Why “Let Them Eat Crap” Is Not the Answer to the Obesity Crisis

PolyfaceLast winter, I was invited to attend a nutrition class for low-income and disabled folks held by a local food bank, and I have not been able to write about it since.

But things have suddenly cleared up for me, and I know what I would like to say. I was jolted out of my confusion by a clumsy attempt in the Atlantic Monthly to blame Michael Pollan and his followers (e.g., people like me) for somehow retarding the junk food industry’s progress in creating better living through chemistry. You’ll see the connection in a moment, I promise.

First, the class. Although I went there intending to write an appreciative first-hand account of the food bank’s good work in the community, as I was watching the class, I grew increasingly (but quietly) disturbed. The lessons — and “lessons” they were — provided a short and painful tour through the arid world of what Michael Pollan has rightly criticized as “nutritionism” — dated concepts, an experience of food divorced from its cultural context, and not-so-subtle messages that the obese have only themselves and their poor choices to blame.

For someone like me who believes that environmental exposures like BPA can plausibly be linked to the dramatic rise in obesity, it was uncomfortable, and made only more so by my fast-developing allergy to all forms of fat shaming (which, as it turns out, is not such a great motivational tool after all. Shocker.).

The jury is really still out on the causes for the “obesity epidemic,” as a new brilliant article by David Berreby makes clear. When the public health folks finally lift nutrition sciences out of its squalling infancy, I doubt there will be enough accounting of the psychological harm done to millions of people — especially women — who have learned from the inescapable and constant nutrtition-y messages on “how to eat” and “what we should look like” to experience their own day-to-day through a lens of intermittent self-loathing and personal failure.

But back to the class: although the instructors were clearly well intentioned, well, we know where those lead. While I only got a snapshot of the overall curriculum from a single two-hour class, that session seemed obsessed with reducing fat, in a way that really has not been up-to-date, nutritionally, since at least the mid-90s. The lessons included a tediously detailed explanation of all the types of fats as well as, for one example, comparisons of the amount of dietary fats in low-fat versus regular dressings, exemplified by globby substances trapped in two test tubes that were dutifully passed around.

I was quietly horrified to contemplate how this lesson, should it be taken to heart, would drive class members to buy nasty-tasting, highly engineered, low-fat versions of dressings for their salads. Even the best bottled dressings, of course, are an oil and vinegar balance that requires chemical emulsifiers galore to keep the ingredients in suspension. Should one in fact choose to eat a healthy green salad, as the class was being cajoled to do, topping it with such gloppy coagulation would be enough to cure them of the impulse for quite some time. Not to mention that low-fat often means high-sugar, and almost certainly involves more laboratory than food.

The mostly minority, entirely low income, elderly and disabled class members handled it all with aplomb and grace, joking their way through an exercise in making unnecessarily sweet and complicated yogurt parfaits with layers of granola, yogurt and fruit preserves and gamely grinding up home-made hummus with tahini and canned chickpeas. (I, on the other hand, was childishly restless, wondering per the hummus: 1) um, how is this a “low-fat” food again? 2) why anyone bothering to go to the extraordinary trouble of making a readily available snack-dip wouldn’t use freshly cooked beans, so that they could taste the extra effort?)

In a side conversation while the “cooking” was going on, I learned that the elderly woman next to me, a grandmother of seven, was actually an accomplished and renowned cook among the group. She was on her way home after class to make an enormous batch of authentic Jamaican jerk chicken for the community’s party the following day, using her long-loved and reportedly delicious recipe, which I did manage to sweet-talk her into sharing with me. She should have taught the class, I muttered, sadly, to myself.

Why? Food as culture and as celebration. As the flavors of a people’s past, their ingenuity and history, their resources and adaptation. As a life-force and a gift.

Nutritionism does for the act of eating what Jazzercise did for dance: it sucks out the joy and narrative meaning and turns it into an exercise in forced jumping jacks rife with added potential for humiliation (remember the leotards we all wore?). In the same way, David Freedman’s antiseptic, condescending piece in the Atlantic Monthly is so caught up in his contempt for the arugula-eating food elitists allegedly swarming behind Michael Pollan, and so bought into an utterly simplistic and dated fat-avoidance strategy on obesity, that he misses the subject of food entirely.

His argument marshals so many straw men it’s like watching a parade of scarecrows traipsing through an Agribusiness cornfield: Whole Foods sells some junk food! Certain juice bar smoothies have a lot of calories! Pollan-ites have actually claimed that overpriced organic farmer’s market produce could feed the poor! His citations are almost entirely his own adventures in alternating healthier eateries with trips to MickeyDs. (He also repeatedly misuses “obesogenic,” a term with a rather specific definition, when what he really means is “fattening.”)

What he does get right is self-evident: of course it would be better if fast food purveyors started acting more responsibly and stopped marketing soda with sugar levels attuned to keep the most highly addicted users coming back for more. Of course it would be great if some portion of the marketing budgets of fast food companies went towards promoting healthier fare — though one has to question this given how Freedman rather mindlessly repeats standard industry lore concerning the flopped McLean.

Indeed, the pathetic stories about sneaking the fast food companies’ few health improvements into a small number of products make it seem uncannily like those moms who are so desperate for vegetables in their kids’ diets that they hide ground spinach in pancakes. But those moms, at least, are in the deception game on a temporary basis, until their child’s finickiness resolves or the kid goes off to college, whichever comes first.

On the other hand, if the fast food industry really can’t market healthier choices without turning off their customers, well, that’s a lot of sneakiness for marketing to conceal. A less enthusiastic cheerleader for industry than Freedman is might even see it as an upper bound — and not a high one — on the change that could come from that sector, especially given its historically keen interest in humdrum factors like profitability.

In the end, he makes the very mistake he accuses the Pollan-ites of making: he decides he knows what’s best for all of us, particularly the unwashed masses. “Let them eat crap,” Freedman says, while arrogantly, even angrily, prescribing what will work to change the eating habits of millions, because he knows what their problem is (too many fats and “bad” carbs) and he knows what they will eat (fast food). Problem solved.

Unfortunately for him, and despite publishing a book called “Food Rules,” Pollan is far more exploratory about which foods are best for us (though he does ask folks to, well, eat actual food). As I am an unrepentant devotee of Pollan’s, it just so happens that I recently finished his new book, Cooked, and it’s a far better read than Freedman’s screed.

Pollan’s latest tome is a love letter to the act of cooking, and to the historical, gustatory and communal aspects of food. The best passages in the book are the vivid descriptions of his adventures by the open-pit barbecue, his apprenticeship with a mistress of the braise, and his conversations with a spunky nun who dedicates herself to the art of traditional cheesemaking. There are a few recipes, and inspiring passages meant to open up the possibilities for your own kitchen, true, but nowhere does he suggest that we all need to turn our basements into cheese cellars, or that the ideas in the book are a policy solution to address, say, the crisis of poor nutrition afflicting children raised on fast food.

Instead, he proposes that cooking, and understanding the process and patience required to prepare foods, is a fundamental part of nourishing human connection in a family, or in a tribe, perhaps going back to the pre-historic period given the need to cook — and share — meat around a fire. Moreover, the very process of cooking or fermenting foods creates new substances in them, including flavanoids in aromatics like garlic and onions that ward off disease, or the biota that spring into existence in live yogurt and help to protect our gut.

More traditional modes of food preparation, as it turns out, may have benefits for health that we are only beginning to understand. It follows, sadly, that processed food is both microbially dead and likely incomplete: we can’t engineer nutritional components to add back into foods when we don’t even understand them, and much of how food operates for health is a mystery still grounded in a (beautiful) enigma.

Whatever is making us so sick since just the 1980s must be relatively new in our relationship with food. Yet I would wager we have yakked more about our health, as a species, over that same time period than for all of human history before: we have publishing empires dedicated to the latest news and trends on health and nutrition, and no shortage of advice on eating, health and (lord knows) body image. Despite all this, we are facing serious public health crises, many of which can be linked to food.

Perhaps we should spend less time and energy on prescribing how people should eat and spend more time making good food. We’ll likely figure out one day that the causes of our health challenges are both more surprising and more complex than we ever knew, and that the solutions were right in front of our mouth. In the no-duh category: yes, we should all, including me, exercise more regularly. And, sure, the big food companies have an important role to play, if they will do so.

But I can’t help feeling that Pollan is onto something compelling to both my stomach and soul, a practice essential for the act of being human and living more responsibility on this bountiful planet. Making time to make a decent braise — brown the meat, dice vegetables, brown them in the pan, add back the meat, the wine, the stock and herbs, and simmer for hours, while the house fills up with heavenly aroma — is a meditation on transformation just as Pollan promises. Food this slow becomes, in the cooking, an act of both respect and community.

And let’s give more credit where credit is due. Low-income people may be cash-strapped, but they also know good food. Listening more deeply to people who do this kind of cooking for their own communities — really getting the details down for how they make their particular heirloom recipe for delicious jerk chicken — well, it seems to me that beats either fast food or a nutrition class, every time.

Dinner.

Dinner.

###

I’m indebted to Tom Philpott of Mother Jones for his thoughtful replies to Freedman, including a half-hour radio debate, and for pointing me to the wonderful Berreby piece.

For the short ribs, I used this basic recipe, plus Pollan’s sound advice from the book. I poured in BioNaturae organic canned plum tomatoes from a BPA-free can, and short-cutted the laborious chopping process by leaving things chunky. I also added less salt and more stock than called for. Served over fried polenta.

Post-script:

A further note is required to reply to the unsubtle charges of elitism in Freedman’s article.

My personal perspective on food does play right into the hands of someone like Freedman, as my family prefers organic and beyond-organic foods, like the Polyface Farms beef in the photo. These foods are costly, there’s no two ways about it. And it’s more work, albeit pleasant work, to go to farmer’s markets, arrange for CSA deliveries or pick-ups, and to track down really fresh ingredients.

As I see it, we have the money to spend on these things, and we hope that our investment pays off, in part, by helping in a small way to generate more consumer demand at this end of the marketplace. Buying grass-fed beef is a luxury, certainly, but as far as luxury goods go, it feels more moral than most. We also buy less meat because of its higher price, and make it stretch further over a week.

It’s also the case that government subsidies for all the wrong kinds of commodities and farming practices keep some prices artificially low while smaller, multi-product farms suffer. So our purchase power is swimming upstream against some pretty powerful counter-pressures, making it all the more important to support the practices we prefer.

More importantly, the point about cooking — or even about anything you do for yourself — is that it builds an enduring skill, while making the best use of more wholesome ingredients. A bag of potatoes is still a far better use of a dollar than a bag of potato chips or a container of fast food fries. The costs are scalable to budget, and if more money comes along, you can always upgrade to, say, organic potatoes. Or try to grow your own in trash can (or better yet, wooden barrel), as I just saw on Pinterest.

After all, a drive in window asks nothing of us, while cooking is a valuable habit that must be acquired to make use of the world as it is. Freedman’s suggestion that our health problems can be solved if someone else will just fix (marginally) better food for us misses the point.

There’s a reason that the food industry has spent the last 20 years in the lab, manufacturing flavors, gums and additives and other substitutes to save itself the costs of actually feeding us. Taking back the power to feed ourselves real food affordably will require a considerable shift in government rules, consumer buying habits, and in our ability to take the time to cook and spend time with family. It will likely also require a raise in the minimum wage, better supports overall for families, and economic incentives for farmers to improve, rather than destroy, their local environment.

These changes may be hard to attain or even unattainable given the relentless economic pressures faced by so many families. But that’s a problem with the structure of our lives, and not just our food supply. It also, as it so happens, is the same problem the fast food companies have been profiting from for the past 30 years. The solution is unlikely to lie with them.

An Abundance of Needling: A Bunch of Easy Needle Felting Craft Ideas

IMG_6602Summer has arrived. The weather has finally become too hot for gardening or running around to yard sales, so I thought I would slow down enough to share some pics of my latest obsession: needle felting.

I fully concede that succumbing to the call of needle felting is an utter Waldorf cliché. But I must tell you that it’s far and away the easiest and more rewarding of any crafting experience I’ve had to date (and that’s saying something, as I only do low-risk, high-reward craftiness). In a single evening in front of some mediocre TV, an animal will come together out of some loose wool roving. (And btw, my sister mocked me mercilessly re: the Waldorf “thing,” and then she also got obsessed, so she who laughs last…)

Even the supplies are simple. All you need is:

The idea is also straightforward: the needles are barbed, and each poke knits the roving together, eventually becoming more solid.

Here’s what the roving looks like:

IMG_6460And here’s the block, needle with handle, and the start of what will become a sheep (this is actually wool stuffing with cream-colored roving wrapped around::

IMG_6525Unlike wet felting, which is also great fun, this is not a craft for very young children, though kids of about 4 or older can certainly give it a go, with the proper warnings about the sharp needles. To start them off, you can use small, fondant or cookie cutters and some metal thimbles, and give them a small piece of roving to poke inside the cutter to make a flat shape. They can add eyes or other decoration, and even then felt it onto another piece of fabric if their patience holds, as I did below.

I used a cookie cutter shape to create butterflies for a sweater for Maya, using a discarded sweater as the base. First, I collected sweaters in adult sizes by asking for donations on the list serv of old, holey or cast-off sweaters made of 75 percent or higher natural fibers like wool or merino wool. Then I felted them in the washing machine with a little soap and few old tennis balls, using the hot setting and checking them until they had shrunk to a child’s size. Then I popped them into the dryer.

IMG_6258IMG_6260I chose a cute blue cardigan and made a few similar butterflies in a small number of colors, then needle felted them onto the front sides of the wet-felted cardigan, checking the back to make sure they were secure, and pinching up the sides to make it appear as though they may fly away at any moment. Voila, a new no-sew jacket! The result would work with any shape or theme:

IMG_6356IMG_6357I used a similar technique on another shrunken, felted sweater for a gift for my niece, by directly felting onto the front of the sweater (a multi-needle like this one made this go much faster):

IMG_6387IMG_6386The same approach can be used to free-hand flat shapes for a child’s felt board, by flipping a flat piece over and over until it comes together:

heartThen, I got into making felted animals. Oh boy, it was all over then. I’ll post next start to finish about how to make a sheep and an easy sleeve snake, but in the meantime, here’s some pics of my creations thus far.

IMG_6596IMG_6589IMG_6584IMG_6582IMG_6577IMG_6574IMG_6569IMG_6566 IMG_6565IMG_6455IMG_6563 IMG_6605This is a very rewarding craft, as it allows you to create adorable and durable hand-made toys for children or small sculptures. Maya loves playing with them and making scenes out of them. She also likes watching them come together and helping with choices for colors and shape. Hope you enjoy them as much as she does!

Related links:

The Un-Toy: A Celebration

IMG_6368Toys, it must be said, can be as annoying as they are delightful. Toddler toys have gazillions of pieces, some of which are required for the set-up to work. Puzzle pieces and the like inevitably end up in the sofa cushions, the car seat, even the refrigerator, making it part of the puzzle just to keep the darn thing together!

So I’ll have to give credit to the inventiveness of Maya’s former preschool in showing me that excellent toys need not be, well, toys. They used tennis balls with mouths cut into them and eyes drawn on for holding buttons, lovely little thrift store change purses with zippers, snaps and clamps for practicing fine motor skills, and even several sizes of old sets of hair curlers with the bristles for building blocks. And of course, there is the always popular cardboard box, which can be a fort, hiding place, or other retreat.

Then there are natural un-toys, like acorns, dried leaves in fall, stones, pine cones, shells and other wonders. These can be displayed on a nature table seasonally with small dolls or building structures if you have the space and patience with all the bits that will inevitably end up on the floor.

Sadly, thrift store toy aisles are rather depressing, plastic-filled places. So get out of there and into the tchotchke aisle instead. Here are some things to look for while at thrift stores, on-line on places like Ebay, or at yard or estate sales:

  1. Old fantasy chess sets or other interesting game pieces, the more elaborate the better;
  2. Sets of interesting similar items, like the three bags of miniature painted duck decoys I found for a buck each;
  3. Small wooden figures;
  4. Small furniture that can serve for dolls;
  5. Glass baubles and stones for a light table (easily made with an upended plastic storage box and flashlight or light stick);
  6. Small figures for the sandbox or a shadow box;
  7. Craft supplies (I found a large bag of simple wooden blocks that Maya has had a ball painting; also birdhouses for painting and raffia for use in 3-D constructions);
  8. Dress-up clothes and small purses;
  9. Large pieces of nicer fabric and scarves to use as forts, dress-ups, etc.
  10. Stamps and batik blocks, rolling pins or cookie cutters for tracing and playdough;
  11. Muffin tins, measuring cups, wooden bowls and nesting bowls;
  12. Baskets to keep all the toys (and un-toys) organized and accessible.

Here’s some of our current items in circulation, including these cool stamps:

IMG_6370 IMG_6367 IMG_6366 IMG_6365 IMG_6362There’s nothing I enjoy more than inventing a new purpose for some castaway that gives it renewed life. What are some things you’ve scored along the way?

Related posts:

A Greener Easter

IMG_6266

Around here, the holidays of whatever sort are mainly good reasons for crafting. (We’re devout Unitarians, meaning that we go to Christmas Eve services religiously every year. Ha.)

This year, I eyed Easter on the calendar and decided, as is my wont, to de-plastic and unjunk the basket. No Peeps for us peeps. And none of that irritatingly static-y plastic grass, which is a pointless use for various poison plastics (including PVC), if I ever saw one.

I found a spare basket at the thrift store for .60 cents, rounded up green shredded paper (though paper from the actual shredder or a little tissue paper would work just fine), and picked up a few small but adorable toys from the stuff sold by Maya’s new Waldorf school, including this cute egg made by Fairyfolk and a chick finger puppet inside from Folkmanis.

IMG_6294I also allowed myself to finally buy these long-coveted pastel Tegu blocks, ostensibly for Ms. M, but really for me to play with.

IMG_6295IMG_6296I liked the idea of a real toy in the mix, and these are gorgeous, sustainably made open-ended building blocks unlike anything we have now. (I paid around $60 at a local store, Trohv, which is about half their current price on Amazon. That is still very expensive, but I believe in buying better toys for all these reasons if you can afford it, especially by not wasting your money on other kiddo junk. And I’ll get hours of fun out of them at least!)

We’re planning on dying eggs, of course, using this natural, food-based dye from Earth Paint, and decorating them with these smooth-as-silk and high quality beeswax crayons that the great mom who runs Stubby Pencil studio just sent me to try.

But that seemed predictable, somehow. So I decided to take it up a notch by making felted Easter eggs last Sunday morning. I’m pleased to report that this is totally the kind of project that is fun and manageable for a toddler, and that the only messiness involved is some soapy water, which is hardly a problem.

IMG_6269To make your own gorgeous eggs, you’ll need:

  • Some wool roving in nice colors (Fairyfolk sells it, as does Amazon)
  • Some wool or acrylic yarn in a light tone (tail-ends of knitting projects work nicely)
  • Some hot, soapy water
  • Some old pantyhose you are willing to ruin
  • A tray or towels to catch the water
  • A washing machine and dryer and laundry soap
  • Embroidery thread (optional)
  • Tennis balls (optional)

(Some directions call for you to use plastic eggs as the base, taped shut, but since my purpose was to have an Easter without plastic, I used yarn egg shapes instead. I would recommend using a thick but light-colored yarn, as the red yarn I used showed through on some eggs.)

First, set up your soapy water in a bowl on top of a towel and make your “egg” base with yarn by wrapping the yarn thickly around two fingers held together, then slipping it off and wrapping in the opposite direction to produce an oblong shape, until it is large and thick enough to form an egg even with some shrinkage. The toddler can help with this process as well.

IMG_6240IMG_6239Dip the egg baby into the bowl and squeeze to start the felting process. Next, grab a clump of roving wool and gently pull out some felt strands, flattening them a bit. Wrap the egg in the roving.

IMG_6246IMG_6253Next, wrap a second flat handful of roving around, with the fibers pointing in a perpendicular direction to the first batch (this is not nearly as hard to do as it sounds). Dip the ball and get it good and wet, forming it into an egg shape.

IMG_6251IMG_6248Decide what decoration you would like. For this one, we used a little yarn. You can also do stripes or dots with different colored roving, use multiple colors of roving to make the egg, or wrap embroidery thread around as well (as in the picture up at the very top).

Next, carefully maneuver your egg into the toe of an old cut-off stocking and use something to bind it off. (Yarn works and could allow you to re-use the nylon. I just knotted it and later cut it open, after struggling with yarn on the first try.)

IMG_6249IMG_6256When you’re done making your eggs, stick them in the washing machine on a hot setting with the tennis balls if you have them around and some soap. Check them to see if you want more than one cycle (I did mine for two), and toss them into the dryer when you are happy with the shape. Dry them until no water comes out when you squeeze, and then you may want to put them in the sun to ensure they will really get dried out. You could also sew embroidery, beading or decorative thread and ribbons on after the fact for additional cuteness.

IMG_6261IMG_6301Happy Easter!

Nothin’ But Blue Sky

IMG_6130What to do with a low-ceilinged, windowless basement room? Give it to the toddler, of course…

But then, it just screams for some cheer. When my friend Lisa showed me the charming mural she had painted on her son’s wall in honor of his adoption, it was inspiring. She told me how she made the cute and life-like clouds using nothing more than a sea sponge and some water-based tempera paint.

I could do that, I thought. So sometime in my feverish, flu-like state, after days of uselessly prowling the house over the holidays, I determined to accomplish some little thing, at least.

The most manageable (and thoughtless) project on my list was introducing a little whimsy to the “playroom.” It mainly functions as a toy storage area these days, given Maya’s inability to be in the basement by her lonesome. But I have hopes, my friends, that someday she will be capable of independent play, and so this is for that day.

IMG_6161First, because it’s me and this blog and all, I must point out what you know already: paint is notoriously toxic. This is a particular concern in a poorly ventilated basement. As the wonderful Diane MacEachern of Big Green Purse (another Takoma Park green blogger!), writes:

Conventional paint contains many volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that “outgas” and escape into the air after they are applied. Indoors, these VOCs cause headaches, nausea, achey bones, and general discomfort. Outdoors, they contribute to smog and air pollution.

And they smell nasty, which can’t be good. The VOCs include chemicals like terpenes, formaldehyde, acrolein, phthalates, glycol, toluene, methylene chloride, styrene, trichloroethylene, xylenes, and benzene, among others. Any one of these is enough to make me gag, personally.

A terrific new guide to building a non-toxic nursery, out just today from our friends at Healthy Child, Healthy World, provides very helpful information about paint types suitable for a nursery or other rooms on p. 16 of their new, interactive ebook and less toxic options. They also have 7 helpful tips for healthier painting. Basically, the best way to go is real zero-VOC paints (i.e., ones that completely and verifiably lack toxics or solvents), or with natural, organic or milk-based paints.

Our local hardware store only stocks the zero-VOC kind, but they at least have a really good brand — Mythic, which I have used on several rooms in our house with excellent results. Mythic is a “real” zero-VOC paint, with no toxics like lead or other known toxins in it, and is also solvent free and goes on beautifully.

In fact, it’s so clean, it doesn’t need a warning label like most paints. (Lullaby Paints appears to be another great option, but I have not used them myself.) Even using Mythic, I set up a fan to speed the paint drying process, open a window when possible, and do not use the room for at least several days.

Before painting, you should also be aware that many, if not most, paints labeled “zero-VOC” can be problematic, because the colorants still contain VOCs and once they are added, then the paint is “zero-VOC” no longer. So I also always take the step of asking the hardware store folks if they actually mixed my paint with Mythic colorants.

In fact, the Federal Trade Commission just sued Sherwin Williams over false claims on this issue, and won, sort of. The companies now at least have to say, somewhere, that the zero-VOC claim applies only to the base paint and that the VOC levels can be impacted by the dyes. From The Consumerist:

In truth and in fact, in numerous instances, Pure Performance paints do not contain zero VOCs after color is added,” alleged the FTC.

To settle these claims by the agency, both paint companies are prohibited from claiming their paints contain “zero VOCs,” unless, after tinting, they have a VOC level of zero grams per liter.

The companies can continue claiming “zero VOC” if they “clearly and prominently disclose” that the “zero VOC” statement applies only to the base paint, and that depending on the consumer’s color choice, the VOC level may rise.

I am sad to say that I find this agreement a bit ridiculous from a public health standpoint. I wish I shared the FTC’s apparent deep faith in the willingness of consumers to read the fine print on the can about colorants — before the paint is mixed in the store.

I think companies will likely make these disclosures on that can, and that a vast majority of consumers will nonetheless still not realize that the zero-VOC paint they just paid more for has been significantly impacted by VOCs in the dyes. Seems to me that the real solution is to require companies that want to advertise “zero-VOC” for paints produce colorants that keep that promise. But hey, what do I know?

IMG_6159At any rate, back to the fun part. For the playroom, I first painted one wall and a strip of a wall in a bright, sunny yellow. One coat was enough to do it. Then, I covered the ceiling in a light blue paint left over from a sample I considered using for Maya’s upstairs room (Ocean Falls was the color). (Yes, her bedroom is blue. And lovely.)

I didn’t bother taping for the ceiling, as the indistinct edges add to the effect. Mythic is also forgiving; a wet sponge used soon after painting will clean up any messes.

Then, using the sea sponge and a pool of paint in the pan, I painted swirls in large circles across the ceiling with a slightly darker blue, called Peace River.

IMG_6142Last, I added white clouds around the lights and all over the ceiling in various sizes using the sponge dipped in Crayola white tempera paint. This can also be easily fixed with a wet sponge while the paint remains wet. I tried to leave a little extra paint in some places for a slight texture.

IMG_6140I was pleased with the result, which adds a dreamy quality to a small, boxy room. And Maya likes it too!

Tending a Winter Garden

IMG_6055The beginning of the year has been a time of fallowness and flu for us, as well as change. I’ve been having my own personal wrestling match with the Great Flu Epidemic for three weeks now, and canNOT seem to get sleep enough to shake this rattling cough, so please forgive the long silence. (I usually work on the blog at night, when all is quiet, and I’ve been worshiping my pillow instead…)

The weather here has been very cold, at least for the past few days. I’m craving chili and soup, hot cider and cozy blankets. And new projects: I’m in discussions with a good friend and brilliant professor about a book we may write (details to come on that, I hope!), and plotting to launch a green business with another friend. Things are germinating, but they are still only seeds. It’s the middle of winter, after all.

In the larger world beyond my pillow, some things are also apparently afoot. The world has decided to ban new mercury emissions in an important new treaty, which will save future generations a lot of trouble if it actually gets done (and actually addresses the mercury released in mining). President Obama has announced some reasonable new policy proposals to limit access to guns, and my home state of Maryland is moving forward on sensible new gun measures, all of which is as reassuring as first steps can be.

I personally enjoyed the pomp of the inaugural festivities, including the patriotic thrill of the speeches. Unfortunately, the music was kind of awful, though, wasn’t it? Why so pop and warble-y? Even the lovely James Taylor seemed flat. Kelly Clarkson, really? And all the hype over Beyonce? Puh-lease. As we all know now, she Milli-Vanillied it. But that wasn’t the only false note: there were far too many fluttery fake eyelashes and streaky blonde highlights overall, IMHO.

The Prez sadly missed a moment to highlight more stirring acts — like the local and fabulous Sweet Honey in the Rock (perhaps singing “We Are the Ones”) or real blues and jazz folks (B.B. King? Or someone — anyone — with a little soul in their warble?). At least the First Lady rocked out her gown and new hairstyle. Rowr.

Anyhow, my real point is: I’m baaack. With lots of plans for this blog and the new year. While you await the coming guest posts from exciting contributors and my promised download on pjs, here are a few easy ideas for creating your own winter garden of possibilities. Dunno about you, but on these bleak winter days I’m desperate for some green and growing things, indoors where we can see them take root.

Like the mushroom farm, these are manageable and worthy projects for toddlers and bigger kids as well. I saw both the terrarium and the tulips in small glass jars for sale for more than $20 in Whole Foods yesterday — but making your own costs only a few bucks, using materials you can find outside plus a few simple craft-store vases.

Easy Idea 1: The Cutting and the Terrarium

IMG_6088Raid a friend’s (or your own) plants for cuttings and set a few up in a wine glass where you can see the roots start to form and grow. Maya likes tracking the shoots downward and seems amazed by the changes.

Once it’s got a little root action going, feel free to use it to make your own terrarium with moss, a few stones, and a small glass container (with a lid if you have one).

Our cutting was too large for our container, so we used a left-over bit from another succulent instead, as well as some moss from a hike in the woods today, and a few smaller stones. We misted it with the small spray bottle leftover from our mushroom farm, and will cover it with a dish some of the time to keep it moist. Its zen feel is cheering me up already.

IMG_6126Easy Idea 2: The See-Thru Garden

IMG_6079For this, you’ll need:

  • A milk carton
  • Paint and other materials for decorations as you like
  • (Decently sharp) scissors
  • Masking tape (I used painting tape as what I had on hand)
  • Plastic wrap (non-PVC is best if growing herbs)
  • (organic) Seeds that will germinate in such small space and in the light conditions you have indoors (we used organic English Thyme, which need full sun, in our bay window)
  • (Organic, i.e., no chemical) soil, plus a few rocks or corks for the bottom

IMG_6081Using a cleaned milk carton, cut off the top and cut 2 rectangular “windows” in opposing sides. Paint or decorate as you like. Maya painted ours white with tempera paint and then I made flowers by cutting shapes out of a pretty blue watercolor painting she made. She helped glue them on.

IMG_6098Using masking tape, tape some plastic wrap into the windows by setting the tape on one side and taping, then rolling the other side to fit and taping that. Fill the bottom with a few  rocks or corks, and then soil up to the level for planting seeds. Let the toddler shake the seeds, count and plant them as the instructions say, making sure some are close to the “windows.” Top with soil and water per the seed packet instructions. Watch the plants grow!

IMG_6116Easy idea #3:  Bulbs and Rocks

IMG_6060 You will need:

  • Tulip or other bulbs, such as paperwhites (but beware the intense pollen from paperwhites if you are an allergic type!)
  • Rocks — roundish, in a mix of colors and tones
  • Glass vase (clear and round is best)

We like the children’s book, Paperwhite, which tells a lovely and simple story about planting a winter garden with rocks and bulbs, thus inspiring this idea. And collecting rocks to borrow is so much fun!

IMG_6111Soak the bulbs for an hour or so in warm water. After sorting through your rocks, place them carefully in the glass vase. Plant the bulbs (we used amaryllis in the middle and three tulips around the edges) and let the toddler or child water as needed.

IMG_6113Track the roots and shoots as they develop (you could even mark the glass with pastels). Some larger bulbs may need replanting in soil, as you like.

The projects look nice together as well:

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Easy Idea #4: Plant Your Spice Rack

When my Indian mother-in-law visited us several years ago, I came home and found she had planted some fenugreek seeds right out of the spice jar. They grew quickly with a minimum of fuss. And the sprouts were a delicious and healthy garnish on curries and rice.

Since then, I’ve tried cumin seeds, mustard seeds, and anything else handy, with good results. (Obviously, you need to use the spices that are “seeds,” and not dried leaves or another part of the plant.) So just a few days ago, I polished off a planter from outside and now have a batch of fenugreek, or methi, popping up in my kitchen window. Thanks, Nanama!

IMG_6162Other super-easy ideas:

IMG_6104While at the hardware store, I also came across a package with a small glass vase and hyacinth bulb, which I snapped up as well. I got it started, but as they need several weeks under a paper bag in a cool, dark place like our basement, it won’t be the ideal touch of green I hoped for upstairs. Still, we’ll keep an eye on it as the roots grow into the vase.

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IMG_6093I also love, love this small collection of air plants, which are so easy to maintain and look cool in these hanging planters above the kitchen window. (You can order them on Etsy from a number of green-thumbed individuals — including nice planters, such as these — if they would be hard for you to find locally.)

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How are you bringing an early spring indoors?

Happy New Year & Fun with Felt

Happy New Year

I’ve had a bad case of the Crafties this holiday. So I though I would subject you to one more post on a DIY gift that needs no special occasion: an easy way to make a felt play-station for a toddler or young child.

Felt boards are simple to create and can be used for hours of open-ended play. I gave two felt boards as gifts to my nieces, and made one set of felt cut-outs for Maya. For the board, I used a stretched canvas for the ones I made as gifts, and a large piece of felt cut and punched to fit on our easel over the whiteboard for Maya.

Whiteboard markers are dubious due to the xylene they contain, so that part of a child’s easel is better converted to something other use. (Magnet boards are also great and can be clipped on.) If you do use whiteboard markers, there’s a marker made without xylene by Auspen that allegedly works well.

Basic materials:

  • Felt in a wide range of colors (some is made of post-consumer recycled fabric, which is nice; you can also get fun felt with animal prints), and a larger piece in a neutral tone for the board backing
  • Sharp scissors (fabric scissors are best)
  • Stencil stickers for numbers and letters (like those used on posters)
  • Stretched art canvas for the board (I used these ones, which are a nice size, but the price fluctuates), a staple gun with staples, and velcro strips for hanging; or an easel or bulletin board
  • Optional: Fabric glue or thread and seed beads for making animals, trees, clouds, houses, etc.

For the shapes and letters:

For the letters and numbers, to keep things uniform, I used large-format sticky poster board stencil stickers from an office supply store. I further trimmed any useful shapes from inside the letters when I could to use in the sets.

H cutH pieceAfter some random trials, I found it simplest, particularly as I was making multiple sets of numbers and letters, to go through the alphabet in order, making sure to cut many copies of vowels and other letters often used in pairs (t’s, or p’s, for example).

In front of the TV, it was a pleasant diversion and allowed me to re-watch all of Downtown Abbey just in time for the start of Season Three (tonight)! I then divided them up into sets after laying all the pieces out on a board.

The sets for three familiesI also tried my hand at a few animals, using this allegedly non-toxic fabric and felt glue, with only modest success. When so inclined, Maya can easily pry the creations apart, showing the glue. So for the younger crowd, you may want either to keep it very simple with the shapes, or to invest the time in sewing the pieces together for durability. Still, for the few I’ve managed to keep intact, the pieces are cute.

Eden When pigs flyTo make the board:

If using an easel, just cut the felt to match the whiteboard or other support you are using, punch a hole with the scissors and slip onto the screws.

If you would prefer to make a separate felt board, it’s very simple to do so. Cut the felt in the size of your board, leaving three to four inches of fabric on all sides around the canvas.

IMG_5940Then fold and tuck the felt into the backside of the canvas on all sides, making “hospital corners” with the felt on each corner to keep it smooth on the front.

IMG_5947Using the staple gun, work your way around the back edges, paying special attention to keeping the corners flat. Hang with velcro or a nail as you prefer.

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Maya has enjoyed playing with the shapes and trying to name the letters, which often occasions the alphabet song. I’m hoping her cousins are enjoying the sets as well! I’ll be adding more animals, and sewing some, as Downtown Abbey gets back underway…

Next week: A guest post on Type 2 diabetes from a blogger pal, and the full scoop on children’s “flame retardant” pajamas — so stay tuned!

Greener Gift Review: A (Delish) Fungus Among Us

IMG_5976When my brother (aka, “the brotherman,” as he likes to say) delivered a mushroom farm as a Christmas gift, I was suitably intrigued. It’s a completely easy winter gardening project for the kitchen counter, and Maya was fascinated. It practically grows while you watch! Best of all, the results are delicious.

It’s also a fairly eco-friendly gift and uses recycled coffee grounds, although some plastic is involved. The bag for the mycelium is plastic, there is a plastic “humidity tent,” and they include a handy small plastic spray bottle, which could be used to mist plants around the house when the toadstools are all gone. It would not really be difficult to imagine a paper-based version of both the bag and tent, at least.

IMG_5876Specifically, the kit grew elm oyster mushrooms, and was from the whimsically named 100th Monkey Mushroom farm, sold at an Austin farmer’s market (they promise their on-line store is coming soon). They are also available from a number of other places, such as these for portabellos and pearl oysters (those are also sold here). Prices are in the low 20-dollar range per “farm.”

The process is simple. You cut a plus sign into the bag, and keep it misted under the humidity tent for 7-10 days.

We made a mushroom risotto, which, we later decided, was not the best use of such delicately flavored ivory shrooms. Portabellos, which I’ve used often, would be instead the stand-by choice for that sort of heavier dish.

I made a basic risotto with thyme and oregano, and added a generous splash of vodka to the base in lieu of wine. A trick learned long ago is to pay real attention to the quality of the stock and to keep it simmering nearby on the stove, so it’s at temperature when added. For even more wholesome fare, you might want to try Marc Bittman’s recently published brown rice risotto recipe.

IMG_5986 IMG_5989 IMG_5997Because I can’t get enough of fungiculture (a real word), now I’m trying for a second “flush” of mushrooms, by drying and then soaking the bag. I’ll let you know how it goes. If you have risotto recipes or others that would work well for the second batch of elm oysters, please let me know!

 

Merry Christmas! And a Winter Wonderland of Crafts

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It almost snowed today! At least, we got a few half-hearted flurries. Which fit wonderfully with our latest crafty ventures — winter wonderland painted creations. The supplies are simple, the options endless, and — most important — the toddler happy.

We whipped up three crafty projects using more-or-less the same materials: a few pieces of holiday-colored construction paper, some white tempera paint, and silver glitter. Life is just better with glitter, despite the fact I couldn’t really figure out what the sparkle is made of …anyway, even I sometimes think you just have to go for it.

For all these little adventures, the first step is to decorate four construction paper pages (2 pages of red, and 2 of green) with patterns in thick white paint. I did spots and stripes; Maya preferred a more abstract appearance. No matter, it all looks like snowy loveliness.

The “beads” for the garlands are excellent, easy lacing beads for a toddler — especially one, like Maya, who still needs help with regular lacing beads and their smaller holes.

Of course, no holiday theme needed. If you’re feeling like doing less, no reason not to just snip the cardboard rolls into pieces (covered with construction paper or not, as you like) and let the toddler draw on them with crayon, and them lace them onto whatever’s handy for a ribbon.

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What you’ll need for the basic supplies:

  • 2 pieces of red and 2 pieces of green construction paper
  • White tempera paint (I did not use “eco” paint, as the consistency is critical, but did use Crayola “non-toxic” paint)
  • Brushes (small ones — like those in a watercolor set — are fine)
  • Craft glue (I like this one, which claims to be less toxic and safer than most)
  • Decently sharp scissors

Project 1:  Garlands and ornaments

In addition to the above, to make a “garland” you’ll need:

  • Paper towel or toilet paper rolls
  • Ribbon for lacing

To make the garland, paint on the 4 pieces of construction paper with the white paint and let dry.

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Cut to size and glue the paintings onto the cardboard rolls, then let dry.

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Once dry, using the pointed end of sharp scissors, cut through to make “beads” of about an inch each. Cut your ribbon and let the toddler string ’em up! (See image at top.)
To make the “ornaments,” you’ll need:
  • A steady hand for cutting shapes or cookie cutters in holiday shapes
  • Silver glitter

To make the ornaments, trace and cut out — or just freehand — the shapes as you like.

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Paint with white paint and decorate with glue and glitter.

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Cut a small hole and hang from a ribbon, tied with a bow. String onto your garland, if you or your tiny artistic visionary would like.

Project 2: Easy holiday cards

In addition to the basic supplies above, to make these you’ll need:
  • Glue pen (I used this one, from my pal Martha Stewart, which was just ok)
  • Silver or gold glitter
  • White cardstock or all-blank cards from a craft store

To make the cards, paint on the 4 pieces of construction paper with the white paint and let dry. (Note: our 4 pieces were enough to make all of these projects.)

Next, cut a simple holiday shape from the painted paper and fold the white cardstock into a “card.” I used a very basic Christmas tree, cut to fit nicely onto the “card.”

Arrange and glue onto front of card. Using the glue pen, decorate with messages and glitter as you like.

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Project 3:  Holiday door or wall hanging

In addition to the basic supplies above, to make these you’ll need:
  • Ivory felt (we used a piece about 1 1/2 feet square)
  • Silver or gold glitter
  • Glue pen or small-tipped glue bottle
  • Narrow ivory silk ribbon
  • Square piece of white cardstock
  • If adding fringe, a ruler is useful
  • Double slit hole punch — but only if you have it handy

Again, paint and let dry your construction paper. Cut out simple holiday shapes — I used a Christmas tree again, and arrange your designs on the white cardstock square.

IMG_5949

Using the sharpest scissors you have (and fabric scissors if you have them). cut the felt to match the square, leaving 2 1/2 to 3 inches at the bottom for a fringe if desired. Glue the cardstock to the felt, matching the top edge.

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Lay the ruler on the felt just at the white paper, and cut a fringe at about every 1/2 inch, all the way across the bottom.

Lay out and glue on your painted shapes. Using the glue pen or glue dots, add glitter as you like.

IMG_5958

With a hole punch if you have one, or the scissors, punch or cut a pair of slits in the top corners. Cut two two-foot lengths of ribbon. Using the scissor blade as you need, thread the first ribbon through the hole. Then thread the second ribbon through the other hole and repeat on the other side.
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Tie a bow on one side, and then the second side, keeping the ribbons an even length and straight.
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Hang and enjoy! It’s a charming and not too cheesy way to allow your child to make something for display. I’m sure that years from now, taking this out at Christmas will make me smile.

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Sitting here tonight, I do have a Christmas eve feeling of being blessed. The craft supplies are tidied up, and there are an abundance of trinkets under the tree.

The flurries evaporated, but for Maya, it’s the first Christmas that she will notice, and today we made our own snow! She’s been talking about Santa all week, with a kind of wistful curiosity. And demanding we play Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer, over and over again.

After what we have all been through in the past few weeks, we should all take comfort — and joy — whenever and wherever we can. I deeply appreciate the readers of this wee blog, and hope your blessings are as ample this year as ours do feel to me, just now.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

DIY Gift: Photo or Holiday Card Wine Corkboards

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It cost two dollars and 42 cents, which is cheaper than a cup of coffee these days. When I saw this shabby chic porcelain frame (with emphasis on the shabby) at our local Value Village last week, I just knew it was destined for grander things.

I pondered for a while, then happened across these fun, modern handmade corkboards, and knew what had to happen. I collected our few corks, and petitioned the list serv for more. They came through for me, as always, offering up 40 or so corks from several families. (One woman also mentioned this very cool art supply recycling place in Washington, DC, which is now on my list for a near-future visit.)

The advantage of corks for hanging a photo, besides their nifty visual appeal, is the ease of changing the images. You could use a large-format version of this project for holiday cards or children’s artwork, while smaller ones work well for family snaps that you want to switch with frequency. They also look great in multiples, as shown here.

This project is fast and easy once the supplies are rounded up, and is a great way to up-cycle well-used frames and get more life out of wine corks. Any size frame will work, though I’ll note that 5X7 was a good fit for the corks, including a sideways row. You’ll also need about twice as many corks as you think, given their variance in thickness and length. The trick is to play around until they fit neatly, and to make subtle trims with a very sharp paring knife in any corks that are too long or wide, in places where the cuts won’t show.

I removed the glass so that if I decided later on I would rather have a picture frame without the corks, I could pop them out with the paper and reinstall the glass.

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What you’ll need:

  • Picture frame (there are always tons at thrift stores!)
  • Background paper to fill the opening in the frame in a complimentary color (cardstock works well for this)
  • Wine corks sufficient to fill the opening in the frame, plus some
  • Hot glue gun (a small one works fine) and glue sticks
  • Thumbtacks for photos
  • Paring knife

Directions:

Tinker with the corks you have on hand, trimming as needed with a paring knife, until they fit neatly in the frame without popping up or putting too much pressure on each other. Remove them carefully to maintain your design.

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Cut the background paper cardstock to fit the opening and put it into the frame. Restore the corks. One at a time, glue to the paper with the most interesting part of each cork’s design facing outward, using a thick strip of glue, and press each for a moment.

Once finished, let it dry for a few minutes, then use the thumbtacks to add a photo or two. Hang and enjoy!

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Of course, picture frames make a lovely gift, particularly when filled with a nice photo. I love these unique frames from Scrappin’ Sassy on Etsy, which add a whimsical touch (and she takes custom orders if you have a paper design you love, as I did for Maya’s nursery). And here’s a nice idea for a framed, fabric earring holder from a fellow blogger that looks simple enough to make for a gift.

One more idea: you can also frame chalkboard paper for a simple home-made chalkboard. The contact paper sticks onto anything and can be easily trimmed to size, as I did below for our kitchen using a simple drugstore frame just after Maya was born.

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Chalkboard paper also looks great cut into shapes like circles for the wall of a playroom! And here’s some fun (and safer) veggie-based chalk for use indoors by the kiddos.