Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Moving on: a new blog (and bunny update)

Every time I look at my blogger dashboard, I feel a little badly that I never wrapped this blog up.  But having gone more than a year without posting here, it's time, isn't it? 

I did recently start a new blog, though, with a narrow focus: a daily tracking of my consumer habits. How much did I spend on food, entertainment, household items, clothes...Was my food locally grown?  How far did I drive?  Do my purchases reflect my values?  Could I do better?  I've only been doing this for a few weeks, but so far I'm finding it interesting.

Before I leave, I wanted also to let you know that my sick rabbit, Yogi, is still with me and happier than he's ever been.  He didn't make a complete recovery--he still holds his head to the side--but he's able to run around the bedroom, doesn't require any special care and has bonded with my other rabbit, Cleo, who dotes on him. 

Thanks for reading.  And I hope you'll follow me at http://www.whatibought.blogspot.com/

Saturday, August 29, 2009

We interrupt this blog for bunny nursing

Occasional gratuitous bunny photos aside, I intended this blog to be about local economies, green crafting, and my attempts to live creatively and in a way which damages the planet as little as possible.

But sometimes life gets in the way. Or, specifically, life-saving gets in the way. Even more specifically, bunny-life saving.

It's been a week and a half since my house rabbit Yogi came down with severe head tilt. Head tilt--more formally known as torticollus--happens when something damages a rabbit's sense of equilibrium, causing him or her to twist its neck in an effort stop its dizziness. Sometimes it's caused by an ear infection, sometimes by a protozoan, sometimes by a stroke, sometimes by cancer. Unless there's some visible discharge in the ear to culture, it's hard to know the cause and, therefore, the treatment. It's a life-threatening disease. And if the rabbit survives, it's likely to be permanently disabled.

For now, Yogi's head is almost upside down. He can't walk or even lie upright unless he has firm support on his sides. The right side of his face drags on the ground, and he has ulcerated his cornea. When he tries to move, he spins in place as if he's on a super high speed rotisserie. It's frightening for both of us.

I'm giving Yogi antibiotics, anti-protozoan, anti-nausea and anti-inflammatory drugs, eye drops, eye ointment, syringe-feeding him water and something called Critical Care, plus hand-feeding him as much hay and green vegetables as he will eat. The whole routine takes at least five hours a day, not including the trips we've taken to four different vets.

The good news is that he doesn't seem to be in pain, that he likes the taste of his medicines, that he's more affectionate than usual (he's given me more bunny kisses in the last week than in the previous five years), and that even if he ends up with a permanently tilted head, he might still be a happy rabbit for a good many more years. The bad news is that I'm exhausted from middle of the night feedings and butt-cleanings, that I'm spending my summer's earnings on vet bills, that there are no guarantees, and that I don't have enough time in the day to properly care for him and keep up with my soapmaking business, much less blog regularly.

But I did want anyone reading this to know that my blog isn't dead. It's just taken a temporary back seat to bunny slavery.

Time to give the little guy some head rubs and clover. But first, a 20-second video of some bunnies having a blast with a slinky. Rabbits are such clowns. How can you not love them?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Urban Setting: the New London Farmers Market

The New London Farmers market is extra special to me. Just a short walk from my house, it was both the first farmers market I frequented and the first market to accept me as a vendor. I probably wouldn't have become a soapmaker if this market didn't exist.

And yet, I have to admit that this market--like New London itself--is always struggling, never quite thriving. It's a small market with few vendors. Some years we've had fish and some years we've had eggs, but most often we've had just four farmers and myself. The produce has always been top notch and surprisingly varied: along with staples like tomatoes and corn, you can find okra, cilantro, raspberries, kale. But there's no bread, no meat, no dairy, no street food. With so few vendors, we haven't had much budget for promoting the market. And with little promotion, the market hasn't attracted enough customers to retain many vendors. So it hasn't exactly been one-stop shopping.

Until this year.

This year the New London Farmers market relocated to the parking lot of Fiddleheads Natural Foods Co-op. Although we still don't have the range of vendors that other markets enjoy, now our customers can buy produce with us, then finish their shopping in the co-op. Local and raw milk, cheese, bread, meat, bulk items, coffee, olives, even gingery pickled carrots--between the farmers market and Fiddleheads, our customers may not need to visit a conventional supermarket all summer.

How do the customers feel about it? Well, I'm a customer and I love it. The market runs Tuesdays and Fridays but I only vend here on Fridays. So Tuesdays, 10 a.m. sharp, I'm here with my market bags, buying as much produce as I can fit in the fridge, then going into Fiddleheads to buy staples like nuts and seeds, as well as produce like avocados or bananas that can't be grown locally. (Fiddleheads also has local produce, but I want to support my fellow vendors on market days.)

I admit, I'm biased. I joined the co-op before it opened and used to serve on the Board of Directors. So of course I'm thrilled that my market and my co-op have teamed up. But is anyone else?

Yes! I say that with confidence because today I got to see the market through fresh eyes. My friend Anna, who'd never been to the New London Farmers market and had only briefly seen the inside of the co-op, met me outside Fiddleheads this morning for the grand tour. She had such a smile on her face buying her carrots and blueberries. She hadn't eaten breakfast, though, so we quickly went inside the co-op for a little nosh and conversation. (I love that the co-op has a few booths by the window. One thing our farmers market has lacked is a place for friends to sit and chat.)

After breakfast, we bought dates, avocados, almonds, cheese...then went back out for a little more produce. As Anna was buying peaches, she turned to me and said, "I'm so happy! This is the way we shopped when I was growing up in Italy!" Best of all, just before she drove away she said, "Can we do this every week?"

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Village Setting: Chester Sunday Market

I wasn't sure what to expect when I signed up for the Chester Sunday market. The market was brand new, and Chester's a small town. Would anyone show up? Would I be wasting every precious Sunday of the summer? But I'd heard that the organizer, Nancy Freeborn, had run a market in Chester in the past and had done an amazing job.

So I
went for it. And I'm so glad I did. This market is like no other I've ever been to, because it's like a mini-street festival right in the center of town. Or maybe I shouldn't say mini, because this market has well over 20 vendors set up along both sides of the main street. And it is bustling. Even when the weather has been less than perfect, people come out by the hundreds for this market.

I'm not sure which I'm more impressed with, the farmers market itself or downtown Chester. I'd never been to Chester before, and somehow I'd gotten the impression that it was, I don't know, a little snooty or conservative or something. I couldn't have been more wrong. It's definitely more affluent than New London, but it's also artsy, liberal, full of community, with a strong base of people who believe in supporting local businesses and local farmers. Some of my customers in Chester have told me that there are a lot of community events in this village--music festivals, barbecues, etc. People take the time to get to know one another here.

Why do some places seem to foster community while others foster isolation? Maybe Chester
works because of the centralized downtown, and because local developers--in particular Michael Joplin--took pains to ensure that the downtown buildings would be owned by people who were either living or running businesses in town. This town isn't marred by absentee landlords. And, too, if you've ever read a book on contemporary town planning, you'd recognize that, whether by accident or design, Chester is perfect: mixed use buildings, parking hidden in back of the shops, town house style store facades right up against the wide sidewalks.

And so this market had a huge head start, being located in a town where people already valued community and local economies. Even so, it's an amazing success. It was a brilliant idea to hold this market in the heart of downtown rather than in a nearby parking lot, even though town officials were initially worried about traffic flow and emergency vehicle access. People have so much to look at and enjoy here: the vendors' displays full of berries, greens, artisan bread, raw milk, exquisite jewelry and indie fashion--but also the independently-owned shops and cafes and perfect New England architecture. And each other! People tend to come here when the market opens, and stay for hours chatting with the folks they run into.

I've said less than usual about the vendors at this market, but that's only because I'm usually so busy that I haven't had time to check them all out. But I know there is a vast array of produce, cut flowers, cheeses, local meats and breads--and absolutely nothing that might qualify as junk. A higher percentage of vendors have organic produce here than at my other markets. And there is also live music every week, all of which has been excellent.

The Chester Sunday Market runs from 9:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. through mid-October. This week is
the Peach festival! For directions and more info, visit www.chestersundaymarket.com

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Pastoral Setting: Lyme Farmers Market at Ashlawn Farm

What makes for a great farmers market? The mix of vendors is key, but what else? What is it about a market that turns shopping from a chore into an occasion?

At the Lyme Market at Ashlawn Farm, location is everything. Set in a field downhill from a 300-year old farm house, with panoramic views of pastures, horses and cows, this market is as bucolic as it gets.

I grew up in a setting like this, in dairy country in upstate New York. So maybe that's why, even though I'm going to work, I feel so peaceful when I drive to this market. Or maybe it's because, now that I live in a small city, vending here feels like a mini-vacation.

But here's a funny thing about this location: if you live in the city, a trip to Ashlawn is a way to get away from it all. But if you live in the country, a trip to Ashlawn becomes a way to connect with your neighbors. One thing I remember about growing up in a town where a walk around the block is a five mile hike is the isolation. You don't just bump into people walking to the post office or the local coffee shop. You don't say "hi" very often in a day. So anything that brings people together is extra sweet and extra appreciated. (The dogs like getting together, too.)

Besides building community and connecting farmers with customers, the Lyme market meets another need: the preservation of CT's farms. Of course, all farmers markets do this by connecting farmers with customers. But the Lyme market also helps preserve the farm on which it's located.

Ashlawn Farm has been in the same family for 100 years. But the current owners, Chip and Carol, didn't plan on or know anything about farming. Chip was a financial planner and Carol was a teacher. But when Chip's elderly uncle Sam was about to lose the farm, they stepped in and bought it. Now they're raising their family here. And the market--along with their coffee-roasting business and the leasing of pasture--helps generate the income they need to keep the farm alive.

But the best location in the world wouldn't work if Chip didn't pull in some great vendors. At Lyme Market you'll find organic and conventional fruits and vegetables, goat cheese, cut flowers, potted plants and seedlings, breads, local beef, soaps and body care products (mine!), jams, jewelry, locally sewn items made from hand-printed fabrics, and the most wonderful truffles I've ever eaten. There's also plenty of ready-made food available: breakfast sandwiches with local eggs and sausage, hamburgers from local beef, shrimp spring rolls with Thai basil, Voodoo Grill, Ashlawn Farm's own coffee (I especially like their iced coffee, cold-brewed for twelve hours) and--my favorite--a vendor with raw vegan treats like cilantro lemonade, pressed salad, vegan "sushi" and raw chocolate with goji berries.

The Lyme market at Ashlawn farm runs Fridays 3:00-6:00 and Saturdays 9:30-12:00 until at least mid-October, possibly later if the weather is kind. I'm there on Saturdays. The market will be closed Saturday, July 25th.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Falling in love at the farmers market

Four years ago, Jake and I drove up to Brattleboro VT for a long weekend. We poked around Brattleboro's independent bookstores, drank lots of coffee and stumbled upon a farmers market.
The farmers market changed my life.

The market was just off the main road out of town, past strip malls and chain drug stores.
The location was anything but charming. But once we pulled off the main drag into the market's gravel parking lot, everything was shady and green, tie-dyed and festive. Elderly musicians played fiddle and banjo; children filled buckets with sand in a sandbox; and everywhere, everywhere stood white EZ-up tents filled with flowers, raspberries, pottery, basil, maple syrup, bok choi, homemade soda, foccaccia...

And soap. The soapmaker was a dark-haired woman in her mid or late twenties who, like me, came from an art school background. She had fifteen, maybe eighteen varieties of soap, big slabs displayed in wooden crates, unwrapped, so you could see their colors. Handwritten signs said: Japanese Yuzu, Mocha Truffle, Lemon Poppy.

The soaps were the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. I'm talking heart-stopping, stomach- crashing-through-floorboards beauty. I'd leave the soap booth for a few minutes to buy ginger beer or watch the musicians, but I kept coming back. And I knew, by the end of the day, that I would be a soapmaker, too, and that I would sell my soaps at farmers markets like this one.

I began making soap that next winter,and I've never looked back. But sometimes I wonder if it was the soap I fell in love with--or the soap display in the context of a great market. Maybe the same soaps would have left me cold if I'd seen them on a supermarket shelf.

This year I'm vending at three different farmers markets: Lyme Market at Ashlawn Farm, the Chester Sunday Market, and the New London Farmers Market in the parking lot of Fiddleheads Natural Foods Co-op.

I'm crazy about all of them--I'm crazy about farmers markets in general, the way I'm crazy about small town parades, giant puppets and the Blue Collar Happy Hour at the Bank Street Cafe. But lately I've been thinking about how different these markets are from each other, and how different they all are from the market in Brattleboro.

So in my coming posts over the next few weeks I'll be writing about my markets--what are the ingredients for a great market, and how do you achieve it in a rural, village or urban setting? And what's so special about farmers markets anyway?

And finally, no gratuitous bunny photos this post. How about a gratuitous music video instead?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Urban Foraging--or Why Are My Fingers Purple?

I've been living in New London, CT for nearly a decade now. But I grew up in the country, in upstate New York, in a town with more cows than people. It was a good place to forage. I picked a lot of wild blueberries and raspberries and blackcaps, and I chewed the sweet stems of timothy grass.

But it wasn't until a few years ago that I began scouring the roadsides and empty lots of New London, wondering what wild plants I could harvest. I learned the names of some common weeds when we began keeping house rabbits, because I wanted to know what they could eat that wouldn't cost me anything. Dock, red clover, chickweed, purslane...these common weeds are rabbit favorites and edible for people, too.

Besides the rabbits, an earlier experience prompted me to learn more about urban weeds. On vacation in Floyd, Virginia--where you can hear the best bluegrass jam every Friday night--a bee got stuck in my sandal and stung me. Ow. We went to Floyd's health food store to look for a salve. The woman working there said, "Why don't you just chew on some plantain?" Say what? "Plantain," she repeated. "There's some by the parking lot." She showed me what plantain was, then told me to chew it then use it as a poultice. I had never noticed plantain before. But when I got home, I saw that it was everywhere, maybe in every yard in New London. If you are stung or bit by a mosquito, there is almost certainly some plantain within sight to help.

So back to those purple fingers. Nope, it's not from raspberries. Or blueberries. Need a hint? See that yellow flower in the background? That's Saint John's wort, the same herb used to treat mild depression. It's also used topically in salves for skin irritations, nerve pain, mild burns and cuts.

Look familiar? This time of year, it's everywhere. I saw it on Bank Street near the Waterford line, along Howard Street in the lots made empty through eminent domain, in Bates Woods and all along I-95 as I drove to the farmers market in Lyme this morning. In fact it got its name because it blooms on June 24th, the birthday of John the Baptist.

But if you are harvesting Saint John's wort for medicinal purposes, you don't want the blossoms. The medicinal compounds are concentrated in the buds just before they open. These are what turned my fingers purple.

Here is a bud perfectly ready for harvesting.

I won't lie--it took me quite a while to pick enough buds to make a usable amount of infused oil. But it wasn't laborious, unless you consider standing in the June sun, closely examining flowers, to be labor.

Tonight I'm letting my buds wilt a little, because I don't want moisture to spoil my oil. But tomorrow I'll place them loosely in a glass container, fill the container with organic olive oil, cover my container with layers of cheesecloth held in place with a rubber band, then set it in the sun. In a few weeks time--ideally six weeks, if I can wait that long--I'll have a deep red Saint John's wort-infused oil, ready to use in an herbal salve.

And because this is my first blog post, and what is a blog without gratuitous pictures of pets?--here are some photos of our rabbits, Cleo and Yogi. They like it when I go on foraging walks. I always bring them clover.