Friday, August 29, 2014


At our most recent family meeting where "goats" were once again on the agenda, Jason and I committed to making a good faith effort at finding an alternate home for Cookie Dough and Oreo where they would not end up being used for meat and where the girls could go visit.   Neither one of us was feeling very hopeful, but both of us were feeling rather desperate for a change.  Even so, it took us a few weeks to get around to writing up an advertisement of sorts to circulate.  We blasted the following out to as many friends, colleagues, and neighbors as we could think of that might have beneficial connections:

"Two goats, name of Oreo and Cookie Dough, which currently live at our home are in need of a new home. We have learned that our setup and family pattern is not really optimal for their and our needs over the long term, and we are unprepared at this time to make the necessary changes/adjustments to our homestead that would be required. They were originally purchased to raise for meat, but due to the children becoming attached to them we have kept them around longer than we had planned; now it is time to move on in one way or another. Our family’s decision was that we are not selling the goats as meat goats, but hope to find owners who need them for pets, companions for a dairy animal or horse, or for land clearing. The goats are very friendly, personable, and small (an adult can easily carry one), and they thrive on human attention. They are twin males that were dehorned and castrated early on. They are generally gentle with children, though they will non-aggressively rear up and lean their forelegs on people (dog-like) when they want attention or are curious about what the people are holding. They love to be taken on walks to find tasty leaves. They are out of a Tennessee Fainter (Myotonic) dam, by a Nigerian Dwarf sire. Oreo does occasionally “faint” when he gets stubborn about going where we want him to on a walk, but that’s about the only manifestation of the myotonic gene we see anymore, except that they do seem to have athletic limitations as far as jumping (a plus for ease of fencing!).These goats have never required grain-based feeds, but have always done fine on a regimen of good hay and leaves from cut branches, with a mineral supplement and salt available free choice and an occasional (bi-weekly) herbal de-worming preparation. We ideally want the goats to go to a situation somewhat nearby (close enough for the girls to visit a time or two) where they will have some room for exercise and where the owners enjoy giving them social attention, as these seem to be the missing ingredients for these guys’ full happiness here at our place. We can deliver the goats if that is an obstacle. They will be available until roughly the middle of September. They would come with what we have left of the hay, mineral supplement, and herbal wormer at the time of the exchange. The price is negotiable depending on situation and need, with our preference being in the 50 dollar range for each goat."

Thanks to people forwarding the above on to others (and to my moment of inspiration yesterday) we had not 1, not 2, but 3 decent options by the end of today!  Kali is very excited about the plan, and her excitement wore off on Alida (making her no longer resistant to the idea of them leaving our place but excited for the adventure ahead).  As of Tuesday evening, Cookie Dough and Oreo will be residents of the Luray Zoo.  I had been thinking lately that really these goats would be great for a petting zoo or some place where their main purpose is to be around people (even better if those people spend quarters on handfuls of feed for them).  On our visit to the Luray Zoo (which is a rescue zoo), we had noted that they had goats and a petting/feeding area.  Perfect!  But what are the chances that they would take our goats?  It never hurts to ask, right?  So I called and after the owner asked me three small questions he said, "yes!"  They have a handful of goats but not enough to keep up with their pasture so he has to mow it sometimes.

After sending out the advertisement, we realized that we were really more or less okay with cutting our losses and giving them away (to be frank I was about ready to pay someone to take them for us!).  So it will be our donation to the Luray Zoo (maybe we can arrange for some kind of free visiting rights?).

So our "goat experiment" may be about to end.  Jason still talks of dairy goats some day.  I'm going to need some significant recuperation time...It hasn't been a good feeling to assume care for these animals and then realize our set up really isn't meeting their needs (wants?).  So lots of relief in the household this evening thinking that they may be about to enjoy their lives a lot more and Jason and I about to enjoy our homestead a lot more!

Even with their noises in the background off and on, I had a grand day.  I'm exhausted but quite pleased to have 28 quarts of salsa cooling on the front porch.  The last 7 need a few more minutes cooling down in the canner before I take them out, which is the only reason I'm writing this post!  I will fall asleep if I lay down.  So far I'm at 100% seal rate and don't want to mess that up, even if it means staying up a little later.

While I tackled this project without Jason (he was occupied all day on outside chores), I can't say I did it alone.  The girls really were amazing (and helpful!).  They peeled some of the tomatoes, Alida peeled some onions, Kali read Alida to sleep for her nap and helped her in countless other ways, Alida was her normal entertaining self and they were both helpful taste testers.

The girls are at really fun and enjoyable stages.  They both have their moments (don't we all?), but overall seem to be thrilled with their lives and are therefore mostly pleasant to be around.  Alida has been rather mischievous of late and more rambunctious.  She likes to tease and be silly and recently seems to like to run up behind us and ram into our legs.  Then the next moment she wants to just cuddle with us.  Yesterday while I was at work she and Jason were being silly together.  Alida was on the floor and piped up, "Hold me."  So Jason reached out and held her arm for a moment and then let go. She said, "Why did you do that?"  He explained that she told him to hold her so he did.  She said, "No, not like that...hold to whole thing of me."  So Jason grabbed one arm and one leg and picked her up and then put her down.  She knew what was going on now and said, "Nooooo, not like that...hold the whole packet of me!"  Jason picked her up and cradled her and that was what she wanted!

She has just sacked out on Kali's beanbag beside me here on the kitchen floor. I'm ready to join her.  The timer has rung, the canner is turned off and bed is calling.  It won't be at all surprising if I have a dream about chopping vegetables!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A tribute to my mother!

My busiest work week of the year is behind me.  I'm tired, but not nearly as tired as I would be had my mom not cleared her own full schedule to spend over a week with us, lending her arms, hands, heart and ears to our family!  THANK YOU!  Today is my first day "on my own" in over a week and I am feeling more and more grateful by the hour.  The piles of dishes by the sink are only one very tangible reminder of her absence.  Every time we are together it is confirmed for me again what a good team we make in the kitchen. There is really no one else (Jason and I make a good team but it's different) who can foresee exactly what to do to be the most helpful without us really even needing to communicate about it.  It feels pretty seamless to be working side by side - almost like there are two of me, but much more enjoyable than if there were!!  We didn't see much of each other all week as I headed off to work before 5 a.m. most days and arrived home after putting in 12-15 hours. But yesterday we got to savor a full day together - with a walk together in the morning and a game together in the evening and lots of canning and conversing in the middle.

There were a lot of things that just wouldn't have gotten done this week had Mom not been with us or I would have been up even later than I was and been more sleep deprived than I am.  Here are just a sampling of the things Mom helped us with over the course of the week (it's worth noting in part because it involves one new experiment): making salsa, canning tomato paste, canning beans, drying tomatoes, drying squash, freezing kale, and making our own home dried minced onion. I'm pretty excited about that last one!  Besides all those things, and many more, she spent lots of quality time with the girls - reading stories, playing games, going for walks, going for a little excursion to town, offering hugs and cuddles, braiding hair, feeding them and, of course, offering listening ears to Alida's constant chatter!  That has not let up at all...

It meant so much to me to leave home knowing that the day would go well for Jason and the girls.  It's not that they would not have been "ok" without me.  We would have survived the week but it is doubtful we would have thrived!

I've found myself thinking about those folks out there in the world who work 60+ hours/week on a regular basis.  There are probably many of them and they must be made of different stuff than me.  When I was at the office this week, I was fine.  I was actually energized by much of my work this past week.  After corresponding with 30 plus new students for a few months, I got to meet them!  And I spent the good part of 3 days with an incredible group of people from all over the world; from Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, South Korea, Peru. China, Congo, United States...  New student orientation is the culmination of a lot of the work I do over the summer so there is a lot of satisfaction in seeing it come together.  I would go as far as to say that I was having fun a lot of my time at the office this week.

Then I would get home, and I would more or less crash!  I would go outside to pick raspberries or tea or take out the compost and feel like I was in a fog.  It was a rather disorienting feeling and one I'd rather not experience on a regular basis.  I just felt disconnected from the place and the people that I love the very most. It helped to know that the week would come to an end and I would go back to working 3 semi-long days/week rather than 5 incredibly long days/week.  But I felt sad thinking that there may be a lot of people working crazy long hours just to get by or because they feel compelled to do so as a way of "succeeding."  Maybe some people actually choose it.  Maybe it works for some people.  For me, the relief I felt coming home Friday evening was palpable.  I would not get in a vehicle again until Monday morning!  I have felt very much like myself this weekend and it has been lovely.  I feel like I've been soaking up my family's presence too - I find myself just looking at our girls and marveling at who they are and who they are becoming.  I feel grateful for all Jason did this week as well to keep things going smoothly on the home front and have felt lots of surges of love and affection of late when I think about our 15+ year partnership.

And now it's Sunday afternoon and the work week is fast approaching.  I'll include a few more pictures here of the last number of days and the fruits of our labors.  While I learned in Maine last year that the call of the loon is right up there among my favorite sounds, it has not topped the sound of a canning jar sealing as it cools on the counter!
Beans, pickles, tomato juice and salsa ready to be washed off, labeled and stored in the root cellar.
I don't know how many more afternoon naps we'll enjoy, or how many more times Alida will nurse to sleep.  So I'll savor them while they last and assume there will be fewer blog pots when they end.
This is what I likely won't get to until another day - thankfully the tomatoes would like a few more days to ripen.  I love chopping, but do come to a point of wanting a night of sleep before I pick up a knife again!
Yes, just a little proud of this one - a home dried squash chip with fresh salsa on it...
Just noting how much I am enjoying canning outside - not that this August has been very hot, but keeping the humidity outside has been a big plus.
Home grown cantaloupe with ice cream in the middle. It is very handy to not have many dishes at the end of a nighttime snack. :)
The pantry is filling with jars of dried things - here's squash, onions, tomatoes and corn.
Those beans are still waiting for me. In the background Alida is grinding corn that I blended until it was much finer and then used as the thickener in my salsa sauce.  The taste is great; we'll see what we think after it is canned.  If we can get away without buying cornstarch, our salsa will be super cheap for us to produce with pretty much just spices that we didn't grow ourselves.
And, finally, deviled eggs with Jason's home grown/ground paprika. Very fun and tasty too!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Corn, applesauce, the fair and family!

We've hit a few milestones around here - on the day our eldest turned 11 we also consumed the very last jar of salsa and pickles from 2013.  I'm glad to report that we have already remedied the pickle situation with dozens of new jars on the shelf becoming more dill-infused by the day and that I made the very first batch of salsa on Kali's birthday to start working on replenishing our stores of that essential component to our yearly diet!  I'm also happy to report that as of this year we are no longer using any bought tomato products to make a home canned tomato product.  Our favorite salsa recipe calls for 1 c. ketsup and 1 c. tomato sauce.  So we are blending and cooking down our tomatoes to make something similar to tomato sauce/paste. I just slightly up the vinegar and salt in the recipe and am 100% pleased with the result.  Now if only the deer would stop tromping around in and eating the roma tomatoes, we might be able to make a lot more!

The days between my last post and this one have a whole lot in common - harvesting and eating and processing.  Repeat!  But there have been a few new fun experiments.  It can be easy for me to get into a food rut at this time of year. In the interest of efficiency in a very hectic season, I go with what I'm used to doing and find it difficult to take the extra time to be creative and try new things.  So I'm feeling pleased with three mini-experiments.  I tried drying sweet corn in our electric dryer for the first time.  I'm happy with the result - in terms of how it dried out uniformly and that it looks pretty in the jar on the shelf with the other dried things - but don't yet know if we will actually like to eat it.  That's pretty important!  Eating it plain feels almost like eating caramel, as it is bound to get stuck in the grooves of your teeth. So we'll see if we like it re-hydrated in soups this winter.  I dried a large tray of cherry and drying tomatoes in our solar dryer, using the back up light bulbs over night to finish them off.  It worked amazingly well, staying consistently at 120 degrees overnight.  Several hundred little tomatoes were reduced to less than a pint jar.  And, finally, the most delicious experiment was making grape spread (and one I regret not having tried years ago).  Rachelle and I made juice together the other week and I ran the remaining pulp/seeds through the victoria strainer.  I added a bit of honey, stirred, and served. It disappeared rapidly!

One of the things I've enjoyed recently is the times when we have been doing food processing tasks together.  Both Jason and I have been solo on some canning projects this year and while we both can do it I enjoy so much when we get to work as a team.  Our applesauce and corn freezing day was one such day where we worked at it together, along with having Jonathan and Rachelle join us for part of the day.  I also love having Alida as my side kick, who currently fills every pocket of silence with her chatter.  In addition to chattering constantly, she is actually getting quite good at a number of tasks.  Besides "knowing about tomatoes" as she framed it, she is also decent at husking corn, cranking the victorian strainer, putting noodles on the drying rack, and finding squash on the vines that I've missed.
We've plowed through a lot of produce this past week, as we've enjoyed various celebrations for Kali's birthday and a fun Benner family weekend in Keezletown (minus just a few members who were missed!).  Kali's birthday party requests have become much less complicated (she no longer is interested in blending two holidays for a themed party), but one thing remains consistent: a yearly trip to the Rockingham County Fair!  It was a gorgeous day Wednesday and we spent a good 7 or so hours milling about looking at animals, riding rides, and enjoying a picnic.  I get majorly overstimulated there and noted to Jason that I never notice people's faces because I'm so focused on getting to a particular destination without running into people.  He noted that he is always watching people's faces so is usually running into people.  So we concluded that once again we make a pretty good team and he should just walk behind me so that I can get us where we need to go without collisions and he can spot people we know that we might like to greet or talk with.

Kali rode a few new rides this year but still didn't do the one that drops you from up high, leaving your stomach at the top. Jason and I did it together and we both vocalized our sheer terror during those 2 seconds of free falling.  I wasn't sure if Alida was going to get her "money's worth" out of her armband after her first ride. We all joined her on a little caterpillar roller coaster.  As it went down the one and only small hill she said, "this doesn't feel good" and I was hoping that she would not lose the contents of her stomach as they took us on two more rounds.  She didn't but as we got off, she said, "that was not fun."  The ferris wheel and carousel got better reviews, but her all time favorite was a large slide.  On one of our many trips to the top, the guy working at the top putting our feed sacks on the slide and sending us on our way noted, "I wish I liked this ride as much as she does."

We left Kali behind with Emily, Jonas and Rachelle to ride a few more rides while we took off for a home with a tired, but surprisingly good spirited, 3 year old.  We had just pulled out of the lane for the fair when I looked back and saw that she was already completely sacked out - arm sprawled to the side of her seat and her head hung over with her mouth open.  Clearly she was tuckered out!!

Friday was Kali's actual birthday and the Tangly Woods crew joined us, along with two of Kali's closest friends, for pizza pockets and s'mores over the fire.  Another picturesque evening with scrumptious food - which tastes so good eaten outside.  Kali spent most of her birthday reading some new books she was gifted and not talking much, since she almost lost her voice due to her cold.  But it didn't seem to slow her down much or keep her from enjoying crossing into a new year of life.

The celebrating continued, welcoming most of the Benner clan to Keezletown for the remainder of the weekend.  There was plenty of fun to be had, but clearly the highlight of the time was taking in all the new skills and cuteness of the youngest family member (who as of today is older than Nora was when she died).  She's growing so fast and doing so well and is clearly thriving under the wonderful care and adoration of her parents.

So the weekend was my last hurrah before new student orientation week.  I better sign off now and use the rest of Alida's nap and the quiet in the house to turn my attention to the week ahead.  It may be awhile before I'm back in this space...

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

July excursions behind us & August is here!

The "craziest month" in my year has arrived!  April and August are my busiest work times and they seem to coincide with two of the busiest months here at our homestead, especially August.  This year our beans will be later than usual and tomatoes are ripening slowly due to the cooler temperatures, so things will all "nicely" come to a head right around the final push of preparations for new student orientation at the end of August.  August is also a time for much celebrating, with the birthday of our eldest who turns 11 in 10 days - so a trip to the fair with the Tangly Woods crew and a birthday party/sleepover are in the plans for the month as well!  My saving grace as I look towards the next few weeks is anticipating my mom spending a week of it with us.  Things always go so much smoother with an extra set, particularly her extra set, of hands around!  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I've been hesitant to put any kind of "lice update" here since my last very premature and hopeful blog post. I think I was naively hoping, beyond hope, that we were through with those little buggers!  We were, almost!  But with lice "almost" is not good enough. Over the next 3-4 days we found one tiny louse on each of our heads.  It was enough to cause us to stay up to the wee hours of the morning multiple days in a row combing each other's hair and pulling out nits.  Jason and I have had multiple "date nights" after the kids are in bed, sitting in our closet examining each other's head with a fine tooth comb (literally).  Not our idea of a romantic date!  The good news is that we have been "bug free" for well over a week.  We are back to hanging our laundry outside in the fresh air and sunshine, and doing laundry at a more reasonable pace.  Our floors are still squeaky from the oils that have dripped on them, but washing floors is one of those things that keeps getting bumped off the to do list, in the interest of more pressing (and fun) tasks.  We are still checking for nits and are still finding what appear to be really wimpy, dark colored, flat egg casings here and there. Of course the fear is that one of those egg casings is not dead and will hatch, so hence the continued vigilance.  Re-infestation of head lice would radically alter the month of August, which is not what we are hoping for!

One of the reasons we are up late checking in the evenings is we can't bear to use all our good daylight time on it.  There is too much to engage in the outside world - produce to harvest and freeze, dry, can, or eat and lots of weeds to be pulled (way more than normal due to the abundance of rain).  By the time we get to August, I don't feel like I have the luxury of taking much time to experiment with food preservation, which is what I really want to be doing. Canning is what comes naturally (and freezing, but freezer space is already at a premium), but I'd like to get better at drying and fermenting.  I managed to take 5-6 huge squash last week and dry them in rounds and I'm a big fan.  First of all they take up so much less space and second of all they are tasty. When I next have a surplus of squash, I'll give it a try brushing them with a little olive oil and salting them and I think we'll have a great snack option!  In the midst of putting up food for later, we are also consuming vast quantities of delicious, colorful food.  Here is a sampling of one such meal - beets, cucumber dill salad, string beans and a squash, onion, garlic, saute with chicken pieces.  We recently pulled all our onions and shallots and had a hard time fitting them all in the garage.  I didn't get any pictures of that afternoon's fun since we were pretty much jogging to and from the patch and garage to get them pulled before the rain started.  As soon as Alida's wakes I hope to head outside and fill a few baskets with tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and whatever else there is to find. It's likely, with Alida along especially, that none of the raspberries will make it back into the house!

We've been gone from home 3 out of the last 4 weekends, which might be a bit part of why our week days feel so crammed full. In addition to our trip to the Benners, we made two trips to WV - one for an annual Music on the Mountain event and to drop of Kali and her cousin for the week and the second for a camping weekend with college friends and picking up Kali.  Both were well worth the trip, but leave us wishing that more gatherings happened after frost and before spring planting!  In between our travels we enjoyed a week with cousins around.  It's really special to see our girls forming relationships with their cousins now that carry them between visits.  There was lots of game playing, laughter, and running around outside.  The house feels quieter with just the four of us now.

This past weekend was our camping trip to Spruce Knob Lake.  We hadn't been camping since I was a day or two pregnant with Alida - so it had been awhile!  It was as it usually is for me - enough work getting ready that I wonder if it is worth it and then loving it once there and feeling like it goes way too fast.  Before we know it we are back home airing things out, laundering wet and dirty clothes and jumping back into the swing of things.  But the memories of cooking over the fire, talking with good friends, hiking around the lake, napping in the tent to the sound of rain pouring down, watching our kids enjoy each other, and taking in the beautiful views from the highest point in WV linger.