Let’s get some assumptions out of the way, shall we?
- You don’t have to eat expensively to eat healthy food.
- You don’t have to eat expensively to eat delicious food.
- You don’t have have to eat expensively to eat food that is less ethically compromising than other food.
Now, each of those assumptions can be unpacked into a much more detailed conversation about what kinds of food are available where, what we define as ethical, cost of dollars compared to cost of labor, transport, etc. etc. etc. That’s not what this post is for. This post is mainly to roll my eyes at the NYT handwringing about how the new food culture is causing inexperienced young people in New York to spend way too much money on food. Sorry, inexperienced young people: you are spending way too much on food because you want to, not because you have to. If you want to make ethical choices and have well-grown, well-made food, you have options besides dropping $60 at a posh grocery store and eating at all the It restaurants. Those particular choices are known as conspicuous consumption–you’re paying for high-dollar goods and services because they are high-status. I’m not criticizing: I personally enjoy throwing down some serious cash for a pricey, well-made meal in a moodily lit restaurant where they tell me the provenance of the mustard and how they crystallized the sage leaf in my craft-spirit cocktail. I do it about once every other month with a couple of lady friends; I think of it along the same lines as going to see a play or live music, in that we’re paying for the culmination of years of training and craft, to be savored and remembered because nothing beautiful lasts, alas.
But let’s not confuse that conversation with a conversation about the new food culture, okay?
I learned to be a foodie, if you’ll pardon the term–more on that in another post–when I was living off of a graduate student stipend, which is what is known as an “auxiliary salary”–which means that it’s not to be considered a living wage, it’s a sort of nominal fee that supposes you have primary form of support in the form of a parent or spouse or loan, which was not the case for me. So, becoming a more versatile cook with a greater interest in local ingredients was borne largely out of having little to spend. I also had the privileges of only having myself to feed and care for and a fair amount of unstructured time in which to experiment, which is important. (After all, we are also having a national conversation about people for whom food is literally an unaffordable luxury, which makes the NYT article’s title as well as topic all the more unfortunate.)
But within those limits, what I took away from conversations about food culture were as follows:
Buy fresh, buy local. This maxim sometimes appeals to concerns that fall under the umbrella of ethical eating (support local farmers! use less fuel!) or sometimes healthy eating (eat what’s good and in season!), and for me usually addresses the concern of delicious eating. But in fact, buying fresh and local is also cheaper for me. Yes, there are ways and means to spend way a great deal on local products: sometimes small farms or small-batch producers need to charge a lot more per item because of the scale of production; sometimes they are producing artisanal products and you pay extra for the craft. But not always, particularly when it comes to raw ingredients. When produce is in season, farmers can’t wait to unload their tons of cucumbers, their ready-to-burst buckets of tomatoes. So you eat tomatoes when tomatoes are in, cucumbers when cucumbers are in, and freeze or can the rest. I have been shocked at paying a dollar for a single tomato from a farm stand, yes. But it was a huge, dense tomato, far bigger than my hand, which by itself made an entire sauce for the meal I wanted it for. And you’ve definitely paid more than a dollar for a can of sauce.
Recently, I weighed in on Facebook thread started by a friend who was considering a farmshare; I was irritated to see more than one other person suggest that buying a farmshare is more expensive than just buying from the grocery store. There are instances in which this might be true, but in my case it’s far cheaper to do the CSA. At the beginning of the season, I put down a couple hundred dollars for my half of a share; it’s a lot at one time, but it ends up being about $14 a week for an enormous amount of food: six ears of corn, a pound of tomatoes, peppers and an eggplant, onions, and more–all in one week, all for me unless I invite friends over for dinner. In the winter when the season is over, I don’t usually pay $14 a week for vegetables at the grocery store–but I also eat far fewer vegetables, because they’re more dear.
Waste not, want not. Limiting waste is good for the environment; it’s also, often enough, good for your wallet. A few months ago at Table Matters, I described the way my neighbor and I roast chickens: we eat from one shared bird for days, then keep the bones and turn them into the most delicious soup stock you’ve ever had. We turn everything into stock, actually: fish bones, lamb bones, the tops and tails and skins of vegetables, the stems and yellowing leaves of herbs. I haven’t bought stock from the store in years. Or tomato sauce or pesto or pickles, which I make and freeze in the summer. We make these things out of what we have or what’s cheap, and store in them in reused or reusable containers. Good for everyone.
Eat outside the box. This is a little more in line with the larger “conspicuous consumption” mentality that is so often criticized about new food culture. In fact, it’s one of the contradictions examined in Foodies: the same people who insist on paying high dollar for artisan this and local that are often the same people you’ll find claiming that the cheapest, diviest ethnic restaurants are the most “authentic” and therefore, the best (ETA: this book and contradiction are examined in a later post). That’s an idea I’ll delve more into in the future–but for this post, I’ll note that an essential part of my ability to eat cheaply was my ability to walk not too far and get my hands on fresh tofu and unusual sauces or noodles, or simply to try different things for inspiration. Cooking cheaply means cooking with versatility: being able to open the fridge and make something out of whatever is in there. In fact, this is how I usually cook for guests: I have x, y, and z; you can have it in a curry or in a casserole.
I’ll grant that living in central Philadelphia is about as good as it gets for eating diversely, healthily, and inexpensively: not every city has the as many farmstands and open markets and ethnic grocery stores lying around. There are a number of fine farm-to-table establishments and classic cocktail bars for spending your money, but there are also a great many delicious dives, fantastically cheap places for a quick bite or bowl of noodles. Place matters a great deal when it comes to food cultures.
Which is why I could only roll my eyes when I read that New York City, one of the most diverse food cities on the planet, is starving out its hapless young professionals with unreachable ideals of food perfection.