Monday, January 25, 2010

On frugality

My garden reading (both blog and book) tends towards the rural homesteading variety. I am not raising my own livestock, grinding my own grain or eating solely off of my winter-grown greens. Thus, I tend to think of myself mostly as a homesteading dilettante -- if a home-cooked dinner doesn't come together one night, it ain't like I'm gonna starve! Just dial the phone or head out to the nearest taqueria and my family is fed. This past week has been a lesson to me, that, yes, my family will be fed, but it may not be fed well, and even this will come at a steep price.

Deadlines, emergency meetings, and weekend call schedules have recently conspired to dislodge me from my usual homemaking groove. Thanks to a series of unfortunate scheduling events, for the past two weekends I have been unable to perform the Saturday morning ritual taught to me by my mother. This three-step process involves 1) a careful appraisal of my refrigerator, freezer and pantry (and garden, too, if this was the season); 2) the design of a week's worth of meals, with make-ahead dishes for my late-work nights; and then 3) construction of a shopping list, divided into categories of produce, dairy, meat, staples, etc. Then I embark on my hunting and gathering expeditions -- crossing off items as they are purchased, or modifying the menu if I find a bag of well-priced apples, etc. I have rarely deviated from this ritual since the day I set foot in my first apartment ten years ago. Sure, it's anal-retentive. Yet, it's the only way I know how to put healthy homemade food on the table most nights of the week given the extraordinary demands of a two-career household, especially since both of us have long and often unpredictable hours.

Feminists, start your engines here, and curtly remind me that my partner could do his share of the shopping and cooking. Unfortunately, we have a marriage that does not flourish with 50%-50% division of household chores, since it means that neither person ends up accountable for anything. This has been a hard lesson learned, and we realize that 100%-0% responsibility for all-chores-not-child-related works better for us. Hence I never touch a dirty dish, vacuum or laundry basket; but I do all shopping, cooking and de-cluttering. The magic -- and this I suspect is usually the magic with most negotiations -- is that each of us secretly thinks we got the better end of the deal.

Anyway, this well-calibrated system had a meltdown over the past ten days, leading to no shopping expeditions or even menu designs out of the pantry and fridge storage. I have been shocked by how expensive it has been to eat "cheaply". We weren't going to fancy restaurants -- taco joints and pizza places-- yet expenditures are still more than double my usual grocery bill for the week. We also have not had enough fruits and vegetables and have eaten too much salt and fat, and our guts and mental health are the worse for it. In desperation, I made a run to the nearest chain grocery store - I realized I hadn't been there in probably 6 months. I just "didn't have time" to go to my usual local food purveyors or even Whole Foods (never mind that this would have added but 10 minutes in the car -- when you are in scheduling-crisis mode, you don't make rational decisions). The prices were high, everything looked waxy and unappetizing, and the fish and produce I bought tasted terrible. Also, I realized the terrible reality of shopping at 6 PM on a weeknight rather than 6 AM on a Saturday. The store was packed with tired, hungry shoppers and employees with short tempers. No wonder most people just order Domino's!

Last night found my small family exhausted, hungry and out of appealing options. I fully understand that this is an upper-class dilemma. We had options for food, and I know that many don't. But the options we had at that moment were either expensive, unhealthy or both, and they all required us to leave our house yet again, so there we sat, inert. Finally, the deadlines had been met. This next week promised to be easier -- no dinner meetings, no late-night calls, no extra shifts. But it was 7 PM and I couldn't bear to go to the store, and none of us could stomach the thought of more restaurant food. The cupboard was bare -- even for simple things like pancakes (no flour), rice or pasta. The fridge was a grim wasteland -- 3 jars of kimchi and a big bag of dried out carrots. So, I rallied, and made "Pennies from Heaven", as my husband calls them: I peeled the carrots, cut them into coins, blanched them, then sauteed them in my last scrap of butter, sprinkled with sugar, salt and black pepper. I would have put grated lemon or ginger if I had them. But I didn't. We sat and ate and my toddler was happy. My husband announced it was the best thing he'd eaten in a week. I even had a big pile of peels to tuck into the worm bin. Pennies from heaven, indeed.

Today, I have an unusual day off from work, to compensate for the recent heavy scheduling. I am using the day to shop and stock up. Normally, I avoid stocking up too heavily on pantry staples, mostly because I just have one narrow cupboard set aside for food storage. But I have a big hallway closet, cool and dry. I am buying bulk rice, beans, pasta and flour. I am making chicken stock today with all the scraps I have tucked away in my freezer. I am making my list and checking it twice. And I'll get a big bag of storage carrots to tuck into the bottom of my fridge -- at least this way, there will always be an option before Domino's.


  1. I can relate to so much of this; the splitting of chores, grocery list organized by section, and being stuck in the house with nothing only to somehow make something memorable. I wish we had a taqueria! Eventually I started buying so much food in bulk to alleviate trips to the store and get better prices, and now things go much smoother. Certain things you can get direct from farms at the same or better prices than a place like Costco (I found whole wheat flour.)

  2. I just came across your blog and I love it, for several reasons really. One, I lived in Chicago for eight years until I recently relocated to NYC, and I miss it so! Two I really related to this post, my husband and I have been doing our best to cook at home but right around the holidays we were both slammed with work and I was amazed how much money we spent in just a week on eating out. it's amazing how much happier and in control you feel when you make food in your own kitchen. Looking forward to reading more!