Treading Lightly – Grow Your Own

Remember all the spinach recalls a couple of decades ago, because the farms were watering with contaminated water and people were getting sick from eating the spinach?

Or more recently, the “throw away your romaine” warnings, for the same reason?

I’ve been fed up with commercial produce for quite a while. This is yet another area where we (humanity) have allowed profit to take precedence over the well-being of people, not to mention the planet. That’s why I started growing my own lettuce hydroponically a couple of years ago. “I’m going to grow my own damn romaine,” I said when I started. Continue reading “Treading Lightly – Grow Your Own”

Some Days…

My brain is switched on to food references this week. I’m writing a paper on food in Australian fantasy novels. Even if I’ve read the novel before, I’m re-reading it, because I need to apply that brain-switch and analyse everything for food. It’s hard work. I’m placing references into ten different categories. The net result of this was I had no energy to cook yesterday or today.

This never happened when I was younger.

I was going to write a long screed describing food, because it’s my current (and absorbing) work, then I changed my mind and wanted to explain that chronic fatigue is impacted by emotional fatigue, which is why food research led to such a state of exhaustion. The events of the last eighteen months welled up and I missed all my lost friends and I became a mewling mess. I decided you didn’t need a long piece today, for the world is a difficult place right now.

Take this as a moral. Have early nights when life is stressed. Eat comfort food. Cry when you have to.

And I’ll be working on foodways for a bit longer, so maybe one day I’ll tell you about how writers use food to create miracles in fantasy fiction. Except when they don’t.

A Quiet Moment

So many people around me have found distractions help in dealing with the extraordinary times we’re living through. This post is my present to you. Big stuff happens in the US on 20 January. This is a breath. A break. A moment before everything changes.

For me this week is an anniversary. This time last year I had been evacuated to Melbourne because of the bushfires. The air in Canberra was dangerous for me. Tonight my windows are wide open and I’m up late, cooling everything down as much as I can, for we have an incoming heatwave. Earlier today, however, everything was shut, for the dust storms in NSW sent a bit of frazzled air our way. That reminded me that I’ve been mostly indoors since June 2019. Bushfires followed by pandemic. Every now and again I get out and do things and this reminds me that the world outside is real. These incidents come from that real world. I think this is also the moment to celebrate that.

The first story is from Sydney in 1956, for tonight someone reminded me about the torch carrying for the 1956 Olympics.

A group of university students didn’t like the link between the torch and Hitler. Also, they were Australian. Of course they were Australian.

They painted a chair leg silver and put a tin on the end. They filled the tin with a pair of men’s underpants and set it on fire. Two students carried that torch. One of them successfully handed it to the Lord Mayor of Sydney at the Town Hall. The Lord Mayor didn’t realise at first that this was a hoax, and the torchbearer had time to slip away into the crowd.

The second story is from Canberra, quite recently.

A writer-friend was telling us on Twitter tonight about a time… let me give you the story in her words:

“Was at a con sitting at the signing table under a poster with “K.J. TAYLOR” on it and behind a nameplate which also said “K.J. TAYLOR”. A guy came up to me and said “Is K.J. Taylor here?” I patted myself down and said “I’m pretty sure I’m here!” He looked so confused.”

My third tidbit is a bit older, and is from the US. I collect interesting stories about food history. How fast molasses can burst out of a factory on a cold day, for example, and where to buy meat pies in London in 1250. I didn’t know that, on 16 May 1902, there was a kosher beef war on the Lower East Side in New York. Some describe it as riots. Kosher beef riots. This one deserves a link.

I live in a city where there are 300 people who admit to being Jewish. I can’t see us rioting. We used to hold food fairs, where our numbers were drowned by the crowds who wanted to eat bagels and felafel and lokshen kugel and particularly tasty curry from Jewish India.

I used to cook Medieval Jewish dishes for my stall, and people would ask, “Were there really Jews in the Middle Ages?” I gave those asking morsels of history along with their plates of food. Other days I’d talk about the persecution and the murders, but not at the food fair. We all need times where we don’t bear the burdens of history. Take that time today. Tomorrow will come soon enough.

Reading and Writing – an update on my book problem

I have so many piles of books in my living area (which is also my work area) that even I feel the clutter. The reason this post’s title includes the words ‘book problem’ is because occasionally they topple and I tripped over one yesterday and…

I love them all. It’s not a problem in any sense except the clutter. I’m not reading just one good book this month, I’m reading dozens. They are my building blocks for a three-year research project (1), and I’m already having fun. Gradually, the piles will diminish.

One pile is for putting away. “I’ve finished this – it was fun but not terribly useful. I’ve taken the notes I need from it but they’re not relevant to anything I’ll be writing. It can go away. No need to put it in the bibliography.”

Another pile is carefully marked up. Not the books themselves – I have special sticky paper that doesn’t harm books and I write on that. When I’m ready to write that book up, I go straight to the notes and lo, it’s ready to go. I know what page to refer to in my footnotes and I have my thoughts on the sticky paper. Then I put the details of the book in the bibliography, and then that book goes on the putting-away pile.

The third pile consists of one book right now, called Putting the Science into Fiction. It’s not a scrap of use for my research project, but has some stuff in it I want to use as a reminder for world building. The world building has nothing to do with the research project. Until last Wednesday I did it full-time, but now I’m doing it as a leisure activity. The book will be put away when I talk through what it contains with my co-conspirators in world building, which could be next Monday, or it could be in three months.

The three largest piles relate to three of the core focal points of the research project. One is on fairy tales, one is on own voices, and the third is on writing about cultures that are a bit alien or foreign.

The piles I’m working through right now, however, are none of those things. Some are on writing technique, some are on genre, and some are on what makes narrative, and some are on rhetoric or critical theory. These are my reminder piles: it’s no use launching into research without checking that you know what you’re doing. It’s not enough to know this stuff as an expert or generally. I have to know exactly what elements I need for this precise project.

That’s all for this project, for now.

A proposal I put in for an academic paper was accepted yesterday. I’m about to start an extra pile (which will link into the project, but is right now just for the paper) will be about food in speculative fiction. This one is quite dangerous. Whenever I write about food, I have to cook things.

When people ask me what I love about research I am stumped. What’s not to love about reading fiction and inventing recipes to fit the food mentioned in the story? Although in this case I’ll be doing a critical analysis. Mouthfeel has to play a part. Maybe I’ll have recipes as the slides that illustrate the paper? After all, I have a nice collection of cookbooks that I can match to the foodways in the fiction. The most mouth-watering paper at an academic conference. It sounds good to me.

Writing long fiction is on the backburner for a bit, obviously, but my reasons are impeccable, as are my piles of books. Also, I did that thing that chefs do on cooking shows. There are three objects I prepared earlier, one that is out in paperback and now affordable (earlier research!) , one that is out already and the other is coming in a very, very short time. The same applies to next year – work finished a while back means that I shall research away and books will appear and everyone will think that I work 36 hours a day.

I don’t. But I do have impressive piles of books stacked everywhere they fit.

 

  1. For all of you, a footnote. For anyone wondering, yes, this research project is for a PhD. It’s not my first PhD, however, and Australian PhDs are only three years long and we start the research on Day One. Also, I’m more interested in the research itself and in working with two tremendous supervisors than I am with shouting, “Hey, I’m doing a PhD.” Because it’s all about writers and what they put in their fiction, I shall talk about the cool stuff here, from time to time. Ivory towers are a fiction, and research relates to the real world. This research relates to culture in fiction. And I am one of those people who write stuff into footnotes that people need to read. I did it for my first novel and I refuse to stop doing it unless I’m writing an academic piece. This is due to a certain warped element in my personality.

Comfort zones

My home life revolves around food two days a week. I love cooking and for a year I’ve had almost no-one to cook for.

I discovered some months ago that when I don’t cook, I get more stressed. I’ve been nodding sympathetically at people’s stories of the joy of baking and their discovery of sourdough.

I have a very large repertoire of dishes and I love cooking and… I’m on a bit of a restricted diet. Also, I have deadlines on top of deadlines.

This is why I liberate myself twice a week. To be honest, it’s sometimes more than twice a week and sometimes less. This week it’s been fewer long sessions but more sessions, because someone gave me many tomatoes and I made a tomato base for almost any food. It was one that took four days, on and off, because it’s winter here and tomatoes are watery. Six kilograms of tomatoes gave me 1 ½ litres of my sauce. I instantly gave a half litre to a friend who is helping me get out of the internet nightmare this month has been (I haven’t lost my internet at any stage, but my landline has been missing in action for twenty days so far), so I have just enough for seven days of interesting food.

When that was done, I looked in my fridge. I have trouble putting out rubbish (the bins are tall and heavy and 100 metres away, and I’m working on my lifting muscles so that I can regain that truly exciting fragment of my life) so when friends come by, they often take a bag of rubbish out with them.

Since I know this friend will be drilling in my wall tomorrow to help solve one of the problems that has been bugging things around here, I spent an hour tonight chopping up everything that looked old or in need of finishing. I threw out the bruised mushrooms and cut the rest. I found so many shallots, getting sad and in need of love. That was really all I did tonight. I have several containers of vegetables, and I have all that passata, and I have 3 meals’ worth of salads made, so I don’t have to cook until Friday. I will probably do another bout on Wednesday, for cooking helps me think, then I’ll leave it to the weekend. All the scraps are ready to go out and my fridge looks much less crowded.

What am I going to cook with the tomatoes and vegetables? I’m so glad you asked.

One container is earmarked for shakshuka, because I have everything I need for that except cayenne and I can wing cayenne given I have seven other types of chili. The other is for a pasta sauce with those mushrooms, some of the shallots (or maybe an onion), kalamata olives, feta cheese and maybe, just maybe, some green capsicum. These are both easy and quick dishes once one has a good tomato base, and this week is furiously busy.

I’m not cooking any bread. I can cook bread. I’ve cooked bread since I was a pre-teen. It’s not good for me and I love it and everyone else is talking about it all the time, so I’m not even going to make a flatbread to eat with the shakshuka. Yes, I’m sulking. Bread is fun to make and kneading gives me time to think and my writing is the better for it… but it’s not good for me. I have a right to sulk.

When I’m past this deadline I get to explore some of the more interesting ingredients in my cupboard. Some of my friends (who know me all too well) send me little parcels of local food from their country or they send me chocolate and tea. Food. I get occasional hampers of food from wise friends. I love these hampers and I eat most of them fairly quickly, then stash some parts away for when I need to be cheered up. I have herbes de Provence from France and chocolate from Ireland and grits from Germany and more, hidden so that on bad days when I open the larder and stare in misery, memories of those hampers stare back and I’m forced to smile and totally and entirely forced to cook.

Some of my ingredients are a little old now. I’m still saving them. I predicted the disruption to international post and knew my presents from friends would be rare for a time and I refused to not have my friends make me smile, so I checked all the use by dates and put the must-eat at the friend of the larder, the must-eat within a few months within eyesight (but not at the front) and the will-;last-forever under everything.

What’s very odd is despite the fact that I’m not supposed to mix with people (iso is iso – so many of us have health issues) I make sure I have enough food to feed several friend sin case they drop round. Which they won’t. Which, in fact, they can’t. But it makes me happy to know I can feed people.

This post was brought to you by my favourite (Korean) instant noodles. They are one of my cheer-up foods and they are currently unobtainable. I ate my last packet tonight. Don’t worry – I still have chocolate.

Treading Lightly: Growing Greens

Here in the Treehouse, we have to get by on what’s at hand. This series explores simple, nature-friendly alternatives to conventional products and practices.

When you’re in a treehouse, in the middle of the woods, there is no popping down to the corner store for last-minute whatevers. Our excursions are few and far between, so we are coming up with ways to compensate for the lack of easy access. We find this has also led us to try some more eco-friendly methods – in this case, for acquiring greens.

Gardening at the base of the tree is not an option. Never mind the climbing up and down; anything we might try to grow on the forest floor would be quickly snarfed by the local fauna. But I want lettuce. Fresh green things to eat. Greens that I know are uncontaminated.

Hydroponic tower garden

So I started growing lettuce in my office. This tower rack sits in the corner, taking up a 2’x3′ footprint. It’s got lettuces up top, seedlings in the center, and bok choy and basil plants on the bottom. All of these (well, not the seedlings yet) produce amazing amounts of wonderful leaves.

Fresh veggies, especially greens, start to lose nutritional value the moment they’re picked. In 24 hours, they’ve lost 90% of their nutrition. By growing them here, I have clean, absolutely fresh greens year-round, with a carbon footprint of…well, probably zero. The lights are LEDs and are powered by our solar system. Each lettuce plant uses around two gallons of water during its lifetime, compared to more than twenty-five gallons it takes to grow a head of lettuce in the ground.

The low carbon footprint is important to me, almost as important as the clean food. That Romaine heart that I used to buy for a couple of bucks had to travel from California, and was probably over a week old, maybe a couple of weeks old, by the time I brought it home. And while a couple of bucks seems fairly inexpensive, it’s a lot more than the cost of my lovely home-grown lettuces.

Growing these darlings is a bit different. You don’t wait for the lettuce to get big and then yank it from the garden. Instead, as soon as it’s big enough, you start harvesting the outer leaves, a few at a time. (I have been known to snack on a leaf now and then.) The plants get harvested this way for two or three months. When they’re tired, they bolt, and I retire them with thanks and a bit of ceremony. Each plant has probably given as much lettuce as two or three commercial lettuce heads, by then.

It’s a different way of gardening, and a different way of interacting with food. I’m very aware of the interdependence between me and my plants. I feed them and make sure they have enough light and don’t get too hot, and in return they feed us. Mutual giving.