After a second trip to the Farmers’ Market with Chef, I’ve decided that it’s impossible for me to make “gourmet” meals on $5 a day.
When I suggested this to Chef, he said, “Yeah, well, unless you go up into the hills with a weedwacker.”
Walking through the market, I watched him hunt out the freshest ingredients. “Do you have winter savory?” he asked one purveyor. “Look,” he said pointing to small box of 10-12 fruits, “pink guava!”
I had just borrowed Chef’s copy of Fäviken, a book by Magnus Nilsson, the Swedish chef who has made a name for himself and his restaurant in the Middle of Nowhere as “the next El Bulli.” When I read how Chef Nilsson raises and slaughters his own sheep because, he claims, you should be intimately connected with the death of the animals you eat, I remembered something I’ve been trying to overlook in my quest for the affordable meal: I used to believe this. No, I do believe it; but it’s costly to put into practice.
Putting your money where your mouth is
Back in college I had a writing professor I dearly loved named Lionel Basney. In his book, An Earth-Careful Way of Life, Basney argued, like Nilsson, that we have become too far separated from the source of our food. Writing for the Christian community of which he was a part, he wrote that human beings have an obligation given to them by God to care for the earth and all its creatures. Behind his house in a suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Lionel had a large garden where he and his family grew much of their food. They bought their meat from a local butcher. “If you can’t know your farmer, you need to at least know your butcher,” he told me once.
I read Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson and I knew they were right, but I didn’t own land and I couldn’t find a butcher within miles. I became a vegetarian. I remained a vegetarian for eight or nine years, with occasional transgressions brought on by the smell of frying bacon.
I became a meat eater again when I moved to Sweden. I could say that their standards for animal husbandry there are higher than in America, and that’s true. Cattle, for instance, must be let out to pasture for several months out of the year. I could say that it’s easier to know where your food comes from in a country that’s smaller than California. But really, I just got bored eating potatoes.
At that time, Sweden was not the culinary Mecca it’s becoming today and it’s a curious thing because it’s not like the soil is producing new herbs or berries. Chefs are just working harder to find them. While traveling through the country last spring, I saw the same items on every menu: nettles, ramps, baby garlic and, yes, new potatoes. Soups were adorned with edible flowers. Meat came from nearby farms; seafood came from trusted local sources. Everywhere we went, servers were keen to tell us that the chef foraged the mushrooms himself or that the herbs were grown outside their back door.
It’s not so different from what Alice Waters has been doing for years, except that what was unusual in the late 70s (a Meyer lemon, say) is common now. If you’re going to do something unique, you’re out picking lichen and using bark.
The search for authenticity
As Chef and I left the market, he pointed at some pansy seedlings and said, “Now that’s gourmet.”
“So all I have to do is use flowers?”
“Well, everything’s been done. What’s interesting is the ability to create or provide everything yourself. Even the dish.”
“So it’s about exoticism?”
“Well, yeah, and it’s about showing how cool something is or to seeing how far we can push it.”
For some final insight, or voice of reason, I looked first to Wikipedia and then to my beloved First Edition of M.F.K. Fisher’s translation of The Physiology of Taste. Wikipedia’s definition of gourmet food is “a meal or ingredient of high quality, of special presentation, or high sophistication.” While the term gourmet was only applied to wine connoisseurs in Brillat-Savarin’s time, he writes that the science of “gastronomy is the intelligent knowledge of whatever concerns man’s nourishment. It’s purpose is to watch over his conservation by suggesting the best possible sustenance for him.”
Then, a little later in the book he develops a test. Try this on your friends at dinner parties. The reactions of a true gourmand, he suggests, can be observed upon the presentation of three different meals, organized by income level. In other words, a gourmet meal isn’t only composed of lobster and foie gras, because that would imply that a person of lesser means could not have knowledge and discretion over his or her sustenance.
Reviewing my Farmers’ Market purchases, I peered down into my bag. I had 1.6 pounds of spare ribs, one of the cheaper cuts I could buy, for $14.50. That was almost half my budget. $2 in beets; $2 for a head of celery; $2.50 for a small bag of peas; $2.50 for a bag of mixed citrus fruits like pink lemons and key limes. A $7 bag of dates. I’d spent almost my entire week’s budget on the ingredients for one to two meals.
“I can’t shop here and make meals for $5 a day,” I said, looking at my beautiful but pricy finds.
“But maybe on $50 a week,” Chef replied. “Get some of your ingredients here and get the rest at the 99 Cent Store.”
This is the tightrope all of us walk when it comes to food. It’s not enough to eat tasty food, and to be resourceful with the ingredients; making gourmet food requires some sort of intelligence about what one consumes – whether that means foraging it yourself, knowing the farmer, or just being familiar with the ingredients on the label. So we buy as many farm-fresh ingredients as we can afford and we supplement them with foodstuffs that are mass-produced. It’s personal, and it’s dependent upon our pocketbooks.
Can I afford more than $5? Sure I can. It won’t kill me to up my budget to $50 a week. And most of you can, too. Now all I have to do is find some exotic ingredients and prepare them in such a way that will cause you, as Brillat-Savarin suggests, to exclaim, “Say now! That looks damned good! Come on, let’s do it justice!”
The meal you see below was created with leftovers from the week together with a few ingredients that I already had in my fridge and pantry.
The following are some behind-the-scenes shots from the meal.