Monday, December 13, 2010

8 in a Million - a Quick Lesson in Atmospheric Science

Image of the top layers of the earth's atmosph...Image via Wikipedia
Re-Posted from the iPinion Syndicate

It is widely known that the ozone layer, part of the stratosphere, filters ultraviolet radiation out of sunlight.  Without this filtering, life as we know it could not exist: UV light is much higher energy than visible sunlight: it breaks chemical bonds, excites particles and heats them up, and generally messes with everything that it touches.  So the ozone is pretty important.

A slightly lesser known fact, however, is that ozone makes up only about 40 parts per billion (ppb) of the earth’s atmosphere.  That means that for every billion molecules of gas in the air, only 40 are that special UV collecting combination of three oxygen atoms.  Even at its highest concentration, in the lower portion of the stratosphere which is named after it, ozone accounts for only about 8 parts per million (ppm).  Now, while that is an order of magnitude more concentrated than the rest of the atmosphere, it is still only 0.0008%.  And yet, this tiny, minuscule amount of O3 filters about 98% of the UV light that is emitted by the sun, thus saving the life of everything on earth every day.

Recently a skeptical acquaintance asked if I really believed in “that global warming stuff.”  I informed him that in fact I did, and he proceeded to ask me if I knew how much CO2 was actually in the atmosphere.  I did not have the number memorized, but I knew it was very small.  “Less than .05%” he informed me (to be a bit more precise, it is about 385ppm).  He continued “do you really expect me to believe that that tiny amount of stuff is going to change the temperature of the entire earth?”  Without quick access to my facts, all I could do was weakly say “yes, but I can’t really explain why right now.”

Well, now that I have been able to go back over my notes and do some more research, I can boldly say (and I hope my skeptical friend gets to read this) “yes, I expect you to believe it, because if such a tiny amount of gas couldn’t absorb so much energy, we would all be dead.”  If 8ppm of O3 can absorb 98% of UV energy, then is it really so hard to believe that 385ppm of CO2 could absorb a significant amount of the infrared energy that the earth emits?  Greenhouse gasses (GHGs) like CO2 absorb much of the earth’s energy, and they scatter it all around.  Some of it warms the atmosphere, some is emitted out into space, and some emitted back to the earth.  The more GHGs there are, the more of that energy is trapped and emitted back to the earth.

It has been estimated that in recent history the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by 2ppm every year, due almost entirely to humans burning fossil fuels.  That may not seem like much, but that means an increase of 8ppm (which, if you remember, is the maximum concentration of ozone) every four years.  I don’t think many climate scientists are suggesting that some catastrophic event is going to end the human race over night, or even in a decade or two, but it does seem reasonable that increasing green house gas emissions steadily over a long period of time will result, in that long period of time, in a warmer planet.

Just 8 ozone particles in a million units, just 0.0008% of gas molecules make this planet habitable.  In atmospheric science, numbers that tiny are not only significant, they tend to describe the most significant phenomena of all.
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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Kimchi, Sauerkraut and Chutney - the Art of Home Fermentation

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - NOVEMBER 09:  South Korea...Image by Getty Images via @daylife
There is something magical about homemade Sauerkraut, whether it is the European variety, the Korean Kimchi, or the Latin American Curtido, all of which are fermented at room temperature.  The first time you smell Kimchi, you may have serious doubts about its potential for human consumption.  Once you develop a taste for it, however, you begin to crave the funky, intense flavor of cabbage fermented with garlic, green onion, carrots and ginger.

The ingredients and the process for fermenting vegetables are simple, and the results are delicious and a little amazing.  The very concept that you could cut food up and leave it to 'spoil,' and then later eat it probably sounds like black magic to the modern American.  But fermented vegetables have developed independently in every human civilization around globe.  The modern American, in other words, is unique in the history of humanity in his diet of 100%  either fresh or pasteurized/preserved foods.

My foray into fermentation is very recent, prompted by the gift from a cousin of an alternative diet cookbook (which is equal parts fruity and fantastic, mixing good science with psuedo-science on almost every page, but full of wonderful gems), so I was surprised and somewhat validated by the November 22nd New Yorker which includes articles on fermented food in general and on sauerkraut specifically.  As Burkhard Bilger discusses in his article Nature's Spoils, our society's obsession with killing bacteria, thinking of all bacteria as pathogenic, has recently been recast as an extreme and sometimes detrimental view.  Some good science and a lot of appeals to down-homey common sense based on anecdotal evidence are used to suggest that a thriving population of non-pathogenic bacteria is essential to good health.  This argument is being used to promote a wide variety of foods and diets, from raw milk and dairy to raw food diets such as Primal Eating.

Polish Sauerkraut (Kiszona kapusta)Image via Wikipedia
I personally am neither for nor against raw milk (though I think you should know the cow if you trust it not to be contaminated with listeria), look skeptically at any extreme diet, and believe that pasteurization is essential for industrial food production.  That being said, I am fully converted to simply fermented fruits and vegetables. Statistically speaking, they are much safer than raw milk or meat, their benefits have been studied a little more rigorously, and they are (lest we forget) delicious.  In fact, if prepared properly with due attention paid to temperature and the even distribution of salt, the likelihood of fermented vegetables carrying food born pathogens is almost nil.  In the taste department, if you have previously been soured to sauerkraut, you may have had commercially pickled cabbage, which is completely different in flavor, texture, and nutritional value from the traditional room temperature fermented variety.

Nothing could be simpler than fermenting vegetables.  All you have to do is add salt and sometimes water (vegetables should be covered in liquid, but their own juices often suffice), put it in an inert container (usually glass) and wait.  Three days is sufficient for most veggies, two will suffice for most fruits.  Without access to oxygen, lactic acid producing bacteria thrive and create a very low pH saline solution, destroying most other microorganisms.  The result is similar to yogurt in that it is full of bacteria that is good for you and totally devoid of bacteria that is harmful.  Speaking of yogurt, you can separate the liquids (whey) from yogurt by straining through a cloth and add a little of this liquid to the vegetables if you want to ensure the presence of healthy bacteria.  The solids which remain will be a light, fluffy cream cheese.

After one extremely successful experiment with Kimchi, I decided to attempt a fermented cranberry sauce for thanksgiving this year, and stumbled upon this lovely recipe for lacto-fermented cranberry chutney.  With just a little modification, I followed this recipe and the results were fascinating.  Initially too sour for some of the family (I used water instead of juice, that was a mistake), with the addition of a little extra sugar it pleased the whole crowd.  The fermentation process really makes the most of the aromatic cinnamon and clove, and I added the zest of a whole lemon (in one giant strip, not shredded) which also wonderfully infused the entire concoction.

Food production has become a complicated hydra of health and safety issues, with compelling arguments for and against every practice yet imagined or implemented.  In this jungle of information there is something extremely satisfying about stumbling across a home process as simple and fool proof as fermenting.  Follow the rules and you get consistently healthy and delicious results.  It is also a cheap and energy efficient way to preserve summer crops through the whole winter, as fermented veggies can last for months in the fridge (or even root cellar in cooler climates) with no negative impact to their nutritional value or flavor.

If there is any cabbage to be found at the winter farmer's market here in Eugene, I am bound to be making a large batch of sauerkraut in the very near future.  If not, however, I don't really see the point of fermenting conventional vegetables.  The process depends upon the presence of live lactic acid producing bacteria.  If you can't be sure whether the vegetables have been irradiated or not, then you can't trust them to ferment properly.  By law, fruits and veggies cannot be labeled organic if they have been irradiated, so organics are still worth the effort.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Weekend Meal Planning - Creating All your Meals for the Week in One Day

The key to eating healthy home made food when you have a busy schedule is planning.  Sitting down on the weekend and spending 20 minutes planning your meals for the week, and then doing as much cooking and preparation as you can on Saturday or Sunday will save you hours of planning and cooking for the rest of the week.  This method has lots of other unintended benefits as well, and the more you develop a routine the more you will see those benefits: less waste, less stress, less expense, more healthy diet.

For some time now, Courtney and I have tried to make a weekly menu before going shopping, starting ingredients that are already in the fridge or pantry.  We  write this list on a white board in the kitchen, and then write in the date that leftovers were made.  Since instituting this simple process, I think we take out the trash about 1/2 as often.  Here is what our whiteboard often looks like

Our Home Kitchen Menu

If you can avoid prepackaged meals and refrain from eating out for convenience sake (I love eating out, but only when I choose to treat myself), you can save a lot of money while gaining more control over your diet.  If you try to plan and cook a meal every night, however, you can quickly become overwhelmed and throw in the towel.

When we decided to do the October: Unprocessed challenge last month, we realized that with our busy schedules we were not going to be able to cook most week nights.  Eating out is expensive, but eating healthy and unprocessed foods out is phenomenally expensive.  In order to meet the challenge and maintain our savings (what little we have) Courtney and I turned our kitchen into a high efficiency food production facility every Sunday last month, and generally produced enough food in one day to last all week (that is why several of the menu items above have the same date by them).  Spending several hours doing intensive cooking is also significantly more efficient in terms of waste and energy.  For example, one Sunday, I made a frittata and Courtney cooked cornbread and pumpkin muffins, all at the same time.  The oven only heats up once, and there was one temperature change half way though, but over all we had 6 meals worth of food with one meals worth of oven time.

You may think that it would take more energy to refrigerate and freeze all that food, but in fact the opposite is true.  The more full your fridge or freezer is, the more efficient it will be.  Your fridge works hardest when you open the door, because all of the air it has cooled down escapes, and warm air rushes in.  The more stuff you have in the fridge, the less warm air can fill the space.  Also, the cold food will help to cool the air, so the actual heat pump doesn't have to work quite as hard.

Our menu over the past few weeks has been pretty extravagant, but our costs and time commitment have been relatively low.  We have been eating even less meat, and we feel free to experiment with more ambitious recipes and ideas (this week we plan on making kimchi).  One of the keys is making things which are not any more work when scaled up in volume, like soups stews and sauces.  The first week we did this, I made a tomato sauce from scratch.  A portion was sweetened and turned into pizza sauce that day, the rest was frozen and used variously as the base for enchilada sauce, a pasta sauce, and to make lasagna.

Homemade Tomato Sauce and Pizza with bell pepper and lobster mushrooms
For the rest of the week, Courtney and I are happy to come home and simply reheat our delicious and nutritious food, to wake up and grab left overs on the way out the door.  We find we spend less on groceries, since we tend to buy fewer items that can be used for several recipes, and that means less food spoils as well.

We have greatly enjoyed our Sunday cooking days, and hope that it will provide good practice for the extra work that a growing family will (eventually) bring.  Also, we are hosting a (very tiny) Thanksgiving here in Eugene for the first time, and our Sunday cooking experiments should serve as good practice for coordinating a large group meal.
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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Meat in the Vegetarian Argument

As part of October: Unprocessed, and leading up to my guest post on Eating Rules later this month, I thought it would be appropriate to re-post this piece, which details some of the issues of food as it relates to sustainability.

Re-Posted from the iPinion Syndicate

You may have heard that being vegetarian is green.  You may also have had a vegan activist tell you that meat is murder and you are killing the planet.  While there is definitely some truth to the argument that a vegetarian diet is a little more earth friendly, there is a little devil in the details.

The issues of food production are numerous, from health and humanity to environmental impact and sustainability.  Which issue is most important to you probably depends on a number of factors: your age, location, political views, etc.  By and large, however, beef does not fare well in any serious analysis of food issues.  At least, not conventional beef that is fattened in a concentrated feed lot.

If global warming and climate change are your primary concerns, you’ll be happy to hear that feed lot beef and dairy are the only things that you need to strike off your menu.  Chicken, fish and eggs are comparable to vegetables in green house gasses emitted during production and transport.  Speaking of fish, however, is opening a whole other can of worms.

If sustainability is what you are after, a lot of sea food is out: over fishing is stressing stocks all over the world, and aside from a few species that are managed responsibly (wild pacific salmon, e.g.) most edible fish populations are dropping at a staggering rate.  Seafood doesn’t fare well on the health test either; electronics, fluorescent bulbs and industrial practices have contaminated most seafood populations with levels of mercury that are dangerous for human consumption.

If you are a card carrying member of PETA, or sympathetic to their cause, chicken and eggs are back on the black list.  On the humanitarian scale, chicken production is much, much worse than just about anything else out there.  Feed lot beef is not much better.  If humanitarian concerns are foremost in your mind, you should probably explore expensive alternatives to conventional food at a specialty or kosher butcher shop.  If you can’t afford that, then meat is out.

If health is what you are thinking about, then a strictly vegetarian diet might not be a good idea at all.  Many people develop anemia, iron deficiency, or other issues when not eating meat, and careful management of protein and iron intake is essential for a healthy meatless diet.  Pescatarians (a word I am not entirely comfortable with, I’ll have you know) can get around this quite easily, as salmon and mollusks like clams provide massive doses of protein and iron in tiny portions.  But again, mercury is a real threat which much be considered constantly.  Farmed clams are better, but farmed salmon are terrible: they are fed other fish from depleting stocks and foul up coastal waters with concentrated waste.

Here is something that your vegan acquaintances will not be quick to point out, however: grass fed and grass finished cows are better in every way.  On the humanitarian angle, they are demonstrably healthier and ostensibly happier (in so far as we can tell these things).  They produce less methane (a green house gas) and foul up less water during their lives.  They are wildly healthier for you, with little saturated fat and more omega 3 fatty acids than salmon.  Finally, their waste is not concentrated like feed lot cows, which means that it can be absorbed naturally by the environment they are raised in.

In summation, if all of the issues in this article are important to you, you probably should be vegan.  However, if you are willing to do your food homework and buy the right products, you can put the vegan argument out to pasture with the grass fed cows.
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Sunday, October 10, 2010

To Dream of Less Stuff

Stuff, it sometimes seems, is who we are.  We produce it and measure our worth in its production.  We buy and sell it and measure our success in its exchange.  We own it, use it and replace it, and measure our happiness in its possession and acquisition.  We often confuse obtaining more stuff with bettering ourselves, so new stuff becomes equated with self-improvement.
And yet, if all that is true, we seem to be ignoring some important parts of ourselves.  What does it say, for example, that so much of our stuff is disposable?  Having no longevity, no staying power, sacrificing quality for convenience.

What does it say that we have so much stuff built for one and only one purpose?  Our kitchens and closets are cluttered with highly specialized gadgets, many of which are used only once a month, or even once a year. I don't doubt the convenience of a food processor, but do we need a blender, an immersion blender, a food processor, a juicer, a mortar and pestle, a mandolin, spice grinder, coffee grinder, and a Magic Bullet?  Every house has an oven, yet we feel the need to augment this with a toaster oven, microwave, bread maker, crock pot, and pressure cooker.  Any one of these items is perfectly reasonable, but is it reasonable to have all of them?

What does it say about us that we always want everything to be brand new?  As soon as something develops its first nick or mar, it begins to bother us, to weigh heavily on our subconscious as if the mar were a blemish on our very souls.  Nothing we own is allowed to have any history, any meaning beyond itself.  Nothing is allowed the taint of a previous owner, nor any significance beyond its immediate purpose.

In the last month, I have come to realize that it is exceedingly rare that we actually need new stuff.  When we challenge our selves just a little, we find that we can use things which are marred, we can fix things which are broken, we can buy things which have been owned by a stranger before us, and we can even make smoothies and pesto without a Magic Bullet.  Most amazing of all, when we challenge ourselves, we find that sometimes, we can even do without.

Just as I have been dreaming of less for so many other things, I have been dreaming of less stuff.  Less clutter, less trash, less hassle, less mess.  I have been dreaming of things which serve many purposes, eliminating the need for other stuff.

I have been dreaming of buying everything used which can be bought used.  I dream not just of less stuff in my home, but in the human world as a whole, and second hand goods eliminate the need for more new stuff.  In a sense, an item can be divided by the number of people who have owned it, so that I own 1/5 of a couch, 1/4 of a dining set, 1/3 of a coffee table, 1/6 of an armchair.

I have been dreaming, longingly, of storage spaces that are clearly organized, free of clutter, full without being stuffed.  I dream of all my spaces being clear of stuff, the surfaces in my house being almost empty when not in use.  I dream of having one of everything I need and none of anything I don't.

I dream of a life which is occupied by a small amount of highly useful, durable, beautiful stuff that I love to use, to look at, to care for.  I dream of meeting my every need with as little material as possible, and not coveting that which I do not need.  I dream of a home in which all of my stuff improves my quality of life, and anything which does not is banished forever from my home.

Courtney and I have been moving actively toward this dream for some time now, and after many purges of stuff followed by periods of buying nothing new, we have achieved a level of stuff which is well bellow average, but there is much work left to be done before we are living the dream that we are dreaming.  The journey, so far at least, has been liberating and joyous, and the less we use to meet our needs (both real and invented) the better we feel about our stuff.
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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Lane County Farmers' Market, FTW!

The Chanterelle, Oregon's state mushroom.Image via Wikipedia
Fall is special for many reasons here in the Pacific North West, but my favorite thing about fall is that I can finally make all of my LA friends jealous of the Farmers' Markets up here.  Sure, you get tomatoes year round, but you ain't got nothin' on North West Mushrooms.  That's right, it's mushroom season big time here in Oregon, and there is no better place to be when mushroom season rolls around.

Aside from the abundance of obvious, well known 'shrooms that grow wild all over the Willamette Valley (chanterelles, maitakes, and truffles, to name a few. . . ooooh truffles), the climate is also perfect for some lesser known and truly delicious delicacies.   Today I picked up a few, including the chicken of the woods, which believe or not actually tastes and has a texture similar to chicken.  Also, I grabbed a few lobster mushrooms, which aside from being red on the outside and white on the inside, actually have a distinct seafood flavor that lends them their name.

Chicken of the Forest - actually tastes like chicken

Lobster Mushroom - actually tastes like lobster

There was much talk today amongst strangers at the market about how best to cook these delectable fungi, sauteed in butter or tossed in a pasta e.g., but my favorite thing to do with just about any mushroom is make risotto, which I will surely be doing this weekend, as it fits nicely with the October: Unprocessed challenge.  For a basic risotto recipe, see my post on Wild Mushroom Risotto from last year.  The wonderful thing about this dish is that the risotto provides a rich creamy base that supports the mushroom flavor, lifts it to the fore and lets it shine.  The slight crunch of al dente rice is also a nice backdrop for the unique textures that the variety of wild mushrooms have to offer.  This is not a dish for the feint of heart, but for those with clear arteries and good exercise routines, it is the ultimate in sinful savory satisfaction.
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Nothing New except October: Unprocessed

As the sun sets on my Month of Nothing New, it dawns on October: Unprocessed.  The last month went by rather quickly and uneventfully in terms of my challenge, and after thinking it through, I have decided that one month of making no new purchases (excluding food and medicine) is just too easy.  It was not really a challenge at all.  There were a few minor hiccups, but not one real sense of sacrifice or brilliant solution to a difficult problem.  In short, it was not the fodder for good writing that I had hoped it would be.  All this has led me to the conclusion that I should extend the challenge, keep it going for perhaps six months.  In half a year, I am bound to run into a number of problems that force me to consider breaking the rules, and probably doing it at least once.

Take the Pledge!  Learn More Here.

In the next month, however, I will focus on the October: Unprocessed pledge, and so I will probably be writing a little more about food.  Two things cropped up in September, however, that I felt it would be inappropriate to post in my month of nothing new, so keep your eyes open this October for news about the Unprocessed Pledge and a special treat for my readers.  As I promised at the beginning of last month, the next installment of To Dream of Less will be out soon.  Also, if you don't know about October: Unprocessed, check it out!  Click on the logo above, take the pledge, you still can, join up any time in October and finish the month with Eating Rules, myself, and about 30 other bloggers who have taken the Pledge and agreed to write about it on Andrew Wilder's site.
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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Waste Not

Active tipping area of an operating landfill i...Image via Wikipedia
Re-posted from the iPinion Syndicate

After writing about buying second hand goods, I got a few comments about giving to thrift stores, selling to stores like Crossroads, and having a garage sale to get rid of stuff instead of just throwing it away.  After all, as I am sure you have heard many times by now, there is no ‘away.’  Or rather, ‘away’ is the ocean, landfills and incinerators.

‘Away’ is not so far away as you would like, and bits of what you throw away find their way back to you (like the mercury in seafood).  The bits that don’t find their way back still might be affecting you in some other manner: by disrupting a food source, permanently damaging some piece of land, or being incinerated and mucking up your air.

There is a lot of waste in our society.  For the identifiable past of ‘western civilization,’ we have always thought of things in terms of raw materials, useful products, and waste to be dealt with.  But only in the past century and a half has the amount of waste been such a huge and universal problem.  Today, we generate so much waste that even though we burn and bury the majority of it, it is clogging our streams, rivers, ports and even making a significant impact on every sea and ocean on the planet.  If this were intentional, it would be quite an accomplishment.  Unfortunately, it is a destructive and unintentional consequence of simply not paying enough attention to how much waste we generate and how we deal with it.

Now for the bad news: there is very little that you can do about it.  At least by yourself, right now.  You can recycle, and that is great.  It really helps.  Unfortunately, most things are not easily recyclable, and no municipality in this country has a 100% recycling rate for the things that are.

The rubbish incineration plant at Spillepengen...Image via Wikipedia

You can reuse stuff instead of throwing it away.  You can (as mentioned above) sell or give old stuff away and buy other stuff second hand.  This keeps stuff out of land fills and incinerator, and also reduces the need for manufacturing, packaging and shipping of more new stuff.  But some things are never going to be available second hand, like food and cleaning products; nor should they be.

Finally, you can reduce the amount of stuff you buy.  Maybe.  Depending on the stuff.  And you can consciously choose to buy stuff with less packaging.  Sometimes.  When there is an option.  The fact is, the current paradigm embraces the old ‘raw materials, stuff, waste’ mind set wholeheartedly, and almost everything comes packaged in layers and layers of waste.  And all that is not even the worst part, not by half.

The worst part is that before the stuff even got to the store, massive amounts of water and materials were turned into waste in the manufacturing process, and you as an individual right now have absolutely no power over that at all.  Except...

 There is one more thing that you can do that begins with ‘r,’ though it isn’t part of the traditional waste hierarchy: research.  You can try to find out about the stuff you are buying, how it is produced, and vote with your dollars.  So the good news is that we as the consumers (not individuals), over time (not right now), can try as often as possible to choose the less wasteful option, and that will make a difference.  Because the more dollars that flow to low waste products, the more pressure there will be for a paradigm shift, from ‘materials, stuff, waste,’ to ‘materials, stuff, materials, stuff, materials...’  There is a growing field called industrial ecology that is preparing the new paradigm, and if we all push together, we can get this boulder rolling in their direction.
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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Print Media v. Digital Media: Missing the Point?

A Picture of a eBookImage via Wikipedia
It seems obvious to me that the rapid and free flow of information through every media channel available is one of the most important elements, by far, to a sustainable future.  There is a lively debate, however, about which type of media is more sustainable: digital or print.

On the side of digital media we have Saul Griffith, who says that when you take into account the energy used to produce all of the books, magazines and newspapers that we have in our lives, ship them to the stores, light and air-condition the stores, and then drive them home, it is more than the amount of energy used by an electronic device that can replace all of them (iPad, Kindle, or laptop).  I have to wonder, however, if this reckoning  takes into account the fact that many tech savvy readers upgrade their electronic devices as fast as Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos can come out with new models.  Sure, if the iPad replaced every book and magazine in my life, it would balance out great.  But what if it only replaces one year's worth of my print media, and then I upgrade?

Steve Jobs while presenting the iPad in San Fr...Image via Wikipedia
Another question I would ask Saul, if I had a direct line to him, is whether or not that accounts for used
books.  A single paperback can be read by dozens, or theoretically hundreds of people.  Periodicals are more disposable by nature, but anyone who has frequented a cafe alone knows that a paper too can have multiple readers.  Would this multiple readership divide the energy consumed by the number of readers?  Public Libraries and websites like Paperback Swap add to this effect, and some people (like myself) have many books but never buy any of them new.  Does that commitment change the equation?  Most importantly, if you combine all of these points, is the balance still in favor of the digital age?

All of this would argue for print media, but to be balanced myself, I have to point out that digital does have a lot going for it as well.  I opened this discussion by stating that the free flow of information is one of the most important parts of a sustainable society, because the rapid and free transfer of information promotes understanding of the issues and methods of a sustainable life.  In this regard, digital media has print beat hands down.  If someone has a simple idea for reducing energy consumption in a home or office, and they write in to their local paper, only the local audience will get that information.  If that tip is very climate or region specific that might be just fine, but if it is widely applicable then isn't it better for that piece of information to be online where anyone in the world can access it?

In the end, the best thing that you can do is keep track of and think about how you use the media in your life.  If you go with print: get books used, borrow from libraries and friends, only subscribe to the magazines and papers that you really care about, and when you are hungry for more use the library to access the digital version of media you are not 100% on.  If you go the digital route, make a concerted effort to reduce the amount of media that you buy in the print format.  Which ever route you choose to take, avoid frequent upgrades to the latest eReader hardware (especially if you already have a laptop, desktop, etc.), try to get more books used or borrow them from libraries, and cancel your subscription to magazines that you only read one or two articles out of each issue.  If you follow these simple suggestions you should end up spending less on your media as well, and as always my favorite kind of green is the kind in my wallet.
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Sunday, September 19, 2010

October: Unprocessed with Eating Rules

"The New Fred Meyer on Interstate on Lomb...Image via Wikipedia
I have been invited to write a guest blog for Eating Rules, as part of the October: Unprocessed challenge.  I am very excited to take the challenge, and honored that my old colleague (from a past life) Andrew Wilder asked me to write a post about food and sustainability for his blog.

The system of industrial food production in our society is unique in human history in both scale and methods, and there are many health and safety concerns to be addressed.  Eating Rules is a website about how to maintain a healthy diet while navigating this system by following a few simple, easy to apply rules.  The October: Unprocessed challenge is something that Andrew came up with to try and spur people into thinking more deeply about what they consume, where it came from, how it came to be on their table, and ultimately why all of that is important to us.  So, for the month of October, the wife and I will be attempting to eat only food that is "unprocessed."

fancy chocolate bar, crackedImage via Wikipedia
As you may have guessed, exactly what is meant by unprocessed is not totally clear, but the current working definition for the project is any food which has been (or contains ingredients which have been) prepared, altered, or processed in a way that could not be accomplished in an ordinary home kitchen.  So, for example,a product which is sweetened with high fructose corn syrup would be out, because you need a laboratory and some very precise instruments to turn corn into HFCS, but chocolate could be acceptable, because with a little practice you could make chocolate at home from whole ingredients ('making chocolate' is easy, forming it into bars and such can be difficult).  If that chocolate bar were sweetened with HFCS, on the other hand, it would be back on the black list.

Of course that definition itself contains some ambiguity, but I think the project embraces that ambiguity.  It seems to me the desired outcome is to have a dialogue, if you will, with what we eat, to ask of everything we consume: where did you come from and how were you made, to engage in a daily process of thinking about our food in a new way.

I would encourage everyone to take a look at the project, and seriously consider taking the pledge yourself.  If nothing else, it is an interesting way to look at the relationship between food and health.
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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Nothing New -- Half Way There

Today is the 16th, which means that the month is just about exactly 1/2 way over.  There have been one or two challenges, but mostly the wife and I have sailed through the month of nothing new with hardly a hiccup.  My thinking has changed in two pretty major ways, however, as a result of making this pledge and thinking about it every day.

The first is that I now walk around my house and look at every object in a new light.  What would I do if this thing broke, or if I didn't have it in the first place and decided that I needed it?  Where would I go to replace it?  Where did I purchase this item in the first place?  How difficult was it to find?

Looking around my living room now I think that about 90% of what I see was purchased second hand or inherited.  The other 10% was mostly gifted to us by family.  I only really see a handful of things that we bought new: the Dyson Ball Vacuum (which our allergies dictate we must own), a steel H2Ozone water canister, and one purchase that I regret immensely: some white curtains from Walmart that are not quite actually opaque enough to disperse the southern sunlight properly.  In the past 15 and 3/4 days I have been staring at those curtains thinking "if we had only kept looking in thrift stores, if we hadn't given up, we would have something even better now."

I realize it is pretty indulgent to be kicking myself for the one thing in the room that is not easily justified, but maybe that was the point of this challenge in the first place: to hold myself to a higher standard.  And now, whether or I like it or not, I cannot help but feel that I cheated before I even began.  That is because of the second shift in my thinking.

I now realize that I had been so well stocked on disposable goods before I even began this challenge that a serious threat to it's success never materialized.  This was not by design, I was this well stocked before I even came up with the idea.  I have a years supply of razors in my medicine cabinet (which is not hard, a razor lasts me several months since I only shave the edges of my beard).  We have practically a pallet of Kleenex from Costco, because we both have dust allergies that require year round daily nose blowing.  And now every time I use one of these things, I realize that if I had not already stocked up, and then ran out, I would pretty much be forced to buy something new.

See description aboveImage via Wikipedia
Of course I could start blowing my nose in a washable handkerchief, or purchase a used straight razor (which isn't quite so creepy as it sounds, I could soak it in bleach for a day before using it), but I have to ask myself if
I would actually do these things if push came to running out of razors.  And the answer is: I don't know.  I would like to think that I would, but perhaps I would be weak.

At the midway point, I am now thinking that one month is really not sufficient for a lasting change or in depth analysis of how I live.  There have been one or two interesting dilemmas, but I feel that the most important realization that I have had is that it is easy to feel like I am making a change without actually doing anything of substance, and at the midpoint of this month long challenge I am already thinking of how to extend it, how to modify the rules, how to go further.

For now I am only thinking, and the only action that I am taking is to finish the month by the rules, and continuing to examine how my life would be different if this challenge were permanent.
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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Spicy Watermelon and Cucumber Gazpacho -- a Raw, Vegan Recipe

Watermelon with yellow fleshImage via Wikipedia
While at the IFBC last month I wrote about chef Josh Silver's watermelon gazpacho.  Gazpacho is traditionally made from tomatoes, but I have never been a huge fan of cold tomato soup.  Silver's use of watermelon as the base was a revelation for me, and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of cold soup from raw ingredients.  So, the other night I attempted to recreate it with a tangerine watermelon I picked up at the Lane County Farmer's Market.  The results, though perhaps not worthy of Syrah Bistro, were absolutely delicious.

Along with the FM watermelon, I used a cucumber from a friend's garden to add crunch, a small red onion for that allium bite, and the juice of a few limes for their tangy citric acid.  The lime juice and a pinch of sea salt also helped to break the fruit and veggies down and infuse the individual ingredients with each others' flavors, and to infiltrate them with several peppery additions to the mix.  The finishing touch: finely chopped cilantro for an aromatic character that excites the sense of smell before the soup even touches your tongue.
Red onion cutImage via Wikipedia

It may seem a little late in the season for cold soups, but for the home gardener and the FM shopper the fruit has been ripening all summer and now is definitely the time to use it all up before it spoils.  The raw aspect means that there is no energy used at home to prepare the meal, and the fact that it is vegan means that no animals were harmed during the creation of this recipe (I did scold Cleo for trying to eat the onion, but that was for her own good; onions are poisonous to dogs).
Persian Limes in a grocery store.Image via Wikipedia

Spicy Watermelon and Cucumber Gazpacho

1 small Watermelon
1 Cucumber
1 Red Onion
Juice of 2 Limes
1 fresh Chili, slightly spicy
1 handful fresh Cilantro
Red, Black and White Pepper to taste
A pinch of Sea Salt

Serves 6 as appetizer, 3 or 4 as main course.

Cut the watermelon into slices, and then dice finely.  Try to retain as much juice as possible and add with the watermelon to a bowl large enough to hold all ingredients.  Dice the red onion, chili and cucumber, and add to the bowl.  Finely chop or tear cilantro and add to the other ingredients  Add the spices, salt and lime juice, and refrigerate, covered, for at least an hour.

Serve in small cups or mugs, garnish with more cilantro if desired.

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A Few Surprises for My Nothing New Month

This week, I was taken on a surprise camping trip (which is why I have been incommunicado for most of the week).  If you are not familiar with the concept of a surprise camping trip, that is because it is not actually a thing.  It is not a thing because camping requires lots of planning, and making a camping trip a surprise makes planning impossible.

Of course I am exaggerating.  My wife and I had been talking with her parents for a few months about camping before the summer was over, but we have had a great deal of trouble working out our schedules.  When we stayed with them last month (while I was attending IFBC), we had all vaguely agreed that it must happen soon, or not at all.  Just last weekend, when we realized that we all had some time off, it was suggested that camping might happen.  Still, on Sunday at 3pm, when my wife informed me that her parents were driving down right now, and we would be camping as of tomorrow, it felt quite a bit like a surprise camping trip at the time.

My first thought was "how does this fit into my month of nothing new?"  Followed quickly by "they are driving all the way down here, is it rude to demand that they follow my arbitrary rules for my blog?"  Well, as it turned out, I hardly had to bring up the blog and my Nothing New month, because both they and us owned sufficient camping gear, and we really only had to buy food (which doesn't count) for the trip to be a success.

There were a few hiccups, of course.  The first was simply that I had not thought about whether gasoline counted as buying something new.  I am still not certain, but I must disclose that I purchased a full tank of gas.  Next, we were camping just north of Newport, and Courtney really wanted to go clamming, as the season is just about over and we could not conceivably go again until next spring.  All well and good, but I would need some serious waterproof boots.

Well, the local Salvation Army was our salvation on this trip, because they had exactly one pair of knee high waterproof boots that fit me like a hand-me-down glove.  As we were checking out, the cashier said "boy, you really lucked out with those, they don't last long here."  Since Newport is a coastal town on a bay, known for it's abundance of razor, butter, soft shell, gaper, and cockel clams (and even the odd geoduck), scallops, bay shrimp, and crab, I was  not exactly surprised to learn that good second hand galoshes were a hot commodity.

After a few days of camping, clamming, and taking in Newport (which I will surely write about soon, as it is home to the nicest people on earth), the in-laws and we (in-laws and us? anyone?) returned to Springfield with several clams and a surprise agenda.  If you are not familiar with the concept of a surprise agenda, that is because you don't have the same in-laws as I (as me? I am having pronoun trouble today).

Apparently, my father in law had heard through the grapevine about our efforts to fix up and sell the Honda, but had not heard about my moderately ambitious plan to not purchase anything new this month.  The result is that I found myself overwhelmed with a plan to fix up the paint job and some body damage which involved buying lots of little new things.  It was a sound plan financially, of course, the idea was to spend a very small amount of money to get the car into the next condition bracket, but it was antithetical to my plans for September.

My wife Courtney came to the rescue. While I was embarrassed to say that their reasonable, helpful plan didn't fit in with what I was blogging about this month, Courtney explained to her parent that I was trying to fix up the car in the "greenest" way possible, and we ended up adhering to the rules that I set out in my first post.  Nothing has been purchased, still, to fix the car.  My father in-law borrowed a trickle charger to re-charge the battery, which turned out to be in perfect condition.  We also found a mechanic that would charge only $10 to put the battery on a charger for a day or so, so if we couldn't borrow a charger we could have done that.  The car (after a good wash) is now running great and ready to sell, body damage, faded paint and all.

The last week, in other words, presented me with some completely unique and bizarre problems, but so far I have not broken the rules as they were originally laid out. Of course, the month is only 1/3 over, and anything can still happen.
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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Nothing New Day 4 -- Coffee and Cars

We are now half way through day 4 of our "nothing new" experiment, and we have only just encountered our first real trial.  On the first day we rented a movie, on the second we didn't buy anything at all, and the third day we made a brief stop at the grocery store, no rules broken.  First thing this morning I was having two consecutive conflicting thoughts: first, maybe a month was not ambitious enough, maybe this will be too easy; and second, how the heck am I going to fix up the Honda to sell it without buying anything new this weekend?

Cafetière/French press.Image via Wikipedia

Then life threw us a curve ball; our french press coffee maker broke.  Anyone who has ever owned, operated, or even looked sideways at a french press should not be surprised by this at all.  They break easily.  In fact, I think that they are designed to break.  There might even be a manufacturers guarantee on the box: "guaranteed to break within one year of purchase or your money back!"  Now, the wife and I will not be going coffee-less, as we have a cheapo little drip coffee maker that we have owned since moving in together, but french press coffee is so much better.

For us, this is a real (if garden variety) dilemma: I really hate the idea of owning something that is designed to break (or might as well be), but I really love the flavor of french press coffee.  Courtney is currently looking up options for finding replacement beakers used.  Meanwhile this is has already spurred a brief debate about why we are doing this in the first place.  What is more important, that we accomplish this task without feeling deprived, or that we make some sacrifices to change the way we consume?  No concensus has been reached yet, but I will be sure to post the resolution to this dilemma as it arises.

The next big hurdle: today I am tackling the Honda Prelude that has been weighing down our parking lot for the better part of a year.  Last week I got it running and adjusted the idle (only new purchase: an extra long screwdriver to open the dash).  This week, I have to find out why the battery is not holding a charge.  First step is to determine if the fluid level is low, and clean the terminals.  If that doesn't work, I may have to replace the fluid entirely, but then I don't know what to do with the old fluid.  Well, either way, I will be sure to take pics and keep you all updated.  That is it for now.
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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Second Hand Retail Therapy

Re-Posted from the iPinion Syndicate

This past weekend [first weekend in August] Courtney and I celebrated our 2nd anniversary.  We decided, instead of gifts, to indulge ourselves to the highest possible degree at the local thrift stores.  We did so not because we are broke (although we are not exactly sizing up multi-million dollar yachts and coastal states with no sales tax yet), but rather because buying things second hand is the best way to buy things, and not just because you get more things per dollar.

Being good, law abiding citizens, we self medicate with that wonderful drug sometimes called ‘retail therapy’ just like all our fellow Americans.  But because we are trying to be environmentally conscious, and we have seen “The Story of Stuff” (which you should too; if you haven’t seen it, watch it right now before you finish reading this; it’s free online), we want to buy as much stuff as we can while minimizing the energy, waste and pollution that results from buying lots of stuff.  While most solutions for buying low impact stuff involve really expensive techniques for making new stuff, one low budget solution is to buy stuff that simply is not new.

If you have a choice between new and used, and you go for used, you are actively reducing demand for new stuff, which means (added up across many individuals and over time, of course) less raw materials used, less fuel burnt, less water turned into toxic sludge, and less waste.

You may think (especially if you do not frequent thrift stores) that shopping would not be the same without getting a bunch of new stuff, but new stuff is not the best thing about shopping.  Consider: how often do you enjoy the item you purchased at home as much as you enjoyed picking it out?  Since 99% of new stuff is no longer in use just 6 months after it is purchased, I am guessing the answer is somewhere around 1 percent of the time.  It isn’t the stuff that you like, it’s buying it.

We are a nation of consumers, and we love to shop.  Men just as much as women: many men may hate shopping for clothes, but ask the average dude about his ideal BBQ, and you will discover that he loves buying certain things just as much as the average female.  This is due, at least in part, to the feeling of control that being a consumer provides.  When you walk into a store, there are people being paid to serve you, answer your questions, get another one from the back, and tell you ‘that looks great on you.’  They are doing so because they want your money, but that’s okay; its understood that you have chosen to shop there.

You can get dumped on all day at work, get no respect from your family and friends (not describing my own life here, everyone calm down) but when you are ready to pull out the check book, everyone treats you like a king (or queen).  Pretty much all those positive emotional experiences are just as good at second hand stores.  The amenities may not be quite so classy, the staff not quite so motivated, but you are still in control of your money and how you spend it.  Also, just as ‘new stuff’ stores range from Sears to Saks, so second hand ranges from Goodwill to Crossroads.  So whatever your needs, retail therapy is available second hand.

When my wife and I want anything, even if we can afford it new, we always look for it used first, and that is just one more method of experiencing that control.  We do it because it is our darn money and we will it spend how we darn well see fit.  And I would encourage you to consider doing the same (though of course, I would never dream of telling you to).
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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Nothing New -- Courtney and I Vow to Make No New Purchases for One Month

While turning over the Dream Of Less in my head and discussing it with my like minded wife Courtney, we developed a little challenge for ourselves: purchase not one new item for an entire month.  At the end of the month, I hope to write the next installment of the dream: To Dream of Less Stuff.  Also, if the month goes better than expected, maybe we will extend the challenge for an even greater period of time.  For the first installment, however, we will begin on September 1, and attempt to buy nothing new until October 1.

Of course, a challenge like this would be meaningless without some clearly defined terms, some ground rules, and some expectation up front of a reasonable amount of failure.  So I describe for you now the plan:

  • First: food is not counted here, for obvious reasons.  What is counted, however, is any kitchen utensil, crockery, flatware, or other durable good associated with the preparation of food.
  • Second: semi-durable and disposable goods do count, including napkins, towels, clothing, shoes, kleenex, etc.  Also counted are things purchased for us in the process of a service we pay for, such as car maintenance.
  • Third: Cleaning products are to be avoided unless absolutely necessary.  We will try to use what we have sparingly, and find alternatives (vinegar and baking soda, e.g.) when we run out.
  • Fourth: items essential to health care (medicine, bandages) for both ourselves and our pets do not count at all.  I will not put myself, my wife, or any of our furry children in harms way for this or any other experiment.
  • Fifth: "new" shall be here defined as anything which is not previously owned, not re-purposed or recycled, not refurbished or re-anything-ed in any way.
  • 6th: when the need for some stuff arises, we shall follow this rubrick for satisfying the need:
  1. Try to repair the broken stuff (reuse/repair)
  2. See if we can make something else work for the same purpose (re-purpose)
  3. Try to borrow or barter for it
  4. Try to find it used or refurbished
  5. Reconsider if we can do without it
  6. Finally, break down and buy it new
However, if we get all the way to step 6, I am hereby bound to write a blog post about the item and the process of trying to achieve steps 1 through 5.

I think that about covers it.  I can tell you right now that at some point we will fail, and most likely because of my wife's car, which we are in the process of fixing up to sell.  But the failures are an anticipated part of the experiment, and we will not be deterred by a few set backs.

The purpose of this exercise is to actively monitor the amount of stuff we buy, and the amount of waste that we generate, and furthermore attempt to actively reduce those categories.  I am very optimistic that we will achieve some success in this endeavor, and I hope against hope that you will find this either a little inspiring or least somewhat entertaining.  Either way, I am really doing this for your benefit, so you better read!
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A Weekend at Theo Chocolate with the IFBC -- Day 1

Taken from theMaykazine's Flickr Photostream under CC license
After staying up late attending the Urban Spoon welcoming party at the ultra hip Cafe Purple, I got to the International Food Blogger Conference with only 5 hours of sleep.

Saturday morning, 6:25am, I walked into the conference hall at Theo Chocolate and found a dozen or so people bustling around in very efficient form, carrying things, moving things, cleaning things, generally doing things to other things in a near frantic state -- the sense of 'panic on the verge' that overwhelms the front line of employees at any conference.  Within a minute of arriving, I was carrying cartloads of POM drinks from Theo's industrial fridge to the hall.  Being one of only two male volunteers, I figured that I was in for some heavy lifting (people under duress default to traditional gender roles very quickly).

When my first task was completed, I asked about coffee, and was met with a deeply apologetic, wearied, hangdog look.  "The coffee vendor isn't here yet, but as soon as they are, you can drop whatever you are doing and get some coffee."  I was not about to argue with the severity of that expression, particularly because it came from staffer Reno, who aside from this one moment was the most persistently upbeat and cool guy I met at IFBC.

A photo of a cup of coffee.Image via Wikipedia
Once Caffe Vita arrived, the general level of optimism and energy was instantly elevated from "why did I agree to this?" to "Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho."  The best way to keep volunteers and employees happy, especially through long or early hours, is with lots of caffeine and sugar.  When those volunteers and employees are all foodies, the caffeine had better come in a delicious package.  Vita did not, in any way, disappoint.

Then some people spoke, it was cool, but the real point, I think, was lunch (just kidding, of course, Barnaby Dorfman gave a very informative talk on SEO; I missed the other morning sessions due to duties).  Four wines from the Walla Walla region were paired with small plate offerings from Seattle Chefs.  There was also a well received GF table, but since I was flying solo (without the GF wife), I did not partake.

The winner for lunch, in my opinion, was a plate of spicy citrus chick peas topped with a whole marinated baby octopus.  The texture of the purple and white octopus was just about indescribable: slightly tough like squid on the outside, a little crunch on the inside, and wholly unique.  The red tinged spicy chick peas were a perfect accompaniment to the octopus too, for both their tooth pleasing combination of crunch and give, as well as the acidic tang of the (I think) lime juice.  It was prepared by Chef Shannon Galusha from Bastille Cafe and Bar.

After lunch, I was able to sneak away from my volunteer duties to see the session on the Law and Ethics of Food Blogging, which was largely about copyright.  The rock star of that talk was Robin Goldstein (sorry Barnaby and Robert) whose presentation was titled "Reducing Bullshit in Wine Writing," if memory serves.  As desperately as I wanted to stay for dinner, being completely floored by the fare thus far, I was exhausted and ready to be "off" for the day.  If it was a one day event, I might have pushed through, but I could not bear the thought of missing the food trucks on Sunday.

I could write a whole seperate blog post about the Walla Walla Wines, but I will post some links instead.  Hopefully that will help to reduce the overall level of Bullshit in Wine Writing.
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