Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Rich Sister's Annual Dilemma

Every Halloween, I long for the powers of an exorcist to cast out the fear that hangs over neighborhoods, quite irrationally, due to the alleged danger from razorblades in apples. Where pray tell would anyone buy a box of Gillettes? Doesn't everyone use disposables nowadays? The generalized dread is reinforced by media types with powerful sponsors, those oh-so-helpful news-readers who are only there for our safety and security.  I don't know for sure, but something tells me that if you are a sugar speculator or a candy manufacturer, Halloween has got to rank as a big day on your calendar.

There isn't a middle class community in America which doesn't take homemade treats from the neighbors every time they have a school bake sale or holiday party, so why not on Halloween?

Sometimes elderly neighbors are immune to the scare talk.  On my street there was a local teacher (alas since passed on) whom everyone knew (even though he taught at a private school in another town) who provided homemade popcorn balls on Halloween. It was just the sort of thrift a certain type of New Englander would have been taught since boyhood. How expensive is popcorn and a little corn syrup anyway? Maybe $5.00 at most for the whole neighborhood?

I have recently bought about $28.00 worth of Halloween candy from Costco, though I would personally prefer to hand out homemade cookies. For one thing they taste better.

Back in my own childhood, Halloween brought out Mrs. B's cookies, which I enjoyed because they were spice flavored jack o-lanterns with eyes made of almonds and a smile of dried apricot. The generous and creative Mrs. B. was looked on with some suspicion by the local anticommunist covens because her children collected pennies for UNICEF instead of candy for themselves. I must remember to have some coins ready. Even in this day and age there are children whose parents send them out on the same mission, and whenever I drop a coin in that little cardboard box, I feel a John Bircher from my hometown is sent rolling over in his grave.

I have all day tomorrow to contemplate why I am gratifying the conformist in everyone by duplicating the treats of my neighbors up and down the street. If safety is everyone's concern, wouldn't it make sense to affix a label with my return address to a cookie bag? Or is this all "meaningless" as I provide a conduit to corporate profits, my boring contribution to the holiday just like everyone else's? Memory matters, though. I still care about Mrs. B. I just looked her up online and she is still a local activist in the town where Frugal Sister and I grew up. I wish I could tell her that she still inspires me, partly for the obligations she laid on her kids to help others, but also for direct generosity to us kids on the holiday we had looked forward to so long. I think she was and probably still is a mindful person, and that she showed she took our health as seriously as she did that of the Third World kids for whom hers were collecting.

Tricky Treats, or Frugal Sister's Wicked Witchery

Step to the side you frosted Christmas cookies, Halloween has always been the mother of all sugar holidays. 

What could be more delightfully nostalgic than answering the ringing doorbell and hearing the sweet little call of "Trick Or Treat"? I love to generously stuff these little children with fat and sugar! Halloween is never quite complete with out the stomach ache and diarrhea that comes from reaching near lethal levels of blood glucose. Are they sleeping at 3 in the morning or is it a coma induced by sudden and severe drops in insulin? 

We all carry memories of Halloween past. I remember a time when one of our neighbors gave an ACTUAL candy bar! The majority of our pillow sacks bulged with gum, wax lips, pixy stixs, peppermint, maybe a tootsie pop and a few coins. We stayed out until 8 p.m. and wore costumes we made from old sheets (ghosts) and discarded clothes (hobos). It was fun to design your own concepts. Now we have Spirit Stores and you might be boycotted if you don't have the 'right' snacks. Snickers, Twix, Milky Way, M&M's... you get the picture. Don't even consider actually MAKING your own treats! Children are warned to not eat something that hasn't been mechanically packaged in the pristine state of New Jersey.

Now that my own child has out grown the annual neighborhood shake down, the opportunity to "Re-Gift" her massive haul of chocolate has also ended (she intends to stay in Junior size 3 and wouldn't eat this stuff if you paid her. I would compensate her for the heaping mounds of mounds, turn around and throw it back out the door ). So now I can either go out and actually purchase 4 or 5 bags of over priced sugar, or I can just keep the lights off and hide out in my bedroom with a Sookie Stackhouse book and my cats. This would be a first for me. I have often had a rather low opinion of people who shunned the cute little beggars at their doors. Now that I am living (if one can call it that) on unemployment, the prospect of spending $20 on candy is not just unappealing, it messes with my survival budget. 

There's really only one answer to this budgeting dilemma: I will collect all of the Watch Tower literature that has appeared ever so frequently in my mailbox. Don a twin set and sensible shoes. Boil some mothballs and fan the scent into our courtyard. When the bell rings, I will open the door widely, hold up the magazine and say "Thank you so much for coming to the meeting". The pitt-er patter of pudgy little feet as they escape my walkway will echo in the night like rain. You got it, I'm a witch! 


Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Psychology of Over-Consumption

Have you noticed? There's been a recent change in the size of super market shopping carts. From big enough to hold a small child into a MASSIVE S.U.V. sized consumer assault vehicle. 

What the heck is going on? I think what we are witnessing is a perception trick designed to encourage us to fill up every possible empty space with a few (hundred) more items. Think about it: if you had a small cart and that cart was full, wouldn't that signal to you that you've got enough and it's time to head toward check-out? 

It's like binge eating when large amounts of food are shoveled in as quickly as possible and, by the time the episode is over, the stomach is uncomfortably distended. The normal pattern of eating is to slowly savor each bite until the brain signals satiety and the eater sits back from the table, less likely to grab another plateful. (Unless there's chocolate cake and then I just unbutton my belt and hop on board the glutton train). 

The normal pattern of weekly shopping can be like this: you don't realize how far you've gone until you watch the piles hit the conveyor belt. Consumption in this country has never been so high. We are the most affluent civilization ever to inhabit the planet. We are also the biggest consumers ever to walk the planet. Except, we don't walk..... unless we have to.

Nearly every item you use comes in some sort of packaging. These packages are puffed up on marketing steroids to make them stand out on the store shelves. You have been trained to reach for these packages because you have been brainwashed since childhood to accept the superiority of the brands. Every aspect of presentation is designed to lure you into spending your money.  These messages are tantalizing life style statements that are very difficult to shake off. I encourage you to be suspicious. I encourage you to be paranoid about the conspiracy of the grocers and producers to grab as much of your money as they can.

When you modify your spending habits, and avoid the over consumption that the grocery-store-industrial-complex is promoting, your wallet will feel better and your trash production will plummet.

Look at these budgeting examples that have an enviormental bonus: 

Instead of buying box after box of cereal, you buy a large bag of your favorite type and transfer it into reusable plastic canisters. One cellophane bag versus 3 boxes LINED with plastic.

Or instead of a 1 pound packages of chicken thighs with a thick styrene dish, a disgusting little plastic sponge and plastic wrap to cover, you instead buy a 5 pound bag of frozen chicken, boneless and skin less, recipe ready.

Instead of buying 6 or 7 metal cans of soup, you use bones from an earlier meal, dry beans and extra veggies (the kind that tend to end up in the trash); thirty minutes later, a fresh meal... and one that is most likely lower in sodium and strange preservatives. No cans. A significant reduction in trash.

At this rate, I only take my waste to the curb every other week. Even my recycling container is lighter.  If I have left overs, I freeze them and wait for the next time I'm in the mood for left-over split pea soup or spaghetti sauce. Making large quantities of specific meals also cuts down on electric energy. 

Practicing a logical use of limited assets is an austerity measure that is healthy for our personal economy and healthy for our planet.  

Frugal Sister

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Breaking the Money Fast: Rich Sister Shops Again

I still had those two bills in my pocket this morning, left over from the money challenge in which I spent $40, plus the $6.50 out of spare cash in my wallet, last Tuesday, at a local farmer's market that proved to be more expensive to shop at than Whole Foods.

Sunday is a good day to take stock. I dropped the two bills into the collection basket when it came around.

I often give more if I can, but I was running late and Bank of America has just closed the most convenient branch in my neighborhood, not leaving behind so much as an ATM.

In the last few years, although this California-originated bank has become as ubiquitous as Starbucks, they have just vacated the branch most convenient not just to me but to hundreds of bus passengers who transfer from the subway there. Might it have anything to do with the fact that the bus riders like to duck into the lobby of the bank to avoid rain and snow or call home in Chinese or Spanish? There had never been a problem for me in getting past them to the cash machine. Who knows why banks do what they do? But stopping at another bank to get cash on the way to church would simply mean that both banks would charge me coming and going - the one I got the cash from and my own B of A for a transfer fee. Taking a crisp twenty from the money dispenser would cost me at least $4, perhaps more, or a fee of 20%.

When the B of A first put up the sign that they were leaving my neighborhood, I nourished the brief wish that they were finally imploding as a result of all their shabby business practices and that this time no bail-out would save them, but I see that the other branches survive - for now.

So I figured my debit card would work today, and shopping could go forward unobstructed.

First stop: Costco, for the usual staples like coffee and cereal, and bigger packages than I really want of lunchmeat and smoked salmon (oh for a Mormon-style freezer of my youth in Nevada, one you could open like a hope-chest). I buy the smallest side of salmon filet, regretting somewhat that it is pale and farm-raised.

My favorite salmon is seasonal, from Alaska (Copper River, or some other vividly red variety), and that season is over. Maybe it is over in more ways than one, considering that Fukushima has polluted the Alaska currents with rolling masses of debris from the tsunami, well-peppered with nuclear waste from their damaged reactors. How long before all of this 2011 event is washed off the earth? In fact all the currents of the oceans connect. There are no isolated areas when it comes to nuclear disasters. Those of us who lived in Nevada in the early 1950's know what it means to have absorbed a few more rads of atomic fallout than the average person, but in reality, no one escaped the common fate of being a down-winder. It's just that some people took in more than others. And that is one reason why to be conscious of this kind of thing, even if you don't see mushroom clouds and celebrate the might of our nation, the way people used to do before they started getting sick. Japan took another hit, with Fukushima. They didn't deserve it.

The final bill at Costco came to a "mere" $165.00. How is it I can see a figure like that and not freak out? Yes, I have the money and can pay it. But how much will go to waste? That's what I continuously must ask myself.  Waste is wrong. It's an axiom I accept and will not examine. I define waste as throwing away food which has spoiled. I do not define eating expensive food as waste. I don't even define over-eating as waste (not yet). But perhaps I should plan on a regular basis to share my food with others beyond my household. Perhaps it should just figure in.

Moving on to the next venue, to the best place I know for produce, we drive to an Indian market on Waltham's Moody Street. Checking out with two bags of fresh and frozen vegetables and two types of Indian bread, the shocking bill comes to $17.10, about one tenth of what I spent at Costco for manly food, things of flesh and blood. What if I started shopping only at the Indian place where, it suddenly occurs to me, there is very little animal protein (it's in the freezer) and almost no dairy either, unless you count the panir (Indian cheese) in some of the frozen dinners, as well as tubs of yoghurt. If you avoid the wall of frozen and chilled food, you'd be eating vegan (I don't even think their prepared pakoras and other Indian stuffed breads contain eggs). It's not something I am ready to do, frankly, although I could imagine cutting out meat and fish (for separate reasons). And that's one way to eat cheap, isn't it? Except it might require just a bit of peeling, chopping, steaming and other preparation.

The challenge with all such shopping is in the processing, especially with beautiful fresh vegetables which after all are at their peak a short time, and which then begin to return to the elements. I used to maintain a compost heap. Would it make sense to recoup some of the rot with another? Even with nights of freezing temperatures? To be continued...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Drive Thru Calories, or Frugal Sister's Quickie

Noon time out on the road and I forgot that I hadn't eaten breakfast. I have $4 and a stick of gum in my purse. There was a time when a Snickers bar was adequate to keep me moving forward. Now, in my more (uh-hum) mature years, I know that a candy bar was designed by the devil to keep fat girls home crying on Friday night.  I know that there are plenty of super markets with salads-to-go.... but the best ones are out of the budget and the other more moderate priced choice is a blah option with metallic tasting shreds of lettuce and chemical'ish low-cal 'dressing' packets. 

Luckily, just about every 100 ft. there's a fast food option. The cheaper the food, the faster the steaming white bag flies into your car.  Ah, America!  I imagine having to list the calories has been a blow to these purveyors of type 2 diabetes. How can ANYONE not see that a double quarter pounder with cheese has more calories then the average sized adult needs in one day? Oh, and add some fries with that to make it a value meal! If you are past the age of 18 and do not spend your day running marathons or practicing for your 500 meter butterfly competition, I'm guessing that this meal is just another super size reason that you are not too fit, Chubbo.

Back to the $4 meal choice. I've picked my days winner: for $2.50 I can bag a taco and bean burrito at Taco Bell. High fiber, high protein beans are about the most nutritionally solid thing that you can grab for about $1.  A medium soda would bump it up to $4. I like sodas. I crave diet Pepsi. I know it's bad and over priced and something that I ought to walk away from....... but it's not as expensive as a massage and not as dangerous as cigarettes. It stays in the guilty pleasure column, when I'm not having a 'dirt poor' week. In that case, I load up on the taco sauce and make it a side dish. Remember when they wanted to make catsup a vegetable in the school lunch programs?  What happened to that?

Anyway, don't forget to throw away the empty bag when you've finished. Some meals are best consumed and forgotten. It's not the kind of date you want reminders about, and that kind of trash is....well, trashy!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Money Challenge

Today, Tuesday, I shopped the Farmer's Market in my part of town. The city actually holds two of them. Fridays, the second one is held on the other side of the town, so if you miss one you can catch the other.

We also have a community farm, bought into through subscription, although anyone can also buy from the farm stand, which runs on the traditional honor system. It was the last working farm in the city, so when the family wanted to sell out, a trust bought it to keep it going. It is several acres of vegetables and herbs as well as a hill with fruit trees, mostly apple. But it is professionally run by a resident farm manager couple, who live there with with small children. They don't do all the work, because if you subscribe you have to put in some hours as their employee, and for your pains, you get several bags of produce on a regular basis.

They keep chickens, but I haven't seen eggs for sale. I once toured their chicken coop and took a morning's lesson in raising my own.

I remember how fresh eggs (and the chickens who made them) actually smelled. I got to know a lot of barnyard smells in childhood, living on the property of a farm, in a rented house, outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. It imprinted me with a lot of impressions of sheep, cows, turkeys, laying hens, and Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists too. One thing I knew about the Mormons, they had freezers and always made sure they had a store of food which could last for weeks. This wasn't out of anxiety about the Cold War and nuclear winter. It was older than that. My little friend told me once that they were prepared for "the Famine". Since I knew a few Bible stories, I was familiar with the concept, though not the actuality. I also know how important big freezers are to rural people in general. I have never had one.

Okay, let's cut to the chase. Did I stay within my promised budget? Or did I find a loophole?

As I wrote, it would have been possible to spend $40 during the course of the week, just not in grocery stores. It was envisioned that this would be at two places, the farm stand and the Farmer's Market.

I opted to spend the entire pile of money, two twenties from an ATM, plus, truth be told, the prior contents of my wallet ($8.50) at the Farmer's Market. I have some left over, but I doubt that I'll drive to the farm stand. I may have gone over $40, but let's see:

Apples - Rome Beauty and Northern Spy for cooking @ $2.99/lb 3 lbs or $9.00

Apples - Macoun for eating @ $2.99/lb for 3 lbs or $9.00

So, $18.00 to the cute little apple orchardist seventy-something lady in her jaunty little cap, for the six lbs of apples. Hm. Seems like a Whole Foods kind of price, and then some.

Corn - Butter and honey at 60 cents an ear times 6 - $3.60

Patty Pan Squash - One piece at $1.00

Tomatoes - 1 lb. at $2.00

Mixed bell peppers - 1 lb. at $2.50  That's $9.10 for a small amount of colorful produce to the family of Polish-American farmers who live out near Worcester.

I searched in vain for scallions. No one had them. Must be out of season, since they had them last week. Time to scour the yard for mine, which I have neglected.

So far, $27.10 spent.

Now did we say anything about farmer's market bakery goods? Because they are great. The pumpkin growers sell pies and cakes, which I bought. Ahem, taking me over the limit (but not over the wallet, because of that $8.50). $3.00 for the cake and $10.00 for the pie. Yes, $10! It's a rich neighborhood. They know what they can charge us, those clever little old ladies who drive down from Vermont. Why would they do such a thing if they couldn't make a little money?

Oh, and the local bakery man with the artisanal bakery sold me a loaf of seeded rye which looks and smells great for $6.00.

Adding this up, it looks like I spent $46.10, however, by some strict interpretation, I overspent by at least $6.10.

The farmer's market is a kind of tourism, and these are food souvenirs, not bargains. They are however local and fresh, because even if they come from across the state or across state lines, New England is one very small region.

For true bargains, I would have to go into the heart of Waltham and shop at an Indian produce and grocery market. That's the place you can get a week's worth of produce and even prepared foods for $30 or slightly more.

Perhaps that should be next week's exercise in seeing how to stretch a food budget.

Okay, I treated my budget like Silly Putty. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a Macoun to bite into. I am after all a daughter of Eve.

The Chicken Flies Again (with a Little Help from Frugal Sister)

Chicken is one of the most amazingly versatile items in the meat department. Ground beef, can just step aside. After you cook and remove the fat from a lb. of regular ground beef, you have nearly a cup (sometimes more) of artery clogging cholesterol that does not  belong in anyone's body (except the cow and no one asked her permission).

On the other hand, you can bake the fat out of the chicken, then put the drippings in a bowl, place this in the freezer and peel the white patty off the top, leaving a flavor-filled bouillon with which you can make a terrific gravy. You can SEE where the fat is on the chicken and can proceed as you will.  (BTW- I raised free range chickens and have no love for these animals. Not a lick. I would not like to cause them the pain of life in an overcrowded cage, but I just am not a big fan of the animal herself ).

On Sunday night we had a very moist 3.30 lb. baked chicken (on sale, $3.70 total) with acorn squash ($.99) and mashed red potatoes (5lb. bag, $2.49). The meal was, roughly $3.50 when you take into account that we only ate a third of the potatoes and a third of the chicken. Also, a small amount of milk, spices and a few pats of margarine.

For dessert, I  made a simple apple crumble using the undersized red delicious that I bought on sale at the discount grocery store. This fruit is best used in recipes because of the small size, thick skins and the low sugar content. I diced up peeled apples, added oatmeal and cinnamon sugar and mixed this together in a big bowl, sprayed a large roasting pan with oil and baked until bubbling. Try to cook the whole bag because this will make an excellent quick breakfast item. I'd put the cost at about $3.00 and the portions at about 8 (unless ONE OF YOU is on a constant diet, in which case we'll call it 12 portions).

Tonight we'll have fried rice using the scraps from the chicken. I've already boiled the carcass and removed leftover meat. I cooked up a pot of rice and threw half of the contents into my pan for tonight's fried rice, and put the rest aside for tomorrow night's chicken and rice soup. 

Keep things overlapping. It works wonders for the budget and cuts down significantly on the time you spend preparing meals. 

Austerity? Maybe Something Else.

A few days back, I reported on the "cheaper cut" of pork I bought at Whole Foods. It wasn't any less tasty for being $9.21 per usable pound, though surely a bit less wonderful than some other offerings at that price, such as prime rib would have been or a really superb lamb chop, or even a nice hunk of artisanal cheese.

The question is, how much thinking goes on in a crowded store, how much calculation? Stopping yourself to make careful comparisons interferes with someone else's profit or whatever persuasion is being worked on the public, whether or not we're in an election year.

You may feel like an individual when you shop, but really you are perceived as part of a herd, to be processed at the check-out and fleeced of your cash. It better be worthwhile for you, because it sure is for some of the more lucrative chains like Whole Foods, Costco, and the regional supermarkets.

This blog is about making it work better for you, especially if you aren't into "extreme couponing" and merely plan to make better meals for less money (assuming you can put your hands on some money).

Not being a professional economist, I merely report what goes on in the trenches as the Rich Sister member of my sister act here.

So what happened to that expensive pork shoulder? Do you even want to know?

Trying to recoup the remains (less the more desirable 1 1/4 lbs red meat set aside for a stir-fry) of an $11.52 almost four pound cut (to specify, the arm shoulder, kin to the ham hock at the back end of the pig), I cut up the fat covering and pulled apart the bones. I also used four turkey legs I had bought at the same time, which I spread out on a baking sheet covered in aluminum foil. It would have been possible to strew a few pieces of onion, carrot and celery on the lot, but I just used salt and pepper, as I feared the pork fat being rendered would make any vegetable too greasy. I put this in my convection oven at 375 degree Fahrenheit, and roasted the meats for about an hour. The pork fat pretty much stayed on its side of the pan, in the cups formed by the fat-side up pork rinds as they cooked.

The turkey legs' flesh fell from the tendons, while the small amount of pork flesh around the joint stuck to it and kind of dried out.  Pork rind, once you pour off the liquid fat, can taste good, naturally sweet and carmelized (and it did). But after I scraped away the meat of both animals (to be used in bean soup or fajitas), I found the most wonderful essence under the turkey side, a real stock that tasted great. Nevertheless, the payoff from the pork really wasn't worth too much, and I would not use the fat in my cooking as some people might. I didn't recoup the price or justify it by this further processing. I could just have thrown out the whole shoulder trimming and not missed much.

Working out of Simply Ming One-Pot Meals, I used the 1 1/4 lbs of pork shoulder to make Sweet and Sour Mango Pork, which proved to be a terrific dish in a cookbook full of winners so far.

I had on hand what seemed to be the last of the mango season fruits, rather tasteless and stringy large ones (after a glorious summer of first the small custard-like ones, followed by the huge ones, both varieties from Mexico). This was the perfect use for less than table-worthy mangoes, and they seemed to tenderize the meat as well. Ginger, garlic, scallions, red onion and a sweet red bell pepper, along with sweetened rice vinegar and soy sauce created a great Cantonese style flavor.

Although the recipe says it served four, it could easily furnish three meals for two in this household.

Just to have more Chinese food on hand, I used another recipe from Ming's cookbook a few days later, the beef, shiitake and broccoli stir-fry in oyster sauce.

That at last was from a cheaper cut, a skirt steak purchased in bulk and cut into two from Costco (sorry, I forgot the price, but it was pretty cheap, not being a prime cut). The other half of the four lb, no-waste skirt steak, is in the freezer.

As I go on with this blog I'll try to be more specific about prices. But Frugal Sister's recommendation of bulk shopping for frozen vegetables could apply here. The broccoli I used was fresh, but it would have worked just as well frozen.

The only luxury item here was a half pound of shiitake mushrooms, whose cut-up shape complemented the cut strips of skirt steak. I also threw in some button mushrooms to see how they would work. Not so bad, but the luxury mushrooms really made the dish. How much is 1/2 lb fresh shiitakes in Boston? I think it may be as much as $5.00. It might also work dried and be cheaper.

But see, I'm thinking like a rich person. I'm not going to tell you that you must use shiitakes in this recipe. But they seem to work better than the usual button variety. By the way, some Costco locations sell an excellent dried shiitake (I found it on a visit to California), brand name Manitou, 6 oz. dried for about $8.00 if memory serves. They'll make five or six dishes that call for copious amounts of shiitake.

We drank a half a bottle of the Michael David Winery Seven Deadly Zins (2009) with it, bought at Costco for $11.49. Delicious. But that adds another $5.75 to the cost of the meal.

On the positive side, we still have plenty of stir-fry left over for other meals, and a half a bottle of wine to wash it down. By the way, it was a very good wine (Robert Parker, 90). I still have my subscription to the Independent Consumer's Guide to Fine Wine (at $29/quarter or $99/year), but I didn't arm myself with its recommendation when shopping in the wine section. I walked on impulse into that separate part of the store (closed until noon on Sunday due to one of the last "blue laws" left in Massachusetts, probably to prevent drunks in church), and acted on the ratings posted there by Costco, based in that case on Robert Parker as it happened.

Costco's price for this bottle was a bargain, considering that the website for the winery itself listed this very bottle at $16. I'd like to go back for more today, but remembering my promise to use what is on hand and not buy more, I cannot act on this seeming bargain for the moment. Maybe it will have flown off the shelves. Too bad. A promise is a promise.

Rich Sister

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Know All People by These Presents

That the undersigned shall forbear from all purchases of any store groceries until Sunday next, October 14, 2012, drawing instead from all the contents of her larder and her garden, with the exception that she shall be permitted to buy from her Farmer's Market on Tuesday or from the local community farm, but that she is to spend no more than $20 in either place, and that all must be spent exclusively on fresh produce which she shall report upon here.

Rich Sister

P.s. Obviously I cannot let Frugal Sister's $7.50 per day challenge go completely unanswered. I won't purchase anything (except for the Farmer's Market produce). The treasure trove she speaks of - or hoard as it were - will be whittled away out of my freezer and my kitchen cabinets. Every time I go out and shop, I turn away from what is already here for the taking and using. The result is those forgotten eggplants or carrots, or fish which gets freezer-burn and becomes too unpalatable to use. I am sick of feeding the trash can. Time to change my evil ways.

Food Nostalgia

In tough times, people get nostalgic. Sometimes they even decide that the past is possible to recapture through eating products that are still sold, but which their sophisticated palates had long since rejected as junk.

I read an article to this effect in either Slate or Salon, a few years ago, and I actually took the bait. Why not try some gelatin product or a box of pie filling, right off the supermarket shelf? No, not the chocolate pudding. I've no objection to that, because when you put all that milk into it (and perhaps add a little better cocoa or melt chocolate), it's actually quite good and needs no convoluted justification based on the idea that we have turned into food snobs and should just return to our old ways. Gas-guzzling cars without seat-belts were another feature of that earlier age.

Egged on, I bought some lemon meringue filling, because I remembered sort of liking that kind of pie. Yes, I had moved on to something richer - home-made lemon curd or something similar (cf. The Simple Art of Perfect Baking, by Flo Braker, which has two or three versions of a citrus cream which can be topped with fresh fruit like blueberries or ripe melon, set in a tart shell - now that's pie!). But isn't the supermarket thing good enough? I remember that it used to come with a gelatin capsule of lemon oil which broke at the end of a long heating, probably a MadMan "hidden persuader" idea of an orgasm for the housewife. Maybe the lemon oil now comes powdered in, but wouldn't it be just as good?

So I made the stuff, which still took about ten minutes to heat. When it had cooled off, I tasted it. Gosh, it seemed so bitter. The color was pale and dull. Okay, maybe they had eliminated some food dye of the past which was implicated in cases of cancer. But couldn't they find some other way to make it look better?

Reader, I threw it in the trash. Then I remembered how fast the curd made up - just as fast as the supermarket convenience food. Yes, you need a lemon, you need something to grate off a little of the peel, and you are going to have to use a little butter. But time was not wasted when I made Julia Child's version, from Baking with Julia. And it was one of those foods which you could understand the reason for its survival, the reason it might appear as a dessert you would be unembarrassed to share with friends - how's that for "traditional American food" (by way of England and France no doubt)?

According to that cookbook, pg. 403 ("Not-Your-Usual Lemon Meringue Pie"), you simply whip up 4 large eggs and 1 cup sugar, and if you are trying to be minimalist, a big wire whisk is as good as a mixer (but it's a workout). You do this thing called "forming the ribbon" where the froth should be able to hold a little shape draping over itself (not in peaks though, that will never happen with the whites and yolks mixed together).

While whisking, juggle in (if using the whisk - otherwise just keep the motor running) 2/3 c. fresh lemon juice and the grated zest of a lemon.

You need to cook it over a pan of boiling water, in a second pan or bowl (like a double-boiler arrangement), whisking so that it cooks steadily and becomes thick and "custardlike", but don't worry, this takes very little longer than it would with My-T-Fine filling.

Taking it off the heat, you then break into the curd, piece by piece, a half a stick of unsalted butter cut up in 8, stirring each one in until it blends . It enriches the mix delightfully.

The curd should be poured into a waiting pie shell or else into a storage bowl which you cover with plastic right on the curd (to prevent forming a dry skin I guess). The Child cookbook says it can keep for a week in the fridge, but I've never tested that hypothesis. It was too delicious for that kind of waiting around. You can also make up the meringue in the recipe, using whatever crust you fancy. Or you can just enjoy it plain, like a rich lemon pudding.

There are four ingredients in this thing (if you count lemon peel and lemon juice as one): Eggs, sugar, lemon and butter. And depending on the fragrance of the lemon, it can verge on ambrosial. It's not something destined for a trash can, is it? Not if you didn't burn it (and you won't with the double boiler arrangement). No fail? Yes.

I really don't make this every day, but maybe that's the point. It's special. And isn't that what nostalgia is all about?

A Challenge to Dine for $7.50 per Day by Frugal Sister

Can't imagine how some people make ends meet and still provide nutritional, moderate caloric meals for their families? Here's a terrific exercise I've come up with that was based on an actual experience I've just recently had. Imagine a nearly empty refrigerator and no cash until Friday. There's two of you and one of those people will not eat high carbohydrate or high fat foods. 

Let's pretend that you only have 30 dollars and it needs to last for 4 days. In order to do this exercise correctly, you'll have to leave the wallet with the debit/credit card at home. NO CHEATING! If you can whip out more money, it really doesn't give you the same perspective.... you need to be able to remove items from the conveyor belt because you can't afford them and because the grocery clerk is not your mother and she doesn't have to throw in a buck to buy you that perfect peach ($1.99 lb) or spring for your thick slab apple wood smoked bacon ($4.99 a pkg.). 

Let's pretend we're adults here and we need to make rational decisions based on practical limitations. I'll give you a minute if you need it.


First, look around the kitchen into all of the nooks and crannies for things like beans and rice and staple items like eggs and flour. Get an idea of the items that you don't need to buy so that you don't waste assets on this stuff.  (BTW: My sister's kitchen offers a veritable treasure trove of high end staples from past cooking projects and routinely gathered stocks of gourmet tid bits that offer one the pedigree option here). Get the rice out....it feeds half the planet and is one of the most versatile grains to work with. Do you need to be told that brown rice is a far superior model? Dry beans are dirt cheap and made for survival cooking.

Knowledge is power. See if you can't find the weeks grocery store specials... this can give you an idea about what's on sale and this can help to steer the cooking choices. Pull together a menu and keep each day under $7.50. The meals should overlap in ingredients: Sunday's roast chicken is Tuesday's chicken and rice soup. Oatmeal can have so many different possibilities. Leftover oatmeal can be used to stretch out a meatloaf and meatloaf can be a pretty good school lunch when you make it into a sandwich.  We have oatmeal for breakfast with raisin or fresh fruit, at least 3 times a week. My daughter makes her own granola and it is truly the best tasting stuff with nearly zero added fat. Buy the huge drums and keep an eye for this stuff going on sale because it's generally over budget otherwise and because it's one of the key ingredients to have when you go to ground.

Now when you head to the store, keep in mind that cheap isn't always gonna be a good choice. Hot dogs are nasty cylinders of snout and anus. No matter what they call it, it's eating an animals ass. Frozen pizza has less than a half a cup of tomato sauce and is generally like a loaf of white bread rolled out flat and sprinkled with cheese-like flavors. Cheap? Yup. Save the pizza experience for a special occasion when you can get one steaming from the pizzeria, or made with your own two hands using quality products. One of the best bargains ever is the frozen vegetable section. See if you can't find a discount grocery outlet. They have these MASSIVE bags of chunky frozen broccoli, cauliflower, zukes and peppers that are used in restaurants and cover the 5 servings very well. You can take these quality veggies and throw them into almost any recipes to keep the flavor up and the calories down. Plus, frozen vegetables do not go bad in under a week. Tasty, nutritious and inexpensive? This is my theme song. Sauced veggies presented as frozen side dish, really? You can't throw some butter on your own peas.... and save 2 bucks? Do I need to say that frozen dinners are a rip off? Sure, you could get these on sale and take it to work when you're too busy to deal, but it's not a good idea to be dependent on these. 

When you have a limited amount of cash to work with and you make it a rule that your choices need to be both overlapping and nutritional, you very well may start to feel that you can see beyond the hocus pocus of the grocery store industrial complex. It's not your fault that you are a target. Just make your own choices before they get a chance to whisper in your ear that they know best.  

W(T)F Marketing by Frugal Sister

Whole Foods (a.k.a. Whole Paycheck) is in the market of selling virtue. I'm not putting down the concept of organic sustainability, nor am I against low carbon footprint, fair trade and respectful observance of cultural diversity. I want to make it clear that I GET how some people might have food allergies and are deathly afraid of exposure to specific ingredients. I UNDERSTAND that some people have an undiagnosed 'nero-sensitivity' to a plethora of seemingly benign additives. Again, not talking to you, the overwhelmingly fragile hot-house human. You have enough trouble just keeping your self together to face another day and I send you nothing but love and (mostly) sincere compassion.

What I really really really hate is the fact that the WF form of style appropriation is so un apologetically price gouging in the way that it makes one believe that these virtuous products MUST be served up at such a high premium to make them fly. WF is riding a profit wave that would be called piracy...except for the fact that the Prius driving consumers pulling into the parking lot do so sans gun to head like some other public entities (yeah, I'm talking to you PG&E). 

There are some options that net the same benefits, only they take more imagination and (admittedly) more time. Farmers markets discharge the middleman and allow you to meander through shopping in a relaxing way that mirrors our ancestry. Produce stores are all over the SF bay area. The veggies are so fresh, the dirt clinging to them is still wet. Whole grain tortillas warm and moist, delivered every morning from some Mom and Pop bakery in San Lorenzo.  The Half Moon Bay fisherman delivering his morning catch that afternoon. These small shops dance on a thin margin and they simply can not market 2nd rate food while competing with the likes of Safeway or Lucky.  When you see the prices, you might feel that they are these inexpensive bargains. That's looking at it from the wrong perspective: they are charging the RIGHT amount. It's the pretentious 'virtue vultures'  that misrepresent.

When Dianne wrote about the bargain pork roast with the massive bone, hidden from the shopper by a display case presenting only the fleshy portion, thus distorting the sense of "true" cost, I thought that this misrepresentation of perception sums it up pretty nicely: you are buying into the presentation. Virtue is everywhere. Keeping a small grocer in business seems more in keeping with a model of  'economic sustainability' that supports a level playing field and gets your cash to someone who truly needs it for survival. . Every time I go into W.F. to get a last minute item, all I can say is " W.T.F.?" 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Gathering Firewood

Before I get going about my kitchen again, one which is piped with a natural gas stove, lighted by electricity and provided with a refrigerator/freezer which is big enough to lose food inside of it, until some of it is too rotten to use, I'm going to pour myself a cup of coffee and re-read this article about 8 women killed by a drone in Afghanistan while gathering firewood to use to cook their families' morning meals.

What were you doing September 16? They died by mistake that day.

Interestingly, it got a lot of play in the foreign press, not so much here. Rev. John Dear wrote about it in Common Dreams. He maintains that resources are what we are after in Afghanistan, not social justice as we used to hear. Funny, they don't want the social justice we are selling them. I think they notice how many mistakes we make, but even if we were perfect Boy Scouts, historically they have never wanted Ferenghi (their word, before Star Trek appropriated it).

I remember learning Spanish from a tv set in elementary school, while around me in the classroom were a dozen Spanish-speaking farmworkers' children who maintained a stony silence. Each one, teach one? Kind of a one-way street, top-down is how it played. We could have conversed with each other, but that wasn't part of the program. So you always have to ask yourself: What's the program? Are you led from the top down, to believe you have certain needs which you have to fulfill at a certain rate? Even if you are enjoying your life, what is the underlying price tag? Do boys in failing post-industrial communities choose to pay off their debts by going to war? Do rural boys seek honor and distinction by proving they can stand the heat of well, if not battle so much anymore, at least the danger of being in hostile territory? Do girls now seek the same experiences for similar reasons? What is the pay-off?

What could we learn by walking a mile in the other person's moccasins? What could we learn retracing the steps of women who must gather firewood? Are we surrounded by the ghosts of the past even in New England? I know that I live on a spot where Indians lived for more than 10,000 years. I have found stones, perhaps tools if I knew better, which perfectly fit my hand, while digging in my garden (this property was once on the shore of a glacial kettle hole pond, since drained). I know that the story of America skips from the Pilgrims very quickly to the American Revolution. There has to be a story in between, and there is. A very bloody one, in which my sister and I have ancestors who figured there. It's the background. It's part of the reason we see things as we do.

And so the branches fall from my maple trees, which prune themselves in this weather. I know they will burn a short time for firewood. Like those women,  I pick them up. But what I use is natural gas when I cook my food.

In Which Frugal Sister Checks In

Growing up in Anaheim during the 1960's certainly gave a person exposure to the process of a disappearing agricultural heritage. Mile after mile of fertile farm lands were constantly on the losing end of the bulldozer. My brother and I would ride our Sting Ray Schwinn's (the ones with the banana seats) to a neighboring orange grove so that we could chase jackrabbits and gorge on fruit. At first, these treks were very close and then it took longer and longer to get to the fields. I'm still amazed that we could just jump on our bikes and casually mention we'd be back for dinner. I think we were about 6 or 7 years old. Who does that today? We all have an opinion about the kind of parent that allows their young children to free range the streets unsupervised.
Two years later, I was a butter ball logging some serious hours in front of the black and white. My favorite food: sugar whipped into some sort of lardy fat. There was a convenience store (a new invention!) two blocks from our home and the introduction of high calorie/low nutrition was just the thing to make me forget that I was seriously unpopular and that my mother (unlike the other moms) was working and distracted by her own worries. Hand me a Hostess Suzy Q (two pieces of chocolate cake held together by a "creamy center"), a Big Hunk bar and I was ready for an afternoon of couch potatoing. I remember waddling home with a bag of junk food so that I could catch my hero Gigantor  'the space age robot' save the world from the evil enemies (who always seemed just a bit oriental and sneaky).TV did not end until it was time for bed.
My East Coast sister's perspective is thoughtful and reflects the ambiance of an intellectual. When I recall my childhood (the parts my psychologist has allowed me to dwell on), I can mention the birth of the "drive thru" culture, the frozen dinners, the relentless assault by food advertisement and the siren call of the predatory packagers of nutrition-less 'easy food'.  It's hard to consider just how many new innovations in the last 50 years are about getting food into our mouths faster and cheaper than ever in the history of humans. It's boggling. I'm not 'for' people going hungry, but when you look at the offerings at the grocery stores, food might be cheap, but balanced fresh nutrition is still expensive. More so than ever before
 I'm a struggling single parent and I have some methods for working with tight budgets. It's not only a quest for good, tasty meals.... it's also a passion for not letting the system 'game' you into buying overpriced items that are nutritional underachievers propped up by exploitative advertisements
Grab your nachos and come along, it's gonna be fun!

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Cheaper Cuts

I have a wonderful cookbook which has been quite useful at helping me to create some great meals. I bought Simply Ming One-Pot Meals at a silent auction during Village Day in my town. Since then, I have delighted in putting into practice the concept at the heart of the book: By employing one of seven basic cooking methods, you can create a satisfying "one pot" meal. In actual practice, it may take more than one, but that's okay. I have lots of pots and also a dishwasher.

The chapters are Braise, Wok, Saute, Roast, High Temp, Soup, Toss.

I cranked out a lot of these while staying with my brother in California, the one I cooked for in exchange for a stay at his luxurious digs (although it was my idea to cook; I think he would have been happy if I'd just taken him out to a restaurant once in awhile). The point is, you can do this kind of thing  for less money than you can pay staying at a hotel, and it feels like family rather than the impersonal kind of rat-race some of us are forced to deal with. Thankfully, we are compatible personalities with many similar interests, and my husband can help him with his computer system too. We try not to be moochers.

I didn't carefully tally what I bought for his larder then. If daily meals cost less than the $150/ day a hotel would have cost, then we were ahead of the game. I didn't mind getting expensive cuts of meat at How's, San Marino, an old-fashioned rich peoples' suburban grocery, independent for all I know, nearby. It has a real butcher shop in-store. It has a pretty good bakery too. It stocks most of the stuff you'd find at Stop and Shop, but it seems to have carefully managed departments, like produce. Their shitake mushrooms, for instance, were top quality, better than what I can get at my local Whole Foods. Of course California produce tends to be a lot fresher than Massachusetts, except for our seasonal corn, tomatoes and apples.

Tonight I am making something from the Ming cookbook, Sweet and Sour Mango Pork. I am back in the Boston area where I live with my husband. The kids have moved out (to other expensive places to live). It'll just be us eating this dish, but it should last for about three meals.

I found myself laughing about how I thought I was buying an economical cut of meat: a picnic shoulder of pork, locally grown and slaughtered. It came with bone and pork rind, and was "only" $2.99/lb at the local Whole Foods. Oh joy! The price was $11.52. But was it actually close to 4 lbs of pork? Nowhere near (and frankly I don't care for pork rind, cooked up into cracklin's, although I recall that George Bush Senior, as a faux Texan, pretended to love the stuff which other people give to their dogs to chew on). I don't have a dog to make cracklin's for, not since my beloved little Becky ran out in front of a car. Broken hearted, I decided to love other people's dogs from then on. So maybe a neighbor can use the pork rind, but I can't.

Cut up that pork shoulder has yielded 1 1/4 lbs of good red trimmed meat, at by my calculation, about $9.21 per pound. I believe that's a little high for pork shoulder in the real world.

The recipe actually called for 1 1/2 lbs, but I think we can overlook that fractional difference. It's a stir-fry. Just add more veg.

If I am really being thrifty, I will save the bone at least and make bean soup with it. It isn't smoked like ham, but it might add some flavor to a soup made with beans and onions. I don't have to decide right away - I can freeze the bones (thus expending some energy, of course).

I'll let you know tomorrow how the whole thing tasted.

Meanwhile, I should do an inventory of all my larder, be a good steward of the garde manger. I certainly spent quite a bit this week, at my usual places, Whole Foods and Costco. In order to maintain an honest relationship with my sister, I am going to have to show what is used and what is wasted, and what is bought on impulse. Tomorrow that exposure of my private hoarding will begin. The goal is to use, to give and to reallocate resources. Winter will be upon us before we know it. Time to gain a measure of control.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Our Origins

My sister and I are from two ends of a large family, but as can be in such families, we are still in pretty much the same generation. We're post-war baby boomers, both born in the 1950's and raised in Southern California, which in its day was one of the easiest places on earth to be a middle class human. Not so easy for some of my classmates, who were the children of migrant laborers, some of whom came to school still muddy from the strawberry and lettuce fields they must have worked in since dawn.

All around us, food was grown (before houses filled in the fields). Our mother would spend Saturday morning taking the family car (the one car) to a ranch market on the edge of a field. She could buy four fresh cantaloupes for less than a dollar. Things generally tasted quite good and fresh. It was easy to feed a big family. I always remember that huge bowl of various large pieces of fruit that she kept on the kitchen table. That was our snack food. We ate it up faster than she could replace it. Little did we know, this kept us in nice shape, along with the walk to school (one car, you see, necessitated a lot of walking if you wanted to go somewhere). Today my mom is still with us. She is 89 and her birthday was yesterday.

I had a German friend some years ago, when my husband and I were first married, who always made a beautiful variety of baked goods in early December, in anticipation of the holidays. She asked me what our family traditional foods were. I had to say I just didn't know. Stew, maybe. While her mother was trying to survive after the war (with a family of 8 kids, just as my mother also had), my mom was cutting recipes out of women's magazines like the Ladies Home Journal. So I remember things like meat-stuffed green peppers and Swiss steak. There was never any shortage of meat or eggs. Later, I would date a boy whose family lived in Scotland after the war. He said they used food ration books when he was growing up in the 50's. They sometimes were allowed only one egg per week. So between him and my German friend, both seemingly like myself in middle class status, there was an entirely different experience of the 1950's. We were rich, richer than we knew. And now that is changing. No, there is no rationing, but there is unemployment and financial stress. It isn't the same - and yet there are bigger houses and more cars. Still there is a cash flow problem. Even if you are a "have" you worry about the future. Today, the migrant worker children might worry about a parent being deported. The Germans might worry about the Euro holding up. The Scot I knew moved to Canada. He was going to be drafted and sent to Vietnam, and he made his move. I think he did just fine.

Reaching back into the family memories, I have to say that my favorite food was not my mother's. It was that of my Aunt Mary's cook Hattie. I was a picky eater with my parents, who had to coax me - sometimes both of them in concert, to get me to eat oatmeal or scrambled eggs for breakfast. Not so Hattie. I don't know what her secret was, but I have a few great memories of her table back in Maryland where I, though not my younger sister, was born (she is a native to California). And when I asked my mother, I heard about some of Hattie's triumphs which were new to me: damson jam, grape pie and other things. I just remember the deviled crab and the chocolate pudding. I remember the kitchen table and the feeling I was going to be happy whatever she served. What was it? Where had she learned her art? Why did I know she took it so seriously? Mystery. The past is shrouded in veils of mystery.

The founding father of my mother's family was born in New Orleans before the Civil War. That side of the family was Irish, although my mom claims some French ancestry too. A few years before Katrina, my husband and two children and I drove to California by way of New Orleans. We ate at a restaurant which both my parents had visited in the postwar years, but separately, before they knew each other. It was the Court of the Two Sisters on Rue Royale. Even though the sisters who owned the courtyard dealt in lace and various trimmings for ladies' gowns, the restauranteurs who bought the place thought their long lives should be celebrated by naming their establishment for them. There is something very touching about two sisters going through their lives together.

And so in that spirit, I honor the tradition of two sisters. We'll cook though, and not sell ostrich fans or jet bead headache bands. And this will be our virtual courtyard. Come in and enjoy a little bread pudding with a dash of whisky sauce. But definitely visit the other place if you are ever in New Orleans. It's a real kick.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


My sister and I have been talking about how we feed our families. She lives in Silicon Valley and is not rich.  I live near Boston, and though I would not consider myself to be particularly wealthy compared with a Wall Street banker, I never have trouble putting just about anything I want on the table, for any occasion.

We each have different issues. She calls Whole Foods "Whole Paycheck." I call it my local convenience store. Both of us have discovered the problems with big supermarkets that induce you to buy, sometimes unwisely, with coupons. The processed food with too much salt and flavor enhancers dominate those places, along with generic fruits and vegetables heavily dominated by things which attract the eye with their shiny surfaces, but disappoint with boring tastes.

I rarely set foot in a classic supermarket, unless I am looking for a Pyrex lasagna pan or a large amount of apple cider for a party. I'm not sure my sister avoids them as much as I do - she may have a good coupon once in awhile. Anyway, she'll be checking in here soon with her stories.

My go-to store for large packages of processed food, but mostly produce, meat and fish, is Costco, which I visit almost once a week. I also buy soaps, toothpaste, razors, even bluejeans.

Do I overbuy after I drive about 6 miles, park in the huge lot, and show my card to the attendant at the door? Do I waste any of what I wheel out an hour later, after mingling with the up-and-coming high tech crowd with lots of Asian families whose tastes for things like mangoes are catered to here? Yes, I suppose the excitement and the crush of people makes for a festive atmosphere in which it is hard to hold back a kind of life-affirming feeling. There are samples everywhere to taste, encouraging a purchase not on the list.  If you can get a bag of cheap lemons, who cares if a few of them spoil, huh? For the whole bag, it's the price of about three of them at Whole Foods (and probably Stop and Shop too, although I wouldn't know about that). Plus, you might also see Meyer lemons or some good-looking limes. It's catch as catch can at Costco, where you might turn up some interesting seasonal fruits. The various mangoes for instance, or interesting onions.

It would be nice to stick to a shopping list - I try, really I do. I always make one before I set out, but it isn't carved in stone. It would also be good to have a menu which you can predictably follow. But this isn't possible in my world.

My husband is a professor, and we often are invited for dinner on the spur of the moment - someone is retiring, someone is moving to Europe, there is a faculty conclave (which, though I may not be invited to it, throws off my own schedule of using up the food), or a sudden business trip changes everything. The only time I maintain any stability in my cooking schedule is during a long stay at my bachelor brother's house in California, where I take over the kitchen. There it is truly my domain, as I pay him back for our glamorous digs by cooking up a storm. I make extra and freeze it too, so that after we have gone, he can still enjoy it.

In this blog I will keep track of waste, but also explain what I have discovered both from his lemon tree and my quince tree: there is use, sharing and waste, and they are all mixed together. Real need arises among us, even in our own family. But from it comes invention as well as discovery of other communities where they are trying to solve these things in different ways.

My sister and I have both discovered ethnic food stores. I know about an Indian one. And nearby is an independent market that was bought by a Russian Jewish family, which, although in a prosperous neighborhood, has much of the charm of cooperative life, in which extended communities make traditional foods and not everything is processed by a factory.

Leaving New York recently, while stuck in traffic by a Whole Foods in SoHo, I noticed a window entirely full of pickle jars. I had a lot of time to decipher that window, and came to realize it was a display of several different specialty pickle makers, whose photos graced the window like local heroes. It looked like a blend of that ethnic foods store where the family makes its own special items to sell along with the standard stuff. I told my husband that if the traffic didn't move soon, I'd jump out and go buy us a jar of pickles to eat on our way home to Boston.

In that spirit of reading from a moving car,  I present this blog. You're doing something else, but you found my little pickle jar here. Enjoy reading the label. I hope that it has enough snap and spice to bring you back now and then.