A new name for spinach?

I’ve just arrived home from California. It’s only 2 hours away by plane, I’ve been there many times, and on the surface the culture seems virtually the same as here. But I was surprised at the differences I noticed in food labelling and packaging (aka marketing) at the local grocery chains.

The example I found most astounding was the labelling of a bag of kale and spinach as “Juicing Greens”! With juicing as one of the latest fads in health and weight loss, someone must be making money by promoting basic greens as so exciting and trendy! And note the yellow box on the label – “Healthy” too? Imagine that.  US GroceriesThis got me reflecting on the food marketing I’ve likely been susceptible to here in Western Canada. I guess we’ve been hit harder with the “Paleo Diet” as a food consumption concept, where in its most simplistic description, animal fat and protein are good and grains are bad*. Conversely in California, I couldn’t even find higher fat table (or coffee) cream, the presumably undesirable homogenized (3.25% fat) milk was disguised with a lack of labeling, and most of the other dairy products were labelled “fat free”, “low fat” or “fat reduced”.  

I often see labels for “Gluten Free” on items that have never contained gluten, but on this trip, I also noticed products labeled “No High Fructose Corn Syrup” on items that likewise wouldn’t have had any sugar anyway.

I appreciate the desire and commitment of the food industry to educate people about what’s in their food, but I question the motivation when grocery shopping seems to be more about marketing promises or the latest buzz words than nourishment. As a lot of our popular culture stems from our southern neighbours, I’m curious when “juicing greens” will show up on the shelves here in Vancouver (where we tend to be a bit righteous about how healthy we are). Is it already in other parts of Canada? A little marketing research anyone?

*This is my own description and perception of the Paleo Diet concept, not backed by any research.


Spring has sprung?

It’s with mixed emotions that I look up at the local mountains, usually covered with snow this time of year. It is barely past Valentine’s Day, and my daughter is playing soccer in shorts and it’s 13 degrees outside!
And despite my yearning to get a few more good days of skiing in this season, I’m taking the glass-half-full approach and allowing myself to relish in the fact that spring might actually be here…at least a month early .

Normally, February is fairly miserable in Vancouver, and I dread the “February Blues” that usually ensue with seemingly endless days of rain, cold and dreariness.
Not this year! I assumed it was because I was so busy with work that I’ve hardly noticed the weather. But discovering the first crocuses of the season made me realize it’s been so warm and dry that the weather just hasn’t negatively affected me at all this year.

I’m not going to be naïve and assume I can start planting my garden yet, but it has given me the groundhog feeling (pull your head out of your hole (hehe) and embrace the light!), and I’m excited to start planning. Bring on spring!

Stuff I’ve discovered in my yard that is UP and growing already:
Rhubarb, kale and carrots hanging around from last year – I LOVE veggies that re-grow!

What’s UP in your yard, on your balcony or in your garden?

The Nostalgia of Food: An art exhibit review

  Studio 126 event

I quite enjoy art exhibits. And when a talented friend and colleague is exhibiting her work, I LOVE art exhibits! I’m like a new mom, so proud of and excited for the potential this may bring a deserving person. And when the theme is food….well!!!!

This was the case when I attended “The Nostalgia of Food” last week, an exhibit hosted by Studio 126 in Chinatown (the installation of which continues all month).

In addition to being in an amazing, inspiring but completely unassuming space, the exhibit promised to showcase what “the nostalgia of food” means to the fifteen different artists on display, from painters to photographers and more.

Helena McMurdo Photography

Photo: Helena McMurdo Photography

Presumably the theme “the nostalgia of food” would be about the memories and connections associated with food and its traditions from our families or our experiences. Let’s walk through one of the artists, Helena’s, take on it.

Helena McMurdo Photography

Helena McMurdo – “Weight and balance” – giclee

“This is the scale that used to sit in my grandparent’s bar in Spain. It stirs up very personal memories for me as I remember when their bar was a lively place with neighbours and customers coming and going to have a drink and to buy food. I think of the stories it could tell, and of the conversations between my grandmother and her customers, how the weight might have been ‘just over’ the requested amount. Contrast that with how we shop for food today, mostly alone, helping ourselves and with less interaction with the shopkeeper. The social and communicative nature of the trading of the past is changing. Now with her shop long gone, the scale sits as a sort of fruit bowl, not fulfilling its true potential, but as a beautiful reminder of a time and a way of consuming food.” 

Helena McMurdo Photography

Helena McMurdo – “Pickling”

It seems like pickles are essentially a nostalgic item. Mention pickles and everyone remembers their grandma’s pickles. Or do they? I never made pickles as kid and nor did anyone in my family but this is how I imagined it would be if I had. I’m interested by the cultural iconography of nostalgia as it relates to food. Does a home-made pickle made by a grandmother taste better than one made by a professional in a state-of-the art facility? Are we responding to the taste of the pickle or the experience or memory? How is that we can imagine these cues from experiences that may or may not have occurred. Are we being true to the real experience?  Or do we all attribute meaning to our memories that may not be there?

Helena McMurdo Photography

Helena McMurdo – “Rashers and eggs”

The simplicity of these ingredients recalls a simpler time, when these items were the product of the farmhouse, not the factory. How many of us have actual memories of eating this way? Or are we responding to a collective imagined experience?

I hadn’t thought much about the exhibit before getting there – heck, I barely got out of the house after a full day of work, picking up kids, throwing dinner at the family and slapping on a coat of lipstick! So I let the above and other artists’ impressions and inspirations guide me, and soon I was conjuring up my own images of what this theme means to me.

For example, I didn’t realize until I was an adult how much nostalgia I generated from my parents having a garden when I was a kid and how the values locked deeply in that eventually propelled me to start a garden once I had my own family.

Think about Christmas dinner! That’s fodder for another post, there’s so much nostalgia tied up in certain Christmas traditions carried on mostly by my hubby’s side of the family.

And even on a much less obvious note, food nostalgia in our family could be contained in a notion as simple as the fact that we always take tuna sandwiches “in the pack” for our lunch on the ski hill. In fact, my sister was heard saying the other day that, “Skiing wouldn’t be the same without tuna fish sandwiches”! I’m not sure anyone besides my dad even likes them, but it’s a constant in an event that we hold dear and have greatly enjoyed together since childhood.

What sparks food nostalgia in your life? 

ps, In addition to her food photography work, Helena is the author of the blog, My Endless Picnic, and co-author of the South Granville Inhabiter blog. You can also find her on the usual social media spots: Facebook: Helena McMurdo Photography, Twitter (@missilenth) & Instagram (@missilenth). Because the “H” in her name in silent. 🙂

Studio 126 is located at 126 E Pender Street in Vancouver BC.

Guest post: It’s about more than saving money

Most people laugh when I tell them I actually save money on food during the summer months because of my garden. I didn’t start gardening to save money initially, nor do I continue it solely for that reason, but it’s been a plausible by-product, so it’s become part of the fun!

If I only bought internationally sourced, non-organic produce, or spent a lot of money building fancy garden beds, I might be able to poke holes in this theory, but when comparing to farmers’ market prices (and quality!) for locally, sustainably grown produce, and my goal is to produce ALL my own produce for at least a month in the summer, it can add up to a significant savings, including the time and money it takes to shop.

A friend and like-minded gal inspired me with her recent post on Facebook indicating that January was a self-imposed “spending freeze” month, and furthermore, that through thrifty “thrifting” throughout the past year, her goal was to purchase ZERO clothing in 2015 for her family of four! So I decided to interview her about how she alters her behaviour throughout the year and what her motivations are.

Facebook post

Meet Sandra. Small business owner by trade, mom/cook/gardener/thrifter/DIY junkie by choice. Our husbands happen to be cousins and spend all their time together either hunting wild game, or hunting zombies on their Xboxes late at night through the ether.
We put in our butcher order together from the “hubby hunt”, share a cow from a local farm once a year, she renders her own lard from the fat, and taught me how to make my own stock from the bones. She’s taught me lots of other stuff too, but I need to get on with this interview, so I guess she’ll be a returning guest!

Me: What was your motivation to begin gardening? And what motivates you to continue with it today?

Sandra: Growing up, I spent my summers with my grandparents, and my grandfather had a garden. I didn’t realize it then, but probably 80% of the produce we ate came from the garden. We snacked on raspberries and peas and baby carrots. Digging potatoes for that night’s dinner was like digging for buried treasure. My husband’s parents and grandparents grew their own food, so it seemed logical to both of us that if you own your own land, you grow some food on it. My motivation is part nostalgia and part common sense  (My parents didn’t garden or do anything remotely traditional or homestead-y, so I guess it skipped a generation).
NB: My rhubarb came from your Grandpa’s garden!

Me: Do you think you actually save any money by gardening?

Sandra: On tomatoes, kale and rhubarb, absolutely.  On everything else, probably not.  We’ve probably spent more on building garden beds and enhancing the soil than we’ve saved on lettuce and green beans.  My garden is very small, so I can’t grow enough variety or volume or feed our family exclusively.

Me: In an age of lack of delayed gratification, “buy it now” buttons and over-consuming, what motivated you the most to implement a family “spending freeze”?

Sandra: Financial necessity. My income varies, so there are some lean months.  Sometimes the budget needs a little tweaking. Priorities need tweaking too.

Me: What’s the single thing you do regularly that gives you the most gratification from either saving money, the environment or just doing right by your family?

Sandra: Cooking at home, from scratch, with whole foods, and eating dinner as a family. It’s a good thing that I enjoy cooking, and my family likes my cooking (stewed rabbit and one overcooked beef roast notwithstanding). Groceries are one area of the budget where we are not overly frugal. Since we don’t get out much, it’s important that the food be high quality, satisfying, and a little bit indulgent.  Leftovers are turned into future dinners or lunches for my husband. Food waste annoys me. Restaurant meals destroy the budget. We simply can not afford to eat out as a family all the time and expect to stay out of debt. And to be honest, when you eat well at home, even expensive restaurant food is less appealing. The rare times that we do eat out, it’s at a specialty or ethnic restaurant, or for a special occasion, so the meal doubles as a social or cultural experience. Another benefit of cooking and eating at home is that my kids recognize and appreciate so many foods from farm to plate – what they look like and what they taste like – and will take that knowledge with them through life.

NB: Our children helped hunt that rabbit on their first trip with aforementioned hubbies, so we didn’t care what it tasted like, and the roast beef was fine!
Thanks Sandra!


Crafty! Part Two: Countdown to Craft Fair Day

Wow! The past few weeks have been a whirlwind! Never mind the regular hustle – work, school, activities, commitments, and the start of the holiday season – we’ve had a craft fair to prepare for!

I admit to a mild amount of panic before this week, but the girl and I have persevered and managed to produce enough products to fake our way onto an 8 foot table! Thank goodness my sister from Phoenix Knitwear is joining us to help fill our table – besides, it’ll be a great mother-daughter-auntie-niece bonding experience to support and hang out with each other for the day.

By coincidence, and to my delight, my sister and I were recently introduced to the Square reader (for mobile credit card payments), and it arrived in time so we can play with the big kids and accept credit card payments!

At the same time, I didn’t realize a simple trip to the bank for a cash float would be such a great old skool learning experience for my daughter, who has taken full ownership over it and plans to record our inventory and sales (with pen and paper). So technology has not ruined us yet.

And when I mentioned that she might need to come home for a lunch break, that a five hour shift was probably the longest shift she’d ever worked, she reminded me that it’ll be the ONLY shift she’s ever worked.

So whether we sell anything or not, this experience has been worth it already. And without further ado, here’s a taste of what we’ve been working on.


Crafty! Making stuff and other off-season endeavors

CraftingWhen I started this blog, I worried I wouldn’t have anything to write about between, oh, October and June, ha! But once I started exploring different topics, I realized part of what got me so excited about growing my own food in the first place was my inert desire to create. To make something useful with my own hands.

My family has been making stuff for decades, so this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. My mom used to design and sew character costumes for our local skating pageant (I wish I could find photos of that 7′ tall Dino the Dinosaur!). Many of my and my sister’s clothes were sewn by her (back in the day when matching gingham petticoats were cool, yikes), and today she has outfitted my girls’ 18″ dolls with entire wardrobes sewn by hand. I could go on and on.

My dad could often be found in the yard doing what looked like “yard work” but was actually landscape design, and every bit of rock work that has ever been built in his different yards was created by him, by hand. Add on building doll beds and houses that still house my kids’ dolls 35 years later and well, you see the pattern. And this from two unionized professionals, a nurse and a pilot. But when you gotta create, you gotta create!

Fast forward to 2 months ago (I won’t bore you *now* with stories of all the successful and failed crafting I’ve done over the years), when my cousin convinced me to try making Kombucha (future post!). I was keen, but I realized I had given away all my large mason jars (in which to concoct it) to a friend a few years ago. At the risk of sounding impolite, I gingerly asked her if she was using them. She said no and promised to return them to me. I just needed a few. Well, said friend was cleaning out her garage before embarking on a big overseas trip and unloaded five boxes of mason jars in all sizes and states on my doorstep!

Slightly overwhelmed, I was five minutes away from putting them in the back alley when my daughter shouts “Noooo! We can MAKE something out of those!”. This is a common statement in our house, as many pieces of “garbage” get reclaimed from our recycling bin to later become “art” or “gifts”, and I have received the  most thoughtful and resourceful homemade gifts from my kids over the years. But this time she was more ambitious – she wanted to exhibit and SELL our creations at a craft fair!

I love how creative my daughter is, and because we’d be up-cycling reusable items, I was sold!

And so began the internet search for crafty things to make from mason jars, and where to exhibit them locally. I want to say our main motivation for settling on our neighbourhood community centre was to support the local community, but here are our more honest reasons:

1. It was cheap (although I’m still not sure we’ll sell enough to even cover our table cost).
2. It was still available (unlike many other higher profile fairs that had sold out to vendors months prior!)
3. I was having a huge anxiety attack about having to make items that were “sellable” (grandparents are a lot more forgiving than real customers). We’d been to this fair before and it seemed fairly “low key”, so I figured it would be a small loss (to our wallets and our self esteem) if we didn’t sell anything.

It’s now less than 4 weeks to the craft fair, and I have a huge new respect for people who actually exhibit their crafts publicly. A couple things I’ve learned along the way:

1. Don’t underestimate the amount of time and money it requires to try different techniques and make prototypes for your eventually sellable items. I’m no longer keeping track and am thinking of it as a learning and bonding experience for me and my creative daughter….this time.

2. An 8′ table holds a lot! We’ve had to augment the mason jar crafts with my daughter’s fabulous duct tape creations, which will really be the hero here. She’s had the chance to hone her skills and designs and learn some “stick with it” resiliency along the way so we actually have something to sell. NB, I’ve recruited my crafty talented sister to exhibit some of her gorgeous hand-knitted wearables as well!

3. Don’t underestimate the little old ladies selling dolly clothes (like I did last year as a spectator) at the table next to you. You need all the marketing, project management and accounting skills you use at your real job to really make a go at this!

So, as the countdown begins, and I’m ordering little baggies and tags from Ebay in hopes that they’ll arrive before “C” day, here’s a few of our pieces in the making.
CraftingI’ll post more as the volume increases, and maybe we’ll see you at the craft fair – Saturday, November 29th from 10am to 3pm at Renfrew Community Centre – 2929 E 22nd Ave, Vancouver.
I hear an 11 year old kid has inspired her mom and aunt to exhibit for the first time.

The good ‘ole 3-R’s still have it goin’ on

As a food grower and “waste-not-want-not” kind of gal, I use every shred of food that inhabits my yard, down to the final scarlet runner beans growing along the fence until mid October! So not surprisingly, I’m also into other ways to reduce our impact on the environment. Yup, the good old 3 R’s – reducing, reusing and recycling.

Reuse (and let go)Reduce reuse recycle

Our back alley has proven to be the best example of this over the past year. Put anything of any value out there and it’s gone within a day. Put anything returnable out there, and it’s gone in 5 minutes. No joke.

Recently we needed to get rid of a desk, and on its way to the back alley, our tenant had a glint in his eye and decided he wanted it. So he swapped it for his own old desk and took it to the alley. Later that night, we heard some scuffling out back, as a guy was expounding on the merits of this “amazing desk that would fit perfectly in their space”. This warms our hearts and happens regularly. In fact, within two weeks of setting the intention of needing a new office chair, our friend decided he didn’t want his amazing office chair anymore, and boom, ours went out to the alley to be snapped up within 12 hours.

Reduce, then recycle:

Recycling is good too, but ultimately, we want to reduce our use of “stuff” in the first place. So, while we are trying to reduce our use of Ziploc bags for kids’ lunches to 1 per day, we need to find a place to put these things once they’re used, as they are not accepted in our curbside recycling bin. Enter the blue recycling bins at Safeway or London Drugs, among other places. You can recycle your ziplocs (and other clean plastic bags) in there. Now if only they’d start charging (a lot) for plastic bags, we’d be even happier. Five cents ain’t gonna change behaviour.

Let us know your favourite 3-R’s examples from your life.