Potato Soup with Herbed-Roasted Mushrooms, Potatoes, and Corn

Once upon a time, in what feels like a different life, I co-owned a boutique wine shop with a small upscale cafe, where I was the executive chef. I served everything from wine-inspired appetizers, pizzas, and soups/salads/sandiwches to 5 course $150 a head wine dinners. But, during this time, I also had two very small children. The hours were awful, the stress was great, and it was the middle of the Great Recession. As much as people loved it, they could only buy so much wine and fancy food, and so we closed in Fall 2010, and I was honestly relieved. I became a stay-at-home-parent until my return to higher education once both kids were in kindergarten.

It’s been a decade since we closed, but sometimes I still like reaching-back at some of the old recipes I used. While I may be relieved to not have that kind of stress, I’m still proud of what I managed to accomplish. It always filled me with immense satisfaction to feed people food I loved and have them love it in return. Yesterday evening we took a small trip down memory lane by opting to make some old recipes. I served a variety of sandwiches I used to serve (cut into very small portions that encouraged sampling) and serving it with a delicious soup. Here’s some of the sandwiches I used to make:

  • Paris Lunchbox = brie, salami, and sliced apples toasted together on crispy baguette
  • Pesto Grilled Cheese = pesto slathered generously onto a baguette and toasted together with american, smoked provolone, and English cheddar cheese
  • Apple Butter Grilled Cheese = apple butter toasted with English cheddar
  • Baked Brie = brie toasted together with homemade jam
  • London Pub = apple butter, smoked bacon, and English cheddar toasted together on baguette

Whereas I could serve many different sandwiches, I could only reasonably pick one soup, and I had a hard time picking, because soup is something I love dearly and enjoy making. I considered making a sweet potato soup, a corn chowder, a roasted red pepper soup, or a potato soup. The old favorite brie cheese soup was discarded by me early on simply because I no longer have wholesale pricing on brie cheese. 🙂

I asked Brian for his input and he wanted either mushroom or potato soup. While I absolutely love mushroom soup, I had been craving potato soup all week and it was the one constant between both of us. However, mushrooms and corn still sounded good. I used to make a simple potato-leek soup in the French style for the restaurant, so I opted to use that as a base but do a vegetable garnish that included some mushrooms and corn to get that rich seasonal flavor. The end result was delicious. So delicious I’m going to make it again this week.

Potato Soup with Herb-Roasted Mushrooms, Potatoes, and Corn
Yield: about 8 servings

For the roasted vegetables:
1 pound portabello mushrooms, sliced
2 russet potatoes, peeled and diced
1 1/2 C frozen sweet yellow corn
2 T olive oil
2 T butter
1/4 C fresh lemon juice
1/2 C sherry or port
2 T snipped fresh chives
1 T fresh rosemary
2 t fresh thyme
sea salt, pepper, and white pepper to taste

For the soup:
3 Leeks, green stems discarded and sliced
5 scallions, green parts saved for another dish and sliced
6 large Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and quartered
6 T butter
2 C buttermilk
1 quart plus 2 C water or vegetable broth
2 t sea salt
1 t white pepper
1/4 t freshly ground black pepper
snipped chives for garnish


For the vegetables
In the bottom of a ceramic dutch oven, heat the oil with the butter over medium high heat. Add the mushrooms, the lemon juice, the spirits, and a pinch of sea salt and pepper. Cook until alcohol has completely evaporated then brown mushrooms for 5 minutes, stirring and caramelizing. Add the potatoes and the remaining seasonings and cook another 5 minutes, making sure the potatoes get coated in the remaining fat in the pan. Add the corn and place a preheated 400 degree oven for 15-20 minutes, stirring at least once, until the potatoes have cooked-through and crisped slightly. Remove from the dutch oven and set aside. Taste for seasoning.

For the soup
In the bottom of the dutch oven set back on the stovetop over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Add the leeks and scallions and a pinch of sea salt, place the cover on, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. You want them soft but not with a lot of color (there will be color from the bottom of the dutch oven from the vegetables, and that is good flavor, but we don’t want that flavor in our leeks).

Once leeks have fully softened, add the potatoes, the water, and the seasonings. Bring the heat back up to medium-high and bring the pot to a low boil. Place the lid on and cook for 15 minutes, until potatoes are nicely soft. With an immersion blender, puree the potatoes smooth; the soup will be quite thick at this stage. Add the buttermilk and bring to a bare simmer, just enough to heat it through. Taste for seasonings.

To serve:
Place the soup in a bowl, top with the vegetables and fresh chives. You can finish with a swirl of truffle oil, if desired.

(Pandemic) Life Updates: The “Lost” Two Months of Remote Learning

Oh my goodness it’s mid-October already! We’re still editing vlogs from South Dakota. I haven’t updated the blog in awhile. And we’re putting the garden to rest for the season while also loading in the greenhouse. So much is happening at the Homestead to talk about, but before I can start the post routine again, I need to explain what exactly has been going on these past two months to make life so stressful and hectic that we’re this behind on homesteading.

You might remember that we were dealing with failing plumbing all summer long, putting us behind on some of the garden projects we had on the to-do list. When we last updated, we had gotten back from South Dakota and were getting ready for school to start. You may remember I had a choice between remote learning or hybrid learning for the kids, with the hybrid option oscillating between full in-person depending on numbers within our local county and the recommendations of the health department. We were told we would have the option to choose between remote and hybrid when the change to in-person occurred. The rules shift a little between elementary, where Liam still is, or middle school on up, where Chloe is.

Meanwhile, the university I teach at is recommending remote learning as much as possible, recognizing that different disciplines have different needs, and offering a high-degree of flexibility in course structure and faculty time. As an English professor, remote learning is actually my preference because it allows me flexibility: time to continue my administrative comittments as assistant director of the writing center and time to be the primary parent to my kids. Most of the research I’ve read lacks scientific consensus on things like children and community spread and whether children are at-risk for the virus or even for things like autoimmune diseases being triggered by exposure to COVID-19. Both of my parents are high risk. My elderly uncle just relocated to here from Florida and has no other family. I feel great responsibility for them and could not fathom a world in which we could not safely reach them in-person when necessary. And lastly, Liam wanted to be homeschooled, or at the very least a remote learner.

So, for these reasons we opted for the remote learning offering at both of their public schools. Liam would be assigned a remote learning classroom, and would have his own remote learning teacher for 4th grade. Chloe would be assigned a locker and a class schedule just as she would for in-person, and would Zoom into live classrooms with other remote learners. Liam’s option is automatically more pedagogically feasible than Chloe’s, and I was nervous for her from the start as a result. No matter how much of a super-hero a teacher is (and believe me, they all are right now), there is no possible way for a teacher to instruct a room full of face-to-face learners effectively while also instructing a handful of remote learning students. It’s asking far too much of teachers, and it’s stressful for all involved. Best practices between the two learning environments do not align, and so I really didn’t see how this was going to work for anyone.

Alas, though, for the first several weeks of school, Chloe assured me she was doing fine while Liam was absolutely not. His anxiety skyrocketed and we got him back into therapy with our family therapist. I began spending a large amount of my time each day helping him get through school. His teacher, like so many teachers this year, had never taught online before. Most often, teachers default to the pedagogies they enacted successfully in face-to-face environments, believing they will translate to the digital environment. With several meetings and a lot of hard work adjusting the schedule and listening on her part, within the first month of school, Liam started improving. There were still bad days, but not as many, and with some adjustments on our part, as well, we could get him through a school day and get his work finished, even if, at times, it took him until 4 or 5 in the afternoon instead of 2:30 when the school day is supposed to finish.

All during this time, my semester had started. I was spinning like a top between work, home, and Liam. I continued to check-in on Chloe each night, and each night she would assure me she was fine. I saw little of her during the day, however. Our carefully planned schedule didn’t completely match the reality of the school day, and she barely had time for lunch, let alone a walk with me in the forest. I felt suspicious that she was not fine, but had no concrete reason to doubt her assurances and so didn’t press any further. Until, one day, I received an email from one of her teachers asking why Chloe was missing so many assignments. Even though I should have been checking Canvas Parent (the learning management app used by their school and mine) to help her track her assignments, I simply had not; I was too busy setting up Canvas for my work, among other work tasks, and helping Liam simply get through a day. I talked things through with Chloe and together we made a plan to get her caught-up in what I thought was this one class. I still had not fully checked Canvas Parent, but instead trusted her to exercise agency and track her missing assignments herself.

The next week, however, I received emails from another two of Chloe’s teachers asking why she was missing so much work. I’m going to pause here to say a few things: 1) I sincerely doubt Chloe is alone in missing work as a remote learner 2) the adjustment for students used to face-to-face learning environments to digital learning environments is hefty 3) this is part of the adjustment of best practices: the type and amount of assignments should differ between face-to-face and digital classrooms and 4) life is just super hard right now between pandemic stuff and swirling political, socio-cultural, and environmental crises, and so I also doubt she is alone in general in missing work, remote learner or not. She’s super smart, but I care less about what grade she gets this year than I do about her mental and emotional health. I wanted her to gain enough points to pass her classes, but viewed the missing work as a symptom of a much deeper problem.

She started seeing our family therapist again, which means all four Hull’s meet with him independent of one another via Zoom each week, and thank goodness for it. Family therapy is more important now than ever before, and I highly recommend it. I also sat with her and gave her the option of homeschooling for the remainder of the year. We talked-through the pros and cons, what homeschooling would look and what it might feel like. And then we also met with her teachers. We talked about how detached she feels from the learning space and therefore the content. We talked about how she spends 12-13 hours each day sitting at her laptop, first attending the classes required of her, and then struggling on her own with the content to do her assignments. We thanked them for their energy and time spent with Chloe in break-out roooms and in meetings like this, but emphasized that 10 to 15 minutes summarizing content was not the same as feeling connected enough to engage in the content delivery method of the full-class period. At the end of the meeting, Chloe said she felt better and so we decided to keep her enrolled for now, but I let her know homeschooling was on the table as an option for her.

We got to Fall Break, which started last weekend. She spent three days in a row working until 11pm at night trying to get assignments turned-in. I awoke Saturday morning to a beautifully written note letting me know she wanted to homeschool. I’ve never homeschooled before. I teach college, not middle school, and do not view myself as somehow more adept or capable at teaching than her highly trained professional teachers. But I also know that those teachers aren’t actually super-heroes, even though we like to think they are and seem inclind to set expectations of them that matches. They did their absolute best and we thank them wholeheartedly. I may not be super-mom, either, but I can try my best for my daughter and that, at the very least, I can get her away from the screen and craft curriculum that caters to her learning styles, something almost impossible to do under the remote learning model set-up at her public school (she’s a kinetic and visual learner).

In the middle of all of this, and on top of me continuing to try to do my best for my students at my university, Brian unexpectedly and with next to no time to maneuver or make alternative arrangements, lost the shop space for the makerspace he’d been renting for a year. This set his business into a state of uncertainty that impacted his ability to be present and engaged with home chores and life and also set our finances into another tailspin.

I’ve spent the last week crafting assignments, writing a syllabus, and ordering materials for Chloe. Brian has reorganized our garage into a viable shop space so he can continue working on jobs he already had going (hey, I was barely using my car, anyway). And, most importantly for him, he’s also pursuing some interesting arrangements that could really help catapult the makerspace towards his highest goals while also providing more of an income for us (because despite what you may have heard, most university professors do not make a lot of money).

So, yes, all of this has been stressful. I dubbed these last two months “lost” because I honestly have no idea where the time went. I simultaneously dragged on and on but also felt like a blink. I doubt we’re alone in a story like this. And indeed, I’m positive there are far worse stories out there. We have our health and our homestead. I can, at least, exercise the privilege of having a flexible employment situation to homeschool Chloe. Brian can, at least, make his business work. There’s plenty in our nation right now who can’t say that. So while it has rightly demanded our time, attention and energy, we’re still here: grateful, full of hope and love, and ready to get dirty doing some Homestead chores.

The other day I weeded the perennial beds and planted some bulbs. A week or so ago we built-up the greenhouse structure to ready it for winter. And today I harvest the last of the summer garden. Tomorrow we start homeschool, and now that I’ve prepped, I feel excited for this journey.

Roasted Butternut Squash Lasagna with Sage and Honey Brown Butter Sauce

Labor Day is such an interesting holiday, having a foot in two seasons. On Saturday we grilled out, enjoying freshly harvested local sweet corn, watermelon, lemonade, and bbq. And then on Sunday, the wind had that specific scent and voracity and bite, the trees had that sound of rustling, and we started deep cleaning everything in sight, getting ready for the end-of-season harvesting that would need organization and attention. Hello, Autumn!

I’ve been using my dutch oven again for about a week (and have those recipes to share soon), but I wanted to make something uniquely autumnal to welcome the season–my favorite season, as it happens. For years I have made a variation of this pasta; sometimes it’s stuffed shells, others ravioli, sometimes it’s pumpkin instead of squash, and even sometimes it has Italian sausage mixed into it. Some of the sauces change, depending on my mood and the weather–a heavier bechamel if it’s chilly and I want something hearty, a light cream sauce on other occasions, or, as is the case last night, a barely-there browned-butter sauce. No matter how I dress it up or down or package it, it’s always a dish that centers me into the season and makes me excited for apple cider and pies. 🙂

Roasted Butternut Squash Lasagna with Sage and Honey Brown Butter Sauce
Yield: 6 servings

For the filling:
1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cubed
3 medium to large cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1/4 C fresh sage, chiffoned
1/4 t crushed red pepper
1/4 t ground cinnamon
sea salt and fresh ground black pepper pepper, to taste
3 T coconut oil

For the sauce:
1/2 C salted butter
3 T red onion, finely diced
3 T fresh safe, chopped
1 1/2 T fresh rosemary, chopped
fresh ground black pepper, to taste
2 T raw honey
3 T fresh squeezed lemon juice

For the lasagna:
15 ounce ricotta cheese
1/2 C parmigiano reggiano cheese, grated
1 egg
dry lasagna noodles of choice
3/4 C water

For the filling– Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepare the vegetables and toss with the coconut oil and all the seasonings well. Place on a baking sheet and roast for 15-20 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly (recommend preparing the browned butter sauce during this time). Then, mash the roasted vegetables together as you would make a mashed potato.

For the sauce–In a medium skillet, melt the butter over medium high heat. When it has fully melted and beginning to foam slightly, add the onion, the herbs, and the black pepper. Cook 2-3 minutes then add the honey, stir for 30 seconds, and add the lemon juice. Remove from the heat.

For other ingredients–combine the egg with the ricotta cheese and whip thoroughly to combine.

Set oven temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. In an 8×10 baking dish, spread half the butter sauce on the bottom of the pan. Place dry lasagna noodles in a single layer. Gently spread half the mashed squash and sweet potato mixture to make an even layer, top with a little parmigiano reggiano cheese, then add another layer of noodles. Spread the whipped ricotta onto the new layer, then add another layer of noodles. Repeat twice more–mash and then ricotta–until you add the last layer of noodles. Sprinkle the remaining parmigiano reggiano cheese onto the top layer then drizzle the other half of the butter sauce over the top. Carefully, from a measuring cup with a spout, pour the 1/2 C water into all four sides of the lasagna pan. Then gently pour the other 1/4 cup onto the very top layer. Cover the pan tightly with foil. Bake for 40 minutes covered, and then remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, until the cheese browns on the top.

Recipe Post: Chimichurri Chicken, Spiced Roasted Sweet Potatoes, and Mexican Street Corn Salad

I am so behind on the blog and vlog and basically all things Homstead right now. After South Dakota, the kids had to get ready for remote learning for their respective schools, and I reported back to my full-time job in higher education; and, well, as I’m sure most of you can imagine, there’s quite a lot to do and quite a lot to learn to navigate given everything going on in the world. We are still here on the Homstead: gardening, taking forest and garden walks, filming vlogs, cooking, canning, and preserving and are anxious to share more with you all once we settle in to our new routines for the semester. 🙂

In the meantime, I have a backlog of recipe posts, so we’ll be leaning on those a little more than normal. This is one that takes advantage of some of the herb abundance in the high summer garden and also features those bright, intense, fresh flavors I crave when it’s hot and sunny.

Chimichurri Chicken
Yield: 4 adult servings

4 boneless chicken breasts
1/2 recipe chimichurri pesto
sea salt and pepper

Chimichurri Pesto:
4 ounces fresh cilantro
2 ounces fresh basil
1 ounce fresh flat leaf parsley
6 cloves garlic
2 T lemon juice
1/3 C red wine vinegar
1/4 C walnut oil (optional)
1 fresno or anaheim pepper, seeded, or about 1/2 t dried red chile flakes
1/4 t sea salt
1/2 C olive oil

Assemble the chimichurri pesto by combining all ingredients except olive oil in a blender. Blend until very well combined, then drizzle in olive oil. Reserve half in the freezer for another meal.

Pour chimichurri pesto over chicken and marinade overnight, or at least 3 hours.

Remove chicken from marinade and season with sea salt and pepper. For best results, grill until the chicken is done. You may also bake the chicken on a sheet pan in a 400 degree oven until nearly done then use the broiler to finish.

Roasted Spiced Sweet Potatoes
2 organic sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced into frites
6 T olive oil
1/2 t black pepper
a dash or two of cayenne pepper
1/4 t smoked paprika
1/4 t cumin
1/8 t coriander
1/8 t cinnamon
1/4 t garlic powder
sea salt (at the end)

Peel and cut the potatoes into 1 inch cubes. Toss the potatoes in a bowl with the olive oil and all spices but salt.  Bake at 425 for 10 minutes, rotate the pan and flip the potatoes, then bake another 10 minutes.  Watch them to see that they don’t burn.  Remove them from the oven and immediately season with sea salt.

Avocado Corn Salad (barely adapted from this recipe
2 T salted butter
3 C of frozen corn
2 T organic sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 green onions, chopped
1/2 jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced
3 T homemade mayo
1/2 t chile powder
sea salt and pepper
1/2 C feta cheese
2 avocados, diced
1/4 C lime juice (1 to 2 limes)
a handful of chopped cilantro

Melt the butter in a medium skillet.  Add the corn and sugar and let cook until corn begins to turn golden, about 10 minutes.  Add the garlic, green onions, jalapeno, chile powder, sea salt, and pepper.  Cook 2 more minutes.  Add the lime juice and cilantro and toss into a serving bowl.  Add the mayo, feta, and avocados, stirring to combine.  Serve room temperature or cold.

A Tale of Two Birthday Cakes: Confetti Crumb and Chocolate Cookies n’ Cream

Yikes! I’m woefully behind on updating the blog! Ever since we got back from South Dakota there has been a sea of vlogs to edit (including some for work), work for my actual job is ramping up again, and school stuff–including the in-person vs. remote nail biter decision–all happened; and, perhaps most importantly for this blog, we celebrated both kids’ birthdays. They were each born in July, exactly 2 years and 12 days apart. If Liam had arrived when he should have, they would have shared a birthday.

Each year I usually throw a big over-the-top joint birthday bash complete with themed everything and tons of friends. My excuses for doing so are 1) I’m so lucky my kids’ birthday are in July and almost exactly half a year away from Christmas. This balances the calendar out so nicely and 2) I only do it once per year because I combine their birthdays–Huzzah! This year? Well, 2020 is just not the year for parties and large gatherings, so we kept things really low-key, but, that doesn’t mean I skimped out on the cake! So, while there’s recipes in my folder I’m backlogged on, and a ton of garden and Homestead news to share, I thought it might be fun to get back in the swing of blogging by sharing the birthday cake recipes for Chloe and Liam’s cakes. Because, honestly, what’s better than cake?

I did give them each the option of something bakery-bought because we honestly have a tremendous amount of delicious local bakeries around and I want to support them when and how I can. Both, however, proclaimed that I was “The best baker, “then went on, “like, mom, if you went on a baking show you’d win. Why haven’t you done that? We’d be so rich. . .”

Hah! While I’m sure that’s not true (or probable-lol) it did make me giggle and blush a little. What mother doesn’t want her children to think her food is the best? I do enjoy baking an awful lot. In fact, baking was my first love; it’s how I wound my way into cooking, in fact. Cooking always seemed necessary, and I liked it when it tasted good, but baking always seemed like a leisure activity–something indulgent, simply done for the pleasure of the doing and the eating of it.

So, I asked Chloe and Liam what flavor they’d like. Chloe wanted me to surprise her, but thankfully after watching hours of Kids Baking Championship with them I know that means she wants a confetti cake. After some thought on exactly what amount of chocolate he might want, Liam settled on cookies n’ cream.

Confetti Crumb Cake

Confetti Crumb Cake (inspired by Momofuku)
Yield: 1 8 inch round cake (10-12 servings)

For the cake-
2 3/4 C AP flour
1 T plus 1 t baking powder
3/4 t salt
1 1/2 C sugar
12 T salted butter, softened
1 C milk
5 large egg whites
1 T vanilla extract
1 t almond extract
1/2 C sprinkles of your choosing

For the frosting-
4 sticks (1 pound) of salted butter, softened
3-4 C powdered sugar (to taste)
1 1/2 T vanilla extract
1-3 T water (optional)
1/3 C sprinkles of your choosing

For the confetti cake crumbs (from Momofuku Milk Bar’s Birthday Cake, very slightly altered)-
3/4 C AP flour
1/2 C sugar
2 T light brown sugar
2 T sprinkles of your choosing
1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
1/4 C olive oil (or another oil of your choosing)
1 t vanilla

For the cake-
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, sift the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the sugar. Turn on the mixer and combine for 30 seconds. Cut the butter into pats, turn the mixer onto low (but higher than the “stir” setting), and add the butter one pat at a time until all has been incorporated. You should have sandy-looking flour, with a few larger chunks of butter.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg whites, milk, and extracts. Add 1/3 of the milk and egg mixture to the stand mixer, then turn the mixer on to low speed, increasing to medium speed once everything has moistened for 20 seconds. Add the second 1/3 of the milk and repeat for 20 seconds. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl of the stand mixer. Add the last 1/3 of the milk and repeat, this time beating on high for 1 minute. Fold in the sprinkles.

Pour the batter into prepared cake pans (I ALWAYS use parchment-lined cake plans and a baking spray). Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the cake springs back lightly when you touch the center or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool on wire racks.

For the frosting-
In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the softened butter and, using the whisk attachment, beat until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and powdered sugar, a half-cup at a time, and beat on high until the frosting tastes the way you want it. I prefer a less-sweet frosting, so tend to use less powdered sugar. If the frosting gets too thick, add a little water to thin it back out and make it spreadable. Add the sprinkles once the taste and texture are right and just beat until they are all combined.

Spread frosting into the center of a cooled cake. Place the second cake on top of the first, then ice a thin layer of frosting all over. Place in the fridge for 30 minutes to harden before frosting a thicker layer (this helps keep crumbs out of your final top coat).

For the crumbs-
Preheat oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

Combine all the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. Add the oil and vanilla and toss with a rubber spatula until everything is well mixed and no dry spots remain. You can also use your hands, if you like. Dump onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Squeeze together some of the crumbs to form larger sizes and smaller sizes, leaving some crumb-like. You want a mixture of sizes to achieve the look and mouth-feel once done. Bake for 10-12 minutes. Cool. It will firm as it cools, so do not over bake.

Place on the top of the frosted cake. Pipe some frosting balls around the outside to help contain the crumbs.

Chocolate Cookies n’ Cream Cake

Chocolate Cookies n’ Cream Cake
Yield: 1 8 inch cake (10 – 12 servings)

For the cake
2 1/4 C AP flour
1 T baking powder
3/4 t salt
1 1/2 C sugar
12 T salted butter, softened
3/4 C boiling water
1/4 C hot coffee
1/2 C cocoa powder
1/4 C dark cocoa powder
3 large eggs
1 T vanilla

For the frosting
4 sticks salted butter, softened
3-4 C powdered sugar (to taste)
1 14 ounce package of regular Oreos
1 T vanilla

For the cake
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Boil the water and combine with hot coffee. Add the cocoa powders and whisk until no lumps remain. Set aside to cool.

Into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, sift flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the sugar and then turn the mixer on to low speed to combine for 30 seconds. Cut the butter into pats. With the mixer on low, add the butter, one pat at a time, until all the dry ingredients have been moistened by the butter. It should look like sand with some larger lumps of butter.

Into the cooled cocoa mixture, beat the eggs and vanilla with a whisk. Add 1/3 of the cocoa mixture and turn the mixer onto low until everything is moistened and then medium speed for 20 seconds. Add the second 1/3 and turn the mixer on to medium speed for 20 seconds. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl and then add the final 1/3 of the cocoa mixture, beating on high speed for 1 minute.

Pour the batter into prepared (with parchment and your favorite baking spray or flour & butter) 8 inch cake pans. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the center springs back when touched lightly or a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool on wire racks.

For the frosting
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the butter until light and fluffy.

Meanwhile, in a food processor, process the Oreos until finely crumbled. Set aside a small amount for adding to the top of the cake as decoration.

Add the powdered sugar and vanilla into the butter, then add the Oreos, beating on high to combine. Adjust powdered sugar to desired taste. Oreos are quite sweet so I kept my powdered sugar on the low side. You want enough to add enough powdered sugar to provide structure to the frosting so that it will pipe and hold its shape, but not so much that it becomes overly sweet, unless that’s your preference. If you find you get it too sweet, try beating in some cream cheese.

Spread the frosting onto the center of one of the cooled cake layers. Add the second layer and spread over the entire cake. The Oreo chunks make this one harder to crumb coat, but honestly, it’d be hard to spot the crumbs anyway–they’d just blend right in. I don’t recommend using a piping bag to frost, as the Oreo chunks can get stuck in even the widest circle tip I own. But, I did manage to pipe some decorative balls onto the top, alternating with whole Oreos, so I could contain the Oreo crumbs. I used a few small sprinkles to add a little festive birthday color to the frosting balls, added the Oreo crumbs, and called it done.

Colonialism, Cultural Rhetorics, and Camping: A Story

Hello from South Dakota! Today is our 6th day on the road; we left the Homestead on Monday morning and have been making our way west ever since. It’s been equal parts exhilarating and exhausting–exhilarating to be out adventuring as a family and exhausting to be doing this during a pandemic. Even so, this feels like the trip of a lifetime.

Our travel itinerary so far:
Day 1–Homestead to Iowa, near Des Moines at Cherry Glen Recreation Campground
Day 2–Cherry Glen to the KOA White River South Dakota, just outside Badlands National Park and almost within Pine Ridge Reservation
Day 3–Badlands National Park
Day 4–Badlands National Park
Day 5–Badlands National Park to Black Hills National Forest, near Mount Rushmore at Whispering Pines Campground (30 minutes outside of Rapid City)
Day 6–Chloe’s Birthday! Deadwood, Tatanka: Story of the Bison, and Bridal Veil Falls in Black Hills National Forest

There’s so much to share and talk about for this trip, so for this post I’m going to focus on a single event that occurred on our second travel day, on the Iowa to Badlands leg, as we tried to enter Pine Ridge Reservation to make it to our campsite; and then I’m going to briefly touch on our experiences on today–our sixth day–and connect those two experiences by reconciling my present with my past and making, what I hope becomes, a circle.

On Day 2, after two days of driving, we drove into Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala and Lakota tribes of the Sioux Nation, only to be stopped after the last main road exchange.

Not my photo. I deliberately did not take photos of this exchange.

There was a checkpoint where men, wearing masks against the pandemic, silently stood, watching us. I told Brian to put his mask on and be respectful as I did the same. One man approached and pointed at the scrolling digital sign across the road that read “COVID-19 present.” Brian rolled his window down and explained we were camping nearby and would just be passing through (though I had hoped to visit some of the sites on the reservation during our stay, as well). The man replied, stating we would need to turn around and use the highway, then gave us simple directions to follow in a gentle but firm way that made it very clear this was the way it had to be. We were exhausted, our GPS had routed us oddly and added nearly two hours to our trip today and we were within 25 minutes of our campsite. Pine Ridge Reservation encompasses as much land as the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined and cutting around a portion of it added almost an hour to our trip. But we did it.

We did it gladly. Brian nodded and asked if he could pull the truck into a shallow shoulder at the side of the road and awkwardly turned the truck with the camper around by doing a three-point turn there in front of the group of men and a line of other passenger vehicles trying to get through. If you’ve never tried to do a three-point turn with a camper, let me assure you that getting the camper to move in the direction you want takes some doing, and so this process was not quick or easy. We did not stay to see how other tourists handled the situation. Once we were turned in the right direction, I nodded and waved, and the man we had spoken with gave me a nod and a wave back, and we drove off.

I’ve touched-on my backstory with Pine Ridge a little on this blog before, and I’ve also intimated more than a few times that I work in higher education and consider my disciplines to be writing studies and cultural rhetorics, both of which require engagement with decolonial work. But what the heck does that mean? This post, I hope, will help clarify that and also, hopefully, help many of you see that this is work you likely engage in already, but we use rhetoric to become more aware–awareness of your engagement can help you do more of it with more meaning and purpose–so cultural rhetorics is a way to add cognition and then action.

As a sophomore in high school I traveled to South Dakota as part of a “mission trip” to Pine Ridge Reservation. I want to pause here to note that I put quotation marks there to denote that I find the term problematic because of its colonial implications. I allude to colonialism a lot on this blog, as I think we all should be talking about it more than we do. We can’t decolonize without understanding that we’re still living within a colonial system. But let’s backtrack away from that statement that can feel surprising, bold, and even wrong to many people, and go back to that sophomore in high school. We’ll return to that statement later.

I lived in a predominantly white, upper-class, rather idyllic place. I had always, however, been fascinated by other cultures, and most especially Indigenous Americans/Native Americans/American Indians (again–none of those terms is value-neutral and I want to acknowledge that). I had read a lot of fiction and nonfiction, had watched Dances with Wolves on repeat for almost two years, and I yearned to know and understand more. I was also wanting to be more involved in my church’s youth group, as I recently had been struggling with depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, and so when the opportunity arose to go on said “mission trip” the summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school, I leapt at the chance.

I do not remember what my young self expected to experience, but I do remember the first feelings I had upon entering the reservation. I don’t know that it exists in word-form, but the closest I can think of might be an odd mixture of feeling like a trespasser, feeling guilty because the word reservation seemed somehow wrong and also loaded with meaning, and yet also feeling completely dumbstruck at the reservation’s beauty, vastness, and mostly untouched and unspoiled nature–a nod to the romantic notion of the American Indian. I spent the next week encountering a series of firsts: first time I was ever the minority, being one in a handful of white people in a room, first time I was ever a guest in what felt almost like another country, first time I was expected to do real physical manual labor, and the first time I had encountered in the flesh the reality of what my books had shown me–the reality that I, as a white person, was culpable in this story.

On our way into the reservation, I remember vividly seeing a bison standing right near the road, coming even with our little church bus in height, and we gaped in wonder as we slowly passed it.

I remember the feeling of the tall grass and fields of wheat, growing on hills that rose above the road, comforting and enveloping, as if the road existed within the folds of a great blanket.

I helped repair a door on a local church. I tended young children at a daycare we set-up. I played and laughed during the day and then sat humbled in the evening as locals gathered to cook us meals, generously sharing what little they had.

I had read about Wounded Knee. But I can tell you now that as I sat on the tall grass looking down at the fields below, I cried. I imagined the bodies, the terror, and the blood. And I acknowledged in full cognition that my ancestors were the reason this had happened.

I had read about pow wows. But I can tell you that nothing compares to the singing, the drumming, the dancing, and the sheer authenticity of it. This was for them and I felt outside of it all, almost as if I shouldn’t even be there–this wasn’t for me and I could not be a part of it, but somehow, they were allowing me to watch, and so I did with my breath practically held, as if I would disturb the scene with my breathing and make it all disappear.

We stayed in a church, sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags. One morning, I walked out, up at dawn before anyone else, and looked across the road to the beautiful rolling grass hills only to hear first and then see a moment later there, rising over the crest of the largest hill a herd of wild horses. They were a medley of colors and patterns, nothing like the pure-bred horses in the stables at home. The stallion was in charge, a point at the front of a chaotic-looking bunch. But soon, upon spying me, like birds in flight the stallion changed their course and, in unison, the herd followed in almost choreographed precision. I sat there, gaping, my young brain trying to process what had just happened. It felt almost like a message, like I had witnessed something sacred and now I had to do something with it.

Part of the herd. Photo is an iPhone photo of a computer photo of a full photo. So, quality is top-notch.

There are other flashes of memories–but these are the most present in my mind. I was not yet sixteen, boy crazy and insecure, which is not a good combination for a young girl, but my brain was grappling to understand what it was seeing. I wrote in my journal in the church bus on the long hours of driving, paragraphs and paragraphs of my clumsy first attempts at grappling with colonialism. I didn’t know that’s what it was then, of course, and the word “colonialism” never once appears in any of those writings.

Another iPhone photo of a computer screen showing a film photo. I’m encircled in white. This is circa 1996-1997.

Nor does it appear in the writings that came soon after. A few years later, the summer before my senior year of high school, for AP English, we were assigned a year-long inquiry project about any topic we wanted. We had the summer to think over topics and then we had to propose it formally the first week of school. The parameters were that it had to be inquiry and then research–think of an overarching question, develop sub-questions for further research, and then write a series of papers over the course of the academic year to combine into a portfolio-style book. I wrestled with different topics until one day I realized my topic had been staring me in the face. Literally. Hanging on the walls of my bedroom were photos I had taken from that South Dakota trip. Looking at them, I realized I had so many unanswered questions and feelings. I knew this trip had changed me on a deep level, but I didn’t have the words to express how or in what ways. This flash of inspiration for my project seemed big and unfocused, but my teacher did say we could pick any topic we wanted. So, I thought that perhaps I could start big and then narrow as I went along.

So, that’s what I did. I wanted to understand what I’d seen and experienced. Why did we even go on a “mission trip” to Pine Ridge, anyway? Weren’t all the poor people in need of our help in other countries? Why are they so poor? Why is there even a reservation? What is a reservation? What does that word even mean? What are its implications for the Sioux Nation? Why did we kill so many of them? Why did any of this even happen?

So. Many. Questions. I tried to tackle them all, eventually honing in on a paper about land and mining rights as a way to get at the larger issues. As it turns out, Pine Ridge is the poorest county in the entire United States. As it also turns out, the reasons they’re poor are because of colonialism. And when I say colonialism, I do not mean Great Britain in India or even America, I mean us–Americans–still engaging in the activity of colonialism even today. I uncovered old treaties and understood how we had not honored the terms–how the Black Hills are sacred to the Sioux and, by rights of the Laramie Treaty, should be a part of the Sioux Nation. I read laws about mining for minerals and how, at least to my 17 year old understanding of law, it seemed as if the Sioux owned the surface of their land but not what was underneath it. I read laws about fishing rights and toxic waste from our industries that pollute their waterways. And most baffling was the notion that they were autonomous…. but also totally not, otherwise the Bureau of Indian Affairs would not be a thing.

I wrote all of this down, and then paused, just as I’m going to pause right here to do. Some part of me realized then that I had to write myself alongside this paper. I didn’t have the words for it at that time, but I do now–the trope of the White Savior is a very real stumbling block to decolonial work. Without writing myself into the paper, I come off as having all the answers to the problems that had previously been unsolvable by Native people and very much engage in the activity of objectifying an entire nation of people, or at the very least, romanticizing them, flattening them to caricatures that exist in old stories while we all lament that “all the Indians have disappeared.”

So, I wrote about Wounded Knee, and the horses, and the daycare, and the dinners. I wrote about swinging a little girl named Duanna around and around outside while she giggled. I wrote about the experience of reading Russell Means’ biography alongside a report of it, about reading fiction novels about Native Americans alongisde a report about why there were so few Native voices in my “official” sources; I wrote about the feelings of watching Smoke Signals, a movie wrote and filmed on Pine Ridge, and I included photographs of my time in Pine Ridge alongside collage artwork I pieced together from album cover art, magazine clippings, and more. I wrote myself into the story so that my biases, struggles, and emotions could be part of the work and so I could hopefully understand myself and my experiences while also amplifying Native voices and Native stories without taking over. In engaging in this assignment in this way, I was practicing cultural rhetorics.

I had no idea that’s what I was doing, though. It was pure instinct. And now, I can look back on this project and shake my head at all of the flaws and failures of my allyship. The places that would make me cringe now. The times where I did romanticize, where I did Save, where I did flatten and objectify even if in the next sentence I tried to work my way out of it. It was far from perfect, but it was a start. That’s the thing about doing decolonial writing and work–by the time you’re done with it, the activity of doing it was so instructive that you read-through and realize all the new things you’ve learned and want to change moving forward. But, we write most of the time to publish, and so publishing should not be seen as the exclamation point of wisdom it is, but an evolution of a long conversation during which–hopefully–we all benefit from our collective wisdom and learn and grow beyond our present selves. Everyone should read-through their old stuff and shake their heads; that means you’re doing it right. It’s the process that matters more than the outcome.

For years this experience stayed with me as I struggled to find myself. I kept writing this way–placing myself front and center into the text, even if it was an academic paper and that was not “academic writing.” Most of my teachers and professors let me get away with it. It wasn’t until I got into graduate school and met my thesis advisor (turned close friend/work partner/and boss) that I encountered the term “cultural rhetorics.” But it spoke to me. This is what I’ve been trying to do–imperfectly but earnestly–since those paragraphs written into a journal during the bumpy bus ride in South Dakota. I can trace a clear, straight, wondrous line from that experience to my master’s thesis, which is why, in the introduction to it, I acknowledged it and briefly retold this story.

Cultural rhetorics is a discipline. We research, publish, and conference as any discipline would. But it’s most importantly–above all of that other stuff–a practice and an orientation. It is a way of being and doing in the world. It seeks to recognize the relationships between people, places, things, events, and experiences, forcing us to make connections and deconstruct binaries and narratives to get at the more complex meaning hidden so often from our views. Our biases get in the way. Our own experiences get in the way. Our emotions can get in the way (but at the same time they also instruct). It’s only when we write those in to the work and put them on the page next to the story we’re writing about that we can see that. We see how we are implicated in the story; we see how we can change and grow. We see how our changing and growing can create actions to make change in the story. Everything we think, feel, and do writes a story we all write together; rippling out and weaving together–crafting what we call reality.

I made no secret of the fact that I was looking forward to sharing Pine Ridge with my children on this trip in my previous post about this. I was cognizant that they might not have the earth-moving moments I did, but nonetheless, I felt it was a way to take the line from a straight path into something more purposeful and strong–like a circle. I wanted to draw a circle.

We pulled into the reservation, the Oglala and Lakota welcome sign greeting me, and I smiled and held my arms close around me, hugging myself with disbelief. I was returning. This place that had changed me and I had dreamed of ever since. I was about to touch it and smell it for the first time in 24 years. And then came the checkpoint. In that moment, I swallowed my disappointment and decided the best way to honor my past experiences would be to honor and respect the boundaries being enacted by the Sioux Nation right now. I would not disrespect or disagree. I would not react in any way, in fact. I would nod and wave and talk to my children about border rights and Native lands, and use this moment as another spark in what, I hope, is a long line of sparks I have and will continue to stoke as they grow-up.

We pulled in to our campsite, a reservation COVID-19 warning border sign not 500 feet away from us. I could see the rolling hills and imagine those were the same hills where I saw the herd of wild horses. Close, but not quite there. And it had to be enough. The next morning I did some research online. Less than a week prior to our arrival, tribal president Bear Runner had re-issued shelter-in-place orders and what was termed “border monitoring.” After reading through some council minutes on Facebook, it became clear that border monitoring meant anyone who had been off the reservation for more than 24 hours, and especially those who are outside travelers and tourists. I did some more digging, determined to take action–to honor the boundaries and borders while also finding ways to reach across them, even if only metaphorically, and found the Friends of Pine Ridge Reservation website. We plan to donate when we get home.

Today, on our sixth day of our trip, we visited Tatanka: Story of the Bison just outside Deadwood at my request. Chloe wanted to see Deadwood for her birthday (well, her actual request was “a town like Gatlinburg in the the Smoky Mountains” and the closest thing I could think of was Deadwood); Brian wanted to see a nearby waterfall; Liam was happy to do anything, and I wanted to visit Tatanka because I knew Kevin Costner had funded it and that it would likely be really interesting because Dances with Wolves was amazing. I also thought it might provide a bit of the perspective we weren’t able to access on Pine Ridge Reservation.

Deadwood was extremely busy and not very many people were wearing masks, so we didn’t stay long.
Bridal Veil Falls was beautiful!

I wasn’t wrong. We walked in and were immediately greeted warmly by the Director, Susan, then met Truman, a Lakota cultural interpreter. Truman escorted us back to a museum room, filled with cultural artifacts and pieces from the movie. He spent the next 15 minutes or so telling us about the Lakota story of the bison, about how the Lakota view everything as a circle that is connected and related–this all should sound familiar to cultural rhetorics, and indeed, cultural rhetorics as a discipline was primarily founded by Indigenous scholars. He also talked about how General Sheridan had ordered the mass killing of the bison as a way to force the Lakota onto the reservation, answering a question I hadn’t been able to as a 17 year old senior in high school: the story of how we got an entire nation of people onto “a reservation.”

Truman then took my family and two friendly older gentleman outside to a nearby field where targets were set-up. We got to spend around an hour throwing hatchets and learning to use a bow and arrow. Truman patiently letting my children try and try again until they had it right, guiding them along the way and even asking his son to help my daughter with the bow and arrow. He clapped enthusiastically when they succeeded, and gently pushed them to try again when they failed. He talked of a time when he had visited another nearby tourist attraction and had been pained when a group of young children were dressed-up as cowboys and hollering that they wanted to kill “the Injuns,” and their caregivers had encouraged them to do it.

Truman helping Brian throw a hatchet

After hatchet throwing, we walked around the path from the target practice field to view the sculpture Kevin Costner commissioned to sit on this site after his experience riding with 3,000 buffalo while filming Dances with Wolves–the first group of people to do that in 100 years. The bronze sculpture is impressive. It’s the third largest bronze sculpture in the world. It moves with you as you walk around it, viewing it from different angles, seeing different parts of the story. You feel the anguish of the buffalo first and it seems horrific. And then you notice the restraint on the Lakota faces. They are not smiling or laughing or even grimacing all that much. They are doing what they need to do to survive another winter. The Lakota warrior at the back of the pack eyes the numbers, knowing when to stop, knowing when they had enough, knowing when to send the warriors in to divert the rest of the herd away from the cliff.

The sculpture is so big I preferred capturing it in vignettes, butt his is a wider angle, attempting to get most of the sculpture into the frame (though it’s so large that this is difficult to do while still being close enough to see any details).

This experience at Tatanka felt authentic, not unlike the pow wow I watched all those years ago, except this time I did not feel like an outsider. I felt invited in. I felt reciprocity: I wanted to learn and they, the Lakota interpreters, wanted and offered to do the emotional labor necessary to teach me. My children watched, listened, experienced, and appreciated. They both loved it. Both of them kept turning to eye me at important moments throughout because they know–I’ve talked with them about colonialism, racism, white privilege, and the complex lived and embodied experiences of many minority groups, including Native Americans before. I’ve also talked with them a lot about how this experience on Pine Ridge and my other experiences have changed and shaped me. But, listening to their mother blabber on about something is one thing; hearing this from a powerful Native voice is something else entirely. They felt that. They asked questions. They were engaged. And they both told me they really loved that experience. I wasn’t expecting them to. I wasn’t asking them to. I was hoping they would and now they have. Together we have closed one circle and started another. Truman would say that, according to the Lakota, that means we’re stronger.

Recipe Post: Vietnamese-Inspired Chicken Quinoa Salad and Mongolian-Style Turkey Meatballs

Ah summer. I always crave food with fresh, vibrant flavors and textures this time of year. I also like to cook and eat food that isn’t heavy, did not take me an hour of standing over a hot stove to make, and doesn’t necessarily need to be piping hot to be delicious. To that end, this week I’m featuring two easy and tasty recipes full of bright flavor and crunchy texture. First up is a new quinoa salad I threw together one night recently and that really hit the spot after a long day of garden chores. I’m always on the hunt for more quinoa salads, and this one will definitely stay in my “go-to” rotation.

Vietnamese-Inspired Chicken Quinoa Salad
Yield: about 4 adult servings

2 chicken breasts, poached
1 C quinoa, cooked
1/2 t crushed red pepper
2 T sesame oil
1 C cilantro stems (not the leaves)
1 t ground ginger
1 lemongrass stalk
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 limes, juiced
2 T honey
2 T sugar
1/3 C soy sauce
1/3 C coconut milk
combine with:
cilantro leaves
mint leaves
matchstick cut carrots
shredded cabbage

In a small skillet, heat sesame oil to hot. Add the red pepper, ginger, lemongrass, garlic, and cilantro stems. Cook 1 minute until fragrant. Add the lime juice, soy sauce, coconut milk, honey, and sugar. Strain through a fine mesh colander or sieve to remove the solids.

In a bowl, combine the cooked quinoa, the cilantro and mint leaves, the matchstick carrots, and the shredded cabbage. Add dressing and toss to combine. Serve immediately or chilled for a few hours. Taste is best on the first day because the dressing will be absorbed by the quinoa. If you want to portion this for lunches throughout the week, reserve the dressing to toss just before serving.

This next recipe is an old family-favorite. It takes the classic American Chinese takeaway flavor and puts it into a family-friendly and easy medium–the meatball. I first came-up with the idea when my daughter (now 12) was a toddler and meatballs were like, so cool. I wanted her to explore new flavors while also exciting the palettes of my husband and I, and this one hit the spot all around. We’ve been making and eating this ever since! You can use ground beef, of course, but I tend to use ground turkey more than ground beef in my cooking.

Mongolian-Style Meatballs with Basmati Rice
Yield: 4 to 6 adult servings

1/2 C hoisin sauce
1/4 C tamari reduced sodium soy sauce
1/4 C brown sugar
1 t garlic powder (I was out of fresh garlic, but didn’t mind the powder frankly)
1/2 t ground ginger
1/4 to 1/2 t red pepper flakes (adjust the heat to your taste)
1 egg
1/2 C plain bread crumbs
1 pound ground turkey
1 C basmati rice
2 1/2 C water
2 bunches green onions, sliced on the bias into 1 inch pieces
1 C matchstick cut carrots
olive oil oil

In a mixing bowl, combine the hoisin, tamari soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic powder ground ginger, and red pepper flakes.  You should have 1 liquid cup.  Remove all but 1/4 C from the bowl and set aside.

Whisk 1 egg into the sauce in the mixing bowl, then add the ground turkey and bread crumbs.  Combine with your hands as you would a meatloaf or other meatball, then shape into ping pong ball sized meatballs.  You should get 24.

Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven on a parchment lined baking sheet for about 20 minutes until done. 

Meanwhile, make the rice by boiling 1 C basmati rice with 2 1/2 C salted water.  Bring to a boil, stir once, cover and reduce heat to a simmer.   Cook 20 minutes, or according to package directions, without opening the lid to stir.  Simply turn off the heat under the pan and remove it to a cooler place when the timer is up.  DO NOT OPEN THE LID UNTIL READY TO SERVE.  When ready, open the lid, dish out the rice with a wooden spoon and it should be perfectly steamed, fluffy, and just a little sticky – perfect.  🙂

After meatballs are done in the oven, in a large skillet, heat one turn of the pan of oil to rippling hot.  Add the carrots and cook 1 minute.  Add the green onions and cook 30 seconds.  Add the meatballs and reserved 3/4 C sauce, toss to combine, and cook for 1 minute more, until hot.  Serve immediately with the cooked rice.  Garnish rice with finely chopped green onion, if desired. 

Garden and Life Updates: Early July

Firstly, let me say that this post was delayed by about a week, so I thank you all for your patience and understanding. When I last left you, we had just gotten back from our pop-up camper test drive in Shawnee National Forest after a week of plumbing disasters leading up to Father’s Day. That was a week and a half ago.

And our plumbing woes continued. *cue dramatic music*

I actually uploaded a vlog yesterday that shows some of what I described in my previous post and contains much dramatic music, so if you’re just dying to see as well as read all about it, you can find it on the Channel. 🙂

For now, suffice to say that it is just not easy to be productive on much of anything when you have to fiddle with your plumbing every.single.day just to make your shower and toilets work. Most of our days didn’t “start” until noon, and by then we were both tired and cranky, hopefully understandably so.

After five consecutive days of this routine, Brian believes he has satisfactorily tracked down every issue and knows how to resolve it. In the meantime, while we wait, he just has to pump-out the septic every other day or so to keep things flowing smoothly.

This has made the last four days or so infinitely better and more productive. We spent a good deal of time re-organizing the precious storage space inside and outside of the house, inventing new systems to accommodate changes in our lifestyle and habits since the pandemic. For example, we buy most everything in bulk now to reduce trips to a store, and those items need to be stored properly.

I had also, years ago when I started grad school and stopped selling at local farmer’s markets, given up my dedicated canning cupboard to towels and linens, leaving myself one measly shelf in the games/craft closet. This worked fine when I was only canning what I knew we’d use, and divvied items between that shelf and our regular food pantry. I’ve been canning so much so far this summer (in hopes that many of you will purchase some goodies in the Shop), but they had just been sitting in a pile in my dining room, waiting on me to figure out where in the world they would live for long-term storage. Moving games and crafts to a new shelf in the garage freed-up that entire closet, so look-out world, I’m about to be a canning wizard. 🙂

Removing clutter felt amazing. I feel so much more stressed-out when my environment is in disarray. The house got deep-cleaned, and then I felt free again to go outside and dig-in to the gardens. We’d been perfunctorily weeding, of course, and, as much as we were able, doing our morning garden walk. But many garden chores sat undone because the weight of the plumbing was just too great.

The garden is an ecosystem, not unlike a septic tank, however, and when one thing gets left untended or even fails, it impacts other items more and more. While we fought the battle for the plumbing, a few key areas of the garden began to show signs of distress and potential failure: the cabbage, the cucumbers, and the tomatoes.

As soon as we returned from our brief camping trip, I walked-out to the Main Garden and did a quick inspection, and that’s when I noticed three things: 1) something was eating our cabbage, 2) our tomatoes appeared to have grown two feet and were not only overgrown but in dire need of better support and 3) one of our cucumbers was wilted in a crumpled pile on the ground.

I bent down to the cabbage first and saw live cabbage worms and, more alarming, a veritable colony of laid eggs.

No amount of hand picking-off worms or eggs, or trying any neem oil or other method the internet told me might work, would work in time. This is why we garden-walk every morning: you have to spot these things early to get ahead of them. We were simply too late, and so I basically treated the two cabbage in question like toxic waste and hurled them far into the forest. We harvested one cabbage for immediate consumption (delicious) and then the next day I discovered a few more eggs on another, and so pulled that one, as well. We are left now with two.

After hurling the two cabbages into the forest that evening, I made a beeline for the obviously sick cucumber. Earlier in the season we had experienced some similar issues with our peppers when their leaves began to yellow, mottle, brown, then drop-off. We surmised it was a virus of some kind, likely brought-in from a store-bought pair of banana pepper plants we purchased, and then all the heavy rains had spread it to nearby plants. We started by hand-picking the infected leaves and clearing any sign of the leaves from the ground and disposing of them (not in the compost). This helped beat it back for a few days, but ultimately we had to pull the banana pepper plants, one anaheim pepper, and five bell pepper plants. I re-dug the ground well, worked in more compost, and replaced each plant with the back-ups we had in the greenhouse (I love our greenhouse!), and everyone has been happy and producing ever since.

Unlike the peppers, though, we had not caught the cucumber early, and it was now beyond saving. I immediately removed it and disposed of it (also not in the compost) and then turned to inspecting the nearby cucumber plants for signs whatever had infected and killed the first cucumber had passed-on to them. As I expected, the adjacent cucumber exhibited signs of leaf wilt and mottling.

I pruned him hard, removing any leaves with any trace and then left him for the night. When I circled back the following morning, he looked a little perkier, but by that afternoon was beyond saving. We wound-up having to pull him and one other. All three of these cucumbers had been victims of an early frost and, after some major TLC, had been brought-back, but I do think they were weaker plants as a result. I had one cucumber in the greenhouse back-up pile, and replanted him after some ground prep, so now we’re down to four cucumber plants.

And finally that evening, I spun on my heel from the cucumbers and surveyed the veritable tomato jungle that lay before me. On our garden walk the morning we left for camping, I commented that these needed pruning and more support, but that they’d be alright until we got back. It was only a few days, after all, and we’d simply been too busy handling plumbing all week to have time to get it done before we left. They looked as if they had grown two feet in our absence, though. Ah yes, somehow every summer I seem to forget how quickly things can grow in a high-summer garden. You can walk it in the morning and that zucchini will not be ready, but if you come back in the evening, it will have swelled and extended beyond the size you thought you might pick it.

It was so overgrown it was hard to discern one plant from another, and getting my hands in to check for burgeoning fruit was difficult. There wasn’t anything I could do yet that evening, but more than cabbage or cucumbers, these tomatoes became my top priority for the next day.

That morning was cool–a perfect morning to weed heavily and then get to pruning once the leaves were dry. I focused my efforts mainly on the base of the tomatoes, creating airflow and height to ensure foliage stayed off the ground (and away from pests and soil-born diseases) and then give them a rest before tending to the dense upper foliage.

I waited a few days and then went back in with my pruning shears, lopping off suckers left and right, it seemed, and yet somehow after I created three large piles for the compost, the plants still had quite a lot of foliage left on them. I opted to vlog this entire process (including cabbage and cucumber) and include my thoughts on pruning and a little “how-to”, as well, so I won’t include that here. The video does a better job of explaining by showing what it would take me paragraphs to write, and this post is already quite long. 🙂

The tomatoes are doing well and are beginning to fruit now. I do hope they decide to wait a little longer to really get going, though, because we are leaving for a long camping trip in a week! With the pandemic, and all signs pointing to a spike in cases (not a second wave because the first never stopped), we felt it best to try places that were less densely populated and traveled, and that had a lot of space, hopefully even on trails, that would enable safe social distancing on hikes. We also felt it important to not travel to places where we might be tempted into restaurants or indoor attractions: we need to stay outside for our leisure and, as much as possible, well away from other like-minded people. So, what better time, I thought, than to take the kids on a trip I took in high school and that profoundly shaped my future–South Dakota.

Of course, we decided this before we realized the President would be speaking at Mt. Rushmore a week and a half prior to our visit. That may make it busier than normal, but I’m still hopeful things will have abated by the time we make it to the Black Hills. And, as an educator, I’m not one to skip-out on an opportunity to use his speech and recent events to discuss the rights of the Sioux people and the history of this land with my children. Visiting Pine Ridge Reservation as a sophomore in high school exposed me to so much I hadn’t previously had access to, and altered the way I approached my education and my relationship to it.

I realized a few years later, as I spent a year engaged in an inquiry about the Sioux people (primarily the Oglala and Lakota) and Pine Ridge for my senior AP English class, that it would be so easy to keep my distance–my supposed objectivity–and fall into the same privileged and powered traps of the people I hoped to prove wrong, or at the very least, critique, in my project. Objectivity, as the word implies, objectifies people, making them an object of study rather than living embodied realities. This is especially troublesome when entire groups of people have historically not been able to write their own stories, especially for audiences in places of power (such as historic academia and what, for a long time, counted as “an academic text”).

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the first cultural rhetorics project I ever engaged in. I realized that I am a part of the story and that I needed to attend in my project to my own engagement with this topic as a white person, as an outsider, as a high-schooler from a predominantly white, upper-class background. So, next to academic papers I wrote about land rights and treaties, I wrote poems about my feelings, included photographs of my time there, and made art collages of bits of texts I’d read. I wrote myself alongside and within the story. I also realized that all of the “academic” texts I had access to at that time were by and large not written by Indigenous Americans/American Indians/Native Americans (pausing here to note that none of these terms are value-neutral), so to juxtapose against the “academic texts” I was required to read, I included fiction, memoirs, essays, and anything else I could get my hands on (in 1999 when there was no Google) that were authored by Native people. In short, the doing and the making of that project altered the way I encounter and engage with others and the world around me and upended the way I thought about rhetoric and writing. I owe South Dakota, and the Sioux people, so much.

So, I’m excited to see it again; to take the kids, though they’re much younger than I was and I’m realistic to the fact that they may not have a life-altering shift in their thinking. It’s a magical place filled with history, wonder, and beauty, and I feel grateful beyond measure that we have a pop-up now and can take this trip. I’ll try to get a blog post up during our trip, as long as there’s wifi. We’ll also be vlogging it extensively, which is a process I find I really enjoy. As far as I’m concerned, editing a vlog is no different than editing any other kind of writing. I get to tell a story, and even to a certain extent, the genre allows me more freedom to insert other modes easier than traditional academic writing (although I have been prone to stretching the limits of “academic writing” before, having composed papers with soundtracks or on the web where I can insert links and videos). 🙂

Right. Enough nerding-out about rhetoric and writing! In the next week before we leave I’ve got some recipes to share, more garden chores to accomplish, and a bunch of prep to do before we can leave. As Captain Picard would say, “Engage!”

Plumbing Disasters but Camping Miracles

What a week it has been, friends. As I stated in last week’s Garden Update post, last Monday we had septic tank issues. After we paid a premium to have someone come out that same day AND paid to have the pipe that runs between the septic tank and our house jetted and cleared, we thought our plumbing problems would be over. Nope.

Let me back-up (pun absolutely intended). When we first moved into this house, the septic tank was not working properly, despite the system having been replaced recently (or at least recently in septic tank years–they last a long time). We paid to have it pumped out and then Brian, being the stalwart homesteading warrior bada$$ that he is, rappelled into it Bear Grylls-style and inspected it so we could know if the tank itself had any issues.

After Brian deemed the tank in good working order, we were able to obtain a diagram of the entire system from our local courthouse, where we learned that when the system was replaced, instead of replacing the existing finger drainage system, they put in a dosing tank and a splitter, allowing the septic to drain either to the old finger system in the backyard, or be moved to the new finger system and dosing tank system for the frontyard. The valve was sending all the drainage to the less efficient backyard system and all we had to do was find the valve, turn it, and problem solved. Right? Sure. For a little while.

Every so often, we’d get backups. And when I say backups, it really isn’t clean water I’m referring to, here. I was a stay-at-home mom in those days with two preschoolers that were potty training. Not having a sanitary environment or working plumbing was just not an option. Yet, we also didn’t really make a heck of a lot of money. We had graduated college and started a family pretty much at the exact same time as the Housing Bubble Bust and Market Crash of 2008, and Brian’s employment situation and compensation reflected the times. On my old blog, I wasn’t shy about disclosing our income and often wrote about how we made do on very little, and I’m honestly grateful for those lessons now as we barrel towards a Depression. (Pausing here to acknowledge that “making do on very little” in White America is still an incredibly privileged position).

Part of how “we made do,” though was learning to do stuff for ourselves. Which meant that whenever the septic tank backed-up, my husband found himself quite literally dangling inside of it, fiddling with the pipe for hours on end while I tried to be useful by doing menial things such as turning water on/off, holding a light, or fetching something. Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at being his assistant and now know way more than I ever cared to about plumbing.

Actual photo of me helping Brian with the plumbing 🙂

Once, after hosting houseguests for a few days, the system decided it could not handle the additional load and we went without working plumbing for four days while each evening after work Brian and I would (but mostly Brian) would wrestle with it. We use a snake–not an official one on a pulley system with a crank. Nope… this is one we shove into one end of the pipe and hand turn by ourselves, blisters forming from the corrugated metal. We also have a wonderful device we invested in years ago called a Drain King that attaches to the end of our garden hose and then we shove into a pipe, turn on water, and the device inflates like a balloon and pressurizes before releasing, hopefully clearing the pipe.

It took four days of dangling into the septic shoving one device into that pipe, taking the toilet off so we could shove another device into the other end of the pipe, and working together to finally get it cleared. I will never forget sitting in darkness on the fourth evening at the edge of a stinky hole in the ground while staring anxiously at the pipe inside of our septic tank, watching and letting out a whoop and a fist pump as the impediment finally burst through the wall of Drain King water and plopped satisfactorily into the tank below. Victory.

This incident is why we paid to have professionals jet the line while they were out. Let’s not dangle in the septic tank if we don’t have to, right? Everything seemed fine the rest of that day until after Liam’s bath the following day, when the dreaded “gurgle gurgle blurp” sound emanated from the bathtub drain and water began leaking through the bathroom wall into my dining room, down the slight slope of our foundation, and collecting into a pool at the base of my kitchen island. Again. Because this had happened Monday. So that’s super.

Fine. We know the drill. We’ve fought the Four Day Battle and won, right? Do the snake. Do the Drain King. Done. Problem solved.

*gurgle gurgle blurp* the next day.

Are you kidding me?

Back into the septic tank Brian goes. There go all the tools. There goes our toilet, which will have to be reset and resealed–AGAIN. There goes all the water into the house. *whimpers*

What did we learn from this experience? Lots, actually, even though the cost of that knowledge was stressful and messy, interfered with Homestead plans and projects that needed to happen, and impeded our ability to get ready to go camping for Father’s Day.

So, here we are: the septic tank itself is just fine. No, the problem, friends, is the pipe that runs between the septic and the house. That pipe is OLD and it is not happy. Not happy at all. We are getting city sewer hook-up within a year or so, so we are going to try to limp it along until that time. But, I’m afraid this means much more dangling will occur before we’re done. Send happy thoughts to Brian.

With all the stress of plumbing disasters day after day last week, we fell a little behind on the garden chores and canning chores. We were supposed to leave Friday for a quick camping trip to test-out the pop-up and celebrate Father’s Day, but I ended up needing to can 3 batches of strawberry syrup, freeze strawberry puree, plant 25 bare root strawberry plants (I actually had 50 to plant, but only made it through 25), AND do all the laundry I could’t do during the week because I just kept washing every.single.towel we own over and over again, plus the normal pre-camping kitchen prep I always do: make condiments, pre-make some things, smartly package others, etc. We ended up leaving Saturday mid-morning feeling way less prepared than normal but also in dire need of a weekend away in a forest to sooth our stressed-out selves.

We made it to Shawnee National Forest by late afternoon, and got the pop-up set and ready in record time. We learned very quickly, however, that our pop-up mini fridge does not work. It was also 90 degrees and we hadn’t had time to get the AC we’d hoped to or even to buy any fans. And, as it turns out, we’d also not had time to get a large propane tank to hook-up the installed camp stove in the pop-up, so we’d have to improvise and bring our old portable camper stove inside the camper, which is not ideal. We evacuated our camp site almost as quickly as we set it up for ice cream and emergency fan procuring, only to not be able to find any stores that sell fans within 30 minutes of camp.

And then it started raining and thundering. As we ate our ice cream, Brian and I looked at each other and just started laughing. What else could we do when nothing about our week seemed to be going our way? The ice cream was cool and delicious. The kids were happy and excited about the pop-up. And the rain would cool everything off.

It rained all night and all morning. We stayed cool and dry in our camper. It was Father’s Day and I made a fussy breakfast of pancakes and bacon. I spent time editing videos for the vlog. The kids chilled out reading or playing games. Brian relaxed. The universe conspired to force us to stop everything for a few hours and just be. And it was lovely.

After the rain stopped, we made it to one of our favorite areas–Bell Smith Springs. Even though the trailhead was a little busy, we could maintain social distancing and then quickly became alone and isolated as we looped and trekked over rugged and slippery terrain, taking the long way to Devil’s Backbone.

We splashed and swam–completely alone in this wondrous place–for an hour before trekking back again, first through dense forest, then rocky bluffs and cliffs, and then over creeks and streams, one of them a brilliant turquoise thanks to a mineral in the two large rock outcroppings sitting in the middle, then up the steep stone stairs and back to the truck and our little camper, where we made burgers and played board games into the night.

Peace. After all the stress–stress not just from this week but the stress that had been piling on for months now–seemed to melt away. This is why we camp. This is why we hike. This is what being in nature does to us. We are so thankful to have found and been able to buy this pop-up camper. It has unfolded so many wonderful possibilities for us in this uncertain and difficult time. And we’re excited to share as much as we can of that with all of you.

So, plumbing disasters avenged–for now. We are looking forward to a quiet week at home with the gardens, the chickens, the kitties, and one another, planning for our next, and bigger camping trip. Look for our camping vlogs to be coming on the Channel soon. Until next time, friends. I hope you, too, can find a way to get outside and away from your own stresses, even if just for a little while.

Mediterranean Beans Two Ways: White Bean (or Italian Sausage) Pasta and Spicy White Bean Salad

Beans. So inexpensive. So nutritious. So tasty. So versatile. I love them. A year ago I went searching for some inspiration for quick and healthy work lunches, and found this recipe for a sundried tomato cannellini bean salad. I made it as-is the first time, and then adjusted it to my own tastes, and have tweaked it here and there ever since, and it has become a go-to favorite of mine. It’s so adjustable, as the title of this post indicates–with the flavors and same general assembly principles accommodating a bean salad, a bean salad over a greens salad, or a pasta dish, depending on my mood. It tastes fresh, bright, and lightly spicy, with a good hit of creamy (even without the heavy cream because beans have a creamy mouth-feel) and savory thanks to the garlic and onions. So today I’m sharing how to use the same beans in two ways, in a pasta or in a salad. Oh, and if you have a family that requests meat, then you can also make the same dish with Italian sausage. 😉

Spicy Italian Sausage or White Bean Pasta
Yield: 6 servings

1/2 pound cavatappi pasta
2 T olive oil
1 pound mild Italian sausage, ground or links uncased and broken-up
2 14.5 ounce cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 small sweet onion, diced
4 cloves garlic
1 C fresh quartered campari or other small tomato, such as roma
1/2 C sundried tomatoes in oil, julienned and kept with some of their oil
1 T red wine vinegar
1 t sea salt
1/2 t black pepper
3/4 t ground rosemary
1 T dried basil
1/2 t crushed red pepper
2 C heavy ream
1/2 C feta cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat for the pasta. Meanwhile, in a wide bottomed large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat until hot, then add the onions and sausage (or white beans) and cook, breaking up the sausage and stirring it frequently. Cook until sausage is browned and onions have softened, about 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic, rosemary, and basil, and cook 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add the vinegar and tomatoes, seasoning with sea salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper. Cook until tomatoes have softened, about 8 minutes. Add heavy cream and let simmer, reducing and thickening a little, while pasta cooks. Cook pasta to al dente in the water, about 7 minutes. Drain and add the pasta to the sausage mixture. Add the feta cheese and stir it in. Serve.

See Notes on this–This photo contains the optional baby kale and arugula wilted in

Spicy Mediterranean White Bean Salad
Yield: 4 servings

1 14.5 ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2-3 T red onion, finely diced (to taste)
1/4 C fresh basil, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 C sundried tomatoes in oil, julienned
1 T oil from sundried tomatoes
1/2 t black pepper
1/2 t crushed red peper (to taste)
3/4 t sea salt (to taste)
2 T red wine vinegar
1/4 C crumbled feta cheese
salad mix of your choice, but it works best with a mixture of argula, spinach, and other soft/baby lettuces
fresh squeeze lemon juice, for dressing
extra sea salt and black pepper for dressing

Optional (See Notes):
baby kale
extra spinach/arugula

Za’atar Pita:
whole wheat or white pita bread
olive oil
Za’atar spices

Combine everything for the beans in a lidded storage container and let the flavors come together a few hours prior to serving. Meanwhile, toast some pita bread in a small skillet with a little olive oil over medium heat. Once it has browned on both sides, sprinkle a little Za’atar on one side and let cool before serving. Serve over your preferred mixture of lettuce and use Za’atar pita for texture as croutons, then squeeze the lemon juice over top and sprinkle with a little extra sea salt and black pepper.

1. In the photo, I’ve actually lightly sauteed the whole bean mixture with some baby kale and extra arugula. I had access to baby kale (which is a wonderful treat), so opted to lightly heat the sundried tomato oil, add the greens with the crushed red pepper and garlic, and let the greens wilt for 2-3 minutes before removing them to finish the recipe. It makes this dish even more full of nutrients and was definitely a tasty addition.
2. You can also eat this without the lettuce, as a bean salad, and use the pita to scoop-up the beans.