Archive for April, 2011

Afikoman

Before I returned to my home town for Pesach, I was shopping at Paris Farmer’s Union in New Hampshire.  PFU is part hardware store, part garden and agricultural supply store.  They have several branches throughout New England and every one I’ve been to has terrific customer service.

There’s something mystical and weirdly wonderful about a store where you can’t identify 60% of the items you are looking at.  If you don’t know anything about farming, then most of the implements are like tsotchkes from an alien planet.  It is completely humbling because you, a city person with your fancy college degree and world travel experience, suddenly realize that maybe there’s a whole part of life and people you know nothing about and you have a very steep learning curve ahead of you if you want to make your way from one end of the store to the other without feeling like a total ignoramus, which, in fact, you are.

The day I was at Paris Farmer’s Union, the sales folks were setting up their chick-warming station.  They had just received a sample order of day-old chicks and were putting them under a large wooden crate set up with warming lights,  which is used as a nursery for hatchlings.  The chick orders were expected the following week, the clerk explained.

Chick orders?

Apparently farmers from miles around order their chicks from a mail-order supplier via the store at the end of winter.  Come Spring, day-old chicks arrive for pick-up.  These chicks represent the coming year’s layers and fryers – their egg and poultry supply. They also get in ducklings and goslings.  People pay a 50% deposit at the time of their order, and then they pay the balance upon pick-up.  The store was expecting 2,500 chicks!

That’s when it hit me:  What a great Afikoman present!  Chicks!  My grandkids had been begging their beleaguered mother  for a pet.  But my daughter has six little “animals” of her own of the human variety to take care of, and hardly wanted to get stuck with the responsibility of any additional “creatures.”  So I thought before putting in an order for chicks, I’d better ask her for permission, just to be sure.

The good news is that the grandkids no longer wanted a dog.  My daughter has our dog Spencer to thank for that.  When I broke my foot, I could no longer walk him, so they dutifully came over every day for a week and took turns walking him on my behalf.  The first day, it was a fight to see which kid would walk him first.  After a couple of days, several kids dropped out of the program.  By the last day, none of them wanted to walk him.  “I’m really surprised,” one grandchild told me.  “I used to want a dog so badly, but now that I see how much work it is, I can’t stand it.”  (This gave me a great idea for a business!  Any mother whose children are nagging her to get a dog, will pay me for a week’s worth of aversive conditioning.  By the end of a week of full responsibility in caring for my dog, the kids will never ever broach the topic of pet ownership again.)

(The same principle worked for a 2nd grade class guinea pig.  A different grandson was so excited when it was his turn to bring it home and take care of it over the weekend   But the guinea pig did not enjoy being held, it bit whomever held it, and it just pooped a lot.  So that was the end of wanting a guinea pig. My daughter remains ever grateful to the teacher who is the actual owner of the Class Pet.)

But back to the fluffy, adorable, peeping chicks.  I thought it would be the ideal pet.  For one thing, there was the educational and practical aspect.  Not only could they study up on raising chickens, they could then have fun building a coop. After the chicks grew and their cuteness factor diminished they could supply the family with eggs, and when the chickens got too old to produce, the grandkids could learn all the laws of shechita (ritual slaughter) and learn how to make chicken soup.  It wouldn’t have to be a very long commitment, and the chickens could be kept outside.  The chickens could be set down on the grass and rid the lawn of all sorts of insects.  It seemed like a win-win to me.  So I called my daughter from the store.

“Hi,” I said, “I’m calling you from a store in New Hampshire.  Listen, I have a really great idea for an Afikoman present!  How about chicks?”

The silence was deafening.  This was not the enthusiastic response I expected for my very original idea.

“Are you kidding me?”  my daughter finally sputtered.

Actually, she knows me, and she knows I wasn’t kidding.

Despite my sales pitch emphasizing concepts like “educational,” and  “practical,” she was unmoved.  Alas, there would be no chicks for Afikoman this year or any other year.

Go figure.  The kids were happy with the boring, run-of-the-mill Afikoman gift they ended up with, and were none the wiser.

We’ll never know for sure, but I’ll bet that if they had gotten those chicks, I would have been the most popular savta (grandmother) in my entire home town!  Fortunately they love me anyway.

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Some early morning visitors…

After doing a bedikat chametz of our house in Maine, we’re back in our home town for Pesach.

Wild turkeys on the driveway, 6:40 a.m. April 13 (click to enlarge)

While we’re away from our place in Maine, we leave a small, inexpensive “surveillance” camera set up at the window, to capture any unwanted “visitors” (of the human kind) to our property.  (My husband’s hope is to some day see a moose or bear strolling in front of the camera, but so far they haven’t cooperated.)  I wish the resolution was better so you could see more detail in this picture, because it caught the mating dance of male and female turkeys.  The male’s (the bird on the left) chest feathers are puffed out, and his tail feathers (on his left side) are displayed in a fan.  You can barely see his small greyish head on his right side.  If the camera had better resolution, you would have been able to see his long “gobbler” at his throat.  It’s quite unusual to see the male in full display mode, so I consider it a lucky shot! (click on picture to enlarge)

Maine Ranked “The Most Peaceful State”

USA Today writes that an international think-tank has ranked Maine the most peaceful U.S. state.  New Hampshire is #2.

It’s probably because people don’t get out much in winter 🙂

And the fact that there aren’t many people in the first place.

But I’m not complaining.

Although we’re about a month behind my home town in terms of trees blossoming, Spring has finally arrived: snow is mostly gone.
I heard the year’s first woodpecker, and the woods and ponds are newly alive with the sounds of birds, ducks and geese.  A young eagle perched outside our window last week!   Sorry, no picture 😦

SKUNKED!

I’ve been told that in rural Maine, the presence of skunks is one of the first signs of Spring.

Friday it snowed 8″.  Sunday was gorgeous – 50 degrees, clear blue skies, and lots of melting snow.

Today (April 4)  it snowed another 2″.

But the skunks are, indeed, out and about.

We found out.

The hard way.  The hard, stinky, smelly way.

The problem with skunks is that they are actually very curious, friendly creatures.  They love sniffing around, investigating new sites, sounds and smells.

Unfortunately, they tend to have panic attacks when they feel threatened.

They feel threatened very easily.

Our Mr. Skunk was sniffing around the base  of our compost pile, on the other side of our driveway across from the house.  Our compost pile hasn’t been doing much composting lately – it’s mostly a bunch of frozen vegetable peels, frozen apple cores, coffee grounds, eggshells and dead leaves.  But I guess that particular day, when temperatures finally rose above freezing, the defrosting, enticing eau du garbage was nothing short of heavenly – if you are a skunk, that is.

At the same time, my husband was giving our dog his last walk of the evening before we turned in for the night.  It was 11:50 p.m. and Spencer, our Standard Poodle, was also drawn to the compost pile before doing his business.

Alas, Spencer came nose to nose with the skunk.

Before my husband registered what was happening, our dog sniffed the skunk.

The skunk sniffed the dog.

And then Mr. Skunk had his panic attack.

He sprayed our dog!

Luckily the dog wasn’t on his leash, so my spouse didn’t get it too.

Spencer was one very unhappy dog.

He sneezed a short succession of tiny, desperate sneezes.  Frantic, he rolled around in the snow.  He pawed at his ears and eyes with great agitation.

“Dear,” my husband called to me from outside, “I think you need to come out here.”

“I’m in my pajamas!” I replied, blissfully unaware of what perils lurked beyond our front door.

“You. Need. To. Come.  NOW!” my husband said, in the same desperate hushed tones you use when telling someone Really. Bad. News.

Alarmed, I stuck my head outside the door, still in my pajamas.  One whiff and I knew what had occurred.

“DO SOMETHING!” my husband yelled.

“Okay, give me a sec!” and running back inside, I dashed . . . to the computer.  I did a quick Google search.  I typed furiously:  HOW TO REMOVE SKUNK ODOR

Bless you, Google.  I sat down, put on my glasses, and started reading.

“WHERE ARE YOU?” my husband yelled.

“I’m  reading!” I yelled back.

Incredulous, my husband started to open the front door.

“Wait!  I’m not done!” I screamed, panicked.  “I’m just getting to the good part!”

“Well, what am I supposed to do with the dog?  I can’t leave him out here!” my husband hissed.

“The first thing is, if you are near the dog, or you try to clean him up, it says that your clothes will absorb skunk odor.  So,” I instructed, “you need to take off all your clothes before you start taking care of the dog.”

“It’s 26 degrees outside!” he yelled.

“Fine. Just drop your clothes at the door and come in.  Let me open the windows and then you can bring the dog into the bathtub.”

“Then what?” my husband said, shivering in his skivvies.

“I don’t know!  I’m still reading and I’m not up to that part yet!  You keep interrupting me!” I retorted.

The Internet gave a few suggestions, including commercially bottled skunk deodorizer, which I didn’t happen to have in the house.  The problem was that it was now midnight.  The closest store was 40 minutes away one way, and here in rural Maine, nothing is open past 6 or 7 p.m.  Plus, I really couldn’t see leaving the poor dog outside for 2 hours until I, still in my pajamas, would get dressed and drive to the closest late-closing Wal Mart nearly an hour away.  You’ve probably heard the one about tomato juice.  But I didn’t have tomato juice on hand, either.  So I tore through my kitchen cabinets, bringing forth anything derived from tomatoes, can opener in hand.

Diced tomatoes!  Heinz ketchup!  Don Pepino’s pizza sauce (I really hated to open that one, since I brought it all the way from my home town and ration it carefully)!

I told my husband, “Just start pouring it over the dog!”

I ran back to the computer.

Until now I thought we were managing real well as a team.  I was the research person, he was the implementor.  I guess my husband had other ideas.

“I need help with this,” he called.

Fine.”  I pouted, realizing that my pajamas would smell like skunk.  Now it was the two of us in just our underwear, pouring cans of  diced tomatoes and the ketchup bottle over the dog.  It was not a pretty sight.

“Oh – – I forgot to mention,” I added, “it says you have to leave in the tomato stuff for 20 minutes!”

“How am I supposed to get the dog to cooperate for twenty whole minutes?” my husband groaned.  Indeed, the dog was looking about wildly, trying to find an avenue of escape from the confines of the bathtub.

“Rub in the tomato stuff real good!” I suggested.  “That way it will go beyond his fur and go close to the skin!”

I have to say this:  we work well together, my husband and I.   The smell was starting to go away, and the minutes were flying by.

“Okay, let’s start rinsing him off,” I suggested.  It was now well after midnight and I just really, really wanted to get to bed.

I now realize why the experts suggest tomato juice and not diced tomatoes.  Diced tomatoes do not come out of dog hair.  They cling with a ferocity that evades the most vigorous massage.  So now I had one dripping wet dog, with clumps of  diced tomatoes stuck to him from head to toe.

Spencer did the only thing a dog could do.

He shook.

You know how dogs shake those rolling, tsunami-like shakes, and water goes flying everywhere?

The problem was, it wasn’t just water.  There were diced tomatoes on the walls.  Diced tomatoes on the floor.  Diced tomatoes all over the bare-skinned bodies of my husband and Yours Truly.  And there were still plenty of diced tomatoes embedded in Spencer’s fur.

“Now what?” my husband said.

“I’m going back to the computer!” I cried. “You stay with the dog and don’t let him out of the bathtub!”  Grabbing a towel, I wrapped it around my body so I wouldn’t leave a trail of diced tomatoes throughout the house as I ran back to the computer.  I only hoped the towel wouldn’t smell like skunk now, too.

Tomatoes, the Internet said, will neutralize but not remove the smell.

Darn! Why wasn’t that the first entry on page 1 of Google?  If we rinsed off the tomatoes, the skunk smell would return!

The Internet suggested  a mix of baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, and a few drops of dishwashing liquid.  Yes!  Luckily I had all of those things!  Triumphant, I ran back to the bathroom, mix in hand.

My husband was not faring well with the dog, who looked pathetic.

Spencer (click to enlarge)

I poured the mix on the dog, and it did seem to work.  The smell was pretty much gone after repeated scrubbing, washing and rinsing.  My dog began to relax.  Then he started thumping his tail, downright bright-eyed.  He felt better!

We toweled him off (praying that any residual odor would come out of the towels).  Happy with his tail wagging, Spencer jumped out of the bathtub.

We then started cleaning up the bathroom walls, tub, and floor from those obnoxious chunks of diced tomatoes.  The tomato pieces were small enough to cling and resist grabbing, but too big to go down the drain so they simply clogged the bathtub.  It was not fun, especially at 12:45 a.m.

Finally we showered off.  I used Irish Spring bath gel, whose overpowering fragrance seemed to do the trick.  I stuck the towels and our underwear in the washing machine, hoping the “hot water, heavy soil” load would be enough to kill any remaining odor.

We went to bed at 1 a.m., exhausted but relieved, realizing that any future dog-walking would be fraught with peril.

You would think that Spencer would have been sufficiently traumatized to avoid anything skunk-related.  That he would have learned his lesson.  But no.  The very next day, he made a beeline for the area of the compost pile.

Spencer was out for revenge, but I knew that it would not end well.  Stupid, stupid dog!

Fortunately the skunk was not there.

A few hours later, Spencer started barking frantically at the window.  Looking up at us, directly in the eye, was Mr. Skunk.  I could almost hear him saying, “na-na-nyah-na.”

Looking at one another through the window . . . (click to enlarge)

Then the most awful thought occurred to me:  what if it wasn’t a Mr. Skunk at all?  What if it was a Mrs. Skunk?  And she was going to give us lots of little baby skunks?

The next day, I went to town and bought skunk deodorizer.  I also replenished my supply of diced tomatoes and ketchup, just in case.  And I bought two boxes of mothballs, to sprinkle around the compost pile.  Skunks, according to the Internet,  hate mothballs.

But I noticed a slight skunk odor in the car.  “That’s funny,” I thought, “the skunk didn’t spray near the car, and the dog wasn’t anywhere near the car.”  On the way back from the store, I realized that smell was coming from . . . me!  Horrified, I was so embarrassed!  The lady obviously thought I was buying the the skunk deodorizer for myself.  “Yeah, right,” she was probably thinking disgustedly, “that’s what they all say – – that the deodorizer is for their dogs! Sheesh!”

When I got home, I took another shower, using plenty of Irish Spring bath gel.  I used a bit of hydrogen peroxide with baking soda, for good measure.

All was well until bedtime.  I decided a cup of tea would be in order, so I trudged into the kitchen to put the kettle on the stove.

What was that scratching noise I was hearing?

“Dear, I need you to come in here,” I called to my husband in the same desperate, hushed tones he had used two days before.

Mice!  Behind the refrigerator!

The next day I returned to the store.  I filled up on D-Con granules, mouse bait bricks, and spray-foam insulation sealant.

Because I used to be a Girl Scout.

And that means I’m prepared.  For whatever Spring will bring.

Liquid Gold (part 2)

It’s Maine Maple Syrup Sunday!

Quebec, Canada is the world’s largest producer (80%) of maple syrup, followed by (in order) Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire.  For most Maine farms, maple syrup production is a sideline, not a mainstay.  Balsam Ridge Farm’s main income is derived from its Xmas tree farm.

Evergreen seedlings. This is one small section of Balsam Ridge’s tree farm.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Balsam Ridge’s venture into maple syrup production started out as a hobby, and kept expanding  to the medium-scale operation it is today.

Today Balsam Ridge taps 572 trees.  Although it still requires them to check the tap lines daily, their collection method is quite a bit more efficient than at Thunder Hill.  After the tap is inserted into the tree, it’s connected to gravity-fed, vacuum-sealed  PVC tubing which connects to a larger pipeline that snakes through the woods, down the hill into a pump, which in turn feeds it through more pipework right into the sugar house. There are two different tap lines serving two different areas of their woods; each tapline is about 1000′ long!   The Alaska pipeline might have “black gold” but Balsam Ridge’s pipeline contains “liquid gold” – many gallons of maple sap, collected drip by drip.  The owner of Balsam Ridge, Dewey Lloy, took us into his woods to demonstrate how taps are drilled,  inserted and connected to the pipeline.

Dewey Lloy, owner of Balsam Ridge, is equipped with all the tools he needs to tap maple sap: drill, hammer, spigot, pvc tubing, and a special tool to cut, separate and hold the tubing.

Owner Dewey Lloy, grasping a new spigot and tubing, shows how he will join it to the existing tubing network

Using a special tool, he cuts an opening into the tubing network to allow insertion of new tubing from a new tap. The tool also joins, clamps and seals the new tubing in place.

Now that the new tubing is secured to a main line, he can insert the tap

Drilling the new tap line, Mr. Lloy is careful to avoid areas of the tree that were tapped in years past.

Gently hammering the tap into the drilled hole

Now the new tap is connected to the tap line and will join the extensive tubing network to a central collection area

Note the various taps and tubing on multiple trees snaking their way through the woods to a central collection area. The taps and tubes will be removed when the 3-to-8-week sugaring season is over. (click to enlarge)

At the bottom of the hill, the gravity-fed taplines, filled with sap, reach a central collection area. This is then pumped to the main sugar house.

A close-up of the central collection tanks and pump that takes the sap to the sugar house

Another view of the collection center and pump

The sap at the bottom of the hill is pumped to this vat just outside the sugar house.  From here it travels inside the sugar house to the evaporators.

The Balsam Ridge sugar house.  The dense steam is from the sap boiling in the evaporators inside. At the tables on the right, guests enjoy a pancake breakfast with lots of – – you guessed it – – maple syrup. By the end of Maple Syrup Sunday, Balsam Ridge will serve thousands of pancakes to the public. (click to enlarge)

Inside the sugar house, the evaporator does its job, but on a large scale.  To increase efficiency so less sap will be lost to evaporation, they use reverse osmosis. The evaporator itself is oil-fired, which means the firebox doesn’t have to be continually stoked or watched, nor do they have to spend time cutting, hauling and stacking wood over the summer months.

Unfortunately I don’t quite remember if this is the huge holding tank for the evaporator or part of the oil-burning furnace

Lower half of chimney, which allows hot air and steam to escape

the chimney goes up, up, and out through the apex of the roof of the sugar house

part of the evaporator

Looking down into the evaporator, you see the three stages of boiling sap. The rightmost channel is sap that just started boiling, and still retains its clear color; the light amber color in the middle means the sap is a bit more cooked and starting to thicken; the leftmost channel is sap that has boiled the longest and is now a deep color, and just about the right consistency for maple syrup

Once the sap in the final channel reaches the proper temperature, color and consistency, it goes into this small holding tank to cool slightly, and await filtering

The syrup is filtered in small amounts from any small tree matter and to ensure a clean, clear syrup

I forgot what this machine does, but it has something to do with condensation and reverse osmosis!

A small amount of syrup is poured out into a bucket, to see if it is truly ready for grading and bottling

A small sampling of syrup is put into a clear glass bottle for grading for color and quality

Dewey Lloy, the owner of Balsam Ridge Farm, checks the sample bottle from the latest batch by comparing against other already-graded samples to get an idea of how to rate its quality and color. This batch was rated Grade A, Dark Amber.

The final step: bottling the still-warm syrup, sealing, and labeling. Then it’s off to the Balsam Ridge retail shop next door.

The increased efficiency of their evaporator means that they get a 4:1 ratio out of their sap-to-syrup production (for every 4 gallons of sap, they get 1 gallon of syrup.  From their 572 trees, they will get 150 gallons of syrup this year.  By contrast, the smaller and less sophisticated evaporator at Thunder Hill produced 1 gallon of syrup for every 10 gallons of sap, for a total output this season of only 35 gallons of syrup from 350 trees).

The Mr. Lloy said that his evaporator’s efficiency and size is only in the medium range.  On full-fledged sugar farms, the evaporators are much more complex, with many more bells and whistles, and super efficient, boosting production significantly.  The equipment costs are in the many tens of thousands of dollars.

Due to the increased efficiency and steady temperature of Balsam Ridge’s evaporator, they do not need to add fat to the fire to keep it from foaming or boiling over.  Therefore their maple syrup is both kosher and pareve.  They also whip  their maple creme on a dedicated machine, so that too is kosher and pareve.

Besides their retail store which sells their syrup (choice of light, medium or dark amber, all grade A) and maple creme, on Maple Syrup Sunday they make thousands of pancakes throughout the day so people can sample their syrup in a meaningful way (the pancakes are not kosher).

So is maple sugar always kosher?   My conclusion is that unless there is a hechsher (rabbinical certification) on the syrup you buy from a store, the only way to be sure it’s 100 % pure maple syrup with no additives is to visit a sugar house personally to observe production (the FDA does not require listing additional ingredients if the amount added is less than 2%).  In the case of smaller sugar houses, having a mashgiach to certify their product as kosher as a way of increasing marketability isn’t really practical, since their supply is in any case so limited and is usually sold out within days, and is barely profitable as it is.  Because production methods vary from sugar shack to sugar shack, unless you buy syrup with a hechsher or rely on the more lenient batul ba’shishim l’hatchila precept that allows for the addition of a small amount of additive, the only way to assure that syrup is 100% kosher and pareve is to personally visit a sugar shack on Maine Syrup Sunday on the fourth weekend of March.

I hope to see you next year!

(If anyone wants me to supervise, check out my “Bait Mooser” hechsher!)

The Moose-K