Top | First Person

Dining in

(article, Marisa Robertson-Textor)

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I needed to save money. Taken separately, a minor medical emergency, high-season airfare, and that beautiful new '"Mad couch wouldn’t have been a problem. Together, they signaled the yellow alert to looming credit-card debt. 

Cutting back on the big stuff was easy, but it wasn’t enough. The true financial devil lurked elsewhere, in the details of everyday life. A quick look at my bank statement revealed where my money was really going: on food. 

A meal for two at a mediocre French bistro on the Upper East Side: $99.99. A "local, seasonal" dinner of mostly ramps and dandelion greens at a neighborhood restaurant: $57.15. A Roquefort burger and two glasses of red at my favorite gastropub: $30.20. And did I really spend $29 on a Key lime pie for a friend’s dinner party?

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="A homemade cheese, avocado, and chickpea sandwich can be more satisfying than a fancy dinner out."]


Regardless of whether these meals were worth it — whether I would look back in a year and remember them fondly — the calculus was clear. In order to save money, to really save money, I would have to dine in. 

No pain au chocolat with cappuccino ($5) from the little patisserie around the corner because I was too lazy to make my own breakfast. No lamb pita from my favorite lunch cart ($6.50). No quick sandwich in the park ($7.95). 

And, most particularly, no dinners out. None. Period. 


For many New Yorkers, this game plan might have felt like a death sentence. (That crack about Manhattanites only using their ovens for shoe storage? Based on fact, not urban myth.) For me, it felt more like solitary confinement. 

The problem wasn't the cooking itself. After all, I certainly wasn’t afraid of running out of ideas. Before my day job disappeared when Gourmet magazine folded in October 2009, I’d spent five years fact-checking thousands of recipes. That’s enough to add a subjunctive dimension to anyone’s culinary thinking: In addition to pondering what you actually will make for dinner tonight, a parallel track within your mind obsesses over what you would make for dinner, if you had world enough and time. 

Would you be better off, for example, making that corn on the cob with feta and mint, or taking the recipe's basic ingredients and running in another direction — say, shaving the kernels off the cob and toasting them briefly, adding an heirloom tomato and a splash of olive oil to the feta and mint, and calling the whole thing a salad? 
 


No, the cooking would be a breeze. It was the side effects — the social and psychological implications — that worried me. By the time I’d shopped for groceries, prepared dinner, and done the washing-up, would I really have the energy to attend that friend of a friend’s late-night dance performance? What about when the gang suggested meeting straight after work for dinner at one of my favorite restaurants? How would I feel heading home to a lonely plate of leftovers instead? 

I had a life to lead, after all, and I wanted it to be a colorful, variable life. No extrovert can stand the thought of being a shut-in. 


So it was with some trepidation that I began the Grand Experiment. But within a few days, I had found a rhythm — and I realized that I was enjoying myself. Brewing my own coffee exactly the way I like it, then sitting dreamily over breakfast until I’d actually woken up, was much nicer than downing a quick cup en route to the subway. After a dinner of pasta milanese, it was a matter of minutes to sauté a few handfuls of spinach, pour the remaining sauce over the greens, scatter spiced breadcrumbs on top, and pack the dish into a container for tomorrow’s lunch. 

I had been certain that the regularity of eating leftovers would feel like attending the same boring college lecture course week in and week out, or having the same lover’s quarrel over and over again: gray, frustrating, inevitable. Instead, the opposite was true, as each new iteration was another opportunity to play, another riff on the same theme. 

“What about throwing a few mushrooms into that creamed spinach, and maybe serving it with a poached egg?” I’d find myself thinking. “And that chickpea-and-avocado sandwich was divine, but next time I’m adding aged Gouda.”


Other things began shifting, too. I shaved an hour off my average night’s sleep without even noticing it. I floated about feeling centered and streamlined, like I’d been doing yoga — a particularly welcome side effect given that, at $17 a pop, yoga, too, was now verboten. And I felt quietly happy on the most microscopic of micro-levels, as if some part of me, invisible to the naked eye and therefore long neglected, had finally gotten what it needed. 

Despite the occasional misfire — scarfing down a cold sandwich in the office foyer because it was too rainy to sit in the park and I didn’t have enough time to make it home before attending a friend’s concert — I felt centered and content. And I felt — there’s no other word for it — nourished. 

Within just a few days, something amazing had happened: I no longer wanted to eat out. I would dash home for dinner — not just because I knew it was the smart financial choice, not just because I’d taken the vow, but because I wanted to — before meeting friends at a nearby restaurant to hang out while they dined. 

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On one of those evenings, a friend offered me a forkful of her buttermilk fried chicken (buttermilk fried chicken!), and I could barely bring myself to try it. Another time, knowing I was trying to save money but not realizing my dirty little secret — that I didn’t actually want to eat out anymore — my friends treated to me to a weekend lunch at a restaurant I’d been dying to visit for months. I stared at the menu as if it were written in a foreign language I’d once spoken fluently but could now barely decipher (French fries with curry mayonnaise? C’est quoi ça?). Finally, I ordered the most recognizable-to-a-home-cook dish on the menu — a beet salad — and proceeded to pick away at it listlessly. With the first bite, I decided it tasted bland, over-cooked and under-seasoned. But another bite later, I realized it was, in fact, a perfectly decent beet salad. The problem was, it just didn’t taste like — well, like me.

And then it hit me. It wasn’t simply the food — the end product — that mattered. By submitting myself to the ritual of preparing each meal, I’d become my own caretaker, the kind who lets you play in the mud and fingerpaint the walls, but also makes sure you bracket all that play time with a nice long nap. The kind who makes sure that your life is balanced. And I didn’t want the balance to go away. The credit-card bill was soon paid off in full, but the grand experiment was just beginning.  
 


p(bio). The former research chief at Gourmet magazine, Marisa Robertson-Textor is now a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. 


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