Home Economics

This post is prompted by an article by this guy, and a much more sensible post explaining why it is nonsense. I’m not going to recapitulate Aethelread the Unread’s perfectly cogent argument, since you can read it for yourself. However, here are some thoughts I had on the subject of eating and how to do it economically.

i. Planning meals in advance. I have to do this because of my bowel condition (see Busting a gut), and because I’m a pedant. I limit my consumption of sticky stuff (bread, pastry and cheese), and processed meat (bacon, salami and sausages) because they are difficult to digest and (in the case of processed meat) increase my already elevated risk of developing bowel cancer. This is also a strategy for keeping costs down, because otherwise one is trapped into the ridiculous position of buying, say, a lettuce[1] in order to use only a few leaves, while the rest of the damn thing slowly turns into a slimy morass in the ironically-named crisper.[2] Unless one becomes a painfully precise food-burglar, one has paid for the whole damned lettuce, and therefore should plan to eat the whole damned lettuce.

ii. Shopping as little and as quickly as possible. I hate shopping in supermarkets from the depths of my being. I begrudge every single minute I spend doing this. I hate supermarkets almost as much as I hate airports. One should not only factor in the cost to one’s purse and time, but to one’s soul.

iii. Transport. I don’t have a car. Doing lots of ‘little’ shops is time-consuming (people who are financially poor are also time-poor), esp. when you have to walk everywhere, and we’ve already established that I’m planning my meals in advance and hate shopping. So therefore doing one big shop makes a lot of sense. But hang on. I don’t have a car. Can I do a big weekly shop on foot? No chance: it’s too far to walk with heavy bags. Can I do a weekly big shop on the bus? Not easily, no, because of what I’m going to call the ‘shopping via the bus’ problem’.

iv. The shopping via the bus problem. Here is what taking the bus to the supermarket would entail: walk to bus stop; wait; take bus, which doesn’t go direct; get off; walk to supermarket; do shopping; walk back to bus stop carrying bags; wait some more; get back on bus; take circuitous route home; and then, finally, drag shopping through the streets, secure in the knowledge that i. by now, it is the middle of the night and ii. you get to do it all again in a week. I would probably be able to manage the walk from the bus stop to my house while carrying many heavy bags, because the bus stop is right outside my house, and I’m thirty-three years old and in relatively good health, but someone with a small child would have no free hand with which to grasp said child; someone in ill-health, or who was elderly (or weak from hunger) certainly couldn’t manage either the walk or the burden, or might find themselves tempted to buy things on the basis of whether they can carry, say, a bag of potatoes *and* a carton of fruit juice, rather than on what they can afford and/or want to eat.

v. Comparison shopping. This is the biggest waste of time. Have you seen the smug Asda women crowded round their laptop tapping every single price in to see if they have saved themselves four pence by buying a packet of scourers at Asda? Fuck off, smug Asda women. Who has the time for this nonsense? As we have already established, for someone who doesn’t have a car, the fact that the supermarket in the next town is slightly cheaper is information that they can’t do *anything* with, unless they are prepared to do their shopping via an even more inconvenient bus (see iv).

vi. Comparison shopping again. Comparison shopping does not always produce the results you think it might. I once did two identical shops at Waitrose (my closest supermarket at the time i.e. I could walk to it) and Tesco (which was the second-closest, and required a ten-mile round trip to the next town). I bought the same brands in both supermarkets, and whenever I would buy Waitrose’s own brand stuff, I bought Tesco’s own brand. The Tesco shop was £1.50 cheaper. Once I factored in the petrol and my time, it was considerably more economical to shop at Waitrose. I had a car at the time, so the ten-mile drive to Tesco was door-to-door and relatively quick. If I had taken the bus, however, it would have taken over ninety minutes (i.e. an entire evening) *and* cost more than the £1.50 I supposed to be saving.

Here’s where I’m going with this: I don’t think people should aspire to eat cheaply. Food is the only thing you buy that becomes part of you. I have learnt the hard way that it is incredibly important what you put into your body. Don’t fill it with cheap shit: this will not save you money or time in the long run, but will instead make you ill, fat and/or malnourished, and miserable. Think how wonderful food is, and how much pleasure it gives us – way out of all proportion to the purely biological function of sustaining us for a few hours. It matters whether you enjoyed your breakfast today.[3] It matters whether you are looking forward to your dinner.[4] It also matters where food comes from, what’s in it, who grew it/made it/harvested it, and how, and where. Instead of aspiring to eat cheaply, therefore, I think people should aspire to eat economically.

Cheap food is variable in quality and morality (it’s cheap for a reason e.g. it’s made of shoes). It may not have cost you very much, but it cost somebody somewhere. Moreover, eating economically is much more about what you cook and how little you waste than it is about what you bought in the first place. A chicken, for example, is an incredibly economical thing to buy, even if you buy a super-duper organic Happy Chicken, for, I don’t know, £15. You get a roast lunch out of it; then you get a pasta sauce out of the giblets; then you get a curry or enchiladas or sandwiches out of the leftover meat (probably with enough leftovers to have this again the next day, too); and then you get two pints of chicken stock out of the bones, which you can use to make a risotto or soup (contrast that with a pair of chicken breasts, which will make one rather uninteresting meal). I can make a chicken feed two people five times. If it can do that, it damn well ought to cost £15.

If I were ever to write a cookery book, it would be called Leftovers Are Fucking Brilliant and it would consist entirely of recipes called things like ‘Three Things You Can Make Using The Leftovers Of The Thing On The Previous Page. You Know, The Thing With The Beans’. The aim would be to throw absolutely nothing away and each chapter would be about how not to waste stuff (e.g. ‘Things You Can Do With Leftover Yoghurt #95: eat the Goddamn yoghurt’) and how to compost or grow more food out of what little you couldn’t eat.[5] The focus would be on planning to cook sensible, economical things and then buying stuff accordingly; not going to the supermarket, buying whatever was cheap and then throwing half of it away because a packet of hundreds-and-thousands, a tin of kidney beans, a questionable turnip, some elderly plums and a bottle of washing up liquid doesn’t actually constitute a meal, and anyway you had no idea what to do with the questionable turnips that were left over, and, oh dear, you bought eight of them because it was cheaper per turnip to buy eight even though you only wanted one and now where you could have had one questionable turnip that could have been disguised in some soup you have seven that definitely can’t be used for anything and will have gone funny by the end of the day.

Eating economically, for me, consists of doing the following things:

  1. Not throwing anything away. Vegetables that look sad and old? Soup. Unidentified lentils? Soak them just in case and put them in soup or curry. One slice of bacon left? Omelette. Two small hard pieces of bread? Toast, but also, why did you buy such a big loaf, moron?[6] Glut of tomatoes? You could make pasta sauce or chutney, but really, the point is that if you are throwing stuff away because it went funny before you got round to eating it, the problem isn’t just what you’re cooking: it’s the quantities that you are buying.[7]
  2. Growing stuff that’s really expensive. Chillies are really expensive, but easy to grow and taste much better fresh. Ditto herbs of almost all varieties.
  3. Making stuff from scratch. Some things are not worth the effort (consensus reached between myself and my friend KM: pasta, croissants, gnocchi and brioche are Not Worth It). Ice-cream, however, is dead easy, esp. if you have an ice-cream maker to do the annoying churny bit for you; as is custard; as are scotch eggs, pancakes, porridge[8], and pretty much everything else I like cooking.
  4. Planning food based on what I have already that needs eating. This week’s menu, for example, is based around the fact that I have three eggs (eggs and temporary housemate KW’s leftover ham tomorrow night, with toast and fried potatoes); leftover chicken noodle soup (dinner tonight); some bread (toast for breakfast tomorrow); two pathetic turnips (more soup); and some asparagus, which I don’t like (I’ll be feeding this to KW and Giant Bear for dinner on Friday, which means I don’t have to eat any of it but it still doesn’t go to waste).
  5. Using the hob rather than the oven. The oven is more expensive than the hob, so if I use the oven it has at least two things in it. I also cook things that can be hob- or oven-based on the hob (e.g. my amazing white chocolate rice pudding [9]).
  6. Making meals out of other meals. Leftovers are fucking brilliant.

——————————————————————————————

[1] I never buy lettuce. I hate lettuce. It tastes of nothing and takes up space in a sandwich where there could be more of the stuff that goes in the sandwich that you actually wanted. Plus, it’s not good in soup and is therefore Not Food. It’s only a good example if you imagine someone other than me buying and eating it.

[2] I’m looking at you, Milligan. You bought the whole damn lettuce, didn’t you? Then eat the whole damn lettuce, you cretin, and include the cost of the whole damn lettuce in your patronising calculations. Buying four tons of lentils might be the cheapest way to buy lentils per lentil, but you still need to have enough money to make the initial outlay. And a kitchen large enough to store your lifetime supply of lentils. And some idea of how to soak and cook lentils. And some way of preserving the lentils so that they don’t go funny before you’ve eaten them. And some other stuff to eat with the lentils so that a. you don’t get malnutrition and b. the lentils taste of something. And you have to really, really like lentils, and hope that everyone in your house really, really likes lentils, because you just bought a metric fuckton of lentils, and people who are *actually* worried about the amount of money they spend on food don’t just buy four hundred eggs and exclaim over how cheap this was and why don’t people on benefits do this more. They buy what they can afford, and they eat all of it.

[3] I did. I had toast, with homemade greengage and blackberry jam. It was delicious.

[4] I am. I’m having homemade chicken, courgette and noodle soup. I made it yesterday, so I don’t even have to chop stuff up. Om nom nom.

[5] Things You Can Do With Leftover Yoghurt #96: half a tub of yoghurt you aren’t quite sure about and a handful of dubious carrots can be made into yummy soda bread by simply adding lemon juice, thyme, bicarbonate of soda and flour. Plus it doesn’t require any kneading or proving. It’s essentially bread without the making bread bit.

[6] The point is don’t buy more than you need, even if buying more than you need costs less than buying exactly how much you want. If you wanted two pairs of socks and two pairs of socks cost £4, but six pairs of socks cost £8, you should buy two pairs at £4. If you buy six pairs for £8, what you’ve done is to buy two pairs of socks for £4, and then another four pairs that you didn’t need for another £4 that you didn’t need to spend (plus, the £8 socks are probably cheaper per sock because they’re made from dental floss). If you think £4 is a fair price for two pairs of socks, just pay it, take the socks home, wear them and feel good about it. Even if six pairs cost £3, buying three times the amount you need only makes financial sense if you can think of something to do with the four extra pairs of socks that you now unaccountably own and *knew* you didn’t need before you even left the house. This is why the natural resources of the world are exhausted: uncontrolled consumption of stuff you don’t need, didn’t want and yet felt you had to buy for reasons you can’t explain.

[7] It breaks my heart to throw food away, even when it has gone well and truly funny. The high sausages described in Notes from Nonesuch made me unhappy on many levels.

[8] Scottish food = awesome.

[9] You may want my white chocolate rice pudding recipe, but it’s better for everyone, and your waistline in particular, if you don’t have it.

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3 thoughts on “Home Economics

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