"Okay, Ryan, you told Toby that Creed has a distinct old man smell?"

Today I bought a pound each of sunflower seeds and cranberry beans, two pounds of Thompson midget (dwarf? miniature? I can’t remember) raisins, two pounds of mung beans, two pounds of extra-thick rolled oats, four figs (at Sophie’s request), and four pieces of organic black licorice.

The total came to $5.54 for this food.

I am learning things daily now that I don’t cook meat. For instance – did you know that when you get those big sprouts on your salad or on top of your noodle bowl – the whitish yellow ones – they are usually mung bean sprouts? Did you know these beans are grown predominantly in China and in the states, Oklahoma (another punch to the groin of any 100-mile diet ambition)? Did you know even though I now have mung beans I will never make daal, because it’s tasteless ass?

My children are accompanying me on learning new ways to buy, store, and prepare food. Today I was pleased Sophie recognized the figs she likes: fully 1/2 of the bulk food available at The Marketplace are things I have never tried! Some things I have and found worthless (carob, bee pollen, any kind of “natural” refined-sugar substitute), many others I am slowly learning the skills to prepare. But as I more earnestly throw myself into preparing delicious, nutritious, environmentally-friendly and economical food I really hope my children don’t view these foods – as I did and sometimes do – as tasteless “health” staples that lack flavor and texture (P.S. extra big “fuck you” to carob, I am not interested in losing my bigotry there). I like the idea my children really will know what these foods are, even if they don’t care for some of them. Fuck you carob. Again.

I am determined not to go overboard and invest in any fancy-assed veggie accoutrement and yes, that includes not even buying large, inexpensive glass jars to hippie-display my beans and grains in (by the way, beans really are beautiful – I can see the temptation). Right now anyway we have a hierarchy of what’s needed for our food and sundry. Our kitchen is lacking in general dishes, especially plates: we have a grand total of seven. Payday on Monday and Ralph has (sort of) given me permission to buy a few place settings. Whee!

and the hits keep coming

I would have never have anticipated how going vegetarian would disrupt my family in any way, but it turns out a five year old child notices a lot of stuff and asks a lot of questions. First there was last night, where as we passed the fridge case of hotdogs et cetera I commented – out loud, but almost to myself – I would no longer buy those products as I am a vegetarian.

Sophie asks: “Why?”
Mama (pause): “Because they are mean to the animals before they kill him.” (our family is OK with the killing and my children know this is how it goes down).
Sophie, looking intently into my face with wide-kitten eyes: “Are you nice to animals?”
Mama (nervously): “Well, I guess.”
Sophie, pause, then: “I will be nice to animals too.”
Mama (amused): “Oh, you’re going to be a vegetarian too?”
Sophie (finite): “Yes.”

Very tender, no? THREE MINUTES LATER as we pass the bacon Ralph makes a comment about bacon and Sophie goes nuts:

Sophie (wild, scrabbing motions with her claws): “Bacon bacon I love bacon so much it’s so good! I want some bacon!”
Mama (laughing): “Oh! You just told me you were a vegetarian now.”
Sophie, stunned: “Bacon isn’t meat!” (betrayal, confusion in her eyes)
Mama: “Yes it is.”
Sophie (after a beat): “Bacon is the only meat I eat.”

Now how many adult vegetarians have said the same thing?

And today, on the drive home from school – the issue of McDonalds, which has become an issue since we moved here and was not one before:

Sophie, smiling coyly: “Daddy, I see it.”
Ralph: “Oh, McDonalds?”
Sophie: “Yeah, we should go there!” (As though Ralph had just suggested it!)
Ralph: “You know, I don’t really like their food. It makes me feel sick. I liked their food when I was little but I don’t anymore.”
Sophie: “Oh, daddy. That’s just pretend!”
Ralph: “What’s pretend?”
Sophie: “Real life is not the like movies, daddy.” (oddly, astutely, referring to Fast Food Nation, although we have not given one lecture on the subject but she did watch the film with us).
Ralph: “Unless it is a documentary.”
Sophie (condescending laughter): “Oh daddy! I was just joking.”
Ralph: “If you want to go, find someone to take you, baby.”
Sophie: “It makes Mama sick, too. I know! Grandpa can take me to McDonalds!!!”

A few minutes later at home she is sitting down with Nels and I. “Thank you for lunch,” she tells me as she tucks in (Sophie’s pronunciation of the word is more like “lunkchs” and I will be very sad when she pronounces it correctly). She pauses, soup up to her lips. “Is this a nice lunch?”

I don’t need to elaborate further. This discussion is not one I chose for us but Sophie has grasped the import of my lifestyle change and I’m not sure what to tell her. I am not going to give her a fussy, holier-than-thou vegetarian tirade. Absolutely as a parent it is my choice to not bring certain foods into my home. I mean that is our job; left to their own our children might ask for a steady diet of popcorn, candy and ice cream if we let them. My concern is their accidental misplacement of my moral code as their own and any time this threatens I get nervous, with good reason or without I do not know.

Tonight I made two kinds of vegetarian calzones (recipe pending) and the kids ate up. I know I’m feeding them properly (even well-meaning friends and family have immediately been asking me, “Are you finding your kids protein sources?” I believe because their is an age-old Western bias that being veggie means you are exposing yourself to weakness and disease) I just don’t want them to mistake my preference and choices for theirs.

Hopefully in short order our changes will seem less novel and we can go on like we usually do, existing and cooking and living our lives as fun as we have them.

"You’ve got 15 minutes to shove pie down your hole then it’s camper time!"

So, I’ve decided to go vegetarian. Sort of. And no, I don’t mean “except for bacon”.

It’s been a long time coming. I don’t want to bore you with my reasons but my decision was precipitated by watching Fast Food Nation the other night and it’s my simple truth that eating meat – as it’s produced by most methods in this country – is just fucking vile. Vile for us, the animals, the planet, everyone involved except maybe those who make good, good money in the industry.

Now, here comes my “sort of” – if I can find meat that is raised healthily and killed “humane”ly (yes, there really are better and worse ways for these animals to die) – I will gladly purchase this meat and cook it, with my blessings. Since I don’t know what we have here – even at the lovely Michael’s Meats in Aberdeen – I am cooking vegetarian until I can buy into a pig or whatever! This is basically a COUNTDOWN TO BACON, but meanwhile I’m going to be pretty damn busy planning food for my family.

Because this makes my already challenging cooking-from-scratch-for-four (plus guests) difficulties a little more… tricky. Here’s how I was raised: you assemble dinner by cooking a meat, a “starch”, a vegetable. Sure, I cook vegetarian fare now and again but it’s a lark, a money-saver, not something I do daily. When I cooked vegetarian food more often it was still “assembled” around soy, usually tofu. And I don’t want to tofu-out our asses as I’ve seen many a vegan / vegetarian do; studies are finding out nor should we rely extensively on processed “meat”-like products to live a vegetarian lifestyle.

Last night we had spaghetti squash with butter, home-canned tomato sauce and parmesan cheese, roasted garbanzo beans, and a simple cucumber salad. I was thrilled, and I mean thrilled, to see my children eat this meal happily (and not trouble about the fact there has been no meat in this house for a few days), but it’s not unexpected either; I’ve been cooking lots of vegetables and cooking from scratch ever since they were born. My husband supports my choice as well. And damn, anyone in my family is free to go pursue their meat-laden dreams somewhere else if they’d like to.

For now: making a list – which I shall soon post here – of this week’s menu and grocery list. P.S. I do not have the grocery money for this yet! Wish me luck.

Loaves and Fishes. Except not Fishes.

Grocery Opus, Week 2: The topic of discussion is bread.

In recent years there have been some times in our life where our family eats nearly a loaf a day. This is usually due to the following two factors: 1. a lack of planned snacks or lunches, and 2. a proclivity towards toast for morning breakfasts (my husband’s doing mostly).

Knowing this, as I embarked on my once-a-week plan I could not quite bring myself to buy several loaves for the week. A side note: it is comforting knowing that should I choose to do so, I could put loaves in the freezer. Bread doesn’t last forever in a freezer, but under a week is perfect. Simply put the loaf in as-is (no additional wrapping), and take it out for an overnight thaw. This includes dinner rolls, hamburger buns – anything at all bread-like. This is also a great idea for appetizers or snack breads (my bruschetta could use a stored loaf, either whole or pre-cut) in case you ask company over for the next day.

The first and second weeks I followed through on the once-a-week plan, I simply bought one loaf of bread. I thought – well, I thought I would run out of this bread and bake more. As it turned out, with the substitution of other items for snacks (veggie sticks and hummous, tuna noodle casserole, biscuits with hard-boiled eggs) we did not in fact eat as much bread. This helps bolster a point: some things we think we need (and therefore buy in quantity), are actually only self-perpetuating habits (this is also my theory as to why bulk-Costco shopping does not in fact save a great deal of money; or at least, that the savings are countermanded by the increased consumptive rate the buying often fosters).

The last couple weeks I have bought one loaf of bread and have only baked two batches of biscuits to supplement. Given we have discovered bread is not a daily need, it makes it all the more likely we will be encouraged to make bread from scratch. And at $3 – $4 a loaf, losing out on a couple loves a week from the grocery bill is a bonus.

Here is Week #2’s shopping list:

1 head red leaf lettuce
1 head romaine lettuce
1 lb. fresh green beans
1 bunch celery
1 small head cabbage
5 lbs. clementines
2 lbs. carrots
4 oz. sprouts
2 cucumbers
large jar pickles
tostada shells
1 1/2 lb. pistachios
2 pounds vine tomatoes
2 lbs. boneless skinless chicken breast
2 lbs. extra-lean hamburger meat, all natural
1 can each tomato sauce, petite diced, and tomato paste
2 cans coconut milk
2 cans baby corn
1 can medium olives
2 lbs. angel hair pasta (buy one get one free)
2 lbs. raisins
5 lbs. all-purpose flour
baking powder
salt and pepper shakers
1 lb. frozen peas
2 lbs. oven fries, frozen
1 bag potato chips
1 pound butter
18 eggs
2 lbs. extra sharp cheddar cheese
8 oz. shaved parmesan
1/2 pound swiss cheese
1/2 pound deli ham, all-natural
1 gallon organic milk
1 quart half and half
1 package sourdough hoagies
4 hamburger buns, 100% whole wheat
12 pack Red Hook beer
Glad Press-N-Seal wrap
3 bars coconut castille soap

The total came to $154.

because, you know, you all GIVE a shit about what we eat.

I am feeling duty-bound to report occasionally following up my grocery opus from the other day (thanks to those four people who actually trudged their way through that one, by the way!). So far we are well-fed, our fridge is tidy, and I have bought nothing – not even a cup of coffee or one roll – from a store since Sunday.

I am devoting less time mentally (and yes, emotionally), physically, and financially to food, without sacrificing the quality of what we eat. Yet, I have to reorient myself in small ways. Today in my two-hour break between being home from playschool and leaving on a trip with a friend, I had to cook a lunch (broccoli from Sunday night’s dinner with homemade ceasar dressing, hardboiled egg, and cheese cubes), then rinse and soak beans for tonight. I also made up fresh biscuits, slathered mustard and stuffed with corned beef, and prepared carrot sticks (for Sophie and I on our trip). These food errands while juggling kids, doing dishes, washing and folding laundry, helping my children clean their room, serving lunch, cleaning up after lunch and putting my son to bed, and assimilating freshly-washed hand-me-downs into their closets while winnowing out the grow-out for other families. I ain’t saying it wasn’t fun; it was. But the food preparation and cleanup this entailed when I normally would have grabbed a sandwich from a deli (and while I was there, bought a Vietnamese coffee. and some spicy pepperoni. and…) required an adjustment.

There have been only a few hiccups in our meal plan. Tonight my husband does not succeed in cooking the beans for dinner long enough (I had left instructions but somehow he didn’t get it) so at 7 PM they still needed another hour and we were already late for dinnertime (read: kids were gnawing on the table legs and, occaisonally, each other). Normally we have canned refried beans so to graduate to dried-and-soaked ones is still new. However! I had one large can in the pantry (as he pointed out) so those were heated while the whole ones were cooked and preserved in the freezer for a dinner next week.

Tomorrow we have enough dinner to invite a friend; I do. She’s bringing fresh, delicious beer from our favorite brewery. For now: a cuddle with my daughter and Season 2 Disc 2 of NBC’s “The Office”.

prepare to grab at your chest, because I am going to bore the tits off you.

I’m going to warn you – this will be a long, laborious, boring entry to many. The truth is, though, a few people write me every week or two to praise my efforts and chronicles of being a housewife and to appreciate my writing. Some of them, yes, are even impressed with my career advances in housewifery! (these are the ones that don’t live near me where they can see the broken dryer in my driveway, the holes in my socks, and the state of my lawn!)

So anyway. I am responsible for (at least) four people’s every piece of nutritional intake, three meals a day plus desserts, snacks, and beverages. Every day, 7 days a week (minus a few of my husband’s would-be clandestine hot dogs at, yes, the Safeway gas station! Jesus.). It took me a while to figure out how phenomenal this responsibility is; but now I truly get it. This week I am offering up both my philosophy and a few practical approaches to feeding a family good food.

As a rule, I try to eschew the more typical views: that food is something incidental, something we deserve convenience with, and something that should only consume a miniscule amount of our financial resources (look it up: in most other parts of the world 70% is a more realistic figure). Neither do I believe food should be the obsessive enterprise in our life or that orgiastic pleasure should be achieved each dinner. I believe there is an art and a science to feeding a family in the way that works best for the family. I am seeking out methods that are economical and embrace both my talents and my personal values – nutritional, social, environmental, and ethical.

My personal pitfalls are not lack of skill nor tiring of the job. I love cooking from scratch and can’t remember the last time I opened up a can of soup nor bought ready-made frosting. My struggles usually deal with thinking too much on food and making my day in large part about mulling over recipes, securing the groceries, and making the time to cook. What I’d prefer is to feed the family well, to spend money on products we believe in without using the purchase as a “shopping spree”, and to spend less time thinking about food (what to make, when to make it, how much is left, etc).

A couple years ago I attempted to buy groceries for the week. I fell prey to two common problems with this approach. The first is this: if you don’t follow your plan to the letter, you often end with extra food (in raw form or leftovers), food you ultimately end up throwing out. The second potential difficulty is if you schedule meals you aren’t that excited about cooking or eating, you will not enjoy the experience and you will start to – you got it, think about food some more. Two other potential negative aspects of this approach to note: it elminates meal spontanaety to some extent, and the other partner, if you have one, may have difficulty stepping in and making the meal(s) you’d planned.

However, in the last couple years since I last tried weekly buying, I have learned a few tricks. So the last week and this I felt emboldened to try the method again.* Here is how I went about it.

First, a few days ago I re-organized my pantry. This experience was actually pleasant for me as I discovered I really used most of the food in my house – there were no cans of this-or-that, no stale spices, no random baking ingredients, no processed pasta helpers or pudding mixes (incidentally, the intimate knowledge of and use of my own pantry is one of the tricks I learned over the last two years). It took me about thirty minutes to get my pantry, refrigerator, and freezer in good order; mostly, it was in good order because I use it a lot and have been slowly weaning myself from unneccesary items.

So now I knew what I had in my house. I knew exactly what kind of dried beans I had, how many cans of tomato sauce, and what the status was on the baking powder. I had an organized and uncluttered fridge and freezer (the freezer becomes important, as you will see). From there, it was very easy to come up with a week menu – considering first any perishable groceries needing to be consumed (in my case, four pounds of corned beef from a favorite market, a bag of baby spinach, an opened can of coconut milk), thinking on the pantry items (the cashews would make a good match with a savory Asian dish; my mom’s home-canned tuna should be considered), and consolidating ingredients for the week into more than one meal (for instance, my favorite red sauce recipe makes up enough for two dinners). I made a simple grid of six days and wrote out the dinner plan (no fine details).

Now, at this point I had to think of breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and beverages (by this I mean alcoholic, and we limit ourselves to beer and wine). My goal is not to eat out or shop again until Saturday, when my husband and I have our date. In any case with this method you want to have some snack ideas so you don’t fall prey to ordering a pizza at 2:30 in the afternoon when your energy is shot and everyone’s crabby and dinner is a few hours away (or is this just me that does this?). Thinking of all this extra food in addition to dinners sounds terrifying but it’s really not. If you eat large family dinners, you probably eat leftovers the next day and mostly snack for lunch and have easy breakfasts. As long as you keep some staples in your house, you only need to think of fresh snack ideas you may enjoy over the week – items like fruit, lunch meat, maybe soup ingredients. List these breakfast, lunch, and snack ideas – the ones both in your pantry (for instance, cornbread or oatmeal cookies) and the ones you plan to buy – in another column next to your week’s dinners. Add any appropriate items to your shopping list.

Finally, you should think on any household sundries you may want to buy from your store – toothpaste, laundry soap, light bulbs, etc. Add these to your shopping list.

Now you have a menu and a shopping list (you can take both to the store). Here is my week’s menu:

Now, I am familiar enough with shopping that I write the list in the order the ingredients are laid out in the store. After I have the list, the family loads up for our shopping trip. Making the menu, the list, and buying the groceries took about one hour. Here was what we bought:

1 head red leaf lettuce
2 lbs. carrots
8 jalapenos
1 spaghetti squash
2 shittake mushrooms
4 granny smith apples
1 bunch celery
1 can tomato sauce
1 can petite dice tomatoes
1 can tomato paste
2 cans green beans
1 package spring roll wraps
1 lb. organic tofu, firm
1 package rotille pasta
1 large canister oatmeal
four-pack Guinness
4 Port Townsend Brewery beers
1 lb. coffee from Sunrise Coffee (local)
Large sour cream
2 lbs. butter
2 gallons milk
2 lbs. extra sharp cheese
1 jar peanut butter (no added ingredients)
1 package frozen steak fries
1 lb. ground pork (all natural)
1 lb. leanest ground beef (all natural)
1 loaf bread (whole wheat)
4 hamburger buns (100% whole wheat)
seasoning salt
tinfoil (100 ft reynold’s wrap)
12 roll toilet paper
package of 2 pastry brushes

The total was $127.

When I got home and before I put groceries away, I cleaned the fridge of anything from last week that wouldn’t be used. This only turned out to be about 1/2 cup of taco meat, two servings of peanut sauce, and some leftover hot cereal. Anything still edible (say, last night’s dinner) was already parsed into leftover servings and on the top shelf where my husband can retrieve it (by the way; he is instructed to take the leftovers to work and, if he doesn’t eat them, to dispose of them and bring back clean
dishes. I don’t care if he eats them or not, although he usually does – I just don’t want to be stacking up leftovers all week long
.) The groceries are then put away.

The freezer deserves a tangential mention here. My freezer is 40% full of whole grains and flours. Besides these items and ice cubes, I freeze in very small spurts of time – a few days for meat, a few days for bread. So the pork and hamburger I bought today will spend a couple days in the freezer and be taken out the day before I cook them. This is mostly psychological so I’m not seeing red meat in the fridge for a few days and worrying about it. We make bread in our home, but it is good to have some in the freezer if you anticipate running out and don’t want to do another store run (where you are guaranteed to come home $30 short for “just a loaf of bread”). I also buy butter when it’s on sale to freeze (we are a no-margarine zone) and I freeze items like homemade frosting that are often put up in large batches. It takes time to know what freezes well (and by “well” I mean effortlessly, with no double-wrapping bullshit). I am not a big Freezer Fanatic but I have learned to use it and keep on top of it.

Back to this week. These groceries and this amount of money (along with what I have in my pantry) will keep my husband in lunches at his work (mostly leftovers, as is his preference) and supply lunch, breakfast, and homemade non-processed foods for our week, as well as our liquor bill in its entirity. It also will (hopefully) afford me a significant less amount of time in THINKING and PLANNING food (because I did this today). All in all, I spent 1 1/2 – 2 focussed hours on this project and I won’t have to shop again this week.

That’s as clear as I feel like making it. If you should decide to try some of these ideas, here are a few more tips:

1. Make one of your primary goals to KNOW what food you have in your home and how much of it you have. Maybe this seems daunting; it used to be to me. Grab the courage to throw out things you don’t use, or use them up and don’t buy them again until you plan on using them. I also posit this sort of mental inventory is much easier for someone who is primarily a homemaker and not an earner. If you are tracking a full workday or share cooking and buying duties you will have to be more creative in making this happen.

2. Make your secondary goals to A. NOT throw out food, and B. Enjoy the food you eat. This also is tricky; often people going for the weekly shopping will at first try to be economical. A small grocery bill doesn’t make up for three days of whats-it “healthy” casseroles or many reheats of the same soup (individual family preferences vary here).

3. Consider shopping at one grocery store, if there is one you like to support (even if prices aren’t rock-bottom – remember, your time is worth something, not to mention your petrol!). Multiple trips to different stores mean you will likely tire of the exercise and increase the likelihood you will make impulsive buys.

4. On your weekly grocery trip, stick to the list. Even if you see lovely seasonal tupperware or a yummy tea – do NOT buy it. Tell yourself that if you really want this thing you will put it on the next list (next week). A little longing never hurt anyone – and impulsive shopping adds up.

5. Caveat to rule #4 – you can deviate a bit from your list (celery was on sale today). A bit. Now, PUT THE ITEM YOU BOUGHT ON YOUR LIST. Take it home and make mental (or written) inventory. You should have only bought one or two “extra” things.

6. Post a similar menu as the one above up on your fridge. This will release you from thinking about what to cook, it will remind you of what ingredients you have (esp. the perishable items), and enable others to help you cook if you feel burnout during your week.

7. Streamline what’s in your kitchen by learning to cook from scratch. Keep condiments down. A fridge full of condiments that don’t get used creates a cluttered fridge that you won’t really enjoy looking in. Just like your pantry and freezer, know and use what’s in the fridge.

And finally, a few evaluation tools at the end of the week:

1. How much did you enjoy what you ate?

2. Did you throw any food out?

3. What did you do with the time you would have spent at the grocery store or thinking of what to eat? Did you find yourself thinking of the meal plan or could you release that concern?

4. How much did you spend? What did this compare to previous weeks?

5. How happy were you with the leftovers? Were those eaten happily or did you make too much? Not enough?

6. What did your family think of your meals? Did your partner (if you have one) step in and help?

Finally – I encourage you to gauge your success not by what your grocery bill is per week. Grocery bills are useless to compare because each family has different members, different values in terms of food quality (local and fresh or not; organic or non; vegetarian or non, etc). However, this method will enable you to KNOW more about what you spend since you will have one ticket per week.

Good luck and let me know how it goes!

* I chose a weekly frequency but you could buy for two weeks or more. I like the relative spontaneity a week plan affords me and I also don’t want to look at a packed fridge at the beginning of the food term. This method keeps my fridge rather svelte.