Monday, September 30, 2013

Troubleshooting Whole Wheat Sourdough bread

Noah sneaks some bread- can you see where he grabbed it from?
Our new sourdough starter has been going for about six months and it's doing really well. We had a couple of months midsummer where I just couldn't get around to baking the bread- I'm not sure if it was our schedule- needing time at home- but getting back into a cycle of regular sourdough baking has really enriched my life. There are a few things that have helped bring it back:

Having packets of instant yeast in the house. We don't eat as much bread as some families, but having yeast packets allowed me to have the backup of rolls or a quick loaf of bread (by quick I mean like 2 hours instead of 18 or 24). This way I know we're not going to be buying bread, but if we feel like super soft bread we can always just use the yeast. Somehow the backup option made one large sourdough loaf once a week work for our family. I don't like that the yeast here comes in teensy packets, but I think there are probably worse evils in the world that deserve attention.

Eating Bread every Sunday. (This has also makes having friends over easy) I usually prepare the bread around lunch time on Saturday, so that it'll be ready mid-morning on Sunday. Then we basically just eat bread the whole day, one day a week- sandwiches, panini, toast, whatever.

Getting wonderful whole wheat flour. A friend of mine generously introduced me to a food buying club in Cape Town that connects buyers and farmers directly. So now I'm baking with whole wheat flour-hard to find in Cape Town- and I can really tell the difference in quality between this flour and the flour we used to buy when we first arrived in Cape Town two years ago.

Soaking the whole wheat flour for a few hours In Cooked, Michael Pollan describes trying to transition to whole wheat bread and the issue of spiky bran inhibiting the rise by bursting bubbles in the dough. What he discovered was that by starting off with a very wet dough, the bran would lose some of it's spikiness so that by the time the sourdough was added- as well as a little more flour- whole wheat or coarse white- the bran had lost it's spikiness and the bread rose really nicely. I've found this to be true, and our whole wheat bread feels very chewey (rather than crumbly, as was characteristic of some of the whole wheat bread I've made with instant yeast).

Friday, September 20, 2013

Friday Fish

I'm a bit slow to pick up on the fact that the world has a very new, very different Pope but it's finally hitting me: Check out this article.  I feel excited and hopeful- I am part of this story because it is a story of God and Jesus, not just of Catholicism.

The kids and I finally got out of the house after over a week of illness, and when I bought fish I experienced something quite beautiful: The man who filleted the fish looked me in the eye, told me Noah and Eli were beautiful, and said "God bless you"- and I felt the power of that blessing.

I have been feeling cynical after theft and the loss of loaned money recently. I felt taken advantage of because I realized I was testing my view of the world and so it was my perspective on the world- maybe even God- not individuals in specific circumstances, that were letting me down. I have a very complex and contradictory view of social justice, where I see myself as unjustly privileged yet don't look at people in need with much generosity and kindness. Watch this space, hopefully that'll change. I was reminded of the absurd costs of transportation for those living in townships in South Africa, and I wondered if there was another way to think of the losses, which are pretty trivial in the course of our lives. If the money is not really mine, then far be it from me to hold debts over other people. Actually, I think I just want to be more like Eug who has this remarkable ability to forget- really forget- debts and live in the present.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Troubleshooting a Large Worm Bin

I mentioned in an earlier post that we've had some challenges with our large 240L worm bin. I hoped they could be all sorted out before I blogged about it, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to blog from the midst of it, because we haven't figured it all out yet.

If you come to our house at the moment, you'll find fruit flies. Not enough to impede your movement, but enough that you wouldn't invite your mother-in-law over.

Our fruit fly problem isn't the first problem we've had. So I'll start from the beginning and write about all the things you shouldn't do if you're trying a giant worm bin in a small concrete back space:

1) The trap door.  I thought the trap door was a work of genius, but what it was was a special entrance reserved for rats. Yes. Those of you who have followed this blog fro a while know that when we lived in Boston we borrowed humane traps from Dan and Leah. With the rats, we couldn't figure out how to keep them out. we sealed the trap door many times over with wire, but urban rats are genius and super strong. They could chew through the plastic in the bin using any bit of the trap door as a starting point. Eventually, we had to put a tile on the inside of the bin, which meant we no longer have an access point to get the vermicompost. They ate some of the worms, as well as the compost, decreasing the capacity of the bin when we eventually got rid of them. After they broke some cheap badly made traps, in the end we poisoned them. Which sucks.

Version 2.0 will have a very secure trap door.

2) Oranges: I'm passionate about not recycling or throwing away anything that can rot by itself, but I am gradually learning the balance between the time needed to vermicompost well on a larger household scale versus the need to have a hygienic home. It's all on a continuum, and I still feel the worms are awesome, but at a certain point in the winter we were just throwing organic waste into the worm bin and hoping for the best. In winter- orange season- we go through 6-8 oranges per day. Last year, we dried the peels and used them for kindling and as mulch. This year, we just didn't have the space to dry them and they ended up in the worm bin. This led to a certain amount of anerobic stuff going on in the worm bin- not enough to make it smell, but enough to make the worms focus on the bottom of the bin, which wasn't being taken out as frequently because, well, the trapdoor wasn't in use.

I'll be more careful about oranges next year. Finding a way to dry them out and use them for some other purpose is totally worth it- maybe putting them in the oven while it preheats for other foods?

3) Lots of fruits and vegetables on our kitchen counters: We have a small fridge and a lot of fruits and vegetables in two crates above the fridge. Even without any rotting, the fruit flies love coming in. They also love our just-roasted coffee beans, which is confusing. Noah sometimes catches fruit flies and my heart flutters when he says "I didn't kill him" (wow, what a compassionate son) then comes down to earth when he says "I'll go and take him up for Gold" (the goldfish)

We have a solution to the first two things, but we don't have cupboards for fruits and vegetables., so I'm putting out traps of vinegar and soy sauce with old seran wrap to try to trap the fruit flies.

My take home is that vermicomposting in winter can be difficult if you eat a lot of fruit and vegetables and have a lot of food waste. Hopefully next year we'll do better. I'll let you know once we've rid ourselves of the fruit flies. The flip side of this confession is that we have taken out our trash once- mainly because of painting our house- in 3 months. And we have all the vermicompost we need to grow as much food as we have time for.

I still think it's worth tolerating - and gradually figuring out- some of the mess close to home, because when we don't we're just moving it somewhere where we don't have to think about it, and where "professionals" do what they're trained to do. We will figure it out, and in the meantime, we're careful not to expose our meals to the flies. Yay for Korean metal dishes with lids.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Being small is hard: A response

So firstly, full disclosure: I've been in bed with a stomach bug since Sunday, with one child watching Busytown on one half of my computer screen and the other breastfeeding and Eug just trying to keep us all alive.

In this haze, I read this article that received a lot of attention, and a lot of comments. I read a lot of the comments. The basic gist of the article is that a mom had a tantruming child in the grocery store and got told off by some rude guy, and the article is telling that rude guy off. I'm in total agreement. I hate getting advice from strangers. Hate it.

But what stood out to me was the general orientation of the article and the comments: that your children are insane creatures who will destroy you if you let them. The framing is "they will take more and more and more if you let them". Although the blogger was saying that the tantrum was not a reason to judge the parent (I agree), I think he still sortof went with the general idea of crazy children make crazy requests and it's impossible.

This is an orientation I came into parenting with, and it didn't serve me well. My situation is different from yours, my kids are different from yours, so the best thing for our children is different. But taking Noah's perspective has made so much difference to me. I remember struggling to strap Noah into the car seat as he freaked out and and said he didn't want to leave my parent's and deciding that I would never use force with him again, unless to push him out of the way of an oncoming large vehicle.

Being small is really hard. People treat you badly a lot of the time. They tell you what to do, touch you without permission, and tell what you can and can't have, and even laugh at you. My brave 3 year old went up to the children's worker at the Two Ocean's Aquarium to ask if crafts would start, and you know what the worker did? She started laughing at him and and poking him in the face with a pencil, and talking to him Xhosa, which she assumed he did not understand. To my shame, I was paralyzed and just ran up, glared at her, and took Noah by the hand. I don't think this is terribly unusual in the life of a small child.

A while ago we were really struggling to get Noah to go to sleep. It was a nightmare and we used words like "he's manipulating us" and had no idea what to do. We were sick of it. Noah was getting more and more sleep deprived as he tried to - indeed- manipulate us into giving him the attention he wanted at night. I think it is hard- I don't think we should pretend to be be superhuman and sacrifice our lifeblood for our children. But we realized it wasn't working to take a hard line. So we just gave him the attention he wanted at night. and over time, his bedtime got earlier and earlier, and he even said the words "I'm tired" once. For us, that's about as close to a miracle as it gets.

Now Eli, I am not sure what Eli will be like when he reaches two or so. He seems totally different. But the perspective of the child is what is often missing from the conversation.

Living in Mamelodi as a Faith Experiment.

I wanted to highlight this article in the NYTimes, and brought me into a world that resonates with the Simple Way and Mark Scandrette here in South Africa.

If you have time, check out Mamelodi for a Month and read this family's story. One criticism of the family's action was that it "reinforced the centrality of whiteness in South Africa". One of the (184) comments on the article said something to the effect of "this story made it to the front page of the NYTimes webpage, and because of that I learned something I didn't know about before." I wonder what you think? I find both the comment and the criticism compelling; I wonder if both are fairly removed from the daily reality of life for the people involved, the community within Mamelodi and the Hewitt family.  One post on Ena and Julian Hewitt's blog helped to answer this question.

This family's story brought me back to one of our original reasons for coming (back) to South Africa. We wanted to be open to being part of good changes in SA as we gradually learn about living here. For us, changes are gradual, in proportion with our faith and understanding of life here, as well as the broader context we're living in. Which tangentially links to this article on Generation Y Yuppies, which describes our generation's desire to be protagonists of their own awesome story.

The broader question of systemic societal change is not answered by the Hewitt's month in Mamelodi. The thing is, systemic change has to involve large numbers of people willing to change the many things we've taken for granted. The imperfect attempts of the Hewitt's open themselves up for all kinds of criticism, some of which I totally agree with, but it's something, it's small, it's beautiful. It's bigger than a blog post. I don't think they did it to feel good about doing good. I think they genuinely tried to understand and access something really important. I'm guessing among the readers of this blog, there are people who have done similar things as PhD fieldwork, as being part of the Peace Corps, and as families. It's hard and fraught to try new things, especially as a public act.

If you're interested in reading more about people trying stuff in South Africa, check out Nigel and Trish's blog about moving (permanently?) to Hillbrow.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Green Point Park, Backyard graffiti, and the Book Lounge

Green Point is one park that I often take the kids to on Saturday mornings. It's all part of my strategy to go to places when they're at their quietest, and the park is quiet early on a Saturday morning, traffic slow, and we can explore pretty freely. It's full of interesting sections- ponds, fields, a playground especially for under 5s, as well as a guide to local medicinal herbs and some displays of how people used to live in the Cape many years ago. 

Enjoying the waterfountain before we were told it was only for looking at. 
One of the ponds had a family of Moorhens, and it was hard to stop Eli jumping in after them.
The under 5 playground has little tunnels.

Balance tires.

Noah is really into crafts of any kinds (so is Eli, which makes for lots of conflict). Here he decided to build an airplane with different colours for different sides.
Noah and Eli have gotten really into graffiti. They draw with chalk on everything outside.
Tough guy....

The kids have covered the back wall and floor, as well as our tires, with drawings of different kinds. The chalk on the wall just washes off with the rain. They sometimes use pastels on the tires.

This is a train map, equipped with stops where people can go to pee. 

Noah loves maps.
Having a small fridge means the kids can get in to get whatever they like. Sometimes a problem given that everything is in glass jars, which sometimes break when Eli overestimates his strength. Noah always goes for the cheese. Eli for the butter. Eli would eat butter if I let him. 

Our friend introduced us to the Book Lounge, which has story time every Saturday at 11am.  Last week, the British children's book author Polly Dunbar was reading/drawing out one of her stories and I was completely star struck. When it's busy, Eli is able to sit and listen and it's awesome. When it's not very busy, like in this picture, Eli tries to pull every book from every shelf.
Throwing large sharp objects.

The worms continue to be a great source of learning. We're struggling with fruit flies though, so more on that later.
I'm amazed that Eli is learning to hold the worms without squashing them.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Being brave

Petrol (gas station) attendandants are striking across South Africa at the moment, and unlike Americans, South Africans are unaccustomed to self-service. This week, not being very in touch with the news, I pulled up and it took me a second to remember why the station was deserted. A moment passed, and my regular attendant, William, came over in plain clothes and offered to serve me. I asked "is this ok for you?" because not striking can be life-threatening here in South Africa. He answered "I'm here as a private citizen". I usually get annoyed with him because he is so thorough that he takes what feels like an eternity in baby time, but today I was struck by this everyday act of bravery. It is possible that those who are striking are also being brave, and also possible that he was being brave for reasons I don't fully understand. But he treated me with dignity and respect and did not have any expectations of me, and I was so grateful.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Spring Abundance: Two winters with a solar geyser

We're just finishing our second winter with a solar geyser, and spring never felt better than a hot shower.

We are a little unusual in that we don't use the backup electricity to heat up our geyser. While the geyser/water heater is great, the backup element is inefficient so in winter when the sun is low... well... we don't have too much hot water. This isn't such a big deal after two winters. We adjusted.

I'm ok with the fact that the solar geyser has presented us with natural limitations on our hot water use. We shower less when it's colder, and we stagger our hot water use at other times of the year. But it feels lovely to have hot water. We know spring is coming and with it, trips to the beach, visits from friends from far away, and a new rhythm.

Our sense of abundance includes other things: we bought a new camera!:

Sadly, our neighbours are moving to the U.S. But with their move- the inverse of ours- we received many strange and wonderful gifts of stuff they decided not to ship. A coffee table, a rug, a tree, and lots of other stuff we can pass on.We also got some flowers, which I discovered work really well as paintbrushes for the kids:

Extra picture.