Currently: Knitting a rectangle and patiently waiting for this year to come to a close. I’ve got a list of possessions and behaviors to jettison, and others to reclaim. I’m also wondering, as we hurtle into a new calendar year: What does complacency mean to you? Is it something to be aspired toward? Or challenged?
As February lurches on – it doesn’t march, it lurches – the days lengthen and the desire to DO SOMETHING, ANYTHING increases. I start trolling the web looking for stuff to do, not unlike a bored toddler, fresh Sharpie in hand, eyeing a blank wall. Building, baking, seed-starting, whatever, but it has to be EXACTLY what I want to be doing and it CANNOT be drudgery and NO ONE can make any suggestions. So this weekend I baked a key lime pie the way Deb at Smitten Kitchen does it because a) I’d been craving limes and b) it’s a sentimental favorite (more on that in a sec).
Production was colorful – the butter (Kerrygold) was a cheerful, robust yellow as it melted, the lime zest an otherworldly green. The entire house reeked of citrus.
Making the crust and the filling were absurdly easy, though juicing the limes was a bit hard on my hands (we no longer have a citrus juicer, alas). And while I’m always nervous that pies of this type will never set properly and leave me with a pie plate full of graham cracker and goo – I speak from experience – such was not the case. Most of the total time involves the cooling of the pie (twice – once for the filling, another for the whipped cream on top). Here’s an arty shot, before the whipped cream was applied:
Why key lime pie, you might ask? Great question. When I was in Florida, growing up, limes were the weird citrus tree. I loved every other citrus fruit, but limes were weird and how could you even tell they were ripe and they seemed to spend more time in beverages than anywhere else, which was suspicious. Of course, we eventually left Florida for Minnesota and, over time, I basically forgot all about limes as anything other than something to put in a gin and tonic or to accompany Mexican food. When we started heading to Florida every winter in the early 2000s, we would also visit my Oma (RIP) for a day and basically steep in fresh-squeezed citrus juice. She didn’t have lime trees, but she juiced the, um, juice out of each and every orange and tangerine on her property. Her neighbors thought she was insane, but she knew better – they’re buying their orange juice at the store, she scoffed. I liked the way she thought. Juicing oranges and tangerines with her, in her kitchen in Titusville, reignited my love for citrus, limes included. We now have a custom of buying the surprisingly-good key lime pie from Publix every time we’re on vacation, but this year, I couldn’t wait. And while Publix makes a decent KLP… well, so do I, as it turns out.
Today’s LOTSA (Lisa’s Open Tabs Saved Aggressively):
It’s been embarrassingly forever, jeez. Weird how a couple of months can get away from a person. Mattie Lonesome (a cat) would like to tell you about it.
So! Interesting times have descended here at BYIHQ.
Tim and I are in the process of finishing up the video/webseries (3 more episodes to be released, OMG), and the radio series, after 93 episodes and 4 1/2 years on the air, came to an end on December 18. Why? The biggest, most primary reasons are a) my daughter is entering a pretty intense time in terms of school, soccer, college considerations, etc and I’d like to be available for her; b) I want to be fully present for my paid work for the station (heading up its marketing ops), which was getting harder to keep separate; c) I want to explore other options for the future – longer form, more blogging and photography, boosting the social media presences, a possible writing project… all of which means BYI isn’t going anywhere but forward, y’all. Just with fewer deadlines.
I’m forever grateful to Illinois Public Media and especially to my producer, Dave Dickey, for talking me into writing for the radio almost 5 years ago. And I’m glad to report that IPM will continue hosting every last radio episode – they’re available for streaming or download at the BYI page on the Illinois Public Media website. I’m sure I’ll be linking back all the time.
I’m also very, very indebted to everyone who ever listened, gave encouragement, pitched me an idea, participated in an interview, etc. Please don’t go anywhere, because my v v supportive and holiday spirit-inclined spouse gave me some equipment (see photo above for an example) to kick my ass toward actually creating my own broadcasts for distribution on the internet, i.e. podcasting. You know, like Serial. Ha. Anyway, since I can no longer just talk about it and must actually DO IT, it looks like he and I will be cobbling together, in the coming months, a little home vocal studio in what we fondly (?) refer to as “the cloffice”. I recorded BYI in there from 2010-2012, though it was never soundproofed and quite sounded like crap.
I have no doubt that I’ll suck at this at first. Proof of my lack of doubt:
This photo takes me back, though, to April. Tim and I ventured over on a nice day to the home of Jill Miller, batik artist extraordinaire and owner of Hooey Batiks, to shoot part of what would eventually become Backyard Industry video #3, “Bunch of Hooey”.
Jill’s work has been a source of local amazement for a long time. Sometime back in the late 1990s, I was driving along Race Street in Urbana, and almost got into an accident because the sight of what seemed to be a zillion jewel-toned garments being hung on a double clothesline by an all-business lady was so incredibly distracting. She lived on the corner of Race and California back then; what better advertising than a living billboard featuring incredible work? I didn’t know her then.
Now she lives a street over from me, in a neighborhood we sometimes refer to as the Lynn-Wabash Nexus or the Pre-Historic East Urbana Neighborhood (PHEUN). We’ve become friends. We’ve made sausage together, we’ve talked about chickensad nauseam, we’ve cooked for each other here and there (more her for me, sadly). We have a lot in common. Seeds, gardens, food, chickens, cookbooks, dessert. But she’s been making her art all this time, too, and in the last five years (more?), many of her batiked designs have shown off food, animals, plants, and neighborhood activities. Bluebells and morels. Pears. Cherries. Chickens and chicks. Pigs. Weber grills. Corndog fairies. Cornhole boards. When I look at her food-related work, I see conviviality and community and our neighborhood, and I love it.
Here’s why we decided to feature her work in a BYI video: We’re all used to seeing food as art everywhere through all kinds of media. Food has been painted and drawn and sculpted for millennia. Food has been photographed for publication (often regrettably) and now food is Instagrammed. We’re surrounded by images of the food we eat (or that others eat), but often it’s without a discernible personal touch. Jill’s batiked shirts and skirts and table runners and scarves and dresses lend a window into her world that also looks like our world. It’s not aspirational; it’s what’s there, unadorned and unassuming and very important. She does all the work out of her house – the designing, the batiking, the dyeing, the washing, and the hanging out on the line. It’s all personal. Not only has she touched everything she makes – she’s thought about it. The same goes for her corndogs, which are legendary. Here. I’ll show you.
[Did you watch all the way to the end? Bloop bloop.]
One last thing: BYIV3 is dedicated to Violet the Cat, who just wanted a little cheese and maybe some charcuterie from Smoking Goose, that’s all. It’s also dedicated to Fausto the Dog, who was there that day (though is not in the video) and just wanted to sniff everyone’s drink. RIP, friends.
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.
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!
Much has happened since I was in Sidney, IL at 7 Sisters Farm, but recent footage review brought it all back. Most alarming: Spring has been so slow in arriving – we shot over a month ago and the landscape is only now starting to noticeably change. I wonder when the trees will fully leaf out; we’re a couple weeks away, still, from flowering trees.
Anyway. While my philosophy with BYI has always been to participate as much as possible in whatever’s going on, I was feeling a little weird about attempting to shear a sheep.
[When my son was little, I used to shave his head using electric clippers, and the shearing tool we were going to be using was basically a (much) larger version of those, but the clippers were heavy, and sheep’s wool, I discovered when I met “my” sheep, Dawn, is super-thick and springy. Shaving a head is pretty basic – it’s nice and round. Sheep’s bodies are not one shape – they’re many shapes. There are bony parts sticking out as well as super-smooth round parts. There are folds of skin and there are places where you have to be really careful. Also? Dawn was pregnant. I worried about her lamb in there.]
When Dick, one of the instructors, presented Dawn, waiting gamely on her stand, to me and my shearing partner Roxanne, I almost – ALMOST – asked Roxanne to do the job herself. Roxanne (you’ll meet her in the video) is young, interested in farming and livestock, and seemed quite fearless. She would have been great on her own. However, I a) did not want to disappoint Dick and the other instructor, Harold, by crapping out and b) did not want to disappoint myself by passing up a chance to learn something awesome from these amazing gentlemen. So when Dick told me it was my turn after Roxanne had hers, I grasped the (huge) clippers and gingerly had a go at Dawn’s wool along her flank. I won’t give anything else away, but the story ends with Dawn being safely shorn and Roxanne and I both feeling exhilarated, almost, that we had shorn (most of) a sheep and had not injured it or ourselves, plus… we had contributed, in some small way, to the gathering of the wool for the season.
Work has begun on putting this episode (BYI2) together for a release date in early May. We just pre-interviewed the subject of BYI3 and will shoot this week for a release date TBD, and BYIr83 will air this week. Here’s a clue as to its subject matter:
There’s something in the air. Friday I went to lunch at Sitara with my future writing partner, the awesome Chef Alisa DeMarco, where we commiserated about not having time to really get down all day in the kitchen (in her case, her home kitchen) to make something DEEP; Saveur mag came out (that day, maybe even?) with online content talking about “project recipes“; I’m bored, I think that’s what it is. I think we all are. This winter is endless. Endless! I just wanted to go outside, or do something inside, or WHATEVER. I DIDN’T KNOW. Gah.
So I made yogurt. In a machine. A machine that has been sitting, brand new and untouched, in the cupboard above the oven for 5 years, when I bought it in a fit of pique right around my 40th birthday. [It should be noted that my mother also had a yogurt maker that she used a few times before relegating it to the back of a cupboard, so I come by this hereditarily.]
I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned my oven woes/whoas. Making yogurt is probably something I would have tried to do in the oven, but the ol’ Visualite is nearing 70 years old, and has decided that her only temperatures are Pretty Damn Hot and Really Fuh-reaking Hot. This will have to be addressed at some point, but that point is not now. It’s been this way for about 8 years, so I’m kind of used to it, but anything requiring precision or overnight heating is unwise. So I got out the yogurt maker and went for it.
What’s cool about making yogurt? It requires only a couple of ingredients, it doesn’t require a lot of babysitting, and it saves the recycling bin from a glut of containers. It feels awesome and thrifty and downright powerful to make a staple food from leftover staple food – chicken stock from a chicken, sourdough bread from starter, more yogurt from starter yogurt. It also tastes pretty damn good. I’m glad I did it. It was incredibly easy. I’m a dork for letting the maker sit in the cupboard for so long. So, thanks, yogurt maker: Until the oven gets fixed, you will not be condemned to the same fate as the panini press, the Foreman grill, the juicer, the food dehydrator…