week 02: houston, we have a lesson

Last week when I sat down to write my first weekly update, I was nestled into my couch in Raleigh amid pretty bitter winter weather. This time, I’m coming to you from Dulles International Airport in Virginia en route to Houston – after a few days of 70°F weather back home.

This week, amazingly, involved next to no purchases. Hannah and I picked up our weekly produce box, I bought fuel for the drive up to my parents in DC to catch this flight, and I stopped in for a pint of cherry tomatoes for my mom from Wegmans to add to a salad.

However, the yogurt saga continues. As you may recall, last week I began gathering supplies to make my own yogurt, including a (used) instant-read food thermometer. The thing arrived this week, however, the battery inside was dead and corroded. Naturally, it was a unique button battery only available online or at Batteries Plus, so I needed to order another one. Only after getting the new battery will I find out if the corrosion has rendered the thermometer unusable. This brings me to the matter of buying used: functionality.

I inherently harbor the notion that “used” equals “better”, that an item that is available for resale is well-built, well-loved, and predates the era of planned obsolescence. I suppose that, while young, I subscribe to the idea that “they don’t make things like they used to” and therefore prefer certain used items over new equivalents. Perhaps you’ve heard stories of changes in the composition of Pyrex cookware, rendering it more temperature sensitive, or the substitution of plastic mechanical parts for those that once were metal.

However, this position can get me into trouble sometimes, as with this thermometer. The fact of the matter is, used means, well, used; there’s no guarantee of whether or not an item will work as intended or work at all. While I may like to think they will, that’s simply not always the case. Also, take a used car for example: at some point, maintenance costs begin to outstrip the benefits of having an older vehicle. After getting the batteries, I’ll likely have spent the same amount I would have on a newer, nicer thermometer and, while I don’t regret that (recall, I’m trying hard to not buy new things for a variety of reasons), it’s a reminder of the perhaps overly optimistic view I take on used goods. The point here is – buy used when you can, but try to avoid the purchase of used good sight-unseen.

So in summary for this week:

Plus:

  • Very few purchases were made this week!
  • I have still managed to largely avoid the grocery store. My farmers’ market purchases have tided me over through this week, and the overabundance of arugula I picked up has encouraged me to make salads more consistently.
  • It’s almost time to start planning my summer garden, so I’ve been thinking about what seeds to start & when. It’s a welcome sunny, warm thought for cold, damp days.

Delta:

  • I’ll feel pretty silly if this thermometer doesn’t work and I have to buy another one. It’s also a race against time with the milk I bought, currently sitting in the fridge. The yogurt saga has taught me a lesson similar to the one that my mom gives when it comes to baking: get all your ingredients out before you begin to make sure you’re prepared. This thermometer is the equivalent of a middle school baking adventure in which, halfway through making brownies, a friend and I realized we only had olive oil, rendering the final product a bit.. olivey. But a lesson is a lesson – note taken.
  • Part of my decision to pare down my purchases is environmentally motivated. Which brings me to the sticking point of air travel. As highlighted in this New York Times piece, the average American generates 19 tons of carbon dioxide per person, and a flight from NYC to San Francisco could produce 2-3 tons per person. And I’m flying from DC to Atlanta to Houston and back this weekend. Ouch. As someone who studies life-cycle assessment, I’m aware that all the figures about what diet or habits are better for the environment can vary widely based on how you slice & dice the calculation, but it stings a little to think that perhaps one weekend could cancel out a number of the other actions I consciously undertake. More on this at another time, though.

For a week with few purchases, the delta list is more substantial than I anticipated, but I’m glad to see that there are things to reflect on regardless of how much I may or may not be consuming.

Have any of you learned something new this week?

Week-To-Week is a series consisting of reflections on purchases & daily events condensed on a weekly basis

 

s&s: animal, vegetable, miracle

Animal, Vegetable Miracle: A Year of Food Life | Barbara Kingsolver, Stephen L. Hopp & Camille Kingsolver

I thought I was going to go vegan in 2017.

I’ve been vegetarian for four years and generally eat a “whole foods, plant based” diet as they say. I suppose I’m a pretty standard vegetarian-that-might-turn-vegan candidate: I eat a lot of Greek yogurt, but don’t buy eggs; I would be okay giving up cheese – though pizza would look a little different then, wouldn’t it? I’ve teetered on the edge.

But, the book:

Before Christmas, I went and visited my grandmother and aunt to aid in the annual Christmas Cookie Baking Extravaganza. My grandmother’s Christmas cookies are a longstanding family staple, concocted from German family recipes passed down over the years. Their Thanksgiving arrival signals the beginning of the winter holiday season. This year it was my turn to help, as my cousins had gone the previous couple years.

As the three of us worked in the warm, fragrant kitchen, my grandmother & aunt began discussing this book, recommended it to me, and – lo and behold – it found its way into my Christmas package this year. And I’m so glad it did.

In summary, the book is a memoir of sorts, detailing the farm-to-fork adventures of author Barbara Kingsolver and her family. For one year, they vow to only consume food they either grew themselves or could obtain locally after moving to a farm in western Virginia. The book beautifully melded so many things I love or care about: communities, food, plants, conscious consumption, environmentalism & policy, to name a few.

Kingsolver et. al. highlighted the value (necessity, really) of investing in our local food economies. My vegetarianism was inspired by a desire to “eat more efficiently” by consuming foods lower on the food chain, thus requiring fewer resources to produce. However, I’d largely turned a blind eye to where those foods come from – which is often halfway around the world. Reading this book convinced me that I could “do more good” in my own eyes as a locavore vegetarian than a vegan, as there is not an abundance of easily available protein sources year round to support a vegan diet where I am. Obviously, everyone is free to make their own dietary decisions, but maintaining a vegetarian diet with a better focus on local foods seemed like the fit for me.

The authors weave this discussion of food economies with that of general consumption, and raise a number of great points as they get to know the people & fellow producers in their community. A common theme was the externalities of consumption, or the effects of an exchange experienced by a third party & not accounted for in the cost of an item or transaction:

“We have the illusion of consumer freedom, but we’ve sacrificed our community life for the pleasure of purchasing lots of cheap stuff. Making and moving all that stuff can be destructive: child labor in foreign lands, acid rain in the Northeast, depleted farmland, communities where the big economic engine is crystal meth. We often have the form of liberty, but not the substance” (152)

There was also a beautiful depiction of the love, care, and art associated with food production, and the intimate experiences we can have with our food through knowledge of or participation in its production. Their decision to eat seasonally meant that not all foods were available at all times, bringing new meaning to each season and the natural gifts that accompany them:

“Value is not made of money, but a tender balance of expectation and longing” (287)

Lastly, the book had an inherent call to action of responsibility at both the individual and collective level:

“Global scale alteration from pollution didn’t happen when human societies started using a little bit of fossil fuel. It happened after unrestrained growth, irresponsible management, and a cultural refusal to assign any moral value to excessive consumption” (345)

I really do think there’s a little bit of something for everyone in this book: those who garden, those who farm, those who are interested in learning more about where their food comes from, those intrigued by the intricate web of consumer transactions & policy, and most importantly those who eat. There are no all-or-nothing directives, simply lots of information incorporated into an enjoyable narrative.

If you’d like to learn more, there is a website associated with the book on which you can also find seasonal recipes and get a virtual tour of the farm.

Shelf & Screen is a series of reflections on various books & media addressing matters (directly & tangentially) associated with consumption & consumerism