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Frugal: The New Chic?

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“Happiness is making the most of what you have.”

–Rosamunde Pilcher

I have been dying to find an angle for writing about a fascinating phenomenon related to the Nation’s economic crisis. The problem was that it never appeared in a food-related context, and it would have been a real stretch to blog about it here. Today, in my inbox, I got what I needed.

The phenomenon as a whole has to do with the fact that while newspapers, magazines and television “news” are practically bursting with information about “cutting back” and “living well with less,” many of us were already living that way. Not one, not two, but three magazines that I read on a regular basis have had articles about “shopping your own closet.” Models are photographed wearing Target earrings and Nine West bags with their Miuccia Prada dresses and Manolo heels. We are told that we can get our hair cut at a beauty school, buy from consignment stores and (get this) borrow movies and DVDs from the public library in order to get through tough times.

I have been burning, simply burning (in my garage sale chair, wearing my $25.00 jeans) to write about the fact that, for many of us, this paradigm shift is a complete and total relief. I am not happy that people are hurting, or losing jobs and homes, or watching their 401Ks plummet. I am delighted that frugality is suddenly “chic.” On Forest Street we have a job-and-a-half, a house that we share with the bank, and two (really old) cars; all things considered we are doing quite well. However (and it’s a big “however) I have been “shopping my closet,” shopping at Target, and getting my hair cut at a beauty school FOR YEARS. I have not bought a hardback book for myself for so long I can’t remember the last one. I borrow, I go to the library, and when there’s a cookbook that I simply can’t live without I put it on my Christmas list.

I love beautiful and expensive things, and I can assure you that I have many of them. This particular rant is not because I want to eliminate every Balenciaga gown and Vuitton trunk from the world and replace them with stretch jeans and brown paper bags. My point is that we have lived in a culture of competitive acquisition and excess for a long time, and that it is a refreshing change to see some value put on thrift, and on the idea that we waste our time aching for the late model car, the new living room furniture, or (in my case) the Coach bag that we see in someone else’s possession. It is a real, genuine pleasure to see “the media,” even temporarily, stop trying to manipulate us by  celebrating greed, envy, and entitlement.

Whew. So, about the food. I received, in my inbox this morning, a newsletter from “Epicurious,” a foodie site that belongs to Conde Nast, publisher of both “Gourmet” and “Bon Appetit.” The article that galvanized me was entitled “The Top Ten Money Saving Ingredients.” Imagine, no imagine my surprise when I learned that potatoes, rice, pasta, chicken, beans, apples, canned tuna, eggs, cheese and flank steak were good, inexpensive things to buy and cook. Imagine!!

What were people buying and eating before they received this valuable information? Seriously.

I have a $120.00 weekly grocery budget, and with that amount of money I feed three people, two dogs and three cats, and buy dishwasher soap, paper towels, Bounce sheets, shampoo and pencil leads. In the past week, we have dined on omelets and potatoes, bean soup, tuna sandwiches, a pasta dish, and a chicken stir fry with rice. I try to make things interesting, and I often buy a luxury ingredient when they are on sale (a little Bleu Cheese, a fresh pineapple, avocados) to make things more interesting, but…that’s how we eat. I read, and will continue to read “Gourmet,” “Bon Appetit,” “Food and Wine” and “Saveur” because I find them beautiful and inspiring, but there are many recipes that I reject immediately because the protein alone would cost a third of my food budget. In the alternative, by the time I bought the cardamom pods, the pink sea salt or the cheese produced by Armenian virgins living in a hut, I would be unable to send Sam to school with anything for lunch besides two slices of bread and a generic juice box.

If you have the income and the interest to buy fillet, fresh salmon, $75.00 olive oil, and truffles, I am happy for you. Really. (Also I would love for you to invite me over for dinner some time soon). You are supporting the economy and, if you are really cooking with those things, you are creating wonderful things to eat.

If you  have been eating out and/or buying processed convenience foods for years, and the increasing need to shop and cook frugally at home is a huge challenge, I am here to help. Embrace the change. Teach your kids to cook and let them help you. Surprise yourself with what you can do in the kitchen, even if you only have 30 minutes and you’re dog tired.

As for me and my house, we have been eating frugally for a long time, and as far as I know, it has never been perceived as a sacrifice. Maybe we are now vanguards of Frugality Chic. Perhaps restaurants will now offer “Poverty Tasting Menus” that feature roast chicken, mashed potatoes and scalloped apples. That sounds pretty good, actually….

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About imagineannie

I am a 40-something Midwestern wife, mother and lawyer with a passion for cooking, reading about food, eating food...you get the picture.

13 responses »

  1. You are so right! I think that magazines like Gourmet, Bon Appetit and the like are more aspirational than reality based. I mean, how glamorous is it to photograph my “I roasted a chicken on Sunday and I’ve turned it into 5 meals and stock”? Or my “wow, I’m broke this week so let’s have PBJ and an apple for lunch 4 days this week”?

    Thanks for pointing this out. Well said, as always.

    Reply
  2. Amen Sister!!! Have at it. I am in total agreement!

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  3. Julie, thanks – I think we may actually see articles about “1 chicken, 4 ways” before too long. Geez Louise, I got almost a week’s worth of dinners out of 1/3 of a ham and the bone….

    Mary – this does not mean that you can’t make any more confit. Some day, I am coming to your house and you are going to feed me some.

    Reply
  4. duh? I’m impressed with your food budget though. Although I do have one more person. My bills have gone up to about $150 and we usually eat out a few times. ugh. I’ve been trying to be better. Things have gone up so much and the fact that I am stuck spending $6 on 2 quarts of soy milk doesn’t help. I have a great desire to get better with my planning.

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  5. Right on. I think years of prosperity have made many in my generation soft, even infantlike in our inability to do for ourselves what we can pay to have done. Food is just another extension of that. Maybe the silver lining of this recession is that we’ll all learn to become more self-sufficient.

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  6. Ann,

    Sorry you felt you had to hold back with outing your frugality. It does seem awkward many times when discoursing across social and cultural divides. Over the years I take great pleasure in the conversion of the free and the cheap in my life into the subject of envy of those stationed above me in our society. Oh, and the aw shucks covers up alot too. When you show up at the affair with a platter of smoked oysters, nobody even cares if you are in overalls.

    Our time is here, and we had better revel in it. The economy may recover one day, and we shall find ourselves once again the object of misunderstanding, even pity from those who did not absorb the lesson. But today is our day. There is no shame today, preach with amplification, take this conviction we have and share it with all who will listen. Today they will listen.

    Lead us into the light from the bully pulpit that is Forest Street Kitchen…………

    …….uh, but no pressure here.

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  7. Michelle, actually it sounds like you’re pretty frugal yourself. I spend more when I can, believe me! Soy milk is OUTRAGEOUSLY expensive, and so is organic milk, which I really prefer to buy. I’m also guessing that in order not to kill Zach, you probably have to buy some ingredients that are not usually cheap or on sale.

    Diana, thanks! One can only hope that there will be several silver linings connected to greater self sufficiency and awareness. One of my great hopes, actually, is that families might have to scale back on the multiple enrichment activities of their Super Kids, and that they would then end up eating a homemade dinner together at home at the end of the day.

    Robert, I’m sort of “bi-frugal;” I have expensive taste in several items, and I have cashmere, diamonds and a REALLY expensive chef’s knife. on the other hand, I love the old, the reclaimed, the homemade, the bound-with-string…my house is old, my car is old, and most of my dining room chairs (and plates and silver) are mismatched and second-hand. Many of the things I love most are things I have personally made or fixed up, from dinners to valentines to patched jeans and re-painted furniture. I will continue to preach this gospel, and i am waiting for you to show up with the smoked oysters. I’ll wear my cashmere.

    Reply
  8. Nice post. I too am amused by the idea of cutting back to cheap things like roast chicken and pasta. I’m pretty happy when I get those for dinner. I think a lot about how constraints lead to creativity and how some of my best meals come out of a determination to work with what’s on hand. (Sadly, some of my worst do too . . . I’ve made some pretty weird combinations in efforts to clean out the cupboards). Frugality also does make splurging that much more special. My loved ones chipped in on a $100 gift certificate to Zingerman’s for me this Christmas and it feels SO special having the ingredients on hand that I bought with it. Anyway . . . I kind of like the mix of second hand clothes and occasional champagne that is my life.

    Reply
  9. We’ve started to shop our cupboards now and we’re discovering all kinds of things we didn’t know we had like water chestnuts, coconut milk, garbanzo beans and some fancy salsas all the way back behind the Tupperware. How fun!

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  10. Maria, you’re right – necessity is “a real mother.” Sometimes it’s simple and good, sometimes it’s bad and weird, but “make it do or do without” does force us to think creatively about what we’re doing.

    Eric, if you invent something fabulous, let me know so that I can steal it and pretend I made it up myself? I can actually envision some interesting possibilities based on the “finds” you listed….

    Reply
  11. Ann,
    Last night Dale made a pasta like we’ve never had (I’m usually the make-it-up-as-I-go guy), but he just sauteed fennel bulb, fresh tomato, black olives,shitake mushrooms (cheap from farmers market cuz they weren’t “pretty” so they were on sale) green onions–tossed with spaghetti and parmesan cheese–their might have been a couple other ingredients, but Dale is not telling me what they are! Can you believe that? Anyway, fantastic meat-free pasta. Great for lunch today, too. Feel free to do your own version and take a picture!

    Reply
  12. pls disregard obvious grammar mistake above “there might have been…”

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  13. Eric, I always assume incorrect grammar from you is a mistake. You are a natural linguist type. The pasta dish sounds wonderful, but what do you mean Dale won’t tell you what the other ingredients were?! Please tell him that I’d like to make this myself, and that his Name will be Mentioned but Not if he Witholds Critical Information.

    Reply

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