Eco-Saturday: Buy used furniture

Used furniture is one of my favorite forms of recycling. While I purchased a couple of new pieces during my big redecorating project last year, much of the furniture in my house was used when I got it.

My coffee table and end tables came from the Herrin City Library, which sold off or threw out much of its original furniture during an expansion many years ago. The clock in my bedroom came from the same source, and I think that might be where Mom picked up those great lamps that grace the end tables, too.

This cute mid-century bookshelf came from an antique shop on Main Street here in Cape. I expect it will hold up considerably better than the 3-year-old particle-board shelves it replaced:


I went looking for mid-century dining furniture at Annie Laurie’s but wound up falling in love with this uber-’70s table and chairs, which came with an extra leaf:


The set was too cool to pass up, so I bought it and declared the dining room a ’70s zone — a look I punctuated with a metal faux-woodgrain shelf I found hiding under a layer of unfortunate contact paper at a little shop on Spanish Street:


A can of WD-40 and a little patience yielded a nice nostalgia trip, as Mom displayed her houseplants on similar shelves when I was little. Mine serve as a sort of holding pen for stuff that lands on the dining table and for whatever reason can’t be put away yet. About once a month, I look over the contents of the shelf and determine which items are ready to go to more permanent locations.

To my way of thinking, used furniture has three big advantages over new:

1. It’s already here; nobody has to cut down another tree or pull another barrel of oil out of the ground to produce it.

2. With the exception of valuable antiques, used furniture tends to be cheaper than comparable new items. I gave $85 for my dining table and chairs — about $400 less than the IKEA set I was considering, and probably more durable.

3. The antique stores here in Cape are all mom-and-pop operations located in historic buildings, which means when I shop there, I’m not only keeping more of my money in my community, but I’m also contributing to the upkeep of a historic property. WIN.


Vegetarian Friday: Stocking the pantry

This time of year, some of you will be making New Year’s resolutions. If yours involves losing weight, reducing your meat consumption, saving money, or some combination of the above, you’ll be much more successful if you plan ahead and cook at home as much as possible. About a year and a half ago, we switched from eating out four or five days a week to eating at home five to six days a week.

The transition from eating in restaurants most of the time to cooking at home most of the time could have been a real pain, but I learned early on that the key to sticking with it was making sure eating out was a bigger hassle than making dinner at home. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share several of the tricks I used to accomplish that. Today, we’ll start at the beginning: with the grocery list. The stricter your dietary restrictions, the more important it becomes to have appropriate ingredients on hand at all times.

Below are my suggestions for shopping on a vegan diet; a lacto-ovo diet, which allows eggs and dairy products; and a pesco-pollo diet, which eliminates red meat but keeps fish and poultry — not really vegetarian by any definition of the word, but a good way to lose weight, fuel an athletic goal or start phasing out animal products gradually.

If you’re planning to go vegan, it’s useful to have on hand:

Canned goods:
* Beans — red, black, pinto, garbanzo and blackeyed peas
* Diced tomatoes
* Black olives
* Chopped green chiles
* Salsa
* Marinara sauce
* Tahini (sesame paste)
* Peanut butter
* Pickles
* Lemon juice
* Lime juice
* Cider vinegar

Condiments: relish, giardiniera, Nayonaise, hot sauce, enchilada sauce, wing sauce, barbecue sauce, ketchup, mustard, soy sauce (or Bragg’s liquid aminos)

Oils: extra-virgin olive oil for sauteing and a heat-stable oil for frying

Grains and dry goods:
* Old-fashioned oats
* Cornmeal
* Rice
* Couscous
* Quinoa
* Dried TVP
* Nutritional yeast
* Flour (all-purpose and whole-wheat)
* Pasta
* Tortillas (large flour, small flour and small corn)
* Breads: hamburger buns and sandwich rounds
* Tortilla chips
* Pita chips
* Leavening: baking soda, baking powder, yeast, cheap beer

Frozen foods:
* Trinity (peppers, onions and celery — buy separately)
* Vegetable blends (Mediterranean-style and stir-fry)
* TVP crumbles
* Veggie burgers
* Berries
* Cut okra

In the fridge:
* Crescent rolls
* Margarine
* Silken tofu in aseptic package
* Soy or almond milk (plain and vanilla)

Yellow or white onions
Sweet potatoes
Celery sticks
Baby carrots
Whatever’s in season for salads

Dried fruit
Nuts and seeds (soynuts, sunflower kernels, mixed nuts, Spanish peanuts, raw cashews)
Clif Bars (most, if not all, are vegan)

From the above ingredients, you can make chili, chili mac, tacos, taco bowls, pasta, stuffed baked potatoes, burgers, Philly sandwiches, nachos, hummus, falafel, hoppin’ John, red beans and rice, fried pickles, burritos, beans and cornbread, minestrone, tortilla soup, smoothies, sloppy Joes, barbecue, and a host of other meals.

If you’re planning to go lacto-ovo vegetarian, you can add to that list:

* Egg noodles
* Grits (yes, they’re vegan, but I only like them with cheese)
* Swap the margarine for butter
* Frozen cheese tortellini or ravioli
* Eggs
* Greek yogurt
* Sour cream
* Cheese: shredded cheddar and mozzarella, cream cheese, string cheese, Parmesan
* Buttermilk or kefir
* Frozen buttermilk waffles

This list will add baked pasta, casseroles, stuffed breadsticks, stroganoff, quesadillas, omelets, fritattas, egg sandwiches, loaded baked potatoes, cheese grits, enchiladas, seven-layer burritos, stuffed mushrooms and huevos rancheros and several other options.

If you’re easing in with a pesco-pollo diet, add:

* Frozen chicken breasts
* Frozen seafood (salmon and shrimp)
* Canned tuna
* Canned biscuits
* Smoked turkey sausage

This extends your options to include tuna salad, chicken and waffles, chicken and dumplings, tuna marinara pasta, seafood gumbo, shrimp and grits, salmon and salad, chicken casserole, chicken-noodle soup and more.

You don’t have to have all of these items, but I try to keep most of them on hand so I can get dinner on the table fast. Stock up on shelf-stable items when they’re on sale, and adjust the list based on what your family enjoys eating.

Happy cooking, and good luck with your goals, whatever they may be.


Folk Thursday: Sandy Denny

It is beyond incomprehensible to me that I have never posted a Sandy Denny video here. She was the lead singer for Fairport Convention, but perhaps more importantly, she wrote “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” which has to be one of the three greatest songs ever to come out of the ’60s folk revival. (“Both Sides Now” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” are, of course, the other two. And yes, I know “Both Sides” isn’t technically folk, but I bet there’s not a folkie alive who couldn’t sing every word of it by heart. If there is, I call No True Scotsman.)

Anyway. Sandy Denny. Gone way too soon, but her work remains to bless us all. Enjoy.


Theme for 2016

By all rights, this year should have been great. A lot of good things happened. But it seemed as if every good moment had a down side.

I paid off my station wagon early … because it broke down in April and I need it out of my driveway.

My Cubs finally won the Series … without Ryne Sandberg on the top step of the dugout.

I got paid to lead a bus tour down Route 66 to New Mexico … where I spent the final day of the tour holed up in an Albuquerque hotel room with the worst migraine I’ve had since 1986.

I bought knockoffs of an Eames Shell chair and a George Nelson Marshmallow sofa … to replace the Eero Aarnio ball chair I had to get rid of because it was contributing to chronic tension headaches.

I watched the most qualified candidate in the history of presidential politics earn her party’s nomination …

This whole year has felt like that.

Fortunately, the Grateful Dead were kind enough to write a theme song for 2016. They just didn’t know it was for 2016 at the time.

We will get by.
We will get by.
We will get by.
We will survive.


Drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra

As far as I can tell, Carrie Fisher was basically the spiritual heir to Dorothy Parker. I’ve never been a huge Star Wars fan, but through her writing and her scathing sense of humor, the actress who brought Princess Leia to life on the big screen became one of my greatest heroes. I wrote about her here last winter, and I’ll probably have more to say about her and about the seeming epidemic of celebrity deaths this year at some point in the future. In the meantime, I offer the obituary she wrote for herself in 2008:


Headcanon accepted, General Organa. May the Force be with you.


Tiny Tuesday: Bed risers

When we lived in Tulsa, our house was 950 square feet, divided into a smallish kitchen, large living room, and three bedrooms, none really big enough to accommodate a bed and separate dresser.

Our solution to this problem was to buy a waterbed frame with built-in storage drawers and get rid of our dresser. This was kind of a shame (the dresser was a great blonde mid-century piece with matching chest of drawers), but we just didn’t have room for it.

Sadly, the bed was of dubious quality, so instead of hauling it cross-country, we gave it away before we moved, which left me with a mountain of clothes and nowhere to put them. Plastic storage drawers aren’t the most visually appealing solution to that problem, so at my earliest convenience, I bought myself a set of bed risers and a couple of underbed storage tubs.

Risers come in varying heights, and some of the newer ones even have built-in cellphone chargers and electrical outlets. Besides being cheaper than a bed with built-in storage, risers are much lighter, which is something to consider if you’re planning to put your tiny house on wheels. (We’re not, but a lot of people do.)

The down side of bed risers — and the reason I don’t have any pictures of ours to share — is the “rise” part. I didn’t mind the elevation, but Ron found it uncomfortable.

I’d already reduced my clothing inventory to something resemblng a capsule wardrobe, but he still had a lot more clothes than he needed, so I made him a deal: The bed would come off the risers as soon as he freed up enough room in the closet to accommodate everything we were storing under it.

Two Goodwill runs later, the bed came down.

If you don’t mind the height, however, I can wholeheartedly recommend risers as an effective way to maximize storage space.

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, I’ll show you how we store clothes in a bedroom that’s not quite big enough for a full-sized dresser.


Make-It Monday: Birkenstock maintenance

Anybody who’s known me longer than 10 minutes probably already knows how I feel about Birkenstocks.

These are my dress Birkenstocks. My daily drivers were on my feet.
These are my dress Birkenstocks. My daily drivers were on my feet.

Birkies, once broken in, are the most comfortable thing in the known universe. I have two pairs, both clogs — a tan suede pair I bought back in 2000 to relieve a back problem caused by my unfortunate platform-heel phase of the late ’90s, and a dark charcoal-gray felt pair I bought in 2012 to comply with the dress code where I worked.

My older Birkenstocks, which are my daily drivers, serve as house slippers, garden clogs, work shoes, vacation companions and good-luck charms. They’ve moved with me at least three times, joined me on a couple of successful job interviews, and come along on too many road trips to count.

Birkies don’t ask much in return, but a little maintenance now and then helps extend their life.

By “maintenance,” I mean you should seal the cork once in a while when it starts to look dull. This takes about five minutes.

Birkenstock makes its own cork sealer, which I’ve used in the past, but I lost my last jar in a move, and the guy at Shawnee Trails told me Barge Cement — which is cheaper — actually works better and lasts longer. Shawnee Trails has been selling Birkenstocks for decades, so I’m inclined to trust their recommendations.

Barge Cement comes with all sorts of terrifying warnings on the label. I’m pretty sure most of the warnings are just there to discourage people from huffing glue, which is probably pointless, because if you’re huffing glue, the fact that it’s carcinogenic isn’t likely to discourage you, but if you’re worried about it, you can wear rubber gloves while you work. I’m not, so I didn’t; I just used a paintbrush to apply the glue and kept my fingers out of it. Anyway, as the police dispatchers say on the scanner: Proceed at your own discretion.

To seal your Birkenstocks, do the following:

1. Clean them. If they’re ridiculously muddy, hose them off; otherwise, you can just wipe them down with a wet paper towel.

2. Let them dry completely.

Squeeze a little Barge Cement on there.
Squeeze a little Barge Cement on there.

3. Squeeze a little bit of Barge Cement onto the cork and use a cheap foam paintbrush to spread it over all the exposed cork surfaces. If you notice cracks in the cork, work some of the adhesive in there, and if the insole is peeling up, be sure to glue it back down.

Smoothed out.
Smoothed out.

4. Let the cement cure overnight.

Repeat whenever the cork starts to look dull.


P.S.: As always, nobody paid me or gave me free stuff to get me to write this blog. But please feel free to contact me if you would like to give me free Birkenstocks.

Sunday Self-Care: Christmas edition

We spent yesterday in central Illinois, visiting Ron’s family, and today in Southern Illinois, visiting my family. My nieces and nephews decorated the cookies pictured above.

Besides spending time with family, I decided self-care this week would involve the opposite of self-care most of the rest of the time: I ignored my Fitbit’s admonitions and ate whatever I wanted instead of insisting on optimal nutrition at every meal or trying to jam extra workouts into an already busy holiday schedule just to compensate. If I gain an extra pound or two, so be it; I’ve got the rest of the winter to watch Star Trek on the treadmill.

Here are some pictures of the munchkins:

Hazel shows off one of her presents. I don't really know what it is because I'm old.
Hazel shows off one of her presents. I don’t really know what it is because I’m old.
I'm pretty sure I have a picture of Jamie making this same face when he was a toddler.
I’m pretty sure I have a picture of Jamie making this same face when he was a toddler.
Martha models the Christmas-light necklace she got in her stocking.
Martha models the Christmas-light necklace she got in her stocking.
Ollie turns a pair of bows into an impromptu Princess Leia costume. The Force is strong with this young padawan, and he wishes General Organa the best as she recovers from her recent health scare.
Ollie turns a pair of bows into an impromptu Princess Leia costume. The Force is strong with this young padawan, and he wishes General Organa the best as she recovers from her recent health scare.

Hope you had a good Christmas, wherever you are.


Eco-Saturday: Clean your refrigerator coils

Several weeks ago, I picked up a special brush designed to clean the coils on a refrigerator.

I don’t know how big a difference this really makes — I’ve read articles saying it’s a miracle move that will increase your refrigerator’s efficiency by umpteen percent and/or keep it from burning your house down and killing you, and I’ve read articles saying it’s a total waste of time that won’t make any difference at all. The EPA says it’s a good idea, at least for older models, so I gave it a shot.

Couldn’t hurt. Might help. Either way, it was a good excuse to buy a pointy brush suitable for retrieving the wayward cat toys and dog biscuits that seem to find their way into otherwise unreachable locations.

Pointy brush. If I'd had one of these when Scout was a puppy, we  wouldn't have lost so many kibbles under the stove.
Pointy brush. If I’d had one of these when Scout was a puppy, we wouldn’t have lost so many kibbles under the stove.

The hardest part of the whole project was cleaning off the top of the fridge so I could pull it out from the wall without knocking anything off. (You probably don’t want to know what’s up there.)

I couldn’t remember whether the coils were on the back or the bottom of our refrigerator, so I started by running the brush underneath it just to be sure. No coils, but I extracted an impressive quantity of dust, dog hair, and cat kibbles. Bleah.

Once I’d cleaned underneath, I pulled the refrigerator out from the wall, got on a stepstool, and ran the brush down the back to clean both sides of the coils.

Not the greatest shot, because I was working at an awkward angle, but here are the coils.
Not the greatest shot, because I was working at an awkward angle, but here are the coils.

They weren’t terribly dirty, but cleaning them wasn’t terribly hard, either, so I’ll file this one under “probably worth the effort.” Our refrigerator is less than three years old, but if yours is an older model, I’d upgrade that assessment from “probably” to “definitely.” At worst, you’ll have a cleaner kitchen.


Vegetarian Friday: Mom’s fruitcake

NOTE: I managed to let the entire Christmas season get away from me without posting the holiday blogs I’d planned, so this recipe is either too late (seriously: Don’t make it today and plan on eating it Sunday, or you’ll be terribly disappointed) or impressively early. If you assume the latter and make it now, it should be spectacular by December 2017.

People who regard fruitcake as a punchline are miserable souls who have probably spent their lives eating the wretched commercially prepared alcohol sponges that pass for fruitcake in those gift baskets you buy for people you don’t really like.

It is entirely possible to make fruitcake that tastes good. I know because my mom has been doing it for decades.

Before we start, I need you to understand three important principles concerning fruitcake.

Principle 1: Candied fruit has no place in a fruitcake. People who think it does probably drink flavored coffee and approve of the designated hitter.

Principle 2: Green-tinted maraschino cherries are a Communist plot to destroy humanity. They are little green balls of mint-flavored poison, to paraphrase Patrick. Never, ever put them in a fruitcake for any reason.

Principle 3: Booze has a legitimate purpose in fruitcake, but that purpose is not to get you drunk. If you’re making fruitcake to hide your alcohol consumption, click here.

Now that you understand the basics, you’re ready to make fruitcake the way God intended: Using my mom’s recipe.

1 c. cider or apple juice
1-2 c. dried apricots*
1 pkg. whole dates (10 or 12 oz.)
1 c. raisins or currants
16 oz. red maraschino cherries, drained
1 c. English walnuts
1 c. pecans
1 c. hazelnuts or Brazil nuts**
3 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. butter
1 c. sugar
4 large eggs
1/4 c. orange juice or maraschino syrup
1/4 c. apple juice
1/4 c. molasses (NOT blackstrap)

Chop fruit coarsely. (Mom says poultry shears work well for this.) Boil 1 cup apple cider or juice and pour over dried fruit. Mix. Dump nuts on top of fruit and set aside.

In mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Combine liquid ingredients. Add to batter alternately with 2 cups of the flour, blending thoroughly after each addition. Add remaining cup of flour to fruit, which has been soaking in the juice, stirring to lightly coat fruit.

Add fruit to batter all at once, blending well so fruit is coated with batter.

Pack into greased and floured loaf pans so that each one is 3/4 full.

Bake at 275 degrees until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean and cakes are a medium brown (at least an hour and 15 minutes; probably longer, depending on your oven).

Let cool in pans, remove, wrap in clean towels moistened with cider or hard liquor (Mom swears by Southern Comfort for this; I’ve gotten good results from Kilbeggan’s, but any decent whiskey is probably fine), then wrap tightly with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator in a big ziplock bag.

About once a week, check the moisture level and re-moisten the towels as needed to keep them damp. Mom says to alternate between booze and cider for this or the fruitcake will end up tasting like whiskey, which is NOT what you want. Your goal here is just to keep it from drying out or getting moldy while it ages.

As long as you keep the towel moist and the bag sealed between snacks, fruitcake will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator. The longer it ages, the more the flavors will blend, so I wouldn’t even touch it for at least two weeks.

I like to keep fruitcake in the refrigerator and eat it after hard workouts. The nutritional content is just about ideal for refueling after a long run.


*You can substitute other dried fruit for some of the apricots. Mom has had good luck with dried pears and dried pineapple. Check the comments, because she’ll probably weigh in with suggestions.

**Black walnuts are also wonderful, but don’t use more than a half-cup, as their flavor is pretty strong, and you don’t want them to overpower everything.