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Gourmet on a budget

(article, Caroline Cummins)

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Judging by its title, you'd think the venerable periodical Newsweek covers, well, the news. But that's not all, folks. Like Time magazine, its chief competitor, Newsweek devotes its back pages to Culture: movies, books, trends, and, thanks to contributing editor Julia Reed, food.

Reed is also a contributing editor at Vogue magazine, which may explain the tin ear she has for popular culture. In her Newsweek columns, she's dissed candy canes as insipidly sweet and reminisced fondly about lavish New York City restaurant meals. She's complained about the boring blandness of Thanksgiving turkeys and the American insistence on eating eggs only at breakfast. The French, after all, eat fried eggs on their pizza. Très chic, non?

Most recently, in the March 1 issue, Reed bragged about how she and her husband are managing to dine well on only $50 a week. Fifty bucks a week sounds admirably restrained; my household of two adults, plus a baby, a cat, and three chickens, struggles to spend less than $100 each week on food and sundries. Reed arrived at that $50 figure, however, not via penny-pinching necessity but through a bet with a friend. Whoever loses the month-long challenge has to pay for, as Reed writes, "a fittingly extravagant dinner." Which, presumably, would make up for all that grocery slumming.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Stocking a pantry isn't free."]

Reed doesn't offer her Newsweek readers economical shopping tips, or even any proof that she's managed to stick to her $50-a-week budget. Some of her menu suggestions are indeed budget-minded: lentil soup, pasta puttanesca, and braised pork shoulder. But her basic strategy smacks of the recent banking shenanigans that landed us in the Great Recession: fudging the numbers so that debt actually looks like profit.

Reed's secret budgetary weapon, it turns out, is to raid her well-stocked pantry and write off its contents as "free." Sure, some of her high-end foodstuffs were gifts (saffron from friends, cheese from her mother), but most she paid for herself: pasta purchased on trips to Italy, vinegars, oils, anchovies, capers, pickled figs, chutneys, and the like. None of these tasty items come cheap from the store. But hey, if you consider them to be free, then by all means do as Julia did and devote your $50-a-week budget to buying watercress, endive, and veal.

In my household, we don't wait until a tipsy bet to start rummaging through our pantry. We stock it, regularly. We pay for the lentils and rice and pasta we keep there. We also paid for the grass-fed beef (average cost: $3 a pound) we bought in bulk and stashed in our chest freezer, and we paid for the seeds we planted in our garden last year, and we paid for the canning jars and sugar and vinegar we used to preserve our surplus harvest of zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, and figs. 

We paid for our three chickens, and the supplies we needed to build their coop, and the organic feed we give them every day. Our hometown of Portland, Oregon, offers a nine-month series of classes in organic gardening for a few hundred bucks a pop, so my husband signed up last year. The city also gets a large wad of our hard-earned dinero every summer in exchange for providing us with water for our garden. And we just paid an arborist more than $400 to do some major pruning, so we'll have healthier trees and better fig harvests. If anyone wants to pay us for the many hours we spend digging, composting, transplanting, thinning, weeding, mulching, and the like, we're happy to entertain offers.

In the meantime, we've ditched the grocery store. Instead, we plan a week's worth of meals, then order groceries online from a local chain, New Seasons. The store charges 10 bucks for home delivery, but we spend less every week than if we were bopping around the store, snapping up impulse purchases of lemon curd and chocolate-cherry bread. Online, we can't help but watch the grocery tally tot up as we add items to our virtual cart — and we're always surprised how fast we reach that $100 mark. But that's our new rule for 2010: three digits, and we're done.

Actually, if we weren't such picky foodies, we might get closer to that $50-a-week goal. We could buy non-organic dairy products, for example. But we're not willing to knowingly drink milk laced with growth hormone and antibiotics. We save elsewhere — we eat a lot of red beans and rice, a dish that Reed, a proud Southerner and New Orleans resident, should be familiar with.

Frankly, if Reed weren't such a picky foodie herself, she might effect real change in the way America eats. Her column slamming turkey was actually an encomium to the less plump but better tasting heritage-breed turkeys — birds that would otherwise go extinct if we didn't eat them. Her column on eggs offered many good ideas for eating eggs — a cheap, delicious, complex source of good fats and proteins — for lunch and dinner. 

But the subversive call to arms gets buried under the extravagant self-indulgence. If Reed took the time to read the front of her own magazine — the one with cover headlines like '"Why — she might start to get the real message.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is Culinate's managing editor.

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