Tuesday, January 27, 2009


I'm taking a little blogging hiatus.

My mom's gas furnace stopped working last week, filling her house with smoke. Nothing was actually on fire, but she handled the situation poorly. It could have been very dangerous. She stayed with us for a few days while it was mostly fixed, but the whole process revealed new problems with her living alone. We need to dramatically speed up the process of moving her in with us, which will be challenging for everyone.

Right now, the kids take turns sleeping on the floor while she sleeps in their beds. We may be moving - very soon - at a larger rented house. Her house has 4BR, but is in no way ready for anyone to move into it, even with all the elbow grease we could bring to bear. It's not a solution to the immediate problem.

Our current house is so small that we don't have room for a sofa - we have two armchairs and the kids sit on the floor when we all watch a movie. We literally did not have room to add another adult. The single bathroom is a considerable choke point - we seriously need another half bath. All that makes mom feel even more like she is a burden -which we are trying to combat. The feeling that she is a burden or an interruption is one of the things that makes her fail to ask us for help when she absolutely needs to do so. She is actually harder to help because she waits too long to get help with things we could quickly solve.

I will be back soon, maybe just a week or two, maybe longer. I'll try to keep reading most of my Indy blog roll, but I probably won't comment much. I'll keep some notes, so I can return with a big fat Independence Days Challenge Report.

I'll miss you guys!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Independence Challenge - Week 36

DH was going to run errands and he asked everyone if they needed
something. The kids needed chapstick. When he came to me, I joked,
"Can I have a pony, Daddy?" And he got me one! Awww!

I went to the PA Farm Show this past Wednesday. Agriculture is the state's biggest business, so it's like the state trade show. I went on a $16 bus trip arranged by the Extension office. It's nice to get dropped off at the entrance instead of parking and driving. I walked around for a solid 6 hours. I checked out the Alternative Energy section, and the various state and federal agencies. People rave about the food, but I was not too impressed. Too bland, too deep-fried, too over-priced. I surveyed all the food purveyors, ate all the free samples, and collected some brochures from associations that might prove useful, like the PA Nut Grower's Association. There was a commercial market, where I kept expecting to see a Sham-WOW guy. Then a horticulture section, and finally the "Family Living" exhibits where the actual canning, sewing, and baking entries were found. I spent some time in there, looking at what gets a blue ribbon. I watched the Sheep-to-Shawl competition for a little while, and saw a really cool $45 knitted alpaca neck warmer I couldn't afford. Oh, and I saw a lot of exceedingly clean animals!

I enjoyed the day away from home with no kids. I could spend as long as I liked looking at things and talking to people. I spent a long time talking to a woman that works at Old Bedford Village near Pittsburgh. She is an educator that can teach 127 old-fashioned skills. She was threading a loom, with her blacksmith daughter, at the Show. I also found some graphics and activities I can use for my youth food workshop.

But overall, this Show was all about Agribusiness. Big machines, big farms, conventional technology. It didn't have much to do with local food or small family farms. I can't wait for my 4-day trip to the PA Sustainable Agriculture convention the first week of February.

Planted: I decided on seed vendors, but didn't place my final orders yet. I will use Baker's Creek, mostlybecause the catalog is so freakin' cool. I will also order from Amishland, a small veggie seed grower in next-door Lancaster County, since her varieties ought to be good for my region. I am up in the air about where to buy potato and onions sets. My favorite local greenhouse orders them from somewhere nonlocal.

Harvested: Nada.

Preserved: DD12 zested lemons, limes, and oranges for me. I dried the zest, and DD15 juiced them all for the freezer.

Cooked: I moved applesauce from the "preserved" to the "cooked" category because I stopped canning it. Why bother? We go through it as fast as I make it. I found a produce stand at the market that keeps a box of apple seconds under the counter. I got a whole lot of bruised apples for $3. DD12 had stopped eating commercial applesauce, but she seems to like the super-smooth kind that I make. I need to buy one of those apple-peeling machines. Next year, I will buy lots more local apples up at the Kutztown auction.

I had another I-feel-like-cooking spell today. I made chicken corn noodle soup, sweet potato biscuits, chocolate chip cookies, hummus, and a pasta bake. All of it came from storage - yay! I also made yogurt that will be ready in the morning. More applesauce will be cooked tomorrow. My Mom is coming over tomorrow to watch the Inaugration with us, so we'll have plenty of food.

Stocked: Curry powder; I bought 3 ounces ($1/oz) at a Farm Show booth, one hot, 2 mild; I mixed them to get moderately-hot. That gave me a half-pint jar for everyday use, and most of a pint in the pantry. I also stocked pickle relish and decaf Earl Grey tea that was on sale.

Prepped: DH got flashlights and a first aid kit. After our recent mini-power outage, we realized we only had 4 small LED flashlights in our purses and backpacks. The solar lantern we bought a few months ago had to be returned when it would not take a charge, and we never replaced it. DH bought a four pack of traditional flashlights with D-cells, which I might ask him to return. I'd rather spend the $20 on LEDs. He did buy one hand-crank LED flashlight that has an alternate charging cord. That will do for short-term emergency lighting and bug-out bags.

We still need to do work on longer-term low-energy lighting, but probably not in this rented house. I do collect free and cheap candles at yard sales in summer, to remelt into votives. We have used votives to cook, wash dishes, and play Scrabble during outages in the past. We also need to get a rechargeable battery station, and replace that solar lantern.

Managed: I got a few more free 4-gal buckets from the Weis bakery. They throw them out on Mondays and Thursdays, so I have to stop on Sundays and Wednesdays. I did better at preventing food waste this week. Did find a tiny shriveled head of cabbage under all the carrots. Worm food, now.

Reduced, Reused, Recycled: I was planning to order more red worms for the compost bin, but when I checked on the little guys this week, they were doing pretty darned good. The level of bedding and food is way down. We added more bedding and a bunch of apple peels. I think maybe they are finding their groove. There were a whole lot of little white egg-like things that don't look like the worm egg case photos on the internet. That bears watching.

Local Food: We shop weekly at our local farmer's market, which is not all local food, but is all local small businesses. We visit a locally-owned grocery liquidator about once a month. We sometimes visit Aldi, which has good prices on case goods, but is owned by a European corporation. We sometimes buy things at BJ's Wholesale Club (Masschusetts company). But I still need a regular grocery store for some items, and I have been trying to decide where to spend those dollars. When I am doing a big stock-up, it is worth shopping the loss leaders of all three local chains. But not worth driving around just to pick up a few things. All of them have similar loss-leader prices. I decided to research and compare the three:
Giant: 148 stores in the Mid-Atlantic. Founded in Central Pennsylvania, they are now owned by a supermarket group HQ'd in the Netherlands. They've opened new suburban upscale stores, recently. They are one of two chains with locations in the City of Reading, on Rockland Street. DH likes their layout, selection, and upscale feel. They have a growing organic section.

Weis: 155 stores in a market area similar to Giant. Founded and still owned by a Pennsylvania corporation, with food processing plants in central PA. Bill themselves as one of the largest buyers of PA produce and dairy. They also have a store in the City, on Rockland Street, but it has not been updated in a long time. They used to have half-off day-old bread that I liked for bread pudding, but they stopped doing that, which annoys me. They have also reportedly stopped donating to food banks, which really annoys me.

Redner's: 39 stores in the Mid-Atlantic. They have a "warehouse" theme, are employee-owned, and are HQ'd here in Berks County. They would seem like the localest, even though they do not have a city location. But, my mother slipped in a puddle of Coke in front of a broken soda machine; her back still hurts. After dragging their feet for 2 years, Redner's finally sent an insuffcient check for her medical expenses, leading us to an attorney and a lawsuit. After another 2 years of foot-dragging, she still got an insufficient settlement. She'd been a customer for 40+ years. So, on one hand, they are the most local use of my food dollar. On the other, there's Mom, and they have no city location.

My Pick: Weis. They employ the most people, buy a lot of PA produce, the money stays in the state, and they have kept their city store. DH notes that I will never find a store that doesn't do something that ticks me off.
I also found a local spring water company, Great Oak, that has fill-your-own kiosks for .25/gallon. The fluoride level is .5mg/L, half the level in the city tap water. I am trying to avoid fluoride for my thryroid.

Learned: We had our first few Tai Chi classes. Turns out, I am also taking Kung Fu. The folks at the studio were glad to see us back, and since I have to wait for DH ad DD15 during Kung Fu, I thought I might give it a try. I suspect they will not let me stop trying. I feel too "breakable" for this, but they are very supportive. Even though I was mostly sparring with teenaged boys, they took my efforts seriously, which was kind of them. If fat middle-aged women ever attack them on the street, they will be well-prepared. The return to Tai Chi feels good - it is coming back to me quickly.

Library: I found a bit of fiction on the church book sale shelf, and a big photography book about the 20th Century. DD12 likes those, and I like them when they are a dollar. But mostly I am reading research materials about Ethical Eating issues and food coop management right now.

Behavior: I found a replacement for that Burger King fish sandwich I liked so much. There is a fish stand at the market that breads their own haddock filet. No seafood is local to me, and I don't know if this is Atlantic hook-and-line caught. It's still deep-fried fish, but it didn't come from a fast food chain. I think it's a good occassional indulgence.

We did well with our fast food challenge this week - I don't think any of us had any at all. DH took leftover lasagna to his class, and DD12 packed lunch nicely. Not as good on the 5x oatmeal challenge. I need to take my thyorid pill before 9 AM (you have to wait an hour before eating), or I get busy and don't remember to eat until lunch.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Best New Pantry Recipes

In 2008, I entered over 500 recipes into my collection at WeGottaEat.com. Many of them were my own tattered recipe cards, or recipes I had tested from my cookbook collection. But many were also new entries from TV shows, blogs, cooking websites, and email lists. I haven't even tried all of them yet. Among those that were new to us, some have become family favorites. Each one of these introduced us to a new pantry staple:

Slow Cooker Pinto Beans - This one came from Paula Deen, at the suggestion of a listmate on the HealthyCheapCooking list on Yahoo Groups. The butchers up North don't have streak o' lean, so I use other smoked pork goodness - ham shanks are my favorite, but I also also get smoked ham ends and smoked sausage. We've eaten it as a main dish, and as a side with other meals. It really expanded the use of pinto beans for me - I had only really used them for refried beans until I tried this. I live in a city with a big Hispanic population, so I can get large bags of dry pintos inexpensively.

Cheese Grits - It was about this time last year that I watched Alton Brown cook grits on the Food Network, and decided to give it a try. Until then, the only grits I'd eaten were tasteless gruel at diners. But these were to-die-for. DD15 didn't like them at first, but has now become a grits machine, especially with her sage-flavored peppery milk gravy. I store supermarket grits now, but I'm looking for artisan stone-ground grits to try.

(Ignore those crumbs under the toaster over.)

Sweet Potato Biscuits - These were my first scratch biscuits, and I was so happy with them, especially with pineapple jam. This recipe gave us both a new bread product and another way to use leftover sweet potatoes. Now I keep a jar of sweet potato puree in the fridge. I found several sources of local sweet potatoes this year.

Green Tomato Chutney - My new favorite condiment. I only just started canning jam this summer, and I'd never ever eaten chutney before, but I saw the recipe on a blog around the time that a neighbor pruned a lot of green tomatoes from her plants. I love it with roast meat or poultry. I'm very happy with the jam, chutney, and pickles I made this summer, and I plan to do a lot more canning next summer.

Parsnip Spice Cake - I've taken this to several potlucks with good reviews. I like the versatility of adding whatever dried fruit or nuts I want. I'd never tried parsnips before, but now I regularly buy and use them to flavor stock and make this coffee cake. When I don't like a vegetable on its own, I tend to turn it into a quick bread. I like that I can grow parsnips and store them in the ground all winter. I can't recall where this recipe came from, but I want to make it whenever I see parsnips.

Cuban Inspired Pork Chili - Hominy was another first for us. I store it dried and canned. The local Hispanic grocery stores always stock it. I like chili, but not as hot as DH does - and he doesn't like beans in it. But this chili comes across more like a pork stew, and it gives me a good place to use more black beans, and fresh or frozen corn. I found this recipe at the cooking blog Coconut & Lime, and substituted regular tomatoes and cheap country-style pork ribs for the fancier ingredients.

Spelt Waffles - DD12 used to be addicted to Eggo toaster waffles. We got her a waffle iron for Christmas 2007, and tried a few recipes with all-purpose flour. But when I found a local source for spelt flour, I went looking for a waffle recipe. DD12 likes to whip up the egg whites for this one. We double the recipe, so there are lots of leftovers to freeze for reheating in the toaster. I like to dip pieces of waffle in fruity yogurt or homemade applesauce.

Yogurt - Not so much a recipe as a technique. I heat two quarts of milk and 1/2 cup non-fat dry milk to about 190F. Then I let it cool to 120F, whisk in a half-pint of yogurt I set aside from the previous batch, and pour it into quart containers. I bundle it into an insulated lunch bag with a hot water bottle, and it's lovely by morning. I haven't purchased yogurt since June. I love it in oatmeal with a dab of honey or homemade jam. When I first thought about making yogurt, I thought I needed a yogurt maker, but when I advertised for one on the local Freecycle list, a Lebanese woman answered me with instructions to make it in a blanket-wrapped crockpot liner. I adapted that to my insulated lunch bag.

So, have any of you found recipes that have become new favorites at your house?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Independence Challenge - Week 35

These little bakers fit right in the toaster oven, but I need
to rotate them during baking to avoid the hot spots.
Still, mighty tasty apple bread pudding.

The most valuable thing I control is how I spend my time, so I am working on wasting less. For many people, TV and computer time are a waste, but I value our controlled family TV watching and discussing. The Planet Earth series has been spectacular and inspiring.
Not a Waste: cooking, eating, sleeping, reading, talking, listening, networking, tai chi, foot massage, snuggling, walking

Waste: bickering, negative people, useless ranting, bad movies, clutter, perfectionism, being so tired I fall asleep in the bathroom and wake up freezing
I would rather spend time with family than accidentally waste it on dumb stuff. I am trying to avoid some of the obvious "interesting time wasters" that can cause an hour to speed past. For instance, no more writing long snarky blog comments in places I don't normally read (usually because someone has irritated me). I don't consider blogging and commenting itself to be a waste - I have gotten more done since I started blogging. But I need to be careful about reading the New York Times headlines that arrive in my email. If I click on articles, I can spend an hour on the news, in what seems to go by in the blink of any eye. I will save my newsreading for evenings, after a day of doing things on my to-do lists.

I am also looking for things we can do while watching TV. DD15 is making felt cozies to sell on Etsy. DD12 is drawing paper doll kits. My mom peeled apples for sauce while enjoying I Love Lucy. There are limits to what my hands can do, but I am trying: cracking and cleaning nuts, sorting seed, giving myself a manicure. I have a circular knitter to try making a neck warmer, in hopes that my hands allow that kind of knitting. I can also sort papers and photos.

DD12 and I went to a monthly local scrapbooking group on Friday. It's $5 and you get to use all sorts of fancy die-cut machines. I am a little concerned that it will turn into a time and money-sucking hobby with lots of things to store, but I will combat that. It think it was a measure of my developing "independence eye" that I reacted differently than I once would have to the hostess's huge scrapbooking basement full of supplies. I once would have envied it. I still lust after that kind of space - but I envisioned shelves full of food storage, not paper supplies! I kept thinking about how much money these women were wasting on this hobby. Not that there is anything at all wrong with scrapbooking - we plan to continue doing it. But the "toys" and over-priced supplies - oy! One advantage of the group "crops" is that everyone contributes to paying for and using the expensive machines.

I would like to do as much as I can with things in everyday newspapers, magazines, ads, and with vintage paper, books, and old photos. Not to mention our own everyday stuff, like ticket stubs, birthday cards, and fortune cookie slips. I lean more toward book arts and altered art, rather then pre-made paper cutsies that require trips to the craft store. I only want to buy the most basic tools, blades and adhesives. I really want to develop an activity to do with DD12, especially since the rest of us are going back to martial arts classes (you'll see, below), and she liked this.

Planted: Nothing, but I made a planting timeline for spring. I am working my way through the seed catalogs. Wow, it's hard not to want to buy more seeds than I can possibly use in my small gardens.

Harvested: Naught.

This giant Dutch oven full of apples cooked down to a little over 2 quarts.

Made two quarts of applesauce to split between Mom and I. She peeled, I cooked. There was a bit more that we gobbled up immediately. Just apples, water, and a dash of lemon juice. I burnt my tongue tasting it too soon. I made it very smooth with a hand blender, and it even passed muster with super-picky DD12, who now takes some to school for lunch. Gotta get more apples, pronto. Also froze 8 quarts of lovely dark pork stock, a monthly task, this time from New Year's pork bones I got at market.

Cooked: Once in a while I have a day where I just want to cook everything. I think it was the new silicon baking mats. I made Sweet Potato Biscuits early on, and then DH was going to meet friends for a 'Guys Night Out', so I had 'Girls Night At The Stove'. I made a big batch of mincemeat cookies, baked sweet potatoes, and tried a tomato lentil soup recipe from the NYT (blah). DD12 made tortilla pizza. Mom peeled all my apples and I made applesauce to split with her. We didn't can it, since we are sure we can each eat a quart in a week or so. Fed the worms under the table. Mom crashed watching Wall-E, so we tucked her in DD12's bed for a sleepover. She says she doesn't want to stay the winter, but I think she likes coming over if she doesn't "have to."

I've said a couple times that I want to learn making biscuits - no time like the New Year to get started. I started with an easy drop-biscuit recipe. The Sweet Potato Biscuits were very good, but they freakin' ROCK with Sunshine Jam! It's a great way to use up leftover holiday sweet potatoes. DH also made a Roast Pork for New Year's Day, that was great with the Green Tomato Chutney I made this summer. I looove having jam and condiments I made myself!

Stored: Made a trip to the grocery liquidator, which is always fun. I feel like a total hunter-gatherer in there, since the merchandise changes all the time. I replenished a bunch of what we used in the past few months: a bale of toilet paper, 3 boxes of Total and Wheaties, 3 boxes stuffing (for DH), 2 bottles olive oil, 2 bottles balsamic vinegar, 6 big cans tomatoes, 6 cans paste, 6 cans cranberry juice concentrate, 2 big cans refried beans, 2 cans chick peas, 6 cans pumpkin, 3 cans turnip greens, cream of coconut, 2 lbs. raisins, 2 boxes of saltines, 5 boxes dehydrated mincemeat, 1-lb canisters of cinnamon and ground black pepper.

DD12 is packing her lunches now, so I picked up some small bottles of 100% juice and 3 boxes of chewy granola bars. She has a reusable water bottle, but I only want water in there, so I plan to reuse these small bottles. I need to figure out how to make chewy granola bars for her, although for now, the $1.50/box at the liquidator may be less than I would pay for dried fruit and nuts.

I found a box of Kashi puffed whole grain cereal, which I want to turn into some kind of snack bar, like better rice crispy bars. I found one recipe on the Kashi website, but if anyone has other recipe ideas, please let me know.

Prepped: I guess this could be consider preparation, since it increases our health and self-defense capacities. DH signed us up to go back to Tai Chi and King Fu classes. DH and DD15 take Wing Chun kung fu, and all three of us do Tai Chi. DD12 doesn't want to do any of it, which bugs me, but she is old enough to stay home alone, so it is not an obstacle to the rest of us. The Wing Chun and Tai Chi classes are slightly different times. I will try to go 3x a week for an hour: Mon, Thurs, and Sat. DD15 and DH will hit different weekday classes around their work schedules, and we all go together on Saturday mornings - they do Wing Chun @ 10 while I warm up my joints, and we all do Tai Chi at 11. We all got a lot out of this when we did it for 9 months. We had to quit a year ago due to money constraints. It is on my wishlist, when we have a different house, to have space dedicated to tai chi and martial arts. DH wants a heavy bag and a wooden dummy, and I want a wall of mirrors. It would be also a good space for dance, indoor games, and to set up tables and chairs for events and gatherings. But, that's getting ahead of myself.

We had a snow storm Saturday, and the power went out briefly after dark. Just long enough for me to go "Uh oh - do I really know where the flashlights are?" It would have gotten cold fast, because we keep the house so much colder now. Less residual heat. I thought about the gas oven as a short-term solution - but it has an electric ignition. We are moderately well-prepared to leave in a hurry, to bug-out, but less prepared to stay than I'd like to think. We need to make the flashlights handier, and think about back-up heat in a rented house we cannot change dramatically.

DH added a few more items to our emergency bug-out kits: 6 decks of playing cards, all-weather notebooks and mess kits. I don't know if I would have purchased kits; I could have assembled them from used stuff. But I gave him a task and he is hard at it. We are missing the easiest part of the bug-out kits, simply putting a change of clothes and some toiletries in our four bags. Discussion revealed that none of us had pants that we could take out of our weekly rotation to leave in a bug-out bag for a whole season. We are short on pants, apparently. We decided to each chose a set of worn-but-serviceable clothing, and replace it by buying pants. I wear the same "uniform" all year - khakis and t-shirts. I add a sweatshirt in the winter, and wear a button-down shirt for meetings. I have a few dresses, but seldom have occassion to wear them. I've become quite utilitarian in middle age. I wear mostly the same brand of pants all the time - Denim & Co, sold on QVC, so the size is very standardized, and there are always returns available on eBay. DD15 is taking mid-term exams this week, but when she is done, I think we need to have a Bug-Out Packing Day.

Managed: I read an article about spoilage from Matron of Husbandry, and checked my squash more closely. I have two with bad spots at the stems. Time to make something. We don't like just plain squash, so I usually bake with it, but I keep reading that I should use canned to bake, for consistent water content. Guess it will be soup!

Saved two spoiling apples by making apple bread pudding with stale whole wheat bread. In the fridge, we lost a partial jar of apple butter to mold. I should put it in half-pint jars from now on, since we don't eat it fast enough. I found a chunk of blue cheese between the tortilla bags. So, is extra mold on the outside of moldy cheese bad, or not? I saved it for research purposes.

Reduced, Reused, Recycled: DD12 proposed a family fast food challenge that will hopefuly reduce our family's contribution to plastic in the world. I turn down plastic bags everywere. One market produce vendor wanted to put each veg in a separate baggie, and seemed resistant to just putting them naked in my canvas bag. The spinach comes in a plastic clamshell. I must grow my spinach next year.

Local Food Systems: I was offered a free place to stay in State College for the PA Sustainable Agriculture conference in February. That makes it so much more affordable for me! I am planning to network and gather resources for my food discussion group, bulk buying coop, and youth food workshop series. I went to Penn State in the 80's, so I am looking forward to seeing how it has changed. My hosts heat with a wood stove, so I will get to see what that is like in the depth of winter in the Pennsylvania mountains. I keep running into these solutions for my little problems; I must be going in the right direction.

Learned: DH started his EMT training course. He already updated his CPR skills and got certified for that, in the first class. One of the trainers said, "I'm 73 and I can tell immediately who will make it and who will not. I see 9 in this class of 48 that won't make it - you are not one of them." Although, I have to quietly snicker when I see on his schedule that there is an OB/GYN segment. DH grew up in a house of only men. The discussion of anything menstrual squicks him, unless it benefits him directly - as in warnings like, "Look out! It's PMS week!". He says he will have to "do some growing." Hee hee!

Library: I will be busting my butt to finish reading Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Sunday morning for the church book club. I have not been buying books much lately. I need to get back in the habit of working on my list.

Behavior: I am making a new Challenge category for myself. Sharon recently added "Regeneration" but I haven't been able to wrap my head around that. But my family is engaged in several behavior changes, so it seems more useful to track that. I am doing OK, but not great with oatmeal. I have to take a pill when I wake up, and wait an hour to eat. The problem comes when someone else wakes up, and wants to make breakfast. I end up saying "Sure, I'll have what you are making." I am the only oatmeal eater. Maybe I can have oatmeal for lunch on days when that happens.

The fast food challenge went OK for everyone but DD12, who is the one that proposed it. That raised the problem of her very picky eating again. She didn't pack a sandwich for that scrapbook thing, and I did. She wanted a burger on the way home, and I bought it for her. I have to deal with my own issues about letting her experience "starving" if I want her doesn't plan and eat better. On the plus side, she tried eating raw spinach and liked it. That's pretty big.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Video Round-up

TED is an annual conference that "brings together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers." They film the conference speakers and make video available to those of us that cannot afford the thousands of dollars it costs to go to this sold-out event. The clips typically run about 20 minutes. I love Sir Ken Robinson talking about how school kills creativity, the amazing insights of brain researcher Jill Taylor's during her own stroke, and the fabulous demographic animations of Hans Rosling.

Here are three food-related segments from my favorites:

NYTimes food columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman calls attention to the lop-sided USDA food pyramid, the contribution of industrial food animal production to climate change, and gives a pretty good recap of how the American diet has changed in the last century.

Ann Cooper has a frontline view of the daily battle to keep kids healthy -- and of the enemy, the processed-foods industries that, it sometimes seems, want to wrap every single thing that children eat in a fried coating and then a plastic bag. As the director of nutrition services for the Berkeley (California) Unified School District, she's an outspoken activist for serving fresh, sustainable food to kids. Her lively website, LunchLessons.org, rounds up recipes, links, and resources for food activism.

Most of us have read at least some of Micheal Pollan's books or articles, but most of us don't get to see him speak live, so this TED talk is a great 20 minutes slice of him talking about gardening, bees, and Darwinism. We forget he is a naturalist, not just a food guy.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Family Eating Challenge

Did you know the BK Big Fish sandwich has its own Wikipedia entry?

DD12 proposed a family eating challenge, and we took up the gauntlet. I'm proud of her for having the idea and defending it in discussion.

Background: DH and I grew up with fast food being an occasional, but regular, part of our diets. Visits to the McDonald's to get free hamburgers for A's on my report card. The brand new Arby's in 1970, when employees wore western-themed uniforms. A first date in Pizza Hut. Ordering Domino's in college. I grew up with the taste of fast food. I know exactly what the food in each place tastes like, and that it will taste the same every time. I think the consistent taste is what trains your palette. I will *never* forget what a McDonald's Double Cheeseburger tastes like, just as I will never forget what smoking a cigarette is like - I quit 3 years ago.

Food Habits are Hard to Break: As a young adult, I was seriously addicted to Diet Coke, at least 12 cans a day. I got heartburn that felt like it was killing me. I figured out it was the carbonation and switched to diet iced tea - by the gallon. Eventually, between the all my drinking of Earl Grey and diet iced tea, the caffeine and tannins irritated the hell out of my bladder. I decaffeinated, which seemed harder than quitting smoking, in some ways. I am now addicted to herbal iced teas (Red Zinger with a touch of honey) in summer, and hot decaf Earl Grey (black, no sugar) in winter. God, I hope those don't do anything bad to me. I also drink a lot of water and a good amount of milk.

Kids, Not Terrible: My kids were born to a financially-challenged life. We seldom had fast food (or any other dine-out meal). We did eat pizza. We never had soda at home, just milk, water, and 100% juice in limited amounts. They were allowed to order soda if it came with the kid meal in a restaurant, and they drank it at other people's houses. Soda didn't become a highly-desirable forbidden food for them, and they seldom choose it as a treat. But fast food - when we had a little more money, we indulged. Not all the time, but once a week or so. We had one period where we had "Take Out Friday" and took turns choosing between pizza, fast food, Chinese, or hoagies. Fast food started looking like an affordable treat, something we deserved to have when there was a little spare cash. Coupons and Dollar Menus made it look like a Good Deal.

That Was Then: We knew it was full of fat, but we were not yet aware of the environmental impact of this ultra-industrial food, nor did we think about the quality of the food-like ingredients. It's not like we eat it every day....

This is Now: Today, we are wracked with fast food guilt. We've seen the films and read the books. We still want fast food, but now we feel guilty about it. For the past few years, while DH was finishing his degree, money was very tight and we almost never had fast food. Since May, things loosened up a bit, and we started noticing that nearly every time we ran errands, someone would suggest a "little snack" from the Dollar Menu. We boycotted Burger King during the tomato-picker crisis, but recently went back, and realized with some dismay that we missed the fish sandwich (me) and the Whopper (DH).

We were eating little fast food meals 3-4 times a week - while I ran all over the county buying local organic food in bulk to can and store! I think part of me was thinking, "Better enjoy the last of the fast food, before the industrial food complex falls apart in the world economic collapse."

Plastic Turning Point: But, we all started noticing, and talking about it. I had a key conversation with my kids, in a Chik-Fil-A, just a few weeks ago.

We had gotten hungry while shopping. I looked at our tray and thought of the blog Fake Plastic Fish, which I had recently started reading. I told the kids about the trash in the Pacific Gyre, and how the plastic elements on the tray in front of us had been useful to us for only a few minutes, but would exist in the environment and in the ocean for centuries. DD12 talked about the trash generated in her public school's lunchroom, where 87% of the kids qualify for free lunches, and all of the food comes in plastic and tinfoil. Even the paper milk cartons have become platic bottles. We calculated that 72,000 plastic sporks are thrown away each year, at her school alone.

In that conversation, the kids became more aware, and DD15 is working on an article to post to her hundreds of friends on FaceBook, and we are working together on a youth food workshop. She encountered a little resistance when she could not find a satellite photo of the Trash Vortex - but she is assembling reliable reports from various sources to overcome disbelief. Some sources report the size of the Trash Vortex as "twice the size of the US" and some as "the size of Texas" because there is no good way to measure it and it is generally not visible in satellite photos. That makes it look like an urban legend to some folks.

Anyway, we agreed that when we eat out in the future, we will only buy the parts of meals that don't come in plastic. Sandwiches and fries tend to come in paper. We already have reusable bottles that don't require straws, so we can use them more.

That conversation started something. We already use canvas shopping bags, and stopped buying bottled water. Time for another step. We know that recycling is not the universally-green action it once seemed. Asian children on 60 Minutes harvest heavy metals from shiploads of illegally-traded electronic waste. Recycled materials from municipal programs now pile up in warehouses, since the Chinese stopped buying so much of it to make new plastic crap for us to buy. Even biodegradable plastics and paper from fast food joints does not biodegrade - composting doesn't occur in landfills sealed off from UV rays and oxygen.

So, we stopped taking the plastic lids and straws that come with cups. We started noticing that some bread comes with double plastic wrapping. We bitched about the plastic that packaged our (reduced) Christmas loot. And the youngest of us finally proposed that we seriously limit our fast food intake.

The Family Challenge: DD12, the one that counts French Fries among the most beloved of her picky-eater habits, said, "Mama, I think we should only eat fast food once a week."

We discussed why and came up with 4 major reasons:
  • it's healthier for us
  • it's better for the environment
  • our dining-out dollars should go to local businesses
  • it will save money for real treats
But, we still needed rules. DD15 said, "They say, if you need rules to control your behavior, you have a problem." Of course we have a problem! So, what counts as "fast food?"
  • franchise chains are always fast food
  • anything with a drive-through window is fast food
  • pre-made food is fast food (school lunches!)
  • sit-down restaurants with servers are OK
  • small local food vendors, like stands at the market, are OK
  • pizza and subs are OK if they come from local shops, not chains
  • each person can use their weekly meal independent of the rest of us
  • at an event that limits food choices, do the best you can
  • do more planning to take food with us when we might get hungry
This whole conversation took place in the car on the way to pick up DD15 from work - and then they both used their weekly choice immediately! DD12 got Wendy's nuggets and fries, and DD15 got pizza.

But the biggest hurdle was still to be faced: DH needed to be approached at home. DD12 wanted me to do it, but we coached her through the proposal, and he agreed! She felt very good and I am proud of her.

This will be a good group effort for us, and well-timed. We just added a lot of new classes, meetings, and jobs to our schedule. That would normally tempt us to eat more fast food to save time. But none of us wants to, so we will do the work to avoid it.

Maybe someday we will stop eating fast food altogether, but that feels like a promise we can't keep, yet. Too big a step, too undo-able. Baby steps are easier to think about.

(Edit: DD12 packed her lunch to school this week. No more plastic sporks.)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

2009 Planting Timeline

Much, much thinner lettuce planting. Make seed tape.

Inspired by Skippy's Vegetable Garden, I made a timeline to use for my spring planting, using May 15th as a last frost date. You may recall the garden plan I made.

I sow very little indoors, since I don't have room to keep seed trays warm and lit. Indoors, I will only be starting cukes, squash, pumpkins, and sunflowers, close to when they can be set out. Plus, the few cabbage I got from the seed swap. I need to research how to grow the 10 Egyptian Walking Onion sets.

I am sure this timeline will get tweaked before spring:
Winter: Order seeds. Collect winter sowing containers and potting soil. Make SWC's out of 5-gal buckets. Keep worms busy making fertilizer. Make "seed tape" out of paper towels for carrots, beets, greens, onions. Scavenge more fishboxes.
March 7: Winter-sow basil, thyme, oregano, annual flowers in milk jugs.
March 14: Buy onion sets at Glick's and plant at Mom's.
March 28: Sow romaine, greens, and spinach in fishboxes. Sow peas in home garden.
April 11: Get hay bales set up at Mom's yard. Fill raised bed for sweet potatoes and screen from groundhogs. Spring clean-up. Talk to neighbor about mushroom soil for Mom's.
April 18: Sow beets, carrots, greens in home garden. Sow onion seeds at Mom's.
April 25: Sow cucumbers, sunflowers, squash indoors. Transplant herb and flower starts to pots.
May 2: Buy transplants of eggplant, zucchini, celery, peppers, parsley at Glick's. Buy brassica transplants and sweet potato sets at Kutztown auction. Look for calendula transplants, and chocolate mint. Try not to be seduced by tomato plants.
May 16: Set out cucumbers (in hay bales) and sunflower plants at Mom's. Sow more romaine and greens in fishboxes.
Memorial Day: Set out eggplant, zucchini, celery, peppers in SWCs at home. At Mom's: transplant watermelon, pumpkin, and winter squash in hay bales. Plant sweet potato sets in raised beds.

Edit: I just found out that June 3rd is called "Bean Day" by local farmers so that is when we will plant all our beans.

June: Sow more basil in pots. Sow beans in home garden. Plan fall planting timeline. Watch for more herbs at transplant clearance sales.
Note: SWC = Self-Watering Container.

Consider this year: Depending how things are going with the food coop, take orders for vegetable transplants from Glick's, close to Memorial Day.

Contact my 4 neighbors that have neglected the concrete planters in front of their houses, and ask if I can plant them with mint or other herbs and flowers.

Consider next year: Order bulk seed, onion sets, and potato sets to resell through coop. Have workshop to demo building SWCs, worm farms, and make seed tape.

Just one zuke, in a SWC, covered in nylon netting to
thwart the squash vine borers, with manual pollination.
Maybe a second plant at Mom's.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Offbeat Storage Item: Mincemeat

We like these easy mincemeat cookies, which store well in a canister.
In our small kitchen, the cooling rack fits over the dish rack.

I store something you don't see mentioned often: mincemeat. None Such is the only commercial brand I am familiar with. It comes in condensed boxes or ready-to-use jars. The manufacturer says it has a shelf-life of 3-4 years, but I have kept it much longer. The boxes cost $3-4 dollars, and the jars cost $7-9 at full retail. You can buy them by the case through the Smuckers website, too, but I never pay retail for this.

The condensed block is sealed in plastic inside a
cardboard sleeve in a wax-sealed foil label.

It's a seasonal item that is only stocked during the holidays, so this is the time to find it on clearance sale. I live near a grocery liquidator that buys seasonal leftovers from grocery stores in bulk. By spring, I will be able to get the little boxes for 35 cents, and the jars for 75 cents - a 90% discount.

What is mincemeat? It's an old-fashioned 15th century British pie and pastry filling made with chopped fruit and spices, with a bit of beef suet, preserved in sugar. The commercial kind is not for vegetarians, but there are recipes for green tomato mincemeat and other meatless versions. The label on the condensed box has straight-forward ingredients: raisins, brown sugar, dried apples, dextrose, water, salt, beef, dried citrus peel, apple concentrate, spices, distilled vinegar.

The cookies do not taste like beef in any way!
See my new silicon baking mats? I love them.

Mincemeat is high in carbs calories, but not fat, and it has fiber. Besides, we don't store treats for their nutritional value, we store them for their emotional value. If I were living through a difficult time with monotonous food choices, I would like being able to occasionally open up a box of this and rehydrate it for a pastry treat, or make cookies using the crumbled dehydrated block. We like the recipe for Prize Cookies on the side of the box. Everything in the recipe can come from pantry storage if you store powdered eggs. There are lots more recipes on the None Such website, but I have not tried most.

If the beef turns you off, there are recipes for green tomato mincemeat, and you could can your own, but I think that kind is more like a chutney, and less like the dense, sweet traditional British mincemeat. It will take a lot of dried fruit and sugar, which is why I like buying the deeply-discounted clearance product.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Battle Plan 2009

I don't make resolutions in January; I usually do that on my birthday. They tend to be short-term goals.

But this New Year, I am making some major life changes. There are a number of things happening in our lives that are leading me to change direction.
  1. My 80-year-old mother is physically healthy, but is getting forgetful and indecisive. I do not think it is Alzheimer's, but she shouldn't live alone anymore. We want her to be living with us within 2 years. Her house can be rented out, which provides income, and leaves it available as an asset if she ever needs nursing care. We gave long thought to living with her, but it creates too many family issues.

  2. My 39-year-old ex, my daughters' father, has now been formally diagnosed with a fatal incurable brain disorder that could strike my girls in their 30's. If you watch the TV show House, it is what the character 'Thirteen' has. I am not typing the name if it, because I don't want it to show up in Google searches. We have always known they were at-risk, but his diagnosis officially raises their risk to 50%. I want to be free to spend time being involved in their interests, like youth conferences and art exhibitions. I am also giving deep thought to planning for the future, which could include supervising my daughters' home care when I am in my 70's. I am no longer involved in my ex's care, but the girls will see his decline, and it will be hard to watch.

  3. I am 47 years old. Reality says I have 18-23 good years of productivity left. I think of the saying from Horace Mann: "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity." I am drawn back toward urban planning, the discipline in which I have a Bachelor of Science, but have not practiced since about 1992. It is my food security concerns that are drawing me. I have been thinking about going back to grad school to revive my professional chops, and get involved in urban food policy. I will start with community involvement, to support future grad school applications.

  4. DH is looking for a professional path after he graduated with a degree in professional writing this past May. He went after a lot of government jobs, but there are hiring freezes at many levels now. He is interested in the Emergency Management field, which I think is a good application of his investigation and security background, his practical personality, and his writing strengths - there is a lot of report and plan-writing in most government jobs. He is going to pursue further education to increase his marketability.
For DH: He found a part-time job tutoring writing at the local community college. It's a very short commute. He also signed up for an EMT training course that will improve his chances of finding work in Emergency Planning. It only costs $125 and ends in certification. Between job and EMT class, he will be at RACC four days a week. So - his next 4 months are laid out. Job, class, work on freelance writing.

Then, we hope to send him to grad school. He is applying for a one-year intensive fellowship program that would get him a Master of Public Administration. He would have to leave us for most of that, which would be hard, but we have many ways to stay connected. It would start in May, and he would again seek a state or federal job in Philadelphia or Washington DC, where he has family.

For Me: First, I am closing my existing web hosting business. I will keep a few long-time clients who would have trouble moving; they will help offset the cost of keeping a server for myself. I spent a lot of time in doctor's offices and court rooms this past year, and I am too often out of touch to stay in a technology business. I have not had good luck finding reliable hired help. A recent offer to buy the business fell through when the buyer lost his business line of credit in the banking crash. It will be better for my clients, and for my family, for me to turn most of my clients over to another hosting firm. My technical experience will undoubtedly continue to be useful, no matter what I do next. I invested a lot of myself in that business, and it is hard to let go, even when it is well past time to do so.

What will I do for a living next? I have a big list of ideas. I am not going to try to plan for more than a year or two ahead - the economy is too unstable to make predictions. I want to be adaptable. My plan is to tie together all my volunteer, church, and professional work under the heading of "urban food security." We are city people, and our future lies in finding new ways to live in urban areas.

There are three areas that interest me most at the moment. I've picked a project for each:
  1. Supporting Urban Food Gardening

    Urban gardeners need many things - containers, plant starts, clean soil, community, etc. But free water is a big factor when the cost of water is so high in our city. Our monthly water bill is $85-100, without any summer watering. Free water is pouring off every roof. In January, I will start producing rain barrels and barrel conversion kits. I will sell complete rain barrels locally starting in February, and sell kits on the internet. I attended the first breakfast meeting of an entrepreneur support group New Year's Eve morning.

  2. Discovering Urban Foodsheds

    I've spent the past year finding local sources of various foodstuffs, and bulk sources of things we don't grow here. I am ready to start a bulk buying coop. I am shooting for a monthly order cycle, with the first delivery in March. I'll start a non-profit with a paid administrator position, so I can turn it over to someone else if I leave this area. It will need to break even out of the gate, but I don't expect it to pay much in the beginning.

  3. Relearning Traditional Food Skills

    I want to organize a series of events that provide opportunities for people to learn about cooking, food storage, seasonal eating, kitchen gardening, and preserving. I already have a list of films and a local film distributor, and a list of potential speakers and demonstrators.
I am organizing my activity by quarters. The barrel business will be my primary livelihood - it comes first, gets the most daily attention. In the first quarter of 2009:
  • Attend weekly entrepreneur group for start-up support
  • Rent barrel storage, shoot demo video, launch website
  • Networking: PA Farm Show - Jan 14
  • Present youth workshop about sustainable eating - Jan 23
  • Networking: PASA conference - Feb 5-7
  • Lead a monthly church discussion group about Ethical Eating
  • Start a simple monthly bulk buying group - first delivery March
In March, we will know if DH is leaving, and the rest of my year might look like this:
  • promote rain barrel business
  • prepare to single-parent for a year
  • help my mother clean out her house
  • continue monthly bulk buying group
  • present workshops at more youth conferences
  • lead monthly discussions about food security
  • plan a film/speaker/demo series
For DD12 and DD15: Both are happy in the school. Both are old enough to be left alone periodically, and to take responsibility for chores. DD15 wants to quit her job and go back to her internship at the community art center. It's good for her youth programming resume, and it reduces my taxi-driving. DD12 just wants to work on her computer graphics, and play spring soccer. They are ready for me to be home less, and it may surprise them to see what I can get done outside our household.

For my mother: She and I had a long talk over the holidays. She doesn't want to stay here over the winter. We agreed that she needs to check in with me daily, visit weekly, and I will be more involved in her doctor appointments. We will start getting rid of stuff at her house, at an increased pace in in the spring. She is worried about being poor, and I showed her that she would not be if she were not trying to support a 4BR house. If she lived with us, even if she contributed to food, she would have her Social Security, her small pension, and rental income from her house. Her new motto is, "I've got to get out of here." She is concerned about being a burden, and I explained that trying to help her maintain her in her own home was a far bigger burden that having an extra bedroom for her.

Beyond 2009: If this all goes well, when DH comes back from his fellowship, we will move to a larger city in 2010. We want a city with universities and good hospitals, that has a smooth tax sale process, so we can buy property. We will start looking for a site to start our city compound - like a warehouse with a lot or parking area. DD15 will soon be ready for college, and DD12 will be in junior high school, and my mother should be living and gardening with us. Somewhere in the future lies grad school for me.

To get all this stuff done, I am going to have to be more disciplined about several things:
  • reduce my news reading
  • reduce my TV watching
  • better sleep routine
  • avoid interesting time wasters
  • stick to my daily action plan
  • DH and kids do more chores
  • engage everyone in decluttering
Interestingly, this Chinese New Year will start the Year of the Ox at the end of January. I was born in an Ox year, so maybe that is auspicious. I am not superstitious, but I enjoy the rituals of Chinese New Year - cleaning, paying debts, bribing the household gods, thinking of ancestors, gathering to celebrate family unity. I better make a bigger offering to the Kitchen God this year.