Tuesday, October 9, 2012


Memory loss is considered to be almost inevitable. I don't know if this is truly so, but I do know that as I've aged I have definitely become increasingly prone to forgetfulness. At one point the problem was bad enough that my (now ex-)wife insisted that I be evaluated for cognitive impairment. While I was waiting for that evaluation to happen, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I found two incredible tools in the battle to save my memory - both were books: Memorize The Faith and Where Did Noah Park the Ark. Of the two, it is the first that helped me the most. Memorize the Faith worked for me because it gave me meaningful exercises to cut my teeth on right for the beginning. The book expounds on the work of Thomas Aquinas, who in turn was relating the work of Cicero and the 'Memory Palace' technique of memory association. As a lover of ancient literature, I had encountered Cicero's exposition and techniques in the past, but didn't find them particularly useful. This book changed everything. The book starts by teaching one to memorize the 10 commandments - backwards and forwards, then moving on to the Sewen Deadly Sins, the Seven Cardinal Virtues, the Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy and the Seven Spiritual Acts of Mercy - all things that I used to know, things I feel I should know, things I want to know and remember. Learning to apply the memory loci techniques to these short, obtainable goals, I gradually realized that nothing was really wrong with my memory - I just wasn't using it properly. The technique of the memory palace is scalable and modifiable as needed. I don't know that it's applicable to everything, but it's certainly applicable to a lot of things, and I use it almost daily. Last night, at RCIA, after more than a year since I last tried to recall the seven deadly sins, I was able to put myself back into my memory palace and recall them all. What the Ancients knew, that contemporary man seems to have largely forgotten, is that memory doesn't just happen - it's a skill, one that can be learned, developed, and honed. Memorize The Faith is very Catholic-centric, which for me is a plus. Where Did Noah Park the Ark, despite its title is more secular, but teaches all of the same techniques, and includes usable exercises as well. I give both books a hearty recommendation.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Spring with a vengeance

The very evening of my last post, "not feeling very well" turned into feeling downright wretched, and the next 36 hours or so left a great deal to be desired. That was no fun at all.

Meanwhile, Spring has arrived, not gradually, but all at once, and it's been borderline hot even. Spring of course, means planting, and planting I have done - not all of it yet, but some - mostly herbs and onions, but some greens as well. A frost is still possible, but really, I'm more worried about the lettuce bolting with the heat than I am about a frost.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Complexity of Food

Not much to write about this week. I haven't been feeling well, my work schedule has been demanding, and I've been helping my local Amateur Radio Club build up some infrastructure, so I haven't started anything new. Not starting anything new doesn't mean what it used to mean though - I whipped up my weekly batch of mayonaise, pickled some more carrots, and have been minding the sauerkraut. Spring has arrived early this year, so that means clearing debris from the yard, freshening up the compost piles, and some minor planting. No extravagant cooking though.

Last night, I was getting my grocery list ready for my next trip to the store, and I was struck by how complex food is, even when one is eating simply. I don't think that it occurs to many people when their food is mostly prepared for them by others, but as I go back to basics, buying only raw foods and prepare or process them myself, I've become aware of things that never occurred to me before...

Take potatoes, for instance. Potatoes are a simple and verstile food, suitable for a wide range of cooking methods. All potatoes aren't the same though - some are waxy, and some are starchy. I now keep a supply of at least three different kinds: Russets, Yukons, and Reds. To some extent they're interchangable, but they each excel in some culinary situation where the others simply make do - A russet is your standard baking potato, and I normally use yukons for roasting or mashing, and a red is wonderful boiled along with a pot roast.

Then there's cheese - some cheeses melt, others don't. Some are crumbly, and other want to be shredded. It goes on and on with all the other kinds of food there are. I'm no expert on the matter, but the adventure of discovering the nuances intrigues me.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Sick children, but time in the kitchen

I didn't have time to write much this week. Both my kids got sick so I spent three of the past five days playing 'Nurse Dad'.

I did get to spend some time in the kitchen though and was able to break some new ground in my efforts at home-based food preservation.

Beef Jerky

Late last week, I bought a food dehydrator. Not a top of the line model, but not the bottom either. It's made of plastic, which doesn't warm my heart any, but I thought it would be a convenient vehicle for learning - removing some of the variables and ease the learning curve. There was never any question about what I would make first - beef jerky.

I've been wanting to make beef jerky for a long time, mostly just because I like it, but buying the stuff in stores is EXPENSIVE, making what was once a staple food into more of a luxury. Why it costs so much is even more of a mystery to me now than it was before. The process was simple: take a piece of beef - in my case, it was a piece of steak on sale at the grocery store for about $3.00, remove all visible fat and silverskin; slice it thin; marinate it for 24 hours; put it in the dehydrator for six or seven hours; enjoy.

The marinade I used was some apple cider vinegar, worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, soy sauce, a dab of dijon mustard, red pepper flakes, kosher salt, black pepper, and some ground ginger.

The results were awesome. I brought some into work and it was devoured.

Queso Blanco

This is probably the simplest cheese there is. I made this attempt on a whim. I took the left over milk I had (my kids don't drink enough milk at my house to use up a whole gallon before it goes bad anymore) Some of it was skim milk and some of it was whole milk, all total, about 3/4 gallon and added a couple teaspoons of salt. I brought it up to 190 degrees F - precisely and slowly and then removed it from the heat, and then added the juice of 2 limes and 1/4 cup of white vinegar. I let it sit for a while - maybe 20 minutes. Looking at it, I wasn't sure I had accomplished anything, but I poured the mixture through a strainer lined with a tea towel, and sure enough there were curds. I let the curds drain for a while before squeezing them semi-dry and packing them into a jar. CHEESE! It's really great as a salad topper too.


I don't actually know if this is a success yet, but so far, it seems like it's working. I had two heads of cabbage, weighing maybe 4 pounds. I tried to shed them on my mandolin, but the cabbage thought that was hilarious. I ended up just using a knife. As shredded the cabbage into strips, I thew them into a bowl with some salt - 4 teaspoons total, but added a little at a time. When I was finished shredding, I squashed the cabbage down into the bowl with my potato masher and let it sit for a while. I came back a couple times and squashed it down some more, and mixed the shred up some. After about 30-45 minutes of letting it sit with occasional mashing and mixing, I packed the cabbage into jars (I don't have a crock). There was some liquid in the bowl, but not enough to submerge the cabbage in even one jar. My research was unclear about what to do in this case, since the cabbage is supposed to be submerged to properly ferment, so I added enough filtered water to fill the jars and submerge the cabbage and a little more salt - about a teaspoon per jar. I capped them loosely, wrapped them in towels and stuck them in the cabinets.

The fermentation process is supposed to take a few weeks at least, and it's only been four days. Every other day, you're supposed to squash the cabbage back down and remove any mold that forms on the surface. I've only had to squash them down once so far, and I was worried that by adding the water and more salt that maybe I'd messed things up. When I uncapped the jars though, the smell was distinctly krautish, and there were lots of bubbles on the surface which is a sure-fire sign that fermentation is happening. The cabbage doesn't look any different yet, so I really don't know if it's working or not. I'll let you know in three weeks or so.

More Pickles

Specifically, carrots. I made two batches with the help of my daughter: one sweet (for her) and one spicy (for me). Both batches are quick, infusion-type pickles, and both batches came out well. My daughter seems really proud of herself too, when she asks for a snack of her own special, homemade pickles.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Homemade Mustard - Powerful Stuff

Way back when, I used to work in a movie theater. In the quiet time between shows, my co-workers and I used to talk and a frequent topic was trying to solve life's little mysteries such as:

Why do boys' bikes have that bar across the top of the frame but girls' bikes don't? I actually figured this one out - it's because back in the early days of bicycles, when it was a common means of transportation, women wore long skirts, and the bar across the top would require them to expose themselves.

Exactly what is the purpose of a necktie? I don't know the definitive answer to this one, but my theory is that it was originally intended to hide the buttons. This theory is based on the observations that formal mens clothing (like tuxedoes) use double fronted shirts and/or stud, and cuff-links. Apparently, there was something unseemly about buttons in the old days, and they weren't supposed to show.

Why does mustard come in much smaller jars than mayonaise? I never figured this one out, and for thirty years or so it's been a mystery. One of my co-workers suggested that since mustard gas is poisonous, maybe large quantities of mustard are toxic. I never bought into that theory, but finally, I'm pretty sure I've solved the mystery - it's because real mustard is powerful stuff, and a little bit goes a long way. It comes in smaller containers because it's used in smaller quantities due to its strength, and the small container of mustard will last approximately the same amount of time as the big jar of mayo.

I figured this out, of course, by trying my hand at making homemade mustard. I did a fair amount of reading before I started, and it seemed pretty simple and straight forward. Mustard, the condiment, is made from Mustard, the seeds. The seeds come in three basic varieties: white (or yellow) which it the mildest; brown, which is hotter; and black, which is supposed to kind of rare and extremely hot. The seeds are soaked in liquid - water, wine, vinegar, juice, for a period of time, other spices are added, then everything is ground in to a paste.

Everyone knows there are some basic variations on mustard - American mustard is tangy but not hot, and is distinctively yellow. European mustards are more brownish, and may be hot, sweet, and frequently have wine and whole seeds in them; Asian mustard are yellow or brown, and tend to be very hot. As a kid, I just plain disliked mustard and only ate it if forced to. As I got older, I learned that mustard actually enhanced some foods, especially sausages, and I slowly grew to appreciate the palatte of available mustards and to seek out and try new ones. Although I really groove to hot peppers, I still don't like the hot Asian mustards.

What really got me interested in making mustard at home though, is my daughter. Although she doesn't like anything even remotely spicy as a rule, she LOVES mustard on her sandwiches. She started out with honey-mustard, but now loves plain American mustard. My standard mustard these days is the spicy brown kind, which she's still not really sure about though, mostly because the word 'spicy' in the name. When I told her I was going to try and make mustard, she was really intrigued, so I decided that my first mustard would be American style.

American mustard gets its distinctive yellow color from the addition of turmeric, which turns the pale yellow of yellow mustard paste nearly flourescent. You can of course make a pretty good mustard by mixing dry mustard powder with water, and adding whatever else you want to the mix, but that just wouldn't be the Luddite way, would it? No, I started with the seeds.

I got to work, adding a quarter cup of yellow mustard seeds to a canning jar along with a quarter cup of vinegar. I added a teaspoon of turmeric, salt, and pepper, closed the jar up, and shook it well. Then I put it on the shelf for a couple days, until I could get back to it.

As would be expected, when I got back to it last night, the seeds had soaked up nearly all of the liquid, and had swelled accordingly. I dumped the whole mixture into my blender, added a little water, and set my controls for 'liquefy'. I turned it off less than a minute later because there wasn't enough liquid, and the blender couldn't really do it's thing. It definitely was starting to look like mustard though - so I tasted it. Man, that was extreme! Besides adding some more water, I added a little more salt, and a teaspoon of sugar. The blender did it's thing, and turned the conglomeration into a nice, thick, mustard-looking paste. It was still super strong though, so I added a little more salt, some more sugar, and blended it again. The result was better, but still not right, and only marginally appealing. I was considering dumping the batch and starting over, when I noticed the open bottle of wine I had on the counter. What the heck? I thought, and added about a quarter cup. The result was still very strong, more runny than I like, but tasty enough to actually use, so I jarred it back up and stuck it in the fridge. I've got a couple pounds of Kielbasa waiting for it's date night with that mustard.

So, I've actually made mustard, but I don't really consider myself a mustard-maker at this point. The process definitely needs some work. I'm thinking that the next time I'm not going to soak the seeds in vinegar, but in either wine or water and see if that helps. I've also read that longer soaking or aging the mustard before putting in the fridge can mellow out the flavor. I'll work on this until I get it right, and post the results here. I will conquer mustard.

Next on the condiment trail is ketchup.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Monday, Monday...

I had a really busy weekend. I did a lot, but only a fraction of what I had planned to do. Productivity-wise, Saturday was a waste: I spent seven hours just hanging out with some friends and shooting the breeze. It was good for me spiritually though, and broke up the monotony of being alone (which is a factor no matter how comfortable you are with yourself).

That meant on Sunday, I had to try to cram as much into one day as I possibly could, and I made the best of it. There were the routine chores, of course - namely laundry, dusting, and deep cleaning. I also got some woodworking done - I still have about eight crates of books that need a place to rest in the house, so I'm building new book shelves to house them. Book shelves are pretty straight forward to construct, and I've built enough of them at this point that I have a standard plan and dimensions, so that except for finishing and waiting for glue to dry, I can build one a day. The one I'm working on right now though is bigger than normal, and lacking enough clamps is taking a little longer. Still, it ought to be sitting in its place of honor within a week. Once it's done, I have two smaller bookshelves to build for the kids' rooms, and I'm done with shelves and on to tables for a while. I'll post some pictures when I'm done.

I also got some cooking done. Everything I make isn't worthy of posting a recipe, and every recipe I use isn't mine to share, but I will heartily endorse Lisa Fain's (of Homesick Texan fame, previously mentioned) Tex-Mex Meatloaf. Good stuff, and my stomach thanks her. I also whipped up a couple pints of real chili sauce for the enchiladas I plan to make later in the week (recipe will be posted), 2 quarts of escabeche (pickled jalapenos, onions, cauliflower, and carrots), and made my first attempt at homemade mustard (it's still in the soaking phase, so I don't know how it's going to turn out yet.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lenten Fair

Maybe it's a little strange, but I always look forward to Lent. It's a tough time of year - not really winter (not that we've had much of a winter this year), and definitely not spring yet. Lent, with its focus on penance, self-reflection, and self-denial seems like the last thing that would brighten up an already difficult time of year, but I find it invigorating. In a lot of ways, it's my New Year's ritual

I take it seriously, too. I fast to the extent that I can: I have medical problems that make full fasting unwise, but I eat more simply, I forgo meat on Fridays, and I observe the traditional practice of 'giving something up' for Lent in addition to the newer idea of 'picking something new' for Lent - that is, developing some positive new habit.

As a committed carnivore, but also someone who doesn't like fish (which for some strange reason don't count as meat), I have to admit that planning meals without meat is something of a puzzler. While married, my wife had grown up as a vegetarian and could throw something together without thinking - me, not so much. The problem is a little more complicated still, now that I've transitioned to almost completely cooking from scratch - a quick meal of rice and beans isn't so quick when you can't just open a can of beans and the long cook time requires advanced planning.

To the rescue, comes lentils - not a bean, but a pulse, they have a relatively short cook time, coincidentally almost identical with that of brown rice. This has quickly become my favorite lenten meal:

Brown Rice and Lentils

5 cups vegetable stock
1 cup brown rice
1 cup lentils
1/2 cup celery, diced
4 cloves garlic, dice
1 onion diced
1/2 cup jalapeno peppers, sliced into rings
salt and pepper to taste

Throw everything in a pot, bring to a boil over medium high heat, then lower to maintain a simmer for 45 minutes or until everything is done. I get about 4 servings.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Glory of Homemade Mayonaise

This wasn't the Luddite victory I hoped it would be, but making one's own mayonaise is most definitely a victory, and a tasty and satisfying one at that. I made my initial attempt with a hand whisk, but this attempt failed (although it did yield a very tasty almost-mayo sauce). I made another go, and decided to remove the variable of my own pathetic whisking and this time used a blender.

The ingredients to a basic mayo are pretty simple (the possible variations, however, are endless):

2 egg yolks
6 tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar - I used freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 tablespoon of dry mustard
salt to taste
1/4 to 1/2 cup of some kind of oil - I used the last of my storebought vegetable oil.

Add the egg yolks, salt, and mustard to the blender, along with 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice. Start the blender on a low speed, and keep your eye on it. After a couple minutes, you'll hear the blender start to slow down a little, add a few drops of oil. Let it process, and add a few more drops. You should hear the blender start working harder and harder - slowly add more oil. The key here is to add the oil very slowly, and after you add some, wait a bit for the blender to do its thing before you add some more. Gradually, the mixture in the blender will really start to look like mayo and continue to thicken. Add the rest of the lemon juice, and continue to drizzle in the oil until it's all gone. At some point, the mayo in the blender is going to get as thick as the blender can manage on low speed. You could scrape down the sides, but at this point you run the risk of breaking the mayo (which can be fixed, but why do it if you don't have to?). I transfered the mayo to a glass bowl, and finished it by hand.

Now taste it... Go ahead...

Mine was mind-numbingly good. It was like I'd never actually tasted mayo before. I transferred mine to a mason jar, and stuck it in the fridge. My BLT's are even better than they've ever been before.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Magical Lemonade

Today makes one whole week since I've started living alone. Yesterday was the first day that the kids have stayed for dinner. They elected to have hotdogs, which have always been one of my guilty pleasures. Once she was done with her home work, my daughter came into the kitchen to see what I was doing - I was scooping out avocados for a bowl of guacamole, but she became fixated on the basket of lemons and limes I had on the counter. "My teacher says," began my daughter, with a level of earnest concern that only a six-year old can maintain, "that when life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade. But lemons are too sour for that..."

"Well, you're wrong about that," I told her. "You can't make lemonade at all without lemons. You just have to know what else to add to it, otherwise it would be called 'lemon juice' instead of 'lemonade'."

"Let's make some then!" she beamed.

Maggie's Super-special Lemonade

  • Juice of 4 Lemons

  • Juice of 2 Limes

  • Water to taste - a quart to two quarts, depending on your particular six-year old. We used almost two

  • Sugar to taste - we used a little more than half a cup.

Juice lemons and limes in a large pitcher. Add 1/4 cup of sugar. Mix well until sugar dissolves. Add more water and sugar as needed until you think it's right.

Maggie says to garnish with a couple of lemon seeds and a little bit of pulp, just so you don't forget it's super special and homemade.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Darn Good Soup

Last night I thought soup and a sandwich would be a pretty good supper. Generally, I'm not a soup man, but I had some vegetables I needed to use up before they went bad: Some leeks that I bought on a whim, never having eaten them or cooked them before, and some baby portobello mushrooms. I bought the leeks because I love onions, and decided that I'm going to try all the different kinds there are. I did a quick recipe of Allrecipes.com, and a common use for them seems to be as a companion to potatoes in soup. I frequently browse Allrecipes for ideas, but have found the recipes there to be of random quality. Beside, I already know how to make potato soup, so I set to cooking. Here's what I came up with:

Charles' Potato, Leek, and Mushroom Soup

4 largeish Yukon Gold potatoes
4 cloves of garlic
3 Leeks, dark green tops and root ends removed
12 Baby Belle Mushrooms
Chicken stock (low sodium)
Salt, to taste
Black Pepper, freshly ground, to taste
1 Tablespoon of Garam Masala (optional, but recommended)
1 can evaporated milk

1. Peel potatoes and slice thinly on a mandoline. Uniform size is important for even cooking time, thin is important for reducing cooking time. Place slices in a soup or stock time, add chicken broth to cover potatoes, plus an inch or two. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a low boil, stir occasionally to prevent potatoes on the bottom from burning. Add a little salt and pepper to taste.

2. Slice leeks in half length-wise, then into thin half-moons. Slice mushrooms to your own liking. Heat a healthy table-spoon of oil in a skillet or saute-pan. Once the oil is hot, add leeks, mushrooms, minced garlic, garam masala, and sautee until tender.

3. When potatoes are soft, drain but retain the stock. Drain any remaining oil from the leeks and mushrooms, and add the leeks and mushrooms to the potatoes. Add the condensed milk, and retained stock to obtain desired consistency.

4. Bring back to a simmer, stirring occasionally, adjust seasoning to taste (I added a good healthy pinch of cayenne), and add stock if needed to maintain desired consistency (I like my potato soup to be on thick side, so I didn't add any more). Simmer 20-30 minutes (until you're happy that the flavors have properly married).

I seriously enjoyed this soup - so much so that I completely forgot about the grilled cheese sandwich I made to go with it and went back for a second bowl.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Busy times

Well, I'm livng alone now in my big house, and I've been busy, busy, busy.

First, there's the cleaning. It's not a big deal really, just time consuming. I spent the weekend sweeping, vaccuuming, mopping, wiping, and dusting, and I'm still not done. In my previous incarnation as a single man I discovered that 30 minutes of intense cleaning activity every day was sufficient to keep the house clean. I lived in a much smaller townhouse then, however, and I'm not really sure it'll be enough to keep this house clean. A good base cleaning can't help but make things easier.

I wish Icould tell you about all the clever, homemade cleaning solutions I've come up with, but there hasn't been any of that. Unlike many divorces, this one didn't start out with me in an empty house, and my ex left pretty much everything that was already open, so I'm using up what she left before I start experimenting with homemade cleaners.


When I haven't been cleaning, I've mostly been cooking. I did a marathon grocery shopping trip to stock my pantry, and have been putting those gorceries to good use. I roasted a chicken that was absolutely delicious. I made a great meal of Polish Kielbasa, cabbage, onions, and potatoes, a noodle and chicken stir fry with left overs from the roast chicken (and still have enough left for a couple more meals), a Corned beef brisket, and a yummy spinach and mushroom curry, all cooked from scratch. I'll be posting recipes soon.

"Free Time"

I've been busy enough that there hasn't been a whole lot, but when I've had some, I started knitting a scarf. Knitting isn't the most manly of past times, but it is productive and fulfilling. Sometimes it's downright frustrating, such as when my work popped off the needle and I essentially had to start over. Maybe an expert knitter could have salvage things, but I am by no means an expert knitter.

I also started incorporating regular guitar practice into my daily routine. Only 20 minutes a day right now, as I need to get my fingers back into shape. No beautiful music yet, just 20 minutes of scales and chord change drills to build up some stamina. Anyone who hasn't attempted to learn guitar has no idea the amount of conditioning needed in one's fingertips, and finger muscles.

Making the quest for finger conditioning that much more difficult, I gouged the tip of my right thumb adjusting the fence on my table saw. I have a half-built bookshelf that I could really use right now, and only ten minutes into working on it, I started shedding blood.

Coming soon

These post will be more organized and actually contain some useful information. There should also be more of them. I plan to start posting my recipes, photos of my projects, tutorials or links to tutorials on what I'm up to, and to turn this blog into a source of useful information.

Until then, may God bless you with fair winds and following seas....

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

When is it waste?

I'm smack in the middle of putting my household together. This has meant buying a lot of stuff - some of which it actually irks me to buy, and which goes against my normal sensibilities. A good example of this is plastic storage containers. It's not just that they're plastic, but that they're labeled as 'disposable'.

So why did I buy them? Well, for a number of reasons: First, they're really cheap and there are just so many things I need to establish a working household, and need now, I can't afford to pass up a bargain; Second, while they're billed as 'disposable', my experience is that they can be reused often and actually hold up for a long time, even a couple years if well taken care of; Third, and this is the real heart of the matter - since I plan to cook a lot, and mostly from scratch or near-scratch, I need to be able to store things. To cook effectively for one, I need to be able to cook in quantity and save what isn't consumed immediately for later use, especially for lunches. In order to be saved, the food has to be stored in something. Thus, plastic storage containers, and no small number of them are a logical choice, and seem to be a wise use of my limited money. So is it wasteful to purchase these containers?

Thinking about this led to my questioning other aspects of waste - money vs. time; money vs. resources; time vs. resources; space vs. energy; etc. More permanent, non-plastic (or less-plastic) solutions to the problem of food storage that I came up with are mason jars; re-cycled jars from gorcery store products, and commercial glass bowl (like pyrex) with plasticy resealable lids. I do use mason jars for storing dry goods in, as well as for sprouting, and a few other things. I like the commercial pyrex bowls too, but they're expensive, and the lids are still plastic. Admittedly though, I usually don't repurpose the glass jars that come with grocery store products, and simply put them in the recycling bin. Obviously, this is something I need to correct.

Another conundrum occurred to me while thinking about this and dealing with a limited budget: most food stuffs - from potato chips to spices are cheaper when bought in bulk quantities. For a larger group of people, this is a no-brainer. But what about for a single-person household? Should we only buy small quantities, and sacrifice our money and the time it took to earn that money? To me, the logical course is to buy the large quantities, and take steps to mitigate spoilage through repackaging. Unfortunately, this seems to mean learning to live with more plastic.

So what's the biggest waste? My time and money, the resources used for 'disposable packaging', or letting food go to waste?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Life, Plus or Minus Plastic

I'm no great fan of plastic. The primary reason for this is because of the role it has played in eliminating the craftsman from the manufacturing process, but also because it promotes the idea of disposability, put another way, waste. Despite this there are some arguments to me made for plastic as a material: There are some jobs for which is plastic is well-suited, and there's just so much of it around - to eliminate it entirely, or to reject it completely is to commit the sin of waste in a different way. The solution, as with so many other issues of technology, is to use plastic wisely and responsibly.

I came at this issue initially intending to eliminate plastic completely. Like many other eco-minded Americans, I started by amassing several canvas bags to use in place of plastic grocery store bags. This led to the surprising discovery that I really depended on platic bags, and had used them in numerous applications from ad hoc waterproofing material, to pipe patches, to well... bags for carrying all sorts of things. In fact, I found that of all the platic items I encountered in modern American life, those ubiquitous and scandalous plastic bags were one of the items I was most likely to reuse and repurpose. So I've struck a compromise: I try to reduce the number of plastic bags I consume, but rather than suffer a guilt attack everytime I end up with one, I save them as a precious resource, and re-use them.

Lately I've been shopping around alot for household items, and stocking up a pantry. As much as possible, I look for non-platic solutions to my household needs. Still, I find plastic is everywhere, and trying to boycott plastic is even harder than trying to boycott Chinese-made goods. At this point, I'm not even sure that it can actually be done. Still, I believe that just because I can't do everything doesn't mean I can't do anything at all. Just because I can't eliminate plastic doesn't mean that I can't reduce the amount that I use, and that I can't use it responsibly when I do.

A simple example will suffice I think. Water bottles. Water is my beverage of choice when I'm not drinking coffee or tea. When purchasing bottled water, plastic is almost always involved. Generally speaking, I don't buy bottled water, more because it's simply filtered tap-water, and thuse represents a near 100% profit margin for the bottlers. Instead, I have one of those water pitchers with the filter, and have a selection of permanent water bottles made from a variety of materials - some are stainless steel, and others are nalgene plastic - but even the stainless water bottles aren't plastic free, because the tops are made of plastic. The water pitcher and the filter assembly are... made of plastic.

Whether I like it or not, plastic is, and, for the immediate future, will remain part of my life.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Still in a holding pattern...

... and will be for another three weeks or so. If you think it gets old reading about it, try living it.

The Potholder Saga

I mentioned last week that I attempted to make a potholder with one of those loopy looms but that my inner 5 year-old abandoned me at the end. Not one to give up easily, I put my thinking cap on and decided to salvage the thing. The solution I came up with was to take a piece of coat hanger wire and bend a stop on one end and a loop on the other. I then transfered all of the remaining loops onto this piece of wire (bending it as needed at the corner) and pulled off one loop at a time as I was ready to deal with it. I'm now the proud owner of one ugly potholder.

As I mentioned before, the technique doesn't really seem worth the trouble, except for the fact that I have a daughter who turns six tomorrow and she thinks making potholders out of little loopy things is a fabulous idea. I'm putting the whole thing aside until the next rainy weekend, at which time we'll let her have a go at it.

A cool website

Makezine recently featured a spot on their website about a knockdown backyard pizza oven. The source of the idea was Gardenfork.tv wich turns out to be a really cool site, with lots of advice and ideas on green living. They have some good looking dogs too.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Tough Week

There's real content coming, I promise. This week has kept me moving to the point of exhaustion though. I had to drive down to Charlottesville, Va (nice town, by the way) for a second opinion from a doctor. I got one, alright, in direct contradiction to my regular doctor. So what do I do now? Get a third opinion and hope it breaks the tie?

I decided though, since despite the difference of opinions, and because regardless of which one is right, the recommended treatment is exactly the same - and of course my symptoms don't change because the diagnosis did, that I'm just not going to worry about it. Too many other things going on right now.

An attempt at craftiness

I thought I would get crafty and try making a potholder with those loop thingies - you know, the kind you made in art class when you were 5. It starts out pretty easy, but gets a little tricky at the end. Approximately half-way through the process of getting the finished potholder off, the tension on the loom had relaxed so much that the remaining loops just poped off. Since nothing was holding them together, the edges started to unweave. It is salvage-able, but it doesn't make me want to make more potholders this way. I can't really recommend the method at this point to anyone who isn't 5.

This was really just a whim, inspired by the realization that I'm going to be needing my own potholders soon. My grandmother crocheted her potholders, and I though homemade potholders would be very much in keeping with my vision of life, so I picked up the loom at the local craft store. Considering I don't have a viable source of making loops of my own, and refuse to depend on having to buy the materials (and the colors are kind of funky anyway), I don't think this is really a viable means of production. The loom is made of metal, so I'll be looking for a way to use it for something else.

A good cooking blog

I've lived in Virginia for very nearly 10 years now, and frankly I don't want to live anywhere else. I'm still a Texan at heart though, and one of the things I miss most is the food. Honestly, recreating the food here in the land of country ham is the main reason I set about learning to cook. Recently I found a great blog by another displaced Texan who has made it her mission. She recently published a cookbook The Homesick Texan which I heartily recommend. Her recipes and mine don't necessarily match, but she's ventured out a lot further than I have and I'll be looking to her blog and her book for inspiration a lot.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Plans, plans, plans

Winter is still holding us fast in its grip here in the northern Shenandoah Valley. Outdoor activity is tough due to radical fluctuations in temperature, there's nothing to plant, nothing to water, and most of my indoor activities are limited due to the flux going on in my domestic life. Everybody is prone to anger, and the most innocent of comments or gestures can have dramatic, long term effects. My coping strategy is to be 'small', to take up as little space as possible, and hold out for the physical separation which is still a few weeks away.

What I can do, however, is plan for the future. It's not exactly a bright, shining future, but neither is it exactly dark and dreary. There will be serious financial challenges since the bulk of my income is going to child support and spousal support, but I'm no stranger to poverty or limited means. Despite the fact that my income is effectively rolling back about 15 years, there are certain advantages that I've never had before:

First, I no longer define my self by a material yardstick. Who I am and what I can do is much more important to me. It's only because I've been both places before: abject poverty and material success that I can fully appreciate that the new state of my life will be neither, but also include some of both, and I work at it without allowing myself to be seduced by the siren call of modern you-are-what-you-can-buy, the potential for a pretty good life awaits me.

Second, I have a home now. It's not the perfect home, and it's not what I make my first choice, but it is mine, and it's sustainable. I also have the freedom now to develop it in the way that I see fit without the constraint of someone else's expectations or trying to present an image that has no basis in reality.

Third, I possess now the gifts of knowledge and some small understanding of what is is truly important, including the knowledge of how to turn small resources into greater ones. I can plant seeds and harvest crops, preserve those crops and make food from them; I understand that to throw away anything of the smallest value is to commit the sin of waste. I can, with my own hands and the sweat of my brow craft much of what I need to sustain life, if only I resolve to do so and persevere.


I'm not starting entirely from scratch, but there's a lot of work to be done to convert my home from a mediocre palace of consumption to a homestead of production. To accomplish this, I have to build infrastructure, establish new habits, and actually do a lot of things that up to this point have only been idle fantasies or intermittent pastimes.

First in order of importance is food production. Gardening will be the deciding factor on whether I subsist on the dreg of the industrial food system, or feast on the healthy provenance of God and Nature. I live in a suburb of a small city, in a house designed to exploit the 'Grid' and not to be self-sustaining. My lot is a little less than an acre. It won't every fully nourish me and my children, but it can make a significant contribution. I have several projects in the works to move towards this end:

  • Edible Landscaping: Once spring emerges, I'll be replacing ornamentals with edibles. The permanent flower bed between my house and driveway is going to be devoted entirely to kitchen herbs and a few perennial vegetables. I already have established fruit trees, and will be planting more. I'll post pictures and commentary on the process as it develops

  • Above-Ground Gardening: The soil here is rocky and not prone to draining well. I've already built one permanent garden bed measuring 12' x 4', and I'll be building several more as time, materials, and other resources allow. I expect to have as many as 10 by the end of the year, at which time I'll evaluate the need and space requirements for more.

  • Container Gardening: This serves multiple purposes - it allows other wise unusable space to be productive; being portable, it allows one to extend the growing season by starting plants earlier, maintaining them later into the season, and creating the specials conditions needed for plants that would otherwise not be viable in one's local climate.

Crops themselves are only one step in the process of food production. Crops aren't exactly food yet, until they're actually on your plate. They also don't last forever and have to be stored or preserved. Then there's actually cooking them, which is not really that small a task, particularly when dealing with whole, raw ingredients. Some plans in this area which I'll be documenting are:

  • Canning: I've helped others with the canning process, but never actually done it by myself before, and then only the water bath method. I've watched other cook with a pressure cooker before, but I'm only vaguely familiar with the process of pressure canning. This will be a real adventure, and I'm looking forward to it.

  • Pickling and Fermentation: I've made pickles before, and I know people who regularly make their own Kimchi and Sauerkraut. These and other dishes can be a great and healthy addition to anyone's diet.

  • Cooking From Scratch: This is one area where I'm really pretty comfortable. I enjoy cooking as much as I enjoy eating. I've always shied away from pre-made options anyway, but I have to admit that quite often I've succumbed to the temptation of convenience. Now I have a financial incentive to avoid the industrial alternative.

It takes more than food to live a happy and fulfilled life, and there's more than gardening to living sustainably, lightly, and responsibly. My home is going to need furnishings, tools, textiles and other items, many of which I can manufature myself in whole or in part. There's also free time to account for, kids to entertain and instruct, maintenance and home-improvement. Plans in this area include:

  • Music: I play guitar and tin-whistle. My daughter is learning the violin, and both my son and daughter are aspiring harmonica players. We already enjoy making noise together, and are developing a repetoire of songs we can play. Making your own music is fun, enriching experience that improves the mind, the body, and the spirit.

  • Woodworking: This is another area that I'm really comfortable with. I don't have every tool in the catalog, but I learned a while back that skill makes up for not having all the fancy gadgets, and that skill only requires practice and dedication. A lot of the furniture that's 'mine' is already stuff I made myself. I'll be making a lot more in the future and posting the results here.

  • General Tinkering: Something I've always done, and a skill that's paid many dividends, both monetarily and in a sense of satisfaction. I like to make things and I like to fix things, from small engines to metal fabrication to electronic gadgets to household fixtures.

  • Sewing and Needlecraft: This is generally considered a male past time, or a skill set that men are encouraged to pursue, but it remains vital. Clothes need mending or alterations; knitting and crocheting are simple, productive activities that can be done while talking, watching television, or simply relaxing. I've also always been fascinated by the art of weaving fabric and spinning fiber into thread and yarn that can then be woven.

Finally, there's the Luddite Philosophy of living responsibly and sustainably, using tools rather being used by tools against one's own enlightened self interest - of being able to sustain one's own life without relying on others for basic needs.

  • Waste not, want not: Also known as 'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle'. This includes lowering energy dependence, composting, repurposing, and not falling into the traps of convenience and responsibility. Creativity can play a large role here, and is something I plan to explore in great detail.

  • Community Development: This means helping neighbors, strangers, and nature itself. It means getting to know people, being ready to lend a helping hand, and being proactive about the problems and potential problems in the world around us.

Well, that's all for now, but there's plenty more to come. Having written this, I'm actually looking forward to the future.