The Pantry of a Modest Foodie: Ideas on “How To” Provision Your Table with Limited Means

JML Buying Cymlings in Mississippi at an HBCU Sponsored Farmer's Market

JML Buying Cymlings in Mississippi at an HBCU Sponsored Farmer’s Market

I don’t really want to make this a long post…really I don’t…..so I’m going to try not to.

I am supposed to be working on book proposals and that will happen ASAP, I just need to get my juices flowing at 2:24 AM.  Apologies for rambling in advance…this is more of a brain deluge than a blog post…

Let’s talk about the pantry for the moment….I am a very very very very very financially modest man..let’s get that straight.  When the Ancestors see that I’m following directions…I get blessed, other times I struggle through the muck like everyone else.  However I’ve had to keep up with the big girls and boys in the food world both near and far.  That has meant thinking deeply about how I cook at home and what it means to come up with new ideas for the people who follow me here on Word Press or on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and the like.  The last post I did got a really great response because I think people are at a wildly strange crossroads.  Our culinary desires and acumen are speeding ahead alongside our need to reexamine the basics we need to survive in days of economic uncertainty and struggle.  I see a lot of people writing to those who can leisurely indulge in the foodie world but very few who write to the people who deserve a seat at the table but can’t really afford it.

One of my followers on Twitter privately expressed to me that, and I am paraphrasing, that “it is as if certain people don’t deserve to make or enjoy pesto…”  That really got to me.  Bryant Terry has taught us a lot about food justice especially as it applies to children growing up with healthy eating experiences and access to quality food.  I think we need to acknowledge that the common notion, certainly not Bryant’s, that food justice is just for poor kids and single moms is limited.  We are not a nation of upwardly mobile or upper middle class people with leisure at our fingertips.  All do respect to those who have, many of us who are involved in this culture are not upper middle class nor are we necessarily upwardly mobile.  We are a diverse lot.  We are people who sometimes have and sometimes don’t.  We are people who make our own way when there is no other way.  We are people who hide our relative poverty.  We are people who by living certain values and having specific priorities have to really be careful about how we participate in the consumer culture.  Part of that culture is the world of food and all of its trappings.

There is a wonderful democracy going on in terms of food.  More and more places allow one to buy their local farmer’s market produce with public assistance program vouchers.  Community gardens are filling up as urbanites seek out access to land to produce their own food.  Edible schoolyards are mushrooming.  Houses of worship are going on diet plans and teaching healthier eating.  Programs are teaching teens, veterans, the homeless and recent immigrants transformative roles in the contemporary food culture from growers to producers to cooks and chefs.  Food incubator sites where people can utilize spaces to do their small scale food production and catering are helping people without full startup capability get a start.

And yet we still have people who want for themselves and their families and circles of friends a place at the foodie table who simply don’t have access.  That’s why I want to do this post as a beginning to that dialogue.  We need food justice and culinary justice.  I believe that people of all economic backgrounds and classes should be able to participate in the modern food culture.  That includes people of color for whom access to the higher reaches of food writing, food production, food preparation, food scholarship and food criticism is often limited.  It also includes people in rural areas where decline and lack of access and cultural continuity has produced a reliance on processed foods rather than the gardens of their grandmothers.  It includes the young and struggling, the underemployed and the unemployed.  We all deserve to be foodies.  It is irresponsible to talk about this exciting food culture without seeking ways to make it accessible to everybody who wants to add their voice. Black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, male, female, gender X, Straight, Gay, rich, poor, in the middle, working class, no class, some class,  HUMAN.  Simple as that.  Foodie unity yes!  Foodie elitism no!

This is not exhaustive, in fact its kinda like a random musing primer to being a foodie within limited means and its a grab bag of tips and ideas to get your wheels turning.  I want you to know that it would be GREAT to have comments and dialogue about this.

The Backup Singers:  You need to think about seasonings, savories, sweets and staples.

My pantry: kosher salt, coarse black pepper, organic sugar–I buy in bulk to buy it cheaper, brown sugar–light and dark, bread flour, all purpose flour, cornstarch, rice, pasta–my favorites are orzo, thin spaghetti and penne; baking powder, baking soda, yeast as needed, vegetable and canola oils, extra virgin olive oil, butter and margarine, milk, eggs.

Other spices—paprika, chili powder, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, tumeric, five spice powder.  cayenne powder, garlic and onion powders, poultry seasoning, Italian seasoning, seasoned salt.  Sometimes you can add to that dried sage, rosemary, bay leaves, oregano and basil.  Plan to stretch your herbs and spices to a years usage and no more unless you want to parlay them into seasoning breads, stocks, meatballs and rubs.  Even then most people will tell you two years is too long, but I use my spices and herbs according to smell and how well they have kept.  Even when “too old,” some spices work well as pest control in the home and the garden like black pepper, cayenne and cinnamon.

I make my own spice mixtures

I make my own spice mixtures

Using a combination of spices and herbs you can make a variety of international cuisines at home.

My fresh herbs–sage, parsley, thyme, marjoram, mint, rosemary, oregano, basil.  Some will not last but when you cultivate them well they will give you what you need.  I dry thyme in bundles.  Rosemary–I grow in a pot with sage to keep them both fresh and alive.  A bushy, thriving summer basil will give you your own dried basil, pesto, freezable cubes of chopped basil leaves, and fresh bows for the best salads, soups, stocks and sauces.

Produce:  green onions, garlic, onions, ginger, carrots, celery, bell peppers, hot peppers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, spinach, greens, tomatoes, chickpeas.  I always have lemons/limes on hand.  For me lettuce, cabbage, black eyed peas, and okra are seasonal as are fresh tomatoes and baby potatoes.  I grow squash and get too much of it and get sick of it and then crave it all over again the next year.

Protein: chicken, ground turkey, beef cuts, lamb cuts, etc. and smoked turkey wings, cured meats, etc.

The key word here is strategy.  (I know you’re thinking strategery..go ahead and laugh..) 2013 is on the way….Mayan calendar notwithstanding.  Drag your cookbooks out, take a good look at your favorite online recipe sources and apps. List your or your family’s favorite dishes and traditions.  Get it all out and make a plan for a year.  1) Look at your recipes–what ingredients are most called for?  2) Which of those ingredients can you buy dirt cheap and which are going to require investment?  Sometimes the answer to that is up to your comfort level and your brand or product loyalty.  3) What do you want to try that’s new?  4) What are your health goals for the year?  5) What do you want to splurge on?  What’s worth spending extra money for or to obtain?  6) How do you plan on supplying your own food needs?  7) Do you have guides or resources that show you how to get the most out of your area’s food resources—community gardens, ethnic restaurants, CSAs, cooking classes and other food education opportunities, volunteer gigs, festivals, farmer’s markets and access to wild resources like doing your own fishing, hunting, and gathering.  8) How much time can you invest in this and what are your end goals?  9) Do you have a food plan for the year?  Do you know how you will eat your way through 2013?  10) How are you balancing the need to live within your means and the need to eat well; the need to budget and the need to treat yourself and your loved ones?  What is most important to you?  What are you food values and priorities?  I don’t mean what do you think people should see you doing—what is going to work for you?

Breathe. 🙂 This is actually pretty damn fun.

For example:  Every year a program called Rooting DC is run out of a High School in Washington D.C.  Community and personal gardeners come from across the area..and its still not a packed house.  Seed companies give old seeds to a massive seed giveaway at the end of the day.  You can easily walk away with 50-80 different types of herbs, vegetables, fruits and medicinals—for free. A mom and pop nursery sells herbs, tomatoes and peppers for half off or for a dollar each from late June onward.  See what your community has to offer and start there.

I rent a home and I am allowed to cultivate my backyard.  I have a 12 bed garden.  I turn the soil, fertilize it with ashes, dig it up and till and tend it by hand and I plant it up.  Using a combo of free seeds, seeds I have saved and seeds I buy from companies I have cultivated–no pun intended–a relationship with–I get the sucker planted.  And around July I throw in late crops like those dollar nursery plants.  I also go to the seed swap held by Washington Gardener where enthusiastic gardeners swap their heirloom seeds.  Other times I get special plants and crops from friends or people in my neighborhood.  It only takes a few peppers to get a stock of a particular type.  One of my neighbors has a garden planted with Thai herbs and peppers–with a few of his peppers I now have a stock of seed he brought with him from Thailand.

When I plant a garden I think about the menu before I plant, not after.  If you know you like a certain vegetable–prepare to plant it thickly and in multiple places.  Use pots as well as plots.  Use large tomato or coffee cans and stick em for drainage and air flow.  Go to nurseries and ask them for old trays and plastic pots….Get better soil from mulching programs and the like…Know what soil and nutrients your favorite crops need to flourish.

Think about the things that you can buy cheaply and amply vs. the things you can only really grow yourself.  Example–I don’t have good luck  with cabbages.  Bugs eat em up.  I do have good luck with kale and collards.  Cabbage is not something I eat religiously–its a spring and summer food to me–mainly coleslaw, other salads and an occasional steamed or fried cabbage deal.  Its cheaper for me to go to an ethnic supermarket (great places to get deals on produce) or a farmer’s market to get cabbage.  Now new potatoes–baby potatoes, fingerlings and the like…that I grow–they can be pricy in the store, and I tend to get a nice crop giving me plenty of meals.  Other things, like chervil–are herbs I cannot usually find in the store–or find cheaply–so I plant them and I save seed where possible.

Know your trinities:  I cook a lot of foods from African, African Diaspora, African American, pan-Asian and Mediterranean traditions, not to mention foods from the Jewish Diaspora–I know my trinities well.  Green onions/scallions, garlic, ginger, celery, onion, bell pepper, hot peppers, tomatoes, celery, parsley—all usually get good play.  Add to that herbs like sage, oregano, rosemary, mint, thyme, marjoram and basil.  Some of these will come back or can be brought in and out during the year.  Using these building blocks you can cook virtually any cuisine cheaply and easily using a reliable supply from your garden or if there is no garden–from your choices of market.  Don’t go to the chain supermarket if you need a specific type of food—if you buy limes from my local supermarket you pay way more than if you go to the local Mexican/Central American market where limes are really cheap and you get triple the amount for the same price.  Scallions–I go to Asian markets where they are a fast staple in Chinese and Korean cuisines–for the price of one bunch at the supermarket I can get three.

Stock Staples

Stock Staples

Note to buyer:  In my area I can buy Knorr bullion cubes (veggie for example) cheaper when its labeled in Spanish than in English.  I don’t know why..I just know that I can.  Sometimes some of the spices are cheaper in the Latin market section and equal in quality.  I always visit the closeout bin section when I patronize chain supermarkets.  I am big on kosher stocks and bullion for quick fixes or ways to add flavor, when they are on sale, I buy them en masse keeping in mind sell-by dates and likely freshness.  Do not buy amply if you cannot guarantee you aren’t going to enjoy it fresh.

Learn to put food up: Learn to can, learn to freeze properly, learn to dry and dehydrate and basically take advantage of seasonal glut when certain fruits and vegetables are sold at their best and cheapest.  Other things just invest in—pasta sauce, salsa, condiments–which for me includes soy sauce and vegetarian oyster sauce—cans of chickpeas, kidney beans, dried cowpeas/black eyed peas, corn, tomatoes and tomato paste.   Some of these take less time if they are already cooked and preserved properly and can be cheaply purchased.  Its also important to remember how versatile these ingredients can be.  Your job is not just to follow but to lead and create your own recipes by knowing your ingredients, flavors and the flow of the seasons.  An orzo salad seasoned with garlic or onion, maybe peppers of some sort, olive oil, lemon and salt, pepper and  chickpeas is a quick healthy salad.

Make your own salsa, pasta sauce, stocks and other staples–if you cannot can–use the freezer.  Yep.  Freezer.  But if you want to learn how to put things up and ferment stuff see my buddy Sandor.

Some more tips:

1. Other things you should keep in a pantry–breadcrumbs or make your own.  In fact, draw strength from the new books on the market that teach you how to provide for your own pantry but be mindful; some of these books are not for the fabulous but slightly impoverished.  Making your own oils and vinegars should be done with care—so learn how to do it properly.  Toxic results can come from leaving garlic in olive oil—yes I said it–so you have to know how to store your creations and keep them from giving you food poisoning.  It’s lovely to make all sorts of condiments and your own culinary accessories but do it right.

2.  Know your sales, deals, and coupons.  And shop around….a lot….Beware of processed foods….

3.  Go to the source–if you have pick your own places utilize them.

4.  If you choose to conduct any sort of wild harvesting–floral or faunal–study the wildlife in your area, know which areas are polluted and which are safe, and be mindful of endangered or threatened species.  For mushrooms, consult a local mycologist who knows their stuff.  For all of these use your best judgment.

5.  Be a freegan….yeah there is a science to getting food from the trash–ways to clean otherwise great vegetables, bread, pastries and meats.  Don’t ask me about it–but you may have a group in your area.  There is a way to clean and be cognizant of food safety in these situations.  I’ve never done it but I’ve seen people do it in New York and other cities.

6.  Use joint buying power.  Family, friends, neighbors, folks in the same boat…buy together.

7.  Track how much a recipe costs.  Balance costs, nutrition, and whether or not the meal happily and safely carries over into leftovers. Know the value of every meal.

8.  Know your seasons.  Know market seasons.  Know global seasons.

9.  Don’t go too cheap on ingredients that are central to your recipes.  Get good olive oil, pomegranate molasses, hoisin sauce–if you don’t like it you’ve wasted your money.  Do your research, find out whats best.

10.  Splurge when you can.  Buy a really expensive ingredient or two, go to a really nice restaurant, buy one of those 50$ bible style cookbooks or reference books, and show the world by your stripes you earned your foodieness.  Go to a wine or food festival.  Reward your responsibility.

11.  Stay self-educated.  Being an autodidact was harder in the old days but now its very easy to design your own food curriculum.  Read, cook, explore markets, go to exhibits and talks about food when you can, and  know your food history, food terminology, learn about ingredients every day, practice your basic skill set—cooking an egg, steaming and boiling vegetables, cleaning a fish, carving a chicken….and take in all that TV, the Web and libraries have to offer freely.  At the end of the day, knowledge is the equalizer.

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About michaelwtwitty

I am a Judaics teacher and Culinary Historian focusing on the foodways of Africa, enslaved African Americans, African America and the African and Jewish diasporas.
This entry was posted in Food Philosophy at Afroculinaria, Heirloom Gardening/Heritage Breeds and Wildcrafting, Pop Culture and Pop Food and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Pantry of a Modest Foodie: Ideas on “How To” Provision Your Table with Limited Means

  1. uptownsoul says:

    One of the reasons I HATE being called a ‘foodie’ is because it’s associated with this idea that caring about where your food comes from is somehow associated with a “higher class” or certain race of people. When people hear that I cook plant-based “soul food”, they assume that it is set aside for a specific group of taste buds and income levels. As someone whose interest in cooking and culinary history was sparked by the food justice/access movement, I find it disheartening that even in my own community, a home cooked meal with a variety of fresh vegetables, diverse spices and nontraditional grains are only meant to be enjoyed by those who frequent Chestnut Hill or Rittenhouse Square. I like that this piece serves as a guide to not falling into that way of thinking. It’s refreshing to know that there are others out there working to level out the playing field of foodies by discussing food prices, cooking methods, etc. to help include everyone in this love affair with food.

  2. I really appreciate your posting this, and hope you’ll be able to expand on some of the ideas in the future. Trinity? Minimum necessary utensils, cookware, and even appliances? Fruits and desserts? There are so many challenges for low-income people who are trying to eat well and interestingly. You touched on several of them, and others have been brought to national attention by Cory Booker’s SNAP Challenge earlier this month. A couple more I’d like to point out…. One is that it takes a lot of time and energy just to cope with life if you’re poor, and there just isn’t a lot left over for gardening, shopping, and cooking. That’s especially true for single parents, or for the elderly or disabled. The other is that food often comes from food banks/pantries or as gifts from friends or other agencies. That means little choice in what’s available to work with, and often a plethora of canned green beans. You’ve inspired me to become involved in food justice in some way, and I’ve waited a week to comment until I came up with something concrete to start with. It’s not much — just a Pinterest board with the temporary and rather tacky title of “Cheap Eats” — but it’s a start and the plan is to collect recipes, kitchen hints, links to food justice articles, and whatever else along that line that shows up. Honest, this is a huge step since I swore I would never pin food or shoes with a straight face.

  3. Trinity=3 ingredient flavor bases on which cuisines are based….ex. ginger/garlic/green onions in sev Asian cuisines

  4. Reblogged this on Tichaona Chinyelu and commented:
    As a home gardener (and amateur foodie) I found this interesting…and helpful!

  5. Micheal, I am happily married, but I love you as only a another foodie can love! I have cooked all my life and when I married a nice yankee Jewish boy, I dove head first into the cooking of Eastern Europe. Then I discovered the nuances of Shephardic cuisine and was off and away. I now teach nutrition for a USDA grant out of UNCG in the Triad area of NC and specialize in teaching SNAP eligible people. May I use the above in a class I will be running this fall for a food bank? I promise to give you full credit.

  6. Pingback: A tomato grows in a food desert in Clinton? - The Goddess of Gumbo

  7. So glad you reposted this on FB!
    I love following your journeys but we miss you at Rooting DC! Please know that you are ALWAYS welcome–as a presenter, an audience member, or just a free seed getter! Lots of love and safe travels.

  8. Gioia Jacobson says:

    Hi Michael! I’m starting a blog in hopes of addressing a similar conundrum of how to eat good quality food on a limited budget. Your article was such an inspiration. Do you mind if I include a link to your page?

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