Top | Dinner Guest Blog

Sustainable on a budget?

(post, Sarah Gilbert)

It is a great blessing that, when I come home from Monique's workshop, my kitchen is sparkling clean.

My sister (the youngest one, the only sibling of five not to have had babies in the past year and therefore prized for her freedom to babysit) had used bleach on the sinks to get them white — Monique would have frowned — but I certainly wasn't going to niggle over the method of such unexpected delight. After tonight's "inspiration" (a cynical soul might call it "unrealistic bar-setting"), a clean kitchen was exactly where I wanted to start.

Monique Dupre is the local sustainable-mama rock star. I'd met her via email months ago, when a friend pointed me to her dairy workshops. I'd wondered how I could possibly get to her home in Vancouver (an interstate suburb of Portland) for an evening workshop, given that I don't drive. It would turn a two-hour workshop into a several-hour ordeal, and she had an archly polite statement on her website requesting that babies be left at home. When she told me the introductory workshop was required, I decided just to go trial-and-error on the cheese. It turned out to be heavy on the error, and after a couple of particularly terrible batches of mozzarella, my cheesemaking adventures faded to nothing but photos in my Flickr stream.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Sarah's kitchen before her sister scrubbed it."] 

And then, several months later, there she was in the local paper's food section: Monique Dupre, Sustainable Living on a Budget. Soon my friend Larissa (only 2.24 miles away) was hosting her workshop, and Larissa's mother would watch our babies next door while we attended to Monique's sustainability teachings. 

It's hard to know where to start describing Monique; all the newspaper articles about her seem to start with $65 a week, her food budget. (I am struck with how casually she notes that $65 is what she'd spend in extreme circumstances only — if her husband lost his job, for instance — while it's quite clear she spends far more in her non-broke existence.)

If I were to write Monique's story, I'd start with the tale she told about "when she knew." When she knew she was in a special place, when she knew she had it all together, when she knew she could start teaching workshops and charging $75 an hour for personal consulting.

Monique was at an afternoon playdate (or maybe it was a music lesson, or ballet). The other moms there were comparing the sad state of their homes. They'd all have to get home for dinner, and what would they make? It was getting competitive, as each described the size of her laundry pile and the chaos of her playroom and the quantity of dirty dishes in her sink. Everyone was getting into the spirit of commiseration but Monique, who shrank back from them. She couldn't participate, and get this: She was too shy to say so!

Her kitchen was spotless, her children's toys were put away, there was dinner bubbling away in the crockpot and grains soaking for tomorrow's breakfast, the laundry pile was miniature. There was nothing to do but go home, make a pot of herbal tea (or pour a cup of kombucha, probably), and sigh in happiness. Later in the evening, she'd tell us that her home is her bed and breakfast.

On a very very good day, I say that to myself, and then I see the pile of partly broken plastic toys my brother-in-law's girlfriend brought over; the box of MREs my husband brought home from his last Army duty (you never know when you might need a plastic packet of grape jelly or some instant coffee, hrrmm?), the cracks in the plaster, the old sheet separating my office from our future "master bedroom." We've got a bed, and sometimes we've got breakfast.

It turns out that to live sustainably (on a budget!) you've got to start with a clean kitchen. That night after the workshop, after I'd said goodbye to Larissa and retrieved my bike and baby, I'd been pedalling home, woefully wondering, "How do I get there from here?" It might take a baby sister and a couple of capfuls of dangerous toxins, a couple more evenings of eating bagels (wood-fired!) and cheese (farmers' market goat chèvre!) while I deconstructed the messy corners, but I've gotten there. Abby had even washed the aprons and oven mitts. She's worth her weight in carbon offsets, my sister is.

The day after I finished re-arranging the shelves and tossing the contents of some ancient jars and bottles (what was I thinking, keeping hazelnut oil for 10 years?), I went shopping. I brought home two cheese cultures, a new jar of rennet, five kinds of organic whole grains, some stabilizer-free organic whole-milk yogurt, some "universal pectin," and a kombucha starter kit. I sat down with my cup of fair-trade black tea and a pile of new cookbooks, and I started out again on my own. Later that night, in my sparkling kitchen, I stirred culture into cream for crème fraîche and set a strainer of yogurt to separate into whey and cream cheese.

I have a family staying at my bed and breakfast, and I'm planning something nourishing for the morning. Will it be fermented waffles with cultured, raw-milk butter? Porridge with dates and honey? Quinoa with crème fraîche and walnuts? Hmmm. At least I know they won't mind the cracks in the plaster.

reference-image, l