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Fortune smiles. February 16, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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2 comments

Silence Dogood here. Something so amazing happened to me today that I had to share it with all of you. First, a little background: I love walking. I love walking outside, and I love walking on a treadmill. But since I’ve been working from home, where there’s no safe place to walk, and I can no longer afford a gym membership, walking has become one of those things I think about more often than do. Owning a treadmill has become a years-long-now fantasy.

Obviously, if I can’t afford a gym membership, I can’t afford a treadmill. Not even a used one. And as our friend Ben is constantly reminding me, our little cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, has no room for a treadmill anyway. But the day never passes that I don’t look around and think, “But what if… ?”

Today, I went out to run errands in the quaint little town of Kutztown, where a new thrift store has recently opened. I stopped by to drop off a few items, and figured that, as long as I was there, I might as well look around. And looking around, I saw it: a treadmill. A small treadmill. A small electric treadmill whose incline cylinder needed to be replaced, but was otherwise working perfectly. A small electric treadmill that cost $35.

I stared at the treadmill. I sidled closer. I stepped up onto the platform, held onto the handlebars to make sure they were sturdy and comfortable, took a close look at the controls to make sure there was a manual-adjust feature. I may be the only person on earth who never, ever used the incline feature on a treadmill, not even on the high-end treadmills at the gym. I’d just get on, set the speed for 4 miles an hour, and walk the 4 miles. That’s all I want any treadmill to do for me, let me walk those 4 miles an hour every day.

Shock surprise, I bought it. I came home and called in a favor from our friend Rudy, the only person I know who both lives reasonably close by and owns a truck. He also, like OFB, is strong and well over 6 feet tall. I was not looking forward to the concept of trying to drag the treadmill from the car into our house with my end supported by my mighty 5’5″ frame while OFB’s was hoisted at 6’4″. Instead, I figured I’d dragoon the guys into doing the heavy lifting while I made a delicious dinner as a reward. 

Mind you, poor Ben is still completely unaware of this acquisition, and there’s bound to be a lot of moaning and gnashing of teeth when he gets home tonight and finds out about it. But in a few months, when he sees what it’s done for my figure and how many lovely but forgotten outfits I can now bring out of the closet and put on, I have a feeling that the criticisms will cease.

And meanwhile, today and every day, I’ll be so grateful to the generosity of a world that could drop a small, perfect-for-me treadmill at my feet when I’d so desperately longed for one, and ask for $35 in return.

               ‘Til next time,

                             Silence

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The collectors’ graveyard. October 26, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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5 comments

Silence Dogood here. Usually, I love going to thrift stores—Goodwill, Salvation Army, and the like. To me, it’s like going on a treasure hunt: You just never know what you’ll find, and often, your treasure costs 48 cents. Even when I’m feeling financially strapped, I can convince myself that it’s okay to spend 48 cents on a new kitchen gadget or a basket for my shells or an attractive picture frame or a colorful multi-strand bead bracelet for my little niece.

Last time our friend Ben and I visited our local Goodwill, we saw two matching sofas that were not just in great shape, they were actually great-looking. The fullsize sofa cost $25; its matching loveseat, $20. We stopped in to the nearby Big Lots after that to look (in vain) for a floor lamp for Ben, and saw that their hideous sofas cost closer to $300. And that’s still a bargain compared to going into a furniture store or buying a sofa through a catalogue, when prices tend to start (if you’re lucky) at double that figure. Good luck finding sofas that look as good as the ones we saw at Goodwill at any price! I was practically in tears when we left the store, but no, we didn’t need any sofas and we didn’t buy any.

One thing we do need on a regular basis is clothes, and thrift stores are a great place to buy them, as long as you’re more concerned about fit and attractiveness than current fashion. Over the years, I’ve bought skirts, tops, tee-shirts, purses, and winter jackets for pennies on the dollar. I’ve found fun tie-dyed tee-shirts, which our friend Ben and I both love, for less than a dollar, and many of Ben’s beloved Hawai’ian shirts (he insists on pure cotton, no rayon) have gotten a second life when we rescued them from the thrift-store racks. Ever since I read that, even if no new shirts were ever manufactured again, there would be enough shirts to clothe all humanity until the end of time, I vowed to buy as many of our clothes second-hand as I possibly could. Why add to the merchandising glut?

So yes, usually I find shopping at a thrift store fun and relaxing. And I especially enjoy it when I also have a bag of things to drop off before I shop. De-cluttering and shopping, all at the same convenient location. Life is good!

But my last trip to our local Goodwill made me sad. That was because I saw three different collections offered for sale. They were all cheap trinkets—miniature mugs with travel destinations emblazened on them, porcelain thimbles, miniature animal figurines. None would have cost their owner much to collect, but it was very obvious that all had been lovingly accumulated and cherished over a lifetime. Now, here they were at Goodwill.

Somehow, I couldn’t convince myself that the owner of these lovingly accumulated assemblages of junk had decided to unload them and move on. No, the collections spoke of loving, attentive accumulation, someone whose desire to commemorate her life was greater than her taste or bank account. I could only, sadly, conclude that the previous owner of these so-called collectibles was now either in assisted living, in a nursing home, or no longer here at all. I could see why her children or heirs wouldn’t want to hang on to Ma’s collections. In fact, I’m sure they couldn’t wait to get rid of them. So here they were, languishing on the Goodwill shelves, where nobody seemed to be rushing to snap them up, either.

This smote me to the heart. It was all I could do to keep from bursting into tears, staring at those piles of pointless trinkets. Someone’s life story was lying before me on a cluttered thrift-store shelf. Someone had spent years commemorating every trip, every triumph, with these trinkets, only to have her life put up for sale to the lowest bidder. 

Our friend Ben and I are also collectors. We collect everything from Pueblo pottery and cookbooks to rocks, shells, and fossils. No, we don’t think our collections will someday grace a thrift shop’s shelves. But we wonder what will become of them. And we wonder what became of the collector of mini-mugs, ceramic thimbles, and tiny animal figurines. In heaven, on earth, we wish her well.

       ‘Til next time,

              Silence

Come and get it: cornbread and black bean soup April 4, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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5 comments

Silence Dogood here, ready to spill the beans (so to speak) on a couple of favorite recipes. Our friend Ben asked me to share my treasured family recipe for cornbread after writing yesterday’s post, “Ben Picks Ten: Southern comfort foods.” We absolutely love this cornbread, and so does everyone we’ve ever fed it to. In fact, you simply can’t stop eating it, which is actually a good thing, because here’s a fact about cornbread: Like biscuits, it just doesn’t keep. Hot biscuits or cornbread right from the oven are as good as food gets, but even by the next meal, it’s all over. Talk about a case where you’d better “get it while it’s hot!”

Now, our friend Ben and I are Luddites (which is not some kind of obscure religious sect, it just means we try to live simply and avoid unnecessary technology; see one of our early posts, “What is a Luddite, anyway?” for more on this). So we don’t have a microwave oven. If you do, you might experiment with reheating cornbread and biscuits in that to see if it restores them to luscious, light, and moist rather than hard and dry, or whether it just makes them gummy. Please let us know!

Good cornbread is a thing of beauty: crusty and crunchy on the sides and bottom, warmly golden on top, and tender and succulent inside. To get it to this state of perfection, I’m sure you’ve heard again and again that you need to use a seasoned cast-iron skillet. And it’s true that a cast-iron skillet will do a great job, but our friend Ben and I aren’t fond of the slight iron flavor that it imparts to the cornbread, and are still less fond of the work it takes to maintain cast iron. (Rust never sleeps.) Besides, it’s just not true that the only way to get cornbread this good is to bake it in cast iron. I’m here to tell you that glass works just as well.

Being a big fan of thrift-store shopping, I’ve found marvelous old glassware in my local Goodwill and Salvation Army stores. These old Corning, Pyrex, and Anchor Hocking classics are made of thick glass, they’re deep, and they tend to have big “ears” on the sides for easy lifting from a hot oven without fear of the dish dropping out of one’s clumsy mitts. And you can almost always find them for less than two dollars. Check it out! Some have beautiful crimped edges, too, and some are tinted glass—I have one that’s a lovely, very subtle light blue.

I use the 8-inch cake pan size for cornbread, rather than a 9-inch pie plate, because I think the depth of the 8-inch pan (pie plates tend to be shallower) makes a better cornbread. I also think the thickness of the older glass pans helps to form that wonderful crust. But the other secret to a crusty cornbread in a glass pan is to melt the butter for the recipe right in the pan, give it a good swirl all around before you pour it into the batter, and leave a generous amount in the pan. Of course, the super-hot oven helps, too.

Now, all this may make cornbread-making sound arcane, but it couldn’t be simpler or faster. You can throw it together and have it in the oven faster than you can read this post. I’m serious! So let’s stop talking and start cooking.

                  Dogood Family Cornbread

1 1/2 cups white cornmeal

3 tablespoons flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 egg, beaten

3 tablespoons salted butter

heaping 1/2 cup sour cream

1 cup milk

Melt butter in a deep 8-inch glass cake pan or 9-inch-square glass baking pan or cast-iron skillet in a preheated 425-degree F oven. Combine cornmeal, flour, and baking powder in a large bowl. Add milk, egg, sour cream, and melted butter to the combined dry ingredients and stir vigorously to mix. Pour batter into the hot pan or skillet and bake at 425 degrees F for 20-25 minutes. Serve hot with butter (salted, please) and enjoy!

Cornbread hot from the oven is good anytime. We like it with a fresh green salad and a wedge of aged Cheddar as a simple but satisfying lunch. But one of our favorite ways to eat it is with a steaming bowl of black bean soup for dinner, so I’m going to pass that recipe along to you as well. Try them together and see for yourself!

When you read the black bean soup recipe, you’ll notice that the ingredients are flexible. This is soup, not science, people, and this particular soup is very forgiving. I’ve made it every which way and it’s always good. The main difference is in the color of the soup: If you add two cans of beans and a lot of tomato juice, sauce, or what have you, the soup will be a beautiful deep terracotta color; if you add three cans of beans and cut back on the tomato juice, sauce, etc., it will be a rich dark brown. Both look and taste great! (And yes, we do use canned beans. If you soak your own dried beans, make sure you cook them until they’re good and soft before you start making this recipe.)

                Silence’s Super Black Bean Soup    

 2 or 3 cans black beans

1 large bottle tomato juice or 1 large can tomato sauce or 1 large can crushed tomatoes

1 large box vegetable stock, or homemade 

2 large or 4 medium sweet onions, diced (‘WallaWalla’ or ‘Vidalia’ type)

1 large green pepper, diced

1 large or several small fresh tomatoes, diced (optional)

3 cloves garlic, minced

chopped fresh cilantro to taste, if desired; reserve some for garnish 

1 heaping tablespoon black mustardseeds

1 heaping tablespoon cumin seeds

1 heaping tablespoon dried oregano (I try to use Greek or Mexican oregano)

1 heaping teaspoon salt (we like Real Salt)

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

juice of one lemon or 1/4 cup bottled lemon juice

extra-virgin olive oil

sour cream

Pour a generous amount of  olive oil in the bottom of a large, heavy Dutch oven or soup pot. Add salt, black mustardseed, cumin, and oregano and saute in oil. Add onion and garlic and saute until clarified. Add green pepper, fresh tomato (if using), cilantro (if using), and hot sauce. If veggies start to dry out, add vegetable stock as needed to prevent burning.

Once the veggies are nicely cooked, add black beans and either half a large bottle of tomato juice or a large can of crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce (all work fine). Continue to cook, adding more tomato juice or veggie stock as needed. After about 15 minutes, take a potato masher and mash the black beans. You don’t have to mash them all, the idea is simply to make a rich, thick soup.

Stir well after mashing and continue cooking, adding a little veggie stock or tomato juice as needed, until the soup has reached the consistency of an incredibly thick, delicious pasta sauce. You want it to be very thick on the spoon, not runny at all, but not as condensed as good refried beans, either. When the soup is thick enough, pour a ring of lemon juice around the top and stir briefly to combine. Serve with a generous dollop of sour cream on the top of each bowlful, and a spray of fresh cilantro if available. Yum!!!