Activism, elderhood, and public shaming

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Activism, elderhood, and public shaming

“… my own feelings of pointed outrage expressed in a meme without proper context are at risk of becoming a kind of “pitchforks and torches” rage, devoid of the truth behind the roots.” – Courtney Weber

YES, THIS. When this meme was presented two days ago, with the idea that I should join a social justice “action” by posting it as my profile pic for a week, I was uncomfortable because although the people posting are people I love and respect in their activism, I was not being given any context. I had to do quite a bit of research to figure out who the elders were who had triggered this outrage right at this moment. No one wants to “name names” out of some desire, seemingly, to protect some parties to the blow up through anonymity. Unfortunately, that makes it difficult for those of us who like to have informed opinions.

But one friend was willing, off the record, to tell me what had triggered the outrage. Two witches who have been teachers and leaders in some provinces of American neopaganism (avoiding the word elder as I’ll come to that later) signed on to a change.org petition to take the T out of LGBT – as in, requesting that the major LGBT rights advocacy organizations stop advocating for transgender civil rights. This is a huge act, because the text of the petition was quite ugly, advocating throwing trans rights and trans people under the bus so that by disassociation the LGB communities could gain more ground, since they wouldn’t have to contend with trans haters any more. As a statement of politically expedient strategy, it was cynically brilliant. As a civil rights manifesto, it was a complete failure of course. And as a public position for a Pagan leader and teacher? Hold that thought. We’ll be back.

At approximately the same time, a third such figure posted a bit of a rant on her Facebook page about the Kaitlyn Jenner “woman of the year” award or whatever it was, given by a magazine that should give any feminist the dry heaves anyway. This third Pagan teacher and leader wrote of her disgust that women such as Serena Williams didn’t get recognized, and that Ms. Jenner seems to think the hardest thing about being a woman is dealing with the makeup and clothing demands. When this person was called on the antitrans ugliness of what she’d said, since she had stated that Ms. Jenner is not a real woman, she agreed to look at the issue and learn and discuss with the council of elders in her tradition to talk about gender and power issues. I thought that was a reasonable reaction from someone who didn’t get it, when not getting it was pointed out, a good place to start. I am not ready to start waving the pitchforks until we see where she goes with that. I was told I should still be angry at her because she is not having that discussion with members of the trans community….but how do I know that? How does she know that? One thing about gender is that you can present, and people assume. I have no way of knowing who belongs to her circle. It is not for me to judge the process of a group of which I know nothing. I can wait to find out more.

Now, I want to unpack this whole thing a bit. There are some definitional issues that need to be explored. Who or what is an elder and what is their relationship to the community? What is the role of social pressure in generating “actions” and is it legitimate? How can our community find ways to set norms for behavior that uphold what little bit of shared belief or ethic we may have between us? (I will address some but not all of this in this essay, but I do believe we need to look at all of these issues as our community grows.)

So to go back to the first instance, of the two people who signed the anti trans petition. I will name them because I know them, and the anonymity feels bizarrely dishonest. They are Ruth Barrett, Dianic priestess, and Macha Nightmare, formerly of Reclaiming. I know neither of them well, but as I cross Macha’s circle by belonging to the Covenant of the Goddess (hence the deep thought I’ve been giving to bias by Pagans lately) I wound up being part of the chorus for the Goddess Alive! ritual at the Parliament of World Religions last month. I won’t say that I learned about their deep selves. I will say that they were good to work with, centered in their power, and doing a service to the interfaith community that was difficult for them to pull together due to personal and practical challenges. They were busy being priestesses and leaders in other words. In that moment, did I respect them? Very much. Did that make either of them *my* elder? Um, nope, absolutely not. We hardly know each other, and even within that ritual choices were made that made it clear to me that I have different ideas on some rather large issues. So, these are two leaders with whom I disagree on some key issues. Big deal. I was not comfortable with some choices made , but I didn’t figure out why or what I should have done until later. Such is life.

There seems to be general agreement that elders in paganism don’t have to be very old, although we all snicker at the idea of the self-appointed teenage “High Priestess” syndrome. Elders do…what? They teach, they lead. They work hard at offering service to the world and the Pagan community. They develop credibility by their service, by living lives that are shaped by their understanding of what it means to be a Priestess of God Herself (I am not leaving out men, by the way – in my coven’s practice we are all Priestesses, regardless of sex or gender identity, and therefore all such identities are welcome in our circle.) Some elders teach, some advocate, some lead, some form groups, some are public, some are private. They are considered elders because they have stuck with it for a long time, because many others have found their teachings and practices valuable, and/or because they are well known in some part of the Pagan world.

Not all Pagans believe the same things. I am not Dianic, and don’t buy into a lot of their stuff, including the trans exclusionary attitudes and actions. (No one should be surprised that a Dianic priestess who has been trans exclusionist in the past did it again.) Nor am I a black reconstructionist, although I know less of what that involves. That makes these people not my elders already, before this current tempest. But by dint of labor over time, and their choices to be public, these folks have gained the status of elder in the wider community as well as within their denominations.

So, what do they owe us, or we owe them? I think that is the heart of this matter. I do not buy into this celebrity idea that somehow we know people we’ve never met, like Caitlin Jenner for instance, and that they owe us something because we are the voyeurs to their lives. But in case you haven’t noticed yet….we never get to stop learning. Elders too. Teachers and leaders undertake those roles because we have growth and learning to do and those roles are part of that path. Not all elders are always right and wise, even within the boundaries of their own group – coven, “tradition”, mystery school, social justice group, whatever. The High Priestess who initiated me was awesome, wise, a powerful magician, psychic, and ritualist. She was also a Cancer who had trouble letting go of things, sometimes to the point where harm was done. She made some decisions for her group with which priestesses who she had trained did not agree one bit. Some of our relationships were very strained at the end of her coven’s life. Do I love her still? Do I honor what I’ve learned from her, even the part where my learnings came from her mistakes? Of course I do. She was my elder and my teacher and my friend, and had no obligation to be perfect in order to deserve my love and respect.

Do elders of all denominations have an obligation to represent their faith communities well, in the sense of demonstrating what it means to speak and act from that particular idea of center? Well, one would hope. But Christians have Pat Robertson and Pagans have Christian Day and the racist crowd in the Covenant of the Goddess. One elder in our local community has gone on record stating that she has intentionally tried to destroy someone’s livelihood because she doesn’t like him, although she has never had a constructive conversation with him about her concerns. This is well known to a lot of people, but she is still loved and treated as a leader. Me? I offer love and compassion for the shadows that drive such cruelty, but she will not be my leader ever again.

And that is where the circle comes around again in this. I am responsible for my actions and choices. Elders are responsible for theirs. You can’t really take elder hood away, as it forms by accretion over time. We can only affect choices in the now. In this type of situation where I have reservations about an elders’ ethics or ability to behave in the way I want my teachers and leaders to behave, I only get to decide what I will do, not what anyone else does. If a leader loses followers, that person is no longer a leader. My choice lies in not following; telling other people not to follow disrespects their free agency , and proclaiming that a certain person is “not an elder” is not my role. Who am I to judge, to weigh the hearts of these strangers and publicly declare them lacking?

I have increasingly been framing my ethics very simply. Her Law is love poured out on the earth. So what would that look like in this situation? I think it looks like reaching out to these elders and saying, I cannot support you in this. I think you have a lot of learning to do about feminism that comes from a place of love and inclusion. I hope you are able to change the way you are behaving, because we need less hate in the world. Whether you choose to undertake that work is not up to me, but until you do I won’t be able to support your leadership. I love you and see your beauty and all you have done for our world, but this thing I do not choose to learn from you. I choose to offer love, and work for change, and I hope you will too. But you don’t owe me any of that. You aren’t MY elder, you are first your own work and a child of the Divine. Even when you blow it, and boy oh boy have you blown it this time, you deserve love and compassion. And I am willing to wait and see what you choose to do, if anything, to change your course of action, because I hope all of us can be supported by loving community while we grow. In the meantime, I will not follow you on this path you walk which leads to cruelty.

My meme would say, “May we all be responsible. May we all continue to learn how to love.”

(Addendum: Macha revoked her signature on the petition and repudiated its contents yesterday.  I honor her for owning her mistake and taking a positive step. <3)

Warriors, Free Expression, and the Love of the Goddess

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pentacle-seasons

As you know if you read my previous post, I am involved, increasingly passionately of late, in activism related to reproductive rights and individual privacy. This work increasingly brings into my vision the inextricably related tide of extreme sexism that has been rising in public life over the past few years.  The public voice for this movement comes from the obstructionist Republicans, those who believe the Tea Party to be a worthy constituency, who feel Rush Limbaugh is a worthy spokesman, and who feel empowered to declare this a Christian nation.  This faction has set about forcing us all to live by a fundamentalist, unkind (and, I believe, inaccurate) version of  Christian dogma in which the big government that is staying out of their corporate crimes is empowered to evaluate all personal decisions and impose cruel consequences on those that don’t conform and don’t have resources for the fight.

I won’t go into all the ins and outs of why it is clear this nation is not now, and never has been, a Christian nation.  Thomas Jefferson et al. said it better than I ever could.  What is written on a dollar bill is not determinate of our spiritual zeitgeist. If it were, we would all be Masons. People who busily deny all of biological history on this earth are easily capable of revising the past couple of hundred years of social and political history without even breathing hard. Arguing against them is a waste of time.

But I will talk about speaking out, and how advocacy is part of being a priestess for some of us. And I will talk about how our community too seeks to silence voices that raise uncomfortable truths and challenging perspectives.

I am a priestess of the goddess Hekate.  To me, she is a teacher and patroness.  In return for her loving guidance and her teachings, I offer up my service to her.  And what that really means is that I strive to bring every act and choice in my life into congruency with my understanding of how to walk on the Earth gently, with love and compassion.  Clear sight, and the ability to summon strength and focus are among her many gifts (along with an unusual tendency for large black animals to come into my life).  My offering in return is to be her hands, her voice, and her heart in this world. “All acts of love and pleasure are my [the Goddess’] rituals” (emphasis added) is part of Wiccan liturgy. (If you can call it that – Abrahamic models superimposed on pagan worship usually are a poor fit because they imply more uniformity and more obligation than would be accurate. We need our own vocabulary for these things. But I digress.)  We are charged to move in the world with “beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence”.

Most pagans I know do really well with the mirth, and the reverence, and with honor in the sense of trying to generally treat others well.  It’s the compassion, strength, power, and other forms of honor that seem to cause problems. Those of us who choose to use our power and strength and sense of personal and spiritual integrity to advocate, to speak out against intolerance, or to hold up a mirror that reveals flaws, are not always supported by others in our community.

Paganfolk tend to sort into a few archetypal categories. We have healers, we have bards, we have artisans,  we have those who tend the earth and her creatures, we have priest/esses, and we have warriors.   Most of us are more than one of these.  Those of us who have been formally trained as Wiccans have been encouraged to develop skills and strengths in different areas.

Warriorship, though, is misunderstood by many and taught by relatively few.   And warriorlike behavior is often actively squelched because, somehow, it does not conform to pagan community ideas about how to be loving.  Warriorhood is seen as at best a necessary evil; a commenter on line who was seeking to support my activism said that she wished the warrior role was no longer necessary.

How can we eliminate an entire archetype?  Why would we want to? Each of our possible roles has a critical part in shaping our societies; each reflects another face of the divine. Warriors don’t need to be violent, or cruel, or fanatical.  Warriors can use their strength and honor peacefully and with integrity to support positive change and succor the weak.  Warriors enact what we Wiccans tend to view as the masculine aspect of divine love.

Neopagans generally view Love as an important aspect of the divine. “Love is the law….”, “…[the goddess’] love is poured out upon the Earth”, and other passages commonly taught affirm this.  But the understanding of love of course varies with the person.

My Hekate is a dark goddess, and her teachings are about the mysteries of the inner places, of the borderlands between light and dark, presence and absence, life and death, growth and decay.  She has great compassion for all the world’s creatures, but that does not mean she will stop them from working and going through trials of learning.  Her love is the active form, the one the Greeks called αδαρε.  Agape is intentionally applied love, meant to bring balance and healing when events have created loss of well-being.  This, for me, is the love of God Herself.  Acting from a place of center, with clarity about my own roles, reactions, and ego boundaries, cultivating self-possession and reaching out from that strong core to help others, acting as a responsible steward of the beautiful earth and all its children, are the work of my priestesshood.  Warrior actions, including activism, are one way to do that work.

The Goddess’ love is also, to me, often “tough love”.  Balance exists in all things, and we don’t get to experience the rewards without doing the work and facing the challenges. Witches generally understand that digging into one’s own shadows, seeking self-understanding and compassion for oneself, is the central process in learning to find one’s divine strengths.  But when a member of the community holds up a mirror that shows some of the less than appealing stuff and asks them to think about changing it, they tend to react with complete affront.  I can’t count how many times I’ve been castigated for not being “nice” because I said something when witches were acting in ways that were damaging those they thought they were helping.

I have been recently chided again for speaking. I was told that I must have terrible and tragic “anger issues”, and then virtually ostracized through indirect comments by a pagan on-line group because I called out a member for using sexist language and assumptions as the basis for posting negative comments about a woman who most of us don’t even know.  Well, what was said was, prima facie, sexist.  And we are usually better than that. But how are we going to be better than that unless we allow our Warriors to speak up when they witness injustice?  If we are not willing to examine our own behavior, and consider changing it, we aren’t being honest, or honorable, or humble.

Another member of said group told me that divine love is completely accepting (thus snarkily implying that I was a failure as a priestess because I did not quietly accept what had been said).  He seemed to think that if I wanted to act out of love, I would just ignore the sexist cultural assumptions that are rising like alligators in a swamp all around me.  Because accepting would mean I wouldn’t upset anyone by pointing out that their behavior in perpetuating these cultural assumptions is part of the problem.  And upsetting people isn’t “nice”.

This version of all accepting, “nice” love reminds me most of the Buddhist concept of “idiot compassion”, where the actor’s ego issues compel them to afflict others with help that actually harms in the long run.  Idiot compassion is not based on true understanding of the others’ needs. “Idiot compassion is the highly conceptualized idea that you want to do good to somebody. At this point, good is purely related with pleasure. Idiot compassion also stems from not [having] enough courage to say no.”  –Chogyam Trungpa (emphasis mine)

Well, I am blessed by my Goddess with the courage to say no.  I am formed by many many years of working with the dying.  I know that not speaking because you don’t want to upset anyone is manipulative and self-serving; you withhold valuable perspectives and truths from them based on your own desire to avoid emotional challenge.  I know that being nice is not the same thing as being kind, or honest, or honorable, or strong.  I know that true loving compassion grows out of respecting others enough to tell them the truth, to challenge them, to hold them to a high standard. The goddess did not charge us to have “niceness and social harmony” among us. She charged us to compassion and humility, honor and strength.  She charged us to be her Love. She trusts us to be her Voice. She wants us to act as her Hands.  Turning away from those imperatives because we are afraid to rock anyone’s boat, because we think preserving people’s damaging illusions helps anyone, is a spiritual failing.

Aside

Well, it’s been too many months since I attended to this blog.  The spring gets crazy on the farm, and riding takes precedence over writing often when the weather gets good.  But now….something is happening in my beloved funky tolerant Albuquerque that it drives me to communicate, to reach out, to proclaim to the world how deeply disturbed we should all be by these events.

What’s happening?  An organization called Voices for Family Values, a “nonprofit, nondenominational” organization that states on its website that its mission “. . .  is to promote Biblical worldview. . . ” is organizing a drive to pass a 20+ week abortion ban in the city of Albuquerque by a ballot initiative.  They need 15,000 signatures to get this on the ballot. They are hoping to pass a city ordinance in order to do an end run around our state legislature, which has consistently refused to limit the rights of New Mexican women to a complete range of therapeutic options for their health care.  Since Albuquerque is by far the biggest city in the state, and is the home of the majority of the abortion providers, they think they will thus be able to indirectly end late-term abortion options in New Mexico.

In the meantime, the fundy nut cases are poised to descend upon us.  An antiabortion extremist group, the “Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust”, based in California, are planning to come to Albuquerque and launch an assault on our local providers August 5th -10th.  These folks are really dangerous. They have been linked to bombings of clinics and murders of providers.  I will be standing with the clinics on those days, doing what I can do to keep the patients and their family members or friends safe, as well as the providers. Since their website posts photos of the three women who provide these services at the targeted clinic, I would consider them a direct threat to life and safety.

I am disturbed on so many levels by this kind of cruelty, by “political action” designed to intimidate, threaten, harass, or harm other people who are making choices and taking actions of which these folks disapprove.  This particular action has potential to make tragic circumstances far, far worse for a lot of people and families who struggle with making the decision to abort an advanced pregnancy.

Only about 2% of abortions are done after 20 weeks in the US.  88% of abortions are completed in the first trimester.  The risk factors for later abortion include Black race, younger age, less education, domestic violence victimization, and life chaos (defined by researchers as having 3 or more severe life events in one year.) Many of these women do not have access to resources of knowledge, information, or money, and that causes a delay in care.   And then there are those families who find out in the 5th month that their child is in some way severely defective, some to the point of nonsurvivable flaws.  And here in New Mexico, there is another problem:  rurality.  Women in rural areas must travel to seek this care.  It takes time, it takes money, and it takes being absent for a couple of days.  For some people. those conditions are very difficult to arrange.

All this is to say, women don’t have later abortions because they want to make their unborn child suffer.  Blaming those whose lives already are difficult and frightening because they don’t react quickly to a new problem is ludicrous. It’s unkind. It’s just plain mean.  Why not work on providing outreach and services to help women learn about their bodies so they will know how to avoid pregnancy and how to tell when they are pregnant?  Why not support women who are in need of pregnancy termination with kindness? They will never forget their decision, or their abortion experience, or their nonborn child, I assure you.  Bludgeoning them with barriers such as no health insurance, no local providers, slutshaming judgments hurled without knowledge of the true circumstances, only increases their pain.  It’s cruel.

I will be actively working to squelch this law, and to defend these women and their health providers from the forces of allegedly-Christian judgment and harassment.  And I will be back to blogging, because I have just had it with women, and pagans, and other non-privileged non-dominant members of our society being harassed and silenced. I am angry that the First Amendment, which as enforced at present provides only precarious protection for those  of us who belong to non-Abrahamic religions, is being used to justify the implementation of Christian fundamentalism as public policy.  I am sick to death of misogyny.  Women are the faces, and the bodies, and the hands and voices of the Divine Feminine, and I can no longer be silent while my Goddess is being abused.

All of my reactions on this issue relate directly to my spiritual path.  As a witch, I have a deep reverence for life, and for the miracle that is a woman’s body.  I have a strong belief in self-responsibility and the imperative that people must make their own choices in order to advance themselves both spiritually and in the mundane world.  I understand that death is not an ending, and that life and death must exist in balance.  I know that science and spirituality can co-exist, and syncretically augment our understandings of the inner and outer worlds.  And I know that the Divine, by whatever name you may know it, is also Love.  And Love is kind and helpful, not cruel, exclusionary, judgmental, and violent.  It saddens me that there are folks out there who cannot act with forbearance and generosity, particularly when they claim to follow a prophet who was himself kind, humble, generous, and nonjudgmental.

I am not interested in changing anyone’s spiritual path or beliefs. But I will stand with the Goddess to defend the vulnerable from attack and to keep these fundamentalists from imposing their bizarre, mean-spirited, scientifically unsupportable ideas about appropriate health care decision-making on others.  If you would like to join me, please email and I will make sure you are informed about any local opportunities for advocacy or support.

May the Lady of Love and the Lord of Light bring all of you support and strength when you need it.

Reproductive Rights and the Goddess

Sausage Day (or, reasons to raise my own food, part one)

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Last Sunday, I hosted a Sausage Making Workshop at my place.  I had about 35 pounds of scrap pork  meat and fat trimmings in the deep freeze from slaughter time in November.  And I also had some beautiful beef butt roast that I had traded for (locally and compassionately raised and slaughtered).  I needed a day at least, and some help, to turn all that into sausage.  And so many people had expressed interest when I mentioned this that I wound up teaching the process and getting my help all at the same time.

We had 8 people present for most of the day, and then 2 repeaters and 2 others came back the next day for a finish up session.  Together we produced kielbasa (beef, applewood smoked), poblano chile sausage (pork, fresh), hot Italian style sausage (pork, fresh) , Cajun Andouille (pork, smoked), and bratwurst (pork, fresh).  I still  have enough trimmed meat left over to make a batch of salami, which entails an entirely different process since it’s fermented and dried – it’s more akin to the Fiocco than the bratwurst. And during the final clean up I found a bowl with about 2 lbs of bratwurst filling ready to go….somehow it got stuck in the deep freeze during the day and we forgot about it!  So more brats are in my future too.

cleaning kielbasa cropThe kitchen was filled with friendship and laughter all day long.  Believe me, sausage making is rife with opportunities for off-color comments.  Pagans are very happy to laugh about sex and food and anything else, so this occasion was a natural.  With poses like this, how could anyone resist?

To add to the fun, a professional photographer was present to document the process.  Jim Blanchard of Jim’s Images offered to attend with his cameras and strobes and all that cool stuff. He has most often done nature and scenic photography, but also seems to have a talent for food photography (see his work at jimsimages.com and at http://ingoodtaste.ws/ ).  It was amazingly nonintrusive to have Jim working.  I had feared that in my small kitchen, crowded with people and work tables and supplies, that we might knock over his strobes or get grease on his camera, but no such mishaps occurred – he really is a pro (and a terribly nice guy).

Andouille ingredients

Andouille ingredients

This post is not really about sausage making, although I’m putting some of Jim’s photos in here just because they are so cool.  What I want to write about is why I do these things.

Sausage is slow food.  From the time I killed the pig until we ate the first sausages was two months to the day (and the Andouille are still not finished drying, nor are all the brats in casings). Now, I wasn’t working on it the whole time, of course. Putting the meat in the deep freeze for a few weeks guarantees that any trichinae will be killed, so it’s the conservative thing to do (although trichinosis is almost unheard of in the US anymore).  The prep for the workshop took about 10-15 hours over the week before we met. I had to inventory the meat available, and then choose recipes that could be done in one day (important to let the budding sausage makers taste the results!). Then, I inventoried the various supplies including spices and other add-ins . . . did the prep work, such as roasting and peeling the poblano peppers . . collected up the equipment and made sure it was in working order. . . typed up a handout with all the basic information so that my students would be empowered to make sausage when they left. . .  moved the meat in and out of various freezers in order to thaw it just enough . . . and so forth.  Most of this would need doing even if this was just a work day, not a teaching day.  Over the two days of sausage making, I was active for about 20 hours.  So I guess you could say this kind of cooking is work intensive.

But – and there are so many buts that make this kind of work addictive for me….

  • I continue to use every bit of my pig that I can.  Much of this meat and fat is not suitable for other uses, except maybe for stews.  Sausage making is a wonderful way to honor lovely gentle Hambone by making sure none of her body goes to waste.

fat hog

  • Slow food made with care and only with real ingredients is in demand. I can’t sell my meat because I refuse to have it killed in an FDA slaughterhouse or processed in a state approved butchering facility. Despite the alleged role of government oversight in ensuring hygiene and good treatment for the animals, I view the places with deep suspicion.  Too many episodes of food borne illness, and too many horror stories of how the poor animals are treated throughout their lives and especially at the time of their deaths, make me trust my farm and kitchen far more.  After all, the first lesson of the day was how to wash hands – and then I watched to make sure it was done.  I sanitized all the equipment.  I made sure the meat stayed ice-cold all day.

ground and ready to go

No one has ever gotten sick from eating my food.   So if I can’t sell it, what can I do?  I can teach about it, and I can charge or barter for the teaching and for a share of the day’s output.  I won’t get rich, but it helps, and I build community with these kinds of ties.

  • This kind of shared work builds community.

Some of the sausage students were old friends, some were folks I’ve met recently, and some I’d never met before.  Most of the students did not know each other well or at all. Slow food preparation includes a lot of time for talk among the cooks.  We had to cut the meat for grinding, which when you’re talking 35 lbs of meat, takes a while in itself.

another bowl of meatMost of the time, 4 or 5 people were working and the others were watching, talking, or going into the other end of the house to warm up (the kitchen was kept at 58 degrees for the day).

At the end of the day, we had a wonderful meal of bratwurst, red cabbage, sauerkraut, applesauce, potato salad, and sourdough bread (can you see my German ancestors lining up?).  By the time everyone headed home, connections had been made, friendships initiated, resources shared, support offered in a dozen different ways.

  • Showing people ways to create healthy, delicious food that does not put money in the pockets of  the concentration camp meat industry is one way I can offer the love of the goddess to all the creatures of the world.
  • Eating food created with love and laughter, that has grown on my land, that has been nurtured by my love and work, creates an energetic bond to my food and my home that sustains my body and feeds my soul. Every time I eat this wonderful food, I will think of the fun we had making it, I will think of my pig, I will be drawn into fantasies of next year’s gardens, and I will be grateful to the Earth my mother for her gracious bounty.
andouille ready for smoking

Andouille, ready for smoking

“All photos (c) Jim Blanchard jim@jimsimages.com used with permission.”

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And now for something a little bit

different…I’m laughing tears and can hardly

type. Enjoy!

Motley News

I subscribe to Oddee, which is a site that puts together lists. All kinds of lists. For example, “9 Amazing Facts About The Earth,” “13 Coolest ‘Just Married’ Photos,” and some really STRANGE ones, too… like “10 Craziest Foreign Objects Found Stuck In A Rectum” (that one was quite enlightening – link is at the bottom, I don’t want to lose you just yet).  

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Pork thighs, white mold and the mysteries of the bladder

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Pork thighs, white mold and the mysteries of the bladder

So it’s time to stop fretting over the ugly situation in the wider world, and start this year off right where I’m happiest – on the farm, in the kitchen.

I butchered my second pig back in November, about 10 days before Thanksgiving.  She was a lovely friendly American Guinea Hog who was quite obese at the time of her death. As a matter of fact, when I saw how much fat was in her body, I was pretty amazed she hadn’t just dropped dead of a heart attack on her way out to the meadow to do her tractoring job for me. Instead, she was killed quickly and mercifully by another local farmwoman who is an expert. Yes, I took out a hit on my pig.

Hambone (the previous pig was named Porkchop)  is now in the freezer in various pieces, and is slowly being turned into processed goodies like maple cured apple smoked bacon, guanciale, pancetta, coppa, lardo, tasso ham, and so forth.  I’ve actually never liked American style cured pork products, the bright pink salty stuff with the wierd sticky mouth feel.  But the arts of charcuterie and salumi are right up my alley.  They require study and thought, diligence in execution, and patience.  They take ordinary pork (well, darn good home raised happy pork) and turn it into the height of the food preserver’s art.  Done right, heaven.  Done poorly, anywhere from awful to deadly.  Nothing is fun without some risk.

I had always thought the piece de resistance of meat processing was prosciutto.  Well, on doing some reading, turns out there is one product even more revered by foodies in the know.  Culatello.  The details of how this is made in its traditional home in Italy are shrouded in mystery, but the general idea is that this is a boneless half a ham (the back half of the leg).  It’s three big muscles in one piece. The culatello is salt cured (sometimes with black pepper), rinsed in red wine (and sometimes garlic) and then  packed tightly into the pig’s bladder.  It’s tied up in a manner that creates a tight string bag around the bundle, and then hung in a cool dark humid place (in Italy, caves and basements are favored) for months to years.  It develops a coating of penicillium mold, which in part protects it from other less helpful microflora, and in part interacts with the meat in mysterious ways which change its flavor and texture.  Over time, it gets very ugly with mold and dust and loses about half its weight through drying.   The string bag gets loose, adding to the charming ugliness.  When finally opened up, it is allegedly the finest meat product one can eat.  Allegedly because I’ve never had it.  But I’m going to, in a few months.

I decided to make my first attempt a Fiocco, rather than a culatello. It’s the same preparation, but it’s the front half of the leg. It’s smaller and supposedly not quite as great meat. But because it’s smaller, it takes only 4-6 months to cure rather than 10+ months.  So I thought I’d start with fiocco. In part because I’ll get to evaluate this new venture sooner. In part because it’s smaller so if I wreck it I’ve still got the culatello cut, which could always just be smoked as a regular ham.  And most importantly, because my cool room is not cool in the summer, so this needs to be done by no later than midMay when the east side of the house starts warming up.

Curing conditions are important to all these pork projects.  The guanciale, the pancetta, the salami, all need to be hung in the cool damp darkness. Most people who do this modify such things as old refrigerators or humidors to provide the right conditions.  I’m lucky – I have a room in my house that does beautifully from about October to May.  It stays a steady 50-58 degrees F and is easily humidified.  Ambient humidity here where I live is about 20-25% RH; with an old fashioned cool mist vaporizer running 3 hours on and 1 hour off I get it up to about 50-55%.  For these meats, it’s supposedly best to go up to 60-70%, but so far, for the guanciale and pancetta, the current system has been fine, no case hardening problems.  For the fiocco and salami, new projects this winter, I will probably go to a thrift store later this week and blow $15 on an ultrasonic humidifier, which I think will raise the RH to where I want it without soaking the carpet (the reason the vaporizer is not running around the clock).

One reason to love living alone is that there is no one to object to the drying rack covered with hunks of meat in the middle of the former guest bedroom!

So, the fiocco…..I started with the Salumi cookbook by Ruhlman and Polcyn. Their Charcuterie book was my bible for last year’s pig processing.  This year, Salumi is the word. But there is so much variation in how this stuff is done, and like most budding meat curers, I was fretting over the right way to tie the thing, and how on earth would I ever fit a hunk of leg in the bladder?  So I did  a lot of surfing to find more info. Watched youtube videos on the microbiology as well as the tying technique, read the few blogs that focus on this craft.  And realized that there’s not that much help out there, so….hence this blog entry.  If you want to try this, I hope my learning will benefit you.

So, there seem to be three burning questions on this: 1 – where to get the premium pig leg for the project? 2 – where to get a pig’s bladder?  And 3 – how to tie the string to create the classic pear shape?

My answers:

1- Grow your own.  Hambone was not one of the breeds that earn the Italian product protected name status. But she was happy and fat and ate only healthy food including all my garden processing scraps, leftovers, outdated milk from the local dairy, outdated bread from the dumpster behind the organic bakery…you get the idea.  So much good food goes to waste in our world, but not at my place when there’s a pig to be fed!  My pig was apparently smaller than the Italian pigs (her culatello weights about 5 1/2 lbs, the fiocco about 3 1/2, which is maybe half or a third the size others mention in their recipes).

2 – Kill your own.  Hambone’s bladder was saved because we killed and butchered her right here in the back yard, so I had the chance to keep lots of useful stuff that a butcher would have discarded as offal, including the bladder.  I rinsed it, closed off the urethra with a hog clip, inflated it (using a spray air can usually used to clean my keyboard) and hung it in the curing room until thoroughly dry. At which time it really did not look like it would be big enough for anything like a ham (think of trying to fit your left buttock into your bladder….you get the idea).

3. Between the shape of the bladder and the shape of the muscles, it’s going to be a pear shape. No mystery, and no special technique needed.

So, here’s the process I used:

  1. Trim the meat square and tie it into shape (the fiocco has a shallow slot where the bone was, the culatello is cut flat along the bone and has none).   At this point my fiocco weighed 3.5 lbs.

    Trimmed and tied, ready for the salt cure

    Trimmed and tied, ready for the salt cure

  2. Dry cure it by rolling it in kosher salt until all surfaces were coated well.  I do this in a ziplock bag, then dump out the extra salt, seal the bag and put it in the fridge.  It’s supposed to take about 1 day per 2 lbs, so I left it in the cure for 2 days.  Turn it and gently rub the cure liquid around on the meat every day or so.

    Ready for the refrigerator

    Ready for the refrigerator

  3. Take it out, rinse it with red wine to remove the excess salt. At this point, it had lost some weight (now at 3.1 lbs) and the string had loosened.  So I removed the string and took the opportunity to massage the meat well with fresh cut garlic, cracked black pepper, and more red wine. Because, hey, it’s an Italian thing, so more red wine and garlic must be the way to go!  And pepper is always a good idea for cured pork. I removed all the garlic, since fresh garlic can harbor C. Botulinum, and I thought that removing the plant fiber part and just leaving the oils on the meat would be safer.
  4. I then retied it, tighter, giving a good bit of attention to closing the slot well  (this was a simple tie like a roast, read on for the fancy part). The opening can cause problems in the curing – best case, a hard dry area where the curing is uneven, worst case, a safe harbor for C. Botulinum.  I choose not to use nitrates in most of my meat products because I don’t like the weird pink color and texture it gives to the meat, so I’m very careful about hygiene.  (N.B., for the salami I will use it, no way to avoid the risk in ground meat products cured at room temp; for whole muscles the risk is much lower).

    Rinsed, massaged, and re-tied

    Rinsed, massaged, and re-tied

  5. I soaked the bladder in warm water for about 20-30 mins, and the most amazing changes happened!  It changed color and became soft, elastic, and much much bigger!  I mean even bigger than it was when I took it out of the pig, and it was big then because the flushing out of her private areas had filled it with water from the hose.  No worries about how to fit the meat in the bladder.  I cut a slit in the bladder and put the tied meat right into it. The larger culatello would have easily fit; for this fiocco I wound up cutting out about two inches of “material” along the seam.
    Dried pig bladder

    Dried pig bladder

    Meat into the bladder, plenty of room

    Meat into the bladder, plenty of room

  6. Now for the fancy stitching and tying. I didn’t have a butcher’s needle, don’t even know what that is…but I had some sailmakers’ needles, so I picked one with an eye big enough for the twine, and sewed the meat tightly into the bladder.  No problem!
    close up on bladder stitching

    close up on bladder stitching

    nice and tight, with bladder pieces removed for better fit

    nice and tight, with bladder pieces removed for better fit

  7. Next, the butcher’s twine net bag.  Thank goodness for youtube and my fellow bloggers. This was a bit tedious, but not very difficult to do. Got it nice and evenly tight, no air pockets, and it was so pretty!
    First steps in tying the netting

    First steps in tying the netting

    All done and ready to hang!

    All done and ready to hang!

    Tied in the loop tie used for hanging sausages, with an extra pass through the top of the netting

    Tied in the loop tie used for hanging sausages, with an extra pass through the top of the netting

  8. Now here’s where I had to wing it. Some sources refer to giving it some time to ferment before putting it in the cave. Some talk about piercing the bladder all over for drying, some not. Some inoculate with penicillium to prevent bad mold invasions, and some don’t (in Italy, they don’t have to because they have been using the same cellars and caves for centuries, so it already lives there).  I decided to hang it as it was for one day to dry the surface, since the bladder was quite moist, and then decide whether to inoculate it.  So into the curing room it went, after being weighed and labeled.
  9. One day later….checked on it this morning after about 20 hours hanging. The surface was nice and smoothly slightly moist/tacky, not wet anymore.  I could feel some moisture under the bladder, so I took a corn holder and poked a zillion holes all over the thing. And when I was doing that, I discovered…is it?…could it be?…..WHITE MOLD!!!  I was thrilled. No inoculation needed.  Who needs a cave in Italy when you have a spare bedroom in New Mexico?

Now, it’s time for the long wait.  At this weight of meat and given the low humidity, I’m thinking this might take 3 or 4 months to be ready for eating.  So I’ll let you know around April how it came out!

Are we done in Newtown?

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I posted this to a pagan mailing list to which I subscribe this morning:

I would like to respectfully and loving suggest that we consider where our donations should be going in order to truly support the victims of ALL the gun homicides in our nation. It sounds like Newtown will be swimming in teddy bears for years to come.  Cute, but not actually helpful in any comprehensive sense.  If you still have the urge to act on this issue, please consider donations of goods or funds or talents to:  your local domestic violence shelters and intervention  programs; your local gang prevention/ high risk teen intervention programs; or the advocacy group of your choice targeting issue such as mental health treatment parity, supportive outreach to single mothers, or gun control.  Look for organizations that seem to avoid demonizing those with whom they disagree, as that approach is unlikely to meet success and is clearly part of the problem in this situation.  Offer your kindness where it seems it will make a meaningful impact.  Do it in the name of the Newtown children, or do it in the name of the thousands of nonwhite nonaffluent forgotten victims who are getting killed all the time with little media fanfare.  Just please do what you can, rather than letting the surfeit in Newtown convince you that this issue has been handled.

This post I’m writing now elaborates on the last point, about not letting ourselves think the situation has been handled.

I am very touched to see the flood of material and moral support offered to the town of Newtown CT by the world community.  This kind of connection and kindness is where our hope lies for a shift to the positive growth of the next bak’tun.

I fear that the announcement that Newtown cannot handle anymore donations will cause people in our country to turn away from dealing with all the issues that we have been discussing since this massacre.  Remember, we are the ones who failed to help Haiti beyond a few short weeks post-earthquake because they fell off the media radar.  And we failed to even notice their renewed distress during the recent Hurricane, presumably because if a disaster hits us directly, the rest of the world’s devastation just doesn’t matter as much.  Inundated with unimportant stories presented with great fanfare , we are fooled into thinking they are important. We worry about the Kardashe-what sister’s lip enhancements.  We watch consumerism run amok with “news” coverage of “black Friday” insanity.  We worry about the royal babies and which public figures are secretly gay (gee, why would they hide that?  but I digress….).

It’s just too easy to see the ordinary American getting a warm fuzzy feeling about Newtown because of all this sending of memorial donations and teddy bears and decorations to change the look of the school.  And then going back to watching the tube, until instructed by the media to get “involved” in a new crisis.

We need people to stay engaged on this one.  We need to actually deal with the multiple contributing problems that result in our status as the disaffected-and-unstable-young-white-man-mass-murderer capital of the world, as well as the developed world’s leader in the more conventional single-victim gun murder.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca) will introduce a new assault weapons ban in January, a more comprehensive ban that includes limits on the capacity of magazines and closes some loopholes.  It would also seek to track the guns sold during the post-expiration period from 2004 to present, and possibly to recover them from the owners (a buyback program, no storm troopers “takin’ mah gyuns” the way the Tea Partiers seem to fear).  (My source about this bill is the Senator’s website as well as multiple media outlets in the US, all online).

I find it very disturbing that this is the only substantive move made by anyone yet to address these issues.  Why aren’t there 8 different gun control proposals out there so that there could be meaningful discussion representing multiple approaches to the problem, resulting in an effective and practical law that achieves broad support?  Why aren’t we hearing about how states are going to tool up to provide comprehensive family support programs for at risk people, how they are going to stop blocking the development of mental health coverage parity?

For all the people I’ve discussed these issues with on-line, I am aware of only 4, beside myself, who have done more than discuss amongst ourselves – who have written emails/letters, or called, legislators on these issues.  Who’ve chosen to donate resources to organizations such as I described up above.   If so few of us act like this is important enough to stick with until we’ve fixed it, it won’t get fixed.  And the next time it happens, the public will again ask how this could have been prevented, the same way we have asked ourselves that again and again, increasingly frequently, over the past 20 years.  Please, let’s not go through that ever again. Honor all victims of violence in our land by preventing the otherwise inevitable similar future tragedies.  Please help, please keep this on your priority list.