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Getting out those post-party stains. December 31, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Between today’s New Year’s Eve parties and tomorrow’s TV football marathons, there’s gonna be a whole lot of eating and drinking going on. And where there’s serious partying, there are usually serious stains: champagne or (worse) red wine spilled on sofas and rugs; greasy dips and chips dumped on laps and ground into upholstery; mustard, ketchup, mayo, barbecue sauce, and relish; chocolate. Need I say more?

Fortunately, the situation’s not hopeless, even if you, ahem, fail to notice the stains until the next morning. (But bear in mind that the sooner you can tackle a stain, the easier it is to get out.) I recommend a quick trip to your laundry room to see if you already happen to have any of the stain-busters I’m about to list. If you don’t, it’s not a bad idea to stop at the grocery en route home from work and arm yourself with a bottle or two. You probably need to pick up a few last-minute party items anyway, right?

Here are stain-busting’s heavy hitters:

Wine Out. Originally created to remove red wine stains (these are among the toughest of all stains to get out), Wine Out works wonders on pretty much any stain. You can even buy a small portable size to slip into your purse, so you’ll be prepared if you’re out partying and get wine (or something) on your clothes. But as the package notes, don’t use it if you’re wearing corduroy, silk, or velvet. An alternative is Wine Away Red Wine Stain Remover.

Tuff Stuff. This is our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders’s all-time favorite stain and spot remover. He insisted on giving our friend Ben and me a can of it when our dog Molly was battling an infection and having accidents in the house, and he was right, it does seem to work on everything, from dog urine and cat vomit to red wine and grass stains. Let’s hope you don’t have to confront anybody’s vomit after your New Year’s Eve party, but it never hurts to be prepared.

Zout Stain Remover. Zout is a laundry pre-treatment product: Apply it to the offending spot(s) before you wash your clothes. The Queen of Clean (we’ll talk more about her in a moment) loves Zout, and that’s good enough for me.

Spot Shot Instant Carpet Stain Remover. Another of the Queen’s favorites, you can also use Spot Shot to pre-treat spots on fabrics before popping them in the washing machine.  

Biz All Fabric Bleach. If you cut your hand while chopping up veggies for those party dips and end up with bloodstained clothing or dishtowels, nothing works to get blood out of fabric like Biz. Apply a paste of Biz and cold water to the bloodstain, let it dry for several hours, and wash. This works for grillin’ guys who get blood from steaks on their aprons, too.

Wieman’s Wax Away. Candlelight may be romantic, but there’s nothing romantic about candle wax dripping all over a tablecloth or bare table (or mantel). Use Wax Away to get it off with ease. 

Fine, you may be thinking, but what if I don’t have any of this stuff and need to get stains out with ordinary household products? Or what if I want to use the most natural products I can? Not to worry. Over the years, I’ve read a whole lot about how to use household products to remove stains, and I find some claims a lot more believable than others. But sometimes the most outlandish-sounding things are the ones that actually work. (Would it occur to you to spray WD-40 on an old grease stain?!)

So when I want to know if I can really use lemon juice or Epsom salts or club soda to get out stains, I turn to my ultimate authority, Linda Cobb, aka The Queen of Clean. I have and love The Queen’s classic cleaning guides, Talking Dirty with the Queen of Clean and Talking Dirty Laundry with the Queen of Clean. But when I’m fighting stains, I want to be able to get information ASAP, so I turn to The Queen of Clean: The Royal Guide to Spot and Stain Removal. Linda has actually been there, done that. She ran her own successful cleaning service for bazillion years before taking her hard-won knowledge to the general public. If she says it works, it works. I’d recommend keeping this inexpensive ($5.99) little paperback in your laundry room; it will pay for itself the first time you save a tee-shirt! Here are a few of the Queen’s favorite household stain-busters:

Club soda. Dab club soda on clothing, linens, or upholstery and blot to keep a spill from becoming a stain. Linda points out that if you’re eating out and spill something on yourself, you can always ask your server for some club soda. Good idea! Our friend Ben and I don’t drink club soda, but you can bet I have a few bottles in the laundry room just in case!

Lemon juice. Linda recommends putting lemon juice on stains on white fabrics and setting them in the sun to bleach naturally before laundering. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to be trying to find and squeeze a fresh lemon at a time like this. It makes sense to keep a bottle of real lemon juice on hand.

Salt. Ahem. As faithful readers know, salt is one thing that’s never in short supply here at Hawk’s Haven. But who’d have thought it was a natural stain fighter? The Queen of Clean sprinkles salt on red wine stains to keep them from setting, and mixes salt with lemon juice to combat mildew stains.

Meat tenderizer. Use it to fight protein-based stains like blood and milk, but make sure you’re using unseasoned tenderizer! 

Shampoo. Rub it in to fight “ring around the collar” before doing the wash.

Shaving cream. A great spot-treatment for stains on clothing, fabric, and carpeting. The Queen carries a small sample can in her suitcase to combat stains on the road! Use cream, not gel.

Rubbing alcohol. Use it to fight grass stains.

Toothpaste. Use plain white (non-gel) toothpaste to get out makeup stains and ink. But guys, if you’ve got lipstick on your collar, you are in deep trouble! Lipstick’s notoriously difficult to get out. If the stain is fresh, try rubbing it with a slice of white bread (and yes, you read that right). 

The Queen of Clean lists plenty of other ingenious stain-busting uses for household products from denture-cleaning tablets to hydrogen peroxide, cream of tartar, and yes, that can of WD-40. She also recommends many commercial products for combating stains, and includes a stain-by-stain guide as to what works best for removing everything from infant formula to the dreaded (by me, anyway) spaghetti sauce. But hopefully, this is enough to get you through New Year’s and into the new year! And if you have any stain-fighting secrets you’d like to share with us, we’d love to hear them!

           ‘Til next time,



What is college for, anyway? December 30, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben has been thinking a lot about colleges lately, since Silence Dogood and I have dear friends with kids struggling to get some good out of their college experience and others who are struggling to get into a college that might help them further their dreams.

Our friend Ben’s own experience trying to get into colleges back in the day made me quite cynical about the whole experience. My parents, who were both scholarly and otherworldly, believed that the point of going to college was to get a well-rounded education. And since the youthful Ben loved nothing more than learning, loved learning practically anything, especially the liberal arts and natural sciences, and had a great aptitude for learning, it never occurred to me to doubt them. I was looking forward to soaking up knowledge the way a sponge looks forward to water. At least, until I started applying to schools and going for interviews.

Mind you, I had superb grades and SAT scores and had aced a number of high-level college courses at an excellent university while still in high school, as well as having participated in a number of extracurricular educational opportunities. I had always carried a packed course load of challenging courses. College applications? Piece of cake.

But cake wasn’t quite the substance our friend Ben encountered when I went to interview at one prestigious Southern school. “All our applicants have superb grades and SAT scores,” the interviewer informed me. “What matters to us is community service. What have you done for your community? Where have you volunteered? What’s your experience with politics?” Our friend Ben, a 17-year-old intellectual prodigy who lived in a Colonial home with highly educated parents far from any urban center (it took an hour for me to get to my high school in Nashville by bus), was struck utterly dumb. Community service? Volunteering? Politics? What did that have to do with education?!

Fortunately, not every school took this attitude, and our friend Ben was accepted in every other school to which I applied, ultimately attending four and amassing a number of advanced degrees. But the shock I experienced during that interview at Duke University was not lost on me or my family. As it happened, my younger brother was exactly four years behind me in school, just entering his high school years. Armed with the information I’d gained to my cost and chagrin, he got a very different education. He interned for one of our Senators. He was on his school’s debate team, went to an exclusive golf camp, and did everything he and our parents could devise to gain the broadest possible credentials. Four years later, he was accepted into every Ivy League college, and I’m happy to say has gone on to a most distinguished career.

Which brings me back to the question that troubled me during that long-ago interview, and that sickens me now: What does community service have to do with education? Well, nothing, obviously. Then why does it matter? Ah. It took our friend Ben far too many years to come to the answer to this question, and it’s an answer that I still find embittering. After my post-graduate degrees, I went into a rather specialized form of nonfiction publishing and found myself boosted up the corporate ladder despite myself. Once I reached the executive level, I belatedly came upon the answer to my question, and I felt like the most naive person on earth.

That’s because my parents’ focus on education and my own love of learning had prevented me from seeing universities as corporations which, like every corporation, exist to amass money and profits. Doh!!! If you’re a university corporation, what kind of applicants do you want? The scholarly types who actually want to go to college to be educated? Hell, no. You want the ones who have or are pretty certain to have connections, a social network, social prominence: The ones who’ll make a ton of money and give it to your school and who’ll make lots of prominent friends and influence them to do likewise. It’s all about money, folks, though socially prominent and/or newsworthy alums certainly don’t hurt, either.*

Well, maybe it’s not all about money. When some exceptional and exceptionally bright kids I know decided that they wanted to get into really good schools, our friend Ben went online and checked out the Ivy League schools’ SAT requirements. A perfect SAT score is now 2400 points. Harvard, in its infinite generosity, apparently will allow its applicants a whopping 30-point deviance from that perfect score. Yale’s less exacting—if memory serves, it has a 65-point tolerance. And so it goes.

Sometimes, perceptual bias can create even more outrageous situations. One of my former bosses—a natural blonde of Scandinavian heritage, with considerable intellectual ambitions—told me that when she went to interview at a prominent college in the Philadelphia area, she was told point blank that “we don’t want any blonde cheerleader types at this school.” One word on that: Grrrrr!

I don’t know about you, but our friend Ben thinks there are other things to consider than a SAT score or one’s future social prominence and net worth (or, say, one’s appearance). But there’s also the other side, and I think it’s just as bad: The perception that the only purpose of college is to prepare you for a very narrow, specialized field of employment.

Back in the day, the colleges that served this purpose were the vo-tech schools, vocational-technical, and they were unambiguous in their goal: You went there for two years to learn how to become an electrician or plumber or carpenter or mechanic or chef. These are specialized skills, and the whole focus of your education was to master them. These schools were (and hopefully still are) superb at what they do, preparing their students to succeed in their chosen field. But they don’t pretend to offer an academic education. Chaucer and Buffon or Beowulf and Roland aren’t exactly relevant when you’re trying to determine if a SUV will pass inspection or are in a field conducting a perk test.

Unfortunately, these days, a broad education doesn’t seem relevant in most colleges and universities. Even back when our friend Ben was in college, this shift was occurring: A friend of mine majored in history, and then, unable to find a better job, applied for a job as a bank teller. In her job interview, the interviewer stared at her resume, stared at her, and said, “A history major? Why did you even go to college?” Silence’s undergraduate degree is in French, with a specialty in 18th Century French literature. One of her French professors informed her that “There are two options for [one assumes female] French majors: teach or marry.” When our friend Ben applied to graduate school for an advanced degree in English/creative writing at a prestigious school, I was accepted but informed that “There are no jobs for English majors. You’re welcome to come and study, but don’t consider it a step towards employment.”

Then, of course, there’s the current cost of a college education. Our friend Ben and Silence have friends who are still paying off their college educations. We constantly read stats on the cost of raising a child, and the costs that boost the numbers into the hundreds of thousands of dollars are for college education. Our friend Rob, who teaches at a community college, tells us that community colleges are undergoing a renaissance for this very reason: They’re flexible and affordable. He says that 50% of U.S. college students now attend community colleges, and no wonder.  

So what is college for, anyway? Our friend Ben won’t even pretend to have the answer. I will say that the broad education I secured during my own undergraduate and graduate years has stood me in good stead my whole life, both personally and professionally. If I had to come up with an answer at gunpoint, I’d say that college helps prepare you to be an adult. It hones your social and life skills while enhancing your education and critical abilities. But is that, ultimately, enough? 

Our friend Ben feels for my friends’ kids currently applying and going through the educational process. And I look with interest to see what colleges will become in the future. Because one thing is certain: I’m sure their role will change.

* To be fair, universities and colleges could well point out that the purpose of amassing money in their cases is to endow chairs, fund scholarships, bring in top professors, and further the cause of education. But if the price of this is to turn away the very students whose primary goal is to become educated, I’d say something’s gone awry.

Two must-have seed catalogues. December 29, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, chickens, gardening, homesteading, recipes.
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The 2009 seed and nursery catalogues are turning up in the mailbox here at Hawk’s Haven. Hooray! Our friend Ben will take on nursery catalogues in another post, but here, I’d like to recommend two favorite seed catalogues that should definitely be showing up in your mailbox: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Wood Prairie Farm.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is one of the great success stories of our day. It all started with a dream (and a couple of cooperative parents). In 1998, 17-year-old Jeremiath (Jere) Gettle sent out 550 copies of a hand-printed seed catalogue that featured organically grown, open-pollinated heirloom seeds. He filled his seed orders from his bedroom.

Fast-forward to 2009: Jere (that’s “Jair,” not “Jerry”) prints 150,000 copies of a full-color, 124-page catalogue. It contains more than 1,200 heirloom varieties from 66 countries. And they’re all still organic and open-pollinated, which means that, if you want, you can save seed from them yourself and they’ll come true, unlike today’s hybrids. Jere takes a strong stand against genetically modified seeds and other atrocities like war throughout his catalogue. He even quotes our hero and blog mentor, old Ben Franklin!

Our friend Ben admires Jere. I love Baker Creek’s selection of heirloom vegetables, seed-grown fruits, herbs, and flowers. And dear to our friend Ben’s heart are the 20 kinds of heritage-breed chickens wandering the Baker Creek grounds (you can buy chicks in spring and summer).

I’m only giving you part of the Baker Creek picture here: Jere, who is trying to preserve the best of pioneer culture, has actually recreated a pioneer village called Bakersville on the Baker Creek property, and holds open houses and festivals there with old-time music, seed and plant sales, pioneer crafts, garden speakers, good food, and much more. And he publishes a quarterly magazine devoted to heirlooms, The Heirloom Gardener. But I’ll let you read about all that on the Baker Creek website, www.rareseeds.com, when you go there to check things out and order your catalogue!

(Note to Jere and Emilee: Silence Dogood, who’s reading over my shoulder, says that the one thing missing is a collection of recipes featuring heirloom veggies! She would of course like to see recipes in the catalogue itself, but if there’s no room, the website would be a good place to tuck them in.)

Lack of recipes isn’t an issue in the next catalogue I’d like to recommend: Wood Prairie Farm’s Maine Potato Catalog. Wood Prairie’s Jim and Megan Gerritsen not only feature recipes and cooking tips throughout their catalogue, they’ll send you their potato recipe booklet with every potato order. Like Baker Creek, Wood Prairie is adamantly organic, and Jim and Megan also seek out the widest variety of truly great potatoes and other products, along with their own line of organic veggie and herb seeds. Their seed selection is geared towards short-season growers, so all Northerners and Canadians, take notice! You’ll especially appreciate Wood Prairie’s seed potatoes and veggie and herb seed selections. But the potatoes are selected for every climate, including the South and Southwest, so everybody, read on. There’s much more for you to know!

Wood Prairie’s focus extends beyond organics, cold-climate gardening, and even potatoes. Their catalogue is small but mighty, filled with fantastic old-timey color illustrations (you’ll get a free selection of these as postcards when you order their potatoes). They offer delightful products and innovations in so many areas, our friend Ben hardly knows where to start. I guess the best place is with those potatoes.

Not all that many catalogues carry seed potatoes to begin with. (Gardeners don’t typically raise potatoes from actual seeds, but from small potatoes called seed potatoes. When you’re ready to plant, you cut each seed potato into chunks, with each chunk containing one or more “eyes,” or nubby sprouts, let the pieces dry out or cure for a couple of days, then plant them. You can plant very small seed potatoes whole.) You’re lucky to find a nice assortment and a little information about each variety (more properly cultivar, for “cultivated variety”).

In the Wood Prairie catalogue, you’ll find an amazing selection of the very best potatoes for early, midseason, and late growing. Each will be accompanied by a wonderful illustration and information on maturity, size of plant, color of skin and flesh, tuber shape, size of tubers (potatoes are technically tubers), tuber set, yield, flower color, disease tolerance, in-row spacing, ease of growing, and more. There are charts of potatoes by texture and how to use each variety for best flavor and texture; tips on organic potato growing; and delightful potato gardening collections, including the Organic Potato Blossom Special (did you know potato flowers could be colorful and fragrant?), Red, White and All-Blue Seed Potato Collection, and our friend Ben’s favorite, the Experimenter’s Special (four varieties, your choice).

Rather cook than garden? Wood Prairie offers a vast selection of organic potatoes for cooking, as well as a Maine Potato Sampler of the Month. You can order organic garlic, shallots, onions, beets, carrots, and/or parsnips, a selection of organic whole-grain bread mixes, whole grains (including wheat, oats, spelt, rye, and even flour or “dent” corn), cheeses, sprouting seeds, and even cover crops.

Check out Wood Prairie’s catalogue or website, www.woodprairie.com, for even more. Plus, first-time customers get $5 off their first order!

Our friend Ben thinks that every vegetable gardener should have copies of these catalogues in their hands this winter. They’re better than any movie for inspiring wonderful dreams, in this case of great gardens to come. Do you have vegetable catalogues and companies you feel especially passionate about? If so, please share them with us!

The dreaded black-eyed peas. December 28, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Did you grow up with the New Year’s tradition that eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Eve would bring good luck in the coming year? My mother was adamant on this point, and though she always made us a wonderful dinner on New Year’s Eve, at some point the dreaded black-eyed peas would make an appearance and we would all be forced to eat at least a spoonful. Yuck!!! How we hated them.

For years, I just assumed that black-eyed peas tasted horrible. But recently, I had a rush of brains to the head (in the immortal words of a friend’s mother) and wondered if the reason we hated the black-eyed peas was simply that my mother didn’t know how to cook them. This hadn’t occurred to me before because, in general, my mother was a wonderful cook. But thinking back on it, I realized that one thing she never cooked was dried beans, peas, lentils, and other legumes. The sole exceptions were the occasional pot of chili and that bowl of black-eyed peas.

In my own household, there’s almost always a pot of beans or lentils simmering on the stove. We love refried beans, black bean soup, vegetarian chili, lentil stew, dal, and the like, and eat them often.

So for this New Year’s, I’ve decided to give black-eyed peas another chance. Like lentils, they’re quick-cooking dried, but I discovered some canned black-eyed peas in the grocery and think I’ll try those before I buy a whole bag of dried black-eyed peas. And rather than just heat and serve them, I plan to make them into that iconic Southern dish, Hoppin’ John.

Hoppin’ John is a variant on that well-known and well-loved poor man’s dish, red beans and rice. We think red beans and rice with some hot-from-the-oven cornbread and a big, fresh salad is nothing short of delicious. Why wouldn’t Hoppin’ John be good, too?

Maybe you’d like to join me in my get-acquainted venture. I’ll give you three recipes to contemplate: one, a down-and-dirty basic Hoppin’ John from that priceless cookbook, White Trash Cooking by Ernest Matthew Mickler, and two other spiced-up versions that I think would be well worth trying. See what you think!

               Hoppin’ John

1 cup raw cowpeas [aka black-eyed peas—Silence]

4 cups water

2 teaspoons salt

1 cup raw rice [aka uncooked rice—Silence]

4 slices bacon fried with 1 medium onion, chopped

Boil peas in salted water until tender. Add peas and 1 cup of the pea liquid to rice, bacon (with grease) and onion. Put in rice steamer or double-boiler and cook for 1 hour or until rice is thoroughly done. [Note: 1 cup of rice in my rice cooker only takes about 1/2 hour to cook.—Silence] Black-eyed peas or canned peas will work if they’re already cooked.

Eeewww, no, this version may be traditional, but it doesn’t do much for me. Here’s a spicier version from Miss Daisy Celebrates Tennessee by Daisy King. (Miss Daisy’s Tea Room in Franklin, Tennessee was one of my favorite restaurants when I lived down there.) But, er, what happened to the rice?!

          Hot and Spicy Black-Eyed Peas

3 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled

1 medium onion, chopped

1/2 bell pepper, chopped

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon liquid smoke

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 17-ounce can black-eyed peas

1 16-ounce can whole tomatoes, undrained and chopped [Yikes—hard to chop undrained tomatoes! I think I’d buy a can of diced tomatoes if I were making this.—Silence]

about 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Assemble all ingredients and utensils. [Gee, a home economist must have written this.—Silence] Cook bacon until crisp. Remove bacon and saute onion and bell pepper; drain. Crumble bacon and reserve for later. In a saucepan, mix remaining ingredients and heat to boiling, then simmer for 20 minutes. Pour mixture into serving dish; sprinkle with bacon and parsley. Yield: 8 servings.

Nope, it’s still not doing it for me. But here’s one that’s worth playing with. It’s from The El Paso Chile Company’s Texas Border Cookbook and is called Hoppin’ Juan (priceless!). Mind you, I’d make a few changes. I’d cut way back on the chiles—probably using just one the first time I made it, then upping the ante if I thought it could use more heat—and add a big diced sweet onion along with the green onions and garlic. If I didn’t feel like I had time to char, steam, peel, stem, and seed the chile(s), I might come up with a jarred version, or simply substitute some hot sauce (like my beloved Pickapeppa). But this recipe certainly sounds promising! Note that it’s vegetarian- and vegan-friendly.

        Hoppin’ Juan

6 long green chiles

1 1/2 cups black-eyed peas, picked over and rinsed 

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup olive oil

3 green onions, trimmed and sliced (about 1/2 cup)

1 garlic clove, peeled and minced

1 teaspoon ground cumin

3/4 cup cooked white rice

In the open flame of a gas burner or under a preheated broiler, roast the long green chiles, turning them, until they are lightly but evenly charred. Steam the chiles in a paper bag, or in a bowl covered with a plate, until cool. Rub away the burned peel. Stem and seed the chiles and coarsely chop them.

In a medium saucepan, cover the black-eyed peas with cold water. Set over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook 10 minutes, stir in the salt, and cook another 10 to 12 minutes, or until just tender. Drain. (The peas can be cooked up to 1 day ahead. Refrigerate, covered.)

In a large skillet over low heat, warm the olive oil. Add the green onions, garlic, and cumin and cook, covered, stirring once or twice, for 4 minutes. Stir in the chiles and cook 2 minutes. Stir in the black-eyed peas and the rice and cook, covered, stirring once or twice, until heated through. Adjust seasonings and serve. Serves 6 to 8.

The authors point out that this also makes an easy salad if you stir in 2 or 3 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, cool to room temperature, and sprinkle with minced fresh cilantro just before serving.

Okay, your turn! What’s your favorite recipe for black-eyed peas? Do you eat them for luck on New Year’s Eve? Let us hear from you!

            ‘Til next time,


Belt-tightening in tough times. December 27, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben subscribes to Gary North’s free weekly e-newsletter (www.garynorth.com), which focuses on sound financial advice that applies to everyone, even such low-budget creatures as myself. A friend suggested it a few years ago, and I’ve really enjoyed it, especially when Dr. North’s advice ties in to what I’ve always done, such as buying used cars for cash and keeping them going as long as possible.

Today brought a new newsletter to my inbox, and I eagerly opened it to see what Dr. North had to say for himself. He recommended an article on www.lewrockwell.com by Karen De Coster called “Tolerating Spiders, Credit Cards, and Other Depression Survival Tactics.” We tolerate a lot of spiders here at Hawk’s Haven, since they provide free 24/7 pest control and we refuse to use toxic chemicals that will kill us as well as pests, so I accessed the article with great interest.

Much of what Ms. De Coster had to say was both interesting and sensible, and I recommend that you read her suggestions and put them into practice. But her opening comments aggravated our friend Ben to such an extent that I decided to write this post to rebut them. Here’s why:

Ms. De Coster opened her piece by saying that she was going to provide practical, real-life advice on budget control, not “silly, impractical” ideas like turning down the thermostat (she keeps hers set at 74 degrees F.) or riding your bike to work. Instead, she suggests spraying toxic chemicals all over your home yourself to control spiders instead of paying a pest-control service to do so, and buying an expensive espresso machine to make your own lattes in the morning so you can consider Starbucks an occasional treat rather than a daily necessity.

Well. Our friend Ben concludes that Ms. De Coster is still drawing a regular paycheck, and is trying to make the most of it. Nothing wrong with that! But for those of us who are scraping by as freelancers, who have been laid off, or who for whatever reason find ourselves trying to keep the financial wolf from the door, her suggestions are a bit otherworldly. After last year’s fuel oil bills, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have turned our thermostat to 60 degrees, and are still talking about dropping it into the 50s before we go to bed. Yes, it’s cold in the house. Our fleece vests, fleece-lined slippers, and fingerless gloves help keep us warm while we’re working at the computer, and Silence has been known to keep her fleece jacket on over the fleece vest and wear some legwarmers to boot.

We’ve put those sausagelike fabric draft excluders at every door, including some that you wouldn’t imagine, like the door from the mudroom into the house and the door from one closet that seems to draw cold air from outside. We’ve tacked up bubble-wrap “curtains” over windows and unused doors that tend to be drafty. We have thermal-lined curtains over our windows. We’ve managed to cut our fuel oil bill in half. If Ms. De Coster would like to subsidize our fuel bill, we would be very happy to turn our own thermostat to 74 degrees. Otherwise, perhaps she should consider our plight, and the plight of millions who are even worse off, before she dismisses turning down the thermostat as “silly and impractical.”

Ditto for biking to work or using public transportation or (gasp) walking. We certainly don’t advocate biking or walking in bad weather. But if you can, leaving the car at home and getting to work by bus or bike or foot makes a lot of sense to us. (As my grandfather famously remarked when my teenaged father requested a car, “Walking’s not crowded.”) We envy those of you who have access to public transportation or whose jobs are within biking or walking distance. Conserving our non-renewable resources and getting some exercise doesn’t strike our friend Ben as “silly and impractical.” 

As for that espresso machine that will save you so much money, here’s a thought: How about unearthing the coffee machine you got as a wedding present or with your first apartment, making coffee, and skipping the espressos or lattes? I really don’t think it would kill you.

Enough griping. Ms. De Coster has some really great advice about, for example, credit cards, something our friend Ben had never read before. Read her article and get everything you can from it.

Here’s another piece of advice I urge you to consider: One thing Silence and I have been doing for the past several years of belt-tightening is prioritizing. Every year, we take stock of our expenses and priorities, and decide what really matters to us. Ms. De Coster, for example, says that she’s stopped subscribing to magazines. Silence and I have cut back on our magazine subscriptions, but we each continue to subscribe to one magazine we love, and we request subscriptions to other favorite magazines as Christmas gifts. We’ve also cut back on our professional and personal memberships, but we have, for example, continued our membership at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, since we love going there and being members saves us a considerable amount of money in fees we’d otherwise incur over a year.

Two places where Silence and I could have practiced belt-tightening are to stop putting out birdseed for our wild birds and to stop using our greenhouse in the winter. But we love our bird visitors, who provide endless entertainment for us, and we love our plants, which would die because of low night temperatures if we stopped heating our greenhouse. (They’re fine during the day, since we’ve done everything possible to make the greenhouse a solar collector.) We can’t imagine not taking care of our tiny flock of six heirloom chickens, who give us an abundance of rich, organic eggs for much of the year, or our outdoor cats, drop-offs abandoned at our rural property who provide companionship and earn their keep many times over by keeping the rodent population under control.

On the other hand, we’ve dramatically changed our views towards groceries. We’re both native Southerners, and being Southern seems to include a genetic predisposition towards brand loyalty. So it’s been a struggle, but we’ve finally managed to free ourselves from most of our standard brands and buy what’s on sale, and store brands, instead. (We haven’t managed to abandon all our beloved brands, but we now look for sales on our faves—10 for $10 on Coke products, for example, as opposed to $1.89 per bottle, or great deals on Kleenex or our preferred cheeses.)

How about you? If you have some great budget-stretching ideas, we would really love to hear them. What a wonderful way to ring in the new year. Our blog mentor and hero, Ben Franklin, would approve!

Predictions: A Fun New Year’s Game December 27, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I like to make a huge fuss at Christmas, but our New Year’s celebration is pretty low-key. No parties, no drunkenness, no staying up ’til midnight and watching whatever-it-is on TV. But of course, we do have our traditions. I’d like to share one of our favorites with you all. It’s fun, and it’s free. You can’t beat that!

Over the years, we’ve developed a kind of eccentric New Year’s ritual. Every year, a group of friends comes from far and wide to our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, located in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. Now, most of you know that I love to cook, but for New Year’s Eve, we have a tradition of getting takeout Chinese food, which we all love and pretty much never get, given our rural location. OFB and I can’t even remember how this “Chinese New Year” concept got started, but given the whole fortune-cookie thing, it’s pretty appropriate.

That’s because, after dinner, we make predictions. We appoint a scribe from the group to take down everyone’s comments and attribute them to the right person. After giving him or her a pen and pad of paper, we get down to the serious business of seeing into the future, or at least the future of the coming year. We divide our predictions into categories: politics, fashion, food trends, religion, inventions, world events, science, medicine, personalities, and so on. We also speculate about what will happen for family members, friends, and, of course, each other.  (Our friend Ben invariably predicts that he’ll be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, but so far, so wrong.)

This is a lot of fun, and a lot of good-natured ribbing goes on as we each stick our necks out with our predictions. Anything goes, no matter how far-fetched or ludicrous, and it’s all duly written down and attributed. If you want to predict that Martians will send a diplomatic delegation to Earth in 2009, or that outraged Plutons will destroy our planet in revenge for their own home world’s having been demoted from planet status, well and good. If you choose to take the high road, and predict that a cure for cancer will be found in the Amazon rainforests, or that an ecological Messiah will arise to save our planet from devastation, go for it. If your thoughts are turned more towards predicting what will happen with Brangelina or Oprah, or suggesting a new reality TV show that will take the viewing public by storm, speak up. All’s fair in our New Year’s Predictions, even if you want to speculate about your sister-in-law’s latest romance or what kind of dog the Obamas will get or whether Paula Abdul is really going to leave “American Idol.”

But the fun is just beginning. The real fun starts when the previous year’s predictions are unveiled and read aloud to the group. Hopefully you, like us, will have convened the same group of predictors the following year, so everyone can see who successfully predicted the stock market drop and who (unfortunately) announced that this was the year that Camilla would leave Prince Charles, have a sex-change operation, and take up with Osama Bin Laden, or that Posh would elope with former President Clinton and Becks would move in with Padma Lakshmi.

I don’t know which is funnier, the ludicrous predictions that didn’t happen, or the rare and amazing incidents when somebody actually got it right. (I have to admit that OFB is the one who usually racks these up, and then, of course, becomes even more insufferable than usual. But more often than not, we’re all wrong, and our predictions are funnier and/or more plausible than what actually happened.) But I can say that a good time is had by all, and much laughter is shared along with the occasional genuine insight.

Laughter is healing, and what better time to share laughter, cameraderie, and good times than on the verge of a new year? Not to mention that you’ll be stunned by just how smart and insightful your friends and family really are. I urge you to adopt this tradition this New Year!

         ‘Til next time,


Ho, ho… oh, oh!!! December 26, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. For everyone who overindulged on Christmas, or who hopes to overindulge on New Year’s Eve, I have a few seasonal drink recipes to share, one of which claims to cure a hangover. They’re from a 1965 book by Suzanne Huntley called The Twelve Days of Christmas Cookbook.

The drinks do sound good, but they contain so much alcohol that I have no trouble seeing why the “cure” would be needed after a night of indulgence. Clearly our parents and/or grandparents had no hangups when it came to consuming mass quantities of alcohol. Anyone who thinks Jell-o shots are toxic should try one of these old-time favorites. You, too, will be saying “Ho, ho… oh!!!”

           Buttered Rum

“The delight of New England.” For each serving, place 2 ounces dark rum [we like Gosling Black Seal—Silence], a twist of lemon peel, and a stick of cinnamon in a tankard or mug. Fill with boiling cider or hard cider, add a thin pat of butter, and stir with the cinnamon stick until the butter has melted.

          Vermont Punch

“A mixture of 2 parts whiskey, 2 parts lemon juice, and 1 part maple syrup, served hot, makes a drink that is much better than it sounds.”

            Champagne Punch

2 quarts apple juice, chilled

2 fifths light rum

1 tablespoon Angostura bitters

2 quarts champagne, chilled

Mix all ingredients, pour over a large block of ice in a punch bowl, and serve. [2 quarts champagne?!! Yow.—Silence]

         Whiskey Punch

3 lemons

3 oranges

2 cups granulated sugar

3 cups hot, strong green tea

1 pint brandy

1 quart or more bourbon [!!!!!—Silence]

Grate the rinds of the lemons and oranges into a large bowl. Add the sugar, the juice from the lemons and oranges, and the tea. Let this stand for half an hour or so, then add the brandy and bourbon. Chill and strain out the citrus peel. Taste. It may need a little dilution with water. [You don’t say!—Silence] This punch will keep practically forever if it is bottled and tightly corked.

         Christmas Punch

1 quart cranberry juice

1 fifth Sauterne

1/2 pint brandy

1 lemon, thinly sliced, unpeeled

sugar to taste

1 quart carbonated water 

Mix the juice, wine, brandy, and lemon slices and let stand, covered, for a couple of hours. Now taste, and add sugar if needed. Add the carbonated water just before serving. An especially attractive way to serve this punch is to freeze a large, fancy mold of more cranberry juice and use this instead of plain ice.

Just reading these recipes may give you a hangover. But frankly, the name of the “cure” is enough to give me one! Aaarrgghh, what a nauseating name. Then there are the ingredients. Just give me aspirin, thank you. Nonetheless, the author swears that this recipe will “mitigate” three or four hangovers, so if you can face it, feel free to try it:

             Reindeer Milk

1/4 cup tomato catsup

1 heaping tablespoon onion, chopped

1/4 cup celery tops

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

2 cups clam juice

1 cup vodka 

Put the catsup, onion, celery tops and Worcestershire in a blender and puree. Add the clam juice gradually, with the motor running at low speed. Then add the vodka and blend for a second or two. Pour over ice in an Old Fashioned glass and garnish with a lemon wedge.

Eeewww, if that’s not enough to make a teetotaler out of anybody, I don’t know what is. But hmmm, that Christmas punch doesn’t sound all bad…

          ‘Til next time,


The princess and the pea revisited. December 26, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend and fellow blog contributor, Richard Saunders, wants to do a series of January posts focusing on the Founding Fathers. But while it’s still December, I’d like to do some fairy-tale bashing. “The Princess and the Pea” springs to mind.

All of you probably recall the story: A prince decides to search for a bride. But of course, not just any bride will do. It has to be a delicate, sensitive bride, a true “lady”. So he hides a dried pea under about a thousand feather beds (the feather-stuffed mattresses, about twice the thickness of today’s comforters, that were in vogue at the time), then invites all the princess-wannabes in the kingdom to come take a shot at measuring up to his exacting standards. As you can already see, this would have made a great reality TV show. (“Who Wants to Be a Princess?”)

Contenders come from far and wide. Many are lovely and accomplished, but all fail the ultimate test: When shown to their room for the night, they fail to perceive that pea under the 50th mattress, and enjoy a good night’s sleep. As a result, they’re unceremoniously booted out. Finally, a young girl arrives who is so extremely sensitive that, after a night on the pea-infested bed, she not only has been unable to sleep a wink but is bruised all over from the hateful pea lurking under the mattresses. The ecstatic prince marries her and they live happily ever after.

What a moron! Clearly his inbred line was due for a Darwin Award any second. How do I know? Because I, Silence Dogood, would also have been selected by the prince as his lovely bride. My skin is so sensitive that it will bruise if someone looks at it. I long ago abandoned any thought of trying to recall how a given bruise or cut appeared on my skin, since otherwise I’d have to spend 24 hours a day pondering it, and I really have better things to do. Believe me, sensitivity is overrated. It’s pointless, painful, and stupid.

What could the prince have been thinking? Did he want to display his future queen to the court with bruises all up and down her arms? How attractive! Did he want to spend his private time being subjected to a barrage of complaints about how this hurt and that hurt? How this sheet abraded her skin, this sweater rubbed her raw, this soap made her bleed? Good grief!

Surely he’d have been better off with some nice, smart girl who could have helped him run the kingdom (clearly, he could have used some help) rather than a porcelain idol. Someone who could have been helpful rather than helpless. (Not that I, Silence, am helpless, as our friend Ben can attest! But to make physical sensitivity a criterion, much less the sole criterion, is unbelievable.)

I don’t know about you, but I would love to drop in on our hero about 10 years down the road. I can just imagine a household much like the Bennets’ in Jane Austen’s immortal Pride and Prejudice, where Mr. Bennet has to spend pretty much all his time trying to block out Mrs. Bennet’s interminable complaints. Mr. Bennet  is portrayed as a very smart, educated man with a priceless sense of humor. I can’t help but wonder how the plot would have developed had he married a woman who was his equal. Instead, we have a deathless portrait of the IQ-deprived Mrs. Bennet: “Nobody knows how I suffer! You have no compassion on my poor nerves!” I hope that stupid prince, wherever he may be, is hearing that 24/7.

           ‘Til next time,


Take Joy! Fra Giovanni’s Christmas Prayer December 25, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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In 1513, Fra Giovanni wrote a letter—what we’d now consider a Christmas card—to a friend and patron, containing a Christmas prayer. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood first encountered it in a wonderful book about Tasha Tudor, Forever Christmas, because Tasha loved this letter and read it aloud to her loved ones every Christmas. The wisdom, the joy, and the attitude towards life that it expressed shaped her life.

Prayers contain power, and we agree that this prayer has the power to change lives. We cannot think of a better Christmas gift for our families, for our friends, for all of you. So on this blessed Christmas day, those of us here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders, would like to share this gift with you. Bright blessings to you all, today and all through the year!

          Fra Giovanni’s Christmas Prayer

I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much that, while I cannot give, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in the present moment. Take Peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach is joy. Take Joy!

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

A Colonial touch for Christmas. December 24, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Richard Saunders, our friend and fellow blog contributor, asked me to see what I could find by way of Colonial Christmas recipes. (I think he may be trying to work up his nerve to actually cook something from his favorite historical era for his girlfriend, Bridget. Good luck, guy!)

Fortunately, Richard came to the right place. Even a fraction of my historical cookbook collection—The Early American Cookbook, Favorite Meals from Williamsburg, The Williamsburg Cookbook, The Tasha Tudor Cookbook, Thomas Jefferson’s Cook Book, and Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery—should give him (and you) plenty to work with.

But let’s start with the basics. How a family celebrated Christmas in the Colonies depended both on their home Colony and their financial circumstances. There were no Christmas trees, Christmas ornaments, or Christmas cards in any Colony, and (gasp) no Santa Claus or good St. Nick, either—all those arrived with the Victorian era and the influx of immigrants from Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, and Finland, with their marvelous Christmas traditions.

But even without these iconic elements of our own Christmas celebrations, Christmas in the Colonies certainly wasn’t dull. Carols, wassailing, decorating the home for Christmas, exchanging gifts, and enjoying a (more or less) opulent Christmas feast were hallmarks of a Colonial Christmas. Turkey and (in the South) ham graced Colonial tables, as they do ours, though the ham would have been smoked in the family smokehouse and the turkey would have been roasted before the open fire in the great kitchen fireplace in an elaborate footed enclosure called a “tin kitchen,” aka reflector oven.

With no grocery stores and no year-round availability of fresh food, Christmas was naturally more opulent in the South than in, say, New England. So let’s begin our investigation of Colonial Christmas recipes in the Colonial Capital, Williamsburg, Virginia. Williamsburg is renowned to this day for its elaborate fruit decorations featuring apples and pineapples (the symbol of hospitality in Colonial times) accented with magnolia leaves and boxwood sprays. Williamsburg’s taverns and inns were also, and remain to this day, renowned for good food and drink. Did someone say “drink”?! 

      Williamsburg Wassail

The word “wassail” is from the ancient Saxon toast, “wass hael,” “be whole” or “be well.” A great wish to extend to your guests as you kick off Christmas dinner!

1 cup sugar

4 cinnamon sticks

lemon slices

2 cups pineapple juice

2 cups orange juice

6 cups claret

1/2 cup lemon juice

1 cup dry sherry

Boil sugar, cinnamon sticks, and 3 lemon slices in 1/2 cup water and strain, reserving syrup. Heat but do not boil remaining ingredients. Combine with syrup, garnish with additional lemon slices, and serve hot. Makes 20 servings.

       Williamsburg Chicken and Ham Bake

Wondering what to do with those Christmas leftovers? Try this!

1/2 cup butter, divided

2 cups dry bread cubes

1/2 cup chopped onions

1/3 cup unsifted all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups light cream

1 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon rubbed sage

2 cups cubed cooked ham

3 cups cubed cooked chicken

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a saucepan; toss in bread cubes. Set aside. In a large saucepan, melt remaining butter. Add onion and saute until tender. Stir in flour and salt and cook 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in cream and milk. Add sage. Cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a full boil. Remove from heat and stir in ham and chicken. Pour mixture into 12 x 7 1/2 x 2-inch baking dish. Top with bread cubes. Bake about 25 minutes, or until mixture is bubbling and bread cubes are browned. Makes 6-8 servings. 

What would Thomas Jefferson have served on his Christmas table? Being a renowned gourmet, he might have honored his guests by serving a newfangled recipe that was one of his favorite dishes, macaroni and cheese. Unlike Mr. Jefferson, we moderns don’t have to make our own macaroni and then break up the pasta into suitable pieces. We can just start with a box of elbows and take it from there!

            Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Mac’n’Cheese

Boil 2 cups of macaroni in salted water until tender. Grate 1/4 pound of cheese and mix with the same amount of butter. Stir into macaroni and bake in a moderate oven until the cheese is thoroughly melted.

Tasha Tudor, though hardly Colonial, had Colonial roots, the best—her great-great-grandfather, Colonel William Tudor, was a close friend of George Washington and General Lafayette. For a very different kind of gingerbread, try her grandmother’s cherished family recipe. I have a feeling old Ben Franklin would have enjoyed these crisp-edged, soft-centered gingerbreads!

        Tudor Family Gingerbread

Tasha notes that this gingerbread, “like cornbread, is best cooked in an old-fashioned cast iron pan. It is soft, with crisp edges… It is especially good split and buttered for tea or breakfast.”

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup sugar

1 egg, beaten

1 cup light molasses

2 1/2 cups unbleached flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger

1/2 teaspoon cloves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup hot water

1 1/2 cups dark raisins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease 2 iron cornbread pans (12 pieces each) or, if you do not have cornbread pans, 2 9 x 9-inch square cake tins. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the egg and the molasses, then sift in the dry ingredients and mix the batter well. Add the hot water and beat until smooth. Stir in the raisins. Fill the prepared tins or pans half full, place them in the preheated oven, and bake the gingerbread 25 to 30 minutes, until done. Makes 24 servings.  

I hope something from this assortment tempts you to try your hand at a Colonial dish this Christmas season!

         ‘Til next time,