Grocery Shopping and Cooking (part 2)

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Suburban stockade introduction
The second part of better grocery shopping is deciding what you need to buy to make meals for the family. If most of the meals you eat are prepared by someone else (restaurants and take out), then buying brand-name frozen dinners, salad-in-a-bag, and a Sara Lee cheesecake will probably cost you less on a per-meal basis. Your time counts here, too, as it takes less time to put a frozen dinner in the microwave than it does to drive to Wendy’s and back.

grocery shopping and cooking
Plus, dessert is always ready.

So if you’re paying big bucks to let someone else do most of the cooking, then it’s time to learn some basic cooking skills. Almost without exception, anything you cook at home will cost less than the comparable item you buy from someone else. It is easy to fall into the trap that take-out food and restaurant dollars don’t count in your food budget. They do. If you are eating it, then it counts as part of your food budget.

While I’m talking about restaurant meals, here’s another bit of advice: if you have food left on your plate, take it home and eat it for lunch the next day! Anyone who works in a restaurant would agree. They see huge quantities of partially eaten meals are thrown out every day. You wanted this meal enough to go out of your home, order and pay for it. It isn’t shameful or poor to take home leftovers. And the waitstaff are happy to help you take food that they don’t have to throw away. So ask, and save a little money to pay off a little more debt and build up your emergency fund.

When learning to cook at home, the best advice is to start simple. Take for example Hamburger Helper and its vast array of minimal-cooking-skill cousins and salad-in-a-bag or a frozen vegetable. Follow the directions on the box and get familiar with a pan, the stove, and a knife and cutting board. As you get better at it, you can try enhancing it with onions and peppers, more spices, more whatever you think it needs. This is not a bad way to begin.

Grocery shopping simple cooking
Learn to cook with a mind open to possibilities.
Learn to cook with a mind open to possibilities. Cooking is always mucky work. It is going to involve some messiness so don’t be shy or dainty. What you see in restaurants and on TV shows have very little to do with putting food on the table, day after day after day. You will be your own prep cook and your own cleaning staff, topics that cookbooks rarely address and cooking shows never talk about at all.

If you want formal training in cooking, then ask a family member who cooks regularly for lessons or look into one of the many books on “how to cook.” Your library has dozens of titles available. A very good, older book is “Cooking for Absolute Beginners” by Muriel and Cortland Fitzsimmons. This is a Dover Publications reprint of a 1946 title. It is extremely basic, detailed, and doesn’t assume you want to do anything fancy.

Look at cookbooks aimed at kids as well. They are very basic and simple recipes. Or try the Betty Crocker beginner cookbooks, too. Use your library and try the books out before you buy them for your home library.

It is absolutely worth learning basic cooking skills as you will never be able to minimize your food budget if you don’t cook. Look at potatoes as an example. Regular, whole potatoes on sale in the produce department can cost as little as 40 cents a pound, sometimes much less. If you crave microwave-ready baking potatoes that someone else washed and wrapped in plastic wrap you’ll pay triple the price. Instead, scrub a potato, prick the skin with a fork and microwave it for five minutes. If it isn’t done to your liking, nuke it a few minutes more. There. You just saved money.

Cheaper and Better

The difference in price can get even more extreme, and you can avoid paying it with minimal cooking skills. Take Betty Crocker’s boxed Scalloped Potatoes. It isn’t that difficult to peel and slice raw potatoes and layer them in a dish with cream, butter, and seasonings and bake until done. Your version will not only be cheaper, it will taste better. You have no way of knowing how old those dried potato slices are that Betty uses. You also avoid the amazing list of chemicals that Betty adds to make her product shelf-stable.

Frozen potato products leap upward in price per pound as well. Ore-Ida might like you to think so, but it isn’t that hard to peel and cut up potatoes, season them well, and roast them in the oven. Is it worth paying $2 a pound for TaterTots versus 40 cents a pound for regular potatoes and doing the work yourself? If you want to save some money, the choice is obvious.

There is one tradeoff you’ll make when home cooking, and that is it takes more time to cook from scratch. When I’m fainting with fatigue and out of time, I turn to our version of fast food: canned soup and buttered crackers. But still, plain unfancy cooking can take less time than going out through the drive-through and coming back home. You have a much better idea of what you are eating and how much salt and grease is in your food when you make it yourself.

Over time, your cooking skills will improve, you will learn to cook a wider variety of things and you will get faster at it. Unless you go to the CIA — I mean the Culinary Institute of America — you will probably never get as fast as a professional chef, but you will get better with practice. The better you can cook, the more you can get out of what is hanging around in your kitchen waiting to be used. This saves you money, using what you already paid for. More skill means you can take better advantage of the sales at the grocery store. You can use what is the best price versus what is the only thing you know how to cook.

Basic Shopping Skills

Whether you do most of your own cooking or not, you can still save significant money at the grocery store over what you are spending now. It all comes down to awareness and paying attention. Grocery stores are in business to make money, and they depend on you not paying attention, shopping with your stomach, and shopping on autopilot, except when you see something shiny and new.

Over the decades, they’ve developed ways to separate you from as much of your money as possible. Retail experts design and lay out supermarkets, and every choice they make is to encourage you to spend more than you want. This is why you have to walk to the back of the store to get a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk; the more food you pass by, the greater the chance you’ll pick up something on impulse. This is why the floral department (pretty and colorful!), the bakery (smells so good!), and the produce department (nutritious and colorful!) are usually located near the front doors, forcing you to walk through them on your way to other stuff. They prime you to want to spend money. This is why the checkout lanes are narrow and lined with the most expensive-per-item stuff in the store: it is the last chance the grocer has to siphon out more money while you wait for the shopper in front of you to finish up. Mmm, celebrity magazines and candy bars.

So grocery shopping is a skill, pitting you against a mighty industrial behemoth. If you are a poor shopper you may be able to cut your grocery bill in half! If you are better than average, you’ll still spend way less. Cutting your grocery cost is tax-free, too. You already paid your taxes on your income and spending less at the supermarket doesn’t increase your tax bill. It is pure profit for your wallet.

So how do you hone your skills?

grocery shopping and cooking impulse control
Learn to curb impulse shopping.
First, learn to curb impulse shopping. Don’t walk through a grocery store and throw random things into your cart. Oh, that looks good. That might be fun to try. I’ll bet everyone will eat that. This method can also encourage food waste, if you buy products that don’t get used up and they rot or that no one will eat so it gets thrown out. Throwing food out is the same as throwing money out. If you compost your food waste or feed it to animals it isn’t as much of a waste, but still, why put expensive fancy produce in then compost bin when it is just as happy with carrot peelings?

You start with a list. What items do you need and what have you run out of? What do you regularly use and what do you cook on a routine basis? Even if you never do another thing, making a shopping list that reflects what you really cook with and what you have used up. Sticking to the list will save you some money.

It may help to keep a running list on the refrigerator so as things run out; they can be added to the list. You may be able to train family members to do this; I never could, but some people, I am told, have been able to do so. Having a list means that you don’t go to the supermarket on a daily basis. Unless you are extremely disciplined, daily exposure to all the come-ons in the grocery store is just asking to have your wallet vacuumed clean of cash.

So the list leads us directly to making fewer trips to the store. Damn few of us don’t have enough storage space in our kitchens for a week or two of food. I shop twice a week. I do my big shopping trip on Tuesday, followed by a run on Saturday for milk and half & half and fruit for Sunday breakfast. The second trip is because my family drinks a lot of milk and I can’t store enough gallons for the week. The list for second trip is kept as small as possible. If I could dispense with this second visit I would, as even with all my practice it is darn difficult to avoid spending extra bucks over what I budgeted. Those supermarket lures are really effective.

If I needed too, I could train the family to drink reconstituted dry milk instead of fresh and use more dry milk in our coffee instead of half & half. Then I could store a year’s worth of dry milk and never run out. There are people who do this quite successfully and they save money, too. We aren’t that dedicated now, but I do know that we could do this if we had too.

So tune in next week, and we’ll talk more about grocery shopping.

Agatha Christie a fictional character in ’20s-set Thriller

With talk about a screenwriter creating a TV series with Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, I shouldn’t be surprised that someone thought about turning making Agatha Christie a fictional character as well.

Agatha Christie fictional character“Silence and Circumstance,” by Roy Dimond, could be the meta-mashup of the year. According to a Florida newspaper, Dimond has stuffed this thriller with every boldfaced name of the 1920s:

The witty Dorothy Parker from America joins Sayers, Sir Arthur, a young John Steinbeck and baseball player Mo Berg in puzzling the clues left by Christie as to the whereabouts of her diary. The trail leads them to Berlin where Adolf Hitler is already stirring up hate. Sir Arthur and a young Ian Fleming (prior to his fame as the James Bond novelist) travel on the Orient Express together, stopping in Monaco to meet Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso.

The story is set in 1926, the day that Agatha’s first husband, Archie, announced that he wanted a divorce. In real-life, while Archie left to spend the weekend with his mistress (and future wife), Agatha drove off into the night. Her abandoned car was found the next day, launching an 11-days wonder as everyone asked: Where Was Agatha?

The answer was that she was hiding in a hotel in the north of England, but Dimond decided to send her on a more thrilling adventure.

The book was published by Untreed Reads, a small press. I’m not sure about the quality of the book, but reading the first chapter using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature showed me that it wasn’t bad. The story is told from the viewpoint of Carlotta, Christie’s assistant, and it moved along smartly and there was nothing that made me wince except for the occasional typo. I wish they had found a better title, however, but that’s just me.

I suspect that how much you’ll enjoy this book depends on how you feel about seeing famous artists and writers placed in entirely different roles and situations. Give Dimond credit: It’s a high-concept “what if” that I’ve never seen before.

Literary Puns Too Painful for Words

Researching the Sherlockian parodies and pastiches for the next volume in the 223B Casebook project should be a sedate, calm affair. Not as upsetting as, say, debating the Hugo nominations or going on Twitter.

And it hadn’t been, until I got to the Catesby’s Cork Lino ad. I’ve read a lot of parodies (and published some of them on this site), but none like this landmine of humor.

Running in The Strand magazine in 1904, it’s your typical Sherlock ad, in which the great detective appears to solve the case while at the same time praising the advertiser’s product. Here it is:

Catesby's Cork lino ad with bad literary puns
Click to enlarge, but be wary of the landmine.

Here’s the sentences that, until I did my research, set me off:

“I called on Herlock to get his opinion about the colour of some Catesbys’ Cork Lino I had chosen for my floors. The extraordinary man was breakfasting, and his fare was, you will hardly believe me, a Plato’ Lamb and Bacon.”

Searching “a Plato’ Lamb and Bacon” led me to “The Comic Song Book,” edited by J.E. Carpenter and published in the 1860s. The line comes from the clumsily titled “Household Words” — “All the Year Round” — a reference to the two magazines edited by Charles Dickens.

Sung to the tune of “Oh, Susanna,” it tells the story of a happily married man and his literary wife. She’s a “Cyclopaedia on two legs” and “a fount of wisdom” but she keeps him up all night.

At first, the jokes are innocuous: “I’m sure she’s quite the sage, and I am quite the goose! (Yes, of course they dig you in the ribs with the italics.) “And if she’s not ‘a learned pig” she is a learned bore.” (Ouch).

Then I came across this verse, which left me shattered. Take it a line at a time, perhaps one a day, and stop if you feel dizzy or are operating heavy machinery:

When I sit down to take a meal all learnedly she’ll jaw, sir;
For all the time she sees me chaw, her conversation’s Chaucer;
And when she feeds herself, she reads, and never seems mistaken—
“At dinner, I admire,” says she, “my Plato, Lamb, and Bacon.”

I thought about typing the lyrics in, but I don’t think I can take that right now. When I come out of the hospital, perhaps I may. In the meantime, here are the screenshots.

And please, don’t share this. Think of the children.

household-1

household-2

household-3

Grocery Shopping (part 1)

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Suburban stockade introductionI am a firm believer in shopping locally as much as possible. So as a dedicated energy saver, conservationist, and locavore, I source all our food from with a 10-radius. I shop at the local supermarket (Giant) which is 1.5 miles away from my house. I know this because I measured the distance on my car’s odometer to check AND I used maps of the local area to draw out 1/2 mile, 1 mile, and 1 & 1/2 mile radii circles centered on my house. This exercise showed me how many businesses there are within walking distance of my house, should I be so inclined to drag groceries or other items home in a wagon versus using a car. When I can, I walk to my local bank, drug store, office supply store, the post office, etc. It saves me money, it gets me out and about in my community, and I need (I always need!) the exercise.

Now there are people who will claim that you can’t be a locavore — a person who gets all their food from within a 100-mile radius — if you are buying from a supermarket. To meet the standard (this is yet another purity test and way of showing your status to lesser mortals) you should grow your own food and/or get everything from properly documented sources via Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and the local farmer’s market.

If you are serious about being a true locavore, you better start food gardening right now. You should also join that CSA; there are thousands across the country. Ask at the farmer’s market or look online for one in your area. A big part of eating locally and seasonally is eating locally and seasonally. In January, you eat stuff you preserved back in August; you eat from your root cellar rutabagas, potatoes, and turnips; cabbages that have been fermented into kimchi and sauerkraut; dried beans, winter squashes, and whatever leafy greens you can coax out of your cold frame.

In the winter, chickens don’t lay as much, so you can’t depend on quantities of eggs you got used to over the summer.

Early spring is known in many cultures as the starving time, the thin time. This is true for wildlife as well as people. There isn’t much left to eat by late March. You already ate it all or it is going bad so eating those moldy apples might be risky. There are ways around this involving more cold frames, hot caps, and using food-storage techniques to use up food in order of rottenness, and good planning in the previous summer of what you grow, preserve and how much.

Prior to the industrial revolution (1840s-1870s), everybody used to live this way. You had to be rich to not be hungry in late winter. Everybody used to eat within a 100-mile radius because transportation cost so much and food rotted before it got anywhere. Traditionally, the foods that got transported long distances were unlikely to decay and had high value such as tea leaves, spices, and coffee beans, or were unlikely to decay and there were huge quantities making it cost-effective to move them such as grains and dried legumes. You notice that there are no strawberries in January on this list.

This is a limited diet and by the time spring rolled around, the typical peasant was desperate for greens to keep their teeth in. Hence the popularity of traditional spring tonics made up of dandelion leaves. This would give you much-needed vitamin C, and ward off scurvy for another year.

grocery shopping kings
In the first world, we eat better than kings of old ever did.

We don’t have this problem anymore. In the first world, we eat better than kings of old ever did. Strawberries in January! Raspberries in February! Delicate spring greens in August! Apples in May! Today’s supermarkets are divorced from the seasons for growing fresh produce, and raising livestock for meat, dairy, and eggs. Animals had seasons, too. They were born in the spring and slaughtered in the fall so you had a) meat all winter when the cold helped preserve it and b) you didn’t have to feed those animals and try to keep them alive all winter. Eggs started showing up again in the spring. You preserved your milk by making it into hard cheese.

This is all a lot of work and I am so happy that I can choose to do only what I want to do: growing some supplemental vegetables and fruit, and buying and cooking with the seasons. I love having a refrigerator and a freezer. I don’t have to worry about spoilage. I love having a fully stocked pantry without having to prepare it all myself and spend hours canning, drying, fermenting and pickling so I can feed my family in the winter. These are great privileges and I enjoy them. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t utilize the wonderful resource of an American grocery store better.

First is your choice of grocery store. I make a joke of shopping at the Giant as a locavore choice but in a way, it is. There are two Giants within a five-mile radius of my home. The larger, newer, fancier one is further away. It also has the gas pumps there that allow me to purchase discounted gas.

I only go to the fancy Giant when I need to buy gas and redeem my gas points. That extra 3.5 miles one way translates into 7 extra miles per trip plus the additional time. On a single-trip basis that isn’t very much at all. But over the course of a year, two trips per week, that is 728 miles that I don’t put on my car and 728 miles worth of gasoline I don’t burn to avoid going to the slightly older, slightly less fancy supermarket. Remember to add in the extra bit of time per trip that I don’t spend driving: hours of my life energy that I put to other uses.

There are several grocery stores within five miles of my house. I like the Giant for its prices, selection, convenience, and the gas points. If I wanted to splurge, I could go across the Susquehanna to the Wegmans. This is a really fancy, high-end grocery store and when they opened, several of my neighbors regularly made the 20-mile pilgrimage to shop there. When the Wegmans opened, I wasn’t nearly as enlightened (and cheap) as I am now, and I made the trip once too. It was a very nice supermarket but the prices seemed a little higher, and it was certainly farther away. A lot farther. I never returned as it was not worth my effort. If the Wegmans has some magical product that no one else in the area carries, then I live without it. This is made easier by not knowing what that magical product is so I won’t want it anyway.

We have a Sam’s Club within seven miles plus the Wal-Mart. I used to have a Sam’s Club card but over time, I found that careful shopping and the pantry principle (more on that later) worked just as well and meant that I spent less money, less gas, and less time. Sam’s Club lures you into spending far more money than you planned on. Yes, it can have wonderful deals, but if you spend more money than you budgeted and you purchase wonderful items not on your list, you still lose. There is a Costco but it is much farther away (20 mile radius) so it is even less worth my time or gas money.

A save money grocery book that I read almost twenty years ago had the best story. I don’t remember the title or author but I sure remember her anecdote. The author broke her leg. She had to order her groceries from the most expensive grocer in town, the only one that delivered. It was the type of store that wrapped each piece of fruit in tissue paper. Despite the higher prices, she discovered that, after a few weeks, she spent less money than she did at the cheaper supermarket. How could this be? The fancy grocer only sent what she ordered. The fancy grocer did not add onto her purchase all those wonderful, must-have deals that called to her as she cruised the aisles.

This is the experience I have in Sam’s Club and any other fancier grocery store. I see things that I don’t have and I want them, even when I don’t really need them and they aren’t on the list.

grocery shopping warehouse stores
I see things that I don’t have and I want them, even when I don’t really need them and they aren’t on the list.

I do not buy groceries at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart can be cheaper than Giant to pay for the extra gas and time. I don’t like what Wal-Mart does to local communities, I don’t like what Wal-Mart does to local businesses, I don’t like how Wal-Mart treats its employees, and I don’t like how they handle perishable foods. Since I have better options, I always choose not to give my money to Wal-Mart whenever I have a choice. You may not have this option. If Wal-Mart is your only choice, you can still maximize your food dollar with careful shopping, price books and the pantry principle.

If I had to routinely walk to buy groceries, I would probably use the Karns or Pronios as they are closer, within a mile or less radius. That extra half-mile (one way) to the Giant can add up when you are pulling a wagon full of groceries in August. Both stores are smaller than Giant. Pronios is a standalone store, locally owned and operated. Karns is a small local chain in midstate PA. Giant is a regional chain, headquartered within 20 miles of my house so for a midsize chain, it is sort of locally owned and operated.

The deciding issue for which grocery store to choose, IF I HAD TO WALK EACH TIME, would be the gas points. You can’t grow gasoline and biofuel has its own sets of problems and learning curve. If we HAD to have the gas for a regular commute, then Giant would win for the gas points and I would make the hike pulling a wagon or shop almost daily using a bike with panniers. If we were car-free, then I would probably shop Karns or Pronios because of the distance and occasionally cherry-pick at the Giant for things I couldn’t get otherwise.

There is also a Weis grocery store within the 1-mile radius. It doesn’t strike me as being kept clean or well-maintained and that makes me suspicious of their handling of perishable items. Every time I go there, I see that the floor needs to be mopped and the shelves need to be straightened. This is not to say that Weis couldn’t be a good choice; only that the local Weis isn’t the choice for me. The store manager makes an enormous difference in how individual stores are maintained. If the manager is an annoying martinet who insists that the floors get cleaned, the shelves get straightened and restocked, the windows washed and does some of this work himself, being constantly visible and available to the customers, then the store overall will be cleaner and better run. The employees may be worked like borrowed mules to maintain higher standards but the customers are the better for it.

So this is the first part of better grocery shopping. Decide on the store that most meets your daily needs AND is the closest to you to cut down on gas and time expenditures.

Next time, we’ll talk about deciding what you need to buy to make your family meals.

The Return of Lisa Scottoline

Well, at least her return on my radar, at least. I’m sure Lisa Scottoline never went away, but I remember reading a few of her books back in the day, so I was happy to see her pop up on Caroline Leavitt’s website with a new book “Every Fifteen Minutes.”

Lisa Scottoline Every Fifteen Minutes interview
Lisa Scottoline

Authors promoting their novels are encouraged to find an angle that makes for a compelling interview. In her case, it’s easy to assume that she wouldn’t have chosen the one where she grew close to a man she suspects was a sociopath.

All I can say is that I really do believe that I was very close with a sociopath. This was not a murderous person, but rather a person who just merely used people, without any personal feelings for them. Like everybody else, I look back on my life and think about the mistakes I’ve made and why I made them, and my relationship with this unnamed person gave me the idea for “Every Fifteen Minutes.”

It’s a powerful concept for Scottoline to explore. Sociopaths can be very good at keeping secrets from those close to them. You only have to ask Elizabeth Kendall, who was the girlfriend of (unknowingly to her) a serial killer, and later wrote a book about him called “The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy.” The book’s out of print and the few copies available will set you back about $150, but someone posted pages from it on Facebook.

I guess I better set aside my copy for my heirs to sell of.

Mining Story Ideas from Humans of New York

This is a fun thing to do if you feel creatively empty: Visit the Humans of New York website to remind yourself of the boundless variety of human experiences.

Even if you don’t believe these people, even if you think the idea is too far-fetched, it can provide a starting point for a memorable character or story.

These two caught my eye the other day. I’ll print the first line; you’ll have to click on the photo to see the rest story.

humans of new york story ideas finding god in banking
“Believe it or not, I actually found God through becoming an investment banker.”
Humans of New York story ideas cocaine '80s
“I used to transport coke between Miami and Cuba back in the 80’s.”

They’re like the first line of a short story; how can you not want to find out what happened next?

Creating Your Dream House (part 7)

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Suburban stockade introduction

[This 7-part series on buying a home begins here; or, go to the table of contents page. This is also cross-posted on Wattpad.]

Home renovation isn’t for sissies but it can really pay off. You can pay other people to do the renovations for you, but it has been worth it to us to do as much as we can ourselves. This saves us huge amounts of money and vastly improves our skill sets. It does still take plenty of time and life energy and some money. But not as much money as we would have laid out to Jake the Contractor. This is a choice only you, the potential homeowner can make. Only you know your tolerance for sanding walls and laying in fiberglass batts in the attic.

There are a lot of kinds of home renovation. The very best kind come with the houses that are disguised as handyman specials but are really cleaning lady specials. That is, the house is so messy that it LOOKS like it needs major repairs, but when you remove the junk, clutter, grime, and filth, you discover a nice house underneath. Houses of this type are hard to find and you have to have a good eye to see under the built-up layers of crud to see the good bones underneath.

dream house
Closet-Maid accessories lets you double the number of shirts you can store.
There are the home renovations where all you really need to do is repaint the walls, add Closet-Maid to the closets, upgrade the storage space in the kitchen, pantry, and bathrooms, add ceiling fans, and put in book cases. Add shelves, add hooks, add pull out slides for knives and upright storage for cookie sheets. Houses like these are also hard to find.

We’ve done all of those things and each one made the house a better performer.

Probably the easiest job with the greatest payback involves insulation. We knew, going into the Hershey house, that it had little insulation in the attic or under the floors. Bill insulated, insulated, insulated, and insulated some more. He installed reflective foil in the attic to keep out the heat. Younger son covered the fiberglass batts in the basement with white panels. This has a) improved the insulating qualities, b) improved the lighting by making the ceiling more reflective, and c) kept the cats from eating the insulation.

Insulating the house, a job which we did entirely by ourselves, paid for itself long ago. Now, each winter we spend far less money to heat the house than we otherwise would have. This awful, dirty job made us more financially independent.

Then there are the true handyman specials. The roof is damaged. The windows need to be replaced. The carpeting needs to be ripped out and the solid oak floors beneath to be sanded, stained, and polyurethaned. The wiring needs to be brought up to code. These jobs don’t change the layout of the house and very handy people can do much of this work.

dream house
A home renovation project with Closet-Maid can turn this basement with four long pantry shelves ….

dream house pantry shelves
…. into storage space for much more.
Bigger home renovations involve kitchens that have to be gutted and rebuilt, bathrooms that are filled with mold and leaks, cracked foundations, terrible layouts where walls have to be rearranged, and wet basements. These are all far more costly and far more aggravating to fix.

Still bigger home renovations can mean adding a second floor to the existing house or a new wing. If the house is bought and paid for and it is in an area you love, where you plan to live forever, this may be a better choice than selling and moving. Contractors for this level of work should be carefully selected and not just because the contractor and his crew will see you every morning in your bathrobe at 7 a.m. You will be living with the work crew in your house for weeks or months on end.

So when you evaluate houses, besides the location, the price, and the extra space, decide if you want to do the work of upgrading a house to make it reach its full potential. Almost any house can be improved if you spend the time and money. The improvements will make the house more useful to you, but consider the cost before you start. A house I remember quite well was the gorgeous Victorian castle in Steelton, built by a Bethlehem steel executive. The house was just unbelievable. Solid mahogany everywhere, a slate roof, huge and varied rooms with ten foot ceilings and eight foot windows, a full basement with nine foot ceilings. It was less than a $100,000 dollars! It needed, just from the walkthrough I did, another half million dollars in renovation and repairs starting with repointing all four stories of brick walls and a new slate roof. This was a project that would take decades of time to go along with the truckloads of money. The end result would have been a stunning castle for our heirs, unfortunately located in the dying town of Steelton. We did not, of course, buy this challenge.

There are other reasons to contemplate home renovations. If you want something out of the ordinary you will have to install it yourself. Home renovations of this type also mean that you aren’t planning on moving anytime soon.

If you want to store a year’s supply of food and a few thousand gallons of water, then you will have to build the storage; very few houses come with this kind of setup. Apace is needed for serious food gardeners as well. A productive vegetable garden gives you heaps and heaps of carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, whatever you grew. Good food storage means you can preserve that harvest and eat it all winter long.

Are you a serious gun collector? Then you need a place to put your arsenal; a place that is secure and dry.

Do you collect art? You need miles of blank walls for display and plenty of space for storage.

If you want to collect and harvest rainwater on a casual summertime water-the-garden basis, you need gutters and places to place your rain barrels. If you really need to collect every drop of rainwater to provide for every household need for a year, then you need to install a 10,000-gallon cistern and a hand pump.

If you want to reuse every drop of your water, then you need to install a gray water reclamation system. Very, very few homes have this kind of setup already in place so expect to install it yourself.

Do you want to generate your own power? More homes come with solar panels and battery storage space but still not very many. Is the roof big enough? Is it oriented correctly? Is there space for the battery banks? Can you go passive solar with hot water heating, trombe walls, and stone floors that act as heat sinks? You won’t find many houses with these things. You will have to install your own wind turbines as well. Good luck finding a house with one already on the property.

If your home business is car repair or fine woodworking, then you need way more extra space than a writer does. A writer can manage with a flat space to set a typewriter on. A woodshop needs hundreds of square feet of well lit space and miles of work benches.

If you need space for your 10,000-book library, then you need to evaluate the amount of blank walls you have. Should they all be lined with bookshelves or would it be better to turn a spare room into a dedicated library with stacks?

If you want your house to light itself, then you paint every ceiling white, every wall with pastel high-gloss paint, you clean every window, you install new windows, you mount mirrors opposite every window, and you install solar tubes and skylights. You will still need paid lighting at night, but you don’t have to turn on the lights during the day anymore to read, to cook, to work.

Are you serious about bicycling everywhere? If so, then where do the bikes live so they are easily accessed when needed? Where do you put their spare parts? Our bikes currently live on our Florida Room, where they take up precious living space. Better than the living room, I suppose, but still. The long range plan is to build a dedicated bike storage shed just inside the yard where the bikes are contained within the fence, hidden by the hedge, protected from the weather, out of the way, and yet in easy reach for use.

Are you a serious ballroom dancer? Then you need to add a 2,000-square-foot addition with a hardwood floor that is kept completely empty so you have plenty of space for your routine. My sister did this with her house in Florida. She absolutely loves the space and she would certainly never have found a house with this kind of renovation already in place.

There are probably dozens of specialty uses that houses can do, with the proper renovations. Art studios, yoga studios, dance studios, sewing workrooms, taxidermy, alpenhorn rooms (I read about this but have never seen one). What do you want or need? If it is an out of the ordinary requirement, you should evaluate houses with this renovation in mind.

So these are my thoughts on getting housing that will help you and your family to be more resilient, more sustainable, and get closer to the goal of Financial Independence.

There are so many things to be considered when you buy a house. What do you want your house to do for you? How much do you want to pay for your house in terms of cash, time, and life energy? Is the location good for the long term? Are you close to family, friends, work, and a supportive community? Are you subject to natural hazards that you know will happen like floods, landslides, forest fires, and tornadoes? Are there things you want to avoid?

A carefully chosen house can help you reach your goals. A poorly chosen house may cost you dearly. Houses and spouses, spouses and houses. Choose wisely and you will always be grateful. Choose badly and you will never stop paying.

Finding Your Dream Home (part 6)

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Suburban stockade introductionNow that we have considered how much yard we want, and whether we want the privacy of living deep in bear country versus the shorter commute and more access to services from living in town, we come back to the house. How much house do you want? How much house do you need? They aren’t the same thing.

To talk about this, we’ll have to talk about our experiences in our two homes, the one in South Carolina that we started our married life in, and our current home. We hope that you can learn something from our experiences, even if it’s only “I don’t want to go through all that.”

A lot of us lower- to middle-class people grew up in 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom ranch houses. Bill and I grew up in one, and that’s what we lived in down in South Carolina. Three bedrooms (parents, boys, girls), one lone bathroom, kitchen, small dining area, living room, laundry corner, furnace and hot water heater tucked in somewhere. No basement and not much usable attic space. A carport. No pantry. Tiny closets. Very little storage space and most of that was in the barely accessible, non-climate-controlled attic.

There are plenty of these houses available in much of the country. Ones built prior to 1960 tend to have under the awful carpeting hardwood floors. Behind the plaster or drywall, there was two-by-four framing. In the attic and under the floors, large heavy joists of a kind you don’t see anymore. Pre-1960 ranch houses also tend to have windows arranged to maximize cooling from breezes during the summer. Since they are small, they usually cost less to buy, less to insure, have lower taxes, and their utilities can cost less. Are they worth a look? If the location and price are excellent, then certainly.

As noted earlier, it is impossible to fix the location of a house. But you can fix the house. In the small 1959-vintage ranch house I grew up in, my dad remade the carport into a family room, insulating it well, and installing a pot belly stove for supplemental heat. He built shelves wherever he could. Redid the bathroom. Fixed things. Insulated wherever he could. Made the house more functional in every way.

In our 1954-vintage ranch in South Carolina, we ripped out the carpet revealing the red oak floors, added a closet in a bedroom, and converted a previously enclosed sunroom into a home office, a half bath, and a pantry. We rebuilt the kitchen, added ceiling fans throughout, put in shelves everywhere, and insulated the attic and crawlspace. If we hadn’t moved up here to Hershey, the next step would have been to turn the carport into a family room.

Our current, 1955-vintage ranch reveals what can be done over and above staying in the footprint of the house. It has, unlike the other two, a full basement, with 3/5ths of it turned into living space with a small bathroom. They also added a Florida Room to the back of the house that provides seasonal living space, and built up by adding a partial second floor. The second floor gives us a fourth bedroom with its own, large walk-in closet and private bathroom. There is still plenty of attic space left over for storage.

We have repainted, added shelves, rebuilt the pantry to triple its usable space, insulated, insulated, insulated, added solar tubes for free lighting, built in a home office, rebuilt the closets, and in general added storage organizers of every kind to every possible corner. This doesn’t include any of the extensive work we did in the yard, starting with the 4-foot chain-link fence and the hedges.

Did this house have some issues? Of course. But we could afford it, its daily maintenance, and its renovations while still paying extra to the mortgage. We are in town in a great school district, Bill did not have a bad commute, we don’t live in an HOA, and we can walk to all kinds of things. We also have a world-class (they tell us this regularly so it must be true, da?) hospital two miles away in the Penn State Milton Hershey Medical Center and in the other direction, we have Hershey Amusement Park.

When Bill spent six months house-hunting up here in central PA, he worked from a list of things we wanted:

* A home with enough space for all five of us and all our animals.

* A home with space for storage, our library, our home office, my sewing area.

* A home with a basement.

* A yard for kids, dog, and vegetable garden.

* The best school district we could afford.

* A home in town to be closer to a range of services.

* A home within 20 miles of Bill’s job. We lucked out there, finding a place 10 miles away from the Patriot-News. When they moved its offices to the West Shore, the commute doubled, but was still within the magic 20-mile radius.

Bill was renting an apartment up here, while I, three kids, four cats, and a big dog stayed behind in South Carolina doing the “Dress Your House For Success” program trying to sell our house. Not easy but we did it. And it was worth it. Bill got us a house that worked for us that we could afford. And we got, six months after the sale, a lovely piece of validation for all the work we put into the house in South Carolina. The new home owner sent us a thank you note saying how much she loved the house because it “made her organized”. Wow.

So take your time and look over the houses you see. Look at location and price first. Then evaluate how much of your money and life energy it will take to turn the house into what you really want. Some extra space is absolutely worth paying for, but be realistic about how much that extra 2,000 square feet will cost you in life energy.

A basement is very nice. We use most of ours as finished living space, including my sewing area and our home office. There is a finished bathroom with a shower stall so we have some overflow space. We rebuilt the existing shoddy pantry shelving into a finished space that was double in volume compared to what we started with. The unfinished portion of the basement serves to hold the washer and dryer, a work shop, the mechanicals, and plenty of dedicated storage space. A crawl space could not have been rebuilt like this. I suppose you could dig out a crawl space into a basement, but really, it would be easier to buy a house with a basement. A slab foundation wouldn’t even give you that option.

A carport or garage is very nice. My dad, as mentioned above, turned our carport into finished living space, all by himself. He even built in a desk for a home office. If we had stayed in South Carolina, we would have enclosed the carport in much the same way. A garage might be even easier to finish as it already has walls.

An attic that you can stand up in is very nice. These can be finished off as well, either into living space or dedicated storage space. The hard part is arranging for a permanent staircase rather than one of those awkward pull-down ones, or worse, a hatch accessible only with a ladder. In my parents house (bought in 1972 and long since paid off), my dad took advantage of the two parallel hallways on the second floor. He removed both pull-down staircases (the house was weird in many ways) and turned one hallway into a permanent staircase with a closet built underneath it. You can’t refinish an attic that is full of trusses into any kind of storage space without putting on a whole new second floor. That is a huge job and will need a contractor, but it can be done.

Porches can be very nice. My house in Norfolk had, at one time, a porch that was enclosed by the house on two sides and had the house roof as it’s roof. Someone, years ago, enclosed the porch, turning it into heated living space. I used that space as a sewing room. Our house in South Carolina had the same thing. Someone, years ago, enclosed it and tied it into the heating system. We finished the job, installing a home office, a much needed half bath (a second toilet! what luxury!), and a big, walk-in pantry.

An extra room can be very nice. This can become a home office, a sewing studio, a guest bedroom, or dedicated to storage.

Some space for a dedicated workshop is very nice. You should have at least some place to put the tools, the screws, the paint cans and their brushes. A built-in workshop area means you can do simple home repairs more easily as you have space to do them in and a space to store all the tools. A bigger workshop can lead to bigger projects, like library-style shelving and upgraded pantries. Because these projects kick up a lot of dust, opt for a separate room, or at least an area curtained off from the rest of the basement. Dust will fly!

Next week, in the final chapter (at last!), we’ll move from the general to the even more specific, with ideas about how you can renovate your house into the home you want.

dream home
Some houses have more potential than others, however.

In Which I Mumble Something About Appearing in Public This Weekend

Self-promotion is not my forte. Like a lot of writers, I prefer to let my works do the talking. But I am excited about two events this weekend, and so let’s get to work, shall we?

At 2 p.m. today (3/28), I’ll be signing books — including “The Early Punch Parodies of Sherlock Holmes” and “Sherlock Holmes Victorian Parodies and Pastiches: 1888-1899″ — at the Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg. This is one of my favorite bookstores in the area, and not because they do a great job of selling books by local authors on consignment. They focus on nonfiction books, and right now, focusing on Mark Twain and the Victorian era, I’ve found some great books, including “Mark Twain Laughing” (a collection of humorous anecdotes you won’t find in the biographies), and a volume of his letters.

Plus, it’s a beautiful bookstore.

Midtown Scholar Harrisburg
The Midtown Scholar, Harrisburg

It was also here a few years back that I interviewed the store’s co-owner Eric Papenfuse. He had launched a publishing imprint and one of the books was “City Contented, City Discontented” by Patriot-News columnist Paul Beers, so naturally I interviewed him for the newspaper. Papenfuse has been an energetic civic activist for the city, and now he’s being given the chance to put his philosophy into action as mayor of Harrisburg.

Midtown Scholar 025

I’ll be signing books with Deb Lerew who has written a couple books on the paranoral: “Encounters with the Paranormal: Personal Tales of the Supernatural” and “The Newbie: A Kyrie Carter Ghost Hunting Adventure.”

On Sunday at 2 p.m., I’ll be hitting the road again, talking about Sherlock Holmes at the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop. I had a great time here last year with my Agatha Christie presentation, and look forward to doing the same with Sherlock. If you come out, say hey!

Bill Peschel talking about Agatha Christie at the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop
Talking about Agatha Christie at the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop in 2014.

Finding Your Dream Home: Gardening (part 5)

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Suburban stockade introductionFor the last couple of weeks, we’ve been looking at the decision-making process while shopping for a home. (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four).

Now, let’s turn to the yard, and its future role as a way of raising your own food.

The key to food production is planning and management. It is wasteful of time, energy, and resources to grow more food than your household will use. We keep running up against this problem here at Fortress Peschel. It is easy to grow 50 pounds (or more!) of tomatoes. But what do you do with them all? Especially if they all ripen at the same time? They can be given away to the neighbors, they can be dried, frozen, or canned, all of which take time, and they can rot in place (which at least puts organic material back into the soil!). The preserved tomatoes all have to be used up during the rest of the year. If you don’t use them up, prior to growing new ones the following year, you end up with still more preserved tomatoes in your pantry making you feel guilty.

Your vegetable garden doesn't have to look as good as at Longwood to provide plenty of food for the family table.
Your vegetable garden doesn’t have to look as good as at Longwood to provide plenty of food for the family table.
There is an obvious solution, but one that isn’t that easy to implement. Grow less. Way, way, less. This requires being honest about how much home cooking from scratch you are going to do and are you growing things that your household will eat. It is really easy to grow twelve tomato plants: four slicers, four cherries, and four marinara style. They don’t take up very much space. It sounds like such a small amount Yet twelve plants give a huge amount of tomatoes that have to be dealt with. We may be better off with only six plants, two of each type.

Then we address the peppers (which freeze well and we do use up), the lettuces, which have to be eaten fresh as lettuces don’t preserve at all, the cucumbers which we always grow as supermarket cukes are terrible, the carrots which are cheaper and easier to buy, the swiss chard which no matter how we cooked it tasted like dirt and my God! The enthusiasm with which it grew! The tomatillos which were best used as a sort of lemony jam as any other way no one liked them. The sweet potatoes which grew with tremendous vigor but the weather was uncooperative so we couldn’t cure them well and we discovered that we don’t use them up at nearly the rate we should have so they will have to be dealt with, somehow. The peanuts which younger son wanted to try and the amount of work involved in harvesting and shelling them made supermarket ones so much easier and cheaper. Onions which turned out, after the first very good year, to be never worth the effort ever again. Onions from seed don’t grow that well for us and onion sets from the hardware store all came pre-inoculated with onion maggots so now we have to wait several years before even thinking about onions ever again. Egyptian walking onions grow with such joy that they take over the yard in no time but as they are mainly a substitute for leeks and green onions, how many do you need? Not nearly as many as we have. Kale which grew beautifully and then we didn’t use it up fast enough. Spinach which was excellent and grew sparsely and grudgingly. New Zealand Malabar spinach which was sold to us as being a heat proof spinach substitute. It grew fine, but bore very little relationship to actual, delicious spinach. Rhubarb which grows with vigor but how many rhubarb pies can you eat and back to that damn kitchen again to freeze it all for the winter.

Bleah. I do think that everyone should grow at least some of their own food. It makes you appreciate just how hard farmers work and how easy and cheap it is to buy decent produce at the grocery store. And some foods, like tomatoes, good lettuces, and cucumbers have to be grown at home in order for them to taste like they should. But, you have to learn to grow what your family likes to eat and you don’t want to grow more than what you will eat.

Preserving the harvest for the winter is an extremely worthwhile goal but it has had, for us, a steep learning curve both in the preservation skills and the using them up in the kitchen skills. We keep coming back to that pesky time management thing. If I am spending time cooking from scratch then I am not spending time sewing for me or my clients and I am certainly not spending time writing for you, dear reader.

The other reason for learning to grow some food is that eventually, you may have to do so, in order to supplement the rice and beans you can afford to buy at the store. Home grown produce gives variety, taste, and much needed trace vitamins and minerals to supplement that boring diet of grains and legumes. It takes time to get your soil up to par and it takes time to learn how to grow things successfully, cook them successfully, and preserve them successfully. We have had our share of failures and anyone who tells you that they can take a jar of preserved seeds and grow a successful garden after the zombie apocalypse is delusional. They’ll starve while waiting for those seeds to produce something edible.

If you have to grow some of your own food, a slightly larger parcel of land, say a quarter of an acre rather than 1/10th of an acre may, may be better simply because you can allow parts of the yard to lay fallow every year. That is, you don’t plant every square inch every year but let the soil rest instead under its life restoring layer of green manure. If you are going to let beds lie fallow, you need enough of them to rotate them in and out of usage and that means you need a little, just a little more space for the extra, empty beds.

So don’t be lured into thinking that you need to buy acres of land on which to grow a mountain of food. You don’t. You do need to have some space on which to learn and practice but it can be as small as a tenth of an acre. When I walk Muffy through the village of Hershey, we cruise the alleys looking at all the back yards. There are many tiny yards that are closely managed and they produce, clearly, plenty of produce. This is, by the way, yet another reason for a fence with a privacy enhancing hedge. You may not want to have your food production efforts on display for all the world to see. And touch. And take.

We have about a quarter of an acre (8/32), including the footprint of our house and driveway. Subtract out the house and driveway and you move down to 6/32 of an acre, maybe? Subtract out the wilderness-y screen across the front yard providing privacy from Google Street View and habitat for wildlife. The total acreage I can grow food on got smaller, maybe 5/32 of an acre? This space is our fenced in back yard lined with yews and thujas to act as more screening. There is a hedgerow of blackberries and other shrubs on the north side with hardy kiwi trellised along the fence, a tool shed and compost bin area, a climbing gym grown over with hops, clothesline space, a back forty to retreat to, a thicket dead center to provide wildlife habitat containing shagbark hickory trees, a row of persimmon trees and gooseberries, a rise of hazelnuts, a bed of three kinds of currents, a row of twelve columnar apple trees, and some grassy areas. This is a lot of potential food production right there.

Raised beds and pathways under construction.
Raised beds and pathways under construction.
Finished asparagus beds, planted and waiting for spring.
Finished asparagus beds, planted and waiting for spring.
Then we come to the extensive raised beds, with built in trellises on some of them, their paved walkways, and the two permanent beds of perennial vegetables (rhubarb and asparagus). These beds, if I managed them better, harvested them better, cooked from them better, and preserved from them better have the potential to provide much of the vegetables and fruit we currently eat. I wouldn’t have to buy very much produce other than citrus and bananas. If I changed my cooking to reflect what I can grow in my climate (and trained the family to eat it) and gave up entirely on things I can’t grow in my area, did four-season gardening, and learned how to preserve it all for the winter, I wouldn’t have to buy any garden truck at all.

To do this my gardening would have to be much better thought out and accomplished. If I improved my container gardening skills, making better use of the natural winter light I have, I could grow citrus and peppercorns in my house. According to the Logee’s catalog, I could grow my own bananas, coffee beans, and a wealth of other tropical goodies. Their catalog is astonishing and shows how much you could do, if you wanted to spend the time, money and effort.

If I wanted to, I could transform the abandoned climbing gym into a chicken coop. That would net us eggs and manure for soil enrichment and if we were serious about this, meat for the pot. I would remove the hops as I don’t think we will brew our own beer and replace them with grape vines. The fruit would be more useful than the hops and I suppose we could make our own wine instead our own beer. That might be easier as wine can be made from grapes alone but beer needs barley to go along with the hops.

Convert a child's gym into a usable chicken coop. Or a brother-in-law suite.
Convert a child’s gym into a usable chicken coop. Or a brother-in-law suite.
We have enough room that we could house rabbits for meat as well. The difficulty would be Muffy wanting to eat the rabbits before we get to them. The other hard part would be slaughtering and prepping the chickens and rabbits so we could eat them. But I could learn. Plenty of people do.

If I wanted more meat than what I could raise easily in my ¼-acre yard, I could take advantage of the fact that Pennsylvania is a big hunting state. There is a season on some kind of game animal virtually the entire year. Deer hunting is so big in Pennsylvania that the first day of deer-hunting season with a rifle (we have several deer seasons depending on how you kill them) is a day off from school! It is traditionally the first Monday following the Thanksgiving Break, so we get a five day weekend for the holiday. The Reese factory down the street has an empty parking lot on the first day of the season. Plenty of people here in Pennsylvania fill their freezer with meat for the year during our various hunting seasons. We could do that too, and thus have to purchase even less food than we do.

If I wanted to add more to the workload, I have the space for a bee hive or two. That means better pollination for the entire garden, honey, and beeswax for candles.

All these possibilities on a ¼-acre lot in town, surrounded by other ¼-acre lots. So yes, some land is vital but it doesn’t have to be acres and acres. I like living in town and a smaller lot is the usual trade off for services like a post office, drug store, bank, and grocery that I can walk too. I can get quicker emergency response too — police, fire, ambulance, and rescue — simply because I am closer to all those service providers. That is, they don’t have to travel for miles down sunny dirt roads deep in bear country to reach me when my house catches fire or the electricity fails due to winter storms.

Author, Editor, Anthologist, and Owner of Peschel Press, the Publisher of Histories Behind the Mysteries