Country Living Series

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

America's weird paper towel obsession

Here's an interesting article I came across recently: Americans Are Weirdly Obsessed With Paper Towels.

People, it seems, are insanely devoted to paper towels.

I didn’t realize this until I put a blog post in 2014, asking readers what kinds of reusable items they’ve embraced. The biggest conflict, I found out, was giving up the ubiquitous paper towel.

I was entirely unaware of this conflict because we seldom use paper towels in our house. Needs are taken care of 99 percent of the time by either dishcloths or rags.

About five or six years ago, we "inherited" a 12-pack bundle of Costco paper towels. I keep a roll in the pantry for certain purposes (draining bacon grease; cleaning up dog vomit) and go through about one roll of paper towels every two years. That bale will last me many, many years.

Let me digress for a moment. When I was growing up, my mother kept a kitchen drawer full of plain white terry dishcloths. They weren’t decorative and neatly folded; they were practical and tumbled into the drawer. She had those dish towels in constant use. A dishcloth always hung near the sink, and when it got damp or soiled (four or five times a day), she’d toss it in the washroom. She probably had fifty dish towels on hand. Old dish towels were, of course, recycled into rags.

We do the same thing in our house. I keep one kitchen drawer dedicated to a jumble of clean dish towels.

A towel hangs from a holder attached to the cabinet door in front of the kitchen sink for convenient hand-drying. I change the dish towel anywhere from twice a day (for light kitchen duties) up to four or five times a day (for active kitchen projects).

My kitchen is not a place of calm beauty and matching décor; it is a place of practical food production. It would never occur to me to use a paper towel merely to dry my hands; that’s what dish towels are for.

I buy white terrycloth “shop rags” in a 60-count bale from Costco. A bale will last me for 10 years or more of hard use before the towels become ratty or worn enough to recycle into rags.

So, with dish towels so inexpensive and versatile, why are people so devoted to paper towels?

I think I got my answer many years ago while visiting a friend. I needed to wash my hands at her kitchen sink, where she kept a dish towel hanging from a hook. Naturally I reached for the dish towel to dry my hands ... and was so revolted I had to re-wash my hands and use a paper towel for drying. That’s because the dish towel was greasy, rank, and damp. It was one of those pretty decorative towels that evidently never got washed.

I’ve since learned that having decorative towels in the kitchen is fairly common for a lot of people. Decorative towels are expensive, so folks don’t have 50 or 60 tumbled in a drawer. They don’t change them or wash them on a regular basis. As a result, the towels are either (a) never used, because they’re so pretty; or (b) used so heavily that they get greasy, rank, and damp. No wonder paper towels are so popular.

What's the consensus here? Are paper towels worth the cost and waste?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Harvest House

We had such a large harvest from our garden this year that here it is mid-December and I'm still processing it. This is a long post, so grab yourself a cup of hot tea and join me on our harvesting and preserving journey.

Here's what portions of the garden looked like in mid-August:

I'll start with the popcorn.

I'd been interested in growing popcorn for quite some time, but every variety seemed to take too long for our short growing season. Finally I found what promised to be a suitably short-season heirloom variety.

Here it's "knee high by the Fourth of July."

And here it is late August.

It grew well, but it seemed the ears took a long time for form.

However the harvest was abundant.

Popcorn isn't like sweet corn. Even fresh on the cob, the kernels are hard and un-bite-able. But this particular variety was almost as pretty as Indian corn.

Over the next few days after harvesting, I shucked it all.

A chipmunk appreciated the underformed ears.

On the cob, the total weight was 89 lbs.

I spread it out on the floor of a spare room to dry. (The gap in the middle is where I spilled some water on the newspaper.)

Kinda cool, no?

After it was dry, and over a period of weeks, I shelled the corn. It's stubborn stuff. I couldn't just rub it off like regular dried sweet corn. Instead, I put several ears at a time into a small canvas bag, whacked it with a rubber mallet (which loosened the kernels), and then was able to rub the remainder off (while wearing garden gloves -- a must!). And in case you're wondering, I couldn't use a corn sheller because it would damage the kernel; if a popcorn kernel is broken or damaged, it won't pop.

It was laborious work, but in the end yielded 37.75 lb. of shelled popcorn. Since popcorn is one of our favorite snacks, this is wonderful.


I harvested this August 14. If there's one thing that grows well here, it's garlic.

The garlic just sorta sat around for several weeks. I actually gave a lot of it away to friends and neighbors for planting. In early November, I sat down and peeled what remained.

Then I chopped and canned it. Because I gave away so much, I only ended up with seven pints of canned chopped garlic.

I reserved 150 cloves for planting...

...which I did late (Nov. 8).

Once planted, I gave the bed a straw mulch.

Except for some light weeding next summer (and watering, of course), this is all I have to do with the garlic until next harvest.

Onions. We love onions, so I planted five tires' worth -- four of yellow, one of red.

This year we harvested 18 lbs. of red onions and 40 lbs. of yellow. Actually, we grew a lot more than that -- probably double that amount. We ate off the onion beds for weeks before harvesting the remainder in the fall.

Pears. I already posted all about the actions of the Magic Pear Fairy, who harvested about 100 lbs.

Potatoes. We planted five beds of potatoes: four yellow, one red.

Altogether we got 80 lbs. of taters.

I sorted them according to size, and (in the absence of a basement or root cellar) stored them in the canning closet (the coolest, darkest part of our house).

Poppies. Or more specifically, poppy seed heads.

I love poppy seeds and wanted to try growing my own. It worked.

Although I only planted one dedicated bed of seed poppies, I ended up scattering them in numerous other beds as well. They're a pretty and useful addition to any garden.

The seeds fall out of the pods easily enough. I tapped them into a glass jar.

Then I sieved them through fine mesh strainers to remove (most of) the debris. I did this several times.

I ended up with about a pint and a half of seeds. In retrospect, I could have saved myself a lot of time and effort by putting a handful of seed pods into a plastic bowl with a tight lid, and slamming them around a whole bunch. I'll do that next year.

Peas. I consider these one of the loveliest of garden crops. From two beds, I harvested (I think) five pounds (I forgot to weigh the amount from the second bed).

Yield: 15 pints.

Cayennes. They're a favorite with Younger Daughter, but in her absence I only planted one bed ... which, as it turns out, was more than enough.

Just before the first frost, I pulled all the plants, then sorted the ripe from the unripe.

I ended up with 0.75 lb. of ripe cayennes, and 5.5 lbs. of green (unripe). I put the ripe ones in a colander to dry.

I spread the green peppers on some shelves to let them ripen.

Over several weeks, most of them turned red. I gave a lot of them to a neighbor who loves spicy foods.

Tomatoes. As is typical around here, not many ripened before the first frost.

So we ended up picking most of them green.

We put them in shallow boxes with bananas (for ethylene, the fruit-ripening gas).

And then -- this was critical -- we tucked mosquito netting around the boxes to keep fruit flies out. This kept the tomatoes from rotting prematurely.

Over the next few weeks, the tomatoes gradually ripened. When enough at a time got red, we collected them...

...and ran them through the food strainer to make purée. (It goes much quicker with two people -- Don was the chopper, I was the grinder.)

It's a messy job, but the food strainer makes it a whole lot easier. (Notice the towel on the floor to catch the splatter.)

From the first batch we processed, we ended up with six gallons of purée, which we froze.

A couple weeks later, we processed the rest and got another four gallons of purée.

These bags are now in the freezer. Over the winter with the wood cookstove in constant use, I'll gradually cook the purée down into tomato sauce and can it.

We took the tomato skins from the second, smaller batch of tomatoes we processed, and started a batch of tomato vinegar.


Our trees are still very young, and this year the plums and peaches took the year off; but we got a fair amount of apples for such baby trees -- 20 lbs.

I turned this into pie filling. First step, peeling. (Notice Darcy's interested nose.)

Filling the canning jars.

End result: Seven quarts.

Carrots. There's something so pretty about carrots. We planted three beds.

The funny thing about carrots is I absolutely hate them raw, but I adore them cooked. Absolutely stinkin' love them cooked. They're probably second only to broccoli as my favorite vegetable.

Because carrots are so forgiving about when they're harvested, I waited until early November to pull them.

Total harvest, 45 lbs.

Then they sat around in the barn for another three weeks until I finally got around to processing them, which I did just a few days ago. First, trimming off the greens.

Some of the carrots were pretty funny.

A few were just too small to bother with.

What to do with all the trimmed greens?

Why, give them to the cows, of course! Better than candy.

Next step, peeling.

Then dicing.

Finally, canning.

I did this in several batches over a couple of days.

Final yield: 48 pints.

The last thing I'm processing this season is actually something I harvested last season -- dried beans.

I dried the bean pods, but then they sat, literally, for a whole year. I decided it was time to stop procrastinating and get them shelled.

Prepper gardeners are almost obsessively focused on dried beans, with good reason. They pack a mighty punch in term of protein and nutrition. But they're not without their drawbacks.

Dried beans have a low yield when compared to other crops. From one tire, I can harvest 30 ears of corn, or 15 lbs. of potatoes, or 15 lbs. of carrots. But I'll only get eight ounces of dried beans.

For us, dried beans will only ever be an "overflow" crop, something to plant if I have spare room. That's because we have other protein sources -- chickens, eggs, beef, and eventually nuts. If beans are your only source of protein in a prepper-gardening situation, then yes, plant a lot. Just be aware of their low yield.

They're also labor-intensive. Sure, you can stuff the dried pods in a pillowcase and stomp around on it (highly recommended), but don't think for a minute that technique will dislodge every last bean. In fact, I've discovered it only dislodges about half the beans. There's no getting around the need to hand-pick through the stomped pods to maximize the harvest.

Still, it's not a terrible task. I found it rather soothing, akin to doing a puzzle. (These are calypso beans, by the way.)

Dried beans are a patient crop, allowing a homesteader the chance to get everything else processed first and shell them gradually over cold winter days. I'm still shelling them, but I'm going to guesstimate I'll end up with 10 lbs.

Now step back a moment and pretend you didn't read any of the above, and try to see everything with outside eyes.

One day in mid-October, we had a fellow come over to give us an estimate for some repair work we needed done to the outside of the house. He caught me splitting wood:

As Don showed him what he wanted done, I looked over things with fresh eyes, the eyes of a stranger, and I realized it looked like Harvest House around our place.

Outside was a wheelbarrow full of pears (I sent the gentleman home with two bulging bags)...

...a crate of garlic:

...some late-season watermelon and cantaloupe:

...and a tub bulging with cayennes.

Inside was a basket of eggs:

...a few pears reserved for fresh eating:

...two large boxes of ripening tomatoes:

...and canning projects in progress:

So there you have it, our Harvest House.