Jump to Content
Jump to Navigation

house projects

July 23rd, 2013

I keep meaning to write a recap of the SNAP challenge, but now it’s getting in the way of other things. So remorselessly: here are some recent projects we’ve worked on to make our pretty house weird enough to suit us.

shed doors

We turned the doors of the Thanksgiving shed into chalkboards. (Turns out you can mix a bunch of grout powder into any old latex paint, stir till it looks like cake batter, and voila! Chalkboard paint!)

We mixed up that chalkboard paint using a quart of dark gray I had left over from upholstering a chair for Matt’s Brew & Brew, a project I was also pretty proud of:


(All my upholstery projects are catalogued in a gallery album and in slightly more fun formats on a pinterest board. (Pinterest! my new favorite time-waster.))

Finally, we mounted a tree branch to our bedroom wall and ceiling to approximate a limb growing through the wall. The room has always felt a little like a treehouse with pretty branches outside all our bare windows, and we hatched this plan quite a while ago. We very seriously considered driving home from the Hall mini-ranch with a salvaged branch strapped to the Jetta roof before opting instead for a neighbor’s uprooted crepe myrtle.


who uses SNAP? typically not Google employees.

June 29th, 2013

Despite our playacting this week, we are obviously not the core constituency for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Understanding who the program does serve may be the most important thing to know about it. I grabbed some graphs from an excellent program overview by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which I encourage you to read if you’re interested in knowing more. The USDA, which runs the program, also has an easy-reading recent report.

snap users

Eighty percent of SNAP recipients are below the poverty line, and 42% are below HALF of the poverty line. And let’s be clear that the poverty line is not some cushy standard: it means that you make annual wages less than $11,500 if you live alone, or $23,600 among a family of four. (For a sense of how far that goes, consider that average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in the Austin area is about a thousand dollars per month.) To qualify for SNAP, you must also have assets less than $2,000 ($3,250 if you’re elderly or disabled), disqualifying those of us who are merely funemployed. Here’s the complete description of eligibility rules and benefits.

snap demogs

Nearly half of those receiving on SNAP are kids. Recent proposed cuts to SNAP have not reduced the amount of benefits—although that will happen automatically this fall when an increase from the 2009 stimulus bill expires—but they do limit eligibility for the program. It’s important to keep in mind just who that will affect.

awww SNAP

June 27th, 2013

Well, other exciting political developments have been monopolizing our attention for the last couple of days, but the SNAP challenge does continue! There’s lots I want to share, starting with what exactly we’ve done with that $57 of groceries.

4 meals

Breakfast everyday is oatmeal with fruit (mostly increasingly mushy bananas), plus a couple cups of store-brand ground coffee.* Snacks are more fruit, that 5-ears-for-$1 fresh corn sautéed with a bunch of herbs from the garden, and little bits of leftovers from previous meals. Lunches and dinners are listed in the following table, usually accompanied by some green vegetable: a handful of baby spinach, roasted broccoli, or brussel sprouts.

One week of SNAP meals:
dishes and number of servings provided for 2 people


On Sunday, the first day of the challenge, we ate oatmeal for breakfast, the Spanish tortilla for lunch (basically a frittata with onion and potatoes), and red beans and rice for dinner. Since every recipe is providing multiple meals, front-loading the cooking has allowed us several options to choose from for subsequent meals. Even the oatmeal is made ahead: the batch I made on Sunday lasted until Wednesday. (Steel-cut oatmeal with its more toothsome texture takes a little longer to cook but holds up better as leftovers; rolled oats turn to mush.)

What is missing, you may notice, is meat. It was a struggle to operate on this very tight budget and feel remotely healthy, and the easiest choice was to eliminate meat in favor of beans, whole grains, and vegetables. Most of these dishes are not completely vegetarian—I think I’ve fried bacon every day this week—but they certainly fit the “meat as seasoning” approach of various cuisines around the world. Several of the dishes have roots in cooking cultures with a genius for making tasty things with limited resources, like the Cajun red beans and rice, Spanish tortilla, and Italian spaghetti carbonara. All these recipes came from my “tried and true” file, but I suspect you could much more intentionally find inspiration within particular ethnic cooking traditions.

The odd result of living on a food-stamp budget is that we are eating significantly healthier this week than we usually do, with unlimited funds for treats and a more casual attitude about meeting our nutritional needs. We like vegetables and will almost always include them prominently in meals we cook at home, but it’s not uncommon for a couple of days to pass when the only green we consume is a little spinach in our breakfast taco and the salad underneath our happy-hour crab cakes. Without for a second minimizing the significant challenges of eating on this budget, it is good to know that it possible to do it in a healthy way. IF you have the time, tools, and know-how to cook, that is.

That said, I have gone to bed hungry twice this week; I’ve developed a raging sweet tooth and nothing to satisfy it but a slice of cantaloupe; and when I neglected to pack a lunch when I went out for meetings and errands on Tuesday, I was ravenous by the time I got home to my leftover tortilla and squash casserole. I don’t think we’re going to run out of food before Saturday night, but I’m not positive. That would put us in the same boat with most families who receive SNAP benefits: almost 80% have used their entire month’s benefits by the end of the second week. Unlike those families, we will not have to resort to a food bank.

*that I am forced to confess don’t taste much different to me than our usual fancy beans from Central Market, thoughtfully selected from dozens of options and ground on-demand in small batches

SNAP challenge

June 24th, 2013

This week I am participating in the SNAP challenge, during which you limit your spending on food and drink to what can be purchased with the average food stamp budget. (The federal program that governs food stamps is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, hence SNAP.) Many folks have tried this out over the last few years, including a few dozen members of Congress. It’s a way for the relatively privileged to better understand the scope of this social program, empathize with those who rely on its support, and perhaps raise awareness about a service that has been in the spending-cut crosshairs. Last week, the US House Farm bill was voted down, in part due to outcry over its 20-billion-dollar cut and eligibility restrictions for food stamps. (A vocal chorus also argued that cuts weren’t steep enough; go Texas…)

Making sure no one is malnourished has always seemed, on its face, a pretty obvious thing we should accomplish as a society, so it’s easy for me to be appalled by efforts to reduce or dismantle this basic public service. But who knows? Maybe that’s just knee-jerk big-government liberalism from someone who has been a luxury food consumer since she started subscribing to Bon Appetit in college, and thinks access to fancy cheese may be a civil right. Taking the challenge seemed like a good way to get an inkling of the struggles many families face in eating well, and good motivation to learn more details about the program itself. Hunger concentrates the mind wonderfully. So does having no money for booze.

There are also several 100% selfish and personal reasons the challenge appealed to me. Meal-planning and cooking are among my favorite hobbies, so putting together a week of nutritious-and-delicious meals for less than $30/person was genuine good fun. It’s mid-summer, so produce is relatively cheap and abundant, and I’m executing a minor cheat by taking a few items for free out of our garden. And I’ve got one more week before I rejoin the 9-5 working world, so an ambitious project appealed while the busted wrist precludes heavy manual labor.

I prepared for the challenge as I do for most weeks: by flipping through my recipe binder for ideas. I picked out tried-and-true meals we know and enjoy, and kept an eye out for efficiencies like affordable substitution options and overlapping ingredients. My first priority was providing us sufficient calories; second was health and nutrition (basically including as much produce as possible); and third was tastiness and variety.

Here are seven days of groceries for the two of us:

week of groceries

And for anyone interested in getting way down in the weeds, here is an itemized list with the prices I paid at our local grocery store. Highest ticket items were grated parmesan, 12 oz of bacon, and a bag of brussel sprouts; surprising best bargains included $1.57 for more than 2 pounds of organic bananas, $1 for 5 ears of corn, and 36 cents for all the iced tea we could possibly drink.

Over the next few days I’ll share recipes, the inevitable pictures, and some policy fun facts.

adventures in one-handed living

June 17th, 2013

It’s been not quite a week, and I’m already pretty tired of having only one functional hand. At the same time I am grateful for and taking full advantage of not being in a hard cast. Yesterday I took my little broken wing out onto the back deck to soak in some sunshine, so it doesn’t get quite as pale and shriveled as it might otherwise.

I am returning to normal functioning bit by bit. Some notable milestones:

Day 1: shaved right armpit with right hand
Day 2: operated scissors (recycling old t-shirt into cheerful splint lining!)
Day 3: made a sandwich
Day 4: buttoned my own pants (this still takes at least 20 seconds)
Day 5: operated bottle opener (critical skill)
Day 6: two-handed typing, hooray!

I look forward to the day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, when I am once again able to fasten my own bra.

broken wrist

June 15th, 2013

Typing one-handed sucks, so I shall tell the story in pictures:






(Uploading pictures is one thing I can actually accomplish one-handed, hence our spring albums on gallery have caught up to the present.)

did I mention we have a garden?

May 31st, 2013

When we started getting our first 80+ degree days (late January), our thoughts turned to vegetable growing. Plus we didn’t feel like true Austinites without a front-yard garden. Taking a pickaxe to the lawn was more fun than I expected and turned out to be a great conversation-starter with the neighbors. And once Sous figured out what was going on, she pitched in with the digging.

We’ve had luck with the square foot gardening approach since our first plot in Oakland, so we set out to build something similar. I screwed together 2x6s and painted them with some of the paint we’d gotten matched to our gray-green exterior for touch-ups. (Who wants garden beds that aren’t color-coordinated? Standards!) Getting them settled evenly in the lawn gave us another chance to use the giant level we’d bought for shed-building.

We lined the bottom of the bed with chicken wire to deter burrowing beasts and then laid down a layer of cardboard (leftover moving boxes) for weed control. The square-foot gardening bible suggests a blend of equal parts peat moss, vermiculite, and compost, so we visited our local nursery and once again spent more on dirt than we will ever take out in vegetables. The blending is pretty fun, though.

Nervous about gardening in a completely different climate, I attended a workshop put on by the extremely legit-sounding Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service, where I learned about recommended plant types, common pests, fertilizing, and other central-Texas-specific tips. Then I had a ball with the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog, ordering such exciting varietals as “Hill Country Heirloom Red Okra” and “Louisiana Purple Pod Pole Beans.” We also picked up seedlings from a few places. Our last foundational step was installing drip irrigation so no daily maintenance would be necessary. Gardens work best for us when all we have to do is occasionally pick a vegetable.

Three months later, most of the greens have bolted, but we have five tomato plants threatening to topple over, a zucchini vine colonizing the yard, three kinds of green beans snaking up their trellis, and some herbs hanging in there. Something is munching assiduously on my chard, and squirrels absconded with our first three tomatoes—perhaps a ceremonial offering to the gods of spring. The okra and peppers have disappointed so far, but I have hopes for them once it gets truly hot.


May 28th, 2013

Big day for us here. Our 6th wedding anniversary:


And my little jetta hit 100,000 miles.


And then I had to pull off the highway and call a service shop because the engine was smoking.

The marriage is doing better.

recipe for a craft night

May 20th, 2013

Crafty girls, 3-6
Wine, approx 1 bottle per crafty girl
Spanish snacks, to taste
A few ideas that you can still execute after a bottle of wine
A mess of old t-shirts
Fabric scissors, 1 pair per crafty girl
Healthy willingness to be silly

Prepare snacks in advance. At start time, fold in other ingredients. Take pictures.

Debbie was here

May 12th, 2013

And it was awesome.