Thursday, February 24, 2011

Abundance, Scarcity and Frugality

On the one hand, there's an abundance of resources here on earth. For me, this sense of abundance is tied to the fact that, at the most basic level, there's nothing I do to make sure I have food-- I can't make the sun shine or the rain fall-- abundance is that we have more than we need to survive without actually being able to control things. On the other hand, there's only enough if we don't greedily take more than we need. Frugality seems to teach us to gradually evaluate what we really need, so what we consume is closer to what every other person in the world could consume (which, living in the U.S., is virtually impossible, so it can feel like we're constantly behind).

But I've noticed that there's also a danger of frugality seeming like deprivation. I'm not talking about using reusable containers and such. That's just something to get used to. In this post, I'm talking about food.

I have pretty ingrained ideas about luxury foods. And there are a lot of then. Here are some.
Candy and chocolate
Potato chips
Wheat thins/crackers of any kind
Store bought/bakery bread/any baked goods I didn't bake
Any cookie I didn't make
Maple syrup
Sometimes eggs, if we ran out mid-month
Cheese, if we ran out mid-month
Soda is not only a luxury item, it's an Evil Poisonous Luxury Item (that's a whole different category)
Any kind of fruit juice
Fruits that cost more than... well actually almost all fruits in winter, except frozen berries and Anything-for-our-dear--Noah which are exempt

As you can tell, I have a problem. And I do most of the shopping for the family. I noticed it as I felt more and more like "going out for a treat". You know, when you feel like you deserve a little-something-just-for-getting-up-in-the-morning-and-doing-life? And when the cost of Noah's food was something I wanted to tightly control (he eats about the amount that you'd expect a large guinea pig or a small tortoise to eat, so I justified that we're saving on pet food because, well, we don't have a guinea pig or a tortoise).

That got me thinking about how we do frugality and food. And I'm undergoing a fairly radical shift in thinking in this season of our lives. I'm going to try my best to keep our food spending under our budgeted $190/month, but I think I over-reached and tried to make our family into vegetarian locavores before we were really ready. I find the pendulum swinging back now that we're incredibly busy and living in Allston-- we're eating out more (the luxury goods are usually not in the house) and never feel like cooking lentils. The way to bring us back to center seems to be to allow for some good luxury foods even if they're expensive or wrapped in plastic or shipped from Chile. Lentils are so much better when you don't feel like you're cornered into making them by a lack of cheese. We'll get to sustainable eating one day. Although it probably won't be February in the Northeast when we do.

P.S. The Menu had it's moment. That moment is now over. I realized I never wanted quinoa or couscous on Tuesday. But it served a good purpose. We're eating a really wide variety of grains. And I do sometimes feel like cooking couscous and quinoa, just never on Tuesdays. Sometimes you gotta shake things up and go wild and have spinach frittata, you know?

Upcoming Giveaway, and Sorry...

I have a giveaway of amazing homemade soap coming up (I'll make the comment easy, and this blog is the place where your odds are good!), but I've been waiting because I haven't really had my act together as far as posting is concerned.

I took on a big, exciting project in South Africa and utterly underestimated the time it would take and vastly overestimated the time I have. Can anyone relate? Hehe. That is to say, sorry. It'll be a few more weeks and then this blog will be back to number 1 after Eug, Noah, God, other family, church, work, and watching Leverage (likely not in this order).

Monday, February 21, 2011

On the South African Food System

I have a future post in which you'll get a glimpse of my parents small but amazingly productive garden, but for this post, I wanted to tell you about the South African food system. South African readers, you know it better than I do, so take this as an outsider's perspective, one which I hope is measured and offers insights that are hard to see without a reference point.

Packaging seems to be equated with "better quality" food. It must be working, because all three major food shops -- Checkers, Pick'n Pay, and Woolworths, have all started to package vegetables. And Woolworths, the crazy expensive one of the three, is the worst culprit. Vegetables and fruits that you're going to wash or peel anyway do not need their own bags.
Consider letting Woolies know that you don't need pre-packaged produce, that you're ok with picking veggies from bulk containers (if indeed, you are ok with that).
Consider suggesting that your grocery weigh produce at checkout. Weighing in the produce section gives you a sense of cost, sure, but it also means you need to use a bag (a plastic one, unless you remember to bring one of your own), that you need to wait in line or find someone to weigh it for you, and that you use masses of those little stickers.

Animal Fat
South African (western) groceries are full of margarine, and even ice cream doesn't actually have real cream in it. Some restaurants don't stock butter at all. This means more processing. Many people drink whole milk, which is kindof cool (in the U.S. it's less common).

I'll stop on those two observations for now; in S.A. as in the U.S., we seem more interested in nutrients than food. But nutrients don't offer the full picture: we know painfully little about how our body really processes nutrients, hence the idea of focusing on food rather than nutrients.

This is not to say I know anything profound about a healthy diet. But I'm a fan of Michael Pollan's one sentence prescription: Eat food. Mostly Plants. Not too much.

A sneak peak of the garden:

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Grace for the Aspiring Hippy Parent

Grace makes beauty out of ugly things
(U2's 360 tour is in South Africa right now)

I've been thinking about grace recently, as we get more and more sleep deprived but somehow we're ok (thank you God). Context seems all the more important in trying to figure out frugality/simplicity/sustainability. And giving and receiving grace in whatever context we find ourselves.

So yes, Noah still isn't sleeping. And I've taken a break from trying too hard. I'm encouraged by grace: that the worst parents sometimes have the best kids (and vice versa, but that's not my point here), and while I'll try to do the best I can there'll be a lot of room for God to pour grace over what I can't control or handle.

So back to context and frugality/simplicity/sustainability. While I'm totally into making food from scratch, I have been thinking how we get through the next few weeks well, and it seems to be all about grace. Receiving the grace of really simple meals (oh the triumph of avoiding the 2000 restaurants just down the street here in Allston-- or even going to those restaurants if that ends up being what's needed), taking each day slowly and expecting that we can't be great parents, cook from scratch, keep up with personal hygiene (oh, personal hygiene, why are you so difficult to maintain?), clean the house, not throw anything away, work and sleep all at once.

Grace means that it's a blessing, at the deepest level, when we don't quite manage.

Added: In the spirit of conversation, it would be great to hear what you let slide (and what not) when you're in the midst of a busy or emotionally/physically difficult time. And perhaps how you avoid feeling guilty, if that's something you're prone to.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Slow Cooker Yoghurt

We must really be getting back into the swing of things because yesterday I made yoghurt in the slow cooker. Noah is nine months old and that seems like a good time for yoghurt. Sorry, Americans, the spell check is angry but this is how I spell yogurt.

3:30pm: I put some pasteurized whole milk (almost a half-gallon) in the slow cooker, had it on low for 3 hours
Unplugged the slow cooker and let it cool down for 2.5 hours (Using a meat thermometer, checked that the temp was below 110F before the next step, as the bacteria in the yoghurt will die at temps above 110F.)
Took a bowl of the warm milk out, and mixed about 1/2 cup of plain yoghurt in.
Put the mixture back in the unplugged slow cooker.
Wrapped the slow cooker in a towel to slow the cooling process.
5am this morning: Plain Yoghurt!

The only question I have at the moment is whether I should scale the quantity down, because we don't realistically eat that much yoghurt in a week, but I'm so excited about the simplicity of the process and the fact that absolutely no packaging for yoghurt will be necessary ever again. (Yes, when I commit to something, I really commit.)

That leads you to the question of milk packaging! Inspired by the Archibald's milk priority list, I've switched to Crescent Ridge Dairy, which comes in glass bottles that you return to Whole Foods. I've never visited Crescent Ridge, so I'm not sure what they're like, but they're local (Sharon) and our milk-related trash is significantly reduced. Also, their milk is pasteurized, not ultra-pasteurized. In addition to mattering for general consumption, this matters for yoghurt making (some commenters say that the ultra-pasteurized doesn't work)

As an aside, the baking soda-instead-of-shampoo experiment worked just fine in South Africa, even when it was pretty hot.

Monday, February 14, 2011

On Air

It's really true that our son is sleeping in 40 minute bursts. Saturday night I stopped counting at 9 wakings.

More on our trip
I have all these things I want to tell you about our trip to South Africa. Firstly, Noah grew up so much in so little time. He went from terrified of the beach to absolutely in love with the freezing cold water, and he learned to eat a lot of different foods-- mainly because we weren't able to make puree for him. This was the view from our window:
Noah got to see his great granny (below) and great grandpa (as well as his granny and grandpa)

On burns
You'll notice that in all the pictures in South Africa (to come), I have a bandage. I managed to burn myself the morning after we arrived, with super-heated microwave water (apparently the microwave can make the water hotter than boiling, because it heats from the inside out). Eug was changing my bandage every few hours to prevent it from sticking, and I was generally in a fair amount of pain for a few days. What's remarkable is that 1) When the burn happened and I thought I was going to pass out from pain, the pharmacist immediately found what I needed, put it on, bandaged me up and had me on my way. No charge. In Boston that would have been a day at the E.R. (and we wouldn't have gone to the E.R. for fear of copays) 2) They gave me some kind of silver sulpher cream when the burn started to ooze a few days later, and basically overnight I was healed. We'd been anticipating some kind of terrifying burn scar, but there's almost no remaining scar. Amazing.

On travel
In other South Africa news, Eug and I had 2 shirts and one trousers (and I had one skirt) on the trip, and it was just right. We have these remarkable wool tshirts that dry in hours and never smell.

In contrast, Noah had 20 Bumgenius diapers. We only really needed about 10, as the diapers dried fast. It worked just fine to wash the bumgenius diapers in the bath. We used disposables for the flight, for fear of lugging poop across continents, but we probably didn't need to worry too much. South Africa was warm enough that Noah spent a significant proportion of his trip without a diaper, and we even found cute tiny Noah-sized underwear for him. I took way too many pictures of Noah in his tiny underwear.

Now that we're getting back into routine here in Boston, I'll get into a regular posting schedule again. Sorry for the absence, and thanks for checking back...

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

yeah, really, we're back. And the move was great

So, we're really back, but have been extraordinarily busy. By our standards, at least!

I've been sad not to post, but I have the beginnings of all these posts bemoaning the direction of South African food, which, given that I was happy, healthy and well-fed in Cape Town, didn't feel particularly fitting. They will come, in time.

We also have a ton of photos of Noah figuring out what to do on the sand.

So this is more of a teaser post to let you know the blog is alive, since I'm not posting any actual photos right now.

Our move on Saturday went smoothly, but we're not quite out of our old place yet. Our landlord has been flexible and I chose not to think about this move AT ALL. There really wasn't time to think about it, so I relied on the awesome Eug, who figured out and just generally manages to navigate such stressful situations without getting stressed. Which made it pretty stress free for me.

At the same time, I learned we still have A LOT (as in, a truckload) of stuff; that our new apartment is SUPER warm (environment?), and that Allston is a really interesting neighborhood. My commute to work is down to 15 minutes, but it takes forever to get home. The kitchen is unpacked and hopefully Noah is going to sleep more than 40 minutes at a time one day (?) without us sneaking a peak at Ferber.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

And we're back!

Hi everyone! (well, family and friends)

I'm back from South Africa-- pictures to follow. It was a remarkable time with family- even my grandmother and grandfather, who think Noah is awesome. We're just settling into being back- back in the snow- and preparing to move house on Saturday. So forgive this garbled post.

Boston has had absolutely insane amounts of snow this winter, but I liked the sense of wonder the emergency people seemed to have in the articles describing the latest snow-ice-terror. They just seemed really surprised that there hadn't been any injuries, given all the roof collapses. I liked the grace-receiving humble tone, like they couldn't take credit, and they'd long since given up trying to control the mess that is Boston this year.

As we prepare for our move just 3 days after getting back from SA, and with a jetlagged and sick little baby, I'm really into that "well, by the grace of God" tone. And I look forward to writing more in the next few days. Stay warm!