Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Terminating the urge to spend

We watched “Terminator II” again the other day, and now that I’m further removed from the nuclear nightmares of my Cold War childhood and one of our kids is about the same age as  John Connor in this movie, I found myself wondering if someday they’ll look back and see me the way Connor initially viewed his mom: a zealot who’d crossed over to complete nuttiness.

Sarah Connor was proven right when the Terminator showed up. The Great Recession, or whatever history ends up calling this period we’re living through, ought to be enough proof for anybody that it’s wise to live frugally,  no matter how much money you’ve got in your wallet or bank account. But sometimes I wonder if today’s kids -- including ours -- will go on a lifetime spending binge when this is all over, or when they‘re out there on their own, whichever comes first.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Why pay more to eat less?

It turns out that Fiber One now makes a snack bar with only 90 calories, two grams of fat and five grams of fiber -- which translates to only one point in Weight Watchers lingo. A box of Fiber One bars costs only about one-third as much as a box of Weight Watchers snack bars. But do I mention this helpful piece of information at my Weight Watchers meeting, or would that make me a poor sport?

Turns out I didn’t have time to stay for the meeting last night anyway. But I did weigh in: Another week, another two pounds. So that’s a little less than $110 spent, a little more than 28 pounds lost. If I can lose 1.6 pounds by next week, I’ll get in 30 pounds by the time I’ve spent $120, and keep up with my $4-a-pound average.

Monday, March 29, 2010

T-shirt cravings

Why am I suddenly craving a Butler T-shirt? Other than the fact that they made it to the Final Four, just like I predicted in my NCAA tournament bracket?

I like their teamwork and defense and connection to the movie “Hoosiers.” They’re fun to watch -- relentlessly attacking the basket in a way that feels both old and new at the same time. But I don't know the players' names, and I have no real connection to the school, other than knowing maybe two people who graduated from there. And of course I’ve vowed not to buy any new clothes this year, so unless I find a Butler Bulldogs shirt at Goodwill, it’s not even on my decision tree.

Still, this is exactly the sort of thing I think about when I’m looking over T-shirts at Goodwill. Do you buy a cool T-shirt if it’s from a school or team you have no real-world connection to? I once bought a Cleveland Indians shirt because its manager at the time, Eric Wedge, was a Fort Wayne guy. But I never wore it. Because even though I love baseball in general (and once loved the Cincinnati Reds in particular), I just never felt like “this is a day where I want to field comments about the Cleveland Indians.”

If I had a Butler shirt, I'd probably be wearing it right now. Or next weekend, during the Final Four. But would I feel like wearing it once the tournament was over? Probably not. Still, that’s the nice thing about buying used clothes. You never invest too much in a whim. And when you get tired of the stuff you do buy, you can always release it back into the collective pool of unwanted T-shirts so it can find a new home.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sludge for supper

In “Still Life With Crows,” a thriller by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, FBI agent Pendergast recreates the scene of an 1845 Indian massacre in Kansas using an ancient Eastern form of mystical meditation . He thinks there’s a connection between this historical event and a series of murders he’s investigating -- specifically, how the Indians suddenly appeared as if out of thin air to ambush the soldiers.

We were several hours into our own time-travel experiment this week when I found myself wishing I knew agent Pendergast‘s technique for mentally removing modern-day objects from your field of view. Because it’s really, really hard to pretend you’re a Depression Era family with nothing to eat but MFK Fisher’s recipe for “sludge” when you have all this other food sitting around the house.

Part of the problem is that Ben and I were the only ones running the experiment. So while we were choking down a gruel made of barley, a couple of strips of bacon, and an onion, the girls were making themselves peanut butter sandwiches and eating pretzels straight from the bag. It was really hard to picture a kitchen that didn’t have at least a dab of peanut butter in the bottom of a jar, or a couple of eggs in the ice box.

But sludge isn’t something you eat when you have other options. “There comes a time when helpful hints about turning off the gas when not in use are foolish, because the gas has been turned off permanently, or until you can pay the bill,” Fisher writes in her 1942 book “How to Cook a Wolf.” “And you don’t care about knowing the trick of keeping bread fresh by putting a cut apple in the box, because you don’t have any bread and certainly not an apple, cut or uncut. And there is no point in planning to save the juice from canned vegetables because they, and therefore their juices, do not exist.”

It’s a time, she says, to use the metaphor that frames her book, when the wolf is at the door, with “one paw wedged firmly in what looks like a widening crack.”

In our experiment, Ben ate two bowls of Fisher’s sludge -- which really should’ve had a few more wilted vegetables in it to be authentic -- before deciding he’d rather just fast until midnight, when I promised him a cheeseburger. I stuck to the regimen, and though the first bowl tasted like dishwater, by the second serving, with a little more salt, I found myself thinking that barley is a worthy grain, deserving of more attention than its bit role in my usual recipe for vegetable soup.

By late afternoon, though, I was really eager to have something else -- anything else, even just a dab of peanut butter or a single pretzel. And that was when I realized just how much better off we are even now, in supposedly hard times, when we open the fridge and think there’s nothing to eat or can’t imagine what we could possibly make for dinner -- we still have all these bits and pieces of this and that that look awfully good when the alternative is sludge.

Friday, March 26, 2010

No impact on shopping bag conundrum

So I finally finished “No Impact Man,” and the first question that comes to mind is this: Should I take back what I said a few weeks ago about plastic shopping bags?

My point at the time: It’s all well and good that people use their own canvas shopping bags, but what are they going to use to line small trash cans around the house? If you stop accepting store-issued plastic shopping bags -- and businesses then stop providing them -- but you then buy plastic liners for your trash cans, has anything really changed, other than consumers picking up an extra expense as businesses eliminate one?

In the weeks since I wrote that, I have to admit that our plastic shopping bag stash had gotten out of hand. We just weren’t using them as quickly as they were coming in, and the one bag where I kept the other bags was overflowing onto the floor. If I take Colin Beaven’s advice, I stop worrying about what I line my bathroom trash can with because I eliminate bathroom trash, along with every other kind of trash. And if I’m not ready for that step, then maybe I could do the next best thing: Eliminate the liners. Unfortunately, I’m not yet that enlightened, either. (I’ve got a chewing gum phobia, and I can’t stand the sight of gum stuck to ... well, anything, not even a trash can. Anybody up for a movement to eliminate chewing gum from the planet? I’d be all over that one.)

Anyway, here’s how I’m adapting at this point: I’m not accepting as many plastic bags as I used to. And I’m storing the ones I do have, to be used as trash-can liners and dog-poop scoopers and so forth, neatly folded in a box, where they don’t take up nearly as much room. There are 26 bags in the box, which ought to last us a while. So I’m going to try not to bring anymore home from the store for a while.

But I’m not going to take back what I said. Because when it comes to this plastic bag problem, I still feel like Big Business is trying to shift both the blame and the expense to individuals -- which sounds an awful lot like what happened in the days of the national anti-litter campaign, according to Colin Beaven’s book.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Atomic fashion fantasies

So my mom complimented me on my purple shirt and scarf combo the other night, and I uncharacteristically refrained from saying, “Thanks, I got it at Salvation Army.” At the time I thought that was a sign of progress, because I feel like I can never just accept a compliment  without revealing some backstage insider information that somehow diminishes what’s on stage. My pride in finding cool stuff that costs next-to-nothing is often interpreted with suspicion by the audience, especially when my mom is in the front-row seat.

Reviewing the game film of this encounter, I now think I should’ve spoke up. Defended the dignity of gently-used clothing. But at the same time, I also harbor this fantasy: What if, as I remake my smaller-sized wardrobe from secondhand garments that span the globe as well as generations, I could quietly rack up enough compliments so that one well-timed revelation had the impact of a hundred smaller ones?

Just a fantasy. But it’s fun to think about.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Making dough, on the clock

Regarding the question of whether it really takes more time to make things from scratch, when you factor in the time it takes to shop for and earn the money to pay for a prefabricated alternative: Consider today’s cinnamon rolls, prepared for yet another spring break sleepover.

Usually I don’t think about how much time it takes to make cinnamon rolls, because I make the dough ahead of time, usually for pizza the night before. But this morning I walked into a kitchen apparently devoid of any actual food, with only various components stored in their various containers in various cupboards and a fridge, and 40 minutes later the cinnamon rolls were in the oven and the frosting was made.

I guess that seems like a long time, compared to unfurling dough from a tube and squeezing icing from a plastic packet. But time is relative. Standing in front of a Red Box DVD vending machine with a bunch of chattering, arguing kids last night felt longer than 40 minutes of quiet spent alone in the kitchen this morning. The prospect of entering a Wal-Mart with this same herd just to get a tube of dough and icing, when we had all the stuff that goes into that tube already at home, felt like it would drain another hour from my life -- maybe not in actual ticks registered on a clock, but in the form of a stress penalty to be deducted  from the sum of my days.

Besides, making the frosting is easy: Just whisk a tablespoon of milk into a small bowl of powdered sugar with a fork. I sometimes put more effort into it than that, but when you’re competing against tube-packet icing, why bother?

As for the dough, it doesn’t take long if you make a small batch and reduce the steps down to the most basic: Mix some warm wet stuff (oil and milk and water) with something sweet and salty (a little bit of sugar and an even smaller bit of salt) and yeasty (like, say, yeast), and then just pour on the flour, mixing with one hand and pouring with the other until the dough‘s not sticky and your other hand wants to join in. Now it‘s play dough time, which is usually good for wiping out at least two stress penalties.

When you‘re ready to form the rolls, start by pretending your’re making a pizza, spreading the dough out on an oiled surface. (In fact, at this point you could still elect to change your plan and make a pizza. But if you’re still set on cinnamon rolls, slather on butter instead of tomato sauce and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar instead of cheese.) Now roll it up into a tube, slice it with your play-dough knife, set each slice on its end in a greased pan, butter again, sprinkle with more cinnamon and sugar, and it’s ready for the oven. You’ve crossed the finish line, with your sanity intact.

By the way: Let the kids put their own icing on the rolls when they come out of the oven. It’s one less thing you’ve got to deal with, and they’ll think it’s fun.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On sisters, small towns and shrinking

I took my Great Aunt Minnie a card the other day for her 99th birthday, and since she lives at the same nursing home as my grandmother, I stopped in Grandma’s room first to see if she wanted to tag along. It’s 100 feet down the hall, but Grandma, who’s 97, never leaves her room except for preprogrammed activities such as lunch or church services.  There was no official party planned for Minnie, so I’m not sure Grandma  would’ve embarked on the journey to wish her sister happy birthday if someone else didn’t make it happen.

As we creeped along (Grandma’s using a walker now), I found myself wondering which of her sisters Grandma was closest to. Minnie is a reasonable candidate. They were nearest in age and once shared a bed with a set of toddler twin brothers. But Grandma had a lot of sisters to choose from. Thirteen siblings lived to adulthood, and I’m thinking half of them were sisters. With that many potential playmates under one roof, you probably gravitate toward those who are most like you, just like on a playground.

In a family as large as Grandma’s, my sister and I would be at opposite ends of the personality continuum. There’s an age difference of eight years, but there’s more to it than that. She trends red and I lean blue. She’s stylish, as they say here in small town America, whereas the term most likely applied to me, in the local vernacular, is “different.” (That’s a word that takes in a lot of territory in this territory, but I like to think I’m not scary-different so much as puzzling-different.)

Traci’s the only sister I’ve got, though. So we hang out quite a bit, glossing over our differences. She’s my single biggest supporter on my quest to lose weight. (Bob is supportive, too, but since he’s always accepted me no matter what my size, he’s not as maniacal about it.) Lately we’ve even been working out together, ostensibly training for a 5K run later this summer. 

The only problem: Any day now, Traci’s going to start bugging me about buying new clothes now that I‘ve dropped a size or so. At which point I’ll be forced to reveal that I’ve pledged to only buy secondhand clothing this year. To avoid this collision of universes,  I’m going to need to step up my scouting trips to Goodwill and Salvation Army. Because I’ve now lost 26.4 pounds, and I’ve only got like maybe three things that still fit.

Monday, March 22, 2010

March Madness sans TV

Turns out Ben was never able to get that digital converter working. So I figured we’d cave in and buy one, but there were two problems with that plan: A. Nobody has digital converters in stock anymore, because there are like maybe two other households in the western world that  aren’t plugged into the digital TV network. “We just don‘t have much demand for those,” one sales guy explained.  B. The one store we found that does carry digital converters was charging 50 percent more than the going rate back when Uncle Sam was sending out those $40 coupons. (We got one, but could never get it to work.)

So we watched basketball for four straight days on the computer, connected to And you know what? It wasn’t bad. The picture sharpened up quite a bit by Day Two, and it was cool that we could click on whichever game we wanted to watch. The only real aggravation, other than the fact that IU once again failed to make the tournament, was the dearth of commercials. They just repeated the same ones over and over. And boy, were they effective: Ben talked me into buying Coke Zero when what I really wanted was Diet Coke, and if we‘d walked by a display of algae-growing-biofuel kits, we would’ve bought one of those, too.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The zombie ads have our number

This is beginning to seem like a bad horror movie, where just when you think you’ve survived the monster attack, its big brother shows up. And then its cousin. I really thought that first encounter with a 1950s Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercial on a DVD of old Superman shows -- which led to all four kids gulping down corn flakes after the show -- was a fluke. That was five years ago, and I chalked it up to coincidence as much as anything; I hadn’t bought corn flakes for years, but Bob had just happened to find a big box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes on sale a few days before.

Then a few weeks ago I discovered that Ben’s sudden desire for Ovaltine came shortly after viewing a Joe Namath ad (featuring kids who’d now be a little older than me) on a video of classic sports commercials. And then yesterday as were leaving the grocery store, he admitted that his purchase of a bag of Nips candy -- which he’d talked up as a good choice because each piece had only 30 calories -- was influenced by a commercial from an old VHS tape of “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” episodes we recorded in the late 1990s.

So now I wonder: Are our kids particularly vulnerable to zombie ads because we don’t watch much television? Is nostalgia a factor? Or is simple curiosity about seeing something on a store shelf that you thought existed only in some hokey vintage take on the past?

Ben shrugged as I asked these questions. He was sucking on a Nips lozenge, reporting the change in sensation as the outer toffee coating dissolved, exposing the chocolate center.  “Well, it’s only a factor if the product still exists,” he said.

It‘s almost like zombie ad hunting has become a goofy hobby of his. Except I don’t think he’s the one holding the gun.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Bob Knight approach to coupons

Coupons are the grocery shopper’s equivalent of basketball’s three-point shot.

It’s the strategy people turn to when they need to make up some lost ground in their grocery budget. It’s a quick way to score a lot of flashy-looking convenience foods, and it provides a huge rush of adrenalin and momentum.

Trouble is, if you don’t keep track of the big picture -- how much you’re spending over time, week in and week out -- then ultimately a periodic big coupon score, no matter how impressive at the time, doesn’t amount to anything more than a showboating playground move.

The Rick Pitinos of the grocery shopping world match coupons with sales and make a killing. I guess I’m more of a Bob Knight grocery shopper, forcing coupons to be role players within a larger system.

During my college years at Indiana University, Steve Alford was one of the nation’s best three-point shooters, but he didn’t get to pull the trigger until he ran past half a dozen screens in Knight’s now-dated motion offense.

My version of the motion offense is my “Four Shirts and a Skirt” menu-planning system (which I've really only just touched on so far in this blog). The emphasis is on scoring meals to help us beat our weekly budget target. Coupons can be a formidable tool within this system, but only if they’re used on the right item under the right conditions. In any given week, I might use one or two coupons. Sometimes none at all. And yet we consistently spend no more than $15 per person per week -- and often come in under that, enough so that our dining-out budget is funded solely by leftover grocery money.

Too bad there’s not a March Madness of grocery shopping. I’d love to pit my approach against the coupon-gunners. Maybe I’d get smoked, like Knight’s teams did in later years. But I don’t think so.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The price of labor vs. the cost of automation

So I enter Wal-Mart needing a treat for the younger girls’ book club. Option A, appearing on our right as we enter the store: Pre-made St. Patrick’s Day mini cupcakes, $2.50 a dozen. Probably need two. Problem solved, at a cost of $5.

Option B: Replenish our sugar supply and make our own cupcakes. Cost: $2.12, plus labor.

It’s the murkiness of the labor cost that complicates the equation. It was already 8 p.m. as we stood in the store Tuesday night, weighing our options. Opening the kitchen bakery would keep us up ‘til 10, by the time we got the mess cleaned up, or else require an early morning shift. The Wal-Mart cupcakes wouldn’t even need to be carried in from the van. They could spend the night in the back, and be ready to go in the morning.

But then we’d still be out of sugar.

We took a vote. The sugar, radiating magnetism even when unadorned, won -- on the condition that everybody pitch in.

And they did. Ben mixed up the batter, I mixed up the icing, and the girls frosted and sprinkled green sugar while I started cleanup. That one batch of a white cake recipe made two dozen mini cupcakes, one dozen regular cupcakes and we still had leftover batter and frosting for some future snack. Not to mention all that sugar.

I could run the numbers to prove the superiority of this DIY project, but I think the real benefit, in addition to the teamwork exercise, was that ... it forced me to actually wash the dishes. By hand.

I’ve gone for long stretches in my adult life without a dishwasher, and I don’t really mind doing dishes under those conditions. But there’s something about the presence of a dishwasher that puts me into factory-worker mode -- rinse, load, start machine. Unload, always in the same order, stack items, always in the same place. Repeat sequence again and again and again. Reminds me of the summer I worked in a pretzel plant as a teenager.

Washing dishes, on the other hand, is an exercise in problem solving. It uses a different part of your brain. And while it’s not something I abhor, I do find it hard to flip the switch between these two mindsets. So as long as the factory workers tending the industrial device keep everything moving along the assembly line, we cram everything into the dishwasher. But when there’s a breakdown in the process -- like the other night, when we already had a sinkful of dishes to feed the dishwasher before we started in on cupcake production -- it‘s time to flip the switch.

I’d forgotten how satisfying it can be to clean a plate by hand, to loosen up the accumulated detritus of a meal and scrub it away. If there really is some kind of zen connection between what goes in on your physical environment and what goes on between your ears, what happens if most of your daily household tasks are those of an automaton, tending various machines that suck the crap off soiled clothes, dishes and flooring surfaces? What about the complex congealed configurations that defy the machine? Do we just keep feeding them back in, hoping for better results next time?

All I know is, my mind felt quieter after scrubbing those dishes than it does after I feed the beast. The girls were awfully proud of their cupcakes, much more so than if we'd come bearing tiny cakes in plastic clamshells.

And now that CBS Sports’ won’t let me log in to make my last-minute March Madness picks, I’m gonna have to fill out the brackets that came in the newspaper. By hand.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

When new is cheaper than used

So how do I feel when I see new shirts on clearance at Wal-Mart for less than what I just spent on secondhand T-shirts for the kids at Goodwill?

Well ... a little conflicted, sure. At first. But then you take a closer look, and the material feels chintzy, even for a T-shirt. And the styles are all so ... Wal-Mart. (Or rather, Wal-Mart as envisioned by the people who run the sweatshops in Asia.) Whereas the styles in any thrift shop are as diverse as the people who shop there. And even with a few washings in their past, I feel confident that the kids’ “new” shirts would outlast those new shirts in an endurance contest.

Besides, when I’m uncomfortable with the prices at a Goodwill or Salvation Army store,  I simply subsidize the purchase with money from our charity fund. That changes the equation, so that it wasn’t really a case of spending $3.75 apiece for used shirts when I could’ve paid $3 a pop for new ones. I paid $1.50 each, and kicked in a $2.25 donation.

And I feel a lot better about where that money’s going, as opposed to the money I would’ve spent at Wal-Mart.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Heeding the wake-up call

I’m finally reading “No Impact Man,” and one of the ways it’s resonating with me is that sense of waking up to the things that are holding us back -- not so much in an environmental kind of way, though that’s obviously a big part of what Colin Beaven intends, but in a positive psychology kind of a way. This trend among some psychologists to shift their focus from the most deficient end of the human hang-ups continuum to that huge glut of us stuck near the midpoint -- able to function in society and even, on the surface, appearing “successful,” yet too bogged down with mental baggage to reach our full potential.

In the book, one of the things Beaven keeps coming back to is what a soul-sucking machine their giant TV (in a small New York apartment) had become.

In my case, it’s the realization that instead of feeding one human body all these years -- which ought to be an easy task in a society where food is abundant -- I’ve been feeding various whiny components of my personality. So I’ve not only been physically bogged down by the extra weight that’s accumulated, but mentally and emotionally distracted by all these interior battles over food. It’s like I’ve got four hungry kids in my kitchen, each with their own desires and agendas, and inside my skull I’ve got another crowd vying for attention.

It’s not a debilitating condition, exactly. We‘ve managed to live frugally in spite of my overeating. It’s not even as much of a social stigma as it used to be, because so many Americans are fat these days. Everybody’s doing it, just like everybody (except us) has a TV. But when you suddenly wake up and realize what’s going on, it’s mind boggling to see how much we Americans can get in our own way. Not just sometimes, but methodically, as if we were programmed to only go so far.

Of course, it’s one thing to see a problem and another thing to solve it. For Beaven and his wife, getting rid of the TV opened up vast vistas of free time, which they filled with more meaningful activities. (And that’s just one small corner of their no-impact experiment.)

For me, it’s been a process of identifying the whiners in my head, and deciding which of them to quit feeding. I’m pretty much down to just two competing interior voices at this point: a primitive presence that panics over hunger, and a childish, spoiled entity that wants to have its own way, damn the consequences. I make sure my inner cavewoman eats first, filling up on low-cal foods that keep her from freaking out, and only then do I appease the inner child with some small treat.

It’s a relationship that’s working out on the scale, which registers a loss of a little over 24 pounds. Naturally it comes with a price: A little less than $90 to Weight Watchers, which acts as my drill sergeant, weight-loss program subcontractor and shrink.

I can feel the interior baggage melting away along with the pounds. I’m still not sure what, other than attempting to run a 5K this summer for the first time in about 30 years, I’m going to do with my emerging “positivity.” But whatever it is, it sure feels like it’s going to be fun.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Things they don't teach you in school

Bob and I were in Marshall, Mich., this weekend for an anniversary getaway, and when it came time to pick up something to take back to the kids, we did what we usually do: Tracked down the local Goodwill store and bought everybody a T-shirt.

Ben's had a list of oddball factoids under the heading "Things they don't teach you in school." For example: "The longest one-syllable word in the English language is 'screeched.' " I have no idea if that's true or not, but here's a piece of advice that ought to be dispensed in mandatory high school consumer-education classes:  Never order a large drink in a fast food restaurant that allows unlimited refills.

Seems obvious enough. And yet as we ate lunch in a Taco Bell yesterday, where I uncharacteristically ordered a soda (preferring usually to place my value-menu order to go and drink my own beverage), it seemed like we were the only customers who weren't slurping from oversized cups. And this was in Michigan, a state with a famously devastated economy.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Can Sun Chips make you a better person?

I’ve never been a successful composter, despite probably a dozen attempts over two decades. The one brew-mound that got closest to actually producing soil wound up as my most spectacular failure, obliterated by a bulldozer during a flood-prevention excavation project. (When the kids sled down the hill in the backyard these days, I sometimes think about how a few feet under all that fresh white snow lies a fetid pocket of pumpkin corpses and banana skins.)

But last night I trekked out to the most recent half-formed compost heap, inspired by, of all things, an advertiser. I’d clicked on a Sun Chips video showing how its new biodegradable bag supposedly decomposes in a compost bin, and was encouraged to do my part by starting my own compost bin, that I could then presumably drop my new Sun Chips bags in. I didn’t rush out to buy a bag of Sun Chips, but I was suddenly overcome with an urgent need to see if I could disintegrate an empty carton of Full Moon Pale Ale.

I tore the box up and mixed it in with some fuzzy corn tortilla dough and a few wilted lettuce leaves. Maybe this will be the year everything comes together, after it all falls apart.

In the meantime, though, I’m left with this nagging feeling that somehow Sun Chips has managed to plant something besides sweetness and light in my brain. Is it possible that the people who run this company are so well-intentioned that they only want to save the planet? Or am I going to start sleepdriving to the nearest convenience store, murmuring “Must have Sun Chips... must have Sun Chips....?”

Friday, March 12, 2010

Recipe from the not-so-good old days

The odds were stacked against yesterday’s breakfast experiment. MFK Fisher’s tomato soup cake sounded so unappealing that even I wasn’t looking forward to eating it so much as probing it. The recipe comes from her 1942 book “How to Cook a Wolf,” about cooking and living in times of extreme deprivation. One chapter’s called “How to Be Cheerful Though Starving.” This recipe comes from a chapter called “How to Comfort Sorrow.”

I like to run these financial fire drills from time to time, to explore what we might do if things got really tough and we weren’t just frugal but financially fragile. I’d actually been wondering if I could convince everybody to spend a couple of days eating nothing but Fisher’s so-called “sludge” -- from the chapter called “How To Keep Alive” --  but figured the oddball tomato soup cake was a better place to begin.

It didn’t help that Ben began inquiring about breakfast the night before, having noticed that our weekly allotment of cereal was running low. When I told him I was making a cake, he said, “Oh, great. It will probably have sauerkraut in it. Or pieces of ground-up broccoli or spinach leaves.”

He had cause to be suspicious. Though I’ve never hidden broccoli or spinach in cake, I have put sauerkraut in a chocolate cake before -- but only because the recipe called for it. “Besides,“ I noted, “you liked that one.”

I couldn’t help thinking he would’ve enjoyed making this cake, too. When you add the baking soda to the can of tomato soup, it starts fizzing up out of the can, kind of like those baking soda-vinegar volcanoes he likes to make. But there was no way I was going to blow this cake’s cover until they tried it. Stirring the brownish-pink batter, I thought it was probably a lost cause. If nothing else, we could always hide Buddy‘s pills in it once we ran out of leftover rigatoni.

But it looked a lot better when I pulled it out of the oven. The pink tint was gone, leaving what appeared to be an ordinary brown loaf of something or other.  It tasted vaguely like gingerbread -- probably from the ginger and nutmeg -- and so that‘s what I called it: “Poor Man‘s Gingerbread.” The earliest breakfasters -- Bob, Rowan and Cassie -- had no objections. Ben and Colleen initially resisted a taste test. But when Cassie and I got back from her speech therapy, Colleen greeted us in the driveway, saying, “Hey Mom, you‘ve got to make some more of that gingerbread!” Ben admitted it wasn’t bad, even after I revealed the secret ingredient. We’ll probably make it again, if for no other reason than I want to let the kids do the foaming tomato soup experiment.

    Tomato Soup Cake
3 tablespoons butter or shortening
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon of a mixture of nutmeg, ginger and cloves
1 can tomato soup
2 cups flour
1 1/2 cups raisins, nuts, or dried fruit.*

Cream butter and sugar. Add the soda to the soup and the spices to the flour, then alternate adding these mixtures to the butter and sugar. Stir well and bake in two loaf pans at 325 degrees.

*We made one loaf plain and one with cut-up dried plums. The plain one was fine, so you don‘t have to add this stuff if you don‘t want to.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Making lunch when the pantry is bare

Well, we never really get to that point here in America, do we? Even those of us who hover in the reduced-price school lunch socioeconomic segment of the population usually have a little something hanging around the fringe of the fridge. Even some of the people who stand in line at the food bank aren’t so hungry that they’ll accept a free loaf of wheat bread when they prefer white. (And those who do take it sometimes wind up tossing the wheat loaves in the parking lot on the way to the cars that they can still apparently afford to drive. This information comes secondhand but off-the-record from a food bank employee.)

 So yeah, while my first thought yesterday was “we don’t have anything for lunch,” what that really meant was we don’t have any of the usual lunch stuff, like boxed macaroni and cheese. Or bread. (Ironically, one of the reasons we remain breadless this morning is that the K-Mart where we bought milk and Little Caesar‘s pizza last night after the kids‘ taiko drum class was out of wheat bread. All they had was white, and we decided we‘d rather go without than eat white bread.)

But we did have oranges, really juicy Honey Bells Grandma and Grandpa brought back from Florida last week. And a few low-fat oatmeal cookies I’d made the day before. That could be a lunch right there, especially if you had a glass of milk with your cookies, but we were out of milk, too. And growing up as an American, I kept trying to envision some kind of sandwich to  fill out the plate. Finally, poking in a couple of Tupperware containers, I discovered one chicken patty and the remains of some biscuit dough. I cut the chicken patty in three equal peace-sign segments and dropped each piece on a spoonful of biscuit dough, then topped each of those with a chunk of store brand cheese loaf I’d previously cut into half-ounce chunks, followed by another spoonful of biscuit dough. (Actually, I was using a rubber scraper by the last one, it really took every smidgeon of dough to make these chicken-cheese biscuits.)

So naturally, the kids thought this was the greatest lunch we‘d had in weeks. Normally they practically spear each other with forks to get their fair share of a package of chicken patties, but because the biscuits obscured their vision, I don‘t think they even realized they only had a third of a patty, so they didn‘t feel deprived.

And with the free oranges, 58 cents worth of ingredients for the chicken biscuits, and 7 cents for each homemade cookie, the total cost for all three home-schooled kids lunches came to 65 cents. Less than 22 cents each. Nearly half the cost of Rowan’s theoretical 40-cent reduced-price school lunch, if we were ever get around to filling out the paperwork.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The perfect pill hider for pets

When people come to our house for the first time, they almost always say the same thing: “That is the biggest dog I’ve ever seen.” Some of them even whip out their cell phones to get photographic evidence. Buddy is half Newfoundland, half Great Pyrenees, and he weighs 137 pounds. He’s also an old guy with arthritis, and at his size he needs more pills than the average pooch.

Buddy gobbles up his fish oil capsules like they were dog treats, but getting him to take his glucosamine has always been a problem. Up til now, our most effective method has been hiding them in a peanut butter sandwich, which isn’t all that great for a guy with a weight problem.

Now he’s developed a double infection (both ears, plus the nearby skin where he’s been frantically scratching) which means he‘s got to take another 10 pills a day. And there’s just no way to stuff them all inside a couple of peanut butter sandwiches without a few winding up on the floor.

Gazing in the fridge, looking for inspiration, I noticed the leftover tuna noodle casserole. Except I was out of noodles the other day, so I made it with rigatoni instead. Those pasta tubes are the perfect size to hide Buddy’s pills in, and they’re a heck of a lot cheaper than those pill pockets you can buy at the vet’s office. (Just make sure you cook them first, so they’re both tastier and stickier for pill-retaining purposes.) I suppose smaller pills might fall out of rigatoni, but there are plenty of smaller kinds of pasta you can buy.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

When universes collide

I definitely feel like a frugal infiltrator at these Weight Watchers meetings I’ve been going to. First off, I’m guessing that anyone else who’s just crossed the 20-pound barrier would’ve shown up last night in brand new duds. Whereas I pull on a pair of previously too-tight capri-style jeans, relishing the fact that they’ll probably register a few ounces lighter than the jeans I was wearing when I stepped onto the scale last week. Problem is, they’re fraying in areas that wouldn’t even look cool on a fashion model -- one spot near my left front pocket nearly worn through from carrying my cell phone, and another larger section on the inside of one thigh. I don‘t think it will show, unless the frail threads burst and my flab pops out. I top that off with a comfy 20th century turtleneck that retains some of its once-vibrant mauve, then add a navy down vest that matches my secondhand crocs. It works, just barely. I don’t think anyone will notice, which is a good thing because when I arrive, my mom -- the small-town bank president’s wife -- is motioning for me to come join her next to a couple of vaguely familiar relatives.

While they compare notes on their favorite Florida condos, I make a mental note to inquire about babysitting so Bob and I can get away for an anniversary weekend, wondering if the $200 I’ve diverted from our grocery fund will cover our expenses. Finally the meeting starts up, and our perky, stylishly attired leader announces that boxes of Weight Watchers treats are on sale tonight -- just $5 a box!

Sitting in this meeting room of a nearly vacant ex-hospital in the small town where I grew up, I find myself thinking, as I do every single week, what am I doing here? I can’t afford this. We qualify for the reduced school lunch program now, remember? Our daughter could eat 12 reduced-price school lunches for less than the cost of that one box of treats!

But I say nothing. Besides, technically, we can afford this program, because I’ve made room in the budget, provided I stick to the basic attendance fee. I wince to think I’ve paid nearly $80 to lose 21 pounds. But I’ve definitely got more energy. And my mom managed to come back after missing two meetings while she was in Florida and actually lose a pound or two instead of gaining. I have a feeling she wouldn’t have come back if I wasn’t doing this with her, just like I don’t think she’d be walking a few times a week if my sister and I weren’t making time to do that with her as well.

This is what I tell myself, anyway. I’m going to stick this out.

Monday, March 8, 2010

We’ve been reduced

Because we live in a big house out in the country with an addition that once housed a swimming pool, people who don’t know us often assume we’re higher up the income ladder than we really are. Sometimes, just to shock people, I’ve joked about how we live “just above the cut-off line for reduced-price school lunches.”

Well, guess what? Between Bob’s pay cut last year and my recently shorn part-time hours, we’ve now crossed that socioeconomic barrier. All we have to do is fill out the paperwork, and our kids could be eating lunch for 40 cents a day.

That’s not likely to happen anytime soon, because our three youngest kids are still home-schooled and Rowan, who’s in high school, prefers to pack a vegetarian lunch unless it’s potato-bar day at the cafeteria.

But it’s a weird feeling to wrap your head around. Should you tap a government program if it helps you save money? Is it cool to shock people with how low your family income is if your income is no longer a matter of choice but of circumstance? Should we go into emergency financial crisis mode because of our change in status, even though we don‘t rely on my income for day-to-day living expenses? Should I get another part-time job?

We’re still sorting out the answers to these questions. But in the meantime, it’s a handy way to say no to things I’m not interested in doing anyway: Sorry, can’t. Didn’t you hear? We’ve been demoted to reduced-price lunch.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The rainbow on Gilligan's Island

Today we’re going to play the marooned-on-a-desert island game, only instead of deciding which movies or books or members of the opposite sex we wish to be stuck with for the rest of our lives, we’re going to pick one fruit or vegetable from each stripe of the "nutrition rainbow."
This isn't as hard as it sounds, because the latest iterations of this concept -- popularized by David Heber in his 2002 book, "What Color is Your Diet?" -- break the rainbow down into so many prism gradations that you don't have to do all that much excluding. You could take both broccoli and spinach, for instance, because spinach is a green-stripe veggie, whereas broccoli falls under the "green-white" stripe, whatever that means. Nor do you have to pick between tomatoes and strawberries, since tomato is a "red" and strawberry falls under "red-purple." (I think these gradations have something to do with what you're trying to promote -- whether you're pushing cancer prevention or memory enhancement, for instance.)
While it would be interesting to see what would happen to Morgan Spurlock (of "SuperSize Me" fame) if he ate nothing but rainbow foods for a month, our purpose here is frugality. Choosing one food from each stripe and then educating yourself about that food -- both in terms of pricing and all the different things you can do with it -- could be an interesting way to economically enhance your family's nutrition.
Take the orange stripe. Carrots, sweet potatoes and pumpkins all contain decent amounts of vitamin C and beta carotene. But carrots are cheaper, and unlike the other two, can be eaten raw as well as cooked. Not only that, but the carrot can also do a decent impersonation of its orange buddies in baked goods like pie, bread, cake and even cookies.
So, much as I love pumpkin bread, I'd pack carrots on my trip to Gilligan's Island. And that's what I keep in the fridge. I'll buy sweet potatoes or pumpkin, but only when the price is right.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The capitalist and the miser strike a bargain

We don’t watch much TV, so when the HD converter we got with our government-issued coupon failed to work, we just set it aside and went on with our lives. But yesterday I caught Ben fiddling with the converter again. I knew what he was thinking: I said I‘d probably buy a replacement converter before the NCAA Tournament begins -- but then that’s what I said about the Olympics. He had to settle for watching highlights of Shaun White's snowboarding run on Youtube.

“Hey Mom,” he said, “what would you give me if I fixed this thing so you don’t have to buy a new one?”

Hasn’t happened, as of this writing, but we did negotiate a fee: four bucks. Ten percent of the replacement cost, about what I‘d be willing to pay if I found one at a garage sale. (I suppose the average 12-year-old would scoff at such a pittance, but then the average 12-year-old probably has had cable TV since birth.)

We’re working on a similar deal with his mattress, which listed to one side. I was planning to buy a new one -- really, I was! -- when he carried his box spring down the stairs the other day and announced he’d solved the problem. Turns out the box spring was deformed, not the mattress. So he‘s been sleeping on that in supreme comfort the last few days, at least compared with his previous discomfort. And it doesn’t sit so low on his bed frame as to be either too inconvenient or too odd-looking. He thinks he can live with it -- especially if he earns a fee for saving me the cost of a new (or even another used) mattress.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Putting the dishwasher on a diet

We made the switch to homemade dishwasher detergent a couple of months ago, but it turns out I hadn’t shed a habit that’s pretty much the equivalent of the old shampoo marketing gimmick skewered on a Trivial Pursuit card: Filling the entire detergent compartment is really not that much different than “lather, rinse, repeat.” In both cases, you’re using more product than necessary, sometimes with detrimental results.

I’m all over this with laundry detergent. The more companies “concentrate” their so-called formulas, the more careful I am to stop pouring at the lowest line on the measuring cap.

At any rate, yesterday I took some anonymous internet advice and measured out two tablespoons of my borax-and-baking soda mixture. That looked to be about half the amount I normally use, but I didn’t notice any difference in performance.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Perpetual soup: The next generation

Way back when I was a newspaper feature writer, before all these kids came along, I did a story on perpetual soup. This was before our plunge into frugal living, I was just intrigued by the concept. (Running a photo with that article probably wasn’t the best idea, in retrospect. The soup, which absorbed everything in our fridge that previously would have been tossed out, wound up looking like a brown gruel.)

That batch of soup lasted us a few weeks, then faded from our lives. I wasn’t cooking much then, and I was never tempted to start it up again when the kids were little. They wouldn’t even eat Campbell’s soup; I can only imagine what they would have had to say about mommy‘s gruel.

Now, thanks to my weight-loss regimen, I’m once again tending a batch of perpetual soup, with about one-tenth the calories of the original model. Based on a Weight Watchers recipe, it consists of bullion broth, chopped tomatoes (though I use salsa for extra zing) and veggies like cabbage, carrots, green beans and zucchini -- basically anything that doesn’t surpass the calorie count of your average finger-nail clipping.

This less polluted soup both looks and tastes better than its predecessor. I think it’s going to have a much longer life span, especially since Ben, now 12, loves it.

Weight Watchers cost-analysis update: I’m approaching an embarrassment threshold here, both in terms of money spent (not quite $70) and weight lost, because I wish I could report that 19.2 pounds was all I needed to lose. But I’ve still got a ways to go, unfortunately.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Crunching munchie numbers

Salty snacks, like human beings, are often more alluring with their clothes on.

Take tortilla chips. Some sultry packages tempt you with a night of bliss, practically offering to pour you a margarita to wash down that cheese dip. Others -- the store brands we tend to buy -- wear the packaging equivalent of stretch pants.

Strip them of their vacuum-sealed duds, though, and the differences disappear. We’ve done this type of research at our house, using four brands and one giant chip bowl. Only one chip seemed to distinguish itself from the others, only two of us perceived the difference before it was called to public attention, and even then, once its identity was revealed, there was disagreement among the testers as to whether this pricier chip was, in fact, superior.

In short, the test only buttressed my resolve to never pay more than 10 cents an ounce for salty snacks. Here’s a shortcut to in-store calculating: Note how many ounces the package contains, then add a zero, and that’s your target price measured in cents. So a 10-ounce bag of tortilla chips should cost 100 cents, or a dollar, whereas a 15-ounce bag should cost $1.50.

Note: You can't always find tortilla chips at this price, even store brands, so when you do, stock up.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The easiest cookie recipe ever

If you want to save money on food, at some point you’re going to have to start cooking from scratch. Here’s the perfect recipe to get you started: These peanut butter cookies have only three ingredients. You don’t even need a measuring spoon!

Just mix one cup of sugar with one cup of peanut butter and an egg. Drop spoonfuls of batter on a cookie sheet and pop it in a 325-degree oven for about eight minutes.

Note: These cookies are tasty, but they don’t travel well, having a tendency to crumble in transport. (Recipe from pg. 73 of "Wells County Specialties," the 1996 cookbook put out by the Wells County Extension Homemakers, based in Bluffton, Ind.)