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American Giant and Small Business
Feb 3rd, 2012 by Nancy

This came across my sights the other day:

How American Giant Hacked the Supply Chain

For years, it was cheaper to produce goods overseas. But Bayard Winthrop believes that’s changing, in part because of one big culprit: The Internet.

“There’s a general growing comfort level with not only consuming online but buying things like shoes and apparel online,” says Winthrop. “I think one of the reasons we’re so excited about what we’re doing is that we’re in a new time now in that for the first time you can begin to really assess the non-manufacturing related costs. Even two years ago you couldn’t do that.”

American GiantIn a nutshell, start-up clothing manufacturer American Giant, which opened its ‘doors’ this week, is doing the improbable – high quality, reasonably priced, American made clothing – by only having them available online, thereby short-circuiting the overhead of retail space, distribution, and everything else that goes into getting products into traditional brick & mortar retail.

Market forces and cultural forces have conspired against US garment manufacturing for decades.  However, with that loss has been the unfortunate loss of quality and durability.  Sociologist Julie Schor has verified what many of us have assumed for some time: garment prices have flatlined or dropped in the last 20 years, in large part due to cheap overseas labor but also because of cheaply made, low quality materials and deferred environmental costs. We therefore buy many more garments now than we did in the early 90’s, partly in response to the lower (real) prices, but also in part because of diminished quality and durability – the old saw “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to” is quantifiably, verifiably true in the garment and other soft goods industries.

Thanks to the reach of the internet and the comfort level we have achieved with online shopping and financial transactions, however, it’s very possible to do an end-around the biggest costs of bringing a new item to market – namely, renting retail space, hiring and training staff, or hiring sales reps to shlep your shiny new thing to stores in hopes they will add it to their inventory.

I’m really delighted to see this hit the big time, and I strongly encourage you to take a look at the link in the title of the quote above – there’s a succinct video demonstrating the plight of, and the hopefully bright future for, American manufacturing.  The U.S. is full of the hand skills, the machinery, and most of all the people who can, simply put, manufacture great stuff.

I’m also compelled to say, “It’s about time somebody else caught on to what we at Lunchsense have been doing all along, and why.”

After the design for Lunchsense lunchboxes came into being and I realized I wasn’t the only person on the planet who needed a better way to pack lunches, I started scouting around for local manufacturing.  I hit paydirt with Oregon Sewn Products – they are the right size in the right place and the right price, and wonderful, entertaining individuals to boot.

It’s noteworthy to temper my enthusiasm with a shot of reality, though.   If everyone were to do what American Giant is doing, it would be at the expense of American retailers.

I do manufacture a fair number of my lunchboxes in Vietnam, at a factory I visited (trip of a lifetime!) and vetted for its labor standards, working conditions, and environmental initiatives.  I’m pleased to say the factory not only passed muster but holds SA8000 certification.  Yes, the lunchboxes I manufacture overseas cost me far less than the US made lunchboxes.  They do allow me, however, to sell lunchboxes to stores, which then can sell them to you, which allows us both to make an appropriate profit in the endeavor. In other words,

I manufacture in the U.S. (and support a local manufacturer) —–> I sell to you, directly, on the internet

I manufacture overseas —–> I sell these lower cost (but identical quality) items to stores (and support a local retailer) —–> they sell to you.

Doing it this way allows me to support both U.S. manufacturing AND U.S. retailing.  I wouldn’t want to cut either business type out of my model. There are plenty of folks who just want to buy a lunchbox off a store shelf, and I am happy to meet their needs.  There are plenty of others who are fine with buying things online, and I’m here for them too.

Lastly, note that if you want a lunchbox assembled in the U.S., just say so in the comments field when you place your online order, and I promise you will get exactly that.

I wish American Giant all the best, and I really hope they succeed beyond their wildest dreams, because their success is my success, and ultimately, yours as well.       

Foodie Tuesday: 24 Days, 24 Cookie recipes
Jan 31st, 2012 by Nancy

1, 2, 3...23, 24 different Christmas cookies

I was looking for something different for the Christmas season last year.

Inspiration struck in the form of the Cookie Advent Calendar provided to me by Saveur magazine. Yes, it really was just that: 24 days and 24 cookie recipes.  And we made every single recipe.*

As if baking a new batch of cookies every day for 3 1/2 weeks (or just HAVING that many cookies in harm’s way) wasn’t foolish enough, I also converted them to gluten-free versions (my husband is gluten intolerant).  If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, no, I don’t have too much time on my hands.  I DO have a splendid assistant in the person of my 13 year old daughter-with-aspirations-to-be-a-chef, so between the two of us:

  • she filled in on the days I was just tapped out;
  • I admit that we both bailed out on a couple of days, which we made up on the weekend;
  • we often cut recipes in half or even in thirds, with the goal being no more than 24 cookies in a day (or no more than two trays, so we could get them all in and out of the oven in one pass).

And the effort, while significant, was manageable.

Without a doubt best part – really truly even better than eating them – was the immense pleasure I found in knowing that at some point in the day, every day, we’d be dropping everything…and baking cookies.

Another treat:  Each recipe would be posted at midnight, but as the mag is in Eastern Standard Time my girl and I would check every evening at 9 pm here on the West Coast and find our next day’s offering ready and waiting.

All the cookies were good, but there was indeed a range of results that traveled from, “hmm, tasty sand, that one,” to “wow! oh wow! greatgreatgreat!”  Many (though not all) were of a European lineage, and they were the most interesting.  We all agreed that traditionally American cookies, while good, are by comparison pretty bland, generally being dominated by one flavor: peanut butter, or cinnamon, or chocolate, for example.

The down sides:

We did our best to be true to the original recipe (gluten-free conversions notwithstanding), but at times the ingredients were challenging.  Among other things I now have all but a few ounces of a rather expensive, very strong, very weird liqeuer which as far as I can tell will only go for future batches of those specific cookies they’re used in…which is, thankfully, a pretty darn good cookie.  If you’re in the Eugene area and want to give them a try, call me.  I’ll share.  I also bailed out when the recipe called for a cookie mold that I could only find on eBay for $40.  THAT crossed deep into “well this is just silly” territory.

There were too dang many versions of shortbread cookies.  How may riffs on a theme can there be for butter, sugar, flour, eggs, vanilla? Quite a few, we found.  On that note, and on the upside…

Converting all the recipes to gluten free might be considered ‘above and beyond the call’ but it wasn’t impossible, and I’d been on the hunt for a really great shortbread cookie that worked in GF flour.  I’m pleased to report that I found one!  Mention in the comments if you’d like to know how I converted it. It turned out crisp, tasty, and didn’t spread a whit, which had been the recurring issue with all the other GF cookie-cutter cookies I’d tried.

After the best part, above, the next best part was that we always had something to bring to friends’ houses all month long: “What’s that you say? Laura’s having a few people over tonight? Hey, we’ll bring cookies!!”  In fact, I think that’s where most of them went, in the final tally.

The last best part: We still have a freezer full of cookies.  Only a few remain of each of maybe half the cookie recipes, but it’s enough to know that a sweet treat – not much, but just enough – is only a few steps away.

Stay tuned: Next Tuesday I’ll post the hands-down favorite cookie of the whole season.

*Disclaimer: Okay, fine.  There were actually 25 recipes.  We didn’t make the last one.  It was yet another shortbread cookie, and we didn’t have the right ingredients, and it was CHRISTMAS DAY, for cryin’ out loud.  We all agreed that all the Advent Calendars we knew had 24 days, not 25, so we called it a wrap at 9:15pm on Christmas Eve.  Mea culpa.

Did I mention free shipping?
Jan 27th, 2012 by Nancy

Our Postal service logoOh, my United States Postal Service. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I seriously do love the USPS, and although it’s a little embarrassing, and I occasionally feel a bit coy about this affection, it’s high time I step forth and proclaim it.

I run an internet-based business, which means I spend (as do all the rest of the internet businesses, from me up to Amazon.com) a very large chunk of my time and attention into the logistics of getting your order from my warehouse to your doorstep.  After we select and fill the appropriate carton with the ordered items, we all have to consider the need for packing materials; the size; the weight; the distance to travel; the desired speed of travel; whether the recipient will be present when the order arrives, and what to do if he/she is not; whether to insure the shipment; how to track the shipment; what to do if it doesn’t arrive.  It’s really pretty breathtaking, when you think about it, what goes on between that “click here to complete your order” and finding a box on your doorstep.

The USPS has been going through a rough patch lately, I know, and if it’s been difficult to understand why, I’ll try to summarize the issues, which were also mentioned here.  You might have heard that the PO is looking squarely at an almost $10 billion deficit.  It has come about in part because of the drop in First Class mail service thanks to the increasing popularity of online bill-paying services, the weakened economy, and competition among package delivery services.  However, some of that deficit is the result of a 2006 law that required the Postal Service to prepay retiree health benefits.  It is the only agency, public or private, that has been required to do so at this level – the Postal Service was required to prepay 75 years of health care coverage in 10 years’ time.  Further, the USPS overpaid the pension obligations from 1972 to 2009 and has requested (but not received) a refund on their overpayment.  Their deficit would become a $1.5 billion surplus if these issues would corrected; Congress is looking at bills to address them.  In the meantime we face the prospect of slower service, shuttered facilities, and thousands of layoffs.

I find this heartbreaking.

So: why do I love them?

First and foremost, they are the green team of shipping.

Think about it – the postal carrier comes to your address just about every day anyway, yes? Remember that the other services have to make a special trip to deliver your package. Besides that obvious green advantage, here are a few more:

  • A third of all postal deliveries are made on foot
  • The USPS delivery fleet includes electric, hybrid, and biodiesel vehicles
  • The USPS uses water-based inks for its stamps
  • Priority and Express envelopes and boxes have been Cradle-to-Cradle certified for meeting high environmental standards from manufacture to disposal
  • The USPS has been working to reduce energy use and incorporate green design elements in its buildings
  • Postal workers are unionized

As if that’s not enough, some other things you may not have known about them:

They hire more veterans than any other civilian employer:  135,800 of their 570,000+ person workforce, according the the American Postal Workers Union.

It is one of the few government agencies explicitly authorized by the US Constitution, and does not receive a cent of tax money – all its operations are funded by the revenues it generates.  It is also obligated to deliver to every single U.S. Postal address, and in many rural areas the post office is the de facto community center.

Only the items shipped via the US Postal Service have federal law enforcement protection. If you are leery of  online monetary transactions and banking, there’s no safer way to deliver your personal checks.

Their annual food drive, “Stamp Out Hunger,” surpassed 1 billion lbs. of food collected in 2010 after 18 years of this annual event. Held every year on the second Saturday in May (May 12 this year) it has become a major source of non-perishables for food banks across the country.

Personally, I like the US Postal Service because I like their website better than the website of those guys in brown shorts.

And the postal carriers are the underrated masters of navigation in your neighborhood. If I’m ever in a new part of town and I’m lost, or I’m unable to find a business or a house, or if I want to find the homes for sale in a particular neighborhood, or I want to know where I can get a cup of coffee, or my gas tank is about to hit empty, I KNOW that I can ask the postal carrier and he or she will set me straight, every single time.

How can you help remedy the sorry situation the Postal Service finds itself?

First of all, use the postal service to ship packages when you can.  For cross-country shipping they may be a day or two slower than the other guys for the standard, every day, ground shipping option (parcel post in USPS parlance) but you’ll probably find they are cheaper in many cases.  If you’re shipping within about a 500 mile radius, you might even find the faster service (Priority Mail) is cheaper, not to mention faster than the other ground services, and their flat-rate cartons are free!

Second, buy your postage online.  Besides the fact that you’ll avoid the lines at the P.O., you’ll get a bit of a discount.  What’s more, it’s really easy, and even kind of thrilling to see postage come out of the printer.  Even though you’ve paid for it, it feels a bit like printing money, or at least what I think printing money would feel like if I did that.  The down side of printing your postage is that you may get cold stares from the unfortunates that are waiting in line at the P.O. when you breeze past them to the counter and drop off your packages.

Third, contact your congressional representative and let them know that you do care to keep the Postal Service operating at its current level of service.

So, in honor of the mighty men and women in blue stripey shirts and black socks with shorts and whatnot, I’m offering free shipping all the time to orders of $80.00 or more. That’s two lunchboxes, in most cases (for two smalls you’d have to throw in a couple extra food containers, which is usually a good idea anyway – have one at work, have one in the dishwasher). It’s the least I can do to keep those fine men and women going!

Foodie Tuesday: Turkey stock
Jan 24th, 2012 by Nancy

Turkey soup made from homemade stock.  Mm good.Some days I just can’t do much.

‘Worked all weekend at the Good Earth Show (it was wonderful!) but I’m still trying to get my energy back.

Could it be that my achy, snuffly, feverish daughter has passed her bug over to me? ‘Hope not…time will tell.  In the meantime, I need to power down, take it easy, recoup for a few days. But I’ve got the van to unload, inventory to check in, receipts to tally…and a turkey carcass in my fridge to deal with.

The turkey will be the easy part.  While I tackle the rest of the post-show chores, I’ll make stock.

If you haven’t tried it before, I’d like to nudge you – gently – to try making your own stock.  Really, it’s about as difficult as sorting, washing, drying and folding a load of laundry – you’ve pulled that off a few times, yes? – and the results are so very worth it.  It’s the gastronomic equivalent of throwing a blanket over your shoulders, and given the season and our precarious health conditions this week it’s exactly what we all need.

You may ask, “what are you doing with a turkey in the fridge in January?” A fair question.  Turkey is a cheap, healthy protein source, and if you have a large enough freezer I highly recommend buying a couple turkeys in November and cooking them up over the winter.

TURKEY STOCK

When you cook a turkey, toss the parts that you might not use – neck and giblets – in a container, and freeze them.  When you have finished enjoying all the cooked parts of the bird, throw all the remaining stuff – bones, skin, whatever – in the container as well.  NOTE WELL that you have raw and cooked pieces in this container.  They will all eventually be cooked together, but until they land in the stockpot treat them as raw meat.

I usually wait to make stock until I have at least five or six pounds of parts and pieces.  A single big turkey will provide this; if you’d like to make chicken stock this recipe will work nicely, but you may have to collect two or three chickens’ worth of goods to have enough to go to the trouble of making stock.  However, if you don’t have a really big stock pot, this will all work fine with just a couple pounds of bird.

1. Weigh the frozen turkey pieces to the nearest pound or so, and put them (still frozen is fine) into the biggest pot in the house. Place the pot on the stove now; once everything is in the pot it will be pretty heavy!

2. For every POUND of parts and pieces, add:

  • 1/2 a carrot, broken in half (no need to peel it)
  • 1/2 a celery stalk, broken in half (leaves are fine, in fact preferred; old-ish stalks are fine, and stock is a great way to make use of the inner parts of the celery bunch)
  • 1/2 an onion, cut in half again
  • a peeled garlic clove (no need to cut it)
  • 2-3 whole peppercorns
  • 2-3 whole cloves
  • 1/2 t oregano & thyme, dried (double or triple that if using fresh)
  • 1 quart of water

3. Turn on the heat, bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, partially cover the pot with a lid, and leave it alone for an hour or two. If you are nosy you can give it a stir occasionally.  Your house will smell heavenly.

4. If you wish to add parsley or basil, they are wonderful in stock but only need to be added in the last half hour or so.

5. I usually leave mine to simmer for about 3 hours, but there’s no rocket science to stock.  The only guideline I’d offer is that it will need at least an hour.

6. When you think you’re ready to deal with the next step (after 1 to 3 hours of simmering), turn off the heat.  Set a colander over the next-largest pot in the house, and place it next to the stockpot.  Start moving everything solid – meat, bones, vegetables – with tongs or a large slotted spoon into the colander and let drain for a minute.  The stuff in the colander, once it’s drained, can be pitched – I double bag these leftovers before they go in the garbage.  It will be hot, messy work, but will make the stock pot a little easier to handle.  Keep doing this until you have removed and drained a significant portion of the solids.

7. Now you’re ready to salt the stock.  Starting by adding about a 1/2 t salt for every quart of water, stir, and taste the results.  Keep going until you’re satisfied, but don’t overdo it – it’s easier to under-salt now and add more when you’re ready to use the stock.

8. Finally, drain the rest of the stock through the colander to remove the last of the solids, working in batches if necessary.

What you will now have is pot full of liquid gold.  Divide it into freezer containers, label it, and stash it in the freezer, where it will last for at least 6 months.  That which you refrigerate should be used within a week.   I freeze pints and quarts, mostly, though some recommend freezing small quantities in ice cube trays to have them handy to chuck into sauces as needed.  I’ve just never had occasion to use less than a half a cup at a time, and even then I don’t mind having extra stock in the fridge for a couple days.  It makes a perfect rainy-day, low-energy light snack on days…just like today.

Win A Month of Free Lunch!
Jan 18th, 2012 by Nancy

‘Ever get the feeling like the dinner-making well has run dry?

I’ve been trying to nudge that afternoon routine out of a rut lately.  As the primary cook in the household I try, with all good intentions…

  • to serve not one but two vegetables at dinner, and
  • to offer meat not as the main course all the time but occasionally as only a side dish, and
  • to have at least two meat-free dinners a week, and
  • to add more flavor and texture, and especially to make enough for a couple lunches (but not so much that it goes to waste), AND…

it’s all just tapped me out.

FOTT_croppedDid I forget to mention that my husband is gluten intolerant too, so I get to do all the above AND convert dishes as necessary to make them wheat, oats, barley and rye-free?

This is where the menu planning service Food on the Table has been a godsend.  With some initial setup I can peruse a database of recipes and create menus for the upcoming days.  Since Food on the Table uploads the circulars from my local grocery stores I can hone in on recipes that will use sale items.  I can also enter my own recipes and family favorites – useful, that.  Then Food on the Table generates a shopping list from my selections.

In my case I use the service less for every last detail of a meal and a shopping trip, and more for inspiration and organization.  It’s become my palette for thinking through dinners for the week: I see what’s on sale, I recall what I have in the fridge to use up, I hone in on a cuisine category (vegetarian, pasta, etc. – they even let me indicate a gluten free dietary restriction), and without fail, something – and often something I’d never thought of trying – surfaces as the next couple days’ worth of dinner.  What’s more, I can throw the leftovers in the lunchboxes the next day!

If inspiration is that missing piece to your meal planning efforts, I have great news: If you buy a lunchbox this weekend either at the website or at the Good Earth Home, Garden and Living Show, you will automatically be entered in a drawing to win A MONTH OF LUNCH.  Here’s what you’d get:

  • A $75 Gift Certificate to the grocery store of your choice – That’s $3.75 a day for weekday lunches, which would be an epic meal if it’s brought from home, and
  • A free one-month subscription to Food on the Table to help you plan those great dinners that will turn into epic lunches.  So far I haven’t found a meal planning service that offers a lunch menu, but many of our lunches are really just dinner leftovers.  Better yet, they pack up in the food containers right after dinner and get popped into the lunchbox in the morning!

The fine print: Contest runs from noon Friday January 20, 2012, and concludes midnight Sunday, January 22, 2012.  To be entered in the drawing you must purchase a small, medium, or large complete lunchbox set while the contest is underway from the booth at the Good Earth Show or on the website.  One entry per complete lunchbox set purchased. Winner will be drawn and contacted Monday, January 23, 2012.

By “month” we mean “a month of weekdays”, since most packed lunches are carried on weekdays, not weekends.  Thus $75 / $3.75 a lunch = 20 lunches, or 4 weeks of 5 days each.

You may get gift certificates to more than one store, as long as the total of all gift certificates is no more than $75. Gift certificates will be mailed to the contest winner, and winner will be notified via email good_earth_logoabout how to sign up for the Food on the Table subscription.

Did I mention?  Lunchsense will be staking out a booth (#1112) at the Good Earth Home, Garden and Living Show this weekend, so if you are in the Eugene area please stop by and say hello!  It’s a fun show and a wonderful bunch of exhibitors and presenters, so you’ll be certain to find a new idea or two.

The Girl at the Green Festival
Jan 13th, 2012 by Nancy

I wish I could show you her big smile too, but alas! I would rather protect her privacy.

I wish I could show you her big smile too, but alas! I would rather protect her privacy.

I brought Lunchsense to a marvelous trade show in San Francisco a few Novembers ago. Lovely bunch of people there, and I think half the population stopped by to check out the lunchbox wares. This was the first show I had ever done solo, though, so I didn’t get many opportunities to take a break.  This was fine, since everyone was just great…but I did get hungry.

You would think that a gal who sells lunchboxes for a living would pack something wonderful for herself, yes? No. I’m just not that good at packing my own lunch when I’m away from home, and I was staying with friends in town and didn’t want to raid their kitchen to pack my lunchbox, and besides, I knew the food at the show was going to be great.  I brought a few snacks, but I was feeling the lack by Sunday afternoon, and without an assistant to cover the booth I had to get creative if I was going to get something to eat.

Opportunity knocked in the form of a beautiful, assertive, confident eight year old girl who wanted a lunchbox.

Her mom was also working a booth a row or two over, and Girl had gotten restless, wandered around, found my booth, and decided that she HAD to have a new lunchbox.  So she proudly stepped up to the booth that afternoon and presented me with her own money and the request…

Is this enough?”

It wasn’t. It wasn’t even close.
But I was starving.  So I pulled a ten out of my wallet, and took a chance, and made her a deal.

I’m really hungry, but I can’t break away from the booth.  Bring me something for dinner and the lunchbox is yours.”

Off she ran with stars in her eyes, and returned ten minutes later…with a “menu” she had created herself from the offerings at the food court.

What do you want? Here’s what I could find, and how much everything cost.”

I made my selection and she scooted away, then returned thirty seconds later:

Do want something to drink with that?”

I ordered up a beverage and she dashed off one more time through the crowd.

Oh! I was smitten.

How often do you get to put your trust in a kid?  What kind of message could we send to kids everywhere if we let them know that they CAN do a service for someone, and they CAN accept responsibility, and they WILL benefit from it?

Girl (and her mom) returned to my booth 10 minutes after that, all smiles, with my dinner (and beverage, and change from my ten) in hand, and Girl picked out her favorite color lunchbox. I think I might have broken even, or maybe even lost money on the exchange, but it was the best lunchbox sale I made all weekend.

Speaking of trade shows, I’m off to the Good Earth Home and Garden Show in Eugene next week.  If you’re in the area stop by and say hello!

Revisiting Thanks
Nov 23rd, 2011 by Nancy

Bucket of Coal

Hello my lovely blog readers,

Here’s a re-post of a wonderful bit Chris wrote for last Thanksgiving.  I thought it just as timely this year as last.

Many thanks to everyone that has made this website and my life so much fun, and I’m looking forward to many more years of sensible lunches and happy customers.  Here’s to hoping you all have full tables, full attendance, and full bellies tomorrow!

Happy Thanksgiving,

Nancy

Chris, take it away….

In response to a perceived discourtesy, November’s holiday-spirit, simply referred to as “Thanks,” is sending December’s patron saint, Santa Claus, a bucket of coal for Christmas this year.

Disturbed by Santa’s increasing intrusion on the month of November, Thanks feels forgotten and rudely ignored.  “It’s just so inconsiderate,” she said.  “We used to share the parade with him, but now he’s coming with the full-color newspaper inserts, direct-mailings and television ads before the turkeys even reach the stores.”

Public concern over Santa’s expansion appears to be mixed.  “I wish it was Christmas every day,” one seven-year-old boy confided.

Thanks, however, is convinced “St. Nicholas” has committed an egregious mistake.  “That fat, old elf is finally going senile,” she said.  “He doesn’t know what he’s doing and he’s confusing the kids.”

The facts suggest Claus did start the Christmas campaign earlier than usual this year.  Toy catalogs began trickling into mailboxes almost as soon as the trees surrendered their leaves, and electronic solicitors began flooding email accounts just after the recent elections.

When questioned, Claus admitted to a misunderstanding, though he blamed it on the complexities of varying international customs.  “I might have gotten a little mixed-up,” he confessed.  “The Canadians have their thankful thingy in October, and the missus is always nagging me about needing to ‘check the list twice’ and everything, so I didn’t want to dawdle this year.”

Is it merely an accident, or instead, a growing trend?  Ever since Kris Kringle endorsed “Black Friday” as the unofficial start to the Christmas season, retailers have been utilizing his likeness earlier and earlier to promote their sales.

“Santa is good business,” one store-manager concluded succinctly.

Statistical analysis indicates consumers, in turn, are beginning to shift their attentions to the Christmas season sooner than ever before.

“Thanksgiving?” one mother of four shrugged, “I’m thankful when my shopping’s done and all the presents are wrapped.”

In the U.S., Thanksgiving has legally controlled the fourth Thursday in November since December 26, 1941 (the day after Christmas).  Traditionally, the holiday has occurred on this date since 1863, however a source close to the Ministry of Christmas contends, “Nobody has ever said anything about the following Friday, or any of the weeks prior, for that matter.”

This same source, in an exclusive interview, revealed that Santa is no longer solely in charge of the Ministry, and that he is most likely not the one responsible for the increased promotional effort.  Tech-hungry consumer demands have allowed corporate retailers and manufacturers to muscle in on the North Pole’s operation.

“Kids don’t just want dollies, tin soldiers or BB guns anymore,” the source instructed, “they want an iTouch, an X-Box or a Nintendo DS.  Who do you think makes those, the elves?”

For her part, Thanks is unwilling to let Kringle off the hook.  Interviewed in a grocery store parking-lot, next to a row of leaning fir trees, she confirmed that she had heard the rumors but added, “Santa not in charge anymore?  I simply won’t believe it.”

Regardless of who’s to blame, Thanksgiving has clearly been slighted, and the effects of this negligence have yet to be fully realized.

“I don’t mean to seem ungrateful,” Thanks explained.  “Everybody loves Santa, especially the children, but I just think we need to stop and appreciate what we already have, before we begin asking for something new.”

When asked what she hoped to accomplish by her symbolic gesture, Thanks replied, “Gratitude should precede bounty in action and acknowledgment; it is the parent of all other virtues.  Santa should understand.”

By request: Gluten-Free Pizza Crust
Nov 14th, 2011 by Nancy

I’ve been following along with the Food Studies posts at Grist lately, and the most recent post “What’s Up with Gluten?” landed near and dear to my heart.  Finally!  Some sane, sensible, science-based words about gluten!  Thanks, Mitchell Mattes.   I commented, then mentioned I had a knack for gluten-free pizza crust (my husband was diagnosed celiac about 12 years ago), and a couple people requested it.  This seemed like a better place to post it than Grist.

It is, actually, a recipe from “Gluten-Free Gourmet: Living Well without Wheat” by Bette Hagman.  Her book was a lifesaver for me back in the dark ages of food allergies.  Fast forward to the present, and I’m overwhelmed (and delighted) by all the food producers that include allergen information on their labels.  ‘Makes my life much easier.

Anyway, back to the recipe: I’ve made this many, many times and have found a few shortcuts that make assembly easier, as well as additions that (I think) improve the outcome a bit.  Besides all that, today’s The Big Game, which is all the excuse I need to make a pizza.

YEAST-RISING THICK PIZZA CRUST adapted from The Gluten-Free Gourmet: Living Well without Wheat, by Bette Hagman, copyright 1990.

This makes dough for two 12-14″ pizzas.  The dough freezes nicely, so you can make one pizza now and sleep well knowing you have the makings for another one later.

1. Begin by preparing two pans for pizza.  I use the underside of my lasagne pan (or cookie sheets).  Why the underside? you ask – In truth, I don’t know why I started doing that.  Maybe the heat reaches the pizza better; maybe it’s just because it’s easier to serve pizza off a flat surface.  In any event,

pan and oilI generously coat the the pans with olive oil (tip: if your pans are non-stick, you’ll find the oil doesn’t distribute well; in that case use vegetable shortening), then dust them lightly with cornmeal to give the pizzas that “tavern pizza” finish.cornmeal for panoiling pan

Don’t worry that your pans are rectangles and you think your pizza should be round; go ahead and make a “racetrack” shaped pizza.

11-12 dry ingredients2. Throw in a large bowl (a stand mixer if you have one is perfect for this):

2 C rice flour

2 C tapioca flour

2/3 C dry milk powder

3 1/2 t xanthan gum (Essential.  Found at many grocery stores these days; try the baking aisle or the health foods aisle)

1 t salt

2 T dry yeast granules I recommend, if you haven’t baked in awhile and you have some dusty old packets of yeast in the back of your cabinet, pitch those and by a jar of the granules.  Fresh yeast does make a difference.

water, shortening and egg whites

1 T sugar

Mix with the bread hook or cookie paddle a few times to combine the dry ingredients.

3. Separate 4 eggs; we’ll use the whites in the pizza. Save the yolks for another day -

you were looking for an excuse to make custard, yes? Or maybe lemon curd?

4. Combine:

pizza dough is like really sticky frosting1 1/2 cups hot water (hot tap water is fine – 125° to 135°)

3 T shortening

Water at that temperature will allow the shortening to melt.

5. Add the water and the egg whites to the dry ingredients (turn the mixer on low if you are using one), and blend at high speed for 4 minutes.

Don’t worry that the water is too hot for the yeast – the act of adding it to the mixed dry ingredients cools it rapidly.  As long as you are using fresh yeast don’t worry, either, about proofing the yeast (softening it in warm water+a little sugar before use).  This method described above has worked every time for me. Note that the xanthan gum provides the stretch that the gluten-free flours lack, and it needs time to soften and develop in the dough.  Finally, you won’t need to let this rise; it will do so while you spread the crust and dress it.

After the mixing, you will have a dough that’s much wetter and stickier than traditional wheat dough.  Don’t worry, that’s normal for gluten-free goods.

Divide the goo onto the two prepared pans, then liberally coat your hands in olive oil and gently press and prod the doughs into flat, roundish crusts that are about 1/4″ thick, leaving somewhat thicker edges to hold in sauce and toppings.  Re-oil your hands as necessary to minimize sticking; the finished crusts will be shiny but not drippy with oil.   I find that the dough is prone to tearing, so be gentle and patient; I also find that the heel of my hands works better than my fingers for spreading crusts.  Note that you won’t get a perfect circle and it won’t look “justlike a wheat crust” but it will be fine, and it WILL taste great.11-12 pizza in process 3pizza in process 1pizza in process 2

DRESSING THE PIZZA

Have on hand:

11-12 cheese added

11-12 sauce added

Tomato sauce for pizza (about one cup) I use a good quality spaghetti sauce, and it works just fine.  If you use that and happen to have a little tomato paste on hand, add it to the sauce to thicken it a bit; if not, that’s fine too.  Be careful if the spaghetti sauce is “chunky”, as the pieces, when you try and spread them on the dough, can tear it.  Be careful, and take your time.

Shredded mozzarella I use about a pound per pizza.  It looks like too much; it isn’t.

Shredded fresh parmesan If you don’t have fresh parmesan, you can omit this, but I highly recommend it.

Toppings as you see fit.

The most common difference between homemade pizza and good restaurant pizza is that homemade pizzas tend to have too much sauce and not enough cheese.   Once the crust is spread, apply a modest layer of sauce, then ample shredded mozzarella to within an inch or two of the edge.  Add toppings, then finish off the whole affair with a dusting of grated fresh parmesan (about a half cup per pizza).

Apply another coat of olive oil to the outer edge if it looks dry, then

11-12 pizza ready to bake

Salt and pepper the whole thing, especially the outer edge – I know, I know, you’re thinking doesn’t the cheese have finished pizzaenough salt already? Ignore your concerns.  The results are great.  I haven’t tried any seasoned salts, but I bet they’d work well too.

6. Bake the whole affair at 400° for 20 – 25 minutes.  Check the pizzas at about 15 – 20 minutes, and rotate the pans if they aren’t browning evenly.

Enjoy!

If you’d like to make one pizza now and another later, you can freeze the dough as soon as it’s mixed; OR you can spread the dough, place the cookie sheet in the freezer and harden up the raw, spread crust, then wrap and store it for future thawing, dressing and baking; OR you can “blind bake” the undressed crust  for 15 minutes and freeze it for later use.  I’ve done all three with good results.

I’ve also mixed the dough and divided it into 8 “mini pizzas”, then blind baked them for future use.  It’s more work but a real treat to pull one out for a quick dinner.

slice showing crustLet me know how they turned out!

crust underside - browned, crunchy+chewy

The Plastic Files: Episode One
Nov 5th, 2011 by Chris

The Truth Is Out There …

We’re about to embark on a gripping adventure.  A confounding mystery has thrust itself into the offices of Lunchsense World Headquarters, and we, driven by an unyielding determination to shed light on any dim corner of obscurity, feel obligated to inveDetective-with-smoke-flippedstigate.  It’s a bewildering complexity that involves multinational corporations, government agencies, public health groups, environmentalists and possibly even mad scientists.  The wellness of the planet and the sustenance of our species could hang in the balance.

The story begins with the kind of woman you cross the floor and light a cigarette for (if people still smoked).  “Hey, I kinda like your lunchboxes,” she says off-handedly before shooting me one of those straight-to-the-gut stares that suggests more than it delivers.  “But,”—there’s always a hangnail, a stickler, some pain to snap me out of it—“are these plastic food containers safe?”

Ah, there’s the rub; the stopping point for many potential lady-friends and forward-thinking fellas alike.  It seems plastic has recently transitioned from its gilded, “better living” period to a much darker phase of skepticism and mistrust.  Who crashed the Tupperware party?  Do we have good reason to be afraid?  Is plastic another asbestos—a toxic substance that surrounds us, masquerading as modern convenience?  Or has public anxiety been heightened egregiously by the rampant spread of misinformation via nefarious, unqualified sources?  Who can be trusted?

Since selling plastic food containers is a part of our business, and since we’re human and live here too, Lunchsense has decided to put our considerable resources (this blog space) toward determining exactly where the truth lies.  Combining Nancy’s scientific/research background with my own journalist’s instincts (shaded by a gumshoed-sleuth persona), we’re certain to crack the case.  We’ll leave no stone unturned in our quest to discover what is known and unknown about this seductive, synthetic substance.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be featuring a series of blog posts related to the safety of plastic food containers, and we’ll be looking at the most viable alternative (for our purposes), stainless steel.  We’ll outline and weigh their environmental impact, both in the manufacturing process and in the post-consumer period.  We’ll also examine any health risks involved with using plastic (or stainless) food containers.  Finally, we’ll discuss what qualities consumers use to determine “good” from “bad,” how those impressions are influenced, and where (we think) our food containers rate on that scale.

It’s sure to be a heart-pounding thrill, so stay tuned for our next installment, a short, historical primer entitled: Plastic Fantastic? We’ll explain what plastic is and how it’s produced.  We’ll describe the different types of plastics and discuss the chemicals used in the manufacture of these types, including their toxicity and any associated health risks.

The truth is out there, so don’t you dare miss a single upcoming episode of our revealing series: The Plastic Files!

Lunchsense Lands a Star
Oct 17th, 2011 by Chris

This is the Stella Star.  Look for it on the best websites!Online shopping has become everyone’s favorite way of finding what they need.  It has never been easier to locate products and comparison-shop for the lowest prices, yet how do we choose between multiple sites that offer the exact same deal?  More often than not, great customer service makes the difference, but who wants to find out the hard way that a site isn’t up to snuff?  Consumers can now look to the stars for guideposts to the web’s best retailers.

STELLAService rates the customer service of online stores – anonymously, and rigorously – and issues their distinctive trust marks to those that make the grade and receive an “elite” or “excellent” score.

We’re happy to announce: Lunchsense has been awarded a STELLAService star for “excellent” customer service.

STELLA’s anonymous evaluation process stress tests more than 300 elements of the online customer experience.  They navigate sites, conduct usability tests, order AND return products, interacting with companies via phone, email and (when applicable) online chat.  It’s all done undercover (we had no idea we were being tested), so the results are unbiased and “true to the experience.”

“The beauty is we don’t need their permission to do it,” STELLA CEO, Jordy Leiser says.  “We just go and become customers.”

While the preponderance of customer-generated, online reviews can prove helpful, STELLA recognized a need for independent, third-party evaluations done by professionals.  “The crowd-sourcing idea is very important because you want to know what the community thinks,” Leiser says.  “But they capture a very small percentage of the market, often only the extreme experiences.”

STELLA is serious about the business of evaluating customer service and they’ve convinced some big players to buy-in, securing $1.75 million in venture funding from key Wall Street investors.   And fifty of the top online retailers are already displaying the STELLA trust mark including big names like Diapers.com, Zappos.com, and 1-800 Flowers.com.  Only stores that receive an “elite” or “excellent” rating are entitled to display the STELLA star.  According to the STELLA site,

This seal is the only trust mark on the Web that objectively and credibly communicates to shoppers that a store is truly dedicated to providing great customer service.

Passing the test once is only the beginning. STELLA evaluates stores repeatedly – at least once a year – so we have to keep meeting their “elite” or “excellent” benchmarks, or we’ll lose our star.  And, because the reviews are conducted anonymously, we never know when we are being scored.  Getting the star is a fabulous feather, but keeping it means maintaining a consistent track record of outstanding customer service.

Lunchsense has always taken a “keep it simple” approach to customer service.  We want you to be completely satisfied with your lunchbox purchase, and we do everything we can to insure that you are.  First and foremost, we’re real people.  We strive to be accessible, friendly and accommodating, and we want our site to be as well.  Shopping at Lunchsense should be a comfortable, agreeable experience—it wouldn’t be sensible any other way.  If you find that we haven’t met your expectations, PLEASE tell us – we’ll listen, and we’ll try our best to make things right.

We’re extremely proud of our “excellent” customer service rating from STELLAService.  It feels great to be counted among the web’s stars!

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