Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Wisdom of the American People

Yesterday I read an article on five things missing from the stimulus plan. The Stimulus Plan: 5 Missing Pieces. No. 5 was: please tell us whether it is better for the country for us to save or to spend? (The rest of the "missing pieces" are well worth the read as well.)

Actually, the wisdom of the American people has answered this question. The household savings rate went from -2% sometime last year to +6% now. A nation full of households has decided that living well beyond our means is no longer a smart thing to do. The strange compulsion so many people had, to spend and spend and spend as if we were rich, as if the stock market would go up for ever, as if real estate price would climb into the stratosphere, is suddenly broken. Now we're suffering the hangover from years of excess. But who could ever believe double-digit growth for ever, in the sober light of morning....

The good we do by controlling our spending and paying off debt:
* With every payment we make, we reassure the banks and credit unions that they will not be left holding the bag.
* With every payment we make, we free up some capital for the banks and credit unions to lend to responsible people and businesses.
* With every payment we make, we reduce our household financial risk in case of unemployment, wage cuts, hourly cuts, health problems, and life's other unexpected financial challenges.

This is better for the country in the long run than for us to continue to run up debt supporting the "Retail Space Bubble" that has grown in the last few years. Based on truly unsustainable spending by the American "consumer" (a word I hate), chains opened up way too many new stores, and too many people started up new retail businesses.

It's sad when stores close and retail salespeople lost their McJobs. It's even sadder when someone has invested their life savings in starting a new business, well-thought-out or not, and has to close their doors. Running the gauntlet of the new frugality will mean that the best stores will survive--the ones that sell 1. quality items 2. we need at 3. reasonable prices. And the stores with a poor business model, or too much competition, will fail. This is the real world. The pie doesn't keep getting bigger forever.

Another example. A month or more ago, I was reading articles about what it would take to save the Big Three automakers. One class of article were interviews with leading economists and commentators. Most of them were not employees of the companies in question. They said, in general, that the Big Three need to push wages down, shed workers, and slip out of legacy commitments for health care and pensions, and that was all that would save them. The second class of article talked to individual people, the wise Americans. They said, "They need to start making cars that people want to buy." Bingo! You get the prize.

If the Big Three paid way less people way less money, cut out their pensions and medical insurance, and made cars people aren't interested in buying, they would still go belly-up. Joe Six-pack at the gas station knows that the price of gasoline will go back up. He is not very interested in buying a big gas-hog unless it is a necessity for his business or his large family. But the talking heads and the CEOs and CFOs still don't get it.

Now a little blast at the word "Consumer". A consumer is somebody that uses up resources. It is the opposite of producer, somebody who makes something, improves something, or saves something. If you start a bonfire and throw dollar bills onto it, or $200 athletic shoes, you are a consumer. Are we rightly called the Consumer Society? I hope not. At the end of World War II, with much of the world in shambles, the U.S. was the biggest producer of goods in the world. We could call ourselves a Producer Society then.

Let's just retire the word Consumer as applied to U.S. citizens. To a store you should be a Customer, not a Consumer. To an arts organization, you are a Patron (Matron?). We hope that more of us will have the chance to become Producers again; people need jobs, and the U.S. needs to produce things to restore balance to the world economy.

What can we do?
* Keep paying off debt.
* When you buy something, try to buy American-made. I keep harping on this. Let the stores you patronize know that you are interested in buying American-made goods and giving jobs to American workers.
* Buy local foods and support your local farmers and ranchers.
* Buy locally-made foods and suppport local small business (and encourage them to buy local ingredients).

The dollars we spend are small. But the dollars we all spend are a huge force in our country and the world, for good or ill. Put your dollars where your own best interests lie.

Recipes next time.....

Friday, February 6, 2009

Parsnips--A Winter Favorite

Here as promised is the amazing Parsnip Spice Cake recipe, and some other ideas. Parsnips are a great winter food. Their flavor improves after they are touched by frost. Then they last, if kept cool, until well into the spring. They have a flavor which contributes well to other winter foods.

Parsnip Spice Cake
You can fix this either wheat-based or gluten-free.

2 eggs
1/2 cup sunflower, canola, or olive oil
2/3 cup sugar or succanat, or 1/2 cup honey
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground allspice
2 cups grated parsnip
1/3 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped pecans, walnuts, or hazelnuts
1 cup Golden Buffalo wheat flour
OR 1 cup unbleached white flour
OR 1 cup brown rice flour

Grease a 9" springform pan. Mix eggs, oil, sugar, baking soda, salt, and spices. Stir in parsnips, raisins and nuts and mix well. Then stir in your choice of flour and mix. You're right, there is no milk or water added, but the recipe works.

Spread the thick batter evenly in the cake pan and smooth the top. Bake at 350 degrees about 45 minutes, until done. Let cool 10 minutes, then remove the springform and put on a plate for serving.

You could bake this in a 9" cake pan, well greased, and invert it onto a rack for cooling, if you don't have a springform pan.

You could change the spicing to your own taste, or use dried cranberries or other dried fruit in place of the raisins. After it is baked, you could sprinkle it with powdered sugar, or frost with a cream cheese frosting, but I think that would be over the top. It makes a fine moist cake or coffee cake as is. It's fun to tell people it's parsnip cake and watch their looks of incredulity (even disgust), until they taste it. You don't have to apologize for this nutritious treat.

Irish Parsnip Puree
1 lb parsnips, peeled and sliced
1 largish carrot, peeled and sliced
1 large potato, peeled and sliced
1 apple, peeled and cut up (optional)
1 cup broth
1/2 tsp allspice
2 tbs butter

Put vegetables and apple in kettle, add broth. Simmer until tender. Drain, reserving liquid. Run through blender, using reserved liquid as necessary for consistency. Return to kettle, add allspice and butter, salt and pepper to taste.

Parsnip Go-With

* You can add peeled and cut-up parsnip to many kinds of soups. It is particularly good in black-eyed pea soup or split pea soup. Try it where you would add turnip, or use them both.

* Add to oven-roasted vegetable mixtures along with carrots, turnips, potatoes, onions, leeks, rutabagas, or what-have-you. They will cook perfectly well along with other roots cut up similarly. (Oven-roasted vegetables take 45 minutes to an hour in a 350-degree oven, or an hour at 325, or less time at 400. You can generally fit them alongside other things you are baking. Toss vegetables in a little olive oil, sprinkle on your choice of herbs and a little salt and pepper.)

* Saute peeled cut-up parsnips in butter in a skillet, then add a little liquid and herbs of your choice and braise until tender (maybe 20 minutes, more or less, depending on the size of the pieces). You may top with sour cream, yogurt, or sharp cheese, and/or finely chopped walnuts.

* In a little water or stock, cook equal amounts of cut-up carrot and parsnips (maybe 25-30 minutes). Puree in blender, adding a little cream or milk, and salt and pepper to taste. You can do the same with with parsnip and turnip. Decorate with chopped parsley and a pat of butter.

* You can use grated parsnip in place of carrot in any baked good such as cakes, cookies or quick loaves, or use half and half grated parsnip and carrot.

Have fun with them. If you get them in your CSA share, don't let them sit in the frig until they are really past it (which will take a while). Parsnips are a valuable addition to the cornucopia of winter foods.