Dozer, the Bulldog

Dozer, the Bulldog
Feeling the "Bern"

Ellie Mae

Ellie Mae
No time for gates...

Ollie Mac

Ollie Mac
My cooking assistant

Ollie and Annie

Ollie and Annie
Azorean grandmother


38 years on this mountain, come May 31st...



Papa and Ollie Mac

Papa and Ollie Mac
Priorities, Baby


Annie, my Sweetest of Apple Blossoms

My first portrait

My first portrait
"Mr. Farmer"

Mahlon Masling Blue

Mahlon Masling Blue
My friend and brother.

Mark's E-mail address

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Recipe for Success

I have learned more about cooking from Gluten-Free Mama, than I could ever have learned at any culinary school. As everyone knows who has ever dined at one of her sumptuous feasts, GF Mama is a gifted culinary engineer. She not only cooks superbly, she has created countless dishes for our enjoyment, many for which she has recorded the recipes for her success. 

When I say GF Mama “cooks” superbly, I am covering an expansive field of play, from hors d’oeuvres through desserts, and all points in-between. It includes a wealth of sauces, gravies and accoutrements of a successful kitchen, including the baking of pastries and the creation of frostings.

One of those areas of expertise is the preserving of fresh fruits and vegetables, for our enjoyment over the long winter months. Though my experience with canning tomatoes predates my meeting of GF Mama, my range of abilities was fairly narrow. Having worked alongside her in the trenches for decades now, I have figured out a thing or two-or maybe three-that stand out as being guideposts for anyone who desires to succeed at anything related to tomatoes.  

First, it all tastes good, unless you get careless with the flame beneath your stockpot, and scorch your batch of sauce, in which case it’s a treat for the chickens. There are no comparison taste charts to determine if what you have created is up to snuff with the rest of the universe. You are your own judge and critic: you and those who are dining with you.

If everyone agrees it’s tasty, then it’s a great success. Go ahead and follow a recipe, or even better, use a recipe as a guide and then adjust it to your specific tastes. Do you think there should be more black pepper? Less garlic? And you’d like to add some basil? Go for it!

The one thing you can’t tinker with too much is the level of either vinegar or lemon juice that a recipe may call for, because these are elements that pertain to the preserving process. If there is not enough of whichever the recipe calls for, then your sauce may not be safe to eat once it is all done in the water bath.

Conversely, if you put too much of either in your recipe, it will not taste right. 

The second rule of thumb that I learned is that there can be great variation when it comes to consistency. Granted, catsup should be thick enough to adhere to your French fries, but it’s not the end of the culinary world if it isn’t. 

Likewise, marinara sauce does not want to be too watery, or it loses some of its appeal, but it can also be cooked down at the time you are getting it ready for dinner, if you start a little earlier than usual. Both situations can be corrected in subsequent canning, by simply letting it cook down longer before putting it into your jars.

Nephew Jay, manning the strainer.
Whether you are making catsup or sauce, you can start by running your [washed] tomatoes through a sieve to remove the skins and seeds. If you do not have access to this device, you can always cook whole peeled tomatoes down, and then run an immersion blender through the mixture to smoothen it out, or even a conventional blender, which will accomplish the same thing.

You just have to remember that if you are dealing with tomatoes that have been simmering on the stove, then extra caution should be exercised to ensure that no blender or sieve can splatter hot sauce in an unsafe manner.

Thirdly, there are a finite set of rules that must be followed, but they are consistent and easy to access online. They are only inconvenient if you find out about them at the last minute, which might mean a trip to the store; otherwise, they are basic guidelines that can be used in any area of canning to ensure safety.

Jars: If you have purchased new jars with lids and seals, then you are good to go. Of course, you may be reusing jars, which I do over and over. I make sure I examine them for ANYTHING not perfectly normal, like cracks or chips, and discard them if they are not perfect. 

You cannot reuse seals, but you can reuse the rings that keep them in place, if they are spotless with no rust stains. You can buy the rings/seals by themselves in lots of twelve without the jars. So before you start to cook tomatoes, do a survey to find out what you need to pick up from the store.

Getting ready to add the hot catsup to the sterilized jars.
Though the rules now say that water bathing for the prescribed time also sterilizes everything, GF Mama still insists that jars and seals/rings be sterilized in advance, something that is easy to do because you use the same pots for both this and the final water bathing.

The times for either pressure cooking or water bathing are easy to access on-line. You might be doing half-pints or you might be canning half-gallons, so check out how much time is required to seal the deal. I have found that pressure cooking only works with plain tomatoes; as soon as you start to thicken matters up, the book wants you to go to a water bath method of processing your tomato sauces and catsups.

If you pressure cook, then you have one set of rules. If you water bath, all you are doing is covering the sealed jars with water until you have an inch over the top of them, bringing the canning pot to a rolling boil, and then maintaining it for the prescribed amount of time. You will always add some sort of preservative such as lemon juice or vinegar, and you will generally use salt for taste, though it is not essential if you are on a salt-free diet.

Finally, there is the matter of what kinds of tomatoes you are going to use. If someone has kindly dropped off a box of tomatoes, then you do not have the luxury of a choice. In small quantities you really can do anything with any kind of tomato. It’s only when you start to get serious that it pays to have the best possible option, when there are so many.

Ace tomatoes are slicers.
On-farm I grow table tomatoes (Ace), which are slicers, and sauce tomatoes (Heinz), which are almost devoid of juice in lieu of a meaty tomato. I process the table tomatoes in a cold-pack only, skinning and quartering the Aces no matter what size they are.

I use the Heinz for everything else. Even trying to use the table tomatoes for salsas, produced a far more watery rendition than that which was my goal. So I grow more Heinz tomatoes than I do Ace, and have plenty for putting up the sauces and catsups that I do.

Here is my recipe for marinara sauce with an emphasis on basil:

12 lbs Heinz tomatoes
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup fresh packed basil leaves, chopped
2 tablespoons, each, assorted fresh herbs, such as oregano, thyme and rosemary
lemon juice (1 teaspoon per pint of sauce)

Heinz tomatoes for sauces 
Peel/strain tomatoes and place in thick-bottomed cooking pot along with sugar, salt, pepper and herbs, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook until the mixture has thickened to the desired consistency. If you have the flame too high under the cooking pot, you run the risk of scorching your sauce, so it may take two hours or longer to achieve the desired thickness.

And guess what? I sample as I go. While the mixture is cooking down, if I determine that more basil is required, I add it. I especially like rosemary, so I am usually going to supplement it with additional reinforcements, but you might feel just the opposite. You might cut rosemary right out of your plans. It’s your recipe.

This is a diffuser.
I use a diffuser between the flame and my saucepan, which I think cost around twenty dollars. It’s insurance against having to throw away a whole batch of sauce because it got scorched, but is not crucial to the mission.

Once you are ready to process the sauce, place it into sterilized jars, approximately six pints, or any size jars you choose. Simply google for relevant water bath times. For these pints, process for 35 minutes in boiling water bath, with an inch of water covering the jars.

Once they are done, remove from the heat, allow to cool, and store appropriately. The thing I like best about this sauce is that it serves as pizza sauce or a base for any sort of meat ball/Italian sausage sandwich extravaganza. Again, if it is not thick enough, cooking down a pint of sauce does not take very long, and can be done in advance of making pizza or pizza bread.

Next: Let’s talk catsup

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Tacos for Ten

With three older brothers and three younger brothers, not to mention couple of feisty sisters, I shudder to think what the dinner table at Fellowship Street might have looked like, had the parents not had the situation well under control.

Having enough grub on hand to feed an army was only half the battle; figuring out how to get it to us without bloodshed was the other half. One did not want to get in-between a bunch of hungry O’Neill kids and the dinner table, or one was likely to draw back a stump. Until Kevin joined the tribe in 1966, there were only ten of us for tacos, including the chefs, but it still required some logistical genius to do crowd control.

The key was to give all of us an even playing field to begin with, and let the pack sort out the pecking order. As quaint as it sounds, we filled our plates first, before grace was said, and no one dared touch their portion until amens were concluded. That way everyone got an even break and no one got stabbed in the process.

Assembly-line style
Considering meat and potatoes, in countless combinations, made up the majority of our meals, tacos burst on our scene in the sixties, like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. There was no talk about soft or hard tacos-this was still in the infancy of Taco Bell stands, where tacos were available at five for $.99.

A guy could get a decent meal for a mere two bucks, plus the cost of a soda.

The menu on taco night at Fellowship Street consisted simply of browned hamburger with chile spice, grated cheddar cheese, diced tomatoes, and sliced iceberg lettuce being loaded into soft flour tortillas. Cookie sheets were heaped up with bounty, and then baked in the oven at 400 degrees for ten minutes. 

The result was that flavor from all the ingredients blended together to form culinary nirvana, and enough tacos could be ready to come out of the oven at the start of dinner to keep us all supplied. Meanwhile, the next two cookie sheets went into the oven to get ready for the second onslaught, ten minutes later.

Interestingly enough, Papa brought this culinary delight home from the steel factory where he labored as a Heli-arc welder, alongside a workforce that was 90% black or Hispanic. About the same time we started camping in Baja, California, in the summer of 1963, Papa started making Mexican food for us for dinner. Rice and beans were cheap and could be bought in quantity for a further savings, and we were happy campers.

I rediscovered this dish a few nights ago, much to my own surprise, because it came out of nowhere. I have been eating tacos happily for 55 years now, sometimes soft and the rest of the time hard-shelled, but something right out of the blue made me assemble three soft-shell tacos the other night, and then place them reverently on a cookie sheet for their ten-minute sojourn in the oven.

The piping hot tomatoes, the cheese melted through everything and most interesting of all, the wilted lettuce, all combined to transport me back to Fellowship Street. I enjoyed the trip immensely and plan to return shortly, and can’t believe it took me so long to rediscover this gem.

Of course, it’s kind of boring eating tacos by myself, with no jockeying required for seconds, thirds, fourths, or even fifths, as long as we are still talking about tacos and not bourbon. Me father did enjoy a couple of cocktails while cooking up a storm.

I sure don’t blame him. After working all day long in the factory, he had to come home and help Mama cook dinner? Who wouldn’t need a shot or two of bourbon to get started on his second job? Or, if you’re me, a bong rip to get things started smoothly. A happy chef is a productive chef, and one who has had a bong rip is especially interested in the end result.

Having a cookie sheet filled with soft tacos, is the best imaginable cure for a case of the munchies in the universe.


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

At Ease, Bees

How embarrassing/Please, no photographs, until/
I have my face on.
I post a lot of photos of sunflowers these days, I think partially in response to the devastating news bombarding us from the front-lines of the wildfires. Situated as we are in the middle of nowhere, the hills as dry and crispy as poorly stored cannabis, but for the prevailing winds, it could be us. We are habitually aware of fire danger.

That being acknowledged, posting photos of what I see around me every day of my life, somehow makes me feel that I am doing something-albeit minuscule-to at least boost morale. Posting pics of sunflowers does not help ease our region’s fire issues, but it does no harm, either.

Attaching a caption, frequently in a weak attempt at humor, also hurts no one, especially if it makes one person smile-even if just for a second. I recognize that my humor is out there, but I own that realm, so what the-? As I told my friend Richard yesterday, I say what I want because I’m past the point where I give a flying *%#& what others think.   

United Auto, Story Road
Richard was up from SoCal, but when we were working together at United Auto Stores, in the late 70’s/early 80’s, we were both living in the greater San Jose area. He had come up to Mendo a few times after Gluten-Free Mama and I made the big move up here to the mountain, but the last time I had clapped eyes on him was when we were still living in a 16-by-20 cabin, so it had to have been prior to mid-1985.

Having reconnected in the recent past on social media, Richard had asked a month back if he might not venture up here again for a short visit, since he was already going to be in Petaluma. I told him that everyone on-farm would love to have him visit and check us out. He was, after all, coming up on market day for us down in town. 

So in prattling on to Richard about my attitude, I explained that it’s not even that I don’t care what people think-I do care. I just don’t let their thought process interfere with my forward progress. I remember my mom intoning, “What do you care what the other kids think?” and me responding INSIDE MY HEAD, the equivalent of “Whatever…”

Now I thoroughly understand that which she was trying to impart.

I like to use photographs combined with humor, that attempt to emulate Gary Larson and his “Far Side” approach to making folks smile. If you find it inane, scroll on, friend, scroll on. I’ll never know and I’ll never care. But if by some chance you do see where I’m going, and you’re willing to go along for the ride, then that’ll do you no harm either.

Oh Gawd, Joey, get/Your cotton-pickin' pollen/
Sacks out of my face!
I take a lot of bee pics too, not a difficult proposition since I am immersed in bees much of my life. They have a single purpose in life and have minimal interest in the old guy flapping a camera in their collective space. I was once told by a visiting colleague that bees have an innate ability to sense and grasp a human’s emotional makeup, and that they respond accordingly.

We used to have a hive in an oak tree suspended right over the steps leading up to our front door, and the incessant buzzing around of the bees had me uptight. This colleague, who taught science at the middle school, asked if I could get him a ladder so that he could get a closer look. 

When he came back down the ladder, Brian informed me that our bees were Italian bees, and quite docile. “They can sense your mood,” he went on. “If you’re nervous, they’ll know it; if you are mellow, they’ll sense that too. It’s up to you.”

From then on, I was completely at ease with the bees, there and wherever I ended up, including in the middle of the tomatoes, where there are sunflowers. I have snaps of countless different bee-like flying insects, and I never tire of exploring a world of dazzling colors and sci-fi images.

Again, the bees do nothing but please, and what is the harm in that? I can’t stop the wild fires and I wonder just how many bees have perished in the flames. Even if individual bees escaped the conflagration, their queens would not have. 

So I post pics of the bees in remembrance of those bees who did not survive the fires. It’s the least I can do. And if I attach a comical caption, don’t hold it against me, no matter how lame it is. Please. Smiles are better than tears.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

The No-Tell Motel

Did you see the meme that referenced the Willits Bypass, in relation to this being Reggae on the River weekend? There are a lot of happy campers out there, pleased to be able to skip the long delays, that passing through Willits used to create. I can also say for a certainty that there are some Willits residents who are also pleased that there is a bypass.

These would not be business owners, who obviously benefited from the forced slow-down, their chances of luring customers into their shops much enhanced by the need for vehicles to proceed slowly. It afforded the opportunity for tourists to become aware that these establishments even existed in the first place, and secondly, gave them a chance to escape the reality of gridlock, at least for a while.

I can assert that some Willits residents are pleased, because as of the first of this month, I have the keys to a unit that Gluten-Free Mama and I have rented. This is a return engagement for us, the second time in the last six years that we have taken an apartment in Willits.

The first was just after GF Mama was diagnosed with kidney cancer, in August of 2012, when she had to be near her primary health provider. There was no way she could have been on the mountain that first year for sure, and all together, we had our Pine Street spot for three years.

Circumstances forced us to give up our little “No-Tell Motel” just over three years ago, but now the time has come when we need GF Mama to have closer access to health care, once again. Ultimately, we have to balance the need to be in Willits, and how much hassle that is, with simply having a full-time rental unit.

Having a year-round spot in Willits does not mandate that we be in Willits at all times; it simply gives us options. If things are going smoothly, then we can be up here on the mountain. If we hit a rocky patch, then we can head back down. It will be especially nice to be able to avoid some of the more dramatic winter weather on the mountain.

I will be the floater, rotating back and forth as my responsibilities dictate. Between the critters and the farm, I have job security on this mountain. That being said, it has long since been established that I do not enjoy time spent by myself. There was a lot of that back in 2012, and it was not easy going. So there is motivation to make like a ping-pong ball and bounce back and forth.

Being in the city is not without its bennies. Go to de furnace and push de button. Voila! No wheelbarrow required. Out of the vent streams warmth at a ridiculously reasonable price. I found last time that heating our spot in Willits with gas, was absurdly cheap, compared to heating our home on the mountain with wood stoves. 

Five cords of wood at about four hundred bones each is two thousand dollars. We never paid more than fifty bucks a month to heat our little apartment, so around $400.00 total for eight months. Who’d a thought?

GF Mama is looking forward to walking around Willits, as we did so much the first time around. Exercise is always important, but even more so for what she has going on. The problem up here on the mountain is that the dust from Bell Springs Road is a factor, and that will not be as pronounced in Willits.

At least we hope not, but there is construction going on, so we may have to wait on the walking. We enjoyed being able to walk to Ardella’s, when it was still open, and we loved walking on some of those back roads of Willits. And I would be remiss if I did not give a shout-out to The Shanachie Pub, a grand place to see live music while indulging in a glass of red. 

I had a regular route that Dozer the bulldog and I followed, every morning and evening that we were there, just as I will establish a routine for Ellie Mae. The rules do not allow us to keep Ellie Mae overnight, but the rules did not allow for Dozer either, and somehow that rule got overruled. 

A lot will depend on how Ellie Mae does when she visits, because visits are allowed. She does great in our home on the mountain, only barking when someone opens the front door, and that will not be much of a factor down in Willits. We do not anticipate that front door doing much opening and closing, unless it is us.

Being down in Willits with BenJamIn also being down there is a huge plus. His years of EMT experience provide a security blanket for GF Mama that I cannot. I can offer moral support, I can clean up any and all messes, but I am not the one to call on when GF Mama needs medical support. 

I’m not saying that the sight of blood makes me squeamish; I’m saying it can render me useless, as in passed out on the kitchen floor. This is not the image I like to project, but it’s the one I am stuck with. At times like these, I like to keep handy a few of those images of me with a mop in one hand, and a scrub brush in the other. I am a hell of a pot walloper, and I keep my stove immaculate, not to mention the toilet.

I'll have to dig out the old skateboard. Cough.
It’s not as glamorous as being an EMT, but keeping the house clean and tidy means that GF Mama does not have to worry her pretty head about it. Besides, I live to sweep cobwebs off the ceiling. Who doesn’t?

Finally, even though I can concoct a reasonable facsimile, there is nothing like the real McCoy, so I am grateful to be once again hanging out in the land of lattes. If I am not mistaken, we are within easy strolling distance of April May’s fine coffee establishment, towards the north end of town.

This could be the start of a long and happy routine for me and Ellie Mae.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

"Do You Know Where You're At?"

Showing the love...
With the Reggae on the River festival opening up today, my thoughts are like so many lottery ping pong balls, gyrating frantically within their sphere, each lobbying for my undivided attention. Having not only attended the last three ROTR’s, but having also spent days ahead of each, volunteering to help set up the kitchen(s), I am having serious withdrawal pains this summer.

There was never any doubt that I would have to skip this year’s festivities, my decision having been made six months ago, when Gluten-Free Mama was experiencing technical difficulties, due to those pesky side effects from the kidney cancer meds. Though things are progressing smoothly at this point in time, thank you in advance for asking, my rationale for taking a backseat this year was based simply on the fact that little enjoyment could be had, if I knew GF Mama was poorly.

I am content with not being at French’s Camp this summer, so all the more reason why past memories are cascading over me, leaving me in a deliciously warm and fuzzy spot, at least inside my head. I would say there is no particular order to the emotions overwhelming me right now, but that would be inaccurate.

Above all is that I had to conquer my own fears in order to be able to attend in the first place. My anxiety was based on my discomfort at being in the midst of a lot of people, something that prevents me from attending AT&T Park to this day to watch the Giants. However, ROTR is not the same as AT&T Park, because there is never any point in time when I am assigned a seat, as such.

I am free to circulate if and when I choose to circulate, so I can pick those times when it works best for me.

We built this Cannabis bar.
After having spent several days before the festival was open to the public, working in the background, I had explored every nook and cranny within the confines of the festival itself, as opposed to the more outlying area where the bulk of the attendees were camped, more commonly known as the jungle.

That was the single thing that had always been a roadblock in the past: the idea of somehow being plopped down in the center of a sea of tent-to-tent humanity. Like being in the middle of a crowd at AT&T Park, the feeling is not one that I can abide.

Our spot
Volunteers, however, are not housed with the general population: We had our own tent-city, and in order to get in, you had to flash your credentials. Additionally, we had our own space-within-the-space, so that there was never any impression of being squeezed into the jungle mode.

We had electricity to keep our gadgets charged; we had small banks of porta-potties conveniently located and we had access to private showers. Bucket seats and four-on-the-floor, Baby, for all of our kitchen set-up crew. There was a warm camaraderie amongst us and the camp was rarely vacant, bodies sprawled out in camp chairs or in sleeping bags on the ground. 

And we had Stephen Marley playing, "No Cigarette Smoking (In My Room)," around two o'clock in the morning.

The key to my survival: I knew where to get ice...
Even with the fifteen-minute walk-each way-to get back and forth to camp, I was good to go, more so because I enjoyed the walking. I liked knowing exactly where I was at all times, thus being able to accurately answer my father’s incessant question, “Do you know where you’re at, Mark?”

I especially liked the access to backstage, which meant that I could view the music from one of two elevated side-stages, placing the viewer no more than thirty feet away from dead-center stage. If the performer were moving around the stage, she might get within touching range, were I to lean over the railing, we were that close.

I snapped countless photos at close range. Like most concert-goers, I blazed up when I wanted, more than capable of pulling off the nonchalant attitude required to successfully accomplish this simple feat. Besides, the most Security ever did, was ask you to take it someplace else, cannabis being a sacrament of the prevailing Rastafarian religion.

“Happy Reggae!” is the greeting amongst one and all, comparable to “Merry Christmas!” being exchanged among strangers passing one another on the street on December 25th. It is just the oneness of the event being shared in a thousand different ways, among ten thousand revelers.

The line-up this year is one that features artists I am not familiar with, but that never bothers me one bit. I cannot listen to live reggae music and not enjoy it, whether I recognize the artist or not. If I do, then my enjoyment is elevated, but if I do not, that does not detract from the experience. And hearing the music so up close and personal cannot be compared to hearing the music from somewhere out in front in the Bowl, where the bulk of the revelers are partying.

Whether lounging around camp with friends, wandering through the vendors’ booths, or absorbing the live music, memories of past ROTR’s remain with me today. As I listen to Fortunate Youth this morning, belt out “Mr. Farmer” on Pandora, I am back on-site, the bowl of Strawberry Lemonade glowing in my hand lending credence to my memories.

John Prine said it best when he sang, “Memories they can’t be boughten, they can’t be won at carnivals for free,” but I might add that memories also can’t be taken away, at least not as long as I am in possession of my faculties. Now you could probably make the case that that ship sailed long ago, but nonetheless, impaired or not, I am hanging on to my memories for dear life.

HeadSodBuster rocking the drum, late one night...

And right now, my memories have an iron grip on my little pea brain, indicating that I am OK for the time being, just nostalgic beyond belief. I’d go start banging on the drum HeadSodBuster bought for me one year ago, but I have to remember where I am right now.

And that’s the difference between being at Reggae on the River and being at home, at 3:00 in the morning: If I wanted to drum at ROTR, I would undoubtedly be joined by others.

Here at home? Maybe not so much…