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January 05, 2008

Off the Grid, Off the Menu

I like making fun of hippies as much as anyone does, or at least as much as anyone does who has to live in a town crammed to the corners with drum circles, the smell of burning sage and unwashed feet, and denizens who routinely enter public eating establishments without checking to see if theyâre wearing shoes or, you know, real pants. But there are times when, in my secret innermost heart, I get a little worried that Iâm becoming one of them. Aside from the filthy bare feet, the excessive potsmoking, the terrible fucking music, the public eating of pervasively odorous foods out of gigantic and apparently unwashed containers, and the gently beatific approach to life, I prefer their approach to that of, say, assholes driving Hummers in Los Angeles. I will testify against myself to the effect that I have abandoned the shallow urban crapitude of Southern California for Northern, hopefully permanently; I am preparing to sell my car in favor of bicycle and public transportation; I have discovered that I quite enjoy a nice bottle of kombucha in all respects except for price; and Iâve been reconsidering my rigid anti-yoga stance. I neednât confess everything â I think thatâs damning enough.

Also, I really like the idea of living âoff the grid,â and I continue to nurse a mental image of myself as the sort of person who would be ready to go do it if the timing were better. You know: too bad Iâm stuck here in a small city doing the academia gig. Otherwise Iâd totally be roughing it out in the mountains somewhere, my veggies not just organic but five minutes out of the ground, my shack authentically rugged and dilapidated but clean, my carbon footprint nonexistent, my flaccid arms toned and tanned from chopping wood and drawing water and making moose calls or whatever else you have to do to live in the woods.

As anyone who knows me can verify â hell, as anyone whoâs ever even seen me can probably guess â I am really not a person who is cut out to handle anything other than prepackaged, sterilized, rounded-corners, amenities-included city life. I am, for one thing, hyperbolically terrified of spiders. For another, I am clearly unable to deal with ants in my living space. For a third, I am allergic to every plant and animal found on this planet. For fourth, I am extremely accident prone; let us remember that I am the woman who broke her hand last year by falling while walking down the sidewalk, and that a year before that I broke my foot by falling while walking down the stairs. For fifth, sixth, and seventh, I am afraid of the undead, the dark, and the prospect of losing my mind.

Eighth and worst, I have an utterly black thumb. As I walk down the street, grass browns and entire branches fall off trees, which is not just depressing but actually dangerous (see: accident prone). Last year a friend left me in charge of his cacti when he was out of the country; all I can think is that he must not have been adequately warned about what I do to plants. I managed not to kill his plants, but only because I refrained from touching them for the entire year. Literally. I left them to their own devices, and they limped along until he was able to reclaim and resuscitate them. I had optimistically purchased a small cactus of my own and placed its pot near my friendâs plants. For the whole year, my cactus survived right alongside them, probably because I was ignoring it. As soon as he came back and took his cacti away and mine realized that it was being abandoned to my âcare,â all its pods fell off and it died. I tried recently, again, with two houseplants. I picked two fairly hardy plants allegedly suited to the conditions in my apartment. After a two-week regimen of erratic watering, manhandling, and verbal abuse, one plant collapsed over the side of its pot and the other turned into a trail of leaves that I still havenât gotten around to vacuuming off the floor. As for actual gardening, I tried over the summer to thwart the evil feral cats in my neighborhood by planting dandelions in their litterbox, also known as the dirt under my bedroom window. Nothing. Dandelions, which are famous for growing anywhere instantly, refused to grow in the best-fertilized six square feet of ground in Santa Cruz. Amazing.

Pretty much the only plant I havenât managed to kill is the gigantic cactus occluding the door to my apartment, but I do seem to have induced in it a disfiguring disease. I tried to trim it back a few months ago, but I lacked any of the appropriate tools for the job. Iâm not sure what those tools would have been â something to protect my hands from spines, maybe, along with something designed to cut through big succulent pads â but you know what didnât really work so well? Hitting the more obtrusive pads with a hammer until they fell off or buckled. I managed to knock a bunch of them off and cripple a lot more, but they grew back, big, spiny, and covered with huge scabrous spots of moldy-looking crusty sap. It got really gross and blocked the door to the point where the FedEx guy got mad because he got stuck with spines trying to hand me a package, so yesterday I went outside and kicked at the cactus until some more of the paddles broke off. Iâm sure this time itâs going to grow back even worse, although Iâm not sure how it will manage that. Maybe by becoming carnivorous or something. Man-eating zombie cactus: you see why I fear the undead.

The point is that all this bodes very ill for me ever being able to live on my own away from civilization, with its beguilingly convenient roster of exterminators, physical therapists, exorcists, mental health professionals, and food retailers.

I am a very good cook; my skills in the kitchen appear to be inversely proportionate to my skills in the garden. I can do a lot with not much, my instincts are excellent, my finickiness an asset, my knowledge of principles solid, my stock of tools full and appropriate, and it almost never happens that I do something that simply canât be saved. What I can do with the edible bits of plants is totally different from what happens when Iâm faced with the whole plant. For this reason, I am a big fan of packaged foods and food ingredients. Every time I open a bag of beans or rice or greens, I know that someone else, someone capable, took care of the growing part. Then a clean, shiny, chrome food-packaging robot took the food and put it in a bag, and somebody trucked it to a store and someone else put it on a shelf and I bought it and so really, all I need to do is the good part: eat.

However, I think I may need to work harder on my gardening skills and rethink my comfy reliance on packaged ingredients. This is because a couple of recent events with some of my most beloved foods has shaken my belief in the gleaming metal hygiene of the food-packaging robot and stirred up yet another one of The Fears That Will Keep Katie From Living in the Woods: the Fear of Germs.

At the risk of sounding like a weirdo, I love lima beans. Specifically, I love frozen lima beans, because the freezing process allows each bean to retain its beautiful, delicate green luminosity, with its subtle scalloping, and its wonderful mealy beany texture, and its light yet substantial flavor which is utterly unlike the flavor of canned lima beans. Canned lima beans taste like can and are suitable only as filler in recipes you donât really care about. Frozen lima beans, simmered briefly and tossed with nothing more than your favorite butter substitute, sea salt, and fresh pepper, are a heap of little glossy green revelations. The little baby ones are firm and equally good on their own or in soups, stews or pastas. The big Fordhook ones are plump and soft and should be eaten alone, one at a time, speared with a fork. They were the first vegetable I would eat without a fight as a child, and still, as an adult, I go through maybe a bag of frozen lima beans every week or two. Until a couple of weeks ago, when I took the bag of frozen lima beans I had purchased from a major national food retailer, cut off a corner, and began to tip them into a pot of simmering water. Out came some lima beans, and on top of the heap of little green beans came a frozen rat turd.

I owned rats for several years and spent some of the less glorious moments of my life picking pieces of rat shit out of the carpet. I know what rat turds look like. Thanks to the freezing process designed to allow each bean to retain its own boundaries and personality, the rat turd in question was perfect, complete, and individually frozen. It was unmistakable. I havenât eaten a lima bean since.

Another thing I eat a lot of is a sort of basic risotto I make with a variable cast of ingredients that depends on what I have and what I feel like. It tends to be something like a few different kinds of rice for texture, with various broths/sauces, vegetables, and spices, depending on what angle Iâm going for. A nice place to start is with  cup each of brown, wild, and basmati rice, added at various times according to the amount of time each needs to cook, and then various veggies and so forth. Beans are good here too, in order to make a whole protein, but limas donât stand up. Soybeans are toothier and better. Anyway, as much as I like rice-based things, sometimes I donât feel like taking the time or the dishes to start from scratch, and so I like experimenting with various kinds of prepackaged rice-and-herbs combos, and then adding veggies and ingredients from there. I recently purchased, from a regional chain of health-and-specialty-foods-stores, a rice mix that was basically basmati and wild rice with a sort of lemon-herb blend. I was going to make it as the basis for my dinner tonight, and was about to cut open the clear cellophane package, when I noticed a gigantic wiry black hair inside. The hair was huge. It went from one end of the package to the other, trapped in the seal on both sides. Iâm willing to bet that on one of the ends of that hair, curled inside the package seal, thereâs a follicle. This wasnât a little hair, or a maybe hair, or just sort of a hair. This was a hell of a hair.

While Iâve just finished laying out all the ways that Iâm clearly not cut out for a solitary outdoor life, I also donât think of myself as a total Howard Hughes type. I donât spend a lot of time thinking about other peopleâs germs unless they do something to remind me about it, like walking into a restaurant with grimy bare feet with parking lot debris embedded in them. Also, I wantonly stick my fingers in my mouth all the time, even when Iâve been touching doorknobs or money or traffic cones, a fact which may go some way toward explaining why Iâm sick all the damn time. But Iâm really not OK about stuff in my food. When we had to dissect grasshoppers in seventh grade, I became convinced that a grasshopper leg would detach itself and cling to my sleeve where it would wait for the opportune moment to drop into my lunch. For some reason, this put me off of peanut butter sandwiches for almost a year, because this was where I thought the leg would wind up: stuck in the peanut butter, glued to the roof of my mouth. OK, looking back, I think that I may have been a little unhinged about it.

But this is the quandary I find myself in: I canât eat my beloved packaged foods here in the city, because my food-packaging robot has turned out to be some lady not wearing a hairnet and slacking on cleaning the rats out of the bean chute. And I canât live in a cabin in the woods, where all my vegetables will die and spiders could fall out of the roof beams into my sad bowl of dead stems. The only remaining solution, I think, is to become an astronaut, floating in my pod in antiseptic zero-gravity, effortlessly eating freeze-dried chowder out of a foil pouch. Until I bite into something that turns out to be a severed thumb, and then we find out if itâs true that in space, no one can hear you swear your damn head off.

Posted by katie at 01:30 AM