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Monday, June 23, 2014

Wisdom from Iceland

While I was cleaning up (sort of) in preparation for our trip, I came upon a postcard I picked up in the airport in Iceland. It was free (though food--except for children--was not included in the ticket cost. UGH).

There were a lot of different cards, but I picked the one with the frugal sentiment:

Everything is hay in hard times.

For more wisdom from Iceland, I recommend a wonderful book, which I would never had heard of had I not picked it up for a pittance at a book sale. Interestingly, in the introduction to the book, Brad Leithauser talks about how this is a masterpiece that most people have never heard of.

It IS a masterpiece. It is sometimes slow going, but the very end makes the journey worth it.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

What's Goodwill Not Good For?

Any particular thing that you need pretty soon.

--A particular book you want (unless it's by John Grisham)
--Something your kid needs for school
--men's pants (good luck finding the right waist and style)
--jeans (plentiful but there are probably 300 pairs to go through)
--really high quality cookware (yet I've found Le Creuset and even 2 pieces of Allclad)
--outerwear when it's cold (easy in summer)
--Christmas sweaters around Christmas (easy in summer)
--valuable stuff (yet every now and then...I've never found anything valuable)
--travel gear, especially for men
--good shoes that one can wear (lots of high heels donated, however)


Yet you will find the hard-to-find stuff  (not when you are looking) when you are there at the thrift anyway, looking for the things that are easy to find.

And even if you don't see an AllClad pan, the money you save on potholders will enable you to afford the desired object.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Recipe to Use Your Cheese Rinds: Minestra di Pasta e Cicoria

That sounds better than pasta and greens, doesn't it? I was leafing (Freud1an slip--oops) through a favorite cookbook that has been languishing unused. There I came upon a recipe that is both simple, frugal, uses both my garden greens and the parmesan rinds I brought back from Chicago.

The book is Verdura, by Viana La Place. It features very simple recipes.  Like this one. I am too lazy to do the recipe exactly, but I'm sure Viana would agree, since this kind of cooking does not require precision.

--Wash and coarsely chop some greens (recipe calls for 1 large head endive or escarole. I call for kale and chard.)
--Saute 3 cloves garlic and pinch red pepper flakes in 3 TBS olive oil. Do this in soup pot.
--Add 4 cups of water and a little salt and bring to boil.
--Add greens. Stir. Cover.
--A bit later, throw in 1 cup tubetti pasta. (I use whatever I have.)
--Add 2 ounces pecorino romano ends, cut into small chunks. (Needless to say, I'm using my parmesan rinds).

Cook till pasta is done. Serve with grated romano.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Thrift Store Gods Send Me A Message

This is a companion piece to my as yet unwritten post: What's Goodwill NOT good for? The answer is anything very specific and/or anything you need right this second.  Also: men's pants.

We are about to go for a trip to Serbia, among other spots. There we will meet our dear daughter whom we haven't seen since September. When we started to pack, I realized once again that Mr FS has awful travel pants. Each year, I say "Let's get you nice pants. From a real store."

Then, Miss Em requested that Frugal Son, who will meet up with her earlier than we will, bring a set of Game of Thrones for the brother of someone who showed her incredible hospitality. Miss Em thinks I have magic powers. She said, "It's ok if they're used." I called all the used bookshops and checked Paperbackswap. Nada. Miss Em finally said to buy them new.

The rule of thrift shopping for needs is to WAIT. Time ran out and last week I ordered Game of Thrones. Poor Frugal Son will be shlepping 5 heavy books to Europe. What a guy.

Finally I--controller of the shopping--broke down and bought Mr FS two pairs of travel pants. Ex Officio from Sierra Trading Post (a good site to know about). They just arrived. Very nice!

Here we are a day before we leave. We have been cooped up for 5 days in heavy rain. I went to Goodwill. What do I find? A pair of Patagonia travel pants in Mr FS's size. Then, I went to the Food Bank thrift. There I find the complete paperback set of Game of Thrones.

The thrift store gods are sending me a message. What is the message?

Monday, June 16, 2014

What else is Goodwill good for? Clothing

With the money you save on the stuff that's easy to find (the things I discussed in my last post on the topic: things that few people want because they have them), you can buy clothing, which in many cases is the easiest to find.

Clothing for babies and children! So easy!

Before I continue with this rumination, I should mention that, while my current Goodwill is just excellent, it was not always so. When I moved here, I would go with hope to the Goodwill downtown and emerge with...nothing.  I couldn't even find anything for my children. Then the population in the next town grew, bringing with it lots of upper-middle class people and strip malls. Before strip-malls-in-next-town, I went (when I could) to "Bloomingdeals," where I could find the all-cotton clothing I craved for my little ones. Post-Katrina, Bloomingdeals (run by Junior League) has become rather pitiful in selection. And my Goodwill has too much good stuff. Moral: thrifters must be flexible.

Back to baby clothes. Easy! Many people give clothing as gifts and much is outgrown before the receipt of the gift. Seriously. I had big babies.

Kids: less easy, especially boys, but it can be done. The key is to anticipate your needs. You WILL find a nice winter jacket in the summer. You will NOT find a nice winter jacket in the fall or winter. Amy D of Tightwad Gazette fame had clothing stored by size in her attic. And she had 6 kids. She was extremely neat. I can't imagine how I would store such bounty.

Adult Clothing: Other than shirts, men's is close to impossible. So I don't try very hard for my two guys.

Women's clothing: an embarrassment of riches. Miss Em and I used to be excited to find Ann Taylor Loft and Banana Republic. No more. Miss Em used to be thrilled to find Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie. Now even Anthropologie is rejected at times. Forget Urban O.

Now we hunt for Eileen Fisher. That's been a challenge, but we find about 10 pieces a year. Miss Em and I discovered that  we can wear pretty much any size, which makes things easier. We also like the rich-lady chic of Carlisle. We have good luck with these brands because EF doesn't have much hanger appeal (and we often find items with tags cut out, but which can nonetheless be identified by the tiny RN# inside). Carlisle isn't very well-known (outside of the rich ladies that buy it at home parties held by other rich people), so there's not much competition for it. Oh, and, of course, cashmere. We've become very picky about quality because there's so much.

Is it worth going to thrifts to find 10 pieces of EF a year? No. But you're getting them while you are at the thrift anyway, getting the easy-to-find stuff for you and your loved ones. That's really what Goodwill** is good for.

**By Goodwill, I mean any thrift store. Mine just happens to be Goodwill.

Pic below from past Carlisle Collection. I have a similar jacket. I love it!


Friday, June 13, 2014

Win-Win-Win: Energy Bills

Sometimes it's hard to measure savings because there are so many variables. Frugal Son has provided me with a case where savings can be measured. Remember about a year ago, we were looking to buy a house in New Orleans with the money Mr FS inherited when his father died? We wanted a place Frugal Son could live 9his living circumstances were not great at the time0 and we figured he could find some roommates.

Well, we did buy a house and good thing, because prices have soared and we could not buy the same house now. A near twin next door (25 sf bigger and fixed up a bit more nicely) just sold for more than 20% more than what we paid. And FS is happy with his two roommates and also cool with having the tiniest and least desirable room (and hence the lowest rent).

Frugal Son is also frugal in both practical and philosophical ways. We hit on a way to get the roommates to be mindful of energy consumption. They would pay based on the previous owner's bills and we would reimburse them the difference if it was lower.

Note: the figures below are a bit off because Frugal Son also urged us to install solar. Which we did. Solar adds $45 a month to the utility costs. (Louisiana has very good tax credits for solar. The solar companies sell the tax credits to no doubt horrible companies. We were too nervous to purchase the system ourselves--it's a big investment).

Add about $200 to the lower number. Isn't that amazing? And one roomie just moved out. We returned his deposit with a nice "energy" bonus.

The below numbers reflect both saving through consciousness (TRYING to use less) AND through technology. In New Orleans the big energy usage comes in summer. This past winter, we had horrible cold, so the bills may be even lower next year if we have a more normal winter.

 Email from Frugal Son:

On the Entergy bill from June 2013:  "Current 12 months actual bill: $2,658"

On the Entergy bill from May 2014:  "Current 12 months actual bill: $806"

That means we're PAYING less than a third compared to previous owners and since the cost / kWh actually goes down with higher consumption it means we're probably using about 1/4 as much energy!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What's Goodwill Good For?

Now that I have dispelled the impression that I walk into a thrift store and find expensive status items with a single glance, I would like to consider what Goodwill (or any thrift or secondhand marketplace) is good for.

Assuming the prices are low (not always the case), I would say that the best buys are the most humble, ordinary items. The savings are perhaps low, since the items are not expensive to begin with, but over a lifetime...I was going to say "Do the math," but in this case I'm not sure how one could do the math.

Yard sales are probably the best places to pick up useful items that other people have in overabundance, Such sales are especially good in areas with a transient population, such as university towns. Or affluent towns! I was once at a conference in Clarement CA and--on a walk--passed millions of yard sales with incredibly tempting items--all off limits to a plane traveler, alas. I myself don't go to more than two or three yard sales a year. The best of the best: church sales and similar. Only two that I go to. Thrift stores are my choice, even though they are more expensive than most yard sales.

OK, so over the years I have stocked up on
--cotton and linen dish towels
--pot holders
--utensils (eating)
--cooking utensils (ladles, spatulas, whisks, etc)
--mid level pots and pans
--baking dishes
--plastic storage, preferably Tupperware (but beware, often T-ware is up-priced)
--mediocre linens*** (good linens are preferable, of course, but mediocre ones are fine for students, campers, etc)
--mismatched dishes and cups (I only buy Corelle)
--mismatched glasses (I have acquired a set of my favorite Picardie one at a time)
--"" silverware (when I can find most of a set)
--coffee makers (thanks donors for the great French presses)

Hmmmm. This is a rather pathetic list. Most of these items cost only a few dollars. Some--like the linens--might evoke the squeam factor*** or EWWWW disgusting factor****.

Some require that you relinquish certain conventions, like having matching dinnerware.  (I do have matching Corelle at this point, btw).

If you look at the list, you might say: Oh, all this stuff would only cost a few hundred dollars, max. I guess that's true, but I still think that these little savings add up and compound in ways that my math cannot accommodate.

All I know is that I set up "house" for my children when they went to summer camp (my daughter was embarrassed by her linens--the other girls all had matching themed sets. I found one at the thrift for her next summer). I set up house when they went to college and when they went abroad for studies.

When my son got an apartment in New Orleans, I could set up his kitchen and bath instantaneously. This saved both money and time. When something breaks, I usually have a back up: that saves money and time also.

I am convinced that this saved money compounds somehow. Does anyone know how one could figure that out?? My fave glasses....

Monday, June 9, 2014

Where are the pickers of yesteryear: Naomi

Ah, mixed feelings here. I met Naomi at a yard sale in Bloomington. I arrived on foot (since I had no car), started chatting with Naomi, a woman about 15 years my senior. She ended up giving me a ride home. In fact, she started taking me to sales with her on weekends.

It says something about me that I still remember two things I bought at that sale: a large woven bedspread and some fabric to cover the seat of a Queen Anne-style chair. I have both even now.

Naomi was radical politically. She had many left-wing bumper stickers plastered on her car, eliciting honks, wild hand gestures, and sometimes near collisions from the conservative drivers of the area. She was an eccentric personally. She was divorced. Her former husband was Greek and had taught in the law school. When democracy was restored in Greece, he returned to a government post. Even though he no longer had a legal obligation, he sent Naomi a check every month. Their kids were gone: the son was in college and the daughter was a dancer in Europe.

She also got money from her family. Her father had been a rather prominent architect in New York City. Her widowed mother was in poor health and lived in a big apartment on the Upper West Side. Her mother gave her extravagant gifts: a small Rembrandt etching, beautiful jewelry, and many objets. She would occasionally drag something to an antique dealer when she needed money.

She lived in a beautiful old house, decorated with remnants of her former life (elegant Danish modern furniture) and funked up with eccentric finds. As I recall, the living room was shiny black and red. She said "I only like junk now." She had a fabulous eye and was an excellent artist.

Her live-in boyfriend, Jim, was about my age. He was getting a PhD in astronomy. He slept all day and worked on his thesis all night. Occasionally, he would come greet us when we returned from a yard sale. He would always wear a brocade robe supplied by Naomi.

Well, Naomi was a little crazy at times and became totally obsessive about finding things to resell (which she learned about from yours truly). So obsessive was she that instead of consigning at the Eye of Osiris (where she also started working), she opened her own store. She did almost no business because she priced everything too high. She also befriended a waif, who repaid her kindness by robbing the store.

One day she turned to me in the car. She said, "All the women in my family are self-destructive. Don't be like me. You need to finish your thesis."

She was right. She was--with great kindness and perhaps even with some love--telling me to end my relationship with her. She knew I was easily distracted from my work. Our weekend jaunts ended. I got a teaching job. I never saw her again after I left that summer. I am so grateful to her: she pushed me to my true vocation.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Pickers of Yesteryear: Enemies Part 2

The other person who treated me with enmity was ER. She owned a small vintage shop with an art studio behind. I'm not sure if she produced much art.

Like PM, she was a bitter person, though perhaps happier now. I think her husband was rather countercultural and ER was a conflicted countercultural. Her relative poverty beat her down. Her husband didn't make much money and I don't think her shop did very well, since it was quite expensive compared to the Eye. It was also upstairs in a downtown building and not as well situated.

When I went into a thrift store, ER would say to her young daughter, "Uh oh. We have to hurry before SHE gets the good stuff!" I thought this was a joke, till I talked to my friend Charlotte. Charlotte's beautiful daughter Kate (for whom I babysat) was friendly with ER's daughter Emma. Charlotte said, "ER asked me why you always try to talk to her." Oh. How humiliating. I hadn't realized my very chats were unwelcome. So--in a mean-spirited way--I never spoke to her again. Not a single word.

Watching these unhappy people made me realize--though it took a while--that picking was not a permanent career for me, fun as it was. ER--in one of our few chats before I learned how much she disliked me--said "I went to the Art Institute of Chicago! I have a BFA!  I'm an artist! I should be a curator! I shouldn't be doing this!"

I had to do something with my OTHER talents. Naomi pushed me back to my vocation.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Thrift Store Treasures: Reality Check

The wonderful Hostess of the Humble Bungalow made a visit to my blog (so honored to have her). She left a comment to the effect that I must have the best thrift stores in the whole wide world. Time for a reality check.

Interestingly (and I think related, so bear with my rambling), Hostess was hit with a blog comment of the nasty kind, jeering at the lovely life she chronicles in her blog. According to the anonymous commenter, Hostess had things so easy blahblahblah. Hostess, of course, responded with the truth: that a blog leaves a lot of stuff out. In her case, she chooses to feature the beauty in everyday life. She omits a lot. The blog is not one's WHOLE life.

In a similar vein--though not, thankfully, responding to nasty comments--I have to say that the thrift store treasures I mention now and then are the highlights of many, many hours of mostly fruitless wandering. It is a wandering I find pleasurable, though I would probably go a lot less if I didn't find a lot of things needed by family and friends. Most of what I find is very workaday stuff (potholders for Frugal Son's new abode, for instance).

So here is an incomplete accounting.

I started going to thrift stores around 1980 in Bloomington, first to clothe myself and then to make a bit of money to replace my TA income. I then moved to Houston, where the thrift stores were too far from where I--carless--lived. There were incredible yard sales (I lived in a prosperous area), but Houston is full of very poor people, so the competition was tremendous. I then moved to a small town in Michigan, with a little college in the midst of a town decimated by factory closings. The thrift store was--not surprisingly--incredibly depressing. Then I moved to a small town in Indiana, with a surprisingly good thrift store (though it was the most disgusting thrift store I have ever seen). One summer, I was in a seminar in Evanston, which had probably the best thrift stores I have ever frequented (combo of  extremely affluent college students--transient population--and extremely affluent residents). And now I'm near New Orleans.

Here are the high points of my acquisition, in no particular order:

--the recent cache of Italian stuff (Pucci, Dolce, Leger, Missoni)
--a Chloe dress which amazingly fits my daughter (featured on blog a while back)
--2 vintage Gucci bags (little fabric GG ones, with stripes)
--1 alligator Mark Cross vintage bag (WHERE IS IT???)
--Hermes scarf (Feux de route)
--Hermes cashmere sweater
--Dries van Noten blazer and cashmere sweater
--numerous lesser cashmere sweaters
--a Missoni sweater that my daughter wears (she looks good in orange)
--brown Chanel loafers
--maybe 5 Hermes ties and 5 Ferragamo ties

OK, that's perhaps 40 super-amazing items. In 34 years.  One-point-something PER YEAR.

Hermes Vintage Feux Du Route Silk Scarf In Red

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Decluttering the Freezer: Chicken with Preserved Lemons

Another gourmet dish emerges from my almost-no-grocery shopping vow. We have a lemon tree, which last year produced perhaps 200 lb of Meyer lemons. Needless to say, we were very popular with colleagues and neighbors. I FINALLY made preserved lemons, which I've been meaning to do for years. Nabbed this Claudia Roden (LOVE HER BOOKS) recipe from the NPR website.

No lemons next year. Our poor tree almost died in the terrible freeze. The little bit that is left (it looks like one of those hairy dogs after a major haircut, only the "hair" in this case was living matter) got some buds, but they did not set.

We're going to have this on couscous.

Have you ever had preserved lemons?

Claudia Roden's recipe from Arabesque (Knopf, 2005) is my choice for its sheer clarity and sure-footedness.
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 4 servings

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 onions, grated or very finely chopped

2 to 3 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 teaspoon crushed saffron threads or saffron powder

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1 chicken, cut up in 8 or 10 pieces

Salt and black pepper

Juice of 1/2 lemon

2 tablespoons chopped coriander

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

Peel of 1 large or 2 small preserved lemons

12 to 16 green olives

In a wide casserole or heavy-bottomed pan that can hold all the chicken pieces in one layer, heat the oil and put in the onions. Saute, stirring over low heat, until they soften, then stir in the garlic, saffron and ginger.

Put in the chicken pieces, season with salt and pepper, and pour in about 1 cup water. Simmer, covered, turning the pieces over a few times and adding a little more water if it becomes too dry. Lift out the breasts after about 15 minutes and put them to one side. Continue to cook the remaining pieces for another 25 minutes or so, after which time return the breasts to the pan.

Stir into the sauce the lemon juice, the chopped coriander and parsley, the preserved lemon peel cut into quarters or strips, and the olives. Simmer uncovered for 5 to 10 minutes, until the reduced sauce is thick and unctuous. If there is too much liquid, lift out the chicken pieces and set aside while you reduce the sauce further, then return the chicken to the pan and heat through.

Present the chicken on a serving dish with the olives andlemon peel on top of the meat.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Great Site for Luggage and Packing Tips: Onebag

I've been meaning to recommend this site for a while: Onebag. You can also get great packing tips that balance the practical and the chic from such blogging luminaries as Janice of the Vivienne Files and Pseu of unefemme.

Onebag is extremely useful for me because--on the road--I don't aspire to chic. I aim for the unobtrusive (not chic, but not NOT chic, if you know what I mean). Mr FS is a real grump and insists on eschewing the wheely bag (which isn't all that practical if you mostly walk and take public transportation as we do. Those suckers are heavy and unwieldy going up and down metro steps). Mr Onebag also hates wheely bags.

We have two convertible carry-ons. Sadly, I am a weakling, so Mr FS has to carry both, one in front and one in back. You'll know us if you see us: an overburdened man accompanied by a guilty-looking woman with a tote bag.

Mr Onebag has packing tips for men and women. He also has lots of other tips, with specific product recommendations. Check it out. You will find something useful, I promise.

We have this bag (not in lavender; LE doesn't carry this anymore). plus another one from Eddie Bauer that is more than 30 years old!