Thursday, May 21, 2015

Pickling Sunchokes

Two years ago I planted sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes.  It is a variety of sunflower that creates edible tubers.

They are perennials that grow with a weed-ish vitality, which is something I very much treasure in a garden plant.  (As a bonus the blooms are a food source for the bees as well.)

People use them like potatoes or as something akin to water chestnuts in salads and stir fries.

Unfortunately, the tubers are best dug up in the winter, after a few hard frosts have turned some of the starches to sugars - or before the shoots come up in the spring.

That's not really the season for salads or stir fries, and if you use Jerusalem artichokes in any quantity (as you would potatoes) you learn why the plant is often derisively named the fartichoke.

Monica and I liked the taste and texture, didn't like the windiness, and didn't find much use for our sunchoke harvest last year.

However, there are rumors that pickling them neutralizes the gas-inducing properties (or maybe just moderates your intake of sunchokes to a more harmless level?).

Pickles that are both flavorful and non-mushy are a rare and hard to find treat.  (And when it comes to gardening, I have completely failed to raise cucumbers each time I've tried.)  Since sunchokes turn out to be an acceptable pickle, I will contentedly give up on trying to raise cucumbers!

Here are the results of my experiment.

Technique #1 places diced sunchokes in a crock, where you soak them in a brine with turmeric, cumin, garlic and ginger for a few days.  Then pack them into jars with garlic and chiles and leave them sit out for a week or so longer.  Once you reach the level of flavor and sourness you like, you store them in the refrigerator.

Verdict:  The texture is excellent and crunchy.  The flavor is OK, with a bit too much turmeric, but a nice closing spiciness from the chiles.  They float and turn gray unless you weight them down into the brine, which is more trouble than I'm usually willing to take.  Refrigerator storage isn't ideal.  Still, I'll experiment with this one again.

Technique #2 brines the sunchokes for 12 hours or so with some turmeric.  You rinse it off, and pack the sunchoke slices (half inch thick) into jars.  You bring a pickling juice to a boil with spices, but let it cool before pouring it into the jars.  Pour it over the chokes and can them in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

Verdict: Wonderfully crunchy texture, and fine vinegar pickles overall.  I'll use a bit less sugar next time and experiment with the pickling spices, but this one is definitely a success.  Better than cucumber pickles in my humble opinion.

Technicque #3 tosses the sliced sunchokes in with spices, packs them into jars and pours a boiling mixture of water, cider vinegar, honey and salt.  As the recipe recommended, I included some shiitake mushrooms in a couple of jars, and hot Thai peppers and garlic in most of them as well as a random distribution of cloves, mustard seeds and pickling spice mixture.  I canned these pint jars in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

Verdict: The mushrooms seem to lend an intriguing earthiness to the flavor.  But I think pouring on the hot pickling juice cooks the sunchokes slightly, so they don't have that raw-carrot-crunch that the other techniques preserve.  

In any case the specific spicing isn't the real test here - since I had only a motley selection of pickling spices.  It's the crunchiness.  Spicing and sweetness can be adjusted, but whatever technique results in good, crunchy pickled sunchokes is he one I'm looking for.  And for that Technique #2 wins, with #1 a close second.

Full recipes below the fold . . .

Monday, May 18, 2015

Star flower, Lysimachia borealis

Where the backyard begins to be part of the forest, the ground this time of year is blanketed with Canada mayflower.  And scattered among them are little white star flowers.

Canada mayflower

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Ending a Hiatus

Mingo County, West Virginia

2 posts in the past two months.  I'm not sure that counts as maintaining a blog.

I've kept journals pretty consistently since I was 14 or so.  Sometimes they lapse, usually either because I find myself too uninteresting to be worthy of record, or because I'm caught up in too many other things and the backlog of potential entries starve each other.

These last two months have been more that second problem.

At work we've been busy beyond our capacities - and as research director it's been my job to keep projects rolling that explore how different people conceptualize and think about: good governance, mental disability, the transition away from coal in Appalachia, the earned income tax credit, family work balance, taxation, and money in politics.

Welch, WV
There've week-long been research trips - to central Appalachia on the coal project and California for money in politics.  I leave for Kansas City on Friday.  There has been phone interviewing, both by me and by people I've been training - on money in politics, the EITC, family work balance, etc.  I've been training assistants to handle our on-line experiments at testing communications strategies - for governance, taxation, and others, but there are a lot of moving parts.  And recruiting an extra ethnographer or two for upcoming research in Philadelphia.

With so much data coming in, analysis and writing has been the bottleneck, and it's been a high priority to get me back into the thick of that.

Carpinteria, California

In California, Porter is finishing up his junior year of high school, which these days means college visits.  So, when he came back from boarding school on his spring break in March we traveled to Maine to see old friends, but also to visit the Colby-Bates-Bowdoin triangle.  Plus MIT, Worcester Polytechnic and Brown.   Only a few weeks later we all went out to visit him on Family Weekend at Cate - meeting his teachers and advisor and seeing him perform in his chorale and camerata, and in the school musical - (he was the policeman in Singing in the Rain).

I've sworn to not neglect the garden.  Sunchokes have been dug up and pickled, the garden tilled and planted with potatoes, beets, and parsnips.  Chard and fennel overwintered and are growing again.  Mustard and cilantro seeded themselves, and I've planted more - as well as little patches of basil, parsley, broccoli, greens, leeks and tatsoi.

Monica came home with a few starts of cabbage and cauliflower, and though I doubt I'm diligent enough to save them from the caterpillars, I've planted them.  I even loaded some dirt onto the high hugel and put in some squash seeds.  Asparagus is up, though sadly I've only spied a single morel. Still to go in are the tomatoes, hot peppers and eggplants.

Asparagus and chard
My sad little peach tree didn't come back this year.  The root stock has put out some suckers, so I cut the top off and let it be.  The cherry is in leaf and I pulled off a few dozen caterpillars (winter moths, I suspect).

The apple trees put out blossoms, but whether they will set any fruit this year is anyone's guess.  The little crabapples seem to have evaded the deer, and only one of the plum trees took damage.  Other than giving them some water and checking to see if the Japanese beetles have arrived yet, there's not much labor there.

And the beehives are abuzz.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

When life gives you treefall - make mushrooms.

They say when life gives you lemons - make lemonade.  But when life drops a spruce tree on your garden, make mushrooms.  Specifically, Chicken of the Woods, which thrives on newly fallen spruce.

I mail ordered some "plug spawn" from an outfit called Fungi Perfecti.  For $12-15 you get a hundred little dowels infused with the mycelium of a variety of edible or medicinal fungi.

If you have cut green wood or a fresh stump you can culture it by drilling a series of 5/16ths inch holes and tapping in the dowels with a rubber mallet.  In 9 months or so, once the mycelium has thoroughly colonized the wood, you should get a bloom of mushrooms to harvest.

I don't have a stump so much as a fallen tree, half uprooted.  I left the bottom dozen feet in place and divided the dowels up between the trunk and several 4-foot sections, cut and trimmed of branches.

I also had a maple with plenty of dead and dying sections, which I'd been meaning to cut.  It was only a matter of time until it dropped a limb onto one of our cars.

Only the center top was healthy, so I let it stand and trimmed out the rest.

The downed logs I'll inoculate with shiitake and pearl oyster mushrooms and roll them under the maple tree to rot and flourish.  The "stumps" I'll culture with blue oyster mushrooms, though if I were following proper protocol I would have cut the whole thing down to prevent it from fighting off the fungi.

In a few months I'll let you know how it went . . .

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The bees re-emerge.

The first three winters of my beekeeping career I failed utterly to coax a hive into over-wintering.  They all absconded, starved or otherwise expired before the spring nectar flow.  (0 for 7, I think.)

Part of that comes from my general approach to these kinds of things - which is to see how little I can get away with doing, before I start following all of the complicated edicts from the experts.

But my two colonies have successfully survived the winter and are currently finding nectar and pollen somewhere.  All I see around me are crocuses, snowdrops and the odd periwinkle blossom, but I suspect they are off to the swamp visiting the skunk cabbage.  They are already putting up nectar.

The smaller of the colonies I've written off as dead at least three times - first, last April when I accidentally uncaged the new queen directly into the hive - second when I checked back a few weeks later and found no brood at all - and third when I peeked in during the winter and found the too-light hive quiet and apparently empty.  (I only looked in the top - but in the other hive bee activity was high in the hive and obvious.)  I've never been able to spot this zombie queen that seems to keep bringing things back to life.

To myself I call that hive Corinth and the bigger, more vigorous hive Athens.

Last summer the nectar flow failed and not only did I harvest no honey, but in the fall I fed the two colonies something like 75 pounds of sugar just to give them some winter stores.  And yet this is the first lot of mine to survive.  Go figure.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Uncovering the Garden

The strengthening sun stripped away the snow.

From under the drifts, a few cheery chard plants are basking in the cold frames.

But the freshening breeze turned violent and toppled a spruce down onto the garden.

A taller tree and the chard would be basking in shards of glass and splinters of wood.

But no, the only victim is a forsythia, which thrives on any kind of abuse.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Cruel Equinox

It's the Equinox.

Crocuses!  Spring is unfolding finally!

No!  Wait!  Noooooo!

OK.  That's just mean.

Only one thing to do. 

Get that gardening started.

Happy Spring People!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Flight of the Timberdoodles

Last night at dusk I join a friend at Coogan Farm for the mating flights of the woodcocks.

It's a howling, still-winter night and there are only patches of open ground amid the snow.  Still, as the orange sky above Mystic turns magenta and then blackly purple, the woodcocks begin to make their rapid flights.  Wing feathers whistle in a high-pitched twitter.  They rocket back to their staging areas, and invisible on the ground, nasal 'peeeeeeent's buzz out above the rushing wind - calling to any females nearby on this cold night - to come and admire, to watch them strut and to take a mate.

Sunday, March 15, 2015


Nearly a month has gone by since I last posted.  I'd like to say it was a seasonally appropriate dormancy, but it wasn't.

In the interim I turned 50.  The second thing I did - after telling Nico to get up for school - was to fall down the stairs - top to bottom in a full-body tobogganing.  I picked myself up and confirmed that I was only bruised, which I chose to look at as a positive omen.  Nevertheless, I threw my old slippery-soled house shoes into the trash.

Monica had gone off to Hawaii - an escape from winter that she and her sisters had been planning for years.  As she explored Oahu and Maui, walking volcanos and listening to whales sing, her phone continued to supply her with a steady diet of winter weather warnings from Rhode Island.

Nico was home busy preparing for his "8th grade assessment", which involves a speech and presentation about service work, which in his case meant assisting with an after-school program in one of New London's public schools.   Mostly I just nagged him to make progress on a painting that he was creating as the "creative component."  He's a very articulate and compelling public speaker, so I had no doubts that he'd handle the committee he'd be speaking to.

At the end of February I left Nico - with the painting finished - staying with friends and traveled to West Virginia and eastern Kentucky on a nine-day trek.  A coalition of non-profits in central Appalachia hired us to conduct ethnography there for insights about how to transition past coal.  So I journeyed through a string of Kentucky's coal mining counties - Knox, Clay, Leslie, Floyd, Pike and into West Virginia - Logan and Mingo counties - talking to people about what would have to happen here for the young people to stay and make lives in these hills and hollers.

In the evenings, when I was all talked out, I plotted out the next day's forays and made sure other projects were on track.  We're in the midst of research about how people conceptualize mental disabilities, and I have interviewers talking with lawyers, judges, wardens, psychologists, case workers - as well as regular people.  Another project is focusing on progressive values.  And groundwork has to be laid for upcoming research on how to talk about the EITC, money in politics, good governance, women's leadership, not to mention the next phase of our work on building a constructive discourse around taxation.

Meanwhile, Monica had returned to the frozen northeast, Nico had handled his assessment, and Porter was flying in for a two-week spring break.  The scattered family was coalescing again.

The videographer who'd accompanied me for the second half of the Appalachia trip made it out on Wednesday morning, but one of the winter's (hopefully last) big storms closed in before I could make my escape.  In Charleston it poured rain and then dropped half a foot of snow - and airports, roads and highways were closed from Tennessee to Maine.  It wasn't until Friday morning that I chipped off my rental car's icy carapace, drove gingerly to the airport, and despite various delays, got launched toward home again.

But not to linger long there.  I had time to do a quick couple loads of laundry and to ready the basement in case warm rains came to suddenly dissolve our two feet of snow.

Porter is finishing up his junior year of high school and so commences the tradition of the college-visit-road-trip (which doesn't seem to have been a tradition back when I was choosing a college).  So on Monday the four of us drove northward, stopping in Cambridge to take a tour of MIT; on to Bath, Maine, where we joined old friends and made new ones over homemade pizza and red wine. Tuesday we toured Bowdoin College and Bates, and stayed with an old friend in Waterville, where I'd long ago spent a couple of years as a professor at Colby College.  Wednesday we toured Colby and in the evening ate fish and roasted potatoes with much wine and conversation.  Thursday we made our way back southward, stopping in Worcester to tour the polytechnic institute there.

Now I'm back home and another day of rain has washed away a few more inches of snow.  The basement is dry.  Tired looking grass is emerging from under tired looking snow.  Porter departed for California to make his way through the rest of the school year.

And I need to order my seeds for the garden!  See if the bees are still alive!  Start assembling materials for a deer fence!

No time for dormancy now.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Old-school snow shoeing


I'd been tromping some paths down in the snow, but they've all been drifted into oblivion. 

And more snow is coming.

Compared to friends farther north, two feet of snow on the ground isn't so much.  But it's more than we're used to - especially week after week.

I have some old beavertail-style snowshoes my Dad got from L.L. Bean many, many years ago.  

I took them off his hands this winter figuring they were decorative enough to keep on hand somewhere in case I ever needed a pair to get around on.  

Today was the day to try them out - if only to walk down to the beehives to make sure they hadn't been drifted over.

They're more cumbersome then the new-style snowshoes, but they work perfectly fine.  Much better to walk on top of snow than plow through it.  

And now if I ever have to make myself a pair of snowshoes - I know I have a model to work from - the same basic design as the Algonquin, Huron and French trappers used in the northern forests.

Tomorrow  is supposed to be sunny with a wind chill to -20° F  (-29° C), but now I can take a walk if I want to. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Chipping at the foundations of democracy: journalism edition

I haven't really been following the story about Brian Williams and whether he did or didn't embellish his experiences in the field as a reporter. Since I prefer information less corporately masticated,  I don't get my info from the TV.  The cult of on-the-spot tele-anchor reporting is more theater than journalism in any case.  But I do find the high-profile discrediting of a prominent figure of journalism to be a depressing spectacle.

It has little to do with Williams - who is probably a perfectly fine man.

It has little to do with the many bad habits of television and television news.

It has to do with discrediting the institution of journalism, so that its ultimate demise is mourned by no one - right, left or center.

The corporate takeover of the news media has overseen the diminishment of reporting across the country.  The decline in quality and independence and diversity - the decline in staff - the decline of journalism as a profession.  It has been a stunning destruction of the media as the Fourth Estate.

At one level this is part of the larger crisis of democracy as a form of political organization.  If anyone is going to look after the common good, we need sources of information and analysis that go beyond the press releases of the powerful.  (The first amendment of the Constitution acknowledges a "free press" as a bedrock institution of the republic.)

Unfortunately, this pattern of mismanaging, dismantling and discrediting isn't confined to news departments.

Look at the institutions or practices that (when functioning) contribute to actual democracy, and you'll see we're in the end game of a long, concerted effort to destroy and (even more insidiously) to discredit them and make them unusable:  public education, government, labor unions, science (as source of publicly available knowledge), the arts, taxation and so on.

Compare the institutions that lead in the other direction - military, police, the prison-industrial complex, courtier-journalism, science (as source of technologies of control), corporate consolidation, the legalization of political corruption, and so on.  All of these are being actively developed into the foundations of our society.

It is convenient for the powers that be that regular Americans be isolated from their own democratic power, and that institutions which could serve to enable collective self-organization and action be not only broken, but seen as unworthy of repair.

The constructive power of journalism has been to give people a better opportunity to see what is actually happening in the world - as distinct from the proclamations and propagandas of the powerful.      From the muckraking of Upton Sinclair, the bloody imagery of Vietnam, the embarrassment of Watergate or Abu Ghraib, such information can galvanize people to challenge the status quo or insist on something more in tune with the common will.

But when journalists are viewed as nothing more than spin doctors, entertainers, mouthpieces, stenographers, or unreliable celebrities - we lose access to an important source for a shared, credible picture of what is happening.  That's why I find the taking down of Brian Williams to be a sorry spectacle.  Because whatever the merits of the case, it is yet one more reason for people to give up on the idea that news media can be and ought to be a reliable source of information about what is really happening.

I don't think things are a lost cause, but I do think Americans are on the losing side of a intra-societal war that they are only dimly aware of.  And it is one they are very clearly NOT being informed about . . .

(editorial cartoons via

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Winter Views from the kitchen window

Icy rhododendrons

We weathered the storms without particular difficulty.  Nico got a couple of days off school because the roads were bad and the wind chills brutal, but our power stayed on.

The birds and squirrels have eaten their way through the first 50 lb. bag of sunflower seeds and are well into the second.  Shaggy-coated deer and a flock of turkeys come to glean beneath the feeders.

It's a difficult time of year and I don't begrudge any of the creatures their bit of seed.  

A white-tailed deer returns though I yelled at her to leave my cherry tree alone.
A white breasted nuthatch eyes me from the maple tree.
A downy woodpecker pauses at the suet feeder as a Carolina wren works the other side
A young Cooper's hawk hunts songbirds
Flower heads
Turkeys tidy up the birdseed in the cold, early morning gloom.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Preparing for the Blizzard of '15

It's snowing outside.  The forecasters are predicting that 18 to 30 inches will fall in the next day and a half.  Probably we'll never know exactly how much, because they are also expecting wind gusts of 65 mile per hour, which will sweep clear the high spots and bury the low spots.

It's possible the power will stay on, but I'm not counting on it.  

We heat with a wood stove, and I've laid in a few days of fuel, so as long as the roof is intact we'll be comfortable.  

Our cook stove is electric, but there is much we can cook on the wood stove.  In fact, a pot roast is out thawing and beans are soaking.

Rye bread is baking, and we have candles and oil lamps for light.

The main problem with a power outage is water.  The pump won't draw from the well without electricity.  But I always have 40 gallons of potable water (alongside plenty of food) in the "hurricane pantry," as well as a 25 gallon barrel of non-potable water in the basement.  The rain barrel was brought in for the winter, so I filled it with another 55 gallons of water - for flushing the toilet or washing.

I've put heavy stones on top of the beehives, fetched the snow shovel from the shed, and filled the bird feeders.

And we have nowhere else we have to be.

If you are in the path of this, be safe.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

January Gardening

  A half-dozen nights of single-digit cold should have done in the last of the greens, but they look discouraged, not dead.  My cold frames are nothing but a box with an old window set on top, but that's been enough to protect the hardier mustards, chards and greens.

Granted, they are not exactly luxuriating under our stingy winter sunlight, and they only exist because I haven't been harvesting them.  But still they are edible - and in their small doses they pack infinitely more flavor and vitality than the supermarket greens that one can buy.  

I'm definitely motivated to make the autumn garden a priority in the future and see if I can generate more of a winter harvest.

The window-lids don't just allow in winter sunlight and protect against the cold.  
They also give some protection from four-legged marauders.

Into a teapot I crushed mint 
that I had picked and dried for just such January days,
 and drizzled in the honey from the backyard hives,
and settled down with a hot and steaming tea that tasted like August.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Marking the Civil Rights Movement: Racial disparities as justification for racism

Ferguson protest at U Penn, by SOUL
(UPDATED, Jan 20)

One of the things that makes US racism so powerful and durable is that the more destructive and awful we make the misery, disparities and injustices of race, the more natural and right the system seems to people.  The outcomes of racism are held up as proof that our racism is right and just.

This was driven home to me a number of years ago when I directed a research project to help advocates and public health officials communicate about racial disparities in health.

One of the clearest findings is that whenever you speak about racial disparities in health outcomes (like rates of diabetes or heart disease or life expectancy) people assume that Black people just can't make smart decisions about their health.  Sharing information on disparities just serves to confirm long-standing racist assumptions about Black or Hispanic people.

Strike one.

If you try to show that Blacks and Hispanics are growing up in neighborhoods and settings that are disadvantaged and destructive, it just confirms in people's minds that this isn't just a sum of individual failings, but a collective failure of an entire race or people.

Strike two.

Complain that it's unfair or problematic that we have too many Black families in poverty, ill-health or being torn apart by the criminal justice system, and the best you can hope for is that people bite their tongues because they know it's impolite to voice what they really think of all that.

If you demonstrate that Black families and Black communities have had the deck stacked against them structurally and historically, people will shrug and shake their heads, because winners are those that overcome their obstacles and losers are those who fail to overcome their obstacles and who then blame others and whine about the unfairness of it all.

Strike three.

In our research, the only way we found around this was to talk exclusively about inputs rather than outcomes.  If you can show that a Black man who goes to the doctor for hypertension is much less likely to be given a prescription than a white man, then that is something everyone can agree ought to be corrected.  If you can show that we spend on average $700 less per year on a Black student compared to a White student - and that such disparities persist even within the same school district - this is something people agree ought to be corrected.

But these kind of "smoking gun" statistics can only address a small part of the picture.  Even more problematic is that such facts are not only harder to come by, but people dislike them, try to evade, sideline and find flaws with them.  Ultimately - they forget and discard them.  It is too hard and too troublesome to keep this kind of information in mind when the prisons, ghettos and news reports are full of Black people who prove that this whole societal disaster is their fault - not ours.  With such a lens firmly in place human psychology makes it fairly easy to sort everyday interactions in a way that confirms one's prejudices.

Social scientists have ample proof that the US enacts and enforces a race-based caste system.  An integral building block in this has been attitudes about the moral inferiority of Black character and behavior,  a portrait which remains relatively constant, whether articulated via the Bible, biology, social darwinism, or flawed culture.

Speaking as a social scientist, it is depressing that a half-century of research has given unprecedented insight into our racist system, and this has not only failed to alter that system, but in effect has served to bulwark its solidity instead.


I feel like this blog post comes across as hopeless and I don't mean for it to be so.  I am discouraged that the kind of strategic framing that we specialize in seems inadequate to the task of countering racism.  I am even more discouraged that the facts that social science has uncovered have been inadequate to the task of countering racism, and have often instead been folded into racism.

I put my hope in desegregation.  By that I don't mean busing or affirmative action - though I support both.  I mean breaking down the two-worlds experience that divides African-Americans from so many of the rest of us.

And that is something that we can all play a role in from our varied positions in this riven society.