Thursday, September 17, 2009



What's in a name? Honoring the natural, respecting the traditional and developing new ways to think about designing earth-saving systems where you live.

Permaculture. When I first heard the word, for some reason, it didn't really communicate to me what the movement was about. Or at least I wondered if I had understood it fully. (That could just be me. I've been known to have a funny relationship with words!) Even now, I guess it does still seem (to me) a kind of unfortunate name that lacks immediate clarity. it a thing like permafrost? Or a service like PermaSeal? Hmmm...something about permanence? Clearly, something about culture. Well, whatever. Maybe just my problem.

What I do know is this: the practices at the heart of this modern movement are truths long-known by the people of the earth who live closely with it. Principles of harmony and interconnectedness; of locality; of rhythm and balance and respect. Permaculture is new. What permaculture is, is not.

Permaculture, as a term, began in the 1970's largely credited to a series of publications by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, both from Australia. And the name? Well it was meant to be a combination of the words “permanent and agriculture.” But it morphed, as ideas grew, to be understood as just “permanent culture”.

Initially the concepts were aimed at ways to increase sustainable food production, decreasing “food miles” or the cost to the planet in terms of the use of fossil fuels. Eventually, permaculture advocates, by careful observation of natural ecosystems and understanding how they work and interact, began to conceptualize an approach to designing spaces for people to live with naturally integrated, perennial agricultural systems.

So, that's what I find interesting. The old, the new, nature, technology, and the learning curve in between.

There are young people and old, energized, seeing their relationship with the land differently after learning about permaculture---using new thinking and technologies to keep alive and relevant a much older understanding of land stewardship and of the systems and relationships between plants, animals, humans and the earth. People who are interested in designing more sustainable practices and in making less of a human footprint on the earth are engaging now in practices that my Appalachian grandparents would have seen as simply “the way things were.”

Same but different. The difference is a consciousness, at once more global and more local than before. An understanding that creating a better future on earth for everyone can only be achieved with individual, local actions.

Learning from other cultures and traditions,

Listening to the wind,

Touching the earth,

Feeling the water,

Understanding scale,

Codifying and organizing,

and re-creating more whole, more responsible, interconnected systems,

keeping the dialog open,

the thinking active,

and the practices true enough to ensure their preservation...

Which means, of course, that permaculture is a way to ensure a beautiful world for your children and their children. And, that's good stuff whether you really like the name or not!

Web sites to learn more about permaculture include:

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Sixty Minute Zakooska

Know My Food and Love Me: Making Friends with Americans through Cooking


The Sixty Minute Zakooska

It was coincidental that I saw the movie Julie/Julia the same day I scored a couple of great used cook books from the county library.

Just as Julia Childs was obsessed with teaching Americans about France through food, these cookbooks take a similar tone with the reader. One of the cookbooks, How to Cook and Eat in Russian, by Alexandra Kropotkin, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, was printed first in 1947, just after WW2. In those years, for sure, the Russians did have considerable image issues, the least of which was being Communists! But that wasn't enough to stop Alexandra Kropotkin from believing that if we just knew Russia, if we knew its cultural foodways, we would know its people and...the big could we hate them if we love their food?

Good question. Could it be that Americans have always been willing to exchange their immigrant xenophobia for something good to eat? I guarantee you that even in the most remote and least diverse of towns in the U.S., you will be able to find Chinese food. I always heard that when they first came here we didn't used to like them at all. We made them do our laundry and build railroads...and now look! There is a Chinese take out place on nearly every Main Street in America. Why? We love Chinese food! (It's also quick, cheap, open late, and comes with a free fortune cookie, but that's another point.)

Same could basically be said of pizza and the Italians. We didn't like them at first either. Then someone ate a piece of pizza and it was a different matter entirely. So, it looks to me as if there is a pattern.

So, it's like, if we like your are in? Really?

Maybe. In both the supermarkets near me there is an actual isle named: Asian/Mexican/Italian. Like, there is Isle 1, Isle 2, and so on, and then there is, Asian/Mexican/Italian.

Those three are so solid. Country-friends we will always feel good about. So why do we feel better about Italians today? Because we feel so good when we're eating lasagna! And a huge burrito? Viva Mexico!! And, although I'm not sure why anyone would feel good eating Chun King canned bean sprouts, but I do understand the euphoria found in a perfect egg roll.

So then,

it is our grocery stores who so cheerfully define the parameters of our multi-cultural comfort levels?

I just can't help wondering who just missed the cut and what that discussion was like. Who---what peoples of the earth---don't get to make friends with us each week with their own stocked isle at Safeway? Truth is, the stores always sneak the Kosher stuff in that Asian/Mexican/Italian isle, too, so maybe it was the Jews who were the runners up. Or was it the Greeks who always get a few bottles of olives, some oil and some grape leaves in jars put beside the Italian pesto. So they didn't really leave them out, right? Just off the signage. Yeah, right.

So with that in mind, we don't see a lot of supermarket isles devoted to Russian food. Even after 50 years, we still don't trust them...and, of course, head cheese with a vodka chaser never really caught on...except in some Midwestern American college towns during fraternity hazing. So, basically, we're kind of still unsure. Unsure about strange fishes and jellied things, a love of cabbage and copious amounts of cold clear alcohol. Which is to say, unsure about these Russian people.

Or, at least the people who name the shopping isles at Safeway, Holiday and Raleys are not yet convinced we should be entirely comfortable.

I wonder how Alexandra Kropotkin would react to the grocery store snub? She clearly felt that the reader of her book---one who also would try to re-create these wonderful recipes and social scenarios---would in the end be solidly convinced that Russia and its folks were A-Ok. I imagine she must be dead, or else we'd have heard of her campaign to get the Greek/Russian isle added at Safeway, don't you think?

She says in the book, “In the noise and anger of ideological clash, the Russian people usually are forgotten. That's too bad. Because Russians are pretty nice people.” At frequent turns she implores the reader to judge the Russians by their home life—by their traditions of cooking and eating. It's by these means that she has placed her faith in nation building: In the recognition of good food and in understanding how people enjoy it. These things can bring people together. Well, I believe that and I say thank you Alexandra Kropotkin for believing in that.

At the same time, I also have this image of Ms. Kropotkin as a sort of Russian-American Julia Childs. In my fantasy (and come to think of it, maybe hers too) is that she is catering a dinner party for a group of crusty old Russians and snotty Americans. She would, of course, for this occasion, insist on having the full 60 minute zakooska before dinner.

There is an entire section of the book dedicated to the zakooska which is worth the entire $2 I spent on the book. This is very important cultural stuff. Read about it. And for something like this, the Russians and the Americans, it would no doubt include at least the old-school limit of 10 dishes (the minimum to prevent raised eyebrows) but probably more because she listed no less than 49 zakooskas in her book. Every sea-related thing caviar, black caviar, fresh gray caviar, pickled herring, herring in wine, herring with mustard sauce, herring in sour cream, chopped herring with get the idea.

And then the vodka. The "dear little water" that should be clear, colorless as water, and 100 proof. Always served ice cold. She notes that "most Russians can get away with at least 6 little glasses without turning a hair," so in my fantasy I see her quietly advising the Americans, as she does in the book, to be smart and stay within the 3 glass limit.

All in all, it's the full sixty minute zakooska that does the trick. The Americans love the Russians (their vodka) and the Russians also love their vodka. It's all good. People are happy. As Alexandra said in the book,

“The host and hostess need not fear deadly silence which can devistate a dinner party. After a zakooska hour, everybody talks to everybody.”

The 60-minute zakooska: A very serious tool for international relations.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Moistalicious Banana Cake

Yum. Spotty bananas! If you happen to have three, you can make the moistest banana cake ever. That's what the recipe said and wouldn't you know it, I even had two unsolicited comments from friends who in fact said exactly that to me.
"This is the moistest banana cake ever."
So there you have it. I thought so too, actually. It was awesome and we didn't even do the frosting.
Thing I did change in the recipe was the sugar...I put 1 C. sugar and 1-1/8 of a combination of maple syrup and agave syrup instead of of 2-1/8 C. pure sugar.

Best Ever Banana Cake With Cream Cheese Frosting

Recipe #67256 | 1¼ hours | 15 min prep

By: Rhonda *J*
Jul 24, 2003

This is one of, (if not) the BEST banana cake I have ever tasted! I thought the oven temp of 275° sounded a little low, but this cake baked up (and rose) beautifully in my oven at this temp after pretty much exactly one hour. I do not know if the little "freezer trick" to this recipe is what ensured its moistness or not, but I did it, and this cake was exceptionally moist & delicious. Would be interesting to see if it still came out as great if this step was skipped. All I know is that I followed this recipe EXACTLY as stated (except that I had no buttermilk, so I subbed with a mix of lemon juice & milk) and I got exceptional results. Depending on the amount of frosting you like you can decide whether to half the recipe or not. I used the full recipe and had some leftover. I sprinkled on the chopped walnuts and threw this baby in the fridge and cut it the next day...TO DIE FOR! I really liked it slightly chilled, but great at room temp too! It got better each day it sat, I always make this cake at least the day before I need or want it. I was extremely pleased with this cake and will be making it over & over again!! So glad I came across this one!! (on another website). (* * Just to update the recipe, (based on some of the reviews), the baking time may vary based on individual ovens. It was RIGHT ON for my oven, but some others have stated it has taken 1 hour 10 minutes, 1 hour 20 minutes, and my sister just informed me that it took 1 hour 30 minutes in her oven!!!!!)

SERVES 16 , 1 9x13 pan (change servings and units)





  1. 1
    Preheat oven to 275°.
  2. 2
    Grease and flour a 9 x 13 pan.
  3. 3
    In a small bowl, mix mashed banana with the lemon juice; set aside.
  4. 4
    In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking soda and salt; set aside.
  5. 5
    In a large bowl, cream 3/4 cup butter and 2 1/8 cups sugar until light and fluffy.
  6. 6
    Beat in eggs, one at a time, then stir in 2 tsp vanilla.
  7. 7
    Beat in the flour mixture alternately with the buttermilk.
  8. 8
    Stir in banana mixture.
  9. 9
    Pour batter into prepared pan and bake in preheated oven for one hour or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
  10. 10
    Remove from oven and place directly into the freezer for 45 minutes. This will make the cake very moist.
  11. 11
    For the frosting, cream the butter and cream cheese until smooth.
  12. 12
    Beat in 1 teaspoon vanilla.
  13. 13
    Add icing sugar and beat on low speed until combined, then on high speed until frosting is smooth.
  14. 14
    Spread on cooled cake.
  15. 15
    Sprinkle chopped walnuts over top of the frosting, if desired.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Food as Sacred

I honestly do not spend hours posing vegetables in the kitchen. This is pretty much how they got plunked down on the kitchen counter straight from the garden. Now---in the throes of full summer garden bounty---any random combination of fresh food finds itself a stunningly perfect artistic composition.
I am grateful for my garden. And for my gardener-husband who brings me these daily gifts--- the lotus of his labors---so together we can feed others.

Food is Love. Give thanks.


Most cultures give thanks for their food. The following is an excerpt from writing by Adrian Butash.

Sharing food is the most universal cultural experience. Expressing thanks for food was humankind's first act of worship, for food is the gift of life from above. In every culture there are sacred beliefs or divine commandments that require honoring the giver of life--God or the divine principle--through acknowledging the sacred gift of food. By admitting us to his table, God became bound to us in a unique relationship. By admitting God to our table, we experience the love and beauty of that relationship.

Food has always been recognized as the unmerited gift from God. Grace is the divine reality underlying all religion and faith--that is, God's loving generosity. In the Hebrew Scriptures it is hesed (loving kindness). In the Tao it is found in the love of the Hindu triad Brahma, Vishnu, Siva. In Christian theology, grace is the human transcendent activity of God in every creature.

© copyright 2004

"Blessed be the cheesmakers" - Monty Python, Life of Brian


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Food Justice

Our access to food in the U.S. in not fair or equal.


One Story...

"We live in the country so the closest store from our cabin is a ten minute drive. It's a convenience store/beer seller (no gas pumps) located in the village at the crossroads of two state routes. The store and the restaurant just across the street are the only business in town now.

So, first off there are convenience items for your car, like engine oil and window cleaner and a peg board full of tidbits...air fresheners, replacement fuses, stick-on fish eye mirrors for your side view. And then there's batteries, small 2-packs of aspirin, and a few Bic pens in packages that hang from another peg board.

The store is mostly coolers on three sides. Cases of cheap beer, liters of sodas, caffeine drinks, vitamin waters, and there's a small section on the end that usually has a couple of styrofoam cartons of white eggs, a couple of pound packages of bacon, maybe one pound of margarine that you could probably buy by the stick if you wanted to, sometimes some bake and serve cinnamon rolls in tube and usually plastic gallons of milk and small cartons of half and half...ultra-pasteurized of course.
There is a bread isle...long very soft squarish loaves of white bread, there are also some soft hot dog and hamburger buns in 8 packs. Further down the bread shelves it turns into an open display of miscellanea..ketchup, mustard, mayo, macaroni and cheese, hamburger helper, instant mashed potatoes, cat and dog food, cat litter and dog bones, and down on the very end, the diapers, sanitary napkins, tin foil and dish soap.
There is a kind of deli section, they have a case with some meat and cheese. You can, of course buy baloney, sliced turkey breast and ham, chopped ham, and sometimes salami. They usually have colby cheese, swiss cheese and jack. Sometimes there will be a plastic tub of potato salad or macaroni salad that you can buy by the pound. Also something called pimento cheese, which is a kind of cheese spread.
You can get any candy bar you want. Also chips, pretzels, nuts and all those kinds of snacks.
And the newspaper. You can get the paper, cigarettes, lighters and lottery tickets up front by the cashier."

Just like health care in America, our food system caters to the wealthy. Something as simple as having a choice of foods depends on where you live. Access to fresh food, organic, bulk or local foods or even the expectation of reasonably priced foods are all dependent, in America, on where you live and how much money you can afford to pay for transportation.

I just read an article by Beth Huxta in Organic Gardening magazine, Aug/Oct 2009, about Will Allen, a former professional basketball player who has helped to rejuvenate an urban Milwaukee neighborhood through establishing an organization called Growing Power. They direct their efforts toward making fresh, locally grown food available to the neighborhood and also teach city kids about the concept of urban farming. That was sixteen years ago. The model has been successfully recreated in Chicago as well, making the project an important success story in the development of community centered urban agriculture.
Before the project started, the neighborhood was described as a food desert, a five-mile radius with nothing but fast food chains and convenience stores that sell nutritionally inferior food.
All that changed. The information is interesting and inspiring.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Preserving Heirlooms

Preserving Heirlooms

It seems most cultures generally accept that an heirloom---something passed from generation to generation---is something to be respected and valued. Heirlooms have stories that keep them alive. What is unspoken in the act of preserving heirlooms is being a living part of a continuum that holds a tangible and positive belief in future generations, in the quality of life, and in being human on planet earth.

"You walked into the root cellar from the side of the house, from the porch off the side door. The large wooden doors---a kind of paint scraped gray---were slanted, higher in the back, and came together in the middle. Mostly you just used the right side. Reaching down, you’d grab the knotted rope tied to the door handle and pull hard. The door would come up half way, and then you needed to kind of get under it and grab the corner and push it on over to the wall of the house, where it rested.

I remember walking down the stairs with some hesitation, always, as they were basically just narrow slats with nothing but air in between and the hard dirt floor way below. No railing, just some very cold and spider-webby glazed blocks as walls, the foundation of the house.

Once down, though, I was always in a state of intense fascination. We’d never stay long. There never seemed like enough time to really visually take in all that was around me, especially because it took a few minutes for your eyes to adjust to the very low light. Sometimes there were bushel baskets full of vegetables…maybe squash or onions. But there were always the long, tall rows of shelves, board wood, that held glass jars of all sizes both white and green. Grandma usually knew exactly what she was looking for…2 quarts of tomatoes, one of peaches, one of green beans.

Maybe we’d stay long enough to go even deeper into the underground space and gather up the laundry that tumbled out of the chute and into the basket when we pulled on another little door with a rope knot handle just above our heads. She had a wringer washer. I thought helping to run the clothes through the wringer was always a blast.

More than once, for sure, when we went to put the clothes into the round white enamel machine---it was always covered with a crudely cut round piece of wood---Grandma lifted the lid to find a pool of minnows. My Grandpa stashed them there, sometimes, until he was ready to go fishing." ~ Recollections from an Appalachian Childhood

Summer Squash, Yukon Gold Potato & Heirloom Tomato Gratin


  • 1 garlic clove, smashed
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 1/2 pounds yellow summer squash and zucchini, cut into 1/4-inch slices
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves (use Thyme or Oregano as a variation)
  • 1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley
  • 2 large garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 2 cups fresh sourdough bread crumbs (see below)
  • 1/2 pound yukon gold potatoes, sliced very thin (almost transparent)
  • 1-1.5 pounds large Heirloom tomatoes, cored and sliced 1/4 inch thick (varying colors of tomatoes)
  • 3/4 cup freshly grated Gruyere cheese, grated (try goat cheese or feta as a nice variation)
  • 1.4 cup freshly grated parmesan-reggiano

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and place a rack in the middle. Rub a 2 qt. gratin pan (or equivalent baking dish but preferably oval) with a bit of olive oil then take one garlic clove – smash it and rub over inside of pan, and set aside.

In a skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté, stirring frequently, until transparent and slightly golden – about 15 minutes. Reduce the heat if they’re browning too quickly. Add the garlic and sauté until soft and fragrant, about 1 minute. Spread the onions and garlic evenly in the bottom of the oiled gratin dish. Let cool.

To make the sauce: puree the basil, parsley, garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt, red pepper flakes, and olive oil in a food processor or using a hand blender. Set aside.

Put the tomato slices on a shallow plate to drain for a few minutes and then discard the collected juices.

Make the breadcrumbs take approximately 1/2 loaf of bakery day old sourdough bread (you need enough to make 2 cups) and cut it into 2 inch strips. Bake for 10 minutes in oven at 400 degrees until golden. Grind in food processor until blended but not too fine. Set aside. Then melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook for a few minutes until the butter is fragrant, and has turned golden. Wait a few, then stir the breadcrumbs into the browned butter.

Transfer the squash to a large mixing bowl. Add the potatoes and two-thirds of the oregano sauce. Toss until everything is well coated. Add the cheese and half of the bread crumbs and toss again. Taste the zucchini and add more seasoning if needed.

(Note: Quantities are approximate on layering. The size and slicing of layered vegetables may vary so just use your judgement as you layer – it’s possible you’ll be left with extra veggies)

Starting at one end of the baking dish, lay a row of slightly overlapping tomato slices across the width of the dish and sprinkle with a little of the cheese. Next, lay a row of zucchini, overlapping the tomatoes by two-thirds, and sprinkle with cheese. Then add layer of potato. Repeat with a row of squash, and then repeat rows, sprinkling each with cheese, until the gratin is full., top with the remaining crumbs and sprinkle with parmesan, and bake until well-browned all over and the juices have have reduced and have been bubbling, 60 to 70 min. If the breadcrumbs start to get a little dark, take a fork and scrape them lightly to rotate less cooked bits. Remove from oven, and drizzle lightly with the remaining basil sauce. Let cool for 15 to 20 minutes prior to serving.

- recipe from

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Rosa Bianca

We harvested these beautiful eggplant yesterday and I felt like I should be painting them, not eating them. (I'm sure you know which urge won out....and yes, they did make a very wicked eggplant parmesan!)