Category Archives: Food

Drive-Thru

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I was in Flagstaff, Arizona, and money was tight. I decided to visit the food bank to help me get by until I received my first paycheck.

I’ve been to food banks across the country, and some are better than others. It’s disheartening to fill out a bunch of paperwork, answer a lot of personal questions, and wait in line for a long time to receive not much more than a can of green beans and another of store-brand beef stew. Don’t get me wrong—I’m always grateful, but sometimes I’m more grateful than others.

I’d heard the food bank in Flagstaff was generous, so I had high hopes when I decided to pay it a visit.

I called ahead. My license didn’t list Flagstaff as my address, and some food banks only want to give food to residents. I didn’t want to stand in line only to be turned away. The nice woman on the phone said I didn’t need to be a resident of Flagstaff to get food, but I would need to show my ID. No problem.

I arrived early. The food bank was set to open at 9am, but I was ahead of the game and had the van parked before 8am. People tend to show up early for free food, and I wanted to be one of the first in line.

I was writing and not really paying attention to the time when I looked at my watch again. It was 8:30. The parking lot was no fuller than it had been when I pulled in. I was parked on the side of the building, so I thought people must be lined up in front. I grabbed my reusable shopping bags and went looking for the line.

When I walked around the corner of the building, I didn’t see a single person standing in line. I did see orange cones arranged in front of the building to make a lane and cars lined up in the lane. Could this really be a drive-thru food bank?

I hurried back to the van, got in the driver’s seat, turned the key in the ignition, and backed out of my parking space. I exited the parking lot and took my place in the queue which now stretched out of the parking lot and onto the side of the wide, lightly trafficked street. It was probably ten minutes to nine.

Just minutes after nine, the vehicles in front of me started moving. I was soon close enough to the front to see the proceedings. A woman with a clipboard approached a car, and there seemed to be some conversation. The clipboard was handed to the driver; soon the driver handed the clipboard back to the woman running the show. The car pulled up to a predetermined spot and people I presumed to be volunteers unloaded food from a full shopping cart into the car’s open trunk. In a few minutes, the car was on its way.

agriculture, basket, beetsWhen my turn came, things went down just as I’d observed. The woman handed me the clipboard and asked me to write my name and address on adjacent lines; she never did ask for my ID. She did ask me where I wanted the food to go, and I pointed to the passenger side of my van. I pulled up to the designated spot and kind young people loaded in two small boxes of nonperishable food, one large box filled with pounds of fresh produce (tomatoes;  Brussels sprouts; yellow squash, and red, orange, yellow, and green bell peppers), a case of 12 bottles of  Pure Leaf organic black tea, and three dozen eggs. Wow! This food would certainly help get me through until my first payday.

I drove off, marveling not only at the quantity and quality of the food I’d just been given but at the fact that I hadn’t even had to get out of my van. I was very grateful indeed.

Photo courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/agriculture-basket-beets-bokeh-533360/.

How to Eat Healthy on the Road (When You Don’t Have Time to Cook)

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Can you bear another post about food?

I know I’ve been sharing a lot about food and cooking lately, but it’s such an important topic to all humans and especially to people who aren’t sure how they will stay healthy while living a nomadic life. I promise next Wednesday I’ll offer a blog post for rubber tramps that is not related to food, but today I’d like to offer some tips for eating healthy when you’re on the road and you don’t have time to cook.

It’s happened to most of us without a built-in kitchen. We’re traveling in our van or car and can’t find a park or rest area where we can stop and pull out the stove and food and pots and pans and cook ourselves a healthy meal. Maybe we’re traveling in an RV and we could stop anywhere and cook, but we’re on a deadline and can’t take the time to prepare a meal. What’s a nomad trying to eat healthy to do? Today I’ll share ten tips on how to eat well when you’re on the road and don’t have time to cook.

almond, almonds, food#1 Have healthy foods available for snacking or a picnic lunch. You can eat nuts, an apple, carrot sticks, or a LÄRABAR while driving. If you have a few minutes to stop at a gas station or rest area, spread the nut butter of your choice on whole grain bread or have hummus and crackers with carrots or grapes.

#2 If you’re not prepared for a picnic, stop at a supermarket en route. Most big supermarkets have hummus in the cold case, organic fruit and veggies in the produce section, and healthy (or at least healthier) snacks on their own special aisle. If you can find a big supermarket, you should be able to eat well on the fly.

#3 Cook while you’re driving with 12-volt appliances. Truckers have known about 12-volt cookers for years, but now vandwellers and other rubber tramps can use the technology too. The Global Trucker internet store shows a 12-volt slow cooker, a 12-volt sandwich maker, a 12-volt frying pan, a 12-volt “Stove To Go,” and several 12-volt grills. While you probably shouldn’t be grilling veggies or frying tofu while you’re driving, you could be cooking beans in a slow cooker while you’re literally on the road. What could be better than pulling into a rest area and having a hot meal ready for your eating pleasure?

#4 If you have a kitchen in your rig that allows you to cook anywhere, but sometimes find yourself without the time you need to prepare a meal, how about trying a pressure cooker? While I do own a pressure cooker, I just use it as a regular pot.  A friend of mine has a pressure cooker that she uses as the manufacturer intended and she loves it. She can cook dried beans in a mere fraction of their usual cooking time.

#5 If you’re stopping at a gas station anyway, grab some super hot water from the spout near the coffee pots and add it to instant oatmeal, noodles, or soup. Most large gas stations have coffee systems which include hot water dispensers. If you’re not sure you can have water for free, offer to pay for it when you step up to the cash register. Instead of bringing my food into the gas station, I carry a travel mug with lid or even a heavy plastic bottle in, collect some hot water, and take it back to my rig with me.

Instant noodles and soups may be quick, but mainstream brands aren’t always good for us. The Food Revolution Network website says ramen noodles are

incredibly high in sodium, calories and saturated fat.

Thai Kitchen Instant Rice Noodle Soup, Garlic and Vegetables, 1.6-Ounce Unit (Pack of 12)
I like healthier instant options like Thai Kitchen, and Dr. McDougall’s. I haven’t tried Edward and Sons miso cup instant soups, but they do seem convenient and healthier than conventional instant soup options. Of course, you are probably not going to find any of these brands in a truck stop or gas station, so plan ahead and have some of these instant options stashed in your rig.

If restaurant food is absolutely your only choice, try to do some damage control.

#6 Taco Bell serves bean burritos, which you can order with no cheese if you’re eschewing animal products. Of course, the burritos are made with flower tortillas, which many think are less than healthy. Taco Bell also offers the Pintos N Cheese side dish. Again, ask for no cheese if you’ve gone vegan. Eat the pintos with some nutritious blue corn chips you already have in your van. For other tips on eating vegan at Taco Bell, see the Green Plate article on the topic. Also, Taco Bell lets customers order nearly everything on the menu “Fresco style.” The restaurant’s website says,

Almost any menu item can be customized “Fresco style”, which replaces mayo-based sauces, cheeses, reduced-fat sour cream and guacamole on almost any menu item with freshly-prepared pico de gallo. By removing these ingredients and ordering your menu item “Fresco style”, you can reduce fat by up to 25%.

If the exit you just took only offers a Del Taco, similar substitutions and omissions can help you eat fast and (relatively) healthy. An article on the PETA website offers a guide to vegan options at that restaurant.

#7 This tip was supposed to be about the veggie burger at Burger King, but a July 2016 article on the PETA2 website says the veggie patty is not vegan. (To find out what is vegan at the King, click on the link above.) The Burger King website says the “meat” of the burger is a ” MorningStar Farms® Garden Veggie Patty.” Also, a standard condiment on the veggie burger is mayonnaise, which definitely contains eggs. Perhaps if Burger King is your only dining option, the veggie burger might be better for you than other items on the menu. Maybe.

If Wendy’s is an option, you can find a few animal-product-free choices there. According to a comprehensive guide to vegan options at fast food and chain restaurants on the PETA website, Wendy’s offers

a plain baked potato, the garden side salad with red Italian dressing, or French fries. You can also ask for a veggie sandwich, which has everything that would normally be included on the burger except the meat—there’s even a button for it on the cash register.

#8 As of 2016, there were almost 27,000 Subway restaurant across the United States, meaning you have a pretty good chance of running across one in your travels. PETA2 offers a guide to vegan eating at Subway. The article tells you what bread and condiment options at the restaurant contain no animal products. Once you know that information, you can stuff any veggies you want into your sandwich, or skip the bread altogether and get a salad.

If you can get to a Quiznos more easily than a Subway, the aforementioned PETA guide to vegan options at fast food and chain restaurants says,

Quiznos offers a veggie sub that’s filled with guacamole, black olives, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, and mushrooms—just be sure to order it without the cheese and ask for the balsamic vinaigrette…The vegan bread options include white or wheat, and there’s also an herb wrap.

#9 If you’re popping into a coffee shop for a cup of joe, both Starbucks and Panera offer vegan food.

I hardly ever go into Starbucks, and I don’t think I’ve ever ordered food there. However, PETA offers an entire guide about how to order vegan at Starbucks. In addition to telling you how to get your drinks made without animal products, the guide lists all the vegan food products the chain offers, including the

lentils & vegetable protein bowl with brown rice; avocado spread; classic and blueberry oatmeal; dried fruit; fruit salad; mixed nuts; Overnight Grains; roasted almonds; and plain, sprouted grain, cinnamon raisin, and multigrain bagels.

I love, love, love Panera and go there every chance I get. The bakery chain offers more than just coffee and bagels and is known for its commitment to healthy eating. Panera’s own website includes a list of vegan offerings, as well as what customizations can be made to remove animal products from one’s plate. Some of the always-vegan fare include,

plain, blueberry, cranberry walnut, poppyseed, and sesame bagels; black pepper focaccia; sea salt focaccia; country, rye, sesame semolina, and sourdough breads; French baguette; hoagie roll; peach & blueberry smoothie with almond milk; vegan lentil quinoa bowl, and soba noodle broth bowl with edamame blend.

#10 In the case of a real vegan emergency, an article on the Spoon University website shares “What You Can (Probably) Eat at McDonald’s if You’re Vegan.” Of the four items on the list, one is “Draaanks,” which is not food.  What else is on the list? Hint: not fries! If I were a strict vegan, I would only stop at a McDonald’s to use the restroom. However, the Very Vegan Recipes website outlines how to mix and match vegan items from the fast food giant’s vegan options to make a custom vegan menu item.

I hope these tips give you ideas and inspiration for eating the healthiest food possible when you’re on the road and simply can’t cook.

Blaize Sun is not telling you what to do. Blaize Sun is merely making suggestions. Do what works best for your body, your health, and your life. You know yourself better than Blaize Sun ever will, so eat accordingly.

Image courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/food-healthy-almond-almonds-57042/. The other images is an Amazon affiliates link. If you click on the link, then do your regular Amazon shopping, I will receive a small advertising fee at no cost to you.

 

Ideas for Quick and Easy Meals to Cook on the Road

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If you’ve been following my blog, you know I’ve been writing a lot about food lately. From tips for stretching your food dollar to ideas for healthy eating to telling you my methods for cooking on the road, I’ve been sharing with you how I cook and eat as a rubber tramp. As promised, today I’m giving you examples of actual meals without animal products that I’ve prepared and eaten regularly over my almost six years on the road.

Breakfast

Blue Berries Close Up Photography#1 We’ll keep it totally simple to start off. Have some whole grain cereal with soy, nut, hemp or coconut milk. Grape Nuts (or a store brand equivalent) is my favorite because it tends to be cheaper per ounce than most other whole grain cereals. I try to add fruit, berries, and/or nuts to my cereal to jazz it up and boost the nutrition I’m starting my day with. If the healthy cereal is a little dry and bland for you, try adding a little sweetness with a drizzle of agave nectar, coconut nectar, maple syrup, molasses, barley malt syrup, or brown rice syrup. (List of vegan honey alternatives courtesy of Your Daily Vegan website.)

#2 If you have a little more time to prepare breakfast, try quick or rolled oats. This breakfast option is quite inexpensive if bought in bulk. I use a really quick method to prepare my oats. I put the oats in a bowl, and boil enough water to cover the oats. (Use more or less water depending on how thick or thin you like your porridge.) When the water is boiling vigorously, I dump it onto the oats in my bowl. I stir it all up and give the oats a few minutes to soak up the water. I like to add nut butters, vegan alternatives to Nutella, dried fruit, nuts, mashed banana, and/or chopped apples to my oatmeal.

#3 If you don’t have to be anywhere early in the morning and can take your time with breakfast, may I suggest a tofu scramble? You can buy tofu scramble seasoning packets, but I don’t think you really need them. I start out sautéeing an onion and green/red/orange/yellow peppers (one color or a combination, depending on what I have on hand), along with minced fresh garlic or garlic flakes. Once the veggies are getting soft, I add in tofu (soft or firm,

Bragg Liquid Aminos All Purpose Seasoning Soy Sauce Alternative, 32 Fl Oz, 2 Pack
fresh or previously frozen, again, depending on what I have on hand), and mash it up, mixing the tofu and veggies. After the tofu cooks a bit, I add nutritional yeast and vegetarian broth powder and stir the powders into the other ingredients. Finally, I add Bragg liquid aminos to taste. I like to eat this tofu dish on whole wheat tortillas, whole grain bread, or healthy corn chips.

Lunch & Dinner

#1 My go-to meal is whole beans and rice. I use brown rice for extra nutrition and canned beans so I can get the meal together quickly. If organic is important, it’s typically easy to find organic beans at larger supermarket. I usually use black beans or chili beans in this dish, but plain pintos work too. I sauté an onion and green, red, yellow, or orange peppers if I have them, and toss in fresh garlic or garlic flakes. If I have zucchini or yellow squash, I chop some up and toss it in when the onion and peppers are beginning to get soft. Around this time, I season everything with cumin and chili powder. Canned tomatoes can be tossed into the pan around the same time the beans go in, or fresh tomato can be used as a garnish. Other good garnishes for this dish are salsa and avocado. Sprinkle nutritional yeast on top for extra yum.

Kirkland Signature Organic Gluten-Free Quinoa from Andean Farmers to your Table - 2.04kg., 4.5lb
#2 Quinoa cooks up as quickly as white rice but is more nutritious, so I like quinoa and garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas). I’ve learned recently that the key to tasty quinoa is rinsing well, so don’t skip that step. While the quinoa is cooking (one cup grain to two cups liquid), I sauté my onion and cook up whatever other veggies I’ll be serving. Green cabbage is inexpensive and works well with this dish. After the veggies are cooked, I add my garbanzo beans. Once the beans and veggies are thoroughly heated, I serve them over the quinoa and garnish with sesame oil, nutritional yeast, and Bragg liquid aminos.

#3 Nothing is quicker than refried bean dip over healthy corn chips. I sauté my onion and peppers (if I’m using them). I also like well-cooked zucchini and/or yellow squash in this dish. Once the veggies are cooked, I add canned refried beans and diced or stewed tomatoes from a can. (Fresh tomatoes would work fine too.) The juice from the tomatoes thins down the beans, but use water if necessary to get them to a consistancy you like. Once the beans are heated and as thick or as thin as you like, spoon them over your corn chips and top with un-cheese sauce, salsa, and/or avocados.  (I also like a thick version of this bean dip on whole wheat tortillas.)

#4 Pasta doesn’t have to be topped with a meat sauce to be delicious; I really like my pasta topped with veggies. I might use a healthy sauce from a jar if I find some on sale, but usually I just cook down some canned tomotoes (diced, stewed, or whatever). Of course, first I sauté an onion (see a pattern here?) and bell peppers of whatever color I have, then add in garlic, canned mushrooms, olives, zucchini, yellow squash, or any other veggies I have on hand. (I also think tofu is delicious in this dish. If I were adding tofu to this meal, I would throw it in the pan after the onions.) Once the vegetables are cooked, I add in the tomatos or sauce, then sprinkle everything with plenty of Italian seasoning. I serve the sauce over whole wheat pasta, then sprinkle nutritional yeast liberally on top.

#5 Although not as quick to prepare as opening a can of beans, I do enjoy red lentils over brown rice. Red lentils cook faster and taste better (to me) than green lentils. Lentils.org says to use

3 cups of liquid (water, stock, etc) to 1 cup of dry lentils. Be sure to use a large enough saucepan as the lentils will double or triple in size. Bring to a boil, cover tightly, reduce heat and simmer until they are tender.

I add salt, curry, and/or tumeric to taste during cooking. If you want to be really decadant, use coconut milk as part of the cooking liquid.

#6 If you have time to let sweet potatoes cook, I recommend sweet potato and garbanzo bean stew. First I chop my onion and get it sautéeing. While the onion is cooking, I cut a couple of sweet potatoes into chunks and put them in a large pot. When the onions are soft, I add them to the pot with the sweet potatoes. Next I add in a can of coconut milk, then use enough water so the sweet potatoes are covered. I add curry and/or tumeric to taste and let everything in the pot boil until the sweet potatoes are soft. Once the sweet potatoes are soft, I add one or two cans of garbanzo beans, depending on how much stew I want to make. Add water until the stew is the desired consistancy. The stew can be served alone or over brown rice or quinoa.

#7 Need one more sweet potato recipe? How about black bean and sweet potato burritos? Cook sweet potatoes by whatever method works best for you. Add canned black beans and a sautéd onion to the potatoes. Season with chili powder and/or cumin. Eat with salsa on whole wheat tortillas.

I hope these ideas will get you thinking about healthy and delicious meals you can cook quickly while on the road or in a sticks-n-bricks.

Blaize Sun has been cooking and eating on the road for almost six year. These methods work for her. They may not work for you. Do what works best for your body, your health, and your life. You know yourself better than Blaize Sun ever will, so cook and eat accordingly.

First image courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/food-forest-blueberries-raspberries-87818/. Other images are Amazon affiliates links. If you click on any of those links, then do your regular Amazon shopping, I will receive a small advertising fee at no cost to you.

 

How I Cook on the Road

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Auntie M suggested I tell you how I cook on the road before I tell you what I cook on the road. She thinks it’s impressive, but it’s simply second nature to me. I’ll share my cooking techniques today, in the event they might help someone else.

I’ve used a variety of stoves while living on the road–one burner, two burner, propane, butane. My current setup is a basic Coleman two-burner stove connected to a 15 pound propane tank. For many years I used the one pound propane canisters, but The Man finally convinced me to upgrade to the larger, refillable tank. As I said in a past post about saving money on the road, it costs a lot less to refill the tank than it does to buy a comparable number of small canisters. I also produce a lot less waste by refilling the large tank.

This is the cast iron pan I usually use when cooking just for myself.

When The Man and I are cooking for the two of us, we use his big (12 inch?) cast iron skillet. When I’m cooking just for myself, I use a smaller cast iron skillet. (I have a second, even smaller cast iron skillet I also use sometimes if I need to cook two things seperately, but at the same time. The second burner on my stove is sometimes quite handy.) We use a cast iron pan to cook the main part of our meal, which usually consists of vegetables and whole beans or tofu. It’s super convenient to cook everything but our grains in one pan. It’s quicker cooking that way, and we save cleanup time and water by not having to wash several pots and pans.

To cook grains, I use either a large or a small stainless steel pot. The large one is actually a pressure cooker I was given years ago when a friend of a friend moved. The small one was left behind by camp hosts at the end of the season last year.

To prepare the main part of our meal, I first pour a generous amount of olive oil in the cast iron pan, then light the burner under the pan. While the oil is heating, I chop an onion. (If the onion is huge, I might only use half of it.) When the onion is chopped, I makde sure the oil is distributed across the bottom of the pan, then I throw in the onion, spread it out evenly, and put the lid on the pan. Then I chop the other veggies that need a longish time to cook (bell peppers, carrots, and/or potatoes) and add them to the pan. If I’m using tofu or tempeh or seitan, I’ll add it in early in the cooking process. Vegetables that need the shortest time to cook (like broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, and yellow squash) are thrown into the pan last. I stir the veggies enough to keep them from burning, and I adjust the flame as necessary.

Once all the veggies are tender, I add any canned ingredients like diced or stewed tomatoes, whole beans, or refried beans. Then I throw in spices appropriate to the dish I’m cooking. Once all ingredients are in the pan, I make sure everything is heated thoroughly. I should probably let the food simmer longer in order to “marry” the flavors, but we’re usually pretty hungry so we just eat.

Cooking grains ws a hassle when I used small propane canisters and butane because grains take so long to cook. I always felt like cooking grains took up too much fuel, so I either bought precooked brown rice (expensive!) or cooked the grains in a way that used less fuel. Now that I spend less money to fill a large propane tank, I don’t worry so much about how much fuel it takes to cook grains, but I do use parboiled brown rice and quinoa a lot because they cook faster.

Dwelling Portably 1980-1989 (DIY)
You may be wondering how I cooked grains in a way that used less fuel. I first learned of cooking with insulation in one of the Dwelling Portably books by Bert and Holly Davis. The concept is simple: food is partially cooked, then the pot of food is insulated to hold heat in so the cooking process can continue without flame. The insulation can be as simple as wrapping the pot in blankets and letting it sit for several hours or as complicated as building and insulating a box for the pot to sit in. The technique is old, with evidence of hay boxes dating to the 1800s.

I made my own insulated box from a square foam cooler left behind by folks who stayed in the campground where I was the camp host. I lined the cooker with flexible, reflective material from a foldable solar cooker kit The Lady of the House had lying around in her laundry room. Because I used materials that were unwanted by others, I didn’t have to spend any money on my insulated box.

When I was ready to cook a pot of grains, I measured the appropriate amount of water and grain into my large stainless steel pot. I brought the mixture of water and grain to a rolling boil, then let it boil vigorously for ten minutes. After ten minutes of boiling, I’d close the pot tightly, which was easy because it is actually a pressure cooker with a latch and seal. (I would not go out and buy a brand new pressure cooker to use in an insulated box, but the one I already had is quite suited to this method.) I then put the pot in the insulated box, covered it with a couple of dish towels, and put the lid of the box on tightly. (I often put something heavy–like a jug of water–on top of the lid to hold it down and seal the box as tightly as possible.) If I boiled regular, not parboiled, brown rice and got it into the insulated box by 10 am, it was fully cooked and ready to eat by 4pm.

Alas, when The Man and his dog and all of their wordly possessions moved into my van, the insulated cooker box was a casualty. We had a lot of stuff, and lots of things had to go. The cooker box was nice, but nonessential. The Man made a sort of bag for the pot by taping together pieces of the flexible, reflective solar oven material, but it never worked as well as the box.

Now that The Man has his own rig and I have room in my van again, I’m on the lookout for materials to make a new insulated box. A foam cooler should be fairly easy to find since people discard them frequently. I probably won’t find a foldable solar oven again, but I could line the cooler with newspaper, cardboard, or even old towels. The goal is to fill in as much space in the cooler as possible so the heat can’t escape. Lots of easily found, cheap or free materials can do the job.

I hope you can use some of these ideas to save time and money while you’re living and traveling in your van. You have to eat, so you might as well eat healthy and delicious food. I’m proof that a rubber tramp can eat yummy meals that are nutrituous and don’t cost a fortune.

Blaize Sun has been cooking and eating on the road for almost six year. These methods work for her. They may not work for you. Do what works best for your body, your health, and your life. You know yourself better than Blaize Sun ever will, so cook and eat accordingly.

I took the photo of the cast iron skillet. The image of the book is an Amazon affiliates link. If you click on the links, then do your regular Amazon shopping, I will get a small advertising fee at no cost to you.

Ideas for Healthy Eating

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The idea for this post came from a Facebook group I’m in. The group is particularly for lady van dwellers, and one of the other women in the group wrote about wanting to eat healthier foods and fewer animal products. Eating healthier is a quest I’m continually on, especially as I grow older. Unfortunately, I’ve led a life of disordered eating. Unfortunately, I love sugars and carbs. Unfortunately, it’s often cheaper to buy over-processed junk food than it is to buy healthy whole foods. But still, I keep trying.

While I’ve never completely eliminated animal products from my diet, over the years I’ve had many friends and comrades who had exclusively vegan diets. I’ve been to my share of vegan potlucks and have eaten many delicious dishes prepared with no animal products. By eating with and cooking for vegans, I’ve learned a few tricks. Today I’ll be writing in general how I cook and eat, but next week’s Wednesday post will include information on ten vegan meals that are easy to prepare even if you live on the road.

I don’t think meals without animal products have to be boring. I love garlic and onions and spices. Readers will notice next week that most of my food prep instructions will begin with sauté an onion. Green, red, yellow, and orange bell peppers are delicious too. I usually use whatever I can get cheapest or free (if I’m in a town where I have a hookup for free food).

black pepper, bowl, clove As for spices, I love basil, marjoram, turmeric, curry, oregano, cumin, chili powder, and rosemary. If you already cook, think about what spices you would use in a dish that includes meat. Making your pasta sauce vegan? You may want to use oregano and whatever other spices are in those little jars marked “Italian seasoning.” Making tacos or burritos with beans instead of ground beef or shredded pork? You may want to add cumin and/or chili powder.  Making chicken-less curry? Substitute tofu or some sort of faux chicken patties for the chicken and use the same spices the recipe calls far.

I also like to use condiments to add flavor to meatless meals. For a spicy kick, I like sriracha sauce, especially the brand with the rooster on the label. For a salty flavor without so much sodium, I like Bragg liquid aminos. Made from non-GMO verified soybeans and purified water, the thin sauce (according to the label) contains “16 essential and non-essential amino acids in naturally occurring amounts.” For extra deliciousness and satisfaction, I love to dribble sesame oil over my food or mash in half an avocado. For a yummy yet indescribable flavor (maybe nutty?) and extra B vitamins, I like to sprinkle nutritional yeast over my meal or make a great “uncheese” sauce. (I’ll post the recipe for the uncheese sauce soon.) For extra nutrition, crunch, and satisfying fat, I like to add nuts (whole, sliced, or pieces of almonds, cashews, walnuts, or pecans) to whatever I’m eating.

When I sauté my onion, garlic, peppers, etc. I use extra virgin, cold pressed olive oil. My understanding is that olive oil is healthier than other oils and that extra virgin, cold pressed is healthier than other varieties of olive oil. I haven’t done a lot of research on oils, so I’d love someone who knows all about them to share all that knowledge in the comments. Bowl Being Poured With Yellow Liquid

All of my tips so far easily apply if one is cooking in the kitchen of a stick-and-bricks home or an RV, over a campfire or on a camp stove. Wherever you cook, you can leave out the meat, use healthy oil, and add flavor with spices and condiments.

Cooking grains can be a little trickier when cooking over a camp stove, especially for folks using one pound propane tanks. Grains can take a long time to cook and the propane in those one pound tanks goes fast. While brown rice is more nutritious than white rice, brown rice takes a lot longer to cook. I use the boil-in-bag kind that only takes ten minutes to cook after the water is boiling, or I use parboiled brown rice. For more convenience (which comes at a higher price), look for totally precooked brown rice. Trader Joe’s has it, and Minute Rice and (I think) Uncle Bens’ offer their own varieties. Minute Rice advertises that their precooked rice can be heated in the microwave, and while that’s true, it can also be added to a pan of beans and/or vegetables and warmed up and ready to eat in a few minutes.

Quinoa (pronounced /ˈknwɑː/ ) cooks as fast as white rice (20 minutes or so), but is much more nutritious. I like to add vegetable bouillon cubes or canned vegetable stock to the cooking water for extra flavor. I eat it the same way I’d eat rice. I add beans and/or tofu and whatever vegetables I’m having with my meal. A friend of mine adds fresh cilantro and lime juice to her quinoa. In any case, the secret to quinoa is to rinse, rinse, rinse it. In the past I often skipped the rinsing to conserve water and complained when my quinoa tasted like dirt. After getting great results after rinsing my quinoa, now I’m a believer.

(If you’d like more inspiration, you can find a recipe for Nutrient Dense Spicy Quinoa courtesy of Jen Reviews.)

Round Grilled FoodBeans are a great source of vegan protein. When I lived in a house, I cooked big batches of beans in my slow cooker and froze them in individual portions for later eating. I can’t really do that while van dwelling, so I depend on canned beans. I mostly eat vegetarian or fat-free refried beans, black beans, and garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas). Check the label to make sure your beans don’t have lard, chicken fat or stock, bacon, or other animal products. I try to find options that include only beans, water, and maybe salt. You can rinse your beans for less sodium and reduced gassiness.

Vegan beginners, do not be afraid of tofu, tempeh, and seitan. Tofu and tempeh are made of soy, and seitan is made from wheat. All add protein and texture to a dish. Tofu particularly, seiten to a large extent, and tempeh less so tend to take on the flavors of the foods with which they are cooked. Tofu is particularly good in a sauce. Added to pasta sauce, tofu soaks up all the good flavors of the tomatoes and spices. In a curry sauce, tofu takes on the flavors in a way chicken just can’t. Seiten tends to have the meatiest mouthfeel of the three, although tempeh and extra firm tofu (and any tofu that’s been frozen) can seem meaty too. (Of course, folks going gluten and/or soy free should eat accordingly.)

Don’t feel discouraged if you don’t like new ingredients immediately. I don’t think I was a huge fan of tofu the first time I tried it, but now it’s (for real!) one of my favorite foods. I also had to learn to love nutritional yeast and Bragg liquid aminos. If you don’t like a new food the first time you eat it, give it another try (or two), perhaps prepared in a different way.

Also, try not to feel discouraged if you don’t immediately embrace a vegan or vegetarian diet 100%. At first, Carrots Tomatoes Vegetables and Other Fruitsmaybe strive to prepare every other meal without meat or other animal products. Think about meals you might already like that would be easy to prepare without meat. Could you leave the meat out of pasta sauce and add in extra veggies? (Mushrooms often have a satisfying meatiness to them.) Could you enjoy bean burritos if the beans were prepared without lard or chunks of pork? Could you substitute vegetable broth in a recipe that calls for chicken broth? Do what you can when you can and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t achieve “perfection” (whatever that is).

Next Wednesday day I will share ten ideas for easy healthy vegan meals that I eat regularly when I am living out of my van on the road.

Images courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/food-white-seasoning-spices-45844/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/bowl-being-poured-with-yellow-liquid-33783/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/food-restaurant-106972/, and https://www.pexels.com/photo/food-salad-healthy-summer-33307/.

10 More Ways to Stretch Your Food Dollar (Whether You’re On the Road or Not)

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Last Wednesday I shared 10 ways to help stretch your food dollar. I think the tips are good for folks living on the road cash, coins, moneyor in a sticks-n-bricks. I’m not out of ideas, so here are 10 more tips for making the most of your food budget.

#1 Steer clear of fast food. If you’re eating from the regular menu at most restaurants, a meal is usually not inexpensive. Also, we all know fast food is not typically good for our health.

If you do eat fast food (and sometimes on the road it seems unavoidable) try to do so infrequently and stick to the value menu. Of course, McDonald’s has a famous value menu, but so do Taco Bell (their Fiesta Potato Grilled Breakfast Burrito with potato, egg, and cheese and a price of only $1 is my favorite fast food breakfast), Denny’s, Wendy’s and Del Taco. Also, it’s admittedly difficult to resist a $5 large pizza from Little Caesar’s.

If you join a fast food restaurant’s loyalty program via the internet, you can sometimes get email notifications of coupons, discounts, and freebies.

#2 Buy distressed produce after the price has been marked down. In many food stores, bruised, nicked, wilted, or otherwise distressed produce is sold at a deep discount. When you find discounted produce that’s no longer at its peak, think about what you might be able to use it for. Could you make apple sauce or apple butter or pancake topping from mushy apples? Could you cut bruises off vegetables and use the good parts to make soup or stock? Would mashed strawberries still taste delicious in a strawberry shortcake or smoothie? Sometimes reduced produce is on the brink of spoiling and still perfectly fine if you use it TODAY.

baguette, bakery, bread#3 Buy marked down bakery items. Bakery items are often marked down before they pass their freshness date. Many large supermarkets with in-house bakeries have a special area for bakery items being sold at a reduced price. Some towns also have bakery outlets where name brand baked goods are sold off cheaply right before or right after they reach their freshness date.

Don’t go overboard with cheap cookies, cakes, and white bread. These items are usually not super healthy, and you probably don’t really need them. You get the biggest savings by not spending money on things you don’t need. You also save money by maintaining your health. However, for a treat, reduced price bakery items can’t be beat.

#4 Buy scratched and dented cans and items past their “best by” date. There are entire grocery stores dedicated to these types of items. You can also look for the clearance section of individual food stores.

The “sell by,” “best by,” or “expiration” date on packaged food is usually only a suggestion. I have eaten plenty of canned beans, energy bars, and corn chips after the date on the package, and I’ve never been sick. Occasionally items with no preservatives or heavy with nuts or oils might taste rancid, but I don’t usually notice that unless an item is more than three months past the date on the package. If I’m skeptical, I’ll buy just one of the item in question, taste it, then make my decision.

I also get good deals on canned goods that have been banged up. Often items in dented cans are not even “expired.” I avoid cans that are leaking or bulging or open, and I’ve never had a problem and have saved a fortune.

#5 Utilize food pantries. Most towns have at least one food pantry. Some require photo ID, proof of income, and proof of address. Some don’t require anything at all. If the food pantry guidelines say you qualify, you qualify, so you don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed. Food pantries are there to help people in need. If you are in need, utilize what’s there to help you.

#6 Qualify for SNAP benefits. Qualifying for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka EBT, aka food stamps) requires jumping through some hoops and sharing lots of personal information but can really help low-income folks buy healthy food.  You can probably apply online.

I feel the same way about SNAP as I do about food pantries: don’t feel guilty or ashamed for using something you qualify for.

#7 Dumpster Dive I once lived in a town with an unlocked dumpster behind a grocery store. My friends and I got so much food out of the trash there. We got enough slightly distressed, but still salvagable produce there to feed ourselves and each other and sometimes strangers many gallons of delicious and nutritious soup. We also got enough junk food to satisfy all our sweet teeth. You probably can’t count on finding food in the trash in every town you roll through, but when you find a good source, you can eat like royalty.

Orange Fruit#8 Trade your labor for food. If you see fruit or nut trees growing in a yard and ready for harvest, ask the person who owns the trees if you can harvest what’s ripe and keep half of what you pick in exchange for your labor. Maybe the owner will say no or look at you like you’re weird. So what? Maybe they’ll agree to share their fresh and healthy food with you if you’re willing to do a little work.

Foraging is related to this idea of eating produce quite literally growing on trees in urban areas. If you’re interested in foraging, check out the Falling Fruit website. The project calls itself

a celebration of the overlooked culinary bounty of our city streets,

and says that while

[o]ur edible map is not the first of its kind…it aspires to be the world’s most comprehensive. While our users contribute locations of their own, we comb the internet for pre-existing knowledge, seeking to unite the efforts of foragers, foresters, and freegans everywhere.

#9 Eat the food people offer you. Say yes if a friend invites you over for a home-cooked meal. Take the box of crackers you family member offers you after trying one and deciding s/he didn’t like it. Again, there’s no shame in taking what is offered to you.

#10 Don’t get tricked into thinking you’re getting a bargain just because everything in the store costs a dollar. Often items I see at Dollar Tree can be had for a cheaper per ounce price at Wal-Mart or a supermarket. Sometimes even the same size item is less expensive elsewhere. Don’t get caught up in an it’s only a dollar frenzy. (I have been caught up in that frenzy many times.) Occasionally I do find a real bargain at the Dollar Tree, like packages of multigrain rice cakes, but typically the food there is over-priced or junk food or over-priced junk food.

What are you tips for eating healthy food while on a tight budget? Please share your best ideas in the comments.

Images courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/cash-coins-money-pattern-259165/https://www.pexels.com/photo/bread-food-healthy-breakfast-2436/, and https://www.pexels.com/photo/orange-fruit-221105/.

 

10 Ways to Stretch Your Food Dollar (Whether You’re On or Off the Road)

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1 Us Bank NoteThe Man is always amazed when I come out of the supermarket and tell him how little I paid for the food in the cart. I get a big kick out of cooking healthy and delicious meals on the cheap. The Man said I should share my money saving ways with my readers, so today I present 10 tips on stretching your food dollar, whether you live in a van, RV, apartment, or house.

#1 Don’t waste food. Don’t buy something if you’re not dedicated to eating it. If you buy food, eat it, even if you don’t particularly like it. Being adventurous is great, but throwing away food is a waste of money.

Often, not wasting food requires planning. You have to eat fresh food before it spoils, which can be tricky if an item is distressed or if you’re on the road and have only a cooler or no refrigeration at all. Before I plan a meal, I take stock of what fresh food I have and what’s likely to go bad in the next day or two. I cook what I’m most in danger of losing.

#2 Be creative with what you can buy cheaply. One time I encountered whole pinto beans marked down to less than 30 cents a can. I don’t particularly like pinto beans with rice or whole pinto beans on burritos, so I turned the beans into my version of refried beans. They were delicious!

If you find something on super sale, think of all the different ways you can consume the item, especially if you have to use it up fast. Maybe you don’t want to eat six cartons of plain yogurt, but maybe you can eat some with berries and crunchy cereal, use another portion in your pancake recipe, and throw the rest in the blender with other ingredients to make smoothies.

#3 Eat what’s cheap, not necessarily what you’re in the mood for. I finally had an oven, so I really wanted to bake a pizza at home. I picked out a jar of pizza sauce and thought about toppings. I knew I had a can of olives (bought for 50 cents at a scratch and dent store) in the cupboard, so I tossed a can of mushrooms into my cart, and figured I could round things out with half a chopped onion. Then I found the store’s cart of reduced canned goods. As I rooted through I found a can of pasta sauce marked 49 cents that I thought would work just as well as something labeled “pizza sauce” (I was right—it worked great) and a can of asparagus spears for 79 cents which became the delicious splurge that made the pizza extra special.

The lesson here is that if I’d had my heart set on artichoke hearts for the pizza, I would have either spent a lot more money, or I would have felt disappointed and lamented my life of poverty. Instead, I got a good deal on something delicious. Also? If I hadn’t found the asparagus spears, the pizza as I originally envisioned it would have still been mighty tasty.

Booth, branding, business#4 Watch for sales.  Check out weekly sales online before you shop or read the sale flyer at the front of the store. You can also just pay attention to prices while you shop. If you see a bargain on something you would use anyway, stock up.

#5 Buy store brands. Store brands typically cost less than name brands and taste as good. (Some people may taste a difference between name brand items and store brand items. I typically do not, except for ‘Nilla Wafers. I don’t know what it is, but ‘Nilla Wafers taste markedly better than any generic vanilla wafer I’ve ever tried.)

#6 Remember that convenience foods typically cost more. As much as possible, cook from scratch. How much time are you really saving by using a cornbread mix or precooked rice? And what do you have more of, time or money? One of the reasons most of us live on the road is so we can have lots of free time. Often more free time means less money. When it comes to cooking, you can often use your free time to save money. If you’re living in a sticks-and-bricks, maybe saving money will mean you have to work less or you can get on the road sooner, if that’s what you’re hoping for.

#7 Don’t eat more than you need to. I frequently make the costly decision to eat when I’m not really hungry. I often overeat because food is delicious and comforting. However, eating reasonable portions means you’re getting more meals for the money you spent on food.

#8 If you’re in a town with a senior center, check into the lunch program for seniors. Even small towns out West offer these lunches. They usually cost $2 to $3 for a complete meal. Age requirements to qualify for the inexpensive meal vary, but I’ve heard of people as young as 50 being considered “seniors” and eligible for the lunches. Younger people are considered “guests,” and their cost per meal is usually around $7

I’m still too young to eat cheap senior lunches, so I’ve never participated. From what I’ve heard, they can often be a good place for socializing and meeting people. Musicians often perform at one senior lunch program I know of in a small southern New Mexico town. Another new program in a small southern Arizona town is promising Bingo.

#9 Investigate free meal options. Maybe the town you’re in has a Food Not Bombs chapter that serves free vegan food in the park. Maybe there’s a Catholic Worker group that serves free meals like in Las Vegas, NV.  Call churches, Catholic Worker Houses, infoshops, radical bookstores, food banks, social service offices, and homeless shelters and outreach programs and ask how to get free meals where you are.

Assorted-color Box Lot on Rack#10 Sign up for supermarket loyalty cards to get discounts, coupons, and sale prices. Supermarkets owned by the same parent company have different names in different parts of the country, but one discount card is good at all of them. I typically shop at stores owned by Kroger, and I save money by using the loyalty card.

If you don’t want a loyalty card, ask the cashier if s/he has a loyalty card s/he can scan for you so you get the sale prices. There was a time in my life when I did not have the ability to keep track of a supermarket loyalty card, so I often asked the cashier if s/he had a card to use for me. I was seldom told no.

I hope these tips have helped you think about ways to stretch your food dollar according to your own personal needs and desires. Want more money saving tips? I’ll offer up 10 More Ways to Stretch Your Food Dollar next Wednesday.

Images courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/1-us-bank-note-47344/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/booth-branding-business-buy-264636/, and https://www.pexels.com/photo/assorted-color-box-lot-on-rack-811101/.

Charity Pie Night

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I should have shared this post on National Pi Day, but I didn’t get it together in time for that. Maybe next year I will have a pi/pie related story prepared for March 14. In the meantime, enjoy this pie related story today.

NOLAgirl and I starting making plans to attend pie night a month before it happened.

She was in Phoenix, and I was house and cat sitting in Murphys, CA. She must have mentioned pie night to me, and I was all in! Pie. Pie is delicious. I love pie.

Pie night is held at a store called Practical Art, located at 5070 N. Central Avenue in Phoenix, AZ. Here’s what Practical Art’s website has to say for itself:

Practical Art is a friendly retail and gallery space featuring 100% locally-made wares in wood, fiber, ceramic, glass, metal, and up-cycled materials. All of our work is produced by Arizona artisans—we have over 100 of them producing work for you. We carry art that is practical in some way—everything from kitchen tools to home and office items, soap, clothing, furniture, jewelry, and more.

Pie night is more accurately Charity Pie Night. The Charity Pie Night page on the Practical Art website says the monthly event has raised over $34,000 since 2011. Past beneficiaries of charity pie nights include Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix Center for the Arts, Area Agency on Aging, Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project, Rising Youth Theatre, and the Animal Defense League of Arizona. The night in December when NOLAgirl and I attended, the beneficiary was the Art Resource Center.

According to their Facebook page,

The Art Resource Center is a non-profit corporation 501(C)(3) whose objectives are to collect reusable discards from individuals and industries and offer them free of charge to schools and other non-profit entities for the purpose of making art.

The Art Resource Center’s website elaborates,

By recycling art worthy materials for creative minds, THE ARC is filling the ever widening funding gap of nonprofits by providing quality materials to continue the passion we call ART.

The Art Resource Center is a wonderful project that I can get behind 100%. However, on that December night, my prime objective was PIE!

NOLAgirl and I arrived right on time, plates in hand. (To make Charity Pie Night more environmentally friendly, Practical Art encourages people to bring plates from home or buy reusable plates in the store. Reusable plates were provided to folks who hadn’t brought their own plate and didn’t want to buy one, but the plates provided were SMALL! I was glad to have brought my own slightly larger plate.)

Here’s how it worked: $5 got a person a slice of pie; $10 got a person unlimited slices. Anyone who knows me (and my love of pie and love of a bargain) will not be surprised to find out I had budgeted $10 for all the pie I could eat.

NOLAgirl and I lined up and waited our turn to step up to the pie table.

The pies were made by Vonceil’s Pies, owned by Karen Olson. The pie company’s Facebook page says,

Vonceil’s Pies is my dream in the making…some day I hope that Vonceil’s will be my own store front bakery in which I can share the wonderful, crazy, beautiful world of homemade pie to the Arizona community.

There must have been a dozen different pies on the table, and they were being served up by friendly young women wearing cute aprons. There were vegan pies made with no animal products. There were traditional pies made with whatever traditional pies are made of. There were berry pies and fruit pies. There were pies containing chocolate and pies containing chocolate and peanut butter and pies containing alcohol. One of the pies had a crust made from crushed nuts, which made it gluten free. How would we ever decide what varieties to choose?

It seemed like bad form to say Give me one of each! and besides, I don’t think I could have fit a dozen slices of pie on my medium-sized plate. NOLAgirl and I each chose four flavors to sample, then went and found a place to sit in the back of the store.

Wow! That pie was good. I wish I had noted which flavors I tried, but alas, I did not. In any case, every type of pie I tried was delicious.

After we finished our first round of slices, NOLAgirl and I walked around the store and looked at all the cool items for sale.

“The Big Robot Show”  by Jordan-Alexander Thomas was in progress at Practical Art during Charity Pie Night. According to the information on the Practical Art website,

In “The Big Robot Show” local mixed-media artist, Jordan-Alexander Thomas exhibits his inventive and sometimes curiously odd robots and sci-fi creations on a grand scale. Using wood and up-cycled found objects, Thomas transforms these findings into whimsical and entertaining creations that are constructed to excite the imagination. Thomas began creating robot sculptures when his passion for indie handmade objects collided with his love of all things science fiction.

The robot and sci-fi creations were wonderful! I loved them but didn’t take any photos. Luckily, you can see some of them on them on Thomas’ website. Really, it’s worth clicking on the link and having a look!

After we looked at everything in the store, NOLAgirl and I shyly asked one another if we wanted more pie. As a matter of fact we did, thank you very much.

We got back in line and patiently waited to get up to the pie table. The pies were dwindling by this point, but we were both able to get slices of four pie varieties we hadn’t tried in the first round. They too were divine.

Once we finished our second helpings of pie, our bellies were full, and we were all sugared up. It wasn’t an entirely unpleasant feeling, but maybe I don’t need to eat eight pieces (even eight small pieces) of pie in one night.

For folks visiting Phoenix, I highly recommend a stop at Practical Art. For folks who like pie, if you can time it right, you really should make your visit there coincide with Charity Pie Night.

 

Fruit Squish ‘Ems!

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Sure, I accept food from food banks. I live my life below the poverty level, so I supplement my diet by frequenting food pantries when I can.

One of the services offered by the Isaiah 58 Project in Quartzsite, AZ is a free bag of food once a week. I partook of their offerings twice while I was in the town last January.

While getting free food is always awesome, what I like best is getting delicious free food I normally wouldn’t buy. I was pretty excited to find Fruit Squish ‘Ems! in my food bag. I have to admit, I’d never even heard of Fruit Squish ‘Ems! but what could be bad about a squeezable fruit pouch?

I’m not a stickler for expiration dates. Usually I don’t even check. Those dates are typically “best by” dates anyway. Most processed and packaged food is so full of preservatives, it would take a LONG time to go bad. Heck, I even buy “expired” food, as long as it’s deeply discounted.

I’m not sure why I even looked for an expiration date. Maybe I did it because I’d been shopping at one of Quartzsite’s temporary scratch-and-dent grocery stores and had gotten in the habit of making sure items I wanted to buy weren’t too old. Maybe my guardian angel told me to do it. In any case, I did look for a date and found it: June 2014. I received the Squish ‘Ems! in January 2017, meaning their “best buy” date had come and gone over two and a half years before.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that date made me a little nervous.

Sure, there was a time when the date wouldn’t have even made me blink, but I’m older now, and a little wiser, I hope.

My sibling has a Mormon friend. The Mormon friend is into food storage. The friend told my sibling that when it comes to wet and dry food, it’s much easier to tell if dry food has gone bad. The wetness of the Fruit Squish ‘Ems! had me a little worried.

(While writing this post, I did a Google search on wet vs. dry food going bad. I found nothing to indicate the Mormon friend is correct. I did, however, find an informative article about food spoilage on the Business Insider website. The article by is called “Expiration dates are bogus — here’s the best way to tell if a food’s gone bad” and covers bread, eggs, fruit, vegetables, meat, milk, and more.)

I wondered if maybe I was just being a wimp. Was squished fruit that had “expired” over two years ago likely to be spoiled? Would it really be “bad,” or just not “best”? Might it make me sick?

I decided to ask for the opinion of my soon-to-be-traveling companion, the man I’d been spending a lot of time with. He’s been a traveler and dumpster diver for the better part of his 46 years. I knew he’d eaten food in a variety of expired and less-than-best states. If he said he thought it would be alright, I’d quit worrying and eat the stuff.

I showed him the “best by” date on the package. I asked him what he thought. He immediately gave me a resounding NO! We did not need to eat that stuff, he told me. I was relieved. He’d validated my fears. If he thought eating the fruit was a bad idea, it was easy for me to go along with him.

I don’t blame the food bank for giving such wildly out-of-date food. I’m sure the pantry gets a lot of donations, and in the haste to get the food to the people, “best by” dates are sometimes overlooked.

I don’t even blame the folks who donated the out-of-date Fruit Squish ‘Ems! They were only trying to help.

I don’t feel the need to blame anyone, but I’m glad I took it upon myself to check the date. Our trip could have been decidedly awful had we sucked down bad Squish ‘Ems!

I took the photos in this post.

Ethel M Factory and Cactus Garden

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These chocolate covered apples were drying during my visit to Ethel M. I love the way the bright green pops!

These chocolate covered apples were drying during my visit to Ethel M. I love the way the bright green pops!

Shortly before my first visit with The Poet and The Activist in Las Vegas, I heard about the Ethel M chocolate factory in nearby Henderson, NV. Wait? What? I could tour a chocolate factory. then eat free chocolates? I was in!

I didn’t make it to the Ethel M factory during that visit, or the next. Finally, on my third visit, The Activist, The Poet, and I made a trek out there.

I had been warned there isn’t much to the tour, but I hadn’t understood how very little of a tour there is. There’s a long hallway visitors can walk down. The Ethel M website calls this hallway the “viewing aisle,” which is a totally

The viewing aisle at the Ethel M factory. The actual factory is on the other side of the glass.

The viewing aisle at the Ethel M factory. The actual factory is on the other side of the glass.

accurate description. On one side of the aisle, behind a wall made mostly of glass, is the factory floor. Sure, I didn’t expect to be allowed to frolic on the factory floor, but i did expect to see some action out there. It was 12:30 on a weekday afternoon and there were no workers on 3/4 of the factory floor. Is everyone on lunch break? I asked The Poet.

The Ethel M website says,

From the viewing aisle, if you time it right, you’ll get a peek inside Ethel’s kitchen where we make pecan brittle by hand every day, as well as prepare our signature small batch fillings like satin crèmes, caramels, and peanut butter…

Also, to ensure that we always deliver on our promise of high quality, preservative-free chocolates, our schedule in the Factory varies. So from time to time, the factory may not be bustling with chocolatiers during your visit. Sorry.

I suppose we didn’t time it right.

Hard to read white letters explain each step of the candy-making process.

Hard to read white letters explain each step of the candy-making process.

We saw an automated machine slowly moving along boxes filled with chocolate hearts. We saw a lone man messing around with a bucket. At the very end of the line, we saw a few more men doing the final steps in the packaging of the candies. Any preconceived notions of Lucy shoveling bonbons in her mouth in order to keep up didn’t last long. Everything on the other side of the glass wall that was moving did so virtually in slow motion.

There were words on the glass, explaining the process in each section of the factory. However, the words were written in white and quite difficult to read. Who thought white letters were a good idea for this application?

When the tour was over, I went looking for my free chocolate.

This sign explaining how chocolate is made is much easier to read.

This sign explaining how chocolate is made is much easier to read.

We’d heard workers offering samples to other visitors, but no one offered anything to us. After asking around, we were directed to the man with the samples on lockdown.

The man gave each of us a chocolate disc about the size of a quarter. I tried not to wolf down my piece. It tasted good, but was not amazing. It was chocolate–of course it was good! But being of the mind that any chocolate is good chocolate, I’ll even eat the cheap, slightly waxy chocolate that comes out particularly at Easter, Halloween, and Christmas. The chocolate bearing Ethel M’s name was better than the cheapest, but not by leaps and bounds. My free sample was decent,

Wow! Small packages of chocolates staring at 20 bucks.

Wow! Small packages of chocolates starting at 20 bucks.

average chocolate.

Based on the prices being charged for the chocolate in the gift shop, one might think Ethel M’s chocolates are favored by the Mayan gods. Everything in that place was out of my budget!

The gift shop area is quite large. One can buy chocolate dipped bananas and marshmallows and apples. One can buy prepackaged chocolates ready to go. One can choose one’s favorites from rows and rows of confections on well lit display and have them boxed up in single or double layers. Ethel M offers a mind-boggling selection of filled chocolates (cherries! caramel! nuts! peanut butter! crème! truffles! crème liqueurs!) and perhaps those are the outstanding candies. Visitors can also purchase souvenir t-shirts, travel mugs, etc. or have a beverage or pastry from the Cactus Garden Cafe.

Everyone working in the gift shop was friendly and helpful in a How may I assist you with your purchases? sort of way. (There were lots of people in there making lots of purchases.) The entire area (including the women’s restroom) was sparkling clean.

Cacti and holiday stars

Cacti and holiday stars

After walking around inside and seeing everything there was to see, we decided to stroll through the cactus garden which was decorated for the winter holidays, meaning Christmas. I didn’t see a single indication of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, Solstice, or St. Lucia’s Day. Well, to be fair, I don’t know what decorations would represent Kwanzaa, Yule, Solistice, or St. Lucia’s Day. Maybe there were representations that I missed. Maybe the fake Christmas trees with the upside down peace sign decorations represented Yule and Solstice.

For someone who’s never seen a cactus (or maybe has only seen a few), the cactus garden must seem incredible, as it’s chock-full of cacti from all over the world.

Holiday Balls

Holiday Balls

I’ve seen plenty of wild cacti in Arizona and Nevada and California and New Mexico, as well as at the The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, so the garden was not extraordinarily interesting to me. More signs with information about cacti in general and the varieties on display specifically might have meant more education for visitors.

Since Christmas means exactly nothing to me, the decorations didn’t add any magic to the area. My friends and

I thought the decorations were kind of dumb. Isn’t it risky for inflatable decorations to be set up near cacti spines? One gust of wind depositing the decorations on a cactus and that will be the end of that. And what’s the point of putting inflated winter wonderland scenes in the desert?  Everyone knows that igloo isn’t real!

Since when do penguins pop out of the roofs of igloos? As a matter of fact, since when are there igloos or penguins in the desert?

Since when do penguins pop out of the roofs of igloos? As a matter of fact, since when do igloos or penguins reside in the desert?

Some of the displays were even weirder than penguins popping out of igloos. There were snowfolks reminiscent of scarecrows. There was an inflated helicopter with a lazily spinning rotor on top. The Santa in the pilot’s chair had fallen over on his side, giving the whole tableau a vibe of copter shot down in Vietnam War. Towering over the copter was a giant polar bear standing on its hind legs. Does the polar bear represent American imperialism? I wondered. Probably not. It probably simply represented poorly thought out American holiday commercialism.

I might have liked the whole exhibit more if I had gone at night and seen all the lights sparkling in the dark. I do have a soft spot for Christmas lights, but alas, it was daytime and the strands of lights simply looked like ropes binding cacti hostages.

As the holiday music blasted through the barely camouflaged speakers, my friends and I agreed we were ready to get out of there. We left the expensive chocolates and the questionable winter wonderland behind.

 

Old Man of the Mountains, one of my favorite varieties of cactus.

Old Man of the Mountains, one of my favorite varieties of cactus.

 

The Ethel M chocolate factory is #58 on the Jen Reviews list of 100 Best Things to Do in Las Vegas.

I took all of the photos in this post.