Friday, December 30, 2011

Quite the Year

I will remember 2011 as the year that I got to do an incredible amount of traveling... enough to possibly even get it out of my system for awhile, if you can believe that. I feel so incredibly lucky and blessed to have seen so many new places and spent time with people I loved. Here's a quick recap, mostly in photos.

I started the year in Gunsan, South Korea where I was finishing a year-long teaching contract. It had snowed on Christmas and didn't get above freezing for the whole month of January. I'd pass this snow-covered Buddhist temple on my bike ride. (Yes, I learned how to cycle in the snow.)
Our school had a winter English camp, and I taught the drama class, in which I wrote and directed a modern musical version of the Wizard of Oz for 64 middle school students. They sang "Help" by the Beatles, among other songs, and luckily some of my awesome Korean coteachers choreographed the dances.
In February I went to Australia to visit my dear friend Scott. We hiked around the Grampians National Park (as well as we could with all the trail closures after the floods) and saw emus and kangaroos and some of the oldest petroglyphs on the planet.
We also drove to Sydney and back via the coast, stopping for caves and fresh oysters and local cheese and beaches.
Then I headed to Southeast Asia for a month, where I had one of the absolute craziest experiences of my life- riding a motorbike in Saigon, Vietnam. I managed to stay alive and avoid accidents, and even drove onto a ferry with a kazillion other bikes.
In Cambodia I watched the sunrise over Angkor Wat.
In Thailand I visited a couple friends, took a cooking class, and made it out to some islands.
In April I was back home to enjoy the beauty of the Pacific Northwest in spring.
I didn't want to leave town again before going to our annual family work party on Memorial Day weekend in the San Juans.
Then it was off again, for a long-awaited trip to Europe, where I hadn't traveled in over 10 years. I met up with Cherie, who I had met in Korea, and we traveled in Spain and walked a bit of the pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago.
We went to Barcelona together, then parted when I flew to Italy. I started in the north and volunteered on a farm in Piedmont.
From there I made my way down the coast to Genova and Cinque Terre...
... and then to another farm in Tuscany.
In August I came back home to the warm summer, and made sure to do plenty of hiking, including a trip to the Olympics.
In September my Australian friend came to Seattle for the World Hardcourt Bike Polo Championships, and I ended up watching a lot of bike polo at Magnuson Park.
I also went to Mount Rainier for a group campout weekend, which happened to also consist of a historical 1899 roleplay murder mystery game.
Later in the fall, the whole family took a trip to Seabrook on the Washington coast.
Well, there were of course a million other things that happened, but those were some of the highlights. Can't wait to see what 2012 brings. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Merry Merry

Merry Christmas! It's hard to believe another Christmas has already come and gone. It's been a sweet, peaceful, and very traditional holiday here in Seattle with my family- big Christmas Eve party with Norwegian brined meat, potato lefse, a Santa suit, and singing around the tree with lots of enthusiasm but gaps in the verses. Christmas morning at my mom's with satsumas in stockings, then brunch at my aunt's with waffles, bacon, frittata, coffee and Baileys, and mimosas . It's funny to think I've done these things for almost all 29 years of my life (minus the year I was with my friend's Jewish family in Mexico, and last year in South Korea). There is comfort in doing the same thing, and yet what is surprising is that each year is not the same at all. Kids get older, a divorced spouse is absent, a new girlfriend is brought, a family member is sick, or recently recovered. This is what I like about tradition- that it is not always the same, just the same context for a family to grow and change.
A coworker at the flower shop asked me last week what my favorite thing about Christmas was. After considering a moment, I said, "That it's such a big holiday that people make the effort to get together." It's a time when it's okay to put everything on hold and make time to see family or dear friends. If we didn't do that at this time of year, would it happen at all? On the flip side, the holiday can create a lot of pressure and stress- on people to travel in winter, to decide who to visit, to figure out what to do at all if they don't have family or a close community around.

And of course, there are many other holidays to celebrate in this season. We say "Happy Holidays" as almost a euphemism or sneaky substitute for "Merry Christmas", but I like the idea of honoring other things that are actually happening at this time of year, namely the return of light, instead of a birth that we all know didn't even happen in winter.

And so, besides celebrating Christmas merrily, I've really enjoyed gathering with friends the past week in Solstice parties and potlucks, and Hanukkah candle lighting and singing. We are in the dark heart of winter, and these holidays remind us of the light within ourselves, the warmth in the people we love, and nature's ever-changing cycles. It has to get dark to get light. And even as the bustle and cheer die down, we have to remember that every day is a minute or two longer, and even in the deep grey of Seattle, we have a quiet, resolute strength to get through the winter. Here is a quote I recently came across, by writer Melanie Rae Thon- "The chickadee comes to the feeder. Even now, so close to twilight! Less than half an ounce of feather and hollow bone, ten drops of blood, heart smaller than a fingernail — yet she survives all night, every night, all winter."

Merry merry to you, whatever you may be celebrating.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Cow to Beef

It wasn't the best weekend to leave town. I worked all day Friday so I was leaving Seattle late. I turned down an event I really wanted to volunteer with, a fundraising dinner for Just Garden. There was not one, but two different friends' birthdays on Saturday. But it's rare to get a chance to go out to our family's property in the San Juan islands in December. In fact, in my almost 3 decades of life, I don't think I ever have. And I have definitely never been a part of slaughtering any cows that the family raised.

Yes, that's why I went out for the weekend. Vegetarian friends, you may not wish to read on. My family has raised organic, pastured, grass-fed cows on this land since I can remember. Usually they are sold live at a cattle auction, but for a variety of reasons including lack of profit margin and lack of full-time residents on the property to care for the animals, we are starting to phase out raising cows at all. So we are slaughtering the ones we have and keeping the meat in the family in our last years of beef production.

It may seem strange, even inhumane, for me to set aside a weekend to kill a huge animal. Anyone who knows me knows I'm the kind of person who won't kill a spider- even at a friend's house I will offer to take the spider outside for them, trapped between a piece of paper and a cup while in transit. But I eat meat, and prefer to eat animals that lived happy, healthy lives and died quickly with as little suffering as possible. The best way to ensure this is to eat animals that I've had a part in that process.

I got out to the island early Saturday morning, thanks to my step-dad picking me up on Orcas. He had french-pressed coffee ready for me in the thermos, and we enjoyed a calm, bright grey boat ride with seal heads poking out of the water and buffleheads swooping by.

There were 8 adults that convened for the Cow to Beef project. The bull stayed in the pasture and a younger cousin shot it from the other side of the fence.
Another cousin slit the throat to drain the blood, and then we skinned the hind legs to expose the rear tendons. There is place between the tendon and bone where large animals can be hung up and it will support the weight. We put a crow bar through and then raised up the whole animal on a rope with a Caterpillar tractor. It was quite a surreal sight because the bull was massive, probably around a thousand pounds. Then my cousin drove the animal a quarter mile where we would do the gutting and skinning near the barn.I have experience skinning deer, so I had no trouble jumping in and helping skin while others worked on field dressing in front. However, the skin was much thicker, and the domestic animal much fattier, than the wild deer that I'm used to.
Field dressing is more technical because you don't want to puncture any of the organs, especially, obviously, anything containing urine or feces. This is the most time-consuming part as it needs to be done carefully, or you risk ruining the meat. But it needs to be done relatively quickly so that the body can cool and the meat exposed to air to start curing. They finally got all the guts out, and it was quite a large pile. Just the heart alone was enormous.
Once the guts were all out, we finished skinning, and then took off the head. At this point it was starting to look more like meat in a butcher shop. From there we cut it in half with a sawzall, then into quarters.
Even in quarters, the meat was extremely heavy. It took four adults to carry each quarter 30 feet into the barn where it could hang overnight. We estimated that the quarters weighed 200-250 pounds each. Finally, after hours of standing and working in the cold December air, we were finished with the cow project for the day.

But there was still more meat-related foraging to do. Larry and I went to pull up the crab pots in the bay, since winter crabbing is currently open. As I pulled up the pots, I was shocked at how full they were.
I've done a lot of crabbing in my day, and never seen a catch like this. Only about one per pot was female, and a couple were undersized, but for the most part they were all regulation-sized males.
That night, we had a feast of fresh crab and wild king salmon straight from Alaska. My cousin and I also taught every one the drinking game King's Cup, which turns out is pretty fun even with non-alcoholic beverages.

On Sunday, we had to cook all the crab that had been kept in the live well. It was quite a process cleaning, cooking, cooling, and packing them all up. Here is our two-burner set-up.
As soon as that was finished, we moved the beef quarters from the barn down to the boat. We loaded up the back of the truck, also a totally surreal image.
Once we got the truck to the dock, we used the crane and winch to lower the quarters onto the boat. It worked really well, but took quite a few people.
With that, the weekend's work was done. We headed back to Anacortes in a very heavy boat in the afternoon light with a great view of Mount Baker. Since it's a lot of meat and no one in the family is a butcher, the plan is to just take it to a local butcher who can do up the cuts we want. I'm looking forward to trying the meat that was raised from start to finish within the family. Sorry for the graphic, slaughter-centric post, but it was such an interesting experience I couldn't help but share.