Wednesday, December 3, 2008

City Kitchen Chronicles: Recession Chic, Party Planning, and Me

City Kitchen Chronicles is a bi-weekly column about living frugally in Manhattan. It's penned by the lovely Jaime.

A few days ago, Gawker posted on how the headline “Party Like It’s 1929” needs to be retired. They easily found six examples from recent months, arguing – convincingly! – that the phrase has gone from clever to entirely overdone.

But maybe worse than that played-out headline is the played-out and downright troubling trend of “recession chic," a.k.a. richer folks playing poor, seemingly getting a kick out of making fiscal sacrifices. Because to the seriously cash-strapped, this can sometimes feel like a slap in the face .

In yesterday’s megalinks, Kris pointed out the latest offender, a New York Times Style Section piece chronicling a chi chi party planner’s quest to throw a shindig on a shoestring, for a mere $30 a head (which, naturally, was titled, “We’re Going to Party Like It’s 1929”).

$30 being my shoestring weekly budget, but I digress.

The problem is the idea that a $240 dinner party is a way of coping with the recession, as opposed to a luxury. And when you look at the writing of the piece, there’s some serious exotification going on. We see the chic party planner slumming it at K-Mart, or mingling with the unwashed hordes at a 99-cent store: “Politely nudging through the clogged aisles of the deep-discount emporium, the dapper Mr. Monn reminded me of a late-model Bentley stuck in rush hour on the B.Q.E.” Meaning that the other discount shoppers are what, exhaust-belching trucks and used cars?

There’s this novelty to “playing recession,” the Ooh, look how austere I’m being, but that wears off. Yes, the economic troubles are affecting everyone, and lifestyle change hurts no matter how it hits, but aside from ending up with an awfully condescending approach to cheap living, this article highlights a really trivial way to cut corners. And there are lots of people cutting a lot more deeply, way past 99-cent store Christmas ornaments and office paper snowflakes.

At Jezebel, they get things right:

I'm sure that Williams meant well, but the point is this: for many people across the country, a trip to the dollar store or Kmart isn't some amazing sociological experiment: it's everyday life. And to continue to publish crap like this shows, once again, that the Times, while reporting unemployment rates and layoffs on the front page, still doesn't quite get the plight of the average American when it comes to trends and styles. I suppose this simply speaks to a target demographic, which is understandable, but every "recession chic" article that goes up just reinforces the divide between those who feel that a $238.40 party is a steal and those who have to live on $238.40 on a weekly basis.
On a related note: this December, almost a year and a half at a new apartment, I’m getting my place in shape and inviting folks to my apartment. It’s not a dinner party, as chronicled in The Times, but aside from inviting guests to bring a bottle of booze, I’m on the look-out for ways to make a home inviting and a party fun, without going (even farther) into debt in the process.

Way #1 I’d diverge from the Times plan is not spending $80 on decorations. Way #2 might be shopping somewhere a little cheaper than grocery-delivery service Fresh Direct. Way #3 might be saving money (and my guests’ health) by baking my own cake, so that my main course wouldn’t have to be baked potatoes. The Prime Directive of frugal eating is, I believe, MAKE IT FROM SCRATCH, and yet, as an alternative to the hip, pricey, and honestly not-too-delish Magnolia Bakery cupcakes, the party guru... buys an angel food cake at Food Emporium? For $5? And that’s before the store-bought icing and coconut flakes...

Okay, I’d do just about everything differently, except for the dim lighting. (The brilliant folks at The Kitchn have come up with an alternative plan that stays super-cheap but drastically ratchets up the food.) But, maybe my priorities are in a different place. Maybe I would rather decorate with a string of Christmas lights and spend effort rather than cash to make good food. My disagreements with how the budget was allocated are not the heart of the problem.

But The New York Times is a newspaper, and it’s telling us that this is the way people are dealing with the recession... what do you think?

(Photo courtesy of A Different Voice.)

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JMB said...

Nicely put. The Times article was insulting and WAY over my budget. And the budget of most people I know. Most of us know how to strike a balance between red solo cups and and a $240 dinner party. On a similar note, I am always amazed when I read party planning "tips" that tell you to save money by, for instance, not hiring a caterer or buying cheap wine, e.g.:

For lack of a better word, duh. There are plenty of us who live on a tight budget and still manage to share food and good times with friends.

pumpkininrecovery said...

Perhaps the demographic the NYT is looking for here are the bankers who get millions in 'bonuses' and will now have to 'do without'. I'm sure after earning more than I'll ever see in my life time, $240 does seem like a cheap party to them.

A good frugal party to me would be making the cheapest best dish you could, and inviting friends over doing the same thing, and then swap all your awesome new cheap food recipes.

Mberenis said...

KFC has buckets on sale right now.. Get that and a case of natty light and your set. $30 food and beer for all. :)
I've been doing some research, and there's more grants and lower APR's out there now than before. Bailout is for you too!

Nicole said...

That is a ridiculous article. Thanks for sharing it so we can all collectively roll our eyes at the fact that "everyone" is cutting back!

mgaltier said...

Yes, well said. I thought of this article as I was planning my get-together for tomorrow night. The hubs & I are having 6-8 people over tomorrow night for tacos and maragritas & to watch "The Life of Brian," which we own. One friend is bringing pico de gallo & another is bringing guacamole. I'll probably bake some muffins and make a black bean dip, too. The whole evening will probably cost around $75, and a good time will be had by all. With a $240 budget, I'd be grilling steaks and serving them with baked potatoes, creamed spinach, & a decent budget merlot, like Yellowtail.

Serena said...

The Boston Globe Magazine did a much better piece on this today:

ellen said...

I stumbled upon your blog and found it refreshingly clever. While I'm a bit older than the rest of the writers I too lament the full-bore hypocrisy of NYTimes writers and their insatiable fascination with the rich and the former rich. Keep writing and inspiring people with your originality.