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Bizarre blog searches. December 21, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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8 comments

Christmastime seems to have brought out some real classics in our blog search files here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. (Fortunately, we can see what people are searching for courtesy of our blog host, WordPress, one of the reasons we love it.) Our friend Ben would like to share a few of the best:

pot smokers almanak [sic]: We’ve had people coming here looking for King Richard’s Almanac, Little Richard’s Almanac, even Poor Ben’s Almanac. But this was definitely a first. Looks like all that smoking didn’t do much for their spelling, and by the way, it’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, just so you know.

who will sleep with me on this dark and: I don’t know, but it sure won’t be any of us. 

take joy, by fraud giovanni: If Fra Giovanni was a fraud, we haven’t heard about it.

why don’t we actually eat jello: Isn’t it obvious?!

why is it called guano: Good question! This one sent our friend Ben to the dictionary; I’d assumed that was Spanish for, ahem, bird and bat droppings, but not being a Spanish speaker, thought I’d better check my facts before replying. Turns out it’s from the Quechua huanu, dung. A lot of guano comes from islands off the coast of Peru, and the Quechua are an indigenous people of Peru (as well as many other South American countries). Back in the glory days, they dominated the Inca Empire, the Empire of the Sun, renowned for its symbolic gold adornments. From gold to guano may seem like quite a comedown, but at least guano is a super garden fertilizer, while gold is decorative but not good for much in real terms, as King Midas discovered.

What’s been showing up in your blog searches lately?

The decline and fall of Ben & Jerry’s. December 20, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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4 comments

In the interest of full disclosure, our friend Ben would like to begin this post by noting that Silence Dogood and I aren’t big ice-cream eaters. Basically, we view ice cream as a substrate for really yummy toppings like hot fudge and caramel and marshmallow cream and whipped cream.

This means that, with exceptions like coffee, peach, butter pecan, cookie dough, and peppermint (that’s vanilla ice cream with crushed pink peppermint candy), we basically like vanilla. Our friend Ben’s favorite is vanilla soft ice cream, preferably in a large dish topped with all four of the toppings mentioned above. But Silence and I both have a hard-ice cream preference, and that’s Ben & Jerry’s vanilla. Never, ever, ever have we tasted such superb vanilla ice cream as Ben & Jerry’s. Since we can’t just drop by the grocery to buy soft ice cream, it’s our go-to ice cream when we’re craving a decadent sundae on a hot day.

Our friend Ben has actually even toured the Ben & Jerry’s plant in the course of my work. (Well, it was actually a drive-by stop on the way to see the Green Mountain Coffee people. But how could I resist?) Even for someone who eats less than a pint of ice cream a year, it was a thrill.

Even if our friend Ben had never eaten so much as a scoop of ice cream, I’d admire Ben & Jerry’s cofounder, Ben Cohen, who has invested his profits from Ben & Jerry’s in what seems like an unending stream of good works. Unlike someone like Paul Newman, who used his celebrity to sell products for charity, Ben Cohen developed a delicious product in anonymity, then simply donated the proceeds to the public good. While we all need celebrities like Paul Newman, Justin Timberlake, and yes, Tiger Woods to give a public face to important causes, it seems to our friend Ben that selfless giving like Ben Cohen’s is even more admirable, since it doesn’t raise his profile, it simply raises money—his own money—to meet the public need.

So if I’m such a big fan, why have I titled this post “the decline and fall”? Well. As faithful readers know, our friend Ben is an idea addict. I simply can’t help thinking up new ideas and inventions, even if nothing ever comes of them. The first time I encountered the Ben & Jerry’s website, it invited viewers to submit their concepts of new ice cream flavors. If any of them were actually used by Ben & Jerry’s, the originator would win free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for life.

Wow, what a deal! Our friend Ben submitted what I thought was a fantastic idea for an ice cream. Alas, I never heard back. A couple of years later, I had another idea for a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor. Returning to their website, I found a very different ethos and message.  This was, it turned out, because, in the interim, Ben & Jerry’s had been bought by Unilever. The website still invited ideas for new flavors, but now announced that hey, thanks for the idea, but we probably already thought of it anyway, so if we end up producing it, don’t expect anything in return. Aren’t corporations wonderful?

So last night, I’m lying in bed thinking about all the presents I haven’t bought and all the Christmas cards Silence and I have yet to write and blah blah blah. Suddenly, the thought of a new ice cream comes into my mind. After reading our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders’s post “How do they make M&Ms?” this morning, our friend Ben was inspired. I figured I’d head to the Ben & Jerry’s website and submit my brilliant idea.

Yeah, right. There wasn’t even a place to submit a flavor idea, much less any reward for doing so. I guess Unilever figures it has no need for the “little people” who actually might buy and eat their ice cream; they probably have high-paid marketing research consultants to develop their new ice creams.

So to hell with you, Unilever. If anyone—especially anyone making artisanal ice cream, especially anyone following in Ben Cohen’s footsteps and trying to donate their profits to a worthy cause—would like to try this idea, it’s all yours. Our friend Ben would be only too happy to contribute something to the public good.

Here’s my idea. It’s not a new flavor, just a new spin on an existing flavor, that old tried-and-true green mint ice cream with chocolate chips. My idea is—especially, I think, relevant and appealing in these troubled financial times—called Funny Money. The base ice cream is green like the dollar bill. Throughout the ice cream are chocolate “coins.” The slogan on every carton is “Strike it rich with every bite.”

I think it would work. And I hope there’s someone out there with the machinery and manpower to try it. Too bad it won’t be Ben & Jerry’s.

How do they make M&Ms? December 20, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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2 comments

It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today with a question I know you’ve all been wondering about: How do they make M&Ms? Actually, probably nobody wonders about this. But maybe, like me, if you find yourself lying awake in the dead of night, you sometimes start to wonder about the wackiest things. Last night, it was “How on earth do they make M&Ms?” followed quickly by “How on earth did Hershey’s Kisses get their name?”

For once, I actually remembered these questions this morning, so I determined to find out. First, I went to the website of that wizard of wacky uses, Joey Green (www.wackyuses.com). Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about the history of various brands from Joey’s books (to name just two, Joey Green’s Magic Brands and Polish Your Furniture with Pantyhose), not to mention any number of unauthorized but intriguing uses for the products. Joey doesn’t appear to have anything to say about M&Ms, but if you want to have some fun, I recommend that you check out his website. You may not decide to replace your furniture polish with SPAM or use Coca-Cola to clean your toilet, but at least you can amaze your friends with your newfound knowledge.

Moving on, I visited Wikipedia, which failed to tell me how M&Ms were made but provided a lengthy and interesting history of the little candies that “melt in your mouth, not in your hand.” I suggest that you read the entire Wikipedia entry—it’s fascinating—but to sum up, the idea for M&Ms was born during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, when Forrest Mars, Sr., founder of the Mars Company, saw soldiers eating coated chocolate candies. Mr. Mars began producing M&Ms in 1941 in the States.

What about that name, M&Ms? The first M is for Mars, but the second is for the son of the president of Hershey Chocolates, Bruce Murrie. Why name your candy after the scion of a rival company? Simple: Hershey was apparently given the sole license to make chocolate in the U.S. during World War II, when everything was rationed, so the first M&Ms used Hershey chocolate for the centers. Bruce Murrie obviously saw a great opportunity and owned 20% interest in M&Ms, an interest that Mars later bought out.

What were the original M&Ms colors, you’re asking? How about brown, yellow, red, green, orange, and violet. (Violet?! It was replaced by tan in 1949.)

Unfortunately for me, Wikipedia didn’t go into the manufacturing process. It was time to move on. Continuing my search, I was directed to a site called Everything (http://everything2.com/), where someone going by the name of quantumlemur had taken the time to answer my question. Apparently, first the chocolate centers are tumbled in a machine to make them smooth and round. Then they’re transferred to a large “drum” (another site described this as looking like a cement mixer), where the chocolate centers are coated with the hard sugar coating we all know and love. Once the coating is thick enough, it’s given a final color coat, then moved to a conveyor belt where they stamp on all those little “M”s. (Now white, the original “M”s were apparently black.)

A little more digging turned up an answer from JR on Yahoo! Answers, which revealed that at one time, the official M&Ms site had included a “How We Do It” page that was subsequently deleted. But JR comes to the rescue: If you’d like to see how M&Ms are made, you can watch an episode on the Food Network’s “Unwrapped” (http://www.foodnetwork.com/food/show_cw/).

Whew! I finally had an answer to my first burning question. But what about the name of those Hershey’s Kisses? You’d think a teardrop-shaped candy would be more logically named “Hershey’s Tears.” But someone had a much brighter idea. Fortunately for me, Wikipedia and the official Hershey’s website (www.hersheys.com) proved far more forthcoming this time. Hershey’s Kisses make M&Ms look like mere youths, having been invented in 1907. The name apparently derives from the sound the chocolate makes when being dropped into the “kiss” shape during the manufacturing process—or at least, that’s everybody’s best guess. (No one really knows for sure.) 

So, folks, there you have it. Do you have any burning candy questions of your own? Give a shout, and I’ll try to find out.

           Sincerely,

                      R.S.

Moroccan cookbook roundup. December 19, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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1 comment so far

Silence Dogood here. You may recall my recent post on how my friend Delilah had given me a wonderful tagine, a ceramic cook pot that’s unique to Morocco, and how I was trying to find vegetarian recipes that were adapted to tagine cooking.

When I wrote that post, my extensive cookbook collection only boasted one Moroccan cookbook, Modern Moroccan by Ghillie Basan. This is an incredibly gorgeous cookbook with a large assortment of mouthwatering recipes. I love it. But now that I actually own a tagine, I wanted more options to work with.

And as fate had it, I got them. This past Wednesday night, Delilah, who works at the Barnes & Noble nearest (but by no means near) us, hosted a “Foodies’ Christmas Cookie Exchange” at the store. I of course wanted to support Delilah’s initiative, and had considerable backup from our friend Ben, who’s seldom met a Christmas cookie he didn’t love.

Well, hey, we were finally in a bookstore. Please, don’t even think about trying to stop me from looking at the books, and especially the cookbooks. (OFB and Delilah literally dragged me away from several intriguing new books about Led Zeppelin, and fortunately for our family budget, I didn’t have a chance to drift towards the magazines or the gardening section.) And there, on the cookbook shelves, I finally struck gold.

First, I found Morocco: Mediterranean Cuisine, celebrating the work of 11 Moroccan chefs. Next was Mezze Modern: Over 90 delicious appetizers from Greece, Lebanon, and Turkey by Maria Khalife. Alert readers may note the absence of Morocco in the subtitle. But the tradition of setting out and enjoying mezze, an assortment of appetizers, often quite elaborate, is alive and well in Morocco as well, and many of these recipes were familiar to me from my researches into Moroccan cooking.

Last but by no means least, especially for budget-minded readers, was a book I found in the discount racks in front of the store, Taste of Morocco by Rebekah Hassan, on offer for a whopping $5.98, and full of recipes with gorgeous photos of the finished dishes and the step-by-step preparations. Needless to say, if you’re curious about Moroccan food but not seriously committed, I’d suggest that you run to your nearest B&N and spend your $6 on this book. You won’t regret it!

Okay, I’d better head back to the tagine and try to put together a yummy vegetarian recipe. And shore up against the 12-20 inches of snow the weathermen predict will wallop us later today. Meanwhile, if you have a favorite Moroccan cookbook I haven’t mentioned, please tell me what it is and why you like it! Amazon is always waiting, and I have a sneaking suspicion that OFB hasn’t gotten my Christmas presents yet…

         ‘Til next time,

                     Silence

Two new pumpkin soups. December 18, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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3 comments

Silence Dogood here. I should be upfront about three things here: First, I still think my own Curried Pumpkin Soup recipe is the greatest ever made, so I’ll include that recipe here, too, so you don’t have to search for it on the blog. Second, our friend Chaz’s soup is actually made with winter squash, not pumpkin, but then, so is most canned pumpkin, and you could use pumpkin instead if that’s what you have on hand. And third, these recipes are “new” in the sense that they’re new to me—and, hopefully, to you. If so, you have some delightful treats in store!

Let’s kick off with Chaz’s recipe. It always delights me when friends share their own recipes, and when they’re as good as this one, it’s thrilling. Our friend Ben and I were treated to this delicious soup at Delilah and Chaz’s just last weekend. After polishing off my bowl with unseemly haste, I began shamelessly begging for the recipe. And here it is. Yum!

          Chaz’s Winter Squash Soup

4 T butter

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 1/2 cups diced sweet onion

2 carrots, diced

2 lbs. Butternut or Acorn squash, peeled and diced

8 cups veggie stock

1 T Worcestershire, soy or teriyaki sauce [Annie's makes vegetarian Worcestershire sauce, FYI.---Silence]

1 T brown sugar

2 cubes veggie bouillon

1 1/2 cups light cream

salt and pepper to taste

8-10 T Gorgonzola, blue or feta cheese, crumbled

 Melt butter in a stock pot. Add vegetables and saute 10 minutes. Add stock and bouillon and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 35 minutes. Puree soup and return it to the pot. Add all seasonings. Add cream, stir, and simmer until warmed through. Serve with a bowl of crumbled Gorgonzola and allow guests to spoon it on top of their soup. Serves 6.

Moving on, here’s a completely different type of pumpkin soup than I’ve ever encountered before, courtesy of Margaret Panno, who sent the recipe to our local paper in response to a reader request. What makes it so different? It uses shredded green (i.e., unripe) pumpkin rather than a ripe pumpkin or pumpkin puree. It was passed down as a traditional recipe from Margaret’s grandmother, who came from Austria-Hungary. I’m really intrigued, and plan to try this next season when I can get hold of a green pumpkin!

           Pumpkin Soup

1 large green pumpkin

2 teaspoons salt

1 stick butter

1 medium onion, chopped

2 tablespoons paprika

water or chicken broth [I'll use veggie stock---Silence]

2 quarts milk or half-and-half or 2 pints sour cream

4 potatoes, mashed

cornstarch

salt and pepper to taste

Peel and shred pumpkin. Place in bowl. Add 2 teaspoons salt. Let stand for 30 minutes, the squeeze juice out. In a large pot, melt butter. Add onion. Simmer 5 minutes. Add paprika and pumpkin. Cover with water or chicken broth [or veggie stock]. Bring to a boil and simmer until pumpkin is three-quarters soft. Add milk, half-and-half, or sour cream. Add mashed potatoes. Add cornstarch to thicken. [I think I'd skip the cornstarch and just let it simmer longer.---Silence] Add salt and pepper to taste.

Talk about something completely different! I can’t wait to try it.

Finally, here’s my own recipe for Curried Pumpkin Soup. This is incredibly fast to make, and so warming on a cold day! You can make it with a side of rice (or serve it over rice), serve it with hot bread or rolls, or go all out and make a dinner of it: soup, baked or mashed potatoes, broccoli, and a hearty winter salad. Any way you serve it, I guarantee it’s going to be good!

            Silence’s Curried Pumpkin Soup

1 29-ounce can 100% pure pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling), or 1 small pie pumpkin or large Butternut squash, halved, seeded, placed facedown on aluminum foil and baked in a 350-degree oven until tender, then scooped out and pureed

1 pint light cream

1/2 stick butter

1 large sweet onion (Vidalia, WallaWalla, 1015 or Candy type), diced fine

1 box veggie stock (all brands are good) or homemade

salt (we like RealSalt or Trocomare or Herbamare)

hot sauce (we like Pickapeppa or Tabasco Chipotle)

1 tablespoon each ground cumin, turmeric, ground coriander, and curry powder

1/4 cup (or mini-bottle) anise liqueur, such as Pernod or Sambuca

Saute diced onion in butter in a Dutch oven (I love my heavy LeCreuset Dutch ovens) or heavy stock pot until clarified. Add salt and spices, stirring to saute briefly. (You may need to add a splash of veggie stock, since the spices soak up the butter and make a paste, which is good, but can easily burn, which is bad.) Add a generous splash of hot sauce—you want the soup to be warming (hey, it’s cold outside!). Add the pumpkin, stirring well to blend. Add the light cream, then enough of the veggie stock to smooth out the soup to a silken texture (neither too thin nor too thick and porridgy). Heat through, then swirl the liqueur on top and stir it in. Give the soup another minute on the stove, stir well, and serve. Serves 4-6.

        So, there you have it! I suggest that you try all three and see what you think. Maybe you’ll be adding all of them to your winter menus! And please, if you have a favorite pumpkin soup, share it with us.

          ‘Til next time,

                       Silence

Which Christmas song do you hate most? December 18, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Sheesh. The other night, I had one of my favorite Christmas CDs playing in the background while our friend Rudy was here for supper. “No!!! You have to turn that off!” he suddenly shouted. “I hate “The Little Drummer Boy”!!!”

Say what?! I love “The Little Drummer Boy.” I cry every time I hear it, to the point where I can’t even sing along.

Wake-up call: We all have Christmas music we love, and Christmas music we hate, and we all have our reasons. I can’t endure falsetto, so Alvin and the Chipmunks is enough to make me leave a store on the spot. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” are also hard to take. And I hate Disneyesque songs like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman,” but then, I hate Disney, period. No surprises there. And let’s not even start on barked or meowed carols, please. Save them for the torture chamber.

Mind you, I don’t hate all Hollywood Christmas music. I enjoy hearing “White Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Jingle Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Silver Bells,” and the like. Josh Groban’s version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is perhaps the most moving Christmas song I’ve ever heard, including, as it does, voice-overs from male and female soldiers who miss their families and most definitely won’t be home for Christmas. 

But I do love the classics: “Silent Night” in any language; the great hymns of the Church, “Ave Maria,” “Panis Angelicus,” and “Adeste Fidelis” (“Oh Come, All Ye Faithful”) sung reverently at this season; “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,”  “Joy to the World,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “What Child Is This?”, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “We Three Kings,” and other classic carols. I can even endure the “falalalala” of the otherwise delightful “Deck the Halls,” as long as I don’t have to sing along.*

And I love the ancient folk carols that have come down to us: “The Holly and the Ivy,” “The Huron Carol,” “Gabriel’s Message,” “The Cherry Tree Carol,” “The Coventry Carol,” “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “I Wonder as I Wander,” and “Good King Wenceslas,” among so many others.

There are many, many more that I love. Many that I’d as soon not hear. And many that I hate.

How about you?

               ‘Til next time,

                             Silence

* Forgot to state the obvious: I hate singing nonsense syllables. But at least there’s one consolation: Every time I hear “falala” or whatever, I immediately get a mental picture of “Blackadder’s Christmas Carol,” in which the Tubby Boys are singing a carol outside Ebenezer Blackadder’s door with the chorus “piggywiggywiggywiggywoo.”

For Jane Austen fans only. December 17, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. A lifelong and diehard Jane Austen fan, I’d dropped by Heidi’s blog, the marvelously named Embraceable Ewe (http://embraceablewe.blogspot.com/), and was thrilled to see a banner (or whatever it’s called) announcing that she “was” Jane Austen’s Emma and inviting viewers to click the link, take a quiz, and see which Austen heroine they were.* How could I resist?

Unsurprisingly, I “was” Elizabeth Bennet, the fiesty heroine of Pride and Prejudice. And yet, Mr. Darcy isn’t my favorite of Jane Austen’s male leads. His woodenness always failed to engage me, no matter how often Ms. Austen alluded to his handsomeness. If I wanted a handsome statue, I’d buy one.

So, forthwith: Which Austen hero (or major male character) would you choose for a hot fling? For a life partner? Choose your faves from below and let us know! (And if you have a favorite film or TV characterization of your hero, let us hear which actor won your heart!)

Pride and Prejudice: Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley, Mr. Wickham, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Mr. Collins

Emma: Mr. Knightley, Frank Churchill, Mr. John Knightley, Mr. Elton, Robert Martin

Sense and Sensibility: Colonel Brandon, Edward Ferrars, John Willoughby, Robert Ferrars

Persuasion: Captain Frederick Wentworth, Mr. Elliot, Captain Benwick, Charles Musgrove**, Charles Hayter, Sir Walter Elliot

Mansfield Park: Edmund Bertram, Tom Bertram, Henry Crawford, Mr. Rushworth, William Price, John Yates

Northanger Abbey: Henry Tilney, Captain Frederick Tilney, General Tilney, John Thorpe

* To take the “Which heroine are you?” test, go to www.strangegirl.com and click on the “Emma Adaptations” bar, or click the link on Heidi’s blog.

** Poor Charles Musgrove is the only man in this list who’s actually married when the novels begin. But he was a former and sincere suitor of Persuasion‘s heroine, Anne Elliot, and thus rates a place in the list, especially given whom he ended up marrying. Oops, now that I think of it, Mr. John Knightley is also a married man when Emma opens, but since I love his brusque, no-nonsense character, I just had to include him.

Wondering who my choice would be? Gee, I hate to reveal all and possibly prejudice you against your own choice. But, well, okay. After seeing Ciaran Hinds’s sizzling performance as Captain Wentworth, I’d have thrown everything out the window and run off with him in a heartbeat. And the Mr. Bingley/Balraj role as played by Naveen Andrews in Bollywood’s “Bride and Prejudice” was even hotter than that. But if I was going by the books themselves rather than the film adaptations, it just has to be the well-named Mr. Knightley.

How about you?

       ‘Til next time,

                  Silence

Tagine recipes: Help, please! December 16, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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8 comments

Silence Dogood here. My friend Delilah just gave me a lovely terracotta tagine for Christmas. It’s the biggest tagine I’ve ever seen, and yes, it’s glazed inside and out.

For those who don’t know, “tagine” is both the name of a variety of classic Moroccan dishes and the dish they’re cooked in, which has a pie-pan-like bottom and a cone that fits on top, so the juices evaporate, collect in the cone, and run back down into the dish as it cooks. The result is some of the most delicious-looking food I’ve ever seen, though alas, I’ve only ever seen it in photographs in cookbooks.

I hope that’s about to change. That’s why I’m turning to you all for help. I only have one Moroccan cookbook, and I’m a vegetarian. Needless to say, the number of vegetarian tagine recipes (classically made with lamb) are limited. So if you have a favorite vegetable tagine, please respond with the recipe! I have preserved lemons and harissa, along with an arsenal of other spices, so I’m good to go if you all will help me out.

One other question: My dear friend Huma assured me that I could cook in the tagine on one of the burners of my gas stove, which would be a godsend, given how big it is, and several other sources I’ve consulted agree. But Delilah insisted that it had to go in the oven. If you have experience with stovetop cooking in a tagine, please share it with me.

Many thanks for all your help! I’m eager to get started.

           ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

What would Ben Franklin think? December 15, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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3 comments

Our friend Ben has always admired inventors. That’s one reason I’m such a huge fan of our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin. I became even more enthusiastic about them after I read about all the great inventions devised by laid-off workers during the Depression, ranging from Monopoly to many of our most popular candy bars. I’m so envious of people who come up with and implement a simple idea that takes off, like the pumpkin garbage bag, and makes them a fortune for what looks like a nominal effort.

Sadly, our friend Ben is more of an armchair inventor. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t think up some great invention. But lacking mechanical skill, drafting ability, and connections in the manufacturing and merchandising sectors, my brilliant inventions never make it any farther than the confines of my brain. Where they quickly join all the others in the trash heap of oblivion.

So naturally I’m always impressed when I see that someone has actually managed to take his or her invention from idea to reality, as was the case this past weekend when I read an article in the local paper about how a commercial airline pilot in the next township over from ours had invented and marketed a device that would roll up and store Christmas lights.

Cory Strong, the inventor of STOR’EM, spent seven years perfecting his storage device, which looks like a very large plastic spool for thread or a very small spool for industrial cable. Then he hired marketing and engineering help, found a manufacturer, and created a website to sell and promote the device, www.nolightmess.com. It’s also available at a number of local stores.

These light-storage spools cost $19.95 plus shipping for two unassembled spools, a connector bit and a cordless screwdriver for the battery-powered model; or $10.95 plus shipping for the manual-wind version. Each set will hold “more than enough” lights to cover a tree. You can also use them to hold extension cords and the like.

So, our friend Ben asked myself, what would Ben Franklin make of this invention? Well, frankly, I’m not sure. On the one hand, I doubt old Ben, with his bent for frugality, would have approved of spending over $20 for something you could make adequately for yourself out of the cardboard tube inside a roll of wrapping paper, assuming you duct-taped each end of the light string to the tube and wrapped it tightly so it wouldn’t slip off.

But on the other hand, virtually all Dr. Franklin’s inventions were aimed at making daily life safer and more pleasant for his fellow citizens. (The glass armonica was a notable exception.) Homey comforts like the rocking chair, Franklin stove, and bifocals helped ordinary folk get more enjoyment out of life. In that spirit, Dr. F. would probably salute Cory Strong, and say, with a smile and a wink, “Good work, young fella! Now, what will you be working on next?”

Frugal living tip #49. December 14, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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6 comments

It’s Monday, and that means it’s time for a Frugal Living Tip here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. We committed to giving you a useful tip to help all of us get through these hard economic times every week throughout 2009. As you can see, we only have three more tips to go. If you’d like us to extend the series into 2010, please let us know!

Today’s tip is about reducing the cost of weddings and funerals. Please excuse our friend Ben while I rant about the two most pointless expenses ever created. To turn two of the most sacred events in people’s lives into excessive, tacky, bankrupting spectacles is, to me, both stupid and sacreligious. Many marry, and everyone dies. Can’t we manage to perform these ceremonies without putting ourselves, our parents, or our heirs in debt for a decade at least?

The average wedding now costs $20,398, not counting the cost of the engagement ring and honeymoon. When you add those in, you’re probably looking at $25,000, and that’s just an average: Half of all weddings in the U.S. now cost more.

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood think there’s a better way, and this time, sure enough, it’s the old-fashioned way. Throughout much of history, the groom passed along a treasured engagement ring to his bride-to-be that had come down in his family. This heirloom carried great sentimental value and cost not a cent (or at most a few dollars to have it resized for the new bride). The wedding dress was often passed down from mother or grandmother to daughter. The wedding itself was a very elaborate affair held at the church, synagogue, etc., but the reception was a lovely, simple affair held at home.

We wholeheartedly endorse this approach: Give the pomp and ceremony full play in the holy place where you exchange your vows, then go for the simple but heartfelt home-based party afterwards. Have your friends bring desserts, flowers (better tell them the color scheme you prefer!), or champagne instead of gifts. Hold your reception in the backyard and string sparkly white lights in the trees. Or create a unique reception that captures who you are: a grilling party, a pirate-theme party, a locavore celebration where all the foods are produced locally, a poolside party, a picnic. So much more fun, so much more low-key, so much more real.

What if your parents want to throw a big do? If they really have that much money to burn, tell them to just give it to you as a wedding gift instead. You can use it as a downpayment on a house, buy a new car, take three months off and travel the world, pay for your doctoral degree. Or, say, pay off your credit cards. Whatever the case, that money will do a lot more good in your bank account than it would giving a great big party that lasts a couple of hours.

By the way, if religion isn’t your thing, you can still have a lovely wedding, as our friend Ben’s sister did: She was married in our parents’ gorgeous Colonial garden, surrounded by flowering trees, shrubs, and perennials, with a fountain splashing in the background as she and her husband exchanged vows with family and friends in attendance. True, our family spent a fair amount of time that summer making sure the garden setting was perfect, but even adding lovely blooms cost us less than $1,000, and that included the flowers and delightful celebratory feast we’d prepared and set out in the great dining room afterwards.

Now, let’s move on to that other unavoidable expense, funerals. Our friend Ben was in fact inspired to write this post by an article that appeared in our local paper, the Allentown, PA, Morning Call, called “Keeping funeral costs in check.” You can read the whole article at www.themorningcall.com.

Wow, a funeral’s such a bargain by comparison to a wedding: According to figures our friend Ben found online for 2007, it only costs an average of $10,000! Heaven only knows how much it costs now, on the verge of 2010. But one thing that all sources acknowledge is that most people can’t afford it. I was shocked to read that more bodies were being unclaimed at mortuaries because the families simply couldn’t afford to bury them. Cremation is way up because its cost is so much lower—more like $1,000 rather than $10,000—and more people are donating their bodies to science for the same reason; in the case of donation, disposal is free.

Ugh. How about respecting the dead and celebrating their life and death? Our friend Ben thinks of the Amish custom as the ideal in this respect. The dead are washed and dressed in their own clothes by their loving family, and laid out in a simple pine coffin built by community members. They are displayed in a room in the house so family and friends can gather and sit by the coffin, reminiscing about the dead or simply keeping respectful watch. (Neighbors, family and friends also deluge the grieving family with home-cooked foods to sustain them during their time of grieving.) Then an unadorned service is held for the dear departed and they’re taken to a private burial plot for interment. The cost to the bereaved? $0. The comfort provided, the respect for the dead? Incalculable.

For us non-Amish, this may be a non-option. It is apparently still legal to bury one’s dead on one’s own place in some states, but given most people’s rootlessness in today’s society, even were it legal where you lived, could you really say for sure that you’d live in your present place all your life, and your heirs and their heirs would do likewise? Here in rural PA, our friend Ben has seen many a private graveyard tucked away on a farm, and wondered if the farm was still owned by the descendants of the graveyard’s occupants. If not, what a burden to bequeath to strangers!

Frankly, it sounds like the military gets the best deal in terms of cost-free funerals—and God knows, they’ve earned it, risking their lives for the rest of us. If you or a family member was in the military, you and your spouse get free and honored burial and a free gravestone. But you need to contact the Department of Veteran Affairs, request a plot, receive confirmation, and file that confirmation with your papers, while, of couse, letting your family know. You (and your dependents) can also request burial at sea, also free, but family members can’t be present.

There are plenty of other options and cost-cutting suggestions both in the Morning Call article and in an online piece called “Plan a funeral for $800 or less” on MSN Money (Google the title for the link). Our friend Ben suggests that you check them both out and that you think seriously about what you’d like to have done with your remains, and what sort of ceremony you’d want performed to send you on your way. Do it while you’re not pressed by “old mortality,” so it seems more like a creative exercise than the icy breath of Father Time on the back of your neck. Yes, you could set money aside for an elaborate funeral so at least your heirs aren’t strapped to pay for it. But why not give that money to them and enjoy a serene, dignified, inexpensive funeral celebration instead? (Or, if you’re a riotous type, you could always specify that they celebrate a potluck wake in your honor instead, and it, like a wedding, could have a theme that highlighted something central to your life and enjoyment, such as Harleys, model trains, The Beatles, or what have you.)

The best funeral celebration our friend Ben ever attended involved a dear friend of mine named Norm. Norm’s wonderful wife Dolores chose to have a life celebration, and invited friends and family to come and offer their own memories of Norm. When our friend Ben’s turn came, I marched up to the front with a basket of hot peppers, Norm’s favorites, and gave a very short speech saying why I thought hot peppers were a fitting tribute to Norm’s memory, since he was much like a hot pepper himself (memorable, fiery, assertive, unafraid of taking his own stand, etc.). Norm’s family and friends, who knew him well, loved this, and fortunately the funeral bouquets featured hot peppers and garlic (Norm’s other favorite) along with the flowers, so my tribute fit right in. Dolores also showed a computerized slideshow of Norm and played his favorite music while it followed the high points of his life. It was just amazing. And then she had a tribute lunch afterwards so people would have a chance to see and talk to each other and celebrate Norm’s life in a more personal setting. I’ll never forget that day.

Our friend Ben urges you to think about your own wedding and funeral with an eye toward frugality. These are both times when sentiment, not expense, should be uppermost, when the triumph of the human spirit in love here and hereafter should be celebrated. In both instances, you deserve the best. And it’s the best, not that money can buy, but that the community of your friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues, acting in loving communion, can provide.

As is the case with so much else in life, taking the time to plan things carefully in advance can make all the difference between an expensive—sometimes ruinously expensive—and impersonal performance and a heartfelt, personal tribute and celebration. Time is money. Take the time now, while it’s not urgent, to make sure that when the time comes, you get what you really want.

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