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Economic indicators. July 31, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Far be it from our friend Ben to lay claim to the economic acuity of Ben Bernanke, or even Ben Franklin. But by keeping my eyes open and using some common sense—both of which Dr. Franklin, our hero and blog mentor here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, would heartily approve of—I think I can say that there’s good news and bad news.

Why do I think there’s still bad news? It’s all over the local paper, in the form of giant “Cash for Gold!!!” ads plastered on practically every page. From local jewelers and coin shops to out-of-towners who set up for the day in hotels, it seems like everybody’s buying. And though they all claim to be paying top dollar for Grandma’s engagement ring or Great-Uncle Harry’s collection of silver dollars, our friend Ben suspects that sticker shock would quickly set in when the dealers delivered their final offers. (“What do you mean, you’ll give me ten dollars? Cousin Bert paid $2,000 for that ring!”)

Even so, the enthusiastic competition means that these guys are getting business, and plenty of it, no matter how little they’re offering. And since people aren’t usually eager to dispose of their heirlooms, our friend Ben would say that hauling off the family jewels (so to speak) for cash is a sign that times are still very tough, and people are trying to meet their financial obligations any way they can.

Don’t think Silence Dogood and I haven’t thought about it, either, and been tempted to see what’s lying around. But our relations would rise from their collective graves if we attempted to part with any heirlooms. We may die broke, but our heirs will be getting Great-Great-Grandma’s platinum cocktail ring, even if the chances of their wearing it are no greater than Silence’s. (She says she’ll wear it for Prince Charles’s next wedding.)

So what’s the good news? The past few weeks, our friend Ben has been finding dropped coins again. When the economic crunch was at its worst, you could not see so much as a penny on the sidewalk. If somebody dropped a coin, it was worth their time to bend over and pick it up. Now, it looks like things are getting back to normal. Our friend Ben has seen a number of pennies, as well as several dimes and even a quarter, while heading around the tiny town near us doing routine chores. Dropped change may not seem like much of an economic indicator, but our friend Ben thinks it’s a sign that things are finally starting to look up, or at least, that people are no longer so hard-pressed that they’re looking down attempting to retrieve their change.

A cause for (guarded) optimism? I hope so! Meanwhile, if anyone is trying to unload any collections of gold coins, please let our friend Ben know. I’d be happy to give you face value in cash for each and every one. What a steal, I mean, deal!!!

All you can eat. July 31, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I am so fed up (sorry, I couldn’t resist that pun) with our society’s dualistic approach to overeating. I can’t turn on the computer or pick up a paper without reading yet another group announcing that all the world’s ills are caused by fat people, from plane fares to health care. I’m waiting for some group to announce that the world’s supply of fossil fuels is being depleted, not because we squander it driving huge SUVs and trucks we don’t actually need, dump shiploads of oil into our oceans in so-called “spills,” and waste horrific amounts of this nonrenewable resource on unsustainable business practices, but because it’s all being used to make polyester for fat people’s oversized clothes. In an era when you can’t open your mouth without fear of offending someone, it seems that the overweight are the final frontier for every kind of public abuse and socially approved loathing.

And yet, it’s our very society that has created the “obesity crisis.” In the selfsame papers in which the self-righteous announce their latest condemnations of the overweight, I’m barraged by ads for “all you can eat” buffets. The very thought of this makes me sick, I have to tell you. Maybe it’s because all I can eat amounts to a salad and half a baked potato or something on a good day, but I’d so much rather order from a menu and take the leftovers home to reheat for another meal. The cost savings of two meals for the price of one more than equals those “bargain” buffet prices.

It’s especially disappointing since I love Indian and Asian food, and it seems as if every single Indian and Asian restaurant that’s opened in this area in the past few years is a buffet-only restaurant. Then there are those restaurant chains our friend Ben and I encounter on our road trips, the ones where you’ve barely sat down with your food before the wait staff appears with a stack of four plates so you can go back for refills. Yuck! I’m not even going to start on the fast food thing here; surely everything that needs to be said about that whole discouraging phenomenon has been said already.

Mind you, I’m not a fan of the opposite approach, epitomized by nouvelle cuisine, either. Being served a two-inch cube of something with 57 unrecognizable twigs sticking out the top of it and the rest of the vast, empty plate taken up by drizzles of god-knows-what is definitely not my idea of a good time. I’d rather look at art than be expected to eat it, thank you. My eyes may be bigger than my stomach, but I’d like to see a plate with ample food, and then be left to decide when I’ve had enough and am ready for the doggie bag. But not two (or four) plates full of food, please, unless you plan to let me and our friend Ben take home enough leftovers to feed us for the rest of the week!

This, though, is what really gets my goat: the rise of the all-you-can-eat competition as a national sporting event. Hot dogs. Pies. Ice cream. Even jalapenos. These gorgefests make news headlines in our local paper, often with several followups as the contest draws near. People flock to see competitors shovel down 37 hot dogs and buns (or whatever) with all the trimmings.

In the same section of our paper that featured the latest dire official warning about how the overweight were destroying our entire country was a big feature on an “Eat Your Way Through Musikfest” competition with lots of prizes. (Musikfest is a huge musical street fair and concert event that runs for ten days every summer in nearby Bethlehem, PA.) If you could eat all ten required items during a day or over the ten days, you’d win fabulous prizes! Of course I realize that the whole point of the contest is not really to get people to stuff themselves to the point of  explosion but to boost attendance at Bethlehem’s premier annual event and promote sponsor sales, but sheesh. MUST it be a bellybuster competition?!

What I’d really, really like to see on everyone’s part is a little moderation. And maybe some common sense and common decency. Could we please stop blaming everything from global warming to the crash of the housing market on people who are overweight? And could we please stop popularizing these all-you-can-stuff events as entertainment? What’s so entertaining about watching people shovel in food? It’s just another manifestation of the conspicuous consumption that really has led us to our present crisis. A little restraint, in terms both of dishing out abuse and dishing out food, would be more worthy of us. Our hero and blog mentor, Ben Franklin, who promoted moderation as the route to health, wealth, and happiness, would certainly agree.

          ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

Why go organic? July 30, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was horrified to see a news item on MSN.com this morning announcing that a massive review of studies in London had found that there was no benefit to organic over chemically-grown produce. Well, that is simply not true.

Sure enough, clicking on the article, our friend Ben found that what the researchers had found was that there was no proven nutritional superiority of organic over chemically-grown produce. Despite rumors and claims circulating in organic circles since the beginning of organic gardening, the researchers’ findings have been proved again and again: the nutritional advantages of organic versus chemically-grown produce are minimal to nil. Nutritional value is the result of any number of complex factors, including whether the varitety being raised is inherently nutritionally superior (such as carrots bred for higher beta-carotene content or tomatoes bred for high lycopene content, or varieties in which higher nutritional levels occur naturally); whether the plants are grown in rich soil, receive adequate water and nutrients throughout their lives, and are not weakened by disease and damage; and whether they’re harvested at the peak of ripeness or picked and consumed before they reach their nutritional peak.

This truth has long been known and acknowledged by the organic gardening community. Nutritional superiority is not what sets organic gardening apart from chemical gardening. That being the case, why would ordinary folks like our friend Ben and Silence Dogood choose to be lifelong organic gardeners, or spend their hard-earned money on organically raised food when chemically raised is almost always cheaper?

Two simple reasons. First, if you had the choice of drinking water that had been used to cool down a nuclear power plant or water from a pure mountain spring, which would you choose? It’s not so much about what’s good about organic food as what’s bad about chemically-grown food. This food is inundated with chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. We all know the story of DDT and the devastating damage it did to our planet. But did you know that both chemical fertilizers and herbicides originated as agents of war?

The first herbicide was Agent Orange, and we all know the lingering horror it wreaked on the soldiers and civilians who were exposed to it. It reminds our friend Ben of the early pioneers of radiation, who to a person died of horrific radiation-induced sickness because they didn’t realize that their exciting new discovery could be harmful. Chemical fertilizers were used to make dynamite and bombs during World War I, and it was only by accident that the leftovers were found to increase fertility. Unfortunately, chemical fertilizers artificially goose fertility while killing off the life in the soil that is the true source of sustainable fertility. Back to that in a mo. But first, let me just say that I don’t want to be served up a chemical cocktail—with detriments to my future health that haunt me in my nightmares—every time I eat. I can’t imagine that you do, either.

Okay, back to point #2, the health of the soil. No scientist can argue that chemicals kill soil life and organic practices like applying mulch and compost and using green manures  boost it. As J.I. Rodale, the founder of organic gardening in America, liked to say, the soil is health. Healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy people. Healthy soil means a living community of beneficial insects, including earthworms, and microorganisms that support fertility and crop abundance without harming us.

Our friend Ben thinks that’s worth a little nurturing. Why dump more and more chemicals onto our soil every year when we can encourage that very soil to do our growing for us? Plus, chemical fertilizers contain nitrates and nitrites, those very substances that health professionals are constantly warning us about (as in “Don’t eat hot dogs that contain nitrates and nitrites!”) Our water supply is being contaminated by these carcinogens thanks to agricultural runoff. I don’t know about you, but our friend Ben would prefer to avoid cancer, thank you very much. And I’m willing to do my part not to contribute to its rise by adding more chemicals to our water. 

Seeing a headline like this morning’s makes our friend Ben see red. It’s outdated and misleading. There are very, very powerful reasons to garden and eat organically, including the health of our planet and every creature on it, including us. It’s time people laid the issue of nutritional superiority to rest once and for all and focused on organics’ true benefits.

Late blight comes early. July 29, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Ugh. Late blight has struck Pennsylvania’s tomatoes at the exact moment when the crop is ripening. This airborne fungal disease usually arrives in the fall, when the plants have had plenty of time to produce, but this year’s wet, cool summer has inspired it to show up at the beginning of tomato season rather than the end. It’s affected so many of the area’s plants—killing them in a matter of days—that it made front-page news in our local paper this week.

And no wonder. What’s summer without corn, tomatoes, and melons? Yikes! Our friend Ben has seen tomatoes going for over $2 apiece at local farm stands, a sure sign of a shortage.

Once late blight strikes, there’s not a lot you can do, since the airborne fungal spores that spread the disease can travel 60 miles. (Yes, that’s 60, not 6.) You’ll know if your tomatoes are afflicted because the foliage will develop brown, greasy-looking spots (technically “lesions”), and then the leaves will wither and fall off. Next thing you know, you have a dead, naked plant. And then a bunch of dead, naked plants.

There are a few things you can do to try to prevent a late blight strike, like spacing your tomato plants out in a well-drained, sunny, breezy spot so lots of air can circulate around them. Or, say, moving to Antarctica where nobody will be growing potentially infected tomato plants within 60 miles of your home. Our friend Ben was feeling fairly smug about the tomatoes Silence Dogood and I are growing here at Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home located in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, since I couldn’t see anyone else growing tomatoes on our road. But then I remembered the sickly tomato plant hanging out the bottom of a plastic container on a porch at the end of the road. Clearly, that plant doesn’t feel too well. Thinking about that tomato plant, our friend Ben doesn’t feel too well myself.

What to do if blight strikes your tomatoes?  If you’re chemically inclined, you could blast away with fungicides, and much good may it do you. But if you’re lifelong organic gardeners like Silence and our friend Ben, your best bet is to keep a sharp eye on your plants and immediately remove any that display signs of infection.

Prior to reading the newspaper article, our friend Ben would have been inclined to just pull up and trash any infected plants (spores live a very long time, so you never want to compost an infected plant). Huge mistake. Pulling up a plant shakes loose bazillion spores, which can then live on in your soil for years. Instead, the Penn State Master Gardeners proposed a novel solution: Put a black plastic garbage bag over the plant, then cut it off at the base and tie the bag shut. They suggest leaving the bag in the sun to “cook” the spores for a while before trashing it. If only there were any sun, this would doubtless be good advice. In the absence of sun, our friend Ben suggests trashing the bag immediately; it can always “cook” in the garbage can should the sun happen to come out.

Here at Hawk’s Haven, we’ve actually been getting a great crop of tomatoes this year, our best ever. So far, anyway. (That’s because the rain has been doing our watering for us. When you have to haul water in milk jugs to the back forty to water your veggies, they never get enough. Trust me on this.) But now, of course, I’m terrorized and am checking the plants every morning for signs of impending doom.

With tomatoes in containers and in one raised bed, however, we can never grow as many as we want, so we have to buy local tomatoes to supplement our crop. It’s starting to look like a very expensive year.

Have fun with pet names. July 28, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in pets, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben is a strong believer in having a lot of fun with the naming of pets. Studies have shown that giving people unusual names can warp them for life, but it can also make them unforgettable: Tallulah Bankhead, Tennessee Williams, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Yul Brynner. Or our friend Delilah Smittle. This is so true that savvy actors and others have adopted more memorable names to fix themselves in the public’s mind. Who could forget Boris Karloff, but who would remember William Henry Pratt, the English actor who adopted that stage name? Groucho Marx is indelible; Julius Henry Marx sounds like a cross between Karl Marx and an Orange Julius. You’re not likely to forget 50 Cent, or to remember his birth name, Curtis James Jackson III.

Our friend Ben doesn’t blame you if you prefer not to name your offspring Royal Stove or Einstein Shakespeare Ghandi the Great. (Silence Dogood actually went to college with a girl named Chase Morgan, but then, she really was related to both the Chases and the Morgans, so Silence figured it was just good advertising.) I think it’s best to give your children attractive names, then let them, like the Native Americans of old, choose their adult names as they go along and learn more about themselves. Our friend Ben’s niece Katie has chosen to live her adult life as KT; our friend Paul goes by Fritzjambo and an assortment of other alter-egos.

Instead of trying to shape your offsprings’ destiny through their names, how about putting that creativity towards your pets’ names instead? Our friend Ben has always thought that pet names were fair game, at least, until last night, when one of our friends took us to task for naming our black German shepherd puppy Pioneer Hawk’s Haven Shiloh von Shiloh Special. There’s actually a logical sequence behind this name: Pioneer German Shepherds is the name of Shiloh’s birth kennel, and thus must be represented on her registration form; Hawk’s Haven is our home, and has been part of the names of all our dogs; and her grandfather is Lucas von Shiloh Special. But beyond that, we find it highly entertaining.

Mind you, our friend Ben comes by quirky pet names naturally. My parents named their first parakeet Philomelia the Elegant Fowl. My father’s Afghan hounds were named Cleopatra, Robespierre, and Ariadne. As a very young child, Father named his family’s two roosters Diddum Yahoo and Justus. Our friend Ben’s own first dog, circa sixth grade, was named Homely Homer Hapilus. Silence is not immune to this trend, either: She chose to name our small flock of hens with Regency romance names, such as Serena, Olivia, Stella, Sophia, Lucretia, and Portia. (I’ll admit that later additions, such as the half-sisters Imelda and Griselda, bore more of my own stamp.) Then there was our friend Ben’s brother, who chose at an early age to name his pet guinea pig after our Aunt Bernice, but was convinced to change its name to Burnoose to avoid giving offense.

Over many years and many pets, our friend Ben has decided there are exactly three rules to the successful naming of pets:

Rule #1: Name your pet exactly what you want. If it’s Genghis Khan Tiberius Caesar Moronicus the Fourteenth, that’s your business and nobody else’s.

* Rule #2: Call your pet a one- or two-syllable name. Your pet bird may be named Alcibiades, but for everyday use, you’d better call him Al or Alfie. Our cats and dogs have all had many “official” names, but at home they’re Linus, Layla, Jessie, Annie, Molly, Shiloh, Simon, and so on. Occasionally, we’ve had a pet with a one-syllable call name, like our cat Boone or our parakeet Belle, but it’s definitely the exception. Pets seem to recognize two-syllable call names best, so we’re all for them.

* Rule #3: Give your pet a call name other people can recognize. The youthful Ben learned this lesson early on with my dog Hapilus (actually named for Louis Leakey’s Homo habilis). After years of hearing the poor dog addressed or referred to as “Hapless,” “Helpless,” and even “Hopeless,” our friend Ben learned a life lesson that has remained with me ever since. Molly, Maggie, Simon, Duke and the like are easy to understand and easy for other people to say. We hope Shiloh falls into this category as well.

I guess there’s a fourth rule, and that’s not to name your pet something derogatory. Pets are inherently innocent beings, and they can be hurt as quickly as children. “Dumbo,” “Dickhead,” “Wacko” and the like are not appropriate pet names, since they invite ridicule from total strangers which the pet has done nothing to deserve. Never call your pet something you wouldn’t want to be called yourself. Ditto for names that invite ridicule even if they’re not inherently offensive, like naming a massive Rottweiler “Mini” or a teacup Chihuahua “Killer.” Your dog deserves better from you. 

Otherwise, have as much fun as you can stand when it comes to naming your pet! And to those who want to make fun of our Pioneer Hawk’s Haven Shiloh von Shiloh Special, our friend Ben can only say: BWAAAAHHH!!!

Don’t let bloat kill your dog! July 27, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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As owners of large-breed dogs, and having edited some cutting-edge pet-care books over the years, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have long been aware of bloat and the threat it poses to large-breed dogs. But two things came together this morning that made our friend Ben decide to rant about it in hopes of saving a few lives: a pitiful article in this morning’s paper about a man who’d just lost his dog to bloat, and the arrival of a number of pet-specialty catalogues.

Bloat comes on suddenly and can kill a dog in an hour, but it’s also preventable. It afflicts large-breed dogs (like the Brazilian mastiff in the article) and livestock. It’s not a disease, but what might be called an eating disorder, when the stomach suddenly fills up with gas or fluid, then twists, shutting off the blood supply not only to itself but to other major organs. Lack of blood and oxygen begin to kill the organs in a matter of minutes, followed by the death of the animal if veterinary intervention isn’t sought immediately. Bloat is the second most frequent cause of premature death in large dog breeds—only cancer is a bigger threat—so it’s something large-breed owners like us need to take very seriously.

How can you tell if your dog has bloat? As the article says, “Dogs that develop bloat are visibly uncomfortable, often try to vomit but can’t, and are restless.” If your dog ever displays these symptoms, do not delay, get him to the vet ASAP, even if you have to go to an all-night emergency service. Every minute counts in the race to save his life.

Let’s back up a bit and talk about why dogs get bloat to begin with, then how you can keep your dog safe. Dogs who inhale their food, wolfing it down with a lot of air and basically overwhelming their stomachs, are at high risk. Dogs who eat within 30 minutes of vigorous exercise are at high risk. Nervous, excitable dogs who eat in a state of high tension are at high risk. Dogs who eat one huge meal a day rather than two or three smaller meals are at high risk, and it increases as they gulp down waves of water with their meal. And here’s the kicker: Dogs who eat from elevated dishes are at high risk.

At one time, it was thought that raising the dog’s dish would reduce the chances of getting bloat, but it’s since been found that the opposite is true: the higher the dish, the higher the risk. Our friend Ben is continuously alarmed to see raised dish setups still offered in every pet-care catalogue, and hopes that this state of affairs will soon change. If you have a large-breed dog and are currently using a raised-dish setup, stop immediately. Put your dog’s food and water dishes flat on the floor! Never, ever buy one of these setups, no matter what claims are made for it.

So okay, here’s how to protect your beloved dog from bloat: Feed her at least twice a day rather than once. Put his dishes flat on the floor. Wait at least a half-hour after a walk or any exercise before or after feeding. If your dog is excited or upset, wait until she’s calmed down to feed her. And if, like our first golden retriever, he eats so fast that the food seems to have vaporized before the bowl even hits the ground, put a rubber or nylon ball, ring, or other inedible, indestructible toy in the dish with the food so your dog has to eat around it, which will slow him down.

None of this is rocket science, and it can save your dog’s life. Make it an automatic part of your routine. We lost both our goldens to cancer, which was horrible enough. Our friend Ben can’t imagine the nightmare of watching a perfectly healthy, happy dog go from great to late in less than an hour. Fortunately, our black German shepherd puppy, Shiloh, is a delicate eater. But we’re taking no chances. If you own a large-breed dog, neither should you.

Frugal living tip #30. July 27, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s Monday, and that means it’s time for another Frugal Living Tip here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. Today, I want to talk about car games.

Say what? In today’s world of backseat TVs with DVD players, iPods, laptops, and the like, “Are we there yet?” may be history, gone the way of the superhighway. (And soon, we fear, the rest area.) But what if your car (or kid) isn’t equipped with all this expensive, high-tech gadgetry? What if it’s just, well, a car?

How to keep your kids entertained through the hours of travel? Okay, there’s the radio, CD player, and audiobooks. But the arguments that can break out over what to hear can be excruciating to adults, however engrossing they are to the backseat bunch. And once the argument’s been won, the results can be even more excruciating. (“Can we play that Eurotech CD again? And check out these dance moves… I am NOT blocking the rear window!” “NO! Lynyrd Skynyrd! Put on that retro station!!!” “Hit 5, would you?” “I want to listen to the Barney book again!” “No, Walter the Farting Dog!!!” “Owww!!! Stop pinching me!” “BARNEY!!!!” “Mommy, he’s still pinching me!” “WAAAHHHH!!!!”) Ugh.

I remember my mama’s elaborate preparations for our long, looong road trips from Nashville to Pensacola every summer, and for the shorter but more frequent trips from Nashville up to Springfield, Kentucky to see our beloved grandparents. With three kids less than four years apart total jostling around in the back seat, keeping the peace wasn’t a trivial matter, especially since our father wasn’t about to tolerate any backseat fighting.

Amazingly, in retrospect, Mama never loaded up on junk food for our trips—I don’t remember any road food at all, I think we just stopped for lunch or whatever as we went along—but she made sure to drop into the five and dime, the dollar store of the day, to get lots of little handheld games that we could play while we were on the road. And she was also enthusiastic about involving us in playing family road games, such as trying to spot license plates from all 50 states (we never managed this) or calling out the names of any animals we saw along the way. (My father, no country boy and nearsighted besides, was not exactly an ace at this; I still recall the time he said “Look at those nice horses!” while indicating a field of cows. I suspect he remembers it also, after all the ribbing he took for the rest of the ride.)

Believe it or not, our friend Ben and I still play the “call out the animals” game on our road trips. We also call out favorite landmarks, ludicrous billboards, and other entertaining roadside phenomena. Unlike my mama, I’m a big believer in road-trip junk food; it’s the only time OFB and I actually eat it, and it makes long hours in the car much more enticing when you can anticipate sour cream and chives potato chips, cream-filled chocolate rolls, or almond M&Ms en route, knowing that you won’t set eyes on them again until the next vacation rolls around. (I do bring along trail mix, pepitos, aka roasted pumpkin seeds, cheese sticks, and other healthier snacks so we don’t keel over from cholesterol and sugar overload before we reach our destination. And yes, we even eat them.) But if you’re travelling with kids, I have to say, do as I say, not as I do: no junk food or sugar- and caffeine-laden drinks.

You may not find tiny puzzles with hatpin-sized silver balls or the infamous Etch-a-Sketch at your local dollar store. But fortunately, you can still find low-tech, road-friendly games for kids that will help eat up the miles without eating up your budget in the process. Two of our favorite mail-order sources are The Vermont Country Store (www.vermontcountrystore.com) and Lehman’s (www.lehmans.com). The Vermont Country Store offers two kinds of old-style solitaire puzzles in wood with marbles that you can store inside the puzzle when not playing, a handheld pinball machine, three pioneer pocket puzzles, a handheld “Fifteen Puzzle” (the Rubik’s Cube of its day), and a wooden tic-tac-toe game. Lehman’s also has the Fifteen Puzzle, tavern puzzles, a farm cube puzzle, the original Etch-a-Sketch (gasp), magnet sets, and its own wooden tic-tac-toe set. 

Speaking of Rubik’s Cubes, if you can find some, you can always keep your kids occupied (or drive them crazy) with those. Or play a version of the alphabet game: Have the kids take turns finding the letters of the alphabet at the beginning of the state’s name on license plates or on billboards. You can also play a game where the kids recite the funniest bumper stickers on passing cars. (Admittedly, bumper stickers aren’t as common as they used to be, but there are always personalized license plates.)

Here’s a way to encourage creativity on the road: Ask each kid to describe the ongoing adventures of their favorite toy, either left at home or brought along. Or ask them to create an adventure that the family dog or cat is going on while the family is on the road. (Our friend Ben and I actually do this to this day when we’re travelling and have to leave our beloved pets at home or board them. “What do you think Linoose is doing right now?” “Oh, he’s opened the deck door and is enjoying a barbecue down the road after having a beer over at Ollie’s.”)

Any of these options costs chump change compared to an electronic device. And many of them will involve everyone in the family in a lively game. I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s worth more than any amount of money. The memories you’ll build on those trips are priceless.

              ‘Til next time,

                            Silence

Zucchini 500: Pirates triumphant! July 26, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Fans of all things piratical will be thrilled to know that Mark Wyant’s pirate vessel, The Black Zuke, won best of division in yesterday’s third annual Zucchini 500 races at the Easton Farmers’ Market in downtown Easton, PA. Tragically, our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders were unable to attend this deathless event and cheer our hero—clad as always in full piratical costume, including a great pirate hat and eyepatch bearing the skull and crossbones—on as The Black Zuke raced to victory. But we feel that this has done much to restore the bad name of pirates to its former state of disrepute, before real Somali pirates turned up and almost ruined everything for pirate fans like ourselves.

Fortunately, our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, carried full coverage of the Zucchini 500 so we could follow along, vicariously at least, as 50 competitors chose their zucchinis, carved and decorated them (attaching bat wings, veggie drivers, and even painting on flames), then attached wheels and axles and let them hit the “road.” The Black Zuke sported a full mast and pirate flag.

Our friend Ben was amused and delighted to read that the farmers’ market had hired a real NASCAR judge to supervise the races. There were children’s and adults’ divisions, and a five-year old-girl triumphed in her mid-sized zucchini division. But all was not sweetness and light: Apparently, the fastest-moving zukes tended to fly off the ends of their ramps and splat onto the pavement or even onto the feet of the unfortunate judge, requiring extensive repairs before they could compete in the next round. Our friend Ben doesn’t really want to imagine having to repair a battered zucchini, but no gains without pains, as our blog mentor and hero Ben Franklin was wont to remark. 

Should you wish to read the article and see the photos of the competitors for yourselves, and we hope you will, Google The Morning Call (Http://www.themorningcall.com/) and search for “Zucchini 500″ or the actual article title, “The Fast and the Squashiest.” There’s a photo gallery with the story. Enjoy!

Perfect picnic fare. July 25, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s summer, and that means picnics. Our friend Ben and I were invited to a picnic last night, and we’ve received a few hints that our friend Fritzjambo is in the vicinity and may spring another picnic on us tonight. Obviously, you don’t want to show up at a picnic empty-handed, even if you don’t know it’s happening ’til the last minute. And if you’re like me, you don’t want to show up with some hastily-purchased bags of chips and dip, either (though that’s not the worst option now that more groceries are carrying fresh salsa). So what do you bring?  

In a case like this, I like to have plenty of options, especially since I’m a vegetarian and don’t want to be confronted with a grill full of burgers and hot dogs, baked beans with pork, and the like. (“Well, you could just eat a bun… “) But even if you know there’ll be plenty to eat, you can always add a few distinctive contributions to the celebration.

In summer, I love to make refrigerator pickles, which are easy, have a ton of crunch, and are spicy/sweet/salty, which is to say, perfect! I always have some in the fridge, so they’re ready to snack on or grab to take along to a picnic or other gathering.

                 Silence’s Refrigerator Pickles

3 large to 8 small slender cukes, sliced

1 cup sugar

1 cup cider vinegar

2 tablespoons salt

1 tablespoon black mustardseeds

1 tablespoon gound turmeric

1 tablespoon whole cloves

1 large sweet onion, or more to taste, diced

dash hot sauce, such as Tabasco Chipotle or Pickapeppa, or more to taste

Combine vinegar and sugar and heat until sugar dissolves. Add salt, spices and hot sauce. Turn off heat and allow the brine to cool to lukewarm.

Meanwhile, slice cukes. Layer cukes and onions alternately in a glass or plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. Pour lukewarm brine over the cukes and onions, then attach the lid and refrigerate. Shake container every day to make sure brine is saturating pickles. The pickles will be ready to eat in three to five days, but the spiciness will increase over time, if you can resist eating them. The onions are great in sandwiches or on salads. 

I also like putting together a huge, gorgeous tossed salad with summer’s bounty, and taking it along with a dressing or two (such as Greek and honey mustard or ranch). Or a fabulous Caprese salad, which is quick to make and incredibly good.

Caprese salad: Layer a large platter two or three leaves deep with Romaine or butter (Boston) lettuce leaves. Slice several large vine-ripe tomatoes, then halve each slice. You’ll get the most fabulous presentation if you can alternate red, yellow, black, and/or green ripse tomatoes (such as ‘Zebra’), but it will still look and taste great if you just use red. Slice a ball or two of fresh mozzarella, then halve each slice. Make concentric circles on the platter of alternating half-slices of tomato, fresh mozzarella, and large whole fresh basil leaves, until the entire platter is covered. Chop two or three scallions (green onions) and sprinkle them over the platter. Drizzle on extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle on salt (we like Real Salt). Cut into pizza-style wedges and serve.  

Of course, no picnic’s complete without coleslaw. I gave you two unusual homemade coleslaw recipes in my earlier post, “Silence makes coleslaw,” but what if you’re rushed and don’t have time to make from-scratch slaw? No need to panic.

Quick coleslaw: Buy a bag of ready-made coleslaw (shredded cabbage and carrots, not a dressed slaw) and a bag of shredded carrots at the store. If your store sells pre-chopped sweet onion, get that as well. Stir half the bag of carrots into the slaw along with three tablespoons of the chopped onion. Then mix in 1/2 to  2/3 of a bottle of chunky blue cheese dressing. (If you hate blue cheese, you can use a pepper ranch or cheese ranch dressing instead.) Your goal is to coat the ingredients, not drown them, so start with 1/2 bottle and work up from there. Cover and chill until picnic time. People aways ask if they can take home what hasn’t been polished off!

Deviled eggs are also indispensable at picnics, at least as far as we’re concerned. This is one reason why I like to have a half-dozen hardboiled eggs in the fridge at all times; they’re instantly available for slicing on tossed salads, but they’re also there should a picnic and/or the concept of deviled eggs come up. I have my standard go-to recipe, which involves mashing the yolks with mayonnaise, mustard, and horseradish before stuffing them back in the halves and dusting them with paprika. But recently, I stumbled upon a marvelously different version. Of course, I had to modify it:

                   Deviled Blue Cheese Eggs

6 hardboiled eggs

3 tablespoons blue cheese (can use feta instead)

3 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 tablespoons chutney (sweet or hot to taste) 

2 tablespoons chopped pecans

2 tablespoons finely chopped yellow, orange, or red bell pepper

2 tablespoons finely chopped sweet onion (such as Vidalia or WallaWalla)

salt to taste

sweet or hot paprika (for blue cheese filling) or cinnamon or garam masala (for feta)

Mash yolks and add all other ingredients (except paprika, cinnamon, or garam masala), mixing well. Fill eggwhite halves with yolk mixture, then top with spice of your choice or top different halves with different spices, as you please. Chill and serve. You can multiply the proportions to match how much your gathering loves deviled eggs; we find that two whole eggs (four filled halves) per person is about right.

What else to bring? Our friend Ben and I always like to bring crusty baguettes with softened butter and one or more cheeses. Yum! A mix of marinated artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, and cubes of feta cheese is also incredibly delicious, with the bread and cheese or as a topping for a tossed salad. This also makes a great topping for tomato slices or quartered bell peppers, and a delicious filling for rolled radicchio or endive leaves.

If we know our hosts will have a grill going, we’ll bring portabella mushrooms and pesto. Corn on the cob with browned butter and salt is hard to beat, too, whether the corn is grilled or boiled. How about grilled cantaloupe or pineapple slices for dessert, with a splash of fresh-squeezed lime juice from your own greenhouse-grown fruits?

Okay, maybe I’m getting carried away. But none of this is impossible. And as OFB reminds me, those homegrown limes make a mean margarita, too.

            ‘Til next time,

                        Silence

Decisions, decisions. July 25, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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A heated debate broke out this morning here at Poor Richard’s Almanac as to the topic of this morning’s post. It went like this:

Silence Dogood: Ben, I was thinking I’d post that fabulous recipe for deviled eggs with blue cheese this morning.

Our friend Ben: Uh…

Silence: Uh, what, exactly?

OFB: Actually, I was thinking of writing this morning’s post and reminding readers of the MacArthur Fellowship nominations, just in case anyone out there  happens to be one of the nominators.

Silence: As if! Maybe you should forget about hinting that you’d like a fellowship and start doing something to deserve one.

OFB: Grrrrrr!!! I’d also thought about doing a followup post on The Zucchini 500 and discuss all the possibilities in zucchini racer design.

Silence: Hmmm. Maybe I should open the floor and see if anyone has any recipes for zucchini that are actually flavorful and have a good texture, so, just maybe, someone would want to eat them.

OFB: And we got an e-mail from Richard saying he’d be happy to contribute a followup post to our “Hummingbirds, where art thou?” post, giving people more ideas on attracting hummingbirds, or a post on a Founding Fathers series he’s been watching.

Silence: Ben, remember the bluebirds we saw on our way to the CSA yesterday? Maybe we should ask Richard to write a post on attracting bluebirds instead.

OFB: Good idea. I’ll e-mail him this morning. But meanwhile, what are we going to write about right now? 

Silence: Blue cheese deviled eggs. It’s picnic time, and everybody loves deviled eggs. Why not give them a twist on them so they can surprise and delight everybody with deviled eggs with a difference?

OFB: How about the latest confrontation between Shiloh and the stag beetle?

Silence: Don’t mention those horrid beetles! How come you’re never at home when they show up?!!

OFB: Uh…

Silence: How about some great sides for picnics, including the deviled eggs?

OFB: Now you’re talking! I don’t suppose you’re planning to make them later today, by any chance? It’s Saturday, and it’s finally not raining, so it’s perfect timing. I’m already hungry!

Silence: Oh, all right. Unless you’d rather have lasagna with a side of spinach and a fabulous salad. I’ve already made the sauce and bought the baby spinach…

OFB (completely torn): Urk!!! I can’t decide.

Silence: Tell you what, let’s invite Richard and Bridget for supper and see which menu they’d prefer. Meanwhile, I’d better get busy writing that picnic post!

OFB: Good plan.

Silence: And you can get busy taking out the trash and weeding the garden and taking Shiloh to the park and…

OFB: (suppressed scream)

Stay tuned.

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