Check it out, y’all

Just a quick note to say:

1. I still exist;

2. Happy Hanukkah!; and

3. Progressive Jewish Alliance’s Green and Just Celebrations Guide, which I helped (a little) to put together, is online! Many union- and eco-friendly vendors and resources for your wedding or bar/bat mitzvah.

Self-Sufficiency Sundays: Stack Your Functions!

In Permaculture lingo, “stacking functions” refers to building redundancies into a sustainable garden. In a forest, a tree doesn’t just do one thing; instead, it performs multiple jobs, like regulating climate, sequestering carbon, holding soil together, providing habitat, and giving food, just to name a few. One of the problems with industrialized society is that almost every aspect of our lives is specialized – there are shockingly few things we do or have that that perform more than one or two functions. This is especially true in our food and habitat (for most of us, houses and apartments), and it leads to an incredible amount of waste. Imagine if forests needed a separate organism to do each and every single job that one tree can easily perform.

Take, for example, a lawn. The lawn is pretty much the epitome of wasted space. Most of the time, it performs one single function: looking nice (if you like the way lawns look, something I personally can’t wrap my head around). Sometimes – sometimes – it also serves as a recreational area, so that’s two functions, which wouldn’t be so bad if lawn wasn’t the single largest crop in the United States. If you add a hedge to the edge of it to make it look nicer, you again have a plant that probably only serves one function – and notice that they don’t help each other out very much. If you find it impossible to keep your lawn healthy, this wasted space and lack of relationships is the reason why. Lawn is a monoculture, and there’s a reason monocultures never occur in nature.

To build a truly ecological garden, you need to make sure that all your plants are performing multiple tasks (and that all tasks are being done by multiple plants – more on that in a minute). For example, if you’re a fan of flowers, don’t just get a variety that looks nice. Try to find a flowering vegetable or perennial herb, or a creeping vine that acts as mulch or shades a window, or an edible flower like nasturtiums, or a flower that feeds and creates habitat for beneficial insects and spiders. If you’re growing vegetables, go for natural configurations that help the plants help each other. The most often cited example is the Three Sisters garden, in which squash, corn, and beans help keep each other healthy through mutually beneficial relationships. The corn provides a stalk for the beans, the beans fix nitrogen in the soil, and the squash acts as mulch. See The Urban Homestead or Gaia’s Garden to learn how to do it, or check out Kai Chang’s blog for updates on his garden. Another way to stack functions is through a polycultural bed, in which seeds are scattered so that vegetables come up in no particular pattern. The random placement of beans means that you don’t need to rotate your crops to amend the soil, and the close proximity of plants shades the ground so that the temperature is regulated and moisture is preserved. Again, see Urban Homestead or Gaia’s Garden.

Think about stacking functions in terms of landscaping, too. Why plant some anonymous hedge when a rosemary bush is edible and produces adorable flowers? If you’re looking for border plants, why not plant strawberries or chives, both of which also flower? If you never use your lawn, why have one at all? Edible landscaping, polycultural beds, or a fruit or nut tree can look just as nice (better, in my opinion) as grass. And if you take your climate into consideration when you’re planting, it’ll take much less work to care for your garden.

It’s also important to make sure that multiple plants are meeting a particular need, in case something happens to one of them. If you want to grow food, don’t just grow one plant or type of crop – if it gets a disease, then there goes all your work for the season. If you live in a dry climate, don’t rely on just one source of water – use multiple irrigation and conservation methods, like a soaker hose, thick mulch, a cistern, and berms and swales.

To reduce waste, try to stack functions in the rest of your life, too. One example from my own life is transportation. When I drive my car unnecessarily, I’m wasting both gas and time; notice that the car is only performing one function. If, however, I ride my bike, now I’m getting exercise while I travel. If I ride the bus, I can read or grade papers. If my destination is close enough to walk to, then I can listen to a Yiddish tape while I exercise and travel. Note that since most people reading this blog probably live in a car culture, the car makes sense, for now, if you’re in a hurry or if you need to carry a lot of stuff. However, since the earth doesn’t contain enough resources to sustain car cultures indefinitely, consider the virtues of animal transportation – a horse will give you fertilizer and companionship in addition to healthy transportation. (Horseback riding is a workout, right? It looks like it, at least.) Also note that this form of stacking functions shouldn’t turn into an addiction to multitasking. If you’re doing more than you can comfortably concentrate on, or if it’s stressing you out, then you are canceling out the good effects of your functions.

Conversely, living in a place that gives me the option of walking, biking, taking public transportation, or driving is an excellent system of redundancies. If my car or bike is in the shop, or I’m temporarily disabled, or I don’t have time for the bus, I still have plenty of options. I’ll never be completely stranded as long as I’m traveling within my city.

Another area of your life in which you should stack functions is food. Over the past century, we’ve developed a bizarre system in which, generally speaking, pleasure and nutrition are separated from each other. We eat fast food and chips and then buy vitamin supplements. We choke down iceburg lettuce and then crave cookies and soda. The whole reason we have a sense of taste is because a good taste, absent artificial ingredients, signals good nutritional content. If the food you’re eating isn’t both pleasurable and nutritious, then there’s a problem. It’s probably not your fault, especially if you’re low-income, but it’s a problem nonetheless. Western culture needs to drastically change its food system.

Finally, think about stacking functions in terms of space and garbage. If you have one room in your house for the guest bed, one room for each child, one room for eating, one room for watching TV, one room for entertaining guests, and one room for working on the computer, then you have too many rooms. (Full disclosure: I myself currently live in an apartment with too many rooms.) Like the lawn, all this wasted space creates a lot of unnecessary work. Can you put your desk in the guest room? Do you need both a living room and a den? Similarly, if you use a disposable cup once, for fifteen minutes, and then throw it away, that cup has only performed one function in its entire lifetime. Use a glass instead – or, at the very least, compost the disposable one and feed it to your plants. If the cup isn’t compostable because it’s plastic or has wax or poisonous dyes or whatever, then that’s a bad system.

Of course, the idea of cutting down on garbage is hardly revolutionary – but in practice, it can be maddeningly hard to pull off. This is why the best way to really start stacking your functions isn’t to simply pat yourself on the back for using canvas bags at the grocery store or travel mugs at the coffee shop, but to honestly evaluate every single object you use. If it only performs one function – or if it’s not reusable or even biodegradable – then it’s wasting space and resources. Once you realize that, you can begin figuring out what to do about it.

Food, Food, Food

I’ve realized that food justice and eco-kashrut has made me kind of a foodie. I never thought the label applied to me – when I think “foodie,” I think “pays $30 for a jar of olives and then cooks for two hours” – but I’ve become addicted to the alchemy of cheesemaking, the creativity that comes out of figuring out what to do with the contents my CSA box. Each loaf of bread I bake comes out slightly better (although there’s nothing I can really be proud of yet). I love following the rhythms of growing seasons – although it’s pathetic that that’s some sort of novel concept – and throwing together a good, healthy meal. I grew up on KFC, Panda Express, and supermarket beef, but this week my husband and I made beet soup and okra with lemon, not because we searched out the recipes and then went shopping, but because beets and okra were what we had.

So when I saw that there’s a Jewish food conference happening in California next winter, I nearly jumped out of my seat. First off – a conference on the West Coast!? Isn’t there some law against that? You mean people in California actually exist? Secondly, this conference isn’t just about Jewish food and kashrut – it’s focused on issues like nutrition, food justice, and eco-kashrut. Right up my alley.

But there are a few problems. First off, judging from the description and last year’s schedule, it seems like more of a retreat than a conference. Lots of movie screenings and baking classes; not a huge number of workshops on how to get things done. I’d love to learn how to bake challah… but I’d rather spend that morning strategizing with other food activists on how to dismantle industrial agriculture, and then get their numbers and bake challah some other time. Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be any way for participants to put together workshops or panels – the programming is completely controlled by the organization putting it on. Finally, the price tag for registration is – wait for it – $280, set to go up to $360 in August. Compare this to AMC’s $100, J Street’s $175.

So if good food is something that supposedly only upper-middle class Jews care about, then what does that say about how they perceive other Jews? If food comes out of the ground for free, and yet somehow it takes $360 a head to get together and talk about it, what does that say about their relationship to food? If they need the money because they’re going to spend four days holding cooking demonstrations and preparing meals – well, yum, but again, that’s not a conference.

Also, notice the date? The conference starts on Christmas eve. I can understand wanting to choose a date when most Jews are going to be free, but holding an event on the single most important holiday in the country in which we live ignores the reality of those of us in or from interfaith and multiethnic homes. If I went, I’d have to drive up to the Bay Area early Christmas morning to have dinner with my husband’s family, then drive back down to the conference that night.

There are a few scholarships available, so I’ll probably apply for one and then make a decision depending on what I get. Maybe I can meet some other scholarship people there (something tells me that I wouldn’t have much in common with the people who could afford the ticket on their own). But still – if this is how the progressive Jewish community approaches food issues, then the eco-kashrut movement does not exist.

Self-Sufficiency Sundays: Make Ricotta Cheese!

A name like Self-Sufficiency Sundays doesn’t necessarily mean every Sunday, right? Or even most Sundays? Maybe I’ll rename it Self-Sufficiency Whenever the Hell I Feel Like It.

Okay, in all seriousness, I got waylaid for quite awhile with about ten futile attempts to make whole wheat bread. The recipe I’ve been trying over and over again – the basic whole wheat recipe from The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book, just doesn’t work with the flour that’s available to me. After kneading the dough for about 20 minutes, it’s supposed to become smooth and elastic; if the gluten strands remain brittle after that, the book says, you’re working with old, bad flour. Laurel must live on top of a mill or something, because I’ve tried it with three different kinds and not a single loaf has risen properly. But I’m going to try another recipe that calls for gluten flour and the creation of a sponge, so while I’m annoyed at having to buy more processed ingredients, I guess I can’t escape the food system in which I’m working.

But in the midst of my latest whole wheat loaf of disappointment, I managed to cheer myself up by making my own cheese. My husband and I went camping last weekend and left behind a half gallon of milk that I’d just bought, forgetting that we were about to leave town. The milk would have just gone bad if The Urban Homestead hadn’t had a whole section on dealing with abundance, and so I was able to give the milk a second life when we got home. (Note: the milk hadn’t yet spoiled, although it was close to it. Please don’t try this with spoiled milk.)

This recipe is incredibly simple. You’ll need:

1/2 gallon of whole, unpasteurized milk
1/4 cup of lemon juice
1/2 tsp of salt
muslin or finely woven cheesecloth
thermometer

Stir the lemon juice and salt into the milk and heat it to 185 degrees, stirring all the while. You’ll start to notice curds forming pretty quickly; as soon as it reaches 185, take it off the heat and let it stand for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, line a colander with the muslin or cheesecloth. Carefully ladle or pour the curds into the cloth, tie up the corners to form a bag, and let it drain for 30 minutes.

That’s it! You’re a cheesemaker!

I only just did this a couple of days ago, so I haven’t actually eaten any of my ricotta yet. Looks legit, though. If you want a savory cheese, mix in olive oil and herbs. For sweeter cheese, use honey and spices. A half gallon of milk doesn’t produce a whole lot of cheese – not enough for standards like lasagna – so I’m going to use mine to make an appetizer from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone: crostini with ricotta, olive paste, and marjoram. Then I’ll sip Chianti and talk about the latest New Yorker article while I eat it! How divine!

Easter in Orange County

Last Sunday, sitting on the steps next to my container garden outside my Long Beach apartment, I heard a group of people singing in the next building. I thought of the seder I’d had a couple of nights before; my friends and I had sung the Ma Nishtana, which I only learned a few years ago and forget every year. Only two of the guests remembered the melody at first, but it only took a line or two for it to come back to the rest of us. I wondered if the neighbors could hear us. I’ve never had an anti-Semitic incident in this neighborhood, so I thought it’d be kind of cool if on the other side of our open windows, people were listening to us sing.

I watched families walking in and out of apartments, carrying children, greeting relatives. I smiled as I listened to the singing. Then I realized it wasn’t a hymn or some other Easter song – they were all singing a pop song. Blink 182 or something.

Oh. Well, it was still nice to hear singing. Yellow jackets buzzed around my bacopas. My bean seedlings were just starting to twine around the railing, and my lavender was blooming like the world was going to end.

***

According to the Slingshot Collective, “the modern world is the ugliest, saddest, dirtiest, and most stressful and dangerous place humans have ever created.” I don’t know if it’s the ugliest, the saddest, or the est of any of those other things, but many parts of it certainly are ugly and sad. I was thinking about that quote, along with various discussions I’ve witnessed about the “lack” of white American culture – whiteness as negative space – and white Americans’ need to appropriate more exotic cultures, when I tested a theory out on my husband: that the United States has one of the shallowest national cultures on the planet. Continue reading

Haggadah Inserts!

If you’re like me and found it a little impossible to have a seder on a Wednesday night, then you have some time to peruse these. If not, HURRY! HURRY before the sun goes down! (Happy Birkat Hachamah, by the way!)

J Street!


Jewish Voice For Peace!


Progressive Jewish Alliance!

Also take a look at FeministGal’s post on Passover (via Feministe)!

What haggadah do you use? How do you incorporate anti-oppression theology/theory into your service? I ask partly because I’m still shopping around for my Friday seder.

my garden

Image description: close-up of a calendula blossom in a basket hanging from a rail.

Image description: close-up of a calendula blossom in a basket hanging from a rail.


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