Tuesday, March 31, 2009

City Kitchen Chronicles: Beyond Thunderdome

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

"With the economy in a dark, dark place, we thought it was pretty obvious where society is headed. So TBTL introduced The Thunderdome Beach Diet. Can you eat for $3 a day?”

That was the call to arms, or at least, the announcement, posted on the website of TBTL, one of my favorite podcasts. TBTL, or Too Beautiful To Live, is a radio show from Seattle. It’s funny, smart, random – sort of like a really fantastic blog, but in radio format – and in the last year I’ve come to have a lot of affection for it and its hosts.

And, for a little more background: Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is the third movie in the Mad Max series (I had no idea there was more than one), about Mel Gibson … um, doing stuff … in post-apocalyptic … somewhere. Australia, maybe? I have never seen these movies.

Anyway, the point is, Thunderdome = a scarily near-future world where society’s fallen apart and things are a little more primal, a lot more dangerous, and, ha, isn’t that where things seem to be going with our economic crisis.

This sort of pop-culture-referencing, topical-yet-not-too-serious sensibility is part of what I love about TBTL. Their Preparing for Thunderdome series sounds like a fun way to acknowledge the economic crisis but have an excuse for adding some silly stuff to the show. (see: Week Two, Fighting in Thunderdome.)

But when I heard about the planned Thunderdome Beach Diet, I was … cautious. The plan: for four days, eat on $3/day. (This includes booze, a true test for my beloved TBTL hosts – they ended up just going sober.) It’s not the first eat-on-very-little project I’ve encountered – there’s the One Dollar Diet Project, 30 Bucks a Week, even Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski. But I was mostly concerned because of how many people (hi, this is me) eat on a limited budget daily. Not as a project. Not as a whoa, this is crazy, can’t wait till it’s over and we get to go back to normal sort of thing.

Because I’m one of those people, the people who think about how much we’re spending on food all the time. Sometimes I splurge, but my bank account feels it. It’s never carefree, never just oh, whatever I want. It’s: well, if I buy this, then I can’t see a movie this weekend, or I have some soup in my freezer, so I guess I can go out for a drink. I didn’t want this project, and the way TBTL handled it, to be about emphasizing the distance between their lives and mine, and I was sure I couldn’t be the only listener feeling that.

I was also hearing a lot of talk about ramen, and if I’ve learned one thing from reading, and then writing for, this website, it’s that you can eat really cheaply and still get vegetables and protein and whole foods and general healthiness. Unless you’re in college, talking about ramen means this isn’t a real way to eat.

And so last week, the hosts of TBTL went on The Thunderdome Beach Diet, living on $12 for four days. Three people are on the show – host Luke, producer Jen, and engineer Sean. And each took a different approach.

Sean bought milk and cereal, and ingredients for a giant egg, cheese, and rice casserole that he ate for the week. Luke bought eggs, tortillas, beans, jalapenos, a bag of salad greens, and some cheap chicken thighs that turned out to be mostly bone. And Jen… well, Jen had surprise dental surgery in the middle of the week, but I think her plan was a lot of rice, eggs, and canned green beans.

Hearing those menus, first of all, made me seriously appreciate how much I’ve learned in the year or two I’ve made eating cheaply a priority. (Well, I’ve made paying off my damn credit cards a priority, and in order to do so, I eat cheap. And in order to be healthy-ish, I don’t live on ramen.) Some TBTL listeners did the diet along with the hosts, and the hosts were shocked at what people were eating for $3 a day – tasty sandwiches and hot chocolate and homemade popcorn. But when you know how to cook from scratch, from ingredients, you save so much money. Every time they described a meal of canned beans or milk and cold cereal, I thought of what you can save cooking with dried beans, or how much more filling and healthy a bowl of oatmeal can be (and cheaper, too, I think), or how you can buy flour and make your own tortillas.

But this is knowledge that we’re not born with, that we don’t pick up in school or even necessarily from our parents. Thank goodness for the internet, and its gift of sixty-cents-a-serving lentil soup, and bless the $1.50 bag of frozen spinach.

That was my main takeaway – gratitude and appreciation for the knowledge I’ve gained, the skills and awareness that’ve changed how I look at food – at what I eat, what I buy, the way I spend my time (cooking). But what did the TBTLers learn?

Wrap-up included a lot of “It’s amazing (and shocking) that people live like this all the time.” Luke said something at one point about how it made him realize that having money means not needing to be careful – if the chicken’s gross, he can go out to eat; if the eggs break, he can go buy more. But not in Thunderdome! As much as I can think he’s naïve or sheltered to have never realized that before (and he happens to have grown up without a lot of money), maybe I’m naïve to assume that everyone should have that sort of awareness, or that everyone should already know how to eat cheaply without resorting to ramen or fatiguing repetition.

Sean was pretty happy with his week of casserole, although he readily admitted he couldn’t eat like that forever, but Jen felt a strong emotional drag from her diet. Not to have choice, not to have indulgence, not to get the pleasure she was used to from her favorite wine or tasty cheese and crackers – it really brought her down. I wanted to be able to reach through the radio and say, “It doesn’t have to be that way! There is variety! There are vegetables!” But also: “Dude, I totally understand.”

But, of course, after Friday, the TBTLers went back to their previous ways – their bigger budgets and different concerns. And those of us living on a little less are still eating with what money we have. But The Thunderdome Beach Diet made me realize that what I know, what I know how to do, is, in a weird way, sort of special. Like I have this secret knowledge, the key to unlocking the grocery store or whatever, a magic spell that turns a beans-and-eggs budget into kale and delicious soup and chocolate. (I totally budget for good chocolate.) And as much as it’s most of the time a huge pain in the butt, it’s good to remember that it’s kind of awesome, too.

(Photos courtesy of Spartan Tailgate and Ning.)

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Adam in KC said...

Wow I totally agree with everything you said. I, having never really cared what I spent on food, am making it a goal to eat on $90 in April. It's going to be tough but not that tough I think I can pull it off. I too wish to save money, pay off debts, and generally have better cash flow so this seems like a way to make some of that happen. So tonight I head to the grocer to puchase the first 2 weeks worth of food, wish me luck and if you have any tips send them my way.

Jaime said...

Hey Adam. Since 95% of it's not written by me, I think it's safe and not self-promoty for me to just recommend this website. (I mean, there are tons of frugal-living websites out there, but since we're already here.) Kris has some great articles on menu-planning - it'll be important to buy ingredients that can be used multiple ways, in multiple recipes. And, of course, the site is full of super-cheap recipes.

I think vegetarian protein sources tend to be cheaper than meat, so you should look at beans, lentils, eggs, and even tofu, if you're down, for most of your protein. Whole grains are great, too. Work with whole, unprocessed ingredients, and you can afford more food and healthier food than if you buy processed and pre-packaged stuff. Bread, for example - home-baked is cheaper, and doesn't have all the nasty preservatives. Even beans - if you start from dried, and soak them & cook them yourself, rather than buying canned beans, they're even cheaper.

In general, if you're willing to spend time cooking and preparing food, you'll gain a lot in the quality of what you can afford to eat. Good luck!!

Amanda on Maui said...

This is a very interesting challenge. I can get off at about 500 for a month's worth of groceries here in Hawaii, but I know I could be doing a whole lot better. Being gluten-free and mostly dairy free make things a little more challenging because I can't just bake my own bread or make my own pasta, etc. for as cheap as people who eat gluten can but I'm learning.
We eat a lot of rice around here, and I'd say 40-50% of our meals are vegetarian if not vegan. Eating non-meat proteins can certainly lower the bills.
Only this past month have I learned the power of the lentil.
Oh, and I learned the power of the cookbook section of my college library.

Marcia said...

This was a great post. Even though I have an income that affords me the ability to be loose with my grocery budget, I'm not. I enjoy eating healthfully for less, and it gets easier over time.

I understand the deprivation aspect that the people went through. At first it's hard. And if you want that nice cheese, but you don't have the $7, it's a downer. But the more you practice cooking from what you've got, the more you realize this: even though you want the cheese, the curried red-lentil and carrot soup might be just as good (which I'm having tonight...first time recipe).

I feel for people who have to be on that kind of budget all the time. But I think it's good in a way too. The fact is: life isn't fair. And having the skills and knowledge to feed yourself and your family healthfully on a budget is a thing to be proud of.

Kristine said...

I spent about that much in college. Of course, food is more expensive now, so it would be harder. But I've also learned a lot in the past 10 years. And I buy in bulk, now that I'm feeding a large family. I do have to say - this is a much more realistic "experiment" than cnn's thing of living off the equivalent of food stamps for a month. If they would stretch it into a week or two, then I think they would really start to learn something. 4 days - it's too easy to let yourself be hungry.

hbk2flyer said...

I had fun with the Thunderdome challenge. I didn't go spend $12 I just kept track of what I was eating and tried to be in survival mode and frugal without torturing myself.

1/4 cup of Starbucks coffee beans ground & boiled in about a quart of water was my coffee for the day. ($.50?)

1/2 jar of Jiff Peanut butter and 1 loaf of bread lasted the 4 days.

I ate a total of 6 hard boiled eggs, a jar of pickles and a big box of raisins from the dollar store, and about 1 cup of almonds.

Also, I ate a grapefruit and candied the rind which i used as a snack and on the peanut butter sandwiches.

I had a little bit of beef jerky also.

I think it was healthy.

I learned a lot about how I think about food as a pleasure source. I would see adds for Burger King and think "I don't really need that do I?" where before it was "Mmmm, that looks good, I want it"

The experience changed how I look at food forever.