6.21.2009

Eating Down the Fridge

Kim O'Donnel of the Washington Post invited me to blog about Eating Down the Fridge. Here's my entry:

Asking me to abstain from food shopping is like asking an anorexic to please cut back on the eating for a while. It’s not the shopping that keeps me from Safeway, although buying in bulk can seem like a part time job, but it’s that whole paying for it at the end that I despise. I’m cheap, no question. I was cheap before I had four kids and I’m cheap now when they’re all grown up and moved out. Not frugal, as frugal sounds respectable. Cheap.

Feeding four kids can wipe out even the most careful of penny-pinchers, but when mine were the hungriest, we were the poorest. Our food budget was $230 a month and food shopping was a game I couldn’t win. Going down the aisles with a running total in my head was like playing some evil video game. I couldn’t get to the finish with all my required items crossed off my list. Something I needed, something frivolous like soap, stayed behind. Even now I’ll go three weeks without stepping into a grocery store, just to avoid all that total-tallying mental math.

You learn a few things through a crisis like this, or at least I did. I got pretty good at finding the bottom of those 50# bags of Costco flour. I got so good that I started baking for catering companies and small downtown cafes, making not just cookies but poppy seed cakes and mashed potato cinnamon buns. I made more practical things at home, like Dutch pancakes and crepes for dinner.

My grown-up daughter called last week, asking me for those recipes. She has good food memories from the years when I wanted my kids to sleep late on the weekends, just so I could get away with feeding them two meals. Two meals are cheaper than three.

“What was in those crepes, anyway?” she asks. “I can never make them the way you do.”

Do I tell her my secret? My beautiful crepes were filled with leftovers, things she and her brothers refused to eat, chopped up fine. Wrap it up in a crepe, garnish with a little something pretty, and present it as if it’s New York sirloin. They fought over dinner those nights, eating what otherwise would have gone to waste. Attitude is everything.

Things are easier now, or they would be if my husband and I weren’t living a state apart. I moved to help with my dad’s business while my husband stayed behind, for now, in a job he loves.

Living alone isn’t heaven but I can eat popcorn and beaautiful salad for dinner if I choose and nobody knows. I can eat the same thing every day for a week and it’s my secret, until now.

Every few days I bake a new combination of carrot/zucchini/pumpkin/apple/banana muffins out of nasty produce only a baker would love. Sometimes the combinations are so good I write them down to recreate in the future. I learn best by trial and error and I learned I love my free time. If I can spend three weeks without shopping for food, eating an inordinate amount of carrot/banana/pumpkin muffins, I can spend that extra time at street fairs and free concerts within walking distance of my new home. So what if I run out of milk for my coffee and I’m forced to use Reddy Whip? I’ll enjoy the excuse.

It’s my husband I’m worried about. We sold our home near his office so he’s sleeping in a friend’s basement and eating at work. I don’t mean buying meals and bringing them to work, I mean he’s got a pantry in his desk. Open a drawer and you might find his stash of 10 for $10 tuna cans. Look in the common area mini-fridge and you’ll see his soy milk and pears. Even if there were a stove available, I don’t think it would help.

One time my daughter was sick and wanted mashed potatoes. We were, as usual, in the middle of a remodel. “I’ll do it,” he said. “How hard can it be?” He looked at me doing the painting and looked at the box of instant mashed potatoes in the pantry and decided potatoes would be easier.

He picked up the box and started cooking in our countertop-free kitchen.

“Do you need any help?” I said. I was down the hall, up a ladder.

“I’m good.”

“Can you find the measuring cups?”

“I’m good.”

He brought the finished product up to my sick teenage daughter’s room. “What the hell is this?” she said. She’s not usually picky. I climbed down the ladder to look at the outcome. It turned out to be a serving bowl filled with golden brown soup.

“How much butter did you use?” I asked.

“A cube,” he said. “The package said butter so I used butter. I didn’t think about quantities.”

Now he calls me long-distance from the grocery store when he’s ready for a meal and he’s staring at an empty mini-fridge.

“What do I want?” he says.

“How about a sandwich?”

“Good idea,” he says. “Um, do you think I can do that? I might do it wrong.”

“I’ll walk you through. You’re probably standing in the produce aisle so tell me when you get to the end and turn the corner. Are you in the bread aisle yet?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Pick out something that looks familiar.”

“What about these hamburger buns?” he says. “Everything tastes better on a bun. They’re on sale, too.”

This is a guy whose idea of meal planning is standing at the refrigerator with the door open. I’ve come home late and caught him sitting down to a dinner of cheese and olives, washed down with a beer.

I’ve trained him well. He’s eating down his fridge, but only because he’s even more afraid of shopping than I am.

“Everything I eat is cold: cold cereal, cold sandwiches, cold fruit,” he says. “I told my boss it was time to invite me over for dinner again, just so I could get a hot meal. My boss said, ‘Would you mind a repeat of the same dinner? It’s too late for my wife to go shopping.’”

“That’s great,” my husband told his boss. “Got any war movies?”

Now he’s working on eating down his boss’s fridge.


I’m a former features writer and editor, two-time award-winning screenwriter, currently writing my second unpublished non-fiction book. I’m on my tenth home remodel, all of which I’ve gutted and fixed up while living in them, almost all while living with kids. When you’re in charge of the remodel you have no one to blame so you improvise. You learn to cook eggs in a coffee pot and you learn to eat those eggs on the chop saw that doubles as a dining table. Cooking without plumbing is only a hardship if you don’t like doing dishes in the bathtub. You learn to appreciate what you have.