Friday, February 27, 2015

Thinking about skyrocketing food costs

Friday's are my Priest Saturday.  It's my big day off.  Since my husband works a normal week, it means I get to be a bum and sleep in and lie around like a slug for a few hours.  And then I get up and get down to buisness. On Fridays, I usually tidy and clean and cook.  Since today is the last Friday of the month, it also means I balance the bank account and start planning next month's budget and think about food stuff.  

Today I'm also going to make a nice meal for dinner.  You know, with candles and stuff.  And I'm pretty sure I'll make something amazing out of what we have in the house.  Yesterday, as we were walking home from a movie (I had gotten free tickets so we decided to make a date night of it), we were remarking on the insane costs of eating out and then M wanted to stop by the grocery store to buy food.  I managed to argue him down by reciting all the food we currently had in our house, and by correctly deducing that he was just hungry and his brain wanted gummy frogs for a snack.  I got him home before he starved to death on the sidewalk and he made a late night nosh.  Whew.  Dodged that bullet.  

I will say that ever since he started this vegan challenge, he really is being more creative with food.  He likes the Thug Kitchen cookbook a lot- perhaps because of all the swear words and the fact that it's written by men and not by a sweet vegan chick who likes flowers and stuff? (I'm all over the flowers and sunshine, but that's me.) For him, changing his thinking around easy food will be his big struggle.  He tends to forget all the food we have in the fridge and pantry and go out and buy new food.  

When we were both in grad school, we used to play a game called "eat down the pantry". Near the end of the month when money was tight, we tried to see who could make more complete meals out of pantry food.  Since I tend to stock it with staples like canned tomatoes and beans, I usually won.  Nothing left but noodles, tomatoes, beans, flour, and spice? (And odds and ends of random fridge veggies like kale and carrots?) That's either pasta with rolls, stir fry, or tacos.  M would probably make soup. That dude could live on soup.  

But lately I've been thinking more about food. We are blessed that we have never really faced a significant food crisis.  Even though I feel very financially anxious often, I know that I have never had to choose between paying a bill or buying food.  If I'm honest, at the end of the month, I always have cash left over for kale.  

But I have noticed, strikingly, over the last decade, how sharply food costs have risen.  As a vegetarian living alone, in Arlington, 10 years ago, (city girl with a propensity for places like My Organic Market and no farmer's market available), I could do my weekly groceries and wine for the week for about $60, maybe $80 if I got some fish for a treat.  This included chocolate goodies.  Almost everything was organic.

When we were first married, in Fredericksburg, $25 could buy us three huge bags of veggies and eggs at the farmer's market nearby, $20 more took care of everything else, and for $40 we could go out to a date night every week.  

These days, we are lucky if $80 buys us the basics.  It's not bad planning.  It's that the costs of food has gone up so dramatically. In the recent past, it was cheaper to be a vegetarian and to cook.  Now, it seems as if being vegetarian and whole foods cooking is the most expensive way to live.  

Sometimes I wonder what effect global warming has on the food supply.  (Probably a big chunk.) sometimes I wonder what effect our loss of seasonal eating has on our food supply. (Probably related to global warming.  If we insist on eating tomatoes in February, we aren't choosing the most ecological options. Says the girl who has a pack of grape tomatoes in my kitchen right now.) but I also suspect that it has something to do with the fact that is is cheaper to buy processed prepared food than to make your own.  Taco shells, I'm looking at you, and that one is not on me.  

We never use coupons because they don't seem to make coupons for the stuff we buy.  Raw almonds, kale, tofu... Dry beans.  Canned tomatoes.  Plain flour. None of this stuff has coupons, and it costs more now than it did a few years ago.  Meanwhile, it seems meat prices stay stagnant, and prepared food, the worst stuff to be eating, is rock-bottom.  Coupons abound for taco shells and cookies and  premade kiddie type snacks.  Now I also buy premade snacks to keep meal bars in my purse to stave off the starvings... But it scares me that it is cheaper and more subsidized (read: more encouraged) to buy "food" premade by a handful of companies, than it is to buy plain vegetables.  

I also know that we have had to adjust our food choices due to my lactose intolerance.  We buy raw almonds to make almond milk.  I was told it's cheaper to buy almond milk... But store bought almond milk has so many strange ingredients.... I want to know what I'm eating.  We buy sheep or goat yogurt so I can try to build my tolerance.  That's more than 3 times as costly as cow yogurt.  We can't go out to just any restaurant because of the dairy thing and I find I usually can't get the cheapest thing on the menu.  Burgers, for example, are usually the cheapest thing, but most veggie burgers have whey protein and many burger buns have butter or milk.  That means I'm spending more to eat. It's frustrating! 

Well... I'll continue to buy my plain veggies.  Maybe we will try a community garden again this summer.  Perhaps I can find a CSA in DC.  I am glad that we live where we can get to Eastern Market for the farmers market. I feel like we have to dig in our heels a bit and buy those plain veggies... Even though they cost more.  I have no illusions that one person can turn the tide of junk food that currently rules our grocery stores. But I hope I can help keep life in the farmers markets. In ten years, I want to feel like I can still make ethical choices in my eating.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Life Sans Facebook

As I headed towards the Archives metro station today, I passed an older man who approached me with no bag and a mismatched set of clothing.  Sure  enough, the question, "MIss, can you help me?"  I steeled myself, seeing him coming my way, and let out a breath.  "No, I'm sorry, I don't carry cash."  This is what I say to everyone.  Both  because it's the truth: I rarely, if ever, carry cash anymore, and because I don't think cash is what most people need.  

The man shouted after me.  "Hey, you're a nice lady!"  I turned around and he smiled and waved.  "A really nice lady."  

Huh.  I'm often told, by the people in need that I help in the course of my work, that the hardest thing on the street is being ignored, treated as subhuman.  Sometimes beggars are kicked or stepped on.  And I admit that I dislike dodging a beggar who has positioned themselves in the path I am trying to walk, shaking their coffeecups.  But an old mentor of mine once told a story about how he forced himself to, at the very least, acknowledge the humanity before him.  It's messy.  It's uncomfortable.  But at least he woulod acknowledge that they are also humans... even though he also gave out no change.  

So there we go.  There was my uncomfortable, didn't change a thing about this world, out of the comfort zone interaction for the morning.  

I've been good about my Lenten discipline of no Facebook.  It helps that I logged out of every single device, so I'd have to be intentional about logging back on.  So far, I've noticed that I tend to think about reaching for Facebook when I'm bored- sitting on the bus, waking up in the morning, during lunch at work.  

I use it as a time filler... and it fills so much time, it crept into my working time, which turned it into a time waster.  At this point, I'm still defaulting to looking to some other electronic means to fill empty time, though for some reason, it's easier to turn off these other sources.  (Currently, my default is WaPo or the BBC, but my guilty lovehate affair with Buzzfeed continues.  It's terrible writing and I hate the click bait, but it can have such amusing lists...)  

Perhaps part of my problem with social media is that I have no choice but to see ALL THE FEEDS at once.  At least with email, I can automatically sort things into categories that I only check when I am ready to.  Seeing everything at once is a little like trying to shake hands with an octopus.  ALL THE HANDS AT ONCE!  

We've been having some winter weather here in DC.  Now I know that Boston has it way worse than we do... but being that we are essentially a Southern city, we don't have the kind of winter stuff that Boston does.  We shut down for an inch. The dire warnings of an incoming storm led us to plan to shut the office today if the school systems closed.  I had already planned to go to a doctor's appointment, and then hole up in the library for a few hours to write.  Then my doctor's appointment got cancelled and rescheduled... after I had already left home.  

I was actually pretty grumpy about the rescheduling.  I had planned carefully and "public transit pooled" with M, who told me a lot of details about his job and what he does.  He can be a pretty quiet guy who takes a lot of time to process, so when he does start talking, I like to seize the moment.  I learned a lot about his coworkers and the logistics of walking through the stacks and what could be carried in various locations.  (Which  actually has a lot of bearing on what he chooses to carry for lunch, and affects his work stress as he figures out who can carry what in which container through the various levels of the maze that is the DC archives.)  

But it's still frustrating to me to have my careful plans disrupted.  Now I've paid for public transit that I didn't need to.  The library is not open yet, so I had to pick out a coffeeshop, instead.  (Which wasn't in my plans, but at least I've found a local neighborhood shop that I like.) And the rescheduled appointment is so far in the afternoon that I'll probably end up going home after I work for a while, because I can't spend 5 hours in a coffee shop!  

I think I need to employ my current mantra of "I did my part.  Let it go."  

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Gym

I first joined a gym in graduate school round 1, over 10 years ago.  

At the time, I had gotten a little pudgy (according to me).  We had a gym at Seminary, but I was finding all sorts of excuses to not work out, or to do lazy workouts. As a Senior seminarian, I was under a ton of stress to pass all the exams and to find a job, and everyone I knew was all about all the church.  My head was in a bad place.  I had to have a break.  I'm a priest, but I often say I am A Terrible Priest... I get spiritually overfed and I need a BREAK from the Episco-bubble and the praying and the Eucharist stuff. 

(Yes.  Sorry, Bishops of the Episcopal Church.  But if I get too much Eucharist and no Morning Prayer or Compline or nothing time, I get sad and grumpy and bored with doing the same service all the time.  End confession.)

So I joined Bally's Gym.  I made a little group of friends and all we ever talked about what how we were doing on our fitness goals or the races people were prepping for.  It was mentally relaxing.  (And I dropped the pudge within a few months.  Bonus!)

And since I was paying for the gym, I was very highly motivated to actually go.  See, it pays off to be a cheapskate!  If I pay for it, I am going to get my money's worth, dammit!  

I have, since then, always had either a gym or a tri club that I worked out with- someone else to whom I pay money and then become friends with who keeps me on task.  Bonus, no one at the gym or the tri club really knew too much about my work except that I can't join things on Sunday mornings.  It's INCREDIBLY relaxing to have people outside the Episco-fold.  

So I guess the gym is both physical and mental for me.  I need the mental break of normal happy people.  I always think of Legally Blonde, when Reese Witherspoon's character explains, "Exercise gives you endorphins.  Endorphins make you happy!  Happy people don't kill their husbands... they just don't!"  

Let's hope there's actual science to back that up.  But I can confirm that when I am working out, I feel zero to very few homicidal rages.  

When we first moved back here, for many reasons, I did not immediately join a new gym.  I spent the last year wigging out.  Now that things are settling down... I've been doing some work on my anxiety issues.  A huge part of my issue is my ability to project into the future: I can plan 9 months out, and rewind a project to figure out what needs to happen when to make a project GO.  That is a great work skill.  

It's a little nerve racking for a human being just trying to live.  I do not do "living in the moment" well.  

So I have re-joined a gym, this one near my apartment.  It's tough, with classes that are more focused on "work hard" than on "look pretty".  That was one element I really liked about this gym.  One of the instructors is a guy I have nicknamed "Andrew Giant Muscles" who teaches Boot Class.  Man,  I was so sore after that workout!

The gym also has a steam room.  There's a sauna as well, but I am finding that the steam room might be my winter spirit animal.  In a steam room, you sit on a bench while a pipe shoots steam into the room, and you are basically cuddled into a fluffy warm cloud of steamy hot warming warmth.  If you tend to have super dry, sensitive skin, or if you don't really sweat a lot, or if you tend to feel supercold all winter, the steam room might just feel like heaven on earth.  Time just flies as I sit in the totally silent room (I don't wear my cochlear so I don't have to bother wrapping it up) and finally, finally get warm to my core.  I find I am supercharged after a hard workout and the steam room.  In fact, if I massage a sore muscle in the steam room, I find it usually dissolves the sore knot in a fraction of the time.  

The gym seems to be having a very positive effect on my happiness and anxiety levels.  Basically, happiness seems to be up.  Anxiety seems to be down.  I am spending less time lolling on the couch aimlessly scrolling Netflix and more time lolling on a steam room bench.  

Let's see, in three months, if I experience the previous gym effect and get super strong for the summer!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What I have been doing in Lent so far...

This Lent, I decided to give up Facebook.

I have a whole bunch of reasons and was writing those out, and after something like 2 000 words, I realize that none of those posts are ready yet.  I hope to be able to talk those through over the next few weeks.

So instead, I thought I'd start looking at what I've been doing instead of being on Facebook.

Last week, I joined a gym.  Since then, I've done 5 workouts and have spent about 2 hours in the steam room, in spurts of 15 minutes or so after workouts.  I like the people I've been meeting, and getting to know the instructors.  The steam room might be the best thing that has ever happened to me.

M decided to do a vegan challenge for Lent.  I am all over that.  He gave me the motherfuckin' Thug Kitchen cookbook for Valentine's Day and that thing is the fo'real shit.  Oh, dear.  It's got me talking that way too... but seriously, those boys know how to make delicious food.

For example:  I have finally, FINALLY, after 35 years on this earth, discovered a hot breakfast I actually love: their rice and edamame bowl with the scallion sauce.  It's warm.  It's savory. It's easy protein.  So, Thug boys, you have created a recipe that even a breakfast hater loves to eat.

I'm calling or texting people.  Facebook was a great way to connect... but I'm realizing that I was relying on Facebook to do all my connecting, and I'm enjoying being in touch with certain people and it's kind of nice to be out of the arena of the Mommy Wars.  A lot of my friends are moms of young kids right now, and my gawd, people!  It's exhausting.

I'm getting way too much work done. Last week, I had my sermon all researched and written by the time I signed off work on Thursday... meaning I had all Friday off, and on Saturday, all I had to do was some deep revision work.  Is that what "weekend" is like?  I also got a bunch of behind the scenes stuff done that would be really, really boring to list, but for the first time in months, I had devastated my whole to-do list during the week.  Bam.  That thing was all gone, and I had time to work on my other projects.

I think that being off Facebook is helping me let go of some of my anxiety towards fulfilling others' expectations of me. (Mostly because I'm out of the sandbox right now.) I am also reclaiming time.  For a while now, I suspected Facebook was becoming a huge time suck for me, and I am learning right now that it sucked more time than I had been willing to admit in my most honest moments.

So I'm pretty happy so far with the releasing aspects of this Lenten practice.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Bread Experiments Continue

I'm on to my third or fourth experimental loaf.  I am trying to create a homemade bread that can be baked in a loaf pan to provide us sandwich bread.

The benefits?  Ideally, lower cost, higher nutrition, no wacky preservatives, knowing exactly what is in our bread, and a little tiny bit more self-sufficiency.

Yeah, we really aren't all about the easy around here.  Did I mention I am also going through a home-ground flour phase?

So far I have learned:

1) Home ground flour must be sifted.  I don't usually have a ton of bran left over, but sifting it seems to make a big difference.  Maybe it incorporates more air?  At any rate, since starting to sift, my loaves turned from whole wheat bricks into something much lighter.

2) Hard red wheat berries make a ferociously wheat loaf.  I have started mixing oat flour in.  I could not find other types of wheat berries in any of the local stores that carry bulk- I have two Whole Foods and a Yes! Market near me, but while they all have hard red wheat, none have any other type of wheat.  So I tried adding about ¼ of oats to the grinder, and that mixture seems to give me a lovely light loaf.

3) I really need to add vital wheat gluten.  The oat mixture comes out a bit crumbly, and gluten is that nice stretchy protein.  So I added gluten yesterday, and it was very effective.  I think I need to fine tune just how much gluten to add.  With store-bought wheat flour, I just added a heaping soup spoon, but I think I need a little more method with the home ground.

4) Kneading seems to work better than no-knead.  Maybe once I get this method nailed down, I can experiment with no-kneads again.  The no-knead tasted ok, but it was very dense.  And I really want a sandwich bread.  Luckily, I have a Kitchenaid stand mixer, so I let that do most of the hard work and I just do the light kneading and shaping.

5) The Ikea loaf pans have a different quantity.  They are longer than the average loaf pan, but about the same width.  So I need to figure out how to upsize my recipe just a bit.  Maybe triple it, and do a recipe and a half per pan?

Overall... the experiments are worthwhile.  Yesterday, after getting the bread going, I was able to put a chicken and a tofu dish in the oven to bake.  (That was a Cooking Light recipe with an orange sauce.  Instead of a sauté, I did it as a bake and it came out really good.  After baking, I had extra sauce that I poured around the cooked chicken and cooked tofu (in their separate dishes) so they are marinating in the juices.  Meaning that salad, bowl, and sandwich fillings are ready to roll!)

Experiments continue.  I think I'm getting close.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Returned from Convention

I am just back from Diocesan Council, soon to officially be Convention, and I have Thoughts.

First: the bread from the other day does work well as a loaf.  I want to try adding some gluten to see if that lifts the rise at all.  But the combo of a little bit of oat flour with the wheat flour plus plenty of liquid for a slightly wet dough seems to make for a beautifully tender loaf, if a somewhat small one.  A puffier rise will give me perfect size bread.

Now.  I am back from Diocesan council and mellowing out at our place, where a lovely building engineer has mounted several things on the wall for us.  We can hang up our keys at last!  And our TV is finally on the wall.  Oddly, even though it's at exactly the height I was expected it to be, it FEELS very high up.  As long as it's been on the small cabinet that was its temporary base, I complained it was too LOW.  It is now about 6-8 inches higher than the base, which we said was TOO LOW.  Now it just feels SO HIGH.  Maybe it'll be better once I hide the cords and put up bookcases...

Overall, I'm grateful to be home in our wee little apartment in the Cathedral district.  Something about being up high and able to see is so relaxing.  It's what I loved about my house in the hills of Oregon- looking out on the city below.  I love the sparkles of light in the distance, and being able to look out at the landmarks.


Now for my Council highs and lows.

High/low of the Council:  I didn't exactly spend the weekend at Diocesan Council.  I returned to DC Friday AM for a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery for a family friend.  Truly tragic situation, but I have to give the military kudos for a beautifully run event.  I hope that in years to come, my friends will be able to look back on this and take some comfort from the perfection of the pageantry.  The military does the full honors funeral so well, and I appreciated the honor they extended to the soldier.  I felt that the soldiers who served together truly cared for each other, and that those performing the honors respected the tragedy the family faced and honored the soldier who had died.

That's a low because the situation is truly tragic and immensely sad, and I wish we weren't meeting at Arlington for a funeral.  But a high because of family was cared for by some truly excellent human beings, and because they are fine human beings themselves.  And that gives me hope for humanity.

Council low (and perhaps a petty one?):  It was not a great eating week. The food I bought myself was pretty decent: a nice fish dish at a cuban place, an off-menu portobello burger and a cider at a pub... but the food provided by the Marriott?  None of the desserts and only three options at the breakfast buffet were dairy free.  (The breakfast options were sausage, bacon, and fruit.  I do not kid.  Croissants, pastry, and scrambled eggs made with cream rounded out everyone else's meal.)

I was actually kind of mad.  I mention the dairy thing when I register, and I am just accustomed by now to showing up at events with an actual pack of rations: anything from snack bars to entire extra meals, depending on the venue.

I understand it is not reasonable to expect to have a variety of options, as I do at home.  But wouldn't it be reasonable to provide 5-10 servings of a special dessert, or one small tray of special breakfast options for people like me?  It would not break the bank to go get a $6 set of cupcakes from Ellwood Thompson's (Richmond's Whole Foods But Better type store), or to make a small platter of dairy free scrambled eggs. Add a sign indicating that the "special food" is for those on a restricted diet.  Give me a stinkin' cupcake, for heaven's sake, when everyone else gets cookies, cakes, brownies, and ice cream!

That is the middle child sense of fairness right there.

It's more than frustrating.  It felt dramatically unwelcoming to stand around at a "dessert reception" when everyone else had a plate loaded with food, and I had zero options.   It sends me the message that that's not where I want to spend my time.  A jazz band, and a bunch of food I can't eat?  As it was, I did a tour of the reception to say a few hellos, then retired to the bar for some conversation with my bestie.  I just told people I "wasn't hungry".  And honestly, I wasn't.  I didn't NEED food.  I just WANTED some damn chocolate!

Give me dairy free cupcakes!  Or give me 45 minutes in a zipcar so I can go provide my own damn dessert.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Loaf #2 of Bread

Yesterday's loaf of bread was successful.  So successful, in fact, that M ate most of it in one day.  Scarfed it right down.  

I used a recipe called "Swiss Braid" from The Complete Book of Bread & Bread Machines. It's a charming tome by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter that I've been using for years.  I believe it's British thanks to the spellings and the fact that most measurements are given in metrics, but it works.  And I really appreciate that most of the recipes include weights.  It is much more accurate. 

I change the Swiss loaf for my own needs.  Specifically, I eliminate the sour cream and subbed in goat milk yogurt.  I did the math, and the amount of dairy in each serving was well below my threshhold, and the goat yogurt only comes in large containers and I had to use it up.  

I do need to stand guard over the stand mixer as it kneads.  Yesterday, the dough was way too dry and needed lots of extra liquid.  Today, I did a better job of adding in the ingredients in the order specified, and the dough turned out to need a lot of extra flour.  Of course, I also experimented with grinding oatmeal and wheat together for a lighter flour.  Yesterday, I used oat flour to dust my boards for the final knead, and it worked out really well.  So we will see if this works even better. 

I am going to put the flour into my new IKEA loaf pans.  I packed all my loaf pans into long term storage and just can't bear to go through all those unlabeled boxes to find them.  $5.99 each, and I have two new loaf pans.  They are long and skinny, and I think, if I'm lucky, I will get loaves that are just the right size for sandwiches out of them.  

So far, the Swiss Braid recipe seems to make enough for one long loaf.  If it works, I might double recipes in the future.  I'm supposed to braid the swiss braid, and while that worked well, it does not make for a good sandwich.  

I have 26 minutes more of rising.  I really want a nap.  But I shall power through and not go to bed until I have a loaf made!  Hopefully, that'll be around midnight.