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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

what's old is new again

My grandmother was green before green was the new black. She had almost no carbon footprint in a time long before "carbon footprint" was the hottest thing in documentaries. She was 21 years old when the stock market crashed and she was a new bride in 1932, at the beginning of the depression. In other words, she knew a thing or two about making do and using what you had. There just wasn't enough around to waste. She didn't set out to "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle." She just set out to be frugal, careful, and to make ends meet. I am sure that most women who had families during the 1930's were much like her.

They didn't have to "Reduce"... they never had that much to begin with. Food didn't come in disposable containers, boxes, or freezer cartons. Mainly it came from the garden, the butcher, and the milkman (who picked up the bottles when you finished). They didn't buy pre-made pie crusts, frozen lasagna, cookie dough, cinnamon rolls in a can, pre-shredded cabbage, disposable diapers, paper plates, plastic forks, or mashed potatoes in a box.  They didn't order in a pizza or Chinese. They couldn't pick up a rotisserie chicken for dinner, and they didn't pack a Lunchable into a lunch box every morning. Instead, they bought flour, sugar, vegetables, meat, eggs, cheese. They peeled their own potatoes, rolled out their own dough. They let the bread rise, and they shucked the corn.

They didn't set out to "Reuse," they just washed it for the next time. I can remember well into my grandmother's eighties how there were pieces of tin foil and plastic bags, freshly wiped clean, drying on her dish rack. Mostly, though, they had pots and pans, knives and cutting boards. They didn't have 90% of the convenience items we have available today.  There were no crock pot liners, no ziploc bags, no coffee filters. You didn't line your pan with foil to bake something sticky. You scrubbed it later.

By the time recycling became widespread, of course my grandmother put things in their proper receptacles... when she had things to recycle. But since she drank juice from a pitcher, and water from the tap, it wasn't as if she had tons of bottles and cans.  She didn't have tin pie pans, pizza cartons, tons of magazines, broken down boxes from Amazon, salad dressing bottles, paperwork from the school, two liter bottles, tubs from margarine, juice boxes, 100-calorie snack bags, or containers from pre-shredded roast beef. She had a pile of dishes, and a sink half-way filled with hot water. I think even by the time she was an old lady living a modern life with many of the conveniences we have today, she still had only a very small bag of "rubbish" to take out once a week... and maybe a bottle or two to recycle.

I'm not saying my grandmother was perfect, and I daresay that if there had been some of these ways to make her life simpler I am sure she would have embraced them. After all, she bought a modern washing machine, a car, and a TV... all of which came about during her life, and all of which use gas and electricity. Had the option been there, she may well have grabbed a pre-done dinner once in a while.  None of use should life the life of a monk or a miser, eating cold porridge and avoiding anything that might use up any resources. But we need to think about the best use for the resources we have.

Today, living a green life is a "new" thing. We celebrate Earth Day once a year, and we have "specialty" food stores so people can buy bulk beans and bulk oats, to save on packaging. We have to search to find meat that has come from an actual farm, not a factory farm. We have enormous trash cans and recycling cans that get picked up once a week... as often as not overflowing. We think that people who live a carefully waste-free life are amazingly at the head of the curve.

It sometimes seems to me that the biggest problem in all of the concern over reducing, reusing and recycling is not wasting in the first place. I try to buy things without too much packaging. It means a lot more cooking from scratch, but that's a small price and well worth it when the recipes come out right. I am finding more and more ways to buy things the way my grandmother might have... meat that isn't on a styrofoam tray, vegetables that aren't each in a plastic bag. I can reuse a bag over and over again to buy my oats, sunflower seeds, and many other bulk items if I go to the right store. I make my own granola bars with the bulk oats and seeds, instead of buying them prepackaged, and that saves a heck of a lot of plastic and a cardboard box. I can take my egg carton back to the farmer's market and refill it each week.

Of course, this has a limit. There are things I just can't make for myself, because there are only so many resources and so much time in a day. But, I need to make sure that I am truly using those things I buy, considering the impact they have. For example if I buy a carton of sour cream, I need to make sure that I use up all of the cream... because the cow that made the cream used up resources. The factory that made the plastic tub did too. As did the shipping company and the grocery store that got it from the cow to my shopping cart.  If I made sure that I didn't throw out any food, but rather found ways for myself or other people to eat it all before it goes bad, I would be helping out way more than just recycling that tub. (Although of course I do that too). Perhaps if I found a way to use up the rest of the sour cream after the initial reason I bought it, I might end up needing one less thing next time I am at the market.

So, in light of my renewed commitment to using less and wasting even more less, I chose not to throw out the leftover mashed potatoes the other day. Instead, I thought of my grandmother. Like I said, having lived through the depression taught her a lot about making do. But being Irish must have taught her a thing or two about a potato.  I remembered that she used leftover mashed potatoes to make a sort of potato pancake. For the next time you have leftover mashed potatoes, here is the version I came up with:

Let your leftover mashed potatoes cool overnight. Put a frying pan over medium heat and melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Lightly beat an egg and stir it into the potatoes. Add a green onion, finely chopped, and salt and pepper to taste.  Form into patties, and place into the hot buttered pan. Cook until they are golden brown on both sides, turning once. Serve with sour cream.