Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ojinaga, the painted city

We went to Ojinaga several times during the Adobe Alliance workshop. I loved it because it was so colorful:  almost every building is painted a really imaginative color, and no two are the same.  Houston is so gray and boring by comparison.

Also, most of the commercial buildings had signs painted on them by hand.  The signs were often pictures of what was for sale in the store, along with words about the business.  I realized suddenly that in the states, most ads are photographs nowadays, rather than paintings.  It's kind of a loss.  These hand-painted ads are beautiful and wonderful and varied and weird sometimes.  There must be lots of sign painters in Ojinaga.  It would be a fun job.

This foxy lady was painted on the outside of a store that sold fancy dresses for weddings and quinceaneras:

A bar called the "Lolita" had a slightly racier girl on it:

Is this Humbert Humbert's Lolita?  I wondered because I am reading Reading Lolita in Tehran.  Do they read it in Ojinaga?

 This painting of a cowboy on a horse was on the outside of a restaurant. 


This one was on a grocery store.


Because we had been learning about painting on plaster on adobe, I wondered if the tradition of decorative plaster on adobe buildings had caused this efflorescence of painting on regular cement stucco.

Adobe arch

One day some of the participants in the workshop made an adobe arch.  They made a form out of adobe bricks, arranged in a sort of post and lintel way, and they draped some black plastic over the blocks. To make the form more rounded, they packed some clay and straw on top of the  adobe blocks, under the black plastic.

Then they stacked the adobes and mortar in an arch shape over the form.  (It's also possible to use a plywood form.)  It dried for a day or two, and then we tested its strength.  It was surprisingly strong!

We decided that it was a triumphal arch for a dog. A dog could run through it after catching a rabbit, for example.  But the dogs that were there wouldn't try it out.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


On the last day that I was at the adobe workshop, we learned about plaster, a fascinating subject.  Jesusita Jimenez had told us that she considered plaster to be the most important, make-or-break aspect of an adobe house.
We made several batches of plaster to check which one would work the best on the particular wall we were working on.  It was the wall of one of the vaulted outbuildings at the Swan house.  Stevan told us that with any adobe project, it is necessary to do this trial and error testing to get the mix of clay, sand, and straw right for the particular conditions of the site, and the particular qualities of the ingredients you are working with. The objective is to get a plaster that won't crack as it dries.  The clay is the element that causes it to stick like glue to the side of the building; the sand and straw keep it from cracking.

We started out with a mix that was one part sand, one part clay or dirt, and one part chopped straw.  The sand and clay had been sifted through a 1/4" screen, and the straw had been chopped in a leaf eater machine (essentially a weed eater in a plastic funnel).  Plaster can be mixed in a mortar mixer or with your hands.

We plastered this on the wall using hands and trowels, working upwards rather than downwards, and feathering the plaster at the sides as it met the walls.

We also tried three other mixtures, with a bit more sand and straw. Test number two for example had one part clay, one part straw and one and a half parts sand.

When the coarse plaster had dried a little, we put a finer finish later over it.  That was when it really got fun.  The finer finish layer just had finely sifted clay and sand.  You can also add color at this point:  we added some yellow color.

I thought this was really beautiful, and I got excited about the decorative possibilities:  I began inscribing the wet plaster with spirals.  At that point Stevan told me that there are whole workshops devoted to plaster artistry at the Canelo workshops in Arizona.  I looked at their website and got very excited. Maybe I will make an earth structure darkroom at my farm just so I can decorate the walls with earth plaster.  An adobe vault wouldn't work in Tennessee, but earthen walls of cob or adobe or stucco over straw bale with an adequate roof and foundation should work.

Jesusita Jimenez

Ms. Jimenez came to talk to us toward the end of the first week of the workshop. She grew up in an adobe house, and she had a lot of interesting things to say about her experiences building with adobe.

Ms. Jimenez was the project manager for Simone Swan's house in 1998, so she knew about its construction in intimate detail. The original plaster was earth, sand, and straw. But on top of that was a lime and cement covering. It was painted blue, over the lime and cement. The original lime and cement plaster began to crack eventually, and the cracks leaked. So that original plaster had to be removed, at great expense. That plaster was replaced by a natural plaster of clay, sand, straw and prickly pear juice.

The prickly pear (nopal) pieces are chopped with a machete and left to macerate in water for four to five days. Then the "tea" is scooped out and added to the dry ingredients, along with some manure tea.

Ms. Jimenez said repeatedly that sand and soil have changed since she was a child. It is not as easy to make good adobe as it used to be when she was a child. She said that when she was little, she and her siblings made an adobe play house that lasted for years; but now it's harder to get the adobes to stick together and be hard. She thinks it's because the soil is polluted.

When a lime plaster is added over the first layer of clay, sand, and straw plaster, it has to dry slowly, in order to be durable. One way to do this is to lay wet sheets over it while it dries; or one can sprinkle water on it periodically while it dries.

Ms. Jimenez believes that re-plastering should be done once a year. This was traditionally done when she was a child.

Carlos house

Somebody left a comment asking some questions about the house in Ojinaga that I wrote about a few days ago. I can't figure out how to respond directly to comments in Blogger, so I will respond here.

The house does have a lime plaster, but I'm not sure if it's the same as the plaster on the Kern house. I think it has two vaulted rooms in front. Not sure if it has any flat roofs or not.

I have one picture of the interior, showing the squinch that supports the dome.

Simone Swan explained to us how the squinch works and how it is built. The purpose of the squinch is to enable the builders to put a circle on top of a square: it makes the square building into an octagon. When the walls reach a certain height, a form is used to build a little arch in each corner, over the form. Then when the arch is dry, the wall is built up to the top of the arch, creating a new octagonal wall on which the dome rests.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Oregon cob; Jesusita Jimenez

On Friday we had an Oregon cob demonstration. Oregon cob is another form of earth architecture, developed in the Pacific Northwest, but based on ancient building techniques that were used in Devon and Cornwall in England for centuries, and also in the southwest of Ireland. In cob construction, you don't make bricks and then stack them, as in adobe construction; it's a "monolith," in the sense that the wall is like one big adobe brick that has been formed gradually. You start forming a "course" of cob on top of a stone foundation and you work all the way around the foundation; then when that dries, you trim and shape it a bit and start the second course.

The first thing to do is mix the clay and sand, just as in adobe brick making. The clay and sand are shoveled onto a tarp, and then mixed together by rolling the tarp. (Both were sifted first through a 1/4" screen.) The clay makes the mixture stick together, and the sand gives it compressive strength and prevents cracking.

Then you add water and mix with your feet.

Straw is added to give tensile strength to the mix. (Sometimes manure is used also because it too has fibers in it. The fibers in manure have been chopped up a bit more, obviously, by the animal's teeth and digestive system.)

Finally the cob is shaped into a loaf-like shape on top of the foundation. The cobber uses his thumbs to push down into the cob. This causes the cob mass to cohere, and it also creates a surface for the next layer of cob to stick to. It's a bit like a wet mushy lego.

It's interesting that walls can be formed without bricks or even forms .

Cob walls are often very thick, as much as 24" thick. The first course is often wider than subsequent courses; the walls can taper as they go up, but usually they are never less than one foot thick. A rule of thumb is that for every one unit wide the wall is, it can't go over ten units high, but in practice, according to our teacher Stevan, this rule is sometimes violated to no ill effect.

A thin coat of lime and clay is often used as a plaster on the outside and inside of a cob wall.

Cob houses usually have framed roofs, but it's possible to make an arch by corbelling the cob inward gradually. I'm not sure if cob vaults are possible, though.

Simone watched the cob demonstrations in a beautiful North African style robe that she sewed herself from fabric she bought in Ojinaga. (More about that later on my other blog, All Fibers, All the Time.)

Later that day we met with master adobe craftswoman Jesusita Jimenez. Jesusita was the project manager for Simone's house and several other adobe houses in the region. She is retired now from adobe building, but her influence is still felt in current adobe construction. Her craftsmanship, precision, and speed in adobe masonry are legendary. She is shown here with El Maestro, Sevan de la Rosa, our teacher during the adobe workshop. I'll write more about what Jesusita had to say in my next post.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


It's not all hard labor at the Adobe Alliance workshop. The other day we took a day off and went to Chinati Hot Springs near Ruidosa, TX.

Chinati Hot Springs is a remote little low-key resort on the border between Texas and Mexico. Vaux le voyage!

The next day we achieved a milestone: the first keystone at the top of the arch. Efren, a master mason, quickly cut a small adobe with a trowel to make it fit the space perfectly.

We made a field trip to Mexico and looked at another adobe house with vaults and domes. It is smaller, and it is not finished yet: the doors and windows have not been added yet.

This house was not built by the Adobe Alliance.

The owner is from Lebanon, thus the Middle Eastern style of the building.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Third day of vault building

On the third day at the site, we made some significant progress on the vault. Two more workers arrived: a mother/daughter team who had worked as roofers, Judy and Carly.

Our crew is predominantly women, but our teachers are two young men, Stevan and Sandro. Sandro collects vintage Volkswagons:
The blue Volkswagon truck brought the adobes from Ojinaga to the site.

We talked a lot about the fact that this workshop is made up almost entirely of women: a young architect from Boston, Eugenia; a landscape architecture student from Oregon, Lee Ann; a developer from California, Deborah; another builder from Greece, Gina; a homesteader from Georgia, Kay; a would-be adobe home-owner, Leslie; and me, writer, photographer, and farmer. There is also a man here, Brian, who is making a documentary about Hassan Fathy, and a film-maker couple, Claudine and Tom. Carly and Judy were here for two days. Here is Kay's hand in a picture that shows clearly how the adobes are laid on top of the wall at an angle to form the vault. The bottom adobe has been cut in half and trimmed at an angle to fit the bottom of the wall, so that the next adobe will overlap the previous join.

This is the first Adobe Alliance workshop that has been almost all women, and there's no one answer as to why this is so, but perhaps this sign on the back of Sandro's car might offer a clue:

Adobe is earth-friendly, affordable, and hands-on. Women with little construction experience can build houses for themselves with it. It probably helps also that Simone Swan and Jesusita Jimenez have been at the forefront of adobe education now for ten years.

Two years ago when Tom and I visited Simone at her house, she was getting ready for an adobe workshop. I helped Jesusita and a friend build the most scenic privy in the world. The solar pump for the well can't pump fast enough for many flushes a day inside the house. But who cares when there's a view like this from the privy:

Making adobes

On the second day of the workshop, after we had outlined the curve of the vault onto the end walls and put up the guide strings, we went to Ojinaga, Mexico, to meet with Don Santos, who has an adobe brick yard there. Don Santos has been making adobe bricks for over thirty years. He doesn't use any machines; just hand labor. He makes adobes in two sizes: 18"x 12"x 3" adobes, which are used for the walls; and 10" x 7" x 2" adobes, which are used for the vault. We were picking up a load of the smaller bricks to take back to Texas. But first we needed to trim and clean them a bit. We did this with trowels and hoes. The objective was to brush off any dry loose dirt adhering to the adobes, and also to trim them a little, removing any bits of dried adobe that were protruding from the edges.

Don Santos and his crew also showed us how to make the mixture of clay, manure, and straw that is used to make adobes. There were large piles of dry clay and manure in the yard, which are mixed together before water is added to make a slurry. This mixture is "kneaded" with a hoe until it starts to cohere.

Then finally the straw is added. The mixture is wheel-barrowed to another part of the yard, where it is scooped into a mold that makes four adobes at a time.

The adobe maker uses his finger to score each adobe from corner to corner, and then he lifts the mold off carefully. This indentation on the back of each adobe helps it to adhere to the mortar.

The adobes have to dry for a few days. During that time they are turned, so that all sides get dry. There were some dry ones there that we loaded onto a truck to take back to Texas. You can see that any kind of fiber, including corn husks, can be used to create tensile strength in the adobes.

Back in Texas, we started laying up the first course of the vault, following the catenary curve we had traced on the end walls. The catenary curve is good because it transfers the outward forces of the vault down to the ground effectively, as you can see in this drawing that our teacher made.

The first course of adobes leans slightly toward the end wall, at about a seventy degree angle. It follows the outline that we had traced of the catenary curve on the inside, and the strings are about the width of an adobe block away from that curve, to guide the outside of the vault wall.

To make the adobes stick to the end wall and to each other, we used a mortar made of sand and clay and water. This mortar was mixed in a regular cement mixer, and the proportion of sand and clay was approximately equal. We put some water in the mixer first, and then while it was turning, we added ten shovelfuls of clay. When that slurry seemed thoroughly mixed, we dumped it into a wheelbarrow and then added ten shovelfuls of coarse river sand.

This simple mortar is amazingly strong. You slap it onto the top of the wall and onto the end wall, and then slap an adobe into the wet mortar. In a few minutes, it's difficult to pull that adobe off! The hydrophilic properties of the adobe bricks cause them to stick tightly to the mortar.

In the next post I'll show the further progress of the vault as it rose from the top of the adobe walls.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Earth Architecture, part 1

As we try to create a sustainable future, one of our main concerns is replacing energy inefficient buildings with new buildings that have less embodied energy and that need less energy to stay comfortable. One solution, especially in arid climates, is adobe. The Adobe Alliance has been creating adobe buildings in the American Southwest and in Mexico now for fifteen years.

I am at Adobe Alliance headquarters now near Presidio, TX, learning to build an adobe vault. Most adobe buildings in the Southwest and Mexico have regular wood roofs, but the Adobe Alliance builds houses with adobe roofs also: the roofs are Nubian vaults and domes, as described by Hassan Fathy in his book Architecture for the Poor.

Simone Swan built her house near Presidio in 1998, and that is where the Adobe Alliance is currently conducting a workshop on how to build the adobe vault. We are adding a vaulted roof to a rectangular room to the west of the Swan house.

The Nubian vault follows a catenary curve, which is the curve described by a chain if you hang it from the top of each wall of the room. Obviously this curve is upside down, but it's not hard to flip it up: first you hang the chain from the top of each wall, trace the outline of the chain onto cardboard, cut out a template along that line, and then flip the cardboard template up onto the end walls and trace its outline with a nail onto the soft adobe brick of the end walls.

Then nails are driven into the end walls along the outline of the curve, and strings are stretched between the nails to outline the curve of the vault, as a guide for the later laying of the adobe bricks.

The next few posts will show the progress of the vault as we built it over the following days.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cold soup

It's still very hot in Texas on the Gulf Coast, in part because the oceans are very warm all over the earth. The warm hot air blows inland off the Gulf, and our windows steam up...on the outside! When I left the house this morning, there was condensation on the door knob and the door lock!

So, we are not eating normal fall and winter food like you folks in the temperate zone. That's one reason I am still cooking from the September Gourmet.

One of the recipes was a cold soup recipe. It appeared in a menu all about the letter C. Yes, this is cheesy, but the other recipes were great: I made the chipotle chicken and the creamed corn also. This cold soup did not disappoint, and it's very easy.

The recipe calls for a kind of pepper called the cubanelle. I've seen these occasionally in stores, but I couldn't find one this time, so I used a Hatch pepper. Hatch peppers appear in stores in Texas in September and October. They are long, green, mild peppers from New Mexico. People frequently roast them. The other main ingredients were cucumbers and cashews. You puree them all together in the blender with some seasonings like garlic, a little vinegar, and olive oil.

Apparently cashews are a much loved by vegan chefs for the creaminess that they add to recipes when they're pureed. They had that effect on this soup. They added so much creaminess that I cut back on the amount of olive oil in the recipe.

Xuxu, alligator pear, mirliton, chayote...

A few nights ago I made another recipe from that great September issue of Gourmet. The main ingredient was called xuxu--its Brazilian name--in the recipe, because Gourmet needed a recipe that began with X! (X is always a problem in alphabet books.) But it's more commonly called chayote, in Mexican recipes, or mirliton in recipes from Louisiana. My partner calls it the alligator pear, and he remembers eating it as a child. If you look at it head on, its "face" does sort of look like an alligator with his mouth shut.

At Kroger they call it a "squash," and it is in the cucurbita family, like melons and cucumbers. Its botanical name is Sechium edule.

This recipe from Gourmet included shrimp, so it's not vegan. I thought about replacing the shrimp with fried tempeh, but I didn't have any, and I was so disillusioned by the tofu quiche disaster that I decided to go ahead and use shrimp. VeganMoFo be damned. But I cut the quantity of shrimp back to about a third of what the recipe called for.

The recipe involved making a sauce first. I am learning to use our new food processor, and the directions said to put garlic, onion, lemon juice, and a jalapeno in the food processor and process it till it's a puree. This I did. It seemed way too spicy when I tasted it.

You let that sauce sit for a while. Then you saute the shrimp, take it out of the wok, and saute the xuxu, which you had cut into matchsticks. I didn't do a very good job of making matchsticks, so my xuxu took longer to stir fry. Then you add the shrimp back in, and the sauce, and a lot of cilantro.

It was great! You are supposed to serve it with rice, but I didn't notice that until supper was over. I had it with rice the next day. This was even better, because the rice sort of diluted the chilis.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rethinking Vegan Food

For Vegan Month of Food, I decided to cook the vegan recipes in the September 2009 recipes of Gourmet, plus veganize some of the vegetarian recipes. The former strategy is working better than the latter.

For example, last night I cooked the Ginger Garlic Green Beans. It was very easy: you mash garlic with salt, grate some ginger in there, add some soy sauce and a little oil, and a little less vinegar. You blanche the beans for 6-8 minutes, drain them, and then toss them with the dressing. Then garnish with toasted sesame seeds. I didn't have any sesame seeds so I used ground flax seeds. (Also I used white wine vinegar instead of rice vinegar.) The combination of garlic, ginger, and soy sauce, plus some tartness like lemon or vinegar, is always great: it's the foundation of my favorite salad dressing. It worked really well on cooked green beans too.

There was another recipe for broccoli quiche in that issue of Gourmet that I wanted to veganize, and for that I turned to the blog Post Punk Kitchen, written by the queen of vegan cooking, Isa Moskowitz. There she has a recipe for a vegan broccoli quiche.

Sadly, this did not turn out so well. The idea is to grind cashews in the food processor, add tofu and some seasonings, all while sauteeing some onions and brocolli in a skillet. Mix the pureed tofu/cashews with the sauteed onion/broccoli, and pour into a pie shell. Decorate with cherry tomatoes, and bake at 350 for forty minutes.

I didn't use a pie shell because it seemed plenty rich without it, but I don't think that was the problem. It was edible, but not what I would call good. I think the problem here is that vegans often try to recreate the foods of their meat-eating and dairy-eating days, mostly by using a lot of tofu. And tofu is not good in large quantities. It's good in small quantities in miso soup, or in a stir fry, but a big cutlet of tofu is hard to digest and doesn't taste very good.

The worst example of that was in an ad that a credit card company ran a year or so ago, at Thanksgiving. It shows a woman my age serving a big white blob in the shape of a turkey to a smiling young woman. The story is that the older woman's son had married a vegetarian, and he brought her home for Thanksgiving. The older woman wanted to do the right thing, so she took her credit card to Whole Foods and bought a "tofurkey."

This Tofurkey has drumsticks and everything.

I looked at that and thought, "Wait a minute. Do vegans really eat tofu in the shape of animals? That seems contrary to the spirit of animal rights." I then went to Whole Foods myself and looked at a tofurky (correct spelling). It looks like this:

That is, nothing like the "tofurkey" in the ad. What were the (m)admen thinking?

Anyway, bottom line: I think that veganism is more successful if we just forget about things like scrambled eggs, quiche, turkey, and the like. We should just look at the incredible bounty of vegetables, beans, fruit, nuts and grain around us and think, "What can I make out of this?" rather than, "What do I miss from my childhood?" We don't have to limit ourselves to copying recipes from Asian cultures that don't use dairy, although that's a good start; we can just jump in there and start cooking with what we've got, without any preconception of what it should look like (a turkey?) or vaguely remind us of.

That said, there's no way I'm ever going to buy that tofurky. I don't care how much it doesn't look like a turkey.

As for the leftover tofu quiche, it was slightly better cold than hot, and Dixie Dog enjoyed a piece of it for breakfast, but I put the rest on the compost pile. I hope the possum that picnics in that pile will enjoy it more than we did.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Urban Harvest farmer's market on Richmond in Houston

Urban Harvest, an organization that I've written about several times in this blog, manages a really good farmer's market on Richmond Ave in Houston on Saturday mornings. It's behind a building so you might have to poke around a bit to find it. There are a lot of white tents set up in a parking lot, and there's a band usually (and a porta-potty, we discovered today).

It's a lively place on Saturday morning. The weather has finally cooled off in Houston after record-breaking September and October temperatures, so it was fun to go outside and shop. You can make a morning of it: there is fancy coffee, and you can buy cookies and pastries to go with it.

My first stop was the goat cheese stall, because it was my friend Amy's birthday last week and I wanted to get her a present. We got the Greek-style goat cheese. The proprietor showed us pictures of her goats; they are the Nubian type, with long floppy ears.

Next I made a bee-line for the Atkinson booth, where the beautiful greens can be found. I got kale and turnips.

They had okra too. I got that last time, but I didn't this time.

Next I looked for the persimmon man. Urban Harvest sends out an email saying what will be available at the market, so I knew to look for persimmons. They were the Asian type, and they were very beautiful. I tried a sample. They weren't quite as sweet as the American ones I find in TN, but pretty good nevertheless. Maybe they ripen more on the counter.

I also saw many shapes and colors of eggplants; long beans (the Asian kind for stir fry); sunchokes (otherwise known as Jerusalem artichokes); and a nice assortment of mushrooms. This couple was checking out the chanterelles:

There are lots of things at the farmer's market besides vegetables: great-looking bread, including "levain" which I found out means sourdough; goat yogurt, which we sampled and loved; lotion made from goat milk, with different scents such as lemongrass and vanilla; and a whole booth of things made out of lavender.

The most surprising booth we found there was a booth full of a great variety of beautiful orchids, run by Bruce Cameron of Orchid Obsession. It does seem as if he must be obsessed with orchids, because he had more kinds than I have ever seen before in one place.

The farmer's market is a plant and food-lover's paradise on Saturday morning.