Monday, December 20, 2010

Merry Christmas to All

Once again, this is a bit off topic, but I had kind of an annoying experience today. My "Tip Hero" newsletter, which is a weekly compendium of frugal tidbits, included an article called "Christmas Spirit and Frugality." It talks about classic holiday movies and how they show the true spirit of Christmas, which is "A time of joy, celebration, peace and love - all things that you can't buy." It was kinda sappy, I'll admit, but its heart was in the right place. However, it was not well received by readers. The first response it got was:

"One BIG problem: Christmas is about the CHRIST! The word Cgristmas [sic] reflects it! The scriptures proclaim it! It is not about you and me and family and feelings, it is about HIM! God who condescended to robe Himself in flesh and give us what we need most: salvation! Pick another time to feel warm and fuzzy or look at cartoons or other of your "meaningful" stories. This story has been written already and it's not up for grabs so you can have joy, celebration, peace and love without HIM! There is no Christmas without Christ - PERIOD!"

Now, I have no problem with anyone celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday, and I can even sympathize with those who feel that the holiday has moved too far from its religious origins and plead to "keep Christ in Christmas." What I do have a serious problem with is folks who get up on their high horses and declare that everyone else is celebrating Christmas wrong. Hey, you, cut out all that celebrating and bonding with family! Knock it off with the "warm and fuzzy" stuff! It's about Jesus or nothing!

Do these people actually think this is a "Christian" attitude to take? Honestly, do they think their faith requires them to condemn other people's feelings of "joy, celebration, peace and love"? (It reminds me of this 10-year-old story from The Onion: "Religious Cousin Ruins Family's Christmas.")

So, in what I hope is a more appropriate Christmas spirit, I'd like to offer this little playlist of Christmas tunes that show the holiday in all its aspects—sacred and secular, positive and not so positive. (By the way, I tried to publish this as an iMix, but iTunes wasn't being cooperative, so I'm just listing the titles and artists instead.)

Shepherds Arise (Finest Kind)
Twelve Days After Christmas (Caltech Chamber Singers)
Wachet auf (Canadian Brass)
Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow (Jethro Tull)
River (Joni Mitchell)
Gaudete (Steeleye Span)
Chiron Beta Prime (Jonathan Coulton)
Straw Against the Chill (Bob Franke)
A Christmas Carol (Tom Lehrer)
O Holy Night (Studio 60 Soundtrack)
Homeless Wassail (Broadside Electric)
Christmas Trilogy (Finest Kind)
Oh Come Emmanuel (Aliqua)
Fairytale of New York (The Pogues)
Christmas / Sarajevo 12/24 (Trans-Siberian Orchestra)
Home By Another Way (Grant Baynham)
Christmas Letter Song (Lou & Peter Berryman)
This Mountain (Hugh Blumenfeld)

And as Tiny Tim says: God bless us, every one.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Buying the label

The most recent Freakanomics Radio podcast, available on the New York Times website, poses the interesting question: "Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?" It's worth listening to the entire story, but in a nutshell, the answer seems to be: yes, but only if you know they're expensive. When people know the price, they overwhelmingly prefer more expensive wines. But in blind taste tests, cheap wines actually do slightly better than pricey vintages. And that holds true across all groups of people, from wine-club newbies to highly trained sommeliers.

Now, I'm not a wine drinker, so I can't comment on this story from personal experience. But I have seen similar studies that highlight the same phenomenon for other products. For example, as I observed back in September, tap water is just as good, objectively speaking, as bottled water—it's just as clean, if not cleaner, and it does as well or better in blind taste tests. Yet bottled water drinkers consistently claim that bottled water in general, and their brand in particular, tastes better than tap water. In an episode of "Penn and Teller: Bullshit!" (which you can see here on YouTube) patrons in a fancy L.A. restaurant discourse at length about the differences in taste among bottled waters, even though each made-up brand is really the same L.A. tap water in a different bottle. (Amusingly, one of the varieties is called "L'Eau Du Robinet"—French for "tap water." You'd think at least a few of those highbrow diners would have been tipped off by that.) Also, Vance Packard reported sixty years ago in The Hidden Persuaders that most cigarette smokers are loyal to a specific brand, yet the majority of them can't correctly identify their own brand in a blind taste test.

And when you think about it, this same kind of misplaced brand loyalty really applies to all kinds of products, not just the ones you can taste. The Mercedes first became a status car because old-money types chose it for its reliability (eschewing the flashier models that were status cars at the time). But the Mercedes models of today no longer have a particularly good reliability record, yet people continue to buy them just for the name. And I've already mentioned how little premium in you get in terms of style or quality by buying designer clothes.

So what's the moral of this story? Well, there are probably all sorts of conclusions you could draw from it about social class, how expectations influence experience, the nature of brand loyalty, and the dangers of putting too much faith in of so-called experts. But for me, the most useful lesson for us ecofrugal folks is: the best snobbery is inverted snobbery. It's a lot cheaper than the other kind, and just as much fun. So if you're a wine fancier, I urge you to go pick up one of the best cheap wines and serve it at your next party. Depending on your inclinations, you could put it in a decanter and wait to surprise your guests with the name, or openly flaunt the cheap bottle (or box) and chat about how remarkable it is what a great wine 12 bucks will buy. "I just don't understand why some people pay hundreds of dollars for a bottle of wine," you can muse as make the rounds with the bottle, dressed in your best thrift-shop togs. "I mean, it's really just the label they're buying, isn't it? People who really appreciate wine only care about the taste."

Monday, December 6, 2010

What a crock!

I thought of something else that should go on the list of Stuff Ecofrugal People Like: slow cookers. We used ours a few nights back to prepare a mushroom-barley soup that we've made many times before, a delicious and hearty soup with only one real drawback: it takes about an hour and a half to cook. As a result, it's always been a weekends-only recipe. But last Friday we decided to just throw all the ingredients in the Crock-Pot and see how it came out, and behold, it was good. Brian actually thought the long slow cooking made it better, because the flavors had more time to blend.

Okay, that's all very nice, but what's so ecofrugal about it? Simple: by making it easier for us to cook at home on nights when we're busy, our slow cooker helps us avoid falling prey to the temptation of restaurant meals or convenience foods. And that's only one way that a slow cooker can contribute to the ecofrugal lifestyle. It can also:
  • make it easier to use dry beans instead of the pricier, more packaging-intensive canned beans. The biggest barrier to cooking with dry beans is the prep time involved: they have to be soaked overnight, then drained, rinsed and cooked for at least two hours before you can use them in your recipe. A slow cooker doesn't eliminate the need for advance preparation, but it does eliminate most of the active work involved. You can just throw the beans in the crock the night before, cover them with water, drain and add fresh water in the morning, and set the pot on low. By the time you get home in the evening, the beans will be ready to use in whatever you're cooking. And if you cook up extra beans, which takes no extra work, you can freeze the rest and have beans in your freezer, ready to use (after just a few minutes in the microwave) on those occasions when you can't soak and cook them ahead of time.
  • help you make your own veggie stock. This is a trick we learned from The Clueless Vegetarian (my favorite vegetarian cookbook and one I highly recommend for newcomers to vegetarian cooking). Basically, you keep a bag in your freezer in which you store all the vegetable scraps that you would normally discard: potato and carrot peelings, cut-off ends of onions, the innards of green peppers, mushroom stems (very flavorful), celery leaves, etc. When the bag gets full, you just dump it all into a pot of boiling water and cook it down. Normally, this would keep you tied to the house for two hours while the pot boils away on the stove, but with a slow cooker, you can just throw the veggies and water in first thing in the morning, set it on low, and strain it in the evening. (Or, if you prefer, you can throw everything in before bedtime, let it cook overnight, and strain it in the morning.) This is an ecofrugal three-fer: you get something for free that you'd ordinarily have to pay for, you avoid the packaging waste involved with canned stock, and you get additional use out of scraps that would normally be discarded. And the boiled-down mush that's left after you've strained off the stock can still go into the compost bin—you've just given it a head start on decomposition.
  • make a small amount of meat go farther. We're not exclusively vegetarians, but we eat only meats that are humanely farmed, and those tend to be expensive. Roasting a whole chicken would run into money, but a single package of chicken legs makes several meals when cooked up with chick peas, onions, almonds and cinnamon in a Moroccan chicken stew. (Note: no tomatoes. Most recipes seem to call for tomatoes, but mine doesn't, and I like it without.) Stretching the meat out with other ingredients makes the meal much cheaper, and (since meat is more resource-intensive than veggies) greener as well. And, another bonus for meat-eaters: slow cooking is an ideal way to tenderize tougher, and thus cheaper, cuts of meat.
And those are just the ways I've tried personally. I've heard of other, less conventional uses as well, like setting up a batch of steel-cut oats overnight so you can have a hot breakfast in the morning. Cold cereal is one of the priciest items in our grocery cart, so eating oatmeal more often would certainly be a money-saver—and because it's less processed, it's greener too, not to mention chock-full of healthful whole grains. And the slow cooker could replace other convenience-type foods, too, like dessert. I've even heard of people baking cakes in it, though I've never quite understood how that works. Clearly, this ecofrugal tool has benefits far beyond my current knowledge—a rich field for further exploration.