A Day’s Alchemy

But the daily we have always with us, a nagging reminder that the dishes must be done, the floor mopped or vacuumed, the dirty laundry washed . . .  Precisely because it is so important, so close to us, so basic, so bound up with home and nurture, it is considered to be of less importance than that which is done in public . . . This may be an example of a familiarity that has bred contempt, a kind of hubris that allows men and women alike to imagine that by devaluing the bonds that connect us to the womanly, to the household, to the daily, we can rise above them.  — Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries

But it is in this work — the daily, the tedious, the repetitive — that our deepest alchemy can and does reveal itself.

For most of us, the day has a predictable routine.  For me during the summer mornings, it’s making coffee, ensuring the cats have breakfast, opening the windows and screen doors to bring in the fresh morning air and the birdsongs, and then a little later making breakfast for Unbelievably Useful Husband. (The Kid is usually sleeping in.).  There’s usually some kitchen cleanup that needs doing during all this, and probably a laundry bump, and the dogs always desperately need to go out just when I’m involved in something requiring my total attention. (This set of behaviors is called “clearing the decks.”)  But breakfast is always a pleasure to cook.  If you recall from “Belay those Olallieberries,” we make our own bacon:

Homemade smoked bacon. Maple syrup, molasses, honey, brown sugar, and a bit of sweet cherry smoke.
Sliced homemade bacon. Ready to go, Captain.

. This is what the bacon looks like, when it’s sliced and ready for cooking.  Unless you have a meat slicer, you can’t get the see-through, weirdly clingy, paper-thin slices of commercial bacon, but a sharp knife and a steady hand creates a pleasantly thick piece that will fry up beautifully in the pan.


Frying homemade bacon. In the pan, slow and steady.

Homemade bacon requires a bit more time and care to cook.  All that lovely maple syrup, honey, brown sugar and molasses will burn in a flash if the heat is too high, so slow and steady wins this race.  You’ll not see any of the strange gray bubbly water boiling out of it as in commercial varieties; just bacon fat, rendering cleanly and purely and stupendously fragrantly as you cook.  Frequent turning makes sure each side is browned and crisped evenly.  A quick blot on a towel, and there’s breakfast.

No magic here except for heat — judiciously applied to an egg and some meticulously spiced, cured and smoked pork belly.

Cooks (usually women) since the dawn of more-or-less civilized time have understood the principle of judicious heat; it took medieval alchemists a lot longer to stop blowing up their labs.  More fire is not necessarily better.

Once the breakfast cook and cleanup and various animal and house-tendings are done, it’s usually time for the garden walkabout. Today, I noticed that the beautiful Gulf Fritillary butterflies were bombing around the garden again; I talked about them a bit in “The Passion of the Passiflora.”  It was the time of day, though, when the sun had just dried the dew off the herbs. Herbalists say that this is the time to harvest what you need — it’s supposedly when the essential oils contained in the herbs are at their height — so I armed myself with a basket and scissors and got the job done.

Herbs from home garden.Lemon verbena, tarragon, golden lemon thyme, various basils, oregano, and more yarrow aerials were up today.

Once you’ve harvested an herb, the clock starts ticking — you have to decide what to do with it.  Some people swear by freezing tender herbs like basils in ice cubes, saying that the technique reliably preserves the flavor and texture of the leaves.  I have no doubt that this is true, but I also have no room in my freezer because it is almost entirely occupied by a million pounds of olalliberries.

Home-grown herbs ready for dehydrating. Off to the Lab.

So off to the McGuffin the herbs will go — the Excalibur dehydrator that lurks in the Lab. I have a nine-tray model, so there’s usually no issue about running out of space. Once they’re done (a few hours at 95F for most), I’ll take them out and garble them, and then put them into my herb bottles. There — unirradiated, unpesticided, and uncrushed, they’ll retain their flavor for a long time.

The Gulf Fritillaries were still in the back of my mind even as I was fussing with the McGuffin.  I saw a few of them dancing while I was out harvesting, weeding, and watering the garden, so I thought I’d take a look at what was happening to the Passiflora incarnata.  Sure enough, we had our annual visitors.

Gulf Fritillary caterpillar on a Passiflora incarnata. Oh, there’s more than one of me.

Caterpillars don’t move fast, but the butterflies do. These butterflies move like fighter planes, fast and unpredictable, and I have about ten thumbs with this camera, so my brilliant idea to try to catch a picture was probably hopeless as a start.  Hope springs eternal, though, so I planted myself next to the Passiflora and waited.  One butterfly circled my head about fifteen times before she settled down.  When I took the picture, I realized that she was overseeing two large caterpillars directly below her.

Gulf Fritillary adult butterfly and caterpillars on Passiflora incarnata. Mom, checking on the kids.

As I appeared to be entirely harmless, she stayed only a few moments before she decided that she was required elsewhere.

Adult Gulf Fritillary and caterpillars on Passiflora incarnata. Everybody looks okay. Off to yoga.

There were other household management things to do, some of which can take hours.  But after all that was done, I had a few other things to do:  I’d been infusing a jojoba and fractionated coconut oil with yarrow and mullein flowers, and it was ready for pressing and straining.  Yarrow is well known for surface skin-repairing and smoothing effects, and has been used since the classical age for stanching the bleeding from battlefield wounds.  Mullein is spoken about frequently as an assisting herb for lung conditions (Native Americans are reputed to have smoked it).  Another of its reputed effects, though, is as a healer for deeper tissues and structures even in a carrier oil.

Jojoba and fractionated coconut massage oil, infused with herbs Yarrow, mullein and Ginger Thomas herbs, infused in jojoba. I think gold costs less than jojoba.

Some minutes wrestling with cheesecloth and multiple strainers later, I had the oil I was after. I’m probably going to use it in a soap, though I’m not sure which formula yet.  Jojoba and fractionated coconut oil have absolutely marvelous moisturizing and smoothing qualities on the skin, and the herb infusions, I hope, will only amplify them.



Finally, I saw from my calendar that a curing soap was about ready to make its way in the world.  Making cold-processed soap (e.g., soap that is made from scratch, with specifically chosen oils, waxes, butters, and other ingredients, saponified with lye and left to cure for several weeks to harden) is a practice that requires patience.  It is also one of the best examples of ordinary alchemies that exist.  From a bowl of liquid oils and fragments of lye arises something entirely different.  It’s been changed in its essential nature by a chemical reaction that must have seemed like  magic for most of human history.  (Soapmaking isn’t the only process where this occurred — in the Middle Ages, alewives would mix their wort and then cross themselves and say a prayer, as the wild yeasts would begin the fermentation process.)

This soap is part of the “Sky” series I’ve been working on.  It was inspired by a photograph of the clouds, sea and horizon taken from Buck Island on St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Handmade soap, inspired by St. Croix “Blue Skies, Clear Sailing”

It was made with pure coconut, olive, palm and castor oils, and colored with ultramarines. The fragrance is “clean and marine” with just a touch of musk and citrus to deepen it.  I cleaned up the edges a bit, made sure it was pH safe, and told it to say “Cheese” while I took its picture.  While it’s not gold — the goal that every medieval alchemist was after, if not the elixir of eternal life — it’s still a pretty good thing to have made at the end of the day.

The same goes with breakfast, and dinner, and bacon, and herbing, and growing things, and even doing laundry and dishes and cleaning up after the spills and flaws and damages of daily life.   Each action requires some kind of applied change, a thoughtful — even if passing — alchemy to the circumstances around us.  And even if they are the things that Kathleen Norris mentions as so basic, so bound up in home and nurture, the “little things” that we disregard now in preference for the public, it’s worth remembering what Sister Teresa of Calcutta said:  “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”





Unexpected Beauties

Unexpected intrusions of beauty. This is what life is.  — Saul Bellow, Herzog

The daily garden walkabouts are usually pragmatic affairs:  this plant seems a little dry, there is some weeding to be done on the raised bed, the basil plants need pinching (again), the “Shoot-the-Moon”  Bougainvillea’s dropped bracts need to be cleaned out of pots (and the pool, and the garden umbrella, and my hair), and the like.  Some plants simply don’t make it for whatever reason, and I contemplate how their spots could be used to reseed California poppies and borage, which I need for tea; I note that there are now, briefly, a few glorious roses whose petals would be perfect for drying; and if I don’t do something about that pumped-up lemon verbena it’s going to go Thunderdome on the tarragon next door.  It’s usually a no-nonsense and task-oriented routine. But every now and then some vision jumps out at you, a picture framed as if an artist designed it just for you, at just that moment.

Mystery grapevine Every family’s got one.

The grape arbor out front is a riot of greens and grapes.  Every now and then I trim it back a bit to keep the vines from taking over the entire driveway, but on the whole I leave them alone.  The other day I noticed a bright spark of color buried in the brilliant green leaves — it was a single leaf that had burst into crimson and gold. There were no others like it.  It was gone two days later.

The same day I saw the grapeleaf beacon, I passed the plantings near the front of the house.  Here we have a plant that I call “The Martian Maw Of Death” — a plant that appears so irredeemably hostile that even the Hive Queen giant opuntia cactus is afraid of it.  Robert Heinlein, the science fiction writer, once remarked that it was generally a bad idea to scare a little man; I can see that principle applying to this cactus, if that’s what it is.  But there are several more of them, and I was surprised and delighted to see that even the prickliest curmudgeon of a plant can produce something of striking and even unnecessary beauty.

Martian Maw of Death cactusPay no attention to the thorns behind these flowers.

The Hive Queen herself is no slouch in this department. For a giant cactus covered in brutal thorns, featherlike needles that can drive you insane if they get under your skin, and possessing a general posture of incipient homicide, the Queen can also strut her stuff when it’s time.

Opuntia ficus-indica, bloomingThe Hive Queen says: Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful while I slash you to ribbons.

Each of these flowers tops a structure that will turn into the rare and delicious “prickly pear” fruit. The petals range in color from brightest yellow to blush pink to deepest rose, and only last a few days.  It’s always surprising to see something so delicate, so perfectly fragile and absolutely lovely, on a plant like this.  But that’s what I think Saul Bellow was getting at:  unexpected intrusions of beauty are what life is, and no matter how unlikely, they are all around us. Gardens are really good for this.

Rainforests, Soap, and Sinus Surgery

One of the fascinating features of the little island in the Caribbean is the extraordinary diversity of its geography.  The East End of the island is hilly and dry, covered in low scrub and bush like tan-tan and Ginger Thomas stands, and bears the forefront of the tradewinds that sweep in from the sea.  The center of the island flattens out a bit, but still features gentle curving hills that once sustained sprawling sugar cane plantations.  And going on to the West End, you find an remarkable feature — a genuine rainforest that climbs into the sky. There’s really only one main road that will take you through the rainforest, and it’s a trip best done slowly and carefully; there are sections of the road that wash out in interesting ways, and you’ll find yourself crossing running water more than once. But the varied colors and movement of the forest that surrounds you, the shifting light and fragrances of the plants and the earth, make it a trip well worth making.  It also inspired me to try to recreate at least some of the experience in a soap.

St. Croix is remaking itself as a destination island for people interested in highly skilled, deliciously authentic, and locally grown organic food.  There are several farms now that not only supply local restaurants and markets, but also offer apprenticeships, vacation stays, and camps teaching how to grow quality organic food in a tropical clime.  In honor of this resurrection, I decided I’d use only herbal colorants for the soap this time.



There are a number of online shops to obtain soapmaking resources.  I found one, soap-making-resource.com, that offered a sample pack of various spice and herbal colorants for use in cold-process soaps.  The bag I received was enormous and contained everything from activated charcoal to madder root to alkanet to dandelion.  After a bit of research on the type of greens I was after, I chose three:  Comfrey Leaf, Nettle Leaf, and French Green Clay.

Greens and blues can be tough colors to create in soap, even if you’re using the more ordinary pigments, micas, and liquid colorants.  As in any alchemy, colors can change, morph, or even disappear on you without even so much as a courtesy phone call.  Herbs double down the difficulty — so many have hideous reputations for turning bizarrely awful colors, smelling odd, or refusing to do anything at all.  So I knew going in that practically anything could happen, and there was an additional level of pressure involved — my mom was coming into town and I’d promised to show her how to make soap.

She was coming in on a mercy mission — to help take care of the Kid, who was having sinus surgery that week and more hands are better in that kind of situation.  I knew the day after the surgery the Kid would be off on a sleepy-happy little cloud of Vicodin, so that would be the best day to try the soap.  I started gathering and setting up the gear.  But what mold to use? 

The guys to the right are classic soap molds.  The dark blue is a loaf mold, and the lighter blue is a single-bar slab mold that I usually use for testing new colors and fragrances, or for overflow soap. I’m also going to start experimenting with it for swirling techniques that are difficult to do in loaf molds.

But there are other, more oddball options.

“Morning Sun.”

Yes, that is a Pringles can, and it creates a lovely round bar if everything goes right.  I’ve heard of some folks lining theirs and using it multiple times, but for me it’s a one-off.  This is primarily because it gives me a perfect excuse to eat the chips. “I need a new round mold!”  I’d used a Pringles can before and produced the “Morning Sun” soap.

Trying another round soap appealed to me, so I fished out a can I’d been saving (much to my mom’s amusement), and we got the show on the road.  Mom had chosen a combination of fragrances that she thought smelled like a bright, tropical forest: a coconut, lime and verbena fragrance oil with a dollop of lemongrass essential oil to add a citrus crispness.  The recipe was extremely simple: coconut oil and olive oil, which should produce a creamy and moisturizing soap with decent lathering and bubbles.

The mixing went fairly well; the comfrey leaf was put into the base batter, and then split into three.  The nettle leaf and green clay were mixed into the other two measuring cups, all stick-mixered  into a light to medium trace, and then the nettle and clay colors were poured from a height into the base batter at the 12 and 6 o’clock positions. One and a half circular sweeps of a spatula swirled the mix, and then it was poured into the Pringles can. We wrapped it up in some towels.  And then we waited, tended the Kid, made herb tea, pitted cherries, and drank white wine.


Mom had to leave before I could unpeel the can and take a look at what we’d made.  It had produced a tiny volcano at the top (this is the second time I’ve seen that phenomenon in a Pringles can), but otherwise seemed hale and hearty.  Today I opened and cut it.  It is a firm, sturdy little beast — still a little soft, but that’s to be expected — and it cut like a dream with the Unbelievably Useful Husband’s handcrafted device. I was delighted and even dumbfounded by the herbal colors, and couldn’t help but add a leaf soap stamp and paint on a little mica.  To me, it does reflect the rainforest; the colors shift like the light in the canopy leaves, and the fragrance is gentle, earthy, fresh and relaxing. And while it might darken, I’m going to be working more with herbal and spice colorants now.  Turmeric? Paprika? Sandalwood? Dandelion? Have at you!

Days Go By

One of the truisms burned into my head over the years is that “dogs, cats, kids and gardens don’t care if you’re tired.”  The work has to be done anyway, anyhow, however you feel and whatever else you feel like doing (such as watching multiple episodes of “No Reservations” while in your jammies).  Everybody has to be fed, watered, often entertained and usually cleaned up after.  (It’s a good day if someone in the house hasn’t had a barfing fit. With three cats and two large dogs, you know it’s just a matter of time. “Time” meaning “minutes.”)

With that recognized, it’s also good to be aware that your agenda isn’t the only one that’s active.  For example, below is a shot from a second-floor window.  That’s a bougainvillea asking to come in.

Unbelievably Useful Husband fears it has malevolent intentions.

Yes, it has to be trimmed, but there’s a lot to be said for a bush so exuberant that it blasts itself up two stories in two months without any of the other residents of the household noticing it.  This is a ninja bougainvillea.  “This is not the bougainvillea you’re looking for.” The CIA should hire this plant and teach it to pick locks.  It’s about three inches away from being able to peel open the window as it is.  When you’ve got a landscaping plant suddenly waving at you cheerfully at the level of your second-floor office window, you get the idea that maybe it’s not all about you, what you want, or even what you do.

I’m ruminating about this because I “took the day off” yesterday. The world didn’t end, the animals aren’t all dead (well, the feedings did still occur) and there’s now a bougainvillea leaning in the window who wants to edit my posts.  There’s also a soap that had to wait one extra day before I could unmold it, because it was a lot softer than I anticipated.  I’d done a session on Friday, trying a new technique that scared the living daylights out of me. It demanded that I split the basic soap batter up into five separate containers for separate colors, and then layer them into a mold.  The inspiration for the design came from a sunset photographed from the little island in the Caribbean.

Layers of color, with the stars coming out.

The preparation for this moonshot was a little demanding.

The giant bag of coconut oil is sitting outside in the sun, warming up.

Soapmaking (like dogs, cats, kids and gardens) doesn’t care if you want to take a break to put your feet up, have a cigarette, talk to your mom on the phone or catch the latest Facebook update.  Saponification happens with a terrifying inevitability.  First the lye-infused oil batter is thin and liquid; then it gets glossy, and then it “traces” more and more heavily, and not too long after that you’ve got soap on a stick.  Once you’re on that train it’s not gonna stop. It’s alchemy at its most intense.

Accordingly, it is incumbent upon you to have your mise in order.  You’re going to be working really fast.

The colorant and mold array.


Oils, molds, colorants, containers, fragrance — everything has to be in reach and the step-by-step process has to be followed precisely without fail.



I don’t have any photos of the actual making of the soap on Friday, because it really was that high-speed and that terrifying and I don’t have minions to take the pictures. (Where are my minions? Wasn’t I promised minions? Did the Kardashians take them all?)  By the time I reached the fifth layer, the soap was setting up so hard I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to pull it off.   But somehow it all worked, and I put the mold to bed.

The next day I decided I was wiped out and wasn’t going to do anything I didn’t absolutely have to.  So the soap contemplated itself, the garden managed its own affairs, the bougainvillea apparently grew another three feet and the animals entertained themselves, with some sub rosa assistance from Unbelievably Useful Husband.  And when I rejoined the ranks of the responsible today, I unmolded the soap.

“St. Croix Sunset, Emerging Stars”

The fragrance is a rich, deep and fruit-laden indulgence, with a base of patchouli and just a hint of herbal grassiness to cut the sweetness. This is going to be a very creamy, sensual soap when it’s done curing.  The cure will probably take a little longer than others, because I included more water in the recipe to slow down the saponification at the front end. The water must evaporate out to make the soap harder. And the evaporation cannot really be speeded up.  It’s all time and patience, without me having to “do” anything at all.  A lot like my Saturday.


The Case of the Broken Eggs

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been finding broken eggs in The Girls’ nesting box. A broken egg now and then is not unusual, but I was getting one almost every day. Chickens are omnivores and will happily eat the inside of an egg that’s been cracked, but they generally avoid breaking the eggs themselves (natural selection is a wonderful thing!) Sometimes, however, one of them discovers that a quick peck at the egg leads to the delicious contents inside, and then you have a problem.

The Crime. A broken and partially eaten egg.


Another crime. This is Twister’s egg, she sometimes does her thing outside the box.

I am pretty lenient about my chickens’ performance. Pretty Chicken hasn’t laid an egg in almost 6 months, yet I still keep her around. However, egg breaking is not an acceptable behavior in my coop. The hunt for the culprit was on.

To find out whodunit, I constructed the Solitary Confinement Pen. Suspects would go in one by one and stay until an egg was produced. Guilt or innocence would be proved by the state of the egg.

The solitary confinement pen.

First one in was Twister. Now, she is probably my favorite bird. She is gentle, lets herself be caught without any drama, and lays well. But her eggs were the ones I was finding broken most often, so she was the Most Obvious Suspect.

I’m innocent, innocent I tell you!

Next day, a perfectly intact Twister egg was in the pen. Interestingly, the nesting box in the coop had no broken eggs either. The plot thickens!

I told you I was innocent! Sheesh! The indignity!

Taking the egg as proof of Twister’s innocence, I let her back out to join the others in the coop. My next suspect was Nekkid. Now, I admit, this was a bit of a case of chicken profiling. Nekkid is a mean bird. Nekkid is greedy. Nekkid beats up other birds, steals their food, and then beats them up some more. So it was reasonable to assume that she could be the one eating eggs. So, in solitary with Nekkid.

I do not like this. I hate you. I hate everyone.

Several days passed with no results. Not a trace of egg or eggshell in the pen, but also no broken eggs in the coop. Not enough information for a guilty verdict, but also no proof of innocence. In fact, I thought Nekkid stopped laying from the stress of being separated from the flock. I even felt a little bad. And then…

Uh oh! Busted!

I woke up early enough to see a partially eaten egg in the pen. The inside was already gone. Over the next hour I watched as Nekkid decimated the eggshell and ate every last piece. No wonder I wasn’t finding any of her eggs, she was eating them completely!

So I did it! So what? And I am going to do it again! Just try and stop me!

So, the criminal was identified and in custody. What to do now? Nekkid is going to go through a rigorous reeducation program. Apparently, taking an egg shell and filling it with mustard can stop a chicken from pecking its own eggs. I am curious if that actually works. Because if it doesn’t there’s only one way to go from there.

Natty’s Field Guide to California Mushroom Hunting (Free Doggerel Included)

As well as being the ChickenKeeper, our poster Natty is also an intrepid MushroomHunter.  This might spring from her background, which (in my estimation) apparently involved leaping from crag to crag toting a Kalashnikov from a tender age,  foraging for survival in frozen forests while being pursued by bears and running-dog capitalists, and excelling in mathematics, sarcastic remarks, complex computer systems, and the like.  She’s gathered some pictures of her applying her elite skills to the fey and cautious mushroom populations here in Northern California.  The poetic digressions, I’m afraid, are entirely my own.  — Stargazer



Amanita Phalloides, a.k.a. “Does Your Insurance Cover Liver Transplants, And How Fast Can You Find Out?”

Amanita Phalloides, such a lovely fungus,

Amanita Phalloides, delicious and among us;

Amanita Phalloides, what for do I shiver?

Amanita Phalloides, what costs a brand new liver?

The reports are nearly universal:  people who’ve eaten this report that it’s one of the most delicious mushrooms on the face of the earth.  Unfortunately, it also contains a compound that destroys the human liver in an astoundingly short period of time.  Every year a handful of Northern California mushroom hunters mistake it for another mushroom — mostly its harmless little brother (below) or for other varieties.  They have a great dinner and then a not-so-great stay in the hospital and on the liver-transplant list.  Mushroom hunting is not for amateurs.


Amanita calyptroderma. Beautiful, delicious, won’t kill you. You hope.

Amanita calyptroderma

Sings Dey-O in the rain

Yet its sullen older brother

Will bring you lots of pain;

Before you go on piercing

That universal veil

‘Tis best to check that it sings

Lest your organs fail.

All young Amanita mushrooms feature a membrane called the “universal veil.”  In the Coccora, it’s very thick and cottony, and there are a few other giveaways that this is not the Mushroom of I-Literally-Ate-Myself-To-Death but rather a very pleasant and agreeable dinner guest.  But as Natty says, “It’s very different. I still wouldn’t eat it.”


Lactarius rubrilacteus, please call the Department of Repeating Yourself Department.

Lactarius rubrilacteus says, “I’m a bit redundant;

I’m milky and red-milky, but then I am no pundit.

It might say something to you that you cook me with a rock,

And even with the salt and herbs, I still taste like a sock.”

A reference I ran across for this mushroom mentioned that it was traditionally cooked by layering it in salt and herbs, weighing it down with a rock, and then simmering it for hours.  Natty confirms that in her experience the salt was definitely involved.  My attitude is that any supposed food item that has to be packed in salt and boiled, much less squashed by large rocks (for what reason? To prevent it from escaping?) in order to achieve even basic edibility is probably not worth the trouble.


Cantherellus californicus — pure California gold.

Cantherellus californicus

Will cheer the most forlorn of us.

To see that massive golden crest —

Our Destiny so Manifest —

It’s clear that dinner super-sizing

Isn’t just our own devising.

They can get monster, these Chantarelles, and they are a culinary treasure. On Natty’s own blog, http://squeakolas.blogspot.com/2011/12/gribnik.html, she demonstrates how to make a delicious main meal from the three pounds of chantarelles she foraged on a single walk.

While mushroom hunting isn’t my gig — I prefer huddling inside over a warm computer to digging around in the cold damp wild and almost certainly coming home with a whopping case of poison ivy, if not actual pneumonia — it’s pretty cool that someone knows how to do this.  And Natty promises that once the rains start again, we’ll be expanding on the Guide.

Tea Alchemy

One of the more frustrating aspects of modern life is the rapid rise of the Syndrome:  a physical condition that causes its sufferers obvious distress, but can’t quite be nailed down by the docs in terms of causes or even detectable problems with body tissues.  Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome are examples.  Something’s wrong, but nobody’s really sure what’s causing it, and without long-term and expensive research even the most responsible doctors might as well be throwing darts in the dark.  In a good-faith attempt to help their patients, doctors prescribe drugs “off-label” and recommend “exercise” for virtually anything that they’re stumped by (“exercise” including your hoped-for immediate and sprightly departure into their parking lot).  And into the void rush the hucksters.  You know who they are — they’re putting up little advertising squares about “neat tricks” and “amazing fruits” on the side banner of every browser.

Enter herbal alchemy.  For various reasons both justified and unjustified, herbalism doesn’t have much better of a reputation than the snake-oil salesmen out there.  If you’re going to try it out of sheer frustration with the lack of conventional options, you should be cautious;  it requires some intelligent and focused research so you don’t poison yourself by accident.  This research is available, fortunately, because our knowledge about plant elements has advanced since the Middle Ages and the herb-women.  Some countries have produced reliable, reproducible information on the use of herbs for medical conditions (I’m thinking about you, Germany’s Commission E).  So as a person with gut problems existing since her teenage years, an anachronistic interest in medieval herbal medicine combined with the power of the Interwebs, and having the advantage of an extensive herb garden, I thought I’d try to make a tea.

Eye of newt, and toe of frog, Wool of bat, and tongue of dog, Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting, Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing. Well no, not really.

Each one of the herbs I chose for the gut-calming tea mix has an anecdotal history — sometimes stretching back centuries — for easing digestive problems.  On the top left are California poppy and valerian; next over are yarrow flowers; directly below are borage flowers and lemon balm (also known as bee balm); and then there are the heavy hitters:  chamomile in the black cup and fennel seeds strewn beneath it.  I included lavender blooms (in the center) and rose petals (with the fennel) because while they do have some evidence for calmative properties, they also might make the tea a little more attractive taste-wise.

I grew and dried each one of these ingredients, so I know where they came from and how they were handled and stored. I also investigated each herb to determine if there was any reason why I shouldn’t use it.  Here I will invoke the august Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs again, as I will probably do until the day I die: nobody should fool around with non-culinary herbs, internally or externally, until they’ve read its section on “A Sampling of Dangerous Herbs” and preferably memorized it. And even then, no herb should be used until it has been researched exhaustively for application only on yourself, and with a reality check from a Real Doctor.  We’re not talking about acute illnesses. We’re talking about those mysterious chronic situations where real medicine (and I am not using that phrase sarcastically)  isn’t offering any solutions or really any hope except “go home and exercise.”

These reality-based cautions aside, back to the tea.  Some folks who might be a little more informed about herbal medicine might ask about the valerian and California poppy.  They’re primarily known for a mild and non-addictive sedative action, not smooth-muscle gut activity, though there is some limited evidence for the latter.  I chose to include them in the tea mix because of something I read many, many years ago.  It’s a story told by James Herriot, the Yorkshire veterinarian who became famous for his book called “All Creatures Great and Small.”  While my summary is not short, it explains my reasoning.

Dr. Herriot was called to the farm of a particularly cruel and stupid man who had botched a problematic birth of one of his sheep, and then abandoned her, suffering,  in a corner of the barn to “take her chance.”  Dr. Herriot was appalled, though the sheep was not the patient he was called out to tend.  As he wrote, “I tried not to think what lay in front of her.  Soon I would drive off and see other cases, then I would have lunch and start my afternoon round while hidden in this cheerful place a helpless animal was gasping her life away. How long would it take her to die? A day? Two days.”

Without the knowledge of the farmer, Dr. Herriot injected the sheep with enough nembutal to kill a small horse.  A few days later, he was called back to the farm to attend his original patient.  In the field outside the barn, he was astounded to see the sheep he thought he had euthanized.  When he tried to catch her, she nimbly evaded him and thundered away.

Let me quote Dr. Herriot at length now:

And as I walked back up the field a message was tapping in my brain.  I had discovered something, discovered something by accident. That ewe’s life had been saved not by medicinal therapy but simply by stopping her pain and allowing nature to do its own job of healing.  It was a lesson I have never forgotten; that animals confronted with severe continuous pain and the terror and the shock that goes with it will often retreat even into death, and if you can remove that pain amazing things can happen.  It is difficult to explain rationally but I know that it is so.


Humans are animals too, and I thought I might apply this insight to a condition that can sometimes produce violent and debilitating pain and fear.  Thus, the poppy and the valerian in the tea.

And here it is, mixed:

After all that fuss.

I’ll report back on how it works, or doesn’t.  Alchemy of any sort is innately unpredictable.




Welcome to ChickenVille

Here’s our first post from Natty, the ChickenKeeper.  For folks interested in urban farming, radical homemaking, or an on-going dramatic thread involving chickens, this is the gal to watch.


These are The Girls. They make noise. And my breakfast.

Got treats?

It all started with an egg (and here, in one fell swoop, I solve the age-old question! Stay tuned for next week, when I offer my opinion on chickens and roads). The egg I’m talking about is in the photo below.  I got it from my neighbor so I could make muffins. It’s the one with the dark orange yolk, as compared to its counterpart, the “regular egg.”  Now, the regular egg is actually a super-expensive, free-range, vegetarian, sung-to-every-night, (insert many other adjectives here) expensive egg from Whole Foods. And yet you can still see the difference.

Just as I was about to beat both eggs and erase any evidence of their difference, The Greek walked in and said:

“What’s this?”
“Why does that one look different? It looks like a Greek egg. We have the best eggs in Greece. The yolks are orange and they are way tastier than American eggs. I can never get good eggs in this country.”

Turns out the egg was not, in fact, from Greece. It was from a backyard chicken raised by my neighbor. Two weeks later, we had set up our own chicken coop so that “we could get good eggs in this country.”

Backyard or urban chickens are all the rage. The other day, a friend was walking around in San Francisco, and there was a rogue chicken running around on Market Street downtown. As chickens do not spontaneously generate in urban environments, it’s obvious that people are keeping them for a reason.  And while I won’t get into the whole factory-farmed vs. free-range chicken debate that keeps flaming on the Internets, that seems to be one of the driving forces behind the backyard chicken explosion.

For me, I like the fresh eggs, and I think the birds look cool in my yard. They are not pets. I am not particularly attached to them, and when the time comes and they stop laying, I will probably “do the deed.” They are kind of like Koi fish, but without the pond. About as messy too. But with eggs.

Currently, we have seven chickens. First, there’s the management team consisting of Black Chicken and White Chicken:

Black Chicken. Not a rooster, but about as badass. Lays white eggs.
White Chicken is an Americauna-Leghorn cross. The idea was to create create a mellow chicken that is a good layer: the egg production of a Leghorn and temperament of an Americauna. It didn’t seem to work, as this one is batshit crazy and impossible to catch. Lays nice white eggs though.













Next, we have “the exotics”:

Nekkid. No she is not sick. No she didn’t pluck her feathers out. She is a breed called “Naked Neck” or “Turken”. She’s a mean bird that always steals everyone’s food, but she lays a brown egg almost every day, so I keep her.
Kiwi. The “cool” Americauna. Likes to stare down dogs. Lays green eggs, but only when she feels like it.

In additions to “the exotics” we have a special needs chicken:

Original. She is special. She has a crossed beak, which means she can only eat chicken pellets and never gets any snacks. Despite this little limitation, she’s fat as can be. Lays tiny little brown eggs.

And finally, we have just, you know, chickens:

Twister. Despite her name, she’s the normal one. Lays like clockwork, an egg a day with a break on Sunday. She is a regular boring Rhode Island Red chicken.
Pretty Chicken. She’s pretty, but of unknown breed. Used to lay brown eggs, but has been slacking off recently. Uh oh.

As far as chicken accommodations go, mine are mid-range. Looking online (which is how everyone learns about urban chicken keeping these days), you can find setups in every price range: from the minimalist  (rebar posts strung with chicken wire) to the McMansion (custom-built coops with porches, windows, shutters, on wheels, and electronic raccoon-repelling doors.) The Girls have small coop (about the size of a large dog crate) and a 10×15 foot run fenced run in a shady corner of my yard.

Sometimes, when I feel like it, I let them run in the back yard.  I usually regret it because they get into the vegetable garden, or poop on the deck, or dig large holes in my kid’s sandbox. Mostly they spend time in their run. They eat chicken pellets and whatever random kitchen scraps I feel like throwing at them. Yesterday they got a pound of raw hamburger than was past expiration date. It was a big hit — I think they thought it was a really large fat worm.

For all that trouble, they give me 3-4 eggs a day. That’s actually not a lot; chickens are supposed to lay almost an egg a day in their “prime”. But most of my hens are pretty old, and the one that’s young is a cool breed that is not very productive, but lays green eggs. 3-4 eggs a day is still more than we can possibly eat, so I give away the extra eggs as gifts. Around here, that makes me really popular.  (In other places people bring flowers, or chocolate, or zucchini bread when they are invited for dinner. I bring a half dozen eggs and people love me for it.)

Easter Basket from a ChickenKeeper. Is this cool, or what.

So there you have it. Backyard chickens. About as complicated to keep as goldfish.



Shut Up And Wait

Not too long ago, a Very Important Young Person asked if I could make a “chocolate soap.”  Without hesitation, I said “You bet.”

After several days of scrambling around madly developing an appropriate gentle recipe (there may be allergen issues, and I wanted to make a shea- and cocoa-butter-free soap), researching and ordering fragrances, and trying to memorize a new technique, “Chocolate Cream Pie” was born. What’s pretty amazing is that I used no colorants at all for the “chocolate” part of the soap. I discovered through my research that chocolate fragrances necessarily contain vanilla, and that fragrances and essential oils that contain vanilla, or its man-made counterpart vanillin, will change the color of a soap all by themselves.  That’s about as good an example of alchemy as I can come up with, incidentally, and I was counting on it. I wanted to keep the recipe as simple as possible.

But when this soap was first unmolded, a day after it was made, I thought I’d messed up. Sure, the pH was perfect, there was no separation, and it cut like a well-mannered soap should. But the color of the chocolate part was barely tan, much like a butterscotch pudding.  To Unbelievably Useful Husband’s eternal credit, he didn’t say a word about The Pretty Obvious Color Problem as I babbled on, secretly appalled, about how I’d read that the fragrance I’d used would eventually darken the soap to the shade I’d hoped for.

Of course, as I put the soap up to cure, I was mentally pulling my hair out.

A day later it had turned at least two shades darker and the Lab smelled like a chocolate factory.  And now, about two weeks in — it needs at least two more weeks to cure — it’s starting to look like what I’d imagined.  Of all the lofty philosophical ideas that have been kicking me around lately, the strongest is the one that says “Shut up and wait.”


Things Work, And Sometimes Don’t

I realized on the morning garden walkabout that several herbs desperately needed harvesting, and that I had a few peppers so ready that they winked at me as I went by.

Clockwise from top left: yarrow aerials, golden lemon thyme, ancho chili peppers, bell peppers, basil “Purple Ruffles,” sweet basil, basil “Pesto Perpetuo.”

I mentioned in an earlier post, “Strange Herbs,” that herb fanciers are even crazier than the tomato freaks, and basil’s an excellent example of how obsessive you can get.  Basils, quite frankly, are even worse than thymes in how much brain and garden space they can occupy.  There are hundreds of cultivars and varieties, each one alluring in a different way (I have beautiful purple leaves!  I have glorious blue flowers!  I grow in an impossibly compact ball! My leaves were found in the excavation of a Roman Empire camp!) and each one is independently capable of ringing up your credit card at the nursery, as I have discovered.

I’m going to dehydrate the herbs to continue stocking the spice cabinet, so I had the sad task of clearing out a Failed Experiment from the big black McGuffin in the Lab.  The grapevines on the arbor out front have decided that this is the Super-Awesomest-Year-Ever* (see below) and decided that they needed the sidewalk and the driveway to express their joy.  As I would prefer not to be sued by a postal worker attacked by exuberant grapes as he’s trying to deliver my daily fifteen pounds of catalogs and Lasix flyers, I had to take the clippers out and beat them back a bit.  Once the wayward vines were in hand, the Alchemist came roaring out — What can I do with these?

Dry the leaves, of course!  Now there are lots of recipes on the Interwebs about how to salt-pickle grape leaves to make dolmas (and I’ll probably do that with the next batch of trimmings), but I had this great idea that dried grape leaves might make attractive ornamentation for stuff like . . . soap packaging.  Stripped the vines were and into the dehydrator at the classic 95 degrees!

As it happens, grape leaves don’t dry very well.  First they turn weird colors, then they curl up like you’d hit them with napalm, and then they shatter into dust if you even look at them suspiciously.

Oh well.

I imagine that even in the Middle Ages, alchemists had garbage heaps full of Failed Experiments, so I’m trying not to take it too much to heart.

* Many thanks to my friend for the phrase “Super-Awesome.”  Seriously, if grapevines could talk, they’d say “Super-Awesome” all the time.