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