Farmers'-Market Cooking on a Budget? It's Possible
There's an old saying that says you can pick any two out of fast, cheap, and good, but never all three. If you've ever ordered fast food, you probably understand what I mean. Today, I'll be starting a new cooking column for TheAtlantic.com based on three slightly altered adjectives: sustainable, cheap, and delicious. Before we head into the kitchen in the next few weeks, I want to talk a little bit about why.
Recently on The Atlantic's Food Channel, Chloé Rossetti described her undergraduate home's answer to the question "How will we eat in a city without a central supermarket?" (Hint: guerrilla grocery trips to scavenge from dumpsters.) Her tale was impressive, but I'm sure that many, many more 20-somethings who have read books by Michael Pollan or watched the documentary Food, Inc. are struggling with a much more basic question: "What will we eat?"
Despite long work hours and the daily commute, I try to cook dinner from scratch every night.
If you aren't familiar with the landscape of sustainable agriculture, here's some basic background. Critics of sustainable eating are quick to condemn organic grocery stores and local farmers' markets as the territory of the affluent: Heirloom tomatoes can go for as high as eight dollars a pound early in the season and most salad greens are four or five dollars per quarter-pound, to say nothing of the budget-breaking price of fruit. And that's not including the price of local eggs, raw milk, organic meat, and on down the grocery list. Even CSAs (for the uninitiated: CSA stands for community supported agriculture, in which you pay a flat fee for deliveries of vegetables over the course of a farmer's season) can require a prohibitively high initial investment. How is a person or a family on a budget to manage this confusing and pricey landscape?
That's where cheap, sustainable, and delicious come into the picture. ("Convenient" could well be a fourth term; I won't ask you to dive into any dumpsters.) These three words form the basic philosophy that inform how I shop, cook, and eat, and I'm excited to share tips and recipes with you over the next few months. Some of what I hope to cover:
• The meaning and significance of overused and potentially misleading terms like "local," "organic," "free-range," and "natural."
• How to shop smart at the farmers' market, including how to talk to farmers about their products, and which vegetables you'd be better off buying elsewhere.
• The pros and cons of joining a CSA (or choosing not to).
• When it's okay to shop at the bodega (really!) instead of Trader Joe's or Whole Foods.
• Eating seasonally and loving it, even in mid-winter, and even when it seems like your options are limited.
• And throughout, plenty of recipes, budgeting tips, last-minute meals, and dinner party ideas!
A little bit about me: I spent two years working at the Yale Sustainable Food Project, where, among other things, I spent an entire season planting, tending, harvesting, and selling vegetables from our one-acre farm. I'm a recent college grad and New York City transplant. Despite long work hours and the daily commute, I try to cook dinner from scratch every night. My roommate and I spend an average of $150 per month on food for ourselves—and for our friends. (We love to entertain!) I really believe that it's possible to not only support our local food systems but also to do so in a way that makes sense for a small budget.
But this is a column for you, the readers. What do you want to hear about? Don't hesitate to speak up in the comments, or you can email me here. When we eat seasonally, locally, and sustainably, we invariably eat well—and that's good for us as well as the environment. Look out for more articles (and recipes!) soon.