June 16, 2004
Notes From Underground

In other old business, I've been meaning to blog about Stefan Beck of the New Criterion and his efforts to live (with a friend) on $10 per day for food. (Links here and here.) The two of them obviously know very little about saving money on food, since their list starts with "6 chicken breasts". Breasts? What were they thinking? It would be hard to prove, since prices vary and different organs and limbs have different percentages of bone, gristle, and skin, but I'm quite certain that the breast is the most expensive part of the chicken. If you really want to save money on food, you buy chicken gizzards or (much tastier, if you can find them) hearts. But even legs or thighs would have been significantly better than breasts. Wings may be cheap, but they're not necessarily much of a bargain, since they have so little meat on them. Gizzards have a fair amount of gristle, but hearts are nearly all meat. Asian grocery stores often carry them, right near the tripe, frozen blood (choice of cow or pig), and other delicacies.

Other tips for impecunious interns and graduate students:

  • Ramen: nasty but cheap, and an egg or some bits of green onion will make them signicantly less nasty.
  • Kraft macaroni and cheese. Like Ramen noodles, these are often on sale in college towns in late August and early September. Warning: I have heard of a graduate student on an inadequate stipend who ate nothing but Kraft macaroni and cheese without the butter and milk -- until he was hospitalized with scurvy. I imagine his doctors were thrilled to deal with a new (that is, very old) disease for a change, though I hope they were professional enough to hide their glee.
  • Hamburger Helper: it does help, and hamburger is cheap, especially if you buy the high-fat kind. Hot dogs are, too, as long as don't buy the all-beef brand name kind.
  • Someone I went to college with decided to get in touch with his roots and study Polish in graduate school. Since he didn't know the language, he first spent a year on a farm in Poland -- this would have been the mid-1970's. He told me that one particular recipe he learned there served him in good stead in graduate school: Fry up a small onion in a large frying pan with a little bit of oil. Then fill up the pan with half raw cabbage and half previously-boiled noodles and fry until done. Very cheap, very nourishing, and relatively palatable if you're hungry. I take it the small onion is necessary for the last.
  • Another person I went to college with spent an entire summer living on $5.00 per week for food. This was in the late 1970s, so that would be equivalent to $15 or $20 per week today. She and her housemates bought a 100-pound bag of rice at the beginning of their jobless summer and lived on a stereotypical Asian peasant diet: lots of boiled rice, some green veggies, no meat (she was already a vegetarian), and nothing but water and tea to drink. She told me she was so bored she would sit in front of the gas stove for hours waiting for one of the numerous cockroaches to set foot on a burner. It was like a video game: you had to be very quick with the controls to set one on fire before he could run away.

All in all, Stefan Beck and his friend seem to be (deplorably? thankfully?) unfamiliar with the culinary lower depths.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at June 16, 2004 12:57 PM

A vegetarian "who would sit in front of the gas stove for hours" in order to torch an unsuspecting cockroach for amusement?

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that there were some major unresolved issues there.

Posted by: Bruce Rheinstein on June 16, 2004 01:12 PM

Fried cabbage is even better with bacon (and fried in bacon-fat)... and it doesn't take much bacon to add the flavour. (Bacon "ends and pieces" packs are cheaper by the pound than normal sliced bacon, and the chunks of bacon fat therein are useful for anything requiring grease. Plus you get ham-like chunks of meat!)

Also, vitamin supplements. Useful for people living on noodles and little else.

And the local farmer's market.

Posted by: Sigivald on June 16, 2004 01:36 PM

Also, Bruce: Some vegetarians are vegetarians purely for health (or digestion) reasons, rather than for any particualr sympathy to animals (let alone insect vermin!)

Heck, some - though proportionally fewer - vegans don't even care much about such things.

Posted by: Sigivald on June 16, 2004 01:39 PM

FEMA'a "Emergency food and water" webpage provides what must be the minimal shopping list:

Bulk quantities of wheat, corn, beans and salt are inexpensive and have nearly unlimited shelf life. If necessary, you could survive for years on small daily amounts of these staples. Stock the following amounts per person, per month:

Wheat--20 pounds
Powdered Milk(for babies and infants)*-- 20 pounds
Corn--20 pounds
Iodized Salt--1 pound
Soybeans--10 pounds
Vitamin C**--15 grams

* Buy in nitrogen-packed cans
** Rotate every two years

Posted by: Bob Hawkins on June 16, 2004 03:10 PM

He's having trouble living on $35 a week for food? I guess he's never been a college student.

If I were to need to do this here's what I would do:
1. Rice as a staple with most meals (20 lb for about $12 will last a month).
2. Dry pasta is pretty darn cheap, and using tomato sauce as a base can give you a large meal for under $1.
3. Whole chickens, or chicken quarters (thighs/legs) -- and don't forget to make chicken stock out of the bones and trimmings. Whole turkeys can be very cost effective as well if you don't mind eating turkey meat for a long time.
4. Fresh fruit and vegetables (in season) tend to be surprisingly inexpensive when purchased at roadside stands or pick-it-yourself establishments, assuming you can get outside the city limits easily enough.
5. Onions and potatoes are cheap year 'round.
6. Canola Oil, flour (both inexpensive) mixed with chicken stock (see above) makes excellent gravy.
7. Jello may be the cheapest way to satisfy sugar cravings.

I would splurge extra money on garlic, shallots, and fresh spices to liven up and vary the standard fare, not to mention harvesting my own from the wild.

It's not that difficult to eat well and inexpensively, but most college kids don't want to take the time necessary to prepare meals like this. I know I didn't then, but I do now. The one thing that is missing from the above is pre-processed foods. There's a lesson there, I think.

Posted by: charles austin on June 16, 2004 04:12 PM

Eh, when I was in graduate school, the following food items loomed large in my diet: rice, dried beans, ramen noodles, potatoes, and oatmeal. I remember a canister of oatmeal cost $2.25, and could be rationed out to last me for breakfast for six weeks. If I wanted to improve the taste of the oatmeal, I might add a pinch of salt: salt was cheap.

I remember standing in a supermarket, staring for several minutes at a piece of pork fatback (i.e., mostly fat with a couple of shreds of pork) to add to my homemade lentil soup, and deciding in the end that I couldn't afford it.

I remember how I used to cook up a concoction of noodles, diced potatoes, any other vegetable scraps I had, adding in a little milk and flour, and pouring the mess into a thermos. That was for my lunch on campus, as I certainly couldn't afford to eat very often at a campus cafeteria.

Actually, I probably ate a healthier diet back then than I do now. Though to this day I can't bear to eat oatmeal.

Posted by: Paul Burgess on June 16, 2004 10:04 PM

Jeez. Whole chickens are cheapest, and you could make one last several meals, especially if you made stock out of the inedible bits. Rice and pasta are incredibly cheap, and it doesn't take much by way of seasoning to make them tasty, either. Good pasta sauce can be made from canned tomatoes, garlic, and a couple spices for less than half the price of any of the name varieties.

One favorite dish of mine involves an onion, half a head of cauliflower, a little fresh cilantro, coriander, cumin, salt, oil, and a pile of leftover rice. Delicious, filling, and I would say incredibly cheap per serving, though I've never done the math. The main difficulty would be the cilantro; they tend to sell it in bunches too big for a single recipe, so that you end up wasting part of it unless you stick it in a salad or something.

Farmer's markets are good; also Asian markets. In re these, read "Theodore Dalrymple"


on, among other things, "food deserts" — places where good nutritious food is allegedly unavailable and so the populace lives entirely on junk food. The author recounts that one place he heard described as such was the location of an Indian grocery where he routinely shopped, where one could buy, among other things, 22-lb bags of onions for the equivalent of $3.40.

I believe it, because I'm surrounded by chain grocery stores (three within five minutes' walk), and yet the cheapest onions, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, &c. are at the Asian market (named, charmingly, "Asian Market"). "Economies of scale," my hiney.

Posted by: Michelle Dulak on June 17, 2004 12:58 AM

Definitely onions and potatoes, sliced up and fried with a bit of oil and a splash of vinegar.

Yummy! I still make that. Grilled asparagus that has been marinated in oil (preferably olive) is also a treat.

Posted by: Mike on June 17, 2004 10:53 AM

Oh, yes, bulk rice and beans, lentils and oatmeal for staples can go a long way, and whole chicken can be parceled out for several meals... I used to buy a box of apples at the farmer's market, and make applesauce for my daughter, and baby-food by running the vegetables through the blender and freezing little cubes of it, rather than buy expensive ready-made babyfood. This was at a time when I was a lowly E-4 living in base housing, and feeding myself and my daughter for $25 dollars every two weeks.

Posted by: Sgt. Mom on June 17, 2004 12:29 PM

If the damn fool wants to eat on the cheap, get a part time job at a restauraunt or fast food joint (or catering company) not much variety but you can start pinch hitting for a meal per day.

Posted by: Bravo Romeo Delta on June 17, 2004 03:08 PM

eat for a week
2lb pinto beans
fat, oil butter whatever
onion brown onion in fat add beans boild for 6 hours

make as much cornbread for two days if you can not refrigerate if can make lots

ratio, 1 cup flour 1 cup cornmeal 1/4 cup fats 2 table spoons baking powder 1 egg = 1 pan doubles/triples ok

take chunk of cornbread, cover with pintos-hillbilly steak

Posted by: Old Fat Sailor on June 18, 2004 07:07 PM

Peel an onion. Salt and pepper. Add butter on the top and bottom. Bake. Just as filling as a potato and much more flavorful, depending on the kind of onion used.

Posted by: allison on June 19, 2004 08:25 AM

One word: McDonalds

McChicken sandwhich: $1
Double cheeseburger: $1

With tax, I could live off Mickey Ds for $2.12 per day. And it tastes much better than cabbage and onions.

Posted by: Lawrence on June 19, 2004 10:59 AM

I'm pretty sure that the buffalo wing craze has resulted in wings costing more than breasts pound for pound. I remember reading that a while back, I'd imagine it still holds true.

Posted by: Skillzy on June 21, 2004 03:47 PM

The truth is, REALLY eating cheaply means learning to cook. Considering how easy it actually is, it is a little surprising how resistant people are to the idea. Yeah, it is time-consuming -- AT FIRST. You just have to get through the first couple learning phases, and then you have a fair-sized repetoire of cheap, enjoyable, and healthy dishes you can pull together in very little time.

Posted by: Mac on June 29, 2004 12:00 AM