Friday, August 15, 2008

Words to grow by

True contentment lies not
in obtaining what you want,
but in wanting
what you already have.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Waste not, want not

I read an article recently that estimated the average American household wastes between $1,500 and $3,000 worth of food annually. In another article, the New York Times estimates that Americans throw out one fourth of what is available to eat. Wow.

We've all found a container of mystery leftovers at the back of the fridge, or thrown out the last 3 pieces of bread in a loaf because they've gone stale. But thousands of dollars worth of food? Could this be true?

An article by Laura Barton (July 8, 2008) in the Guardian, a British newspaper, estimated the average British household wastes roughly $800 worth of food a year. After having lived in England for nearly four years I can easily believe that figure would be lower than it is for Americans, because Brits have different buying habits. They tend to buy small amounts of fresh food daily, as opposed to stocking up with economy-sized, two-for-one "bargains" and putting them away until they are freezer burned or past their use-by date.

As I perused this article I discovered some great tips for avoiding waste. Interestingly, reading them made me aware of "blind spots", and how it is indeed possible to waste large quantities of food each year. I don't know about you, but that's $1,500 I'd rather have in my pocket.

At the risk of being 'punny', here's food for thought (you can read all of Laura's tips here). I hope it inspires you as much as it inspired me!

1. Avoid the supermarket

The idea of the one-stop shop encourages you to buy more than you need. If you do have to go to a supermarket, make a list beforehand and stick to it rigorously - but do check that these are groceries you genuinely need, and not items you have just got into the habit of buying.

2. Shop more frequently for perishables.

By shopping daily or semi-weekly for perishables, you are less likely to buy mounds of vegetables and fruit that will then sit in the fridge spoiling. In addition, you will re-establish a connection with those who produce the food you eat. Supermarkets generally charge more than the independent greengrocer, produce stand, or farmer's market for fresh fruit and vegetables, especially seasonal produce.

3. Buy non-perishables in bulk.

Cupboard staples such as rice, pasta and lentils, along with canned and bottled items, tend to be cheaper in bulk.

4. Be storage savvy.

There are tons of household tips for storing foods to increase their longevity (many of them appear on the site), including keeping apples in the fridge so they last days longer than in the fruit bowl. Also, invest in some Extra Life Discs and Evert-Fresh Bags. These products make the veggies and fruits in you fridge last longer by reducing the ethylene gas that they give off as they ripen. Normally the refrigerator traps this gas, which results in the early rotting of your produce. The bags are reusable, and I can personally attest that this stuff works!

5. Meal-plan for the week.

If, at the beginning of the week, you work out precisely what you wish to cook over the next seven days (some of which may incorporate leftovers), you can then shop more frugally. This approach also eliminates the common feeling of returning from the store loaded with shopping bags but without a clue what to actually cook for dinner (sound familiar?).

6. Reacquaint yourself with your freezer.

The freezer compartment is not just for storing ice cubes and several inches of encrusted ice, but also to keep leftovers for future meals. has plenty of basic tips for the novice.

7. Don't be afraid of an empty fridge.

A refrigerator is temporary food storage for perishables. You do not need to buy acres of food each week to keep it chock-full.

8. Buy vegetables whole.

Fresh veggies bought whole are cheaper than pre-chopped ones. They will also last longer, because as soon as fruit or vegetables are processed in any way - even just picked, handled and washed - they begin to decompose.

9. Learn how to use leftovers.

You don't just want to re-heat them as-is? There are websites out there ( and are two) that, once you've typed in the primary and secondary ingredients you have left over, will search their databases for recipes to use them up. If that isn't way cool, I don't know what is.

10. Equip yourself.

Introduce yourself to the crock pot, the freezer bag, and the salad spinner. Learn something new! Make your own bread--it's quick, easy and so much better tasting than a loaf of puffed air. It's also much cheaper. Try making your own ice cream; it's more of a treat that way. Try making delicious meals out of what you have in the fridge and pantry, instead of running out for a pizza because you lack inspiration.

As you chop, mince, dice and saute, invite someone else to join you! You'll enjoy creative fellowship with your partner, have a chance to joyfully teach your children, and time will fly.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

How to Build Community

One of my readers recently wrote and said, "I envy the sense of community you mention so often in your posts. I really do. But let's be realistic--this is not something you can expect to find outside of small, rural towns...and most of us do not live in small, rural towns."

I hear this sentiment from people often. It is apparently not an isolated one, because it comes from both North and South; from cities of 2 million inhabitants to smaller towns of 30,000; from the affluent, and from people who can barely eke out a living. I understand, because it is a feeling I used to voice quite plaintively in another era of my life.

When I first moved South, I didn't step right into an idealistic utopia. There wasn't a party held in my honor, or even a bunch of neighbors lined up to welcome me into the fold with home-baked banana bread in hand.

What I did find upon arrival in an already-established community was that the social soil was fertile and the climate quite amenable to growing transplants, like me.

Dear readers, it may be true that small, rural towns in the Deep South are more fertile ground for growing community than, say, urban Detroit. Continuing with our gardening metaphor, though, even the poorest soils can be amended with a little bit of work and ingenuity, ultimately yielding as rich a crop as any other locale. In short, it doesn't matter where you live.

When I was a young girl bemoaning the fact that my dreams weren't magically coming true to transform my life, my grandmother--who, incidentally, grew up in small-town, rural Pennsylvania--used to gently chide me by quoting, "If it's going to be, it's up to me." Grandma also said that you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.

What Grandma meant was, "Make it happen! (and be nice)." You can't change the raw materials you've been given, but you can choose what you do with them. You can't always choose your environment, but you can choose how you respond to it. Change is never impossible, and it is sometimes easier than we think.

At the risk of flogging to death my theme that "little things make a big difference", well....they do! Consider these suggestions on how to build community from Karen Kerney:
  • Turn off your TV.

  • Leave your house.

  • Know your neighbors.

  • Look up when you are walking.

  • Greet people.

  • Sit on your stoop/porch.

  • Plant flowers. You will bless passers-by without even realizing that you are doing so.

  • Use your library.

  • Buy from local merchants instead of mega-chains.

  • Share what you have (not just resources but things like knowledge, expertise, time, an extra pair of hands, gently used kids' toys or clothes, extra veggies from your garden...)

  • Take children to the park.

  • Garden together.

  • Support neighborhood schools (even if your kids don't go there--do you have time to read stories to elementary students or volunteer twice a month?).

  • Have pot lucks.

  • Honor elders.

  • Pick up litter.

  • Talk to the mail carrier.

  • Listen to the birds.

  • Help carry something heavy.

  • Hold a door open for someone.

  • Barter for your goods.

  • Ask a question.

  • Hire young people for odd jobs.

  • Organize a block party.

  • Ask for help when you need it.

  • Open your shades.

  • Share your skills.

  • Listen before you react to anger.

  • Seek to understand.

  • Learn from new and uncomfortable angles.

  • Know that no one is silent though many are not heard. Work to change this.
What would you add to this list?

In my longings for a sense of community, I have learned over the years that I must reach out to others; I must step out and assume my place as part of a community. The first step is as simple as a warm, smiling greeting to someone in the grocery store who wasn't expecting it. I dare you to implement one of these suggestions every day this week, wherever you are. Next week, implement another. The week after that, still another. Be careful, though...your world will change!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Ode to a Country Store

The country store is an institution that most people believe to have gone by the wayside. It still thrives in the rural South, not only as a source of food and the miscellaneous necessities of life, but as a gathering place for locals. It is also a kind of living community bulletin board, with news passed on by request. As you stop in for coffee or to buy bread and milk you can also get a referral for an honest tradesman, find out if someone had their baby, buy a raffle ticket to support the volunteer fire department, donate to the charitable fund set up for the neighbor who is undergoing cancer treaments and can no longer support his family, convey best wishes for someone's golden anniversary through the grapevine, or mobilize the community for a worthy cause.

Over the last year I've become a regular at Taylor's Food Store. It is on my way in to college, and I stop in four or five days a week for a cup of coffee, to check the selection of fresh produce from local farmers, to surprise my husband with some homemade cajun sausage, or just to chat and see how everyone is doing.

The store has been a community gathering point for over 98 years. In 1910, Mr. C.E. Dees established the Dees Co. General Merchandise store at 81 Main Street in Perkinston, MS. Customers could purchase everything from feed to comic books. In 1966, Elwood Taylor purchased the store from Mr. Dees and changed the name to Taylor's Food Store. Mr. Taylor continued the tradition of being family owned and operated for 30 years. In 1996, Mr. Taylor retired and his Daughter and Son-in-law, Marsha and Billy Smith took over the business.

In August 2006, Sonny and Jennifer Woodard purchased Taylor's Food Store and changed the name to JnS Market and Deli, Inc.--though it still says Taylor's Food Store over the door. Sonny and Jennifer are residents of Perkinston and active in their community. The deli at the back of the store offers fresh biscuits and sausage, ham, or bacon for breakfast, along with freshly brewed coffee. There are tables and chairs if you'd like to set a spell. The butcher case displays the very best hand-cut meat selection in Stone County, and there is a seasonal variety of fresh, locally-grown produce at the front of the store.

Everyone who enters can expect a warm down-home, southern-style welcome when they enter the store and a friendly "come see us again" good-bye when they leave.

When I stopped in this morning for some coffee and a chat, I was sincerely and deeply saddened to learn that Mr. Sonny will be closing the doors for good on August 22nd. The economic downturn of recent months has made it impossible for him to keep them open. I left the store feeling like a good friend has just died. I'm concerned for the Woodwards, of course. This is not an easy time to be changing careers. I hope that the future will go well for them.

There will also be a big empty space in the community. The Woodwards' shoes will be hard to fill. Not only did they provide goods and services; they genuinely cared about the wellbeing of Stone County and about every person who came through their doors, and managed to communicate that. They will be missed.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Bean there, done that

On Monday Miss Joan and I were comparing our biscuit recipes, talking about cooking in general and about the kind of country cooking that satisfies hard-working, hungry men in particular. At the same time, we were singing the praises of the abundance of fresh produce that is grown locally and available at farmers' markets and roadside truck beds.

Since we were on the topic of Southern country food, Miss Joan threw down the gauntlet: "There's nothin' like a mess of crowders to satisfy a hungry man. How do you make yours?" For the first time that morning, a look of uncertainty crossed my face. "Ah, well, I've never made them", I replied. "Try it!", she encouraged. Have I mentioned that I'm one of those people who is highly motivated by a challenge?

Tuesday's Gulfport Sun-Herald had an article extolling the virtues of hand-shelled field peas (which are also interchangeably called beans, just to make it interesting). The South abounds with a long list of varieties: purple hull peas, pink lady peas, speckled butter beans, silver crowders, and washday cowpeas, along with the more well-known black-eyed peas and lima beans. They are all members of the legume family, rich in protein, fiber and other nutrients.

Armed with some recipes to try, I set off this morning to the Farmer's Market, over in front of Hudson's Farm Supply. I found a sweet watermelon for my husband and a quarter bushel each of brown crowders, calico butter beans, and baby limas. A dozen fresh brown eggs later, and we were on our way home.

My daughter sat down to a snack of freshly-baked bread and butter while I headed outside to pick green beans, roma tomatoes, and cherry tomatoes from the garden. The latter went into my lunchtime salad, and the romas were reserved for dinner.

Along with some grilled ham steaks, we enjoyed crowders simmered in a light tomato sauce. That's what the recipe calls them, at any rate. After one taste, I was sold. I think I'd call them a little bite of heaven.

Here's what you need:

3 cups shelled crowder peas
1 Tbsp light olive oil
3 slices good quality bacon
1 cup onion, finely diced
1/3 cup celery, finely diced
2 tsp minced garlic
1/2 tsp dried thyme
2 cups fresh tomatoes, finely diced
1 cup pork stock (chicken stock could be used in a pinch)
freshly cracked pepper

Now, here's what you do (it looks like a lot, but is really simple):

Wash and pick over the crowders. Put them in a large saucepan with a piece of ham and cover well with water. Season with a teaspoon of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce to a low simmer and cook, partially covered, skimming off any foam and stirring often until tender but not mushy, anywhere between 20 and 45 minutes. When ready, remove from heat and set aside (don't drain yet).

While the peas are cooking, pour the oil into a cast iron skillet and cook the bacon over medium-low heat, turning as needed, until it is well-browned and very crisp. Remove bacon from pan and set aside.

Add the onion and celery to the bacon grease (there's very little), sprinkle generously with salt and a few grinds of black pepper, and stir well. If there isn't enough bacon grease, you can add a tablespoon or two of light olive oil so that the onions and celery don't stick and burn.
Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the onion and celery are just tender (about 10 mins). Stir in the garlic and thyme and cook 5 minutes longer. Stir in the diced tomato and sprinkle with salt. Cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally, and add stock. Simmer gently for 20 minutes, stirring as needed. Add more stock if the sauce becomes too thick. Taste carefully for seasoning and adjust as needed.

Drain the cooked crowders, retaining the cooking liquid. Add crowders to the simmering tomato sauce and stir well. Simmer gently for five to ten minutes, adding a bit more stock or some of the reserved cooking liquid (known as 'pot likker' in the South) if the sauce becomes too dry. Taste carefully and add seasoning if needed.

Serve hot with the cooked bacon crumbled over it and mixed in. I guarantee you will be expressing your pleasure from the very first bite.

While I was at Hudson's, I also managed to find seeds for our fall vegetable garden: red beets, carrots, romaine lettuce, purple globe turnips, peas, butternut squash, broccoli and onions. That should give me many more recipes to try come October...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Miss Joan

Yesterday, my three year old daughter and I went to Daily Fresh Donuts for our weekly treat. While I was paying Miss V. and my daughter was carefully carrying her doughnut to our table, I noticed a smiling woman seated at the neighboring table. She appeared to be in her early 50's and had kind eyes.

Apparently my daughter thought so too, because she greeted the woman very brightly. The woman raised her eyes to me and said, "I love little ones. They're so precious, I could just eat them up with a spoon! They know, too. They know when an adult is kind, otherwise they won't have anything to do with them and they'll cringe. They always seem to know I'm a grandmother, that's for sure! A little one in the grocery store waved at me the other day sayin', 'Hi, MeeMaw!' over and over!" I nodded knowingly and agreed that small children are amazing judges of character.

Miss V. came over and introduced us properly. So it was that I made the acquaintance of Miss Joan. Since there were no other customers at the time, Miss V. drew up a chair and we all began chatting. It's amazing how, in small communities, one's life story comes pouring out so quickly and so easily. It feels safe, though. People tend to respond in a way that says, "What can I do for you?" rather than "Oooh, I can't wait to dish the dirt on this one!" Telling our stories creates a sense of solidarity; it strengthens the bonds of community.

Miss Joan's story is an inspiring one. She may have been born in upstate New York, but she is the most quintessentially Southern lady I have ever met. She was a nurse for "22 years, nine months, and six days" as she tells it. That's how she met her husband. He was wounded in the Vietnam war, shrapnel to the chest, and she nursed him back to health. He was a career military man and they lived in many places before retiring in South Mississippi.

Together they had ten children and 23 grandchildren, and she has loved every minute of it. "Ten children?" my mouth gaped momentarily. "I can't imagine how it didn't wear you out." A defiant sparkle lit Miss Joan's eye as she threw back her shoulders and retorted, "It was fun! And I'm no superwoman. But if one of the kids was up sick all night, I'd be right there with them. I could stay up for three days straight if I had to. They're my babies. That's just what you do."

She spent the last five years of her nursing career caring for her terminally ill husband. It seemed fitting to lay nursing to rest along with him as she moved into the uncharted waters of the next chapter of her life. "We did everything together", she said. "We had all kinds of adventures. Now, I'm having to find new things to do on my own." One of her sons owns the Beatrice Sawmill & Construction Company, and built her a cabin behind his own on their 42 acres. She now feeds the crew at the mill for both breakfast and lunch. Sometimes there is only one man; at other times there are close to 30. Whatever Miss Joan feeds them it is always made from scratch, including the bread. "It's so easy!", she said. "It makes me sick that the most baking these girls nowadays do is pop open one of those biscuit tubes. I won't even touch one of them. A tube!", she scoffed.

As our lively conversation went back and forth, Miss Joan talked about all the activities that help her to keep fit and strong. She let it slip that she is in her 70's--though like a true Southern lady, she declined to say at which end of that decade. Her indefatiguable nature has served her well. She is an amazing asset not only to her community in Beatrice, but to the greater community in Wiggins and as a model to younger generations.

Back and forth our banter went for over an hour. When I told the story of having to perform CPR on my third child when she was ten days old, Miss Joan and Miss V. choked up with tears alongside me. We laughed together at tales of the antics of our children. We talked about the state of the community and the economy. We shared tidbits from the rich founts of knowledge each one of us has amassed over the years. We encouraged each other, not only for what lay ahead the remainder of that day, but as women--in all of the roles we fulfill with our lives.

As Miss Joan and I rose to leave, there were hugs all around. "Come see me in Beatrice sometime", she said. Miss V. had found her second wind and returned to the kitchen with renewed energy. I went on my way feeling blessed by the love of new friends.

I wonder how many other lives Miss Joan and Miss V. have touched. They may seem like ordinary women with unremarkable lives; on closer examination, they prove to be quite extraordinary. I am certain that there are too many people to count who would testify to that.

Each one of us who lives and breathes is truly extraordinary, whether or not we realize it. What we choose to do with our life can and does make a difference in the lives of others--a difference for better or for worse, depending on how we have chosen. May we all live as mindfully, as purposefully, as kindly, as indefatiguably, as compassionately as Miss Joan and Miss V.