Arkansas Times Recommends is a series in which Times staff members (or whoever happens to be around at the time) highlight things we’ve been enjoying this week.
Charles Papazian, in “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing,” mentions having come across a beer recipe for “Spanish cock ale.” What differentiates it from other beer recipes, as you might imagine, is the part that involves brewing up the rooster: “Parboil the cock, feel him, and stamp him in a stone mortar till his bones are broken (you must craw and guy him when you flea him), then put the cock into 2 quarts of sack, and put to it 3 pounds of raisins of the sun stoned, some blades of mace, a few cloves; put all these into a canvas bag, and a little before you find the ale has done working, put the ale and bag together into a vessel; in a week or 9 days bottle it up, fill the bottles but just above the neck, and give it the same time to ripen as other ale.”
Papazian himself mentions never having tried brewing this beer, and so when my friend Jeremy and I heard (more than a decade ago) that this master home brewer would be coming to central Arkansas and holding a home brewing contest at Fermentables, we knew we had to brew this up for him. My wife insisted that her newlywed status granted her complete freedom from fermenting chicken in the kitchen, and thus we had to brew it over at Jeremy’s place.
He had, unfortunately, just started the process of getting a divorce and was living in something of a slum apartment with a tiny kitchen and only a handful of the material possessions he had over at his old place, as we found out when it was time to “stamp” the chicken and break all of its bones. Instead of a hammer, we had to make use of a rusted pipe wrench. However, as disgusting as the brewing process was, the beer was rather nice, like a robust Christmas ale, and we won first place in the contest. Today, that signed copy of Papazian’s book is one of my prized possessions.
Of course, some years later, we decided that we had to brew this up again. “Oh, let’s do it in October!” I said to Jeremy. “That way, we can call it ‘Cocktoberfest’.” I was so proud of my pun that I got on the Google to see if the name Cocktoberfest had occurred to anyone else. Thinking strictly in terms of beer labels, I did a Google images search first. As you smarter people might well imagine, the term “Cocktoberfest” was already in widespread currency, but nothing that pertained to beer.
And that’s how I learned how to erase my browser history.
For a couple of years in grad school, I kept chickens in my backyard in a refurbished rabbit hutch. In terrifying disparity with the happy-hippy organic urban farming visions I set out with, the entire experiment was a bloody drama from which I have still not recovered.
The first couple of flocks, brutally murdered by a poultry-hungry cattle dog with no more regard for a fence than Jesus for a stone tomb, dampened but did not extinguish my ideal, and I came to love my third-time’s-a-charm flock, Patsy, Loretta, and Tammy, like my own chicken triplets. But our serenity was short-lived, for Patsy took ill, and despite my efforts and immoderate expenditures on chicken antibiotics, cold medicine, and various other remedies, soon departed our flock for a heavenly one. My heart frozen at this point, I did not name her replacement, and then, the final humiliation: a possum started sneaking into the coop. Alerted by nervous clucks and rustlings, I would brandish the fencepost that leaned against my house, poking around through the coop door until the dog could get at the possum and paralyze it, then use a shovel to toss it over the fence. Understandably, the hens refused to reenter the coop of their own accord after that and became a kind of chicken street gang, sleeping in the trees and fending for themselves when they eluded me.
Eventually I rounded them up and returned them to the farm from whence they came, where they are no doubt happier, as am I, my chicken-burying and possum-shoveling days behind me.
In a move that would likely horrify even the most maverick of masons, I loaded several bags of the chalky powder into the trunk of my tiny car, briefly considered making use of what I knew was a wealth of useful advice awaiting me on the other side of a quick Google search, decided to forego that altogether, and started dumping the stuff into an old wheelbarrow.
Are there things I’d have done differently? Sure! For one thing, I’m pretty sure they make a tool that will mix mortar in a fashion much more ergonomically sound than my method; basically, pushing it around with a small shovel until it came together like pizza dough. For another, I believe there are “proper” and “correct” ratios of water-to-Quikrete which, if I’d bothered to look up, might disabuse me of my suspicion that the whole thing will crumble next spring or so.
All that said, though, I ended up with a low rock wall, which I suppose was the goal, and even found the Quikrete to be quite suitable for “decorating” with some unusual bottlecaps and bits of colored glass which had been sitting on a shelf collecting dust.
A bonus, from the winter that followed: if you accidentally leave a couple of 60 lb. bags of mortar mix out in the yard uncovered and then a three-day ice storm rolls in, you may return to them when the snow and ice thaw, finding that the prolonged moisture has turned them into perfectly rectangular stepping stones.
Here’s a step-by-step album [link added in an updated version of this post] of photos in which a dude with very basic tools builds a classic teardrop-style camper out of 1/4 inch plywood, 2″ inch rigid foam insulation, and sealed duck canvas. Don’t laugh about the canvas. Most of the airplanes made prior to World War II were covered in doped canvas. The result here is sturdy, quirky, cool and fairly cheap.
If you started with a small flatbed trailer purchased off Craigslist (instead of starting from scratch the way he did), and kept the inside very minimalist (his has amenities like a chemical toilet, sink, a raised platform bed, fold-down table and cabinetry), I bet you could get the cost of this way, way down. A weekend project it ain’t, but a basic version of this is very, very doable for an experienced maker, and much preferable to sleeping in a tent.
If you should ever happen to find yourself in Durham, NC, stop by the Scrap Exchange. Somewhere between a thrift store and and a junkyard and a Habitat ReStore and a communal art space, it’s a catalog of all the bits of sundry refuse that human civilization can generate, meticulously sorted into its component parts: Barrels and buckets filled with old cassette tapes, dowel rods, binder clips, knee pads, pipe fittings, medical equipment, spatulas, Christmas ornaments, keyrings, lumber, paper dolls, Rolodexes, googly eyes, baronies of strange and scratchy fabrics stretching from wall to wall. It’s a place like nothing I’ve seen before or since, a stopover occupying the otherwise ignored commercial real estate between the Goodwill and the dump.
It’s a beautiful place, but also a dangerous one. Going after a DIY project without any sense of how to accomplish it can open up a deadly time sinkhole, utterly destroying an afternoon or a weekend, and the Scrap Exchange is uniquely situated to deal ruin to those with such a mindset. Walk inside and an infinity of paralyzing, open-ended potentialities unfold in front of you; you’ll end up leaving seven hours later with a trunkload of cotton balls and PVC scrap, aimless and dazed and self-loathing. (There should be a sort of serenity prayer for DIYing: Grant me the courage to build the things I can manage to do myself, the serenity and disposable income to purchase the things I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference. And the time management skills to not waste a whole goddamn afternoon poking at things I don’t understand.)