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.