Main Street Project – Northfield, MN

A few of us took a half-day of vacation from work and headed 45 minutes south, to Northfield, MN.  Northfield is home to St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges, but it is also has a pretty interesting integrated farming endeavor called the Main Street Project.  We visited two sites, one with meat chickens, and another which used the manure from the chicken operation to fertilize rows of hazelnuts, popcorn, elderberries, onions and black beans.


(Videos courtesy of Alex M.)


I loathe the word, Serendipity.  It has that air of whimsy and a slight bit of sophistication to it, and it is not used, generally, in a colloquial fashion, such as its shorter-synonym-cousin, luck, but I still dislike the word.  You would never hear people buying lottery tickets say, “Oh boy, the gods are with me on this one; I feel a fortunate streak of serendipity is upon me.”  It is entirely possible that the lottery ticket crowd and the crowd who use serendipity, when placed in a venn diagram, would not overlap.  Needless to say, I stuck with Serendipity as the title because it fits best with what I hope to layout.

Most weeks, the Computer Science & Engineering department present colloquia on various computer science topics.  Topics are generally heavily weighted toward stroking your inner comp sci nerd: Systems-level insights from large-scale combinatorial perturbation experiments in yeast, or Mining Billion-Node Graphs – Patterns and Algorithms.  Several weeks ago (October 8, 2012), my manager asked if I wanted to attend a colloquium in Comp Sci.  The topic: Interactive Information Visualizations for Everyday Practices.  It was presented by Dr. Sheelagh Carpendale from the University of Calgary.

In a too warm and likely over capacity room in Keller Hall, Dr. Carpendale presented a very non-bits-and-bytes colloquium.  The thesis was simple: A good visualization provokes interpretation, exploration and appreciation, inviting direct interaction that reveals the data contents. How can we produce interactive visualizations of digital data in a manner that enhances people’s cognitive abilities?

The visualization techniques and technologies were quite interesting and offered excellent design-eye-candy. However, the one take away that really stuck with me was that of observing the world around you and how, simply being aware of your surroundings, it would increase your serendipity.

“Increasing your observation of the world around you, increases your own serendipity.”

In Japan, you will find these cats with a raised paw all over the country. They are called maneki-nekos.  They are a symbol of good luck or good fortune.  The raised paw is often thought to beckon you come in or to proceed.  The maneki-neko is supposed to bring people good fortune; increasing your serendipity, if you may.

Several stories try to layout the lore behind the maneki-neko.  One is that of tragedy, misjudgment, and eventual atonement for a wrong.  A woman’s swordsman-friend is visiting her. At some point the man, thinking the woman’s cat is trying to attack her, kills the cat by decapitating it.  The severed head flies through the air, and with its fangs sticking out, it kills a poisonous snake that was unseen by neither the swordsman nor the woman.  The swordsman, feeling terrible, travels to the best woodsmith in the land and has a cat with paw raise carved.

A second version of the story is that of a poor woman having to sell her cat.  The cat appears to her in a dream and tells her to make its image in clay.  She does so, and people take notice.  They want their own clay cat.  She makes and sells more, and she eventually becomes very wealthy.

The maneki-neko is symbolic of good fortune, but it is rooted in myth and folklore.  I could go on with that theme of certain ideas being rooted in myth and folklore, but I am almost certain I would piss off some people.  I much prefer Dr. Carpendale’s idea of being aware of your surroundings and the act of being aware will be far more beneficial than just blindly relying on luck, whatever that may be.


Baconwaldia: The Land which Bacon Forgot

Unsalted, Uncured Pork Belly
Unsalted, Uncured Pork Belly

The road to Baconwaldia started with a piglet and ends with thick cut, incredibly salty and smokey bacon. In short, you feed and water the hog until slaughter; the carcass is either butchered on site or taken to a butcher. With the latter, you receive back a box of difficult cuts of meat, all neatly wrapped and marked. "Pork Chop." "Pork Steak." "Shoulder Roast" "Pig Feet." "Bacon, Fresh." The last cut is what we are after, the pig’s belly. In the world of commerce, pork bellies are a commodity and are traded via futures contracts not unlike frozen concentrate orange juice, cotton, rice, wheat, coffee, sugar and many other bulk items.

That said, Baconwaldia does not involve futures contracts or traders in general. It involves a dedicated farmer to care for & manage the pig; a cold morning with fresh water, hot coffee, sharp knives and good company is also needed to send the hog off onto its voyage toward Baconwaldia.

Traditional, old-school bacon, the bacon of Baconwaldia, would have been created by a skilled charcutiers. The meat would have been salt (sodium chloride) cured for many days, and then cold smoked with hardwood smoke to add further shelf life to the pork belly. The cured and smoked meat would have been wrapped in muslin and hung in a larder or dry cellar; without refrigeration, a properly cured and smoked pork belly would survive most of the winter.

Cured Pork Belly
Cured Pork Belly

With the discovery of how to produce nitrates and nitrites at the turn of the twentieth century, the onset of mechanization and modern, mass production of foods and the modern practices of animal husbandry, the charcutiers of yore were factored out of the bacon-equation. Machines remove the skin, a brine mixture of salt (sodium chloride), nitrates (sodium nitrate) and liquid smoke are needle-injected into the slabs of meat. Later, the slabs are showered with yet more liquid smoke. The meat is then slow cooked in an oven then frozen. More machines trim the frozen slabs into uniform sizes. I think it is a shame that the pork belly’s modern voyage involves not a whiff of smoke nor a lick of flame.

The wagon-wheel-rutted-road to Baconwaldia that I took did not involve sodium nitrate, liquid smoke or inject-needles. Instead, the process was hands one, and craft-like. Craft Bacon, not unlike Craft Beer. My ingredient and materials list was pretty simple:

  • Pork Belly
  • Salt (a pink, Bolivian salt)
  • Brown sugar
  • Kentucky Bourbon
  • Local apple & pear tree wood
  • One (1) medium steel trash can – to make our smoker
  • A short length of steel rod
  • Four (4) steel "S" hooks
  • Inexpensive meat thermometer
  • Resealable plastic zippered bags

Clean the pork belly; removing any dirt, grit or grass (as in my case) from the piece. Also, remove any membrane-tissue or extremely soft fatty tissue. Cut the piece into equal-sized pieces. Coat all sides of all pieces with a heavy layer of salt; group pieces in twos and place into plastic bags. Put the bagged pieces into the refrigerator (even though it is entirely possible to do this whole process sans-refrigeration, it is there, so you might as well just use the damn machine to keep things cool). For the next four days, each day, rinse the pieces and rinse the bags. Re-salt all the pieces and place back into the bags and refrigerate. This whole process is called dry curing. You are drawing out the moisture from the meat at the same time leaving salt in the meat (and fat). If you notice the first photo (above) and then the second photo (above), the fat and meat in the first photo appear "looser" and has an appearance of containing more water than that in the second photo. The second photo is from after several salt changes. Each salt change, your bag will have liquid in it. After round one, you will have a salty, blood-colored mixture. Progressively, the liquid gets more and more water-like after each salt change.

Bacon Equation
Bacon Equation

On day four or five, you can add in flavors, if you choose. I did one slab of bacon as "Salt & Brown Sugar" and one other as "Salt, Brown Sugar & Bourbon" In both with the brown sugar, I did 1 cup brown sugar. In the bourbon-ized bacon, I put in two jiggers of Wild Turkey.

By this point, I was running low on my Bolivian Rose salt, so, I let the bags of meat sit for three days more days without changing the salt or flavoring mix.

Smoking was the most enjoyable part for me; making the trash can smoker and having it actually work was thrilling. With a drill, I put several holes through the lid of the can, as well as near the base. I also happened to have an old wood stove from an icehouse (for winter fishing). I removed the door from this little stove and installed it into the trash can.

An inch or two below the lip of the can, I drilled holes on opposite sides and slipped the steel rod in; this was used to hang the meat. With a nice fire going in the can, the lid worked well to snuff out the flames, and the stove door was nice to regulate the amount of oxygen that did get into the can. The smoke was extremely pleasant smelling and even the dogs got into bathing in the wafts of smoke.

You will want colder smoke. I eventually settled in on a slightly hotter smoke than I wanted, but it seems to have done the trick. The smoker seemed to like the 180 degrees (F) area. Ideally, something around 150 degrees (F) would have been nice. Remember, the idea is to not roast the meat, it is to smoke it. The smoke penetrates and further dries the meat.

When all is said and done, you probably did not save any money by crafting your voyage to Baconwaldia, but you will have some damn fine Craft Bacon, a nifty trash can smoker, a partial bottle of Bourbon (unless you drank the rest while waiting for the meat to finish), and a neat story on meat preservation.

Know Your Food: Pig Slaughter

Dead Hog on a Tractor
Dead Hog on Back of Tractor

For the most part, I follow a vegetarian diet. It is also easier to tell people, "I am a vegetarian*." Most people know what it is, know what diet they generally follow (or think they follow) and have the automatic assumption that it is for animal rights reasons. However, there is an unspoken asterisk next to vegetarian for me – it includes a few things actually. I will eat eggs, fish and milk products in addition to tofu, vegetables, beans, rice and the list goes on. I am closer to a pescatarian, but aside from the more well read crowd at the University (of Minnesota Duluth, where I work), I would get strange looks by the locals here in southern-Northern Minnesota; even stranger looks and bewilderment from the home-crowd on the Iron Range.

The second, and more important part of the asterisk has to do with why I have chosen to not regularly consume meat. It is rather simple: I feel better. It has nothing to do with "killing is wrong" or "animals are people, too." Without going into a great deal of detail, I feel better physically. Fewer stomach aches, fewer head aches, etc.

In some parts of the world, meat is a luxury. Meat may only be eaten several times per month due to cost or accessibility. Here in the United States, meat is abundant, meat is cheap, and meat is all too often under appreciated by the masses. On the rare occasion, there are those like Steven Raichlen, of Barbecue University, who truly appreciate the significant role that the consumption of animal flesh has played in human history.

Three Little Pigs
Fifth Avenue Farm – Three Little Pigs

Some time, at the beginning of May, I was helping a friend set up her beehives. After getting things setup, Melissa and I left. In the truck, on the way back to our house, Melissa said very excitedly, "Theresa is getting pigs; she asked if we want one, too." These were not to be pet pigs, but, rather, pigs to do a job and then, before snow fall, to be killed, butchered and eaten over the course of the winter and spring. The job they needed to do was rut up and fertilize an acre or so of land for next season’s planting. Shortly there after, we plunked down money and became owners of ½ a pig.

Hog Skinning
Hog Skinning

Animals get slaughtered for consumption all the time. Billions of chickens are consumed globally each year. The United States, according to USDA projections, produces 10,884,000 tons of consumable cattle each year. The methods used to raised poultry and livestock, and everything from the transportation of the animal to market to the means in which it is dispatched (killed) are all important things. For many Americans, the most difficult and taxing part of meat consumption is trying to decide on whether to get t-bone steaks or the porterhouse steaks. There is an inherent disconnect between what gets purchased from a grocery store (and subsequently consumed) and how that product – meat, vegetable, box of crackers, etc – got to the store or even how it got to be in its current form.

From piglet to pork chops, we know the vast majority of the story of our ½ pig. It is comforting to know the quality of care received and the quality of the food consumed during its life. Having participated, even tacitly, in their progress through the summer, is humbling, and it is comforting to know your food’s story.

The remaining two hogs were [humanely] slaughtered this morning. From dispatching to delivery at the butcher’s, the two pigs took 2.½ hours. The stories involving these three pigs will continue with the meals they are part of and the stories and memories that are shared by the families consuming them.

The Lowly Tansy

Tansy Flowers

You have probably driven by millions of tansies if traveling through much of the north east part of Minnesota. In fact, you have probably driven past stands of them in many US regions. In our corner of Minnesota, in August, the tansy in ditches and roadside hills is as ubiquitous as the sound of cicadas and advertisements for the Minnesota State Fair (but far less noticed than the State Fair or advertisements for it). Colloquially, they are known as golden buttons, cow bitter, bitter buttons and several likewise-goofy sounding names and like the common dandelion, the tansy is not native to this side of the Atlantic. Like a large swath of the US population, tansies can be traced back to Europe (and Asia).

Like the Irish, at one time in the United States, the tansy is considered to be a nuisance. Here in Minnesota, the Department of Agriculture lists it as a "bad plant" This basically means there is no net positive economic benefit from this plant. If you could make flour from it, or it cured herpes, there would be fields of cultivated tansies throughout the upper midwest and many other places. But, it is not magic and does not produce flour. It has been found, however, to be a viable deterrent for the Colorado potato beetle. We actually left the wild stands of tansies around the potatoes this year; anecdotally, things turned out very well. It is looking to be a good potato-year.

It still does not leave much love for the lowly tansy, though. I think Ralph Waldo Emerson summed things up nicely; "What is a weed? [It is just] a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered."