Separated At Birth?
Two forces are converging in my life, like nutrinos on a collision course in space, fortuitously mixing (in my optimistic visualization) to allow some wonderful new recombinant form of DNA to result. One is the desire to get seriously back into shape after a year of paternity leave from hardish-core endurance exercise. The other is the imperative in the cheese fanatic side of my nature to make something more substantive than the “beginning” chevre variety I’d heretofore concocted from Natalie Merchant’s daily gift of a half gallon of fresh, organic, scrumptious milk.
I’m a mozzarella man myself. Between sushi — my favorite food bar none — and any kind of pasta baked with some fresh mozzarella, I could probably not just subsist but live a long, healthy life, adding only maybe a healthy morning shake.
I hit some roadblocks en route to both these goals. My hesitation in returning to intense exercise, of course, was inertia. So my new mantra is “momentum. A little at a time. A little more each time.” The roadblocks to gourmet Italian chefhood, though, were both literal and informational. For a start, directions for making mozzarella cheese are invariably scary and book-length. Sample: Warning — Mozzarella is not a beginning cheese. If you haven’t graduated from the James Beard Institute For Higher Fromage Calculus, stick with the simple chevre: it’s much, much easier. And heck, it’s still delicious goat cheese.
Around the middle of Chapter Six in one online recipe I found, I saw I needed a new kind of “Thermophillic culture” for this step up in my cheesemongering, a trade which is nothing if not chemistry. You can save money and avoid danger from traditional test tube acid/base sets by putting your youngster to work on fondue or other cheese recipes, as long as you ask him or her to double the recipe, since cheese is one of the foods that, like cookie dough, mysteriously gets half-eaten during the preparation process.
But I wasn’t going to be deterred: for one thing, I read in Appendix XII of another recipe that I could use the whey (a by-product of cheese-making last seen in nursery rhymes) to make ricotta, another key pasta-baking accoutrement, so my stomach was doubly on board, no matter what the risks. And for another, I looked at the hours of cheese-stretching (about nine all told, separated by a night’s sleep), including enervating “every ten minute” stirring sessions at several critical points throughout the process that the recipes all insisted was necessary for the truly enhanced mozzarella experience, as calisthenics. That is, I anticipated an upper-body warm-up, which would be both a nice counterpoint to and indeed a catalyst for the return to desert distance running I was about to re-embark on each dawn before morning goat-milking, gardening, writing, and pasta/sushi-eating.
I finally passed the mental tipping point of psyched-ness that so-often bogs down big life tasks like home-building and cheese-making when I found a New Mexico source for vegetarian rennet. I knew that was the case because I took the drastic step of actually wiping down the kitchen counter. But on the day I freed to head to town to pick up the rennet at the co-op, I got bogged down by traffic.
Well, actually, poisonous, dense automobile traffic. But all the cars â€“ corporate logo vans and police motorcycles mostly, in actual fact â€“ were swarming and snarling around clusters of stressed-looking bicyclists.
This is how immersed I am in my Agrarian Digital life at the Funky Butte Ranch these days. I didn’t even know that the race was here. I mean, I knew about the race. It was the Big Bike Race we have once a year â€“ it’s been going on since the 1980s and this year Lance Armstrong was in it. But I didn’t know that it was this week, or even this time of year. I could tell you that Obama was meeting with auto executives, but not that my remote county was experiencing its biggest, and to my mind most annoying, economic event of the year. (Want an example of my kind of bike “race”? Check out the Kluane Chilkat International Bike Relay.)
What I know about these days are rural realities â€“ the things that affect my immediate daily life and those of my neighbors (like rainfall needed for beans, behavioral modification necessary for goats, or acreage required for rural property tax breaks), and that seem so foreign to many if not most the town denizens just 28 miles away with whom I might share many of the same ostensible political inclinations.
An airline pilot is aware of the day’s wind conditions, I’m aware of whether I need to drip irrigate on a given dry morning. A townie in a rural part of the American West might also drip irrigate, but he or she might instead be in the coffee shop discussing last night’s episode ofâ€¦um, what are the kids watching these days? Did I hear something about a show called “Lost”?
Man, those bicycles, at least the ones I could glimpse through the haze of support vehicle exhaust, were nearly as high tech as my truck. Suspensions, on-board computers, no doubt eject seats. Myself, I hadn’t ridden my rusting, decade-old bike in probably six months. And yet, in an astounding coincidence, because I also had to drop off the Ridiculously Oversized American Truck (R.O.A.T.) at the shop for some new batteries, I actually had the ol’ bicycle with me on this town trip. It didn’t even have shock absorbers, let alone a sponsor. Still, I briefly considered entering mid-race in the leaders’ drafting pack that I was stuck behind, as a sort of protest against all the air pollution that comes from big-time bicycle racing. But instead I punched some Bassnectar into the iPOD and crept into town, fuming. Literally and emotionally.
I have a system for my rare-as-possible town runs. I pick the tranciest music I can find, and proceed to step out of time. And, on empty roads covering a mere 28 miles, I expect it to be a short time. Which is another way of saying I kind of feel an ownership of these backroads. Folks tip their cowboy hat to my cowboy hat when their Ridiculously Oversized Truck passes my Ridiculously Oversized Truck. They smell something liberal in my veggie exhaust, but usually they let it pass, thinking it’s just their stomach telling them it’s time for some deep fried taquitas once they get home.
Today, though, some Powerbar-graffitied “support van” was spraying fossil fuels in my face for more than a dozen miles before one of its cyclists got a flat. I honked and made a friendly hand gesture as I passed, only to ram on the brakes to avoid smashing into a “Vitamin Water” van fifty yards further along. My biggest hope became that my vegetable oil exhaust was giving some of the cyclists’ motorized handlers the munchies. As usual, it smelled quite a bit like the Kung Pao Chicken from which it was extracted.
Small comfort. I had an infuriating 90 minutes to muse on the difference between rural and town humans, even though, here in a part of New Mexico no one has heard of, most people would lump all of us into some kind of backwoods category. I know this endangered rural lifestyle reality is a phenomenon everywhere â€“ even California has Californication. In fact, I was trying to order some drip irrigation replacement parts for the garden on my cell phone while stuck in this bicycle-related traffic jam, and the customer service fellow complained to me about the “invasion” of outside species that he’s experiencing in northern Mendocino County. Granted, the exotic species he’s referring to is also, technically, human, but of very different behavior characteristics and speaking volume levels than those traditionally found in that rural and ruggedly individualistic county.
“So many outsiders are moving in,” he said as he looked up my account after I asked him how things were going in NoCal. “It’s like L.A. north.”
“I guess people can move anywhere they want,” I said. “We can’t really close the door behind us when we find a nice place.”
“Are you OK?” he asked. “Sounds like you’reâ€¦kind of choking.”
“Oh, yeah, sorry, van exhaust. I’m stuck behind a bike race.”
Look, I’m not living in a dream world. I might live remote, but I’m at least an honorary member of the Geekocracy. I subscribe to and have written for Wired. I’ve been a guest on hip Digerati podcasts and Web sites like the C-Realm and bOING bOING. And my iTunes contains its fair share of electronica. Plus, I should also say that I welcome the moral shift inherent in this Geeks-in-Charge era that we quietly entered half a decade ago. Maybe I should say “this return to community-minded morality, without the naivetÃ© of human nature that characterized much of the original Hippie culture which initially objected to the meanness of the Nixonian corporateocracy.”
It sure was more than time for such a shift, it came about peacefully, and I think the Playa Values are off to a good start. But I also strongly advise my Geekocracy compatriots to remember that no matter how Digital we are, we have to maintain a wide-enough perspective on Existence in the Cosmos to recognize that must not forget to take care of our physical planet. In short, we have to stop the sprawl or die. (I was just edging into the chain restaurant/sprawl part of town as I had this thought. Over-large and over-motorized bike races are another symptom.) It’s not like it’s challenging or counterintuitive to make ecological sustainability as much of a core societal value as Love Thy Neighbor and Thou Shalt not Kill.
For one thing, basic math shows that sprawl, AKA “short term development,” is not sustainable for human life even over the medium term. Second, converting to a sustainable society can be profitable. And third, what a flooringly beautiful garden we’ve been given on this Earth. It feels good, easy and right to make sure we treat it lovingly so that our own human progress can continue. It’s win win win win. The fourth win being for all other plants and animals that also depend on the Earth’s air, water, open space and other natural nutrients.
On a personal citizenship level, one great way to fight sprawl is to form a phone tree with like-minded neighbors, and take turns attending local planning board/city council/county commission meetings: any time some horribly unsustainable development is sneakily proposed, make sure everyone on the phone tree calls all the elected officials concerned between 10 and 11 p.m. that night and every night until the plan is dropped. A good technique is to make sure the sprawl developers aren’t allowed to tap into the municipal water supply.
These are the kind of thoughts that are on your mind when it takes an hour and a half to drive 28 miles to town thanks to a bike race. I guess I shouldn’t complain. Old-timers tell me their grandparents used to take all day to go to town on horseback for school. The mathematics don’t quite add up on that claim, but it must be true: humans were different and more honest creatures three generations ago.
Thus delayed by more modern means than a horse, but by less modern means than a car, I had my two missions in town: drop the R.O.A.T. off for a new battery, and then bike, while the motorized vehicle was being worked on, to pick up the new organic vegetarian rennet I had managed to dig up thanks to a kind goat rancher in Central New Mexico. So what if on the first chance I’d had to bike in town in half a year, there also happened to be about 6,000 other cyclists to contend with, including Lance Armstrong.
“Think I’ll be confused for a racer?” I asked my buddy KB (who was also on a town run) as I de-rigged my chain bike lock from my waist outside the Adobe Springs CafÃ© where we were having lunch, and shrugged off my backpack.
“Racer?” he asked.
“Bike racer. The bike race is this week.”
“Is that why all those obnoxiously-dressed outsiders are demanding fast waitress service in New Mexico?” One of them, a “race photographer” with a Bluetooth set in both ears, had just elbowed ahead of us in the line to be seated. This is not typical southern New Mexico behavior.
“I know. It’s like demanding honest government in Illinois.”
It’s true: folks in my valley, though a few are certifiably psychotic and a couple resent some of Abraham Lincoln’s most famous policies, are more likely to know how to trim a ruminant’s hooves than to fix a bike tire tube. We’re up with first light, and all those quaint but accurate clichÃ©s. When we meet on one of our narrow dirt roads (before one of us backs up to let the other one by), the conversation can go on for 45 minutes, covering everything from soil enrichment to European Union policy on genetically-modified seeds.
As usual, before an hour was up, town pace was starting to wear on me: it was both too slow and too fast. I keep thinking that the truth is so loud, the commercials protesting-so-much, that even television-addicted, high fructose-corn syrup-fattened people are going to be shocked into a return to survival. But the first suburban acquaintance I ran into after lunch, told what I was in town to pick up, looked at me like I was a combination of Amish and potentially militant.
This is how hunkered down survivalists are created. I confess that it was with immense joy and relief (and with barely a pause to pull the goats out of the rose bushes), that I dashed the heck home (swerving to avoid un-sponsored bike race stragglers, whom I respect), parked the upgraded R.O.A.T. in a cloud of vegetable oil exhaust, grabbed my new packet of rennet and got on to the making of the actual Natalie Merchant Mozzarella.
As promised, advanced Cheesemongering indeed proved a workout compared to the “can’t-really-go-wrong-let-alone-poison-yourself” chevre I had earlier focused on here at the Funky Butte Ranch. But not for the reasons I thought. Sure, my sweetheart and I stretched the dripping hunks of curds back and forth across the kitchen for a couple of days, while the dogs drooled like circling sharks around our legs. We looked like a blend of Italian and Maurice Sendak kitchen caricatures, covered in whey in our skivvies. But the real workout was the Zen one of molding 190-degree cheese molecules and closing the mind to fairly urgent messages sent by scalded fingertips. My expression in the photo that starts off this Dispatch is the one you’d see in a child when he touches his first hot stove pot the second time: after he’s been warned. Only I wasn’t just doing it intentionally. I was doing it for hours.
The whole Moz-making process, though admittedly somewhat long by Val-U-Meal standards, wasn’t as complicated as the recipes warned, and was far more fun. The secret to good mozzarella, evidently, is to use enough citric acid to ensure that the cheese gets stretchy, but not too stretchy. I think we went a little high on the acidity levels with our debut batch, which hurts elasticity (or maybe it was too low), but overall it wasn’t bad for a first effort, at least according to the copious directions that implied anything short of poisonous, let alone amazingly delicious as this two-pound batch was, was to be celebrated as a success.
My only remaining concern after 540 minutes of molten cheese curd stretching in a motion reminiscent of late night television abdominizers was the irritatingly constant warning in every recipe about “keeping your hands, bucket, and goat’s teats clean during goat milking.” This is to avoid the kind of bacteriological poisoning one generally sees in news reports about Chinese milk and corrupt peanut factories. Clearly the authors of these recipes had never owned goats, nor had children, nor lives of any kind to speak of. I’m out there milking after collecting chicken eggs, weeding the garden, working on some journalism, and changing a diaper. All inherently dirty activities. Funky Butte Ranch milk is “clean” in spirit only. I’d describe it, by the time it enters the house, as “freckled.” Plus I don’t think my stove or indeed my kitchen cutlery has been disinfected since the first Clinton Administration.
But guess what? No one’s as relived or as astonished as I am that after three days of widespread fresh mozzarella gorging, there have been no deaths from poisoning. And the taste? Well, Funky Butte Ranch/Natalie Merchant mozzarella benefits from When You Make It Fresh and At Home From Your Own Ingredients It Tastes Best Syndrome. This is perhaps the most consistently accurate truism in the history of platitudes. Shipping stuff, manufacturing it, pasteurizing it, sticking Vietnamese child slave laborers fingers into it, shipping it in a diesel freighter container across the world â€“ these (shocker!) affect taste. Yet this batch of moz, although it hardened up a bit due to my inexperience, had a creamy, light aftertaste and all the magical stretchy finish the Italian cheese fancier could ask for. And I am not speaking lightly in my praise of this cheese: I’m sure the reader recognizes by now that that I am nothing less than a mozzarella aficionado, maybe even an addict. This stuff was outstanding.
My sweetheart and I feasted on (a more elegant if not a more accurate choice of phrasing than “gorged on” or the even more apt “inhaled”) that first pound of mozzarella fresh, according to the same olive oil, homegrown basil-and-homegrown tomato recipe (and with the same results) as described in Farewell, My Subaru. Then we baked for a couple of days: three cheese ziti was our only sustenance until that first batch of moz ran out. (Home-made ricotta and store-bought parmesan were the other two cheeses.) And as soon as it was gone, my sweetheart and I, in unspoken agreement late one night, started in on some sushi. In my book, there are three things that there are never enough of in the world: love, sushi and mozzarella cheese.
Although here on the Funky Butte Ranch, we’re working on all three. When it comes to protein, the goats, chickens and ducks seems to be, despite my firm status as a neophyte Organic Rancher, on auto-pilot. They’re unstoppable (now that the upgraded corral and coop keep away coyotes, skunks and hawks). The homemade organic milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream cut out significant portions of the Ranch shopping budget. It’s amazing how much money a fellow who is physically dependent on dairy products can blow just on a goat cheese fix. Now that these Divine Dairy Gifts are off the shopping list, I have extra spending money to blow on things like new sushi rollers and organic goat grain. And let’s not forget about the egg work the birds are putting forth: the Funky Butte Ranch chicken and duck flock is ensuring that my cholesterol level is putting my life in danger from all this healthy living. I mean, how many frittatas and omelets can a guy eat?
Now that I am for the moment sated (a visiting friend told me I smelled like goat cheese, and this was immediately after a shower and two days after the first batch of mozzarella ran out), I have a time to reflect on that other priority about which my inner voice has been dropping hints: cardiovascular exercise. Somehow I see a connection between the two (cheese-gorging and the need to work out).
“Oh, c’mon,” I shout back at my officious inner voice, “I’m outside working on Ranch tasks at least three hours per day – hauling dung, tossing hay bales, weeding the garden, sinking wooden posts for a new shady deck area, bench-pressing an eleven-month-old â€“ and that’s just before breakfast. Isn’t that exercise enough? And anyway, goat cheese is low fat compared to cow cheese, right?”
Then I Googled. Turns out I’m putting away north of 330 calories per one cup “serving” of whole milk mozzarella. One cup? That’s how much I taste during preparation. We’re not even in the appetizer zone at one cup. This entire two-pound batch, which lasted but a few days, weighed in at about 2,700 calories.
So just to be safe (I’ve found inner voices, however exasperating, can be wise), I’m re-starting my distance running routine (pause to listen to nutrinos colliding). As soon as I post this Dispatch. Conveniently at the hottest, driest time of year here in the high desert.
And I feel it important to add that, perhaps because I am so full of post-cheese-feast endorphins, I’m sensing a softening of my feelings about the local bike race. It’s better than an ATV race, one supposes, and I feel I should support human-powered local events, even if there’s more fossil fuel power than human power in town during that week. I mean, anyone who gets outside to move the body at all these days is to be respected.
I’m ready to be in that category again. The cheese-making (like the other Ranch tasks) is a workout, but only for the arms and scalded fingertips. It’s time to move the legs again. Rapidly. Get the heart pumping. And keep the heart feeling. Because exercise alone just keeps your temple clean. The prayers you utter in it are what matter. And so I hereby officially modify my road rage-inspired resentment of those ridiculously-attired bike racers. Welcome, outsiders. Happy cycling. Be patient at our cafes.
Biking is just not generally my mode of exercise of choice. Part of this is a matter of opportunity: if you saw the Funky Butte Ranch “driveway” (the UPS lady is scared to drive down it), you’d know what I mean. Part of it, though, is that when biking, you don’t hear the birds tweet. Except when you stop and remove your helmet. Which doesn’t much make you want to put the helmet back on and resume cycling. So I think it’s running for me. I mean, like, today. Now. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not dogmatic about this. I love bicycling around an old dirt road or an unused forest service track. It’s the nightmare of corporate sponsored races and the danger of most modern roads that I’m staying away from. I can’t wait till my son and I don our helmets and pedal the woods. But I don’t think you’ll find us trailed by support vans.
In closing, I’d like to mention that this Dispatch goes out, understandably enough, I think, to the goats â€“ Natalie, Melissa, and Nico. They might actually read it, given that Hank, the Funky Butte Ranch’s rooster started behaving himself immediately after I suggested in an earlier Dispatch that he might soon be chicken soup if he didn’t stop some troubling aggressive tendencies. Perhaps the Funky Butte Ranch livestock have a laptop out there that they share around. I know the wireless works at least as far away as the chicken coop.
Besides the daily bounty that Natalie now gives after one year of milking (her output seems only to be increasing), which allowed the cheesier elements of this Dispatch, all three in this comedic caprine family group provide the mulch, that is to say the poop-mixed-with-straw, for the Funky Butte Ranch garden, where there are now actual earthworms in what was a patch of desert sand two years ago. The first peas are forming, the tomatoes and chile peppers look great, and the corn and beans sprouts are cutely and copiously pushing up. So thanks yet again, goats. You are (and I mean this in the best way) my fertilizer. You’re more than worth all your goatiness.
Postscript: As I was writing up this Dispatch, I think I heard my eleven-month-old son utter his first word. It was “cheese.” Friends warned us: watch what you say. You never know what they’ll pick up.
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