Monday, January 30, 2012


I'm not a wife, I don't have children, and I divide my "punk, DIY housewifery" time with my job, but I am so relating to just about everything in this delightful, declarative post, over at Apron Stringz.

Lengthy excerpt (but please do read the whole thing):

"Let’s be frank.

I believe the world is fucked up. We have ravaged the wilderness into near oblivion, sucked the life out of every arable piece of land, bombed and enslaved our fellow humans, all in order to provide for our extremely decadent first-world lifestyle. I know I can’t change things to any significant degree, but neither can I turn aside and pretend I haven’t noticed. I cannot, in good conscience and healthy mental condition, proceed at full speed...I am guilty of participation at every level, but I cannot reconcile a life that does not at least try for something better. If I am weary with effort, I will know I am doing what I can do.

And here’s what I can do.

If I believe that massive-scale agriculture is defiling our land, and corporate food products are defiling our bodies, I can base our diet instead on whole foods from local farms.

If I believe that using fossil fuels supports global bullying and violence, not to mention environmental degradation, I can make the time to walk and bike whenever possible.

If I believe that the immense resources sucked down and shit out for every piece of plastic crap we think we deserve is inexcusable, I can mend broken things, reuse materials, buy second hand, do without.

But you know damn well those choices are not so simple, and that is where the skill and craft and countless hours of housewifery become meaningful. After the romance of changing the world has subsided, it all comes down to the number of hours in a day and the number of dollars in your bank account. In case you’ve never been to a farmer’s market let me tell you that local, sustainable food is enormously more expensive. If I want to be able to afford the luxury of responsible purchases, I need to defray costs by cooking everything from scratch. Creativity in the kitchen is worth money– stretching that costly ethical meat by picking every last shred off of last night’s roast chicken and cooking the bones into stock; planning ahead for variety and convenience so that we are less tempted by the many corporate foods surrounding us on a daily basis; and ‘adding value’ at home by making our own jams, yogurt, granola, and bread.

Although cooking tends to monopolize my own housewifery, cleaning up after everything is a law, like gravity. It has to be done, and someone has to do it. The infinitely humble task of washing dishes is radical political action, because after cooking your ethically and sustainably raised chicken into stock to make a second or third meal out of it so that you can afford to keep supporting that righteous local farmer, there is a pile of greasy dishes to be done. If a=b and b=c, than a=c."

Amen. And now back to my dishes...

Image source

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

If You Post It, It Will Come

I recently started a tumblr blog that I'm calling A Small House and a Large Garden, which is a reference to the Abraham Cowley quote on the sidebar of this blog and at the top of my new one.

The plan is to simply curate images that reflect how I aspire to live in the world and gather visual ideas for crafting a way of being and creating home. I'm making big changes in my life this year, leaving my job and moving, and I don't have a neat, step by step plan or specific goal for determining what's going to come next. But I do have a pretty good idea of the direction I want to move in and a growing vision of how that might unfold. Posting these images will continually remind me of that vision and add to it.

Maybe it's the Sci-Fi/Fantasy I've been reading lately (I'm thoroughly enjoying this library read), but I feel like maybe I might be able to work a little magic here. With JPEGS and pixels, perhaps I can conjure up my dream life and make it happen. Or, at the very least, get some decorating inspiration for my new place, wherever it may be.

If you don't find anything new here, I've probably posted something over there.

Image Source

Monday, January 23, 2012


I hope my recent spate of posts on household frugality aren't becoming too tiresome for readers. I suspect I'm probably mostly preaching to the choir anyway. It's just that, being deep in winter hibernation mode at the moment, I have a lot of time to look around my space and reflect on my habits and daily routines. I have the time to make changes and shift patterns if I want, and so the subject of frugality is all very top of mind. I'm just going to go with it while it lasts.

This weekend I made my own laundry soap. For the past couple of years I have been getting bulk refills of environmentally friendly dish and laundry soap. I really like having this option because it significantly cuts down on packaging. However it is fairly expensive, the store where I buy the soap is in an area I don't frequent regularly, so I would make special trips just to go there, and sometimes they would be out of what I was looking for. I've also become increasingly concerned with the use of palm oil in detergents (even environmentally friendly ones).

So when I came across this easy method of making my own laundry soap, very inexpensively and with relatively safe ingredients, that is nearly waste free, I jumped at the chance to give it a try.

This was so quick and easy to make, I washed my first load of laundry with the soap within a half hour of starting the process. Time will tell how well it compares to the detergent I was using before, but I have a feeling making my own laundry soap will become part of the routine from now on.

I also found this recipe, using the same ingredients, to make a large amount of laundry powder. I might try it at some point as well, although I'll probably halve the amount.

I'd love to hear from anyone else making their own laundry soap and what the experience has been like!

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Loonie Spar'd is Twice Got

This old juice bottle serves as my piggy bank. The small opening means I have to work to get the coins out and that is a sufficient enough deterrent to keep me from plundering it. Besides, I like to see it slowly fill up over the months. And fill up it does. About three times a year.I pay cash for most everything. I hate the thought of needlessly paying bank fees on my debit card and I've never owned a credit card. Paying cash keeps me a little more accountable for the purchases I make. I need that tangible transaction of paper and coin passing from my hand to another.

And so, in a nation of loonies and toonies (and no, that is not a disparaging remark toward my fellow countryfolk) the change does add up. To keep my pockets light I've returned to, the possibly long forgotten practice and childhood pursuit of, saving my pennies.

In an era of plastic, PayPal and email transfers I wonder if the change jar has become obsolete in most households even asthe average household debt in Canada is at a record high and savings dismally low. Maybe a pleasant evening spent rolling coins while listening to Ideas on CBC is considered too fuddy duddy, especially when one could be spending all that scrilla on frothy lattes. (I recently met a man who buys 4-6 [6!] ├╝bersuperventi coffees a day!)

Well, I don't mind getting all Scrooge McDuck on my change jar a few times a year, especially when the jar typically yields $300 or more each time ($373 in my most recent jar!), which works out to be nigh on $1000 a year. That might seem like small patates for some, but I'm a zealous believer in small actions having a big impact. An extra grand saved every year is a big deal for me, and if I can do that by simply tossing my pocket change into a jar, well, I will definitely take that to the bank!

(Dear would be thieves,
My change jar is empty now, so even if you did find out where I live, there's like six bucks in there. If you need $6, I'll gladly give it to you. [Unless you're planning to spend it on a latte. There are better things to do with someone else's money.] And by the time the jar is full and ready to be emptied again I'll probably be living somewhere else, since I'm moving this year. In the meantime you can start your own change jar and then you won't need mine!

Oh, and that's about the only thing of 'value' in my place. The rest is a lot of second hand stuff, things pulled off the side of the road, an aging laptop and a small stereo that's about 10 years old. Please don't take the thrift store, framed needlework on the walls, my triptych print of the Garden of Early Delights or the hand crocheted lace handkerchiefs my great-grandmother made. I do treasure those even though they don't have much market value.

And finally, if thievery is your current occupation, perhaps you should consider pursuing a life of frugal abundance. Personally, I find it deeply satisfying, stress free and wholly engaging. I sleep well at night, and you know, you really can't put a price on a good night's sleep.)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

This is Not an Empty Pot

This is not an empty pot. You wouldn't believe what all lies underneath this steamer basket. There is a hearty stew here, piles of steaming hot, seasoned rice, simmering beans, a nourishing and healing drink to be served to a loved one feeling under the weather, a rich vegetable soup, a green smoothie, your daily vitamin and mineral supplement. Heck, there is even a great, chemical-free fertiliser for your house plants here. And I don't think it's too much of a stretch to tell you there's something for your pets too.

One of the things I learned in my permaculture course was that when a resource enters into a system (like water for example) you want to put it to as many uses as possible before it cycles through or leaves the system. I think about this a lot and wherever possible I try to practice this principle in my life. So whenever I take food out of the oven (in the cold seasons), I leave the oven door ajar allowing the hot air to escape into the room, thus putting that use of electricity to two uses: cooking food and heating my space. I collect my dish rinse water in a bucket and use it to flush the toilet. And when I steam vegetables (which I'm doing a lot of these days) I keep the nutrient rich, flavourful vegetable water left in the bottom of pot and put it to many, many uses.

This leftover vegetable water serves as a base for soups and stews. You can cook rice, beans and pasta in it. Add a splash to your morning smoothie. Season it with herbs, salt and pepper and serve hot in a mug for a nourishing beverage to sip on. I especially like to mix this with my homemade bone broth. I even water my plants with it. And if I had pets I would mix some in with their food. I freeze what I can't use right away. Rarely, a little might end up in the compost. But the one thing I never, ever do is pour it down the drain.

This vegetable water is from a steamed buttercup squash. It's so beautiful and tasted wonderful!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

(Nearly) Energy Free Cooking

I've been interested in hay box cookers ever since I learned about them a couple of years ago. Also known as straw box or fireless cookers, they are a simple, but ingenious design, to cook food while saving enormous amounts of fuel or electricity (up to 80%!).

Basically, it's a well insulated box big enough to hold a pot of food. Hay or straw was often used in the oldy days (hence the name), but other insulating materials will work too. You begin cooking your food on the stove as usual and then you move the pot into the cooker, close it up and leave it to use the retained heat to complete the cooking process. It works for anything that is boiled, stewed or steamed. Think of it as a slow cooker unplugged.

Historically they were used by pioneers, cowboys working out on the range all day, and people during the depression and WWII. Today they are used by the Canadian military to keep food warm when delivered in the field and in developing countries, where wood fuel is a scarce resource.

I love the idea of turning off my stove and using retained heat to finish the cooking process. What a great way to conserve energy! So the hay box cooker has been on my list of DIY projects for some time, along with a rocket stove and solar dehydrator.

I haven't gotten around to making any of those projects yet, so I was excited when a fellow permaculture friend contacted me, asking if I would be interested in teaming up with her in organising a workshop on hay box cookers and how to make them. Great! I thought. This will be the perfect opportunity to finally get around to making one for myself.

Then, while researching the cookers a bit more, getting a sense of how they are constructed and viewing different models online, I suddenly had a smack-myself-in-the-forward moment. Duh! I already own a hay box cooker. Yes, it's true. I've had a hay box cooker right under my nose the whole time, I just didn't realise it. A hay box cooker is just an insulated box that holds a pot, right? Folks, I have an insulated box that holds a pot. It's my sun oven! Why didn't I think of it before?

So I immediately gave it a trial run with a pot of beets. The chamber of the sun oven is already insulated, but I also wanted the entire pot to be surrounded by insulating material. While the beets were coming to a boil on the stove, I gathered up a few towels and a couple of flannel sheets. I laid one towel on the bottom of the oven.Then a I draped a flannel sheet over that.
Once the beets had been boiling for about 10 minutes, I carefully placed the pot into the oven.
Two more towels went over the pot, and I folded the first sheet over top of them. Then one more flannel sheet was placed on top it all, completely filling the chamber of the oven.
I closed the glass door, lowered the reflective panels and walked away.
Two hours later I opened the whole thing up, pulled out the still piping hot pot and stuck a fork in the beets. Then I immediately did a happy dance. Success!

I already practice some retained heat cooking in minor ways. I often turn my cast iron pan off 5 or 10 minutes early, knowing that the retained heat of the pan will continue cooking the food 'till done. And when I cook pasta, I bring the water to a boil for a few minutes, turn the heat off, put a lid on the pot and I have perfect pasta every time, without needing to keep the stove element on for the entire process. But now, well now I can't tell you how thrilled I am to have this option of really conserving resources, even if it did take a little while for my brain to connect all the dots! And the best part about it is that I now have another function for my sun oven, all year long, whether the sun is shining or not.

If you don't have a sun oven to give it this double duty, making your own haw box cooker is really easy. There are many resources online. Gone, but not forgotten blogger Chilli posted about the one she made. And I like this one, using a repurposed cooler.

There are a couple things to keep in mind when cooking this way. Firstly, everything will take longer, so will require advanced planning. Cooking times will vary depending on a number of different factors, including the type of box you have and how long you initially have the food on the stove for.

Also, cooking this way does increase the risk of bacterial growth, especially if the slowly reducing heat enters the danger zone. You can mitigate this by using a thermometer to keep track of your temperature or by briefly reheating the food on the stove.

I'd love to hear if anyone else uses retained heat cooking or plans to. Please share your experiences, tips and techniques!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Don't Waste the Paste

"the origins of the word frugality in Latin are frugalior, meaning useful or worthy, and frux, meaning fruitful or productive. These meanings give the word a nice feeling, but unfortunately, the word has changed over the years, and has come to mean thriftiness, the abstention from luxury and lavishness. In this book, the word will be used in its original make full and 'fruitful' use of all [one's] resources."
~Warren Johnson

In keeping with my theme of abundant frugality for the year (using Warren Johnson's definition of frugality) I thought I'd mention this simple trick I use to make full and fruitful use of my toothpaste resource.

I pay a premium price for an all-natural, locally produced toothpaste. (I used to make my own but I wasn't happy with it and like this toothpaste best.) To make those premium dollars go further, I make my toothpaste last longer by not only squeezing the heck out of it when it starts to run low, but finally, I cut the end of the tube off with a pair scissors and use my toothbrush to scrape out as much paste as possible.

By doing this, I can usually get another three or four brushings out of the tube. Now that doesn't sound like much, but added up over all the tubes I use in a year, I figure stretching my toothpaste out this way keeps pennies in my pocket and excess trash out of the waste stream.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Doc Talk

Back in October I was contacted by a Carleton journalism student who asked if I would like to be the subject of a mini-documentary her group was making, for a class assignment on people who 'live green'. I said, "sure, why not?" Over the next few weeks they came and got footage of me at home, at a workshop I gave on kitchen herbs and they interviewed two friends. This is what they came up with.

I enjoyed working with the group of young ladies involved with the project and thought they did a good job of creating something that looks quite professional and making me sound reasonably coherent. And it gave me another opportunity to plug Shannon Hayes' Radical Homemakers!

I learned a few things from the experience too.

1. My face does strange and unusual things. For whatever reason the whites of my eyes seem very prominent, and what is up with my neck tendons!?! I am a freak.

2. I am very uncomfortable with how much of the piece focuses on me. Yes, I know it's supposed to be a documentary about me, and that makes feel weird and awkward.

3. Demonstrating the use of a neti pot is apparently good footage. It was used twice.

4. My friends spoke incredibly kindly of me and left out all mention of me being annoying, over-zealous, strident and kinda judgy about personal lifestyle choices.

5. Journalists will often tell their story, not yours.

For example: I am definitely NOT self-sufficient in growing my own food. I wish! I grow a teeny-tiny fraction of the food I eat. The rest comes from CSA's, farmer's markets, the 'wild', and occasionally the grocery store. Yeah, that part where I say, "I don't shop at grocery stores anymore", I go on to the list the exceptions like cooking oil, vinegar etc... but they cut that out.

When I talk about my concerns with climate change and resource depletion being the primary motivators for doing the things I do, only climate change was mentioned.

Small items of context are sometimes removed, creating confusion. Why is my friend J.G. pouring black beans into a pot? What does that have to do with anything? (I grew them and gave him some.) And when he is talking about people being weirded out that I might poison them at potlucks, he's referring to dishes with foraged foods in them.

Oh and also, the Tositos jar is actually filled with dried sumac berries, not salsa. That's not really relevant to anything, I just felt the need to clarify that. :)

In the end, being a part of this project was all worth it.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Full and Fruitful

Winter arrived the day after Christmas, just in time to transform the walk I like to take whenever I visit my dad and step-mom.

My week spending time with family for the holidays was lovely and relaxing and unfolded just as I hoped it would, being present to the moment and the people. I took a break from the computer, hardly going online at all. I also made sure to find time for yoga, going out for walks and curling up on the couch reading.

Seasonally appropriate, my holiday reading is The Long Winter. (You can read more about the events of the long winter here. You can bet I won't complain about winter weather after reading this!) I'm also thoroughly enjoying The Wilder Life. If you're a fan of the Little House books, you'll want to get this one out of the library.
So another year winds down and the new one is rung in. I'm not insistent about making resolutions. Some years I make 'em, sometimes I don't. In 2008 I made a big one and it utterly changed my life. That was enough for a while. This year however, I feel the need to have a guiding theme to carry me through the coming months. I have some big changes planned for 2012. I'll be leaving my job at the end of the summer, and moving out of my basement apartment sometime this year, in search of above-ground living. And I'll be taking a train to this event in September that I am crazy excited about.

In light of all this, what feels important to me now is a return to and refocus on frugality. It's a value very important to me, but one that I feel I have lost sight of lately. I don't spend excessively and I'm still debt free, but my savings account growth is crawling along at a snail's pace, and I want to change that.

My weaknesses are books on herbalism and permaculture and garden items like seeds and tools. I justify these expenses as contributing to my larger goals, but the reality is they still put a dent in the pocketbook and I could live without them. I buy these things because I want them, not because I actually need them.

So I have resolved that it is time to rein my spending in again and be very intentional about my budget. It's time to trim the fat and so 2012 will be a year of frugality for me. But this isn't going to be an exercise in privation or hair-shirt asceticism. Nor is the point to become a miserly curmudgeon. My yearly donations have dropped this year, because I have been spending more in other areas. When I spend less, I have more to share with the causes I believe in and want to support. If there is one thing I've learned in the last few years, it is that great abundance can be found when you pare things down to essentials, and this will be my aim. I plan to strive for a kind of frugal abundance.

A while back, the ADG brought me a very used copy of Warren Johnson's 1978 book Muddling Toward Frugality. I never got around to reading it at the time. I think it's time to pick it up and have a look through it now.

In the first chapter he writes that, "the origins of the word frugality in Latin are frugalior, meaning useful or worthy, and frux, meaning fruitful or productive. These meanings give the word a nice feeling, but unfortunately, the word has changed over the years, and has come to mean thriftiness, the abstention from luxury and lavishness. In this book, the word will be used in its original make full and 'fruitful' use of all [one's] resources."

Yes. I like that. It sounds like a good place to start.