Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Overwintering Peppers

One of my two Manzanos
Last fall, I learned that peppers can be grown as perennials. (Daniel has written on this, too.) I was fascinated with the prospect of having year-round chiles, and so decided to overwinter a few plants. (And by a few, I mean about a dozen, some of which were easily three feet tall, and in 18" pots.) Since October, when I took them in, two thirds of the plants have mysteriously died. I'm not sure if it had to do with the diminishing amount of light in our house, or the constant harassment by our cats, but one by one, eight of the pepper plants withered. Perhaps it was because I was taking in someone else's plants, and giving them a kind of care they were not used to. For weeks, the death of the plants bothered me constantly; but now, I look at the four surviving plants, and am glad to see them alive, if not quite thriving.

My own personal woes aside, overwintering chiles is pretty miraculous. And even the concept seems almost familiar. So many of the people I've talked to about this have mentioned remembering--sometime, somewhere--a tiny, decorative indoor chile plant. And if it can be done with small chile plants, why not bigger ones? The key is steady fertilizing, watering, pruning, and pest control. I'm being vigilant and hope that my chile plants will make it until Spring.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Yesterday's Canning Workshop

Filling jars with white wine chile jelly.
Securing the lids and rings.
 Yesterday's class reminded me why I started teaching canning in the first place. The energy in the cozy and familiar Birdhouse kitchen was really quite empowering--everyone was interested to learn about canning, and had a lot of questions. A couple people were already familiar with the process of canning, but had questions about the specific recipes (of the mustard and chile jelly that we made) and pressure canning. All in all, I am glad that I've made a return to teaching workshops. I'll definitely have another one in February or March. Thanks, everyone, for coming, learning, and showing your support.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pie Love

Two weeks ago, I became very excited about and consequently purchased a pie book. I've made pies a few times previously, and although they have always been very good, I've never gotten to be quite so enamored with pies (as enamored as others are? as enamored as I could be?). For one, I've been making simpler, less fatty pie crusts (not knowing how the fattier, flakier crusts are quite the pay-off for the effort). And then, as I said, I'd never made that many pies. The book was almost a personal challenge to make more pies, and in the ten (or so) days that I've had it, I've made two pies. The first was a maple-blueberry pie, made with blueberries that my friend Alicia and I picked in the heat of summer last year. Because I used frozen berries, the pie was a little runny, but the flavor made up for the small failure.

On Sunday, I made the maple-pecan pie you see pictured above. I'm certain that I've only had pecan pie one other time in my life, and wasn't thrilled about it then. But now! Now, I am in love with pie. Alicia helped me make this pie, and upon tasting it told me that it is not as sweet as pecan pies usually are. It's sweet in the complex combination of good sugar, molasses, and maple syrup. The pecans are good quality. The crust is also exceptional, if I may say so.

I'm sure that in the next week I'll make another pie--there's no stopping me. I've made enough cookies and cupcakes and cakes to be a little bored with them. But pie, pie is new.  In the summer, I will be diligent about saving fruit for pies--it'll be a new addition to the routine. For now, I'll use what's at hand and extend the pie challenge to you; will you consider making a pie this year (or this month, or this week)?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Dystopian Novels: Samuel Butler, Religion, and Erewhon

I have been reading a lot of post-apocalyptic, utopian and dystopian novels over the last year. Most of the ones that I have been reading I have read in the past but wanted to take a fresher look. My interest was first sparked after I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road. There was something about the sparse narrative that was well suited to the horror of the story. Maybe I unfairly lump together post-apocalyptic and dys/utopian novels, but they seem to me to share a speculative nature and to, in some ways, have a similar goal of positing a world that is different from our but that looks back on and critiques ours.
The most recent book that I have re-read is Samuel Butler's 1872 novel Erewhon. I first read this book in a 19th century British literature course in my undergrad. I was not impressed with it at the time, which is one of the reasons that I wanted to return to it. I think that I may not have given the book its due when I first read it; I was not terribly interested in 19th century British novels. My interested was also re-kindled in this book after reading a passage about it in Wayne C. Booth's A Rhetoric of Irony in which Booth discusses the paradoxical position on the narrator regarding his stance toward religion. But I'll return to this in a moment.
Much of Erewhon is as I remember it. It is presented as a travelogue. The narrator travels into the unexplored interior of some continent (he does not specify), finds a civilization that has not yet been contacted by the West, lives amongst the people for a time, and then returns to England hoping to make his fortune from his experiences. One of the key differences between this discovered civilization and the one the narrator comes from is that crimes are treated as though they were diseases and vice versa (this is Butler's device to criticize what he sees as the punishment of misfortune under the guise of criminality). One element that I did not notice on that first read is Butler's criticism of religion along with these other elements. At one point Higgs, the narrator, believes that the Erewhonians are one of the lost tribes of Israel and he vows to either make a name for himself by converting this lost tribe to Christianity and thus showing himself to the be equal of the Old Testament prophets or to sell his story and then exploit the natural resources of the unknown country to his own massive profit.
Butler presents this situation less to criticize the institution of religion than what he sees as the duplicity of its adherents. Higgs plans to take full advantage of his fortuitous discovery in whatever way is most advantageous to himself. Rather than desiring to convert the Erewhonians for their own salvation, he desires to convert them for his personal fame. Add to this the fact that he would then elevate himself to the level of the most important Biblical prophets, laying bare his selfish intentions. Higgs relates this to the reader unselfconsciously; he believes that he will be praised for his initiative and business sense.
Booth writes of a critique that is more subtle but exposes Butler's ironic intention in the work. After escaping a difficult situation, Higgs says ". . .As luck would have it, providence was on my side." Booth's point is that Higgs attribute his salvation to both luck and God, clearly a contradictory statement. Booth continues to parse the semantic advantages of Butler's selection of the word "luck" over "fortune" and "providence" over "God," but the point remains. In this example, as in the one I cited above, Higgs professes a kind of piety that he seems not to actually feel. Had his beliefs been true, he would have sought to convert the Erewhonians whatever the benefit to himself and he also would have attributed his salvation to God alone. The fact that he does not -- and these are just two examples of many -- indicates that his professions and his true beliefs do not match up.
Although religion is not Butler's primary focus in this social allegory, it is an important element of the text. His method of treating religion is fairly standard in dystopian texts of this kind, however. For the critique to be effective, Higgs must remain unaware of his hypocrisy. This should, ideally, lead to the reader's questioning his or her own beliefs to determine whether or not they match up with his or her actions.

Since the dystopian novel has been a fascination for me lately and because I have been thinking about them a lot, I have planned a series of posts about both utopian and dystopian literature. This may end up including some post-apocalyptic stuff, too. Coming up: some general thoughts about utopian and dystopian literature, a segment on Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, narrative technique in dystopian novels, and much more.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Mustard and Jelly Canning Workshop

Today was probably the coldest day of the winter, so far. It was the kind of day that made me long for the scorching days of summer, many of which I spent preserving the season's fruit and vegetables. Standing in front of the stove laden with multiple steaming pots, I wished for a break; now that I am consuming the contents of all those jars, I look forward to canning again.

The winter is certainly a good time to rest and collect ideas for the upcoming year; thus, it is a great time to learn how to can--or to practice canning--without the pressures of imminent harvest and piles upon piles of produce. Winter canning has a different, less frantic pace, and I'm very glad to be teaching a canning workshop now. During this workshop, we will make two items: a garlic & lemon mustard and a habanero wine jelly. Both of these have a complex flavor, while being relatively easy and fun to make. 

The class costs $22 (payable in advance of the class date) and includes a print-out of basic canning instructions and the recipes, as well as a jar of each of the items--the jelly and the mustard. The class is appropriate for any level of canning enthusiast.

The class will take place on Sunday, January 29th from 1:30-4:45 at the Birdhouse (800 North 4th Neighborhood Center). 

The class will be capped at 12 people; you must reserve your space in the workshop through purchasing a "ticket" through the PayPal link (you do not need a PayPal account to buy). Also, RSVP to me, the instructor, to let me know you're coming. Space in the workshop is not guaranteed if you have not reserved your spot. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Wild Fermentation

Sandor Katz
About a month ago, the Beardsley farm team and I had the chance to attend a Local Food Summit in Nashville, TN. Sandor Katz was one of the invited guests, and led a brief fermentation workshop. In addition to demonstrating the process of making a radish kraut and talking about the history of fermented products, Katz explained that we are in the midst of a very misguided cultural moment that wages war on bacteria. "In fact," he exclaimed, "much of the bacteria that surrounds is is not harmful!" And by creating bacteria-killing agents, we are depriving ourselves of the beneficial bacteria that help us digest food more efficiently, or fight off diseases, or reduce our bodies' toxicity.  "We, more so than any of our predecessors, need to be conscious of re-populating our bodies with beneficial bacteria," Katz urged.

This is a very important perspective to foster in a time when sanitizing wipes and antibacterial soaps abound--we get so carried away with killing off microorganisms, that we forget how important they are to our well-being and survival. It was also helpful to be reminded about the plethora of different fermentation methods; as a canning enthusiast, I sometimes overlook alternative ways of food preservation. So maybe it's about time that I try making beet kvass, or something else outside of my usual repertoire...

I have had Katz's book Wild Fermentation for a year and a half--about as long as I've been seriously into the process of fermenting--and recommend it to anyone who is interested in the process of fermentation. Katz also has a forthcoming book that will be even more extensive in scope and cover fermentation practices from various cultures.

I am so very glad that I had a chance to meet Sandor Katz and hear him talk about the subject he is so passionate about. Here's to a new year full of beneficial microorganisms!