Cultivating an Ever-Expanding Skillset

So, this week, I wanted to talk more about the how’s and why’s of my reasons for leaning into new homemaking/cooking/”old-fashioned” skills. In my recent 20% Better post, I described the basic rationale as to why we are baby-stepping our way toward improvements around our home toward¬† supporting local economy and sustainability.

Ok, but before we get there, I do want to emphasize that there is no right or wrong way to approach homemaking (well, unless you believe Miracle Whip is mayonnaise…well, then, we need to stage an intervention on your behalf…I’m just sayin’ is all). I think any conversation about homemaking, sustainability, slow food, shopping local, etc. need to eject the tendency to assign dichotomous value systems. If we start labeling things as good or bad, right or wrong, all or nothing, we often end up with a myopic viewpoint that sanctifies one idea while demonizing another, and we end up being exclusionary and unattainable rather than inclusive and accessible.

Let’s be real for a second. The ability to try new recipes, bake fresh bread, learn about pasta, canning, knitting, sewing, gardening, entertaining and countless other things all come down fundamentally to privilege. The privilege of time, access to resources, or both. I’m at a season in life where I have more time; I no longer have colicky babies, terrible-two’s toddlers, or full-time employment. I have the PRIVILEDGE of time in a way I did not have in the past, so I can devote it to experimenting and learning. Likewise, I have the resources or access to resources to learn, reliable sourcing to fresh, quality food, and ready transportation. Many people do not.

So, what’s my point here? I think when I talk about the value of growing in homemaking skills to ME, I never want to insinuate that it has some warped universal intrinsic moral value. If we romanticize “old-fashioned,” or elevate “handmade” in such a way that we are alienating others or creating a one-right-way mentality, we’ve missed the forest for the trees. To me, homemaking means cultivating a relatively happy, reasonably healthy, personably hospitable place where you want to be and to share with your peeps. To cast any homemaking endeavor as an all-or-nothing, good/bad thing means that we are probably missing the point entirely.

So, now that I’m off my soapbox, I want to recap some of my efforts so far, and what’s on the horizon. This year, I’ve tackled my sourdough phobia, and it’s going fantastic. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve experienced quite a few abject failures, but I learned something new each time. Once I got into the grove, I’ve worked bread baking into my weekly routine and let’s just say, the others in this household are quite happy with this.

Going with the “ever-expanding skillset” mentality, I have also baked sooooo many new-to-me cookies and cakes, experimented with fresh pasta, and am giving an embarrassingly poor effort at spinning wool into yarn. I am about to venture into wood-fired pizza, curing meat, and pressure canning. Now, I’ll go ahead and say it now; I do not see myself expanding into sewing anytime soon. I can sew a reasonably straight line, and I managed to crank out dozens of face masks for friends and neighbors in 2020, but sewing is not my jam. At all. Too much precision required for my chaotic ass. Take that disclaimer as you will.

Back to the hows/whys. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from this initiative is that nothing occurs in a vacuum. In a predictable turn that surprises no one but me, learning about one thing opens doors through which, by extension, lead to more. When I became obsessed with barbecue/smoking a few years ago, I ended up learning about sustainable meat production, butchering and cuts of meat and how they are best used, geographic flavor profiles in barbecue, the science of various smoker constructions, etc. This is what first led me to look locally for sustainably produced meat. So, my point is that small steps continue to lead me to new skills.

As I continue with these projects, I feel more connected to our home, the community, and the importance of traditions. Personally, I feel a lot of satisfaction in understanding the how’s and why’s, in being able to create, and knowing that when the zombie apocalypse comes, I could probably land a safeguarded spot in the survivor’s camp. Just kidding, but it’s a nice fictional perk, don’t ya think? Also, the kids see me researching, doing, and sometimes failing; I hope the takeaway for them is an attitude that they can figure out new things, “hard” things, if they really want to.

Well, that’s enough homemaking musings for today. I’ve got a pork belly that’s about to become bacon, and doesn’t that sound like fun?

 

 

 

February Goals Round Up

I am a little late getting this post up but it’s time to review how the month went.

Health/Personal

  • I only lost about four pounds this month and definitely was not as consistent with my fitness, but with reason. Unfortunately, I caught a nasty virus, but luckily, it was not covid, flu, or strep. The downside of having asthma, however, is that colds/respiratory illnesses hit me like a ton of bricks and linger forever. We also had an appendicitis scare (false alarm) with one of the kids, who also ended up needing a CT and was diagnosed with mild pneumonia, so February and health were not getting along at all.
  • Overall, I think my biggest take-away from the month is that I need to stay on track mentally and physically, even when the train gets derailed. We had quite a few unscheduled events and detours from our usual routines, and I need to not let those subdue momentum. But, progress is still progress, and I am feeling good.

 

 

Kitchen

  • Baking: Another NINE new recipes tried, so I’m calling that a success for baking practice. I made: Copycat Biscoff Crumbl Cookies (kids really liked them), Cinnamon Sugar St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake (meh, just like a basic coffee cake but more work), Copycat Crumbl Snickerdoodles (a bit dense but good), Copycat Crumbl Red Velvet Cookies (also a bit dense), Red Velvet Cake (good, basic recipe), and the following cookie recipes from the King Arthur Cookie Companion book that I could not find exact matches for online: Fudgy Brownies (kids loved big time), Tender Toffee Rounds (husband liked, kids thought they were bitter from the dark chocolate), Soft Oatmeal Cookies (weird, ends up more like rounds than cookies), and Sugar and Spice Drops (interesting and perfect for fall). I am loving this book, but most of the recipes from it have not been published online by King Arthur, so I can’t link them. The book is worth purchasing, in my opinion.
  • I rebooted the sourdough starter after Bear murdered the last attempt, and it was a success! I still have a long way to go and much more practice ahead, but I think I now understand the fundamentals. The Pantry Mama website gave me a lot of good info and insight, so if you want to jump on the bandwagon, that’s a good place to start.
  • More pasta practice went down this month as well. I ordered a ravioli tool to make the process a wee bit faster for me, and it was totally worth the $13 I spent. I can’t tell you how much easier it was than the trying to fill individual mezzalunas. I made a filling of ground chicken, ricotta, parmesan and herbs, then served the ravioli in a tomato sauce with just a touch of cream to mellow it out. It’s also still a learning process, but I love cultivating new skillsets when it comes to carbs.
  • I tried six new recipes this month, and two were simply me freestyling dinner like a madwoman. The others included BBQ Chicken Fajitas (everyone liked this, and it was a nice spin on taco night), Lemon Butter Dijon Chicken and Orzo (It was descent; I liked it more than the kids and husband but not by much), Skillet Beef Enchiladas (this was a “meh” all around. They didn’t like the texture), and Creamy Italian Sausage One Pot Pasta (This will be a weeknight keeper. Everyone liked it and it’s very easy to prepare).

Books

I read another six books this month:

  • Twisted Hate by Ana Huang (not pictured)-Basically this was an enemies-to-lovers romance, and honestly, I felt like I slogged through it. The hero had the personality of a fencepost, and seemed immature to the point of unlikable. Definitely not my favorite.
  • Twisted Lies by Ana Huang (not pictured)-Yes, I am a glutton for punishment. I was intrigued by side characters she set up in the last book, so I decided to check out their story. It was better than the previous, but still just one-note for me.
  • To Boldly Grow-A non-fiction work that tells the story of Tamar and her husband as they work to source as much of their food locally as possible through gardening, hunting, foraging, fishing, etc. Kind of like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. I enjoyed it. She really highlights the learning curves, successes, and failures in a relatable way.
  • In the Middle of Hickory Lane-I confess, I am a huge Heather Webber fan, whose works remind me of Sarah Addison Allen, and this book was just as good as her last. I love modern magic realism, so this one got a big thumbs up.
  • Home to Cypress Bayou-Ok, I have a soft spot for this soapy little book, mostly because it’s set in the fictional Cypress Bayou, which is based on my former home of Natchitoches, Louisiana. It’s more like cotton candy for your brain than compelling fiction, and because of the setting, it charmed me more than it probably should. The writing could be more polished, but I still liked it.
  • The Vineyards of Champagne-Honestly, as much as I wanted to enjoy this one, I thought it was terribly slow, the plot contrived, and the main character and her lack of self-awareness grew tedious quickly. While it was very well-researched, I don’t get the glowing reviews (although many others agreed with me).

Fiber Arts

  • I finally finished the damn sweater! Scottish Ale sat on the needles forever because I hated knitting it (have learned that seamed sweaters are not my thing). G-Man loves it, so that’s what counts, but man, am I happy to see that thing done.
  • I also finished The Shift Cowl. This was an easy pattern to knit, but I’m on the fence about my yarn choice. Both the sweater and the cowl are projects that have been sitting in my UFO bin for a while, so getting these finished definitely ticked off a goal on my fiber arts to-do list.
  • I started and am about 3/4 of the way through the Chilton Cowl using a set of Blue Sky Fibers Woolstok Holiday Frost mini-skeins from my stash, so I am still sticking to my knit-from-stash goal for the year. I also have three more from-stash projects in the pipeline.
  • As for spinning, I confess I haven’t made much progress. I continued to struggle with the Malabrigo Nube fiber, so I finally abandoned it, and have switched to practicing with Ashford Silk Merino Silver. I’m still can’t get my drafting under control, and my attempts are getting seriously over-twisted. I know it’s going to take time and lots of practice, but even after watching a bagillion YouTube videos, I still feel like it’s just not clicking with me. I’m going to keep at it though, because I know it’s going to be like learning to knit–time, practice, muscle memory, and education.
  • Finally, I haven’t put as much work into the needlepoint stocking for Bean, and I think both that and spinning practice are areas where I need to focus more time.

So, that was February. Good forward progress all around, but I see room for improvement in a few areas. Now it’s time to gird the loins, because guess what this week is? Regional Science Fair. Y’all……there’s not enough margaritas in the world shine a light at the end of that tunnel. Pray for me and send tequila.

20% Better–Improving the Way We Approach Food, Community, and Sustainability

It’s no secret that sustainability, “shop local,” and reducing our carbon footprint have been hot topics for a while. Unfortunately, my little corner of Louisiana is the complete anthesis of any of these ideas (except for some trailblazers who I will talk about later). We do not have any recycling program in my city, or composting. The grocery store will not only give you 40 plastic bags, but you will also often see just one item packed per bag (yep, no lie). Most of our stores are big box (with a few exceptions), and the farmers’ market looks a bit anemic compared to what you see on TV. So, let’s just say it’s not the easiest place to explore sustainability.

Some of my Southern upbringing has helped. I’m a fair scratch cook, know how to can the garden produce, and I sure can stretch a meal. My husband maintains the garden, which also contributes when the weather hasn’t wiped it out (seriously? 8 degrees in Louisiana?!? RIP winter garden). But I confess, a few things got me thinking, or should I say re-thinking my current state of homemaking:

  • Walking through the empty grocery store at the height of the pandemic made me realize just how fragile the supply chain is.
  • Losing our city recycling program shone a light on just how MUCH garbage our family produces.
  • Seeing so many small businesses close permanently in recent years.
  • The dumpster fire our environment is becoming.

Because if all of this, I’ve felt the urge to make some improvements, but I needed to be realistic about getting started. First, I knew any changes couldn’t be too impactful on my family’s routine, or they would rebel. Second, I needed to be realistic about what I could really incorporate both in time and budget, since I would be 100% in charge of this endeavor. Third, it would require some research on what is available locally and what I might need explore online.

That’s why I came up with the idea of “20% Better” for our home. If we can just start by doing 20% better in terms of sustainability and shopping locally, well, that’s pretty manageable, right? Here is how it’s going so far:

Food

One of the most significant improvements we’ve made is sourcing about 60% of our meat and dairy locally. Between the farmer’s market and social media searches, I found four local producers for sustainably produced meat (Mahaffey Farms, Sample Farm, Smith Family Farms, and Wooldridge Meat), including one that will deliver to my door for a fee (worth it because the gas to get to their store in the next parish is actually more than the fee). Morell Dairy Farm in the north part of the parish began stocking their products in several area stores, so I am able to access local milk and butter. When I tell you the quality is night and day compared to what I was buying at the Wally-World, I’m not kidding. Is it more expensive? Of course, but honestly not as much as I thought, and the extra expense has me thinking more consciously when I am meal planning to reduce waste. Not only am I getting better products, but I’m also spending my money directly in my community.

Household

In trying to reduce our plastic footprint, I’ve been test-driving two companies: Dropps for laundry detergent and Blueland for household cleaners. While I like Dropps so far, including the compostable packaging, I have to give Blueland a thumbs-down. I just don’t think their products clean as well as what I have been using (and HATE their bottles), so it’s back to the drawing board on that. If you have less-waste household cleaning products that work, let me know because I’m still searching.

One of the biggest impacts to our household waste has been this countertop composter I purchased from Vitamix. When all five of us are home, we have a LOT of food scraps from cooking. If we were to toss it in the compost bin outside, the sheer volume would turn it into a rotten, stinky garbage pile in a week. Our neighbors would not appreciate that whatsoever, and I have enough naughty trash pandas and possums causing mayhem as it is. I use this gadget every other day, if not daily when the boys are home. It reduces my veggie and fruit peels, eggshells, coffee grounds, chicken bones, and other kitchen waste from two liters to about 1/4 cup of dried organic matter ready to go into the compost bin or directly into the garden. This picture is over two weeks of kitchen waste, now reduced, that is about to go out to the garden:

 

The household component of “20% Better” is a work in progress, but I’m hoping to find more ways to cut down waste until such time that the city gets it’s sh$t together and brings back recycling.

Shopping Local

I confess, I am guilty of succumbing to the siren song of Amazon Prime, especially since my options locally are often big box stores with limited inventory. We also only have one big-name bookstore with less-than-ideal selection.¬† Often, ordering online is the only way to get some things, especially books and specialty ingredients (well, specialty for my corner of Louisiana). However, over the past year, we have also been paying attention to local businesses and artists with the help of social media. We found a local botanical shop (Clean Slate Botanicals) and befriended the owner/maker. His candles smell amazing and last twice as long as Bath & Body Works, and I can return the locally produced ceramic container for discounted refills. We purchased several works from local artists featured at 318 art Co. as we’ve slowly decorated the house, and 20% of our Christmas gifts came from local artists or entrepreneurs. We’ve followed local business pages and are trying to attend more area events to see what else our community has to offer.

So, that’s what’s going on around here. We started the “20% Better” initiative last year, and my goal for this year is to build consistency, expand our efforts gradually and incrementally, and just be more conscious about the whole sha-bang. I know we tend to feel like it’s an “all or nothing” mentality when it comes to change or improvement, but I’m approaching changes one small strp at a time. I think the biggest challenge is simply taking the time, because it does take planning and a little research to make informed decisions and changes. Speaking of shopping local, that reminds me…I need to go pick up a King Cake for the weekend. It’s Mardi Gras Season, Y’all!

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