Dead Houses

Walking home from work, I take a different route down Emerson Street and pass a curious house with nonsense written on it. Wacky Californians, I think. Posting poetry on their houses.

'Box of Rain' and something of Wolves...sorry, that's a terrible photo. My phone sucks a little.

‘Box of Rain’ and something of Wolves…sorry, that’s a terrible photo. My phone sucks a little.

While I’m snapping a photo, a woman stops and smiles.

“Trying to find all the Dead Houses?”

“Sorry?” I look at the house. It doesn’t look deceased. A little love worn, maybe…

“They’re named after Grateful Dead albums,” she explains. “You know, ‘Box of Rain,’ ‘China Cat’…”

I nod slowly, but I don’t understand. I never took to the Grateful Dead.

“This guy bought up all these houses and fills them up with students and they split the costs. They’re like communal living houses. He thought it would be cool to give students a cheap place to live. And I guess he’s a big Grateful Dead fan.”

She points out a few more down the street. I thank her and snap more photos.

'Uncle John's Band' complete with an urban veg garden in the front yard.

‘Uncle John’s Band’ complete with an urban veg garden in the front yard.

According to a recent article in The Stanford Daily online,  there are nine of these Dead communes in Palo Alto and a few in San Francisco. The juxtaposition intrigues me. Here in the heart of Silicon Valley, down a stretch of street lined with millions and millions of dollars of real estate, a bunch of Stanford kids are growing organic tomatoes and sharing household chores. I wonder if, in the wee hours of the night, they strum a guitar and sing the Grateful Dead song for which their tiny paradise is named.

I reckon there’s still some of that hippy love left in Palo Alto. Some dude out there is keeping it real. That’s good to know.

'Touch of Grey'

‘Touch of Grey’


Inconvenient Citrus

I signed up for a weekly veg and fruit box from this local CSA called Freshness Farms.  Let me be clear, the produce is beautiful and delicious – I have no complaints.

Isn't it lovely?

Isn’t it lovely?

The thing is, well…I’m overwhelmed by the citrus.  Where I grew up on the east coast in the mountains, I could only dream of so much citrus.  In California, I can go to the back yard and pick a lemon off a tree – any time I want, any day of the year.  This blows my mind.

The fruit box comes heaving with citrus fruit – bags and bags!  Not just safe fruit, like oranges, but tiny things I had to Google – kumquats.  You eat them whole, apparently.  The peel and everything!

Citrus is taking over the fridge.  I can’t eat it fast enough.

“Look,” I tell my family, “I’m instituting a Citrus Quota.  Two pieces, everyone, every day.”

I expand my culinary horizons, throwing citrus into every meal – orange salad, a lemon in every cuppa tea, blood orange sangria, kumquats in stir fry.  Sal whips up a dish with black rice and candied orange peels.  We’re trying.

Blood orange sangria

Blood orange sangria

At last count we have:

– 4 oranges

– 20 mini oranges (maybe clementines?)

– 2 grapefruits

– 57 kumquats

– 2 lemons

– 1 mystery Monster Citrus

The citrus is winning!

I pull the Monster Citrus out of the bag.  Sal says it’s a lemon.  I scoff – no lemon could aspire to be so large!  I declare it a grapefruit, and tackle it for breakfast one morning.

I cut the thing open and take a bite.

“Oh my God.”

“What?” Sal calls from the dining room.

“It’s a lemon!”

“Do I get any ‘I’m right’ points for that?”

It takes a gallon sized plastic bag to store it.  I stand a moment at the fridge, staring at it with awe mingled with trepidation.

Monster Lemon must be cut with a bread knife

Monster Lemon must be cut with a bread knife

Dear Lord, California.  What citrus mysteries to behold!

Monster Lemon showed some antisocial tendencies. He was quarantined in the fridge after this incident.

Monster Lemon exhibited some antisocial tendencies. He was quarantined in the fridge after this incident.

The Parsnip that TIME FORGOT

Sal’s just picked up our veg bag from the pub and we are hovered over it, a murmur of anticipation crackling in the room.

What is inside?  What has Veg Bag Thursday brought us?

It’s a special time.

Peering inside, I see a large, muddy, missile-shaped object that is obscuring the rest of the contents.

“What is THAT?”  I give it a nudge.  We share a moment of befuddled silence.

“Maybe one of those white carrot things?” Sal shrugs.

“A parsnip?  No way.  Maybe it’s a new vegetable.  Or a behemoth swede.”

I give the thing a bath in my largest bowl.  It doesn’t fit – I have to wash one end at a time.  Sure enough – a parsnip appears from the brown water.  It sits in the bowl, chunky, proud and ruddy – like how I always picture Winston Churchill.

parsnip n carrots

The Parsnip next to two terrified carrots

I can hardly scrub it, as it’s the length of my arm.  It weights as much as a baby.  I don’t have room in my life for this much parsnip.  Maybe, I think, I could cut it in half and freeze some of it.

But I don’t have a knife big enough to cut it.

I peer down at it with a tingle of futility.  They say that when life gives you lemons, to make lemonade.

But what if life gives you impossible parsnips?



beetroot theory

I was plucking chunks of mud caked to the skin of a beetroot when it hit me.  This is further evidence that Rational Choice Theory is flawed!  This beetroot!

dirty beet

I don’t like beets, but they come in my weekly veg bag, so I have this problem where I end up with a pile of dirty beets and nothing to do with them.  Rational Man might try to sell these beets on ebay, or chuck them at someone they dislike, perhaps, or chuck the nasty little beasts in the food recycling, where they belong.

Rational Man would NOT, however, be standing in the kitchen on a Sunday evening, dusting off beets to make them slightly more presentable, only to bring them to work and distribute them for free to his (bizarre) colleagues who (ACTUALLY) like beets.

What utility-maximising person would do this?

THEY WOULDN’T!  Yet here I stand, cleaning dirty veg for others!  Ergo, Rational Choice Theory has a beet-shaped hole in it!

I resume my task, feeling vindicated in this small, but satisfying, jab at neo-Classical economics.


this weekend i had parsnips for breakfast

this weekend i had parsnips for breakfast

I’m part of a veg bag scheme (called Local Greens), which runs like this: you sign up with a group and pay a weekly fee, then pick up your dirty vegetables in a white plastic bag at the local pub or wherever, then spend the rest of the week trying to fit vegetables into your life. It’s a grab bag – you can’t decide what goes in there and this makes you do weird things. Like eat parsnips for breakfast.

Includes: parsnips, red pepper, potatoes, garlic, and leeks, chopped and tossed in basil oil, a little salt & pepper. Cook in skillet until tasty-looking.

It’s not the weirdest culinary thing I’ve done, but it’s up there.

Man v Snail

Not a fair match, really.

Slow, puny, squishy little guys, snails.  But man…Man!  We have big, smashy shoes, poison pellets, SALT, and loads of brains!

So why are the snails and slugs so thoroughly defeating me?

I had a good crop going on our rooftop balcony.  Dutifully swept aside the soggy cigarette butts and lager cans, lovingly placed my pots – angling them to catch the precious rays of English sunshine.

My work colleague (and fellow urban homesteader) tried to warn me of the Slug Epidemic, how it was ravaging her baby plants.  And yes, it was hard to ignore the snail horror stories in the news – how the combo of unusual rainfall levels and lack of sunshine had created a tidal wave of slime, destroying crops and baffling the British public.  I shuddered in sympathy but was comforted, knowing my rooftop garden was safe.  No slug would be so brazen to climb so high, to brave the hot tar surface, and for such little reward.

They waited.  Until my plants were just big enough to have hopes and dreams.  Then one morning, to my horror, I found a wasteland where my crop used to be.  It was senseless and random.  They spared the Greek basil, but ate their way up every sunflower.  Gnawed my hot peppers (!!!!) to the nub but haughtily ignored the oregano.

‘You monster!  They were just babies!’  I wailed into the antennae of a snail. ‘How could you?!!’

I’ll tell you how.  These ambitious Horror Beasts climbed a frigging TREE to reach my crop.  I found five – FIVE – snails one pot alone.  Too squeamish to stomp, I pitched them one by one over the balcony.  I told myself the leaves and branches along the way down would give them a fighting chance to survive.  It seemed fair.

I brought my pots inside every night and looked for answers.  My housemate recommended salt.  But remembering to sprinkle after every rainstorm was impracticable, given my attention span.  Slug pellets?  Nah.  I don’t fancy slug poison-flavoured tomatoes, thanks.

My work colleague, by now a Five Star General in slug warfare, brought this in.  Copper tape that you wrap around the pot – it ‘shocks’ the snail as it slimes its way up.

‘You have to pre-order this stuff’, she said.  ‘Not all places sell it, and it goes very fast.’

I tried it, and sure enough, this morning I found a snail at the bottom of the pot, tipped to the side.

He looked drunk and alarmed.

With a triumphant, ‘Didn’t see that coming, buddy!!’  I pitched him (humanely) over the balcony.

‘Now go and tell your friends!’ I called after him. ‘Tell them what happens when you MESS WITH ME!!’

Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

I win.

“WTF* was that?!?!”
(*What The Fungus)
I’m pretty sure that’s how snails curse.