Monday, January 31, 2011


Baking can go straight to hell.
I've always hated baking, but it's also always bugged me that I can never seem to get it just so.

I don't mean boxed cakes and brownies because, not to brag, but I make a mean funfetti cake. I mean baking from scratch, like my mom's Christmas cake or my neighbor's homemade fudge. I just... I can't do it. I've tried and tried but it's always in vain.

In sixth grade, I told myself I would be the queen of shortbread. I made batch after batch for these "market" things we had in math class (to learn how to use money, if I remember correctly), and everyone told me they were great. I liked the compliments, like any insecure 12 year-old, but deep down I knew they were lies. My shortbread was too crumbly. My parents bought margarine instead of butter, ruining the entire concept of shortbread. I knew I could do better.

In high school, I set out to make the ultimate oatmeal raisin cookies. However, my recipes only came from, the Better Homes and Garden cookbook, and the Joy of Cooking. I never sought to tweak these, I just rotated through the three, hoping by some miracle, that the ultimate chewy raisiny goodness would just happen. Of course, it never did. I got batch after batch of dried out, crumbly, bland starch. Once again, my deflated ego and I stepped away from the baking world.

College came, and I was determined to bake properly, but laziness generally won out and boxed cakes reigned supreme. One miraculous day my senior year, I realized I had let a big bag of apples get unattractively squishy and decided to try my hand at baking again. I made apple muffins, and they were delicious. However, I wrote the recipe on a post it that I promptly threw away.

Fast forward to current day. There was one apple in the fridge that I had forgotten about for approximately two weeks. I bought two more apples at Kroger with the intention of making apple muffins - if I was able to make them once, I could do this again. I got home from a very "meh" day at work feeling all sorts of the Mondays and I knew that a successful baking experience was just what I needed to cheer myself up.

The recipe I found claimed these were simple muffins. All the reviews were positive. They didn't take too many ingredients. All signs pointed to "YOU CAN'T MESS THIS UP!" I put on my apron for fear of getting my yoga pants dirty (right?), and got to work. I remember thinking the consistency looked off. I remember thinking there were too many apples. I remember thinking 350 seemed way low for the oven. I also remember thinking, "I own one muffin tin with space for six muffins. This is going to take forever." But I shrugged, excited for my perfect muffins, and introduced the filled muffin tin to his new friend, preheated oven.

As this is happening, I start dinner. Black beans and rice; a latino no-brainer. I can do this with my eyes closed, in my sleep, hands tied behind my back.

25 minutes later, my muffins didn't look like the ones in the picture. They were, in fact, underdone and horribly lumpy. I put them in for longer and kept checking. By the time we reached like 40 minutes, I butter&floured my loaf pan and threw the rest of the batter in.

By this point, I've become so distraught and distracted with my damn muffins-turned-loaf that I've messed up my rice. I messed up my rice. I'm so ashamed.

Right now, I'm waiting on my non-bread-looking-loaf-thing to finish in the oven. I have six sad looking we-wanted-to-be-muffins-but-we're-just-lumpy-apple-things on my counter. I'm eating my overly-sticky-yet-burned-on-the-bottom rice and beans, and weighing the pros and cons of wine vs. chocolate milk.

Baking can go straight to hell. I'll stick to cooking.

Friday, January 28, 2011

January is Mentoring Month!

For those of you who are unaware, January is in fact Mentoring Month

Big Brothers Big Sisters of SWVA spent yesterday and today hosting a wonderful event known as "Big for a Day" to raise awareness about mentoring in the valley. Fourteen prominent leaders in the community were selected to have a "little" spend the day with them, shadowing life in the corporate world. Some of these kids got to do things I'm frankly jealous of, like the kid who got to see all the trucks before the Monster Truck Rally this weekend. Each participant was challenged to raise $1,000 - or how much it costs to provide one child with a mentor for one year.

For more information, check it out at the BBBS of SWVA website.

We've been planning this event for a few months now, and I'm giddy with anticipation to hear about how it went come Monday. Mentoring is such a simple way to make such a big difference in the life of an unlucky kid. It's something I hope to do when I've stabilized my life.

And while we're on it.... The office has a bowling team for the BBBS of SWVA March event... Bowl for Kids' Sake. If you're feeling generous, throw a donation my way here! All proceeds go directly to BBBS of SWVA, which in turns helps match at-risk kids with mentors.

OfficeMate mocks me and says my blog is morphing into shameless nonprofit advertisements. He may be right. For now, enjoy this awesome video for BBBS' new campaign: Start Something.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Happiness is a Warm Pot Roast

I made my first pot roast!
For as much as I talk about my love for food and all the time I spend cooking, I must admit that there is something about a 3 or 4lb slab of cow that just intimidates me. However, I was reaching a breaking point with my recipes. Spaghetti (or defrosted free Olive Garden) was occurring much more than I would normally deem acceptable. One night, there was some canned soup for dinner, and another night, carrot sticks and some toasted kale. At my low point, there was a frozen pizza.

These are not proper meals. But I wasn't feeling creative and was tired of anything I possibly could have made with what we had in the fridge. I can't even tell you how many combinations of eggs and potatoes I've done in the past month. So. Many. I did what any normal person would do - I turned to facebook. I asked all the wonderful facebook folks for suggestions, and was pointed in a variety of directions. Some suggested Pioneer Woman, whom I am quite stoked about checking in with come grocery-list/recipe brainstorming day. Others suggestions ranged from Spanish tortillas (which I haven't attempted since my disastrous first meal at this apartment) to a pot roast, by my brother.

It also bears mentioning that my lovely neighbor from DC suburbia read my blog post about budgeting and how I had cut down on herbs. This prompted her (and her adorable daughters) to mail me the most thoughtful care package full of brownies, artwork, and herbs. Yes, herbs. I can't tell you how happy a box full of herbs and chocolate made me. OfficeMate couldn't understand my excitement at things like bay leaves and cumin. My kitchen feels complete.

I went to the store, and I did what I did not know I could do. I bought a 3lb chuck roast. And do you know what I did with it? I roasted the CRAP out of that sucker, in a pot. A pot roast, if you will. And sure, maybe I went over the top with wine. And yeah, potatoes would have been a good addition. Also, maybe not cooking it on high in my friendly crock pot would have made it a little more moist. But that's not the point. The point is that I took the most ghetto cut of meat (it was expiring the day I cooked it!) and made something which resembled a legitimate meal, complete with a dry-rub based off all the herbs gifted to me; this resembled a meal that I had been fearing for months, nay, years. For the past twenty-three years, I have only been content to mainly cook on stove tops, with the occasional throwing something casserole-like into the oven, never daring to explore the more exciting realm of adult meals.

So, hello adulthood. I never thought you'd look like a dry pot roast.

Monday, January 17, 2011


I got sick this past weekend. Nothing big, just a 24 hour deal where I, yet again, worshiped the porcelain god. I know these all sound like hangovers every time I write about them, but I swear, that's not the case.

As a result of being sick, I was very weary of eating. I picked at some soup, had a grapefruit, and generally just complained about my stomach hurting. Because I'm apparently three, not twenty-three.

Yesterday being Martin Luther King Day, there was no work to be had. I, for one, was grateful for the extra day to recuperate from my stomach being upset with me. I had told a friend and fellow AmeriCorps volunteer that I would attend her Hunger Banquet she organized today. So I convinced OfficeMate to join, and the two of us headed over.

The Hunger Banquet was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Each person draws a card that either reads "Low" "Middle" or "High," and you are given your meal accordingly. The cards are made so that the correct percentage of the room is in each category, according to worldwide poverty levels. Being that the majority of the world is in poverty, it wasn't super surprising when OfficeMate and I both drew "low." We feasted on a spoonful of rice out of a napkin on burlap sacks on the floor with the majority of the others in attendance, while a select four or five were allowed large meals at a table, and a few others were served beans and rice in a bowl with a fork, like fancy folks do.

It really helped put poverty into focus. For me, I have the occasional complaint about my current tight budget, but realistically, I'm hoping to search for a salaried job after this. I'm hoping to be able to pay off student loans in a realistic amount of time, and I'm hoping to learn from this experience of living in poverty for a year, but not stay in it for an undetermined period of time.

It gets me thinking, how can I help? Other than volunteering for one year, how can I help? How can I make equality a lifestyle, not just an idea?

Volunteer. Not just as an AmeriCorps volunteer, but hands-on, direct service. I want to get back into the habit of going every Wednesday to the food pantry. I've had weeks where things legitimately come up, but other weeks I just say I'm too tired. Laziness is no way to combat poverty.

Stay educated. Education is the single largest weapon against poverty. However, those that need education are not just the impoverished. A pet peeve of mine are people who don't follow the news - like current events don't apply or affect them in any way. Just because you don't feel the need to inform yourself, doesn't mean things don't go on happening. Things like Hunger Banquets, the One Campaign, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Heifer International, hell, even AmeriCorps.... while these things all exist to combat poverty, they also offer a wealth of information regarding poverty statistics and the reality of it. To combat poverty, we must educate ourselves before we can even fathom educating others.

Patience. I am an impatient person. When a commercial comes on tv, I have a back up channel to watch instead of sitting through ads. I switch the radio station to avoid listening to commercials. I'd rather take a right turn on red and go an alternate route than wait through a red light. When my five-year old macbook, Maccy, takes his sweet time loading a website, I go do something else like make tea.

But patience is a necessity in overcoming poverty. Poverty is a mindset, a roadblock, a commercial, a red light, a slowly loading webpage with too many images. It won't change with the click of a button or one grant. It won't be solved in my lifetime.

What I hope is that it can be alleviated in my lifetime, and I hope to be the cause of some alleviation. So for now, I"ll do what I can to assist in the process of battling poverty. I'll continue to volunteer, I'll educate myself, and I'll force myself to be patient. Maybe I'll even sit through a red light.

Here are some links to some GREAT nonprofits out there. Feel free to comment with other organizations you know doing fantastic work!
Catholic Campaign for Human Development
Heifer International

Monday, January 10, 2011

Budgeting - Part II

So last time we had a rant about money. How about we legitimately discuss budgeting this time around?

In my budget, I like to have my annual income right there, front and center, no matter how much it may make me cry every time I see it. Poverty is poverty, and there's no denying it. I then break it down to monthly income, and go from there. I'd give you guys a nice snapshot of my excel sheet, but you have no need of knowing how much/if I put anything into my savings. (generally that's negatory, ghost rider) Then I just break it down by category. For about two months, my spreadsheet was itemized and placed in each category, with a nice relating pie chart so I knew what percentage of my cash was going where. As of since, I've become slightly less anal-retentive and slightly more lazy, but I still enjoy having a general idea of where I can cut back.

My brother called me up the other day, asking me how much I spent on groceries. I mastered grocery shopping in college, trying not to spend over $30 a week at the Harris Teeter. I can proudly say that, shopping for two, my grocery bill is now rarely over $50 a week. I don't eat many things I'd like to - chevre (good Lord, an assortment of cheese in general), a solid Spanish chorizo, I cook with much more vegetable oil rather than olive oil, and I have close to no herbs in my cupboard.

This is, hands down, the category I am most proud of. Because OfficeMate and I split our food bill 50/50, I generally don't spend more than $125 a month on groceries. The extra $25 comes from things I don't need, persay, but don't expect OfficeMate to split with me, such as coffee, wine and crystallized ginger (let me have my one unnecessary expense). I only purchase wine when I'm in Northern Virginia, where I can stock up on bottles of Three Buck Chuck. I only drink wine with dinner, really, and have saved a ton of money on that as a result. No, it's not classy wine. Yes, far superior wine exists. No, I cannot afford that. Yes, I am content with my $3 bottles.

Also, and this is something that seems like such a no brainer, but I never even bothered with in college, plan your weekly menus based on what's on sale that week. I am a HUGE dork and signed up for the Kroger coupons that they email to you. From there, I scour what's on sale that week and look up recipes accordingly. And if bread's on sale for $1/loaf, don't just buy one. Grab four or five, even if your roommate mocks you, and shove 'em in the freezer. Then you don't have to worry about bread for a while. I only buy meat on sale, and get it in huge quantities to separate into smaller bags and then freeze. While some weeks your grocery bill may sky rocket to $70 because you bought a ton of meat, the next week it'll be significantly lower because you won't have to buy any.

Let's not forget to take into consideration that we eat the AmeriCorps VISTA lunch of champions on a almost daily basis - Peanut Butter and Jelly. But you know what? We mix up the snack on the side! Chips, pretzels, fruit, cheez its. It's not super thrilling, but my bank account's a fan. Sometimes I go crazy and have leftovers for lunch. (Free frozen Olive Garden helps, too)

When you break it all down... $200/month for food for two people. $100/month per person. $25/week. $3.57/day. Not too shabby.

Sharing an apartment with a coworker has been fantastic for an array of reasons, but one of the big ones is how much we're both saving on gas. When I first moved here, gas was a glorious $2.34/gallon. It's on the rise and is now hovering around $2.90. When I was in Northern Virginia over Christmas, I paid well over $3.00, so I do understand your pain, rest of the world. As a result of forced carpooling, though, I only fill up Mr. Merlot about twice a month, so long as I don't visit the family. Each fill up now costs me around $30, so I only shell out about $60/month to get around town. I highly recommend carpooling - it's a win-win for your wallet and the environment! If you can't carpool, look into public transit, especially if you're in an urban area. Between gasoline, tolls, and parking fees, it sometimes becomes more cost efficient to suck it up and take the bus. It's not just for plebeians anymore, I promise. Plus, you get sweet built-in reading time!

Car Expenses
I was incredibly hesitant about buying a car because while I knew I could handle the cost of gas, I had no idea what to truly expect for all the other costs.

Insurance in this town is gloriously low. Yes, my car is registered here as a result. Plus, you get all sorts of discounts if you pay online, all at once, etc etc. As a result, insurance isn't too horribly painful. What IS horribly painful, however, are those unexpected car costs. Such as when I first purchased Mr. Merlot and his check engine light kept coming on, and I was quoted a quarter of the cost of the damn car to fix the problem at hand. Thank goodness for second opinions. That still set me back, though. This is why I put away chunks of change, no matter how small, every month into the savings account. Because when your car decides to become a princess, you have to be ready to shell out the cash. I ain't saying he a gold digger....

Now I'm dealing with the wonders of tires, state inspections and oil change #3578635. Again, family, you best appreciate my driving home. I wouldn't reach 3k miles so quickly if I wasn't always on I81. Happy New Year, indeed.

We live in a super cheap apartment. We don't pay for water or heat, either. Granted, our windows spontaneously break, we have a trashbag taped over another window, I can't make tea and dry my hair without the entire apartment losing power, and I think our bathtub is a generic, falling apart bathfitter. However, these are all things I'm okay with, considering the amount we pay for rent.

Electric and Internet/TV. Electric's not SO bad, all things considered. Internet/TV we opted to shell out a little more for, because, hey, it's cheaper to stay at home and watch tv than pay money to go out. It's sad and a little hermit-ish of us, but it's true. When you make/don't make as much as we do, you have to take things like that into consideration. The utilities are far from stretching the cash.

Here's the most depressing category of all. This is generally a category where people put in things like "movies" or "eating out." I have gone to the movies once since I've come to Roanoke. I eat out, MAYBE, once a week. And it's generally something classy like McDonald's or Wendy's. ...or my burrito joint. My lack of a social life, while depressing, is very cost-effective. I honestly could never afford to live on what they pay me if I went out to eat at a $15/head place once a week. Because that comes out to $60/month on eating out, and that just seems like irresponsible spending. So you have to get creative. VT hockey games are $5/each. The library is FREE (thank God). Mooching off of your roommate's parents Netflix account to stream movies is also free. Did I mention I read a lot?

When people come to visit, you show them the star, maybe the puppy store in the mall, and then they just chill at the apartment. My parents were in town this past weekend and, along with chilling at the apartment, we visited antique stores with merchandise we could never afford. But hey, looking is free and entertaining! Anyone need a suit of armor for $350?

I steal toilet paper from my parents. This is a true confession. Whenever I go back to their house, I nab another six rolls of Costco's finest. I have yet to purchase a roll of TP since I moved to this apartment in October. Similarly, roommate's mother gave us some cleaning supplies when we moved in. I've yet to purchase dish detergent.

Before moving, I stocked up on things I knew I'd need but wouldn't be able to afford for a while. Toothpaste, contact solution, shampoo, razor refills. Things like make-up I find I use less and less, because I'm aware of my snooty make-up preferences and know I can't afford them anymore. (Mac pressed powder, I love you so!) I mean, I still wear make-up, just less of it. We're down to powder, blush and mascara on a daily basis. Any more than that, and it's unnecessarily fancy.

Health. Goodness. I'm running out of contacts, but fear the optometrist. Maybe I'll just start wearing my glasses all the time. I haven't been the dentist since, like, 2008, no joke. I fear a cavity. I can't afford that right now, so I just won't go and will get more serious about flossing. When I had my cold last week, I did splurge on some meds. But hey, a volunteer's gotta do what a volunteer's gotta do. I dislike this category, because it forces me to acknowledge that, much like my car needs an oil change to function, I need corrective lenses and a full set of teeth. ...I'm just more likely to give Mr. Merlot oil before I'll give myself a cleaning.

Poor Savings Account. He had a rough 2010. I had been such a good saver until last year. I bought a car, had all the pesky expenses that come with moving, and had a large chunk of cash stolen when some asshole felt my money should be his. Savings Account had to step in and pick up Checking Account's according slack. Ever since all these unfortunate events, I've been trying to replenish him, but it's slow going. Many a pay period goes by that I don't get to transferring funds, and that's not something I'm proud of, especially because I know it could be done. He still gets a cell in Excel, though, because I know I OUGHT to be putting something in there on, at least, a monthly basis. No matter how minimal.

I don't live lavishly, that's for sure. I spend the majority of my money on rent, food and my car. I'm aware of this. But these aren't things I can really cut back on anymore. I tried applying for food stamps (now known as SNAP) a few months back, only to discover that there's a cut-off if you have X-amount in savings. And trust me, it doesn't have to be much. I'm far from rolling in the big-bucks here. The flaws in the system aggravate me so much - it's like they WANT to deter people in poverty from saving, because if they do, they're not eligible for SNAP. It's such crap, and irritates me to no end.

All that being said, it is very possible to live off what they pay me. Live off, but not plan for anything else. I'm finding saving to be incredibly difficult. If I had children, I'd probably be eligible for WIC, but I'd still have more mouths to feed, and that's not even taking into consideration clothing, toys, or the cost of saving for higher education. Poverty as a single adult with no one else to provide for is do-able. I can see how poverty in a family becomes such a generational problem so quickly, though.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Budgeting - Part I

I've been debating the pros and cons of this post for a while now, but I think I'm just going to go ahead and write it.

As much as the ridiculous happenstance that occurs on a regular basis can be amusing and provide for interesting blog posts (just humor me, please, and concur), living in poverty is one of the most important things an AmeriCorps volunteer does. It allows us to practice what we preach and put what little money we have where our mouth is.

In college, I wasn't making bank, but I held down two jobs to pay for pesky things like rent and food. They weren't impressive jobs -essentially a glorified secretary/security guard (because I'm so threatening) for the residence halls and tutoring Spanish for the Athletics department. They paid... minimum wage, campus job style, but they paid and that's what mattered.

Over the summers (save for one where I worked as a grocery store cashier. Bananas. 4011), I interned with a defense contractor for the Department of Defense. It was at this internship that I learned all my legitimately useful skills - excel, time management, how to function in a group dynamic, meeting deadlines, and the list goes on. However, this job also led me to take hefty paychecks for granted. I came to expect them. When job hunting, I initially was looking for something that paid more or less what I made there, but I also wanted benefits. That kind of money is not something that exists in the nonprofit sector (much like jobs), so I was sorely disappointed.

This experience here in Roanoke has taught me that so little of the world, hell, even of Virginia, lives by DC's standards. Even just driving Mr. Merlot makes me self-conscious because he's an older car and lacks his sexy Toyota T. It's all about status and type A personalities. Everything is a competition, from salary to the car you drive to where your kids go to school - and that's no way to live, never being content with what you have.

Even though my car is ghetto, I love it. Even though there's a plastic bag taped over a window in my apartment, it's still home. Even though I don't have a dishwasher or garbage disposal, I still think I have the cutest kitchen in the world. Even though I don't go out ever, I'm still able to be happy. (Okay, I could go for a little more socializing, but that's besides the point.) Roanoke has made me simplify and reevaluate what's truly important.

I read a lot these days, something I used to love to do but could never be bothered to find the time. I love it. A few weeks ago, I read three books in one weekend. I highly recommend Water for Elephants. I took up knitting again, just for the hell of it. I have time to cook, and while I'm definitely not cooking anything fancy, I still enjoy it. Yes, I realize that I sound like a 75 year old woman, but I'm a happy 75 year old woman living a simplified life.

I'll end it there, because this is getting rather lengthy. Next up: budgeting! Not that any of you need to know how to get by on what is legally declared the poverty level, but I intend to impart some knowledge on how I get it done. Spoiler alert: I am able to feed two people on less than $7 a day. Yes, all three meals.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Cold 2011

Hello and welcome to the new year. Yes, I do realize it's been in full swing for the past four days (five days? Goodness, when did it get past midnight?), but I am just now getting around to acknowledging it.

My Christmas was fantastic, full of family and food. I completed a sizable grant and then rang in 2011 in Philadelphia with some extended family, and we had a grand old time.

Going back to my parents house, however, also meant spending Christmas in a frozen tundra. My parents keep their house at like 67 during the day and, I kid you not, 57 at night. It's awful. My apartment is kept warmer than my parents house and I technically am living in poverty. I don't care if keeping your thermostat low is good for the environment, it's bad for your health. And I don't just mean your mental health, although that takes a toll when your parents lock their thermostat, forcing you to live at their tundra-like temperatures. I mean your physical health.

Yes, I am convinced that this cold I now have is a result of changing from a toasty, comfortable living environment to one in which you are consistently reminded that you can "put on another sweater!" Why do I need to put on a SECOND sweater when I already have one on? Presumably, on top of a shirt that has a camisole underneath it? True story: I've worn a winter coat at the dinner table in the past.

It doesn't make sense. My parents are not large people, they should be cold in their house. Hell, my mother was raised in Venezuela. Her blood shouldn't be accustomed to the arctic temperature of her house, and yet... she insists its the proper thing to do. So we all must suffer. Nothing says Merry Christmas like the phrase ""

I found myself back in Roanoke Sunday afternoon, sick. I went on an adventure to CVS with OfficeMate to pick up some nasal spray and cold meds that ended in me stepping in dog poo, thinking it was dirt and wiping it away with my hand, only to realize it was not dirt, and cursing people who are too damn lazy to pick up after their dog. HONESTLY. Are you low on plastic bags?? I'll donate some to you!

These past few days have been rather hazy. I've had all the DayQuil the box lets me take. My nasal spray said I shouldn't take it for more than three consecutive days, and I must lament to tell you all that I have reached the third day. I'd ignore the label, but I don't want to become that girl who's addicted to huffing generic brand nasal spray. She's just not classy.

I tried to inaugurate my penguin humidifier (the one pictured is legitimately the model I have), but alas, our apartment is old and I only have one plug in my room. It's next to my bed and my penguin's cord is short, so he really just blows all his humidity on the side of my bed. Tonight, I try a friend's suggestion - a loaf pan of water on my radiator.

I know, blogging about a cold is just so riveting. Alas, my life isn't super happening. That being said, I don't get sick too often. In some twisted I-don't-live-somewhere-super-exciting way, this IS riveting.