Last Wednesday, I was in Los Angeles on business and one of the things I found myself doing was watching a group of very recent Asian and Latino immigrants clamor for cheap produce at a discount market. Prices were incredibly good —
- Asian pears – 2 pounds/$1
- Yellow onions – 4 pounds/$1
- Green bell peppers – 4 pounds/$1
I immersed myself in the scene, trying to stand still to observe people as grocery carts were being pushed up against my butt. These were people fighting for the best selection and cheapest produce. They clearly knew what to look for, quickly examining every specimen before putting it into their plastic produce bags. The thought that went through my mind was, "Man, these people sure know how to shop and eat well."
When I got back to my hotel, there was a message from journalist Andrew Lam asking me to comment on how immigrant food traditions are perfect for weathering our current economic crisis. The stock market may be bearish on mortgage-backed securities, but I'm bullish on home cooking. A good home cooked meal is always a safe bet, in good and bad times. And these days when people are cooking fewer real meals at home (getting takeout and eating it at the dining table is not really 'eating-in'), the value of home cooking is even stronger.
Take a read of Andrew's piece, The Cultural Defense: Frugality is Healthy and Wise (New American Media). One of the things I mentioned in the piece was a CNN segment where a reporter tries to eat on less than $6.50 a day. That's the amount of money allowed on food stamps. The reporter was buying a bunch of processed foods — canned soup, for instance, and admitted that he has lost weight by the end of the experiment. It was more a case of not having home cooking survival strategies.
I thought that I could get by on that amount of money with some rice, fish sauce, fresh vegetables, tofu, inexpensive cuts of meat (e.g., ground pork) and small fish (e.g., smelts, sardines). For example, a pot of rice could be enjoyed the first day with other dishes, made into fried rice the second day with leftovers, and simmered into creamy chao soup for a third meal. A batch of marinara sauce could be served on spaghetti one day, used for pizza the next and transformed into soup on the third day.
I'd scan weekly grocery store ads, look at overripe, nearly spent discount produce at the supermarket. In other words, I'd revert back to the way my family and I ate when we first got here. Call it scrappy immigrant cooking. Actually, I carried on that practice in college too. I'd get by quite deliciously and nutritiously.
And, given that food stamps are suppose to be supplemental, let's say you had $10 total a day. I could include liquor in that budget!
So how do you imagine eating on $6.50 a day? What about $10/day? What kinds of strategies would you deploy?