I haven't written about food in way too long.
One day in 2006, two things happened that led to an experiment that changed the way I think about food and what I eat. The Department of Agriculture released its latest guidelines as to what constituted a healthy diet and stated that the minimum required to eat healthy was $31.42. These studies are done frequently, as the government decides what to spend on food stamps or on feeding prison populations. $31.42? Really?
After reading that, I spotted two couples I knew having lunch outdoors at a cafe and I joined them for a pint of Guinness (no, drinking at noon is not common for me); their total was about $140. They had spent a week's food budget on one lunch. I had spent $5 (okay, $6. I did tip.) - a day's food budget. My dining companions were all obese and I wondered if money weren't part of the nation's obesity epidemic, that most people simply spent way too much money on food and the poor, through lack of options or knowledge, were eating a lot of food with little nutritive value.
So the experiment I formed in my head was to start the week with seven $5 bills to spend on food for a week. I'd given myself a bit more than the minimum, but because I also was running 60 miles per week, I was consuming 3800 calories per day, as opposed to the 2000-2500 used to come up with $31.42. Being well-versed in nutrition, I knew (I thought) how to do it.
Restaurants became an extreme rarity. Because I was buying and preparing all of my own food, it took considerable thought and time and the meals became more meaningful. There were luxuries I was not going to do without: coffee, tea, chocolate... I wanted to cook with wine, but even "3-Buck Chuck" was too expensive, so I made my own (there's a two-week lag between juice and wine that was a long, long wait that first time).
One ends up eating a lot of vegetables, as they have a lot of nutrients, are inexpensive and many keep well. It did remind me, however, of my sister-in-law who grew up in England during the food rationing after WW II, who had cabbage for dinner every night for years and stated, "I will never eat cabbage again!" That's another problem: one's choices narrow, one eats a lot of leftovers, the monotony gets unbearable at times; this very monotony, however, also causes one to eat less, as the food just gets less appetizing. It's very tempting to change flavors by adding herbs and spices, but they are very expensive - I remember buying a poppyseed bagel (such a purchase became memorable) and thinking "Poppy seeds! Do you know what they cost?" (I also shuddered, as I heard myself turning into my parents.)
I got invited to a pot-luck dinner. What was I going to do? I made an apple pie, as all the ingredients except cinnamon were cheap (cinnamon became my go-to luxury spice; breakfast oatmeal is palatable with cinnamon even the 50th time); people at the party were astounded at the presence of a homemade pie. "No one bakes any more!" I looked at the collection of mostly grocery store deli selections and the food had become nauseatingly rich and artificial and foreign. Nonetheless, there was a lot of things I hadn't had in quite a while and looked like quite a treat. That was another shocking development: a dessert was a real luxury, rather than the part of a meal that the rest just led up to. Afterward, there was so much food left over! I could live on that food for weeks, I thought - and yet, none of it was appetizing just then.
I hadn't set an end date to the experiment, but as time went on, my thinking started to derange a bit. Meat was a luxury and I found myself using it as a flavor, as in asian cuisine, rather than downing a slab of it. I started thinking about going fishing... a lot... but the local lakes are not particularly healthy. I was swapping things from my garden with my neighbors, neighbors I hadn't gotten to know until their overabundance of squash or strawberries became something I desperately wanted. I know a mycologist and suddenly had time to go mushroom picking with him.
Hunger makes me a better companion.
It is possible to eat well and cheaply, but it takes a radical departure from what we think of as customary American life. After a while, that departure seems like a good one to make. It's that first month that's almost impossible.
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