Thursday, February 17, 2011

Supplying the Urban Village

Photo courtesy Flickr

In some ways, this post contradicts Monday’s suggestion to buy in bulk. Procurement is always an improvisation.

The supermarket evolved as a glorious celebration of Fifties’ prosperity. One of the selling points for the personal automobile was that it enabled the housekeeper to drive from store to store in search of bargains. The cost of acquisition was not mentioned.

A good friend raised her family on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, just below the park. When it was time to cook dinner, she would send one of her children to Speedy’s. Bonnie mentioned that prices were higher but the convenience worth it. She was no slouch at the stove, could afford any circumstance she fancied, and I never saw her waste one thing, edible or otherwise. Since we are close to several grocery outlets, I set up a debit card for my son to use for shopping when he was old enough to make the runs.

Merchandising in a dense neighborhood is a different game from a big box suburban operation, and I’m barely qualified to comment. At the turn of the twentieth century in New York City, pushcart vendors hawked tiny quantities to immigrant housekeepers lacking sufficient means, space, or safe food storage to buy more than, say, one egg at a time. Since discarding the family car fifteen years ago out of disgust with Seattle traffic, among other motivators, I have gradually altered my buying habits to take advantage of the dense and clever inventories that stand between the house and the gym where I work out.

The stores are small outlets of big chains, the shelves stocked with especially small containers of staples like laundry detergent and toiletries. I ignored places like this until the nest emptied, when I realized that frankly low-income merchandising with a high cost per unit suited my new life very well.

It’s elegant, gratifying, and convenient to store and handle a small container, and a small matter to refill it from a gallon of something from the big box chain where I shop once or twice a year via a taxi. Commercial containers allow any visitor to pitch into housekeeping without my having to explain what’s where and what’s in it. In the spirit of just in time supply, I let the neighborhood merchants clean, organize, and secure shelves stocked with things I use now and then and enjoy every precious cubic inch of the house for life and work rather than as a stockroom for maybe someday items.

The danger in this system is that it rewards instant gratification rather than planning, but working back and forth with a warehouse store and a food co-op’s organic dry staples gives me what I need to put good food on the table at a good price and keep the house trim for peanuts.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"We Stayed Home"

Photo courtesy Flickr

Shortly after we bought our first little house, my partner and I joined a family Fourth of July bash on Puget Sound waterfront. In my limited experience, it is Western Washington households of means that live without electricity, because they are able to maintain rustic retreats.

By the time I was hanging around Aunt Edie’s stove catching up, I had had nearly a year of living without power on various pieces of rural property, and, seeing the sad iron she used as a doorstop, I recalled the original cabin next door. It had been low-tech (and low-tax) during the Fifties. I mentioned that I had found living without electricity in many ways to be easier and more relaxing than working with the shorter cycles of powered appliances. The ranking matron of the family drew herself up, snorted, and agreed, but she added, “That’s because we stayed home.”

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Junk Drawer

Photo courtesy Flickr

I might better say junk dresser, but “I Hate Dressers” is one of Deft’s most popular posts.

Across the street from a popular Ballard club sits a venerable machine shop. In a well-settled one-story Victorian brick building, the interior is daylighted by a wall of windows. The staff has placed a row of theater seats facing the sidewalk. Below a hand-lettered sign that communicates menacing information about security measures sits, at least sat the last time I looked, a skateboard with a miniature jet engine on it, a pure anthem of efficiency and competence.

Moving the top of the line rolling tool cabinet from the basement to a corner of the kitchen is the smartest move I’ve made in years, if ever. A recent post describes how having a non-toxic shop setup in the kitchen has cut the turnaround time on projects from months to minutes.

When I wrote that post, the change was fresh. A couple of months’ experience has proved that combining the tool cabinet with an epoxy-coated wire storage rack to hold freight has improved domestic production by a power of ten. Merchants use the term “shelf velocity” to measure turnover in their stock. I can barely measure turnover now, because chores are finished almost before they’re identified.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, February 14, 2011

As If: Housekeeping for Suez

Photo courtesy Flickr

Eighteen days of all-Cairo-all-the-time broadcast news bring to mind the Suez crisis, which I am only barely able to comprehend, and the Oil Crunch of 1973. Coupled with the failure of the Russian wheat crop, Seventies grocery shelves were stripped of such basics as raisins and spaghetti, and meat prices went through the roof.

Without being alarmist, it seems prudent now, as it always has been, to assemble a good store of basics in the pantry. I grew up foraging in my grandmother’s metal cupboard, nudging aside canned soup, fish, dry staples, oil, hardtack, and the odd bottle of capers or olives in search of nuts and chocolate chips. She had been born in a log cabin, and even in her fifties, the local power supply often failed when a tree fell onto a line, so she never lost the habit of replacing stores that kept without electricity.

I lived in Utah for most of a year during the late Sixties. Just before that move, I had run across a piece of historical fiction describing the terrible hardships the early settlers had faced. That background electrified my appreciation of the food storage customs of the Latter Day Saints.

At the time, the pious didn’t socialize with “gentiles”, and it took me an embarrassing number of months to realize why my landlady consistently refused my invitations to coffee. However, I got to know a frisky gang of cousins, and one of their circle shared his mother’s ways with barrels of wheat.

A few years later, back in Seattle, a friend who ran a restaurant in a remote town in north central Washington took my partner along on her semi-annual run for deli staples. He came home with a double armload of choice oils, cheeses, and pasta, transformed the broom closet into a pantry, and hooked me for life on buying in bulk.

So, that’s the pitch. There’s always room for at least a couple of months’ reserves, and if you keep them on hand, you’ll reduce stress, cushion the household economy, bolster homeland security, and be ready to entertain on short notice.

The first Great Big Discount Warehouse store opened in response to the severe inflation that followed the Oil Shock of 1973. It frankly supported buying in bulk, offering only commercial quantities. At the time, a case of tuna, say, guaranteed a no-risk thirteen percent on its price. Even when interest rates are low, the peace of mind and convenience of having staples on the shelf is worth the investment. The payoff is physical and emotional ease, which I would account as labor and medical advantages.

A minimal garden of parsley, onion or shallot shoots, and perhaps a few greens will round out most traditional recipes for dry stores if you also keep carrots in the refrigerator. These few plants are the easiest to grow, the fastest to decay, and save the most money, a trifecta by anyone’s account. Vegan bouillon cubes supply celery and pepper flavors, and an electronic pressure cooker from the Great Big Warehouse operation now costs less than a third of the first one I bought several years ago.

James Talmage Stevens’ Making the Best of Basics is a concise and rational guide to food storage and emergency planning. The short version is buy what you use and use what you buy. The rest is details.

Just start. Buy two of what you usually buy every time you shop until you have two in reserve. When you tap a reserve, replace the replacement. Stevens has useful charts for buying and storing a year’s worth of family supplies, and somewhere in the book, I recall, he mentions how useful a year’s stock can be in cushioning job loss or as a wedding gift.

The Great Big Northern European furnishings chain sells tin shoeboxes that I find just right for keeping the working rotation of dried fruit, nuts, grains, and legumes front and center on the pantry shelves. Metal containers are important for fending off rodents, and plastic for keeping out bugs. A plastic bag inside a metal case is a practical combination.

Whatever size your inventory, always transfer dry stores to glass, plastic, or metal containers to keep pests under control. If they never find a snack, they’ll stay away. (One Christmas I sent my niece a bear-proof container from the Great Big Hiking Co-op to use as a cookie jar. She had three children under six, and I thought it would be fun to see how long it took for one of them to crack the vault.)

Properly housed, even a small reserve is valuable, and if we’re fortunate, we will continue to say grace over a meal with confidence rather than relief.

-30- More after the jump.