My bacon has a first name. Actually, two.

I love this time of year. This is the time of year that things like this start showing up in my mailbox. 

We got our pigs a little early this year - they were born in early February, and we picked them up right around the first of March. So these little bacon seeds got to experience snow (it being Maine, which is about 3 miles from the North Pole, and snow being a thing that we can experience up through and sometimes into May.) 

Oh how quickly they grow up.  This year's pair of pigs were a Tamworth-Yorkshire cross. They were a nice, long 'bacon' pig.  

I'm not making that up. There's math behind that truth. Long pigs == long belly. And pork belly is where they keep the bacon.  This differs from our previous pigs, both sets of which were Gloucester Old Spots, which had a richer, thicker layer of fat, and were 'ham' pigs. 

I mean, these also have hams. Just a little smaller by comparison. 

In the end, I didn't really like these pigs. Not like the Gloucesters, which I'd gladly get again. 

Beth (named by my 14 year old daughter who named her after the girl that dies in 'Little Women'), and Apples were constant rooters, and a fairly destructive. They tore the sill out of the back of the barn, pushed random boards in the walls until they cracked and broke, and pushed I'm not sure how many holes through their fencing. The never actually tried to escape, which makes them simultaneously a) idiots and b) far less work than our last set. But I kept having to patch the fence and generally grumble a lot more than I did in the past. 

When I looked over at them a couple of weeks ago and sized up their hams by eye, I figured it was time enough for them to head to slaughter. It was not a tearful parting.  

We had fed these on the same mix of peanuts and pig feed as we raised the previous sets. the peanuts are my American stand in for the acorns that the deliciously famous black Iberian pigs find in the oak scrub of northern Spain.  

Another nice surprise about moving to Maine is that the peanuts in the shell are about a third cheaper than they are in the feed store in Massachusetts. I have no idea why that might be - I am left to assume that the Massachusetts state legislature has placed a stiff import tax on underground legumes and anything that goes by the common name of 'Goober'. Which is probably also why the Andy Griffith show never took off with the Boston crowd. 

I called my buddy down the road and asked if he'd help me schelp the pigs to the slaughterhouse again this year. Actually, I was really hoping his wife would help. Joanna grew up on a local farm, and with their kids, she's a fixture at the local fairs, prepping and herding the animals for show. When she came, she pointed at Joe and myself and showed us where we could stand so we'd be more or less out of the way while she picked up each pig and threw them into the trailer with a gently frightening, backhanded toss of one wrist. 

Or something like that. I've watched her in action twice now, and I still have no idea how that tiny little blonde woman gets them in there but they were loaded and ready to go in about 15 minutes. 

I tried a new slaughterhouse this year - a local one just down the road in Windham, Maine. It was a self-service drop off on a Sunday morning: back the trailer up, pick a pen and settle them in. There's no staff around, you just fill out a form and fill out the instructions with a contact phone number. (Joanna showed me where the forms were. Of course). 

The pigs were pretty much a perfect weight when we took them in - 241 and 242 pounds respectively. That's at the top end of where you want them, more or less. Though there were a pair of pigs in the pen next to these that must have been approaching 500 lbs. Not that I'm fat shaming. But anything north of 250, and you're pretty much just raising lard. 

 I was a little nervous about trying a new slaughter house. Most slaughterhouses will also butcher and package the meat - many (including this one) even offer smoking and curing. But the ones up here have a fairly limited selection of cutting skills. 

I spoke to the owner when I called to schedule the slaughter and asked if he'd be able to cut prosciutto, and back bacon, and a few other traditional cuts. "Sure. We've done that a couple of times." 

I mean, cutting a prosciutto isn't hard. It's actually easier than cutting, boning and trimming out your typical ham. Cut the leg off the body. That's pretty much it.  So I figured I'd give it a try. 

So I crossed out everything on the standard form (which pretty much consisted of "how thick do you like your pork chops" (no pork chops) and "would you like us to go ahead use Pappy's special cure on your sausage? (No). ) and wrote a paragraph or two of instructions on the back of the page. Which pretty much read like this: 

"Hi. I make prosciuttos. DON'T CUT THE FEET OFF. Please cut the hip fairly high, because I will cure the whole leg. DON'T CUT THE FEET OFF. These will be things of beauty, which I will tenderly rub with salt and say nice things to. DON'T CUT THE FEET OFF. They will be hung in my basement and brought out to serve the most beloved of guests, to a kind of wordless, heavenly aria sung by small children garbed in white hired specially for the occasion. DON'T CUT THE FEET OFF. It will take two years, but that's ok. Because I believe in long term relationships. And also cuddles. DID I MENTION THE FEET? NOT OFF."

Guess what? They cut the feet off. 

The rest of the meat was cut pretty well. The butcher was good, it's just that not a lot of people want to cure a whole ham. So they just instinctively reached for the feet chopper. And once they're off, there's no putting them back on. 

I ended up with a lot of trim, and the butts were cut down a bit smaller than I would have liked (can't get coppa out of this). But the loins were handled perfectly - kept whole, with a bit of belly attached. Perfect for making English bacon. And the freezers are now crammed full in a sort of three dimensional meat jigsaw puzzle. And the meat overall looked lovely. Farm to table takes on a whole new meaning of delicious when the farm in question is your backyard. 

A couple of days later, we had some guests over (for the Color Wars party), and I smoked up a shoulder to serve. Which was mouth watering. 

"Hey kids! This pig was alive in our backyard a couple of days ago! Would you like a bit more Beth on your sandwich?" 

I have learned a couple of things about early pigs. Mostly: early pigs get slaughtered early.

It turns out - there's a reason why pig slaughtering season is in the fall, when the air is cool. Because heat does bad things to pork, even with 40 pounds of salt spread over it. 

The (footless) prosciuttos (above) went into my prosciutto salting boxes on a nice bed of kosher salt, and were liberally rubbed, coated and massaged with several dozen pounds of salt. And also: salt. 

There are three things you can lose a prosciutto to, more or less. Bacteria, pests/insects, or fungus. Any or all is bad. I'd been working on my turning what used to be a dairy room in the basement into a curing room. The stone walls are still whitewashed, and I'd gotten the humidity pretty stable, hovering between 40-55%.  I have been charting it out via a SmartThings monitor that would text my phone when it went outside of the range.  Basically, I am turning my house into SkyNet in the quest for a good piece of prosciutto. 

I visited my prosciutto often. I covered the boxes with a couple of layers of cheesecloth to ensure nothing would disturb them. I watched the humidity closely, and went to sleep each night feeling better that my basement was full of lovely pork. 

Until my basement began to smell.

The cut feet not only made the potential-prosciutto harder to hang (you can cut a slit right behind the ankle tendon that makes a perfect place to thread a rope), and less lovely to present, but it doesn't actually affect the meat. So I went ahead with the cure. There's a formula about how long to salt the ham before hanging, based on weight and thickness, and how many letters from Leondardo da Vinci's name also appear in your name. But it is measured in weeks. The next step is to bag it (to keep the flies off for a while longer) and hang it to air dry until your 4th grader is ready for 6th grade. 

Unfortunately, because our pigs were ready for slaughter so early in the year, I was starting the cure during the hottest week of the summer. It was in the 90's pretty much every day. And while the basement of this old farmhouse tends to stay a little cooler than that, it is not hermetically sealed. Or air conditioned. And that extra cut at the top of the leg with the bone sticking out provided for a difficult to seal entrance for more bacteria. It was kind of like a marquis board flashing: "HEY E.COLI! I GOT THE THING THAT YOU LIKE RIGHT HERE!"  There's a reason that Pa Ingalls waited until the nights were cold and the leaves were falling to slaughter his pigs. 

After ten days or so, my meat started to spontaneously juice. 

Juiced meat is not a good sign. There's a book I read and keep handy on the shelf called "Ham: An obsession with the hindquarter". (I raise pigs in my backyard so that I can put their hindlegs in a box in my basement. Of course I own this book).  In it, the author answers the question, "how do I know if my ham has gone bad" by explaining:

Trust me. You'll know. 

He was right. 

Sigh... ah well.  The bacon's still good, and I have a two prosciuttos from past pigs that will soon be ready. Therefore, I hereby declare this the year of salami. I've got plenty of trim, and nothing but time to get it right. 

Meanwhile, here's a picture of Apples, taking a leisurely soak. 

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Color wars

The Boy turned 9 last week, and we were somewhat stumped for what to do for a party. 

We've thrown a few different kinds of parties over the years, but they've all had a couple of things in common. a) It has to fit in our backyard. (or side yard. Or front yard. Whatever). And b) it probably will end up involving props of some kind.  For the first few years of the Critter's life, her birthday was a Bluegrass BBQ that slowly escalated into a multi-band jam.  And at some point I discovered that I could build medieval structures out of haybales, and then the fun really began. But this year, we were at something of a loss. 9 is tough, as the kid in question is beginning to voice an opinion about what kind of party he wants. 

I ran the Tough Mudder a couple of weeks ago, and I was somewhat tempted to build an obstacle course in the backyard (but then I realized, we had already done that). But that led to another thought, and we thought - color run! Wait. No. No running. Color wars! 

That we can do! I trotted out the pallets I had set up for last year's water battles, and made a team Red and team Blue fortification amidst the apple and pear trees. We looked up the recipe to make the color powder (turns out, it's just cornstarch and food dye, mixed baked and dried), but then we found an even better solution: you can buy the stuff for a few bucks. We ordered 100 packets.  

We ordered a box of those little nylon footsies they provide at the shoe store to try things on, and set up a production line. One bag filled two footsie socks. Tied off, they became handy little grenades that shed lovely color when you threw them, and splatted satisfactorily when they hit. And they could be picked up and thrown again and again. 

When the kids arrived, we divided them into a team Boys (made up of 8-9-10 year olds) and a team girls (which seemed to include a lot of older teens, and somehow, my lovely Bride, who wanted in on the action). 

She naturally became a prime target.  

We had only two rules, to keep it simple (just in case you want to try this madness at home) - One: you could only have one color grenade in hand at a time. And two, if you got hit, you had to retreat to your base before joining again. 

We gave everyone a pair of safety goggles, and set them loose.  The results were a lot of laughs, and some happy, exhausted, and very colorful kids. 

We had a lot of baby wipes to help folks clean up afterwards. (I did find quite a number of handprints on the walls inside the house that evening - a quick wipe down made it disappear, no problem).

I'm not sure which team won in the end, but I'm pretty sure the dog ended up being the most popular target. Poor, patient George started out in the thick of things, but ended up on the sidelines pretty quickly. The kids found her anyway, and spent the last of the powder creating Maine's only tie dye English Shepherd. 

Not sure exactly how we're going to explain this one to the groomer today... 

Upta camp

Since we're Mainers now (well.. as close as a non-native person 'from away' that doesn't have roots going back three-plus generations in the state can get, anyhow), we've been talking about Camp. 

In Maine, going 'Upta Camp' is a tradition. Families have a cabin or a house on the beach, or even a stretch of land that buts up against a river or a lake that they can pull their camper onto or pitch a tent. There's a lot of water in Maine, and more than enough to go around. And failing that, then a Camp near to one of the ski resorts up in the mountains will do nicely. 

There are lots of varieties of Camp. Many of which are as nice (or nicer) than the primary house, with all the amenities of home. Which to me, kind of seems like cheating. 

I'd been planting the seeds of an idea with my Bride for a while. We were watching HGTV and some 'small homes' show, and saw a little log cabin. 

"Ooh. That looks good. Look - they have a woodstove for heat. None of that sissified electric stuff"

Then I'd turn on an episode of 'Naked and Afraid'.  

'Put a tent in there someplace, and that would make a nice Camp, doncha think?'

Somewhere in there, I got my Bride convinced that we should rent a place for a week this summer, and try out a Camp. I found a place someplace between Portland and the Canadian border (about 5 hours away), and showed her the cabin (above). 'That looks nice, doesn't it?'

After she said 'yes', I explained that while you could theoretically get there by car - on a logging road, and only if you had some serious 4 wheel drive, and still had to pack in the last mile by foot - it would be such an adventure to take the float plane in. 

That's our ride. It wasn't big enough to carry us all at the same time. So we took a couple of trips, along with all our gear. It was loud, and it only flew about 600 feet off the ground. There were hills going by above eye level as we flew in. 

But when we landed, we were in Maine heaven. Not another soul nearby. It's the only cabin on the lake. The sounds of the loons, and the fish jumping in the lake were amazing. The cabin was built of spruce felled and peeled on the property. All of the forest around us for miles was private timber land, and there were no neighbors for miles. 

Of course, there was also no electricity. Or cell coverage. Or running water.  

There was a fresh spring trickling out from underneath a rock about 200 yards through the woods down a trail. 

('I see a bear!' The Boy shouted this at me as we unloaded the gear and waited on the girls to arrive on the second flight in. I laughed, but I looked rather carefully down the trail towards the spring - which we still had not yet walked. 'It's moving there!'  

It was a log and some dappled sunlight waving through the trees. But I admit, it was an exciting few minutes while I tried to spot what the Boy was seeing.) 

Despite the 'roughing' it - the cabin was amazingly well outfitted. There was a kitchen cabin with 4 beds, and a connected 'sleeping' cabin with another 5. (Overall the place could've slept 16 people). Both cabins had a woodstove - we kept one of them going all the time. There was a propane fueled refrigerator and a stove top, and inside 'camp' lights with gas mantles. 

There were packs of cards and leftover spices. A few cribbage boards and a half dozen hunting and fishing magazines to read if the mood struck. There were 2 canoes and a 2 person kayak, and plenty of trees near the lake to string our little portable hammock up in. And a pair of adirondack chairs to laze in. 

And we had the best outhouse I've ever had the pleasure to sit in. 

It didn't take long to slow down once we settled in. It was quiet and peaceful, and the lake was gorgeous and welcome to swim in during the early afternoon hours when the temperature reached 80 degrees or so. 

We all read a lot, and hiked a lot, napped frequently, and just enjoyed the pace of the woods. At night, we'd listen to the cries of the loons, and once to a pack of coyotes ranging through the woods near camp. 

All of our meals were either cooked over the fire down next to the water, or in the woodstove in the cabin. Every meal tasted amazing, with that earthy, welcome tang of fire and smoke. My Bride had planned every meal (there were spreadsheets involved, and cryovac packaged portions), and we still ended up with more food than we needed. The first night was ribeye and asparagus. And that was just a sample of how well we ate while we were there. 

The kids both took to the woods readily. The Critter was just back from 4 weeks of sleep-away camp in New Hampshire (and not exactly thrilled at the idea of another week without access to her phone and friends), but admitted that the quiet was welcome after living in a cabin full of chattering 14 year old girls for a month. 

She didn't move too far from the lake for the duration of the week. 

The Boy and I were the ones to explore. The cabin backed up onto a 700 foot high peak (see my earlier note about how high the plane flew), and he and I climbed up and around and through the woods, finding and forging trails, and peeking underneath rocks and fallen logs. He asked me a couple of times as we were out exploring if we could stay there for ever. I'm pretty sure this boy likes the woods. 

He got his very own pocket knife for this trip (he turned 9 a week after we got back), and took to carving and whittling. Only cut himself once. And it didn't bleed too badly. So we're declaring victory. 

The morning after we arrived, we were all hanging out near the lake, and the Boy shouts 'Hey! Moose!' 

I had a moment of '...probably right next to the bear you spotted earlier' until I looked up, and saw a 7 foot bull moose standing in the water at the end of the lake. Sure as shit. Our first moose. (Not just this trip. This is our first moose spotting since moving to Maine). 

The moose proceeded to calmly walk out into the water and graze on the lily pads and water grasses, and then did something I never would've imagined. It completely submerged itself, diving down beneath the water for several seconds. It would pop its head up every once in a while, and we could see the water flashing and cascading off its antlers. It did this for about half an hour, before it got back up and wandered into the woods. The entire time, I think the four of us sat slack-jawed in awe, watching this gigantic beast. 

The next day, we saw a cow moose and two calves a little further around the corner of the lake - that was early in the morning, and I didn't have a camera with me. Because the Boy had woken me up at 5:30 am to go fishing. 

He has been wanting to fish for years - since before we left Massachusetts. And I finally ran out of excuses on this trip, and broke down and bought him a pole.  He was so excited about this - despite the fact that I hadn't been fishing in over 25 years. My Bride and I were you-tubing videos of how to clean a fish on the drive up, as neither one of us had any real idea anymore. 

We didn't catch a thing all week. The lake is full of brook trout and land locked salmon, and we got several good bites. But our skill or luck wasn't there, and we couldn't reel any of it in. But he wasn't deterred. He'd spend an hour or more quietly casting out and slowly reeling in, or letting his line sit in the water as I paddled us out in the canoe. He found the zen of fishing immediately. It was the coolest thing I've probably ever done for that Boy, and I was beyond myself with joy at being around him while he was having so much fun. I was also huddled around the hottest, strongest coffee I could make. It was 5:30 in the morning, and we were out on the damn water in a canoe, after all. 

On our last morning, we woke up to a pouring rain, and all of us decided to back up in our sleeping bags a little longer, and listened to the rain hit the roof of our cabin. The plane couldn't get there through the weather, and we waited a few extra, welcome hours before our return to civilization. 

I don't know if we'll ever buy something like this on our own, but I'm pretty sure all of us would be up for going back to this little spot of magic. 

Low Country Boil

I can't believe I've never taken pictures of this spring ritual before. 

With the weather finally (sort of) turning into warm weather here in Maine, we got the itch to have a get together. We've done this spring party several times before, back when we lived in Massachusetts, and this seemed like a perfect way to get our new neighborhood together for a low key way to welcome the change of seasons finally reaching this far north. 

The Low Country Boil is the southern version of the New England clambake. Our version uses mudbugs instead of clams. And spices. Many spices. I'm not sure what Yankees have against flavor, but we keep working to introduce and educate them on the world beyond salt and butter. 

I order live, farm-raised crawfish from a place in Louisiana. They ship them overnight in a cooler, along with a couple of ice-packs. When these guys get cold, they go dormant, and when you first open the cooler, it looks like a mesh bag full of still shells.  But if you give them an hour or so to warm up, they start waking up and writhing around. The kids always love to touch them, and see them try and pinch with their little claws. And up here, it's easier to explain them as a 'tiny, freshwater lobster'. 

In fact, crawfish (or crawdads, as we called them growing up) (or 'crayfish' if you insist on making my ears hurt at the sound of your voice), are native to pretty much anywhere. I am sure we have them in the pond behind our house. I used to chase them as a kid in the creek near where I grew up. We just have more of them in the South. Or we're more willing to eat something that crawled out from underneath a rock in the brook at the back of our property. 

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The recipe is pretty straightforward.  I throw small, new red potatoes in a pot of simmering water, along with a bit of salt. They take the longest to cook, so I leave them be for a bit. After 30 minutes or so, I add chunks of andouille and smoked sausage, along with a pack of creole seasoning, which includes paprika, garlic powder, onion powder and some cayenne pepper. 

After ten more minutes or so, I throw in corn (frozen is fine). And in the last ten minutes, I add crawfish.  

I had ordered 20lbs (serving 40-50 people, along with other sides and goodies), and ended up having to do the crawfish in two parts. My lobster pot is big, but not that big. 

It's one of the easiest things to serve.

Step 1) Spread out paper, and scoop out the crawfish and everything else from the pot. 

Step 2) Stand around and eat. 

You're going for the tail meat in a crawfish. Unless you get the occasional monster, there's nothing worthwhile in the claw. Snap the little guy in half, and pop that tail out, and chow down. If you're brave enough, you can 'suck the head' - pulling out the juices from the front half. 

I toss a big pot on the table to collect all the shells - they'll go to the chickens, who enjoy the heck out of the treat. The rest of the goodies on the table (corn, potatoes, and sausage) make for nice treats in amongst the crawfish. 

We ended up with a perfect day for the event. It was a rare 80 degree day in May, for Maine. Perfect blue skies, and plenty of cold beer. And a lot of good conversation. We had most of our neighbors pop round, and several treasured old friends from Massachusetts, as well as a few new colleagues. 

The kids ran around until they were exhausted. The adventurous ones trying the crawfish. Our gardens are just really coming back to life, and we kept the iced tea and lemonade and ready to refresh the kids for another round of whatever game they were playing. 

Even though it was 80+ during the day, as soon as the sun touched the tops of the trees the temperature started to drop. The house came with a huge, fantastic cauldron that doubles as a fire pit as needed. 

Such a perfect day to have folks over, and an easy party to throw any time.

It's definitely starting to feel like an actual home now. 

 

The first spring harvest

I love that our Maine farm came with a tremendous amount of edible things already in the ground and thriving. Peach trees. Blueberry bushes. Apple trees. Pears. Raspberries. Blackberries. Grapes. 

A whole lot of grapes. 

We actually decided we needed thin out the grape vines a bit. We have grapes in the yard. Grapes down in the cutting garden. Grapes growing in the greenhouse. Grapes growing over the arbor outside the kitchen door. 

Altogether, there are 20 grapevines or so. All different kinds - cold hardy, seeded and seedless varieties of concord grapes, for the most part. We made jam with them last year - lovely stuff. But a bit much to keep up with, and we actually like to have some open space in the yard. So it was time to thin the stock a bit - I wanted to take out the two rows above and create a bit more space. So I posted a note on Craigslist last week "You dig 'em. You take 'em. Free to good home."  I had a half dozen responses within half an hour. I love Maine. 

While the young couple was digging up the grapes, I noticed the wild chives had already sprouted. If you brush them, the air was full of that lovely, spring scent. A grassy & onion perfume. Rich and heady. 

I went out and clipped an armful

This is not to go to waste - soon enough, the rest of the lawn will rejuvenate, and I'd have to pick through it more to separate "lawn" from "edible" - as it is, it was simple to snip an inch or two up from the base, and grab whole clusters of chives. 

I picked through the scrawny ones and tossed to the chickens (who never mind the tasty castoffs), rinsed them and spread them over a sheet pan. A couple/three hours in the Aga's warming oven, and I have fresh dried chives to chop & dice & add to the spice drawer. 

Now I'm eagerly waiting for the fiddleheads to appear - those will go right into the sautee pan with some butter and lemon, and maybe a sprinkling of chopped chives to boot! 

March came and went. And it left pigs.

March went by pretty quickly. In part because I was traveling quite a bit for work. Which isn't my favorite way to spend my time, but it sort of comes with the gig. And it tends to come in waves, when it comes. I think this March was a particularly big wave. I was gone 3 out of the last 4 weeks. But on one of my few weekends back in Maine, I managed to go pick up two piglets. 

The kids got to name them this year. The darker one was named 'Apples' by the Boy. The Critter asked if she could name hers after a character from a book. Sure thing, kid. The lighter one thus named 'Beth'. 

(I didn't ask, but I'm pretty sure she was thinking of 'Little Women' - Beth was the sister that died later in the book, for the record. There's not much doubt about the fate of these little bacon seeds in our house). 

A couple of days or so after the piglets showed up, it snowed. (Because: Maine). George is still trying to figure out what kind of dogs these things are. 

The pigs this year are a different breed - they're a Yorkshire x Tamworth x Oldspot cross. A leaner, longer, bacony-er pig. Which is totally a thing. The Oldspot is a fattier, heritage breed, which grows great hams. A longer pig gives you more belly. Hence: more bacon. But I still fully expect these to make great prosciutto. 

These particular prosciuttos will be ready for slaughter in early fall. In the meantime, we'll all enjoy their presence, and - when I'm not traveling - I'll get to enjoy my morning livestock rituals once more. 

Happiness. 

 

 

It's not spring. But I can tell it will be one day, soon enough

In Maine, spring is generally a long time coming. At least for this guy raised in Georgia. When we were renovating the house, we found several places where newspaper had been used as insulation between the walls or under floors. This 70 year old newspaper printed in May of 1956 warns against planting yet... "This is much too early for warm season plants..." 

But we've had an odd winter this year - after last year's feet and feet of snow, we've had a spotty snowfall. And while I expect that we've not seen the last of winter yet, we've had a small stretch of warmth. Warm enough to tease me about what is to come in a couple of months. And while I am still only optimistically eyeing the seed catalogs, and dreaming of the vegetables I might plant, it is warm enough for me to get out and clean out the greenhouse. 

The greenhouse is one of my favorite parts of the property. It allows me to extend the growing season a few weeks in either direction. Today hit almost 50 degrees outside - but it was just over 70F in the greenhouse. 

I raked and trimmed and cut back the grapevine that grows up the brick wall (it provides some coolness during the heat of the summer, preventing the brick wall from radiating back too much heat and scalding the other plants). 

The soil may rest for a little while longer, but it's time I start circling things in the seed catalog, and thinking about the fresh tomatoes, arugula, peas, and green things to come. 

Cutting the cord

Over the past few months, I realized that we were streaming more and more of our entertainment content. Like 80%. For a couple of reasons. But mostly: because the interface on my cable box takes shitty to a new, epic level of suck. 

Every other year or so, I've been looking to see if there was a better streaming service - Apple TV, Netflix, Hulu Plus. Then, just over a year ago, I got our first Amazon Fire TV.  The same one that Gary Busey advertises. 

'If you're like me, you like talking to stuff... Hello, Pants.'

That man is a genius. How did he know that I like to do that, too?? 

The interface on Amazon fire is so clean and simple and easy. If you can't find something, just talk at it. It'll show up. Plus, it integrated all of my other services into one, simple to navigate screen. 

I realized that I was defaulting to Amazon 'On Demand' over Time Warner just because it was so much easier.  Please, Bezos, let me give you my money, just because it doesn't HURT to do so. 

Don't believe me? Here. Look at the difference in the remote controls. 

Time Warner has like 1,000 buttons. I know what two of them do.

Fire has 7 buttons. I know what all of them do. And mostly, I use the mic. Which lets me tell it things like "Peter Falk", and have all of the Columbo movies magically appear in front of me. 

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And don't get me started on the screen interface. I actually had a long, reasonably patient conversation with someone fairly intelligent at Time Warner. Who determined that the cause of my frustration was that I was using an older hardware kit, and that my problems would be solved with a newer cable box. I thought my problem was that when I hit "CBS", it didn't take me to "CBS". It took me to a listing of all the major networks, and 'allowed' me to scroll over to "CBS" to select a program (which is what I wanted to do the first time I hit "CBS").  But I let him swap out my cable box anyway, which gave me a slightly faster version of the same crappy interface. Winner. 

I know. This is a first world problem. And for a long time I just shrugged my shoulders and decided I had better things to worry about. 

But then last month, I got my bill. And all the charges on it were doubled. Because I now had two cable boxes, right? One crappy old one. And one crappy new one. 

Except I didn't. Because why the heck would we have kept the crappy old one? I called my cable provider's customer service line to calmly explain this to them. And then I walked through the charges. $3.00/month for the programming guide? $100/month for the extended line up of channels that I generally ignore?  

Our normal cable bill is ~$150/month. That covers the extended package (because I like HGTV, and my Bride likes zombie shows), and a premium channel or two (which we only watch once a year or so). 

We already pay for Netflix ($20/month) and Hulu Plus ($8/month), because it's easier to find TV shows there than through the cable on demand service (It does nice things like show a listing for "New episodes of things you've watched before" right up at the top. Imagine that.) And we pay for Amazon Prime (mostly for the free shipping on Amazon), which comes with its own set of content now.  So we're already paying for more streaming content - that we use more regularly - than for our much more expensive cable service. 

In a casual conversation, a buddy of mine mentioned that he had cut the cord, and shut off his cable service. This got me thinking. 

I went home and talked to my Bride about the shows we watch, and figured out that we'd be missing maybe 3 things if we turned off Cable tomorrow. The Walking Dead (nothing in our lineup of services includes streaming AMC), Big Bang Theory (Hulu Plus covers CBS shows, but they don't stream this one, as it's their most popular comedy). And... wait. Maybe it was just two things. 

Cable costs us $1,800 a year. 

For two shows. 

Yeah. Not worth it. 

I called Time Warner the next day, and told them I wanted to cut our service off. Just internet, please. 

"Um.. why?" 

I laid out the reasoning. 

"But... doesn't someone else in the house watch cable?"

Nope. And if they did - they won't when I'm done with this phone call. 

"But... what if we cut $30 a month off your bill?"

Your interface would still suck, and I'd still be paying $1,400 a year for cable. 

"Well. Um. OK, then?"

Thank you. 

 

It's true: I lost a few bucks of 'advantage' in the bundling of internet service and cable from the same company. But still, we're saving more than $1,500 / year. And that's after tax earnings. It's equivalent to giving myself a $2,000 or more raise. And who wouldn't be happy with that? Plus, I'm not left confused and irritated every time I pick up the remote control. 

Still. I've got to figure out how to stream AMC now. Even if it costs me a few bucks. Because my cute +1 is a lot happier if she can scare herself silly with her favorite zombie shows...

 

A lesson in dumplings

Since Snowpocalypse 2016 decided to stick it to our more southerly neighbors this weekend, we took advantage of the time to get together with one of our dear friends who has been promising for years to teach us to make traditional Chinese dumplings. 

I have long considered myself something of a connoisseur of dumplings. I try them at nearly every restaurant or opportunity I get. But my expertise only extends to the eating half of the work. I've certainly never made them from scratch, and was at somewhat of a loss as how to start. Our friend asked what kind I liked to eat (since that is apparently where my expertise stops).  I like the pork & cabbage variety best. 

During our conversation about what ingredients we needed to make sure we had on hand, I asked her if she used the frozen dumpling wrappers you can buy at the Asian market. I thought I was being pretty suave demonstrating that I even knew that there was such a thing as frozen dumpling wrappers. She made a face, and shook her head at me. 

"No. We will start by making the dough." 

Um. Ok. What goes into the dough?  I was imagining a special trip to get the ingredients from New York.

Nope. Just all purpose flour and water. 

"Really? Just all purpose flour? Like.. the all purpose flour I buy all the time?" 

"What did you think it was?"

"Well.. I don't know. Magical dumpling flour?"

That prompted another 'are you ok?' face. I quickly moved on. 

"OK. How much do you put in?"

"Enough for how many dumplings you want to make." 

Well yeah. That makes sense, I suppose. 

A lot of the directions took this form. There was very little measuring involved. It was done by feel, or heft, or my favorite - by smell. 

The dough was rolled and kneaded until it was quite firm. Just room temperature water, and what I think was about 4 or so cups of flour. But maybe it was 5.  Whatever it was, it was 'enough'. 

"How much salt do you add to the meat?"

"Until it smells like it is the right amount."

The ingredients were simple:

  • Ground pork (I ground it this morning from sausage trim left from on of our pigs. This was was named Rocky). We used about 2 lbs.  
  • Chopped ginger - only about a half a thumb's worth, chopped fine
  • Chopped onion - only because I forgot to go buy scallions. I used one onion, and tossed it through the grinder at the end (a good way to push the last meat through the grinder as well). If you were using scallions, you should chop 4 or 5 very fine
  • Chopped cabbage. I used about 3/4 head of a Savoy cabbage, as it's leafier and closer to Chinese cabbage. I chopped up about a quarter of it, and was told "finer". When I got the consistency right, our friend said "Good. Now chop more."
  • A tablespoon or so of white sugar.
  • Sesame oil. Just a few drops. 
  • Canola oil. Maybe an 1/4 cup, divided into two parts. 
  • Salt & white pepper

When our friend asked for chopsticks to stir the meat, I whipped out a pair I had bought on a whim a few years ago at an Asian market. "I will use these for stir fry's!" I declared. Which I did. Once.  They have rested in our drawer from that moment until today. I was rather smug at how my laziness made me look rather clever and worldly when I could produce them on demand. 

 Our friend carefully mixed everything together until smooth. 

The ginger, pork, salt & pepper were stirred together with the sesame oil and half the canola oil. 

'Don't mix the salt & pepper in with the vegetables. It will leach the water out.'

The rest of the oil was mixed in with the cabbage (and scallions if you've added). And only then was everything mixed together.  She would pause and smell the mixture occasionally to determine if the flavors were right. If it wasn't salty enough, you wouldn't smell the sesame correctly, she said.  

When she said it was good, I leaned over the bowl and smelled the meat before nodding sagely. 

With the dough done resting, we began to roll it out and chop it into the small balls for each dumpling. I got pretty ok at this part, though I was not nearly as fast as my teacher, who could whip out a flat, perfectly circular dumpling wrapper in about 4 seconds. 

It's a two handed exercise - one hand on the rolling pin, and one on the ball of dough, stretching and spinning it a little as you go, leaving a little hump of thicker dough in the middle. 

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With a few done, we started on the really hard part: stuffing and folding them. 

Each took a healthy tablespoon of filling, and with some magical twisting and finger sorcery, out popped a perfectly formed dumpling. 

Not a "that looks pretty good" dumpling (which is about as well as I ever managed). But a "looks like it just came out of the restaurant kitchen professional level" dumpling. 

She tried to teach me several times, and my big clumsy fingers managed to sort of get the knack. My Bride, on the other hand, managed pretty well after a couple of pointers.

We even had the Critter trying. 

Even with a lot of practice, you could tell which were made by whom, when they lined up on the board.  

We may, or may not have gotten a little competitive over whose looked better. 

I'll save you from guessing. These weren't mine. 

Once we had enough ready, we started test boiling a few. 

"How long will they boil?"

"Put them in the water, and then let the water come back to a boil. Then add water again so it stops boiling, and let it come back to a full boil. Do that three times." 

Wait... um. What? 

I had to stop and replay that in my head, before I could make it out. But you know what? That totally worked. They came out perfectly done, with the great quality meat and the light, vegetable notes of the cabbage and  spices all perfectly balanced. 

We served them with a dipping sauce made from lots of finely minced garlic, soy sauce and chili vinegar.  When making this at home yourself, use more vinegar than soy sauce. 

I ate so many that I felt stuffed like a dumpling myself. 

Not only were they absolutely amazing, but it was so much fun to be taught by our friend to make something her mom and grandmother had taught her (even if she did laugh herself silly at my antics trying to make my dumplings look reasonably similar to her professional ones). A wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon. 

Only two weeks until Chinese New Year's, when dumplings are a traditional food. I think this year, we'll be able to celebrate in style! 

 

Eating local

I cured this de-boned ham for 21 days in a cider brine recipe taken from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's book 'The River Cottage Meat Book'.

I took it out of the brine, and boiled it for 3 hours. Then roasted it for 1.5 hours wth a thick and lovely Dijon & brown sugar glaze.

Served with roast new potatoes tossed in a little sea salt. So damn delicious.  Proving once again that time & patience can yield more delicious results than any fancy recipe. 

The Boy was with standing in the kitchen when I pulled it out of the brine and asked, 'Which pig was this?'

This lovely girl was raised in our backyard about 50 yards from the oven she was cooked in. Her name was Tocino. That's some local food. 

That'll do, pig. That'll do.

Things I get asked at work

I am the CIO of a multi-billion dollar diagnostics & technology company.

If you don't know what a CIO is, that's ok. My mother doesn't either. It's shorthand for 'Chief Information Officer'.  If that explanation didn't help clarify much, see the previous comment about my mother.  It basically means I am responsible for IT, and all that computer and software stuff. I help automate, and create new ecommerce channels, and drive supply chain efficiencies, and new mobile apps, and other software kind of things. 

Which sounds fancy. But the most typical question I get asked at work by my colleagues? 

'How many pigs DO you have at home, anyway'

One of our senior recruiters asked me that yesterday. She followed it up, sort of awkwardly with '... my 4 year old son wants to know.' 

It's a hard question to answer. I have zero pigs. And one pig. And two pigs. 

Zero: the number of pigs currently alive in my backyard. 

One: the number of pigs buried near the woodline

Two: the number of pigs in my freezer(s) or hanging to cure. Well. More or less. I've been working on cutting that number down lately. I just made ~18 pounds of mexican style chorizo (the soft kind you fry up with huevos for your tortilla), as the Critter pointed out that we hadn't made any in a while, and I had a lot of sausage trim ready for grinding.  (That's not me in the picture above, by the way. But that's about the size of the batch I made).  This weekend, I'll be making two different kinds of bacon - both English, wet cure and smoked streaky bacon. 

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Pigs are born in the spring, raised during the summer, and go to slaughter in the fall. Unless you're intending to keep a breeder, there's no reason for a pig to see its first birthday. You can read more about this in a fantastic book I picked up recently on the history of the domestication of pigs, Lesser Beasts

'Er... I'm just going to tell my four year old that you'll be getting some new baby pigs in the spring.'

Wait. Come back. Why are you walking away? I am your CIO!  We haven't talked about pigs feet and pork pie yet... 

Why I gave my 8 year old a rifle for Christmas

A few weeks ago, I turned on the radio to hear some armed militants took over an abandoned visitor center on federal grounds.  A week or two before that, a couple of religious zealots 'borrowed' someone's automatic rifles, and tragically killed several people at a health center. The president recently spoke out against the ongoing incidents of gun violence. 

So what the hell was I thinking, buying my 8 year old son a rifle? 

OK. It's an air rifle. It shoots .177 caliber pellets. Or the classic, good old fashioned BB's. It's not exactly something he's about to take out and bag a deer with.  But I'm quite, quite sure that there are folks who would still raise an eyebrow.

I went to class with one of them. 

A few years ago, I took a Massachusetts certified gun safety class. It's a requirement for obtaining a gun license in Massachusetts. (Massachusetts has very interesting laws on gun licensing - beyond a couple of basic statewide rules like the safety class, the final issuance and requirements for a gun license are down to the town police chief. In our former town, the additional requirements included obtaining two letters of reference from other residents. Which I actually think is a pretty clever rule. If you're crazy, your neighbors will probably know better than anyone.) 

There were 8 or 10 of us in the class, which met in a training room in the police station. The instructor was an off duty cop, earning an extra few bucks on his weekend. I remember there were a couple of folks in their 20's. A retired Air Force colonel that I had met previously through a mutual neighbor. A 70-something farmer who had lived all his life in town, raising cattle. And a few other random residents. I put myself in that last bucket. 

There was one woman in the class who waited about half an hour into the class before making it clear that she was uncomfortable with firearms in general, and with people who liked them in particular. The instructor looked at her askew once or twice, but he was unfailingly patient and polite. An hour or two into the class, the woman told a story about a recent trip down to Florida, and her horror at the number of gun stores, and people that frequented them. 

"Those people," she said, "even bring their kids along."

Finally, even the instructor was driven to ask. "Lady, why are you here?"

"My father used to work for Colt. And I'm probably going to inherit his antique handgun collection. But I still don't like guns." 

Yeah. Ok then. 

Towards the end of class, we shifted to the practical part of the lesson.  I hadn't said much during the class. I think I was near the end of the list to load the pistols and dry fire as a demonstration that we had listened and understood the instructions. Even the colonel struggled with this. (In fairness, he was Air Force. My expectations weren't high). 

I loaded, readied and squeezed the trigger. The instructor chuckled. "Not your first time?"

"I learned to shoot from my grandfather when I was 6. I served five years active duty army. I'm from Georgia. I'm basically the guy that lady over there was talking about."

That earned me a couple of chuckles, and at least one dirty look.  

My snarkiness aside, I do find myself a bit conflicted about it all. My Bride has never been comfortable with keeping a gun in the house while the children are small. There truly are too many preventable accidents. And I'm not a gun advocate for reasons of self-defense. Or for hunting. (Though both are perfectly valid arguments). Personally, I enjoy the engineering and the craftsmanship of gun smithing. I'm an engineer by training and inclination. And operating a finely made machine of any sort is a pleasure.  There is something intimate and personal about the learning to operate a tool like a gun. It's a process that is generally taught one on one. Like my grandfather taught me in his backyard, with a .22 bolt action that he had owned for more than 40 years at the time. 

Of course, by now I also know all of the arguments against gun ownership. We lived in Europe for several years. And I still haven't bought a firearm for myself. When/as I buy one, I want it to be the right one for me (a .44 caliber Winchester 1873 rifle. I've become pretty specific in my want), but I haven't really gotten around to it. 

I am a lifetime member of the NRA, but I do believe in universal background checks. And I do believe in reasonable limits on the types of firearms that should be available to the public. I've fired fully automatic weapons of various kinds, both in and since my time in uniform. And the power is both exhilarating and terrifying. And even though we moved to a state that doesn't require a license to buy and carry a firearm, I think we probably should. If I have to take a test to get behind the wheel of a 2,000 pound potential weapon and take it out on the roads, I should probably be ok with taking a test before picking up and carrying a device intended to be a weapon. 

The Boy had taken 'riflery' at summer camp last year, firing more or less the same kind of air rifle. I was certainly supportive. He spends enough time shooting zombies, Nazis, or zombie-Nazis on video games. Understanding the difference between a gun in a video game and handling a real weapon that has no extra lives or restarts is a worthy lesson. 

And we do live in Maine. Many of his friends come from houses with guns in the home. My neighbor takes his three boys bear hunting. There's a tradition and culture of hunting and independence here that - whatever your political sway may be - you simply can't ignore. And when he's at a friend's house and sees a gun, I want him to be comfortable enough and know enough to recognize all the many reasons why his hands should stay safely away. It is not a toy. It is a responsibility. 

So when the pre-Christmas thought arose that this might be the year to bring a 'starter' rifle into our house, I broached the topic with my Bride. I was armed with all the stories, logic and arguments above. 

She was, as usual, three steps ahead of me. "Of course. That makes sense. Get it."

Yes, it's only an air rifle. And it only shoots pellets. But we established some firm, but simple rules up front.: 

  • Always treat the rifle as if it is loaded. 
  • We shoot together. He never shoots on his own.
  • The rifle stays in my office until/unless we are ready to shoot.

That's pretty much it. We reviewed safe handling, and all the components of the rifle together. He's actually a pretty good shot, considering that it's a pretty basic rifle.  It's not a toy to take out and play 'Cowboy' with.

It's a serious item, and a mark of my trust in his good judgment. And he has responded with a sense of responsibility and maturity that impressed me. He's got a very healthy sense of respect for the trust placed in him. 

The role of gun owner rights in our society is a complicated one, and considering the history, traditions, and prevalence of firearms in distribution, we're not going to solve it any time soon. (For context: there are 14.5 million hunting licenses distributed in the US last year, per the national Fish & Wildlife services. Compared to 125,000 active duty members of the Syrian Army. That's a lot of guns in distribution). 

The discussion is not a theoretical one. It's a practical one. And teaching respect & safety is core to how I want to arm our kids for handling it when it's their turn.

Pun very much intended. 

Still enough projects left to fill a snowy day

There's one small-ish bedroom on the main floor in our old Maine farmhouse. 

It's hard to say what or how it was used. It's got a fireplace (because all the original rooms have fireplaces. It's Maine. And winters are long and cold here).  And I added a crazy complicated bauble-filled chandelier when we moved in. Because the exiting light fixture would throw the occasional spark when it was turned on. Which seemed like a bad thing.

But there was no real use for the room. We used it as a temporary guest bedroom when my Bride's parents arrived, as it meant not having to go upstairs. But it's located off the center hall near the dining room. And we have bigger, more comfortable guest bedrooms. 

Since it's located on the first floor near the dining room, and we had nothing else to do with it, we decided early on that this would be one of our project rooms. We stripped the wallpaper, and left it a blank slate. We told the crew not to do anything except touch up the plaster. We'd get to it. 

Today was one of those snowy days in Maine, when an indoor project is kind of handy. 

We had decided to make this room into a semi-formal butler's pantry. Dedicated storage for all the glass & dishware we use for entertaining. We still throw semi-regular parties on the scale of a dozen or so to a hundred-&-fifty or more. And in all that, we've managed to accumulate a fair amount of platters and what not. And since we've moved into an old, rambling house with plenty of room, we figure we could get them out of the basement, and into somewhere a little bit more accessible and less dusty. 

But first, we've got to do something about that floor. The floors in the house are a mix of woods - wide pine in the remodeled areas. Older fir and oak or other lumber in some of the less-retouched areas. It's hard to know in this many of them, as they've been painted for years. A few of the rooms had their floors painted a kind of dull maroon, looking none the better for being well worn. 

We decided the simplest thing to do would be to repaint. 

I chose another shade of a gray-green to complement some of the other, traditional colors we had used on the first floor. I wasn't terribly sure if it was quite the right color, but it was within the palette. 

I took my time cutting in the edges, and then planned to roll out the center of the floor. Fortunately, I had a helper. 

For the record, all I told the Boy was to take his nicer clothes off, and change into something he didn't mind getting messy.

He sprinted off and came back wearing what he declared to be his "paintin' clothes!"

You don't have to scratch the surface very hard to get to the Appalachia on this kid. 

The more we put on, the less sure I was I liked it. The color wasn't bad (and it was an improvement to the maroon). But it didn't seem to fit the space, or complement the trim. 

But, at the very least, I figured we were getting a coat of primer down. 

After the whole room was done, I stepped back and took it in, and decided that nope. This was not the color. 

I went through the list of colors we used in the house, and we decided to paint the floor the same as we had used in the upstairs hallway, to match the trim. The color is Concord Buff from Sherwin Williams. A simple, light buttery cream that complements a lot of the old architecture in the house. And I had 2/3 of a can of the floor paint version left in the basement from the earlier work. 

So I tried again. 

Definitely better.

Easier to envision painted cabinets in the room, with a clean, simple palette on the floor and walls. 

To paint a floor, you want something that is hard wearing and will last. Which is why folks used to put lead in their paint. Because that stuff lasts forever. 

But that's bad for our brains, so we looked for oil based paint. Which is getting harder to find. We used a gloss, oil-based marine enamel. A little tougher to work with, and clean up after. And it takes a few days to dry between coats. But it does last longer than latex, for sure. 

The trim is painted in the latex paint of the same color, so I still ended up having to carefully cut in around the edges. 

Fortunately for me, it's a big square (more or less. Nothing in this house is perfectly square anymore). Either way, though, it's just about within the realm of achievable for me. 

The lighting leaves things looking a little more yellow than it actually is - it's all that same, buttery buff, despite my poor shadowed photo above. 

I did find myself wondering while I was painting, how many layers of paint am I going over on these floors? The room I was working on was, we think, part of the early 19th century renovations. And the floor would have been original to it. 3 coats? 5? No idea. Some of the other floors had at least that many. And I've just added another 2.  

But it's done now, and ready for cabinets to be built and dishes to be stacked and ready. 

But that's a project for another snowy weekend. 

The hat skips a generation

Last fall, my mother- and father-in-law moved out from California to be nearer to us in Maine. It's been a real blessing and a privilege for many reasons, not least is that the kids get to spend more time with this set of grandparents. 

The boy has been spending a lot of time with his grandfather, Dardo. 

They look more alike every day. 


New Year's Resolution: v2016

1. Wear flannel more often, unironically.

2. Learn all the words to R.E.M. 'It's the End of the World As We Know It'

3. Call that guy from high school who thought he was so cool because he knew all the lyrics to R.E.M. 'It's the End of the World As We Know It' and I didn't. Tell him he's not. 

4. Convince Alton Brown to participate in a winner-take-all cookoff called "The Bacon Sutra"

5. Convince the executives of Netflix to sponsor my new idea for a reality show: "You probably shouldn't poke that"

6. Convince G.R.R. Martin that not finishing the 'Game of Thrones' book series in 2016 will constitute a crime against humanity under the Geneva convention. 

7. Buy a copy of Freakanomics. Leave it on my shelf with the intent to read it. Someday.

8. Find a shampoo that smells like Jovian afterglow. 

9. Learn enough about the NFL that I can use the phrase "The Gronk, ammiright?" without actually having to watch any sports on tv. 

10. Decide which of the seven bottles of salad dressing in my fridge is actually worth saving. Ruthlessly discard the rest, like I was an all-powerful medieval Japanese Shogun whose word was law within the boundaries of my demesne. 

11. Finish watching 'Shogun'. 

12.  Invent a new flavor popcorn seasoning that becomes all the rage. 

13. Introduce a foreigner to the joy that is a 'Slim Jim' meat snack. 

14. Learn how to tie a chunky man-scarf in a way that looks hip & effortless and like I'm off to fell a tree. 

15. Stop thinking of the floorboard of my car as the Home For Used Parking Vouchers. 

16. Put the smack down on an Islamophobe. 

17. Control the urge to roll my eyes at hearing the word 'signage'. 

18. Accept the fact that loyalty cards are inanimate advertising schtick, and unlikely to scream 'TRAITOR' if I weed them out of my Castanza-wallet & throw them away. 

19.  Learn a new knock-knock joke. 

20. Remind myself on a daily basis that pants are optional in your own house. 

21. Make Siri swear. 

22. Lose fifteen ten some a pound.

23. Take a vote on whether 'puce' actually refers to a reddish-brown or some sickly color yellow-green. Lobby for the latter, based on a childhood misunderstanding. 

24. Sweep the nation. 

25. Stack the Google results for 'Greatest rock band of all time' to correctly identify Styx

Home is a good place to be for the first snowfall

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This time last year, this house was basically a hollowed out shell. Thankfully, we're much more snug this winter. 

The sculpture garden that we inherited stands out from the snow and makes me smile. 

The chickens are snug in their coop. The fruit vines and greenhouse are dormant for the season. 

The snow is still falling, and I won't be going anywhere for a bit (certainly not in my Mini Cooper). So I think I'll just settle down with a cup of soup and a good book, and let the snow come on. 

A good way to end the year. 

Happy all

 Christmas, 2015

Dear friend,

I just set off all the smoke alarms in the house again.

Remember the two wood stoves we bought when we moved to Maine? Because it was cold. And burning things to generate heat, I was assured, was all the rage up here.

The stoves are very pretty. But one of them is impossible for this Georgia native to light without creating a thick, soup-like haze of smoke throughout the first floor.  A smoke that has a will of its own, escaping every crack and joint in the woodstove that I can see. And a few that I’m pretty sure didn’t exist when we bought the thing.  Because I seem to be getting worse at lighting it each time I make the attempt. 

The trick, I’ve discovered, is to keep the back door open for the first fifteen or twenty minutes that I’m burning something in the stove. Eventually, it stops smoking, and the fire settles in for a bit. Of course, by that time, the cold wind has been blowing in through the back door, and is threatening to create a new arctic front in the kitchen.

The other stove has never actually been lit since we bought it. It’s too big to fit in the house anywhere except outside in our three-season porch.  The three-season porch which is intended for use from late Spring through early-ish Autumn. Which means that it’s in the one place in the house we can’t go in the one season of the year we could use the extra heat.

How big could a stove be, you ask? It’s about 5 and a half feet high. I’d describe it as more of a fanciful cast iron, wood-burning sculpture than a stove.  In the 1890’s, this thing was like the new iPad. It wasn’t about having the most practical accessory to accomplish the task. It was about having an accessory that was indisputably bigger than anyone else you knew. Never mind if you could fit it into your laptop bag. Or living room. Whatever.  All I know is that the guy at the antique store sold it to us for a song, and delivered it for free.

Yeah.  I’m sort of beginning to see why as well.

Please call me if you’d like a large, cast iron, wood-burningsculpture of your own.

I might just be persuaded to deliver it.

In the spring.

The Grady

 

Chicken Fort Knox

When we left Massachusetts, we gave away all of our remaining chickens.  I think by the time we left, we were down to a dozen or so, and were happily able to find a few folks to take them off our hands. We still had a good number of consistent layers in that bunch, and it wasn't hard to place them. 

Since we moved to Maine, we've been chicken free. Which is one less thing to worry about, on the one hand. And lord knows, we've certainly had more than a couple of things going on to keep up occupied and out of trouble. But the Critter's been bugging me for a while about sorting out the gap. Because those little feathered producers are her source of income.  We've never given the kids an allowance. So sorting out some kind of revenue stream has been at the top of her list for a while. 

I knew this summer that I didn't want to use the old chicken house that came with the property. It was run down, and the run needed some major upkeep. I had my eye on a bigger space. One of the less used buildings on the property. The old pump house. 

When it came time to construct the new coop, I wanted to incorporate the lessons from the past few years.  A few key goals: 

  • It has to be easy to clean. 
  • Predator-proofing is high on my list - secure fencing. Netted run. 
  • The run has to be big enough to accommodate a couple dozen birds. I'm not into letting them range everywhere, because I'm not into trying to find them. 
  • I hate stooping over in the run. So big is the key. 

The pump house is great in almost every way for this. It's big and roomy. (12'x12'). Well lit with several windows. Has electricity run to it already. Has a concrete knee wall (hard for predators to beat). And is pretty reasonably sited on the property (important in a snowy winter).  Plus, it's right across from the greenhouse door - so I can shoo the chickens in there during the winter if I choose, a trick I've heard from old timers up here. 

The site I chose for the run is the opposite side of the pump house from the house - and it's on a bit of a slope. Remember when I said I didn't want to have to stoop over in the run? That meant that the uphill side of the run is almost 8' high. By the time you get down hill, the posts are just about 10' out of the ground. Which means that the 4"x4" posts I had to order were HUGE. But the soil was mostly easy to dig out 2' post holes for. 

The total run space about 24' x 30' (and a little change), with the pump house occupying one interior corner (plans above). Plenty big enough for chickens to enjoy, I think. It's about 50% larger of a run than we had in Massachusetts . 

 I changed the approach to the fencing this time as well. For the bottom 30"-48" or so (it varied depending on the slope, I used a 1" mesh coated wire of a heavier gauge, buried in a 4-6" trench. (I tried for 6" consistently, but had to adjust occasionally for rocks or roots). 

For the top, I used a coated hex mesh (traditional chicken wire). It's not quite as heavy a gauge of wire, but plenty good for the purpose, and a bit cheaper and easier to maneuver than having continued the heavy gauge wire. 

I included plenty of roosts in the run - there were a few lilac stumps and the cross bracing of the posts to make it easy. And in the corners, I used a few of the larger rocks that I had dug up in the digging phase to brace and provide further predator discouragement. 

One other lesson I learned from the first coop I built was how to deal with compost. We tend to bring all the kitchen compost out to the chickens to give them some variety. (Except for anything we cook with chicken in it. Because that seems wrong). 

The problem is, the kids (who do the actual schlepping to and fro, of course) tend to dump it right inside the run's entrance. Meaning that I end up stepping into a pile of slippery whatever when I go into the run. 

Et voila: I created a compost door in the corner opposite from the chicken run main door. This keeps the compost in a neat corner well away from where I go in and out. 

Sorted. 

We had plenty of knotted netting material left to cover the run - most of the chickens I've lost over the years have been to hawks. Like 2:1 for any other cause. Keeping the chickens in the run (and the predators OUT - there was one horribly bloody afternoon when a young red tailed hawk actually followed the chickens into the old coop through the little chicken door and commenced to slaughtering. It was a very messy day) is about the best thing I can do to help. 

This netting is frightfully expensive, but comes in large lots. I had set it aside for the movers to bring up to Maine for us. Fortunately, we had some competent supervision to get it unrolled and up on the roof. 

On the inside, there were a few things I was keen to address this time around. After a few years of working in and on the old coop, I had some ideas of how to improve. Mostly around how to keep the thing clean more easily. (Even though this is the Critter's business, and she does do all of the daily watering/feeding/egg-collecting, I still seem to end up doing the majority of the coop cleanup. I'm not sure that happened. I have a sneaking suspicion it may indicate which one of us is more naturally inclined to 'management', and which one to 'grunt poop cleaner upper'). 

The inside is bright and sunny - and there's an electric overhead light as well, which I can set on a timer (important during the long winters. Chickens want more than 12 hours of light in a day to lay at peak productivity). 

I gave myself plenty of room for food and other tool storage inside the coop. And I lined the bottom of the interior partition with a knee wall to keep the shavings from spilling out quite so badly. 

You can see the handy hole for the cord of the water warmer. Again - necessary to provision for the cold winters up here. Chickens deal remarkably well with the cold - the settlers managed quite well for a long time before the convenience of heat lamps came along, after all -  but they do need a constant supply of fresh water. 

The nesting boxes are easy, but even here, I managed to incorporate an improvement or two over my previous attempts. One: sloped roof. I know.. that sounds obvious. But while I gave the hens plenty of roosting space, I don't want to encourage them to roost on top of the nesting boxes. It gets messy pretty quickly. 

Two, the roosting bar in front of the nesting boxes (a simple 2"x4" runner) is offset slightly from the front of the nesting boxes. 

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It's not a wide enough gap for an egg to fall through - not even a bantam egg. But it IS wide enough to easily push out the shavings from the nesting box and let them fall onto the ground. Which will make cleaning up the nesting boxes easy enough for even my daughter to take on. 

Delegation! I'm learning! 

You can still see the old pump house components on the side of the wall - this building's original purpose on the farm is still very evident. 

I'll keep that closed and out of the way. 

The concrete knee wall did mean accommodating the hatch a bit - but nothing the chickens won't easily learn to navigate. (I've seen Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall train his chickens to a much higher ladder)

The last major mistake-inspired-innovation was a simple way to lift and shift the roosting bars when it came time to clean. I had made the error of permanently attaching the roosting ladder to the wall in the last coop (with a simple pair of screws. But then I had to go get my drill every time it came time to clean to remove it). 

Trust me - this is the single biggest area of manure compilation, as the chickens will poop frequently while roosting. So addressing this from the beginning was high on my list. 

I used a simple pair of eye & hook latches to make it secure, but easy to lift out and hang whenever cleaning time comes around. 

That's pretty much it. The chicks have arrived - just a few to get us started (it's hard to source healthy chicks this time of year), but George has already made it known to them exactly whose herd they belong to.  

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They're a little small yet to move in, but soon enough. 

Let's hope they enjoy their new home.