Caught Up


About a month ago, my basil started to die.

The untimely death of basil in my garden isn’t a new thing, unfortunately. It’s caused by basil downy mildew, and I hate it because it kills the plants, it ruins my pesto plans,  and because it interferes with my idea of what happens when; I have journal entries from ten years ago/five years ago/three years ago where the basil is still going strong well into September. The new reality of basil in our part of the midwest is this: We have to work harder to just have it. We have to plant earlier and more strategically, cut more often, start new plants while we’re cutting, watch for disease, and eventually replant for what ultimately works out to be less basil. It’s a scourge borne on the wind, and while not everyone’s plants get it at the same time, everyone’s plants succumb eventually. And if you don’t grow basil yourself, you’re sure to notice its early absence from markets. I interviewed a couple of experts and whine about it here.


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I reviewed Ava Chin’s memoir, Eating Wildly, for Backyard Industry Radio this week. I don’t review books very often, but this one called out to me from a pile of things I meant to read over the summer. It’s a fine memoir about gain and loss and looking around your world with a new set of eyes; with foraging, there is always uncertainty about what you’ll find and whether you’ll know it when you see it, and she captures that feeling well with her uncomplicated, self-aware prose. Before the book came out in May 2014, Chin had been writing a column, “Urban Forager”, about her experiences foraging in the city and elsewhere – and then cooking what she ate – for the New York Times.

In the book, she addresses the issue of the legality of foraging in the city. This column about daylilies from 2010 drew a vigorous response from readers on both sides of the issue – some were fascinated with the concept of being able to eat them, and others were upset with the idea that someone would not only forage plants in public parks, but would write about it, encouraging (many) others to possibly do the same, stripping the parks of foliage meant to be enjoyed by everyone. In the end, the City came down on foraging in public parks.

I have mixed feelings about this. I love my time at my local prairie preserve and am definitely not into it when I see people trouncing on other foliage to pick flowers there; however, black raspberries? I’ve been known to carefully take a few as I walk. [Maybe, sometimes, more than a few.] Mosquitoes make me crazy when I’m out there; I don’t even think twice about looking for and harvesting plantain to take the itch away. While I would never take produce out of someone’s private garden at the plots there or anywhere, I’ve definitely brought home a breadseed poppy pod or two when it hangs over the public path. Are seeds and weeds any different from flowers and fruit? Should lambsquarter and plantain and garlic mustard (a much-loathed invasive here) be left alone to go to seed and fruit and flowers left for the birds, instead of going to a few people curious about what’s coming out of the ground, uncultivated? I personally tend to subscribe to the Scandinavian concept of Allemansrätten: Foraging for wild foods is allowed in public parks and even on private land, as long as nothing is disturbed and the foraging isn’t happening on farms or cultivated gardens. They seem to make it work there. I’m not sure it’d work here.

[It did surprise me that, in publishing that column, Chin broke one of the cardinal rules of foraging: Never share where you find something special. Don’t tell anyone where you got the wild asparagus or morels or poppy seeds. I guess I also just broke the rule, but I’m not a forager.]

Closer to home here in the midwest, we have Nance Klehm. She’s been foraging and experimenting in the urban environment for ages, though I’m not sure she’s living in Chicago full time these days. Her philosophy? A little more countercultural and a little less “foodie” than Chin’s – check out some of her writing here.

Good Housekeeping

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First things first: There was a new episode of Backyard Industry radio last week about eating invasive species as a way to manage them. I focused on a local person who’s all about introducing the autumn olive into the local food landscape here in central Illinois, but as I was putting the piece together, I ran across several other interviews/articles about eating, managing, and examining the very concept of invasive species. There was this piece at NPR about a 6th grader’s science-project discoveries regarding lionfish (since mired in controversy), and then there was this interview with writer Emma Maris about her book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild WorldI haven’t read the book, but the part of the interview I happened upon as I was driving back from my beloved prairie preserve (where I saw a bunch of white-tailed deer, considered by many in this area to be invasive) was about ecosystems and invasives, if not specifically about eating them. It’s interesting, uh, food for thought and damned provocative when you think about them in the context of the current food system in the US.

Tonight I was putting together a care package of reading material for my friend Millicent, who is spending her summer cooking in the Adirondacks for a nice Midwestern family (“I know, boo-f*ckin’-hoo,” she wrote). I met Millicent in Chicago about 20 years ago when we were both working for an independent music distributor; we came back together 2 summers ago while she was touring her book about pie. She slept on our couch and we spent a fantastic evening going through many cans of beer in my driveway, discussing independent food and music and art and culture and their many intersections like the couple of aging punk-ass ladies we are. Anyway. Millicent put out the call for some stuff to read as she closes out her time up there, so I got to work. I won’t say exactly what I found for her, except that I think she will LOVE IT, but I will allow that I ran across this gem in our basement – a terrible place to keep something that was at least partially responsible for a major change in direction for me back in the late 90s/early 00s. Behold:

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That right there is a copy of The Journal of Gastronomy, published by the American Institute of Wine & Food, Vol. 7, No. 1, Winter/Spring 1993. I spotted it on a shelf at a Salvation Army during a thrifting trip, thought, hm, and paid my 50 (EDIT: 55, see cover) cents. Go on, look at the table of contents up there. Laurie Colwin, Joan Dye Gussow, Margaret Visser, that guy who wrote the book Flow, etc.  My mind was blown. BLOWN! FOR FIFTY(-FIVE) CENTS! I didn’t know this type of writing about food – the experience of it, the culture of it – even existed. It’s been a talisman, one of my personal Big Bangs, and the fact it’s been hanging out in our very undignified basement for ages is a tremendous oversight, given the fact that everything I’ve done around food for the last 15 years is a result of thrifting it.

The journal ceased publication in 1993; Gastronomica has more or less picked up the slack since 2001, and we all know what happened after Michael Pollan wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma. There’s no shortage of excellent, thinky food writing out there in 2014. But what I loved about this single issue – the only issue I’ve ever seen – of TJoG is that it was published pre-internet. There are no URLs on its covers or masthead, no promises of extra “content” somewhere in the ether, no link-induced rabbit holes. It’s just print. The photos are in black and white. It’s conversational rather than aspirational, and the contributors assume the reader is invested and intelligent. It’s also a snapshot of a time long gone – the primary concern about the disruption of meals in 1993 had everything to do with TV, not each individual participant burying their faces in a device or taking photos of their food. Finding that journal tonight was the equivalent, for me, of running across a prized Sixteen Tons  7″ (recorded by Steve Albini!) or a cassette recording of my radio show from college.

Nostalgic? Sure. I’ll own up to that. But it’s also a tactile reminder that we’re the cumulative result of all our influences. Vol. 7, No. 1, Winter/Spring 1993 is moving back up to my desk.

PS: I’m not sending this fusty/precious old thing to Millicent, just other precious/fusty old things. Though I do think she might enjoy the Colwin piece so perhaps a little Xerox love will be going into the envelope…

Wool Gathering

It’s finally here – the latest BYI video! My deepest thanks go to Cathe Capel, Harold Davis, Roxanne Sawhill and all the others for their time, Jack Brighton and Tim Meyers for their work on this video, Automatic Empire for the music, and our friends at Illinois Public MediaPBS, PBS Digital Studios, and PBS Food for their support. Now go watch it! I’d love to know what you think.

Not only that, there’s new audio available that happens to be completely unrelated to “Wool Gathering”. It’s an ode to urban wildlife that’s very influenced by Lyanda Lynn Haupt‘s Urban Bestiary and a field trip I took with Environmental Almanac‘s Rob Kanter. In a perfect world, they wouldn’t have been released at exactly the same time, but hey. Feast or famine. When it rains, it pours. That.

More soon.


Jarred Awake

Spears in jars.
Spears in jars. Click to make big.


I meant to have a blog post all outlined and organized, the way you’re “supposed” to, but it didn’t happen because time! Is of the essence! Spring’s in. Even though it’s not yet warm enough for my liking here in central Illinois, the sun is out today and the ground is pliable after some rain earlier in the week, so I have to get into the yard with some of these plants I bought at the first farmers market of the season. A few things, though:

The Sustainable Student farm at the University of Illinois has started a vermicomposting pilot project at their place. Zack Grant, the farm’s manager (and my garlic planting guru), was nice enough to let me be there the day the worms arrived.

Zack's worms.
Zack’s worms.


I enjoyed hanging out with the worms (and Zack, and his assistant, Matt) so much that I wrote it into a BYIRadio piece. You can listen here.

After the worm situation, Tim and I shot what will become a BYIVideo, number to be determined, featuring my friend/neighbor Jill Miller. She’s the creative force (well, she’s all the forces, really) behind Hooey Batiks, and a fair amount of her art centers around food and gatherings and experimentation with both. We had, predictably, an awesome time. Stay tuned for more info.

BYIVideo #2 is in editing as I type. People, we gathered some excellent footage there. I love Cathe’s farm so much, god. The piece should be done in a few weeks, after some of the frenzy at work dies down and Tim returns from a work-related trip (to San Francisco, that jerk. I kid.). In the interim, I’ll be tweaking the writing…and working on music selection, thanks to our friends Automatic Empire. ILY,AE.

Lastly, Jill (mentioned above) recently told me there was a cookbook by writer Kevin West, Saving the Season, that I had to get. Jill has hundreds of cookbooks – and she reads them all – so her recs are trustworthy. I have too many cookbooks, and the last thing I really needed was to buy another one, especially about food preservation (which this one was). I love the concept of food preservation much more than the execution because, MY GOD, it’s so often presented as being so EASY with this smuggish veneer of utter fussiness underneath the writing, plus the recipes, in my experience, have never been that great. [Note: Paul Virant’s beautiful book, The Preservation Kitchen, is excepted from all of this, but it’s intimidated me from day one. I have more guts now to try stuff now, for reasons I’ll explain in a second, and his book remains one of my favorites. I talk to him about food preservation here.] ANYWAY. What’s beautiful about West’s book is how relatable it is. He’s just a guy who came home from the farmers market with too many strawberries one day and was like, I need to make some jam, and then proceeded to fail at it. The result of that failure is the book. The narrative was so great and everything so simple and attractive, I decided, damn it, I’m pickling some asparagus. The results of my attempt are pictured above. I wrote the experience into a BYIRadio piece, too. Here it is, if you’d like to listen.

OK. If you’ll excuse me, I have weeds to pull, plants to plant, and more asparagus to pickle, oh yes, thanks to my asparagus patch and Tomahnous Farm!

Shorn Off, Pt. 1


The weather here in the Midwest, which I’m certain most people are sick of talking/hearing/reading about, has finally taken a turn for the better. (Midwest is best!) Those chickens up there were complretely stoked to be outside in 40-degree (or so) sunshine. The BYI crew was out at my friend Cathe Capel’s place –  Seven Sisters Farm, in Sidney, Illinois – to watch (and film) the annual shearing of her small flock of very woolly (and in some cases, very pregnant) sheep.

First we had a freaking awesome meal around the dining room table in Cathe’s gorgeous 19th century abode. She dished up chili, cornbread, pie, strong coffee, and a most convivial table. I wish I could adequately explain how I feel about settings like this. I wanted to hug everyone while we were eating.


We also ate some tea eggs that Emma from Lucky Duck Farm brought to share. They were exquisitely dessert-like. I love eggs anyway, but these were… sublime.


After we ate, we went into the barn, where Tigger lives. She has three legs, amazing green eyes, and is a total badass.

IMG_6980We got a look at some vintage shearing equipment – this clipper hand crank (not sure what the actual nomenclature is) dates to 1910.


The sheep were like, we know something is going on but cannot quite remember what it is. Hmm.


Harold Davis, a sheep-shearing legend in Illinois, showed the group how to get to it, New Zealand style. Harold has shorn 900,000 sheep in his day and knows what he’s doing. Needless to say, the rest of us were not interested in giving this particular method a go.


Part Two: I meet a ewe named Dawn, I come to grips with the clippers, and I feel sad when leaving Sidney. I’ll post that this week.

In the meantime, enjoy this radio piece I did two years ago (you can tell it was two years ago because I talk about how winter never came) about the same class, led that time by another Illinois shearing rockstar, Dick Cobb. He’ll also feature in Part Two.

OK. Time to jet. Cosmos is on.



Hey! New logo up there! What do you think?

We’re all friends here, so I’m not sure why I continue to bore you by talking about the weather, but… dang. This winter. It’s been 20 years since we’ve had consistent, Midwest winter. Twenty years! My kids have never experienced this, the kind of winter where I make all kinds of references to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter even though this winter is nothing like that winter; as far as I know, the trains are still getting through.

At any rate, I’d think the ten-day forecast was actually funny if it weren’t for the GDMF potholes in our fair cities. I wish I was kidding. Instead, I’m mad that it continues to be cold and I’m mad that there might be more snow and I’m mad that my car is suffering because of the roads. MAD. Last week we saw several inches of snow, slush raining out of the sky, a really nice warm-up that helped melt the foot of snow on the ground, a tornado watch, and an inch of rain in 30 minutes on top of all the snow. Tonight’s low temperature: Two degrees. Barf. Jim called this month “Apruary”, and I think it works for me.

There were a couple BYI radio segments in February. I talked about food in bowls here and I blabbed about making your own yogurt here. I have something else in the hopper for that first week in March (also known as next week). BYI video #1 is being edited right now; we have music thanks to my friends at Automatic Empire (thankyouthankyouthankyou). BYI #2 is scheduled to be shot next week, if it’s NOT TOO COLD. Here’s a hint as to its subject matter:


I have lots of other ideas, too… but first I need the weather to improve so we can GET OUTSIDE.

Two Days Are Not Enough

I believe a 4-day work/school week would work to our advantage; two days is never enough time for this household to get its act together.


I want to be where these gull prints are. The photo was taken last March in Florida, and while we had winter here last winter, it was nothing like this winter has been. Ergo, we’re planning another trip. I’m already making shopping lists in my head and thinking about the fruit stands I’m going to visit and wondering if there are any new restaurants. We have been going to the same place since 2002 and have only missed one year, 2005, since then. We bought our house at the same time the trip was supposed to happen that year. It was worth it. 909 has been, and continues to be, good to us.

I was thinking that today might be the day I inventory my seed-starting stuff – the lights, the trays, etc. It’s been too cold in the basement to start seeds, though. I wish I was kidding. We’ve had so many days/nights in the single digits here that the basement is just cold all the time. Forget starting seeds – I barely want to go down there to switch the laundry. I haven’t ordered any seeds yet, partially because it’s so freaking cold down there and also because our food co-op does such a great job of bringing seeds in early, thus enabling my laziness and lack of adventure. But it also really saves time and it’s nice to support continued good behavior on the part of one of my favorite local businesses. Thanks, CGFC! I’m sure I’ll be in soon… and then ordering seeds for stuff I plant later in the season.

Oh! The first radio BYI of the year aired locally late last week and is now available on the internet right here. “Ramen Shaman” should be ready by the end of the month, and then we head right into shooting the next one, plus continued radio pieces… it’s a busy time, yet it still feels so hibernatey. There’s a warming trend in the forecast for early next week… I hope it thaws some creativity and motivation around here in addition to the snow mountains.

Weak Week

Last week was a bit flattening.

There were reasons, most of which I won’t go into here except to say that sometimes the stars just DO NOT ALIGN and EVERYTHING IS CRAZY SOMETIMES and, occasionally, I DO NOT LIKE BEING A RESPONSIBLE-ISH ADULT.  There was also the weather to deal with:



Saturday morning! Thunder woke me up! It rained slush out of the sky! Uncool, February first! I retaliated by circling about $200 worth of seeds in the Seed Savers catalog and about $1000 worth of kicky clothes in the Title Nine catalog (Seed Savers will win when the chips are down, because TOMATOES). It’s cold again with more snow on the way, apparently, so I’m retaliating further by roasting a chicken and making brownies.

[One note about that latter retaliation: Our Tappan Visualite (as in, this oven has a WINDOW!!) oven is old. Like, it might be 70 years old. It still works, but with caveats. Fine, I’ll bake things, she tells me, but there will be NO temperature regulation whatsoever! I just get hotter than hell! Lately, it’s been Oh, god, you know, nope. Nope. Not today. We always coax her back into action, but I feel like the end might be near. Our kitchen, like our house, is very small (something I’ve talked about before on the radio) and very not-updated. Its vintage nature is not on purpose – it came this way – but I kind of like it the way it is and do not want anything super-fancy to replace ol’ Visualite when she gives up the ghost. I think about this, and how much it will cost, a lot. Because it will cost – a lot.]

We had a great shoot last week for the “Ramen Shamen” episode of BYI that’ll be done at the end of this month (AT THE END. OF THIS MONTH.) I “helped” make noodles for the ramen, and we all peeled a few eggs, and Mark & Leslie were so damn gracious about our totally being in their way (and in their faces). THANKS, YOU GUYS.


Leslie pretending not to notice BYI DP Tim Meyers


As things got closer to service, the fine humans from the Cracked Truck came in to help make noodles as fast as people could eat them. (Note the foreshadowing on their URL)

crackedKieffer & Daniel from Cracked getting all noodly with it

Seeing the Cracked guys come in to lend a hand did my heart good. These are young guys, entrepreneurs, who aren’t thinking just about their success. They want to see others in this community succeed, too.

Lots of people came to the back room at Pizza-M to hang out and eat noodles and take photos of the noodles and of each other. It was quite fun to watch people start gathering after their work days were done, and the whole thing felt very current day downtown Urbana. It’s exactly what we were hoping to capture.

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The first radio piece of 2014 will air this week. One of its inspirations: A cupboard devoid of clean bowls. I hope it sounds as interesting on the air as it does in my head.