The Elusive Egg-Bug

Brief funny story: Yesterday I was working on the chicken coop, moving the curtains inside the doorway and adding a hinged door to the outside. One of my Golden Comets came over and flew up beside me to the door level, hovering there (as best a chicken can hover) and scratching at the wood like she wanted to get into the coop. I told her to just be patient, that I’d be done in a few minutes and then she could go inside and lay her egg. By that time, she was back on the ground (chickens can’t hover for very long, it turns out), and she walked away. I went back to working on the door. About two minutes later, I heard all of the chickens start clucking and carrying on like crazy right behind me. I turned around and saw 16 chickens chasing a rolling egg. Apparently that Comet tried to keep her legs crossed but just couldn’t hold it in. She laid the egg at the highest point in the run, so as soon as it hit the ground, away it went. The rest of the chickens obviously thought it was the biggest bug they’d ever seen. I ran in and grabbed it (egg-eating is not a good behavior for chickens to learn), and from that point until I finished installing the door, I let anyone into the coop who seemed even remotely interested. Lesson learned, ladies. Lesson learned.

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There is Something in October Sets the Gypsy Blood Astir…

Once again, October has flown by at least twice as quickly as any other month. I realized yesterday that Halloween is only a few days away, and I haven’t even put a pumpkin on the front porch yet! Looks like we’ll go simple this year — no point in hanging fake cobwebs just to take them down next week. (OK, to be honest, last year the cobwebs stayed up until Thanksgiving. A few more weeks and I could have pretended they were snow.)

This is also the last weekend for the Downtown Market. I’m always sad to see it end, because it’s such a nice place to find local produce, plants, and meat. I bought several tiny heirloom tomato plants there at the beginning of the summer that are all now taller than I am and still bearing dozens of beautiful pink and yellow tomatoes. And the whole chickens from Native Meats are pricier than the grocery store roasters, but they actually have flavor and are so worth the difference!

We tried a new recipe last night that sounded like a strange combination but worked together so well. Turkey sausage, stewed tomatoes, brussels sprouts, and penne… Seriously yummy. It will be going on “the list.” The only bad thing about finding a new favorite like that is that it raises expectations for the next night’s meal. Any bright ideas?

I’ll be adding a new protein to my cooking repertoire in a few months. We bought two young female rabbits a few weeks ago and plan to find a buck this weekend so we can start raising our own meat rabbits. This will be a new experience for me — I’ve raised rabbits before to sell as pets, but Ben is concerned I might back out when it comes time to dress our first litter. I asked him to just be patient with me. I probably will have issues with it at first, but I know it will save us money on groceries and provide us with a safe meat source, and (along with the chickens and garden) it will help us teach The Boy that food doesn’t actually come from the grocery store.

Speaking of raising food, I really want Joel Salatin’s new book, “This Ain’t Normal, Y’all.” He’s full of the kind of common sense that used to be just that: common. Now, though, he’s more like a prophet in the wilderness that is modern food production. His article encouraging college campuses to use their land for agricultural purposes to offset food costs and reduce waste just seems like a no-brainer. We’ve gotten so out-of-touch with the land, and we’re paying the price in more ways than one. In a letter to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson remarked, “Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness.” I think he just might have known what he was talking about.

Well, I could go on (and on, and on, as you know), but there are pumpkins to be carved and a brilliant supper menu to be planned. I hope the last precious weekend of October is wonderful for everyone. Go pick some apples and crunch through some leaves. And have a Happy Halloween!

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Not So Crazy Chicken Lady

I love my chickens. Really. I can’t believe we considered not having any at our new house. They cost so little to keep, and they give us so much in return.

When I walk up to their pen, they all come running. If I don’t go in, they follow me on the other side of the fence in a big clump, “talking” to me the whole time. If I do go in, the seven Golden Comets (who were handled the most as babies) swarm around my feet, while the white leghorns and bantams (who spent about a month less in the house and never got to be as tame) hover a few feet away. They’re getting bolder, though, and occasionally one of the white ones will allow itself to be petted.

When I open the top of the nest boxes to collect the eggs, four or five hens usually come up the ramp into the henhouse to see what I’m up to and be petted. I used to think they were planning to escape while the lid of the box was open, but they’ve never made the slightest effort to do so. They just want to visit. They’re actually great pets.

And then there are the eggs themselves. I mean, I like my cats a lot, but they don’t DO anything. Granted, I haven’t actually tried to teach them to wash dishes or fold laundry, but I just don’t think they’re ever going to be big contributors around the house. My 15 hens, however, give me an average of 6 dozen eggs a week. Half brown, half white, with the occasional tiny bantam egg thrown in for fun.

I’m sure people who haven’t really been around chickens before or eaten fresh eggs probably think I’m crazy to make such a big deal about them. But keeping your own chickens is one of the most rewarding ways I know to save money while feeding your family safe, healthy food.

My mom has been talking for years about finding or building a small chicken tractor (mobile coop) for her garden. I saw a design for one recently that I’m hoping we can build for her for next year. It’s such a clever thing — a small enclosure that holds just two or three hens and sits between the rows of your garden. It keeps the chickens safe from predators and can be moved daily (or every few hours, depending on the size of it). The chickens scratch the soil and loosen it, eat insects that you might otherwise use pesticides to kill, and fertilize the garden naturally. Once again, they’re saving you money and keeping your food safer at the same time.

Most of all, I think, there’s just something very satisfying about being even a little bit self-sufficient. I will probably never own my own dairy cow or raise and butcher my own pig (although anything could happen, I guess), but I can’t foresee a future in which we will ever not own chickens.

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Latest Shocking Allegation: Pioneer Woman Lives in Studio Apartment in Queens

OK, as far as I know, I made that headline up. But I didn’t know until a few weeks ago that there was such controversy about the Pioneer Woman. After reading some of the comments from people who really, really don’t like Ree, I thought about the situation (more than I intended to, actually, as you’ll probably see from the length of this post). Most of her critics state openly that they used to be fans, but now they feel like she’s sold out and feeds her followers a bunch of lies.

I don’t read Ree’s blog much anymore — I might drop by once a month or so, but I don’t try to catch up on what I’ve missed. A few years ago, I visited every day, even though the dial-up internet we had at the time made that quite a commitment. I still find her funny, I still like her photos, and I still like some of the recipes she shares. But should I feel “duped” because her blog makes her look like Pioneer Wonder Woman?

I don’t really think so. I’m not bothered by the fact that Ree grew up with money and married a man whose well-established family business gives her a comfortable life with advantages that many of her fans don’t have. Would any of us have ever read her blog if she’d been sitting in a trailer park writing about new ways to cook possum? I doubt it. She became popular because she was funny and she wrote about a life that the Laura Ingalls Wilder in each of us found appealing. And reading her blog felt like reading a letter from a friend.

I heard about Ree’s site from my sister, who’d heard about it from a friend of hers. That was back in the days when only a few dozen people ever commented on any of her posts. I felt a little jealous when more people started discovering her, like she was my friend and now I had to share her. But that’s how word-of-mouth works. Ree became popular because her original fans told their friends, who told their friends, who told theirs, and suddenly she was on the Today Show and in Southern Living and writing books and going on tour.

That’s what makes all the criticism from former fans a little strange to me — they helped make her successful and popular online, which in turn attracted the book deals and guest spots and Food Network offer. I can’t help thinking that if the same opportunities had come to any one of those people who criticize her now, they would have jumped at them. And their lives would have changed, too.

So is it wrong for her to maintain the same persona on her blog that originally attracted fans? I don’t really think so. So what if she doesn’t do all her own laundry anymore? So what if she can afford someone to tutor her kids? Would the people who call her a fraud still be fans if she blogged about meetings with publicists and contract negotiations? I doubt it. They don’t really want honesty — they just want her to be the same as she was when they discovered her. But they and all the fans like them are the reason why she’s NOT that person anymore. Unfortunately, she’s a “brand” now (I hate that word so much!). And that brand is built on her 2007 identity as a writer, photographer, homeschooler, cook, and housewife.

Should I feel cheated because she might have *gasp* planned this all along? I bet she had a vision board. “Step one: start a blog. Step two: gain legions of fans. Step three: use my popularity to attract book and TV deals and make millions.” Yep, that makes her a villain. Because I’m sure nobody else ever made a plan to market themselves.

One criticism I’ve read is that by making herself appear to accomplish everything single-handedly, Ree makes “normal” women feel insufficient. I’m sorry, but if that’s the case, those women would have problems even if they’d never heard of Ree Drummond. Healthy people don’t go around determining their self-worth by comparing themselves to others. If I get my house picked up and vacuumed, three loads of laundry done, the chickens, rabbits, and dog fed, and supper cooked for my family, I have a pretty good sense of accomplishment. It doesn’t bother me that my neighbor might have done one more load of laundry and given her dog a bath, too. And if it does bother me, that’s not my neighbor’s problem. It’s mine.

And if I were going to feel threatened by anyone, I think I’d choose Martha Stewart. Does anyone else remember that joke email that went around ten or fifteen years ago poking fun at her apparent ability to do everything and do it perfectly? I think it was written as if it were a letter from Martha to a friend, and if I recall correctly, it talked about how she’d gotten up at 4:00 a.m. to make the paper and ink for the letter by hand and then related the multitude of other “good things” she’d done from scratch that day. Whenever I see her show, it’s rare to hear her credit someone else for behind-the-scenes work. But that doesn’t make me think of her as a fraud or myself as a failure. She started small, worked hard, found success, and built quite an empire for herself. If she doesn’t fold her own fitted sheets, it’s OK. If someone else did 95% of a flower arrangement so she could stick the last three stems in on camera, so be it. Doesn’t hurt my self-image one little bit.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of Ree’s Food Network show. Her voice is pretty annoying (I’m not running her down for something she can’t help — some people just don’t have good voices for that kind of thing.), her humor’s not as quick “in person” as it is in her writing, the recipes are retreads of stuff she’s already blogged and published in her cookbook, and I kind of prefer having life on the ranch left to my imagination. Sure, Marlboro Man is a good-looking cowboy, but watching him eat vodka penne kind of kills the mystery.

Her recipes are rarely original, but I don’t remember her ever claiming that they were. It always seemed more like she was sharing family favorites. She often mentions where they came from. And yes, for the average soccer mom or businessperson, her dishes are pretty heavy. But it’s food made for men doing serious, strenuous physical labor who need that many calories. I figure most of the people who talk about how unhealthy her recipes are probably have little or no experience with that kind of work.

My great-grandfather ate a country breakfast every morning that would have given a businessman a heart attack at 45. He also worked hard on his Pennsylvania farm and lived to be 100 years and 5 days old. Reminds me of that old bumper sticker: “Eat Beef. The West Wasn’t Won on Salad.” We don’t have that kind of life (although we’d love to have a version of it, someday), but I still use Ree’s recipes occasionally. I also eat the occasional salad. Everything in moderation.

Some of the sites that mock Ree are pretty funny. (The ultimate joke, of course, would be if she was actually running one herself.) But some of the stuff those bloggers dislike about her makes me wonder why they were ever fans to begin with. They hate her frequent movie references, her use of butter, her stories about her mentally handicapped brother, and her style of writing. None of those things have really changed since the beginning.

They especially hated her post on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. They said she tried to make the day all about herself by describing where she was when it happened and what she did. Really? I mean, 80% of the posts I saw on Facebook that day were about what my friends were doing when they heard about the attacks. I didn’t think any of them were being selfish by remembering those things. They weren’t trying to ignore the victims or their families

9/11 is to my generation what JFK’s assassination was to my parents’ generation or what the attacks on Pearl Harbor were to my grandparents’generation. I suppose it is a sign of self-centeredness that people remember those events in relation to themselves, but I’ve never heard anyone criticize someone else for recalling where they were when they heard about JFK.

Ree’s critics said she was making a big deal in that post about how put upon she was for not having had any running water for four weeks. Well, first of all, I’ve lived without running water for about ten days when our power was out after an ice storm (the pump on my parents’ spring is electric, so no power equals no showers or flushing toilets), and it’s not easy. But her whole point was that the events of that day made her realize just how minor her problems really were. And didn’t all of us feel that way 10 years ago?

The critics don’t like the fact that their negative comments disappear from Ree’s site. Well, it’s her property. If someone came onto our land and put up signs calling us nasty names, I would be within my rights to take them down. My property, my rules.

I guess it comes down to the fact that with some people, Ree can’t win. And the irony is that those people are part of what made all the success of the past few years happen for her. But I can sympathize. I don’t think it’s a simple case of jealousy like her supporters claim. I think many of her critics feel betrayed because, like me, they felt like they knew her first. I understand the wishful thinking that she could be the same person she was in 2007. What I don’t understand is the name-calling (“Pioneer Whore”? Really?) and vitriol that they seem to relish. And the woman who wrote about watching her and her kids in the grocery store — well, that just creeped me out.

To me, the Pioneer Woman has always been to ranch life what “glamping” is to camping — all the satisfaction of getting back to nature without any of the shivering in a sleeping bag on the hard ground or using poison ivy for toilet paper. She might not have dirt under her fingernails most of the time, but she still has a pretty cool life that I enjoy reading about sometimes. Even if she doesn’t do her own laundry.

Posted in The Everyday, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Finally Fall

I thought this summer would never end! I didn’t blog at all because, honestly, I was following that old rule “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Worst. Summer. Ever. Anything that could go wrong (and a few things that couldn’t) did. Big things. Small things. Totally random things.

But hey, it’s over. It’s fall. Even better, it’s October. The best 31 days of the year, as far as I’m concerned.

I know for most people, springtime represents renewal and new beginnings. For me, it’s fall. By the end of summer, I’m feeling old (much older than 30!), cranky, and perpetually tired. But that first crisp, chilly morning hits (the one where I have to go dig out a pair of socks after 5 months of bare feet), and I’m a new person.

Sweaters. Crunchy leaves. Boots. Fresh cider (in all its forms). The sound of crows. S’mores. Trips to the orchard. Homemade soup. Candles. Heirloom pumpkins. And also Reese’s Pumpkins. So many of my favorite things are unique to the colder months of the year.

(On a side note, my sister and I were just talking a few days ago about the pull we feel towards New England, especially this time of year. We love the South, but we’re both first-generation Southern girls. Our father’s family came to Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island in the early 1600s and stayed there. Dad grew up in Springfield, MA, and we made family trips all over New England throughout our childhood. The place is literally in our blood, and every fall, I swear it starts calling to us. One of these years, we’re going to answer. In the meantime, we’ll keep feeding our obsession through Pinterest.)

We’ve made two trips to Skytop Orchard already this fall. Both times, The Boy has visited the animals, munched on fresh apples, and worn himself out running. And both times, as usual, I’ve come away wishing we could park a little cabin on top of the highest hill in the orchard and live, surrounded by mountains and apple trees.

Posted in Family, Food, Home, Memories | 1 Comment

Spring Chickens

I got my first chickens about twenty years ago (oh, how I hate that I’m old enough to reference anything that happened twenty years ago!), two Warren Red hens named Lucy and Ethel. We enjoyed their fresh eggs so much that my parents decided to let me get a few more hens, and suddenly, I found myself with 45 black sexlinks, Warren Reds, and Rhode Island Reds, the proud proprietor of a small venture named Omega Ranch Farm Fresh Eggs.

I sold eggs through junior high for $1.00 per dozen (laughable, when I now see fresh eggs at the Farmer’s Market for $4.00 or more!), mostly supplying my mom’s friends as well as the Foods teacher at the high school I wasn’t quite attending yet. If you’ve never seen a fresh egg cracked into a bowl alongside one from the grocery store, it’s probably hard to imagine why people make such a big deal about them, but the contrast is amazing, and it doesn’t stop at looks. Even in baking, fresh eggs make a noticeable difference.

Which is why my husband and I kept very happy hens for several years at our old house.

And why we’ve been busy moving, reconstructing, and expanding the chicken coop we built a few months before The Boy was born.

And why this spring, I brought home seven little reddish-gold chicks.

Cute little critters, aren’t they? They’re Golden Comets, which means they’re sex-linked, which means that you don’t have to wait six weeks or more wondering if any (or all!) of them are going to start crowing. Golden Comet chicks are red if they’re females and white if they’re males. Nice and simple.

When my Comets were almost four weeks old, I started hearing about “clearance chicks” at Tractor Supply. I’m one of those people who can’t pass up a bargain, even when it’s on something I don’t need, and somehow I came home with four “assorted bantams” (straight run, meaning they could be males or females) and six “assorted pullets” (meaning they’re all (supposed to be) female). Only problem is, at four weeks of age, several of those “pullets” seem to be developing combs more quickly, often an early telltale sign of a rooster. Back to the waiting game, I guess.

I raise my chicks the way my mom taught me — I keep them warm, dry, and safe from predators. It’s not the scientific approach I see a lot of people using, but in twenty years, I’ve never lost a chick. Makes me think there’s something to be said for the simple, old-fashioned method.

I want The Boy to grow up loving animals as much as I did — it wasn’t unusual for me to have a bottle-raised baby goat running around the house in a diaper after being abandoned by his mama.

(Yes, that’s a cat on the other side of the screen door. Yes, he’s bigger than the goat.)

My parents were very tolerant — Mom was usually pretty quick to take in a new critter, and my dad was a big softie, who always said “Absolutely not!”, but could usually be found cuddling the animal in question within 48 hours (when he thought no one was looking, of course). Ironically, he was the one who decided to come home with 30 chicks instead of the half dozen or so we were sent to the feed store to pick up on the day my egg business got its start… For once, Mom was the one saying, “What were you thinking?”

Now that I can tell my Comets apart, I’m working on names for them. Thinking I’ll keep it mostly Shakespearean: Beatrice, Viola, Cordelia, Juliet, Titania, and Ophelia. One, though, will be Esmerelda, in memory of my favorite hen ever, a Warren Red who had a penchant for freshly painted toenails and wanted to be wherever I was at all times. Even after the rest of the flock had to be confined to a large pen (after one too many conflicts with our nearest neighbor, who didn’t appreciate our free-ranging hens aerating his flower beds for him…), Esmerelda simply let herself out of the pen every morning and went back in to lay her eggs and to roost with the others every night.

Being the only chicken out in the open made her vulnerable, of course — a hawk picked her up once and tried to fly off with her, but she wriggled her way free and fell about 75 feet, landing in a pile of tree limbs waiting to be burned. I had to cut several branches to get her loose, but she was fine. She stuck a little closer to the house after that, though. More than once I caught her riding around on our billy goat’s back, and even the horses let her eat out of their grain buckets. She was quite an ambassador for the poultry world. She lived several years, in defiance of the coyotes, foxes, stray dogs, and who knows how many hawks who would have loved to make a meal out of her. And then one day, she fell over dead right outside the front door — heart attack, I guess. She had a good life, though, and she broke any stereotype about chickens being stupid.

These little ladies have some big shoes to fill.

Yes, you.

(If you’re thinking of raising chickens yourself, do lots of research beforehand. Check out the forums at Backyard Chickens. The people there can answer any question, and there are lots of coop designs and such. There’s also Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, which is pretty comprehensive. Check into your local codes, ordinances, and neighborhood covenants, too, to make sure that the city or your neighbors can’t object. Many cities and subdivisions allow a certain number of hens, although for obvious reasons they sometimes object to the presence of a rooster. Plan ahead — there are some start-up costs associated with building or buying your coop, but the payoff is great. Umm… oh, and get you some chickens!)

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“Hey, cow!”

After several years of good intentions, I finally made a trip to Happy Cow Creamery on Wednesday. Can someone please tell me why on earth I waited so long? Or why, when I finally did go, I didn’t take my camera? No, I didn’t think so.

We went with my mom, my sister and her three kids, her best friend and her three kids, and my brother and his three kids. My Boy had the time of his life — he got to ride in a trolley pulled by the biggest tractor he’d ever seen, and at the end of the ride, there were cows! He stood right against the bars of the trolley and hollered, “Hey, cow! Hey!” to any bovine that wandered within twenty feet. Again, why was my camera sitting on the kitchen counter?

So, occasionally in the Upcountry of South Carolina, you’ll see a “Happy Cow Creamery products sold/used here” sign, usually in the window of a small, family-run business. Even though I like the idea of eating local food, I’ve never really purchased their stuff, because a) it’s a bit more expensive than grocery store dairy products and b) whole milk makes you fat, right?

I am now officially educated and fully converted to the Happy Cow lifestyle.

Unlike conventional dairy farms, where cows typically spend 100% of their lives indoors on concrete, eating dry, processed food, Farmer Tom’s 80 or so cows spend their days in the sunshine, grazing in beautiful, green pastures year-round, thanks to his carefully designed Twelve Aprils program. His decision to pursue this “new” method came about after several years of farming conventionally himself and discovering that it was nearly impossible to stay afloat financially without pumping his cows full of production-boosting hormones.

Then one April day, his cows broke out of confinement and into a nearby field. After a few hours of illicit grazing, they were rounded up and returned to the barn. But at their next milking, the cows produced almost 200 pounds more milk than usual. Farmer Tom decided this was worth looking into, and for the past twenty-some years, he’s been developing and improving a program geared towards keeping his pastures naturally lush all year so that his cows can graze in what amounts to a never-ending April. No fertilizers (except what the cows produce) and no plowing (so as not to disturb the earthworms and microorganisms that keep the soil healthy).

We learned so many things during our tour with Farmer Tom’s daughter-in-law, Ashley. For example, because the cows are outdoors in the sunshine, their milk contains natural vitamin D, which the human body can process more effectively than the synthetic form added to grocery store milk. And the homogenization process that most milk goes through (to keep the cream from rising to the top) actually breaks down the fat particles into something our bodies don’t recognize and therefore don’t process well, which is why we’ve always been taught that whole milk makes you gain weight. And (and this was the part that turned my hard-to-impress mom into a Happy Cow believer), most of the milk we buy in the grocery store comes from the Southwest and has been in the jug for 4-5 weeks before we ever see it. So we’re basically buying fake vitamin D, unnatural fat particles, and preservatives. Suddenly, the price difference between Happy Cow and store brand milk doesn’t seem so important.

After so many years of being “fed” the low-fat, fat-free diet tale, the idea of full-fat milk being healthier for me seems crazy. But apparently a lot of local health professionals who’ve taken the time to investigate the Happy Cow way are coming around to the idea and recommending their products to patients. People who’ve been told they were lactose-intolerant often find that Happy Cow milk doesn’t give them any problem. It’s even been successful at (get this) lowering cholesterol.

While we were there, my sister-in-law chatted with a girl who used to work at the dairy — she said that she had been overweight and generally unhealthy, until she started drinking Happy Cow milk and eating the local, unprocessed foods featured at the farm store. She’s probably a size 4 now, and she practically glows.

It’s almost like (and stay with me here) these foods were designed to fulfill our bodies’ needs naturally, without any fiddling and “improving” on our part. Ashley mentioned milk and honey as the two foods that, when consumed in their natural, unprocessed form, are most beneficial to us. Seems like I remember a verse in the Old Testament about a land “flowing with milk and honey…”

Ironically, I think my conservative Baptist upbringing has slowed down my embracing the natural/organic food movement. There’s a strong feeling among the circles I grew up in that caring about the environment is the realm of hippies and liberals (i.e. “them”) and is, in fact, a form of idolatry. It’s called “worshipping the creation more than the Creator.”

Actually, a good rereading of the first few chapters of Genesis should show us that Christians, of all people, should recognize our responsibility to care for the earth. We’re not just consumers; we’re stewards. And I’m realizing (and yes, it’s taken me a while to make this connection) that the more responsible we are in our use of the earth and its creatures, the better the results are for our own health.

I grew up hearing stories about my great-grandparents’ farm in Pennsylvania, where my mom spent a lot of time while growing up. Anytime a study comes out condemning some new food (eggs, red meat, carbs) as the fastest way to obesity and an early grave, Mom mentions the huge breakfast her grandfather ate every morning. It was a Weight Watcher’s nightmare. And he lived 100 years and 5 days.

It’s not an easy switch to make — processed foods are so embedded in our daily routine now that it’s hard to even recognize them all. But Ashley said something the other day that really hit me — at some point, we became willing to accept lower-quality food simply because it was cheaper. And maybe, just maybe, it’s worth spending a little more when you know you’re getting a better product for your money. Like milk that was still in the cow yesterday.

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