Thursday, February 11, 2021

February Funk

My world remains locked in snow. 
It's not much snow, we might have gotten a bit over an inch after several days of snow. Unlike most northeast Kansas snows, however, it has remained on the ground for days. Usually sunny days follow a snow, at least after a day or two, and thawing ensues even if the temperatures don't climb above freezing but just hit the upper 20s.

This snow, however, was followed by the coldest stretch of weather we've had in years, and the forecast says it's about to get even colder. They say the sun will shine tomorrow, for the first time this week, although the temperature will remain in the single digits Fahrenheit and even fall below zero.
The bitter cold and cloudy skies don't do much good for one's mental state. I've been feeling scattered and distracted all week, unable to end the day feeling that I have accomplished much.
February is like that.
I started the month on a high note. I'd learned that some ancient cultures considered February a time of purgation, when they would conduct cleansing rites. So I decided to "purge" by doing some deep cleaning. I spent an entire day on our bedroom and master bath. Then moved on to the kitchen. I picked up an old writing project and refreshed that. Started organizing the recipes on my computer so I can print them out and tidy up the binder in which we keep recipes.
The first few days of that first week were a whirlwind, then my energy dropped, it picked up after a couple of days and then fell again. So this week I've kind of been at a standstill, although I feel that I'm doing stuff, I'm not just sitting around... sort of.
February is like that.
I find that getting outside helps me stave off the winter blues. This past week I've meant to get outside and wander around. My insulated overalls, heavy coat and work boots keep me quite warm, especially when I'm moving around. But highs in the teens and cloudy skies and February have kept me inside.
I do get outside a little each day though. Every morning and every evening before bed, and sometimes in between I step outside my back door without putting on a coat and stand for a few minutes just breathing fresh air. Feeling the cold, really feeling the cold and embracing it puts me in touch with the natural world around me. I feel more connected. 
Sometimes I go out barefoot, even stepping into the snow, my footprints alongside those of birds and rabbits. The biting cold of the snow reminds me that I am alive, washes away the numbness of dark February days spent indoors.
The amaryllis have quit blooming, but this little orchid  has 
stepped in to brighten the winter days. The blossoms last for
quite a long time.

I started the habit of stepping barefoot in the snow many years ago, when I went bobbing for apples on Halloween and came up with one in which an exclamation mark had been carved. I took that to mean I needed to get more exclamation marks in my life. Stepping barefoot into the snow certainly does cause some exclamations. It's invigorating, enlivening, exhilarating... I've begun to crave it.
I stand outside my back door on a 10-degree F. morning and sing to the wakening world. 
I stand outside my back door as the frost forms in the late evening and look for the moon and stars. Even if it's cloudy I search the sky.
I step barefoot into the snow and feel the cold bite as a freezing breeze brushes my face and seeps through my sweater. 
I breathe deeply of the bitter air.
I am at one, at peace with the frozen land around me bound by snow.
This gets me through February.
It gets me through.
I go back inside and check the tiny cabbage seedlings that will go into the garden in just six weeks or so. One more turn of the calendar page and I'm looking at planting season. But the planting has begun... cabbages, broccoli, leeks... Soon I'll start some lettuce, then eggplant and peppers, then... then...
Suddenly it's March.
This gets me through February... the "longest" month, when we are so tired of winter.
It gets me through.

Monday, February 8, 2021

We All Dig This Vegetable

Good morning from Spirit Bird Farm.

Everyone loves them.

Boiled, steamed, mashed, baked, and fried. In stews, in soups, in salads, as chips, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They even turn up in desserts and other bakery goods in the form of starch and flour. For everyday meals, as well as holiday meals. Some of the best comfort food around. They've infiltrated nearly every one of the world's cuisines in about 500 years, although many Europeans initially thought they were poisonous. They are among the top most important food crops of the world, right up there with wheat, rice and maize (corn). They had become such an important crop in the 1800s that when Ireland experienced a widespread crop failure, famine ensued, killing maybe a couple of million people. A few decades later, Luther Burbank developed a variety resistant to the fungus that killed the Irish crop... potato blight.

Ah, yes, the ubiquitous potato. 

Let me take you back, to the very beginning....

The story of the lovely potato begins when the line that developed into our mashers split off from the parent line of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family a long, long time ago... 350 million years ago to be precise. Maybe not precisely. Dinosaurs weren't good at keeping records, what with their focus mainly being on eating other dinosaurs and/or NOT being eaten by other dinosaurs. They figure this out through deeply studying genes. I don't know how they determine it... by magic is my guess... but they can make a good guess.


The story is foggy after that. But at some point the Incas or their predecessors in the Andes region of South America began gathering the tiny, but tasty and nutritious tubers as food, maybe as early as 8000 BCE. Archaeological evidence, however is not quite that old. I couldn't find reliable accounts of what the oldest archaeological evidence shows -- some sources said 3400 BCE, some 2500 BCE and one just 400 BCE. Regardless of the archaeological evidence, we know that the Andean natives have used and cultivated potatoes (about 20 different species) for a long, long time... developing thousands of varieties, most of which continue to be grown only in their native region.

Those early potatoes and many of those still grown in Peru, were much smaller than the large tubers of the species Solanum brevicaule now grown worldwide. In my search for information about potato's history, I found so much more written about it's introduction to Europe than about its use by the native people of South America. The Spaniards introduced the potato to Europe around the mid 1500s, but most of Europe resisted it as a food crop because of its relationship to the poisonous nightshades (the tomato also suffered this). 

The aristocracy of some of the European countries recognized the value of the potato as a food source, because of its nutritional and caloric density and its ease of growth. So they worked, sometimes using a little subterfuge, to convince the agricultural class to grow and consume potatoes. The little tricks worked, but for the most part potatoes were considered working class food, except in China, where it became a delicacy of the Imperial family. Go figure.

Then a little fungus caused the Irish potato famine, where it had replaced the rutabaga and turnip as a staple crop. And can you blame the Irish? I like turnips and rutabagas, but given the choice between them and potatoes... guess which wins.

So that's enough of that. You can find that stuff anywhere. But I had to look in a lot of places for info on the Inca use. The Incas apparently thought quite highly of their potatoes, even making pottery vessels in the shape of the tubers, which looked more like the fingerling varieties of today. They used them as medicine and possibly even in religious ceremonies. I believe that the ancient people of the Americas held their food plants in much higher regard than we do today, considering them spiritual allies. 

According to most of the history I found, the potato was first grown in North America in the 1600s, introduced by European settlers, of course.


Recent archaeological discovery has uncovered that North American indigenous people used a species of potato more than 10,000 years ago. Starch grains on stone tools found at a site in Utah were identified as belonging to that of a potato, S. jamesii. That predates evidence of potato use in South America. What's more, that potato species still grows in North America, in the Four Corners area of Arizona, thus it's called the Four Corners potato. Indigenous people there still use the little tuber.

The next time you sit down to a helping of mashed potatoes, thank the Incas and their predecessors for discovering the delicious goodness of potatoes. They are "Inca" potatoes in truth, not Irish at all.

NOTE: I did not intend to make this blog post all about the history of potatoes. I was supposed to put some growing information in here. I promised the readers of my newspaper column a link to the K-State Research and Extension publication on growing potatoes in Kansas. So here is the growing potatoes link. It looks like I will need to do another post for all of you wanting to know more about growing them. Maybe I'll wait until I'm planting my own potatoes, for the first time in many years, then you can follow my experiences on that. Or I'll do my next post on them so I can let you know about their awesome nutritional value and tell you how to make the best baked fries.