabeth is uncharacteristically sincere with him. No teasing, no implications, just flat out declaration of her love and Mr. Darcy's good qualities. It's the genius of Miss Austen that she held Mr. Bennett in reserve like this - so that as a reader we could see Elizabeth's declarations from many different perspectives and form a strong conclusion.

Whether she loves Mr. Darcy as much as he does her we may never learn, but she certainly knows what she's getting into by marrying him.

Supper of the blue chicken

It was Friday, April 19. Traffic in Seattle seemed to be horrible in sympathy for the shut down streets of Boston.

Friends were meeting me at a Costco parking lot to give me an unwanted rooster to butcher.

I waited in my car, listening to endless radio chatter about what a sweetie pie this Dzhokhar Tzarnaev was supposed to be. Part of me was indignant. Fine, he was popular, but let's give this a rest, folks. If he really did plant a bomb next to an eight year old, we might want to revise our assessment here.

Another part was internalizing it. When I received the rooster, I was surprised to feel deeply conflicted in a way I had not felt before. "Oh, no." I thought "He's adorable. So cute. Every mother hen's dream for her little rooster. This can't be right." And indeed, the rooster was white and fluffy and proud and very handsome. Well - roosters are almost all handsome. Ask any rooster, he'll agree.

One theory why so many species of birds have attractive males is their beauty reflects good health. Hens prefer mates in tip top condition. They choose ones with perfect, glossy plumage and lots of it.

At any rate, one of the hard things about eating roosters is it seems wrong to destroy such a lovely creature - like vandalism almost. But that's objectifying a rooster and looking away from the real reason it should be hard. Taking a life, even for food, even humanely, shouldn't be easy or fun.

A rooster's looks don't always help him to a happy life and often get him in trouble. The more conspicuous, the more other roosters want to fight with them. The more predators try to eat them. This white rooster would be like a beacon to every hawk in North Burien. 

Before I butchered this little rooster, I had to take a long pause and sort this all out. I had to get distanced from the news, from the senselessness of it all, and my self pity at having to do this. Poor me? Poor bird, more like. Make this as dignified as you can, Sarah.

After a pause, I did. I held him until he relaxed, and then let him go. Then I began to pluck the roo. That's when I got my other surprise.

         Some chicken breeds are blue. 

Not their feathers, their skin. Their muscles. Blue. Really dark, gunmetal blue skin over lavender meat. With violet bones. 

I don't know why this shocked me so much but it did. I was worried my kid would freak about eating a blue chicken. But he thought it was cool and told me I was being silly. Still hedging, I put the rooster in the freezer for a couple of weeks while I figured out how to cook him.

It turns out yes, all silkies, regardless of feather color, are blue underneath. They are prized in Chinese medicine as an ingredient in a healing soup. Most accounts said they taste like chicken (no surprise) but are tough and stringy.

I don't like chicken soup. More specifically I can't even bring myself to eat it. I don't like how all the flavor leaves the chicken and goes into the water. I don't like the smell of boiled skin. The first time I cleaned a wound on one of my hens, her wet, plucked skin smelled like chicken soup.

So although I wanted to respect the culinary tradition, I decided I'd rather respect the chicken by cooking him in a way I would enjoy. And to celebrate the beauty of roosters, I decided to make a colorful meal.

I roasted the bird, and served him with homemade saffron egg noodles, rainbow chard and a dessert tart of meringue and strawberries. Only the tart was as colorful as we had hoped. The chicken, the chard and the noodles all lost their crayon-like vibrancy with cooking.

But Oh Dear Lord was that chicken delicious. I've been cooking and eating meat for the past year, and this is the first time I think I got it right. This chicken was tender as springtime and intensely flavorful.

I did well.


Slow Roasted Free Range Silkie

1 silkie or other small, stringy chicken
2 quarts water or whey + 1/2 cup water divided (I used whey from draining Greek yogurt)
1/4 cup salt
1/4 cup sugar
1 sprig each - rosemary, sage
1 tsp butter

At least 24 hours in advance, prepare the brine by stirring the salt and the sugar into the whey or water.

Place the chicken in the brine - it should be covered. Weigh it down so the chicken is fully submerged.

5 hours before dinner, drain the chicken and discard the brine.

Preheat oven to 225

Dry the chicken well and rub skin with butter. For a free range chicken, use a lot of butter.

Place the herbs in the bird's cavity, and truss the legs and wings tight to the body.

Place the chicken on a rack in a roasting pan or dutch oven with a tight fitting lid.

Pour 1/4 cup water into the pan. Cover tightly and roast for 4 hours or till temperature reads 160 by the leg bone..

Remove lid and pour in 1/4 cup water if pan is dry.

Turn oven to 450. Roast for 15 minutes or until skin is crisp.

Remove pan from oven. Place chicken on a platter to rest, and set pan on stove. Don't clean that pan yet!

Saffron pasta ribbons

2 Cups flour
4 large egg yolks
1/2 t + 1t salt, divided
Boiling water
pinch saffron threads
1 T Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Snipped fresh rosemary to taste

Place saffron in a heat resistant bowl and pour 1/4 cup boiling water over. Let cool to room temperature.

Place flour and salt in food processor and pulse to combine.

Add egg yolks and water. Mix. It should form lots of small, granular lumps of stiff, tacky dough. When squeezed, dough should form a lump.

If it crumbles, add more water by the tablespoon, mixing well between additions, until it stays together when squeezed.

If the dough is even remotely sticky, add flour the same way - 1 T at a time, mixing between additions until it is non-sticky.

Briefly knead dough.

Using a pasta roller, and working in batches, roll out dough on setting 1. Fold and roll until it becomes very smooth and supple. The dough should be completely non-sticky.

Adjust setting to 2, and roll dough again. Continue to setting 5 or 6.

Then use the wide noodle setting to cut dough into strips.

Let noodles dry briefly (I hang them on plastic coat hangers).

Bring to boil a large pot of water. Add 1 t salt. Add noodles, a handful at a time, stirring constantly to prevent sticking.

After the last noodles go in, cook for five minutes.


Place noodles, still damp, in the pan the chicken cooked in. Pour on olive oil and snipped rosemary.

Toss pasta so it picks up cooking flavors from the chicken.

Place in bowl and set chicken pieces over.

Meringue Tart with strawberries

4 egg whites
1 cup fine white sugar + extra to sprinkle
1 t vanilla

Set oven to 275. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place a plate on the paper and trace a circle.

Place egg whites in a very clean mixing bowl, and beat with a very clean whisk at the highest mixer setting.

When whites form a foam, add vanilla and mix.

When foam begins to thicken, start adding sugar 1 T at a time.

Between each tablespoon, mix until the sugar is completely gone.

The foam will thicken, turn white, and expand.

Beat until the foam holds its shape when you stop the mixer and pull out the beater.

Scoop out the foam and form a circle on the paper.

I piped a bit of foam around the edge to form a rim

Bake for 1 1/2 hours. Then turn off oven and open oven door.

Remove the meringue after it has cooled, such as an hour later.

Transfer fully cooled meringue to serving plate.

Just before serving, fill with sliced strawberries, sprinkle with sugar and garnish as you choose.

This dish is very pretty but we found it too sweet.

Noah ate the chicken to the bones. 

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