Friday, November 11, 2011

What the #&%$ is "suet" ??

 Carol and Bill Donovan, my grandparents!

First off, Gramma would hate the title of this post. She was a big believer in clean language. :)

When I was little, the biggest treat was to go to Gramma and Grampa's for the night.  I'm not joking -- to this day, I don't think I've ever felt the intense joy and anticipation (with the exception of waking up on my wedding day) that I felt knowing that Gramma would be picking me up in her old sky-blue VW bug. I had the most wonderful set of grandparents a girl could hope to have. I miss them every day.

Their house was a marvel. It wasn't a super-fancy house. It wasn't big. Just a two bedroom, one bathroom home that they had raised three boys in. The two bedrooms were on the second floor, which had no other rooms, aside from a walk-in attic that housed interesting hat boxes and several cozy robes that Gramma would save for all her grandkids' visits. (Maybe this is where my obsession with cozy nighttime-wear began?) The front hallway, Gramma's office, the diningroom, the kitchen, Grampa's office, and the bathroom were all arranged rectangularly around the two stairwells that went upstairs to the bedrooms, and downstairs to the cellar. This setup of rooms provided us grandkids a sort of O-shaped racetrack, which we would run around and around, particularly during big family gatherings, always knocking into the adults who were doing boring things like talking.

Every inch of that house held some fascinating object. Photos galore. (Gramma documented our history well!) Statuettes from all her sons' travels across the globe. Upon the shelves you'd find countless little frog and owl figurines nestled upon interesting rocks she had found during her walks -- not in a "Precious Moments" obnoxious kind of way, but like they belonged there in their little home. Gramma would pick them up and admire them, often cooing to them how wonderful they were. The seat of the old, out-of-tune but well-used upright piano housed sheet music from their glory years and an assortment of maracas. As the family business was an office supply and checks store, Gramma always had a well-stocked drawer full of markers, pencils, and other art supplies, all kept in recycled coffee cans which still wafted that telltale scent every time you opened the drawer. On the front of her cupboards, she neatly taped favorite pictures of animals she'd find on calendars or in magazines. As well, she had on one cupboard the old Yankee adage, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without," which they lived by. They walked the talk.

I could write a book about that house. I dream of one day buying it back. In fact, about three years ago, I drove by there in the early morning and decided to ask the owners (who were very kind) if I could have a look in the backyard for old times' sake. The yard had barely changed. Same brick path that Gramma had energetically laid herself leading to the back woods, where we would walk early each morning. So what did I do? I admired all the tall evergreens that surrounded what used to be their old fishpond, looked towards the back screened-in porch, and started to cry. Hadn't seen that coming. But it felt like nothing had changed and that any moment, I'd see Grampa saunter onto the porch with his newspaper in hand and would hear Gramma calling me to join them for a grilled cheese sandwich and homemade cowboy cookies. They felt so close at that moment that it tore me in two.  But as hard as it was, it was so sweet to stand there again and feel like I could reach out and hug them. (They were both phenomenal huggers. You felt flooded with love when they hugged you.)

It was from this unusual couple that I developed a love of birds. ("Aha!" you're thinking, "she's finally getting to the point!")  They had the most intricate bird-feeding system. Bird feeders everywhere, strung on heavy wire, with contraptions to discourage the clever squirrels from dominating the scene. I was lucky enough the inherit one of their dome feeders, which is pictured  below!

As well, they had suet cages. Suet is actually raw fat from butchered animals. If I remember correctly, Gramma used to get it for free from the butcher. A few years ago, I tried that route, but the butchers looked at me blankly and said, "What the #&%$ is suet?" and still looked puzzled after I explained it to them. So I ended up finding suet cakes at a local store at a greater cost than "free."  But suet is a favorite among many birds, particularly woodpeckers, blue jays, and nuthatches. In the winter, they can't get enough of the stuff, as the calories help them survive the cold winters here. Check this link for some suet cages from my favorite local birdfeeding store, Wild Birds Unlimited.

A typical suet cake you can buy

So what's a newly vegan birdwatcher to do?

I adore seeing birds come to the birdfeeding station just outside our kitchen window. I especially love the downy woodpeckers, and have missed seeing them since I stopped using suet. Knowing, though, that the meat industry would benefit from my dollars if I bought a typical cake of suet, I decided to find another way. It was one of those tasks I kept putting off and finally, last weekend, I found a solution. After doing a search online and making some adjustments, I ended up with some animal-friendly suet!

Here are the ingredients you'll need if you want to try it yourself!

1 Cup vegetable shortening
I Cup chunky peanut butter
3 Cups stoneground cornmeal
1/2 Cup white or wheat flour

kitchen scraps (animal-free would be kinder!)
dried fruit
Unsalted nuts, chopped

1) Put the shortening and peanut butter in a saucepan. Mix and cook over medium heat until melted.

2) Add other ingredients and mix (have a sturdy wooden spoon for this part...I used a plastic spatula and broke the handle! It's not that it was overly difficult to stir, but the plastic just didn't hold up.)

3) Once it's all mixed and uniform, let it cool for about five to ten minutes. 

4) Place in "Molds" and put into the freezer. (I just looked into my recycling bin and used what I found there for molds. A couple of plastic take-out trays worked great, but you could also use shallow cereal bowls.)

5) They'll be ready in a jiffy. I think mine was ready in only 1/2 hour. Pop one into your suet cage and keep your eyes open! If you've never fed birds before it could be a week or two before you see any activity. After that, you should have a steady stream of visitors!

Here is what your newly-filled suet cage should look like ... (I had to break the cake up a bit to make it fit.)

This is the view of one of our birdfeeding stations from our kitchen window.

My Dad made us an amazing birdfeeder which we have in another section of our yard. Sadly, the glass broke a second time -- my bad, not my Dad's -- so we need to find some good plexiglass and set it right. (So sorry, Dad, if you're reading this! I love our birdfeeder!)

Speaking of Dad building things, he also made us a roosting box last Christmas. A roosting box gives temporary shelter and warmth to birds in winter during nights of severe cold, when they can otherwise succumb to the cold and die. The hole is at the bottom, not at the top where you typically see it for birdhouses. This allows the heat from the birds' bodies to rise to the top where it can't escape. There are little perches inside for the birds to sit on and even mesh inside for the woodpeckers to cling on.

Interestingly, we had a pair of starlings take it over early this spring. They didn't seem to care that it wasn't meant to be a birdhouse.We were nervous at first, because we figured any babies would fall right out of the hole in at the bottom.  The starlings, however,  seemed unconcerned and spent several weeks industriously building their nest, occasionally coming out to yell at any other birds who got too close. Soon there were barely audible cheeps emerging from the hole, and two harried parents, flying in and out of the house at breakneck speed. Over the course of two weeks, the cheeps got louder and lower, to the point where it sounded slightly frightening. The parents must have surely been suffering from postpartum depression, 'cause those babies were demanding!

Soon we noticed curious feathered heads peeking out of the hole. And one lovely day, I actually witnessed the parents slowly woo the babies -- which were startlingly full-grown -- out onto the perch. I managed to be there at the very moment when the last baby took his first flight from the house. After that none of them ever came back to live in their little green house. It was an amazing thing to watch!
Roosting box built by my dear Dad! (See the nest sticking out the bottom?)

Last year, we invested $45 in a heated birdbath, which is essential to helping your new feathered neighbors survive the winter. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it last winter, but they actually bathe in the bath, even on the most frigid of days! Keeping their feathers clean allows for better insulation. Plus, drinking water is hard to come by in the winter.

And since we are perusing the yard, here is what our garden looks like now. I'm still harvesting dinosaur kale (in the back) and collard greens (which have become a bit insect-eaten, but are still great in smoothies!)

Most of the other crops have been pulled up and put into the compost, which is quite full now! Once it decomposes, it will go back into the garden...

Gramma and Grampa never got to see our home and birdfeeders, but I always feel them with me when I sit with a cup of tea or mulled cider and watch the wide variety of birds enjoy the feast. There is something timeless and very comforting about feeding birds, and I am very thankful that my grandparents shared that passion with all of us! And I'm glad I can continue to do it in a way that is kind to all animals. :)

In fact, at the school where I teach, I worked with the other third grade teachers to create a birdwatching project in the garden area outside of our classrooms! We got a grant a few years ago for binoculars, birdbooks, and some birdfeeders (to supplement the empty dilapidated feeders we found in the garden). The students' parents donate birdseed and the third grade classrooms take turns filling the feeders. The majority of our students have never had this kind of experience before, and they go wild with excitement at seeing the array of birds coming to visit! By the end of the year, kids can correctly identify an impressive amount of birds, including red-tailed hawks! I always get such a thrill from watching them fall in love with the birds and feel a little of my grandparents' world seeping into theirs.

Gramma and Grampa -- I hope in some weird way you are able to read this. I miss you and am indebted to you for all the wonderful memories you gifted me with!

Your Trina-Banina-Banana-Banoona

PS. Here is a great article in The Boston Globe about my grandparents and some of the amazing things they did. :)


  1. That is such a sweet story about your grandparents. I enjoyed hearing about their treasure trove of a home and how you were able to feel their presence there years later, even after there were new owners. It sounds like they really made an important impact in your life. It's lovely that feeding birds is a way to keep their memory and relationship with you alive.

  2. Thank you, Cadry, for your sweet comment! Yep - Gramma and Grampa were very special. I just ran across an article about them in the Boston Globe that I just added to the post above. :)

  3. What a neat article about them! I can see where you get your storytelling talents. Do you have any audio recordings of your grandma telling the stories she wrote?

  4. Interestingly, I've contact the radio station over the past 5 years, asking if they have any archives. I kind of doubt they do, but I have to ask. :) 'Cause if they did, how cool would THAT be? Sadly, they've never responded to me. (YET!) :)

  5. That would be amazing and so special if they had any archives! I hope they respond to you eventually.

  6. I loved reading this post; what a great story about your grandparents. Your birdfeeders and the homemade suet are wonderful tributes to your them. The cats and I love watching the birds in our yard, too, and I'm definitely going to try the suet.

  7. What a lovely story! It's so wonderful that you have those special memories and thoughts of your grandparents to keep you company as you watch the birds :)

  8. I hope so, Cadry! I just wrote to "History Detectives" to see if they can help at all. :) Thank you Renae and Bobbie!