Yearly Archives: 2008

Sick hippie

Been sick all week with a head cold which turned into fever with chills. I’ve had to stay in bed and the farm has been neglected. The goat shed needs mucking out, the garden watered, the rabbit cages are begging for a cleaning, the buffet of yummy greens that go to all the animals has been halted and boring processed feed will have to do. The worst thing is my sinuses are so plugged up, I can’t smell anything. Hence, I can’t taste anything. Is this a life worth living? Amid these frustrating developments on a sweat-inducing break from the bed to check my email, I learned that I had been crowned Best Hippie 2008 by the East Bay’s locally owned free weekly.
You guys!!
A few years ago, maybe even a year ago, I would have scoffed at the word ‘hippie’ being used to describe me. Hippies! that’s my parents! I would say. I don’t listen to the Dead, I listen to the Dead Boys. But, if you think about it, I *have* been milking goats, making cheese and planting chard–all tell-tale signs of hippiedom. So I’ve learned to live with the moniker, and wonder why there isn’t a better word to describe my urban homesteading tendencies in a way that doesn’t reek of patcholi or come wrapped in tie-dye. Anyone got a better term?

While we contemplate that, a sauerkraut instructional.

Get some nice heads, tight ones. Half the cabbages, then chop into thin strips. Add the cabbage to a large bowl and sprinkle with kosher salt. A TB of salt per cup of cabbage is the rule of thumb. Once sprinkled with salt, pound the cabbage so that it starts to release some water. I use a pestle from a mortar and pestle that my roommate left behind. Add this point you can add caraway or coriander seeds. Once the cabbage strips look a bit wilted, pack them tightly into a large jar. Pack them tightly into the jar using your fist to press down all the cabbage. Weigh down with a bag filled with water or a rock, or as pictured, a glass bottle of water. This isn’t shown, but you should also drape a cheesecloth or piece of fabric to keep out flies and such. After an hour or so, the cabbage should be submerged under its own juices. Let sit 2-3 days on the counter. Taste after a few days and see if you like it, when tastes right, remove the weight, and put the jar in the fridge to enjoy. Happy lacto-fermenting! As a sidenote, I make a jar of this a week for the goats. It’s good for their bowels’ flora, as it is for ours.

My rides

There’s probably nothing more uncool than driving a car. It makes me sweaty, in a bad way. It turns me into a robot. I can’t admire other drivers’ footwear or fashion. I’m not enjoying the sun, the breeze, the hellos from other people on bikes or on foot. Nope, there I am, a big dumb-ass steering a big machine around the city.

This weekend we had blow out party for my friend Willow. She’s going on a sabbatical. I roasted three pigger loins all day long in an low oven after marinating them with various rubs and brines. Then we hung up some decorations, and wheeled out the juice making shopping cart. That’s right. A shopping cart that makes juice (sorry, no photo). In Caracas, Venezuela I first encountered this miracle machine. It involves filling a shopping cart with oranges, then mounting a juicer where the toddler would normally sit while you shopped for lentils. And a place to cut the oranges (and grapefruits). When you want juice, you reach into the cart, cut an orange, then squeeze. It’s totally mobile, and if these hit on, will provide the greater Oakland area with plenty of Vitamin C. Can’t you imagine a fleet of shopping carts filled with citrus, not aluminum cans? But first I had to get the oranges. Which meant driving (I thought) to the Friday farmer’s market. I circled a five block radius for 20 minutes. I got sweaty. I even wanted to yell. I felt competitive and I think I even cut someone off. Just for some oranges! In the time it took me to find a parking space I could have ridden there and back on my bike at least two times, which would have been enough to get the six bags of oranges (3 bags per trip is what I think the bike can handle). So back to my car=uncool principle.

And yet, Orla needs some alfalfa. And it comes in big bales. Big American bales (please notice the coloring on this bale.) That’s why, just like the country song, I love my truck. It gets around 35 miles per gallon and can haul at least four bales (I haven’t tried stacking them yet–fear of unleashing hay onto the highway). It’s rusty and white and matches our other car (across the street from this). I drive for the goats, because I love them. But I’m wondering how many bales I could fit into that shopping cart….

Farm Tour Friday


Remember, tomorrow from 10-2 is the Ghosttown Farm and Garden Tour. Pet a goat! Help me move “stuff ” in the garden! Cuddle with baby bunnies! Trim an echium! Gaze at baby geese.

Goat smells

At the edge of the room in our apartment that I call the mudroom, the room where we milk Bebe, store tools, keep seeds, make vinegar, house crusty jars of canned goods, right where the door opens onto the backyard, lingers an odor of Farm. Bill’s even noticed it. I’ve wondered where exactly it emanates because I harvest the goat turds and sawdusty clods of urine every morning before milking. Then I saw Bilbo pee on the back porch. Ah-a! Goat pee plus wooden deck plus sunlight.
It’s an unbearably delicious smell as far as I’m concerned. It means good things, to me. Maybe I’m remembering my parent’s farm in Idaho or an old goat barn visited in the 1970s. The odor to my mind speaks of good things–goat cheese, dirt dappled potatoes, thick slices of multi-grain bread. Promises of coffee ground with a handmill in the morning, and marijuana smoked in the evening. Of course those days are gone, and we’ve all gotten over those silly pleasures, right? I guess some of us have not.

This past weekend I took Orla and three rabbits to Berkeley Fun Fair. The Berkeley Farmer’s Market manager asked me to bring some baby animals for the kids to pet, to be a one woman band of urban farming.

When I arrived, I unfurled my ghetto fence made of chicken wire and wooden stakes, put Orla on a leash, and sat under a tree. So many kids and their parents came up and told me stories about having farm animals, some of them in the city! Of wanting their kids to grow up knowing animals. One little girl cradled a baby bunny, and I told her it was destined for someone’s plate.
“Oh,” she said. “When will he be ready?” Matter of fact, she was. It might be the parents and our culture that socializes us to think that cuddly creatures can’t be meat.
“What about the goat,” she said. Orla was curled up in my lap.
“She’s going to be a milker,” I said, “But if we have boys, well, we eat them.” A Berkeley vegetarian lady heard me say that.
“So you eat the boy goats?”
“Yeah, I mean, how many boys can we have if these are milk animals? Or how many boy pet goats?”
She nodded, handed me a benediction in the form of a Stop the Spray flier, and went on her way.
I only stayed for a little over an hour–the noise of the music freaked Orla out–but I felt like I had done my work for the day.

When I came home, the adult goats came running, as is their habit, along the concrete corridor that separates our house from our neighbor’s. Bebe sniffed Orla, let out a sighing Bah, and she was welcomed back into the fold. Where she can piss on a falling down backporch with a view of downtown Oakland. Ah, the life of urban goat!

Raise your freak flag

Saw a fella out in my garden today. He’s tall and blond, riding one of those fixed gear 10-speeds that are all the rage with the kids today. I walked my bike from out back and started my 12 block commute to my office.
“Excuse me, who owns this lot?” he said.
“I do,” I lied. But you know, I feel like it’s mine. If you garden it, don’t you own it? A guy from Maine told me that if you plant a garden, the owner can’t uproot it. State law. Anyway, so I’m lying and he’s wondering.
“Do you need help?” he said.
Where was this man five years ago when I was building the beds? Hauling the manure?
Feeling a little like the Little Red Hen, I told him I mostly have it under control.
“There’s a lot of bare soil,” he said, and leaned back on his bike.
I’m a journalist, so I enjoy lots of criticism (from editors, and later, readers) but I do get defensive when a stranger makes comments about my gardening technique. And I started to wonder: Why am I getting defensive about my garden with this random jack-ass who I don’t even know?
In the last year or so I’ve had so many more visitors to the garden. I can’t tell if it’s my neighborhood getting gentrified or an upsurge of interest in urban gardening or the blog. I recently had two wonderful sisters come by the garden and offer their help. But they never mentioned my bare soil (which is being watered every day in anticipation of the beet, corn, and carrot seeds I buried there a few days ago).
Eventually I invited them to build their own raised beds. One of the sisters even followed a hastily drawn map to the stables where I get my treasure trove of horse manure. Her bed is thriving with beets, greens, spinach and tomatoes.
“Why don’t you leave your email,” I said, and pointed at our mailbox, which for some reason has graffiti writing all over it. “I’ll invite you to some gardening parties we have on Fridays.”
Dude looked unexcited about this prospect. Didn’t I see that he had seeds for my soil?
I explained that I had to go to work and we exchanged names and then I biked away.
If this guy had been more charming, maybe I would have entertained the idea of another gardener at GhostTown Farm. Even if he had been a delightful cross between Willie Nelson and Julia Child (imagine!), in the end I would’ve said no.
The trouble is, I don’t have enough water for any more farmers on my 1/10 of an acre. What with the drought, we’re being extra diligent to pour our bathwater and washing machine water into the greywater system, which empties out through the kitchen sink. It waters all the fruit trees that line the garden. All other watering has been cut down to bare minimum.
It’s a bummer, this scarcity, because I do like to share. But as I rode my bike to downtown Oakland, I passed by 5 vacant lots and one abandoned park. If the city could be convinced—by this fella who can identify bare soil so well, perhaps?–to set up community gardens in these vacant places, then even more people can grow their own food…Instead of watering grass, the city could water vegetables.
I realized as I parked my bike outside the office building: I don’t want my farm to be an oasis or a freakshow. I want it to be the new normal. That of course every empty lot grows vegetables and every block has some goats or chickens. But that’s going to take people who are willing to be bold, to strike out on their own, to make their own patch of bare soil to plant.

Speaking of freaks, check out my profile of “Carl” for

Let the cheesemaking begin

In my squalid kitchen, cheesemaking has officially begun!

More than two years ago I ordered chevre culture from New England Cheesemaking Company, promptly stuck it in my freezer, and forgot all about it. I had just befriended a guy in Berkeley who had goats and I had delusions of getting milk from him. It didn’t happen. But now, oh now, I can finally make my own.

But it’s not like I have an excess of milk. I’ve resorted to milking Bebe only once a day (Fiasco Farm said she does this, with healthy results, for over 10 years). Just as I get less milk from my Nigerian Dwarf goats, who work great in small backyards, I don’t mind getting less milk if it means I don’t have to milk twice a day. It’s not like I’m in the cheese business! I let Orla, Bebe’s daughter have access to her mom during the day (she’s milking for me!) and pen her up at night so I get the morning milk.

So, it took me four days to stockpile half a gallon of Bebe’s sweet, creamy milk. The directions on the chevre package said to add one packet to a gallon of milk, so I just heated up the milk to 86 degrees, and sprinkled in what looked like half the package. It was hard to see four days worth of milk used in an experiment like this. What if it didn’t work?

For 12 hours, the cheese set up in an undisturbed area. I heard that the culture can be finicky, so I didn’t peek at all. That night, when I finally looked into the bowl, the milk had pulled away from the sides and had two distinct layers: there was just this creamy, yogurt-like substance, which I ladled into cheese cloth, and the clear liquid, the whey, which I put in a bottle for drinking later.

I hung the cheese to drain, above the sink, using (as you can see) the rope from our cheap blinds. For using only half a gallon of milk, this cheese ball seemed massive! Of course, it was mostly residual whey. The next morning, the ball was deflated and hard. I peeled off the cheesecloth and viola! A white cluster of something—cheese—in the shape of a deflated ball of cheese. I whipped it up, a bit, added a shake of salt, and then, like I saw at Dee Harley Goat Cheese, molded it into plastic wrap with a bunch of pepper sprinkled on it.

How’s it taste? Pretty good, but it’s a little dry, and not as creamy as I had hoped. Later I read that I’m supposed to put the curds into these plastic cups with holes in them, and let the cheese drain for two days. So what I made was fomage blanc. Now I need to buy–or make–some chevre cheese molds. Then I want to try making St. Maure–a penicillin infused goat cheese. And, with the right cultures, there’s some hope of making mozzarella.

Making plans

Spring’s the season for scheming. I often wake up in the middle of the night thinking about root vegetables. Why didn’t I plant more beets? Then Bill’s been planning various summer-time trips–a bike ride to Bolinas, a trip up to Seattle for my mom’s 65 (!) birthday.

It’s also time to plant a victory garden on the lawn of San Francisco’s City Hall! I’m doing research for a story about heirloom seeds and got myself invited this weekend to a seed-sowing party in West Oakland. We planted and transplanted veggies to be featured in a victory garden in the front lawn of San Francisco’s City Hall. I don’t want to give away all the secrets of the project, but I’ll tell you that I planted several types of amaranth, peppers, and tomatoes.

The idea for community-focused vegetable production has been a fairly long-standing tradition in America. In the 1890’s, the mayor of Detroit first advocated growing community gardens. Growing your own veggies made a lot of sense during the Depression, too. When WWI hit, war gardens sprouted up all over America. The idea being the troops needed the food from the farms, so ordinary citizens should grow their own for their tables. During the Second World War, victory gardens were popular. During the 1940s, all over the country, including urban areas like SF, NYC, Boston, Philly, cities played host to demonstration victory gardens to inspire citizens to grow their own food. For the whole story, check out an article from Tea and Cookies in Edible SF about the project.

City Slicker is donating the know-how and their greenhouse; Seeds of Change the seeds (all heirlooms); the City is hosting the spot; Garden for the Environment is coordinating the whole deal, and a group of artists at Future Farmers are adding the artistic touches. It’s going to make SF proud. Now if only Oakland would do the same!

Spring is also harvest-season. Today’s NYTimes had a photo spread of vegetables gone wild in kitchens–here are mine. They are new potatoes, fava, young garlic (garlic press), artichokes (one enormous plant gave us 30 ‘chokes), in the jar are newly-ready olives, finally brined and palatable six months after picking. Enjoy spring!