The falling leaves are bathing Vermont in antique gold, and lately I feel as though I’ve entered a malfunctioning time machine that teases me with glimpses of the past. Leaves and, soon, snow are coming to cover the painted yellow lines on the asphalt, camouflaging the trappings of the twentieth century. But this only heightens my curiosity, not about the recorded history of the area, but about what life was really like.
In some ways, our off-grid, out-of-the way life gives us unique peeks into an older lifestyle – we heat and cook with wood, we grow and put up some of our food, we hang all of our laundry on the line. But every time I pop a tube of roll up cinnamon buns or hamburger helper in my shopping cart, I wonder how ye old housewives managed to do all of this by hand.
I loved the Little House books when I was a kid, and Farmer Boy, the one about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s husband, Almanzo, as a boy, actually took place not too far from here – you can visit his homestead in upstate New York. The story of their family was fun, but my favorite parts were always the copious descriptions of how Ma and Pa put up a house, a garden, a bear they just killed.
It’s at this time of year when I’m freezing instead of canning the last goodies from the garden or when I’m nurturing my inner slacker mom in other ways that I most often think of Laura’s Ma, and the detailed description of Almanzo’s Ma – the original SuperMoms – raising a sizable brood of super-obedient kids in nearly pristine houses stocked with food they grew and furnished with homemade furniture covered with homemade quilts. I don’t just wonder what it was like to be them, I wonder if there was something magical in the well water back then. I get exhausted driving my saucy kids (no idea where they get it) to school, bringing home part of the bacon, and trying to keep the house just neat enough to keep from being condemned.
I don’t yearn for life in that “simpler” era. I like antibiotics and being able to vote. But I would pay good money to know their secrets.
One of the disadvantages of living in an earth sheltered house is that a lack of planning can cause unusual conundrums.
Today was the the perfect example. I was pulling things out of the fridge for dinner and noticed that we were out of propane. It is fall, and in our old colonial farmhouse I would have automatically fired up the woodstove and made a stew. Our current woodstove is even better for these situations – its massive oven and cooking surface make me feel like Ma Ingalls whenever I start it – but wasn’t the perfect solution in this house in this weather.
It’s jacket weather outside, but between the low-hanging sun blasting our house with heat and the three feet of earth on three sides keeping it in, the house was already 71 with no additional help. Lighting a fire hot enough to cook with would not have made the place more comfortable.
So now it’s 6:15 PM, and I’m standing in the kitchen of our earth-friendly, earth-sheltered house trying to decide between making sandwiches or doing the ultimate ‘un-green’ thing by opening all the windows and building a fire. I’m rationalizing – it’s going to rain tomorrow and the fire will give us hot water, so it’s not a total waste.
I’ve stopped pretending that our off-grid lifestyle is as environmentally altruistic as it is self-serving, but we do like being green when we can . Sometimes, though, figuring out how to do the green thing and still get dinner on the table and homework checked can be a real head-scratcher. I was still scratching my head when the Big Guy waltzed in the door and announced he had finished switching the tank on the stove. Tonight getting dinner on the table without wasting our wood heat became the green thing.
It’s the Big Guy’s birthday, and I’m making apple pie. He and Thing1 eschewed birthday cake in favor of pie a few years ago, so after a day of excavating our mudroom (perfect birthday activity), I pulled out the Joy of Cooking and started making the crust. I go back and forth between the Joy of Cooking recipe – is it possible to use that and not think of your mom – and the one in the Good Housekeeping Cookbook, but, as I was peeling apples, I remembered I was out of the lemon called for by both of these recipes for ‘Classic Apple Pie’.
It’s amazing how your mind wanders when you’re peeling apples, and mine usually has a good head start anyway. I was on the 3rd or 4th apple I started wondering, not if I should make a dash to the country store – but how Classic Apple Pie became a classic. It’s the quintessential New England dessert in fall – every year we get so many apples that we sometimes have pie or apple-something every night for a mont. But, almost without fail, most Apple Pie recipes call for lemon juice.
Now, I know Joy of Cooking has been around for a long time, and it was certainly possible to find lemons in urban areas of New England even a century ago, but our town had year-round residents living the original off-grid lifestyle just 50 or 60 years ago. There was a country store – the one we still shop at – but it’s hard to believe lemons were a commonly stocked item then, and certainly not 100 or 200 years ago.
Now, I’ve learned not to use dinner guests as culinary lab rats, but I figured the Big Guy might want to eat adventur – I mean, authentically – on his birthday. I started thinking about what the earliest European settlers would have used for their Pie. I planned to google it later, but it was getting late, and I opted for experimentation over transportation.
I figured a mountain mom who made it to the country store every few weeks or so might have kept flour, sugar, and molasses, and maybe some kind of spices on hand. They would have had milk and butter, of course, and probably some kind of lard/shortening. But not a whole lot of lemon. Now, Julia Child’s mantra may be ‘Keep Calm, Add Butter’ (an admirable outlook on life), but in Vermont the rule is, ‘When in doubt, add maple syrup’. I figured that tradition was probably established early on and decided it was a good substitution.
Later, as I sat on the couch smelling the results of my experiment bubbling in the oven, I did a quick google and found that Apple Pie goes back in history as long as apples and flour were in existence. Some old recipes call for champagne in place of lemon, others were just apples mashed with flour. Apple Pie a la Mode made its first appearance at the Cambridge Hotel in Washington County New York in the 1890s, and the phrase ‘American as Mom and Apple Pie’ was coined in World War II.
But whether it was mom or the cook in the castle kitchen, experimentation was the most common component. The pie pan emptied quickly, and in the end, the family decided that it was also the most delicious ingredient.
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You might think that because I write a blog dedicated to my failures as a housekeeper, I would have no angst about the unexpected guest. I thought so myself until Thing2 came home from school with a friend.
I knew the parents would come to pick up our tiny guest very soon. However the work day was still in full gear. I realized that when these mystery parents came to get their offspring, our unkept house would play center stage.
Our guest’s father arrived and wanted a tour of our energy system (we’re off the grid),and I instantly began preparing him for what he was about to see. He held up a hand and assured me he had seen worse, and I suddenly decided it didn’t matter if he had or hadn’t.
The house will get clean sometime – not today, but someday. In the meantime, I’ve decided to enjoy our house – clean or not – with no worries and, most of all, no shame.
A quick tour of our house – even at its cleanest – will reveal our deep affection for the ‘Early American Garage Sale’ style of decorating. We each adopted this approach to interior design out of economic desperation years ago, and our hoarding natures served only to affirm our love affair with ‘Post-Modern Pack-Rat.’ And, while no one will ever accuse me of having flair, our embrace of all things eclectic served us well when we decided to build our current house or, as we like to call it, Our Cool Cave.
I had been googling owner-built and low/no-energy houses since a move to Germany in 2000 introduced us to new conservation concepts. Germans have experienced much higher transportation and heatings costs for years, and that has pushed them to adopt many energy-saving innovations. Some we expected to see, such as the well-known public transportation system. Others, like the numerous solar-powered buildings in my cousin’s town of Freiburg were a complete, inspiring surprise.
To my Favorites folder I added links to low- and high- tech building ideas. I added links on the block house construction so prevalent in Germany. I added links about super efficient water heaters, convection heating and cooling. But what really caught my eye were the websites featuring Earthships.
Originating in the southwest and often owner-built of recycled materials such as earth-filled tires or even soda cans, these designs employed what, at the time, we considered to be innovative but extreme (and out-of-reach) ideas for conserving heat and water. The High Thermal Mass of these buildings kept the interior temperature relatively constant, and, while our German apartment building had been built with the same idea, we realized we were just scratching the surface in terms of energy savings.
Five years later, I was sitting in the kitchen of our charming antique farmhouse looking at the not-so-charming oil bill for the coming season. It had increased almost 30%. Our electric bill was always high, despite our often-draconian conservation methods, and the high price did nothing to stave off the frequent power outages that accompanied storms, Nor’easters… the breaking of a twig five miles away….. I knew there had to be a better way – I had seen it online, and we had lived it. Moving back to Europe was not on the table, but I knew I was not going to pay another oil bill. All I had to do was convince the Big Guy that he was tired of paying oil bills, that we should build a low-energy home to get away from them, and (if possible) that it was his idea.
So I dug out my old Favorites folder and started trolling the Earthship sites again, becoming increasingly enamored with the earth-sheltered and underground versions. Surrounded or buried by at least 3 of dirt, these homes take advantage of both the voluminous insulation and the constant 55 degree temperature of the earth. Many are owner-built, but there are a growing number of companies that are marketing these modern sod house. Earth-sheltering became my new drug. I quietly collected a folder of clippings and waited for Mother Nature and/or politics to create my opening.
One fall afternoon after a particularly long power outage, I waltzed into my husband’s workplace with my folder and said, “We need to make a change.” I spent the next fifteen minutes building up to my pitch, pulled out a flyer from an underground home builder and waited. The printout didn’t even hit the counter between us.
“I love these houses!” Exclaimed the Big Guy. “I’ve wanted to build one of these since the seventies! Don’t you remember me telling you about them years ago?” Obviously it had not sunk in then, but it did now. I couldn’t believe it, we weren’t just on the same page, we were on the same page.
We spent the next year and a half researching and finally building the house. We gave serious thought to having a specialized builder do the design and construction, but ultimately decided to be our own contractors. Managing the design and construction of a house has ended marriages, but I think willingness to experiment helped us build a better house and not go too crazy in the process. We relied heavily on humor and the diverse sources of information we discovered as we went along.
In the end, we came up with a design that got us off of oil (we now heat with wood) and met the lifestyle demands of our growing family, abandoning formal living spaces in favor of flexibility. Extensive conversations with builders and engineers led us to bury the house on three sides only with super insulated conventional roof. Cool in summer and cozy in winter, our mostly-finished six-year-old house is the most comfortable place we’ve ever lived. The piles of earth surrounding the concrete shell insulate us from sound so well that we often aren’t aware of even violent storms unless we go out.
No design is perfect, and if we had to do it over again, we would certainly make some changes, but the one thing we would not change is our status as modern cave dwellers.