31 August 2012

How to build up an emergency supply

You're trying to live within a budget, and you're a little strapped for cash, so how do you fill your pantry with enough food, and your closets with enough other household essentials, to last for even two weeks?

Sit down with pen and paper, and make a list of what your household consumes in two weeks. That's 42 meals plus snacks and beverages. Per person, it's a dozen-plus showers, three dozen goes at dental hygiene (tooth brushing and flossing), perhaps three loads of laundry. There will be housecleaning that uses some quantity of cleanser products. If it's, you know, that time of the month, you need sanitary supplies (disasters are notoriously indelicate in their timing). And of course all these numbers will vary according to your lifestyle: if you work out at home, you likely shower more and do more laundry, for instance.

Make your list, but most particularly for food, list only foods that you'll really, actually eat. That is, don't fill your pantry with two weeks' worth of granola bars, beef ravioli, and canned green beans if your household hates these foods. Start with a complement of ready-to-eat convenience foods (yes, the stuff that's not really good for you as a dietary staple, but will provide calories and won't take water or energy to prepare in an emergency).

Then make a commitment to yourself to learn how to cook foods from shelf-stable items, which will make your two-week supply part of your ordinary pantry. But that's a topic for another day.

There are two ways to build up a two-week supply: either all at once, or piece by piece. Once you've compiled your list of items you consume, you can head to the grocery store and buy it all now, or you can add a handful of things -- a flat of canned soup on sale this week for $0.69/can, an extra canister of oatmeal, and ooh, look, coffee's on sale two for one today -- to the grocery cart at every trip. Add $10.00 to your weekly or monthly food budget and build up your supply as you can. You don't have to do it all at once.

And once you have your two-week supply completed, why stop there? Aim for a three-month supply or even a year's. Keep in mind that whatever you store, rotation and storage is an issue.

Work out a system in your fridge, freezer, cabinets, shelves, and pantry that will allow you to rotate foods out and use them up before they spoil. If you're not sure how long it takes you to use up an item -- a dozen cans of soup, a canister of oatmeal, a can of coffee -- then write on the package the date you open it (or use the first of the dozen), and then note how long it takes you to use it up. Not just foods: do the same for shampoo, toilet paper, housecleaning products, medicines, etc. Keep a paper notebook or an electronic spreadsheet, whatever works for you.

Here's your takeaway from this blog entry. You can prepare your pantry for an emergency. Break the project down into small steps and get cracking! Think about the next time you're stuck at home alone with the flu or a sprained ankle. You can't make it to the supermarket or the drugstore (even though, as an urban home economist, you live just a few blocks away from these amenities), but you can make it to the kitchen and the bathroom. You've got some good, healthful food ready to go or with minimal preparation, and you have remedies for pain or flu symptoms on the shelf. And because you took some small steps and made a plan, you're set and you'll be fine until someone can come over to help out or you can get out of the house again and run around.

Happy prepping!

30 August 2012

How much to keep on hand?

Everybody knows that you should keep food and household essentials on hand in case the power goes out and you're stranded at home. But how much to keep?

Well, how much space do you have? How many people will you have to take care of? What kind of problem do you anticipate keeping you in the house and unable to leave?

The Rowhouse Livin' household packs an adult and a teenager in just under 1000 square feet of cozy, mostly open-concept living space, with closets that are few and far between. I figure our home, built following the Society Hill revitalization projects of the 1970s, was designed for yuppies who wanted to live in Center City before starting a family and moving to Chestnut Hill.

Living in a densely populated urban neighborhood has its advantages. Our streets are plowed early and often; and in the rare instances when our utilities go out, they generally come back before those of residents in outer suburbs. We don't risk getting snowed in for months at a time. Though we're on a coastal plain, and though we've got rivers to the east and west of us, I don't put flooding that would strand us in the house on our radar. It's just not realistic, absent a water main failure -- which is more of an evacuation risk, anyway.

But I'll tell you what I do anticipate. I anticipate two basic scenarios: (1) My daughter and I are stuck in the house together for a week; or (2) I'm alone, but I'm so ill or injured that I can't get myself to the store for a week. But you know, to be safe, let's say two weeks. I keep enough non-perishable food and household essentials that my daughter and I would be fine for a bare minimum of two weeks.

So when my pantry runs low on a food item, or my bathroom cabinet runs low on something -- but wait. What do I mean by "low"? The joke around here is that you can be out of something, or you can be Rowhouse Livin' out of something. Regular out means you have zero of something on hand; but Rowhouse Livin' out means you have two weeks' worth available. (Or, if it's an item in a package that lasts longer than two weeks, such as olive oil or shampoo, Rowhouse Livin' out means no spare. Thus, when I toss an empty olive oil bottle into the recycling bin and reach into the pantry for the spare one waiting to be used, I am now Rowhouse Livin' out of olive oil.) So, two weeks, or 42 meals, in my pantry ready to go: home-canned beans, commercially canned soups, instant noodle bowls, dried fruit, and nuts. Plus some seeds for sprouting, so that I'll have some Vitamin C in a few days.

Next: Thoughts on how to build up a two-week pantry.

29 August 2012

The first question in evacuations

I have a confession. The Rowhouse Livin' household does not maintain a bug-out bag.

Wait, first: what's a bug-out bag? Also called a 72-hour survival kit, a GOOD ("get out of Dodge") bag, a ten essentials bag, or a personal emergency relocation kit, it's a pre-packed backpack, holding everything one person would need to survive for three days, and available at a moment's notice for an emergency evacuation. The bag includes food, water, first-aid supplies and daily medicines, hygienic supplies, basic camping items, paperwork (identity documents, medical records), and cash. That's not anywhere near a complete list, but you get the idea.

There are a million websites selling pre-filled bug-out bags, and a million other websites telling you how to pack your own. In the end, as with anything else regarding emergency preparedness, you have to look at your own situation and figure out a solution that works for your household. When it comes to evacuations, the first question to ask is:

Why would I ever be ordered to evacuate?

The more paranoid survivalist websites and discussion forums fear civil unrest. I won't go so far as to call that kind of fear laughable, because riots do happen. But they're infrequent, they usually don't last longer than a day, and to some degree they're predictable, sadly -- sports team victories, or excesses on college campuses. But in the U.S., even multi-day demonstrations that degenerate into chaotic situations, or week-long riots leading to curfews and a mayor calling in the National Guard don't tend to lead to government-ordered evacuations. (Of course, you may want to leave anyway.)

Authorities order mandatory evacuations when there are natural disasters on the way: flood, wildfire, volcanic eruption. Or not-so-natural disasters, like chemical spills. Do you live close to a river delta or freight train tracks? Then you should probably have a bug-out bag ready to go!

So what's in the Rowhouse Livin' bug-out bag? We don't have one, as I've said. We're not in a volcano zone. Our home is not near freight train tracks or the interstate highways. I don't live on waterfront property. The buildings on either side of mine are well maintained, placing us at a very low risk of being affected by a building collapse. Probably my biggest risk is a water main failure, though to be honest I'm not too worried about that, either (because our building is on a slab, without a basement). Call me an optimist prepper, but I honestly don't think I'll get an evacuation order on my block any time soon, because I think my risk of those events that trigger mandatory evacuations is vanishingly small. So I don't keep a full bug-out bag at the ready. Rather, I keep an envelope with our important documents in a convenient location by the front door. And by "important documents," I mean our passports, our birth certificates, our Social Security cards, my homeowners insurance policy, a map and a planned route on foot out of the city, some addresses and phone numbers, and a small amount of cash (think: what if the banks are closed, or ATMs aren't working? But also: realistically, how long would it be before I can use an ATM again?).

Everything in moderation, even emergency preparedness. One should be prepared for emergencies, but one shouldn't go overboard. Seriously consider the risks that you face in your area, and plan accordingly -- and reasonably.

28 August 2012

The first question in emergency preparedness

As there's a large storm bearing down on the Gulf Coast this week, we should be aware that the Atlantic hurricane season is well upon us. As Andrew, Katrina, and other hurricanes have taught us, we have to be prepared for power outages (sometimes long-term), property damage, and even evacuations. Of course this is particularly the case if we live in areas at risk for hurricanes, but even if you don't live in a part of the country prone to hurricanes, you're almost certainly at risk of other emergencies: winter ice storms that take down power lines, spring floods, or earthquakes at any time of year.

How prepared does a household need to be? There are so many factors that go into that decision that it's impossible to formulate a hard-and-fast rule for all people, everywhere. But here is the very first question to ask as you formulate a plan for your household:

What are the typical emergencies you see in your part of the country and your specific location? In other words, do you have a high risk of severe weather (tornadoes, blizzards)? Or is your area more likely to see environmental disasters (wildfires, landslides, earthquakes)?

Note that some emergencies are more predictable, or at least more regular, than others. For example, here in Philadelphia we can generally predict that every winter we'll get at least one snowstorm that shuts down our streets and closes our schools for a day or two. Some winters we get more storms, or we'll get an actual blizzard; and some winters we get fewer. But a good rule of thumb is to be prepared to keep the kids home from school and have some food and household essentials stored away for at least one event each winter. That said, here in town, our streets get cleared and our stores re-open very quickly, so we never have to anticipate being snowed in for longer than a few days at a time.

In other areas of the country, you may have a problem quite the opposite of being stuck in the house: you may be ordered to evacuate. So maybe instead of -- or in addition to -- being prepared to stay in for a few days, you should be prepared to leave for a few days, or permanently, on very little notice. And you should consider the likelihood that your risk of disasters includes losing your home. So maybe one focus for your own preparedness is to bulk up financially: insurance and cash or easily liquidable assets.

Tomorrow: Thoughts on evacuations.

24 August 2012

Cheap eats: Rice and beans

Why doesn't anybody eat rice and beans any more? They are so filling. They are so nutritious, lacking really only Vitamin C (links: rice, beans). They have such an unobjectionable taste. They are so cheap.

I could wax poetic on rice and beans.

Say this with former N.J. governor Tom Kean's accent:
"Rice and beans. Perfect together."

You can get a 1-lb. bag of black beans for $1.39, often less. You can get a slow cooker to cook them in for under $25.00 (or used for even less). You can get a 5-lb. bag of brown rice for $6.59, often less.

When you are short on money, your food budget is one place where it's easy to economize. Stop eating out. Stop buying coffee from people who make it for you. Stop buying expensive food: out-of-season produce, prime cuts of meat, processed convenience foods, junk foods and sodas, and so on. Learn how to put up with a diet less varied than you would perhaps prefer. And embrace rice and beans, possibly starting with the recipe we use in the Rowhouse Livin' household:

Place 1 cup dried black beans into the slow cooker crock. To clean them, cover with water and agitate with fingers or a utensil; drain; repeat. Cover with water to a depth of 2 inches and let stand in the crock overnight. Drain, rinse, and return to the crock.

Cover with water to a depth of 1 inch and turn the slow cooker to HIGH. After 1 hour, turn to LOW. (Or: start cooking the beans on LOW in the morning and let sit all day while you are away at work.) After 5 hours (or: after you return home), add half a small onion, diced; one tomato, chopped; and salt and pepper to taste. Add any of the following to taste: cumin, chili powder, bay leaf, epazote, curry powder, garlic powder. Stir thoroughly. Turn the heat back to HIGH and cook for another hour.

While the beans are finishing, prepare 1 cup of rice per package instructions or another method. When the rice is done, turn off the slow cooker and serve. We like to grate hard Cheddar cheese on top, and I like to add hot sauce.

Note how this is a meal that we can have on the table within an hour of returning home from school and work. In that hour, my daughter can finish up some homework, and I can work on bread or move laundry along. And really importantly, it costs under $1.00 per plate, including water, electricity, and cooking gas. During the school year, the Rowhouse Livin' household sees rice and beans on the table almost weekly.

If you are concerned about indigestion due to the beans, you can try Beano. But rest assured that most people find that, the more they eat beans, the more they find them digestible. As for the brown rice, yes, it has a lot of fiber. If you are concerned about the laxative effect of eating so much brown rice, then you can start by using white rice, then trying a 50-50 mix, and then gradually transitioning to 100% brown rice. (Note that white rice takes less time to cook than brown rice.)

23 August 2012

On food deserts

A food desert is a city neighborhood or other residential area in an otherwise developed nation where it is difficult to easily obtain nutritious foods. The typical example is an urban neighborhood without a major chain supermarket -- just corner convenience stores or drugstores with grocery aisles -- where residents, typically without cars because they don't need or can't afford them, find it inconvenient or even dangerous to walk to the nearest full-service grocery store. Think the little old lady who has trouble navigating unpaved sidewalks with her granny cart, or a neighborhood isolated from more prosperous surrounding neighborhoods by passenger and freight train tracks or high-traffic boulevards. Instead, the corner stores and drugstore grocery sections notoriously sell overpriced, sometimes expired foods and offer little in the way of fresh, healthy options.

Real estate developers should put supermarkets in underserved neighborhoods. I guess they don't because they've done the math and figure they can't make a profit on such an investment. I don't know all the factors they consider (I have never looked into commercial real estate development, myself), so I'm in no position to wonder just how badly a supermarket in a blighted neighborhood would actually perform. Maybe it's very difficult or very expensive to obtain insurance? There could be tax breaks, perhaps, to incentivize development; certainly it makes more policy sense, I think, than using public funds to re-route trolleys and upgrade infrastructure at a casino.

Some authorities question whether food deserts actually exist, or if the term is simply the result of circular research: a phrase that the media has picked up and repeated so often and for so long that it must be true, because it turns up in news media Nexis searches. I won't go so far as to deny the existence of urban food deserts. When I was looking for a Philadelphia home to buy in 2005, I scratched Northern Liberties and Fishtown off my list of potential neighborhoods because the closest supermarket was the Thriftway in Port Richmond. (Now, of course, there is a brand new Superfresh at 2nd and Girard.) And a good friend of mine works to attract supermarkets and other anchor retail stores to distressed communities and retain them through sustainable development practices -- he'd be the first to de-friend me on Facebook if I say, "I picked this place because the supermarket is three blocks away" in one breath, and then say, "There's no such thing as a food desert" in the next.

But consider, very especially here in Philadelphia. Every regional rail line, every subway-surface trolley, the El, and the Broad Street subway all stop within a block of the Reading Terminal Market and stop at or near the Gallery. The Market has stands offering fresh produce, fish, and meats, and the Gallery includes at least one produce market and fishmonger. I've found through my own price comparisons that the non-organic Terminal Market stands and the shop in the Gallery have prices that are competitive with local supermarkets. Most if not all of these vendors take SNAP ACCESS cards (food stamps). Now, from many places in the city, you can reach the Market and the Gallery with a single $2 transit fare (or a $1.55 token). From outlying areas in the Great Northeast, you can do it with a bus trip and a $1.00 transfer to the El. From zip code 19133, referenced above, you can do it with a single bus.

With some planning, and with adding transit fare to your food budget, you can address the food desert problem yourself, at least in Philadelphia. (This is an urban home economics blog, after all.) The transit trips may take a while, especially on weekends, so you'll need to do some time management. But if you work days in Center City yet live in a food desert, there's almost no excuse not to take advantage of the offerings in the Reading Terminal Market and the Gallery.

People who live in food deserts can't magically make commercial developers build supermarkets in their neighborhoods. But they can consider some self-reliance. Work the transit fare into your food budget. Investigate options for reduced fares or a bus pass from your employer or school. The Food Trust's Healthy Corner Stores Initiative is a great project but can go only so far; a household has to look after itself.

22 August 2012

From the Bookshelf: "Passport to Survival"

From the Bookshelf posts discuss books I've found helpful over the years. I'm not advertising for them and haven't received any compensation from the publishers. However, book titles link to Amazon through the affiliate program that helps support the blog.

I had planned to write the first "From the Bookshelf" article about something well-known and easy, like Joy of Cooking. But instead I've decided to jump right into the deep end and discuss one of my favorite fringe survivalist books: The NEW Passport to Survival: 12 Steps to Self-Sufficient Living by Rita Bingham (Natural Meals Publishing 1999):

From left: navy beans, white rice, brown rice, black turtle beans,
old-fashioned oatmeal, mung bean (Chinese stir-fry bean sprout) seeds

Now, let's be clear. Bingham, writing this book pre-9/11 but more importantly pre-Y2K, emphasizes that the end times approach. The evidence, you see, is clear: the number of hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, droughts, and other natural disasters has increased exponentially since the 1950s! Bingham does not take into account that we have more people in the land witnessing events, more weather stations, more satellites, and more sensitive detection instruments, all of which would lead to an exponentially higher number of reported hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, droughts, and other natural disasters than were known to have occurred before today. Now, Rowhouse Livin' is a household that uses evidence-based methods to determine how we'll stock our pantry. So how do we square our perspective with Bingham's eschatological point of view?

First, we take the first two chapters ("NIGHTMARE 2000" and "WHAT IF?") with a grain of salt. We'll buy that natural disasters and catastrophic, uninsured losses happen; we'll leave on the shelf the suggestion that supermarket-clearing civil unrest is nigh or that any of a number of disasters would be caused by a higher power. We'll leave the line items for genealogical documents and scriptures off our checklist of things we should have in our emergency 72-hour kits, but we'll leave in the very sound reasoning for maintaining a bug-out bag in the first place. In short, Passport to Survival is a tool in the Rowhouse Livin' toolbox, one of many, for working on our urban home economics goals.

And what a tool! Bingham discusses how to build up a household's supply of food in accordance with her faith. While the church appears to have eased off the full year's supply requirement and now -- to my understanding -- focuses on helping members save up for just three months, Bingham gives you tips, strategies, recipes, and a gameplan for stocking up enough food and household necessities that you can skip going to the grocery store for a whole 12 months. Topics include growing your own sprouts for vitamins; grinding flour from your store of wheat; building and using a no-fuel solar oven; and rotating through your stored food by using it in your daily meals. While noting that her information on "complementary" proteins for vegetarians and the cure-all properties of grapefruit seed extract is dated, I think the book is still a valuable source of information and encouragement for households looking into self-reliance and emergency preparedness. It's a useful reference for me, and a book I re-read in its entirety about once a year . . . by candlelight, during a snowstorm.

21 August 2012

Do the math: home-made bread

There are a number of things to keep in mind if you want to figure out whether it's worth your while to make your own bread. Do you want to compare by weight? Or number of slices? Do you want 100% whole wheat, or will you settle for 50%? Or do you prefer white bread? Are you trying to avoid dairy products, or high-fructose corn syrup, or any of the numerous chemical treatments used in modern commercial breadmaking?

My starting point is that I like a hearty bread with over 50% whole-wheat flour. I avoid HFCS for calorie reasons and I avoid commercial breads with their weirdly spelled dough conditioner chemicals for hippie reasons. Thus, for my household's purposes, I'm not going to price-compare between my home-made bread and, say, dollar store white sandwich bread, even though the dollar store bread would "win." In our household, spending money on food with that little nutritional value is not a victory; it's a waste of money.

Breaking the prices down, I'll compare by slices, because in the end that's how I consume bread. I make a sandwich with two slices of bread, whether the bread is my heavy, home-made pain de campagne or a package of the lowest-priced, mass-produced bread I can find at the grocery store. A loaf can weigh 21, 24, 32, or 34 oz.; but keep in mind that the loaf I finish first won't be the lightest one -- it'll be the one with the fewest slices. And note that two supermarket loaves may cost the same but have a remarkable difference in the number of slices: family size versus sandwich size versus "country" size, even from the same manufacturer, can vary in price or weight, or maybe not, but they'll definitely vary in number of slices. And if you don't feel ripped off when you pay the same price for a family loaf as for a country loaf, but you get 5 fewer sandwiches out of the country loaf and don't feel any fuller at the end of your lunch, you probably should.

First, a quick summary of what goes into a loaf of my home-made bread, using prices from the affiliate links when given: 2 cups of whole-wheat flour; 1 cup of white flour; 1/4 cup wheat berries; 1 tsp salt; 1/2 tsp yeast, water. A 5-lb. sack of flour will yield about 19 cups. Whole-wheat flour is $4.99 per 5 lbs., or $4.99 per 19 cups, or $0.26 per cup, $0.52 for 2 cups. White flour is $1.99 per 5 lbs., or $1.99 per 19 cups, or $0.10 per cup. Wheat berries cost me $1.65/lb. last time I got them; 1/4 cup weighs about 2 oz. or 1/8 lb., so $0.21.

As for salt and yeast . . . I don't want to say the prices on those quantities are negligible, because I want to be rigorous here, so here goes. A 26-oz. canister of table salt costs $1.35, and Morton tells me that there are 491 quarter-teaspoons in the canister. That makes $0.0027 per quarter-teaspoon, or just over $0.01 per teaspoon. Yeast is a little trickier, but it's just algebra. I buy my yeast in 4-oz. (113.4 g) jars for $6.99. The manufacturer tells me that one of their 7-gram packets contains about 2 1/4 tsp, so I have a ratio of 2.25 tsp per 7 g. Now I have enough numbers: (2.25 tsp)/(7 g) = (x tsp)/(113.4 g), so x = 36.45 tsp per jar. Each jar sells for $6.99, or $0.19/tsp; so 1/2 tsp costs (and I'll round it up) $0.10.

Putting it all together, when I make a loaf of bread I use $0.62 for flour, $0.21 for "crunchies" (the wheat berries) and $0.11 for salt and yeast, plus water and cooking gas, which I'll ballpark at $0.25. My total is $1.19. I usually get a dozen slices of bread (plus heels) out of one loaf, so my price per slice is $0.10.

Thus, any bread I find at the store has to beat $0.10/slice, while also carrying the same nutritional kick as bread with 67% whole-grain flour, the added benefit of whole wheat berries, and the hippie holier-than-thou perk of using no high-fructose corn syrup or chemical additives.

  • Rowhouse Livin' bread: $0.10/slice

  • Whole-wheat boule from upscale supermarket's bakery: $4.29, about 15 slices, so $0.28/slice

  • Organic whole-wheat bâtard from neighborhood supermarket: 21 oz., $4.79, about 18 slices, so $0.27/slice

  • Organic whole-wheat commercial bread from upscale supermarket's bread section: 24 oz., $4.59, 20 slices, so $0.23/slice

  • Non-organic whole-wheat commercial bread from neighborhood supermarket: 24 oz., $3.89, 20 slices, so $0.19/slice. From this price level downward, all of the breads contain chemical dough additives and/or HFCS, making them less desirable for the Rowhouse Livin' household.

  • Non-organic whole-wheat commercial bread, family/king size: 24 oz., $3.89, 22 slices, so $0.18/slice

  • Non-organic, whole-wheat commercial bread, supermarket generic: 16 oz. (!), $1.79, 20 slices, so $0.09/slice

  • That last loaf there competes in price to my own, so now I'm back to quality issues. At just 16 oz., that loaf must be pumped full of air so that the light-feeling slices don't taste too "disagreeably" like whole grain. That bread will also be soft and squishy, without the sturdy grain and hearty mouthfeel that I prefer. But, you know, if you like a bread that melts in your mouth without your having to actually chew it, and if your household does not find dough additives and HFCS objectionable, then maybe you would prefer to buy this bread than make your own.

    Which brings me to Ray's question from the other day about calculating time. It's a complicated question, and one I will be addressing sometime soon. Here's one consideration. My home-made bread requires 5 minutes to mix, and another 5 minutes or less (in short segments) to turn out of the bowl, shape into a boule, place into the proofing bowl, place into the oven, and retrieve from the oven. (The fermenting and baking times are hours when I am asleep, or I can work on other things, or I don't even have to be at home.) On the other hand, it's a 20-minute round trip for me to travel to my neighborhood supermarket for its generic brand whole-wheat bread. Please consider: not only do I subjectively think that last loaf of bread is terrible food, but actually it takes twice as much time to obtain than does my own bread.

    20 August 2012

    Home canning: peach-cantaloupe marmalade

    This is an old-timey recipe, one I found in a tattered old government publication from my grandmother's farmhouse some years ago.

    "Preserving Fruits and Vegetables in the Home," publication
    dated 1929 from the Dominion of Canada

    Let's take a look inside at today's recipe:

    "Seal and store." This is why grandma called her jars "sealers."

    Dig that recipe, though: 12 peaches? An entire cantaloupe? And 3 oranges and a lemon? That is an absurd quantity of fruit mass you'll be dealing with for the marmalade, which should be a small-batch product -- usually we want our jams and jellies to max out at about 6 cups of fruit, or we're far more likely to get a syrup than a jelled, set product. Were fruits in 1929 really that much smaller than today's produce? So! Modern version and illustrative photos after the jump!

    17 August 2012

    Home canning: Onion pickle

    I found a few huge, beautiful, sweet white onions at the farmers market in July, along with some sharp red "torpedo" onions. I took 6 white onions and 2 red onions and essentially used the Ball Blue Book recipe for vinegared red onions, but modified along the lines of what Food in Jars came up with a little while ago. I left out sugar for a sour-only pickle, dropping cloves, peppercorns, mustard seed, and celery seed into the jars before packing in the heated, sliced onions, and I ended up with these beauties:
    All, and I mean all, the sample recipes I found called for sugar,
    which I left out. Hope that wasn't a mistake
    They've been ageing for a few weeks now. When they first hopped out of the canner, the red torpedoes had stained the jars bright, bright pink. Now they've mellowed to a crazy brown-mustard parchment color, and you can't tell the torpedoes from the sweet whites.

    The Rowhouse Livin' household doesn't consume a lot of pickles, so I hardly ever make them, whether onions, or cucumbers, or any other type of pickle. I used to make bread-and-butter pickles, but after a few intervals of realizing it was taking me two years for us to finish a mere five pints of pickles, I decided to leave them out of my canning repertoire for a while. So I'm realistic and imagine it will take me a while to get through these onions. I see them as a topping for salads, or a winter sandwich condiment, or a relish to accompany the pizzas I make for my Sunday semi-potluck dinners. I'm really looking forward to popping the lids and seeing how they turned out.


    If you are not familiar with home canning, please see the National Center for Home Food Preservation. This recipe does not substitute for a complete set of instructions on safe home canning practices. Jar size: pints. Slice the onions in half lengthwise, then into narrow slices crosswise. Add to a large saucepot, cover with vinegar, add 1 generous tablespoon non-iodized salt, and bring to a boil. Gently simmer onions for 10 minutes.

    Into each pint jar, add a few whole cloves, a few peppercorns, 1/4 teaspoon whole mustard seed, and 1/4 teaspoon celery seed. Fill heated jars with hot onions and cooking liquid, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Process pints 10 minutes (sea level) in a boiling-water bath canner. For this batch, 8 onions yielded 6 pints.

    16 August 2012

    Thrift store review: Circle Thrift, Fishtown or South Broad Street

    I want to love Circle Thrift, I really do. The space at the 2233 Frankford Ave location in Fishtown is large. The clothes are arranged by type and color. It's an actual charity shop with a charitable mission, as opposed to a fell-off-a-truck discount store or for-profit thrift store. The books and housewares are cheap; both locations are easy to get to via public transit; and the staff are friendly.

    But the last few times I've been to the Frankford Ave shop, it's been overrun with screaming children -- I'm not "childfree," neither literally nor by inclination, but small children are "psychotic dwarfs with good prognoses" and require active attention in public. When my daughter was young and I took her shopping, I would tell her, "We're in a look-don't-touch store" and help her control her limbs accordingly. And for a few years there, I didn't have the luxury of slowly browsing my favorite haunts to leisurely try on clothes and pore over the bookshelves. I would have to make a list and hit the thrift stores in surgical strikes, head purposefully for the area I needed to search, and call the trip off if I didn't quickly find what I needed.

    What I never did was to leave my daughter to entertain herself in front of the shelves of toys, or wait until she was screaming with boredom and tiredness before we'd skedaddle, or let her pull clothes from the racks and leave them all over the floor for the staff to tidy up. Circle Thrift, though. Ugh.

    Unfortunately, it's not just screaming kids destroying merchandise. It's also that the music is generally turned up way too loud, even for hipster Fishtown. The South Broad Street location, at Federal Street, suffers from its small size and low, basement-level ceiling. The clothing tends to be older, shabbier, and less up-to-date than some other thrift stores. And in Fishtown at least, they don't seem to have an effective strategy for helping the homeless or troubled who come into the store. (I'm not a thrift store employee or manager, but I think the answer is not to let the person browse to their heart's content and try on clothing, which spoils the merchandise and deters other patrons from shopping. The shop can fulfill its mission to help a person in a dire condition without permitting a cat piss man situation in the store.)

    I think my best bet will be to hit Circle Thrift earlier in the day, to avoid the little kids running around. And it's not the best place to rely on for clothes; it's better for clothing accessories (e.g., handbags), and for dishes, housewares, and linens.

    Happy thrifting!

    15 August 2012

    No-knead bread by Rowhouse Livin'

    It's been almost six years since the NYT published Jim Lahey's no-knead bread recipe. It's been over three years since I started making it myself on a regular basis, and almost a full year since I last bought a loaf of sandwich bread from the grocery store.

    We eat a lot of bread in our household. Nobody has a gluten intolerance or allergy, and we haven't seen a need to try a low-carbohydrate diet. Between toast with our breakfasts and sandwiches in our sack lunches, during the school year my daughter and I use about eight slices of bread per day. Being a hippie, I want to use whole-wheat bread while avoiding high-fructose corn syrup and scary-sounding chemicals. Being a penny-pincher, I want to maximize the hippie-ness of the bread I buy while minimizing its price. So what to do when the cheapest whole-wheat bread I can find still has HFCS and smells funny because of the dough conditioners and raising agents? Hint: it's cheap to make from scratch. Recipe and eight illustrative photos after the jump:

    14 August 2012

    How to label home-preserved food

    I can my own food more for penny-pinching reasons than for hobby reasons, so I'm not into decorating my jars with squares of cloth and tying hand-written cards to the jars with rustic-looking twine:

    Gag me with an attached spoon
    And the sticker labels that you find for sale next to the canning jars never really wash off:

    I do not exaggerate: both of these jars have gone through the canner
    at least a dozen times since I first removed their labels. Also: camera out of focus
    Ball assures me that they've made their newest labels with a less permanent, "dissolvable" adhesive. But still, why spend the money? It's not a challenge to tell a jar of pickled onions from a jar of baked beans. The only thing you really need to note on the jar is the date you produced it. While you can tell a jar of strawberry jam from a jar of orange marmalade, you can't tell a jar of apple butter from 2011 versus 2008, unless you have a fantastic memory of what each year's batch looked like, based on the variety of apple and ratio of spices you tried out. Or you want to do some forensic dating based on the style of snap lid you used:

    "RAS-BLU JAM"? Also: I hated that cute little basket-'n'-banner
    style of lid (top left). Luckily, masking tape.
    To sum up: Yes, you need to label your jars. At the very least, you must put a date on them; month and year is perfectly adequate. The official rule is to use up home-canned food within 12 months of taking it out of the canner, because after 12 months it deteriorates in both quality and safety. (Even if you're willing to use jars that have been kicking around for longer than that, you need to be able to determine exactly how long a particular jar has been kicking around.) As for naming the jar's contents, you should do that, though it's not nearly as strictly necessary as dating the jar. While it's easy to tell whole tomatoes from cranberry sauce, will you really remember, a year from now, which jar is white-peach butter and which is pear butter? It takes only a second to scrawl RAS-BLU JAM over 06/08, and it saves guesswork in 06/09.

    Or in 07/13

    13 August 2012

    Do the math: Yes, algebra is necessary

    About two weeks ago, some noodle-head at the New York Times, in an attempt to paint the paper as even more of a bastion of elite media detached from reality, asked "Is Algebra Necessary?"

    Yes, it is, because you can't run an economically efficient household without knowing how to calculate prices by the ounce or the mile or the hour. The question isn't whether kids should be learning algebra in school. The question is whether they are learning how to apply algebra to real-life situations. Are they learning how to figure out which train, when the Acela leaves Boston at 10:22 and the Regional leaves D.C. at 10:45, arrives at Philadelphia first? Or are they learning how to figure out which is cheaper to bring to a Fourth of July picnic, a store-bought blueberry pie or a home-made one (answer)? Are they learning how to figure out how much money they'll need to budget for gas every week, if their commute to work is 12 miles each way, gas is $3.50/gal., the car gets 23 mpg, and they'll telecommute every Friday? If you hire movers at $120/hr., how much money will you save if you shave 90 minutes off their clock by de-clutterring to downsize the amount of belongings you move, stacking your boxes neatly before the movers arrive, and disassembling your bed? How many hours will you be able to pay them if they charge $90/hr. to pack your things beforehand, and your moving budget is $800.00?

    No, I'm not moving. I like living in the city.

    10 August 2012

    Shift in attitudes or short-term behavior change?

    NBC reports that Americans "are getting a better handle on their debt" and that "mortgage delinquencies are tracking lower than this time a year ago." I don't know what "tracking lower" means, but I think it means that fewer people are behind on their mortgage payments right now than they were at this time last year.

    The article doesn't explain why, but I'll suggest a reason, and it's sobering: in 2011, banks foreclosed on nearly 2 million properties. So is the reduction in mortgage delinquencies "a shift in consumers' attitudes towards debt," as an economist states for the article? Or has the market just operated really efficiently for the past 12 months?

    Contrary to the NBC article, however, CNN reports that "foreclosure starts -- the earliest stage of the foreclosure process when delinquent borrowers first receive notices that they are in default -- rose" in July 2012 compared to July 2011. It likely depends on how you define foreclosure (filing or the sending of the first delinquent notice) and when you start your stopwatch.

    Over at BBC, they're asking if Americans are getting off the hyper-consumption train, "[b]ecause while manufacturing is picking up and property sales and construction are both coming up off the floor, US retail spending remains distinctly shaky." And Americans have been saving more of their income than they were seven years ago: 4% now, but just 1.5% in 2005. Evidently, periodicity on BBC's question must be about 15 years: remember Your Money or Your Life (first published 1996) and Affluenza (1997)? The 1990s were supposed to be the decade of frugality, scaling back, and simple living. But once the dot-com boom brought us out of the early 1990s recession -- Gen Xer here, what a great time to finish university that was -- there was no looking back. People like stuff. When they have cash, they spend it on stuff.

    I don't think there's any evidence here that people are saving money because they want to do so more than they want to buy things, or that their attitude toward debt has undergone a "shift." I think it's that Americans lost square footage when they lost their homes to foreclosure, so they can't engage in the same consumption behaviors they've been used to engage in. So I think people will be happy to start filling up their homes again when they do have the space. George Carlin explained it well years ago, way before the 1990s recession, though he did use some NSFW language:

    That's all your house is: it's a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff!

    09 August 2012

    Paraphrased Ben Bernanke: "Pack your lunch to work"

    See, it's not just me! Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke thinks you should bring a sack lunch to work every day, too:
    Financial education supports not only individual well-being, but also the economic health of our nation. [ ... ] Financial education also provides a context for students to develop important skills that can be applied more broadly. Making good financial decisions requires that consumers seek out relevant information from trustworthy sources, and that they use critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and decisionmaking skills.
    Via Consumerist. Say what you like about how the Fed is handling (or not) the economy, he's right on target to assert that young people need to learn how to manage their money and plan for the future. The more money you shave off your expenses every week or every day, the better you can weather an emergency; the better you can handle a stretch of unemployment; the better you can withstand an uninsured loss; the earlier you can retire; the more relaxed you'll be when you take the vacations you can now afford. How about some do-the-math on my lunch today?

    How can you have any pudding if you don't do your math?

    I brought a cheese sandwich on home-made bread and a chopped apple and peach. I drank water. To compare, I looked for the lowest-priced hoagie at Wawa and identified a lunch cart in Center City Philadelphia that offers fruit salad and chose the smallest size.

    Internet research unverified by a walk to Wawa (because it is too hot and muggy at the time of writing) reveals that a four-inch Junior Hoagie at Wawa costs $2.99. While this hoagie would include condiments and accompaniments that my sandwich did not, I'll stay with that price for two reasons. One, my bread is heavy and wholesome, enough so that that I honestly think that my sandwich may actually weigh as much as a four-inch Junior. And two, as you'll see, I'll win even if you take $2.00, or two thirds, off Wawa's price. As for fruit, I found a cart selling a small salad for $3.00. I will knock $1.00 off that price because I used only two pieces of fruit, even though I think my container was holding the same volume as the cart's small salad. As for something to drink, this time of year I always seem to come across a plucky entrepreneur on the sidewalk selling ice-cold water in pint (500 mL) bottles for $1.00. To sum up: Wawa Junior hoagie plus small fruit salad from a lunch cart plus water: $2.99 + $2.00 + $1.00, or $5.99.

    My home-made bread as prepared in that photo cost about $0.10/slice (I have a do-the-math post in the works about how to compare bread prices). I used 2 slices, plus about $0.75 worth of cheese, mayo, and Old Bay, seasoning of kings. On the right is about 3/4 lb. of fruit that we found at $1.75/lb. at the farmers market this past weekend, for a total of $1.31. Water is free at my office. So my total cost for lunch today was $2.26.

    (a) Total Wawa + cart lunch: $5.99
    (b) Wawa + cart lunch taking $2.00 off Wawa's price: $3.99
    (c) Total Rowhouse Livin' lunch price: $2.26
    Maximum savings, lunch (a) minus lunch (c): $3.73
    Minimum savings, lunch (b) minus lunch (c): $1.73

    But we're not going to stop there. This was only the quantitative reasoning. The next step is to use the results to make better decisions. If you work 50 weeks per year, 5 days per week, and can save even just $1.73/day by bringing a sack lunch, you can put aside $432.50, and not have to walk to Wawa and a fruit cart at noon on one of the hottest days of summer. If you instead save that $3.73/day and put it aside, you'd have $932.50. That right there is round-trip airfare for two to the west coast, or a month's rent or mortgage, or property taxes, or perhaps four months' groceries, or 266 gallons of gas at $3.50/gal. (think 70 fill-ups), or very nice extra payment into the 401(k) or your credit card balance. That could even be a full one year's electric or gas for a smaller household.

    When Amy Dacyczyn explained, in The Complete Tightwad Gazette, that pennies add up, this is what she meant. And I think it's what Ben Bernanke means, too.

    08 August 2012

    Canning fail: beer jelly

    The Ball Blue Book has included a recipe for chablis wine jelly for a few editions now. I had never used it, for a couple of reasons. One, because soft spreads are a breakfast food for me, and even if I had leftover wine in the house (not sure exactly what the phrase means, "leftover wine"; I've never come across such an animal, myself), I think I'd rather use it in a savory dish, not in a jelly. And two, because home canning for me is more of an economic strategy than a hobby. I tend to make jams and preserves not for fun, but for saving money over supermarket prices. (Also: selfish. I don't like to give away my home-canned foods because I hate losing jars!)

    But then I saw an article late last year in Philly Beer Scene magazine about a line of jellies made from craft beers and ales. I looked at some local imperial stout I had picked up cheap a few days before and stowed in the fridge. And I put two and two together and figured I'd get four half-pints of a savory jelly to serve with cheese and crackers or take to a holiday party. Unfortunately, the answer I got to two plus two was "six":
    Jars this gnarly don't deserve a non-gnarly photo
    Beer, unlike chablis wine, is carbonated. Heating beer in sugar-water leads to a release of the carbonation. Placing that mess in jars and then boiling them in a water-bath canner leads to even more release of the carbonation. I've taken a bad picture there for your protection, but the recipe that was supposed to yield 4 half-pints of beer jelly instead gave me 5 half-pints and 2 quarter-pints of foamy mess and a water-bath canner full of sugar-beer that made my house smell like a brewery. Lordy, I haven't had jars turn out that bad since my early canning days, when I would over-fill quart jars with applesauce and lose entire canner loads to failed seals.

    The jars have been kicking around on a low, open shelf since November 2011 because I don't have the heart to offer the product to guests or the pride to take them to a party. Yes, that's a light coating of dust on the lids. I'm just surprised that the goop on the outside -- which I've tried several times to wipe off -- hasn't attracted ants.

    Or maybe I'm not too surprised after all.

    I know what I did wrong: I should have skimmed off the foam like mad. I should have added the beer after turning off the flame. Better yet, I should have opened up the stout the day before, decanted it in another container, and let it go flat before using. The Ball Blue Book includes a recipe for champagne jelly as well, and I should have relied more on that method than on my lousy instincts.

    Haven't yet decided if I'll try again, though -- or if I'll put my next few bottles of imperial stout to their more intended use, and keep home canning for pantry purposes, not for hobby purposes.

    07 August 2012

    Domino sugar package gets smaller, price stays the same

    When manufacturers reduce the volume or weight of their product but keep the price the same, often disguising the reduction by keeping the package the same size, the Consumerist blog calls it the "grocery shrink ray." I found a disappointing example at the supermarket the other day.

    My local non-premium supermarket carries Domino cane sugar in 5- and 10-lb. sacks and 1-lb. boxes. But those 5-lb. sacks are being restocked with 4-lb. sacks (a size I don't think I've ever seen before), and the price isn't changing. The packages are almost identical, and I almost picked the smaller size. Grr!

    Note: I'm not a brand purist for sugar. The reason I get Domino isn't that I'm a loyal longtime customer for abstract reasons, or because of the sign in Baltimore, or because I like that package design. It's because Domino offers 100% cane sugar. A package of sugar that doesn't specify its composition could be cane sugar or beet sugar or a blend of both, depending on whatever was cheapest for the manufacturer. I think I can tell the difference between cane and beet sugar, and I think I prefer cane sugar, particularly in baking and canning. There's a little caramel je ne sais quoi in there that you don't get from beet sugar. And the lion's share of the sugar I use goes into home canning recipes. So I spend a little more to get Domino, and try to save the difference by getting larger packages.

    Now that the 5-lb. sack is gone, I think I'll be switching to the 10-lb. sack. I preferred the smaller one, because finding room in my pantry for the larger size is tricky, though a better economic choice (it's cheaper per ounce than the smaller size). Too bad for Domino. I wouldn't have switched for my benefit if they'd left the 5-lb. sacks alone.

    06 August 2012

    Do the math: Bar soap versus liquid soap

    Ounce for ounce, and use for use, bar soap is cheaper than liquid soap. Bar soap probably has a smaller carbon footprint, too, since it's lighter to ship, per use, than liquid soap; and one of the cheapest brands, Ivory, is made in North America -- as opposed to a lot of the liquid soap I see, which is made in China.

    Ivory Soap: used in the hosing-downs on army transport ships during the Great War, according to this old ad in a National Geographic magazine, presented here for purely beefcake purposes. Larger version.
    Why does everyone use liquid soap? (Note: that antibacterial soaps are bad and a waste of money is not a question. This post is only about bar soap versus conventional liquid soap.) Is liquid soap more sanitary? I found one secondary source that says "[g]erms can grow on bar soap." But wouldn't viruses, molds, and bacteria just wash off your hands with the mechanical action of washing and rinsing, and the chemical action of soap micelles forming around them? And what bacteria can grow on bar soap, anyway? I thought one of the basic (ha-ha) things about soap was that it lyses bacteria when the business end of a hydrophobic-hydophilic soap molecule disrupts a bacterium's lipid membrane. There must be more types of bacteria in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in my philosophy.

    My household is blessed with good health, so I don't think we're a valid example of the proposition that liquid soap is always more sanitary or less dangerous -- boy, does that beg a question -- than bar soap. But I'm still not convinced that, outside of a medical or laboratory setting, or a house with someone with a compromised immune system, one should waste money on liquid hand and bath soap. Here's my math, all prices estimated from a large general Internet retailer:

    1 quart Dr. Bronner's liquid castile soap (32 ounces): $15.00
    6 7.5-ounce bottles Softsoap liquid soap (45 ounces): $9.00
    16 4-ounce bars Ivory soap: $10.00

    Say you use 1/2 teaspoon of Dr. Bronner's or Softsoap for every hand washing. There are 6 teaspoons, or 12 half-teaspoons, in every ounce. So one quart of Dr. Bronner's will give you 384 hand washings, at $0.039, or about 4 cents, per wash. (Many people dilute their Dr. Bronner's or use only a drop at a time, so I'll be happy to go with half that number and call it 2 cents per wash.) The 45 ounces of  Softsoap bottles will give you 540 hand washings, at $0.0167, or between 1 and 2 cents, per wash.

    So the big question is, to beat the Softsoap price, how many hand washings will you get out of $9.00 worth of that 16-bar pack of bar soap? I think I get about 700 hand washings out of 3 bars of soap, because I wash my hands in the kitchen about twice per day (more when I'm home, less when I'm not or when someone else is cooking), and I go through 3 bars of soap at most at my kitchen sink every year. Each bar of soap costs $1.60. So that's $4.80 / 700, or $0.0068, barely 1 cent per wash. That sounds like a low number of bars of soap; but even if I ratchet it up to 1 bar every other month, I'm spending 6 * $1.60 / 700, or $0.013. It's not until I go to 8 bars per 700 hand washings (8 * $1.60 / 700 = $0.018) that Softsoap wins.

    And that's assuming the calculus is only about price. Maybe you would consider carbon-footprint concerns like packaging and shipping: Dr. Bronner's plastic bottles, Softsoap's plastic bottles and mixed-material pumps, and bar soap's wax paper and plastic film packaging. And how much oil to ship a package containing 384 versus 540 versus 700+ hand washings?

    Note that under no circumstances is it acceptable to skip hand washing in order to save money. Ben Franklin didn't live to see the germ theory of disease fully developed, but his "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" seems eerily prescient.

    03 August 2012

    Food prices expected to go up more than usual next year

    "Extreme" and "exceptional" drought conditions are affecting an acreage of crop and pastureland the size of Texas across the U.S.:
    Source: droughtmonitor.unl.edu

    One prediction I've heard is that food prices will rise in 2013 at a rate exceeding that of ordinary inflation. But they won't rise by much, and the increases will be mostly in items my household doesn't use: supermarket foods with corn (maize) ingredients, and meat and poultry. On the other hand, dairy and eggs, which we do use, will also be more expensive. Makes me wish I could keep chickens! (Why I don't is another post.)

    Should I buy a case of butter and put it in the freezer? I don't think so; it doesn't keep well after a few months. Eggs can be frozen for longer, but you have to muddle the yolk and white first, which limits what you can use them for. Pickled eggs? No, thanks.

    On the other hand . . . as I'm writing this, I'm thinking about what I purchased at the supermarket on my most recent visit: a couple of pounds of fresh produce, a bottle of unflavored seltzer water for home-made Italian sodas, and some flour. Corn ingredients go into all those convenience foods, processed foods, sodapops, and cookies that I almost never buy. Really, about the only time high-fructose corn syrup enters my house is when I buy a bottle of Karo syrup for a particular family dessert that I make only infrequently. Maybe the increase in food prices won't hit my wallet too hard, after all. How would even a record rise in corn prices cause a rise in the price of fruits and vegetables, or olive oil, or cocoa powder?

    I had started this post with the aim of discussing what I was going to alter in my pantry strategy this year to anticipate higher food prices next year. After thinking it through, however, I don't think there's much, if anything, I'll do differently this year.

    02 August 2012

    Food dehydrator?

    Researching food dehydrators lately. I already have a feeling that making my own raisins at home is probably more expensive than buying them at the lowest sale price I can find or wait for at the supermarket. But I can probably make my own dried apricots, apples, bananas, and other fruits for cheaper than what I'd find at the store, and I wouldn't sulfur them, sulfured dried fruits being something that hippies like myself try to avoid, for vague "it's a chemical, so it's probably teratogenic" reasons.

    I don't keep a lot of dried foods on hand. I'm not a hiker, and it's not part of my emergency supplies. The question, then, is whether I'd actually change enough of my diet to make it worth my while to home-dehydrate a lot of produce. I mean, I guess I do go on a dried apricot kick every once in a while; and I add prunes to oatmeal. But I'm not really an oatmeal-for-breakfast person. Maybe I would dehydrate enough vegetables to make a lot of crockpot soups in the winter? Ooooh, or maybe vegetable lasagna? Or, of course, emergency supplies that would absolutely be cheaper than the ready-to-eat and instant foods I currently keep.

    The deluxe-est home dehydrators go for about $250.00. I suspect it would take me a long time to make that pay for itself, though of course I don't have to get the deluxe-est. Hrm, no decision yet.

    01 August 2012

    Timely: How long can you go without electricity?

    Half of the nation of India lost their electricity this week. At this writing, the government is restoring power to the regions of the country hit hardest. But at the power failure's peak, some 600 million people had no electric for a day or more, during a summer when the monsoons are not delivering as much rain as they usually do.

    How many days can your household survive without electricity? Survive, or survive comfortably? What if it were winter instead of summer? Do you have a generator, and why or why not? What does any household need in order to get by for a few days without power? Or a week?

    Do you live above the fourth or fifth floor of your building? How about your workplace? And do you commute to work by train or subway? Another grid outage question: Do you have cash on hand in case the ATMs go out and the banks won't open?

    I should do a longer post exploring what I do in my home.