I’m Off!

For one week this summer, I am going to be computer free. No posts, as much as I enjoy them, no facebook, no email – I am headed to the eastern shore of Maryland, where I am going to catch and eat oysters, crabs, rockfish and shrimp. I am going to participate in a huge blue crab feast, where I will eat somewhere between 22 and 51 crabs. At one sitting. I will joke and laugh with my family, and hopefully go sailing, provided that the wind is kind. For this is the Fourth of July, when it is good to be an American! Have a great holiday weekend, all of you, and enjoy yourselves! Be safe, be kind and check back in after July 5th – I’m sure to have some stories!

Peace. Ron.

For Fear of Jello

I stood on top of the house with my usual swagger. I was fifteen, and I was thoroughly convinced of my own invincibility. About fifty of my peers, slightly to mostly drunk on pilfered moonshine, homemade wine and stolen beer, shouted at me to just DO IT. No fear. After all, I was the one who broke my cousin’s record for the longest jump on a motorcycle in our area. I was the one who jumped a car in the mall parking lot and ran from the cops, only to get caught. I was the first one of my peers to spend a night in jail, namely due to the fear of what my father would do to me if he found out I had been arrested. I was a rogue, although a reluctant one. It was a survival mechanism, honed out of years of being labeled as a nerd and a bookworm. My ability to make homemade chicken stock while reciting The Dawn’s Early Light did not do anything but wreck my popularity in high school, but stunts such as these, well, they did everything to restore it.

Only weeks before I had been caught riding my back tire up the wrong side of Rt. 460 by my grandmother’s place. I did it largely to provide amusement to my grandparents, my grandfather relegated to a wheelchair at that point in his life. Anything that I did that was derelict was, in his unspoken but loudly chanted opinion, awesome. He lived through us, his grandchildren, and as the oldest of the group most often around him, I was more than often happy to oblige. My grandmother Audrey would reward me with an extra lard biscuit and a little more red-eye gravy, which she was the ultimate master of. That was well worth the occasional moderate to severe whippings that I suffered at the hands of my father, which, in retrospect, were well deserved.

On this particular night, I was supposed to be at a Bible camp. I learned early that I could go nearly anywhere, at any time, provided that I gave a perfectly believable religious reason to do so. (My dearest parents: Should you wish, I would advise that you stop reading. But know this: I love you with all my heart and I am sorry for a teenager’s deceit. It is something that I will no doubt experience firsthand.) Instead, I found myself in the backyard of a supposed friend’s house on top of their house, more than a little buzzed on a few shots of moonshine. In my defense, I rarely drank as it interfered significantly with my ability to jump over cars on my bored out KX 250, of which I was interminably proud. So, it was with a mostly sober mentality that I perused the situation.

I had agreed to jump from the top of the house onto a trampoline located strategically adjacent to an above ground swimming pool approximately four feet in depth. Parents, should you find yourself so strapped for space that you choose to place a pool adjacent to a trampoline, go see a therapist. Especially if you intend on raising teenagers. The problem was, I was afraid of heights and couldn’t swim. These are two maladies that I have mostly remedied, basically by learning to swim and staying off high things. But at that point in my life, I had neither the wisdom nor the reason for such decisions. So, I weighed my options.

Nearly fifteen years later, I was aboard yet another tricked out motorcycle on the outskirts of Reno, NV, where I had been attempting to ride with younger versions of myself in the dunes. I grew up riding motorcycles in an era where every attempt was made to stay on the motorcycle. I am and always have had nothing but mad respect for these maniacs who get off their bikes in midair, do back flips, forward flips, and do everything but make a sandwich in midair. It never crossed my mind that I would attempt something so insane as an adult, especially when pushing hard towards my thirtieth birthday. I did wonder occasionally, if maybe, when I were younger, if I would have been able to do those stunts.

So, there I was, with a bunch of yelling teenagers roaring me to just DO IT. I once again in my life, for the umpteenth time, I perused the situation and weighed my options. I was getting ready to attempt a stunt called the “Flying Superman Seat Grab.” It’s about what it sounds like, in that you really shouldn’t attempt it unless you’re superman. Or slightly insane and being cheered by a group of fearless teenagers who are equally insane. I remember briefly wishing I had chosen to just stay home and make an apple pie, grill some peaches or maybe take up knitting.

But, there is the point of no return that people such as me have that will not allow us to back off when committed. Is it hereditary, that iron ruthlessness that enables us to do things that we know, without a shadow of a doubt, will hurt? Is it a product of our environment? I really don’t know, but I tightened my goggles and gunned the throttle, hurtling down the dune to launch off the next one. Just as so many years earlier I had blindly leaped off the house. I didn’t break anything in that leap, but I nearly drowned. It turns out that I had badly misjudged the acceleration of a falling mass due to gravity and the braking effect of a new trampoline and all the possible angles of departure from the said trampoline. I also had no idea that landing prone in about three feet of water after falling that far generally renders you unconscious. At least briefly.

I also badly misjudged how quickly the motorcycle would get away from me as I released the handlebars and launched myself perpendicular to the ground away from the bike. There was this brief blinding moment of exhilaration, as I thought, “I’ve done it!” The whole point of the trick though is to catch the seat as the bike passes under you. I missed. I’m so glad that this was before camera phones as I would no doubt have been all over YouTube under the moniker “Old Dude Tries to Ride” or something of the sort. Thankfully, the dune I landed on was sand, and slightly sloped, so my landing was somewhat softened. All I broke was my sternum and a few fingers. All I suffered in my bad landing in the pool was a lingering concussion – both small prices to pay for such enormous stupidity.

Both events landed me, albeit briefly in the hospital, where I was fed Jello. They wouldn’t let me leave until I ate Jello! What kind of monsters run these places? If nothing else, I learned that to avoid Jello, I needed to act with some measure of caution when crazy thoughts occupy my head. I’ve successfully avoided Jello for about six years. Whenever I feel the insane Ron jumping up and down on my shoulder, I threaten him with congealed ground bone matter and he generally shuts up. He’s been getting louder lately…I may have to threaten him with instant mac and cheese.

 

This is an amazing discussion between a teacher and a student – it’s well worth the read.

Cooperative Catalyst

This is a dialogue between Leigh Pourciau, an educator at a public middle school and blogger at http://www.bestinclassblog.blogspot.com, and Anna Baker, a rising senior in a public high school. Both live in the Jackson, Mississippi, metro area. Anna’s sister, Stacy, is a teacher; Anna has considered becoming one, too, but is deterred by the current system. 
It wasn’t the first time a left-brained colleague had come to me with such a request. Stacy, the pragmatic and exceptional science teacher from the 7th grade hall, sent me a Facebook message, “If you don’t mind, I may refer my little sister, Anna, to you…She is considering education, but is losing faith in our current system. She reminds me a lot of you…I’m a bit too pragmatic to advise her, I think!” As my school’s resident, right-brained, rabble-rouser, my colleagues and friends occasionally send me the free-spirited question-askers that remind them of me.
I had…

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Food Elitism and Labels

I was amazed at the number of emails that I received yesterday in response to my post “Ignorance is Bliss.” The overwhelming majority of them were mildly negative, although I did get some great feedback in support of our local farmers and markets. I feel that it is extremely important to support these guys, as they are currently all that stands between us and a completely governmentally controlled food supply system, which to me, is a very scary concept (Katz, 2006). A government that controls the food supply controls the people. Government induced starvation has been proven over and over again throughout history as a very effective means of quelling any attempt at human rights. Most recently, North Korea springs to mind, as well as China, the former Soviet Union (particularly under Stalin). To set the record straight, I’m no conspiracy theorist, nor do I think that would actually happen here in the United States, not by any means. It is the concept of complete government control that I am opposed to.

By no means do I mean to sound like a food elitist. As a matter of fact, I feel I’m quite the opposite. I’m glad we have grocery stores. I just wish that we were better educated on what we’re getting fed, particularly in the highly processed frozen foods and fast food that most Americans exist on. I think it is a mockery of a system when it is perfectly acceptable under our regulations for excrement to be in our meat, particularly in the lax regulations that govern fast food, but it is illegal for me to humanely raise a cow, slaughter it and sell it to my neighbors. Of course, there is also the pink slime debate, which is still considered to be perfectly safe, since we treat it with ammonia! I’d prefer not to eat anything that has to be treated with ammonia before I can eat it!

We buy locally raised and slaughtered beef anway, of course, there are ways to get around it – it is legal for me to buy a “share” in a crop, which nullifies the cash transaction. The majority of our pork used to come from local sources, but our original source of meat was written up by a health inspector for not utilizing a USDA approved slaughterhouse, which the farmer refused to use as his own premises were far cleaner than any USDA approved slaughterhouse. In short he refused to send his animals, which are dear to him, to a place where they would be treated like this.

The organic label originally began as a grassroots movement to help differentiate small farms from the larger food conglomerates, where genetically modified food crops, pesticides and chemical fertilizers that poison upwards of 25,000 people each year in the United States alone are common (Katz, 2006). The organic brand, through political maneuvering by lobbyists on behalf of the mega-conglomerates, has become perverted through the system and has become too expensive for a small, local grower to obtain. A friend of mine has tried for years to obtain “organic” status for her small farm located in Southwestern Virginia. She has sold rabbits to local consumers and farmer’s markets for years, and wanted to be able to sell them to restaurants, who were clamoring for her rabbit. Her farm was an extension of her house, spotless and perfectly clean. After she opened up her farm for inspection, she was actually fined for not compling with previous inspection attempts. (She had never once received notice of a prior attempt for inspection.) Her attempts to fight the fine resulted in more fees and she eventually gave up. But, I can go to Kroger and buy a rabbit that has been shipped here from China. That makes sense, doesn’t it? (I’m dripping with sarcasm.)

With all that said, do I shop at grocery stores? I do. It’s hard to beat the convenience of running into Kroger for milk and butter, which I can’t legally buy from farmers in Virginia, another fact that drives me a little crazy. The cheese selection in Kroger is also hard to pass over, as are Boar’s Head cold cuts. Flour is also a little difficult to get! But I am ever increasingly mindful of what I buy and I have become relatively obsessed with food labels. I also choose, despite my growing suspicion of the label, organic options for I feel that the label was at least started with good intentions, and I believe that the root of those intentions is still present in the process. I’m not heralding the supposition that we should not visit our supermarkets, but I am promoting that we should do more to support our local farmers.

The biggest reason that people were giving me for not shopping at their local market is that they just don’t have time. I daresay you do, you  just prefer the comfort and convenience of the supermarket over your market, which is normal! As humans, we prefer the familiar. But, hear me out. Laura and I are two of the busiest people that I know. She has a full time job in marketing, and photographs somewhere between forty and fifty weddings a year, in addition to countless newborn, family, engagement, trash the dress, boudoir and bridal sessions. I have two jobs, one full time and one part time. I am a freelance writer, a full time graduate student, a student teacher and I am working on my thesis. We are also expecting our first child. We’ve found that it is actually faster, less stressful and in the long run, cheaper to shop at the Blacksburg Farmer’s Market than it is to buy everything from Kroger, or God help us, Wal-Mart. Try it out – time it. I did. I spent more money for the same ingredients and it took more time in Kroger than at the market. Seriously, what are you doing at eight a.m. on a Saturday anyway?

Another extremely busy person, the author Barbara Kingsolver, resolved for an entire year to only shop from local farms and markets. Her entire family joined in the resolve and she chronicles the year in her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it. I’ve haven’t taken my resolve as far as she has, but if she can do it, we all can.

People have told me, “Just wait until the baby comes. You won’t be picky then!” I have never been more hyper aware of what we are eating than I have been since I heard that tiny heartbeat. I’m afraid that my growing phobia over processed food will only escalate when the new addition to our household gets here – but I can’t wait! Hopefully, the child will grow up without ever tasting a chicken nugget. Anthony Bourdain unashamedly writes that he tries to convince his child that “The clown is evil.”

We can’t avoid everything – but we can educate ourselves to make better and more sustainable decisions.

Ignorance is Bliss

Laura and I are picky over our food. We’re often referred to as “Food Snobs” by our friends, most often in good fun, but sometimes a little accusingly, especially when we reveal just how convoluted our food gathering efforts are in our attempt to eat food that is local, pesticide free, non – Genetically Modified and as organic as possible. I side with a local chef, who, during a conversation one night after a long hard shift in the kitchen, almost spit the phrase out of her mouth. “Organic” she said, with the air of someone regarding a turd that mysteriously appeared on a kitchen counter. “That means absolutely nothing now. All of our food used to be ‘organic’ and not that long ago. We raised our chickens, we didn’t call them organic. They were yard birds. We raised our own cows, grew our own gardens, raised our own grain and took it to the mill for processing. It’s a matter of convenience and it is simply a label that makes people feel good about what they are buying.”

That was a bit of an eye-opener. I had unwittingly said the wrong thing, but she opened my eyes to slightly different way of thinking. The more I read about the so-called organic label, the more upset I became. I almost wish I hadn’t read all of this, as I am now wary of anything that comes from a supermarket. I just finished “The Revolution will not be Microwaved” which is a fairly dense read, but I highly recommend it. Other titles I’ve just read are “Omnivores Dilemma; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; In Defense of Food; The Botany of Desire; Folks this ain’t normal and several cookbooks espousing the need for a more sustainable way of producing food and eating. All the evidence suggests that raising a small garden improves your life in many ways, not limited to just better food. You get in touch with your land and children especially love to work with growing things.

That was a bit of a tangent, but I am still on track. As I write this, the Washington Post is covering a summit in Washington on ways to revolutionize the food industry even further in response to increased starvation around the world as our population pushes ever closer to nine billion people. Curiously absent from this conference are any of the advocates of slow food, Michelle Obama, sustainable food production representatives or anyone who is actually promoting real change. Instead, there are lobbyists and representatives of the massive food production industry, which consists of conglomerates that are largely owned by international corporations formed after World War II when bombs and gunpowder weren’t needed in the quantities required during the War.

Why do we buy into this concept? I think a lot of it is perception. It’s more pleasant for me to go to the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings, see people I know, chat with the farmers and taste my way through all the artisanal samples of hummus, cream cheese, cheeses, pizza, local burgers and hot dogs while shopping than it is to be inundated with marketing at the local grocery store, where the shelves now literally talk to you. I’ll never get used to a coupon box yelling at me to buy Mello Yellow. I’m not for certain what that really is – but I never want to eat anything that has the term “Yellow” in it anywhere.

For others, a trip to a Farmer’s Market is quite overwhelming. Nothing is in neat little packages labeled certified and inspected. Instead, you’re dealing with a farmer who has likely been up long before sunrise. He/she may look a little weary, sunburned, and sometimes, gasp, they may have dirt on their clothes! These are the real activists – the farmers that passionately grow their crops, raise their animals with love and affection and are proud of their products. They can tell, should you want to know, the personality of the chicken you just bought. Our chicken supplier, from whom we have steadfastly been buying chicken for years, laughed last Saturday morning. “That guy had an attitude!” he told me with a grin.

I think that a lot of us would be turned off by that statement. We have become alienated from our food sources, trusting a government agency to painstakingly inspect and render safe an increasingly mechanized biological system. We don’t want to know that the chicken was once alive, we’d prefer for it to be served to us in frozen, breaded form, far removed from the slaughterhouse where it, and millions more just like it, were inhumanely raised and butchered.

Not me. I like to think that the chicken that is going to sustain me, my wife and my unborn child lived a productive and happy life, full of sunshine and good food by people who cared a great deal about him. I know that the stock that I simmer out of this wonderful bird is free of growth hormones, preservatives, antibiotics, ever-resistant strains of weird bacteria and fertilizers. I’ll know that, as I can this liquid gold, I can safely store it for up to a year or more, for it has been prepared in my kitchen by me, only a few miles from where the chicken happily roamed only a few days ago.

So, ignorance may be bliss, but knowledge is power.

The Palisades Brunch

We slept in this morning, for the first time in probably years. Normally the summer finds us both up at six or so, neither of us can sleep past sunrise. Which gets a little scetchy in the winter, what with the sun not coming up until the middle of the day, it seems. But it’s not winter, it’s June, and I love it. My garden boxes are out of control – I’m drooling in anticipation of tomatoes. I’ve planted five different colored varieties so I’m crossing my fingers that the blight doesn’t get them like last year.

Feeling adventerous, Laura and I ventured the three miles to one of our favorite restaurants, The Palisades, in Eggleston, Virginia. I LOVE gravy and biscuits and Chef/Owner Shaena Muldoon and Chef Ashton put together the best brunch on the east coast. Sweet potato bisucuits, yeast biscuits, sausage gravy, local sausage and bacon, Eggs Benedict, potato cakes, pancakes, fresh strawberries, chicken wings – it was truly a feast. Washed down with freshly brewed sweet tea, fresh coffee, a complimentary Mimosa and juices – this is an amazing meal. Maybe I was hungry, but it seemed better than usual.

Shaena greeted us at the door, as usual and I chatted briefly with the Chef about a pair of heritage breed pigs that he just bought. He is passionate about local, sustainable food sources, and we compare notes on our gardens. Whenever I complain about not having time to work in my gardens, I compare myself guiltily to Chef Ashton. He works seven days a week and still maintains his garden impeccably.

After stuffing my face with way too much food, we head home for an easy day of rest and digesting. Maybe I’ll get around to the garden, but there are too many vampire movies on T.V. But get yourself over to The Palisades asap. Regardless of the state of the vampire nation. You’ll thank me for it, I guarantee it.

Pizza Dough!

Throwing pizza dough into the air the Italian way is more difficult than it looks. I didn’t end up wearing any of the dough, but I was remarkably unsuccessful at getting the dough to resemble anything that looked like a disk. I can make a ball of dough really well, but, so can a three year old. Actually, I think that making dough would be a tremendous amount of fun for a three year old. I’ll have to ask my adolescent development professor about that.

Laura swooped in and rescued my increasingly frustrated attempts to stretch the dough without breaking it and not overwork it so it remains tender. Actually, she physically took the dough from me and dexterously formed the dough into a perfect circle. I read somewhere a long time ago; no doubt from an unreliable source, that anyone who can draw or make a perfect circle is mentally unstable and should not be trusted.

I do trust her, though. Anyone who can make pizza like she can has to be trusted. Our new dough recipe worked perfectly and we topped it with homemade sauce, parmesan cheese, pepperoni slices, golden oyster mushrooms (YUM) and thinly sliced Vidalia onions. Ten minutes in a 500 degree oven and it was perfect.

I’ll share the pizza dough with you – it is so good! Just be sure to allow the dough to come almost to room temperature before working it into the crust. This makes about five twelve inch crusts and they freeze beautifully.

Ingredients

5 ¼ cups of bread flour (all-purpose works as well)
2 ½ cups of warm – not hot water (It should not burn your finger)
One package of dry active yeast (About 1 ¼ teaspoons)
Two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Two tablespoons of honey (optional)

Directions

Combine all the ingredients in large bowl – remember, it’s going to almost triple in size!
Mix with a large spoon until you have a big wet ball of tacky dough.
Wait ten minutes or so.
Mix again until you have a large wet ball of smooth dough.
Wait ten minutes.
Transfer to a lightly floured work surface and with oiled hands, knead the two three or four times.
Wait one hour.
Knead again, just enough to thoroughly combine.
Place the ball of dough back in the large bowl, lightly oil it, cover with plastic wrap and place in a refrigerator for three days.
Separate the dough into four or five balls.
Allow it to come to room temperature and sling it in the air!
Top it with whatever you like. Remember: The Italians are simple with their ingredients. You want to be able to taste this dough!