On Bars and Restaurants

When you think about restaurants, how many of the examples that come to mind are national chains?  Although many of us have our favorite local place, it seems that the space is crowded, not just with fast food, but with “fast casual” and upscale versions of this “clone culture.”

Now, repeat the exercise with bars – the places we go for an “adult drink of our choice” or perhaps to listen to some music, rather than for the food.  Sure, there are some recognized national chains, but for as long as I can remember caring, most of the places my friends and family went for this sort of thing were essentially local.

Which raises the question, “why the difference?”

I have a few thoughts but nothing well formed, so if you have ideas, please share them in the comments.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Apr 12

Having just returned from a trip, and expecting friends and family staying with me, I had some grocery shopping to do this week.  For this good/bad/ugly post I’ll focus on what I’ve bought since I returned to town, since I already posted about the travel.  I also want to try to condense this a bit since I know my posts tend to ramble.

Good: local bread, local hot dogs, local and regional cheese, regional butter, local mushrooms, local potatoes and rainbow carrots1, locally baked cookies.

Bad: Kalamata olives (unknown origin).  Lemon juice (Florida).  Coconut milk (unk.)2  Ginger (unk.)  – I’m not clear on whether this could grow locally.

Ugly: Domestic parmesan 3.  Tortilla chips 4.  Frozen peas5. Organic chicken thighs6.  Raisins (CA)7.  Organic onions and sweet potatoes (unk.)8.

There’s one other “bad” that deserves special mention: gasoline for the car.  Is there such a thing as a “local” gas station?  Somewhat surprisingly, the answer is a qualified yes: Mirabito.  Although they don’t refine their own fuel (their web site shows “materials safety data sheets” or MSDS from Citgo, Valero, and Sunoco) at least much of the profit is being recirculated regionally.  They’re also a strong promoter of alternative fuels (E85 and biodiesel, for example), and even I think those are a dubious sort of “alternative,” at least it shows some awareness that there is an issue.  My guilty (“ugly”) plea: that’s not where I normally buy gas!  I have been favoring Hess for years since I found out that they were a progressive company that was not doing things like fighting fuel economy standards for cars. Unfortunately, they’ve made a big move into fracking in the last couple of years and I should probably shift my business. So perhaps this is a good example of this blog getting me to re-evaluate my actions.

  1. Sorry, not sure which farm.
  2. If someone can figure out how to grow olives, lemons, or coconuts in NY, they’re either a miracle worker or a global-warming survivor.  I should talk about this more at some point.
  3. Probably from Wisconsin.  This gets into the big hairy question of why we can’t make our own cheese on site – the illegal status of unpasteurized milk – which should be a blog post in its own right.
  4. We grow enough corn locally that it seems ridiculous to buy national-brand chips, but I’m not aware of any local alternatives.  I guess you need economies of scale to sell a pound of chips for $4.
  5. Called “Woodstock,” but distributed from RI and declared “product of USA.”  I guess that’s better than world peas.  We grew a lot of beans last year but not much in the way of peas.
  6. Bought for my friends.  We have good local chicken farmers but they mostly sell whole chickens which makes it harder to grab one for a quick home-cooked meal.  For myself I mostly eat vegetarian.
  7. It seems like we ought to be able to find local raisins.  Our attempts to make our own were frustrating, because it takes an unbelievable amount of dehydrator time to get raisins from fresh grapes.
  8. Would normally grow these, but ran out of stock.

The Travelling Engineer Problem

Some computer science geeks like to talk about the “Travelling Salesman Problem.”  This post has nothing to do with that, because as an engineer, my company almost never sends me to visit customers. Plus, when I travel, it’s typically to one destination, and back home.   For a few days this week, that was to the mother ship, er, main office in Ohio.

The problem, then, is this: what does “local” mean when you’re not at home?  At a restaurant on Wednesday, I had the option of drinking a beer from the Great Lakes (GLBC Rye of the Tiger), or from my home state (STBC Unearthly IPA). This turns out to be a pretty trivial choice, because the Great Lakes beer actually comes from closer to where I was sitting at the time than Southern Tier is to my house.  We’ll call that “good” (and it was tasty, too…)

On the “ugly” side are things like stopping at a gas station and buying snack food because I didn’t bring snacks with me from home.  That would have been the smart thing to do.  I was able to at least choose Snyder’s of Berlin (PA) chips, which puts about 200 food miles between the source and my purchase point along I-90.  I am not at all proud about the factory-farmed stick of processed meat-product that I selected to add some protein.  Nuts would have been a better choice, I’m sure. (Actually, eating my own fingers might have been a better choice, from both a health and flavor perspective.  But not while I was using them to drive.)

For regular meals, I had a couple of different options open.  The company kindly puts me in a very nice hotel which not only includes breakfast, but offers a “social hour” with food (even wine and beer) most evenings.  Last time I visited, they even had a local wine among the choices.  There have been times when (after a long drive and a long day at work, and no desire to go out again and find a restaurant) a few bites here has been enough of a meal.  Alternately, there are a number of very nice restaurants in walking distance of the hotel… and I did walk, despite the early spring thunderstorms.  One of the things that, for me, defines “very nice” is that they’re not chains, and that I’ve actually met and conversed with the owner at multiple of these establishments.  So in that sense, these are local establishments, and I feel pretty good about patronizing them.

For lunches, I took a different approach on this trip than in the past, by only eating half my dinner and having leftovers to bring into the lunch room.  (The “not stuffing myself” part was a wonderful side effect.)  One day this week, the company had a “picnic” (free food in the lunchroom) to celebrate baseball season – complete with bags of Cracker Jacks.  (For anyone my age who had them as a kid, you’ll remember these as “boxes of Cracker Jacks” from the Borden ownership period.  You may also remember them having prizes that aren’t crap. Thank you, Frito-Lay.) So that is another way of getting free food on the company.

Finally, a note on transportation is probably in order.  Why would I choose to drive 715 miles?  Isn’t that bad for the environment?  Well yes, of course it is.  My other options are: fly 872 miles (round trip), and then rent a car and drive another 70-80 mi; or drive 130 miles RT to the nearest Amtrak station, then take a train 660 miles RT; and drive 70 mi at the other end.  When you consider total BTU plus driving a fuel efficient vehicle (I averaged about 42mpg), the drive is about 2.2MBTU; the flight is 2.4MBTU; the train is 1.67MBTU.  The problem is, there is only one train per day, which leaves at 9:50pm and gets in at 3:30am… when there are no car rental places open.  And then where do you go? Even with “early check in” you can’t go to the hotel at 4am the previous night.  I did the train adventure once, and all of the late night limo services and other complications nearly doubled the total duration of the trip, making it completely impractical.

Someday, I hope we will have real passenger train service again – a stop in Ithaca, and more than one train per day.  I love trains, and would happily go back to this if it was a serviceable option.  But by the time that happens, I may be long retired from this job.

 

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Apr 4

The weekend has arrived.  This post will be the first in what I plan as a series of retrospectives on my purchasing habits and how I can localize them further.  I am told (thanks, Wikipedia!) that the title idiom has come to “refer to upsides, downsides and the parts that could, or should have been done better, but were not.”  Perfect.

The Good – items that I’ve grown/made/purchased as close to home as possible. Cases where I used to buy something non-local, and have now found or adopted an alternative.  The Bad – items that don’t originate locally, for which I can’t see a path to an alternative.  The Ugly – when I know I could do better, but for one reason or another (habit, laziness, poor planning) I didn’t. So, having set that context…

The Good

This week, I purchased a CSA share (actually, a half share) for first time. Although the ideal would be growing my own veggies In My Back Yard (IMBY), I know that I have a lot of other irons in the fire right now and this feels like a huge improvement over the alternatives.  The farm (Spice of Life Farm in Alpine, NY) isn’t necessarily the closest, but the owner is a friend of one of my neighbors, and since several of us are getting shares from the same place, it allows us to combine trips into town to collect our produce.

In other food-related items, I had a Greco-Roman-era dinner this week: barley cakes (maza) 1 and beer.  Although later in history barley was considered a grain for feeding animals, in early Rome it was a staple. Contrary to our images of vast Greek and Roman feasts, most common people in that era subsisted on unleavened bread (and not necessarily all that much of that) with an occasional veggie and, very rarely, meat.2 Barley cakes are about as simple as you can get: barley flour (1-3/4 cups), honey (3 tbsp), olive oil (2 tbsp), and enough water to make a good firm dough.  (Flatten into rounds and bake at 400°F for 12-15min. There, now you have the whole recipe.) I’m not certain where the barley originated (though I know I bought it from the local food co-op) but I know where it was ground into flour: at my kitchen table.  The honey is from a local farm, but the oil (alas) was not.  Olive oil might have been a local product for the Greeks, but around here it should be sunflower oil.  So that’s a tiny bit of ugly.

In addition to this, I also bought milk.  Although the co-op has both Organic Valley northeast “local” milk and regular Organic Valley milk, I learned something interesting.  According to the code printed on top of the “regular” milk, it is packaged just over an hour away in Syracuse. Meanwhile, for whatever, reason, it consistently has a 3-4 week longer shelf life (both rated, and per my own experiences) than the “local” ones.  So I buy the one that doesn’t say local on the assurance that it actually is, and that I will not be pouring a quart down the drain because it has spoiled.

Now here’s something I bet you didn’t know you could get at home: a massage therapist house call!  A friend of mine who recently finished massage school is working in the area (temporarily, alas) and doesn’t have a place to practice right now. When I asked if I could make an appointment, she said sure, but could it happen at my home?  Of course! What self-respecting locality-buff with aching muscles would turn that down?  (I will note here that there are presently no licensed massage therapists living here, but if any of you want to change that and move in a few doors down, you have a built-in clientele waiting…)  In any case, she lives less than 9 miles away.

 

The Bad

I suppose I should admit that I have a chocolate addiction. My wonderful excuse for buying chocolate this week was for a friend and neighbor’s birthday. Although there are local confectioners and chocolatiers, there really aren’t local chocolate makers.  So far, at least, the ingredients don’t grow around here. So I bought chocolate as a gift… er, plus that bit that I got for myself.

The Ugly

Pizza.  I love it, there is a great place right down the street, and it’s what’s for dinner.  Unfortunately, I’m certain that much of what they make it from is sourced from places that fail the “local” test.  There’s no question that I could make it myself, and make the crust from local oats, the cheese from local dairy, the tomatoes could even have been grown literally IMBY.  There’s a vast difference between an hour-long cooking project and a five minute stop as I was going past anyway, but that’s a lousy excuse, and hopefully sometime soon I’ll get myself psyched up to do it right.  The one redeeming virtue is that the shop is small and locally owned, so some of that $6 meal is staying in the community rather than going to a big national chain.

  1. History of Technology, Volume II, p. 119
  2. History of Technology, Volume II, p. 105, 119

How Local is CO2?

Carbon credits.  At this point, if you haven’t heard the name, you might well be living in a culture that doesn’t use fossil fuels.  But the basic idea is that if you’re creating CO2 from burning fossil fuels, you can do “something” to compensate by buying carbon credits.  These might go to the planting of trees or some other activity that reduces CO2 production elsewhere.  You can argue over whether this makes a difference to our long-term future, or not, but that’s really outside the scope of what I want to write about here.  Thinking in terms of my back yard, what can I do to first reduce, and subsequently offset my CO2 production?

The first step I took (starting in 2010) was planting my own trees. Estimates are that each tree may capture 2.5-5.5lbs of  CO2 per year depending on age. Considering how quickly I can plant trees, though, this doesn’t amount to much. The key, though, is that the trees I’m planting are part of a coppice grove, which should supply me with firewood.  More on coppice at the end, if you’re interested.

The next step I’ve taken is to stop using natural gas.  When my home was built, the installed heat and hot water source was a natural gas boiler.  I started heating primarily with wood in 2012; although there are some deadfalls on the property and one or two trees that I’ve had to take down for other reasons, most of this wood was purchased from local suppliers. (Unless you want to pay for the energy of kiln-drying, you must buy your firewood locally.) Then, in 2013, I was able to eliminate the boiler by having a solar “domestic hot water” system installed.  The only remaining gas appliance is my cookstove, where I decided that the embodied energy (about 1325kWh equivalent) was more than the CO2 involved in keeping it running off of propane.  (So far it’s looking like 10 years worth of use will be about equivalent to the replacement energy – but then I’m still on my first 40lb propane tank so I might be underestimating the years.)  Also, out in the future, I may be able to use a biogas digester to run the stove.  And yes, I need a backup for the solar DHW and for the wood stove… but those are both electric, running off my grid-tied solar PV array, which is backed up by buying more wind credits than I actually use.

Of course, all of this is only part of my CO2 use, because I still drive a car, and because my work requires me to travel overseas periodically, which leads to air travel.  In the most recent year, my Prius accounted for 31% of my COproduction, and the flights for 67%, so I’ve reduced the home energy to only 2% of my total, much lower than typical use.  So now we’re back to the question of carbon credits, and how I can choose carbon credits that are local.  That has an easy answer: the Finger Lakes Climate Fund.  If I offset my carbon use here, it turns into grants for local homeowners to improve the energy efficiency of their own homes.

So in summary: 

Before/After CO2

 PastPresentFuture
HeatingNatural gasLocally sourced wood
Electric backup
On site coppice wood
Hot waterNatural gasSolar DHW
Electric backup
(same)
CookingNatural gasPropane cookstoveBiogas cookstove?
Home energy150%1%TBD
Automobile energy180%48%TBD
Airplane energy1?98%Lower?

1 As a percentage of single family detached green home/green car, conventional suburban development, per the EPA. Note that the transport numbers are cumulative: I used as many BTU flying as most households do for their entire annual transportation. Not good, but all of the flying represented was job-related.

I said I’d write a little more about coppice for those who are interested. The coppice grove has been in use in Europe (particularly the UK) for so long that they are considered unique ecosystems.  The principle is simple – there are many trees that will regrow new shoots from cut stumps; the regrowth is more vigorous because the established root system can supply nutrients much more effectively, and the harvesting and regrowth can be repeated over and over on a relatively short cycle.  (Some trees, or some ecosystems, will work better with “pollarding”, where the cutting happens far above the ground.)  Estimates for coppice productivity range from 1 cord/acre/year to as high as 5 cords/acre/year!

Since I’m burning about 1 cord/year, we allocated 2 acres for coppice but I started out by planting only 1/2 acre.  One of the good (and bad) things about initially establishing a coppice is that you want to plant only a fraction of the trees each year – less work, but you have to wait a long time (10-15 years?) before your first plantings are of harvestable size, and you know what your yields will be.  In any case, I’ll be buying from the local wood suppliers for a while longer still. However, because I’m planting a more esoteric (if historically suggested) coppice, I will get some productivity sooner.

Some of the preferred species for firewood coppice are ash, beeches, poplar, some oaks, and black or honey locust.  But in the old days, coppice was used for a lot more than firewood: fence posts, fencing withies (willow), tool handles (and going back to pre-iron age, even tool blades including plowshares!), furniture…  So I’ve elected to plant a coppice that includes a variety of species, starting with quite a bit of apple.

Apple has the following advantages: coppices very well (even past the first 15-20 years); can be grown from seed readily (so I don’t need to buy expensive orchard trees); excellent firewood; excellent wood for smoking meats; excellent wood for turnery (making things on a lathe) and other woodworking; and, oh yeah, it produces food.  Now when you grow an apple from seed of a good eating apple, you know something about the genetics – at least one of the parents tasted good – but you really don’t know if you’re going to get something of quality.  On the other hand, if you plant fifty of them, chances are that you’ll get something out there that’s good for eating, and a bunch of things that are decent for making cider. Since we have orchard spaces elsewhere, there’s no reason at all why we can’t graft out branches from any apples that happen to be delicious.

I’m including some other trees in the coppice rotation as well; the variety leads to a more diverse ecosystem and different trees will have different uses.  Some “thornless” honey-locust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis, acquired cheaply from the local soil conservation district), some Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioicus – doesn’t coppice! – but I got it for free from a friend, and it does produce a coffee substitute and is good firewood), and planned for this year, swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor, which does coppice and which does well in poorly drained soils).

Closer to Home

Welcome to my blog about choosing to live closer to my home.  What do I mean by that?  Well, bear with me and I’ll explain.

You’ve probably heard of “preppers” before – you may even know one. Those people who are busy building underground concrete bunkers and filling them with every kind of weapon available from the least discerning vendor at the local gun show.  Stockpiling a year’s supply of MREs.  Getting ready for something – their idea of what may vary, from the one-world-government shock troops in black helicopters to the zombie apocalypse.

My family and friends sometimes call me a prepper too, but I like to think of it as a kinder, gentler form of “prep”.  Preparation for a dual calamity that, though insidious, is all too well known: the gradual disappearance of the cheap energy that has fueled the industrial revolution, and its collateral sidekick, global climate weirding.  Since you can’t shoot either of these with an AK-47, some might wonder exactly how you do prepare for them.

That’s the story I hope to tell with this blog: the story of how my neighbors and I are gradually building a resilient local community around good old fashioned values and skills.  And I do mean old – think about what humanity could do in the 18th century – or the 8th century – and you’ll see that a lot of really important things haven’t changed.  We still eat, drink, sleep, and try to stay warm.  We (21st century Americans) have gotten rather accustomed to eating factory-farmed processed-corn-based fast food, drinking corn syrup laced soft drinks or imported Australian wine, sleeping on memory-foam beds, and heating our homes with convenient gas or oil furnaces.

For me, and probably for many people reading this, “buying the things I need” (or want, but pretend that I need) has become an automatic, non-intentional, unexamined habit.  So I propose to stop and examine it – carefully.  The phrase NIMBY – not in my back yard – has become ubiquitous – everyone has something they don’t want there.  So instead, let’s look at the opposite question: what do I want “In My Back Yard”. What can I grow, or make right here to fulfill those needs and wants. And if not my back yard, what about my neighbors’ yards, or on our larger property? Or in my town… and so forth. And if it does come from far away, then what is the justification, and what is the impact?

Of course I’m sure I’ll talk about a lot of other things along the way…