Friday, April 8, 2011

Forty-five Caliber Lipstick

Photo courtesy Flickr

There’s a new clothing store at the main crossroads downtown, named after a neighborhood in London. I’d haunt the place if I were a size smaller, because they do amazing things with my favorite fabric, black woven nylon. In the windows of the new store are floor to ceiling screens composed of stacks of old sewing machines, which are irresistible pieces of period sculpture, gold pin stripes, and vintage cord. The whole effect is Goth.

It’s good to salvage and preserve tools, even for no reason at all. Cruising Flickr last week for an illustration, I ran across a photo of the kind of sewing machine featured downtown and spent a few minutes studying the caption.

There is unsuspected depth in retailing, and the back story of the sewing machine factory reminds me of my mother’s comment that cosmetics factories converted to producing ammunition after Pearl Harbor. A building that turned out tools for domestic labor also produced the legendary Norden bomb sight. I’m a peace-loving kid, but I’ve seen my share of harbor mines and twisted amphibious landing grates on local beaches, so preparedness is a little more than an interesting idea.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Nitty Gritty

Photo courtesy Flickr

Whipping through Friday's Email, I skimmed something I ran across on or in the McArthur Foundation’s newsletter, an unfailing source of hope. I didn’t take the time to research the source of the following questions, but they’re so basic and obvious it hardly matters who is asking them.

A man named Kevin Starr directs a foundation called Mulago that looks for the best solutions to the biggest problems in the poorest countries. I have consistently found that third-world solutions to life support save me time and attention, improve health, and generate capital, so I intend to interrogate my own bright ideas, as some designers say, with the following questions:

Is it needed?
Does it work?

Will it get to those who need it?
Will they use it correctly when they get it?

Most of the content of this blog addresses the first two questions.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr

I happened to drop in at a simple beach cabin owned by a family that could well afford to furnish it any way they chose. The father had served in the Navy during World War Two, and he kept a sailboat.

The cabin’s kitchen was both ordinary and illuminating. The property had no electricity, and the wood stove was a tiny, cast-iron marine model set on a used brick base with room below to store firewood the size and shape of candy bars. The stove pipe, four or six inches in diameter, had a long enough rise to salvage most of the waste heat from cooking.

A little marine stove is small enough to shift from house to hold or trunk of car when moving on. The stove had the same appeal as a small poodle, and I mentally filed it away as a truly Neat Thing. Later, a new friend told me about living on a sailboat in Seattle’s Union Bay. She did all her cooking on a similar stove fueled by cookie-sized sections of Insta-Log.

I made noises about midget stoves to the in-house archaeologist a few years ago, and that very day he came home from the local thrift shop puffing under the weight of a $3 treasure, a “Skippy” model about eighteen inches wide by ten inches deep by fifteen inches high, including legs. There’s a safety rail around the top, a feature that should be present on every cooker. Steel wool and old-fashioned stove blacking brought the stove to life, and I use it several times a week year round.

At first, I just set the stove on a small terrace by the back door and grilled over fires fueled by small wood from the garden. A few times, I have built roaring fires and boiled kettles of soup outdoors-cooking for twenty is trivial. It’s pleasant and entertaining to mosey around the stove putting breakfast together on a summer’s urban morning. A rectangular cast-iron French griddle/grill surface just covers the top.

After the first warm season, I realized I could bring the stove indoors and use it as a chafing dish. Simple tea lights hold food warm, too. Between solid alcohol and stearine, I don’t have to think about installing a chimney for indoor cooking. The stove body has enough mass to hold heat and take the chill off a January kitchen. It’s deeply soothing to focus a meal on a genuine fire. The legs of the stove are long enough for safety, although I usually set it on a metal surface for an extra margin of security.

Recently a long-established Japanese retailer in the U District stocked a version of a midget wood stove produced by an American outfit that’s been selling cast-iron frying pans forever. It’s a decently priced portable cast-iron grill, low-slung and rectangular, with a grid that covers the full surface, and a convenient bale handle. It’s about eighteen inches wide by eight or ten inches long by four or five inches deep. I was surprised to find it on a shelf surrounded by bamboo steamers and mama-san utensils, until I realized that it was a competitive new version of the traditional Japanese hibachi, or “stove”, as we say. I speculate that grill will work just as well as my rare thrift find. A rectangular griddle will convert the surface to a traditional stove top instanter.

On a lark, I Googled cast-iron marine stoves and stumbled across the stove of my dreams. An outfit in the San Juan Islands manufactures a tiny, elegant enameled stove with an optional alcohol-fuel insert. I’m not ready to pay the price, but if I were putting a kitchen together from scratch and wanted one ooh-ah feature, it would be that stove.

Surfing for today's illustration, I realize that a dome-shaped barbeque would also work indoors as a chafing dish using solid alcohol or a gang of tea lights. I'd try clay-based cat litter as a way of raising the fuel to a convenient height.

Off-grid cooking allows me to laugh at the power supply. Off-grid technology amplifies domestic space, because it’s portable and flexible. I’ve managed meals this way, now and then, all my life, both with copper chafing dishes in dining rooms (find them often in thrift stores) and with hiking stoves in the field.

Just as getting rid of the car gave me more, not fewer, transportation options, discarding a conventional stove has taught me that I can put a meal together using any one of many cookers.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

All-Purpose Useful Thing

Photo courtesy Flickr

A few years ago I picked up a stainless-steel card case, a sleek revival of a design from the Fifties. It’s turned out to be the pivot of daily life, slipping into a zippered pocket so I can carry bills and credit separate from a bag that might be snatched. One face of the case is shiny enough to use to check my appearance, and I believe the metal will shield RFID transmission, should I ever have a credit card that broadcasts.

The Great Big Hiking Coop sells a high-tech ballpoint pen small enough to fit into the case, and recently I discovered that I can use this combination as what used to be called a “housewife” or chateleine, a portable notepad (ivory in the Middle Ages) for jotting down housekeeping needs on the spot. Back in the day, a household was a complex organization of individuals and many keys were required to secure supplies.

Trimming paper stock a couple of weeks ago, I improvised a landscape format card-sized notebook from thin mulberry-paper off cuts trimmed to 2”x7”. I secured the spine with two staples, and the booklet slipped into the card case without a ripple, replacing a bulky deck of individual note cards.

The so-called rice paper/SciFi pen combination lives in my pocket now and is always at hand to catch a note about shopping or the calendar. Pen and paper allow me to practice formal writing every time I make a mark, and in my experience they’re faster than digital.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, April 4, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr

A friend asked for recipes for the ever-useful safe and secure electronic pressure cooker. The Great Big Discount Warehouse now sells it for less than a third of the original $250. My pal said she is so focused on tasks at hand that she just won’t take the time to learn a new technology. She confessed to buying a serger, letting it sit for five years, and then donating it to charity. I know the feeling-it’s not pretty.

Where the pressure cooker is concerned, though, the new technology is more forgiving than the stove-top model and requires literally no attention after it’s loaded and locked. It’s a fast version of a slow-cooker that sautes. Just read the manual and wing it with the recipes you’ve been making all along. Remember to secure the steam valve so the pot doesn’t boil dry. This critter will turn a bag of dry kidney beans into a contest winning back of the stove confection in half an hour. We haven’t made an emergency junk food run in the three years since I bought my first one.

Cook dry beans for twenty minutes at high pressure and discard the water to drain away beans’ gassy potential. I substitute no salt vegan bouillon and dried onion for the usual time-consuming vegetable preps, often grate carrot or zucchini to enrich a broth, and the rest is just ordinary low-stress coasting, except it happens in under an hour instead of taking all day. An automatic rice cooker makes short work of a side course.

During Haight Ashbury’s Summer of Love I fed dozens of hippies with Aunt Patty's garbanzo bean, tomato, onion, and ham hock stew. Any version of any ingredient works well. The Fakin’ Bacon post a couple of weeks ago will tell you how to avoid using meat. Sea salt brings rice and beans to life.

Paul Prudhomme’s Cajun cookbook has great tips for rice-basically, add a little butter and seasonings that harmonize with the main dish. Luigi Carnacina’s Italian food encyclopedia is my go to for just about everything not Cajun, and a 1940s edition of The Joy of Cooking hides low-tech, low-stress square recipes between its covers. I often see these preparations presented as the latest and greatest food styles on TV.

-30- More after the jump.