Friday, July 4, 2014
I have nothing to report from my actual life at the moment, decided to look through the archives to see if there was anything partially written but not yet posted that could be finished and put up.
And look, here is something.
I was working on this in the fall as I thought through issues surrounding early retirement and financial independence, about working and not working, and what that all means and where it leads people. Obviously this is something that the early retirement bloggers focus on a lot, and nicoleandmaggie wrote post about how economists define retirement that I thought was interesting. (They also have a good post about the concept of financial independence. UPDATE: And another one about identity and jobs.)
So one of the things I decided to do while thinking about all of this was to re-read part of a book I bought a long time ago, called How to Do Things Right by L. Rust Hills that is a compilation of short works and essays written by the long-time fiction editor at Esquire magazine, who had an interesting and varied career over many decades.
The section I wanted to re-read is called “How to Retire at 41, Or, Life Among the Pursuits.” It was originally published in 1973 as a book called How to Retire at 41: Dropping Out of the Rat Race without Going Down the Drain.
As is often the case when I read an actual book, written before the advent of the internet (or at least before the internet as we know it), by an actual writer, I am struck by how much better it is than so much of what I usually read. Which almost always makes me think I should stop spending so much time on the internet and start reading more actual books.
So I was going to write a nice post about this whole thing, with a point and everything, and hopefully someday I will actually manage to do that, but in the meantime I decided I should just to give you an excerpt from the book. Because it provides some good background and if I ever do get around to writing more, I can just reference this.
The general point, which I’ve been thinking about for a long time, is that one of the challenges of being “financially independent” or “retiring” (sometimes those terms are used interchangeably, sometimes not) is that much of our society is built around work. People typically define themselves by occupation; one of the most common introductory questions in America is “What do you do?” (Which doesn’t mean that it’s not a weird question, it totally is, but nonetheless it is very common.)
Having a job provides a great deal of structure to your life; if you don’t have a job, you need to figure all kinds of things out on your own. And you need to have enough of a conception of yourself that you can give a reasonable answer when you meet new people and they ask you what you do.
About half way through “How to Retire at 41,” the author begins discussing the concept of the “occupational identity” — how you identify yourself with what you do for a living — and considers how one can move beyond that. And I think what he says is worth thinking about.
So here it is:
Beyond the Occupational Identity
Remember that statement of Montaigne’s that we began with, way back when:
If you plan to withdraw into yourself, first prepare yourself a welcome.
We now see it isn’t just a Comprehensive Day Plan you need, or a country place or an old time-consuming boat or an engrossing hobby or whatever (although these help, God knows); what’s needed is some conception of yourself — of, that is, your self — now that you won’t be working. You don’t really realize, until you quit work, just how much of your conception of your self comes from your work — not just from what you do, but how you do it.
Your basic occupational identity — what you did, or “were” — permitted a lot of amplification by the way you did what you were. When you were working, you weren’t (not in your own mind, anyway) just ” an accountant” or “in fabrics” or “one of the salesmen” or “an insurance man” or whatever. You were also the way you did the work: you were the kindly boss, or the efficient second-in-command, or the talented idea-man or the only one in the office who got along with the secretaries, or some such. Whatever you were, you had some sense of yourself doing it, some recognition of the role you’d chosen to play or the role you’d been forced into.
Let’s take fishing, which can be either a work-for-pay occupation or a leisure-retirement pursuit. Say you were a fisherman when you worked, that’s what you did, that’s who you were, a fisherman. Okay, now there’s also the style you used when you were a fisherman. A fisherman-by-trade can be, for instance, kindly like Manuel or whatever his name was (Spencer Tracy) in Captains Courageous; or he can be surly like Ahab in Moby-Dick. There are presumably an infinite number of ways to be a professional fisherman on this kindly-surly scale, and kindly-surly is only one of many polarizations of personality traits, as you know — although, admittedly, perhaps the most important one.
But now, suppose that when you quit work you took up fishing as a retirement pursuit. One assumes here that you weren’t a fisherman-by-trade before, but something else; because you’d never retire from being a fisherman at age forty-one and then take up fishing as a retirement pursuit unless it was just to make fun of me. Say, though, you were (used to be) an insurance salesman, and now at forty-one you can quit work and live off your commissions from the premiums we pay on the policies you sold us years and years ago. You decide to take up fishing as a retirement pursuit. Now the way you fish in retirement is the key thing. You can do it in a kind of elegant, heroic, upper-classy, sportsman-type way — big-game fishing like Hemingway, or elegant dry-fly angling with delicate lightweight rods — that sort of way. Or you can take it up in a kind of messy, kindly, puttery, lower-classish way — in an old rowboat or fishing off the bridge with the neighborhood kids.
You see what I’m saying? I’m saying that once the specific, defining, perhaps confining, at any rate identifying occupation is removed from your life by your retirement from work, then you style or manner, your “you-ness,” becomes the all-important thing, because there isn’t anything much else. The way you do things, the way in fact you do nothing (now that there’s nothing to do) that’s now the only self you have. If when you retire you do some fishing to fill your time, you can sit out there in your rowboat all day long with the pole in your hands, and they’re still not going to say of you, “Oh, he’s a fisherman,” because you aren’t a fisherman. You used to be an insurance man. Now you’re nothing. You’re nothing except the way you do nothing. Everyone thinks of you as nothing — unless you do your nothing in a way that identifies you to people; unless, for instance, you do your fishing (or whatever) in a puttery, kindly sort of way, say, in which case they’ll say, “Oh, he’s (you, that is, are) a kindly soul, just as sweet and gentle as can be.” Or maybe they’ll describe you, identify you, “Oh, he really stirs things up, a kind of troublemaker, but fun to be around.” Personality’s a part of it, of course, but it’s more a matter of individuality, a kind of amplification of personality by consistency of style and manner.
With your occupational identity gone, you have to find another existence for yourself. Remember Thoreau leaning on the fence post, lying on the ice, and so on? Well, now imagine he’s fishing. When he fishes, he fishes as Thoreau, not as a fisherman. He’s not a fisherman, and he knows it. Like him, you have to be able to have the fishing (or whatever the specific nondefining, nonoccupational routine or pursuit you’re up to) removed or replaced, and still be left with enough particularity of how it is done (not what is done) to provide a sufficient sense of self for yourself and others.
Beyond the occupational identity, that’s all there is.
Sunday, May 18, 2014
Back when I was doing a series of pantry-cooking posts, I wrote about my favorite recipe that I turn to when (a) I’m hungry (b) I need to fix something at home, going out is not an option and the food fairy is not coming, and (c) I feel like I have nothing in the house to make a meal out of.
It is the Universal Pilaf recipe from Amy Dacyczyn’s The Tightwad Gazette.
Typically I end up at this recipe when I’m thinking about how hungry I am and I start going down my mental list of what I can make and multiple items have to be abandoned due to a lack of key ingredient.
Omelettes? … no eggs. Tacos? … no beans no chicken. Quesadillas? … no cheese. Scrambled eggs and cheese grits? I JUST SAID NO EGGS NO CHEESE. Are you even listening to me?!?
Sometimes the part of my brain that can keep track of what is in the pantry/refrigerator/freezer gets cranky with the part of my brain that just wants to eat. And once I get to that point, it’s time to head for the pilaf options.
Usually I have either cooked chicken or ground beef in the freezer, so I think of this as a recipe for chicken or ground beef. But the last time I went through this mental exercise, I had neither. But I did have a can of chickpeas in the pantry, one that I had bought to make a large batch of hummus with but ended up making a smaller batch and reserving the second can for future use.
Okay then. The future is now.
We have grain (rice), vegetable (spinach and/or peas, carrots), aromatic (garlic), and protein (chickpeas). We always have chicken stock, because I buy whole chickens and poach them and freeze the chicken stock, and I can’t imagine ever not having some kind of fat (butter, olive oil, coconut oil, bacon grease) somewhere.
We can make pilaf.
As I was pulling the vegetables out of the freezer, I ran across a small container of chicken fat, and that seemed like a good option for the fat.
So I put the frozen chicken stock and frozen spinach on the stove to thaw, peeled and sliced carrots, and heated a tablespoon or so of the frozen chicken fat.
When the fat was hot, I added minced garlic, then added a cup of rice and coated the grains with fat, then put in the rinsed and drained chickpeas, then the two cups of chicken stock. Covered and returned to a boil, then added the carrots and spinach along with a little bit of salt and fresh ground pepper. Covered, turned down the heat, and let it simmer. When most of the liquid had been absorbed, added about two teaspoons of Penzey’s Hot Curry Powder. Kept on the heat until the liquid had all been absorbed, then turned off the burner and let it sit for a few minutes, then moved off the burner entirely and let it sit for a few more minutes.
While it was finishing up and steaming, I chopped some dried coconut flakes and some cashews (roasted, unsalted), and put into a dry skillet and toasted them lightly.
Put the pilaf on a plate, sprinkled on the coconut and cashews, mixed it all together.
Makes two large servings, four small ones, or one large-ish and two small-ish ones. (Usually when I make this recipe, I eat it once for dinner and twice for lunch, so I think of it as three servings.)
Not bad for a dang I am hungry and I have nothing in the fridge night.
Sunday, April 27, 2014
Okay I know all of you have been anxiously awaiting this recipe for the past FOUR YEARS. Well here it is, the wait is over.
A long, long, time ago, I wrote about making a burrito recipe that my dad had sent me from the New York Times. Because it was the first time I had made it, I decided to follow the recipe pretty much exactly (though I did cut it down a bit, it called for four pounds of steak, there was really no possible way for me to make that work) and I spent more than forty-five dollars getting groceries for that one recipe. This is not a viable recipe for me given my meager food budget of $90-$120 per month.
However they were really quite delicious and I said I’d work on a revised edition, to see if I could come up with something that wouldn’t require me to take out a payday loan to make it happen.
And I did actually figure all of this out a couple of years ago, and even wrote it up, but never managed to post it. So I’m sorry it’s taken so long, but I made these the other day and they are just darn good, and not too expensive, especially when you get everything at the Hispanic grocery. Even the meat (I used flap steak) was affordable, at around five dollars per pound.
Because they are so good, and because burritos happen to be one of the things that I could eat every day for the rest of my life, it actually seems worth the trouble and expense for me to make these occasionally and have the exact same thing every day for a week, until, with sadness in my heart that it is all gone, I scrape the last re-heated leftover drop of sauce out of the pan and lick it off my finger.
The Twenty Dollar Forty Dollar Burrito
1 to 1-1/2 lbs skirt steak, hanger steak, or beef flap meat
1/4 cup mild taco sauce or tomato marinade (see recipe below)
garlic powder or fresh garlic
approx 1 Tbsp oil for pan
1 clove garlic
1/2 cup diced onion
1 yellow pepper, diced
1 chipotle chili pepper in adobo sauce, chopped
1 to 2 Tbsp adobo sauce
1/2 cup prepared salsa
4 to 6 oz. beer
1/4 cup water
1/4 to 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 to 1 tsp ground chili peppers
salt and pepper to taste
the original recipe calls for mild Old El Paso Taco Sauce — if you have that or can easily get it, feel free to use it (it’s not very expensive). If not, here’s a homemade substitute
1/2 tsp vegetable oil
1/4 tsp minced garlic
2 T onion
1 can tomato sauce
1/2 tsp vinegar
1/4 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp chili powder
Heat oil in small saucepan over medium heat. Saute garlic and onion in oil. Add tomato sauce. Stir in vinegar, sugar, chili powder. Simmer for 5-10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375F. Rub garlic over both sides of steak, then coat with taco sauce or tomato marinade. Cook for 10 minutes, turn over, and cook for another 10 minutes. (This is like a fast-track marination process; it tenderizes the steak.)
While the steak is roasting, heat oil in large skillet. Saute garlic and onion until onion is translucent, then add the pepper and cook until softened.
When the steak is done roasting, remove from the oven and slice across the grain into strips of about an inch wide.
Add the sliced steak to the skillet, along with the chopped adobo pepper. Stir to combine. Season with cumin, ground chili, salt and pepper.
Add the adobo sauce, salsa, beer, and water to the skillet. The sauce will be quite thin. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat to low and cook at a lively simmer, uncovered, until the sauce has cooked down, about 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding cumin, chili powder, salt, pepper, as needed.
Serve in warm flour tortillas with any or all of the following accompaniments:
grated cheese, sour cream, salsa, rice, beans, chopped cilantro.
For some of my recipe testing I bought beer, but in one of them I remembered that I had some leftover beer that I had saved to cook with and I used that and it worked fine. So if you don’t always have beer around, I recommend sacrificing a few ounces of a beer that you or someone else is drinking to save for later use in the recipe. I did make it once without beer, and I thought it was not as good. A friend suggested using malt vinegar in place of the beer but I never got around to trying any versions with that.
You can buy a can of chilies in adobo sauce, use what you need for the recipe then freeze the rest. You’ll be able to make it a bunch more times before having to buy another can.
The original recipe includes a jalapeño with the onion and yellow pepper, but the first time I made it, I included the jalapeño and it was extremely hot. The next time, I took the seeds out and it was still very hot. The last time, I decided to leave the jalapeño out entirely and it was still plenty hot. If you like things very spicy, or if you are using very mild salsa, then you might want to add the jalapeño, but I’ve found it to be fine without it.
Friday, March 21, 2014
Sometimes everything I see or hear or read gives me an idea for a blog post. And sometimes there is nary a blog thought in my head, I forget that I even have a blog at all.
Guess which place I’m in right now.
So while I am here, thought less, I will just give you this.
WordPress spell check is sexist.
Maybe I’ll have more ideas soon, but for now, that’s what I got.
Hope all is well with everyone in blogreaderland.
Sunday, February 23, 2014
Here is the last word from me (for the moment, at least) on Julia Child. I wrote this up when I was in the midst of As Always, Julia and then never managed to post. Wanted to get it out of the drafts folder, so here it is.
There are so many things I like about the Julia Child/Avis DeVoto letters that I would not even know where to begin to list them all, but one of the things I especially appreciate is that they each have such a great “voice” in their letters, it’s such a conversational style of writing, you really do feel like you’re listening to two people having an extended conversation.
It’s interesting to think of them pounding away on their typewriters, no computers or “word processors,” just sit down and type, and when you’re done, put in the mail. I feel like we’re so used to being able to go back and edit and change. In theory, it’s great, and usually in reality, too, but sometimes it just feels like a burden. Like how in Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling Upon Happiness, he talks about how people are happier with irrevocable decisions. The idea that you could make a change to things later seems like it should make you feel better, it takes some pressure off, but really it makes you feel worse because then you spend time thinking about whether or not you should make a change. If you can’t make a change then there you go, you’re done.
So aside from making me wish people still wrote letters, and making me think fondly of typewriters, I also love some of the expressions they use.
One of the criticisms of Julie Powell, both her books and her blog project, was her language, which made liberal use of the f-bomb. In general, foul language doesn’t bother me, I don’t have a problem with swearing, but I did notice it in Julie Powell’s writing, but mostly because I think it’s a sign of a lazy writer. Not so much with a blog, you’re doing that day by day and it’s a record of what happened, that’s kind of anything goes, but in a book, there’s really no excuse. There are so many words in the English language, and so many different ways to convey what you are thinking and feeling. Leaving aside the fact that some people are offended by cursing — which I think is actually a big part of the appeal for Julie Powell, she wants to show how much she is not bound by convention — I would argue that curse words are one-dimensional. They just don’t say very much. Try harder.
Neither Avis nor Julia relies on that particular crutch, and they mix some great expressions throughout their correspondence.
Julia is particularly fond of “phooey” which is a great word, especially written out like that. And both of them tend to get worked up about things and start off on a rant and go for a while then realize they need to cut things off and move on to something else, which they often execute with a one-word sentence: “Well.”
Like this, from Julia, when expounding on the difficulties of determining how long any given turkey will take to cook, and what she should say about it in the cookbook .
Whom is anyone going to believe in this business, anyway. And furthermore, I don’t like turkey! And furthermore, I have just had the Turkey section typed up. Well.
Or Avis, when discussing the challenges she faced with her older son, who had returned from the Korean War and was trying to figure out what to do with his life:
His determination to move out of the house is crystallizing … but he has not got the vaguest idea how much it costs to support himself. Well, he’ll find out. The weakness of my position is that I can’t let him starve, or be really up against it, and here is the house, ready for him if he goes down and out. If I weren’t reasonably well off, and if I lived in a two room apartment, he would be forced to face life, and no fooling. Which is no logical reason for my selling the house.
That just says it all.
Thursday, January 30, 2014
I’ve been watching Julia videos. (The French Chef, 3-DVD set from the Durham County library.) Without a doubt my favorite part is when she says, “Hello, I’m Julia Child.” However there is no real reason for that to be my favorite part.
My other favorite part is watching her chop things. Holy cow! She turns an onion or shallot into a perfectly sized dice in ten seconds flat without even looking at what she’s doing.
Just watch her mince this shallot in the famous chicken show.
I feel like part of the appeal of Julia Child is that she is half Everywoman and half Superwoman. Sometimes things stick to the pan when she tries to take them out, sometimes things aren’t quite as done as they should be, or maybe they are too done, and she looks more like a high school teacher than a movie star, yet she did things with food that hardly anyone in America had ever seen.
I am completely in awe of her omelette technique, the way the eggs envelop the filling as she shakes the pan, and how beautifully cooked they are in just a few seconds. It feels at once both totally beyond my capacity and like something I could do it if I just put my mind to it and practiced hard enough.
And I think that is why so many people loved Julia Child — she does amazing things, and tells you how you can do them too. How can you not be inspired by that?
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
For Christmas this year I gave my nieces hot chocolate mix, made with Droste chocolate and vanilla sugar (sugar that sits in a jar with the spent husks of vanilla beans), and peppermint marshmallows that I made using Alton Brown’s recipe with peppermint extract substituted for vanilla.
It was reportedly a big hit, with special kudos from their cousins who declared it “better than Starbucks” and “peppermint heaven.”
[A friend of mine made marshmallows a few years back while I was visiting her, otherwise I'm not sure I would have attempted these. I don't think I even knew you could make homemade marshmallows before that. But they are not difficult. They are especially not difficult if you have a stand mixer, but even if you don't, it's not bad.
My friend and I were discussing recipes etc. in December when I was trying to decide whether I should make them. She said she wasn't sure if she would do them without a stand mixer. I decided to try it anyway and see how it was. It was fine. It does take a little while but it's easy -- as I said to my friend, you're just standing there holding a mixer, it's not like you're trying to hold a Volkswagen over your head. I looked at it as quiet time, like meditation. I was busy that week, it was a nice break.]
Because of the rave reviews, and because we are in the thick of hot chocolate season, I decided to post the recipes.
3 packages unflavored gelatin
1 cup cold water, divided
12 oz granulated sugar (approx 1-1/2 cups)
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp peppermint extract
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup corn starch
Prepare the pans.
Combine confectioners’ sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Lightly coat a 9×13 pan with oil, or use nonstick cooking spray. Sprinkle the sugar and cornstarch mixture into the pan and shake the pan to completely coat the bottom and sides. Return the excess mixture to the bowl for later use.
Place the gelatin into a large bowl along with 1/2 cup of water.
In a small saucepan, combine the remaining 1/2 cup water, granulated sugar, corn syrup, and salt. Place over medium-high heat, cover and allow to cook for a few minutes, until the sugar has melted. Uncover, clip a candy thermometer onto the side of the pan and continue to cook until the mixture reaches 240 degrees F, approximately 7 to 8 minutes. Once the mixture reaches this temperature, immediately remove from the heat.
[No candy thermometer? Here's how to tell what stage it's at the French chef way.]
Turn the mixer on low speed using the whisk attachment if you have one (if not, regular beaters will work fine), and, while running, slowly pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl into the gelatin mixture. Once you have added all of the syrup, increase the mixer speed to high. Continue to whip until the mixture becomes very thick and has cooled to lukewarm, approximately 12 to 15 minutes. Add the peppermint when the mixture looks to be about done, and continue mixing for another minute or so to incorporate.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, using a lightly oiled spatula for spreading evenly into the pan.
[Note: The mixture will be VERY sticky, and the process of getting everything out of the pan and smoothed will be somewhat challenging. Just do the best you can and happily enjoy the batter that is stuck to the beaters and the bowl and the spatula as a special bonus for the cook. That's all for you. Yum.]
Dust the top with enough of the remaining sugar and cornstarch mixture to lightly cover. Reserve the rest for later.
Allow the marshmallow to sit uncovered for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.
Turn the marshmallow out onto a cutting board and cut into 1-inch squares using a pizza wheel dusted with the confectioners’ sugar mixture. Once cut, roll each square in the confectioners’ sugar mixture to coat all sides. Store in an airtight container.
Alton Brown says these will keep for three weeks, but I’m here to tell you they will keep pretty much indefinitely. They will dry out somewhat, but will still be edible, and will taste fine.
I looked up a few cocoa mix recipes online, and the one that looked best was from Martha Stewart, so I went with that. The only problem was that it makes a huge amount, 92 eight-ounce servings, so I cut the recipe in half.
Hot Cocoa Mix
1 and 3/4 cups sugar
1 and 1/4 cups cocoa
1 and 1/2 tsp salt
Combine ingredients in a bowl or jar, and stir to distribute evenly. Store in an airtight container.
To serve, heat one cup of milk per serving. (Whole milk will taste good. Whole milk with a tablespoon of cream or half & half will taste better. Other forms of milk are an acceptable substitute. Do not attempt with water.)
To each mug, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of cocoa mix. (For a less sweet version, use two teaspoons of mix plus one teaspoon of straight cocoa.)
Pour a tablespoon or two of warm milk into the mug, and stir to make a slurry of milk and cocoa. Then slowly add the rest of the milk, and stir to thoroughly combine.
Top with peppermint marshmallows.
Share with your cousins to make them jealous that you get to drink this all the time and they only get it when they come over to your house.