Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Patio Project, Phase Two: Materials

Although the biggest component in a paver patio—the pavers themselves—has already been supplied by Freecycle, there's still quite a lot of material that needs to go into the ground before the pavers can be installed. According to our handy guide, those pavers will need to go on top of four inches of gravel topped with one inch of sand, and to keep pesky weeds out, there should be a layer of landscape fabric under all that. Now, landscape fabric we could just pick up at the Home Depot, and they do sell gravel and sand there as well—but only in 50-pound bags, and we'd need around 34 of them for the sand alone. At $2.50 apiece. So it quickly became apparent that buying by the bag wasn't really going to be either practical or economical.

So last week, I started searching for a place in our area that sells gravel and sand in bulk. And I quickly ran up against my first snag: I had no idea what kind of business to look for. There was no listing in the Yellow Pages under "gravel," and when I looked under "stone" I kept finding places that sold stone countertops. So finally I just put our address into Google, told it to "search nearby," and typed in "gravel." That gave me several names to get started with. Most of the listings included websites, too, but when I tried to visit them, I ran into my second snag. Two of the listed websites didn't work at all; others had little or no information about what products the business actually carried. Fortunately, I did find one, the Belle Mead Co-Op, that not only had a complete product list but included price information as well. So with the help of that site, I was able to come up with a baseline estimate of about $210—including delivery—for all the stuff we wanted to buy. That was the price that the other businesses on my list would have to try to beat.

Getting estimates from these other businesses wasn't as easy as I'd hoped, either. At the first one I tried, I got a machine and left a message, and no one ever called me back. At the second one, a guy told me how much they charged per ton for sand and gravel, but he shied away from giving me an actual estimate, saying he wanted to wait for the guy who was in charge of that department to come back because he didn't want to give me information that might be wrong. Since that business also had an e-mail address, I tried sending a message to request a quote, but once again, no reply. And the third one I called said they didn't sell sand.

Well, at this point, the Belle Mead Co-Op was starting to look pretty good to me. I sent them an e-mail to make sure they could deliver to our area, and they responded—promptly, no less—to say it would be no problem. But before taking the plunge and ordering from them, I took a quick look at the FAQ on their site and discovered snag number three: the site said it was "not recommended" to "combine bulk products in the same dump delivery," such as gravel and sand, because they would mix together when dumped. That meant that we'd have to get two separate shipments, each with the $85 delivery charge. So my original estimate was now bumped up to around $300.

Slightly sticker-shocked by this revelation, I decided to make a more concerted effort to get quotes from more nearby places in the hopes that they could deliver for less. At the first place, I got the machine again, and I didn't bother leaving a second message, since I doubted it would get a response of the first one hadn't. At the second, I managed to reach the guy in charge of the gravel department, who ran some calculations and told me that he thought we would actually need more than a ton of sand for the top layer, even though every calculator I'd tried elsewhere said it should be a bit less. So he gave me an estimate that included 1.5 tons of sand and two delivery charges (of $80 each, despite the fact that this place was only half as far away from us as the Co-Op). Total cost: about $283.

Well, that was less than what I expected to pay at the Co-Op, but honestly, I wasn't that thrilled at the prospect of dealing with these guys. Based on my interactions with them, they just didn't strike me as all that reliable. I also dug up one more local business off the list and, after being cut off the first time I called, managed to get an estimate from them. They were actually the closest of all to us, yet they were charging a $100 delivery fee per truck, which bumped their total cost up to $313. The fact that this was higher than the Co-Op's estimate was what finally made my mind up that the Co-Op's price was reasonable, and it was worth an extra $15 or so to go with the business that seemed most trustworthy. They'd been up-front about their prices, listing everything right on the web; they'd answered all my questions promptly; they just seemed like a better place to do business with.

Turns out my instincts were right on. When I called them up to place the order, the guy on the phone jotted down all my information and then offered a suggestion: why not get "stone dust" instead of sand? Stone dust, apparently, is a mixture of coarse and fine stone tailings, and contractors usually prefer it to sand because it's cheaper and easier to work with. The idea was that we could sort the stuff by the shovelful and add the coarser bits to the gravel base, then use the fine dust for the top layer. To make up for the fact that the stone dust contains both coarse and fine bits, we could increase the volume of stone dust slightly, and decrease the volume of gravel. And if we used stone dust, we wouldn't need two separate deliveries, since it wouldn't matter if it mixed with the gravel; we'd just sort it as we shoveled anyway. I was so thrilled to have just saved $85 that when he offered to sell us the landscape fabric as well, I said yes without even bothering to see if it was cheaper at Home Depot; I was happy to throw a little extra business their way and have one less thing to pick up ourselves.

So, in total, I ended up buying 3 tons of road stone, 1.5 tons of stone dust, 1 hundred-foot roll of landscape fabric, and a pack of staples for holding it down, for $278.68, including delivery—less than I'd have paid at any of the local places even without the landscape fabric thrown in. And when I hung up the phone, I felt more justified than ever in my view that, when dealing with any kind of service—even if the service is just having something delivered—you'll get the best value by dealing with a business you trust. And often, as it turns out, you'll actually pay the lowest price that way, as well.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Patio Project, Phase One: Demolition

It has been more than three years now since we hauled home nearly a thousand concrete pavers that we found on Freecycle with the intention of building a patio. We stacked all the pavers in a corner of our yard by the shed, and there they've sat, untouched, ever since. Some of them literally have moss growing on them. So this year, I made up my mind that we were going to quit procrastinating, set aside a block of time, and actually get this thing done. P-Day—or to be more exact, P-Week—is scheduled for July 1 through July 5, and we are both taking the whole week off from work to make sure we have enough time to finish the job, whether the weather cooperates or not.

To prepare for this project, I did a little research and found this handy step-by-step guide to building a paver patio from Lowe's. According to this guide, the first step in the process, once you've bought all your materials and marked out the area, is to dig out the foundation. It recommends digging the entire area 7 inches deep to allow for 4 inches of gravel, 1 inch of sand, and the thickness of the pavers themselves. However, before we can start this process, we need to add one additional step: removing the concrete pad that's filling up one corner of our future patio site.

So, once again, I consulted the Great Oracle (otherwise known as the Internet) and dug up an article from the Family Handyman about how to demolish concrete. This article recommended taking a whack at it (or several whacks) with a sledgehammer before deciding whether or not to rent a jackhammer for the job. So we borrowed a sledgehammer from a friend, and last Sunday, Brian headed out there to pound on the concrete with it. And pound. And pound. And after several sessions of pounding (interspersed with long breaks for rest and hydration), succeed in chipping away only a small corner of the concrete pad.

Fortunately, this was the point at which our next-door neighbor, watching this process over the fence, took pity on him and asked, "Would you like to borrow a jackhammer?"

Yes. Yes he would.

Much as we both prefer to use our own muscle power when we can, there's no denying that sometimes there's nothing like a power tool to get the job done. While several hours of repeated attempts with the sledge had produced little more than a few cracks, just an hour or two with the jackhammer was enough to reduce the solid slab of concrete to a heap of rubble. Several large chunks still remained that needed to be worked loose with a pry bar, but it was actually possible to see dirt at the bottom of the hole. (And our awesome neighbor refused to accept any sort of payment for the loan of the jackhammer, even when we offered homemade pie.)

Unfortunately, we still haven't really worked out how to handle the second phase of the demolition, which is getting rid of the old concrete. The smaller chunks can be mixed in with the gravel base of the new patio, but the big ones will have to be either put to some sort of creative reuse or hauled off somehow. Apparently, you can't just throw this stuff in the trash (even if you could get it into a trash bucket without making it too heavy to lift); it has to be recycled, and unlike your newspapers and soda bottles, it doesn't just get picked up at the curb. You have to haul it yourself to the nearest reclamation center, which, as far as I can tell, is about eight miles away. And that's assuming that (a) the center still accepts concrete, which isn't mentioned on its website, and (b) an East Brunswick recycling center will take waste generated in Highland Park.

For now, all the concrete is just getting piled up in a far corner of our yard, where we'll eventually sort out the large chunks from the small and try to figure out what to do with them. Brian wants to hold on to them for a while in hopes that we'll come up with some way to reuse them. Personally, I cherish the hope that if I list the stuff on Freecycle, someone will come and haul it away for us. So far it's worked for almost everything else.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Gardeners' holidays: Salad Days

I've decided to dub the summer solstice on my gardeners' calendar "Salad Days," because our garden is currently at the peak of its lettuce production. Just take a look at these beauties. The little curly ones are Tom Thumb Bibb lettuce, and the larger ones are a new variety I tried this year called Winter Density. It was billed as a cross beween a green leaf lettuce and a romaine, and it's not supposed to bolt in hot weather the way other lettuces do. Actually, I now realize that I could have made this my Veggie of the Month, since it's a variety I haven't tried before (although then I wouldn't have had the chance to sample that yummy Gaya melon).

Unfortunately, it turns out that although the Winter Density lettuce is very healthy and productive in our garden, I don't actually care for it all that much. It has a lot of that distinctive bitter flavor that I dislike in romaine, while I was hoping it might be closer to the mild flavor of green leaf lettuce, which I do like. So although it's growing well, I probably won't bother with it next year. In the meantime, I'm using it up by mixing it in with the tender Boston-type lettuce, which I do like, so that the flavor is less bothersome.

Our snow peas are also hitting their stride, as you can see here. Unfortunately, since some of the plants were late to come up (actually, the original seeds didn't come up at all, so we quickly sowed some more), we haven't been able to harvest enough peas at once to make a stand-alone veggie side dish out of them. So instead, we've been picking eight or ten at a time and using them as ingredients in other dishes, like stir fries and Pad Thai. Brian has even taken to cutting up a few at a time and mixing them into our salads. So we celebrated Salad Days last night with a couple of bowls of mixed greens, snow peas, sun-dried tomatoes, and sunflower seeds as an accompaniment to our potato kugel and applesauce.

And in addition to what we're harvesting right now, we can look ahead to more good things on the horizon. Our Sun Gold tomato plants, which are generally the earliest to produce, have already developed tiny green tomatoes, the first of which should ripen by early July. And one of our two zucchini plants has already produces two wee little squashlings, just barely visible in the photo, which will probably be ready to pick within a week. (So far, my yellow cup traps haven't actually captured any vine borer moths, but we can still hope that the foil collars on the stems will keep them off the plants.) So for us, the next holiday in the gardening calendar—August 1, which was traditionally Lammas, or "loaf mass," to celebrate the first harvest of grain—will instead be Squash Mass, or perhaps even Tomato Mass.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Collared greens

No, that's not a typo: it's a description of my zucchini plants out in the garden, which are currently wearing aluminum-foil collars around their biggest stems. This is an attempt to "foil" the attacks of the dreaded squash vine borer, which, as you may recall, infested both our zucchini plants last year. While I was able to salvage one of the two plants, at least for a while, by cutting into the stem and digging out the grubs with a knife, the other suffered an untimely death. So this year I decided on a preemptive strike, in an effort to keep the little varmints from attacking our plants in the first place.

The foil collar technique is one my dad uses on his plants, but some other gardeners on Gardenweb say their results with it have been disappointing. Thus, I'm using it as part of a two-pronged strategy that also includes yellow cup traps. I can't remember where I first read about this method, but this blog explains how it works: set out yellow cups (or bowls, or any other container) filled with water around the plants. The adult moths are attracted to the color (which is the same as the color of the squash blossoms) and will, if all goes well, fall into the cups and drown. We had a bunch of little sample cups left over from our trips to the H Mart, where they give out tasty free samples on weekends; we usually take the cups home to recycle, but I stashed some of them with our gardening supplies, thinking they might come in handy. So we gave them a quick coat of spray primer and then one of yellow spray paint, and we've set several of them out around the plants, where we hope they will capture any terrorist moths bent on squash destruction. I'd like to add regular spraying with insecticidal soap as part of our anti-borer regimen, but we're all out of it at the moment, so until I can get some more, I'll have to hope the combination of cups and collars can keep these pests at bay.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Popcornomics

As I noted way back in 2010, my favorite snack is popcorn. I have a bowl of it nearly every afternoon, and I've come up with a method for making it (buy in a jar, then pop it in the microwave in a covered bowl) that's both cost- and time-efficient. But lately I've become disgruntled with the results I've been getting with the cheapo brand of popcorn I've been buying at the supermarket (Cousin Willie's). It costs only $1.25 per pound, but it seems to leave an awful lot of kernels unpopped. After popping 1/4 cup of corn, I often seem to be left with as much as 1 or 2 tablespoons of unpopped kernels at the bottom—a quarter to a half of what I started with—that just ends up going straight into the compost bin. (I've tried to put the unpopped kernels back in the microwave for a second go-round, but only a few of them pop, and they usually come out tough and undersized.)

What made this even more frustrating was that last winter at Aldi, I bought a couple of bags of their store-brand popcorn and found that it was both cheaper and better than Cousin Willie's. It left fewer duds at the bottom, and the popped kernels were bigger and fluffier. However, I've never been able to find the stuff at Aldi since then, despite checking at several different stores. It looks like they've just stopped carrying it.

So on my most recent trip to the grocery store, I decided to try springing for a slightly more expensive popcorn. Instead of Cousin Willie's, I went for Jolly Time, which was labeled as a "high popping hybrid." I measured out my usual quarter-cup into the popper, and the difference was clear right away. With Cousin Willie's, the popping would slow to a rate of several seconds between pops after about four minutes; leave it in any longer, and it was liable to burn. The Jolly Time, by contrast, kept merrily on popping for another 45 seconds, and when I pulled the bowl out, it was full to the brim. The individual popped kernels weren't quite as big, but they were still tasty, and I was left with only a dozen duds at the bottom of the bowl.

So my initial thought was that from now on I'd splurge on the good popcorn, since it's worth paying an extra 60 cents a pound for better results. But a second later, it occurred to me that this isn't really splurging; the more expensive popcorn is actually a better value. If I buy Cousin Willie's for $1.25 a pound and half of it doesn't pop, then I'm paying the equivalent of $2.50 a pound for the kernels that actually pop. With the Jolly Time, by contrast, I pay $1.87 a pound, but at least 90 percent of it pops, so I'm paying only $2.08 per pound of poppable corn.

This led me to wonder how many other examples I could find of saving money by paying more up front. Here are a few that came immediately to mind:
  • Buying CFL or LED bulbs rather than incandescents.
  • Paying extra for an energy-efficient appliance rather than buying the cheapest one available.
  • Buying a good pair of shoes that will last several years, rather than a cheap pair of shoes every year. (Sadly, this only works if you have already tried the pricey shoes and know they will last, since a higher price tag by itself is no guarantee of quality.)
  • Paying more for a computer that can be upgraded as needed (with extra memory, faster processor, etc.) rather than choosing a cheap bare-bones model with fewer slots.
That's all the examples I could think of off the top of my head. Anyone got some others to share?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The shoe conundrum: summer edition

As I may have mentioned at some points, one of my hobbies is filling out consumer surveys online. I get points for taking them, which I can turn in for cash or gift cards, but mostly I do it in the hope that my opinions will actually have some influence. And while most of the surveys I get sent tend to focus on topics that I don't actually care about all that much, such as airlines or frozen foods, this morning I happened to get one on a subject I do feel strongly about: shoe shopping.

Unfortunately, the reasons I have such strong opinions about shoe shopping didn't seem to be the same reasons the survey's creator had in mind. I answered a lot of questions about how important it is to me for shoes to be fashionable (not at all) or to "express my personality" (nice in theory, but way down on my list of priorities). I never really had a chance to explain just what it is that I really need most from a pair of shoes, as I explained in this entry back in January: a comfortable fit, non-leather construction, and reasonable value. If I could find a store that consistently offered well-made, leather-free shoes in my size, I'd never go anywhere else—but so far as I can tell, no such store exists.

So, in its absence, I've been forced to resort to a variety of stratagems for hunting down shoes that fit. For instance, as summer approached, I found myself faced with the problem of attempting to replace my worn-out Teva sandals. Fortunately, since Teva is a well-known brand, I figured I could simply find another pair in the same size from the same maker, and it would be sure to fit me comfortably. (Teva makes most of its women's shoes only in whole sizes and standard width, but I'd already discovered that a youth size 4 would fit me reasonably well—even offering a bit of arch support, which most sandals lack.)

However, since Teva isn't exactly a budget brand, I figured I'd save a bit more money by looking for a pair in good condition on eBay. After a couple of unsuccessful bids on pairs in the "sport" style, I finally secured a pair of "Tirra" sandals, which cost me only $12 including shipping and looked pretty cute to boot. The problem was, when they finally arrived, I quickly discovered that these sandals aren't built on the same footbed as my old ones. So while they are the right size, they have no discernable arch support. It only took one walk to the store in them to convince me that wearing them every day throughout the summer was not going to work.

At this point, I could have just written these off and resumed my search for a pair like my old ones, paying more careful attention to the design of the footbed. But I still had hope that it might be possible to make the new ones wearable. A standard molded insole, designed to tuck into a shoe, obviously wouldn't work with sandals—but what about some sort of cushion that could stick onto the shoe surface, right where the arch of the foot should be? Did anything like that exist?

A quick search proved that the answer was yes. Amazon.com had several different kinds, ranging in price from $1.66 a pair to $16.41 for a three-pack (for those who have three feet, presumably). Since I couldn't be sure how well they'd work until I'd tried them, I decided to minimize my risk by going with the cheap ones. The only downside of that is that they ship from Hong Kong—so Amazon is saying I shouldn't expect them until sometime between July 9 and July 25. But I figure I can manage to make my old pair last until then.

If this works, I'm planning to order several more pairs, in the hope that it will extend the range of footwear available to me. I might even be able to get away with wearing those cheap little canvas slip-ons again.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Fruit of the Month: Gaya melon

Late spring is kind of a dry season for fruit. Fresh veggies are plentiful; our garden is producing lots of lettuce and snow peas, and we're still harvesting the odd spear of asparagus. But most fruits—blueberries, peaches, cherries—don't really become abundant until later in the summer, and last year's crop of apples and pears is long depleted by now. When I finally made it down to the opening day of our local farmers' market last Friday, the only fruit I found on offer was $6-a-carton strawberries.

So, when my supply of fresh fruit ran out yesterday, I made a trip out to the HMart to see if I could find anything appetizing. And that's where I ran across this little specimen: Gaya melon. I'd never heard of it before, but as you can tell from the picture, it's roughly coconut-sized, with a pale-green rind speckled with darker green. Inside, the flesh is whitish, with a soft, seed-filled center.

A site called The Produce Guide describes the flavor of a Gaya melon as "a gentle mix of banana and pear," but to me it tasted more or less like honeydew, only with a less dense texture. It's very soft and sweet toward the center, growing crisper and slightly tart toward the rind. It's extremely refreshing on a hot day. My plan was to eat only a quarter of it to start with, but instead I found myself gobbling down the second quarter immediately after finishing the first.

The Produce Guide notes that Gaya melon makes "a good background fruit for a fruit salad with raspberries and blueberries," but I doubt I'll be able to put this one to any such use, since as I noted, the raspberries and blueberries won't be ripe around here for another month or so. Of course, if I had waited for the Gaya itself to be in season locally, rather than buying one shipped up from Florida or somewhere, I probably could get all three at the same time—and maybe I will, if I can find all three ingredients for less than a couple of limbs. But for now, I think the rest of this Gaya melon is going to go the same way as the first half, and quite speedily. And once it's gone, I'll definitely be keeping my eye out for more of the same—especially if I can find any grown locally.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Our biggest fan

It's this one:


This baby can churn out somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 cubic feet of air per minute (CFM). We sometimes use it in the evening or early morning to help cool down our non-centrally-air-conditioned house by setting it up in a window, blowing outward. Then we open up a bunch of windows to let in cooler outdoor air, replacing what the fan blows out.

However, this makeshift system isn't all that efficient. While the big fan can push out a huge volume of air, we don't really have a window to put it in where it can create a draft through the whole house. The big fan also uses a fair amount of power—between 100 and 180 watts on high speed, spiking up to 270 when it's first turned on. And it's loud enough to make conversation difficult, if not impossible.

So lately we've been toying with the idea of having a whole-house fan installed. If we put it right smack in the middle of the hallway, it would pull air through every part of the house. And during the past couple of weeks, when temperatures occasionally spiked over 90 during the daytime and then dropped into the 60s at night, we had a vivid demonstration of how useful it would be to be able to replace all the hot air in our house with outdoor air as soon as we get up in the morning.

Never having installed one of these things before, we didn't have a good idea how much it would cost. A site called Homewyse gave me a rough estimate of between $450 and $650, including labor; this article on HouseLogic was less optimistic, saying we could expect to pay between $150 and $550 for the equipment and $1,000 or so for installation. So, to get a more concrete idea of how much this would cost and whether it was likely to be worth the money, we decided last week to get quotes for the job from several local electricians.

Well, that was the idea, at least. In reality, two of the four electricians I contacted never got back to me at all; a third one e-mailed me with a couple of questions about our setup, and then never replied to my reply. The fourth one, by contrast, responded very promptly, calling me within minutes after my initial e-mail to set up an appointment. However, they couldn't commit to a specific time, saying only that someone would be there "in the early afternoon"—and then sending a follow-up e-mail to say "you are scheduled for Friday morning," leaving the matter even more ambiguous. So I spent most of Friday trapped in the house, unable to go out to the opening day of our local farmer's market, because I had no idea when to expect a visit.

The electrician finally showed up around 3pm, and the first thing he did was try to convince me that we need to upgrade our old panel box (which may be true) because "it really should be done every seven years" (which definitely isn't). Then, after spending the next 45 minutes checking this and that and trekking back and forth to his van, he finally presented me with a quote of around $2,275. Yep, more than $700 above the highest estimate we'd seen anywhere else. And this, mind you, was for a fan with a maximum output of 1,000 CFM; most sources recommend at least 1,500 CFM for a house the size of ours. And on top of that, the electrician told us we'd need not one, but two circuits dedicated entirely to the fan; he actually complained at first about the fact that we only had two free circuits with nothing on them, saying that a fan large enough for our house might need four. Four?! We know that a single circuit in our house can run our refrigerator (with the compressor on) and our microwave at the same time; that's at least 1,500 watts. Is the fan he proposes to install really going to draw four times as much power as that? If so, how can it possibly be more efficient than air conditioning?

So it might have seemed like that was the end of that idea. However, while researching whole-house fans in general, I'd happened upon the website of a company that makes what it describes as "Quiet Cool House Fans." According to their FAQ, these have two main advantages over a conventional whole-house fan. First, they're easier to install. They're narrow enough to fit between floor joists, so you just cut through the ceiling between to insert the grill, and the fan itself hangs suspended from the attic rafters. All you need is a standard 120-volt outlet in the attic to plug it in. And second, they're quieter. Because the fan assembly hangs from the rafters instead of being mounted right in the ceiling, it can push through the same amount of air without creating as much noise in the living space below.

These fans aren't cheap. The 2,250-CFM fan, which is the minimum size they recommend for a house the size of ours, costs $650 and uses 249 watts; the more efficient Energy Saver version, with an output of 2,850 CFM, costs $969 and uses 178 watts. But that's still less than half the price we were quoted to have a less powerful, less efficient, and louder fan installed. Of course, we also need to factor in the cost of getting an outlet added in the attic. Kudzu estimates the cost of that job at about $100; Homewyse puts it between $150 and $220. And if our town requires a permit (and it usually does), that could add another $50 or so.

So the questions now are:
  1. How much of this job can we actually do ourselves; and
  2. Is this fan going to be so much quieter and/or more effective than our current jury-rigged system as to make it worth between $850 and $1,170 to install?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Livingston's First Law

The yard sale season is officially in full swing. In the past couple of weeks, Brian and I have been to literally more sales than we could count. Unfortunately, as is usually the case with yard sales, most of them didn't yield anything useful. The first weekend in June, we stopped by three separate sales here in town, and not one of them was worth the walk. Two of the three were the kind of sale we probably wouldn't bother to stop for if we happened to drive past it: just a table or two full of useless tchotchkes and maybe a few much-abused kids' toys. The third looked more promising at first glance—there were clothes, at least—but nothing in a size that would fit either of us. Yesterday we walked across town to visit one that was actually a moving sale, which typically means that they're more likely to be selling the good stuff—or at least the big stuff. But all we came away with was a reel of twine and a styrofoam craft cone, which Brian thinks might be useful for a project he has in mind. (Watch this space for further details.)

Saturday, however, was an entirely different kettle of fish. We'd been planning a trip that evening down to my parents' house in Hopewell, since my sister was in town (with my new niece) to attend a friend's baby shower. But early that morning, my mom called us up and said that she and my sister had just been out for a coffee and discovered that this was actually the day of Hopewell's official town-wide yard sale—a major event that draws people from miles around. Permit fees for yard sales are waived, so everyone in town who wants to have a yard sale has one that day, resulting in dozens of yard sales all clustered in an area of less than one square mile. Local churches get into the act too, setting up rummage sales in their basements and bake sales outside, and the tiny local library holds a sale of surplus books. This, in short, is the mother lode.

That's not to say that we had uniformly good luck at these sales. For instance, we ended up buying not one but two five-buck DVD players that turned out to be broken. (We were looking for one for a friend who already has a broken one.) The first one we were able to test and return immediately, since the seller lived right next door to my folks, but the second one came from across town and didn't get tested until we got it home. So, we took a $5 gamble and lost. (Though taking it apart to figure out what was wrong with it did provide a little entertainment.)

This setback aside, however, we did have a few pretty good finds. For a total of $12.25, we brought home two spare tires for Brian's bike, a small medicine bottle for my cobalt glass collection, a mini surge protector, a glossy book on kitchen remodeling, and—our most unexpected find—about three pounds of fresh-picked rhubarb. The leaves were still attached, making it a rather bulky and heavy package, and we attracted lots of attention from shoppers at other sales. The bundle ended up starting several conversations about how to cook rhubarb, which parts of it are edible, what to do with the inedible leaves, and so forth. (Eventually we were able to remove the leaves and leave them with one of the yard-selling homeowners for her compost pile.) All in all, we spent about two hours at the sales, walked about three miles, and got to do a little exploring of my hometown and observe all the fancy new businesses that have sprung up since my time. It was just enough of an excursion—and just enough of a haul—to be satisfying and make us feel it was worth the trip, yet not enough to tire us out completely.

The contrast between the Hopewell sales and the others we've visited over the past few weeks led me to formulate what I've decided to call Livingston's First Law of Yard Sales: The chance of success in yard-shopping is directly proportional to the density of sales per square mile. For the best possible experience, always go where the sales are thickest on the ground. The reason we did so well at the Hopewell sales wasn't that the individual sales were uniformly great, or even better than average; it was that if one sale turned out to be disappointing, we could just shrug and move on to the next one, which was invariably less than a block away. With so many sales in such a small space, our chance of finding something useful was practically a mortal lock.

Plus, where else are you going to encounter a guy walking away from a yard sale with a balalaika?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Rationing Challenge, Final Results

Well, we made it to the end of the Rationing Challenge without actually running out of anything. On Thursday, we had a dinner of pasta with sauteed peppers, onions, and a bit of sausage from the Amish market. Sausage wasn't listed anywhere on the rationing chart I've been using as my main source for this challenge, but a quick search on Google led me to a blog called Rational Living, all about the adventures of a family trying to follow the Rationing Challenge for an entire year (brave souls). That site has a post about a sausage-based recipe from a WWII-themed cookbook, and in the comments on the article, someone noted that sausage cost 8 red points per pound (the same as cheese). So I used that figure, allotting 2 points for the 1/4 pound we used (actually, it was more like 3 ounces, but I figured a quarter pound was probably the smallest amount you could buy). And I also knocked another couple of tablespoons our oil allotment for the oil we used to fry it, as well as the half-teaspoon or so I've been using each day on my popcorn. So our tally for the day looked like this:

Day 6 (June 6)
  • Sausage, 1/4 pound: 2 red points
RED POINTS: 24 used, 8 remaining
BLUE POINTS: 48 used, 48 remaining

That night came our biggest challenge of all: baking for the Minstrel. I paged through the "Cakes to Make Often" section in the vintage WWII cookbook I found online and found that, while the "One-Egg Wonder Cake" supposedly made enough for a 9-inch square cake or 12 cupcakes, that same recipe could also be modified to make "Lunch Box Surprises," which could make "12 medium cup cakes or 12 bars" using only half the batter. In other words, a single recipe could make one batch of a dozen big cupcakes or two batches of a dozen short little cupcakes. So I figure we could just split the difference and make one batch into 18 medium-sized cupcakes, halfway in between full size and "lunch box" size. That would make 16 for the Minstrel and leave 2 for us.

I opted to combine two of the "lunch box surprises" recipes—Chocolate Cakes and Coconut Cakes—to make a chocolate cupcake topped with coconut. The Chocolate Cakes recipe called for a square of baking chocolate (which would be two squares for the double batch we were making), but we opted to substitute 6 Tbsp. cocoa and 2 Tbsp. oil—a substitution that Brian, the baker of the house, declared "an ancient and time-honored one." Somewhat more novel and uncertain was the substitution of honey for half the sugar, but the cookbook explained exactly how to do it: cut the sugar in the recipe to 1/2 cup, cut the milk to 2/3 cup, and mix the honey with the milk. We also substituted butter (the remainder of the stick we started on Sunday) for the shortening, which is an item we no longer keep in the house since the phrase "trans fats" entered our vocabulary.

Since my adapted recipe involved a lot of modifications from the original "One-Egg Wonder Cake," I decided to write it out in detail, copying and pasting and modifying the original recipe as needed. Here's my adapted recipe in full:
ONE-EGG CHOCOLATE COCONUT CAKES 
Preparations. Have shortening at room temperature. Grease pans, line bottoms with waxed paper, grease again. Start oven for moderate heat. Sift flour once before measuring. 
Measure into sifter:2 cups sifted Swans Down Cake Flour [we actually used all-purpose flour and skipped the sifting]
2 teaspoons Calumet Baking Powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar [or use 1/2 cup and add honey as noted below] 
Measure into bowl:1/3 cup vegetable shortening [use butter] 
Measure into cup:3/4 cup milk [or cut to 2/3 cup and add 1/2 cup corn syrup or honey]
1 teaspoon vanilla 
Have ready: 1 egg, unbeaten 
Now the “Mix-Easy” Part. Mix or stir shortening just to soften. Sift in dry ingredients; add 1/2 of liquid and the egg. Mix until all flour is dampened; then beat 1 minute. Add remaining liquid, blend, and beat 2 minutes longer. (Mix by hand or at low speed of electric mixer. Count only actual beating time. Or count strokes. Allow 100 to 150 full strokes per minute. Scrape bowl often.) 
Add to batter: 2 squares Baker’s Unsweetened Chocolate, melted [or 6 Tbsp. cocoa plus 2 Tbsp. oil]. Mix thoroughly. 
Turn into 18 greased cupcake pans; top with coconut. Bake in moderate oven (375° F.) 18 minutes, or until done.
The result was—interesting. They were significantly less sweet than most cupcakes, sort of more comparable to a lightly sweet bread, and the honey added a noticeable twist to the chocolate flavor. I'm not going to say they were extraordinary, but they were certainly edible, with a nice moist texture. At the Minstrel the following night they didn't go as quickly as the homemade brownies (which are what we usually make), but they were more popular than the store-bought chocolate chip cookies. I imagine if we'd grown accustomed to low-sugar eating over the period of a long war, these would taste pretty good to us. I'm actually eager now to try some of the other recipes from this section, particularly the gingerbread (made with half sugar, half molasses).

Friday night Brian skipped dinner, having enjoyed a bountiful Indian buffet at lunch in honor of three coworkers all expecting babies at the same time. So my dinner ended up being some homemade bread and leftover soup out of the freezer, which I treated as if it were a canned soup, costing 2 blue points for a small can. Thus, the tally for the final day of the challenge was:

Day 7 (June 7)
  • Soup, 10 oz: 2 blue points
RED POINTS: 24 used, 8 remaining
BLUE POINTS: 50 used, 46 remaining

So, we made it through the week with 8 red points and 46 blue points to spare. We also had about half a cup of sugar left out of the pound we started with. Actually, I now think we could have had even more, since in the process of searching for low-sugar cakes I stumbled across this recipe, supposedly dating from WWII, which calls for saccharin. Many comments say it tastes horrible, but the point is that artificial sweeteners were in fact available and unrationed during the war. (An article on artificial sweeteners at WebMD.com confirms this.) Thus, there was no need for me to count out extra spoonfuls of sugar to make up for the aspartame I used in my cocoa and egg creams. We also ended the week with 28 tablespoons of oil left out of the quart (64 tablespoons) that we "opened" at the start of the challenge, as well as 1 1/2 sticks out of the half-pound of margarine that I added to our tally on Day 1.

On the whole, I think we did a pretty good job. If we had to do this on a longer-term basis, I might be inclined to try and make better use of the blue points, since we ended the week with nearly half our allotted points unused. Perhaps we could take advantage of blue-point items, like canned fruits and preserves, to enjoy more desserts without running down our sugar ration. So it might be worth revisiting this challenge at a later date to explore those possibilities.

To be honest, I think the hardest part of the challenge for me wasn't limiting my use of specific foods; it was having to track everything we ate. We actually managed just fine with limited amounts of sugar, oils, meats, and canned foods; the only thing we changed about our eating habits was the low-sugar baking, and I suspect we could adapt to that pretty quickly. But keeping track of every teaspoon of sugar, oil, or margarine, just to make sure we didn't go over our allotted amount, was a really big hassle. I certainly wouldn't want to do it for an entire year.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Rationing Challenge, Days 4 and 5

Five days down, two to go, and our supplies of red and blue points are holding out pretty well. Tuesday night we ate leftovers, and Wednesday we had breakfast for dinner (eggs with potatoes, onions, and mushrooms, plus toast), so the only new item we've "bought" in the past two days was a jar of jam for the toast. So our tallies for the past two days are:

Day 4 (June 4)
  • No points used
RED POINTS: 22 used, 10 remaining
BLUE POINTS: 45 used, 51 remaining

Day 5 (June 5)
  • Strawberry jam, 8 oz. jar: 3 blue points
RED POINTS: 22 used, 10 remaining
BLUE POINTS: 48 used, 48 remaining

The one item that's becoming a problem, ironically, is the sugar. I assumed at first that a pound of sugar would be plenty to get us through the week, but at the time I was thinking only of how much white sugar we use in its raw state; I wasn't factoring in the amount of sugar in the box of brownie mix we normally use for Friday night. If we replace that with a home-baked recipe, we'll use at least a cup of sugar, and we're down to about that amount already.

Part of the reason we have so little left is that I received a comment on Monday's post about how the artificial sweetener I've been substituting for half the sugar I use would probably have been rationed as well. I decided that the easiest way to account for that would be to count out the teaspoons of sugar I'd replaced with artificial sweetener over the course of the week into a separate container. So with those gone, we have just a cup left. I've now switched to using half sugar and half stevia, which is a natural non-nutritive sweetener rather than a "chemical-using product," and thus probably wouldn't have been rationed. This morning I actually tried making my breakfast cocoa using only stevia, but the result definitely wasn't satisfactory; unlike the aspartame I've been using, the stevia has a distinctive off-taste, a bit like mouthwash. It's not too noticeable with half sugar and half stevia, but all stevia is definitely a bit icky. Maybe I should try making my cocoa with molasses. 

Alternatively, maybe we should try substituting molasses for the brown sugar in the peanut butter cookies we're making tonight. That way, we'd use only half a cup of sugar, and we'd have half a cup left to get through the rest of the week. This cooking site says you can replace up to half the sugar in a recipe with molasses, but for every cup you replace, you should use 1/3 cup extra of molasses, plus a half-teaspoon of baking soda to cut the acidity, and also cut the liquid in the recipe by 5 tablespoons. That's an awful lot of tweaking for a recipe we've never made before.

What I really need is one of those Depression-era cookbooks with recipes specifically designed to use less of the foods that were rationed. I just did a quick search and managed to turn up this one, published by General Foods in 1942. It includes recipes for several cakes that substitute corn syrup or honey for all or part of the sugar. Maybe one of those would be just the ticket. The only problem is that most of the recipes only make an 8-inch cake, and we have to provide 16 servings. But we could multiply one of the recipes and still use less than a cup of sugar. I'll run the recipes by Brian (he's the baker in the family) and fill you in on the results.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Return of the Forsythia Monster

It's been less than nine months since we defeated the monster forsythia hedge on the south side of our yard, clearing it away to make room for our new little cherry bushes. But just when we thought it was safe to go back in the garden...

DA dum...DA dum...

The Forsythia Monster has resurfaced, this time on the north side of the yard. After several weeks of alternating heat and rain, the hedge on that side, which was apparently just biding its time, has suddenly grown to mammoth proportions and started attacking and devouring our clothesline. Aieee!

For now, I've managed to beat back its advance with a pair of pruning shears, lopping off all the branches that were fouling the line itself or snagging on the laundry. But even as I snipped and trimmed, it grew steadily more apparent to me that my efforts would only hold it off temporarily. If we're ever going to truly free our yard from the clutches of the Forsythia Monster, then this hedge is going to have to go, too.

Unfortunately, clearing out this hedge is going to be a bit more complicated than taking down the one on the opposite side. For one thing, the bushes are standing not at ground level, but on top of (and partly on the sides of) a short, steep slope that runs along the side of the yard, knee-high and one end and waist-high at the other. And the bushes themselves are just as big as the ones on the south side, so they'd be looming considerably above the level of our heads as we worked on them. Also, there are more obstacles in the way, like the clotheslines, the garden fence, and the house itself, so we'd have less room to maneuver.

The biggest problem, though, is that these forsythia bushes standing on the slope may be the only thing that keeps the slope itself standing, rather than eroding away to nothing. So whenever we pull them out, we'll have to have something else ready to go in and take their place right away. We can't really do what we did on the south side, removing the old bushes in the fall and then waiting until spring to put in the new ones. And that means that we can't really tackle the northern wall of forsythia until we have a replacement ready to go.

So, I guess the first step in preparing to take on this new Forsythia Monster is deciding what we'd like to put in its place. I'd love to put in some blueberry bushes, but unfortunately, blueberries don't tend to do well in clay soil like we have; they like it sandy and acidic. Most varieties also grow too tall to be easily harvested if they're standing atop a 2-to-3-foot slope. However, it might still be possible to plant them if we build a permanent raised bed along the fence. This would most likely mean containing the slope itself with a retaining wall and then filling in the area on top with heavily amended soil. The question is, is this really worth the effort, or would it be better to go for some other plant or shrub? Ideally, I'd like whatever replaces the forsythia to expand our edible landscape, but is there any sort of plant we could put there that would be suitable for our site and would also provide us with food?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Rationing Challenge, Day 3

As I suspected, this rationing thing gets easier as you go through the week, coasting on the containers you've already opened. On Day 3 of our Rationing Challenge, we didn't use a single additional point of either red or blue foodstuffs. We did continue to slowly deplete our supplies of sugar and oil, using a couple of teaspoons of sugar for cocoa, a quarter-cup of oil to make two loaves of whole-wheat bread, a half-teaspoon or so to drizzle over popcorn, and a few teaspoons to brown some chicken for dinner. At present, it looks like we're in no danger of running through our sugar supply, but we might need to start another quart of oil before the end of the week. Fortunately, the chicken itself did not cost us any points from our dwindling stock of red points, since poultry wasn't rationed. Neither was the fresh fruit we ate with our lunch, or the fresh salad greens we picked for our dinner from our Victory Garden. Brian did sprinkle a bit of sun-dried tomato on top of the salad, but that item doesn't seem to be listed anywhere in the rationing chart, although dried beans and dried fruits (prunes, raisins, and currents) are.

Day 3 (June 3)
  • No points used
RED POINTS: 22 used, 10 remaining
BLUE POINTS: 45 used, 51 remaining

One question I'm wondering about is what we'll do on Friday, when we're signed up to donate baked goods at the Minstrel (our favorite folk club). Normally, we just fix a batch of brownies from a mix and add in a cup of chocolate chips; this easy and relatively inexpensive recipe seems to be far more popular with the hungry crowds than much more labor-intensive home-baked goodies like oatmeal cookies. But if we do that, I'm not sure how the baking mix and chocolate chips should count against our week's sugar ration.

So perhaps we should just break with our usual practice and bake something from scratch so that we can accurately track the amount of sugar we use. And as long as we're doing that, maybe we should try one of these special wartime recipes, many of which are designed to minimize the use of sugar (which was rationed) and eggs (which were often scarce). A quick search on "molasses cake" also turned up several interesting hits, many of which contain no white sugar—but they tend to use lots of butter, perhaps enough to completely use up our remaining red points. I also found a recipe for peanut butter cookies in the Pillsbury Cookbook, which calls for only a cup of sugar (half white, half brown) and half a cup of "margarine or butter" (the peanut butter, which wasn't rationed, adds the rest of the necessary moisture). It makes 3 1/2 dozen cookies, which would give us 32 for the Minstrel (2 cookies per customer) and leave 10 for us to enjoy at home.

There's also this pumpkin gingerbread, which uses only half a cup of sugar (plus half a cup of molasses). It calls for a half-cup of butter, too, but the recipe says that when it was left out by accident, the cake still "turned out fine." And pumpkin puree doesn't appear on the rationing chart, so it wouldn't cost us any blue points (unless we add the raisins, which would use four). The only drawbacks are (1) we haven't made this before, so I'm not sure how good it is; (2) we might not get enough servings out of one loaf; and (3) it definitely wouldn't leave any leftovers for us. Unless we made two loaves, in which case we'd still be using up a cup of sugar. Decisions, decisions....

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Rationing Challenge, Days 1-2

My original plan was to start the Rationing Challenge today. However, on Saturday morning at breakfast I found myself opening a new half-gallon container of orange juice, and I decided that it would make sense start the tally right then and there. That way, we could just count the 6 blue points for that full carton of juice right off the bat, rather than try and estimate how much of it was left on Monday and how many points it should be worth. I did have some partially used containers in the fridge that gave me a little trouble: a 15-ounce can of peaches (18 blue points) and a 16-ounce carton of cottage cheese (5 red points). I was reluctant to count the full allotment of points for these, since I'd already eaten part of them before starting the challenge. However, since they were still more than half full, and since there's no easy way to count points for only part of a container, I decided to go ahead and count them in full. Ditto for the half-pound of cheese (4 red points) that we'd used in Friday's dinner, from which we still had plenty of leftovers.

So, ever since Saturday, I've been keeping track of all items like these, which would come from either the red or blue coupon books, along with their cost in points. Then I deduct these points from my total for the week, so I have a running tally of how many points I've used and how many I have left to spend. As for sugar, which was rationed as a fixed amount per week, Brian just measured out a pound of sugar (a week's supply for two people) into a jar, and we'll be taking all our sugar from that over the course of the week. I could do the same thing with my coffee, but since I read an account in one of my sources that indicated the allotted 1 pound every 5 weeks worked out to about a cup of coffee per day, I think I'll just limit myself to that and keep the math easy. (Technically, I could have two cups, since our household would also be entitled to a coffee ration for Brian, who doesn't drink it. But that would be counter to the spirit of the challenge, especially since consumers were strongly encouraged not to use up their full supply of ration coupons if they didn't actually need the goods.)

A couple of other questions posed themselves as I embarked on the challenge. For instance, what about artificial sweeteners? Lately I've been cutting back on sugar by using half sugar, half artificial sweetener in my morning cocoa and afternoon egg cream. But since artificial sweeteners didn't exist during World War II, is it cheating to cut my sugar use in this way? After some consideration, I decided that it isn't—just as it isn't cheating to drive my car at the speed for which it's designed, rather than impose a speed limit designed for 1940s vehicles. The point of this experiment isn't to reproduce the conditions of World War II; it's to see how well a modern American can adapt to World-War-II-style rationing. Artificial sweeteners do exist in the modern world, so it's fair to use them.

Also, what about store-bought sweets containing sugar, like the nearly-full carton of ice cream in our freezer? Should these be allowed? Wikipedia reports that during the war, "Bakeries, ice cream makers, and other commercial users received rations of about 70% of normal usage." So the rationing of sugar in these products took place on the manufacturer's end, rather than the consumer's. It sounds like consumers were allowed to buy as much ice cream as they liked—if they could get it. This little historical article from the makers of Turkey Hill ice cream notes that ice cream was often in short supply during the war, but "Ice cream shops still managed to satisfy our sweet tooth thanks to some quick thinking and experimenting with different recipes." Based on that, I figure the ice cream in our freezer remains allowable.

So, with these rules in mind, here's my log from the first day of the challenge:

Day 1 (June 1): 
  • Orange juice, 59-ounce carton: 6 blue points
  • Margarine, 1/2 pound (I really only used a teaspoon or so on my morning toast, but at 6 points per pound, I can't "buy" less than half a pound at a time): 3 red points
  • Cheese, 1/2 pound (from last night's pasta): 4 red points
  • Peaches, 15-ounce can (partly used): 18 blue points
  • Cottage cheese, 16-ounce carton: 5 red points
  • Applesauce, 25-ounce jar: 21 blue points
  • Cooking oil, 1 quart (again, we've only used a little of it so far): 6 red points
RED POINTS: 18 used, 14 remaining
BLUE POINTS: 45 used, 51 remaining

At first glance, this looks like a bad start to the week: after only one day, we've already used more than half our red points and nearly half our blue points. But keep in mind that this includes a whole carton of OJ, a quart of oil, and a jar of applesauce, all of which have only just been started. We'll use these up gradually over the course of the week, but the points come off our total immediately. As you can see, the next day's tally looks much better:

Day 2 (June 2)
  • Butter, 1/4 pound (1 stick): 4 red points
RED POINTS: 22 used, 10 remaining
BLUE POINTS: 45 used, 51 remaining

Yeah, butter costs a lot more in red points than margarine, but making parathas with margarine simply doesn't work. We used a few tablespoons making the parathas, leaving us with more than half a stick for the rest of the week. We also used over a cup of our cooking oil supply making the rest of the meal (sadly, there's really no way to make Sook Aloo low-fat, and you'll ruin it if you try), but we still have some left. There's also plenty of the OJ, margarine, and applesauce left, though I did polish off the remaining peaches and cottage cheese. And our sugar jar is still nearly full.

On the whole, I'd that say for two days in, we're not doing too badly. Watch this space for further updates.