On Spoiling Chickens

“If it’s possible to ruin a chicken in such a way, I’m sure you’ll do it.”

These are the words my husband spoke to me after I told him a story in which I was worried I was maybe spoiling our chickens a little too much.

Here’s what has happened of late:

Each morning, before I collect eggs, the chicky girls get a bagel, and it can be tricky to get 17 chickens to be “fair” when it comes to bites of bagel. I developed a system where I throw exactly 12 pieces into the middle of the chicken run, and while about 10 or 12 girls head to eat those, a handful hangout with me, knowing I will drop some at my feet for them. This plan has been working well for almost a year.

But I think the “spoiledness” reached new heights a couple of weeks ago. The girls who hang out at my feet for bagel bites will squawk at me until they get a bite of bagel, and I noticed that a couple of girls just kept squawking and looking at me hopefully, even though I had dropped bites of bagel on the ground right in front of them.

It looked like they wanted me to feed them directly, so I tried that. Guess what? It’s what they wanted!

But, then, because chickens are copy cats, like 3 or 4 other girls wanted the same treatment, so I was trying to get bites of bagels into beaks as quickly as I could and trying not to get my fingers pinched.

Thankfully, after about a week of this routine, the girls are now really good at aiming for bagel only and not my fingers, and it’s pretty adorable to see these girls jumping up like little chicken basketball players to get their bites out of my fingers. But, the sad reality is that I think our girls might be too spoiled.

This morning, I think things reached a new level. Today, I had about 6 or 7 little chicky girls, in a line, jumping up one at a time to get her bagel bite. The girls took turns, jumped up like little basketball-playing chickens, flapped their wings once for each jump, and looked so adorable I almost couldn’t believe it.

I have no idea how this just happened, but if I can get this to happen again (tomorrow, I am going to try to get my husband to film this), I have decided that I might need to take this show on the road—“Crystal and Her Amazingly Spoiled Chickens.”

image of chickens in coop
These were our girls in the coop this morning in the morning light after our little circus performance. They are so beautiful I don’t know how to not spoil them.

Still, my husband’s comment about how I will find a way to spoil animals as well as my experiences this week really got me to thinking about how this is happening. I mean, it would be much easier for me if these girls would just eat their bagel bites off of the ground. Is it okay that these girls are this spoiled?

So I spent a couple of weeks mulling this over, and after much thought about my thinking, I realized what might be at the root of my track record with spoiled animals.

If an animal is smart enough to communicate with me, an animal of a completely different species, its wants and needs, I feel it is important to reward such intelligence and skills. And, since science is proving all the time that animals are way smarter than people thought, smarter than I thought, I find myself with a lot of spoiled animals.

I will continue my reading on animal intelligence and maybe have to rethink my philosophy about how I approach our animals and their level of intelligence. I don’t think I have been giving them enough credit, and I had better do something. We have 8 more little girls growing up right now, and if I have to feed 25 chicky girls grapes and bagels individually, that’s going to be a job!

But I have to say that my husband is not a complete innocent here. One night this week, I caught him out in the garage with the baby girls. He was whistling a sweet tune to them and giving them the meal worms he bought from the pet store with each little baby jumping up to take a worm from his fingers. Indeed!

This is one of the baby girls now. I call this the "awkward teenage week" when they have some feathers but some fuzz. Still, they are cute beyond all reason, right?
This is one of the baby girls now. I call this the “awkward teenage weeks” when they have some feathers but some baby fluff as well. Still, they are cute beyond all reason, right? And, it’s really soon to tell for sure, but I think they may even be smarter than our first babies. These girls are ISA Browns–a cross between Rhode Island Reds, which we have already, and Rhode Island Whites.

It’s all coming together for me. I might know the root of the “feed me individual bites” thing. It’s not going to be easy not spoiling those chickens. Maybe I just need to be okay with spoiling them.

Advertisements

On Making Pie

I spent many years in search of the best pie crust recipe I could find, but it was only a couple of years ago that I realized why it was so hard to find a good pie crust recipe—I was trying to find a low-fat recipe. I know. I know. It was a big mistake.

After many, and I do mean many, failed pie crust attempts (all of which my sweet husband ate and encouraged me by saying “It’s not too bad” or “It’s pretty good”), a couple of years ago, I found a recipe that I could adapt well, and it was not low fat.

The biggest lesson I learned in my quest for good pie is this one: It’s just going to have some calories, and that’s OK with me.

Now, calorie-wise, I can’t afford to eat a lot of pie, and some might argue that I can’t afford to eat any pie. But there are some things in life that are just worth it. To me, a good piece of pie is worth the calories. I’m totally willing to walk a few extra miles or even skip lunch for a good piece of pie. I feel like this says a lot about me as a person. This is where I am in my life. Pie is important.

So, here’s the recipe for the crust, and I have some tips below. This recipe was adapted from a couple of pie crust recipes but most closely with one from Allrecipes.com.

Makes One Pie

A Top and Bottom Crust

Ingredients:

2 cups flour

1 cup butter-flavored shortening (or 1 cup butter)

*As a note on this ingredient, I actually use a little more than ¾ of a cup of the butter-flavored shortening. It’s like somewhere between the ¾ of a cup and a full cup that is the perfect amount, at least we think so.

1 Tablespoon white sugar

½ teaspoon salt

¼ cup ice water

½ egg

*This gets tricky, but you can do it.

½ Tablespoon white vinegar

Directions:

Mix all of your dry ingredients together, and let your water sit with some ice in it to get really cold. Add in the ¾ cup to 1 cup of butter-flavored shortening or butter. Cut it in, so everything looks crumbly.

Now, add your wet ingredients. Add your ½ egg. I have added just about a whole egg before. It still works. Add your vinegar and water (just take out your ice).

Mix everything together with a wooden spoon—but not too much. You just want to mix it enough to work with it. The original recipe says to let the dough sit in the freezer for some hours before you work with it, but I never do. I can never plan that far ahead.

Cut your dough into two pieces, one for the top and one for the bottom. Roll it out pretty thin-like. When the dough is thin, it comes out flakier, I think, which is good to me.

Of course, you can put any kind of deliciousness inside your pie crust. I prefer fruit pies from fresh, sweet fruit and just a little sugar and cornstarch. If you’re going this route, just fill up your pie shell with the amount of fruit you like. *Please note that you will need an official recipe for the filling if you go with apple pie, but I just stick things like strawberries, raspberries, peaches, etc. right in there with a little bit of sugar and cornstarch.

Cut some kind of hole in your topic crust or you can make the lattice top. When I have more time, I make the lattice top. When I am in a hurry, I cut a heart into the top crust. Pinch your edges together. You can get fancy with this, but I have no skill in this department.

apple pie
This is an apple pie with a lattice top pre baking. I am still searching for the best filling recipe for apple pies, so if you have one, please share!

Cooking time and temps totally depend upon your oven I have found. I have made some big mistakes following recipes on temperature and time, but with a fruit pie, I recommend 400 degrees and that you start checking and turning (if you have a sad, uneven oven like mine) at about 20 minutes. The trick is to cook until the crust is golden brown on the top.

Now, here’s the story of and recipe for the best pie I ever ate in my whole life.

Our neighbor grows raspberries every summer, and they are lovely. The raspberries in the grocery store cannot compare, as the ones from our neighbor’s garden are so flavorful. And, thankfully, every year, she shares said raspberries with us. I am always making raspberry/blackberry pies with those raspberries, and they are delicious. But, this year, I decided to get some super ripe peaches and make a raspberry/peach fruit pie with this delicious pie crust recipe.

I used about 2 cups of raspberries and close to the same amount of peaches. The peaches were bought at the local grocery store, but I put them in brown paper bags and let them sit in the basement until they were so ripe I could hardly hold one. Then, I cut them up and put them in the pie. I added ¼ cup of sugar and a tablespoon of cornstarch. I cooked the pie about 25 minutes, until it was golden brown.

This was my first go at this pie, so I wasn’t sure. Still, I was hopeful. But, after dinner, everyone was full, so no one at a piece of my raspberry/peach pie. But I didn’t forget about it. No, I didn’t.

That night, before bed, I announced that I was having a piece of the pie. My husband said he would have one “maybe later,” so I proceeded on my own. Upon taking the first bite, I was frozen. My taste buds were overwhelmed with deliciousness. I ran to the living room and told my husband he was going to have to try this pie.

I said, “I could be wrong, but I think this is the kind of pie you win awards for.”

So, of course, he had to try it. It turns out I was right. It was amazing; he said he thought so, too. He agreed it was the best pie he had ever eaten.

So, when you make pies like that, you have to eat pie sometimes. I hope you enjoy this recipe. I hope you get some fresh raspberries and ripe peaches this summer and get to make a pie that might literally bring you some joy.

Cherry Pie image
I have used this picture before, but it was kind of critical this week. This is my classic “I’m in a hurry” pie crust top. But I always cut a heart into the top (unless it’s National Pi Day, and I use a Pi symbol) because my pies are made with love.

Pie brings me some joy. Thankfully, in the summer, we are all working so hard and so long in the garden and with the animals that we can afford the extra calories.

Life’s too short not to have some pie, especially pie made with love!

On Learning to Live More Frugally

Even just five years ago, I don’t think I would have been ready to say that I wanted to make a lot less money and live my life differently. I think I’ve wanted to live more simply for a long time, but for many years, I was just too afraid to make the change, too afraid to go backwards in the money department and taking that big pay cut.

But, as you know, I finally got brave enough to give Thoreau’s advice about wanting less and working less a chance. But I am such a slow thinker or thoughtful planner (I think I prefer the latter) that I didn’t just jump into this without a lot of planning.

I have been studying how to live more frugally for years and practicing for at least a year before we decided we could live on half the money we had been living on before. Yes, half. Actually, a little less than half. No matter how you slice it, you can really feel living on half the money you used it, so we practiced a bit before we took the plunge.

We started slowly after reading about different ways people were finding to live more frugally, as the advice seemed to be everywhere. But, I think, along the way, after practicing the advice and getting a sense of what would work for us, I learned that I actually really liked living frugally, and I was learning so much along the way.

This week’s post is devoted to offering my own sort of advice related to living frugally and what worked for our family in the hopes that you might see one thing listed that could work for you, save you money, and give you a bit more time.

But, before we begin, here’s the one big lesson that is important to share before reading my list or any kind of list, for that matter: It’s helpful to start with one small thing; practice it; live with it a bit to see if you can really live it.

I think, for most of us, or at least for someone like me, taking baby steps is critical.

OK, finally, my list…

1. We cut our cable. In our case, it was actually satellite television we cancelled, but it saved us about $100 per month. I feel like they should be paying us to watch all those commercials anyway.

2. I learned how to shop differently. This one was on me, and I learned new habits because I really wanted to learn new habits. I had grown up in a culture in Texas in the 1990s where shopping was like a way of life, and I started to realize how wasteful it was. So, now, there’s no “going shopping” unless we really, really need something, and we try to buy things that will last as much as possible. This means paying more for quality items, but I estimate that we save about $75 per month using our new system of buying quality items—just far fewer items.

3. As much as we wanted to save money on food, we decided that this was one area we could not be “cheap” about because of our health, so we had to get creative. I am a firm believer that most Americans should probably be spending more money on food, not less, so trying to be frugal about food is more of a challenge, but we have found a few key ways to save money:

  • We quit buying grated cheese. We now buy big blocks and grate it ourselves. This adds time to my cooking rituals, but we eat a lot of cheese, so this saves us quite a bit of money. This is a really small thing and may not seem worth the time, but I think it’s a pretty good plan. I figured it out, and in most cases, we end up with three times the amount of grated cheese for the same price.
  • We make our own bread and snacks. I realize this is one that takes some time, but if you have the time, you will save money and have healthier food for you and your family. Plus, there’s nothing better than seeing your six year old devour his “favorite pumpkin muffin” you just made. This one is cost saving tip that can add time, but, for me, this is how I want to spend my time.

    Cherry Pie image
    I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but I have mastered pie crust. There will be a whole post later devoted to the recipe. It feels really good to make a delicious pie to share with my family.
  • We grow our own food. Buying local and organic is important, but when you want to quit your job and will be making less than half what you used to, you have to figure something out. For us, it was growing our own food. The seeds are inexpensive, the rain and sunshine are free, and some foods provide seeds for the next year as well. This has been a huge savings for our family. Even if you have a small outdoor space, you can grow some key foods relatively easily, and you get the taste and health benefits as well.
  • I use my tea bags twice. I love tea and usually drink two large cups of chai tea every day. I used to use two tea bags per day. Then, I learned a trick from a friend (you can learn a lot of frugality tips from Mainers) to save the tea bag and use it twice. It totally works, and I spend half as much money on tea.
  • Finally, my best strategy in the grocery department is to always eat our leftovers. This was huge for us because I was so bad about letting leftovers go to waste. But we totally try to live by the “waste not want not” rule, as cliché as it sounds. I have found that, at the very least, leftovers for lunch saves us quite a bit on our lunch budgets, but, sometimes, I am able to get entire supper meals out of the leftovers, which can mean a big savings. Plus, it’s good not to waste food. I mean, think about what your mother used to tell you to get you to eat your dinner.

4. I quit buying products for my face. So part of this one is going to be difficult for most women I know, but I quit wearing makeup unless there is a special occasion. I grew up in Texas where this was just not the way of things, so it actually took me some months to get used to my face without makeup. That sounds weird, right? I had to get used to my face without makeup. It does save me a lot of money, as I was buying some pretty expensive cosmetics.

But here’s the easy part of this tip: I started use aloe vera straight from the plant for my skin care. I can’t tell you what a miracle worker pure aloe really is! I have always had hormonal acne, and I was spending $50 per month on my facial cleaners. I now spend $0 per month because I bought a few plants at the store for about $3 each and just grow my own skin care.

aloe plant picture
This is one plant in my little aloe garden. You can see I have taken some leaves for my skin care needs, but the plant continues to do well.

I discovered this little life hack when my poor husband was burned with chemical burns from a cement adventure this summer. The aloe healed his wounds better than anything else. So I researched the benefits of aloe and found that it also helps with acne. I’m here to tell you it does! It works much better than the expensive stuff I was buying, is totally natural, and, in addition to clearing up any acne, makes my skin look softer and shinier.

I also shared this one with my teenage son, whose skin is so much better on the aloe. Plus, we were spending $50 a month on his skin care as well, so the aloe has saved us quite a bit of money—and it works beautifully.

5. We changed our holiday habits. Let’s face it. Our culture shoves materialism down our throats during any and every holiday season, and it can be hard to go against that. But, this year, we have no choice, and we started with Easter. Here in Maine, Easter seems to be a pretty big deal, almost like Christmas-lite. The Easter Bunny doesn’t just leave eggs. He leaves presents! But, this year, we had to make the change.

I purchased a used Pottery Barn Easter basket on E-Bay that we have had for four years, which serves as my youngest son’s Easter basket every year. It’s well made and eliminates the need to buy more “stuff” like an Easter basket. Then, this year, there were no presents. We didn’t even do plastic eggs.

We have chickens, so I decided to do something creative with those free eggs. We had been reading the illustrated Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (which I highly recommend), and I saw a beautiful illustration of dragon eggs and decided to use non-toxic craft paints, some of which we had. I did have to buy $2 in additional colors, and we just did our best to make dragon eggs. Our whole family enjoyed this!

dragon eggs for easter
I’m not nearly as crafty as I would like to be, but these turned out just fine. Having dragon eggs definitely added some excitement to the Easter egg hunt!

Now, I have to be honest. My youngest was a little disappointed that there were no Easter presents this year, and I did feel a little guilty when I saw all of the amazing Easter present pictures on Facebook. But this is it for us. My youngest has a tendency to be a little more materialistic than I would like anyway, so I think we’re all going to be learning some important lessons as we make this transition.

Easter was our start. I’ll let you know how we do at Christmas. And Halloween’s going to be tough too, I think.

So these are my big frugality “tips” for this week. All of these may not be for you, but I am telling you, I think you should at least give that aloe a go. It’s a cheap little miracle.

As for the rest, everyone does have to find their own path, but I am enjoying our journey into frugality—at least for the most part. I just need to become more of a “maker,” and I am planning to start knitting lessons soon. In the meantime, I guess we’ll have to buy our socks and hats, but I can totally make some dragon Easter eggs and an awesome cherry pie!

Oh, and if you have any frugality tips, please share them here. I am, as always, a work in progress.

On Making Bread

I love homemade bread, like way too much. I’m pretty sure one of the reasons I originally fell in love with my husband is because he could make homemade bread like no one I had ever known.

You know the kind of bread I am talking about. It’s crisp on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside, full of air, and smells so good it moves you. Then, when you put it in your mouth, it tastes so delicious you have to make some kind of noise to let the world know you’re eating this amazing bread.

Yeah, that’s how much I love bread. But it really is the stuff of life. There’s something so powerful about the smell of fresh bread baking in a home. Bread means home to me.

And, as a part of our whole “learning to be self sufficient” movement, my husband and I ordered some wheat in bulk to see if we could grind wheat ourselves. We’re still not sure about growing our own wheat because we don’t have too much land. Plus, you can order wheat in giant buckets that are sealed so the wheat lasts for twenty years. I’m not a “doomsday prepper” or anything, but I do worry about the state of things. So having wheat around seems like a great idea to me.

hands in wheat
Our youngest loved running his hands through the wheat, and I thought it made for a great picture.

But, of course, we needed a way to grind this wheat. We did our research and bought a sturdy but “spendy” wheat grinder. After reading the reviews on these products for many months, it became clear that, as with most things in life, when it comes to wheat grinders, you get what you pay for. So, even though we’re trying so hard to be frugal in every aspect of our lives, we saw the investment in a good wheat grinder as, well, an investment.

What we did not anticipate was that it would be such good exercise.

You have to turn the wheel many, many, many, many, many times to get a decent amount of flour. I made it about fifteen minutes, and I was like “I need a break!” Our youngest gave it a go and lasted about five minutes. Our teenage son walked by and said hi.

My poor husband ended up doing the bulk of the work. I think he must have been grinding wheat for about an hour. It was a total workout, but as much as I love to eat bread, my husband loves to make bread. We’re a great match that way. Anyway, he says you have to sweat a little for your bread to be good, so I don’t think he minded the wheat grinder workout at all.

grinding wheat

Since my husband won’t hand over the official loaves of bread making task to me (He won’t share his techniques with me. He says he has given me his biscuits, his sauces, but he’s keeping the bread.), he set out to make bread from home ground flour for the first time. Apparently, there are some issues with the gluten not being as good when you grind the wheat yourself, so there are tricks to get the bread to rise the way it would with store-bought flour, but I thought the first go at home-homemade bread was a success.

We got four loaves that were denser than usual but still amazingly delicious. Bread is beautiful to me, but these loaves were especially so because they were a part of our process of learning to be self-sufficient. We’re getting there.

My husband says that, next time, he has to adjust the recipe for the difference in the gluten, but, for now, we have four loaves of bread that cost only a couple of dollars total compared to three dollars a loaf. Of course, that’s if you don’t count the cost of the grinder, and since we made it a Christmas present to ourselves, I decided not to. Plus, the nutrition is so much better than most store-bought breads.

Now, the next plan is to keep grinding our own wheat but try making bread without using yeast to raise the bread; we’ll have really nutritious bread. Apparently, using the yeast takes away some of the amazing nutrition of the wheat, and we’ve just pretty much removed all of the excellent nutrition of the wheat in store-bought bread. What a waste, right?

I’ve been reading Michael Pollan again, and I think I’m going to try the bread with no yeast thing myself. It sounds challenging, but if I can get the nutrition to go along with the amazing taste of homemade bread, it seems like it’s worth a try. I’m trusting Michael Pollan that it can be done. After all, he’s an English major like me.

Hopefully, I’ll have recipes to follow. In the meantime, if you get the chance, eat some homemade bread today, and while you’re at it, put a little real butter and local honey on it. The goodness is in the small things. I know this part for sure.

On Growing Food

Three years ago, my husband and I started our first vegetable garden together, and it was a big deal for us. We had decided we wanted to eat more local and organic food, and with two growing boys, we soon realized that this endeavor was not exactly cheap.

The local and organic food was worth it, of course, but if we could grow on our food, then we would have the best of all worlds: We would be growing healthy food for our family, learning how to become more self sufficient, and saving money. As I have made the decision to work a lot less, the latter becomes increasingly more important. But I digress.

If you have never grown your own food, then I think you must try it, even on a small scale. I had never tasted food moments after it had been picked. There are no words for how good the food tastes. No words! If you’re already a gardener, then you know, but I didn’t.

garden picture
This was our garden from last year. We had a good year and saved a lot of money last fall during harvest season.

I grew up in a small town but had never gardened with my family. My idea of food as a child and young adult involved Hamburger Helper and cake mixes, but as an adult, I was changing all that. I wanted our family to eat really fresh food. Still, I felt nervous starting our garden. My husband had grown up with a vegetable garden and chickens, but I had no experience.

I remember my great grandfather had an amazing vegetable garden, but, apparently, when I went out to “help,” I did more talking than helping, and he would usually send me in the house pretty quickly to “help” my Grannie. That was the extent of my gardening experience.

So I was a novice. I mean really.

I watched the videos, read the books, and really couldn’t imagine what I was in for. I just remember planting the carrot seeds in the row my husband had tilled with the shovel (yes, he does it old school) and thinking, “This is never going to work.” Carrot seeds are tiny. I could not even begin to imagine that those tiny things would grow into food. Even when the tiny greens sprouted, I was still skeptical about the whole “This is going to turn into food” thing.

bowl of strawberries
This bowl of strawberries was an important symbol of success in gardening for me. I grew up loving strawberries but without a lot of access to fresh fruits. With the strawberry beds my husband built, we had so many strawberries that we had enough to share!

But, by the end of the first season, we had food, and it felt like a miracle, not just a miracle that we had done it but a miracle of nature. I was changed as a person, and I felt humbled. Of course, while you are gardening for the first time, I highly recommend reading Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. It will add to the spiritual experience of the whole thing, I think. I will write more about this experience in another blog, but I can tell you that our first garden really did help change me as a person.

By the time we made it to our third season of gardening, we actually noticed a big difference in our grocery bill, and with the whole deliciousness and healthiness perks as well, I was hooked. Despite the weeds and the bugs (and I am here to tell you Maine has A LOT of bugs), I was hooked.

This year, we’ll be planting our fourth garden, and we plan to expand it in a big way. I look forward to sharing our process in the coming months. I’m pretty sure it’s going to feel like a miracle to me all over again.