The Scoop Series: spotlight on Rebecca Ballenger, a community garden–founding, backyard chicken–raising, solar oven–using baker of onion casseroles, with recipe & a cameo appearance by Rachael Ray
Back in the 1980s when the word alternative as applied to youth culture still meant something, man, before it became doublespeak for blatantly commercial, my high school pals & I were its embodiment—
self-styled insurgents against the stultifying god-guns-&-goat-roping conformism of Reagan-era Oklahoma. We were all, we knew, destined for artistic greatness &, more important, cute as hell.
Among us kimono-clad or skateboard-toting or white-facepainted mildly defiant ones was Rebecca Long, Reb-L for short. She was dark like me & witty like I fancied myself & shared my taste for comically huge costume jewelry.
Reconnecting 20 years later, we find we have more in common than ever. Except insofar as she does myriad fascinating things with her life & I just sit around eating & getting drunk or thinking about eating & getting drunk. (See artistic greatness.)
Above all, out in Arizona, she pretty much walks the walk of a green activist—but humbly, without talking the fucking annoying talk. Thus was I determined to break her silence; in so doing, I discovered that the way in which her brain processes information & shapes it into narrative is delightfully strange & worth revealing in detail & at length.
Tell the people who you are in a nutshell, without referencing Austin Powers.
Clearly, I have no clue who I am or I wouldn’t continue to seek the newest sparkly objects to capture my attention. My blog domain, Rebel with a Blog, is a vestige from high school. My junk mail account is a variant on Glamour Girl. I’m neither glamorous nor a rebel, so I obviously like to point out the obvious by pretending to be the opposite.
No, you do shit like teach kids out in the desert about sustainable agriculture. How? Is that your job?
The short answer is that I’m interacting with my children & their friends at their schools. It’s not my job, not my training, not my education, not my background, not my anything. But I love it. It’s the most fun pain in the ass ever.
A billion years ago, I found myself in the bird sanctuary—a 2.5-acre cultivated desert area at my children’s school—discussing the food harvests of pre-Columbian Sonoran Desert locals with kindergarteners:
prickly pears, mesquite beanpod flour, dirt—all the usual stuff.
My son’s teacher at the time was interested in all variety of sustainable-living issues. She knew I was in the desert discussing food with kids & that the primary source of my beef & produce was, & still is, local, through Tucson Community Supported Agriculture. I’m sure locavorism is listed somewhere among the Stuff White People Like but, being white, I just have to suck that up. The teacher asked if I would support a grant to establish a communal edible garden at the school. Being also a fool, I agreed.
My daughter’s school has a natural space on the premises, which was purchased with a Heritage Grant. After landscaping it, we were able to host educational events in what we then called the bird sanctuary. As we brought in more classes & had more events, we renamed it Borton Environmental Learning Lab, or BELL. Here’s me on Earth Day, the one in the goofy hat, discussing ground-hole identification: “Who lives down there?”
This year we added a community garden. First we put in the coop, then we planted veggies & started composting. We are currently making a farm stand. So here I am, deep into backyard chickens, soil enrichment & onion festivals.
So the coop at school inspired you to build a coop at home? What’s it like to raise chickens? Party all the time?
My chickens came first. I advise my fellow gardeners at Borton on all things chicken, but I don’t know any more about chickens than I know about dogs or cats. I wanted chickens for, oh, YEARS, but I was hesitant in case they were dirty, expensive, trouble, illegal, whatever.
We started out with a male
His name was Guinea & boy, was he loud. But he loved me. I think that made my husband Jesse just the slightest bit jealous; he didn’t care for Guinea all that much. Of course, that could have because he roosted on the neighbor’s house & crowed like all get out—the bird, that is. He was handsome though.
One day Guinea disappeared. For my birthday Jesse got me a replacement guinea. Segunda wasn’t as pretty, but she was quieter. She went home to Jesus the night of my son’s 8th-birthday sleepover. She was eaten by an owl right outside my bedroom window. I heard the whole thing go down. I had pneumonia & was subsequently hospitalized.
Guinea & Segunda prepped us for chickens. Some friends who were leaving town offered us their flock, which was already laying, so we had to build a coop quick. The guineas’ home had been an old dog crate we pimped out with a perch & mirrors (they like to look at themselves). Chicken coops are coolest when made from salvaged materials, though you can buy premade ones. Ours is recently remodeled with the children’s old playset. It used to be decorated with
but now it’s insulated with that stuff used to cover a water heater & Jesse’s old Jeep windows.
The schedule is easy; we let them out to range in the morning & feed them at some point. They roost themselves & we lock out the predators. In the day time, the dog &
cat keep them company & keep potential problems at bay.
We like to sit & watch them. Sometimes we feed them raisins by hand. They are soft and fluffy, so can be nice to hold, but I am always waiting to be pooped on, & I don’t care to be pooped on.
We have three standards: a Cochin, Sailor Moon or Big Mamma as I like to call her; an Americana, Persephone; & a Barred Rock, Daisy. We have three bantams (smaller in size than standards). One is a Buff Orpington (not to be confused with, say,
Buttercup, & the other two are two of those (as my great aunt calls plants she can’t name)—Firefly & Flower. Some people do not feel that chickens should be named, but ours are docile, friendly & members of the family.
Chickens should be on appropriate feed. Are they pullets? They need to be on grow feed. Are they laying? They need to be on lay feed. Are they boilers? Let’s not think on boilers for this love fest. To be a good egg producer, hens need calcium for the shell, protein for the yolk & grit for digestion. They also need lots of water; the egg white is 90% water. They will eat any kitchen scraps, but not rotten food or potato skins (so you won’t see them at the bar at Chili’s). The best part about that is that you get to feed your hens & use their poop to heat up your compost. No waste!
I’d like to branch out into ducks. Apparently duck eggs are the bomb for baking. Plus they swim around in kiddie pools. How sweet is that?
What do you do with the eggs?
For one thing, we measure them. We were afraid my son wasn’t getting enough math and science iat school. Our daughter is still a bit young, but is it ever too early to introduce empirical methods? We measure the frequency of egg production by hen (the banties lay small white eggs, the Americana lays green eggs & the other standards lay brown eggs) & by flock. We measure the width—which is based on pelvis size & which is practically the same by hen— & the length, which has more variance, & which some say can indicate whether the chicks will be male or female. When the hens are molting, or losing their feathers, they do not lay.
At the height of their production, we got six eggs per day (one from each hen). That was enough for us to share & to establish a regular gift to our neighbors. Now only our Americana is laying and the Barred Rock has just started back after molting. Unfortunately, the cat loves to sleep in their nest & and the hens aren’t that keen on laying around her. We are getting maybe six eggs per week.
A word about the flavor of backyard eggs—heaven. I’m not even kidding. Fresh eggs can’t be beat. People are knocking down my door to be my friend thinking they’ll get eggs out of me. From my hens, I mean. The difference for me is really in the texture: smooth, fluffy, light & not at all rubbery. Older eggs are better for boiling, so use store-bought for that.
You have been known to cook said eggs in your solar oven. What’s that all about?
My solar oven is soon to be on loan to Rachael Ray. I mean, not directly to her but to her producers, who are visiting the school. RR is interested in the garden & in the kids selling their goods at market. But technically, it’s not my oven; rather, it’s on loan from one of the most amazing women I’ve ever met in life. She used to be in charge of the bird sanctuary, but she moved to Mexico with her family. As a salve for my shredded heart [at her departure], she loaned me her solar oven. I immediately baked potatoes. Then I made brownies. In general I’ve had success with solar cooking, but dressing on Thanksgiving Day—not so much. It was overcast. I recommend sunny Thanksgivings where possible.
What is it exactly?
Get in your
& head to Miami in the 1970s, where middle-aged women in knitted swimwear fry themselves with reflective panels poolside at the resort. Like all great inventions (e.g. kites that attract lightning), it wasn’t long before a dual purpose was discovered for those panels: cook skin, cook stuff. Unfortunately early solar oven models didn’t live up to their potential because the panels could only generate heat enough to bake flesh. Often they left soft gooey middles in casseroles, much to the consternation of the few June Cleavers who hadn’t turned to prepackaged foods.
Misty Rainbow Cloverleaf was also way grossed out, but she was dedicated to pinko liberal causes like earth loving. One day she watched horrified as her son, perched on the concrete roof of the commune’s underground bunker, burned ants by directing the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass. Voila! The answer to her prayers. The reflective beach panels could capture a maximum amount of the sun’s rays & direct them through a glass oven door. The glass door would have the additional benefit of allowing her children to see their
Okay, really, I know NOTHING about solar ovens except that they are an entertaining diversion, economical & environmentally sound. They cost around $250, which is ridiculous because the basic model is a wooden box painted black inside, with a self-leveling shelf, a glass door & metal wings. Solar ovens have been around forever & Peace Corps alums can often make them using tinfoil & a pizza box.
Recently I made onion pudding. I like it because it sounds disgusting, but also because wow, YUM. One of the things I appreciate about Denveater is the standard disclaimer about measurements. That’s also the way I roll. The disclaimer should apply to recipe titles. If you are really anti-onion pudding, call it a casserole. Throw peppers into it & call it a frittata. Pour it in a crust & have yourself some refrigerator pie—or quiche, if you insist, though that totally goes against the whole vibe I’m working toward.
Without further ado:
(brashly stolen from Southern Living, served by my ‘Bama Mama & adapted by me)
6 large eggs (I used 7 because two were from our bantam hens, so were smallish)
2 c. heavy cream
3 oz. shredded parmesan
3 T. all-purpose flour (Why don’t I have any of this? I use a combo of wheat pastry flour and bread flour)
1 T. sugar
2 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
1/2 c. butter (but pul-LEEZE. Less will suffice)
6 medium-size onions (I used my CSA yellow onions)
Preheat oven to 350°.
Stir together first 3 ingredients.
Combine flour & next three ingredients.
Add dry to wet.
Caramelize onions in butter until they reach
Stir onions into egg mixture & transfer to a lightly greased 13- x 9-inch baking dish.
Bake for 30 minutes or until set.
And what’s this about Rachael Ray borrowing your oven?
I hope her producers are gentle with “my” solar oven while they have her. I hope they remember that she works best when her panels & window are clean. Will they remember to flip up the nylon closure so that it doesn’t melt from the manufactured heat? Oh! And she likes to be tilted 30° west of the direct rays of the sun. That way she doesn’t have to be shifted while cooking.
Dear oven, I’m so sorry I pimped you out like this. My explanation, because it’s no excuse, is that it’s for the betterment of the world. People all across America might think twice about passive energy. Children will be amazed by the sun’s power. You will shine brightly. And I will be there to pick you up & dust you off. Then, we will resume our experiments with casseroles. Also I’ve got the best granola bar recipe…
In that case, to be continued at some point in some way, shape or form…