Two years ago I posted a column here about my mother and her beans. During the oil crisis in the 1970s, my mother’s method of protecting us from the economic collapse she was positive would transpire was to buy tons of dried beans.
I am quite sure any day now that John Edward will call me up to tell me he’s channeled my mother, who is pushing aside all the other spirits just to say, “I told you so.” (She will also add, as she’s fading away, “…and get that hair out of your eyes.”)
I come from a long line of wary, frugal women. My grandmother, having been widowed in the midst of the Great Depression, raised six kids on her single income as a milliner. My uncle swears they “never knew there was a depression.”
My grandmother’s method of feeding an army on a tight budget was mixing pasta with just about any vegetable you can imagine or, as you might expect, any legume she had hanging about the house. In my family, dried beans are heirlooms.
My grandmother’s real secret weapon was a legendary cabbage dish made in a huge lasagna pan. I know it featured breadcrumbs and was baked in the oven. But the amazing thing about this dish was its ability to expand in your stomach and make you feel full. I will have the decency not to mention the aftermath of such a fibrous meal, but it was good – well, it wasn’t horrible. I never watched the creation of this dish or got the recipe, to the relief of the rest of this household’s residents.
I have my own tricks of culinary frugality. When we homeschooled the Heirs we were a single income family on a civil servant’s pay, so economy was a way of life. Back then our “vacations” were contingent on where the Commonwealth of Virginia decided to send Dirtman for a conference and “eating out” meant opening up a cooler in the back of the car and having a roadside picnic. I recall one trip to Pennsylvania where Dirtman, the Heirs, my brother, my nephew and I all shared the same hotel room paid for by the state during a national soils conference. We ate out of a cooler full of sandwiches. The big feature of the trip was the swimming pool and that the room had cable featuring Cartoon Network.
In frugal mode, the first thing to go is cold cereal, which is a financial black hole. Cold cereal and milk evaporate in this house. So cold cereal is replaced by rolled oats, stone ground oatmeal and farina, all bought in bulk. Milk is mixed with dried milk in a 1/1 ratio. This practice has drastically reduced the traffic in the kitchen at ten o’clock at night and also reduced Dirtman’s waistline.
Like my mother and grandmother, a lot of the money-saving methods I used back then stayed with me when our finances loosened. We continued to buy in bulk and scratch cooking continued simply because it tastes better. A lot of my grandmother’s thrifty recipes are now featured in tony Italian restaurants for not-so-thrifty prices and so I’ve always been able to entertain without breaking the bank.
I will admit that some of my more radical ideas from back in the day have been banished by mandate from our table forever. I was forced to vow never to serve a casserole featuring TVP (texturized vegetable protein) ever again. Deer and rabbit have also been banned. And I’m not permitted to forage for greens anywhere but an officially designated garden (women of Italian extract find it difficult to walk anywhere without scanning the countryside for edible greens. It’s in our DNA and a great comfort to know that, in a pinch, we can always resort to grazing).
So far I’ve managed to disguise the increase in bean consumption. I don’t think anyone has caught onto the fact that what I present as “dip” is, in fact, bean dip – is, in fact, (though I’ll deny it if mentioned in front of Dirtman or either Heir) hummus. “Hummus” is considered something only eaten on the west coast by liberal nut cases. That innocent can of chick peas has absolutely nothing to do with hummus.
Meanwhile, I surreptitiously stockpile my bags of dried beans for when things get really bad. So everyone knows where to come when they’re starving and, of course, they are more than welcome. So long as I can serve from upwind.