One of the professors on my doctoral committee at the University of Chicago was quite thoroughly a city boy. He was Jewish, grew up in Brooklyn, played the violin and had a Ph.D. in physics.  (I could just see him, a skinny little kid in thick glasses and a yarmulke, trundling along the city streets with his violin case.)  I can still see his face when I told him I was taking a job in Tennessee.  He said “How can you move to Tennessee – you won’t even be able to get croissants there.”  I told him only God could make a tree and I could certainly make my own croissants. After only three years, I was tired of the endless limestone, cement, and flatness of Chicago, even though we lived a few blocks from a park on Lake Michigan.

I had baked a good bit in West Virginia, including making my own tortillas and bagels, before I went to Chicago.  Once in Tennessee, I found a recipe in Bon Appetit and made croissants, just to prove I could.  They were a tremendous amount of trouble – all that folding, rolling out, chilling, etc.  Once we moved to Austin,  there were bakery croissants again, most recently at the Upper Crust, two blocks from our house.  But we mostly lived without them.

But – pain au chocolate, chocolate croissants, that is a different story.  The bakery in Chicago did not have them. Those were the days before filled croissants were fashionable, in any case.  I had read about the French bread with chocolate; it seemed odd, but then…  In any case, at some point chocolate croissants showed up at Texas French Bread, an Austin institution which was also the first place I ever had scones.  Later, they became a standard treat on Sunday mornings, from Upper Crust.  Here in Clarksburg, you can get them at Panera’s, which is conveniently on the way to the place we thought was the only place to get the Sunday New York Times. A while back, we realized we weren’t really reading much of the paper, and the croissants weren’t that good, so we have done without both lately.

Then I saw this post on How To Make Chocolate Croissants Without Taking An Entire Day on Jellypress (which I highly recommend).  I picked up a couple of bars of good bittersweet chocolate Tuesday (senior citizen’s day at Kroger’s ;-) and got with the plan.  It was easy, not nearly as much work as I remembered, and the steps are spread out over four days, each taking half an hour or so.  Yesterday I finished up and froze a dozen, leaving four out to bake for the two of us this morning  (it was a Valentine’s treat, after all) .

They were indeed a treat; better than bakery, if I do say so myself.  And there are enough in the freezer for another month of Sundays!

If you go over to Jellypress and try these, there are a couple of things I would do differently.  First, these were so buttery we almost couldn’t taste the chocolate.  Next time, I’ll try just two sticks of butter instead of three.  Second, the recipe doesn’t specify unsalted butter.  Use unsalted butter, or don’t add salt.  Finally, I cut the dough in half for the final roll-out, because my bread board wasn’t big enough for a 15×20 rectangle.  After rolling out 15×10, I realized I had cut the wrong dimension in half, so I just cut it in half the short way and quarters the other (for pieces 5×3 3/4).  This also gave me 16 instead of 15, which worked out better with the 8 squares of chocolate in a bar.  (And Robert and I won’t have to argue about the odd croissant.)

When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder

A discussion about requirements for church membership on a discussion list got me to remembering.  The Baptist church I grew up in had Roll Call Sunday each fall, and I believe this was common to Baptist and other Protestant churches.  On Roll Call Sunday, we read the names of all the members.  If you didn’t show up or sent an excuse three years in a row, you were removed from membership.  My Aunt Elizabeth, who played the organ at the Presbyterian Church in Glenville, where she lived, didn’t join that church for decades, and came to answer the roll call each September at our church, where she had grown up. There was always a covered dish dinner afterward, the only one we had on a Sunday.  We had Fellowship Dinners one Wednesday a month.

The hymn “When the Roll is Called up Yonder, I’ll Be There” is based on this custom.  My grandmother, Maude Hersman deGruyter, was famous for the hot rolls she always made for covered dish dinners.  She would make large trays of them at home, up to the last rising, and then bake them in the oven at church.  The joke was always made that “When the rolls are served up yonder, she’ll be there.”

Less is More

Here is more news on the front of useless or even harmful technology.  Central heating may make us fat, antihistamines cause restless-leg syndrome, requiring more drugs, and as I noted awhile back, running shoes are worse than high heels in putting stress on knee and hip joints. A Harvard professor of evolutionary biology, realizing that people have been running for millennia (well, epochs, really, since before Homo was sapiens) and only invented running shoes 40 years ago, has been studying barefoot running.  Guess what?  Barefoot runners land on their toes, not their heels, causing much less stress and conserving more energy.  Running shoes apparently contribute to shin splints and other injuries.

Expensive, produced in sweat shops, adding to the trade deficit, sold as a status item, and not good for us.

Let’s add high-tech athletic shoes to technologies we can live without.


Writing about Burns Night and the Selkirk Grace got me thinking about grace before meals. In my family growing up, we alternated two children’s graces:

Thank you for the food we eat,
Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the birds that sing,
Thank you God for everything.


God is great and God is good.
And we thank him for our food.
By his hands we all are fed.
Give us Lord our daily bread.

I remember singing the Johnny Appleseed grace at Girl Scout camp:

Oh, the Lord’s been good to me,
and so I thank the Lord
for giving me the things I need
the sun and the rain and the apple seed.
Oh, the Lord’s  been good to me.

When our daughter was small, she came home from church school with this, which we still use:

May we have eyes that see
Hearts that love
And hands that are ready to serve

Burns Night

We won’t be making a really traditional Burns Night, but we will be having “neeps and tatties” (mashed turnips and mashed potatoes), plus cabbage and pork sausages, since authentic haggis is banned here anyway. I have a bagpipe video to play, and we will say the Selkirk Grace:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.

We have a Norwegian version on a plate from Stavanger, inherited from Robert’s family:

Noen har brød, men kan ikke spise.
Andre kan spise men har ikke brød.
Vi har brød og vi kan spise.
Derfor vil vi Herren prise.

For Summer Song, Eat Local, Eat Organic

We have tried to eat local or organic foods for years, because it is healthier, better for the local economy, better for the environment.  Eating in season is one of many ways to keep closer to nature.  Eating locally and in season means that every season is different and there is always something to look forward to – the first greens and peas in spring, the strawberries, blackberries, peaches of summer, luscious August tomatoes, the apples and pears of fall, the warming and filling beans and cabbage, carrots and potatoes of winter.

From the National Wildlife Federation, another reason to eat local and eat organic: Put a Songbird on Your Shopping List – birds that winter in South America are dying from pesticides being used there that are illegal here.

And the Snow Goes On

From Sharon Astyk, on living without heat, and apropos since we still have a furnace out, although the one is keeping the house at our chosen temperature (63°) by running all the time:

…it is worth remembering that the Lapps routinely dealt with -50+ temperatures in tents made of one layer of reindeer skin and heated only by body heat, and that when people began living in the US [I suspect she means European people, since the native Americans lived in skin tents much like the Lapps (who prefer to be called Sami) or bark or wattle houses], winter temperatures were considerably colder than they are now, and windows were made of oilskin over holes in the house and houses were heated by a central fire pit. Human beings can manifestly live without central heating. I know you don’t think you can, but you can. It is in your genes.

The first Anglos who lived in this area were the Pringle brothers, who spent several years living in a hollow sycamore tree near Buckhannon. The first settlers of my home town, Samuel and Sudna Hughes Tanner, spent their first winter, 1812, in a cave under the cliff where my high school stands. Anyone who has gone camping in the winter knows it is quite possible to stay warm in a nylon tent and a sleeping bag. There is a saying various attributed as native American, Tibetan, or Buddhist, that it is easier to put on shoes than cover the world with leather. It is easier to keep oneself warm than a room, and one room than a house. Of course, we are now finding that heating up the outdoors, as my mother warned us against every time we opened a door in the winter, may not be as hard as we think.

I found a couple weeks ago that the average British house was kept at 55° just 25 years ago – and has only gone up to 63° now (and yes, that’s Fahrenheit.) I stocked up on long underwear at Gabriel Brother’s a while back – at $2.99 a piece, it pays for itself instantly if it means I can turn the heat down just a degree. And then, studies published this spring found that being in temperatures under 65° activates “brown fat” which burns calories to keep you warm at a great rate. So maybe the great American obesity epidemic is at least partly caused by turning our thermostats up – and turning them back down will not only lower our heating bills and our carbon footprint, but maybe our weight and health costs, too.

The Warm Old House

In a casual conversation I promised to send someone some of the information I had found on weatherizing and home energy efficiency.  West Virginia, having cheap natural gas and electricity (in cost to the consumer, but not in cost to those who live where it is produced – oh, wait – that’s us, too), and depending on energy for a good bit of its economy, hasn’t put in place the energy conservation programs that most other states have.  You can’t call up a local contractor and have an energy audit done.  And we haven’t had much success in finding professionals knowledgeable about insulation options, energy efficient heating and cooling, etc.  The state spends a lot each winter to pay people’s heating bills, when the same money could be used for weatherizing and lower those bills forever.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s EnergyStar program have done a great job of do-it-yourself energy information. I used their Home Energy Yardstick for a quick look at how we compared to the US average on energy use.  Even with our very old (25+ years) furnace and no insulation,  because we do a lot of other energy-saving, we scored 9.8 out of 10.  But our CO2 emissions are still above average on EPA’s Household Emissions Calculator because our house is bigger than average.

The best energy audit tool around was sponsored by the EPA, the Department of Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and a number of California state programs, and developed by the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories. It takes awhile to complete, because you have to input details like window area on each side of your house, but you end up with specific recommendations on insulation, appliances, and other steps to take, and information on cost and whether they will be cost-effective for you.  You can save your session, too, so all that work isn’t lost.

Our audit showed that replacing the central air-conditioner wouldn’t be cost-effective.  We don’t use it anyway; there were only a couple days this summer that just opening windows wasn’t enough.  Our biggest cost-saver would be replacing the electric dryer with a gas one.  If we ever replace it, that’s what we will do, but we have been hanging our laundry for years.  The second biggest saver was air leaks, which they estimate would save us over $500 a year, and would cost about $400 done by a contractor.  We spent less than half of that on materials, and Robert did the work, following the EPA DIY manual on locating and sealing leaks, and adding insulation. It’s the first thing we did, so we can’t really tell how much it saved us.

What started that conversation was my mentioning we had gotten an infrared thermometer to check for cold spots.  I spent some time yesterday checking likely spots.  The dryer vent needs insulation, it looks like the fireplace needs some more sealing, and there are a few small spots under doors.  I was hoping for more easy fixes, but it looks like we’ve done a good job already.  The new patio doors, which are double-glazed with built-in weatherstripping and insulation, are amazing.  The glass and frame are warmer than the outside wall next to them. I was also relieved to see that the huge double-glazed window in the den, which is quite old, seems to be holding up; it was as warm as the new patio door, and both were only a couple of degrees below room temperature.   It’s only 22 today, so I’m pleased.

Replacing the patio door just for energy-efficiency wouldn’t have been worth it, though – doors and windows almost never pay for themselves – ever.  Our audit also says lightening the roof would cost us money – the heat lost in the winter would be more than the air-conditioning saved in the summer, even if we used air-conditioning.

Sleeping the Winter Away

I’ve just been reading a paper on energy use in the UK.  They use less than half as much energy at home than we do, and I’ve been trying to figure out how. Apparently the average temperature of a British house went from 13°C in 1970 to 18° in 2000.  That is 55°  to 64° F.  I haven’t seen a number on the average American house, but I’m pretty sure it is above 65°.  We have a programmable thermostat, and keep the house at 65° in the daytime and 50° at night.  It was 16° out all day yesterday, and only 7° this morning.  The furnace has been laboring away.

Many European peasants as late as the 19th century made it through the winter by huddling together in bed, not eating much. In Germany and Scandinavia, the livestock barn was often one end of the house, so that the warmth helped heat the house.  Livestock and people who stay warmer don’t need as much food for the winter.  The 18th German immigrants to America were reportedly appalled that the Scots-Irish and English didn’t barn their animals, and the Germans were more successful in keeping them healthy through the winter.

I once lived in a two-story 8-room house, built in 1906, where the only heat was a small unvented gas space heater.  There was no insulation, the wallpaper literally blew in the wind, and the cat’s water froze on the kitchen floor overnight.  We wore layers and slept under down and wool comforters.  Here, we are sometimes too warm in bed with just a thin cotton quilt and a medium-weight down comforter and the thermostat at 50°.  Maybe it could go down to 45°.  And we could get a cow or two – the cats don’t seem to be contributing much heat.