Ma Barlow

Ma Barlow

 

One of the disadvantages of living in an earth sheltered house is that a lack of planning can cause unusual conundrums.

Today was the the perfect example.  I was pulling things out of the fridge for dinner and noticed that we were out of propane. It is fall, and in our old colonial farmhouse I would have automatically fired up the woodstove and made a stew.  Our current woodstove is even better for these situations – its massive oven and cooking surface make me feel like Ma Ingalls whenever I start it – but wasn’t the perfect solution in this house in this weather.

It’s jacket weather outside, but between the low-hanging sun blasting our house with heat and the three feet of earth on three sides keeping it in, the house was already 71 with no additional help.  Lighting a fire hot enough to cook with would not have made the place more comfortable.

So now it’s 6:15 PM, and I’m standing in the kitchen of our earth-friendly, earth-sheltered house trying to decide between making sandwiches or doing the ultimate ‘un-green’ thing by opening all the windows and building a fire.  I’m rationalizing – it’s going to rain tomorrow and the fire will give us hot water, so it’s not a total waste.

I’ve stopped pretending that our off-grid lifestyle is as environmentally altruistic as it is self-serving, but we do like being green when we can .  Sometimes, though, figuring out how to do the green thing and still get dinner on the table and homework checked can be a real head-scratcher.  I was still scratching my head when the Big Guy waltzed in the door and announced he had finished switching the tank on the stove.  Tonight getting dinner on the table without wasting our wood heat became the green thing.

Mom and the Apple Pie

Mom and the Apple Pie

It’s the Big Guy’s birthday, and I’m making apple pie.  He and Thing1 eschewed birthday cake in favor of pie a few years ago, so after a day of excavating our mudroom (perfect birthday activity), I pulled out the Joy of Cooking and started making the crust.  I go back and forth between the Joy of Cooking recipe – is it possible to use that and not think of your mom – and the one in the Good Housekeeping Cookbook, but, as I was peeling apples, I remembered I was out of the lemon called for by both of these recipes for ‘Classic Apple Pie’.

It’s amazing how your mind wanders when you’re peeling apples, and mine usually has a good head start anyway.  I was on the 3rd or 4th apple I started wondering, not if  I should make a dash to the country store – but how Classic Apple Pie became a classic.  It’s the quintessential New England dessert in fall – every year we get so many apples that we sometimes have pie or apple-something every night for a mont.  But, almost without fail, most Apple Pie recipes call for lemon juice.

Now, I know Joy of Cooking has been around for a long time, and it was certainly possible to find lemons in urban areas of New England even a century ago, but our town had year-round residents living the original off-grid lifestyle just 50 or 60 years ago.  There was a country store – the one we still shop at – but it’s hard to believe lemons were a commonly stocked item then, and certainly not 100 or 200 years ago.

Now, I’ve learned not to use dinner guests as culinary lab rats, but I figured the Big Guy might want to eat adventur – I mean, authentically – on his birthday.  I started thinking about what the earliest European settlers would have used for their Pie.  I planned to google it later, but it was getting late, and I opted for experimentation over transportation.

I figured a mountain mom who made it to the country store every few weeks or so might have kept flour, sugar, and molasses, and maybe some kind of spices on hand.  They would have had milk and butter, of course, and probably some kind of lard/shortening.  But not a whole lot of lemon.  Now, Julia Child’s mantra may be ‘Keep Calm, Add Butter’ (an admirable outlook on life), but in Vermont the rule is, ‘When in doubt, add maple syrup’.   I figured that tradition was probably established early on and decided it was a good substitution.

Later, as I sat on the couch smelling the results of my experiment bubbling in the oven, I did a quick google and found that Apple Pie goes back in history as long as apples and flour were in existence.  Some old recipes call for champagne in place of lemon, others were just apples mashed with flour.  Apple Pie a la Mode made its first appearance at the Cambridge Hotel in Washington County New York in the 1890s, and the phrase ‘American as Mom and Apple Pie’  was coined in World War II.

But whether it was mom or the cook in the castle kitchen, experimentation was the most common component.  The pie pan emptied quickly, and in the end, the family decided that it was also the most delicious ingredient.

 

No Shame

No Shame

 

Serenity for Imprfect Parents
Grant me the Serenity to accept the messes I can’t get to, the Courage to clean up the ones I can, and the Wisdom to remember that Picking My Battles is more important than picking up.

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You might think that because I write a blog dedicated to my failures as a housekeeper, I would have no angst about the unexpected guest.  I thought so  myself until Thing2 came home from school with a friend.

I knew the parents would come to pick up our tiny guest very soon.  However the work day was still in full gear. I realized that when these mystery parents came to get their offspring, our unkept house would play center stage.

Our guest’s father arrived and wanted a tour of our energy system (we’re off the grid),and I instantly began preparing him for what he was about to see.  He held up a  hand and assured me he had seen worse, and I suddenly decided it didn’t matter if he had or hadn’t.

The house will get clean sometime – not today, but someday.  In the meantime, I’ve decided to enjoy our house – clean or not – with no worries and, most of all, no shame.

A Slacker’s Guide to Going Green

A Slacker’s Guide to Going Green
Singin’ in the Rain

We found each other because we’re both a bit goofy, and that goofiness has led us all over the world.  Sometimes it has led us off the deep end, or so some of our friends and family thought when we decided to build an off-grid, earth-sheltered house.  In reality, it was one of the best decisions we ever made, and it has rewarded us in many unexpected ways.

When we moved to Vermont, we bought the quintessential antique farmhouse, but, after five years of paying the quintessential gargantuan wood, oil and electric bills that go along with any drafty, mouse-infested home, we decided to make a change.  The stint in Germany that preceded our migration to the mountains had exposed us to new and old ideas about building with heating and electric savings in mind.  We sifted through folders of clippings and evaluated any conventional and offbeat idea that popped up in the search engines.

Finally, we settled on the idea of an underground house.  At the time we didn’t plan to go off-grid – it was still just a fantasy.  But our site made bringing in the power more expensive than making it ourselves, and suddenly we had a new research project.  Ultimately, we ended up with solar power and hot water and a backup generator.  We bought the queen of wood cookstoves (my non-negotiable demand) to heat our house, food, and (in winter) our water.

We moved into the house in the fall, and, aside from having to quickly buy a much more efficient refrigerator, we noticed very few changes in our life.  Like most Vermonters – we already used a clothesline 90% of the time, we already had a garden, and we already worshipped our woodstove – but we still patted ourselves on the back for being so green.  The reality was we were (and are) slackers, and that was what drove most of our design and energy decisions.  It still does now.

So as the Big Guy walked into the house yesterday soaking wet, wrapped in his towel and carrying a bar of soap, I was amused but hardly surprised.  It was pouring out and after an afternoon fixing fences, washing off in the rain obviously seemed like a great idea to him(especially since we’re surrounded by trees and mountains and more trees), but I still couldn’t figure out  exactly what had motivated it today.

“Saving water,” he announced as he sauntered across the living room, leaving sasquatch-sized puddles on the concrete floor.

Later, as we were both not volunteering to mop up the water, I tried to decide what I love most about this house – the way it fosters zany outlets for our green and/or lazy impulses or the fact that it’s in the middle of nowhere so that no one calls the cops when we indulge in them.

A Half-Folded Basket

A Half-Folded Basket

About five years ago, we went off-grid and said goodbye to our charming, but mouse-infested, wallet-draining, blackout-prone 200 year old farmhouse.

That farmhouse had actually inspired our move – not because of its inconveniences, but because it represented a time when its inhabitants had not only survived, but thrived without electricity or a fat bank account. And, while we had no intention of turning our lives into a historical re-enactment, we knew we’d have to make some choices if we were going to live with only the power we made. So, after five years of washing my dishes by hand, I got a super-efficient dishwasher (it actually saves water and electricity) and said good bye to my dryer.

We had line-dried our clothes most of the year before we made the move, but going from line-drying with an electric-dryer backup to depending completely on mother nature’s good mood was a bigger change than we’d thought. It meant setting up a space for drying indoors in snowy weather and, in summer, timing our wash loads with dry weather.

And, if there’s anything that has taught me to look at life from a basket half-folded point of view, it was the adoption of line-only drying. I groaned, for example, the first time a sudden summer storm drenched a line full of laundry. But when the sun came out a day later, the clothes were softer and smelled better than if I’d used a luxury-hotel fabric softener. When winter settled in, I thought drying inside would be slow because of the lack of wind, but because we use the wood stove 24/7 in winter, clothes actually dried faster. And there was another bonus I’d never thought of – the evaporating moisture of the drying laundry was a perfect counter balance to the over-dry air created by the wood stove.

I haven’t found any miracles in the mountains of clothes that I end up having to fold in late-night marathons (when sleeping children won’t rearrange my sorted piles on the couch). But when I’m meditating as I work my way through the pile, free of distractions and requests, it’s more than just laundry.