Garage Sale Reflections

I proposed to my wife over thirty years ago when we were both in grad school, poor but happy in a small midwestern city. My mother-in-law to-be telephoned her relatives in Canada to inform them of the upcoming nuptials and they asked the obvious question: what do they want for a wedding gift? Without consulting us or her husband, she replied, “Silver service.”

For thirty years, my wife and I have dutifully wrapped and boxed a least twenty pieces of silver service and schlepped them around the country as we moved for jobs. We cannot remember ever using one piece although my wife swears that we must have served on silver at least once. My only memories are pulling out the silver, moaning over the tarnish and wasting an afternoon polishing the pieces before wrapping them in fresh plastic wrap and putting them back in the cabinet.

We are moving again but this time we are paying for the move ourselves. After packing and unpacking the silver into cabinets and cupboards to be conveniently forgotten for years I insisted, the silver goes. We never use it and I am done polishing it. Thus began a series of conversations that culminated in a garage sale on a Sunday morning.

Downsizing has been a process. The back corners, the utility shelves and the closets were searched. Once we decided the task was insurmountable and someone else’s fault, we rallied our energy and started. The first weekends concluded with piles of junk on the curb. The weight of paperwork, notebooks and outdated materials of one Ph.D., one D.D., three M.A.’s, four undergraduate degrees and several careers was alarming. The unsalable was depressing. Metal for salvage was set aside for those entrepreneurial souls who cruised the neighborhoods on certain nights. By Monday morning, some of items were gone and others were dutifully thrown into the back of the garbage truck.

The house was purged and the garage was refilled. The digital notice went out and in the early evening the night before the sale, I nailed a sign at traffic light at the top of my neighborhood. Everything from the backyard was moved around to the fence for quick setup. The early morning alarm was set.

All the items were arranged for display on the asphalt of the driveway. I euphemistically referred to the furniture, the housewares, cd’s, silver, and other items as “crap” as in, “I put all the crap out; let’s see if it sells.”

By midmorning, I no longer thought of the items as crap. I had been blinded by my privilege. The couch, love seat, stuffed chair combo that had worn poorly was offered for free because bedbugs are an issue in my area and no reputable organization accepts them now. A family came somewhat early, asked about the furniture and claimed the set. A friend had phoned them, telling them of the offer. They took off all the cushions and then began calling everywhere to find a truck or van. In the late afternoon, we loaded the furniture in the back of large pickup belonging to a friend of a friend. The family was exhausted but content.

The gas grill went. The dresser was purchased by an employer for a woman who had no money after paying rent on an empty apartment. A woman who ships or delivers goods to poverty-stricken homes bought a box of bedsheets, mattress covers, bed ruffles, and tablecloths. We had a long conversation about the lack of supports. Her friend bought the mini-fridge for a house kitchen that only had a stove. More than one grandparent swung by searching for tools for their grandsons who work construction for a living.

Few if any want used books. No one wants dated stereo equipment either.

Almost everything went. Most of the items went to people without much means rather than the professional resellers that trawl garage sales early in the morning. Everything we sold was in working order. People needed what we had to offer, from tools and home goods to school supplies.

We had expected to make a couple hundred dollars with the assumption that we did not want anything we offered for sale to go into the landfill; better to sell it than dump it. Whether we realized what we had done, we had priced everything or repriced everything to get it out of my house into other households who would use it. I told the family who bought my gas grill where to get their propane tanks filled at the best price. I tied the eleven-foot extending ladder to the roof of a young woman’s car, after she walked her toddler in his stroller home first.

In Hebrew, business is called maseh u’matan, give and take. Nothing was priced to make a profit but I made a goodly one nonetheless. Everyone who chose to speak with me was treated with respect and the respect was reciprocated every time. People walked away with a smile and I smiled with them. The young man who purchased my lawnmower must have needed it because the relief on his face was evident when I quoted the price.

Their need struck me. Several of my visitors walked over from one of the main avenues only a few streets away. I must pass their homes daily, never giving them a thought or even a glance. As we talked and bargained, late model SUV’s trundled past, heading out of the neighborhood, their occupants staring at us as they passed. People said “thank you” and shook my hand. We exchanged names, neighborhood updates on traffic and congestion, and political commentary.

I probably gave away too much and priced lower than I could have. However, what I received in return for used goods that I no longer wanted was more than worthwhile. Said one man as we discussed the cushion-less couch in the mid-afternoon, “You understand; you have a good heart.” I truly got more out of my garage sale than profit.

As for the silver-plated serving pieces that started this process, on my wife’s advice, I swept them up into a box and sold them in bulk for a quick price to the purchaser of the dresser. I placed them in her car to be doubly sure she took them. There was a happy dance on the driveway when her car disappeared around the corner.

Nostalgia versus the Roasted Chicken

“O dear God, not chicken again!” was a common refrain  in my household and across many other houses as well. Chicken was tasteless, a poor excuse for a good meal because it was overcooked and dry. The skin was a spongy limp mouthful of yuck. Hiding it under tomato sauce or burying it in flavored rice did not dispel the fowl’s worst qualities.

(Fried chicken was apparently in a food class by itself and had little functional relationship to the roasted, broiled, baked, or boiled fowl of gastronomic dismay. My memory is a bit fuzzy but I am fairly certain that fried chicken was an entirely separate category in the food pyramid, right up there with candy, cookies, brownies and cakes, which is why my mother would not make it very often. Fried chicken is still the top American entry for the title “Food of the Gods” in my book.)

The domesticated chicken in the West emerged from India from a small red jungle fowl. A similar chicken emerged in the East, probably from Thailand. Cocks crowing are mentioned in the Bible but when the Bible discusses sacrificing birds and eating them, the text is referring to turtle doves. Ancient Greece mentions chickens by 600 BCE but again, as cocks crowing. They were considered exotic birds. Ancient Persia deified them and a pope elevated them. The earliest chicken recipes come from Rome, where the bird was preferred boiled and served with sauces made with the offal.

No fried chicken for the Romans.

According to the New York Times, roasted chicken is supposed to be a nostalgic comfort food that evokes the ancient ritual of families sitting around the table together to eat dinner. What I remember as nostalgia was picking up a white oven-bag of a whole roasted bird from the heated tray at the Winn Dixie after band practice and before homework. The birds in those bags were always available, no matter the day. Adding to the cozy warmth of store-cooked birds was the expectation of the leftovers of this salty, greasy mess turning into an unrecognizable science experiment by the next morning. Perhaps nostalgia for roasted chicken is a bit more fiction than food writers are willing to admit.

Returning to the dish: The holy grail of the roasted chicken dish is moist meat, crispy skin, and sweet juices collecting underneath for a simple gravy. I assume that a generation ago the educated cook could turn out a great dish with just a little bit of effort on the small, non-hybrid birds. Today’s version of oversized breasts and un-exercised muscles makes the cooking overly cumbersome and usually not worth the effort: the finished fowl today is typically not a religious epiphany.

However, even with the hurdles of the modern chicken farming (which is scary), a home kitchen can turn out a decent roasted chicken. The essential tool one needs for roasted chicken is a cast iron pan. Without cast iron, this simple recipe will not work.

1 whole chicken

Butter, oil or (best) chicken fat

Kosher salt and ground pepper

 

Preheat oven to 350o F

Wash the chicken. Pop out one thigh bone from the spine. Using a knife or chicken shears, cut the chicken in half up that side of the spine. Turn the chicken over and, using the palms of your hands, press down and break the breast bone, leaving the chicken flat.

Cover the bottom of the cast iron pan with kosher salt. Place chicken in the pan, folding the thighs so that the legs are facing in. Rub the chicken with the preferred fat. Season the skin with more kosher salt and pepper.

Shove the pan in the oven and roast for 90 minutes. Ten minutes before the end, check the skin. If the skin is not crisp, turn on the broiler to crisp the skin, being careful not to burn it.

Remove and plate the chicken if serving immediately. If not plating, let the bird rest on a chopping board, covered. The juices in the bottom are usually three or four tablespoons of fat and the rest is juice. You can use these juices either to make a gravy or to pour into a mason jar for another dish. I use the chilled fat from the mason jar to coat my roasted chicken the next week and the solidified juices for the gravy.

 

Piggy bank for College?

The New York Times ran an op-ed column by Andrea Levere on October 7, 2014 (yesterday as of this writing) on Children’s Savings Account (CSA). Ms. Levere is attempting to address the issue of sending lower income children to college by starting CSA’s for disadvantaged children in kindergarten or even at birth as a government program. The idea is worthy but the presentation has a terrible flaw – saving money even from birth does not pay for college any more.

My good friend was so proud of his first born and had great dreams for her. He put $100 in a 529 College Savings Plan every month through her first 18 years. At the end of her 12th grade year, her account had $40,000. For a capital investment of $21,600 with compounding interest, the child had a great start so it seemed.

Except that $40,000 did not cover completely her first year of college. She was an excellent student who excelled and secured a slot an fine university that was not Ivy League. If her father had put away $500 a month for 18 years, then the power of compounding interest would have paid for her undergraduate career. That is $6000 compared to the $1200 that my friend socked away each year. For middle class families in the United States, putting away for each child $6000 a year for college is not a possibility. Putting away 8% of the household income per child when the average income for a two adult, two child middle class household at $75,000 a year is a fantasy.

Adding insult to injury is the manner in which the government calculates estimated family contribution (EFC) for government sponsored loans and grants for college. The higher the EFC number, the more the family has to pay out of its own pocket. If the money is still in the 529 College Savings plan, the government calculates 100% of the money for college, which raises EFC by hundreds or thousands of dollars. If the college money is not in the 529 plan but under the parents’ name in any sort of investment fund, then the government calculates a percentage of the money based on the 1040 tax return, which will be less than 100% including the parents paying income tax on the college money the previous year! The money is the same amount but the EFC will be lower. The system is disconnected by college savings under one agency and college loans under another agency and thus broken.

The real kicker is that if the family has not put aside any money for college, the EFC will be lower and the student and the family will qualify for more subsidized loans and/or grants.

College tuition along with room and board has risen much faster than inflation in the United States and real wages have been stagnant for at least twenty years. Also, the middle-class paying jobs of the foreseeable future require a Bachelor’s Degree. Without government intervention into this non-market driven segment of our economy, more and more of the population will be disenfranchised from achieving or even maintaining a middle class livelihood. This is more than bad economics, this is a recipe for the decline of a nation.