Friday, October 21, 2016

Gift Ideas for Utilitarians

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is gifts. I’ve heard multiple friends and acquaintances getting frustrated because their kids/parents/friends don’t want presents for special occasions, which causes people who show love through gift-giving no end of frustration. 

As a utilitarian myself, I feel stressed when people give me a present that I know I won’t use, although I choose to hope that people truly are giving presents as a no-strings-attached arrangement, allowing me to pass on the gifts I can’t use to those who will. That said, though, I love getting presents! But when I think back to my favorite gifts over the years, I keep coming back to three basic categories, which I’ll share with you today.

So if you have someone in your life who is utilitarian, or just doesn’t want presents, but you just can’t resist getting them something, here are some ideas. 

1. Food and drink.

Seriously, who doesn’t love to eat and drink? If you know the kinds of food someone likes, you have an instant gift. The best part is, bringing a pan of homemade brownies or a salad picked from your garden to a no-gifts birthday party is both honoring the host’s wishes and sneakily giving them a present anyway. Win. 

Here are some of my favorite ideas. Bonus points if the items are fair trade, bought locally at a small business, and/or homemade.

-Nice coffee, tea, or chocolate
-Some sort of fancy food they’d never buy themselves (my sister got me a bottle of gourmet blueberry-balsamic dressing one year, and it was SO GOOD)
-Herb-infused vinegar, olive oil, honey, or butter
-Preserves from your garden (or from a nice store)
-Craft beer, wine, or liquor
-Homemade anything— cookies, bread, ice cream, jerky, etc.
-A collection of spices
-Hot chocolate mix
-Soup or dip mixes

2. Non-edible consumables.

Like food, these gifts are great for utilitarians because they’re meant to be used up! Just be sure that you’re buying the person something they’ll actually want to use (for instance, some people don’t burn candles, or if they do, they only want a certain kind). Again, if you can buy any of these at a fair-trade store or a small business, that’s even better. 

-Nice candles or incense
-Something that relates to a person’s hobby— yarn for crocheters, colored pencils for an artist, sandpaper for carpenters, etc.
-Natural/organic/fancy body care products
-Essential oils
-A puzzle, to be completed together then passed on to someone else
-A book or CD you love, with instructions to pass it on when they’re done with it

3. Gifts of service.

I enjoy receiving physical presents, but especially for some people, a “coupon” for your time, skill, and/or company is more meaningful that anything else you could give. For instance, you might give them coupons for...

Homemade fondue with Zach— one of my favorite date meals ever!
-Foot rubs
-Lessons in a skill (knitting, car repair, computer programming, piano)
-Repairing something (a bicycle, an appliance)
-Doing a chore you know they hate (washing windows, taking their car for an oil change, cleaning ducts)
-Lunch with you at a nice café
-A special dinner at your house
-Tickets to an event or museum
-Transportation to and snacks for a hike at a beautiful state park

Just because someone doesn’t want “presents” doesn’t mean that gift-givers can’t express their love through thoughtful and creative offers of food, time, and effort. However, it’s important to remember that a gift should be about the receiver, not the giver, so respecting a utilitarian’s wishes about presents is truly the best gift at all.


On Being Utilitarian

Vegetables: a beautiful fusion of function and form

In my family, “utilitarian” is kind of a dirty word, usually referring to someone who doesn’t appreciate art. However, as I’ve grown older and more self-aware, I’ve realized that I truly am a utilitarian at heart. In short, I don’t like having things— I like using things. And I’m getting to a point where I realize that that’s okay.

For instance, I find no joy in owning a pretty shirt with three-quarters length sleeves, because when in St. Louis is it ever the right temperature for three-quarters sleeves? I don’t understand the concept of owning a piece of jewelry or a pair of shoes that you never wear, “just ‘cause every woman needs one in her closet.” I would much rather have a houseplant (it cleans the air and removes heavy metals!) than a fish tank. One of my favorite Christmas gifts was a food processor.

A lot of people don’t understand this. For instance, upon seeing my wedding registry, a few people jokingly chided me for including only practical items, with nothing “fun” on the list. I understood their point, but to me, an electric mixer and a nice set of mixing bowls is something fun. I don’t see an appliance and bowls— I see countless batches of homemade cookies, whipped up with ease because of my great kitchen gear. 

Here I see the countless foods I've fried in butter...
The same holds true for any of my treasured possessions. I love my ice cream maker because of all the batches of homemade custard I’ve created for friends and family. I enjoy my 70’s-inspired dress because it’s comfy and pretty, which allows me to wear it almost every other day. I appreciate my piano because of the beauty of the music I can play, the challenge of improving my skills, and the nights Zach and I have spent singing Beatles songs together while I fumble through the chords. I like my dress sandals because they don’t hurt my feet, and their design makes me feel like an elven maid. 

Being practical doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate beauty; on the contrary, I think usefulness and beauty are intertwined. One of my favorite quotes about simplicity in the home is, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” With intention and thoughtfulness, I believe that the things we own can be both at the same time.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Guess What?

I finished the rough draft of my memoir! It’s 409 very rough pages long, so I still need to cut it by about half, but it’s a start! The second edit will take a lot more time and effort, but it’s the kind of work I enjoy. I’m excited about the future of this project. As always, thanks for your support as I keep plugging away!


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

This Week (Housemates, Carrots, Potlucks, and a Festival)

Check it out: It's gonna be chilling!

It’s been a busy week! Besides me hiding in the air conditioning cursing the St. Louis weather, here’s what’s been going on this week...

Each of us expressing how we feel about Francis.
The big news is that Zach’s brother Francis came to live with us! Originally we were going to fix up a room in our garage for him, but the deeper we got in the planning stages of the project, the more we realized that it was going to be a ton of effort (and money) to get things the way we wanted. So we decided to declutter the spare room instead, and in he moved. In Francis’s words, “Why do you guys need a baby? You can just adopt an 18-year-old instead!” Just what I wanted...

I also got to see everyone in my immediate family this weekend: Mary, in from California, and Eric and Sarah and Jackson, visiting from Tennessee. It’s nice that, even though my family members are scattered across the country, we can see each other every once in a while. 

Also, I have finally managed, on my fifth try, to grow a crop of carrots! Encouraged by the (not-long-enough) bursts of cooler weather, they have not died of heat stroke. When I ate the first one, I was transported back to the farmer’s market in Bellingham, Washington, when I ate an organically-grown carrot for the first time: they are sweet, crisp but tender on the teeth, with a deep carroty flavor that made me sigh in happiness. It took me long enough, but I finally grew some successful root vegetables! 

Most excitingly to me, Sunday was the neighborhood potluck that I organized, hosted at the Frenchtown Museum. I wasn’t sure how many people would show up, but by the time it was in full swing, we had at least 20-30 people crowded into the museum, eating, laughing, and talking while children ran around underfoot. It turned out better than I could’ve hoped, the kind of potluck that you read about in a “Community Building Ideas” blog post. Everyone was very encouraging and supportive of the idea of making the potluck a semi-regular event in the future. I’m excited to see how I can continue to be part of the growing neighborhood community!

Last but not least, the Halloween festival I’m part of, Legends and Lanterns, is going to be starting up this weekend! If you want to visit a fun and spooky festival in historic St. Charles, be sure to drop by during the day on Saturday or Sunday to visit characters from Halloween history, including Edgar Allen Poe, Stingy Jack, Lizzie Borden, Igor, Guy Fawkes, a mob of musical angry villagers, and, of course, everyone’s favorite Slavic witch, Baba Yaga. 

Back to work now. Have a great week, everyone!


Friday, October 14, 2016

What I've Been Reading: "Radical Homemakers" by Shannon Hayes

In the past year or so, I’ve been gravitating toward a subculture that I find fascinating: homesteaders, both rural and urban, who are living out a philosophy of creation rather than consumption, community structure over monetary wealth, and traditional home arts as a means for creating a better future for the earth. These are people who plant spinach seeds in abandoned lots, pressure-can the berries they’ve foraged from the roadside, and barter carpentry skills for pastured meat. Politically, they are a group of both right-leaning and left-leaning people, united in the common goals of getting down to the earth and doing something to create “social capital”— the support of a tight-knit, interdependent community that is a stronger and more stabilizing force than money ever could be. In Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, Shannon Hayes presents a manifesto of this subculture that is thought-provoking, practical, and inspiring.

At its core, Radical Homemakers is a modern feminist argument that the home, rather than being a cage for listless housewives, can actually be one of the most important hubs of meaningful work, ecological responsibility, and social change. It calls for both men and women to return to traditional home arts, not as a regression to backbreaking labor, but as a choice to bring intentionality, community, and humanness back to a place that too often serves as only a place to sleep, microwave dinner, and watch TV. 

In writing the book, Hayes traveled all around the country, talking to people in many different cities and situations (including single moms, stay-at-home dads, married couples young and old, people in group living situations, and so on) about how they were living out their worldview in real life. She profiles these families, individuals, and groups, drawing on their words and experiences to expound her ideas. 

The first half of the book is titled, “Why,” explaining the reasons for someone to adopt this countercultural mindset in the first place. The first few chapters dive into the history of homemaking from prehistory through the Industrial Revolution, second-wave feminism, and modern day. It explains that the popular concept of a “housewife”— a repressed, empty-headed woman vacuuming and cooking all day— reflects a tiny moment of time in the history of homemaking, most notably the 1950’s, when aggressive marketing encouraged woman to be good consumers and little else. These chapters also feature diatribes against the “extractive economy,” as well as perspectives on how consumer culture came to be and why we started trading away time for money. 

The second half of the book is titled, “How,” where she discusses topically the different ways that countercultural convictions can play out— in job choices, gardening, homemaking skills, hobbies, education, community development, expectations, and, of course, our fundamental paradigm for viewing the world. She counters common arguments about how a life “should” be lived (it takes two incomes to buy a house; childcare is a fixed cost; everyone should go to college, etc.) with real-life examples of how people are living differently. She also discusses essential traits for delving into the lifestyle— fearlessness, willingness to make mistakes, and many others.

Particularly interesting to me was Hayes’s perspective that a homesteader’s job is not to be “self-sufficient” in the sense we normally think. She regards independence as unnatural cultural conditioning, an illusion that we are “independent” as long as we have enough money, when really we are dependent on jobs and income for to amass this false security. She argues that being part of an “interdependent” community is essential to living a full life, in which we recognize the ways that we depend on and support each other. The community, rather than the individual, is what should be “self-sufficient.”

As with most countercultural arguments, the book has some weak points. It shows great disdain for a “money-based” economy, yet most of the families profiled in the book are living on an income that, while modest, isn’t exactly threadbare. Like it or not, we are still engaged in a money-based system, and even many ways to live against the grain (buying secondhand, dumpster diving) can only exist if most people still live and work in the “normal” world. Still, Hayes does point out some of the tensions in the countercultural arguments, and is willing to allow the readers to wrestle with these questions, rather than just blithely ignore the difficulties that this paradigm shift might create.

All in all, this book gave me a lot to think about, as well as a renewed sense of purpose in continuing to pursue my interests in the home arts. Read it for the history, the philosophy, the challenging ideas, or just the practical stories of how a countercultural lifestyle plays out in practice— you won’t be disappointed.


Thursday, October 13, 2016

Writing about Writing

As a writing teacher, one of the papers that I dread reading (but inevitably run into every few semesters) is a story about the student, as a character in their own story, having writer’s block. How meta! How coyly self-referencing! How incredibly mind-numbing for the teacher who must read essentially the same story again and again and again! (It’s almost as bad as those three years when all my students were writing really bad book reports about The Hunger Games. Shudder.) 

And yet, despite my grumbling, I identify with those students. Sometimes, I don’t know what to write about either, especially on the blog. And I fall into the same trap of writing about how I don’t have anything to write about. (They say you become what you most fear.)

I’ve been thinking about a lot of stuff, sure— reading thought-provoking books and articles, discussing ideas with people, etc.— but every time I actually try to get those thoughts onto paper, I fizzle. My heart hurts. I want a snack.

With that said, I have been writing a lot lately. Granted, most of my typed words this week have consisted of, “This is a run-on sentence and here’s how you fix it,” but I’ve also been plugging away at my memoir, cobbling together bits and pieces from my blog series in attempt to make a cohesive (and concise) whole. The memoir is currently 349 pages. I still have more than half of Washington left. I have a lot of butchering to do. 

I also worked this week on finishing up a play that I’ve been co-writing with my brother for his students at Providence Fine Arts Center. This dinner theater, featuring the misadventures of the heirs of a paperclip tycoon’s fortune, will be performed next month, and I’m excited to see it! We’ve been working on and off on the project for many weeks now, so it felt good to finish it. 

These two projects, plus the hours of commenting on papers every week, have wearied my mind and stiffened my neck. And yet I keep coming back to this blog, always eager to talk about my week, always excited to speak to an audience who, for whatever reasons, chooses to listen to me as I type, type, type away. 


Saturday, October 8, 2016

This Week (Mad Mumblings, Meringue, and Miscellaneous Musings)

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist the alliteration.)

This week I have been basking in the cool weather, blading through pages in my memoir, taking a lot of bike rides, and getting buried under an avalanche of work (especially since all my late students decided to catch up at the same time). My days are busier than I’d like, so I’m trying to shuffle around my schedule to allow myself more optimum working hours. 

The result of this busy schedule is me slowly getting crazier and crazier from being alone by myself all day. I’ve started talking to myself more. While reading Backpacker magazine: “Hey, I know that view! Yup, John Muir Wilderness. Been there. Totally been there. *checks caption* Oh wait. Not been there. That’s the other side of Whitney.” Editing student papers: “Because of course that’s the only conclusion you can draw from this statistic. Of course.” To my refrigerator: “Well then! Where is that mason jar of tomato soup? Give it up! I know it’s expired. *rummage rummage* You won’t fool me... Good grief, where is it? Did you swallow it?” While editing another paper: “If I have to type another lecture about dialogue punctuation, so help me—!” To an extension cord: “Why won’t you reach the crockpot? Oh, you’re so tangled up. *excessively heavy sigh as I’m untangling it* Don’t say I never did anything for you.” To myself, in the mirror: “Shafter, you’re talking to yourself again.” “Yes, I know, but who else am I going to talk to?” 

I biked to Fox Hill Park, which is a long way for me!
Anyway! Despite the manic mumblings to myself, it’s a good feeling to be getting stuff done and have the days fly by. I’ve also been reading some good books (I’ll post reviews later) and enjoying the privilege of making food that requires extended time in the oven, something I can’t do in the summer. (Roasted sweet potato biscuits: win. First shot at homemade meringue, made without a recipe: well, it fell and didn’t form nice peaks, but it tastes really good!)

My cool-weather crops, especially the peas and carrots, are growing famously, happy that the scorching summer is past. Only one of my spinach seeds germinated, so I’m gonna try to plant some more to get a small harvest before the frost hits (which will be soon, I’m sure). We’ll see how that goes.

An important project I tackled this week is researching the candidates and amendments/propositions for the upcoming election. A lot of people aren’t sure whom to vote for as president, which means that the senators/house representatives/governors/etc. become even more important! If you live in Missouri, check out the link below: you can enter your address and they’ll show you a copy of the ballot you’ll see on November 8th. Please take a moment to figure out who’s up for election!

And finally, here is a picture of the snapping turtle that Mom and I found on the Katy Trail! Kind of cute, kind of scary, don’t you think?

Well, gotta get back to editing papers now. Have a lovely day!


Friday, October 7, 2016

Four Ways to Eat Kale

A typical weekly harvest: curly and lacinato

Y’all may have noticed over this growing season that I’ve been harvesting kale. Like, a really huge amount of kale. It’s October and my plants show no signs of slowing down, so as you can imagine, there has been a constant pile of crinkly leaves in my fridge just waiting to be eaten. The question is, how?

Although there are countless ways to use this green (kale chips are a classic, and my friend Emily makes green pancakes), I have four kale-flavored dishes that I make on a regular basis. In all cases, be sure to remove the tough stems first; I compost them, although you can also chop them finely and cook them like broccoli.

1. Smoothies. If you don’t like the texture of kale, green smoothies are the perfect place to start. Try this recipe; you won’t taste the kale overtly, but it’s actually a nice complement to the berries. Just be sure to thoroughly blend the kale and liquid first so you don’t end up with chunks in your drink.

2. Salad. Kale is so tough that I initially wrote it off as a salad ingredient. However, this year I’ve learned the secrets of a good kale salad: chop the leaves finely, massage them for a few minutes, and use a sharp vinaigrette (I usually use a tablespoon or so of red wine vinegar or lemon juice mixed with salt, pepper, dijon mustard, and a tablespoon of olive oil). Kale pairs well with sweet and/or crunchy flavors, so try it with chopped apples, toasted nuts, and/or dried cranberries. Kale salads last for days in the fridge, too.

3. Pasta. Chop the kale finely, sautée it in a bit of butter or bacon grease with some garlic until it’s wilted, and use it to top your favorite pasta, along with some chopped tomato and parmesan. It also works very well with white sauce.

4. Stir-fry. Kale is hardy enough to stand up well to stir-frying, and gives the dish a nice cruciferous taste, similar to broccoli. My go-to stir-fry combination is onion, garlic, ginger, carrots or sweet potatoes, kale, and peas, added to the pan in that order.

What are your favorite kale recipes?


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

How to Make Gravy (and White Sauce)

The first year Zach and I were married, I asked Mom what we should bring to Thanksgiving dinner, in addition to Zach’s famous homemade cranberry sauce. Mom replied that we should bring gravy, and I agreed, not thinking twice about it. However, when I began looking up recipes the night before Thanksgiving, I realized I didn’t have the key ingredient: pan drippings. Not one to be deterred, I looked up a vegan recipe, and even though I didn’t have half of those ingredients either, I began improvising. Zach joined in, and before long we had a pot of lumpy flour and oil, filled with every random flavoring you can imagine. The end result was savory vinegar-flavored pudding, which our family members politely sliced and ate with the mashed potatoes.

I swore I’d never make gravy again.

However, my mother-in-law convinced me to change my mind, walking me through the steps of making gravy from scratch. From her suggestions, I learned how to make a good gravy, even without pan drippings, and from there grew more confident in my skills. I can now whip up gravy or white sauce easily from scratch, which means that I can make mashed potatoes any time, not just after Thanksgiving. Zach is very glad about this.

So here it is, the secret of making gravy (and white sauce)!

There is white sauce on this pasta, I promise! In the meantime, look at how nice my garden tomatoes look.


Equal parts flour and butter. Whole wheat flour works well enough, although white flour has a more traditional flavor. For a big batch of gravy I use 1/4-1/2 cup of each. 

Several cups of broth. I’ve used both chicken and veggie broth before. I imagine turkey or beef broth would also be delicious. The best broth has pan drippings, but honestly, who has pan drippings just sitting around? This recipe works fine, drippings or not.

Salt and lots of pepper (fresh-cracked is the best)

Herbs, optional: sage, bay leaf, thyme, crushed red pepper, etc.

The process:

The secret my mother-in-law taught me is to make a roux first. Simply take a large pan (I love cast iron), melt the butter over medium heat, sprinkle the flour over the top, and whisk the mixture until it starts to smell nice and is penny-colored. A good roux is the key to a non-lumpy gravy!

Once the roux is nice and brown, add a few cups of broth and stir until it thickens. Keep adding broth as needed until you get the consistency you want, whisking constantly. Add salt, pepper, and herbs to taste. 

When the gravy looks just right, serve it immediately. Zach and I like to eat it on mashed potatoes with hot sausages and green beans on the side. It’s easy to make, but feels like a super-fancy dinner!

To make white sauce:

Follow the steps above, but use milk instead of broth. I love a good white sauce with sautéed kale, fresh chopped tomato, and parmesan over pasta, as pictured above.


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

What I've Been Reading: "The Beautiful Edible Garden" by Bennett and Bittner

You may notice a theme in the books I’ve been reading lately: the new-to-me world of edible landscape design! I’m still planning to tear up some lawn and install some hardscaping this fall, so I’m trying to learn everything I can about design theory before I take a shovel to the turf. 

The Beautiful Edible Garden by Leslie Bennett and Stefani Bittner, which I finished today, has been a good resource in my learning journey. This book focused a lot on the theory of design: how to use balance, focal points, color/texture contrast, and unified style to create the most attractive arrangement of plants possible. There were different chapters for front yards, backyards, and side yards/patios, as well as general chapters about the practical care and maintenance of an edible-ornamental mix of plants. They also gave ample suggestions for plant groupings and arrangements, although these suggestions were often California-centric (I often found myself saying, “Yes I would love to grow a Meyer lemon tree and a rosemary hedge, but that’s just not happening in Zone 5!”). Overall, though, I feel like I learned a lot about the principals of landscape design. The writing is clear, engaging, and informative, and the photos showed lush examples of how a good design works out in practice. 

In short, if you’re looking to include more edible landscaping in your yard, whether front of back, definitely check out this book (as well as this one; the books complement each other). It’s helpful and fun to read, another stepping stone on the journey to an edible garden that will please both you and the neighbors.