Tales of woe and wonder from the yard and kitchen
ILLUSTRATION BY TALI MILLER
Kitchen Superhero Utility Belt
If I had a superhero utility belt for my time in the kitchen, it would holster three items: a serrated paring knife, a spatula, and a chainmail scrubber. The paring knife, of course, is the most essential. Over the course of an hour on a standard weekday morning, I use my knife to slice and core an apple, trim greens, butter toast, cut sausage, and dice cucumbers, bell peppers, and onion for a side salad.
Yes, I do rinse the knife in between uses—I’m not a complete troglodyte— though I do admit to drying it on my terry-cloth apron.
Adjacent to the knife is the spatula. Mine is a Richcraft 14-inch Stainless Steel Slotted Spatula, model #4015S (with a phoenix feather core). It performs the usual tasks admirably: flipping, stirring, serving. It also washes easily, and it is thin enough to sever an unwieldy piece of chicken or zucchini should the need arise. But what I like the most is its scraping ability. With the leading edge flat against the #10 cast iron pan, I can salvage any crispies that may be stuck, be they potatoes or fried eggs. I turn the spatula over and repeat. Used in this manner, I imagine my spatula growing sharper with each pass across the black metal surface. Perhaps it will someday render my paring knife redundant.
The chainmail scrubber is used for cleaning said cast iron skillet. I rarely have respect for a kitchen tool that serves a single purpose, but for this I make an exception. First of all, it is chainmail, real chainmail: interlocking rings that, in shirt form, protected both medieval knights and my Dungeons & Dragons characters from mortal injury, and that’s just cool. The scrubber is not very big, just four inches square, but it’s enough to do its job. (The spatula doesn’t manage to scrape everything off yet, but I’m working on it.) All you need to do is add some warm water to the pan and scrub away. Bacon grease and elbow grease merge with the sound metal grinding against metal, and the pan comes clean in less than thirty seconds. It is all so very satisfying. No soap is required. Then I give the pan a rinse and dry it right away with the designated dish towel (a permanently stained one). At the end of the day, the chainmail cloth goes into the dishwasher.
Of course, who can forget the wooden spoon. Wood, that magical substance used for a few millennia. It grows on trees and never goes out of style. Joan of Arc, Billy the Kid, Genghis Khan, Abraham Lincoln, Socrates, Bill S. Preston, Esquire, and Ted Theodore Logan—they all used wooden spoons. When you use a wooden spoon, you are one with history. I prefer using a right-handed spoon, which has a nifty little angle that allows one to effectively scoop the bottom corner of the pot.
And there is the two-tined pot fork. 13-inch long, very pointy. Unadulterated, culinary awesomeness. And the strainer! I use it for rinsing rice, getting the last drops of juice from orange pulp, and removing that gunk at the bottom of the cider vinegar bottle. I can’t also forget the wide-mouthed canning funnel, which is utilized almost daily to fill thermoses with pasta or beans and rice for my daughters’ lunches. Why do I hold this seemingly mundane tool in such high regard? It prevents drips, and in my world, indoor drip prevention is one of the keys to marital harmony.
Okay, so that’s seven items, I can count. Excuse me while I go stitch a few more holsters on to my utility belt.
Over the course of an hour on a standard weekday morning, I use my knife to slice and core an apple, trim greens, butter toast, cut sausage, and dice cucumbers, bell peppers, and onion for a side salad.
Over the years I’ve built a chicken coop (success!), a bee hotel (success!—if you don’t mind spiders instead of bees), and a compost pile (home for decomposing yard trimmings, pill bugs, centipedes, and rats. So, another success!). My track record of building habitats is unblemished! Not to rest on my laurels, I pondered my next project—an owl box. It would be my Frank Lloyd Wright moment: I pictured a mated pair of great-horned owls forty feet up a tree, rearing their young and keeping watch over the property while perched on the front porch of an owl chalet.
In addition to exercising my carpentry muscles and adding more charismatic megafauna to my home, I had a third reason to build an owl box: I was fed up with gophers and moles and their subway system below my garden and lawn. I had contemplated “relocating” a wild gopher snake to my yard on more than one occasion, but it’s probably illegal, and there would be no guarantee it would do what I asked (refer to “How to Train Your Spider,” summer 2020 issue of this magazine). Over the years, we have heard the calls of western screech owls, great-horned owls, and barn owls in our neighborhood. My family also recently saw the film “The Biggest Little Farm,” in which the owners put up dozens of owl boxes on their 200-hundred acre farm, attracting eighty-seven barn owls, which consumed tens of thousands of gophers a year. And I only needed to attract one family of owls.
Well-made owl boxes for larger owls aren’t cheap; they can cost as much as $450. I looked over my random lumber supply and limited tools. I had plywood, a circular saw (a forty-plus year old hand-me-down from my father), a drill, hammer, nails, screws, and plenty of Gorilla Glue. Yep, I thought. I can make this work.
But the devil is in the details. First, location. Did I even have a place for an owl box? The most promising site was up high on the side of a redwood tree, but that spot was currently home to an occupied bat box. Could one be mounted above the other? After reflection, I recalled that owls have been known to eat bats, so probably not a great idea.
A young 18-inch diameter valley oak on the other side of the property was the next best option. While it did not have the benefit of providing the same cover and natural shade as an evergreen tree, it would probably suffice. I had, after all, seen photos of owl boxes mounted on poles at the edge of orchards, where there is no cover at all.
Then I looked at plans for owl boxes. Apparently, there are a lot of right ways to do it, and a lot of wrong ways. For example, owl boxes that are designed to be mounted under the eve of a barn are by definition protected from weather, and are thus constructed much differently from those meant to be attached to a tree where they are exposed to the elements. There is no barn on my property. I looked again at my lumber supply and realized that the sheet of plywood that I had planned to use was actually low-grade strand board, and after further reflection recognized that it probably wouldn’t survive a single rainstorm, much less multiple winters. Additional research revealed that the glue used in strand board usually contains formaldehyde, so not only would the owls get wet; they would be poisoned too.
So a purchase of high-grade lumber, likely cedar or redwood, was required. This meant I really needed to know what I was doing, which is a problem for a measure once, cut twice and use some glue and duck tape kind of guy. But the final nail in the coffin of my mind’s-eye masterpiece (before I even had a chance to swing my hammer) was the photo on the internet of a dead baby owl at the base of a tree, the result— according to the website—of a poorly constructed owl box.
I think I will ask for an owl box for my birthday.
What’s in the Soup? Everything is in the soup!
The drippings from last night’s pork roast (or chicken, or beef, or lamb) form the base. If there are bones, toss them in too, and then add a splash of cider vinegar, to help dissolve some of the goodness. Throw in the whitish bottom of the celery stalks or the parsley stems that no one wants to eat. Onion greens, garlic tops, borage from the back yard. Trimmings from radishes and turnips and beets and asparagus. Diced kale stems or cabbage stems or cauliflower stems or broccoli stems, a couple bay leaves from the tree by the creek, ten peppercorns, some salt. Lamb’s quarters and dandelion leaves—for weedy nutritious wildness. Herbs, whatever is around: whole sprigs of thyme, oregano, or rosemary. Lastly, a dash of cayenne to keep away the sniffles.
Fill the pot with water until the veggies are covered, bring to a boil. Let it simmer all day. Strain into a bowl, pour into quart jars and allow to cool. Squeeze the solids to get every last drop. At our house, the mush that remains goes to the chicken flock, which dutifully transform it into the next day’s eggs. Two quarts of the broth go into the fridge, the rest to the freezer, to save for the next time a family member needs a mug of everything.
“Dad, can you get mandarin oranges at the farmers’ market this week?”
“But we have a mandarin tree in the back yard. It needs to be picked, the fruit is really sweet.”
“Yes, but our mandarins have seeds.”
And she’s right, of course. Our mandarins do have seeds. Lots of seeds. Fifteen to twenty per fruit (and the fruits ain’t that big). Whenever I eat one of our mandarins, I feel like a ball player spitting out three innings worth of seeds. My theory is this: There were once seeds in the seedless mandarins, and they had to go somewhere. Well, they went to our house. To our fruits. We call it the “Law of the Conservation of Mandarin Seeds.” So when you wolf down your next seedless mandarin orange, think of us.
Over the years I’ve built a chicken coop (success!), a bee hotel (success!—if you don’t mind spiders instead of bees), and a compost pile (home for decomposing yard trimmings, pill bugs, centipedes, and rats. So, another success!).
Dr. Frankenstein’s Grapefruit Failure
It took me over forty years before I acquired a taste for grapefruits. My father had always been a big fan. On a typical morning I could find him deftly handling that special, curved grapefruit knife, separating the peel as he read the morning newspaper. Grapefruits, however, were not designed for youngsters, and other than the occasional grapefruit soda at a fancy party, I was never really a fan of its sour-bitter tang. I got more adventuresome after moving to Chico, occasionally purchasing a couple of fruits at the farmers’ market. The pink blush, juiciness, and the hint of sweetness earned it my respect—you could say we became friendly acquaintances— but we were far from bosom buddies (unlike, say, me and white nectarines).
Once in a while I would sample a grapefruit overhanging an alley fence, and more often than not I would be disappointed, if not outright disgusted, with the outcome. And then the day came when I discovered what would turn out to be the nonpareil of all grapefruit trees, growing just around the corner from my house.
This particular tree had long ago merged with the adjacent dilapidated fence and an out-of-control wisteria, which is the main reason that it had taken me so long to notice it. It was difficult to tell what was supporting what. The tree itself was not much to look at, a disheveled mess of branches and twigs interspersed with an assortment of green fruit, ripe fruit, overripe fruit, and rotten balls of moldy, grapefruit mush.
Much of the tree was overhanging the sidewalk, and I picked two fruits that afternoon, juiced them, and then immediately went back for more. The sour-bitter grapefruit taste was there, but it was blended perfectly with a type of sweetness normally reserved for a Valencia orange. The result was addictive. The juice was like a zippy pop song with a catchy beat: you don’t want it to end; you just want to indulge in the experience of it saturating the taste buds on your tongue and the back of your throat for as long as you can.
My family enjoyed the fruits from that tree for three years, until I biked past one morning and found all of the branches had been sawed off and piled unceremoniously on the side of the street. The owners had decided that a new fence was worth more to them than an old citrus tree.
I was told the tree had been cut down the previous afternoon. The leaves were still green, the fruit was still there. I gathered up as many grapefruits as I could easily reach, then I levered up a branch and mined for more among the thicket of downed limbs. I biked away with about 100 lbs. of fruit in my bike trailer. I shared as much as I could, as there were too many for our family to eat. (Even the catchiest of songs loses its charm when you hear it ten times a day.) But yet, I was still in despair. This was the tree taught me a deep appreciation for grapefruits—My gastronomical spirit was indebted to this plant! How would I ever enjoy a grapefruit again? There must be something I could do!
Then the mad horticulturist in me emerged. I would graft! I would take clippings of the downed tree and splice them on to the mandarin and lemon trees in my yard! Yes! The leaves on the grapefruit were already going limp, and I had no experience with grafting, and it was probably the wrong season (is there a grafting season for citrus trees?)—but hey, I had a pair of clippers, a pocket knife, a roll of plastic stretchy green arborist ribbon, and an internet connection. One thing was certain: if I didn’t try it, there was no way I would ever enjoy those grapefruit again.
I snipped off ten pencil-thick clippings, biked them home, and quickly dunked them in a bucket of water. I gave myself a fifteen-minute YouTube education on grafting citrus, and off I went, a freshly minted tree surgeon. With my pocketknife I made V-shaped cuts in the grapefruit limbs, and matched them to chisel-shaped cuts on the lemon and mandarin trees. Finally, I secured everything as tightly as I could with the tape. Then there was nothing left to do but eat the grapefruit that I had picked, and wait.
A year later I sadly removed ten desiccated twigs that were hanging from my trees. My attempts at grapefruit resurrection had failed. There was nothing more to do. So long, dearest grapefruit tree. May I someday meet another with fruit just as sweet. Better to have grafted and failed than never to have grafted at all.
Jeremy Miller is a husband, a father of two daughters, and an instructor at CSU, Chico. In addition to fruits and veggies, his yard contains a healthy population of slugs, gophers, moles, and earwigs. His avocado tree, started from a pit a decade ago, has yet to produce fruit, but he remains hopeful.