Tag Archives: CAS

Thomas Takes the Spotlight

“We change hens like we change socks,” I mentioned to Abbie about 4 hens ago. Since Lorraine, we’ve had Medina, Julia, Ivory, Victoria, and more. But now we’ve broken the gender barrier, taking in our first rooster.

Bringing a rooster into the house would seem to be a very noisy proposition. Want to wake up at 4am? Want to continue waking up throughout the day? They don’t crow only in the morning, you know.

Well, unfortunately for Thomas, it’s been very quiet. He’s fighting a respiratory problem, and his crow was reduced to a very tiny peep. If I were to translate him into a cartoon, you would see this: A jet black rooster, with a deeply rubicund comb and generously masculine waddle, puffs up his chest, flexes his wing muscles, arches his neck, and gives it all he’s got. Overdub a cat’s squeaky toy.

Not easily dissuaded, Thomas gives it another go. And another. Whether out of habit, compulsion, optimism, or just nature, he is not one to give up.

Thomas, Rock'n'Roll Rooster.
Thomas, Rock’n’Roll Rooster. (Photo courtesy of Jill Meyers.)

Thomas—with 40 other chickens–came to CAS a refugee from a Kansas City meth lab. Meth labs give off very distinct odors, so operators create an olfactory camouflage by keeping animals on the premises. Put that together: The only way to cover up the chemical smell is to create an even larger animal smell. You can easily deduce that Thomas—and any other animal—was poorly cared for. They only wanted him for his feces, and that never makes for a good relationship. As compensation, he received food and all the vapors he could handle.

He’s been at the sanctuary about a year now, and in addition to clean air, food, and water, he’s had daily treatments for his chronic bumblefoot. Now, with this respiratory problem, he’s scored a room in the big house up the hill with two very sympathetic and doting humans.

He’s always been a real gent, and as a houseguest he’s pretty near perfect. He keeps his pen clean, doesn’t fly all over the place, never sullies the furniture. He’s been such a good visitor that I kept him near the kitchen when I taught a class on sauces this past weekend.

It was hard to keep everyone’s attention during class. Thomas is strikingly handsome—the cartoon caricature above isn’t far off—and supremely graceful. Even with his feet bandaged and his laborious breathing, he still moves about in stately confidence. There was more than one sympathetic sigh in the room when I told the class that he wasn’t cooing like a dove. He was simply trying to breathe.

Things improved, however, and within a few days he surprised me with the most remarkable sequence of crowing. I cheered, of course, for it was a great and welcome sound. Loud and proud, and a long time coming.

But it wasn’t just the volume that caught my enthusiasm. It was the pitch and the timing, delivered in precise call-and-response fashion. The call: The opening 5 notes of Led Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” His response: A crow that matched it almost note for note. Each time the riff was played in the song, he responded in kind.

But it didn’t stop there. Next up in my playlist was “Sleepless Night,” from the Kinks’ 1977 album “Sleepwalker.” It opens with a 13-note sequence from an electric piano. I would be exaggerating if I said that Thomas matched it. But it is no stretch at all to say that his crow complimented it in a very musical fashion. All artistic critique aside, the fact remains that he crowed! The crowd went wild!

I played the opening riffs again, to see what he would do, and to listen once more for their semblance to a rooster’s crowing. The similarity is there, but it took Thomas’ responses to make me hear it. It’s not at all like the overt squawk of Link Wray’s “Run Chicken Run.” Thomas, it appears, has more sophisticated taste, appreciating subtlety. Or at the very least, higher production values. (In Link Wray’s defense, it is worth noting that he often recorded his songs in a converted chicken coop.)

So rock on, Thomas. Thanks for the music appreciation lesson, and for the display of grace under stress. Who would have guessed that such a rock’n’roll spirit was hiding beneath all those Liberace feathers?

Soup

William Blake prescribed seeing the world in a grain of sand. As I try to take in a fraction of his vision, I must be content with reflections in a bowl of soup.

I love to make soup. It’s one of the truest improvisational arts, fueled by ken and emotion and intuition. Soup is just as much Zen as it is Rococo, flowing like the Tao through a cup of miso and floating among the penne in minestrone. It has a soul of its own, an offspring of the Universal Soul itself.

When I make a good soup, I feel compelled to call a friend to come share it. It’s an intimate thing which requires confidence in the midst of vulnerability.

So, a couple of weeks ago, while I was preparing to teach a soup class at CAS, I felt a tinge of trepidation. How do you put all of that in a recipe?

Well, you don’t. You can print “1 heaping cup of love” in the list of ingredients, but that just sounds kitschy and therefore insincere. “Go with the flow” doesn’t translate finitely, nor does “just groove on it.” Standard directions cover only the technical side of soup-making. To really capture the process, I’d have to say things like, “caramelize the onions with great sensuality,” or “use a vegetable stock that has the spirit of black tea.”

For this class more than others, I realized that I needed to listen to my Writer’s Mind: that is, I needed to “show” more than I needed to “tell.”

We spent the first hour talking about food, about common threads that ran through all of our lives. We talked about the journey we were each on. We spoke of space, openness, honesty, and acceptance. We remembered great soups we’d each had, and what made them special. The Community Table—ubiquitous throughout Europe, but sadly missing in most US restaurants—was a touchstone for us. It provided a segue into a discussion of partaking from the same pot, a simple act which tells us much more about soup than any recipe can.

That is the starting point: the realization that soup, in its very essence, binds everyone who partakes. Instantly but securely intimate, as soulful as the primordial soup from which the universe itself formed.

Having established our context, any recipe was merely an application of the concept. “See how it applies itself to Miso with Udon…look at how it fills a pot of Lentils & Vegetables with Filé…watch as it binds Vichysoisse…”

There were some solid technical tips, of course, like adding the filé only after you’ve taken the soup off the fire. I also told them that if you use good homemade stock, take time with your onions, and go easy on the salt, you will have a great soup. Beyond that, use what you have on hand, express yourself, and share it with others. The recipes are only starting points, as always.

Soup adapts to our lives. It winds through our personal progression and species evolution, keeping us rooted in ancient traditions. It helps us maintain a bond with the first human to ever hang a pot over a fire.

While we can make it as mystical as Blake, it is also as everyday as Sandburg:

Soup

I saw a famous man eating soup.
I say he was lifting a fat broth
Into his mouth with a spoon.
His name was in the newspapers that day
Spelled out in tall black headlines
And thousands of people were talking about him.

When I saw him,
He sat bending his head over a plate
Putting soup in his mouth with a spoon.

Medina

I am a chef. I am magical. I can make food out of anything. Even chicken droppings—or so Medina thinks. Every time I get a paper towel to pick up her latest gift, she races over and pecks energetically at the towel and its contents. She turns her head and looks at me expectantly.

Medina, descendant of dinosaurs.
Medina, descendant of dinosaurs. (Photo courtesy of Abbie Rogers.)

“It’s your poop, Medina! It is not food! Now scoot back!” Slowly she’s catching on that I don’t always have food running out of my fingertips. I am not as prolific in my core competency as she is in hers.

About a month after Lorraine departed my abode, in came Medina. They are about as different as two hens can be. Lorraine was a svelte racy supermodel. Medina is her ungainly, plodding, food-obsessed second-cousin. It’s like Cinderella left, and I got one of the step-sisters.

Whereas Lorraine came from lean-and-mean fighting stock, quick, fierce, and indurate, Medina comes from “broiler” blood, bred to grow quickly and poorly proportioned, fueling the factory-farm profit machine. At approximately 12 weeks of age, she’s doubled her anticipated lifespan.

But Medina is an even more special case. She was rescued on the streets of Brooklyn, where she was one of thousands of chickens brought in for the Kapparot ritual, on a semi trailer loaded with crates, each crate too shallow to allow a chicken to stand. Each crate contained ten to twelve chickens, none of them fed or watered or cared for during the entire festival. Sickly and weak, they were destined to atone for humans’ sins through their participation in ritual and slaughter. They hadn’t volunteered for this, of course.

A combined group from Catskill and Woodstock farm animal sanctuaries convened in the Crown Heights neighborhood to do what we could. Abbie and I were there, and we drove back to Saugerties with 10 chickens in my Subaru. Over 90 others were making their way north in the horse trailer brought by the Woodstock crew.

The 20 that landed at CAS are thriving. Seeing green grass, running in an open yard, having room to breathe—these are among the simple things that they had never experienced until they arrived at the sanctuary.

They are an exuberant bunch, bordering on rowdy, as their gusto for life tries to keep pace with their rapidly-growing but imbalanced bodies. Somewhere in the mix, Medina broke her left wing. Its inability to heal properly led to an amputation, and that landed her in my kitchen, the preferred pad for convalescing chickens.

As I wrote to a friend:

“I have a new chicken in the kitchen! She was one of the chickens that we rescued in Brooklyn. She injured her wing in such a way that it had to be amputated. (Yow!) She’s up here convalescing for a few days, but certainly won’t be taking up permanent residency. Whereas Loraine was elegant and personable, this hen is a giant, plodding, genetically-modified eating machine. Holy cow, she is obsessed with eating! Having the ability to focus on one thing and one thing only is usually a good trait. Kind of Zen. She’s anything but Zen. She is a maniac! I opened the fridge this morning and she rushed right in, pecking crazily at the jars of grain I had stored in there. I don’t mean she went up to the fridge, I mean she really got up into it, barreling her way onto a shelf. It was pretty comical.

“She keeps looking for a place to perch, and for some reason she’s mesmerized by the big stainless steel sink. I keep telling her ‘no,’ and stepping between her and it. But this evening, I didn’t get over there in time, and she went for it. The only problem is that she can’t really fly with one wing and one stump. I heard an energetic flutter of feathers followed by an energy-absorbing thud on the floor. Poor bird!”

Without exaggeration, that’s how the first day went. Since then, she’s become more at ease, adapting well to the new space. She’s not as talkative as Lorraine, but shares the same keen interest in whatever I might be doing. She’s extremely fast on those big feet, and the moment I reach for something or approach her water dish, she’s across the room like lightning. When it’s feeding time, I have to work really fast—I might lose a finger in all her frenzy.

Just as she has adapted, so have I. After the initial bombast of her introduction to the kitchen, I noticed her agility and discernment. I’ve noted that she really is kind of Zen, and she even sits still for periods of time. What I first considered to be her ungainliness was just her learning to cope with such a full figure. She didn’t ask to be born so well endowed, but she manages it with as much grace as is possible.

I continue to learn from her, finding little lessons hiding in her feathers each time I pick her up. Her attentiveness, her ability to shake off her injury, and her quick but mesmerizing eyes are signs of an intelligent mind.

Having brought her to the sanctuary, there is a uniquely satisfying depth to bringing her into my home to heal. It’s like reaffirming to her that I’m glad she’s safe and alive.

However, it will soon be time to send her back down to the farm, where she can mingle with her fellow Brooklynites. I’ll visit her there to see how she’s progressing, of course. But first, I will thoroughly mop my kitchen.

My Neighbor, The Stapler

My neighbor, The Stapler, is one of my favorite people here in New York.

She’s as unassuming and uncontrived as one can be. Her considerable intelligence is apparent to those who wish to engage in conversation, but it’s not flaunted needlessly. Her compassion is deep, her connection to animals is unfathomable.

I’ve seen her laugh till she cried. She’s had me laughing just as hard. We have given each other the gift of being ourselves, devoid of agenda and politics and motives. We have a way of simply ‘being’ when we happen to be in the same room.

Thanks to her, I had the unique experience of giving homeopathic remedies to a chicken using chopsticks. I held that same chicken while The Stapler fed her with a tube. Not the most pleasant experience for the poor hen, but it kept her alive.

I helped The Stapler bring in a lamb that had been injured, so that it could spend a warm night indoors. The lamb and we shared a salad from my garden, a communion to which I will return over and over again, drawing out its fuller meaning as I am able to comprehend it.

She and I made a trip to Brooklyn this past autumn, and shared the horrific experience known as kapparot, both of us feeling the juggernaut of cultural momentum behind institutionalized abuse and slaughter. It is accurate to say that this experience has enriched my life also, as it has helped me understand the scope of what we are trying to do—and will serve as a reminder to set reasonable expectations for progress.

These and other experiences–from taking in a convalescing doe and her bunnies to trying to save a possum that we had tragically struck in the road—have expanded my life. That Stapler has been integral in each of them.

I came to this sanctuary to peacefully do my work. I was happy to put my energy into something as compassionate as teaching people how to eat without the use of factory-farmed animal products. I knew I would learn a lot of things just by being here, and that has proven to be true.

The things I’ve learned from The Stapler come in such gentle ways. They are subtly offered, innocuously hidden in phone calls: “Hey, Kevin, can you help me take Jimmy to the vet?”

The answer to that was “yes,” as will be my response to all similar questions. When I open myself to the opportunities she presents, I open myself to learning from her depth.

Look for these and other exciting staplers at your local retail outlet.

Lorraine

Lorraine came to live with me 2 weeks ago, having been brought here by a mutual friend. She’d injured herself trying to start a fight, as she had done several times before, and it seemed like she just needed a safe place to convalesce. So I let her move in. Perhaps hanging out in a warm kitchen, with good food and mellow company would help her mend not only her bruises but also her fighting ways.

She’s been great company right from the start. We cohabitate well, and not once has she tried anything with me. I don’t expect her to: she doesn’t have issues with men. Her issues are all female-based. I know better than to get in to the middle of all that. She knows where the problem is. She doesn’t need me getting on her case about it.

Sure, I have encouraged her to be nice, but that’s all. I don’t make a big deal of it. She came here to heal, so my words to her are of that nature. The bellicosity in her blood needs serious therapy, not well-intentioned rambling from me.

We have greeted each other first thing every morning, politely, warmly, even affectionately. We have signed off each night the same way, as I pass her bed on the way to mine. I make sure she is comfortable, and that all her needs have been met, and then say goodnight. Half asleep already, she’ll mumble the same to me.

Between “good morning” and “good night” there is a lot of activity. As I work in the kitchen, she’ll be right there watching me, wanting to help, but not sure what to do. She follows me if I leave the room, and stays near the work island if she knows I am coming back. Her curiosity has taken her all around my work and life. Needless to say, we have bonded in just a matter of days.

We have talked a lot. She can chatter non-stop at times, getting things off her chest, needing me only to listen. I have chimed in with a word or two when she’s been open for it, but mostly I’ll just nod or gave quiet assent.

Trouble came a few days after she moved in. For some reason we still don’t understand, her right leg stopped functioning. I first noticed it when she was sitting awkwardly. She tried to cover it up, but there was no way she could control that leg, and it just splayed out so very un-lady-like. It looked a bit comical, but this wasn’t something one should laugh about. It was obvious there was a problem.

Our mutual friend Abbie, being more familiar with medical matters than I, took her to the doctor a time or two for tests and observation. At this point, we still don’t have an answer.

And as we’ve waited, her condition has worsened.

She was able to limp around with some agility the first few days. Her curiosity was still high, and she expressed the same interest in my work. But there was a sudden deterioration a few days later, and then another.

On a day or two, I’ve taken her to the garden with me while I worked there. How she has enjoyed that! Even with the pain of her debilitation, she would play and dig with gusto in the beds. As I watched her the first time, I saw what an extraordinary being she really is. Beneath all that domestication, underneath all that careful and targeted breeding which produced her line of fighting chickens, down in her heart and soul she longs to be back in the jungles of India. She scratched and flitted her way through one bed, then the next, then another, catching worms and bugs and nibbling on tomato leaves. With temporarily renewed vigor, she became a flaming streak of burnt orange, shooting across the path, through the drainage ditch, and over to the defunct potato tower. More crickets and mealworms!

Lorraine in Greenhouse
Lorraine in Greenhouse

She rested for a while there, then wandered back over to where I was working. The fresh air and natural foods gave her the ability to be her social self again, and we chatted as I finished clearing the beds. She napped again in some tall grass, then I tucked her under my arm for the walk back up to the house.

Today, I noticed another bothersome development: her left leg is now showing signs of dysfunction, and her overall strength is failing. Her chipper voice has given way to what can best be described as resigned sighs. I fear she might be gone soon. But I am happy, extremely happy, that we’ve had time together. She had a warm place to rest and heal, and as the weather turns colder I realize just how deep a blessing this must be for her.

Not to mention a blessing for me, too. I stated earlier that we bonded, and I wasn’t just saying that. We’ve truly enjoyed being around each other. She followed me around the house because she really wanted to be where I was. She really knew when I was leaving the room for a while—in which case she’d follow me—or if I were leaving for only a moment—in which case she’d wait for my return. She didn’t just casually watch me as I worked. She was attentive.

I learned her vocabulary pretty quickly, those unique sounds for “I’m hungry,” and “I need to get out of the pen now,” and “Can you put me back into the pen?” Lots of “Hey, watcha doin’?” and funny sounds that would equate to the human “Yikes!” And she has various ways of chirping her delight.

She has always said “hello” every time I’ve passed by, and I have done the same. And now, sadly, “hello” is more frequently replaced by “Can you help me?” The last few days, her requests have become more frequent, and convey such thoughts as, “Please move me. I’ve relieved myself but can’t get away from it.”

Her balance is gone now, and she flounders just moving across her pen to get a drink. I know she is saddened by her loss of elegance. Truly, she has been such a gorgeous and elegant bird. She still preens, trying to keep herself together the best that she can. She’s going with dignity and the closeness of concerned friends.

The last couple of evenings, I’ve made it a point to have dinner right next to her. I’ve talked to her and told her how beautiful she is, and what a great spirit she has. She’s chirped back as best she can. Her “hello” as I pass by has lost its strength, but not its depth.

As I put her to bed this evening, I told her once again that it’s been such a pleasure getting to know her. I thanked her for her trust in me. She replied in kind.

Lorraine is asleep now, and I will be soon.

I’ll listen for her soft “hello” in the morning, but I must be willing to accept silence.

Sustainable Sustenance

From CAS, 071510

This past weekend, the Sanctuary was New York’s most exclusive dining venue. White tablecloths were spread on large circular tables. A musical duo wove jazz through the tent’s supporting poles as wine glasses and cutlery were arranged. I setup a field kitchen in the next tent, and invited a solid volunteer corps to help.

As you probably know by now, I love to cook for people. One hundred diners equals one hundred times the love. So when I rang the dinner bells at 6:30, it was a sweet moment.

There was something even sweeter, however, about this meal. In two of the four courses, we were serving food that was grown right here in our own gardens. I don’t think I have to tell you how deeply satisfying that was.

The mixed lettuces that comprised the salad came from the first bed we planted this spring. I was amazed at the harvest, and how it was sufficient for so many people. The kale on the main plate also came from our beds. Mint in the water, likewise.

When I consider the cycle of small agriculture, I experience a warm and grounding feeling. It’s like this: Plant seeds in the soil you’ve nurtured. Harvest the leaves, pods, or fruit. Keep a bucket in the kitchen, wherein you place the trimmed ends or peeling. Take those trimmings out to the garden and start a compost pile. Mix that compost in to the soil. Plant seeds in the soil you’ve just nurtured.

At the dinner, of course there were a few plates with a dab of kale or a few sprouts left on them when they came back to the kitchen. No problem. I simply scraped those few scraps back into my compost bucket. Suddenly, every diner was participating in nourishing my soil. I can use that soil to nourish the diners at the next event.

I love this cycle. It’s an efficient, economical, ecological, sustainable, somewhat Taoist portrait of energy reversion. Nothing is wasted. The energy simply goes through multiple transformations, doing its magic at every stop. If you look at the cycle I described above, you’ll notice there’s really no beginning. You can join the movement at any point.

This peaceful sustainability is one of the most gratifying side benefits of a plant-based diet. There are no ugly waste products to hide or to disguise as clothing or furniture.

It can easily be reduced to a mantra: With every meal, return something to the soil. There is no need for loss. Where there is no loss, there is only life.