Dear College Student

A few years ago, I was walking on a New England college campus in spring and came upon a cherry tree in blossom which, upon closer examination, was decked out in tiny paper cranes. It was striking for its senselessness and beauty, two characteristics closely associated, in my mind at least, with college.

Now, as I drive through a college campus on a cold Tuesday morning in spring, I’m confronted by students who seem hardly present, just going through the motions. These students slump along, eyes on their phones, carelessly decked out in workout wear, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings.

And let me tell you: college is for many things, but most of all, college is for caring. Read More »

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Linking Meals, Using Up & Making Do

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These are not my teacups. They’re my sister-in-law’s, because she is classier than I am.

“Now the aim of the good woman is to use the by-products, or, in other words, to rummage in the dustbin.” –G. K. Chesterton, “The Romance of Thrift”

First, let me say, there is nothing wrong with just having a meal plan rotation. I have recipes I use over and over and even a homemade cookbook of favorites. But I often find I have things to use up, and wanted to share my strategies for avoiding waste in the kitchen.

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In Praise of Animal Fats

J and I have never been vegetarian (well, I think J was one Lent), but for a very long period of time, we weren’t eating very much meat or many vegetarian dishes.

I’ve heard it called “flexitarian,” but for us it just translated to “can’t afford meat as main dish.”

Recently we celebrated our comparative prosperity and invested in a quarter of a cow. This led to a carnivorous celebration called “Beef Week,” but also made me think about how we used to stretch meat.

Thekitchn.com is historically a good resource for thinking about meat as a condiment, not the main event. Here are some of the techniques we accumulated over our grad school years:

  1. Chicken stock. Our mainstay. If you can’t roast a chicken yourself yet, you can save up a couple rotisserie chickens or ask to take home the turkey carcass at Thanksgiving. (You weirdo.) Then you chuck it in the slow cooker overnight or in a stockpot for a couple hours and you end up with something rich and salty and nourishing with basically no effort. Use it in soups, especially cheap simple ones like this polenta soup where it will really shine. Or make your rice fancy by using it instead of water. (And if you don’t know how to roast a chicken, consider this slow cooker method.) Store leftovers in the freezer in 1- and 2-cup bags or jam jars for easy thawing. (Bonus: the gelatin in a good bone broth is really good for you, though I can’t say the same about bacon grease.)
  2. Bacon grease. People are generally secretly excited about this. Bacon by itself is an excellent way to make an otherwise vegetarian meal special (as with lenticchie con ditalini, baked potatoes, many soups) but you can save the grease (call it “renderings” if it makes you feel better, you foodie) in the fridge and use it for salad dressings, greasing cornbread pans, giant skillet cookies, and sautéing greens with vinegar.
  3. Duck fat. J recently called this an “essential oil.” We like it for roasting vegetables especially. It can be hard to find, though sometimes it’s affordable on Amazon.
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Eat me with bacon fat. Or duck fat. Mmm.

 

Things I Feel Like I Have to Tell You

Ok, so you’ve probably done all these things and you are probably still alive (ghosts, please stop reading this blog), you argue. BUT! Have you ever had a case of food poisoning at the same time as the rest of your family and had to have friends deliver more toilet paper and Gatorade to your house? (Hint: It’s the worst.) Are you at a stage of life where you frequently cook for pregnant or nursing mothers, or adorable but vulnerable small children? Here are some things I feel like I have to tell you. I’m the daughter of a health inspector. I’m sorry in advance.

Slow cooker safety

  • You shouldn’t put things in the slow cooker still frozen. It doesn’t reach safe temperatures quickly enough. I’m sorry. I didn’t know for a long time, either.
  • You shouldn’t leave the leftovers in the insert and put it in the fridge. It doesn’t cool down to safe temperatures quickly enough. This sucks. I agree.
  • If you forget to turn on your slow cooker for an hour or more, you have to throw the stuff out. Go ahead and cry. I just lost some pesto chicken and I’m still mad about it.

Learn more depressing slow cooker safety facts from the USDA and University of Minnesota Extension.

Meat thawing safety

  • Leaving things out to thaw. Don’t do this!!! Let the National Center for Home Preservation school you on safe methods so you can live long and prosper! My speciality is the 30 minute cold water bath, but you may find a different way that works.

 

What rules do you feel compelled to tell people, or worry about in secret? I have a friend who asked me how often I changed my dish towel if I also used it for hand drying and…I have no idea? But I guess that’s gross?

What are your personal food-related terrors? Stinky sponges? Years-expired salad dressing? Chicken snugglers?

 

The Case for Photo Books

I’m a big believer in photo books. I make them a couple times a year, and have tried several different services.

The process is a mixed bag. The software or site can be clunky to use, and it’s tedious to sift through the thousands of pictures I take in six months and the hundred more restrained J manages. (A friend says she’s set up Dropbox so the photos from her phone and her husband’s both automatically import there, so I’ve got a new goal.) I usually spend a few evenings sitting beside J on the couch with our matching laptops, something inane on the TV, and crank out another photo book to add to our stash.

But the end result is alchemical: something magical out of a mess of poorly focused shots, duplicates, blurry snaps of children in motion. Looking back at these books reminds me there is good in every season, no matter how morning sick it was. Recently I pulled one volume from the shelf to show Pippin the winter he and J made a snow fort in the backyard, and suddenly I found the kids immersed in photo albums, Scout reverently whispering, “Baby” as she pointed emphatically at photo after photo.

I’ve used Shutterfly, Blurb, MyPublisher, Mixbook and Pinhole Press (this one just for board books). Of these, probably MyPublisher is my favorite for prettiness (cloth covers!) and Shutterfly/Mixbook are cheapest and easiest to use. (I just read MyPublisher is closing up shop, though. Figures.)

Along the way, I’ve assembled a stack of photo books that vary in size and quality but all serve to tell the story of our family. It’s easy to snag one off the shelf to show a neighbor how impressively bald and round-headed Pip was as a baby, or to show Pip what our old house in Granby looked like. Sometimes he’ll ask for one to be read to him as a story book, or Scout will page enthusiastically and violently through one. I remember my own childhood fondness for those static-page photo albums of the ’90s and so I soldier on with clunky software and crashing websites, building up the Grimm Bowers family record one photo book at a time.

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Toddler Pip sharing memories with his uncle

How to Find Outrageously Narrow Shoes

When I was a kid, I had really, outrageously narrow feet. For years I wore the same Reebok Princess sneakers  in a variety of sizes that my sixty-year-old gym teacher sported. It was the worst. My mom was always sympathetic — we are both 7.5 AAA — but there’s only so much you can do, especially when you have a limited budget for rapidly growing feet.

And then I got pregnant.

And my feet stayed the same. Twice.

Everyone says pregnancy can make your feet bigger, flatter, wider, but not this moi. Apparently, however, judging by what is commonly available in even A-narrow shoes (much less AAA, my size), the only other narrow-footed women are octogenarians.

Still, in the past ten years, I’ve developed some strategies for you rare youthful unicorns with narrow feet:

  1. Adjustable features. Even though I often take a S or AAA in picky shoes like pumps, I can often wear normal sneakers or boots that lace up. Last summer I also found some pretty narrow (A) sandals that worked because their straps are Velcro, so I don’t have to try to punch more holes for buckled shoes.
  2. Use a site that only lets you look at narrow shoes so you aren’t tempted. Online Shoes is a good starting place. I’ll sometimes filter by width and the maximum I’m willing to pay, then browse like a normal human might at the store.
  3. Find a shoe you like on a site that doesn’t sell narrow shoes, then borrow search terms from its description to search a site that lets you filter by width. So you find boots you like on Madewell or wherever, and then search for “chelsea boots” to help sift out all the old lady styles.
  4. If, by the grace of ye heavens, you find inexpensive narrow-fitting normal-person shoes, buy a zillion pairs. This has really only happened for me once, with these Target Toms knockoffs. Since that glorious idle spring day a couple years ago when I happened to try on a pair, I’ve bought like…six pairs. Sometimes I get cocky and try to wait for a sale where they’re $10 instead of $20, but if you’re used to paying $60-100 for a pair of shoes, this is exciting territory.

If you have narrow feet (or quite wide, I suppose), what hacks have you found for tracking down shoes that will fit?

Cloth Napkins

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The napkins that launched a thousand napkins are the ones on bottom. Also, happy Easter, STILL!

When we left Uganda after six months of living on a hospital compound, our friends there gave us the gift they’d given many expats before us: a length of batik fabric.

I was a bit stumped as to how to use our gift — I already had a locally made dress or two. Eventually, I settled on cloth napkins, and my best friend’s sainted mother, who had just made six bridesmaid dresses for me the year before (not to mention my veil), agreed to cut them out for me.

The thing is, if you have cloth napkins, you might as well use cloth napkins. And if you use cloth napkins, you might as well have enough to do a load of just dishrags and bibs and cloth napkins, because you don’t want melted butter or whatever coming off onto your nice clothes in the laundry.

And over time, I’ve really come to embrace cloth napkins as a tiny but not insignificant part of our family culture and our practice of hospitality. I come from a paper napkin tribe, so this is a special Grimm-Bowers thing. I haven’t bought the plain white jumbo pack in years.

A table setting at our house rarely matches, but each set has a story: first the Ugandan napkins, next a few scrounged at a Target after-Christmas sale, then a set from a church sale with Pippin’s godparents, a thick stack from John’s grandmother, a rainbow of vintage napkins snagged at a neighborhood yard sale this fall with my mom and granny.

Once you start looking, cloth napkins are cheap to come by, if you’re not too fussy about matching, and they aren’t much work if you’re not intent on ironing. You can keep a little bin in or near the kitchen (mine attaches to a cabinet) to chuck the napkins and rags into as you clean up after dinner. I do a load about once a week, and fold them in five minutes listening to something fun or watching TV.

It’s a small, green, distinctive touch that helps make our house a home.