Here’s something people who live on the coasts love to say to people who live on the plains:
“Oh you’re from Texas? I’m sorry.”
This is such a habit for coastal urban dwellers, I think they don’t realize how totally offensive it is. The fact is, people who live on the plains often live there because they like it, not because they can’t figure out how to get to LA.
I think it’s an education issue. One that Ree Drummond also known as The Pioneer Woman is handily addressing.
Drummond lives somewhere in Oklahoma. She moved there from LA after marrying the blue-eyed cattleman she calls Marlboro Man. Lots of people know Drummond now because in 2009 The Pioneer Woman was named blog of the year and sees up to 22 million page visits monthly.
People send me links to Ree’s blog about once a week because some say my life bears a resemblance to hers, minus the homeschooling and the articles in Forbes.
I think part of the reason for Drummond’s success is not just that her blog is engaging and fun, but its origin was so authentic.
Drummond started doing something she loved - writing about her life on the ranch and photographing it - and she kept going. A few years down the road, Pioneer Woman mushroomed and now she’s a doggone brand. I’m sure she couldn’t have imagined that happening when she first moved to Oklahoma.
I watched her show for the first time this morning. As a ranching resident of the Great Plains, I can tell you it's legit. You can tell it is crafted by her and not someone in LA with a goofy, patronizing vision of “country folk.”
On this morning’s episode, Ree’s mother in law, who they call Grammy, took Ree’s four kids and their cousins camping by the river on their ranch. A few dads and uncles showed up ahead of time to set up the canvas wall tent and capably used chainsaws to cut firewood. Most of them were dressed in Carhartt jackets, which clearly were not costumes because they had cow poo on them.
The kids helped out gathering firewood, and didn’t look like clueless, little weebles stumbling around trying to figure out how to pick up sticks. They also wore little wrangler jeans with mud on the knees and they were pretty good at climbing trees.
If this makes you nostalgic, it should.
This is at least one reason some people still choose to live in rural, uncool places doing quaint and uncool things. Some people, even kids, still think it's cool to sit by a campfire with Grammy and make peppermint patty s'mores.
Last fall, Ranch Boss grew tired of the pummeling we'd received from the historic Texas drought and the endless US recession; so he took matters in his own hands.
In November, Kirk Ranch Consulting accepted a new management position in East Texas - a place that looks an awful lot like Louisiana, because it has swamps and trees. As such, the geography of Kirk Ranch Organics has changed again.
The beautiful thing is, we do what we do no matter where we are. So we've got people working on Gorman, while we are firing up Kirk Ranch East.
As of February 10th, the lavender, basil, tomato and pepper starts are germinating and the spring garden is ready to plow. Our fabulous new neighbor Bobby, a retired Amtrak conductor, got into the blueberry business a few years ago and then quickly got out. He and his wife are swamped with more blueberries than two humans can eat. So Ranch Boss and I plan to help out - expect jars of Texas blueberry jam in your stockings next Christmas. Bobby is a big gardener and has offered to plow me a plot when when the rain stops. Yep, it rains here.
It didn't over the summer of course, but it is now and the lakes on our new project property are refilling. Tanks in Gorman are full now too, as the picture on the right attests. The one on the left was taken last August on the 40th day over 100 with no rain. Looking at it makes me hot.
One of the exciting surprises of our new venture was learning that the house we were to move into had, for numerous reasons, fallen into disrepair. So, we are remodeling it. If you are keeping track, this is the third house, Ranch Boss and I have remodeled together in five years.
So here we are starting afresh in Mineola, Texas, home to former Texas governor Jim Hogg, who, and I am not making this up, had a daughter named Ima.
A really smart person once told me that the key to success is to:
b. Keep going.
Yesterday, we started; taking one baby step toward our vision of long rows of lavender undulating their way to the porch of the Kirk Ranch house.
Here is what the front of the Kirk Ranch looks like right now.
Please cut us some slack as we have endured an unprecedented eight-month drought. Happily, the temperature has begun to drop, a few small showers have graced us and fall seems to be settling in.
Here's what we want the front of the Kirk Ranch house to look like eventually.
We are big believers in photographing our dreams and putting them in conspicuous places, as a reminder to the conscious or subconscious mind to plan accordingly.
Here is our first baby step toward that goal.
Three test plants of the lavender variety - Grosso, Provence and Laceleaf - have been planted in cultivated, sandy soil with a 7.0 ph and given a cool drink of water. They should have at least 60 days before our first frost to get a little bigger and stronger. Their performance will determine what varieties get planted next season and if we can propagate their very own genetics with cuttings.
Taking this little obsession into consideration, it's easy to explain what I am doing in this picture and why my sister is laughing about it.
It may have been a fake lavender field hanging on the wall of a skin care products store in Avignon, France, but I figured I ought to check out the soil anyway.
I've been thinking all week of a meaningful response to the ten-year anniversary of 9/11.
Certainly, there will be no shortage of fist-pumping Facebook posts, excoriating Muslims and liberals and Pepsi, which allegedly wants to remove "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance on soda cans. (A persistent urban myth that invades my inbox regularly.)
We can also expect a healthy number of challenges to "repost" some belligerent defense of Jesus in honor of 9/11. The failure to do so, people say, proves an obvious unwillingness to acknowledge your faith. Really?
It is said that the United States is the third largest "mission field" in the world, after India and China. That means Christian missionaries travel from all over, to the US, to teach Americans about Jesus. The Barna Group, a Christian research firm, puts the number of "unchurched" at one in three Americans. They define the term asan adult who has not attended a religious service of any type in six months. I think that number is conservative.
I've been reading the bible and studying it every day for the last 18 months. I've actually read the entire book, which is something, studies say, only ten percent of professed Christians have done.
So with that tiny bit of street cred, here's something I've learned. I hope this isn't news, but here goes:
The Jesus of the bible is different from the Jesus of Facebook.
There was a guy on tv this morning, who was born in Calcutta but naturalized to the US, who calls himself a missionary to America. He was in the North Tower when the first plane hit. His pregnant wife was in the South Tower. Both of them survived. Five minutes prior to the first crash, he sent an email to a friend asking for prayer because he felt like his life wasn't adding up to much. He hoped God could do something with him.
Sujo John is an ordinary guy, who on September 11th 2001, got caught up in an extraordinary story, which he tells with articulate thoughtfulness. His website says "We exist to be a vibrant and passionate expression of Jesus to a broken humanity." After 9/11, he quit his corporate gig and took up telling people about the love of God full time.
There are lots of reasons people reject religion. Some of them aren't the church's fault. People can be lazy and getting to know anybody - especially Jesus - takes effort. Religion makes it easy to rationalize that choice because many churches fail the message of Christ by, among other things, attempting to codify behavior before cultivating love.
But Jesus' message was about love, and His life on earth was a complete and perfect expression of it. If you read the actual Bible, like you read To Kill a Mockingbird in High School, that becomes plain.
"Clean it up so I can love and accept you," was not Jesus' message, but for a number of reasons, that's often what people hear. That message is super easy to reject.
So in honor of 9/11, I plan to do what Jesus told us to do.
Love God. Love Others. Especially your enemies.
You've heard it said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy; but I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. -Jesus. Matthew 5:43-44
I blew through Kansas and Nebraska last week on my way to the big cattle country of South Dakota.
For anyone bursting with a snarky comment, bite your tongue because the Midwest deserves props for quietly manufacturing items many of us enjoy but would find unsavory if we had to make ourselves.
Liberal, Kansas comes to mind.
Liberal, among other things, is a feedlot and slaughterhouse town with rail lines connecting it to beef markets throughout the Midwest. A lot of Americans, especially those on the coasts or where real estate is dear, never see a feedlot and that makes it easier to ignore what happens in them. The sight and smell of feedlots baking in 104 degree heat is something most people set their GPS to avoid. We passed thousands of head of cattle, some of which may have come from our own ranch, baking in the feedlot sun.
I called Ranch Boss to complain about this for the thousandth time.Those cows have to be dying in that heat, I whined and he said "it's just the way it is."
Given a choice cattle will get out of 104 degree sun and find some shade to lie down. In a feedlot they don't have that choice. To be fair, on the Plains there aren't that many trees either, but still. It is hot and crowded in those pens and the air is full of poo dust.
According to Drovers, the State of South Dakota estimates its cattle losses this year from 1,000-1,500 head mostly due to intense heat and humidity. Feedlots across the country are experiencing similar heat losses. There is an estimated 99 million cattle in the US and 10.4 million are being fattened for slaughter in feedlots.
Without getting all sanctimonious, this is one of the things local food activists like Michael Pollan are hollering about. Cattle are grown, stored and processed like every other commodity in this country, but unlike corn, cattle are capable of suffering.
If this bothers you, like it does me, there are ways around the industrial meat system. Did you know you can buy beef quarters and halves directly from certain ranches? Is that a convenient or inexpensive solution? Not really, but anymore growing numbers of people are going a little out of their way to reject the "that's just the way we do it" rationale. Here's a Wyoming ranch that is producing non-feedlot beef right off their Teton Range grass. Here's another ranch raised beef site that ships non-antibiotic fed quarters for $500. Here's another one in Idaho.
And to quickly cut through the hype: If you're only worried about what your dinner has been eating, buy natural beef. If you want leaner beef with higher Omega-3 buy grass-fed. If you want to cut out the feedlot, buy ranch raised and ask how it's "finished." Some ranches do all three of those things.
Nixon Ranch -South Dakota
Before WWII, there were thousands of small, local meat processors that made this approach more practical for the average consumer. But as we got smarter they struggled to comply with myriad food safety laws, which are often worked into legislation by lobbyists for the big processors. So most of them are gone now and buying locally grown beef, pork and chicken is harder. Spend a little time with Virginia farmer Joel Salatin as he rages about this issue. Salatin says he's not just a farmer, he's in the "redemption business."
Oh yah and where that smarter thing is concerned, E Coli only became a big problem with the growth of industrial meat system, not when people had easy access to beef raised by their neighbors. Salatin has a lot to say about that too.
I keep saying that one day Kirk Ranch beef will be 100% ranch raised and chemical free. But that's a capital intensive promise that requires more real estate with better grass. Of course, right now it seems we are going backward, because like many other producers in Oklahoma and Texas, we just sold our herd. This relentless heat and drought has dried up fields that should be on their third cutting of hay. We, like many others, have no feed. So we sold our bred cows for hamburger. I guess the good news is, they didn't spend much feedlot time before slaughter.
As consumers we have the option not to support the feedlot system. Is it as convenient as buying beef in Walmart? No, but convenience isn't everything. Next time you meet a cattle rancher ask what kind of beef they eat and why.
Two things occurred to me as I was hauling Chinese Communist propaganda posters in giant glass frames up four flights of stairs in Istanbul:
1. I spent six weeks in France and never went to Paris - An insulting omission.
2. Christy's new apartment is lousy with bizarre travel mementos.
So, when booking my flights back to the US, I deliberately planned 24 hours in Paris with part-time Istanbulli and new friend Susanne Fowler, who is not only a whip-smart travel writer but an editor at the International Herald Tribune.
I dropped into Charles de Gaulle airport, which is only 14 miles from Paris yet still surrounded by farmland - a nod perhaps to the French's agrarian sensibilities. After quick glass of wine on Susanne's terrace we met her friend Elaine at their favorite neighborhood spot called Le Stella. It is a traditional French Brasserie that was praised in Gourmet Magazine in 2007 as one of the last Parisian Brasseries actually doing things right.
How refreshing and quintessentially Parisian that the tuxedoed waiters not only carry white napkins on their arms but can also supply an immediate and credible wine recommendation. Service like that in the US seems either the purview of the wealthy or a throwback to a bygone era. I kind of miss it.
"The steak tartare is excellent here by the way," said Elaine, who is British and has lived in Paris for about ten years.
For the uninitiated, steak tartare is a traditional French dish composed mostly of raw beef and raw eggs. Way worse than cookie dough, but with a local recommendation how can you not? Millions of French can't be wrong.
Turns out, they are not. It was delicious and it came with fries and then champagne and then a bottle of wine and then creme caramel and then coffee and...
A three-hour dinner passed in what seemed like 30 minutes and soon we were rushing to catch the Eiffel Tower at the top of the hour.
It seems the French spent some time pondering how they could
enhance one of the world's most spectacular and iconic buildings. Somebody must have said,
"Hey, let's make it sparkle."
And so it does. For five minutes at the top of the dark hours, the whole structure twinkles like champagne bubbles in a fluted glass. I don't care how many times you've seen it, especially at night, all lit up, it still takes your breath.
We rounded the corner a few minutes late though and missed the sparkles. So we decided to have a few of our own at the local Champagne bar not far from Trocodero Square. The Hotel Dokhan, a former private mansion built in the 18th century, hosts champagne tastings in its candlelit Grand Salon, even at 11pm on a Sunday.
Our server was charming and deeply knowledgeable about the Pinot Noir Champagne by vineyard Marie-Noelle Ledru. Our tasting was accompanied by a plate of tiny, warm cakes that I think were made of fig.
Susanne and I ducked out at 11:45 headed for Trocodero Square. We arrived just in time to watch the Tower twinkle and visitors from all over the world kiss and take their pictures in front of it. It doesn't take long though for the bustle to settle and to catch people just watching it in awe; letting it wash over them.
Leaving Paris hurts.
The next morning, to ease the pain, I started with a cafe creme and a pan au chocolat at the corner patisserie. That helped but it wasn't enough so Susanne and I followed it up with a hot chocolate at the local chocolatier. It is probably more apt to describe Parisian hot chocolate as a large bowl of thick, hand-made 85% dark chocolate soup served with a dollop of Chantilly creme and cocoa powder.
Of course I told you all that to tell you this:
I just spent six weeks in France listening to locals - French and Ex-Pats - talk about their favorite places and then trying them myself. I'm headed back next June to do it all over again.