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Category: domestic life

On Paying Off My Mortgage

On Paying Off My Mortgage

Livingsmall Goal # 1 Done! House is paid off!

On Friday, I wired the last payment on my house.

I own my own house. No one can make me move, ever again, if I don’t want to. For someone who went to six grammar schools and moved pretty much every 2 years until I was 35, this is huge.

This has been the primary goal of LivingSmall since day one. I moved to Montana because it’s beautiful of course, but primarily I moved here because I could buy an inexpensive house. A house I could afford to pay off.

I did my masters degree at UC Davis, where I applied in large part to study with Gary Snyder. I’m not a poet, but I figured if Gary was there, something cool must be going on. Gary’s biggest advice to us budding writers was not about poetry, or even about writing. “Find a cheap house,” he said. “Someplace you can pay off. If it’s cheap and you want to live there, there’s probably also other artists there.” That’s what he did all those decades ago on the Yuba Ridge, and what I was looking for in Livingston was something similar.

So that’s what I did. I came up here in 2002, seeking a cheap house, and a found one in a town full of artists, and writers, and musicians, and fishing guides, and electricians and carpenters and schoolteachers.

I built a garden, and fixed things up bit by bit. I paid cash for everything I did on the house and while I’ll need a new roof next year, and I have to repaint some things, and while there are always things I want to do in the garden, I own my house, free and clear.

In the process I built a life. A life that as some of you who have followed me a long time know, was nearly derailed entirely the first year I was here. As I tell people when the story comes up, if you’re going to have a disaster, have it in Livingston. Everyone came. My kitchen filled up with people that first night, and they’re all still here. I’m still here. We are all here together. We’ve seen one another through other disasters. We’ve all brought food to the Elks club for funeral parties, but we’ve celebrated kids birthdays, and book launches, and year after year of rodeo parades.

It was not a mistake, my project of living small. There’s more big news to come, but for now, I’m going to take a moment in my back garden, where the beans are shooting above the trellis, where the sunflowers and hollyhocks are blooming great shoots of color into the sky, where the chickens I just deloused are clucking around in their coop while I wait for Himself to come home for dinner and a Red Sox game on TV. It is not the life I thought I wanted, but it is a better life than I ever could have envisioned.

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Woodpile as Life Lesson …

Woodpile as Life Lesson …



We put in a woodstove this fall, and I’m discovering that if you are a saver, as I am, a woodpile poses a specific challenge. One of the reasons I wanted a little house like this one, and one of the reasons I’ve spent the past decade learning how to grow so much of my own food, is that I’m by nature a person who feels that disaster is just one small step away.

Maybe it’s all that moving house we did as little kids — every time you’d get settled in to a new school, finally make some friends, feel like you were on an even keep again, one of our parents would feel the need for a Big Life Change and we’d be off again, dragged to a new town or plopped in a new school. Then there was the slide down the economic ladder — both parents moving from house to rental house to apartment to someone’s back room to a new apartment to another apartment in a crappier neighborhood. With brief forays into stability or a year or so of being flush and living in a fancy neighborhood until that vanished again.

Patrick used to tease me because when I get nervous, I start hoarding dried pasta. He’d come home, look in the pantry and then over his glasses. “The famine is not coming,” he’d say. “You’re not getting fired.”

“You never know,” I’d tell him. “If it does, we can live a long time on dried pasta, oil and garlic.”

So. The woodpile. The big woodpile is at the back of the yard, where there’s a gate that opens out into the alley so the guys I buy wood from can unload. I had about half a cord I split myself from some log-cabin ends Himself bestowed on me, and I bought two cords from the guys at the end of my alley who sell wood. It wasn’t expensive. I’m not broke.

And yet. Every week as I restock the woodpile by the back door, every time I bring in an armload, I find myself doing mental calculations. How fast is the pile going down? Will it last? Do I need to order another cord? When?

My lizard brain is convinced the Wood Will Run Out.

And so, I’m finding having a woodstove something of a small spiritual lesson. An everyday encounter with my Fear of Disaster. The woodpile is going down, as it must. However, this is not the end of the world. More wood can be acquired. Or that’s what I tell myself as I feel that tiny panicky clench in the bottom of my gut. The daily wrestle with a minor inner demon.



My kitchen is the one part of my house that has still, after almost 10 years, not been renovated. It’s one of those tricky cases — if I pull the appliances out to paint, I might as well replace the floor. And if I’m replacing the floor then maybe I should have that problematic weird wall pulled out. But I don’t really have the funding to do all that, and well, the kitchen works surprisingly well in it’s unrenovated state, and so, nothing gets done. Sigh.

I’m considering painting it over the holidays. The Big Corporation I work for closes for a week so I’ve got to take the time off, and as long as I’m not getting paid, I might as well do something useful. But then there’s the floor issue, and I’m not sure I have the money to replace the floor, and then there’s the timing issue — will the floor guys be working that week? You can see where this goes. I’ll have to talk to Himself about it, since he’s the contractor and all and see what he thinks. I hate to paint, but I’m not bad at it, and it’s certainly cheaper than hiring someone (including Himself).

However, there was one easy fix I did yesterday that has made me feeling much more sanguine about my un-done kitchen. I had one bookshelf in there already — the one with the chiles hanging off it, but what with the CookBookSlut work (another column should be up next week) the cookbook situation was getting out of hand. There was this messy pile, with other messy stuff tucked in the corner, and messy re-usable grocery bags stuffed underneath.

So I succumbed to the Big Box store, where I found a new five shelf white unit for a ridiculously low price. I put it together, then finally had the space to organize the cookbooks.
I’m really trying not to keep them all — just the ones I think I’ll actually use. The others I’ve been selling to Powells (in exchange for yet more books — when I’m an old lady they’re going to find me buried under a pile of books). It makes me ridiculously happy to look over at that corner now — there are sections now for English cooking, Reference, Essays, American, Mushroom cookbooks, Vegetable/vegetarian, Baking, Greek, Italian, French, Asian, Meat/Charcuterie and Canning/Pickling. (You can take the girl out of the bookstore, but you can never really take the bookstore clerk out of the girl). I can see things now. I can find things.

I’ve also been playing around with this fun site called Eat Your Books. They comp’ed me for a membership, but it’s not very expensive — $25 for a year and if you have a lot of cookbooks, as you can see I do, I think it’s kind of a great idea. You search their database for cookbooks you own, then click to add them to your “bookshelf” — what they provide is an expanded database of the indexes of those books, complete with lists of major ingredients. So, for example, if I’m looking at the last of the lamb in my freezer, and wondering what to do with it, I can type Lamb into the recipe index on “My Bookshelf” and it will kick up all the lamb recipes in the books I own — then you can drill down if you want, lamb and ginger, or lamb and grilled, etc. What I’m liking about it is that it reminds me of cookbooks I haven’t used in a while, as well as that it provides an easy access to some of the encyclopedic cookbooks like Joy or the Sunset Cookbook that I often forget to consult. They’ll also kick out shopping lists for you, and I’m sure there are a bunch of other features I haven’t figured out yet.

So there we are, one small corner of the kitchen re-organized (or perhaps just organized), one small clot of chaos defeated. Now, what to make for dinner?

Christmas Cultural Dissonance …

Christmas Cultural Dissonance …

Ray asks: Christmas consumerism? What's a body to do?

For some reason, the annual consumerist frenzy of “Christmas” seems even more dissonant to me than usual. It’s clear there’s a class thing with the Christmas frenzy — there are people for whom the once-a-year pile of stuff under the tree is really really important, and there are people for whom it’s not. I have to admit, I grew up in a family who mostly believed in keeping it simple at Christmas. And although as a kid I was bummed by my parents’ knee-jerk rejection of anything like the “toy of the year” as consumerist claptrap (well, there was also an element of snobbery involved), in the long run, I’m glad to have been raised by people who almost always questioned the validity of marketing and taught us to be suspicious of its claims.

At any rate, the Christmas thing. If I was the kind of person who understood lining up all night outside some big-box store to buy cheap electronics or the “must have” toy of the year, I wouldn’t be the kind of person who moved to Montana where there isn’t really any shopping. By temperament, I’m not much of a shopper, but this year, the media-driven frenzy seems even more weird than usual. Like there’s some huge cultural disconnect between the media/powers-that-be who want to insist that everything is fine! that we’re all going shopping! that it’s Christmas! and the rest of us who have been growing gardens and canning and learning to bike commute because who can afford gas and car insurance anymore? Between the television advertisers and the Occupy movement folks — really? lining up for the entirely manufactured non-event that is “Black Thursday” when our young people are camping in city parks demonstrating against the stacked deck that is our current financial system? To whom do they think they’re advertising? There’s 10% official unemployment out there — which means unofficial unemployment is at least double that — especially in minority communities.

My beloved sometimes accuses the entire sustainability/urban homesteading thing of being a “lifestyle” issue — that is, not something one does to really save money or change the way you live but because chicken coops are hip, and canning and DIY are cool. I think he’s right to a certain extent, but on the other hand, there are a lot of people learning to get by with less. While I’d like to see people have jobs again, I don’t think we need to return to the rampant consumer excess that drove the housing bubble. We all bought a lot of junk, and went into debt to do it (I’m not innocent of this). On the one hand, we’re being bombarded with consumerist Christmas junk on tv and in the newspaper and in the “straight” media, and on the other hand I’m reading things like this  terrific article over at Yes! Magazine about a couple who discovered that life on the “wrong side” of town opened their family up to community in a way that enriched their lives, and the inimitable Harriet Fastenfest’s piece over at Culinate on “the University of Grandmothers” who worry because “people don’t know how to be poor” anymore.

As aways, my peeps will be receiving food boxes of stuff I’ve made, perhaps some lovely items of clothing re-purposed from thrift stores, and if you’re a kid, art supplies. So readers — what are you doing about the Christmas issue? Shopping? Not shopping? Making things? What about those of you with little kids — how are you doing the “magic of Christmas” without getting sucked into the consumerist frenzy?

Canning up a Storm

Canning up a Storm

It’s that time of year, the time of year when there’s suddenly a dearth of canning jars in my house, when I run out of white vinegar, when my sweetheart comes in each night and looks at another stack of jars and just shakes his head at my propensity to stock up for winter. “We do have supermarkets, you know,” he’ll note.

Yes, yes, I know — but we have all this lovely produce right now, and I have a cookbook review to write this weekend, so I’ve been playing around.

This week I put up eight beautiful (and gigantic) ears of corn we didn’t eat last weekend as a hot corn pickle that I think will be great in quesadillas with black beans. Although my carrots have not performed well in the garden this year, the Hutterite Colony who sells veggies at our farmer’s market had some perfect thin young carrots for the spicy pickled carrots I like in nori rolls. I made a jar of Dorie Greenspan’s delicious cured and marinated salmon — she serves it with boiled potatoes as an appetizer, I tend to eat it on crackers with the spiced yogurt cheese you can see in the tub. I’m sort of back on the cheesemaking, having tried out a very simple fresh cheese from one of the books I’m reviewing for Bookslut this week — it was easy, and came out with a lovely texture, not chalky or rubbery at all. I’ve also been slighlty maniacal about putting up a kind of bathtub gin (in the blue bottle) — basically it’s the best herbs out of my garden, sage, thyme and lots of summer savory with lemon peel, pink peppercorns and coriander seed steeped in cheap vodka. It’s slightly medicinal but a couple of tablespoons in a glass of cheap white wine makes a lovely (and cheap) sort of vermouth-like apertif. I did a batch of garlic cloves pickled with thyme and coriander seed and hot peppers — they’re lovely and I forgot to put them in the photo. I’ve also got a batch of Schezhuan green beans in the hot water bath at the moment.

Part of my mania is simply that it’s that time of year when I feel like if I can preserve as much of the really great produce we’ve got, then I don’t have to eat icky out-of-season produce that has come from god knows where to my supermarket. Part of it is that I have a stack of new cookbooks with some really fabulous ideas in them. And part of it is that my beloved sweetheart doesn’t really like most vegetables, so I’m looking for easy ways that I can add a serving of veggies to my dinner without having to cook a whole separate dish at the last minute. We’ll see how that goes.

And then there’s that part of me that yes, feels much better on a sort of existential level when I can look into my pantry and see that come disaster, we can eat, and eat well, for quite a while. Especially after the 4-H pig we bought after the fair is ready — hams and bacon smoking now over in Big Timber. Pig, veggies, fruits, pasta, lots of grains, dried mushrooms, dried beans — oh, and homemade booze — bring on the snow. We’re almost ready.

Clean Office

Clean Office

Spring cleaning. I had one of those moments yesterday when I couldn’t stand the office clutter One More Minute.

Three hours and three huge green garbage bags later, I’d cleared out, well, three huge green garbage bags worth of junk. I also found three more boxes of books in the closet (what? do they breed in there in the dark?) which will go to my friends the  used booksellers, and I got the shelves organized by reference, and project.

Every time I’ve walked in here today I’ve thought “ah” — I can see everything, there aren’t shelves stuffed with crappy little junk, and for the next six months or a year, I’m good.

Now, the kitchen is next.

New Chickens!

New Chickens!

New chickens!

I was going to order from my new local feed store, but they didn’t realize they’d have to order really early, especially these days, and they called last week to say the hatchery had run out until May.

So I had to drive over the hill to Bozeman and take my chances. I called to see when their chickens were coming in, and although they told me Monday, they actually came in yesterday, which means that once again, I won’t be raising Arucanas. They were sold out by the time I got there. So, the luck of the draw this year is:

Two Black Star: 






Two Delaware: 





And two Blue-Laced Red Wyandottes: 




The latter are the only straight-run out of the bunch, meaning there’s a chance one of them might be a rooster.

This year, I decided to try putting them in the cold frame instead of the shed. The cold frame is right outside the back door, so it should be easy to keep an eye on them, and I can’t put plants in it for ages. So I built them a new cardboard house with a heat lamp until they get a little bigger:

So I’ll keep you all posted. My second set of chickens. The dogs are both keeping a very close watch on the cold frame!





Dinner Means You’re Home

Dinner Means You’re Home

I’ll be reviewing this terrific book soon for Bookslut, but I came across a passage about the power of dinner that I loved and wanted to share with you all.

But before I get to that, this is a wonderful read, despite a cover that Dwight Garner described (in his spot-on review in the New York Times) as “… like the cover of some mediocre nonprofit group’s annual report, or of Guideposts magazine.” As Garner points out, this book not only tells a fabulous story, but Ciezaldo is a terrific writer, the kind you want to keep reading lines out loud to your dinner partner, because they’re so clever. She’s really funny and especially this week, after the Egyptian revolution, her story of living among regular people in a war-torn Middle East is really pertinent. And did I mention she’s funny? She’s very funny.

But here’s the passage from the beginning part of the book that seemed pertinent to LivingSmall:

There were days when we didn’t knwo where we’d be sleepign that night; months when I longed to go to school like a normal kid. But one thing I never questioned: dinner. Somehow my mother saw to it that we sat down to a proper meal every evening. A glass or two of wine and a Crock Pot turned cheap cuts of meat into daube Provencal while she was at work; bacon leeks and cream (you only need a touch of each) transformed the proletarian potato into a queen. No matter where we found ourselves–a homeless shelter, a friend’s couch, our car– we would sit down to eat, and we would be home.

Toward the end of my senior year, a friend with a car gave me a ride home. I didn’ tusually let my classmates see our one-bedroom railroad apartment, … but Wendy was all right, so I brought her in, and my mother invited her to stay for dinner.

That night we were haivng Suleiman’s Pilaf, a lamb and onion stew topped with parsley and chopped almonds and sultanas served with rice and yogurt. It was one of my mother’s standbys, adapted from … Elizabeth David … Wendy lived in what I thought of as a mansion, with multiple bedrooms and an actual dining room. I always imagined people in houses like that eating duck in aspic off matching plates under crystal chandeliers. But when we all sat down at our small kitchen table … Wendy looked stunned. In her house, she told us, everyone just foraged in the fridge or got pizza somewhere. No one cared what or when the kids ate.

“Do you eat like this every night?” she asked with something that sounded like awe, and when my mother said yes, I saw that home could be something you made instead of the place where you lived.

As I surf around the cooking blogs, I sometimes see comments from readers who are grateful to see home food because it validates their own efforts. I worry about the lifestyle-ification of cooking — all the blogs and tv shows and magazines and competitions out there. Really, it’s just about cooking dinner. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It can be a stew you make in a crock pot before you go to work. The important things are that you make it from what Michael Pollan would call “real food” — and that if you live with other people, that you all eat together. (And if you live alone, as I did for a very long time, that you feed yourself real food. You are no less in need of feeding because you’re on your own.)

“Regular” Groceries

“Regular” Groceries

My coffee post, and this article by Marion Nestle about the 2010 Dietary Guidelines released by the FDA yesterday, have me thinking about groceries.

Anyone who has read this blog for a while must know, I’m a big believer in buying real food, preferably from people you know. We buy a pig and a lamb every year (although I’m pretty sure Himself doesn’t love lamb the way I do). People give us gifts of elk and antelope and home-raised beef on occasion. I have a garden and chickens for eggs.

But I guess one of the reasons I wanted to blog about my weird affection for Maxwell House French Roast coffee is that the whole food thing gets so unbearably precious. I could spend more money for coffee that isn’t grown and packaged by a conglomerate, but this coffee works for me. I don’t need to feel smug about my coffee or about its pedigree. It’s coffee. There’s nothing else in it — and I can even justify the plastic packaging because Himself reuses it. There are other “regular” groceries I still buy — Triscuits and Stoned Wheat Thins come to mind. Herdez salsas. Tilamook cheese. English tea. Citrus in winter. Pasta — mostly Barilla and DeCecco. The occasional hot dog and sliced ham from the deli counter for sandwiches. Frozen veggies sometimes — I like them for throwing into a soup or a pasta at the last minute.

Reading the Marion Nestle piece though it became clear that my lifelong tendency to avoid those center aisles — the ones where the mixes and prepared foods and the frozen dinners are — it became clear that even though I might buy commercial coffee, I’m still not really shopping like a “regular” American. Look at her discussion of sodium levels. If you’re cooking your own food, “from scratch” (see here for my hatred of that phrase) the sodium thing isn’t going to be a huge problem. However, one of the primary preservatives in most processed food is salt, and hence, if you’re eating a lot of food out of boxes, or frozen stuff, or even those prepared meals from the back of the store, then the sodium thing is going to be a huge issue.

Which brings me back around to one of my perennial questions: what “regular” foods do you buy at the store? Are there things you buy that you’d like to find a substitution for, but just haven’t managed to? Are there things you buy that you know aren’t great for you but you love anyway? Do these fall into the “treat” category or into the “must-have” category?

Getting Over Coffee Snobbery

Getting Over Coffee Snobbery

For many years, I didn’t really drink coffee, but now that I live with someone who is very much not a morning person, and who introduced me to the decadent habit of having a cup of coffee in bed before rising, well, I am now a coffee drinker.

However, I am not not not a coffee snob. I find all the fussing repellant. As well as the mere idea of spending a gazillion dollars on a home expresso machine. Just seems showoffy, and if I want some foamy coffee thing, I’ll walk over two blocks and support a local business. We don’t have Starbucks here, which is good because their coffee tastes distinctively burned to me, and like Suzy Orman, I just think spending more than a buck fifty on coffee is ridiculous.

That’s why chez LivingSmall, our coffee of choice is Maxwell House French Roast — which comes in that big plastic container you see in the photo above. And there’s no fancy schmancy fussing around with brewing — we use a plain vanilla automatic drip coffee maker that can be set on a timer (although mornings when I’m home alone, I’ll use my French press, if only because I don’t need a ginormous pot).

I was never a grind-your-own beans sort of gal anyhow, mostly because I have a cheap ass coffee grinder, and I hate the noise. That is not a noise anyone should be subject to in the morning. Back in the old days when I’d go to France on occasion, I’d bring back packets of Cafe Noir — the basic supermarket coffee of France, because I love that medium-brown taste and texture. And for many years I drank French Market coffee — again, I liked the chicory edge, and it made this nice opaque cup of coffee. But I have to admit, until I started hanging out with the Sweetheart, it would never have occurred to me to even try the big brands. To my surprise, Himself was right, this is a great coffee, for a great price. It makes a nice strong cup with good body, but it’s not too acidic or bitter — I don’t get that feeling that a hole is being burned in my stomach (the reason I drank only very strong tea for many years). And it’s cheap! A 2 pound container usually runs between nine and twelve dollars, depending on store specials. I was paying the same for Costco coffee, and frankly, I like this better (and don’t have to drive to Bozeman if we run out).

The only problem is those big plastic containers, but since Himself is a contractor, they go in the shed to be filled with hardware, or used as paint containers. So even they go to good use.

So there it is, my confession of low-grad former coffee snobbery, and how I got over it. I’m sure this means I’ll be permanently barred from ever moving to Seattle or Portland!