20 Aug 2009

Under Siege

Ulrica wrote last week with details of a lovely little food game; a variation on the Make Do and Eat strategy for using up the food you have on hand. “Siege” was the name of the game played by her husband’s family. The rules are essentially the same as for Make Do and Eat: Use the food in your own pantry; buy only a little fresh food – fruit, veg, milk and eggs; see how long you can keep this up. The new name, however, lends a sense of urgency to the game. Indeed, it elevates the practice of eating one’s way through the ice-encrusted Containers of Mystery lodged in one’s freezer, from mere parlor game to survival strategy.

This week we decided to really give Siege eating a go, and we think it’s been working, mostly. Other than a wee pint of ice cream, lobbed over the castle walls by our dear friends, Ben and Jerry, we have stuck to the rules. Admittedly, I am carrying the lion’s share of the thinking about food and planning what we eat, but then I’m the one with time on my hands just now. I began at a ridiculous hour on Sunday morning by cleaning a couple of the bookshelves in the kitchen, making a place for all those not-yet-filled canning jars, reorganizing my cookbooks in the process. Way at the back of the top shelf I found a stack of embarrassingly dusty food magazines, that I had “saved” for one recipe or another. A quick flip-through was all it took to identify the recipes, rip them out, and recycle the mags. I also found a stack of recipes already torn from magazines, for bean and sausage casseroles, pasta bakes, lots of vegetarian fare and, I kid you not, no less than nine different recipes for chocolate brownies. I guess we all have our priorities.

Interestingly, but not perhaps surprisingly, my pantry contained a lot of the staple ingredients for most of these recipes. (Except, possibly, I don’t actually have enough chocolate on hand to make nine different batches of brownies.) Which probably explains why I clipped, stashed and otherwise saved the various recipes. They were all variations on my standard pantry staples theme. I suppose we all tend to buy the things we know we like over an over again, but I realized this week that I also buy things that I think I should like, because I know they are good for me. Like, for instance, beans.

Turns out I have as many varieties of beans in my pantry as I do recipes for brownies. I’m grateful for the beans, as we began this Siege game with very little meat in the freezer, and I tend to get cranky without protein. Esthetically beans are the living end; very pleasing to look at in their little glass jars, but my goodness, what a pain in the ass they are to use. All that soaking and cooking. Beans require a little forethought, and a bit of planning ahead which, I suppose, is not necessarily a bad thing. There is a certain comfort in knowing what you’ll be eating over the next few days, and maybe part of the comfort lies in knowing that you will, indeed, be eating.

The weather in west Wales has been almost autumnal, with gray skies and heavy showers adding to the feeling of being under siege. Of course I grumble about the weather, but it’s a delicious excuse to curl up and knit, or spin, with Radio 4 on in the background. I’ve been very productive.


Having completed the body of my Adult Surprise Jacket, I am on the home stretch. This is one of those projects wherein I knit the equivalent of at least four sweaters before settling on this pattern. There are two yarns here; the first, a dark wine-coloured generic wool, that began life as a horrible, horrible eBay mistake – it was the ugliest yarn for which I have ever paid actual cash money. What made it usable was the over-dyeing. It was originally the Cider House Rules vest (IK, Autumn 2000), which Tonia wore for years and years, until she didn’t anymore. I ripped this project out a couple of years ago, and have been saving the 400 grams or so for … apparently this current project. It’s not very nice yarn, but it is the right colour.

The second yarn is my own handspun that began life as Polworth roving, purchased at Woolfest three years ago, originally from Canadian dyer Rovings. (I didn’t see this precise colourway on the Rovings website, but I’m sure if you write and ask, they’ll be able to tell you what it is.) I spun the yarn very fine, and then Navajo plied it, to keep the colours unsullied. The result is DK to light worsted weight yarn with long, Noro-like swathes of near solids that do not repeat. At all. The process worked beautifully, but, I have to admit, it also made this yarn somewhat difficult to use. With long non-repeating colours, knitting sleeves that match, for instance, is a somewhat tricky prospect.


I suspect a less anal-retentive knitter would have had fewer issues with the colour repeats of this yarn than I did. The design process was endless as I tried a variety of stitches and sweater patterns, some of which were even my own, before settling on the Adult Surprise Jacket. I surprised myself, in fact, by choosing a garter stitch jacket (not usually a fan of garter, I gotta say) but the pattern was actually perfect for this yarn. For all that I’m not a fan of garter, I do love the little bumps of colour in the reverse side of garter-striped fabric, and this wrong side of the fabric became the right side of my jacket. The stripes are worked in a Fibonacci sequence (1, 2, 3, and 5) with first the wine coloured yarn as the main colour, then changing to the polwarth as the main colour, then back to the wine.

As I near the end of this project, I am down to just a handful of the handspun yarn, which leaves one big design decision left. For the adult version of this jacket the stitches are picked up at the edge of the elbow length sleeves, and knit downward. I have enough of the Polworth left to work a few stripes, near the cuff, but due to the long colour repeats, the stripes on the cuffs won’t match each other. I’m okay with that one little quirk, but I do worry that the block of wine colour on entire lower half of the sleeves will be too heavy. I’m not sure how to get around that, since I am basically out of the contrasting yarn.

The only other option I’ve come up with is to knit the cuffs so the garter ridges run parallel to the arm, and sew them to the sleeve after the fact. I do have just enough yarn to (maybe, possibly, I think) work three or four stripes in the contrasting colour on each cuff. This would break up the solid colour of the cuffs a bit, but also make any shaping of the lower part of the sleeves tricky, involving both shortrows and… math.

I’ve been staring at the jacket now for two days, listening to the rain and Radio 4, while Chinese Five Spice Adzuki Beans simmer gently, endlessly, on the stove. I’m no closer to a decision, but as the entire project has been, quite literally, several years in the making, I’ve no intention of rushing the ending. Also, of course, I am very busy just now, trying out a variety of different recipes for brownies.

Posted on August 20, in Blog


  1. Felix wrote:

    The adult surprise jacket looks absolutely beautiful! What a great use for the long, no-repeat coloured yarn.

    Posted on 8.20.09 ·
  2. Anna wrote:

    Brenda, I *love* how the jacket’s colors are turning out. It truly is beautiful, and I can’t wait to see how the finished product looks.

    Posted on 8.20.09 ·
  3. Elly wrote:

    Nice colours!

    Have you tried pressure cooking the beans? I’ve not tried it yet (must acquire a pressure cooker first), but I think it may be worth it.

    Posted on 8.20.09 ·
  4. Josie P wrote:

    I grew up with the “siege” cooking for most of my childhood. My parents were on a very low income and with lots of friends with allotments and veg gardens things were bartered for sewing and my dads electrical and woodworking skills. I still have memories of a pantry shelf full of plum jam that literally lasted for years after we were given vast amounts of plums due to a glut of them and they all needed using asap – I don’t think my mother ever wanted to make jam again after that! There are still things I find I feel I must have in the pantry – tins of rice pudding, tins of ham, tins of baked beans, risotto rice, pasta and tomato soup.
    I even get stressed if these “siege” backups aren’t in the cupboard!

    The only downside of this? I now hate eating lentils or beans..(apart from baked beans)..

    The upside? I was the only person I knew at university who could make a good meal out of what the collective household had left in their cupboards.

    I know this kind of attitude towards food consumption is more common in older generations who lived through the war and the rationing afterwards but I’m only 28!

    I adore the Adult Surprise Jacket and am searching for the pattern for it in the UK.

    I would do the cuffs seperatly and graft them on. It gives you more control.

    Could you alternate in two row stripes for the cuffs, would that make the mismatching slightly less odvious? I do like the occasional quirk though!

    Posted on 8.21.09 ·
  5. This is hilarious, my wife and I are going to give it a try. My wife (Katie) is a vegetarian so we have looooooads of beans in our pantry… I took a look and we currently have;
    – Garbanzo beans
    – Navy beans
    – Black beans
    – Refried beans!
    – Pinto beans
    – Kidney beans
    – Lima beans (dry)
    – Black Eye Peas
    – Great Norther Beans!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Our siege might last a long time, I’d best get my TV guide ready 🙂

    P.S. I found your blog on the BloggersChoiceAwards.com website and I thinks it’s great. I voted for you.
    If you get the time please vote for my blog in the Best Education Blog category;

    Many thanks 🙂

    Posted on 8.22.09 ·
  6. Clea Stagnitti wrote:

    Dear Brenda,
    I so enjoy your podcasts and your blog. Thank you so much. I can’t remember which episode it was where you mentioned that you’re looking for an reusable replacement for the yellow and green sponge. I use those too and I’ve been obsessed with the question ever since you brought it up. Alas, I haven’t got a good answer yet. Have you? I’ve tried switching to an all natural sponge with an all natural (some sort of cellulose I believe but I’ve thrown out the wrapper) scrubbie side too but it just doesn’t work as well. And you’re right, a dishcloth doesn’t do it either. I hope someone else will have a great brainstorm.
    Well, off to soak some beans now that you’ve reminded me. Red beans and rice for us for dinner tomorrow.

    Posted on 8.24.09 ·
  7. Prue wrote:

    I am glad that you like the dash of colour change on the “wrong” side of garter stitch. But I don’t. I like it even less on the wrong side of stocking stitch. Currently I am knitting myself a sleeveless vest out of my bits and pieces of handspun. I spent quite some time looking for a stitch pattern that doesn’t have those dashes. Couldn’t find one.
    The reason I want one is so that the garment will look as good inside out as outside out. This is an excellent way of extending the life of my handknits. And when I add a boat neck, I can wear it back to front as well as inside out. That means four times as long between washes. And we all know, that washing is what spoils woollens.

    Posted on 8.24.09 ·
  8. Alison wrote:

    Cooking beans has become a lot easier for me since I discovered this 90-minute no-soak method. It really works!


    Posted on 8.24.09 ·
  9. Laura wrote:

    What amazing colours in the Adult Surprise Jacket, Brenda! It’s wonderful.

    Posted on 8.28.09 ·
  10. Tara wrote:

    Ha! I regularly stock up on beans, too! And yet…they never make it into a meal!

    Posted on 8.29.09 ·

Comments are closed.