Monthly Archives: September 2009

Getting The Lead Out

Dear Reader:

I was going to write about homemade, non-toxic cleaning products today, but my housekeeping aversion seems to be seeping like chemical solvent run-off into my virtual blogworld . . . I don’t even feel like WRITING about cleaning!

Lucky for me, then, that Yahoo posted an Associated Press story on ammunition shortages here in the good old U.S.A., and I was saved from waxing poetic about non-toxic tiolet-bowl cleaner. In “America Armed, But Guns Not Necessarily Loaded”, AP reporter Mary Foster writes that supplies of ammunition are running low, manufacturers can’t keep up with demand, and even Wal-Mart has imposed quotas on the amount of ammo a person can buy at one time.

Americans are on an bullet-buying spree. My question is . . . why?

What are we so afraid of that we are laying in a home supply of weaponry and ammuntion that could satisfy the requirements of a military outpost? Are we overreacting to some half-perceived, shadowy threat looming in the near future? Has paranoia overtaken good old common sense? Or are there some legitimate reasons for stocking up on lead . . . and rifles . . . and handguns?

The munitions grab appears to be at least partially politically motivated. According to the AP article, sales of guns and ammunition spike whenever a Democrat is elected to office. Democrats are seen by the pro-gun contingent as a grave threat to our Constitutional right to bear arms.

In general, the more liberal politicians in our society do tend to be in favor of stronger gun-control laws as means of keeping deadly weapons out of the hands of criminals. Allied with and lobbied by citizen organizations like the Brady Campaign’s Million Mom March, these lawmakers believe that stronger regulations, background checks, and banning of certain types of weapons will keep us safer.

The “pro-gun” organizations and lobbiests and conservative politicians counter that gun-control laws only manage to keep guns out of the hands of the law-abiding citizens . . . not the hands of the criminals.

The National Rifle Association has created a slick bit of propaganda entitled “GunBanObama.” The NRA states that “Barack Obama would be the most anti-gun president in American history.” Click HERE to link to the NRA page. At 4 million members, the NRA is a powerful and influential organization whose aim is to protect citizens’ right to bear arms. Though non-partisan, the NRA’s stance on gun control issues tends to appeal to the more conservative members of our society just as the Brady Campaign appeals to the more liberal.

Our country is divided on the issue, and both sides are more than able to provide compelling arguments and statistics to defend their stance. Both sides have valid points. It’s always been my contention that when in doubt, err on the side of the greatest freedom for the individual and the least interference by big government. However, when people fail to act–or act responsibly–then government must step in. Are we at that kind of crossroads in our society today? I’m not sure. Nobody is sure. And that is the problem.

So, what has President Obama actually said regarding gun laws? In an interview in 2008 when he was running for office, Obama said, “I think it’s important for us to recognize that we’ve got a tradition of handgun ownership and gun ownership generally. And a lot of law-abiding citizens use it for hunting, for sportsmanship, and for protecting their families. We also have a violence on the streets that is the result of illegal handgun usage. And so I think there is nothing wrong with a community saying we are going to take those illegal handguns off the streets. And cracking down on the various loopholes that exist in terms of background checks for children, the mentally ill. We can have reasonable, thoughtful gun control measure that I think respect the Second Amendment and people’s traditions.” (http://www.ontheissues.org/Archive/2008_Politico_Gun_Control.htm)

Sounds reasonable to me. However, what politicians say and what politicians do are often very different things altogether. It is not surprising, then, that 2nd Amendment activists, deer hunters, gun collectors and the like are concerned–perhaps rightfully so–about what legislation a liberal-leaning President might sign in the years ahead. They figure they better get their guns and ammo while the getting is good. Hence, more sales.

Four million NRA members is not insignificant, but even those numbers of people worried about anti-gun legislation cannot account for the serious decrease in ammunition supply. According to another AP story, this one found on FoxNews, some police departments are having a difficult time finding ammunition for training. This is a direct result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where the military uses up tons of ammunition in their fight against the insurgent and terrorist forces in those countries. Does a lack of adequate training lead to a less effective police force? Does a less effective police force lead to more criminal activity? Does heightened criminal activity lead to citizen insecurity? Does citizen insecurity lead to an increase in handgun and bullet sales?

Perhaps average citizens are right to be worried. A year ago, our economy imploded, and while “experts” tell us we are now out of recession, unemployment is creeping up toward ten percent–something we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. People are worried about their jobs, worried about being able to pay their mortages, worried about putting food on the table and paying the pharmacist and holding onto their retirement funds.

Fringe groups are sputtering about the crash of civilization. Some of the previously-hidden weak spots in our society, such as our dependence on cheap, easy to procure oil energy, have been exposed. Survivalists and self-sufficiency experts advocate the stockpiling of ammunition and weapons along with water-purification systems, canned foods, and emergency first-aid supplies in preparation for the coming Apolcalypse. In a worst-case scenario, complete societal collapse would happen quickly, leading to chaos and anarchy. I suppose in that case, a bunch of rounds and some weapons in good working order would be helpful. I’m hoping for a slower, gentler return to a lower-energy world. I haven’t bought myself a gun. Yet.

The thing is, in many communities, crime is already on the rise. We had a rash of breaking and entering in our neighborhood over the summer and again last week. Twice the sheriff’s department parked in our driveway and asked us to keep an eye out for suspects. Since I work at home and come and go in an erratic pattern, our home has been spared so far, but I’m feeling less secure about going away on overnight trips. I’m even more worried about someone breaking in while I’m home and vulnerable. I resent having to worry about this and empathize with those who feel safer with a trusty weapon near at hand.

America was born with the smell of gunpowder in her nostrils. In 1776, Patriots (colonists, not linebackers) grabbed their firearms, banded into militias, formed an army, and took on the Redcoats. Later, the image of the mountain man, coonskin cap on his head and rifle cradled securely in his arm, took root in the American cultural consciousness. Decades of American children have played “cowboys and Indians” and “cops and robbers” all the while conjuring the shiny gun (or sharpened arrow) as part of the imaginative play. Gunfights at the Wild West Saloon or the O.K. Corral or the Prohibition Speakeasy made for exciting pulp fiction stories and cinema magic. Later, television brought us detective and police shows like Hawaii Five-O, Magnum PI, Miami Vice, Hill Street Blues, and today’s numerous CSI’s. Rap music, too, glorifies the gun. Thus, guns are intricately woven into the cultural tapestry here in America.

It’s no wonder, then, that when the going gets tough, Americans go for the lead. We were suckled on it. But is it the only way? Is it the best way? Might there be better solutions to the issues facing us?

I don’t know. I’d like to think that we could get to know our neighbors and form crime watch groups. I’d like to think that we would watch out for each other, share what we have with those who need it rather than wait for them to become desperate enough to steal from us. I’d like to think we could wean ourselves from dependence on a giant, convoluted, impersonal economy and embrace, instead, a human-scale economy based on local production and consumption of goods and services. I’d like to see local agriculture take root again, so we are not enslaved to a fuel-dependent food system. I’d like to see our community bonds strengthened by the ties of local work and local play, so that criminal elements find themselves in an inhospitable environment–not looking down the barrel of one lone homeowner’s gun but rather at the collective defenses of an entire community.

But that’s just me. What do you think?

So Jam Good

Windowsill Garden

Windowsill Garden

Dear Reader:

The end of summer draws near. The garden has been giving up its last fruits–yellow summer squash, cucumbers, one lone green pepper, a couple more chili peppers, a few tomatoes (the ones the tomato worms don’t gnaw), and even a few little carrots. The parsips, their lush green leaves looking prosperous, I’m leaving in the box for colder weather to sweeten before I pull them. I didn’t get the bounty of tomatoes and peppers I wanted for pasta sauce, so I had to look elsewhere for preserving ingredients.

One bright, dry afternoon, I drove on up to Libby’s Pick-Your-Own (click to see their nice website) and plunked myself down in front of a gloriously-laden blueberry bush. The Jersey variety was supposed to be sweeter than the larger Blue Crop, and they didn’t disappoint. I tested one or two but put the rest into my special Libby’s cardboard box I save from year to year. It is now ducktaped on the bottom to keep it together. As I worked, I listened to the chatter of two little girls who had accompanied their aunt to the orchard. Auntie insisted that each girl try at least five blueberries to make sure they were sweet. For the better part of an hour I listened to the two darlings announce they were continuing to “test” the berries while the aunt benevolently encouraged them to yes, keep eating them, but do please put one or two in the bucket once in awhile.

I understand how one might feel justified in encouraging this behavior. For one thing, these girls were clearly from out of state. They’d never seen a blueberry bush before and were amazed at how much better the fruit tasted than the ones from the grocery store. A well-meaning Maine relative would want to expose such innocents to an important Maine product. However . . .

Every blueberry that went into the little darlings’ mouths was one blueberry the farmer would never earn a penny on. I try to impress this fact on my daughter and any children that accompany me to various pick-your-own farms. We shouldn’t just sit there and gorge ourselves. It’s stealing, albeit unintentional.

Usually.

Last year while picking the berries at this same orchard, I listened to a Boston-inflected youth brag to his similarly-toned grandfather that he was going to keep eating as much as possible so he could get them for free. He then went on to speculate whether or not building a fire and baking a pie between the rows of Blue Crop bushes would be possible. I waited in vain for the grandfather to correct this questionable line of thinking. I could have waited until frost closed down the farm for the season. Grampa merely laughed indulgently and commented that someone would probably notice the smoke and they’d get caught. Sigh.

Anyway, after an hour and a half, my box was quite heavy. Back at the barn, I was pleased to discover I’d picked seven and a half pounds of berries and happily paid the eighteen dollars I owed the farmer. As I drove home along the winding, downhill road past old farmhouses and grassy fields and the camps along Pickerel Pond, I planned my blueberry projects. Pie and jam, definitely. Maybe some muffins or a cake. The possibilities were as sweet as the berries.

Back home, we all had some fresh, lovely handfuls scooped straight from the box and still warm from the sun. The following evening I constructed a deep-dish berry pie which I served warm from the oven and accompanied by vanilla ice-cream. Can I just say “to die for?” My stomach is gurgling right now as I think about it.

Despite the pie and a batch of muffins the following morning, I was left with plenty of fruit for the long-awaited jam session a couple days later. I grabbed my new water canner–a traditional black “granite” type affair I’d purchased a few weeks earlier at Plummer’s Hardware–along with the accountrements necessary for a pleasurable perservation experience. These included my jars, a jar lifting tool used for grabbing hot jars from boiling water, a funnel for clean transfer of hot jam from pot to small-mouthed jar, and a funky little plastic “knife” for scraping around the inside of the jar to remove stray bubbles. Pot-holders. Sugar bag. Cutting board and chef’s knife for slicing lemon peel and chili peppers. Chef Michel Nischan’s cookbook, HOMEGROWN PURE AND SIMPLE: GREAT HEALTHY FOOD FROM GARDEN TO TABLE, a gift from my sister when I visited her in May. I’d been itching to try Nischan’s recipe for Blueberry, Lemon, and Chili Pepper Jam, and as luck would have it, I had two red chili peppers from my garden boxes that needed using.

Jam Ingredients in Pot

Jam Ingredients in Pot

Everything went smoothly . . . at first. “I’m a whiz at this jam stuff,” I hummed to myself as I toasted the cinnamon stick over my electric burner, crushed blueberries with sugar, and dumped the mixture into the pot. “I feel just like Julia Child!” I exalted as I put one hand on the waist of my apron and stirred the boiling mixture with my wooden spoon. Before long a most delicious scent permeated my entire house, and I left the environs of my kitchen only long enough to zip to the garden to snip a few sprigs of cilantro to add to the berry mixture in the final minutes of cooking.

I sterilized the jars and put the lids in a pan of hot water. When the jam was thick enough to drip just right off the spoon, I turned off the heat, grabbed the pot, and began to ladle rich, goopy, frangrant jam into the tiny half-pint jars. I topped each one with a lid, and I screwed each rim tight.

Then the fun began.

The water was boiling in the canner, and the instructions said to put the jars into the canning rack before lowering everything into the water for processing. The instructions didn’t know about miniscule half-pint jars. I think the holder was designed for larger Mason or Bell jars–the kind you’d use for vegetable canning–because my little jars slipped right through the openings and to the bottom of the pot.

Enter the jar lifter. Now, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll try to explain this tool. It is like a pair of extra-large tongs only attached in the middle, like scisoors, and contructed more like four loops of metal, two loops to a side. On one side, the metal is covered in a soft, rubber material. On the other, black plastic forms rollers around the metal loops. My mistake was thinking the black rollers were used for picking up the jars.

I’d no sooner get the thing clamped around a jar and begin to lift when the glass would slip and roll back to the bottom of the (boiling hard now) pot of water. Swearing under my breath and feeling quite a bit less Julia-ish, I finally got the jars out of the water and back on the table. Consulting the various instructions in pamphlets and cookbooks, I finally stuck two dish towels into the bottom of the pot where they swelled up and floated to the surface while I gallantly pushed them down and basically threw the jars on top, hoping their weight would hold them on the bottom. Sweating, frustrated, sagging, I put the cover on the pot and set the timer for fifteen minutes.

I wrestled with the jar lifter again, noticing that this time one of the rollers had disappeared and was floating around on the bottom of the canning pot. Luckily, I had an extra lifter–I’d purchased it years ago for a cooking task for which it was not intended and for some reason had held onto it.

As I grabbed the replacement tool, I suddenly realized I was holding the wrong end of the thing. Epiphany! The black rollers were for my hands and the rubber end was supposed to grab the jars. Voila! The jars lifted right out.

Half-pint Jars

Half-pint Jars

Things went much more smoothly after my epiphany. I retrieved the jars from the canner, let them rest on yet another pair of dishtowels on my kitchen counter, and wiped the sweat from my weary brow while listening to the cheerful POP! when the lids sealed.

I scraped a spoon around the now-cool cooking pot and sampled the goods. Yum! The combination of sweet berries and sugar, tart lemon peel, and kicky chili pepper was delicious. I couldn’t wait to try some out with fresh, raw goat cheese served on crackers, which I did the following week when I hosted a dinner party for a few good girlfriends. I don’t know about my guests, but I truly enjoyed the , ahem, fruits of my labor.

I’ve since given away a jar or two, depleting my meager supply, and I am thinking another trip up to Libby’s is in order. Now that apple season is upon us, I’m also dreaming of applesauce and apple butter preserves. I’ll keep you posted.

What have you been putting up this year in preparation for winter? Do you have any words of wisdom or survival stories you’d like to share? Send in a comment. Come “jam” with us, Outside the Box.