Green Eggs and Hampered Plans

Apparently, chickens understand English.  They also have super-human hearing and are telepathic.  That’s the only reasonable explanation.  It seems they overheard the whispered conversations over the breakfast table:

“There’s only three of them.”
“Yeah, it’s barely worth keeping them around for the winter.”
“They’ve never laid anything.”
“And they lay less in the winter, unless they have extra light.”
“I don’t want to pay the light bill on that whole building just to get a couple of eggs.”
“Me neither.”
“Maybe we should just give them to our friends that have lots of chickens.”
“Yeah, just start fresh in the spring with a bunch of chicks, like 50.”

Yep, with no eggs in sight, Jarred and I lost a little faith and interest in the three chickens that remained in our depleted “herd.”

I love walking inside our shed and hearing their soothing little clucks and seeing them wandering around, but with four kids, a dog, and five cats…well, I’ve got enough things to take care of, thank you very much.

These feathered ladies theoretically reached egg-laying age around Thanksgiving.  I know that mother nature runs on her own time, and that chickens, like people, don’t automatically produce on their “due date.”  But still, no eggs in sight and the prospect of a long, dark winter with low egg production?  It didn’t exactly make me fired up about making an extra daily trip to check on the welfare of three non-productive free-loaders in our shed.

In fact, with the holiday crunch upon us, sending our chickens off to boarding school at our friends’ hobby farm, where lots of chickens already roam about, sounded a bit appealing.

And so, I’m fairly certain the chickens overheard our hushed kitchen conversation.  And you know how it is with chickens, they don’t exactly react well to stress.  Nobody ever says “cool as a chicken.”

With the prospect of getting relocated to parts unknown, they did the only thing they could do to save themselves.  Feeling the squeeze, they squeezed out some eggs.

Presenting our very first egg, held by our excited baby girl.

Presenting our very first egg, held by our excited baby girl.

Yes, just days after this conversation considering a chicken relocation, the chickens had a little Christmas miracle.  Actually, seven of them.  After supper, my husband, Jarred, and the kids went out to check on the chickens’ food and water.  Just for kicks, my daughter checked in the nesting boxes.  Nothing.  As usual.  Then Jarred took a peek in, and nestled in the little mound of straw that neatly conforms to a chicken body lay a little green egg.

A glance into the next nesting box revealed the mother lode. Or perhaps I should say, the mothers’ load.  Six perfect little green-tinted eggs.

The kids came into the house presenting eggs, and I screamed like we just won the lottery.  My six-year-old looked at me like I was nuts and said, “Mom, what’s the big deal?” using that mom-is-ridiculous tone that she’ll perfect in her teenage years.

She’s right.  It’s not a big deal.  Chickens lay eggs.  All the time.  A few eggs in a nesting box isn’t exactly newsworthy.  Well, unless you are me, and then you’d dedicate half a page of the local paper to this feat.

Because for me, well, it IS a big deal.  I’ve never had my own chickens before, and now we have real live egg layers.  Just because I know that egg-laying happens all the time doesn’t make it any less amazing, because it is.  What a feat to tuck inside a chicken all the necessary components to make an egg shell and its contents, and to be able to replicate that fantastic process on a daily basis.  That’s a lot of output for such a small body.

It’s the same amazement that I feel when our kids poke a few sunflower seeds into the ground, and a few months later, the towering plants are twice as high as their six-foot dad.  I understand photosynthesis and cell reproduction and many of the biological processes that make it all happen, but that said, it’s still magical to me.

Growth and life are amazing.

My maternal instinct, combined with a child-like excitement, just can’t get over how great it is to see things grow and thrive.  It simply doesn’t get old.  I put over 200 bulbs in the ground this fall, and I can hardly wait for spring to see the little shoots of green start to peek up.  How can those lumpy brown things that look like onions create blazing red tulips when the rest of the world is still brown?  And how can my long-legged three-year-old already wear some of his older brother’s handed down 5T pants?  And now we can really just walk across the driveway, and go collect eggs for breakfast?  Amazing.

So on the morning after winning the egg lottery, we ate green eggs and ham.  My five-year-old argued that the book version contains both green eggs and green ham, not just eggs with green shells.  My six-year-old argued that it didn’t matter, we could still call it green eggs and ham.  I said they are both correct.  While they argued over semantics, we for the first time ate eggs that came from our own barn.  And that is cool.

Also cool is the fact that a trip to go check on chicken welfare now includes an egg treasure hunt.  I do love a treasure hunt, especially if it involves something good to eat.

So, my chickens, rest easy.  You effectively hampered any plans for relocation.  You now earn your keep.  You ladies will help our kids grow up with a very tangible understanding of where eggs come from, so thank you.

Finally, in the bigger picture, I am also so very thankful.  In this week heading toward Christmas, in the wake of a national tragedy involving children the same age as my own, I count the blessings that I hold close every night.  I am blessed to see life unfold in my children.  I am blessed that together we get to watch our chickens and kittens grow.  Life is a miracle.


Making Butter for the First Time, Courtesy of Laura Ingalls Wilder

I learned a new skill this week thanks to Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Ok, to be honest, Laura Ingalls Wilder provided the pioneering spirit, and a search on the internet provided all the concrete instructions I needed.  It all started with a bedtime story.

My current bedtime book for our kids is the classic Little House in the Big Woods.  When I was a child, my sister read many of the Little House books to me, starting when I was in kindergarten. Even though I was only five at the time, the stories in the book resonated with me, and I have strong memories of so many of the details in the chapters as I reread them now to my kids.

Last night’s reading was no exception.  We piled into my five-year-old son’s race car bed, four kids and a mom, reading before bedtime.  My two little ones practiced gymnastic feats, leaping off the tail end of the bed, while my five and six-year-olds listened.  Last night we read the butter-making chapter.

As I read, my kids looked at the drawing of Mary taking a turn churning the butter.  I read about cream sloshing in the butter churn, using bits of shredded carrot to tint the pale winter butter, and molding the finished butter with imprints of a strawberry and leaves, “Laura and Mary watched, breathless, one on each side of Ma, while the golden little butter-pats, each with its strawberry on the top, dropped onto the plate as Ma put all the butter through the mold.”  I always loved that part.  It was just like I remembered.  (Books are nice that way.)

Then I had an epiphany.  I stopped reading and said, “Hey, do you want to make butter tomorrow?”

Yes!  We have an abundance of cream in our fridge after a stop at Kappers’ Big Red Barn in Chatfield, Minnesota, a local dairy that sells their milk and CREAM in half-gallon glass bottles.  We sipped away a quart of cream already in our morning coffee, making Half and Half suddenly seem downright watery, but we had plenty of cream left for a little butter project.

So today, I did what every person in 2012 does when they want to make butter for the first time: head to the internet.  I found a great ten-minute butter tutorial video on YouTube, and I was set.  I took a pint of cream out of the refrigerator, and let it sit out to reach room temperature by the time the kids came home from school.

Three kids eager to help (for a little bit, anyway).

My three-year-old son put the whisk attachment on my KitchenAid mixer.  (He’s been cooking for two years now, so it’s fine.)  With all of the kids gathered around, we fired up the mixer and watched the cream become whipped cream: “Ooh, Mom!  Let’s just stop and eat the whipped cream!”  Not a bad idea, but we kept with our original buttery objective.  Whipped cream began to “fall,”  got clumpy and a bit watery, and then in a matter of seconds, there was a complete change.

Almost in an instant, the mushy mass separated, and there at the bottom of the mixer bowl was a pile of liquid (buttermilk!), and clinging to the beaters were chunks of butter!  Eureka!

When the butter separates from the liquid, turn off your mixer.

The whole process of turning cream into butter took maybe five minutes   Of course, when the magic moment of butter creation happened, my kids had already lost interest and I had to call them back into the room.  We make things in the mixer all the time, so the whole process looked fairly unremarkable.  We turned on the mixer and it made something.  Yep, just like always.

No, kids, this is different!  It’s amazing!  It’s BUTTER!  Even though it happened just as all the recipes said it would, there is still that bit of magic in doing something on my very own for the first time.

Fresh buttermilk, ready to use in baking.  One pint of cream yields approximately one cup of butter and one cup of buttermilk.

I poured the buttermilk into a jar to use later in pancakes.  Then just like I saw on the video, I pressed the butter with a spatula, working out the remaining buttermilk while rinsing it in cold water.  Salt added, I gave it a taste, and then another taste or two.  In a side by side comparison between store-bought butter and freshly made butter, there is absolutely no contest.  Fresh butter has a rich, full-bodied flavor, tasting like whipping cream in butter form (which, of course, it is).  Store bought butter tastes flat and bland by comparison.

Thank you to Laura Ingalls Wilder for the butter inspiration.  Making something for the first time is immensely satisfying.  I am still truly amazed that something that we use so often is really so easy to make.  I had no idea.  People make homemade bread, sure, but homemade BUTTER…wowee cazoweee.  And the funny thing is, with a good mixer, it’s extremely easy.  I made butter in less time than I need to cook a frozen pizza.  Who doesn’t have that much time to play around?

After my pioneering butter foray, am I converted to always making my own butter now?  No, probably not.  But I definitely will be making it again.  Watching cream turn into butter is pure cooking magic, and we all need a bit of magic in our lives.

I am not a baking blog, but I do love food.  After all of this talk about making butter, someone out there wants to know how to do it.  Here you go!

Homemade Butter
2 cups cream
1/4 tsp. salt

1. Allow cream to sit out and warm to 50 degrees or so.

2.  Pour cream in a mixer. Alternative: pour the cream into a jar you can shake.

3. Mix cream until it separates: You will see yellow chunks of butter floating in watery buttermilk.  Takes 3-5 minutes in a mixer.

4. Drain off buttermilk, save to use in pancakes, biscuits, or just drink it like Laura Ingalls.  It’s good for you.

5.  Knead butter chunks together with a spatula for a few minutes, pressing out the liquid.

6.  Rinse butter in cold water while kneading with a spatula until the water runs clear.  Buttermilk left in the butter will cause it to spoil more quickly.

7.  Mix in salt (if desired).

Congratulations!  You made butter!  Enjoy.

Finished homemade butter with buttermilk in the background. Flavorful, fresh, and delicious.

A Clothesline Romance

One of my favorite memories is crawling in bed on a summer night, hair still damp from a Saturday night bath, and diving in between cool, crisp cotton sheets that smell like grass and sunshine, fresh from the clothesline.

I remember giggling as I felt the breeze blowing in from the window, looking out at the gently swaying leaves of our gigantic trees that made a canopy of shade in the summertime, and hugging my favorite blankie while I inhaled its every well-worn inch. It smelled so incredibly good after hanging outside all afternoon.

Everything felt so clean and fresh and good, and all was right with the world. They say that scent is one of the strongest triggers of memories, and every time I smell sheets fresh from the clothesline, it brings back that time.

One of my very favorite photos ever, my little girl in her “prairie girl” dress playing in the sheets, her brother in the background.

I love clotheslines. The sight of crisp sheets, sunning in the breeze, gives me a feeling of utter contentment.

So many of my memories growing up are linked directly to the clothesline on the side of our house. It was, of course, a magnificent clothesline. The horizontal metal pole on one end grew directly into a huge pine tree, hugged deeply by bark on top and bottom. A pine tree helping support the clothesline? Absolutely amazing to me as a child. That horizontal clothesline crossbar was strong enough that we used the bar for gymnastic feats of near-Olympic caliber while Mom pinned up towels on the lines.

Also amazing was the fact that my mom actually grew clothes pins. Whenever an old clothes pin broke, she chucked the broken one into the day lilies by the side of the house, always telling us that the long, thick leaves were new clothes pins growing. I never actually saw those leaves “flower” into clothes pins, but sometimes I even threw in extras, just to help Mom grow more. She was always running out of clothes pins, after all.

The best thing about the clothesline as a kid was running full speed through the rows of towels and sheets, shoving them up in the air as we ran underneath. Crispy, stiff towels brushed on my cheeks as I went past and sheets billowed up to catch the breeze just long enough to dash through. Sometimes we even drove the 4-wheeler under the clothesline to have the same effect.

clothes line diapers

I remember wishing I could be a sheet on the wash line, waving up and down and snapping in the breeze. It seemed like that had to be a sheet’s very favorite time, getting to hang out on the line to dance and play in sunshine. I also wished I could be the grapevines that spiraled and curled along the wires of my grandma’s clothesline, racing to grow to the other end.

.On the business side, I clearly remember Mom’s mad dashes to the line and her yelling, “My towels!” when the first big rain drops rapped against the windows. Out the porch door and around the corner she’d race to the clothesline, trying to save everything from needing a trip to the dryer.

And woe to the puppy that pulled clean towels off the line. A very good swatting with those towels, if done properly, only took one time to cure Buster (we had several Busters growing up) of pulling things off the line.

Today when I hear of housing developments with restrictive covenants not allowing a clothesline, it simply feels like an abomination and an assault to my sensibilities. I understand that in a row of perfect houses, hanging out towels is far too “redneck” to be acceptable. Maybe it’s not so much redneck, though, as far too human.

In eliminating clotheslines in the quest for perfectly tidy yards, we lose a part of our humanity. Towels, sheets, and jeans on the line at our neighbor’s house provide very concrete evidence that there is, quite literally, dirty laundry in that home. We are human. We all have it. It’s hard to maintain the pretense of perfection if slightly tattered towels are out there for the world to see. When did it become unacceptable to be human, a real human with laundry drying in the breeze?

At our new house here out in the country one of the things I loved right away is the long, ample clothesline that definitely means business. Laundry business. It’s a little crooked and needs to be shored up, but in the mean time, the line hangs low enough in some places that our kids can reach it and help hang up clothes. Lots of chores around the house hold no interest, but hanging up things on the line is pretty much always a fun job.

cloth diapers clothes line

Three kids helping hang diapers in the sunshine. (Helpfulness like this just has to be photographed.)

What endears me to clotheslines is the very visual evidence of a family’s life inside a home. Driving past a farm with clothes out on the line, it’s such a signal of life, industry, and a busily humming family inside that home. A line of clean clothes hanging up to dry says that someone’s working hard to keep life peacefully in order. There’s a Puritan practicality and work ethic appeal in a row of clothes out on the line.

What I feel like when I hang clothes on the line.   (artist unknown)

Not only does life feel industrious and in order, but a trip out to the clothesline for ten minutes really feels like adult recess. Ten minutes to soak up vitamin D out in the sunshine and wind all by myself is heaven. Sometimes in a busy day of completing my mental to-do list, I don’t even step outside the house until I haul out a load of laundry.

Then, when I step outside, it’s a wonderful paradigm shift. Away from the noise of busy kids, all is quiet, and breeze, warm sun, and birds suddenly fill my senses. All of the stress of things to do in the house disappear for a little while in the simple, quiet rhythm of grabbing items from a basket and hanging them on the line. I value that in my rinse-and-repeat world of being a mom.  

And when the load of laundry is all up on the line, it’s such a pleasing sight that I usually take a few steps back and just stare at the line for a little bit. A nicely pinned up row of sheets or towels gives me a momentary sense that life is all in order. Well, at least part of it, anyway.

Using a clothesline is so nice that sometimes I let the towels enjoy a full two days out there, or even three. Yes, let’s just call that intentional. I’m doing the towels a favor. Unlike my mom, I often don’t dart outside when the rain starts, so sometimes the towels even get an extra rinse with soft rainwater. Purely deliberate, of course.

When I was in high school, old enough to dream about my life as an adult, I sometimes imagined one day looking out of my kitchen window to see kids playing outside and sheets drying in the breeze on the wash line. And today, I have four little kids running full speed through my sheets, hiding between the towels, and accidentally tugging my clean things off of the lines.

And as I yell, “My towels!” to get my kids to slow down a bit, they have no idea how utterly happy the whole scene makes me.  

© 2012