28 September 2012

Culture wars in the supermarket

Following some bouncing links the other day, I came across an article in The American Conservative, admittedly a website I don't usually make time to read. The article, "Porky Populism: Class war comes to dinner, and conservatives are on the wrong side," focuses on the interesting resentment that conservatives sometimes harbor against liberals who eschew junk food over arugula, and the disconnect that some conservatives display by shouting for personal responsibility and freedom of choice on the one hand, but on the other hand filling up on unhealthy food to the point of making themselves physically disabled. To be clear, Rowhouse Livin' isn't into culture wars. We like eating healthy for the budget benefits now and the health benefits later. (Yes, I'm typing this blog entry from a neighborhood cookie shop.) We don't care what conservatives or liberals think about our food choices, because we concern ourselves solely with our own health and budget. We also don't intend a statement with what we eat, and we don't read a statement in what we see someone else eating. But two paragraphs stuck out as we were reading:

[The author's household] allocate[s] our grocery budget differently [than his sister's], so we can afford higher-quality meat, dairy, and produce. A clever home cook knows that if you cut out junk food, you have more cash for good stuff. If you don’t eat meat every day, you can eat better meat when you do. Whole Foods is expensive, but I learned how to make meals for pennies by shopping the bulk bins for beans, rice, and grains.

I've discussed the budget wonder meal, rice and beans, before. The author here mentions that his sister's haul from the grocery store included packages of junk food. So I'll take the rice and beans discussion a little further. A family-size sack of Doritos -- 17 oz. -- costs $2.99. For the same amount of money, you can get two pounds of apples, or a 5-lb. sack for less than a dollar more (PDF).

I've been trying for five minutes to think of something not impolite to say about a household food purchaser on a limited budget (and we are all on limited budgets) who would opt for Doritos rather than apples. Dig that PDF, the USDA's National Fruit and Vegetable Retail Report for 21 September 2012. You can buy a lot of vitamins and minerals for $2.99 -- unless you decide to exercise your freedom of choice and your personal responsibility by spending the $2.99 on deep-fried chips of corn tortillas dusted with chemical flavorings, colors, and preservatives, and devoid of any nutrition other than calories.


"These kids are having drive-thru McDonalds for dinner every night. Can you imagine the cost of that, not to mention the empty calories?" [chef and culinary arts teacher Amy Dreher] said. "They’ll laugh at me for going to Whole Foods, but I'm like, 'You have $800 rims on your car, versus me shopping at a grocery store that has the reputation for being more expensive? Come on.'"

And I've talked about food deserts before. All I'll add here is that anyone with a car, $800 rims or not, and a drive-thru fast-food budget can drive to an out-of-neighborhood grocery store instead of the drive-thru.

It's not a culture war of anti-fast-food liberals vs. anti-arugula conservatives. That's ridiculous, because a liberal's dollar spends just as well as a conservative's. But spending a dollar on junk food to spite liberals -- the "proxy for the politics of class and culture" that the article author discusses -- comes perilously close to literally cutting off your nose to spite your face.

27 September 2012

Urban home economist bookshelf: Joy of Cooking

Which Joy of Cooking do you have on your bookshelf? One of the "classic" editions? The "All New" 1997 edition, which left out the home canning recipes, instructions for cleaning game, and Irma Rombauer's folksy anecdotes? Or the 75th anniversary edition from 2006, which "ladle[s] nostalgia across the page like cheap custard" and "retrofit[s]" recipes with convenience foods in ways that Irma could not have approved of (Slate), and broke the heart of the NYT's reviewer?

I have a 1975 (a late "classic" edition) and a 1997. I have no plans to acquire a 2006, though I'll be happy to flip through it if I ever come across it at a second-hand shop or flea market. The 1997 has superior recipes for pizza crust, pancakes, and contemporary hors-d'œuvres, plus a handy but incomplete index of nutritional information for common ingredients. On the other hand, the 1975 has better recipes for the mother sauces, the very familiar mid-century American cooking I grew up with, and home-canned foods (though they must be cross-referenced to the Ball Blue Book or a recipe through the National Center for Home Food Preservation -- in the late 1980s, the USDA did a bunch of testing on old-timey recipes and found that many or most foods needed longer processing times than the old cookbooks and the government's own publications prescribed. Recall that in the olden days, jams and jellies were simply poured into jelly glasses and weren't even processed in a boiling-water bath (PDF, 1957); and instructions for tightening old-style caps are exactly, 100% opposite wrong from the way modern lids are handled ((PDF -- do not use the processing times in this publication, and do not can strained/puréed pumpkin).)

But I digress, and I've begged the question as to why you would have any Joy on your bookshelf in the first place. The wise urban home economist should have basic food preparation skills, recognize and be able to use a wide variety of foodstuffs, and know her way around the kitchen. This is because one of the easiest and most effective ways to control your household's budget is to prepare as many of your meals as possible from scratch. At breakfast, avoid boxed cereals; pack your lunch to work; and make dinner at home. Similarly, when you come across a food item on deep discount at the grocery store or farmers market, you should snap up as much as you can carry, knowing that when you get it home you'll know how to cook it up or preserve it without wasting any. You need to have a reference on hand. Without booting up the computer to watch shaky videos, learn how to dice an onion; learn how long and at what temperature to bake an ordinary casserole; and learn how to bake Parker House rolls.

Bittman's How to Cook Everything may suffice. I'm not convinced I need to get that, since I already have the two editions of Joy and a handful of specialty cookbooks that cover my household's needs. Your household's mileage may vary.

Or go seriously old-school, and pick up a Fannie Farmer -- that is, the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, one of the first if not the first American cookbook to use standard measurements instead of "take a handful" of this and "add a tea-spoonful of saleratus" that. Oh, wait, here are her instructions for canning rhubarb (about 4/5 down the very long page):
Pare rhubarb and cut in one-inch pieces. Pack in a jar, put under cold water faucet, and let water run twenty minutes, then screw on cover. Rhubarb canned in this way has often been known to keep a year.
Rhubarb "canned" this way will likely spontaneously ferment into tutti-frutti.

So where does that leave us? Older Joy of Cooking good; older canning recipes bad. Newest USDA-based home food preservation publications good; newest Joy bad. My point, and I did have one when I started writing this, is that the urban home economist should have an all-purpose cooking reference on hand, and you really can't go wrong with a Joy of Cooking, especially the pre-2006 editions. What's your household's go-to kitchen reference book?

26 September 2012

On unemployed lawyers

I missed this series over on Gawker earlier this year, but I wanted to bring a couple of paragraphs to my readers' attention. It's "Unemployment Stories" from people who wouldn't be, if trickle-down economics worked the way it's supposed to. Two of the writers in this entry are attorneys, one in Chicago and the other in New York. The first has been in the field for a while, but we're close in age and we're both single parents and homeowners:

I have learned first hand how low income or hourly wage workers are made to feel on a regular basis. I am a white woman in her early 40s, went to Georgetown Law and own my own home, but none of that mattered last year. I could have been anyone in the grocery store trying to make her last $20 bill feed 3 kids for the next 5 days until her unemployment check arrived (which would be gone within hours - no joke). I was made to feel like absolute garbage when bringing my kids to their checkup and using [state medical insurance] coverage. They would loudly announce it and then ask unnecessary questions about the coverage in front of the entire full waiting room. I lost friends who apparently got tired of me saying, "sorry, for the 100th time, I can't go out tonight. I DON'T HAVE ANY MONEY." I sold shit on craigslist all the time and it was like winning the lottery when I got $100 for something. And what employed people don't realize is, not only do you have to be pragmatic and worry about paying rent/mortgage and buying food while you're unemployed; you are in a constant, ever-present state of fear and depression.

The second graduated when I did, in 2009, though on the traditional timeline of entering law school immediately after undergrad:

A lot of people also wondered why I wasn't temping. There too, my law degree was a hindrance to getting a job, because even though I was looking for general office jobs, legal work was all I was really qualified to do and law firms don't want unadmitted J.D.'s working for them for fear they'll be brought up on charges of assisting in the "unauthorized practice of law."

Some testimony to keep in mind when we think about the unemployed and underemployed around us.

25 September 2012

How big is your house?

An article on CNN discusses the tiny home lifestyle, which has a few adherents in urban areas as well as out in the sticks, the usual setting for this kind of ultra-downsizing. A woman living in 204 square feet of house in Arizona comments:

When humans can do everything in the sheltered enclaves of our homes, we rarely venture out; we become isolated. Our small home encourages us to go outside and talk to the neighbors, go on hikes and meet people, go to coffee shops and restaurants, the library, the gym etc., etc. The list goes on. [...] I have been inspired to finally be tidy and clean; always putting everything away in its designed location. This creates a sense of spaciousness and sanity I've never had before in a home.

Tiny-house livin' intrigues me for financial reasons, and I'm fascinated at the discipline it must take to keep such a small place clutter-free and organized (see the Arizona couple's story). But it's a serious challenge to minimize your living space while maximizing your household's economic efficiency. When your home is the size of a fifth-wheel, where do you store food and housekeeping supplies? Do you go to the grocery store every day, spending more money on gas than you would if you had a pantry? Do you do laundry at home or at a laundromat? Where do you keep emergency supplies? (One family of four appears to have a very small fridge in their kitchen and not much food stored up.) Changes of bedding for different seasons? Changes of professional clothes if you're not in a work-at-home job? Gardening and other supplies for upkeep of your property?

I suspect that quite a few tiny-house dwellers also have a shed, root cellar, or barn on their land -- some kind of non-human shelter or storage structure. (And I imagine the urbanites simply shop frequently without stocking up.) In other words, I don't think "we live in just 204 square feet" is the full story for all of the tiny house dwellers. That said, clearly there's a happy medium between a tiny house and a McMansion in the exurbs. Here at Rowhouse Livin', we have it pegged at about 1,000 square feet. How about you?

24 September 2012

Cheap eats: Greens without bacon

Look at these farmers market greens. I think it's Swiss chard. I'm not sure. One of my parents is from Italy, and I understand they eat a lot of greens there, but we never ate greens much when I was growing up, other than salad lettuces. And those of the pale-green variety. But these greens were $2.50 per bunch at the farmers market. I pulled the bunch apart, let the leaves soak in fresh water in the sink for a few minutes, and rinsed each leaf individually. Then I pulled the leaves away from the rib to about halfway up the leaf, and discarded the large ribs.

So close you can smell the magnesium
Rowhouse Livin' is a mostly vegetarian household, for health and budgetary reasons. So although studies show that it's a scientifically proven fact that greens are better cooked in bacon, salt pork, or some other kind of dripping, we're using butter today.

Two generous tablespoons of butter for one bunch of greens
The skillet is at medium-high heat. Before adding the greens, soften some sliced or diced onions, if you like. We didn't this time. Then put about a third of the greens in, and season with salt and pepper. Let the greens wilt, then put in another third, and then the last third. Stir the greens and turn them over. Cover loosely with the lid to a large stockpot if the pan gets dry. A little more salt helps draw out water and also eases the bitterness that some people find objectionable in dark, leafy greens.

One third left to go
Some people add nutmeg. We added curry powder. A half-tablespoon will do.

No, as a matter of fact, daughter didn't exactly care for it
Turn the leaves over to distribute the curry powder (or nutmeg). Turn the heat to low, cover with a lid, and stir occasionally. The greens should be softened and savory in under 20 minutes. Serve with rice or pasta. If brown rice, then start preparing the rice before the greens. If white rice or pasta, cook at the same time.

Cost: Greens, $2.50. Butter, $0.25. Salt, pepper, curry powder, $0.20. Rice, $0.50.

Total Rowhouse Livin' dinner cost: $3.45, or $1.73/plate.

21 September 2012

I'm not in line for an iPhone today. Are you?

As everyone stands in line for their new iPhones this week, a quick reminder of a John Scalzi post from 2005, Being Poor.

Here at Rowhouse Livin' I've been using a BlackBerry Curve for a few years now, and I was a late upgrader to a smartphone at that. Why haven't I moved to a snazzier smartphone? The primary question, though, is why am I using a smartphone at all?

I use a smartphone because the law firm's clients need their e-mails answered whether I'm at my desk or not. And I can't be tied to my desk all day, because I have to see other clients, I have to run errands, and I have childcare needs, ranging from mid-day emergencies to after-school sports games I want to see. I was fine with a regular cell phone until I was browsing DiBruno Bros. one afternoon for a birthday gift, and a client phoned me. She had e-mailed me a document for review and advice on before she signed it. A deadline was pending. And I had to tell her, "Oh, sorry, I won't be back at my desk for another 45 minutes." Long story short, the client thankfully didn't fire me right then and there and find another lawyer -- and I ordered my first smartphone that afternoon. My only smartphone, so far.

If I weren't a lawyer, or in some other work where I need to have access to my e-mail while out of the office, I'd seriously think twice about upgrading to a smartphone. To me it seemed that I didn't have much choice, if I wanted to keep current clients and win new ones. And the increased monthly cost would likely be offset by increased professional revenue. So I jumped in.

To save money, I got the device that was free with a contract with the carrier I'd been using for years and was perfectly happy with. The BlackBerry Curve has a lousy web browser, but the phone does what I need it to do: phone calls, text messaging, and e-mail. Reasonable handling of small PDFs and office suite documents. Google just changed its mapping functionality with the BlackBerry web browser, but that's what god invented atlases for.

Other than my monthly plan's bill, my phone is cost-free now, and I intend to keep it that way until the device gives up the ghost. I don't need further functionality -- think: do you need the bells and whistles on your phone? Really, the only thing I'd gain by upgrading my smartphone now, other than a higher monthly bill, would be a little less teasing from the wacky friends who get on my case for using an antique device.

So. Are you reading this while in line for a new iPhone? Feel free to leave a comment while I run a data backup on my antique.

20 September 2012

Keep eating rice and beans: arsenic in rice will not kill you

At first, I was all, "You should eat rice and beans a lot because it's cheap and healthy."

Then I was all, "What is this crazy article from Consumer Reports about arsenic in rice (also complete PDF of the results)?"

Consumers Union tested all manner of whole rice and processed-rice products, finding a surprising level of arsenic across the board, especially in American-grown rice. Interestingly, organic rice didn't necessarily have a lower level of arsenic than conventional rice. Arsenic levels appear to go down as the rice products are more processed, and white rice tends to have less arsenic than brown rice. Most relevant to the way Rowhouse Livin' uses rice, Consumers Union suggests that if you eat brown rice, you should limit your consumption to about a half cup (cooked, or 1/4 cup uncooked), twice per week.

Wait, what? Let's look at the actual numbers. Consumers Union found that a half cup of cooked brown rice -- a small serving for Rowhouse Livin' -- ranged up to 9.6 micrograms of arsenic. The federal limit for arsenic in drinking water is 10 parts per billion, which means 10 micrograms per liter. (New Jersey's limit is 5 ppb, according to Consumers Union.) So it appears to follow that eating a half cup of cooked brown rice could net you the same amount of arsenic as drinking a quart of the worst water in the U.S.

Arsenic is toxic and carcinogenic. Your lifetime risk of dying of cancer caused by arsenic in your tap water is possibly 13 in 1,000, though it's probably closer to 1 in 1,000. Note that in 2010, heart disease caused 193 deaths in 1,000 (PDF, p. 5). But brown rice is a high-fiber food with cardio-healthy nutrients that can lower your risk of heart disease.

On the other hand, Consumers Union says that "[p]eople who ate rice had arsenic levels that were 44 percent greater than those who had not, according to [their] analysis of federal health data." The "levels" there were arsenic levels in urine. Consumers Union does not include units, however, so it's unclear to me how significant that figure is. The way Rowhouse Livin' sees it, 144 is 44% greater than 100 -- but what was that 100 of? If it's "100 grams of potato chips," then no big deal. If it's "100 milligrams of caffeine," then I may be a little more alert and wakeful this afternoon. My meaning: what were the initial levels, that the rice-eaters were 44% greater than?

To be clear, I'm not saying I'm happy to learn that my urine may have 44% higher arsenic levels than the urine of someone who never eats rice.

But it does inform what we're going to do here at Rowhouse Livin' with this article. First of all, we're not going to quit eating brown rice. In my view, the positive effects on my cardiovascular health outweigh what looks like a very small lifetime risk of dying of arsenic-caused cancer. The Consumers Union article suggests rinsing brown rice before cooking, to "[remove] about 30 percent of the rice's inorganic arsenic content." While rinsing white rice may remove vitamins and minerals sprayed on it to enrich it, rinsing brown rice shouldn't remove any nutrients, nor the angiotensin II tissue, located under the outer layer of the rice grain, mentioned in the Science Daily article linked to above.

Rowhouse Livin' is going to keep eating brown rice and beans. How about your household?

19 September 2012

Ever consider urban foraging?

Dig it: there are actual edible-nut trees growing in Center City Philadelphia:

West side of 5th Street, facing northeast. In background, the
Wachovia Bank building on the north side of Market Street and
the 5th Street, west side entrance to the Market-Frankford El
And they are mature enough to bear fruit, in this case hazelnuts (filberts):

Squirrel bonanza!
Two minutes of foraging, enduring funny looks from tourists, and fighting off squirrels yields a tidy handful of hazelnuts:

No squirrels were harmed in the production of this photo
So let's open up a few and see what we find:

Not ready for prime time. Could be that the trees are a little immature, could be air pollution, could be that we should have been gathering nuts from the trees rather than the pavement. Windfall apples are best left to the bees, I'm aware; but I didn't think that was the case for hazelnuts, considering some of the video I found.

A quick, quick Google search tells me that I may have luck if I set them out to dry for a little while. So I've been placing that dish in a windowsill and letting the sun have at the nuts before I try them again.

We'll see.

18 September 2012

Do the math: Does D.I.Y. pantry stocking pay off?

At the risk of boring everyone with blueberries again, I wanted to crunch some more numbers around the topic of D.I.Y. pantry stocking. You'll recall that Rowhouse Livin' went to New Jersey in July and U-Picked 12 pounds of blueberries, then made pie, muffins, jam, syrup, and a few other things with the produce. The cost for the 12 pounds of blueberries, plus gas and tolls, was $26.00. But reader Ray wanted me to "calculate in the cost of [my] time." Here goes.

Round-trip drive to the U-Pick farm: 60 min.
Blueberry picking: 100 min.
Jam: 120 min.
Pie: 5 min.
Cobbler: 10 min.
Muffins: 5 min.
Syrup: 15 min.
Brandied blueberries: 45 min.
Consumed fresh: 1 min.
Frozen: 1 min.
TOTAL: 362 minutes (6.00 hours).

If I had obtained all these finished products from the supermarket, I would have used time thus:

Round-trip walk to store: 30 min.
Shopping: 15 min.
Unpackaging: 2 min.
TOTAL: 47 minutes (0.75 hours).

Recall that the D.I.Y. outlay was $32.76, and the estimated supermarket cost was $100.49. Now, what to do with these numbers? If I multiply my hourly rate by the time used, then I get what someone would pay me for lawyering. That's not completely apt, because a cook at my level of kitchen skills would make less than what I charge my clients. But arguably I should use my rate, because the money that I earn at that rate is the money that I use to pay my household expenses. So I'll use my attorney rate, multiply it by the time, and get a Rowhouse Livin' labor cost. Then if I subtract the actual dollars spent, it looks as though I'll get a "real" comparison of outlay.

Or do I? Let's call my hourly rate $100.00/hr. and see what happens.

D.I.Y.: (6.00 x $100.00) - 32.76 = $567.24
Supermarket: (0.75 x $100.00) - 100.49 = -$25.49

What? If I'd gone to the supermarket I would have made $25.49, but because I made everything myself I spent $567.24? I'm no economist, but something tells me that even though the arithmetic works, I'm not asking the right questions of the math.

What if I put it this way? In The Complete Tightwad Gazette, author Amy Dacyczyn suggests looking at a particular task, figuring out how many times you can do it in an hour, and then multiplying that number by the cost of buying the item or not doing the task yourself. By Dacyczyn's logic, that gives you a truer "hourly wage" yardstick by which to measure whether you should D.I.Y or go shopping. For example, it takes me 15 seconds to wash and rinse a coffee mug. One disposable coffee cup, at $54.00 for 500 paper cups, costs $0.11. So this 15-second task saves me $0.11 every time I do it. Theoretically, I can wash and rinse 3600 coffee mugs per hour; 3600 x $0.11 gives me a Tightwad Gazette hourly wage of $396.00 when it comes to choosing what kind of vessel I use for my morning coffee.

Should I re-think my law office's billing practices?

But how can we bake the Tightwad Gazette math into a blueberry cobbler? Well, it took me 10 minutes to make the biscuit topping and mix the blueberry filling; I won't count the baking time, because that required no work or attention from me. A cobbler from the supermarket would have cost me $8.23 in ingredients; my recipe cost $4.01 in ingredients and cooking gas, for a savings of $4.22. Theoretically, I could prepare six blueberry cobblers per hour. Multiplying my net figure of $4.22 times six cobblers gives me an hourly wage of $25.32.

That's not an awesome wage for a lawyer. But in return I get to use the freshest of ingredients, avoid high-fructose corn syrup, and get some face-to-face time in with my daughter, helping her work on her kitchen skills.

Finally, notice how I get the most bang for my buck on the "littler" thing, the coffee mug vs. disposable paper cup comparison. As Dacyczyn points out elsewhere in The Complete Tightwad Gazette, people tend to deliberate for hours and hours and hours on the big financial decisions -- house, car, elective surgery -- but they tend to not think much at all about the little financial decisions that they make many times per day -- paper cup vs. coffee mug, convenience foods vs. from-scratch cooking, food cart lunch vs. sack lunch. Over time, though, how many houses will you buy compared to how many cups of coffee will you drink? You can pay the down payment with the money you save on your daily coffee, your groceries, and your lunches. And the practice you get from doing this math on all the little decisions, all the time, prime you for the best thinking when it comes to the big financial decisions.

17 September 2012

On trash picking

Light blogging today; we took a tumble on the pavement over the weekend and are still a little sore.

Over at Grid magazine, an article about trash picking in Philadelphia, where "there’s plenty of opportunity for salvageable items to be absorbed into new homes before the trash truck comes lumbering down the street."

I live just off of South Street, in a neighborhood that includes million-dollar, single-family homes as well as condos and rental apartments, both low- and high-rise. The trash-picking opportunities seem endless sometimes. I've personally trash-picked a lamp that sits prominently in my living room; some mason jars for canning; a small stockpot; and even a sweater. When my last TV gave up the ghost, a friend of mine hauled it to the curb for me, and it was trash-picked itself within a half hour.

Not just my neighborhood, though. Over in University City at the end of the academic year, there's always "Penn Christmas" -- a pejorative term that the university has embraced over the past few years with a benefit sale of items that the area's temporary residents abandon upon leaving.

How's the trash picking in your neighborhood?

14 September 2012

Philly flea market tomorrow, Saturday 15 September 2012

Super quick note today.

I don't know who these people are, the Phila Flea Markets, and their website doesn't indicate who their fundraising goes to, or give an EIN for me to check out their deal at Guidestar.org. But! For my bottom line, it's worth my while to take a leisurely spin through the flea market when it comes to my neighborhood to find a thing or two.

Over the years, I've found cast-iron cookware, a copy of the new, "improved" Joy of Cooking, a "real" Joy of Cooking from 1975, a big floppy straw hat I wear daily in the summer to prevent freckles and a sunburned nose, and some table linens.

The flea market sets up at different locations around the city throughout the summer and then moves to an indoor location over the winter. (This weekend they're in the Society Hill neighborhood at 3rd and Pine Streets.) Some vendors are one-time tag-salers, trying to clear out their basement or an estate. Other vendors are old hands. And not only are many vendors frequent flyers, but so is a lot of the merchandise, as well. That is, you'll see some of the same faces, and some of the same items, over and over again. And I mean over years, sometimes. But you'll find vendors with new merchandise still in its original packaging, too. Maybe it fell off a truck, who knows?

I'm not in the market for any major purchase at the moment. I could use a few kitchen implements -- a couple of particular utensils and a second, larger slow cooker -- but this weekend I'll mostly be window-shopping. Under the protection of my flea-market straw hat, of course.

13 September 2012

Thrift store review: Friends of the Free Library's shops

Quick note today to mention a wonderful resource from the Free Library of Philadelphia, which traces its origins not to Benjamin Franklin but to a doctor and his wealthy uncle in the late 19th century. I'm not highlighting the Free Library itself, though every urban home economist in Philadelphia should have a card and use it often. Rather, I want to mention the Free Library's two bookstores, where the Friends of the Free Library unload gently used books at prices way below what you'll find in for-profit used-book stores.

The Book Corner, at 311 North 20th Street (at Wood Street), is farther away from the Rowhouse Livin' homestead, so we don't get there too frequently. But The Next Page, at 722 Chestnut Street (two blocks west of Independence Hall) is a lot closer. And dig it! Just this week, I picked up a copy of Freakonomics, a book I've flipped through before but wanted a permanent copy of at home.

I also found a popular historyabout colonialism in Africa. This book was published in 1998, and I think I learned about it three years ago. I didn't want to pay retail for it, and, like Freakonomics, I wanted a permanent copy for my bookshelf. (See, this is the kind of thing that passes for pleasure reading here at Rowhouse Livin'. Sad!) So I put it on my List: that is, The List of Books to Search For Every Time I Go to a Used-Book Store. Freakonomics was on The List, too. And I finally found them!

The Next Page on Chestnut Street is organized by topic, and the shelves are neat and clean. Unlike a neighborhood used-book store -- which I love, don't get me wrong -- you won't find jumbled, disordered stacks of books, dusty shelves, underlit passageways, or cats. Now, I really do love me a good neighborhood used-book store. But you can't use them for a "surgical strike" to find a particular book, unless you're looking for a dictionary or a Harry Potter. Of course, at The Next Page you won't be able to kill as much time as you would at another store, because what The Next Page gains in neatness, it sacrifices in depth and breadth.

That said, the prices are right at the Friends of the Free Library shops, because the books are donated. The shops operate as a fundraising arm for the Free Library, not as a revenue stream for a bookseller trying to make a living. So they can sell beautiful old editions of Nancy Drew volumes, or 19th-century antique books in excellent condition for a fraction of what you see in for-profit shops.

Hope you try the two Friends of the Free Library shops soon. Lovely resource, great cause, winning prices.

12 September 2012

The price book tool that you need to create and start using immediately

I don't keep a price book.

But I should! I try to keep in mind all the lowest prices I know I can get for this item and the other, but I know I don't always succeed. If I would just write it all down, I know I could keep a few more dollars in my hands and out of the supermarket's every week.

I get ahead of myself. What's a price book?

Amy Dacyczyn explains this brilliant tool in her brilliant compendium, The Complete Tightwad Gazette. Look at your grocery list. Take a notebook (or a spreadsheet) and make one entry for each item in your grocery list. (You don't need to take an inventory of your pantry and list every single item there; start with this week's grocery list, and add new items as they come up.) While shopping, note the date you bought each item and what price you found. Note the price per unit or by weight, and note the package size. Note which supermarket or big-box retailer you bought it from. And repeat all these notes every week, especially noting prices as they rise, and making sure you writing down the date.

Do this for every item. Not just grocery foods, but also household necessities like toiletries and cleaning products; home maintenance hardware like furnace air filters and lightbulbs; and even some clothing items like sport socks and those plain white undershirts that come in 12-packs. Everything! You hear me?

After a few months, set a couple of hours aside and look at the data you've gathered. Some prices are steadily going up; some cycle every few months or twice a year. Sometimes the big-box retailers don't actually have the best price. In a separate master list, or by writing in different colored pen on the entry for each item, note the lowest price you see and how frequently that price cycles around. At this point, you have a very powerful tool for your pantry planning. You can now stock your pantry in an awesomely efficient way: by buying what you need at the lowest price possible in a quantity that will carry you to the next time that lowest price appears. Brilliant!

Here's the Rowhouse Livin' example. At my local supermarket, the regular price of the pastawe prefer for quality reasons is $1.39/lb. This is an objectively ridiculous price; and sometimes it goes up even more, and some of the varieties have been appearing in 12-oz. boxes rather than 16-oz. I hate the "grocery shrink ray." But the brand we like does cycle down to $0.99/lb. on a regular basis. I call this number my price point, and whenever I see our favorite pasta at that price, I snap up as many boxes as I can carry. (The Rowhouse Livin' price point for family size boxes of Tastykakes is 2 for $4.00. This unfortunate blogger is paying too much!) But more importantly, and this is the only way you can get the most effectiveness out of this tool: I never buy pasta at a price higher than that point, ever. Even when my pantry is empty of pasta.

Stand firm!

What should your price book look like? Dacyczyn gave a description in her Gazette that I don't recall offhand, and my copy of the book is at a friend's house so I can't look it up. But it could be just about anything: a small loose leaf notebook, a classic marble composition book, an ordinary spiral-bound notebook, or even a stack of index cardsand a rubber band. If loose-leaf, use one piece of paper for each grocery item. If a comp book or spiral-bound notebook, use one page or one half-page per item. If index cards, use one card per item. The way you create this tool isn't terribly important; do what works for you, though it'll be easier to use if you can alphabetize items by name and perhaps organize by store. What's crucially important is that you don't ever stop using it. Your price book is a dynamic document, and prices are always going to change.

Hop to it! Right now, you probably have kicking around the house an old, half-used notebook you can repurpose for a price book. Within six months, and definitely after 12 months, you'll have a completed tool for effectively controlling your food and household purchases budget.

11 September 2012

Food budget secret: No coupons, ever

NBC's Today show provides a brief list of food budget tips. The one most surprising to readers who are familiar with the "extreme couponing" idea celebrated on reality TV is the view of the author there urging you not to use coupons at all, ever.

Here at Rowhouse Livin', we almost completely agree. But if I had to put a percentage on it, I'd say we avoid coupons for 98% of what we buy. Though I'm no knee-jerk brand loyalist, about two percent of what I bring into the house is stuff I buy very specifically by brand: sugar, hippie toothpaste(note this is not an invitation to debate fluoride), certain feminine products, and one or two shelf-stable emergency food supply items.

It's really important to remember what coupons truly are: they're ads. Look at the coupons in the Sunday paper. It's page after page of products that are new or improved or more conveniently packaged than previous versions or formulations. And they're all convenience foods, things that are processed with more sodium and preservatives, but less vitamins, than what you'd prefer to consume (or what your body would prefer you'd give it, anyway). Note what never, ever shows up in the Sunday coupons: fresh produce, dairy items, and unprocessed grains and legumes. But those are the very items that should make up the bulk of your diet! And you can make most of the convenience foods you see advertised in the coupon section for even less than if you buy them with a coupon. Example: A 4-oz. package of a noodle side dish with powdered sauce costs $2.59. But getting it with even a $1.00 coupon is not a deal! The package will yield just 1 1/3 cups of finished noodles, and you had to add perhaps $0.20 worth of butter and milk to it anyway. Your $1.00 coupon is now only an $0.80 coupon, so your total is $1.79. You have not actually saved any time, because pasta takes as long as pasta will take to cook.

To replicate this expensive convenience food, prepare 1/4 of a 1-lb. box of pasta and serve with a thin sauce Mornay. Boom, you've spent about $0.25 for the pasta and maybe $0.35 for the milk, flour, cheese, seasoning, and herbs or spices. The sauce prepares while the pasta is cooking, so it takes no more time than the packet noodles. Plus, the result won't carry the stale taste you get from starting a sauce with flavor powder. Next question for the hippies at Rowhouse Livin' is whether Knorr includes any scary-sounding ingredients in its flavor powder. I did not find ingredient information for Knorr's alfredo-flavored noodle side dish on Knorr's own website, but I did find similar info elsewhere: Knorr's cheddar-flavored rotini side dish noodles include disodium guanylate and undefined "natural" flavors. The first chemical there is a garden-variety flavor enhancer. As to the second, it's all fun and games with "natural" flavorings until you understand that the FDA does not require food labels to disclose the source of the flavor (21 CFR 101.22). This is a not-so-well-known problem for people with restrictive dietary choices (of whatever nature, whether medical, religious, or other). If you "don't dig on swine" (NSFW), then beware of a package of split-pea soup that includes natural flavorings, because they're almost certainly derived from ham. In fact, just about any soup that is not explicitly labeled as "vegetarian" almost certainly includes "natural flavorings" derived from beef or chicken ingredients.

Thanks, FDA!

But back to the math. Making your own side dish of noodles in the same quantity that you'd buy in a convenience packet costs about $0.60. Less, if you use powdered milk as we do, but we're freaks who don't otherwise consume milk in the house, so we buy only powdered milk and reconstitute it as needed for sauces, desserts, and beverages. But I'll use a cost more realistic for readers, who probably buy fluid milk. To continue, the convenience packet noodles, without a coupon, cost $2.79 prepared. You won't beat the Rowhouse Livin' price unless you find a coupon deal for some $2.00; and then, even if you do find a deal, you'll have to accept the nutritional and freshness trade-offs of using a highly processed food. Or in other words, for the same price as one package of side dish noodles, you can make four from scratch. And in whatever style you like! Basil-spiked, for a creamy American-style alfredo, for instance, or earthy with a smoked sharp Cheddar, mmmm.

My point, and I do have one, is this. I contend that this math is universal among coupon use. The coupons are, in fact, ads for convenience foods, not budget-friendly discounts offered by altruistic food manufacturers. These foods are poor in nutrition compared to what you can make at home. Their preparation is not actually less time-consuming than their home-made equivalents; it's a silly, expensive myth that cooking from scratch takes a whole lot of time. (A huge exception comes to mind: the granola barswe keep on hand for emergencies and days with weird schedules.) So quit couponing. Better to keep a price book so you know when certain things cyclically go on sale, and make dishes from fresh, scratch ingredients at home.

10 September 2012

De-cluttering an inherited collection of things

I encountered this issue on one of those TV shows about house cleaning/renovating/makeovers recently. What do you do when a relative has left a collection of things to you?

The way I see it, you have two options.

One, you can get rid of it all. Start with the de-cluttering method where you sort into three categories -- trash/recycle, donate, sell -- and then act on the categories as necessary. The Unclutterer blog reminds us that setting a deadline for the action is crucial, and goes so far as to suggest that if you blow your deadline for selling or donating, you need to toss the items into the trash. (Post thoughts on that method here or at Unclutterer!)

But are you attached the the items? Do they carry for you a special meaning? Does it hurt to completely remove them from your life, because it feels as though you're kicking the person who gave them to you out of your life?

Then think about option two. Go through the items, and trash/recycle, donate, and sell almost all of them. And then keep two or three representative pieces and display them prominently, with care and love, in your home. How to pick which two or three? Choose the ones that you like, not the ones that you think or know the giver liked best, or the giver would want you to keep.

Keeping all of the items clutters your home, your time, your thoughts, and ultimately your life. You can't live the life of an efficient urban home economist if you're tripping over things that used to belong to someone else and that you didn't actually choose to bring into your home. Keeping any of them honors the memory of giver. Keeping the ones you like honors yourself.

Here's an example at Rowhouse Livin'. I was handed down some mid-century fine china a few years ago. (And by "fine china," I mean "pretty ordinary, probably from Sears, wedding china.") After putting the dishes to daily use for a few months, I decided I didn't enjoy the hand-washing so much any more; and I started to replace it by getting a few pieces at a time from thrift stores. Now my everyday dishes are all vintage American-made diner china, bought here and there from second-hand shops across Philadelphia. But what to do with this full set of fine china? And I mean the full complement of what you "need" from a set of fine china: dinner plates, salad plates, dessert plates, teacups and saucers, gravy boat, sugar bowl, creamer, and serving platter.

Rowhouse Livin' hosts a small group of friends for a semi-potluck dinner on Sunday evenings. Emphasis on small, here. Who among us regularly entertains parties of eight? Or even when we do, in a gathering so formal that we'd use fine china? OK, maybe your household is a lot different than mine, and you do: important holidays and special formal occasions come up often during the year. But not here at Rowhouse Livin'. We're happy to serve our weekly dinners on my very sturdy, vintage American diner china and eat it with ordinary stainless steel flatware. (Speaking of flatware, if you still have silver kicking around, seriously consider cashing it in, especially if it's solid, not plated. Do it for the same reasons you'd get rid of your fine china, with the added perk that you can get actual cash for real silver flatware, unlike fine china, which holds little to no value in the second-hand marketplace because it has been ubiquitous since the 1950s. Like diamonds, only with less environmental destruction and child slave labor.)

Now, I do still have nearly a complete set of china, minus a teacup, butterfingers -- another reason why fine china is hard to sell: nobody has a perfect set -- that I never use. It takes up an entire drawer in the dresser in my living room. It never gets taken out for use, because I have to wash it all by hand afterwards. And it carries some family baggage, in that it came from the literally wicked stepmother of one of my parents. So here's my plan. I've taken out one oblong serving dish and eight dessert plates from the set, to keep. The plates are small, a good size for hors-d'œuvres at a wine tasting party, or pieces of birthday cake in a size reasonable for those of us closer to 40 than 20. The rest is off to a consignment shop, or to charity thrift store if the consignment shop won't take my "imperfect" set. Keeping some small plates honors my household's values: hosting get-togethers frequently while maintaining a home filled with things that are useful, not unneeded.

What will you do next time an unexpected collection lands in your lap?

07 September 2012

Care and feeding of your slow cooker

An hour to go before dinner, and the kitchen is still clean. No splatters, no crumbs; the horrors of the slow cooker's interior are well into the future:

Brand name clumsily edited out because no endorsement
intended or paid for. Yes, I bought this pattern on purpose
Of course, the manufacturer of your slow cooker will provide instructions for cleaning it. Other bloggers suggest letting it sit overnight, filled with water and soap, or a bleach solution, or a fabric softener sheet. But who uses fabric softener sheets? (Not this cheapskate.) And what if you need to use the slow cooker again tomorrow and wanted to soak beans overnight? (Note: stocking multiple slow cookers in the tiny Rowhouse Livin' kitchen is not a good option.) You can buy and use slow cooker liners, but we at Rowhouse Livin' are ex-hippies who don't like to spend money on disposables nor cook things in plastic when we don't have to. So after dinner we regularly put this:

Yum! Black beans!
. . . into the dishwasher or the sink for a good cleaning. But after a regular dishwasher cycle or a solid round of elbow grease with the rest of the pots and pans, it comes out looking like this:

Yum! Black bean residue!
So! Grab a plastic scrubber and some non-abrasive cleaner (you recognize the can):

The "scrubber" is a scrap from a sack of onions,
trimmed to a rectangle and folded over

Expert photography trick makes it look like a 10-gallon
can of cleaning powder being shaken into a sugar bowl

Note: No Barkeeper's Friend, Comet, oven cleaner (yes, I've actually seen it suggested, by evidently completely insane people, to soak a cooking vessel with a compound of butane, diethylene glycol monobutyl ether, and MEA, a chemical that can aggravate asthma, eat through skin, and irreversibly damage the kidneys and liver (PDF).) On the other hand, the non-toxic hippie result:

Perhaps you can hear my daughter in the background:
why are you taking pictures of the dishes?"

It's not as perfectly white as it was when I first bought the slow cooker. It likely never will be, unless I use some bleach on it. What's left in there does not flavor or color subsequent dishes -- at least not noticeably, since the vast majority of what we cook in it starts with or uses beans. And even Beano can't counteract MEA.

06 September 2012

Care and feeding of cast iron cookware

In light of a recent news item pointing out an association between non-stick cookware and childhood overweight, and another linking Teflon to heart disease, I'd like to talk about cast iron pans today. I own a few pieces of cast iron cookware, and I have a confession.

I regularly immerse them in dishwater full of detergent to clean them.

Alton Brown would scold me. Lodge would fire me. The author of this very good, comprehensive how-to would say I'm not careful enough. But you know what? I like a clean kitchen.

And a cast-iron pan that seems irretrievably "de-seasoned" can be brought back to life by cooking up a batch of french fries. And who doesn't like french fries?

Find cast-iron pieces at yard sales, flea markets, and thrift stores. For the urban home economist, there is really no reason to ever buy it new (though, if you do, follow the manufacturer's instructions for first use). Gnarly, rusty, sticky pieces can be retrieved; cracked and warped pieces cannot. What pieces should you get? Rowhouse Livin' gets by with a small skillet, a large shallow skillet, a round flat griddle, and a dutch oven. If you dig frying whole chickens, then you may enjoy keeping a large deep skillet on hand as well. Most other sizes and types will be superfluous for everyday cooking.

Clockwise from top left: Slow cooker, dutch oven, griddle, 8-inch
skillet, 10-inch skillet, tea kettle. Two of these things are not like the others.

Scrub the newly acquired cast iron with fine steel wool and wipe out dirt, old seasoning, and rust. Repeat until clean and free of rust. Add a tablespoon or more of vegetable oil (a high-temperature frying oil, not a salad oil), spread the oil around the bottom of the pan, and heat the pan on medium for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from heat and, using a paper towel or napkin, spread the oil up the sides of the pan. Remove excess oil and let cool on the stove (or in an unheated oven) overnight. The next day, make a batch of french fries in the pan.

We use the small skillet for frying eggs. Its surface is so well seasoned that it acts like a nonstick pan under a egg fried sunny-side up in butter. Too bad my doctor tells me I should poach my morning breakfast egg instead. The large shallow skillet is more of a workhorse: tomato sauce (yes), fried rice, sauteed vegetables of all kinds (greens, summer squash, eggplant, broccoli, etc.), and french fries, on days when I feel like spending a lot of time cleaning up splatters from my stove afterward. The round griddle sees weekend duty cooking pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches. The dutch oven serves as a cloche for baking bread, and as a spacious kettle for my devastating dairy-free potato-leek soup in the winter.

The dutch oven is not cleaned, really, between baking loaves of bread. After a few rounds, I brush out some accumulated burned crumbs, but I find no need to clean it with soap. As for the flat griddle, it gets a quick wipe with a plastic scrubber -- kludged from a plastic net sack that once held onions -- under running water, but no soap or detergent. Pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches simply don't stick to it. The two skillets, however, do get a dunk in the sink for cleaning. I wait until I've finished all the other dishes, and the detergent is about worn out, and I clean them as quickly as I can with the plastic scrubber and with as little detergent as I can get away with. But fried rice sticks, and so does pasta if I toss it with the sauteed vegetables in the skillet. So I pour some room-temperature water in the skillet and let it sit for a half hour at the most to try to loosen that food residue up, but sometimes only some detergent and elbow grease with the scrubber will work. Dry with a towel and inspect: if it looks a little raw, spread a small teaspoon of vegetable oil on the bottom and sides of the pan, let sit overnight, and then wipe off the excess in the morning. If it looks really raw, you know what to do. That's right. Make a batch of french fries.

What more could a kitchen want? Oh -- a slow cooker. Next!

05 September 2012

Storing emergency food and supplies in a small home

Rowhouse Livin' appreciates its readers in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia, readers in the inner suburbs and surrounding five counties, and indeed readers much further afield. We love each and every one of you equally -- you and your large homes and acreage. But if we read one more blog exploring the pros and cons of storing food out in the garage, or a book that tells us how to convert part of the basement into a root cellar, or a survivalist zine that tells us to store extra water by linking together six 50-gallon water heaters on the back porch under the deck, we're going to start feeling a little discouraged.

Though we no longer live in an authentic trinity house, we do have just under 1,000 square feet in our home. Our galley kitchen, while large for some city apartments, is still only about half the size of what most Americans expect in new construction or a renovation. To conserve counter space, our microwave oven is kept on a shelf in the dining area. And outside of the fridge, we store almost all of our food in a tall, freestanding pine cabinet by the dining table -- not in the kitchen at all.

Our two small bedrooms have closets, but definitely not of the walk-in variety. Our linen closet holds just enough bath towels, tea towels, sheets, and blankets for the household, with a little room left over for a toolbox and spare curtain hanging hardware.

If you think it's unusual to store a toolbox and curtain rods in the linen closet, then you've just recognized our most important home storage strategy: unusual locations. Small spaces (PDF) require some big thinking. How about inexpensive risers to lift your bed a few more inches off the floor, so that you can fit a few low-profile storage containers underneath? Get them in a heavy-duty style and you can use them for items that are bulkier than clothes and blankets, and things that don't seem like they belong in a bedroom: cans of food, sacks of toiletries, boxes of lightbulbs.

As another example, my open-concept living room has no closets or built-in cabinets, so I've placed an antique linen press by my sofa. But since I do have a linen closet, I keep all manner of other items in this cabinet instead: board games, yarn and tools for crochet and knitting projects, candles and matches, CDs and DVDs, and a set of china that's on my list to sell or donate sometime soon. The cabinent's contents are a real hodge-podge, but it's great to have my candles and matches right there in the living room when the power goes out.

Probably your first step, however, is to do a little de-cluttering your home. There are a million websites and books to get you started; far be it from me to tell you how to clean up your house, or to even suggest that it needs to be done. But "a place for everything, and everything in its place" is a good, um, place to start. Look at what you have. Is it serving your urban home economic needs? Or is it clutter? If it's clutter, get rid of it to make room for some canned soup.

04 September 2012

Philly freebie: Concerts at World Cafe Live every Friday

Quick item today. One of the best entertainment options in Philadelphia is WXPN's Friday Free at Noon concerts. Though they sometimes fill up early because XPN members get advance notice of the artists who will be performing, you can almost always get two absolutely no-cost tickets to the show. And world-class, sometimes very prominent artists, too: I've seen Thomas Dolby, Michael Kiwanuka, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Glen Hansard, The Mekons, Tim Robbins, Sonny Landreth, Hoots and Hellmouth . . .  and a few others I wasn't so much of a fan of, but it's good to expand your appreciation, I guess, every once in a while. And, did I mention, it costs zero dollars.

Since it's broadcast over the radio, the artists keep their sets pretty PG-rated -- so I've never had any qualms about taking my daughter, who's now in her early teens. (She loved One EskimO, who performed a multimedia set.) In fact it's a very fun way to break up an interminable day when the kids are home from school, whether it's weather, a teacher inservice day, or an odd leftover vacation day.

Save money by eating an early lunch at home first; bring earplugs; and meet me and my daughter (if it's a school vacation day) downstairs at 3025 Walnut Street, Phila 19104.

03 September 2012

Link round-up: Emergency preparedness

To continue last week's theme, and to continue a focus on emergency preparedness as we plow on through this year's Atlantic hurricane season:

National Hurricane Center - Be ready! Suggestions for a disaster supplies kit, a family or workplace plan, FEMA evacuation guidelines, and advice about pets.

From Mother Nature Network, via CNN - More about keeping your pets safe during emergencies.

Mayo Clinic - Food safety and meal plans, including a brochure (PDF) of a three-day meal plan and recipe list (PDF) for a family of four. Note that the meal plan lists some expensive groceries; it's probably best use it as just one tool in your toolbox, not a be-all, end-all, definitive guide to follow strictly.

Unclutterer.com - Ask yourself: Are you prepared for severe weather and natural disasters?

American Red Cross - Apps for iPhone and Android for monitoring hurricanes and finding emergency shelters.

City of Philadelphia - Office of Emergency Management offers brochures and no-cost community workshops, for everybody but in particular for seniors and for businesses.

The Mormon Church - Intro to building up your year's supply of foods and necessities for the home, or working on just a three months' supply.

Again, happy prepping!