Seven Limes

Gwyneth Paltrow's food stamp challenge
This is what Gwyneth Paltrow bought for $29 — to last her a week (one person).

 

This is what a week’s worth of groceries for one person looks like, if you’re Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps. She’s not on food stamps, but has attempted the one-week Food Stamp Challenge. My longtime readers know I did the June Food Stamp Challenge* in June of 2010 — 30 days of the food stamp budget for my family of 5. That ended up being about $450 for the month, and we made it — barely. The budget averaged to about $25 per person, and half that for our son who was with us only half the time that summer. (Read more here about my JFSC, all 30 days.)

We were hungry throughout, more so by the end, and came up against a number of hardships we didn’t know would trip us up. Questions like, what if one of the family doesn’t play by the rules? What if you burn the dinner? What if you’re invited to an outing with food and you have to bring something? What if you want to have a party? What if someone veers dramatically off the budget by cooking a gourmet meal? What if your pet suddenly needs special food? How do you deal with the sneers of people waiting on you or behind you in line? I am pretty sure Gwyneth doesn’t ever grapple with questions like that. Other celebs and personalities taking the challenge, including Barbara Lee, my congresswoman, and Corey Booker, mayor of Newark, NJ, have done better.

Props to anyone who tries the challenge. Living on a low food budget isn’t easy, and I do commend Gwyneth for trying it. But her choices? Not quite. I suspect she shopped at Whole Foods or whatever chichi grocery store is near her, instead of haunting the sale papers looking for BOGOs at Safeway. Bet she never set foot in the Dollar Store, either. But here — I’ll make seven points about what works and what doesn’t in her grocery bag.

tiny lime The first thing that jumps out for me? Seven limes. How about seven oranges? Seven bananas? Something you can actually eat. Now,  my Mexican friends have said that limes and cilantro are important in their recipes, also in Vietnamese and other cuisines. I don’t question that. But in my tight budget, food stamps or food bank, when we scrimped along, limes or lemons and fresh herbs were luxury items. If someone gave me fresh lemons off a tree (free), yippee! Otherwise, I rarely if ever bought those.

tiny lime

More luxury items on the list? Garlic and green onions. My friend Sang Kim says in Korean cooking, green onions are essential. The only time I’d get green onions was when my bulb onion started to sprout. And avocados? Please. Hard to get them for under $2, or 4 in a bag for $5, without the option of buying them separately. I don’t have $5 in my mythical $29 budget to spare on just one piece of delicious fruit. Avocados are good and good for you, but that’s one meal, maybe. Or a small part of two meals. Seven days means three squares = 21 meals. That’s a lot of meals. A lot.

tiny limeGood items on the list? That bag of beans. I might have gone for white or navy beans, or garbanzos — which are good hot (in curry or soup) or cold (in a salad). If you can get dry beans on sale, for $1 a pound, that’s the best bang for your buck on the FS challenge. Generally I see them for about $2 a pound now. The rice is also a good buy; brown rice is better for you than white rice, although it takes longer to cook. It also works as a hot cereal in the morning, especially if you have some sugar packets or have even splurged on cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice (it’s very cheap in November, $1 a shaker. Buy one then and enjoy all year long).

tiny limeAnother great item? Corn tortillas. Those are whole grain and will do in place of bread in many instances. Quesadillas for any meal; cut, salted and baked for homemade chips if you have a hankering (mash some of those beans up for homemade dip); chilaquiles when they start to get stale for a filling meatless dish. When I was a starving single mother back in the dented-can warehouse days, I lived in the Mission District of San Francisco in a mouse-filled apartment. I used to go to the Mexican open markets and get tortillas, apples, a few tomatoes, eggs, milk and dry beans. My food budget was $10 a week. And we got along, my baby and I.

tiny lime

Eggs are fantastic: a complete protein, easy to cook, boil to take along, mix into other dishes. But the FS recipient isn’t buying free-range, organic-vegan-fed happy eggs. Nope. These are the $1.79 white factory farmed eggs. Because it’s hard to give a crap about the chickens when you are hungry. Caring and being able to afford “happy” meat and eggs and milk are definitely  a luxury, a privilege that not everyone can afford.

tiny lime

A lot of people slagged on Gwyneth for buying one tomato, one pepper, one ear of corn, one sweet potato, but I’m cool with that (remember she was buying for one person, not a family). In summer, when corn is in season and cheap? 20 cents for one ear. No problem there. In winter, when it’s shipped from Chile? $1 an ear or more. Hot peppers are generally so cheap that a few can add a big pop to your meal and not break the bank; however, for me, those go up with the garlic and cilantro and avocado. Didn’t buy them. The tomatoes are delicious, but instead of the on-the-vine organics I buy now, I would buy Roma tomatoes or whatever was cheapest by the pound. Eaten fresh or tossed into soup or eggs, tomatoes are good; even better when in season and cheap. The greens are good, too, though I find that kale has stringy stems, and Swiss chard or bok choy can turn into two vegetables if you use the stems in one meal (stir fry or replacing celery) and the greens in another. Frozen peas? Another frugal pick.

tiny lime

What’s missing for me is a whole chicken or a bag/package of chicken, especially leg quarters or even wings. Some kind of chicken with bones makes two meals. First, the meat, and second, the bones to make broth for soup. A whole chicken, on sale, could be $5-$7, but that could make as many as 4-5 meals for one person. My friend Max Wong even fed two on one chicken for seven days. A chub of frozen ground turkey or chicken is another cheap find that can turn into meatballs, burgers, etc. Less than $5, too. I would have added a bag of bruised bananas, if I could find them, and a bag of carrots (or loose, depending on the price per pound) for snacks and extra vitamins. A chunk of cheddar or jack cheese would be nice, too, if there’s money for it. And a box of tea bags…Iced or hot, tea got me through many broke-ass times.

Poor Gwyneth (irony intended) may never really get it, since she was raised with money and has never had a hungry day in her life. When you have to make every penny scream for mercy, then you can see why she got spanked by the internet. Living a little bit hungry is good for your soul once in a while. But making it easier for families to eat good food would be a far better way to feed our souls.

*Note: My month-long series on the June Food Stamp Challenge won the award for Best Multimedia piece in 2011 from the SF/East Bay Press Club.

Epiphanies-R-Us

579300_10152390569614698_1755223128_n(This column first ran in July 2007, right before I became a Mrs. again.)

I drove up to the home county of Sonoma a few weeks ago to pick up one of our girls from a visit to her grandparents. I had some time to spare (shocking but true) and wanted some quality time with my parents, so I hung around for a while.

I picked some plums with my mom and she gave me some geranium and penstemon cuttings for the garden. I gave my parents their wedding invitation and I got to see the latest quilts that she was planning to show at the county fair. We talked and looked at pictures and made plans for later in the summer. After a while, and a glass of iced tea, it was time to go.

As we stood outside near the car, my mom looked at me and laughed a little laugh. “You’re me, you know,” she said.

Now I know plenty of other people who would bristle at such a statement if it were made to them, and plenty of times that I myself would have driven screaming away and never returned, but this time, finally, it is true. My mom raised five kids, and here I am, embarking on the next phase of my life, taking in two more to bring my total of children to five as well.

When I stood there with my bowlful of sweet Santa Rosa plums and my geranium cuttings and my packet of scraps for the next quilt I’m going to work on soon — har de har freaking har — there was a moment, I’m not going to lie, when I did want to scream. Just a little bit.

Because, you know, everyone wants to be themselves, not their mom, or dad, or elder siblings. No one wants to be the apple that doesn’t fall far from the tree, and no one wants to be “junior” anything. We all want to be special and a bit more advanced or evolved — to do better in our generation than our parents did, if that’s even possible anymore.

But how does one do it better? I simply can’t beat the 53-plus years of marriage that my parents have shared, with five healthy kids who all graduated college and made something of themselves. I may never get the 17 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren (including all the step-grandkids). Maybe our kids won’t even have babies.

My parents worked hard, played by the rules, did the right thing even when it wasn’t their personal choice or even what they could bear. They just did it anyway, for the sake of the kids or the family or the whole shebang, and here we are today: an agricultural water plant manager, an attorney and CEO, a financial analyst, a commercial construction manager and a writer, and our kids are coming up behind us, traveling the world and taking it by storm.

I learned a lot from my mother about how to feed a large family, and it wasn’t just “add more water to the soup.” She was a champion at filling our bellies in even the hardest of times. There were always bread and butter and vegetables and a main course on the table, and we learned our manners and how to say grace before meals, and took turns setting and clearing. We did our homework and got ourselves to school by foot or by bike or by bus, and none of us coasted; we all got jobs and did farm chores and learned to do the right thing, too, mostly.

Alack and alas, though, a daydreamer like me comes along and lives an uncharted life: Unexpected pregnancy in college! Scrimping along as a single mom! Married to a Catholic priest! Divorced! Writing a book about it! Single parenting again! Eek! May I just offer kudos to my parents for keeping the faith? I’m a peach now, but I was a prickly pear for a very long time.

Ah, well. What can I say? My mom says, “You’re me now.” Am I?

We spent the last weekend painting the kitchen what I call “olive,” but let’s be real here – it’s that classic ’70s paint color, avocado. Then I finished up the valance I was sewing, made from a novelty print featuring a cheerful vegetable motif, hung it up and we made ourselves some vodka tonics. The kids were scattered around the countryside but they’d all be back at the dinner table in a few days. We toasted our weekend’s work and got ready for the next week.

Dinner for seven? I am indeed my mother.

The Longest Night

I love Christmas. I love the smell of pine needles, cinnamon, cookies baking. I love bright lights on Christmas trees. Candles. Some Christmas music (some I hate, but that’s because it’s terrible music, not because it’s Christmas).

2014-12-09 10.18.01-1We’re in that strange in-between era now when the kids are adults, but none has yet married. There are no grandbabies. So there’s no Santa. No cookies and a carrot left out. We still do stockings, but we also play Cards Against Humanities later in the day, and believe me, that is a game that will put you on the naughty list immediately. Sometimes we do Santa gifts (unwrapped) and sometimes not.

It occurred to me the other night how much things had changed since my girls were little, and I crocheted, sewed or otherwise crafted most of their gifts; back when baked goods were all we could afford to give, and we went to Mass and still lit Advent candles.

Nowadays we have a crab feast on Christmas Eve, which has become almost the best part of Christmas. But this is a fairly new tradition for us. I started making Christmas Eve a special feast when I didn’t get the kids on Christmas Day. It was the only way to make up for missing the better day of stockings, gifts and more.

A vindictive divorce with a spiteful ex left me with little furniture and no ornaments. The first year I got the girls for Christmas, we strung popcorn and made paper chains, and I bought each of us a few ornaments for “our” tree, not the other tree with the familiar ornaments we’d always had. We went to a paint-your-own pottery studio and painted all the rejected bits (all I could afford) and every year I have had to look at those silly pig and cow ornaments (who puts pigs and cows on a Christmas tree? We did.) and feel bereft of what we’d lost. One of the few ornaments I bought was a blown glass Christmas pickle, which came with a tag that said it was a German tradition. We aren’t German, but what the heck?

IMG_4569Our Christmases together became more precious because we knew we would be ripped apart the next day, or thrown together after one hurried holiday, to try to get our bearings, adjust to the sugar rush or late night without sleep, start fresh in the morning. A divorced Christmas was painful for everyone.

Somehow, we made those negatives into positives. I was lying in bed with my husband the other night talking about Christmas traditions we shared, and he couldn’t believe that the Christmas Eve crab feast and the Christmas pickle were new, had not been in place for decades, for generations. But it’s true – I had just grasped at straws, followed whims, and made it work. And today, those random moments feel like solid traditions.

Our traditions and holidays keep changing. All of our adult children work in restaurants or hospitality, and that means weekends are booked; days off are Tuesdays or Thursdays. One of our girls, a pastry chef, works Christmas Eve, Christmas morning til noon, and Dec. 26 at 6 a.m., so there will be no overnight, just a flying visit in the afternoon, for her stocking and gifts. For the first time in several years, we might have that crab feast on Dec. 25 instead of Christmas Eve.

And we live in an apartment now. It’s harder than ever for all the adults to find a place to sleep (who wants to sleep on the floor?), and awaken to see what Santa has left. So we probably won’t do that, either. But we no longer have custody disputes or the back-and-forth of shared holidays. That tradition, thank god, is also gone.

So how will we celebrate Christmas this year? What will we do? Be a family. We are two parents of four adults and one teen, one cat, and one granddog who accompanies Daughter #3. We will probably have a son-in-law by next Christmas, maybe even a grandchild on the way.

Things change. We’re adaptable. We’re staying fluid and flexible, reaching out, letting it go, making it work. I didn’t sew a single gift this year, nor have I baked even one Christmas cookie. But the lights twinkle on the tree, my husband’s annual thematic holiday CD is playing in the living room, and somehow, one day or another, weather permitting, there will be cracked crab.

Tradition? Whatever sticks. Worried about it? Not at all.

IMG_4574Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Blessed Yule and a Happy Kwanzaa to all. And that goes for Krampus and Festivus, too. Party on, kids.

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10 green things

A friend recently blogged about how she spent her frugal day (hello, Katy Wolk-Stanly and the Non-Consumer Advocate) and all the cool things she did in just a typical day that saved money. Shamelessly riffing on her Frugal Day is this, my Green Day, or how I – without pain or needless suffering – make green choices every day.
1. Reheated yesterday’s coffee. I didn’t finish the pot of coffee yesterday, and sure, I could have thrown it out and made new fresh coffee. But where does coffee come from? Not Alameda County. No, it’s generally shipped from at least Central America or Hawaii, and at most, from Africa or farther afield. Shipping the coffee here uses fossil fuel, and coffee in general has a pretty big carbon footprint (four pounds of carbon per pound of coffee, estimated). As well, it takes energy to grind and brew coffee. Reheating yesterday’s coffee saves the planet in a small way – which adds up if over a year, you make half as much coffee. (You can buy carbon-neutral coffee, btw, or drink tea, which has a lower footprint, and avoid milk, which adds more greenhouse gasses than either coffee or tea. Cows and methane, you know…)

2. Used waxed paper to wrap up the Boy’s lunch. Plastic wrap takes a jillion years to decompose but waxed paper is compostable. Waxed bags are just as handy as plastic baggies for chips or other crunchy snacks.

3. Reused a bag to hold his school lunch. We used to have about five reusable lunchboxes but somehow they’ve been lost along the way. I am hoping to find a decent one at Goodwill or other thrift store; in the meantime, we’re reusing bags that show up at our house.

4.  Parked at the mall and walked to all the storesI needed to visit. I batched my errands to avoid using fossil fuel for repeated stops and starts in the car. Walking to the post office, pet food store, office supply store and more made for free exercise as well as a savings in the fuel budget. Note that green activities often save you money, which is just completely bonus. Took my own bags, too.

5.  Purchased recycled products: 100% recycled paper for the home printer, recycled paper bathroom tissue, recycled aluminum foil, and ball point pens made from recycled materials.

6.  Attended a marketing webinar at home, which saved on travel expenses, fossil fuels and all the expenses of leaving the house (coffee, parking meters, bridge tolls, etc.)


7.  Switched out rechargeable batteries for son’s video game controller.  We haven’t bought new batteries in months – maybe years. Invest in a charger for AA and AAA batteries, and 2-3 sets of batteries. Put one in each room where batteries are always in use (TV remote control or garage door opener?). That way it’s easy to find them when you need them, and the batteries get used over and over.

8. Cleaned out empty paint cans and half-used junk from the basement. These are loaded in the back of the car for next time I swing through Oakland and can drop off (for free!) at the toxic waste place. (More on this in the next blog.)

9. Took own water and coffee in the car; took own coffee cup to the coffee house whenever we go there; hang onto the cardboard coffee-sleeve (or use one of my home-knit ones) for reuse. I keep coffee sleeves in my purse and glove box just for this. I also keep one of those fast-food 4-cup cardboard cupholders in the car, under the front seat, for the next time we do a drive-through. Why not reuse the one instead of getting a fresh one every time?

10. Ate leftovers for lunch. How is this green? Food waste is one of the biggest offenders in creating methane gas. And studies show Americans throw outas much as 40 percent of the food they buy. That’s just not cool.
What are you doing to be green today? And, just a thought, how much are you saving by greening your life?

Notes from the Poor House

Well, it’s a tough scene, but this is the scoop. Mr Husband is out of work on disability while we wait for back surgery, and a layoff shimmers on the horizon after that. We’re moving very quickly to a smaller, cheaper house (apartment, really) and have been packing, sorting and donating carloads of stuff. Cash flow sucks. I’m both trying to earn more as a freelancer while trying to move us single-handedly. So it looks like all that fun stuff on the June Food Stamp Challenge of a year and a half ago will come in handy…

Just thinking about some of the techniques (if they can be termed as such) that we’ve been using in the past couple of weeks to pinch pennies. Til they scream.

1. Use less dishwasher and laundry soap. Use less shampoo. Shampoo less often.
2. Coupons or sales for everything. Paying full price hurts. Physically. Eat everything out of the freezer. Even the weird sh*t. Grocery budget is about $10 a week at the moment.
3.  Use less milk. Add water to the juice. Powdered drink mixes = juice until further notice.

4. Have a calm discussion with son after finding half a banana tossed into the compost bucket. Refrain from killing him. Pat self on back for not killing anyone.

5. Sell books and DVDs so that we can take the boy out for ice cream for his birthday. Since we can’t afford a party or outing other than that, it was what we decided to do. Buying a quart would have been cheaper, but it was literally the only thing we did for his special day, so bite me. Don’t judge.

6. Eat less. I’m not kidding here. Popcorn makes a nice meal. 

7. Don’t throw out old coffee. Reheat, save in thermos, or keep in fridge. Make fresh coffee every other day (less coffee, more water). Use tea bags more than twice. No more than one teabag a day.

8. Make sure to take a snack and water on the road for errands. Working our way through the stock of granola bar flavors that everyone hates (strawberries and cream — yuck) (crumbles? no problem — just pretend it’s trail mix).

9. Enjoy old Halloween and Christmas candy because there isn;t any fresh coming in. 

10. Collect donation receipts from every place possible when donating, for next year’s taxes.

11. Look at everything with an eye for “how much could I get for that?” Put it on craigslist for sale. Lower price after a week. Lower price again. Put it on Freecycle or donate for receipt.

12. Make people pay what they owe instead of being magnanimous. (Daughters are supposed to pay $25 each toward cell phone bill but have slid a lot in the recent past. No more.)

13. Harvest fruit from neighborhood citrus trees. Make interesting juice combinations.

14. Send in all FSA medical receipts, rebates, refunds, etc. possible.

15. Stop donating cash and stop contributing to son’s 529 and my IRA until cash flow returns to normal.

16. Make a lot of something out of nothing. Example: cooked the tops of the broccoli but saved the stems. Making soup tonight with slightly soured milk and broccoli stems. Sounds disgusting until you whirl it in the blender. Then it’s the same as you’d get out of a can. But better. Because there will be no insects or thumbtacks in it.

17. Bake interesting treats — use shortening instead of butter (crisper texture), lots of walnuts (which we have in abundance for some reason), mixture of chocolate chips of various flavors and sizes. Delicious! Pumpkin pancakes and muffins are next — with walnuts, of course.

18. Buy margarine instead of butter. I know. Kinda gross. Too bad.

19. Think about drinking coffee black. This is where we get a little desperate. Might have to put kids into the poorhouse instead of forego my half and half.


I can’t afford #20, so I’ll stop here. Watch this space for more adventures from the edge of doom!