The End Of All Things

The last day we pulled away from Slack Winery in Rice’s car was only the third day that we had spent there. Admittedly, that is not very long to get to know any place, even though each of our visits had lasted five hours long. Although five hours sounds like a long time, Rice and I still felt that we didn’t learn as much as we had hoped because we were mostly consigned to menial tasks that took a really long to complete, which meant we only learned a few key skills.

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Saying goodbye to this place was actually pretty difficult.

We could talk to you about dirt and gardening or the staggering amount of sanitation necessary to recycle champagne bottles for beer – heck, Rice could probably hit you up with the best sauerkraut-making techniques – but in terms of other aspects of farm life, we would probably be unable to tell you much about it. We know even less about the winemaking process, since we had absolutely no contact with it. How ironic that Rice and I were assigned to work at a winery and ended up not learning anything about wine at all.

 

But hey, that’s why we were honest with that blog subtitle.

 

Instead, Rice and I ended up taking away much larger messages from it. Though menial, we enjoyed the work. It was satisfying to see ourselves accomplish things through the strength of our own hands. Beginning the growing process of vegetables meant that we got to hear Tucker tell us that we could come back and reclaim the fully-grown products of our labor whenever we wanted, which meant free potatoes amidst other prizes!

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I’mma coming for ya!

When we participated in the beer bottling process during our last day, we came away from it with a free bottle of beer that we had personally scrubbed, shook, sanitized, capped, and sweated over. When Tucker handed us the bottles that Rice and I picked out for our free beer – I wanted the clear bottle because I thought it looked pretty, despite not being a consumer of alcohol – it was powerful feeling.

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Like a boss.

Through our volunteer service, we also got to meet some awesome people and received some great hospitality. Tucker and Anna were both so kind and fun to work with; they were always cracking jokes or embarking on interesting conversations. I was continuously impressed with how knowledgeable they were on a variety of subject matters. Regarding me, they also had the patience that made me want to strive to better myself and redeem my own shortcomings.

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Speaking of epic pictures…

In terms of hospitality, Tucker and Anna never once made us feel uncomfortable about being at Slack Winery invading their living space. In addition, they made sure that we ate delicious lunches while we were working for them. On the very first day, Tucker and Anna provided the materials for some of the most delicious tacos I have ever eaten. Not only did they share what they had with us, but they also cooked the ingredients for us, which made the lunch seem more personal, like we were a family sharing a meal.

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Thank you, Tucker and Anna!

Thus, at the end of the day, even though working at Slack Winery was an assignment for a class, we were still glad that we had the chance to do it. Personally, I would not have ever expected myself to work at a winery, but through this experience, I was able to step out of my comfort zone of scholarly inactiveness and into the labor-heavy, hands-on world of the winery. Although this is such a cliché, there are definitely things that you can’t learn without stepping outside a classroom!

 

For now, though, it’s goodbye to Slack Winery and our volunteer service. It’s also goodbye to our class, Books That Cook, and the Spring 2013 semester, Rice and my junior year of college.

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Goodbye, Little One!

It’s also goodbye to this blog. Thank you for taking the time to read it! I hope that you have gotten something out of it.

Until next time,

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David Rice and Jessica Chen

05.06.2013

What I Learned

Coming into Books That Cook, I already had a pretty good idea of how food works. I have an uncle who is a chef, the rest of my family can keep up with him decently in terms of culinary skill, and my mom is a dietician who has run an entire cafeteria dedicated to health food after college. In short, I thought I knew what I was getting into. And to a certain extent, I was right, but nowhere near as much as I thought.

One good example of this is simple gardening. My family has a small garden at home, but we tend to plant everything at once and then pick it in the same way, which means that we have to either pick crops that have the same season or ignore their seasons slightly, pushing them to grow a little bit early or late. Through this class, and especially through working with Tucker, I have learned more about the benefits of planting things at different times as well as what good dirt is and how to turn bad dirt into a beautiful loamy soil that looks like potting mix you would buy in a store. I also got a good feel for the sheer amount of effort that would go into growing food to seriously support just a few people, let alone the family of eight that I come from.

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The good stuff.

I also learned more about food than I expected to: I now know quite a bit about sauerkraut (sorry, I’ll stop mentioning it eventually) and plan on making a lot of it this summer and next year, and I got to learn a surprising amount about beer which has made hanging out with my friends who are amateur brewers that much more fun.

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Now, we’ve been at an actual brewery.

However, the most important lesson that I learned wasn’t any particular piece of knowledge about how to grow potatoes or ferment various plants. It was the lesson of what it means to do a hard day’s work of menial and physically demanding tasks. I was not unfamiliar with hard work before I worked for Tucker, as I have worked as a mechanic for nearly half a decade, but digging up clods of clay and fixing the soil was a different level of work entirely. I still have the blisters from over a week ago, and that was just from working for a few hours with water breaks every so often. I can only imagine the exhaustion involved in doing a job like that for a full day on a regular basis. The amount of respect that this work caused me to gain for everyone who has decided to do anything related to agriculture for a living is boundless.

Going into this volunteer work, I had been worried about being more of a hinderance than a help, but I got over this fear quickly. The thing that helped me get over it was the realization that even if I was doing things poorly, they were still getting done faster than if I was not there to work at all. I was also never made to feel like I was being a burden, which was wonderful. If anyone reading this ever has an opportunity to volunteer on any sort of farm (or even a large garden) I would highly recommend that they take it: the worst case scenario is that you only learn a little bit.

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It’s been a great year, a great class, and a fantastic volunteer opportunity. Thank you for reading!

~Rice

Beer

The last day that we volunteered at Jubilee Farm, we finally got to do something related to wine! After all this time, we helped with work that was actually relevant to the fact that we were technically volunteering for a vineyard/winery. What is it that we were doing, you ask? We were de-labeling and cleaning old wine bottles so that they could be used again. Of course, they weren’t actually being used for wine. They were instead being used for homemade beer.

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The wine bottles came in huge tubs.

The process of cleaning was relatively simple, if time consuming. First, we wiped down the outsides of the bottles and filled them a small amount with a cleaning agent called Sparkle, which worked fabulously.

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Tucker adding Sparkle to a bottle.

We then had to shake them up to allow the Sparkle to coat the inside and cut through the dirty residue inside.

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Shake it!

After each bottle had been shaken several times, we added a small amount of hot water from an electric kettle to each, gave them a final shake, poured them out, and quickly gave the insides a rinse with clean water.

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Rice rinsing out the wine bottles.

We did this one crate at a time, with fourteen bottles in each crate. The main limiting factor in how fast we could do this was boiling the water: eventually we had over half a dozen crates waiting for hot water that were otherwise ready.

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The crates in question.

After we had cleaned bottles, it was time to sanitize them. This involved mixing a sanitizing agent into water and rinsing the insides of the bottles out with this mixture. It ended up leaving them partially filled with what looked like soap bubbles, even after drip-drying, but Tucker assured us that this was how it was supposed to look, and we were then able to fill the bottles with the batch of beer that was ready for bottling. This whole batch ended up filling approximately thirty champagne bottles, which would be impressive were it not for the fact that we washed over eight times this many bottles.

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Finished!

While we were washing bottles, Tucker taught us a little bit about beer. Like sauerkraut, it is much simpler than most people think. It mainly consists of boiled barley, hops, and sugar. Of course, the combination of these ingredients along with anything else that you want to use to flavor the beer makes the process much more complicated. There is also the fact that having any part of a storage container (or anything else that the beer comes in contact with) not be completely sanitized at any point during the brewing will ruin the batch.

Once the beer has been mostly made and is ready to be bottled, more sugar is mixed in. This is done so that while it is in the airtight bottles, it will continue to ferment and become carbonated (any bubbles that did exist in the beer are ruined by the rather violent movement through tubes into the bottles). This secondary fermentation takes approximately two weeks.

The actual bottling was relatively simple. All that it involved was filling the bottles to a level that looked reasonable and then capping them. Capping only requires a hand-powered bottle capper (which costs less than twenty dollars) and caps (which cost around seven dollars for a gross). This was also the most fun part of the day, as capping a bottle is an incredibly satisfying feeling.

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A day’s good work!

~Rice

From The Winery To St. Mary’s

So, it’s great that Rice and I have been able to complete volunteer service at a winery – the experience has opened at least my eyes to how intense gardening and the beer bottling process can be. However, such experiences won’t really be useful in real life if we’re not planning on being winery workers or farm hands, right?

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How do we take what we learned and apply it to our lives?

Wrong.

 

Actually, I realized that though the skills we picked up haven’t been instantly applicable to the “real-life” situations of a college student, the knowledge of the gardening process and the ideas behind the creation of food are definitely much more applicable.

 

Before taking the Books That Cook class, I never was one to really think about what I was eating. I mean, I understood that eating junk food and instant ramen all the time was probably not a good idea. However, it was never a huge deal to me what I ate because I have always been one of those people who didn’t gain weight, regardless of whether I ate poorly or healthily. Thus, topics such as how much work it took to bring vegetables to a market for others to eat or how much of a farmer’s income can be left up to chance never really crossed my mind. Perhaps it’s because I usually live in a more urban area where farms were a rarity and food could only be seen in stores, pre-prepared, but I definitely felt removed from the origins of food. Yet, when we set out to complete our service hours at the winery, I could see how vegetables started for the first time. I now knew that in order to grow potatoes, one had to cut up the potatoes according to where the shoots were and bury them in the soil. Robust collards started out as puny little shoots that have to be transplanted in neat little rows. And dirt! Dirt had to be prepared through more grueling labor than I had ever previously imagined. Labor had to happen before any plants or seedlings even touched the soil.

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See that pile of dirt in the background, labor had to go into that!

Thus, when I visited my college’s cafeteria, The Great Room, I would be reminded of these images when I looked at the vegetable dishes. At one point, those foods had been whole and part of nature, alive and looked after through the painstaking work of farmers. When I visited The Grind, a sort of campus convenience store, I found myself looking at healthier options, ones that seemed closer to those plants I had helped cultivate while at the winery. I started looking after myself more, and it’s been great. I waste food less now – I start feeling guilty when I see leftover vegetables on my plate because I now know at least a little about the labor that goes into growing them.

 

I have not only come to appreciate my food more, but I have also begun to appreciate farmers and others who grow things for a living more. Through my Asian Studies courses, I know that in ancient China, farmers were some of the most high up in terms of social class (second only to scholars!), valued because they actually created things themselves, while merchants occupied some of the lower classes because they merely traded what others created, and did not create anything themselves. Now that I have experienced a little bit of what it’s like to grow things myself, I can see how the reasoning behind this “farmers-on-top” system works – it’s time-consuming and energy-consuming work that is worthy to be respected!

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Ancient China…because I sort of just talked about it.

Anyways, I hope that when I return home from college and am once again in a society removed from agriculture, I will still remember these lessons that my volunteer service has allowed me to experience. Because although I don’t farm or garden at St. Mary’s, the ruralness and beauty of the area easily calls back my time at the winery. When I go back to the shopping centers and processed food of my hometown, I feel like this recall will be more difficult, and so, the struggle will have to continue.

– Jessica

Sauerkraut

Every day that we worked at Jubilee, we were provided with a delicious lunch. The first day that we were there, this lunch was some of the most delicious homemade chicken tacos that I’ve ever had. Most of what went into these was fairly standard: chicken, corn, cheese, and tomatillos. But the best topping by far was the homemade sauerkraut. It was made in large strips with red cabbage, rather than the finely shredded mush that you get in cans, pale yellowy brown and barely resembling cabbage at all. After tasting it, I asked Tucker how he made it.

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What the sauerkraut Tucker made pretty much looked like. (We had not taken pictures that day! XD)

Now, sauerkraut is a very complicated food, but I’ll try to keep it simple. First, obtain your cabbage/red cabbage/bok choy/other cabbage-like leaf, as well as anything else that you want to flavor your sauerkraut (peppers, other vegetables, and so on). Next, cut it into whatever sized pieces you want, ranging from large thick strips to finely shredded. Whatever size you end up choosing, you should make sure that it is all the same size, or at least that the cabbage is. The non-cabbage additives should be in smaller quantities and pieces. If your pieces are fairly large, you should now bruise them slightly. Next, salt everything: it should be salted enough to draw out the moisture, but how salty you make it is really up to you. Put your salted leaves in an airtight jar and weigh them down. You should let this sit out for around two weeks to allow it to ferment. The weight on top is to keep the leaves from floating on top of the brine that is drawn out by the salt. If you want, you can add extra water to make sure that it gets covered easily, but this should not be necessary and will make the sauerkraut less flavorful. Finally, after two weeks, you can store the delicious result in a refrigerator.

I was excited by how simple this process was, and decided to scour the internet for more information. And that’s when the trouble started. People just couldn’t agree on how to make it properly: weight on top or not; added water or not; re-using brine or not; what sort of jar is best; what sort of jar is worst; how large you should chop your cabbage; how long you should allow the sauerkraut to ferment before refrigerating it. There seemed to be no end to the arguing. Luckily I stumbled upon two very useful guides (which I will link to at the end of the post). One of them was the most laid back guide I found, with no strong opinions on there being any sort of right way. The other was a scientific approach to sauerkraut making that delved into jar types, water adding, weighing down the leaves, and how much of the bacteria that make sauerkraut ferment the way it does were in each batch at various stages of time in the process. This same author also wrote a very impressive article on how the fermentation process works in general and what will influence how your sauerkraut turns out.

In my search for how to make sauerkraut, I discovered something wonderful. Not only is this a delicious and cheap food (and it is very cheap, since cabbage is only seventy-five cents per pound), but it is absurdly good for you. Sauerkraut is high in vitamins C, B, and K, as well as calcium, magnesium, fiber, folate, iron, potassium, copper, and manganese. It also can be used to help cure canker sores. In fact, it seems that it is even better for you than just the plain cabbage! Truly, this is one food that is greater than the sum of its parts.

~Rice

Laid back guide: http://grannysvitalvittles.com/easy-to-make-sauerkraut/ 

Scientific guide: http://www.nourishingtreasures.com/index.php/2012/07/03/sauerkraut-survivor-final-report/

Fermentation guide: http://www.nourishingtreasures.com/index.php/2012/05/15/the-science-behind-sauerkraut-fermentation/

Work At The Winery: Transplanting

One of the more simple jobs that Tucker assigned me to do when he discovered my shoveling weakness was transplanting. Transplanting is basically any moving of plants from one place to another. In the case of what I did at the winery, I was told to transplant tiny collard and tomato plants from small containers into the newly repurposed soil that we had just been working on.

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One of the gardens we worked in.

Transplanting comes with a variety of benefits when it comes to gardening. For example, plants that have been transplanted often are more uniform in appearance because their predetermined spacing when growing in the small containers keeps them confined to their own areas, allowing them to grow while preventing competition from neighboring plants, which can sometimes happen with direct seeding. Additionally, because plants are spending less time in the ground, they are able to withstand harsh weather better. When plants are in their containers before being transplanted, they are able to mature and develop stronger root systems, which then helps them better withstand less than ideal weather conditions when they are finally planted out in the open.

 

Not only does transplanting allow for better plant survival, but it also lessens all sorts of costs. Because transplants are often raised in greenhouses, the water usage in greenhouses is less than used in an open field. Furthermore, because transplants have already done most of their growing in a greenhouse and not in the fields, the fields have less stress because they are not bearing the initial burden of newly growing plants. Similarly, there is less weed stress because while the transplants are still in the greenhouse,there will be no plants in the ground when the weeds germinate. Transplanting can also lessen the need for increasing land usage, thus increasing the chance of a greater yield. All of these elements mean that there is a lessened cost for labor because the lessening of weeds and upkeep that result from the usage of transplants. Transplanting even saves on seed cost: since transplants are more strong and hardy, they are usually more likely to survive. Thus, there is no waste of seed.

 

When I was transplanting at the Slack Winery, Tucker would bring out small containers holding the little plants. Setting them aside, he would indicate where he wanted me to transplant the spouts, marking a straight line and then telling me how far apart the plants should be. I would then take the little plants out of their containers, and then loosen the soil attached to the roots with my fingers. After that, I would use my fingers to dig a shallow hollow in the earth, burying the roots of the plant into the repurposed earth and then patting the earth back down around the base of the plant.

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Finished product!

The entire process was very simple, yet at the same time, very important, which is why I was scared that I wasn’t doing it right. During our first visit to Slack Winery, Tucker gave me the task to transplant collards. It was the first time I had tried transplanting since completing a second grade science project. Thus, I was really nervous about my transplanting abilities – I didn’t want the collard plants to die because of my incompetence! However, my anxiety was assuaged when I returned to the winery the following week, and Tucker congratulated me, saying that pretty much all the plants I transplanted had taken hold and survived.

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My little troopers!

The feelings that I felt then were ones of pride and joy. Pride because I had finally done something right at this farm and joy because I had helped ensure life for these new collard plants. Needless to say, when it came to transplanting tomatoes later that day, I wasn’t nearly as anxious as I was when I was transplanting the collards.


For more information on transplanting, please visit these sites to learn about the benefits of transplanting and the process of transplanting.

 

– Jessica

Dirt

Of all of the things that we did at Jubilee Farm, we dug more than anything else combined. We dug one garden for potatoes, another for tomatoes and hops, and started a third for sweet potatoes that Tucker plans on using to make vodka when they grow. Through all of this digging, we learned a very important fact: the majority of Maryland soil is absolute garbage.

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Gross.

By garbage, I mean that there was anywhere from one to three inches of topsoil followed by solid clay. Of course, that is if you are extremely lucky. If you’re unlucky, the clay will be mixed with huge numbers of large rocks that you have to dig around. As we dug this oh-so-wonderful soil, we saw the remnants of the plants that had tried to grow in the clay the previous year. The roots were extremely thin and wiry and did not go more than a few inches down. Truly, this ground was not fit to be called soil. It was time to fix this.

The first step in turning bad dirt into good dirt is quite simple: you dig it up. We dug down anywhere from eight inches to a foot in patches that were over a dozen feet long and almost half as wide and piled the “dirt” off to the side. In total, I would estimate that that we dug at least two hundred cubic feet of dirt, if not significantly more. This would not have been too bad, as clay comes up in huge chunks, but we had to break these chunks into smaller pieces with our shovels so that we could eventually shovel it back more easily. This was the most labor intensive part of the process, but also the most simple and not the most time consuming.

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Dirt trench we dug to repurpose the soil.

Next came mixing the dirt to make it fit for planting. We did this by slowly layering dirt and peat moss, then tilling it together after each new layer was added. We did this using a gas powered rototiller, which was remarkably fast and easy to use. In previous years on other gardens, Tucker said that he had done this by hand, which was time consuming and difficult; I’m inclined to believe him and not try to do this myself. After we had mixed in the majority of the dirt, we added perlite to the topmost layer or two. I’m still not entirely clear on what perlite actually is, but I do know that it is organic, looks like broken up foam, most of comes from Pennsylvania, and is for aerating the soil. Tucker also said that it is difficult to have too much of it, and that soil can in fact be up to thirty percent perlite before there are any negative consequences.

While perlite is still something of a mystery to all of us, the purpose of peat moss was made more clear. This powdery brown substance works a lot like mulch, keeping moisture and nutrients in the soil as well as aerating it. However, unlike mulch, which deteriorates on a yearly basis, peat moss stays in the soil for approximately half a decade, giving a much more permanent fix. This means that for the next few years, Tucker will only have to do a small amount of soil repair. Also, on the first day of working with peat moss, I learned the most important rule of soil fixing: get as little peat moss on you as possible. This is actually quite hard to do, as clouds of brown dust will go flying everywhere if you aren’t very careful.

Once the dirt was properly mixed, it came time to plant potatoes, tomatoes, and hops. In doing this we got to learn Tucker’s personal philosophy on growing vegetables: more is better. I wasn’t the one who planted the tomatoes, but I know for a fact that the potatoes only had half the recommended distance between each spot, and the hops were planted end-to-end in a row instead of being spaced several feet apart. I don’t actually know how much space we made for sweet potatoes, but the plot that we dug for them was almost as big as the rest of what we did combined. In the end, we planted enough potatoes for a feast, enough tomatoes for a family of Italians, and enough hops for a drunkard.

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Before…

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…After!

~Rice