Thursday, May 31, 2007

Upside-down Rhubarb Muffins

For a change from Coffeemamma's recipe. These are more like small cakes than muffins, and you don't get quite the same honest tang of rhubarb when it's sweetened up with the brown sugar--but they are still very good.

Upside-down Rhubarb Muffins
(from The Harrowsmith Cookbook Volume 3, sent in by Joan Alrey of Rivers, Manitoba)

1 cup "finely" chopped rhubarb (we just diced ours with a knife)
1/4 cup melted butter or margarine
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
Another 1/3 cup soft butter or margarine
1/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 cup milk

Ponytails made the topping: she melted the 1/4 cup margarine in the microwave and then mixed in the rhubarb and brown sugar and dropped the mixture into the 12 holes of a muffin pan (greased first). Mama Squirrel made the batter: she blended the margarine, sugar and egg and then mixed in the dry ingredients alternately with the milk, stirring just to moisten. We spooned the batter (it was fairly stiff) on top of the rhubarb, and baked it at 350 degrees F for 20 to 25 minutes.

Now this is the little trick at the end: get your cooling rack ready (with some waxed paper underneath if you're nervous). When the muffins are done, take them out and dextrously invert the whole thing on the cooling rack--but leave the pan on top of the muffins for a few minutes to let all the rhubarb moisture run out. (It's not really that messy.) Serve them warm if you can (otherwise you might have to refrigerate them).

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Cappuccino Thumbprint Cookies

I seem to be having to do less typing of favourite recipes lately and more linking. I was going to post a Canadian Living cookie recipe for Cappuccino Thumbprints, but here it is already on their website, with photo. They are kind of fun (get it? they're supposed to look like cups of cappuccino with cream and cinnamon on top), and not really hard to make.

My own additions/suggestions are that we substituted soft margarine for butter (it's what we had), used unbleached flour, and instead of melting white chocolate chips in the thumbprints, we chopped up four or five leftover squares of white baking chocolate and divided that out among the 36 cookies. Which probably gave us slightly more chocolate in the middle, but who's complaining? (The recipe says it makes 42, but we ended up with 36).

One suggestion the kids had about the final sprinkle of cinnamon was that you could use cinnamon-sugar mix instead, if you don't like biting into cinnamon straight. Otherwise, just go easy on it--a little sprinkle will do ya.

Empty Nest Syndrome (Robin Update)

Yesterday afternoon the young robins were shrilling away in their nest on top of the drainpipe--as usual--and occasionally hopping up to the edge to practice flapping. One of the parents would occasionally show up and let them fight over something wriggly.

Just before bedtime, we looked out and the nest was deserted. We had never seen any "flying lessons" going on--do robins just take off, once and for all? It's still empty this morning, although I think the birds are still in the neighbourhood--we watched from the back porch and saw what I think was one of the parents and one of the little ones, pecking in the grass--then they flew up to one of the big maples. Looks like they've relocated!

But it's a little sad to see their "penthouse" quiet and empty.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Whole Wheat Cinnamon Graham Squares

The DHM linked to this recipe earlier in the month, and I made a batch of the molasses-ginger variation. (It makes a big batch!--I froze some and we ate them later.)

So this is just a link-for-the-record--so I'll know where to find them next time!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Robin update

Someone said that if you doubt that God has a sense of humour, just look at the hippopotamus. I think baby robins would also qualify. Our four small nestlings look like baby pterodactyls, especially when they pop up and down in the nest and try out their wings. The biggest and most athletic one is especially goofy--he looks like he's doing aerobics. They've also gotten very loud as they've gotten bigger! We used to keep our eyes open when we were outside, to see when one of the parents would fly up with a meal; now their excited shrilling is enough to let us know that room service has arrived.

"My Ambleside Online"--Part Two

Part One is here.

Some more books that have become favourite parts of our homeschool:

1. The Wilds of Whip-poor-will Farm, by Janet Foster, illustrated by Olena Kassian. (1982, Greey de Pencier Books.) I just finished this today with Ponytails and Crayons. The book's twelve chapters cover a year of critter-watching from (and sometimes in) a log cabin in rural southern Ontario. Each episode reminds me of a favourite aunt's letters home--and the quiet, detailed drawings add to our enjoyment of the book . I love having a story that's especially about the animals and birds we might see around here--although many of them are common to other areas as well. Good for any of the primary years.

"I was glad that Rufus, the groundhog, was asleep in his underground burrow because I could see that two coyotes were hunting regularly over the farm.
They came out from the wood each night and followed the same route up the lane and across the fields. One time, they left a clear trail of big paw prints right under our bedroom window! I tried howling several times during the winter, but the coyotes never answered. Maybe they were too busy hunting. Or maybe it was too cold."

2. Owls in the Family, by Farley Mowat. As long as we're talking about pets and critters...this is another Canadian classic (published in 1961). Part Henry Huggins, part Rascal, part Homer Price (remember the pet skunk?), the fictionalized version of young Farley has a sort of menagerie in his Saskatoon backyard. "There were the rats and gophers, and then there was a big cardboard box full of garter snakes....there were some rabbits too, and then there was Mutt, my dog...."--but since this isn't enough, he ends up adopting two owls named Wol and Weeps, and they do end up becoming like part of the family.

This book isn't very long (about 106 pages) or difficult to read, so we usually read it around Year 2. (Did I mention it's funny?)

"After first making sure Mutt was really fast asleep, Wol would begin to stalk the old dog the way a cat will stalk a bird....Starting from the front porch, Wol would sneak across the lawn moving so slowly and carefully he hardly seemed to move at all. If Mutt happened to raise his head he would see Wol standing stock-still on the grass and staring innocently up at the sky....Sometimes it took Wol and hour or more to cross the lawn; but he did it so quietly and cautiously that Mutt never really had a chance.

"When he had sneaked up close enough, Wol would raise one big foot and--very, very gently--lower it over the end of Mutt's long and bushy tail. Then Wol would let out a piercing scream and at the same moment he would give the tail a good hard squeeze.

"Poor Mutt would leap straight into the air, yelping with surprise and pain. By the time he got his bearings and was ready to take a bite out of Wol, the owl would have flown to the limb of a nearby tree from which he would peer down at Mutt as much as to say: "Good heavens! What a terrible nightmare you must have been having!"

3. Another short but not dumbed-down natural history book we read in Year 1 is How the Forest Grew, by William Jaspersohn. It's about a hardwood forest in Massachusetts, and how it grew and changed over the years. I like it because it doesn't try to be cute or avoid some of the realities of life in the forest: the "weasels and foxes who caught mice, rabbits, and birds for their dinner," and a storm that strikes some trees with lightning and uproots others. It's clear that all of what seems unpleasant to us is simply a making way for something else. "As time passed, insects and disease hurt the other pines. Every time one of them died, a red oak, white ash, or red maple tree took its place."

4. And a big fat treasure of a book is one that I'm hoping Ponytails will read to herself next year: The Rainbow Book of Nature, by Donald Culross Peattie. It's a bit of everything, written for those kids of yesterday (and today) who really wanted to know.

"In ornithology (the science of birds), the case is well known of an eleven-year-old girl who could name every kind of duck, as far off as she could see it, by the way it flew. most duck-hunters, grown men, will tell you that it takes years of experience to master the difficult subject of the ducks. But since no one remembered to tell this girl how hard it was, she found it quite easy. She had good eyes, close attention, and a memory that kept what it caught. And these are much more useful than the costliest binoculars ever made."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Friends for Dewey?

My avid-knitter acquaintance Lady Tricotine is experiencing some wildlife in her backyard. Have a look.

"My Ambleside Online"--Part One, more to come

I think almost every Ambleside Online user customizes the curriculum to some extent--well, at least we do. Besides adding in some Canadian content, there are books that I add in because they fit so well or they're just longtime favourites. A lot of those are out-of-print books that aren't yet in the public domain--just old enough to be hard to find, not old enough to read online, but still worth looking for.

This list doesn't include the picture books we've been collecting like the Little Tim books, the Church Mice books, or Shirley Hughe's Alfie series--I'm trying to stick mostly to school-type books or literature for the AO years.

The order is...random. And I've tried to find the most interesting links I could, on the authors' websites where possible. (If you look closely enough, you'll find out which one originated the character of Shrek.)

1. Ballet Shoes, by Noel Streatfeild. (Check out that link--there are photos of places from the story.) For girls around Year 3 age...and how many books (besides Roller Skates) include not only Shakespeare references but children who are more or less homeschooled? (Roller Skates--which includes Shakespeare, not homeschooling--is a book in which many parents will need to proceed with caution--there are very scary and very sad parts, enough to unsettle some children unless you do some judicious skipping.)

2. Margery Sharp's Miss Bianca/Rescuers mouse adventure books. Some are better than others, but the first two at least are must-reads...but not too young, maybe Year 3 or 4. Adventure, courage, and poetry.

3. More mice and furry/feathered heroes: William Steig's Abel's Island and The Real Thief. For around the same age, because Steig never stints on vocabulary.
"Without waiting to catch breath after his heroic skirmish, he began uttering, over these detested feathers, the most horrible imprecations imaginable. Heaven forfend that the owl should have suffered a fraction of what Abel wished it. Abel wished that its feathers would turn to lead so it could fall on its head from the world's tallest tree, that its beak would rot and become useless even for eating mush, that it should be blind as a bat and fly into a dragon's flaming mouth, that it should sink in quicksand mixed with broken bottles, very slowly, to prolong its suffering, and much more of the same sort."

4. A Toad for Tuesday, by Russell E. Erickson. I guess the owl in #3 reminded me of this one--for Year 1 or 2, and most children at that level could probably read it for themselves. No offense, but people who avoid "talking animal stories" don't know what they're missing with this one. Warton the Toad is kidnapped by a Really Mean Owl who plans to eat him--next week--for a birthday snack. But he attempts to remain calm.

"The toad dug into his pack and pulled out two beeswax candles. As soon as they were lit and began casting their warm glow about the room, he felt much better. He began to straighten his corner. And, being of a cheerful nature, he began to hum a little tune.

"The owl couldn't believe his ears.

"'Warty, you did hear me say that I was going to eat you next Tuesday, didn't you?'

"'Yes, ' said the toad.

"The owl shook his head."

5. Armed with Courage. (I had to include a serious book.) I've written about this before: it's a book of short biographies of courageous people: Florence Nightingale, Father Damien, George Washington Carver, Jane Addams, Wilfred Grenfell, Mahatma Gandhi, and Albert Schweitzer. Something like Hero Tales, not specifically Christian, but inspirational and well written. We've just finished reading this (in our Year 3 1/2).
"Nothing on earth was wasted. That was the belief of this man who seemed to have magic in his fingers. Every day he had a whole handful of new ideas, too. He searched the woods and fields and brought home plants, leaves, and roots. Then he took them to his laboratory and made them into useful products, or medicines, or food. He told his students that they must learn to "see." They must always see something good in nature. They must always look for something that would benefit mankind.

"Not even a few handfuls of dirt were too humble to interest Dr. Carver. Yet he wanted almost nothing for himself...."

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

We enthusiastically invite you to check this out

“Every production of genius must be the production of enthusiasm.” --Benjamin Disraeli

The Lilting House hosts the Carnival of Homeschooling: Enthusiasm Abounds edition.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Yogurt Pie

In the 2+ years that I've been blogging and posting recipes here, I've somehow missed mentioning Yogurt Pie. It's a very tasty, very versatile and quite-healthy dessert that we've made many times. We've had it topped with fresh raspberries and blueberries, kiwi and strawberries, and just plain for breakfast. (I'm making one for dessert tonight.)

Our copy of the recipe is on two pages torn (don't ask) from one of Emilie Barnes' books, but was actually created by Sue Gregg.

And you all are so lucky--with the wonders of technology, you can now have not only a nicer copy of the recipe than I do, but photos as well, because Sue Gregg has a step-by-step for the whole thing right here. Our version leaves out the coconut and coconut extract, but otherwise it's the same. (And if you want to know what "three cups of yogurt" looks like without measuring--it's a whole 750 ml container, for Canadians--and whatever the big size is, for Americans.)

Happy Victoria Day! (and for once, this holiday which often turns unco-operatively cold and rainy is a cool but sunny one)

All things squirrelly

Found on the Carnival of Education #119:

"Have you heard the one about the out-of-control squirrel that forced an entire campus to go into lock down? And was this squirrel an agent of some conspiracy unleashed by the Dark Gray Forces Of Evil? Read the testimonial and judge for yourself."

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Quick update on the robins

We have seen at least one tiny beak stretching up out of the nest. Obviously the young 'uns are arriving.

"but did you listen to me? Oh, no, you knew it all, didn't you?..."*

One more from Roger, on fractured fairy tales: "Northrop Frye told us this would happen."

Anybody who links to The Anatomy of Criticism in the middle of a post about the Three Little Pigs can climb up here anytime.


*Virtual stuffed bunnies if you recognize the quote. [HINT: say it Scottish.]

Friday, May 18, 2007

Choices, choices

(Apologies to Eric Carle)

We use our share of convenience foods at the Treehouse, but pancake mix is not one of them. Actually very few baking mixes find their way up here--an occasional cake mix, but even that's an exception. I've never found it much of a hassle doing most of our baking from scratch, and as so many people have pointed out, when you bake from scratch, you get to control the ingredients.

In my recipe binder I have about six recipes for pancakes (and waffles), and we use them all interchangeably. Our "usual" (except when Mr. Fixit makes them up as he goes along) is the Buttermilk Pancakes recipe from Food That Really Schmecks. (It's a pretty standard recipe. UPDATE: I added it to the Comments.) We rarely buy buttermilk, but we've used soured milk, yogurt, and thinned sour cream and they all work fine. (I have also used leftover pudding--including tofu pudding--as part of the liquid in pancakes and waffles.) Whole wheat, unbleached flour, even bad-for-you-white all work fine in them. Sometimes we eat them with real maple syrup, more often with homemade maple-flavoured syrup or fruit sauce (recipe below). Or whatever else is around.

We also make Mammoth Flapjacks from a 1998 Flintstones Vitamins calendar--tossed the calendar, saved the recipe. It's easy and doesn't make too many--good for when there are only a couple of us home. And Slightly Sourdough Pancakes from one of the Milk calendars (I think that was a James Barber recipe).

On the other hand, when there are more of us or we're extra hungry, I've used Good Grains Waffle or Pancake Mix (from Vegetarian Times, June 1995) or The Perfect Pancake Mix (from Family Fun magazine, March/April 1993). Because sometimes those 2-cups-of-flour recipes aren't quite enough to make all of us feel pleasantly stuffed and gluey with carbs. And if there are some left, we just freeze them.

Since the recipe for Mammoth Flapjacks is simple and makes only a small batch (you can double it), I'm including it (as originally written) for anyone who doesn't want to get into a big bowlful of batter. (Of course you can always make up one of the mixes and then just use a bit of that as well.)

Mammoth Flapjacks

"Wilma and Pebbles know just how to satisfy Fred's mammoth appetite. Large or small, these pancakes are a family favourite."

What you need:

An adult to help with the cooking
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tbsp. granulated sugar
1 tbsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 egg
1 3/4 cups milk
2 tbsp. vegetable oil

What to do:

1. Combine first 4 ingredients in medium bowl.
2. Beat egg, milk and oil together in a small bowl; add to dry ingredients. Beat with whisk until smooth.
3. Lightly grease hot griddle or frying pan with oil or butter. For mammoth pancakes, use 1/2 cup batter; for mini pancakes, use 2 tbsp.
4. Spoon batter onto hot pan. When pancakes puff up and have tiny bubbles over surface, flip them over with a lifter. Let brown on other side then remove. Serve with butter and syrup. Makes about 10 mammoth or 36 mini pancakes.

Fruit Syrup

Or Jam syrup.

Measure out a cupful of water; pour as much of it as you can into a jar of jam that has a few spoonfuls left in the bottom. Put the lid on it and shake it up. OR (if your jar of jam isn't so near the bottom), measure a few good spoonfuls of jam into a 1-cup measuring cup and make up the difference with water. Pour the jam-water mixture into a small pot and blend with 1 tbsp. cornstarch. Cook, stirring, over medium heat until the mixture clears and thickens. Serve warm. You can add or use almost any fruit or juice in this recipe--use pineapple or orange juice (or the liquid or syrup from canned fruit) instead of water, or add fresh or canned chopped fruit.

Cooking without Recipes: Spaghetti Squash

You can make spaghetti squash without having any leftovers around. Actually you can just cook a spaghetti squash plain and then you have...squash. Stringy squash, but that's all. But that's not what I'm talking about.

The best part of spaghetti squash is that its little strings look and act kind of like spaghetti, so you can combine it with all kinds of pasta-ish things and make a good meal out of it. Also it has a very mild taste, so kids usually like it, even mine. I like the instructions in Whole Foods for the Whole Family, but I usually make up my own stuffing instead of using theirs (zucchini in the filling is too much squash-with-squash for me). Last night's version was very, very easy: we had some leftover meat sauce, fairly thick, sitting in the fridge, so I used that. I cut the squash in half, took the seeds out, and cooked the halves, cut side down, in a covered frying pan of water for about fifteen minutes. When they were soft enough to "string," I microwaved the sauce for a couple of minutes (just to give it a head start), and then mixed it in a bowl with some Parmesan cheese and as much of the hot squash as I could manage without collapsing the shells. (You have to hold the squash in your hand, using a pot holder, while you fork up the "spaghetti.") Then I put the mixture back into the shells and heated it through. If I'd had the oven on, I probably would have used that for heating, but since I didn't, I just put the two stuffed halves back into the frying pan (right side up this time), added a little water so they wouldn't scorch, and let it all get good and hot while I cooked some frozen perogies to go with it. I put the two big halves on a platter and cut them in smaller chunks for serving (carefully, so all the filling wouldn't fall out).

And that was dinner.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Yum, pancakes!

But not just yet--you'll have to wait for next week's pancake-themed recipe carnival at--ready?--at the Pancake Recipes blog.

And send in your favourites before Saturday at 1 p.m.

Big Blow, by Ponytails


We were watching Babe on the T.V. and Mr.Fixit said, "Holy smokes! Look out the window!" There was rain and wind all over the place! Our tree that is 41 years old may have to be cut down! Because two branches fell on the ground and both look the size of a 10 year tree!



When we were watching Babe and it started to rain and blow really hard, we turned off some of the lights and the TV and the computer and the breaker. And then the power went out and I could hardly see anything. So Mama Squirrel and Crayons and me read Swallows and Amazons where there was a little light. And before reading Swallows and Amazons we had to sit in the middle of the kitchen near the table, because our windows could have broken, and branches would go in our eyes.

I'm glad that happened last night and not today, because tonight is our dancing night. And if it would have happened tonight, we wouldn't be home.

And all the power in the houses and the traffic lights and everything went down.

And now that I'm done with the storm, I'll tell you about the bird that's on our drainpipe! At first we just noticed there was a nest, but then we noticed there was a robin in it. Mama Squirrel spent about a week trying to figure out what it was.




We don't know if it has eggs or not, but you can see baby robins on Liberty and Lily. And the nest is still there!

~~~Ponytails

Monday, May 14, 2007

Mix a pancake

Mix a pancake,
Stir a pancake
Pop it in the pan.

Fry the pancake,
Toss the pancake,
while your mom takes a photo that will someday embarrass you greatly.

~apologies to Christina Rossetti

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Drawn from life

Melissa compares keeping a lid on your temper to handling a sippy cup...

Mama Lion muses on Gilbert's Aunt Mary Maria and James Herriot's wife (not in the same story though)...

and Ann compares trusting the Holy Spirit's leading to following the Global Positioning System on her tractor.

Smart ladies with imagination.

A Busy Box for Busy Crayons

Found through the Carnival of Homeschooling: Busy Boxes on Our Journey Westward. These aren't preschool busy boxes (we did use those a couple of years ago!), but the same idea set up for a first grader who needs "something to do" while an older sibling finishes schoolwork. (And that's what we'll have in the fall.) I think Crayons (who celebrates a brand-new digit today) would enjoy these.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Is divisiveness really the point?

Once again something like the "Mars and Venus" syndrome strikes at the blog world, in the guise of a plea for less divisiveness between die-on-that-hill-homeschoolers and those who feel there are equally acceptable educational alternatives.

We could go on in this vein for a long time, you know. Much-Read Blogger continues to swat at some of the "divisive" flies that are buzzing around him, his fans pull out their swatters to help, and the rest of us either duck for cover or come swatting back the best we can. Is the issue of divisiveness really the point of these "I know I'll be sorry I posted this" posts? To be frank I think they sound more like politely-disguised attacks on positions with which Blogger doesn't personally agree, so it shouldn't be surprising that a bit of fur has to fly over them.

The fact that you exist in whatever way you do is bound to make somebody out there uncomfortable or annoyed, no matter how laid back you are about it. If you've read my snowman condo story, you'll know we have considered this ourselves. Among homeschoolers, our three girls are considered an average-to-small-sized family (congratulations to the Duggars on upcoming number 17); in the mainstream world, just three (who would certainly not only build snowmen but throw snowballs at each other as well, making a fair amount of noise while doing so) are enough to make some kinds of neighbours cringe. Our kids don't burn things down, but they do make noise. We don't have a pet alligator or grow pot on the porch; but Mr. Fixit does do whatever car repairs he can in the driveway, and sometimes I do have several cars here at a time for a meeting. Some people don't like that, you know? Some people had a problem with the big yellow phone van that Mr. Fixit used to drive and park in the driveway, but that's what kept us fed.

If I happen to mention that we had three wonderful homebirths, some people will say that's fine or tell me that their brother's cousin just had a homebirth as well. A number of other people, though, will assume that I a) feel superior about that, b) think that everybody else should have homebirths, and c) must be slightly demented to have thought of doing that in the first place. None of that is true (maybe the demented part). We did have three wonderful homebirths, and if anybody asked me to recommend it I'd say yes...well...generally...well, it's not for everybody. Some people are just on a different track to start with. There are some people that I'd think were crazy if they said they wanted to give birth at home. But you see, it's not what I say about it that becomes the issue for a lot of people; it's just that we did whatever it was in the first place, so it's assumed that we must hold some kind of militant position on it. We do have three kids, we did have three homebirths, we did homeschool all of them up until this year. We also vaccinate our kids but don't usually get them flu shots, buy whole wheat pasta but also an occasional bag of Viva Puffs, and teach them Lutheran catechism even though we now go to a dunk-em church. Fannee Doolee likes apples but not oranges, spaghetti but not pasta...

But I digress.

Why did we start homeschooling? It wasn't out of a religious conviction that everyone should homeschool. It was what was right for our family. We had quite a few reasons, large and small, including the fact that the school system here seemed more interested in finding ways to cut back on "optional" things (like special education) than they were in doing what was best for the kids. That is not the same as saying that schools themselves, any schools, must be inherently bad. If I held that position, then I would be very much at odds with Charlotte Mason, who provided for the needs of both schools and homeschoolers.

Why do we continue homeschooling our younger two Squirrelings (and our oldest, who's still doing one-quarter of her work at home)? Again, there are quite a few reasons, including the particular learning needs of our children and our desire for them to enjoy a rich literature-based curriculum. If there was a Charlotte Mason school around the corner, would I send them instead of teaching them here? I can't answer that one. I can only answer for things as they are here, now, for our family. In that sense I do agree with Much-Read Blogger because I think he's trying to say that each of us should look to our own convictions and listen for God's calling in making decisions about education. I only hope that he's just as serious when he says that he would afford us equal respect for our choices.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Frugality is child's play

[Reposted from 2005]

Saturday’s National Post ran an article by Style At Home editor Yuki Hayashi called “Retro Chic is Child’s Play.” Subtitle: “Old-fashioned housewares, toys and clothing are the hot thing for mom and dad’s stylish newbie [baby].” The gist of it (with apologies because I can’t link to it) is that Bob the Builder wallpaper borders are passe in nurseries; chandeliers and refurbished dressers are in; plastic toys are out, “golden age” 1920's-style toys are in. But only if you have the money to buy them. (Mama Squirrel’s main feeling about this nursery-retro thing is that possibly the decorators haven’t actually lived with children very much; crib blankets made of antique chenille don’t sound like they’d survive more than one good upset stomach.)

Mama Squirrel knows she should be delighted to hear that companies like T.J. Whitney’s Traditional Toys are producing things like hardwood ABC blocks, and that stores like Toronto’s Kolkid are selling them (although as the store owner says in the article, “These aren’t Wal-Mart prices.”). As her friend the Deputy Headmistress at The Common Room has pointed out (see here), there are many advantages to natural materials, simple toys, things carefully chosen and worthy of being passed down to future generations. Things that biodegrade, things that have educational value, things that are fun.

However, like anything else, the cost of this trendiness puts it out of the realm of most of us single-incomers, at least in its upscale incarnation. The Squirrel family does live near an educational/alternative toy store (although not as funky a place as the stores in Toronto). Some of the toys there are very good and affordable, others fall into the grandparents-only category. Handmade hardwood blocks would be nice if we had a couple of hundred extra dollars for them...ironically though, the squirrelings still play with a tubful of pine blocks that Grandpa Squirrel cut in his workshop about thirty years ago. (They make great beds and tables for the squirrelings’...ugh...collection of plastic troll dolls. Definitely not Retro Chic.) We do have some alphabet blocks, too, but they came from the dollar store and were bought because we needed to spell somebody's name on a birthday cake. How about the squirrelings’ much-used tubs of Duplo and Lego? Mama Squirrel knows quite well that those are not made of natural materials and that they would probably hurt the sensibilities of the trendoids (not to mention their feet if they stepped on a lost piece). But they do have a place in the Treehouse (usually all over the floor).

The main ingredient that seems to be missing in all this trendiness, is the creativity and fun of doing and making these things yourself. (Oh please...like back to The Waltons? No, really. Besides, this is where ANYBODY can do this just as well as the Trendoids, even if the toy budget is miniscule.) Two of the squirrel girls have handmade rag dolls that their Grandma Squirrel made them (with dresses to match some of their own). The Apprentice has made model “cub cars” with Mr. Fixit (one of them won a championship race a few years ago). The squirrelings have made Barbie dresses, things for their dollhouse, and put together battery-powered gizmos like a flashing headband. (Mr. Fixit can always make those books of science experiments work.) Ponytails has knitted herself a hairband and is busy right now learning to boondoggle (see her post below).

Our young squirrels are not short on toys. They have classic books and things to use their imaginations with (even if they're plastic). They have homemade things we've improvised (or they have, which is even better). They also have a Dora the Explorer backpack, a beeping plastic cash register, an assortment of Barbies, and the aforementioned plastic trolls. The squirrel philosophy is that it is better to have things that you like, that get used, and that mean something, than to worry about how they fit the decor.

And in Mama Squirrel’s final opinion, it is more fun to crochet a puppet yourself than to buy it in a funky store on Queen Street West.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Oh, and one other thing

While we're on the subject of why frugality is, for many of us, not at odds with Christian faith:

What do you think is a bigger problem in the world today: a few thrift-shopping moms with a gift for decorating and crafts, or the mound of consumer debt out there? How about fragmented families, disconnected parents and children who don't have time to have a life together outside of work, school, and everything that you have to get chauffeured to afterwards? If part of our ministry as Christians is to support family life, then why whack at people who are doing their best to nurture their families and create gracious, friendly homes? I'd say that the dearth of families and homes like that in North America is a much bigger problem than whether or not we bought the book we're reading together for twenty dollars or twenty cents.

(And on another side note: although I do love to thrift-shop books, I will buy new books too. I happily bought a set of the Little House Martha books from a homeschool vendor because I know at least two families--the vendor's and the author's--benefitted by that purchase--besides ours.)

Frugal is not a bad word

Some people have been giving thrift shoppers and other blogging frugalistas (how do you like that one?) a hard time recently.

The arguments run kind of like this: the Bible doesn't say anywhere to go out and look for bargains. If we're not "really down and out" ourselves (define that as you will), then we're robbing from the poor if we buy something nice at a thrift shop--especially if we resell it and make a profit. (Heaven help the Christian who mentions making a profit on something. Didn't some Christian songwriters go through this one a long time ago?--God gave you this talent, you write this song and it's for everybody to sing, how can you ask us to pay you for copies of it?) Wait, there's more: if we're picking up books or vintage aprons or other frou-frou at yard sales or thrift shops, then that ranks as non-essential anyway, so then we're getting addicted to stuff or wasting the little money we did spend. (Wait a minute, I'm already seeing some contradictions here. If it's frou-frou stuff, then wouldn't it be just as silly for the "really down and out" to buy it?) And overall, we should be willing to pay "full price" for whatever it is, so that we're not ripping anybody off.

Now Stingy is bad. But Stingy is not Frugal. Stingy is putting dollars out on pizza delivery (full price) and pennies in the offering plate. Stingy is illegally photocopying textbooks. Stingy is not providing what your family needs even though you have the means to do so. Stingy lives next door to Chintzy Hardbargain and down the road from the Misers.

Frugality is making life as beautiful as you can on a little bit of money. Sometimes that little bit of money is all you have, period. Sometimes you have more than that but you're using what's left for something else that's important. Anybody with a credit card can throw money at a problem (full price, I assume); Frugality teams up with Creativity to make the most of what's there. And sometimes Frugality just has to say no to things. I can't bring myself to pay $2.19 a can for something at one grocery store when I know the discount supermarket sells it for half that price. What's full price, then? Store A's price or Store B's?

The comment was made on another blog I will not name that Mrs. Frugality wouldn't invite people over "to evangelize to them" if she didn't have the right cake pan, and that she wouldn't go out and buy the cake pan unless she could get it used or cut rate or something. First of all, I would never invite people over "to evangelize to them." About anything. I've been on the other end of the cake in that respect, and I did not appreciate it. Second, I don't know even the most frugal person who would feel that way about having a perfect cake pan before inviting guests. In fact, most frugal people I know would bake the cake in a casserole dish or something, or make something else, or just have tea and 99 cent oatmeal cookies. People are the point, not food.

And finally, as many people have pointed out in response to this ongoing issue: it's not a crime to shop at thrift stores if your shoes are intact and the stroller you're pushing didn't come straight off the curb. In fact, you are SUPPORTING THEIR MINISTRY by shopping there. It happens to be a delightful side benefit of this kind of shopping that we often end up with something unique, vintage, out of print, or otherwise amazing. And isn't that a whole lot more creative than getting something exactly the same as your neighbour's at Stuff-mart?

If you want more thoughts on this, I can't do better than refer you (once more) to this old post at The Common Room: Frugalities.

P.S. to this post

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Chicken Chili, or, In defense of chili powder

I'm a cooking Philistine. Really. Dictionary.com agrees: "a person who is lacking in or hostile or smugly indifferent to cultural values, intellectual pursuits, aesthetic refinement, etc., or is contentedly commonplace in ideas and tastes." Yep, that's us--contentedly commonplace. Especially about things like chili recipes: not for us the poblanos and serranos and ground chocolate. We are pretty content with the recipe from The Tightwad Gazette, Volume II. Without getting gourmet about it, the recipe does lend itself to creativity and using up leftovers, such as the Chicken Chili with Chickpeas that we had last night.

Here's the Tightwad recipe with my variations in brackets.

Homemade Chili/Chickie Chickpea Chili

1 tbsp oil
1 cup chopped onions (1 onion)
1 cup chopped green pepper (1 pepper)
1 lb. hamburger (1 lb. ground chicken plus about a cupful of cooked chicken, chopped small)
1 40-oz. can of kidney beans (1 (smaller) can of kidney beans, plus half a can of mixed beans (including chick peas and blackeyed peas), plus about the same amount of leftover chick peas)
1 28-oz. can of tomatoes (about 1 cup of canned diced tomatoes: I don't use more than that because we have picky eaters who will locate and leave every bit of tomato)
1 6-oz. can of tomato paste (or part of a bigger can)
3/4 cup water or as needed, depending on the amount of tomatoes and tomato paste
1 tbsp chili powder (and I add some salt as well)
(Sliced fresh mushrooms)

Heat oil in a large skillet. Brown onions and peppers. Add hamburger/ground chicken (not the cooked chicken, just the raw) and brown well. Add the mushrooms and chili powder and give them a minute to get started before you add the remaining ingredients (including the chopped chicken). Add 3/4 cup water and simmer, covered, for 1 hour (ours was done in half an hour).

P.S. I also use commercial curry powder. (Not in the chili though.)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Green Spaghetti

One of our "cooking without recipes" dinners; I make this when I have some bits and pieces of dairy products kicking around the fridge. A sample list of ingredients would be a bag of spinach or a package of frozen chopped spinach (fresh is better, but cut out any big stems); pasta of choice (we use whole wheat spaghetti); a cupful of cottage cheese, a few spoonfuls of Parmesan, a cupful of grated Mozzarella, a quarter cup of cream cheese, and a bit of milk if needed; garlic powder and a grind of pepper. The cream cheese is optional but it seems to give it a good texture. (I think you could manage a non-dairy version of this with whatever tofu/soy cheese mixture you like that approximates a bowlful of cottage cheese and shredded cheese mixture.)

In a large pot (so you only need one), steam the spinach for a few minutes. If you've just washed it, it will cook just in the water that's still on the leaves. Drain in a colander. Using a stick-type blender or a food processor, blend the cooked spinach with all the remaining ingredients except the pasta. You should have a bowl full of green gloppy stuff, but don't make it any wetter than it has to be to blend nicely. (When we first started making this, we followed a recipe that used more milk, but we always found the sauce was too sloppy.)

Cook the spaghetti or other pasta in the big pot, and when it's ready, mix it with the green sauce. Serve immediately.

One warning about this: it's easy to make and kids like it better than you'd expect (two of mine asked recently for Green Spaghetti, so we had it last night). BUT it does stick to the plates and the blending bowl. Volunteer for the cooking and let somebody else do the dishes. ;-)