Friday, January 30, 2009

Slow Food

"We are not to judge thrift solely by the test of saving or spending.  If one spends what he should prudently save, that certainly is to be deplored.  But if one saves what he should prudently spend, that is not necessarily to be commended.  A wise balance between the two is the desired end."
  ~Owen Youn

Food is taking on new meaning in our home lately.  We've always been foodies, to some extent.  One of John's first overtures of love was preparing a meal for me in his dorm kitchen.  I can still remember being completely and utterly surprised that a young, quiet boy from Louisiana could cook a delicious meal of stuffed chicken breasts so deftly, with just a pan or two pawned off of his dorm mates.  The spearmint tea will live in infamy, however.  John was new to the herbal tea department and thus unversed in which ones were better served iced, or, not at all. 

As we dated, we continued to explore cooking together.  After I graduated from college and got my first apartment, I decided to join a cookbook of the month club.  My attempt, I suppose, at achieving cooking independence and of severing my slavery to Hamburger Helper and other such menacing cuisine.  That same year, John surprised me on my birthday by cooking a multiple course French meal.  

We found it exciting and genuinely satisfying to cook for our friends.  John began to become more proficient with the heart of the meal and I began to really embrace my love of baking. Together, we could create quite a delicious repast.  We sometimes even stole moments to dream about one day running a Bed and Breakfast, where we could actually have people spend the night at our house, wake up and cook for them, and get paid for it!  That seemed, at the time, like the ultimate occupation.  I would be lying if I didn't tell you that we still entertain the idea from time to time.

And now, here we are, in the dead of winter.  We have dreams and plans for an amazing garden, but the reality of our situation is that we still must buy all of our food.  And everyone knows how expensive food has become.  I wrote about my struggles with this dilemma in a previous post.  And, as I have alluded to in other posts, we are having to live very frugally these days (who isn't?).  Now, I'm not sure what most people's monthly budget for food is but we have made it a goal to reduce our grocery bill to $400 a month.  I am proud to say that we just about hit it this month.  The main reason that we didn't completely nail it was because we had a couple of  items that we had to purchase that are costly, namely, olive oil and some spices.  We are still in the process of stocking our pantry for the long haul and not having lived on our own for many years meant that we had to start practically at the beginning.  Once those basic items are there, we will be in good shape.

The whole point of this post is to share with you something amazing that I have discovered as I've faced this challenge.  The answer to our money crunching has from scratch.  That slow food that all the gourmands talk about is good for more than just your taste buds.  It has had a huge effect on our bottom line.  I've always known that the less processed foods you purchase, the lower your food bill.  That makes sense.  What has surprised me has been that, when one makes every part of their meal themselves, you can end up eating more for less.  And, this is true even as we have stayed committed to purchasing organic whenever possible.  We haven't made the organic designation a deal breaker, yet, but we have stayed true to it with dairy and as much fruit and vegetables as possible.  Not only that, my cooking has greatly improved.  By challenging myself to come up with creative meals and to not repeat myself within a two week period, I have started to really come into my own as a cook.  

I've always felt a bit inferior to John in this regard.  He has always been the more intuitive cook.  The one who could look at five ingredients and whip up something amazing.  The Food Network show, Iron Chef, is serious television for John and the concept of the program is exactly the same way John approaches cooking.  I, on the other hand, have been a slave to recipes for as long as I've been in the kitchen.  When it comes to baking, this is a good thing.  Baking is all about chemistry and science blended together with love and devotion.  It's prescribed affection.  Recipes are your friend in that arena.  The problem with my approach is that a meal without a plan is well... let's just say, you get what you get.  But now that I am in full meal planning mode, I have begun to break new ground and I'm learning a lot about food in the process.  I am beginning to make better connections between meats and sauces and methods and madness and it has been turning out, if I do say so myself, swimmingly.  Plus, when you are really pushing yourself to save as much money as you can, it starts to become your mission to figure out how to best use what you have.  

I'm seeing, too, how this practice will better prepare me for the time when we do, hopefully, have an abundance of food from our garden and I will have to figure out how to creatively cook zucchini and tomatoes, five days a week.  One thing that has been a bit startling about this approach, however, and something that I was not prepared for, is how very empty our refrigerator looks before I head to the grocery store each week.  I suppose that is a testimony to how we are really trying to buy only what we need, to faithfully eat all leftovers and to keep things as fresh as possible.  But, WOW, it can look painfully lean on a Sunday afternoon.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Corners of my home

The very large and sunny window sill in the upstairs room.  This has become one of our new favorite spots in the house because of its glorious light, warmth and general charm.
Other views from around this same spot.

Our hall bathroom.  Yes, it is orange. No, I would never have picked out the color myself. BUT, I love it!  It makes a very cramped space (there is a bath/shower immediately to the left of the toilet) very tolerable.

Our "bird nest" compost pile.  We've started it behind the garage and it's "walls" are the tall, hollow grass stalks that we mowed down from our hill.  Although we've been adding to it daily, it's decompensation rate is greatly slowed by the frigid temperatures.  I'm not sure how much of it will actually be ready come Spring.

Our everyday woolens, drying after an afternoon of sledding.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

It's the simple things, really

"'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
"'Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
"And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
"'Twill be in the valley of love and delight."
-Shaker hymn

I'm trying to land, more often, in the place where I find myself content with simply what is.   To be fully aware of the now.  And that is not an easy task.  My ability to do this seems to wax and wane, very much like the phases of the moon.  I'll have periods where I am very virtuous and intentional and for a time, I will be very happy.  Life will seem to have a somewhat rosy glow to it and the days melt, one into another.  But storm clouds come, as they always do, and my ripe contentment is too often eclipsed by a darker presence.  And then I find myself all broody and distracted, drawn to the things that don't really matter but that, all too often, appear to very much matter.

Which brings me to the above pictures.  To elaborate on what may seem like completely unrelated images...

This week brought me an incredible gift.  The kind of gift that just sneaks up on you and takes your breath away by measure of its infinite simplicity, yet depth.

There are two things that I have been longing to add to my kitchen--a Kitchen Aide mixer and a cast enamel dutch oven.  Both are the kind of things that you get once and have forever. Unfortunately, this means that they come with a price, and hefty ones at that.  So, in an attempt to better embrace our lean economic condition, I "let go" of these desired pieces and resigned myself to keep an eye out for them at garage sales, or simply go without.  

It's that letting go that's always the hardest.  My biggest argument for not letting go is that to do so means I am, effectively, saying that I don't need the said object, that I can go on in this life without this thing.  If I go so far as to let it go, I am forever accepting that I may never see my desired object, if not all out ensuring that I will never see it.  NO!  Even if I can't have it, aren't I entitled to the small joy laced with heartache, that comes from carrying around a kernel of hope that one day I might?  
Good grief!  I know I am being dramatic and that these are only things, but surely you understand.

The mixer pictured above belonged to my grandma.  It has been sitting in my parents' basement ever since they cleaned out my grandparents' house almost 10 years ago.  In a passing conversation with my mother, the subject of the Kitchen Aide mixer came up and the next thing I knew, this mixer was in my hands.  Yes, it is old.  No, it is not the latest and greatest.  But it is seriously heavy duty, has a million settings on it along with three mixing bowls and a juicer, and best of all, it was my grandma's.  I don't have a ton of memories of my grandma, as they lived in Ohio and I only saw them about once a year or so.  But the memories that I do have of her most definitely include her baking.  She used to make pies for us when we would come to visit and although everyone always raved about them, my favorite thing was the other dessert she would make, just for me, from the rolled out pie crust scraps.  I'm not sure what she called them but they were the most delicious mixture of butter and cinnamon and sugar, all rolled up like sleeping bags and just a little bit crispy.  Never wanting to waste a single thing, my grandma made a point of using every piece of pie crust dough.  So, to have her mixer to do something that I love to do, bake, is just so fitting.  And such an unexpected gift.  

The dutch oven that shines like a brand new fire engine is our other incredible find.  The most notable brand of these gems is Le Creuset and they are incredibly expensive.  They are usually heirloom pieces that can easily be passed down for generations.  For years, I have scanned the discount shops, looking for even a knock off that would fit the bill, but they, too, proved to be just too costly.  Then along comes Aldi, the grocery store that defies description and randomly has objects that you don't expect.  John stopped in to compare olive oil prices and he found this, gleaming back at him from the shelf.  The price was unbelievably reasonable, cheaper even than some simple skillets that we have purchased in the past and we knew that we had to buy it.  Now it sits upon my stovetop, shining in all of its red glory, and I can't tell you how much joy it brings me.  In fact, just this evening I made my first dish in it, Slow Cooked Tuscan Pork with White Beans.  Heaven, I tell you.

And that last picture... that is last Saturday morning...a lazy, sunny day in the living room where I hunkered down with a book but occasionally looked up to observe the precious moments of a dad teaching his son how to play chess.
It's the simple things, really.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Whose woods these are I think I know...
Robert Frost

So after two days of biting cold, mother nature decided to really show her colors and blow in a surprise morning full of flurries.  When we checked the weather just last night, there was no mention of snow.  A slight warming trend (up into the high teens) was actually on tap.  But about 10:30 or so this morning, I looked up from what I was doing to discover beautiful flurries drifting down from above.  I couldn't help but smile.  It seemed so unfair, all of this dreadful cold and nothing tangible to show for it.  I've always felt that winter just didn't seem like winter without snow (imagine my longings while living in Atlanta!).  What fun is it to be sentenced to primarily indoor activities and have nothing lovely out the window to look upon?  Nevermind the fact that I am often drawn outdoors by the snow, thus freeing me from the eternal interior confinement within which I find myself.
Within thirty minutes, the gentle flurries had become a torrent of white precipitate and the boys became as happy as anything.  I believe at one point August triumphantly proclaimed that today was "the GREATEST day ever!"  Despite the fact that I still enjoy snow, the boys' pure joy and excitement at something as simple as surprise flurries truly revolutionized my morning. Whatever shall we do?
The boys immediately decided that, since the snow was actually sticking (how could it not, it was 17 degrees Farenheit out there!), we should go down into our "woods" and check out what might have changed.  As I've mentioned before, there is a small creek that runs through the bottom of our property.  It is usually pretty dry, as it is really just an avenue for runoff from the steep yards that are positioned behind our property.  But from time to time, it does have water trickling through which is plenty enough for two curious boys.  I'm sure last spring when record rain fall was the norm it was often swollen.  
Sure enough, the water that had been pooling was frozen solid.  And by solid I mean, like an ice rink (as much as nature can provide one).  The boys were giddy with excitement and continued to explore the creek bed.  At the edges of the ice, where the water once met the bank of the creek, the crystal formations were beautiful.  It really was fascinating to see how just a couple days of really cold temperatures can change the landscape.  I decided to leave the boys to their exploring and do some of my own, back up the path.  I began to look around and marvel at what I've come to learn about these woods.  How I've begun to identify trees by their bark alone, since we've only known these trees without their leaves.  My two favorites have to be that of the shag bark hickory and the persimmon.

They are just so unique and interesting.  The hickory reminds me of the talking trees in The Wizard of Oz, only much less frightening and more stately.  And the persimmon is so knobbly and well, un-treelike,  that it never fails to delight me.  I've never had my own woods to get to know.  I feel as if it will happen slowly, over time.  At the top edge of our property, along the line that is strangely cut out to accomodate part of our neighbor's backyard (we don't understand the reasoning for the odd demarcation but...) there is a line of cedars where dozens of cardinals and sparrows roost.  I long for the day when I can steal away, alone, and come sit beneath the still boughs and just watch them silently.  We've been to that place twice before and August immediately sensed the specialness of it.  He called it his "club" and he prepared me a very nice dinner of pinecones and sticks to eat with him while we sat on our haunches.  He knows.

So, we walked in the woods and discovered the most amazing thing--Snow makes a noise as it comes down.  How is it that I've never noticed that before?  We all just stood in the huge quietness that snow creates and noticed that it was actually making a space for its own sound.  A gentle swishing sound like maybe your eyelashes would make as they brushed up against your glasses or the way your ears gently make themselves clear after you've been submerged among bubbles in the bath.  It was so subtle yet so profoundly present.  We felt as if it was a gift to have discovered it.  Then, on the heels of that wonderment, we raced inside because it was so bitterly cold.  What a fun morning.

When snow falls, nature listens.  ~Antoinette van Kleeff

Cold and wet

The amount of sleep required by the average person is five minutes more.  ~Wilson Mizener

Like the rest of the country, we have been suffering through some bitter cold temperatures the last few days.  It's remarkable how your understanding of cold changes so much with your latitudinal orientation.  When we lived in Atlanta, cold did come, but in spurts and stops that, in the end, amounted to a pretty mild winter overall.  Now that we are in the middle of Missouri (and pretty much the middle of the country), cold has a different definition.  A "mild" day for us can read 35 degrees farenheit.  I have now stated on numerous occasions, "Okay boys, it's over freezing, let's get outside!"  Everything is relative.
That being said, my August chose the coldest night of the season, literally, to wet the bed.  And not just once but, twice.  I heard him whimpering first and then he magically appeared at my bedside.  Aidan was there, too, because there was no way he was going to be left in that bed by himself and he had been awakened by August's desperate mewing.  Somehow, in the dark and in my sleepy stupor, I knew that he was wet because I instinctively frisked his lower half.  And that's when I discovered that he was shivering.  Chilled to the bone, he was.  I quickly got him changed and we crept back in the chilly darkness to join John and Aidan in our bed.  And, despite our large, wonderful, king size bed that was obtained with the full intention of sharing it with our children, I can no longer sleep there with all of us in it.  Granted, I could sleep there if necessary, and in my more uncomfortable moments, I am often reminded of Frank McCourt's family all crammed together in bed, out of necessity, in Angela's Ashes.  But, again, it is neither restful nor pleasant with all four of us.  One child is fine, but two sets of legs and arms is simply too much anymore.
I left our warm bed and retired to the couch where I did manage to get somewhat comfortable and snug.  But then, before too long, I heard voices.  This time it was John and August stumbling around in the boys' room, looking for yet another set of pajamas.  Evidently, August drank a gallon of water before bed without our knowledge because he had proceeded to wet our bed, as well.  Since our bed is so big, half of the bed was still dry and thus there was room for John and Aidan.  August, however, had to join me on the couch.  Lovely.  To his defense, he is a remarkable cuddler and he curls up into you as if within your arms rested the secret to eternal blissful slumber.  That is nice.  But soon, the cramped quarters and tingling appendages begin to obscure the blissful repose and again, I am sent wandering into the night, searching for somewhere to lay my sleepy head.
My coffee tasted marvelous this morning.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Thoughts for this year

So, although we lean towards a more relaxed approach to learning at home, we are not rooted in it.  As a result, when we are moved to explore a new way of doing things, we are still flexible enough to lean in that direction and see what it holds for us.  That's where 2009 finds us, looking for new possibilities.  I'm sure it's inherent in the gift of a whole new year, fresh and untainted, ripe with hope and new beginnings.  And a gift it truly is, for without my asking or hoping or even praying for the ability to start afresh, here it is anyway, as faithful as an old dog.  Thank you, God, for the opportunity to look with new eyes.
Yesterday morning, the boys and I sat down and decided to do some thinking (I know, dangerous undertaking!).  While they busied themselves with watercolors and castle design, we chatted about what they might hope for in the new year.  Again, even though we are pretty darn relaxed, the truth of the matter is that I have personal tendencies towards structure and before I completely take over the reins of what Aidan and August are learning, I was curious to know what they think.  The results were quite enlightening.  First, I will provide you with Aidan's list.  For the record, 90% of what you see is straight from Aidan's own thoughts and hopes.  The other 10% comes simply from the fact that I may have asked a leading question as a means of subject suggestions.  And I only mentioned those because I knew that he had shown interest in them at some point.

What I want to learn about in 2009:
  • Geography--Special features of different states (ex. Mount Rushmore); State capitals (having already mastered the States); learn the countries of South America
  • Wildlife--Continue Nature Center Programs (Kids Conservation Club, other special programs); Insects; Forests
  • Math--Telling time; Addition and Subtraction practice; Money
  • History--Ancient History, specifically Nomads and other early civilizations; continue study of Ancient Egypt (this is really big right now and has been for about 6 months); continue study of Medieval times (this, too, has been consistent for almost a year now)
  • Reading--Stop phonics for one month and practice reading on my own; then, add more phonics and then practice reading again; continue Read-a-Louds with the goal of completing one chapter book every week or two
  • Sports/Recreation--soccer
  • Instrument/Music--he wants to learn to play the tuba (I informed him that he would most likely have to wait a little while before he could take that on), and percussion instruments (hand drums, like bongos, and the xylophone); sing in a choir
  • Art--improve his drawing skills; sculpture
  • Play--make sure there is enough time for playing
So, there you go.  I think he has put forth a very full year of learning and exploring.  It helps me, too, to know exactly where he is going in his not so little brain.
Now, not to be outdone by his big brother, August insisted on getting in on the action.  What follows is August's list.

What I want to learn about in 2009
  • Pirates
  • Gladiators
  • Knights
  • Soccer
  • Guitar, violin and sing in a choir
  • Painting
I love it!  I can't wait to begin, again.