On Keeping It Simple This Christmas: The Benefits of “Something You Want and Something You Need”

I hate to admit it, but I’ve been having a really hard time getting into the Christmas spirit this year. We found out my oldest son, who just moved out and got his own place this fall, is being laid off on Christmas Eve. Our country’s government is a hot mess. And everything just seems so darn expensive. Things surely add up on you quickly when a bottle of vanilla costs $30, and you’re looking at $1200 a month for health care starting in January.

I sound pretty Grinchy, right?

Thankfully, I’m doing better this week as I’ve started to see my simple Christmas lists come to life, and I’m reminded of how wonderful our family’s Christmas was last year. It was the first year we just kept it simple, and it was lovely.

For years, I’ve been trying to learn to live more frugally (it really is a process), but I’ve seen the most progress in myself in the last year. I no longer have any urge at all toward “retail therapy,” not even at Christmas, and I’ve seen first hand how much happiness Christmas can bring when we keep it simple and keep it on a budget.

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Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash

I want to find balance, and even though I’m starting the Christmas season a little bit Grinchy, I’m finding some peace and hope in our Christmas tradition we began last year.

A few years ago, I read about a plan to keep Christmas simple and still make it special. I read a blog post about a family who kept a plan to give each person four gifts and four gifts only—something you want, something you need, something to share, and something to read.

I loved this idea and thought that we should try it last year, especially since we’re learning to be more frugal. But, honestly, the best thing about this plan was how special it made Christmas.

Last year, I made a little grid for our family of four and just stuck to it. The coolest thing was how hard I planned and researched and thought and budgeted to end up with some really special Christmas presents.

I ended up finding one Christmas treasure for my husband’s “something to share” that was probably the best Christmas gift I’ve ever given him. It was a small and, therefore, relatively affordable speaker from Bose, and it has brought music into our home now every day since last year. And we just listen to Tom Petty all the time now, which makes all of us happier.

So, this year, we’re doing it again. I have my little grid, and my favorite category is the “something to share.” It’s the best trying to figure out some fun gift that will be special to the recipient but will benefit all of us as well. For my husband, I’ve been tracking down every CD Tom Petty released in his 40 year career that my husband didn’t already own. To keep it frugal, I found most of them used and hit the jackpot at Bull Moose Music. Thank you, Bull Moose!

Even though I’ve been struggling with my Christmas spirit, I’m feeling more “Christmas-y” every day. Even though we’re not a religious family, I do believe in keeping Christmas special. Yet I totally understand how people can get Grinchy at Christmas. I mean, it’s a terribly commercialized holiday.

But, as I’ve written before, life can be a grind. It feels good to take a break from it and celebrate. I mean, that’s what holidays are for, right? Humans have been doing this a long time. We need a holiday break from the grind, and I believe holidays are necessary to overall happiness—whatever holiday we celebrate and however we celebrate it.

And I’ve learned in the last few years that I don’t want to be in debt for Christmas. I don’t want to stress. I don’t want to feel panic about how much Christmas is costing us. Last year, our “something you want, something you need” plan worked out well. Christmas was paid for at Christmas, and we had a blast. I highly recommend it!

What about you? Have you tired the “something you want, something you need” plan for Christmas? What other traditions do you and your family honor to keep Christmas simple but special?

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On Indian Pudding: A Recipe for Adding History to Your Thanksgiving Tradition

Thanksgiving is such a joy to me. It’s a lot of work, and we have no family here in Maine to celebrate with; still, our little family has developed some lovely Thanksgiving traditions that are fun and important to us.

Since I love food history so much, I like to use Thanksgiving as an opportunity to teach my son a little food history behind Thanksgiving. One of my favorite traditions is teaching my son about what was on the menu at the first Thanksgiving.

While turkey may not have been on the menu, some kind of wild bird was, so it seems like the turkey is certainly close enough to accurate, right? But it’s fun to teach about the other foods that were served. According to historians, berries, onions, beans, and carrots were likely on the menu. Also (and this is probably the greatest departure for most of us), they probably served a lot of seafood.

Since I’m kind of a fan to sticking to the turkey and not having to prepare some fish as well at Thanksgiving, I focus on the corn as Thanksgiving tradition and history.

 

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

 

According to historians, corn was likely served–just not in the way we think. It was likely ground up into meal and made into a porridge like substance, which was then sweetened with molasses. We call this (or something close to it) today “Indian Pudding” or “Hasty Pudding.”

And it’s yummy! It’s a delicious way to add some fun history to your Thanksgiving traditions.

Please find my favorite version of the recipe below complete with my own recipe for the homemade whipped cream to go on top. This recipe is simple enough to make with your kiddos and can lead to a great conversation about Thanksgiving and history.

Indian Pudding (adapted from foodandwine.com)

Ingredients:

2 cups milk

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup molasses

1/4 cup dark brown sugar

1/3 cup cornmeal

1 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

Pudding directions:

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

In a bowl, mix together the cornmeal, ginger, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.

In a sauce pan, mix the milk, cream, molasses, and brown sugar. Bring it to a simmer over medium-high heat and stir it occasionally.

Add your dry mixture to your wet mixture and mix. Pour into an 8 X 8 baking dish and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, stir, and then cook about 20 minutes more. The pudding will look wobbly, but it will set up more as it cools. It should cool at least 20 minutes.

Whipped Cream

Ingredients:

2 cups heavy cream

4 Tablespoons sugar

Whipped cream directions:

Pour your heavy cream and sugar into a mixing bowl and use a mixer to mix until your whipped cream is fluffy. If you don’t have a mixer, you can use a whisk, but you’ll have to whisk until your arm falls off and then some. I’ve done it this way before. It’s still good, and you do burn a lot of calories, which is very important to me at Thanksgiving.

Serve the Indian Pudding warm with the cool cream on top, and if you have a sweet tooth like me, add a double scoop of that cream!

I hope you enjoy adding a little history to your Thanksgiving tradition.

Happy Thanksgiving!

On Telling the Chicken Industry to Slow the Cluck Down

When my husband and I first got involved in raising our own chickens for both eggs and meat, we did it because we wanted to find ways to cut back on our participation in the food industry. It’s a sad reality that most of us know all about. The food industry is not, in general, good to animals, and it’s all about profit–no matter the costs to the animals.

When you find out about what happens when chickens are processed and the lack of care and respect they receive, it’s hard to imagine that things could get worse, but lo and behold, they’re trying to make it worse on both the chickens and the humans who work in these difficult jobs.

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Creative Commons photo

I recently learned that the National Chicken Council, a trade group in the chicken industry, has requested that the United States Department of Agriculture eliminate rules about the speeds for evisceration lines for chickens. Right now, according this piece, the speed limit is 140 birds per minute. The industry wants faster.

But animals rights groups, such as the ASPCA, and people who have worked in the industry say more speed would be bad for both the people working in the factories and the chickens themselves.

If the evisceration lines are made to move more quickly, then the rate at which the birds are killed would have to speed up in order to keep up. What does this mean? Why is this bad?

Well, according to some who have worked in the industry, right now, some chickens are not being properly killed in an effort to rush them into the lines. Some chickens are already not being stunned before they are killed, and, worse, some are not being killed until they are put into the hot water pots that they are put into in order to loosen their feathers.

The argument is that speeding up this process even more is going to mean more torture for the animals, as the factories will run the risk of having even more chickens put into the lines before they are dead.

Apparently, the industry contends this will not happen. They argue that there will be no compromising on food safety or animal safety. But I tend to think that these people who are clearly after profits above all else should shut the cluck up. It’s not like they have a history of telling us the truth. I’m tired of this. I’m so tired of animals being treated as nothing but a means to money.

I’m not a vegetarian. I do eat chicken, but my husband and I make sure our chickens are treated with respect and given a respectful, clean, quick death. I know not everyone can raise and process their own food, but, thankfully, right now there is something everyone can do.

Until December 13, 2017, the USDA is accepting public comments on this proposal from the National Chicken Council to speed up the lines. You can make your voice heard by going here and making a public comment.

The ASPCA has been using the hashtag #slowthecluckdown. Please share this story and/or the link to the public comments site and use that hashtag if you can. There are hundreds of thousands of us who love chickens and know how amazing they are. I think we’ve got to organize.

Maybe commenting on this petition could be just the beginning.

Why I’m Not Adding Light to My Chicken Coop This Winter

I’ve been keeping chickens for three years now, and I’ve learned so much during that time. I’m a researcher and a studier of all things by nature. And, for the most part, for the last three years, I’ve been obsessed with chickens.

It doesn’t help that there’s so much conflicting information out there in the world. When even the experts disagree, what can you do? For me, I’ve realized that I’ve had to turn to a whole lot of observation.

Now, I have to confess that I don’t always have time to study my chickens as much as I would like. I mean, I teach and home school my son and have a fairly busy life. But, this summer, my teaching load was reduced, and I was able to do some fairly intense study of my girls.

I learned some key lessons from my summer of study, and one of them was that egg laying is hard on these girls’ bodies. Of course, chickens have evolved to lay eggs, but they haven’t evolved to lay eggs at the rate in which humans have bred them to lay eggs. In fact, wild chickens lay just about 15 eggs per year, which is, of course, a long way from 250-300 eggs per year.

Of course, I am thankful we get more than 15 eggs per year, but you have to wonder, in our eagerness to make chickens into what we want them to be, if we considered the health of the chickens. I think the answer is a resounding no.

I mean, it’s this is not what humans are generally known to do, and you need only look at the situations in factory farms to see that it all too often the case that we put our needs above any consideration for the animal. And, of course, when I say “we,” I don’t mean all of us, but the humans “in charge” have a long history of this kind of behavior.

When we bought our girls from the hatchery online, we researched birds that would be intelligent, hardy in the winter since we live in Maine, and really good layers.

And good layers they were. I just didn’t realize laying this much was costing them. The first year everything was great! We had more eggs than we could deal with and were selling them left and right. I noticed that some of our girls seemed to kind of be born with some health issues, but it didn’t seem to bad and it didn’t stop them from laying.

I had so much to learn.

My epiphany came after we had a broody hen this summer, Lucy, who went broody and was able to sit on some fertilized eggs, as we finally got our first rooster. She was one of our Reds who had struggled with her health from the beginning, so I was really, really worried about her. I thought about trying to break her from being broody, but she was stubborn—and I was selfish. I wanted some babies and thought I could just help Lucy stay healthy with a lot of extra care.

We gave Lucy extra treats and vitamins in her water while she was sitting on her clutch. She took her breaks but always went right back to her eggs. When it was time for the babies to hatch, we ended up with just one baby but were able to add one more baby for her to adopt. With two babies, Lucy was in heaven, but she looked worn.

And with the babies now taking up so much of Lucy’s attention, I was worried that she wasn’t eating enough. She wouldn’t take any treats anymore because she was saving them for her babies. I was really worried about her health, and I remember telling my husband I was worried we might lose her.

After all, she wasn’t in the greatest health when this whole thing started. But over time, Lucy became healthier–much healthier. And, by the time Lucy’s babies were big enough to be on their own, Lucy looked better than any Rhode Island Red I had ever seen. I mean, she was calendar worthy.

It didn’t take long for me to realize why Lucy looked so much different. Maybe some of it was just that motherhood agreed with her, but I feel certain the biggest asset to her health was the 2 to 3 month break from egg laying. I couldn’t believe the difference.

Beautiful Lucy
This is Lucy post babies. She looks so healthy after her summer break from laying eggs. I’m sure her molt helped, but she has molted before and never looked this robust and healthy.

Now, I have to admit that I didn’t just come to this conclusion without reading a lot about chickens and egg production. We had always added light to our coop in the winter, just a few additional hours, to keep egg production up. However, as our hens aged, I could see they were just kind of wearing out, which, thanks to my research, I’ve now learned is a common problem in hens bred to lay 300 eggs per year. Essentially, those girls don’t usually live very long lives, and, of course, the chicken industry in general doesn’t care.

But I care.

That research, plus my experience with Lucy, was all the evidence I needed. I talked to my husband about it, and I began to learn that other chicken keepers did not light their coops in the winter. They believe their chickens need the rest, and I now believe the same thing.

I understand that some people may have no choice but to light their coops. Some people rely on the eggs for income, and I can see that feeding your children or providing for your family would take precedent over the longevity and health of your chickens.

But, if you’re like me and thought that lighting your coop in the winter was completely harmless and without consequence, please know that it’s not that simple.

This winter, for the first time, we’re not adding light to the coop. We have 18 laying hens and, yesterday, we got 4 eggs. That has been our lowest number so far. I thought my husband might be having his doubts because our family eats a lot of eggs. But, no.

“I don’t mind,” he said. He agrees that our hens could use the rest.

We’re thankful to our hens for our food, but they are more than food to us. It seems giving them a rest is the right thing for our family. Though I know it’s not right for everyone, it may be the right thing for your family, too.

*Please note, if you have been adding light to extend the days for your hens, please do not just stop the lighting all at once. Lighting should be reduce gradually (about ten minutes a day) to protect the health of your layers.

On the Importance of Pie and Living Without Regret

When I was about 20 years old, I went to the movies and watched Michael. If you don’t remember the film, it’s about the angel, Michael, who visits Earth and helps humans learn to enjoy themselves a little more—at least that’s my takeaway.

In the film, Andie MacDowell’s character is a woman who loves animals, writes music, bakes pies, and falls in love with a grumpy man and helps him not be so grumpy. I loved her character. I wanted to be her and just didn’t know how. But the one concrete thing I thought I could maybe do was learn to bake pies.

In the film, pies made people happy, and, in my 20 year-old mind, I remember thinking that I would like to be an awesome pie maker and make people happy.

It would be about 15 years before I would set out on my quest to really learn how to make pies. Prior, I had been busy with graduate school, raising a little boy, and trying to fit in and survive the tenure track at work. I also was living a life that wasn’t good for me, and the depression of my 20s and early 30s kept me from making any pies. I just kind of gave up on pie.

But by my mid 30s, I was starting to figure out what was important, and I remembered Andie MacDowell and how much I wanted to be her in that movie. I wanted to make people happy and learn how to bake pies—not just any pies, I mean really good pies.

As with everything, it seems, making really good pies was easier said than done. But I practiced every summer with the Maine raspberries and blueberries and every fall with the pumpkin and the apple.

It was rough at first. My ex-husband had always made it very clear to me and everyone else that I was a terrible cook, so I was really starting from scratch. I tried so many pie recipes, and my poor second husband (who just so happens to be my soulmate) ate every one of those terrible pies. And he did something profound for me—instead of telling me what was wrong with my pies, he told me what he liked about them.

My husband encouraged me so much and ate some terrible pies. I think the worst were the ones where I was trying to figure out a way to make the pies without too many calories. I’ve come to realize that, if you’re going to have pie, you might as well go all out and make it good.

apple pie
Photo credit: Annie Spratt, Unsplash

And with practice and a whole lot of praise and support from my family, I got pretty good at making pies. I got so good at making pies that I started to make them for the neighbors, and I started to share my recipe. I couldn’t make them very pretty, but they were always good.

I think one of my proudest moments was when I was visiting my neighbor one day and met her sister for the first time.

“You’re the lady who makes those awesome pies!” she exclaimed.

I was in heaven.

Then, a couple of years ago, I heard about a pie contest at a local harvest festival here in Maine. I knew my pies were ugly, and appearance was 30 percent of the judging, but I knew I had to enter.

But I didn’t. I chickened out.

Then, the festival came again last year. It was time to enter the pie contest. I signed up, practiced, got help from a decorating genius of a friend, and chickened out again.

As an aside, I don’t think the phrase “chickened out” is very inaccurate. I have some brave and bad ass chickens, but you get the idea.

Anyway, when the festival came around again this year, I knew I was going to enter. Something had changed in me, and it started with Tom Petty’s death.

I love Tom Petty, but I had never once been to a concert because I have a fear of crowds that goes back to my childhood. I couldn’t handle the mall at Christmas and had a panic attack in a crowded store on more than one occasion growing up. My fear was pretty strong, so big concerts are just impossible to me.

But, when Tom Petty died, I was filled with regret that I had never overcome my fear and went to one of his concerts. I thought about my life. For the most part, I’ve done pretty well finding ways to live my life authentically. I mean, I left a big job with good pay, so I could work part time and become a chicken farmer. I’m a very, very cautious person, so I always proceed carefully, but I usually find some way of living in a manner makes me the most happy.

And there I was, facing this big regret about never seeing Tom Petty. I didn’t like that feeling.

So there was no way I wasn’t entering that pie contest this year.

I filled out the form, read the rules, and went to work. The contest required an apple pie made with apples grown in Maine. Apple is one of my weakest pies, but I figured I could practice and just make a good showing. I figured I couldn’t win, but that wasn’t the point at all. It, somehow, was never the point.

I just wanted to be the kind of person who enters a pie contest, and that’s what I did.

I worked all week the week before the contest—researching the best apples, researching people’s preferences for apple firmness, traveling to several towns trying to find the best apples. I even honed my filling recipe I had invented.

I was sharing apple pie with everyone. I shared pie with my oldest son and his roommate, my youngest son’s cello teacher, the music store owner, my neighbor. I took feedback from everyone and tried to make the next one better.

The night before the pie contest, I scoured the internet for tricks to make pie crusts pretty and decorative. I realized I was lacking in the tool department, but I got some ideas and ran with them.

When I pulled the pie out of the oven the morning of the contest, I knew I had done the best I could do. “It’s really pretty!” my husband said. I could tell he was impressed. It was a pretty pie—at least for me. I was pretty excited and really proud.

I was so proud that I didn’t even feel sad when I saw the enormous amount of beautiful pies that were already sitting on the tables waiting to be judged when I entered the room. There were at least 50 or more. I could quickly see at least 10 or 15 pies that completely put my humble little apple pie to shame, but, somehow, I didn’t care one bit.

I had met my goal; I had entered that pie contest. I felt really good about myself, and that’s big for me. It just is.

And what really matters is that my pies make my family happy, and they sure seem to. When I take pies to my oldest son, he’s grabbing a fork before I’ve even put the pie on his table. And, when my husband says, “I know I shouldn’t, but I’m going to have one more piece of that apple pie,” that’s the best stuff to me.

On Chicken Hugs and International Hug a Chicken Day

Have you ever had a chicken hug, I mean the kind where the chicken comes up to you and initiates a hug? Did you know this is possible?

I didn’t think such things were possible with most chickens. I love my chickens beyond words, but they’re not as humanized as some. Some chickens are house chickens, but mine are not. They run around, eat gross things like whole frogs, and poop all over the place.

When I have to do health checks for my chickens, I mostly have to do it when they go to roost. They pretty much never want to be caught. My chickens love me tons, but I tend to think it’s mostly for the treats I provide to them.

I’ve seen the video of the lady with the super sweet chickens who wait in line patiently to give her a hug. She has about six beautiful hens, and they all seem to adore her. I remember feeling like such a bad chicken mama when I saw that video. My chickens were more likely to try to jump on my head and poop!

But I had an experience this summer that changed me.

We had a few girls who were just having a rough time. We have three ISA Browns who are just so passive that they were just too much of a favorite for our rooster, as well as another hen who seemed to turn from girl to boy last year (that really does happen).

Each one of those girls was in need of a good spa day, so over about a week, each one of them spent a morning with me getting a warm bath, foot rubs, medicine for their poor sore backs, and a hen saddle I made for them myself with some old denim and old curtains.

All of my girls, despite their initial resistance to being caught and picked up, go along with spa days very well. They seem to know I mean well and go right along with the whole program, even when they have to have the little saddles put on.

But on this morning, something different would happen.

That little hen, who has since been named Melinda, did something different as I sat in the bathroom floor with her. I had finished rubbing some all-natural, Vaseline-like substance on her legs and feet and then put her saddle on, so I was talking to her, telling her she was a good girl and that her new saddle was going to help protect her poor back.

She began walking toward me and hopped into my lap. I was moved for sure, but she wasn’t finished. She walked up as high as she could into my lap and then leaned her head into my chest. On my chest, near my shoulder, she started this gentle pecking that was accompanied by the sweetest little chicken talking I had ever heard. She snuggled right into my chest and just leaned in.

It was a real and true chicken hug!

I was moved to tears, and that moment changed me. It was on the most profound moments I’ve ever had with an animal, and it was extremely powerful.

Melinda After Hug
This is Melinda sporting her new jacket in our bathroom after my hug. My goodness, I fell in love with that chicken that morning.

I knew chickens were brilliant little animals, but I had no idea a chicken could show that kind of emotion to a human that she was not used to be handled by on a regular basis. In fact, this girl had probably hadn’t been held by me in a month or so. I’m convinced she knew I was trying to make her feel better, and she was expressing gratitude to me. No one will ever convince me otherwise.

November 5 is International Hug a Chicken Day, and I know it may seem like a funny “holiday” to some, but there really is some importance behind it. It is a day meant to raise awareness about how important and wonderful chickens are and that the deserve some respect. I think this day is so sweet in spirit—and also very important.

Chickens are one of the most abused animals in the world. The live in horrific conditions right here in the United States, without space or any kind of comfort. They’re highly intelligent animals living in terrible situations with inhumane treatment, and I think the only way this is going to stop is if we vote with our wallets.

I’ll write more on the problems with “cage free,” but please just know that cage free is not enough and that you need to look for “Certified Humane” labels on your eggs—or better yet, buy them from your local farmer.

And, this weekend, let’s honor chickens and think about all they do for us. They provide so many people with nutritious food. They deserve our respect and kindness. Chickens are a joy. Let’s celebrate chickens in all of their loveliness.

Happy International Hug a Chicken Day! Now, let’s go hug some chickens!