2006 archive

May 7. Questions from Rob: How to eat on very little money?

In America, it's a cliche that when you're very poor you live on instant ramen. But that stuff is made almost completely of white flour and salt. You can buy white flour and salt in bulk at the food co-op for even less money, if you know how to make them taste good. And for only slightly more money, you can get much more healthful bulk staples.

Wheat is potentially good, but all true grains (like wheat and rice) need to be sprouted or fermented to be good for you. Wheat is easy to do both with, and cheap. On a super-low budget, I'd order giant bulk bags of red winter wheat berries and whole wheat flour, and sprout the berries and sourdough the flour, in small batches every couple days.

Grains are not compete proteins. Some people like beans, which should also be soaked and sprouted a bit. Quinoa is a complete protein, and expensive, but a few pounds go a long way. Also your body needs high quality saturated fat. Get some pasture-fed butter, or cold-pressed coconut oil. And for extra vitamins and minerals, I recommend bee pollen. It's super-dense in nutrients for a (relatively) low price.

For produce, try big bags of root vegetables like carrots and potatoes and onions, which are often under a dollar a pound. Cabbage is also a great value, and can be made into Sauerkraut. You can't afford stuff like broccoli and eggplant, but in certain areas you can scavenge it from dumpsters. You might also check local ethnic stores. Finally, learn the local edible weeds. Dandelion flowers are super-nutritious, tasty, and abundant at certain times of year, and the leaves and roots are good too. If you like meat, you should be ready to kill pigeons as soon as it becomes socially acceptable.

Biggest rip-offs at the health food store?

Anything really expensive, like raw sprouted crackers, is probably worth it if you have the money. The rip-offs I see are at the low end. Many people get in a hypnotic trance in health food stores, where they just assume that everything is organic. Assume everything is not organic until you read it's organic on the label. They trick a lot of people this way. You're basically eating Safeway-quality food for double the price.

Another rip-off is the organic sugars. They're allowed to use the phrase "unrefined sugar" or even "evaporated cane juice" on sugar that is almost completely refined. The only products that are really just dried cane juice are Sucanat and Rapunzel Whole Cane Sugar (formerly Rapadura). Organic white sugar is identical to the cheapest white sugar, since all the toxins (except the sugar itself) get taken out in the refining. (It is better environmentally.)

There's a similar trick with salt. "Sea salt" means nothing. All salt comes from the sea. Even rock salt comes from ancient dried up seas. So the least expensive "sea salt" at the food co-op is nutritionally identical to much cheaper stuff, and not good for you. The word you need to look for with salt is "unrefined." To my knowledge, the cheapest unrefined salt is Redmond "Real Salt."

With meat, "free range" means almost nothing. Usually it means, instead of being caged, the animals are packed in a concrete-floored warehouse with a little door at one end that they never go out because they've been raised indoors and they're afraid. (This puts a sinister spin on "you are what you eat.") Even "organic" doesn't always mean what you think. In the worst case, it means factory farmed animals that are given organic feed. You want pasture-raised meat, but there's not yet a certification system for that phrase.

Anita comments that the meaning of "organic" varies a lot depending on the local certifiers, and that in Vermont "the critters are outdoors to their hearts content."

What's on your grocery list?

I'm eating at a lot higher level than the survival budget. I supplement my sprouted wheat berries with Ezekiel cereal, which at $4/lb is a pretty good deal even compared to the big corporate cereals. I also eat lots of Ezekiel bread, or other brands of sprouted bread, and about half a pound a week of Organic Valley butter, and lots of organic apples and apple juice. [Update: always rinse your mouth after drinking apple juice or it will rot your teeth worse than soda.] My biggest luxury is organic bacon and sausage. Also I get local eggs, and whatever good juice is on sale. And I sparingly use good fresh salsa.

In the west we have a chain called Grocery Outlet. If you look through the whole store, you can usually find two or three good organic items for an incredible price. Last summer I bought 30 cans of Amy's butternut squash soup for 50 cents a can. I'm still eating it, usually with homemade sourdough biscuits.

What's worth carrying (on your land, in the city, on a bike trip)?

Well, one thing worth carrying in the city, at least in the summer, is your shoes. It's surprisingly easy to go barefoot. You just have to watch for freshly broken glass, and come down on the balls of your feet instead of the heels, which will slam too hard on the pavement.

When I have to walk into my land, for food I usually bring a jar of sprouted, cooked, spiced quinoa, and the one tool I always bring is a Hori Hori, an unbreakable hand shovel. Then I might bring a Felco hand pruner or a good small axe or a japanese saw, depending on what I plan to do.

On bike trips, I've never found room for a tent. I carry an expensive down sleeping bag (REI Sub Kilo), with a therma-rest and a tarp wrapped around it, and go in the summer when it's not likely to rain. For setting up the tarp I bring some mini-bungees, which I used to make myself but I can't find the cable anymore. Then I pretty much have one bike bag filled with food and the other one filled with clothing, with the water in the front rack. I use Specialized Armadillo tires, which have never had so much as a leak, but I carry a compact patch kit anyway, and a Ritchey CPR 14 multi-tool. I've brought a small folding saw and never once used it, but I've brought a roll of spiral notebook wire and had to use it twice to improvise repairs. Opinel makes great cheap knives. Helle makes great expensive knives. And a luxury that I find worth its weight is a small pair of binoculars.

Tips for second hand store scores?

It totally depends on where you live. In the northwest we have a chain called Value Village, which on Mondays sells a certain tag color for a dollar. So I always go on Mondays. If your city has a Goodwill, it probably has a Goodwill outlet store, which sells everything by the pound! So a nice down coat or wool blanket that didn't sell at the regular store because it was overpriced, you can pick up for a couple bucks.

How to subvert your job?

The worst way is to try to preach to your co-workers. The best way is just by thinking about stuff other than your job on time they're paying you for. You've got to build a sense of your own value and identity that has nothing to do with how you make your money. And if you let other people at your job see that, some of them might be inspired. The next step is to use job time to work on personal projects. People think Einstein was smart. He was just lucky -- he had that great patent office job that gave him a steady income and hours every day to do his own stuff.

Where are these "low pay, low status, easy" jobs?

Well, when I say "low," I don't mean Wal-Mart low. I'm thinking of low-end "professional" jobs, where you have a cubicle or maybe even a tiny office, and you can get away with doing four hours of work in an eight hour day. Of course you'll never get promoted, but you don't want to be! Those jobs are out there. The problem is there's no way to ask for them. If your job is too stressful, look for another one. Repeat until you get lucky. And go for boring over cool. A job at a video game company is likely to work you to death. The best job I ever had was as the flunky office boy for a lease administration office. Here's a great page of advice from Dan, How to find your Dream Job (dead link).

Also, Robert comments: 1998 I quit my bank analyst job with plans to start my business. I had about nine months of savings and time to play with before my expected opening date, so I got an $8.25/hour office job pulling faxes and routing calls. I worked about four hours a day at my "job" and four hours a day surfing the Internet, making calls, formulating strategies, in connection with starting up my import business. And those people in that office thought I was the most efficient and capable person ever to have that position.

And Patricia comments:

Colleges are good places to find those "four hours work / four hours net surfing" kinds of jobs. Anything with "administrative" in the title will usually qualify. If you have the right attitude ("I'm just here putting in time to get cash for a couple years") then they are also low-stress. People around you may be stressy, but you can learn to let that roll off your back.

And Jason comments:

Don't overlook security guards! The hardest thing about it is filling a twelve hour shift, and you learn a lot of stuff that helps you stay under the radar. The ideal job is where you sit in a shack with (monitored) internet access and check people in and out on the night shift. I also get a preview of what's coming for society, and get to test it now (tin foil does a great job of blocking an RFID badge). Before you apply know that your fingerprints will be put in the FBI files.

May 8. Holly asks what exactly I eat.

I cook fast and eat often. Here's a typical day of the last few weeks: In the morning, I drink some fermented apple juice to get me started, and get some sprouted wheat out of the refrigerator and bring it to a boil on the stove. Then I shut the burner off and let the residual heat cook it while I get online (won't work with gas). Maybe a half hour later, I rewarm it and put in some soaked raisins. I've recently started soaking raisins to stretch the sweetness and improve the taste. I sometimes use dates but they're much more expensive. Then I add some Ezekiel cereal for crunch, and some clarified butter, and maybe a bit of (real) maple syrup.

A couple hours later, I might have a good animal food meal, a quarter pound (before cooking) of organic bacon or a sausage, and two eggs from a small local farm. Later in the afternoon, I'll probably have a sandwich, with sprouted wheat bread, Vegenaise, some arugula or dandelion greens from the back garden, and artichoke hearts which are most economical in a half gallon jar. Obviously I'm not vegan but I use Vegenaise because it just tastes better than any other mayo.

Another thing I might do is heat up some soup (Amy's stocked up from Grocery Outlet), and put in some bread or homemade biscuits. You can get my recipe for biscuits and lots of other stuff on my sourdough page. About every three days, I'll make an apple pie, or sometimes a pecan pie, or a pumpkin or sweet potato pie if I can get the stuff cheap. When I make a pie I eat it for about half my meals and finish it in about a day.

Update January 2007. I've discovered that Thai food is easy and fast. Steam/boil some veggies in half an inch of water, add coconut milk and curry paste (Thai Kitchen brand in those tiny jars), stir and eat! You can also add broth and fish sauce, or have it over rice. Do not buy "lite" coconut milk, which is just mixed with water. And don't use a whole can for one meal -- it has as much fat as a stick of butter! I find that coconut milk lasts a couple weeks in the fridge if you mix in some soy sauce.

With what frequency do you repeat the same meals? Do you ever get tired of eating the same stuff?

I never get tired of pie! With other things, I go through cycles of eating things and getting tired of them. A few years ago, before I knew soy is bad, I went a whole summer eating mostly cereal with soy milk and bananas. Now I basically eat a lot of whatever I can get cheap. In the winter, staying with Patricia, I eat venison that she gets from her dad. This summer I'll eat lots of zucchini from the back garden, and in five years, apples from my land!

General advice: You've got to know how to make enough different things that if you get tired of something, or can't get the ingredients, you can make other things until the first thing comes around again.

Also, do you ever fast? Do you ever eat out?

I've tried fasting and it doesn't work for me. Maybe because I'm already underweight and not eating toxic stuff, I've never experienced that surge of energy or euphoria that some fasters report. I just feel more and more sick and hungry until I start eating again. But sometimes I'll do a 24 hour fast if I'm on a long trip and out of food that I feel like eating, or to "reset" my appetite.

I've taken four cross-country train trips and never even looked at the dining car. Sometimes I eat out for social reasons when someone else is paying, but I often regret it -- most restaurants don't have any healthful entrees. The only restaurant food that I'll pay for is Ethiopian -- if I were rich I'd get it every day.

May 9. Today, grinders and corn. David asks:

Manual grain mills -- have you ever used one? If so can you recommend a good one?

I have two of them! I think the best hand grinder for flour is the Country Living mill. It's expensive! I had to lurk on ebay for months to get a good deal on one.

For a coarser grind, the Corona mill is the best, and it's cheap! The Country Living mill has an optional attachment for bigger stuff, but I still like the Corona better. It's a simpler design and easier to adjust. The only drawback is, it really doesn't go fine enough to turn wheat into bread or pancakes.

But in the long term, you might not need that -- in some regions, you'll be eating corn. Lisa writes:

Corn is easier to grow in most of North America than wheat. It was a staple crop for Native American peoples. It's so cheap that people burn it in pellet stoves.

Native people processed their corn into "hominy" before eating it. Hominy is corn soaked in an alkali; this removes the outer hull and makes the niacin in the corn nutritionally available. The alkali was traditionally wood-ash lye (potassium hydroxide) in the Northeast, or slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) in the Southwest. Once processed, the hominy can be ground into grits or masa (tortilla flour), or just cooked until soft and eaten. For best nutrition, eat with beans or a little meat or dairy. I have made hominy with lye, using ash from my wood stove, and it is not difficult.

I'd try to buy (organic, non-GMO) corn at a feed store like Agway, from a grain elevator, or from a farming neighbor who grows the stuff for cows. Wash and sort before feeding to humans! The price of corn on the futures market is presently $2.50/bushel (over 40 lbs), meaning that is the price the farmer gets. I think one or two bushels of corn would be enough for one person to eat it every day all year.

May 12-15. Aaron asks about fluoridation:

It seems that most cheap filters do not take out fluoride. Most of the ones that do cost hundreds of dollars, and I can't afford to spend that amount. I don't really want to buy bottled water. I hoped you might have some advice on this issue?

Update January 2007: I've found a cheap one, the Crystal Quest Fluoride filter. Patricia and I just ordered the sealed countertop F-plus, which lasts three years for less than $100. Update 2011: I've since read that the technology used in the Crystal Quest only works for a short time, and that there is still no cheap way to remove fluoride. I consider the question unresolved.

First, I should mention that the "fluoride" they put in our water is not sodium fluoride, about which there might still be some lingering doubt how bad it is. What they put in is a really nasty industrial waste product that happens to have "fluoride" in it so that if anyone suggests it might be bad they can invoke the Holy Dentist and make that Dr. Strangelove joke.

Activated carbon does not take out fluoride. Boiling water drives out chlorine but only concentrates the fluoride. In Seattle I use a filter by a local company, Custom Pure. They use a little-known technology called an ionizing resin, in combination with carbon. I believe it's the same technology used to purify water for silicon chip manufacture. And it's expensive, a $400 initial investment plus $100 a year, plus shipping if you don't live in Seattle.

Reverse osmosis works, but those systems are also expensive, and waste a lot of water. Distillation works too, and you can probably find instructions online for a homemade distiller.

Finally, CR uses and recommends a solar still, and Patricia sends this page about the atmospheric water generator, basically a dehumidifier that produces drinking-quality water. A good solar-powered AWG could produce all the drinking water you need. Distillation is not as perfect as its marketers say it is, but it's close. Only a few things with a boiling/condensing point close to water will get through.

June 23. Rob wants to know how exactly I ferment apple juice. It's the easiest thing I've ever tried to ferment. I just drink from the bottle to get it started, and set it at room temperature for a few days. If that makes you uneasy, you can also open a bottle and set it somewhere with the lid off, but that takes a couple weeks and often the mold will get it before the yeast does.

Once apple juice gets going, it ferments so fast that you have to check it several times a day, and either drink it or refrigerate it before it turns to vinegar. I generally keep a glass quart bottle on the counter, drink about 80% of it throughout the day, then refill it at bedtime, and by the next morning or early afternoon it's good to drink. Fermented apple juice gives your mouth the same pleasure as soda -- fizzy and sweet -- but it's much better for your body (but worse for your teeth). And because it's alive, it generates its own fizz instead of going flat.

I'm guessing it has about one percent alcohol. If you want to make hard cider to get you drunk, you either need special yeast, or a way to concentrate the alcohol. The old-time method was to set the apple juice out on a cold winter night, and the water would freeze out, leaving a high-alcohol liquid called "apple jack."

June 29. Fuel Economy Tips. I consistently get 43 mpg (18.3 km/l) in my mom's 1990 Honda Civic. And I once got 16 mpg (6.8 km/l) driving over the Rockies in a Ryder truck. Here's how:

1) Unless you're fleeing a volcanic eruption, or merging into aggressive highway traffic, never step down hard on the gas. I don't even touch the half of the accelerator range next to the floor. This means when you start from a light, it will take you a while to get up to speed. I usually compromise with the drivers behind me and step down more than I want to -- if there were no other cars, I could probably get 50 mpg.

2) Use the brakes as little as possible. Every time you brake, you have to make up for it by burning more gas. The unattainable ideal trip would not use the brakes at all -- you'd make every light and coast to a stop at the end. Unfortunately, car repairs cost even more than gas, so not braking always has to take second place to not hitting other cars. But there are ways to minimize braking:

3) Leave a long gap between you and the car in front of you, so if it slows down, you can slow down by taking your foot off the accelerator instead of braking. Be patient with the short-sighted drivers who pass you to fill that space. They don't know it, but you're actually saving gas for the vehicles behind you. Here's a great page about how a single driver can smooth out traffic jams and possibly save thousands of gallons of collective fuel.

4) Try to time lights so you slide through without stopping, or ideally, without even braking. Look up the road as far as you possibly can for the next light. When it turns yellow, immediately take your foot off the gas. Sometimes, when I know a red light will turn green before I get there, I'll pre-emptively brake to slow myself to a speed where I can coast through, instead of getting there too soon and having to stop completely. You can also speed up if you think it will get you through a green light before it changes.

5) Keeping an even speed is good, but keeping an even pressure on the accelerator is better! You're most efficient going slow uphill, fast downhill, and fast around curves.

6) The best speed varies between vehicles. Typically it's 35-45mph (56-72 km/h). Another good rule is to have low RPM's in the highest gear.

7) Other drivers will not appreciate what you're doing and you'll have to waste some gas and money to not piss them off too much. Keep in mind that hard accelerating/braking is the best substitute some people have for feeling alive. Bill comments:

The sensation of acceleration eases the anxiety of not being at the destination. We can sense acceleration, but not coasting, so a strong conscious effort is required to overcome the anxiety of just allowing the car to coast.

8) Keep the windows rolled up at high speeds to reduce air resistance. Research has shown that windows open and air conditioner off is more efficient under 50mph, and windows closed and air conditioner on is more efficient above 50, but it's best if you can do neither.

9) If you have an automatic transmission, shift into neutral while waiting at lights. The longer the light is, the more likely you'll save gas by shutting the engine off and restarting it. It depends on how much gas your particular car burns while idling or starting.

10) There is some debate about what gears you should use if you have a manual transmission. I'm going to go with Bill, who says that multi-speed bicyclists would have an intuitive sense of the most efficient gear.

11) Keep your car in good repair and your tires firm.

12) Driving for fuel economy requires at least as much mental focus as driving for speed. Some of these tips are dangerous if you're not paying close attention. When I have another person in the car, or anything to take my attention off driving, I mostly ignore fuel economy and just go with the traffic.

13) Everyone knows you get better mileage on the highway than in the city. Conveniently, most stuff in the city can be done by bus or bike. If you can arrange your life so you only use your car for highway driving, you'll save a lot of fuel, and probably also reduce stress and be in better shape.

September 8. Evacuation. Elaine writes:

In the DC Metro area I live with the fact that there may be a mass evacuation. My question is this... in an emergency where one would need to leave, what would you take with you?

First, do not depend on your car! In certain emergencies, like a hurricane, you might have enough advance warning to get out in a car, so if you have a car, sure, make a car plan, take a lot of stuff and go a long ways. But in a sudden emergency, where everyone has only a few hours to get out of the city, cars will be going roughly the speed of people on foot, and much slower than bicycles.

I would get a road bike or a "comfort" bike, not a mountain bike, because you want smooth narrow tires for efficiency on pavement (unless you're riding through snow, and then you need bumpy tires). Also they should be tough -- I've been using Specialized Armadillo tires for several years and never had a leak. The bike doesn't have to be expensive, but it does have to be in good repair and well-lubed. You need a back rack with bags, and probably a front rack.

Then you have to know where you're going. Do you have friends or family you can stay with? A cabin? How far? Will you be able to return to the city in a few days? How far do you have to go before you can do stealth camping? Remember, the authorities are your enemies. The "evacuee facilities," or whatever they call them, are not there to help people, but to concentrate the lower classes in one place where they can be easily "managed." This probably doesn't involve extermination but you never know! Also keep in mind that suburban police might be using deadly force to keep out the urban hordes (you).

Now, if you know where you're going and how you're getting there, you just have to bring enough food, water, and shelter to stay healthy on the way. You can't realistically haul more than a day of water, so you have to either know places to get clean water, or bring something to clean it. (I do not want to go into that subject!) For food, you want maximum calories, fat, and protein per pound. I'd take nuts, dried fruits, dense bread, sprouted crackers, chocolate, and maybe some clarified butter or coconut oil. A cooking kit is nice if you have room. The Sierra stove uses a fan to enable cooking with sticks and bark. On my last bike trip I brought a homemade soda can alcohol stove and some dried soup. For shelter, you need a good sleeping bag, but you probably won't have room for a tent. I've used a small tarp with mini-bungees. Some people use a weatherproof hammock or a bivy sack.

Other stuff: Most important, a map! Or many maps. For my bike trips, I bought a DeLorme state atlas and cut out the pages I planned to use, and I also brought county and city bike maps. Also, you'll want a compass, a knife (I have an Opinel and a Helle), fire-starting sticks, several lighters, a pocket radio, some compact binoculars, and maybe a taser. People who like guns will already know which one to bring. If you're going to be in the woods for a while, bring a really good small axe, like a Gransfors Bruks mini hatchet.

Finally, it's good to take a practice run. It might not be obvious how to get out of your city without a car, or where to sleep. Maybe go out on Saturday morning, see how far you can get, camp, and come back.