A Little About Me
I am an Adirondack girl who ended up in Los Angeles after some time in New York City and some time in the Catskills. I live in Venice Beach, where art meets crime, and my days are filled with writing, working, and cooking,
When I'm not busy doing those things I try to live a life I won't regret. I am passionate about real food and indie literature and I'm the kind of person you call when you need to get something done. I've written two novels and I'm working on my third in my spare time.
Category Archives: Living
There was a time when I didn’t think I could live without plastic food storage bags and plastic wrap. But once I figured out how to get rid of paper towels, I figured out how to get rid of all of them. Like paper towels, these are products which many generations of humans lived without and they stuck out like sore thumbs in my less industrial kitchen. I had Ziploc bags in multiple sizes, non-resealable plastic food storage bags, plastic wrap, and I ended up with all kinds of plastic bags when buying produce and bulk dry goods.
I still use plastic trash bags, but I’ve switched to more eco-friendly brands which I buy at my local coop, and I do keep a stash of large ziploc bags in the tool box. However, I only use them for rare circumstances like when I ship food products in glass which if broken and not in plastic would make an irreparable mess.
As convenient as they are small plastic bags are not necessary. You can get rid of them entirely, along with plastic wrap and here’s how you do it.
Buy cotton and silk bags for storing produce in the fridge.
I used to store lettuces, herbs and produce wrapped in paper towels, in plastic bags. Over the years, I learned that plastic was death to vegetables in the fridge, but paper towels, used with plastic bags were my saving grace. Eventually, I found the kootsac etsy store where you can buy the best cotton and silk bags for produce storage. Etsy store owner, Morgen, sells the silk bags for bulk dry goods, but I recommend them for lettuces, greens and herbs which are best stored in the crisper. For sturdier produce, like carrots, broccoli and scallions, I use the cotton bags, also purchased from the kootsac etsy store. I wash my bags by hand with dish soap (which in my house is Dr. Bronners) and I dry them on the fridge using rust resistant magnets.
Buy mason jars and a canning funnel to fill them.
I suggest you buy a wide array of sizes including the classic quart size, the pint size, the half-pint size, and the half-gallon size jars. They are very inexpensive and when the lids get rusty you can easily replace them. The small ones work well for snacks and lunches and the larger ones are great for storing soups, stocks and leftovers of all kinds. I recommend the wide mouth jars because they are easier to clean and fill, and I also recommend investing in a five-dollar canning funnel for filling though it’s possible to live without it.
Buy glass food storage containers with lids.
You can find sets of Pyrex storage containers with plastic lids all over and you can often find them on sale. A couple of these sets will give you enough to store things in the fridge that you would otherwise store in plastic bags. When you go to the farmers market, you can bring these containers with you for easily squashed items like berries and figs. The vendors are usually happy to take back their containers and there’s no better way to store berries in the fridge. You don’t need any paper towels and as long as you don’t overfill the container, your berries will stay fresher than you are used to. I’m particularly partial to Pyrex because it can go from the fridge to the oven. I don’t own a microwave so I reheat leftovers frequently in the same Pyrex containers I use in the fridge.
Use wax paper to wrap sandwiches and snacks.
To keep the wax paper closed you can use a small piece of tape or you can wrap the package in a cloth napkin. You can wrap sandwiches, pastries and breads which stay plenty fresh in lunches when wrapped this way. I also use wax paper to wrap and store cheese though I have to say it some cheeses have a shorter shelf life in the fridge when they are wrapped in wax paper. The softer cheeses seem to fair better in wax paper but the harder cheeses like cheddar can dry out if left for a long time. I tend to use cheese pretty quickly so it’s rarely a problem.
Stop using the plastic bags at the grocery store and the farmers market.
Get in the habit of bringing your cotton and silk bags with you, along with your reusable shopping bags. Tons of people will ask you about them and tell you that’s such a good idea and then you can tell them about the kootsac etsy store I mentioned above. I bring mine to the farmers market and the coop and I keep enough of them on hand so I never run out. I’ve had some that were less durable but I have every single kootsac bag I’ve ever bought. They have never frayed or torn even though I have stained them over the years with things like beets and half cut red peppers.
You can also bring your mason jars to the grocery store and farmers market for buying dry goods in bulk. You can go to the cashier to get a tare weight on the jar so you don’t pay for the weight of the jar and then your dry goods are ready to put away when you get home. Since I buy the majority of my dry goods in bulk, my cupboards are filled with mason jars which stack well and which look beautiful.
Use non-disposable storage containers around the house.
When I decided to finally face my plastic bag addiction, I had to admit it had spread beyond the kitchen. I realized I had Ziploc bags all over the house, storing all kinds of things – from panty hose to extra bars of soap. And when I traveled it was even worse. So I gradually started replacing the plastic bags with different kinds of storage containers that could serve more than one purpose over time, and for traveling I re-appropriated some of my cotton food storage bags which where fraying and not holding up so well (the ones I didn’t buy from the kootsac etsy store). In order to quell my fear of toiletries spilling in my suitcase, I wrap my toiletry bag in one of my chicobag reuseable shopping bags. They are made of nylon so they are more or less water proof, and come to find out, my toiletries don’t leak nearly as often as I worried they would.
If you bake your own bread, buy a large glass bowl and a plate large enough to fit under it.
I know this doesn’t apply to most people, but storing bread was a serious barrier to entry for me to the no-plastic-bag-lifestyle. I used those non-reclosable food storage bags to store left over bread every single day and I couldn’t very well just leave the bread on the counter for days. I tried wax paper but I had to use a ton of tape given the width of the roll, and it never worked well. So I took my largest straight-sided glass bowl and turned it upside down on a dinner plate. It fit perfectly, provided better next day storage than plastic, and that’s how I’ve been storing my homemade bread ever since.
Stop buying plastic storage bags and plastic wrap.
Once you’ve done some re-equiping of your kitchen, just stop. Anything you’re missing in your kitchen to make it work will reveal itself over time and don’t feel guilty about using up what you’ve already bought while you’re in transition. If you’re concerned about the cost of making the transition, think about how much you’ll spend in your lifetime on Ziploc bags and Saran Wrap if you don’t kick the addiction now.
Appreciate the extra space in your drawer or cupboard.
There was a time when I purchased and stored: large ziploc bags, medium ziplock bags, small ziploc bags, non-resealable plastic food storage bags, regular saran wrap, that new fangled saran wrap that sticks to itself, aluminum foil, wax paper, and parchment paper. Now, I only purchase and store two of those nine modern conveniences. My one role of wax paper and one role of parchment paper fit easily and conveniently in one of my kitchen drawers and I’m no longer addicted to the other seven products which humans make in factories, ship to stores, and purchase in bulk for a lot of money, even though they don’t really need them. I weened myself off aluminum foil eventually too and it’s a wonderful feeling.
Giving up things like plastic bags and paper towels is a relatively big adjustment for any household but you’ll be surprised what you can live without if you try. Humans lived for thousands of years without Ziploc and Saran, just like they lived without aluminum foil, paper towels, pasteurization or industrial preservatives. For me, it’s about reversing the process and getting the factory out of my pantry which is a never-ending adventure.
I am feeling particularly sentimental this new year and I am feeling particularly grateful to have been born and raised in the tiny town of Johnsburg, in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains, on the west bank of the Hudson River. I’ve been gone for twenty years, but I recently decided to plant a root back in my hometown, one that will provide nourishment for decades to come. I’ve lived in two big cities and two other small towns, but nothing compares to the village where I was raised.
Covering 200 square miles, the town of Johnsburg is home to approximately 2,400 people who live in approximately 1,000 households. Population statistics ebb and flow a little, but the average population density of 12 people per square mile has held fairly steady during my lifetime. There are two gas stations and one traffic light and nothing is open twenty-four hours. You can walk the full length of main street in twenty minutes or less (depending on how many people you stop and visit with) and there’s one school where approximately 350 students, in grades K-12, are all educated under the same roof.
When I graduated from Johnsburg Central School, I couldn’t wait to leave and there were times, as a teenager, when I was so sick of everyone knowing my name that I wished I’d been born into a more metropolitan family. I named my cat Cosmopolitan but the only traveling I did was in the library and when I did leave, I felt wholely inadequate next to my more urban peers. Little did I know just how well my village had raised me, or how well my childhood prepared me for everything that lay ahead. Little did I know just how lucky I was.
Now, I feel sorry for my more urban peers and now, I feel deeply privileged to have been born and raised an Adirondack girl. But when my husband and I decided to buy a house in Johnsburg, I could not have imagined the well of pride into which I would tap.
I will admit to a moment of panic as I prepared for a flight from LA to NY to look at houses, and when my husband pooh-poohed my house-buying anxiety I did not take it kindly. In fact, I accused him and his entire of gender of infuriating pie-in-the-sky thinking when some things, like buying a house, are famously not easy. Thankfully, my husband diffused what could have been a lovely marital spat when he explained what he meant. He told me buying a house in my hometown would be easy. He told me my town would take care of me. He told me my town would welcome me and there would be people who had known me and my parents our whole lives who would be there to help. He reminded me what it was like when my brother died, how the whole town rallied to support my grief stricken family. And I knew when he said that that he wasn’t kidding. His sincerity dulled my anxiety and thankfully, my husband was right.
Despite everyone’s advice to shop around for the best mortgage, I decided go local with everything. My realtor was a friend of my mom’s who goes to church with my dad. My lawyer was the lawyer I worked for when I was fifteen. And I got my mortgage at the local bank which has changed management many times but has always been the only bank in town. I arrived in town on a Sunday and by Thursday at noon, I had an offer accepted on the first house I saw. And I have never felt like I was in better hands.
I did call my husband and admit he had been entirely right but even on that day, with an accepted offer in hand, I couldn’t have imagined the nostalgia-filled adventure I had embarked up. For most people, buying a home represents a new chapter in life, and it’s often a process filled with strangers. But for me, buying a home was a trip down memory lane.
I reminisced with my lawyer and his wife about when their first son was a baby and I was his first babysitter and before that when he was running for District Attorney. I heard about the parties my lawyer and insurance agent used to attend together when they were teenagers, and before I decided to go with Stevenson Insurance, I called the bank’s insurance company for a quote only to realize I was talking to a woman from three towns over whose children grew up riding my Aunt Wanda’s school bus. Then there was the moment when my realtor and I put two-and-two together and realized my Aunt Marion was a dear friend of hers at the nursing home in the years before she died.
I got the scoop on the drilled well from Davey Wolfe down at Stewart’s and my Dad confirmed his cousin Pinky did a lot of the renovations on the house. Now, Pinky has retired so people told me to call Gerry Knickerbocker who, in my mind, was still just Georgia and Becky’s little brother. Later I found out that Rusty Leigh and his dad put the roof on my house, years ago, with a little help from old George Dunkley. Of course, if you know Rusty Leigh, it’s better if you hear him tell the story.
I ran into endless people in town, many of whom I hadn’t seen in years and I made countless trips to the hardware store with my Dad in tow. I reminisced with the two Kathy’s at Foothills Antiques about my older sister, Beth, and the days back when she was a teenage waitress at the Copperfield Inn and I ran into an old Warren County Sheriff friend from back in the days when I was teenage convenience store worker. The look on my Gramma Volcheck’s face when I told her I was buying a house in Johnsburg was priceless and when I got my first visit from Bobby Austin it made me feel like my maternal grandparents Bob and Bella Dunkley were actually somehow in the room. I was reminded of them again when I brought some bread up to my new neighbors, George and Judy Dunkley. They are our new neighbors but they have been family forever.
I was proud as hell when one of my more recently transplanted neighbors said, “Oh, you’re a real local,” and I was momentarily but deeply embarrassed when another neighbor asked if we were from New Jersey. The plates on our rental car made me realize old prejudices die hard but I couldn’t be prouder to be bringing some more Dunkley blood back to Cleveland Road.
My family rallied to fill the house with all the things we needed and they did it the we always do it in the Adirondacks, when there’s some kind of hole in someone’s life that needs to be filled. They rummaged through attics and basements and cleaned out their own cupboards and closets and surprisingly little money was spent considering the pile of belongings we were gifted upon arrival. My dad gave me back the beds he made for my sister and me when we were kids and I ended up with the Electrolux vacuum cleaner my parents bought when I was seven. It was a major family purchase from a traveling salesman, more thirty years ago, but where I grew up people understand quality and really take care of their things.
Where I grew up, people also really take care of each other and so many people took such good care of me during my first seventeen years on this earth that I could spend the rest of my life writing thank you cards. They didn’t leave me ill prepared. They didn’t protect me from the hard lessons life is bound to teach us all. They didn’t coddle me or fail to teach me the all the things I needed to know in order to venture out into big cities and thrive despite the rat race. They taught me that money doesn’t make you happy and they taught me to make time for the simple pleasures in life like a table full of friends and a home cooked meal on the table. They taught me how to do things and in doing so over and over again, they taught me how to teach myself things when they were no longer around. They taught me to take care of my neighbors and they taught me family is both the family you’re born with and the friends you choose and you bend over backwards for both because we’re all so lucky to have each other.
You don’t get to pick where your born and you don’t get to choose your family, but I got particularly lucky on both fronts. I was born into a family with deep roots in the Adirondacks and the older I get the more clearly I see the fingerprints of my upbringing on myself. I see the village that raised me in the way I live my life albeit now more urban and anonymous. I see the lessons I learned in the decisions I make and I try never to forget what really matters in life. I try to work as hard as my parents did when they were my age and I give them all the credit when someone compliments my work ethic.
Now, I have an opportunity to make my parents as proud of me as I am of where they raised me. I promise to take wonderful care of this little piece of heaven on the Mill Creek and I promise to be a good neighbor. I promise to come home and visit more often and I promise to remember the roots which have always nourished my life, no matter how far I’ve traveled.
Many thanks to the Adirondacks and many thanks to all of the people in the tiny town of Johnsburg who made me the person I am today.
As I started reversing the process and started getting the factory out of my pantry, I started to think about all the things in my kitchen which people didn’t have before my grandparents were alive. Coincidentally, as I was having these thoughts, I happened to see a documentary film called Greedy Lying Bastards which connected the Koch brothers with commonly purchased products like paper towels. These two diverging trains of thought finally pushed me over the edge and made me give up paper towels.
That was more than a year ago but I’ve done it. I’ve completely given up paper towels and here is what you need if you want to do the same.
Stop buying paper towels.
You can’t stop until you stop. I tried minimizing the use of paper towels, but the household dependency on them didn’t end until I stopped buying them.
Buy more kitchen towels.
If you want to live without paper towels, you are going to need more kitchen towels. They don’t have to be expensive, but they should be 100% cotton and if you want to maximize absorbency, you should stop using fabric softener. You may want to keep two kinds of towels, one for cleaning and one for everyday use, but I didn’t do that until after the first year or so. Now, I keep one stack of older, more stained, cleaning towels, and one stack of newer, less stained, kitchen towels for every day use.
Create a place to hang towels in use.
This should be near the sink or near wherever people will reach for when they would reach for a paper towel. I have hooks for three towels which are in use and one is generally sitting on the counter below, ready for easy access and use during miscellaneous kitchen tasks.
Create a place to hang dirty towels where they can dry before laundering.
If you don’t want smelly laundry, you need somewhere to hang towels which are too dirty to use, but too wet to put in the laundry. You will need to train the people in your kitchen to put the dirty towels in the right place where they don’t get used again until clean. Towels which have touched the floor, have cleaned up raw meat messes, or which have been used a lot should be hung to dry but should not be used again. I have three hooks in a prominent location for towels in use and four hooks for dirty towels in a more out of the way location.
Buy cloth napkins.
You may want to buy one kind for every day use and one kind for more formal dinners, but either way, you will need enough to replace paper towels or paper napkins at every meal. How many you will need will depend on the size of your family and I recommend 100% cotton napkins for their more natural feel and for their better absorbency.
Use cookie sheets and cooling racks for draining bacon and fried foods.
I didn’t think of this until I stopped buying paper towels, but a cooling rack on a cookie sheet is actually better for draining fried food than a paper towel on a platter. It prevents condensation and keeps the food much crisper than the paper towel alternative you are used to. I tried newspaper once, but the chemicals on the print grossed me out.
Buy cotton and silk bags for storing produce in the fridge.
I used to store lettuces, herbs and produce wrapped in paper towels, in plastic bags. Over the years, I learned that plastic was death to vegetables in the fridge, but paper towels were my saving grace. Eventually, I found the kootsac etsy store where you can buy the best cotton and silk bags for produce storage. Esty store owner Morgen sells the silk bags for bulk dry goods, but I recommend them for lettuces, greens and herbs which are best stored in the crisper. For sturdier produce, like broccoli and scallions, I use the cotton bags, also purchased from the kootsac etsy store.
Use terry cloth towels for washing windows and mirrors.
Wash off the dirt and mess with a wet cloth and buff dry with a dry terry cloth towel. You can’t get a streak-free clean with a damp towel, but you can buff a mirror or window streak-free with a dry terry cloth towel. You don’t need paper towels or newspaper, and you don’t even need window cleaner.
Use kitchen towels for patting dry meat.
Anyone who cooks meat well knows a dry muscle is necessary for a good sear. So, pat your meat dry with a kitchen towel, just like you would with a paper towel. Hand wash the towel in the sink with some dish soap and hang it to dry with the dirty towels. Red meat will stain your towels but you can keep two kinds of towels to contain the staining.
When you make a horrible mess, sacrifice a towel or two.
Sometimes, you make a horrible mess, and sometimes that means you have to throw out a towel or two. My first real mess after giving up paper towels was a quart jar of sugar-mint syrup dropped from waist-high, right in front of an open fridge. It was horrible, and there was glass everywhere, and there was a house full of people waiting for dinner when it slipped out of my hand. The first words out of my best friend’s mouth were, “I bet you wish you hadn’t given up paper towels now!” I swept up the mess, broken glass and all, with a couple towels and threw them away without a second thought. I did the same when I dropped a jar of honey and I am sure there will be other horrible messes in my future.
Giving up paper towels is a relatively big adjustment for any household, but it is possible. It takes a certain amount of retraining, but humans lived for thousands of years without paper towels, just like they lived without pasteurization and microwaves and saran wrap. You don’t realize how many times a day you reach for a paper towel until you actually stop buying them, but there is something so gratifying about not putting them in your shopping cart ever again. Since I gave up paper towels, I have also given up plastic storage bags and saran wrap and I’ve never owned a microwave. You’ll be surprised what you can live without if you try.
Los Angeles is accused of being a lot of things which I cannot refute. Los Angeles can be deeply superficial and way too many people get way to much plastic surgery. The traffic here is ridiculous and despite how many people moved here from places which actually have weather, no one here remembers how to drive in the rain. This city does make people soft and there’s nothing I can say to argue with any of that.
However, many people complain about the lack of seasons which supposedly is what drives them back to all the different places from where they came. But LA does to have seasons and this one is my favorite. Spring here is about cherry pie and stone fruit. Spring here is about jacaranda blooming and pelicans flying north in awe inspiring bunches. Spring provides warmer temperatures in the coastal micro-climates and for those of us on the far west side each year is marked by another stretch of May grey which sometimes extends into June gloom.
We don’t have snow to deal with or large variances in temperatures to mark the passing of the year but we do have spring, summer, fall and winter here, and some of us do revel in each. We have trees that turn colors and leaves that fall. We have all sorts of produce which cycle through abundance as one season turns into the next. For me, the seasons here are more about food than anything else, but there are signs of passing time all around Los Angeles.
Even if they are too busy or self-centered to notice, people should stop complaining that LA doesn’t have seasons. They should admit that wasn’t why they left LA to go back to where they were from, and they should pick one of the other reasons to hate LA as an excuse for why they didn’t stay.
Tomorrow, I promise to post my cherry pie recipe so you can take time to revel in the small things life has to offer. And in the meanwhile, I’m going to go enjoy this beautiful spring day in Venice Beach.
Dear people who don’t live in Venice but who try to navigate the back streets anyway:
Please accept this blog post as a desperate plea from a girl who lives her life pretty much AWOL, which in LA-speak means Always West of Lincoln. I live in the heart of Venice and I work in Santa Monica and I only venture East of Lincoln Blvd when I absolutely have to. And now that spring is here, I once again find myself frustrated by those of you who don’t live on the far west side but who try to navigate the back streets of Venice anyway. I know that traffic is worse this time of year, but please, please , I beg you, don’t venture off the beaten path to beat the traffic or find parking.
First of all, you’re probably going to get lost because Venice is not an easy little rectangle like Santa Monica. We’ve got the canals and we’ve got Abbot Kinney Boulevard which throws everything off on a diagonal. The streets aren’t numbered for your driving convenience, and more importantly, we have these funny streets which are two way streets even though they don’t actually fit two cars side by side. And this is why I’m begging you to stay on the streets you know.
I’ve only lived in Venice for a decade, so I can remember what it was like to be perplexed by these two-way streets which should, in theory, be one-way streets. But now, now that I’ve lived in Venice this long, I use these streets like a native to get away from all the traffic on all the streets you’ve heard of caused by all the people who like to venture to the far west side, but who think it’s too chilly, or too expensive, to live here. Now, I need these side streets to get by. I need these side streets to run errands on the weekends and I need these streets to get to work every day now that the soon-to-be end of the Expo Line has traffic in downtown Santa Monica entirely effed up. These side streets, despite how perplexing they are, are my life blood. I zip around on them in my compact car with my windows down and my music blaring and it’s all well and good until I meet one of you on one of those streets on which you cannot figure out how to drive.
Somehow, people who live in Venice know what to do on these streets. We use the drive-way no parking zones and that convenient no parking zone right before a stop sign to politely pull over and let the other person by. Or, if necessary, we cross the street and stop far enough behind the parked car in front of us so the other person can pull out and we can pull past. We know when to let the wrong person go at a stop sign just to make it easier for everyone to get past each other and we know when we both can drive towards the center of the street at the same time because there are two drive-way no parking zones in the middle of the block which will allow us to path each other unscathed. I used to wonder how people did it, but now I’m one of those people and there’s nothing more annoying than one of you people who freezes in panic at the wheel because the street you just turned down seemed like a two-way street until you made the turn and saw a car coming at you in a space that is not in fact wide enough for two cars.
If necessary, we wait patiently for the other person to drive half a block and we don’t get all uptight about it because we are not just trying to avoid traffic or looking for parking, we live here. We wouldn’t live in Venice if we didn’t have a little joie de vivre and we don’t have any trouble at all navigating our far too narrow side streets until one of you people shows up and panics. It’s true, you can find yourself in Venice on two-way street that is not wide enough for two cars, but it’s not rocket science and it’s not so hot on the west side so you can turn off your air conditioning, open your window, breathe in the ocean air and chill out for a minute.
And better yet, you could stay on the streets you know. Stay on the streets you’ve heard of like Pacific and Venice and Rose and stay off the streets you’ve never heard of like Riviera and Andalusia. That’s it. That’s all I’m asking.
From a west-side girl
On Monday, September 1st, I had the privilege of meeting Aubrey Benmark at the Santa Monica Pier, at the very end of Route 66. It was a privilege because Aubrey has spent the last five months walking across America. Yes, you read that correctly, walking across America.
Aubrey funded her trip on Kickstarter and The Brooklyn Paper wrote a great article about her before she set out from her former home in Brooklyn, New York. And after all those days on the road, with so few conveniences, all Aubrey had to share were stories of human kindness. Aubrey will be sticking around LA to finish her book, The Highest Road, and I look forward to reading the whole story which could not possibly be told over a dinner or two.
People like Aubrey exist on this planet to remind us all what is possible. Aubrey had an idea and she did it. Some people thought she was crazy, but she felt a calling to do something drastically different than her status quo and she did not shy away from that idea. I’ve known Aubrey since she was seventeen and I feel increasingly fortunate that our paths in life happened to cross.
What crazy idea do you have that you haven’t had the gumption to pursue? Think about it, and ask yourself, what would Aubrey do?