Modern Homesteading–What’s That?

Modern Homesteading–What’s That?

We learned about them in school–those sturdy pioneers of the 1800s who headed west in their covered farm wagons to build little cabins and eke out a  living on land provided to them at no cost by the government. They were traditional homesteaders. Oh, those were the days! The Gnome and I made our own trek out west last fall (not in a covered wagon, mind you) and happened upon the Oregon Trail Ruts near Guernsey, Wyoming. Oh, my!

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See that?  See what 500,000 (that’s right–500,000) people traveling across solid rock with their horses and wagon wheels did to that rock? In places, these ruts cut five feet deep! Can you imagine?

Now, those people had it rough, no doubt about it. They left all they knew behind, faced both known and unknown hazards, all to make a hard life in uncharted territory.

The back-to-the-land homesteaders of the 1960s and 70s faced a different scenario, not nearly so hard, but still pretty rough. To generalize a bit, the movement toward subsistence living was a rejection of modern life as folks strove to get back to basics. They were idealists, but typically without any understanding of what they were getting into or the experience they needed to succeed. Going back to the land often meant no running water, no electricity, insufficient heat in winter, and certainly no air conditioning in summer. Yes, it was plenty hard.

Modern homesteading is something else again. There’s a healthy segment of people who still opt to plow their fields with real horsepower instead of machines. There are those who eschew electricity (unless it’s off the grid). But these days there are many avenues to a new kind of homesteading.

People who call themselves modern homesteaders are usually people who want to live closer to the earth; to do more of the work of daily living with their own hands–like growing and preserving their own food, sewing or knitting their own clothes, cooking their own meals. They want to learn the practical skills to live more simply. They want to be resilient: not necessarily completely self-sufficient, but to develop the philosophy and skills to become more self-reliant.

In short, modern homesteading is a way of finding your own path to a simpler, more self-reliant life. Not everyone agrees with this definition, but it seems to be the majority position. Modern homesteading allows a person to weave old-fashioned skills into modern life. To find what, for you, is the best of both worlds. City slickers, even apartment dwellers, can be homesteaders by this definition. Personal values, circumstances, and demands make the path–and the destination–different for just about everybody. But anybody who wants to can give it a try.

Some people like to call the Gnome and me farmers. I have far too much respect for real farmers to let that go by unchallenged. Farmers are up well before dawn day in and day out. They work outside all day, summer and winter. We’re gardeners. That’s all. Modern homesteaders, though–I’ll take that. Our path? We built our own house with our own hands. We have electricity, but half of it these days comes from a community solar garden. For all sorts of reasons that make sense to us, we don’t heat with wood. But we do have lots of south-facing windows for passive solar heat, and our walls are almost twelve-inches thick, so even in our sometimes frigid climate, our house stays pretty cozy with very little heating expense, relatively speaking.

Our piped-in water comes from a spring back in our woods. We tap our own maple trees and boil the liquid down to syrup. We recycle. We’re inveterate do-it-yourselfers. To the extent our skills and tools allow, we do our own maintenance and make our own repairs. We grow and preserve enough vegetables to pretty much get us through the year. We wash our clothes in a modern electric washing machine, but to dry them we usually use our solar clothes dryer.

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Our solar clothes dryer

So, we’ve cobbled together a life that works for us. One that teaches us resilience. One that keeps us closer to the land even as we type on our computers, drive our car, and use electric tools and appliances. One that gives us vast satisfaction, as well as the confidence that, should circumstances dictate, we might actually be able to be self-sufficient–at least for awhile. Our own middle ground. And, for us, that’s modern homesteading.

 

Let Me Tell You About My Books!

I’m tickled to pieces that I currently have two books in print. My most recent, pretty much hot off the press, is Boyhood Daze and Other Stories: Growing Up Happy During the Great Depression. Clearly, it’s not about me. A combination biography-memoir, this is the true story of my dad’s childhood and (very) young adult years. It’s based on stories he told and wrote, interviews with his siblings and my cousins, and a lot of historical research about the time and place where he grew up–rural Johnston County, NC, just east of Raleigh.

What really sets Daddy’s story apart is the time he spent living in the poorhouse. (I’ll say no more about that–it would take too much fun out of reading the story yourself.) What makes his story universal is that the pretty much everyone who lived through that period had similar experiences. If your parents or grandparents grew up during the Great Depression or during World War II, you’ve probably heard a few stories yourself. If you have, some of these stories will have a familiar ring. If you haven’t, this book may give you a lens through which to learn something more about what life was like for them. It was, to say the least, an interesting time in our history.

As the title suggests, Boyhood Daze is mostly a lighthearted story that will make you chuckle. It also contains a few life lessons. And like any honest true-life story, there are some hard times: times of sadness, pain, grief. (But not too much.)

I had a lot of fun writing this book. People who’ve read it have told me they had fun, too. That makes me happy. And it would have made Daddy happy. His clown persona, Joco, had a slogan: Keep on the funny side of life. Daddy was always looking for ways to make people laugh. With him or at him–didn’t matter, as long as they laughed. Maybe this book will make you laugh, as well.

(In case you wondered, that’s Daddy on the cover riding one of his favorite mules. Yep, she’s in the book, too.)

* * * * *

My first book, Living on the Diagonal: Mountain Musings, is a small volume of poetry and photography. Title sound familiar?  Actually, credit for the title of both book and blog goes to my cousin Becka. She lives in the land of prairies. Our mountains must have made an impression when she visited a couple of years ago, for she dubbed our lifestyle with the words (you guessed it): living on the diagonal. I grabbed them with gusto.

Like this blog, the poems in Living on the Diagonal are sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes lighthearted. Many of them explore my relationship to nature, to family, and to my writing. You can find a tiny sample here. More to come at some point in the future.

Both books can be purchased on Amazon.com. If you’re local, I also have copies of Boyhood Days available for purchase, at a discount.

 

My Prize-Winning Cornbread

That’s right. When I was just nine years old, I was the winner of the Florence (SC) County 4-H corn muffin contest. It was my first competition of any sort and at age nine, a great beginning to my 4-H career.

I no longer make muffins, just good old-fashioned cornbread. The kind you bake in a cast iron skillet, though you could use a glass casserole dish or a metal cake pan–I’ve done both with success. But nothing quite compares to cast iron for cornbread.

These days, we make our cornbread with home ground meal from our homegrown Painted Mountain*corn. This corn is so pretty you can just use it for decoration. But it sure would be a shame to miss out on its delightful taste (though when we hang the ears up to dry in our bedroom, we keep them there for months for the sheer joy of admiring them).

Our grinder is pretty basic so our meal has a coarse texture that adds a delightful chewiness. If you have the chance to try this recipe with a coarsely ground meal, do! Otherwise, use what you can buy at your favorite grocer’s. I won’t judge. It’s a great complement to soup.

Carole’s Prize-Winning Cornbread

Preheat oven to 400.

  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2-4 Tablespoons sugar (optional, but …)
  • 4 Tablespoons melted butter
  • 1 1/4 cups milk
  • 2 eggs, beaten

Melt butter in your skillet or other pan while oven is preheating.

Meanwhile, sift and mix dry ingredients together in a large bowl. (Note: we never sift. It works out fine.)

In smaller bowl, combine all liquid ingredients except butter.

Swirl melted butter to cover bottom and sides of your baking dish, then pour remainder into other liquid ingredients.

Stir liquid ingredients into dry ones.

Bake about 25 minutes or until toothpick or sharp knife comes out clean.

* Painted Mountain corn is an open-pollinated corn and can be purchased from Territorial Seed Company, Johnny’s Seeds, Baker’s Heirloom Seeds and other seed companies.

Our Favorite Lentil Soup Recipe

Sorry, but I don’t recall where we found the original of this great recipe. Something makes me think it may have come from one of Frances Moore Lappe’s books. It’s ridiculously easy and oh, so tasty.

As usual, over the years, we’ve tweaked according to our own tastes. That’s what you’ll see here. This recipe is easy to modify according to your own preferences.

Saute in large pot for three to five minutes:

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 cup onion (you could easily double this if you’d like more onion)
  • 3-4 sliced carrots (cut larger slices into smaller pieces

Add 1 teaspoon thyme for last minute

Add:

  • 3 cups of your favorite stock (or water mixed with bouillon cube or powder)
  • 1 cup rinsed, dry lentils
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped parsley (if we don’t have fresh parsley, we just omit this step. Still great.)
  • 1 quart home-canned tomatoes (or you can use a 28-oz store bought can)

Bring to boil, then simmer in covered pot 45 minutes.

Now comes the part that makes this soup truly special:

Fill the bottom of each bowl with 1/4 cup grated Swiss cheese; ladle steaming hot soup into bowls; to each bowl add about 2 tablespoons dry, white wine of your choice. The chef gets an extra swig or two. (You could omit either of these two ingredients, but IMO they pretty  much make this soup.)

Want a really great complement for this dish? Pair with my prize-winning cornbread recipe.

The Return of the Prodigal Potato Soup Recipe

Way back in the last century–the mid-’70s to be exact–when the Gnome and I thought we were hippies (we were so not), my brother and his wife gave us a treasured gift: The Mother Earth News Almanac.

We devoured it. In particular, we devoured this soup whose recipe was on the pages of the almanac. We fell in love all over again. In the course of a couple of moves and boxes long left unpacked, we lost track of the book–and the recipe. Ultimately, we forgot the source of this recipe. But on many a cold winter night we just recalled it, reminisced about it, and mourned its loss forever.

Or so we thought. A couple of years ago when we were sorting through our small library, we came across our beloved, well-worn Mother Earth News Almanac.

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You know how it is when a reader comes across an old book (any book, really). To heck with the job at hand; I had to at least scan its pages. I noticed one that was bookmarked. Guess what it was. You got it–our favorite cheesy potato soup!

This recipe is for two hungry people, but can be doubled or tripled easily enough.

CHEESE POTATO SOUP

  • Boil 2 potatoes (a little larger than medium-size, whatever that is)
  • Drain, but save the liquid
  • Mash the potatoes
  • Add drained liquid back into the pot to obtain desired thickness. If you’ve added all the water and the mixture is still too thick, add more water.
  • In a small skillet, brown 2 ½ Tbsp flour in 2 ½ Tbsp melted butter, stirring constantly to prevent burning.
  • Add browned mixture to potato-water mixture; bring to a boil and cook while stirring for 2-3 minutes to thicken.
  • Fill each soup bowl 1/3 full with small chunks of cheddar cheese (the sharper the better, we think).
  • Cover cheese with soup. You want the soup hot enough to soften, but not necessarily to melt the cheese.
  • Add 2-3 tablespoons of diced onion and a few sprinkles of apple cider vinegar to taste. (We like the extra zing of the vinegar, so we add anything from 2 Tbsp-1/4 cup–you might want to start lighter and go from there.)
  • Add salt and pepper to taste.

As good as the cheese-potato mixture is, the addition of the onion and vinegar is essential to make this recipe extraordinary (not to mention that they are the healthiest ingredients).

Rib-sticking thick, this soup is a great comfort food for a chilly wintry day. Add my prize-winning corn bread recipe for a tasty, filling combo.