Ramble On

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Page County Grown Farm to Schools Program

While the pigs were being raised, from time to time I would visit the farm at Public House Produce and see loads of apples and lettuce that were getting sent over to the Page County school system.  David explained to me that this was part of the Farm to School program, which had a sort of combined mission of improving nutrition for kids at the schools, along with outreach and benefits to local food producers - at least that's how I understood it.  

He also mentioned a video that had gone into production about the program - it's just been released, and I copied a link to it from Facebook here:


Also, here is part of a note David posted about the video:

"I appreciate all of the compliments about the recent Farm to School video and I would like to say thank you. This has been a very rewarding endeavor and I am very proud to be involved and I look forward to helping expand the F2S program in Page County. I would also like to say that none of this would be possible with out the support of many pepole and organizations. One of the most valuable groups of people who have made this idea work in Page County is the cafeteria staff at all of our schools. With out the additional work and dedication of these employees we would not be where we are to day with our Farm to School efforts. So please take time this week and thank a "lunch lady" for their hard work!"

Monday, February 24, 2014

Berlin Reunion 2014: After Action

These friendships date back to 1982.
My friends and fellow veterans from Berlin, along with their families, held our annual reunion at Blob's Park in Jessup, Maryland this past weekend.  While there was plenty to celebrate with old friends, there was a sad note this year - Blob's has announced that it is closing after all these decades.  We'll have to find a new venue in order to continue our tradition in the future.

Along with all of us locals, who have been able to go to the reunion nearly every year, this year there were at least two out-of-towners - Eric M. was in from New Hampshire, and Tony O. came in from San Diego.  It was also good to see some of the old crowd who hadn't been able to make it to many of the past ones, especially since this was a kind of send off year.

Here's a photo of Eric at the Wall near
Checkpoint Charlie in 1985.
A couple of folks had photos with them to share this year (as in the past, I didn't take many because of the inconsistent quality for the iPhone in the light of Blob's).  I copied these two from Eric's Facebook posts, as a matter of fact - one he took at the event, and second one from Tony's collection that I found to be a poignant reminder of our Cold War experience in Berlin.

Here, Eric is taking a photo of the Wall near Checkpoint Charlie.  A group of guys were out for this walk, including Tony and others - there were a couple of other photos of them at other locations that day, including near the guard shack.  I understand there was an encounter with the border guards, and a close inspection of an AK-47 was provided at one point.

So, another great time, a chance to remember the good times of the past - and now to look forward to where our adventures will take us next year.  It was good to see everyone!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Danger to Personnel (A Mini-bobs Tale)

So, I've mentioned the mini-bobs earlier this week - I thought I might revisit them and tell a little tale of my first discovery of them.

During my time in Berlin, my Air Force friends and I would make an annual trip out to the Harz Mountains.  We'd either stay in the Torfhaus, a small alpine resort in the Harz, or in a town down below called Altenau.  There is a reference to the Torfhaus in a post here:

The first time I joined one of these trips, it was late in the season and the snow was melting off of the little ski slopes up there.  The resort operators turned to icy hill over to kids - and to the 40 or so of us - to sled on, using these rental mini-bobs (they cost about $1 for rental, and in later years, we'd keep them for three days so we could sled at will).

That's where the story begins, on a trip in 1984, when we first stayed down in Altenau.  Before I get to that, let me share the following instructional video about mini-bobs:

After a day of cross country skiing, and visiting the little pubs that dotted the slopes and the town of Altenau, we retired to our rooms at the little Gasthaus.  We'd ordered up a couple cases of the local Altenauer pils, and the proprieter's forethought was to put us in the basement rooms, so our parties would not wake other guests, who were on the top floor.  After a little while, someone had the great idea to break out the mini-bobs for a midnight run - I think it was Guey, Manky, and Gappy, whose actual nicknames are used in this story, since the statute of limitations has long expired.

Off they went, finding an acceptable launch point not too far away, as the story goes.  And the fact that there was a ledge down there, 20 feet or so downhill, which they'd seen in daylight, didn't trouble them at all.  Neither did the stonewalled creek at the foot of the little 60-foot hill - come to think of it, it was very similar to my front yard at Hawksbill Cabin.

So the story goes that Guey went first, yelping as he hit that ledged and launched.  He landed on down below, and they could hear him slide on down the hill out of sight.  Then the sound of another launch, some ice crunching, and silence - followed after a second or two by the plaintive cry of "help!"

This is why, at the end of many sled runs, I will also cry "help" at the finish, in honor of Guey's mishap.  He'd sledded off of the stone wall and down into the creek bed.  After slipping along the ice, at last he broke through, and was partially submerged in the shallow, but cold, creek at the bottom of the hill. This didn't stop hit partners in crime, as they all made a pass or two down the hill, before the Apfelkorn wore off.

Afterwards, they made their way back to the gasthaus, where the party had continued in my room.  When they arrived, they announced their accomplishment, followed by the exclamation "pig pile!" - whereupon they jumped on me, sitting on my little bunk there.  They were covered in snow, and of course, at least one of them was soaked with freezing cold water.

We had a good time, and I took the fun in stride.  However, the next morning after we checked out, we found that there was some damage to the little bed from having the four of us piled up on it.  I'd arranged this trip, and went to the innkeeper to let him know about the little problem - this wasn't the first time we'd had an accident there, and it wouldn't be the last.

I settled up with him for about 200 marks - less than $100, which he said would be the cost of the repair and replacement of the mattress.  We split that between the four of us, a small cost for a great memory.

And that's why, at the end of most mini-bob runs, I will yell "help" at the bottom of the hill.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Mini-bobs, Revisited

So we got these mini-bobs a few years back, when just by chance I saw them for sale at an outdoors store in Clarendon.  Now, I'm sure that the clerks thought, "What the hell is this big dude going to do with those mini-bobs - they're for the kids around here!" And sure enough, they do have some nice sledding hills over there in Arlington.

But what I had in mind was to use them to sled down the front yard at Hawksbill Cabin.  We've had enough snow to use them at least once a winter - but the winter wonderland that greeted us this trip provided the best conditions yet for using them - as seen in the videos.

It took a little bit of work to build the sled run - I mentioned how the snow was frozen and crusty on top, so you'd break through.  That was happening with the little mini-bobs too, and it would bring you to a sudden dead stop after a few lurching attempts to get started.  No fun, in other words.

Eventually, I trudged down the hill in as straight a path as I could make, using small foot steps, and then back up in the track.  After Mary and I both made a pass on this route, we had the makings for a good track.  We sledded a good ten times each the first day, when the video of Mary and Tessie was taken.  Overnight, the cold temperatures set us up for a great second day of sledding, and that is when the video of me was taken.

There is a story that goes with the mini-bobs.  Frequent readers may recall that I discovered these toys when my Air Force buddies and I would go to the Harz Mountains in Germany for winter ski trips, taking a break from all the winter recreation that we had available in Berlin - mainly Guinness curls at the Irish Harp.

I think I will revisit the story of those Harz trips in a post tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Snowshoes

A while back, Chris, Tom, and I took a weekend trip out to Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia for a hike - there's a label for Dolly Sods on the blog, if you'd like to check that trip and hike out.  Later that year, Tom and his wife went back out for a visit during the snow, and they took a walk around the ski resort there using some snowshoes.

That seemed like a good idea to me, and after the Snowpocalypse winter we had (also a label on the blog, if you'd like to check it out) I got Mary and myself a set.  This weekend was the first time we'd had enough snow to break them out, so we took them over to Hawksbill Park in Stanley for a wintry walk with Tessie.

We probably should have know from the difficulty Tess was having getting around in the snow that conditions weren't optimal - the freeze thaw cycle caused some bridging, where there is a hard crust on top and soft snow underneath.  So with each step, you'd crunch through the hard layer down to the soft below, sinking in about a foot, and the snowshoe would catch on the lip as you made your next step.  It made for an awkward and unnatural motion, so we only stuck it out for a quarter mile or so - a nice loop around the little scout cabin, although we had thought we might adventure out onto the half mile nature trail if things went well.

Meanwhile, Tessie was having a great time on the family outing.  I think she got the most out of the weekend, with all the fun she had being with us and romping and exploring everything.

We decided that better conditions will be after a fresh snow, when everything is still powdery and the shoes sink into a soft footprint.  We'll look forward to doing that during some future snow storm.

Mary went out for another short walk in her pair around Beaver Run and back in our wood lot on Monday.  She took the dog with her - Tessie enjoyed every minute of being outside with us this weekend!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Wintry Weekend 2014

We've had snow before, but it had been since 2010 that we had more than a foot on the ground at Hawksbill Cabin.  Our neighbors had warned us about it - even posting a photo of them cross country skiing around their yard.  We were looking forward to seeing everything covered in white, but waiting until Saturday morning to be sure we would drive and arrive in full daylight.

It was a beautiful sight, but the house was cold.  There are always these tradeoffs...we turned up the heat for the rest of the day on Saturday to get the mass of the house warmed.  Once that is done, it will hold heat pretty well (although there's a draft off of the picture windows.

I was looking forward to trying out some of the winter sports gear we've accumulated over the last few years, and I will post about those adventures in the next few days.

For her part, Tessie seemed to enjoy the change, even though the depth of the snow made things difficult for her.  She was a trooper, running around the backyard exploring.

When I took her out for a walk in the wood lot Sunday, I didn't expect that we'd get such a great view across the Jordan Hollow property from our back property line.  It was spectacular though, looking across over the little 10-acre field that borders us, now growing into a second growth forest, and then to the old inn, and off to the western foothills of the Blue Ridge.

You've got to find the balance in the end - we don't get weather quite this intensively every year, more like every 3 or 4 years - it's pretty, and it's fun to get out in...but truth be told, it's cold.  Spring is coming.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Everything but the Oink - 2014 edition

When the pig Kevin Bacon went down, I was surprised that after two years of butchering my own hog, for the first time, I felt a little something for the animal.  I guess handling them a little more this year, compared to the past, meant something extra to me.  I reminded myself that this is why we raised them – and steeled myself for the next one.

Afterwards, Chris and I had a chat about how hard it must be for kids doing 4H and FFA projects with an animal, only to sell them off at the fair, and saying goodbye while knowing what lays in store for the animal you’d worked so hard with.  David’s perspective is much more practical, after nearly a year of raising these animals – on that morning, he says, “all I see is meat.”  That probably leads to a steady hand on the trigger, which is important, and makes this all that much more humane, ironically.

So we hauled the four carcasses over to the butchering shed and quickly got the next step under way – scalding, cleaning off the hair, eviscerating, and then breaking down the carcasses into big cuts.  It was a little frustrating for me that after three years I still can't remember the details of each step - it's good I have a solid partner for my share in Chris.  He cheerfully did a lot of the dirty work during the evisceration, and then pitched in with taking down the halves for the other guys to begin breaking them down.

One of the shares is taken by Jesse and his dad.  Jesse is prepared every year with a fairly detailed plan about what he wants to do, and they motor through the work.  It helps that they have been doing this for 10 years, but he told us he watches a few YouTube videos each year when it gets close to the season – it’s been a good source for things to try, besides the basic processes that are involved.

I resolved to take a little time to do this in preparation next year.  One of Jesse’s techniques was to separate out the shoulder (it’s also called the butt in butchering parlance), and the others followed suit.  I like this continuous improvement aspect of butchering day, and next year will go all the better for it, I’m sure.

By the end of the day, the four or five major cuts are all done – the ham, the loin, the side (where the bacon comes from), the ribs, and the shoulder.  Also, we’ve cut out the parts of the head that are to be saved (we don’t use it all, mainly the tongue and jowls), as well as the organ meat that will be used in the scrapple. 

And that’s where we leave things at the end of the day, with a table full of meat chilling over night.  On day two of the enterprise, which I wrote about on Monday, the first day of this series of post, we proceed with breaking down the big cuts into individual portions that eaters are more likely to recognize – the chops and roasts that I’m going to look forward to cooking throughout the year.

You can follow those posts with the "Pork Diaries" label - I've already got a few of those on the record from the last two years.  I'm particularly looking forward to the day I do the whole rack of ribs I managed to save this time (limitations on our packaging gear has meant cutting the whole rack down to two halves in the past).

To conclude these "Butchering 2014" posts - maybe somewhere along the way my motivation was to be a more sustainable eater, as @andrewzimmern says.  But there's also a good share of friendship and camaraderie that makes this event special - and that's what keeps me coming back.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Call Me a Sustainable Eater - Butchering 2014

This year is the third year that I have taken part in butchering at the little red roofed shack down near the Shenandoah River.  I’m pretty comfortable with the whole process by now, but 5am Friday still rolls around early, and no matter how you slice it, it’s cold out there on the pasture when we go to get the pigs.

The first year I blogged about the experience, I generally wouldn’t even post photos of the action, out of some sense I had that I could respect the animals that way.

I've changed my opinion about this, so this year I will include some of the milder images, especially after seeing a recent series of posts by Andrew Zimmern (Twitter handle @andrewzimmern)  – and recalled seeing an image of a beef carcass strung up for butchering.  

He gets complaints about some of those images.  I saw one where he responded recently with the comment, “Connecting to our food sources makes us more sustainable eaters.  Shocking to some, necessary for all.”

Shortly after, when there was continued discourse about how gross it was to see the process play out, a reader wrote the following in support of his post:  “That’s exactly why he posted.  It challenges us to face reality and to appreciate – to be humbled – by the animal we consume.”

Ironically, this was my justification for not posting the photos the first two years.  The thing is, I know that these animals have a good life as they are prepared for us.  They're taken care of, ranging out in their pasture; and they even have a relationship with the other animals on the farm - not to mention the humans that come and go.  I think this was the first time all four of them actually were given names (although that's not recommended!)

When I say that we have a relationship with them, I want to be clear - we don't climb in the little shed with them and hug them.  Leave that to Joel Salatin...but this year even I had the chance to do a couple of ad hoc chores with them (for the record, I know I'm not much help when the rubber hits the road) – I wrote about “wrangling” them from the barnyard out to pasture back in October, here:


Back then, they were four little piglets that weighed no more than 50 pounds each.  When we harvested them last Friday, even the lightest – the runt that the farm hands had named Kevin Bacon – topped out at around an estimated 300 pounds, and the largest was probably above 350.  

Turns out that Kevin was the first to go down, and it was quick and painless.  She took a single shot and went stone dead, to start the process.  Over the course of the next half hour or so, her three siblings followed, and then we load them up to take them over to the red-roofed butchering shed, just outside of Luray.

Monday, February 10, 2014

It's about Kevin Bacon, Isn't It?

Some beautiful pork chops and t-bones.
On Saturday morning, Chris and I arrived at the butchering shed to find second day activities under way.  Truth be told, we had dilly-dallied along the way, since I had told him to stop off at the Fairview Market for some donuts, so we brought along two dozen to make up for getting there at 9am instead of the agreed upon 8:30.  David’s dad was working the band saw to make some pork chops – and David had already broken down both of his loin cuts into chops.

After the customary greetings, Chris and I began to organize ourselves for the second day’s activities, which are comprised of breaking down the large cuts from day one into sausage, chops and roasts, and then packing them up for storage.  Meanwhile, I took a couple of photos, enjoyed a couple of the donuts, and well, in the vernacular of the butchering shed, shot the shit.  The photos accompanying the post are of those beautiful pork chops and t-bones that David had already cut down, and of his parents at the band saw cutting down their pork loins into chops.
Working the band saw to make chops and roasts.

I texted Mary the photo of David’s pork chops.  We ended up having a fairly lengthy exchange over them, as follows:

Mary:  Lotta chops!
Me:  I cut ours a little thicker this year.  We got 14 chops total, and two loin roasts.
Me:  I packed the sausage in half pound packs, half the size of last year.  So there are more packs, and we won’t have leftovers to deal with when we have them for breakfast.
Mary:  I just pulled the last pack of chops from last year to make for dinner tonight.  Also, saw a pack of breakfast sausage, two packs of ribs, and a ham roast.  There are some other packs, I’m not sure of what.
Mary:  All in the kitchen freezer.  The basement is pretty much empy, except for your hops, some pie shells, and two small tubs of scrapple.
Me:  We’ll slow cook those ribs.  I kept an amazing whole rack this time!
Me:  Also, we got Kevin Bacon!
Mary:  Oh great.
Mary:  I really didn’t want to know the pig.
Me:  To be honest, I choked up a little when she went down.
Mary:  TMI.

The 2014 bunch - that's Kevin with the white band around
her shoulders.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Cascade American Ale

Last fall I bought a one gallon kit from Northern Brewer called Chinook IPA - it was a single-hop brew that came out pretty tasty.  The only problems were that it was a one gallon batch, so there wasn't much of it; also the Northern Brewer solution for carbonation in small batch is "fizz tabs" - capsules of corn sugar solution you apply directly to the bottle - this didn't yield a consistent result for me.

Still, the tasty beer made me want to experiment some more, especially with this single hop approach. I had some locally grown Cascade hops from my Luray neighbor Bill that I wanted to use, so I made a plan to adapt the extract recipe from "Chinook IPA" to "Cascade American Ale."  I brewed that on Sunday before the Super Bowl.

This particular batch is also the first time I used the BeerSmith software, which neighbor Dan had recommended.  I put my ingredient list in the software and it did some basic calculations for me, including expected ABV, and more importantly for an ale, the IBUs.

After inventorying the leaf Cascade, I found I had 3 ounces of the local ones - when I did the IBU calculation, the result was less than you want for this variety of beer.  I found two packs of Hop Union northwestern Cascade pellets, so I added those.  I got the IBU up to 55, where the threshold for ale styles is 50.

The expected ABV is around 5.4%, we'll see what we get when I bottle in about three weeks.  Meanwhile, the O.G., shown being measured in the second photo, was 1.050 at 74 degrees.


Monday, February 3, 2014

Super Sunday, Border Collie Style

We decided to stay in Alexandria for the weekend - next weekend is butchering day, so I will be out for three days.  Just seemed like a good reason to chill and not drive.

So Tessie got in the game by climbing up into the bed while we were downstairs.  She was very relaxed when Mary went back up to make the bed.

As I posted elsewhere:

Some border collies work for a living.
Some border collies just work it for a living.