Experiments In Domesticity

Marriage, Motherhood & Modern Housewifery


First World Problem?

In the wake of the Bangladeshi garment factory plaza collapse, which killed over 950 people, I have been struggling with guilt and searching (once again) for alternatives to inexpensive, manufactured-in-Asia goods. As anyone who has bought children’s clothing, books, and toys can attest, it is not easy to find consumer goods manufactured in North America and Europe. I was shocked at the amount of made in China merchandise available in France last year.

Because we are so addicted to cheap and to quantity, it is easy to ignore where our goods come from until a thousand people die making our sneakers and it becomes international news. Sometimes we feel momentary outrage when we read about unsafe lead levels in toys manufactured in China, we send our lead-infused Polly Pocket to the landfill, wash our hands and move on to the next must-have. The consumerist memory is brief, unfortunately.

There is the argument that manufacturing our shoddy, cheap goods is providing jobs for women in countries such as Bangladesh. If we stop buying, many families will go hungry. However, until there is a third way (providing those working in manufacturing with proper wages and safe working conditions, and ensuring that the goods manufactured are safe), we are stuck either supporting inhumane working conditions and endangering our own children or abstaining from purchasing anything manufactured in Southeast Asian countries. In the last few years, I have chosen the last option whenever possible. The large, glaring exception has been baby clothing.

It is very difficult to find inexpensive clothing for kids that has been made in North America. I posted awhile back about the search for shoes. I have since ordered a couple pairs from Soft Star Shoes and can attest to their all-round awesomeness. I have also purchased some Robeez lookalikes from Lil Jo’s that are made in Vancouver and are very cute.

Recycling is a good way to keep clothing costs down (beware of used footwear though). I happily accept any and all used clothing that people are willing to give Ladybug. While much of what we get is made in Bangladesh and China, we are not contributing any new funds to the manufacturing world. Plus, we are helping to reuse clothing before it ends up in the landfill. Lately, however, we have begun to exhaust some of our clothing suppliers because our mighty Ladybug is gaining on their children. Plus, it is nice to get something new once in a while. To further complicate life, distribution in the off-line world is often a bit spotty for made in North America clothing but the Internet is your friend in this instance. There is always the American Apparel at your local shopping complex but that store’s owner has a past that may be unethical and one that is most definitely murky.

The North American made kids’ clothing companies below manufacture beautiful, quality goods that come with a reasonable price tag. Part of the whole shift in our thinking needs to be a reduction in quantity – does my 1.5 year old really need 10 dresses? – in favour of quality.
Boské Kids
Small Potatoes
Redfish Kids
Red Thread
Stella Industries
Mini Mioche

This list is by no means exhaustive. I have also discovered lovely handmade goods at local seniors’ centres, and farmer’s markets. I can easily spend hours in the children’s clothing section of Etsy.

What are some of your favourite children’s clothing companies? Paper Doll by ana_ng via Flickr Paper Doll by ana_ng via Flickr


Burn, Baby, Burn: Cob Oven Construction

Over the weekend, Ladybug & I spent two glorious days on a farm near Morinville. I was learning how to build a cob oven with the capable folks at Shovel & Fork, and Ladybug was learning the joys of spending 8 hours outdoors with chickens, dogs, cats, mud, and no danger of being run over by a latté-crazed SUV-wielder.

Because reading books, looking at pictures and poring over blog posts only gets you so far, I recommend building a cob oven with the help of someone who has done it before. Chad and Kevin, our fearless leaders and all-round capable guys, have each built several cob ovens. Under their guidance, a team of about 18 people managed to put together a beautiful, large oven in 16 hours.

The design we followed is meant to be standing for “300 years”, according to Chad, and looked it as I sized it up at 6:00 pm on Sunday. It is not the simple cob dome you often see but a cob dome atop a monolithic hearth. The hearth has the function of adding permanence and strength to the structure, and raising the oven to the perfect height for fire maintenance and peel-usage without developing a crick in your back.

Our site was chosen in conjunction with the property owner to provide proximity to the kitchen and a great meeting place for outdoor parties. We dug a hole to source the clay for our cob. The hole was back filled with various sizes of gravel to provide drainage and a stable base on which to build the hearth.

We used urbanite, or recycled pieces of concrete, stuck together with cob, to build up the exterior walls of the hearth. The cob was a combination of clay, sand and water, and was mixed by human foot power on a tarp.

Beginnings of a behemoth hearth

Beginnings of a behemoth hearth

Mixing cob

Mixing cob

The interior of the walls was filled with “junk” that we sourced from around the yard, covered with sand, and topped with a thermal layer of empty wine bottles and a final levelling layer of sand.

The exterior of the top of the hearth will be skirted with regular, recycled brick, and the interior fire floor was made with pricey firebrick. According to Kevin, the firebrick were $4.25 each and comprised the major cost of the oven because everything else was salvage.

Laying brick

Laying brick

Once the hearth was in place, construction of the cob dome began. A dowel was cut to the agreed height and placed in the middle of the firebrick floor. Using the dowel as a guide, a dome of sand sprinkled with water, or “sandcastle”, was erected. This was covered in wet newspaper, “papier mâché” style, in order to mitigate the amount of sand that will fall on the first few food items prepared in the oven.

Building a sandcastle

Building a sandcastle

Sand dome

Sand dome

Using a slightly thicker cob, we made bricks by hand. These bricks were used to encase the sandcastle. Another layer of soupier cob with flax straw added was then put over the bricks to provide more insulation. The oven can be finished off with stucco, brick or left as is – this is entirely up to the discerning eye of the owner.

Adding insulation

Adding insulation

Cob with flax straw

Cob with flax straw

While the insulative layer was being added to the dome, a door was cut out using a plywood template. When the dome was complete at the end of the day, the sand and newspaper were scooped out of its interior. The oven will require some sort of roof, again up to the owner, as the cob needs protection from rain and moisture.

Cutting a door

Cutting a door

Break on through ...

Break on through …

Over the week, there will be small fires lit in the oven to cure it. Next weekend, we are having a Mother’s Day pizza party using the oven. I will let you know how it all turns out. . .


Stir It Up

It’s been far too long since I last posted. What happened to my New Year’s resolve? It seems both time and motivation have vanished in the ether. I could make many excuses: I’ve bought and sold a house, I’ve partially packed a house, I have a very active toddler, Musicman has been away, etcetera, etcetera. As we all know, sometimes life gets in the way.

Way back in February, I celebrated my 38th birthday while Musicman was away. Because he had not thought to leave a gift at home for me, he went all out in March and bought me a Thermomix. (Okay, I’ll admit it, he may have had to listen to me talk about it for a year first …)

For the uninitiated, the Thermomix is a kitchen robot that can basically do everything except spoon the food into your gaping mouth. It is made by the Vorwerk company – designed in Germany and produced in France. It grinds, grates, blends, mixes, kneads, steams, sautés, weighs and cooks. You can even get it to clean itself by putting a drop of soap and some water in it.

Adapting and trying out new recipes has taken up some time but the learning curve is not too steep and my family has been enjoying the results tremendously. The things I like most about the Thermomix are its speed and efficiency. I have found that there is a lot less waste involved because I am less reliant on pre-packaged foods, and I am able to throw unpeeled vegetables in and the end product is still lovely. I am also able to whip up a decent meal in half an hour – from scratch.

I use the Thermomix at least once a day and find it especially wonderful for smoothies, steel cut oats, blended soups, hummus, guacamole, dips and rice. It would have been handy to have had when Ladybug was starting to eat solids. It is great for gardeners who are interested in preserves and canning. It is also an excellent tool for those delving into raw and vegan cooking.

Please note: I am certainly not being paid by Thermomix. I wish I were because the machine does not come cheap. I just drank the Kool-Aid and wanted to share my delight with others.

Vegan Potato Rösti with Applesauce from Rescued Fruit

Vegan Potato Rösti with Applesauce from Rescued Fruit

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Moving On Up

Musicman and I have tossed around the idea of moving closer to family since I became pregnant. We definitely did not want to move while I was pregnant, as I had the most amazing midwifery care. Once Ladybug was born, moving anywhere, other than from the basement to the living room, seemed too daunting for a time.

In the last few months, our discussion about moving became more serious. With one set of parents in poor health and the other about to retire, we felt the time to make a decision was upon us. We sat down and made a list of the pros and cons, and decided that a move was in order.

Our realtor came by today and our house will be listed as of tomorrow. Sitting in our beautiful, tidy home, we both feel excited and wistful. We love our house, we have great friends here, and Edmonton has so many amenities. We are moving 600 plus kilometres, from a city of over a million inhabitants, back to our hometown of 90,000.

What tipped the scales was the idea of Ladybug being near her cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. We both had this opportunity when we were young, and we feel it is very important. We can always get another house and make new friends.

Selling a house, moving, and buying a house are stressful events for adults – imagine what it must be like for a toddler! Poor little Ladybug has been walking around the house watching me stage rooms. She points to where things used to be, makes a sound and then holds both hands up as if to say “what’s going on?”

When moving with a child, it is generally advised that you not make any other major changes to their routine. For example, don’t go from co-sleeping to a crib or toddler bed. At the new house, try to set up your child’s room first. It’s also a good idea to prepare them for the move by discussing it with them.

I expect that Ladybug will be more clingy over the next couple months and that her sleep pattern will be disturbed. She doesn’t sleep as soundly or for as long whenever change is afoot. I plan to take things slower than I would have in a pre-baby move and to give myself plenty of time to get things done.


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The Dry Season

Ladybug has been suffering from dry skin and eczema-like patches on her body. Not a huge surprise, considering I have the same issues every winter. The moisture-guzzling combination of cold weather and dry, warm forced air from the furnace leaves many of us scaly and itchy in the winter. Here are a few dry, sensitive skin tips that I have found helpful:

Around the House:
– ensure that your furnace has a humidifier and that it is working. They are not terribly difficult to replace yourself and are relatively inexpensive;
– use a portable, plug-in humidifier in your bedroom. There is some debate as to whether hot, cold or ionic is best. I went with ionic because the vapour is very fine and cool, and I thought it would be better for a baby;
– consider the type of laundry soap and fabric softener you use. The more heavily-scented, “whitening” or other tempting miracle soaps often contain harsh, skin irritating ingredients. Because Ladybug is cloth diapered, I use a laundry soda that is recommended for diapers. You should absolutely avoid fabric softener and dryer sheets if you cloth diaper because they leave a moisture repelling residue behind (on the diapers and in your dryer). I have had little static by using reusable dryer sheets. (For cloth diaper tips and tricks and some skin-friendly laundry soaps, check out the “Resources” section of the Bummis website.)

On Your Skin:
– do not bathe in really hot water. Hot water, like hot air, is drying;
– put rolled oats in a cheesecloth bag or tie them up in a washcloth for an itch-soothing soak. I found this to be a great relief when I was pregnant last winter;
– add some plant-based oil to your bath water. I like almond but plain old olive works well too;
– avoid chemically, heavily scented or otherwise “unnatural” soaps or body washes. Read the ingredients on what you plan to put on your skin. Less is more in this case. I like liquid Castile soap or Val’s Veggie Bar soap;
– after a bath or shower, massage more plant-based oil into your skin before towelling off. Coconut oil is perfect for this purpose and has the added bonus of smelling great. Do not rub your skin dry, blot it gently;
– for diaper rash, a good barrier cream is essential because it prevents the contents of your baby’s diaper from penetrating the broken skin and making the rash worse. I like Burt’s Bees Baby Bee Diaper Ointment. Look for a cream that is thick and seals the skin while repelling moisture. When the skin is not broken, I like to use an emollient, soothing cream like Weleda’s Calendula Diaper Care;
– for skin irritations, cradle cap, and minor eczema, I have had great success with DermaMed’s Baby Healing Cream. I use it on myself and on Ladybug. Musicman calls it the “magic cream”.

Finally, do not forget to drink lots of water and stay away from too much caffeine and alcohol. What you put into your body has an effect on your skin too!


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Locals Only

The most sobering fact I learned, and the one that stuck with me, from Edmonton-based Jennifer Cockrall-King’s book Food and the City is that grocery stores only hold three days worth of food supply. In the event of a zombie apocalypse, an oil and gas shortage, or a Canadian civil war, we may find ourselves very hungry, very quickly.

I have the great fortune to live in a city that, despite rather major drawbacks such as frigid winter weather, boasts 5 year-round farmer’s markets. That’s right, five! Edmonton has the good luck of being northerly enough that it gets extended sunshine hours in the spring, summer and early fall, and is also the bearer of kick-ass soil (as my laissez-faire garden can attest). In the winter, we have several excellent greenhouse producers who keep us in tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce. For cool, non-GMO food manipulation, check out Doef’s to see how they produce heart-shaped cucumbers.

Last week, I went to hear Raj Patel speak on Food Cultures for Sustainability. Patel is an engaging and passionate speaker. Between wrestling with Ladybug and spilling coffee all over myself, I was able to enjoy his entertaining anecdotes which drove home important points about the modern agricultural-industrial complex. I was also proud to be an Edmontonian when Patel complimented us on “fresh”, our urban food strategy, and joked that we were the only city in the world where you could purchase frozen vegetables at the farmer’s market.

As we settle into February and seed catalogues begin to appear in my mailbox, I find myself dreaming about the upcoming gardening season and all that it promises. Thoughts such as these, combined with my weekly trip to City Market, give me much to look forward to.



Pancakes Are Ready!

Last night, Ladybug and I went snowshoeing in the river valley, visited the old fur trading post, and sipped warm cider while we were regaled with tales from Edmonton’s frontier days. We had a wonderful time. Ladybug, who would normally be in bed by 7:30 PM, exclaimed repeatedly about the night sky. We were returned to our car in a wagon pulled by two enormous Clydesdales. Ladybug was fascinated by the horses and even patted one, named Jeb, on his velvety nose. It reminded me that, though we read her many animal stories, our city slicking kid has not seen any live animals save dogs and cats.

We slept in today, and I wanted to make something quick and delicious before we headed out to the farmer’s market. One of our favourite breakfasts is pancakes with real maple syrup. I have modified a recipe from my well-worn How It All Vegan, by Tanya Barnard and Sarah Kramer, to suit our family.

Snowy Saturday Pancakes

1 banana
1 cup whole grain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp brown sugar (optional)
1 1/2 cups almond milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup blueberries, frozen or fresh
coconut oil
fruit for garnish (I use strawberries)
maple syrup

1. Heat cast iron skillet, griddle, or other heavy pan over medium low heat.
2. Mix flour, baking powder,cinnamon, and sugar (if using), in a large bowl.
3. Mash banana with a fork in a smaller bowl. Mix in the almond milk and vanilla.
4. Dump the wet ingredients in with the dry and mix until everything is moist. Add blueberries.
5. Test your skillet by dropping a bit of water in. If it sizzles, you are ready.
6. Put enough coconut oil in to cover the bottom of the pan (1/2 tsp), and distribute it evenly.
7. Using 1/4 to 1/2 a cup of batter, pour pancakes into pan.
8. When the edges of the pancake look cooked and the centre has bubbles, flip the cakes over. Fry for another 2 minutes or until browned.
9. Repeat steps 6 to 8 until all the batter is gone.
10. Serve with sliced strawberries, more blueberries, or whatever floats your boat. Don’t forget the maple syrup!


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Bake It Like You Mean It: Bread Baking 101

I’ve been making bread for many years and eating bread my entire life. My mother spent a good deal of my childhood producing delicious homemade bread, cinnamon buns, and rolls. I love bread. No matter how healthy my diet gets, I will never eschew bread.

In the last five years, I have begun a hot and heavy flirtation with whole grains. Most recently, I have been going steady with Gold Forest Grains’ Red Fife. No matter how I try, or which foolproof book I read, I have yet to make a loaf of bread that I am really proud of.

Enter the wonderful crew at Shovel & Fork. I have been signed up and waiting for their Bread Baking 101 course for months. I have also been dreaming about beautiful, delicious whole wheat loaves. On Sunday, I had the opportunity to put all this wishing, waiting and hoping into action.

Taught by the hilarious and knowledgeable Chad Moss, it was a wonderful day of learning, practising, and eating. We even got to sample wares pulled straight from the backyard cob oven. I left with a few grams of starter; two proofing loaves of 70% Red Fife, 30% Sunny Boy unbleached organic; many notes; and renewed confidence in my bread making ability.

I got home, fired up my regular, boring old oven, and waited. When I judged proofing to be complete, I popped my Dutch oven in (forgetting to score my loaf – whoops!) and crossed my fingers. An hour or so later, I took out the bread and turned it on to the butcher’s block with high hopes. I was not disappointed, my crust looked lovely.


Mr. Moss warned us off cutting into a straight-from-the-oven loaf (dashing many romantic hot bread fantasies in the process): it is still baking and should be cooled overnight for the best flavour to develop. He suggested warming a chunk in the oven, if hot bread is your particular bag.

This morning I cut into my loaf and discovered a tighter, denser crumb than I had hoped for (not a long enough second proof), but a massive improvement over past whole grain loaves.


Upon tasting, Musicman, Ladybug, and I were all in agreement that this was a fine first effort. Given the tools Shovel & Fork has provided me with, I am excited to continue tweaking until I get it just right. I am also much less intimidated by the whole starter process than I was.

Stay tuned for bread updates, and for the results of the Kitchen Garden and Cob Oven courses. Let the dreaming begin …


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Snow Day

It was warm enough today to spend more than 15 minutes outside. Ladybug, Musicman and I built a fire and got some things done in the yard. One of those things was building Ladybug’s first snowman. She spent a good deal of time conversing with him while I did some shovelling.

I shovelled the across-the-street neighbours’ walkway and, when I was done, they asked us to come in. Their house is a mirror image of our 1953 built 690 square foot bungalow, save the 150 square foot addition on the back. They were proud to inform us that they had raised five children there, and that with only one bathroom. I was immediately reminded of how our realtor suggested that our three bedroom house would not suit many people because it was too small for anyone other than a couple or single person. How times have changed!

I recently read Disease Proof Your Child, by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, and have been feeling somewhat guilty for turning my back on nutritionally sound eating in favour of ripple chips and beer. It happens every year during the winter doldrums: I ditch fresh fruit and vegetables and cling to sinfully starchy carbs. Not that I’ve started Ladybug on beer just yet …

In an effort to make something that would satisfy one and all, I went to the cold room and pulled out some of our lovely Alberta Blush garden potatoes to make twice baked potatoes. Normally, this is a dairy-heavy recipe with butter, cheese, milk, and sour cream, but I modified it so that I could eat it and feed it to Ladybug:

1 1/2 cups raw cashews
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives
1 small onion
8-10 medium sized potatoes
Salt and pepper
Non-dairy milk ( I use almond)

1. Put cashews in a bowl and cover with water. Allow to soak for 2 hours.
2. Preheat oven to 400.
3. Drain cashews and place in blender or food processor with garlic and half the water. Turn on and add rest of water, as needed, until you have a thick but smooth cashew cream. Salt & pepper to taste. Place in fridge.
4. Prick potatoes with a fork and put in oven for 40-50 minutes. They should be cooked through but not too soft.
5. Let potatoes cool while you chop up the onions and olives. (This step can be altered to accommodate whatever you’d like in your potato: garlic, cheese, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, etc.)
6. Cut each potato in half and use a spoon to scoop out most of the flesh. Be careful: they will still be hot. Make sure you leave about a quarter inch next to the skin, so that your boats don’t fall apart. Place the cashew cream, potato, onions, and olives in a bowl.
7. Using a ricer or hand mixer, blend the potato mixture, adding a bit of non-dairy milk at a time. Salt & pepper to taste.
8. Using a spoon, fill each hollowed out potato boat a little over the top with the mixture, and place on a baking sheet.
9. Pop the sheet back in the oven for 20-30 minutes until just beginning to brown.


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Plan Your Life Away

I’ve always been a bit of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-jeans kind of gal. Planning, other than my next fabulous vacation, seemed so boring. As I’ve gotten older, and especially since Ladybug was born, I’ve realized a few things: one of them is that some planning does indeed make life roll along a little more smoothly. I am still a far cry from what you would call a “planner” but I now operate on a weekly schedule designed to make my life a little easier and Ladybug’s a little more predictable.

The first part of my plan, let’s call it the “chores” aspect, was inspired by the tea towels of yore. There were once certain days to do certain tasks, and tea towels that celebrated each glorious household chore (often depicting cute anthropomorphic animals happily performing said task):
Monday – Washing
Tuesday – Ironing or Gardening
Wednesday – Sewing
Thursday – Market
Friday – Cleaning
Saturday – Baking
Sunday – Day of Rest or Worshipping
While I doubt I’ve ironed for a total of eight hours in my entire life (sorry, Grandma), I have been trying to follow some version of this schedule for the last few years.

After recently reading the excellent Waldorf-inspired Heaven On Earth: A Handbook for Parents of Young Children by Sharifa Oppenheimer, I decided to further add to my schedule by theming the evening’s cuisine. The dishes may vary from week to week but Monday, for example, is always a pasta night. Oppenheimer, in discussing the rhythm of life, the seasons, the days, explains that children thrive on this type of predictability – a concept that is central to Waldorf teaching methodology and completely foreign to me. Because Ladybug is still so young, I’m not sure how much this means to her at the moment but it has revolutionized my week! No more hemming and hawing about meal preparation, no more glazed-eyed three hour trips to multiple grocery stores. I find that I can get by with one weekly farmer’s market trip and one traditional grocery store trip.

All this to say that a little planning has allowed me to free up some time that was previously spent making up for not having a plan. It has opened a window for me to do more fun and important things, like hanging out with my daughter, and that is definitely not boring.