Shake a Tail Feather

The girls have been with us now for nine days, meaning they’re probably just a few days shy of two weeks old. In those nine days, they’ve turned from these little puffballs:

To these bathing beauties:

They’re about three times the size they came here — tall enough that when they stretch, their bills are almost at the top of their Rubbermaid home. (New digs this weekend!) They’re just taking on a more duck-like profile. And last night I noticed something else. Look closely at their tails…

They’re growing feathers! You can see the spines growing out. I thought they were dirty last night, seeing that their soft fur was looking a bit less even, but upon examining one, I realized that the fluff is turning into feathers. It’s hard to believe that in a few weeks, these girls will be feathered and big enough to be in their outdoor coop.

Max was also very proud last night that he’s able to tell them apart now. We were always able to tell the two Khaki Campbells, with their all-brown feet and nearly all-brown bills, from the Blue Swedish with their orange and brown bills and feet. But within the breeds, the ducks are now taking on distinguishing characteristics, which means we’ll be able to name them soon. Phil has suggested naming them Poopy, Poopsy, Sir Poops-a-Lot, and Poopers, but the kids and I are looking for nuanced names that better capture more than one aspect of their being.

With their half-fur/half feathered bodies and their awkward feet that seem three times bigger than those bodies, I think we’re imminently heading into the awkward teen years.


The Williams-Sonoma Homesteader

Preserving Jam Jars, Set of 4

Yesterday I mentioned on Facebook that I was starting to get interested in beekeeping. In reality, with a quarter-acre yard that is often full of kids, I’m nowhere near really considering it, but it’s fun to think about and might be a reality down the road. A friend sent a link to a sweepstakes with a prize of a $500 beehive, and only later did I realize that the link was to the new Williams-Sonoma Agrarian Collection, which launched in April. The collection features canning supplies, beekeeping necessities, seeds, plants, raised garden beds, and the like.

The term “agrarian” has been somewhat hijacked in recent years by hardcore homesteaders who seem to take issue with things like toilet paper, grocery-store meat, and conventional electrical grids. So mixing “Williams-Sonoma” with “agrarian” fried my brain. Even taking in the true definition of “agrarian,” which just relates to ownership and usage of land, Williams-Sonoma, with its $11 quick bread mixes, seems completely incongruous with simple living. This article from the Detroit Free Press says the new collection is for the “high-end homesteader.” This made me roll my eyes. The phrase “high-end homesteader” seems even more of an oxymoron than “Williams-Sonoma Agrarian Collection.”

But is it?

I remember reading Walter Isaacson’s book Steve Jobs last year and being struck by Steve and Lauren Jobs’ commitment to organic food that they raised themselves. At one point, Steve was inspired by Lauren’s sunflowers, and used that design (the large head on a slender stalk) for a new and transformative Macintosh monitor design. In another part of the book, Isaacson mentions Lauren working on their beehives. Why should I be discriminating against those with significant means who want to be closer to their food sources? My motivation to get closer to our food source had to do with a concern over the current state of the food industry and the general health of our family, not a financial need. It’s also fun and satisfying activity. Truthfully, it would be much cheaper and far, far — FAR — cleaner to buy a dozen eggs from Wal-mart than to house ducks in our backyard. My new boyfriend Steve Ussery mentions in The Small-Scale Poultry Flock that it costs him far more to produce eggs and meat from his small flock than it would to purchase factory-farm hens from the grocery store. Who am I to dictate how much a chicken coop should cost?

And, not for nothing, perhaps if there are more attractive chicken coops and beehives and raised garden beds and clotheslines available, neighborhood associations might stop seeing these things as eyesores and nuisances and let residents use their land wisely in the ways they choose.

So party on, Williams-Sonoma. I hope you get lots of customers for your 4-for-$25 jam jars (can I roll my eyes about that one?) as more and more people change the food system, one high-end homesteader at a time.

Super-Easy Snack: Frozen Grapes

This is a favorite of the kids. We just wash, stem, and freeze grapes in a bag. Phil dubbed them “little Popsicles” a couple years ago trying to trick Max and Tommy into eating them, but it turns out frozen grapes don’t really need a marketing campaign. They really do taste sweet like frozen Popsicles. If they sit for about five minutes after coming out of the freezer: Delicious! If they thaw all the way, they’re a disappointing soggy mess like the grapes in canned fruit cocktail.

When we first got Pepper, I banned grapes from the house (consuming grapes and raisins can put some dogs into lethal renal failure), but, because he’s really only interested in people food like pork chops and cheese, grapes are back on the menu.

The Working Kitchen, with Bonus How-to-Make-Kefir Info

Phil and I don’t have one of Those Kitchens — the kind you see in Better Homes & Gardens or Hooked on Houses. The room is fairly tiny. It has very little counter space, little enough that some of our less polite guests have felt the need to comment: “Well, if I had so little counter space, I wouldn’t be cooking complicated meals, either.” That sort of thing. When we redid those tiny counters, we eschewed granite, all the samples of which Phil said looked like they belonged in a Las Vegas brothel. (I did not, nor will I, question his specificity; it is not for me to know how he knows what type stone the brothels in Las Vegas sport.) But when I turned around the other evening and saw this collection of bubbling and thawing jars and pots, I realized what we do have: A Working Kitchen.

That evening, which was not atypical, the tiny kitchen with the tiny, composite countertops was

  • Brewing up a stock base for future soups
  • Thawing some frozen tomato-carrot soup from last year’s garden that would become this week’s packed lunches. (For me, not the kids. The kids don’t eat tomato-carrot soup any more than yours would.)
  • Fermenting some recently fed sourdough starter
  • Rising a batch of sourdough to bake the next morning
  • Re-hydrating some kefir grains so we can start making our own kefir
  • Hoarding used coffee grounds to enhance the soil near our recently planted blueberry bushes
  • Holding my nightly to-do list

At some point I stopped looking at our kitchen despondently for the showpiece it will never be, and started thinking of all the things this little workhorse could do. The same with our yard. We live on a 1/4-acre lot that isn’t large, and could house a lush, green, weed-free lawn and nothing else. Instead, I stopped worrying about the weeds and put my efforts and the space into a plan to produce more of our own food, organically. So the lawn is full of weeds, but it also houses a growing collection of gardens and a soon-to-be-used duck coop. And I’m cool with that.

On to the kefir. If you haven’t had kefir, it’s a fermented, live dairy food like yogurt, but less spoonable and more drinkable. The kids got addicted to packaged, flavored kefir, which I don’t have a problem with except that it’s fairly expensive and they go through a lot of it. So last winter I bought some kefir grains and a mesh strainer. And then I forgot about them for months.

This spring when I remembered the kefir grains, I read the instructions indicating that they should be refrigerated and used fairly quickly after purchase. Oops. I tried them anyway, and they worked great. Now I make a quart of kefir about every other day, and Sylvia and I drink smoothies with unsweetened kefir, frozen berries, and frozen bananas most mornings. I’ve been too lazy to learn how to flavor the kefir like the kids like, but I’ll do that soon.

The instructions on using kefir grains are on the package, but here’s the short story. First, you re-hydrate the grains by putting them in about 1/2 cup or so of milk, and letting the milk sit, lightly covered, on the counter for about 24 hours. Strain out the grains (see where the mesh strainer comes in?) and use the milk in baking. I think you sometimes have to go through this process several times, but I only did it once. After that, store the grains in a little milk in the fridge, and when you want to make kefir, follow these arduous steps:

  • Put the kefir grains in a quart canning jar.
  • Fill the jar with milk.
  • Cover it with cheesecloth or a coffee filter secured by a rubber band.
  • Leave it on the counter. In 24 hours, you have kefir.

You can use the grains over and over, and they’re supposed to multiply(!), so you can eventually keep lots of batches going, assuming you have a need to keep lots of batches of kefir going. I don’t.

This morning I looked at that little counter, and it was holding sourdough starter, sourdough bread, kefir, sprouting lentils, and my morning coffee — all of which made me very happy. And I had the luxury of knowing I didn’t have to dress nicely for the hordes of photographers beating down my door to feature my pristine kitchen.

Five Things We’ve Learned About Ducks

We’re rounding out our first week with ducklings. They’ve already visibly grown and seem to be more duck-like every day. They are parked next to the washer and are completely chill while we do laundry; they’re also fine with us talking loudly near them. They still get a bit freaked out when a hand comes into their nest, but all three kids are getting experienced holding and petting them.

They’ve been living this first week in a Rubbermaid container that my friend Holly, who is raising chickens this year, said might get snug in short order. It is. Holly’s moved her girls to their outdoor mobile coop and is loaning us the big steel trough they’d been living in; this means the ducks will get a 150% space upgrade this week. They’ve very excited and have been looking at upholstery fabrics and paint swatches.

Here are five things we’ve learned this week:

1. Ducks are apparently a close relative of the lemming. One leader (usually one of the Blue Swedish who early on established herself as a troublemaker) will do something, and they all follow suit.

  • “I’m thirsty!” “So are we; let’s all drink!”
  • “I’m feeling peckish!” “Let’s all nibble some food together!”
  • “Hey! I wonder if I can pull off the duct tape that’s holding this thermometer on the wall?!” “Let’s all try!”
  • “Phew, I’m feeling sleepy.” “Let’s all fall down together and take a little snooze.”

They run together from one side of their little home to the other, and then run together again. And then drink together, eat together, make trouble together, and start it all over again until they crash together in a little four-billed furball.

2. They love water. I mean love it. They don’t delicately sip; they revel. They stick their heads halfway into the trough of water (practicing looking for underwater edibles) and then throw their heads back and let the water run down their throats. They walk in their water. They lie in it. They go through almost a gallon a day. Half their home is constantly wet from their shenanigans. I’d bought a kit to make a Poop-Free Waterer for when they get outside, and the FAQ mentioned ducks will need supplemental water on top of what they can get from the waterer. I understand this now.

3. Chick starter feed is good, but ducks like treats. Like finely chopped kale, or dandelion stems, or lettuce. We’ve been popping out to the backyard for little treats for them. They don’t care if the lettuce is bolting and inedible for us; they love it. They also love finely chopped hard-boiled eggs, which frankly seems a little ghoulish.

4. They poop. A lot. Seriously, I had no idea. Phil has really taken the lead with changing their bedding (every other day, with a “half” change in between), and four minutes after he changes the newspaper lining and litter and washes out the container and fills their waterer with fresh water, the place looks like a flophouse. Or another kind of “house.” Tommy named one of the birds “Brown Chest” because it woke up one morning with some new and beautiful (to Tommy) brown accents on her chest. I didn’t have the heart to tell Tom that this unfortunate Blue Swedish had just been on the wrong end of one of her coopmates. One reason ducks make such great garden helpers is the fertilizer they can provide, and if this first week is any indication, it looks like we’ll be all set in that department.

5. We love them and are fascinated by them even more than we imagined. And we haven’t even tried putting them in the bathtub yet.

Super-Easy Kettle Corn

When I posted the short article about non-microwave popcorn the other day, some Facebook friends shared their own special hints for making fantastic popcorn without resorting to those microwaveable bags. These included:

  • Salt the oil you pop the corn in; it better coats the corn.
  • Pop corn in the microwave just using a brown paper bag. (I love doing this with cobs of popcorn that are sold at my farmer’s market; it’s so cool to put a corncob in a bag in the microwave, and have it turn into popped corn!)
  • Pop the corn in coconut oil for a more tropical taste.

The one the kids completely latched onto and are now pleading for every night: Kettle corn. (Thanks, Marcy!) The boys are going to a roller-derby bout tonight, or there would be begging for Kettle corn. Lots of begging.

Making it is simple. When the corn starts popping, just throw 2 Tablespoons of sugar into the pan. And man, is it delicious. Seriously delicious.

It’s the weekend. Live it up! I hope yours is great!

Our Duck Adventure Begins

I was atypically still asleep Wednesday morning when the phone rang at 6:15.

“This is the Post Office. We have your chickens.”

I didn’t correct the woman on the phone that in fact, they were ducks. Instead, I blearily took down the Post Office address, seeing as it wasn’t the one a couple blocks away, and told her I’d be there immediately.

When I rang the buzzer and said I was picking up my ducks, a postal worker went into the back of their huge workroom and came out with a cardboard box. Except for the dime-sized holes in it, it was no different from a box I might get from LL Bean or Just a cardboard box.

Oh, dear, I thought, surely they’re dead in there. But as she got closer, the box peeped, a lot. It peeped all the way home and peeped while I woke the boys up so that we could open it together.

And when I took the lid off, just like something magical out of a Roald Dahl book, there were four very alive ducks, frantically peeping and looking at us. We carefully put the lid back on so that they wouldn’t fall out, and brought them to the temporary home we had ready for them in the basement.

Until they’re big enough and feathered enough to deal with the outside world, they’re living in a large Rubbermaid container by the washing machine. They have food and water and a heat light suspended above them. It sort of feels like we’re growing seedlings, which in a sense we are.

My duck book said to take each of them and dip their bills in the water so that they’d know how to find it. I did this with the first, who seemed pretty annoyed. Max was frightened, “You’re forcing it!” he said, distressed. (He pretends he’s cool, but he is easily distressed.)

“That’s what the book says to do!” I gave up. They all quickly found, and reveled in, the water on their own. I suppose it’s just the dim ducks who need coaching on how to use water.

For the most part, for these last 48 hours, we’ve just been staring at them. Phil put one of the kids’ chairs in front of the container so that the kids can go watch them, like a much better version of TV, whenever they want.

Last night marked our first traumatic duck-maintenance job: Phil and I had to remove the wire bands wrapped, spring-like, around their tiny little duck legs. That’s what the instructions at the hatchery said: Remove the bands. No more help than that for suburban folks getting their first ducks. Initially Phil would catch and hold a duck, and I would try to just pry the band open, but that wasn’t working. There was a lot of frantic peeping and panicked looks from the captured duckling, and her leg kept jerking away. After trial and error, we found that Phil could hold the duck and get his finger behind the duck’s backwards knee to hold it out, and I could snip the little wire bracelets with a pair of craft scissors from my knitting bag. (Oh, knitting, when are you not applicable to a situation?) I can’t overstate how much this task worried me, and it felt like quite a triumph when we were done.

I’ve also expanded my duck library, as in addition to the definitive duck book (Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks, 2nd Edition), I’m now in love with Harvey Ussery and his smart, practical, and sustainable advice in The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.

Two days into our duck adventure, I’m completely, utterly smitten with these girls.