Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Yes We Can!

I have had the most amazing day.
I got up at 4:00 a.m. to work a long, grueling day at the polls. I worked hard to get prepared for the day and get to bed early, and I got up and went to the polling place not knowing what to expect. When I arrived, I set to work right away, putting up signs outside, where a line had already started trailing down the sidewalk. Seeing those voters made me nervous. I had to perform for them with nothing but two hours of barely remembered training, and their expectations were high.
I decided that I wanted to work the poll books first because I felt more confident and secure there, calling out numbers and handing out voter cards. It was a foolish move, the mark of a neophyte election officer, but there I sat when the throng arrived at 6:00. I called out numbers and handed out cards, then switched. When I asked the voters to state their names and addresses and then verified them in a ringing voice, I talked until my jaws were sore. The great deluge of voters surged in for two and a half hours, and we processed over one-third of the voters in the precinct during that time.
After a while, however the swell of voters dropped off to a steady stream. I stayed on the polls books until afternoon, when I switched to the ballot table, back to the poll books, to the ballot box, and eventually to the voting machines, where I ended up. The ballot table was by far the easiest job, but it was an important one. I hit my stride, giving my small speech about being sure to color in the oval completely, to choose any available privacy cube, and to cast the ballot at the box. I felt as though I was at the heart of it all, making the process happen, doing my best to cordial and fair to everyone, regardless of the sample ballot they clutched in their hands. Yet at the same time, I felt strangely isolated from the outside world--cut off from news and the empty speculating the media offers on Election Day.
Then, after the greatly anticipated surge at the end never materialized, the polls closed and real work of counting the ballots began. We pulled the data from the machines, tallied up the the numbers (which was about as tedious as it was exciting), and recorded the results. There was a great deal of signing off on data and tasks as the evening wore on. It was important work and fascinating to watch, but I felt I was being powered only by sheer force of will and healthy snacks.
At long last we finished, and I got into my car. I dumped myself from the sealed bubble of making the election happen with no news whatsoever straight into the swirling vat of information. Obama was projected to win New Mexico. (New Mexico? Hadn't its polls barely closed?) The he had won Ohio and Pennsylvania. I gave a gasp of joy and relief as I drove home, but what about Virginia? When I got home I made it a point to hang up my jackets and put away the cooler--good habits cannot be neglected no matter who wins--and then I caught up on results. Obama was in the 190s, then pushed on to 202, then 207. McCain was still in double digits but started catching up. I watched for a bit and then changed into my pajamas and started fixing my daughter's lunch. I had gotten as far as the turkey roll up when my husband gave a great shout.
"He's won Virginia!"
I grabbed the roll up and ran downstairs. He had won Virginia! And after all my hard work and sacrifice when I had other important priorities and no time to spare. We'd done it! I began jumping up and down and screaming in frenzy of joy. I ran upstairs to tell my mother, in case she had gone to bed, but she already had the TV on. I couldn't take in what they were saying on TV, but I saw that Virginia had pushed up the electoral votes to 220. If Obama could only win California, which was likely, then he'd have 275!
I ran back downstairs and was stunned to see the words, "Barack Obama Elected President," across the screen. My hands flew to my mouth, my throat tightened, and my eyes filled with tears. He'd won! He'd actually won, and it had been all down to Virginia. Only after Virginia's results had come in could he be declared the winner.
"I can't believe it!" I whispered, and I hugged my mother-in-law (who had gotten soaked working over the 40-foot line at another polling place) and then my husband. I abandoned my daughter's lunch and set about making phone calls. After McCain's concession speech (which was as gracious as anyone could have hoped for) I went to wake up Sabine to tell her the news. I had meant for her to watch Obama's acceptance speech, but after her dazed exclamation of joy, she promptly fell back asleep. My mother, who was sharing the futon with her, couldn't stay awake for it either, so I went down to watch it with my husband and mother-in-law. Even now, watching the repeat, I get choked up. I wept during the speech, but the tears were born of joy and gratitude. I only wish that my father, who remained passionate about the political process until his final days, could have been with me to share this historic moment. It isn't that we have elected the first African-American president--something I'd thought was impossible--but we have elected the best candidate we've seen in decades, someone who can lead us through the difficult times we face. What an inspiration!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Final Debate

The final debate at Hofstra University last night was the best debate of the three presidential debates in this historic election. The candidates had spirited exchanges on a number of hot topics, not just the economy. William Ayers, Joe the Plumber from Ohio (a real person, unlike Joe Six-Pack), Lilly Ledbetter were all brought into the debate, as well as the candidate's negative campaigns and the highly emotional, controversial topic of abortion.
John McCain came out strong on the economy, which has proved to be his Achilles heel in these dark days of economic woe. He dominated the discussion on Joe the Plumber, who complained that Obama's tax plan would put his dream of owning his own business out of reach. His indignation on how Obama would dare raise taxes in times of financial turmoil seemed righteous and justified, and he criticized Obama's explanation of "spreading the wealth around." He put forth some good fiscal conservative arguments and even managed to put some distance between himself and the current president, saying, "I'm not George W. Bush," adding that if his opponent had wanted to run against him he should have run four years ago.
Still McCain unraveled his solid start in the debate on the topic of negative campaigning and did more damage discussing William Ayers. Barack Obama did not flinch when McCain expressed his obvious hurt and outrage that Rep. John Lewis would compare him with George Wallace, Alabama's segregationist governor in the 1960s. Obama described the McCain and Palin rallies last week at which discussions of Ayers by the Republican candidates led to shouts of, "Terrorist!" and "Kill him!" Obama spoke of these scenes, in which McCain and Palin did not beg for calm initially, with coolness and detachment--some would call his performance flat--while McCain blustered and demanded that Obama repudiate Lewis for his remarks. Obama did not rise to the bait, by the way, although he did state that Lewis had spoken on his own without endorsement from the campaign. Obama had the courage to call McCain on the atmosphere of some Republican rallies, while McCain behaved a bit like a middle school queen bee who's been accused of bullying other girls with vicious gossip. You could almost hear the they're-picking-on-me tone in his voice.
Things got worse for McCain when the subject of William Ayers came up. Obama patiently explained that William Ayers, now a professor of education in Chicago, was part of a domestic terrorist group called Weather Underground back in the sixties, when Barack was eight years old, and that he, Obama, had publically denounced Ayers's actions from those days. Obama spoke about how he and Ayers had served together on a board of the Woods Fund of Chicago and named other board members. Yet somehow, that wasn't enough for McCain, who suggested that Obama was withholding information on his connection to Ayers and that Obama began his political career in Ayers's living room. McCain had the final word on Ayers, attempting to plant doubt in the minds of viewers, while Obama spoke of focusing on the issues that matter most to Americans.
Obama took the high road again, when asked if the thought that Sarah Palin was qualified to be president if the need should arise. He adroitly side-stepped this question, as skilled politicians do, and if he was suppressing an uncharitable desire to blast Palin for her lack of experience it didn't show. McCain, on the other hand, still struggled to hide his anger and comtempt for Obama. Those who watched CNN's broadcast of the debate had the benefit of watching the split screen that showed the candidates reactions to their opponent's answers. McCain gave a stronger performance, having managed to find his stride in his presentation style, but his reaction shots did not help his cause. Obama just smiled and shook his head whenever McCain made a statement that he didn't agree with.
The post debate analysts seem to agree that this final debate was not a game changer, though McCain did a better job than at the two previous debates. The post debate polls seemed to bear this out. Presidential debates give candidates the opportunity to answer honestly the tough questions posed by the moderators and sometimes the voters. Candidates, however, are rarely candid while running a campaign, and spend much of their time answering around the tough questions and repeating large chunks of narrative from their stump speeches. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard Obama and Biden mention the failed policies of the past four years, well, it wouldn't help my nest egg much but I might be able to take my family out to dinner. Still the debates give the opportunity for viewers and voter to see the candidates in action. Perhaps it doesn't do for us to choose our leaders based on which one avoids the question most eloquently, but at least we can make the most our experience watching Obama and McCain create their spin on the fly when we vote on November 4.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Pea Green Soup

Tuesday I made split pea soup for dinner. Another recipe from Skinny Bitch in the Kitch. It was shockingly easy. I had to do some prep work, chopping celery and carrots and sorting the split peas. (I despise chopping onions and always use the dried minced onion you can get in the spice rack at the grocery store for everyday meals.) Still, the prep work seemed fairly easy and once I put most of the ingredients together in the stock pot, I had time to clean up the kitchen and make biscuits. It was just as good as the stir-fry I threw together on Sunday night.
What was the secret to making a good dinner with minimal effort?
1. I know enough about cooking to make reasonable substitutions and shortcuts. Fresh veggies may be best, but the Thai frozen vegetables worked well in the tofu stir-fry. Amy’s California veggie burgers made a decent substitute for vegan bacon in the Split Pea Soup. And, of course, I always use my dried minced onions.
2. Cooking does require some time and effort in the kitchen. I might as well resign myself that I can’t cook the way I knit and crochet, which is whenever the mood hits me. We all get hungry a lot more often that I feel like cooking, so I might as well get my behind in the kitchen and have fun with it.
Last night I served the leftover split pea soup with beer bread, which I made with quadruple the baking soda because I was chatting on the phone while cooking. It turned out well enough anyway. No one complained much or gagged, so I’d say it was a success.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Why Barack Won the Second Debate

Last night’s debate in Nashville did not offer anything enlightening regarding the candidates and their positions. As frustrated Ohio focus group members found, neither candidate offered any specific answers to the pointed questions that were posed. To be honest, it’s time we gave that idea up, anyway. The candidates gave us all they ever planned on giving us and all they plan to give us next Wednesday—an eloquent recital of their positions on the issues. Politician don’t go out on a limb when courting voters. They may get all “mavericky” when it comes to the hard work of creating and passing laws, but when they’re trying to earn or keep their jobs, they aren’t going to take any risks. If we want answers, we need to look at their records.
So who won? Since no one gets points for content, we are reduced to evaluating style. John McCain, who had promised to take his gloves off when facing his opponent, opted instead to try for affability. He said “my friends” often that I wanted to count it as a crutch phrase as we do in Toastmasters. He seemed so bitter and angry in Oxford, Mississippi, so offended that he had to even face this half-African politician that he couldn’t even look him in the eye. McCain seemed to be steeling his resentment as he pasted on a smile and used first names in a valiant attempt at friendliness. His war injuries made him move around like a stiff old man, but that quality would be endearing in another candidate. Perhaps it is endearing to conservatives who agree with him on the issues. However, the likable pose seemed forced. While Sarah Palin succeeded in her efforts to appear folksy and down to earth, McCain seemed like an old guard politician pandering for votes.
Barack Obama was the same as he always is—calm and reassuring. He is comfortable in his role, he in knowledgeable on the issues, and it showed. He uttered his share of “ums” and “uhs,” backtracked to rephrase sentences and skillfully dodged questions, but he gave a good performance. And his performance was a bit better than John McCain’s.
Why is it so clear that Obama won this debate? It was not the exchange that took place during the ninety minutes of trading stump speeches. Instead, it was what happened while the commentators and experts sat around picking everything apart. McCain and his wife left, while Barack and Michelle stayed and spoke with the group who had been chosen to ask the tough questions. The few shots we got of them, without audio, working the room, taking the time to listen and respond were all we needed. It was classic Obama. He may want to be president, but he cares about his country and its citizens. This simple act captured the true affection Obama has for American voters more effectively than any of McCain’s repeated “my friends.”
The point of a presidential debate is to present oneself as the best candidate to lead the country, not to win an argument. If the point of this debate was to show an affinity for the voting public, Barack Obama, by spending a little extra time with a small group of voters, may have done a lot more to reach a much large group.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Fun with Tofu

Yesterday I cooked with tofu for the first time. The whole experience was sort of miraculous, which had very little to do with the tofu, I'm sure. I was in my usual dilemma--it's Sunday evening, almost six o'clock, and I haven't started dinner. My husband mentioned this, and I avoided the question. I didn't want to disappoint him. I just wanted to start cooking without saying anything at all about it, but he cornered me and accused me of pulling a Sarah Palin by deftly changing the subject to avoid giving him a direct answer. Finally I confessed. I was planning to make a stir-fry.
I got started half an hour later. I had chosen a recipe from my new cookbook, Skinny Bitch in the Kitch (more on Skinny Bitch and its hilarious authors in another post). Normal people study a recipe, make sure they have the ingredients and go out and buy what they don't have, then carefully prepare the dish following the instructions, much as a Hogwarts student would do in Snape's Potions class. Me, I look at recipes as sort of general guidelines, which is why my family cringes when I tell them I'm making Special Surprise for dinner.
The recipe was for Tofu and Steamed Veggies with Brown Rice, or something like that. Forget the brown rice. I already had white rice prepare so all I had to do was heat it up. Fresh veggies? Do I look like I have time for fresh veggies? I had a bag of organic Thai vegetables from Whole Foods Market, so I just used that. I sliced up the tofu, tossed it into a colander, and shouted, "Drain!" at it, which meant that it rendered a good deal of water in the cooking. I was smart enough to saute it first before adding the vegetables, and, as an added last minute inspiration, I grabbed a handful of peanut my husband had brought back from his road trip. The sauce was easy enough--tahini, soy sauce, and safflower oil (because we are out of sesame oil). One hour later, bam! Dinner on the table.
My husband liked it well enough to take for lunch--high praise from him. My oldest daughter avoided the sauce and the tofu and grudgingly ate the vegetables, having demolished the rice instantly. My youngest daughter, who I normally count on to eat everything, found the sauce bitter. (So did I, and I plan to add at least a tablespoon of brown sugar to it next time.) She complained and frowned until my husband had me set a timer for her to finish her food or else. She tried eating one grain of rice at a time, and after we put a stop to that, finished by cramming generous forkful into her mouth. She let the sauce dribble down her chin, gagged, and was banished to the bathroom to spit out the offending mouthful. It so nice to have my cooking appreciated.
So the miraculous meal ended with my youngest daughter not throwing up and everyone getting to bed on time.

Friday, October 03, 2008

VP Debate--Does It Make a Difference?

Last night's debate in St. Louis between vice presidential candidates Senator Joe Biden of Delaware and Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska offered some mild surprises, but in the end will not much alter the political landscape of this historic election. Palin did extremely well, bringing to mind the dyanamic speaker who electrified the Republican convention and giving conservatives a vice presidential candidate of which they can be...well, at least not embarrassed. Likely this was largely due to her thorough preparation and the fact that neither moderator Gwen Ifill nor Biden skewered her. Palin did not ramble incoherently through the myriad talking points on which she has been obviously coached. She did not stare blankly into the camera while question after question rolled over like a truck as she did in her diasterous interview with Katie Couric. She did a great deal of sidestepping, dragging many questions back to her topic of comfort--energy. Of course, Ifill gently chastized both candidates early in the debate for neglecting to answer her question. Palin gave a credible performance with her characteristic folksy charm and managed not to do any further damage to herself or John McCain's campaign.
Joe Biden, on the other hand, gave an excellent performance himself. He did not bluster or blunder as he has been known to do, but his skillful answers to many of the questions demonstrated his superior knowledge on both foreign and domestic issues. Biden did not treat his opponent gently as he sought to highlight the differences between the two presidential candidates and link McCain to the "failed policies of the last eight years," but he did not flatten her as he might have. At one point during the exchange he pointed out bluntly that Palin had failed to answer a question, but he kept things friendly as Palin twinkled her way through the evening.
Palin did succeed in her debate where McCain failed--in demonstrating charm and likability while delivering her answers. If McCain, as he claims, is not Mr. Congeniality, then his vice presidential pick is the yang to his yin. Is it enough, however, to win over undecided and independent voters? Sarah Palin might do well to hope that her ticket loses in November. She could use the time to solidify her knowledge base and experience and add those assets to her considerable charsima. In time, she could be a formidable opponent to any Democratic candidate seeking office. However, she becomes vice president, she will have ample opportunity to demonstrate that she is in way over her head.

Monday, September 29, 2008

House Failure to Approve Bailout--Good News or Bad

Obviously, Wall Street thinks it's bad news that the House of Representatives rejected the proposed economic bailout bill crafted by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and expanded by legislators. The Dow dropped 778 points, its "largest closing point drop in history," according to today's Washington Post. However, I'm not so sure it was a good idea to approve the bailout in the first place, so perhaps the news isn't so bad, after all. Perhaps the House has given lawmakers and policy makers a chance to get it right next time.
However, if Bush and Paulson are urging Congress to enact the current legislation, what's so wrong with it? Isn't it better to pass this bill than face economic Armageddon? Clearly, some kind of bailout is necessary. The Treasury can't just sit back and watch the collapse of Wall Street without taking any action at all. The problem is, the Treasury isn't sitting on a pile of gold and laughing derisively as banks implode under the weight of bad mortgages. No, the Treasury is counting on U.S. taxpayers to foot the bill for this bailout. How can anyone make any sense of all this and figure out a solution?
1) The government must take some kind of action--some kind of bailout is necessary to restore confidence in the market. However,
2) Doing bad business must not be rewarded. Banks and investment firms lent money to borrowers who couldn't pay it back. I've never trusted lenders to tell me how much I could afford to borrow, and lenders always seemed to think I can afford to borrow more money than I think I can. "I need more debt like I need a hole in my head," I tell anyone who is listening, usually my dog, as I fold up offers to borrow money plus the envelopes they arrive in and mail the entire package back to the lender. Let's not give lenders the idea that they can run wild because Big Daddy Government will bail them out.
3) We cannot afford to return to business as usual. The good old days of lending to anybody and everybody are over. It's time for us to behave ourselves. The whole point of the bailout is shore up the markets so that we can do business responsibly, not recklessly.
4) The government cannot be given too much power in this situation. Is Paulson's bailout package the equivalent of a sort of economic marshall law, in which many rules put in place for the common good are suspended? Wall Street ran wild, and look where it got us. The government cannot be permitted to run wild in its place.
5) Individual borrowers must get a little of the protection, too. The Feds are rushing out into the storm bringing umbrellas for financial institutions that made bad decisions and leaving individual borrowers out in the rain. I see no need to reward individual borrowers for making unwise choices anymore than banks. However, if something is to be done to help out banks then it stands to reason that something should be done to help out those who borrowed from them.
It's all very well for a writer and a piano teacher to rave on about what's happening in the financial markets, but what are each of us supposed to do? I'm not ready to lose faith in the financial system, and there's no point in rushing out to rescue your money since all banks are probably guilty of varying degrees of unwise lending. All I can see is that it's time for us, as individuals, to do what the banks should have been doing all along--handling money wisely. Spend wisely and less than you earn. Increase savings and minimize debt. Eat your broccoli, take your vitamins, and get some exercise. It might not be sexy or glamorous, but these are tough times. Perhaps if we behave ourselves and take good care of our assets, the markets will eventually stop punishing us.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Who Really Won the Presidential Debate Last Night?

Let’s be honest, we won’t really know who won last night’s debate until November 5. I’d say initially that John McCain won the debate. His performance exceeded my expectations, and Barack Obama’s did not. Of course, Obama would have had to walk on water to exceed my expectations. McCain, however, walked onto the stage at Ole Miss after a grueling week of managing his response to the financial disaster on Wall Street. He faced his opponent and defended his positions on the proposed federal bailout of failing investment banks and foreign policy issues. He didn’t go to pieces the way his vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, did during her interview with Katie Couric. So I’d say, using the twisted logic of opposites that since McCain didn’t fail miserably, he won.
However, Barack Obama strode on stage completely at his ease, shook McCain’s hand with a firm, affable two-handed handshake, briefly gripping McCain’s forearm with his left hand, and proceeded to meet McCain head on with confidence and conviction. He made the effort to engage his opponent in a spirited, civilized dialogue on both the economy and foreign policy. When McCain repeatedly prefaced his sentences with, “Senator Obama doesn’t understand,” Obama responded knowledgeably and eloquently, showing that he did indeed understand, he just didn’t agree. Yes, it was clear that Obama was not on familiar ground with regard to foreign policy as McCain was, but Obama demonstrated the ability to navigate the rocky terrain of global issues with ease. He may not be on his home turf when it comes to foreign affairs, but he is clearly familiar with the issues and the players.
Obama gave an excellent presentation. He faced his opponent directly and called by name, addressing him as “John.” True, Jim Lehrer prodded both candidates as they stood addressing the voters instead of each other, but Obama injected a moment of humor into the dialogue as he corrected himself. McCain seemed unwilling to face Obama directly, avoiding eye contact and referring to Obama in the third person. He repeated the phrase that he has not been known as Miss Congeniality in the Senate, and true to form, he was not Mr. Congeniality in last night’s debate. Obama demonstrated that he knows his way around foreign policy issues, and he also stated clearly and openly that he would not raise taxes and perhaps would even offer tax cuts to those individuals and families earning less that $250,000 a year. So much for the claim that Obama will raise your taxes.
If you want Barack Obama to win this election, then you can make a strong case that Obama won the debate. If you want John McCain to win, then you can say that McCain won the debate. Though both candidates dodged the issue of whether they would support the economic bailout package, they both presented their policies, values, and ideals with conviction and skill. They sought to highlight the differences between them on the issues and they each succeeded. They agreed to disagree, so it is up to the voters to decide which candidate with whom they agree.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Frugal Food – Keeping a Clean Kitchen

I have a secret ingredient for keeping the grocery bill down, and it’s cheap and available at any store. White vinegar! White vinegar isn’t just used to make salad dressing or sweet and sour dishes. It’s handy for cleaning, as well. Used full strength, white vinegar is great for cleaning soap scum off of bathroom tubs and tiles. Diluted in a spray bottle, it makes an excellent nontoxic all-purpose cleaner that is safe for all surfaces, including hardwood floors.

White vinegar mixed with baking soda is a formidable weapon when cleaning crusty pots and baking pans—or anything with caked on dirt. You can keep sink and tub drains clear by pouring baking soda, then vinegar, then boiling water down the drain. It’s cheaper and safer than any product designed to unclog drains. I found this wonderful idea in Amy Dacyczyn’s The Tightwad Gazette, an excellent reference for frugal housekeeping.

The only drawback to cleaning with white vinegar is the smell. Diluting it helps, and I like to add 20 to 30 drops of citrus essential oil to one quart of homemade cleaner. Essential oils are expensive, but they are used so sparingly that they last a long time. It’s can be helpful to shake the spray bottle before using a cleaner that’s been scented with essential oils.

Another frugal cleaning trick I use does not involve white vinegar, but those lovely foam soap dispensers. Foaming soap is such a luxury for me, and I found out how to make it save money on hand soap. The soap bottles come with instructions not to refill with your own hand soap, and with good reason. Full strength or improperly mixed diluted liquid soap will clog the pump. I mix one tablespoon of concentrated liquid soap—whatever inexpensive dish soap I happen to have on hand—with one cup of water. I mix this in a glass if I’m refilling one bottle or my quart measuring cup if I’m refilling a few bottles at a time (four tablespoons of liquid soap to a quart of water). I mix it thoroughly with a fork, and then refill the bottles with the foam dispensers. It stretches the liquid soap amazingly and provides a lovely foam with which to wash your hands.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Frugal Food – Free Meals in the Freezer

If you’re organized, you know exactly what’s in your freezer, it’s clearly labeled, neatly stacked, and you may even have a page protector taped to the door with a list written in dry erase ink of what in there. If you’re like me, you have a jumble of freezer bags and disposable containers at which you peer squint-eyed trying to figure out if it’s spaghetti sauce or chicken cacciatore, or perhaps half a dozen little unfinished bags of frozen vegetables. If all you can find in the depths of your freezer are four half-eaten pint tubs of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and a bag of expensive coffee, you may not be able to magic up some meals without shopping, but even a bag of fish sticks can be paired with a bag of tater tots to create a free meal from freezer.

I wanted to save money on food, so I dug around in our freezer and found: 1) two containers of Christmas lasagna, 2) two packages of frozen pie crust (emergency back up from an attempt at scratch pie crust), 3) one large container of red beans, 4) one large container of gumbo, 5) a pound of ground beef, and finally 6) half a dozen little unfinished bags of frozen vegetables. The meals were a windfall—I didn’t have to cook! What was I going to do with piecrust, ground beef, and vegetables?

The ability to create meals out of random ingredients—good meals that won’t make my children cry at the sight of their plates—is a skill that eludes me. Expert cooks have this gift, but I don’t. Leftover meat and vegetables can be put together with a can of cream of mushroom soup and cooked rice to make a casserole, but there my imagination stops. Still I was inspired by the piecrust to make a hamburger pot pie.

I used the Chicken Pot Pie recipe out of The Joy of Cooking as my guide. (I absolutely adore The Joy of Cooking.) The prep time for me was 50 minutes, but I’m slow. Much of the prep work can be done in advance, such as browning the ground beef and even making the white sauce to mix with it. Joy recommends sautéing the vegetables apart from cooking the meat to retain their texture and flavor and brushing an egg yolk on the bottom of the crust. (Joy’s Chicken Pot Pie recipe calls for only a top crust, but I prefer a crust on the bottom as well.) Thawing the frozen veggies probably helped, too. Because I didn’t add many seasonings, the result was not exciting, but that can easily be corrected the next time I make a pot pie. My children didn’t complain (for once!), and I got two full meals for my efforts.

Lesson learned: when putting together a meal out of random freezer or pantry ingredients, it’s helpful to use a recipe as a guide.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Frugal Food – Stretching Milk

I’ve started stretching the milk again, much to my husband’s dismay.

“My expensive organic milk?” he asked, alarmed.

“Yes,” I replied calmly, pulling out the gallon pitcher and whisk.

I can stretch a half-gallon carton of milk to a full gallon by mixing it with powdered milk, an easy frugal trick. I double the recipe on the box of powdered milk, putting two and two-thirds cups powdered milk in the pitcher. Then I whisk half a cup of warm water into the milk, creating a relatively smooth paste. Next I add seven more cups of water to make a half-gallon of powdered milk. I finish by adding the half-gallon carton of milk to the pitcher. Voila! A full gallon of milk.

“Why don’t you just mix up powdered milk and be done with it?” my husband asked in a half-sarcastic, half-disgruntled tone, eyeing the empty carton of organic milk.

“Because mixing powdered milk with two-percent tastes better, as we’ve discussed before,” I returned, unruffled.

“You’re ruining the organic milk with that cheap powdered stuff,” he pointed out.

“Well…” I began, my voice trailing off. He had me there. As my smart sister-in-law once told me, organic produce is a bit of a waste, since you can effectively wash off the pesticide residue with plain water. However, organic meats and dairy have more value, as it’s impossible to avoid whatever antibiotics and hormones the poor beasts have been given. Although I suppose you’re diluting those nasty additives by mixing powdered milk with organic, it really doesn’t make much sense. I might as well go on and by conventional milk to mix with powdered…unless I can find organic powdered milk.

“I guess I’ll look for organic powdered milk when I look for soy powdered milk,” I answered finally. The soymilk I buy for my milk intolerant child is much more expensive than anything cows can produce.

“Soy powdered milk?” my husband repeated. And, shaking his head, he rolled his eyes and shrugged.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Frugal Food

Like most of us, I’m haunted by signs of economic woe. The news is littered with stories of a shattered housing industry, bank runs, foreclosures, rising unemployment, and other tales of financial disaster. I hear snippets of conversation from the moms at the pool lamenting rising food prices, and I cringe whenever I fill my car with gas. In the relatively prosperous suburbs I see boarded up restaurants and gas stations, and I can’t help wondering what to do about it all.

My own kitchen is where the rubber meets the road for me. In my family, I am a notoriously scattered shopper and sometime cook. I dabble in the culinary arts the way I dabble with knitting and scrap booking—yet my family needs to eat three meals a day, 365 days a year.

In spite of this I still believe that shopping for food and other daily household items offers the most opportunity to save money in a failing economy, despite rising food costs. It just depends on how time, effort, brainpower, and creativity I’m willing to invest. So I’m setting out on a journey to figure out how to save money at the grocery store and time and energy in the kitchen.


I was a bit demoralized by my quick trip to the grocery store to pick up a few items. For $21.48, I was able to get two large containers of Quaker Oats, two bags of Sun Chips, and two dozen eggs. Quaker Oats, a product I usually find to be cost effective, cost 13 cents an ounce. It’s clearly way past time for me to get busy.


I was demoralized even further by the thought that I really need to clear out my freezer. To be brutally honest, I need to see some empty freezer, refrigerator, and pantry space before I make any kind of significant outlay at the grocery store.

Wealth is not just money in the bank. As it has been since the dawn of humankind, wealth is really a well-stocked larder. To ignore the fuzzy, white, unidentifiable packages in the freezer is the same as ignoring the savings account balance. Although it isn’t one of my strongest skills, I’m taking my imagination (and perhaps the imaginations of my husband and daughter) into the freezer and pantry to drum up some ideals for meals.

At least in the pantry I know what I’m working with, since the food products are adorned with helpful labels. I’m just plain scared of digging through my freezer. I once thawed out some chicken, some of the bloodiest chicken I’ve ever rinsed, only to realize after several moments under the faucet that it was actually pork chops. (It was an honest mistake since they had been purchased by my mother-in-law a couple of month earlier. I never buy pork chops.) It will certainly take every ounce of moral courage I possess to go hunting around in my freezer, but I’m sure the little hors d’oeuvre sized spinach pastries I know are hiding somewhere in there will make it all worthwhile.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Book Review - The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Warning: This post contains spoiler information on The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. If you have not read the book, click away from this post immediately and find a copy of your own to read.

The kernel of the plot of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas can be summed up in a sentence or two, but John Boyne has woven a tale around it that asks more questions than it answers. The back cover of the book deliberately reveals few details about the story, barely enough to get you to turn it over and open the front cover. The reader only learns that the book is about a nine-year-old boy named Bruno, that the book is not for nine-year-olds, and that Bruno takes a journey and encounters an ominous fence.

Most of us who are over the age of nine are familiar with the tragic setting of this story, but as the story is written from the point of view of a child, we are left to piece the clues together. As I read the story, I played a game with myself, looking for clues and foreshadowings and hints as the drama unfolded. Alas, the story is not a mystery, although the surprise ending presents one.

Still, I prided myself on figuring the Fury in chapter one and Out-With in chapter three. These bits of enlightening information made my heart sink into my stomach, beating with increasing intensity with each turn of the page. It was a bit like watching through the lens of a video camera a small girl with auburn curls and mischievous hazel eyes fling her arms around her father, who is dressed in a police officer’s uniform, on a glorious autumn morning in New York City. Then you read the date imprinted at the bottom of the screen: 9/11/01 7:54am. You know what happened that fateful day, but you don’t know what happened to these particular characters and you’re scared to find out although the story compels you.

I was compelled to keep reading the story to find out what was going to happen when nine-year-old Bruno discovered the truth about the village behind the fence. He seemed to have such a firm moral compass that it was natural for me, the reader, to wonder would happen when he made the horrifying discovery that would bring the novel to its climax and resolution. Although I was shocked by the ending, I was more shocked by the questions it posed.

Did Bruno ever realize what was going on in his own backyard? If he did, was it at the point of no return? Or perhaps was it at the point when Lieutenant Kotler displayed his anger towards Pavel while the entire family looked on, a little more that halfway through the book? Perhaps Bruno did figure out what was going just past the middle of the story and simply couldn’t face it. Perhaps that is the reason he is dreams up the plans for the adventure at the end of the story. And who exactly is The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas? Is it his friend, Shmuel, or is it Bruno himself? Does it even matter?

In the end, the story of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is perhaps less about good and evil as it is the power of self-deception in the face overwhelming horror. Bruno does notice how thin his friend is becoming, but still he persists on imagining a prosperous, quaint little town behind the fence. Shmuel knows what is happening when first his grandfather and then his father disappear but is intent on solving the mystery of their disappearance as though they can somehow be rescued. The villainous Lieutenant Kotler is deceiving himself about his relationship with his own father, the literature professor with whom he has managed to lose contact. Even Bruno’s father takes an entire year to piece together the horrifying puzzle that haunts the end of the book.

We are all, in the course of our lives, faced with the notion that we can choose to take blue pill or the red pill, like the character of Neo in the film The Matrix. We can take the blue pill and live within the confines of our illusions or we can take the red pill and live with freedom and integrity but with untold hardship and suffering. Many of us believe that we have chosen the red pill, but The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas asks us if we are not all living within our own illusions after all.