Archive for September, 2009

Vegan Path

A decade has passed since I became vegan – an undertaking that I saw, at the time, as a “project” that would distract me from my deplorable job and endlessly bland life. It was something I could research and immerse myself in and perhaps expand my universe a bit in the process. God knows, in my Midwestern, steak-infested city, I was not thriving, not doing well at all. Dating sucked. Job sucked even more. I needed something to devote myself to, something to feel passionate about. A new project. A new me. 

When a tiny health food coop opened up just two blocks down the road from my apartment, things started looking up. There were hippies in Nebraska! Who knew? These were people who baked bread in the back room and had a small selection of organic (and slightly wilted) produce. I started exploring lacto-ovo cooking, but had a few meat-eating setbacks. It was hard to curb that craving for meat. Despite my ultra-thin appearance, I was a voracious meat eater. I always liked my veggies and fruits too, but a good steak or bbq ribs was my idea of a great dinner out. I started buying organic milk that I thought was from happy cows. I thought I was doing the right thing.

I had always been uneasy about vegetarians, not because I personally saw them as weird or “out there,” but because my family did. I remember one of my only encounters with a vegetarian was at a post-funeral luncheon where two of my relatives conspired not to tell the one-and-only vegetarian guest that the baked beans had pork in them. I felt bad for him. He was an outcast, a freak, and clearly, his motives were misunderstood. I don’t know that my relatives were trying to be mean, in fact, I suspect they weren’t, but they couldn’t possibly have known the difference it would have made to that poor guy to just tell him honestly what was in the beans he was about to eat. I didn’t know that non-vegetarians sometimes feel threatened or judged when a vegan or vegetarian is in close proximity  – as if their values and food choices are being questioned.

I started exploring a bit more deeply. After chatting with a vegan friend online about the milk and egg industry, I was impressed  enough to go cold turkey (excuse the non-vegan reference). He wasn’t judgmental, but had very sound arguments against eating animal products. I had no counter argument. I had always adored animals, but somehow thought that it was natural to eat them. Not that I could ever kill them myself. Until I started actively researching my food choices, I had no idea really how meat, eggs and dairy were produced. Meat, packaged and neatly wrapped at the store, didn’t seem like “animal” to me. What I didn’t completely understand at the time, was that my freedom to choose other foods (vegan foods) allowed me to opt out of cruelty. I could consciously select a palate that was more in line with my ethics. But Omaha was not a vegetarian’s dream. After all, the chain restaurants (and believe me, there’s little else throughout the Midwest) aren’t exactly catering to a crowd of vegetarians. My choices were usually something like a dry baked potato and a salad with no dressing.

I loved to cook, but I needed to learn a whole new way of cooking and did a lot of experimenting with foods I’d never encountered, like tofu and seitan. My first vegan cookbook was published in the ’70s, straight off the presses at a hippy commune – the Farm in Tennessee. I was inspired. I had found “my people.” I learned not to write off a food just because I’d had one bad experience with it. Sometimes, the food was a brand I simply didn’t like and sometimes, it was a poorly written recipe. I learned that there is a vast difference between refrigerated water-packed tofu and the kind that comes in an aseptic package, like Mori Nu. 

I believe veganism provided the impetus for me to get the hell out of Dodge and move out West to Denver. First, I flew to San Francisco to meet my online vegan friend. We had vegan sushi, a dinner at a raw food restaurant, lunch at a tiny Ethiopian place, another lunch at a vegan Buddhist Chinese joint, a divine and pricey dinner at the amazing Millenium Cafe. Back home, I was tired of the lunchtime critiques of my meal and felt like I was doing battle over my food choices. At first, I was an angry, defensive vegan. I felt compelled to buy activist buttons and stickers, to confront people about why consuming animal products was wrong. But that abated with time and experience. I started working out at a gym. I was surrounded by extremly obese (though nice enough), unhealthy people – people who could barely walk because of the oppressiveness of their weight. I was miserable at my job. Dating was a fiasco. I may have been the ONLY vegan in Nebraska. I was lonely!

So when my next big relationship ended and I was at loose ends, I became dissatisfied enough with the status quo to forge a new life – one that involved veganism and a job change. 

While I was applying to graduate schools for a Masters in Library Science, I met yet another vegan guy online who happened to live in Denver. He suggested a graduate program at a nearby university. I must have liked him enough to take the leap. He’s my husband now. And two kids and a Master’s degree later, here were are. While I was in graduate school, I worked at a large health food store and taught vegan cooking classes once a month. Our non-vegan friends and family praise my cooking.

What’s the next big project?


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Been here…what a relief


My family (the Thomases) in the good ol' days

I’ve become an avid follower of Sharon Astyk’s blog ( where she writes about peak oil, climate change, and adapting in place. Her words are inspiring and terrifying at the same time. I’ve been reading along these same lines for quite some time and can’t seem to stop myself from devouring ever more literature on these topics – bleak though it may be.

Obviously, we can’t (we meaning industrialized nations, especially the US) continue to consume resources at our current rate and, to be honest, we’re looking at some fairly dismal times ahead. I’m panicked to think that we’ll be pretty poor – poorer certainly than I have ever been in my lifetime. But not poorer, hopefully than my family in previous generations (see picture above).

My maternal grandmother pretty much went barefoot all summer and used to cringe when she’d talk about the chicken poo that would squish between her naked  toes. She hated chickens as a result. She grew up in a house without electricity or running water, and heated, I think, by a cookstove.

When I told her and my great aunt that I was interested in the way they used to do things – particularly canning – they both asked why in the world I’d want to do that? So much work. Work, I imagine, they happily gave up when food became cheaper and easy to come by at the local store.

My great grandmother and great grandfather, Bessie and Herb, were both great gardeners and knew the names of all kinds of plants. I like to think I inherited some of their skill in this area and am passing some of it on to my kids. We practice recognizing seedlings poking through the soil in our garden and talk about the plants we see in neighbor’s yards when we take walks. I’m no great gardener by any means, but I do raise nearly all of my own vegetables from seed and every year is a grand experiment. I’m getting better, for certain and am quickly learning that books are definitely helpful, but nothing beats experience.

From childhood visits, I remember family gathering in my aunt’s cool basement in Missouri to can produce. My grandparents, great grandparents, and a couple of great aunts and uncles kept a 1/2 acre garden at my grandma and grandpa’s “farm” and my aunt kept a smaller one in her back yard. I don’t remember the actual canning proceedings, just people gathering and the jars lined up on shelves in my aunt’s basement. The kids – all of the cousin – played pool. My memory is pretty fuzzy about all of this and only my great aunt, Mildred, would be able to confirm or deny the details. My grandma Mary Helen passed away this spring  – sadly without giving me too many details to go on. How I wish I had hours of taped interviews or transcripts now. 

I did ask my grandma how they gardened. Did they compost? Did they spray? She said they used chicken manure for fertilizer and one time her daddy used to much because he burned all of the plants in the garden. They didn’t compost that she remembers and when new chemicals and fertilizers came along, she thinks they used them here and there – like Miracle Grow, for example. She talked about growing sugar cane – something I didn’t realize could be done in Missouri or Kansas. She talked about when the Great Depression came, her family didn’t feel it much because they always had enough to eat. They had apple trees and a garden and chickens, at the very least. 

My mom talks about how when she and her brother and sister were little, they would get one pair of flip-flops (shoes) to wear in the summer and when those cheap shoes wore out, they went barefoot. They didn’t have money for extras, but they always had food. She said birthday parties weren’t about masses of toys and that she remembers giving a pack of nice panties (underpants) to close friends for their birthdays – something that was practical and useful.

My mom also remembers helping my great grandma do the wash once a week using a wringer washer and hanging it on the clothes line. It literally took all day. And sure, on top of that, there were three meals to fix from scratch.

Part of me is nostalgic about the “olden days, ” the lean times that I never even experienced. For a time, as a young adult, I really wanted a washboard so that I could wash my clothes in the bathtub. I’m sure, if I’d had a stash of bacon grease and knew where to get lye, I would have tried making my own soap as well. I had my great grandma’s recipe, afterall. But imagining and doing are two different animals. Now that I’m grown up and run my own household and realized how difficult it can be to get through a day- even with modern conveniences to help – I’m scared poopless about how I would do all of the daily stuff I do now without, for instance, relying on electricity or the grocery store. Still, if grandma did it, I can probably do it too, though probably not as skillfully and with a huge learning curve.

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Summer’s End

My thighs are looking a bit flabby these days because the gardening season is winding down. Sure, there are things I could be doing out there: digging up sod around my old raised beds in the backyard in preparation for next year’s garden expansion and renovation, planting a few more winter greens, getting the cold frame ready for service. Somehow, around this time every year, I’m a bit tired of it all. This Spring’s gung-ho burst of energy is gone, replaced by a sluggish me who would rather , oh, I don’t know, start planning next year’s garden, which is a lot less work than actually toiling in this year’s.

Cool weather has moved in and I’ve been watching the forecast in case I have to make a mad dash to the garden to bring in the last of the tomatoes. Usually, this coincides with the arrival of a sudden wet snow. The kids and I throw on our winter garb and they stand on the porch whining while I scurry about plucking snow drenched tomatoes with my raw, red fingers, hollering, “It’s ok, guys. Just a few more and we’ll go in and get hot chocolate. This is fun, isn’t it? Look at it snow. Wow!” I pick until my frozen knuckles won’t bend and we dump the muddy bucket of tomatoes on our kitchen counter to deal with later.

My tomatoes are still producing, but not enough to bother processing. Mostly, I’m getting buckets of cherry tomatoes (Peacevine) and another smallish variety called Stupice. Both are remarkably tasty, but not good for much other than fresh snacking and salads. My pole tomatoes (San Marzollo) are hitting their stride, but I’ve had some problems with blossom end rot, so again, not enough to justify putting up. My family is eating as much as we can and giving the rest away to grateful neighbors. 

My winter greens are up and flourishing (chinese kale, lacinato kale, collards, lettuces, spinach, bok choi). I’ve done two plantings and some of the seeds obviously didn’t make it, as I have large bald patches in two beds. Old seed? I’ve taken an inventory and purged old seed to be replaced with new next year.

The last of the bush and pole beans I’m just letting go to seed for next year’s crop. We had very prolific beans this year – especially the yellow wax and royal burgundy. I did manage to freeze about eight packages in addition to all of our fresh eating.

The melons are tiny, but not ripening and are being pilfered by squirrels. In the three years I’ve been planting melons in our yard, I think I’ve managed to taste two melons and those were ones I stole back half-eaten from the squirrels. Perhaps I should just focus on crops with which I have relative success.

Yellow squash and zucchini. Can we just be done already! I’ve grated and frozen; I’ve chopped and sauteed; I’ve made batches and batches of muffins; I’ve snuck them into soup. Enough! Why don’t the squirrels develop a taste for these? Next year: two plants. That’s it!

The garlic (Music and Siberian) was absolutely wonderful this year – nice big, juicy bulbs! Our wet, cool spring is probably to be credited for this. Sadly, we’ve eaten almost all of our harvest, except the six bulbs I’ve reserved for replanting. My hopes of finding locally grown seed stock garlic have been fruitless. I thought surely farmers’ markets would have a couple varieties of garlic for sale and that I’d just buy a few bulbs for planting. No luck. And, when I checked seed catalogs, all but just a few varieties are already sold out! Everyone must be thinking much further ahead  than I this year. 

We’ll get maybe eight or so winter squash if the squirrels don’t get too hungry between now and harvest time in a week or so. Some squash already have a few bite marks despite my efforts to wrap each squash in metal screen cloth. 

Strawberry sweet corn – got about five tiny ears. Pollination problems combined with dastardly squirrels. Still, the ears we did get are “gorgeous” as my two year old says. We may actually try to pop a couple and keep the rest for offerings on our harvest altar.

Next year, I’ll focus on fewer crops overall and on growing greater quantities of those – enough to make it worth my time to process some for winter. The seed catalogs are just so darn beautiful and look so promising in the midst of winter’s bleakness that I’m always overcome by greed.

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Excess Under Control

Yesterday, we celebrated my littlest son’s 2-year birthday. I was determined this year not to get carried away buying gifts for Bodhi and to buy him mostly useful things. Overall, I’m pretty satisfied with the whole experience and he was too. He got a set of ceramic Eric Carle dishes (something he’ll hopefully hand down to his kids someday), a wooden garbage truck, a few books, Croc shoes (for helping mommy in the garden), a shirt and jacket, and a toy horse from his brother. The garbage truck and a some of the books were from me/us (mom and dad) and the rest from other relatives. It felt like just the right amount and he wasn’t overwhelmed with a smorgasbord of toys. So far, the Croc shoes and the horse get the most attention. Apparently orange Crocs are a necessary accessory when galloping his horse through the house. 

Seems like with my first son, I went a tad overboard. Ok, I’ll admit it: we’re drowning in toys. Our house is like a day care center – a toy or game for every stage of development. Indeed, I believe the neighbor kids prefer playing over at our house – just for our toys.

With my first little guy, Cedar, I was always going to toy stores to get just one more little thing. I’d collect them in my closet until the next holiday or big event. I used some of them as bribes when we were potty training him (a very difficult and lengthy task, in his case). I bought new trinkets whenever we were about to take a long car trip. I bought things because…well, because the toys these days are pretty darn neat. Ok. I bought toys because in my childhood, I would have like to play with these nifty things. But oh, how those little things added up. Boxes and boxes of little things. 

My theory with my first son was if he had enough stuff, he might be entertained just long enough that I could oh, I don’t know, read a few pages of a book or pay the bills or cook dinner. Let me tell ya, it didn’t work. Out of all the shelves and boxes of toys, he plays with just a handful of things at a time and they are seldom things that even belong to the same set. He often takes our things – tools, pens, paperclips, things he finds lying around the house and adds them to his collection. And, when Cedar was little, he mostly liked to do what I was doing – dusting, cooking dinner, mopping the floors, gardening…

My generation was certainly not deprived of toys, but we didn’t have nearly the selection (not that the majority of toys these days are anything more than plastic junk from China). For Christmas, we usually got one “big” thing that we really wanted (a special doll, a dollhouse, an erector set, a kitten) and the rest was something like clothes and books or maybe a stuffed animal thrown in the mix. 

In my own defense, however, I’m not solely at fault. The generosity of our  large combined family has played a considerable part in our plethora of toys. And, we’ve tried, when we bought larger items, to buy “educational” or quality wooden toys from Europe. And, some of those, I don’t regret buying. Our wooden play stove and it’s accompanying play food and pots/pans has seen a great deal of use. But the rest of the junk, I just keep sorting through and “purging” when the mood strikes me. At least some other kid will get the pleasure of playing with our hand-me-downs.

As for the future, I’m striving to make our gift-giving and receiving ever more simple. Fewer things means things more appreciated, less money spent, fewer consumed resources.

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