It's shocking how wasteful I was. A bin full of vegetables going straight to the garbage. Roasted chicken on the bone mummifying in the back of the fridge. Once plump juicy sausage dried out, desiccated, looking lonely, vile and mean. Seriously, if my parents, my uncles, my grandfather, heaven bless them all, saw what was happening in my refrigerator, I would have been summarily beaten.
You. Don't. Waste. Food.
In the 1960s, my father took home roughly $5,000 a year as a cook in a migrant labor camp. My mother worked in a cannery and brought home $12,000. In between were mortgage payments, clothes on our backs, raggedy sometimes, but mostly presentable, and we always always always had good food in the chest. Dad would bring home rice, beans, butter, bread and meat, while mama would make sure we had our eggs, vegetables, milk. We rarely needed to spend much on groceries, because both of them would bring home fresh food from work. And food was cooked and ready to go. Even my sister and I cooked meals as kids, so invested our family was in making sure we had requisite survival skills AND survived.
"We may never be able to leave you a fortune, but we will never let you go without an education or good food in the house".
Now here I was, the food that I worked so hard to pay for, rotting like abandoned convicts on Devil's Island. In total, I'd spent an average of $260 per month for food shopping, which isn't bad for some people, but I wanted to do better. I yearned to know what its like to depend on what I've got, instead of an ephemeral longing for quick bites that satisfy an empty, superficial desire, or a quick fix of some expensive cut of meat or fish bought out of mere convenience, leaving me financially adrift and spiritually numb. I've been shopping and consuming as if trying to entertain myself, with the newest, the latest taste sensation my next quarry. I needed something deeper--an appreciation of what I have instead of the constant pursuit of what I craved. All the great chefs and food writers that I care about - Bourdain, Ruhlman write about their admiration of the global, the simple, the crude and the humble foods that are alchemically transformed through cooking arts that come from the creativity borne of poverty, elevating the simplest of foods to the height of fullness.
In search of the simple and cheap, I had no further to look than five steps from my stove, where my pantry sat, tapping its foot, wondering when the hell I was going to get around to making something of its stock, laying dormant, warehousing food. Which brings me to the concept of Pantry Zero. The name of the top-secret plan to use up my pantry as the BASE for my meals instead of the afterthought, or pantry as storage and filing (aka known as Pantry-as-closet-for my-Trader-Joe's-bitter-71%-dark-chocolate-candy-bars).
And what better companion to embark on Pantry Zero than Wendy. My friend Wendy and I have this close-knit sisterly friendship that's been forged by years of standing together at the stoves of our respective kitchens, getting into a groove fugue concocting dishes from ingredients fabulous and plain, with always great results. We cook together as if we're having a conversation, but the words are the ingredients, and the feast the story. Both our parents are children from the Depression, her mother a former teacher in home economics and with my parental background, we had it in our genes to accomplish what our parents did in their day.
Last Sunday, we began with me purchasing $15 worth of ingredients, and $40 of goods already bought lying in wait in the pantry or freezer. Black eyed peas, a smoked ham hock. Onions from the vegetable bin in the fridge. Uncooked zucchini from last week's barbecue, some stalks of scamp, celery, carrots and minced garlic go into the pot to sweat. Wendy at the other end of her kitchen counter grinding spices she already had in her drawers, a couple of cans of garbanzo beans from the pantry, and some ginger, onions, garlic, and chilis. I pull out six pre-cooked boneless skinless thighs from a foil wrapper and clice these up into bite-sized chunks and put them in the pot of sweating savory vegetables. Stock is added. Simmering begins. I was lucky to have tons of garlic, parsley and lemons from last week's barbecue to do a gremolata to spoon on the chicken-vegetable soup to finish it (add a pinch of parmesan and its really ready). With the pot of black-eyed peas with ham, some brown rice and this soup, I have enough pre-done meals to carry me through the week, lunch and dinner. At a cost of roughly $30, and no more going to the store. No need to spend a ridiculous $8 bucks for a sandwich, a drink and some chips for lunch when I could have homemade chicken soup with vegetables, gremolata and freshly grated parmesan for a fraction of that cost.
But there's more to be done. I'm thinking next time we do lumpias of all stripes. And I wonder what Wendy's planning? She's taken a class in Indian cooking and she's unfolding knowledge gained as we work together. Since we're both getting good at the economics for Pantry Zero, the thing we're approaching now is the fun of doing something new, innovative, and fresh with the old tired simple shit we've had on hand forever.
Just like everyone else around this world. And really, isn't that what it means to truly live?