When we are used to buying almost any food we want when we want it, we consequently become spoiled with this privilege. This is a privilege that many people around the world do not have; a privilege that perhaps only the last few generations have known. Scarce are people still living today that remember the Great Depression. While the debate is on whether or not our near future will rival this dark time in history, it bears discussion and examination of our habits and ways in which we conduct ourselves with this precious commodity called food.
As the availability of food products ebbs and flows like a strong spring tide, I have been buffered by my habits formed by close observations of the matriarchs of my family. Buying items on sale, stocking up, growing vegetables in the backyard and making good use of a freezer were weekly and seasonal activities in my childhood home. In August, up on my tippy toes, fingertips pressed to the edge of the countertop, as a wide-eyed child I witnessed fresh home-grown cantaloupes as far as I could see on our kitchen counter. I was handed a melon baller and soon enough this young “helper” would intently watch as quarts upon quarts of fresh summer melon were packed tightly into our freezer. During the 1970s and 1980s, this planning, these “food organization” routines were just the way we lived, and I am grateful for it. Good food was always available, and it was always respected. Lately, while I have been unable to purchase some items I want at the grocery store, I am still able to make meals, eggs or no eggs, potatoes or no potatoes, meat or no meat. I am utilizing many freezer items and embracing the challenge to create with less. I credit this ability to my mother.
During the depression and WWII, some foods were unavailable or rationed. “Meatless Monday” actually originated in WWI along with “Wheatless Wednesday” to encourage citizens to do their part to reduce the consumption of key staples to aid the war effort. President Roosevelt revamped Meatless Monday in WWII for the same reasons. In 2003, Sid Lerner, a health advocate in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, revitalized the concept again in an effort to reduce meat consumption around the world. This would reawaken the world to the concept of going without to help the planet and our bodies. I imagine those that have embraced “Meatless Monday” find themselves ahead of the game with our current meat shortages.
During this unpredictable time, I have thrown scrutiny upon myself and, in doing so, have channeled the wisdom of family cooks that came before me…cooks that toiled over their stoves in uncertain times, cooks that made the best of what they had, cooks that creatively adapted to what was available instead of lamenting over what they did not have. Our mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers’ kitchen wisdom need not be lost, but instead rediscovered and embraced.
Born of necessity, or perhaps from desperate times, kitchen frugality might once again find its place in America. Forced to become intimately acquainted with our own kitchens and examine our eating habits in the mirror, quarantine has provided us a means of self-reflection in the daily habits of all things culinary.
In the June issue of Attraction, I explored the practices of highly regarded generational cooks in my past and their mantras of “never waste food,” their passions for growing their own, sustainable kitchen practices and their artistic talents for repurposing items. This month I will focus on smart buying, ingredient substitutions, utilizing what you have, and making your own food.
When I think of my mother and friends’ mothers, I am humbled by the memories of a Sunday afternoon spent reviewing the grocery ad specials for the week coupled with earnest coupon clipping and developing a grocery store list that was only what was needed and sticking to it. I called a few of my friends to discuss their mother’s kitchen habits, and they reminisced about lessons learned in limited, yet happy and sustaining kitchens. Their reflections were presented in a way that reminded me of one opening a dusty filing cabinet and perusing the tabs. I stretched their memories and a nostalgic mist enveloped them. For the next week, I received thoughtful and reflective texts that proved a wake-up exercise to rival our reconditioned modern lives. I am sharing many of the ideas with you.
Smart buying requires planning and restraint. Coupon clipping, or “clicking” if you use an app, is a great way to save money IF you stick to what you really need and don’t buy something just because you have a coupon for it. Using curbside pickup and home delivery service options can also curb impulse buying as long as you show restraint with ordering. One way to make sure you buy what you need is to always review your cart and ask yourself what you will be using the item for. At this time, you can always “delete” unnecessary items. No one actually “needs” soda. Buying in bulk can save as well IF you will actually use all that you purchase. Buying meat in a large package (if it’s available) and then freezing it in smaller portions is one example. Planning your weekly menus around sale items can help you create cost effective meals; buying store brand versus name brand usually saves money, too. When planning your meals, think about all the ingredients needed, as simpler dishes with less ingredients will undoubtedly cost less to prepare. A great example is “all in one” pancake mix that only requires water. No eggs or milk necessary.
Also, consider smart trading. If you are fortunate enough to have neighbors, family or friends that are gardeners consider bartering/trading amongst yourselves. Not only will it save money but bartering enhances our community relationships. Never rule out trading work. Mowing the lawn for an elderly neighbor in trade for her triple layer chocolate raspberry cake? Yes, that’s a good trade. And then here is the joy of partial trades. Many, many years ago a neighborhood gentleman would cut the grass for my cousin in exchange for a grilled cheese sandwich, a glass of iced tea, and one dollar (this was in the 60s and 70s). They would sit on her front porch and talk dish while he ate his lunch. It was a win win.
Ingredient substitutions can be tricky. Many substitutions that are cheaper change the taste of your dish, so be open minded that you may achieve different results but… if your main goal is saving money, or avoiding another trip to the grocery store, substitutions are well worth trying. My grandmother told me a long time ago, during WWII many people substituted oatmeal and peanut butter for meatloaf, margarine for butter and so on.
Thanks to clever vegans, there are many egg substitutions you can try; some will work better than others depending on the recipe you are making:
Chia Egg: 1 tablespoon chia seeds + 3 tablespoons water
Flax Egg: 1 tablespoon flaxseed meal + 3 tablespoons water
Banana Egg: 1/2 banana, mashed, or applesauce or pumpkin puree
Aquafaba Egg: 3 tablespoons reserved chickpea liquid (from a can)
Powdered egg replacer can be purchased at the grocery store
Vinegar egg: 1 tsp of baking soda +1 TBS of vinegar
Plant milks can be substituted for cow’s milk most of the time. Shelf stable milk like powdered milk and boxed milks provide long shelf life, which is a plus, too. One cup of buttermilk can be substituted with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice plus enough milk to make one cup. There are many ingredient substitution lists available in cookbooks and online. Check them out and save yourself an added trip to the grocery store (see link below for a list of ingredient substitutions).
We can also make our food last longer by utilizing what we have and stretching it. The simple task of saving birthday candles for the next birthday is frugality at its best. Blow them out and put them in the drawer for the next birthday – who knows how many birthdays you can get from one set of candles? Three, maybe four, maybe more? Each time you re-use you save another dollar. One dollar versus four dollars for birthday candles. Yes, I’ll do that. From using the dregs of the ketchup bottle to using tea towels instead of paper towels, there are frugal solutions presented to us every day, but we may need to open our eyes a little wider to see them. We can even stretch our growing seasons by enclosing our greens with plastic hoops when the weather turns or wrapping our green tomatoes in newspaper. My husband’s grandmother would pick all her green tomatoes before the first frost, wrap them in newspaper and stick them in her basement. This allowed the tomatoes to continue to ripen slowly over the course of the next few weeks. While her tomato plants had long perished from winter blasts, she was warm inside still enjoying a homegrown tomato on her sandwich. This is generational kitchen wisdom at its best. Mom Mom Chance grew up in a time where frugality wasn’t a choice, it was a way of life.
When we make our own food, we give ourselves tremendous power. It may not feel this way when we’re exhausted and our kitchen needs to be cleaned, but when we cook, we put ourselves in the Captain’s chair. Whether we decide to make our own bread, jams, or cookies or grow our own veggies, this kind of ownership is empowering. To say “I grew it and I cooked it” is a marvelous feeling. Many of my friends have reminisced about their mother’s canning, baking, sewing of clothes or making their Halloween costumes from scratch. Having a childhood where every cookie was homemade is truly something special. These memories have been shared with an air of prideful appreciation of the time and energy our mothers invested in everyday living. These activities are not as prevalent in modern life. We tell ourselves we simply don’t have time for them – or do we?
During this pandemic, many of us have been given the gift of time. We should utilize it to the best of our abilities as there has never been a better time to get our house in order. Any time we spend learning to become self-sufficient and create a sustainable living environment is undoubtedly time well spent.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
Make Sourdough Bread
History of Meatless Mondays