Archive for January, 2008

499 Hermans and a Bob

Maggie opening a bag of wormsI don’t remember when I first heard about worm composting. I’m sure it happened the way most of my brilliant ideas do – the concept swirled around in my head for a few months until it was suddenly called to action. I went out and picked up a copy of the official Worm Bible, “Worms Eat My Garbage” by Mary Appelhof.

Mary maintains that worm composting is very simple. Give the worms what they need: a box in a warm (room temperature) place, bedding (shredded newspaper), food (your waste food scraps), and sometimes a little water. Voila! They will chomp through your potato peelings and produce beautiful worm castings (poop) and, well, more worms.

For those of us with a minimal sense of adventure, Mary provides detailed instructions on how to build and set up a worm bin. She even did a thorough scientific study of how much garbage worms can eat and encourages newbies to use a kitchen scale if they’re worried about underfeeding or overfeeding their worms.

So my dad helped me build a worm bin, back in 2004. My roommate at the time was very supportive, if a little reluctant to actually touch the worms. The worms – red wrigglers, to be precise – arrived by mail one afternoon in a paper bag tucked inside a box of straw. We opened the bag carefully and my roommate inquired if I intended to name them all. There were probably about 500 in the bag and I was feeling uncreative so I dubbed them all Herman. Except for the one named Bob, although he was soon lost in the crowd.

The worm bin was a great asset to apartment living except for the dreaded fruit fly incident of ’05. I have since learned that baking soda is a great remedy for controlling fruit fly episodes, although I have not tried it. When I moved to Oregon, the worm bin was passed on to my friend Sarah, whose cats enjoyed sitting on it for nearly two years. Last summer, the worm bin returned to me. It has languished unused in my parents’ garage for over a year. Now it is 2008 and I am determined to become a worm wrangler once more. I need to make a few upgrades to ye ol’ worm box, and it will be time to start again.

I think this time I’ll call them Esmerelda.

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A Dear John letter to tuna

Question canI hate to say this after all we’ve been through, tuna, but I’m ending this.  We had some good times over the years and I’ll always remember my dad’s chipped tuna on toast. More recently, you’ve been there when I needed to spruce up a sandwich or some pasta.

But with all that I’ve learned recently about mercury, I just don’t know if I can trust you anymore. I thought maybe I could work through this. I checked with Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood WATCH to see if I was wrong, but it’s all so confusing. Are you albacore? Skipjack? Hawaiian? Longline? I don’t know you anymore. I don’t even know for sure what it all means!

For a while, I fooled myself. I told myself that “dolphin safe” meant that you must be safe for me too. There’s just no way of knowing.

I can’t do a long-distance relationship anymore. I can’t stand not knowing. I’m going to find a nice, local beef or chicken. I know it’s no tuna, but you just don’t fit in among these Hoosiers.

If you ever get your act together and can let go of these secrets, talk to me. In the meantime, I hear that Indiana now has prawns

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Finding Fresh Farm Produce… In February

A woman from Heartland Family Farm with her roosterThe Bloomington Winter Farmers’ Market has started again and I am relieved to be able to chat with my favorite growers and pick up fresh, tasty foodstuffs. I only discovered the market last year after I started working for the Local Growers Guild, who took over the market last year. It’s one of the only winter markets in Indiana and one of only a handful of grower-run markets, even if you include summer markets.


So what is available in the frozen Midwest this time of year? Quite a surprising amount. Of course, there are certainly some staples that are available year round – eggs, meats, cheeses, honey – but there are also always fresh greens, winter squash, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, and other produce. I’ve been introduced to kale and chard over the last few years, two hardy winter greens that taste even better after a hard frost. I’m told Brussels sprouts are the same but Will is not a fan and I’m not sure I can eat a whole batch myself. There are also lots of great prepared foods at the market, from frozen tamales to handcrafted chocolates to apple pies.


I’m on the committee that runs the market and we’re working to help find more preserved foods to have at the market – frozen fruit, canned vegetables, salsa, canned or frozen soup, dried fruits or vegetables, etc. The challenge (or one of them anyway) is that health code requirements are very strict. Any produce that is “changed from its original state” – read “cut or frozen or peeled or dehydrated or cooked” – must be processed in a certified commercial kitchen and appropriately labeled with nutritional information and all that jazz. This is a huge obstacle for a lot of small farmers who would love to do *something* with their extra 50 pounds of tomatoes in the summer but do not have the time or money to rent a certified facility, take the proper trainings, and develop appropriate labels.


Luckily, we just got a grant to build a kitchen specifically designed for folks who only want to rent it for a couple hours at a time, complete with business training and support. It’s a project I’m super excited to be working on, although it is a lot of work. And in the meantime, I will continue to enjoy our market and its fabulous goat cheese, fresh-pressed apple cider, beautiful butternut squash, and heavenly salad mixes including greens I’ve never heard of that simply melt away the winter blues.

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New Zealand? No way!

For the past several months, Maggie and I have been asked where we plan to go on our honeymoon.  I suppose it’s the only obvious question left now that people can’t ask when we’re planning to get married (and nobody wants to know about the hassle of organizing the wedding).  And, for the past several months, we’ve been answering New Zealand!  Maggie has friends and relatives there, it’s a beautiful place, and the weather should be perfect in October.

Compass on a mapIn the past several days, we’ve discovered that we’re no longer very excited about NZ.  The lack of a definite agenda worries me a little (I’m easily bored and would prefer not to spend the honeymoon playing with my laptop).  But far and away the most troubling issue is the flight there.  16 hours in the air and a full day of travel on either end of the trip makes it much less appealing.  That’s also a lot of jet fuel to pump into the atmosphere.

Following our own advice on gifting, Maggie and I have started thinking more about experience honeymoons, like food-tasting through France or going to a B&B while learning to cobble.  What would you do, given two weeks of freedom?

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Choosing “Good” Food

Will eating a pizzaI didn’t used to care very much about what I ate. I always tried to eat basically healthy and my body has always been quick to correct me for gross violations (e.g. ice cream is not an acceptable dinner). But now I’ve started to look a little more closely at what goes into my body. There is a lot of conflicting nutritional information out there (Atkins? Vegetarianism? Traditional ethnic diets?) but I’m currently basing my diet on two general principles:

1. Eat food that is as close to its natural state as possible (whole foods).

2. Eat food that was produced using methods that I support by someone I know (local foods).

They can both be challenging and I am making lots of exceptions at the moment but it’s nice to have some guidelines, even if Will sometimes protests. Part of his concern is taste and the “fillingness” of the meals I cook. The other part is concern about higher prices, especially for items like meat and cheese where the local organic humanely-raised version tends to be much pricier than what one might find on sale at the grocery store meat counter. Admittedly, it’s easier for me since I’m not that much of a meat-eater to begin with. Still, I believe it’s entirely possible to satisfy carnivorous urgings while only eating local, organically raised meat and while staying within a reasonable budget. It won’t be the cheapest option. You could certainly eat cheaper by buying factory farmed meat on sale but for me, it’s worth a little extra to know that my meat comes from happy, healthy animals that were not filled with crazy hormones or antibiotics.

Eating more whole foods means spending more time cooking, which I usually enjoy but admit that sometimes it’s a pain. So I try to compromise; I don’t grind my own flour fresh from whole grains but I do try to buy whole wheat (or rye) flour that is unrefined and unbleached. I take the time to cook a whole chicken and then separate it out into chicken slices for sandwiches, chicken bits for casseroles, and chicken stock for making soup. It’s a fulfilling project when I have time. I’m also working to improve my cooking skills and to discover ways to make meals from whole foods that Will finds delicious and satisfying. (He’s doing the same although his goals are a little different than mine so he tends to focus on projects like baking the best biscuit or finding a cheap homemade substitute for tuna helper.)

Some of the tricks we’ve tried include casseroles and stir fry dishes that combine a relatively small amount of meat with an abundance of vegetables and starches, eating lots of local eggs, making good use of Will’s favorite starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots), and experimenting with different spice blends. We’re making steady progress. I’ve also learned to look the other way when Will pulls out a frozen pizza loaded with heavily processed sausage made from factory-farmed pigs and suspected carcinogens and says “Yum.” Marriage is supporting your partner and accepting his personal choices, even when they’re gross.

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Giving green

Green giftIt’s slightly past the prime gift-giving season, but Wise Bread has a good post up about green gifting strategies. It’s a nice basic overview, but two of my favorite strategies didn’t make the list.

I’ve found that most of the people I feel obligated to gift (friends, family, coworkers) are happy to sign up for a “gift pact.” Pick a rule that makes sense, like a dollar limit or a theme, and require that all gifts follow that rule. If you’re clever, you can get everyone to give green gifts without even talking about it! For example, your theme could be “an experience,” which encourages people to get services rather than goods. Or, you could make a rule about “nothing new.” Several members of my family have swapped lightly used items for Christmas in the past several years. For his birthday, I gave my brother an old video game that he wanted but that I’d already played through twice. He was just as happy as if he’d gotten a new game and I now have slightly less clutter.

For large groups, you can also cut down on consumption with a gift exchange rather than individual gifting. This might not seem literally as green, but even if there are only five of you, a gift swap means 15 fewer new items purchased! The actual act of swapping is also a lot of fun. Maggie’s family now has a tradition that involves unwrapping new presents or stealing already unwrapped ones and everyone loves it.

And if none of these strategies work, you can always get things that will help your recipients go greener. This year, Maggie and I got my brother and his fiancee an Earth Aid Kit. Not only will it reduce their footprint, it’ll also cut down on their utility bills. And that’s a present that any young couple would be happy to get!

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Arguing over food

People often say that money is the number one topic of marriage arguments. So far, at least, Maggie and I are pretty good about avoiding that pitfall. We have a central budget for shared expenses and can spend the rest of our money however we like as individuals. That works pretty well at the moment, since I make less and spend less, which makes our budgets proportionately equal.

Scant plateNo, what we mainly argue about is food. I’m definitely a meat and potatoes kind of guy. If a meal doesn’t have some kind of starch or serious protein, it just doesn’t fill me up. Maggie, on the other hand, figures the greener and crunchier the better. I’m also much less willing to spend extra money on organic food when a frozen pizza will work just as well.

Since moving in together, I’ve had to compromise more with my meals. Maggie won’t eat meat if it isn’t local or organic, so I’ve gotten pretty good at making breads and pasta-based dishes. I also learned early on to come up with secondary food sources in case one of Maggie’s meals just doesn’t quite do the job. The good news is that since we split the cooking relatively evenly, I have about as many leftovers as Maggie does. That gives me a good source of extra protein and Maggie a way of getting the veggies she craves.

Unfortunately, it often still seems easier to eat out. When we’re in a restaurant, I can get something meaty and Maggie can get something green (or local). We’re trying to fight that temptation, partly by making eating out part of our date budget.

Tonight, however, convenience got the best of us and we spent the evening out, first dining and then at the library. Of course, if this happens too often, maybe we will start arguing over money…

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It’s your idea (unless it works)

The green couple - Maggie and WillThis was not my idea. In fact, I’m not sure how the idea started. It might have begun when we were looking around for extra income beyond selling plasma or recycling the neighbor’s copper wiring. It might have been spurred by Will’s fascination of all thing Web 2.0 and his frustration with my utter lack of comprehension. (I can never remember if Web 2.0 is the old stuff or the new stuff.)

I think it may have been a combination of two events – Will reading an article about the fabulous blogging life and me lamenting that I didn’t feel experienced enough to live my dream of being a sustainable lifestyle consultant .

“You know, you could start by writing a blog about living sustainably. Ooh, or we could write one together! We could talk about our quest to live sustainably as a young, poor, soon-to-be-married couple,” he said.

“Who on Earth would read it?” I replied.

“Well, that depends on how good your writing is. I’m sure lots of people would read *my* articles.”

Gritting my teeth, I sat down at the keyboard and promptly cranked out a couple dozen articles – my experience composting with a worm bin, my futile attempts introduce low-impact beans & rice dishes into our dinner rotation, my confusion about whether it is better to live car-free in the city or homestead in the country, my endless quest to keep up with my reputation for environmentalism… He wrote three articles and declared the project a success.

So here we are. We have about nine months until we’re officially married but we already live together. We’re slowly transitioning to a greener, simpler lifestyle in tune with our values, our budget, and our creative abilities. A compact fluorescent light bulb here, a back porch tomato plant there. Did I mention that my engagement ring is a bicycle? (And yes, I love it.) We’re learning lots about each other as we go. Luckily, our strengths seem to complement each other. I have more of a background in green living and am more likely to embrace “radical” hippie techniques; he is willing to do the research and help us make the best choice when the options are unclear.

This blog is a record of our journey together as we join paths towards enlightenment or at least happiness, fulfillment, and pride in a life well lived. I expect the topics will range widely with everything from eating organically on a tight budget to increasing the energy efficiency of our rental apartment to finding useful and meaningful work. We want to share our experiences and let you know exactly what worked and what didn’t. The “no flush” water conservation method? So far so good. Cloth toilet paper? Well, we haven’t tried it yet but I’m willing to make the effort in the name of science.

Perhaps this blog will also lead to fame and fortune but that’s not really my goal right now. It wasn’t my idea but I’ve become very fond of the idea of sharing my knowledge and dreams and radical bathroom experiments with the world. Besides, there’s probably no one out there reading. Is there?

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