The Riverwalk, My Private Place

I believe that we all have interests and activities that are inherently natural for us as individuals. The physical exercise that best resonates with me is walking. I started walking several years ago, and it is something that I not only enjoy but also that I look forward to. However, if I don’t walk for several days, my formerly easy treks become tiring. I’m not too fond of that feeling. Insufferably hot days have challenged me; I typically walk during the late morning or early afternoon. Naturally, these are the highest temperature times for such escapades.

I checked my iPhone’s weather app and confirmed what I already knew. Today’s high temperature would be around 100F. Another sweltering day, it was time for a change of plans.

I’m a comfortable stroller. I love to listen to the sounds around me, smell the smells, and ambulate at a rate where it is easy to think, meditate, and say hello to those who cross my path.  

Lately, I have developed a habit of spending my early mornings writing, reading, and doing mundane tasks, like checking my email. However, today was a time to mix things up. After I woke up and cleaned up, I immediately got dressed. I had gotten some new trail runners for Father’s Day to replace my worn-out Asics hikers. So I slipped them on and went out the door. The temperature would be rising soon; it was time to move.

The air was warm and welcoming. Perhaps the humidity was too high, but a light breeze compensated for the increased moisture. The weather felt perfect.

I made my way to The Riverwalk and onto its paths. I was utterly alone. Perhaps the specter of the repressive weather report kept people away, or maybe it was the early weekday hour. I celebrated the scheduling freedom of my retirement as I put one foot in front of the other. I inhaled the sweet smells of flowers mixed with the green aroma of grass. Both tickled my nose and triggered camping memories. Birds chirped, and leaves rustled. Otherwise, all was quiet. Even the sounds of my footfalls were dampened by the thick rubber soles of my new Salomons. My steady pace continued. 

I love walking on The Riverwalk. Dirt paths, brick paths, grassy fields, and covered bridges. My times there feel like I am at a vacation destination, but today was special. I was walking in my private estate. I became lost in my thoughts yet acutely aware of my surroundings. The playground was empty; the beach was quiet. My walk continued over a covered bridge to the south side of the path. No one was at the paddle boat pond; the park benches were vacant. My walk continued. Peace washed over me.

Soon my loop was almost completed. I sat on a quiet bench to appreciate the beauty of my surroundings. Then up, then walking, I continued. I exited onto Jefferson Avenue to find that the city was waking. A few cars whizzed by me, and ahead was a man ambulating in my direction. My space, private no more; it had been mine for a few privileged moments—a period of exclusive beauty. A gift of nature was given to me because of a change in plans—a change with delightful consequences.

Do you ever get surprised when a simple change in your life gives you an unexpected benefit? I celebrate such discoveries. I choose to look at an obstacle as an opportunity. Life is often what we make of it. Having to change plans isn’t always negative; our attitude and acceptance can be the secret sauce to happiness.  

Peace.

The playground was empty.
The park benches were empty.
The pavilion was empty.
The beach was empty.
The paddleboat pond was empty.
I crossed a covered bridge to the south side of the path.
The river flowed below me.
A deer and her fawns enjoyed the coolness of the river.

Bluetti AC200 Solar Generator Review

If you are a vandweller or adventurer, you know that there are a few things that you must have, and one of the most important is a source of power to run and charge your electronic devices. Many vandwellers have 12-volt fridges, fans, and lighting systems. All have devices that need to be charged.  

If your needs are simple, there are many small battery banks that will do the job. However, if you desire creature comforts, like a fridge, you will need a bigger battery system as well as a way to top off your battery. If your travels take you away from traditional campgrounds, your recharging system will most likely consist of solar panels.

In 2018 I purchased a new Ram Promaster and had a basic camper conversion done at Wayfarer Vans in Colorado Springs. This conversion gave me a functional camper, but I have spent the last four years adding and subtracting to its build, refining the design to fit my needs.

At the start of my van journey, I knew that I wanted a fridge, and I also knew that I would be doing a lot of boondocking. In 2018 most vandwellers who needed power cobbled together their own systems using AGM batteries, solar controllers, converters, inverters, and solar panels. I didn’t want this hassle, and there seemed to be a new option on the block, the solar generator.

Now common, these devices were fairly novel in 2018. However, the concept seemed perfect for me as everything needed for a full electrical system was available in a simple plug-and-play box. The big player in the 2018 market was Goal Zero, a Utah-based company that built quality products.  

My initial setup consisted of a Goal Zero 1250 Solar Generator (100 AH battery) and 300 watts of Renogy solar panels mounted on my campervan’s roof. I modified an existing storage bin in my van (a boot box) to become her power center. The Goal Zero did the job, but it had some significant drawbacks. Its 12-volt receptacle was not regulated, so I was always afraid that its voltage would drop and my fridge would turn off (this never happened in the two years that I used the unit). It used an AGM battery which was both enormously heavy and had a power usage limit of a maximum 50% percent draw, so its usable capacity was 50 AH, not 100 AH. In addition, AGM batteries have a limited number of recharge cycles. Lastly, charge time using any source was fairly slow for the Goal Zero.

I increased my battery capacity by daisy-chaining two more 100 AH AGM batteries giving me a usable capacity of 150 AH (50% of 300 AH), and I started to expand my electrical use. With this system, I could run a tiny microwave and use an induction burner at medium or lower power. I love the idea of free energy, and so my power needs expanded further by adding a Webasto heater (which uses power to run its fan) to the mix. 

With my Goal Zero system, I was able to get by, but I always had to be very mindful of exactly what I was doing. Worse was the weight of the system. The Goal Zero was so heavy that I needed help to lift it out of the battery box, and with two additional and very heavy AGM batteries jammed into the box, it was impossible to do any troubleshooting when I was solo and away from home. The answer to these problems came with Bluetti’s Indiegogo campaign for the AC200. I can’t remember the exact cost of the unit, but it was very reasonable at the time. I bought one, replaced the Goal Zero, and I haven’t looked back. I have had the AC200 since 2020, and I feel that I can give a fairly balanced review. Please note that the AC200 has been replaced by the AC200P, which is similar to my unit, but the battery was changed from Li to LifePO4 and increased in capacity from 1700 AH to 2000 AH.  

Pros of the Bluetti

-Quality build.

-Significantly lighter (around 60 pounds) compared to my old Goal Zero. I can easily lift it.

-Lithium batteries can be discharged to 10%, so my available power is the same as my previous three battery super-heavy system.

-Depending on the battery’s chemistry lithium batteries can be recharged from one thousand to several thousand cycles. I think mine can be recharged well over 1000 times. This would give my battery a decade of life based on its current use.

-The unit can use up to 700 watts of solar for faster charging. I increased my roof solar to 400 watts, which is the max that I can fit on the van’s roof.

-The AC brick charges significantly faster than my Goal Zero unit. At approximately 500 watts/hour.

-You can buy an additional charger and double your charge rate to around 1000 watts/hour.

-You can fully charge your unit in 3 to 3.5 hours. In real terms, charging to 100% is faster than that, as I never bring my battery down to 10%. 

-The 12-volt power supply is regulated, so I always have the correct voltage for my fridge and any other voltage-sensitive devices (like my Webasto heater).

-The unit has a 2000-watt pure sine wave inverter. I can run my induction burner at its full power without worry. Naturally, excessive use will quickly drain my battery.

-Induction charging pads are available on the top of the unit for phone charging (sadly, they don’t seem to work with my particular iPhone). 

-A 60-watt USB C port is available for charging small laptops or iPads.

-The display panel provides tons of information for the geek in me.

-The availability of a powerful inverter has opened up the world of free energy. I not only use an induction cooktop and microwave, but I also have a little Keurig-type coffee maker and even a small electric pressure cooker.  

Cons of the Bluetti

-The display is always on; you can’t turn it off. If you are light-sensitive, this could be a problem at night. Naturally, you can cover the display with something like an index card to darken it.

-The unit requires a higher voltage from solar instead of the 12 volts required by other units. I had to rewire my solar panels in series from parallel to give me around 48 volts of output. In itself, this isn’t a big deal. However, I carry some smaller battery banks that I can’t charge with my solar array because they require 12 volts. 

-My biggest concern with the Bluetti is phantom power loss. The unit has to be on to accept solar charging. In fact, if solar is plugged into the unit, it will switch itself on. If the unit is on with no load (both DC and AC power turned off), it will drop (on average) from 100% charge to about 90% in 24 hours. This is a very significant draw. If my battery charge is lower, the percentage drop is even greater. I have read about this phantom loss concern in Bluetti’s forum, so I know that it isn’t specific to my unit. I have also contacted Bluetti about it. The only option given was to turn off the unit, which is not always practical.  

If I’m running my fridge, I not only have to deal with the power usage from the fridge but also an additional 10%+ reduction from other sources. Those sources include the phantom loss and any overhead loss incurred by the unit’s voltage regulation circuitry.  

If the unit is completely turned off, it continues to lose power, but at a much slower rate. This is in contrast to other solar generators that I have used that will maintain a 100% charge for months when off. 

I can easily recoup the phantom loss if I have full sun exposure. In addition, I have a 2KW inverter connected to my car battery. If I am driving, I’ll switch the inverter on, which connects to the Bluetti’s AC brick allowing me to charge from both solar and AC.   

However, there have been times when this power loss has been an issue. I was recently camping for a weekend in a partially shaded area. I was stationary for the entire weekend. I was very conservative with my power use and only ran my Dometic fridge plus very light usage of my house lights. In addition, I used a 650-watt microwave (950-watt input) once for about 3 minutes during the entire weekend. I used a small battery bank to charge my phone (more convenient). Finally, I idled the car for about 25 minutes once during the weekend to power my car’s inverter to charge my Bluetti.  

Total time off-grid was from Friday at around 4 PM to Sunday around 11 AM. By Sunday, my battery was at 50%. This battery usage was acceptable but a bit troubling. If I was going to stay at that site any longer, I would have had to have moved the van into the direct sun (options were limited), or I would have had to go for a drive to charge the Bluetti via my car’s inverter.  

I hope that this phantom power loss has been eliminated in newer units. Ten percent is 170 watts of lost power. The lower the battery, the greater the percentage loss. For instance, at 50% capacity, I have 850 WH. A 170-watt loss is now 20% of my total capacity. This phantom loss was not present in my Goal Zero or smaller units (like my Jackery 500) that I use, so it is unclear why this is happening with my Bluetti unit.

Conclusion

There are so many things that I like about my Bluetti AC200. However, the phantom power loss is a concern; I have found workarounds for it. My favorite features (compared to my old Goal Zero 1250 system) are its lighter weight, smaller overall footprint, fast charging, and 2000-watt pure sine wave inverter.  

The Bluetti is competitively priced for a brand-named unit. However, there are now a number of no-name brands that are more reasonable. With that said, buying a no-name brand can be a bit of a crap shoot. I saw a review where a unit could not be turned off of eco-mode. It would turn off if it didn’t constantly have a draw on it. This could be a real problem using an intermittent draw device like a fridge. I watched another review of a different unit that didn’t allow for pass-through charging. In addition, no-name units often have very poor product support.  

If you are looking for a solar generator to complement your car or van setup, it is very reasonable to consider Bluetti. Mine has served me well since 2020.

The Bluetti is a fairly sleek modern looking unit.
Compared to a Jackery 500, it is a much bigger unit.
My original Goal Zero 1250 plus 2 AGM batteries were crammed into this little boot box. I could not service anything in the box unless I had someone help me lift this behemoth.
I mounted the Bluetti in the same boot box and I didn’t even have to change the opening for the control panel. I did need to modify the side panel so I could access the connections for the AC brick and the solar panels.
A close-up view of the control panel. There are a ton of connectors for 12-volt, USB, and AC. The panel can’t be turned off, which may bother some lighter sleepers.
You can use lithium batteries in cold weather, but their BMS won’t allow charging when it is very cold as it could damage the battery. This is in contrast to older AGM-type batteries. I made a little heating pad for the Bluetti so I could charge it when the temperature dropped.
If you have enough battery power and a big enough inverter you can do amazing things like using an electric coffee maker while camping. It takes less than 5 minutes to make a cup of coffee and this machine uses less than 600 watts, so total power usage is less than 45 watts per cup.
Believe it or not, I can use a small electric pressure cooker. These devices are very efficient. At max power, this one uses around 600 watts, but it only consumes this when it is reaching pressure. Once at pressure it sips power, cycling on for a few seconds every few minutes. Here I’m making stew for my son and me. The pot fed us for multiple meals making the process even more efficient.

Sh*T Happens

I laid in bed feeling both sweaty and cold. I could feel the breeze from the ceiling fan above. I had one leg outside of the blanket and the other inside in a feeble attempt to regulate my opposing temperature perceptions. Julie was asleep, but her foot brushed up against my bare thigh. I turned on my side and pulled her close to me in an effort to gain some comfort. My mind was racing, but why? I tried to calm myself and fall asleep. I had a feeling that something bad was going to happen. “That is ridiculous,” I said to myself, “Stop catastrophizing; you have taken this trip many times before.”

I woke up in a haze and sat up in bed in an attempt to get moving. I had taken a shower the night before, but I still needed to brush my teeth and wash my face. I looked out of the window and realized that I would have to shuffle the cars so that Kathryn could get to work. My head was full of cobwebs; I felt hungover. 

Now downstairs, I grabbed the keys to Julie’s Ford Flex and faced a coolish breeze as I made a dash to the car in my slippers. On autopilot, I backed the Ford out of the driveway and onto the street.

William was still sleeping. He had a morning ZOOM meeting with his university research group, and that would delay our departure. I resisted the urge to make sure that he was up for the meeting. He is now a senior in college, and I accepted the fact that he knew how to manage his time.

I dropped a capsule of low acid coffee into the Keurig and waited for my mug to fill. I found some Costco drumsticks in the fridge from last night’s dinner. They were delicious then, but this morning my tastebuds were not in the mood for garlic. I took two bites and tossed the leg into the garbage. Now in my study, I sipped coffee and mindlessly scanned Facebook, then YouTube, then my emails. The coffee was starting to kick in, and I could feel the fog lift and my focus return.  

Will appeared and informed me that the meeting was shorter than expected, and he was ready to leave. I sent him into the basement storage room to retrieve a sleeping bag for himself, and I also instructed him to bring one of his pillows. He ambled off. Now in the fridge and pantry, I gathered items. Mustard, catsup, some hotdogs, syrup for pancakes, the list went on. I couldn’t find my pocket knife, A strange and slightly ominous sign.

We were going to Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, to hike trails that I had been on many times, but would be a first for William. I continued to try to shake off my foreboding feelings as ridiculous as we pulled out of our driveway. Our adventure had begun.

I booked 2 nights at the Skillet Creek campground, which was only minutes from the state park entrance. Our narrow and deep site abutted a creek. I decided to back in and park close to the road. The spot was fairly level, but I had one of my intuitive feelings and didn’t want to pull way back into the site. This meant that we couldn’t connect to AC power; no bother, as I have solar panels and a house battery powerful enough for any of our needs. I’m always solving scenarios. I like to plan ahead for contingencies.

We started off with the Tumbled Rock trail, as it is fairly level and features gorgeous views of Devil’s Lake. The hike is less than 3 miles and runs through open areas as well as some that are forested. We finished the hike and returned to the main portion of the park. Devil’s Lake State Park has quite a few amenities, so we ambled to the general store to buy some souvenir tee shirts for the rest of the family. Feeling mildly triumphant, we piled into Violet the campervan and headed out of the park and back to Skillet Creek. A fortunate occurrence presented itself on our right; a local was selling firewood for $5 a bundle. We stopped and picked up two parcels.

Hiking with my son, Will.
Parts of the Tumbled Rock path are forested.
Other parts of the trail had beautiful lake views.

The rear cargo door on Violet seemed a bit strange as I opened it. It was almost as if something was stuck in it. I tossed the wood into Violet’s garage and closed the door. However, that felt strange to the point that I reopened the door and shut it again. I shook my head, pulled myself into Violet’s driver’s seat, and drove back to camp.

Once at the campsite, I went to get the wood, but I couldn’t open the rear cargo doors, which was the only way that I could access Violet’s garage. I always bring tools to fix things, but they were also in that space. I grabbed a multi-tool that I kept in her glove box and pried off an access panel on the door. It was clear that the lock’s latch cable had detached. I could diagnose the problem, but despite trying, I couldn’t fix it. I calmed myself and paused for a few minutes to think. Violet’s garage contained a lot of items that we would use on the trip, firewood, lawn chairs, and our extra water, to name a few. However, we could get by without them. “I guess we are having tonight’s hot dogs boiled on the ol’ induction burner instead of roasting them on an open fire,” I chuckled to Will. Our dinner was camper good. Hot dogs, store-bought macaroni salad, and chips. We agreed to reconvene at 8 PM for a movie. I had downloaded Full Metal Jacket from Netflix, which is what Will had requested. The evening ended with the Kubrick classic, and then it was time for bed. Perhaps the door malfunction was the reason that I was intuitively feeling worried. Still, we had worked past this problem, and I continued to feel unsettled. 

My sleep was hampered by a light rain that quickly escalated into a major thunderstorm. Violet shell is sheet metal, and every raindrop that hit her roof was amplified tenfold. I started to worry more. I have climbed the ridges around Devil’s Lake many times, and I knew that the quartzite boulders on the path get extremely slick when wet. Eight years ago, I took a tumble on top of the North Ridge during a rainy climb and fell squarely on my right humerus. It took physical therapy, a trip to an orthopedic surgeon, and over a year for the pain to subside. Now older, I rely on my trekking poles to give me more stability when navigating uneven terrain. I remembered that my trekking poles were also in Violet’s locked garage; bad luck. I was starting to feel uncomfortable with our morning’s plans. However, I didn’t want to disappoint Will. I wanted our trip to be a happy memory for him. I wanted him to think that his old man was cool. Would this be the second strike to our father/son adventure?

The rain kept coming down, and my intuitive voice said, “You may get stuck here.” I completely discounted the thought, noting that I had deliberately backed into my spot and was only yards from the camp road. “Violet has front-wheel drive. Stop worrying about silly things,” I said to myself. 

Morning broke, and Will started to rouse. After a few minutes, I told him that I needed to talk to him about something. “I don’t think that it is wise for us to climb the ridge today. I hurt myself on that climb in the past because the rocks were wet. How about we make a change in plans? I can take you to my favorite diner in Baraboo, and then we can go to a movie. Do you want to see the new Top Gun, Maverick?” Will responded with a flat “OK.” Logically, I knew that he was waking up and still half-asleep. However, I felt like I was disappointing him. I had planned an exciting guy adventure, and now I was offering Will a movie.

After Will woke up a bit, he helped me break down camp. I continued to yammer about the diner as I slid the key into Violet’s ignition and turned it. I checked the site one last time and pulled the van’s gear selector down and into drive. I slowly eased on the gas. Violet moved forward an inch and then got stuck. I tried to roll back and forth in a slow and deliberate way, but she wasn’t going to budge. I have recovery traction tracks in Violet’s garage, but they were locked behind her malfunctioning rear door. I had planned for a mud emergency, but I couldn’t get the tracks that I needed. It felt like Violet was sabotaging me. I quietly swore to myself as I consciously plastered a confident smile on my face. “It looks like we need some help,” I announced. Three major problems in short order, three strikes…were we out?

I carry recovery tracks in Violet’s garage, but I couldn’t access them due to her malfunctioning rear door.

We walked back to the campground office, it was closed. I looked for the emergency phone numbers sheet that I saw when we checked in, but it was gone. Compulsive me had snapped a photo of the sheet the night before. I found the image and read off the numbers to Will. “Remember these numbers and repeat them back to me when I’m dialing,” I requested. Will nodded. I punched the digits into my iPhone and hit your green dial icon. The other end of the line picked up, and someone said, “Skillet Creek Campground.” I told the listener my dilemma, and he told me that he had a tow strap and that he would come out and help. Soon he was at our campsite, out of his pickup truck, and stretching out a tow strap from his hitch to Violet’s front bumper. Even with his friendly help, it took some effort to free Violet from the mud. Then we were back on the road heading out. Three misadventures in less than 24 hours. Violet’s back door broke, we had torrential rains that ended our hiking plans, and we had gotten stuck in the mud. Our father/son bonding trip was turning into a sh*t show.  

Skillet Creek’s owner was more than happy to lend a helping hand. Thank goodness he had a tow strap!
You can see our tracks as we were pulled out of the mud. There would be no way that we could have gotten out without his help.

The diner was less than 10 minutes away, and we were fortunate to find a parking spot directly in front of the establishment. Life was looking up. I have eaten at the Broadway Diner many times, but it was a first for William. After a short wait, we were seated in a back room booth. The first order of business was coffee. Our cheerful waitress was happy to comply, and the hot beverage elevated our mood. I really like the Broadway as it serves a traditional diner-type menu cooked with perfection. William ordered a breakfast combo, and I got chicken fried steak with eggs. Both portions were enormous and could potentially evoke a heart attack for anyone with a cholesterol count above 100. However, being campers, we savored every bite. Our conversations continued as we ate.  

The Broadway Diner is a real diner car that was transported here from out East. It has wonderful, heart-stopping food.
Enormous portions of delicious food.

Adult children are a wonderful thing. At times you hear yourself in their thoughts, and at other times their opinions are completely contrary to yours. Will is intelligent and thoughtful, and having a conversation with him is both enjoyable and informative.

Will asked, “Dad, how would you feel if we saw a different movie?” I said, “What did you have in mind?” “Everything, Everywhere All At Once,” he offered. “I never heard of that movie,” I said. “One of my Twitter followers suggested it,” he said. “Do you have Twitter followers?” “Yes, I have quite a following,” he said. “Oh, I want to follow you,” I said enthusiastically. “Dad, we have to keep our boundaries,” Will retorted. ….Skunked again.

We found a theater in Madison that had an early afternoon viewing time for the movie. Madison was about 45 minutes away, but it was on the way home. As we piled into Violet, Will offered to get me a Coke Zero from Violet’s fridge. “Thanks,” I said as I took a sip of the cold syrupy beverage. I started her engine, plugged the theater’s address into my phone’s GPS, and pulled out. Our adventure continued.

On the way, William shared with me several Spotify playlists of Blues music. He had separated them into different categories like Mississippi Blues and Electric Blues. Will has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, and he was even able to describe the original album art to me. A Muddy Waters song started to play, and Will asked me, “Have you ever heard of Muddy Waters?” I said, “Not only have I heard of him, I saw him in concert.” Score one coolness point for dad!

Heading into the movie.

We both enjoyed the movie, which was a comedy with a message. Its slapstick elements had me laughing out loud, but it was its message that impacted me the most. The movie centers on an Asian immigrant family that owns a laundromat. The mother gave up her family in China to marry her husband and move to America. She is a tiger mom, overly critical of her only daughter, and very dissatisfied with both her easy-going husband and her life.

Improbably, it is determined that she is the chosen one to save the multiverse (based on the real theory that there are an infinite number of parallel universes). She is given the ability to travel to her alternative lives. In some, she is rich and famous; in others, she is highly accomplished. All seem better than her current dull life with her financial woes, passive husband, and unsuccessful daughter. If she wished, she could switch to any of these lives, but she would have to give up what she currently has. Eventually, she realizes that she wants to stay in her own universe. It is far from perfect, but she accepts that life isn’t supposed to be perfect. She knows that there are things that she can do to make her life better, and she starts to understand that she has many good things in her life that she had previously taken for granted. We left the movie feeling lighter from all of our laughter. We felt just a tiny bit wiser. Our conversations continued as we drove into Illinois, past Rockford, and finally into Naperville.  

A father and a son, two adults with similar yet different viewpoints and interests. Mike and Will driving down the highway while having both deep and silly conversations. Onward we traveled, wholly satisfied with our modified adventure, arriving home a bit early but happy. I turned to Will and flashed him a genuine smile. This is our universe, and I’m happy that we are in it. He nodded.

The back cargo doors finally opened. You can see all of the stuff that I keep in Violet’s garage. The broken door solution? Spend almost $1000 at the mechanic’s to get it fixed (gasp).

The Lie Of Greenwashing

We are messing up our earth; there is absolutely no doubt that this is true. From microplastic contamination to the planet’s warming, human contributions are the leading causes of discretionary destruction. To think otherwise is delusional.

The industrial revolution made expensive things inexpensive. For example, the invention of the power loom made cloth affordable, leading to less expensive clothing. However, the industrial revolution’s driving forces were expansion and profit, not human safety or environmental health. Initially, individual workers were sacrificed for growth, but now the entire planet is offered up.

Today, I’m writing about ecological misinformation and the practice of greenwashing, which is a marketing ploy used to sell products by making some things seem wrong for the planet, and others appear eco-friendly.  Greenwashing is accomplished by manipulating facts and distorting the truth.

As consumers have been taught that utility devices like mobile phones and cars are status symbols that need to be regularly updated. We have been programmed that old is bad. Watch a home improvement show to witness how perfectly functional kitchens or baths are demolished and replaced. Do you have a stunning granite countertop? That’s old school, landfill it and buy a quartz one! Why? Because some guy on HGTV told you it was the thing to do.

At the same time, we are told false facts, making it difficult to sort through what is real and what is not. For example, there is no link between aluminum cookware and Alzheimer’s disease, and Teflon is entirely inert when used in standard cooking scenarios. Additionally, the main detergents in regular dish soaps are biodegradable. Yet, if you ask most people, they would say the opposite. So why are these falsehoods promulgated? Sometimes this is due to the illusory truth effect, and at other times false facts encourage consumers to replace their pots and pans or buy expensive eco-friendly products.  

See Link.

Are you aware that you would need to use a reusable cotton grocery bag at least 100 times before its environmental impact is less than a single-use plastic one? That number is a conservative estimate as some studies report that you would need to use the cotton bag 7000 times! I’m not supporting single-use plastic products; I’m illustrating that what appears to be simple on the surface can be much more complex when scrutinizing a claim.

Do you feel that you are helping the environment by driving an electric vehicle (EV)? You are, but the facts are more complicated than you may think. Due to their large lithium batteries, the manufacturing of an EV has a considerably larger environmental footprint than a gas-powered vehicle. In addition, most of the electricity in the US is produced by burning fossil fuels (61%), which creates greenhouse gasses. Over the car’s life, an EV will eventually have a lower environmental impact than a gas-run vehicle. However, the crossover point is at the 50,000-100,000 mile range. If you buy an EV with extended-range batteries, it will take longer for this crossover to occur. Due to this, some experts believe that hybrid vehicles may be better for the environment than full EVs. 

How about food waste? Who wants to spend time and mess dealing with a composting bin when you can buy the $500 Lumi, a tabletop machine that can compost your food waste in 24 hours! That is amazing. It almost sounds too good to be true… well, because it is. Lumi claims that it uses groundbreaking technology, but multiple other devices have done the same thing in the past (the Zera, the Cloey, and the Tero, to name three). Does Lumi turn food waste and recyclable plastics into compost? NO. Lomi is a gadget that dehydrates and chops up bio waste into a pre-compostable material. So what do you do with that dried stuff? You can put it into your composting bin and turn it into dirt just like you would with any other composting waste, or you can throw it into the garbage just like you would toss out your other regular garbage.  

It takes carbon-producing energy to make the plastic Lumi, and it takes greenhouse gas-producing electricity to run it. The pre-compostable material is just dried out regular bio-waste. The composting process will likely be slower than expected since the bacteria and critters that do the actual composting need water for their biological processes, which Lumi removes. Lumi is a garbage volume reduction system, basically a greenwashed garbage compactor. Slick commercials can’t change that reality. However, you can buy one and pat yourself on the back that you are at least thinking about doing something good. 

Recycling is better than tossing items into a landfill. First, however, you have to make sure that you are recycling correctly. Items like paper and aluminum can be effectively recycled. Many communities have pickup programs, but it is critical to follow their recycling guidelines. Wrong items can contaminate and plug up the recycling system. For example, paper is a good candidate for recycling, but greasy cardboard pizza boxes are not.  

In the 1980s, the plastic industry created the Council for Solid Waste Solutions, which lobbied for recycling options to avoid anti-plastic laws proposed in the1970s. This council was a PR effort as the plastic industry knew then (as it does now) that plastics cannot be effectively and efficiently recycled. Those little icons on the bottom of plastic containers are cute, but they don’t mean much. Imagine if anti-plastic legislation had been passed in the 1970s; perhaps we wouldn’t have state-sized islands of plastic garbage floating in our oceans.  

When I decided to write this post, I thought it would be a reasonably straightforward process to research better products and practices for the environment. I was wrong. But why is this? Companies’ efforts to increase sales and stockholders’ demands for immediate profits have turned environmental consciousness into yet another marketing strategy. It doesn’t make any difference if a product is kinder to the environment; it is more important to make the consumer think that it is. This is accomplished in various ways, from using the color green on the packaging to adding buzzwords like “eco-friendly” to placing badges and stickers on products that proclaim meaningless or unsubstantiated facts. For instance, many products that formally contain the ozone-damaging chemicals CFSs now proudly proclaim that they are CFS-free on their labels. However, The use of CFCs is illegal in over 190 countries, including the US. This badging may make consumers think that a product is environmentally conscious, but such labeling is simply a marketing ploy.

Nestle is one of the world’s largest corporations and is an excellent example of how companies place profit over people. In the 1980s, Nestle heavily advertised their baby formulas in poor African nations, suggesting that they were better than mother’s milk by using extremely deceptive practices. African moms wanted what was best for their kids, but they couldn’t afford the expensive formula, so they diluted it. The result was malnutrition and the death of infants. These practices are now banned in many countries, but Nestle continues to utilize them in places that lack good legislation. 

Nestle is also one of the leading manufacturers of single-use water bottles and other single-use plastic containers. We are all aware of the horrific and unnecessary environmental impact that these products pose. Nestle responded to increased consumer awareness by promoting recycling programs for plastics. However, this was a solution in advertising name only and has allowed Nestle to continue to sell these items. During a coastline cleanup in Malaysia, much of the plastic garbage on beaches was from Nestle companies. Let’s not forget that Nestle frequently uses resources in poor areas to their advantage. They can buy a tanker of municipal water for next to nothing, repackage it in plastic bottles and sell it at a 35% profit. The consumer gets to buy something that they could have gotten for free.

Nestle bought Nespresso, a coffee pod brewing system languishing far behind the Keurig brand. So Nestle launched an ad campaign for Nespresso, touting that its aluminum pods were more recyclable than the plastic Keurig capsules. They also announced that they had their own recycling centers to process the pods. Based on these claims, sales of the Nespresso soared. But were these efforts advertising hype or genuine concern for the environment? Only 5% of Nespresso pods are recycled, which means that 95% are not.  

We are encouraged to use eco-friendly cleaning products with trendy names like Method, Mrs. Meyers, and Seventh Generation. But unfortunately, these brands are owned by giant corporations like Unilever and SC Johnson, companies that make the traditional consumer cleaning products that most use. In addition, these green products may have similar ingredients to non-green one. Sometimes, a brand may emphasize eliminating one group of chemicals, like phosphates, which have been banned in all home detergents since1993, while de-emphasizing the inclusion of other ingredients that environmentalists may consider suspect.   

I watched one reputable reviewer who noted that she preferred Method dish soap to some of the other environmentally friendly brands because it cleaned just like regular dish soap. Why is that? Because its main cleaning ingredient is the detergent SLS, just like good ol’ Dawn. In addition, green cleaning products are typically packaged in small plastic containers. Multiple small containers use more plastic than larger single-volume vessels. Unfortunately, good advertising and pleasant fragrances make us imagine that these products are better, and we are duped into paying a premium price for that belief. 

You may be buying organic foods because you don’t want to contaminate the environment with dangerous pesticides, but what about the fact that your purchase may have been transported thousands of miles on trucks that use diesel fuel while being packaged in plastic to preserve its freshness?  

How about buying products only from environmentally ethical companies? Some companies pledge to be environmentally responsible but then subcontract their work to outside factories that are not. 

Even the use of natural and sustainable fabrics can be environmentally damaging. For example, Argentina is one of the world’s largest wool producers; its wool industry uses non-indigenous sheep whose harder hoofs severely damage fields, destroying rich grasslands.

Rideshare services like Uber and Lyft were touted as ways to reduce car emissions. Still, the opposite happened as their drivers do a lot of random cruising between contracted rides.

It is almost impossible to determine the overall impact that a product causes on the environment due to the deception and misleading information that consumers are given. 

Let’s look at some actual things that can be done to help the planet.

We can demand more from our legislators. 

Many hate big government, but it is essential to remember that we have a government for a reason. When I was growing up in the 1960s, polluted rivers caught on fire, lakes died due to acid rains, and poorly regulated practices created ecological disasters like the Love Canal tragedy. As a result, laws were instituted at both local and national levels, and these regulations had a significant and positive impact on the environment.

I remember the Senate hearings where CEOs from major tobacco companies stated under oath that cigarette smoking was not damaging to health. This was a bald-faced lie, as these individuals had long known that tobacco was addictive and dangerous. Nevertheless, the tobacco industry was interested in selling more cigarettes. Yes, smokers would die early, but there were always those kids who they could capture as future smokers. Do you remember Joe Camel, a phallic-like cartoon camel designed to encourage boys to start their addiction early? If it were up to industry, we all would be smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

In the 1950s, about 54% of the US population smoked; currently, that number is around 16%. Much of this change is due to legislation and the incorporation of education, investment in stop smoking treatments, and the institution of high cigarette taxes. Sometimes we need big government to protect us from big industries.

However, some legislation can be ridiculous, case in point is those California cancer warning labels on just about everything. They are so generalized and ubiquitous that they have lost any meaning.

Since companies use greenwashing to increase their bottom line, consumers need governmental regulations and standards that define the environmental impact that a product poses. 

If we can’t trust product labels, product claims, or commonly accepted facts, what can we currently do to slow down our planet’s destruction?  

We can be thoughtful

The more we unnecessarily use a resource, the more we negatively damage our environment. Leaving lights on, watering the grass when unnecessary, doing partial loads of laundry, running a half-full dishwasher, keeping our thermostat settings hotter or colder than necessary… The list goes on. Did you know that many intelligent electronics, like TV sets, use almost as much electricity when off as when on? Some subvert this process by unplugging infrequently used devices when not in use. 

Imagine the reduction in electric power needed if every household raised their AC temperature by a few degrees and turned off the lights in empty rooms. If you have several errands to run, can you combine them in a single trip? Can you walk or bike somewhere instead of driving? Can you substitute environmentally friendly activities for some of your ecologically damaging ones? Small changes amplified over thousands of users can have a significant effect. The key is to develop a plan that you can reasonably follow and then stick with that plan.

We can recycle stuff.

Recycling has been around for quite some time, and some items like aluminum and paper can be recycled reasonably effectively. However, recycled items need to be adequately prepared to be recycled. If your community has a recycling program, check its website for guidelines for preparation and separation. For instance, items must be cleaned before being recycled in many cases. In other cases, recyclables have to be separated into categories. Even if your community has a plastic recycling program, despite what you may think, plastic items are not generally recyclable. Therefore, limiting your plastic use is better than recycling plastics that will likely go into a landfill or the ocean. For more information on this topic, see this link.

We can avoid all or none thinking.

It is fun to get pumped up about things, and it is easy to come up with elaborate plans. For example, “I will exercise at the gym for 90 minutes every day,” or “I will become a zero-waste consumer.” Yes, these ideas are great, but they only are helpful if you do them. It is common to come up with a complicated or elaborate plan, and when it fails, it is then easy to abandon everything and go back to business as usual. A much better approach is to develop a plan that you feel that you can do. Can you can advance that plan further? Great. If not, you are still doing more than what you did before. Assess your plan every week, and write it down; adjust as needed. Any action is better than no action. Remember, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

We can use things longer.

A lot of energy goes into manufacturing things, and that energy use results in the production of greenhouse gasses and toxic waste. When Julie was studying for her Ph.D., one of her professors reused his brown lunch bag until it was no longer usable. He could use a bag for a week or two. In other words, he was using a single bag when others would use 5-10 bags. This was a simple act that didn’t have a single negative effect on him, but it had a small positive impact on the environment.

My daughter uses a reusable sandwich container instead of plastic baggies for her lunches. I brought my meals to work in a soft-sided reusable lunch bag when I was employed. When my bag got grimy, I tossed it into the washer with other items, allowing me to use the same bag for years. Reusable sandwich containers and lunch bags have a larger carbon footprint to manufacture than single-use items, so the key is to use them for as long as possible.  

Buy well-made things. Items don’t have to be the most expensive, but they need to be of sound construction. High use items like coats can last for many years if they are well-made. Avoid fast fashion and consider a capsule wardrobe. Fast fashion items are designed to be worn a few times and discarded; think of the horrific environmental pollution every time a throw-away piece is manufactured and then tossed into a landfill. A capsule wardrobe allows the wearer to have a minimum of clothes and still look presentable. Fewer clothes mean less is manufactured, leading to a minor environmental impact.

I mentioned that you have to use a cotton grocery bag at least 100 times before its environmental impact is less than a single-use bag. I’m not promoting the use of single-use plastic bags. Instead, I’m urging that reusable bags be reused repeatedly. Surprisingly, reusable plastic bags may have a less environmental impact than cotton bags. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and non-woven polypropylene (NWPP) need to be used only 2 and 22 times to beat out single-use plastic bags. In addition, natural bags made out of material like hemp are more environmentally friendly than cotton bags.  It is best to buy high-quality bags, as the longer you use them, the lower their environmental impact. Sadly, those who opt for reusable grocery bags forget them 40% of the time. As another aside, the manufacturing of paper grocery bags has a considerably more negative impact on the environment than single-use plastic bags. However, paper bags are biodegradable, whereas plastic ones are not. It is all so complicated.

Consider the environment when deciding to upgrade anything. Is that kitchen remodel needed? Do you have to buy a new car? Anything that you continue to use is one less thing that must be manufactured and one less thing polluting a landfill.

We can use less.

Apply this philosophy to all things, and you will be helping both the environment and your pocketbook.  

I have previously written posts on how I have simplified the use of our household chemicals. I buy one bottle of an all-purpose cleaner which I dilute 1:32 into a reusable spray bottle. For good measure, I add a drop or two of dish detergent before filling the rest of the container with water. I use this concoction to clean countertops, tables, the inside of the microwave and fridge, and just about anything with a surface. I have used the same high-quality plastic spray bottle for years, and a single bottle of all-purpose cleaner lasts a very long time.

It would be challenging to give up paper towels completely, but I use reusable towels for about 60-70% of my cleanups. In addition, I make an effort to print less, and I try to store more documents electronically. 

Solid hygiene products are similar to liquid ones, minus the water. For example, a soap bar lasts about as long as a bottle of shower gel. However, a soap bar doesn’t have a plastic bottle that needs to be discarded in a landfill. Sold bars of shampoo and conditioner are well-liked by consumers. Likewise, you can buy laundry detergent sheets that eliminate throwing massive empty plastic jugs into the garbage.  

Your dishwasher uses the same amount of water and energy if you wash one cup or a full load. Please make an effort to run your dishwasher less by filling it first. The same logic can be applied to laundry. Do full loads of laundry instead of washing piecemeal. Do you live in a sunny area? Consider purchasing a solar dryer, also called a clothesline.  

Do you have a white-collar life? Consider wearing certain clothing items more than one time before you wash them. For example, I wash my jeans when they are dirty, not every time I take them off.

On average, Americans throw out 30-40% of the food they purchase. Arid areas in the Southwest have been irrigated for decades and have become the nation’s breadbasket. Water is a limited resource in these places, and agriculture uses more water than any other user. Most farms are run by corporations, and crops are cultivated using gigantic fuel-burning machines. Foods are then processed in huge energy-consuming plants and shipped across the country, sometimes in refrigerated cars. Think of the greenhouse gasses created and the chemicals used for all of these processes. If every citizen eliminated food waste, we could significantly reduce these hazards.

The bottom line

As I researched this topic, I became acutely aware that it is impossible to evaluate how green something is. I came to understand that many companies emphasize their commitment to the environment as a marketing ploy rather than a concern for our future. Sadly, you can’t trust what manufacturers, web pages, or YouTube influencers tell you.

Even if you are an educated consumer, it can be impossible to understand the environmental impact of a product. Labels can be deceptive, and companies that promote one aspect of being ecologically responsible may be using that fact as a red herring to disguise the other environmentally damaging things that they are doing.

However, by using the suggestions listed above, you can have a tangible personal impact on the environment. Naturally, an individual’s influence is small, but one’s efforts are magnified when combined with others. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and being more environmentally friendly starts with a single action.

Mike

A Letter From Tommy

I sat plopped on Carol’s overstuffed sofa, surrounded by gigantic pillows. My hands cupped a thick earthenware mug filled with hot coffee and two creams. Across the living room sat my sister, Carol, perched on her favorite spot, a reddish-brown and somewhat glossy leather recliner. We were chatting and once again focused on the memories from our distant past.  

Carol is my oldest sister and a full 15 years my senior, yet we had the most similar childhood experiences. These were contrasted by my sister Nancy, my dad’s favorite, and my brother Dave who my mom pampered.

Our conversation turned to my brother, Tommy, 13 years older than me. Tom was the quiet one in our family. He was over six feet tall and with a husky build; he was dark in complexion, with jet black hair and a masculine persona. I don’t have a single negative memory of Tom. Well, that would be a lie as I have many negative memories. However, they have little to do with Tom, the person; they center on other things.  

___________

I woke up in shock. My heart was racing, and I was sweating profusely. I felt nauseous. It was 2:30 in the morning, and the harvest gold wall phone in the kitchen was ringing incessantly. Instinctively, I jumped out of bed and felt a dizzy head rush that almost made me collapse to the floor. I lurched forward, making it to the small hallway between my room and the kitchen beyond. I froze, unable to move as if a giant forcefield was pressing on my shoulders. I couldn’t take a step further. I couldn’t be the person to accept the call. It was not meant for me.

My mother, Anne, rushed past me wearing an old and somewhat tattered nightgown. I could feel the heat from her body as she brushed me. Within seconds I heard her wail, “Oh no, oh God no, please God no!” I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. As usual, I had to be the strong one, the one in control.  The dreaded phone call had finally come. My father, Ed, stumbled in. He was silent as he slid past me and into the kitchen. He also knew without asking. We all knew before the phone ever rang. 

____________

My brother Tommy was my oldest brother. Darkly handsome, with a dry sense of humor and an ability to write funny stories. I don’t have a lot of memories of interacting with my brother. Being 13 years my senior, he was fully adult by the time I was eight. I have a reminiscence here and there, but they consist of family interactions or situations where my role was one of an observer rather than a participant.  

I recall riding with my parents as we dropped Tommy off at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana. The small school was dominated by a large brick church that had a Byzantine character. I remember his red brick dormitory building and also a large pond, or was it a gigantic fountain? I have a vague recollection of eating lunch in the school’s dining hall. My father was always up for eating in school cafeterias. I’m unsure if this was because he worked as a chief operating engineer for CPS or the fact that he was never able to go away to college.

It was likely that my brother was only 18 at the time. However, in my child’s mind, he was a grown-up facing an exciting college future. Tommy was engaged to a woman named Donna, who was my sister’s co-worker. As I write this, it seems odd that someone would be engaged at 18, and this reality makes me question my historical accuracy. Perhaps he became engaged after attending St. Joe’s for a few years; I don’t know.

Donna was unhappy with Tom’s absence and made her feelings clear, forcing him to trek the 81 miles back to Chicago every weekend. The price of love was his education, and he eventually dropped out of school. This was an important lesson for me because my brother had to work in various unfulfilling office jobs. Selfish people are selfish, and soon his adoring presence was inadequate for Donna, and the relationship ended.

I mentioned my father’s intrigue with higher education, but I would also like to add that many Eastern European immigrants believe that education is THE ticket to a successful life. Embedded in my mind is my mother’s comment, “You can lose a million dollars, but no one can ever take away your education.” This lesson was also emphasized to Tommy, and it was clear to him that he needed to return to school. However, his adoration of Donna left his transcripts in shambles, and despite his innate intelligence, no school would consider him. That was until he read about Parson’s College, an institution known to give people a second chance. 

He was accepted at Parson’s, where he did well academically, and graduated with a degree in business administration. At some point, he met and married his wife, Lee. At some other point, he spent several years serving in the Army. The exact sequence of all of these events eludes me.

Tommy’s life was moving forward, but I was still a kid living in our run-down bungalow on Francisco Avenue. The one that my mother didn’t want but that my father insisted on buying because it had been owned by some distant connection from his past. 

Now, I was a kid in high school, and Tom was a married man. We had little in common and shared few adventures. I longed to have relationships with both of my brothers. I watched movies where older brothers protected their younger siblings. Brothers who would teach their younger brothers how to navigate the world. This was not meant for me as they were too old to connect with adolescents, yet too young to develop the empathy necessary that would make them reach out to me despite our age differences. However, college was coming, and with it, I was hopeful for the equalization that such transitions bring. 

______________

I made one of my very rare trips back home from Northern Illinois University. I was now a senior and had already taken the GRE. I was filling out applications to graduate schools as part of my plan to get a Ph.D. in microbial biochemistry, my next step in my goal to become a university professor.  

It was a time of reflection that was somewhat bittersweet. My memories flashed to my 8th grade and the private meeting on our front porch that my father summoned me to. “I have decided that you will go to Gage Park, high school.” I sat shocked in silence. Gage Park had deteriorated into a poor academic institution best known for its gang activity and physical violence. My father read the look of disbelief on my face and flatly said, “If you want to learn, you can learn anywhere.” The conversation was over.

All of my siblings had gone to private high schools, so I honestly don’t know why he made such a pronouncement. I guess he was just done with parenting. Worse yet, my uncle, Nick, mentioned in passing to me that my extended relatives assumed that the only reason that I would be denied a private education was that I was too stupid to be accepted to a Catholic high school. Why else would I be sent to such a terrible place? I had to deal with not only my anger but also the shame that my extended family thought I was a moron.

When I graduated from Gage Park, I took control of my life. No one was going to pigeonhole me into what they felt I was or should be. College became the time for me to be me, and I made the most of it. I was the guy setting the curves on the tests, the one that the teachers asked if they could keep his term papers to use as examples. I was the one who was called by professors and told not to take the final exam for fear that I would push the curve too far to the right for the other students. I was a steam roller moving forward.

I was also moving forward with the connections with my older siblings. As I became an adult, our differences morphed into similarities. I was changing from an isolated only child role to an equal member of a five-siblings group. This was a gift, but then I received the most horrible news possible.

________

I perched myself on the edge of Carol’s couch, afraid that if I sat back, it would swallow me in its plushness. I love both of my sisters and feel immensely close to them and their kind, warm ways. Our connections have grown exponentially over the years. I’m no longer their baby brother; I am their trusted sibling. As usual, my conversation with Carol meandered.

Our respective childhoods, separated by 15 years, were so similar. We were both given buoys that kept us afloat during those times. When Carol was young, my parents lived in a flat below my grandparents. She would go up the stairs nightly to be fussed over by my then-young aunts, Mary, Lill, and Susie. They made her feel special and important. She felt that their influence significantly changed her life.

In turn, I had my friend John. We had known each other since kindergarten but became best friends, then brothers, in 6th grade. We were inseparable and saw each other every day. Our jobs were to support and take care of each other. To be there when times were tough. To high-five each other over successes. A role that we serve to this very day.

_________

“I don’t have any negative memories of Tommy; I just wish that I had had a relationship with him,” I told Carol. “Why did it all have to end that way?”  

__________

My mind flashed back to my senior year at NIU. I have mentally blocked how I got the news, but I intensely remember how I felt after receiving it… shocked, scared, and in a panic. My brother had developed a cold, and he couldn’t shake it. He had been ill for months and was tired and run down. Finally, he went to the doctor, and his diagnosis was terrifying; he had CML or Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. The good news was that this was one of the few cancers in the 1970s that had a fairly reasonable cure rate. New treatments were emerging, and he was going to be cared for at the University of Chicago Hospital, one of the best places in the nation.

Remission, then failed remission, then no remission. Endless bone marrow punctures, toxic chemotherapies, white blood cells centrifuged from our veins and stuck into his. My big, strong, bulky brother was transformed into a wisp of smoke. I recall helping him into a car, so we could drive him back to the U of C for another round of torture. We had secured his belt as tightly as we could, yet when he stood next to the car, his pants fell between his ankles. He was a walking skeleton.

My mind traveled to a regret that still haunts me today. Tom had developed an ileus while in the hospital and was on strict NPO (nothing by mouth). He was so dry that his lips were white and cracked. “Mike, please go to the fridge and sneak me a popsicle. I’m so dry… please!” This was before I ever considered medical school, and in my lack of knowledge, I felt that I could kill him if I disobeyed the doctor’s orders. I am distressed to this day that I didn’t get him that popsicle. 

Now I was in graduate school, learning about bacteria when I should have been learning about cancer. The knowledge that seemed so important to me became trivial. Why didn’t I know how to fix this problem?

And then the early-morning phone call came. After a year of suffering, my brother was dead. He was 32.

_______________

A thought flashed across Carol’s eyes. “I just remembered that I came across something that you may find useful,” she said as she started to rifle through her files. She handed me four yellowed handwritten sheets of paper.

The top of the sheets bore the letterhead of David J White and Associates, a company unknown to me. Below the letterhead were the words “Dear Michael Klina.” followed by a neat and almost feminine script scribed in black ink. I continued to read in puzzlement until a dim light bulb started to glow in my head. It was a letter written to me by my brother Tom while he was at work. The note was undated but sent to me at Christmastime when I was at NIU. I attended NIU during my junior and senior years, so it was sent in December sometime during that time. It is likely that he wrote the letter during my senior year, a few months before he was diagnosed with leukemia. 

The letter isn’t significant in content, which makes it all the more significant to me. It is a newsy letter, charming in its lack of any real news and full of inside jokes. There are several misspells of our last name, Kuna, four letters that were consistently mangled when our household received legal documents, adverts, magazines, and business letters. There is talk of Christmas shopping and his lack of funds because of it. There is a protective warning to me that gas stations would be closed over Christmas. There are inquiries about the mechanical reliability of my 1972 Ford Pinto, probably the worst car design of all time. Apparently, the chair of the Department of Chemistry had been reaching out to me about some sort of honors thing that Tom knew about, but I have no current memory. Tommy also made reference to my long-time friend, John, who was then my college roommate.  

He ended the letter in a jokingly formal “Thomas” and added his wife’s name for completeness. He mis-signed his last name four different ways, bringing his initial joke full circle, and finally concluded with a “Kilroy was here” doodle, a usual ending for an informal correspondence that he would send to anyone.   

The significance of the letter was in its insignificance. It was a note to a friend, an equal. The trauma of the last year of my brother’s life had completely made me forget the fact that we were finally connecting in a brotherly way. Yes, I wanted much more, but this was something. A random letter sent to me had somehow found its way into my sister’s files. Now, almost 50 years later, it was sent back to me to remind me that my brother Tommy did care about me. It was as if he found a way to tell me that he was looking out for me all of these years.

As I write this, I wonder if my departed brother had anything to do with the uncontrollable forces that made me leave grad school after my Master’s degree and apply to med school. A decision that seemed so foolish, bizarre, and out of context for rational me. Why would I feel compelled to do such a thing? Perhaps, the force that was guiding me was my heavenly brother, Tommy. Perhaps, he placed those four sheets of paper in my sister’s file so they could give me comfort decades later…Perhaps.

My dear brother, I wish we could have grown old together.

More Outrage Porn

I admit that I watch too many YouTube videos. I’ll start with one, then another, then another. It is clear that YouTube has a secret sauce that keeps me engaged. They can skillfully shift my interests by offering videos with enticing titles, and some of these can pull me into a dark place.

My regular diet of YouTube is pretty pedestrian. I like van-dwelling videos, especially ones that explore how people normally live out of cars or vans. Topics like van cooking, stealth camping, and van hygiene fascinate me. I also enjoy videos where I learn something new, perhaps a bit of history or a video that explains how something works. Finally, like many, I’m a sucker for heartwarming animal stories, and I can get sucked into watching one with an exciting title or cute thumbnail.  

This isn’t unusual, so why is it that YouTube sometimes takes me to the dark place called outrage porn? Videos that are so negative that they outrage and upset me. I don’t think of myself as a negative individual; I mostly have a positive attitude and respect for others. However, once I enter this chilling algorithm, I find that it swallows me, sometimes for days, and I have to fight my way out of it to break free of its negativity. 

My most recent descent started by clicking on a video titled, “Uber rider thinks she is a lawyer and gets kicked out.” It involves a group of 5 passengers trying to take a ride booked for 4.  Four is the maximum allowed for the particular level of Uber that they ordered, and the driver could be deactivated if he broke Uber rules. Further, his insurance would not cover him if he didn’t follow Uber policy. The customers wanted to debate why he should break the rules (they likely ordered this level of Uber because it is cheaper), citing that he didn’t know what he was talking about. One of the passengers stated that she was right because she was “a lawyer” and that he should drive them. He rightly canceled the ride; at the end of the video, one of the riders is heard saying that he would contact corporate about the driver’s behavior.  

After watching this video, I was presented with more outrageous Uber videos, ranging from people trying to scam the driver out of their fare to rudeness at unimaginable levels to verbal and physical driver assaults. Insults were directed at drivers’ ethnicity, job choice, and cars. In addition, several videos showed police verbally abusing Uber drivers for minor infractions, sometimes telling them to “Go back to your own country.”

Soon other videos were coming my way. The new ones highlighted obnoxious airline passengers. Parents letting their out-of-control kids run wild and scream for an entire flight. Fat shamers, angry drunks, and other passengers whose entitlement assumed a master/slave level of rudeness. Entire flights that had to be deplaned so that police could forcibly remove out-of-control passengers. Passengers who blamed the ground crew because the plane didn’t wait for them despite their being late. 

Lastly, there was the sad and horrible case of 69-year-old Dr. Dau, who was minding his own business when asked to give up his seat for a crew member. When he refused (he had patients to see the following day), he was assaulted and dragged off the plane by police, whose brutality left him unconscious, bleeding, and missing two teeth. 

Now the YouTube algorithm transported me to the world of angry Karens. Super entitled individuals who think that the best way to accomplish their obnoxious demands is by hysterically screaming. They commonly assert their “rights” by dropping F-bombs, racial slurs, and demeaning insults to those, they are targeting. 

The horrible woman who marched up to a Dunkin Donuts window, demanding to talk to the manager because her cream was added to her coffee instead of on top of her coffee. The equally dreadful lady who stormed up to a Burger King drive-through window demanding a refund because she was dissatisfied with her food. The Burger King had caught on fire, and all of the employees had retreated outdoors to safety as black smoke billowed from the building. The lady is seen on video screaming insults and f-bombs at the poor employees insisting that they go inside and get her a refund for her hamburger even though the building was in flames. Then there was the Karen who gave a zero tip to her waitperson writing on her bill, “Next time, wish me a Happy Mother’s Day,” and the male Karen who had a toddler-level fit when his pick-up grocery order wasn’t perfect.

And so it went, one video leading to another video. I watched, obsessed like I would be missing something of value if I didn’t click on the next video. As this immersion continued, I felt my stomach getting upset, and I became agitated. I was both angry and afraid at the same time. My reality had become a world of negativity. Everyone was the enemy; everyone was out to get me, and the world seemed unsafe. It was as if I was a drug addict who was no longer getting a high from my drug of choice but still couldn’t stop using. Luckily, Walmart intervened. 

Most of you know that I hate shopping for groceries at Walmart, and this has only intensified since they have gone to an almost cashier-free check-out system. There is nothing like having a week’s worth of groceries that you have to check out and bag yourself. Since we buy a lot of vegetables, there are also those inevitable “look-ups” that add to my frustration.

I had sworn off Walmart, but I needed to get things I thought they only had. I had just gotten my second COVID booster, and I was feeling pretty crappy. I asked Will and Grace to go shopping with me as I honestly thought I couldn’t do it alone. We piled into my van and started the 2.6 miles to the supercenter. I mentioned to them my plunge into darkness. William sighed, “Dad, you can’t watch those videos; they are just upsetting.” Gracie chimed in, “Those videos represent a tiny fraction of the population. Most people are nice if you give them a chance. Those people are the exception, not the rule.” Of course, they were right.

We got to Walmart and tried to get through the store as quickly as possible. But, as usual, many shelves were bare, and the two unusual items I needed to purchase, clam juice and fennel seeds, were nowhere to be found.

Despite those minor frustrations, I focused on the positives of the situation. We did get 99% of our groceries, and it was terrific having Will and Grace’s help. I deliberately tried to break my cycle of negativity by smiling at other shoppers and giving them the right of way. At the end of our experience, we approached check-out. Most of the lanes had been converted to self-check-out; however, many of those were not working. Finally, Grace spotted a lone checker working furiously at the far end of the store. We navigated to her and got in line. She was overwhelmed, and I made a deliberate effort to compliment her. As we left the store, I also made sure that I told the employee guarding the exit, “Have a wonderful day.”  

All of those YouTube videos highlighted how truly obnoxious and entitled people could be. They also reinforced how I never want to be one of those individuals. I guess that was the positive side of my YouTube binge. However, there was also the negative side of feeling physically sick, agitated, angry, and fearful. Despite all of those negative feelings, I continued to watch one video after another. Each one took me into darker and darker places. I needed a physical break and wise words to break the cycle.

I believe that such manipulations are common tactics to increase engagement. This is also evident on cable news channels, whose editorial commenters can say the most outrageous and biased opinions. They act like newscasters but, in reality, are well-dressed male and female “Karens” who espouse their subjective opinions as truth. As I have said many times, stop watching cable news shows because they will poison you.  

It is easy to get sucked up into a cycle of outrage porn, but to what end? Yes, mine led to some empathy and awareness. Could I have achieved those goals without subjecting myself to a day of viewing the worst of humanity? Likely so. Today I am grateful for my kids who needed me to go grocery shopping and their wisdom that helped me center myself on the reality that people are mostly good.

Review Of The Sabotheat Smart Oven For Vandwellers

If you are a vandweller, car camper, flight attendant, trucker, or business traveler you probably have had to cook meals on the road.  Today, I’ll be reviewing the Sabotheat Smart Oven with an emphasis on vandwelling.  However, the information will be useful for any person who needs to prepare meals without the benefit of a formal kitchen.

The classic way to cook in a van is to use a butane or propane stove.  These devices are proven, work well, and heat fast.  However, they consume fuel that may be expensive or hard to find when you are camping in the wild.  

Another way to cook has been to use the van’s house battery system.  As these power banks have become more powerful it has become feasible to cook with induction cooktops and microwaves.  However, these high draw devices quickly flatten a van’s power system if it is not robust (i.e. expensive) enough.  

There have been a number of low wattage 12 and 120-volt devices that have been around for a while, and some new ones, like the micro-small electrics from Dash can do everything from poaching eggs to making mini-bundt cakes.  

The Hot Logic Mini and the Road Pro Lunch Box Oven are two gadgets that have stood the test of time; they approached low-wattage electric cooking from two ends of the spectrum.  

The Road Pro runs off of a standard 12-volt car outlet and can reach 300 F, which allows for real roasting and baking. It uses about 145 watts/hour making it compatible with most 12-volt car outlets and is a favorite among truckers who can load a meal into it and have it cook their food while they drive from point A to point B.  In addition, its low power consumption makes it possible to use it with a relatively small solar generator/solar panel setup.  I have cooked raw chicken in a Road Pro in less than 90 minutes (145 watts x 1.5 hours = 217 watts used).  Naturally, there are many foods that require less cooking time than that. A heat-resistant cooking vessel is necessary when using these devices, and most find that disposable 8” loaf pans work well.

The Road Pro Lunchbox Oven has been a staple among 12-volt cookers for years.

The Hot Logic Mini approaches heating food a bit differently.  It is a small collapsible heater that can be purchased in both a 120 volt and a 12-volt version.  It only uses 45 watts per hour, so it is very solar-friendly.  Although it is marketed as a “mini-oven” it is more of a collapsable slow cooker that is permanently set on low.  It heats to a maximum of 160F, which is a food-safe temperature.  It is possible to cook some raw foods in the mini in addition to heating up already prepared dishes.  The mini is not only popular among van dwellers, but also flight attendants who may live for days in a hotel without access to a microwave.  

The Hot Logic Mini has been around for a few years. It comes in both a 110-volt and 12-volt version.

Since the Mini only heats to 160 F degrees there is no chance of fire, and you can even heat foods directly in their cardboard or plastic boxes.  Like a slow cooker, the Mini is time tolerant.  Do you have to leave your food in it for an extra hour or two?  No problem.

Recently, I saw YouTube reviews of a new collapsable “mini oven,” the Sabotheat Smart Portable Oven.  This should not be confused with the Sabotheat Mini Portable Oven, as that device seems to be a clone of the Hot Logic Mini.

Can the SabotHeat work like a Hot Logic and a Road Pro?

The Smart Portable Oven had a few features that I thought could be useful for both vandwellers and other travelers.  Notably, it has a controller that contains both a timer and a six-level power adjustment.  At power level one it uses only 30 watts, and at power level 6 it consumes 110 watts. Because of this, I thought that the Sabotheat Smart Portable Oven could serve a dual purpose role.  When using it on its lower power setting it could function similarly to a Hot Logic Mini. At its high setting, I thought it might perform similarly to a Road Pro Oven, and allow baking and roasting.  However, both of these assumptions are incorrect.

Features of the SabotHeat Smart Oven.

The power level control controls the rate of heating, but not the final temperature.  Eventually, the hotplate will heat to around 260F. This will happen very slowly at level 1, and faster at level 6.  If you are very careful it could be possible to heat up something in cardboard or plastic on levels 1 or 2. However, if you forget about your food you could have an internal melt-down and fire in the oven.  Therefore, Sabotheat advises that you only use metal or heat-resistant glass when cooking.  Further, they don’t want you to use tight-fitting lids for the same reason.  This is an advantage of the Hot Logic.  Since you can use tight-fitting lids in the Hot Logic you will prevent spills while on the road.  By the way, the SabotHeat Smart Oven advises against mobile use.

The operating manual says that all heating levels will eventually reach 260F.

The Sabotheat can reach 260F, but not the 300F that the Road Pro Lunchbox Oven reaches. This is a Road Pro advantage when you want to roast or bake something.  I have made quick mixes and cornbread in the Road Pro.  The top doesn’t brown, but the results are perfectly edible.  I tried to make a Jiffy Mix in the Sabotheat, and it was a disaster.  After 3 hours the top of the cake was still gummy, while the bottom was over browned.  The cake was inedible.  

I also tried to heat liquids at level 6.  After 2.5 hours the temperature of the liquid got to 195F.  Hot enough to make some instant coffee or to heat up a can of soup, but not hot enough to boil water.  The hotplate itself was very hot, likely well over 200F, but the tip of the probe on my instant food thermometer was too narrow to measure its actual temperature.

I could only heat water up to 195F after two and one-half hours at level 6. I tried several different cooking vessels.

The bottom line is that the Sabotheat Smart Oven is a useful device, but it is not a replacement for the Hot Logic Mini or the Road Pro.  If you have either device there is no reason to upgrade.  The Sabotheat Smart Oven can’t achieve the 300F of the Road Pro, so it doesn’t get hot enough to bake.  No matter what heat setting it is set to, its hotplate will eventually reach around 270F which makes it too hot to heat up plastic or cardboard containers (like you can in the Hot Logic).  

I am aware of flight attendants who like to directly heat up their home-prepared meals in FoodSaver bags, however, these may melt with the direct heat of the Sabotheat.  It may be possible to use a lower heat setting combined with careful timing to mimic a Hot Logic Mini, but you would have to do that at your own risk.  Why not just use the Mini which has a proven heating ability, and won’t melt your food containers?

The Sabotheat is a decent product that comes in both a 110 and 12-volt version, but I think existing devices are already available and do a better job. 

The Dirty Little Secret That Lives In My Knife Drawer

One of the benefits of getting older is having more life experiences. Not only unique adventures but also repetitious ones. Repeated activities can be exciting and educational if you allow yourself to learn from them. 

You know that I can cook, and I have been cooking for many decades. My friends know this too, so it is not uncommon for me to participate in meal preparation when I’m invited over for a casual dinner.  

I’ll often be given some sort of slicing-and-dicing job, and because of this, I have used many different knives. In my younger years, I chopped with castoffs and Goodwill bargains. In later times I have used knives that bear brand names like Chicago Cutlery, Cutco, Global, Henckels, Shun, and Wusthof. Frankly, most of these knives have been pretty crappy to use—more on that.

My ex got everything when we divorced in the mid-1980s. I moved into a basement apartment in Skokie and furnished my new life with handouts, second-hand store purchases, and things I found in the trash. I had a desire to establish myself as an adult, and for some reason, I thought that I needed adult kitchen gear. Unfortunately, I worked as a resident physician and had little to no cash after paying rent and child support.

During that time, there was an emphasis on having good kitchen knives, and in those pre-internet days, there were several magazine articles on the topic. What should I buy? The articles told me I should buy forged, not stamped knives, resin (which is plastic), not plastic handles, exotic-sounding blade steel instead of steel that sounded less fancy, full tang instead of partial tang, bolsters instead of no bolsters…and so it went. I took every word as the Sunday gospel and followed their collective advice. Please note that I would like you to forget all of this advice as it is not essential; it turns out that it was primarily fake news for home cooks. 

In the end, I went with Consumer Report’s recommendation and purchased Gerber Balance Plus knives. Due to my finances, I bought my 4 Gerber knives individually over six months, starting with an 8″ chef’s knife, which cost well over $100. The blades were good, and I used them until I married Julie in 1993. By then, my knives were dull and dangerous. She relegated them to basement storage and bought an inexpensive Farberware Santoku-style knife from Target. The Santoku was pretty dull out of the box, so I taught myself how to reprofile its knife-edge, and with some effort, I ground it to an acceptably sharp angle.

This knife is similar to the one that Julie bought. The blade was pretty dull right out of the box and I had to spend some time reprofiling the edge to an acceptable sharpness.

I learned cutting skills using a standard chef’s knife, and because of this, I was never thrilled using a Santoku-style blade. Then, one day I was roaming around Sam’s Club (now vacated from our area), and I came across a chef’s knife that I impulsively bought. That was over 25 years ago, and we still use that knife every day. What is this excellent knife, and what is our secret trick to keep it paper slicing sharp after all of these years? All will be revealed later on in this post.

First, let’s look at some case scenarios. (doctors love case scenarios) 

The professional chef

These guys and gals are trained to be expert knife handlers. They know how to extract every ounce of a knife’s potential. They can slice at blinding speeds. They can chop with their eyes closed. Then, they can professionally sharpen their tools to a razor’s edge using a whetstone.

They need knives of the highest performance. Knives that can hold an edge for a day of endless slicing, chopping, deboning, and cutting. Knives are their most essential tools, so money is no object. If they have to pay 50% more for a 5% increase in performance, they are happy to do it. They have the skill and ability to maximally use that slight benefit.

Since they are so knowledgeable, they are the ones who are consulted about consumer knife advice. They are experts, but their cutting needs differ from most home cooks. Unfortunately, the knife attributes that they need go wasted on us.

The commercial cook

Most of us don’t frequent Michelin-rated restaurants, but we do like to eat. We dine at family restaurants and chain establishments. We might frequent school or work cafeterias. Our foods may be prepared by an outside service like Blue Apron or Meals on Wheels. These places employ countless cooks, and one of their main jobs is to cut up things.

Bushels of potatoes, bags of onions, and bunches of carrots all have to be processed daily. These cooks may or may not have formal training, but they are expected to perform professionally. 

Chefs purchase their knives, but an employer supplies a cook’s cutlery. Their blades have to be comfortable, non-slippery, and sharp enough to hold an edge for hours of hard work before they can be resharpened. Form follows function, as these knives have to be as inexpensive as possible while still being capable of safely getting the job done. Foodservice knives won’t win any beauty contests, but they do what they are supposed to do.

Foodservice knives aren’t much to look at, but they are designed to get the job done as cheaply as possible.

The home cook

Most home cooks don’t have formal training, yet they have to perform many of the same tasks as their professional counterparts. However, they have time on their side. They don’t need to chop a bushel of onions rapidly; they can take their time chopping half of an onion. Despite this difference, they still need good tools, not for speed but for safety.

Home cooks fall into three general groups:

The “It will do” group.

These folks get by with as little equipment as possible. They cook because they have to and would rather spend their money on other things. They are happy to use castoff knives or inexpensive ones purchased from their local big-box store.

The “Thank you very much” group.

These cooks were given their cookware, including their knives. Often such gifts were wedding presents, and they continue to use these items decades later. Classic knife blocks adorn their countertops, often filled with 10 or 12 cutting instruments, most of which go unused.

You can buy a block set of knives for less than $100 or spend much more. This one cost over $1,200. I’m sure that the knives are very nice, but do you realize that you are spending over $80 per piece? That is $80 for the block, $80 for the scissors, and $80 for each steak knife! In addition, there are probably some knives that you will never use.

The “Look at me” group.

These folks have cash to burn, and they burn it. They buy high-end cooking equipment, including knives. Spending $400 on a single general-purpose knife is not out of the question. 

This chef’s knife sells for over $200 and it looks pretty cool. However, if you don’t maintain it the blade will become dull and dangerous.

——

I have sliced and diced in friend’s kitchens from all three of these categories, and I have encountered crappy knives everywhere. Yes, I have the solution to this problem, but first, you need to understand just a little bit more about cutlery. 

Some more stuff about knives.

Kitchen knife blades can be made from several different materials. But, go with stainless steel and make your life easier. 

The cutting part of a knife is called the edge. In most cases, the knife’s blade is ground down until it becomes a triangular point. Knives are ground at different angles. A knife designed for heavy, rough use may have a broader inclusive angle of 50 degrees (25 degrees per side). In contrast, a knife designed for more delicate work, like cooking, may have an inclusive angle of 40 or even 30 degrees (20 and 15 degrees per side, respectively).  

A knife’s edge is ground to a specific angle depending on its use.

Narrower angled edges are perceived as sharper by the user. However, a thinner angle means that these knives will dull quicker and suffer from more edge roll. Knife manufacturers use more rigid steel for these blades to compensate for this. However, harder steel is more likely to chip, and it is more difficult to sharpen than softer steel. Because of this, knife manufacturers compromise to find the best angle of the edge and the best steel hardness for the knife.   

In the past European and American kitchen knife manufacturers used an inclusive edge angle of 40-degrees (20 degrees per side) and moderately hard steel. Japanese manufacturers used an inclusive angle of 30-degrees (15 degrees per side) and a harder, more brittle steel. The Japanese configuration has become popular in the US during the last decade, and European and American knife manufacturers are now making some of their blades using the Asian 30-degree parameter. 

Both 40 and 30-inclusive degree knives are capable of effortless cutting if they are maintained. Maintaining a knife includes honing, which smoothes out micro-burrs and bends on the knife’s edge, and sharpening, which involves removing metal to return a dull knife to its former self. 

Classic steels don’t sharpen a knife, they hone it-they remove little burrs and other imperfections in the edge’s surface. You can do the same thing with a knife sharpener by making your final passes very light. In addition, many multi-stage sharpeners have specific honing slots.

It is best to resharpen a knife at the angle it was designed for. For example, a knife created with a 40-degree inclusive should be resharpened at that angle, and one with a 30-degree inclusive should be resharpened at that angle. It is possible to reprofile a knife’s edge to a different angle, but it is often more practical to stick with the manufacturer’s intended design. 

So why did all of the knives that I used suck?

The bottom line is that most people don’t properly care for their knives. It doesn’t matter if you have a $20 knife or a $200 knife; if you don’t properly care for it, it will soon become trash. Remember, a dull knife is much more dangerous than a sharp one. 

What are the most important factors to consider when buying a kitchen knife?

I told you to forget all of the exotic handles and fancy-sounding steel information. Let me reinforce this… That stuff may be necessary if you are a professional chef, but it is not important to the home cook. However, there are a few essential things: the knife’s ergonomics and the style of the knife’s blade.

Ergonomically, a knife should feel reasonably balanced in your hand. The handle should feel comfortable, and (most important) it should be secure when wet or greasy. Knives come in different styles, and styles come in different blade lengths. Therefore, it is important to find a knife that works for you.   

Both a Santoku and chef’s knife are versatile, jack-of-all-trades kitchen knives.

If you only want one kitchen knife…

The most used and most versatile knife in any kitchen is either a chef’s knife or a Santoku knife. Both form factors do the same thing but originated from different parts of the world (Europe vs. Japan). Both styles are manufactured in different blade lengths, but most prefer an 8″ chef’s knife or a 7″ Santoku knife. Very experienced cooks use longer blade lengths, and smaller ones work better for people with smaller hands. However, if you go too short on blade length (for instance, less than 6″ on a chef’s knife), much of the knife’s versatility is lost, and it becomes more of a utility knife than a jack-of-all-trades device. 

Both styles are equally versatile. Some newer cooks find the blunted nose of a Santuko less intimidating, while others like the rocking action of a chef’s knife.  

A classic chef’s knife has a triangular shape with a rounded cutting edge.

I am most comfortable using an 8″ chef’s knife. I have used one to do just about everything. I have carved 18-pound turkeys, hulled strawberries, and cut crusty French bread. Over time, Julie has also converted to using our 8″ chef’s knife. 

If you want to own only one knife, it should be either a chef’s knife or a Santoku knife. These blades can do about 90% of all kitchen cutting tasks.

If you only want two kitchen knives…

Start with a chef’s knife or a Santoku knife, and add a paring knife.

A paring knife is a small knife with a blade length between 3-4.5 inches. Most folks find 3.5-4 inches a good length. The shape of the blade may vary from design to design, but the job remains the same…small tasks. For example, mincing shallots, hulling strawberries, and peeling potatoes are easy to do using a paring knife.  

Paring knives are 3-4.5 inches in length. Their blade shape may vary, but they all do the same task, cutting up small things.

If you only want three different kitchen knives…

Go with the above two knife styles and add a serrated knife. Serrated knives come in a variety of lengths and styles. Serrated knives that are 8″ -10″ in length are the most versatile. A serrated knife is more of a saw than a knife. Serrated knives are great for foods with a tough or slippering surface and a tender interior. They bite into the food and force you to use a sawing action, preventing crushing. Serrated knives are suitable for foods like crusty French bread and ripe tomatoes. I have cut these foods with a sharp chef’s knife, so a serrated knife isn’t indispensable. 

Serrated knives come in a variety of shapes, the above is a classic. They are good at cutting foods that are tough on the outside and tender on the inside.

What about all those other knives?

There are different specialty knives designed to do a variety of tasks. You can buy blades designed for filleting fish, boning chickens, slicing roasts, and cutting grapefruit, to name a few. Each specialty knife will perform its task better than a generalist knife. If you are constantly filleting fish, buy a knife for that purpose. However, if you do specialty tasks rarely, you can get by with the primary three. 

So what is the big knife secret that has allowed me to use the same knife for over 25 years?

Decades ago, I purchased a foodservice-type chef’s knife from Sam’s club. It cost less than $10, and it was etched with the Tramontina brand. It had a stamped blade and a black textured polypropylene handle. I have no idea what type of steel was used or if the tang was full or partial. None of that made any difference. It was comfortable to hold and non-slippery when wet. It was designed to work.

It came with a sharp edge, and it had reasonably good edge retention. However, all of those things only go so far. The knives that I used at friends’ places had one unforgivable flaw; they were never adequately cared for. As a result, even the most expensive were dull and hazardous.   

For the last 25 years, I have run a small, handheld sharpener 5-6 times over the blades of all my smooth-edged cutting knives every single time that I have used them. If I’m sharpening the edge and it feels rough (you can recognize this feeling in short order), I may make 10-12 passes. I start with light pressure, and my strokes become very light as I get close to the end of the process. Phase one sharpens the knife, and phase two hones the blade.

I like using these small hand-held sharpeners. They are inexpensive and they do a good job.

I’m the only one in the house who does this, so in reality, our knives are getting sharpened every 2-3 times they are being used. I do this with all of my straight-edged knives, and they have remained paper-slicing sharp and a delight to use. I believe that Accusharp makes the best version of a small manual sharpener, and it costs around $10. Recently, I gave my Accusharp to my daughter and picked up a similar sharpener by Smith ($7). It does the job, but I think the Accusharp was better. 

I prefer to use a simple handheld sharpener that I keep in our knife drawer for convenience. Since it is right there, it reminds me to use it. There are many different pull-through sharpeners, some of which offer several sharpening stages. These fancier devices could potentially refine a knife’s edge better than a single-stage sharpener. However, a simple device’s convenience makes it more likely that I will sharpen a knife. The best sharpener is drawer junk if you don’t use it.

This pull-through sharpener has multiple angles and multiple stages. However, it is on the bulky side making it less desirable for daily use.

Note: At the time of this writing, most straight edge foodservice knives are cut at a 40-degree inclusive (20-degree per side) angle. The exception is Victorinox, which uses a 30-degree inclusive (15-degree per side) angle. Some Mercer foodservice knives also use a 30-degree inclusive angle. Check with the store or the manufacturer when you buy your knives to determine the proper angle.

In addition, there are other ways to determine a knife’s edge angle, one is the Sharpie method, which is widely discussed on YouTube.  Another way is to use a laser edge meter.

Here is my laser edge meter. It works best on a new knife as once an edge is damaged the laser can’t refract cleanly off the blade. Write the angle down somewhere so you will have the angle value when you need it.

What about buying inexpensive knives from big box stores?

It is a mixed bag. Some knives are OK, some can be made serviceable if you reprofile the blade, and some are terrible. One of the most significant issues with many cheap knives is their handles, which can be extremely slippery when wet.  

Over the years, some of these knives have entered Kunaland. I already told you about the Farberware Santoku that my wife bought. Many years ago, I purchased a chef’s knife for 88 cents from Walmart to use in our former RV. It was made from super cheap stainless steel, had a slippery handle, and an edge with micro-serrations so it could never be sharpened. I left it in the RV over the winter, and despite being stainless steel, it completely rusted. It was a horrible knife. When I built out Violet the campervan, I bought a colorful five-piece Cuisinart knife set for less than $15 at Home Depot. The knives’ balance was slightly off, but they weren’t too bad. I used them for a couple of years, and about two years ago, I upgraded the set to a Victorinox foodservice chef’s knife and a house-brand foodservice paring knife. I didn’t need to do the upgrade, as I cooked simply in the campervan. I did it because… well, sometimes I just do stuff like that. The bottom line is that you may get an OK knife from a big box store or get a piece of junk. Foodservice knives will vary from good to pretty good, so you can’t go wrong by going the foodservice route.

I bought a set similar to this one for $15 to use in Violet the campervan. Honestly, they weren’t too bad but their foodservice equivalents were better.

Don’t listen to knife nerds!

Knife nerds will tell you that pull-through knife sharpeners don’t work and that they will destroy your knives. Of course, this is not true, but I understand how these ideas are promulgated. 

You can get a knife sharper using a whetstone or a fancy sharpening system, but you will not use one every time you use your knife. It is much better to have a sharp knife all of the time instead of a blade that is super sharp once a year.

Knife nerds love to set up demonstrations where they show how pull-through knife sharpeners destroy knives. They will start with a new knife and proceed to ruin its edge by repeatedly slicing into granite or some other hard stone; once the blade is completely trashed, they then vigorously run the knife through a pull-through sharpener using so much force that you can see chunks (not dust) of metal coming off the blade. After they do this for a minute, they will test if the knife is sharp by slicing a sheet of paper. The blade has improved, but it is still not very good. The nerd uses the metal chunks and the somewhat dull knife to prove their hypothesis.

This is NOT the way to use these types of sharpeners. I have sharpened my chef’s knife thousands of times over its life. Despite being a very inexpensive knife, there has been no apparent metal loss, and the blade is sharp enough to cut paper. Ten seconds of sharpening before every use makes all of the difference in the world. 

I have to go beyond my simple knife sharpener a few times a year, but this is because of knife abuse. If we were more careful with our kitchen knives, a pull-through sharpener would be all that we would ever need. I’ll talk more about knife abuse in a bit.

Proving knife nerds wrong.

Over the last 25 years, I have sharpened my kitchen knives with a pull-through sharpener. If you assume that I did this around three times a week, that is over 4000 sharpenings. I don’t have before and after photos, but the knives look about the same. They also feel sharp, and they are sharp enough to slice paper. However, those tests are relatively subjective. I like objective, quantitative data. Is there a quantitative way to determine the sharpness of a blade? The answer is yes. Can I access such instrumentation? This answer is also yes. I’m obsessive and trained as a scientist; of course, I have geeky testing gadgets!

Here are the main two sharpeners that I’m using for my kitchen knives.

There is an international standard for knife sharpness called the BESS C scale that measures the amount of force needed to cut a piece of test media. This scale goes from zero to two thousand. The lower the number, the lower the force required, and therefore the sharper the blade. A double edge razor blade has a BESS score of 50, whereas a butter knife has a BESS score of 2000. High-end cutlery right out of the box scores between 260 (super sharp) to 350 (very sharp).  

The BESS C rating system.
Testing my 25-year-old, $10 chef’s knife on a BESS certified edge tester.

I took my 25-year-old, $10 foodservice knife and sharpened it as I usually would with a pull-through sharpener. Next, I took out my handy dandy Industrial Edge Tester and tested the knife. The BESS value was 250. That is sharper than the sharpest high-end cutlery right out of the box. I then took the same knife, ran it through my Chef’s Choice electric sharpener for a few passes, and repeated the test. That value came back at 191; the sharpness of a utility razor blade!

This reading was after I used a pull-through knife sharpener. At this point, my cheap knife is sharper than brand new high-end cutlery.
I then ran my cheap knife through my Chef’s Choice electric sharpener and got a value of 191. That is the sharpness equivalent of a utility razor blade!
Here is a macro-shot of the Chef’s knife’s edge. There are certainly cleaner knife edges. However, this does not look like the ragged messes that you see when nerds show shots of knives that were sharpened with a pull-through. In reality, the edge looks reasonably clean and totally serviceable.

How do you abuse a knife?

Earlier I mentioned that it is easy to destroy a knife’s edge. Here are some ways to do it.

Banging them around.

Don’t keep your knives in a drawer with a lot of other junk. First, it is dangerous to dig through such a drawer. Second, rubbing up against other hard stuff will damage your knives. There are many ways to protect your knives. Use a knife block, or get a magnetic strip for the wall. You can also use a sleeve to cover the knife’s blade. We have a narrow drawer that we exclusively use for knives. It is not ideal, but it works well enough.

Excessive hard use.

If you regularly use your knife like a chopping cleaver, it will quickly dull. Cleavers have thicker blades and blunter edges for this reason.  

Washing in the dishwasher.

Many years ago, this type of damage would happen in our home, but everyone is now trained to wash cutting knives by hand. Unfortunately, a round or two in a dishwasher will pit and dull just about any knife. So don’t wash your cutting knives in the dishwasher even if the manufacturer says that the knife is dishwasher safe.

Dried on food/excessive soaking.

Leaving food to dry on a knife can dull it. Washing a knife with dried food is more dangerous than immediately cleaning one. Also, soaking a dirty knife for hours can dull it. A brief soak is fine.

Cutting on a hard surface.

It would be best if you only cut on softer surfaces than your knife’s blade. This means you should only cut on a wooden or plastic cutting board. Never cut on a glass plate, glass cutting board, or (gasp) directly on a countertop. We cook pizzas on a pizza stone, and sometimes the snacker finds it easier to cut the pizza directly on the stone. This is a disaster as it immediately turns the knife’s edge into trash. I can sometimes reclaim the blade with a pull-through sharpener, but it is often easier to go with Plan B.

Plan B

What to do when you mess up your blade’s edge.

Simple pull-through sharpeners keep a blade sharp. These would likely be the only sharpeners that a home cook would need in a world of zero abuse. However, as mentioned above, there are many ways to damage a knife’s edge. Sometimes you need to go the extra step to keep your blades ready to battle with the next butternut squash. Here are some options.

Outside sharpener/professional sharpener

Some people sharpen knives for a living. In addition, some hardware stores have automated sharpening machines. For example, my local Ace Hardware will sharpen a knife for about $6. But unfortunately, they can only sharpen at a 20 degree (40 degree-inclusive) knife angle. The good news is that most kitchen knives still use this edge angle. 

Some hardware stores will sharpen your knives for about $6 a blade.

The electric knife sharpener

There are many of these on the market, some inexpensive. American Test Kitchens reviews knife sharpeners every couple of years, and one brand always comes up on top, Chef’s Choice. Typically their favorite model is over $150, so purchasing such a device can be costly. However, I have had one for more than 20 years. I use it 1-2 times a year to fix badly abused knives. In addition, I use it more frequently to sharpen entire sets of knives for friends and family. Chef’s Choice makes models that sharpen at 15 degrees (30 degrees inclusive) and 20 degrees (40 degrees inclusive). They also sell combo units that do both angles. 

American Test Kitchens note that some other brands of electric knife sharpeners make knives duller, so I would stick with their recommendations.

Pros: Does a good job, and is very fast.

Cons: Costly

My Chef’s Choice model 130. I also had a model 100 that I just gave away to one of my nieces.

Lansky Sharpening System

This system has been around for ages and comes in various versions, the least expensive one costing under $40. It is called a guided system, as you use a guide to make sure that you are sharpening at the proper edge angle. The system allows for many different blade angles, including 20-degrees. Unfortunately, it does not have a 15-degree guide, but it does have one for 17-degrees, which is good enough (at least for me). This gadget does an excellent job.

Other companies (like Smith) make copycat sharpeners. I have also used the Smith system, which works well. Some of the copycats may be a bit less expensive than the original Lansky.

Pros: Easy to master. Does an excellent job. Can do a variety of sharpening angles.

Cons: Fiddly to set up. More time-consuming to sharpen than a powered sharpener. 

This basic Lanksy system can be had for under $40.

Spyderco Sharpmaker

This simple to use and compact knife sharpener is a favorite among many who say it gives their knives a razor’s edge. I can sharpen knives on this system, but never to the degree of sharpness that others seem to be able to—around $80.

Pros: Compact and easy to use. Does both 20 degree and 15 degree angles.

Cons: I can’t sharpen a knife on a Sharpmaker as well as I can using other systems. You may need to purchase coarser sharpening rods for badly damaged knives, which can cost almost as much as a whole sharpening system. Not motorized, so it is slightly time-consuming.

Many people love the Sharpmaker. Unfortunately, I am only able to get mediocre results when I use it.

Other manufacturers make similar systems at a lower price. However, the Sharpmaker is known for its quality build, compact size, and versatility. 

This is the Lansky clone of the Sharpmaker. It is a bit less versatile, but it is considerably less expensive.

Work Sharp knife and tool sharpener Mk2

Don’t let the looks of this gadget scare you; it is super simple to use. It is also fast and gives a very sharp edge. It can not only sharpen kitchen knives, but it can also sharpen scissors, axes, pocket knives, and even lawnmower blades—around $80.

Pros: Works very well and for many sharpening needs. Simple, almost foolproof to use.

Cons: Requires some setup, and you need to change belts during the sharpening process. Sharpening guards can only be set to 25 degrees (50 inclusive) used for pocket knives and 20 degrees (40 inclusive) used for standard kitchen knives. No 15-degree (30 inclusive) angle guide for Asian-style knives.

Don’t let its industrial looks scare you. This is the KO version, it is similar to the regular Mk2, but it has a few more bells and whistles.

You can buy the KO (Ken Onion) version of this sharpener, allowing many edge angles, including 15-degrees. But, unfortunately, that unit is more costly at around $120.

Work Sharp Precision Knife Sharpener

This knife sharpener mimics high-end sharpeners like the KME and the Edge Pro, which sell for hundreds of dollars. However, construction is lighter in weight. At only $49, it has a massive following among budget-conscious knife nerds, as it is possible to achieve a mirror edge on a knife. This is a manual system.  

Pros: Inexpensive and can sharpen a knife’s edge to a mirror finish. Similar design to pro units that cost hundreds of dollars. Does many edge angles.

Cons: Construction is more lightweight than similar but more expensive sharpeners. Non-electric so it will take longer to sharpen a knife than when using an electric device.

The Precision Knife Sharpener is a knife nerds dream at an affordable price.

The Precision Knife Sharpener also comes in a professional version for $120 that includes a wider variety of sharpening stones. However, the basic kit is more than enough for most users.

There are other quality sharpening systems, but I’m reluctant to recommend them since I have not personally used them. I would avoid using a whetstone. Professionals get the sharpest edges using whetstones, but it can take years to master sharpening techniques. Amateurs are more likely to mess up a knife’s edge using a whetstone than sharpen it.

What about sharpening serrated knives?

A serrated blade is more of a saw than a knife. Some of the knife sharpeners listed above claim that they can sharpen serrated edges, but most only do a so-so job. I have experimented with sharpening such blades, and the process did improve their edges, but I think that such actions are unnecessary. Serrated knives don’t need to be sharpened as frequently as a straight edge knife because they don’t cut; they tear like a saw. I advise using your inexpensive serrated knife until you feel that it is no longer doing its job, then buy a new one. We have been using ours for decades, so don’t fret that you will need to run to the store every week. 

The bottom line

If you want the fanciest, sharpest, most extraordinary kitchen knives you will need to buy the best knives, invest in an excellent sharpening system, learn how to use that system, and sharpen your knives very regularly. It is doubtful that you will do the above.

Most home cooks do the opposite. They rarely or never sharpen their knives, making kitchen work more difficult and accidents more likely. Even an expensive top-of-the-line knife will turn into trash if you don’t hone and sharpen it regularly.

My solution to this problem is a compromise that works very well. I would advise buying three foodservice type knives-an 8″ chef or 7″ Santoku knife, a 3″ -4″ paring knife, and an 8″ -10″ serrated knife. Foodservice-type knives offer the best bang for the buck. They are not pretty, but they work hard and have very comfortable handles that are non-slippery. They must be able to do the job and to reasonably hold their edge. Otherwise, foodservice buyers would shop for a different brand. Their overall quality is a cut above a similarly priced big-box store knife, although they are less stylish. 

Big box store knives can also be pretty inexpensive. However, their quality is a mixed bag. Consumers are not knife experts and are more likely swayed by factors, such as name recognition, style, price, and packaging. A consumer may think, “Oh well, this knife is good enough.” In contrast, a professional cook has a working knowledge of how a good cutting tool should perform. 

I love my Tramontina, 25-year-old foodservice knife, but there are many other choices. You can get a decent house brand Chef’s knife for well under $10, a known name like Mercer or Dexter for $10-$20, or a popular brand like Victorinox for under $40. Paring knives often cost under $5. Just about any serrated knife will do, but buy one that is 8’-10″ depending on your needs. Expect to pay under $10.  A shorter serrated knife may be good for cutting tomatoes, but it will be too short to cut crusty bread, which is one of the main benefits of having such a knife. 

Foodservice knives are inexpensively bought at restaurant supply stores (in-person or via the internet). You can sometimes find them at warehouse clubs, and you can find some on Amazon, eBay, and Walmart.com. A quick eBay search yielded a knife similar to mine, along with a short serrated knife, and a paring knife selling as a set for less than $13. Shop around as some outlets charge inflated prices. We have a Gordon foodservice (restaurant supply) in our area, but their prices on cooking equipment are high. 

Recently, I found a knife similar to mine in a three-knife set on eBay for less than $13.

Buy a handheld pull-through sharpener. You can purchase them everywhere, including hardware stores, big box stores, and grocery stores. I like the Accusharp brand, but any brand name will do. Although multi-stage pull-through sharpeners may do a slightly better job, they are bulkier, and you are less likely to pull them out. I like having my little sharpener reside in the same drawer as my knives. If I see it, I will use it. Pull the knife through 6-12 times, depending on need. Start with light-moderate pressure, then hone with very light passes for your last few pulls. 

Currently, I am using a Smith’s handheld sharpener. It is pretty good, but I prefer the Accusharp.
This small sharpener can sharpen at three different edge angles.
The above sharpener in action.
I also found this Lansky D-Sharp that can sharpen at 4 different angles.

Because you are sharpening every time you use the knife, the quality of the steel is irrelevant. I have used my knife to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for 19 on multiple occasions. Not only was the knife used for food prep, but it was also used to carve an 18-pound turkey. Its edge sharpness was perfectly acceptable during the entire process. It is hard to imagine that any cooking task that a home cook would need to do would be significantly more demanding. Your knife will always be sharp enough for any daily home kitchen task if you take 10 seconds to sharpen it before you use it.  

Protect yourself and your knives by keeping them in their own space: a block, a magnetic strip, a sleeve, or their own drawer.  

If you are human, you will likely mess up your knives on occasion, and they may need the additional attention that I mentioned in the Plan B section of this post.

Remember, home cooks don’t need to speed chop, and they don’t debone two dozen chickens in a single sitting. As a home cook, your cutting needs are simple. You always should use a sharp knife, but expensive, exotic knives are unnecessary. By spending an additional 10 seconds to sharpen your knife every time you use it, you will be rewarded with a tool that is a pleasure to cut with. The right tool for the job is a sharp knife, and you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to have one.

Mike

Adding A House Battery Powered Radio To A Camper Van.

One of the best parts of adventuring in a van is that you can camp anywhere, including isolated BLM and national forest land. Unfortunately, this often means you are boondocking in less than ideal cell coverage places. Even when using a cell signal booster, it is not uncommon for me to have a single bar, and that signal is only present when I’m seated in the van’s cab area.

Luckily, there is a fantastic fallback for information and entertainment- radio. I have never been in a location where I couldn’t receive multiple AM and FM stations. Of course, I have a car radio, but I don’t use it when the engine isn’t running as I have fallen asleep in the past while listening. I don’t need the hassle of waking up with a dead car battery 20 miles from the nearest town.

I converted my camper van in 2018, and my previous solution was to carry a portable radio with me. This option works great when used outside the vehicle, but reception is impossible inside the van’s signal-blocking metal cabin. 

I have left my cargo door open and placed my portable radio half in and half out of the van. At other times I have precariously perched my radio next to the driver’s side window to eke out a scratchy signal. Neither solution is ideal.

Yesterday I installed a better option, a secondary car radio that runs off of my house battery. High-end aftermarket car radios are expensive, but basic models are surprisingly cheap. Over the last few years, radios have been redesigned where almost all of their circuitry can be placed on a single IC chip. This has reduced their price, and it has also allowed fancy features to be built in at no additional cost. These features include large station storage presets, loudness compensation, equalization controls, and the ability to play MP3 files from a flash drive. Most of these inexpensive radios feature Bluetooth, so you can stream from your phone. Many also have a remote control option (either a little RC or a phone app).  

You can buy these radios for under thirty dollars. In addition, you will need to buy a second outside radio antenna. Small speakers complete the setup and can be repurposed or purchased. The photos below will outline my simple DIY process.

This is the inexpensive radio that I purchased on Amazon. It has Bluetooth and it also came with a little remote.
This Dual brand has good reviews and can be purchased for less than $25 from Walmart. It uses a phone app for a remote.
I liked this all-in-one solution from Amazon, as the speakers are included. It was suggested by someone on a car stereo forum. However, it only receives FM and I wanted a radio that could also receive AM.
You will also need an external antenna. There are many choices on Amazon, eBay, and Walmart.com.
Lastly, you will need some speakers. These are small and inexpensive. They are 8 ohms and most car radios have a 4-ohm output. It is OK to use a speaker with a higher impedance, but your volume may be reduced. It will still be fine for most purposes. It is not OK to use a speaker that has a lower impedance than the rated output as this can overdrive the radio’s amplifier. You can also repurpose other home speakers if they fit into your design. Old rear channel surround speakers are small and may do the trick.
You could also use an inexpensive set of car speakers which are 4 ohms. You won’t get monster sound, just nice audio. If you go this route you will need to come up with some sort of a mount for the speakers.
Installing the antenna only involves using a drill with a hole saw. I’m always afraid to drill on my van so my friend, Tom did the drilling for me. Buy an antenna that has the coax attached to make your job easier. The length of coax will likely be long enough, if not you can buy a short extension.
The antenna fully attached. This antenna can be attached as a side or vertical mount depending on your needs. I was concerned with the height of the antenna, but it is a “rubber ducky” type and flexible.
I had this switch left over from a different project. It allows me to cut all power to the radio when desired. My radio pulls around 2 watts when off. When on it uses around 5 watts at moderate volume. If I’m conserving my house battery power I can eliminate the small 2-watt loss if desired with the switch. Any switch that will break the circuit will do. This is a DPST (double pole single throw) switch, but an SPST (single pole single throw) switch would also work. Since I use a Solar Generator I connected both the + and – to my fused break out-box (instead of connecting the negative to ground as you would do with a car battery).
I found these connectors on the Crutchfield website. There were very cheap and worked very well. However, you can use whatever method that you want when connecting wires to the radio’s pigtails.
As an aside, buy a multimeter and keep it in your van. I used it to make sure that all of my radio connections were solid and that I was delivering power to the radio. However, this is a device that has a million and one van/home uses. You can check for broken wires, battery strength, and so much more. Mine is pretty old (I know, it looks crusty) and probably cost around $10.
Here I’m connecting wires to one of the radio’s pigtails. This radio had a pigtail for audio and another one for power. Some radios may combine both functions with one pigtail, so read the manual that comes with the radio. When it comes to power, you will likely have one negative and two positive leads. One positive is for continuous power and the other is designed to be active only when the car’s ignition is on. The continuous power is there so that the radio can retain data like station presets. I just connected both positives together. When the power is switched off to the radio you will lose your presets, but that isn’t a big deal. If you have enough solar you can leave the power on to your system and set local stations. Note that I’m using those little Crutchfield connectors to attach my wire to the pigtail.
Here you can see the radio set up on the shelf above my bunk. I attached it with sticky pads and reinforced the system with bungee cords; it is staying in place well. However, you can attach your set-up any way that you choose. It was easy to run wires behind panels due to my Wayfarer buildout.
A close-up view. The system is very compact and sounds surprisingly good.
A quick demo. Yes, I’m lounging on my bunk… perfect, don’t you think!

Le Creuset Dutch Ovens, Hot or Hype?

I’ve been cooking since I was 10. I believe most would say that I’m a good cook, and I certainly don’t have any fears about being in the kitchen. I know how to make a smooth white sauce, I can cook steaks on the grill, and I can even bake a decent chocolate cake. I don’t mind cooking, but it’s not the center of my life. Instead, I want to get into the kitchen, eat, and clean up with the least mess. Because of this, some may call me the king of the one-pot meal.

I’ll use any tool at my command to achieve my simple goals. For example, if I know that I’ll be out for the day, I toss some ingredients into a slow cooker, and if I only have an hour before dinner, it’s common for me to plug in my InstantPot. Both of these methods produce good results, but I cook in a dutch oven for even better results.

I love cooking one-pot meals.
Everything in the pot and ready to go into the oven.
Super moist chicken and delicious roasted vegetables. Simple to make.

Cooking in a dutch oven offers many advantages as well as some disadvantages. A dutch oven is probably the most versatile pot in any kitchen, as you can sear meats on a burner and then place the same pot in the oven to complete cooking. A dutch oven can be used like any other pot in the kitchen, but its thick walls and tight lid make it an ideal slow cooker. Its heavy mass holds the heat, which allows for good searing, and its hot surface promotes the formation of a caramelized fond on the bottom of the pot. This residue adds a delicious complexity to the dish being cooked. If you have a dutch oven that is big enough, it is even possible to bake in it directly on the stovetop. You place a trivet on the bottom of the dutch oven to hold your baking pan. Cover and adjust the burner, and off you go. Of course, you can also directly bake in a dutch oven to make bread, cakes, and cornbread in your range’s oven. 

Searing in a dutch oven produces a delicious caramelized fond on the bottom of the pot.

However, dutch oven cooking does have some disadvantages. The pots are heavy and bulky and may be too difficult for some. In addition, they have to be handled with a certain amount of care. This is especially true for enameled coated dutch ovens, which can chip and crack if treated harshly. Lastly, many meals involve time and a bit of handling. A recipe may take three or four hours, and during that period, you may need to stir the pot or do some other maintenance task. You will be rewarded with a richness of flavor that can’t be achieved in a slow cooker or pressure cooker, but you will need to commit to being around the house during the hours-long cooking process.

You may ask, what is a dutch oven? It’s a heavy pot with a secure lid. A dutch oven can be made of many things: clay, aluminum, stainless steel, and even ceramic. But, by far, the most common material used for dutch ovens is cast iron. This is because cast iron acts as a giant heat sink. It absorbs heat and slowly radiates it back into the food. Ovens and electric stovetops constantly turn off and on during cooking, and their temperature can vary widely. Cooking in cast iron evens out this cycling, which results in better and more consistent results. 

 You’ve probably seen someone with a traditional dutch oven if you’ve ever gone camping. These pots are often big, black, and the cast iron is without any external coating. Raw cast iron pots can be used for home cooking, but they have limitations. First, aesthetically they are not very attractive. In addition, cast iron can react with acidic foods and give them a metallic taste. Lastly, raw cast iron can rust if washed and not immediately dried.

A classic dutch oven is made from uncoated cast iron.

A long-standing solution to this problem has been to place an enamel coating on both the inside and the outside of the vessel. This isolates the food from the metal and provides a beautiful and colorful finish to the pot.

The outside of an enameled pot can be any color, but its interior color is typically cream or black. Cream-colored interiors allow inexperienced cooks to visualize what they are cooking a bit better. Black interiors allow for somewhat better searing. Some pots have very smooth interiors; others have rougher finishes. Although manufacturers emphasize these differences, I have found that all of these ovens work well.

Staub is one of the few companies that use a black interior on its pots.

Enamel is vulcanized glass. It is sprayed on cast iron, which is fired at a high temperature. This fuses the glass to the cast iron for a long-lasting finish. Different companies have their own formulas and techniques for this process, and some claim that their procedures produce a more durable coating.  

There is no absolute size determiner to define a dutch oven. Some people believe that a dutch oven has to be 5 quarts or larger in capacity. However, the vocabulary for dutch ovens is fluid. Some manufacturers sell dutch ovens that start around 1.5 quarts and move upwards. Other companies will call their smaller dutch ovens casseroles and their shorter ones braisers. Staub refers to their dutch ovens as La Cocottes, which translates to casserole in English. The bottom line is don’t get hung up on a definition. 

Staub dutch ovens are often referred to as cocottes, which translates to casseroles in English.
Here are two, 2-quart dutch ovens that I own. The blue one is an Our Table brand and was less than $30, the orange (“flame”) one on the right is a Le Creuset pot that retails for 10 times that amount. As you can see, they are more similar than they are different.

Enameled Dutch ovens come in several shapes and designs. Dutch ovens can sell for as little as $40 or more than $400 for the same size. The most expensive dutch ovens are manufactured in France. Le Creuset and Staub are two elite French brands with very loyal followings. Le Creuset is especially good at romanticizing its products, noting that each one is unique and that some consumers have even legally stipulated who gets their pot when they die. Strong statements for a piece of cookery. Is this all hype, or do they make a significantly better product to justify the magnitude jump in their price compared to other brands?

This 8-quart Le Creuset dutch oven is oval which allows it to hold larger cuts of meat. However, this shape also places less of its base on a stovetop’s burner.

Chiefs and reviewers love these French brands and often give them top ratings based on finish and design features. However, remember that there are only so many shapes for a dutch oven, and there are many copycat brands that have reproduced the designs of these French pots.

I own dutch ovens from both Le Creuset and Staub and other brands, including Lodge and Tramontina. So I feel that I had the tools to determine honesty from hype. 

My 15-year-old 6-quart Lodge still looks pretty good.
This 5.5-quart Le Creuset dutch oven performs very well, but is it that much better than dutch ovens that retail for ten times less?

If you own an elite brand, I have some good news. If you can’t afford these brands, I have some good news. This is a win-win post! 

To strip away the hype, we need to understand a little science. I mentioned that the most common dutch ovens are made from cast iron. But what is cast iron? You may think that it’s iron, but that is incorrect. Cast iron is an alloy. In other words, it consists of several substances mixed together. Cast iron is made of iron with a small amount of carbon added (2%-4%). Different formulas of cast iron may add other substances, like a bit of steel, into the mix. These elements are heated at a very high temperature until they become liquid. The liquid can be poured into a mold to form a pot or a lid. Steel is another alloy made of iron and carbon. However, the concentration of carbon is lower than it is in cast iron (less than 2% carbon). This small change gives steel different properties from cast iron.

Steel has more tensile strength (can be bent and stretched without breaking), but it is difficult to cast molten steel into a mold. Most steel pans are made of stainless steel, which has additional ingredients added to make it corrosion resistant. Quality stainless pans are stamped from several layers of different metals bonded together. It is hard to stamp a complete pan, so handles are made separately and then bolted to the pan’s body. All of these additional steps add to production expenses. 

Cast iron liquifies at a lower temperature than steel. It has less tensile strength, so it is difficult to stamp, but it has better flowing properties. Cast iron is cheaper to produce, and because of its flowing properties, it can be molded into any 3D shape by casting it into a mold made of sand. You can add handles and helper handles directly into the design, which adds integrity to the pan and lowers manufacturing costs at the same time.  

Sand is used for the mold as it has a higher melting point than cast iron. Every cast iron pan is unique as the sand mold is destroyed to remove the pan. Don’t feel too sorry for the sand, as it is reused for the next mold. Cast iron is brittle, so pans made of it have to be thicker than those made of steel. This adds weight to cast iron pans, making them too heavy for some. However, this additional mass makes cast iron pans so fantastic to cook with.

Contrary to popular belief, cast iron is a poor conductor of heat. However, it will completely heat up if you heat a pan slowly. Because pans have to be thick, they become virtual heat sinks. If you drop a steak onto a cheap stainless steel pan, the steak absorbs the pan’s heat, and the pan quickly cools down. Because of cast iron’s great mass that doesn’t happen, which is why many chefs prefer cast iron when searing or browning foods. In addition, this same property regulates temperatures, resulting in more even and consistent cooking.  

Cast iron’s roughness allows oils to polymerize on its cooking surface, making a natural non-stick surface that only gets better with continued use.

Some boutique cast iron manufacturers make pans lighter and smoother than typical pans. They tout this as a major achievement and charge an inflated price. However, Lodge manufactured thinner, lighter, and smoother pans in the 1930s and 1940s, and Le Creuset continues to use thinner cast iron in their cookware line-up. 

Lodge switched to thicker and bumpier cast iron in the 1950s. They say that they went with bumpier cast iron because it developed a patina (non-stick coating) quicker. They don’t state why they also went with a thicker-walled pan. However, thicker cast iron would differentiate their products from stainless steel or aluminum products, as its greater mass would offer the cooking advantages mentioned above.

As stated above, raw cast iron pots do have some notable disadvantages. They can rust if left wet, so they must be thoroughly dried after washing. Cast iron can be washed with dish detergent but never in the dishwasher. However, many, including myself, hold on to the tradition of washing only in water and drying on a range’s burner. During the drying/heating process, I’ll often add a small amount of cooking oil which I’ll spread over the pan’s surfaces. 

The fact that cast iron may add a metallic taste to acidic foods may be objectionable to some. Lastly, others may be put off with cast iron’s practical (i.e., ugly) appearance.

These problems were solved in the late 1800s when manufacturers started to bake a coat of enamel on their cooking vessels. Spray enamel consists of tiny particles of glass mixed with clay, pigments, water, and other things. It can be applied to a pot similarly to spraying paint. The pot is then placed in a hot kiln where the glass is melted and permanently bonded to the vessel’s surface. Since enamel is a form of glass, it is subject to chipping and cracking; each manufacturer has its formula to make its enamel more durable. Durability can also be enhanced by applying a thicker coat of enamel and also by applying more than one coat.

Enamel solved many of raw cast iron’s problems. Enameled cast iron won’t rust, it doesn’t impart a metallic taste to foods, and it can turn ugly duckling cast iron into a beautiful swan. 

The downside to enameled cookware is that the enamel can chip. In addition, rapidly heating a pot can result in fracture lines in the enamel. Enamel is a fairly fragile coating that must be treated similarly to Teflon. Only wood or plastic utensils should be used. In addition, enamel cookware should be hand washed as washing in the dishwasher could pit and dull the glaze turning a beautiful pot drab. 

Many dutch ovens now come with lid guards which prevent the lid from bashing into the pot during storage. You can buy some on Amazon if your pot wasn’t shipped with them.

Now that you are an expert in cast iron science, we can look at Le Creuset dutch ovens with a knowledgeable eye. Let’s explore some of their claims:

  1. All of Le Creuset’s dutch ovens are made from a unique mold that is destroyed after the pot is cast. This makes their pots and pans sound like one-of-a-kind works of art. However, what they describe is casting cast iron in sand, which is how all cast iron pots are made.  
  2. Le Creuset is so desirable that some people list who will inherit their dutch oven in their will. This may be true, but so what? I cherish a dimestore Ecko soup ladle from my mom. It has no monetary value, but I kept it because of the many lovely stews and soups served using it. One of your kids may want your dutch oven. However, I think that most adult children don’t want their parents’ old pots and pans.  
  3. Le Creuset comes in many beautiful colors and has the widest selection of enameled cooking vessels. This is true. Most Dutch oven brands come in several colors, but Le Creuset dutch ovens can be purchased in almost 20 different colors. In addition, some colors are retired while new ones are introduced. Le Creuset also produces exclusive colors for special retailers (Williams Sonoma, I am talking to you). If you are into colors, Le Creuset is the way to go. In addition, Le Creuset makes many different sizes, types, and shapes of cookware.
  4. Le Creuset dutch oven’s enamel is more durable than other brands; it won’t chip. Despite claims, Le Creuset can chip just like any other enamel cookware. Its cream-colored interior is subject to staining, and its glossy finish can dull over time. If you don’t believe me check out vintage Le Creuset on eBay. These items are often procured from estate sales, and they show quite a bit of wear and tear. However, I believe that Le Creuset pots may be slightly more durable than some other brands.
  5. Le Creuset uses three coats of enamel. This is a bit of an exaggeration. Le Creuset uses a clear bottom enamel layer and adds a tan layer for the interior and a colored layer for the exterior. That is only two layers per surface. Lodge also uses a two-layer enamel process.
  6. Le Creuset has a lifetime warranty. They will replace a defective dutch oven for life. This is true, but the devil is in the details. They will replace a pot only if the damage is not caused by abuse and only if the damage impacts the pot’s function. Chips on the rim or outside the pot are the most common damage for any enamel dutch oven, but they are not covered. Likewise, unsightly fracture lines don’t impact the pot’s cooking ability. However, a significant chip inside a cooking vessel could further flake; swallowing glass (enamel) is not a good thing. In such cases, Le Creuset will send you a replacement. Lodge also has a lifetime warranty. 
  7. Le Creuset pots are lighter because they have a secret cast-iron formula. Le Creuset pots are lighter because they cast thinner than other dutch ovens. The downside is that they have less thermal mass and, therefore, less thermal regulation. However, this isn’t a very significant problem. Lodge made thinner cast iron in the 1930s and 1940s and deliberately switched to thicker cast iron in the 1950s.
  8. Le Creuset’s superior and smoother enamel coating prevents food from sticking. Food sticks on all enamel, but that produces a fond, which can be deglazed and adds to the dish’s flavor. However, all enameled cast iron is surprisingly easy to clean. Although Le Creuset may produce a pot with a slightly smoother finish, that finish does not seem to perform differently from other dutch ovens that I have used. 
  9. Le Creuset’s light interior makes it easier to determine when food is properly seared. Most dutch ovens have a light interior. My Staub has a black interior, and Staub claims that this allows it to sear better. Its inside coating is rough, and Staub says this allows its pots to be seasoned like regular cast iron. I have used light and dark as well as smooth and rough interiors, I don’t see a significant cooking difference. However, a dark interior doesn’t show stains.
  10. Le Creuset’s straight sides provide a more searing surface than pots with a curved bottom. This is true but not very important for a home cook searing family-sized amounts of meat. In contrast, pots with curved bottoms are supposedly better when making soups and stews. In practice, either shape works great for all foods. If you are stuck on a Le Creuset shape, be aware that many clones are sold at a fraction of the price.
On the left is a Le Creuset 5.5 quart dutch oven and on the right is a similar product from Tramontina. You can see that they are more similar than different. The finish on the Le Creuset seems a tiny bit glossier, but the handles on the Tramontina are bigger.
Top-down view. You may notice that the Le Creuset’s cast iron is slightly thinner. In addition, the Tramontina’s lid has ridges in it. These are called “self-basting” ridges and supposedly allow condensation to drip directly back onto the food, making it moister. Personally, I have not seen a difference and both lids work fine.

11. Le Creuset pots are made in France, and that is cool. Yes, that is cool.

Beyond the hype, the most important question is, does food taste better cooked in a Le Creuset dutch oven than in some other brand? The answer is no. I have made dishes in many different dutch ovens, and they perform similarly.  

So is Le Creuset worth the money? That depends.

Le Creuset pots are impeccable. They come in really beautiful colors, and their finish is a notch above other brands (except for Staub, which is equally expensive). They are made in France by craftsmen. Their glaze is a bit more durable, and with care, they will probably look a bit better 20 years from their purchase date compared to a Brand-X Chinese unit. If you are into pots and have some cash burning in your pocket, go for it!. However, I would not buy old beat-up Le Creuset pots on eBay; remember that they are just old beat-up pots selling for crazy prices.

If you don’t have a boatload of cash, rejoice! You can buy a five or six-quart dutch oven for $40-$100, and your dishes will turn out just as well as in a $400 Le Creuset. Yes, the glaze may dull slightly quicker, but my 15-year-old Lodge still looks pretty good. Remember that form follows function.  

If I could have just one brand, would it be Le Creuset? They are very fine dutch ovens, but I would probably go with Staub. I prefer their black interiors. Staub features fewer outer colors, but their enamel seems to be slightly higher quality than Le Creuset pots. If I couldn’t afford the luxury of a French dutch oven, I would have no problem using a Lodge or a Brand-X dutch oven. Cast iron dutch ovens are more similar than they are different.

With proper care, most enameled dutch ovens can last a lifetime. However, with improper care, most dutch ovens will be destroyed in short order. Here are some tips:

  1.  Always heat your dutch oven slowly when you’re using it on the range. Heating quickly can result in cracked enamel.
  2. Dutch ovens work best when the burner is set no greater than medium-high. 
  3. Never wash your dutch oven in the dishwasher; even if the manufacturer says it is dishwasher safe, it will dull its finish. Hand wash with warm soapy water. 
  4. Never use metals like steel wool when washing your pans.
  5. Treat your enamelware like you would a Teflon pan. Only use plastic or wooden utensils when cooking in it.
  6. If your dutch oven has a white or cream interior, it will eventually stain. Some people will add a few tablespoons of bleach to water and allow it to sit in the dutch oven for 20 or 30 minutes. This can remove some of these stains. Note that stains don’t impact a dutch oven’s functionality.
  7. Dutch ovens often get burnt-on food in their Interiors. However, their glassy surfaces allow for easy cleaning as long as you soak them for a bit in hot soapy water before you scrub them out.
I let a dutch oven cool to warm before I fill it with hot soapy water. In this example, I’m washing a 5.5 quart Le Creuset vessel. It is surprising how easy enamel cleans when soaked for a little bit.
  1. Be careful of thermal shock. If you rapidly cool a dutch oven, for instance, by filling a hot dutch oven with cold water, you can cause it to crack. Wait until the hot pan cools to warm, and then fill with hot water to soak.

If you follow these simple tips, your dutch oven will retain its beauty for many years. However, remember that it is just a pot and not a design piece in your home. Therefore, a dutch oven should show some wear over time; that is normal and is also a good thing.  

As stated above, my favorite dutch oven brand is Staub, followed by Le Creuset. Both are beautifully made classics. If you have the cash to spare, you will not be disappointed in either of these brands. If you already have these dutch ovens, you are likely very pleased with your purchase. However, if you can’t afford a status brand, I believe that you’ll be just as happy with an off-brand or a Lodge. Remember that most cast iron brands are more similar than they are different. You can obtain fantastic results with a $40 dutch oven that will be indistinguishable from the food coming out of a $400 one.

Happy cooking. 

Random thoughts and my philosophy of life.