The Peep Show

2015 at the Mother Earth News Fair

Jen UbelakerWe attended our first Mother Earth News Fair during its inaugural year in Puyallup, Washington. (Mother Earth News is GRIT's sister publication.) It was a bit of a drive for us but we figured we were starting a new life and the information would be worth the hassle involved.  So, when we saw that this year's West Coast fair would be moved to Albany, Oregon, we posed the same questions we did during our first trip. Albany is a six-hour drive from our home. We'd have to kennel the dog and wrangle “chicken-sitters” to check on the girls and the garden because the forecast was triple-digit temperatures for the weekend. Not to mention the fuel and lodging for the two of us. Would the benefit outweigh the costs involved? Turns out it was a resounding yes.

It was a little strange for us because the fair didn't start until 10 in the morning. We've grown accustomed to early rising and, even with the hotel's blackout curtains, we were up with the sun. Hubby got a nice walk in and we tried our best to relax, but we're not really built for just sitting with nothing to do. We headed for the fairgrounds early in the hopes that we could at least wander a bit there, and thankfully the doors were open.

The first presentation we saw was “Growing Elderberries for Health and Profit” with Terry Durham. A couple of years ago, my sister-in-law introduced us to elderberry tinctures, and after our first winter of healthy respiration we decided to try and grow some for ourselves. It's kind of our M.O. We try something, and if it works, we try to figure out how we can make it or grow it for ourselves, and elderberries are no different. The presentation was geared a little bit more towards commercial growers than hobbyists, but the information was solid. We learned about cultivation, harvesting, and the different varieties of berries that we could grow. I'm looking forward to applying the knowledge in our own backyard this year. Our plants have grown from sticks and are now beginning to flower, so we're hopeful that we can become good stewards. Durham also gave us a great recipe for fruit shrub syrup, and I've got some strawberry-flavored shrub chilling in the fridge right now.

We were then lucky enough to catch a portion of a presentation about aged cheese with Gianaclis Caldwell. Once again, we've tried cheese, we like it, so how can we do it at home? I've been making soft cheeses and having some success, and Ms. Caldwell had terrific information about how to make and age cheese. Hubby was intrigued by her home-built cheese press and I could see his wheels turning. I'm expecting a new press in short order.

Next on our list was the presentation “Hot Ferments” with Christopher and Kirsten Shockey. It was an overview and demonstration of how to make fermented hot sauces. Hubby is growing a lot of different varieties of peppers this year, and when I was staring at the seedlings in the greenhouse this spring I wondered just what we would do with all of them. Now we know. We really enjoyed this presentation. The Shockeys are fun and informative, and they showed us the fermentation basics as well as two different techniques for making the pepper mash needed for hot sauces. Our only disappointment was that their book was sold out in the bookstore. 

After that whirlwind, we took a turn around the poultry show and caught up with Pat Foreman for her “Home Poultry Processing” presentation. Pat is fun and funny, and was a great resource for a subject that we have been discussing at our urban homestead. We have a coop and chickens, but we also have neighbors. How can we handle processing our birds in such a way that our home isn't viewed as the neighborhood abattoir? Pat had a lot of great ideas and tips for home processors that we will be grateful to have when the time comes.

Our only real disappointment, if you can call it that, was the presentation about “Making Beer Using Locally Sourced, etc.” We are home-brewers, and we are definitely interested in making our brews as local as possible. To continue on with the theme of our lives, we are growing our own hops this year and looking for ideas on how to make more sustainable choices in the future brews we make. However, this presentation was geared more towards beginning brewers and dealt with the very basics of what equipment to use. Less about organic brewing and more a primer on the basics of homebrewing in general. It was hot, it was late, and we ended up bailing on this presentation in favor of a coconut ice cream bar.  We're only human.

Recharged and ready, we were back at the fair early the next morning for the live poultry processing demo with Joel Salatin and David Schafer. This was really the highlight of the weekend for me. I have had friends bemoan the fate of our 'poor chickens,' but after seeing that demonstration, and hopefully being able to replicate it in our own lives, I know that our happy chickens will end their lives calmly, humanely, and with as much care as we can give them. It doesn't hurt that Joel and David work together like an old vaudeville duo and kept the crowd engaged from start to finish. I was particularly thrilled to see the pair interacting with the children in the audience and showing them the steps of processing. Even after telling us, “We have to hurry, we're running short on time,” Joel stopped for a young man who asked to “see the chicken's brain” and calmly did an impromptu anatomy lesson for him. 

A boy asked Joel Salatin if he could look in the bucket under the table. He didn't like what he saw.

This is my favorite photo from the weekend: Joel just got this young man to look in the bucket under the table.

Our final stop was the “Craft Distilling” presentation with Victoria Miller. Even though her book isn't available yet, it's quickly jumped to No. 1 on my Christmas list. I use alcohol in my small batch brews of lemoncello and elderberry tincture, and it's always bugged me to buy it in a store. To get the “good” stuff is prohibitively expensive with Washington State's liquor taxes, and it seems to defeat the purpose to use cheap vodka from Costco. Ms. Miller is a small batch craft distiller and homesteader who has taken up advocacy for small home brewers and hobby distillers. Bless her, because even with her basic explanation of the framework of licensing and fees I found my head spinning.

And, as usual, the Mother Earth New folks seem to gather the best of everything under one roof for the fairs. We spent our time in between presentations by cruising through the booths and talking with vendors. I ran into Bob, of Bob's Red Mill fame, at a wine-tasting booth and had a nice chat about our trip through the mill on our drive down to the fair. We found a terrific source of organic feed for our chickens that we can get locally through our food co-op. We also got information on solar options for our home, coop and greenhouse. I bought a lemon tree and woolen dryer balls because, hey, it's Oregon and there's no sales tax. 

On the drive home (all 6-plus hours of it), we had time to reflect on everything we learned over the weekend and just how far our little homestead has come. I don't think we ever envisioned all of this on our first trip to the MEN Fair, but we're eagerly anticipating what we can learn next year. If you have a chance to attend any of the fairs, I'd love to know your opinions and the presentations you liked the best. We might live apart on our individual homesteads, but there's no way we do this alone! 

Rainy Day Chocolate Cake

Jen UbelakerToday was one of those blustery Pacific Northwest days where you know you probably have work to do outside, but any excuse to stay in the warm and dry is a good one. We've been working hard trying to get our place ready for summer and the growing season, and my husband is a complete beast. I tease him from time to time about being part robot. How else could you explain a 40-hour-a-week 'town job,' then evenings and weekends spent working around here? He can function on just a few hours sleep a night, and I need the full eight or someone's going to pay. It's not an easy life, but we try to make sure that the other one feels appreciated for everything they do. I get the occasional world-class foot rub, and every once in a while, I make my man a cake.

He loves those chocolate bars with the coconut (not naming names – but sometimes he feels like a nut, sometimes he don't), and I thought it would be fun to try and re-create that in cake form. Here's what I came up with:

For the cake:

I do like to make cakes from scratch, but it's hardly a necessity. For this one you can use your favorite box mix of chocolate cake. They have all sorts of flavors from regular chocolate to triple fudge, just depends on how deep your chocolate obsession goes, I guess. One thing I have found is that an extra egg added to the recipe helps make a more dense cake. If that's something you like, then consider adding another egg when you make your batter.

For the filling:

I played around with this a little bit and think I have a winner.

Beat 2 egg whites until foamy. They should almost double in size. Then add 1/3 cup sugar to the eggs and beat until firm peaks form. You are basically making a marshmallow fluff. When you have firm peaks in your egg mixture, turn off the beaters and gently fold in 2 tablespoons flour and 1 cup shredded coconut. This will be your filling mix.


I planned on baking the cake in a tube pan, just for looks. Follow your cake mix's directions about oven temperature and time for baking the cake. Because this is a chocolate cake, I didn't do the traditional “butter and flour” on the pan but instead used a baking spray on the pan so the cake would release cleanly. If you aren't careful, a butter and flour coating can leave traces on your cake and for something like this where it won't be frosted, you want it to look as clean as possible.

I poured a little more than half the batter into the prepared pan, and then put the filling around the center. Be careful to keep your filling to the center and not touch any of the edges. Then top with the remainder of the cake batter to cover your filling and bake according to directions. When you remove the cake from the oven, let it sit for 10 minutes or so until you can turn it over cleanly onto a rack to finish cooling.


At this point, you can dust your cake with a little confectioner's sugar, but because I was trying to emulate the candy bar, I just melted some chocolate chips and topped the cake with slivered almond pieces.

cake 3

It smelled delicious and I honestly couldn't wait for the full cooling time to be over before I dug in. It's hubby's treat, sure, but someone has to make sure it's good. We wouldn't want to serve an inferior product, now would we?

cake 5

Being Neighborly

Jen UbelakerWe've had an incredibly light winter in the Pacific Northwest and it's allowed us the opportunity to work on our property a lot more than we normally would. Without the usual snow and ice we are missing any excuse to not work on our projects, so we're spending a lot more time outside and since we live in town, “outside” means in full view of the neighbors.

We are really lucky that we ended up with fantastic neighbors. They are lucky that we moved in next door to provide them with limitless entertainment. A few weekends ago we were catching up over the fence while I was rebuilding a woodpile and Hubby was digging a wildflower berm in the alley for the bees. We were explaining the day's work to our neighbor and told him how we hoped everything would work out and he grinned, telling us, “If it doesn't work out, it won't be for lack of effort, that's for sure.”

When I first started cordoning off sections of the yard for garden space, the neighbors on both sides showed a lot of interest. The previous owners of the house let the backyard grow into a waist-high jumble of weeds. Our neighbor “J” even bought a cherry tomato for her yard so we could “farm” together. It was a beautiful day in early summer when we shared baby tomatoes over the fence and swapped neighborhood gossip. It was the first time our new place really felt like a home.

Since then, I've also heard talking in the backyard and peeked out to see her weeding her side of the fence and carrying on a conversation with one of our chickens through the chain-link. They have a bond that I don't question.

The neighbor on the other side belongs to a food co-op and when she gets her delivery she takes all of the wilted/dinged vegetables they are throwing away and brings them home for the chickens. Every other week a mystery box of chicken yummy winds up on my porch, and we thank her with eggs.

My hubby and our neighbor “D” talk 'man stuffs' a lot and swap tools and stories. When our ancient lawnmower finally gave up the ghost I talked Hubby into purchasing a reel mower. It was another noteworthy neighborhood event. Hubby has fallen in love with the mower because he can mow as early as he wants on a morning without disturbing anyone, and he can wear headphones and listen to music as he does it. “D” laughs and tells him our yard looks as pretty as theirs with a power mower and were we trying to put him in an early grave? Now his wife would want one too.

When Hubby built a rainwater cachement system out of a garbage can and a downspout, eyebrows were raised until I watered in hops, peas, onions, new paving stones and grass seed with the 30 gallons of water harvested from the roof during the last rainstorm. I was able to start planting weeks before the irrigation was turned on.

But, through all of it, the only thing I was ever really worried about was the chickens. They can be noisy, smelly, and fly over fences uninvited. When we got our girls, we talked with the neighbors on both sides and were completely honest. We'd never raised chickens in the city before and goodwill trumped fresh eggs. If for any reason the birds got on anyone's nerves we were prepared to move them from the hen house to the dinner plate with no questions asked. I planned ahead with extra fly-traps and a noise-proofed hen house, but we do still have to live here. We'd do what we could to make it low-impact on our neighbors.

So, we got our chicks and they fit into the neighborhood really well. Fairly quiet, minimal prison breaks, all's quiet on the home front.

Anyone who's had hens knows that occasionally you get one or two that get poop stuck around their vent. Icky, but it happens. We have one of those, and I decided to give her a bath and trim her feathers. That's my story. Only trouble being that my chicken-whisperer neighbor saw me. The chicken bath went off without a hitch. She actually liked the warm water and even the hairdryer warming her belly (it's still cold out, give me a break) but later that evening I was stopped outside by the chicken-whisperer's husband and he asked me, “Just what was going on here today?”

Turns out his wife was having her morning coffee and saw me go into the yard in my apron and muck boots, grab a chicken, take it into the house and it didn't come back out. She waited, and when she couldn't stand it any longer she called her husband at work asking him if he thought I was cooking one of those dear little chickens. I got a good laugh out of it and told him to tell his wife that the chicken was just having a “spa day.” You can tell by her photo, she needed it.


Winter Reflections

Jen UbelakerThis is the best time of year for growth, at least it is at our house. It’s a season of planning and reflection before the spring starts to take off and we’re both too busy to sit, much less gather coherent thought. Our little urban farm is spreading its wings and we are becoming more creative in how we use our resources.

A friend clued me in this fall to a woman who was taking out a blueberry patch, and we scored some terrific mature bushes. However, after a summer with the Peeps, we knew that if we planted them in the backyard we would be forever trying to keep chickens out of our berries. So now we have a lovely blueberry hedge in front of our house, well away from hungry birds. We’ve also planted hops for pickles and beer, expanded the garden footprint and made permanent fencing, added grapes and, this spring, we will welcome our first hive of bees.

The strange space “after the new year but before the sun starts shining again” is still busy for us. We spend our time planning, reading, studying and collaborating with our friends to try and make the new year more successful than the last. We do like everyone else: huddle over seed catalogs and count empty canning jars to do the mental math that converts rows in the garden to evenings of full bellies. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

This life isn’t too much of a stretch for my husband. His mother was an old-school domestic goddess who raised her family on grass-fed meat and canned grub. My upbringing was a little different. Growing up, we were the typical California 1-percenters with an in-ground pool and a once-a-week housekeeper. My parents ran so far from the farm that we couldn’t even squint to see it, but there was always a pull for me. We spent a lot of summers on the farms with our grandparents and those are some of my finest memories.

This Christmas I was blessed enough to receive two envelopes of old photos. They were far and away my favorite gifts. I got to sit with my husband and explain the who’s who of my extended family. We got quite a chuckle over the old black and whites and noticing how much of a person’s life really is “in their blood.”

The majority of the old photos showed life pretty much as we’re living it now; a little bit of farming, ranching, growing and canning. Oh, and a lot of big smiles. My favorite picture shows my great-grandad smiling and standing in front of a rabbit hutch in England. There is also a lovely photo of his English garden, manicured to perfection. I felt such joy in looking at my own small space and knowing that we are continuing the tradition. I’ve heard of this time of year being called a “giant gray bucket of suck,” but sometimes it takes a cloudy day to see forwards and backwards at the same time.



'Tis the Seasoning

Jen UbelakerI don't know about you, but I am one of those folks who hasn't quite made the transition to full-time homesteader yet. I still have a 'town' job a couple days a week, and life always seems to sap away my free time. So, when the holidays arrive, hubby and I look at it as a chance to have a few days to catch up on chores without having to worry about leaving the house. After Thanksgiving lunch, we raked leaves and spread compost (for a little while, it was really hard to bend over!) and Christmas and the following three-day weekend has arrived with a growing list of chores stuck to the refrigerator.

My husband is one of those people, you know the type, blessed by the gods with good fortune. (Hey, he married me, so I'm not going to argue.) Last summer he decided he was going to a few yard sales to look for a cast-iron Dutch oven. Just something he always wanted, and he told me it was worth a shot. When he finally found a Dutch oven, he asked the woman what she wanted for it and she said “five bucks”. Fair enough, I thought, but she then stopped my husband and said “no, five bucks for the whole box”.

Yup. You guessed it. Five dollars spent and an apple-box loaded with cast iron. Skillets, saucepans and lids, as well as the much-coveted Dutch oven. That's the kind of luck this man has.

Anyway, fast forward to Friday. I have been meaning to get that box of pans out of the garage for months now and properly clean and season them, and now I finally had the time.

pans1Cast iron can be a tricky beast, but if you take care of it properly it will last a lifetime and then some. Really, all you want to be able to do is avoid dents and cracks. The surface needs to be kept as pristine as possible to avoid giving places for rust to settle in and ruin your pot.

If you are lucky enough to obtain some used cast iron, here are some tips to help you get it ready for use:

* Clean it as soon as possible. Forget the old wives' tale about using soap in your cast iron. Dish soap removes oil, sure, but the seasoning on your pan is a polymerized oil. The oil actually changes chemical composition with the heat and a simple rinse of dish detergent will NOT ruin your cast iron. Do yourself a favor and just clean it once, really well. If you have wooden handles, remove them and wash in between the fittings also.

* After it is cleaned, put it on the stovetop with high heat to dry out all of the water. Use a small amount of a stable oil like canola oil and rub it over the surface of your cast iron with a towel.

* Preheat your oven to 350 F and place all of your oil-rubbed cast iron in it for 30 minutes. After that, turn off the heat and allow your pots to rest in the hot oven for another half-hour. You might want to do this on a day when you can have the doors and windows open. Personally, I'm not partial to the smell of hot iron and it does linger.

* Store your cast iron in a dry environment and if you have to 'nest' it and are worried about chips, you can always put toweling between the layers to protect your pans.


Properly seasoned cast-iron is a great investment, and if done properly, seasoning will only improve your treasure. A good season on the pans will provide a layer of polymerized oil that will provide both protection for your pans as well as a semi-nonstick layer to make your cooking easier.

Squirm Wrangling 101

Jen UbelakerIt started innocently enough with a text that read “Would you like some worms for your compost?” I replied yes and instantly thought of one of those Styrofoam cups full of nightcrawlers that you get when you go fishing. I could dump them in my compost bin and have a great addition to our pile. When I went to see my friend, she tells her husband: “Help her carry it out to the car, please?” It was only then that I realized a teeny cup of worms was not in my future. I was gifted a ginormous worm pagoda/condo thing that was already teeming with worms and compost. What a fantastic gift!

worm bin

Worms are amazingly tolerant houseguests. Since we live in a climate where sub-freezing temps are possible, we put the worm bin in our basement pantry. It stays a pretty regular temperature down there, and I don't have to worry about freezing or over-heating. You don't need to have a fancy set-up to house worms. The worm factories run around $100 online, and have a really neat set-up, but honestly, worms aren't house proud. You can raise a small squirm (bed, bunch, clew, clat and squirm are all names for a group of worms. I like squirm best.) in a modest plastic flat or bucket that you can often get for less than $10. Really, all you need to keep in mind is to get a container that will adequately hold the amount of scraps you have to give them, and that worms live shallow. They only need about 6 inches of depth to be happy. A plastic bucket under your kitchen sink will do them just fine.


Some common types of worms found in vermicomposting are Red Wigglers (Eisenia fetida) and Nightcrawlers (Eisenia hortensis). These are the beauties that are currently eating my scraps. The Wigglers are a small worm, only about 2 inches long, that like cool, moist places. The cool thing about these guys/gals (worms are hemaphroditic too!) is that they can eat up to half their body weight in food each day. They chow down.

The Nighcrawlers like warmer weather, and don't tolerate handling as well. They take a deeper worm bed, and they tend to not like vibrations or cold weather. I have a feeling these were included in my gift because the previous owner used them for fishing. I placed the worm bin in a place that doesn't get a lot of traffic out of respect for their needs.

Worms have a pretty varied diet. When I got my bed as a gift, I asked the previous owner what he fed them, and he told me that he basically just shredded his junk mail and put it in the bin. They lived off of that quite happily. In my own research and experiments, I have found that worms will eat just about everything you'd put in your outdoor compost pile. Don't feed them meats, bones or oils, but all other compostable food scraps are fair game. They are not fond of citrus, and readings will tell you that it also draws fruit flies. (Who needs them?) Readings also say to avoid onions for the odor.

In our home we have two small bowls by the kitchen sink. First, anything the dog might like goes straight into his food bowl. We have been trained.

Then the two bowls on the counter hold scraps for the chickens and the worms. Our chickens don't like certain things, the worms aren't picky. They eat the things that chickens aren't fond of like green peppers, banana peels and apple cores. One small tip is to just put your potato peels in your outside compost bin. Our worms don't eat them quickly enough to stop the eyes from sprouting and I've lifted the bin lid to find root tendrils. It's more hassle than it's worth.

compost worms

Basic care for worms is very easy. A simple bedding of shredded newsprint is enough, moistened to about the consistency of a damp dish sponge. Place your food scraps in this bedding and cover with a lid to keep it dark and moist in your container. They aren't fans of being disturbed a lot (who is?) so all I do for my squirm is go down once a week, lift the lid and poke around with a small trowel to make sure they have enough food in the bedding.

When I add new food, I tear a small piece of newsprint to cover it, and then squirt the newsprint with a spray bottle of water until it is soaked through. This gives the worms some protection as well as serving as a seal over their bedding.

When they have more castings than space available for food, you can simply take the worm bed outside and place it in direct light. The worms will travel to the bottom of their bedding and you can take castings off the top for use in your garden. I have done this once now, and used the castings in my strawberry bed.

This has been quite a journey with our squirm. We're still learning about all the magnificent things that worms can do on a homestead. The best thing for me is that between the chickens, worms and compost pile, we have virtually no food waste. Everything goes to 'someone' and eventually gets back into the yard to grow more food and eggs. Just more proof you don't have to have several acres to be more self-sufficient!

Winter Eggs

Jen UbelakerJust like almost everywhere else in the nation, it's cold here. Bone chilling for me at 9 degrees this morning, but the Peeps are clucking along like business as usual. It's great to be a chicken. Our girls are city birds, but they are allowed to be as “chicken” as possible within the confines of our yard. They spend the majority of their time wandering and scratching around the garden, but winter time means less resources for everyone. We all know about the differences between CAFO and our home eggs, but there are some distinct differences in home eggs as the year progresses.

Sure, with the decreasing light there is a decrease in egg production. Around here I don't supplement with added light. I figure nature's will on this is good enough for me. My girls have definitely decreased in production; the Ameraucanas have quit all together, and Priscilla (our vegan Leghorn) has yet to actually lay an egg. Ever.

What I was wondering though, was the difference in the taste and nutritional punch of eggs as the season goes by. Their food sources are very different now than in the summer, and I'm sure a more refined palate than mine could detect the lack of earthworms and rose petals in the winter eggs. I'm just not that refined. What I do notice is that there is a slight change in the density and color. Just a bit paler, just like all of us in winter.

I am enjoying sticking a hot egg “fresh from the chicken” into my mitten on my walk back to the house in the morning. Not a bad handwarmer if you can get to the coop fast enough to find a warm one.

winter eggs

Once back in the kitchen, we've come up with a way to use winter eggs that can't be beat. Pie. Zweilbelkuchen, to be exact. It's great warm, it's great as leftovers (as if) and it's easy to prepare.

Zweilbelkuchen (Bacon Pie)

5 strips bacon
2 1/2 pounds onions, finely sliced
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups sour cream
2 tablespoons flour
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons caraway seeds, divided
1 pie crust (I use 3 cups flour, 1 cup lard, 1/4 cup ice cold water)

Heat oven to 400 F and lightly grease a springform pan; set aside.

Pie 2In Dutch oven, cook bacon until crispy, remove from pan and crumble/chop bacon. Return bacon to the pan with onions and butter. Cook on medium heat for about 20 minutes or until onions start to brown. Remove from heat.

In mixing bowl, combine sour cream, flour, eggs, salt, 1 teaspoon caraway seeds and stir to combine. Mix in the cooled bacon and onions, and set aside.

Roll out pie crust on lightly floured surface to about 11 inches (for a 9-inch springform pan) and place it gently in pan.

Pour filling into pan and sprinkle remaining caraway seeds on top. Bake for 55 minutes until pie is golden brown and firm in the center.

bacon pie