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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Scrimping and Splurging

Vietnamese meal in Bisbee, Arizona

We don’t eat out on a regular basis, but when we do, I skip the salad bar. For me the luxury of a restaurant meal is having other people do everything for me – cooking, serving, and cleaning up afterward – while I sit at leisure, glass of wine in hand, enjoying conversation and surroundings. I know couples who consider restaurants a terrible waste of money, but they’re only comparing the cost of the ingredients in their meal to what they could prepare the same meal for at home. They put no value on service. I wonder if they’re lousy tippers, too. I figure if I can’t afford to tip well, I can’t afford to eat out. And yet frugality, of necessity has, always been a way of life for me.

There are items I purchase at the store only when they’re on sale, including all paper products and a wide range of canned goods. On the other hand, I don’t think twice about paying more for top-quality organic milk, butter, flour, grains, and fresh vegetables. I scrimp at one end to be able to splurge at the other.

I’ve been dwelling more than usual on the question of meals and how much they cost while re-reading Jim Harrison’s old book of essays, The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand. Oh, my! I have been repeating myself terribly in the kitchen this winter, relying on tried-and-true successes rather than taking chances with “adventures.” The African spicy green beans were an exception, but already I’m planning to make them again, sometime this spring when friends come for dinner, rather than moving on to another experiment. Am I playing it too safe?

Fall-back, never-fail broccoli salad

One-crust chicken pie

As for wine, what pikers we are! My uneducated palate distinguishes three basic categories: undrinkable (and I mean, pour it down the sink drain!), drinkable, and “Hey, that’s good!” (There have been a few notable, really memorable wine experiences in my life, but so few that I collapse them into the third category, out of respect for sample size.) Moreover, I am married to an artist (his chosen field, in autobiographical terms, is surely relevant here) who delights in good cheap wine. We were on our way to a friend’s house for pizza when we stopped to buy a bottle of wine and found big bottles with this astounding price:

David opened the bottle with some trepidation when we arrived at our friend’s house, but it was better than drinkable, which prompted an immediate return trip to the store to pick up another couple of bottles.

But frugal doesn’t always have to mean cheap. I reach no further than last night’s chicken soup supper (meal #3 from the latest chicken sequence) for an example of frugal luxury. I’ve always loved cornbread, hot out of the oven, while David has always given it a lukewarm reception. Well, at last I have turned him into a believer! “This is the best cornbread I’ve ever had! In my whole life!” The key to the thrill is Bob’s Red Mill corn grits instead of the more familiar packaged yellow sawdust. Try it! You’ll think you’ve never tasted cornbread before! And as luxuries go, I’m betting you’ll find this one quite a bargain.

I grew up in a frugal household, but we ate well, too, when I was a child. My mother was quite an adventurous cook for those times. During that postwar era of packaged mixes, she taught herself how to make homemade pizza from scratch, before pizzerias became ubiquitous across America, long before it was served in suburban school cafeterias, and she wasn’t even Italian! (But I probably don’t have to say that. I guess if she’d been Italian, her mother would have taught her how to make pizza, right?) Besides homemade bread and cakes and jams and jellies, she made absolutely heavenly cheese souffle, so light there was practically nothing to it but the delicious taste, and we were probably the only family in the neighborhood occasionally enjoying lamb chops for dinner. But when my mother served “steak,” it was broiled round steak, and it took me years to learn about better cuts of meat, let alone how to cook a steak.

So let’s be honest with each other. One person’s “throwing money away” is another person’s “money well spent.” Right? Don’t you skimp in places and splurge in others? Years ago – press me on this, and I’ll admit it was decades -- someone asked me, with the scrinched-up face of negative judgment, “Why would you bother making coffee when you could have instant?” I felt then as I feel today: Why would I ever settle for instant coffee unless I were stationed in the Antarctic and nothing else was available?

Café au lait chez moi

1 comment:

  1. LOVE this post, Pamela... and as corn meal is on my shopping list, I will purchase Red Mill corn grits instead! I, alas, grew up with every frozen "new" "miracle" fifties fast-food progeniter that my mother could get away with, and winter tried-and-true recipes are just fine with me. Am so enjoying your "Paris kitchen"!