Monthly Archives: April 2013

Behold, the Cow

Get Your Pitchfork On! came into the world a year ago. And what a year it’s been! I spent most of 2012 traveling around to promote the book, which gave me an excuse to visit family and friends.

It was important to me, while writing the book, to make it not about me. I wrote it for you, the reader, and your dreams of living in the country. In spite of that, I sometimes found it difficult to completely divorce myself from the emotional ties I still have to that little parcel in Washington. I learned the hard way that if I read the line from the book’s introduction, “Our beloved dog had been killed on the highway bordering our property,” I’d choke up if there was someone in the audience who knew her.

Reading the introduction to the Land section, in which I describe the most wonderful features of living in a remote, natural area, had a similar effect. I often dug a fingernail into my thumb to keep it together.

Despite this, and despite peppering my presentations with cautionary tales of cats being eaten by coyotes and homesteaders putting their arms in wood-chippers, I tried to keep it fun! One of my efforts in this regard has been the menagerie of farm animals I’ve set up on the podium in front of me. These plastic toys have been a big hit, to the point that I’ve had to keep an eye on children passing by my table at book fairs—they hope they’re giveaways.

These animals came to me in the best possible way, just a couple of months before GYPO hit the bookshelves. I was at a Portland bar known for its fantastic Happy Hour—cheap and delicious food, and an always-changing champagne cocktail special. My friend Anmarie and I met there and ordered the special, which was some crazy thing involving elderberry liquor from Switzerland or something. To our delight, the bartender had topped each flute with a farm animal; mine sported a goat and Anmarie’s a horse. Naturally, we had to order another round, and scored a cow and a chicken. Anmarie graciously surrendered hers when I decided that I would bring them to every book event.

My first reading was, appropriately, in the Columbia River Gorge, where Get Your Pitchfork On! was born. I traveled all around Oregon and Washington, and even made it down to Los Angeles and over to Wisconsin and my home state, Minnesota. These were wonderful opportunities to see many dear friends of past and present all at once. And I also got to have great conversations with people I’ve never met, and will probably never see again.

As you can see from my schedule, I did not stick solely to bookstores! That first reading was in my friends’ restaurant, Solstice Wood Fired Café (with support from Waucoma Bookstore). I set up a table at a plant nursery in Salem, Oregon, a winery tasting room in Jacksonville, Oregon, and a feed store in Portland. I had a lunch talk in a little diner in Waupaca, Wisconsin. I read in bars in Portland and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I got to share my stories with a couple dozen relatives—and my high school prom date’s parents!—in my dad’s hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin, on his mother’s birthday.

Hawking my wares—a great way to spend a day outdoors

Hawking my wares—a great way to spend a day outside

I signed a post-it note for my friends Rich and Betty's e-reader

I signed a post-it note for my friends Betty and Rich’s e-reader

My Grandma insisted on letting me horn in on her birthday cake

My Grandma insisted on letting me horn in on her birthday cake

Not everyone gets to sit in the Red Chair of Wordstock

Not everyone gets to sit in the Red Chair of Wordstock

In January of this year I was part of a panel discussion put on by Laura Stanfill, who had interviewed me after GYPO came out, and then included that interview in a book about writing called Brave on the Page. At a long table at Powell’s, as per usual, I set out my farm animals.

The panel’s moderator, author Joannna Rose, handled the group expertly—she asked great questions and threw in the right amount of humor. At one point she interrupted herself to ask me, “Why do you have those animals in front of you?”

Later, Laura sent me some photos she had taken, including this one, which she titled, “Behold, the Cow”:

photo by Laura Stanfill

“Behold, the Cow” by Laura Stanfill

What a fun year! Thanks to publisher Adam Parfrey and Process Media’s staff, particularly Carrie Schaff and Jessica Parfrey; publicists Mary Bisbee-Beek and Sheepscot Creative’s Dave and Bethany; blurbers Mark Wunderlich, Kim Barnes, Corinna Borden, Monica Drake, and Frank Bures; designer Gregg Einhorn; and the chapter-readers and everyone else noted in the book’s acknowledgements. And everyone who’s come to an event and/or bought a book.

Happy First Birthday, Get Your Pitchfork On! May you have many more—there are lots of people I still need to visit!

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The Death of Thrift-Store Shopping

Growing up, my family didn’t have a lot of money. We’re innate treasure hunters. And Catholics.

This all added up to a particular tradition from my childhood: On the way home from Mass, my mom, sister and I would zigzag across the western suburbs of Minneapolis and hit every yard sale we could find. It was a win-win: my sister and I felt like we were getting new things; my parents spent a couple bucks, max. I still have a small train case that I bought for 25 cents.

When I got older, thrift shops became a Thing with my friends and me. Even though we went to an upper-middle-class high school and could have shopped at Benetton, Laura Ashley, or a new store called The Gap (I had a waitressing job by then and could buy my own things), it was the mid-1980s and we were into New Wave music. We preferred the punk rock aesthetic of military surplus and second-hand clothes from the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Some thrift shops were in church basements, some in flagging strip malls. The coolest option was a sort of combination military surplus and vintage shop called Ragstock. My friends and I spent hours there, trying on cardigan sweaters and combat boots. We could score embroidered bowling shirts, old men’s plaid golf shorts and Navy pea coats—all super-cheap. Our parents were aghast that we sought out their parents’ fashions … on purpose.

Twenty-five years later, I still love to scour yard sales for good deals. The trouble is, the good deals are becoming harder to find. There are two factors at work: taste and quality.

Mid-century people owned a few, quality things, and they had “Sunday best.” They also dressed up more, generally. Have you ever seen a photograph of a crowd at a baseball game in the 1960s? Men wore hats (I mean HATS, not baseball caps). Women wore them, too, as well as dresses, gloves and heels. My grandfather wore a tie every day, even when he never left the house. Blame the pantsuits of the 1970s; fashion has become increasingly casual. Nowadays, some people even go out in public in pajama bottoms and extra-large t-shirts.

Another factor is the plain old passage of time. In 1987, there were thousands of ‘60s shirts in existence. Decades later, they have simply been worn to pieces. No new ones are entering the thrift store stream. Subsequently, what ends up in thrift stores is not pristine Pendleton wool shirts and pleated skirts. Those things now end up in vintage shops.

Vintage and thrift shops used to be basically the same thing; now they’ve split so that those high-quality pieces of yore are not just old clothes, but also rare and unique clothes. And because of Internet sales, discarded clothes don’t stay in their community; they’re scooped up by jobbers and resold everywhere. So, now you find things for sale like this $200 cape.

Even Goodwill high-grades their designer labels. So, you might find an Armani suit there for $150—still a bargain considering it’s an Armani suit, but also still $150.

I knew a guy in Hood River who’d made a deal with estate sale managers in Eastern Oregon—he got the first go at everything they ended up with. He happened upon a stack of 1950s brand-new Levis from the storage room of an old outfitter and, instead of selling them locally, posted them on Ebay, where he said Japanese shoppers were laying down $300 per pair!

Many modern thrift stores also buy batch lots of cheaply manufactured, new clothing from wholesalers, which is why you might see six of the same shirt on a rack. Or, this new leather jacket. $165.

New jacket in a "thrift" store

New jacket in a “thrift” store

There is still the occasional exception. During my two-month writers’ residency in 2010 in Harney County, Oregon, I happened upon this beautiful wool, fur-collared coat at the thrift shop.

"Oh--you didn't!" "Merry, Christmas, Honey. I got a good price on the cattle this year."

“Oh—you didn’t!” “Merry, Christmas, Honey. I got a good price on the cattle this year.”

It was most likely a very special gift from a rancher to his wife. She most likely only wore it for Christmas and funerals. It’s in perfect shape, and I paid five dollars for it. Five.

Urban vintage shops are usually run by people in their 30s, and guess what they think is ironic and cool—‘80s stuff! Not what my friends and I had, but actual things sold in the ‘80s. The dresses my teachers wore. The neon sportswear. The foot-torturing pumps. I’m just waiting for shoulder pads and those face-shield eyeglasses to come back. For they will.

I traveled a bit last year to promote Get Your Pitchfork On! and hit thrift shops wherever I could. Proof that I am, deep down, an optimist: Every time I approach a new thrift shop I think, “THIS one is going to be awesome!”

But they never are anymore. I went to Los Angeles and thought: Okay, movie stars must dump their fabulous clothes. They do, it turns out. But those thrift shops sell things for triple-digits, and the women’s clothes are tiny (anorexic-tiny, not short-tiny). I went to Jackson, Wyoming and thought: Okay, these people are rich! But even rich people wear regular clothes, apparently. I tried remote locations, such as Appleton, Wisconsin, and Hermiston, Oregon, in hopes of some old-school quality. Same deal.

Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink

Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink

It’s over, punk rock children of the ‘80s. We’ve had a good run. Thanks for the memories!

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Agriculture and the Media

Friday morning, I biked to Portland’s EcoTrust building for a conference that I learned about just last week at a Friends of Family Farmers event: Food+Agriculture Media Project. The idea was to get food and ag journalists, editors and researchers together to talk shop, meet each other, and maybe learn a few things along the way. I did all three!

The keynote speaker was from American Public Media’s Marketplace program, Adriene Hill. She talked about the challenge reporters face in trying to keep issues like organic food and global warming fresh to a weary audience. If a story about global warming leads with the subject itself, no one hears the story—the people who agree with the idea pat themselves on the back and turn off the story, and those who don’t agree curse at the radio and turn off the story. But, she continued, if the story begins with the price of chocolate going up everyone listens, even as the cause is identified as global warming.

Food, Hill noted, is uniquely suited to lead into any number of topics. “Everyone eats,” she said, “so everyone can relate on some level.”

After a few presentations about storytelling and the necessity of multimedia platforms, a panel convened to discuss the subject of raising and eating meat. The panelists considered a number of angles of meat production, discussing the cost of raising and processing grass-fed beef and compassionately raised poultry, and how that cost consigns the farmer to meager profits and precludes many from being able to afford it.

They also talked about the utter failure of the federal Farm Bill to meet the needs of mid-sized farmers and ranchers. Microenterprises and, especially, corporate industries fare much better, in the latter case to the detriment of vast swaths of land as well as people. A rancher from Eastern Oregon remarked that if direct subsidies from the Farm Bill were reinvested in conservation efforts, the landscape would “change overnight.”

What was sort of amazing—exciting and daunting at the same time—is how clear everyone is about how no one has all the answers, and they’re also not sure how to collect and assemble them. The Big Picture, it turns out, may be altogether too big for any single person to comprehend. As I contemplate future projects in the world of agriculture and rural life, it’s both a challenge and an opportunity.

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Guest Post: From Field to Table

Ed Battistella’s greatest achievement, as far as I’m concerned, is that in 2012 he made up and posted a new English word every day on his Twitter account, @LiteraryAshland. In September of last year, he interviewed me about country living and book-writing for his blog, Welcome to Literary Ashland. Ed teaches at Southern Oregon University and is working on a book about the linguistics of apology.

From Field to Table

By Ed Battistella

Reading the section on animals in Get Your Pitchfork On (and especially the chicken idioms on page 136) got me to thinking about the way we refer to animals and food, and reminded me of this recipe for giblets from a 15th-century cookbook:

Take fayre garbagys of chykonys, as þe hed, þe fete, þe lyuerys, an þe gysowrys; washe hem clene, an caste hem in a fayre potte, and caste þer-to freysshe brothe of Beef or ellys of moton, an let it boyle; an a-lye it with brede, an ley on Pepir an Safroun, Maces, Clowys, an a lytil verious an salt, an serue forth in the maner as a Sewe.  *translation below

Recipes like this give us some clues to Middle English relationships with food and animals, and our own. The word for giblet was garbage, a precursor of Modern English, and in Old English (no e on Olde!). In Old English, mete meant food (as in sweetmeat, mincemeat and nutmeat) and the word flæsc (flesh) was used for animal-tissue food (check out your handy Oxford English Dictionary). And people ate animals, not meat: they ate picga (pig), sceap (sheep), cu (cow) and cíecen (chicken).

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, many French words were borrowed into English, resulting in the possibility of more than one way to say things. The French introduced words for the cooked forms of animals: pultrie (poultry), porc (pork), motoun (mutton), boef (beef), and veel (veal), as well as garbage and gysowrys, both meaning the edible entrails. The two levels of vocabulary allowed speakers of English to eventually separate the farm from the table—the cooked form of animals, the product, was rendered in French, while the field form was from Old English. But throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, boef and motoun were used as terms for the animals as well as for their meat (of flesh). The distinction between French terms for food and English terms for animals doesn’t get fully baked in until early Modern English (Shakespeare refers to the “flesh of Muttons, Beefes, or Goates” in the Merchant of Venice) and modern ranchers still sometimes refer to cattle as beef.

Bon appetit.

I love me some cíecen ... I mean pultrie ...

I love me some cíecen … I mean pultrie …

*Translation of above in Modern English: “Take good garbage of chickens, as the head, the feet, the livers, and the gizzards; wash them clean, and cast them in a good pot, and cast therein fresh beef broth or else (that) of mutton, and let it boil; and bind it with bread, and (add) pepper and saffron, maces, cloves, and a little verjuice and salt, and serve it forth in the manner as a broth.”

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