Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Miss Saigon

I was trying to load my last pictures from Vietnam, of my father and me at the Rex Hotel rooftop bar. We had a swell time at the Rex, drinking draft beer, eating peanuts and trying to figure out which couples were legitimate and which involved hookers, as at least one definitely did. But right after we took the pictures I dropped the camera and it no longer functions, not even enough to yield its photographs. My husband will have a fit when he reads this, as he contends I should not be allowed to own a camera. He may be correct.

The photo up top is from earlier in the trip. The laundry wasn't all that cheap, but I will vouch for clean, nice, and fragrant.

Anyway, we're home. The grass is always greener and all that. The last few days in Vietnam, I pined for home -- for the garden, the puffy blue sofa where we watch TV (pitiful), my kids (so very much), turkey sandwiches with lettuce. Now that I have most of it back (minus the kids, who are still with their intrepid New England grandparents), I miss Saigon. Everywhere we went in Vietnam had charm, but Saigon is special. You should watch this video if just for 30 seconds, because it's a very fine representation of that wack city. Early on, my father and I threw ourselves into the traffic, walking many blocks during the day, at night, in the blistering heat, in the rain, after a few drinks, stone sober, always scared out of our minds. The last day, we took taxis. It seemed too sad to die right before we were going to get to go home.

But the people who handle that traffic with nonchalance and elan, they're awe-inspiring. The way a Saigon native saunters into an onrushing horde of motors scooters while talking on a cell phone, wearing stylish shoes, and carrying a small child has to be one of the coolest sights in the world. 

As for the suburban garden I longed to return to: what a bummer. Still no ripe tomatoes and something has been eating my pumpkins, scooping out all the flesh and turning them into little tureens. Rats? The big fat chickens? If I had a camera, I'd take a picture. No eggplants, not a one. No melons. Snails have shredded the chard leaves into lace. A lot of squash, and that's thrilling. Just thrilling. I sat around in Vietnam pining for a garden full of zucchini. 

It's still great to be home. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

This was nice, but you can turn it off now, please

We woke up a few days ago and we were done with this trip -- but this trip wasn't done with us!

First we had to endure a 17-hour death march through the DMZ. Murderously hot. Virulent and/or kitschy propaganda at the war monuments.  Hour upon hour in the back of a poorly air-conditioned car, jouncing along rocky little roads trying to remain scrupulously polite with Mr. Phung, who was lovely but unfailingly formal. It might have been the humidity or it might have been a panic attack, but for a few hours there I thought I was smothering. Remedied the problem with beer at lunch.

Beer also helped us overlook the foulness of the restaurant, a Dong Ha tourist hotel dining room so filthy and vile that my father wiped down the lip of his beer can. I silently fumed at Phung -- who dumped us here and disappeared -- for the rest of the day. I have to say, seething is better than hyperventilating.

It's unseemly, though, to whine about icky restaurants and your vacation dragging on too long when you're visiting Khe Sanh, where 760 Marines died, most of whom, unlike us, did not choose to be there. What a godforsaken place. Achingly beautiful, but godforsaken.

Yesterday: Saigon again, on our own. Had drinks at the Rex, ate our last mangosteen,  got ripped off by some T-shirt vendors at the market, boarded a midnight flight to Seoul.

Which is where we are now, about to take one of the day-tours they offer for people with long layovers. LEAVING NOW. 

Sunday, July 26, 2009

No one wants to go down to Hue in the summer, this time the boss chose me

The royal city of Hue has its hellish aspects, like the paralyzing July heat. Can't say we weren't warned. Mr. Phung dutifully led us around the Citadel where the kings of the Nguyen Dynasty resided, each one with his 200 wives, 300 concubines, and stable of eunuchs to keep the ladies in line. It's an extraordinary place -- moats, ornate lacquered buildings, lily ponds -- but all I could think about was getting a bottle of Aquafina and sitting down. 

Yesterday, my poor father was feeling punk. I urged him to go ahead and use his antibiotics, but did he listen? A few Huda beers in the evening seemed to improve everything immeasurably, so maybe I was wrong.

This was the absurd appetizer from two nights ago, for which I blame his malaise:

The carved carrot was meant to be the head of a peacock; a hollowed-out pineapple, the body; pineapple leaves, the tail. Into the pineapple were stuck spring rolls on skewers. I had an icky feeling about this bird, and we were the only people in the restaurant. 

The limp bouquet contains fruits made from pounded green bean paste, the Vietnamese version of marzipan. Presentation didn't quite come off, but it was a cute idea.

Must try to get one more hour of sleep before our last full (and FULL) day in Vietnam. Today, we're packing in a long tour of the DMZ and then flying back to Saigon tonight. Tomorrow night, we leave.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

It was two days ago, but feels like a year

As recommended by friends who recently visited Hoi An, I signed up for a lesson with Miss Lu at the Morning Glory Cooking School. 

Our class began with a walking tour of the local market, which was crowded, stimulating and not overly hygienic, exactly like other markets I've seen in Vietnam: 

After being shown how to choose fresh mackerel, lemongrass, and turmeric, we went back to the shiny demonstration kitchen where Miss Lu gave us a 2-hour lesson in preparing restaurant-quality Vietnamese food. Miss Lu, who is 29, has worked in restaurants since she was twelve and she knows how to carve a perfect rose out of a tomato.
I didn't pick up that particular trick, but did discover this brilliant tool for julienning green papaya -- or anything!

It's like a very wide, sharp lemon zester, much less cumbersome than a mandoline. 

We also learned that the Vietnamese roast peanuts by submerging them in hot sand, a process that supposedly renders them extra-delicious, and we learned to make bahn xeo, a crispy rice flour/coconut crepe that I once ate at a restaurant in San Jose, California, but have never seen on a menu again: 
As soon as I get home I'm going to try cooking these myself. Lu's bahn xeo was one of the best things I've eaten since we got here.

We also made a world-beating grilled chicken, the marinade for which included all 13 pastes, powders, and condiments you see in this photograph:

The chicken was my father's favorite dish. 
Or was that Miss Lu? Ewww. I can't believe I just typed that. But she WAS very charming and funny and smart.
I also made my own (fairly) professional-looking spring roll:

I didn't eat it, though. Lu said the raw vegetables were washed in "mineral water," but I'm extremely -- perhaps overly -- cautious about the food. It's a complete drag, picking every sprig of cilantro off of my soup. I'm looking forward to eating a salad and drinking a giant glass of tap water when I get home.


My father has moved well beyond the scrambled eggs and bacon of his first morning in Vietnam. Sometimes, he scares me. He'll eat exotic cold-cuts that I don't even want to stand next to.

I've become hooked on these little mung bean biscuits, a specialty of the town of Hoi An:

 They're sweet, the texture gritty, almost sandy, and inside there's something salty and faintly porky. Delicious.

Friday, July 24, 2009

I can't speak for him, but I'll try

I like Vietnam. My father loves Vietnam. I definitely want to go home. He makes jokes about going native. I have taken to prissily eating cookies and fruit for breakfast. He now starts the day with steamed rice cake and shrimp paste. 

My father is not a bug and this blog isn't a microscope, which is why I've avoided writing about the emotional aspects of our journey. But I guess I'm about to try. 

When I was buying a camera to bring on the trip, I told the Radio Shack clerk that I was going to Vietnam with my veteran father. His face instantly fell. "Oh, I'm sorry," he said. "Is he okay?"

"Yes, yes, yes," I replied, slightly embarrassed. "He's fine."

Obviously, some men didn't come back fine and some men didn't come back at all, but my father was fine. FINE. He was lucky. The Army assigned him to an intelligence desk job, keeping files on Viet Cong operatives. He wasn't one of the guys slogging through rice paddies getting his limbs blown off while throwing grenades at old women and children. He came home three months before the Tet Offensive. Like I say, lucky.

My father grew up in northern Utah, went to college on scholarship, had never traveled much. The way he describes it, his war was simultaneously boring and fascinating. The days were tedious and endless and hot, but the glimpses of Vietnamese culture, captivating. An ancient Montagnard lady who chewed betel leaf cleaned the barracks. Major Singh, the eccentric ARVN officer who worked next door, would every now and then come into his office and say, "Buffalo soup, Captain Reese?" Then they would get in a jeep and drive down to Pleiku and eat beef pho. They discussed hi-fi equipment, on which Major Singh was an expert.
After a year, my father went home, resumed his life as an American family man, avoided talking about the war because: 1960s San Francisco,  bought the stereo recommended by Major Singh, got a job at the law firm where he worked, basically without pause, until he retired last year. 

As I've mentioned, I've never seen my father happier. He says that seeing Vietnam now -- vibrant, at peace, beautiful, whole -- makes him feel that the war, which he believed in at the time, was a big "waste." I suppose this could make him bitter, but it doesn't appear to. Seeing Vietnam today seems to make him deeply happy. The pagodas, the ruins at My Son, the motor scooters, the markets --  he appears to love it all.

But why am I interpreting what my father is thinking and feeling when he's right in the next room reading a James Lee Burke novel? Maybe I'll go in there and make him write his own blog entry.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pleiku: The reason for this whole trip.

My father remembers Pleiku, Vietnam circa 1967 as a village of a few thousand residents where one frequently encountered Montagnards in loincloths. No more. Today, Pleiku is a chaotic city of 300,000 fast on its way to replicating the speeding motor scooter insanity of Saigon. Above: Pleiku as of yesterday, photographed from the 8th floor of the swell Hoang Anh hotel. 
This is as close as we could get to the MACV compound where my father lived and worked when he was in the Army:
Behind the wall is a Vietnamese military installation and on the wall, as everywhere, is a portrait of Ho Chi Minh. When the driver slowed the car so we could take pictures, a soldier shouted at us. We felt very important.

I would say it was a huge disappointment that we couldn't get closer to the MACV compound, as this was one of the original focal points of our trip, except I have never seen my father happier than he was yesterday, finding old landmarks (Artillery Hill??), eating pho, and talking about the War with our unforgettable Pleiku guide, Mr. Cham. There's so much to say about this journey, I have so many thoughts and feelings, but my smart-ass food blog seems like a truly inadequate forum. Maybe I'll figure out a way to write about it here, but meanwhile. . . 

This is a burial house in a muddy and beautiful Jarai village near Pleiku:

and this is a pig being crawled upon by puppies: 

and this is a scary-looking jackfruit:
and this is a good-looking Vietnamese chicken:

Also! I found honey. Pleiku honey. Phung, our "main" guide (the guide situation is complicated in this part of Vietnam), warns that it might not actually be pure honey, but I think it, is based on where I bought it (fancy shop) and what I've read about Vietnamese apiculture. If there's any unadulterated honey in Vietnam, it's very likely from Pleiku. I wrapped the bottle in three hotel laundry bags to bring home and would rather leave my suitcase behind than that bottle of honey. I hope there aren't rules about carrying honey into the U.S.

We're in the touristy coastal town of Hoi An, now. It's crazy hot and we're taking the afternoon off from breakneck touring. I'm reading A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan, a book that deserves all the prestige prizes it won, and probably a few more. I should get back to reading now, so I can finish before 2010.

Another excellent book, as I've said before: Novella Carpenter's Farm City. I have a short review here. I also loved her recent blog post about visiting New York City. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I could get used to this coffee

Our guide, Phung, has informed me that authentic weasel coffee -- coffee brewed from beans that have passed through the digestive tract of a civet -- is all but impossible to find anymore. I haven't given up my quest, but in the meantime we're drinking a lot of the regular Vietnamese coffee, which is some of the thickest, inkiest, richest coffee I've ever encountered.  The cup above was poured half full of coffee, thinned with hot water, then "lightened" with milk. It's still tar. 

We're in the city of Buon Mi Thuot staying in a huge, brand-new pink hotel where we appear to be the only guests, which is a bit creepy. But the rooms are very international and posh, so it's possible to pretend you're anywhere. Like closer to home. I'm homesick!

But having a wonderful time.  Yesterday was spectacular.
On the 5-hour drive from Da Lat to BMT we saw waterfalls, rainforest, mountains, durian trees, rice paddies, water buffalo, coffee plantations, villages, markets, a lake, countless long-legged chickens. Dogs. Lots and lots of puppies and dogs, which appear to be both livestock and pets. Phung offered to take me to eat dog, but I don't feel the need. 

Dinner last night: grilled goat and hot pot. There were geckos running all over the wall and occasionally shrieking, or chirping, or whatever that sound they make is called. At one point, the waiter brought out a kitchen scale and put it on the terrace floor next to a neighboring table. Then he brought out a live turtle and placed it atop the scale. The turtle kept crawling off the scale and the waiter had to grab him and put him back. After three or four tries the waiter and the diners agreed on a weight and a price, and the turtle went back to the kitchen. We didn't see his second act. 

Today, we drive to Pleiku, where my father was stationed in 1967. 

Monday, July 20, 2009

If it's Tuesday this must be the Linh Phuoc Pagoda

Phung, our guide, is tireless and excellent. Yesterday we took a tram down a mountain to tour some pagodas then took a boat in the nearby lake to an island where we rode an elephant into the jungle. (My father has declared himself done with elephant rides.) Then we went back across the lake and rode a kitschy little roller coaster down a canyon to view a waterfall. Yes, it was really a roller coaster. That was probably the wackiest thing we did all day,  followed by a trip to the Frank Lloyd Wright-ish Bao Dai Summer Palace and a tour of a trippy hotel built by a communist leader's batty daughter. This hotel, which is popular with Japanese tourists, looks like a cross between a Gaudi building and a deranged hobbit's house. It's not how I pictured Vietnam, but very little is. Somewhere in the middle of all this, we had lunch at a restaurant that serves porcupine and anteater -- "jungle meat" is popular in Da Lat -- but despite the half-hatched eggs, I'm not really an extreme eater and we stuck with the wild boar. It was delicious.

I also bought some yummy dried tangerine at the Da Lat town market and tried to imagine shopping daily in a place like this. Couldn't. The meat section was the most striking area, with giant bowls of eyeballs and palates, turgid beef tongues splayed out on warm ceramic counters, blood-smeared tile floors, men hacking at chunks of pork with dirty cleavers, flies. I don't actually mind the charnel house gore and viscera -- I'm not squeamish in that particular regard. It's the lack of ice, of refrigeration. I'm extremely squeamish in THAT regard.

But let's change the subject to something more pleasant: fashion. The average height of a woman here is 4'11 (per wikipedia and my own unerring eye) and she has the silhouette of a slightly precocious 12-year-old American girl. The uniform: Skinny jeans. A form-fitting top, maybe satin, maybe a stylish t-shirt with a funky design. Hair: long, with straight layers. Shoes: mules. Without exception, tiny, tiny, delicate mules, sometimes with heels, sometimes with sequins, but always mules. I'm not sure I've seen a pair of non-mules except on lumbering Western tourists and waitresses. The look is finished off with a surgical mask across the mouth to ward off pollution and disease. Very chic! 

If I stayed here more than two weeks, I would need a whole new wardrobe, though finding my size would be a mighty challenge. The other night I stumbled across a terrific and smart blog by an American couple who spend a lot of time in Saigon. I highly recommend her funny account of trying to buy a pair of jeans in Vietnam.

We are leaving Da Lat today and going to Buon Ma Thuot about which I know nothing except that it is on the way to Pleiku where my father was stationed during the war. Phung tells us this is our "big" day as opposed to yesterday, which was our "easy" day. I hope we survive. I must go fortify myself now with many cups of coffee and a bowl of rice soup. If there are typos I apologize, I realize now I am very very late and have to leave right this second.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I'm no Anthony Bourdain

But I tried. 

Half-hatched eggs a.k.a. baby eggs a.k.a balut a.k.a. duck embryos are widely on offer here in Da Lat, the pleasant highland town in central Vietnam where my father and I arrived yesterday. 

At my request, our guide, Phung, took us to a small, homely restaurant at the entrance of which sat enormous trays of shelled sea (lake?) creatures and one steaming cauldron of eggs. Phung ordered. Three large, warm eggs, accompanied by saucers of  lime, chili-salt and herbs, appeared at our tiny plastic table. The proprietress neatly tapped open the shell of one egg with a spoon, exactly like my mother used to prepare a soft-boiled egg for toast-dipping.

I was told to sprinkle said egg with the chili salt, sip out the juices, then take a bite of the contents. Sort of like eating an oyster, with the sipping-eating order reversed. 

Sipping wasn't half-bad. The egg liquour tasted like a thin, savory soup.

Then  I shut my eyes and took a bite.
Not the best shot of this historic moment, but it will have to suffice.
The flavor of the egg? Quite nice. Like chicken with zesty spice.

The texture? Extremely challenging, clotted and clumpy. There were a lot of differentiated parts, and when I dared to look more closely, a lot of differentiated colors: gray, black, white, gold.
The concept? You don't need me to tell you that the concept, to a typical Westerner, is absolutely revolting and the egg, therefore, was inedible. 

In the middle of this whole escapade I realized it was probably rude to go into a restaurant, order the specialty of the house, take pictures of oneself choking down a tiny morsel, pay, and depart. I don't approve! But the proprietress seemed more amused than irritated. I bet she's seen this before.

Saigon drivers are crazy, Da Lat is cold

My father and I loved Saigon. Loved it. We both have a little crush on that sticky, noisy megalopolis. But crossing the streets took months off my life.  You're supposed to walk briskly into traffic, trusting that the packs of motor scooters -- carrying smoking men, pregnant women, families of four, giant sacks of mangosteens, windows -- will veer around you. It's your life at stake -- but you make it the other person's problem. Scary! This aspect of the city, we will not miss. 

We are now in the central highlands town of Da Lat where it is actually chilly, something I had not anticipated in my packing. Our tour guide, Phung, is going to take me to a place where they serve "half-hatched egg" tonight. Whether or not I rise to the occasion remains to be seen. 

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Too many hamburgers

It's a running "joke" in Vietnam that Westerners are big and fat. I've heard some variation on this "joke" a dozen times and we've been here less than 48 hours. Okay, okay, so it's true, but is it really nice to say it all the time? Is it even funny? Don't giants have feelings too?

We went to the astonishing Cu Chi Tunnels today. It's profoundly strange to think that a significant and sad piece of American history transpired in this sweltering, beautiful, water-logged jungle crawling with massive centipedes. Forty years later, it seems unbelievably random.
Anyway, the tunnels. They're this mind-boggling network of TINY tunnels in which the Viet Cong soldiers traveled, lived, hatched battle plans, steamed tapioca, and devised awesome, hideous traps to maim and kill enemy soldiers. There's an extensive display of these ingenious traps with their sharpened bamboo spikes for impaling human bodies. American bodies. It's hard to know what to say when the guide gently asks you what you think. "Impressive" is probably the best answer.

Again, I digress. The tunnels. So, a guide got into one of the tunnel hatches to show us how the heroic VC used to slip down into the earth to evade the Americans. See above. Here's what it looks like an instant later, after he submerges himself and pulls the cover down: 

After he got out, we were encouraged to try it for ourselves. Reluctantly, after much cajoling, I climbed into the hole. And then I couldn't get out. It's not like I was STUCK, people! I just don't have the greatest upper body strength and I was in there up to my armpits. So another guide had to give me a little pull and then he made a joke to the crowd:  "Too many hamburgers!"



Friday, July 17, 2009

We nervously eat incredible street food.

Back in California when I was looking for tips about Saigon on the internet, I found a small tour company that hires students as guides. One of their itineraries is a dining tour in which a guide takes you to great hole-in-the-wall restaurants tourists never find and/or are too intimidated to visit on their own. I booked this tour for our first night.

Our guide was Van, a 21-year-old economics student whom my father and I liked immediately. She was funny and irreverent and sweet and asked as many questions as she answered. In the picture she was trying to demonstrate the proper way to eat a dish of rice paste and eggs, but started to giggle too much.

She took us to five restaurants where we ate sticky rice and pork tongue (my favorite),  
 noodles with beef broth, vermicelli noodles with grilled sugarcane pork, fried rice paste with eggs, shrimp cakes, and rice custard. By the end, we could barely walk. The food was staggeringly delicious.

 We ate most of these dishes squatting on tiny stools at tiny tables in rooms open to the wet, teeming sidewalk. Was I nervous about hygiene and our delicate American stomachs? OH YES. And still am. It was an imprudent adventure, but very exciting. 

Some interchanges with Van:

Van: Jennifer, do you smack your kids when they are bad?

Tipsy: Not very often, Van. Did your mother smack you when you were bad?

Van: (giggling)  Oh yes, she had a great big pole. She hit me until I cry and cry when I was bad. In Vietnam, yes.


Van: This is the pregnant woman hospital.

Tipsy: Ah! So this is where women have babies.

Van: Yes! And (taps her belly matter-of-factly) abortion. (She smiles cheerfully.)

Van: How do you feel with everyone staring at you? 

Tipsy: Are people staring at us?

Van: Oh yes. In Vietnam everyone stare at foreigners because of how different they look. They maybe pretend they're not, but . .  (She shoots an intense, sidelong glance to show how we are being furtively observed.)

She was wonderful.

She also told us about:

-weasel coffee. Weasels eat the coffee beans, poop them out, and the poop is used to brew coffee. I thought she was joking, but no.

-"baby eggs" (a.k.a. balut) which she calls by their Vietnamese name -- trung vit lon. These are embryonic ducks still in the shell and they are considered a great delicacy. She offered to take me to eat one ("they're very good before the duckling get too big, before you can see the fur,") but it was late in the evening and I was just too stuffed. Really.

Walking around Saigon feeling like a giantess

That's a picture of the hotel breakfast. My hotel breakfast. My father forbade me to photograph his plate because he got scrambled eggs and bacon and he told me he doesn't want to become a "joke" in my blog. Too bad! Scrambled eggs and bacon? Hmmph.

The rice soup was completely bland, but alongside the tureen there were platters of pickled cucumbers, finely shredded pork, fried tiny fish, and salted eggs that you could add to provide flavor. I added a lot, and the soup was fantastic. I've read about this kind of Asian porridge, but never had the pleasure of eating it.

After breakfast, we walked around a lot, went to a museum, got rooked by a street vendor, drank some passionfruit juice, ate noodles, talked about the Vietnam War, wrote postcards, perspired. It's extremely humid and there are millions of motor scooters. Altogether, unbelievably exciting.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I guess we have to go see some sights, now

Airplane food almost makes one nostalgic for the South Beach Diet.

Pretty displays of Japanese cookies and sweets at Narita airport where we had a 2-hour layover:
And pretty fruit plate in my room at our hotel in Saigon:
The bananas are delicious, and so are the cute furry pink fruits, which I think are lychees, though I've never seen a lychee outside of a can. (Correction: Having looked them up, I think the furry pink fruits are actually rambutans, heretofore unknown to me. Ditto the purple thing that looks like a small eggplant and which I think is a mangosteen. It was worth flying 17 hours to eat that.) No nostalgia for the South Beach Diet now!

We arrived at 11:30 last night. I think it's morning based on adding hours to the time on my computer, but can't be sure because there's no clock in the room, my watch broke, and the window overlooks an airshaft. 

Definitely morning. I just looked out and managed to see a small patch of sky. It is there, and it is cloudy. It is also unbelievably hot. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

We're leaving for Vietnam

This morning, my father and I are leaving on our trip to Vietnam. I am bringing my laptop, so I will post when there is interesting food/chicken/bee-related news and an internet connection.

I have never been to Asia. My father spent a year there in 1967. It wasn't a vacation. The picture above is of the two of us shortly before he left for Vietnam. He looks like he's about nine. Here's another picture from that same vintage: 

This is my father's first trip back to Vietnam, and we're visiting the city in the central highlands where he was stationed. Here's what Frommer's says about it: "These days the town of Pleiku is just a polluted commercial center. If you're in a pinch, there are a few hotels here, but most visitors give Pleiku a pass. "

Who is this Frommer person, anyway? Sheesh. In addition to Pleiku we are visiting more popular tourist destinations like Ho Chi Minh City, Da Lat, Hoi An and Hue.

Now I need to finish packing and leave.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

South Beach Diet: Yeah, it works

I accidentally ate a bite of homemade bagel this afternoon --  I was talking to someone and got carried away --  so I guess the diet is pretty much kaput, which is okay since this is day 7, the last day. I've lost five pounds. You can't ask for more from a weeklong diet. 

What's my verdict on the South Beach Diet? You eat a lot of vegetables and you're never hungry. Maybe you're not all that psyched about that next baked chicken breast dinner or egg white omelette, but psyching you up for meals is not what diets are for. As a short-term diet, South Beach is okay with me. As a way of life, it's barbaric. The thought of trying to resist a ripe nectarine, a bowl of blueberries, a spoonful of honey, a roasted sweet potato, month after month, year after year, appalls me. Eating artificially sweetened strawberry Jell-O instead of a strawberry? So clearly wrong. 

Monday, July 13, 2009

Bees & Birds

After visiting Novella Carpenter's farm yesterday, I came home and nervously decided to inspect our bee hives.  One morning last week I got up and, still in pajamas, decided to go peek at the entrances of the hives. During the day there are bees flying everywhere and they pay no attention to me. But this morning, when there was zilch going on, a guard bee spotted me four feet away, came zooming out and went for my head. Started thrashing around in my hair and after two minutes of frantic/furious buzzing, stung me on the back of the neck. It was horrible. Not the sting, but the sound of a tiny, angry creature crawling around in my hair. I have some primal issues with bees in my hair.

Anyway, I screwed up my courage and went into both hives yesterday.

The bees are doing okay, despite the proximity of the toxic buckeye tree. I did not see "brood" in the upper chambers of either hive -- just lots of comb and pale honey, both capped and uncapped -- which is not ideal. But I'm not sure what to do about it. According to my reading, there should be more brood.

I was also slightly worried that the bees were producing queen cells when I saw the lumpy formations on the bottom of this frame: 

But the raggedy comb extrusions appeared to be filled with honey and were not as tidy as the queen cells I've studied in photographs. If an experienced beekeeper sees this and has any thoughts, I would be grateful.

As I've mentioned before, I spent $934.69 on starter bees, two hives, and equipment. This morning I got curious and made some calculations:

A fairly average Bay Area hive can produce 25 lbs. of honey per year according to this site. Some hives produce much more; other hives perish. I don't expect any honey this year, but let's say I'm perfectly average and end up with 50 lbs. of honey from my two hives in the summer of 2010.
Twelve pounds of honey = 1 gallon. 

You can buy "Marin Mix" honey  -- which can't be much different from what my bees are making -- from Local Harvest for $88 per gallon.
So if I were to sell 4 gallons of our honey at that price, we could conceivably take in $350 per year. There would be other expenses -- sugar water, extra supers, jars, charming labels, etc. -- but at this rate, we would earn back our starting costs in roughly three years.

Interesting. And completely hypothetical. It's hard for me to believe that a beekeeper as amateurish as I am will ever actually collect honey.  It's even harder for me to imagine finding the wherewithal to bottle, market, and sell it. 

I still think the chickens could eventually earn their keep. Check out our handsome chicken house, built by Husband a few years ago as a fort:

I'm sure our neighbors love it. 

The garden is much prettier, albeit overcrowded. 
I was underconfident after years of disappointment, overplanted to make up for mingy yields, and now have a jungle. 

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Novella Carpenter's city farm

My sister Justine and I both recently read and loved the book Farm City in which author Novella Carpenter describes her funny and inspiring adventures raising vegetables, bees, chicken, bunnies and pigs on the empty lot next door to her apartment in an Oakland, California ghetto.

This morning, Justine and I decided to find her farm, which turned out to be disappointingly easy given that Carpenter has published the address on her blog. We love us a good sleuthing mission and this did not test our well-honed skills. We could tell you stories . . .

The place was literally just off a monster freeway. Not a great neighborhood, lots of boarded up windows and stray shopping carts. But not entirely awful. There were families around doing ordinary Sunday things, like walking home from church and washing the car. No sign of Carpenter. It felt wrong to just barge into someone else's garden, but the gate was open and bore a welcome sign, so we did. 

It was a mess -- but wonderful.  I think my lame photo up top just captures the mess. You have to trust me, the ramshackle, pell-mell abundance was beautiful to behold, with peach and avocado trees and scarlet runner beans and trees full of figs and unripe apples all higgledy piggledy with tomatoes and chard and zucchini and artichokes. We also saw one chicken and a few cages of bunnies.
And, of course, there were bee hives. I have to say, Carpenter's bees seemed a little lethargic compared to mine. I wonder if the one of the hives is defunct.

I absolutely love this kind of place, always have, and don't know precisely why. I can't say my reasons are purely noble; they're not grounded in concerns about sustainability or protesting Nabisco or anything high-minded like that. Or at least not completely. It just makes me so incredibly happy when I see a much-loved, food-growing garden, especially one with animals. That this one sits in the middle of a gritty neighborhood makes it all the more magical.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

South Beach Diet: Random thoughts

Jealous much? 

1. A few days ago I made a bowl of sugar-free Jell-O as called for during the "strict" phase of the South Beach Diet. Under ordinary circumstances I never buy artificially sweetened foods, but these aren't ordinary circumstances. I must admit, a tiny dish of artificially sweetened orange Jell-O is very sustaining when you're not allowed to eat, say, an orange.
Anyway, just a few minutes ago I discovered that my Jell-O was very thick and leathery towards the bottom of the bowl. I'll give this to the chickens, I thought. Then: Oh shoot, can't. It would be bad for them

Higher standards for chickens than for myself!!!!

2. Rented Pineapple Express. All the way home from the video store: pineapple, pineapple, pineapple.

Is this a good movie? It looks funny, plus: James Franco.

3. There's a "petite sirloin" steak in the fridge for dinner. I'm dreading it like a root canal. 

I dislike this diet intensely.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

South Beach: Day 3

Two of the saddest words in the English language: lean protein. 

Breakfast: lean protein. Lunch: lean protein. Want a snack? Sure, here's some lean protein. I grilled the prescribed chicken breast for dinner last night and almost gagged when I tried to eat it. I tossed the meat with lettuce and mixed with roasted eggplant to disguise its lean protein nature, but finally had to throw it out. The South Beach Diet is like Bread and Jam for Frances, but with chicken breasts and reduced-fat cheese. I never feel hungry, but am always slightly queasy. 

What I really miss is fruit. Bing cherries with burgundy flesh, crisp and super-cold from the refrigerator. Or a peach. Have not had a peach yet this year. Or some blueberries. Or a Santa Rosa plum. Even a banana.

When I say I find this interesting, I'm not kidding. I think it's fascinating to see what happens when you radically change your diet, if only for a week. You think about everything differently.

In other news, there is no other news. Just lonely toil and dismal diet. Maybe today I'll go see Bruno, read Mark Sanford's love letters, and inspect the bee hives. Then I'll have something to say.

Well, it's sort of a cookbook

So, this is my fun new project, one I could not pull off with children in the house. Extreme diet = extreme self-absorption. I'm ordinarily a fan of the Weight Watchers Flex Plan, which is sane and effective, but I can do that any time. Not so a low-carb regime with a rigid meal plan. Everyone talks about low-carb diets and I was curious. 

Strange how not-hungry I feel on the morning of day #2. I don't feel good, but I don't feel hungry. The prescribed breakfast: "liquid egg substitute" and Canadian bacon. Liquid egg substitute. I won't eat that, am going to substitute a small amount of scrambled tofu and hope it doesn't throw off the chemistry. 

What I really want is a bowl of cherries, but fruit is forbidden. The chickens got the last of the cherries last night. A chicken picks up a single cherry in her beak, runs off, and all the other chickens chase her around trying to steal that cherry, even though there are twenty more cherries lying on the ground. Stupidity or playfulness?