Friday, January 28, 2011

Obsolete stuff

When I was a very young child, in the early sixties, manufacturers started discovering the decades-old concept of "planned obsolesence." In the words of cultural critic Vance Packard in The Waste Makers, it's "the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals."

Originally coined in 1932 by an obscure economist, it took the manufacturers a while to catch on. Make things so that they break or go out of style. Parse out slightly better, more desirable versions, so that the old version is no longer acceptable (Apple is the genius without par at this).

And we bought it. Literally.

Outsourcing to exploited workers in developing countries means it's cheaper to replace most appliances than it is to get them fixed. Because we don't make these things here anymore, the people who know how to make (and therefore fix) them have all died. As this happened more and more, the small repair shops that used to exist in every neighborhood started disappearing, so that now it is both expensive and time consuming to get the toaster fixed. (And who owns them? Immigrants, from countries where they still manufacture stuff.) Shop classes, where they taught you how to do simple repairs, disappeared from public schools, because everyone is going to law school now, and teaching people how to do useful stuff is racist and classist. Just drop into Sears or Walmart or Target or Walgreen's and get a new one. Old one goes into the landfill. Use the credit card! As Judith Levine says in Not Buying It, credit is the perfect capitalist solution to keeping wages low while ensuring that workers keep spending money.

Families lost their livelihoods, manufacturing in the US died, unions struggled, the earth filled up with junk, and we poisoned a generation or two in countries where there are no environmental or safety regulations.

But man, that new iPod Touch is cool, and my toaster has a digital display ensuring the exact quality of toastiness that I desire. If I get an iPad, there's probably an app that will get my toast going for me before I get up in the morning.

Cleverly, manufacturers have figured out Planned Obsolescence 2.0: it's obsolete by age alone, regardless of whether it still works. When was the last time you got rid of something because it broke? We don't hold onto our appliances long enough for them to break anymore. Consumer durable goods are considered to be things we use for three years or more, like refrigerators, cars and other large appliances. Not things that only last three years. Things that we replace every three years. Three years? I'm supposed to replace my fridge every three years? Yes, I am. I recently tried to get my stove top fixed. It was installed wrong, and one of the burners doesn't work. The repairman refused to fix it. Told me I needed a new one, because this one was from 2002. He actually refused the minimum repair fee rather than have to fix it. Mind you, it can be fixed. But he has bought so deeply into the idea of "new" and "better" that he actually chose not to be paid rather than to support my suspicious desire not to buy something when the thing I've got is fine.

It's a pathology. We need to keep our things. We need to stop replacing them before their time is up, or worse, just adding to the pile.

Because what they've really planned the obsolescence of is our free will and choice.

Oatmeal molasses bread
recipe adapted from the American Home All-purpose Cook Book

2 c. milk
2 T. molasses
1 T. sea salt
2 T butter or shortening
1 package active dry yeast
1/2 c. warm water (barely cool on your wrist)
2 eggs
1 cup oats, ground to a fine meal in your food processor
4 c. whole wheat flour
2-2 1/2 c. white or bread flour

Scald milk (i.e. heat it to just shy of boiling, in saucepan or microwave). Cool to 100F/38C then add the shortening, salt, and molasses. Stir until it melts, then cool further to 80F/26C. I put it in the freezer to speed the cool down. Once it's cool, sprinkle the yeast onto the warm water, let it sit about 5-8 minutes. Beat the eggs into the cooled mixture, then add the activated yeast.

Stir in the oat flour until completely moist, then start adding the other flours about a cup at a time until it forms a stiff dough. Turn out onto a floured board and knead 5 to 10 minutes, or until dough is smooth and elastic. It will not feel as smooth as white bread doughs.

Grease a large bowl, and place the dough in it, rotating the dough a couple of times to make sure it is coated with oil. Cover with a damp towel and let it rise in a warm place until doubled in size. (I have had this take as long as 4 hours). Punch down, let rise again until almost double. Again, this can take anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours. Grease two 9" loaf pans. Punch dough down, knead briefly to pop any air bubbles, divide in half. Shape each piece into a loaf and place in pans. Cover.

Let rise 50 to 60 minutes or until doubled. Bake at 375F for 25 to 30 minutes.

The oats give this bread a nice springy moistness, and the molasses its lovely golden brown color. Great for bread-and-butter or as a sandwich bread.

Inherited stuff

No buy February

My mother died when I was 22. I bring this up not to gain sympathy, but rather to point out a peculiar facet of my adulthood, namely, that I never had to furnish a household. I simply kept using everything I'd grown up with, from the living room furniture right down to the mismatched forks.

Not only that, but because of the trauma of losing my mother so young, her things took on huge emotional significance, to the point that losing or breaking something of hers sparks a feeling close to grief. I find it difficult to replace her things when they wear out, or to admit that either her things aren't good enough or that I need something she didn't have. So I use pot lids that have no handles, and pots with giant dings and dents. I burn soup because I can't bring myself to retire the 1947 Revere Ware and replace it with some nice double-walled Calphalon.

More than 30 years later, I'm still using her things.

I complain that Americans have no "culture" but this investment of emotional gravity into things is actually part of our American culture. We come, all of us, from people who left their belongings behind. Whether through voluntary or forced migration, America is a land of people who abandoned stuff, so the new stuff that we acquired when we got here was important in a way that it won't be for a people in the old country, surrounded by stuff accumulated over centuries.

Marketers take advantage of this need for things to be important by attaching emotional resonance to the stuff we buy and the places we buy it. Unfortunately, the only emotion that marketers REALLY want is the toddler version of desire-- I want THAT, NOW (or I will hold my breath til my face turns blue).

Things are important, no doubt about it. But let's remember that importance attaches to specific things-- my mother's salad bowl, my grandfather's sword, my great-great-grandmother's wedding dress, my wedding ring-- and not just to things. Buy too many things and you'll start to attach importance to them, to gratify this emotional need.

Just for this month, at least, enjoy the things you have.

Trail mix (something you don't need to buy)
Combine, in approximately equal amounts:
Raisins (dredge them in a little cinnamon sugar first, for a sweeter mix)
Dried cranberries or other dried fruit*
Lightly salted peanuts
Unsalted crushed almonds or walnuts
*if using a larger fruit like apples or apricots, chop it fine first, to pieces slightly smaller than a raisin

Season to taste with:
Sea salt
Finely chopped candied ginger

Just keep a big jar of this around.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Okay, What *Do* I Need?

No Buy February

The things I actually need to live and can't obtain without buying are easy to identify. Food and shelter. I also need warm clothing, of course, since I live in Chicago. But it's pretty easy not to buy any more clothing. I like new things, but I can go a month without buying more clothes; I think most people could.

What about drink? Technically, I don't have to buy drinks. Water comes out of my tap. Do I go super hard-core and only drink water for a month? Something tells me my long-suffering husband would not be on board with not buying beer for a month.

Which brings us to the family. Right now just my husband and me. I think that when embarking on something like this, it ought to be the household. (I'd love to try to extend this to my daughter, but I simply cannot wrap my brain around her going a month without buying anything. Does not compute. My son barely buys the stuff he needs to live, anyway.) So I'll be selling my husband on this over the next few days.

Okay, so I need food and shelter, but not clothes, and we're on the shelf about drink. Now comes the hard part.

Valentine's Day.

I like presents. I really like presents. But I think this holiday exemplifies one of the reasons I do this. Our culture has either co-opted holidays or simply cut new ones from whole cloth as an excuse to buy stuff. Valentine's Day is right up there in the second category. It is a "marketing" holiday, created to make us spend money on consumer goods. Granted, it's one of the older ones, but it's not a religious, historical, or cultural holiday in any way. The single way we celebrate Valentine's Day is by buying stuff.

So it's got to go. As does my husband's birthday (sorry sweetie).

Now, does this mean no presents? Of course not. If the point is to replace the extractive, consumptive economy with a productive creative one, here's the place to create something-- a card, a meal, a song, a day spent together.

Take the month to think about what you need. If what you need is love, and what you're getting is a box of chocolates, you're not really getting what you need.

And don't worry, more recipes coming up. After all, if I'm not buying stuff, I'll have more time to cook.

Read about No Buy February here.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Don't buy anything in February

We all have a lot of stuff. George Carlin has a famous monologue on the subject. Americans love stuff. Our entire culture, if you can call it one, and economy is based on our acquisition of it. Recently we've been getting blamed for the slow recovery, because apparently we aren't buying enough of it. Well, we knew that eventually the power brokers would find a way to deflect from their own criminal mismanagement and rapacious self-interest.

I don't know about you, but I have enough stuff. There's no more room to put it. I'm tired of seeing big box stores getting built and schools getting torn down. I'm tired of spending my taxes on all the stuff the military needs, and I'm tired of my stuff being taxed to pay for Big Oil transporting stuff and Big Ag stuffing it down our throats.

Fine. Let's slow down the recovery even more, and turn this behemoth that's been bearing us towards disaster away from the consumptive, extractive economy. Let's stop buying stuff.

Take the pledge with me for a NoBuyFebruary. If you don't need it to live, don't buy it. Taken to extremes, this means only buy groceries, because I'm guessing you have plenty of clothes, and you certainly don't need any more dust catchers. If you can make it at home, you can't buy it. Coffee. Meals. I'm including electronic expenditures, too, so that means no Kindle books or online subscriptions. Just go for a month without spending any money that you don't have to spend. No fair using the last 5 days of January to go on a buying binge either.

February is a short month. Take the pledge. Just 28 days to Just Say No to consumerism. Live with and on what you've already got.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

I'm not allowed to call it dirt anymore

Master Gardener class, week 2-- soil.

So I've been making fun and calling it "dirt" just to watch Twitter go crazy. But really, it's fascinating, and I knew a lot more about it than I thought I did. It's amazing the information you just learn as you live and listen.

I knew it was going to be a good day when the presenter asked us to come up with a definition for soil. I proposed "It's the top of the ground, made up of minerals and organic matter. About half of it is holes, filed with air and water. Lots of things live in it." But my table mates wanted to talk percentages and chemistry and organisms.

Turned out my definition was pretty much spot on. Here's her agronomy book definition: "A dynamic natural body on the surface of the earth in which plants grow, composed of minerals, organic materials and open space plus living forms or soil biota- (vegetation, microbial, insect, ground dwelling animals, etc)."

Sometimes you need to remember that while it's soil, it's also just dirt, and not to get too above yourself.

I think my favorite thing about hearing a lecture on soil science was the concept of "horizons" or layers in the soil. I like the idea of a horizon you can't see--it's such a garden-y concept; gardeners are always planning for unknowable outcomes. That we're doing it in an unseen medium just seems so appropriate. It's especially fascinating that city soil has no horizons; again it's a bit of a metaphor for an urban landscape, where the horizon is the houses across the street.

Where the botany lecture was a lot of new words for things that already have perfectly useful names, the soil lecture was the much more valuable naming of concepts that I more or less understand, but had no words for: texture, horizons, crust, plow pan, wilting point, holding capacity. I had a lot of "oh-that's what that is. I know about that!" moments. The most hilarious piece of advice offered: if it's muddy, don't water. Do people really need to be told this?

No recipe today! I'm making this lasagna, more or less, from summer vegetables out of the freezer and fridge! I say "more or less" because it seldoms comes out the same way twice.

Update: MyFolia discussion here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A new way of talking about food

With the "organic" label becoming less and less reliable, a lot of us focus more on whether food is local as a way of guaranteeing its quality and sustainability. Many local growers who choose local markets and direct sales do in fact grow organically, but have opted out of the expensive, overly-regulated, industrial organic certification process. Because that process makes no distinction between large and small growers, it often withholds organic certification from small growers because they can't afford the legal processes or unnecessary infrastructure that's been built into the law, not because they aren't strictly organic.

So many of us have switched our focus to local-- better for the economy, the planet, and our health. And as we change the focus to local rather than strictly certified organic, the food powers will surely start to take note, will want to make money off of us, and will pressure for this label to be regulated as well, again duping uninformed and unsuspecting consumers into thinking they're getting something they are not.

I can see how this will happen-- "local" will be defined as a larger area than a strict locavore might want. Or it will be defined by distribution points, or by where it gets labeled, rather than by where it gets grown. Or by where it gets grown rather than by actual miles traveled from the source to your table (so if it's grown in Illinois, but packed in Mexico, how local is it?). Having no trust in the regulatory process whatsoever where food is concerned, I can see this coming.

So I think we need a new nomenclature, one that each consumer informs herself about. I think we need to start eating "ethical" food:
  • pastured meat and dairy
  • food grown or raised using organic and sustainable principals, rather than just having the increasingly meaningless certified organic label slapped on it
  • grown no more than a days' drive out and back (4 hour radius; this is the definition used by Polyface Farms)
  • grown yourself or by a neighbor, in a backyard or a community garden
  • sold direct either farm to consumer or through a reliable, local middleman (in other words NOT Whole Foods)
  • unprocessed, meaning sold whole or packed without use of chemically manufactured preservatives
We're starting to get a local, sustainable food system back. Let's stay one step ahead of the evil-doers and make sure we, the consumers, own the language.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Master Gardener class, week one: Botany

Reading the Botany section in the Master Gardener book made my head hurt, but the class turned out to be quite entertaining, largely due to presenter Greg Stack, a very engaging speaker. As suspected, I know a lot about how and why things work, but not what they are called, making it difficult to talk about, or to follow conversations. Here's my notes from the first session, and a recipe for the last of the root vegetables that you harvested last fall!

Greg brought the class in a lot with tongue-in-cheek quick definitions like this one:
Botany in a nutshell is how to identify and use a plant, plus how and why it grows, without ever actually growing anything. Horticulture is growing perishables for food and fun using intensive cultivation. Agriculture is growing commodity crops for storage.
One of many new words-of-the-day was autotrope, meaning something that makes its own food (i.e. plants), completely destroying the premise of whether plants or Zombies will get us first, which is quite annoying to those of us waiting for the plant apocalypse, when they finally assert their supremacy, turn the tables and eat us instead.

So plants--
* make their own food
* release more O2 than they use
* have rigid cell walls for support (as opposed to exo- or endo-skeleton)
* are immobile (anchored to their support medium)
* slow to respond to environment
* continue to grow at maturity, unlike us, although several of us looked at our waists and disputed this one.

He reached the number one I-don't-understand section for me which is the difference between monocots and dicots. I'd heard these terms, which essentially seems to be grass and everything else (so why not just call it that. This is why I'm not a botanist).

Botanists like to group things. They like to group the same things in different ways. There are the Linnaean taxonomic groupings, which they are now conveniently changing on us, just to make sure us laypeople remember that we are not smart enough to be scientists. There are also groupings by habitat (tropical, subtropical, temperate, desert, alpine, prairie) by growing condition (wet, dry, temperature tolerance), by life cycle (annual- and sub groups summer annual and winter annuals, biennial, perennial), by superficial characteristics and by microscopic characteristics.

Kill me now. It's only 10:30.

Of course, you need to know these things because things within groups share not just observable characteristics but it can also give you clues as to problems, care, and use.

I was alternately impressed and annoyed at people who knew what Solidagos are (what Solidago is?), and who seem to know Latin, so they can immediately translate taxonomic names. I guess it would be childish to roll my eyes.

A radicle is an immature root, there's a word for immature stem as well but my brain hurts. Okay plumule. And actually, I've heard the term radicle used a lot, so it's good that I now actually know what it's called as opposed to having to pretend I know, since everyone knows I'm an experienced gardener.

Once he got past the naming and on to how all the structures actually work, I found it more interesting. I feel like I'm looking at my houseplants with a whole new level of understanding, and a whole lot less terror. I keep looking at all the little bumps and holes on twigs and thinking "that has a name. Weird (wish I could remember what it is)." I also like that I now know the term for what I've been calling "corn feet." And that every silk on a corn ear is attached to a kernel. No pollen, no kernel, that's why you get holes on an ear.

Anyway, here's what I've got left in the larder from my last harvest. Enjoy!

Beyond mashed potatoes
Per every 2 diners:
One medium to large potato
3-5 radishes
1 each: small to medium parsnip, rutabaga, turnip
Optional: 1/4 cup celeriac or celery root
1 pat butter
1/4 cup (or so) milk, half-half, or cream
white pepper and sea salt to taste

Peel, roughly cube, and boil all until soft (you can easily slip a knife in). To cube vegetables, just cut them up along each axis-- length, width, height. Mash into a lumpy mass with a potato masher or fork, then add the butter and milk/cream. Continue to mash with the masher/fork or whip with a hand mixer on low. I don't mind lumps in my mashed potatoes, but some people like them really smooth.

Serve with meat loaf, or pan fried pork, fish or portobello mushroom.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

One Seed Chicago: Eggplant

One Seed Chicago is an urban greening project. People, just like you, vote for a favorite seed and One Seed Chicago mails you the seeds for free. Grow them in your garden or a community garden in your neighborhood.

This very fun project was one of the first on-line community events I ever participated in. It led me to understanding how to get the most out of gardening and cooking on line, and helped me to meet a lot of great Chicago gardeners.

This year is an all-edible choice for the second time (2009 was Blue Lake Beans). All you have to do to get seeds is vote. You'll receive a pack of the winning seeds in time to plant them for the 2011 growing season, whether your choice wins or not. Here's what I planted the last two years: Blue Lake Beans in 2009 and Bee Balm in 2010.

The choices are swiss chard, radish and eggplant, three winners (the selection is always tough). My pick is eggplant. It's a hugely rewarding plant- it grows well in the ground or in containers and it's beautiful: if you only have an ornamental garden, you can fit an eggplant in as an ornamental with benefits. And even though it can be challenging to grow from seed, somehow I tend my One Seed choices really carefully; I guess I just feel an obligation to make it work.

You can start Eggplant from seed as late as late April or early May and still get fruit.

I don't want to hear "I don't like eggplant" or "I don't know how to cook it." Here's about 3000 eggplant recipes from Ashbury's Aubergines (found via I just made the following eggplant bharta from eggplants that I roasted and then froze last summer. Fresh, local, organic eggplant in January. Doesn't get better than that.

Update: if eggplant wins, I'm cooking an eggplant meal for Mike Nowak (whether he wants it or not). Maybe I'll make this or this:

Eggplant Bharta
recipe adapted from C. Solomon Complete Asian Cookbook

2 large eggplants (or 1 quart bag of frozen roasted eggplant)
2 large ripe tomatoes (or ditto, or 1 pint preserved tomato sauce)
3 T olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
1 1/2 t. fresh ginger, grated
1/2 t. turmeric
1/2 t. chili powder
2 t. salt
1 t. garam masala

You can make this from fresh uncooked vegetables, but I liked it better with the eggplant roasted, and the tomatoes peeled. To roast eggplants, cut them into 1" slices and dredge both sides with oil; put them in a 350F/175C oven for about 30 minutes, or until they are quite soft. To peel tomatoes, boil a large pot of water (deep enough to submerge the toms). At a full boil, submerge each tomato for about 30 seconds (this is called blanching); the skin should then slip right off. You can also remove the seeds if you want to, but it's not necessary for this recipe.

Saute the onion and ginger in the oil until onions are transparent. Add the spices and mix thoroughly. Add the eggplant and tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionaly, until it's a thick sauce-- personal preference on how runny or thick you want it. You can mash it into a puree with a fork, or use an immersible blender. If you've left the tomato seeds in you'll have to cook it down a little longer because there will be more liquid.

Serve over noodles, or as a side dish with fish or pork.