tea time

A conversation between the farmwives…

Coree’s thinking

I know we’re all about to dig deeper into planning the season to come, if we haven’t already placed a seed order or two.  This time of year always causes me to do some nice reflection on the season behind.

However weird or wonderful the growing season was – share with us a few tidbits that really stuck with you.  Vegetable varieties, recipes, working innovations, whatever…

Here’s mine: First, I’m enjoying the heck out of purple sweet potatoes (if you haven’t noticed).  They were easy to grow, a little harder to dig, but such a freaky looking treat, I can’t help but enjoy them.

Next, in literature, I read 1491, and am now into 1493, by Charles Mann, and I can’t recommend them enough.  They have been food for thought, and good material to integrate into homeschooling history-related conversations.  I also had an Isabel Allende revival of sorts this year and it’s been such a good escape!

Finally, in the garden, we managed to mulch our onion patch the Fall before we planted.  After so many years of battling weeds in onions, never quite feeling on top of that – we had a nice patch.  Now we just have to expand and perfect our storage facilities…  there’s always room for improvement.

Cher replies…

This is the time for reflection, no doubt about it. And, yes, the time to figure out what worked, what didn’t, what we want to try more of, and what we want to bag altogether!

Some of my gardening highlights of the year were the incredible peaches and figs (and their success has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with my input. ahem.). Sweet potato growing is always a highlight. Last year the “Carmen” sweet peppers rocked, all eggplant sucked, and we grew a delicious new muskmelon last season called “Hannah’s Choice”. The watermelon harvest, because of the obscure weather, was spread out over the course of many weeks, instead of having an intense surge of them all being ripe at once (which is normal). This totally challenged our skills in figuring out which melons were ripe and ready for picking, that’s for sure!!! Oh, and the ginger. The ginger was out of this world. Now, none of our gardens will ever again be complete without the addition of this awesome and easy-to-grow crop.IMG_4816

To be very honest, I’m procrastinating a bit on getting my seed order organized. The catalogs are here, I’ve done a little thumbing through, but once my brain goes there, I begin feeling the pull of the gardens. Which is a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve been so enjoying my recent stint of sewing and reading that I’m not quite ready for that to end. And I’ve got a very dusty spinning wheel and a whole fleece from my friend (thank you, Kay!) that are just staring me down. So thoughts of the garden are still far away in my mind. The books that I am so enjoying right now are the James Herriot series. I read the first of the series “All Creatures Great and Small” a year or two ago. But I have borrowed the next three in the series and am reading them now. Even if you are not a farmer or a veterinarian, the stories are so tender and captivating. When it seems fitting with the children, I will read some of the chapters aloud for the whole family to enjoy. I highly recommend these books! And now that we’ve borrowed “1491” from Robin, the seed order may get put on hold a wee bit longer. There’s still plenty of time, right?

hi dears,

reflection, hmmm. the highlight of our gardening year was found in our first crop of blueberries, planted years ago, it had started to feel like we were never going to get any significant amounts, but this year proved patience is a virtue. blueberries in abundance meant we not only were able to eat them, we could make jam, muffins, pies, freeze them for winter…that reminds me, it is winter, i can take those sweet treats out!

a new twist for us on the farm came in our pig pen. we have had pigs in the past and used a movable pen. rotating  the pigs meant the weekly task of moving their pen constructed of t-posts and hog panels. we loved this method and used our strong nosed stock to clear many an area around the farm and transition them to pastures more suitable to our other animals.  with a few years off pigs, we got back into them this past year and are now using a deep litter method. the compost we are generating is a true boon to our gardens and we are really enjoying this different twist.

IMG_0413

now, looking ahead, one never knows what the season will bring, but now that we have thawed from a severe cold snap, i might just be ready to ponder…with excitement for another year friends,

robin

living history

We landed on our little homestead about nine years ago now.  It was an unseasonably cool August, kind of like this one. We hit the ground running and made a rudimentary garden as soon as we could.  The soil was rough and wet and uneven.  There were stumps, and still a lot of trees to clear around the small field before we would have enough light and circulation to get a fair start.  It wasn’t long before we began to run soil tests.  First we just did simple ones from the extension office, then my Fellow Man got serious about it and we started using Logan Labs.

As wonderful as it would be to test a WHOLE garden’s soil.  It doesn’t often work that way.  There are sometimes vast variations from one side of a row to another, and the cost of separately testing each variant would be prohibitive to the average homesteader.  So, we just do what we can, and by and by the garden has improved.  That’s said, there’s always room to improve some more.  And there are always mysteries to ponder.old house 1

Our south western garden is one we’ve been chiseling away at for the past five or six years.  There were walnut trees along one edge, and a plum thicket along another.  We’ve trimmed, cut, burned, raked and year by year made the garden larger, but it’s still a little rough.  As I take the wheel hoe down between the (late) carrots and beets, there’s a lot to notice  The north side of the row is rocky and rough to hoe.  The other side is soft and fluffy.  On the rocky side, there are hardly any weeds, but the carrots haven’t germinated well either.  On the fluffy side there are LOTS of weeds (the dreaded galinsoga), and LOTS of carrots too.  However, the beets look noticeably better on the rocky side.  How about that?  I wonder about it as I work in the garden.

If I stray from the garden path a few feet to the north, I run into an old house that sits roughly in between the southwestern and northwestern quadrants of our bottom gardens. It’s a simple log structure.  The logs aren’t thick, and the siding is thin and gray.  There is a layer of mud packed between the logs.  The singular downstairs window has glass panes, and that’s all the external light there is, except for the one small window upstairs, which has just a shutter and no glass.  It was a very rudimentary home.old house 2

I’m not sure who lived in it.  I’ve heard that some cousins of the old owners’, the Cherry’s, lived there.  But it seems like they didn’t stay for the duration.  Stretched across the rafters of what I think would be the main living room are a couple of long poles, where Elzie Cherry evidently hung tobacco probably 40 or 50 years ago.  We found old fertilizer sacks, mattress springs, and remnants of shoes (go figure on that one) in the plum thicket around the house.  So there’s a clue about our gardens.  Tobacco grew here.  Elzie Cherry ran his mule through these rocks, too.  We have spent some time re-opening drainage ditches he created around this low field, to good effect.  Elzie knew this land well.  We’re not the first to be making a go of it in this bottom ground.

Each year I dream of tearing the little cabin down and freeing up that space, but to be honest, we use it for storage, so it’s hardly a priority.  I’d like it gone because it harbors groundhogs and snakes, and it’s just sort of funky to have an old house sitting around.  But another reason I’d like to see it go is so we can see what’s under it.

Whenever I’m working on the western side of the garden, I can’t help but look at the rocks.   On closer examination of the stones in the path, there are lots of chert chips.  Many of them have been worked.  They are flakes of stone, the leavings of the time-honored process of flint knapping.  From time to time we find a nice scraper tool, or even a complete arrowhead point, but mostly we find chips.  I’d like to see what could be found in the ground under that old house.chert

I suspect, when I look at the flint all over the garden, and hear the gurgle of the creek nearby, that this was a good place to do some handiwork.  The creek runs so close, and I know that it has snaked its way back and forth through the sandy bottom land just below us for many hundreds of years.  Our garden may have been creekside a thousand years ago.

The kids could swim and catch fish while the adults flintknapped and scraped hides in the pleasant cool air by the water.  I don’t have enough information about the people who came before us here to make a really clear imagination of those folks.  I wish we knew more.  It’s a gaping hole in our understanding of this land.  But, as a fellow human being, I appreciate that we have shared this rocky shore, the sound of wind in the trees and the glint of light on the water moving over rocks.  I’m sure that those people felt the warmth of love and tangle of conflict, just as we do now.  They threw their voices over the night sounds of the woods and singing of the water.  I’m grateful they left some stones to show us they were here.bowl of rocks

But I still don’t know why the rocks are thicker on one side of the garden.

Why is the ground wetter on the south side, drier on the north?  Maybe it’s deeper geology at work.  Now my mind is in the creek – down with the slick black slate rocks and blue limestone deposits.  Probably, the creek once ran through part of what is now our garden.  An occasional piece of slate surfaces in the garden, mostly on the north side.  More crinoids there too.  These are fossils left from the Cretaceous Era, when Tennessee was under water.  Mosasaurs swam through these hills, once upon a time.  It makes my hair float to think about the passage of 66 million years.   This world, this little hollow in the hills, has seen more changes than I can imagine.  Our little lives are drops in the long river of time.

There are some questions that soil analysis cannot answer.  Most likely, we will never know for certain why one side is rocky and the other soft.  We will pick up as many chipped arrowheads as we can find.  Some of those scrapers could still be used to scrape a hide.  We will maintain Elzie Cherry’s drainage ditches, and try to break that plow pan he left behind.  Mostly, we work to make the place more fertile, more whole, more loved for whoever comes to enjoy it next.who comes next

nifty nixty

My paternal grandfather’s mother’s maiden name was Corn. Her family, as far as I know, were farmers in southern Ohio. I always like that simple name. Her son, my grandfather, was named Cornie. I’ve never heard the name anywhere else. My name, Coree, sounds like some derivative from my Grandfather, and Great-Grandmother, though no one has ever told me it is so. I haven’t passed anything like that along to my children (no Cornelias around here), but they certainly have a love of corn.

kids corn

last year’s corn maize

Who on this continent doesn’t have some kind of of sweet memory around family meals in summertime – slathering butter, salt and pepper, and chowing down on those steamy hot, sweet, messy ears? Lovely stuff, sweet corn.

Ah, daydreams of summer.  But I’m not talking about sweet corn today.

I’m talking about field corn. Grain. Folks call what we grow Indian Corn, or Rainbow Corn (for good reason), and it is one of thousands of cultivars (as many as 5,000 may exist in Meso-America alone) of open pollinated corn that has been migrating around North and South America for thousands of years. It’s also called Dent corn, which is a cross of Flour and Flint corn. There’s a dent in the top of the kernel (flour corns don’t have that).  Each landrace, each cultivar, has its own best qualities and traditional use.  A-maizing.

The variety of corn we grow, called Daymon Morgan’s Kentucky Butcher, came from our friend Susana up in Kentucky. The plants are tremendously tall and vigorous. On a really good year, we sometimes see three ears on a plant. They hold up well in drought (we had a bumper crop last year when almost everything struggled). And the ears are just gorgeous. My meticulous Fellow Man is fond of sorting them by color, admiring the variations of strip and solids, playing with selection for the next season. Each year, as we appreciate the harvest and select the ears we like best, I think that there’s really nothing new under the sun. People have been doing these same things, probably with these same feelings of enjoyment and wonder, for a great long time.

bluered stripe

There’s much we don’t know about the ancient history of the Americas, but it has become clear to most archeologists now that the people who settled North and South America “way back when” left out of their previous homes prior to the Neolithic Revolution (a.k.a. Early Agriculture). They didn’t bring their own seeds. So, 10,000 years ago, the people of the Americas made agriculture for themselves. A few thousand years later, they made maize, which we now call corn. (In the fifteen minutes of quiet before I fall asleep, I’ve been reading Charles C. Mann’s book 1491.  It is an excellent read, and I’m grateful to him for much of the information in this post.)

Teosinte, corn’s closest wild relative, bears almost no resemblance to modern maize. A whole ear of teosinte is less nutritious than one kernel of modern maize.  Geneticists have been duking it out for decades over how on earth the Indians orchestrated the transition. Historians have agreed that no matter HOW it was done, it is an accomplishment. “Arguably man’s first, and perhaps his (just as likely hers I think) greatest, feat of genetic engineering.” said Nina V. Federoff, of Penn State University in 2003. And native peoples have abundant fascinating stories about their connection to corn – a very important connection.

teosinte

teosinte and ‘modern’ maize – thanks google

What doesn’t often get said about the relationship of the people of the Americas and corn is the importance of the nixtamalization process. Nixtamalizing corn changes the amino acid profile, making B vitamins and Niacin available and essentially making corn into a complete protein. Nixtamalized corn, along with beans and avocados, formed the dietary basis of the Meso-American civilization, which was at its peak at least if not more technologically and scientifically advanced and populated than any other civilization of its time. Without the nifty nixty process, folks who eat LOTS of corn develop particular deficiencies, such as pellagra (niacin deficiency). Miserable stuff. Post-1492, as European explorers exported the wonder-food maize around the world, nixtamalization didn’t often follow them, and the results were evident.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE cornbread, but it turns out the Daymon Morgan kernels are so large that they don’t easily grind in our Nutrimill grinder. So, to make cornmeal, we have to crack the corn in a simple hand grinder, then baby sit it to make the small pieces pass through the electric mill. Nixtamalization has given me a good, no, GREAT, way to work with our corn whole. And even better, nixtamal takes corn to another level. I instinctively want to eat a lot of it. The kids feel the same way, and they munch it down as soon as it comes from the pan. Can’t beat that!

Here’s how to nixtamalize corn:

Take one pound of field corn, preferably from your own garden, or a grower you know, and soak it in lots of water overnight.

soaking corn

Drain the water, put the corn in a pot, and add fresh water in abundance (2 to 1, water to corn).

Add either ½ cup sifted untreated hardwood ash (if you have it), or 2 Tablespoons pickling lime.

Bring the mixture to a boil and cook it for a long time. Our friend Sandor says three hours – stirring from time to time.

The skins will begin to loosen. When they begin to slough off, remove the pot from heat and begin to rinse. The whole mix will look really gross now, but smell nice.

gross corn

Rinsing is a water intensive process. Run water through the pot until all the little skin particles and gross cloudy liquid is gone. As soon as the water is cool enough, plunge your hands in there and squeeze and scrub the kernels to help them along. The rinse water should come clear. The kernels should be chewy soft.

changed corn

corn, transformed

This maize is hominy. It can be eaten just as it is, sauteed in butter as a chewy grain (nice with eggs). I’ve ground it in a food processor and made good little corn cakes from it. We’ve also dried it in a warm oven and ground it into masa. I’ve not perfected my masa tortilla process yet, but thoroughly enjoy tortillas with half and half flour and masa meal.  There are thousands of years worth of recipes to explore.

nixty corn

Nixtamalized maize is also the foundation for many corn ferments. I won’t comment on them now because I haven’t explored that realm yet, but it’s definitely the direction I’m going. I’ve taken these nixtamalizing directions loosely from Sandor Katz and his excellent books. Please look at them for more great ideas. I’m particularly looking forward to playing with fermented nixtamal and cocoa.

hominy

I have purposefully restrained myself from discussing genetic modification in this post. Maybe some other day. For now, suffice to say that thousands of years of skilled observation and care have created maize, and so many other important foods. It’s perfectly possible for that good work to continue without the help of gene-splicing agri-scientists/businessmen. Please support growers who use non-genetically modified crops. Eat more corn.  Vote with your plate.

If you would like to grow some of our Daymon Morgan seed (we’ve been saving it for about 6 years now), we will gladly sell you some. Contact us.