Musings

Iron Chef America

I set out to post about a different show, then I realized I had not commented about Iron Chef America. After watching the second set of Chopped episodes available on Netflix, that was the next food show to catch my eye. I blazed through all 25 episodes even faster than I had with Chopped.

Obviously nothing about it cries frugality, and it’s a game show that has far more to its production than what you see on the screen. However, it’s cool to see what the competing chefs make, and the tools they use in the process. Wouldn’t you just love that kitchen? I live in an apartment on the second floor. There is no such thing as “grilling” for me, let alone any kind of indoor grill. When I shared a house with a gas grill on the deck by the kitchen door, I used it all the time, even in the dead of winter, even if it was mostly just for burgers.

To me the worst ingredient might have been liver. I was made to eat liver a few times as a kid, but I didn’t like it, as much for texture as taste. My grandfather loved it, especially with onions. I have never eaten pate and don’t care for the idea. Of course, I don’t care for the idea of raw or rare meats, either. I’ve never tried sushi. Raw beef actually seems more appealing to me. Which is apparently the extreme end of my having come to like beef rarer than I once did, along with sometimes craving it intensely. I’d never make it as a judge on the show.

Frugal or not, it made me feel like I could and should be more creative and varied about what I make with the ingredients I can afford.

Powerless Cooking

This article is almost so devoid of details to be not worth linking, but it does give food for thought and discussion. I can’t help wondering what in the world the photo is that looks like stacked dutch ovens, each containing charcoal. I also can’t help thinking it’s rather convenient that civilization is so intact and accessible, and money so freely available, that copious amounts of aluminum foil are handy. Guess that’s a good thing to stock up on, then.

Most of us have cooked rough to some degree, at some time, with varying degrees of success, and the point of possibly needing to do so unexpectedly is a good one, even if you have nary a prepper bone in your body.

I took my kids camping two summers ago and they were horrified by the idea of burgers cooked over a fire, potatoes cooked in foil in the coals, and even the corn on the cob cooked the same way. That last they had reason to spurn, since it was burned enough in places to taste burned. The potatoes were delicious, as were the burgers, but I was stuffed, having to eat all of it myself. They had no interest in hot dogs over the fire, either, and one of them didn’t care for marshmallows. Weirdo.

I’d like to experiment more, even if I cook for one and they eat PBJ, but never went camping this year. For that matter, I wanted to experiment, kids participating, in matchless ways of creating a fire if needed. They aren’t woodsy as I was, growing up surrounded by woods, but even I never got beyond a magnifying glass and sun for fire starting. It didn’t help, back then, that I had it drilled into me not to build a fire because there was dread of forest fires, and there was active observation for same from local fire towers. The current suburban firepit rage seems stunning to me, after that. Not that it stopped me from having some of the best hot dogs I have ever had, cooked in a camp pan over a small fire on a cranberry bog road, but that’s not as rustic as going pan-free.

Perhaps next time I’ll take my cast iron and see what I can conjure up over a fire. Maybe the kids will even try it.

Chocolate Chip Cookie

A history. Always especially interesting to me, given that I grew up in a nearby town to Whitman, home of the Tool House. My father spent the latter part of his childhood in the town where I grew up, but went to high school in Whitman, and knew the person behind another Whitman instutution: Peaceful Meadows Ice Cream. I worked for nine months in 1985 just a couple doors down from the Wendy’s mentioned in the article. I was confused, though, because I remembered the Toll House being up route 18 a couple doors from where Wendy’s is now, and I even applied for a bookkeeping job there in the late eighties. Except… if it burned in 1984, that must have been a new incarnation, and I don’t remember the original. Despite clearly remembering Saftler’s, another institution, on the opposite corner, which held out until just recently.

Unexpect Food Pantry Needs

I found it interesting to see 1o Things Food Banks Need But Won’t Ask For. Spices particularly struck me, because I have thought about what if I couldn’t afford those. I mean, really couldn’t afford those. Not just name brands, less common items, or to order from Penzey’s. I can see going to Walmart and buying a bunch of their 50 cent, perfectly good garlic salt and garlic powder to donate, or going to Job Lot and buying a bunch of their $1 spices, most of which are just fine (poultry seasoning is an exception). When I was single, I pretty much used Italian seasoning, garlic powder, cinnamon, chili powder, and not much else. Just hadn’t explored enough yet, or learned the joys of cumin or allspice. One can go far on the few basics, plus salt and black pepper. The chocolate also struck me. Made me wish I could buy hundreds of chocolate bars to donate to the local pantry. Which is funny, since it would be entirely appropriate for us to use their services, and donating is well above our means for now. Socks? Paper goods? Baby stuff? Who’d have thought of that!

Huckleberries

This is a great article on huckleberries, which I haven’t had since I was young. They grew all around my house in the middle of the woods, and were completely distinct from blueberries, which were even more abundant. The flavor really is hard to describe, but so good.

There’s one thing my kids don’t have that I did: An early knowledge of what berries could be picked and eated, and which could not. Though the latter I have worked on as I see berries that qualify.

A Real SNAP

Over the past few years we’ve been, shall we say, financially challenged. We were never really flush. In the couple years before I married, I was barely able to support myself, but had room for more frugality and had coasted business-wise. Marriage would have helped, but circumstances meant I had to squeeze out more money without substantial career change, in order to support more of us. It would have been a bear to apply because I was self-employed via a partnership, but my income seldom strayed far above the numbers that would just qualify for assistance. Food Stamps, now called SNAP. Just never would have thought to do it, even if I’d made less – or not juggled things to appear to make more than cash flow justified, as the case may be. I spent the first few years of marriage and kids worrying beyond worry about money and what could eventually happen, but trying not to worry my spouse. Beyond what implicit awareness there was of the smoke and mirrors juggling involved. There’s a frugality move for you: Breast feeding to save the insane cost of formula.

I digress somewhat.

Eventually, well after I should have, I applied for what is now SNAP. We qualified at the time not merely handily, but for emergency alacrity. That was suddenly almost $500 a month for groceries! Out of what they computed was at least $600 a month for a family of our size.

I was amazed that the official amount was so high! I mean, I’m old enough to think of $600 a month as practically an entire income. Which would also explain why I think a grand a month in rent is the far side of insane.

We went from, well, I think I was spending on the order of $20 a week and getting random handouts of food from relatives, to all that money. (I could be misremembering, because a lot of people online donated us a lot of cash and that is where some of it went, but I was still being beyond frugal, because there were other things it had to cover.) That opened the door to losing some of the biggest and most time consuming frugality measures. Which is another post; the sheer time and energy cost of being poor/frugal. That opened the door to convenience foods being in the house more routinely. Which is another other post, how much extra it costs if you want to be able to let the kids graze conveniently.

Eventually circumstances changed enough that we’d have qualified for considerably less in SNAP, but the agency basically jerked us around to the point where I gave up on obtaining the maybe $200 a month it would have entailed. We could manage. Of course, our income has ebbed since then, overall, and it’s been tough at times.

What’s made it tougher is having gotten used to what was more money than I might have spent on groceries when I “had money” back when, it’s harder to go back. I mean, besides the kids having become locusts. Now I can see the $470 or whatever being too little, or barely enough. I reliably would end each month with at least a month’s balance left on the card. That sure made weaning off of it easier.

I still tried to be as frugal as possible, obviously, but really felt like I was cheating. When I really miss it is when I am forced to buy things like soy milk and soy butter, and when it might help in branching into some of the other allergy options like non-dairy cheese.

I expect to be on it again at some point, with only four of us in the house and my income plus whatever child support figures in being the factors. It will help tremendously, much as I’d like to remain off or move back off of it as soon as possible. [I was a little confused, reading this after all this time, but this must have been the point when Deb was going to move out, but didn’t.]

Did I have a point here? I mean, besides that for me the SNAP benefits felt like we were rich grocery-wise and that changed habits in a way that can be hard to change back? Don’t think so. Outside factors and what is customary for you can change your perception of what is or isn’t frugal, and your adaptability. I know many people would look at that $600 figure for a family of five and be surprised anyone can do it on only that much. I suspect there are people on SNAP who wouldn’t begin to know how to save massively, which was part of the formative inspiration for a blog of this focus. Other are in the trap of too little income, but also too little time. Which is why I’d want to convey as much as I can ways around both circumstances.

Enough rambling. Speaking of being too busy. If I weren’t treating writing here as a job, trying to build something, it might not be getting done. That and the kids have become easier to work around.

Update as of September 6, 2015

What actually happened with SNAP back then, near as I can tell, was that I angered the people at the local office and they blacklisted me. I tried again over the course of as much as two years, culminating with the final time I applied, turning in needed documentation on time, in person, in the presence of the person handling my case, with the stuff I turned in stamped as to when they were received. I got turned down with a notice that was probably all ready to go by that time, and was sent out to me before they would even have had time to review what I’d provided. I gave up and we did nothing else with SNAP until Deb applied in her name while waiting for long-term disability to be approved, with no income because short-term disability had expired. They fell all over themselves to give us about $500 a month. This helped hugely. They actually bumped the amount up a tiny bit when she started getting disability. Ultimately I was spending that plus maybe $300, and that left bills all being paid comfortably, and the hope of things like dentistry.

Then at renewal time in February, they checked my pay for one of the weeks after the four they ask for stubs from. It was an anomalous $150 higher than normal, due to a two week burst of volume that happens twice each year and factors into my average pay. Rather, their newly automated system checked. It bizarrely cut us to zero but left us an active account. This kind of thing had become rampant starting in 2014, with Massachusetts using an automated system of data mining to do checks on people. Someone disabled and far more reliant than we are on SNAP would work one day as a poll worker, for instance. The system would extrapolate that to a full year’s income and shut them off. The latest thing I saw indicated that Massachusetts has a participation rate of around 1% for SNAP, down from over 6% a couple years ago, without an employment change to match. Nationally the participation is in the ballpark of what Massachusetts had been. That’s clearly not right. At the same time, they have eliminated case workers from have assigned cases, so you don’t get a person who is already familiar with your situation. The poor workers are harried and can’t be happy with the changes. They were buried in work in the first place, given the economy. They never did review our case. It had to wait for the six month renewal. We clearly qualified for something, even if the prior amount had been overkill. We’ve been spending the tax refund on groceries for months! Apart from fixing cars, that’s where most of it went, and it was down to what we needed for a car emergency and ensuring a normal Christmas. So it was time to have the help again. Of course, I am philosophically opposed to programs like it, in an ideal world, but this is the world we have. I’d be happier to have a pumped economy with a free market and adequate opportunity.

So here we are, about $1200 a month below the income cutoff for SNAP, and we again get a “benefit” of $0. But they still have us on their roles, considered eligible for benefits, so anything else that uses the same metric, like free school lunch, remains available. Say what? We’re confused. This time it is supposed to be based on information provided by Equifax. Yes, a notoriously inaccurate credit reporting agency also is in the business of qualifying you, or not, for SNAP benefits. First thought was they clearly had something wrong. Or first thought after “why did we give you all that data if something else tells you what to do?” I have started to wonder if it is the savings I maintained and gradually doled out for food and car repairs and such that triggered it. They don’t seem to ask about savings when you apply, though I could swear I remember it back when I originally did. The internet says they take it into account, though, and that you have two months to spend your tax refund (made large through EIC) before it can get you shut off. That seems counterproductive, even as I can see some logic to it. If you are responsible and don’t blow it on a vacation to Disney, but use it gradually, you are penalized. At the same time, if you were that poor, you’d probably spend it fast. Some people can spend a lump sum like that breathtakingly fast. I try to put the brakes on it, because I never again want to be unable to pay a heating and electric bill, fix a car, or cope with a moderate emergency.

So as I revive this blog, it seems we face going particularly frugal again. Most of my business income for the year, as it stands, falls during a six month or so period that’s drawing to a close. We’re in a slow time of year at work, until late November, except for a couple weeks around the first half of October. It’ll be tight. But hey, that’s part of the impetus for renewing the blogging, organizing it better, and making that a big part of each day. It’s a resource that already exists and has income potential if I put some effort into it.

It’s Not Frugal If You Don’t Use It

Being frugal isn’t an absolute, but is conditional. For instance, if you use a coupon to save 25 cents on a name brand item that costs 50 cents less every day in the store brand, is it really frugal to do that rather than simply buy the store brand?

That depends.

On the face of it, I’d say no.

But what if the store brand of that particular item is just awful, as is sometimes the case, so what if nobody in the house will eat or use it? You save 50 cents, or 25 with the red herring coupon, then you throw the product away, or throw part of it away, or you suck it up and don’t throw it away, but nobody’s happy choking it down.

That’s no good.

I learned when I was still a kid, probably more like a teen, that there were things you Just Didn’t Buy. I witnessed my mother buy things we wouldn’t use, but boy it was cheap. It struck me as a horrible, wasteful thing, anti-thrifty.

The same applies to stocking up, buying in bulk, preserving, then not using all of it for whatever reason. Perhaps not getting it all eaten, frozen or preserved in time. Perhaps poor resource management, so the old food isn’t rotated so older is used sooner and newer is used later. Which also touches on the idea that being frugal can involve time and work, and time can mean opportunity cost, but that’s another post.

If you can buy the large container that’s three times the size of the small container but only twice the cost, but it spoils in the time it takes you to use a third of it, you’ve used a small container worth at twice the cost. That’s not frugal. And that may not be obvious at first, and may be something you have to learn.

Same thing with brand preferences. You can’t know that a store brand is worth it, or not, or which brand is better for the price, or which brand you’re willing to settle on for the sheer savings, without having tried them.

There are things I have strong brand preferences for, like Heinz ketchup. Sure, I can eat other brands, but for me it’s the difference between eating ketchup and eating… something that isn’t really ketchup. This doesn’t always apply to name brands. I prefer Hannaford’s private label refried beans, but none of the brands are horrible, at least until you get into the variants that try to eliminate the fat content. That becomes a calculus of preference, cost, and convenience. The convenience factor is, again, another post.

I’ve sometimes fallen into the wholesale club trap. That is, it’s a good price… in a specific brand and a large size. I’ve thrown out a lot of warehouse club food that didn’t get used before it spoiled or became boring. I’ve seen it be less per unit, if you were actually paying attention, for a smaller quantity elsewhere of another or maybe even the same brand. Before I became too broke for a club membership and that kind of bulk shopping, I became very careful what I bought there versus Walmart versus a supermarket. And there’s another other post… discussion of what venues I am dealing with as I write, for comparison with yours and the fact that your mileage may vary.

Introduction

[Edited]

Once upon a time, I posted about cooking on personal blogs, and then I started a food blog named The Married Guy Cook [posts prior to this one chronologically were imported from there].  It was inspired by and a spoof on the name of a short-lived food blog by Jeff Soyer, The Single Guy Cook.  That was especially appropriate, since my cooking ability came to the fore once I was married.

Now I am not.  Married.  [Not true, exactly. Deb wished to break up, but we have never divorced or lived apart – not that we could have afforded to, and remain an intact family for all practical purposes.] Which makes the name a bit odd.  And it’s built into the domain [which I regret having subsequent failed to renew, probably since I wasn’t using it and lacked funds to keep it in the collection], so still odd even if I rename the blog itself.  Which I did, but in the midst of a blogging drought and already dreaming of this new place.

Along the way, I thought about how much I knew now could have saved me and given me a better diet when I was single.  Along the way, I hit economic disaster that made my existing frugality useful and challenged it to be more so.  Along the way, I had a child with multiple allergies.  Allergies to fundamentals, eggs and milk, and more avoidably, peanuts, bananas and now tree nuts.  Worse, early on, thankfully temporary sensitivities to substances in most foods.

When I was young, I loved watching Jeff Smith, The Frugal Gourmet.  I had to agree with my late grandfather’s remark that there was nothing frugal about much of what he cooked.  I hope to do better here, but the theme is general, not absolute.  Nor is it only about cooking.

To cut to the chase, this blog will be about frugality, something more in vogue than usual currently, and while that may relate mainly to food, that’s not about cooking as such.  Call it lifestyle as much as anything.  This blog will be about food and cooking, obviously, with an eye to frugality and making do, but not tied exclusively to it.  This blog will have a large coping with allergies component.  That could perhaps be its own blog, but I decided not to be too niche about it.  Finally, with three young, variably fussy kids to feed, expect to see an element of making them happy.  At the same time, I haven’t forgotten my decades as a single person who could have saved money and eaten better, so I plan to touch on that as well.

I welcome guest recipes and ideas.  Feel free to contact me in the comments or at an address to be named later, as I set the place up in finer detail.

Finally, I expect to import material from my old blog.  Probably directly, with the possibility of reposts from the past as well.  That may look disjointed, or be dated prior to this “first post,” so please bear with me.  And by all means, if you missed it the first time, peruse away.