Thursday, October 30, 2014

DIY Steampunk Attire, Part 1: For the Ladies

Tomorrow, for the first time in his career, Brian will be going to work in costume.

When he first learned that his workplace would be having a Halloween party, and that workers were asked to come in fancy dress, he wasn't very enthusiastic. He thought maybe he could simply wear his Renaissance costume, the one I helped him put together last year for the Maryland Renaissance Festival. However, I persuaded him to consider something a little more elaborate, and possibly more interesting: a steampunk outfit.

For those who aren't familiar with the term, steampunk is a science fiction genre based on the idea of advanced technology in the Victorian era. Steampunk settings feature machines that can do everything our modern gadgets can, and many things they can't, but they all run on steam (hence the name). Thus, steampunk style starts with the basic Victorian look, but then it adds on all sorts of little gadgets and gewgaws that play up the idea of retro technology. Guns and goggles are two very popular accessories in steampunk, along with pocket watches and anything with visible clockwork. (Some people try to give outfits a steampunk vibe by sticking little cogs all over everything more or less at random, but true steampunk aficionados frown on that sort of thing. As one steampunk fan commented on a site I visited: "The parts don't have to move, but at least think about what they'd do if they did move.")

In proposing a steampunk look for Brian's Halloween party, I had a bit of an ulterior motive. I'd already created a steampunk outfit for myself a couple of years ago, and I was hoping to talk him into assembling a matching look so we could wear them together to steampunk events. Brian was more or less indifferent to the idea, but he he said he'd be willing to try it if I could do the work of putting it all together. I felt fairly confident about accepting thing challenge, because I'd managed to put together my own steampunk garb using only items culled from my closet, with a couple of add-ons from the dollar store. So before we get into the details of how we crafted Brian's outfit, I'll take the rest of this post to show you how mine came together.

Because of my penchant for quirky, vaguely period clothing, I already had several pieces in my closet that were more or less Victorian in style. Some of these are items that most women could probably either pull out of their own closets or find easily in a thrift store, like this plain, dark, long skirt. (Of course, it's not truly authentic, as it has pockets and an elastic waist, but none of that shows once I've got the rest of the outfit on.) Others are more unusual, like this white petticoat with a ruffle at the bottom, which I bought years ago from Deva Lifewear (now Deva by Cammy). This piece isn't really essential to a steampunk outfit—I could just wear the skirt by itself—but hitching up the skirt a bit to reveal the petticoat contributes to the steampunk vibe by saying that (a) this is a period look, and (b) we're breaking all the rules of the period, when undergarments were definitely not supposed to be seen. (Or heard, for that matter.)

For my upper half, I had this little sort of lace corset top (not really sure what you'd call it) that I picked up at some trendy little shop in New Brunswick where I wouldn't normally go. The great thing about is that instead of modern-style buttons or a zipper, it fastens with lots of tiny little hooks and eyes for a real period look. Of course, in the true Victorian era, this, like the petticoat, would be considered underwear; in the modern era, it would probably be seen as clubwear. But as part of a steampunk look, it can serve perfectly well as a shirt, because as the folks at Steaming Apparel say, the first rule of steampunk is that there are no rules.

There are, however, guidelines, one of which is to follow the basic outlines of the Victorian and/or Edwardian period. That makes this Ann Taylor jacket the ideal thing to wear over the corset, as it's modeled on an Edwardian riding jacket. Just check out all the cool details: the patterned velvet fabric, the rich plummy-brown color, the slightly puffed shoulders, the fabric-covered buttons, the peplum, and best of all, the classic "frog" closures. I had actually been thinking about getting rid of this jacket because I so seldom had an occasion to wear it, but now that it's part of my steampunk ensemble, it will probably stay in my closet forever.

That covers all the basic pieces, top and bottom. However, the real key to the steampunk look is accessories. I like to say that the three cornerstones of steampunk style are headwear, footwear, and hardware. I already had in my closet a hat that had a good basic shape, a sort of beret with a brim (once again, I don't know its proper name) that I bought at a yard sale. However, I thought in its original form, it looked a bit too plain for a Victorian headpiece, because ladies' hats from this era tended to be huge, brimming with feathers and other trimmings (think My Fair Lady.) So I picked up a foofy little headband from the dollar store—the sort of thing that would look ridiculous in most modern settings, complete with black feathers and a rosebud in a sort of bronze satin, and by putting the two together...



...I ended up with a smashing piece of Victorian headgear.


As for the feet, the most popular footwear for a steampunk look is a big pair of boots—preferably tall ones with loads of hardware. I've never owned a pair like that, but I used to have a pair of little low-heeled Victorian granny boots that I bought on eBay, which would have completed this look beautifully. Sadly, though, I had to give them away because I could no longer squeeze my feet into them (turns out that your feet tend to get wider and flatter with age, and mine were pretty wide to start with). So instead I had to make do with these little buckled flats from Rockport (another eBay find), which look passably period when worn with dark tights.

Hardware was the toughest part. Neither goggles nor a ray-gun, those two staples of the steampunk style, seemed quite appropriate with my ladylike look (plus I didn't have suitable materials to make them anyway). So I settled for just a few little trinkets. I slung a black belt with a large metal buckle over the skirt, allowing me to tuck up one corner of it to show off my petticoat, and I draped my neck in a gold metallic scarf, which started its life as a headband from the dollar store. I originally finished off the outfit with the earrings on the left, which I thought looked fairly Victorian with their ornate metalwork; however, when my family sorted through my grandmother's jewelry after her death, I laid claim to the earrings on the right, which, with their clock faces and dangling gears, have an even steampunkier aesthetic. So now my steampunk garb has a little bit of Grandma in it, as well.

Naturally, most women trying to do themselves up steampunk style won't own pieces exactly like these. But the basic process I followed can work for you too:
  1. Check your own closet first, and look at everything with a fresh eye. Anything with a vaguely Victorian look may be usable. Don't overlook the possibilities of underwear as outerwear, or vice versa.
  2. If you're missing any basic pieces, try your local thrift shop. This article at Steaming Apparel and this one at WonderHowTo offer lots of hints on what to look for.
  3. Check the dollar store for accessories to dress up your existing pieces or finish off your outfit.
Tune in tomorrow to see how we put together a steampunk gentleman's outfit for Brian (with even cooler accessories than mine).

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

'Tis the pre-season

It's beginning to look a lot like some businesses in this town can't read a bloody calendar.

Today's date, as you may have noticed, is the 29th of October. That's two days before Halloween, and nowhere near Thanksgiving—which, back in the day, used to mark the last hurrah of fall before the frenzy of the "holiday season." The trees are ablaze with glorious fall color; the thermometer is at a balmy 74 degrees. Yet when you walk into my local drugstore, here's what greets you as you step through the door:


Rite Aid hasn't completely dismantled its Halloween display, which has been occupying a big part of the store's shelf space since some time around Labor Day. After all, with two days to go, there's still a chance some last-minute shoppers might stop in looking for candy or a few extra accessories for a costume. But even the pumpkins and witches' hats are having to share space with Santa and his merry band of snowmen:


The phenomenon of "Christmas creep," of course, is nothing new. I complained about it on this blog two years ago, and The Consumerist has an entire page devoted to it. Yet much as it annoys people like me, who want to be allowed to enjoy each season in its proper time without being constantly pushed ahead toward the next one, stores sound the Christmas starting gun earlier and earlier each year for one simple reason: because they have to. As Robert Frank explains in The Economic Naturalist, this is an example of an economic "arms race": retailers count on holiday shopping for a hefty chunk of their income every year, and they can't afford to lose any of those sales to a competitor who was ready before they were. So the minute one store decides to start flashing its stockings the week before Thanksgiving instead of the day after, all the others have to follow suit to avoid losing business. But then some other store is sure to think it might be able to gain an edge over its competitors by putting all the holiday merchandise out still earlier—and so on, and so on, until you end up with Christmas ribbons on display at Costco in July.

Frank emphasizes, however, that it's unlikely Christmas will just keep creeping backward until it encompasses the whole year. At some point, he argues, stores will find that giving up floor space to holiday displays costs them more money than it makes them, because they will be taking away space from other types of merchandise that shoppers would be more likely to buy in, say, March. Thus, if we consumers want to combat Christmas creep, the best thing we can do is refuse to play along. If enough of us simply refuse to buy anything holiday-related until after Thanksgiving, then stores will gradually start to find it's not in their interest to sell it.

In fact, I personally prefer to take it one step further and refuse to patronize any store that's currently displaying what I consider to be unseasonable merchandise. Of course, this is mostly for my own personal satisfaction, because I just can't stand to look at snowmen and reindeer in mid-fall. Still, I like to think that in some tiny way, I'm helping to combat Christmas creep by denying my business to stores that haul Rudolph out before Halloween, and toward ones that have appropriate seasonal displays instead. So in that spirit, I'm offering a shout-out to all the local businesses that are treating fall with the respect it deserves, including:
  • Our local supermarket, Stop & Shop, with its display of winter squash and fall mums. (Supermarkets in general are usually the last to hop on the Christmas bandwagon, because they're the one category of retailer for which Thanksgiving is actually a major holiday—which means, fortunately, that I can continue to shop for food during the month of November without being subjected to sleigh bells and Santa Claus.)

     
  • Our local liquor store, Pino's, with its cheerful arrangement of scarecrows and gourds. (I guess liquor stores are another type of retailer that gets some business out of Thanksgiving—though that hasn't stopped the Rite Aid, which makes a good portion of its money selling cheap booze to college seniors, from hopping on the tinsel truck.)


  • A high-end barbershop called Haven, which was a top competitor in last year's Holiday Tour of Highland Park, but which nonetheless is showing no unseemly haste to replace its seasonal display of fall leaves with something more wintry.


  • And lastly, a decidedly non-high-end business, the local dollar store, which is keeping its little scarecrows and ghosts front and center at least until Halloween is past.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Frugality versus simplicity, part 2

In her latest post at Live Like a Mensch, blogger Emily Guy Birkin talks about her conflicting impulses to "embrace a little more minimalism in my life" and to avoid spending money unnecessarily. On the face of it, the two goals seem to be inextricably linked: the less stuff you own, the less money it costs to buy it, maintain it, and furnish space for it all. But as Birkin points out, the two goals come into conflict when it comes to getting rid of stuff you "might need again someday," such as the numerous "big-ticket items" that her younger child has now outgrown—car seat, stroller, sling—but that might be needed if they ever have a third child. On the one hand, these items aren't being used now and may never be used again, so at the moment, they're just a major waste of space. But on the other hand, giving them all away would turn out to be a major waste of money if they ended up having another kid and needing to replace them all.

This article intrigued me, because the conflict between frugality and simplicity is one that I've confronted often over the years, most explicitly in this post back in 2010. In it, I noted that while frugality has a lot in common with simplicity or minimalism, they're really very different ideals. Minimalism is about having less: less earning, less spending, less work, less stuff. Frugality, by contrast, is about having more—more money in the bank, more time for what matters, more enjoyment—without spending more money. Adopting a minimalist lifestyle is one way to achieve frugality, but it's by no means the only way. Indeed, as Birkin notes, in some cases the two goals can actively conflict with each other, because getting rid of stuff may end up costing you more money in the long run. For instance, if you had a tool you seldom used, such as a circular saw, you might decide to give it away or sell because it was "unnecessary"—but then every time you did have a need for a circular saw, you'd need to rent one. It might still be worth doing, if the extra space was more important to you than the extra money, but it would depend on your personal situation.

Amy Dacyczyn (all hail the Frugal Zealot!) wrote about this very problem in a Tightwad Gazette article called "The Frugal Balance." She said frugality isn't just about saving money; it's about making the most of all the resources available to you, including money, time, space, and personal energy. Thus, a hoarder who stuffs her tiny apartment with egg cartons and rubber bands that "might be useful" at some unspecified time, for some unspecified reason, is not being "too frugal"; the problem is that her frugality is out of balance. In her efforts to save money, she's wasting space. Her lack of space may also end up costing her time and energy (because it takes so long to find anything), and even, ironically, costing her money (because she ends up buying new things when she can't find what she already has).

Keeping your frugality in balance is a matter of being lavish with the resources you have plenty of and stingy with those that are scarce. Thus, if you have a high income but little free time, there's no point in spending hours on end making all your holiday gifts by hand to save money; you'd be better off spending working just a few extra hours working to earn extra cash for presents. Contrariwise, if you have a huge house with tons of space, there's no need to live like a minimalist; storing things you "might need someday" is actually easier than living in a half-empty house and running out to rent items (spending both time and money) when you discover a need for them.

If my goal is to make the most of all the resources available to me, it doesn't really make sense to view getting rid of stuff—even unnecessary stuff—as an end in itself. Instead, it's a means to an end: making room for something else that matters more. If I have a sweater in my closet that I seldom wear, that's only a problem if the closet is overcrowded; if I have a massive amount of zucchini in the garden, that's only a problem if it'll go bad before I'm able (or willing) to eat it all. In other words, having a lot of anything is not, in itself, a problem. "A lot" doesn't become "too much" until it starts taking away space (and time, and energy) from everything else.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Great Applesauce Jar Switch

Brian and I are what you might call semi-regular consumers of applesauce. It's not an item you'll always find in our fridge, like it is in some homes (typically ones with small children), but it's our go-to accompaniment for potato pancakes and similar potato-based dishes. So every couple of months, when we have a potato meal on the agenda, I'll stop by the local supermarket to grab a jar of applesauce, which then lingers in our fridge until (we hope) we remember to polish it off before it turns fuzzy. An extra perk of finishing up a jar of applesauce is—or at least used to be—that it leaves you with a nice glass jar, which can be useful for storing all sorts of things, from apple butter and lemon curd to refrigerator pickles to dry beans in the pantry. It also makes an ideal container for carrying soup to work in a packed lunch; unlike our Pyrex bowls, it since it has a lid that screws on securely, and unlike plastic containers with snap-on lids, it's safe for reheating in the microwave.

Thus it came about that last week, Brian asked me to pick up a jar of applesauce to accompany his Skillet Kugel. When I checked the market, however, I was chagrined to discover that the store-brand applesauce we usually buy was no longer being sold in glass jars; they were all plastic. Moreover, it looked like Stop & Shop was merely following the lead of the name brand Mott's, because all its applesauce was now in plastic jars too. I was baffled. Why, when consumers are increasingly concerned about the health and environmental impacts of plastic, would all the applesauce producers in the country suddenly adopt it instead of glass?

On the face of the matter, it seemed like plastic packaging must fall into the category of "stupid plastic"—the kind that's wasteful and unnecessary compared to other alternatives. But on the other hand, if all the manufacturers had gone to the trouble of switching to plastic applesauce jars instead of glass ones, there must have been some significant benefit to doing so. Curious about what that might have been, I dropped a line to Mott's via its website:
I have noticed that Mott's has recently switched from glass jars to plastic for its applesauce. Store brands seem to have followed suit. I was just wondering when this switch happened and what was the reason for it. With more consumers now shunning plastic due to health concerns, why switch to it?
I wasn't really expecting a response, but to my surprise, I got a call back from a courteous company representative within a couple of hours. She said that the switch from glass jars to plastic for all Mott's applesauce actually happened back in July 2013. However, stores that already had a stockpile of Mott's in the old glass jars would probably have used it up before starting to put out the newer plastic jars, which would explain why the Stop & Shop was still displaying glass ones until recently. As for the reasons behind the switch, she said there were several:
  1. Safety. Customers had expressed a preference for plastic because it's non-breakable—a particularly important concern for parents.
  2. Easier handling. The plastic jars are both lighter and easier to grip, and many customers find them easier to open.
  3. Transportation. The plastic jars are stackable, which means you can pack them more efficiently into trucks and onto store shelves. That, combined with their lighter weight, means that they require less fuel to transport.
It was that third point that really caught my attention. Up until then, I'd been sort of half-assuming that the glass jars, whatever their other disadvantages, were the greener choice. But as the rep pointed out, since plastic jars are lighter, it takes less fossil fuel to transport them to stores, which makes their carbon footprint lower. Low enough to balance out the environmental costs of producing the plastic and recycling it? Ah, well, that's a tricky question to answer. An article on the carbon footprint of packaging at How Stuff Works says it's "still mostly a mystery," largely because "the numbers to answer these types of questions aren't easily accessible for the average person." Likewise, a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer two years ago, comparing the benefits of plastic, glass, and aluminum drink containers, concluded that "Clearly, there's no one best choice for every person or every situation."

So overall, I can't really say that the new plastic jars for applesauce qualify as an example of "stupid plastic." However, I can definitely say that the switch to plastic makes the jars less useful for us, since they're no longer microwave-safe and also not as easy to clean as the old glass ones. So from now on, when we find ourselves in need of applesauce, the first place I check will be not in the canned-fruit aisle, but on the shelf where the store keeps its marked-down produce. If we can pick up a bag of slightly bruised apples for a mere 60 cents a pound, then in less than half an hour, our little pressure cooker can turn them into an applesauce that beats the commercial stuff hollow for half the price. True, we'll end up with a smaller amount than we'd get by buying a whole jar, but that's a good thing; it means we won't have to worry about using up the leftover sauce before it goes bad. And as far as packaging goes, you can't get much more eco-friendly than an apple peel.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Health and Beauty Face-Off: Aldi vs. Rite Aid vs. Stop & Shop

Last week, I embarked on a little investigation into Aldi's prices for health and beauty products, in response to an article on Daily Finance showing that Aldi charged much more for these types of products than other chains. I checked the store's prices for ten health and beauty products I use on a regular basis and found that, if there was a store brand available, it was likely to be a good deal, but if there wasn't, the only option was usually a midrange brand selling for a midrange price. This made it clear that Aldi isn't nearly as great a deal for health and beauty products as it is for foodstuffs, but it didn't tell me the whole story. Were the prices of the non-Aldi brands really higher than the prices of similar items at other stores, and if so, by how much? The Daily Finance article showed, for instance that Aldi's prices in the health and beauty section were nearly twice as high as those at Stop & Shop; would the prices at my own local Stop & Shop bear out that finding?

To answer this question, I took my little shopping list of health and beauty items to two other stores. First, I checked the prices on all the items at Stop & Shop; then, since I tend to buy these sorts of items at drugstores rather than supermarkets, I checked my local Rite Aid as well. In every case, I looked for the lowest-priced brand available at the store, without considering quality or ingredients.

The results, I have to say, were quite surprising to me. Here are the numbers for all three stores, with the cheapest one in italics:

Multivitamins: Aldi, store brand, $3.79/100
     Stop & Shop, store brand, $8.49/100
     Rite Aid, store brand, $7.49/100 ($6.74 with Wellness Plus)

Toothpaste: Aldi, Crest, $2.89
     Stop & Shop, Crest, $2.19
     Rite Aid, Ultra Brite, $1.00

Deodorant: Aldi, Old Spice, $2.99
     Stop & Shop, Speed Stick, $2.49
     Rite Aid, Suave, $1.99 (on sale, $3 for 2)

Shampoo/conditioner: Aldi, Pantene, $3.69
     Stop & Shop, VO5, 99 cents
     Rite Aid, VO5, $1.27

Ibuprofen: Aldi, store brand, $1.99/100
     Stop & Shop, store brand, $6.99/100
     Rite Aid, store brand, $7.49/100 ($6.74 with Wellness Plus)

Cotton swabs: Aldi, store brand, $1.39/375
     Stop & Shop, store brand, $1.99/100
     Rite Aid, store brand, $2.49/100 ($2.24 with Wellness Plus)

Bar soap: Aldi, store brand, $2.49/3 bars
     Stop & Shop, Dove, $2.49/3 bars
     Rite Aid, Ivory, $1.99/3 bars (on sale, buy one, get one half off)

Body wash: Aldi, Dove, $5.39/24 oz.
     Stop & Shop, Great Value (ultra cheapo generic), $2/24 oz.
     Rite Aid, St. Ives, $4.99/24 oz. (on sale, buy one, get one half off)

The first thing you'll probably notice is that, whenever Aldi had a store brand available, it beat the pants off the best price at the other two stores—even if they were store brands also. That's not the surprising part. What I didn't expect to see was that, for half the items on the list, the best price at Rite Aid was higher than the best price at Stop & Shop. Rite Aid typically had a much larger selection, but even so, its bottom-priced item could only beat the supermarket's half the time. And moreover, in cases where the cheapest item at both stores was a store brand, Stop & Shop beat Rite Aid two rounds out of three. Even ibuprofen, the one thing on the list that's an actual drug, was cheaper at the supermarket than it was at the drugstore.

Moreover, in cases where both Rite Aid and Stop & Shop carried the same brand, it was usually cheaper at the Stop & Shop. Sometimes Rite Aid had an alternate brand that was cheaper, like Ivory soap, but Dove at Rite Aid was pricier than Dove at Stop & Shop. Indeed, compared to Rite Aid's, Aldi's prices for non-store-brand same items didn't actually look all that bad. Crest at Aldi is more expensive than the obscure Ultra Brite brand toothpaste, but it's cheaper than Crest at Rite Aid. 

So what I learned from this experiment is that it's probably a mistake to look to the drugstore first for my health and beauty products. Yes, if there's a specific brand I need, I'm likelier to find it at the drugstore—but if the supermarket has it, it'll probably be cheaper there. (And, of course, if Aldi has a store-brand equivalent, that's probably the cheapest of all.)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Three Sisters Soup

The weekend before last, we went to visit some friends in Falls Church, VA, and took advantage of the opportunity to stop in at the local Penzey's Spices. We became fans of this store while visiting my in-laws in Indianapolis, but there isn't one in our area, so we always make a point of poking our noses in whenever we happen to be in a town that has one. The main reason is to replenish our supply of their excellent Vegetable Soup Base (it may look pricey at $10.85 a jar, but it goes a long way and makes any vegetarian soup more flavorful), but we inevitably take the opportunity to browse, as well, since Penzey's is a fascinating store to visit. They have just about every spice you could name, along with others you almost certainly couldn't, as well as their own signature blends. There are big glass jars and bottles of each spice for sniffing, so you can compare the four different varieties of cinnamon, or try to discern the subtle differences among barbecue spice rubs, or just breathe in the heady aromas of vanilla and lemon extract. You'll also see whimsical displays, such as the scaled-down model of a 1940s kitchen that holds all the baking spices in the Indianapolis store, or the nautical-themed display in the Falls Church store for all the various types of salt, featuring a rowboat converted into a set of shelves.

One of my favorite features at Penzey's is the little recipe cards they provide, free for the taking, next to different spice blends to provide examples of how to use them. On our most recent trip, I picked up an intriguing-looking one called Three Sisters Soup, referring to the classic trio of beans, corn, and squash that Native Americans often grew together as companion plants. Since we already happened to have butternut squash in the garden, corn in the freezer, and beans in the pantry, I thought this would be a good dish to try as soon as the weather started getting chilly.

This recipe, unfortunately, isn't among those archived on Penzey's website, so I can't give it to you here in full, but I'll give you an overview. After soaking and cooking the beans, you bake the winter squash until tender (or use the shortcut I learned from a friend and just microwave it whole for about 20 minutes) and scoop out the flesh. Then, in a big pot, you sauté all the ingredients you'd usually find in a vegetable soup—onions, carrots, celery, garlic—and add the squash, along with some veggie stock (which you can make from the Vegetable Soup Base) and bring it to a boil. Finally, you reduce it to a simmer and add the beans, corn, some herbs (the recipe called for dried, but we used fresh), and two cups of chopped tomatoes, and heat it through.

Those tomatoes, when I first read through the recipe, struck a discordant note in my mind. In general, I'm not a big fan of tomato-based soups, because I feel like the tomato flavor tends to dominate and overwhelm everything else. Tasting the mixture of ingredients in my imagination, I couldn't help thinking that it would probably be better without the tomatoes. But I also make it a general policy not to tamper with a recipe the first time I make it (except maybe to leave out something I truly hate, like olives), so I can taste it in its intended form and decide whether it really needs any changes. So our first batch of Three Sisters Soup was by the book, tomatoes and all.

Alas, I think I should have trusted my instincts. The finished soup was certainly colorful, and the blend of flavors was interesting, but those tomatoes tasted just as wrong in my mouth as they had in my mind. I tried to eat them up first so that I could try to evaluate the rest of the soup without them, but unfortunately, their flavor seemed to have permeated and cast its subtle influence over the whole dish. It wasn't bad, exactly, it just tasted sort of...off. I found myself losing steam as I worked my way through it, and by the end, I was so unenthusiastic that Brian ended up finishing my bowl for me. To be fair, I should note that he actually liked the soup very much in its original form and was happy not only to polish off my portion but also to dispose of all the leftovers. But he also didn't think he'd like it significantly less without the tomatoes, so I think it we make it again, we'll definitely leave them out. (This change also has the benefit of allowing this soup to be made all winter long. Corn, beans, and squash will all keep well in the freezer and pantry, but fresh tomatoes aren't much good once the first frost is past, and Brian and I agreed that substituting canned ones really wouldn't work.)

So Three Sisters Soup will remain in our recipe file for now, but with a note on it to skip the tomatoes. Once we've tried it that way, we'll be able to decide whether it's good enough to earn a place in our regular repertoire of winter dishes. (And if you want to try it yourself, you can find the recipe at your nearest Penzey's store. If there's one anywhere near your regular shopping route, you'll find it worth the trip.)