Saturday, January 29, 2011

Fun in the Sun: New England Style

While I mostly hang up the clothes indoors in winter, I like to wait until there's a sunny day to hang the sheets up outside--both because sheets are awkward to hang in the space I have indoors, and because they smell so good when they dry that way.

Even my dog approves.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sinful Lettuce?

Can lettuce be sinful?  What if you eat it at a Quaker retreat?

I was at Woolman Hill this past weekend, a beautiful antique farmhouse and outbuildings operated by local Quakers for various retreats.  They're quite eco-conscious, with many reminders about conserving heat and electricity, and carefully planned low-waste meals with vegetarian options on everything.

It was a wonderful retreat.  (In between spiritual challenges, I even got in a bit of snowshoeing with friends in the sub-zero cold.)  And as usual, the food was amazing.

And... sinful.  I felt downright odd about the daily offerings of salad, grapefruit, and oranges!  I did eat them, however, and they were delicious!  Particularly since Peter and I have been slipping gently ever-deeper into a locally and seasonally-based diet.

Oh, we eat salads--of shredded cabbage, cold-stored carrots, and sprouts from the windowsill.  (Our indoor lettuce in the window-boxes, after a long hiatus, seems to be growing again, too.)  And lately, since attending the local Winterfare sponsored by our community's branch of CISA, we've had the most amazing winter keeping radishes to add as well.

But fresh greens?  Citrus?  It felt scandalous.  (And, as I said, tasted delicious.)

I don't mean to imply that I have room to criticize Woolman Hill.  Given the number of people who pass through their doors--many of them clearly with carbon footprints far less than mine--they do a wonderful job balancing out the ethics of environmentalism with the economics of staying available as a resource.  I'm not trying to imply anything else.

But I really was struck by how established my habit of local and seasonal produce has become.  A year ago, I would have thought it silly to hesitate over a bowl of greens.  This year, while I did enjoy them as a treat, I'm too aware of the cost to the earth of even organically raised winter lettuce and greens to buy them in a store.  (Virtually all organic lettuce sold in the winter, according to Michael Pollan of The Omnivore's Dilemma, is grown in Arizona--and not only is there a large carbon footprint involved in shipping the greens to us across country, but the land there is so unsuitable for such agriculture that all the organic inputs--manure and compost--must be trucked in at a distance too.  Moreover, the intense industrial scale of this "organic" agriculture is helping to drain the aquifer--a truly non-renewable resource.)

I'm not saying this in order to be self-righteous, actually.  I'm commenting on it because eating what's in season and what's sustainable has turned out to be so easy to do that I now do it without a second thought.

It's the deviations from that rule that make me think twice now.

I'm sure there are a thousand things that I'm doing, even now, that are not in the planet's best interest.  But I am encouraged that change doesn't actually hurt, once you find a way to make it.  And I'm looking forward to more of it.

(And, OK, yeah.  I'm also looking forward to the breaks and treats--like this weekend's citrus and salads--when they come.  Because they will be treats, and not thoughtless squanderings.)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ugly Carrots

I posted recently about some of our efforts to continue to eat locally over the winter.  We bought shares in a local organic winter CSA in the fall, and I made one last stop at a farmstand, and brought home:
  • eight pounds of beets
  • two or three pounds of turnips, leeks, and rutabagas
  • sixty pounds of potatoes 
  • twenty pounds of onions
  • fifteen or so pounds of butternut squash, and
  • thirty pounds of carrots.

We had to work hard and think fast to store all that food.  Peter built us a keeping bin for the potatoes, and we found a cool place for the onions.  But the carrots were a puzzler.

We eventually opted to store them in a box in the garage, laid between layers of damp sawdust

Here they are, about six weeks later.  Hideous, aren't they?

The blackening is not dirt.  The discoloration seems to be of the carrot itself.  And yet, they are still firm and crisp, and there is no sign of mildew in the sawdust itself.  And, in fact, when peeled, these ugly carrots clean up real nice:

We've been eating them for weeks now.  They seem absolutely fine--as tasty as any carrots I've ever eaten.

Who knows if this storage strategy will get us through the really cold weather still to come?  But for the moment, we're finding ways to eat locally, at least in terms of eggs, cheese, milk, and veggies.

Even in the dark of the year.

How 'bout them ugly carrots?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Our 1 lb, 3 oz Holiday for Six

The New Year's Eve festivities are over, the last of the apple and pumpkin pies have been eaten, and the in-laws have headed home to Ohio again.  My daughter and her fiance will depart tomorrow morning, and on the next day, Peter and I will head back to work.

Over the last nine days, six people have feasted, laughed, given and received gifts, and generally enjoyed ourselves in a pretty typical American holiday.  (Though technically, Peter and I are Pagan, and only my mother-in-law is Christian, we all enjoy merry-making together.)  I'm not sure how much weight I've put on, but it's likely some; in addition to the pies and turkey, there were mounds of Christmas cookies, platters and boxes of chocolates, truffles, and fudge, and a big double-chocolate birthday cake for Peter.

Our holiday waste, posing by the tree.
So my waistline may be showing the effects of over-consumption for a while.  How about our plastic tally?

The answer is, we weigh in today at a somewhat portly 1 lb. 3 oz. for the holiday as a whole.

Certainly, the amount of plastic waste we generated seemed more than usual.  Not only were there more of us in the house than usual, but we also had plenty of gift and goodie packaging: plastic trays protecting the gourmet chocolates, packing material for the wonderful new Japanese knives for my kitchen, and plastic bags for holiday treat ingredients I might have found a way to make myself, had I not begun the week with a head cold: a bag for the stuffing mix I went with (instead of the bread cubes I had been assiduously collecting over the last month) and for the confectioners sugar to frost my husband's cake.

However, it is also true that everyone seemed to make a real effort to avoid excessive waste and consumerism.  My daughter wrapped everyone's gifts in brown paper and hemp twine; the gift she gave me--a vast array of herbs and spices she obtained from the spice importer where she works--she went out of her way to obtain without so much as a plastic jar lid.  The number of gifts we gave this year was probably smaller than in past years... but it didn't seem to chill our enjoyment any.  And finally, many of the gifts Peter and I gave were from thrift or antique stores--no new production, and no new waste, and the recipients seemed to enjoy them just the same. 

Mostly people seemed to take the "house rules" on plastic use with a sense of humor.  There was a certain amount of poking fun of my refusal to do anything that would generate any single-use plastic trash--including refusing my fortune cookie when we went out for Chinese food--and my compulsion to swoop up whatever plastic waste anyone else produced, to include in the tally.

But there were also some thoughtful and respectful conversations about how to lessen our impact on the earth.  My daughter and her fiance, who brought us delicious fresh oysters from the Cape, where they live, made a point of gathering all the shells to return to the ocean again.  Apparently, oyster beds become depleted if this is not done, because oysters build their beds on top of the old shells of dead oysters.  Without the shells, this cycle is incomplete, and the oysters suffer.  (I never knew that!)  When my daughter's friend stopped in with a vitamin water today, my daughter calmly explained why she should not actually drop her finished bottle into our recycling.  "My mom's like, Super Anti-Plastic Woman these days," she explained.  And this led to a conversation about the implications of downcycling (as opposed to real recycling, such as glass and aluminum are suited for) and of how small changes have led to bigger ones for us, in a satisfying way.

It turns out my daughter makes her own shampoo, and also uses baking soda in place of detergent.  We traded notes on our fascination with organic gardening, making sprouts in the kitchen, and the ethics of eating meat.

And while she normally does use an electric dryer at a laundromat for her clothes, she hung at least one load up to dry in our house this week.  Not her favorite practice, but she did it willingly, without complaint.

Of course, trying to integrate family life, with or without a holiday, into any kind of oddball obsession--which, objectively, I guess our plastic fast could be considered--can become obnoxious or absurd pretty fast.

There were some comical moments as we attempted to minimize our footprint.  The wonderful local turkey I ordered turned out not only to have been packaged in plastic, but to have a plastic bit inserted to hold the drumsticks, and one of those pop-out timers embedded in it before purchase.  Who knew? 

And while dining with my parents, at the seafood restaurant that is the approximate halfway point between their home and ours, I first forgot to specify no straw in my water glass... and then, when I requested a refill, and asked, if the waitress were not going to reuse my same glass, could she please be sure not to bring a straw?  And in response, the poor beleagered waitress brought everyone a fresh round of waters... in disposable plastic cups.

They're in the tally.  It's all there, right down to the packaging on the emergency medications for our dog from two nights ago.

One pound, three ounces: the weight of a holiday in our house.

As she headed out the door, for one last evening with friends from high school, my daughter asked me how the tally compares with an average three week period around here.  (After all, there were six of us here!)

Our bichon inspects the holiday plastic tally.
The answer is?  Actually, not too shabbily.  Our average, over six months, would imply we'd use a little bit more: about one pound, six ounces.  So, while a good month might see us generating a good deal less, and there certainly was more plastic being tossed around the house than we usually have, on the whole, our family did a nice job keeping an eye on our impact... and still managed to have some good eats, and some good times.

Happy New Year, everyone!