Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Food principles

Mary and I are responding to each other quite a bit this week. A comment I made to a post she had written about scratch cooking vs. couponing caused her to post a deep-thinking post about Food and Values. It's worth taking a look at.

In my comment I said, in effect, that the reason we don't use too many coupons in my house is because they are usually for overly processed and packaged foods that we try to stay away from. I also said that most of the things coupons are offered on are "corporate foodstuffs," which I actually underplayed in my comment because I know from previous exchanges that Mary is not too sympathetic to this line of argument. And in fact she didn't like it and it seems to triggered much of her later post. She pointed out that a lot of people, including her husband, are employed by corporations. To which I would say, that may be true, but that doesn't mean you have to eat their food.

In fact the two elements - health and corporate influence - are intertwined. Michael Pollan points out that corporations are in the business of making profits, and the more a food is processed, the more profit there is to be made. A carrot doesn't turn anyone much of a profit. It's similar with the health insurance field - the product of the health insurance field isn't health, it's profit for the company. But that's another story.

Due to concentration in the food industry, it's acutally quite difficult to find food that is not corporate-related in one way or another. Most of the larger organic- and health-food providers are part of larger corporations, which is one reason I place such a high priority on buying from the farmers' market.

I buy a lot of stuff from companies that are on this list - that's my version of Mary's "semi" philosophy. The principles I work under are
  • less processed is better than more processed,
  • fewer ingredients are better than more ingredients,
  • ingredients found in nature are better than those developed in a laboratory,
  • not advertised on television is better than advertised on television,
  • less packaging is better than more,

and (after all that)

  • non-corporate is better than corporate.
By the way, this is not the same thing as being "anti-business." I'm very sympathetic to people who are trying to provide products or services that they think people need or that they are good at. The people who sell at the farmers' market are in business. Yoga teachers are in business.

I just buy from the smallest business I can possibly buy from. I believe that once a business gets to a certain size (or maybe its a certain level of impersonality) then the imperatives they follow no longer are what's good, but what's good for them. And then you get to the whole level of bribing-congress-to-make-sure-their-interests-are-protected, much to the detriment of everyone else and the environment, which is unfortunately how the country works, as we see from every farm bill that comes down the pike.

I also don't think it's all a matter of "free choice," as the free-market fundamentalists like to say. Corporations spend millions of dollars to develop the most effective marketing and advertising mechanisms to make you want to buy what they have to sell, they employ psychologists to help them do this, and they propagandize incessantly in every medium available. It's not a level playing field.

So as much as I can, I say, not me, thanks. And if that's not liberatarian - or maybe it's liberation - then I don't know what is.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Buying to save?

Mary over at Pokeberry Garden posted about some "green bags" she had bought that are supposed to keep your fruits and veg fresher longer. Surprise, surprise, they didn't work.

I think you'll be seeing a lot more of these "spend money to save money" type products as advertisers begin to recognize what Parade magazine has already recognized, that frugality is a growing market segment and people are interested in saving money in the current economy. It's kind of like buying environmental products - if you call something frugal (or green), that gives us permission to spend money on it, which is what we all want to do anyway.

Here's a rule of thumb: investing in something that you've heard of before, like a canning system, is potentially a way to save money in the long run even if you have to spend a little now. Buying something you've never heard of or didn't know you needed until just now is just spending money. Believe me, I'm not picking on Mary, this is something I could stand to learn as well.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

B.I.K.E. in the U.S.A.

The hotel in KC had bikes available for guest use, and we did so twice: once to go down to the Plaza to walk around (about a 10 minute ride) and once to go to the Nelson (about 20 minutes). It was one of pleasures of the trip, and the ability to ride a bike around is one of the pleasures of urban living generally - although of course most cities (including KC, and certainly Wichita) are not really equipped for bikes to be used as one of the major modes of transport.

It so happens that my folks brought their bikes to us this time, fairly aged Raleigh 3-speeds that (I kid you not) they rode maybe a couple of times in the (can it be 30+?) years they've had them. When they lived in Cape Cod about 10 years ago we visited and had the bikes worked on and then rode them a couple of times, then they went back into storage and probably haven't been ridden since. DW is not all that enthusiastic about them because the tires are narrow but free is better than not free. So we lugged them back to Wichita and put them in the shop for another reconditioning, this time including new (padded) seats - the originals were hard as heck!

They are essentially touring bikes and that's what I want them for, I don't expect to do much off-road but since I got here I've been wanting to ride to work. It's a distance of only approximately 2 miles - too far to walk, but it feels ridiculous to drive, especially with gas the way it is and the fact that I drive a big car. But of course, the roads between work and home are quite fear-inducing from a bicyclist's perspective. There's one possible alternative route, at least to work, that is a little longer but on not quite on as scary streets. Anyway, once the bikes are back I'm determined to give it a go.

It so happens that a couple of websites connected to this new interest of mine have come to my attention - one is the Cycling in Wichita blog, run by a fellow named John Buuse, and the other which I found through John is a Commuting by Bike blog. John says that Wichita is among the worst biking cities in the country.

I hope it will save gas and money. I hope it will get me some (much needed!) exercise. I hope I don't get killed. I bought a helmet. But bike-riding seems like one of those baseline things for simple living - a core principle, if you will. So I'm gonna try it.

Between vacations

We're back from our trip to Kansas City. (I wrote about it previously here.) My father in law's bar mitzvah was great, we saw all of DW's brothers and cousins and at the dinner on Saturday night everyone sat around the table and told stories about how they all escaped the Nazis to get to the US. I heard more details about this than I ever had and I have to tell you, if you have any "greatest generation" types in your family, get a camcorder and a mic from radio shack, put them in front of a black background and make them answer all the questions you can think of!

The whole grandparents/Branson thing went off reasonably well (we don't ask too many questions) and as for us, the hotel in Westport was great, we were able to see the bands we wanted and it was fun to be urban again and walk out the door for lunch or whatever. It wasn't a very frugal week because we ate out all the time (Indian food, mideast food, some overpriced fish'n'chips at a new place down by the new arena). About the most frugal thing we did was go to the KC City Hall and go to the 28th floor overview to see a really beautiful 360-degree panorama view of the city. We made a bet between ourselves that no one we know would have ever been up there before, and we have yet to be proven wrong.

Oh, we also went to the Nelson-Atkins Museum, that's the main art museum in town, it's free to get in although we slipped them a couple of bucks. We looked at the contemporary art in the new Block building and then we got a couple of the free electronic guide thingies and took an architectural tour of the space. It was DW's mom's suggestion and it was well worth it. Neither of us knows a whole lot about architecture so we saw a lot that we wouldn't have seen otherwise.

Now we're planning our next trip, the staycation. I gave DK1 two tour books and asked her to find a couple of places of interest in each of Lawrence, Topeka and Hutchinson. I think we'll have an outing in Wichita on Monday, Lawrence Tuesday and Wednesday (hotel), Topeka Thursday then Hutchinson Friday and home. We may add various stops along the way. We'll try to limit eating out to dinner only by bringing cereal, bread, pb'n'j, cheese, fruit.

Well, I have something else to write about but it's time to put the kids to bed so it'll have to wait.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The shortest of sales

It's been a while since I posted on the house-in-Illinois situation. After the short-sale offer was turned down in April, we started to look into doing a deed-in-lieu, which is what we would call in the vernacular "turning the keys back over to the bank." Then in mid-June I got a call from the RE agent telling us we had a better offer, and we were going back to the bank.

Here's the stat sheet: We bought for $309K in 2004. The best offer we've been able to get in the 500+ days that the thing has been on the market is $281. As part of the short sale process, Sovereign Bank had an appraiser come in, and the number he came up with is - get this - $330. In other words, our house apparently has appreciated in value by 10% at the same time that nobody has wanted to buy it and the bottom has dropped out of the housing market nationally. Somebody should tell the buyers how valuable the place is!

So that was the end of that - Sovereign turned down the latest short sale offer based on their fairy tale appraisal. Now we're asking them to go forward with the deed in lieu. I have no idea whether that will happen - no one seems to understand Sovereign's behavior or why they're making the decisions they're making.

I'll be very interested to see what they end up getting for this house after it's all said and done. I'll bet you anything it ain't gonna be no $330K.


Cross-posted and updated from FedReb:

A statement on Agriprocessors by the Jewish Labor Committee. For those of you who don't know, Agri is the largest producer of kosher meat in the country, and it has a history of labor infractions and cruelty to the animals. A couple of months ago over 300 workers were arrested in a raid for being undocumented aliens, and two of Agri's staff members were recently arrested for helping them get fake documentation.

The situation has caused a good deal of reflection on the part of Jews who observe kashrut as to what kashrut really means and whether there should be an ethical component to it in addition to the ritual components - fairness to the workers and/or compassion for the animals, depending on the focus of the organization. I particularly support the efforts of the Conservative movement to develop a standard of ethical behavior that can be applied in kosher certification - it's called heksher tzedek (righteous certification) and a website explaining it is here. In addition, I applaud the efforts of other mainstream organizations, like BBYO and numerous Jewish summer camps, to place their values over their wallets and not to order meat from Agriprocessors until the mess up there is cleaned up.

The best coverage of this issue is found in the Hazon blog, the Jew and the Carrot. An interview with a labor activist currently working on this issue is found here. Yesterday they posted an interview with the lead organizer of Uri L'tzedek, a group made up primarily of Orthodox rabbinical students, which had been a lead voice on this issue in the Orthodox community (and there will be no positive change in the kosher slaughtering biz until the Orthodox community, the biggest customer base, demands it). Unfortunately, Uri L'tzedek has called off its boycott in the aftermath of the hiring by Agri of a compliance officer - not, mind you, any actual compliance. This strikes me as premature, to say the least.

Because it seems that, with the single exception of the hiring of this compliance officer, Agri's response has been more a PR campaign than an actual commitment to fix what's wrong. If you scroll down the BBYO article you'll notice what seems to be a coordinated critical response, which is probably the work of the PR firm that Rubashkin has recently hired to try to combat all the bad press. (And which apparently forged emails from one of Agri's strongest critics designed to make him look bad.) In keeping with this model, on Yom Kippur this year I will not be expressing regret for my sins or making an effort to change, but rather simply hiring a PR firm to claim that all statements about my sins constitute conviction before a full trial.

The other piece of this that needs attention is the people who were in the workforce there before the raids, the undocumented immigrants who are left with no income while they await deportation or other disposition of their cases. They are unable to work and are in great need. Donations to the Postville Food Pantry can be made to this address:

c/o Pastor Steve Brackett, Treasurer
St. Paul Lutheran Church
116 East Military Road
Postville, IA 52162
{The food pantry's phone number is 563-864-7643}

I'm trying very hard not to draw any conclusions about Orthodox heksher in general from this incident. Despite their long history of bad actions, Agriprocessors makes it much easier for people to have access to kosher meat. All it needs to do (and it may be a lot) is fix its bad labor and animal practices, and I will be happy to support it once again. Until then, I'll do without.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

More about not eating in restaurants

In response to my post of recipes last week, my friend Sue, a working mom in the Boston area, commented thusly:

As may have occurred to you, those of us who do take out or eat out sometimes do *not* do it b/c we think we're saving money :-). We do it b/c we are stressed, b/c we feel like we and/or our kids need the treat, b/c we are taking 5 million kids in 5 million different directions on a given night and this is easier, b/c we haven't had a chance to go shopping and haven't gotten organized...

maybe there are better trade-offs to be made, but it's not as if, if only the cost became visible, we'd all go "Wow, I could had a V-8" and go home and cook.
Sometimes I think that I'm writing for the converted, but Sue's comments show me that that's not always the case. I understand the issues Sue presents, and they are very common in this day and age.

To begin with, I would define "simplicity" as "being conscious of the choices we make in how we spend our time and money." I often say that you can tell what someone values by where they spend their time and how they spend their money. This is one of the reasons that my simplicity tends to the side of frugality - money I spend in X place I cannot spend in Y (unless I debt, which is a different story). In other words, it's not just about money, it's about values.

I don't have anything against restaurant meals as such. I acknowledge that they can be a treat. I'm spending a lot of time this week deciding where we're going to go for dinner next week when we're in Kansas City. Birthdays, anniversaries - to me, any time we eat sushi is a treat. But it's a treat precisely because it's so rare. But in the normal course of life, how many times does one eat in a restaurant before it stops becoming a treat? Once a week? Twice a week? Certainly to my mind if one is spending 40% of one's food budget on restaurant meals (the figure that I read that motivated the original post) we're well past "treat" territory. Fewer times makes each individual time more special.

In addition, for me at least, fewer restaurant meals ease the financial pressure that would cause me to be work more, be stressed more, and have to resort to more restaurant meals! This is how something that's supposed to be easier actually becomes harder in the long run.

I stand by what I said in the original post, also, about the nutritional value of restaurant meals versus home cooking. There's no way, in most cases, to know the nutritional content of any meal one eats in a restaurant, and they are often quite high in fat and sodium and HFCS and other elements that we would try to limit at home. Cf the many studies of Chinese food which show the astronomical fat content of even the "lighter" dishes. (And the tomato sauce in pizza is not nutritional.)

Like Sue, I have a couple of kids who won't eat any of the recipes I posted, and whose main sustenance is tofu and noodles with soy sauce and cheese. (Day after day after day.) But I can get them what they want the way they want it at home a lot easier than in a restaurant, I can get it to them in the healthiest possible way (without a lot of added fat etc.), and I can (usually) get them to eat a "carrot shekel" or two as well.

I can also manage the spiritual aspect of the meal much better - the blessings before and after, the sharing of conversation and concern, etc. Also, there are aspects of eating at home that don't exist at all in restaurants, above and beyond managing the nutritional content: the help the kids give to the preparation and clearing of the meal, for instance.

As much as we might want to define "simpler" as "easier," Sue is quite right that it can be complicated, in terms of time and effort (precisely those elements that are at a premium in modern life), to live a "simple" life. Gardening, cooking, making meal plans and shopping lists, shopping in multiple stores... It reminds me of the line in Gandhi where he says that it takes a lot of his friends' and supporters' money to keep him in poverty. It takes a lot of thought and planning to keep oneself and one's family in simplicity.

The recognition that one is resorting to restaurant eating because of stress or lack of organization can serve to point out where one needs to make adjustments in one's life. I would put it to you that making the effort to simplicity is worth it because of what it adds, financially yes, but even above and beyond that.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Our summer staycation

We're trying to finalize our vacation plans for this summer. Originally we thought about driving to Philadelphia to see old friends from seminary, but with the price of gas the way it is we shelved that idea pretty quick. Then I was lobbying for a trip to Santa Fe, which is a place I've always wanted to see, it's about a 10-hour drive, and I'm feeling pretty hippie-deprived here in the buckle of the Bible Belt. This idea also seems to be fading, partially because of the price of gas but also, and probably more so, because we'd have to stay in a hotel there and it would probably be around $700 just for that. (And before you ask - DW doesn't do camping.)

My 3 faithful readers (well 2, if you don't count the person I share a checking account with) know that we've been stuggling to get our heads above water financially. Due to the largesse of the government we've been able to put about $2000 into a savings account. DW has been consistently saying that to go on a trip that would cost just about that whole amount seems irresponsible, and she's right, I'm afraid.

So we're going on two smaller trips. The first is to KC, hometown of DW, for my father-in-law's 2d bar mitzvah. (Explanation: The Bible says we're allotted "three score and 10" years on earth; so at 70 we start counting again, and at 83 there's another bar mitzvah! I bet the gifts include fewer savings bonds, though.) My folks are coming to that, and (get this) they are taking the 3 DKs to Branson for 3 whole days afterward. (God bless them!) So DW and I are staying in KC sans kids for 3 whole days. (Three times longer than our honeymoon, but that's a another story.) We're seeing friends, including a friend of ours who's a singer and has a gig on one of those nights with a band we've never seen. We'll hit at least one of the museums, have a picnic if the weather is nice, and I'm hoping to see the Royals once while we're there.

The question now is, where do we stay? We could stay for free at her parents' house, but it's not (how to say this delicately) the most romantic setting. She won't ask her friends if we can stay with them - I would, but it's not my call. There's a hotel in the Westport section that looks interesting, "KC's first green hotel," and the only thing you have to do is say to me is that something is green and I'm there! $111/night on sale at Expedia. I reckon we can do 1, possibly 2 nights there.

Then we have another week, first week in August, which is when we were going to go to Santa Fe. Now it looks like we're going to do something that's been getting a lot of press lately with all the economic problems - a "staycation." I'm determined not to fall into my tendency to just shlep around the house all day. We're looking in the local travel books to find places that are interesting and within 2 or 3 hours of the house. We'll probably go up to Lawrence, maybe even overnight - we've always heard good things about that town, and KU won't be in session yet. There's the farm where we get some of our eggs and chicken in Hutchinson, we'll probably go up there for look-around. Newton is supposedly an interesting town, they have a 10,000 Villages store. And we have memberships to the Zoo, the botanical gardens, and the children's museum that we don't use enough. I'd like to do a hike in the Flint Hills, if it's not 110 degrees, or maybe rent a boat in El Dorado. And that should fill up a week.

It's disappointing a bit not to be going to Santa Fe - there's a certain adventure aspect that will be missing. I'm hoping that if we move fast enough and fill the week with interesting things it will be something we'll look back on with fond memories. And it won't completely kill my meager savings. And that, in these days and in our circumstances, has to be the best part of all.

Monday, July 7, 2008

5 quick and simple meals

I'm amazed when I read the percentage of the food money spent in restaurants or takeout places these days. I recently heard that 40% of the money Americans spend on food is spent on such prepared food. Of course the reason is convenience - with most families having two (or one) working parents, the idea of cooking at home after working all day and then driving the kids hither and yon is more than many people, apparently, can handle. But this factoid is amazing to me, because it's so much more expensive to eat this way! And also it's a pretty good ground rule, in my opinion, that any prepared food you buy is likely to be less healthful than what you could produce at home.

So I, your full service simplicity/frugality blogger, will today give you five (count 'em) simple, healthful meals that can be made quickly and with ingredients you can find in your own home. None of these take more than about 30 minutes, and they are at least reasonably balanced. So try them out, and eat at home tonight.

- Broccoli steamed, and then fried in a little garlic butter, served over noodles. Throw in a couple of cubes of tofu if you want some more protein. This was such a staple in my younger days that I gave it it's own name: Bachelors special.

- Kashe varnishkes. This is the Jewish version of rice and beans. "Buckwheat groats" - a word that has no meaning out of this context, like translating tefillin as "phylacteries" - toasted and then simmered in a little broth, served over noodles, preferably bowties. The kashe has more protein than you'd think. Side salad.

- Quick pilaf - fry an onion, add some rice, some tuna or tofu, enough water to cook the rice, a cup of frozen veg and salt. Cook for 15 minutes.

These two take a little longer, because one of the ingredients has to be cooked already - do the pre-cooking in advance, like when you're blogging or watching TV:

- Lentil cheese loaf - cooked lentils, cheese, breadcrumbs, various herbs and an egg. Bake at 350 until cooked through, about 40 minutes. Side salad.

- "Abba mac'n'cheese" - this is with red sauce instead of milk - noodles, red sauce, shredded cheese on top, season with salt, pepper and garlic powder, breadcrumbs on top, cook until cooked through, 30 minutes or so. Side salad.

And if you really want to make the experience complete - eat together, as a family!