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Friday, June 24, 2016

Finding your Top 5

Bon Appétit magazine used to do (perhaps still does?) interviews with celebrities at the end of each issue regarding their 5 staple foods: the things they always keep stocked at home. The answers ranged from Cheetos to wheat germ, but it was always interesting. As someone who likes peering into other peoples' carts and baskets at the grocery store I loved it.

Creating a list of grocery staples is important for a number of reasons. Keeping a few versatile basics on hand at all times helps ensure meal variety while economizing grocery costs. Each family's list will be different depending on dietary needs, lifestyle, and flavor preferences but everyone winds up with an essentials shortlist. Here are my top 5 staple foods in no particular order:

1. Plain yogurt: plain yogurt features prominently in our lives. Yogurt with fruit and granola makes a great breakfast or snack, while mixing it with a dollop of jam or honey satisfies late-night dessert cravings. It can replace sour cream in dishes like goulash or potato salad, and is a standard ingredient in many Indian dishes. It is perfect for sauces, such as tzatziki, as well as dressings (tangy ranch, buttermilk-feta, and lemon-dill are some of our favorites). Replacing heavy cream with plain yogurt can be a healthy alternative as well. For example:
One of my favorite weeknight recipes. It is easy, filling, and healthy.
Almost any herb or spice can be substituted for the dill or cumin seeds.
The original recipe is from Southern Living.
I prefer to make my own yogurt using an automatic yogurt maker. Mine cost about $25 and makes 7 individual servings of yogurt per batch. It has a manual on/off switch, though some more expensive models have a built-in timer. The individual glass containers are convenient for taking to work and are dishwasher safe.
To make yogurt just heat milk over the stove until it just begins to steam. I usually use 2% lactose-free milk or coconut milk. Pour heated milk into mixing bowl and cool to room temperature. Stir in yogurt starter then divide mixture into the yogurt maker's cups. Place cups in the base, put on the lid, and turn the yogurt maker on. Ta da!!! 12 hours produces thinner yogurt, while 14 hours makes thicker Greek style yogurt. When finished, store yogurt cups in refrigerator.

2. Canned diced tomatoes: perfect for summer soups, winter stews, and all manner of sauces, diced tomatoes add depth to a number of dishes and are particularly useful for Italian and Indian dishes. I use about 2 cans a week. To maximize versatility avoid seasoned varieties and select a brand with as little added sugar or salt as possible.

3. Cornmeal: since my husband is Colombian we frequently make arepas and empanadas (perfect for breakfast, lunch, or dinner!) so finely ground white cornmeal is an essential staple in our house. This type of cornmeal can also be substituted for traditional white flour in some baked goods, making it a cheaper alternative to gluten-free flour. It works particularly well in fruit and nut cakes which tend to be dense and moist (such as carrot cake, apple cake, or buttermilk pecan cake). It also makes delicious crusts for bar desserts (such as lemon bars).

Living in the South, cornbread also features prominently in our lives. It is an art form here and everyone has their own special recipe. While I vary between a slightly sweet version and a Monterey Jack and jalapeño version, the process is non-negotiable: a.) stir together your dry ingredients in a bowl, b.) melt the butter over the stove in a cast iron pan then remove pan from heat, c.) whisk eggs into the milk then add the mixture to the butter, d.) add dry ingredients to cast iron pan (do not over mix!).
The Le Creuset (right) is better sized for daily use but Old Faithful (left) has been in our family
for decades and has graced campfires and grills as well as stovetops and ovens. 
For baking I usually transfer my batter to a muffin pan because I'm sacrilegious like that, but you can also be traditional and pop your cast iron pan directly into the oven. For a fun twist, spoon cornbread batter over thick soup (hearty vegetable soup and cream of mushroom are my favorites for this) in a dutch oven and bake until cornbread is cooked through. It makes a delicious shepherd's pie type casserole.

Our favorite brand and type.
4. Rice: I love rice. It can be added to soups or topped with curries, steamed or roasted vegetables, or just a little butter and cheese. We have rice and black beans for dinner probably once a week, a staple meal in much of Latin America. My low-fiber diet prevents us from using brown or wild rice, so we stick to long grain white rice.

Adding a little olive oil to the water during the cooking process produces fluffy, perfect rice every time. Leftover rice reheats well and can also be turned into rice pudding or formed into patties and pan fried (the rice version of potato pancakes).

5. Mushrooms: for the first 20 years of my life I despised mushrooms. At some point in early adulthood I realized they were delicious, and living with a vegetarian has transformed them into a staple ingredient. Baby portobellos are our go-to type since they are inexpensive but have good flavor.

Mushrooms are perfect for omelets, kebabs, stir fry, soups, curries, and myriad other dishes. They have a "meaty" quality that appeals to vegetarians and meat eaters alike. Mushroom stock is a great substitute for recipes calling for beef or pork stock, and I use mushrooms in lieu of bacon or beef in spaghetti carbonara, quiche lorraine, lasagna, and stroganoff.

For parties, stuffed mushrooms are an easy and always popular appetizer. Here are my two favorite versions:

Chestnut stuffed mushrooms
I prefer brands with cardboard
packaging. I think the mushrooms
stay fresh longer.

1 shallot, diced
2 large cloves garlic, diced
8 oz. chestnuts, shelled and roasted (can be purchased this way)
1 Tbs. fresh sage leaves, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 packs baby bella mushrooms
Garnish: Pecorino or romano cheese, shaved

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove the stems from the mushrooms and dice stems and chestnuts. Place mushroom caps on baking sheet. Mix first 5 ingredients in bowl then spoon mixture into mushroom caps. Bake mushrooms for 15-20 minutes, or until mushrooms are tender and filled is heated through. Garnish with pecorino or romano cheese shavings.

Goat cheese/Butternut squash stuffed mushrooms
6 oz. butternut squash, finely diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 Tbs. fresh sage leaves, chopped
1/8 cup dry white wine
2 ounces goat cheese
1 Tbs. butter
Salt and pepper to taste
2 packages baby bella mushrooms
Garnish: fresh chives, chopped

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove caps from mushrooms and dice stems. Sauté butternut squash in olive oil until lightly browned. Add mushroom stems, sage, butter, and salt and pepper. Saute 2 minutes. Add wine. Cook until wine has evaporated, stirring constantly. Remove pan from heat and allow to cool 10 minutes. Stir goat cheese into squash mixture. Place mushroom caps on baking sheet. Spoon filling mixture into mushroom caps and bake 15-20 minutes, or until mushrooms are tender and filled is heated through. Garnish with chopped chives.



Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Taming Bridezilla

Last January my partner proposed to me. I found out later that when he told my mother he wanted to marry me the first thing she said was "you know she has a strong personality, right?" Thanks mum. She wasn't wrong through. I am impatient, demanding, and prone to stressing over details. The potential for a bridezilla breakdown during wedding planning was real.

While we managed to go from engagement in January to marriage that October without major (emphasis on major) drama, there were plenty of stressful moments. So here are a few lessons I learned on taming your inner bridezilla and host a wedding that both you and your guests will enjoy:

Remember: this is what
weddings are all about.
1. Let go of the idea that, as the bride, the wedding is all about you you you. Your wedding is about the union of you and your partner and you are inviting your friends and family to celebrate this union, not yourself. Leave the megalomania for your birthday and focus on being a good partner and a gracious host instead.

2. Build a larger emergency cushion into your wedding budget than you think you'll need. Then double it, because the moment you say "wedding" I swear vendors triple their prices. I blew my line item budget on our very first wedding purchase: Save the Dates. We ordered adorable square ones forgetting that square letters cost extra postage because they have to be hand sorted by the post office. This may not seem like a big deal, but when you are mailing 100 or more invitations it adds up quickly.

3. Speaking of Save the Dates, let go early of your hopes for perfection. I will never forget my first wedding-related trip to the post office. The postal worker took my stack of Save the Dates to be mailed internationally-- which I had painstakingly and lovingly addressed in my very best script -- and slapped on a random assortment of Christmas wreath (it was Spring) and President Lincoln stamps...crookedly. A little piece of me died right then and there, but in hindsight I think it's funny. I can only imagine my horrified facial expression.

4. Keep your eye on the prize. From a very young age I was more concerned with getting my PhD than getting married so I didn't really have a "wedding vision," but I did have three must-haves: an outdoor ceremony, a pale pink dress, and a bouquet with white anemones.

Ranunculus and a cream dress
and the world didn't end
We secured an outdoor ceremony space (check!) but the dress I fell in love with was cream. I was batting
0.500 now on my list, so I compromised with pale pink shoes. Two days before our wedding the florist called to tell me the shipment of anemones they had received for my bouquet was of poor quality and they needed to use my second choice: white ranunculus. So from my list of must-haves I scored 1 out of 3. But my dress and bouquet were still amazing and, most importantly, the lack of pink dress and anemones did not affect my ability to get married. When you find yourself going into meltdown mode over flowers or table linens or seating charts (and this WILL happen) you've lost sight of the point of your wedding. Take a deep breath and refocus your energy on the positive.

5. Extend the party. As nearly all our guests were out-of-towners, many of whom we only see every few years, we hosted a variety of events that gave us an opportunity to spend quality time with everyone. We had a happy hour at the hotel bar two days before the wedding, brunch in our backyard the day before the wedding, and a party at our house after the rehearsal dinner that ran until 2:00am. These events allowed friends and family from both sides to spend time with us and each other and provided some priceless memories.

 Doing our photos before the ceremony gave us quiet time
together before launching into the festivities.
On our wedding day we took the majority of our photos before the wedding and used the cocktail hour between the ceremony and dinner to mingle. By the time dinner rolled around we had spent quality time with every one of our guests and were able to sit and eat all three courses guilt free.

I've heard from so many friends that their wedding was a blur, that they never had a chance to eat, and that the only quality time they had with their new spouse all day was their first dance. This is unacceptable and avoidable. Spreading out social interaction over several events rather than cramming it all into the reception meant we could relax and enjoy our wedding.

6. Have a sense of humor. Guest lists will cause arguments. Price tags will cause tears. Things will go wrong, but that's all part of the process.

One of my favorite wedding-weekend memories is of our rehearsal dinner when-- midway through an evening of hugging 70 people-- I became acutely aware I had never put deodorant on that morning. Fortunately, my brother was my man of honor and he came to the rescue with deodorant that I applied on the spot, in front of our entire table, because that's just who I am. My husband's brother later told me that was the moment he knew I was the perfect addition to the family.

It doesn't get any better than that.



Saturday, June 18, 2016

Translating Inspiration

Have you ever flipped through a magazine or browsed online and seen a room or an outdoor space that really captures your heart and imagination? You love everything about it...the colors, the textures, the emotions it elicits. Everything.

I keep pictures of those spaces to use as design inspiration, and finding creative ways to reinterpret their charms in my own home is my own weird version of fun.

Focusing on reinterpretation -- rather than replication -- has several benefits. Not only is it more practical than overhauling your home to look exactly like someone else's, it also provides flexibility: a beautiful living room can provide inspiration for your bedroom. A mountain gardenscape can even provide inspiration for a guest room, as it did for me!

These lush gardenscapes from issues of Southern Living served as my inspiration. 
Once you choose your design inspiration determine precisely what elements appeal to you and why. Here's what I love about this look:
  1. The color palette. Sticking to a basic palette of greens and yellows, along with pops of pale blue, leaves room for a multitude of textures to work together. The result is something visually interesting without being overwhelming. I also find this color combination relaxing, which is how I wanted the guest room to feel.
  2. The guest room is small and looks out over our garden. Using a gardescape as design inspiration visually connects the indoor and outdoor spaces.
  3. It works with items I already own and could use in the guest room. I've built a collection of  lamps, bedside tables, art, pillows, and rugs that can be mixed and matched and rotated from room to room to create different looks, and I knew I had items in my design arsenal with the right look and feel to reinterpret this gardenscape. 


My house's walls are a pale grey-blue, so I just inverted the garden's color scheme and used greens and yellows as the room's accent colors.

The bird's eye maple dresser and full size bedframe were my mother's in high school and were passed down to me when I was a child. We have guests stay with us frequently, so these heirlooms are still working hard for my family.


The rug evokes the geometric pattern of garden stepping stones and I hung a quartet of vases from hooks in the ceiling over the bed to literally bring the outdoors in. Garden twine wrapped around the neck of each vase allows them to hang.

The vases were leftover from my wedding and I keep them filled with evergreens and herbs from my garden, which also keeps the guest room nicely scented. These hanging vases are an easy DIY project that puts a fun and unexpected twist on floral arrangements and keeps the limited surface spaces free for guests' use.


The nightstand is a craft crate I stained and screwed to the wall. A stained glass dish on the shelf serves as a catch-all for guests' hairpins, jewelry, and other small items. The green clip-lamp I originally bought for my college dorm. I love that, twelve years later, I'm still finding uses for it. 

My husband brought the drum with him from Colombia, where he is originally from. It is both decorative and a nice additional surface for bedside items. It is also handy in case our guests have any late-night musical urges. 


The faux-wood blinds came with the house but I wanted to add curtains to make the room feel cozier. The space is too small for two curtain panels per curtain rod. It felt cluttered, and only one panel is really necessary to cover each window anyway.

I hung the curtain rods well above the top of each window to make the windows look bigger and ceiling feel taller.





Keeping with the garden theme the lamp has a plant and bird motif in greens and blues, and the art in the room is all original and sports a nature theme. The photo over the dresser was purchased at an art fair and the picture over the bed is one I took of a cottage in Wales.

Some DIY art hangs on the wall opposite the bed. My dad made the frame, and the art itself is a collage of images from a sketch instruction book on the human form that I cut out and pasted to a foamboard backing.



My guest room may not be a literal garden, but it embodies the central elements of my inspiration photos: peace and tranquility. Reinterpreting the spaces you love can be a fun project that pushes the boundaries of your creativity, so get out there and use your imagination.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Mama Always Said...

I grew up gardening with my mum. This usually meant I dug for worms to "take-care of" (i.e. accidentally kill) while my mum gardened. We lived in New Hampshire and during the 4 days a year there wasn't snow, mud, or black-flies my brother and I spent our afternoons outside foraging for lunch amongst the berry bushes and vegetable and herb gardens.

Now that David and I have settled in a house for a few years I can finally invest in my own garden. Our landlords had already nicely landscaped the yard with shrubs and flowers, so I decided to focus my efforts on small-space urban farming using the lessons my mother taught me.

This brings us to garden tip #1: Survey the terrain. If you've just moved into a new place, take your time before planting anything in the ground. Track the sunlight, learn about the soil and grading in your yard, and see what is already planted.

Case in point: moving into my house in the Summer meant I didn't know what plants Spring would bring. Turns out there were beautiful tulips in the "blank spot" where I had planned to put my green beans.

If you absolutely cannot wait to start gardening, stick to container gardens (planters, window boxes, water gardens, etc.) for the first few months. Kale, lettuces, strawberries, tomatoes, bell peppers, and herbs all do well in pots.

DENIED! Chicken wire makes this is a husky-proof space.
Once I familiarized myself with my yard, the next step was building a husky-proof enclosure. For my birthday David built me a fenced, gated garden with two 3'x5' beds and a path down the middle.

Putting the garden in the corner of our fenced-in yard meant we only had to close off two sides of the garden. However, if you do this don't forget to leave some space between the bed and the fence itself, as direct soil-to-board contact will eventually rot out the fence.

Paths between the beds make harvesting easy, while bird netting protects my crops from the rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, and birds that live along the wooded greenway behind our house.

Garden tip #2: Small budgets are no problem. The gardens of Rome weren't built in a day, and I don't care if you saw a complete, one-day landscaping makeover on HGTV. Every professional gardener will tell you their own, personal gardens were curated over time and via trial and error. Start one plant at a time and build gradually.

Closest: blueberry bush, radishes
Middle: cucumbers, purple potatoes, curly-leaf kale
Farthest: asparagus, shallots, carrots 
This year for my birthday, a year after building the original garden, David added one more bed and path. Building the garden enclosure in two stages spread out the cost, as building materials and soil can add up quickly.

Buying seeds rather than ready-to-go plants also saves money, and I recommend buying any ready-to-go plants from local farmers and gardeners. We purchased a self-pollinating blueberry bush at the farmer's market for almost half the price of the garden center plants I'd seen. Craigslist can also be a great resource for this. However, I did end up buying my herbs and tomatoes from a regular garden center.

My garden trug
Another nice thing about gardening is that the tools aren't fancy or expensive and you don't need special gear. That doesn't mean you can't have fun and accessorize, though! My mum searched far and wide for a genuine trug, i.e. harvest basket. If you've ever watched British television and someone was picking peas or cutting roses, you've seen a trug.

Garden clogs and a tool box full of trowels, twine, garden gloves, garden shears, bug spray, buck knife, and extra-nourishing hand lotion complete my kit. 

Garden tip #3: Be realistic about your space. Due to the small size of my garden I chose a trellis-friendly cucumber varietal to conserve horizontal space. I also chose fast growing vegetables such as carrots, shallots, and radishes that can be planted several times each growing season. Kale plants can be harvested all Spring and well into the Fall. This way I can grow a greater variety of items while still having fairly consistent and abundant production.

As a fan of the edible-yard movement, I have also incorporated edibles into the existing gardens out front. The dogs are not allowed out front by themselves, so these plants don't need a protective enclosure. The front stoop and back deck provide space for planters full of sage, Italian basil, mint, rosemary, dill, and Thai basil.

A blank spot provides the perfect spot for space-taking butternut squash vines.
Bush-variety green beans keep my landlord's calla lilies, hostas, and Japanese maple company.
Space between the front of the house and a row of liriope (monkey grass) called
for tomatoes and bell peppers. 
Garden tip #4: Be realistic about your timeline. My house is a rental and we only plan to stay in Knoxville for another year or two until we finish our doctoral degrees. This means I want fast growing plants that will produce yields quickly. Planting fruit trees or installing a grape arbor would be a waste of money. Also, don't forget to ask your landlord if gardening is okay! If you own your home or have no intentions of moving in the next 10+ years, treat your garden like the investment it is and remember lesson #2...slow and steady, folks!

Garden tip #5: Expect failures and "well, crap!" moments. 
My first crop of radishes didn't form bulbs, as the neighbor's shrub grew about 4 feet and cast more shade than I had expected in that corner. I planted them in a different spot the second time, and put more shade-tolerate items in the original spot. I also planted asparagus last year not realizing it takes a few years to mature. I have my fingers crossed for next year, and in the meantime the juvenile fronds are pretty. But this is all normal and part of the process. If you didn't screw something up, it means you didn't learn anything new. Take mistakes as a sign of personal growth.

Enjoying your bounty:
Half the fun of gardening is coming up with creative ways to use your bounty and producing as little waste as possible. Kale, radish greens, and carrots tops can be made into delicious "superfood" pesto that keeps for months in canning jars. Both the tops and the bulbs of shallots are edible, and the flowers on my radishes, butternut squash, basil, and dill provide tasty and pretty garnishes. Word on the street is that basil flowers also make great tea, but I have yet to try it. Any parts that aren't used are composted, allowing the circle of life to keep on keeping on!

A friend once joked that I should use the bugs that come in on my harvests for extra protein, butI think I'll reserve that idea for apocalypse-type survival needs.

In the meantime, I'll keep plugging away at what I happily call "Bellemeade Farm," following the rules my mama taught me and dreaming of the day I can have chickens and fruit trees.






Sunday, June 12, 2016

Life vs. Food

I love food. I will never be one of those people who follows the "eat to live" way of life. Food is precious to me. It has emotional value, both in its ability to bring people together and its ability to comfort and satisfy.

In 2012, after a prolonged illness I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that causes my immune system to attack and eat holes in the lining of my large intestine. Lovely, I know. I embarked on a series of medication trials, but a large part of managing my disease involved determining and eliminating foods that triggered inflammation. Food had become my enemy.

Over the next 4 years I tried 6 different elimination diets. For anyone who has ever tried these, it is HARD. It can be expensive and it almost certainly means you have to make everything you eat yourself. It kills your social life. To date, I adhere to a zero soy, low fiber, low gluten, low lactose, low nightshade diet. I had always been a pretty healthy eater, but now my diet is directly linked to my ability to function day-to-day. The only things that never trigger my symptoms are meat and eggs.

Of course, I married a vegetarian.

When David and I first started dating in 2013 I was determined to find meals we could both eat, despite having a dietary overlap of about 6 ingredients. I clipped recipes out of magazines, bookmarked them on the internet, and earmarked contenders in my allergen-free cookbooks. All too soon, though, we were relying on a steady diet of tacos, spaghetti, and rice. My inspired collection of recipes was disorganized and spread across multiple mediums, and, by the end of a long day, it was just too much trouble to comb through everything. We each work two jobs on top of being doctoral students -- time and energy are precious commodities.

We eked along like this for the better part of a year. Then, in 2015 I found myself simultaneously planning an international academic conference and our wedding, the conference taking place a mere three weeks before the wedding. I had nightmares about flower arrangements arriving at the conference and brown bag lunches showing up at our wedding reception.

Both events were successful, and our honeymoon soothed away my stress-induced eye twitch. A month later I was bored. After months of organizing various event details, my brain was left with nothing on which to fixate. "Prepare for your comprehensive exams!" my graduate advisor said. "Pffft" I said. I needed a nesting project.


So I did what I had been meaning to do for a year and curated all my recipes (and entertaining, gardening, and decorating clippings) into an easy-access, 3-ringed binder.

I sorted everything out then divided the compendium into sections: appetizers, soups and sauces, main dishes, side dishes, desserts, drinks, entertaining, garden, and decor.


For ANYONE who has a similar collection of disorganized clippings, take an evening (or a week) and put them into a quick-reference format ASAP. It will be worth it. It's amazing how making things easier on yourself makes things, well...easier.

Here's what the project required:
  • 1 3-ring binder
  • 2 packs clear sheet protectors
  • 1 pack dividers
  • Blank computer paper
  • Scissors
  • Glue stick
  • Pen to define borders of recipes
  • Cutting and pasting skills from kindergarden 
  • 2 mojitos, for hydration and morale 

I also took this opportunity to commit family recipes to paper, just in case I become senile or for those times when a guest asks for the recipe and your best response is "uhhhhhh...a pinch of this, then stir until it looks right?"

Every recipe in the notebook is tailor made to our dietary needs and our lifestyle needs. Most of them are weeknight-friendly and don't require specialty-shop ingredients. This made it easy to reintroduce food variety to our busy lives, plan ahead (say what??), and even renovate our shopping list of "staple" foods for those times when planning ahead doesn't happen.

Starting a new medication this past February means my food options have greatly increased of late. Wine is officially back in, baby!! But it is still a balancing act. A piece of gluten-free toast with peanut butter on Monday means I can only put half a banana on my yogurt on Thursday. Marinara sauce on Tuesday means no potato salad on Friday. I can't even look at uncooked leafy greens without dire consequences. However, culinary creativity is no longer reserved for special events, and our hearts and bodies are happier for it.

As an added bonus, having party planning and decorating ideas at my fingertips has been quite useful. Inspiration for re-doing the office? Page 35. It's Spring/Fall and I need to plan my vegetable beds? Page 42 has planting schedules and soil composition reminders.

There are some restrictions in my life now that I cannot control or change. But I can change the way I deal with those restrictions, and I can make the best of them. The biggest step in reinvigorating my life and getting out of my food rut was taking an afternoon with a pair of scissors and a glue stick. My kindergarden teacher, Ms. Graham, would be so proud.

Sorry Mr. Schweer, algebra remain useless.



Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Decorating for Life: Embracing Change



Embrace change. It will happen whether you ask for it or not, so enjoy the ride. However, if you are like me and on a budget you can’t change your décor every time your living situation changes. You need furniture and decor that can multitask and grow with you. So what stands the test of time?

Let me tell you a story. 

In 2012 I lived in a one bedroom loft in downtown Kansas City with my two goldfish. This was my first solo place post-college, and when I moved in I had no furniture to my name but a bed and a dresser. I suddenly needed to furnish an entire apartment on a tight budget. For anyone prepared to sass me about living in a “downtown loft” but claiming to have a tight budget, I should mention it was in an income restricted building.

Sunset from my living room.
For me, living in a loft was all about the views. The panoramic cityscape provided by my corner unit was my focal point, so I chose to keep the interior natural and neutral.

I also liked the idea of having my very own chic pad. Pale pink bookshelves? Floral prints? Beaded pillows? 
Bring it on.

The only things I bought brand new were a loveseat, two rugs, and two lamps. Everything else I found at Restore, consignment shops, or on Craigslist and then rehabbed with the help of my talented mother. 

My two living room chairs were $3.50 each at Restore. The concave seats were covered in industrial maroon fabric and, judging by the amount of gum I scraped off the bottoms, they originally resided in a principal’s office. 

New stain, new padding, and new fabric made them cute for the first time in their lives.

The "sofa table" was a drop-leaf dining table that, with the leaves up, seated four when I had people over for dinner. 


The two living room chairs, a side chair, and my desk chair (all rehabbed in the same fabric) doubled as my dining chairs.


I had "efficiency chíc" down pat.


Then 2013 arrived and I moved to Tennessee to start my doctoral degree. I found a cute little house and moved in. However, my feminine, neutral furnishings – previously balanced by an industrial setting – looked staid in a traditional house. I felt like all my vacuuming  should be done wearing pearls and a shirtdress. I obsessed over how to best employ my approximately $12 decorating budget. I spent a lot of time on Craigslist and trolling salvage venues.

But fate intervened.

Shortly after moving to Knoxville I started dating someone new. It was so nauseatingly wonderful that six months later he moved in with me. 

While we agreed that most of his furniture needed to be given away and/or burned, he introduced something completely foreign to my chic pad: a television. And not just any television, a BIG television. And speakers. Lots of speakers. While I wasn’t wild about electronics suddenly being the focal point of the home’s living space, it actually helped negate my overly demure look. It felt more balanced. My $12 decorating budget could now go towards some other crucial need. Like gelato.

An entertainment center completely changed the look and feel of my former chic pad. Efficiency chíc to efficiency geek? 
 At this point things got messy. Literally. My partner already had a dog when we met, and we adopted a cat together. So we were now a family of six (don’t forget my two fish!) and the fur kids loved the loveseat. I started covering it with blankets to keep it clean. I became one of those people who reserves direct butt-to-upholstery contact for guests.

Then we got a puppy. And adopted a stray neighborhood cat. By this time, nothing was sacred. 

Finding an affordable slipcover for a square armed loveseat with loose back cushions was impossible.

I was confident, however, that my sisal rug at least would stand up to these new challenges. After all, they are touted as being pet and child friendly! 

What I didn’t take into account is that natural fiber rugs like mine cannot really be cleaned.

By the time we weathered the rainy (read “mud”) season, the side of the rug covered in orange highlighter was considered the “good” side. As for the pale linen love seat, despite frequent cleanings it was growing decidedly more…tan. And blotchy. The demise of both items was a foregone conclusion.

Today, another two houses and a wedding later, we seem to have finally settled into a home for the duration of our time in Knoxville. In fact, my husband will have to pry my cold, dead fingers from it unless we are moving to an entirely new city.

Our 2015 tax return allowed us to buy a dirt-friendly microfiber sofa and a rug I can spray down with the hose. Because we're classy. Everything else has weathered the gale forces of change that took me from bachelorette fish-mom to a married mother of four fur children (for those of you keeping track, we added a fish, lost a cat, lost all three fish, and added a dog).

There are few items in our house that have not been repurposed or reshuffled. Every piece has a story. The painted chest between the chairs has variously served as a coffee table, end table, and nightstand. I stained the top of the coffee table dark two houses ago and painted the grey base a mossy green after buying the grey sofa. 


A breakfast nook means the sofa table gets to be a dining table all the time, which is nice. The bench, originally built by my father for my parents’ kitchen, graced an entryway and a front porch before returning now to the kitchen. It was white in my parents' house, pale pink in my loft, and is now a dark, glossy blue. The chairs I inherited from my grandmother and sentiment has thus far kept me from painting them the same blue, but I still think about it.

And so, after four years and four abodes, I have four takeaways regarding home furnishings:

1. Buy used furniture that is real wood and solidly built. Then put on your DIY big girl panties. If it gets destroyed it won’t break the bank to replace it, and you can endlessly strip it down for repainting, restaining, or reupholstering to suit your needs. Also, sturdy construction ensures you aren’t applying wood glue after each move.

2. Be open minded and flexible. Just because you bought a rug for your guest room doesn’t mean it is forevermore the “guest room rug.” Rugs, pillows, artwork, lamps, and side tables should be interchangeable. This allows you to easily switch up your home’s look on a whim and adjust to different spatial needs in different homes.

3. Durable does not always mean washable, and washable does not always mean durable. Case in point, natural fiber rugs might be okay for people with pomeranians, but big dogs that love to wallow in the Tennessee red mud require rugs that can be washed frequently.

4. Choose your furnishings wisely. Imagine each piece in multiple finishes and in multiple rooms serving multiple functions. If you grow tired of it, can you resell it easily? Is it trendy and liable to feel dated in a few years, or will its shape last the test of time?

So that's my story. Life is full of changes, but that doesn't mean we can't remain fashionable on a budget. All it takes is some savvy shopping, a vision, and a little elbow grease.