Outdoor Kitchen, Old School–Part Three, Recycled Fire Pit

The words Fire Pit and Outdoor Kitchen have become such a cliche when put together that CNN had one of their homepage top ten lists, just on Fire Pits, last week. Strangely, they left off my heavy steel pit in favor of a bunch that were made from sheet metal. It could be that because you have to be related to the guy who makes these in order to get one–I am.

My best estimate is that this was made from the end of a 150 gallon propane tank, as they are usually 30″ in diameter, as this is. The handles and rim are made of rebar, and the legs and cooking crane are heavy steel bar and pipe. The crane works like a crane found in Colonial kitchens, so this is made to cook.

How tough is this thingie? A dead and quite large oak tree blew over in a storm, and made a direct hit on this pit. The impact was so hard that the tree mashed the pit into the ground to the top of the legs. After I cut the tree off, the only damage was that it bent the crane slightly, which had no impact on the performance of the pit.

Further evidence that it was designed to be a fire pit and a cooking machine:

Great Grate

The rebar grate can be used to stack logs on, or sit a pot on, or taken out so the things can be cleaned or used only as a fire pit. Likewise, the crane has a swivel hinge which means it can be moved completely out of the way. or even taken off altogether.

I did drill four holes in the bottom for drainage and to add a little air circulation. I will drill more eventually, but drilling through this steel just about destroys a drill bit. At least the thing isn’t full of water and mosquito larvae. This state was originally nicknamed “The Yellow State” because of the prevalence of malaria. A case of that will definitely ruin your meal.

Outdoor Kitchen, Part Two–Magnolias and Moonlight

An outdoor kitchen dedicated to the natural world and natural materials needs a specimen plant. My philosophy of the whole enterprise is go big or go home. That’s why I chose Big Leaf Magnolia for the role, the Latin name being Magnolia macrophylla.

With leaves up to 36 inches long, and flowers up to 14 inches wide, this is about as impressive a deciduous tree as there is. It will occasionally get as tall as 70 feet. The range is from DC to Texas, though there is a subspecies found in NE Mexico. The densest population of these trees is in Alabama and Mississippi.

This angle gives a better idea of the magnitude of the leaves. This is still a young tree that has not bloomed yet, and when it will is a known unknown. I can never resist a reference to Rummy Rumsfeld.

Bellflower, Leatherflower–Two Native Vines

Relocated Texan

A hort cliche is that there are “much neglected” plants, to which I say–good. The native clematis species fit this category perfectly. More than a few are not even available commercially.

This red guy, Clematis texensis, is one pricey unit, if you can even find one available. I swapped for this plant with a nursery owner in Texas, and now have a whole jar of seeds. It’s hardy and a beauty. In return, I sent her–

A Garden City Native

Clematis reticulata isn’t particularly rare, but is rarely sold. We have a few hundred of them, all growing wild. In fact the phenotype, or original sample that the species was described from, came from where we live in Garden City. We have so many I have even stopped collecting seed for these.

In short, if these plants can grow in the sandpile we live on, they will grow in most places. The hardest part is just finding them.

Optimus 45–Rehab and Refurb Time

Over Half Way to the Full Monty

Even a Sherman tank requires the occasional repair, and so does the Optimus 45 kerosene stove. Two legs fell off this stove, and I just started with some super glue, and then did the real work with some solder.

Then I over-pressurized it, and blew out some solder in the seam around the tank, and made a great kerosene geyser. I have that about 90% repaired, but still get to solder some more. Could this be an excuse to buy an actual soldering gun?

Last, my best brain infarction. The cast iron Tilley cooking ring came completely unfinished, and as a cast iron expert wanna-be, I immediately thought–bacon fat. Two trips to the oven and the iron is now bright black.

A few more minutes of soldering, and this dude is ready to cook.

I Can’t See The Epidemic For The Trees

Winterzeit

Now that I have had my second Pfizer-BioNTech shot, and will soon be 95% to 97.5% immune to our latest plague, I have a chance to be philosophical on the subject. Naturally, I turn to our friends at Deutsche Welle, the voice of Germany, for my information.

As it turns out, a brilliant Polish scientist at the University of Warsaw actually predicted the epidemic in 2018. After studying previous Covid outbreaks, Aneta Afelt came to the following conclusion.

“By being one of the regions of the world where population growth is the strongest, where sanitary conditions remain poor and where the deforestation rate is the highest, SEA [Southeast Asia] meets every condition to become the place of emergence or reemergence of infectious diseases,” Afelt wrote in a 2018 article.

So trees are the answer. Need more evidence? How about another equally brilliant woman scientist in Brazil. She thinks they will be the source for the next epidemic. The reason once again is deforestation.

Here’s the numbers.  “In 2015 the (Brazilian) government-led Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA) found that for every 1% of forest that was cut down per year, malaria cases increased by 23%.” And that is only the beginning. Professor Ana Lucia Torinho has the following to add.

“The closed forest is like a shield against external communities coming into contact with animals that are hosts for microorganisms that cause diseases. And when we fragment the forest, that opens new ways of entry to its heart. It’s a ticking time bomb,” Tourinho said, while pointing out the danger of large projects like hydroelectric stations in the Amazon.

Deutsche Welle

Columbia University in NYC has identified 3,204 different Corona viruses, just in the bats in Brazil. I suppose I won’t be going there anytime soon.

Here’s my woods now.

Temperate Forest

We have five acres of Oak-Hickory-Beech-Pine forest, and any number of second and third layer of canopy plants. One-half acre is right of way for the Alabama Power Co., which just happens to be one of the biggest polluters in the US. Shocking, I know.

Don’t worry about any epidemics starting in our woods. We occasionally cut down a small tree for making woodenware, but they grow back faster than we can cut them down. We burn deadfalls in the brick oven. Respect nature, and it tends to respect you back.

Fröhliche Fruhling Zeit! Happy Spring! Joyeux Printemps!

Taters, Precious

The Ruby Throated Hummingbirds are back, from their winter vacation. Though we will probably have one of our notorious late frosts, I’m prepared for it. Floating row covers are arriving today.

Our dilapidated, abandoned, old garden is suddenly back to life. It still looks like a landfill, with my cardboard box mulch, but we have had two things–enough rain, and endless amounts of chicken manure. Add those two together, and you end up with taters like those in the above picture. They are now on a diet of fish emulsion fertilizer.

Pasta Time

Forty something garlic plants should do us for a while. And then there is their cousin.

Elephant Garlic

This is not really a garlic, but the bulb just tastes like one. It is a sub-species of the garden leek, and grows like mad. Many of these were volunteer plants. Now for something completely different.

Asparagus Galore

Fifty something shoots of asparagus from about as many crowns. I know there are more coming. If they freeze to the ground, they will just re-sprout. It has happened before.

Almost eighty degrees today, and freezing temps forecast for Thursday night. Over eleven inches of rain so far this month, with more coming tomorrow. Just another typical Appalachian Spring.

In Praise of Gas Stoves

Bertha!

I fell in love with gas stoves with our first one, which we named “Bertha,” because of the fact that she was probably too big to be moved out of the house we bought. This was in the wild lands of southern Alabama, in Pike county, which had a total population of 14,000 people (many of them students at the University where I worked,) and a literacy rate of fifty percent. In a county like that, cooking ranked as the top form of entertainment.

This stove was made by Home Comfort, and it had two ovens, and a warming chamber. One oven was propane, the other wood fired–not a combo we wanted. Therefore, cogito ergo sum, we never used the wood fired oven. The stove itself sucked down propane like nobody’s business. We had to order propane right after we moved in, and the propane delivery guy was a typical character who could have come out of a Walker Percy novel. He handed us his business card, and his professional name was–Slim Dicks.

Recently, having been rusticated for a year now, my chief form of entertainment has been reading the cooking “experts” on the interwebs. Their latest talking point is about how bad gas stoves are for the environment, and that we should all switch to sweet thing electric stoves. We learned in Physic 102 that the least efficient thing you could do with electricity was generate heat. Then there is this, from al.com:

“Alabama Power’s James H. Miller Jr. plant in Jefferson County is once again the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the country, according to an environmental policy non-profit organization.

According to the report, the Miller plant produced nearly 19 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 – equivalent to more than half of the electricity generated by all of the power plants in California.”

Have a nice warm summer. Welcome to the real coal burning world.

Bertha up Close

Our current gas stove, strangely enough, was made in a Unionized factory right across the river from where Bertha was made. It’s a Premier Pro, and we bought it for two reasons: It was Union made, and most importantly, can run completely without electricity. Not only does Alabama Power pollute like nobody’s business, they also can’t be relied on to keep the lights on.

Bertha Jr, with the same Tea Kettle as Bertha Sr

This is a fine piece of equipment–A simmering burner, and three flame throwers. The oven will hit almost 600 degrees–I burned out the clock above the top on it, experimenting. We have used the cooktop so much we burned out three of the four piezo lighters. Melanie Jane found the following ingenious gadget on the interwebs. I think I like it more than the piezo lighters.

Come on Baby, Light my Fire

That’s an Arc lighter, that works off of a USB charged battery, so I can recharge it with one of my solar generators. Alabama Power charges a fee to people who admit to having solar panels attached to their house (seriously), so I have this to say about that–my panels are not attached to my house. However, the top question on Amazon about this arc lighter is–can I light a bowl with this?

Young people these days. You light a bowl with a Zippo lighter. Everybody knows that. While I don’t smoke, I inhaled enough second hand Cannabis smoke at the honors dorm at UA to give me lung cancer. Which brings me to the best prank I have ever witnessed.

My best friend was 100% Hungarian, as his parents were both born in Hungary, in Budapest. I asked George if they were born in Buda or Pest, and he was amazed that I knew it was originally two cities, separated by the blue Danube. I told him I just knew stuff.

At any rate, George’s problem was that he was 6′ 7″ tall, and our dorm had been a women’s dorm, and the doorways were only 6′ 6″ tall. It was a problem for his forehead.

George could pull some pranks off with perfection. He showed up one day with a huge bag of seeds, which he claimed he found in his dorm room closet. Not likely, as it was all cannabis seeds.

He had a plan–we were right behind the President’s mansion, which was one of the I think four structures that survived the Civil War (UA is almost as old as UVA, the first US public University). The rest of the campus was burned down by Union troops, who started by burning the Library. That’s always the best way to restore trust in Democracy, with a good book burning.

At any rate, he decided to sow all the weed seed around the President’s mansion, and our President happened to have been a member of Tricky Dick’s presidential cabinet. I offered to help, but he insisted that it was a one man op.

A month later, the largest group of gardeners I had ever seen came in for a massive weeding job. It took them days to get rid of all the weed plants. We laughed the whole time.

George went on to Columbia Law, and became editor of their Law Review. I went to Illinois, and both my schools have a chance at the NCAA basketball title this year. Fight, Illini, and Roll, Tide, Roll! Hopefully, we will meet in the title game.

Catfish Skinner

You Think You have Problems?

I probably gained my PhD by telling a story about catfish. This is a little convoluted, but it involves an organic farmer, an Auburn student, my dissertation director, who had not allowed any of her students to graduate in 23 years, and a galvanized tub full of catfish. I really like a good fried catfish.

So we found ourselves in central Illinois, at the beautiful University of Illinois, where we were surrounded by literally hundreds of thousands of acres of some of the finest farmland in the world. It really is farm heaven. UI paid me ten grand to go there, with a University fellowship, so there is that also. When MJ went to the financial aid office, they looked at her transcript, and said, “How many scholarships do you want?” She graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

My fellow grad students thought I was insane when I said I was asking Dean —- to be my Dissertation director. She was infamous for her denying student’s dissertations, and degrees. I just said that nothing can stop a charming Southern farm boy. It didn’t hurt that she was the general editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, which is something of a good thing to have on your CV..

At any rate, there was a good deal of tension between us, as I am something of a stubborn farm boy as well. I strategically decided to let her make all the big decisions about my dissertation, while I insisted on making the ones that actually mattered. Then I met the organic farmer, an old hippy, at the Urbana Farmer’s Market.

He was the coolest dude I had ever seen. He had the good fortune to inherit an enormous farm right out side of Urbana, and chose to turn the whole thing organic. His vegetables were some of the best I had ever eaten. We became friends as soon as he found out I had grown up on a farm. Then his brother came back for the summer, from Auburn U. in Alabama. Enter the catfish.

I asked the old hippy why his brother had gone to Auburn, instead of UI or Cornell, which are probably the best Ag schools in the country, and he said that he had gone there to study aquaculture. He wanted to introduce catfish farming to Illinois. I did my best to not laugh.

I didn’t know that the joke was going to be on me. One Saturday, right after the brother came back from Auburn, I found that they had a giant galvanized tub full of catfish–live catfish. Once again, I tried not to laugh, but the old hippy said he and his brother had to go do something, and left me to run the booth, and deal with the locals, as I had sold produce since the age of six. He told me to push the catfish.

The punters were fascinated by the tub of catfish, but none were ever going to buy any. One finally asked me:

Punter: “What are those?”

Me: “Catfish”

Punter: “What do you do with them?”

Me: “You could make them pets, but most people fry them and eat them.”

Punter: “How do you do that? Do you fry them whole?”

Me: “Well, you normally clean them, and then fry them.”

By now a crowd had assembled, to hear this combination interrogation/ lecture.

Punter: “How do you clean them?”

Me: “The best way is to cut through their spine right behind the head, and kill them. Then you nail them to a wall, like a barn wall, through the head, and skin them. You don’t scale them, you skin them with a pair of pliers. Don’t forget to take out the guts first.” The whole crowd went “ewwwww.”

Punter: “Can you just nail them to the barn while they are still alive?”

Me: “You can, but they’ll grunt at you while you’re doing it.” The crowd thought that was really funny.

We all had a good laugh, and as expected, nobody bought a live catfish.

Then I turned around, and there was my Dissertation Director, in her PJ’s, robe. and fuzzy slippers. She lived across the street from the farmer’s market. She had obviously heard my entire lecture, as she had an abject look of horror in her eyes. She had to be thinking, what kind of barbarian have they sent me? A guy who nails fish to a wall?

I just smiled at her, and kept selling veg.

After that, things were different. She took my side during the preliminary exams, after one of the members turned out to be a total hole. She also took my side during my dissertation defense after another prof questioned my main tenet. So after 25 years, she finally allowed someone to graduate.

Thank you, catfish.

In Praise of Danner Boots–Made in the US (sort of)

A Rogue’s Gallery

I will have to begin with a somewhat humorous story, about the time I walked two agents of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission into the ground, after I discovered a previously unknown population of wild brook trout. We were ready for a six mile hike, but as this was on the NC-TN state line, the Forest Service had randomly decided to lock off the access road on the top of a really big mountain into the Citico Creek Wilderness trailhead in the National Forest. Now we had to walk about thirteen miles.

The desk jockeys did not look pleased. I had various secret weapons–a one ounce fly rod, and two pairs of Danner USA union made boots. The ones on the left, which have been re-soled multiple times, and the wading boots with carbide spiked soles, on the right, were both there. I knew they were in for a world of hurt.

I caught them their trout, which increased the known wild brook trout territory in TN by more than one percent. Then we had to walk back up the mountain. I busted their butts, but had a reward waiting–a cooler full of really cold beer.

It was like Lazarus returning from the dead. They both snorted down a beer, and congratulated me on my discovery. All I did was go fly fishing, and have a really pleasant walk.

Danner Boot Company is based in Portland, and is famous for its quality. With one exception these are all US made boots. The second pair from the left is MJ’s hiking boots. The ones in the middle are my new Mountain Lights, a replacement for the ones on the far left. The next pair were called Rainer, but made in Italy, apparently by the Fabiano boot company. Fabio himself was not involved.

I accidentally started the best gripe session I have ever heard. I went to the outdoor retailer show in Salt Lake, wearing my Danner Boots, of course, and the Danner booth was almost all women. Union women rock. They saw my boots, and said, right, on.

Here was my mistake: I asked them if I could get some women’s Danner wading boots for MJ. I laughed for ten minutes as they launched into the finest tirade I have ever heard, about how all their workers were women who fly fished, and male management refused to let them make women’s wading boots. It was epic.

Danner is now making wading boots for the Patagonia company! Still no women’s shoes, but they are making much smaller sizes. Go figure on that one as well.

Hardy Cyclamen

Goodbye, Winter

Temps in the sixties for most of next week, but the hardy Cyclamen are like Honey Badgers–they just don’t care. This has been blooming for the entire month of February, and it is the species coum. It is not as vigorous as the next one, which is in the process of spreading over our entire five acres.

Cyclamen hederifolium

That is one or two twenty year old tubers, and if you look closely enough, there are tiny seedlings all in amongst the leaves. It is fall blooming, and usually pink, though there are white varieties. It has spread up some concrete stairs, and across a concrete patio. Ants are suspected agents of the dissemination.

White Cloud

This is a fancy variety known as “White Cloud,” which is white flowered, and was developed in the UK, the country of “gardeners and shop keepers,” as Napoleon said. Too bad they kicked his butt.

Vols

Volunteer seedlings will come up anywhere, including in cracks of rocks. The white cloud seedlings will have some crazy leaf shapes. Go figure.

A gardening “expert” on the interwebs said these things could not stand hot summers. BWAHAHAHAHA. These species come from the Middle East and the Mediterranean. I hear it gets kinda hot there, as well as here. We just happen to be at almost the same latitude as Tripoli, Libya, and Beirut, Lebanon. Geography is a terrible thing to waste.