12.06.2010

How Many Stars Does Your Heart Attack Have?

I'll admit I watch more than my fair share of reality cooking shows. Why cooking, you ask? The more you cook at home, the better you eat and the healthier you are. The more you watch reality show cooking shows, the more you're motivated to cook at home.

It's true. It's called inspiration, and after that, it's called plagiarism (or theft) when you recreate the Barefoot Contessa's gratin recipe with no intention of ever buying her cookbooks. The more you cook at home, the more you save money on your food bill - that's not rocket surgery. Last time we went out, and it wasn't anywhere special, for two people it cost the same as two weeks' worth of CSA boxes.

Either I watch for motivation, or I watch because they aren't as loaded with crazies. You have to have some skill to get on and remain on a cooking show. And is it just me or are cooking shows less loaded with those narcissistic contestants who, when their self-indulgent behavior is called out, say, "I'm not here to make friends?"The more contestants say that, the more you're probably watching something on MTV.

The high-end professional chefs on these shows make a big deal out of using farm-sourced, fresh, organic, local ingredients. These are the contestants who work at fancy restaurants and have some mighty, superior attitude, particularly against other contestants who work in diners, cafes, or corporate law cafeterias. The pretensions fly down their noses, as if their food not only tastes better but is better in every other way, too.

I've got news for them. It's obvious news, so if you're smarter than me and figured this out already, good for you. Fine dining is no better for you than fast food. In fact, it might even be worse. Foie gras anyone? Ever watch those poncy chefs spoon the fat in their saucepan back onto the meat, over and over? It's as if they want their customers to get fat and die. They all seem to do it, the fancy ones. That and frying steak in inches of butter, to keep it moist, they say, and you know what moist means. It's as if they want the maximum possible density of artery-clogging death per serving. Meat prep is just the beginning.

Watch as the Iron Chefs drop big knobs of butter into their pans. Before Alton Brown even has a clue what they're preparing, there goes the big blob of butter. It's as if the more fat, the more their chances of winning.

Stare as Top Chef contestants shake cupfuls of oil around in their pans. The more oil, the more flavor, the fatter the judges get.

Cry as Hell's Kitchen contestants screw up another greasy pan full of scallops. "Too dry!" Gordon Ramsay will say if the little circles of death aren't oozing grease. It's worse than burgers at McDonald's, I suspect, but how would I know? Only McDonald's has labels.

Chefs don't care about you. You go out to eat because you want to eat something flavorful and pretty, and you aren't going to pay five times the price of a quarter-pounder if it doesn't taste five times as fancy.

Rich sauces make you salivate. Fat and salt tastes delicious. The more fat, the more you'll pay. I've known people who, when going out, purposefully close their mind to the fatty cooking methods. They know they're getting a plateful of indigestion and a heartful of grease, but discussing extra greasy calories isn't socially acceptable conversation topic when it costs so much. So they eat their 800 calorie, 62 fat grams' worth of Caesar salad and keep quiet, knowing they'd be better off at McDonald's.

Or home, which is where they would be, their spouses warned, if they brought up this (click for more proof) topic one more time.

12.02.2010

Dirt Cheap

fennel root
Once you get on a list somewhere, these cheapskaters are onto you. You click something sounding completely guiltless and pious, something you could use to save money, and within hours your inbox is stuffed with crap. You may be cheap, but they know a fanatic when they see one, and cheap people are nothing if not obsessed.

Some emails push positive suggestions such as raising chickens, rooftop gardening, beekeeping and many useless, time-consuming hobbies you could do badly for little financial gain, like making your own butter, or soap.

We made butter at Sunday school at my grandma's church and it still seems like a lesson I never got, a metaphor for resurrection I can't grasp years later. How's that a money-saving tip? Can't grasp that, either. You can get butter for less than two bucks at Safeway on sale and stock up, or better yet, pretend you're vegan like we're doing, use olive oil you already have, and save your heart and the two bucks both.

Soap is even cheaper. It's something you can also do without if you're like me and too lazy to buy more when it runs out. Instead, you can make a game of seeing how long you can do without. It's been three months so far, although my husband borrowed half a cupful of dish soap from the kids down the hall once.

Not to mention, if we made our own soap, we'd be poorer as well as smellier. Rather, we'd smell like soap ingredients gone bad because no matter what, the first time you do something, it never turns out right and there's a big mess at the end guaranteed: your prize for trying. You'd be wishing for real soap to clean up all the mess.

Other emails are full of no's, like, don't buy anything new, don't eat outside your home, ever, don't drive anywhere, don't spend on anything for a whole month at a time. Buy nothing, do nothing, go nowhere.

Being cheap is more like a game when you fill your list with positive suggestions, so I delete the no's.  When you once spent half your life scrimping and pinching to feed your kids the two meals a day they couldn't get free at school, you don't need another no. Say yes. Yes, we will be happy with what we have. We may not have soap but we have coffee, and with a lot of calorie-burning scrubbing, those coffee cups get clean enough, oh yes.

After your first cheapskate spreadsheet, you're hooked on the simple life. You figure out where you can be in a year, financially, if you only use three squares of toilet paper. Soon, you're telling everyone to wash out their garbage bags, or better yet, don't use garbage bags. Don't make garbage. You hear yourself bragging about not showering, saving (albeit incrementally) on your shampoo and utility bills. You even volunteer at a voluntary simplicity seminar and end up sitting next to the guy who wrote "Voluntary Simplicity." When a boring speaker won't shut up, he leans in, tosses you a twenty, and says, "Can you go get me a light beer?"

You think, the guy who wrote 'Voluntary Simplicity' is okay with paying almost double digits for a beer in a swanky bar? A light beer? You might be taking this voluntary simplicity thing to an extreme. Your rules don't allow you to bring money to seminars like this. You could be tempted to spend on overpriced beverages outside the home - a guaranteed route to wastefulness and unhappiness. Instead, you remain cheap, thirsty, and practically drool in Duane Elgin's beer when you put it down in front of him.

Loosening up - something we can do if Duane Elgin is allowed - meant signing up for a CSA. For $33, we get a big cardboard box full of mostly green things delivered to our doorstep every Thursday. When we lived in Oregon, only rich people could afford CSAs. In Oregon, only rich people could afford produce. (Okay, I'm exaggerating. Only rich people could afford organic produce.)

We have an idea of what's been picked and pulled up for the week: they send out a warning email so if you have allergies, you can ask for substitutions. In my case, there are never, ever any beets in that box. Just looking at them makes me beet-red and ready to heave.

Opening that box is like Christmas, and by Christmas I mean Christmas with cheap bastards if what you get for Christmas is green and grows in the ground. Okay, heh heh, it's like Christmas with my grandma who I dearly loved but her idea of a gift was sometimes the jeans I desperately wanted, the ones the popular girls wore but mom said were too expensive, or, sometimes, an old bath towel. When you're ten and squeezing the wrapped gifts when nobody's looking, hoping and imagining, those two items are unfortunately interchangeable.

During the summer, our green Christmas box was full of the tastiest strawberries you've ever had, popping-ripe, exploding blueberries, and bags and bags of crunchy, bright vegetables you could name and explain. Each item was enjoyable to prepare, knowing that someone living in our zip code picked or pulled it just for us. You don't let that kind of love get squishy and slimy in the bottom drawer of the fridge. Instead, you eat slowly, enjoying the taste of somebody else's manual labor and transportation through San Francisco traffic.

Not only do you and your husband have plenty to talk about at dinner now, and you can talk plenty about broccoli and its after-effects especially if you're open to less proper types of conversations, but you eat differently. You taste every bite, considering if the last time you ate broccoli, did it taste like this? Like a sip from the coldest creek water? Did it crunch this way, even though it's soft around the edges? Not being that great of a cook, I know I can't take the credit for all the flavor, although I do. You don't want to discourage positive comments, however misguided.

Then there are the old bath towels you sometimes get in your box, like kohlrabi, romanescu and fennel root. And here's where everything changes.

Instead of a surprise CSA box, you could have headed to the Farmer's market every weekend, spending hours shopping for home-grown produce, cooking up familiar recipes, buying only what you have discerningly hand-picked from bins of vegetables, vegetables that you don't have to read the sign to figure out what they are. How boring. How safe.

Isn't Romanescu in the Czech Republic? How'd they get broccoli to grow in a fractal pattern? What's fennel and why only the root? How do you pronounce kohlrabi? What kinds of cultures eat these things? Yours, once it's on your doorstep. You're a cheap bastard, after all. Food waste causes methane-type global warming and is the basis for more admonitions from mothers, and the basis for the originating of more eating disorders, than anything else in any other room.

You didn't pick these vegetables. Do you trust the CSA enough to give you the prettiest pears? Or did they give you the crushed, sat-upon lettuce? You aren't in control so you can't think that way anymore.  Free your mind.

You have to trust that someone eats kohlrabi or it wouldn't have been hand-placed next to a bag of persimmons. Although, to be honest, some of the more unusual items left on my doorstep have appeared in Chopped baskets. Chopped is the show where professional chefs compete at creating a dish incorporating the weirdest ingredients ever, like octopus, duck and animal crackers, or, chicken, blue tortillas, Tuscan kale and sea urchin. After Chopped, fennel root is child's play.

We never cooked squash and never ate it because, well, why would you? It looked like a lot of work and reminded me of the free food boxes in Montana where, in the winter, squash was the only thing you got that wasn't in a box labeled with a paragraph of ingredients.

Now we eat cute, little dumpling squash filled with brown rice, whole-wheat bread crumbs, leftover chopped grilled vegetables and browned in the oven. We mix leftover acorn squash into zucchini bread instead of butter or oil, and add delicata to soup of our own free will. This mystery box has saved us a ridiculous amount of money, forcing us to create meals from produce obscurity that taste better than I'm able to convince without you actually coming over for spaghetti squash pancakes with salsa and sour cream. Be positive - it's really good. Your mother would say so, too.