Peace and Peppers: A Recipe from Photographer John Noltner

Yes, he is like this.

Years ago, I was sent on assignment with a photographer named John Noltner to drive an RV through the length of Kansas with my whole family (including my mother).

Though this scenario could have been the premise for a deep and unrelenting nightmare, Noltner’s hardworking goof-balliness made it one of my best travel memories. We sat through a hootenanny. He shared parenting advice as one-year-old Sam toddled along a lakeshore—something like: “We all make mistakes, but as long as they know you love “em, they’ll be just fine.” We talked about making creative things in the Midwest, and how it was both awesome and a little lonely.

John continues inspiring with the vibrant, insightful photos he takes of people and places. You can check out his latest endeavor here, the gorgeous book, A Peace of My Mind, with a forward by Ela Gandhi.

Noltner contributes this much-loved family recipe from his Italian grandpa: charred tomatoes and peppers that should be mopped up with hunks from a fresh loaf of bakery bread. It rarely lasts a full day in the Noltner household. Adjust seasonings to your liking.

I’ve been noticing a lot of peppers around the markets lately, so maybe you can try it, and let me know if it lasts around your house, as you think about friends who have inspired your work by doing theirs well, and with a joyful goof-balliness that makes it all worth the ride.


4 green peppers

2 tomatoes

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon salt

dash of pepper

Rosario Fragala, my grandfather, put the skillet on the stove and blackened the peppers and tomatoes without oil, turning each time a section was burnt. Keep turning until entire pepper and tomato is black and blistered.Once this is done, clean and dice as stated at the end of this recipe.

Be forewarned: When he would make these, the smell and smoke would burn your eyes and the kitchen would smell for about three days!


Lay peppers and tomatoes in a pan and place in the broiler about 2-3 inches from flame—keep turning until they are blistered and black. Again, plan on a smelly kitchen!


Preheat the grill. Place peppers and tomatoes on hot grill and keep turning until blackened and blistered. This option keeps the smell outside.


Once peppers and tomatoes are blackened, place in cold water until cool. Scrape the char off peppers with a knife. My grandpa used his pocket knife; I personally think it made them taste better. The blackening will kind of peel off in sheets. Next, remove seeds, rinse and dice. Do the same with the tomatoes and combine with peppers and other ingredients.



The Naming of a Chicken.

Annie Jones, the Bearded Lady of My Backyard! Thank you to Jen Hansen of Eden for the name suggestion. For those of you just tuning in, I name my chickens once they start laying. Annie earned her name last week, with the help of blog readers.

Though Annie’s eggs may be tiny, her heart is quite large, and she never gets crabby when we want to hold her. The other chickens seem to pick on Annie a little, maybe because she’s just a little bit smaller than the rest. Shy ones always get the brunt of it.

And to think that Annie nearly ended up in a stew pot because she just couldn’t seem to get those ovaries moving. (Even now, Fried Eggs Annie in my mind means fried eggs that are the circumference of golf balls.) But we’re so glad we did not eat her now.

I’ve got six laying hens in my yard.

Sometimes the thought of it still makes me laugh.

Annie's namesake.

Meet Beverly: A Tribute Chicken

What is this space machine you point in my general direction?

Well hello! How’s this lukewarm winter treating everyone? Here, it’s a chance to do a little more tinkering with the chicken set-up and rake up those leaves we didn’t get to this fall, when Running Away to Home first came out and I was internally FREAKING OUT instead of raking leaves. All better now!

So we’ve tried to avoid naming the chickens, because there is still an outside chance we will eat them someday. I know, I know. I’ve wavered on this one. But if we’re going for the full farming experience, I can’t skip the hard part of the circle of life, right? Maybe. The jury is still out. Sam gets pale every time I mention that one of the Ameraucanas still isn’t laying, and she should eventually be useful in some way. Sam points out that Willa, our schnoodle, is also not very useful, but we don’t eat her.

We all know Muffy has a name, because she has shared her coop experience here on this blog. But recently, we’ve named another chicken, in honor of a powerhouse of a woman. The kind of woman who will change how you see things. Do you know someone like that?

Meet Beverly.

I first met this whirling dervish of activity (also known as my best friend Amy’s mom) on a small farm just outside of Colfax. I was a fourth grader.

Beverly had waist-length white hair, and she was a lawyer, a farmer, and a former social worker. Her idea of casualwear was (and is) Carhartt work pants. She was also a screamin’ feminist in a small town where such things weren’t so much appreciated. She pinned an ERA button onto my jean jacket, and away we went.

Beverly and I have been friends ever since. She’s always shown by example that a woman can do whatever she wants to do, as long as she doesn’t much care what others think. Bev also taught me that you can gain momentum as you age, also as long as you don’t much care what people think. Thus, I bought my first flock of chickens just as I’ve begun to sprout a few gray hairs. (Only a few. Like maybe ten so far.)

Bev went to law school in the 1970s when she was raising twin babies, largely alone. She ran her farm, which had goats that she occasionally kept indoors because she liked them very much. She also kept bees, harvested her own grapes to make preserves, and did not prohibit me from swearing in her presence, which was one of my favorite pastimes as a fourth-grader. She laughed at my Mr. Bill jokes, called me a writer from the time that we met, and, like the women in Mrkopalj, Bev taught me that herbal remedies and eating your own food (grown in your presence) are the first line of defense in living a healthy life.

And so, this fiesty and gorgeous Rhode Island Red, a layer so prolific and so efficient that she’s in and out of the laying box before most of the chickens have even gotten off the roost, is Beverly.

A poultry powerhouse. May she live up to her honorable name. Do you know someone who changed your perceptions of how things should be? Yes? You should tell them. You really should.

Chicken current events

So I bet you’re wondering about the chickens.

The chickens are doing great!

All six of those big girls are hale and hearty, though a chickenhawk did try to fly off with the Rhode Island Red last week. She fought the good fight and won, and came away with only a little blood on her comb. I made a few adjustments on the chicken run that Jim and I built, and they’ve been safely cooped up since.

The black ones are smartest. Red is lucky to be alive.

Yes, you heard that right. Jim is now down with the chickens. The man who swore he had no interest in raising layers was caught last week hand-feeding them his own homemade bread. I am not embellishing this story. I think Jim finally realized they weren’t going anywhere, and gave in.

In the past month, we moved the coop to a better windbreak in the yard, put up winter insulation, and built that chicken run. My dad just built some laying boxes for us, because those birds will be laying within the next month (if they know what’s good for them). This is the only thing that Zadie has consistently included on her Christmas list. “For the chickens to lay eggs!” in 7-year-old scrawl. Let’s hope Santa (and all 6 chickens) deliver soon.

Zadie models Grandpa’s laying boxes.

In case they don’t get the picture of what they’re supposed to do with the laying box, I put a few golf balls in there.

Mother: Just trying to be helpful

I hope it’s not a bad sign that this morning, one of those golf balls was all the way across the chicken run, as if it had been physically thrown out of the coop.

Let’s hope.

I found it very reassuring that the green roof on the chicken coop sprouted on September 11.

With clear intentions and hard work, good things rise up from the dirt.

Bad gardener!


I’m a bad gardener. I get out there and plant things, sure, and my gardens aren’t unsightly or anything. But it’s clearly not my special skill. They’re never manicured. The flower beds don’t have color year-round (or barely ever). Nothing has a water feature. My vegetables often do not grow properly. That garden up top? Not mine.

I’m pretty much okay with all of that.

When we were lucky enough to live in Mrkopalj, Croatia, last year, our neighbors in the village gardened like crazy. Jasminka and Pavice and Andjelka and Zjelko were really good at it. Those skills had been passed down through the generations and they were necessary to defray the cost of really expensive groceries. Plus, people liked knowing where their food came from, after hearing horror stories from more “developed” countries.

But I’m self-taught when it comes to the garden. I’m good at lettuce, because it doesn’t need anything but planting. Same with tomatoes, though my success rate is spotty there because they also need cages and occasional eggshells around the base, and that’s officially Complicated. I don’t read books about gardening. I don’t try to Improve. Until the economy bottoms out even further, or Michelle Bachmann is elected, my gardening success will be allowed to remain marginal at best.

That’s fine by me. I’m in it for the outdoors time, and to get my hands plugged into the dirt for a recharge. It’s fun to grow things, even if I’m not an aficionado.

This is not me.

I do a lot of work for magazines, which show off people’s houses and yards when they are literally picture-perfect. I’m going to go ahead and confirm what you already know about that: It’s a myth. I’ve been to those photo shoots, and pretty much only that very precise area being photographed looks that good. Then the cameras get put away, the family dog pees on the floor, a kid dumps out a bunch of markers, or someone spills coffee on the white slipcovered couch. Soon, the natural chaos of the universe returns. It’s not as perfect as it looks. Never is.

As I’ve gotten older, it’s been nice to happily accept that I will only be good at a few things, and everything else is just screwing around for fun. I’ll get out in the garden when it works for me and the kids, time-wise. My house isn’t up to the latest trends, nor will it ever be. My chef skills are limited to Things That Zadie Will Eat, which revolves around unadorned meat and cereal and yogurt without chunks. (I am naturally gifted at parallel parking, so that doesn’t require any time or attention. It’s more like a magical skill bestowed by God, really.)

But there are a few things that command real attention. I want to be good at having a family, so I work hard at that, and it dominates most of my thoughts. I want to be good at telling you stories, and this is a close runner-up in the daily-thoughts category. Good books and music also get a lot of my time, because they inspire the other two things.

So that’s it. As I write this, I’m sitting on the porch with Sam and watching birds, which I’m also not very good at, but I like asking other people about. I own a few birding manuals, but mostly I bought them because the pictures are so pretty, and looking at birds makes me happy, even if they’re just sparrows. Or that asshole bluejay that bullies everything in the yard.

I’ll never be an expert or anything. And I’m super okay with that.

Chicken coop and a simple walk.

Josh built the coop. It’s too late to back out now.

It has a green roof! We are swank.

In other news, this morning the kids and I took a walk around the neighborhood. Sometimes, we get to moving so fast that I forget to build in some down time for them. And, truthfully, for me. I’ve never been very good with that down time thing. It makes me nervous. And then I start making to-do lists for the time when I am no longer having down time.

But today, it was cool outside, and the grass looked particularly green. I had a little coffee left in my cup, so decided to spend it on a slow walk. The kids agreed without complaint, which was rare, and this was how I knew that it would be a particularly fine walk.

My kids are at their most peaceful when they’ve been outside for a while. After they’ve forgotten that they wish they were watching TV or having a playdate. We have a vacant lot we like to stop at. Nothing particularly attractive, and often smelling of dog poop. (Always with the poop, this one.) But it’s big, and it’s open, which gives it the two qualities I miss most about Mrkopalj. Open space is hard to come by in the city, and we don’t leave the city very often anymore.

Within a few minutes, Zadie was building bark art on a tree. Sam was putting together a fort of sticks, and occasionally stopping to have me time him as he ran between two far-apart trees. We played like that for an hour.

It’s not as eventful as, say, introducing barnyard fowl to the yard. But today, it was enough.


Chicken planning.

This one in Josh’s studio is my favorite. I almost like it better than I like chickens. Because a drawing doesn’t poop.

I just love the chickens. In theory.

Considering urban chickens.

My neighbor Josh and I are talking about getting chickens. As usual, when I’m thinking about doing something I don’t know squat about, I check out a ton of books from the library, and then I don’t read them. It feels like progress anyway.

Back in Mrkopalj, many of the people in the village had some sort of barnyard animal to help defray the grocery bill, or to make sure they were eating clean food. “No GMO”s!” Pavice had bragged to me about her potato patch, or krompiri. It sort of blew my mind that here in this tiny Balkan village, they’ve heard about how badly we’ve ruined our food in the land of plenty, and they don’t want anything to do with it.

Since we already garden (poorly), I’ve been advocating for the chicken thing. Jim refused for a long time, citing his general suspicion of nature. Finally, he relented, and our neighbor Josh tells me on the porch one night that since his time in rural Liberia with Architecture for Humanity, he’s been missing chickens, too. One of my library books included the above photo. Which made us think: Seriously, chickens can’t be that hard . Stay tuned.—jw


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