The Little Red Hen: Why I love her, why I need her, and why you might need her, too

Little_Red_Hen

In the second grade we read Aesop’s Fables as a class. I did not like them. At all. The Scorpion and the Frog gave me nightmares. The fox running back and forth dropping pebbles into a vase to quench his thirst made me parched and tired and just a little bit paranoid about the possibilities of dehydration. But then came The Little Red Hen. Do you remember this story?

In my mind, I always believed that her name was Henrietta, and Henny Penny was her unhinged, batshit, mentally-deranged cousin. Henrietta was hungry because her farmer sucked. All the hungry animals lay sleeping, on the verge of coma in the barnyard because Farmer Ted was an idiot without a clue. One day, quite by accident, Henrietta found a tiny grain of wheat lying under the empty feed crib, and she was so excited, she did a little happy dance right then and there.

“We have food! We have food!” she cried…and all the animals in the barnyard inspected the small fleck of grain grasped in her beak with disdain, and went back to sleep.

“Who will help me plant the wheat?” she asked.

“Not I,” answered every lazy, good for nothing, farmer-spoiled neighbour in turn. So, Henrietta did it herself.

She used a sugar spoon that Farmer Jane had dropped one day off the edge of the porch when carrying a stack of dirty tea dishes into the kitchen, and she fluffed up a little spot near the fence where the sun shown down and the daisies and chickory swayed in the breeze. When she had dropped the seed into the hole and tamped down the earth on top of it, she ran back to the barnyard.

“The seed is planted! Who will help me carry water to feed the seed so it will grow?” she begged. Homer, the pack mule picked up his lazy head for just a moment and yawned a big, buck-toothed yawn, and drawled, “Noooooooot I,” and all the barnyard animals answered in kind one by one. So, Henrietta stood under the spigot by the water trough, mouth open, tongue reaching, and she waited for water to drip down from on high…one drip…two drip…three drip…four drip…five….

When her mouth could hold no more she ran back to the spot where she had planted her seed, and gave it all the cool water she had collected without saving any for herself. Seeing that her seed was nestled in and watered well, she hopped up on the fence, fluffed her wings out, curled up in a puff of feathers, and went to sleep waiting for her seed to grow. And she waited a very long time….

The wheat eventually grew tall and strong, with big, green, bearded heads that swayed in the hot, sunny breeze. When the wheat turned golden, she ran back to tell the others that very soon they would have good things to eat. Sadly, her barnmates seemed to have forgotten that Henrietta had even existed.

“The grain is now tall and beautiful, the colour of sunshine! Who will help me harvest the wheat,” she asked.

“Not I,” said the spotted brown dog, scratching at a flea.

“Not I,” said the cat, licking her business.

And all the other animals in the barnyard answered in kind one by one….

Henrietta went and found a bit of glass discarded from a broken bottle and carried it back to where her wheat danced gracefully under the bright blue sky. Thanking it for it’s gift, she used the glass to cut it down, plucked two seeds from it heads, and buried them right next to the feet of their mother before grasping the straws in her beak and carrying her harvest back to the barnyard.

“Look, I know that you all are tired and very hungry,” she said to the lazy animals, “So am I. But delicious food is so close! Who will help me thresh this wheat I have grown?”

You know the answer….So she did it herself.

“Who will help me grind the wheat into flour?”

Not a single volunteer. So she did it herself.

“Who will help me knead the dough?”

Nada. So…she did it herself. She even put a couple of her own eggs in there, too.

“Anyone wanna help me build a sun oven whilst this dough rises?”

Laughter broke out in the barnyard. This chick must be nuts….So. She. Did it. All. By. Her. Self. It took three damned days to finish, but that bitch got it done.

“I’m guessing you assholes don’t want to help me bake this bread, either, huh?”

Snoring. That was the response she got. Two dozen rat bastard lazy asses lying around her, snoring, seemingly awaiting death. So….SHE DID IT HER OWN DAMNED SELF.

Soon, the whole farm was filled with the smell of rich, yeasty fresh bread baking. Henrietta went to Babs the Cow, “Would you please give me some cream to make some butter,” she asked.

“I’m busy chewing my cud,” Babs answered.

So, Little Red Henrietta went back to her mud stove, built from the remains of an abandoned paper wasp’s nest and the damp edges of Parson Pig’s wallow, and lit by a fire created from the straws and chaff she had saved from threshing, and she sat on her haunches and waited for her bread to finish baking.

Her neighbours started to perk up as the luscious scent grew and hung thick in the air. As Henrietta cut into that fresh, steamy loaf of dense brown bread with her bottle shard, all the animals in the barnyard began to drool, and Farmer Ted and Farmer Jane stood over at the paddock fence, bewildered expressions on their scrawny raw vegan faces at the weird sight they both beheld (starvation, for your information, causes hallucinations in humans). Henrietta, eyes closed, took a slow purposeful bite of her wonderful, delicious creation and a smile spread in her heart as the warmth filled her. When she opened her eyes, the whole barnyard was staring down at her, puddles of drool dripped into the dusty earth at their feet. She stopped mid-chew, swallowed hard, and stared back at them.

…Now, here’s where me and Aesop diverge in the woods of Elfland….

In Aesop’s version, Henrietta tells the whole damned barnyard to go fuck themselves, and carries that warm crusty loaf off under one wing to enjoy the fruits of her labour by herself. My little mind has never gotten the point of that. So, here’s what really happened:

Henrietta swallowed, and looked up at the sea of pitiful hungry faces before her.

“Who will help me eat this bread?” she offered sweetly, and nudged the loaf across the board with her free wing.

Slice after slice came off that loaf until every belly was full and every heart was happy. And without saying another word aloud, Henrietta thought, “I can do anything I want. All. By. Myself.”

…The reason I love this story and always have is because Henrietta taught me, and still reminds me to this day, that I can do anything I want to do if I’m willing to put in the time and the effort to get it done. Having help is amazing. Having company is priceless. Support is always preferable to winging it alone. But it’s not necessary. And, in the end, good things are borne out of faithfulness to ourselves, even when we think that no one else believes in us.

So, here lies a new day of possibilities….Anything is possible!

This story is dedicated to my bratty brother, Eric. It’s his birthday today. I love that douchebag. đź’–

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Loverly, Loverly Spring

Miki’s Jam <—click me. You know you want to….

Yesterday morning I went and helped my butcher, Jen, harvest three lambs. She had called me the night before and said that she had an ordee, her daughter would be off the farm and that I could have half a lamb if I’d come help her out; I replied, “Throw in a skin and I’m in!” Without skipping a beat, she yelled, “Deal!” into the phone and added, “Be here at 6:30 on the dot! Bye!” hanging up quickly before I could protest. 6:30 on a Saturday? Geez…So, I went to bed.

I was on time, Jen let me one of her big rubber aprons as we walked to her processing room out across the yard from the barn and she threw a big roasted knucklebone in Baby’s direction to keep him occupied whilst we were busy. We watched in the dim dawn light as Jen’s husband carried the first lamb to us from the paddock, and suddenly, I felt very ill, prickly heat overtaking me as I swallowed hard and breathed through my mouth to stave off any unfortunate vomiting.

Vegans thoughtlessly believe that people who hunt, fish, raise livestock and butcher their own meat find some kind of lusty psychotic joy in killing things. That’s completely untrue. Dispatching any animal, even when its suffering and you know it has to be done, is a horrible feeling, one that never gets better with practise. Thankfully, Jen is an excellent butcher and a faithful steward, and lamb #1 was gone and hanging from a hook in less than thirty seconds without a single cry. And as we got to work, the dreadful sensation of sick gradually subsided. She had two sets of freshly whetted knives laid out on the big steel bench so that she wouldn’t have to stop to sharpen between animals, and she handed me the first skin whilst the lamb was still bleeding into the blood bowl, which I dutifully rolled up fleece side in and put in a heavy plastic bag before setting it aside on a shelf in the walk-in freezer whilst she beheaded and eviscerated the carcass. From there, everything went wicked quick.

This is the first time I’ve ever butchered lambs. I tried to think back; I’ve eaten lamb and mutton too many times to count, and have known many people from childhood on who raised them but, no, this was definitely my first. And it wasn’t bad, either; very similar to dressing veal. Jen asked me if I wanted retail cuts, and I said that I only wanted the shank separated, so we took my half, cut it into wholesale parts, wrapped it in paper, and left it on a sideboard to finish cooling. I said I wanted the head, too, so I peeled off the skin with a filet knife and put it in a vacuum seal bag without removing any of the organs. All the rest of the meat and bones from the three lambs was divided into retail cuts and vacuum sealed within the space of four hours, and we had bleached and scrubbed the room down well before lunchtime arrived.

Stepping outside into the cool sunny air was shocking; my sweat-drenched ponytail dripped down the back of my aching neck, the smell of bleach gave way to sweet, loamy pasture and, taking off the rubber utility apron, I suddenly felt cold. Looking down in the outdoor light, I realised that my barn boots were still splattered with blood, but I decided that I would hose them off when I got home instead of going back into that steamy hotbox of a shop. Jen brought out a box that held all of my lamb parts, lifted her washed knife bundles off the top, we chatted for a bit whilst Baby played with her shepherd, Amanda, and I was off to the German meat shop to drop off my new meat to age in the meat locker I’ve been renting since last year. Wrapped in cheese cloth instead of butcher paper, I’ll leave my little guy to settle and dry for a few weeks before I cut him down and rewrap those pieces to stash in the freezer.

When I got home, I put the lamb shank in the oven to roast in low heat for two hours, and pulled two pig’s feet out of the freezer. When the shank was ready, I put a whole chicken in the oven with the foot-long pig’s feet and two whole, unpeeled onions, turned up the heat to 350°, and set the timer for an hour. Whilst the lamb shank rested on the kitchen table, I butter braised two oxetails and a big bloody knucklebone in my five-gallon steel stockpot until they were well-browned and crispy on the fatted edges, filled the stockpot with three gallons of fresh cold well water, added my freshly roasted shank with a half-dozen bay leaves, and covered the pot to low-boil until the rest of the meat still in the oven was ready to add to the pot.

When I went to bed last night, the whole house smelled like Christmas at my Grandmother Susan’s house; that rich, meaty, warm wintery smell of good food to come. This morning I woke to a beautiful pot of rich, golden stock; the lamb shank and oxetail had all but disappeared, the chicken had broken into soft, velvety pieces and the only part of the pig’s feet that was still identifiable was the thick, wrinkled skin and one lone pointy toe floating in unskimmed fat. The big knucklebone that had once been the ball socket from the hip of a steer had given up all of it’s cartilage and marrow in melted gelatin, and I breathed in the vapour with a satisfied smile as I stirred the pot.

It’s the Great Fast, so I won’t be eating any of this now. After Mass this afternoon, I’ll strain the bones and fat from my stock, and divide it into quarts and pints to put into the freezer unsalted. Most of the meat will be separated and frozen for another soup pot after Easter. The onion remains will go to the chickens, and that fat and bones will be ground up with the remaining meat, salted lightly and fed to the dogs as special treats to nourish their dry Winter skin and coats. Every bit used up, nothing gone to waste.

I realised this morning as I stood at the stove gently stirring the big pot what it is I dislike about the arguments of vegans: my food is honest, theirs not so much. Every time I read another one of these articles about how compassionate the vegan plate is supposed to be, or see a YouTube video of blue-haired SJWs crying over piglets in a farrowing house, I think back to the times I spent cleaning bones, wings and skin and the occasional antlers out of combine harvesters and plough implements. The piece of lamb in that pot? I held him close whilst he was harvested, felt his little heart beating against my chest before it was wrapped up and went into my freezer cabinet at the meat locker. There is nothing more intimate or meaningful in this world when it comes to food than that. My meat didn’t come from the supermarket or a feedlot. I raised the chicken in my pot last Autumn myself, and I butchered her alone on my front porch before she, too, went into the freezer. The food on my plate is not a commodity; it’s a sacred relationship actively cultivated since early childhood when, standing in my Uncle Bill’s cattle yard, I watched two birds (Pheasant? Grouse?) get electrocuted on a power line above, and then later watched whilst my father butchered them and we ate them for supper (delicious); the attitude Daddy passed down not to waste life has never been lost on me. Killing any living thing makes me truly sad, but it’s done with a knowledgeable, deliberate purpose aimed at living a happy, healthy life treading lightly on the earth. And at least I know precisely where it came from, how it was handled and what went into harvesting it; there are very few dietary dictocrats who can factually say the same. To each their own….

Last autumn I made the decision that I was going to concentrate on raising Rhode Island Reds as I build my flock; they were my granddad’s favourite breed, they’re good birds, sturdy, mild-tempered, and my two surviving roosters were both Reds, so I figured that’s where I was headed…I was wrong. Unbeknownst to me, my shrewd hens were hiding all of their Spring eggs in two great piles behind the grain bins in the barn and, thus far, I’ve got two big clutches of baby dinos going. The first are nearly three weeks old now, all Barred Rocks, a few Wyadottes and about a dozen or so Buffs; they went outside this past week when they began their first molt. The younger batch are still in the kitchen staying warm, and there’s not a single full-blooded Red in the bunch, just Red paternity. Murphy’s Law prevails. At least I’ll have a lot more roosters than I planned on to choose from this year.


All is well on the green hill in the little valley….Spring has come! WOOOHOOO!!!

When Life Gives You Grenades, Blow Up Conventions

On this day four years ago, I was exactly where I didn’t want to be: sitting on the floor of a cold, empty apartment in the middle of Nowhere, Missouri, hitched to a miserable, lazy bastard who had turned out to be not my type at all, no matter what he said of himself, making soap in a crockpot in half batches because my big soap pot and fully functional stove were nine hours away…at home….Because Creature had insisted on moving, told me that it was my biblical duty to do as he said, loaded my car up with all of his shit, and I was not allowed to bring anything of my own but blankets and a pillow. I tried desperately to put a happy spin on it at the time, but it was a nightmare. A bleak, lonesome, frightening nightmare that really did get so much worse before it got better.

I don’t remember why I took this picture, but I’m glad that I did. It’s a testament to how much things can change in a relatively short period of time. Today, my sunny kitchen is once again filled with my books, my dishes, my soap pots and honey pots, my sister’s beloved trestle table, and my corner hutch overtaken by a thousand nicknacks that remind me of who I am and where I’ve come from. Then, in Missouri, the floor was cold and bare, today it is warm, hay-strewn, stained with joyfully muddy paw prints, and filled with the noise and mess of a brand new flock of mixed-breed chicks, some from my own hens, some from a whirlwind shopping trip with Nancy to provide her with her own first ever egg-laying hens (I will raise them to be strong and healthy, she will get them back at Easter when they’re harder to kill by accident). My soap pot is filled with the very last pound of olive oil, bubbling away on the back of the stove, waiting to be laced with patchouli and espresso powder. And, amazingly, I am content.

Sometime this past year, I began falling asleep before midnight and getting up without an alarm between 6:30 and 7 each morning – something I’ve never done before in my entire night owl life. I relish the days when I can avoid seeing another human being and can, instead, spend the hours wrapped up in a light quilt reading my current stack of “must read” books, highlighter and notebook in hand. I live for the days that are warm enough to take my tarp and rake into the woods behind the house and drag load after load of forest litter up to my growing compost pile that is now hot enough to lie in and take a nap. I love sitting on the hillside above the little cottage, Baby pressed up beside me, watching the clouds sail above us, listening to the cows lowing at each other at the other end of the valley, or sleeping up on the roof above the porch, under the dewy stars.

Life is very different now. Very different. And not what I ever would have envisioned, but it is good.

One of the key people who got me to this place told me that the only way through the mess I was in was gratitude, and he was right. He’s still right. Not everything is settled, but it’s manageable. So much moreso than I could have imagined even a year ago when I moved to this little farm in the green valley. Painting and cleaning continue, miles of fencing still need to be erected, and I have another year of so of film school classes to take before I strike out to make a flick worthy of public critique. The world is full of possibilities, again, and the cold, empty fright is far away.
I am reminded of a lovely photo I saw once and fell in love with in my grandmother’s National Geographics: an old woman in a heavy sweater and woolens reclining in an upturned wheelbarrow, absorbed in a book. I always wanted to know what she was reading, now I just want to be like her, sitting outside in the wide expanse, filling my mind and heart with ideas.

Life blows up and fractures into a million splinters, and it can never be the same. So, you pick up the biggest pieces, leave the smallest, most hurtful shards behind, and make a new life. Like a stained glass window crafted from scraps, it will never look like it used to, and it might leave a lot undone, or questionably unexplained…but it might be just as marvelous, just as fun, just as colourful as the old life left behind. It might even be better. Even when it hurts. I’m just happy to have a stocked kitchen that’s all my own…and a new flock of chicks to prove that Spring is finally here!