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Friday, January 22, 2010

scary rooster

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

It's in the jeans.

I am that strange breed of woman. The kind that hates shopping. My first few minutes in a shopping mall are spent taking in the sounds, the smells, the colours and possibilities of so many purchases. I wander around aimlessly, distracted by everything I did not come to the mall for. Finally, I get focused on whatever it was I went there to buy, in one of the usual places (Bluenotes for jeans, Suzy Shier for office clothes, Sirens for party outfits). By now the formaldehyde (that they put in the clothes to keep them “fresh” on the shelves for months) is getting to me and I’m incredibly thirsty and I have a headache. I know the clothes in these stores fit me, so I grab my size in a few different colours and head home. I hate trying clothes on – especially in those stores that don’t offer mirrors in the change rooms. Inevitably I will get home and realize something doesn’t quite fit – usually because they have changed the style (making the waist extra low so that you look like a plumber when you sit down, for example). Still, I would rather return to the mall another day with a return than spend an extra half hour trying things on. I realize this doesn’t really make sense but that’s the way I roll. Buyer’s remorse is a common malady for me.
So one day after Christmas I ran into Bayshore and picked up two different pairs of Paris style Bluenotes in waist size 30, length 34. Same style and size I’ve worn for two years, since I gained my Farmwife fifteen. One of the pairs was a dark denim (for work) and the other was a light stonewash (for play). I wore the dark pair a couple of times but it was at least a week before I got around to trying on the light pair.
And they didn’t fit. They were so tight, I felt like a stuffed sausage. If it wasn’t for the fact that the other jeans of a different denim but the same size fit perfectly, I would have thought that perhaps I had once again “blossomed”. But I hadn’t. I didn’t.
I was thinking these thoughts, summing up the effect in the full-length mirror in Paulina’s room, when something out the window caught my eye. One of my sheep was tangled in a length of twine at the hay feeder. She was lying on her side, struggling to free herself and only making it worse, of course. The twine was wound tightly around her neck.
I ran down the stairs, threw on my barn coat and stepped into my boots. Grapping the exacto knife on my way through the stable, I quietly rounded the bale from the opposite side, sneaking up on the sheep. She was making a strange moaning noise. I dropped down onto my knees, straddling her. Still lying on her side, she attempted to bolt away from me. I gently sat on her and searched through her fleece with my fingers until I found the twine. I cut it with the knife and freed her. I checked her all over for damage before I got up and helped her to her spindly feet.
It was at that moment that I realized I was still wearing the jeans. Without snowpants. And I had straddled a smelly, lanolin-laced sheep. The jeans didn’t fit. I had to return them. Yes, they cost me a grand $20. But I am a low-maintenance chick. And $20 is $20.
It’s a good thing I didn’t get tossed into the manure pile.
The next day, I headed back to Bayshore, and returned the jeans for another pair of the same style and size but still another denim. This time I tried them on. They fit fine. Tighter than the dark denim but not as restrictive as the light ones.
I don’t imagine Bluenotes incorporates a return policy wherein the merchandised is laundered before it returns to the shelves. And so I would like to declare, if you are the person who has purchased my returned pair of stonewash Paris style Bluenotes jeans in size 30 waist, 34 length, and you sense the faint scent of sheep on the denim, I apologize. And I assure you, the sheep that was straddled was a particularly clean one.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

I knew you were comin' so I baked a cake

If I knew you were comin' I'd've baked a cake
Hired a band, goodness sake
If I knew you were comin' I'd've baked a cake
Howd-ya do, howd-ya do, howd-ya do...

I hear that song in my head every time I bake a cake. Actually, truth be told, I am not in the habit of baking cakes but my mother did have a song for every occasion and that was the cake song.
I too have a song for every occasion now, and when I taught English to youngsters in Taiwan I became known as “Teacher Mary Poppins” as a result.
Anyway, back to the cakes. A week or so ago, the Farmer and I did one of our favourite things, which is hosting a dinner party. Six of our friends came over and my husband cooked up a storm. For dessert, he decided to make flambéed rum bananas and pears. I went to Food Basics and found a bag of ripe bananas for a dollar. Which was great, but the Chef only needed eight ripe bananas and I had about twenty-four.
Don’t get me wrong – I know what to do with over-ripe bananas. You peel them and throw them into a ziploc bag in the freezer and when you get a craving for a fruit smoothie you just pull one out, plop it into the blender with some yogurt and a dash of real maple syrup and voila! Instant Breakfast.
You could also combine the frozen bananas in the blender with some rum and call it a daiquiri. I did all of these things but I still had more than a dozen bananas left over.
As a young mom raising three daughters, I rarely served dessert. I was obsessed with keeping the girls’ eating habits healthy and their fat cells to a minimum. None of them have ever had a weight problem and I would like to get some credit for that. But they do have quite a sweet tooth as a result of being denied treats for most of their upbringing. Paulina’s sense of rebellion has manifested itself with an art installation of candy and gum wrappers in a collage on her bedroom wall.
When I bake something, everyone knows it’s going to include zucchini or wheat germ or something healthy in it as a hidden surprise. I usually cut the sugar in half or substitute honey or maple syrup. It typically ends up tasting “too healthy” and I have to eat the rest of the batch myself.
Enter, the Farmer. He is a strong believer in the phrase, “if you’re going to eat dessert, it’s gotta hurt.” This man has been known to retreat to the couch with a tub of ice cream, a pie and a fork. He has what he calls a “healthy” appetite.
Back to the bananas. So the Farmer walks in and sees me drinking a second banana daiquiri (it was a smoothie but he saw the bottle of rum and assumed the worst) while trying to find room for the remaining dozen bananas in the freezer.
“Why don’t you just make a cake?” he asked. “I love banana cake.”
We have a family dinner every week and either Lorna or Margaret (sometimes both) shows up with homemade pies, cakes, butter tarts or squares. Everyone oohs and ahhs over the sweet treats, often with syrup dripping down their chins. The Farmer does the main meal. I occasionally toss a salad. I am rarely on the receiving end of culinary accolades.
On this particular weekend, my husband’s words sounded like a challenge to me. “I can bake a cake,” I thought. How hard could it be?
The one and only time I tried to bake a cake in the past was for my now 20-year-old daughter Milena’s eighth birthday. I don’t know what I did wrong but the cake turned out so hard that I tossed it into the backyard for the birds and within an hour the kids were using it as a puck for street hockey. I kid you not.
This time I was determined to succeed. I mashed the bananas, mixed in the sugar, olive oil (took a risk there, substituting for Crisco) and vanilla. I only had three eggs and it called for four but they were large and so were the bananas. So far, so good. When it came time to add the dry ingredients, however, I was stumped. The stupid recipe instructed me to “add dry ingredients alternately with ½ cup water”. What the hell does that mean? I had to ask the Farmer. He took this consultation as an invitation to oversee the entire project. I quickly corrected him, took his advice and then shooed him out of the kitchen. The recipe called for a bundt pan and I didn’t have one of those either so I took another chance that two pie plates would suffice.
Just over an hour later the house was filled with the scent of baked bananas. I let the cakes cool, then followed the directions for butter icing in the Five Roses flour cookbook that my husband has been using since about 1970.
You know something? I can bake. I bake a mean banana cake. Seriously. I was so proud of that cake, I displayed it on a cake stand and let Milena decorate it with silk flowers before taking a photo of it. It’s on my blog, if you care to have a peek. It looks good enough to eat.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

cake i baked

Gloria and her flair for the dramatic

“You’ve got another lamb,” the Farmer announced on New Year’s Day. That makes five: two on Christmas Day, two a few days later (one needed a few bottle feedings of milk replacer to get him going but he made it) and this one. I guess that fluffy little Dorset wasn’t just fat; she was pregnant.
“Where?” I asked, heading to pull on my snow pants and boots.
“Ah relax. They’re fine. I put them in the horse stall. Come watch the rest of the movie.” We were in the middle of a Jimmy Stewart movie marathon. And I was undressing the Christmas tree. I like to multitask so I don’t feel guilty loafing in front of the TV.
For the next hour I kept thinking of the lamb and her young mother (I’ll call her Gloria for the purpose of storytelling) in the horse stall. I wondered if it was warm enough in there. I tried to enjoy my pre-dinner cocktail and movie. For the record, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey is no substitute for Rye in a Manhattan. I abandoned my drink for a glass of red wine, and was just about to rinse the booze down the sink when the Farmer claimed it for his dinner recipe. I think we are calling it Pork Manhattan. I’ll let you know how it turns out.
I fried some green onions in butter and turned them into the rice that I had cooked in beef broth. Rinsing the romaine leaves and rolling them in a tea towel, I placed them in the crisper…to crisp. Then I turned to look at my husband. He was already in his snow pants.
“Well come on, then. We might as well move those sheep. Girls want their stable back.”
The girls, our two Belgian mares, were becoming quite territorial of late. We feed them grain, water and our best hay when they come into their tie stalls at night, and again every morning. But still when we turn them out to the barnyard they head straight for the hay feeders, knocking sheep left and right with their snouts and scaring the cows out to pasture to search for greens poking through the snow.
The horses spend the next few hours circling the hay bales as they eat, and the sheep have to become quite crafty. I figure Gloria was probably burrowed cozy beneath the feeder, nibbling on the underside of the bale when she (much to her surprise) gave birth. That’s where the Farmer found them. He decided to put Gloria and her babe in the vacant horse stall temporarily, knowing they would be safe and warm until he could organize another sheep pen.
When we arrived, the lamb was safe in the corner of the stall, tucked in behind her mother, who was just a year old herself. Lack of experience didn’t hinder Gloria’s maternal instincts however, and she protectively stomped her foot at my approach.
“Get her,” the Farmer instructed.
“Oh yes, you’re a good mama,” I cooed, as I swooped down and scooped her lamb up into my arms.
“I meant the ewe! That lamb isn’t going anywhere. Put him down.”
Without releasing my hold on the newborn I pinned Gloria’s head to the side of the pen with my knees and when she tried to wriggle free I gently sat on her neck, flattening her to the ground.
“Ok, or do that,” the Farmer sighed. Well, I was proud of myself.
Again he directed me to put the lamb down, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. The horses had their heads in the stable, and were trying to squeeze past the ATV that stood in the doorway to see what was going on in their stall.
Ideally, we already have the expecting ewes in the lambing room when they give birth. This one caught us by surprise and we needed to move the little family so we had to be creative.
Holding the lamb to my chest with one hand, I helped the Farmer to lift Gloria onto the front of the ATV with my free hand. He hog-tied her while she complained audibly and the lamb responded. The horses found all of this activity very interesting.
The ewe firmly lashed to the top of the ATV, we made our way out to the barnyard. The horses followed close behind. Very close behind. Suddenly, Ashley darted in front of me, blocking my path. She snorted and pushed her nose onto the lamb in my arms, as if to knock it from my grasp. I spun around and scolded her. Again she circled me and aggressively stopped me in my tracks. Gloria continued to call her lamb and he bleated a blue streak in response.
“What the hell is wrong with this horse?” I called, my adrenalin pumping. All 1800 lbs of Belgian mare kept blocking my path, and I had to dance to stay out from under her dinner-plate hooves.
Suddenly the Farmer appeared in front of me. “Ashley. No!” and she snapped out of it, backing away.
The horses thought the noisy newcomer was a threat. When the Farmer discovered the birth under the hay feeder a few hours earlier, Misty tried to stomp on it. Are we going to have to segregate our animals again? I thought they had learned to get along over the last year but apparently when snow covers the ground and food is scarce, all bets are off and no one feels like playing nice.
Finally we were able to tuck Gloria and her newborn into their own pen in the maternity room. The other ewes and lambs baaed a greeting. Gloria backed her lamb into a corner again, and stomped her foot at me as she nickered to her young.
“Good mama,” I repeated, and headed out to the barnyard to check for more ripe udders.
I can just imagine the conversation after we left. The other sheep craned their necks to peer into the newcomers’ pen. Gloria said, “phew. That was rough. I hate that part where they hog-tie you and strap you to the ATV.” And the other sheep would have laughed, shaking their heads before going back to their sweet feed and hay.


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Turning the page on 2009

The Farmer was right. He predicted we would have new lambs by Christmas. I was in the powder room curlin’ my hair when his big smile came around the corner and announced that the ewe had had two big fat lambs early that morning.
I grabbed my camera and headed out to the barn. Both of the ewes ensconced in the pen were knickering at the lambs, so it was difficult to tell at first which one was the mother. The lambs were up and feeding, and the ewe seemed to have an udder bursting with milk. All very good news. The other ewe should be giving birth in another week or so, we think. And there may be at least one other pregnant ewe out in the herd. We have to watch for udders forming.
If you form an udder, you get put in the lambing pen and fed a cup of grain every day on top of your hay and water. You are sheltered from the wind and rain and it’s a fairly nice, cozy resort, all in all.
The Farmer picked up a truckload of sweetfeed for the new mothers. It amazes me that the sheep on the other side of the barn know when I’m scooping sweetfeed. They must be able to smell it. Or maybe they know the sound. Anyway, when I come back through the barn I am faced with an entire herd of silent, disgruntled-looking sheep. It makes me feel guilty. But that stuff is expensive. I can’t just give it to everyone.
That was a nice, mild Christmas day – and a good one for driving, thankfully. But now we are having an iced-over Boxing Day. Just as well. I was looking forward to having absolutely nothing to do.
While I was procrastinating over housework this morning, I decided to read my favourite blogs. Jon Katz writes about his beloved dogs at Jon has authored more than half a dozen books about his life on the farm, and my favourite stories are about Izzy, the Border Collie who accompanies Jon on his trips to visit the residents of the local hospice. It’s amazing how in some cases a dog can connect with someone in the end stage of life when no other human being could. Jon’s natural gift with words and images lends a poignant tone to his daily journal entries. I find them very moving.
On the flipside of the blog scale, there is Ree Drummond. Her irreverent look at her life on a cattle ranch with her husband (whom she adoringly refers to as “Marlboro Man. The source of a million hiney tingles”) makes me laugh out loud. A city girl in her former life, Ree wrote “Black Heels to Tractor Wheels” to trace her journey from the city to the farm. Like me, she didn’t choose the farming life. She chose the farmer. Another thing that I believe we have in common is that neither one of us really considered how our lives would change when we took up our respective positions as farmwife. But we have both happily discovered that it suits us well. I personally can’t imagine life in a city being more fulfilling than life on the farm. And I certainly can’t imagine life without my Farmer.
Ree loves to cook in a “way to a man’s heart” fashion that laughs in the face of carb, fat and calorie counts. I bought her cookbook, The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Countrygirl for my sister for Christmas. The great thing about this book is that it is full of step-by-step photographs of the recipe preparation process. Complete with little complementary quips from the cook/author. From her Rib-Eye Steak with Whiskey Cream Sauce recipe: “Spoon the sauce over the steak. And don’t skimp! You want to taste the deliciousness.” And in her recipe for Fancy Macaroni: “Stir to combine, and try not to pass out over how good this smells. And don’t even think about tasting it. It’ll be over for you so fast it’ll make your head spin.”
Reading Ree is like spending an hour chatting with your best friend. Over a really good glass of shiraz and some decadent cheese. I urge you to check out her blog – or look for her cookbook today. I’ve challenged my sister to cook her way through each page, and to bring the results to Sunday dinner to share with the rest of us (smart thinkin’, huh?).
Okay, I’ve given you something to do on a rainy day, and I’ve written my column. My work here is done. It’s time to go out to the barn to see how my new lambs are faring. But before I go, here are my New Year’s Resolutions for 2010:
1. If one of my children wants my attention, I will attempt to put everything aside and give it to them, for they may not ask twice;
2. I will strive to give the benefit of the doubt before assuming the worst;
3. I will gain access to the kitchen ahead of the Farmer and cook at least one real meal per week;
4. I will read all of the books that I have purchased over the past six months (there are at least 12);
5. I will pick up the phone and call my family and friends for no reason at all, a different person each week, instead of messaging via email and Facebook.
2009 was a difficult 12 months for more than one of my friends. For others, it was a year of treasured moments to remember forever.
We have no idea what 2010 will bring, but we now for a fact that a year can change everything for anyone. Here’s hoping your year, dear reader, is full of health and happiness.


The Myriad Meanings of Christmas

How did Christmas week sneak up so fast? My goodness. Here we are. My thoughts this week have been about finding a farrier with a portable stockade, so that I can get my Belgian horses’ hoofs trimmed. They refuse to lift for their pedicure so they will have to be trussed up, I’m afraid. But I am thinking now that I should be writing about the celebration of Christmas. Of course, if you have a mobile stockade or you know someone who does...CALL ME. I’m in the book.
What does Christmas mean to you? When my girls were little and my social life revolved around church choir practices (I kid you not), Christmas was a time when we celebrated the birthday of Jesus. We even made him a cake.
As time went on, the children grew up and life got busier, Christmas became the only time when we got to see our extended family relatives.
Grandma Leeson is a very wise woman. The well-respected matriarch of the family, she holds a “command performance” Christmas gathering the first Saturday of December every year. She doesn’t send invitations. She doesn’t even call to see if you are free. It’s the first Saturday of December. You have plans. Be at her house on King George Street by 8pm unless you are hospitalized, extremely contagious, working, or out of the country. There are no other excuses. This understood commitment, like our Fisher Farm Sunday dinner, holds the family together. Without it, we would not be able to keep track of how many children (and now grandchildren!) each of us have. We might even (Heaven forbid) address a Christmas card to a cousin and her (ex) spouse. It’s all about keeping in touch and up-to-date. It’s a good tradition.
For two years now, there has been a ghost in the room at Grandma’s Christmas Party. He used to hold court in the kitchen, telling jokes with the men. He was the very snazzily dressed, self-appointed bartender, and he poured generous drinks. Don’t worry – we all had a D.D. His last Christmas with us, in 2007, Dad had to take a nap halfway through the party. But he didn’t miss the event. Because he wasn’t hospitalized or contagious. Or out of the country.
This year we have children on the edge of finding their own paths in life. That’s scary – more for us than for them, I think. But I would like to think that Christmas with family is still very important to them. They seem to enjoy the endless gatherings.
For the Farmer and I, this is our fourth Christmas together, and I can honestly say we are even more in love today than we were when we married. For us, Christmas marks the passage of time and a celebration of all that we have found together. Man, did we win the lottery.
But there is a shadow hanging over Christmas, which forces us to remain cognizant of the suffering that is being endured around us. We have family missing loved ones and longing for the past. We have extended family members fighting cancer and clinging together in the time they have left. We know of people who have nothing, for whom Christmas is a time of sadness and disappointment. We know people who seem to have everything, but no one to give a gift to or share a meal with this holiday season.
So as we celebrate another year on Earth, we must remember to be sensitive to those who don’t feel like celebrating right now.
Someone once told me that as her children were growing up, she was finding it very difficult to accept the commercialism of Christmas. She hated the lengthy, expensive, detailed Christmas lists and the pressure to live up to the hype. So she decided that each year she would challenge her family, and particularly her teenaged children, to find a way to show the true meaning of Christmas. One year, they went to the local seniors’ home and sang carols while playing the guitar. Another year, they baked Christmas cookies and brought them to the soup kitchen. That day the teens surprised their mother by staying to volunteer as servers. They wanted to experience what they had given to these people who had nothing.
Isn’t that what it’s all about? Another friend of mine told me that she goes to the local seniors’ home with her choir to sing carols during the holidays, but while she is there she asks the administration to choose one elderly woman who might appreciate a visit from someone like her. You see, she lost her mom to cancer a while back, and Christmas is a particularly painful time for her. So she sits with someone who has no one to celebrate with, and they talk and enjoy each other’s company and it’s a mutually gratifying experience. My hope is that we can all find a meaningful way to celebrate this special season.
From all of us at the Fisher Farm, may your holidays be filled with exceptional moments that you will always treasure...and if anyone knows a farrier with a portable stockade, email me!

Gearing up for Christmas

One or two of our ewes are “bagging up”, as the Farmer says. That is a rather indelicate way to explain that they are developing an udder. Apparently they were impregnated by Rambo back in July, before we had a chance to lock him up. In any case, all signs point to at least two of our ewes giving birth before Christmas.
The snow has arrived, and no one likes to be born into a snowdrift so we wrestled (correction: the Farmer wrestled) the expectant ewes into the lambing pen. They look pretty comfortable in there; the Farmer just finished stapling plastic up over the open windows yesterday.
I’m happy to see the udders because it means the ewes will have milk and I won’t have to worry about staggering out to the barn in the middle of the night with a heated baby bottle full of milk replacer. Not that I mind feeding new lambs. I’m just not very fond of it in lieu of sleep.
Of course, when there are lambs in the barn I am always running out there to see what they are up to. The lambs get themselves stuck in the feeders, they fall into water buckets, they squeeze out of the pens through gaps in the wall and then can’t find their way back to their mothers. They are constantly getting into trouble. A friend of mine suggested that we put a video camera in the barn so that we can watch sheep TV. But I can see myself getting obsessed with that. I’d be checking out the monitor every few minutes and panicking when one of the little ones moves out of camera range.
Someone else suggested I use a baby monitor, but unless the sheep are trying to communicate with me directly, I probably won’t be able to figure out what they are talking about. Besides, I gave away my baby monitor back in 1993 when it started picking up conversations in other homes. I felt too much like a voyeur. And I’m sure our neighbours with monitors would really appreciate having the sounds of a hundred sheep cutting in on their frequency.
While we wait for the sheep, we prepare for Christmas. Even those of us who are militant about not falling under the commercial spell of fuss and expense have things to do to get ready.
You would think that our 200 acres would yield at least one good Christmas tree. Well it didn’t. The Farmer and I rode the ATV to the back of the pasture where the spruce grows. None of the trees were suitable candidates for our symbol of Christmas, but we thought we might lob the top off one of them to make a tree for our daughter’s apartment. My dear husband hauled himself up into one of the trees, face full of snow and branches, in an attempt to saw the top off of it. It wasn’t until I picked my way through thorn brush and deep snow that I saw the other side of the “tree”. It was completely bare of branches. He finished sawing and it fell to the ground. I watched his (snow-covered) face as he walked around to examine the back of it. “It’s not a Christmas tree. It only has one side. If we give her this she will think we don’t like her anymore.”
And so we came back to the house soaking wet and empty-handed. It’s a good thing too, because when the offspring arrived for Sunday dinner, she announced that maybe she didn’t really want a tree after all. Sigh. She’s such a city girl. I gave her some extra garland and a package of gold balls and told her to have fun decorating. I’m glad she wasn’t too disappointed.
After dinner, I gave the girls the job of decorating our tree (a beautiful 7-foot model, purchased at the Johnson Brothers farm on Townline Road). As they untangled garlands of beads and hung ornaments in strategic places all over the tree, they chatted and laughed. I took pictures. Poured some rum into my eggnog and put my favourite Christmas CD on in the kitchen.
“You know it’s Christmas when Mom breaks out the Celine Dion,” my eldest declared.
Happiness is watching my girls together, laughing, teasing each other, and reliving memories of Christmases past.
As always, but especially during special occasions, the ghost of Dad is in the room, laughing along with us, and reveling in the joy that is family.