Saturday, December 27, 2008

My Style of Christmas Shopping


I have always hated going shopping with my wife. She always has her list of things she must buy and considers it an inefficient waste of time doing anything but focusing on what must get done and what must get bought. If I ever get stuck shopping with her I usually tag along, bored and frustrated to tears.

I love to do my kind of shopping, especially at Christmastime—browsing around in my favorite stores, savoring the smells and sounds, and enjoying looking at the kinds of things I would never buy. The secret is to be able to sneak away and do this without my wife being fully aware of it. It never works if she is along.

Before leaving for the holiday farmers’ market the morning of December 13th Christine had told me that I would need to be home by 4:00 because we were invited to a wedding reception of one of our friends at 4:30. I figured that I would probably be out of the market easily before noon, leaving me a nice chunk of time to do my Christmas shopping. One of my favorite haunts is a multi store market a few miles south of Harrisonburg. That’s where I headed as soon as farmers’ market was over.

The first thing to do after walking into the Dayton Farmers’ Market (not even close to being a farmers’ market but really a collection of specialty stores) is to walk by the Coffee Klatsch and smell the $3--$4/ cup gourmet coffee. I always think to myself that if they were smart they would figure out a way to charge everyone who walks through there 50 cents just to get a sniff and I for one would probably not mind paying it. But fortunately it is still free and I surely would not want to pass that one up.

Next to the Coffee Klatsch is Country Village Bake Shop where one can draw in the heavenly aroma of fresh baked bread and cookies still warm from the oven and gaze at the pretty young Mennonite ladies flitting about doing their jobs.

I walk on a little more and wander into an art store where among the first things I see are prints by several unknown to me artists and of one who I know fairly well, priced in the range of $60--$200. I would consider buying one of those if I had a good place to hang it and it had some special meaning to me. Then I see a few more priced $500--$600 and “Oh my gosh! There is an original P Buckley Moss for $7,500!” I keep looking and there are several more around the same amount and a really big one for over $11,000! Well thank goodness that I can appreciate some kinds of art and can have the privilege of perusing some occasionally without getting myself in hock in the process.

Next stop is “Zolas”, a specialty shop where lots of really nice dried flower arrangements, wreathes, and dust collectors of every sort imaginable can be had by those who are abundantly blessed by lots of the green stuff. Another thing I like about “Zolas” is the nice smelling potpourris along with the tasteful displays of colors and textures throughout the shop. Of course another good reason I drift by her nook is the fact that she is my sister and the least I can do is to drop in and say “Hi”.

I turn a corner and there is “10,000 Villages”, a fairly big store originally started by Mennonite Central Committee to establish markets in North America for artisanal products made in 3rd world countries where MCC workers are located. There is lots of nice stuff here. I’ve never bought much at 10,000 Villages but I have worked as an MCCer in a 3rd world country and I can readily appreciate what is being done to boost the income of highly deserving skilled artists living in parts of the world where their economic opportunities are limited. If I could justify spending serious money on artistic objects it would be here.

I pause awhile along a wall full of highly ornate wall clocks long enough to check the time and to hear several them play a preprogrammed melody on the hour. There is a different tune for every hour of the 12 hour cycle. They are pretty, but $700-$1000 per clock? The $5.00 Wal Mart wall clock at home will get the job done.

Then I drift into the store that draws me to this place every year—Crafty Hands Toy Store! This is a toy store of real character, featuring toys that challenge you to think creatively and if you do that you might even learn something. I have quickly walked through many a toy store but this one I always linger in. I know Ric Bowman the owner personally and he knows me. I have heard him admit with a twinkle in his eye that the reason he has a toy store is that he has never managed to grow up.

Along an aisle near the front of this store is a row of hanging wind chimes and I always make sure that I bump several of them with my elbow as I walk by. My favorites are the “Corinthian Bells” which have long and wide chimes which keep on ringing with the richest deep tones for at least a minute after being stroked. If I didn't have one already, I might buy one but the one I like most is $350 and I still have the $60 one I bought here about five years ago. That one I dug in pieces out of the fire rubble a year and a half ago and paid $20 to replace some of the lost parts and a few parts I didn’t buy, I made myself. It hangs on my porch today with some scars and blemishes but it sounds pretty good and I am satisfied with it.

Strategically placed right inside the entrance is a large table piled with a bunch of scientific puzzles, stacking blocks, and various other interesting gizmos with magnetism and other mysterious forces in them, lying around calling out for people to play with them. It is no small surprise that many of the persons playing are pretty big kids! I mess with the Kapla blocks for a few minutes until I knock down part of the tower that someone had dutifully stacked up a few minutes before. Then I pick up something called a Whacko. It is a ball of rare earth magnetized tetrahedrons that can be pulled apart and reconfigured in all sorts of different ways. It’s about as magnetizing of my attention as a Rubic’s Cube and maybe more so. I think, “Should I buy it?” Then I see the price $30. “Nah, I have enough to do with my time. But maybe if I drop a few hints in the right places someone might get me one for Christmas.” Then out of the corner of my eye I see Ric blowing a marshmallow at someone with a shooter made of pieces of ½ inch PVC pipe and elbows stuck together. “We used to have one of those things! For $6.00 I”ve got to have it! The grand kids will love it!”


On the way out of Crafty Hands I noticed
lying on a small pedestal a fairly thick book entitled “Exhaustive Encyclopedia of Fun Things to Do for Those Who Never Really Wanted to Grow Up” for $29.95. I must have killed more than a half hour flipping through that thing! Definitely not the kind of book I would buy but I sure would love to borrow it for a few days.

Then I looked up and the thought hit me. “I’d better be checking the time!” I rushed to other end of the market where the fancy wall clocks were displayed. It was five minutes after four! “I’ve got to get my butt home!” I had a 20 mile drive ahead of me and Christine had said that I should get home around 4:00! I could see her now standing in the doorway with that dark glowering look on her face, ready to launch into that “Your irresponsibility really breaks my heart!” speech. I must have hit 70 mph at a few straight stretches on that section of country road between Dale Enterprise and Singers Glen.

As soon as I spun into the driveway I quickly sneaked down to check the feed and water for the baby chicks instead of going directly into the house so that when Christine would tear into me I could at least say that I had done something since getting home.

I walked into the front door and Christine looked up with a cheery smile on her face. “Good to see you home! You just made it in time.” I peered up at the clock, 4:35! “Weren’t we supposed to be there around 4:30?” I queried. “Well yes, but it is a drop in occasion so the time we get there is not that critical. I was a little behind myself in getting some things done before we go so everything will be OK.”

When Life Gives You Frozen Cauliflower Make Alegria

We had a hard time this fall growing cauliflower.

It’s not unusual for a disappointing crop to have its beginning when something goes wrong with getting the crop started. Oftentimes there is something wrong with the seed like low germination if the seed is too old or perhaps disease organisms in the seed that causes it to germinate poorly or to become sickly after it comes up. If the seed does come up properly there are many ways to screw up if it was started in a greenhouse like many of my crops are started. Sometimes I have inadvertently gotten something out of whack with the way I had mixed or selected my seed starting medium resulting in disease or chemical imbalance in the medium. Assuming that I have gotten everything right up to that point, the next common way to fail is to lose control of temperature, light, or air flow fluctuations inside the greenhouse. All it takes is one night of letting the greenhouse get too cold in the early spring or one day of letting it get too hot or dry in early summer to lose or to seriously set back the growth of a bunch of tender but otherwise healthy seedlings. If the temperatures are kept in the proper range it then becomes important to know when to set up fans inside the greenhouse to simulate the action of wind or to move the plants outside for a few hours per day in order to expose them to natural wind and temperature fluctuations, a system otherwise known as cold hardening, usually done in the last week or two prior to transplanting into the field. Most greenhouse started plants need to transplanted by six weeks after their germination in the greenhouse. If field preparation or other work scheduling delays result in greenhouse plants sitting in the greenhouse much beyond six weeks, the plants can become root bound and will not start off well once they are transplanted.

Compared to last year’s more successful cauliflower crop which had gotten off to a much slower start in the greenhouse and even more pestilence after transplanting than this year’s crop, I should have seen cauliflower doing at least as good as last year. I had done a better job with the plants keeping them growing on in the greenhouse and had even set up curtains of protective cover and window screen to keep out the yellow and white butterflies that often lay eggs of the imported cabbage worm on the plants while still in the greenhouse. I transplanted mostly healthy well started cauliflower on schedule in late July and early August. Except for a marauding groundhog that repeatedly raided one end of the patch, most of the plants took off vigorously following transplanting. I had to dust them a few times to keep off the cabbage worms but the harlequin bugs were not nearly as bad as they were last year and everything pointed to a good harvest beginning in early October.

October came in and steadily went by with no evidence of heading up in my otherwise healthy looking cauliflower crop. We finished up the CSA season on October 20 and still there were few cauliflower heads big enough to harvest. I waited and waited and waited. November came in and finally I was able to cut a few small to medium sized heads for sale at the farmers market. Then it started getting cold—unusually cold for this part of the country in November! I watched helplessly as we got several nights in a row with temperatures in the low 20s and teens. I tried pulling frost protecting row cover over some of the rows but this effort proved futile as we were getting a lot of wind and without a good way of holding down the cover over two foot tall rows, much of it ended up in the road and on the neighbor’s fence. Broccoli can handle freezing temperatures down to 20 degrees without serious damage but cauliflower is in real trouble if the temperature gets below 30. The killing frosts that began around Oct 20th had pretty much stopped the cauliflower from growing any further and now the November freezes had turned the whole unfinished crop ashen white and weeping on the ground.

I pretty much gave up hope with the beleaguered cauliflower and began threshing out the heads of grain amaranth I had cut and spread out to dry in the greenhouse in mid October. By now the colorful heads had dried nicely and a few hours of rubbing them over wooden frames covered with hardware screen separated the grain and chafe from the coarse stems. The next step was to rub the grain and chafe over window screen. The grains and fine chafe goes through the screen and the coarse chafe and any remaining stem pieces come off the top. Following this I winnowed the mixture by pouring it slowly in front of a box fan set at medium speed. A large stainless steel dish pan set directly beneath where I was pouring caught most of the grain as the wind from the fan blew the chafe onto a tarp spread out on the ground behind the pan. I had to repeat this process several more times with the caught grain before I got most of the chafe out of it. Two 150 foot rows of amaranth yielded about three quarts of straw colored grain. I scooped up the chafe and put it in feed sacks. This chafe is wonderful for sopping up oil spills in the shop and spreading on ice in the winter.

I finished up going to the farmers’ market on the last Saturday before Thanksgiving. This year would be different though. The farmers’ market board decided to hold holiday markets on the three Saturdays before Christmas. I decided that it would be cool to make some “alegria” to sell at one or two of those holiday markets. Well it turned out to be way too cool to go to the first holiday market on Dec 6th. In fact it was ungodly cold! Not only that, Christine needed me to finish trimming out the basement rooms of the house in preparation for a party she had been planning to host on Dec 7th for our local Kurdish community. I didn’t get a chance to make my alegria that week. While a few intrepid souls stood around shivering on Saturday morning at the market I finished installing baseboard and closet shelves, something I didn’t mind one bit.

Okay, by now you probably want to know, “What in heck is alegria?” Would it help if I told you that alegria is the Spanish word for happiness and joy? It is also the name that Mexicans use for a candy made by mixing popped amaranth grain with a little molasses or honey and pressing it into cakes or bars. It looks a lot like those seed cakes sold at pet stores for feeding to parakeets. Alegria is commonly sold by street vendors and in open air markets throughout Mexico and has been made since the days of Aztec civilization. It is simple to make and it is a tasty and nutritious snack. So why not make some alegria and share some happiness and joy at the Harrisonburg holiday farmer’s market?

It’s a lot of fun to make alegria. You start by finding a clean and dry skillet. It is very important that it is clean and dry. Use a large stove burner and set it at high heat. Use no water or oil in the skillet. You will need a cover over the skillet, preferably made of glass, so you can see the popping amaranth grain. Have a clean dry brush near by and a large (no plastic) pan to dump the popped amaranth into. Once the skillet is hot, scoop about a ¼ cup of grain into the skillet, cover, and immediately begin sliding the skillet back and forth on the burner as the grain begins to pop. The objective is to keep the grain rolling as it pops in order to avoid sticking and burning. The popping will continue for about 30 seconds to a minute, and begin to slow down. Dump the skillet immediately once the popping has slowed and brush out any grains still sticking to the bottom or sides of the skillet and return to the burner to repeat the process. This process moves rapidly once you start and requires some practice. You will most likely burn a few skillets full until you get the hang of it, knowing when to dump and how to keep it moving smoothly.

When the dish pan is about ½--3/4 full add about 1—2 cups of honey and stir until the mixture is well mixed and sticky enough to press into balls or squares. Press firmly into a lightly buttered pan and chill. One can form the candy and lay it out like cookies on a sheet or cut it into desired shapes after it has chilled.

Now back to my story. I made my alegria on Thursday night Dec 11th with plans to go to the market on the 13th. On Friday afternoon I got to thinking, “I should have something else to sell besides eggs and alegria tomorrow.” So I go tramping down to the cauliflower patch just to see if there might be something there worth salvaging. I immediately saw some exposed heads that obviously had frozen and thawed several times and were a little soft on the surface but, I figured, “We could probably still get some good out of them,” so I picked them, about a five gallon bucket full. Then I got to pulling the wrappers off some more small heads and lo and behold there were some pretty little baseball sized heads, still firm and with little freeze damage, apparently sufficiently protected by those wrapper leaves. They were not full sized but they would sell! I ended up with about three buckets full.

The more damaged heads were taken up to the kitchen and I realized within a few hours that I had made a mistake. The whole house stunk! After a few more days of eating frozen and cooked cauliflower in about everything my wife could think of putting it in, I would realize that I had really made a mistake! By then other things besides the house were stinking.

I went to the holiday market the next day and I was pleasantly surprised. It was a little cold but I had dressed for it and the wind was not blowing, so it was not all that bad. There were a good number of vendors there and enough shoppers to make it all worth while. People loved the alegria and I could have sold more. Several even thought my slightly frozen cauliflower was beautiful. And I sold most of it!
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Monday, December 22, 2008

An Eight Cow Wife


My wife Christine and I found this story years ago not long after we were married. We liked it so much that we want to share it now.

The value you put on a person greatly affects the way they value themselves. The story of Johnny Lingo shows how you can bring out the best or the worst in a person.

An Eight Cow Wife

My trip to the Kiniwata Island in the Pacific was a memorable one. Although the island was beautiful and I had an enjoyable time, the thing I remember most about my trip was the fact that "Johnny Lingo gave eight cows for his wife."
Johnny Lingo is known throughout the islands for his skills, intelligence, and savvy. If you hire him as a guide, he will show you the best fishing spots and the best places to get pearls. Johnny is also one of the sharpest traders in the islands. He can get you the best possible deals. The people of Kiniwata all speak highly of Johnny Lingo. Yet, when they speak of him, they always smile just a little mockingly.
A couple days after my arrival to Kiniwata, I went to the manager of the guesthouse to see who he thought would be a good fishing guide. "Johnny Lingo," said the manager. "He's the best around. When you go shopping, let him do the bargaining. Johnny knows how to make a deal."
"Johnny Lingo!" hooted a nearby boy. The boy rocked with laughter as he said, "Yea, Johnny can make a deal alright!"
"What's going on?" I demanded.
"Everybody tells me to get in touch with Johnny Lingo and then they start laughing. Please, let me in on the joke."
"Oh, the people like to laugh," the manager said, shrugging. "Johnny's the brightest and strongest young man in the islands. He's also the richest for his age."
"But …" I protested. "… If he's all you say he is, why does everyone laugh at him behind his back?"
"Well, there is one thing. Five months ago, at fall festival, Johnny came to Kiniwata and found himself a wife. He gave her father eight cows!"
I knew enough about island customs to be impressed. A dowry of two or three cows would net a fair wife and four or five cows would net a very nice wife.
"Wow!" I said. "Eight cows! She must have beauty that takes your breath away."
"She's not ugly …" he conceded with a little smile, "… but calling her 'plain' would definitely be a compliment. Sam Karoo, her father, was afraid he wouldn't be able to marry her off. Instead of being stuck with her, he got eight cows for her. Isn't that extraordinary? This price has never been paid before."
"Yet, you called Johnny's wife 'plain?' "
"I said it would be a compliment to call her plain. She was skinny and she walked with her shoulders hunched and her head ducked. She was scared of her own shadow."
"Well," I said, "I guess there's just no accounting for love."
"True enough." agreed the man. "That's why the villagers grin when they talk about Johnny. They get special satisfaction from the fact the sharpest trader in the islands was bested by dull old Sam Karoo."
"But how?"
"No one knows and everyone wonders. All of the cousins urged Sam to ask for three cows and hold out for two until he was sure Johnny would pay only one. To their surprise Johnny came to Sam Karoo and said, 'Father of Sarita, I offer eight cows for your daughter.' "
"Eight cows?" I murmured. "I'd like to meet this Johnny Lingo."
I wanted fish and pearls, so the next afternoon I went to the island of Nurabandi. As I asked directions to Johnny's house, I noticed Johnny's neighbors were also amused at the mention of his name. When I met the slim, serious young man I could see immediately why everyone respected his skills. However, this only reinforced my confusion over him.
As we sat in his house, he asked me, "You come here from Kiniwata?"
"Yes."
"They speak of me on that island?"
"Yes. They say you can provide me anything I need. They say you're intelligent, resourceful, and the sharpest trader in the islands."
He smiled gently. "My wife is from Kiniwata."
"Yes, I know."
"They speak of her?"
"A little."
"What do they say?"
"Why, just …." The question caught me off balance. "They told me you were married at festival time."
"Nothing more?" The curve of his eyebrows told me he knew there had to be more.
"They also say the marriage settlement was eight cows." I paused. "They wonder why."
"They ask that?" His eyes lighted with pleasure. "Everyone in Kiniwata knows about the eight cows?"
I nodded.
"And in Nurabandi, everyone knows it too?" His chest expanded with satisfaction. "Always and forever, when they speak of marriage settlements, it will be remembered that Johnny Lingo paid eight cows for Sarita."
So that's the answer, I thought: Vanity.
Just then Sarita entered the room to place flowers on the table. She stood still for a moment to smile at her husband and then left. She was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen! The lift of her shoulders, the tilt of her chin, and the sparkle in her eyes all spelled self-confidence and pride. Not an arrogant and haughty pride, but a confident inner beauty that radiated in her every movement.
I turned back to Johnny and found him looking at me.
"You admire her?" he murmured.
"She … she's gorgeous!" I said. "Obviously, this is not the one everyone is talking about. She can't be the Sarita you married on Kiniwata."
"There's only one Sarita. Perhaps, she doesn't look the way you expected."
"She doesn't! I heard she was homely. They all make fun of you because you let yourself be cheated by Sam Karoo."
"You think eight cows were too many?" A smile slid over his lips.
"No, but how can she be so different from the way they described her?"
Johnny said, "Think about how it must make a girl feel to know her husband paid a very low dowry for her. It must be insulting to her to know he places such little value on her. Think about how she must feel when the other women boast about the high prices their husbands paid for them. It must be embarrassing for her. I would not let this happen to my Sarita."
"So, you paid eight cows just to make your wife happy?"
"Well, of course I wanted Sarita to be happy, but there's more to it than that. You say she is different from what you expected. This is true. Many things can change a woman. There are things that happen on the inside and things that happen on the outside. However, the thing that matters most is how she views herself. In Kiniwata, Sarita believed she was worth nothing. As a result, that's the value she projected. Now, she knows she is worth more than any other woman in the islands. It shows, doesn't it?"
"Then you wanted …"
"I knew that I loved Sarita...”That I wanted to marry her.”
"But …" I was close to understanding.
"But," he finished softly, "I have always wanted an eight-cow wife. And if I couldn’t find an eight cow wife, then I would make myself one!"
The above story was based partially on an article found in Reader's Digest (February, 1988). The original work was copyrighted by Patricia McGerr in 1965.

An important note from Marlin:
Out on the hillside at my farm are approximately 20 head of beef cattle. I would be glad to give up those cattle and maybe even the flock of 50 laying chickens too if I had to in order to keep my wife Christine.
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