Falling Into Autumn

Yesterday I brought up the last produce from the garden for this year: some small tomatoes, one cucumber, five small peppers and a very underdeveloped watermelon. Some of the pepper plants actually have flowers on them, which seems weird to me. Most everything else is finished being productive for the year.

The trees have just started to change into their glamorous fall wardrobe, with the yellows and reds really going vibrant in the past few days. We viewed some beautiful scenes as we drove down to the Lumber Liquidators in Huntsville, Alabama to look for flooring to cover the living area of the house. We decided on a bamboo laminate. Supposedly, the installation process is simple enough that we should be able to do it ourselves. It is expected to be in stock sometime next week, so next weekend looks like we have floor plans. (Ba-da Bum)

The forecast for the next few nights have temps dropping down low enough that if I was to shoot a deer, we could leave it to hang overnight to cool and then butcher it the next morning. JoAnna was really creeped out as she butchered the red rooster while it was still warm to touch.

On the subject of cool nights, my next big job will be to enclose the crawlspace area under the house. My insulation guy, Mr. McAfee, dissuaded me from applying insulation to the underside of the floor, saying that it would be better to insulate the perimeter walls of the crawlspace. That will certainly be simpler for me because of all of the HVAC ducting and plumbing that extends through the floor and all around under there. Since the house support posts are spaced with exactly 8ft between edges, I plan to attach a 2x4 ledger running parallel to the posts, recessed back a bit - enough for a 1/2-inch sheet of plywood to be mounted to the center of the posts. I also plan to mount 2-inch thick rigid foam to the inside faces of the walls, which will help keep the cold out from under the house. Eventually, I will cut doorways into these crawlspace walls to allow for storage since the height inside will be nearly 5 feet. But first, I have to just close it in to keep the water pipes from freezing.

Up until now, the chickens have used this area under the house to escape the summer sun as well as for protection from predatory birds. I guess they'll have to do without.

Which brings up another big job on the horizon - building the chicken house for their winter survival. It won't need to be huge since we are down to 8 birds, but we want it close enough to the house that we could run a power cord to it for a space heater to keep them from getting frostbite on the coldest nights. I also want to build it in a way that will keep them safe from predators, even though the only predator we have seen was the giant rattlesnake.

Today we rescued a box turtle from certain death as he was crossing the highway on our way home from the bank. I first passed directly over him at 55mph, and then turned back to try to get him before he became a pancake. We did get to him in time, so now JoAnna is deciding if he will be the newest member of this funny farm or if he will be set free near the pond. (Pun-alert) Having a slow-moving creature around might be a nice change of pace.

We had the Red Rooster for dinner last night.

He was an ornery fellow, getting more and more aggressive as time progressed. First he was jumping at Kelly when he went outside, then he was jumping at the dogs. When the worker from Minor Hill Water District came over to work on the water pressure issues we were having, Red Rooster jumped at him, and then a few days ago, as I was loading my car, he jumped at me. He had no spikes on his legs, but those claws were plenty sharp enough that it really hurt. It was getting to the point where it was uncomfortable taking the dogs outside, because you always had to worry about where Red Rooster was and whether he was going to sneak up at you and attack.
did you know that the term cockeyed comes from how a rooster will look at you from the side, with one of his beady yellow eyes, without turning his head towards you? They wait until you're just past them, and then run up and launch forward, with both feet aimed directly at you, and can hit a target as high as three feet off the ground.
Since I didn't want people visiting the house to be attacked, and since I thought it would be good for both dogs to keep their eyesight for a while longer, I set my sights on eliminating Red Rooster. The black and white rooster isn't so antisocial and violent, by the way.

First step was to corral him. The chickens are pretty tame, but this guy was super skittish. He'd come to food, but I was never able to catch him like that. I thought that I'd try to keep him contained in Render's crate, but the problem was how I'd get him in there in the first place. As Kelly may have mentioned before, after the chickens go to roost at night, they're little poultry zombies. They seem like they're somewhere between asleep and awake: they flap around a little, they cluck, but they're totally docile and won't fly/run away. Since there was no way I was going to catch Red Rooster during the day, I hatched a plan (pardon the pun) to catch him at night.

When the chickens go in the house each night, they go all the way in the back of the enclosure and roost up on a wood-and-wire shelf that Kelly built in there. Hypothetically, I could have gone in and collected Red Rooster while he was sleeping, but the knowledge that so many daddy longlegs also enjoy that enclosure keeps me from going in there.

At about 6pm as it was getting dark, I patiently spent over half an hour guiding the chickens one by one into their house -- everyone except Red Rooster - and then latched the door. In the past, when the door had accidentally blown shut, the chickens roosted on TOP of their house, and I was counting on it happening that way again. I went out again after 10pm with an old plastic rope dog leash looped over itself, and threw the whole lasso over Red Rooster. It worked perfectly, snaring one of his feet in the loop, and I tugged and guided the little zombie to the edge of the enclosure where I could grab him by both feet. Then I put him in Render's crate and went back inside.

Then he's got to be kept off feed for 24 hours before slaughter, I put a big dish of water in the crate in the morning, but other than that, I mostly tried to ignore him. It was an immediate relief to know that I could go outside and not worry about whether the flurry of claws and feathers would be rushing towards me, as that had been a constant threat for at least a week. He still crowed from time to time, but he seemed to look a little more humble.

To Kill a Mockingbird Rooster We've got several books about farming and animal husbandry in general, but as I've never killed a chicken, I wanted to be sure to we did it right. I think if you got 6 books on the subject you'd probably find 6 (or more!) ways to dispatch the creature. I got the biggest, heaviest cleaver I owned and sharpened it carefully. Kelly did the actual killing while I held on to the rooster's feet.

This part only took about 5 minutes. It went more easily than I thought it might, and with a lot less gore than I expected. The bird flapped around quite a bit but I held on tight, and by and by he stopped moving. We hung him to bleed out for a few hours, then I went back outside later and started skinning him.

Skinning? Don't you pluck a chicken? well, you certainly can pluck a chicken, but if you simply skin it, all the feathers just sort of peel off with the skin, which isn't very messy at all. The process of plucking is tedious when done manually, and isn't a simple operation. You need to scald it, which means to dunk the chicken repeatedly in very hot water. This makes the feathers come out more easily without tearing the skin. These were no spring chickens -- as the saying goes -- so a long cooking process of braising (using moist heat) would be required, and keeping the skin doesn't add to the finished product.

Anyway, back to skinning. I started by myself, but Kelly came out after a little while and helped. The part where the legs go from reptile scales to feathers was the hardest part. I flat-out gave up trying to get the feathers off the wings, opting instead to remove the first two sections completely, leaving only the part that joins the body; what is known as the "drumette".

Of course, there's plenty of info online for how to process a chicken. http://butcherachicken.blogspot.com/ is a very complete site by Herrick Kimball, inventor of the Whizbang Chicken Plucker and I dare say one of Kelly's heroes. Herrick has been mentioned here before, and Kelly's been a huge fan of Herrick for a long time.

I cut up the rest of the bird the way you traditionally would, removing the legs and the breast sections whole and with the wing-bone attached (known as a "suprême" when it's on a menu). I left the rest of it alone, and didn't process the rest of the carcass. The back and the breastbone would have made a nice stock, but by this time it was getting dark, and I was a little anxious about getting the guts out. I won't pretend that this was easy. The body was still warm, even after several hours, but gratefully there was no more blood than you'd see in a grocery-store chicken.

After cutting up the sections I intended to keep, I washed everything very carefully outside, and then did a close inspection of the parts under good lighting indoors. I put everything in a big pot with a lot of cold water with spices for stock, and let it simmer for about an hour. Then I strained it out, diced up half of a breast and some leg meat, and set the rest aside. (The meat was tough, stringy and chewy, as I expected, so I tried to mitigate that by dicing it really fine.) I put all but 2 cups of the stock back in the stockpot, adding some finely diced celery and some sliced green onion. Then I made up a batch of späetzle batter (flour, egg, baking powder, salt & white pepper, mixed to consistency with some warm stock) and made a cone from waxed paper, and drizzled this into the simmering stock. When they were done, I took them out and tossed them with some butter, toasted breadcrumbs and sliced almonds. Finally I beat some roux into the remaining reserved stock, then stirred that back into the still-simmering stock, and let it cook out a little. I put the späetzle in a bowl, added some diced meat, and ladled some stock over the whole thing.

To say it was good would be an understatement. We both agreed that it was the richest chicken flavor in a soup that either of us had ever had. Kelly complimented my suggestion of späetzle, and I really liked it too. It would have seemed such a shame to put store-bought noodles into the soup.

So that was our first experience killing, butchering and eating a chicken that we raised from a day-old hatchling.

It felt a little weird, at first, when I ate the first few eggs from our own hens, but now it's perfectly natural to wash eggs in soapy water before making breakfast. This first chicken butchering process was a little awkward, but I think that by and by I’ll get more used to it and more confident.

I think this is where someone might say stuff like, "Don't you have grocery stores where you live?" but that's missing the point. I don't think the point is that we had to do this, but it's because we wanted to. We want to know where our food is coming from. We want to know what it ate and how it lived. That's one of many reasons why we left Los Angeles. Even though moving to TN was drastic, we're going into this lifestyle slowly so we can learn how to do things as we go along. Neither Kelly or I grew up in an agricultural/agrarian environment, so everything we're doing we have had to learn from Step One.

It'll be a while before I stop buying chicken that comes on yellow styrofoam and is wrapped in plastic, but I hope that not every animal we raise is required to literally kick my ass before we eat it!

Today I learned: I wasn't sure I could do it, but I did it.

Progress report

Terry Jernigan poses with the monster cabinet he's building for us!
This is Terry Jernigan, the cabinetmaker we hired to build "the Beast", a pass-through cabinet I designed, to serve as a wall between the living room and the dining room. He called me in to take a look at how he's come along, and I'm sure glad that he did! One of the design elements that was ESSENTIAL to how it would be built -- that is, the structure of the overlapping sliding doors -- was totally wrong. All the drawings I gave him showed 8 pieces at 2 ft each, but the way he built it, it was going to end up as 16 pieces at 1 ft each. He's going to have to re-do the kitchen-side to make it work like I showed him. I also opted for standard doors on the upper-level of the shelf, and little round finger pulls on the kitchen side of the sliding doors.

He asked me what color i wanted it stained, and I told him I'd prefer a walnut brown that didn't have any red in it. He went back into the room where he does all the staining, picked out a can, rubbed some on a scrap piece of the maple he's using to build the cabinet, and it was perfect. Then I remembered, then at one point, he told me that the pine of our French doors would come out looking different, even if we used the same stain. We played around with more scraps and more colors of stain... Poor Terry! It turns out if we use a redder stain on the white maple cabinet, it will be a much closer match to the pure brown stain when applied to the honey-colored pine. He sent me home with a small gatorade bottle of stain and that scrap piece of maple, so that i could do a color test to see what we get.

Terry's an easy guy to talk to. When he was here at the house, taking measurements, he, Kelly and I got to talking about music & food & all kinds of stuff. I told him that the next time i'd visit to see the cabinet I'd bring him a CD, but he doesn't have a player. I'll definitely bring him some eggs! Speaking of eggs...

Chicken update: 6 eggs again today, same as yesterday. I ate 3 today, with a little truffle oil and a toasted bagel. Yum. The red rooster has got to go. It's uncomfortable to walk out of the house with a dog on a leash, knowing he could come up & charge any time. He jumped at Render today, and if she hadn't been muzzled, it would have been a mess.

Today I learned: If you lay down with a headache at 2pm you'll be rarin' to go at 2am. This means I'll be sleeping in tomorrow. I've already learned how to tune out the roosters' crowing for the most part!

Thoughts about Phase 2

So as I'm taking my bath this morning, I decided to soak for a while. As i'm lying there, i'm thinking, and thinking...

This whole plan of building a Bed & Bistro is going to be a huge challenge. There are a LOT of decisions to make. The restaurant is one part, then cottages are another.

First off, do we want to have this run as a ch∑z p@nisse model, where there's no choice of the menu and all guests simply eat what's served? Do i want to have a prix-fix menu that offers 2 or 3 different options for each course, but not so many that i can't pull it all off by myself? Do I ask people for a credit card in advance, to charge for no-shows, like they do at Charlie Trotters? Do I just serve an evening meal? and only on weekends?

What do we do with the dogs when we want to have guests in the restaurant? The dogs clearly can't remain in the house. Once I'm open for business, they can't even come into the house, ever. This is a problem. Do we solve it by building another cottage just for them?

UGH ---- don't get me started about the cottages. Obviously, we want to be eco-friendly, and we need to follow local laws and regulations. I need to figure out how to blur the line between the luxury i want to offer and the environmental efficiencies that are available substitutes... which are usually NOT luxurious. I can use LED lighting (which is much 'greener' than incandescent and even better than CFL!) but it's very different than CFL light. Do we want to go so far as to have composting toilets and solar showers, like http://www.smellysmallholding.com/ AKA http://rayers.free.fr/ Would we attract people to a "green" venue, such as http://www.georgiamountaininn.com/.   The big question is "How much ''green'' would a guest be wiling to tolerate?"

Then there's the fact that we're out "in the sticks". Can I trust solar power to be as reliable as a hard-wired plug? The initial financial outlay for all the panels, circuitry and storage cells is very high. Will i ever recoup the investment? Can I trust a solar water heater to be good enough for a decent hot shower? Or should I tell my guests that a luxurious hot shower is a thing of the past, making them feel guilty? Do those cards they put on the beds of hotels really make a difference about people hanging up their towels?

NOT TO MENTION, by the way, that i don't think that much of what i've just mentioned above is even permitted by health codes. I certainly don't want to put all the time and money into building a super-efficient, eco-friendly, greener-than-green cottage only to be told that we can't allow guests to stay. (By the way, I've really come to dislike the word "green" for describing "having a low environmental impact" but the term has its use, i suppose.)

If the environmentally-savvy things are against the law, maybe i should go about changing the laws. Is that something i want to undertake? Hopefully I'll be lucky, and the fact that where we live is 'unincorporated' so it doesn't fall under anyone's jurisdiction.

Finally, i hesitate to mention - yet agian - that the infrastructure of civilization is simply inaccessible out there. Namely, we can't get high-speed Internet unless we have a satellite. We have decided it's worth procrastinating that as long as possible, because of the expense. The idea right now is to have the cottages spaced as far apart as possible, which means that wireless won't be easy, either. Will our guests be okay with stopping by the main house and using our dialup connection? (They might... After all, I'm sort of getting used to it!)

Today I learned: The best spot in the library to access the Internet is the worst spot to sit. There is a table in the back where you can sit comfortably (instead of balancing the computer on your lap), and where you can reach an outlet without an extension cord, but it's within urinal-cake smelling distance of the mens room.

Long Weekend in in New Orleans!

Kelly and I decided to go to New Orleans to celebrate our 15-yr wedding anniversary, for five days of relaxing and fine dining. This was our first vacation together since we moved out here a year ago, and we really needed it. The dogs stayed with their new "Auntie Rebecca" (Rebecca Wysock, dog trainer and owner of Sunnybrook Farm, who boarded them for the time we were gone, plus the extra two days I worked when after we got back. The chickens somehow managed to survive, leaving us with a couple dozen eggs and a mountain of fertilizer as a welcome home gift. Kelly put their house up on the sawhorses so they'd have an added level of protection by elevation, but there must have been a storm because it was half blown down. The Red Rooster is still jumping at Kelly a lot, although the critter doesn't bother me. I might have to make soup out of him. Kelly's in the middle of another two-week stint Los Angeles, and I'm sure he'd prefer his next encounter with the Rooster as Noodle Soup. Of course, i'm all talk right now :-P

We went to two really great restaurants and a few average ones, mercifully avoiding bad ones. We went for a lot of long walks, and spent one night drinking on bourbon street. Except for the post-bourbon-street migraine/hangover (which i earned after two Hand Grenades from Tropical Isle) it was a really nice getaway. We stayed at the Iberville Suites, which shared an entrance and various amenities with the Ritz Carlton. It rained a little the last couple of days, but we got to spend a lot of time outside and enjoyed good weather.

One of the great restaurants was named Stella. It got wonderful reviews, but it was just a fun coincidence that it's also our new address. There was a tasting menu, but it was heavy on shellfish and seafood, and frankly, kelly and I are just not fans. We instead opted to order a couple appetizers, share a "salad", and a couple entrées and our own desserts. It was marvelous. We really enjoyed the food, and picked up a few tricks that we might want to adapt to our restaurant when it gets going. (crossing our fingers, something will happen this spring!) Also, the chef came by and talked to us at our table for a few minutes. For all the high-end restaurants we've eaten at, I think that this might have been the first time that has happened.

The other was August. Just as spectacular but quite different. We both ordered the tasting menu this time. The manager was a young guy & he didn't have the stuffy maitre d' vibe at all. He was positively awesome, telling us the ingredients used, and exactly how each part of each item was prepared. Again, impeccable service, and it was lovely to be a part of that restaurant experience.

It was just so lovely to be able to go out somewhere nice and enjoy a couple of truly wonderful meals. It's exactly what I want our restaurant's guests to feel when they're at our place: an experience where the food is perfect & the ambiance is comfortable, and the calm assurance that everything is being taken care of.

Today I learned: a smile and eye contact with someone out here is a commitment to a 15+ minute conversation. It's not something I'm consciously avoiding, but it's also not something I'm trying to instigate. I am okay with letting these happen once in a while, but 15 mins at the bank, 15 mins at the library, 15 mins in the grocery store, it adds up. I'm learning how to be more comfortable with this. It's hard, after so many years of similar innocuously struck-up conversations with strangers resulting in the person asking for money.