Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Eating Down the Larder - Week One Wrap-Up

When I agreed to do the challenge, I really thought we would have a hard time - not because we don't have enough food, but because our lives are so incredibly busy. A couple of years ago, I went to see my doctor. We chatted about my health and my concerns - one of which was my increasing waist-line. The issue is that we eat so late at night. Some nights, dinner (my primary meal of the day) is served as late a 8:00 PM. I know families whose kids are in bed before then.

My doctor agreed that eating so late was probably my biggest issue and asked if I couldn't change it. Three years later, nothing has changed. We're still eating dinner really late on several nights during the week.

Which is our other issue, because some of those late nights end with carry-out, and we can't have carry-out during the Pantry Challenge.

Luckily, my daughters are very committed to this challenge - interestingly - and on those days when I just wanted to cheat (who would know? :)), they would keep me in line. The fact is that we have a lot of food, and we managed, for the first week of the challenge, to make dinner at home, even when our busy, busy lives would have encouraged us to take the easy way out.

We officially started the challenge on Monday, April 6. That night, we had chicken soup. Tuesday, we had pasta. Wednesday, we had sandwiches and chili (from the freezer).

Thursday is a crazy-busy day. We leave home in the morning, drop Deus Ex Machina at work, and go to co-op. After co-op, I drop the girls at their dance classes, and go home to let the dogs out and check on things. Then, I pick-up Deus Ex Machina, and we go back to pick-up Precious at the dance school. On a usual Thursday, there would be just enough time to go to the grocery store before Big Little Sister and Little Fire Faery were finished for the evening, and then, back home.

We walk through the door, after that whirlwind day, at 8:30 ... and then, it's time for dinner. It's always been very easy to pick-up something quick at the grocery store (they have a salad bar and some prepared foods in the deli area), or to stop and pick-up a pizza. This week, we just came home, and we had eggs for dinner. It was delicious.

Friday, I cooked the last of our stored Hubbard squash. Big Little Sister made squash bread, and we had the bread, some of the cooked squash and pork chops for dinner.

Saturday was another of those crazy busy days. Big Little Sister and Little Fire Faery have dance until after 3:00 PM. In the morning, Deus Ex Machina usually has music, and Precious has group music lessons right after. Usually, Deus Ex Machina plays chauffeur, because he also has music lessons, but this Saturday he stayed home to boil sap. Saturday night we had a dance show for the girls, but we had just enough time between them finishing their dance classes and us having to travel back out to the dance show to put the maple syrup into jars, douse the fire, clean the pans, and gobble a couple of bowls of curried squash soup.

I picked up our cow-share from the butcher today, and so this week will feature beef in the latter part of the week. We're almost out of potatoes and carrots (clearly, we don't store enough of those!), and the cheese is just about gone - much to my daughters' dismay.

But we still have a lot of food! We just may end up with some very odd combinations for dinner in the next two weeks. Steak with corn muffins and pickled green beans, anyone?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

It Must Be Spring ...

I found a Post-It note on my desk a few weeks ago. It said something about how it had snowed somewhere out west of us - Michigan or somewhere like that - on April 14, 2014. I guess I don't understand why we're so surprised by what we woke up to this morning.

Except that, perhaps, it's not surprise, but dismay. People keep talking about how hard our winter was, like we got so much snow exclamation point. This winter's snow totals weren't the most snow I've seen in a single winter in the time I've lived here in Maine.

The problem is that it all happened, mostly, in the month of February. In February 2015, it snowed, here in Maine - significant snow of more than 6" each time - every three days or so. In fact, it was so bad that Deus Ex Machina had his first, ever in my memory, snow day.

Businesses closed down. People were advised to stay off the roads. It was tough cleaning up with so much snow all at once.

That's what made it a hard winter. And that's what made last night's storm difficult. We ended up with a couple of inches - enough to cover the exposed grass. Two inches of snow? A dusting! Most people haven't even bothered to shovel. It's been that kind of winter.

But it's not winter anymore, in spite of the snow. It must be spring, because we have baby chicks.

We ordered three new hens, and two straight run (we wanted hens, but didn't have that choice). The breeds this year are: light Brahma (one of the white ones), two silkies (the straight runs - one black and one white), one Cuckoo Maran (because we wanted chocolate brown eggs :)), and one Plymouth Rock.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Eat Down the Larder Challenge 2015

I can give up if it's not working, right?

So, Erica, over at Northwest Edibles, has decided to make her Eat from the Larder Challenge an annual thing ... I guess. Well, anyway, she started it last year, and she's doing it again this year.

Last year Deus Ex Machina and I weren't in the right place (mostly mentally) to participate in the challenge, although we probably had the food. There was a lot of stuff going on, including Deus Ex Machina having just started a new job, and our need to find a contractor to do some repairs on our house (which we're still working on - and for the record, it's not just "home improvements" - although it's certainly that - but rather it was a repair, as we had a leaky roof that was too serious for just putting down new shingles, a door that wouldn't open, because it was improperly installed to begin with, and mold. Yep).

This year is a new year, and when I proposed the idea to Deus Ex Machina, he was actually interested in giving it a go. Wow! Right.

So, I forged right ahead, and we're in! We got a late start. Deus Ex Machina was traveling last week (he got home on Saturday night), and so we didn't "officially" start until Monday, but we're really excited to see how well we do, although there are a few areas where I can see that we're already going to be lacking.

First, though, our rules:
  • No buying groceries for the month of April. In spite of raising all of our own chicken and having a respectable garden each year, we still spend a lot at the grocery store. We eat well and never skimp on getting exactly the food we want to eat, which means we spend a lot on organic/fair trade foods, and yes, we still do buy groceries, which is what makes this challenge even more exciting, but it will definitely test our food storage.
  • We can use any food that is already here at the house, was "on order" before the challenge started, is foraged, or is given to us, that is, if we are invited to dinner, we can feel free to go without guilt. That box of Girl Scout cookies my sister-in-law gave us today is also allowed.
  • There will be no last minute purchases to "stock up", and this one I may regret.
  • Beverages are excepted, including milk purchased from our local farmer.

What makes challenges these days really difficult is that our schedule has gotten incredibly crazy. We have classes and/or volunteer obligations five days a week, and Deus Ex Machina and I still have "day jobs." Plus we only have one car now, and I'm spending a lot more time driving than I ever have.

What makes it much easier than in the past is that Big Little Sister has turned into quite a talented and resourceful little cook. In fact, on her sister's birthday, she had planned to make a rainbow cake. No big deal, right? If that's what you thought, you'd be wrong.

Her plan was to make a sheet cake for EACH color of the rainbow. Yes, it was, a six-layer cake. The problem was that Little Fire Faery's birthday is during a time of year when our chickens aren't really laying very well, which means we didn't have enough eggs for six layers. So, she improvised. She found several substitutes for eggs in cake recipes.

But then, we also ran out of baking powder, and she found substitutes for that, too.

As such, I'm actually pretty excited for this challenge, because I can't wait to see what she improvises later in the month when we don't have as many choices as we have right now.

As for areas where I'm sure we will be lacking, I can already see that the cheese is going to run out, which will be really disappointing, because the cow-share will include hamburg, which we haven't had in a few months, and we would make chili or tacos, but without cheese, it won't be as much fun.

My goal is to blog, at least, once a week to share what we've been cooking. It should be fun, but don't look for any super exotic meals.

Well, except, maybe some of this for dessert some evening, because I was given some very overripe avocadoes, and I need to use them in something.

If you're interested in joining the fun, be sure to visit Erica's blog. This is going to be fun ;).

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Suburban Homesteading

In 2013, I was privileged to be invited to speak at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania (for the second year).

For years, I've referred to myself as a suburban homesteader, and I knew that there were a lot of people around the country who were doing just what my family was doing. The key difference seemed to be that the people who were making the biggest splash in the area of having a tiny farm on a miniscule piece of land were childless couples or families with adult children. So, I began to wonder about the "average" suburban family, and whether or not I could find people, like me, with kids who were also trying to farm their suburban lots.

There are, actually, several families, like mine, close enough to me that I could drive to their homes, and I called them, asking for an interview. At my presentation in 2013, I featured three families: mine, a family who lives on a small "town" lot on the Cape Elizabeth/South Portland line in Cumberland County, Maine (very urban), and this family, who live in a rural suburb.

The 17 year old featured in this piece raises our pig for us each year. They have a pretty remarkable farm, and when I asked the Mom, if she thought they could turn their hobby into something that could make them more resilient in hard times, she thought for a second. She said yes, with hesitation, but only because she admitted that farming as a way of life was not their goal. But she also admitted, in our interview, that if they had to transition to supporting themselves with their farm, small as it is, they probably could. They would just have to do a lot more with gardening than they do (she said it was, usually, a haphazard endeavor that yielded more weeds than produce, and I, promptly, encouraged her to eat the weeds ;)).

She also said something else that was pretty profound, and I thought made a lot of sense. For them, it wasn't so much a pursuit of self-sufficiency for her and her husband, because she never wanted a farm, but rather that she has given her daughters some incredible skills.

In addition to the animal husbandry lessons (and there are many given that they raise so many different kinds of animals), they've also learned how to make soap and cheese (from goat's milk), they've learned the value in a day's work, and they've learned to keep very good records (Lucia has to know how much it costs to raise our pig so that she knows how much to charge us). They've learned some business skills (they sell their soap, for instance, at craft fairs) that will carry over into other endeavors.

And all of this, because they had a little hobby farm on their rural suburban homestead.

I often tout starting a homestead so that we, the PARENTS, can be self-sufficient, and I don't, often, talk about the great lessons that kids can get from growing up on a small farm. One of the best lessons is self-confidence on one's ability to fend for oneself.

Here on Chez Brown, we're in the midst of the maple sugaring season, and my family is boiling sap today to make syrup. It's a lot of work, and they're all working pretty hard at it. If all goes well, by the time we're headed to our relatives' house for dinner this evening, we'll have a half gallon of syrup cooling on the counter.

My daughters may not be homesteaders in their future, and the Almeida girls may decide that they don't wish to raise sheep when they get older, but the bigger lessons, the important lessons, they won't forget, and those will be the things that propel them into a life of self-sufficiency and independence.

If you asked me if our nanofarm was worth all the bother, I'd say yes, every time. I'm pretty sure Wendy Almeida would, too.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

What Goes Up ... ???

I love going to the thrift store. In fact, for a year or two, the only clothes we bought new were underclothes and socks. Everything else was from the thrift store or hand-me-downs (mostly for my daughters).

The thing about thrift store shopping is it's kind of like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates - you never know what you're going to get, and good thrift store shoppers (i.e. one's who always find the best price on what they really need) make frequent visits, but never buy what's not on the list. A good thrift store shopper will have a list of items that they are usually looking for, be willing to wait to find that item, and rarely, if ever, make impulse buys.

I'm a mediocre (at best) thrift store shopper, but mostly that comes from not being a very good shopper in general. I tend to buy what I need when I need it (or buy what I want when I want it). Sometimes that instant gratification is what I need more than whatever ended up in the bag at the register. I fully recognize that shopping that way is bad, and so, my solution is to spend as little time in a store as is necessary.

Today, after taking Little Fire Faery and Big Little Sister to the dance school, Precious and I took a detour through the local Goodwill. I've been looking for a pair of flats to wear at the theatre when I usher, and since the shoes will only be worn occasionally, I didn't want to buy them new.

The first thing I noticed when we walked into the store was that all of the prices have gone up. The cost for children's clothes has almost doubled (from $1.99 for everything to "$3 and up" for most items - those not marked are $3 - most of the things we saw today were marked at $5 or more). Adult clothes are "$5 and up", which is a $1 increase). They still have the half-off-color-of-the-day deal, and a thrifty shopper would take advantage of that deal.

The other day, we saw an Old Navy ad for women's cotton "tees" (just a regular fitted shirt with no logo or design) for $5. Sometimes they even have better deals than that, and it gets tough for me. New shirt at Old Navy or used shirt at Goodwill for the same price?

Back in the day, *the* reason we started shopping at thrift stores was because the clothes were second-hand. We were keeping clothes out of landfills, and we were decreasing the demand for cheaply made clothes manufactured by near-slave labor, mostly in third world countries, by purchasing used clothes.

But what we've found too much of, over the years, are so many of these same cheaply-made-in-China (or wherever) clothes at the thrift store, and it's become a quandary, because sometimes the used stuff doesn't really last very long, which makes it not much of a bargain. So, we can get it new for about the same price we can get it used, wear it out to the point that it can't be resold at the Goodwill, and then repurpose it into a rag or some other usable item. We're still keeping it out of the landfill, and also it would take a bit longer for us to wear out the new one than it does to wear out the used one.

Or we can buy the used one and stick to our ethics, but we end up spending the same amount of money, or maybe, more, because we have to buy 1 1/2 x as many shirts to replace the one that wears out too quickly. And then, there's the question - if we are so willing to buy these cast-offs, does that encourage those other people (people who don't care about overflowing landfills or slave labor in Indochina, or downtown Los Angeles) to be crazy consumerists knowing that they can just donate their stuff to Goodwill (for a tax write-off), and then, buy the new stuff anyway.

Is a shirt worn by more than one person for about the same length of time more ethical than a shirt worn by a single owner until it's no longer wearable?

I guess, I'm wondering if there really is any savings - either to my pocket book or the environment.

Some things are great for finding at the thrift store. I still wouldn't buy new picture frames, unless I needed a very specific size that I couldn't find second hand. I wouldn't buy new plates or glasses, because there are so many choices at the thrift store. Curtains, cloth napkins, table clothes, and baskets are all thrift store finds.

And cool little gadgets, like manual coffee grinders, will always be something I buy used.

And some clothes, too. Like my wool pea coat, was a very good purchase. I bought it years ago, and I'm still wearing it. In fact, I just replaced the buttons that fell off, and so I think I'll probably be wearing it for a few more winters - assuming it still fits.

I was a little surprised ... and maybe a bit disappointed ... to note the pretty sharp increase in the prices at the thrift store today, but I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised, as prices have been going up every where for a long time. I guess I was just taken aback by discovering that it might, actually, be less expensive to get a women's fitted tee-shirt new at Old Navy (if price is the only consideration) than to get the same item used at Goodwill.

The positive is that, maybe, these increases in prices will, finally, force me to pull out the sewing machine and start making some of these ideas in my head a reality - like my plan to repurpose some old tee-shirts into a skirt.

Have you noticed prices going up in places where you didn't expect them to increase?