Almost Back

Friday, January 25, 2013

I’ve had two projects that have been taking up most of my time plus a bunch of end-of-year/start-of-year Scrap Exchange bookkeeping that needs to be done. (I am no longer the Treasurer at The Scrap Exchange but now am on staff as finance manager. Out of the frying pan and into the fire? We’ll see.)

I took a break from the “How to Shop” series because I figured no one wants to read about how to save on groceries in the middle of December. I was planning on picking up where I left off in January when people are paying attention to things like that again, and that is still the plan, but it’s gotten a bit delayed.

In the meantime, I hope everyone is honing their skills thinking about what they can make with what they have on hand so that nothing goes to waste, and figuring out what kind of shopping pattern will work best with their lifestyle. Part III (and beyond) coming soon. Or soon-ish, at least.

I will also share with you two things I’ve been enjoying this winter as I work on my “eating down the fridge” project, which I have come to think of as the March to a Clean Pantry and March to an Empty Freezer.

I have been eating millet for breakfast, and it’s cheap and very delicious. It has a better texture than oatmeal, not mushy and slimy. (I like oatmeal, and I personally don’t have a problem with the texture, but I know some people do.) And it cooks faster than steel-cut oats, which I like a lot and are not particularly mushy or slimy but take forever to cook.

The cooking time for millet  is between that of old-fashioned oats and steel-cut oats. It’s long enough for me to do the dishes and clean up the kitchen while it cooks, but not so long that I need a snack to tide me over until my breakfast is ready. I’ve been mixing in pantry and freezer odds and ends including

  • hazelnuts
  • slivered almonds
  • sunflower seeds
  • dried coconut flakes
  • dried apricots
  • dried sweetened cranberries
  • dried cherries

The nuts and sunflower seeds I chop and toast in a dry skillet until fragrant and just turning brown. I also toast the coconut. And chop whatever feels like it needs to be smaller, for instance, apricots. But mostly I just toss things in.

I think my favorite was toasted hazelnuts with dried apricots, but the slivered almonds were  also very good. And the sunflower seeds and coconut and cranberries too.

Okay, they were all good.

For one serving, I boil 3/4 cup water and add 1/4 cup millet. For the mix-ins, I think I put in around 2 tablespoons (or more or less depending on what I have and how I feel). If I’m hungry I also have a soft-boiled egg and a piece of fruit (orange or grapefruit or apple slices) or maybe just the fruit.

Whole grain, hot and filling, very cheap. Can’t beat it.

I’ve also been making cold-brewed coffee.

I’m not much of a coffee drinker so making an actual pot of coffee is way too much work for me, but I like iced coffee sometimes and also I like to mix a little bit of coffee in with a cup of hot chocolate.  Sort of like a mocha latte but with much less coffee, I like just a hint.

My friend Cathy makes cold-brewed coffee concentrate that she keeps in the fridge and mixes with milk for iced coffee. She drinks a normal American amount of coffee, so she makes it using a pound of coffee at a time. We made it once when she was visiting and it was good but it was way too much for me. I froze it, but it was even too much for that. Then over the summer I found a link to a mini-version of the recipe — 1/3 cup of coffee grounds combined with 1-1/2 cups of water, to make two normal-person serving (or four or five my-size servings). And I brought some coffee home from my grandmother’s in September when we cleaned out her kitchen. So I was all set.

You combine the water and coffee grounds in jar and stir up and let sit overnight, then strain through a coffee filter to eliminate the grounds, and keep in the fridge.

Then I make a hot drink with about 4 or 5 ounces of milk (I use whole milk because I think skim milk looks and tastes like dirty dishwater, but you should use whatever kind of milk you like) plus one to two teaspoons of cocoa powder and two to three teaspoons of sugar (or more or less, depending on how much sweet you want) plus one to two ounces of coffee.

Winter bliss.

Okay, that’s it for now. I need to get to work. Stay tuned for the return of the How to Shop series. And maybe someday I’ll cook something that looks good and take a picture of it again.

How to Shop, Part II: Think First

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Okay so I was going to write about working on a limited budget for the next part of this series but I realized that before I do that, I need to talk a little bit about planning.

I’m looking at what Cory Booker bought (I looked for an itemized list but couldn’t find one, he tweeted a picture of his receipt but it’s crumpled and hard to see exactly what’s on it) and wondering just what the plan was, if he had one or if he was just generally looking for what was cheapest, what was on special, and what was similar to what he normally ate. For instance I read that he bought bagged salad mix because it was on sale, 2 for $5.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time armchair quarterbacking the Mayor’s choices, but for those of you following at home, I will say that I do not recommend spending 15% of your budget on lettuce. Lettuce is not filling, it’s not hugely nutritious, and it doesn’t keep well. If you really feel the need for something salad-like, buy a cabbage and make some slaw. Otherwise try to let go of the notion that eating salad is a prerequisite for a healthy meal. It’s not. Focus your resources of more substantial vegetables.

One of the problems with trying to buy a week’s worth of food all together is that you are likely to end up with too much of some things and not enough of other things; it’s really hard to know how much of something you will eat in one meal. If you eat less than you think, you might not have had the foresight to get other things that will go with that thing to make a second meal, so in the end you’ll have a bunch of random things that don’t necessarily go together but that you have to eat together because that’s all you have. And you are out of money to buy more. And you will feel sad and deprived because you will be eating half a can of beans an apple and a bowl of macaroni for dinner.

Buying for a few days at a time is better because you can get what you need for one meal and then see what you have left over to roll into the next meal.

And, just to be clear, you are not trying to buy exactly the amount you need for one meal, that would be hard and most likely not cost-effective (unless you have access to bulk bins, in which case it’s an option that definitely should be explored), you are simply buying the things you need to make a meal.

Normally, in non-Food Stamp Challenge food shopping excursions, you do not have to buy every single item you need to make a meal, so this is all a little easier. And since most people — even, I would think, most food stamp recipients — are not usually starting with absolutely nothing in their refrigerator or pantry, I’m not going to spend too much time telling you how to deal with that situation. (And anyway, I already did that. If you’re really interested, you can read about the Dollar a Day project in 2009, where I did start with absolutely nothing and bought everything I ate for the next 30 days, spending $1 at a time. You can get to those posts by clicking on the Dollar a Day links in the sidebar and then using the calendar in the sidebar to navigate through the posts.)

As noted in the previous post, I don’t know that I’m actually capable of planning a week’s worth of meals at once, and even if I could, I know that I am definitely not capable of follow the plan. So the planning I’m recommending here is not that kind of planning, it’s much more limited. You do not need to pull out your crystal ball, you just need to come up with a few specific meals that you will eat over the next few days.

If you have a smaller household and cook meals at home on a regular basis, you will almost certainly have a stockpile of leftover food starting to build up. For instance pasta is sold in packages of one or two pounds. You are not going to eat a pound of pasta all at once. (Unless you manage to make something so extraordinarily delicious that you want to eat it four or five nights in a row, which I suppose could happen, but doesn’t usually happen to me.)

Same thing with rice, eggs, dried beans, frozen vegetables. And some fresh vegetables, like carrots, onions, garlic. And spices. Even some convenience foods like boxed cereal.

You rarely use everything you buy in a single meal.

And buying a few things to go with things you already have on hand to make one or two full meals is much cheaper and easier (much much much … it would be difficult to adequately emphasize how much cheaper and easier this strategy is) than trying to buy everything you need to make every meal for a week every time you shop.

So, if the Mayor had taken me shopping with him, instead of aides with calculators, I would have advised him to do things differently.

First, before even going into the store, we would have had a conversation about his schedule and what kinds of things he might want to eat for the next two or three days. When does he normally eat? Is he someone who pops out of bed ravenous, or someone who can hardly stand the thought of food until ten o’clock? Is he going to have to eat things on the run or will have time to make things fresh? When is he going to have the most time to cook?

Instead of looking for the absolute cheapest foods, we would then have looked for the cheapest foods he could get that would work for him given how he likes to eat, how much he needs, and what kind of schedule he has. Shopping for $4 a day is not like shopping for $1 a day; there’s not only one path out of the wilderness. We can take things other than price into account.

Someone who is hungry in the morning and needs a big meal to get through the day should buy eggs, cheese, frozen spinach, so he can eat scrambled eggs with spinach and cheese for breakfast. Maybe biscuit mix and some oranges.

Someone who can’t manage food until late morning is probably better off focusing on two meals: a bigger, slightly early lunch and a later dinner. And possibly a mid-afternoon snack if the time between meals is long.

Regardless of how or when you like to eat, for the first night, you probably want to make some kind of stew with vegetables and beans, and you want to try to make enough to eat on both the first and second nights. Serve over rice. (The Mayor went with sweet potatoes instead of rice, because they were cheaper, but I think that was a tactical error. I think rice was probably still within his budget, and it makes your meal feel like an actual meal in a way that sweet potatoes will not. The volume of food you eat is as important for satiety as the number of calories, so you need to keep that in mind when trying to decide what’s most cost-effective.)

So, for instance, for your first shopping trip, you might buy:

a dozen eggs – $2.30
one package of frozen spinach – $1.30
a bag of carrots or celery (fresh) – $1.80
a block of hard cheese (e.g., cheddar, Muenster, pepper jack) – $2.50
a box of Bisquik or other baking mix – $2.30
two cans of beans – 2 @ $.90 = $1.80
[or a bag of dried beans, if you have time to soak and cook, and the prices are better]
one can of tomatoes – $1.30
one bag of rice – $2

TOTAL: $15.30

[Note about prices: I'm not looking anything up, and I know prices vary significantly around the country. The prices I'm giving are my estimate based on what I think I would pay at the store I shop at most here in North Carolina, which is not the cheapest store. Some people are likely to think those prices are much too high and some will think they are much too low. It's just a general ballpark, don't get too hung up on it.]

But wait, you say, I’ve just spent more than half of my budget on the first day, and I don’t have nearly enough food to get me through the week!

It’s true, you don’t. But you’re not going to eat everything you just bought in two days and you’ll be able to build future meals out of those items, with a much smaller incremental cost.

Also, my experience with rationing is that you’re better off lowballing things in the beginning to see how much you really need and if you can get by with less than you think. Then you can see how much you have remaining, and what you feel like you need most — if it feels like you need more substance, you can buy more rice and beans, but if you have enough of that, you can spend the extra on fruits and vegetables. From a psychological perspective, it’s much easier to go without in the beginning and have enough in the end than the other way around. Running out of things and having no money to get more is suffering, no two ways about it.

So for the first few days, you’re going to have scrambled eggs with spinach and cheese for breakfast, along with biscuits, and you make a stew out of the tomatoes, carrots (or celery), spinach, and beans and serve over rice for dinner.

See how that goes and how much food you eat.

Then on your second trip, you’re going to look to see what you have left and build your next few meals based on what you have in the pantry.

Maybe you buy a few pieces of chicken and an onion and poach the chicken with carrots/celery (and some spinach, if you want), and use the biscuit mix to make dumplings. (Note that for this, you would need a carniceria, or some other store with a butcher counter, so you can buy individual pieces of chicken by the pound. Where I live in Durham, there are carnicerias on every other corner; don’t be afraid to check them out for some pollo.)

You will probably be able to get what you need on the second trip for about $8, which will put you at $23 and leave you around $7 for a third trip.

What I found when I started shopping this way was that food I bought to last for two or three days would invariably stretch for longer than that, especially when combined with things I had on hand. And it’s not like I was going to starve to death if I got busy and couldn’t make it to the store for a few days, I would always have something here that I could throw together.

[And again, I need to insert my disclaimer here.

This is not designed for people who are in dire straits, who have nothing in their cupboards and only a few dollars to spare. That requires a different strategy -- and outside help, I'm not going to be able to solve those problems with a blog post.

This is for people who are trying to figure out how to spend less, and it's based on the strategy I use all the time, every day. I'm using the Mayor's experience as a jumping off point, not because I'm trying to tell him or those in the SNAP program what to do, but because it provides a specific example and it gives me a chance to compare my strategy with what people typically do when they're trying to get by on as little as possible, and to highlight how the two approaches differ.

Disclaimer/end.]

Generally what happens if I go for too long without making it to the store is that I have to get increasingly creative and start pulling things out of the pantry and freezer that have been languishing and see what kind of meal I can make from those. There are a few things I can almost always make — curry rice pilaf with carrots and peas (and if I’m lucky, ground beef or chicken), spaghetti with bread crumbs. Or chicken livers. (That’s not punishment, I actually like chicken livers, I think it might be a southern thing).

And then when I finally do make it back to the store, I spend $20 or $25 instead of my usual $12 to $14, because I have to replenish more things in the pantry and freezer as well as getting what I need for the next few meals. But eventually it evens out.

That’s how it works for me.

And that’s today’s lesson: Think first, because a little bit of planning goes a long way.

My Unweek

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Fortune: Your are busy but you are happy.

From the Big New Wong, 6th & H, Chinatown, November 2012

Well, the fortune got the first part right at least.

I am trying very hard to wrest control of my life back from the forces of chaos that seized it months ago.

Through sheer stroke of luck, I ended up with a completely unscheduled week this week, and immediately became committed to keeping it that way, to not scheduling anything, just keeping it open. I was very excited about this prospect, but then with the week at hand, started to worry about the best way to spend it. Catch up on my work? Work on the house? See if I remember how to use a cookbook?

So many options!

I was having trouble figuring out what to do, and worrying that I would squander this precious resource. Ultimately, I decided I needed to think about it as an Unweek.

An unweek?

Let me explain.

In the tech world, there is something called an Unconference.

An unconference is basically a conference with no set agenda for sessions. So instead of having everything mapped out, this “expert” talking about this topic at eleven o’clock in the Tulip Room, you get a bunch of people together and the first session is people pitching topics. You can make a pitch for something you want to present, or you can make a pitch for something you want to learn about. All of the potential topics get written on post-it notes and then things get combined and written on a whiteboard and assigned to times and rooms and off everyone goes.

I’ve been to two unconferences and I’m now completely sold on the idea.

The person who has run the unconferences I’ve been to is our local tech guru/social media superstar Ruby Sinreich (who, in 2007, got a flat tire on her way to a presentation she was scheduled to give and used Twitter to get a ride to the meeting — I tried to tell that story for more than a year before I was able to tell it without first having to explain what Twitter was and why anyone would use it). Ruby has given the intro to the unconferences I’ve been to and explained how it works. She says there are two rules for an unconference:

Rule #1: Whoever is here is the right group of people to be here.

Rule #2: If a session isn’t working for you — if you are not learning from it or contributing to it — it is your duty as an unconference participant to leave and go to a different session.

So I decided that I need to apply those rules to this week.

Whatever I think of to do is what I’m supposed to be doing. And if what I decide to do turns out to be not so good, I need to go do something else.

So that’s what I’m doing.

In other news…

(1) I am working on an Eating Down the Fridge project to close out the year. I got a new refrigerator in August, and the freezer is completely different from my old refrigerator, and smaller, and I can’t find anything anymore because the previous system I had doesn’t work with the new setup so I end up putting everything I take out anywhere it fits just so I can just close the door and get on with my life.

I’m working on getting rid of everything in my freezer (and also my pantry, just for good measure) and starting over with a blank slate and maybe figure out a new system that I can keep track of.

(2) I have grand plans for a series of “how to shop” posts that will outline my strategy for shopping and eating for approximately $100 a month. I have been hoping to get to this for a long time, and in October had a conversation with someone I’m friendly with who said she really wants to see it, she really needs it, she needs help. So I promised her I would get to it and put it up and let her know when it was done. And I will. Soon.

In the meantime, those of you who are interested and have not yet read it can check out the links to the Hundred a Month project linked in the sidebar. That’s not exactly a how-to, but it does outline a month of shopping and eating for approximately $100 a month that I wrote about in 2010. And some of the posts are kind of funny.

(Note that the best way to navigate through that project is to use the calendar in the sidebar. If you start with the post linked in this paragraph, you’ll be on January 7, 2010, and you can click the blue numbers in the calendar to get to the next post.)

(3) I went to the library the other day looking for a Dave Ramsey book, because he gets referenced a lot but I’ve never read anything of his, but unfortunately everything was already out. But I noted that his book was published by Thomas Nelson, which is a Christian publisher, and that reminded me of America’s Cheapest Family, by Steve and Annette Economides, who also have some Christian publishing link (though I can’t remember what that is right now, if it was their original publisher or their agent or exactly what the link was, I just remember noting it when I was researching them earlier in the year) and that reminded me that I started writing a review of their books that I never finished and posted.

So that will be coming soon, since it’s actually mostly written. I just need to review and make sure everything I wrote makes sense and isn’t likely to offend anyone and then put up.

And that’s what’s going on here.

Hope everyone has a good week. Or unweek, as the case may be.

Below Average

Saturday, August 18, 2012

I recently came across information on the National Standards for Food, Clothing and Other Items that the IRS uses when trying to figure out how much people can afford to pay when trying to make up for back taxes.

According to the page

National Standards have been established for five necessary expenses: food, housekeeping supplies, apparel and services, personal care products and services, and miscellaneous.

The standards are derived from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Consumer Expenditure Survey (CES) and defined as follows:

Food includes food at home and food away from home. Food at home refers to the total expenditures for food from grocery stores or other food stores. It excludes the purchase of nonfood items. Food away from home includes all meals and snacks, including tips, at fast-food, take-out, delivery and full-service restaurants, etc.

Housekeeping supplies includes laundry and cleaning supplies, stationery supplies, postage, delivery services, miscellaneous household products, and lawn and garden supplies.

Apparel and services includes clothing, footwear, material, patterns and notions for making clothes, alterations and repairs, clothing rental, clothing storage, dry cleaning and sent-out laundry, watches, jewelry and repairs to watches and jewelry.

Personal care products and services includes products for the hair, oral hygiene products, shaving needs, cosmetics and bath products, electric personal care appliances, and other personal care products.

The miscellaneous allowance is for expenses taxpayers may incur that are not included in any other allowable living expense items, or for any portion of expenses that exceed the Collection Financial Standards and are not allowed under a deviation. Taxpayers can use the miscellaneous allowance to pay for expenses that exceed the standards, or for other expenses such as credit card payments, bank fees and charges, reading material and school supplies.

Here’s the table of expenses for up to four people across all categories.

Expense One Person Two Persons Three Persons Four Persons
Food $301 $537 $639 $765
Housekeeping supplies $30 $66 $65 $74
Apparel & services $86 $162 $209 $244
Personal care products & services $32 $55 $63 $67
Miscellaneous $116 $209 $251 $300
Total $565 $1,029 $1,227 $1,450

I checked my stats for this year, and my total for food, including restaurant food eaten when I’m too lazy to cook and also the money I spend on food for Scrap Exchange Third Friday (full details on that below), is averaging out to $153.80 a month ($86.86 grocery store food + $27.04 convenience food + $39.90 Scrap Exchange food).

The amount of money I spend on restaurant food because I’m too lazy to cook moves in lockstep with how much work I have going on — when I’m working more, I’m much more likely to eat out. This is because (a) I have less time/energy to devote to shopping and cooking, (b) there are more days when I’m out and it’s easier for me to get food out than to come home and get food, and (c) I enjoy eating out occasionally and if I am making money, it’s harder to talk myself out of it.

The Scrap Exchange food situation is more complicated.

The Scrap Exchange has a monthly gallery opening that I started providing food for a few years ago. We have a monthly budget of (I think) $60 for food and drink. When other people were handling the food, they would buy food and submit the receipts and get reimbursed. However doing it this way seemed inefficient to me, there tended to be a lot of waste and also I felt like we were spending kind of a lot of money for not such great food. We would have leftovers that no one wanted to take home, and then the next month we’d start over from scratch.

So a year or two ago I decided to take things into my own hands and handle the food shopping and prep myself, and make things I like, so that if anything is left over, I can bring it home and eat it with the rest of my regular food. I also started buying soft drinks in cans instead of two-liter bottles, so if they didn’t get used up we could bring them back next month instead of having half-full bottles of flat soda pop filling the refrigerator in the party room. (I also dream getting what I need to use the leftover wine to make vinegar, but I haven’t managed to get that going yet.)

This has generally worked well, we have good food at the openings and for the most part I enjoy doing it — not to mention the fact that I have an excuse to make things like homemade Snickers bars and graham crackers. However the overall strategy has made my accounting somewhat complicated.

If I have Scrap Exchange pay for everything, even though I’m bringing leftovers home and eating them, then my grocery bills will be artificially low. (Plus it feels weird to me to have Scrap Exchange paying for my groceries.)

If I am paying for all of it myself, but giving a bunch of it away, then my grocery bills will be artificially high. (And I am using my grocery money to feed half the town, which doesn’t feel quite right either.)

The compromise I came up with is to track the spending and bill Scrap Exchange for it quarterly based on what we used and what I ate.

Things that I know I will not use at all — like wine and ice — I code to “reimburse” and that doesn’t go onto my books at all. Things that I use some of for Scrap food and some of for my food — like butter and brown sugar for cookies, yogurt and sour cream for dips, etc. — I prorate based on how much I used for Scrap and how much I used for me. Things like pretzels and crackers that we use at Third Friday but don’t get completely eaten and then I eat the leftovers I also prorate. Things we use all of at Third Friday, I put at 100% reimburse. Then I do a quarterly accounting and submit an invoice.

Yes, I know that is a ridiculous system. It is hard being me.

This is the first year I’ve used this approach — last year I just bought food and made it and donated all of it. This year, for a variety of reasons, I decided I needed to keep better track of it.

Overall this is raising my grocery expense because I’m buying and eating things that I wouldn’t get if I weren’t making food to serve at an opening — things like chips and pretzels and crackers that are generally more expensive than most things I buy. (It is also not so great for my waistline, though that’s a separate issue.)

It’s worked out to about $80-$90 a month for my food and $40-$50 for Scrap food, for a total of $130 a month, which does not seem like an unreasonable amount to spend on food, especially given that there is a big party in the middle of every month with nice snacks that I share with anyone who wants them.

And now I will return to the point of this post … apologies for the digression … which is to say that even with my Scrap Exchange food, I’m way below average, spending just about half of the national average for one person. However I’m considering trying to spend $301 on food next month, what the IRS says is the “national standard” amount, to see what that looks and feels like. It actually seems like kind of a challenge, I’m not even sure I’d be able to do it.

But I’m thinking about it, it might be interesting.

My New Friends

Friday, June 1, 2012

My Chicken Friends

My Chicken Friends

A couple of months ago I was talking to my friend Ann, she said she’d been talking to our friend Sara about chickens. Sara works at The Scrap Exchange, and does a bunch of different things — she’s a potter and teaches pottery and grows vegetables and makes art and just has a generally interesting life.

Ann said that Sara said she had had chickens before but her boyfriend had gotten rid of them, and she’d like to have them again but keeping chickens was too much for one person. (She’d recently gotten rid of the boyfriend, so that had opened things up.) Ann told her that she knew I was always in the market for fresh eggs and that she was pretty sure I would be willing to help, and that she would help too. We could have a little chicken share thing.

A co-op chicken coop as it were.

When I lived in New Jersey after graduating from college, I was able to get the best, freshest eggs from the farm down the road (Mrs. Winant’s farm) where my housemate would take her dog to play. They had a little shed where they would put the eggs out and you would leave a dollar and take a dozen eggs. It was such a dream, the eggs were divine.

I can get eggs at the farmer’s market here, but there are a bunch of problems — they often sell out early, they are $4.50 a dozen, and they don’t taste that much better to me than the Latta’s Egg Ranch eggs I get at Whole Foods for $2.29 a dozen. So I’ve generally resigned myself to eating Latta’s eggs, except under special circumstances when I might make a trip to get fresh eggs from one of my friends with chickens.

After the city council legalized chickens within city limits (a contentious battle that I will save the telling of for another day), I did think about starting to keep chickens, but it seemed like it would be a lot of work for way more eggs than I could handle. A better option seemed to be finding someone who might be interested in bartering eggs for … something. But I hadn’t done anything about that either.

So the prospect of sharing chickens with Sara and Ann was really exciting. Sara had the expertise and land, she already had gone through the permitting process, and she said she could build a chicken coop out of scrap wood and other materials she’d salvaged. Ann and I said we’d help out with whatever she needed.

It turned out that pretty much all of the help we’ve provided so far has been to look at the pictures Sara has sent and say, “Wow! That looks great! Way to go!”

Sara built a rockin’ coop from salvaged materials, including two old windows that I gave her that I had been intending to take to The Scrap Exchange for probably two years (sometimes procrastination works in your favor). She built nesting boxes, a roost, an outside run. She painted the coop to match her house.

Salvaged Materials Chicken Coop

Scrap Chicken Coop

It’s really awesome.

So then we had to get chickens. Sara said I could be in charge of that.

I quickly realized that I know NOTHING about chickens.

I tried to do a little research. I talked to a friend who has chickens. I got some books from the library.

My friend with chickens told me they get theirs mail-order from the hatchery. I was like What? You order chickens in the mail?

Who knew?

But I wasn’t sure if we wanted to do that. You can’t just drop the little fuzzballs into your backyard. What do you do with them until they’re big enough to go outside? My friend Lorri grew up on a farm and she said her grandma would keep them in a box in the kitchen with a light over it to keep them warm. She said it wasn’t a big deal.

Okay, so that was an option but I wasn’t totally sold on it. The minimum order is twenty-five so we’d have to go in on an order with our friend, I wasn’t sure how long it would take, etc. It seemed like it might get complicated.

I looked on craigslist and there were a few possibilities but nothing really jumped out at me.

Then Ann said she was at The Rock Shop and they had chicks there. Apparently The Rock Shop has become The Rock and Chick Shop.

We told Sara, she went and checked it out and said that seemed like a good option but she was going to wait a bit until they were a little bigger. But then she got impatient and went and got them.

baby chickens

chick chick chick

They look like little alien dinosaur babies to me. I said this is the awkward adolescent phase, all gangly arms and legs and pimples.

I left town a few days after she got them, and I was crazy busy in the days leading up to when I left. Today we finally managed to get over there to see them.

Chicken Baby

Our Chicken Baby

They’re so cute!

I brought them some worms from my worm bin. They hopped around and snacked on the worms. Ann tried to pick them up and cuddle them but they were not so into that. (It actually reminded me of this scene from Bugs Bunny … I will hug him and pet him and squeeze him… )

I’m looking forward to spending time with them over the next few months, and I’m very much looking forward to getting some EGGS.

Yummmmmmm……

Cleaner

Monday, May 28, 2012

Front Porch Dishtowels

Front Porch Dishtowels

Okay I know this is sort of a weird post to start back up with (and note that I did NOT put up a sorry I haven’t posted post, I was busy, it was not exciting, that’s all I have to say) but I was talking with my mom about my discovery of a method for cleaning dishtowels and she asked for the detailed how-to and I said I’d put it up along with the before and after pictures so she could see for herself.

Here’s the background.

After I bought my house in 1999, I bought the book Better Basics for the Home and started making my own cleaning products. I started teaching a class on it at The Scrap Exchange in 2004 and have taught the class on and off since then. One of the things that I always get asked about is laundry detergent, what do I use and do I know anything about making homemade laundry detergent.

Unfortunately, I do not have a good answer to that question.

Getting laundry detergent is a problem for me because (a) it’s really heavy and (b) it’s expensive. I walk to the grocery store, so I basically have to make a special trip just for laundry detergent — after saving up my pennies for three months so I can afford it. Also I cannot stand the smell of most commercial laundry detergents, and I’m always afraid I’ll mistakenly buy something that has some horrible fragrance and I’ll have to give it away just to get it out of the house.

I use Sal Suds as a general cleaner so I always have that around and it says on the label that you can use it for laundry, so a few years ago I started using that. The label says a quarter cup per load but that doesn’t seem particularly cost-effective to me, since it’s $13+ for 32 ounces, so that would be over eighty cents a load. Also it’s super concentrated so that seems like it would be too much.

I have a front-loading machine and I know you’re supposed to use less detergent in those, and also I know that with most things, you can use less than the instructions say, so I started keeping a diluted bottle of Sal Suds (detergent mixed with water, maybe 1:4 ratio) and pouring a little bit in when I run a load of laundry. Seems to work fine, though I’m not all that picky about how my clothes look so I may not be the best person to speak to this question.

And while I may not be all that picky about how clean my clothes are, there are a few things I was having problems with, namely pillowcases, which had begun to yellow, and dishtowels, which seemed to come out of the washer looking as gray and dingy as they looked when they went in.

So in preparation for class, I decided to do some research on homemade laundry detergents and also try a few experiments to see if I could do anything to get my dishtowels clean without shelling out the big bucks for a possibly horrible smelling commercial laundry detergent.

In terms of the homemade detergents, there are many versions of recipes online but all of the ones I looked at were basically some form of soap or detergent plus washing soda and borax. I think these would probably work fine, though my concern with using soap is that if you have hard water, soap will react with the minerals in the water to form soap scum, and your laundry might start to turn a yellowish-gray after you use it for a while. If you have soft water, or if you have s water softener in your home, this will be less of a problem due to the lower mineral content. If you use detergent instead of soap, this will not be an issue since detergent is designed to not react with minerals in water.

So feel free to try any of the online recipes and let me know how it goes, if you’re so inclined.

I’m pretty happy with the Sal Suds, and I can always add washing soda and/or borax to a load if I think it needs it (and I often add baking soda to smelly loads, bike clothes and things like that — that works great), so I haven’t bothered with mixing up a batch of homemade detergent.

However I did want to try to tackle the dishtowel problem, and here is the solution I came up with.

I put the towels in a big stock pot and filled with warm-ish/hot-ish tap water. I put in a medium squirt of Sal Suds (maybe a teaspoon or two), along with about 2 to 3 tablespoons of washing soda and 1 to 2 tablespoons of borax. (I didn’t measure anything, just poured it all into the pot.) I also added about a tablespoon of powdered non-chlorine bleach. (I used Ecover because that’s what I had here.)

I stirred everything up and put the pot on the stove, turned the heat on high, and brought to a boil. When it started boiling, I turned the heat to low and kept the pot simmering for half an hour or so, stirring occasionally. (It’s basically like making soup. But with dishtowels.)

I then turned off the heat and left the pot on the stove for a few hours. (I have an electric stove, so it stays hot for a while; if you have a gas stove, you might want to simmer longer.)

As the pot simmers, the water starts to turn this really disgusting color of yellowish-brown as all of the grease and grime and dirt in the towels is pulled out into the wash water. It’s totally vile, and disturbing to think that this is what you’ve been using to wipe things off with. So try not to think about that too much, it doesn’t really help anything.

After a few hours, I dumped out the water (it stays hot for a long time, so be careful when you dump out and take out the towels, to make sure they’re cool enough to handle) and, without rinsing, put the towels in the washer along with other things that I would normally wash with towels, socks and underwear and things like that. Then I ran a normal wash cycle, without adding any detergent or anything else to the load. (This utilizes the leftover cleaning solution in the towels for a full load of laundry, and gives you a clean rinse of the dishtowels.)

When they were done, they look like new. Totally amazing.

Dishtowels-Before and after

Before and After

The picture above shows a comparison of a towel that was washed this way (on the right) with one that wasn’t (on the left). No more dingy gray, just fresh and clean blue and white stripes.

And you will totally be able to tell that it’s working by the color of the water in the pot. Below is a picture of water samples. In order to make sure that simply boiling the towels wouldn’t do the same thing without  cleaners, I filled the pot with water and boiled without adding any detergent or washing soda or borax. The water sample on the right shows that the water stays basically clear and the towels stay dingy. On the left is the water that results from boiling with detergent/washing soda/borax/powdered non-chlorine bleach.

Water samples dishtowel cleaning

Wash Water Samples

And I’m glad to have finally taken this picture and put this post up so I can get rid of the water samples and wash the rest of my towels this way so everything is clean.

And I’m glad to be back, and will try to not disappear again. Hope all was well with everyone these past few months. More soon.

Happy New Year

Monday, January 2, 2012

Okay so I know I left things hanging for the past few weeks.

Scrap holiday party food took a bunch of time, though I was nicely rewarded when someone who had been enjoying the offerings seemed like he was going to compliment something and then just said, “Everything on this table is exceptionally good.” Apparently he couldn’t narrow it down to just one thing that he liked.

The egg nog managed to live up to expectations, and my generous neighbor Ron donated four loaves of bread from his bakery, Loaf, which was a huge hit. Especially since I served it with fresh butter, made using the clothes dryer as a churn.

[How do you do that? Basically you follow the instructions given here, but instead of shaking the jar, you put the jar in a plastic bag and make sure the lid is on REALLY tight, and wrap it up with padding (I use dish towels) and put in the clothes dryer,  and run it on air (i.e., NO heat) until the butter has formed. I've done it before, but it took longer this time than I remembered, at least an hour, maybe an hour or an hour and a half. I'd set the dryer for 20 to 30 minutes and was doing other things, so I'd just let it sit until I managed to check and see if it was done and if it wasn't, I'd put it back in for more. I meant to stop when it was fluffy, like whipped cream, before it has fully separated and formed, but didn't manage to catch it in time. And then I made the mistake of putting it in the fridge instead of leaving it out so it would be spreadable. So a little bit hard to work with the bread, but tasty nonetheless.]

And then I was so enjoying my holiday peace and quiet that I couldn’t bring myself to write anything. But I am still planning on wrapping up the My Life and The Pioneer Woman series with a final post with my advice for what to do instead of comparing yourself to others. Hopefully it will be worth the wait.

And I am uncharacteristically (and somewhat sadly, I might add) without blogging obsessions at the moment, and have been left to spend my work breaks looking at house tours on Apartment Therapy, in the hopes that it will motivate me to get going with the house stuff I need to do. It has been motivating enough to get me to think about things, but not to actually do anything yet. Gotta start somewhere, I guess.

At any rate, best wishes for a joyous and prosperous 2012, and more posts coming soon.

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