Austin Urban Gardens

Raised Bed Gardening and Eating Well in Austin, Texas

No Grocery Store Challenge, Day 731 Year Three! January 1, 2012

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Two years ago yesterday, I made a Twitter proclamation that changed my life.  I announced that I was embarking on a challenge not to shop at a grocery store for a year.  Now two years later, it isn’t a challenge anymore, but a way of life.  I still get asked where I get shampoo and other non-food items, and people visiting curiously peek into the fridge, freezer or pantry, perhaps hoping to catch me in a grocery store indiscretion.  I have my paper items, dish soap, toothpaste and such on delivery subscription with Amazon, so they arrive on my porch every couple of months.  I have occasionally had someone pick up lemons for my canning and I get bulk vinegar at CVS for pickling projects, and I made a trip for cookie making for a holiday cookie exchange. My spices come from Savory Spice Shop.

This past year there were more food recalls than ever before, it seems;  Salmonella in eggs, tons upon tons of tainted beef, deadly cantaloupes, watermelons exploding in China from being injected with growth hormone.  I was thankful each time that I didn’t have to check sku numbers on my egg cartons, or dates and origins on my beef or chicken.  I read an article just last week about GMO corn causing cancer in rats.   Duh.  If we keep modifying our food, it is no wonder our bodies can’t recognize it, but I’m not going to preach.

My one big foray into the grocery store this year was unpleasant and I don’t wish to repeat it.  I wrote about the experience here  In contrast to that experience, my weekly food shopping at local farmer’s markets and our fabulous farms is more about community than shopping.  I’ve come to know the people behind my food sources, the farmers and local food artisans, and in one Saturday of shopping, I usually give and receive lots of hugs, catch up with family stories, (and sometimes a little farmer’s market gossip), play frisbee with my favorite farm dog.  That just doesn’t happen at the grocery store.

Fortunately, more and more restaurants are sourcing from local farms.  If you are interested, just ask, and those who are really sourcing locally will tell you where they got what.  Unfortunately, as the local movement gains more of a foothold, more and more restaurants are using some catchwords to make us think they are sourcing locally, but they aren’t.    Again, just ask – the ones who aren’t being honest need to be called out.

This past year, thanks to an abundant garden, I took several classes and learned to can.  It started with tomatoes, and went on to canning  everything I could get my hands on.

Once that obsession took hold, and the horrible summer heat and drought drove me inside, I turned to fruit and started making jam.  (I order organic cane sugar in bulk from Amazon)

So, while my first “No Grocery Store” year was about figuring out how to make do with what I could get at the farmer’s market, the second year was more about preserving what I could, from season to season.  My pantry (and now the overflow pantry as well) is filled with just about everything I need to make good food year round.

Well Stocked Pantry

So, moving forward into my third year of  “No Grocery Store,” I’m hoping to continue being a better gardener, cook and preserver.  The food sourcing is not a challenge, as our markets have expanded and grown and there is more local food than ever.  My newest project will be to start making my own sausages, and I’m looking forward to that.  I’d also like to try making bacon again, now that my favorite source of bacon, Kocurek Family Artisinal Charcuterie, is no more.  They were a huge part of the last two years of my life and they will be missed.  I wish Lee and Larry the very best in their new endeavors.  It was a good run, and I learned a lot about charcuterie from them both.

Here are a couple of things worth watching, if you are interested in our food system.  Happy New Year!


No Grocery Store Challenge, Day 628 September 19, 2011

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I haven’t done one of these “No Grocery Store” posts for quite some time.  It has become a way of life, not so much a “challenge” any more.  I have been to the grocery store a few times in the last nearly two years.  When my canning compulsion took hold, I went to the store and bought gallons of vinegar and some organic sugar.  I have since ordered the organic  sugar online in bulk.  My regular dairy source, Way Back When, disappeared from the farmer’s market, but still delivers to Wheatsville, so I picked up some cream for a recipe not long ago.  I usually just use goat milk from the farmer’s market or Boggy Creek Farm, but now and again, one needs cream.  Wheatsville also carries just about everything Richardson Farms produces, and on that same visit, I also got some Richardson Farms sausage, to take to a BBQ.  I don’t really consider this a “cheat” since I purchased locally produced things I could get at the farmer’s market.  I had forgotten and was amazed by the aisle upon aisle of boxed food.  One of the unexpected consequences of shopping from the farmer’s markets has been the lack of packaging, leading to nearly zero waste.

People still bring me avocados, usually as hostess gifts when I host a gathering, or in trade for some of my home canned goods.  On occasion, I’ll request lemons from my folks when they go to the store, as my own seem to be slow to ripen.   One cannot live without citrus, I find.  Once my lemons ripen, I will juice some and freeze the juice for later use.  Same with the limes.

This weekend, I hosted a birthday cocktail party, for which David Alan of the notorious Tipsy Texans made cocktails.  My shopping list for the cocktails included bulk fresh squeezed lemon juice and grapefruit juice, which prompted a trip to Central Market.  I used to love, love, love Central Market and Whole Foods, and made trips to both every couple of days, before I started my all local challenge.  I adored both stores equally but for different reasons.  Certainly the variety was a big draw for me. 

When I went on Saturday, the parking lot was full and on my first try, I was unable to park.  I drove around for what seemed like an hour.  People seemed hostile and angry, in a hurry and just not very pleasant at all.  I actually abandoned my effort and went home, frustrated.  I returned several hours later, hoping for a different result.  I was finally able to park, albeit far from the store entrance.  Once inside, I found the bulk lemon juice, but they were out of grapefruit juice, so I bought several huge grapefruits to squeeze myself.  I had no intention of resorting to commercial juice, made from fruit of unknown provenance.   Since I was already in the store, I decided to pick up some smoked salmon, for my gathering.  I waited for a while, forgetting that one needed to pull a number.  Once I remembered and pulled number 9, I waited about 20 minutes while the busy folks sliced deli meat and cheese for those before me.   I nearly abandoned the wait, finding it rather miserable just standing around, but I really wanted the smoked salmon to round out my menu, especially since I suspected there were pescetarians on my invite list.  As I waited for a busy stranger to wrap up my salmon, I couldn’t help but compare the experience to my beloved farmer’s market, where I am normally greeted with a hug and a story about goings on at the farm, or updates on farmer/artisan family life.  I have a personal relationship with nearly everyone who grows/raises/produces my food now.  A trip to the farmer’s market normally includes chance meetings with many of my dear friends, as well.  My Saturday morning has become a social event that I look forward to as one of the highlights of my week, as have my farm visits.  I consider several of our local farmers, my family.   This grocery store trip was actually quite miserable, and I couldn’t wait for my turn in the check out line to come, so I could hike to my car and get home.  Sure, folks working there were cordial enough, but it was not the same.

The last 21 months has seen many food recalls, a massive ground turkey recall, huge egg recalls, deadly listeria yielding melons, several beef recalls, a revelation that the apple juice in children’s juice boxes contains unreasonable levels of arsenic, sourced from China and Argentina, and I don’t even remember what else.  Each time a new food born problem makes the news, I think, “wow, I’m glad I don’t have to worry about that.”

I don’t want to worry about those things.   I don’t want to wonder what’s in my food, or where it came from.   I don’t want to eat food that has been manufactured, manipulated,  produced, or packaged.  I don’t want to eat antibiotics, chemical fertilizer and growth hormones.  I don’t want to eat food from animals who have been inhumanely raised.  I don’t want to eat food made by a corporate entity.  I don’t want to fight for parking.  I don’t want to wait in line.  I don’t want to pull a number.  I don’t want to go back to the grocery  store.

Thank goodness I don’t have to.


No Grocery Store Challenge, Year in Review January 1, 2011

It all started with Food, Inc., a movie I had avoided for a long time, in fear of what I would see, and a hasty Twitter proclamation.  Now, I have come to the end of the self imposed No Grocery Store for a Year Challenge, and I’ve learned a lot.

I had been shopping at farmer’s markets for years, starting at those probably not organic farm stands along the side of the road in Luling or Lockhart – somewhere between my trips to Corpus to see my parents, years ago.  I found them quaint, and loved the idea of supporting local farmers.  And, I had been growing food for years as well, although on a much smaller scale.  I had already really cut back on fast food, but still was a frequent purchaser of ready made salads, dinners, and the International Food Bar at Whole Foods.  I cooked a lot, but if I could get something ready made and heat it up, I was all over it.  I had given up sodas a year ago, but was a big consumer of bottled water.

So, when I decided a year ago, that I wanted to see if I could live season to season, without the convenience of a year round variety of food, shipped in from afar and more importantly,  commercially raised, feed-lot food animals, I really had little idea what I might miss.  I did no preparation for this challenge, I did not stock up on grocery store food.  I cleared out all of the meat from my freezer and took it to my parents’ house, and started from scratch.  I didn’t clear out the fridge entirely, I just vowed not to eat the condiments I couldn’t bear to throw away.  I vowed to try to be a better cook, and a better gardener.

The things I knew I would be without, were avocados, sugar, butter, flour, cornmeal, beans, tortillas, popcorn, cooking oil, parmesan cheese and spices.  I was mostly worried about the popcorn, beans, tortillas  and avocados, and less concerned about the baking.  One thing I was not prepared for, was no milk or cream for my coffee.  That was soon rectified by a trip to Boggy Creek Farm, where I found Wateroak Farms goat milk.  I had never had goat milk before, and found it tasted no different than cow’s milk.  It does not taste like chevre.

So for the first couple months, I ate lots of Kocurek Charcuterie, Richardson Farms beef, and the vegetables that were in season, mostly lettuce from my garden.  And in the beginning, I hoarded food, feeling like the days between the two Farmer’s Markets I went to, were long.  Saturday to Wednesday, seemed like such a long time to go without shopping, and I was afraid either that I would run out, or just not want what I had.  I still hoard farmer’s market goodies, because my favorite local artisans might not make something I want again.

In an effort to have seasonal foods year round, I preserved fruits that were in season by freezing them, so I had tangerine juice when I wanted it, strawberries when I wanted them and peaches.  I processed lots of tomatoes and made sauces and purees for freezing.

Fresh tomato sauce

I pickled lemon cucumbers from my garden.

Pickled Lemon Cucumbers

I preserved lemons from my tree.

Meyer Lemons

Preserved Lemons

Early in the year, Richardson Farms started selling Whole Wheat Flour.  With some gifted yeast, I made some lovely looking 100% Whole Wheat Bread.

Whole Wheat Bread

It made an interesting BLT when it came out of the oven, but once it cooled off, it took on more of a brick like density.  And it weighed a lot.

Around September, the Richardsons started milling their own corn and selling the meal.  I went home from the Saturday market and immediately made cornbread.


I learned quickly that this was not much like the cornmeal you get in the store.  The batter was so much dryer, I had to adapt the recipe as I went, by adding lots more milk.  It was pretty good, but still denser than it should have been.

I made lots of stock.  Actually, I became a bit of a stockaholic.

Lots of stock

I made cheese and butter.

Homemade Mozzarella

Homemade Butter

And I made rather massive quantities of garden basil pesto, which was made possible by the Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, which came onto the scene in February, and found some local parmesan from Brazos Valley Cheese Company.

Garden Basil Pesto

John and Kendall fall into two important categories of my year long challenge.  1) All the  new food that came on the scene in 2010 and 2) Help I had from friends.

Catagory No. 1) Looking back on the food that was available from Farmer’s Markets early in the year, and the emergence of so much new locally made and sourced food now, the change is amazing.  Kocurek Family Artisinal Charcuterie was still new to the farmer’s market scene, having launch in October of 2009.  Since then, Antonelli’s Cheese Shop opened, and introduced me to Brazos Valley Cheese, Sand Creek Farm Cheese, Veldhuizen Cheese, Blue Heron Farms Cajeta and they also provided a variety of Pure Luck Farms cheeses which I couldn’t get other than from the dairy directly or a grocery store.

Also new to the food scene, Salt and Time, which launched a line of cured meats, and pickled vegetables, and has now evolved into cooking hot food at HOPE Farmer’s Market.    Another new revelation this year, Barrie Cullinan, whose bread is available at Antonelli’s Cheese Shop as well as Boggy Creek Farm.  Barrie was just named one of the top 10 bakers in the country by Bon Appetite Magazine.

At some point, Dai Due Butcher Shop expanded into selling hot food at the SFC Farmer’s Market downtown, a privilege which was then taken away by the City/County powers that be, then thankfully returned.

Confituras, the local preserve company that is taking Austin by storm, launched just 4 months ago.  Stephanie is going like gangbusters, making some of the tastiest and local preserves I’ve ever had.

And last but certainly not least,  Bola Pizza has since launched at the SFC Farmer’s Market downtown, bringing the amazing wood fired pizza I’ve been privileged to get to have throughout the year, to the masses.

Con Olio, a newish store launched in the Arborteum just over a year ago, and Savory Spice Shop on Sixth Street is another new local food store which made my challenge easier.

The number of vendors at the SFC Farmer’s Market downtown has easily doubled throughout the year, and the variety of food has expanded exponentially.  More farmer’s markets have popped up, some came and went.  The volume of food has increased as well, which speaks to the demand for locally grown food.

Category No. 2)  Help from Friends.  The Antonelli’s opened their shop in February, having met me in October at a launch party for the Kocureks.  I met them again at Pure Luck Farm for a Farm Tour, and we became friends.  They knew of my no local parmesan dilemma, and upon opening day, pronounced that they had procured some local parmesan for me.  I was amazed that they would think of me, in the midst of their changing careers and opening the cheese shop.  Likewise, my friend Kristi shared an avocado with me, from her local CSA Box, and brought black and pinto beans, and popcorn back from her travels and visits to other farmer’s markets.  Kristi also was the provider of the yeast I used this year.  Christian was the source for Topo Chico, and set-ups for some of the parties I had this year, and I believe he fronted me an avocado as well.   My friend Adam, took it upon himself to find me local flour, and enlisted his friend Vance Ely, to help.  They found and procured some flour from Waco, which lightened up my baking quite a bit.  (Vance is a chef for Central Market Cooking School, an irony that is not lost on me.)  Several readers of this blog offered advice on baking with 100% whole wheat flour, even testing recipes for me.  So, I have had lots of help along the way throughout the last year.

As far as becoming a better gardener, I think I grew a wider variety of foods than ever before, and also became a better garden planner, thus making my garden more productive.    I grew lemon cucumbers, royal burgundy beans, my first and second ever watermelon.

First Watermelon!

I had potato grow bag failures, but later had tater success in the garden.


And, to my excitement, I grew corn!


I became a better gardener, and a better composter as well.

An unintended consequence of this challenge was the amazing drop in the amount of trash I generated.  My food did not come in packages, no boxes, no cartons, just returnable egg crates and shrink wrap.  I cut the amount of trash I generated to at least one fifth, perhaps lots more.

It was a fun year.  I could recap all the shennagins I got into, but then we’d be here on this one post forever, and I’m sure you have other things to do but read.  To recap, we had an all local paella party, a whole pig roast, a blogger potluck baby shower, a Tamalada, and I went to Farm Camp.  The entire month of September was declared “Birthday Month” and much fun ensued.

Throughout this year, I became a better cook, a better gardener, and a better citizen of the Earth, I think.  I made a lot of really good friends, ate some amazing local food, and had a great year all around.  And it’s all on here somewhere.  As it will continue to be.  I’m going nowhere, and have no plans to return to my grocery store  shopping ways.  I have a greater connection to my food now, and the folks that grow it, raise it, and care for it, and I think that is amazing.

The most wonderful thing that happened this year, is that I got to see several good friends, launch into their dream jobs, and I’ve enjoyed seeing them succeed more than I can say.

Happy New Year!


Looking back on Food, Inc. and a Synopsis December 13, 2010

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With my No Grocery Store Challenge nearing the end of a year, I’ve been reading back to the early days of my challenge, and remembering why I was inspired to stay out of the grocery store for a year.  I found another blog, that provided a great, and comprehensive review of the movie that got me started, Food, Inc.  Many folks I’ve talked to, don’t want to see the movie, which I understand, because I didn’t either.  I did want to know about my food sources, I just was scared of what I would see.   And what I saw, scared me.  So, if  you haven’t seen Food, Inc., here is a great synopsis of the information in the  movie, which I have taken from another, like minded blogger,  I wish I had known about this blog before!

Some highlights from the Food, Inc. Documentary

By 100 Days of Real Food, on April 28th, 2010

If you missed the documentary Food, Inc. on PBS last week, don’t worry because I took notes on some of the highlights (below). You can also rent it through Netflix or Blockbuster. You now officially have no more excuses to not be enlightened by this movie!

Supermarkets and Corn –

  • The tomatoes you buy in the grocery store are picked when green and then ripened with ehtylene gas
  • The food industry doesn’t want you to know the truth about what you are eating because if you did you might not eat it – it is a world deliberately hidden from us
  • Most people have no idea where their food comes from (do you?)
  • The fact that we need to write a book (and a blog!) telling people where their food comes from shows how far removed we are
  • The average grocery store has 47,000 products which makes it look like there is a large variety of choice – but it is an illusion – there are only a few major companies and a few major crops involved
  • So much of the processed food is just clever rearrangements of corn (here are just a few examples of the additives that are derived from corn: cellulose, saccharin, polydextrose, xanthan gum, maltodextrin, and my favorite – ha ha ha – high fructose corn syrup) –> more to come on this additives topic in a later post
  • 30% of our land base in the US is used to grow corn because thanks to government policy farmers are paid to overproduce this easy-to-store crop
  • Farmers are producing so much corn that food scientists had to come up with uses for it – just like some of the additives listed above
  • Food scientist have also spent a lot of time reengineering our foods – so they last longer on grocery store shelves and don’t get stale
  • A food scientist in the movie said he would guess that 90% of the processed food products in the grocery store contain either a corn or soybean ingredient and most of the time they contain both (so you may be eating less variety than you think)
  • Plus they are now feeding corn to animals like cows who, by evolution, are designed to eat grass and in some cases farmers are even teaching fish how to eat corn because it is so cheap
  • At the supermarket candy, chips and soda are all cheaper than produce
  • A double-cheeseburger from McDonald’s is 99 cents and you can’t even get a head of broccoli for that price
  • Those snack calories are cheaper because the commodity crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans are heavily subsidized
  • This is why the biggest predictor of obesity is income level
  • Type 2 diabetes used to only affect adults and now it is affecting children in epidemic proportions
  • Modern agriculture is all about doing things faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper…no one is thinking about the health of our system
  • People are so disconnected and ignorant about something as intimate as the food that we eat

Cows and beef –

  • Mcdonald’s is the largest purchaser of ground beef (and potatoes, apples, pork, and even tomatoes) in the United States, and they want their food to taste same everywhere, so they have great influence on the system – so even if you don’t eat at fast food restaurants you may be eating meat produced by this system
  • What it comes down to is that, similar to the meat industry, only a handful of companies are controlling our entire food system:
    • In 1970 – the top 5 beef packers controlled 25% of the market
    • Today – the top 4 beef packers control 80% of market
  • You start feeding corn to cows, E. Coli evolves and a certain mutation occurs which is very harmful
  • Animals at factory farms stand ankle deep in their manure all day long so if one cow has E. Coli others can get it too
  • At a slaughter house their hides are caked with manure and if you are slaughtering 400 cows per hour how do you keep it from spreading?
  • So this harmful strain of E. Coli, that didn’t used to be in the world, is now a problem
  • E. Coli is even in spinach and apple juice because of the run off from factory farms
  • It doesn’t help that the Chief of Staff for the USDA was a former lobbyist for the beef industry
  • Regulatory agencies are being controlled by the very companies they are supposed to be scrutinizing
  • There has always been food poisoning, but food is not getting safer it is becoming more contaminated because with the bigger factories it spreads the problem far and wide
  • There are only 13 slaughterhouses for the majority of beef in all of the US
  • Ground beef from the grocery store has thousands of different cows mixed up in it so the chance of one of those cows in your meat having a disease is increased
  • After eating hamburger contaminated with E. Coli 0157:H7 a woman’s 2-year-old son went from a perfectly healthy boy to being dead in 12 days
  • In the 90’s some industrial meat factories were tested for E. Coli 0157:H7 and if they failed they were supposed to be shut down – but there was not enough authority to close the contaminated plants
  • Some companies are now using a hamburger meat filler cleansed with ammonia hydroxide to help kill E. Coli (mmm…that sounds tasty)

Chickens and Industrial Chicken Farms –

  • Chickens are being raised in half the time they were in 1950s (49 days vs. 3 months), but even in half the time they are ending up twice as big (thanks to growth hormones, among other things)
  • People like white meat so scientists have managed to redesign the chicken to have bigger breasts
  • Today’s industrial chicken farms produce a lot of food, on a small amount of land, for a very affordable price
  • A Tyson Chicken farmer says the chickens never even see sunlight – they are kept day and night in chicken houses with no windows
  • When chickens (with the help of growth hormones) grow from a baby chic to a 5.5 lb chicken in 7 weeks the bones can’t keep up with growth – which means some can’t handle weight that they are carrying so when they try to take a few steps they fall down
  • Corn is cheap (and also helps make the chickens fat quickly) so it has allowed us to drive down the price of meat – over 200lbs of meat per person per year would not be possible without this diet of cheap grain
  • Is cheapness everything there is? Who wants to buy a cheap car?
  • It is actually expensive food when considering the environmental and health costs

Pork and Hog Processing Plants –

  • Those who work for a Smithfield hog processing plant say the company has the same mentality towards workers as they do the hogs
  • They slaughter 32,000 hogs per day (2,000 hogs an hour) and employees get infections from handling the guts so much
  • Meat packing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the US and it is done by a lot of illegal immigrants

The Government’s Role –

  • The Government is dominated by the industries it is supposed to be regulating (via the way of former industry execs that are now government regulators)
  • 70% of processed foods have some sort of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) – the food industry fought against having to label foods as GMO and won
  • It is also against the law to criticize the food industry’s foods – thanks to the “Veggie Libel Laws”
  • The food industry has different protections than other industries (remember how Oprah was sued after saying she won’t eat another burger)
  • In Colorado it is a actually a felony and you can go to prison for criticizing their foods
  • The “Cheeseburger bills” make it difficult to sue them, but these companies have legions of attorneys and they may sue you (even if they can’t win) just to send a message

What we can do to change things –

  • The average consumer does not feel very powerful and it is the exact opposite because when we buy our food we are voting for local or not or organic or not
  • Individual consumers changed the biggest retailer’s milk options to now offer organic (Wal-Mart)
  • We also need changes at the policy level so carrots are more affordable than chips
  • The tobacco industry had huge control over public policy and it is the perfect model on how an industry’s irresponsible behavior was changed
  • The food industry will deliver to the marketplace what the marketplace demands – so if we demand good wholesome food we will get it
  • You can vote to change the system 3 times a day
  • Choose foods that are in season, local, organic and read the labels when you go to the grocery store (which is what this blog is all about!)
  • Cook a meal with your family and eat together…everyone has a right to healthy food
  • You can change the world with every bite

No Grocery Store Challenge, Day 50 February 21, 2010

Ahhh, finally Saturday.    The rain made it easy to stay in bed longer than normal, which I desparately needed.  It was a crazy week.

For brunch, I had some Kocurek Family jalapeno bacon.  I made an omelette from chicken eggs given to me by a client with lots of chickens, and some Full Quiver cheddar.  I crumbled the bacon in the omelette.  Pretty basic, but nice and warm on a coolish morning.   Too full to consider lunch.

At the Downtown Farmer’s Market, I got some cow’s milk, from Way Back When Farms, 6 grapefruits, (didn’t see a sign for this vendor, but probably overlooked it) bibb lettuce and basil from Bella Verdi Farms, Texas Coffee Traders coffee, and a loaf of rosemary ciabatta from Texas French Bread.  I put the bread in the freezer, since I’ve been not loving my homemade 100% Whole Wheat bread.  This way, if I have a craving for a sandwich, it is a possibility, without violating the challenge.  I restrained myself on proteins, because my freezer is pretty full, and I have lots of cheese still from Full Quiver and Antonelli’s.  I should have gotten some turnips and carrots, but just didn’t think about it.  I also met and talked to Aaron Sanchez, at the market.  He does “Best thing I ever Ate” and “Chef vs. City” on the Food Network.  What a cool and friendly guy.  He was taking pictures of the charcuterie at the Kocurek’s booth.

I was generously gifted tickets to the Viva Las Vegas bash at the Austin Music Hall.  We didn’t eat dinner, thinking we’d pig out there, but it was so crowded, and there was so much to watch,  we didn’t really eat.