Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Goatless, Alas

Blossom and Alsiki are with The Buck. We loaded them into a dog crate in the back of our (covered) pickup this morning and drove two and a half hours to the farm where they were born. Sharon, the knowledgeable and kind-hearted breeder, had prepared for them the very pen where they had lived until we bought them.

It was a bright early-spring day, the grass emerald green and the trees just beginning to bud. The girls were glad to be out of the crate, and went right for the hay and grass that Sharon had thoughtfully provided.

I had hoped that they would come into heat and mate tomorrow, if not today, so we could get them back right away. But Sharon advised that we leave them seven days after they mate, to make sure they don't come into heat again. If the hormone shots don't take effect until a week from now, that could mean that they would be away for as long as two whole weeks.

I trust Sharon completely, but can I stand this separation?

We left B and A in their pen and went to meet the “boys.” There was Uproar, B and A's father, marigold-colored like Blossom and with a gorgeous, full orange beard. And there was Challenger, the groom-to-be, darker and smaller and taking a nap, perhaps in anticipation of later exertions.

Then we went into the nursery, where the recent arrivals and their mothers live. One little goat, barely larger than my own, had just had quads. Unlike when this happens to humans, everybody looked in great health and spirits.

How can I describe a newborn Nigerian Dwarf kid? Let's just say that, with its legs folded, it would fit inside a soup bowl. A big forehead, wide-apart eyes, a tiny muzzle—all the neotenic features that we are hardwired to lose our heads over. And a tiny voice, high and melodious as a little bell.

Clearly, five months to wait and all those long drives in the truck are nothing when compared to the thrill of having a couple of these babies in my own barn. But there is a dark side to all this: it is the fear that, once they arrive, I will not be able to part with the little creatures.

I have had baby goats born under my care before, exquisite and adorable kids for whom I have found excellent homes right away. I am proud to say that so far I have been rational and uncompromising in my belief that two goats, and only two, are the optimum herd size for me. Two goats mean only eight hooves to trim, two udders to milk, a moderate amount of hay and grain to fetch and carry, and a tolerable pile of poop to compost.

But with this tiny breed, I don't know what will happen. I know it's a slippery road from the first decision to keep “just this one kid” to a herd of hundreds.

But all that is a whole five months away.

For now, the goat stall is empty. The chickens seem quieter. And Wolfie can't figure out where those clever, unpredictable creatures went. I've had goats go away for breeding before, and rather enjoyed the break. But this is different. I feel nostalgic, not to mention foolish, already.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Goat Obstetrics

Because the sonograms showed that Blossom and Alsiki aren't pregnant, I took them to the vet today to get a hormone shot called Lutalyse that should bring them into heat in the next week or so.

I felt silly about not giving the shots myself, since I've given goats dozens of shots before. But when I ordered the injections over the phone yesterday, I was given some weird warnings: not to give the shot myself if I have allergies, and to wear gloves and be sure not to get any of the stuff on my skin. Then I looked on the web and learned that if a pregnant woman touches the stuff she will miscarry.

I am anything but pregnant, but I had visions of the goat jumping up at the crucial moment and knocking the syringe out of my hand, causing it to fly through the air and land point down on some exposed part of my body, which would in turn make all my hair fall out.

In short, I chickened out and let the vet do it. She told me that not long ago she was walking around with a forgotten bottle of Lutalyse in her back pocket. The bottle broke and, later that day, weeks ahead of schedule, she got her period.

Back in the barn now, the girls are refreshing themselves with some nice hay. Inside them, their little ovaries are gearing up to crank out the next crop of eggs.

We are taking them to The Buck tomorrow. With luck, his mere presence will hasten the egg maturation, which will bring them into “standing heat” and the devoutly desired consummation. BTW, “standing heat” is a term of art referring to that point in a goat's heat period when she will stand still to be bred. I couldn't believe it the first time I saw it—my normally frisky doe turned to stone the minute we put her in with the buck, concentrating with all her might on providing a stable target.

Blossom and Alsiki's future consort is named Challenger, and you can see him here:

We'll have to leave the girls with Challenger for a few days, and I will miss them. But then the lovely five-month pregnancy will begin, when every blade of grass they eat will go to nourish new life. I will scrutinize them for signs of heat (meaning that the breeding didn't “take”), and then for the inward look in the eye, the slowly expanding girth, the beginnings of an udder.

The kids will be born in early October, when the trees begin to turn.

This evening I'll take Blossom and Alsiki out to the field and sit with them while they gorge on the new grass. And the whole time I'll be seeing, in my mind's eye, the follicles forming, growing larger, then rupturing and sending the eggs tumbling down the Fallopian tubes, and into my life.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Cannibalizing The Bishop

A couple of posts ago I wrote about my struggle to get rid of Bishop's Weed (a.k.a. ground elder, goat's foot, gout weed and half a dozen other names). I have pulled it up, covered it with plastic, cursed it, smothered it with mulch.

Now I'm eating it.

Joya in her comment on my earlier post wrote that the Russians eat the plant, and I read somewhere that the Romans introduced it in Britain to feed their troops. This was a less successful innovation than Latin, Roman roads, or Roman law. In various chat rooms, I've read about English gardeners at-risk for suicide over Bishop's Weed.

Recently, looking at a new patch of the Bish flourishing by the garage, I pulled up a leaf and chewed it. If the Russians and the Romans ate it, why shouldn't I? It tasted surprisingly mild. So that evening I pulled up a bowl-full of it, washed it well, and steamed it for about four minutes. I drained it and sauteed it with garlic and olive oil, sprinkled it with bacon pieces, and served it over pasta. The Conservative Eater who shares my table, among other things, thanked me for a nice supper.

“Did you like the green stuff?” I asked.

“What, the spinach? Sure. I just—well, you know” he said in his mild way, as I held my breath. “The garlic...a little much, but that's just me.”

The next evening, I didn't bother steaming the Bishop. I sauteed him with (a little less) garlic, and shrimp, and served him over brown rice.

“So how did you like the Bishop's Weed tonight?” I asked, feeling bolder.

“Is that what that green stuff was? I never noticed.”

What higher compliment can a cook hope for?

Meanwhile, I have fallen in love, culinarily speaking. Bishop's Weed, to my taste, is better than even baby spinach—milder, sweeter, and it doesn't leave that furry aftermath on my teeth. It grows all by itself, needless to say, and doesn't take up space in my garden (though it does take up space everywhere else). From time immemorial it has been said to cure gout, which I don't have, but you can never be too careful.

But there is more than just the Bishop's mild taste and availability that makes me feel good about eating him. It is the atavistic feeling that I am putting my enemy to good use. From the head shrinking of Amazonian Indians to the traditional stewing methods of African tribes, primitive peoples (or rather, “those-not-corrupted-by-civilization-or-what-passes-for-it”) often cannibalize those whom they vanquish, hoping to absorb their talents.

Actually, I haven't vanquished the Bishop, far from it. As I write, he is sprouting in my newly landscaped front flower beds, threatening hydrangeas, pachysandra, and various low-growing evergreens. But maybe if I eat enough of him I will absorb his persistence, his resilience, and his optimistic belief that the world is his oyster.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Hostages To Fortune

“He that hath a wife and children,” said Bacon, “hath given hostages to Fortune.”

I say “She that hath pets and critters hath given hostages to Fortune too.”

Spent a day with vets on Wednesday. In the morning Blossom and Alsiki were carefully and thoroughly sonogrammed (didn't think “sonogram” was anything other than a noun, but what do I know?). The results were dispiriting: no deep shadows indicating babies—just the lumpy, bumpy outlines of the rumen. Neither goat is pregnant. That means no babies, no milk, no cheese in the foreseeable future.

In the afternoon I took lame Lexi for x-rays and a diagnosis. She has torn the cruciate ligament in her knee. Moreover, she has arthritic elbows, arthritic hips, and an arthritic spine. (No wonder she doesn't want to move.) Surgery could repair the ligament, but it would do nothing for her other joints.

She'll be eleven in July. Even before she tore the ligament, I had to entice her outdoors with pieces of mozzarella. Ligament surgery has a 12-week recovery period during which the dog is not supposed to move much. After three months of that regimen Lexi would have to be carried outside.

So we're in palliative mode. She's on anti-inflammatories. She will have acupuncture and chiropractic sessions—even Chinese herbs if they look like they might help. But no heroic measures.

I didn't know this stage would come so soon. My once-lively Lexi has become a kind of hearth rug. Her hind quarters are shrunken and her chest and shoulders are huge, because she uses them to pull herself along. The other day I lured her outside while I threw balls for Wolfie. At one point she looked at me in her intent, can't-be-ignored way. “Throw one for me!” she said. So I did, only about six feet away. She hobbled towards the ball, stopped halfway, then lay down. I looked away.

One thing she still loves is eating. She weighs 84 pounds, about ten more than she should. Every extra pound on those joints causes more pain, so I feed her less and less all the time. She's down to two cups a day. I suppose it's the right thing to do, but she doesn't think so, and neither do I.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Labor And Reward

Before the rain came today I thought I should clean out the chicken coop. It's not that big a deal—just an 8'x10' room, with a deep carpet of hay, wood shavings, and chicken poop.

I use what is known as the “deep litter” bedding method. This means that all winter long I just keep adding hay and stuff that, combined with the chicken manure, composts and keeps the birds warm.

This was a long winter, so the litter was a foot deep, packed down and heavy.

I shoveled it into a large plastic tub, then carted it down the coop steps and around the corner into the plastic compost bins. I did this over and over for an hour, as the chickens fluttered and objected and I got covered in chicken dust.

When I was done, I put down new hay and thought about fall, when I will cart the compost from the bins onto the garden, and dump the summer's litter into the bins, in preparation for next spring.

It was an hour of heavy lifting. When it was over I decided to reward myself with some pastoral pleasures. I took Wolfie out and threw balls for him (with one of those plastic thrower thingies—my “natural” throws won't wear out a Chihuahua) until he was thoroughly tired, and therefore “calm-submissive.” Then I put a leash on him and let Blossom and Alsiki out to graze.

I could tell by the little tearing movements of their heads that they were ingesting the tippy tops of the new grass. But what they still love at this point, Goddess knows why, is last fall's dried out leaves. Silently and gracefully, they are vacuuming our lawn for us.

Is there anything more peaceful in this world than watching animals graze? As I lay on the damp grass with Wolfie at my side, I felt rooted, pastoral, yea even Biblical....

Then I put the goats back in their pen, Wolfie in the house, and myself in the shower. And that, too, was good.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Bishop, His Weed, And I

It goes by a dozen different names, but when I first saw it for sale in a Maryland nursery, it was labeled “Bishop's Weed,” so that is the name that has stuck with me. It is a pretty plant, a ground cover that comes in either plain green or variegated green and creamy white versions.

One of the things I loved about our Vermont house when we decided to buy it was its little back garden. Surrounded by a weathered picket fence and brimming over with overgrown perennials, it looked like a Tasha Tudor illustration.

As soon as the mud receded on my first Vermont spring, I went out to see what was coming up, and after a while I recognized the fresh, vigorous and vibrant sprouts of the Bishop. It looked a bit overenthusiastic to me, so as I did battle with my familiar foes—dandelions, wild carrot, and such—I pulled some of the Bishop's Weed as well.

The garden flourished that year, but still looked out of control, as the prior owners had given up caring for it when they put the house on the market. “If I can tame that tansy and divide those irises and do something about the Bishop's weed,” I told myself, “it will look wonderful next year.”

The following spring I was ready to do battle. This time, I saw, the Bishop was everywhere, poking up optimistically from the dark, damp earth. But I was not discouraged. I had several weed scalps hanging from my belt, having vanquished, in previous dwellings, a yard full of bamboo and another full of ailanthus by sheer persistence.

I went after the Bishop with a vengeance. I pulled the plants and as much of the underground runners as I could. I decapitated the flowers the moment they appeared. I spent the entire summer on this campaign, and by September I had to capitulate. The Bishop's runners were entwined with the roots of the perennials, so that to get rid of one I had to destroy the other. I couldn't have a garden with the Bishop, and to get rid of the Bish I had to get rid of the garden.

And that is what I decided to do. I tore off the charming old fence and asked my husband to mow everything that had been inside it to the ground. I bought a big roll of black plastic and spread it over what had been my adorable little cottage garden, securing it with bricks and stones. Soon the autumn rains made puddles so large that even blizzard winds couldn't move the plastic.

Next spring the garden looked dismal under its yards of plastic, but I didn't weaken. I left the plastic down so the sun could fry everything under it all summer long.

When, in September, I pulled the plastic up, nothing under it was alive. I turned over the dirt and planted grass seed. Now there is a patchy lawn where the little garden used to be, but the you-know-what is gone.

Gone from the back, but not the front of the house.

Last spring, when I decided that the area leading to the front porch needed a flower border, I called a landscaper to get an estimate for the costs of preparing the ground.

The guy arrived in his truck, all grins and enthusiasm. I showed him the spot and suddenly he gasped, bent down, and pulled up a tiny green shoot. “Do you know what this is?” he said, paling beneath his tan.

I told him I did, and he proceeded to explain that to get rid of the B. weed he would have to remove every speck of dirt from the area, cart it off to the ends of the earth, and then replace it with uncontaminated dirt. He left in a rush, mumbling something about sending me an estimate, but I never heard from him again.

I decided to tackle the job myself, but using my passive, yin method rather than his brutal yang approach.

Once again, I covered the area with plastic. But because I couldn't stand looking at that for an entire year, I put mulch on top, then made slits in the plastic and planted a couple of hydrangeas and some low-growing evergreens.

My impatience may cost me dearly. You can't take half measures with the Bishop. I will serve me right if one of these days I see those cute little green leaves poking up through the slits in the plastic.

When that day comes, I'll do what vanquished generals used to do in ancient times. I'll fall on my garden fork and put an end to it all.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Story Of Jesse, My First German Shepherd. Part The Last

The day after that shameful exam, I signed us up for basic obedience again. And at the end of that course, we passed the test.

But Jesse was becoming harder and harder to handle at the vet's, where he went for his weekly shots. The techs were plainly afraid of him. When I walked him in town he didn't like men anywhere near me, and let them know it. When the mailman put the mail through the slot in our front door, Jesse attacked it. There was something about him that didn't feel quite right to me, so I kept signing up for more advanced obedience classes, figuring that this was the only way to keep him under control.

I also took him running—I was running 25 miles a week at that time—assuming that a tired dog is less likely to get into trouble. We used to get a lot of comments, Jesse and I, on those runs. They came invariably from men, and every last one of them went something like, “Ain't nobody gonna bother you, lady, with that dog alongside....”

At home he periodically would do amazing things. One time, the girls and I were sorting through their outgrown toys to give to charity at Christmas. In the middle of the attic we made a huge pile of magnetic alphabet boards, a Fisher-Price farm, a little cart you could ride on, a stack of Dr. Seuss books...all the detritus of a 1970s childhood.

Jesse came clicking up the stairs, took one look, and clicked back down. Two minutes later he was back with his nylabone, which he dropped on the pile of toys. He left, and while the girls and I stared at each other open-mouthed we heard him coming up again, this time with his ball, which he also put on the pile.

That was when we started saying that inside Jesse's head was a slightly retarded human, who sadly had never learned to speak.

But the good times did not last.

One afternoon I came home from the College to find my daughters looking shaken. (By then we had left our house in the country and moved to the center of the small town where I worked.) A friend of the girls had been visiting after school and left the front door open as he went home.

Jesse had rushed out, crossed the street, and jumped on an older woman who was walking by with her husband. He latched onto her arm and tore her coat—though thankfully not her arm—before passers-by pulled him off her.

The woman and her husband, who lived in the neighborhood, were terrified. The first thing I did was to get their version of the story, and write a check for the coat. Then I sat down, put my head in my hands, and tried to think.

An older couple out for an afternoon stroll were surely the least threatening of strangers. Most importantly, they had not been anywhere near our house or yard, but across the street and in front of the Court House, where dozens of people walked every day.

Our front door opened directly onto the sidewalk. If insecurely latched, it could be pulled open by a child. What if the woman Jesse had attacked had been a toddler—would we have a major mangling, even a death, on our hands?

The unprovoked nature of the attack, and the thought of a child as possible victim forced me to conclude that the only responsible action was to have Jesse euthanized.

“Euthanasia”: good death. True indeed for those in pain or so weakened by age that life holds no joy or pleasure. But for our Jesse, five years old, full of vigor, affection and smarts? How could I live with the decision to put him down?

But then, how could I live with myself if he, out of the blue--despite the two years of obedience classes, the exercise, the vet care—seriously damaged a child?

That night Alison, the one Jesse had so unmercifully herded when she was little, took him for a last long walk around the neighborhood. I let her go. I knew she would be safe with him.

The next morning I made an appointment with the vet, and asked my husband to go with me. The only way I could deal with what was happening was to shut down emotionally. We walked Jesse into the clinic and told the vet what had happened, and our decision. He did not argue, and asked if we wanted to be there while he gave the injection. I

Over the years, I have had several dogs and cats euthanized for health reasons. I have always held them and comforted them until the last sigh, and the final closing of the eyes. But with Jesse—my smart, beautiful, prime-of-life Jesse—I couldn't do it.

We left him there and went to our offices, and the girls went to school, and life went on.

But oh, Jesse, what a mark you left on us, and how sadly we remember you.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Story of Jesse, My First German Shepherd. Part The Third.

By the time he was a year old, Jesse was a delight. He slept across the threshold of the girls' bedroom at night. He howled charmingly when they practiced the violin. He was so submissive towards my husband that he would roll over on his back in the front hall and produce a fountain of pee when Ed came home in the evening. It eventually occurred to me that this was related to eye contact, so when I would hear the key in the door I'd rush out of the kitchen yelling at my husband, “Keep your eyes down! Don't look at him!”

For all his macho demeanor, Jesse never growled at any of us. When I had him neutered and he pulled out his stitches and I had to put antibiotic on the wound, he let me do it, with only a long-suffering look on his face.

At the vet's, it was a different story. He continued to be plagued by hot spots, and tests revealed him to be allergic to everything: trees, grasses, the air itself, and most of all, dust mites. He was put on weekly allergy shots, and that became a problem.

His yelp as the shot was given became a little growl, then a bigger growl, then a growl as soon as he saw the syringe. The technicians were understandably nervous of him, and I was by turns alarmed, embarrassed, angry and despairing. We ended up muzzling him, but those weekly shots were nerve wracking for everyone.

And they weren't working. The hot spots continued, and his eyes turned red. He knew I didn't want him to scratch, so he would discreetly leave the room to do it. He spent a lot of time banging around the house with one of those “Elizabethan” collars around his neck.

By the time I was able to enroll Jesse in obedience, he weighed over 90 pounds.

It was a large class, some 20 dogs from mastiffs to lap dogs, most of whom, when Jesse and I entered the building, would growl at him. I couldn't figure out why. After all, he wasn't doing anything. He was just standing there, surveying the scene. I didn't know then the power of the canine stare.

This was an old-fashioned class: no treats, no clickers, no psychoanalysis. Just sits and stays and heeling in a circle until the dogs capitulated, out of sheer boredom if nothing else. Jesse learned all the moves, and so did I.

Then came the day of the final exam, with an outside judge, just as in a real obedience trial. At this time, having spent the first part of my life making good grades, I made a living teaching and grading college students. So final exams and grades and doing well in general were much on my mind.

But I was confident. After all, I had a clearly intelligent dog from an intelligent breed. And I had done more difficult things in my life than train a dog.

When we walked into the building that day, nobody growled. But somebody whined: Jesse. I felt stupid, with this big, powerful dog whining at the end of the leash. “What are you doing? Stop that,” I said, giving the leash a yank as I'd been taught. He stopped for a second, then whined some more.

What was this? Jesse had never whined in his life, not even as a puppy. And now, on the day of the final exam, he was whining non-stop. He whined through the heeling. He whined through the sit-stays, the recalls, and the stand- for-examination. When it came time for the long down, a thoughtful silence settled over dogs and trainers, broken only by the endless, incredible, appalling whining of Jesse. When it was over, I drove home in humiliated silence (the whining had stopped the moment the test was over).

As I announced to my family that we had FAILED THE TEST, I saw the merest hint of schadenfreude pass over my daughters' faces.

How, I wondered, looking at Jesse scratching a hot spot, do you go on after you flunk?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Jesse's First Easter

The first year Jesse was with us, we spent the day before Easter in the customary egg-boiling-and -dyeing activities. After the girls went to bed, my husband and I assembled the Easter baskets, then hid the decorated eggs all over the house for the indoor egg hunt. Since our eight-year-old couldn't reach very high, we mostly hid them on windowsills.

The next morning I gave Jesse his kibble before the girls got up, but he didn't want it. The girls ran downstairs in their nightgowns, got the Easter baskets from the dining room table, nibbled the ears off their chocolate bunnies, and went off to hunt for eggs. But they couldn't find any. My husband went to help, and returned empty-handed. There wasn't a single egg in the house. It was then I remembered that Jesse hadn't wanted breakfast....

Happy Easter to all.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Story Of Jesse, My First German Shepherd. Part The Second

Like all puppies, he couldn't help being adorable. He was adorable when he tried to go up the steps and couldn't, when he tried to chase the cat and failed, when he fell asleep on our laps. He was tubby and clumsy, and had a wonderfully expressive face, topped by two huge upright ears.

The crate method of house training was becoming known at that time. Jesse slept in his at night, and during the day while I was at the college, though I used to race home between classes at noon and let him out.

We thought he was wonderful, if slightly hyper. I didn't know anything about the need to “drain energy” in those days, and found him a bit much to deal with when the girls and I would straggle home in the afternoon with homework and supper to get done. He was especially annoying to my eight-year-old, endlessly chasing and herding her around. But a book I had read recommended waiting until the dog was over six months old to begin training, so I tried to be patient.

The day after Christmas I found his first hot spot. I had no idea what it was, but it looked alarming, red and raw, and was driving him crazy. The vet said that sometimes dogs just got these, that he hoped it wasn't a sign of allergies. At the end of the visit he gave Jesse a shot—either a puppy shot he was due for, or it might have been a steroid for the hot spot—and Jesse growled at him.

The vet shouted “No!” in a very angry voice and shook his finger at him, then turned to me and said “Don't EVER allow him to do this!”

I abashed and surprised. Surely the vet realized that Jesse was just a puppy? Surely it was only natural, having been given a shot, for him to growl? I felt as embarrassed and guilty as if one of my daughters had been sent to the principal for misbehavior.

I took Jesse home and watched him carefully for further incidents of growling, but there weren't any. He was perfectly house-trained, smart, and affectionate towards all of us, if a little mouthy. Clearly, I had nothing to worry about.

Unbeknownst to me, clouds were gathering on the horizon for Jesse.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Story Of Jesse, My First German Shepherd. Part The First.

Now that he's been gone for over 20 years, I think I can write about him.

It was 1980, and Madge, our motherly Irish Setter, had just died of cancer. The children were in elementary school, growing like weeds, and my lap was empty. They wanted a dog, and I needed a puppy—something to coddle and train that would follow me around with a loving gleam in his eyes.

I read what books there were about dogs at the time, and came across various hymns of praise for the German Shepherd Dog—his courage, his devotion, his intelligence.

Being one of only a couple of women on tenure-track at the college, I was heavily into intelligence. Courage, too. And God knows I wanted devotion—someone to stick by me as I clawed my way to Associate Professor.

I looked in the local paper and behold, a breeder nearby was advertising German Shepherd puppies. I drove over one afternoon after class. There was kennel after kennel of dogs—all big and beautiful, all throwing themselves in a slavering rage against the fence as I appeared.

I was shown the mother. She was dark and regal and mostly ignored me, busy with her month-old litter. Then the father, a gorgeous sable, was pointed out, and he tried to burst through the fence and kill me.

Well, I wasn't expecting a bunch of pussycats, was I? These were no-nonsense dogs. And I was a no-nonsense woman, wasn't I? Before I left, I handed over a deposit for my pick of the male of the litter.

The minute the pups were eight weeks old, I showed up with the girls--my husband, as was often the case in those years, being away on business. The breeder led us into a kennel and the litter came tumbling out. Immediately, the biggest puppy rushed towards me, jumped up on the jacket of my suit, and gnawed on my fingers. What a thrill--I'd been chosen! Feeling touched as well as honored, I told the breeder this was the puppy I wanted.

The breeder opened the gate to let us out, and the puppy took off around the building, with the kids, the breeder and I in my high heels running after him. The breeder finally caught him by a hind leg and, panting, put him in my arms. I handed over the rest of the money.

The girls piled into our VW bus, the puppy between them. As I drove home, still shaken from the chase, I looked into the rear-view mirror and thought how unfazed and in control the puppy seemed. These German Shepherds, I thought with satisfaction, really are something else. (To be continued.)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Me, At 100, With Moon And Goat

Garlic Follies

Yesterday morning, true to my word, I brewed and drank a cup of “centenarian tea.”

It took me a while to get up my nerve, however. First I fed the dogs and changed their water. Ditto the goats and chickens. I gave Lexi her meds, and brushed her teeth and Wolfie's. I carefully misted all my house plants.

Then I had breakfast: a slice of rhubarb bread and a cup of regular green tea.

Thus fortified, I heated some water, and pounded three large cloves of garlic in my mortar. (Not being a centenarian yet, I figured three cloves should do me.) It was disconcerting to inhale all that garlic aroma that early in the day. When the water was hot, I dumped about a cup of various mint leaves (apple, orange, and peppermint) and the garlic into the teapot and let it all stew for a while.

The resulting liquid looked like broth rather than tea. I could taste the mint, with the garlic as a pungent “end note.” It wasn't horrible—to my highly garlic-tolerant taste buds at least—but I don't think I could drink ever increasing concentrations of the stuff every day until I reach my second century.

I don't particularly want to live to 100, if that means being reduced to a little heap of bones in a wheelchair. On the other hand, a dry but spry version of myself, with wild white hair, running around in the woods chasing goats, making cheese, growing THAT might be worth learning to like centenarian tea.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Venus Of Garlic

Garlic Confessions

For me, the smell of garlic sauteeing gently in olive oil is the quintessential smell of food, of hearth and of home.

No wonder: I was weaned on garlic soup. This dish of the gods started out, like many others, as a dish of peasants. The list of ingredients says it all: water, dried out bread, lots of garlic, and an egg.

You start by heating a quart of salted water (or, if you are rich, a quart of broth). Meanwhile you chop up your leftover “French” bread that has gotten too hard to eat. Next you brown lots of garlic in olive oil, making sure not to burn it. What does “lots of garlic” mean to a Spaniard? As many as 15 cloves per quart of liquid. Dump the bread and the oil and garlic into the water and, at the last minute, break an egg or two into it, swirling it with a wooden spoon so that the white hardens into lovely threads. Don't let the soup boil, but serve it hot.

Like all such dishes, garlic soup tolerates all kinds of additions: sauteed peppers, bits of ham or chorizo, chopped vegetables. But our family always had it in its pure form.

Garlic sauteeing in olive oil was for me the start of all things good, especially the sauces that adorned our meat dishes—chicken, rabbit, snails....Then there is garlic rubbed on a substantial piece of bread, on which you then rub a ripe tomato until the juice soaks in, followed by a sprinkling of olive oil and salt. This is pa amb tomaquet, the ultimate Catalan soul food.

Have I met a clove of garlic I didn't like? I don't think so, though I detest the chopped up garlic that comes in bottles. True to my Mediterranean DNA, I can consume large quantities of garlic at a sitting. At lunch in a restaurant one day, having first obtained my husband's permission, I ate as my only entree an entire baked head of garlic.

This brings me to one of the minor tragedies of my married life: my husband doesn't like garlic. His entire family dislikes it. They have German and Irish blood in their veins, and garlic is an alien, evil substance to them.

I have a theory about why I married a man who dislikes garlic. Research has shown that women choose as mates men whose immune systems are completely different from those of their (the women's) fathers, so their offspring will enjoy a broader spectrum of protection. I'm sure that my father's immune system reeked of garlic, so to balance things I unconsciously chose a man whose only previous exposure had been to the garlic bread served in pizza joints. The proof: we had amazingly healthy kids.

In deference to my husband's tastes, I have had to rein in my passion and use garlic in less than industrial quantities. Last week, however, I went on a garlic rampage. I chopped up six large cloves, fried them in olive oil, and drizzled the contents of the pan over a piece of bread. That was my lunch, and it was fabulous.

Now I know what you're thinking: doesn't her breath smell horrible? Well, as compared to what? If you go to a Mediterranean country, you soon stop smelling people's garlic breath, because you are as full of it as everybody else. In this country, I often smell garlic on people's breath. It doesn't exactly make me want to get close to them, but it doesn't gross me out, either. Instead, I immediately think, hmmm, I wonder what he/she had to eat? Was it good? When was the last time I had garlic?

I heard on NPR recently that in Georgia—the area that became famous because of the large proportion of centenarians in the population--people consume a cup of mint tea with a bunch of garlic cloves pressed in it for breakfast every day. The older they are, the more cloves they put in: five cloves if they are in their eighties or nineties, and six to eight cloves if they are over a hundred.

I'm going to try this tomorrow and let you know how it turns out.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Maple Syrup Time

Everything around here is still looking pretty sere, and if it weren't for the birds and the peepers and the occasional mosquito, we could still be in early March. But the sap is running in the sugar bush, and it's sugaring time.

In these parts, "sugar bush" means a stand of sugar maples, the kind that get tapped in the spring and yield Vermont's golden crop, maple syrup.

Driving around the frost-heave-filled roads at this time of year you can see miles of blue plastic tubing going from tree to tree, and ending in a big barrel. If you're lucky, you can see a sugar bush that is still being tapped the traditional way, with buckets topped with little slanted covers to keep stuff out of the sap.

Buckets and barrels, when they are full, are carted to the "sugar house"--typically a little shack behind the barn. There, over days and nights of patient boiling, the sap is reduced to syrup. It takes forty gallons of sap to make a single gallon of syrup. Think of that the next time you pour the stuff on your pancakes, and be sure to thank the maple faeries who keep watch over the sugar bush.