Book Review: Container Gardening for Health, by Barbara Barker

Have you heard of the Environmental Working Group’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ and ‘Clean 15’ lists? They highlight the 12 fruits and veggies that are tested, and have the most pesticide residue on them. In contrast, the ‘Clean 15’ have the least amount (which is not to say no residue, necessarily…).

I found the book ‘Container Gardening for Health: the 12 most important Fruits and Vegetables for your Organic Garden’ to naturally segue from my interest in the above lists, and give me a ‘go-to’ guide for how to make it happen – right in my backyard.

As you’ve read, I’m building a garden from the ground up, and early on in my new journey had checked out this short book from the library. It reinstilled in me the idea that container gardening is not ‘giving up’, but instead is a realistic way that I can still have a garden, while I’m taking time to plan my permanent garden. For all those who are well into container gardening and consider the ‘giving up’ comment mean, consider me slapped for my effrontery. I stand corrected, and container-happy.

Thanks, Barbara Barker, for a great book! It combines practical knowledge, varieties for various climates, and cultivation and harvesting tips. Complete yet concise.


Vermicomposting for Kids and Adults: a 2-book review!

Worms Eat my Garbage, by Mary Appelhof, is a lovely book…..if you don’t mind reading about worms.

Which I don’t.

Worms are nature’s efficient composter, lowly and despised by some, yet ultimately – necessary for our very survival! Truly!

The book shows simply how to set up an maintain a worm composting system, also known as ‘vermicomposting’, with simple, inexpensive ‘equipment’, and a little know-how. Worm bins can be keep indoors or outdoors, and can help you to have a productive and healthy garden. Worm castings are one of the best fertilizers known to us, all thanks to Red Wigglers!

While I’ve shared with my husband and family my desire to give vermicomposting a try, I also remain on the look-out for books that can communicate how cool this idea is to my kids (you’d think 4 boys who like to play in the dirt would naturally take to this idea? I guess they like arachnids better…). One such book we recently read was “Class Worms”, with pictures by Barry Gott. A classroom teacher brings red wigglers to class and the class performs various experiments to learn more about worms. Not all the class is thrilled about having to handle worms, but all gain an appreciation for the lowly wiggling creatures by the end of the day.


Another New/Old Review: Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Ok, Ok, I know – everyone read this book in 4th grade, besides me.

But, I have to say, working my way through this delightful series, is perhaps even more meaningful as an adult, minded as I am towards real food, traditional ways of cooking, and family values of love, respect, and faith.

They resound in abundance in the Little House series! *I look forward to reading a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which is on its way to me via the library reservation system.

Farmer Boy chronicles a year in the young life of Almanzo Wilder and his family (Almanzo, destined to become Laura’s husband later in life). Growing up in a farm in upper New York State, not too terribly far from New York City, but far enough that their life is truly rural, Almanzo develops a love of farming and animal husbandry early in life. This leads to, for me, the part of the book that truly made me think and reflect (as enjoyable as the whole of the book was).

When asked by the kind Mr. Paddock if Almanzo might soon be apprenticed to him as a wheelwright, Father is quiet and almost grim as he an ‘Manzo ride back to the family’s farmstead. Over supper, Father mentions the generous offer to Mother, who responds with vitriol:

“Well!” Mother snapped. She was all ruffled, like an angry hen. “A pretty pass the world’s coming to, if any man thinks it’s a step up in the world to leave a good farm and go to town! How does Mr. Paddock make his money, if it isn’t catering to us? I guess if he didn’t make wagons to suit farmers, he wouldn’t last long!”

“That’s true enough,” said Father. “But–“

“There’s no ‘but’ about it!” Mother said. “Oh, its bad enough to see Royal [the eldest son] come down to being nothing but a storekeeper! Maybe he’ll make money, but he’ll never be the man you are. Truckling to other people for his living, all his days — he’ll never be able to call his soul his own.”

For a minute Almanzo wondered if Mother was going to cry. 

Almanzo is then asked to consider the apprenticeship, something that surprises him, in this age of absolute obedience to parents wishes. He considers what he really likes, and what he likes to do, as Father informs him of the various pros and cons of each way of life. Of farming, Father says,

“A farmer depends on himself, and the land and the weather. If you’re a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear, and you keep warm with wood out of your own timber. You work hard, but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come. You’ll be free and independent, son, on a farm. “

It strikes me that this idyllic vision of farming doesn’t exist, except for a select few, in our day and age. I don’t personally know anyone that raises sheep, shears them, and spins their wool into yarn then weaves it into cloth on a loom, like Mother, from start to finish. Nor do I know anyone that has a small and diversified far, like the Wilder’s had, with cows and grains and vegetables and maple trees for sugar, and who heat their house solely with wood they chop. Hmm…as I’m writing all of that an thinking of all the hard, back-breaking work, maybe ‘idyllic’ is not the exact right word, but they truly were free, as Father said — free to prosper or fail, depending on the weather and their own work ethic.

Some things have been lost since this series was written, but I truly believe that some things have flourished. What Father writes about farming could be re-written in a more inter-dependent style today. I am purchasing chickens, turkeys, and lamb from a farm in Western North Dakota. Beef from North-Western Minnesota. Honey from right here in the Fargo-Moorhead area. A 4-H hog from a family friend. (Also on the list to find? Rabbits and goats for meat). I shop at the farmer’s market and have a CSA, and, slowly but surely, I’m growing more and more veggies, fruits, and herbs, right on my own little patch of land. I can’t do it all, like the Wilder family seemed to, nor would I want to. I don’t think that is the overall call we receive from God, to be quite at the point of it. We should all help each other, using the gifts we were given, to give proper reverence to each other, and the world He created.

I will be said when I finish the last 3 books of this series, as Laura, Mary, Carrie, Grace, Ma, Pa, ‘Manzo and Royal seem to be friends (and who could forget Mr. Edwards, Nellie, and some of the other memorable characters). I simultaneously long for the simple hardworking times described, and am grateful that the burden of producing food for my family can be shared with other families.

What a treasure these books are!

Book review: Winter Blues by Norman E. Rosenthal, MD

The review of this book may seem, to some, untimely, as we’re now (at least here in North Dakota) fairly rapidly coming out of winter, and on our way to spring. However, one can never predict when one will find a good and helpful book, and I submit this now as a way to ‘plan ahead’ and, if you or someone you know/love struggles with seasonal depression, this book can greatly help to alleviate the suffering that goes along with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or its milder cousin, ‘winter blues’.

I learned much about the history of this disorder, which is now recognized by the diagnostic tools of the mental health profession. Once not understood, mis-understood, or ignored, seasonal depression is now more widely recognized and those who are affected by it have a real chance to regaining half their life.

Half their life? Yes, indeed. As the book describes, and its suffers attest, it feels like they are lost, or absent, for about half their life. The winter half.

The book presents the history of research and discovery, the treatment options available, and some self-assessments as to the severity of seasonal depression a person is experiencing. I especially appreciated the chapter outlining how to assess the seasonal ‘swing’ of children and adolescents: is it normal, is it the ‘winter blues, or is it SAD?

The book is readable in style, without being overly academic or tough. It really gave me a lot of hope to read it, both for myself (more on the ‘winter blues’) side, and several loved ones that I know suffer from the more serious form, SAD. Rosenthal’s book simultaneously helps those who suffer from seasonal depression not to blame themselves, as they cannot control how many hours the sun shines in their neck of the woods, while empowering them to know that there are reasonable and reliable steps that they CAN take to alleviate or even totally remit their suffering.

Well-done, and highly recommended.


I won a book! ‘Vegetable Literacy’ by Deborah Madison, and review

Wow, now I can never again say, “I never win anything!” 😉 Following along with Margaret Roach’s gardening blog (horticultural how-to and ‘woo-woo’), I regularly enter the giveaways for the wonderful goodies, many of them books. And, right before Easter, I won a book!

picture of cover, Vegetable Literacy, by Deborah Madison

Tempted as I am to devour the whole book in a day, I’m instead taking my time and reading the ample chapters just one at a time. The book, Vegetable Literacy, by Deborah Madison, features a beautiful picture of garlic scapes on the cover (and I was sort of impressed with myself for knowing what they were, as a year ago, I would not have known!), and includes many pictures inside as well, of the delicious recipes she puts forth, each tucked neatly into her ‘family’ chapters – families of vegetables, that is. *One recipes I’m especially eager to try is a carrot cake unlike the traditional ‘American’ version, made with yellow carrots, and drizzled with a lemon ricotta sauce. The picture is breath-taking. As much as I love words, I’m a sucker for good, tempting pictures of food as well.

Madison groups vegetables and herbs by their family classification, and in the beginning of each chapter, talks about growing habits and conditions, a little bit of history at times, and the characteristics of the family — many members of which can be diverse even within a family group. the key, as she points out, came when she threw a handful of seeds into an un-used bed, mid-season in her garden. “I didn’t take time to label my plantings, believing foolishly that I’d remember what I had planted and where. I noticed that the seeds were all round and looked pretty much alike and when they came up the cotyledons were round and fleshy, and the true leaves, when they emerged, looked similar to one another. Similarities are what characterize related plants, after all, and there they were” (from Chapter 5: the Cabbage Family: The Sometimes Difficult Crucifers).  She then takes each vegetable and herb at its turn, telling more about its history or cultivation, popular varieties, and then, the recipes!

This books makes me take a deeper look at vegetable pairings to cook with, and also encourages me to make herbs an important part of my garden in the future. The herbs represented in each family have wonderful and unique recipes, maybe more impressive to me because, while I’ve definitely grown in using herbs, I still have a lot to learn! I will have no shortage of new recipes to try with the help of this book.

I also appreciate learning about some “old” vegetables and herbs that are uncommon in this day and age. While Madison readily admits that some of these oldies aren’t necessarily the “goodies” (and therefore it is no reason they’ve fallen out of fashion, due to such factors as taste or difficulty in preparation), some deserve to be rediscovered. On my list for further reading and review, inspired by this book, are Jerusalem artichokes, and chia seeds.

Lastly, what I have appreciated about this book is its approachable nature. While Madison is no doubt quite knowledgeable about gardening, this journey occurred more lately in her life, and so there is an aspect to her writing that suggests we’re on this learning journey together. I enjoy that, and it makes me want to read more..

Thanks to Margaret Roach at ‘A Way to Garden’ for the book, and of course, to Deborah Madison for writing it!

Book Review, Not New: Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Ok, I know I’m going against the grain here, but I’m kind of good at that. I’m today reviewing a book that has been around for awhile….

But, I can’t believe I had never read it, until now!

Little House in the Big WoodsWe read Little House in the Big Woods, the first in the Little House series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, for our homeschool ‘Morning Basket’ read-aloud. Since probably everyone in the world had read this as a 6th grader, I won’t give you a summary of the story, but rather share some of my reflections on the story. *In case you’re wondering, Morning Basket is morning reading time. We focus and begin our school day this way. We adopted this practice this fall, and I think it is great! We’ve read some great books, altogether, doing this.* 

To me, the book showcases the importance of family and simple amusements of times past, the joys and challenges of frontier homesteading,  a few how-to’s that made me curious to learn more, and also reflected a tension between living in the city versus the country, and discussed the changing role of technology…themes that are all still very relevant today.

Family, and Simple Joys

I loved reading about the interaction of the family. I appreciated that the story was told from Laura’s point of view, though not in the first person. My boys cracked up about her repeated comments about her ugly brown hair, and her sister, Mary’s, golden locks.

Pa’s fiddle and his evening stories were memorable, as was Ma’s calm reaction when Laura ripped her pocket after collecting too many stones during their trip to town.  I loved the care and devotion that was shown between Pa and Ma, and how they encouraged and honored each other in their speech and actions. Beautiful.

Memorable, too, were the large family gatherings at Christmas with Aunt, Uncle and cousins, and the maple sugar/dance party at Grandma and Grandpa’s house.

Frontier Life and REAL Homesteading

If I lived in Laura’s time, I would be dead.

A sobering thought.

As I pulled my last bag of blanched broccoli from my deep freeze I thought, “Wow. I surely didn’t put up enough for winter!” and also, “The Ingalls’ didn’t have a deep freeze, either.” Epic fail.

Seriously, the sheer amount of work, ALL. THE. TIME. really made me think about the little I actually do, and the many things I take for granted. If I HAD to ‘put by’ all my food to survive the winter,…..well, we’d all be a heckuva lot skinnier.

I really have respect for those who have homesteaded before me, and have had to work so hard.

How To’s

I enjoyed reading about cheesemaking, maple syruping, and the various recipes described in the book. Granted, Laura was writing as an adult, looking back on her childhood, but the description she gave to hunting, various kinds of preserving and cooking, and even games and amusements provided a very entertaining way to learn about her life.

Technology, and City/Country tension

Striking to me was Pa’s reaction to the threshing machine. He was excited to get so much work accomplished in such a short amount of time. He was all for ‘progress’, and the thresher made his life so much easier. However, even with this new technology, there was still a communal aspect to the work. I think that too often, we’re all stuck behind individual machines, so our labor-saving devices also separate us from others. Part of the beauty, to me, of so much of this book was that, even though the work was hard, everyone pitched in, and maybe even had a little fun. Maple sugaring, for example, was a group project and brought people together.

I also reacted to Laura and Mary’s first visit to town. They had never seen two houses together, much less a store. … How amazing to think on that for awhile. I had to smile when I read of Laura’s confusion on seeing wash handing out on bushes in front of a house in the small town, even thought it was not “wash day” (as the Ingalls’ had a specific day for each of the household chores).

Even in this small aspect, that someone might wash their clothes on a different day than her family, opened up the world to her, and introduced her to the concept that there are different ways to think about things (even something as necessary and somewhat mundane as laundry).

Again, how could I have missed reading these? I look forward to ‘catching up’ with the rest of the series, bit by bit!

Review: The Kitchen Diaries, by Nigel Slater

The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen“Well, well, it’s Nigel Slater, buying a bag of frozen peas,” the woman said to him archly, in her British accent (I would presume, as Nigel lives in London). He sheepishly  pays for his purchase and slinks out, trying to remain anonymous.

Why would anyone make fun of a man for buying a bag of frozen peas? Maybe if that same man also touts the benefits of fresh local foods, cooking simply and beautifully to bring out the foods best flavor, living and eating seasonally — and also happens to be a famous writer and columnist for the London, “Observer”.

At the point that this little blurb appears in the book, I had become so interested in involved in his story – as Slater shares his simple kitchen diary, what he made, how it tasted, and some special notes – that I laughed out loud. Truly, it was a bit out of character for him to do this. But also, it really shows, I think, the approachable nature of this book, for me. It is summed up by the first line of the book, really:

“Right food, right place, right time. It is my belief — and the point of this book — that this is the best recipe of all. … This is the food of the moment — something eaten at a time when it is most appropriate, when the ingredients are at their peak of perfection, when the food, the cook, and the time of year are at one with each other.”

Sound a little too lofty? Well, its really not. His recipes are delightfully simple, and what makes this more than a cookbook (and therefore, an interesting page-turner from start to finish) are the narratives that string together the diary.

Arranged by month, here is a sample from January:

January 11 – Onion soup without tears – I do love the classic onion soup, simmered for hours in a deep iron pot, but if I’m honest, I hate making it. Onions make me cry at the best of times, but slicing enough for an entire pan of soup is more than I can handle. 

Or again, from June:

June 21 – An homage to yogurt – I  cannot remember a day when I didn’t eat yogurt. It is as much a part of my life as mineral water, salad or coffee. Sometimes I buy the Lebanese variety, so white and dense you could spread it with a knife. Other times is has to be the delicate French sheep yogurt that comes in glass pots the size of an egg cup. Mostly is it British goat yogurt from the healthfood shop … The only yogurt I will not eat is the mild, bland, sweet stuff the supermarkets excel at. Yogurt disguised as a dessert. 

At this point, you are either requesting the book at your local library, or thinking, “What? Yogurt?” I was telling dear Hub’band about the book as I was reading, and telling him how much I loved reading this type of book, and he looked at me indulgingly and loving and said, “Yes, I know you do.” 😉 (Which was a beautiful moment in itself, both of us admitting we have differences where books are in question, at least, books about food, but we can still be supportive listeners to what the other is interested in!)

The other take-away from the books, for me, is actually a kind of sadness that we don’t have the great variety of artisan-made cheeses, meats, etc, in local shops that we can walk to. Much of the books details his DAILY shopping trips, in which he can walk a short distance and be at different markets, some ethnic, some farmer’s, buying when he needs for the next day or two. For a mom with a family of 6, I shop once every two weeks, and make a menu plan for that amount of time. I can walk to one local store, but its not my store of choice. That style and kind of shopping outlined by Slater just doesn’t quite exist here.

However, the books, besides giving me several new recipes to try, has also encouraged me in my first Food Goal of 2013 (remember that post where I said I don’t make resolutions? Well….a goal is different from a resolution. So there. My blog, my rules.) — Explore the local ethnic markets and shop there more regularly. Not only does spreading out my food dollar help local people, it also helps my family to further broaden our horizons of good healthful eating! I just read in the local paper that a Russian food store recently opened here – perhaps that will be my first stop!

If you read it:

The Kitchen Diaries, by Nigel Slater. Published 2006, Gotham Books (a trademark of Penguin Group USA).

Other cookbooks by Nigel Slater: Real Fast Food; The 30 Minute Cook; Appetite. Among others.