I’m starting to sell candies, cookies, and (eventually) pastries at the Craftsbury Farmers Market here in Vermont. My treats will all be sweetened with wood-fired maple and made rich and decadent with grass-fed butter and cream. I strive to use local, high-quality products, and will always use organic when I can. Photos, details, and stories will come as I start to perfect and sell my treats!
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Stannard Farm maple syrup has always been wood-fired. This mostly started out as a pragmatic decision on John’s part. When he and Carol (my in-laws) moved back to Vermont from Alaska to start a farm and a family, they settled on John’s father’s land. Some of the money they’d amassed over a couple of years of working hard and living small went towards a sugarhouse and an evaporator. With nothing but trees in sight, and the nearest oil reserve many miles away, it made sense to use labor and land to make the syrup.
Over the years, this has become more than a pragmatic decision. In the face of a diminishing labor force (read, kids grown up and grandkiddo still to young) John was considering converting to an oil-fired evaporator. After much conversing (and believe me, farmers can converse – talking is pretty much a crop), Travis and John did decide to ramp up the sugaring operation but remained committed to woodfire. New sugarhouse, vacuum pump, reverse-osmosis machine, and new efficient arch, but no oil in sight.
So what were the underlying factors? There is some pragmatism still – Travis and I are around regularly to help out and we intend to turn James into firewood labor as soon as possible (what’s the minimum age for chainsaw use?). Oil continues to not be a Vermont crop. And being certified organic means that we need to have a sustainable forestry plan for the sugarwoods. Between culling old trees and maintaining health and biodiversity in the sugarwoods, we’ll be doing some level of wood-cutting anyways.
But more than that, Stannard Farm has a vision of what maple syrup production should look like, and what maple syrup should be. Linked to the past and traditional methods of production, steeped in the land and inextricably bound to the ecology of the mountain, and tasting as good as it should. For us, that meant that continuing to be wood-fired was not a choice, it simply was.
There are some arguments that can be made against wood-fired. Woodsmoke is not completely clean, it does release some particulate matter. However, burning dry seasoned wood is cleaner and hotter than burning wet green wood so there are gradations of particulate matter released, and the newer evaporators have what amounts to a catalytic converter in them, burning as much particulate matter as possible before the woodsmoke leaves the evaporator and hits the sky. Clean air arguments don’t really hold up here.
Skidders and hydraulic wood-splitters do, of course, require oil to run. More or less oil than a tanker going up the steep 1/2 mile drive? Also a tough call. There are varying degrees of damage here, but the more people on the family farm to take labor away from machines the lower the fuel consumption. There are also horse-powered firewood options in Vermont (really, I cannot love this state any more than when I see flyers at the Willey’s store in Greensboro advertising horse-powered logging). I have grand dreams of eventually getting horse-power on Stannard Farm, but that’s a decade or two away.
Firewood work is hard on the body. I do feel a twinge of guilt when I realize that some people have chosen oil because they are older and not up to the task of cutting down trees, bucking up the wood then splitting it, stacking it, and throwing it on the fire regularly. But farming is hard work, and maybe that’s the way it should be. It reminds us that the products we literally consume, products that sustain us, deserve our labor and our sweat. Slowing down and scaling back to keep a farm manageable at the labor-level seems to me to be a wise economic decision. And integrating family as labor both reduces labor costs and passes along knowledge of and investment in the land.
Of course, there are many other tangents we could travel along here in terms of passing along the family farm, affordable health care, taxes for agricultural land, challenges of marketing, fixed incomes… and these are valid tangents. But I don’t think we are adequately addressing those issues by using non-sustainable and too-large-scaled energy sources. When instead we decide that wood is the right energy source for syrup production we begin to know the land better through firewood, we begin to appreciate the year-round steps it takes to enjoy maple syrup, and we establish a strong labor ethic as an integral part of our syrup system. These are qualities that we need to cultivate in order to address the rising issues of food and farms in the U.S.!
The last point we considered in deciding whether or not to use an oil-fired arch or a wood-fired arch is taste. There are two factors that we think play in here. First, oil creates a uniform and even source of heat all along the bottom of the syrup pan. Wood-fire, on the other hand, is by nature uneven and unpredictable. There’s no telling where the hottest parts of the pan are, and they change location and temperature during boiling. This creates pockets of more caramelized sap within the syrup pan that, by the end of the boil, mix throughout the syrup and develop more complex flavors.
Second, oil-fired boils usually go faster than wood-fired boils. I guess you can turn down the temperature gauge on the oil, and you can certainly fire up the woodfire, but by and large oil-fired evaporators boil sap into syrup more quickly. The slower time over the woodfire allows the sap to develop more flavor and more color. As an easy caveat, I would beware any large-scale produced maple syrup of the lightest colors; their flavors are only one tiny step above corn syrup in my (unapologetically opinionated) opinion.
As committed to wood-fired as we are, we know we are in the minority. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the maple syrup industry in Vermont, and in the U.S., is coming to a crossroads. We are in the process of changing our grading system, Vermont’s density standards might change (more density, more sugars in the syrup), alterations in climate might in turn alter the map of sugaring, and every year more syrup equipment mechanizing the steps of production is sold. The most frustrating thing to watch as a sugarmaker is people turning away from white sugar and towards maple syrup in the hopes of buying more locally and feeding their families with more integrity but to know that they are doing so in a vacuum without having readily available information so that they understand what their purchase is doing politically and agriculturally.
What’s a consumer to do? Here are some suggestions:
- Find a farm that you can buy direct from. Maple syrup is already a luxury product. You’re not likely to find a significantly cheaper product at the grocery store than you are from on-farm. And if you’re buying your maple syrup at Costco, well, you probably won’t find a farmer who can compete with that but you’re probably not much interested in farmers anyways.
- Ask about bulk discounts. Start a buyer’s club with your friends. This holds true for purchasing any on-farm products! And there are plenty of online forums and information out there for anyone interested in exploring this option (for example, click here).
- If you’re in New England, go to a farmers’ market. Chances are, you’ll see a maple syrup stand and can talk directly to the producer.
- Find a way to ask the questions that matter to you. Is your syrup organic? If not, why not? Are you hand labor-powered? Are you a family-run farm? Do you use wood or oil? Can I get a sample?
Decide what’s important to you about the food you eat, then vote with your dollars. It’s not that complicated.
I grew up in Seattle, a lovely city and a great place. But I always wanted to see New England, and I always wanted to know more about farming.
Hoo boy, did I get my wish when I met and married a maple syrup farmer from Vermont. Travis’s grandfather bought the farm he grew up on. They sugared at a small scale until Travis’s parents moved onto the farm and invested in their own evaporator and sugarhouse the year Travis was born. Today they produce hay, organic maple syrup, and organic grass-fed beef. Becoming involved in the farm has been a crash course in family business-ing and in maple syrup production. Living in Vermont only increased the already deep appreciation I had for fresh, local, authentic foods and those involved in producing them.
These days I am a stay-at-home mom living most of the year in Maine. I don’t think of myself as a cook or a chef. My view of food and cooking is bigger picture than that. For me, “cooking” starts in the forests and pastures. I work on the family maple syrup farm. I work at a local dairy and bring home raw milk, vegetables, and pastured meats. I volunteer at the local food co-op for a discount on grains, oils, and eggs. I garden. I forage. I shop every week at the local farmers’ market. I track all of our spending on food and obsess over the economics of eating. Every day my schedule and pace is set by the kitchen and by our home.
I could go on about shopping my values, about eating to support the world I want to live in. Those things are true, but they are also a little pedantic. What I want to say instead is that my life in my kitchen is just plain fun and rewarding. The bliss of tasting something delicious, the confidence gained when I test out new methods or read up on (and understand!) the chemistry of cooking, the pleasure in eating something grown by myself or a friend, the satisfaction of sitting with loved ones around the table – these are daily joys that I would never want to do without.
And so this blog begins. Inspired by the wood-fired maple syrup and the grass-fed beef of Stannard Farm and all other authentic foods. Committed to exploring the fun and wonder of the kitchen. Determined to discuss the links between our food, our home and health, and our politics.
Check out woodandgrass bi-weekly to read more! Up first…when baking with maple syrup, what is the difference between white flour and whole wheat flour? I’ll test both in the simplest little cookie recipe in the world and share the results. In the coming weeks I’ll also discuss the necessity of perfecting your own variation of a bechamel sauce, the versatility of homemade mayonnaise, and the glory of the autumn apple.
It’s April, and despite having the earliest start on Stannard Farm that we can recall (late February!), we are still going along. No, we haven’t been boiling every day since February. In fact, it’s almost as if there were two seasons this year. In between the early start and this last week, we’ve only made a barrel here and a barrel there in between cold snaps and days that really didn’t get quite warm enough for our trees to start flowing. Now that spring is here, our sap has been flowing strongly for a week and we’re getting in our season while everyone else is wrapping up theirs. It’s not unlikely that this will be the new normal for us. Without getting political, let’s just say that I do believe in climate change and that we are moving towards more and more erratic weather patterns, with record highs in February and record lows in March becoming common winter weather.
So what does that actually mean for our farm family? It means a couple of things. First, it means we don’t have one three-week long sugaring intensive. This has pro’s and con’s — it’s easier to keep up with the other parts of life but it also means that for weeks on end you need to be on your toes and ready to sugar at a moment’s notice. Second, it means my set-up is disrupted for weeks on end. Usually my packing and boxing supplies are set up in the sugarhouse but this time of year, everything is packed away to make room for sugaring. This is all well and good when sugaring season lasts three weeks. But when it goes on and on, I end up needing to pack syrup. We pull the hoppers (20 gallon stainless steel guys we heat the maple syrup in before hot-packing it) out of the sugarhouse attic. We bring the empty jugs up from storage. We move barrels of maple syrup up from storage. And as I pack, I have literally nowhere to put the jugs of maple syrup so they get moved back to storage as soon as they are cool enough to handle. One day as Ly was on the cusp of getting sick and inconsolable unless I was holding her, I moved over 100 jugs of maple syrup with her strapped to my back. True story.
What is my point in all of this? My point is that farming is hard. Most jobs have moments of hard in them, it is called “work” after all. Farming takes more than hard work, it takes everything. But unlike many other jobs, it gives you everything right back. The land, the satisfaction of working with your hands, the pride in making something that you share, that provides sweet sustenance to your family and to other families. There is nothing else like this. This sugaring season I spent more time in the sugarhouse than I ever have. James and I cuddled up on hot barrels of maple syrup on colder days while I waited to throw more wood on the fire. I climbed ladders and sprayed down foaming sap. I flung droplets of organic safflower oil into the maple syrup to keep it from boiling over. I threw wood on the fire, learning to mix wet, green wood with dry wood to produce an even fire. I shared fresh sap with James.
But the weather this season was not the only thing on my mind. We have been steadily increasing our maple syrup sales since we were first certified organic in 2007 and are at a point where we may need to invest in new packing equipment and in expanding, or perhaps we stay where we are and possibly contract a little. It depends on a lot of factors. How much time can Travis put into the farm, do I want to work off-farm part or full-time or do I want to throw myself into sugaring? Can I see my west coast family regularly if I am a full-time farmer? How are the kids doing? Can we keep relying on occasional bits of free labor from Travis’ younger sisters as they buy houses, start families, build careers? For me, family farming has become a microcosm for all the big questions I have asked myself and continue to ask myself as I grow up (and I suspect I’ll be growing up all my life).
These choices our family is facing are not unique, the maple landscape is changing in Vermont and elsewhere. There are now 30,000 – 50,000 tap operations (perspective: we tap 6000 trees, and each tree needs a person to come by with a drill and a tap, we can’t expand production much more and stay at a family-scale of labor). It seems this concerns some sugarmakers but not others, read here and here for brief, somewhat contrasting views.
And if maple family farming is a microcosm for my life’s questions, I think it is also a microcosm for farming in general. It’s old news that family farms, despite being the foundation of Jeffersonian democracy and the iconic American image, yeoman farmer and all that, are on the decline and have been for years.
It seems to me there are two directions to go: forward with ever-increasing technology and ever-less hands, or move laterally to a new kind of rural economy. In this kind of economy, farms are more diversified — this means there is insurance built in for the years when one harvest does not do well, and it means there might be more room for part-time or full-time work off-farm, or value-added or agri-tourism work on-farm or alongside the farm. In this kind of economy there are partnerships and networks linking farms to local institutions to provide food, or siting a food operation that can pull from some of the farm labor in the area. Farms are both less the focus of the economy and, at a small scale, more prevalent and embedded in the economy. Once upon a time, everyone had a cow and a garden. I’m not suggesting we all return to that, but I am suggesting there is a lesson to be learned.
I don’t know what the rise of big maple means for Vermont, or what the overall decline in farming means in the U.S. But I am here in Vermont because I believe devoutly that farming needs to be a part of my children’s life. So whether I decide to work off-farm or not, whether The Reynolds Family sugars a little or a lot, I know that April will always be the sweetest time of the year.
It’s March and we’re into the earliest sugaring season we’ve ever had. I’d planned to spend January and February learning everything I could about tapping trees, but somehow that didn’t happen. I spent my time keeping up with maple sales, going to annual meetings (held in January so produce farmers aren’t inconvenienced), picking up or dropping the kiddos, making drops and placing spouts.
Drops, pipeline, spouts…. all part of the tapping process. Tapping a tree is literally that – you walk around with a drill (cordless these days!) and drill a hole into the tree then place the spout that is connected to the pipeline with a drop (also pipeline, just a short piece) into the tree and gently thunk it into place with a hammer. The pipeline stays up year round, and we’ve found that the most effective way to tap trees is to divide the work into two tasks. The first person walks up and down the lines snipping off the ends of the pipeline (snipping off the end ensures a more sanitary draw off this year’s run of sap and then in some years, like this one, you add a new drop to re-lengthen out the line that you’ve been snipping away at for the past few years) and then connecting the new drop with the attached spout by using a heavy weird piece of hand machinery that serves no other purpose. The next person comes along, decides where to place the spout (you want to distribute your tapholes evenly around the tree to minimize any stress to the tree), drills, thunks, done. Next tree.
This sounds basic enough, and it is. But, like life generally, it gets tricky. First off, you’re walking in the snow and, in our sugarwoods, going up a hill. At its best, this is good hard work, like a satisfying hike. At its worst, you end up scrambling / crawling up a hill while wearing snowshoes that get in the way, trying not to get clunked in the knee by the heavy metal tools you are carrying and wishing you had a third hand to carry your bag of spouts. Oh, and you are paying such close attention to not missing any tapped trees that you get perpetually whipped in the face by maple saplings. Good stuff.
At first, the tangle of pipelines running up and down the mountain looked like a huge mess to me, but as I spent days in the woods, the geometry of the layout started to appear. And much like the satisfaction I got from deciphering the Metro maps in Paris or the BART lines in the Bay Area, when I could start to see the layout of the individual lines winging off the bigger lines leading to the mainlines, I felt a sense of triumph. That triumph was short-lived when, inevitably, John or Travis or Nick would identify a short line I missed. I took to simply contradicting them and deciding that they were mistaken, I didn’t miss a line. It was the only possible dignified defense.
Of course, being told I missed a line was nowhere near as humbling as being told I placed a spout at a dead tree. Trees die over the course of the year and sometimes it’s clear because they are snapped in half from wind or heavy snow or a fungus has gotten to them. Sometimes you don’t know they’re dead until you start to drill and you can hear the difference in the texture of the wood. Or sometimes you are so absorbed in your task, in moving from tree to tree through the snow, that you put a spout at a 10-foot tall maple stump and your husband almost falls over laughing when he notices.
My first time out I had Lytle and had to put her on my back. She enjoyed it at first, then protested a bit, then fell asleep. This was for the best as I was frequently ducking under lines to move from one side to the other, and she slept through my crouching and crawling under lines, trying not to get her backpack frame stuck. She fell asleep with her head nodded forward, also a good strategic choice as her face was shielded from whippy sapling branches. I don’t recommend backpacking it with super little kids on tapping day, but I’m looking forward to taking James out on a warmer day to walk lines, or maybe after sugaring season to pull spouts (the spouts can’t stay in the tree year round).
Truth be told, it wasn’t a satisfying tapping season for me. I didn’t learn to use a cordless drill on a tree. I never had a charming trailside lunch or sipped cocoa out of a thermos that looked like it used to belong to a coal miner. And I never really made it out into the sugarwoods more than 5 or 6 times for one reason or another.
But now that the sap is running and we are boiling, I walk into the sugarhouse and smell the maple syrup, I throw wood on the fire, I breathe in the lovely humid sap-steamed air and I remember my frozen hands and feet. I remember my sore legs. I remember the heavy awkward tools. I remember the pride I felt when I recognized a dead tree and did not put a spout on it. And I think about next January. Yeah, I’ll tap that.
When I finished graduate school in Burlington in 2007, Travis started a PhD program in Seattle and I stayed in Vermont to work at a non-profit. We literally had Thanksgivings with each other’s families. I had moved from Burlington to Montpelier and started to sublet-hop, living in 4 different homes in just 15 months.
This was a difficult 15 months, although also really great. I lived mostly on my own for the first time in my life, on good terms with roommates but not close with any of them. Liking my co-workers and liking my work, but not being consumed by it the way grad school consumed me. I didn’t have any friends in town and spent a lot of my time alone. I missed Travis, and having a thriving social life, but I also appreciated the quiet.
I’ve been a journaler since my teens, and found that with more downtime, I was writing more in my journal. At some point during the bleak and silent white winter I started re-reading journal passages and found, in one variation or another, the phrase, “I think I’m just going through a transition right now” in almost every entry as I wrote about loneliness, not sure if I should follow a boyfriend, what would I do in Seattle, did I want a desk job, what was the meaning of life, oh my lord. I felt suddenly ridiculous and sort of snapped out of it. It’s a thin line between self-reflecting and taking yourself too seriously.
So understand what I say when I say: I just think I’m going through a transition right now. My kids are 6 and almost 3, ready to move forward without the support of a mostly stay-at-home mom (Ly’s therapy appointments and intentional playtime notwithstanding). Travis and I are ready to transition more of our time and energy to the farm. I’m ready to move back into the workplace, part-time or full-time. I’m ready to take on a regular yoga teaching schedule for the first time since Ly was born. It’s a whole lot of big fat transitioning. So it’s apt that this blog of mine is about to transition too.
I love writing about food and kitchen fun, especially when it involves my kids. But there are so many other good food blogs out there. I will never be queen of the recipe, and as much as I love the science of cooking, I do not have the time to devote to researching the different molecular stages of candy-making (although seriously, sugar crystals really are amazing things). Write what you know, but also write what you can. So here is what I can write about, and will be writing about as Travis and I manage these large shifts in our lives over the next couple of years:
- Apples, learning to apple farm, making my first batch of homemade apple cider vinegar. I got some really awesome pruning shears for Christmas that I’ll need to write about (see photo with James below).
- Learning to tap trees and actually make syrup, not just consuming it and selling it. And consuming it some more.
- Budgets. We are looking at focusing more on the farm and inevitably this means our time and income in other places will change. Time to really crack down on our spending, and I’ll share all the nitty-gritty of budgeting while married.
- Food that is meant to be prepared easily when swamped, cheaply when budgeting, and eaten trailside while holding a cordless drill.
- Learning to chainsaw. I’ve emailed the local experts about signing up for a class.
- Possibly learning to drive a tractor. Possibly not.
- And always balancing life with being the mom I hope to be, holding hands and letting go at just the right moment.
I just really think I’m going through a transition right now. 2016, so long. And 2017, let’s get started. We’ve got work to do.
I’ve spoken in passing about Lytle having Down syndrome, but October is DS Awareness month, and I think this is a good opportunity to have a conversation about “normal”.
Lytle is, by some standards, not normal. She was born with a genetic condition called Trisomy 21, which means that instead of having two #21 chromosomes she has three. Down syndrome affects all kids differently, as all kids have their own unique genetic make-up that combines with their own unique home life and unique experiences. But, generally, their learning and development is delayed. Ly was sitting up by 9 months, crawling by 18 months, and walking at about 21 months. At 32 months or so she now has many signs and half-words but is still a ways off from the toddler-speak we frequently associate with a child who will be 3 in a few months.
Lytle is also, by most standards, incredibly normal. She laughs. She is full of mischief. She loves her family. She charms strangers. She brings books to me. She wants to get into everything I am doing, whether it’s “helping” me brush my teeth, answering my cell phone, going through my wallet, or ripping the page out of the library book I am reading. She managed to turn her father’s laptop screen upside down and has figured out how to play her favorite Frozen song on the computer. She resists eating vegetables. She climbs on anything she can reach. She plays with her brother. She loves bath-time.
Ly was a bit of a surprise diagnosis, she slid by two ultrasounds, three check-ins from the hospital pediatrician and two visits with her own pediatrician before he suggested we see a pediatric genetics specialist. And I won’t lie, the diagnosis was hard to take at first. Travis banned me from Google at one point. And then a few weeks later she had her heart checked (40% of DS kiddos have congenital heart problems) and the cardiologist identified a ventricular septal defect, a VSD. I nodded intelligently and made appropriate “hmmm” sounds as he showed me the ultrasound, made serious eyes and said “okay” when he said he would classify her hole as a large one, and then burst into tears when he said he wanted to schedule open-heart surgery in three weeks. We had to go into business mode and I stopped grieving for the life I thought my daughter would have and started concentrating on the life that she did have. It was a blessing. The staff were wonderful, she came out of surgery pink and nursing better and she started gaining weight. We started seeing therapists and Ly started developing. And we were a family with two kids, doing what families with two kids do.
Of course, there are hard days. The day at the library where the other 2-year old told his mom he didn’t like the way Lytle’s tongue was hanging out (DS kiddos usually have low muscle tone, including in their mouths). And my heart broke. His mom said all the right things and smiled at me, but there it was. A 2 year old who had only recently mastered object permanence could see my daughter’s difference a mile away. You can’t kick a 2 year old (well, you could, but you shouldn’t). You can’t kick the world. And thankfully most days I don’t feel the need to. Ly, as I mentioned, could charm the pants off any stranger. She makes us all laugh, she snuggles into my shoulder and melts my heart. And I have actually really enjoyed the therapy sessions, the yoga instructor in me geeks out on the physical stuff and I like watching her learn and respond to speech and occupational therapy. Just because she doesn’t learn as quickly as her brother James doesn’t mean she’s not learning, and we celebrate every milestone.
What don’t I do? I don’t read the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. I read about the neurology of sign language. I read about the cognition of mental mapping. I am inspired by people like William Stokoe who, in the 1960s when sign language was stigmatized, recognized it as a sophisticated “real” language and deaf people as intelligent communicators. I think about different types of intelligence and perception. I don’t randomly Google anymore, but I do look out for and collect inspiring stories about the first person with Down syndrome on a town council in a city in Spain. About a girl with Down syndrome in a rigorous junior lifeguard program in Southern California. About a Zumba instructor who just happens to have Down syndrome. About a photographer who has Down syndrome. And about a model with Down syndrome.
I am blessed as a mom to be watching Ly grow up in a time when there is less stigma than there has been, and more support than ever before, for people with disabilities. One of the scariest parts of Ly’s diagnosis in the first few weeks was the complete blank slate her future was for me. Growing up, kids with disabilities were in a different part of the school so I never had the chance to make friends with or develop any kind of normalcy around people who were different from me. Today we have kids with para-educators, early intervention programs, and therapists that come to daycares and preschools. Whenever I encounter a story about what someone with Down syndrome is doing, the future gets a little less blank and I know that, thanks to a lot of the advocacy and attention from the last several years, Ly’s opportunities aren’t all that different from her brother’s.
But couldn’t we always do better? This October, here is what I ask for me as a mother of a gal with Down syndrome:
(1) Support para-educators and their role in our schools. Yes their pay is an additional tax burden, but if early efforts and attention help kids with disabilities grow into passionate, engaged adults then I think we all win.
(2) See the differences, don’t try to ignore them or look away from them. We are hard-wired to see difference, I get it. That 2 year old at the library wasn’t trying to hurt me or my daughter, he was just sorting out the world to make sense of all the stimuli. Pretending that differences aren’t there does no one any favors.
(3) See the similarities. Okay, the differences catch your eye first, but then look for the similarities. There are so many more of those.
(4) Slow down. This is hard for me to do, I was nicknamed “Speedy” on my middle school volleyball team. I wrote “Slow Down” at the top of all my notecards for class presentations. My Dad still laughs thinking of my piano recitals when I would turbo through the pieces (Chopin’s minute waltz? Bring it). And now we live in a world where we can get Amazon Prime orders tomorrow, emails and Facebook updates every minute, where we can get twitter responses to debate sound bytes 15 seconds after they happen. And are we happier for it? Are we better, are we smarter, are we kinder? Perhaps we could learn a lesson or two from people who learn a bit more slowly than a lot of us.
(5) Don’t choke on the PC stuff, there’s no one right way to discuss human development. I prefer the term “delayed” rather than “disabled” and more than “differently-abled”, but I don’t mind the word “disabilities.” And not every parent will agree with me. Just be respectful in the words you choose and feel free to ask us what our preferences are. But please don’t let a fear of saying the wrong thing keep you from having a potentially great conversation with me, or with Lytle.
(6) And last, raise the kids around you (whether they are your own children, godchildren, nephews or nieces, the neighbor kid you are good friends with) with these ideas in mind. I just read an essay about raising feminist daughters (and sons!) and something at the end really struck me: “Teach her not to attach value to difference. And the reason for this is not to be fair or to be nice but merely to be human and practical. Because difference is the reality of our world. And by teaching her about difference, you are equipping her to survive in a diverse world. She must know and understand that people walk different paths in the world and that as long as those paths do no harm to others they are valid paths that she must respect….. Teach her never to universalize her own standards or experiences. Teach her that her standards are for her alone, and not for other people. This is the only necessary form of humility: that difference is normal.”
Or, as Ly’s fiercely loving, protective, and eloquent auntie put it: “It’s time to normalize this. Because it’s f$*#ing normal.”
Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. Sometimes in this global marketplace I forget that, hundreds of years ago, plants were actually indigenous to places and you simply couldn’t get them anywhere else. Talk about terroir! So when I first started going to Ethiopia with Travis about 4 years ago, I was excited to dive into the original coffee culture.
Now, I love coffee. Being from Seattle, I have a long experience with various beverages, from the soy vanilla latte in high school and college to the double short cappuccino in my early 20s, to coffee with maple syrup and cream in grad school. I mostly drink tea now, it turns out coffee completely disrupts my sleep, but every now and then I indulge and enjoy. And there is no better place to indulge and enjoy than in an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
There are several ways to enjoy coffee in Ethiopia. First, as a privileged First World traveler, it’s easy and affordable for me to go to the swankier coffee bars that offer a more Italian-style beverage. They have the beautiful machines, the whir and tamp and hiss of the espresso that takes me straight back to rainy ungraduate days at Parnassus Cafe in the basement of the art building on UW campus. They have delicious macchiatos served in lovely little cups. But this is a newer way to drink coffee, a more elite way, a more global way.
So let’s talk about the second way to enjoy coffee in Ethiopia. Let’s back it up a little and go out into street.
Along the smaller streets, usually unpaved, there is kiosk after kiosk offering the usual assortment of household necessaries like bottled water, phone cards, soap, toilet paper. And frequently those kiosks have coffee. There is a charcoal brazier with a black ceramic pot on it, and the coffee is steeping. There is a low table covered with a certain kind of grass, and sometimes there is incense. On this low table is a tray filled with small cups. Sit down and order a buna (pronounced boona). Tell them quickly if you don’t want any sugar or only a bit, otherwise you are likely to get a full teaspoon in your small cup. Ethiopians don’t eat dessert, they drink it.
One of my favorite memories from our first trip was our tourist shopping expedition into the nearby town on market day. We left James in good hands and went out to catch the bus. Being market day, every bus that went by us towards town was full and wouldn’t stop. I kid you not, we crossed the street and took a bus in the opposite direction to get to the small town where the buses were filling up. Sometimes you have to go up to go down. I was starving and cranky as all get out, so Travis asked when the next bus was then dragged me over to a kiosk selling music records and coffee (Seattle anyone?) and sat me down in a plastic chair by the brazier. A moment later I had a freshly fried doughnut, a bombolino, and a hot sweet cup of Ethiopian buna. Bliss as the calories, sugar, and caffeine hit the senses all at once. It was a religious experience, and I don’t say that lightly. I think I fell in love with Ethiopia right then.
On our most recent trip to Ethiopia, Travis arranged a buna and shai (tea) delivery from a stand around the corner from our house, and the trays would arrive with empty buna cups, sugar bowl, and steam drifting from the spout of the coffee pot and from the tea pot. The students and researchers gearing up for the day would descend. Someone would be by later to pick it up, and sometimes we would haggle about how many cups had been on that tray, and whether my husband had already paid or not. It added to the charm.
Now, the third way to enjoy Ethiopian coffee is the full-on coffee ceremony. This can happen at nice restaurants and hotels as a tourist attraction. Or it can happen in someone’s home. A traditional ceremony can take over an hour. It is lovely and worth every minute. We even had a guest do a coffee ceremony for us here in the States in front of our woodstove. If someone is having a dinner at their house, or if you are enjoying a nice lunch at a hotel, the buna ritual begins while you start eating so that, 35 minutes later, they are ready to begin serving. Let me walk you through it.
First, the charcoal fire is started. Kessel in Amharic (no idea how to spell it, that’s my Americanized spelling of the word, Amharic has its own complex alphabet). You can buy kessel at the market. Did you know that it’s just wood? I didn’t. Yep, I’m that girl. Married to a guy who studies trees and forests and I didn’t know that charcoal is burned down wood. You learn a lot when you travel. Okay, so kessel is lit (without the aid of lighter fluid, just saying). Incense might go on the charcoal at this point, it’s usually chunks of frankincense. The green coffee beans are heaped in a pan and roasted by hand over the charcoal until they are fragrant with a very slightly bitter aroma. Frequently the woman (always a woman doing the ceremony) will walk around and offer you a waft. The beans are taken and pounded into a rough grind, think French press. Last spring when we lived in Ethiopia, Adina would do this for Travis so there would be a jar of ground coffee for stove-top coffee at our house. She used a surprisingly large and heavy crowbar type of implement to pound the coffee in a tin cannister. I would never sneak up on a woman while she is doing this, I can’t imagine it would end well for you.
Once ground, the coffee is placed in the pot with water over the kessel and it brews. Ethiopian coffee prepared in this manner is a little more akin to Greek or Turkish coffee, but the grind is so large that you don’t end up with that sludge (for lack of a better word) at the bottom of the cup, and the coffee is not quite so thick and intense. This is good, as you are about to get three cups in succession.
As the coffee simmers, the popcorn is prepared. While I enjoy the popcorn (abbabakolo, or cornflower), I really enjoy that it distracts my kids. Ly especially loves the coffee ceremonies. Popcorn is definitely not something you will find in the outside stalls, this is something from the formal ceremony. So the popcorn makes the rounds, and the coffee is poured. And sugared, unless you stop them in time. The incense is fragrant and the coffee goes right to your head. The next cups are successively weaker as they are made from the same grounds. I like that. Because really, the marginal enjoyment of that coffee is going to diminish with each cup so why waste new grounds when you won’t enjoy it quite as much as that first one anyways? (as is often the case, food can demonstrate an important economic concept such as diminishing marginal returns with simplicity and elegance).
Like so many moments of travel, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony is a gift. When there, it is an hour of slowing down and enjoying a centuries-old ritual. Once home, I remember the ceremony and I remind myself that when I sip a tea or coffee I should take a moment to let the aroma fill my senses, to watch the swirl of steam arise, to find a second of calm with that first sip. When I do these things, I go right back to ceremonies at friends’ homes, I go right back to that stall selling music and coffee, I go right back to the first person in the Ethiopian highlands who brewed a cup of coffee.
June is conference month so Travis did a lot of coming and going. Early in the month he had a conference in D.C. I’d never been to D.C. So in a fun turn of events, we decided to go domestic. Who knew domestic travel could be as daunting as international travel?! (Feel free to answer “Duh.”)
In a classic move I way over-booked our time. The itinerary seemed straightforward enough: Fly into D.C. Visit friends, see some sights. Then Gran and Pop would fly into town and Travis would fly out (his next stop: a conference in London). We’d rent a car and drive down to Charlottesville. Monticello one day. Luray Caverns just north of the Shenandoah National Park next day. Then back to D.C., all done and relaxed from our vacation.
Ha! So much for the smugness of the seasoned international traveler. This domestic jaunt was awesome, but actually gave me a lot of perspective and new travel rules.
To start, I think domestic flying is actually harder than international flying. The big international flights have larger planes with two aisles. It’s great, the kids can do laps and figure eights like little hamsters on a wheel. Also, the international airports are actually easier to navigate (tons of signage in multiple languages so if by some chance the English doesn’t make sense to me I can piece together the correct direction from my (low-level) French or Spanish and the arrows). They have better food options – I found organic yogurt and good trail mix, albeit ridiculously overpriced. And, most importantly, international flights just seem to run on time better than domestic. This could be just a perception, but I don’t know. It feels like it holds true.
What does this have to do with our trip? Well, inevitably if you travel enough you encounter flight delays and challenges. And hoo boy, this time did we. This segues nicely into my first new rule of travel.
Rule #1: Make sure you know what airport you are flying into. No-brainer, right? And yet. Turns out the Washington-Dulles airport is not in Washington. Did anyone else know this? I didn’t pause to check out the Reagan National Airport and instead just bought tickets to Dulles. Then with flight delays due to weather we landed at 11 pm at night, 45 minutes from D.C. Thank heavens for wonderful friends who will drive to pick you up!! Additionally, Travis had a travel agent booking his triangulation of flights to DC, London, etc. and ended up flying into Reagan, where a taxi only cost $17.00 into the city. Know your airport. It’s a good rule.
Rule #2: Make certain you stay in the right place. With young kids we’ve found that renting an apartment works better than hotel rooms. A separate room for us, or for the kids, makes it easier to maintain some kind of bedtime. And having our own kitchen means we can bring food home from restaurants, shop at the local grocery stores (which I love doing anyways) and get kid-friendly food for snacks and meals. Of course, do your research! I rather botched our location on this round and Travis had to walk over half an hour to the conference site. With all the map and GPS apps at our disposal it doesn’t take too much effort to nail the perfect location. Oh, and pack that booster seat. It’s worth it.
Rule #3: If possible, pick a destination with friends or family. Having my friend meet us at the airport was huge, and she even picked up some groceries for us so breakfast was all set in the morning. And the next day she helped me figure out which Metro line to take to meet up with her, then took us around the museum where she works and out to her favorite lunch place in the sculpture park. Behind the scenes we got to see botanical specimens like the double coconut (aka “butt-nut”!). These things can all be done without friends, but it’s like having a walking guidebook when you are distracted by a new place and two young kids. And it’s extra eyes and hands on kids! Grandparents are also wonderful travel companions.
Rule #4: Get outside, get on public transport! James absolutely loved the Metro, and I think Lytle enjoyed it as well. We looked at the map, talked about the stops and counted down to ours, we enjoyed the escalators and tunnels. And every time we encountered a new playground James thought he’d traveled to heaven. All the walking, playtime, and fresh air helps when bedtime rolls around after the excitement of the day.
Rule #5: Put a bit of a hold on food rules and focus on restaurant behavior. If I’m not nagging James about what he’s eating, and he gets to pick out his own drink, he’s inclined to be better behaved. We all get a treat (good behavior for me, lemonade and french fries for him), and isn’t that what vacations are about?
New base rules learned, we dove into the trip. The photos speak for themselves, we had a lovely time! Once in D.C. I totally got googly-eyed at our nation’s capital. It was really fun to feel like a giddy tourist. The Museum of Natural History and the Space Museum were both a huge hit with James, and Lytle exercised her toddler right to lay down in the middle of a crowded room or throw a fit just before entering the home of Thomas Jefferson so Mom (yes, me) misses the tour of the house and instead wanders the necessaries (the wine room, the ale room, the brandy room, etc.) picking up left behind shoes.
Well, we made it. Round trip to Charlottesville and back. American history, natural history, and government. We will definitely travel domestically again. And my last two rules to abide by?
Rule #6: Think hard about whether or not you should rent a car, and then decide the best place to pick it up and drop it off. City driving is not for everyone, consider choosing a location on the outskirts of town. Make sure you plan your drives around your kids’ tolerance for car time. James still reminds me about the bridge in D.C. we went over not once, not twice, not even three times but yes, four times while trying to find the playground on the map and then the entrance ramp to the freeway. A playground and a ramp! That’s all I wanted! Now, I’m a decent city driver and navigator thanks to years of city living, but no one could easily navigate D.C. on their first try. I think it’d be easier to navigate Rome’s cobblestoned streets driving backwards while drunk on a Vespa (no, I won’t test that theory, but I stand by it). Sufficient to say, I think James heard some adult language. Nothing he hadn’t heard before, but I flatter myself to think that he picked up some new and creative combinations.
And Rule #7? Just add a glass of white wine. Then start planning your next trip!
Spring came early this year, and with it came rhubarb. Now, rhubarb is one of my favorite foods in the spring, but apparently it is frowned upon when pregnant or nursing. This means that of the last 5 springs, I have only been able to enjoy rhubarb once. Since this was the first spring that I was neither pregnant nor nursing I was really looking forward to my rhubarb binge!
I think you should love rhubarb as much as I do. Here are some reasons why:
- It has a fair amount of vitamin A.
- It pairs so nicely with strawberry that you will think they were made for each other. Who’s to say, maybe they were?
- When you combine it with blueberries you get to say “bluebarb”, as in Bluebarb Jam, Bluebarb Crisp, Bluebarb Pie. You get the idea.
- It freezes well (slice it first) and then brightens up your winter when you thaw it out and use it.
- Its tang keeps rhubarb desserts from developing that cloying sweetness that I loathe. Really, if I want something that just tastes sweet I’ll have a spoonful of maple syrup and call it done.
- This tang also makes it ideal for savory-sweet or sweet ‘n sour applications, such as marinades, sauces, and chutneys.
- Laura Ingalls Wilder called it “pie-plant.” That’s cool.
- It’s hardy and actually requires cold winters, so even in Zone 3 planting areas you don’t have to dig it up and winter it over indoors. (Rosemary, I’m talking to you here. Although I love what you do to a potato I simply cannot tolerate your winter high-maintenance needs. You and I are not friends when I’m in New England.).
Not convinced yet? Alright, check out some of my bingeing:
This time of year, one of my favorite go-to books is Food in Jars with great preserving ideas and recipes. I tried a small batch of the rhubarb chutney last year and loved it, so I did a batch again this year. I highly recommend using this one, or finding one of your own to try. Especially if you have kids! It’s perfect for a table set for kids that like plain food (rice, chicken, carrots and peas) and parents who don’t (rice and chicken mixed together and topped generously with flavorful chutney, with a side of carrots and peas).
This was super easy and fun. And delicious! Try this syrup in lemonade. sparkling wine or white wine, or even in a basic vinaigrette. And although the recipe (yes, from Food in Jars) says to discard the remaining rhubarb pulp after sieving the syrup out, I saved the rhubarb and threw it into pancakes the next morning. I’m thinking this winter I’ll try rhubarb bread or muffins with the extra jar of rhubarb pulp I froze.
I got the Bouchon Bakery cookbook for my birthday last year and have slowly been enjoying the recipes. These guys are pro’s, and I love the detail they offer in the recipes. This is a modification of their blueberry muffins, and the molasses, maple syrup, and brown sugar combined perfectly with the tang of the rhubarb. I especially love that this recipe suggests letting the batter rest overnight then cooking up fresh muffins first thing in the morning. Yum!
Nothing is simpler than this: combine diced rhubarb with sugar and cook it down until soft and a bit sweet, then stir in a touch of vanilla. We spooned this strawberry and vanilla ice cream the other night. Swoon! We were so excited that, um, I forgot to take a picture to share.
I froze a bunch of rhubarb before we headed out of town last week (next post: Have Children Will Travel Part IV). I’ll be trying out a rhubarb-Earl Grey-vanilla jam or a rosemary jam. And maybe another kind of chutney.
It’s just not spring without rhubarb. If it’s not too late for rhubarb where you are, grab some and head to the kitchen. Or hunt down a good frozen stash and try something new. And if you’re pregnant or nursing, my apologies. There’s always next spring.