Tuesday, February 23, 2010


The condition of the world will improve if we support businesses that sell high quality, ethically produced products, and if we find ways to avoid financing industries and practices that hurt people and the planet. Whenever we buy something, whether we are aware of it or not, we are saying in effect, "I support what went into making this product and bringing it to me".

Today people are often referred to as "consumers", a stultifying characterization that underlines our modern dependence on large industries for everything from housing and clothing, to food, and even water. Even so, we will be part of beneficial change in the world when we are guided by a sincere desire to support ethical practices through our purchases, and a sincere desire to avoid supporting practices that we know are unethical.

In my hometown, we are fortunate to have a store called Mountain People's Market,"The Co 0p".
More than other food store in town, the Co op makes an effort to carry quality goods and healthy foods that reflect a corresponding commitment to ethical integrity on the part of producers. The overall feeling at Mountain People's Market reflects an underlying belief in the direct relationship between right methods and quality results.

In some cases prices are more expensive at The Co op than in the grocery stores. This unfortunately deters many people. Certainly,it is unwise to automatically equate higher cost with higher quality. Many companies successfully sell inferior products expensively. But simply going for the lowest price is equally unwise. When we buy things just because they are the cheapest, it is likely we are getting inferior products and supporting practices we do not want to support, such as the use of pesticides and such harmful chemicals, the destruction of natural ecosystems, and the exploitation of people around the world.

When it comes to food, we want to eat fresh, nourishing foods that are untainted with harmful chemicals, and if we save some money on food but our health suffers, we cannot then claim to have gotten a good deal.

Other than growing it ourselves, the best way to save money and get the best quality food is to choose whole, minimally processed foods. Foods become increasingly expensive and decreasingly nutritious the more they are processed, refined, chemically treated, and packaged, and the longer they sit in factories, warehouses, trucks, and on store shelves. This knowledge should lead us to choose dried beans over canned, and locally grown, fresh beans over dried.

We can also reduce waste by supporting more sensible and honest ways of distributing food. Excessive packaging creates unnecessary waste. I like to see what I am buying, not read a lot of honeyed words. A company with integrity spends more time and effort on their product than on packaging and advertising. A good feature in many Co ops and some grocery stores are bulk bins.

Bulk means "Just the Goods, Please", maximum product, minimal packaging, bring your own container, help yourself.

Bulk distribution reduces wasteful packaging and is customer friendly. You may want much less or much more than an arbitrarily pre-packaged amount. With a bulk system you buy just what you need from a spoonful to a 50 pound bag. It is nice to be able to buy in small amounts for 'experiments' or to sample unfamiliar products. Or to special-order a large quantity of something you use as a staple, which can be even more economical.

The idea of bulk dispensing is applicable to many products. Besides the dried grains, beans, flours, nuts, and fruits (upper left), Mountain People's Market has bulk dispensers for soaps, hair and skin care products, dish and laundry detergents (upper right), vinegars, edible oils, honey and other sweeteners (bottom right) herbs, teas, and spices (bottom left), and also nut butters, coffee, fresh cows' milk, and maple syrup (not pictured). The bar soaps visible in the top right are actually made by one of our co op members.

It's not a perfect system, but this store's set up is generally a more sensible, friendlier way of distributing our high quality, ethically produced goods.

There are progressive companies who are doing us a service by striving to make high quality, ethically produced goods available at a fair price. It might cost more than what another company is offering, but if the added cost is related to a making a better product in a world more beneficial and fair, that seems like money well spent.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Making Yogurt, Revised

According to Wikipedia:

"People have been making—and eating—yogurt for at least 5,500 years. Today it is a common food item throughout the world. A nutritious food with unique health benefits, it is nutritionally rich in protein, calcium, riboflavin, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12."

 I have found that it is worth it to make my own fresh yogurt.  Homemade yogurt is better tasting, less expensive, and less wasteful than buying it pre-made at the store.  Yogurt is easy to make and requires no unusual or expensive equipment.

The following method I  describe is the one that I use.   As with all skills, it will take longer in the beginning, but you will soon develop and refine a particular method that works for you.  Making yogurt now takes me from 25-45 minutes.  In cold weather, it is possible to make yogurt faster because you can use snow to rapidly cool the milk.

Basic concept:

Milk is heated to near boiling (185 F) to kill any disease organisms that might be there, then cooled to the right temperature for the yogurt bacteria, around 90- 120 F. Starter (yogurt) containing living yogurt bacteria is added to the milk and incubated for about 12 hours, during which time the milk becomes yogurt.  The yogurt can then be refrigerated and eaten. A small jar of yogurt is reserved as starter to turn the next batch of milk into yogurt.

Ingredients and materials:

-  1/2 to 1 gallon of Milk.  Get the best milk you can find.  Raw milk is the best, but if you can't find any, use organic, whole milk.  There are not many good options where I live now, but I have found one company that sells their milk in glass bottles that are reused by the company.  I have seen other brands that do this at farmers markets.  You can make yogurt out of reduced fat milk, but I do not recommend it.
-  yogurt starter (a container of storebought yogurt or the starter you made previously).  You will need one cup of starter for 1 gallon of milk, (1/2 cup of starter for 1/2 gallon of milk).  This proportion is very important.
- A large clean pot that holds all the milk, preferably thick bottomed
- a long wooden stirring spoon
- a thermometer to measure the temperature of the milk. This doesn't have to be a very accurate or expensive one. I use a cheapo.
-a whisk or bicycle egg beater (not strictly necessary but helpful if you have one)
- enough clean mason jars or other glass containers with lids to hold all your milk.  They do not need to be sterilized, just reasonably clean.
- a mason jar to hold enough starter for your next batch of yogurt
- a cooler or sturdy cardboard box that holds all the yogurt jars plus the water bottle and towels
-  a hot water bottle: any container filled with hot tap water that will help keep the yogurt warm in the cooler. I use the empty milk bottle for this.
- 2 or 3 towels or a blanket to help insulate the yogurt


1. Pour some tap water in the pot and then pour it out (supposedly this helps prevent the milk sticking to the pot).

2.  Immediately pour all your milk in the pot and put it on low- medium heat while you gather everything else you need.  Get your cooler ready, put a towel down in it and fill the hot water bottle with hot tap water and put it in the cooler.  Get your yogurt starter out of the fridge. Clean empty jars ready. Starter jar ready.

3. Once you have everything on hand, raise the temperature to high if using gas heat, probably less if electric, and clip the thermometer to the side of the pot if it is that kind of thermometer.  Stirring continuously to help prevent the milk from burning, bring it up to no more than 185 F.  The milk will be frothy, almost boiling.

3. Take the pot off the heat.  Put the pot in a cold water bath in the kitchen sink. In winter you can add snow to the water.  Stir the milk to help get an accurate temperature reading.  Cool the milk to 100 F, then remove it from the cold water bath to the stovetop or counter. If you have no thermometer, stir the milk and drip a drop of milk onto the back of your hand using the stirring spoon. The milk is ready when it feels like 'blood temperature'. Since normal body temperature is 98.6, if the milk feels neither warm nor cool on your skin, it is at about the right temperature.

4.   Add your yogurt starter to the pot of 100 F milk.  1/2 cup of starter per 1/2 gallon.  Putting in too much starter is an easy mistake. It may seem counter intuitive, but you want only just enough, and if you put in too much the result will be watery, 'grainy' yogurt instead of smooth, creamy, thick yogurt.  Stir the starter into the milk briefly to help distribute it evenly using the whisk or bicycle egg beater.

5.  Pour the milk and yogurt mixture into the yogurt jars, don't forget the starter jar.  Position all these yogurt jars around your hot water bottle in the cooler and cover them with another towel or blanket.

6. Close the cooler and leave to incubate overnight or for a full 12 hours. Then put the jars in the refrigerator where it will thicken more.  If you make the yogurt in the morning, you can put it in the fridge at night and so the next morning it will be ready to eat.

7. Remember not to eat the starter and use it to make the next batch of yogurt. It is best to use the starter within a week or two.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


I grew up drinking milk practically every day. My family and I consumed all sorts of dairy products such as butter, cream, sour cream, yogurt, ice cream, and cheese, all of which we bought at the grocery store. For a long time, I was not at all curious about where all this milk was coming from and how. I observed the milk at the store unquestioningly, and concluded from the rows of identical plastic jugs that milk must be the same at all times, everywhere. I did not suspect that the quality of milk is influenced and determined by a myriad of factors.
While a habitual consumer of milk, I was completely ignorant about what milk was, and took the milk I drank quite for granted.

The truth is that milk is precious. It is a life giving liquid derived from the sun and earth.

In order to live and grow, plants absorb the sun's radiant energy as well as chemicals in the air, water, and soil. They take this energy and organic matter and build their own substance from it. As the cow feeds on these vibrant green plants, her specialized digestive system breaks them down into materials for the all the needs of her body and for those of her children. Therefore, the milk is food the cow makes specially for her children. Mothers always give their children the best portion, and so it is with milk. Milk contains the condensed energy and nutrients collected from many plants, and by drinking it the young calf is nourished and becomes strong.

Man learned long ago how to get milk for himself from cows and other animals. One would expect man to hold cows and other milk-giving animals in the highest esteem. Traditionally this has been the case, but to our shame, today we take the milk of cows ungratefully and treat them brutally.

As I gradually took an interest in knowing, I became aware that most milk we are drinking in this country comes from industrialized factory farms. Essentially, industrial farms are inherently cruel and abusive, and can never meet the requirements necessary to produce healthful milk. Milk is advertised as fresh, wholesome, and delicious, but in reality industrially produced milk is a sham that cannot be compared with fresh raw milk given by healthy cows living in the manner they ought to.

It would be in our best interest if we changed our indifferent attitude towards cows and milk to one of respect and veneration. One reason we do not have great admiration for cows may be that the industrially produced milk we have become accustomed to is far from delicious. It is true that this is not by any fault on the part of the cow, but in any case the industrial milk won't make you say "Wow, what great milk! Cows are wonderful!". When we get a chance to taste how good real fresh milk is, appreciation for cows will come naturally. You could not drink real milk and then go back to the comparatively unpleasant industrial version.

When we drink degraded industrial milk for a long time with nothing to compare it to, we may come to think that we like the way it tastes, and remain complacent. This was my own situation until I became more aware of the reality of industrial dairy farms. When we learn about those unpleasant truths we will be motivated by our conscience to boycott industrial milk, and will happily go without it whether or not we can find an ethical source of milk. To my eyes industrial feedlots seem to have more in common with concentration camps or prisons than farms.

If cows are treated with utmost respect, compassion, and affection and given all they need to thrive, they will give us a boon of pure milk, from which all the other delicious dairy products come. But if we arrogantly try to extract the maximum amount of milk from sick cows miserably confined and callously mistreated for the duration of their lives, how can we ever enjoy that milk?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Bring your own Bags

One relatively easy way we could improve our lives and the situation on the planet is to always bring our own bags and containers when shopping for food or anything. It is unfortunate that we have allowed ourselves to be trained to go to the store with the assumption that we can just get all our bags there.

The majority of people are more or less aware that plastic bags are an unnecessary source of ugly pollution and waste, but it seems far too few of us have resolved to address this problem.

The consequences of this pervasive source of pollution are certainly far worse than we dimly imagine. Let's not sit back and wait for the government to ban plastic bags. We have been tempted and led into depending on them them, but our voluntary use of them makes us the cause of the pollution. The stores will never stop offering plastic bags as long as we keep taking them. Saving and reusing all the bags you accumulate is no solution. Since the power to solve the problem is really in our own hands, let us gladly strive to put an end to our personal reliance on these trashy bags.

The solution to the problem is really simple. The habit of going to the store without any bags or containers needs to be replaced with the habit of always carrying your own bags and containers. None of us leave for the store without wallets, keys, clothes, or even phones. Why would we leave without bags to carry the items we are going to buy?

To change this unconscious bad habit, we must mentally establish that there is no possibility of shopping for anything without bags and containers to carry it, just as you would not expect to be able to buy anything without bringing some acceptable form of money. Go out with the assumption that there are no bags or containers in the store.

It is a good idea to have a supply of attractive carrying bags made of natural material. By keeping them in likely places such as the pantry and in your car, you make it easier for yourself to remember to bring them with you.

It is very helpful to make a list of what you plan to buy before you go shopping. The list will give you an idea of how many bags and food containers you should bring for everything plus a few unplanned items.

As an aside, carrying heavy bags on foot for long distances can be a strain. I have seen but have not yet tried those pushcarts. As long as it was well-made, it seems like a good investment, particularly in a city.

It is really well worth it to make the small effort to retrain yourself and get rid of the unconscious habit of relying on plastic bags. From a common sense and ethical perspective, the concept of plastic bags is insane. We are all free to take away our zombie-like support from the plastic bag industry. Lets bring our own bags for carrying our stuff.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Real Sponge

The loofah is from a tropical vine. It can be used as a general sponge. It is superior on many levels to the gross manufactured sponges we are familiar with today. There are probably other natural sponges, but I only know loofah.

We actually had loofah (as a bath sponge) in our house for many years before we used it as a kitchen sponge. To my embarrassment, I never put 2 and 2 together. But then I visited the home of my friends, Zach and Maggie, who not only used loofah as a kitchen sponge, but also had purchased some excellent scrub brushes made from some kind of natural fibers.

The humble loofah is a wonderful sponge. Not only is it aesthetically attractive and environmentally friendly, loofah really does a better job better than manufactured sponges and doesn't stink either. thus by the loofah's self-evident superiority, my doubting parents were quickly won over as well.


There are many ways to make incense, but some are expensive and some are harmful to breathe. This is a simple and flexible way I found to burn incense. It allows you to use any combination of raw materials and possibly not have to pay anything for them.

The basic idea is to put the incense material on the metal surface and burn it indirectly with a heat source below. This makes very little smoke.

The pieces of wood were scavenged one trash day and saved until their purpose materialized. The log structure puts the copper plate the right distance from the alcohol burner underneath, so that the incense releases its scent without a cloud of smoke.
the foil protects the wood from the very hot copper.
The alcohol lamp came from my dad's lab. It works very well, but a burly beeswax candle (that would not shrink very fast) would be a good substitute.

i have burnt cinnamon, star anise, pine needles, pine resin, frankincense, copal, rosemary, and cloves. There are any number of possible incense sources. If you look around you can find many freely available.

I never had much interest in incense, but happened to buy some cones the last time i was in new york. I enjoyed them and of course that got me thinking how I could make my own.

Mortar and Pestle

I recently was given this mortar and pestle of granite. Already it has proven it's greatness.
Previously, I had a tiny ceramic mortar and pestle. I used it seldom, because it was too small and light to be of much service. This larger stone version really allows you to grind things easily.

There are many advantages the basic mortar and pestle has over an electric grinder.
The mortar and pestle is straightforward and simple. It does not depend on electricity, has nothing extraneous, no cheap plastic parts, no blades to dull, and no motor to break down. A mortar and pestle could work as well a hundred years from now.
Importantly, it is enjoyable to eyes, ears, nose, hands, and mind. It does require more effort than pressing a button, yet that effort is not experienced as strain or drudgery, but actually a kind of fun attended by pleasant sounds and smells.

The crushing friction action of the mortar and pestle is different from that of a blender or cuisineart. I discovered that pesto tastes better when made with the mortar and pestle.

You can grind many things besides spices in a decent-sized mortar and pestle. I made fresh flour from rice and millet in no time at all.
This tool is a really good idea.

Clean Your Teeth for Free

If you give it a little thought, you will realize that plastic toothbrushes and industrial toothpaste are not a good solution to the universal problem of mouth care. According to wikipedia:
"Despite being comparatively a small source of pollution, tooth brushes still make up for 50 million pounds of plastics per year for the USA alone that end up in landfills."
And that doesn't include all the empty tubes of toothpaste!

In the past, to avoid buying and using expensive and unhealthy commercial toothpaste, I brushed with a mixture of baking soda, ground cloves and star anise. It was an improvement, but did not solve the toothbrush problem.

I recently decided to find the solution and it was easy. Once again, Mother Nature has provided us all along with the perfect tool for the job, a twig.
Many plants and trees all over the world have antibacterial, mouth cleansing properties that make them ideal toothbrushes.
The following is a partial list of such trees in the U.S.
Dogwoods, black birch, black gum, sweet gum, sassafras, spice bush, and horsetail (not a tree).

I decided to try sassafras first because it grows all over my backyard.
You have to experiment to see which part of a branch has best brush characteristics. Generally a branch is more flexible as it gets thinner, and more stiff as it gets thicker.
In the photograph, the twig on the right is a good brush, while the one on the left (split in half) is too hard and woody.
To turn the twig into a brush you just remove the bark a little on one end and gently chew, scrape, and work that end with your teeth until the fibers separate into a brush.
Using the twig brush is different than a regular toothbrush. you have to pay more attention to what you are doing, and you clean each tooth one at a time. I found that the twig brush has more friction against the tooth, and is more effective at actually cleaning.
Each day you can trim the twig back and have a fresh brush. Here is a free, disposable toothbrush that does not harm the planet.

What about floss? By splitting a larger twig into slender slivers, you can make customized toothpicks. In the photograph, to the right of the large twig is a piece i split off into a "brushpick". To the right of it is a finer sliver, a "flosspick".

When I was looking for a sassafras tree to make brushes out of, I found a little one that was being strangled by some kind of vine. In the process of untangling the sassafras tree, at the last moment i accidentally broke off a small branch, and that is the one I used for my brushes. I believe that there are more than enough twigs out there for everyone, but we should be respectful and grateful to our tree friends who are giving us these fine gifts.

Old plastic toothbrushes can be used for various cleaning jobs. I use mine to scrub the mortar and pestle.