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Forget marijuana, grow chickpeas. April 30, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Looking to make a little money off the back 40? Wondering if pot is poised to be the new cash crop, taking over from tobacco? According to this morning’s Wall Street Journal, you’d be better off thinking about hummus.

Say what?!! Well, if you’re like Silence Dogood and our friend Ben, you always have a tub or two (or three) of hummus in the fridge, so you can salve your conscience if the munchies strike by dipping some veggies like carrot sticks, celery and broccoli florets in the good-for-you chickpea spread instead of reaching for the Tostitos or Triscuits and cheese. Apparently, we’re not the only ones: Hummus is now a $500-million-plus business in the U.S. alone.

But America’s hunger for hummus has created a little problem: We’re not growing enough chickpeas to meet the demand. And most of the chickpea crop is grown on the West Coast, leading hummus producers to worry about what would happen if the localized crop were to be wiped out.

As a result, farmers in Virginia are being urged to consider switching from growing tobacco as their cash crop to growing chickpeas. This may sound crazy to the non-farming segment of the population, but it makes perfect sense to our friend Ben. My ancestors in Kentucky had a dairy farm. The dairy operation broke even every year. What made a profit was the cash crop: burley tobacco. A few acres of burley made the difference between a little cash in the bank and no cash. It allowed my grandparents and their predecessors the luxury of continuing to farm the land.

It has been a long time since we grew tobacco on our land, and a long time since the farm did better than break even. Perhaps chickpeas might bring it back to profitability. Or at least pay for our friend Ben’s hummus habit.

(To read the article, look for “Hummus Conquers America” at http://www.wsj.com.)


How to be an entrepreneur. April 30, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Wouldn’t you have liked to found Xerox, Microsoft, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Angie’s List? Our friend Ben was reading a special section of The Wall Street Journal this morning that shared insights as to how these entrepreneurs had founded their empires. Here’s what they said:

* What aggravates you? If long lines at airports, or the lack of dignity at checkpoints drives you insane, they likely drive others insane also. Pinpoint what drives you crazy and try to fix it.

* Look at what other businesses are doing right. Okay, you don’t plan to open a food truck. You have no interest in going into the food business. But the food-truck business is a successful business model: small startup costs, loyal customers. Maybe a jewelry truck or fashion truck or art truck would be successful, too.

* Collaborate. You have great product, they have great marketing or online skills, or vice-versa. Together, you can do what neither of you could have ever done alone. Just make sure your business arrangement is in writing.

* Ignore the market and focus on the customers. Never pay attention to the people who tell you that the market’s down or we’re in a depression or whatever. Listen to the people who need the service you’re providing and are willing to pay for it.

* Don’t be afraid to fail. Your first idea may not be your best. If it isn’t, don’t give up. Perhaps your next, or next, or next idea will strike gold. Perhaps you simply need to tweak your first idea. Perhaps you need to seek sponsors or collaborators. But if you feel confident, true to yourself, don’t just crawl away. See what went wrong and try, try again.

Believe in yourself. Benjamin Franklin, one of the greatest entrepreneurs who ever lived, would be proud.

Pay off your mortgage. April 27, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben makes a point of reading, or at least skimming, all the Yahoo! news articles on their home page every morning, after reading the local paper and The Wall Street Journal. It isn’t easy, but I feel that it’s relevant.

Admittedly, seeing a feature about the Boston bombings sandwiched between NFL picks and the latest celebrity gossip makes me sick. But apparently Yahoo! feels that a so-called news mashup will appeal more to their constituents than allowing them to choose their own categories to follow, as used to be the case. Apparently, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lack of underwear is more relevant than Pope Francis’s determination to end the corruption of the Vatican Bank.

So today, I happened upon a headline on Yahoo! that informed people that the smartest possible financial move they could make was to pay off their mortgage. Our friend Ben heartily approves. When I bought Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home I share with Silence Dogood in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, I took out a 15-year mortgage. But, thanks to my beloved Mama’s premature demise, I could have bought the property outright. Yet everyone told me to take out a mortgage instead.

Don’t, if you don’t have to. Those so-called tax breaks are worth nothing compared to the security of owning your home outright and not having to worry about ongoing debt. Yes, this will mean buying a modest home that you can actually pay for. But oh, God, it’s worth it. The same is true of buying a trusty used car outright rather than mortgaging your soul and your future to pay for a new car. Peace of mind is priceless.

I have always bought used cars for cash. I sadly didn’t buy my house for cash when I had the chance. Instead, I listened to family, friends, and so-called experts and took out a 15-year mortgage. I did, however, pay not just the mortgage payment, with its then-exorbitant interest, but also paid down against the principle every month. Hawk’s Haven was completly paid off and ours in 12 rather than 15 years as a result. Now no one can take it away from us, despite our reduced circumstances, because we owe no one.

Okay, our house isn’t a palace, it’s a cottage. Our cars are well used and well loved, not the latest and greatest. But they’re ours, and no one can take them from us. Please consider this when you make your own investments. Being enslaved to a bank by living on credit is a pitiful thing. Our friend Ben just wishes that someone had told me this when it could have turned my life around.

Dire straits. April 25, 2013

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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been watching Season 1 of “Game of Thrones” on Netflix. The emblem of one of the leading Houses in Season 1, House Stark, is a dire wolf, and the wolves play a major role in the series.

Needless to say, this thrilled our friend Ben, an enthusiastic amateur paleontologist and fossil collector, no end. For, despite the nature of the series, which is a fantasy, dire wolves were real. Like other supersized mammals of their era, they coexisted with humans during the Ice Age and died out when the ice retreated and the continents warmed.

All of which brings to mind two questions that our friend Ben has pondered since receiving that wonderful book, All About Strange Beasts of the Past, in my childhood. The first question is, why were the mammals of the Ice Age so very large? How could mastodons, mammoths, sabertooth tigers, dire wolves, cave bears, aurochs (the giant ancestors of cattle), and similar species support themselves in a bitterly cold climate where any available forage would have grown for a very short period?

After all, mammals survived the age of the dinosaurs because they were about the size of rats and could elude the giant reptiles. I’d have thought they’d be very small during the Ice Age, so they’d need less fuel. My only guess is that it took a massive amount of body fat and fur to survive an Ice Age winter.

This then raises the second question: If mammals had to become supersized to survive the Ice Age, why didn’t humans become giant Yeti/Bigfeet? Human remains from the Ice Age don’t support the Schwarzenegger model of humanity. Instead, we used our brains and hunted in packs like the dire wolves.

But there’s an alternative theory. Many cultures across the ancient world had legends of giants, huge races of manlike beings who roamed the earth before the ascension of humans. Perhaps these “giants” were simply supersized people, mankind’s response to the giant animals of the Ice Age. However, to my knowledge, no remains of “giants” have been found. Until and unless this happens, it’s all just speculation.

What do you think?

Please don’t generalize. April 24, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. The rest of the world may be too busy dealing with its own daily acts of random terrorism and violence to have paid overly much attention to the Boston Marathon bombings, the most destructive act of terrorism on American soil since 9/11. But if you’re American, like us, you’re probably still reeling. The sweet face of the dead Chinese student, the 8-year-old boy, the young woman; the accounts of shrapnel blasting bodies, of legs blown off, a mother losing both legs, two brothers each losing a leg—these aren’t likely to fade soon from the public awareness.

Sadly, the perpetrators of this crime were a radical Islamist and his unfortunate brother, just 19 years old and a sophomore in college. Like 9/11, this act is likely to set off a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment and action in our country. And it is here that I beg all of you not to make generalizations. After 9/11, Indian Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, Lebanese and Syrian Christians, anyone who happened to look “Muslim” was apparently considered “the enemy” and fair game for attack. I myself was horrified to witness a drunk white woman verbally abusing an understandably perplexed, dark-skinned Portuguese man in a convenience store.

My best friend is a professor who is Pakistani, and Muslim. She and her two little boys were living in Brooklyn on 9/11. Seeing the hatred being meted out and terrified for her sons, my friend did something brilliant: She bought a cute little puppy. When she walked down the street with her boys, everyone stopped to ooh and aah over the puppy and left her family alone.

Now my friend is back in Pakistan and her boys, American-born to an American father, American citizens, are in college here. Nobody seeing them on the street would think “Muslim!” and attack them. But they are Muslim, and their names make that very clear. These are smart, sweet, kind, caring, talented boys. They are not terrorists, they are not violent, they are not delusional, they are not fanatics. Should we turn on them because of their faith, because of their name?

I myself am Catholic. If some ultra-conservative Catholic fanatic decided to express his displeasure over Pope Francis’s reforms by setting off bombs at, say, New York’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, would I expect America’s shocked and outraged citizens to blame me because I happened to be Catholic? Of course not. So why should we turn on the Muslims who have come to this country for the exact reasons our own ancestors did, freedom from persecution, a chance for prosperity, education?

Most crimes of terror, most random acts of violence, in this country are done by mentally ill people who are delusional, self-aggrandizing, or paranoid. I don’t know if background checks on the mental history of prospective gun buyers would cut down on the number of incidents of random violence, but it would certainly be a start. No, it wouldn’t keep a fanatic and his little brother from setting off pressure-cooker bombs. Yes, it might stop mass murders at schools and malls and movie theaters.

Please, everyone, let’s not generalize this time. All of us are immigrants or the descendents of immigrants, from the First Americans who crossed the Bering Straits to the latest waves from around the world, seeking safety and prosperity. Whether your people arrived on the Mayflower or an illegal boat from Cuba, you have a right to make a life here, as the Statue of Liberty attests. The tide of public and Congressional sentiment even seems to have turned regarding illegal immigrants.

This time, let’s not let a fanatic and his impressionable teenage brother make us judge an entire faith, an entire community, on the actions of two people. Yes, the Boston bombings were horrible. No, the Muslim community didn’t do them. Please live up to your legacy as Americans and show the acceptance, warmth, and welcome to our Muslim neighbors that has made our country what it is. If you’d like to delve deeper, there is a book, The Muslim Next Door, that might help you better understand how very much we have in common with our Muslim neighbors. Check it out on Amazon or B&N.com.

‘Til next time,


A sip of vinegar. April 23, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I love vinegar in its myriad varieties. Our favorite salad dressing is simply 18-year aged balsamic vinegar and Hojiblanca extra-virgin olive oil, with a good sprinkling of RealSalt and fresh-cracked pepper. It’s the perfect way to bring out the varied flavors of the ingredients in the salad itself.

And I love a splash of vinegar (again, preferably balsamic) on cooked greens like spinach, kale and collards. (For pure decadence, saute the greens in olive oil with minced garlic, and then finish with a splash of balsamic. Mmmmm!)

I’ll admit, I’m sort of an olive-oil-and-vinegar junkie. For a splurge, I’ll pair up lavender-infused balsamic vinegar or juniper-berry-infused balsamic or grapefruit-infused white balsamic or a rich, aged sherry vinegar with an infused extra-virgin olive oil like blood orange, Meyer lemon, or rosemary. When heat-loving friends come for supper, their salads may be dressed with chipotle-infused olive oil and Key lime balsamic vinegar. There are so many options available now, the possible combinations are mind-boggling. And, for good or ill, there’s a Seasons oil and vinegar store in nearby Bethlehem, PA that carries an awesome selection.

Which brings me to the point of this post, which isn’t about using vinegar but drinking it. Drinking vinegar may strike the uninitiated as akin to gargling with carbolic acid. But think about it: Wine is essentially grape vinegar, just not quite fermented to its final form. As hard cider will inevitably become apple cider vinegar if you allow it to continue fermenting.

Even so, I would never have encountered vinegar as a beverage were it not for the tastings offered at Seasons and other oil-and-vinegar emporiums and at our beloved annual local Bowers (PA) Chile Pepper Food Festival. The shops and the festival provide tiny paper cups so you can sample their wares before you commit to buying them. This has saved me from many a misfortune on the olive oil side, as I prefer a deep, rich oil like Hojiblanca to a light, grassy one. But oh, my, the vinegars! Yum. I’ll be happy to take most of them straight up.

Mind you, I’m not talking about gulping down a wineglass full of vinegar here. A shotglass would be plenty. But I’d be happy to sip a shotglass of Seasons’ 18-year balsamic vinegar or Rolling Hills Farm’s garlic vinegar any day. I encountered Rolling Hills’ garlic vinegar at the Bowers Chile Pepper Festival last year. They were offering samples in little plastic cups and inviting passersby to sample them. For some reason, they weren’t getting too many takers. Drink garlic vinegar?!

But the Rolling Hills folks knew the health benefits of garlic and apple cider vinegar, and they knew how to make the vinegar mellow and sweet, even though they infuse a whole pound of organic, homegrown garlic into every gallon of vinegar. I was game. I drank my little cup. I was hooked!

Unfortunately, OFB and I were a bit cash-strapped by the time we reached the Rolling Hills booth. We were already kicking ourselves for buying just one bottle of our beloved Chef Tim’s balsamic vinaigrette (“Shake! Shake! Shake! Don’t refrigerate!”) and here we were confronting this luscious garlic vinegar with barely enough change rattling in our pockets to buy one bottle. Aaarrgghhh!!!

After we devoured Chef Tim’s vinaigrette on our salads, I broke open the Rolling Hills garlic vinegar and started dressing our salads with it and my favorite Hojiblanca olive oil. OFB and I loved our salads, but the bottle was empty all too soon. Since Seasons was relatively near us, I next began dressing our salads with the yummy blend of Hojiblanca olive oil and 18-year-old balsamic vinaigrette.

We love this combo, but the memory of the garlic vinegar still haunted me. I finally went online to try to track it down, even though of course I’d long since recycled the bottle and forgotten the name. Fortunately, Googling “garlic vinegar” immediately brought up the website of local producers Rolling Hills Farm in nearby Bangor, PA. I bought six bottles on the spot (and you can, too: http://www.rollinghillsgarlicvinegar.com).

Amazingly, two days after placing my order, the mailman delivered the box of garlic vinegar, each bottle tenderly nestled in a bed of hay. Whoa! Vinegar and free mulch in the same box! How nice to see bottles carefully packed with no irritating, polluting plastic seals. And yes, I do plan to drink a shot a day now that my stash has arrived. Not to mention adding it to my salads. (They have lots of other suggested uses on the bottle.)

You can choose between Rolling Hills garlic vinegar with honey or brown sugar. And let me just say again that, despite that pound of garlic cloves per gallon, you don’t either taste or smell like garlic (a la garlic bread or garlic knots) after drinking, er, eating this rich, mellow vinegar.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the pioneers of vinegar-drinking, the Braggs. They’ve been touting their apple cider vinegar as a cure-all for decades, and recommending it as a beverage. Now they’ve gone a step further, bottling cider vinegar beverages. I just bought a bottle of their ginger-spice vinegar drink and am looking forward to trying it. Bragg products are available at all heath-food stores, so you have only to stroll in to choose your favorite flavor.

Ready to give it a try? Here’s what Rolling Hills has to say about the health benefits of their garlic vinegar: “Antiseptic. Kills bacteria and fungi. May help lower cholesterol and blood pressure, may help prevent heart disease or stroke, and may lower the risk of certain cancers. Helps the body absorb minerals from food. Helps fight osteoporosis, diabetes and heart disease.” That’s all well and good. But the main thing is, it’s so delicious! Try it, you’ll like it.

And if you love vinegar, let me know how you use (or drink) it!

‘Til next time,


Robins in the ‘hood. April 18, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Living in a cold-winter climate as we do, one of the weatherizing steps our friend Ben and I take every fall is to put a cover over the outside portion of our one pitiful window air conditioner. We tie its fasteners to snug the cover against the a/c, but we also put a brick on top, just in case. This past fall, we added a log from our woodpile, since winds here can get rough and we wanted to make sure the cover didn’t budge.

With temperatures continuing to fall into the 30s and 40s here at night (in mid-April, yikes), we haven’t yet removed the a/c cover or the log. Apparently, this was a big mistake.

I guess the space between the log and my office window looked cozy and inviting to a pair of robins, since all morning, I’ve watched them bringing straw, leaves, twigs and the like and tossing them in the empty space. Not even our dino-sized cat, Linus, repeatedly launching himself against the window, has deterred them.

Now, we’ve had robins nest in some unusual locations here before, most notably in a nest built in a wreath we’d hung on the front of our house. But I’ve never had such an up-close view of their nest-building process. However, with the process going on a couple of feet from my computer, it’s impossible to ignore.

Prior to this backyard science experiment, I’d have assumed that when a robin appeared at the nest site with a beakful of nesting materials, he or she would have carefully added them to the nest and packed them in place before flying off to get more. However, it appears that robins actually operate more like human builders, assembling all the materials at the site before beginning construction.

I guess this is a lucky break for me. I can’t afford to let our pair nest on top of the a/c cover—I’m going to need that air conditioner!—and I’d have hated to move a nest, in case the parents abandoned it.

Instead, in an hour, when I go out to get the mail and put out the recycling, I’ll head to the side of the house, remove the log and cover, take the log to the fire pit, and bring the cover inside. I’ll leave the robins’ carefully accumulated nesting materials on the ground beneath the a/c. If they want to nest on top of the a/c itself, that’s their business. I can only hope that the nestlings will be big enough to fly before I have to turn the damn thing on!

‘Til next time,


One tough plant. April 17, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening.
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Silence Dogood here. We’re lucky enough to have a greenhouse here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. When cold weather comes, we haul our endless container plants, which have spent the growing season on our deck, either into the greenhouse or into the house to keep us company over winter.

The only plants we leave outside are our water iris, which somehow survive beautifully in our two frozen half-barrel water gardens, and our agastache, a mint-family member with blooms that attract hummingbirds. Every winter, it looks dead as it sits forlornly in its container on the deck. But, like the dead parrot in the Monty Python sketch, it’s “just resting.” Come spring, it’s one of the first plants to show new growth, with lovely purple-green leaves covering the surface of the pot. That’s one tough plant.

But it’s not the plant I want to talk about today. Last spring, I made up two large containers to brighten the deck, filling them with lobelia, callibrachoas (“millionbells,” the flowers look like mini-petunias), and the like. And for contrast and to spill over the sides, I planted golden-chartreuse-leaved ‘Goldi’ creeping Jenny (a form of Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’, also called golden moneywort) around the perimeter of each pot.

I knew the annuals would be done at season’s end, but the creeping Jenny is perennial, so our friend Ben and I planned to plant it out in the fall. Then I got hit with a terribly tight deadline and Ben got busy as well. The closest we came was hauling the pots to the place we’d planned to plant them.

All winter, I looked at the poor pots and thought what a shame it was to have killed those plants, which are some of my favorites. Then, last week, I noticed that they hadn’t died. The creeping Jenny was making a comeback!

I cleaned up the pots today and brought them back to the deck. OFB and I bought cold-season veggie transplants on Sunday and I got some violas to brighten the front of our house and the deck. (Violas are pansy-Johnny-jump-up hybrids that look like mini-pansies: I love violas and Johnny-jump-ups, but not their larger cousins.) I’ll plant some of the violas in the containers with the creeping Jenny to add some splashes of color to our deck while the nights are still plunging into the 40s and more showy annuals wouldn’t do well.

Any plant that can survive our Zone 6 winters outdoors in a container is one tough plant. That goes for our sedums and sempervivums in the trough garden out front, too. What plants do you leave out over winter?

‘Til next time,


Justin Bieber is on board. April 16, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Gee, this morning Poor Richard’s Almanac received a commendation from Justin Bieber! We’re so thrilled and excited, we’re beside ourselves.

Actually, we’re just amazed at the lengths spammers will go to to get on our blog. We don’t care if you call yourself Justin Bieber, Dr. Jeffrey Smith, Adrianna, or whatever. We don’t understand what good it would do you to post a rote, irrelevant comment to our site, even if WordPress’s excellent Akismet spam filter didn’t pull you off, or why it’s worth taking the time to try. What’s in it for you?!

To us it just seems like a total waste of time. Enlightenment, please!

Ben got that right. April 15, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

—Benjamin Franklin