Monday, March 22, 2010

Roasting Matilda

With Barbara and Camille's Kingsolver's rhapsodies about eating foods grown locally by independent small farmers still resonating in my head, I decided to try an experiment involving eggs. Stew had been complaining about supermarket-bought eggs having too-fragile shells and yolks. A friend who raises his own chickens theorizes that's because hens at nearby American-style factory farms are somehow made to lay more eggs, before the shells are properly formed.

I don't know if that's exactly true but we have seen the huge chicken factory farms near San Miguel: hangar-size metal warehouses with huge exhaust fans in place of windows. If they are anything like their American counterparts, those facilities are the chicken version of the seventh circle of hell. The poor animals spend their brief, miserable lives crammed in cages so small they are not even able to turn around, let alone walk or flap their wings.

The locavore alternative to this horror are free-range birds that get to go outside, peck the ground and cheep, crow, cluck or chirp merrily depending on their age, sex or vocal gifts. Presumably this more natural environment creates healthier, tastier animals and eggs.

My source for locavore eggs was our gardener Félix, an unflappable 20-something who also takes care of our dogs and cats when we are away, and lives in sad little town called Sosnavar, about two miles from here. He told me his grandmother raises chickens and eggs for the entire family at a small ranch nearby.

Grandma's techniques sound like the very antithesis of factory farming. Her chickens run around in a fenced-in corner of the yard, he said, pecking at early-morning handfuls of cracked corn, supplemented by worms, insects or whatever they can find in the ground during the rest of the day. When someone needs eggs, they go looking for them somewhere in the chicken enclosure. When someone gets a hankering for a chicken dinner, that'd be the place to go too.

Today Félix brought me a dozen eggs in a small plastic bucket, carefully nestled in cracked corn to keep them from breaking. They were brown and a bit smaller than the plastic-packaged white eggs we get from the supermarket.

So Stew set out to do an almost-scientific experiment (he couldn't do a blind test because he had to keep an eye on the frying pan.) Two locavore eggs in one skillet, two factory farm eggs in the other. The shells felt equally thick. The yolks were the same size, despite Grandma's smaller eggs. The whites in Grandma's eggs turned out slightly darker and the yolks maybe just a bit brighter yellow.

The taste, I'm disappointed to report, was the same, though more rigorous testing may be in order. Grandma's eggs might contain more vitamins and nutrients than the factory-produced models, though on the other hand her eggs and chickens, given their laissez-faire lifestyle, also may be more likely to carry pathogens that are not particularly good for you. I don't know.

But just on the basis of taste alone, I wouldn't run out and build my own chicken coop as a few American friends have done here.

Apart from the hassle of taking on more animals--we already have three cats and two dogs--I can foresee other complications, like what do you do when the hens stop laying.

Writing about her turkeys, Kingsolver talks about "harvesting" them, a term that sounds a hell of a lot more felicitous than "killing," "summary decapitation" or "turkeycide." Indeed Kingsolver goes on--and on and on--about how killing the animals you raise reflects the Natural Order of Things. She and her family get together in the shed in the fall to dispatch several turkeys at a time, and crack jokes while heads fall and feathers fly.

Stew and I eat meat. The best you can say about us in that regard is that we're "aspirational vegetarians." Or "practicing hypocrites" depending how cruel you want to be. We stick to pastas with meatless sauces, rice-and-beans casseroles and other such staples for a few days, until the image of a pork chop inevitably enters our heads and refuses to leave.

But raising chickens and then having to eat them would be too much, no matter how deliriously tasteful or nutritious. For one thing, Stew would promptly name the hens--Matilda, Felicia, Genevieve or some such--and then what? Grab Matilda and shove her in the Weber kettle?

Eggs from Félix's grandmother may be as far as we want to go in this locavore trend for now. They taste pretty much the same but there's the mental satisfaction of knowing the hens that laid those eggs led relatively happy lives pecking around mindlessly, with plenty of room to flap their wings when the urge came upon them.

There's also the feel-good factor of helping a desperately poor family with a weekly order of eggs, instead of sending our Social Security pesos to a huge factory-farm operator, probably owned by an American corporation.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Vegetables in exile

Among the environmentally enlightened one of the newer sects is the "locavores," folks who vow to eat food that is not only grown organically but locally too, usually within 100 miles of the consumer.

Proximity to the producers, they believe, reduces the environmental damage caused by diesel trucks and trains schlepping fruits and vegetables over thousands of miles and also ensures the nutritional integrity of the produce and its taste.

By the time a head of lettuce grown near San Miguel wends its way across Mexico to the U.S. border and then on to Chicago or New York, what arrives there--no matter how much it's packaged, refrigerated, humidified or otherwise coddled--is but a faded facsimile of the original article.

Two compelling locavores are Barbara Kingsolver, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life," and Michael Pollan, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," and "The Omnivore's Dilemma: The Natural History of Four Meals."

Locavoring can be challenging, especially if you live in the frozen tundra that half of the U.S. becomes for several months every year. Strawberries in Minneapolis in January? No can do. Cherries in Manhattan? Sorry, pal.

It seems locavores first need to tame their baser, omnivorous urges. Then it helps to be a kitchen alchemist like Kingsolver, who transformed rhubarb into a "fruit" in order to satisfy her kids' early-spring hankering for the real stuff.

By comparison, locavoring in San Miguel is easy. The usually mild winters in the area ensure a continuous supply of produce from the same local farms that supply the U.S. If at your supermarket you spot "Mr. Lucky" brand produce--the one with the horseshoe on the label--it probably came from somewhere in our state of Guanajuato.

And if you stretch the locavore-approved supply radius just a bit, there are oranges, strawberries, watermelons, mangos, canteloupes and avocados to be had from nearby states. Catch these items in season and prices can be absurdly cheap.

Large American-style supermarkets have appeared in the San Miguel area in the past few years, with decidedly non-locavore offerings like asparagus from Peru, grapes from Chile and apples from Washington State.

But one can still get fruits and vegetables, some still covered with farm soil, at the two public markets, souq-like mazes of stalls covered with blue plastic tarps, where the sweet aromas of flower vendors mix with the pungent smells of taco stands. Musicians and organ grinders amble by, keeping the ambiance mellow, even if their music clashes with the boom-boxes of vendors of bootleg CDs and DVDs, also a specialty of these markets. (Why wait for Netflix? Miraculously, we can get DVDs of Hollywood's latest releases before Hollywood even officially releases them, and only for a couple of bucks.)

For those willing to do a little more legwork--Stew and I haven't yet--there are supposed to be small organic farms around San Miguel, even one selling earthworms for the garden. The catch is that here "organic" can be an unregulated, malleable concept, like asking the waiter how hot is that red salsa on the table. It all depends how you define "organic" or "hot."

Yet amid all this cornucopia of locally grown greens, the missing ingredient is variety. There are tomatoes alright, as long as you like the Roma variety or occasionally some mutant-looking kinds that for all their size and luscious appearance are disappointingly insipid. Despite Mexico's wide collection of different types of corn, the one available around here is usually white, starchy and not so tasty. No zucchini of the type we're used to in the States. Regulation lemons are small and green; the bigger, yellow Meyer lemons appear only rarely. Fancy-schmantzy mesclun salad mixes are not available, though some different types of lettuces are now sold. Usually just one or two kinds of potatoes.

Part of the problem is that San Miguel is after all a small town with limited demand for the exotic. Giant public markets in Mexico City and other larger cities offer any produce or foodstuffs imaginable.

Also, the local cuisine of San Miguel or Guanajuato--if there is such a thing--is no match for that of other parts of Mexico, like Oaxaca. Stew is fond of describing Oaxaca as place where you can't have a bad meal. Indeed, moles and other incredibly complex concoctions require a vast array of spices and other ingredients. Your taste buds are exhausted after a week in Oaxaca.

By comparison, "arrachera" steak, a marinated cut of flank steak, seems to be the staple of practically every restaurant menu in San Miguel. It can be very good but after four or five years of it, hmm, it gets boring, along with the green enchiladas and other same-olds, same-olds.

Here's where my garden comes in, to be launched in two raised beds recently completed. It will specialize in vegetables, fruits and produce not available here. Ah, let's be honest: It will feature mostly green oddities like heirloom tomatoes, sweet corn, real zucchini and other American goodies that are not available in Mexico.

Call it the Garden of Nostalgia. A private reserve of American vegetables in exile, with two or three rows of Illini Xtra-Sweet and Peaches & Cream Hybrid corn swaying in the background, behind their shorter cousins.

I don't know if it will work, but in my mind I'm already boiling the water in a pot that will be only 30 seconds away from the corn plants.

I'm even fantasizing about a Tomato Tasting Party, featuring blind sampling of the seven varieties of heirloom plus some other more common varieties that I will plant.

The general idea for the raised beds came from Jo Ann Erickson, a Californian who used to live at a ranch on the other side of San Miguel and is an expert organic grower and cook.

My two beds are L-shaped and about 18 inches deep at one end and about three feet at the other (the ground slopes). Along the long leg of the "L" they measure 13 feet long by 4 feet wide. They are made of the ubiquitous stone freely available on the property.

First we put in about 8 inches of coarse gravel to facilitate drainage through PVC pipes on the side walls. The soil mix is 40 percent local black soil mixed with an equal amount of what Mexicans call "tierra lama", sometimes translated as "loam" but which looks and feels more like sandy soil intended to keep the black soil from congealing into solid mud.

On top of that we mixed in beautiful, three-year-old compost from a nearby horse farm. That friable, odorless compost is other-worldly.

We've also set up our own three-bin compost pile, each compartment about 4 feet square, to handle garden and kitchen waste, though from my experience that process is a slow train to Chihuahua, not the nearly instant gusher of "black gold" advertised in gardening magazines.

To guide my efforts I am using "Square Foot Gardening," the book that probably made Mel Bartholomew a wealthy man. I go back and forth between his book and "Grow Vegetables," by Alan and Jo Whittingham. The latter is not as fact-packed as "Square Foot," but the luscious color photography keeps you inspired.

I'll probably need a lot of that inspiration to keep this project alive through the bug and pest season--this is an organic venture--plus other mishaps that lurk ahead.

Even before I had a chance to plant any seeds, my 60-lb. dog Lucy went in a dug a hole in one of the beds. So out comes a chicken-wire fence to try control Lucy's enthusiasm.

Our friend Fred also asked what I was going to do about rabbits. We have many honey-bunnies hopping across the property.

"What about rabbits,?" I asked cluelessly.

"Rabbits eat lettuce," calmy replied Fred.


I guess we better get more chicken wire.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Buy more panels and call me in the morning

After several suggestions and theories--from two installers, an electrician, Stew, various blog readers, friends, and equipment manufacturers, among others--it turns out that Stew's German orthopedic surgeon-cum-solar energy wizard was right all along.

We don't have enough panels in our array to keep us going through the shorter days of winter. Doktor Schmidt says his house has 18 panels, so many in fact that he ends up selling electricity back to the government-owned utility most of the year.

That's six panels more than we have. Panels go for about $1,000 US apiece though there are reports the price has gone down sharply in the past few months. Still, this is not an inexpensive pasttime; we've already spent approximately $27,000 US. Payback on that would take, hmm, about 20 years, using the current electric rates, probably a little less, if you factor in the constantly escalating electric rates in Mexico.

It's probably easier too for Schmidt to finance his solar panels emporium: His practice revolves largely around American and Canadian geezers who keep tripping on San Miguel's cobblestone sidewalks and streets, or otherwise clamoring for various types of osteo-muscular tune-ups. Life past 60 becomes like keeping a '67 Chevy running, I tell you. It's amazing how many bones, tendons, discs, muscles and what-have-you there are in the body and how many things can go wrong. And Schmidt will fix them all and give some solar advice as a bonus.

The Schmidt Solar Hypothesis is that solar installers after a few years start working with a same-old, same-old formula of 12 panels for a "normal" household, without considering individual use patterns. A family with one-year-old quadruplets with happy bowels probably will have to run the clothes washer and dryer eight hours a day.

Stew and I don't have that situation, but we still use the dishwasher daily and that sucks about 1.4 kw a cycle, or almost the output of a couple of panels on an average day. Other folks here just hire a maid to wash the dishes, which given local labor rates, is a better deal financially than running a dishwasher--assuming you don't mind having the maid in your house every day of the week. Stew and I do mind.

Schmidt says that low-balling the number of panels also serves the purpose of preparing an estimate that won't scare off the potential customers who might swallow a $27,000 estimate but gag at anything over $30,000.

In an effort to pin down the problem with our solar system, our installer hired an electrician/building inspector who showed up with a gadget called The Energy Detective, or T.E.D. (Photo above, check out the following website for more information:

The T.E.D. is wired to the entrance electric panel and monitors and records the amount of juice going through 24 hours a day, and sends a readout to the gadget above, which is about the size of an electric alarm clock. At the end of several days the information can be downloaded into a laptop computer, which will print out a report as precise as minute-by-minute electric use.

Some of the readings are surprising, particularly regarding electricity users that can't be monitored with our own gadget, the Kill-A-Watt. This gizmo, about $15, is mostly for appliances that can be plugged into it.

(Check it out:

The T.E.D., for example, showed that five, six-foot-long, recessed "rope lights" in the living room use 350 watts, a good bit considering they hardly give off any light. The desktop computer I'm writing on--and its little electronic friends, such as separate speakers, two printers, routers, large screen, etc. etc. can use about 250 watts when they are all whirring along. The famously efficient (as far as propane, that is) Rinnai space heater has a 130 watt blower. You run that baby for eight to ten hours a day during the winter, when solar production is at its lowest, and you'd better have a 1.5 photovoltaic panels for that operation alone.

The T.E.D. readings showed that on a normal day we use between 7kw and 8kw, a relatively low consumption rate particularly if the panels--as they have during the past brilliantly sunny three or weeks--generate 12kw of electricity in a day. So far today, at 4 in the afternoon, they have already generated 11.3 kw. That's fat city, isn't it?

Not quite. Part of the juice goes to run the appliances, but you also need additional electricity to keep the batteries charged for when the sun goes down, or The Lady Upstairs decides that two or three weeks of cloudy days is good for building character.

Earlier this year, around the end of January, beginning of February we had two or three weeks of almost unrelentingly cloudy and cold weather. Our Rinnai heaters tried to buzz along but the batteries didn't have enough electricity to keep a charge, let alone run the house.

The systems of many Solaristas in San Miguel, including the guy who installed our batteries, simply crashed. "It's never happened before!" "We've never seen anything like this!" Yeah, and yadda, yadda, yadda.

Our solar problems are not entirely solved yet, though weeks and weeks of sun certainly make life easier. We bought a cheap voltmeter that tells the batteries are at 25 volts (fully charged) or slightly above practically all the time.

For anyone interested out there in blogger land, I'd like to offer the following nuggets of advice.

1. Find a reputable and experienced installer. An engineer at Outback, the firm that makes part of our hardware told Stew that the solar energy field has become a sort of gold rush, often populated by people who don't know what the hell they are doing or believe installing solar systems is as easy as selling salted pretzels on a streetcorner. Our installer is probably the best in town but still we wish we had known more about what was involved. The Outback engineer said that fast-talking is not a phenomenon just in Mexico but in the U.S. too. Now, that makes me feel better.

2. Figure out how much sun your area gets. You need more panels in Bismarck, N.D., than in Phoenix, and there has to be a formula or database that would tell you how much sun your panels are likely to receive, particularly in the winter or rainy months, and from there, how much electricity you are likely to get. "We've never had this problem before!" or "I've installed dozens of these without a problem" are not an adequate equivalent for figuring how many kilowatts you're likely to get, say, in January or how to proceed and plan for what else you need.

3. Make a realistic, thorough inventory of how much electricity you need to satisfy the needs of your lifestyle. The sustainable or off-grid housing field has way too many evangelists and seers who'll try to lecture you about the wonders of charging the batteries with a biomass generator under the kitchen sink, or worse still, start ranting about the intrinsic evil having a big, fat, flat-screen TV in your living room, or the gluttonous "American Way of Life."

Stew and I don't watch TV that much but if you do, go for the big TV. Just make sure you design a system that is adequate for your needs. On the other hand we do like our dishwasher and wish we had planned a little more carefully.

This is a modern technical question not a medieval morality play. Don't commit to living in the dark or having an eight cubic foot refrigerator unless that's what you really want. If so, you might get away with eight or ten panels.

4. If you're building from scratch, spot an architect and electrician familiar with energy conservation. Our Mexican electrician did an excellent job thanks to both, his under-the-radar apprenticeship in Atlanta and Stew's experience as a home inspector. The architect came up with some great ideas--and forgot a few basic points. He put large windows and skylights in every room of the house--even the master closet--so there's no need to turn on lights until the sun goes down. However, he is very fond of 50w halogen lights which are energy hogs (try LEDs), and originally wanted to put a ring of 24 or 25 lights all around the base of the house to, I dunno, emulate the spacecraft in "Close Encounters"?

Those rope lights are coming down. Whose idea was that? If you turn on the rope lights in the living room and around the skylight by the kitchen, you'll have a good 500 watts of electricity going through and not much light to show for it.

5. Get an automatic generator, run by propane or natural gas, to kick in when the sun fails--as it will inevitably. During last January's penumbra, Stew and would have to fill the generator with gasoline, keep an eye on it, and so on. That's a pain that could have been avoided with an automatic unit.

For the time being, we are fine with our system. But in June the rains start and presumably less sun, so maybe the three additional panels can't wait until the winter.

Any suggestions or ideas, feel free to post comments or e-mail me. Thanks.