Matt Loosigian and his wife Eli Arlen sing in perfect harmony around their kitchen table, Loosigian strumming his constant guitar and Arlen scrolling through the “Tandem Life” lyrics on her laptop, when I stop by their modest Brunswick Cape on a recent afternoon.

The couple are rehearsing to sing that weekend at the country wedding of Loosigian’s sister, on the grounds of the budding orchard she tends with Loosigian’s parents, who bought the Apple Annie farm (appleannienh.com) near Exeter, New Hampshire, in 2011.

“We’ll have coffee in the mornings,” Arlen, 36, and Loosigian, 34, sing in the words of folk singer Peter Mayer. “We will wear skis through Januarys.… And we’ll gaze at June upon a two-seated bike.”

The couple sings in hushed tones, because their shockingly articulate son, Micah, who turns 3 next month, is napping. The child calls down for something to drink, informing his parents: “My nap is not yet done.” Micah hardly ever used a sippy cup, and certainly never a plastic one like my 3-year-old Theo. He requests tiny glasses of water, milk and juice to swig simultaneously.

The Loosigian-Arlens are prominent urban homesteaders here in Brunswick, standing out on the more trailer-parked end of their coveted, historic neighborhood of Douglas Park near Bowdoin College. They house-shopped in Brunswick for three years before one came up they could afford, and only with their parents’ help.

“It’s funny, we do not feel like we are living on the edge,” Arlen says. “We know folks who earn five times what we do and yet have massive debt. We have no debt. We feel so lucky to be able to live just the way we want to without much stress.”

They dug up their whole front yard to plant a sprawling garden that showcased a forest of feathery asparagus, untold varieties of tomatoes and peppers, and pole beans in trellised arches along the house’s side doors. The pair also mulched blueberries along the one-car (and bike-filled) garage, and plan more permaculture plantings, including mulberry bushes and honey berries, in their wooded backyard, where laundry hangs in the patches of sunlight.

Their off-the-grid, DIY landscaping sparks questions from all who walk by. This summer, Loosigian built a giant hill of a straw-baled compost hot-water heater, whose black poly pipes, warmed by decomposing wood chips, now connect to their shower and sinks. Arlen said Micah was at the open-screened front window one day when a passerby asked what was the bright purple-flowered spiky plant. “Oh, it’s eggplant,” Micah replied nonchalantly.

This lifestyle comes naturally to Arlen. A globe-trotting massage therapist and former Goranson’s Farm employee, she grew up in Hallowell, where her family kept a large garden and canned. Arlen, a homemaker, furiously preserves food during Micah’s naps, though she’s traded old family recipes for more gourmet variations like savory tomato jam, rhubarb marmalade and roasted corn salsa.

“I remember when I was 10 years old and asked what I wanted to be when I grew up,” Arlen recalls, eying her candy store-like shelves of colorful Ball jars. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew what I wanted my life to be like.”

Arlen and Loosigian met at the annual Down East Country Dance (think contra and folk) Festival in Topsham in 2007, where his ImproVox a cappella band was performing. As a children’s musician and a rock star to the kids (including my son) in his Brunswick Music Together classes, Loosigian channels Raffi. Born in Waterville and raised in South Portland as a young boy, Loosigian returned to Maine to attend Bowdoin College, where he “bopped” with an a cappella group. He inspired his wife to start singing world folk music again, first through the Portland women’s ensemble Zemya and now in the four-woman Saheli.

Music was the spark, and now preparing meals, gluten-free and mostly vegetarian, is the glue that keeps this family bonded. Carboys of honey mead and kombucha ferment on the countertops, but there’s no beer nor wheat bread in the house. Through such elimination diets and testing by naturopath Anne Jacobs of Newcastle, the family realized they felt healthier avoiding gluten, and cutting out eggs for Micah, which appeared to clear his eczema.

“It helped my mood swings and irritability,” Arlen says of axing gluten. “Matt had extreme brain-fog logy-ness, where he can’t function without cup after cup of coffee.”

Arlen’s own dry-skin eczema rashes prompted her to create her own line of additive-free olive/coconut oil and beeswax herbal salves and massage creams she wholesales to area massage therapists (safarbodycare.com). Her need for gallons of olive oil prompted her to found the Merrymeeting Food Coop she still coordinates for quarterly group orders of bulk organic and local food items (I’m a member).

Arlen wanted to stop me the time I ordered a pound of bay leaves, as a novice still figuring out how to request splits of bulk items. I felt like a chump eyeing the green bouquets of Northern bay leaves the couple had recently foraged and hung to dry from the rafters. (It’s not bay laurel, the stuff in spice jars, but the flavor is similar.) Apparently, Northern bays grow like weeds in the woods here.

“When we were running low, it literally took Matt five seconds to harvest a winter’s worth of bay leaves,” Arlen says. “What if everyone picked bay?” Loosigian is an avid forager who often gathers mushrooms and something new to me called autumn olives (or autumnberry), which he pureed with apples and blueberries, then low-baked into an addictive, pleasantly astringent fruit leather.

Now the family has the chance to deepen their commitment to the land. A friend recently gave them a half-acre to plant near the Two Echo Cohousing Community on the outskirts of Brunswick. They’ve disc-harrowed the field, removed rocks and prepared beds for planting lots of garlic. Next season, they’ll plant extra rows of produce to donate to Mid Coast Hunger Prevention: in-demand onions, carrots, head lettuce and Swiss chard.

“This is the dream,” Arlen says, reminding herself when the bills pile up. And deadpan Loosigian, who also grew up gardening and canning but ventured away during college, confesses, “It’s only later in life that I really got interested: I didn’t like to get dirt under my fingernails. Sometimes, I still don’t.”

INDIAN-SPICED APPLE CHUTNEY

Eli Arlen inspired me to can her variation of this Spiced Apple Chutney recipe from “Put ’Em Up” by Sherri Brooks Vinton. Arlen and Loosigian dollop the chutney on lentil soup and Indian curries. I used frozen cranberries in place of the dried cranberries, adding more sugar and cooking time to absorb the extra liquid.

Makes at least 5 cups

2 cups apple cider vinegar

4 baking apples, cored and peeled

2 cups brown sugar, lightly packed

1 cup finely diced onions

1 cup raisins or dried cranberries (or a combination)

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon mustard seeds

2 to 3 teaspoons garam masala (or other mild curry powder)

1 teaspoon salt

Pour the vinegar into a large saucepan. Dice the apples, adding them to the pot as you go (to prevent browning). Add the brown sugar, onions, raisins and/or cranberries, ginger and garlic. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the mustard seed, garam masala and salt. Simmer 15 more minutes.

Ladle into sterilized jars and process for 15 minutes in a hot-water bath, following standard canning instructions. Store in a cool, dark place for up to one year.

KID-FRIENDLY LENTIL SOUP

Eli Arlen doesn’t follow a recipe, but here is her general technique. I found her stirring a pot of this soup over the stove when her pressure-cooker recently broke, perhaps from overuse.

Chop 1 onion and 2 carrots into a very fine dice. Add these to a soup pot with a couple of tablespoons of oil. Sauté on medium-high heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the veggies start to soften. Add the 2 to 3 cloves of minced garlic, a couple of sprigs of fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary) and a couple of bay leaves (locally foraged, if possible).

Sauté about 30 seconds until the garlic and herbs are very fragrant. Add about 1/2 cup of white wine. Cook until most of the wine has evaporated (about 5 minutes), stirring occasionally.

Add 2 to 3 cups lentils, stir and sauté for a couple of minutes. Add enough stock to cover by a couple of inches, cover and cook until the lentils are tender, adding more water/stock if necessary, stirring occasionally.

When the lentils are soft, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of molasses, 1 to 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. Can be eaten alone or served over rice.

Laura McCandlish is a Brunswick-based food writer and radio producer. Follow her on Twitter @baltimoregon and read her blog at baltimoregon.com.


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