week 05: better late than never

It’s already Wednesday, meaning I’m a bit late getting around to writing this update and struggling to remember what exactly happened this past week. In light of the fact I’m also getting over a mystery stomach bug and trying not to inhale a can of ginger ale as I sit here (easier said than done when all you’ve eaten in the last day is a bunch of crackers and some peanut butter… and the ginger ale tastes so good), maybe I’ll just leave you with a few photos of things that made this past week a good one.

An event put on by the Science Policy Advocacy Group at UNC to discuss how elections influence science & environmental policy. While there were plenty of things to not be excited about, it was encouraging to see the turnout & know that this is not an isolated group. As one of the panelists said “I imagine this room is replicated at universities across the country”. I’m sure he’s right.

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A Thursday mentoring meeting in which we ditched the school building and opted to do some painting instead. Trying not to spill blue paint everywhere seems to build relationships a bit better than multiplication tables, as important as they may be.

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Bread that didn’t turn out quite as planned, thanks to some less-than-fresh yeast, but still filled our apartment with warm, welcome winter aromas. Even if it’s actually close to 60 degrees outside.

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Plus:

  • Found some nice, large glass jars at a yard sale on Sunday – perfect for storing grains & other bulk-aisle items. They have a plastic seal, so still working on getting rid of the lingering smells of peppermint and Smarties.
  • Visited Yellow Dog Bread Co. on First Friday and spoke with a rep from Compost Now, a compost collection service here in the Triangle area. Came away with a couple cookies (yum) and some flower seeds (yay).
  • I’m a little shy when it comes to sharing things I write, but decided to go for it & shared one of my latest posts on social media. It may seem like a little thing, especially in an age of digital communication, but one that took a little bit of working up to. For those who read it & responded, thanks for your kind words!

Delta:

  • The weather here has been unreal for February, but I’m still doing a poor job of actually biking places. I had an elaborate plan to bike to school, a meeting, and then to the city council meeting yesterday, but my gastrointestinal system had other plans so that got nixed.
  • Still working on navigating the farmers market and then “how do I decide what booth to buy from”question, as well as remembering to volunteer the fact I have my own bag as to not continue acquiring plastic ones.

But, that should do it for this week. If nothing else, I can check the box for “I wrote something for this week” and can be a bit more thorough next time.

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

 

january in photos

Happy February! My January, as told in purchases, looked something like this:

(Not Pictured: 2 produce boxes, 2 gas fill ups, 2 half gallons of milk & 1 taco dinner @ Virgil’s)

I went back and forth about posting all these pictures – something about it seemed to enter into a level of intimacy not to be shared with strangers on the internet – but decided they tell the story about as well as (or better than) I could with words, so here they are.

Upon inspection, it becomes clear that almost everything I purchased was related to food or transportation, with a few miscellaneous things tossed in. This would also explain why, though I’m not writing a food blog by any means, matters of food seem to sneak into my posts more often than other topics – though I have so many other things I’d like to write about at some point.

This first month wasn’t especially difficult – though I am quick to acknowledge I’m only responsible for myself and not another person or family, and have the flexibility offered by a student schedule, albeit busy. The primary challenge was combating the urge to frequent the grocery store, or remembering to check and see if an item I need is sold in bulk in the area. Having jars on hand for stops for bulk items is another habit change to make.

Things to Celebrate

  • Food Sourcing: Overall, I generally stuck to my goal of buying farmers market, local, or bulk foods with a couple exceptions. By not frequenting the grocery store, I didn’t find myself making extra purchases of sale items on the basis of “I’ll use that up, eventually”; it’s true – I would – but it’s also an action that speaks to a lack of mindfulness in consumption. Frugal, perhaps, but not mindful. It’s also increased my awareness of what really is in season produce wise, and eating more seasonally-focused meals. Shout-out to sweet potatoes for being in season year round here in the top sweet potato producing state, North Carolina.
  • Trying New Things: Before this month, I had never made my own yogurt or pasta from scratch (I’ve made käsespätzle – what might be described as “fancy german mac & cheese” but that’s a different excerise. On a sidenote, y’all may get a kick out of this video of a woman preparing the dish with a finesse unlike anything I’ve ever seen). Sometimes all it takes is a little nudge to do something different, and this challenge has certainly provided that. I may find that some DIY things are simply impractical, but others are totally doable & I’m looking forward to making them part of a routine.
  • Target: I’ll be honest, I enjoy Target. Not that I frequently buy things on a whim there, but trips to Target for staples like TP or soap often involve perusing of the clearance racks. My only trip to Target this month was actually to make a return on a pair of shoes I bought for a wedding in December but didn’t end up wearing. Target, looks like our relationship from here on out may be a bit strained.

Things to Work On

  • Bike More: This may seem like a ridiculous suggestion for February, but NC weather is totally unpredictable, and it’s far from unheard of to have freezing temperatures and temperatures in the 60s or 70s in the same week. This being said, it’s hard to develop a routine of biking, but it is easy to get stuck in the routine of driving. So here’s to seizing the inevitable not-so-chilly days.
  • Meal Planning: As it turns out, I’ve stocked up on a lot of freezer and dry foods over time, like beans and bread. This has been great for this month, since I could usually find something between those items and our produce box to pull together a decent meal or snack. Eventually, however, there won’t be a bag of pretzels hanging out in the pantry, so I’ll have to decide what things I want to continue to get from the grocery store, what things I want to make, & what to get from the farmers market – then plan accordingly.
  • Time Online: Though it’s not related to purchases, I suppose conscious consumerism could be broadened to incorporate the conscious consumption of information. It’s all to easy to get sucked in to all the news (real and fake), opinions, politics, and clever memes associated with the happenings of the day. I think it would be wise to limit time spent subjecting myself to this information to certain times of the day to prevent it from overflowing into work & leisure time.

What’s Next?

Moving forward, I’m think of other ways to quantify consumption outside of dollar values. I’m thinking things like miles driven or trips to the store. Or perhaps metrics that capture the absence of conventional consumption: books read, board games played, meals cooks, dinners shared, and so on. While numbers are so often considered objective, I’ve learned that the mere act of collecting certain data is an inherent value judgement. Perhaps if we placed more of an emphasis on tracking the things that we like or want to see, we could change our mentalities and the lens through which we see the world a bit.

It’s quite the open-ended question, and if you have any ideas I’m all ears.

Here’s to a happy & productive February! It’ll be all eyes on our friend Punxsutawney Phil tomorrow.

 

 

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

 

week 01: can i blame barbara?

January is now well underway. As I write, it’s a chilling 12 degrees outside and everything is coated in a substantial layer of ice. Serious winter weather in Raleigh is a big-to-do as it’s not a common enough occurrence to warrant undertaking the same preparation as cities in the Northeast, but I frankly find it much more dangerous as any snow is usually bookended by an onslaught of freezing rain & ice.

In any case, I’m generally pleased with how this first week has gone. I’ve managed to not buy anything new, but have acquired some new (to me) items that, on some level, seemed a little ridiculous: a pasta press & kitchen thermometer.

I’ve began the year under the spell of Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I wrote about last week. So much of the book resonated with some of my “do it yourself” spirit, which informed a couple of my purchases.

I had some thank you notes to send out & needed stamps, but the post office was closed for lunch when I arrived. I killed some time wandering through the nearby shopping center and found myself in the thrift shop looking for some cloth napkins to supplant my use of paper ones, but instead came away with a $10 Atlas pasta press. Did I need a pasta press? No. Was I imagining a bustling kitchen of friends on a chilly evening cranking out pasta and sitting down to enjoy the fruits of our labor? Yes. So I made a deal with myself that I’d work to make that image a reality and bought the thing, with a small twinge of regret.

I’ve also been inspired to make my own yogurt – apparently it’s relatively easy.  I can get milk in returnable glass bottles at the grocery supplied by a local dairy (their ice cream is excellent), cutting down on waste. This, however, requires a thermometer to ensure the milk heats enough to thicken properly, and I found one on the used section of Amazon after scouring craigslist and some other forums. It was due in this weekend, but the weather has postponed the delivery. I also need some kind of straining material, but instead of buying cheesecloth or a nut bag, I will try an old t-shirt or a tea towel first. There’s one purchase averted (for now)!  I’ll let y’all know how the yogurt making adventure goes.

In both cases, these items were certainly not necessities. However, they are both a means to an ends, reusable, and purchased with a purpose and intent to use. The goal of this project is not to facilitate a sense of guilt when purchasing certain things (or things at all) so I can’t let that feeling become a shadow over every transaction I make.

Here are a few more thoughts from the week:

Plus

  • Visited the farmers market and spent a while speaking with Suzanne, the matron of a meat farm in the area who was running the market-front for a small cooperative selling meat, milk, eggs, and some of the best goat cheese I’ve ever tasted.
  • All but one of the food items I purchased this week came from the farmers market, our produce box, or the bulk section of the grocery store
  • I largely avoided using paper towels
  • Didn’t run out to the grocery store immediately after getting back to Raleigh and instead worked with what I had. I surprised and impressed myself with a tasty sweet potato sage pasta.

Delta

  • Probably should have sprung for the Chobani single size yogurt cup I bought as a starter for my homemade yogurt attempt (forthcoming) after learning about the company’s efforts to help with refugee resettlement.
  • Felt that the pasta press was a frivolous purchase, but do intend to use it and know that it’s an item from which other experiences and memories may come (wow, that sounds cheesy). Plus, it was an incredible find.

Hope your 2017 is off to a good start! If you have any New Year’s resolutions (consumption related or otherwise) I’d love to hear them.

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