One of the things I learned from this project last time is not to let preciousness trap us into scarcity. Open some special jars, right at the beginning. Make some favorite meals even though they’re more work. Do as much in advance as possible. Have food ready before you get too hungry.
So far, since New Year’s Eve, I’ve opened a quart of canned tomatoes for choulent, a half pint jar of the hot and sweet sauce we canned with roasted Fresno chilies, roasted garlic and honey, a pint jar of pickled onions, and a pint jar of ketchup. The only one we used up was the canned tomatoes, but the pot they went into fed us for two solid days, 4 meals for 3 people in different forms. We fished the infused hardboiled eggs out for brunch, ate the thinner stew in bowls, several times, and ate the thicker stew the next day in quinoa wraps with the hot sauce and pickled onions.
This afternoon I’m going to start chicken soup with wild rice for tomorrow. Wild rice, really Indigenous cultivated, always reminds me of the gift of it we were given by a young woman who had gathered it in a canoe and danced the hulls off. We were housing at Fortunate Farm as a refugee from a fire inland, and the rice was one of the few things she grabbed in her dash to safety. She shared a bit with us as we cooked together, and it was nutty and smoky and perfect. This wild rice was grown by MendoLake Food Hub Cooperative members, and delivered to our barn.
To make this soup I will take broth out of the freezer from a young chicken, and a frozen bag of mirepoix, which is the sautéed mix of onion, carrot and celery that we made before the fall celery harvest shriveled. I’ll also peel and dice a ton of our increasingly sprouting potatoes, and the winter squash cubes that go into literally every meal. I’ll also float some eggs to hard boil, as I usually do in crock pots of soup.
Our friend Lee is coming to stay, so I went to our cabin to make a fire to warm it before they arrive, and on the way back we loaded the rest of our dry storage from it’s old home to our new house. I have beans and onions and jars of dry chilies to find homes for, and somehow another box of potatoes I’d forgotten all about. Every potato on this farm is threatening to sprout and I have long hours of processing ahead of me to save them for the really hard months- February and March.
In some ways I feel like I know how to do this, in others I’m totally experiencing this new. Having two capable people ready to julienne potatoes for frying in March is a revelation. So much has changed about my daily life. To have partners in this that live in my house is magical. To not be a full time vegetable farmer, heavily laden with kale in a single swipe of my arm, is surreal. The sheer quantity of dishes is the only thing I feel like I don’t quite remember. This time, however, I’m not the only one doing them.
Yesterday, on New Year’s Day, Hunter was washing dishes while I was processing vegetables. My phone started buzzing and shrieking, the screen flashing an earthquake warning. Hunter went straight for the pantry shelves, leaning their whole body against it. I grabbed them by the scruff of their neck and hauled them to a doorway, grabbing Morgan who was coming to see what the alarm was, and the dogs, we stumbled together to the most solid beams of the house, the huge fir posts framing the bedroom where it meets the hallway. We clung together until we were sure that nothing was actually going to happen, and then laughed through our tension and hugged each other. I scolded Hunter for grabbing the pantry shelves- especially with the magnetic knife block on the wall right next to it. I remembered my friend’s smashed kitchen up north, that thankfully they weren’t standing in when the shake happened, and shuddered. Your face is more important than the canning jars, I said. “I could have broken their fall with my face!” They protested, laughing. I kissed their face over and over, trying to convey the clarity of my priorities.
I’m so grateful that in the last ten years I’ve grown more confident with canning, thanks to my patient teachers. I’m grateful for our shelves of jewels, transforming bland winter staples into exciting and nourishing food. Sometimes I just stand and admire them, a wall of sturdy stained glass more precious than the windows of a church to me. They are security, variety, wealth. I would rather see every single jar smashed on the floor than have Hunter be hurt by their falling, even a little.
I’ve just returned from checking the flock and water is pouring off of me, denim is plastered to my thighs and my coat is heavy as I hang it by the stove on the wood rack. Morgan went into the sea for salt water, and it’s reducing in big clouds on the back porch on our canning burner. He’s kneeling, blowing on the coals to rekindle the fire in the rainy, gloomy afternoon. Hunter’s sourdough is rising, and their pine soda is gently steeping in the window. The dogs are snuggled on the cow hide by the fire, the hide that used to adorn Pip, my elderly cow who passed last December, whose body I saved to nourish us this year. In the pouring rain of Januarys gone by, she would lick the water off my face with her rough tongue, and extend her massive russet head for scratches under her chin.
Titania, my old goat, died this morning. I have now been doing this long enough that my old guard is elderly or gone. Ten years ago she was a young goat, who leapt down from the truck she was delivered in like a deer, and immediately checked my pockets for treats. I adopted her during Eat Mendocino 2013. She would walk into the woods with me and my students, who kept browse journals with drawings and leaf samples of the species she liked to eat, and those she passed over. She was a strong and tall white goat, a breed called a Saanen, and had delicate upright ears and grew a magnificent beard as she aged. Long after her milking career ended she and I would go on walks in the woods, she walked beautifully on a leash all her life. We would pick berries together and I could always count on her to lead me to the sweetest patches. One day she lay down on the trail and wouldn’t get up. I waited for her to rest, feeling ashamed that I hadn’t noticed we were pushing her old bones too far- she hadn’t shown any sign of fatigue until then. Shortly after that walk, I noticed she was unable to keep up with the flock and was being hazed off of feed by the young rams. Our neighbors adopted her for a life of leisure in their small barnyard, where she spent her golden years being loved by their toddler until the toddler became a kid, and Titania became feeble. Last night she lay down and wouldn’t get up, this time for good. She was loved to the end.
We pour care into these relationships with plants and animals and people, and they pour it back into us, and we tend each other as well as we can. In the end we let go, and that is an expression of love too.
May the grass on Titania’s bones grow tall and wild and sweet, and may I never put into a jar anything I wouldn’t sacrifice gladly during an earthquake, to keep Hunter’s face safe.
It’s time to start the soup.