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Lowbrow Homesteading

It’s April in New England, which means the solid crust of exhaust stained ice/snow has finally given way to brown grass. And, like good northeasterners, we pull out our sandals and rejoice.

Me, especially. This year’s winter — with its months of below-zero temperatures and comical snowfall totals — wreaked havoc on my usually-manageable seasonal depression. What started out as a normal case of the winter blues segued into a deep, relentless fog that stretched on for months. It was Bad.

I didn’t feel like doing any of my usual hobbies (or much of anything). At some point, I developed a trace of interest in baking a cake. Then I laid on my couch for a few weeks. Then I bought some butter. Another few weeks went by. You get the idea.

Eventually I made the cake. Something about the distraction of following directions, or the smell of sweets baking… whatever it was, it got me off the couch. So i went with the flow, stocked up on flour, and baked through the tears.

Co-author Lena Webb had a similar relationship with crossword puzzles during a recent rough spell, and her essay describes it far better than I could so I’ll just link to it here. Go read it.

Some photos from my winter of baking:

One of many loaves of crusty peasant bread.

A classic apple bundt.

My home State cookie. I dropped the first batch in the oven and they burst into flames spectacularly, but I stayed the course (read: and also cried) and started over. I’m glad I did.

Lemon custard cakes.

Bavarian Pretzel.

Lastly, vanilla cream filled dark chocolates made with my (new) antique mold.

(Sorry these are mostly crummy iPhone pictures. My DSLR camera was in a closet and I didn’t have the energy to take it out for a few months. People who get depressed will understand this.)

The other thing I did this winter was watch a ton of stuff on Hallmark. Yeah, I’m admitting it. The Hallmark Channel is great for mildly depressed people because everything they air is harmless and therefore Safe For All Moods. While Lifetime movies can occasionally go dark and rape-y, Hallmark movies are both 1) watchable and 2) completely free of conflict. Even when it’s a romance and the protagonist has to choose between two men, she always breaks up with the loser guy in a totally amicable way where everyone hugs and learns from the experience.

Speaking of watchable corniness, you should probably start watching Younger. It airs on the sounds-like-it’s-made-up TV Land network and stars the actress who was in that ballet show by the Gilmore Girls writer that didn’t last very long. It follows a woman who’s 40 and recently divorced, but pretends to be in her mid-twenties to get a job. People believe it because she’s got long hair and highlights. She has all kinds of inoffensive adventures and starts dating this young tattoo artist dude and it’s all very silly and forgettable (and therefore depression-approved!).

Hillary Duff is also in it which will remind you that she exists.

P.S. My mood has improved significantly, lest you worry.

P.P.S Antique chocolate molds are amazing, and you should buy one here.

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We’ve always tried to buy environmentally decent laundry detergent (as in, one that doesn’t fluoresce or have weird carcinogenic stuff in it).

There are about three or four “natural” brands out there and, to quote Michael Kors, they’re all a little … underwhelming. And expensive. And, despite the hand-drawn green leaf on the label, aren’t usually that great for the environment.

So I did some research on what actual hard-core hippies do (disregarding anything that involves handwashing, because homey don’t play that) and found the answer: soap nuts.

Soap nuts are the fruits of this crazy tree that grows in South America and Asia. People have been using them to clean stuff for centuries, but they’ve only recently come into their own as an alternative laundry detergent.

You’re shaking your head. Yes, they are actual nuts that you put in your washing machine. It’s like I’m telling you to wash your tub by filling it with acorns.

Stay with me – there are five excellent reasons to open your mind and try soap nuts.

Reason 1: Value, and Lots of It

Damn, these things are cheap. If you work out the math, it costs ~$0 to do a load. Okay, not $0. But close. And unlike most “natural” things, they don’t come in a teeny tiny doll-sized container. You get a lot of nut for the money.

Reason 2: No Giant Plastic Container
If you buy regular detergent, you end up with this huge awful plastic container to recycle. It’s so big that it fills up your recycling bin, which means that when you (inevitably) forget to take out the recycling one week, beer and wine bottles pile up and take over your kitchen like those houses on Hoarders. With soap nuts, all you’re left with is a wrinkly little nut thing that you can chuck in the compost. EASY.

Reason 3: They Do Work
It’s true; they really do. I haven’t bought Tide in a billion years, but I can confidently say that the nuts do a significantly better job than Seventh Generation or the detergent from Trader Joe’s. They don’t have much of a perfume-y smell to them, but clothing always comes out of the dryer clean and fresh.

Reason 4: Not Labor Intensive
I’m willing to spend a little more time on certain homesteading pursuits (namely, cooking and gardening), but I hate doing laundry with a passion and have no intention of expanding its time footprint. When I first read about soap nuts, I expected you would have to fish the little bag out of your washer between cycles to get an effective rinse. But – yay! – you totally don’t have to! They can stay in your washing machine the whole time without leaving soap all over your clothes. No, I have no idea how it works. It seems kind of magical, but then again so does washing your clothes with a tropical fruit.

Reason 5: Endless Comic PotentialSo, you put the nuts in this little cloth bag, which keeps them together as they bop around in your washing machine. It’s a cotton drawstring thing that the text on the box refers to as a “sack.”

A sack. For your soap nuts.

A nut sack.

You’re welcome.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret, readers: I’ve been experimenting with domesticity. Composting, vegetable gardening, cooking… I’m even considering buying an apron. (Seriously, they’re not just sexist. They’re actually useful.)

You’re probably a tad surprised. This is, after all, coming from the girl who created a hobby out of ordering pizza and whose New Year’s resolutions involved eating out more often.

I’ll explain. It’s not about housewifery or creating THE PERFECT HOME, it’s about autonomy. More self-sufficiency = less reliance on The System. And that means more freedom. Get it?

While I have a way to go, I’m not starting completely from scratch. Like most people my age, I know how to cook nice meals for guests and do laundry and stuff like that. The goal is to move beyond the dinner party level of household skills that everyone (mostly) learns. I’m talking about things like knowing how to make really cheap pots of food we can eat over multiple days, growing our own vegetables, and repairing things. Basically 500-level life skills.

I haven’t written much about this on The Lower Crust (though I’ve touched on bits and pieces here and here). I think part of the reason for my hesitance is that I don’t easily fit into any of the established lifestyle blogger archetypes.

The Martha Stewart

This kind of blogger never met a bottle of food coloring she didn’t like. Every meal is an opportunity for a large-scale craft project involving the use of a pastry bag. Her garden is full of bright, cheery annuals and she wears white Capri pants and strappy sandals with kitten heels. Often found on Pinterest.

“I have a lot of patience for washing stuff and planting pretty things that die after a year!”

The Homesteader

The Homesteader is like the hippy cousin of the Martha Stewart blogger. Like Martha Stewart, the Homesteader is SUPER high energy and really, really good at doing things with lots of steps. The difference lies in taste; Homesteaders are into canning heirloom tomatoes from their organic garden, not creating a diorama of Goodnight Moon in marshmallows and fondant.

Sometimes they can be a little competitive/judgy.

“I’m not saying I’m better than you…but store-bought bread?”

Outdoorsy Athletes

These bloggers are usually marathon runners or backpackers.

Reading these blogs makes me feel like this:

so I don’t read them.

Lifehackers

These blogs are written by people (usually dudes) who want to work smarter, not harder. Typical articles include how to cut down your smart phone bill, basic repair how-tos, free online services for organizing your calendar, apps for tracking your spending, and so on. Lots of good info, but designed mainly for hyper-urban lifestyles.

“Wait a minute, you don’t have a smart phone? HOW DO YOU LIVE.”

If pressed, I’d say my mindset is somewhere between Homesteader and Lifehacker. This is because:

  • Flowers are nice, but I’d rather grow food.
  • I like being outside and I’m not afraid of bugs and dirt.
  • I like hiking but running a marathon is not on my bucket list.
  • While I respect the creativity involved, I don’t have a deep desire to make art cupcakes.
  • I want to cook from scratch and have an organic garden, but I still want to watch stupid things on television.

I’m calling it Lowbrow Homesteading, and I’ll be covering my progress right here on The Lower Crust. In addition to my usual post topics (pizza, making fun of bad marketing, Lifetime movies), you can expect essays on radical gardening, canning without giving yourself botulism, building a greenhouse on the cheap, baking failures and successes, and more.

P. S. Did you see a purchased the domain? That makes it official.