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HOMEGROWN Life: An Early Thanksgiving

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-LIFE-MAGENTAThis is typically the time of the year I would be writing about Halloween, my favorite holiday, or putting together something crafty for autumn. I tried that route, but I’ve never been very good at anything other than writing from my heart.

And in my heart, I am feeling like this is an early Thanksgiving instead of Halloween. You see, for the last three and a half weeks, my life has been spinning on its axis. In late September, my mother had a health emergency, leaving my sister, father, and I at her bedside for weeks. Although I know, in my practical mind, that we lose loved ones in life, suddenly I was staring that reality in the face.

We spent days in the hospital room with her, listening to beeps and blips and watching doctors and nurses shuffle in and out. On the surface, I was in the room with the machines and IVs but, inside my head, it was a much different landscape.

I looked back over the years of her being the one to hold my hand through the tough times, through sickness, through children being born. Now we sat at her bedside, holding her hands and pleading with her to get better, not even sure she could hear us or recognize our voices. We brushed her hair and washed her face, as she had done for us for so many years. Doing these small things were some of the most difficult moments of my life.

Two weeks into our vigil, the stress of the situation finally took a physical toll on my dad, leaving him in a separate hospital with heart problems. When you’ve been married for 45 years, helplessly watching your wife is bound to break your heart. It was at this point that my sister and I split duties, one with Mom at her hospital and one with Dad at his. I couldn’t help but ponder how much I’d taken for granted in my life, including my parents, who had raised me to appreciate everything that makes me a HOMEGROWN type of woman.

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Michelle’s son and her dad, aka Pop Pop

My dad taught me from a very young age to find solace in nature, to recognize the peace that it can bring. He grew gardens and took me for long walks in the state park at the end of the street. We trekked through corn fields to explore old abandoned barns and stopped to appreciate clouds and animals. I learned early on to appreciate and seek out the beauty that so many people are too busy to recognize. I have always been grateful for that.

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Michelle, as a toddler, with her mom

I trailed behind my mother all of the time in my young years, watching her create a home. She made every meal, starting with my dad’s breakfast early in the dark hours of the morning and ending with a family meal together around the dinner table. She baked and she cleaned, doing far more than I ever recognized as a child. She was also very active in society and in helping dozens of young, scared, pregnant girls who had nowhere to go. In addition to giving us what we needed, she also found these girls homes and food and security.

Together, my parents delivered full dinners to families in need and provided holidays for people who otherwise had nothing. To me, this was a normal life. It was years, not until I had my own children, before I realized they worked hard to instill social responsibility in us. They felt that raising empathetic and giving kids was their greatest legacy.

So you see, everything I cherish and have in common with you HOMEGROWN readers, I owed to these two people lying in hospital beds. They were no longer the immortal superhumans I’d always thought they were. They were, quite suddenly, very human and very vulnerable. This was my chance to learn a lesson and perhaps to share it with each of you.

Today, as I sit writing this, my dad is with my mom at her rehab center while she relearns some life skills before coming home. They’re both on the road to recovery, now that doctors have found and treated my mom’s mystery illness­: a cyst in her brain, leaning on her pituitary gland. I, too, find myself relearning some life skills.

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Michelle’s parents

I’ve forgotten how much I love the simple, small things—you know, the “normal” things. I’ve realized that, instead of my parents being normal, they’re actually blessings and not everyone’s normal: clearing the garden in fall with the kids, making way for new growth and new seasons, the routine of getting ready for school and going out into life. Preparing for family holidays then spending them together, decorating the Christmas tree or collecting Easter eggs. Picking up the phone to call my parents to talk about the fall colors, lucky they’re only 20 minutes from me.

I’ve realized these things are the glue that has held my family together tightly. It continues to hold our kids together with their cousins and their grandparents, as well. In the grand scheme of life, these are not simple or small things. They’re what life is all about.

Above all, it’s important to make these things passed down by our parents rituals rather than routines. Next time I put up food after the harvest, I’ll remember when my dad bought dozens and dozens of ears of corn to freeze. He shucked and stripped ear after ear, resulting in the year when we had corn every which way. Or the time my mom allowed me to express my own fashion sense and bought me a purple faux fur coat that I loved, only to be called Grimace for a solid year afterwards. She had tried to steer me away from the ill-fated choice, but in the end, she let me learn my own lesson.

I’m still learning my own lessons, often the hard way, but I’m exceedingly grateful to have my parents, my family, and my friends to learn from. Happy early Thanksgiving.

HOMEGROWN-life-michelleMichelle Wire comes from serious pioneer stock: Her great-grandmother literally wrote the book. It’s this legacy, in part, that led Michelle to trade in her high-stress life for a Pennsylvania homestead where she works from home in between raising kids and chickens. 

PHOTOS: MICHELLE WIRE

HOMEGROWN Life: It’s Fall. Time to Eat!

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN LifeSome folks love summer. I prefer fall and winter. Why? Blame it on the food.

Already with the change of seasons, I’m a cooking fiend. There’s something about a fire crackling in the fireplace on an autumn night that sends me straight to the kitchen, bursting with ideas. The house is full of the aroma of winter squash roasting next to trays of sweet potatoes and pans full of Aroostook County Yukon Golds drenched in olive oil, tossed with Maine sea salt and fresh rosemary clipped from the fall garden. Roasted herb-crusted chickens fresh from a friend’s farm. Baked golden custards made with my turkey hen’s cache of eggs and sweet winter milk. Comfort food.

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I’ve been pickling, canning, putting up, putting by, and storing everything I can get my hands on. The last of the green tomatoes are jarred and nestled on the shelf next to the heirloom lemon cucumber pickles. The pumpkins are roasted, canned purée ready to fill piecrusts and bake into breads all winter.

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I’m proud to say I am not a mainstream shopper. Instead, I choose to raise goats for their milk and I turn a good portion of it into cheeses for myself and others. I’m blessed to walk out my door and pick heirloom apples from their branches while the girls dance around my feet. Gathering the remainder of my meals from like-minded folks who work to bring heirloom veggies, small-farm-raised meats, and a variety of other local foods to the table in turn brings me closer to people. I like that.

It takes time to raise good food. Hours of tending and weeding precious plants, feeding and caring for beasts through spring and summer. It also takes time to eat good food. I like knowing that, as long as my girls and I meet on a daily basis, I’ll never want for tall glasses of delicious milk. Butterfat content in the girl’s milk runs higher this time of year, so things are even creamier and tastier now. Likewise, while there are dry spells due to molting or to somebody deciding her eggs need to get converted into fluffy new chicks, I always have at least enough eggwash to brush on a freshly rolled piecrust.

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Speaking of pies! The past season’s jars of mincemeat were screaming to me from the shelves last week. Twice now they’ve found their way into savory crusts brushed golden with a mixture of the girls’ sweet milk and the ladies’ neon yellow yolks. Who says mincemeat is just for the holidays? I hope our local mincemeat guru will be producing and bringing more to the Grange Hall Christmas Mart in—dare we say—just a few weeks. I’m down to one jar!

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How do you resist the comfort of a hearty dish of mac and cheese brimming with a variety of local cheeses? Yes, I’m probably biased as a cheese maker, but I have to say that there are some unbelievably tasty and really good cheeses produced here in Maine. Nothing goes to waste in cheese making. Every meal is like a new adventure in tasting all the goodness that comes from the season.

Summertime is so busy, I find myself grazing through fresh salads filled with crispy greens. Cucumbers sliced wafer thin, marinated in freshly made chive blossom vinegar. Tomatoes of every shape layered on platters, sprinkled with fresh chevre, straight out of the cheesecloth bag.

Even so, fall and winter foods bring so much more flavor and color to the table. I lived in Florida for a brief time, and I remember missing the seasonal foods. Somehow, when it’s 90 degrees outside for ten months of the year, I’m just not inspired to throw a couple of sheets of gingersnaps in the oven. Living where foods change with the seasons, I find myself becoming more adventurous with flavors and textures of all kinds.

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We’re expecting a Nor’easter here today, but not even the prospect of a winter storm is daunting when my belly is full of the season’s best. With fresh ginger harvested from a neighbor’s garden, I’m preparing for wind, rain, and cooler temps. After milking this morning, I popped some gingerbread into the oven. Gingersnaps are next. Goats like a little comfort food, too, when the storms are blowing out over the bay.

So I’m grabbing a dish, lighting the kindling, and hunkering down. Let the wind roar, the flakes blow. (Well, maybe not quite yet, but soon.) If you’re a summer person, I salute you. For me, it’s all about slow cooking, knitting needles flying, sitting by a fire lit early in the evening with a plate full of all the goodness the season has to offer.

 

HOMEGROWN Life: Dyan RedickDyan Redick calls herself “an accidental farmer with a purpose.” Her farm, located on the St. George peninsula of Maine, is a certified Maine State Dairy offering cheeses made with milk from a registered Saanen goat herd, a seasonal farm stand full of wool from a Romney cross flock, goat milk soap, lavender woolens, and whatever else strikes Dyan’s fancy. Bittersweet Heritage Farm is an extension of her belief that we should all gain a better understanding of our food sources, our connection to where we live, and to the animals with whom we share the earth.

ALL PHOTOS: DYAN REDICK

HOMEGROWN Life: The Great Pumpkin Debate

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

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Those who know me know just how much I LOVE Halloween. Tom and I even got married on Halloween, in the ultimate DIY labor of love. Half of the tower is packed with Halloween decor, most of it being the classy Martha Stewart-esque type of decor. No plastic crap for us.

So it was kind of a surprise last year when I decided to forgo growing pumpkins. Between pumpkins and zucchini, I didn’t want to deal with the whole saving-seeds thing. (Both are the same species, C. pepo.) I also decided not to “waste” space on nonedibles. Pumpkins, the jack-o’-lantern types, are edible but bland, watery, and stringy. We just don’t eat them. Of course, when I made my decision, fall, my favorite time of year, was well behind us. I think my judgment was clouded, because now I’m sitting here mad that I didn’t grow any pumpkins.

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Granted, I did grow some Musquee de Provence squash, otherwise known as “fairytale pumpkins.” They’re gorgeous but they just aren’t the same. They aren’t easy to carve, and I would prefer not to waste them on jack-o’-lanterns because they are good eating. But they’re also big, and I find that, around here, big squash go uneaten because we never want to cook a whole one all at once. We generally don’t want to eat squash two days in a row, either. The other squash we’re growing this year, rather unsuccessfully, is Marina di Chioggia, also known as a sea pumpkin. (Notice a theme here?) It’s a type of turban: big, green, and warty. It has the most amazing flavor I’ve ever had in a squash. But they don’t make very good substitutes for pumpkins.

DIF3I’ve spent years growing pumpkins. Most years were pretty disappointing, but I continued to try to grow them. I remember how excited I was about the very first pumpkin I was able to produce. The plant in the picture at left gave us four of these monsters, each weighing more than 50 pounds, with the largest topping out at 75 pounds. These weren’t even a giant pumpkin variety. They were Howdens, the typical jack-o’-lantern, grown with a good helping of chicken manure. if you couldn’t tell, I’m very proud of these. So is Squeek.

This is what I want to start growing again. Big orange pumpkins. So this coming year, I’m going back to growing pumpkins—and also some other squash, such as Tromboncino, Acorn, Spaghetti, Marina di Chioggia, and probably some other random types. I’m rather enamored with Iran squash, which Baker Creek now carries seeds for.

Are you growing gourds this year? What kinds? Got any suggestions to add to the Leftover Pumpkin Parts 101?

Rachel-Dog-Island-FarmRachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!