Saturday, September 29, 2012

Mama Iva Visits

Last weekend, Mama Iva visited SCRANCH just in time to witness the death of my garden. Yup, all dead, with the glaring exception of the spinach, carrots and parsnips, the season is over.

This includes all my gorgeous flowers, including the California poppies I planted in honor of my home state.  (I’d like to plant Columbine for Colorado, though I believe they prefer high altitudes.) Though today was 83 degrees, we’ve had some vicious freezes the last week or so. Mom’s timing was brutal so I made her look at over 1500 photos from the summer's bounty, just to prove I had been productive.  What a trooper!

Harvesting the last of the Yellow Pear tomatoes.

The last time she visited me, in Denver, she had her own room and bathroom - this time, we both squeezed in to the Mae Flower. Since the Clisby Clan grew up adventuring in The Voyager - another famous camper - she felt at home immediately. Thank god she is low maintenance. (She also brought me goodies from civilization – Twinings English Breakfast Tea, cruelty-free moisturizer and a big ass hunk of fancy cheese: English Cheddar with Mustard Seed – NOM!)
Truth is, I was a bit nervous about her seeing the place. After all, it's her land that I'm messing with here but she assured me: "I'm your mother. I'm not going to criticize" which, in her case, is actually true. But here we were, at the site of her childhood and we’re making new memories, which had to feel good. I think coming here is a bittersweet experience for her – so many changes, a lot of the people from her past – gone.  

But it was fun listening to Mom and Brent reminisce about their days picking gooseberries, running from an evil tom turkey and trying to stay warm over winter. It sounded like a hardscrabble life, one with very few luxuries. Those long winter days and nights ended somewhere in her teen years when my Grandpa Wilbur began a tradition. Upon siting the season’s first snowflake, he would immediately stop what he was doing and return to the house to announce: “Pack it up!” Then, the family would head straight to Long Beach, California – just as I will do in a few weeks.

Mom with cousin Naomi, and a Bloody Mary.
Lake Bemidji
At the start of mom’s visit, we took a quick road trip to Lake Bemidji, Minnesota to visit family. My cousin, Todd, is one of my favorite relatives, he's inherited his dad's winking charm and he always makes me laugh. Plus, he had his cute dog, Kelly, with him. She arrived on the first day of autumn and the leaves were all changing, making for a gorgeous drive to Minnesota.

Me with Todd and Kelly.
Also, I hosted a get together for mom here at the farm, held at the museum shed, and invited a bunch of neighbors and relatives from the area. Symbolically, this was a big deal. My grandfather used to have gatherings out at the museum but it has been many years since there has been any kind of social event on the farm. Brent scored a bunch of long tables and folding chairs from the Neche Fire Department. He also secured a big church-basement-type coffee pot, which, I’m told, was mandatory. Me? I was too worried about beer.

The one thing I did not worry about was food. When you tell a Midwesterner it’s a potluck, you’re done. People brought plates of chicken, crock-pots of ribs, fruit salads, potato salads pies and chocolate tarts. It was incredible. Also, my watermelon was a big hit, so I had a wee bit of farm cred to work with there.

The striking thing to me about an event like this is how the genders immediately divide. The men hung out side for the “man circle” and the women stayed inside. I come from a co-mingling culture so this always throws me off a bit. I remember observing this on other visits but had forgotten. There were also two kids and I tried to keep them entertained my with musical instruments and the chalkboard.

I think Mama Iva enjoyed the shindig and people were grateful to have a reason to visit. Even out here, people get too caught up in their daily grind and forget to stay in touch so I’m glad I enlivened the social scene somewhat.

Brent, hanging orange and purple lights!
At one point, my adorable cousin, Walter (age 92), got my attention. I’d asked him earlier in the summer if he knew the date that my grandfather had purchased the farm. He had no idea - he was a little kid then.

Me and Walter.
During the party, he informed me that he had gone down to the courthouse and looked it up: “April 30, 1927!” he announced proudly. It was the first time I could confirm that the farm had been in the family 85 years. Before he left, he quizzed me a couple more times to make sure I’d memorized the date; I don’t dare forget it now.

And yes, I ate some of that chicken we had slaughtered the previous weekend; it was delicious. (Thanks to Evelyn’s cooking skills and a fabulous Filipino recipe.)

Of course, Mom’s visit was far too brief but she is stingy with her vacation time. Soon enough, I’ll be invading her space in Long Beach, messing around with the plants because I am missing dirt, I’m sure. Still, it felt weird to drop her off at the Grand Forks Airport and then turn around and head “home” – whatever that means.

The Man Circle
Growing up in Southern California, I’m still very much a fish out of water here. I remember visiting North Dakota as a kid and wondering how people could live in such a remote place. “But how do they go to the movies?????” I remember asking.

Never, in a million years, would I have imagined me here, now, doing what I am doing. Some days it’s lonely and other days, I dread leaving, but today was a gorgeous day, it’s a full moon tonight and this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.

In Grand Forks, ND.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Chicken Slaughter Party

My vegetarianism - always a bit wobbly - has taken the summer off, for several reasons. First, there aren’t a ton of culinary choices here in rural NoDak. On the rare occasion that I eat out, the menus are tightly traditional - steak, baked potatoes, walleye (the only fish out here, apparently), breaded shrimp, fried chicken (if you’re lucky) and, without fail, the saddest salad bar you’ve ever seen. (They would make any Californian cry. Jell-O? Macaroni salad? Canned peaches?)

Secondly, more than once, I have been gifted with beef from a farmer or rancher who raises their own grass-fed cattle. I simply don’t turn down generosity like that, especially when it results in a lean, local, organic cheeseburger for me. To allay my concerns, I was even shown the lush half-acre paddock that four cows had all to themselves; sure, they were doomed but at least the cows had space, peace and dignity until their appointed time. It also meant they weren’t being injected with antibiotics or growth hormones and that’s a big plus.

Finally, when I began this rural journey, I knew concessions would have to be made. To blend in to this world as much as I could, I even bought a orange duck blind/camo Otter box for my iPhone. I now ride old trucks and 4-wheelers instead of buses and cabs. Also, I knew I’d have to let some things go - like San Pellegrino, sushi, Ezekiel bread, fancy cheese and long, hot showers. (Sob!)

Oh, and any discussions around cultural entertainment (movies, music, TV) - those don’t exist. So, though I still strive to eat a plant-based diet, I avoid taking a militant approach; being an ‘organic nut’ surrounded by Big Ag is enough of a push for right now. (On the plus side, I see zillions of stars and planets every single night.)

But my vegetarianism received a significant boost after last Saturday’s Chicken Slaughter Party. After working on a 13-person crew that executed, de-feathered, cleaned and gutted 231 home-raised chickens, I have zero desire to ever get near another dead one, let alone eat it.

My neighbor, Powerful Pierre, has hosted the annual event for the last 16 years - a couple of his sisters jump in, along with their husbands. His wife, Evelyn, is there too, plus some other neighbors and a young boy named Leo. It started at 8 a.m. sharp, and I was there by 9 a.m., not so sharp.

I pulled my pick-up behind a long line of other pick-ups and walked into the garage, which resembled an organized crime scene. There were two long tables where folks were picking feathers, hacking off feet and gutting birds that had been alive only moments before. There were large metal bins filled with cold water and off to the side, Evelyn, wearing rubber gloves and wielding a scrub brush, happily washing their headless naked bodies with all her usual natural glee.

I was given the job of removing pin feathers, those small thick feather points that remained, though the birds were mostly naked by the time I got them. I watched my cousin, Manny, remove their feet with a knife like he’d done it a thousand times, which he had. (I cut off one foot myself, at the very end.) An older gentleman named Steve, with long gray-blonde hair and a Harley Davidson t-shirt, was an expert gutter. Long a huntsman, he raises livestock for the market - sheep, cows, chickens - and keeps horses, dogs and cats too, of course. He told us the story of how he met one of his daughter’s boyfriends and, after shaking his hand and finding no callouses (and discovering he did not know how to repair a fence), told her to dump him. She did.

Everybody had their job and I just tried not to embarrass the family name by sticking to mine. Those first 15 minutes were rough - with all the hacking, slicing and whacking, it was a very calm, but very violent scene. I had to get used to handling a headless body that often felt as heavy as a small baby. It was a mind twist, for sure.

But this is why I’ve come to this world, is it not? You learn a lot when you leave the comfort zone and I was at least 1,000 miles from mine. Funny thing is, I don’t really eat chicken, mainly because of all the crap they put into the meat, and also, because a industrial chicken life is a particularly bad one. We’re already eating them, do we have to be dicks about it too? (In my previous life, my favorite meat was lamb but I can no longer get past the idea of eating someone’s baby.)

Pierre had previously made the Heather-specific request, “No pictures!” so I was without my protection. Usually, I can keep my distance from weird scenes by hiding behind the lens, a journalistic trick, but no chance this time. It also means that for this post, I can’t just shove images at you, I have to describe them, which is excruciating in its own way.

I was only plucking for about 15 or 20 minutes before I had to go see where the action went down, exactly where these birds met their sudden deaths. The live chickens in the coop were all at the fence, silently staring at the scene, with some alarm. A man went in to the coop, grabbed a bird, and walked it to the stump and chopped its head off. Just like that, quick as you please. He threw the headless body in a bucket and I watched the body flap around, still protesting.

Meanwhile, the man had gone in to grab another bird and this time, I heard the mad clucking and recognized the sound - pure fear. That axe came down in mid-cluck and it was over for that particular chicken; it was that shrill, desperate sound that stayed with me, most of all.

After the bodies settle down, another fellow grabs one and places it over a de-feathering machine. There is a big, rotating wheel with fat round pegs and the rotation removes 99% of the feathers. It’s astonishing, really, how efficient this machine is as opposed to de-plucking by hand, as they did in days of yore.

Then, the bodies are scalded and brought into the garage where their feet are cut off by Manny. Then, me and Eldean removed the feathers and they are gutted, cleaned and put into buckets of ice water where they stay for several hours. 

After taking all this in, I discovered that my face was wet. Why was I crying? Holy shit! What if someone sees? What to do? I do what any bleeding heart liberal would do, I went over to the kitten shack, picked up a fuzzy one and hugged it. Though I can pass for redneck often enough, evidently I’m just a cushy liberal at heart. Shit, hugging a kitten??? I felt like a character out of South Park or The Colbert Report - I even made myself laugh.

Wanting to fulfill my commitment and not wuss-out completely, I returned to the task and de-plucked for several hours until all the chickens were gone. After a while, I got used to it and joined in the lively banter. I even told a joke about nuns buying beer. Though I did occasionally sneak off to rub Preacher’s head (the dog) and hug another kitten now and again, I made it the whole way.

Over the bloody table, there was lots of congratulatory talk about how ‘nobody’s punctured a bile duct yet!’ and wasn’t that ‘great?’. Then, as one woman was teaching young Leo about chicken anatomy and how to gut a dead one, he said, “What’s THAT?” and poked a bile duct. Green bile sprayed everywhere and laughter ensued. I kept my head down and tried not to barf.

Meanwhile, Eldean, on my right said, “Oh, I hate it when there’s still poop in there,” as she ‘wiped’ a dead chicken’s butt. I've had a few glamorous days in my time but this was not one of those.

At one point, somebody flopped a dead chicken on the table and I swear, I heard it cluck. I commented on it and Steve explained that sometimes they lose their head mid-cluck and that last catch of breath is still in their throat. One big nudge and the rest of the cluck escapes, sounding very much like, “-UCK!” - the final sound of many unlucky souls, I'm sure.

So, after all 231 chickens were dead, the crew stopped for Dinner, which is actually Lunch to the rest of us. I was actually proud of myself that I still had an appetite, maybe I had some cajones after all. There were scalloped potatoes, baked beans, fried walleye, fruit salad, fresh tomatoes and some crazy super-healthy Wheatberry Salad that some liberal commie brought.

The crew, post-Dinner. My only sanctioned photo.
Oh yeah, that was me. The shining moment came when one of the expert gutters, a woman named Ann, wearing a blood-covered smock, leaned over to me and said those magical words:

“This is delicious! Can I get the recipe?”

I’m pretty sure I heard a brass band strike it up because when a native NoDak woman asks you for a recipe, my darling, you have ARRIVED! Even if she is covered in blood, it still counts.

Brent warned me that I would be exhausted at the end of the experience and he was dead right. Not sure if it was all the standing and focusing or all the surreal stimulation but I came home that afternoon and passed out on the bed, chicken blood and all, and slept deep for two hours, plucking feathers in my dreams.

Haven’t eaten meat since.

However, this may change on Sunday when Mama Iva visits. I am hosting a cookout for her here on the farm and Evelyn is bringing four of those bad boys, baked in some Filipino recipe favorite. Not sure how I will feel about chicken meat then. What if I experience PTSD-type flashbacks? What if I go searching for another kitten? What if I grow fangs and consume rabidly?

What if the Wheatberry Salad is no longer enough? 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Pinto Bean Harvest

Dry pinto beans, ready for harvest.
Brent explaining pod width.
I suppose it's a good thing that I'm about 20 posts behind here - it means that Real Life is coming at me in such a heady, constant stream that it's all I can do to photograph it, let alone find a quiet moment to sit and type it all out with my constantly-filthy fingers.

So, the Pinto bean harvest has come and gone and the soybean harvest will finish tomorrow; corn harvest starts on Sunday. From what I hear, all these harvests are about two weeks ahead of the normal season. All the heat and drought has advanced things just a bit. It's good, I suppose, though there is fear that NoDak is at the beginning of a 4-year drought cycle and that has everyone nervous.

Anyway, a week or so ago, I get a text from Brent asking if I want to see the harvest. I do, I tell him, but I've got online work to do - editing, writing, tweets, invoicing and such, stuff I resent when it's a beautiful day and I can hear the tractors rumble all around me.

Jeff and Brent.
Just as I sent off the last invoice of the last project, there's a mighty knock at the trailer door and he's standing there with a massive grain truck behind him, running, of course. (Nobody ever turns off their vehicle here, it seems, unless they are going to bed.)

The 'teeth' of the combine.
"Ready to go?" Wisely, he ignored my excuses of 'work' and I was so grateful; it was like being rescued. Being forcibly extracted from the endless rabbit holes of the Internet and plopped into the dirty world of farming - it's quite the extreme changeover.

Beans going through the combine.
We went out to a field of beans, on our land, that his friend, Jeff, was helping with. Jeff owns some fancy tractor that is highly specialized, wildly expensive and super efficient in a bean harvest. That's another thing here, everybody shares machinery - it's too expensive for one person to own every thing you need to farm so it's all shared. Of course, Brent's reputation as a genius mechanic and all round nice guy helps quite a bit too.

Bean shells getting spit out the back, minus beans.
On a previous day, the bean rows have all been shoved into neat piles with another tractor. When I show up with my camera, those piles are now being harvested. Brent, ever the patient teacher, carefully explains the many ways they can tell when beans are ready for harvest. One is by color, when more of the field is pale yellow than green:

Adjacent field - still too much green.
He then picks up a few dry pods and flicks them. The beans go shooting out at me - meaning they are dry enough to easily be extracted from the pod. Another thing he checks is the hardness of the bean. There is even a moisture scale for this, something they can measure at the elevator. Of course, Brent is old school so he uses his teeth:

He also pointed out certain bean qualities that a farmer would like to avoid:
Beans on the left - too small, discolored.
Beans on the right - too big, prone to cracking.
At this point, I'm really starting to look at my food a little differently, it's become decidedly non-commercial. I loved Pinto beans before this but now that I understand their life cycle and they sit in my cupboard in a giant ziploc bag marked in Sharpie: "PINTO BEANS", I may love them even more. Tonight, I ate Pinto beans from last year's harvest - dee-lish, especially knowing that they were grown on our land.

Bean dump in the grain truck.
This late in the summer, I rarely buy anything at the market anymore - everything comes from my garden or someone else's garden, kitchen or cow. My breakfast lately has been Evelyn's homemade grape juice - which is one of the most exquisite liquids I've ever tasted - and home baked raisin bran muffins from Eldean:

Eldean, dropping off home-baked bread.

It's official: I'm spoiled.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Smile Train Shows - Final Tally

We interrupt this farming blog to bring you an important update: At long last, the numbers (online donations, checks, Jars of Pain, tickets, etc.) are all in and we have the final number for the 2012 Smile Train Improv Benefit Shows:


Jars of Pain
That's enough to fund surgeries for 16+ kids! This beats last year by nearly $1400. We - meaning Steve Loukas and I - really extended our efforts for the fifth annual event. What began with one troupe performing one night at one theater now involves 55 performers in seven shows at two theaters. 

Despite a rough economy, people were unbelievably generous, especially with the Jars of Pain. I found a $100 bill stuck in to one of the jars not once, not twice but three times! Incredible. It was a glorious week - made me a tad misty, I tell ya. (Exhausted too - I slept for a week when I got back to the farm.)

See? Laughter = Smiles. Just like we said.
Since we started this event back in 2008, our donation number has increased but this year goes far beyond what we've ever done. All total, our shows have raised over $12,000 dollars and provided enough surgeries for approximately 48+ kids. 

Um, Cups of Pain?
It would be difficult to individually list all the people who helped with the Smile Train event but here are just a few who really came on board with spirit and enthusiasm:

Dave Johnson, Bob Wells and Colin Elliott at the Avenue Theater: Our Smile Train home base. We get so much love and support here, we'd be lost without them. Also, this year, Dave got the Chicken Lips gang back together (plus some whipped cream) and made me laugh the hardest. Well done!

Bob and Dave up front, with the gang.
Becky and Steve Palmeri at Spark Theater: Not only did they provide a beautiful theater in the Santa Fe Arts District but they generously donated 100% of the ticket sales. We're already excited to work with them in 2013.

Rodents of Unusual Size: It began with this wacky group of vermin and this year, they kicked off the week with their hilarious performance. Thanks to Ben, Joe, Tara and Deletta who braved the live mousetraps, once again... (all together now) for the children.

Blu Iron Photography: Blu's inspired train-themed photography shots were on sale at several shows and he generously donated 40% of sales proceeds to the cause. Thanks, Blu!

Sarah Kirwin: She is the talented force behind the wildly successful 'Gay V. Str8t' - our first ever sold out show!  We had folks standing, sitting and crying with laughter at this decidedly UN-family friendly performance - an annual highlight.

Can you tell the gays from the straights?
Jordan Doll: He opened the Wednesday night show with his awesome routine - nice to have our stand-up cousins represent.

Intentionally Left Blank & Out of the Basement: These two talented groups put on a dynamic show, ending with the public humiliation of the Mark Smith. Too fun.

ILB and Out of the Basement
A Wild Smile: Our very first sponsor! We're so pleased that the same folks who provide a lively and fun (yes, fun - check out their site) dental experience for kids recognized our kindred spirits. We hope to see them back again in 2013. 

Alyssa Disalle and Kayla Kempfer: For being my comedy home girls and just making me feel loved, in general.

Homegirls Alyssa & Kayla

Lisa Friedman: My BFF since the Dark Ages, she's also the best damn graphic designer I know. When I approached her with a logo request, she came through with a zillion beautiful ideas, as always. I so appreciate her talent, patience and friendship. With this new logo, I feel like we've finally grown up!

Howard Semones: For being such an incredible maestro in the booth and then being a gifted performer on stage. Most of all, for being the person who hooked up with the Denver improv community way back in olden times.

King Howard
Sarah Funsch: This woman went above and beyond what we asked of her. If you attended one of the shows and won some awesome gift cards, tickets or other fun schwag, you have Sarah to thank for it. In fact, I'm pretty sure I owe her dinner, drinks or a maybe a diamond-encrusted hair clip.

Sarah, our Fairy Godmother, handing out goodies.
Molly Kirkpatrick: My brave and diligent assistant scored us our very first sponsor (see above) and basically worked her butt off talking up the event at First Friday and all over town. When I threw her into the improv warm-up circle backstage, she took on that challenge too. Atta, girl! Everyone should have a Molly in their lives.

Last but not least, I'm so grateful for my partner on this event, Steve Loukas, the engineer who basically runs the train. As I said, every year, I'm afraid he'll jump off this crazy ride but he charges on ahead. Thank God for him, truly. He nails down show dates, gets the theaters set up, herds troupes and performers and prints all the tickets. I'd be lost without him on this event and it would not be nearly enough fun because - on top of all this - he's FUNNY.

Props to the man.
Sarah, Steve and me - The Team.
My deepest gratitude to all the performers for sharing their comedic talents and enabling a new life for so many deserving kids around the world. It means more to me than I can ever express through a keyboard.

Also, I'm starting an award. This year's winner of Most Committed to a Scene goes to Chris Gropp, who didn't hesitate doing push-ups and sit-ups on behalf of poor Taurean, who was merely strapped in for the ride. Honestly, you had to see it to believe it - the audience was in absolute hysterics. It was awe-inspiring:

I do hope we see everyone again in 2013, where we will aim to outdo ourselves once again with some semi-organized tomfoolery on behalf of Smile Train