Austin Creative Reuse

I don’t write about it much—well, I don’t write about anything much other than wee Annie—but it’s actually rather significant life news for me that a reuse center I’ve been hammering away at since we moved to Austin three years ago opened its doors today.

ACR comes along

After half a year of go-it-alone effort to start a branch of California’s Resource Area For Teachers (RAFT), I hooked up with a local crew I typically describe as “a very diverse group of…white…women…” And now, after another stretch of kind of insanely lengthy board meetings and planning and events and crafts and, blerg, fundraising, we signed a lease this summer and today(!) opened to the public.

Holy crap, we're open.
Holy moly, we’re open. Strangers are paying us for junk.

So, hey! That happened. Who knows if we’ll be able to pay rent in 6 months, but we made it to opening day.

who uses SNAP? typically not Google employees.

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

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

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.

did I mention we have a garden?

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.

2 couches, both alike in dignity

News to no one who knows me: I took an upholstery class last fall, from a local studio that used to operate the program at Austin Community College before budget cuts forced them to go private. I had a ball and have enjoyed adopting it as a new hobby. But there was also a specific purpose. Probably 40% of the furniture in our new home was generously passed to us by family, including two couches that originally belonged to my grandparents in the 60s. Beautiful bones, ragged gold velour upholstery. I didn’t take a great “before” shot, but this one will serve:

gold couch before
The sunlight makes the old upholstery look prettier and less threadbare than it had actually become.

I have always loved these couches and was thrilled to adopt them, but they were in desperate need of a facelift. Getting them reupholstered was to be our housewarming gift from my parents. After getting a choke-on-my-drink bid of $1500 plus the cost of the new fabric, however, I did a little budgeting and figured that for that price, I could take the class, buy a bunch of tools, cover the cost of my practice chair/materials, and then some. (As long as I valued my labor at $0/hour, of course. Among the lessons of the class was that upholstery is a labor-intensive business; $1500 was a totally reasonable price.) So, that’s exactly what I did.

I began couch reconstruction in February, beginning with what I think of as the “real” upholstery, i.e. that which involves staples. Then I began recovering the cushions, which could happen more gradually since it didn’t disrupt the living room.


couch cushion

two-tone couch
We had two-tone couches for about a month.

The back cushions were the final step, made with new “super-soft” foam that also served as a pretty decent toddler bed for Max in the interim. While I patterned and sewed pillow covers, I listened to a Yale course on early-modern England and Bob Solomon’s Existentialism lectures. A couple of weeks ago, the couches and I became our Authentic Selves:

couch 1

couch 2

Sous is not allowed on them.


To occupy myself between writing unsuccessful grant applications and waiting for calls back from school district offices, I signed up for an upholstery class this month. Up to 6 students meet for 8 4-hour sessions, and each tears down and rebuilds a piece of their choice. I found a small chair at Round Top (should have posted about that…) that just fit in the jetta. Because I’d done some amateurish but thorough upholstery experimentation before, I was interested in something that had some complicated features that would be good practice. Here it is, as it was:

chair, before

At first I couldn’t really imagine what could take 32 hours in the class, but I was also expecting a pretty cosmetic transformation—you know, stretching some new fabric over the thing. Not so. After some introduction, we spend basically the first two classes (and hours of “homework” time) stripping chairs down to their bones. I’m going to estimate I removed approximately 5 million staples, compounded by the fact that the chair had been recovered at some point without removing the original fabric. Here’s the chair about half torn apart:

chair torn up

And here it is finally stripped down:

chair stripped down

The much more fun part began last week as we started rebuilding from the ground up. I’ve learned how to tie springs, stretch webbing, apply edge roll, and build cushions, among other things. Here one of the instructors is demonstrating how to tack down the seat cushion, which we made from loose cotton, foam, and what I call quilt batting and they call something that sounds fancier.

chair with seat

Tomorrow: fabric. It’s fun to learn something new.

seven-year quilt

I often describe my sabbatical as hopping from one incomplete project to another, wrapping them up before our move. Half-finished projects that have sat untouched in a closet for three years do not make the moving-van cut. Recently I was excited to finish a quilt that I started constructing during our second year in California, when I teaching 8th graders who are now of legal drinking age. I had another productive run a couple of years ago, and now it’s finally done and ready for our guest bedroom in Austin.

Here it is:

finished quilt

recipe: arctic char and hush puppies

I did not select this recipe because it included hush puppies, but it is an awfully appropriate menu item for us these days. I pulled it out of my “try this” file for our first California dinner after a long weekend of house shopping in Austin (more on that later). Honestly, I never understood why anyone liked hush puppies, those dense lumps that manage to be at once dry and greasy. Turns out they are something quite different right out of the fry oil, just cool enough to eat, and stuffed with tasty additions. I’d recommend getting everything prepared so you can sear the fish and fry the hush puppies at the very last minute and eat immediately.

Arctic Char with Cucumber-Feta Relish and Jalapeño-Goat-Cheese Hush Puppies
from Bon Appetit’s September 2010 feature on restaurants, originally from Caseus Fromagerie Bistro, New Haven, Connecticut

char and puppies

1 12-ounce cucumber, peeled, seeded, diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
3/4 cup coarsely crumbled sheep’s-milk feta cheese (about 3 ounces) [Lacking feta, I substituted crumbled blue cheese for both the relish and the hush puppies. No complaints.]
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh Italian parsley [I chopped a little extra and threw it into the puppies batter.]
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil [I think 2 is all that’s necessary.]
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon peel
4 5- to 6-ounce arctic char fillets with skin
3 tablespoons canola oil

Toss relish ingredients in medium bowl. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Relish can be made 2 hours ahead.

Sprinkle fish on both sides with salt and freshly ground pepper. Heat oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Place fish, skin side down, in skillet. Cook until skin is brown, occasionally flattening with spatula to prevent curling, about 4 minutes. Turn fish over. Cook until just opaque in center, about 1 minute. [I found this timing to be exactly right. The skin was beautifully crisp and the flesh perfectly done.]

Using slotted spoon, mound relish on plates. Top with fish, skin side up. Arrange hush puppies alongside and serve.

Hush Puppies

1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup buttermilk [Lacking buttermilk, I used plain yogurt.]
2 tablespoons beaten egg
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped seeded jalapeño chile
4 ounces coarsely crumbled soft fresh goat cheese (about 1 cup)
Canola oil or vegetable oil (for deep-frying)

Whisk first 6 ingredients in medium bowl to blend. Whisk buttermilk, egg, and chile in small bowl to blend. Stir buttermilk mixture and cheese into dry ingredients.

Add enough oil to deep medium saucepan to reach 1 1/2 inches. Attach deep-fry thermometer to pan; heat oil to 320°F to 330°F over medium heat. Working in batches of 4 or 5, drop batter by tablespoonfuls into oil. Cook until golden, turning occasionally, about 4 minutes. [Mine cooked faster than this. Perhaps my oil was too hot, but they sure turned out fine.] Using slotted spoon, transfer hush puppies to paper towels.

lit review

Today’s puppy post is another excerpt from our favorite dog book, Culture Clash. I find this table, describing the differing perspectives of humans vs dogs, enormously comforting when the puppies are trying to chew on my pant leg for the thousandth time.

[table id=3 /]