I can cook. I mean, I’m not about to win Top Chef or anything, but I know my way around the kitchen. Part of my identity is tied to cooking. I relish the smile on a friend’s face when you bring them a fresh baked treat. I take great pride in putting a nutritious meal on the dinner table that prompts comments from my 4 year old like, “You’re the best cooker person ever.” One of my aunts even calls me Betty Crocker. Now, whether or not she means it as a compliment, I can’t say. But I enjoy the nickname all the same.
Out here, without electricity or a conventional range, my cooking is mediocre. On a good day. There have been more failed meals in the past month than I can count. Common adjectives to describe my best efforts have included mushy, undercooked, burnt, or just “off”. Many dinners have ended up in the dog’s bowl, and on occasion even the dog has been reluctant to eat it.
For someone who once had dreams of working as a chef in a high end restaurant, this has been nearly soul-crushing. If I can’t even put something mouth-watering edible on the table for my family, who am I exactly?
But my failure, though highly unpleasant, has been beneficial in other ways. It has reminded me to be humble, that there will always be someone who is more informed on absolutely any subject than I am. It has reminded to be patient, that something I deem to be a simple task could be very challenging for another person just starting out. It has forced me to muster up every bit of perseverance I have to continue to fight what seems to be a losing battle. It has forced me to try, even when success is near impossible. Because even if I don’t succeed, I will certainly learn. And as Henry Ford once said, “Success is 99% failure.”
Sigh. If you’ll excuse me, I need to go Sharpie that on the back of my hands before I go make yet another attempt dinner.
Winter solstice has finally passed. Each and every day is just a little longer than the last. And like clockwork, I feel that gardening itch coming on…
My mother is the best gardener in the world. It’s true. You know that scene in Ferngully where the fairy thing makes a seed sprout in her hands with her mind powers? Or something? Yah, that’s my mum. She’s amazing. Not only did she raise my two sisters and I by herself, she also is a world class gardener, seamstress, baker, and sweet Moses, does she ever make a mean bacon sandwich. Of course, she doesn’t think all of these things about herself, but they’re true.
I spent many summers in her garden, which, in my memory, was a botanical wonderland. To this day, the aroma of healthy, sweet-smelling dirt and tomato plants immediately make me think of my beautiful mother. As in most everything, she tried to include us in what she was doing, allowing us to “help”, and teaching us in so gentle a way that I often didn’t even realize I was learning. It helped that she grew a lot of edibles and never seemed to mind when very little of it ever actually made it to the table before it ended up in our mouths.
While I didn’t necessarily inherit my mother’s remarkable green thumb, she did pass on her love for all things that grow. As I’ve gotten older, I kill fewer and fewer plants. I’ve actually resurrected some in the more recent years. And of course, every spring, I feel the insatiable desire to put something in the ground, to nuture it, to watch it grow.
Our fall garden was a miserable failure. Initially, it showed great promise, which of course lured in the rabbits, the armadillos, the deer, and the feral hogs.
In fact, the only plant that survived was the garlic that I anxiously await harvesting in the spring.
A (really) good garden fence is on the to do list.
But the weather is meant to turn really cold this week (cold, of course, being a relative term), which is customary for this time of year in Texas. So garden fencing will get put on the back burner while we install the wood burning stove. (See what I did there? No? Never mind.)
Frost or no frost, there are a few things I mean to do in the next week. First of all, there’s garden planning to be done which will involve pouring over this beautiful catalogue from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and putting together an order.
Then I have these Glaskin Perpetual rhubarb seeds that need to be planted. And these peach pits, saved from the most mouth-watering white peaches I’ve ever tasted, are destined for pots. I have no idea which particular variety they are. But apparently peaches are a fairly sure bet here in Texas, so I’m planting first and asking questions later. (The pits were stratified for several months while we still had refrigeration.)
Of course, I may have to wait a few days until after our last frost date before doing any serious planting. I may have to wait 92 days, one hour and 5 minutes. But, you know, who’s counting?
I like chickens. Okay, well, sometimes they drive me crazy. Sometimes, like when they devour my orchid in a single hour, I dramatically vow to eradicate them from the face of the earth. But usually, I find them fascinating.
I’ve kept chickens off and on for a little more than a decade now. (A decade? Really? Am I that old?) And I’ve learned a few things about them over this time. I’m by no means a chicken expert, but I’m pretty comfortable keeping them these days.
Over the years, we’ve bought White Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Barred Rocks, Dominiques, Barnvelders, Welsummers, Ameracaunas, and both black and white Silkies. Today, I have all of the above, minus the white leghorns, plus a bunch of hybrids.
We keep them for eggs, except the Silkies whom we keep as live incubators. And boy, do they do a good job of it.
Recently, there were a couple days where, for various reasons, eggs weren’t collected. And wouldn’t you know, two of my Silkie hens saw this as an opportunity to go broody again.
If you’ve never kept broody chickens before, there are a few things you need to know.
First of all, broody chickens are ever so slightly crazy. They make what I imagine an alien growling would sound like if you get too close. (My husband makes me watch too much sci-fi.) If they are not used to you getting near them, and sometimes even if they are, they will ruffle their feathers and peck ferociously at you if you push their boundaries. And, at random, they will do the same to other chickens in the coop, often seemingly unprovoked. Reminds me of myself during pregnancy…
Secondly, chickens can only successfully hatch a certain number of eggs at one time – about a dozen for larger breeds and 6-8 for bantams. However, this doesn’t stop other chickens from adding to their nests. Yesterday, for example, I found 21 eggs under one of my Silkies. That will never work and certainly not in the winter. Sitting hens are constantly turning their eggs and rotating them from directly underneath to the outer rim of their clutch for even warming of all the eggs. If the nest has too many eggs, the ones on the outer edge will get chilled and die. And since then hen will eventually rotate all of the eggs to the other edge, she will essentially be robbing herself of food and exercise for 21 days for absolutely nothing.
What can you do about this? Grab a pencil. Go feed the chickens as you normally would. Your broody hen should get up to eat. (They take 15-30 minute breaks, depending on the weather, for sustainance.) Determine the number of eggs she can hatch based on her breed and select that number of eggs and mark them with the pencil.
Remove the remaining eggs from the nest.
Now other chickens will probably keep laying under your sitting hens, so you will have to check for and remove new additions each day at feeding time. DON’T try to do this while your hen is on the nest. Not only will your hand pay the price, but if you disturb her too much, she may abandon the nest completely. This is especially true for non-bantams. The larger breeds have essentially had mothering bred out of them, so small disturbances can completely throw them off.
Be sure to mark on your calendar approximately which day your hen(s) started sitting, then mark 21 days later from your start date. This will be your estimated hatch date, though it could go a few days either way depending on the weather.
My hens started sitting about a week ago. The weather has been beautiful. However, whether the hens know it or not, we’re about to have some really cold weather. I have seen broody hens abandon their nest because they know that they cannot keep their eggs warm enough. Normally, I would keep my incubator on hand just in case. But as we aren’t using electricity right now, I plan on insulating their nesting boxes as much as possible with extra straw and hope for the best.
Winter hatching certainly has more risk involved, but who knows? Maybe will see some new baby chicks around here in a few weeks!
When my 7 year old feels it necessary to tell every stranger he meets that we don’t have electricity or running water, I get looks that say either, “Maybe I should give them some spare change,” or, “Maybe I should call CPS.” I also get all kinds of well-meaning, but semi-frantic questions.
Just in case you were wondering the same things, I will attempt to answer those questions here as best I can.
1. “How do you stay warm?” Well, we have a propane heater, the Mr. Heater Big Buddy. It does a pretty decent job of keeping the house comfortable, but it’s also needed a lot of tweaking. We also have a wood burning stove. But it’s not currently installed because parts for it are really hard to find in here Texas. Go figure. Hopefully, we’ll have that up and running soon.
2. “How do you cook?” I use Dutch ovens and charcoal or fire. It’s fun, it’s rustic, but it does require more planning and a lot more time. With temperatures being what they are outside this winter, water does not boil using this method. Just for the record.
3. “What about a fridge?” We don’t use one. We keep a limited supply of cold food in a cooler with ice. The pantry, however, is well stocked. We have bought a refrigerator with very low energy consumption that we hope to run off solar panels in the near future.
4. “What about lights?” We have solar lanterns, but honestly, the most effective light we have is my husband’s rechargeable Dewalt flashlight. I am currently in the market for a reliable light that doesn’t suck up batteries that should be used up by screwdrivers and recip saws. Any recommendations would be much appreciated.
5. “How do you charge your phone (or other electronics)?” Well, we started with using a solar charger. But unless you have a really sunny day and it’s sitting right out in the open, it doesn’t charge. So I switched to charging it off my car battery. But since then, my husband and the boys set up a charging station for electronics using a car battery and an inverter.
6. “You don’t use any electricity at all?” Not quite. We run a generator every couple of days for a few hours at night to recharge our charging station, finish drying a load or two of clothes (it’s been too humid for clothes to dry completely on the line), and to revel in the luxury of indoor lighting. As a side note, it is amazing how much you appreciate one lit LED bulb when you’re used to flashlights.
7. “What about going to the bathroom?” Let’s just say that I have really brushed up on my hole digging skills. Every time I make a comment about this, my cheeky husband smirks and replies, “Hey, WWJD?”
8. “How do you stay clean?” Baby wipes, hand sanitizer, cold well water sponge baths, and hot showers at my sweet mother-in-law’s when I just can’t take it anymore.
9. “How do you wash clothes?” Like this.
With a washboard and a clothes line. And by occasionally visiting a sweet family member’s house or a laundromat when we get overrun by dirty laundry. And that certainly happens with five children.
10. “So where do you get your water from?” We have a well that we pump using a generator. Water is stored in large plastic barrels for laundry, cleaning, and watering animals. Much to my chagrin, we still used bottled water for drinking. At some point, we hope to have the generator replaced with a solar pump and a storage tank, and install a reverse osmosis filter for drinking water.
11. “Is it as bad as it sounds?” It really isn’t. But it’s not easy either. As my mother-in-law said, “There’s a reason people invented washing machines and all of the other modern conveniences.”
Water. It’s a big deal. It’s an even bigger deal when you have a limited supply. Aside from bottled water, I wasn’t sure what items would be most helpful for this time without running water.
Now, three weeks into it, and having had very, very little water this past week, I feel like I have a better grasp on what we’d need to be prepared for water shortages in the future.
Here is my list of items that have been life savers over the past three weeks:
1. Bottled water – Obvious, I know. But running water or not, you’re going to have to drink. We also use it for brushing teeth and cooking. You could also buy one (or more) of these fancy filtering water bottles if you have water nearby that isn’t necessarily clean.
2. Permanent markers – For conservation of the aforementioned bottled water. Feel free to skip this one if it doesn’t bother you to have your kitchen invaded by 3 million half-finished water bottles that everyone insists they have never laid eyes on before. Sigh…not that this has ever happened at our house.
2. Baby wipes – Not just for baby bums! These things are great for wiping muddy hands, feet, faces, you name it. And should they dry out, just pour a little of that bottled water (preferably from the abandoned bottle someone forgot to write their name on) over the dry wipes and you’re back in the game.
3. Disinfectant wipes – For wiping down food surfaces. Some may argue that baby wipes will suffice, and they may be right. But these things give me peace of mind, so I’m leaving them on the list.
4. Hand sanitizer – I know this stuff gets overused in our culture. But if you’ve just finished cleaned out your chickens’ nesting boxes and you need to go make lunch for the family, you’re going to be glad you had some.
5. Paper towels – You’re going to need to clean something at some point. And if you don’t have water for cleaning, you’re not going to have it for washing dirty cloths and towels either.
6. Febreze – For when you can’t do laundry, but your clothes don’t smell (ahem) as fresh as they could. Trust me, it’ll happen. Also, if you need to do some spot cleaning on an article of clothing, head back to those trusty baby wipes.
7. Cornstarch – Quick, cheap, and natural dry shampoo. You can even get non-GMO versions if that’s your thing. Just take a little and rub it into your scalp until your hair feels clean-ish again. You won’t look like you’re wearing a powdered wig, I promise. It blends in. (Thanks to my brilliant sister-in-law for this tip!)
8. Homemade detangler – Especially helpful for the littles around our house. It’s really easy to make. Pick up a small spray bottle. Put about a tablespoon of conditioner in it and fill the rest of the bottle up with water. Shake well. Then just mist over hair and comb. That’s it. We affectionately call this “Magic Spray” at our house. And indeed it does magically get our little girls looking less like feral Amazonian warriors and more like princesses.
That’s my list so far. Now, I realize this list is not particularly sustainable. But going without a reliable source of water isn’t sustainable. These are just items that will help you get by until you can establish a water source.
If you know of anything you think should be added to this list, I would really, really love to hear it!
Change, however big or small, is always accompanied by a period where you can’t help but wish for the way it was. And then, at some point, it no longer is a question of whether things are good or bad. They simply are.
I am almost at that place. I am trying to not care that we too often don’t have clean clothes or dishes. I am trying to be grateful for little things like sun so I don’t have to take the girls potty in torrential rain, or wind so the laundry will dry. Often, I remind myself to look up at the natural beauty around me when exhaustion weighs my head down.
It has been nearly three weeks since we took our first steps on this journey. I have had more moments than I can count where I was sure I couldn’t last another second. Yet, here I am.
The children barely seem to notice the cold, the dark, the lack of significant variation in our diet. It’s baffling, really. How can it be that I feel, at times, as though the world is ending while they laugh and giggle on the couch, playing together like life couldn’t possibly be better? I honestly spend time each day, watching them and marvelling at this phenomenon. And in those moments, the question I constantly come back to is not, ‘Why don’t they care about all the things we don’t have?’ The question is always, ‘Why do I care about those things if they don’t?‘ I don’t yet know the answer to that question.
Caleb and the boys have made a fancy charging station involving a car battery, battery charger and an inverter to refuel cell phones and laptops. (And there was much rejoicing in the land.) When necessary (and possible), we run the generator for an hour or two in the evening to recharge the car battery, as well as lighting one LED bulb in the living room and drying a load of clothes if the weather permitted washing that day. My favorite thing about the recharging station is how much the boys have learned about direct and alternating currents. They (carefully) switch it over from charging the battery to charging electronics at correct times.
(This charging station replaces the solar charger I mentioned over here. Don’t buy that thing. It’s a piece of junk.)
We are still without any conventional means of cooking. I have discovered that not all charcoal is created equal (that’s right, Brookshire’s store brand charcoal, I’m talking about you!), and that Kingsford Match Light is a beautiful thing.
Between the rain and two broken generators (not to mention the two that were stolen), laundry is getting pretty desperate around here. (No generator means no water.) I caved this morning when one of my little ones woke up with wet bed sheets and decided we’d have to make a trip to the laundromat. So we sorted and stuffed nine large garbage bags full of clothes and sheets. We gathered together snacks and books, and got everyone ready to go. Finally, I went out to bring the car near the door for loading, but, wouldn’t you know, the car got stuck in the mud. And rain is predicted for tomorrow was well.
Murphy and his stupid law are having a field day over here.
We hope to begin on the outhouse this weekend. I never, ever thought I would look forward to the construction of an outhouse. Oh, how the mighty (or at least pretentious) have fallen.
I love hot chocolate, but not nearly much as I love frozen hot chocolate. The frostiness, the rich creaminess, the chocolatey goodness…it’s oh-so-right.
I thought living without electricity would remove this delicacy from the menu for a while. But then my husband did something crazy. Ever the optimist, he bought a carton of ice cream despite the fact that we have no freezer. Of course, it should come as no surprise that by the time I pulled it out of the cooler two days later, it was melted…mostly. It had the consistency of really thick whipping cream, which is essentially what it was.
I don’t know what compelled me to do it. Perhaps it was the fact that my car was stuck in the mud and we were due for more rain, thus limiting my ability to get more groceries. But I just couldn’t bring myself to throw the non-ice cream out. So into a bowl, I poured it, along with some milk and chocolate syrup. I had notions of heating it up to make super rich hot chocolate, but I thought I ought to taste it before I light yet more coals.
I’m fairly certain the clouds opened up to rays of sunshine while choirs heralded that first sip. Freaking delicious.
And so, here it is for you, my happy accident. It’s not the cheapest way to make this drink, nor the most swimsuit friendly. But sweet Moses, is it ever good.
Camp Frozen Hot Chocolate
1 1.5qt carton of Breyers French Vanilla ice cream (you could use a brand other than Breyer’s, but why would you want to?)
2 cups milk
2/3 cup chocolate syrup
Let the ice cream melt just until it can be stirred. (How long will that take? Depends entirely on the temperature that day. Our ice cream was just the right consistency after 3 days in a cooler with ice in a 65F room. But, you know, if you don’t want to wait three days, just don’t keep it cold.)
Pour it into a bowl with remaining ingredients. Whisk just to combine.
That’s it. Now, to sit back and really, really enjoy.
So…the propane heater broke, as did the generator Caleb picked up last week. As a result, it was cold yesterday. And we have no water for washing. Ask me how many dishes and loads of laundry I need to catch up on. Actually, don’t. It’s a little depressing.
All the same, I couldn’t stomach the idea eating fast food or sandwiches…again. We had bread, plenty of eggs (thank you, chickens), and luckily I picked up milk at the farm on the way home from getting parts for repairs. And thus, dinner was clear: french toast casserole.
I greased up the ol’ 12 qt. Dutch oven with butter and tore a loaf of bread into pieces. Next, I threw in about a cup each of Craisins and pecans. In a mixing bowl, I combined milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon. Then, I just poured the milk mixture over all of the bread and put the lid on the oven.
As it was a cold night, I used more charcoal than normal, about 14 lit coals on the edge underneath the oven and 22 all over the lid. In about 35 minutes, we had a hot, delicious meal that took very little hands-on time to make!
Dutch Oven French Toast Casserole
1 loaf of bread, torn into pieces approximately 1″x1″
1 cup Craisins
1 cup pecans
3 cups milk
1/3 cup sugar
1 tbsp cinnamon
1 tbsp vanilla
Light 30 charcoal briquettes (or more, depending on your outside temperature), or preheat your oven to 400F.
Grease a 12″ Dutch oven with butter. Throw in the torn bread, Craisins, pecans, or anything else you think sounds good.
In a large mixing bowl, combine remaining ingredients. Evenly pour bread mixture in Dutch oven.
Put the lid on the Dutch oven. Using 1/3 of the hot charcoal, make a ring just underneath the bottom of the pot. Evenly spread the remaining charcoal over the lid. Or, place in preheated oven if baking conventionally.
Allow to cook for 30-35 minutes. Serve hot, preferably with maple syrup, and enjoy!
Every adventure story has its bad guys. Ours happens to have a couple of no good thievin’ bandits…
Last week, Caleb and I awoke to police lights and short siren blasts announcing the Deputy Sheriff’s presence. As our property is fenced and gated off, and because this is Texas, he waited patiently on the other side of our fence in the still-dark morning. And my husband, perflexed but ever calm, grabbed his favorite assault rifle and stepped out on the porch. (I did mention this is Texas, right?)
“Y’all have horses?” the Deputy Sheriff hollered from a cautious distance.
“Horses? No. Goats, ducks, and chickens,” my husband responded.
“Well, I’ve got some horses in the road up there.”
Turns out the neighbors’ horses were out, all five of them, just wandering about on the unlit, 65mph highway with the blind bend in it. Just a tad treacherous. But the neighbors don’t actually live on the property next to us; they just run animals there. And while we have their phone number…somewhere…it’s hidden in one of the unpacked boxes.
The Deputy Sheriff explained that they would have to seize the horses and asked Caleb to let the neighbors know to call the office when we saw them. Off he went to rustle up some wild ponies.
Caleb, being the ever-vigilant protector of our home, knew something was amiss and went to check things out. With his AR still in hand, he began checking the perimeter, especially toward the aforementioned neighbors’ property. Sure enough, he found a front section of their fence and a section nearby that divides our two properties both cut down the middle. Whoever did this wasn’t concerned one way or another about horses.
As it turned out, fence cutting was only their trade by necessity. Their primary occupation was theft. We had been robbed…again. Several thousand dollars worth of equipment was missing from my husband’s shop. Ugh.
Now, I have pity on the theoretical person who robs to feed their starving family. It’s still wrong, and they should just tell me what they need because I’d be happy to give it to them. Still, I get it. But these aren’t that kind of thief. (And really, how many thieves actually are?) We’re talking about the parasites of society who drive really nice vehicles and live like kings off their community’s hard work. (I’d be spitting right now if I wasn’t inside, rocking a sick baby.) Grown men who say, “Nope, work’s not for me,” and drive around all day looking for what they can acquire next with minimal effort.
How do these people sleep at night?!?
But you know what, they don’t. Not well anyway. As mad as I am, especially for my husband’s loss, my husband who works harder than any other human being I’ve ever met, I am also sad for the thieves. Assuming they were able to sell our property for fair market value, they may have made a few thousand dollars. But, in making a life of stealing from others, they are robbing themselves of their own peace. And few things are more valuable than that.
We have been working diligently to get up more cameras and put new security measures in place. If they come back, we’ll catch them. And over time, I have every confidence that my husband will make this place better reinforced than Fort Knox. In the meantime, I do feel somewhat vulnerable. I keep the kids close to the house and carry a shotgun while I go to check the gate each day. But despite the outward chaos of the situation, I have peace inside. I trust that God will see us through it all.
As for the people who stole from us, I pray for their hearts. Let them see a better way to live so that they can find peace. Preferably before they attempt to rob us again. 😉
I have spent my whole life with an endless supply of water. Just open the faucet and I could fill an ocean if I so desired. Sure, there were cartoons encouraging me to conserve it with something about a whale being left helpless in the sand as I leave the water running while brushing my teeth. Occasionally, the water would shut off due to construction or broken pipes, and I would be sent into minor hysteria as I was being robbed of my God-given right to hot showers, and life itself was ending. But most of the time, as far as I was concerned, the fact that fresh, clean water was always waiting in the tap whenever I wanted it left me taking it for granted on a rather ridiculous scale.
Oh, poor, unappreciated clean water, I lament my ingratitude. You are more precious than you know.
Today, my water supply is a well on our property, pumped when necessary using a generator. Eventually, when the house is built, we’ll use a solar pump and a storage tank. In the meantime, we fill 55 gallon plastic barrels to be used throughout the day for laundry, dishes, watering animals, and cleaning.
Washing (both people and laundry) is done in large tubs. And in case you were wondering, the water is cold. Very cold. It’s reminiscent of the polar dips we used to do at summer camp in the Canadian Rockies. It sure wakes you up in the morning!
Bottled water is used for drinking and cooking (despite the fact that buying bottled water irritates me tremendously). We haven’t had our well water tested yet and until we do, better safe than sorry.
On the second day of living without running water, I actually said the words, “I don’t know what the big deal is. This really isn’t hard at all.” Aha…hahaha…HAHAHAHAHAHA!
Yes, Claire, it is. It IS hard. Pumping and hauling water takes so much more time, and keeping up with laundry is nearly impossible. But challenges are character-building, and I have finally learned to appreciate that clean, beautiful liquid that has magically appeared in the tap all these years. I think about all those amazing pioneer women who didn’t even have generators, barrel pumps, or the future prospect of having running water. And then I remember all the people on this planet who live without access to clean water TODAY. At that point, the only thing left to do is shut up and haul buckets of water with a smile on my face. Because, running water or not, I am still one of the lucky ones.
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