Sunday, January 7, 2018

Life is Messy

Hugh Mackay said: "Nothing is perfect. Life is messy." I've always liked that quote because it is one of the greatest truths of all time. It pretty much sums it all up.

When someone asks where you've been, you can either tell them in varying degrees of detail or simply shrug, but the bottom line: life is messy.

There's another quote: Man makes plans . . . and God laughs. It's been attributed to various people including Michael Chabon, but it may also be an old Yiddish proverb.

I can relate to that on a minute-by-minute level. It doesn't matter what I plan, what I end up doing is completely different. Now part of that has to do with having a life partnership. I plan, Kathy has other plans.

Right now I'm living in a situation that's complicated by having a grandson in an alternative high school situation. Another grandson has a serious illness. Sometimes the first grandson needs to get to school at the same time his brother needs to be at a clinic or hospital fifty miles away. We have one car right now. Fortunately, I am usually able to borrow Patrick's car, but it's a little weird driving someone else's vehicle. Cars are kind of like memory foam--they become molded to their driver.

I have so much that I need to do. Sometimes I procrastinate--okay often I procrastinate--but even when I get busy doing things I'm always called away by something else. The front deck has needed to be sealed since we moved here. We've bought Thompson's Water Seal twice and it got ruined by freezing temperatures in the tool shed. I mean, we bought Thompson's Water Seal in early spring and it got ruined in the dead of winter. Because man plans . . . .

There are a dozen bags of leaves sitting next to the shredder and another hundred bags or so still on the ground. I would say I'll get around to it, but will I? Probably, just not on my timetable.

Planting the garden is time-critical, even if I don't plant by the moon (which I don't because that would really complicate my life). That gets done no matter what, although sometimes I have to scale back on my overly ambitious garden plans. When I was a kid, my dad did the early planting on specific dates no matter what. I remember being out after dark in a cold drizzle planting potatoes and onions by the headlights of the tractor while my dad walked ahead pushing a hand plow. My fingers got so cold and numb--it was miserable then, but it's a warm memory now. Farming is like that. I had to feed the cows, chickens and pigs and split and haul firewood to the wood boxes no matter what the weather was like outside.

Come to think of it, my dad was pretty good at planning and following through on everything. We managed to go fishing every evening; we never missed morel season; and there were always plenty of logs on the woodpile for me to split. My dad was a stubborn man. He didn't let the messiness of life get in his way. I, on the other hand . . . .

Life is messy, God laughs, but around here there is joy in chaos. Kathy always says "there's a lot of life in this house." Yep. And life is messy.

Stephen P.

Friday, December 29, 2017

To-Do List

There is so much to do outside this time of year, but with an expected high of 28 degrees tomorrow, nothing is getting done. I'm already behind my own arbitrary schedule. A few ambitious days when it's warmer will catch things up. For now, I'm making a to-do list.

First, I'm ordering more seeds. I would like to have a cash crop of some kind this year. At least a small one, sort of a foothold in farming. I've concluded that my best bet this year is to go with peppers. I did fairly well growing peppers this past season and I think I can do even better this coming year.

Planting season is almost here--well, not really, but time flies, so it will seem like no time at all. Here at the eve of a new year seems like a good time to work out a plan. Now this to-do list shouldn't be confused with New Year's resolutions. No, this is a way to procrastinate making a list of resolutions.

I have twenty-four varieties of hot pepper seeds and five varieties of bell peppers. That's a lot of seeds. First, I need to decide how many plants of each variety I want.

I know I'll use more jalapenos for cooking and eating than any of the other variety, so I'll want two of those just for household use. I'll also use quite a few for hot sauce.

I count eleven varieties I'll dry for making chili powders and eight more for sauces. I'll need to figure out how many plants of each. There are a few others I'll want to use fresh, but I won't need in large quantities.

The bell peppers are great for dicing and freezing, and we use several a week in cooking, so I'll want plenty of them.

I'll have plenty of extra seeds that I hope to plant and sell as transplants.

So far, I think I can find a market for fresh peppers, dried peppers, pepper powders, sauces, transplants and maybe salsas. If I manage to produce and sell two of those items, it will be a great start. I'm not betting the farm, so to speak, but a little ambition never hurt anyone.

Tomorrow I'll think about tomatoes.

Stephen P.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Bitcoin Insanity

Bitcoin is further proof that investors are out of their damn minds.

Originally, Bitcoin was supposed to be an anonymous, untraceable way of paying for purchases online, especially on the "Dark-net" or whatever it's called. I guess that's why it is called a "crypto-currency." I never paid much attention or considered using Bitcoin. For me, PayPal is the best way to make online transactions. That's how I pay for most purchases and how I get paid royalties from the United Kingdom.

PayPal is really convenient for me, because I can pay using one click, for most things, including garden seeds, magazine subscriptions and random eBay buys.

Using and keeping track of crypto-currencies appears to be a little more complicated. For one thing, there is a special removable hard drive, called a digital wallet, or something like that. This drive requires a very long and complicated password, without which, you could end up with a very expensive paperweight. In fact, that has happened to a few people. Several early users discovered they had lost their passwords about the same time they discovered their $300 investment was now worth more than the economy of Brazil.

In response to the success of Bitcoin, a number of other crypto-currencies have sprung up and they all seem sort of connected or related or something. Just thinking about it makes my brain hurt.

There are three ways to get Bitcoin: buy it, mine it, or have it grow in value, somehow.

Buying it seems fairly straightforward, although things have evolved to the point that buyers are most likely to go through a brokerage firm. Bit mining is something else. Miners use massive collections of computing power to solve puzzles in order to verify and keep track of crypto-currency transactions. None of it makes any sense to me, but theoretically, there are some people out there who understand it.

The part that makes the least sense is the gain in value, but that is beyond my understanding so I'll just skip it.

The pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin had a plan to limit the number of coins to around 20 million over a decade. Limited quantities makes things more valuable, whether they are actually valuable or not.

Investors have gone completely crazy buying and selling crypto-currencies and driving up the prices to unreal amounts as high as a thousand percent of their original cost. No one in their right mind would ever waste Bitcoin buying anything anymore--certainly not two Papa's pizzas like the first ever Bitcoin purchase. Bitcoin has become an investment vehicle with no intrinsic value. The Winklevoss twins, best known for selling their interest in Facebook for a couple of hundred thousand and later suing because they didn't realize it would be worth billions, have become billionaires buying and selling Bitcoin.

As if people making billions buying and selling crypto-currencies and driving up their values isn't bad enough, investment firms are now buying and selling crypto-currency futures. Futures are those things that drive up the cost of food, gas and other items and steal the extra cash. It's why food costs so much but farmers make so little.

The clincher in all of this is that Bitcoin, and all crypto-currencies, are imaginary. They don't exist, don't have any sort of backing (US dollars once had gold and silver backing them up. Now the US government backs them up by promising that the American people will make up the value with back-breaking work). If a broker takes your Bitcoins and walks away, you're stuck. And that has been happening. There is no governing authority, no central bank, no treasury, no mint, and while that was sort of the point of the original development, it is also kind of risky.

Frankly, I wouldn't care about any of this, other than having the benefits department investing my pension in imaginary, video game coins, but it is kind of scary to realize that "the smartest man in the room," is in his mom's basement somewhere playing Tetris with the world economy.

Stephen P.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Ramen is Noodles

Until last night, I had never had ramen. I'm not talking about the ramen they serve in noodle restaurants, with the clear bone broth, green onions, seaweed, soft-boiled egg, bean sprouts and a rasher of braised pork. Not that I've ever had that, either. No, I mean Top Ramen, the little orange package with a brick of dry noodles and a "flavor packet."

I have had the noodles cooked with a can of Swanson chicken broth, or occasionally, beef broth, but I've never known the joy of tossing the noodles and flavoring into two cups of water and cooking just below boiling until the noodles are tender. The package directions are a little different, but I've never seen anyone follow the package directions.

Back in the Sixties, I discovered I was extremely sensitive to MSG (monosodium glutamate). I don't get an allergic reaction or anything like that: no hives, wheezing or tongue swelling up; I just feel really fatigued for several days and have mild flu-like symptoms. I first discovered this after eating barbeque potato chips.

MSG is a naturally-occurring non-essential amino acid (according to Wikipedia. I do, by the way, donate $15.00 a year to help keep Wikipedia going. They don't pay me for the plug, I pay them for the research resource). MSG has been used for over a hundred years as a flavor enhancer in various foods, especially to stretch the flavor of chicken in canned and dried soups. Those who tell you that the Chinese have used MSG for thousands of years never looked it up on Wikipedia.

All of the ramen brands and flavors have used MSG in their little flavor packets for as long as I have been aware of the stuff. While a billion or so college students have been living on the cheap, quick-to-fix noodles, I have looked on with envy from the sidelines. Recently, Kathy asked me to make her a bowl of ramen. I, being the chief chef around here, complied. As I was about to tear open the package (the last one in the cabinet, by the way), I noticed the words "No Added MSG." They specified "Added" because monosodium glutamate occurs natural in many foods, including tomatoes. More and more products have been removing MSG from their products, but I never expected it of Top Ramen. The next time we went to the store, I bought half a dozen packages.

Last night, for the first time, I made some for me. I checked the directions so I would know how much water to use, but then tossed everything in the pot together as is the traditional way for lazy people to do it. Soon, the noodles were tender (I don't crush up the noodles like some people because of the Japanese superstition about shortening the noodles shortening ones life).

After pouring the pot into a large bowl I sat down and tried it. To my happy surprise, I liked it. I liked it so much, I will likely have it again. The broth was light and not terribly salty, like I had expected, and had a nice chicken-y flavor. I look forward to my next bowl.

The best part is, now I have a 33 cent meal alternative, just like generations of college students. Oh, and by the way, "ramen" is the Japanese word for "noodles."

Ramen is noodles.

Stephen P.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Breaking Taboos--The Betty Crocker Cookbook

In Successful Husbanding School, in Survival Skills class, they teach us to never give our wives small appliances or anything kitchen-related for birthdays, anniversaries or Christmas. Or they would, if there was a training school for husbands. Which, there should be.

This week I broke that rule and I think I got away with it. Monday was Kathy's birthday and I bought her a cookbook. Fortunately, this is a very special cookbook. A Betty Crocker cookbook.

Kathy and I both grew up with Betty Crocker cookbooks. In the time when our mothers learned to cook, Betty Crocker was the gold standard of cookbooks. We kids grew up eating meals from Betty Crocker recipes. Most of my bread recipes originally came from a Betty Crocker cookbook. Kathy still has her Betty Crocker cookbook, her first cookbook. It is in three-ring binder format and has unfortunately lost many pages over many years and many moves. I've tried the Betty Crocker cookbook app for my phone, but the recipes are too modern and use too many costly ingredients.

This new cookbook is a hardbound reprint of the 1950 edition of Betty Crocker's cookbook published by Rodale and General Mills. Things were a little different in 1950.

There is a section on how to cook game, including pheasant, quail and squirrel. There is a recipe for Welsh Rarebit with Kidney Beans that was a favorite of Joan Crawford and her dinner guests. Some of the soup recipes begin with opening a can of Campbell's condensed soup, such as Mock Turtle Soup Deluxe which calls for two cans of Campbell's Mock Turtle Soup.

The book includes many classic recipes such as Hollandaise sauce, white sauce and brown sauce.

The egg recipes are great and include how to make soft-boiled eggs and coddled eggs. I'm not really sure what coddled eggs are, but you can make them soft-coddled or hard-coddled. By the way, the English say that a soft-boiled egg should be eaten with a bone or ivory spoon. Press yolks and whites of hard-boiled eggs separately through a fine sieve or strainer for use as a garnish. One of my favorite childhood dinners was eggs baked on corned beef hash. That recipe is found on page 256 of the cookbook.

Desserts in this cookbook are amazing: Bavarian Cream, Baked Alaska, Cherry Tree Log, Norwegian Charlotte and Baked Prune Whip. I've never seen half of these names, let alone the recipes.

I love the bread recipes. There are Kolache recipes, Kulich, French Coffee Lace, Jule Kage and Bohemian Rye Bread.

The best part of this cookbook--okay, I could make a list of best parts. The book includes basic instructions like how to store foods, how to reduce or increase recipes, substitutions, how long to age meats to make them more tender and best recipes for various occasions.

I wish I was making money endorsing this book because I can't say enough about it.

Oh, and Kathy loves the cookbook. It's fun to just sit and read, and it has many of our lost childhood recipes. I'm such a rule breaker.

Stephen P.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Pioneers Are a Diverse Bunch

I'm not really a fan of Ree Drummond, "The Pioneer Woman." By that, I mean I've never seen her TV show, read her blog or owned her cookbooks. I have read a few of her recipes on Google, but I don't think I've tried any of them. I do, however, admire Ree Drummond.

I'm always surprised by how much people hate success. I was a fan of Martha Stewart some years back. Her's was hardly a rags to riches story. She was a fashion model and celebrity who found a way to start a new phase in her life. Her shows were enjoyable and she introduced the masses to things like cucumber infused water. Simple things to make little luxuries accessible to common folk. People seemed to tire of her, but I think it was because she became such a heavily marketed brand. I remember people crowing when she messed up and broke SEC regulations. They loved joking about her while she was in prison. Frankly, I felt bad about the way things had turned out for her. She lost most of her empire.

Since Martha has been out of prison, she has scaled things back, limiting her exposure, but still doing what she does best--share cooking tips. Oh, and hang out with Snoop Dogg. They are a hoot together.

Paula Deen is another fallen celebrity. I don't know what her back story is, but I know doughnut hamburgers and chocolate bacon brought her fame and fortune. It wasn't long before I heard friends and co-workers talking about how much they hated her. They liked her just fine before she became a household word. It seemed like a lot of people were thrilled when a racist remark on her part wiped out much of the success she had built. Understandably. Racism is simply not acceptable.

I'm not pleased by the fall of either of these chefs. I've used their recipes before. They tend to be simple, straightforward and traditional. I don't condone what they did, I just wish they hadn't.

Ree Drummond went to California to be an actress, but things were tough. When she came home to Oklahoma for a visit, she met a cowboy, a third or fourth, maybe fifth, generation cattle rancher. They fell in love, got married and set up housekeeping on the ranch. That could have been the end of the story, but Ree felt some strange need to be productive, so she started blogging about homesteading in eastern Oklahoma. Her blog led to a store in town, a restaurant, a television show, books and a Pioneer Woman product line.

I've been needing a good spatula to use with my cast iron skillets for some time. I've been replacing the darned things every six months because they have a weak point where they break. And I don't mistreat them. I went shopping and compared a number of spatulas. The one with the best shape, quality, durability and mid-range price was the Pioneer Woman brand. Score one for Ree Drummond.

I believe that Ree represents what so many of us are trying to do. Sure, her husband was already established as a rancher and he and his family are the first or second largest landholders in Oklahoma, but they choose this country life. No matter how long you've been doing it, raising cattle is a high-stakes gamble. I don't think we have to worry about the Drummonds going broke, but they choose and celebrate a way of living that is rare and likely endangered. Pay no attention to the television cameras in Ree's kitchen.

It's only been a year or two since I first heard of The Pioneer Woman. Our local news stations occasionally run stories about what she's been up to and she is one of Oklahoma's native-born celebrities.

But it has already begun. About once a week I see some story on the internet that tries to expose Ree Drummond or somehow taint her success. So far they've found an uncle who was treated for depression and a recipe that Ree failed to credit to it's proper source. They'll keep trying, of course, and eventually they will drag some poor skeleton out of a closet somewhere Ree has been. It will probably be true, but unimportant in the grand scheme of what Drummond does for a living.

And people will crow. Because we can't let these uppity women get too big for their britches.

Stephen P.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

May You Live in Interesting Times

That old curse comes to mind fairly often. May you live in interesting times.

The world situation is so surreal that I can't take it seriously, let alone worry about it. I mean including impending super volcanoes, perfect storms, sea levels rising, and contamination of the food and water supply. I'm only even half-assed prepping. Who's got the energy to dig a bunker?

Two of our grandsons have come to live with us. One nineteen, one sixteen. Right here at the holidays. We can't begin establishing any kind of routine while we're getting the smoker ready, thawing the turkey, buying all of the groceries and setting up a schedule chart for using the oven over the next two days.

The smoker is electric. I got it on a seasonal clearance last year and I'm just now setting it up. In my opinion, an electric smoker is essential for smoking a turkey. I do most of my outdoor cooking over an open fire, but I still use my smoker/grill for anything that needs to slow cook. Ribs, turkey legs, pork loins. Turkeys have to cook slowly because they take so long to cook all the way through.

There are important advantages to an electric grill. First of all is temperature control--for cooking poultry, especially big poultry, maintaining a consistent temperature prevents under-cooking and prevents spoilage. Second is controlling the amount of smoke. Smoking with cord wood gives continuous smoke along with the heat and some things may seem over-smoked. Third is convenience. I don't have to stay up all night tending a smoker. With an electric, I can put it in a safe place where it won't blow over or set fire to anything. I can load it with chips, water and a turkey and go to bed.

I invested in a digital meat thermometer a couple of years ago and it has made life simpler. I don't have to over-cook in order not to under-cook. I still go five to ten degrees hotter internal temperature on meats and poultry, just to be safe. One less thing to worry about.

This isn't the first electric smoker I've had, just the first I've had in over a decade. Obviously I'm enthusiastic about it. I'm also enthusiastic about the grandson's living here. Things are interesting.

Stephen P.