Archive for May 5th, 2009

Food Storage Class Syllabus

Sharon May 5th, 2009

Hi Folks: For them that were wondering, here’s the syllabus for my upcoming food storage class, starting May 19th.  I’ve still got spaces, so email me at [email protected] if you are interested.  More details here.  The class is online and runs six Tuesdays from May 19 to June 23.  Each class will include instructions for hands-on activities you can use to practice different techniques.

Tuesday, May 19: Introduction to Food Preservation, Setting Up a Basic Food Storage Plan; Planning for the Harvest; Food Storage FAQ

Tuesday: May 26: Water Bath Canning, Grains and Beans; Storing Coffee, Tea, Milk and Beverages; Do I need a freezer?; Buying Clubs and Other Strategies to Get Neighbors On Board

Tuesday June 2: Dehydration;  Preserving Herbs and Spices, Tools and Techniques, Where Heck do I Put All this stuff?; Cooking from Storage

Tuesday June 9: Fermentation – Kim Chi, Sauerkraut, Yogurt, Kefir, Beer, Sourdough and other pleasures.  Budget food storage.  Sources and Ideas for Stocking a Pantry.  Meats.

Tuesday June 16: Pressure Canning; Salting;  Storing Non-Food Goods; Holiday Food Storage; Food Storage with Children, Special Diets

Tuesday June 23: Season Extension and Root Cellaring; Preserving with Alcohol; Storing Medications; Community Food Reserves



Housewifely Virtues 1: Clothing Management

Sharon May 5th, 2009

I must thank a particular reader, who I will leave anonymous, for this series.  I got an email from a reader praising my work very kindly and in terms of great enthusiasm, and stating that she felt that various famous national magazines should be carrying my work.  This was all very flattering, until she got to the main point of her letter, which was to offer me constructive criticism about my “obsession with the housewifely virtues crap.”  She asked that I stop “wasting myself” writing about food storage and preservation, cooking and parenting  and write more of the “public intellectual” pieces that she so admires.  She cited several examples, and hoped that I’d take the message in the spirit in which it was intended, because, after all, it was for my own good.

I actually rather think I did take it as intended ;-) .  And I took it precisely as I take the largish number of emails I get from people who think I should stop trying to write policy, theoretical or intellectual pieces that were “too long” and “boring” and just concentrate on giving people practical advice that they can use, while leaving the big issues to the grownups - that is, I laughed.  And being contrary, I went off to write precisely the sort of piece my correspondent hates.  So I thank her for the inspiration.

The thing is, I am a housewife.  I like to think I’m a bit of an intellectual, but much of my day to day life is that of mistress of the house – co leader with my husband (whose title also implies binding to the home) of a household.  This is  true regardless of whether I work professionally or only in the domestic sphere – I believe that holding house, with all its connotations of making a comfortable place to live, thift and all that other stuff is good and important work, which I have to do no matter what else I do.  Yeah, I write, but I also do laundry.  IMHO, the idea that these things are fundamentally split – that the life of the mind happens at the computer, maybe in the garden, but never, ever, while folding clothes, seems wrong, and kind of demeaning to all of us, male or female, who would rather not have the laundry piled up on the floor. 

I think the choice not to find domestic life interesting is, in fact a choice.  That is, I don’t find that laundry or dishes are inherently less interesting than, say, the annual business report – we have decided they are, but because we have done so, there’s probably actually much more to be said about how to do the dishes quickly and well, or how to manage laundry well than has been.  The reality is that these things matter – they take up our time and energy and money, and the flow of those things – resources, time, personal and fossil energies, are important.  I keep waiting for permaculturists to start writing books about domestic management, because I think this is territory insufficiently explored and of a great deal of use.  Until they do, I’ll put it on my agenda.

So I thought I’d write about the problem of clothing management, which I must admit is one of the banes of my existence.  For a couple of adults with no children, this may seem like a minor task, although I hope I may have someting to offer even then.  But since I live in a house with four growing kids, a very limited clothing budget, no time to shop and not much inclination to do so, I’ve had to get fairly good at all of this, despite my inherent lack of organization.

I do all the laundry, and all the clothing management in our household – we share the domestic work fairly evenly, but I like doing laundry and Eric doesn’t, and he does floors in trade.  I also purchase all the clothing, almost all from yard sales and thrift shops – the only things I consistently buy new are pajamas for my oldest son, because footed fleece pjs (part of our “staying warm in a cool house” plan) in size 14 are hard to come by (although once in a while I manage to snag even these).  I also do all the mending, because I don’t like having to rip it out, and Eric is constitutionally incapable of not sewing the pants together or something.

Because sometimes the pickings in a particular size are abundant and sometimes not, I buy clothing three sizes ahead of my current maximum.  At the moment, my youngest son is wearing size 4T, and Eli is wearing size 12, and I have yet to pass on the 2T and 3T clothes, so I have clothing in sizes ranging from 2T to size 18, as well as a small stash of baby clothes that I have held onto for sentimental reason.  This is a lot of clothes.  I keep a list of current sizes (I can then pass this list on to friends and family who will keep an eye out for me), and the sizes I am looking for (which also include clothes for my nieces and some friends’ kids) – thus, I can immediately find out whether I need a pair of size six snowpants or not.

In addition, I have two kids using diapers at least part of the time, and my family lives on a farm, so I do *a lot* of laundry, folding, mending and putting away.  Because my annual budget for clothing is quite small (we clothe the kids on less than $300 per year for all four of them – many years much, much less), I need to keep the clothes in good order, and be reasonably careful about management.  I admit, this is not my favorite chore – but it is important because it saves us a *lot* of money, and time.

The first strategy I found useful in terms of time management, was to convert from dressers to open shelving in closets for all of our clothing needs.  I personally find dressers annoying – if they are full, it is hard to get the clothes in and the drawers shut, and kids are constantly pulling things out of them.  Because the dressers were in their room, they got climbed on, which is dangerous, and left open and emptied out, which is annoying.  Plus, that meant that I was bringing clothes upstairs to put them away, and then downstairs to wash, which meant there were always laundry baskets at the foot of the stairs.  Suddenly, one day, it occurred to me that we had a long row of shelving in the laundry room, that was holding up stored items, but that would fit the kids clothes.  Now, I use open shelving for their clothes and ours, and am finally about to move *our* clothing downstairs, out of our bedroom, and into a closet with open shelving (an old bookcase has been used for this) so that I can put it away more quickly and easily.  The only clothes that go upstairs are pajamas, and we come down in them to dress.  This means no more searching, and less time hauling.  Obviously, we have the space for this, and other people may prefer to use dressers, but I don’t like them – I find seeing everything useful, and things less messy this way. 

The second thing I do is to try and keep myself from going nuts and laundry from eating my life is to keep laundry to a minimum – even our minimum is a lot, of course, but if I can keep it down, this is more time for other things I like better.  That means that I double check my kids clothes before they go into the laundry – my kids have a tendency to throw things in even if they are rewearable.  My husband, on the other hand, has a tendency to overstate the rewearability of clothing, so the stuff he gives me to be put back on the shelf gets a quick look over and sniff test to see if I share his basic opinion that the pants will go one more day. 

We replace most disposable items with cloth ones, so this adds to the laundry.  To cut back on the laundry, we have oilcloth tablecloths, air out things that simply need a bit of airing and try to remember to change into work/play clothes before we start running about in the yard.  I really should become an apron person, but I haven’t been, but it is a wise habit to pick up.

Shopping at yard sales and thrift shops takes time, of course, so I try and plan for it, particularly since I don’t shop on Saturdays, our Sabbath, which is the biggest yard sale day here.  Many of my local sales have a Friday preview day, and I try and go then, and our area has a history of town-wide sales, often lasting a whole weekend, and these are great sources.  Sometimes we take the kids, but except for Isaiah, who has a natural talent for spotting bargains, they get tired quickly of sorting through unorganized piles of clothing, so I plan several times a year to go alone and leave the kids with Eric.  Although we’ve got a good local Goodwill, there’s much better thrift and consignment shopping near my mother in Boston, and I try and stock up there once or twice a year.  I also happily accept other people’s cast offs, passing on anything we can’t use to others. I occasionally shop at consignment stores, but these usually have higher prices, so I use them mostly for hard-to-find items.

Out of season and out of size clothes is kept in labelled bins, one for each size (18 mos, 12, etc…).  Shoes are kept by size on shelves – yes, we do pass on shoes here – the best research I’ve found suggests that the old “shoes are so personal that you can’t pass them on” thing is a myth.  Twice a year (usually April and August) I do a full sort out of the bins, a job I loathe, and reorganize the kids shelves.  I do a little of this at intermediate periods as they grow out of things. 

Having four kids, and also two farmworking adults, I’ve become passionate on the subject of buying clothing that really lasts.  Most children’s clothing lasts at most, through two kids (this is true of most children’s goods, too), but I’ve a few brands where I consistently am able to pass things on through all four.  Lands End sleepers, for example, don’t suffer regularly from either broken zippers or worn out feet.  While Hanna Andersson is mostly a girl’s supplier, the occasional boys item I’ve gotten from them just wears and wears.  It isn’t always a matter of high-end stuff lasting better, though – Gap clothing wears out extremely quickly, I find, while cheaper Carters stuff lasts and lasts.  When you shop, look at how it is put together – do you see any signs of fraying, or wear?  How are the zippers, buttons and seams?    When buying children’s pants, because my sons are all (except Asher) entirely buttless, I have learned that adjustable waists are essential – otherwise, they will be running around with their underpants hanging out.

Mens clothing tends to be tougher and more durable than most women’s clothing, and being six feet tall, I can wear a lot of guy’s stuff – in fact, because I have freakishly long arms, I find they fit better.  I no longer am sufficiently hipless to wear men’s jeans easily, but I routinely buy men’s shirts, and find they hold up to tough wear better.  Men’s t-shirts are often made of heavier cotten, their flannel shirts usually have heavier cuffs, and I find the buttons are even sewn on better – worth checking even for smaller people than I.  I can often find mens Carharts and other work clothes at yard sales and thrift shops, but almost never find women’s clothes.  I do find women’s surgical scrubs, though, and these make excellent (and comfortable) work clothes as well.

I will say, however, I find skirts to be more comfortable than pants for many enterprises.  Wide ones have good stretchability, and I can even climb trees in them (if I wear a pair of cotton shorts underneath).  They are lighter and cooler than most pants in the summer, but more comfortable to garden in than shorts, since they provide some knee protection (here I am not speaking obviously of miniskirts).  In winter, layered over leggings or long johns or even light pants, they are warmer than pants alone and less bulky and more flexible than pants and long johns.  I have “work skirts” as well as dress ones – denim is good, as is heavy cotton, and find they last better than most jeans or work pants.

Eli, my oldest, is a magnet for stains.  Unfortunately, he also looks just gorgeous – I mean angelic and astonishingly handsome – in white.  Thus, I can occasionally be tempted into buying something white or cream for him, on the theory that I will keep an eye on him.  This is almost always doomed to failure, and I am trying to stop doing it.  Generally speaking, I rarely buy anything white, cream or pale yellow for any of my kids, except the occasional “shul shirt” which gets put on immediately before we depart for synagogue and taken off the minute we get home.  Eli, unfortunately, gets his prediliction for stainage entirely from his mother, who is a notorious slob, so this is good advice for me too.

This strategy for clothing management is almost certainly easier if you have children and a spouse who don’t care much about what they wear.  This is mostly true in my family.  Eli would prefer strongly to wear nothing, but if forced to wear clothing, will tolerate my choices.  Simon would prefer to wear his Harry Potter shirt (Goodwill) every day, but accepts that this is not an option philosophically, and doesn’t much care otherwise.  Isaiah does have strong opinions about his clothing, and insists on being involved in the selection process – but also is willing to do the work.  Asher has strong opinions about pajamas, which must be pink (not really hard to do at his size), and about underpants, which should meet the same criteria.  Eric doesn’t much care what he wears, although seems to have a preference for things with holes in them ;-) .  I realize that some of this will change as the first four hit their teen years, and anticipate this with some trepidation.  Those who have people who care will either have to teach them to find their own stuff, or prepare to spend more time or more money.

So far, my kids are pretty comfortable with passing things down to one another – they occasionally are disappointed when they outgrow a particularly beloved item, but generally we make a big deal about the fact that they are growing, and getting bigger, and everyone is excited about it.  The kids like to hear the lineage of the clothing they wear…
“This shirt came from cousin Jake, and then Simon wore it, and now…” or “Remember, you helped me pick out that jacket at…”  At one point, five year old Isaiah asked his GNew York City Grandmother, who is not a thrift shop shopper, “Wow, Grandma, did you get this at Goodwill?”  Despite the general laughter, I was glad that my son thinks that good things come from thrift shops.

I should add that the reason my kids are as well dressed as they are, and I am able to do this is also due to the kindness of family members, who often buy my children high quality new clothing for birthdays and holidays.  The kids do get a few new things every year, and are very excited by them.  My sisters and mother also track sales and visit consignment shops and yard sales and pick things up for my kids – more eyes help in this project.  We are also the recipient of a great deal of generosity from my mother’s neighbor, my step-sister in law, my friend Elaine and others. 

I hate to sew, and for a long time “mending” actually meant “taking the clothes and putting them on the mending pile and waiting for the child to outgrow the item while feeling guilty about not ever fixing them.”  This is not a good way of saving money or making good use of things.  I have now managed to mostly fix this problem, by making a simple rule – I cannot knit until I have mended one item in my pile.  Since I love to knit, this forces me to get the sewing over with, and mostly keep up with it.  I have tried to divide the work of mending with Eric, but he is so spectacularly awful at it that this does not work.  I do make him iron on patches on jean knees, which is lazier than proper patching, but does the job.

I do not do zipper repairs well, and it is astonishing how often zippers are the thing that fails on an item.  What I’ve gotten in the habit of doing is cutting the zipper out, adding a strip of some heavy fabric scavenged from another item of clothing, ideally a bit with a nice heavy seem on the edge anyway, and cutting button holes in it, and attaching buttons.  I find this much easier than replacing the zippers.  I’ve also gotten good with Rit and other dyes for white shirts that have permanent stains or yellowing on them.  Amy Dacyzyn’s _The Complete Tightwad Gazette_ has a number of wonderful strategies for repairing slightly damaged clothing, and making it look good.

Socks and underwear do wear out rapidly, and while I will darn homemade or high quality socks, I draw the line at darning my husband’s sweat socks, which he buys in bulk – he purchases ones that are slightly imperfect.  They last until they get turned into rags, and by the time he stops wearing them (remember aforementioned prediliction for holes) they usually are undarnable.  I buy all the kids socks in white when I can, so I don’t have to do much matching - just grab two of comparable size.  I actually don’t personally believe in matching socks - during high school and college, I used to wear dramatically mismatched socks all the time, and I still like them that way.  Saves time and energy to just dump them in the drawer or an open basket and grab by weight or juxtaposition of color.  Eric likes the opposite strategy  - all white or all black, so they all match.  The kids like to pick their own socks, and seem to have gotten my genes for mismatches. 

We rotate clothing by what we are doing.  On days when we are mostly in the house (or for the parts of them that we are, say when I’m working at the computer), I usually wear Pajamas – but they didn’t always start out as pajamas – when shirts, sweats and loose cotton pants become too ratty to wear in public, they are moved over to the “pj” pile.  The same goes with sweats, tshirts and soft long sleeved shirts for the boys.  Or they are put into the “work/play clothes” pile, to be worn on days when we know we’re not going to be seen by anyone.  I try to remember to change into these clothes as often as possible to preserve the good ones.

Thus, a new shirt and pants arriving for Eli’s birthday, would at first be worn only for school or synagogue.  Gradually as wear began to show I might get lax about it, not bothering to change him out of it after school.  By the time they were passed down to Simon, they might be unfit for the nicest days, but perfectly suitable for regular days.  By the time they hit Isaiah, they would be “play clothes only” or maybe pajamas.  Odds are, before they hit Asher, they’d have become rags, diaper wipes, rag rugs or quilting fabric.  I’ve even experimented with making paper out of old clothes too thin to use for rags or quilting.  If all else fails, natural fibers can be composted – this is why I buy mostly natural fibers, although I’m fond of the judicious use of polar fleece, as long as they are making it.

The same is true of Eric’s and my clothing.  Nice stuff gets worn for synagogue or professional activities.  After a while, it gets worn to the grocery store, but not for the best occasions.  Eventually, it becomes either scrap, work clothes, or an extra layer under something else – if I’m going to give it away, I try to do it at the mid-point.

What we do with the scraps depends on the material they are made from – denim makes great quilts and braided rugs, flannel wonderful quilted duvet covers.  Wool sweaters can be unravelled and reknit, or they can be felted and used to make cut out mittens and hats or other items.  Old polar fleece pjs make great quilts.

I have a separate laundry bin now for “nice” clothes, because otherwise, if the laundry builds up for some reason, they can get buried under the other clothes, and aren’t ready when we need them.  I try to wash our synagogue clothes every Sunday, and have them ready to go, and to make sure that both of us have appropriate clothing ready and clean in case we have to attend a funeral or a short-notice professional event.  I know some people need these kinds of clothes five days a week, while others never dress up at all. 

I rarely iron.  In fact, when Simon was tested before kindergarten with a picture-words test, the only word he missed was “ironing board” and I laughingly admitted to the person administering the test later, that that was because he might never have seen one ;-) .  I hang my clothes out on windy days, and try and buy clothes that won’t need ironing.  The same is true about dry cleaning – I realize this isn’t an option for everyone, of course, but if you can avoid it, it is worth doing so.  For making clothing look nice, I think there’s nothing like line drying on a windy day – I sometimes plan my washings around them.

I wash everything, including diapers, in cold water, with a cold rinse.  We did replace our old washing machine with a front loader last year, after the old one began shredding my clothing, and I have to say that I have come as close to expressing love for an industrial appliance as I ever will with it – using less detergent, less water and less energy, it gets the clothes cleaner.  I also do some hand washing – I soak the clothes a good long time, give them a rub or squeeze, and rinse.  I do more of this in the warm weather, since it is a pleasure then, and the kids can often be persuaded to help, simply for the chance to get sopping wet.  No need to do major wringing – just hang and let it drip unless you need it soon.

I lived a long, long time without a personal washing machine, and I think if I didn’t have children, I’d probably hand wash or just go to the laundromat.  The investment in a front loader was worth it for our large household, but wouldn’t be for a smaller one. 

I try and do sheets every other week, but there’s a bit of bedwetting here, and it doesn’t always work like that.  There are rubberized pads that can go over sheets to keep them dry – that helps a bit.  My only other answer on this front is to keep praying that if the grid ever does do an extended crash, it is after everyone is fully toilet trained and done wetting the bed ;-) .

Ultimately, clothing is about keeping on top of things.  When our washer died last year, in the middle of the hottest, rainiest period of the summer, the laundry pile built up, I got mildew, and some of the clothes got holes.  If I keep organized, I can deal with the laundry in a matter of a few minutes a day – but if I let it build, I have to give it my time and attention on a much greater scale.