Better Than Nature, With String Lights & Inflatables

Better Than Nature, With String Lights & Inflatables

THINKING THURSDAY: SOMETHING TO PONDER IN THE WORLD OF FOOD AND FARMING.

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Hey there!  Another Holiday steps to the plate…Are you Excited?

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When I was a kid, we had a few rituals that added freshness and magic to the relentless succession of days and nights. Since we were suburban folk, and apartment dwellers at that, putting away the shorts and breaking out the sweaters was our only nature-driven seasonal chore.

Each year before Christmas we would do what we called Christmas cleaning, which I hated, dreaded and avoided. But, when we were finished, it was the nicest feeling ever. Christmas cleaning was more rigorous than everyday cleaning because you washed down walls & baseboards, emptied cabinets and wiped them clean and tossed lots of unwanted clutter away.

Then I’d rearrange my bedroom furniture and swap the comforter and sheets for the winter ones.  And, when the cleaning was done, we put up the holiday decorations.  We decorated for other holidays, but nothing was close to the once-a-year splendor of Christmas.  Add some crunchy, sparkly snow and it was pure magic.

Marking time with rituals is something people have done for a long, long time and is shared by many  cultures. But over time, even within the same culture, the meaning evolves from generation to generation.  Back when America was more anchored by farm life, we didn’t need to buy artificial decorations to celebrate a holiday or season. Nature provided all that and more.

I especially enjoy Edna Lewis’ description of  seasonal markers in her book The Taste of Country Cooking.  One of my favorite books, her descriptions of the festivals and seasonal events in her small, turn of the century rural Virginia town are vivid.

Especially this one following hog killing day which would take place in December:

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 “My father would remove the liver and the bladder, which he would present to us [kids]. We would blow the bladders up with straws cut from reeds and hang them in the house to dry.  By Christmas they would have turned transparent like beautiful balloons.  We always handled them with care and made them part of our Christmas decorations.”

And:

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“Just before Christmas a green lacy vine called running cedar appeared in the woods around Freetown and we would gather yards and yards of it.  We draped everything in the house with it: windows, doors, even the large gilded frames that held the pictures of each of my aunts and uncles.”

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Can I entertain myself for one minute by imagining the joy on their faces when you hand your loved ones a fresh pig’s bladder? Got those reed straws ready?

As we become more distant from Nature, does the scope of our holiday decorating seem to grow?   Is there an inverse connection?  Christmas is no longer so special;  there’s an inflatable lawn ornament or string of lights to mark every Hallmark holiday now. 

American life rolls from New Year’s confetti through the red hearts of Valentine’s Day, the shiny green of St. Patrick’s Day, and the pastels of Easter.  Then we get a break because apparently summer requires enough purchases that it doesn’t really need another holiday consumer stimulus package. Whoops – did I just forget the 4th of July??

Then it’s back to school followed by the black and orange of Halloween, the painted hand turkeys and pilgrim hats and horns-of-richly-colored plenty for Thanksgiving, and wrapping up the year with the spruce and holly filled reds and greens of Christmas / blue and silver filled Hanukkah/richly multi-hued Kwanza. Rinse, lather, repeat.

What should we think of this? Charming or depressing or maybe a bit of both?  Are we savoring the sacred unique quality of each holiday and welcoming a new season, or mindlessly obeying the call to buy a bunch of plastic crap?  Have Nature’s seasonal joys and our spiritual observances been shoved aside by the retail display season?

Remember: the candy’s half off the day after ….

Honestly, I can’t think of a single decoration to top the excitement I feel at the sight of the first Robin and the early crocuses pushing through the slushy spring snow. Easter eggs are nice, a ham and a baking ritual something to enjoy, but do we need to rob Christmas of it’s extra-special once a year only sparkle?

I’m content to watch the rhubarb unfold, smell the spring earth, meet new babies, harvest dandelions and watch the seedlings for Summer’s garden push their tiny green heads towards the sun (OK, grow light, but STILL).

Each season has its projects,  cooking rituals, clothing, joys and hardships. Who needs a yard inflatable when real live trees are in bloom? 

Don’t mind my crotchety self if you live for a good American consumer holiday.  I have no desire to dampen your joy if you truly love that stuff.  But I have a suspicion that many of us don’t really love it or hate it, but do it because that’s just what we’re taught to do.

Sprite wants me to tell you to have a great holiday.  Slow it down and enjoy the sunshine. Make sure to chew your cud thoroughly and mindfully.  She says your holiday will be more fun if you don’t run to Target ten times. Sprite thinks you should spend an afternoon laying on a sunny spot of grass, closing your eyes and turning your face to the sun for a few hours.  I’m not kidding. That’s exactly what Sprite said.  She said that always makes her feel better… and Target will still be there tomorrow.

That Sprite’s wiser than she looks.  Easter Blessings Everyone…

This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday. What’s that you ask? It’s an ambitious and enlightening collection of posts from bloggers all over about issues near and dear to my heart: real food and natural living. Check it out!

in which we come bearing gifts

in which we come bearing gifts

It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes, or bags! Come on, you know it, perfectly said by the King of Christmas Grinchiness himself, Dr. Seuss.

I’m not much in the mood for cookie baking, gift wrapping or braving the crowds this year. I’m a Holiday Dropout I suppose, feeling more introspective than extroverted.  Nevertheless, whatever my whim, it’s always impossible for me to be untouched by the solemn wonder of the holiday season.

Most holidays, my enjoyment comes as much from my preparations as from the generosity I receive from others. While addressing Christmas cards, I am washed with fond thoughts of the person I am writing to. Preparing gifts of baked goods, wrapping holiday gifts and finishing them all with personalized tags makes me feel the same warm appreciation for the intended and gratitude for the people in my life.

This year, it’s a different sort of holiday due to my relatively homeless state; one that is broader in its scope of giving and receiving. Without a house of my own for the holiday, the usual activities are not so usual and feel odd and impossible.

But I’m far from homeless – while I have no actual house, I surely have a home.  And, since my home lives in the realm of imagination this year, so also do my thoughts of holiday giving.  The gifts I want to share this year are not ones found in shopping malls or grocery stores, but ones that have expanded the boundaries of my heart.

I find it often happens that serendipity plays its part in delivering the very message or salve you need in mundane, unexpected ways. This year I have been fortunate to have received many such synchronistic gifts just when I needed them most.

Here’s a few I’m happy to share with you; I hope they bring the same pleasure to you as they did to me. But I expect it’s possible that what’s magic to me may not say much to you. Or me either when I encounter it later at a different time and place in life.

That’s OK and as should be.  When the student is ready, the teacher appears, isn’t that how it goes?  You get the idea – if my gifts don’t speak to you, maybe they will remind you of synchronistic gifts of your own that meant much to you this year. And maybe you can pass those on too – someone you don’t know somewhere you’ve never been is waiting to hear from you.

I love this authentic and special holiday CD produced by Pat Humphrey with her daughters Lynn and Amy. These old carols are from around the world, and their angelic, ancient harmonies are so soothing to me I listen to them all year. Click the arrow below to begin listening or click on the title to visit The Rosa Minstrels site and listen to the whole CD.

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The internet is such a mixed blessing. It steals as much as it gives, but what it gives can be a delicate thread of human connection when your world rotates on a slightly different axis.  This heartwarming advent calendar from a complete stranger  Gloria Nicol at The Laundry Etc. in the UK made me feel much less Grinch-ey this  year. Click here to enjoy the calendar yourself – there’s still a few new surprises to come.  A photographer, writer, jam maker and shop keeper, you can visit Gloria here.

A Special Jewel of an Advent Calendar from Gloria Nicol of The Laundry Etc.

In sustainable farming circles, Wendell Berry is all that and more. Don’t take this the wrong way – I’m a huge Wendell Berry fan. But let’s not forget another old friend of the farmer, E.B. White. Not often mentioned in sustainable farming circles these days, E.B. White’s gifts rest in the realm of childlike (but far from child-ish) wonder and observation. His writing about his lovely and simple life in rural Maine in One Man’s Meat is a quiet joy that leaves you with tidbits you’ll be mulling over for a long time.

A gift that keeps on giving. Enjoy the reading first, plenty of rumination sure to follow...

I think it’s time to re-introduce real, old-fashioned mail. Written on paper, by hand, smudges and all.  This hand-made holiday card was just the balm I needed at a moment it meant the most.

The prayer-like and devotional quality of farm chores makes this card so true for me. Caring for the land and God's creatures is most certainly a way to kneel and kiss the ground...

The Digital Library of the Sketchbook Project is a bottomless source of fascination. Enter this rabbit hole at your own risk – you may be gone a while! I am so in love with this project and am blown away by the submissions. True gifts from the heart from not so ordinary people all over the world.  A live exhibit too: what a treat it would be to be able to spend a quiet afternoon with my nose tucked into the real pages – one of these days I’ll be there!  (Video of artist Lauren Nash and her very personal experience with the Sketchbook Project. Shows there’s a bit of magic for giver and receiver.)

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How do we find this stuff? Well, one way is by visiting our our friends at Sustainable Eats who host a wicked good blog hop called Simple Lives Thursday each week.

I hope the boundaries of your heart are expanded this holiday; after all isn’t that the true reason for the season?

The Merriest of Christmases from the Ladies of Auburn Meadow Farm

In which I wonder: are you kidding me?

In which I wonder: are you kidding me?

From all over the place and Snopes.com. Originally posted in the Daily Journal, Kankakee, Michigan.

 Can this be? Is somebody somewhere having a huge laugh watching this thing go viral? Or is this truly possible in our alternate American universe?

I would never believe that this was anything but a joke except for one thing. I actually know people struggling to maintain this kind of convoluted relationship between their brain, reality and food. Most of them would never go this far  but they can get pretty riled up in their heated rants against hunting.

Of course, I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t understand that somehow the package of plastic wrapped meat they found at the grocery store was at one time a living, breathing animal. They just choose to press that bit of fact out of their rational everyday thoughts.

For a long time, one of my pet peeves has been misleading marketing. As I’ve grown older and hopefully matured, I find my understanding and beliefs about marketing have deepened and evolved. Having spent much of my adult life working in sales and marketing, boy do I understand the spinning of a message. And the power of an image.

Today, I’m reading Kitchen Literacy by Ann Vileisis. While I’m not finished yet and have much more to say about the book, I couldn’t wait to mention it in relation to this classified ad (hoax or not) because it does much to explain how such ignorance could actually exist in our “smart” modern society.

Successful marketing consists of things like appealing display cases, helpful FAQS, buying guides, recipes and romanticized stories. Since the eating of animals is something we feel squeamish about, marketers know that we will grasp at the flimsiest evidence to either push the whole idea out of our heads completely or to support our belief that what we are doing is OK.

And they are more than happy to make full use of our desire to not know.

Marketers know that a pretty description including very little factual information, or an invented certification seal is usually all it takes to get us to turn a blind eye (whew!) to industry practices that no one would ever feel comfortable performing in their own home.

Marketers also know we no longer have any deep food knowledge with which to judge their products. We have no memory of what makes one cut of beef better than another. We are more than willing to be herded towards the most convenient solution offering the “best” of limited choices, mainly due to our preference to not know the back story.

Meat made at the store, where no animals were harmed…

Friends, pleaseBy far, the unkindest cut of all is willful ignorance.  It’s not cute when you giggle, “Don’t tell me, or I won’t be able to eat it” about your meat and dairy. If you can’t stand the knowledge, then you shouldn’t buy it or eat it. Delegating the dirty work isn’t innocence, and it’s not funny or charming.

I have to quote my meat hero, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of The River Cottage Meat Book fame; no thinking carnivore should be without this Bible in the kitchen.  Hugh says:

“The cruel practices I have mentioned have been increasingly publicized and clearly do not have popular support. Numerous polls and surveys indicate that the vast majority of the public objects to them and would like to see them banned. So surely they soon will be. Won’t they?

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Not just yet, it seems. Because the same moral majority of the pollster’s main street becomes the immoral majority, once they get behind the wheels of a shopping cart. They continue to buy the products they are so quick to condemn. So these appalling, abusive practices, it turns out, do have popular support – albeit that the supporters are in denial (it seems that nothing suppresses the exercise of conscience as effectively as the words ‘Buy one, get one free’). But there’s no getting away from it: if you buy something, you support the system that produces it.”

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I’m sorry,  I haven’t been much fun lately, but back to the original point. Is it a hoax, or is it genuine? I suppose it doesn’t really matter. It, and the scorn and ridicule it has attracted on the internet has reminded me of our complicated relationship with our food and the natural world.

Looks like a long, hard road ahead Ladies…..

This post is part of Fresh Foods Wednesday, a lively blog hop hosted by our friends at Gastronomical Sovereignty. If you’re looking for tips, recipes, projects and ideas about real food and farming, you need to get over there.

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In Which We Share A Great Find

In Which We Share A Great Find

As I learn more about farming, it seems all roads lead eventually back to WWII.  I have to confess some sheepish remorse for not caring more about American history when I was in school. Especially now, since the lessons (apparently not learned) of that era seem to be coming right back at us.

Trolling the internet one day, I stumbled upon this amazing online exhibit created by Corey Bernat; Beans are Bullets & Of Course I Can: A Collection of War-Era Food Posters from the Collection of the National Agricultural Library.

Advertisers are plundering these again timely and appealing images to sell us new books and products. We scan them in a quick way and are attracted to their nostalgic wholesome and honest feel, but did we take time to really examine the message?

Can you believe it? America Wastes 40% of All Food Produced Each Year

This skillful and entertaining exhibit identifies the root of our present alignment of government, deceptive advertising practices, industrial food production and farming methods.  That’s the dark part.

There is also an uplifting part where citizens join forces and engage in efforts greater than themselves for the betterment of the nation.

A secret invasion is going on every minute of every day, staged behind every computer and television screen, cell phone, street corner and magazine and we seem determined to avoid knowing about it. The war for our brainspace is 24/7 and we couldn’t seem to care less.

Pitch In And Help

If you don’t think there’s a warfare mentality to American style advertising, search Amazon to see just how many times a military word, strategy or reference is made in the titles of books on marketing and advertising.

There’s no doubt that advertisers have invaded our brain space; but, since we invited them in, we can ask them to leave. The real question is, “ Will we?”

Now, don’t let me finish on a negative note – I’m not really  a conspiracy theory sort of girl.  Rather,  I’m a “Let’s get out there and do something to make things better” one.

What better place to start than planting a garden & putting up some of your own food this summer? You might find you enjoy your quiet evenings in the garden and/or kitchen much more than the ones you spend watching TV.

Give it a try….

In which we say thanks for telling us what we’re supposed to want

In which we say thanks for telling us what we’re supposed to want

Trying Hard Not to be Chicken Little

I’m trying hard not to be Chicken Little here – but the recent announcement by Michelle Obama of the “Nutrition Charter” in partnership with, of all things, Walmart, leaves me really tired. Yet another retail driven approach to solve a policy driven problem.

This would be the third time in recent days that Big Business/Big Agriculture has completely driven government policy. The recent Food Safety Bill, USDA approval for unfettered use of GMO alfalfa and now this. Sigh.

Bill and I don’t grocery shop together often, but when we do it’s a living demonstration of how marketing works.  He is a product driven problem solver. When he has a problem to solve, he finds a product for that purpose and he buys it. He enjoys (loves?) convenience and value added products.  I (she) on the other hand, do not. I am attracted to more hand crafted and DIY items.

Of course, I’d like to believe my preferences are smart and independent, but I suspect I’m probably drinking Kool-Aid too, mine’s  just a different flavor.  Who knows for sure??

So now I’m wondering, how do we form our consumer beliefs anyway? I feel myself firmly attracted to and repelled by products that upon further examination I realize that I  really don’t know much about.  Many times it takes nothing more than a well designed package and my mind just fills in the information I want the label to contain. Honestly, we don’t even have to be paying attention – somehow the influence just sneaks right in and plants itself.

Big Food Marketers teamed with the help of the USDA have a practice of feeding you “knowledge” via their use of “helpful” information and FAQs.  You can be sure that according to their helpful information, your “wisest” choice is the product that is most efficient and cost effective for them to produce.  This continues to be such an effective strategy because we don’t really care to know more. Our food ignorance provides the perfect medium for their information to take root.

I find it really interesting that the USDA grading system we use to evaluate meat has changed so conveniently to remain in step with the changing practices of the feedlot industry and industrialization of meat processing.  The quality of beef has changed so much since the 1920’s, the USDA grading system no longer has categories appropriate to grass fed meat and the handling requirements for beef are definitely to the detriment of grass fed beef.  Apparently, today’s Prime is yesterday’s Select. And, did you know, then “Select” was called “Good”. It was changed because good just sounded ok while select sounds, well, select.

We needed to be taught to prefer this lesser beef.  I could go on…..

Food conglomerates are now busy working to beat independent third party certification to the punch by creating their own certifying organizations and labels.  Of course, surprise surprise, their well-spun animal husbandry standards match exactly their current factory farming methods. They know we won’t look under the surface – we’ll just look for some kind of label.  So, they create some crafty wording and homey logo to slap on their packaging and along we go.

Most of us sort of  know what Organic means and what can be bad about Natural?  Grass Fed, Grass finished, Pastured, Pasture finished, Free Range, what??  For example, from the Giant Eagle website:

Nature’s Basket®

At Giant Eagle®, we’re proud to provide meat that is as good as nature intended. That’s why our Nature’s Basket® meats come from a passionate generation of farmers and ranchers who raise animals without added hormones or antibiotics while fulfilling an uncompromising commitment to quality and a healthy environment.

We are grateful for the land, and with Nature’s Basket®, we can bring you the best it has to offer. We are committed to responsible management of our resources and are hopeful that supporting farms with eco-friendly methods will make a positive difference for years to come. Our Nature’s Basket® meats go through strict quality testing with consumers — just like you — to ensure that it has the great taste you’ve come to expect from Giant Eagle®. And we will remain steadfast in our effort to bring delicious, fresh and wholesome food to your table.

We trust that you will prepare our Nature’s Basket® meats with pride and joy, knowing that you are enjoying natural, flavorful food.

What does this really mean? Many words saying not a lot. Conveniently, my mind quickly fills in the holes with what I want to believe.  What kind of cows were fed what kind of food? How many cows to a square foot at the feedlot where they live for 3 – 6 months? I’m skeptical about but appreciate said lack of hormones and antibiotics, but what about the uncompromising commitment to quality and a healthy environment? Is that from some flowery mission statement or a real practice?  What kind of lives did these cattle get to live? What type of stewardship of the land was practiced? How was manure disposal handled? How were the neighbors of this feedlot impacted by the facility? Would they concur that a healthy environment is a respected goal? How were the grains these cows eat raised? GMO, non GMO’s? What type of pesticides? What about the transport, auction and slaughter facilities? Safe, humane for man and beast?  How has this meat been aged? Has it been irradiated? Sprayed to retain its redness? Pink slime added?

Thanks for telling me what I’m supposed to prefer…. more from the Giant Eagle website:

What is the difference between grass-fed beef and corn-fed beef?

Cattle spend the first year or more of their lives in the pasture, but for the final three to six months, the vast majority of U.S. beef cattle are fed a nutritionally balanced mixture of grain and nutrients (can you please tell us about the feedlot they live on for three to six months?).

On a small number of U.S. farms, ranchers raise cattle that continue to feed on grass through the final stage. There are no significant nutritional differences or differences in safety between grass-finished and grain-finished products. The principle differences are taste and texture. (Really, not what I hear…..)

Most American consumers prefer the taste of beef that comes from corn-finished cattle. The grass-finished market aims to satisfy consumers who prefer the taste of grass-finished beef.  (What does this mean? Let’s nip this whole grass-fed potential loss of market share nightmare in the bud??)

What you can do:

  1. Pay attention when you see food issues in the news – it really is relevant to you
  2. Know there are two sides to issues you see in the news
  3. Question ads and commercials
  4. Question whether the charming picture on the label has any resemblance to the real life “farm”
  5. Don’t be satisfied with the wordy generalizations on the labels, look for specific facts.  Or lack thereof –if it doesn’t say otherwise, it’s factory food.
  6. Reclaim your brain space
  7. Buy from people who can show you the cows/chickens/pigs/goats/sheep
  8. Join an organization like Slow Foods or PASA (Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture)

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not being hard on Giant Eagle – I shop there too. They’re just passing along the information they got from the helpful folks at the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association . Let’s not forget their lawsuit against Oprah.

All I ask is that we simply call things what they really are.  And stop looking to retail to solve all our problems.

In Which I Envy Oprah….

In Which I Envy Oprah….

Snow Cows

Oprah? Does she have grass?

There are so many great things about Oprah’s life, who wouldn’t want to be her, yes?

I’d love to visit Tom Cruise’s private Colorado retreat, have Art Smith as my personal chef and private study with Echart Tolle.  The fame, the A list schmoozing, the riches, the wardrobe, the stylists and assistants, the jet, the travel, the homes, the personal trainer, my own magazine, my own network, all very nice.

But that’s not it.  The reason I envy Oprah is that I love to give things away.  I wish I could  give people trips to Australia, new cars and all my favorite things.  I wish I could start a school that will provide a life changing opportunity for young people.  How great to have created something like the Angel Network awarding grants and financial support to people doing paradigm shifting projects? THAT’s the best part of being Oprah.

Oprah is a force of hope and encouragement and for that I admire her. Now, we all know I’m not Oprah nor do I have a budget like Harpo.  But it’s still fun for me to share what  small gifts I can, especially in this holiday season.

So many times it’s the smaller things that bring real enjoyment to our everyday routine.  My favorite sheets, fresh from the laundry, an awesome pair of socks, a clean car, a cup of home-made hot chocolate (with real milk, puh-leeze) topped with real whipped cream….

This CD has been one of those small everyday treats  for me, and I’m pleased to share it with you.  I have to confess that although it is a Christmas album, it is so soothing I listen to it all year round.  Plus,  you  know how much I love to support local, indie businesses and projects – this is not a mass produced hit machine holiday extravaganza.

This is something authentic and special, a from the heart CD produced by a mother, Pat Humphrey, with her daughters Lynn and Amy.  They have been singing together for over three decades, just for the joy of it. It is so fortunate for us that they decided to record these old carols from around the world, with angelic, ancient harmonies.

May this bring the wonder of the holiday season from our barn to your home! Click the arrow below to begin listening or click on the title to visit The Rosa Minstrels site to learn more. Enjoy!

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Happy Holidays!

Bill & Jackie Dietrich &                                                                                                                    The Ladies of  Auburn Meadow Farm