Monthly Archives: April 2012

$35 week second thoughts – added costs of being poor

Here’s an issue related to the Food Stamp Challenge that, I’m ashamed to admit, didn’t occur to me until I was grocery shopping this morning. Poverty doesn’t just mean food stamps; it also tends to mean no car, or an unreliable car, as well as living where there are few or no supermarkets. (All the mom-and-pop corner grocers in my town went out of business decades ago, but next door to my town is Camden – one of the poorest cities in the country, and still full of corner stores. And the economics of running a corner grocery mean higher prices and smaller selections.)

I was able to get through the week under the $35 ceiling because I could drive to Wegman’s – the cheapest supermarket within 5 miles (8 km) of  my home – and use the car to lug back whatever I bought (instead of needing to carry it myself, while walking dangerously along the side of a high-speed road). Even depending on the supermarket that’s less than a mile from my house would have put me over the limit; their prices are that much higher. If I were really living like a poor person, I don’t think I could have finished the challenge successfully after all.

How many people on food stamps can’t be as thrifty as they need to be, because there’s no practical way for them to get to the stores with the best values?

A week at $35

Last Monday, I started the Food Stamp Challenge – an experiment to try to live on the average food stamp (or SNAP) benefit of $35 a week. Now it’s Sunday. How did things turn out?

The experience was very, very stressful at the beginning of the week when I was inexperienced and anxious about what a day’s worth of food was likely to cost. By this time, I have a clearer idea of what I can get away with eating, so I’m less worried – but I’m also pretty sick of counting pennies.

On the other hand, I did come in under the $35 limit – by the end of the day, I expect my food for the past week will have cost $29.32. (But who’s counting? 😉 Millions of people who have to go right on living like this, that’s who.) So you can say I was successful – but what did being successful require?

First, I relied on cooked-from-scratch food. I like to cook, I have enough free time to cook, and I’m in good health and have the energy to cook, so that wasn’t a burden – for me. With a job or two plus kids to care for plus health problems? Could look very different. Second, I had pay a lot of attention to what I was planning to eat and what it would cost. Third, I ate less meat than usual – over the course of the week, about four ounces (a very little more than 110 grams) of chicken and two ounces each of cod, pork, and hamburger.  And finally, I ate less food of any kind than usual – there’s a pound, or not quite half a kilo, less of me than there was a week ago.

(Could I have had more meat and more food? To some extent, one or the other. Not both. Meat becomes shockingly expensive when you’re trying to keep your food costs under $5 a day – I would have had to eat even less overall to afford the amount of meat I usually eat. And I could have traded off meat and milk and cheese and vegetables for a lot more bread and rice. But I was also trying to come up with a reasonably healthy diet.)

What did this approximation to a healthy diet look like? Lots of beans. Plenty of vegetables. Not many sweets – and that’s counting the muffins as sweets. Not a lot of meat. So far, that’s reasonable – nutritionists are forever complaining that we Americans eat a lot more meat and sugar than is good for us. Does that mean there are no problems with eating like this?

There’s at least one. Quantity. I’m a five foot one inch (1.55 m) tall woman who stopped growing (except sideways) years and years ago. I make a point of exercising, but if I chose I could spend most of my time sitting down. And I lost a pound in a week without trying to. I don’t think this would be enough food for my six foot two inch (1.88 m) tall husband – active, but with a job that’s not physically demanding. (I didn’t try to talk him into joining this project. It didn’t seem fair to pressure him into a project that I had mixed feelings about myself, and he habitually eats lunch at work anyway.) I’m positive it would be too little for growing teenage boys (I don’t have any daughters, but I do have experience with trying to keep fourteen year old boys fed) or those doing manual labor.

Again, you might be able to make up the calorie deficit by leaning harder on rice and bread and pasta than I did – but what’s the nutritional cost in the long run? I can’t stress hard enough that there are a lot of people who live like this indefinitely, because they have no choice.

So here I am at the end of the Food Stamp Challenge week. Only not; I plan to try to stick this out for at least a month. Why? To give myself a better picture of just how possible it is to stick to this budget, for one thing. The challenge rules allowed you to ignore the cost of condiments. And that makes sense when you’re only tracking expenses for a week, because it’s hard to figure in the price of small quantities. But condiments tend to be relatively expensive. Over the long haul, you have to either find the money to replace them, or go without. And, beyond that, to get a feel for the longer term psychological and nutritional effects. And it still seems as if it should be possible to use this experience toward programs for my church to help people who are hungry more effectively.

I put up a couple of other posts related to this challenge:
Could I live on food stamps?
Three days into the $35 week
186 cookbooks – 7 days of lentils

For those with a thirst for detail – what I actually ate:
Monday, black coffee and seven or eight peanuts for breakfast. Lunch, red lentils with ginger and garlic, and homemade pita bread. Dinner, African peanut chicken (chicken cooked with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and thyme, plus peanut butter at the end), rice, and salad. Also, two cups of milk.
Tuesday: coffee and peanuts for breakfast; lunch, lentils with caramelized onion, pita bread; dinner, macaroni and cheese, asparagus, salad.
Wednesday: Breakfast, coffee and peanuts; lunch, lentils with spinach, pita bread; dinner, cheese and veggie omelet, bread.
Thursday, coffee and peanuts again; lunch, Greek style peppers with yogurt, pita bread; dinner, New England fish chowder and salad.
Friday, more coffee and peanuts; lunch, lentils with chilis, pita bread; dinner, pork sate (skewered cubes of pork marinated in a mixture of peanut butter, soy sauce, lemon juice, brown sugar, and spices, then broiled), green beans, apple-raisin-walnut muffins. Two cups of milk.
Saturday, a change in the pattern – leftover muffins for breakfast and lunch, with coffee as usual. Dinner, spaghetti with meat sauce and salad.
And today, coffee and peanuts for breakfast and lunch; dinner will be chicken enchiladas (with corn, peppers, and onions in the enchilada filling as well as chicken), refried beans, and salad. Probably some more milk; at least, I included its cost in my calculations.

Weekly photo challenge: Together

The theme this time for the Weekly Photo Challenge is “Together”.

Here’s what I have –

The living and the dead…

The past and the present…

Together at the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
(Photos taken in summer 2009.)

(The memorial has an interesting design which may not be clear from the photos. There are gray statues of weary soldiers down the middle of the space. Along one side, there’s a polished stone wall with pictures from the war engraved in it – it’s just reflective enough to show faint images of passing tourists and of the group of statues.)

186 cookbooks – 7 days of lentils

This time I didn’t follow my usual pattern with this project to weed out cookbooks – one cookbook, one recipe. Hey, it’s my project; I get to make up the rules as I go along.

There I was, looking through Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries, when I realized that he was offering 7 different recipes for red lentils, and they all sounded easy and appealing.

All right, I decided. I’ll try them all. I’ve been testing lentil recipes for lunch almost every day since Wednesday a week ago. (And in the process, I discovered a way to make the cooking even quicker and simpler, though Mr. Iyer probably wouldn’t approve. He tells you to cook the lentils – it only takes a little over 20 minutes – while you prepare the seasoning mixture, and then combine them at the last minute. But it’s awkward to cook just one serving of lentils at a time. What I wound up doing was cooking enough for several days, refrigerating what I didn’t need for the recipe I was trying out that day, and then adding a serving worth of lentils to the seasonings each day and reheating them.)

All the seasoning mixtures are different, but the procedure is basically the same – chop or puree various vegetables and fry them in a little oil, adding different spices as the vegetables cook. Finally, add the lentils, and sometimes lime juice and cilantro at the end. Once you’ve cooked any of these recipes, the process for all of them will be simple and familiar.

But were they worth eating? Yes, almost all of them (and many people might like the one I didn’t care for). I didn’t like the red lentils with mint; but then, I don’t like mint very much in general. The lentils with bell pepper and the lentils with caramelized onions were good – so was the version I made of the lentils with gongura leaves (I can’t get gongura leaves, never saw any, and never heard of them before, so I followed Iyer’s advice to substitute spinach and lime juice); maybe with the correct greens it would be even better.

Then there were the lentils with chilis – hot but very good – and the lentils with ginger and garlic…mmm. And best of all, the lentils with tomatoes, lime juice, and scallions. The only word for them is “delicious”.

For those who care, all the lentil recipes are vegetarian – if you leave the optional butter out of the lentils with chilis, they’re all vegan. (Many of the recipes in this cookbook do include meat.) They’re cheap, too. I started this recipe test before reading about the Food Stamp Challenge, but these dishes have been a big help in staying under the $5/day ceiling.

It was amazing how different the seven dishes taste. They even look different. Several call for a little tomato, which turns the lentils an attractive pinkish color. The lentils with, well, spinach leaves not gongura leaves were very green from the spinach. Others were mostly the light yellow color of the cooked lentils with specks of other colors from the seasonings. And each of the seven could be cooked in less than half an hour.

By the way, I think I’ll keep this cookbook.

Third Sentence Thursday – Is there a dog at all?

The Case of the Howling Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner

p. 52: “He pounded on the panels of the door with his knuckles, and received no answer.”

Perry Mason is trying to locate his client – but nobody’s home at the client’s house except his housekeeper. She’s deaf. Will anyone ever answer the door?

Mason has been doing his best for his new client, Arthur Cartwright. Mr. Cartwright insists that his next door neighbor Clinton Foley trained his dog to howl just to torment Arthur, as well as poor sick Mrs. Foley. He wants the police to put a stop to the howling, but he’s afraid that Clinton Foley will take revenge on him.

Oh, and just in case anything happens to him, Cartwright wants Mason to help him make a cast-iron will leaving everything he has to Mrs. Foley.

Mason calls on an assistant district attorney – who owes him a favor – to start slow with an official letter to Foley. (That proves that this is a very early story; later in the series, nobody in the district attorney’s office would ever admit they owe Mason anything.) Next thing you know, Foley is accusing Cartwright of being a homicidal maniac and offering witnesses who will testify that the dog has never ever howled since it was a puppy. And Cartwright has disappeared.

And so has Mrs. Foley.

Sunshine – thank you Beverley

Beverleysmith over at January to December nominated me for a Sunshine Award – the idea is to answer a few questions and pass them along. (You’re supposed to select other bloggers to answer the questions next, but at the moment I think I’ll make this “blogger’s choice” – I think the blogs I follow deserve an award, so if you want to accept, it’s yours. Feel free to post answers to the questions – for that matter, go ahead and pick people you think deserve Sunshine Awards!)

And Beverley, my USian spell checker is nagging me to take all the “u”s out of “favo(u)rite”, but I don’t think I’ll obey it. I was taught to spell all those “o(u)r” words like color and honor and favor without a “u”, though. (And why don’t we spell that last word “thogh”, I wonder? Of course, it’s just silly to expect spelling in English to make any sense at all.)

What is your favourite color? It varies – but today it’s gray and rainy out and the only spot of color is the azaleas in full bloom, so right now I’ll say azalea hot pink.
What is your favourite animal? Cats – they’re warm, they purr, they act silly, they try to bump foreheads if they like you.
What is your favourite number? Two – it’s less lonely than one 😉
What is your favourite non-alcoholic drink? Strong black coffee
Do you prefer Facebook or Twitter? I’m not crazy about either one, but I do have a Facebook account.
What is your passion? Making things
Do you prefer getting or giving presents? Mmm…giving.
What is your favourite pattern? Greek key – it reminds me of a maze
What is your favourite day of the week? Sunday
What is your favourite flower? I like flowers I can trust to put on a good show without needing a lot of attention – peonies, daylilies, snapdragons. And azaleas.

Three days into the $35 week

Last Friday, I posted that a number of people in Philadelphia were preparing to spend a week living on a Food Stamp budget, and I was planning to see if it was possible myself. Here’s a half-week update:

First, I now understand a little better what’s going on – basically, it’s political theater. (Which is not always a bad thing, mind you.) The state of Pennsylvania is about to impose restrictions on how much people getting food stamps can have in assets; a number of people consider the restrictions way too harsh. In addition, the Republicans in the (national) House of Representatives cut the Food Stamp budget in 2010 (cuts in benefits kick in as of 2013) and want to continue cutting it over the next ten years; Democrats don’t agree. (More detail in this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer.)

But what am I learning? First, there’s a lot of discipline and anxiety in trying to keep food costs under $35 a week. More to the point, though: Just how generous or how stingy are such benefits?

On one hand, so far I am sticking to the $5 a day limit – I’m averaging a little over $4 per day. So it’s theoretically possible, with qualifications. I’m a short woman who doesn’t do a lot of physical work, and I’ve been fairly hungry. Could you feed a man doing manual labor on this amount of money? What about a teenage boy? I don’t think so.

Of course, you could argue that I’m being too luxurious. And I’ll agree that some of what I’ve eaten (fresh asparagus, bought last Thursday before I heard about this project) was expensive. On the other hand, it’s been an almost entirely vegetarian week, bordering on vegan. What did I eat so far?

Breakfast each day, black coffee with a small handful of peanuts (7-8 nuts).

Lunch, lentils cooked with several Indian recipes (more about this in a few days) with homemade pita bread.

Dinner: Monday, African peanut chicken / groundnut chicken with rice and salad. Tuesday, spicy macaroni and cheese, asparagus, and salad. Tonight, cheese and veggie omelet and bread.

In all honesty, I don’t see a lot of extravagance there, and not a lot of food either. I say it’s time to raise the allotments, not cut them.

Gimmicks R Us?

I am a klutz. I’m terrified when I have to climb a ladder. (I don’t even like the two-step stool that I need to reach the top shelves in my kitchen very much.) I’m an awful dancer. And I’ve struggled all my life to be just a tiny bit organized.

There’s a connection, really. My sense of balance is defective. I’m the sort of person who trips over her own feet walking down an empty hallway. Not as much as I used to – years of aikido classes have helped me keep track of my center and move from my hips rather than from, oh, my left shoulder blade or something similarly silly – but I still need to think about keeping my balance physically.

And keeping my balance metaphorically, allowing a reasonable amount of time for all the things I want to get done and switching to the next job on time? That’s just about impossible. I know other people can manage it – for that matter, I know there are people who can walk across tightropes or dance ballet. I can admire them, but I can’t be one of them.

Is this an answer?

For example. Back in March and February, I was finding time to write (fiction) regularly – and almost nothing else less urgent than brushing my teeth was getting done around here. Then I began making a point of getting some cleaning and tossing done, Flylady-style….and I’ve written almost nothing this month. I’m very good at lurching wildly from one side to the other; not so good at keeping an even keel. (If I were a boat, I’d have capsized long ago.)

How, oh how, can I find time to write? As it is, my main character from the fantasy-in-progress and his best friend and a mysterious frenemy have been lost in the forest for the past three weeks. I really need to get them out of the woods and back home so things can get worse for them. On the other hand, I’d just as soon not lose all the ground I’ve gained in cleaning up this place.

Well, I had an inspiration this morning, or maybe a very silly idea. One of Flylady’s favorite tricks is to set a timer for fifteen minutes and clean furiously just until it buzzes.

Maybe I can write Flylady-style, by the timer. I think I’d better give myself 30 minute chunks, since you lose a bit of time at the beginning thinking yourself back into the story. But even 15 minutes by the timer would be an improvement.

Wish me luck. It’s a gimmick, and if it works, who cares?

Vintage Mysteries – Was it Bob the Dog?

Review – Poirot Loses a Client by Agatha Christie

A keeper? Probably

The case began in mystery. Getting a letter on a morning in late June from an elderly lady with a problem was a normal part of Hercule Poirot’s life. But getting a letter that had been written in the middle of April, over two months earlier? Now, that was strange. That needed an explanation. And finding the explanation called for the talents of Hercule Poirot.

An ordinary detective might have settled for simply asking Miss Arundell why she waited so long to send the letter. But Poirot gets a chance to exercise his little gray cells – because Miss Arundell is dead. Falling down the stairs a few days before writing to him didn’t kill her, and besides, everyone insists that she must have slipped on the ball that Bob the Dog keeps leaving at the top of the stairs. No, no, she died weeks later, and that was perfectly natural too, just more of the liver disease she’d had for years. Everyone in town tells Poirot so when he starts to investigate (together with his friend Hastings, the less intelligent version of Dr. Watson).

What wasn’t natural was her will. Nothing mattered more to Miss Arundell than family, even though she disliked, distrusted, and disapproved of all her relatives. But soon after her fall, she made a new will – and this time, instead of dividing her property evenly among her nephew and her two nieces, she left everything to her annoying hired companion, Miss Lawson. And once she had made the new will, a few days after a seance during which Miss Lawson and her friends the Miss Tripps tell Poirot they saw a luminous mist forming around Miss Arundell’s head, she died.

Miss Lawson is shocked – shocked – by how rich she has become. Theresa Arundell, the pretty, dissipated niece, thinks it’s a real shame she won’t have any of the money to help her fiance Dr. Donaldson with his experiments. Her brother Charles feels sure he can coax some of the cash out of Miss Lawson’s hands and into his wallet. And Bella Tanios, the other niece? Who knows what she thinks? She’s wrapped up in her children, and she seems unwilling to say much of anything in front of her husband, shockingly foreign Dr. Tanios. (He’s Greek! The horror!) Is she afraid of him?

It’s all so perfectly normal. Life goes on; Miss Arundell is dead and can’t act for herself. But Hercule Poirot can act and will act, to prove that her death was deliberate murder, by a calculating killer who’s planning to kill again.

And Bob? Bob the Dog ends up (officially) belonging to Poirot, but he’s found his real soul mate in Hastings. Wuff.

Agatha Christie never writes great literature, but some of her stories are a lot more entertaining than others. I liked this one in spite of the 30’s quasi-racism against Dr. Tanios the Suspiciously Foreign Greek – maybe because the characters who went on and on about how undesirable he was  could very well have been showing their own prejudices instead of speaking for Christie. Meanwhile, the story had a nicely snarled plot and characters who were a little more complex than most of her paper doll people.

And, of course, if you got sick of the mystery you could always join Hastings in playing ball with Bob. Wuff.

Mount TBR – Almost fun

Review: Garden Spells
by Sarah Addison Allen

A keeper? Yes. No. Yesno. Arrgh.

At its best moments, Garden Spells is fluff. Undemanding, enjoyable, fluff. Top quality fluff, that I would keep if it didn’t have some unpleasantly soggy spots.

Mostly it’s a story of two sisters, Claire and Sydney Waverley, who had very different but very difficult childhoods, and how they reconcile, and how both find love, and how their friends and neighbors (mostly) find their own happy endings. And the one or two who don’t have happy endings by the last page at least have a happy ending lying in the grass waiting for them to pick it up, if they choose.

This story – and it’s a good four-fifths of the book – turns on the notion that the Waverley family has semimagical powers, and the apple tree in their yard has even more magic, and a mind of its own about using it. Really, the apple tree is an independent character, perhaps the most active character in the whole story, determined to manipulate the people it takes an interest in so that they’ll do what the tree considers best.

Silly, but fun. And if that were the whole book, I’d just relax into its silliness and enjoy it. Unfortunately, Allen added an extra subplot that made it hard for me to really enjoy the book.

Sydney’s family backstory gives her plenty of reasons to run away as soon as she finishes high school; we don’t really need the Mean Girls subplot of cruelty by the rich’n’popular crowd to motivate her. But even that would be okay if it were left as background. Alas, we spend way too much time hearing all about what a monster Emma, the girl who betrayed Sydney, grew up to be, even if she does have wealth and social importance. At the last minute Allen allows Emma to have a happy ending of sorts, but not until she’s been thoroughly frightened and embarrassed.

For the first quarter of the book, until we met Emma, I was having a good time. As it is, I finished the book; I enjoyed most of the book; but I have a feeling that it’s going to leave me with a case of mental indigestion.