Goose neck sausage. Goal: complete.

Just before Christmas, my buddy who sourced our last goose sent me a note.

"Greg shot a pair of geese today. Much bigger than the last. Would you like one? This one has the head still!" 

It has the head still? Well, of COURSE I'm going to take it. 

Unlike the first one, I hung the goose from the rafters of the barn for 5 days. With game birds, the flavor can be a bit strong, and hanging them for a bit (3-7 days, per the experts) mellows the flavor. 

I took it down and brought it in the kitchen to pluck. I knew I'd have a bit of mess to clean up, but it was 20 degrees outside, and that was a bit too cold for me. Fortunately, the Boy had some friends over, and I ended up with a few helpers. 

This goose was really beautiful. I followed the same process as before - it was a bit quicker, and I was a bit more comfortable with the whole thing this time around. There's a point where the bird turns from "goose" to "meat" when you do this, and your brain switches into the same comfort level that you'd have in cleaning a turkey you brought home from the store. 

I was, however, especially careful with the real prize of this bird: the neck. 

Years ago, I had watched an episode of River Cottage, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall dress out a goose and set the neck aside for a special treat. A stuffed goose neck sausage. 

I have since found several recipes for this, from River Cottage and Darina Allen. Variations on the theme and method, but they all start by peeling the fatty skin back off the neck, taking care to keep it intact as one long 'tube'.  

We've bought several geese from the butcher over the years (goose is always on the Christmas dinner menu), but none of them ever come whole, or with the neck. They're prettily dressed and wrapped, just like the Butterball turkey you pick up at your local grocery. So this was a real treat. 

The goose roasted gorgeously, shedding tons of crystal clear fat, and browning deliciously. It wasn't quite as pretty as a farm raised goose, but I have to say I'm pretty proud of the way it turned out. 

I turned my attention to the neck - I stuffed it with a pork sausage (ground fresh from our pigs), mixed with diced bacon (again: our pigs), sage, thyme, salt, white pepper and a little brandy. Little bits of goose trim - heart, liver, etc. - cooked and chopped are also acceptable. 

Tie the little end of the neck up with some kitchen twine, and I set it into some goose fat to crisp the skin a bit. 10 minutes or so on a side. Then put into the oven at 300F for 30 minutes. 

The next step took me out into the snow for a bit. 

I cranked my smoker up to 275F, and put the neck sausage in for 45 minutes, with some peach wood. You can see that I didn't seal up the 'fat' end of the neck (where the neck joined the shoulders of the bird). But that's ok. I just took care to fold the loose flaps over the sausage. 

Oh this thing is beautiful. 

Every time I opened the door to check (I had to force myself not to check every 3 minutes), my nostrils were filled with the delicious smell of the meat and woodsmoke. I was practically dancing in anticipation. 

When I pulled it out of the smoker, I slipped it back into the fat and the oven to crisp a bit longer (maybe 10 minutes) while I carved the rest of the goose. (I've gotten pretty good at this by now, actually - taking out the whole breasts  before slicing, and taking out the thighs and other meat pretty neatly.). 

When I sliced the neck open, it looked like a perfect sausage.  The skin was nicely crisp, and the meat inside savory and a little fragrant with the smoke and herbs. 

I slices up the meat and sausage and we took the feast (along with creamed spinach and a sweet-potato & apple soufflé) over to my Bride's parents for dinner. The goose was a little tougher and I should have taken the time to make a gravy, but the meat was rich and flavorful, and the Boy went back for seconds and then thirds of the sausage. And then he asked if he could pack the res for his first lunch back at school tomorrow. 

I'm guessing he'll be the only kid there with goose neck sausage. 

It was a small goal, but totally worth holding out for. If you ever get the chance to order/make/try, believe me when I say: don't hesitate. It was delicious. 

A farmhouse Christmas

IMG_3320.JPG

We've been in the farmhouse for a bit more than a year now, and while we still have a few projects left to do here and there, we couldn't be happier with to celebrate another Christmas in this house we've made a home. 

A little greenery goes a long way towards welcoming the season. A wreath here or there and a fresh blanket of snow, and it's a welcoming sight at the end of a drive. 

The house doesn't ask for much for decoration. And I prefer the simpler touches anyhow. I had made garlands of walnuts years ago that I store away and pull out each year. A few sprigs of greenery for the fireplace mantles, and the dining room is ready for family dinner. 

I walk down to the woods and cut a few fresh boughs to hang on the house and the door. A few bows, and a simple garland on the bannister. 

The library's beautiful murals and brick red paint are almost enough decoration for the season. Stockings hung, nutcrackers vigilant next to the fireplace, and a small tree wrapped in burlap garland to hang a few special ornaments. 

The family room gets the big tree and presents waiting for Christmas morning. The house is cozy and warm, with a lived-in feeling that I can only imagine the more than two hundred years pf families and Christmases that have made this home has seen would approve of as well..

At least our pup George declares it good enough. And so do I. 

Merry Christmas to all - I hope to see more of you in the new year. 

Yes, I'll pretty much always take your dead animal.

Three days ago, my Bride and I were talking about needing to source a goose for Christmas, and then this morning during a meeting, a colleague sent me a note. 

"My husband just shot a goose. Do you want it?" 

HELLS YES I DO. 

I have been a very good boy, and the universe clearly agrees with me. 

He dropped it off in a cooler, along with a note. 

I left you a delicious goose. It's in your cooler. I apologize for the lack of a head, but it was a damn good shot!

Hope you enjoy!

I was totally enthusiastic about this, but I'm going to let you in on a little secret.

I had not the slightest idea what the heck to do next.

So we did what the settlers did. We looked up videos on YouTube. A couple of searches later, and we found a quick 'how to dress your goose'.  

God, I love the internet. 

We took the bird out to the barn, and pulled out a garbage bag.

The down was as soft as they advertise, and came out by the handful. Even the Boy got in on the action. He gloved up, just in case. 

We lit the fire and commenced to plucking. (the fire comes in handy later. Hold that thought).

Mostly, it was pretty easy. Everything except the wings and some of the longer feathers came out with a gentle tug. 

Most of the 'how to videos' were focused on 'breasting' the bird - dressing it in pieces. Apparently, the skin is easy to peel off, and you can quarter the bird very easily. But we want saving this bird for Christmas, and roast it for our dinner party. So we were careful to keep the skin as intact as possible (though we found one or two tears from the shot that spread). 

My Bride's mom laughed as we got into the groove.

She grew up taking out chickens and dressing them with little emotion. She took care of the rooster we had a few years ago.. She is not a woman to be trifled with. 

After plucking all that we could by hand, I wrapped the legs up in wire and lit a bundle of paper up to singe the remaining quills off. Just a quick pass of flame over the skin and the remaining little bits of feathers were toasted right off.

Amazing how well that worked.

Apparently, you can believe stuff you see on the internet.

George was such a good pup the whole time - she was clearly interested (particularly in the bloody bit where the head used to be). But other than wanting to be close to the action, she was content to be near enough to watch, but not mess with the goose. 

Now featherless, we took the goose back into the kitchen to dress it (which is a nice way to say "get rid of the gross bits you're not going to eat.")

With frequent checks on YouTube, cutting out the bloody inner bits and setting them aside was actually way easier than I thought it would be. (I had done something similar exactly once a few years ago, when I helped a buddy of mine harvest his turkeys. My job was to pull out the guts and toss them aside. It was disgusting for all of two minutes. Surprising how fast you get used to things). 

I convinced the Boy to grab onto the esophagus.

As you can see from his face, he found the experience somewhat awkward. 

Here she is, all dressed and ready. The heart, liver and gizzard has been cleaned and set aside for forcemeat stuffing. This bird was flying around this morning, and is now just about ready to be roasted and served. 

I washed the bird thoroughly, inside and out (just a lot of cold water), and patted her dry. Bagged and vacuum sealed, this will be a special center piece of our Christmas dinner.  

And probably a center piece of the stories our kids tell their therapist some day. 

Victuals & sour corn

It's not often that I find a cookbook that grabs my attention and makes me want to read it cover to cover, word for word.  Although, frankly, 'cookbook' is hardly the right word to describe Victuals, by Ronni Lundy which is probably why it's subtitled 'an Appalachian Journey... with Recipes.'  It's as much about the story of the food featured as it is the recipes, and it is masterfully and beautifully written. 

I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, but like the author, my mom took me 'back home' to Blue Ridge, Georgia every chance we got. Weekends that were more than two days, or long, hot stretches in the summer that lingered to the soundtrack of grasshopper crescendos behind the cornfield. I knew exactly what the author was describing when she recalled sitting on the back porch with aunts and her grandmother, threading beans to hang and dry in long, lovely strings, and visiting the canning factory every summer to put up the harvest. Apples were destined for apple butter in the fall, and the aforementioned cornfield nestled at the foot of the hill was where my grandfather would head to hoe and weed when he came home from a shift at the copper mine just a few miles over the border in Tennessee. 

Some recipes I found in the book were new to me, and got me excited to try. Appalachia has a much richer and more multi-threaded history than most folks from outside the region suspect.  There's a strong streak of Scots-Irish tradition in the hearty staples, and adaptation of the native staples like corn in food and drink. But there's also a streak of German, Hungarian, African and several other waves or pockets of immigration that worked the mines, the fields or found the hills to be an otherwise likely place to settle in. 

So when I saw a recipe for 'sour corn' that was essentially an adaptation of traditional German sauerkraut which replaces cabbage with fermented corn, I had to try it. I love the tangy bite of sauerkraut, and we are just seeing the last fresh ears of corn for the season at the market. Perfect timing. 

I scalded 15 ears of corn in boiling water for 2 minutes and set them aside on the counter to let them cool a bit before cutting the kernels off the cob. (The chickens get a double treat this afternoon of both the husks and the leftover cobs, which they go wild for).

The corn goes into a 2 gallon ceramic crock (in fact the same one I've made sauerkraut in). I mixed 8 cups of water with just a hair more than a cup of kosher salt until the salt was completely dissolved, and poured it in over the corn. 

Slide a plate gently into the crock, and weight it down so that the corn stays submerged, and cover with cheesecloth. The crock is now resting in a cool, out of the way corner of the pantry for the next two weeks or so. 

When the corn is ready, I'll ladle it into mason jars, and make sure it stays covered with the brine. Properly canned (and I'll draw on my Bride's expertise to make sure I get it right), it'll last through the winter season. This will probably make enough for 6 or 7 pints.

The author recommends cooking up batches of sour corn with a little bacon grease and serving along side, well, anything. But she promises it's just as good fresh out of the crock. Which is good, because I'm not sure I'm going to be patient enough to let it get to the skillet. 

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. 

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. 

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 11.33.51 PM.png

 

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... 

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. 

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. 

IMG_9846.JPG

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.  

dog chicks.jpg

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

Let's hope they enjoy their new home. 

 

Even the bacon tastes better when we cook it here

When we bought the house, there were 3 kitchen areas (and that's not counting the kitchen in the in-law apartment over the barn). One kitchen for the small apartment in the back of the house, another central 'kitchenette' for student boarders. We knew we'd be ripping both of those out as a part of the remodel. 

That left the principle house kitchen. It was dark and close, with a low, swayed ceiling. The space was tucked into the extended/converted 'back house' or barn, squeezed between the dining room and the rear stair case, and almost completely filled with a pinewood island, cabinets and tiled countertops. It did have a pretty new kick-ass professional viking stove that we ended up saving and moving into the barn's in-law apartment. But otherwise, we knew it wasn't laid out well for how we wanted to use the space.  

For example: we had this wild thought that it might be nice to have enough light to see what we were cooking.  That lamp on the counter? That was a necessary addition. Because the space was that dark.  

kitchen.jpeg

Also, see that brick wall above the range? It's kind of hard to tell from the photo, but the mortar had sort of started to fall out in chunks. Which didn't bother me too much, except for occasionally finding mortar crumbs at the bottom of my soup bowl at the end of a meal. 

Not until I came home from work one evening to my Bride's steely-eyed refusal to use the kitchen anymore. This after a family of mice poked their head out of one of the gaps in the brick, and gave her whatever the rodent equivalent of the one fingered salute is while she was trying to toss together a stir fry.  

We ate a lot of take-out after that. 

Fortunately, that was only a few days before we moved into the barn apartment, and got to some serious work on the house demolition

The end product definitely managed to tick the box of "we'd like to have some more light in this space".

20150731_145619.jpg

In many ways, this kitchen was at the heart of the house renovation.

First, it's where we end up spending the majority of our time together as a family. We all love to cook. And even more, we love to eat. The kids end up doing their homework at the counter while we make dinner. Dinner parties end up congregating around the appetizers laid out on the counter. It's the center of the house - pretty much the point you pass through to get anywhere else, one way or the other. 

Second, we knew we wanted to relocate the two stair cases that had been constraining the space. The stairs to the basement, and the back stairs to the second floor were both moved to other locations (the 'up' stairs went along the wall - as you'll see below, and the basement entrance was re-located under the front stairs, in a different part of the house entirely). 

This gave us a huge amount of freedom to design the space to our liking, with plenty of room to stretch things out as we liked.  

We sketched out some basic plans for our awesome architect, who fleshed in the details. (This was the same guy that came back to me with the idea of turning the old 'indoor hot tub' space into a meat room. I love this guy). 

We did make some changes to those planes along the way as we tore back the walls and saw what we had to work with. Those exposed beams and supports, for example - many of which still bear evidence of the whitewash applied when the building was a dairy barn - we left bare and worked into the room. 

One of my favorite ideas, though, was something we saw once on some home renovation show on cable a long time ago. My Bride & I have been joking about this idea for years, and given the opportunity, we insisted we include it from the beginning. Look again at that picture above... there are two dishwashers. 

Think about how insanely clever this is. A dishwasher is basically just a cabinet that happens to wash dishes. Stick some dirty dishes in it. Press a button, and voila: clean. I take dishes out as I need, put dirty ones in the other dishwasher. Press another button, and clean. And the cycle flips. 

Genius. 

The biggest argument we had when we sold our house in Massachusetts was that we had to leave our Aga cooker. My Bride wanted to take it with us. I argued that the people buying our house almost certainly expected to have an oven in the kitchen when they moved in. And they'd likely notice the large hole in the wall if we removed it. I wasn't sure that my Bride bought my logic, but I finally promised that we'd go find another Aga when we moved. 

This one is blue. We found it on Craigslist and brought it home. 

I'm still in love with the Aga as a cooking device, and think I always will be - an oven designed by a nobel prize winning physicist is inherently awesome. And it's even handier up here, where we're two hours closer to the north pole. The kids cuddle up next to its radiant warmth on a cold day, and it is simply lovely to never have to pre-heat the oven when I'm set to cook. 

The cabinets are all from a local place up in Bath, ME. The Kennebec guys designed these beautiful hand-planed cabinets for us to accommodate the giant slab of dark soapstone we found. And we kept the whole thing light by painting it a buttery cream. I never thought I'd end up with painted cabinets, but I love these. 

The leaded-glass hutch in the corner is another built in, incorporating material reclaimed from the home (as mentioned here). And you can see where the stairs shifted to on the other end of the kitchen, along with the little bit of remaining brick - turns out that most of the brick was simply a facade behind the original stove (which was located right in the corner where the bottom landing of those stairs ended up). The bricks that are left are exposed from the back of the dining room fireplace. 

One of the other neat features that ended up solving a problem for us was the downdraft vent behind the range top. 

We cook a lot of stir-frys and such - and while I love my Aga, there are times when you simply need an open flame. In the quest for a perfect cook top, I must have visited and researched and studied and asked around and visited some more about cook tops for months before we settled on this four-burner Wolf. But putting a range top in the island meant we had to figure out how the heck we were going to sort out ventilation. Because this thing puts out a lot of BTUs. And I didn't want to smoke us out of the house every time I turned it on. 

Enter the awesomely retractable downdraft fan. Press a button, and it rises up from the island like the monolith in 2001. (one buddy suggested I hook up a speaker to have it play the opening theme song every time it was raised. My Bride vetoed this.) Press another button and it goes away again. And the thing is powerful enough to suck all the smoke down and out through the floor, avoiding the need for an overhead hood altogether. Hell - this thing could suck the color out of paint. And still somehow quiet. 

Technology is awesome. 

We turned a portion of the side entry around, and created a pantry space off the kitchen. (The window at back leads into the mudroom now). The color was a bold choice to contrast against the light wood we had in the space, and the shelves were designed with purpose.

The back shelves hold appliances - including the power to run them, without having to move them out of their spots - and the side shelves are sized for specific needs. The visible shelves here are intended for canned and preserved goods. The opposite side (out of view) is deep enough for a large cereal box. 

Anything deeper, and we'd lose things in the clutter. This works perfectly for us. 

This kitchen turned out to be everything we could have hoped for, and immediately turned into the heart of our home that we knew that it would. It's bright in the sunshine, and warm in the evening as the autumn turns to winter. It's practically laid out, with plenty of easily accessed storage. Yes, it used up an extravagantly large amount of the back of the house, but the farmhouse is a long, rambling building, with room to spare, so why not? And because of the choice of warm materials, it managed to remain somehow cozy.  

And we haven't seen the mice since we finished. So we love it. 

How many people have a 200 year old pee wall?

Like just about any other exercise, writing requires some muscle effort. And like any other muscles, you've got to use them to keep them in shape. 

I'm pretty out of shape. 

I've been intending to write about the house, the move, the garden, Maine, the amazing restaurant we went to last week in New Orleans, the shitty restaurant we went to last week in New Orleans, and whatever other crazy crap was going on. But somehow, I kept finding reasons not to. 

Remember the house? And how it made us lose our minds?  We've been in it a few months now, and it STILL has that effect. For different reasons. Well. For the same reasons. But also some more reasons. 

Back when I interrupted my vacation to go to the White House, we were also going through our final inspection on the renovation. (It's a tough call which one I was more excited about). We had been out of the house since Thanksgiving, 2014. Originally, we had hoped to move in by the end of May. And then maybe June. No? OK. How about July 4? Um. End of July? We ended up passing the final inspection on 31 July. 8 months after we began the tear out. 

Actually, that's not a bad timeline at all, given the extent of renovations (including a dedicated Meat Room). The crew we worked with were absolutely fantastic, entertaining and solving all kinds of problems that you find when you're tearing a 230 year old house down to the studs. 

We were committed to re-using as much of the materials as possible, and incorporating components of the house back into the renovation. I just couldn't bear to see the centuries-old lumber that we were pulling out - much of which would have been harvested and planed from trees on the original farmstead - simply tossed out and hauled off to the landfill. And this incredibly talented crew was game for every hare-brained idea we could come up with. 

In the kitchen, for example, we removed several ancient hand-planed beams from the ceiling. The timbers had been part of a post-and-beam barn on the property at one point, with hand-cut mortise and tenon joints. At some point, the beams were reclaimed and re-purposed into a barn extension that abutted the original farmhouse. (By the way, if you're interested in this architecture, you should totally check out the book 'Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn', which is a study of this particular style of home that was prevalent in northern New England). 

We could tell that these had been re-assembled, as most of the beams had been hammered in at an toe-nail angle with more modern nails. Many of the beams were twisted on their sides to provide a few extra inches of headroom in the 'cozy' room below (I had named it the hobbit kitchen, because of the low ceilings). And as you can see in the photo above, the spacing was oh-so-definitely-NOT up to code.   The whole ceiling had a kind of 'springy' effect that was mildly alarming to the building inspector. 

So we pulled them all out, and started fresh. But I couldn't bear to think of these ancient beams being tossed. So we told the crew to figure out a way to use them in the new stair case. 

'Um.. exactly how would you like us to do that?' 

'I don't know. Just make them look, you know, "posty"'

'Right...'

(Which is contractor-speak for "the homeowner is insane, and I'm going to try not to cry right now"). 

They turned out perfect. 

So we kept trying to come up with new ideas to reclaim parts of the material. 

The door to the meat room is made from internal wall planking. The kid's sink counter is made from similar material. The counter on the built in kitchen hutch is all reclaimed from sub flooring. Even the small divide between the sinks and the toilet area in the master bath is made from a reclaimed piece of scrap from the original house, and may (oddly) be my single favorite piece of reclamation in the house. 

 The door to the meat room is a slider on new barn hardware. That dry sink is an Pennsylvania antique that somehow made it's way up north. 

The door to the meat room is a slider on new barn hardware. That dry sink is an Pennsylvania antique that somehow made it's way up north. 

The kids sink - the wood had original carpenter marks in it (which were, unfortunately, right where those sinks had to go. Ah well.)  

 More of the newel posts from reclaimed beams. 

More of the newel posts from reclaimed beams. 

I was really not into the whole cable tie rails. This was an idea that my Bride conspired on with the Critter and a couple of the renovation crew. It's far too modern a look for me to have come up with. I can only say that I was having a weak or distracted moment when I agreed to it. 

But I have to admit, I love how it turned out.

It keeps the whole space light and airy, despite the old, dark wood we used to frame the area. It's a perfect blend of new and old, and has become one of the most commented on areas in the house. 

 The hutch is a new, built in. The wood on the counter offsets the soapstone island, and looks brilliant. 

The hutch is a new, built in. The wood on the counter offsets the soapstone island, and looks brilliant. 

I'm pretty sure that the term architects use for the divider between the sink counter and your toilet area is a 'pee wall'. 

 This is the wall that keeps my toothbrush from falling into the toilet. 

This is the wall that keeps my toothbrush from falling into the toilet. 

I'll try and put together some of the individual room transitions, now that I've finally corralled all the images into a single place. 

The renovation isn't 'done' - there's always more to do. And we still have a couple of rooms that we're working on. We couldn't let the crew have all the fun. It makes for a good winter time project, after all. 

But first, I've got 25 baby chicks on their way before the end of the month, and we need to finish converting the pump house into a new Chicken Fort Knox. More on that later. 

FullSizeRender.jpg


Springtime. One way or another.

Never mind the fact that it's actually snowing outside as I sit and write this. (It's the end of March, people. WHAT THE HELL). I'm thinking about fresh greens. Because it's the end of March, people, and that's what you do. 

One of the most compelling parts of the property that made us lose our minds is the greenhouse. A full on, proper-panes-of-glass, walk in greenhouse. The north wall is made of double-thickness brick, to absorb the sun's heat during the day and cast it back into the space. I was still harvesting greens and other vegetables out of the greenhouse after Thanksgiving last year. 

All I could think when I saw it was: Let's see the goddamned deer get to my tomatoes NOW. 

Honestly, I've barely even thought about a garden in our new space. The snow is still more than a foot thick on the ground outside, and everything is pretty dormant. Plus, my brain-space has been more than occupied between the new gig and trying to keep up with the renovation of the actual house. That and trying not to slip and bust my ass on the way out to the car every morning. (It's not easy looking graceful on black ice when you're wearing ostrich skin cowboy boots). 

But the other day I saw a new seed display at the hardware store, and it reminded me that in other parts of the country, people are not just thinking about growing things, they can actually see the dirt where they intend to put it. 

The inside of the greenhouse was a mess. The brick wall is actually covered by a grape vine - lovely white grapes that the previous owner plucked and handed to the kids to eat as we toured the property last summer. That's because the inside of the greenhouse actually gets too warm without something to diffuse the radiant heat from the brick, and the greenery of the leaves acts as a perfect balance. 

There were leftover tomato plants poking up through the center table, and straggly bits of wilted cabbage on the ground to be raked and cleaned up. But even with all the snow and ice we accumulated this winter, the greenhouse was lovely and intact. Even scraping off a little bit of snow from the sloping roof allowed enough sunlight through into the interior to warm it up above freezing, and let the remainder just melt right off. 

Yesterday, with a clear blue sky, the temperature outside was around 30 degrees when I stepped into the greenhouse. Inside, it was over 70. 

I started raking and sorting, and quickly shed both my outer coat, and then my sweater. I was down to a t-shirt in no time, and reveling in the warmth. It's no wonder the snow didn't stay long on the greenhouse roof - it is incredibly efficient. I could have probably gotten out and planted in the greenhouse a couple of weeks ago, even with thicker snow still on the ground. 

The greenhouse cleaned up pretty quickly - I pulled out all the detritus of last summer and swept the paths. The two long edges have felt paper down to keep the weeds out, and the center patch of soil - about 40" wide - is surmounted by the chickenwire frame above. It's perfect when the tomatoes come up, offering a great support trellis. 

I hadn't planned extensively on what to plant this year. Given that we only moved in last October, I don't know the property well enough to have developed an overall garden plan. There are plenty of grapevines, raspberry canes and blackberry vines to keep me busy. Plus 30 or so blueberry bushes and a smattering of fruit trees. So I figured I'd limit my annual vegetable planting to keep things manageable while I get my head around what might go where. The previous owner had a potato patch, as well as several squash varieties going behind the barn, and I'll probably do that as well. Maybe I'll go crazy and add beans or peas to the mix. But all other vegetables this year will come from the greenhouse. 

I had picked up a couple of packs of spinach and arugula, and thought I'd try my hand at starting tomatoes from seed, since I was beginning the season a bit early. Some of the seed I put into the egg carton cups with a bit of fresh soil. Others I planted underneath the framework, along with all the greens. 

After my previous pleasure at what a simple cold frame in the garden could do to extend the season a few weeks, my pleasure at getting into the greenhouse and having all that delicious room to grow things literally a month or more before I'd otherwise be able to get my hands dirty is positively visceral. 

From my initial simple list, I've added peppers to the ambition for this year, and probably one or two other staples that would be out of reach due to such a short season after The Winter That Will Not End.  But right now, I'm just daydreaming about what those first tomatoes are going to taste like, and discovering that I'm suddenly a bit more patient with the melting snow than I was before. 

Three... I mean, er... Two little pigs

The first year I had pigs, it was on a lark. And raising our own bacon in our backyard turned out to be way easier than I expected. I fed them some grain, a ridiculous amount of peanuts, and watched them get big and docile, roaming around under the trees in our backyard. 

This year's lot, on the other hand, turned out to be more than a handful of pain-in-the-ass. 

First there was that time they went missing, and lived in the woods for a month.

Then, there was the recapturing, and building a pig pen that would make the inmates of Guantanamo give that low whistle of respect that says 'Holy shit, brother. What did you do to get put in here?'

About two hours before the 'Coppa & Collards' dinner party, two of them managed to push their way out of even that fence, and take a little walk around the yard. I managed to get them back up to the pen, and told the boy to go in and get his mother. She came outside and looked at me like "These are your pigs, mister." 

"I'll grab the front side," I told her. "You grab the rear." And before she could say anything, I reached down and grabbed the front legs of one of the pigs. 

If you haven't had occasion to wrestle a pig yourself, you should know that an upset pig can squeal loud enough to be heard for miles. The saying "squeal like a stuck pig"  could also be "squeal like a pig you just tried to pick up".  

My Bride took one look and said "I am not picking up the back end of that pig. That's where they poop." 

"Would you rather to grab the squealy, bitey end?"

There was a lot of swearing. And a lot of pushing. And some more swearing. Most of it aimed at the pigs.  But we got them back in the pen.  

When we decided to move north to Maine, the logistics were all pretty easy. Except for the pigs. 

It was a corporate relocation, so we had a packing and moving crew helping us load up and take everything to storage until we could get into our new place outside of Portland. A very nice gentleman with a large clipboard and a measuring tape came by to do the inventory of our household goods. 

"Are those pigs yours?" 

I don't get asked that question every day. It would have been awkward to deny it. 

"We can't put the pigs in storage, you know..."

Thanks, funny guy. 

Fortunately, I had a plan. I have a buddy with a trailer who likes to go to Maine. He brought the trailer over one evening so that I could load up the pigs, and we could schlep them up to the great white north the next day. Loading last year's pigs was pretty easy. I figured I could handle this. 

Nothing with this group of pigs was ever easy. 

There was more shoving. A whole lot more cursing. And I only fell in pig crap twice. I began to wish that I had never found the pigs again after their escape. But eventually, they were loaded up, and off we went. 

I had called the sellers of our new house a couple of weeks before. "Listen, Peter. I need to bargain for a favor. I need to move the pigs in before the close date."  

Just a totally typical buying a house conversation to have. 

He laughed. He used to raise pigs.

I liked the couple we were buying the house from a lot. We didn't involve the realtors.  The Critter and I showed up for a few evenings in a row and built a new pen around the barn. 

The pigs settled in. And eventually, we closed on the house and moved the rest of our household good in. And ourselves while we were at it. 

These three pigs were on the small side compared to last year. I am pretty sure the month in the woods foraging didn't help. They grew taller, but didn't put on as much weight when they were young. And maybe it's just their litter. They were smaller, and more active. They took to their pen with gusto, rooting up all the mint and clover, and enjoying themselves immensely. The end stall of the barn was theirs, so they had a place to huddle and sleep. And there is a huge oak tree across the driveway, so the kids would scoop up acorns to add to their meal. 

Other than the fact that I had to fetch water in buckets from the pond down the hill, it was a pretty terrific setup. 

Soon, though, The Spare got listless. 

She lay around for days. I wasn't sure if she was just getting lazy as she grew or if there was something wrong.  She moved. Just slower, and with less pep than the other two. 

I watched her for a while, and figured that, well, it was already early October, and they didn't have much longer before slaughter anyhow. I'd let her be. 

A week later, I was out in California for a conference and some visits with our customers. It was a beautiful, sunny day in Oakland. It was my birthday. I was celebrating by joining one of our sales team as he called on local veterinary practices. I got a call on my phone about 4 o'clock in the afternoon. 

"Your f*@#ing pig is dead."

It was my Bride. She was not her normal chipper self. 

It was raining in Maine. And cold. And dark. And there was a dead, 225 lb pig in the yard. 

"How do the other pigs look?"

"They're fine. But There. Is. A. Dead. Pig." 

"I suppose we should move it out of the pen before the other pigs get to it." 

"You move it. I did NOT sign up for this. I'm f*#@ing done with f#@$ing pigs."

You people have only met the lovely, sweet, friendly woman that I married. My Bride is patient, and kind, and beautiful. And she can swear a blue streak when she encounters a large dead animal in her backyard.  I'm standing in the sunny parking lot of a small animal vet practice on the opposite coast. I wasn't in the best position to be much help.  If we were still in Massachusetts, we had enough friends with animals and a sense of humor that I could call on to help. But we had been in our new Maine house for exactly two weeks. We had met pretty much no one. 

Except. 

I did know a guy. 

"I will handle it, my love."

In my first couple of weeks at work, I had shared some stories with my colleagues. Including the whole pig/ham/bacon hobby. One guy on my team ALSO raised pigs. AND he lived in our town. 

It was a little awkward, but on the off chance he might be around, I called him. 

"Hey, Ken - aren't you in California?"

"I am. But I need a huge favor." 

I explained. I felt like I was calling The Cleaner on Pulp Fiction. 

"I'll be over in 15 minutes." 

They moved the pig out of the pen and rolled it in a tarp. I sat in the airport later on, Googling "How deep do I need to bury a dead pig?"

I am pretty sure I'm on a new list someplace now. 

Turns out, the answer is "under 4 feet of soil, and not near your drinking water." 

I'm still not sure what killed the Spare. Pigs are susceptible to pneumonia and a host of other diseases, just like any livestock. But Rocky & Tocino were both perfectly fine. It wasn't contagious. Some livestock get cancer. Or something lodged in their system that keeps them from eating. She had sat in the tarp for two days waiting for me to get home, and I wasn't really prepared to do a necroscopy to figure out what might have happened. And not knowing what took her down, we weren't going to eat her. We just chalked it up to lessons in owning livestock, and kept an eye on the other two. 

And, ok, probably naming her 'The Spare' wasn't the best karma. 

Joe and his partner Joanne came back this past weekend with their trailer. They had kindly agreed to help transport the (remaining) pigs to slaughter. Joanne quickly took charge. "Joe - stand behind the pigs and push them up where I can guide them into the trailer.  Ken - stand over there. No. Over there. More out of the way."  I held the gate so it didn't fall over. And I did it gladly.  I knew when I was in the presence of an expert. 

Tocino went more or less right in. Rocky was being his normal stubborn self. He grunted a lot. He squealed some.  Joanne stood there and let him catch his breath. Then she reached over and grabbed his front legs and hoisted him into the trailer. 

"Hey, Giuia! Come check out what Joanne just did!"

I found that funnier than my Bride did. 

Giving thanks

On this day, I have so many things to be thankful for. Gainful employment. Health. Warmth. Family. Friendship. Love. 

My pigs, on the other hand, are pretty pissed about this whole snow thing, and are demanding more peanuts. And when I had to shovel out a path to the pond, break the ice to fill buckets with water and haul cold, slushy ice-water back up to their pen, I was thankful they only have a few days before they are ready for my freezer. Ha! Take that, farming! 


Osteo sarcoma is Latin for "This sucks"

A few weeks ago, I was traveling out west. I got a call from home. 

That part isn't really all that surprising. My Bride and I usually speak two or three times a day, even when I'm not traveling. Some of our friends are surprised. I'm not sure why. This lady is my best friend. We check in. Sometimes just for a few minutes. And sometimes just to shoot the breeze in some down time. Or to laugh about something one of the kids just did. Or just to laugh at the kids. Because that's one of the perks of being a parent. 

This wasn't one of those calls. 

Our sweet, slobbery, six year old giant of a dog, Maggie, had come up lame. 

For a 140 pounds dog on permanent medication for a variety of ailments, Maggie's always been surprisingly healthy. Oh, sure. She's incontinent. ("Just a little bit," said the vet. She's 140 pounds. nothing this dog does is little). So she takes a twice-a-day dose of a minor amphetamine that was banned for human consumption as it occasionally caused strokes in young women. But - if taken every day at morning and evening meals with their kibble - it also cures incontinence in dogs! So, woo hoo for the drugs! 

Transient

She also has a rotten nose. Or proliferative arteritis. Which is a genetic condition that apparently only affects a minority of St. Bernards, Newfoundlands and Giant Schnauzers.  Her nose has a deep crack that splits, bleeds, scabs, and then repeats. Even though her nose has been rotting from the center out for years now,  it doesn't seem to cause her much discomfort, and only occasionally is the bleeding more than a little seepage. But when it is, she looks like she just turned our neighbor's cockapoo into a light, bloody snack. 

She was on medication for this for a couple of years - some combination of fish-oil and steroids. It didn't actually do anything to heal the issue, it being genetic and all. So eventually, we more or less gave up the steroids part, and just settled on the cheaper fish oil pills. If nothing else, it kept her coat shiny. 

Transient

When my Bride called to tell me the dog was limping, I wasn't too worried. She hurts herself occasionally. A couple of years ago, she struggled to stand, and when she did, she couldn't turn to the left without whining. She had pinched a nerve or pulled a muscle in her neck, playing with the Boy. The vet gave her muscle relaxers, and for a couple of days, she was one very mellow dog.  Then she was fine. 

So my Bride helped her limp into the car, and took her in for an x-ray. 

IMG_1284.jpeg

There's a spot on the leg, right above the joint there that's swollen and a little brighter. That spot is a very bad sign. 

One biopsy later, and the vet told us: It's osteo sarcoma. A bone cancer that advances rapidly, and metastasizes readily into the lungs and other parts of the body. Left untreated, that swelling will increase, and soon weaken the bone to the point where a very painful fracture is likely. And that's if the cancer doesn't spread to other areas faster than the bone weakens. 

Options?

"You're going to want to amputate and put her on chemotherapy." 

And that cures things?

"Well. No. But it takes away the most painful spot, and will give her a few more months."

Hmm. I love this dog. But a treatment of ten thousand dollars or more, a long recovery, and we're only buying a few months of slow decline? What else do you have on that list? 

The vet clearly had some pause that we weren't ready to sign on for the most aggressive treatment.  

Look. I love this dog. This is, by far and away, the best dog I have ever had in my life. This dog is easier to train, more loyal, and more integrated into our family and daily lives than any animal we've ever owned.

But she's a dog. If we were talking a treatment option that would give us a couple more years with her, I might consider it. Maybe. But I can't get behind radical surgery & treatment that will cause her more misery, cost 5x the cost of the dog, and give us a handful more months of sad, sickly companionship. 

Besides which, it's because I like this dog so much that I don't want to put her through that.

Transient

The alternative options are either: B) targeted, palliative radiation to ease the discomfort and some accompanying drugs to slow the breakdown of the bone, or C) just pain killers to help mitigate the discomfort. 

With the first, we get 3-6 months. With the second, maybe a couple of months. 

These choices all pretty much suck. 

We weren't ready to take her leg and do the full on chemo, but we did opt for the palliative radiation. It's a course of three doses, and we're two treatments in. 

Some days are better than others for her, and there's hardly a limp. Her appetite is down, but she's still eating and drinking. And she still wags her tell and comes trotting over to see me when I get home. The kids are extra gentle with her, and give her all the attention she can stand.  We're teaching her terrible habits at this point - to make sure she takes the medicine at each meal, we're slipping it into a little peanut butter sandwich, or drenching her food with the gravy from dinner. That goes against what we've done most of her life, but at this point, what the hell. 

Sometimes, I can tell that she's feeling it - she follows me around the house so closely that her cheek rests on my thigh at every step, just wanting to be near. She's lost 10 pounds since the treatment began, despite the extra peanut butter medicine time. And sometimes, I catch her with her leg up in the air, or in a limp down the stairs. But she's still game, and still enjoying life. 

At some point in the very near future, we're going to have to make a decision about when her pain outweighs her enjoyment. She can't speak to tell us when that point comes. But I'm pretty sure she'll be able to tell me in her own way. 

Transient


Guantana-pig

Since the great pigscapade 2014 (part I, part II, & part III), the pigs & I have settled back into a friendly routine. I walk out in the morning - a little more nervous than I once was as to whether or not they'd still be there - and breath a small sigh of relief when I spot their growing spotted backs, nestled in whatever convenient spot they have created a nest in that evening. Always together, like three little sardines when they lay down at night. 

To keep them from going walk-about once more, we got a little bit more aggressive with the fencing. Last year, the two piglets came a little older, and they were already fence-trained to the electric line. Or we were just luckier. Who knows. I thought about a half dozen ways either strengthen the current on our line (which has something to do with improving the grounding of the charger. I don't really pretend to understand how this actually works outside of some theoretical knowledge. But I'm pretty sure I could add another copper pole and really juice the little buggers up. On the other hand, I don't seem to be able to work on my electric fence without delivering several substantial shocks to myself along the way. Usually because I'm really too lazy to walk ALL THE WAY into the barn each time I want to switch it on/off for testing. So I end up just leaving it on. Because, how much shock can it really give me if I'm carefu-OHHOLYHELLTHATISGONNALEAVEAMARK.) 

Besides, these pigs were still small. And I wanted something a little more foolproof. Or pig-proof. I wanted something that was going to keep out the bad things, and keep in the good, growing bacon, without me worrying too much about the next time they got spooked.

I thought about guard towers, spotlights and motion sensors, but I figured that might be taking it a little far. 

Transient

I left the piglets in a small enclosure the first few days, and had the Critter help me set new fence posts. I cut standard 4"x4" pressure treated posts into 4' lengths, planning on burying 18".  I dug holes; she hauled posts. She complained about this arrangement. I handed her the post hole diggers and went to get a Diet Coke, telling her that I'd set all the posts that she dug holes when I got back. She was hauling posts when I returned. 

At our house, we believe in empowering our children with making their own choices. Also: we believe in less complaining. 

Transient

Between each post, I ran a 2" x 8" as a bottom rail, and a 2" x 6" on the top. The bottom rail set flush against the ground, and the top rail set flush for a fence height of about 30". Those rails were just simply drilled into each post, on the inside of the posts, to make it easier to add the mesh fencing. 

The Critter may not enjoy digging post holes, but she enjoys using power tools. 

"Oh, daddy - can I screw?" 

"Not til you're married."

"What?"

"Nothing. Here's the drill. I'll fetch the fencing."

Transient

I had some coated fencing wire that I stapled all along the top and bottom rails, all the way around. It comes in convenient 30" wide rolls. All told, I used about 160' of the fencing, in a large U-shape that took advantage of the stone wall of my barn to form the 4th side. 

The pigs have been content as can be - the fencing provides a convenient accessory for scratching their backs and sides - a common pig pastime. You can see Tocino mouthing the fence above - I really should an electric line along the inside to keep them from getting too close, and to train them to the electric fence. That'd allow me to further expand the pen at a reasonable cost as I did with last year's crop of bacon. I like giving them extra room to root and explore when I can - though this enclosure is plenty big at this point. 

The final advantage of this set up - besides the low cost and relatively easy setup, plus ease of removal later on down the road - has been that the footer rail gives the Boy a nice step to scale the fence. Since the return of our little critters from their jaunt in the woods, he's been out a couple of times a day to scatter a handful of peanuts and count their backs. He's smiling when he runs back up to the house. 

"They're all still there, Daddy!" 

Good. But let's check again in a little bit.

Just to make sure. 

 

Bringing home the bacon - part III

The first couple of trips out to the woods, I had brought a bucket of peanuts, and not a lot else.  I don't know how I thought I was going to manage to get the pigs home if I had stumbled across them. I sort of had a vague thought that if they had gotten big enough, I could probably toss them into the back of my pickup, and they wouldn't be able to jump out. That makes sense, right? Right?? 

Honestly, I was pretty sure that I was on a wild goose chase. Those pigs had disappeared so thoroughly when they spooked that, down deep, I could only picture stumbling through the ferns, watching the little spotted backs disappearing into the underbrush again, curled tails mocking my best attempts to get them back. They were small when they escaped, and pigs go feral so quickly by all reports. Thankfully, the policemen never asked me how I was planning on transporting the pigs when they were out in the woods with me.

Over the course of the afternoon, I had offers of help come in from a few places. The few professional farmers & the sort of overly-ambitious hobby farmer amateurs (I'm definitely in the latter bucket) in our small town form a pretty small network. We know each other. When we bump into each other at town functions we ask about the latest crop of spring lambs, or how their egg production is doing, or how they're faring with the deer this year. We share our latest experiment in agriculture. There's a kind of unspoken venn diagram of types within the community - those that just do vegetables, those that keep animals. Big enough to support a CSA, or just enough to get an egg or two for breakfast every few days. There's a livestock/pet split, and an occasional flare-up on the discussion boards around hand-dried-seaweed-cooked-in-my-kitchen-with-extra-vitamin-L-(for-Love)-chicken-feed vs. commercial-pellets-with-lots-of-soy-for-the-birds-you're-not-going-to-name-anyway-because-let's-face-it-they-cost-$3-to-replace-and-what-the-hell-do-you-mean-you-don't-vaccinate-your-flock? (Guess which group I'm in?)  But whatever segment you fall in, large scale organic grower or just a few backyard chickens, it's enough to get you into the club of empathy & frustration. 

From across that loose group, I had a double handful of volunteers reach out to tell me they were ready to plunge into the woods and pig wrangle. As much as anything, that kept me going back out with each sighting. 

Transient

By the time the last call came in, it was after 6 in the evening, and the police dispatcher was chuckling when we spoke.

"Mr. Grady - these guys say they're standing next to your pigs. On the trail out near the abandoned barn."

"You have got to be kidding me. They can see them from where they are?"  

"No. Literally. Right next to them. How about I patch them through?"

"YES!"

It took a moment, but then a very hesitant voice came on the line.  

"Um. Hi. I'm Doug. I'm standing in the woods next to some pigs?"

"HOLY JEEZ-NUTS! STAYRIGHTTHEREFORFIVEMINUTESIAMONMYWAYDOUGYOUAREAWESOME"

This time, I actually grabbed a spare kennel and threw it in the back of the truck before speeding off. It's a very large version of one of those plastic dog kennels you see at airports. We have a Saint Bernard. And I didn't really have any thing else to transport them in. I'm not really as well prepared for livestock escapes as I might be. 

I tore back down the road in my license-plate-a-little-too-obscured truck, and bounced back down the dirt path to the trailhead. The trail skirts a pond, with a large, abandoned barn just in one corner. From the description, I figured they must be close, so I grabbed the bucket of peanuts and the kennel and hoofed it along the pond edge to the barn. There were a couple of teenagers fishing on the spillway. They were also smoking something that smelled like not-quite-tobacco. Apparently, I startled them. 

"EXCUSEMEHAVEYOUSEENMYPIGS?"

"Um. Dude. What?"

"ISAIDDIDIJUSTTALKTOYOUONTHEPHONEABOUTSEEINGMYPIGS?"

"Hey! You're that guy! The cops were telling us about some pigs."

Sheesh. Never mind. I pulled my phone out and dialed Doug. 

"Doug! DO YOU STILL SEE THE PIGS?"

"Yeah, man. They're right here. They keep wandering down the trail a bit. What should I do?"

"Just stay with them - I'll find you!"

Doug's friend Billy came out of the woods, with a 6 year old on his shoulders and waved me down. "They're down this way." Doug & Billy had been out fishing. They were from a neighboring town, and Billy had brought his girlfriend's son along to show him what fishing in a river in the countryside was like.  The kid was bouncing in excitement to have seen actual live pigs in the woods.

About a quarter mile down the path, there they were. Content, muddy, a bit taller, and pretty lean. And none the worse for wear. 

Billy looked at me. "We were fishing on the river. I had a bag of sunflower seeds that I put down on the ground beside me, and out of the bushes, these three little pigs came up and started eating them. I had to look twice to make sure I was really seeing what I thought I was."

Yeah. You don't see that every day, I guess. 

Transient

"Hoe. Lee. Crap."

That's all I could manage.

I walked right up to them. Gave them a scratch or two, and through a grin about a half mile wide, I explained the history of these pigs to the guys. They'd been out on their own for about four weeks. I had been pretty certain that they were coyote poop at this point, at best.  The guys were shaking their heads, laughing. One of them looked at the kennel. "Howe are you going to get them in that?"

It looked big enough, barely. I put on my confident farmer face, reached over and grabbed Rocky -  the male & the biggest of the three - by his hind leg. Before he knew what I was doing, I chucked him into the kennel and shut the door. He had definitely gotten bigger - but he hadn't put on that much weight. Maybe 40 or 50 pounds. The other two were smaller. They were also startled that Rocky had just been manhandled. 

The girls trotted a little closer to Rocky in the kennel - they were nervous, but they didn't want to drift. I grabbed the Spare next - she's always been the most skittish. I told Billy to be ready with the kennel door, and I slung her in. 

That left Tocino. She was standing there, a bit confused. She's always been the most gentle - I was actually able to pick her up and cradle her like a baby. She's only about 35 or 40 pounds, and was calm enough to pet. Until I shoved her into the kennel - at that point, the kennel was full enough that it was more like a piggy Rubik's Cube, but I just kept shoving until her butt was tucked under Rocky's face. The Spare was somewhere on the other side of the mound of piglet. Tocino shat on the bars to let me know what she thought of it all. 

I grinned and caught my breath. The little boy was pouring a few sunflower seeds into the cage to keep the pigs happy, and the guys and I looked at each other in satisfaction. 

I told the guys that I wanted to give them some cash. Something to reward them for the find. It was the least I could do.

No, no, they said. There's no need. 

"No, you don't understand," I said. "My truck is a quarter mile back up the trail, and this kennel is heavy. I'm about to ask you to help me carry it." 

They grinned again. Cash is fine, they said. 

When I got the piglets home, I put them back into their small, well fortified pen. They were tired, they were covered in pig shit, and they were hungry. They stretched out and let us all give them a good scratch. Pig shit and all. 

Transient

The Boy and the Critter were both happy to see them. The Critter was shaking her head - "I had written these pigs off. I was pretty sure they were eaten." Ever the pragmatist. 

The Boy ran out to check on them every couple of hours, to see if they were still there. He'd come back inside to report in triumph that they were. 

The next day, I began to build a new fence. Not relying on solely electric anymore - more solid, with electrified line as an addition. I'll post more on that later. But you can see how happy the kids were - I have the Critter setting fence posts. 

Transient

I called the police department to let them know that we had, after all, gotten the pigs back. They were laughing and happy for us. I promised them all a Christmas ham, or a pile of prosciutto. Or something to remark on their general fantasticness. And also: high fives all around.  

The pigs munched away happily at their grain and peanuts while we worked on the fence. Rocky climbed into the feed bin with all four legs and stood up to his knees in feed. They'd take turns rooting through the leftover hay and finding a comfortable spot. They drank from their fresh, cool water, and looked at us, seemingly happy to watch us work. 

This fence will be more Guantanamo-esque, and less 'disappears when you're not looking at it.' I'll share more on that another time.  

I turned the feed bucket upside down in the pen, and sat down to have a long conversation with the pigs. "If you disappear again, you're on your own. I'll tell the coyotes where you went, and you can take it up with them."  I pulled another tick off my leg and crushed it against the new fence. 

Ok. It wasn't that long a conversation.  But it was heartfelt. I don't have the energy to do this often. 

But still. I went out to the pigs this morning before anyone else was awake and gave them a scratch, and a bucket of peanuts. 

We're all happy they're back. 

Transient


The phantom pigs of Middlesex county: Part II

Weeks went by without a sign. I took down parts of the electric fence, but couldn't be too bothered to tidy up much of the pig pen. I felt kind of foolish - one of our piglets was intended for our friends at a farm down the road, and here I couldn't even keep them safe for a few weeks. 

I had intended to give them the larger of the two females. Tocino, our gentle little bacon seedling that had gone to visit the first graders, was such a sweet thing that we wanted to keep her. And our friends had specifically requested a female. Besides, the Spare, as we've taken to calling the other female, was the most skittish & least friendly of the pigs. Rocky was a bigger, curious boy, always intent on seeing what we had brought when we came to the pen. The Spare was determined to sneak away. I had absolutely no evidence to support it, but I had fixed all of the blame for The Great Escape on the Spare. 

And the coyotes which I was pretty sure had eaten them all. 

I reached out to the farmer where I got the pigs. Sean lives out in central Massachusetts, and has a great stretch of land. And I know he's had his own share of predator problems. We talked about different styles of predator problems - if it had been a big cat, there would have been a mess. With coyotes, it's likely that the piglets would have been taken back to the pack, and you'd hardly see a sign. 

That certainly fit.  Life went on at our house, but I really did miss my morning ritual with the pigs. And I really missed all that potential bacon that had been destined for my freezer. 

Transient

Fortunately, I knew the farmer that I used to get my pigs from (before I took it in my head to start raising my own) had gotten a couple of piglets of her own again. 

I wasn't sure she was actually going to have them this year - you may or may not be aware of the Great Pig Shortage of 2014, but pigs are a much rarer commodity than they were a couple of years ago. I called her up and asked if she had a buyer for the end of season yet - lucky for me, they were still unclaimed. 

While this didn't replace the pleasure I get out of raising the meat myself, or the interaction with the animals, at least I had some assurances of not missing a year in my prosciutto pipeline. 

Life returned to normal, more or less. 

Until this past weekend. 

Another neighbor down the road who keeps goats came by on Sunday while I was in the garden weeding, and cursing the deer who've been raiding my pea plants & tomatoes. (Seriously. What the hell. Eat all the damn peas you want, if that's your thing. I'll be irritated, but I can call that an acceptable price to pay. But why do the damn deer insist on cropping off the tops of all my tomato plants, leaving me with little stubby shrubs with nary a flower on them?  The density of deer population in our town is about 10x what a 'healthy' population would look like. On the one hand, this gives rise to the tick population, and hello lyme disease! But if that weren't bad enough, you've got to go and sabotage a man's tomato crops? I take that kind of thing personally). 

Over my cursing, I heard someone calling my name. "Your pigs have been spotted!"

What the hell? That was 4 weeks ago. My pigs are coyote poop at this point. 

Except they apparently weren't. That morning, a group was hiking through the trails about 2 miles from our house on a guided bird watching tour (that's the kind of town we live in). And out of the brush trotted three little spotted pigs. Friendly and curious. 

I had her draw me a map, and I hopped in my truck and sped over. It's 2 miles through the woods, but it's about 5 miles to actually drive the round about path, and then you can only get so close to the trail head. 

I had grabbed a bucket of peanuts, and some feed, and hiked about a half mile in either direction on that trail, making big loops through the woods, rattling the bucket and calling out. Thinking the whole time that these pigs were going to become the Flying Dutchpigs of Carlisle, Massachusetts - appearing without warning, and disappearing again into the undergrowth before the startled eyes of birdwatchers. 

No sign. 

I dumped the bucket of feed at the trail head, hoping the pigs might find it and enjoy it at least. I hiked back to my truck and headed home. Just before I pulled in my driveway, one of our local police officers pulled in behind me and turned his lights on. 

"Your license plate is mounted funny. Can you fix that?" 

Sure, officer. Never mind that the truck is a 1967 ford, and that the license plate seems to have been just fine for the last 47 years. I'll get right on that. But for now, I have to go inside and pull about a half dozen ticks from the crevices of my body. Unless you want to help me with these ticks who have decided to get personal, can I work on that license plate thing later? 'Kay.

I went back in the garden to grab my hoe & put things away, and my Bride came running out. 

"That police officer just knocked on our door!"

Seriously? OK, fine. I'll remount the damned license plate. Jesus. 

"Someone just called in with a pig sighting!"

Holy shit. Back in the truck, and I headed back to the general area. I tried a different way in to the conservation land. From the fields back in the woods, I called the police station. "Where exactly were they spotted?"

"The caller said they were lying just off the trail, enjoying the sunshine. Hang on, I've got an officer at your truck now. He will lead you there."

So I went back to my truck, and sure enough, one of our police officers was waiting for me. It was a different policeman than had pulled me over & knocked on my door.  

He smiled and we shook hands. "We've got our motorcycle officer coming in the other way. Follow me, and we'll get you to the trail head." 

(If you're keeping count, I had three police officers and central dispatch coordinating the pig hunt with me.  My town doesn't often have days this exciting.)

We got back down to the same trail head I had been on before - the good news was that the map that our neighbor had drawn was accurate. The bad news was there was still no sign of the pigs. I walked the trail a bit again, but I figured the woman who had called it in had been a part of that same birding group who had seen them, a few hours before.  The police found a few kids fishing near the pond, and asked them if they had seen three little pigs. 

"Um. No." I think the kids thought the cops & I were pulling some kind of prank. 

I was a bit embarrassed by the whole thing at this point, what with taking up the time of most of our town's on-duty police force, but the senior officer just shrugged. "We're a farming community. It happens."

I shook hands with the police officers, and called off the hunt. 

I went back home again, and once again began the process of de-ticking, shaking out my clothes, and taking an extended hot shower. 

I had just started to make dinner and think about a much anticipated cocktail when the phone rang again. 

"Mr. Grady, this is the Carlisle police department. There's someone on the trail with your pigs right this very minute."

...