In this episode: A Challenge is Offered

The cookie entry was the 100th entry on the new blog. A milestone.

Today, I was presented with a most interesting – and unusual – challenge by someone. The email I received, which I’m posting in its entirety, is in the extended entry as it’s rather long and includes some followups.

“I’ve been reading your blog almost since the beginning as I mentioned before, stumbling across it via a link from someone else during all the cancer updates (and let me say I’m glad you’re doing so much better, relative to where you were!). I really enjoy your writing and your photos, both of which are better than you think.

Since most of what you’ve been doing revolves around food, I wanted to offer up a challenge to you. Before I get into that, I want to tell you a little background information so you don’t think I’m some deranged stalker who goes around pestering blog authors with gameshow-like challenges.

I’m married, with three kids. My husband works full-time, sometimes more than full-tim (which you can understand, I’m sure), and I work part-time. He makes fairly good money, and what I make is more for household things such as groceries, and just having a little extra now and again. We’re not destitute by any means, but neither are we among the rich and famous and never will be, but that’s fine with me. We enjoy our life and we have great kids.

I read the post where you mentioned growing up poor, and I can relate to that, since I did as well. Being from the South myself, I can relate to what you were saying about beans and rice and only a little meat. You seem to have not really been rooted in any one place for very long, but my family was, and since we were, we also had a lot of vegetables from our garden and preserves from those vegetables that we did ourselves to add to our menu. As our fortunes improved, we moved more into the diet more associated with the typical family in the US: more emphasis on prepackaged or boxed foods, more meat, fewer vegetables, and almost nothing that we canned or preserved ourselves.

These days, with my own family, and with varied schedules (as my kids are in their teens and always have somtehing going on), it’s more of the same: take out, prepared foods from the Publix deli, packaged things that make my eyes pop out (as you said) when I look at the ingredients, etc. I’d love to get back to a better diet, and I have the time, or could make it, to cook “real food” more often. I’m not very inspired in the kitchen, though, and some of the recipes I look at have me shaking my head in both wonder and confusion. There is also the cost factor: we all know that the cheap eats provided by the prepackaged/processed foods are sometimes just as cheap as doing it yourself, and when given the choice between being productive in the kitchen and being lazy, too often lazy wins and the easy way out is the way we go.

I’ve read some sites about eating healthy but cheaply, but I haven’t really read anything practical about it, if you know what I mean: only a few recipes, no tips, no here’s-what-I-experienced type things, and a lot of people saying just eat beans and rice, ramen noodles, and mac and cheese. Some of the recipes I found are things that no one in this house would ever eat, because just tossing all the leftovers in a pot when it’s time to clean the fridge, cooking it for awhile, and calling it soup is not my idea of good food. I have nothing against soups, but I also like thoughtful use of food and any leftovers. I also like my food to taste good and like to feel good about feeding it to my family.

Which is how I came back to you. My husband and I were talking about it tonight (over Chinese take out, I confess) and agreed that it would be really great if someone were to design menus and/or recipes that would allow someone on a budget to feed themselves and their family (if they don’t live alone) fairly cheaply without sacrificing taste or nutrition along the way. It would also be great if they could write well about their experiences and even include some photos if they happened to think about it. As a finishing touch, it would be nice if that someone could inspire some of us to return to the kitchen, which is, like you said in your last email, the place where some families (like yours) always tend to congregate when they are together, the “heart of the home”, as you said. We both read your blog daily, and immediately thought you would be just the person for the challenge.

And there’s the challenge: for the next 30 days, create menus that can feed a family of three or more, fairly cheaply. Processed and prepackaged foods should be avoided as much as possible. Eating out at fine restaurants isn’t really practical for a lot of people, and I guess a lot of people don’t eat out at a real sit down restaurant for months at a time, so that should be kept in mind. The food should be as nutritious as possible without turning into hippie cardboard food, should taste good, and shouldn’t just resort to beans and rice, ramen noodles, and mac and cheese every day.

Those are the only ground rules I can think of right now. Are you up to the challenge? I’d love to see what someone who is creative with words and food could come up with to lead the rest of us back to the kitchen.

By the way, that pork looked great. I’d never lovingly tend a fire in a smoker for ten hours, because that isn’t my thing, and we usually just get our pulled pork from Woody’s or Sonny’s. I bet yours is better.

Sorry for the long, long email, but please consider the challenge and let me know. You can post all this if you want.”

I read through the email twice, thinking about the challenge. I sent back this whimsical response.

“I’m pondering what you wrote, musing about the challenge. In the meantime, though, haven’t you ever seen Rachael Ray and her 30 minute meals? She claims to make a delicious – sometimes she says nutritious – and healthy/healthul meal in 30 minutes, even though what she makes lately is all burgers, “stoups”, and the like, usually with potatoes of some kind (“smashed” being her favorite, apparently).”

She sent back a short response.

“That Joker-faced woman wouldn’t know a “healthful” meal if it bit her in her wide, fat ass.”

I thought that rather amusing.

So, I’m currently contemplating this challenge. Someone told me this as I was discussing it with them:

“My advice. Write everything the fuck down so you can publish it.”

If I do go through with this, I fully intend to blog about it. The woman who did the Julia project, wherein she cooked her way through Julia Child’s French cooking, blogged her experience and then turned it into a book – which I read and own – so why not something like this?

The more I think about the challenge that has been presented, the more interesting it becomes to me, for a variety of reasons.

First, there’s the obvious: the cooking.

Second, I live in a household that has multiple adults, all of whom have their own schedules, some of which (read: mine) can be extremely strange. It’s a huge challenge to get everyone at the table at the same time, and won’t always be possible – but, in busy households, that is just the thing, isn’t it? Meals would need to be things that could be prepared and either left (crockpot) or wrapped and reheated as people straggled in. Bonus points for reheating that doesn’t kill the food. Some things just do not lend themselves well to reheating, after all.

Third, there’s the budgeting portion. I generally don’t pay attention to what I spend on food, I just pick up whatever I need from wherever I happen to be. It would be interesting to have to pay attention to this and create a cost breakdown for each meal.

Fourth, there’s the nutrition/health aspect. At the moment, I just eat any old thing, because of the cancer diet I went through. However, my family has a history of high cholesterol, and I myself was on a cholesterol-reducing drug prior to diagnosis and surgery. My mother had a heart attack in 2004. My sisters probably both have elevated cholesterol, and both usually have some kind of gastrointestinal issues. Most of the “healthy” food tastes awful because they go too far to the edge, rather than just trying to find a sane balance.

Fifth, and finally, I just love figuring this sort of thing out when given the problem. It will take a bit of planning to get started. It will force me to get my own schedule in as much order as possible. It will force me to pay attention to something other than just the cooking.

And I think it would be fun. I’m leaning toward doing it. I just have to make sure that my taste testers are up for it.

5 thoughts on “In this episode: A Challenge is Offered”

  1. I remember an earliere blog entry about writing longer formats like a book! What a great way to fool yourself into doing it!

  2. I’d agree with “Write everything the fuck down” but not necessarily blogging it. Or, well, not blogging the actual recipes.

    There are tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people who would buy this, if you can pull it off. No one *wants* to feed their kids McDonalds every day, but eating healthy is so expensive. If you can figure out a way to make it affordable, you deserve to retire on the proceeds.

  3. Zoe Ann, I didn’t even think of it that way, but you’re absolutely right.

    Tanya, that’s a good point that I hadn’t considered, probably due to my verbal diarrhea sometimes (yeah, Google, spider THAT!). I have some thoughts on the whole challenge, but of course, that’s something to go into its own entry.

  4. I didn’t think about what Tanya considered either when I emailed you the challenge, but I think she’s probably right. I think you can make it work after our discussion tonight, I really do, and I’d love for you to be able to do something more with it than just humor an old married broad. 🙂

  5. Instead of trying to pawn off the “joker” cookbooks to foolish consumers, we could actually educate them. What a concept. Move 30MM and other fodder to the clearance section and give you front row, center court press! Of course, I’d have to skim 10% off the top for my trouble, eh?

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