Monday, January 26, 2009

stimulating the food economy

Here in this little bubble of food blog world we can avert our eyes and not mention the economy. When I switched my energy from ranting about politics and other such stuff, to spending more time writing about the joys of eating I was amazed at the way the site meter sprung into life. Escapism will always be more popular than reality!

In its own sweet way food has often been a distraction and provided comfort when times are tough. While the harsh winds of financial misfortune blow outside we can always talk about cooking. I am wondering if over the next year or two the type of posts in this corner of the blog world will change. Will there be fewer reviews of lush restaurants, imported ingredients and luxury culinary items? Will “recession food” have a come back? If so let’s hope it goes beyond the unimaginative mac n cheese (which I call “flour and snot” because lets face it, that is all it is). My hope is that more people are motivated to learn to cook, especially those who are brave enough to venture beyond processed foods.

I am reading Rebecca Huntley’s “Eating Between the Lines”* at the moment, still ploughing through the early chapters but disheartingly she keeps pointing out that nutritionally poor choices do cost a lot less than cooking from scratch. An example of cooking a family of four lean lamb rump, pumpkin and broccolini was priced at around (AU)$20 while sausages, fries and baked bean could feed the same people for $8. The first choice unfortunately may stay in the domain of the middle classes, though the size and frequency of the roast may diminish.

While we blindly make a stab at feeling better about the money we choose to spend on food, I’ve made some observations about my own journey thus far. Much of it to do with my false economising.

1. A kitchen garden sounds like a good idea but sometimes it is an expensive folly

After spending $200 on invigorating the young soil in the garden bed this year, we do have a bumper crop of tomatoes, eggplants and chillies on the way. But doing the maths of the cost of all the manure and organic fertilizers we have used, the price of seedlings and the odd plants that have died along the way (5 out of 6 strawberries, the lettuces that went to seed uneaten while we were on holiday, the odd plants the cats slept on/dug up/obliterated with their toileting practices) I know that each tomato may as well be wrapped in gold leaf.

While the 50 years old grape vine has survived many droughts and provides food free of charge, the new garden is costly. I am aware it is false economy so I love it for the vista of calming green it provides, shade for the animals on hot days, the photosynthesis it performs but I don’t kid myself it’s a money saver.

Though we have a worm farm, in the early days of starting a new bed from scratch it could not provide enough goodness to kick start the health of the soil on its own. A larger garden with space to run a couple of compost bins, rotate crops, keep some chooks for manure would be a better deal. A home rigged pipe in a barrel for run off water from the roof, sunny window sills for raising seeds and more neighbours growing food to swap our bounty would make it more cost effective.

2. Buy less, not more

Supersized food purchases work best if you have a large household and keep a keen eye on your pantry for foodstuff that is nearing its use by date.

To really save money on fresh food (a large chunk of our food budget, especially as it is organic) do some menu planning and buy only what you will get through. There is so much food wasted in this country. You can save a bundle by buying more realistic amounts of fresh food and being a bit clever with leftovers. It breaks my heart to throw lovely salad leaves into the worm farm because I didn’t prioritise using them early in the shopping week only to find them a slimy mess in the fridge when I next unpack the market produce.

And while talking of overdoing it, unless you are religious at using up the leftovers try to only cook the amount that people will eat in one sitting. In this household leftovers tend to languish in plastic containers in the fridge and end up being thrown out untouched at the end of the week.

Australians waste 3 million tonnes/$5 million worth of food every year

3. Buy in season

Ok I can be a little obsessive about this one but it is so bleeding obvious, food in season (when it is unaffected by storms, droughts and other vagaries of the weather) is the cheapest way to eat fresh produce. You need to keep adapting your favourite recipes to use what is available. Even if this does mean sometimes you have to change your meal plan, while out buying the ingredients.

As an aside, sadly I’ve had very few cherries this summer, something to do with that rain dump mid December doing nasty things to the Victorian crop and they’ve been really expensive this year.

4. Work out what you really value

I make the bourgeois, non-budget choice of favouring organic produce. It’s one of my health oriented peculiarities. It does mean sometimes that I go without (see cherries above) when prices are ridiculous. This last couple of years the cost of organic fruit in particular has skyrocketed. The SE eats lots of fruit and swears he can’t taste the difference so I now get extra conventional produce.

I don’t eat meat or dairy, one of the most costly (to the wallet and the environment) food choices. For me organics balances this out a bit. I tend to buy whole fish, which is cheaper than fillets. The bones can be made into stock and all the extra little bits of flesh (like in the cheeks) tend to get fed to the cats to bolster their wellbeing.

If I did eat meat I would probably choose organic, locally farmed produce to eat in very small amounts, infrequently. The serving size for animal protein is just the size of the palm of the hand. Not the fingers and rest of the arm as well. Most Aussies tend to fill half the plate with the stuff. While meat on the bone is said to be the tastiest, old fashioned cheap cuts like shanks have become yuppie fodder and the price has risen accordingly. Preserved meats, like ham, are not only false economy (look at the price per kilo) but also high in cancer causing nitrosamines, as well as fats and salt. Go for the good stuff that hasn’t been adulterated.

5. Eat local

Not just in buying food that hasn’t travelled half way around the world or from the other end of this vast continent but when you eat out, go local.

We eat out a lot less than the earlier days of our relationship, before the SE was a student/struggling artist. A couple of years ago the chef at our local Thai made a pointed comment about our lack of patronage, thinking we’d fallen in love with another eatery. It was hard to convince her that we loved her food and ate there as much as we did anywhere else these days. But it brings home the fact that if you patronise family run/local businesses your dinning habits can have an impact. One meal at a top name restaurant can buy me 3-5 at my favourite neighbourhood places. In tough times, who do I want to keep in business?

I know some people will disagree with me on this one but I have decided to forgo Attica, Vue and our other top spots in favour of keeping my neighbours in business. I love being part of a community. There is the woman in the noodle shop (for that rare time I get a take away) who shares stories of what she cooks for her family and will grab morsels from out the back for me to try while her husband woks up my order in a flash. The flamboyant owner of the Malaysian eatery who’ll give me a kiss, greet us by name and round down the bill each time. Our favourite waitress at the pub who also dispenses a kiss or a hug and lets you know if the specials really are special or not.

But for me the real key to reducing the cost of eating out is drinking less. The alcohol portion of the bill can easily exceed the food. But then again I am not a huge drinker and there is rather a lot of duty-free grog at home.

6. Don’t be seduced by gadgets

A good knife and a stone to sharpen it is one of my best investments. Learn some knife skills. Keep your knife in a block so it won’t dull as fast. Get someone to show you how to use a wet stone (or similar) to keep it sharp.

A heavy bottom fry pan and pot will last a lifetime if you care for them well. The cheap thin ones will just burn your food and discourage you from cooking.

Don’t go all Jamie Olive and buy the chipped cutesy crockery and serving bowls from Op Shops. Ceramics with cracks and breaks in the glaze harbour bacteria, especially casserole dishes and servers that sit or store meat and dishes with a lot of liquid. The cute unchipped ones are fine!

I still haven’t bought a tagine; I suspect the Middle Eastern dishes I cook in my trusty old cast iron pot does a fine imitation.

7. Do I really need that new cookbook?

This may be sacrilege to suggest on a food blog but I now buy very few cookbooks. When looking for new recipes I tend to google the ingredients than poor over the pages. If I really am seduced by the latest food title I have to sit and study it for a good half hour in the shop and be honest about its usefulness.

I use the library, even for new titles (yes Ed, the local library has cook books!). If I find I keep going back to the same volume then I might end up purchasing it. My library also stocks a great range of magazines (such Gourmet Traveller and Vogue Entertaining), where the new editions are kept pristine in plastic covers and comfy chairs are provided in the wonderfully air-conditioned environment so you can read (and photocopy) away to your heart’s content.

8. How much money are you drinking away?

The coffee rant about take away containers seemed to strike a chord, at least with a lot of Australians but the cost of recreational drinking really adds up. I prefer to drink coffee at home, thanks the espresso machine and my love of Columbian beans. I don’t fill in time or seek distractions by drinking coffee in a café and as I ranted – nor do I grab one to go. I drink coffee, in or out, only when I really feel like having one.

Same with alcohol. I’d prefer to sit on one or two glasses of a good local wine than guzzle a bottle.

But I know I might be alone on that suggestion!

And do people really need a bucket of popcorn and a gallon of coke when they go to the movies? Eat before leaving home and save yourself the money.

9. Do a pantry and fridge audit a couple of times a year

The fridge and pantry challenges have been a great way to rediscover and use up forgotten ingredients. Apart from the fact that the stuff goes off (especially flours and other refined grains that you mistakingly think will last for ever), looses it flavour (buy smaller quantities of herbs and spices) or the beans that could outlast a nuclear holocaust get tougher and take longer to cook - some of use have half of our annual income squirreled away in our kitchen, going to waste.

Are you economising in the kitchen? What is working for you?

* Rebecca Huntley “Eating Between the Lines: Food & Equality in Australia”. (Black Inc., 2008). In this case available free of charge on loan from Yarra Libraries

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Anonymous Lucy said...

I'm painfully - painfully - aware that most of our 'spare' money gets spent on food. But then, we rarely eat out, work from home and have two teenage buys who eat us out of house and home each week if we do not spend that extra dosh.

I once read that we spend 20 percent less money now than we did (collectively) in the 80's on food, so maybe we all just have to rethink what matters and what does not. I'd rather eat well at home and 'go without' than eat crap, feel crap and have a massive TV and cool new phone...

The false economy of the garden...yes, but the joy of tending it AND sitting amongst it is what matters. Can't quite put a cost on that. Over time, if you can save seeds, too, it'll pay you back. Those kitties love it, and I've a photo to prove it!

Sorry. Babbling. Overwhelmed by all the economy crap right now which is filling my home with woes I thought we might just be able to avoid...

1:03 pm  
Blogger siskelkk said...

Really interesting post.

I totally agree that basking in the greeny goodness of homegrown veggie gardens is definitely rewarding! If that alone doesn't completely mitigate the costs involved, then surely the divine taste of the produce does (particularly the heirloom tomatoes)

1:19 pm  
Blogger stickyfingers said...

Fantastic post! I wholeheartedly embrace all your points. Hence the SOLE Mama project with the Purple Goddess - which unfortunately has waned recently since Mr Stickyfinger's redundancy and my longer work hours.

Another point a lot of people miss going doing this particular path is that home grown, farmer direct, heritage and rare breed produce is significantly more filling. That's because it's more robust, fibrous and not having been put in cold storage for long periods before consumption - or purchase - has not broken down as much, allowing us to enjoy more flavour and be sated after eating less.

As for the garden, you have made an investment in the future with it. Now your soil is established you need only maintain it. Saving seeds from this years crop and germinating them will mean less spent on plants in the future.

3:05 pm  
Blogger KittyMeow said...

THANK YOU for this post! You couldn't have written it at a better time.

Me and my partner are moving in together shortly and our biggest concern is trying to reduce our grocery budget. Its all too easy to get take-away and cooking for two with few leftovers can be difficult!

We plan to shop at the markets and cut down on meat. Its SO expensive and I refuse to buy the stuff that isn't grown ethically.

And do persist with the garden :-) You can't get any more locally grown than that - NO food miles! I think society overall needs to try to return the way of life pre-WW2 - if we couldn't grow it ourselves, we didn't eat much of it! Everything came from close by and people were so much more self sufficient.

3:11 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

I'm not giving up on the garden :)

I'm just appreciating it gives me things other than just food - and I value that.

A bit like that awful credit card ad - "picking the first eggplant from your garden and cooking it on the BBQ - priceless!" :)

3:20 pm  
Blogger docwitch said...

This is a fabulous post!

I'm with you on the garden front. An added bonus for me is seeing my daughter taking great delight in the entire gardening process, and relishing eating the vegies she's grown and so proudly harvested (so much more than bought ones).

I find meal plans make a huge difference to our household. And now that I'm returning to full-time study and effectively halving our family's income, I'm going to get stricter and uber-frugal again with a whole lot of things such as you've outlined here.

But, as far as recession eating is concerned, one thing I will not do is dripping sandwiches a la my grandmother during the Great Depression. Gah.

5:06 pm  
Anonymous Dani said...

Good post!
There's plenty of food bloggers around who have been cooking frugally even in the boom times. Plenty of good frugal ideas out there beyond mac and cheese. While I agree that eating rubbish is cheap, there are plenty of ways to eat just as cheaply with good food.
I am selective about what I buy organically, some things are more tainted than others. I take advantage of organically grown but not certified food local food. Knowing what stores well is crucial to buying in bulk and rotating supplies. The main thing that allows me to feed my family as frugally as I do is having a separate freezer. The of course there is doing all your own baking, getting the garden to a point where it more than pays for itself, having a cooking day when necessary to bottle fresh, cheap produce and to make bulk meals for when you are time poor. Time is the enemy and free time needs to be sacrificed to achieve all this, particularly for full time workers but it is achievable.

Will stop ranting and babbling. I could bang on about this all day.

9:53 am  
Blogger George Erdosh said...

These are excellent ideas and I heartily subscribe to all. I live in a small (non-agricultural)community and eating locally grown food is virtually impossible. I do visit the farmers' market and support it as much as possible but even in the height of the summer season the produce is mediocre with poor selection, yet the prices are high.

Yet I run the greenest, smallest carbon-footprint kitchen in the county. I do whatever I can...

Check out my latest (Nov/08). It’s already getting great reviews:

Tried and True Recipes from a Caterer’s Kitchen—Secrets of Making Great Foods

On Amazon, etc.

11:11 am  
Blogger a vegan about town said...

This is a great post!

I do love my tiny little garden, mostly because I now no longer have to do battle at Woolies after work to buy a dingy, horrible old bunch of basil.

I (sadly) have to agree with the cookbook thing, too - as much as I want to support cookbook authors, especially vegan ones, it's so much easier to use the internet.

4:54 pm  
Blogger Matthew Wintergarden said...

I have spent far too much time trying to explain the merits of heavy, non-chipped cookware to friends and family. Most common response - "quit worrying about that crap!"

Also, Ms. Food Nazi, my wife and I are planning a trip to Melbourne, Perth and Sydney, and we are wondering what restaurant recommendations you could offer. As much as we love the travel guides, I find that they leave out a massive number of kick-ass locales. Are there any places that we should avoid?

Fave cuisines: Italian, Thai, steak, and breakfasts.


2:55 am  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

HI - Matthew, well...if you'd read this blog before you might have noticed I'm not the best person in town to ask where you can get a good steak :)

As for Thai - book a table at Cookie (Swanston St in the City, just type it into my blog's search engine). Food is great, reasonably priced plus the whole Cookie experience is not to be missed. The bars in the building are all fabulous if you are a drinker.

Breakfast depends on where you are staying as most areas have their best picks. The breakfast blog though now Jamie is living in Boston, still has a good breakdown of Melbourne's best (as well as other Australian cities).

8:43 am  
Blogger Ran said...

i love your post! and agree with it all pretty much

if you feel like you have overinvested in your garden - i have put in a 15000L water tank and hooked up a drip irrigation system with a pump, we have put in an electric fence to ward off the possums. i think we have spent maybe 4K at least on ours!!!

but at the same time, the food bill really has gone down lately. i find now i barely buy veg just fruit, and i just pick as i need from the garden. there is a lot less wasteage this way, as before i would go mad at the markets/ grocer and buy way too many vegetables for the week (we do eat a lot though)

a smaller garden would not have cost as much time and moeny but i love ti and the food really is amazing. i dream about our sweet corn, it is so amazing

12:19 pm  
Blogger Matthew Wintergarden said...

Thanks for the tips, ACF!

While it may sound silly, I often find that vegetarians and vegans can be the best sources for advice on meat dishes, especially steak. I can't quite figure out why.

One of the biggest quandaries of a down economy is choosing between saving money by cooking at home, knowing that your favorite neighborhood cafe might go under. How does a restaurant make it through the tough times?

Are there a lot of diners going out of business in Australia?

3:05 am  
Blogger a vegan about town said...

Matthew, when you're in Perth I recommend Source Foods, they don't do steak but I understand their meaty burgers are pretty good. They also do great breakfasts.

11:20 am  
Anonymous said...

Yes, the cookbook thing is my problem! I need to check myself into a book detox program. I have one-click service on and I'm totally addicted. But now that the economy is in the tank, I'm working on getting over my obsession with books in general (not just cookbooks). I'd rather do without food than books. Well, for a few hours anyway.



1:06 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

I'd rather do without food than books.

That's a tough one. It's like having to choose which child you love more :)

However, I've found cutting back on cookbook buying relatively easy. Partly that is because I have to consume less books generally as there is no more bookshelf space in the house and there are metre high piles of unread books of all kinds encircling my bed!

9:01 am  
Blogger Johanna said...

Sorry to hear you have had to battle a cold in this weather - your last post reminded me I hadn't commented on this one which I found had lots of wisdom that I enjoyed reading.

When K Rudd goes on about spending I feel that my one contribution to spending that I am happy to make is to spend a bit more on decent food! Granted I go to the supermarket more than markets at the moment but I feel that living close to them means I can buy smaller amounts and avoid wasting lots of food that is not used.

My house is so full I don't buy many new cookbooks or gadgets because I have to think hard about if I really need them - whereas a good loaf of bread or slightly more expensive cherries are enjoyed and disappear without adding more clutter to my life! And I have so many cookbooks that I regularly rediscover neglected ones.

11:06 pm  
Anonymous kitchen hand said...

I buy old cookbooks from op-shops. You come across some fantastic out-of-print ones amongst the welter of seventies and eighties ones.

4:47 pm  

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