Sticks and stones

Ever since I was a young boy I liked sticks: that’s what children do, right? They collect sticks. And rocks, and shells and seeds and on and on . . .

For a time I had put this away as a childish thing, but I’ve taken it up again. Blame Carl Jung if you want (part of his process of individuation was re-discovering some of his childhood play practices in middle age), or blame the Snake River: I lived about a mile from it for three years and went for frequent walks along its banks, where I picked up beautiful smoothed stones. Whenever I go into local stores selling polished stones I appreciate the amethyst and sodalite, the jasper and hematite and all the other -ites, but there’s something comforting and soulful about a stone that I found, its homespun beauty of mild colors brought to a gentle sheen by the rubbing of my own hands.

I may show off some of these.

And sticks: this past summer, I salvaged a load of prunings from a neighbor’s fruit trees. Most of these I cut up for fuel for my stoves. But recently I also took an apricot branch from my in-laws’ yard, which I had saved for two years. I stripped the bark, cut away its own little branches, and sanded it down.

And oh, it is gorgeous. I love to hold it and feel it. I’ve oiled it a few times with apricot kernel oil (appropriate, I thought) and plan on making a wood polish with oil and beeswax. No, it’s not as durable or hard as the polyurethane that I used on my yucca walking stick, but a natural finish feels right for this kind of thing.

Now I want to collect more and more of these: sticks and branches from every kind of fruit tree, and from maples and whatever else. I want to collect beautiful sticks and finish them.

And then what?

I’m going to keep writing about this.


The Hashbrown Chronicles, vol. 3

All the years I’ve been making hashbrowns I’ve used baked russets, and over the past week I’ve finally tried boiled yukon golds.  And I don’t know if I’ll go back.

Well of course, whenever we have baked potatoes I’ll reserve some for frying up, but yukon golds are nice!  I boiled mine whole for maybe 15 minutes, enough to soften a little, and then when they cool I peel them.  They’re easier to peel when they’re fresh, and even when they’ve been in the fridge for a couple days I think they’re easier to peel than raw.  I’ve seen recipes that call for shredding them raw, but haven’t yet dared try that yet.  That’s next on the list, because if I want to simplify the process of making these in order to use a simpler stove, that would be the obvious way.  I use medium-high heat on a conventional stove, so I expect that using one of my wood stoves should work ok.  But time will tell.

Anyway, this morning I seasoned them with savory, rosemary and marjoram – again, I ground the tough herbs with salt and then rubbed the marjoram.  I think I’ve found a winner.

As I mentioned before, I buy my spices from Penzeys, and I cannot recommend them highly enough.  Not only are their spices top-notch but they have a very friendly and loving attitude and atmosphere that pervades their catalogs.

(By the way, that link is not an affiliate link: I won’t get paid anything if you buy from Penzeys.)

Fair trade, making, and the global economy, part 1

About 13 years ago I was a single man, a bearded 25-year-old Peter Pan with a part time job in Salt Lake City. I worked at a library, hiked and daydreamed. I daydreamed about playing in a band (I’m a drummer) and about finding romance.

In between all this, I spent some time volunteering as a clerk at a Ten Thousand Villages store in Sugarhouse.  It was an ideal gig for me at that stage of my life and I should have made more time for it: besides gratifying my altruism, I had to deal with the public in all their scary glory.  That was a challenge to my shy and retiring ways (which was why I didn’t spend more time at it.)

Years passed.  I got married, started a career, started a family, and my gaze shifted from being directly involved in the Fair Trade movement (though I still made a point to buy my chocolate fair trade when I could).  It has always remained in the back of my mind, though, and recently I’ve gotten back in the game by selling fair trade goods on ebay.

Enlisting artisans in third world countries to make decorative items for collectors in the first world, to be shipped across oceans and then back and forth across the big wide USA . . . to my perception, this is a complex question.  For the time being, I see this as a mostly good thing, a step in the right direction (though onto a path that might take some surprising turns), and so I’m doing what I can to support it.

Therefore, I’ve started pointing out specific products periodically on this blog, and will continue to do so.  I’m doing this partly because I sell them, but mostly because I like them.

The element of fire – brass

I’ve always been fascinated by brass.  When it’s polished it gleams like gold, and even though it can tarnish, it has a hardness beyond gold that gives it a more powerful feeling for me.

Even though Susan Cooper chose gold for the sign of fire in The Dark Is Rising Sequence, in my mind brass is the perfect substance to symbolize the element of fire: the warm gleaming tone invites and welcomes flame in candlesticks and evokes it in jewelry.  And the tone of brass instruments: bright, warm or hot.

When I was a teenager I had a favorite brass candlestick: a thick, deep cup that held a thick white candle.  I remember the night I watched in fascination as the candle burned down to heat the brass, melting the wax until the wick floated in a pool of clear melted wax inside this hot bright metal.

It’s fitting that at least one alcohol stove, the Trangia Spirit Burner, is made of brass.  One of these days I’d like to get one and compare it to Mechanic Mike’s Side Jet Alcohol Stove, which I bought this summer.

I sell on ebay too, and I recently started offering some interesting brass bracelets.  Some of them are elegant, some of them are downright badass, or at least I think so.  The nice thing about them is that they’re made by artisans in South Africa, so by offering then for sale I’m doing my part to promote economic self-determination and self-reliance in developing nations, as well as make one more gesture against racism.

But it’s not only the social virtue of it that gets me about these bracelets.  I’ve seen plenty of social virtue free trade merchandise that doesn’t excite me.  These things are different: they’re just cool-looking, or I should say, hot-looking.  You can have a look at them here.

alter ego cuff 1

Life goals: wood oven-roasted turkey

We have a turkey recipe we do every other Thanksgiving – when we’re with my side of the family.  It’s a Martha Stewart recipe, pretty simple really: rub the bird down with salt and crushed bay leaf a day or two before, let it sit in the fridge, then baste it with white wine, butter and more bay leaf.  It gets consistent raves and we’re proud of it.  One day I’d like to do it in a wood-burning oven – or, better yet, a biomass-burning oven.

So, to feed my fantasies, I did a bit of searching, and I found some articles.  I’m putting them here for my benefit as well as yours.

Thanksgiving Turkey recipe from Mugnaini wood fired ovens.  These are gorgeous Italian ovens and the site is a joy to look at.  I’m not sure how well these would take alternative solid fuels other than wood, but it looks like they make efficient use of the wood.

Turkey the old-fashioned way by Linda Gabris in Backwoods Home Magazine, which I need to read more.  (What did people do in the old days before aluminum foil?)

Here’s a Traditional Turkey recipe from Traeger Grills.  I really want to learn more about these grills: the idea of using wood pellets for a barbecue grill is nifty.  They make their pellets out of selected hardwoods for the smoke flavor, but it seems to me this also holds great potential for fuel efficient, maybe carbon neutral roasting and baking.

Speaking of efficient use of minimal fuel: last, but not least, here’s a video of someone roasting a turkey in a Cobb Grill:

The Hashbrown Chronicles, vol. 1

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that hashbrowns are one of my favorite foods.  I have fond memories of eating them as a child at my mother’s table: the golden crispiness side by side with the soft whiteness (she always used leftover baked russets and so do I).

Hashbrowns, fried onions, beans . . . these are a few of my favorite things.  To me they are ideal camp foods, not necessarily because I think they would be that easy to cook in camp but because I want to eat them outdoors surrounded by trees.  They also seem to me like very manly foods: flannel and beard kinds of foods.  I am not a conventionally masculine man, and so maybe eating these kinds of foods – and growing my beard – is a way to hold on to my gender identity.

During my adult life I’ve tried different ways of seasoning hashbrowns, since I love herbs and spices.  Our kitchen cupboards are full of jars from Penzeys, which we discovered in 2004 and of which we have been loyal customers ever since.  One of my favorite ways to flavor hashbrowns is with Penzeys’ Northwoods Seasoning, but I like to experiment.  This morning I cooked my hashbrowns on a normal electric stove.  But I’ll tell you what I put in ’em.

I started out with a little pinch of savory (for two medium russets) and ground it with some kosher salt.  Savory has a very distinct and assertive flavor, the kind of taste that threatened to give me a headache as a child, but which I’ve wanted to explore as an adult.  The leaves are tough and hurt my fingers when I try to rub them as I would sage or thyme, but ground with salt, they break down pretty nicely.

I added a bigger pinch of thyme and ground that in with the savory and salt.

I sprinkled this on the shredded spuds, along with a few dashes of powdered galangal – another flavor I might not have liked when younger, but lately I’ve been fascinated with it.

I grated some nutmeg over everything (a few rotations of the crank)

and sprinkled some powdered toasted onion.  I mixed it all up and fried them in butter as usual.

It was good: as I had hoped, the savory and galangal agreed nicely, and I couldn’t really distinguish the nutmeg, but it sure didn’t hurt.  The whole thing had an aroma that reminded me of pot roast, a dinner-y sort of smell with some sophistication.

Confession: autumn wishes

In autumn I stare at the mountains, especially when the clouds brood gloomily over them. Such gorgeous gloom! I stare from the office where I work and I wish I were up there among the dying leaves, the fading maples, the aspens still gold, even if it were cold and rain dripped from the branches.  I wish I were up there, with a good flame to cook over and keep me fed and warm –

so that I could look out over the valley where I live, gaze on the cloud shadows over the lake, and dream of the land stretching away – more mountains. I wish for the time to do this, to leave behind the struggle for survival for a while, escape into simplicity for a while to get my bearings. I’ll write more about this but to me the impulse to head for the hills is driven mostly by a longing for simplicity.

Were I up in one of those fading gold aspen groves looking over the valley, I would reflect on how strange it is that in a land burgeoning with wealth and labor-saving devices, most people still live with a gun to their head. If the bullet is poverty and panic and infamy, slower than an honest leaden drill bit, I don’t believe it makes it any less real, any less violent, any less of a threat.

I live in a place, a culture that glorifies wealth and grinds on the face of those it deems unworthy. And it does this under a cloak of optimism, faith and – most insulting of all – charity. I get lonely in this place (useless idealist!) and that’s another reason why I wish I could just go off into the mountains by myself.

The challenges of cooking over fire

I know that a good Quest is difficult and slow, and as a 21st-century working apartment dweller, I have found this one especially so.  I am having to re-learn some things I knew how to do when I was younger, with very little spare time to do it.

When I was about 13 I was a Boy Scout.  One of the merit badges I earned was camp cooking.  I remember one family camping trip where I did all the menu planning, cooking and cleanup.  My sister remembers that trip very fondly indeed.  I don’t recall so many details of what I cooked, though it seems most of it was over a campfire: biscuit dough twisted around sticks, steak chunks on skewers (a steel skewer branded the corner of my mouth by accident) and so on.

And in learning how to use these different kinds of stoves, I’ve constantly faced their disadvantages when compared to our convenient (and deceptively inefficient) kitchen amenities: soot, small burner sizes and limited heat control.  It’s no surprise to me that most of the youtube videos I’ve watched of people using rocket or woodgas stoves show them cooking very simple things, or just boiling water.  And really, for camping, that can be enough.  But part of my Quest is to find more than that.

People have been getting creative with camp cooking for quite a while now.  I poke around a bit on Amazon and find a pretty good selection of camp cookbooks, most of them geared either towards a campfire or pressurized liquid fuel stoves.  And they look interesting:

I’ll bet I could get a lot of ideas from these about how to cook a nice civilized diversity of meals, and I would hope that some of the advice about how you can vary the heat from a campfire can apply to something like a rocket or woodgas stove.

Don’t snub the humble can

I wrote in an earlier post about hoboes and their rumored sterno habits.  But sterno stoves are far from the only cooking devices used by those romantic wandering men . . .

(Really, what makes that so romantic: the Great Depression, riding railcars, John Steinbeck novels, etc?  I’m sure it was no picnic for all the homeless men who eked out their marginal living in those times.  I’m reminded of a Suzanne Vega song I once heard.)

If you’re traveling light and don’t have much and want to cook over something more efficient than a bare fire, what better technique than just to put the fire in a simple food can?  And so we have the hobo stove, operating on the most basic principle: to concentrate the heat of a fire, contain it.

If you look up “hobo stove” on youtube you’ll find several videos of people making and using these variations on the basic theme.  And apparently if you want a lightweight bit of hiking gear that gives a touch of aluminum grace to this design, there’s the Swiss Army Volcano Stove (3 Piece Set), which has many very good reviews.  I think I’d like to get myself one.  (Again, that’s the thing about getting into simple light stoves: it can be addictive.)

There’s also a company that I’m watching called Siege Stoves, who make ingenious crosspieces with sharp fangs that you can use to punch holes in cans of various sizes, and then put on top for pot stands.  Siege Stoves is planning a big expansion and I hope they make it, and make it soon.  Their product can be used to make a simple hobo-style stove as well as a woodgas stove.

Really, all this is very much like what I have done with my Sterno Single Burner Folding Stove – 50002, using it as a firebox, after watching some videos like this one.  My daughter and I still remember the picnic we had with that, out on the pebble bar in the Snake river, before the dam let the irrigation water down for the summer.  Bright sun, cool breeze and a bald eagle in the sky above us.