Not Feeling the Rooster Love…

If you know me, you know I love my chickens. It’s like potato chips. I can’t stop getting chickens. When I walk into the farm store and see those fluffy little bodies, I know that I NEED at least 6 or 8 more.

In spring we purchased what was called a “straight run.” We did this because they were so darned cute, and so darned cheap. Straight run meant that you get what you get. You may get hens, you may get roosters, but there’s no guarantee as they aren’t sexed beforehand.

Out of the 20 or 30 chickens we got, 3 were roosters. And what magnificent roosters they turned out to be. Lovely, regal glistening black boys with almost iridescent plumage. I walked down every day with my basket of goodies, my egg apron, and chatted with Rooster Cogburn, Black Bart, and Brett Maverick. We communed. And I loved them.

black-australorp-rooster

Two weeks ago I bounced my way down to the coop to say hi to the brood. Called the boys by name, and with over 30 hens, don’t have the energy or creativity to give them their own personal monikers, so just normally shout “Girls, I have some treats for you!” All of a sudden, something bashed into the back of my shoe. I turned around and just saw chicken eyes. Nobody said anything, nobody did anything and I figured that because I was in the middle of the mosh pit, someone inadvertently stumbled into me. Hard.

A few days passed and I was down at the goat pens bending over trying to fill up water buckets and out of the corner of my eye, a mass of black feathers came hurling at me, slamming into my right knee with claws out. What the hell? What did I ever do? I wasn’t even looking at him. I was just bending over turning on a water faucet.

I pulled out my chicken books, took to the internet, researching why my precious baby would turn on me like that. One site said that roosters may not like your shoes. So I changed my shoes. Still wary, I made my morning stroll to collect eggs. Black Bart gave me the “rooster eye” but I spoke sweetly to him, promised to throw out some corn scratch and passed by with no incidence. The operative words being “passed by.” As soon as my back was turned, I glanced over my shoulder to see Bart with his neck feathers  on high alert, and with wings flapping, as he started running after me.

I have to say, I just don’t run. It’s just not a good look for me. And I’m not the most graceful  or coordinated athlete.But run I did, like a screaming banshee up the driveway (the long, uphill through gravel 1/4 mile driveway) stumbling and looking over my shoulder, yelling for my husband to rescue me from the beak of death.

My husband, being ever so supportive, said ‘why don’t you just kick him out of the way? That’s what I do.”

Seriously?  A whirling dervish of midnight black feathers, crowing beak and talons drawn comes flying at the back of me and I’m supposed to #1 actually see him coming from behind and #2 try to spin around and kick him? When I had to pay soccer in junior high PE I missed kicking the ball. Every. Single. Time. What makes him think I could actually hit a moving target that can also fly? Aside from the obvious, I’m not big on using my body to ward off anything. I mean, I can’t even kill a bug by stepping on it. I have to physically remove my shoe and hit at with the shoe not attached to my foot. I get grossed out swatting at a fly with my hand. Yeah, I’m a girly girl. And not apologizing one bit for it.

“That’s it” Brad proclaimed. “I can’t have you scared to go down to the chicken pasture. I have too much to do already. The rooster is going to be butchered tomorrow.”

Oh no. Nonononono. I would work something out. I searched the house for an appropriate anti-rooster defensive weapon and spied a small chimney broom. Perfect! I would simply circle the area around me, front and back, with the broom to create a sort of rooster safety zone. After all, I’m an intelligent, college-educated person. I can come up with a solution. Putting a chicken in the pot is akin to hitting control-alt-delete on the computer. It’s the last resort. And I’m too savvy for that.

Roosters are not stupid creatures. The broom worked somewhat, but I would have to swat at him constantly, always walking in circles because he’d flank me, and I was afraid to stand still. If I did, he’d charge. So I had to hop around, spinning the broom in one hand while I simultaneously opened up the nest boxes and held the lids open with my head while collecting the eggs with my other hand. All the while swooshing the broom and screaming.

After two weeks, I decided, OK, this is NOT working and I’m NOT going back down there. I’m over it. Done. Not only that, but he was also being aggressive with my sweet little hens. The most popular of which bore a huge bald spot on her head. I guess no means no, except if you’re a rooster. So … RIP Black Bart …

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It was bittersweet. It was nice knowing you, but you just had to go.

Yesterday I gleefully walked to the mailbox, passing the chickens strolling the property. They always run up to greet me, and cheerfully I asked how their day was going. They were all smiling their little chicken smiles, Rooster Cogburn and Brett Maverick joining along. I passed the crowd, down the end of the drive, and heard a scrambling of feet which sounded more like a charging herd. Turned to look and saw the dust flying and … the neck feathers of a rooster up in attack mode, charging after me.

Holy shit! We convicted the wrong criminal!  I felt SO guilty. I’m a pacifist! What did we do?

It’s been 4 days and I’m dealing with it. Especially since Brad turned him into some mean (pun intended) tamales. I guess I can live with myself. Pass the napkins, please.

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I do not “Heart” Composting

I remember, quite clearly, a day in my 20s. I was driving, windows down, my 20-year-old thick long hair whipping around my head, sitting next to Karen, my best friend in the world as we headed down the 101 – from Hollywood to Malibu on another getaway weekend. We had the radio cranked up to the Golden Oldies, feeling that we would never be anything but the glorious, sparkly, glowing creatures we were at that exact moment.

We swore out loud that we would never, ever settle. I remember saying,”I don’t care what happens, I will always live in the city. I’d rather have a one-room flat in the city, then a mansion in the suburbs.”

Then I married Brad. I’m not going to say that our views were diametrically opposite. I wasn’t Hillary, he wasn’t Donald. But – while I was happily driving on the freeways of life, Brad was looking to take that country road home.

Brad wanted to buy a house. As in, you own it yourself. And all I could say was “Not even on a good day. If you buy a house, and the toilet breaks, you have to fix it yourself!”

You see, to me that is the worst of all possibilities. Your stove breaks? No problem. The baseboards in the bathroom are rotting? No problem. So many ants in the kitchen that they start walking away with the cutlery? Again, no problem. All of which, by the way, have happened in rentals in which I’ve dwelled. But having your toilet break down? That’s a big no, good buddy. And without the ability to march into the manager’s office and demand an immediate fix? Big problem. Not happening.

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Would never happen in a rental!

 

It happened. We bought a house – but it was in the city-proper. And, amazingly enough, the toilet remained intact for the 10 or so years we lived there. But with home ownership came a set of rules. Because, after all, it was ours. And we had to maintain it. No more “I think I’ll move because the windows are dirty and I don’t wash windows.” No more “oh, well, the bird ate the curtains, I guess I won’t get my security deposit back.” I was now tasked with crossing over into adulthood. A step that I was ill prepared to take. But one that Brad relished with gusto. And an enthusiasm I just couldn’t muster.

One day Brad walked in and ceremoniously placed an empty Maxwell House coffee container on the kitchen counter. “What’s that?” I asked. Suspicious, as always. “This is for the compost.” Uh-huh. Well, I knew what compost was, just didn’t really think it applied to me. I have a green thumb when it comes to houseplants, but I have my Miracle-gro. Works great, thanks anyway. I didn’t really care for a coffee can sitting on my fine, imitation wood Formica countertop.

But I gave it the old “one for the gipper.” Unfortunately, Brad’s idea of composting and mine were, in this case, diametrically opposite.

I watched the Food Network. I appreciated that chefs kept a nice big bowl next to them wh

rotten vegs

Compost. Need I say more?

ere their unused food scraps went. So that was okay. As long as it went away. Immediately. Brad’s idea was to ignore the coffee can as it stood on the counter, days on end, until it became a quivering mass of indecipherable glob that, once you opened the lid, induced the immediate gag reflex.

 

Truth be told, I didn’t compost. I said I did, but I didn’t. Brad would say “where’s the compost” and I would cheerfully reply “we don’t waste anymore. I use EVERYTHING for soup!” When in fact, as soon as he left the house, I shoved everything down the garbage disposal.

Since that time we’ve moved on. We created “Foggy Mountain Farm” – aka the Reluctant Farm – and composting has taken a new meaning, because we have a septic system and because of this, there is no handy garbage disposal. So EVERYTHING that isn’t edible becomes compost. And that compost is now a combination of what will decay and provide us with essential nutrients for our garden, and stuff that our totally free-ranged, pasture-raised chickens will inevitably peck through and consume with great relish.

Because I am who I am, a writer/journalist, I research. So I know things. And what I know is that chickens, unlike what Brad wants to believe, will not just “peck through what they want and leave the rest.” I know that avocados, are bad for chickens. I know that garlic, and onions, and Brussel sprouts can make their eggs taste odd. I know you can’t put egg shells in the compost without either cleaning each one out carefully, or popping them in the oven to dry. Because that, my friends, will cause chickens to cannibalize their eggs. Once they taste yolk it’s all over.

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Bad chicken! Bad!

Brad is many things. A former engineer-chiropractor-now farm boy, but never, ever a researcher. Or one who checks things first. Unfortunately that means  he also doesn’t believe me when I tell him – “DON”T put that in the compost. It will make the chickens eggs taste funny then nobody will buy the eggs from us, and we’ll both have to go and get jobs working for someone else. And we both know we are too odd for that. Nobody else can tolerate us for any length of time.” It’s true. We have about a 2 hour use-by time stamp. And people start staring longingly at the door, planning their escape dialog.

Basically, Brad ignores me. He just dumps everything into the compost bowl under the sink, saying “For God sakes, Susan, the chickens will be FINE.” So, like a sleeper agent who’s been activated,  I have to dig through the compost when he’s not looking, to pull out the onion skins, the raw broccoli stems, the tops of the chives, and pick through the rotted salad for specks of cauliflower. Then hide it all under paper towels in the trash so he can’t say I’m being “ridiculous.”

So when I say I don’t love composting, it’s kind of an understatement. I hate it. I hate the smell. I hate the slimy feel. I hate having it sit there, overflowing, growing moss and mold underneath, until I finally have to grab it and put it on the side steps so Brad will either A. step right into it in his socks or B. finally decide it’s time to pick it up, put it in the back of his tractor, and drive it away from my kitchen.

I was the girl who wore cute shoes. Who danced with handsome men at midnight. Who’s greatest skill, aside from writing, was knowing how to find the best restaurants, and innately knew how to order the best thing on the menu. I was That Girl. And now I’m Compost Girl. Picking through trash and sniffing bits of tomato to be sure there’s no speck of avocado clinging to the skins.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen …

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bugger Off!

I have  issues – insects are but one in long list. I’m intelligent, so I know that they have their place in this world (although with cockroaches, not so much), but I always wish and hope that coexisting doesn’t involve inviting the outside in. Nature Girl, I’m not.

My bug issues go way back  – to when, in second grade, a bee was flying about and I covered my face with my hands so that I wouldn’t get stung, and the bee was actually IN my hand.

Or when a friend told me that a praying mantis would show its “butterfly wings” if you nudged it with your foot. I did, but ended up with a praying mantis attached to my big toe like the jaws of life.

praying mantis

When I lived in the bush, in Fiji for 14 years, I struggled with coconut beetles …

ccnut beetles

Big hairy spiders…
Wolf-spider

Bugs that blinked and glowed in the dark, and clung to the mosquito netting around your bed…
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Walking sticks that were the size of your head
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And anything flying or crawling that would appear only in a nightmare. So it was with glee that I noted I survived almost 2 years in Washington state without nary a mosquito bite and no bugs that entered my house. Yes, there is an elk heard, big coyotes that look like wolves, and a resident porcupine, but nothing that I can’t handle. Until now.

My house has 3 Amityville Horror windows in it.

Amityville House

amityville

My house

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Not exact, but close. The top window is our bedroom. In that window, high up, I happened to notice a few spots. I went downstairs to get my glasses – because without them I can see about 6 feet and even that is sketchy. Found out I had some lady bugs (about 3) walking about my window. In my classification of bugs, lady bugs are almost welcome. I do not like bugs, but if I had to choose a bug that invaded my space, a lady bug would definitely be on the top of the list.

So I carried the three to my bedroom patio and wished them well.

A week later and I counted 10 ladybugs. But they were at the top of the window, much too high for me to reach. I didn’t worry, but told Brad to check it out. Not too high for him, but he seemed pretty nonplussed about the whole matter. I remained curious, but unconcerned as I cleared my mind and attempted not to make the Amityville/Susanville connection. But, try as I could to have temporary amnesia, I couldn’t help but remembering when we first moved in. The second upstrairs bedroom (with the OTHER Amityville window) kept collecting flies.  All dead. I’d sweep them up, and two days later, another batch would be laying there.

My sister gave me sage, told me to burn it in the room to get rid of whatever spirits tended to hover. I did, muttered a few “begone with thee” words, felt extra ridiculous,  and that seemed to be the end of the matter. Well, that and, of course, I keep that bedroom door close and never go in. That works best of all.

Now the ladybugs seemed to be moving about more noticeably, and one started its way down the cord to the blinds. On the high window – OK. Moving down to my actually living area – not cool.

Brad said “don’t worry, I’ll vacuum them up in the morning” so I let it go.

And it went … the “morning” turned into a week. At the end of which, I found one in the tub and – Holy Mother of God – on my pillow. So I said what I always say to Brad, the code that tells him he can’t wait for tomorrow because it’s that one last nerve that sends me from zero to lunatic in 60 seconds … “this is NOT working for me.”

He vacuumed. The 10 or so I thought I counted, were more like 40. Ten were visible. The rest were crawling around the high sills. But Brad got them all and proclaimed the room “Clean.”

This was Friday. It is now Monday. I just walked up to the bedroom and … like the Poltergeists – THEY’RE BAACK. I could see 20 – not just on the windows, but crawling on the walls, across the floor, on the window seat and pillows, and I found them crawling INSIDE my bathrobe.

I’m afraid. This is our farm. Our new “forever home” and it’s being invaded. By seemingly innocuous creatures – or so you’d think. Most people thing ladybugs are … cute …
baby_ladybug

But, en masse, they become sinister invaders, almost alien-like in their stealthy movements, occasional flappy wings, clustering like a virus in an undulating mass waiting to erupt …

ladybugs

It’s like a Stephen King novel. Like a 50s horror movie. Like a page out of Edgar Allan Poe.

But I can do this. Wild Reluctant Farm Woman in the Wilderness can handle anything. I’ve braved fish getting stuck in my swimsuit, barracudas leaping out of the water to nab a piece of cracker out of my hand, cyclones that ripped palm trees out of the ground and flung them miles away. I can handle anything.

Except – if birds start slamming into the windows, beds start rising off the ground, or Brad speaks in a scary monster voice, I’m packing my bags and moving to the city. But … I might have to take a chicken or two with me …

 

 

Name that Farm!

It’s about that time. Test garden is in full swing, I have 90 eggs in my fridge and that doesn’t count the 15 or so that I will be getting in today’s coop. We just got ourselves two piglets, are in the market for a couple of goats, and later next spring, a cow or two.

So, I’d say the farm is damn near a real “farm.”

It had come to Brad’s attention that we now have to trot our little selves down to the government offices and make ourselves official. But the question is, what do we call ourselves.

Plans for next year include building cabins/bungalows (only 3 to keep it manageable) and opening it up as a B&B Farm Stay. Keeping that in mind, I thought we should keep Reluctant Farm.It’s cute, it’s quirky it speaks to who we are.

Brad says no. Says Reluctant means we’re not totally in it all the way. “Who wants to visit a farm where the people really aren’t into it?” he said.

Well, I would. I would find a kindred spirit. We’d drink wine and laugh about the pig crap and goat crap and chicken crap and drink more wine and ignore it.

But – that’s me. He’s more staid. And thinks that “Sustainable Earth Farm” reflects more of our values. But truly, I have no values. You bring me chocolate, tell me you like me,  you’ll be my new best friend. And if you brought me a really good bottle of Pinot Noir, or even a cheap cab, we’ll be friends for life.

In an effort to be fair, I said I’d open it up to the public. So – public – please cast your votes. there are two choices, but to be honest, we would love suggestions. And in the “write in” section, please do NOT put Donald Trump…

Keep in Mind – Chickens, Eggs, Goats, Pigs, Cows, Bed and Breakfast, One Reluctant Farmgirl and a Gung Ho Farmer …

Reluctant Farm
Sustainable Earth Farm
Anything Else but the above two
Your suggestion please

AND – as a special prize, we’ll send you something if you come up with a winning name that we like better than ours. I don’t know what it will be, maybe a jar of jam or salsa (it’s totally good) but I feel compelled to give away something if someone is truly creative. Because I’m not. Creative. In any way, shape or form.

Much Ado About Poo

Everyone is excited about fair season here in Washington. Seems every other week there’s a county fair, state fair, city fair. But the best event of all is … wait for it … the upcoming Fall Fecal Fest. No shit. No, I am not shitting you. It’s a festival of poo.

It’s obviously a big deal because you can’t just go and purchase the doodoo, you have to put your name into a lottery. THEN you have the chance to purchase an alarming amount of zoo doo – ranging from hippo, giraffe, zebra or if you want mass quantities, elephant feces. If you want a big old pail – 4 gallons – you can only get it during the holidays, and it’s aptly named “Holidoo.” I’m rushing to the site right now to put my name on the waiting list.

New this year is worm doo. It’s more pricey than Holidoo – which goes for $20 for the 4 gallons. Worm doo is $10 a pint. You must be able to pan for gold in worm poop. All that excitement over excrement makes this former city girl’s head spin.

I am learning but I still cringe when Brad wants to take our truck and trailer over to the cow farm to get ripe manure. I think, dear God, the neighbors will shoot us if we cover our 16 acres in a steaming mass of … well, you get the picture. But no. They cheer him on. I keep trying to tell them “do NOT encourage him” but they think it’s a grand old idea and even encourage him to go to the sheep farm down the street, because sheep really make superior fertilizer.

I’m all over having a productive garden. I haven’t had to buy vegetables in a month. And I think that’s grand. I think Brad should make use of all the poo our chickens produce. And chickens do poo. Lots of it. But it’s all mixed in with straw and doesn’t smell. I’ve driven past the sheep farm. Sheep poo smells to high heaven. I just can’t get past that gag factor.

But poo has become a major topic of discussion around these parts. I am truly trying to assimilate, but there are some things I just can’t make myself do. I can’t call our creek a crick, and I can’t carry on long conversations about things that should remain unmentionable.

When we first “set aspell” with our neighbors after we moved here (it’s a year  since we moved to Washington country and started Reluctant Farm) our neighbor said “oh, I’ll have to make you some worm tea.
wormteaNo. Really, thanks but no. I mean, it’s nice of you, but please no. I really, really love tea. I mean tea is, well, my cup of tea.

my-cup-of-tea

Please please please don’t ruin it for me…

A week later we were gifted with a worm bin, from which to extract worm tea. I haven’t participated in the extraction process, as I truly feel my strengths lie elsewhere. Anywhere else. But Brad adores his worm bin, faithfully feeds it coffee grounds every day, and uses the worm tea for the garden.

So my visions of sitting on my veranda, sipping my elegant Lady Grey tea, looking out at the sunrise and rolling green hills on our property has taken a back seat to the harsh reality of sitting on the porch, breathing through my mouth because my whole front yard will smell like sheep shit.

Because Christmas comes but once a year, I have a scathingly brilliant idea for Brad’s gift this year. Because I love my husband like crazy. And yes, it’s bigger than a bread box …

holidoo

 

I’m SUCH a Nerd!

Wandering around the coop, my husband said to me … “it’s about time these damn chickens start laying some eggs and earn their keep. Otherwise, they are going to find their way onto the barbecue grill!”

I thought this was quite insensitive. I mean, what was HE doing at 4 months old? Blowing spit bubbles and pooping himself. “Well you know they are probably nervous and stressed. They see you stomping around threatening to turn them into tomorrow’s special, and it makes them anxious. And besides, my chickens are my entertainment. I pick them up and pet them and watch as they clap their little wings when I feed them pasta salad.”

It’s true. When he told me that all 20 chickens would probably not produce eggs all the time, and some would have to become stew or chicken stock, I understood. “This is a farm – it’s not a chicken retirement home.” I know the circle of life. I like Elton John and all, but he MUST also understand that there were one or two chickens that would live with us until their last feather dropped. And those were the two chickens who would automatically lay down by my feet waiting to be pet, picked up and loved. Who would climb on my back when I bent over.

Brad agreed – and went to get the tags so we could sort out which ones would live out their entire lives with us here at Reluctant Farm.

But a funny thing happened between that discussion and the day when we went to get the leg tags. I walked into the chicken run, and the chickens dropped at my feet. Not just my two little black and white barred rocks, but some whites, some Rhode Island Reds, and two more barred rocks. It was like they were all overcome with the vapors. And that’s when I realized … Chickens KNOW. They are spiritually, emotionally and soulfully connected to Mother Earth. Chickens know things we will never be able to grasp. And that’s when I said realized – we WILL become the first ever chook retirement home.

After this assurance to my girls, a few weeks later we did our normal routine of checking in the nest boxes. Starting at one end, counting – nope, nope, nope, nope … then all of a sudden – the skies opened and a golden egg appeared – not from a goose, but from my favorite barred rock chicken!

I swear, you would have thought Ed McMahon himself rose from the grave and knocked on my front porch with the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes check for $1 million dollars. In fact, if he was on my doorstep I would have run him over looking for my camera to take a picture of our very first egg.

I think I took more pictures of that first egg than I took when my first baby was born. I had to get it from different angles …

Cupped in my hand to make it look bigger …

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In my Indian woven basket as an art piece …

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Nestled in a kitchen towel for effect …

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We were so excited we immediately scrambled it up for breakfast and shared one tiny egg between us.

When we’d run down every day to the coop to see if we have any other little gems waiting for us, there would be anywhere from 3-5 eggs daily. It’s the miracle of life!

The chickens were obviously not as moved about the whole experience as I am. Most of the time they seem a bit irritated that I keep raising the lids on the next boxes. They look at me and I’m sure they’re thinking … “hey, do you mind? I’m doing my business here? Can’t a hen get herself some privacy?”

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I kinda felt like I had caught someone in a compromising position in an outhouse. I’d say “oh, sorry” and back away.

So I skipped to my lou yesterday, with my egg basket, only to find SEVEN eggs. Seven. It was a new record! But now I have this …

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Yep, 20 eggs. And this is AFTER I gave a dozen to the neighbor. And BEFORE I go down to the coop this morning.

Now every morning Brad asks me “do you want me to make some eggs for breakfast?” And after omelets, scrambled eggs and three quiches, I’m a big egged-out.

I’m thinking of making a couple of angel food cakes. Maybe some soufflés. Lemon curd? Or maybe I’ll just leave a dozen on various doorstep and run away. Like a farm girl version of Kris Kringle.

With the eggs, the copious amount of swiss chard, tomatoes and cucumbers that are sitting on my kitchen counter, awaiting culinary creativity I just can’t seem to muster, I think I will, perhaps, drive to the city, see a movie, preferably a double feature, eat Baby Ruth and popcorn. Then when I come back it may all be a hazy memory.

Or a recurring nightmare, like the one where I can never find my house, or am sitting in my 8th grade classroom naked. Either way, there is no escaping Reluctant Farm.

Put that candle someplace else!

Yes, I had another birthday.

Because I live a lot of the time in my head, I tend to have random thoughts that make perfect sense to me, but sound like gibberish to some less enlightened individuals who don’t share my superior intellect.

But I was thinking, you know, birthdays are really kind of a strange ritual. I mean, someone says “oh, it’s your birthday today! Happy Birthday.” And you are congratulated for what? For being born 35 years ago on the same day. So, Ok, it’s not 35 years, but we’re dealing with hypotheticals here.

But the point is, we are being lauded for a process that we had absolutely nothing to do with. When in actuality, it should be our mothers who are congratulated for their part in our birth process. I mean, really, did any of us “ask to be born?” No. And by the way, I never, ever said those words to my parents. Friends did – when they’d get in trouble, they’d yell “Well, I never asked to be born.” I never said it because I was afraid my parents would then say “OK, we can fix that.” I wasn’t the most charming child. I had my reasons.

I don’t care for a lot of pomp and circumstance. The whole candle blowing, singing, having a restaurant stop in mid air and wish you a happy day? No thanks. I hate it. I don’t know how to respond. “Thank you, I did it all by myself”?

This is something that I thought was strange for a long time. I’ve looked at my birthday photos, and most of the time I either look bossy (because everyone MUST do things the right way – which is obviously my way) or slightly peeved.

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Yes, I’m at the head of the table, and I am annoyed. First I’m wearing a stupid hat, and even at 5 I hated hats. Second, because there are an overabundance of boys at the table, and third, it means that I have to share MY cake. Even then I thought birthday parties were odd.

This year, I wanted it on the lowdown. My husband has known me since 7th grade. We’ve been married for 28 years. So he KNOWS me. But he also thinks he can “fix” me.

For my birthday, I wanted nothing more than to be swept out of the house, and to a “nice corner table for two” at a restaurant where the napkins were cloth, the plates were not paper, the wine came out of a bottle with a cork, the food artfully presented and appealing to all the senses, and there would be cake. Discreetly dropped off at my table.

Because, while I hate the pomp and circumstance, I love me some cake. Not a cake lit up like the Forth of July, with Crisco frosting. The kind that coats the top of your mouth for the next millennium with sprinkles that chip your molars and cake that dries your mouth until you yell “MORE WINE PLEASE”.

white cake

But maybe a classic dark chocolate cake with a delicate mousse filling drizzled with raspberry coulis. Yeah, I’d eat that all day.

cake

And if you threw in a coupon for a massage, I would be every so grateful …

massage

But this is a birthday for City Susan. City Susan is no longer. She may live, forever, in my heart, but this year was my first birthday as the Reluctant Farm Girl. And the Reluctant Farm Girl has boots in the garage that have hay and chicken poop on the bottoms, shirts stained with blueberries, and a diamond ring that sits in a safe, not on her finger.

“I have a confession to make” said Brad, 2 days before my birthday. “I invited the neighbors over for a barbecue on your birthday.”

A barbecue.

There are 5 reasons I like barbecue:

1. It’s cooked outside so there are no pots for me to clean

2. It’s cooked outside so in the summer it doesn’t heat up the house

3. It’s cooked by someone else because I can’t barbecue

4. Most fish tastes better grilled, and I love fish

5. I can’t think of another damn reason I like barbecue because, in reality, I’m not a fan of the “Q.” Because it mainly consists of hamburgers and hot dogs, or maybe a charred piece of chicken. Not really elevated cuisine, especially on one’s birthday.

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While I wasn’t over the moon about my husband’s birthday plans for him, I remained mute. Mainly because, this year in January, I totally forgot his birthday. I mean, zip. In my defense, we were in Texas, getting ready to do a big promotion to a large travel agency, and I didn’t sleep well in the hotel the night before, and was extremely nervous about said presentation. So I wasn’t going to make a big deal out of having to eat burnt food for my birthday. In my backyard. With paper plates. And plastic cups. And a cooler full of Bud Light, which I don’t drink.  Or having to vacuum the house and clean the kitchen before the neighbors came.

And, by the way, several years before Brad completely forgot my birthday. So while it doesn’t excuse my lack of manners, it does even the score, don’t you think?

So my birthday came, I put on make up and a colorful summer dress, all the while thinking that I SO deserved better. I deserved a pedicure and a night on the town. In a town that had Michelin rated restaurants. Or at least Zagat rated.

The “cue” was smoking, Brad was cooking, and the neighbors showed up. Bearing cards saying that I was the best neighbor ever, bearing gifts from the country – a “nectar plant” to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, pounds of salmon from their recent trip to Alaska, fresh frozen halibut, a pot of homemade beans, and wide as a country mile smiles.

And, yeah. I liked it. I want to kick myself, but I liked it. I liked the beans, the bush, the fish, and the sense of community. I liked knowing that my neighbors care. I like actually knowing my neighbors. And, in the long run, that’s what life is all about. Being with people who make you feel loved and who make you glad you live where you live, and who accept you, chicken poop on your shoes and all.

I got an ice cream cake. With an oreo crust. And I ate it for breakfast. Because it was my birthday. And because I could.

And next year … I want that damn massage!

But … can she cook?

I’m a bit of an oddity for my generation, in that I never learned to cook at my mother’s knee. I never baked cookies with her at Christmas, nor kneaded bread, nor shelled peas, nor shucked corn. There was no shucking in the Bronx. My mother was a career woman until the fateful day I was hanging in the alley with the homeboys at age 5, and we all decided to climb atop a lion’s head that graced the entrance to a building.

I followed, of course, because that’s what I did. I may have been a natural born leader at one point, but as a bright child soon figured out that being a leader only got me in trouble. Like the time that the boys were bugging me as I was walking up the stairs to our brownstone. I decided to pull down my pants and stick out my bare butt to scare them off. In retrospect, probably not my finest moment, but at 5, it seemed like a good idea. Of course, as I grew I came to realize that showing body parts was not the smartest way to ward off the opposite sex. But that’s a whole other story.

Anyway, I climbed up the lion and, to much taunting, jumped like everyone else. But everyone else was a boy. Wearing dungarees. I was a girl. And my Momma raised me to wear little plaid short skirts with anklets and patent leather shoes. I hit a rock, my leg split open and the next day my mother put in her notice. I was obviously no longer to be trusted in the alleys of New York.

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Ok, so it wasn’t actually this same lion, but damn near close.

For some reason, I was not embraced to join my mother’s mysterious world in the kitchen. Probably because knives were involved and I was an unknown. I was categorized as “unpredictable.” In a scary, horror movie kind of way. My mother saw the movie “Bad Seed” and never looked at me the same way. So I was never around matches, nor anything sharp. I don’t think I was allowed to cut my own food until I was 16.

At 15 I was finally invited to help Mom. She had 3 kids under the age 5, so it was with resignation that she said I should make dinner once a month. I did learn to make two dishes so I would rotate between tuna noodle casserole with potato chips on top, and hamburger casserole with Fritos on top. My one and only seasoning, for years, would be Lawry’s Seasoned Salt.

When I moved out of my parents home, I learned how to warm up refried beans and put them into prefab corn taco shells. I learned to treat myself to premade shrimp cocktail followed by a filet mignon. I had a roommate who was a cocktail waitress, and she taught me the ins and outs of eating during happy hour – buy a drink, then load up on the free food.

My first husband and I lived on Taco Bell, which was right next to our apartment. I did branch out and channeled my inner Nona – and finally created 2 signature dishes – my killer lasagna and meatballs to die for. So – Taco Bell – Lasagna – Meatballs.

My mother, most likely out of guilt, gave me her prized copy of the “I Hate to Cook Book.” I still have it, with her quirky handwritten comments next to each recipe. It was there that I learned I could put a piece of meat in aluminum foil, add Lipton onion soup mix on top, wrap it up, baked it in the oven, throw in a cut potato an hour before it was done, and I had dinner.

I learned how to put chicken on top of raw rice, with some mushrooms and a can of soup, bake it and add a salad. Dinner. I could do stew (throw it all together with canned tomatoes and bake) and chili (5 ingredients – 1 of each – throw it together and bake). Yeah, there’s a theme going – canned shit, baked, done. But they had one recipe each day for 30 days, and I was a master of all of them. The marriage lasted 5 years. I guess he got tired of once a month meatloaf.

It was when I met my husband Brad that I realized I had to up my game. One day he came over to my apartment for a date, and instead announced that it would be “fun” to bake bread.

“Bake bread? Like really bake bread? Or get the frozen loaf from Pillsbury and thaw it out and bake it?”

No, he meant he wanted to bake bread. With yeast and stuff. One thing I’m leery of is yeast. I mean, it’s alive, right? I don’t trust it. It’s way too touchy. Too hot, it dies. Too cold, it never lives. Who wants that kind of pressure? I also don’t do anything with thermometers or cook to a hard ball or soft ball stage. I don’t get it, and probably never will.

So – he baked bread. I watched.  We each ate a slice. He left, and I ate the rest.

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Brad had some mad skills. I know we each have our wheelhouse, and there are things he knows, and can do, that I can’t. And vice versa. There are areas in which I excel, where he doesn’t. And maybe by the end of this blog I’ll think of one. But for now you’ll just have to trust me.

So for the first years he would barbecue, I would sit inside and drink red wine, and when he was almost done I’d quickly open a bagged salad and mix up some Seven Seas zesty Italian dressing. It seemed to work. My greatest skill was knowing how to order. It really is a skill you know. You can take me to any restaurant, anywhere on the globe and I can find something good to eat. Actually, it’s a gift. Nay, it’s an art.

It’s been a process, but now I can say I’m an accomplished cook. I’m not ready for the “Chopped” kitchen just yet, but maybe soon.  It took a while, but since I was never really fond of barbecue, I thought I better pull up my pants and tackle this task.

That day happened years ago when I was ready to leave for a week on travel. My daughter Melanie came to me and begged  “Please Mom don’t leave us alone with Dad. All we will eat is grilled sausages and rice.” So I knew that my days with a glass of wine in the living room were coming to an end. Now I can actually make shit without a recipe. And most of the time, it’s terrific. And most of the time, I don’t remember what I did, so I can never replicate it. But I learned that if anyone is smart and knows how to read, they can essentially cook.

I still can’t bake worth shit. Yesterday I tried to bake a pie shell. Ok, it was a Pillsbury pie shell, but nonetheless, I made the filling – a quiche with chard from our garden. I had to “blind bake” the pie shell. It said something about putting beans in the shell so that it wouldn’t puff up. So I put beans in the shell, and put it in the oven to bake. NOWHERE did it say I had to put waxed paper or foil on the shell before I put the beans in. So the pie crust had dried pinto beans baked in. And picking those bastards out was not my favorite way to spend my afternoon.

So – my baking isn’t legendary, but I can make you a risotto that, when you take your first bite, I swear you will hear the angels sing. But, if you really want, I can also pull out a bag of Fritos and make you a nice casserole …

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What a Chick Wants …

I’m the first to admit that sometimes I can be a complete imbecile.  Basically,my skill set is pretty low. I’m not a jack of all trades.  I have very few talents, and the few that I have, I try to exploit mercilessly.

As far as anything to do with my new life at Reluctant Farm, I have to google it because I know nothing. So it is with my chickens. My husband prefers to fly by the seat of his skinny-ass Levis. For me, I want to be accomplished – at least in my mind.

Which brings me to chicken feed. When the chicks were little, they stayed in a big cardboard box in our garage with a heat lamp. We had the baby chicken feed, and then I read they could eat other stuff – so I would occasionally toss in some leftover lettuce. Once a mouse happened to crawl into their box, and they pecked it to death. So I figured they were probably not big meat eaters.

When they were finally big enough to go into the magnificent pen and coop that my husband built, I wanted to step up my game as far my interaction with the chooks. And I wanted to feed them the proper “extras” to make them happy with their new home with us and keep their lives in balance.

I continued to toss in some leftover salad stuff, and inhaled everything I could about what I could feed them, and what I should not.

The first evening after the first feeding I went out to see if they finished their snacks and every single chicken was dead. Laying down, head down to the side, dead as a doornail. I almost projectile vomited. What did I do wrong? All 20 chickens down for the count?

I ran down the hill to where Brad was busy with his favorite activity – riding his riding lawnmower. Swear, this man mows lawns incessantly. The grass is so well cut you need a magnifying glass just to see it. He rolled up the hill, and damned if every single chicken  wasn’t standing upright, looking at me as if I was the village idiot. I was. They were just sleeping.

Anyway, not to divert from the curious case of the Reluctant Farm Girl and how to feed the chickens, I began exploring culinary treats for my flock. And much to my glee, they loved everything. So I made it a routine. Every morning at 9 a.m. I would come down with my cup of Earl Grey, and their morning snack. It was the highlight of my day – a break from sitting in front of the computer writing, responding to emails and doing all the bookings and marketing for our resort.

I brought down yogurt and they circled it, a bit wary, but once one brave Barred Rock settled in, they all stepped up to the plate and loved it. As the weeks progressed, it became a ritual that the chickens understood. I’d stand on the deck of the house and call “Girls! I have treats for you!” and walk down carrying their brightly colored crocks with their morning treat.

It was amazing – I was the Rock Star. They would cluster around the gate, waiting for me to enter, running around my feet and looking up at me with their cute, one-eyed stare. I was their messiah, bringing messages of hope and manna from heaven. It got me going. Now I would not just focus on what we had for dinner, I would focus on how the chickens would like the leftovers.

Some things they turned their little beaks up at. Radish greens? No thanks. The can of bamboo shoots that I was going to use in some won tons, but I thought they tasted gross? They apparently agreed. But they definitely had their favorites. I brought out soft scrambled eggs, and they gobbled it up. Encouraged, I brought out the leftover rice noodles from my Pad Thai – and I was Katy Perry – they loved me unabashedly.

So I upped my game. Each day I’d come out with two crocks of treats – and I would announce to them what they were having. One day it was salmon carpaccio with an apple/lettuce salad, the next it was homemade potato gnocchi. I’d hide food from Brad just so I’d be sure we’d have enough leftovers for my girls. I made shredded zucchini with the squash I claimed was “too soft for us to eat” but was, in actuality, just fine – I had run out of treats for them and couldn’t face them without something luscious in my hands. I cooked oatmeal, emptied out the freezer of frozen peas, to which I added slivered almonds for taste. I baked 2 dozen bran muffins – we had half  a dozen, I froze the rest for the chickens.

In the early days Brad would toss  a few slugs over the fence as he passed by, and we were amused at how the chickens would shoot out of the coop and dive on the slimy snacks. So yesterday, in desperation, I thought, hell. I have nothing  –  but there are literally hundreds of slugs in the grass. I put on a glove, grabbed the crocks, and set out to pick slugs – 1 per bird. I mean, they loved the slugs and I forgot all about that! I no longer had to fret over what to cook or create to keep them adoring me. So I walked in, told the birds that they were getting slugs, which was met with more merriment, more running around my feet, over my feet, running in circles around me, ostensibly waiting for an autograph from “She Who Cooks So Well.”

I put the slugs down. They looked at the slugs, looked up at me, and started clucking. I can only imagine what they were saying. Probably along the lines of “You have got to be kidding? Yesterday you brought us swiss chard and cheddar quiche. The day before you brought orzo with basil walnut pesto. And today you are bringing us slugs?” They started pulling at my pants.  I am not kidding. They were grabbing my pjs with their little beaks. I was in a mosh pit.

I had to run out the gate before the mutiny took full hold.

As I sit here, at 11 a.m. I know that Brad ate all the spoon bread I made last night. The freezer is empty of zucchini bread and muffins and frozen corn. I’ve used all Brad’s Oatmeal. We only have 2 eggs in the house. I have several loaves of bread, and I have a can of tuna that was home canned by a neighbor. I’m thinking I can fool them into thinking it’s tuna casserole – which will give me enough time to run out the door before they notice I didn’t actually cook anything for them.

I am so doomed.

So … This is Gardening …

This morning I woke up early, and excited. Today was a big day on Reluctant Farm. It was planting day! I was going to become one with Mother Earth! I was up, straw hat in hand, bag packed with ice water bottles and a bag of freshly made bran muffins.

I was going to walk through Fields of Gold, a Goddess in Green, dropping seeds at precise increments into the rich brown soil. Oh, up and down the rows I would walk, my graceful hands in a choreographed swoop, feeding the fertile ground.

I knew exactly what it would be like. I had the picture.

Pacific Islander woman in flowing green dress outdoors

Anxious and awaiting instruction from Brad, who had already finished a row of planting while I organized the muffins, fixed my hair and donned my hat at a jaunty angle, I waved excitedly and said “Let the Sowing Begin!”

Brad pointed me towards 14 tomato plants. That was my job. To sort the tomatoes into whichever way I wanted to plant them, dig holes for each, unpot the plants, loosen the roots, plant and pat.

” Um, OK. But after this do I get to sow some seeds?” I asked. Because I wanted him to take a picture of me walking the fields, looking serene. I needed to update my Facebook profile photo.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Just do the tomatoes and then we’ll figure out what we need to do next.”

So I sorted the tomatoes. Which was kinda fun. I sorted the San Marzanos together, as they are the pride of Italy, the tomatoes that would become the base of my near legendary marinara, and would also cook down into some truly amazing homemade tomato paste.

I placed the two yellow and green zebra tomatoes front and center, as they would produce unique, colorful fruits that would stand out in the midst of the deep red Marzanos.

Then I bent over, and started digging.

When I pictured planting, I didn’t take into account the digging and the bending. In New York, I think we may have had one wilting philodendron in our 3rd floor walk up, and a straggly geranium on our fire escape. Gardening wasn’t top priority in the Bronx. When we moved out west, our family had 3 peach trees. Our form of planting was walking outside, picking a peach, eating it and throwing away the pit. So I didn’t really have a clear picture of planting a garden. And certainly not one of the proportions that Brad intended.

First of all, I’m not the most physical person. I didn’t play softball or soccer or four-square. I did nothing at all with sporting equipment. I went to an all girls Catholic school. For PE we did ballet. And I was on the swim team. That was it for my athletic achievements. As an adult, I have a recumbent stationary bike and an elliptical. Both MUST sit in front of the TV. Otherwise I’m constantly looking at my watch and saying “Oh My God it’s only been 7 minutes?”

So bending down forever is not something I pictured. It sucked.

“Brad – this sucks. This hurts my back really, really bad, and now my knee is hurting. This can’t be what people do all day, because it’s impossible to bend over all day long and not seriously injure yourself.”

Surely there is an easier, better way? Then I spied the big white plastic bucket. A seat! I turned the bucket upside down, grabbed a bran muffin, and started planting my second tomato plant.

Then my butt bones started hurting. Obviously I needed a cushioned seat! I went to contemplate the situation, and eat another bran muffin. That’s when I looked down at my hands…

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I felt myself getting weak, and my eyes rolling in the back of my head. I never considered myself a girly girl, but I never made a mud pie in my entire childhood. I never wanted a Suzy Homemaker Oven, but I had also never been in a physical altercation either. However, I could give a tongue-lashing so severe it would make your brain bleed. I’m tough, but in different ways.

I got on the riding lawn mower – the only piece of farm equipment I’m allowed to use after flipping two cars – and headed to the house. I scrubbed my fingers and brought back pillows, my rubber kitchen gloves and more bran muffins.

The digging was vastly improved with gloves, and the seat was infinitely more comfortable. So I finished my third tomato plant. And moved on to the fourth. And my thighs started cramping. “OMG Brad, my thighs hurt!”

“Susan, all I’m hearing is complaining. You are doing more complaining than planting.”

“I’m not complaining. I’m providing dialog! You can’t possibly think we are going to bend over all day and not way a word to each other. I’m your story. And if I die and they want to make a movie of my life, you’re going to need to help the screen writer with the dialog. And anyway, the bucket is too damn big and I’m not used to sitting with my thighs spread so wide apart.”

I head him mutter “that’s for sure” but chose to ignore him and continue with the friggen tomatoes.

“Brad – why do we have 14 tomato plants? How many tomatoes can we really eat? 14 plants? There’s only two people here. How much pizza and spaghetti can we actually consume? And you know what else? People who say they love gardening are LYING. This is not serene. I feel like I’m toiling in a rice paddy for God sakes. This is painful and not fun. I feel sick.”

Then it hit me. I had TEN tomato plants left. And it happened. I lost it. This doesn’t happen much. Last time it happened was decades ago with my first husband. He bought us a tandem bike and said, “let’s go riding!” I climbed on the back seat, and he wheeled us on a “little bike ride” – which amounted to over 50 miles. My knee swelled up to Elephant Man proportions, and I cried the whole way back. I could feel myself sliding into the same desperation.

It’s what happens when I feel like I’m losing control and being forced to do something I hate, that I just DO NOT want to do. My options were to quit, go to the house and watch a bad Lifetime Movie. And hear Brad call me a lightweight and tell me I need to work out to strengthen my core. Something I have yet to find and quite frankly, am not looking. Or stick it out and cry. I chose the latter.

I cried, I planted 14 tomato plants, and have decided to make my epic marinara, can it, and gift it for Christmas. I feel contented, and dare I say it? Happy.

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So I may look more like this …

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Than this …

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And I still hate gardening, but I got a free dinner afterwards. And if you are on my Christmas list, wait until you see MY garden of earthly delights!

Note to self … do NOT bring bran muffins to eat when you are working in a field that’s a quarter of a mile away from the house. Not a good idea. At. All.