Monday, December 31, 2007

Year-End Giving: The Heifer Project

I first learned about The Heifer Project from the wonderful "Dr. America" -- Professor Jim Farrell of St. Olaf College, who featured it in one of his radio essays on WCAL. Since then, I've loved the idea of working to end hunger by donating the cost (or part of the cost) of an animal (in particular, one that can give milk or lay eggs) that can be a sustainable source of food and income to an impoverished family and community. Animal well-being guidelines help ensure that a donated animal is suited to the environment and that recipients care for it appropriately, and the recipients promise to share the offspring of the original animal with others in need. It's truly a gift that keeps on giving. And it's a charming opportunity to sit down with children, talk to them about hunger and poverty, and together choose a donation they can really relate to: a heifer, a goat, a sheep, a llama, a water buffalo, a flock of chicks, ducks or geese, or even honeybees -- a choice that will strike a chord with any young person who has seen "Bee Movie."

Check it out; that's all I'm going to say.

Happy new year, dear readers.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

First Seed Catalog of the Season

The first seed catalog of the season hit my mailbox on Saturday. Many years this has been the Totally Tomatoes catalog, but this year Jung Quality Seeds made it first. Having just looked at both websites, I noticed that they're both based in Randolph, Wisconsin, and are in fact part of the same company. So much for the race to be first; either way, they win.

This past summer I gardened in containers on my back patio; I currently live in a rented duplex and it isn't really practical to dig an in-ground garden. I was considering trying to get a plot in a community garden for the coming year, but it would probably be more sensible be to take advantage of an open invitation to continue gardening at what is now my ex-husband's house, where I lived and gardened between 2001 and 2006. It's got a 30-foot-long partially raised bed built into the slope of the back boundary of the property, gets quite good sun, and I'm familiar with the soil there. There are some perennials in the bed -- bee balm, phlox, joe pye weed, spiderwort, ornamental grasses, and daylilies -- but they are mainly toward the back of the bed and I just work around them in planting the lettuce, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers and summer squash that have usually made up the main part of my gardening efforts. Not having dug or planted the bed for the past two summers, I'm sure it will be a big job to clear out the weeds and spreading grasses.

If I have some real space to work with again this year, I will allow myself to play the gardener's favorite winter game: imagining the ideal garden, making lists of varieties, deciding between the tried and true favorites and beguiling newcomers. Over the years my favorite catalog has been Johnny's Selected Seeds, which comes from Maine and always offers a wealth of planting and care information with a nice selection of heirloom and organic seeds. All these catalogs are available online, but there is a much greater delight in sitting down with one or more printed catalogs and a pad of paper and a pen or sharp pencil and making list after list. It's a pleasant way to while away the weeks before it's time to get seeds started indoors.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Little Too Much Excitement (All's Well That Ends Well)

We spent several hours on Christmas Eve wondering if we should be taking Younger Daughter (age 15) to the ER after she ate half a chocolate cookie that turned out to have ground hazelnuts in it. She is allergic to tree nuts, though she's never had a life-threatening reaction. We were at her grandmother's house in Burnsville prior to our traditional family Christmas Eve dinner at Tucci Benucch at the MOA. The cookies were homemade and unlabeled -- part of a holiday gift my sister-in-law had received; I inspected and sniffed and couldn't detect any hint of nuts, so I told my daughter I thought they were okay for her.

Within seconds her tongue and throat were itching, then a few minutes later her throat felt thick and her mucus-production facilities were going into full drive. She kept saying, "This is bad, this is bad," but also kept assuring us she could breathe with no problems. We found some fast-acting allergy medicine in a kitchen cupboard and had her take it -- and then discovered it was 10 years past its expiration date. Oops. She was clearly uncomfortable but continued to say she was essentially okay and could breathe just fine. After some while it seemed that if anything really bad was going to happen it would already have done so, so we decided to keep our dinner reservation in Bloomington, while continuing to watch her closely.

Soon after we had ordered, her asthma started to kick in and she began to wheeze -- not in an escalating way, but causing her considerable discomfort. Her inhaler, however, was in Northfield. We kept asking her if she wanted to get to an emergency room to get on a nebulizer, but she kept saying no, she just needed her inhaler. We raced through dinner (it was delicious, as always) and then the seven of us piled back into the minivan and zoomed down to Northfield, checking with her every few minutes to see if we should divert to a hospital. No, she kept saying, "I'm okay" -- albeit clearly continuing to feel very uncomfortable. I got increasingly nervous, wondering if we were doing the right thing, as the lights of the south metro faded away behind us and I knew that we were getting farther away from help before we would get closer to it again. But she wasn't getting worse, she kept assuring us. We got to the house, raced in, got her inhaler, and within five minutes she was restored to comfort and didn't need to use it again. Enormous relief all around.

Lessons learned: Always have inhaler when going out of town. Try to have some chewable Benadryl, not 10 years past its expiration date, on hand if trying unfamiliar, unlabeled baked goods. Better yet, don't try unfamiliar, unlabeled baked goods!

I've always been conservative about seeking medical treatment. The watch-and-wait approach comes naturally to me, and we've made few ER visits over the course of 18 years of parenthood and three children. Did we gamble too much? Should I have called 911 as soon as she said her throat felt thick? As it turned out, all was well, but what if it hadn't been? Might the see-how-she's feeling-in-another-minute-or-two approach have been fatal if this had been a life-threatening episode? If there's another such episode, it might be no worse -- or it could be the one that becomes life-threatening. Should we now get her an epi-pen and expect her to carry it always in case of accidental nut exposure? It's hard to know.

But I'm grateful for this happy ending and glad to have been reminded not to minimize the potential risks involved in allergic reactions.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Cranberry-Hazelnut Biscotti

I hadn't done any holiday baking yet this year, but I wanted to make something to share with my colleagues, so last night after I got home I pulled out cookbooks and searched online for something a little festive and special but not an all-out sugar splurge. I've never made biscotti before, but was drawn to a straight-forward-sounding but appealing recipe for cranberry-nut biscotti I found on the Good Housekeeping site.

I ran out to Just Food for a bag of organic dried cranberries and some hazelnuts, which they store in jars in a refrigerated case for optimum freshness. (The oils in nuts go bitter and rancid after a while when stored at room temperature, which accounts for the unpleasant taste you can get when you use nuts that have been in your pantry for several months; I learned my lesson on that score and now keep walnuts well-wrapped in the freezer, where they stay completely fresh and ready to use when I want them.)

Toasting hazelnuts, as required by this recipe, was a new process for me: you bake them in a jellyroll pan for a while, then pour them into a towel and rub them (and rub them and rub them) until most of the skins come off. The flavor of these toasted hazelnuts, long one of my favorite nuts, was amazing; I could have abandoned the project right there, happy with these delicious nuts, barely waiting until they were cool enough not to burn the tongue.

The biscotti dough is a very stiff one, with no shortening to soften it: just flour, sugar, baking powder, eggs, vanilla, and a tiny bit of water. After a little initial stirring, it's necessary to get in there with your hands and knead the dough to mix it. When the dough is well mixed, then you knead in the dried cranberries and coarsely chopped nuts until they are well distributed throughout the dough. It was quite a physical process!

You form the dough into several long logs and bake them, then slice them up and bake the slices some more. After they were cool I spread melted semi-sweet Ghirardelli chocolate on about half of them. They were deemed delicious at the office this morning, and I will definitely make them again.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Farmers' Market Squash

Today it was finally time to cook the beautiful squash that has been adorning my countertop since I bought it at the farmers' market back in October. The grower described it as a French heirloom squash, but it also looks very much like one described as a Ukranian winter squash on this All About Winter Squash page. This was actually one of the smaller squashes of its type that was being sold at that stand that day, but I've included the yogurt cup next to it to help convey its considerable size.

It sliced open quite easily. I cut it into quarters, more or less. The web page I linked to above shows methods of cutting squash that include tapping a large knife with a rubber mallet, as well as use of a saw. My not-recently-sharpened chef's knife did the trick with no great effort required.

I oiled a baking sheet and arranged the quarters with one cut side down and baked them for about three quarters of an hour at 350 degrees. Last time I cooked squash I put large chunks into a covered glass dish with a little water and cooked it in the microwave for about 10 minutes. That worked nicely and was certainly very quick, but this time I thought I'd pursue the richer flavor and wonderful smell that come from oven-baking a squash. Here's how the pieces looked when they were done. They smelled heavenly.

And how did I use my squash? Well, two of the four quarters went right into my freezer for later use. I scraped the pulp off the skin of the other two pieces and cooked it with lots of diced carrots, onion, garlic, fresh ginger and water in a large saucepan until the carrots were tender, then blended it all up and added a little cinnamon, salt, pepper, and half-and-half. Yes, it's the same squash-carrot-ginger soup I made several weeks ago, since it became an instant favorite, but this time I made at least twice as much. I should have enough for several lunches this week, and another day I'll pull the rest of the cooked squash out of the freezer and use it for something else. That's a lot of eating for one squash.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Kitchen Composting in Berkeley

I knew from my last couple of visits to my brother in Berkeley, CA, that they have garden waste carts, like our wheeled garbage carts, that are picked up weekly for composting. Since September 2007, residents have been able to add to those carts their kitchen waste, including fruit and vegetable scraps, meat and bones, food-soiled paper, and waxed cardboard. I'd been thinking what a huge waste pizza boxes represent, since they can't be recycled with other paper and cardboard unless they are completely clean, which would be unusual. It didn't occur to me that they can be composted, but that seems an elegant solution. I was surprised to see that meat and bones can be included, since those are usually discouraged from inclusion in home compost piles to minimize odors and pest attraction.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Home Again

This was the view as my plane took off from Oakland, CA, this morning -- the two spans of the San Francisco Bay Bridge meeting at Yerba Buena Island in the foreground, the northern half of San Francisco on the left, and southern Marin County on the right, with the Golden Gate Bridge, linking the two, barely visible in this smaller view but clearer if you click and see the large version.

Yesterday I had lunch with eight or so former high school classmates in the charming but touristy little waterfront hamlet of Sausalito, visible if you follow the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin and look for the first built-up area along the coast to the right. It was idyllic -- a beautiful clear day in the 50s, yachts bobbing at anchor in the harbor, a couple of glasses of a pleasant Pinot Grigio warming the senses, a crab and avocado sandwich on the plate, lots of reminiscences and catching up and laughter and exclamations. But it didn't feel like home, although I spent my formative years out there. Home was the feeling I had as I flew across the darkening midwestern landscape in late afternoon, seeing a pinpoint of light surrounded by a little bracket of a windbreak repeated on farm after farm across southern Minnesota. Home was the feeling I had as Dave drove me down Cedar into Northfield, turning left off Hwy 3 onto Third St., crossing the bridge, and coming into Bridge Square all twinkly with holiday lights. Home was hugging my children for the first time in a week. I'm glad to be back.

Friday, December 7, 2007

All Seasons at Once

In my last post I commented that it seems to be autumn here in the Bay Area, judging from the foliage on some of the trees and shrubs. I'd forgotten what an all-season place this is -- because it's also spring and summer and winter as well. As I walked a few blocks to my mother's little house yesterday morning, I passed blooming roses, fuschias, bougainvillea and a purple-flowered vine. I mentioned this contrast to my mother, and she said that some people's bulbs are well up now, and will be blooming in January. The local garden center is selling pansies and cyclamen outdoors, but there is a large inflated Santa adorning the middle of the display area. This climate supports such a range of plants -- those that have tropical habits and seem to know no season, and those that change colors and drop their leaves; some that love moisture and thrive in fogs and coastal rains, and some that do well when there is little precipitation for months on end.

I grew up here, and can remember being defensive when visitors commented on the supposed lack of seasons ("We have seasons, they're just, well, subtle," I used to say), but I have come to love the marked seasons of the other parts of the country I've lived in for the past 30 years. Hot, humid summers have actually been the hardest for me to adapt to after the moderate temperatures of San Francisco, where it is usually between 50 and 75 and humidity is reserved for cool weather. And I'd be fine with it if winter only lasted 10 weeks or so, which has sometimes almost been the case in recent Minnesota years. But there's nothing to beat the joy of a May day when fragrant, old fashioned bridal wreath spirea and old lilacs grace so many Northfield gardens, or the soul-inspiring visual impact of peak color in autumn, or the silent shimmer of fresh snowfall.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Eating Locally Elsewhere

What was I thinking? I won't be cooking that beautiful heirloom squash this week, because I will be eating locally in the San Francisco Bay Area while visiting my mom and my brother and his lovely family for a few days. I flew via Portland yesterday, with airport TV monitors and newspaper headlines all emblazoned with images of the horrendous storm and flooding that hit the Pacific Northwest -- but all that was evident from the plane windows once we descended through the clouds and fog were a few puddles on the ground.

It is cool and drizzly in Berkeley today, and it is still botanical autumn here. The view out of my brother's kitchen window shows clusters of red berries against golden leaves, a bright red Japanese maple, and expanses of burgundy foliage interspersed with gray-green eucalyptus and redwoods and oaks and palm trees, set against the mist-enshrouded backdrop of the Berkeley Hills.

The fragrant dampness and rich colors provide a very welcome respite from the snows and below-zero windchills of the past few days in Minnesota. I do, however, welcome the knowledge that we will have a white Christmas this year, something that we used to take for granted (when we moved to Northfield almost 18 years ago, a longtime resident told us there was usually snow on the ground from Thanksgiving until at least March) but increasingly uncertain in recent years.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Local Eating This Week

It's been another atypical week, particularly busy at work and not cooking at home because I've been dog-sitting at my ex's house (formerly our shared house) while he is in New York for the week. I've lived mainly on toast (local bread) and peanut butter, and the remnants of some Chinese food and a large "gourmet vegetarian" pizza ordered early in the week. Tonight, as freezing rain fell to glaze the snow that arrived earlier today, I was at home and made a simple supper of local eggs and home-fries (eggs from Owatonna, MN, and potatoes from Kenyon, MN, both from within 30 miles of here). Next week I hope to finally do something with the beautiful peachy-pink French heirloom squash I bought from the farmers' market back in October.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Pleasures of Speed

My home computer has been just craaaawwwwling along in recent weeks. So frustrating -- waiting from 30 seconds to 2 or more minutes for just about anything to load (online or from the hard drive), and taking at least five minutes to be ready for action after booting up or coming out of standby status. We have a lot of fairly large games on it, and it's an aging system, and I have DSL, not cable, so I figured there wasn't much that could be done.

However, I recently noticed that my Desktop Weather program had been frozen for a couple of days and that things were running sloooowwwwer than ever. It finally occurred to me that this was a program that initializes upon start-up and regularly tries to refresh itself. Hmm, I murmured to myself, I wonder what would happen if I uninstalled it? And while I'm at it, how about if I change the settings on my security software so that updating itself is not the first thing that happens every time the computer wakes up?

OMG, as they say. What an amazing difference. I feel I've been reborn. I can start up the computer, open the program I want, and away I go -- no drumming of fingers, impatient tapping of toes, or going down the hall to do something else for two minutes. Not what most people mean when they talk about the pleasures of speed, but it's how I'm defining it this week!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Fairly Local Thanksgiving

My eldest daughter was home from college this week, and we ate out more than usual. Thanksgiving dinner was undoubtedly my most-local meal of the week. I did not order a special free-range organic turkey, but took advantage of the ".59/lb with a $25 purchase" offer on an Our Family turkey at Econofoods. Not the gourmet's choice, I'm sure, but it worked with my schedule and my budget. I'm certain it was a local turkey, however, since Our Family is the Nash Finch (based in Minneapolis) store brand and this is one of the biggest turkey-growing regions in the country. I really am shifting most of my limited meat purchases to local, small-scale producers, but I didn't manage that this time.

With the turkey we had garlic mashed potatoes (potatoes local, the garlic probably not, though the labeling was unclear in this instance), roasted local carrots, local Brussels sprouts, and Sno Pac local frozen organic sweet corn, and there was a local onion, diced and sauteed, in the stuffing (I feel apologetic that the stuffing was of the commercial bagged sort, albeit improved by the addition of the onion and some non-local but organic celery and browned pecans). And there was some other not-so local stuff as well. My vegetarian sister-in-law cooked a Tofurkey, which she said was really quite good, and my mother-in-law supplied a couple of Baker's Square pies. I'm no longer married to their brother and son, but they are my family too, after 25 years' history together. And I was grateful for that, and for them, and for having all the kids with us this Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


I'm grateful for many things, as usual, this year. One thing that's been particularly on my mind has been the current environment regarding the environment! As a result of serious, widespread awareness of global warming, combined with the soaring cost of gas (high by our standards, and certainly hard on many families' budgets, but still low compared to its price in many other countries,) "green" is finally being taken seriously. I see that as a very hopeful and positive development.

I'm grateful for the local food movement, which brought home to me that choosing the food we eat is inescapably an agricultural and ecological act, not just an economic, nutritional and gustatory one. And I'm grateful for our co-op, which makes it so much easier to act on that understanding and to support our local small-scale, often organic farmers.

I'm also grateful for an eight-year-old boy who has finally allowed me to start reading him one of the best children's books ever -- Half Magic, by Edward Eager -- and for his shrieks of laughter during the funny bits, and for his ability to be serious and sweet and insightful and wacky and bouncing-off-the-walls energetic (but not too often, for which I am also grateful). I'm grateful for a lovely 15-year-old girl who is learning to drive with her usual determination, is gradually coming to terms with some difficult changes in her life, plays the flute like an angel, strives to play the violin just as well, and yearns to make a life in music. And I'm grateful for the exciting opportunity to see a mature and poised 18-year-old girl, my amazing first-born, loved by so many who know her, move into a new phase of life at college four states away, ready to stretch her abilities, explore her options, and discover new passions.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Local Eating This Week

I have a new blender and took advantage of it this week, making smoothies with fabulous Cultural Revolution organic yogurt (from Iowa) and Sno-Pac frozen organic blueberries and strawberries (from southeastern Minnesota). Oh, okay, there were some decidedly nonlocal (but fair trade) bananas in there too, bought for the first time in ages, as I try to think of ways of expanding my eight-year-old son's very limited repertoire of acceptable foods (he who lives mainly on grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza, and chicken patties, making pizza sauce and organic ketchup about his only "vegetables." Thank goodness for Flintstones vitamins.).

My official local meal of the week, however, was this evening's squash, carrot and ginger soup, which also made good use of the blender. The idea of a squash soup with ginger has been simmering for the last couple of weeks, ever since it was suggested by Laura of Urban Hennery, who is running the Dark Days Eat Local Challenge. I searched online and found a recipe that sounded good and didn't call for orange juice or much else in the way of long-distance ingredients.

Going with what I had on hand, I used more squash (a whole delicata squash bought last month at the farmers' market) and fewer carrots (the last of my farmers' market carrots, along with a local onion from the co-op) than called for in the recipe, but either way the Vitamin A content is wonderful. I had fresh ginger left over from last week's curry, and that and the other seasonings were the only non-local ingredients. We ate it with fresh, organic multi-grain bread (made by Brick Oven for Just Food Co-op), cheddar cheese from Wisconsin, and golden, organic, grass-based Pastureland butter from southeast Minnesota -- the best tasting butter I've ever encountered. A simple but delicious supper, made even better by being shared with two dear friends.

Carbon Offsets, Revisited

A few weeks ago I was pondering carbon offsets. Since then, I've read Carleton's thoughtful Shrinking Footprints blogpost about offsetting vacation travel. I've also noticed that Click and Clack, the Car Talk guys from NPR whose names are really Tom and Ray Magliozzi, have a webpage urging people (1) to drive less and choose transportation best suited to the task (one human being shouldn't need to fuel four tons of steel and 300 horsepower every time they need to go somewhere), and (2) to consider purchasing carbon offsets. They provide a nice resource page with further info on companies that sell offsets.

So, I've taken the plunge. After visiting several sites, I chose, a project of The Climate Trust, to purchase my offsets. I liked the breadth of the types of project they invest in. They have, as do most of these sites, a "calculate your carbon footprint" tool that weighs your household energy usage, vehicle use, and air travel to give you an idea of the level of offsets to purchase. For about the price of a large pizza per month, I will be investing in projects aimed at energy efficiency, renewable energy, carbon sequestration, cogeneration, material replacement, and transportation efficiency. I can soon consider at least my home energy use and travel to be approximately carbon-neutral. I have also signed up for Xcel's WindSource program and am focusing my food purchases on more local sources. My contributions in these ways are small, but I believe in their power.


American Public Media (the program production and distribution arm of Minnesota Public Radio) has a series and a nice website called Consumed, which addresses the sustainability of our consumer society:
We are what we buy — a glib adage to be sure, but it prompts an interesting question: Is our consumer society sustainable? American Public Media takes on that question in this special series. We follow consumerism from its origins to its dominance in the world's economy and, arguably, its culture. And we examine how, and if, it might be adapted to reduce its destructive consequences while keeping store shelves stocked.
It's an issue that seems particularly pertinent as we enter the peak shopping period of the year -- a time when we often buy things simply for the sake of buying (and giving). There can be so much emotion and stress caught up in the idea of creating memorable holidays, proving our love and esteem for those around us, and keeping up with internally or externally imposed standards of giving. My blogging sister-in-law recently queried, "What Would Jesus Buy?"

Today's Midday program, at noon on KNOW 91.1 FM, presents one element in the Consumed series: an American RadioWorks documentary on "The Design of Desire" -- in part, a scientific look at what goes on in our brains (and in particular our pleasure and pain centers) when we shop. It could explain a lot.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Oxford Word of the Year: Locavore

The Oxford University Press has announced that The New Oxford Dictionary's 2007 Word of the Year is "locavore":
The past year saw the popularization of a trend in using locally grown ingredients, taking advantage of seasonally available foodstuffs that can be bought and prepared without the need for extra preservatives.

The “locavore” movement encourages consumers to buy from farmers’ markets or even to grow or pick their own food, arguing that fresh, local products are more nutritious and taste better. Locavores also shun supermarket offerings as an environmentally friendly measure, since shipping food over long distances often requires more fuel for transportation.

“The word ‘locavore’ shows how food-lovers can enjoy what they eat while still appreciating the impact they have on the environment,” said Ben Zimmer, editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press. “It’s significant in that it brings together eating and ecology in a new way.”

“Locavore” was coined two years ago by a group of four women in San Francisco who proposed that local residents should try to eat only food grown or produced within a 100-mile radius. Other regional movements have emerged since then, though some groups refer to themselves as “localvores” rather than “locavores.” However it’s spelled, it’s a word to watch.

Note that the Oxford experts in the English language use the apostrophe in "farmers' market"! (See my earlier self-flagellating rant on this subject here.)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Local Meal of the Week: Beef & Potato Curry

I was a bit late getting to my official local meal of the week, though I'd had a supper of Thorn Crest Farm's eggs (wow, those dark golden yolks!) and Brick Oven toast a couple of days ago. Tonight I made an easy beef and potato curry, with ground grass-fed beef from Thousand Hills Cattle Co., farmers' market potatoes and onions, Sno-Pac frozen organic peas from Caledonia, MN, and the last of my little tomatoes from my own garden. With it we had some pita bread that I deemed local by virtue of the fact that it had been in my freezer quite a while! The only other non-local ingredients were the minced garlic from a jar, some fresh, grated ginger, curry powder, and a sprinkling of salt. Not the fanciest meal in the world, but it made the house smell good and warmed the stomach going down.

Friday, November 9, 2007

A Little Political Fun

Here's a fun little exercise: USA Today's Candidate Match Game. You answer 11 questions on major issues, and see which candidates' answers most closely match yours. I was led to this via my sister-in-law's blog post, All Those President Men, Part 2, which sent me to the wonderful Salon article Stop lying to yourself. You love Dennis Kucinich (you have to get past a couple of ad screens to read the whole thing... but it's worth it). That article sends you to the match game with the prediction that if you're a Democrat you'll watch Kucinich rise to the top.

Anyway, good lord, despite thinking I was pretty much John Edwards' girl I found that my number-one match was someone I have barely heard of, if at all, and didn't know was a candidate! Seriously! My second-best match was, gulp, John McCain -- a man I certainly respect but don't expect to vote for (and is not of the party I generally support), and the third-best was... Dennis Kucinich. Salon was right, I guess!

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go read about Mike Gravel. Apparently I love the guy.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Interesting Concept: Vertical Farming

I Stumbled Upon something new recently: vertical farming. The idea is that multi-level hydroponic farming -- in skyscrapers, even -- could be accomplished in the middle of cities and elsewhere to bring food closer to those who need it. The story has been covered recently in Popular Mechanics and on CNN Money:
The term "urban farming" may conjure up a community garden where locals grow a few heads of lettuce. But some academics envision something quite different for the increasingly hungry world of the 21st century: a vertical farm that will do for agriculture what the skyscraper did for office space.

Build a 21-story circular greenhouse, says Dickson Despommier, an environmental science professor at Columbia University, and it can be as productive as 588 acres of land - growing, say, 12 million heads of lettuce a year.

With the world's population expected to increase by 3 billion by 2050 - nearly all of it in cities - and with 80 percent of available farmland already in use, Despommier sees a burgeoning need for such buildings. So he talked to fellow academics at the University of California at Davis about using rooftop solar panels to power 24-hour grow lights and found NASA-like technology that would capture evaporating water for irrigation.

Follow the links above to read more. Interesting stuff!

We're Lucky to Have a Co-op!

Last night at Just Food Co-op a few of us sat around talking about Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Kingsolver and her family spent a year growing their own food or trying as much as possible to purchase it from local producers. She mentions her local farmers' market as one great source, and clearly enjoyed getting to know the people she was buying her food from. But she didn't mention having a local co-op.

People all over the U.S. are excited about the notion of eating more locally -- to lessen the fuel burden of cross-country food transportation, to enjoy a sense of connection, season and place in relation to their food, and so on -- but in many areas it seems people depend on searching out and going directly to farmers to find their local products. Not that there's anything wrong with that itself, but it can take more energy and dedication than most of us have to seek out these local producers and buy from them individually. It makes it much easier when a local store or market, like Just Food, does that research and legwork and brings a variety of local foods to one easy location -- and provides a place where those local producers can sell their products, helping them stay in business.

We're lucky to live in one of the areas (MN-WI) where co-ops are most prevalent. I hadn't realized that in some regions they are not at all common. We're also fortunate that Just Food has a real commitment to supporting local farmers and producers, since some co-ops and natural food stores, while focusing on organically grown food, don't (yet) make local food a priority.

On another locavore blog, people were recently discussing how they find the local food they eat, and the fact that it can be quite difficult. Here's what I wrote:
I foresee that our local co-op will be my major source of local food throughout the winter, though our little farmers' market, which closes regular operations about now, does offer an occasional indoor winter market. The co-op is pretty committed to supporting local providers, so if there is something reasonable I'm looking for that they don't have in stock, I imagine they would have a good network for tracking it down, if it's available. If they weren't here, it would be a very different story. I "heart" my co-op!
And I do!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Discussion of "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" at Just Food tonight

Barbara Kingsolver's 2007 book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about her family's year of eating almost entirely from their own garden and local suppliers (and the associated joys of eating fresh food in season and raising an heirloom breed of turkeys), will be the topic of discussion at Just Food Co-op's book group tonight at 7 p.m. in the co-op's community room. The event is free and open to the public. This book changed the way I think about the food we eat and the way our culture relates to food.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Major Study Finds Organic Food More Nutritious

TomatoesThe last several days have seen reports of the early findings from one of the largest-yet systematic studies of whether organic foods show any nutritional advantage over conventional foods -- and the answer is yes.

Last weekend the Sunday Times reported:
Official: organic really is better

THE biggest study into organic food has found that it is more nutritious than ordinary produce and may help to lengthen people's lives.

The evidence from the £12m four-year project will end years of debate and is likely to overturn government advice that eating organic food is no more than a lifestyle choice.

The study found that organic fruit and vegetables contained as much as 40% more antioxidants, which scientists believe can cut the risk of cancer and heart disease, Britain’s biggest killers. They also had higher levels of beneficial minerals such as iron and zinc.

Professor Carlo Leifert, the co-ordinator of the European Union-funded project, said the differences were so marked that organic produce would help to increase the nutrient intake of people not eating the recommended five portions a day of fruit and vegetables. “If you have just 20% more antioxidants and you can’t get your kids to do five a day, then you might just be okay with four a day,” he said.

This weekend the Food Standards Agency confirmed that it was reviewing the evidence before deciding whether to change its advice. Ministers and the agency have said there are no significant differences between organic and ordinary produce.

Researchers grew fruit and vegetables and reared cattle on adjacent organic and nonorganic sites on a 725-acre farm attached to Newcastle University, and at other sites in Europe. They found that levels of antioxidants in milk from organic herds were up to 90% higher than in milk from conventional herds.

As well as finding up to 40% more antioxidants in organic vegetables, they also found that organic tomatoes from Greece had significantly higher levels of antioxidants, including flavo-noids thought to reduce coronary heart disease.

Full results of the study are expected to be released over the course of the coming year.

Addendum: Why, I wonder, is the mainstream US media not picking up this story? It is all over the British, Indian and Australian press, and is being discussed as might be expected on sites that have an organic or food-industry focus, but I've looked through page after page of Google search results and found nothing from CNN, the New York Times, MS/NBC, etc.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Carleton & Kenyon Local Food Ventures Featured

Rob Hardy let me know about an article in today's Inside Higher Education about the growing momentum toward bringing more local foods into college dining halls and student special-interest houses, with particular spotlights on Carleton and Kenyon Colleges. It's a topic I've written about before, having been particularly impressed with the dedication shown by Kenyon's Food For Thought program.

Here is the article
, titled "Campus Food From Around the Corner."

Thanks, Rob!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Local Meal of the Week: Butternut Tostadas

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For this week's Dark Days Eat Local Challenge meal, I browsed through lots of squash recipes and settled on this simple, quick, delicious meal: butternut tostadas. I found it in The New Laurel's Kitchen: A Handbook for Vegetarian Cookery & Nutrition, by Laurel Robertson, Carol Flinders and Brian Ruppenthal. When I was being an at-home mom in the early to mid '90s, I loved this book for being so much more than just a book of recipes -- more like a trusted friend -- but I have less time to cook these days and haven't visited it much for quite a while. Silly me. It's still wonderful.

This recipe is credited, to my surprise, to the late artist Alan Gussow, whose wife, Joan, wrote a compelling book about their gardening lives that I have often quoted here: This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader.

Here's the recipe: You cut a butternut squash into quarters and scoop out the seeds. Put it with a little water into a covered glass dish and microwave for about 10 minutes, until flesh is soft (or steam in the conventional way for 20 minutes). Meanwhile, toast corn tortillas on a griddle until softly crisp. When the squash is tender, scrape the squash pulp off the skins and mash it. Heat a tablespoon of oil, add some chili powder, garlic and ground cumin, and stir-fry until the spices are fragrant. Add the squash and some oregano; stir and fry until the mixture is hot.

Spread some squash mixture onto a prepared tortilla; sprinkle with a little grated cheese; cover with shredded lettuce, and dot with salsa.

"Makes 4 rather unusual but very tasty tostadas," the book says. It certainly does! The combination of toasted corn/spiced squash/mellow cheese is a real winner.

My squash and lettuce were from the farmers' market; my tortillas are from down the road in Faribault (purchased at the co-op during the Eat Local Challenge in August, but tortillas seem to keep almost forever in the fridge or freezer); the cheese is from perhaps slightly more than 200 miles away (Crystal Farms is based in Lake Mills, WI), but I had it on hand; and the salsa was Minneapolis's own Salsa Lisa.

Addendum, 11/1: I should have noted above that Joan Dye Gussow is a noted local and organic food advocate and nutritionist; my description above doesn't do justice to her national stature.

Monday, October 29, 2007

100-Mile Foodshed

The 100 Mile Diet website has a handy little gizmo for calculating your 100-mile foodshed, for those who would like to take on the challenge of eating -- occasionally, mostly or entirely -- from sources lying within 100 miles of home. Of course one could do this with a map and a compass, but this makes it easy for those who like to find all their tools online. I took a screenshot of the results for Northfield. It's a circle that extends roughly to St. Cloud and Pine City in the north, Chippewa Falls and La Crosse to the east, Clear Lake/Mason City to the south, and Redwood Falls to the west. 100 miles is a fairly arbitrary cut-off, and I don't pretend to be trying to follow a strict 100-mile diet -- but it's instructive, and as a matter of fact most of the "local" foods in my kitchen do come from within this area.

The Dark Days Eat Local Challenge I'm participating in -- at least one meal per week to be 90% from within 200 miles -- of course doubles that, which would qualify my White Earth Land Recovery Project maple syrup and presumably almost any wild rice I might buy. The Just Food Eat Local challenge from the late summer called for 80% of one's diet to come from the 5-state area. Now that seems comfortable and very doable in contrast, allowing wheat from the Dakotas and cheeses and fruit (Door County cherries, anyone?) from Wisconsin. There's not much we really need that can't be had from within that region (almost everyone in the locavore movement makes some exceptions for relatively dry, low-weight cultural staples like coffee, tea, chocolate and spices). It still does a lot to bring down the average, often cited these days, that the typical food item in an American kitchen has traveled 1500 miles to get there. (Here are some more statistics to chew on.)

Do what makes sense for your family. I'm not out to badger anyone about what they eat. But eating more locally makes sense to me in my gut (truly, no pun intended). It feels real. It feels good! It feels as if we might think of ourselves as having a real food culture, as the French or Italians or Japanese do, rather than living off an endless array of foods from everywhere that no longer strike us as luxuries and in many cases, due to their long travel or multisyllabic preservatives, really aren't so luxurious after all. Eating food that's fresh off the farm, is full of flavor, and stays good in your refrigerator twice as long as typical supermarket produce or dairy does -- now that seems to me luxury worth building increasingly into my life.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Hard Frost

A few days ago, based on the projections of my Desktop Weather gadget, I blithely mentioned that my last few green tomatoes might still have a chance of ripening on the vine, as no frost was predicted. Well, as it turns out, I saw frost on the roofs of most houses around here just about every morning this week, but my tomato plants remained unscathed. However, tonight in Northfield I see it's likely to be in the mid to upper 20s by the pre-dawn hours, and that's not something any tomato can withstand. So I've picked the last half-dozen small tomatoes. My growing season is over.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Tormented by an Apostrophe

A few weeks after I began this blog, I succumbed to peer pressure and did a terrible thing. And I've felt guilty ever since.

This dreadful deed? Dropping the apostrophe in "farmers market" (there, I shudder just looking at it). It may be correct AP style. It may be increasingly accepted. But in my heart I know it's wrong.

I'm a grammar and usage junkie from way back. My mother paid me to check for errors in the galley proofs of one of her books while I was still in elementary school [well, on further reflection, more like 7th grade]. I got (blush) a perfect 800 score on what used to be called the English Composition Achievement Test. My father was a journeyman printer-proofreader, who learned to proofread movable type upside down and backward. Editing skills have been a big part of my career, though my proofreader's eye does tire and miss things sometimes. So this stuff means something to me; I'll readily engage in a 20-minute debate on the finer points of the English language. I am flexible in a number of areas and am not a strict traditionalist by any means. But "farmers market" sticks in my throat.

There was a big debate not long ago about the naming of Scholars Walk at the University of Minnesota. The no-apostrophe faction won, the prevailing argument being that the walk did not belong to the scholars, it was merely named in honor of them. That argument doesn't persuade me when it's about scholars and it doesn't persuade me when it's about farmers, though it persuades others. See, for example, a journalist's discussion of the issue. Here's another:
Today, the tendency is to drop the apostrophe where once it would have been required. We see this especially in company and organization names. A relatively new distinction has arisen: if the organization is for the benefit of, but not actually owned by a particular group, don’t use an apostrophe. Thus, we have Department of Veterans Affairs, Citizens Insurance, Consumers Energy, and Farmers Market, none of them owned by the group in question. But we’d have a veteran’s benefit check, citizens’ groups, and the farmer’s daughter.
Okay, so there is definitely support for this view. Peer pressure, as I said. And I gave in. But I don't like it, and it's been nagging at me. In my mind, a plural noun is not properly used as an adjective unless it is made possessive. Possessiveness, in grammar, doesn't indicate only ownership; it can also indicate some general relation, a "pertaining to." When you don't want to use a possessive form, you use the singular. We don't say "I'm going to buy a dogs collar," we say "I'm going to buy a dog collar" (or, more elegantly, "I'm going to buy a collar for my dog"!). We don't have employees benefits, we have employee benefits. Or we could, somewhat less elegantly, have employees' benefits, particularly if we're talking about particular employees.

So why do we have Kids Meals? Veterans Day? Farmers markets? Singles bars? That phraseology loses something significant in elegance and precision. I think we could have farm markets, or farmer markets (which sounds odd, but I think that's just because it hasn't happened to become our usual idom), or farmers' markets.

There are some traditionalists who agree with me, like the Lexington Farmers' Market and the Australian Farmers' Markets. And in the article linked above on the Scholars Walk controversy, I see that my favorite newspaper grammarian, Stephen Wilbers, sides with me on this one -- in part because it sounds nonsensical not to use a possessive form when the plural noun is irregular: "women sizes" ("women" being plural already, there is no such word as "womens" without the apostrophe, just as there is no such word as "childrens" without the apostrophe, as Blogger's spell-check is at this moment advising me by way of some red underlining). We don't have children meals at fast-food restaurants. I see no good reason to put up with farmers markets. I think the latter simply sounds more natural to us because the "s" sound at the end of the word suggests the possibility of a possessive, or relational, construction. But without the apostrophe, it simply doesn't work.

So now I have a dilemma: do I go back and edit all my posts that have referred to the "farmers market," and their accompanying tags? Do I resolve not to look backward, but to simply go and sin no more? Or do I live with my wishy-washiness and write it off as one more quandary of the humans condition?

Barney Frittata?

For my first deliberately local meal of the Dark Days Eat Local Challenge, I had thought maybe I'd use a butternut squash I bought a couple of weeks ago. However, my attention turned to the much more perishable vegetables I bought at the farmers market last Saturday -- in particular, a gorgeous purple cauliflower and some broccoli. Since I also had some locally grown potatoes and onions on hand, I thought I would recreate a favorite dish from Keys Cafe in Minneapolis and St. Paul: a skillet meal that (as I recall) starts with potatoes and onions, adds fairly finely chopped cauliflower, broccoli and mushrooms, and gets those all nicely browned before adding eggs and cheese. I had all those ingredients, including eggs, from local sources -- well, the cheese is from Wisconsin, but it's not a major ingredient by weight, and I used a little olive oil, salt and pepper.

Here's a shot of the skillet while the veggies were cooking:

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Isn't it both startling and beautiful? I thought to myself, "Now, what familiar purple and green icon can I compare this to when I write my blog post?" Having three kids, the answer came immediately to mind: Barney, the dinosaur.

So that's my name for this skillet dinner: Barney Frittata. It was delicious.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Bedraggled October Garden

My vegetable garden this year grew in half a dozen pots on my patio. At left is all that is left of the green promise of late July (see photo below) -- frostbitten a few weeks back, though I covered everything, and thoroughly waterlogged from the steady fall rains that have brought us back from drought. I have a few small green tomatoes struggling to soak up enough sun to ripen, and since there is no frost forecast for the next week, perhaps some of them will make it. But one day soon it will be time to pull out the plants, consign them to the compost pile, empty the pots, and put them away in the garage until next spring.

Lessons learned this summer:
  • The bigger the pot, the better. My patio gets good sun, and though I watered almost every day, the plants in the smaller pots were clearly stressed by the heat.
  • Fill the pot with more soil than you think you need. Particularly where I had my cucumbers growing, the soil settled after a few waterings and rainfalls, in the end leaving the pots only about 3/4 full. The extra soil would have held more moisture and stayed a bit cooler.
  • Combining soils worked pretty well. I combined potting soil, topsoil and manure, trying to achieve a balance that wouldn't be too heavy, would hold moisture well, and would feed the plants. I did very little additional fertilizing, relying only on a few infusions of wastewater from my son's fish tank. My plants' production was on the low to moderate side, I'd say. The cucumbers and the tomatoes I had in a large pot did pretty well; tomatoes in smaller pots did not produce well.
Gardening is appealing in part because of its cyclical nature, especially here where we have such a curtailed growing season. You put your garden to bed in the late fall and start dreaming about next year. In just a few weeks, the first seed catalogs will start to arrive. I'm looking forward to that.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Cornucopia of Local Goodies

This morning I stopped by one of the final farmers markets of the year. A few last hardy souls were there with their trucks, selling squashes (a wonderful variety), broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, salad greens, pies, jellies, eggs, flowers, and ornamental corn.

The morning's takings made a still-life worthy of capturing. Note the beautiful French heirloom squash at the right, looking like a pale pumpkin. The grower said her pumpkins had rotted from all the rain, but these had flourished, and would last well. Note also the deep purple cauliflower just behind the cabbage. The eggs were apparently from assorted breeds of hen; the white ones are actually a very pale blue. Also included here are Native Harvest maple syrup and bread I picked up at Just Food. The syrup (a must to go with baked squash, in my mind) is from the White Earth Indian Reservation's land recovery project, and the bread is a new variety from Brick Oven, baked especially for Just Food -- and called Just Bread.

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It's a multi-grain bread made with all organic grains and local honey. I made a peanut butter sandwich with it after shopping, and ate it with a local Honey Crisp apple. Yum.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Dark Days Eat Local Challenge

In the local-food blogosphere, momentum is building for an Eat Local challenge for the harder part of the year. It's easy to fill up on local sweet corn, zucchini, tomatoes and berries in summer, but we Northern folk have to be a bit more intentional if we want to keep local foods in our winter diets. I posted a few days ago about eating locally in the wintertime. Joining the Dark Days Eat Local Challenge will give me some extra motivation to follow through on those possibilities. Here are the guidelines of the official challenge; you can read more at Urban Hennery.
  1. Cook one meal a week with at least 90% local ingredients
  2. Write about it - the triumphs and the challenges
  3. Local means a 200 mile radius for raw ingredients. For processed foods the company must be within 200 miles and committed to local sources.
  4. Keep it up through the end of the year, and then re-evaluate on New Year’s Day.
I'm pretty sure my first Dark Days local meal will involve the butternut squash that's been sitting on my counter for a couple of weeks now. I'll keep you posted. If anyone wants to join me and post your experiences either in comments here or at the Urban Hennery blog, please do!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Flash Flood Watch: Clear Your Storm Drains

The National Weather Service has issued a flash flood watch for much of this area for tonight and tomorrow morning; heavy rains are expected. With the soil still saturated from all the rain we've had recently, run-off will be heavy. Take a few minutes to make sure the storm drain near your house or office isn't clogged with fallen leaves!

New Northfield Blogger: Mary Schier's "My Northern Garden"

Check out a new local blog with a regional gardening focus: Mary Schier's My Northern Garden. Mary is the editor of Northern Gardener, the magazine of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society. As I well know, having had the privilege of her friendship for the past 17+ years, she's a longtime Northfield resident, a terrific writer, and a knowledgeable gardener -- not to mention an all-round superb human being. Over the years we've had plenty of gardening conversations about everything from tomatoes to asparagus to perennials to landscaping, and I look forward to following her blog posts.

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Poem for Blog Action Day

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wilderness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Quote of the Week: From Michael Pollan's Second Nature

My quote of the week, which appears near the top of my sidebar, reads:
"In American gardening, the successful compost pile seems almost to have supplanted the perfect hybrid tea rose or the gigantic beefsteak tomato as the outward sign of horticultural grace. What I read about compost gave me my first inkling that gardening, which I had approached as a more or less secular pastime, is actually moral drama of a high order."
It's from Michael Pollan's book Second Nature: A Gardener's Education (1991). Pollan has become better known since then for The Botany of Desire (2001) and The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006). Given my interest in how we think about, and the sources of, our food, I certainly mean to read the latter, but haven't yet. I remember The Botany of Desire particularly for its grim portrayal of chemical-dependent "conventional" potato farming necessitated by the American public's love of perfect French fries, and the freedom from such extreme chemical dependency that is promised by genetic engineering.

In Second Nature, Pollan devotes a chapter to the "moral drama" that's inherent in gardening if we care, and it seems we do, about gardening as more than either a purely artistic pursuit, using plants as our paintbox, or a manufacturing process, in which soil is only a substance that holds plants up while we feed them chemically. He describes the transition in the last century from agriculture that had relied on composted organic waste for thousands of years to the downward spiral of chemical fertilizer use:
At first, yields increase dramatically. But the cost is high, for the chemicals in fertilizer gradually kill off the biological activity in the soil and ruin its structure. Eventually, few organic nutrients remain, leaving crops completely dependent on fertilizer -- the soil has become little more than a device to hold plants upright while they gorge themselves on 5-10-5. And to make matters worse, the more fertilizer he uses, the more problems the farmer has with disease and insects, since chemical fertilizer seems to weaken a plant's resistance. After [World War II] the farmer in this predicament succumbed to a host of new chemical temptations -- DDT, Temik, chlordane -- and it wasn't long before he found himself deep in agricultural hell.

The home gardener, meanwhile, had been walking down pretty much the same ruinous road. .. By the 1960s, the shelves of his garage were lined with the dubious products of America's petrochemical industry... Where one might reasonably have expected to find the logo of Burpee or Agway there were now the wings of Chevron. Somehow gardening, this most wholesome and elemental of pastimes, had gotten cross-wired with the worst of industrial civilization.

This is the wilderness in which [Robert] Rodale [the father of modern organic farming and gardening] found the American gardener and confronted him with a stark moral choice: he could continue to use petrochemicals to manufacture flowers and vegetables, or he could follow Rodale, learn how to compost, and redeem the soil -- and, the implication was clear, himself. [Second Nature pp. 84-85]
After a tour through the history of the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal, to Thoreau's bean field at Walden, Pollan sums up:
No less than the nineteenth-century transcendentalists and reformers, we look to the garden today as a source of moral instruction. They sought a way to preserve the Jeffersonian virtues even in the city; we seek a way to use nature without damaging it. In much the same way that the antebellum garden became a proof of the agrarian ideal, we regard our own plots, hard by the compost pile, as models of ecological responsibility. Under both dispensations, gardening becomes, at least symbolically, an act of redemption. [p. 85]
I think there is more to it than that. For me, at least, keeping some kind of garden connects me with the fundamental nature -- or, conversely, the natural foundation -- of life: the seasons, the soil, the miracle of the seed, the renewal that comes from decomposition. We are often so disconnected from nature that apart from the occasional natural disaster we can and often do go about our lives as if they -- we -- were not utterly reliant on sun and earth and air and water. To me, that disconnect is unacceptable: gardening is not just about personal redemption, but a lifeline to all that is real and basic.

But I do view organic gardening as a moral issue, believing that in gardening, as in our other interactions with the world that is the only home not only for ourselves but for all other forms of earthly life, we should do our best to leave things no worse than we find them.

Image credit: Kessner Photography/ Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park

Today was the kind of day that simply demands that you get outside and enjoy it. Dave and I set out on a vaguely birding-motivated drive, intending to visit Afton State Park near Woodbury. Instead, finding ourselves behind slow-moving road-marking vehicles on a county road, we abandoned that plan and followed a sign to St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park. The river was noisy with watercraft driven for speed, but up the hill it was relatively peaceful, and a beautiful place to enjoy the changing colors and contrasting foliage.

We found our way to the park's Conference Cottage, a somewhat prairie-style house built into the side of the bluffs. Standing on its deck we were at eye level with the tops of the trees growing on the steep hillside below us. We saw a few warblers darting from treetop to treetop.

The conference center certainly looks to be an appealing place for a social occasion or small business gathering. It can be rented for $250 per day (8 a.m. to 6 p.m.) year-round. It has me wondering what occasion I can think up that might call for such a get-away. (Women of my book group, are you taking note?)

Leaf-strewn trails let us get up close to a wide variety of deciduous and evergreen trees, including, unfortunately, plenty of buckthorn.

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We caught glimpses of the St. Croix between the trees and sat on a bench at a scenic overlook, watching snow-white gulls wheeling far below us. It was an idyllic outing, indeed.

We drove back past farms advertising pumpkins, apples, and corn mazes, and I marveled as always at the beautiful city hall (the Historic Dakota County Courthouse) in Hastings. That's a town I need to find time to explore.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Tam Lin: Fairy Tale Set at Carleton

I've just been rereading, for about the fourth time over the past fifteen years or so, Pamela Dean's novel Tam Lin, a modern retelling of an old Scottish ballad, set at a thinly disguised Carleton College of the early 1970s. It's part of Tor Books' Fairy Tale Series and was originally published with the cover at left in 1991.

Janet Carter, daughter of a "Blackstock" English professor, has grown up around campus and is now a student there. She befriends a group of drama-loving Classics majors whose speech patterns, cryptic references to age, and intimate knowledge of Shakespeare hint that they are no ordinary college students.

Anyone who knows the Carleton campus, the Arb or Northfield will enjoy the very recognizable descriptions of place in this novel, which combines a dark magical tale with a college coming-of-age story. College buildings are renamed in decipherable ways: Laird Hall has become Masters; Nourse has become Ericson; Burton has become Taylor; Evans is Eliot (as in George, as in Mary Ann Evans). Janet and her roommates shop at Jacobsen's for fabric to decorate their room. The book was reissued in 2006; the new cover (at right) shows a recognizable bridge over the Lyman Lakes. There is a nice description that will ring true for anyone who has appreciated the view of Carleton from the rise in Highway 3 north of Second Street.

Pamela Dean Dyer-Bennett
attended Carleton from 1971 to 1975. Her author's note states:
Readers acquainted with Carleton College will find much that is familiar to them in the architecture, landscape, classes, terminology, and general atmosphere of Blackstock. They are earnestly advised that it would be unwise to refine too much upon this. Blackstock is not Carleton.
That may be so, but it's nice to imagine that it is. You'll never think about Classics the same way again!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Senate Candidates Call For "Apollo Project" for Energy Independence

Al Franken speaking to a full house at St. Olaf on Tuesday evening.

Al Franken and Mike Ciresi, both seeking to step into Norm Coleman's U.S. Senate seat, share a metaphor for what needs to happen to remove our dependence on foreign oil and move to cleaner, renewable energy sources. Both men -- and other candidates and policy organizations around the nation -- call for the energy equivalent of the Apollo space project that put humans on the moon within a dozen years of the Russians' launching of Sputnik, the first satellite, 50 years ago. As Franken's website says,

This “Apollo project” should provide financial support for research into new forms of renewable energy and development of currently-identified sources to make them more efficient. Of course I’m talking about corn ethanol. But I’m also talking about cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels. I’m talking about solar power. And, especially here in Minnesota, I’m talking about wind power. We live in a windy state!

It’s going to be a huge project, but it will pay off in so many ways:

  • We’ll dramatically improve our environment.
  • We’ll finally be taking steps to address global warming.
  • We’ll make our nation more secure and less dependent on an uncertain global fuel economy.
  • We’ll revitalize our manufacturing sector. The Ford plant in St. Paul that’s closing down should be making wind turbines, and we should be putting them up all over Minnesota.
  • We’ll create high-tech, high-paying jobs in conservation and R&D.
Ciresi's site says:

We must fund the initial investment by redirecting subsidies paid to the highly profitable oil and gas companies. The 2005 Energy Bill provided billions of dollars to the largest oil and gas firms in our country. These special interests have a stranglehold on our nation through record prices, record profits and at the same time, an undeserved share of our tax dollars. Subsidies for the rich do nothing to change our dependence on foreign oil or our need for rural revitalization. Investing in local farmers and universities does create positive change. ...

As your U.S. Senator I will:

  • Invest in clean energy technologies such as wind, solar, ethanol, and biomass.
  • Bring America to energy independency by 2020 by creating an Apollo-type project. By investing in energy efficiency technology, investing in “green buildings” that are energy efficient, creating tougher mileage standards and investing in alternative fuels to power our automobiles we can reach that goal.
  • Create a tax system that gives entrepreneurs and businesses incentives to develop clean energy technologies.
I'm no fan of Norm Coleman's, but he is a co-sponsor of the bipartisan Dependence Reduction through Innovation in Vehicles and Energy Act (DRIVE Act). More information about his views on energy independence can be read on his campaign website.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Eating Locally in Winter

The Star Tribune had a nice piece a few days ago about ways we northerners can continue to emphasize local food in our winter menus. Relatively local grains, including wild rice, and local meat, dairy products, eggs, beans, squash, root vegetables, cabbage, and sturdy greens like kale can carry us a long way. Apples can last quite a while if carefully kept, and cranberries are a major crop of our neighbor, Wisconsin, that are being harvested now, last a long time when refrigerated in plastic bags, and freeze well. Maple syrup and honey are often available from Minnesota sources.

Many of us freeze, can, or dry some of our local produce to get us through to the next growing season (I have one jar of strawberry jam left from my flat of Lorence's strawberries), and as the article notes, "while 'frozen' may not be the first word association match for 'local,' Sno-Pac Foods Inc. in Caledonia, Minn., has been freezing local organic fruits and vegetables since 1943." Butter Kernel canned vegetables are processed by Faribault Foods, based just down the road.

I'm not a hard-core locavore; you won't see me writing a book on "how I lived for a year on food grown within 100 miles." I see great value in supporting local food production that's a good fit for our ecosystems and in strengthening our local, sustainable farming infrastructure. I believe in being thoughtful about food choices and being aware of how much fuel is expended in transporting tons of food thousands of miles around this country every day. But I also recognize that trade has always tended to improve quality of life and I don't want the local food ethos to lead to the demise of other valuable, traditional regional economies like those that produce citrus or tropical fruit, coffee, tea, olive oil, wine, or spices.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Lorentz's Meats Featured at Econofoods

I dashed through Econofoods this evening, picking up a few necessities for the week ahead, and I noticed that an entire case in the meat department is now devoted to products from Lorentz Meats, which is based in Cannon Falls. Bacon and quite a variety of sausages were on display. What a delightful surprise.

The Lorentz Meat label, above, was designed by Triangle Park Creative, which has also designed packaging for Thousand Hills Cattle grass-fed beef, Cedar Summit Farm cheese, and other local specialty food producers.

Here's an article from Ag Innovation News about Lorentz's diversification from a typical small-town meat processor to a firm with expertise in direct marketing of meat from the farmer to the consumer. They've been very involved in a direct marketing initiative called Branding Your Beliefs, presenting seminars they developed in association with Land O' Lakes, The Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota, and The University of Minnesota. It's nice to see a small, traditional business find ways to adapt to the changing economy.

Back at Econofoods, Minnesota-grown pumpkins are featured out front, and sturdy-looking, inexpensive, reusable shopping bags -- the likes of which the store (or its predecessor, More 4) has offered before but not recently -- are on sale at the checkout lanes.

Econofoods has recently reorganized its shelving plan, with one of the main results being that organic or natural brands of many canned and packaged foods are now, for the most part, placed right next to conventional brands, where they will offer a new breadth of choice to shoppers. While there is certainly some logic to the more traditional supermarket practice of segregating natural/organic products to a specific section of the store, it has always struck me as rather a shame -- as if it were a statement that such products were not part of the mainstream, and making it too easy for the typical shopper not to see them as an everyday shopping option. I'm pleased to see Econofoods integrating them with other products in a more "natural" way.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Become a Just Food Owner-Member

Since it opened nearly three years ago, Just Food Co-op has held a special place in the hearts of Northfield-area residents who value access to locally produced food and to organic, natural and/or bulk foods and personal care and household products. It's also a great place for people who simply appreciate top-quality food, from artisanal cheeses to fine olives to the freshest produce and dairy products.

If you shop at Just Food, appreciate their presence in the community, and are not yet an owner-member, consider this a personal invitation to become one. It's a great way to help ensure the co-op's financial stability, which not only benefits you as a shopper but also supports the local farmers and other food producers who provide much of the co-op's produce and other fresh food.

It's not like the '70s and '80s, when co-op membership meant store discounts in exchange for actually working at the store a few hours a month. The way it works now is that you simply purchase shares in the co-op. In exchange -- on top of the satisfaction of supporting a store that you value -- you get case discounts, member specials, voting rights at the annual meeting, a monthly newsletter, and more. Visit and click on Membership to find out more. There is a downloadable membership application, which you can fill out and bring into the store. The application form outlines options for paying the $125 cost in a single payment or in quarterly payments over the course of a year, which makes the cost quite manageable even to those on a tight income. You may also opt to give a gift membership.

I borrowed the image at the top of this post from a website, The Northfield Food System, I stumbled upon recently that reports on three major Northfield food suppliers from the perspective, at least in part, of their support for local food producers. It appears to have been an Environmental Studies course project by St. Olaf College student Jason Hendricks. The introduction concludes:
With farm bought foods giving way to frozen foods, the average consumer cannot help but lose their sense of place in the food system. It is no longer apparent where your food was grown and what was put into it. This web page will seek to discover how Northfield has responded to the loss of its rural identity, and whether a sense of locality has been retained through its food system.
As you'll see, Just Food emerges as the hero in this particular story. If you're looking for a sense of place in the food system, Just Food is where you'll find it in Northfield (along with the farmers market, of course). I encourage you to give it your support.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Box Elder Bug Season

Box Elder Bugs swarming on garage doorRob Hardy's "season of plagues" comment to my last post reminded me that a year ago I submitted to a photo or two of box elder bugs swarming on the south-facing face of my former house, where my ex-husband still lives. As I recall, Adam Gurno gave it the honor of grossest photo of the week. I haven't seen them quite this thick yet this year, but they are plentiful and rather annoying as they look for suitable hibernation spots. They prefer light-colored, south-facing surfaces -- hence their particular profusion at this location. Here is a page with more information about them and advice on how to keep them out of your home.
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Thursday, October 4, 2007

High Water in October

It took me a while to get my camera up and running this week, so I missed getting pictures of the highest water after our heavy rains of the weekend, continuing into the workweek. I have to say I don't remember the river being this high at this time of year before.

Look how little space shows under the Third Street bridge; granted, there is a drop-off at the mill, but normally you can see more under the bridge. Compare it to the photo that lives at the top of my sidebar, which was taken in late July.

A couple of days ago, looking out of the Neuger Communications Group office at 411 Water St., we were pretty sure we were seeing water up to the bench on the west side of the river.

That's a lot of water! The ducks have been keeping a low profile; it's got to be challenging to keep up with the current during high water like this.

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On the east side of the river, the vegetation is getting its feet wet. (This plant, covered in tiny little daisy-like flowers, looks as if it might be part of the aster family.)