One year ago I was a week and a half unemployed. I’d started school full time at the local career-tech (new century speak for vo-tech), which was my way of treading water until I figured out how to handle this unplanned for life detour. Even with the loss of the job I was fairly fortunate, though. No debt and a modest reserve fund provided a strong safety net. The unemployment compensation also helped to keep my head above water – in spite of the fact that no less than a quarter of it went to my COBRA payments so I could hang on to my health insurance. I was forced to scrutinize my spending and devise a realistic budget, and a budget with very little wiggle room.
It’s been a number of years since I’ve had to be uber budget conscious. The last few years especially nice with a bit of extra income filtering in allowing me such niceties as travel and relatively unfettered shopping (mostly gadget related). I was now going to have to dust off some of my grad-school/starving artist survival skills and knuckle down to a tight, tight budget. The travel and shopping were reluctant but easy cuts, that left a couple of not-so-easy cuts to examine.
Now, I am basically a lazy person; that is to say I tend to look for the shortest possible route between two points. Or even better, find a way not to have take the route in the first place. This has resulted in certain luxuries I’ve indulged in, such as having a housekeeper in every other week to clean, a yard guy during the spring and summer and eating out or take-out on a regular basis.
Of course, such luxuries cost some coinage and my new cinched-in budget meant I needed to cut back. But, I wasn’t about to sacrifice the housekeeper and with winter on the way, I wouldn’t need to worry about the yard until the spring. That left my dining habits – convenience was going to have to make way for practicality and budget cuts.
Translated – I was going to have to start cooking for myself. And this was a Big Deal.
I didn’t grow up in a house centered on the kitchen. My mother was great with a few dishes (brisket being no. 1), but on a daily basis our meals tended to be boiled and bland. Canned vegetables were a god-send to her (hence a lifetime disdain for green things) and when TV dinners were invented I think she must have done a private little happy dance. My grandmother wasn’t a cook either – her maid Pearl was and we were not allowed in her kitchen. No ma’am, nuh-uh. It’s no accident, then, that when I left the nest, my culinary skills were sorely lacking.
I had a few of my Mom’s better recipes, but too many failures and my lazy tendencies pushed me farther and farther from the kitchen just as the rise of fast-food and the restaurant boom was getting started, not to mention the burgeoning industry and magic of prepared, frozen and processed foods. It was a hungry lazy person’s era of nirvana.
It’s an expensive (and unhealthy) nirvana, though. Now with my shrinking budget, here was my opportunity to change some bad, bad habits and learn another skill in tandem with my daily lessons in accounting. By day – honing my expertise on budgets and such, by evening putting a budget into practice and learning to cook.
Adding motivation for these efforts was a network of foodie friends who love to discuss, blog and tweet about food (as well as eat), complete with illustrations and video. And, ironically, I happen to be a Food Network junkie. It was time to start the clock and put Rachel Ray to the test…
I began by collecting Food Network recipes – I’d record my favorite shows, play back and pause while logging the recipes in a notebook1, craft my shopping lists and hit the grocery store. I also added numerous food blogs to my Google Reader, starring and sharing recipe after recipe. And of course, there’s an app for just about every culinary need occupying space on my iPhone. In short, and really it’s no surprise, I became obsessed. In a good way.
A year later I have to say I’m doing pretty good – I cut my food spending by twenty percent. My lazy side does nags at me – but I’m able to quiet it with some marathon cooking and freeze sessions which allows me to, for instance this week: pull some homemade tomato sauce and some meatballs from the freezer, some fresh basil from the garden and in no time have a home-cooked meal, nothing out of pre-processed and preservative laden jar and far better than a Sonic burger or a packaged meal.2
My iPhone is filled with food porn – shots of my efforts which have joined the meal tweets on Twitter. Once re-employed after my first paycheck, I indulged in the purchase of a Shun Santoku 10″ chef’s knife3 and I joined an online cooking school to learn more of the basics in the kitchen. I’ve learned how to enjoy cooking – even my failures. I’ve discovered an elegant poetry in the process, the prep, the building of a dish, the chemistry, rhythm, flavor profiles, serendipity of an idea that just happens to work (ever try throwing in a couple of spoonfuls of orange marmalade in that chicken dish?).
Fast and pre-processed food no longer has the allure it once did. I’d say I’m a fan of the slow-food movement – it’s far more satisfying without a doubt.
I may begin sharing some of those efforts here. I’m inspired by my no. one favorite food blogger Dutch Girl Cooking, who combines two loves – cooking and photography, producing posts with photos that make me hungry even on a full stomach.
So, with that said – got a recipe to share?
1 Yeah, I know there’s a website with the recipes – but this was more immediate and I was getting the low-down on technique as well.
2 Not that I don’t indulge or have fast-food relapses. A drive-in burger is a convenient treat, for sure… and I know where the best ones are in my town.
3 Just as any carpenter will tell you – you have the right tool, you can build anything. The same is true for kitchen tools.