Novel Ideas

Borrowed from:

This year, for the third time, I will be participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, for short-ish). The goal is to write 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. A typical “finished” manuscript is 75,000 words, although in my favorite genre to both write and read — fantasy — the average length is closer to 100,000.

Still, it’s a tremendous commitment on many levels. First, the time. When I’m in a sweet spot for writing, I can type upwards of 100 words per minute. Let’s say, accounting for pauses and deletes and staring blankly into space, I average 60wpm. My total writing time for 50,000 words would be just shy of 20 hours. That doesn’t seem so bad, but of course getting to and staying in that sweet spot of writing is a rare feat. Doubling that number of hours is, frankly, a safer bet.

So, how do you add in an additional work week’s worth of time to a month already full? With actual (paid) work, with family time, with holidays. Early mornings, late evenings, and weekends become even commodities to exploit.

The first year I did NaNoWriMo, I managed 25,000 words. I was proud of myself. I had an idea for a post-apocalyptic story with no zombies in it, because I was getting pretty sick of reading nothing-but-zombies apocalypse theories. I like zombies as much as the next person, but it’s a tiresome fad and makes it easy for authors to squiggle out of the harder questions of an apocalypse: How do you rebuild? When you’re stuck at the bottom of Maslow’s famous hierarchy, group governance plays a quiet second fiddle to building better zombie traps. Still, after the month’s end, I lost interested in the story I was writing. It was a reaction to an idea, not an idea.

The second year I did NaNoWriMo, I wrote several thousand words but it went nowhere. I was trying to resuscitate the non-zombie book and not fooling anybody.

This year, I am abandoning all semblance of original idea. Thanks to a surprisingly raucous conversation about Moby Dick at a party, and not in the way you might expect (so many literature majors…), it was generally determined by open vote that I should write a version of Moby Dick with an all-lady crew. In space.

Many benefits issue from taking this tack. By patterning my narrator, protagonist, and antagonist(s) on Melville’s, I limit my scope and avoid the kind of suffocating breadth of choice incurred by a purely blank slate. It’s a book I love deeply, and will have tremendous fun mining for inspiration. It’s a simply plotted book with room for rambling diversions (my M.O.). It’s a book built around pretty grand themes, so mimicking it feels more like playing off timeless tropes than it does “copying.” It’s a brilliantly written book, so it will challenge me to push myself. I am not going to be Melville, but I can try not to disgrace his example. It’s a book written in a pastiche of styles, so if I get bored of my major narrative voice, I can mix it up and throw in a poem or a letter or newspaper clipping or a play. It feels like having permission to go hog-wild, which I shouldn’t need, but I’ve always been a rules-follower and I need this sort of invitation to release.

One additional and major benefit has been thinking about and working on core components of the book before the manic month of November. I’m such a seat-of-the-pants writer that this type of preparation — however minimal, however average or taken for granted by many authors — feels like a victory in itself for me. I hope I can learn from this process for later projects.

The biggest challenge I face at the moment is a working title. I welcome comments and suggestions! I do think this project is already a success for having spawned the incomparable hashtag, #spacedick, though admittedly have been too chicken to do a thorough Google search of the term for fear of what it might produce. And, as a final note, searching for “space whale” images results in a surprisingly broad selection of art, very little of which seems directly related to Star Trek IV.

Stay tuned.

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An Ode to Happy Pigs

I was at a tradeshow this past week in Seattle, a foodie’s town. My colleagues are of a generation that does not necessarily identify with the word “foodie”, but they deeply enjoy and appreciate good food. One night, the subject of happy pigs came up.

The notion of caring about their main course’s lifestyle had occurred to my coworkers, but not in a way that made a lasting impression. Talking about the changes in nutrient makeup of pastured animals vs. factory-raised animals got their attention. Considering the emotional and mental well-being of the animals up until slaughter really did not. As people who love to eat, shouldn’t they care more? I wondered. And then on the heels of that — why should they wonder? What motivates them? What pressure is put on them, from any quarter, to reconsider what they eat? It was obvious they were surprised at my own interest in and passion for the subject.

By no means am I as dedicated to sourcing humanely-raised meat as I ought to be. I do think about it during every grocery shop and nearly every meal, and it means a lot to me to be able to by meat from animals raised in a manner allowing them to express their animal-ness, to socialize, to eat the foodstuffs that millennia of evolution have prepared them to seek out and metabolize, to play. Perhaps there’s something a little psychopathic in valuing an animal life and then eating it; but evolution has prepared me for an omnivorous diet, and it’s just never bothered me. (Let me clarify: factory farming bothers me. The basic fact of eating other lifeforms does not bother me.) Like Michael Pollan, I would be interested in butchering an animal myself to see if it changed my perspective. I haven’t encountered (or sought ought) that test yet.

Right after the tradeshow I flew to Ithaca, New York. I went to school here and dear friends live here: it’s farm country, rich and rolling, right now golden with harvest. The restaurant we went to for lunch today listed where most of the ingredients came from — not from which town, but from which farmer. This is par for the course around here. Better food systems are a matter not just of common conversation, but of policy.

My favorite business in town is a place called The Piggery. A small farm raising pastured, free-range, heritage-breed pigs, butchering them and selling the cuts, it’s grown over the past couple of years to a USDA-certified facility that can process other local farmers’ meats. On their Facebook page, they post pictures of piglets nosing around in the forest. When I’m eating a Piggery porkchop (one of which, incidentally, provided hands-down the best pork I’ve ever eaten in my life), I can spend a few minutes really thinking about the fact that this delicious bite used to a creature. It had buddies. It had a favorite spot under a tree. It liked being scratched behind the ears. It had a life as its life was designed to be lived.

I have a friend who is a vegetarian, with the sole exception of wild Atlantic salmon. She says she feels a kinship with them, and that eating them makes her feel like she is absorbing a little of their life and their spirit. At first blush this seems a little silly, or at least New Age-y. As I think about it more, though, I see the sense of it. We are what we eat. I may not literally absorb the fear and dullness and filth and pain of the life of a factory-farmed animal when I eat its meat, but by choosing consciously to do so, I do choose fear and dullness and filth and pain.

So when I can choose — at a grocery store, at a butcher, at some restaurants — I choose the happy pig. I choose the buddies and the sunshine, the room to lie down. It tastes better. It feels better, not just a little but by a seemingly infinite order of magnitude.

I know I am privileged to eat meat at all, and the degree of privilege allowing me to choose which type of meat  is extraordinary. At the same time, all meat used to be this “type” of meat. They were all happy pigs. And considering that we’re planning a Mars colony; that we’ve built trains that hover above their rails; that we can send cameras inside the veins of the human body; it seems like we could figure out how to make our pigs happy again.

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On Eating Aphids

The other day, my father gave me a bag of kale from his garden. It was beautiful, fresh, earthy and pleasantly bitter, and it came to be in a bag the size of a Fiat. I sat on the couch with my husband and picked the leaves off the stems so we could make the world’s biggest batch of kale pesto. There were hardly any blemishes, dark spots, or heat-shot yellow leaves. But there were aphids.

Were there ever aphids! No mass infestations, but plenty of tiny little clusters on the undersides of leaves. Some clinging valiantly, on their own, along microscopically-nibbled edges or perched by holes hardly larger than a pinprick. I was picking them off with my fingernail, crushing them with paper towels, discarding leaves with large clusters outright. Reading that a hot water wash will help dislodge them, I tried that tactic instead of my usual cold water rinse; and left the leaves sitting in their bath in my panic. Which of course, wilted and even partially cooked some of the kale. All in the name of “cleanliness”.

The degree of my distress was irrational. (A) I don’t really mind aphids. I mean, no one likes aphids, but I don’t mind them as far as bugs go, and in their element. (B) Just that day, I had eaten a handful or two of the raw kale without thinking about it, without washing it, knowing it was spray-free and finding it delicious. Surely I had already ingested a few of the buggers. (C) I always say I want natural foods, whole foods, food grown by real people, food the way food was meant to be.

And that food has bugs on it.

I suppose that’s what I had to face. My own little rotten core of hypocrisy, where I say I want no-spray apples but I definitely do not want to find a worm in my Macoun. I say I love wild foods, but find washing fiddleheads almost unbearably tedious. Pasture-raised chicken only, but I frown at the few feathers still stubbornly clinging to the wholesome skin. (I’m okay with unwashed, room-temperature eggs, though.)

It was what they call a “learning moment”, I suppose. I witnessed how silly I was being and let myself be silly, while delivering a stern internal lecture (not to mention trying to take my husband’s teasing in good humor). I recognize that I have been raised on food that has been carefully selected for its uniform, beautiful appearance, not to mention bred and/or genetically modified for said appearance, not to mention scrubbed and varnished and sprayed to preserve said appearance. (This French supermarket campaign for ugly product is a wonderful answer to this issue, by the way.)

This power-washing of our food system is undoubtedly tied in with our society’s antiseptic obsession and its attendant health problems. I prefer the aphids I can see to the super-bacteria I can’t. So I will eat the kale from the garden…after washing it very, very carefully.

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Diving In

I keep putting off re-starting this blog because I can’t think of the best way to do it. It never seems like the perfect time. I look down the road at committing to all of it, and it’s overwhelming, so I commit to none of it. For some reason, today I just thought: What the hell.

A couple of things have been really tugging at me lately to talk about. Some positive food news: fast food workers striking for higher wages, for one. This isn’t about food itself, of course, but the reason I’m so interested in and passionate about sustainable food is because it is an interconnected set of issues. Underpaid workers perpetuate poverty in classically underserved populations and regions. Poverty in the U.S. is strongly associated with poor food choices due to the relatively higher costs and lower availability of healthy raw foods. and subsequently, more support for processed and fast foods (not to mention poor health). It’s a cycle. Paying fast food workers more should ideally lead to two things: higher prices on fast food, making healthy choices more appealing by financial comparison, and more spending power in the pockets of those who need it most.

Then this tid-bit, also in fast-food news: Chipotle sourcing grass-fed beef from abroad instead of using lower-quality U.S. meat. Will it put sufficient pressure on domestic producers to make them switch from factory-farmed to pastured cattle? No. But what I hope is that it’s a sign, a marker as we make our way towards an ethical food tipping point. Chipotle is not a mom-and-pop organization. It’s profitable, it’s mainstream, and they’re voting with their dollars, and that vote is a vote agains the American meat industry. Even McDonald’s, poster child for the abusive factory farming system we have, is at least looking to make its beef “sustainable” by 2016 (this has less to do with animal welfare than it does with environmental concerns, but again, they’re interconnected).

I’ve also been trying to put my money where my mouth is more seriously of late. I’ve been trying Mark Bittman’s clever Vegan Before Six (VB6) eating plan, which I’ve been pretty good about if you don’t count the cream in my morning coffee. I’m only buying meat that’s been raised humanely — which does translate into, when going out casually, choosing places like Chipotle or b.good, and when going out fancily, choosing places that emphasize farmer and supplier connections — and thinking consciously about my lapses (I’m sorry, I really love pork Chinese dumplings).

Over the last couple of years, food hasn’t become less important to me. More and more, it is clear to me that solving the food challenges faced by our global community is the linchpin to our success as a species. I’ll start brainstorming here again, because, well, what the hell.


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Urban Agriculture, Spring Fair Style

Sign for Urban Ag fairThis past weekend was the spring instance of a fair I wrote about last fall. “Get Growing” was a nucleus of urban agriculture education within Mayfair, a large and well-established annual street festival in Harvard Square. One of the biggest problems of the fall event was attendance, and it was a pleasure seeing the Mayfair crowds get drawn into the Get Growing corridor and alleviate that problem.

But even more gratifying a sign of the fair’s growth was the caliber of exhibitors. This urban ag component of Mayfair hugged the sides of the cobblestone alley that connects two of the most-trafficked streets of Harvard Square. A beekeeper, a book swap, an urban compost program: more than 25 tables offered advice, knowledge, or products addressing the challenges of growing and harvesting food in the city.

My personal favorite wMap of Urban Agricultureas the League of Urban Canners. They’re not a business. They’re not really even an organization. They’re just a bunch of people who hate seeing good food in the city go to waste, and they get together to harvest the fruit that grows on public land (or private, with permission) in the Boston area–cherry and apple trees, grapes and blackberries, mulberries and peaches–and turn it into jam. Which they eat, and share. They’re launching interactive Google maps of the edible urban landscape and are always seeking contributions.

The beekeeper and vertical gardens were popular stands. A slightly odd note was a rabbit table next to these–not teaching folks how to raise rabbits for meat, but rather, encouraging them to rescue rabbits and keep them as pets. (As a friend observed, “They were a little…anti-agriculture.”) Out of the couple dozen tables, though, only one was not completely on-target, which is a considerable achievement for a still-young event with a highly focused message.

One practical product for any gardener–not just in an urban space–was a simple, well-designed rain barrel setup. Inexpensive and made of repurposed food grade storage barrels, these painted-to-order collection vessels divert rainwater from a gutter, filter it, and store 60 gallons at a time that can be easily drained out and used to water lawn or garden. A clever overflow tube allows excess to be directed at always-thirsted spots like saplings or rosebushes. I love useful clever repurposed things that solve a problem.

What else? Mushroom logs made from organic, locally sourced substrate. A service that will bike to you, take your food scraps, and bring you back nutrient-dense, mature compost. The wonderful Boston School of Herbal Studies, offering insight into the uses of plants that grow even in harsh city conditions yet are generally ignored. The Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), with guides to Boston-area farms, raw milk providers, and more.

And the belle of the ball, Lucifer (Or Lucy, if you’re feeling affectionate.) Placid, pettable, and helping to demonstrate that chickens in close quarters have their upsides, she drew in passers by who may never otherwise have stopped to find out that most Boston suburbs have zoning laws that allow backyard coops.

Photo courtesy of Nina Piccoli

This event has so much room to grow, and this one Saturday demonstrated that the audience and the vendor base for an upwards trajectory. This is what the sustainable food movement needs: actionable, small steps that anyone can take; passionate advocates; and some fun. Connecting with our foodscape, however it’s boxed in or trellised or regulated, should never be a chore.

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It does defy the imagination: like all beverages in heavy containers, distribution seems like it must cancel out any efforts towards environmental responsibility lower down on the production chain. But those efforts do add up. Last weekend, I wandered by my beloved neighborhood chocolate factory and found they were having a party. A new, local “nano-brewery” was offering samples, and no, I couldn’t resist.

What’s the connection? Slumbrew, project of homebrew expert Jeff Leiter and Caitlin Jewell, uses Taza’s cocoa nibs to brew their Porter Square Porter (a nod to one of Somerville’s busier neighborhoods). In some ways, doing anything with Taza’s nibs other than eating them seems a little sad, but the resulting porter is creamy and way chocolate, with a surprisingly clean mid-palate. Delicious, though to me had more of a stout profile than a porter, lacking the signature bitterness.

Also on sample was a hefeweizen brewed with organic blood oranges (sourced from a small family grower in California) and local Massachusetts wildflower honey. I loved the porter, but I could drink this by the gallon. Literally.

A few organic and local ingredients does not a sustainable brewery make, of course. The bigger issues are certainly production and distribution. But even there, Slumbrew is thinking ahead, considering moving to canned beer for retail as a more responsible alternative to glass bottles. They’ve been thinking about ways to repurpose waste material from the brewing process, too, though haven’t come across a solution yet. Working with like-minded local businesses such as Taza has to be good for the company’s sustainability ethic: if a chocolate maker importing cocoa from South America can create a sustainable business model–which Taza has done–then so can a couple of folks making beer in Somerville.

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Nourishing Words: Opting Out of Black Friday

Things have been a little hectic in my world and thus a little slow on this blog, but fortunately, I’ve still got my favorite sustainable food writers to read to keep me thinking. Eleanor Baron at Nourishing Words always writes lovely prose on great topics, ranging from the mini (onions!) to the macro (consumerism). This Thanksgiving weekend, I am thankful for Eleanor and all the people like her trying to make this world a better place through thoughtful living.

Please visit Nourishing Words to read Eleanor’s full post on Black Friday–her sentiments really resonate with me–and to whet your verbial appetite, here’s a teaser:

Is it Thanksgiving anymore, or is it really just the unabashed opening of the floodgates of the Christmas shopping torrent, in which only the strongest among us will survive. Why black, I wonder? Could it be that, as a culture, we grieve for a time when holidays meant something simpler? If it is still Thanksgiving, what is it that we’re all giving thanks for? What possible satisfaction does participating in this frantic race to acquire more stuff provide? Can I possibly be the only one already feeling overwhelmed by stuff?

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Cambridge’s Urban-Ag Fair

Farmers’ markets, farm stands, pick-your-own orchards and food fairs always come into their own in September in New England, which is the only time here when the harvests of two different seasons overlap. The third annual Urban-Ag Fair in Harvard Square this past weekend was something different, though, and I didn’t know quite what to expect. I knew it would be physically small, just a blocked-off-street in the middle of Cambridge’s busy nucleus; and I knew it was supposed to promote urban agriculture (thanks to this modest announcement).

Urban agriculture fair food vendorUrban Agriculture fair Energy Alliance tableUrban agriculture fair bee and honey table





I arrived towards the end of the fair. Harvard Square on a beautiful weekend afternoon, for those of you who may never have been there on a beautiful weekend afternoon, tends to be nearly impassable. Introduce an event into the equation, and you could pretty much bodysurf from T to shining T stop. So I was surprised to find the fair moderately attended at best–and from how eager vendors were to engage in lengthy, energetic conversation with me, I can only assume the pace of the early part of the fair was about the same.

Urban Agriculture Fair Fenugreen paper stallThere were far, far fewer food stalls than I expected. Only one vendor had apples for sale, and he wasn’t even a farmer. Since the highlight was on urban agriculture rather than on agriculture near urban areas, I wasn’t expecting a heap of farmers…but it still seemed odd to have none in attendance. The most recent issue of Edible Boston highlighted two farmers who are using unwanted backyard space throughout the greater Boston area to “mini-farm”–where were they? And farmers representing their CSA program would not be out of place at an event with this theme.

I felt the fair lacked direction or a clear message. I was certainly happy to chat about a home energy audit, and to buy a new kind of paper that will supposedly keep my apples crisp an extra few days, and I fully enjoyed my grass-fed burger and pint of pumpkin ale. But where were the rooftop gardens? Where were the pamphlets on using your postage-stamp yard/porch/deck to grow container gardens, or explaining hydroponics?

Urban Agriculture fair book swap tableThe Boston Local Food Festival is just a few weekends away. I’ll be curious to attend the bigger, better-funded event and to see how they address the problems of focusing on a topic and educating attendees. I love that Cambridge wants to promote urban agriculture; I just felt that though the spirit may have been willing, the reality fell short of the ideal. But a small grassroots fair like this will take time to put down roots (as it were); they’re still figuring this out, I’m sure, as we all are. I look forward to next year’s fair.

Urban Agriculture Fair, Harvard Square

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The Porch Garden

I am no horticulturalist, nor is my thumb particularly green. But for the first time, I’ve been home for a full growing season and have attempted to make use of what small outdoor space is allotted to me in my very urban living conditions: a south-facing back porch.

I am mildly embarrassed to share this meager effort–a quick Google search will show you dozens (a sampling of the thousands) of super-producing, well-organized, beautifully-cultivated porch gardens. Mine…well, I’m trying. You have to give me that much. As my personal sustainable food philosophy is akin to the Chinese proverb that cautions a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, I’m just taking my own advice.

Two people are responsible for kicking me into gear this year: my good friend and my father, to whom belong the greenest thumbs I know. My friend gave me two Brandywine tomato seedlings (an heirloom varietal valued especially for canning), as well as a tiny Japanese cucumber (I mean, really tiny, like pea eggplant tiny). My father has provided materials and advice, and will probably still let me have some of his amazing tomatoes when–excuse me, if–my own don’t happen to make it.

The tomatoes might prefer to be elevated and receive more sun for more of the day, but they seem to be doing all right in their floor-level pots at the moment, flowering away; there’s only one tiny little fruit on there so far, but in the 100 degree heat-wave we’re having here in Boston right now, more may explode over the next few days.

The cucumber is doing alarmingly well. I thought there was merely one plant in the pot my friend gave me–turns out there were actually three seedlings, and they’ve all survived. However, I was leery of repotting out of a ceramic pot when (a) the plants were already established and (b) the pot was already the maximum size I felt comfortable resting on the balustrade of the porch. So I water them frequently and feed them at least weekly, and so far this seems to have been enough. I’ve loved watching the cuke grow: when I water it in the morning before work, I’ll encourage a tendril around a piece of twine. By the time I come home, the slender, eager curl will have wrapped tightly around in perfect tiny coils. If I could sit still long enough, I could watch this beauty grow. I’ve already sampled one of the fruits, as well. Olive-sized, with a strong cucumber flavor that is slightly more sour than sweet, it makes me want to fresh-pickle them and serve them with a Nicoise salad…or throw them in a dry martini.

Where excess herbs go when they dry

Plus, my three boxes of herbs are doing well. Some are thriving, some are just scraping by, but heck, they’re alive–and contribute on a regular basis to my kitchen habits. Three kinds of mint in one box (chocolate, Kentucky peppermint, spearmint); lemon thyme, English thyme, and oregano in another; and lavender, sage, and Greek oregano in the third.

And of course, summer’s darling: a pot stuffed full of basil, sweet and globe. Basil’s packed full of nutrients, and it’s such a treat to be able to throw handfuls of fresh leaves into a salad or to toss them simply with pasta and shaved pecorino.

If this experiment goes well, it may embolden me to be more adventurous next year, perhaps putting up a screen between rafters and balustrade and training beans and more cucumbers along it. I wonder how many plants would fruit on the wrong side of the screen, however, making it difficult to harvest and a potential danger to unwary passerby below.

But one thing at a time, I remind myself. First to see through this year’s labor, and if I’m lucky, enjoy its flavorful, easily-plucked fruits.

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Eating Ithaca

Organic strawberriesFew things in the world please me as much as fresh food, well prepared. Eating local is a good way to up the chances of flavor-packed food–plus, it comes with those nice socially responsible benefits like a lower carbon footprint and supporting your local economy. In some cases, organic farming methods can provide better flavor, too, by reducing the interference of chemicals with the taste of sun and soil and plant–for instance, in strawberries like these.

I like eating local food around Boston. Lots of good stuff (and oh, the fish…). But Ithaca, New York remains my personal foodie mecca. There’s a big enough population to keep a network of highly skilled farmers, vintners, butchers, and chefs in business, and enough cheap(ish) land and water to keep them all well supplied with locally sourced products that one can actually afford to eat on a regular basis. I went to school in Ithaca and fell in love with the region during that time: apple picking every fall, buying crates of second-best peaches during their two-week glorious heyday for cobblers and pie, learning that one could buy meat from the person who killed the animal, exploring local vineyards. (Here was born an eternal love for Rieslings that taste like lemon-spritzed rock. But better.)

So in a recent overdue visit with some dear friends who live there, we ate our way around the city as I desperately attempted to do Everything All At Once: dinners in, dinners out, fruit picking, city wandering. The farmer’s market was just getting into full swing, so between that and my friends’ garden we had some pretty fabulous dinners: grilled chorizo and (admittedly non-local) shrimp with quinoa tabbouleh; bratwurst and smoked kielbasa, served with sauteed kale with mustard; superb fresh salads from the garden.

For dessert? Organic strawberries by the bucketful. Literally. We turned them into shortcake with local cream; strawberry-rhubarb pie; and homemade strawberry ice cream. And, of course, ate them gleefully by the handful.

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