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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Frugal Food: What Would an Italian Peasant Do?

Thanks for your patience, Dear Readers. I am not quite "up to snuff," as my beloved dissertation director used to say, but I'll give this a try.

One reason I didn't want to write anything yesterday was because I was saving my strength for the 12 hour day I knew was ahead of me. In addition to my classes, I had to put in appearances at various events with a visiting writer: lectures, lunch, readings, presentations, ending with a pot luck at the home of my Department Head (to be known as DH in future mentions for reasons obvious to anyone who knows him).

As it turned out, the day was a delight. The writer, Richard Ford, was charming, and spent a lot of time with students, gracefully answering questions he must have been asked a million times (Did you feel you had to leave the South? Are your stories based on your life? What are your sources of inspiration?). The reading of the story Optimists was quite moving, and left me teary-eyed.

And, as for the pot luck dinner: we brought braised greens from our garden. Served room temperature with olive oil and lemon. This turned out to be a good choice because no one else brought veggies, aside from a salad left over from the lunch, and one of those vegetable trays with dip that you pick up at the grocery.

Of course, we were also motivated by the fact that we still have tons of greens in the garden and will have to pull them up soon. Plus we wanted to make something ahead that could be transported to school, hang out in the fridge for 12 hours, and be served without any further prep.

We have been eating greens without cease for the last few weeks. Except for one bunch of broccoli that I purchased in a moment of weakness, I have bought no other vegetable. Even with giving away bags of greens and offering some to various dog walkers who stroll by, we may still have to mulch some.

Some people are shocked by the fact that my vegetables have been lacking in variety. Tonight, after a rich dinner last night, we had potatoes with caramelized onions and--yes--greens! I am comforted by a vision from Under the Tuscan Sun. I must say that I absolutely detested that book, which seemed to me more about self-indulgence and shopping than anything else. But I seem to recall an encounter between the author and an old woman picking wild greens on the author's property. The old woman is my role model here. She probably ate greens every day too.

When I was engaged in a previous frugal enterprise that came to naught (reviewing the thrift stores of New Orleans--Katrina put an end to that project), I read a book that my then-partner suggested. It was about dressing from consignment shops. The author warned against the common problem of acquiring too much stuff because it was so cheap. She urged her readers to dress like a French person. The gist was that French women don't try to look different every day, they try to look good every day. Americans, as most of us know, have the opposite philosophy.

So I say, we don't have to eat different vegetables every day. We just have to eat good vegetables every day! Eat like an Italian peasant.

Any thoughts, Dear Readers?

Monday, March 30, 2009

I'm Sick, Dear Readers

No biggie. Just a terrible cold. Be patient. I'll be back.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Remember Me: Not on Frugality

Most days I can't wait to see what frugal thoughts cross my mind. I have so much fun with this blog. But today I want to write on a melancholy topic: grief, memory, mortality. I had intended to write a few posts on my frugal Dad, who died about four months ago. I think I wrote only two.

The other day I recited for my class Emily Dickinson's great poem "After great pain." I had had my students memorize a few lines of poetry, so I did my poem to be fair. I hadn't actually prepared this, I told them; rather, I had read the poem a lot in my college days (more than 30 years ago), probably because of a minor heartbreak. I recited the poem with only a few mistakes. I prefaced the amazing last stanza by saying that Dickinson had an incredible understanding of human suffering. When I had finished (to great acclaim!), several students came up to me to tell me about personal things: one had a baby die at four months, another had a friend die from a heroin overdose, and so on. Usually, teachers extol the virtues of literary study by saying that literature helps us understand the world. But it occurs to me that literary works perhaps simply show us that someone else understands us.

Here is Dickinson's last stanza:

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow--
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

Here are other passages that have flooded my mind of late:

From Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia or Urne Buriall:

Oblivion is not to be hired: The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the Register of God, not in the register of man. Twenty-seven Names make up the first story before the flood, and the recorded names ever since contain not one living Century. The number of the dead long exceedeth all that shall live. The night of time far surpasseth the day, and who knows when was the Æquinox? Every hour adds unto that current Arithmetique which scarce stands one moment. And since death must be the Lucina of life, and even Pagans could doubt, whether thus to live, were to dye. Since our longest sunne sets at right descensions, and makes but winter arches, and therefore it cannot belong before we lie down in darknesse, and have our light in ashes.

From Milton's Paradise Lost (note: this is spoken by a devil--Belial--in Hell. He is not a good guy!):

To be no more. Sad cure! for who would lose,
Though full of pain, this intellectual being,
Those thoughts that wander through eternity,
To perish rather, swallowed up and lost
In the wide womb of uncreated Night,
Devoid of sense and motion?

And, of course, the words of the Ghost of Hamlet's father to Hamlet: "Remember me."

But to all that have made it this far, it is a beautiful day here. Let us listen to Wordsworth:

OH there is blessing in this gentle breeze,
A visitant that while it fans my cheek
Doth seem half-conscious of the joy it brings
From the green fields, and from yon azure sky.
Whate'er its mission, the soft breeze can come
To none more grateful than to me

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Too Frugal?: A Journey to the Dark Side

Is it possible to be too frugal? I recently quoted Amy D, or rather paraphrased her, since her books do not have the best indexing system. She opined that asking if one can be too frugal is like asking if one can be too happy.

But a comment from sallymandy, proprietress of one of the most thoughtful and beautifully written blogs out there, presented a somewhat different view:

But I do think one can be "too frugal."

Amy D used to be the heroine of my life, but eventually I felt I was living and looking like a bag lady because everything came from a yard sale.

I think it's all about balancing values. While I certainly value frugality, I also value aesthetics, and some things that money CAN buy.

Because of my personality, "frugality" can easily become a way to beat myself over the head with an attitude of "you don't deserve anything good in your life." I can become a harsh taskmaster.

Lately it's been helpful to "invest" small amounts on beauty to counteract the effect of the recession on our family (my husband's job was dependent on the stock market and is now gone completely). Three dollars on some flowers make me way happier doing the work I have to do for money. Things like that.

So, a journey to the dark side. Indeed, I agree that Amy may have been too frugal, her pathological tendencies exceeding even mine. I once read an article where she explained that $0.25 was her top price for a yard sale shirt. I imagined various scenarios in which Amy encountered a Chanel shirt at a yard sale marked $0.35. NO. Ditto for a beautiful embroidered masterpiece. NO. Amy was a boundary setter and, unlike me, she stayed within her self-prescribed territory. I think that, in addition to being a parent to 6 kids, Amy's mission was to show that extreme frugality was possible: in a sense, she sacrificed herself for the greater good. She was her own artwork. And I am sure she was happy.

But there is a potential for anorexia in this self-denial. I bought the book How to Get Out of Debt, Stay out of Debt, and Live Prosperously at (surprise!) a thrift shop because I thought it would enable me to give even better advice to my many un-frugal friends. Well! Much to my surprise, Miss Know-It-All (me) found herself in the book.

At thirty-five, Peggy wasn't carrying a large debt . . .But she'd been in debt most of her adult life. she was living in a tidy studio apartment. Her possessions were shabby. She bought most of her clothes second-hand. Yet she had a master's degree in English and had taught at a university in her early twenties while she studied for a doctorate. She was an intelligent woman, but she had little belief in herself and no sense of self-worth. She left the university and drifted from job to job in a downward spiral . .

This is what I would have become if I hadn't finished my dissertation, gotten a job, and met and married Mr. FS. Note that only the first one was entirely within my control. So my horror at this picture of my "double" is very like the sentiments voiced above by sallymandy. Check out the blue kimono blog on my list to the right for more of sallymandy's fabulous writing (not all dark!).

OK, time to leave the dark side and return to a cheery, can-do attitude. Dear Readers, how do you keep yourself from succumbing to too-frugal tendencies?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Gratitude: OR I'm Famous

So I noticed a slight uptick in my readership yesterday.

Then, reading Roomfarm, one of my fave blogs, I learned that she had a HUGE uptick owing to a mention in MSN Money! Lo and behold, I was mentioned too! Here.

According to Chance of Roomfarm, her sudden fame was a result of a referral by another fave blogger, Funny About Money:

Upon investigation it turns out that very lovely Funny About Money told Karen Datko about my blog, and she featured it on the MSN Smart Spending blog. Her post was complimentary and made me actually blush, and then I spent the rest of the day being ridiculously pleased and calling everyone I knew to tell them about it. It's still going on - today by 3:30 EST I had 264 visits.

Thanks to Karen Datko of MSN Smart Spending Blog. Could Funny have mentioned me too? Thanks to her, no matter what, because her blog inspired me to start my own. Thanks to Chance, for providing the key to the mystery. Thanks to any new readers for stopping by.

Interestingly, Chance got a lot more readers from the mention than I did, perhaps because her post was on lagniappe, the Louisiana term that means "something extra." I am from Louisiana and I am here to say that the term is used ALL the time around here.

My post was a little whine about thrift store prices. It looks like gratitude outsells whining. That's as it should be.

So I will resist the temptation to make a comment about the AIG whine of the week that was in the New York Times yesterday. Sorry, no links to whining!

So, gratitude that Spring is here, the azaleas look great, we're still eating garden greens, I have lots of reading material in the house, I'm getting through a big pile of papers, Luzianne coffee was on sale allowing me to stock up, a former colleague brought me a dozen yard eggs, soon spring break will be here, soon Jazz Fest will be here,soon summer break will be here. Oh yeah, I thought my classes went well yesterday. I read an undergraduate paper so good my heart almost burst. I recited a poem in class that I memorized more than 30 years ago and, even though I needed a few prompts, my students burst into applause! Finally, since I have to get back to grading, I am grateful that my son made homemade lasagne noodles a few days ago and gave us some of the excess. We will be having lasagne tonight.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Oversaving: Yet another annoying article on how we should spend

The title says it all: another annoying article. This one, from the New York Times, admonishes oversavers: spend a little on indulgences to be "happy." Ants look too much to the future and so oversave. Here's the admonishment.

During the current recession, hyperopic Ants are presumably having a harder time than ever parting with their own cash, no matter how often President Obama and his economists urge them to do some stimulative shopping. But would these Ants — and the economy — be better off if they relaxed a little? (You can provide an answer at TierneyLab, ) I asked Dr. Kivetz for his advice to shoppers.

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” he said. “Obviously you need to be responsible and conserve your savings. But it’s been a depressing winter, and there’s nothing wrong with indulging yourself a little. This is a chance to reassess the quality and the balance of your life and to think how you’ll feel in the future. As long as you can afford it, it’s not a bad thing to be enjoying yourself.”

The key word above is "presumably." Much of the essay is filled with "research" from "scientists." But the key assumption is based in the word "presumably." "Presumably" savers are spending even less (or saving more) during the recession.

Hey, no one asked me! I'm a hyperopic ant, I suppose, and, since my job is safe (knock on wood; I have tenure), I'm spending as usual this year. If my job were in danger, you can bet your booty I'd be saving more. But, as it is, we are planning two trips for the family, one to each coast. Mr. FS and I are renewing our just-expired passports in case an irresistible trip to Europe emerges. Frugal Son will likely be spending a semester in France (to the tune of about $10,000).

And, as for material things, there's not too much we want. Last year, we had our roof fixed ($2,000.00), did a wonderful kitchen remodel (only $8,000.00 because of good planning), got new brick steps ($2,500.00). Oh yeah, we needed a new air conditioning system ($6,500.00). The steps and the kitchen are giving me a lot of joy, each and every day. The other stuff had to be done.

This year, I'll be getting new slipcovers for some chairs and maybe Mr. FS will get his fancy bicycle.

There is NOTHING material that I regret not spending on. I do regret forgoing a few trips abroad because Mr. FS and I were very anxious about continuing employment in the dark days of graduate school and just after. But the security of money in the bank made up for those "lost" trips and we're making up for them now that our employment is secure.

Indeed, it was time rather than money that kept us home: we needed to publish so as not to perish. And it was kids too. As soon as our job situations were somewhat secure, we had children--just two, late, and in pretty rapid succession. So it turns out we were making choices, based on our values. What could be more frugal than that?

So, to me, this is another frugal-bashing article. It ends, tongue-in-cheek, with something about regretting the plasma tv on your deathbed. At least I hope it is tongue-in-cheek.

The article is ostensibly all about finding balance, but honestly, frugal people seem more in balance than non-frugal people, who are having to deal with years of deficit spending. Those of my acquaintance are in a constant state of anxiety.

The great Amy Dacyszyn of Tightwad Gazette fame once concluded that to ask if one could be too frugal was like asking if one could be too happy. If frugality is defined as making the best use of resources (time, money, talents, and so on), then Amy is right. Aristotle would agree too.

Enough ranting! Dear readers: Do you have any regrets for the material things that got away? Do you think you are in balance? Share!

Thrift Store Tip: Or How to Find Ray-Bans for $0.75

Yes, a true story. A short post today because, once again, I have accumulated 100+ papers to grade. Anyway, you can read the post on oysters by Frugal Son (posted last night) if you want something with some substance.

For a quick break from my arduous task, I went to Habitat, not my favorite thrift store in terms of what I find, but my favorite thrift store in terms of what they do with their money. I am willing to spend a bit more there because the money goes right into the community--and, believe me, my community, with its old and new money, medium size middle class, and large poor population living in Walker Evans-esque shacks, could use it.

Like most thrift stores, Habitat is patrolled regularly by dealers, who know a lot more than I do about pretty much everything. So I mostly get necessities that no one wants, like linens to be taken to college, and slightly high-browish popular novels.

I also look through the baskets, the tie basket, the scarf basket, etc. You never know what will be in there at $0.75. I have found a few Hermes ties that way.

Today, I looked, in a desultory way, in the basket of sunglasses. There, among the scratched and askew Dollar Store models, was a pair of genuine Ray-Bans! In great condition. An iconic gift for my little girl, who will be having her 18th birthday in a week, and has been craving Ray-Bans.

Happy birthday, Dear Daughter.

Any little thrifting tips you'd like to share? What little treasures have you found of late? do share.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Consider the Oyster: A Frugal Splurge in Baton Rouge

A post from my dear Frugal Son that has been sitting around for a while. After he sent this, I lent him MFK Fisher's wonderful "The Art of Eating," which contains her essay "Consider the Oyster." Enjoy!

As much as I may have sounded anti-restaurant in my previous posts, I'm really not. My main feeling is that people eat too much at restaurants, a habit which is not only expensive but also renders the experience of eating at a restaurant banal and makes it lose the special allure that comes with rarity. Just to prove that I am not on some sort of anti-restaurant crusade, I am looking forward to eating lunch at the très cher Restaurant August click here if you want to check out the menu) in New Orleans for my 20th birthday next week. Even though the lunch will probably cost over $60 per person, I think it is worth it because I have only ever had one other truly "fine-dining" experience—lunch at the famous Commander's Palace with my grandparents—and food is something that I am willing to splurge on every now and then.

While a restaurant like August is truly for the rare occasion, there are other ways of eating out that can fit on any budget. In South Louisiana, food is a huge part of the culture and one food that I only eat at restaurants is oysters on the half shell. My first experience with oysters was at a tender age—maybe 10 or 11 years old—at some sort of community event, a farmers market I think, in my hometown. Acme, the famous New Orleans oyster house, had a huge pirogue filled with fresh oysters and they were shucking them on demand for people to sample. I have always been pretty adventurous with food so I immediately wanted to try one. My father's parents were in town so as I waited in line, I asked my Nana for advice on how to eat an oyster. She told me "you don't really chew it that much and just kind of let it slide down your throat." With complete trust in Nana, I followed her advice to the letter and nearly gagged on the silver dollar sized oyster as I tried to swallow it sans mastication. Needless to say, I was off oysters for the next half decade after this harrowing experience. Unlike Anthony Bourdain, my moment of food enlightenment did not come after slurping down a raw bivalve.

Years later, I'm not exactly sure when, I decided to give raw oysters a shot again. I had eaten and loved fried oysters, oyster stew, grilled oysters, and smoked oysters in oil so, pushing the memories of my past experience behind me, I decided to try again to add raw oysters to my repertoire. Before Acme sold-out and moved to a plastic location off of a highway and next to Wal-Mart, there was an Acme Oyster House within walking distance of my house in a nice brick building in the small downtown area. Every Thursday they offered half-off oysters (only a quarter a piece) so one day, my dad and I went to get some oysters. My father offered much clearer instructions for consuming oysters, although he did pepper his directions with such helpful tips as "they are still alive when you eat them" and "if you squeeze lemon on them sometimes you can see them move." Unfazed, I ordered a dozen for myself and after some lingering trepidation at the thought of my last attempt, slurped one down and finally appreciated the briny beauty of a fresh oyster.

Several years and several hundred oysters later, I'm still a fan and avid eater of oysters on the half-shell. Although the prices have gone up in the years since Hurricane Katrina decimated the oyster beds, there are still deals to be had and a night of bivalve enjoyment can be had for less than an hour’s worth of work at my minimum wage on-campus job. My only regular dining out experiences in college are the monthly excursions to The Chimes, a bar / restaurant just outside the North Gates of campus, for oysters. If you arrive before 7 pm, The Chimes offers half-price (thirty-five cents per piece) oysters freshly shucked on the half-shell. Despite living in Louisiana, few of my friends like or are willing to try oysters, but those of us who do enjoy oysters have formed a sort of social eating club and every month or so, we go to the Chimes to relax and try some tasty morsels straight from Gulf.

My most recent outing was particularly pleasurable because in addition to my regular oyster companion Daniel, we were joined by a neighbor and friend from high school (pre-residential high school days so this goes way back) as well as her sister, and her sister's co-worker who were in town working on the set of a movie being filmed in Baton Rouge (the movie is called The Chameleon and it is based on the true story of a guy who would impersonate missing children and actually live with and convince the families that he was really their child!).

When we first arrived at The Chimes it was quite crowded because an apparently popular band (Red Jumpsuit Apparatus? Heard of them anyone?) was playing at The Varsity theatre next door. After a brief wait (during which I was surprised by none other than the beloved Dr. Pat, executive director of my life-changing residential high school), we were directed to our booth and greeted by our waitress (who turned out to have been a junior while I was a senior at my beloved high school…what a small world!). Since we all came to The Chimes with a single-minded desire for oysters, we skipped the menus and ordered six dozen for the table. The wait for the oysters was about 15 minutes—they have to shuck each one by hand on demand—but I didn't mind because the conversation was very interesting. My friend Maggie's sister was in charge of artwork on the set of the movie and they had a lot of cool stories to tell about the industry or funny things that had happened on the job. Before our oysters arrived, they brought out small plates with the essential oyster eating accoutrements: saltines, horseradish and lemon. Tabasco, as always, was already on the table in both original and mild green varieties.

The oysters arrived, plump and slightly pinkish, each a gleaming jewel nestled in its own faintly pearlescent throne and swimming in a little pool of its own liquor. Each dozen shells were arranged in a ring on a platter so the table quickly became crowded with plates and elbows jostled against each other as everyone jockeyed to grab the first bite. I have developed a routine when it comes to eating oysters and one of the most important parts of my routine is slurping the first oyster straight from the shell with absolutely nothing on it to change the taste. Each batch of oysters has a unique flavor depending on all sorts of variables and I think it is important to get an unimpeded taste of the day's particular flavor. On this particular day, the oysters actually had a relatively mild flavor with neither the iodine brininess nor the sweetness of previous batches. Not the best bunch of oysters I've ever had but good nonetheless and the company more than made up for it.

After my initial taste of garnish-free oyster, I transition to the next part of the routine, which usually entails spreading some horseradish on a saltine, putting the oyster on top, and then squeezing a bit of lemon on. This is the standard combination in my arsenal because it adds so many layers of flavor without overwhelming the oyster. The saltine lends a bit of salt to the mix and its satisfying crunch is a good counterpoint to the soft consistency of oyster. The lemon cleanses my palate with a refreshing burst of citrus and a nice sour note before the horseradish slowly builds from a low murmur on my tongue to a pleasant climax of heat in my nose. Among all these competing flavors, however, the oyster reigns supreme and it is the flavor of the oyster that, in the end, comes through to finish out this extraordinary one bite act.

An interesting side-note: the traditional garnishments for oysters (horseradish and lemon) are surprisingly similar to those of another culture's raw seafood tradition. Sushi is eaten with wasabi, a type of horseradish, and pickled ginger; I always find it fascinating (and somehow comforting) when two totally separate cultures somehow end up coming with very similar methods for eating and serving food.
Of course I'm not a total slave to habit. Sometimes I leave off the cracker and apply the horseradish and lemon directly to the oyster in its shell. Other times I skip the horseradish completely to focus on the lemon flavors and vice versa. Every now and then I'll add a dash of Tabasco for a different, lingering heat from that of the horseradish or even a few drops of Worcestershire sauce for a tangy and sweet flavor. Over the next ten oysters, the meat of my routine, I prepare my oysters in a variety of ways until the very last one. In eating, as in writing, I find symmetry a pleasing way of structuring things so I always eat my final oyster the same way I started: straight from the shell with no additions so the flavor lingers with me.

As the meal wound down I felt content and at ease; the combination of good food and good conversation lured me into a postprandial daze. We settled the bill and said our goodbyes outside where the sudden jolt of cold crept through the warmth we carried from inside and forced us to hurry our separate ways.

Sometimes something as simple as an oyster can take an ordinary night and turn it into a pearl.

The Breakdown:
A dozen oysters, saltine crackers, and other garnishes: $4.20
Tax: $0.42
Tip (since it was a friend from high school I tipped more): $2.08
Total: $6.70

So, Dear Readers, what simple foods do you enjoy that seem to heighten the pleasure of eating with friends?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Frugal Zeitgeist

"No matter what you do," said an old friend, "you're always part of the Zeitgeist." This comment was apropos baby names, when I marveled at the fact that when my brother- and sister-in-law went to a Lamaze reunion, they discovered that every girl produced by the group--including my niece--was named Claire. (That was in 1989, so it's safe to name girls Claire again. My own name, very rare until recently, has been moving up the charts of late.)

Needless to say, unless you've been in a very remote area, you must be aware that the Zeitgeist is frugality.

I am here to declare that I've always been frugal, even before the current craze. In fact, owing to my contrarian nature, I am becoming less so now that it is au courant. If all your savings are evaporating, it seems it may have been better to have spent the money on, say, a forest green Lacanche stove ($8000), rather than watching it disappear.

I have been thinking about this because yesterday, at the fancy free lunch we had courtesy of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (Mr. DFS received an award), I had the good fortune to sit next to Jan B., head of the St. Tammany Parish Library system. Jan B. is one of those innovative library people; she was receiving an award for the incredibly high turnout for programs at her libraries.

She reminded me of one of the rare failures: when I--and another Jan, Jan D.--led a series of frugality workshops at the library. This was in about 2003. Jan D. and I planned and planned; we put together fabulous materials (food, holiday, kids, on and on). We had handouts. We presented both theory and practical tips.

Truly, a masterpiece. Except we had almost no audience. At the first session, we had 4; by the last, we had 1. Jan B. suggested we resurrect the idea, owing to the "recent unpleasantness." Who knows if anyone will come!

So, dear readers, a survey. Where are you in relation to the frugal Zeitgeist? Are you a long-time frugalite or a newcomer to the joys and creativity of frugality?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Decluttering Wisdom from Larry McMurtry

A very long day, dear readers, involving a shopping trip with Frugal Daughter, dropping off Frugal Daughter with Frugal Son for an afternoon of sibling togetherness, an awards ceremony with free fancy lunch (Mr. DFS was a recipient of an award!), and a little more shopping with Frugal Daughter before heading home. At the fancy lunch, I asked if I could have some cheesecake for my children, and the chef obligingly packed up two big pieces in a nice container.

Frugal Tip: Just Ask!

I don't feel much like writing because that lunch was truly soporific, or rather, lunch followed by two hours of awards presentation is soporific. So I am following the advice given by a fellow student back in the day: when you don't feel like filling up the pages yourself, quote a lot.

Larry McMurtry is famous for writing The Last Picture Show among other novels. He is also a long-time book collector and dealer. He has written a delightful memoir titled Books (2008). In it he has this advice for the book dealer, which is also good advice for those of us with a clutter problem. It is also good advice for just about any situation, not just those involving the material world.

As a dealer who has accumulated hundreds of thousands of books, one practice I consider essential is the purge. . . .The bane of large secondhand book dealers is that good books do not pull bad books up: bad books pull good books down (249).

So true: on the bookshelf, in the closet, in one's engagements, and so on. (Frugal Daughter and I bought only a very few items. We have both been closet cleaning of late.)

So dear readers: do you put McMurtry's advice into practice? Do tell.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Contrarian Financial Advice Encore: Selling Things and Shopping Thrifts

As a follow-up to my epiphany--the financial stuff I did right was the very stuff that was supposed to be wrong--I offer more of the "do the opposite" variety.

USA Today, like lots of other mainstream media outlets, offers advice on how to sell stuff on Ebay and elsewhere. Honestly! I never took economics, but I do remember something about supply and demand. If everyone is trying to sell excess stuff or even valuables, wouldn't it stand to reason that the prices would be lower now? That it would be a buyer's market?

My contrarian advice: be a buyer! If you really need to sell stuff, I guess you have to do it, but now is not the time for "recreational" selling to compensate for the "recreational" shopping of the past few years.

If I see another article by another thrift store-come-lately on the treasures to be found in the realm of the gently used, I will throw up. First of all, most of these writers have never set foot in a thrift store before. They don't know the first thing about the rhythm and karma of thrift stores (people who do will know what I'm talking about here).

From my little corner of the zeitgeist, I would have to say that thrift stores have, of late, offered slim pickings. Could it be that everyone is shopping at the thrifts? The other thing I've noticed is that thrift stores are raising their prices. The Food Bank Thrift Store, now under new management, has dramatically raised its prices. Honestly, is a used Ann Taylor Loft top--a few years old and so unfashionably short--worth $5.00. No. We are in Louisiana, not Beverly Hills.

Luckily, my cupboards are full from the years of over-consumption. I guess I over-consumed at thrift stores! So I'm donating more now.

And, in contrast to the exhortations to be frugal, the more hairshirt the better, I'm going to continue with my planned and eagerly-awaited treats: trips to California and Massachusetts and maybe Montreal. And we're renewing out passports in case a last-minute bargain flight to Paris pops up. That's frugality too!

What contrarian things have you done or are you doing?

The New Financial Advice and Mistakes I Did and Didn't Make

Like many people interested in frugality and personal finance, I have been a long-time reader of advice for the middle-class. Of late, advice is in short supply. Where are Jonathan Clements and Andrew Tobias?

Then, I saw "new financial advice" proffered on the CNN website. As far as I can tell, the advice was the opposite of the advice offered by experts in the recent gilded age (for some, not me). So it seems that we middle-class types should do the opposite of whatever is suggested.

All the advice is of the "locking the barn after the horse runs off" genre. How can you amass an emergency fund when you are laid off? Thanks for the great tip! Either you have one (thank heavens!) or you don't (what was I thinking?). I suppose if you're still working, you can get one going. That task would be made easier by the fact that frugality is now "in" and you don't need to apologize for carrying last year's "aspirational handbag."

One of my fave bloggers, Funny About Money, raised the topic: "What is the financial mistake you didn't make."

Here is my answer, related to my musings above:

All my mistakes came from following the advice of the financial press/experts. All the mistakes I didn’t make came from procrastinating or being stubborn.

Emergency Fund:I amassed a large cash emergency fund out of inertia, since I am a frugal girl married to a frugal fellow. At the time, I was told to “get the $$ working for me by investing it.”

House: I was also told to do a cash-out refi; I chose instead to pay off my house.

Here is what I'm doing now (subject to change): I am continuing to put my retirement into equity funds in same percentage as in days of yore. I have TIAA and Vanguard.

I'll probably sell my non-retirement funds that are in other families.

I will amass an even larger emergency fund. I want to have AT LEAST 5 years of base expenses in cash at retirement (10 years hence).

The above plans are possible thanks to two things. One is that I paid off my house, so my base expenses aren't that high. The other is that my children are good test-takers (of the standardized variety) and have chosen good programs at state universities that are willing to fund their tuition AND room and board. As I discussed in an earlier post, Mr. DFS and I will give them the money we saved in a 529 plan post-graduation. Luckily again (another mistake I did not make), the 529 plan is entirely in cash. So when they graduate, they can opt for a year of travel and return to a nice stash of cash for grad school or job search.

And don't forget: it's Thrifty Thursday!

What's a mistake? What's not? It depends on where you are when you need the money.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Not on AIG or Goldman Sachs: Help me find a new tote bag:

I was going to write something called "AIG and Me" concerning the email I sent the firm a few days ago. However, I get upset even thinking about all that stuff. And then several pieces I read said that the true beneficiary of the AIG bailout was Goldman Sachs, not the recipients of the bonuses. That got me even more dispirited. I think we're all getting a glimpse of business as usual on Wall Street, with more than a glimpse of the fantastic sums the princes and princesses "earned." Better to know than not to know, I suppose.

So from the world of high finance to the world of the utterly frivolous. I found a draft of a post I started a while back when I was thinking about buying a new tote bag.

Here's the post. Reader feedback solicited.

My faithful readers know that I am in the market for a tote bag. Those who know the real me (that is, my immediate family and others of my acquaintance) know that I am overly indecisive and that this decision may take a ridiculous amount of time, replete with agony upon agony. On the plus side, I so overthink everything that I am never afflicted with cognitive dissonance, a consequence of too-hasty purchases.

The name of this blog comes from a tote bag. Or rather, a tote bag monogram. One I never bought. After the demise of a much-loved totebag, a Target number bought for $11.00 that was a Kate Spade knockoff (dark gray “wool,” nice rectangular shape), I started thinking about its successor.

For a while, I contemplated the classic LL Bean canvas tote. Every now and again, one or another color goes on sale. I have one of these, a gift from an architectural firm that did some pictures for us and overcharged us dreadfully. The architect must have forgotten our rage and his subsequent reduction of the bill by 50%. We get a yearly gift from the firm—notecards, a calendar, and the tote bag, monogrammed with the company name. No pics—I refuse to give this firm any publicity. Anyway, as everyone knows, the heavy canvas tote, originally designed for carrying ice, is indestructible. One of my colleagues has several of the extra larges, which are color coded for her courses. They are 25 years old!

I have the LL Bean credit card, which allows for free shipping and free monogramming. That’s why I have it. Since I am entitled to free monogramming, I wanted it. Besides, that adds to the preppy look of the ultimate preppy bag. Problem: I have terrible initials. Even if I take my husband’s last name, I still have terrible initials. And I didn’t want my first name on it (TMI) or my last name (TMI). So I asked Dr Z, she of the color and proportion talent. She said “Frugal Scholar,” just like that. I ditched the tote bag, but kept the name! thanks, Dr. Z! (She has no recollection of coming up with the name).

What am I carrying my books in? Well, either the LL Bean bag with the hated architect’s logo OR one of the dreadful totes given for free by textbook publishers. The ones I have are very ugly. I saw a nice one at a conference: Penguin books makes one in BLACK with an adorable orange penguin on it. I asked for one, but it was a popular item, and all had been given away.

Is there a tote bag that will provide instant upgrade? Within reason, folks. Keep an eye out.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Decluttering Books for a bit of Profit at Powells and Barnes and Noble

Have I confessed to my clutter problem? It has been a lifelong affliction. My mother, who came to the United States as a refugee, can donate things to Goodwill with wild abandon. That includes a real Pucci dress from the 60s, EVEN AFTER I TOLD HER NOT TO. My late father was even worse than I am. In addition to stockpiling pieces of cardboard and metal, he refused to get rid of a chandelier from the 60s, even after Christie's told my brother it was worthless. It turned out to be a famous chandelier and ended up being bought by a dealer for $6,000.00.

Very little turns out to have any worth at all, much less the worth of the two above items. I get my clutterbughood through my father's line. It was exacerbated by years of graduate school poverty, followed by insecure working situations, aided by a love of books and thrift stores. All in all, a lethal cocktail.

But we are having visitors in a month. I looked at Flylady a while ago, but that site itself has succumbed to clutter. Anyway, it's not like I don't know what I need to do.

In addition to the True Confessions mode here, I actually have a useful tip for getting rid of books. And it is one that I haven't seen mentioned anywhere.

Yes, you can sell on Amazon or on Indeed, I would check the value of books on these sites before doing anything else with them. But most books aren't worth much. Ebay is even worse for booksellers.

Then you can swap via or other similar sites. This technique, however, retains your clutter till someone requests your book. Then you have to mail it. This is lifestyle clutter.

Yard sales are so gruesome that I won't say another word.

You can also trade at local used bookstores if any are in your town. I would do this if there were a bookstore fitting my reading tastes around here. I love the people who run the local used bookstore, but its stock tends to romance and popular fiction. I already have $100.00 in credit and can seldom find anything I want.

OK. Are there any immediate ways to get rid of books and get a little something back? Yes! While all of the above have been mentioned across the blogosphere, I haven't seen anything on Barnes and Noble or Powells.

Barnes and Noble will buy your used textbooks. "But I don't have any textbooks." Do you have a copy of The Kiterunner? That's worth $3.05. Or how about that old Penguin Three Theban Plays by Sophocles? We had three of those. They are worth $2.40. In other words, a textbook is a book used as a text.

All you have to do is go to the site, click on textbooks, click on sell your used textbooks, put in the isbn and see what pops up. Often it's nothing, but every now and then a book is worth something. When you get to $10.00 or more, you put the books in a box, print out the prepaid shipping label and packing list, and take to the post office. Prepaid shipping label--you don't pay the postage. After a while, you will get a check.

Powells, the famous independent bookstore, does much the same, only you have a choice between Paypal and virtual credit that can be used for any of its massive on-line stock. Powells also has a prepaid shipping label. You only need a minimum of $5.00. I have used both sites, because a book rejected by one will be desired by the other.

While I prefer to support Powells, having gone to the originals in both Portland and Chicago in days gone by, I must say Barnes and Noble is better. Powells is very picky about condition. I send books that are, in my view, excellent (and I used to sell on with nary a complaint), but Powells rejects a few. There is no appeal. Barnes and Noble, in contrast, has never rejected a book.

However, there are lots of books (used and new) I would like at Powells. I used some of my credit to get my son books he needed for a class in modern African literature. You can also use your credit for a gift card. I, for one, would love a gift like that. Lately, I've opted for cash.

Now this is not huge money. But every now and then I fill a box. In the past week or so I've mailed about 8--around $80.00 will be coming my way. That's a lot more than I could make with a comparable amount of work at a yard sale or on Ebay.

Whatever nobody wants I donate. I'm taking several bags of books in good condition to school to be sold at a student book sale.

Readers, let me know if you try this. Any good tips on getting rid of books? Any other ways to declutter for fun and a little profit?

Frugal Cooking: Asparagus Encore and Breadcrumb Pasta

So, Duchesse of Passage des Perles suggested in a comment the other day that I roast my asparagus. After some mental whining (I don't have time to preheat my oven; YOU have an Aga; it's not "green" to heat up a big oven for a few veggies), I realized that I could roast the asparagus in my toaster oven. Break off the ends, wash them, put in pan with some olive oil, salt, and pepper. 15-20 minutes at 350.

What to have with them? In my quest to find the world's cheapest good--make that great--food, I discovered breadcrumbs for pasta. The immediate impetus for my search was, as might be expected in a bread-baking household, an abundance of dried bread. Bread crumb pasta is, no doubt, part of Italian cucina povera, poverty food. Breadcrumbs sauteed in garlicky oil serve as a substitute for parmesan cheese, which is very expensive in Italy (and every where else, deservedly so, I might add).

I cooked half a pound of pasta. I chose some good linguine, an Italian brand that claimed to be made with bronze dies. True gourmet fare, but I found this at Big Lots for a little more than $1.00/pound.

Meanwhile, I was sauteeing the breadcrumbs (about 1 1/2 cups made from good bread) in the garlicky oil (3 cloves) to which I added some red pepper flakes.

When all is done, simply drain the pasta, add some olive oil, then the breadcrumbs. Since cucina povera is an option for us rather than a necessity, we grated some parmesan (the real thing) on top.

We knew the pasta would be good. But the true delight was the roasted asparagus. Thank you, Duchesse: you are my mentor.

Dear readers, what do you do with asparagus? Do you have an amazingly cheap pasta sauce? Do share.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Frugality 101: Use your Library

An article in the New York Times about the increase in library usage is just the latest of many on this topic. While discretionary spending--on high fashion, elective surgery, summer camp--is way down, library usage is way up.

Use Your Library! That has been the exhortation of every frugality writer for as long as I have been reading on the topic. It's a basic part of Frugality 101, just like goal-setting, menu-planning, checking out the thrift stores, and so forth. And like all those basics, this one bears repeating.

This is not your grandmother's library either. Most libraries have free internet, DVDs to check out, plus, of course, books galore.

My own beloved library has all of the above plus monthly movie nights, lectures on various topics (British Royal Scandals was one such), "Knit and Sip," Italian lessons, cooking demonstrations, book groups, genealogy groups, children's reading programs, teen programs. Those are just the things that immediately come to mind.

Those of us in the "Katrina area" are especially mindful of the virtues of the library. Our library somehow got power back fairly soon. It was packed full of patrons in search of information on FEMA claims. You could use the internet too (in 30 minute sessions, after signing in). I was there for the air conditioning.

I check the on-line library catalog frequently. The other day I put my name on the list for 10 films: Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Marley and Me, just to name the titles that create nice alliteration. When it's my turn, I will get a call.

We are members of Netflix,whose business is also growing right now, but generally use that for hard-to-find films. The 10 library DVDs I will be getting will save me AT LEAST $25.00 in rental fees. That is money I can put back in my community in other ways, perhaps by shopping at the library book sale!

I saved $25.00. How much have you saved recently by using your library? Do share, dear readers.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Talbots: New Style, New Stock?

This is a rather rambling post. It ends up asking a question about how to pick stocks. Gender issues in finance and aesthetics are also raised.

Before I began this blog, I spent some time reading blogs by people interested in frugality and personal finance. These piqued my desire to write on the topic myself. But lately I've found some new blogs that I like on the topic of style for women "of a certain age." Two favorites are Une Femme d'un Certain Age and Passage des Perles.

I will now reveal how I happened upon these. I had noticed that Talbots had updated its style. My mother, age 78, has long been a Talbots shopper, but I think that's because she summers in the Berkshires, and the store, with its New England vibe, reminds her of her Boston girlhood. When we would visit the Lenox branch, my mother would shop, while I, age 55, would make an effort to find something halfway decent to try on. My daughter, age 18, would sit in a chair reading In-Style magazine. You can gauge the demographic from this scene.

Last summer I was amazed by the new fall clothing coming in. These were things I might even buy (on sale, of course). Then, in the fall, as my retirement accounts continued their precipitous decline, I thought, I should buy Talbots stock. Now, I don't own any stocks, because--chicken that I am--I always stuck to mutual funds.

The only other stocks I ever wanted to buy were Home Depot (20 years ago!) and Big Lots (about 5 years ago!). I didn't buy either, but should have.

So I googled "Talbots stock" and discovered that the Motley Fool fellows picked it as their Halloween stock--scary, scary, scary. The price was about $1.80/share the day I started thinking about this.
Then I googled "Talbots new style" and discovered Une Femme and, through that blog, Passage des Perles. Une Femme d'un Certain Age, especially, admired the newly chic style brought in by the new president of Talbots.

The Motleys are, needless to say, men. The bloggers are women. The stock is now $3.06, a rather impressive percentage rise in a few months, especially given the economic news and the further precipitous declines of nationwide retail sales and my retirement accounts.

I bought some items yesterday, since I got a further 20% off the sale prices and free shipping. I don't know how any of these will look, but I can always return to the store in the next town. What do you think of my choices?

So Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury: do you think Talbots has a future? Would you buy the stock? Do the chic women bloggers know something that the investment professionals do not? Did I make the mistake of buying the sweaters rather than the stock?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Frugal Asparagus Bruschetta and a Frugal Few Minutes

Today is Thursday and that means I should link to the nice blogger who invited me to her Thrifty Thursday gathering. Last week I wrote a post and left a message on her site, but forgot to put a link to her site here. Bad etiquette. A definite technoklutz moment.

Frugal Asparagus

My readers know that I was planning on eating leftover pinto bean soup yesterday. When we got home--later than usual due to required meeting for Mr. DFS--I remembered that I had two bunches of asparagus that I had bought before the trip to Arkansas. It was $0.99 a pound, a great price, but needless to say it's not frugal if you don't use it.

My readers also know that I detest cooking when we get home from work. Still, it's easy to cook asparagus. Break off the ends and cook in water in a big pan. You just lay the asparagus flat.

It's also easy to toast a piece of homemade French country bread (courtesy of my in-house baker, Mr. DFS, who has been providing this service for over 30 years). It's also easy to rub with a clove of garlic, sprinkle with olive oil, salt and pepper.

It is a moment's work to lay some asparagus across this (aka bruschetta) and eat it. If you have the strength after a long day at work, you could, just maybe, grate a bit of cheese over all.

Reader, we ate it all up. Sorry, no pictures.

A Frugal Few Minutes

You may wonder, what do frugal people do for fun. Here is a glimpse into the fun moments of two frugal friends and colleagues. I am so lucky that one of my dearest and most frugal colleagues has an office across the hall from me. I am also lucky that his office is quite overcrowded with books, so he set up a small desk in the hall by the window. From inside my office, I can hear him in conference with students. He is always patient and kind, never sarcastic. I am guilty of occasional (okay, frequent) sarcasm. So hearing him with his students makes me a better teacher, nay, a better person.

Yesterday my colleague had the Wednesday paper, so we spent a few happy moments looking at the grocery ads for the week. We discovered that there was nothing good at Winn-Dixie. Albertsons has fabulous sales on orange juice, grapes, brown sugar, sour cream, and oatmeal, to name a few. We noted that the only well-priced sale item at Piggly-Wiggly is the cabbage ($0.25/lb for St. Patrick's Day). We sadly decided that it's not worth it to stop at the Pig just to buy a cabbage or two.

We had 100% agreement on what the good deals are this week and we were equally fast at spotting them. It was a tie!


If you want FREE cabbage, potatoes, and carrots, head down to New Orleans for the St. Patrick's Day parade. Instead of throwing Mardi Gras beads, riders throw your dinner. Be careful! And sometimes you have to kiss people (Kiss me, I'm Irish) before you get your cabbage.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

First Meal Back: Pinto Bean Soup

I’m sure all my faithful readers are wondering what I cooked for our first meal back from our 3 day trip to Arkansas. There’s nothing like being on the road to make you yearn for a home-cooked meal, made of simple and good ingredients.

Simple and good: that must be pinto (or any) bean soup. So, cook a pound of dried beans. Meanwhile, sauté a chopped onion or two and a couple of garlic cloves in some oil. Then add the remains of a large can of Rotel tomatoes and a large can of crushed tomatoes that have been languishing in the fridge. (Do this after checking to make sure contents are still OK.) I had about ¼ can of each. Of course, you might have to open a can or two of tomatoes. Dump in pot with onions. When the beans are done, add them (beans take a long time). I drained most of the bean liquid and added some water, but that is up to you. Puree with your stick blender—or not.

I like to cook soup and then let it sit for a while. It may be an illusion, but I think the flavors meld and improve when you reheat it after it has been sitting.

Serve topped with cheese (we used pepper jack, but any would do) and crushed corn chips (left over from trip). Of course, we had to add some hot sauce to this already spicy dish.

This was wholesome, easy, cheap. It also used up those cans of tomatoes that have been bothering me. There’s enough for at least two more meals.

Extras: If you have leftover rice, add that. If you have frozen corn, add that. Throw in the little bit left in your jar of salsa. Whatever you do will be good.

Dear reader: what do you crave after being away from home?

Frugal Cooking: Honey from a Weed

Readers of this obscure blog may have noticed that I have not posted regularly or responded to comments in my usual way. This is because three members of my Frugal Family were in Arkansas! This was another road trip to check out a college for our beloved Frugal Daughter, the Divine Miss Em. Why University of Arkansas? Because their Honors College was given a $200,000,000 grant by Alice Walton, widow of Sam Walton of Wal-Mart. That’s more than many college endowments. Although I will be writing today about a cookbook and not about colleges, college savings etc, let me say here that if you eliminate some of the usual suspects for your college-bound student, you will find tremendous bargains out there. Some of these less well-known schools, and schools in places deemed less desirable, really do try harder. And cost less.

Anyway, it was a long and miserable drive to Fayetteville. All we knew about the town was that it has “four seasons.” But what a delight! Fayetteville seems to be a little corner of the counter-culture (Who knew?). And the college is beautiful, even though many trees showed damage from the recent ice storm. In fact, the piles of broken branches and the trees with broken-off tops were reminiscent of our post-Katrina universe.

While Frugal Daughter had her interviews, Mr. FS and I nosed around. My favorite spot was Dickson Street Books, a crowded used bookstore, with a fabulous stock and the used bookstore smell, which brought me right back to Bloomington, Indiana and the much-loved Caveat Emptor (!), a wonderful used bookstore.

In a Proustian haze (or daze) of memory, I first asked where the literary theory section was. En route, I passed the cookbook section and there I found the one cookbook I would be—and was—willing to buy: Honey from a Weed by Patience Gray. The hardback English edition was a reasonable $12.00. Reader, I bought it.

When I started reading it, I discovered that this book, which I had checked out of the library in a town I no longer live in, was as good as I remembered. It is a feast of writing, offering a picture of a way of life that was vanishing—and soon may be gone.

Gray accompanied her “Sculptor” to various sites around the Mediterranean, as he sought marble for his work. Gray learned to live—and to cook and eat—as the locals did, with the fasting and feasting of a life where all food was precious.

Here is Gray’s more evocative prose:

Good cooking is the result of a balance struck between frugality and liberality . . . It is born out of communities where the supply of food is conditioned by the seasons.

Once we lose touch with the spendthrift aspect of nature’s provisions epitomized in the raising of a crop, we are in danger of losing touch with life itself. When Providence supplies the means, the preparation and sharing of food takes on a sacred aspect. The fact that every crop is of short duration promotes a spirit of making the best of it while it lasts and conserving part of it for future use. It also leads to periods of fasting and periods of feasting, which represent the extremes of the artist’s situation as well as the Greek Orthodox approach to food and the Catholic insistence on fasting, now abandoned.
(pp. 11-12)

I hope you enjoy that little taste and I’ll offer more as I work my way through it.

Dear readers, any thoughts on college money issues? Prestige and practicality in school choices?

Any thoughts on Arkansas as a place to live and study?

And, my favorite topic: any less-well known cookbooks you would like to recommend? Share them here.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Lamb Necks, Part II

Problem one presented itself immediately upon my arrival at the apartment: even though I had left the necks in the fridge to defrost for over twenty four hours they were still frozen solid. I pried apart the neck slices with a knife and then let the individual pieces sit in lukewarm water to help facilitate a speedy defrosting. While the necks were defrosting, I prepared a mixture of flour, salt, pepper, and paprika. Though the paprika was pretty and added a nice reddish hue to the dredging mix, I don't think it added much to the overall flavor so if cooking on a budget, cut the paprika out. I dredged each neck slice in the flour mixture, coating both sides, and then set them on a tray while I heated up a pot with a mixture of olive oil and canola oil.
I browned each neck slice in batches of three or four flipping each one once so that both sides had a golden crust with little specks of pink flesh peeking out. I may have rushed this step because in the recipe, it said it would take about ten minutes to properly brown a batch but it took me less than five. Perhaps if I had let them brown longer the braise would have developed a richer flavor but it looked like the necks were cooking through and I didn't want them to get too cooked before I braised them.

Once all the neck slices were browned, I set them aside and began cooking the garlic, tomatoes and onions in the same pot. After the tomatoes and onion began to soften, I added some chicken broth, bay leaves, and a bit of lemon zest that I had carefully scraped off and collected. The only pot large enough to braise the lamb necks in had plastic handles so I obviously couldn't put it in the oven. In lieu of the pot, I poured the simmering mixture simmer of broth and vegetables into a 9 x 13 baking pan and nestled the necks on top of the vegetables. It doesn't matter if the necks are completely submerged in the broth because you cover the dish before putting it in the oven. Since I was using a baking pan, I wrapped the top with tin foil and slipped it into the oven where it would cook undisturbed except for two brief interruptions when I turned the lamb necks to make sure all parts got a good soak in the juices. I first took out the pan to give the necks a turn after 45 minutes and, true to Amateur Gourmet's words, it smelled like a "very lamby version of heaven." I did add about a third of a cup of water after the second turning just to make sure the pan didn't dry out but other than that, I had about two hours to relax while the magical combination of time and heat coaxed the flavors out of all my ingredients and melded them in fantastical ways.

I busied myself while the meat was braising by pitting and slicing the olives, mincing parsley and cutting membrane and peel free segments of lemon to finish the sauce and add the "provençal" touch. I turned the heat off in the oven a few minutes before I was ready to take it out and started to cook the side dish for the night: cous-cous. Cous-cous is probably the best grain product for college students because it is easy, versatile, and cooks so fast! In fact, when I was living in the dorms at my residential high school I would cook cous-cous using nothing more than hot water from the tap! Since I was serving it as a side dish I wanted it to have a mild, unobtrusive flavor so that it could be a carrier for the rich lamb juices. I added a bit of chicken bouillon to the boiling water and then dumped in two cups of cous-cous. Three minutes later the cous-cous was finished so I took out the pan of lamb necks and poured the braising juices into a separate pot to finish the sauce by adding the olives, parsley and lemon.

Everything was ready and plated—each dish garnished with a few filaments of bright yellow lemon zest—which was fortunate because the smells emanating from the lamb were enough to make me want to forget civility and start digging in with my hands. My first bite of cous-cous doused with sauce was ecstasy; it was one of those moments when you just close your eyes in sheer gustatory delight, slump back in your chair and finally know that all your hours of work were completely worth it. The thick braising juices had some of the richness of lamb but also the sweetness of the stewed tomatoes. Every now and then a burst of lemon segment or olive slice punctuated the sauce while the occasional parsley morsel added fresh and earthy undertones. The lamb necks had a ring of tender flesh around the bone and just a small piece was enough to deliver a full dose of flavor. I ate three or four neck slices as well as a heaping pile of cous-cous and my two other dinner guests ate similar portions. Even so, we had a mound of cous-cous and a few neck slices left at the end of the night (which I ate as left-overs a few days later). Had I thought ahead, I would have saved the neck bones to use in a lamb stock, which is an essential component in the delicious and simple lamb and barley soup.

Looking back, the only changes I would make would be to add fewer lemon segments and more parsley. I felt that the lemon was at times overwhelming and crowded out some of the less aggressive flavors of the dish. Even though I used less lemon than was suggested, the original recipe was for six one pound lamb shanks whereas I only used two and a half pounds of neck so I probably could have and should have cut the lemon even more. I highly recommend braising because the meat comes out incredibly tender and it is a very low maintenance cooking technique. All in all, my foray into lesser used cuts of meat was an astounding success and I look forward to my next experience with it (hopefully I'll be able to cook some for my Dear Family next time I go home on break).

The Breakdown (for four people):

2½ pounds lamb necks @ $1.50 / pound: $4.00
1 onion: $1.00
1 can diced tomatoes: $1.50
Flour to dredge: $1.00
Olive and canola oil: $0.50
1 pound cous-cous: $2.50
2 chicken bouillon cubes: $0.50
Lemon: $0.80
Parsley: $1.50
1.5oz olives @ $15 / pound: $1.50
Salt, pepper, spices, and other minutae: $2.00
Total: $16.80 or $4.20 / person

Lamb Necks: Frugal Cooking

Another lazy day with no post ready. What to do?? I know: mooch off the kids. Here is a journal sent by Frugal Son recounting his experience with lamb necks. He got these from the campus Dairy Store, which sells meat raised and butchered in the Ag School. This is Part 1; Part 2 will follow.

Here is my journal about cooking the braised lamb necks provençal from a few weeks ago. What do you think?

1) Flour and pretty!
2) Beautiful lamb necks waiting to get dredged in some flour.
3) Me dredging the necks.
4) Necks browning.
5) With the liquid and vegetables getting ready for the oven.
6) The provençal blend
7) Removing the warm plates.
8) Ready to eat!
9) Lemon zest garnish adds some color.
10) Reggie.
11) I look pleased with myself.


One of my latest obsessions in cooking is the LSU Dairy Store. Ask most people on campus what the Dairy Store is and they only know it as "that place where you can get ice cream and milk shakes." Perhaps it is no surprise that the Dairy Store is such a well-hidden secret; the meat coolers are as far away from the door as is possible and, more importantly, well beyond the brightly lit glass fronted drawers that showcase the dozens of flavors of ice cream in five-gallon tubs. Even those who do know about the meat for sale at the Dairy Store look on it as either an amusing curiosity or, in many cases, with some level of apprehension as if only industrially produced meat that comes from thousands of miles away is clean enough or normal enough to merit eating. For me, however, the Dairy Store is a treasure trove of hard-to-find cuts of meat that are reasonably (even cheaply) priced and come entirely from local, free-range animals.

Since it is a small scale operation, the supply of meat depends on what animals the Meat Science students are working with—another thing I like about meat from the Dairy Store is that it serves an educational purpose before serving its final, gustatory purpose—so I never know what will be in the two freezers pushed up against the far wall of the small store. Everyday after class lets out I walk to the Dairy Store; I feel almost like a hunter on the prowl trying to find a particularly tasty or rare cut. I feel slightly embarrassed when I go in and I'm afraid I'll earn a reputation as "that weird boy who comes everyday but never buys anything." Most days, only a few lonely gravy steaks rest on the shelves beneath a single, buzzing fluorescent light. On those days, I don't linger. But some days, the coolers are stuffed with whole beef arm roasts, goat's meat, lamb riblets, whole hog's head, and on those days, I stand in front of the freezers, hands and nose pressed up against the glass, dreaming of all the things I could cook if only I had the time, the technical know-how, the money… Those days, when the freezers are so full it seems as though they will burst at any moment, make my daily trips, so often filled with disappointment, worth it.

One particularly good day, when the freezers were newly stocked with meat, I noticed a cylindrical package of meat wrapped in white butcher's paper. Curious, I peered at the label and was surprised to see it said lamb's necks. Intrigued but unfamiliar with lamb's necks, I went back to my dorm and started to do some internet sleuthing on the culinary applications of lamb's necks. My immediate thought was that, like oxtails, they could be used to make a broth but would not have much actual meat on them. After a little research, however, I found many people who were passionate about the wonderful uses of lamb's neck as a cheaper and more flavorful alternative to other cuts of lamb and specifically as a replacement for lamb shank.

After reading an article my mom found on the Amateur Gourmet blog about making Lamb's Necks Provençal, I decided to prepare my lamb's necks in the same method. The article mentioned using, but did not have a copy of, a recipe from Molly Steven's book All About Braising. With a few Google searches, I found a copy of the recipe and scanned over it to see what items I'd need to buy. The bold flavors of the dish come from the lemon, garlic and olives added to the braise while the more subtle but equally important foundation flavors of the dish come from the tomatoes and onions. According to my dear mom, the combination of garlic, tomatoes, onions, and olives is the classic Provençal mélange or a sort of template which can be applied to other dishes. Though I had many of the ingredients, I was missing a few key ones (olives, parsley, lemon) so I needed to go buy them.

I had to skip lunch so that I would have enough time to go food shopping and get all the cooking done, but fortunately I went to Whole Foods for the shopping, which means…SAMPLES! Because I was going shopping so early in the afternoon, well before the peak shopping hours, there was almost no one in the store and all of the sample dishes were in pristine condition. As soon as I walked in, I was greeted by a large mound of Louisiana Clementine slices followed shortly by navel orange slices, grapefruit, cherry tomatoes, and a fruit salad complete with raspberries, blueberries, and pineapples. After these little sweet treats whet my appetite, I moved on to the more savory dishes. I sampled a seafood spread, a sharp and dry cheddar, cheese and herb bread, and seven grain crackers. All this salt was making me thirsty, but fortunately there was a sample of açai juice. Interesting digression: the açai juice sample cup was probably held about a half-ounce and you could refill your cup from the cooler as many times as you wanted. The bottle of juice held 24oz and cost $24! So, every sample I had was "worth" about $0.50! In spite of all the samples I managed to stay focused enough to remember the task at hand, so as I grazed, I also grabbed the few ingredients I needed. It killed me to buy a lemon (even though it was only $0.79) because I knew there were so many lemons on the tree at home but since I was cooking for four people I felt OK about buying it.

My main reason for shopping at Whole Foods, however, was because of the olives. I only needed about 10 olives for the dish so rather than buy a whole jar of low quality olives that would sit unused in the back of the fridge for months, I bought only as many olives as I needed from the olive bar at Whole Foods. While a jar of olives might be much cheaper per ounce at Wal-Mart, by buying only as much as I needed at—the admittedly more expensive—Whole Foods I got a better quality product and spent less money. This is actually an important lesson in frugality: sometimes the cheapest option is not always the best. For example, I COULD buy the bulk packs of 2½ dozen eggs and save a few cents per egg but if I don't use them fast enough and they go bad, all that money I "saved" is now wasted on rotten eggs. Back to the narrative. At the olive bar, I sampled the olives, looking for some that were preserved in oil and had a firm texture and strong flavor--basically the antithesis of your typical canned or jarred kalamata olives. I bought twelve olives so even though they cost $15 / pound I ended up paying less than $2 for all the olives I needed. With ingredients in hand I drove back to campus to begin cooking. Even though it was only two in the afternoon, I am was well aware of how much longer cooking takes when confined to using an apartment kitchen and a hodge-podge of only marginally functional cookware.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Be a Karma All Star: Frugal Shopping Edition

I’m feeling under some pressure. It’s Thursday and I wanted to do a Thrifty Thursday post as promised to another blogger. I don’t have much inspiration, so I nipped out to the thrift store to find some. And I didn’t find a great bargain, an acquaintance to chat with, or something to write about.

But then, after an on-line chat with my dear daughter, I checked one of my fave new blogs, Cheap JAP, which concerns the shopping adventures of a twenty-something JAP (Jewish American Princess), who had to give up Daddy’s credit card when she graduated from college. This girl has style, spirit, and creativity. I had been sharing some scenarios from the blog with my daughter, because there are some great Shopping with Mommy adventures, which remind me of MY shopping adventures with my mother and my current adventures AS the Mommy with my daughter. I even have a post in progress about this.

And there on Cheap JAP was my daughter, mentioned as a Karma All-Star because she shared a shopping tip with CJ.

And some karma came my way too because I can use my daughter’s email plus CJ’s response as MY blog post for the day. Now that’s thrifty.

Here is CJ on shopping Karma:
Part of why I’m a kickass shopper is practice, but another part of it is Karma. Good Shopping Karma comes from being good to your fellow shoppers, from acting in accordance with the notion that Sharing is Caring. I don’t need you to share your tips, trials, finds and frustrations with me: I just want you to share them with each other. (Yes, I sound like a Sesame Street character, no, I don’t care.) So use this blog to do it. And don’t even think about hoarding info on something we can ALL use like a Basic V-Neck Tee again.

And here is the email from my dear daughter that got her into the Karma Hall of Fame:

Last time my mom and I were at Target, we saw some Tri-Blend Tanks on sale for $6, just like the ones from American Apparel. I was skeptical at first, but upon trying one on, found they fit like a dream. The Target copies are the exact same blend as the A.A. originals - 50% polyester, 25% cotton, 25% rayon - and, I am convinced, the exact same cut. I am still amazed. I am having to refrain from buying three in every color.

CJ hit Target seven minutes later!

So let’s share. This is a version of the frugal-go-round I wrote about yesterday.

Thanks to CJ for quoting my daughter; thanks to my daughter for pretty much writing this post.

Dear readers: have you been sending out any shopping Karma? Has any come your way?

Do share!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


There’s so much in the mainstream media about frugality now. Just off the top of my head, there was Jane Brody in the New York Times on frugal food (cabbage, beans, and so forth); then there was something on CNN about frugality as the new fashion. And there’s a lot more. I’m not even going to link to these frugal-come-latelies because, honestly, you can get just as good if not better material on-line or in the library from those who have been walking the frugal path for a while.

Also, and this is strange, I find a lot of these articles boring, even though in the past, I hungrily devoured everything I could find on the topic. Perhaps it’s because frugality is only fun when it’s by choice. Reading about the newly-unemployed and how they must downsize, budget, find health insurance, etc. is a depressing exercise. Unless, of course, these are the unemployed of Lehman Brothers, at whose woes we can, if we desire, smirk. One former Lehman fellow has a column in the Wall Street Journal; the most recent post trumpets his new discovery that money isn’t everything. As one commenter noted, the formerly very wealthy are not in the pickle of the formerly middle class or working class or working poor. And no, I’m not linking to this guy either.

So what’s on the frugal menu here today? Just a little jeu d’esprit: the frugal-go-round. I was thinking about the little frugal things we share at my workplace. I realized an economist could probably quantify the money saved as our frugal practices circulate through our little economy.

SO: I have a free subscription to Better Homes and Gardens, which I don’t much like. The magazines are given to a very nice student who works in the Writing Center.

I don’t have a freezer, but some of our extra frozen garden produce is safe and sound in the freezer in the Writing Center!

We bring five or maybe more colleagues greens and lemons from our garden.

I just read the Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which was lent to me by Dr. Z. I’m done and the book was passed on to another colleague.

All the teachers donate books to the English Club Book Sale. Proceeds help support a yearly trip to a conference.

My colleague who teaches Italian lent my son a $150.00 textbook. Ditto for a French textbook.

My colleague George and I love grocery bargains, but realize that it is NOT frugal to make a trip for one item. So George brought me a bag of grapefruit ($2.00 for 5 pounds) from Albertsons. He also gave me some bacon he found on sale. I’m going to bring him coffee when my local store has its monthly coffee sale ($1.99 for a bag).

Last year, I requested the ham bone from the holiday party. I made some great soup with it.

I could go on, of course.

Dear readers: are you in a frugal-go-round? What is circulating in your community?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Thrift Store Gods Laugh at Me Once More

In a nice way, I hasten to say.

Every now and again, I decide to just buy one item at regular price and be done with it. One such item is the havaiana flip flop, which receives raves. At around $20, this is ridiculously overpriced, but it is supposedly comfy (unlike most flip flops). Plus, it is a status—nay, an iconic—flip flop.

A few days ago, I mentioned that I had 100 things to grade. That was a lie. I had 140 things to grade. Like the deficit, that number is unnerving, so I “rounded down,” following the example of the politicians who don’t include some items in the federal budget. I rounded down the late work that eventually showed up.

I did a lot of work, but still have almost 100 things to grade. Rounding down and leaving things out—bad ideas.

I did some grading this morning and decided to take a quick thrift break for mental health reasons. I also bought some chicken thighs at the grocery for $0.67/pound—a very good price, folks.

First, Goodwill: 2 pairs of just about new ballet flats. One in maroon leather and the other in black suede with a satin bow. Cost: $5.10, plus tax.

Next Habitat: I was talking to another frequent shopper about the local woman who hired someone to kill her husband—both have now been arrested for first-degree murder. I had advance news of this last night when I ran into a former student at the public library. He works at a private elementary school and told us that the woman who runs the book fairs had just been arrested. A perfectly pleasant middle-class mom.

Anyway, this conversation delayed my departure. I think this was the Thrift Store gods at work, because a volunteer came into the room with an armful of shoes. These just happened to be all in my size (6.5-7) and all nearly unworn! Two pairs booties (one Stuart Weitzman), 1 pair Wolky sandals (I’ve always wanted some of these, but didn't want to shell out the $100+), 1 pair Nine West black suede wedge boots, 1 pair Puma Nuala yoga shoes, 1 pair Clarks leather thong sandals.

This was a great moment, because no one else there was my size, so it was a serene scene, with much congratulations and admiration along the way. Five pairs were $2.00 and one was $3.00 (for no apparent reason). Total: $13.00 plus tax.

So 8 pairs of shoes for a bit under $20.00, the cost of the havaianas. OK,OK. I accept that I am not meant to buy things at regular stores. I accept my fate. Thank you, Thrift Store gods.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Easy Frugal Cooking: Four Ingredient Enchiladas

Cheap, Good, Quick Food: Isn't it a Good Thing to have some control over at least one aspect of your life?

When I started this blog, I intended to offer sage advice on frugality. Not for its own sake, although I am frugal in part for aesthetic reasons, but to enable people to have the sense of abundance and possibility that comes with being debt-free. There are, of course, many books and blogs on these very topics. Many offer personal testimonies of the journey from a debt-ridden to a debt-free existence. Like the Confessions of St Augustine and other conversion narratives, these testimonies have the power of personal history, as they chart a course from sin to salvation (albeit of a secular sort).

And I keep meaning to offer the standard advice: set goals, record your expenses, pay down your debt, start an emergency fund….and so on. Strangely, though, I find myself writing about cooking all the time.

Why is that? I suppose it’s because getting control of your food expenses is a first step to getting control of your finances. Amy Dacyzyn of The Tightwad Gazette talked about how many of her readers saved several hundred dollars a month (in 1990!) by completing a price book, starting a stockpile, and generally being more conscious of food costs. She also said that frugality—including frugal food habits—could provide an impressive return on investment, certainly outperforming CDs and savings accounts, in terms of percentages at any rate. This last is certainly true now, when the only guaranteed return on investment—at least for those of us who don’t know how to short stocks—is to save money on this and that necessity. It is nice in these dark financial days to have one area of our lives where we can have control!

We have to eat. And, of course, eating is a great pleasure. Only those who cook at home know that home-cooked food is far superior to 99% of restaurants. But everyone thinks cooking is so complex and time-consuming. It can be…but it doesn’t have to be.

Because of our road-trip with Miss Em, I am very behind on my work, having over 100 papers and exams to grade. So for dinner tonight, I made enchiladas with 4 ingredients. Having just eaten some, I can say that while these are not the BEST enchiladas, they provide a very high ratio of goodness to work involved.

They are cheap too. If you’ve read every word of this blog, you know that I am determined to make a dent in my food stockpile and so am cooking out of the cupboards. The enchiladas are an example. As with the Thai curry, this recipe is an ingredient list plus a technique.

1. 12 corn tortillas
2. big can Rotel tomatoes (i.e. tomatoes with chili peppers)
3. canned black beans (I used a can of refried beans and a can of regular black beans, drained. Mash together.)
4. Monterey jack cheese (or cheddar or muenster)

--Take an 8 inch square baking pan (I used this so I could bake in toaster oven, saving energy! If you live where it’s cold, use the oven.). Layer some tomatoes on the bottom.
--Fill each tortilla with beans and roll into cylinder. Place 6 cylinders in pan. (Four one-way, and 2 across the bottom).
--Top with more Rotels. Grate some cheese over this.
--Do it all again, making 2 layers.
--Cover with foil and bake at around 350 till hot through. Maybe 30 minutes???

That took about 10 minutes to prepare and far outshines Taco Bell or the frozen burritos you can buy at the grocery. It costs well under $4.00, mostly for the cheese, which I got at Costco when we visited my mother in Florida.

The first time I made enchiladas, I followed the recipe exactly, making a complex tomato sauce, frying the tortillas in spiced oil, then draining them on paper towels before filling with a complex bean mix and grated cheese. Then I topped with more grated cheese. By the end, my kitchen was a mess, I was sweating profusely, and several hours had elapsed. Because this recipe is so simple and uses so few ingredients, it is good for singles or duos or college students of any number. It does not mess up your kitchen and it freezes well.

Eaten with rice and some garden greens, the minimal version was delicious and there is enough for Monday dinner! Mondays are long days for us and we arrive home starving. Even though I just ate my enchiladas, I can’t wait to eat them again.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Frugal Cooking: Thai Curry for Absolute Beginners

For intermediate version with pictures, see previous day's post. This one is for true beginners.

The greatest thing about the internet is the accessibility and sharing of knowledge. As I mentioned in another post, I always think everyone knows what I know. And so does everyone else. In truth, of course, each of us knows a lot of things other people would be happy to know.

Like, for instance, how to make Thai coconut curry. With that knowledge, you can eat the food you crave even if, hats off to MFK Fisher, the wolf is at the door. It’s fine to patronize your local Thai place; indeed, it’s more than fine, since many ethnic restaurants are small and local operations. But if you lack money or time or want to impress friends or family, do it at home.

But what if you don’t know how to cook at all? In an earlier post, my son described the looks of amazement that greeted his cooking a pot of rice for his college friends. I began to think of all the non-cooks who might be my readers. For these people, when I say mix a can of coconut milk with some curry paste—that’s doable. But when I say pour this over your stir-fry, well, that’s like when someone tells me how to add blogs to my blogroll. I panic and ask someone else to do it.

When I was in graduate school, a friend asked me how to make noodles alfredo. He told me he was a good cook. So I told him to make the sauce by mixing cream, butter, and parmesan. Then I told him to add cooked pasta to the sauce. He said, “Do you drain the pasta?” (Answer: yes)

So: here is Thai coconut curry for absolute beginners. For 4 people or so.


1. Buy a pound of frozen, peeled shrimp. Preferably raw, but cooked would be OK.
2. Dump a can of coconut milk in a pan and then add some curry paste.
3. Heat the sauce and right before you want to eat throw in the shrimp and cook till it’s no longer transparent.
**Intermediate version involves throwing in some chopped scallions at any stage of the operation.

Cook some rice. Follow the directions on the package. For foolproof rice, use converted. I would say 2 cups raw rice (with around 3-4 cups water) for 4-6 people. Any leftovers can be eaten with butter and cheese the next day.

1.This will be a side dish. It can be any veggie really. But for TRUE BEGINNERS, I would say, buy a pound of shredded coleslaw mix.
2. Heat some vegetable (NOT olive) oil in a pan. When it’s hot, dump in the cabbage and stir around. It’s OK if the cabbage gets browned a bit.
**Advanced version: throw in a garlic clove at any time, but preferably near the beginning. Add a little soy sauce.

Oh, as for “order of things” (title of a famous book by Michel Foucault): do the rice first, then the sauce, then the cabbage. Add the shrimp at the very end.

There you have it: a dinner of Thai coconut curry with shrimp with side dishes of rice and stir-fried cabbage and carrots. Cost would be about $8.00 for 4 people.