Tuesday, June 10, 2008

City Kitchen Chronicles: My Wet Hot New Yorkian Summer

By Jaime

I am currently sitting at my desk in a t-shirt and shorts that I just thoroughly wet down with the spray bottle that was once meant for disciplining my cats. The new kitten never pays attention to being sprayed anyway, but I've repurposed the spray bottle because right now, New York City is getting into its third day of a 90 degrees-plus heat wave, and I, wussiest girl about heat ever, am trying to go sans AC.

It's not that I don't have an air conditioner. I have two, actually – one in my bedroom, one in my living room, both still in the windows from last summer. But this year I'm trying to use them just as fans (or, in the case of the one with a broken knob, as, um, decoration?). Just as eating frugally and healthfully often go together, so do helping the environment and my bank account. This is my first full summer in this apartment (my first summer living without roommates, too), and I don't know how much air conditioners jack up my electric bill, but I don't really want to find out.

Jumping in with this sudden early-June heat wave is kinda great – if I can make it through this, what's August? (Answer: a torturous, muggy hell.) Two days in, it's remarkable what a spray bottle and a little determination can do. Rather than thinking Oh my *god* it's so hot I want to *die* it's Hm, I should drink some more water and I wonder if my laundry's ready yet. And mostly – This is just how the weather is. No Impact Man is a big inspiration, and bigger complainers than I have survived AC-less summers – y'know, every person to live before, say, 1950 – and just thinking differently seems to help. So does keeping my clothing perpetually damp.

Aside from my private, very un-titillating wet t-shirt contest (it's me versus the cats, so I win!), the internet gave me a few pointers towards living an AC-less life:

During the day, close your windows and curtains. This keeps the hot air out, and prevents the sun from baking your apartment like a greenhouse. Opaque curtains are really best, especially if they have a white side facing out, to reflect away the sunlight. I have sheer curtains in my bedroom, but I also have a spare set of purple sheets. Guess where those sheets are now hanging!

At night, open your windows to let the cool air in. Turn on fans to bring the air inside.

Open windows/doors on different sides of the room to allow for cross-ventilation. (If your floorplan allows. And then, I am also jealous.) You can set a fan in one window blowing air *out* - this will draw air in through the window/door on the other side of the room, creating a nice breeze.

Eliminate unnecessary heat. Don't use your oven; turn off your computer; turn off lights, or replace with fluorescents. (Environmental, too! And cheaper electric bills when the lights are on!)

Drink lots of water. You feel less hot if you're properly hydrated. Avoid ice-cold beverages – though they feel soothing, they stop your body from acclimating to the heat. (If you're really brave, try warm or hot tea. Some folks swear by it.)

Keep your outside wet, too. Evaporating water uses up heat energy, leaving your skin cool. Wrap a wet scarf around your neck, rinse your face and arms in the sink, wear a damp t-shirt. This works especially well if there's a fan blowing air over you – that's how I fell asleep last night, even though it was still near 90 at 1am.

When it gets this hot, there’s a part of me (the me who lived and died by AC, the me who wants to spend every second needing blankets and a sweater) that would rather lie on my kitchen’s cool tile floor than even think about eating. Or, at least about cooking. Ice cream and popsicles? Totally. But the idea of heating a skillet, let alone my oven, is terrifying. Here are some of my heat-wave stand-bys that keep me from running to the nearest movie theatre to live on popcorn and nachos in the frigid, frigid air:

Cottage cheese. I love this no matter the weather, but when it’s hot out, this cool stuff is amazing. Use it as dip for veggies or baked chips, mix it with berries and cinnamon, spread it on bread (it goes great with hummus). If keeping the oven off means that you’re going a few days without meat (because a heat wave is really not the time for steak au poivre), cottage cheese is a great way to make sure you’re getting protein. (12g per 80-calorie half-cup serving!) And when you’re really hot, the salt helps you stay hydrated as long as you’re also getting water.

Fruit. Cool, hydrating, delicious, ‘Nuff said.

Pasta salad. This stuff stays good for days in the fridge – if you know a heat wave’s coming, throw together a big batch so you don’t resort to take-out when the temperature climbs. This is a great catch-all for every healthy thing you’ve got lying around – veggies, beans, meat (if that’s your thing), plus dressing (salad dressing, oil and vinegar, mustard, even, yes, cottage cheese). Also makes a great lunch to bring to work, if your office has a fridge.

Grilling. Okay, I live in a teeny New York City apartment with barely a fire escape, let alone a back yard or anywhere I could grill. But if you can…

Cold soups. This is an aspect of cooking I’ve yet to explore, but just google “cold soup recipe,” and behold the myriad options. Gazpacho, veggies, even fruit soups – the possibilities are endless. Experimenting with a new (heat-free!) recipe will get your mind off the unbearable, oppressive, unrelenting heat, at least for a bit.

Wine and grapes. Sounds odd, and yet makes perfect sense. Or is it like tomatoes topped with ketchup?

Microwave. Not a food or a recipe, but a means of heating food that won’t also heat the air. Eating and drinking warm food and beverages helps acclimate you to the hot air. I’m normally a devout tea kettle user, but if I want tea today, it’s coming from the microwave for sure.

It's funny how an extreme behavior can seem completely manageable once you just decide to do it. When I moved into this apartment, I realized I couldn't afford cable on my own. Beloved TV, how would I ever cope? Pretty easily, it turns out. I watch shows on my computer, at friends' houses, or just less. Giving in to the heat is in some ways more drastic, but it's something I really want to try.

This decision is both financial and environmental. (Okay, and a little bit about testing my mettle, like when I decided to start drinking whiskey. I'd previously been an amaretto sours kind of girl.) I want to put my money where my mouth is about conservation, and I want to keep my money in my wallet, not off to the electric company. It seems drastic – one friend asked, "Why not just switch to wind power," a green option our electric company offers but, a, I still pay for the wind power, and b, there's something about going full-out that I really like. Aw, yeah, I can brag at a bar, I'm going totally without AC this summer. Then I'll order another whiskey, and floor all the boys with my very bad-ass ways.

(Photos courtesy of Flickr members lusciouz lindsay, 2U, Lucahjin and florriebassingbourn.)

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Anonymous said...

You know- I feel you on this one. I'm subletting with a woman for the summer and she looooves the AC cranked to the max here in the DC summer.

I'm from the West where we shut ACs and just crank up the fans and sleep naked and I'm having trouble waking up from a good nights sleep shivering from the cold.

I'm also a bit nervous at the price tag because I'm sure it can't be cheap to keep the whole apartment cool all day.

Do you save any money turning off the AC while you're at work (we both work long hill staffer hours) or does it just compensate when you turn it all back on??

Anyways, loved this post, it cracked me up- esp the wine and grapes line. Hilarious.

Ashley said...

I live in North Carolina where we too have been getting some serious heat. Since graduating college 2 years ago I have always tried to go with out the AC. I can tell you keeping you curtains/shades closed works wonders. Good Luck!

As far as food goes I sucked it up and did one long day of cooking on Sunday, and now I have left overs for every lunch and dinner this week, so all I have to do is reheat, no oven or stove needed... and cottage cheese with fruit or any type of salad is always a great refershing meal when its 90+.

c.r.a. said...

I hear you, Jaime! We are also attempting to live without A/C this summer (in DC, no less!) - for all the reasons you mentioned: environmental, financial, and just to see if we can do it.

I have been doing a lot of online reading about living without A/C and I think you have done a great job covering the big tips for A/C living. Keeping the house/apt closed up is definitely the big one and has been really helping. Not opening the windows until the temperature outside is less than it is inside, is also key (an indoor outdoor thermometer comes in handy for that).

Anyway, I wish you best of luck in your A/C free adventures this summer. And just think, the heat wave break tonight! (I have never followed weather reports more closely!)

Jaime said...

anon, I'm pretty sure that leaving the AC off when you're out conserves energy and will save you money. It's like turning off your computer when you're not using it - the small upsurge needed to start up pales in comparison to hours of idle energy suckage. Even with central air that maintains a steady temperature, keeping the temp low all day takes energy, isn't just about balancing a steady state, so yeah, turn it down or off when you're not home. If the roommate insists on Ac, can you propose not splitting the electric bill evenly? It seems like a reasonable request.

Thanks for all the good wishes, folks. It's good to know I'm not the only crazy frugal environmentalist out there!

Anonymous said...

Greenbag - Good stuff. Me and the bf are certainly trying the "closed apartment" theory. it's nice to hear that many people back it up. i, personally, thought you were a little nutty.

Anonymous said...

Try using a slow cooker for some meals, if you have one. It won't heat up the apartment like an oven. I also swear by lemonade in the heat.

Anonymous said...

been there and done that! i feel for you. here in mississippi it stays hot and humid (humid is a season isn't it?). until the gas price explosion i used to drive to the mall and practically spend the day there just for the free a/c and a little bit of exercise. not a practical idea these days..mall is 35 mi. away and besides, even retailers have turned their thermostats up. when desperation hits here i will just fill up the little kiddie pool i keep on had for my sharpeis and join them in a cool sit down in the water and sip a cold lemonade!

Grumpy Misanthrope said...

On a per degree average, it is cheaper to cool you place than it is to heat it. Refer to the latest issue of Wired magazine.

And I, personally, cannot take heat. But I'm reasonably comfortable in cool temps. Which is why I run the AC, but my thermostat is set to 64 in winter.

molly b. said...

Argh. Seven Buffalo summers with no AC (yes, it does get hot in Buffalo in the summer, but mainly it's the humidity that's the big problem), and I just figured out maybe two years ago that it really does help to close up the house during the day. Last year, after losing two of our big shade-providing trees in a freak October ice storm, we added light-blocking window shades, which made an AMAZING difference. We always had a dehumidifier going, but in an apartment I'm not sure where you'd drain it.

If you really have to have hot meals, the slow cooker is a good idea, especially if you can use it in a basement (or a garage, I've heard). Seriously, in the part of town where I lived, there were lots of older houses that had whole second kitchens in the basement!

Now I'm back in the hot, humid South and I'm totally loving the AC, but after all those years without, my cold threshold is higher, so I keep turning the temperature up because I'm too cold. I'm sure I will have adjusted by next year. :-)

Paul said...

I'm all about cottage cheese and hummus... especially mixing it with Trader Joe's chipotle hummus... which I'm pretty sure is the best hummus in the galaxy.. it looks sort of grody but tastes like heaven.

Kris said...

Jaime, on your urging, I tried cottage cheese straight-up for the first time in my life. I added a little cinnamon and honey and am TOTALLY LOVING IT. How did I miss this until now?

Pam said...

My favorite summer meal is shrimp cocktail w/buffalo mozzarella and sliced tomatoes.

Anonymous said...

Here in the South, I learned this technique from my MIL, who has lived with AC only turned on the very hottest of days...

The easiest way is simply to plan ahead. I look at the forecast and choose the coolest night of the week to cook. I turn on the oven and will cook a chicken, or a meatloaf, or bake a ziti - most of the times 2 or 3 different dishes. One night, we grill.
In general, this makes a big difference - and I'm not scrambling for dinner, either .


Anonymous said...

Cooling your apartment down can work similarly to cooling yourself down. When you open your windows at night, pull back the curtains and tack up damp towels in the windows. The night breeze (hopefully) coming in through the towel is cooler than the air by itself, just like wearing damp clothes.