Skip to content Skip to site navigation

Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan's Posts


Resisting the temptation: The ultimate no-processed-food challenge

Hey, want a Dorito? Huh? Huh? Come on, you know you want one. (Photo by TheFoodJunk.)

Hey, locavores and whole-foodies: Want to know if a new acquaintance shares your worldview? Simply offer him or her a bag of Doritos. If you get a wrinkled nose or a gagging sound in reply, bingo! Revulsion for processed foods is the great uniter among those of us who believe that caring for the planet starts with looking at what’s at the end of our fork. (It is possible to get a false negative with this test; your new friend might just be polite. Offer a bite of kale-quinoa salad next, just to be sure.)

We have good reason to despise processed foods: Packaged, chemically preserved edibles are often high in sodium and sugar, upping the risk for obesity, high blood pressure, and all their attendant ills. Processed meats in particular are linked to heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer. Nutrition experts almost universally recommend a diet high in whole fruits, vegetables, and grains -- apples over Apple Jacks, in other words.

But for most Americans, cutting out soda, bologna, Cheetos, most cereals, and all other processed foods would be a mighty challenge. After all, a recent analysis found that we spend the largest portion of our grocery budgets on processed foods and sweets. Hey, they’re convenient, and often cheap.

For Grist readers, eating close to the ground is probably old hat. And I, too, have wild success with whole foods in the kitchen. (This is helped by the fact that I actually like stuff like lentils and beet slaw.)

But what about those times when you couldn’t plan ahead? What about when you’re at the mercy of another cook? (You’re putting Fritos on the chili? Nooooo!) What about when you’re really hungry, and your only option for miles is a mini-mart overflowing with cheese dogs and Ruffles? Those, my friends, are the true crucibles for the unprocessed eater.

This is why I decided to dig deeper for solutions to the toughest culinary situations -- the times when I’m at high risk for slipping into the processed jungle. I’ll be tackling these challenges and reporting back on what works.

Read more: Living


New Olympic sport: The speed shower

Hurry up -- the clock is ticking. (Photo by Shutterstock.)

You know what drives me crazy? When movie and TV characters are getting ready to bathe, and they turn on the shower and then proceed to take off their clothes, fluff their hair, get chased around by serial killers, etc. While everyone else gasps and frets over the protagonist, I can’t focus on the plot at all. “Hey!” I think. “Hasn’t anybody noticed that the water’s still running?” I mean, really. Such a waste.

I offer this as proof of my good intentions when it comes to saving water and energy, because I’m about to confess my greatest eco-sin: I love me a long, hot shower. Let anyone among you who could deny the soul-warming luxury of a steamy sudsing when you’re cold and stinky throw the first loofah.

Hold on a minute, now: I don’t always indulge these dark desires. I try to be reasonable about the length of my showers. But until now, I’d never really subjected my bathing habits to a critical eye. Turns out, it’s long overdue: Showers account for almost 17 percent of our indoor water use, and keeping that water hot ‘n’ ready (for showers and all other hot-water activities) accounts for about 15 percent of the average household’s total energy budget [PDF]. That’s a significant opportunity for savings. So, vowing to take a hard look at the state of my cleansing and to slash minutes wherever I could, I ventured to peek behind the shower curtain.

Read more: Living


Flying the coop: The scrambled world of backyard poultry

Jennifer Keeler feeding her chicken.

Here are a few things you should know about keeping backyard chickens: Poultry are “poop machines” -- but cleaning up after them is “less maintenance than a cat’s litter box.” You can let them range free around the yard -- just watch out for predatory eagles (and your garden: “Chickens will annihilate it.”). Chickens are “not pets,” except when “they’re very much our pets.” Clearly, fowl guardianship is a highly personal endeavor.

I gleaned these scraps of wisdom last Saturday, when I attended a citywide open house of sorts for backyard chicken enthusiasts. On Seattle Tilth’s annual Chicken Coop & Urban Farm Tour, the keepers of the local flocks open up their coops and let the curious poke around. Of course, I was among them. I’ve been taken with the fantasy of backyard chickens for awhile now -- waking in the morning to soft bawk-bawk-bawking, whipping up fluffy omelets with just-laid eggs -- so I had to see how closely real chicken husbandry matched my daydreams. Is it difficult? Is it stinky? Do I really have what it takes to be a hen mother? It was time to find out.

Read more: Urban Agriculture


Plucking delicious: Last-minute foraging for a dinner party

Weed make a feast of you. (Photo by TheGiantVermin.)

What a gift it is to have close friends. Fun-loving friends, who support you, and laugh with you, and who won’t balk when you serve them fried dandelions for dinner.

Emily and Ben are such friends, and they came in from Colorado for a visit last week. My boyfriend, Ted, suggested impressing them with a quintessentially Northwest salmon feast. “Great idea!” I said. “We should get some local beers, too.” In fact, what if we gave the entire meal a Northwest theme? What if we sourced everything locally -- wait, no, hyperlocally! What if we made foraging the theme? Dinner-party transcendence achieved!

Reality check: It takes a lot of time and planning to pull that off. When Michael Pollan so famously foraged and hunted his dinner in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, taking measures like evaporating his own salt from seawater and slaying a wild boar, he didn’t do it in two days -- which is how much time I had to prepare Friday night’s dinner after that foraging brainwave. But, never one to back down in the face of adversity, I set forth to find out just how many delicacies I could manage to get on the table using free ingredients, hand-picked within city limits, at the last minute.

Read more: Food, Living


Good clean fun: Can green gadgets replace the washing machine?

Toilet plunger? Or magical efficient clothes washer? (Photo by Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan.)

If you ranked a list of household chores in order of how much dread they inspire in me, laundry falls somewhere between “feeding the cat” and “eating the leftover cupcakes before they get stale.” In other words, not so bad. Perhaps it’s because conventional clothes-cleaning is so automated these days. You don’t have to do or even think much about it, especially if your building or (oh, the luxury!) home has a washer and dryer: Load it, soap it, come back and tumble-dry it.

Convenient as it is, though, all that laundry demands an ecological tariff payable in loads of water and electricity. Once you put a little thought into reducing the impact of your hamper, getting your tighty-whities sparkling clean isn’t quite so simple anymore. In fact, if your solution is a handheld washing stick, it can be downright exhausting.

I didn’t know products like the Breathing Mobile Washer existed before my mom showed me an ad last week. "This glorified toilet plunger thinks it can improve on my laundry habits, huh?" I thought at first. But when I heard the washer’s claims to de-stankify my clothes without using any electricity and very little water -- while providing a solid arm workout to boot -- I knew I had to try it.

Read more: Green Living Tips


Resisting the splurge: The travails of an urban hunter-gatherer

Photo by londoninflames.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: The success or failure of my No New Stuff challenge hinges on a bottle of mousse.

I stood in the hair aisle of the salon for a good five minutes a few weeks ago, holding an intense internal debate. Was I allowed to buy it? Pro: Mousse could technically be considered a toiletry item, therefore exempt under my original No New Stuff terms. Con: I already owned a bottle of a different hair product. Pro: But that stuff doesn’t work. Con: But shouldn’t I finish the bottle -- which would take months under my intermittent blow-drying routine -- before re-upping?*

Banning new purchases, even if it’s just for a month, certainly brings fresh philosophical questions to the formerly simple act of buying stuff. Do I really need that dress, that toothbrush, that couch pillow? Could I get by instead by repairing something I already own? And if only a new one will do, does it have to be brand-new, or can I save money and materials by picking up a new-to-me item?

I handled a few key repairs and refurbishments last time around, so it’s time now to consider the secondhand solution. I’m already a huge fan of resale shops and online marketplaces, so I figured that used shopping would be an easy out for my retail desires. That coveted lime-squeezer thingy? That shoe rack I’ve been meaning to buy? Surely Craigslist would have my back.

Read more: Green Living Tips


Stuff it: Test your mettle by giving up shopping

Patagonia ran this ad on Black Friday. Sales shot up 13 percent over the previous year.

Nothing like deprivation to muddy up your understanding of “want” vs. “need.”

For instance, here’s a sampling of items I’ve considered “needs” over the past two weeks: new sports bras, shower curtain, new couch pillows, lime-squeezer kitchen gadget, iPad case, duchess satin bridesmaid dress, cat scratching post, and a handmade silver ring shaped like a poppy. This is doubly remarkable, as I’m not really the shopping type. But I’m also in the middle of a self-imposed No New Stuff May, and we all know what happens when you start branding the fruit forbidden.

Read more: Living


Oh rot: It’s harvest time on the worm farm

Photo by D_S_O.

I’m worried about my worms.

It’s not that they aren’t thriving, mind you. The little guys slither about in what I imagine must be a happy manner whenever I lift the lid of the vermicompost bin for a weekly feeding. I introduced the lot to my apartment last August, so they’ve had plenty of time to settle in. I imagine members of my worm community pairing off, buying their own patches of dirt, and raising worm families. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of the skinny, lethargic ones are teenage offspring going through their James Dean phases.

It’s the harvesting part that has me worried. That is, I need to get the dirt out without losing (or killing) my worms.

Read more: Food, Living


The barter economy — coming soon to a backyard near you

Photo by Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan.

My garden is overflowing with heirloom tomatoes! I can’t keep up with the egg drops from my Leghorns! I don’t have enough room in my fridge for all this kefir starter! First world problems, yes, but problems faced by many a home-grower or -maker nonetheless.

If only there were an elegant solution, one that didn’t involve choking down yet another eight-egg omelet or aggressively foisting that 20-pound bag of jalapenos on your coworkers … One that got you a little something in return, even …

My friends, there is -- at least here in Seattle. And last Sunday, it had me vigorously considering the trade-in value of a bag of homemade beef jerky while a banjo player plucked away in the background.

Read more: Food, Living


Potty talk: How best to green up your bathroom business

You guys, I just can't use a pee rag.

Yes, I love the trees. No, I don't want to waste paper. Yes, I want to green up my life, bathroom habits included. But the conventional go-wipe-flush routine has served me well since toilet training, and I've gotta say, switching to an old strip of cloth in lieu of toilet paper isn't an easy transition. Today's hardcore greenies have dreamed up plenty of other TP alternatives, but you know, none of those look so great, either.

I know I've pledged to try out green lifestyle practices, but when an editor suggested the ol' pee rag, I hit a serious brick wall. Still, while researching the many other low-waste bathroom habits I could be adopting instead, it struck me that perhaps these TP tricks fall into a natural progression. One can't be expected to go from 0 to 60 immediately. Better to identify your comfortable cruising speed first, then gradually amp it up, step by step.

Two environmental offenses accompany the call of nature, of course: wasting paper (all that wiping) and water (all that flushing). The methods below, arranged from least to most radical, aim to reduce waste on one or both fronts.