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Jul 12, 2005 12:08 PM

creativity and poverty

  • r

A post on the general topics board reminded me of something that has been floating around in my subconsciousness.

I learned to cook back in college, when I couldn't afford to go out much, and when I worked in a very nice restaurant with a bad tip pool (i.e., improperly compensated = poor).

I didn't know any better, but I started out on ramen noodles, then I figured out that you could do things with them. Then to one pot meals, etc., soups, etc. I remember one time not having any money, no gas in the car, and just a can of hominy in the cabinet. A bouillon cube and some paprika saved the day.

Anyhow, now that I'm older and have a career, I've found that I spend tons of money on food - so much that it is almost cheaper to just go out to cheap and moderate restuarants. Things are so expensive.

It seems like I used to be able to cook better. It's easy to go buy fresh chanterelles and prepared demi-glace, but a night's meal can easily top $50, with wine and all.

I think that I had to get more creative in the past. Does anyone else have this experience? I think that I just need to leave my wallet at home, take a ten dollar bill to the grocery, and see if I can get creative again.

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  1. I've been annoyed, if not bitten, by the same bug lately. It explains my mayonnaise post further down the page - I wanted to make egg salad, but realized I was almost out of mayo, when it hit me - you don't have to make yet another separate trip to the grocery store which result in another $200 worth of "stuff"... You can MAKE it. Wow, what a revelation. (We had a similar revelation last winter when our furnace died during the holidays, and I realized - wow - the reason people have fireplaces isn't just for SHOW, it's because they heat the house. Is that an epiphany, or what?)

    I have three kids, (one of whom is a 13yo boy - need I say more?), a husband with a metabolism that doesn't quit, and now I also shop for my mom, who recently underwent hip replacement surgery. And I'm finding myself increasingly galled at the way I spend money at the grocery store on everything from meats to "convenience foods". And we're talking "supermarket" not Whole Foods or Trader Joe's. Just your basic grocery store chain.

    Lately, I find myself turning off the Food network and reading my Grandmother's old "Home Demonstration Club" cookbooks & the like in some attempt to reconnect to a time when things like "whole vanilla beans" or "2 bags Ceasar salad" didn't show up on grocery lists.

    In short, I just think I've become incredibly lazy and spoiled, and I'm encouraging my kids to be lazy and spoiled. And is that isn't bad enough, irresponsible, as well.

    Ugh. Maybe it's time to do some Chowhound challenge, eh?

    For instance, "back in the day" one of the strangest things I used to make was a "tuna chili" that was totally born out of convenience, but was really good. Saute a bit of onion, throw in whatever canned beans are on hand (and they are still cheap), add some Rotel tomatoes & chilis, corn, and a bit of chili powder, then toss in drained tuna (like, from a can, whatever was on sale) and serve over rice. I probably haven't made that in 12 years.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Shan

      l'm so enjoying this thread. . .when one of our college age kids was spending way too much on food, not to mention the occasional celebratory trips to the sushi joints, I had to put my foot down and offer some frugal tips such as those that most of you shared.
      This was met with a comment. . "we can't all be like you and make a meal out of an onion and a potato"!
      Its generational I think.

    2. I guess my revelation came when going low carb and trying to get more salads into our diets. I am pretty much a from scratch cook and rarely buy any preprepared foods but I was buying those expensive bagged salads. I would also find myself picking over the greens because there was so much garbage in them too, all of those stems and less than lovely bits. When I started buying assorted greens, washing them and spin drying and wrapping loosely in a flour sack towel and storing in the fridge is an unsealed bag. I was getting enough greens for 2 weeks for what I would have paid for one and it stayed fresher and nicer that the bagged stuff too. Also it is good to pick over that bagged stuff, I have found dead insects in these supposedly washed and cleaned greens.

      1. I hear what you are saying, but be careful what you wish for...or at least be careful what you are nostalgic for.

        Living in a relatively poor area of a 2nd world country I experience a forced version of your "take $10 to the grocery store" idea. It's like regressing to my relatively poor childhood in the 1970's -- the toughest cuts of beef, little fresh seafood even though we live by the ocean, little in the way of "exotic" ingredients like spinach or mushrooms or grapefruit juice. It's not all bad, for example I can have mango for breakfast every day all year. But overall food shopping is indeed cheap but not that enjoyable.

        So our strategy sounds like the opposite of yours. When we eat out it is at one of the 3 or 4 most expensive places in town, where the chefs have access to higher quality ingredients. My modest cooking is better than the most of the cheap-to-moderate places we've tried.

        Although one happy outcome of the forced downscaling is that we've enjoyed dozens of wines that are expensive here (being imported) but cheap in the US. When we return to the 1st world we'll be thrilled to keep drinking Argentinian, Spanish and Portuguese wines at low prices - you really can take $10 to the wine store and get something delicious to drink with your chanterelles.

        1. I hear you. I do the same thing sometimes. I think the $10 thing is a little extreme, for me. But what I've started to do is to take out a set amount of money for the week. That way, if you splurge at the beginning of the week on grocery, you'll just need to be more restrictive for the rest of the week. If I spend good money on steaks one night, I would do a basic pasta dish another night.

          Another thing I have been doing is really pick stores that does not cost me an arm and a leg to get grocery. I've pretty much stuck with getting food exclusively from Costco and Trader Joe's. Both places carry good quality items but are generally cheaper than your regular supermarket chains.

          For creativity, I watch a lot of cooking shows and just love to browse through cookbooks and cooking websites. I'm even on some recipe mailing lists.

          Best of luck to you.

          1. I totally understand. I agree with Anna about the supermarket prices. I am talking about Safeway, Albertson, etc. My strategy is to only buy their stuff on sale (which I think is closer to regular price) and stock up. I do my regular shopping at Trader Joe's (stay away from the prepackaged salads since they are way overpriced) and at Costco. Also consider buying fish at ethnic markets since they are consistently fresher and cheaper. Finally, I haven't been able to impress upon my kids to please eat their leftovers in the fridge! If some creativity can be used on how to "refresh" this food, the meals can actually be fun and tasty. I grew up with the "don't waste anything" ethics and it's very hard to impress upon the kids, who have such abundance in their lives. The kids have their own places now and when they feel the squeeze, all this nagging will make more sense ;0). Margret