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I’m Back!

I’ve been cheating on my New Orleans garden. And in my absence, she’s suffered. My ducks have gone feral, one of the beehives died, and the lot next door sold. I’ll explain more in depth about each of those three things, but first, I’ll explain where I’ve been.

I spent my summer trying to fulfill my lifelong dream of starting a summer camp. (You can read about it here). We made good progress for the first year (7 campers! Yay!) but it is going to be a climb for the next few years to get the word out and to actually get parents to pay to send their kids. But, success or failure, I still get to spend my summers from now on working alongside Albert (the baron of the bees), and spending 3 months on a 90 acre ranch in a ruggedly beautiful area of the west. There are two nubian goats that we milk with the campers twice a day, 4 horses to ride, and cats and dogs to enjoy. There is also cattle raised for grass-fed beef, meat chickens raised on pasture and lots of pigs (and piglets!) to provide food for us and the camp. So, there’s many more animals to have fun with than I could or would ever want to fit into my urban life.

There’s also a huge garden, along with 100 mature blueberry bushes that we ate from and made jam for next year. And raspberries! And asparagus! Things we can’t grow in New Orleans! The ranch has many wonderful attributes, but it also has about nine months of winter, and at the height of winter, only 6 hours of sunlight. It’s also extremely remote and if you don’t really like the people you share it with, there aren’t many other options for social interaction.

So, at the end of camp, when I left to head back to New Orleans, I felt eager to return to my urban farmlet, but excited to plan for next summer too. And somehow, in my absence from New Orleans things have changed. I know that I have also changed, but so has New Orleans. I was greeted upon my return by Ferraris on Magazine St, celebrities squeezing me out of my wedding venue, and a subtle undertone of contempt among some acquaintances of,”so, living your dream. You suck.”

And my pet duck has gone crazy feral, and the person who I worked out a trade to check on my beehives over the summer didn’t do it, so one of the more established hives got overrun with wax moths and died. Lastly, the lot next door sold, but it’s a longer story than that. It not only sold, but it sold to a person who I’ve met a number of times. We share friends. He’s a huge proponent of this neighborhood and I figured he would build a house on the lot eventually, but I thought it would be worth approaching him about gardening on it in the meantime. So I sent him a friendly email about that possibility, only to get the response that no, he’s planning on farming the whole thing himself “a la a CSA”. Awesome. So, now I get to watch someone build a giant garden over the fence while they brag about how much they’ve helped the community. Gag.

So, I’ve tilled up the entire backyard behind the house, and moved the beehives, so now there’s a giant garden space. I’m slowly planting it and trying to tame what was a jungle but is now a dust bowl because I tilled in dry, dry, dry weather. Some day, I’ll have a nice garden back here again. But, sadly my days of pig farming in this neighborhood may be over – I’m out of room.
Tilling the yard
I haven’t updated my blog in the six weeks that I’ve been back because I’ve been trying to shed some positive light on what’s going on and have.

Unfortunately, I am not Anne of Green Gables. I haven’t figured out how to conquer every challenge presented to me with courageous optimism. My private urban oasis is gone – there’s construction workers leering down at me from balconies that surround the back yard and the air is punctuated with the sounds of progress from sun up to sun down. Good for the neighborhood but not so great for my life here. I think it might be time to find a new neighborhood.

Learning to Sweat

I grew up in California. Not just California, but temperate, coastal, California where the summer’s highs will reach into the 80s, but only for brief stretches because it takes too much effort for the sun to burn through the summer fog that typically enshrouds the Northern Coast of California.

So moving to the South, and liking it, seemed a stretch at first. The sun! The rain! The humidity! Gradually, I learned to sweat. In a dry environment, you only sweat when you exercise. In fact, people in dry environments don’t ever sweat, they politely and inconspicuously perspire. So gardening during my first summer in New Orleans was a shock to me when it involved endless changes of clothes throughout the day. Beekeeping in the humidity was an even bigger shock. After layering on the bee suit over my pants and clothes and building a fire in the metal smoker to combat the tens of thousands of angry, stinging insects that I was trying to poach honey from, it was a wonder I didn’t pass out from fluid loss – it was like being in my own personal greenhouse.

I’m still learning to sweat, but now that I’ve embraced this, I enjoy summer gardening, and in August, I look forward to the bounty of hot peppers that come my way from the garden. Hot peppers are something I generally can’t even give away, but don’t really need to because I love to eat them and grow them. In May and June, I plant a mini pepper plantation with Serranos, Poblanos, Birdeye (a Louisiana heirloom), and Tobasco peppers, and then I virtually ignore them. Even with the dry early summer we had here, they persevered and are now stately plants burdened with lovely, glossy fruits.

Peppers seem to thrive on neglect (as long as you have 6 hours of sun and good soil) and they even do well in containers. Luckily for us in South Louisiana, we have a second pepper season, so if I don’t have enough, I can still plant now for a harvest of October peppers.

With my current harvest, I make hot sauce when I get tired of roasting peppers in olive oil in the oven and adding them to any dish that needs a little kick. I don’t just make hot sauce, but I make HOT sauce so hot that a few wayward drops in some homemade pad Thai once ruined dinner for some spice intolerant guests.

So, don’t bring it out for company unless they’re heat savvy and willing to sweat a little, but you can vary your brew to include milder peppers if you must.

Here’s what I do for Crystal or Tobasco-style hot sauce:

1. Gather a pint of hot peppers, or a mix of hot and mild, all at the same red stage of ripeness (if you want an earthy green hot sauce, use green peppers before they’re fully ripe – Jalapenos are great).

1. Chop the stems off peppers, get rid of bad spots, and drop them into the blender or food processor, using gloves. Core and clean out the seeds and ribs if you want to for a milder flavor, but I keep most of them in.

2. Add just enough white vinegar to cover the peppers, and add a handful of salt, then puree until smooth, using caution.

3. Pour the sauce into a pot and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Do not, at any time, lean over the steaming pot and get near the fumes (it is painful, I assure you).

4. Ladle the sauce into a clean jar or bottle and let cool. Cover loosely and let the mixture sit at room temperature undisturbed for a few days, then pour off all but a very thin layer of the vinegar and refrigerate. The hot sauce will keep for several months, and possibly longer, depending on how strong you make it. But for me, I like to start using the hot sauce right away, while it’s still hot outside, just to make me sweat a little more.

Signs of Spring

Ah, Spring…Clover growing underfoot, blissful 82 degree days with only mild humidity, the smell of orange blossoms lingering in the air, and bee stings. Then the mad rush for Benadryl and baking soda or toothpaste in a vain attempt to minimize swelling.

Every time I get stung, there are varying degrees of annoyance. I can usually tell within minutes if I’m going to swell or not. If the sting is intense, then I will puff up like an inflated latex glove, but if the sting is just annoying, the discomfort will wear off in less than an hour. My mentor and friend, JP the Beeman, is an excellent beekeeper, but he is, quite possibly, a bad influence for me. He’s been working with bees for years and rarely wears a suit and veil unless the bees prove to be angry. He doesn’t wear protective gear unless, “I get stung ten times.”

JP has a youtube channel with more than 100 videos, many of the swarms he’s caught in the last few seasons. Here’s my favorite, where he catches a swarm that landed on an SUV in a parking lot. He scoops through the bees with his bare hands searching for the queen, and even gets underneath the vehicle with a flashlight in his mouth, still scooping handfuls of bees and dropping them into the super with his bare hands!


http://www.youtube.com/user/JPthebeeman#p/u/42/DXDTwxxdrj4

(I’m not sure what is going on with wordpress here, but the video isn’t coming up on my blog, just the link, which isn’t as cool, but please visit it anyway)!

Here’s another video he took, this one in my backyard in October.

www.youtube.com/user/JPthebeeman#p/u/42/DXDTwxxdrj4

Although he doesn’t say anything, I think JP’s laughing at me when I even bother to put on gloves to work the bees in his presence. Actually in the video above, toward the end of our bee session where we combined a weak hive with a strong hive, JP edited out the last part of the video where I’m wearing the suit. I put it on because I got stung twice, but in all fairness it does make me look like I’m about to go clean up an oil spill or something.

So, bolstered by a few successful days without the encumbrance of the hot, visibility-restricting bee suit, I thought I could just be a regular bee wooer. You know, just me and the ladies, chatting about springtime, drones, and work. But of course, that vision fell flat again, as a bee got stuck in my hair and stung me on the head yet again. So, next time, I’ll start out wearing a hat, and then go from there.

But the good news is that this Spring, all the hives look healthy and poised for a good season of honey production. In the afternoon, when the light hits the hives, I can smell the warm wax, the honey and pollen as the bees fan their wings to cool the hive boxes. I’m lucky that the bees decided that they can live with my inexperienced pokings around in their business and I get some honey in return. Spring’s sweet bounty is definitely worth a few stings here and there.

It’s Pig Time!

The problem with Yorkshire cross pigs in an urban setting is that they get too big. My pigs grew up on a Mississippi farm where they infrequently saw people. By the time I got them, they were almost 100 pounds and practically feral – kind of frightening when running full speed, kicking an squealing. I thought they would get more used to being around people as they were in my care, but it wasn’t the case. The pigs were set in their ways and never quite seemed comfortable in their new surroundings, which I felt bad about. Their offspring on the other hand, come up to me for scratches and treats whenever I step into their pen. Their enjoyment of their life is evident in everything they do. Running, squealing, rooting, scratching vigorously, and rolling in the mud or their food.

But since I managed to end up with 5 pigs instead of the 2 I had planned for, space was limited in the pen and the muck started becoming unbearable. So, sadly, the big pigs had to go a few weeks earlier than initially planned, at slightly under 200 pounds.


The night before sending the pigs to the slaughterhouse, I couldn’t sleep. I had nightmares about them getting out on the street and getting hit by a car. I kept waking up nauseous with worry and stress – maybe I could have given the pigs a better life. The only answer I have for certain is that I know the pigs ate well. A diet rich in soft cheese, french bread and plenty of mixed greens and basil made for healthy looking pigs.


After some deliberation, it was decided to rent a U-haul trailer for the task of getting the pigs to the slaughterhouse an hour away. I bedded it down with straw and wood chips, and put the food bowl in the far corner. Unfortunately, pigs are smart and wanted nothing to do with this strange, dark metal box, even if it did smell like food. After two hours of goading, coaxing, shouting, and nearly getting run over in frigid weather, there were two pigs in the Uhaul. Unfortunately, the Uhaul wasn’t connected to the truck. We had had to unhitch it as we moved from plan A to B to C. So, with the help of two strong men, nearly 400 pounds of pig in a Uhaul was moved from the back of our lot, into the middle of it where the truck could back up and re-hitch.

Then it was off to Verdun’s Meat Market in Raceland, LA, about an hour away. I picked them for their proximity to New Orleans, and the fact that the owner, who I talked to on multiple occasions, always thoroughly answered my questions, even though she was (I know now) extremely busy.

When we got to the stockyard to unload, the threatening gray clouds began spitting sleet. Squinting amidst the weather, I opened the door to the Uhaul and the first pig (known as ‘Spaz’) bolted out, followed by the other pig at a more leisurely, but inquisitive pace. The pigs settled in to a nice shelter, bedded down with a thick layer of straw. I said good bye. I looked in the extremely clean processing facility where the pigs would get killed, then scalded and scraped before being moved on into a walk in-cooler.

I think the most stressful part of the pigs’ experience was the travel. Getting loaded into a dark trailer and taken to a different place abruptly was, I’m sure, a very traumatic experience, but I didn’t want to slaughter these pigs myself. A big pig requires a lot of time and a lot of man power to kill, scald, scrape and then process and package into cuts. The Verduns have been doing it for multiple generations, and they have the proper equipment to ensure that nothing gets wasted, nothing goes wrong, and that the animal is killed in a quick and humane manner.

When we got back in the truck, towing an empty Uhaul trailer, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of relief, mingled with the sadness. I always feel a sense of guilt – these animals trusted me. But I provided them with food, shelter, and the chance to just be pigs without fear.

That evening, the slaughter went according to plan and the following weekend, I received 4 120 qt coolers full of meat, fat, feet, organs and two heads. We sold some to friends and gave some to those we owed. I had a very hard time selling any of it, although it was necessary. But how do I measure the value of my pigs? How does their life add up to a price per pound? It doesn’t. It simply can’t. I’m glad I recouped some of the slaughter costs and the initial purchase price, but beyond that I’m just extremely thankful to have the freezer full. So, when I eat that first pork chop, I will toast the pigs’ life and thank them for providing me with a bounty of sustenance.
A full freezer

In Defense of Lard

Tub of Lard
Since raising Guinea Hogs last year, I’ve become a fierce advocate for lard. I defend its merits to anyone who expresses even a mild interest in food. The Guinea Hogs were extremely fat, and after rendering the fat back, I was left with two large, gorgeous tubs of snowy white lard. As soon as I made my first lard pastry crust that turned out incredibly rich and flaky, I became an addict. I cooked greens, fried eggs and even made cookies using lard instead of butter. As my enthusiasm grew for cooking with lard, so did the skepticism, or possible disgust, of those around me. So I set out to research the nutritional merits of lard in order to defend it. And I discovered that lard is lower in saturated fat and higher in monounsaturated fats than butter (I really need to get the book Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient by Jennifer McClagan – it has a recipe for bacon fat aoili!). Lard is certainly not a health food, but fat is an absolutely vital part of a balanced diet that helps the body “digest protein and absorb nutrients, calcium, and the fat-soluble vitamins A,D, E, and K”. Read about it here at http://www.bonappetit.com/blogsandforums/blogs/consciouscook/2009/09/fat-fight-is-butter-better-1.html

So after a year of defending lard, I am now ready to sing its praises. Unfortunately, the title “Praise the Lard!” was already taken (an excellent post about lard on the blog, crabappleherbs.com/blog/2007/11/15/thank-the-lard).

I simply can’t get over what an extraordinary substance lard is, not only for cooking and baking, but also for making soap. The idea of washing my face with pork fat seemed a bit weird at first, but lard makes a mild, creamy soap with a rich lather.

I found this simple soap recipe from the book, The Homemade Soap Book

Lardy Cake (Not sure why it’s called cake)

The book says, “It can have a fatty smell so it is a good idea to disguise this with essential oils.”

16 oz lard
2 oz sodium hydroxide
5 oz distilled or filtered spring water
1 tbsp essential oil

I selected chamomile oil because it was what I had on hand, and then I used the procedure described on Snowdrift farm’s website: http://www.snowdriftfarm.com/soapsafely.html.

Pigs are amazing. Not only have my two pigs this year saved 600 gallons of food from the landfill (that’s over a thousand pounds), but they have turned that waste food into high-quality meat for me. The meat keeps me satiated, the fat keeps my desserts flavorful and the lard soap keeps me clean. During my seven-year tenure as a vegetarian, I never missed pork–now, I don’t see how I could live without it.

Three Little Pigs

I’m not a fan of naming animals that I consider livestock, but other people always seem to name them for me. The other night, the pigs, who scratch and rub against any post with much gusto, tore their shelter down. Which, of course prompted Albert to say, “Hah! The three little pigs’ shelter came down! We should call them Sticks, Bricks and Straw.”


Now that the piglets are three weeks old, I can’t imagine the backyard without them. The pig pen was built with pallets which have gaps between the boards that allows chickens and ducks to slip in and out to clean up food that the pigs don’t finish. Some of these gaps have turned into piglet escape holes and when they get bored of the pig pen, the piglets shoot out the gaps described above and go racing in laps around the yard, sending chickens and ducks squawking and flapping in their midst.

While ducklings do everything with enthusiasm, piglets do everything with unintentional comedy. They pick up my shoes with their mouths and toss them around, they poke me in the butt with their snouts if I’m squatting down looking at the ground, and when wrestling, they wiggle their chubby little bodies awkwardly and ineffectively but like they’re having a great time.

Since I’m not allowed to garden on the lot next door, I’ve been using it as pasture for my animals. When the pigs are turned out, they frolic for the fun of it, then they get down to the business of rooting. They work better than a rototiller, and they don’t even need gas! The ducks, who have always had a very skeptical relationship with the pigs, have grown even more skeptical of them now that there are five total and the piglet/duck relationship has become one of bowling ball to bowling pin. But, the ducks have recently decided that there are benefits to living with pigs: when the pigs root up dirt, the ducks follow close behind, snatching up grubs, bugs and worms from the deep black dirt. The back half of the lot, where I’ve been letting the pigs and chickens and ducks go is almost entirely weed free. I’m thinking that I will plant potatoes over there in another month, after the pigs are gone, because to the untrained eye, potatoes don’t look like a crop–their fruits lie buried underneath the soil.
Foraging duck in background

Until then, the pigs can keep rooting.

Surprise!

A life surrounded by animals is full of surprises. But just when I think I’ve trained myself to expect the unexpected, something even more unexpected catches me off guard.

About three weeks ago, a great debate started in the backyard barnyard. It began with a fat pig.

Albert said,”I think that pig might be pregnant.” And I came back with, “No, she’s just fat.” Once the thought was wedged into the back of my mind, though, I scrutinized the pig’s belly every day looking for signs. And, a week later, I grudgingly admitted (to myself) that she was probably going to have piglets, and began to mentally prepare for the possibility that the number of animals in the backyard could quintuple.

A week later, when I checked in and fed the pigs in the morning, the big pig was not interested in food and was slowly dragging straw underneath her massive body with her front feet, building a nest. And later that evening when I came by after work, there were three wiggling shapes in the straw, glowing white in the dark. Piglets!

I had no intention of disturbing the new mother pig, so I had no choice but to wait until morning to check in on them again.

In the morning, three white-pink piglets were exploring their world on wobbly legs, sniffing at everything, practicing their grunts and squeals. I pulled on my rubber boots and hopped in the pen with the pigs to add some more bedding into their shelter and they began burrowing under the straw until they were completely covered and all I could see was a pile of straw shaking and bobbing.

So, the pig count jumped from 2 to 5 overnight. Though it was a surprise, once I mentally prepared myself for piglets, I thought there could be up to ten. It would have been chaos–funny, but probably too much for me to handle. It’s all for the best that there’s just three healthy happy piglets. Now I just have to figure out what to do with them. Until then, I’ll just enjoy the unexpected gift that they are, and try to enjoy the next surprise that comes my way.

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