Category Archives: Food

10 More Ways to Stretch Your Food Dollar (Whether You’re On the Road or Not)

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Last Wednesday I shared 10 ways to help stretch your food dollar. I think the tips are good for folks living on the road cash, coins, moneyor in a sticks-n-bricks. I’m not out of ideas, so here are 10 more tips for making the most of your food budget.

#1 Steer clear of fast food. If you’re eating from the regular menu at most restaurants, a meal is usually not inexpensive. Also, we all know fast food is not typically good for our health.

If you do eat fast food (and sometimes on the road it seems unavoidable) try to do so infrequently and stick to the value menu. Of course, McDonald’s has a famous value menu, but so do Taco Bell (their Fiesta Potato Grilled Breakfast Burrito with potato, egg, and cheese and a price of only $1 is my favorite fast food breakfast), Denny’s, Wendy’s and Del Taco. Also, it’s admittedly difficult to resist a $5 large pizza from Little Caesar’s.

If you join a fast food restaurant’s loyalty program via the internet, you can sometimes get email notifications of coupons, discounts, and freebies.

#2 Buy distressed produce after the price has been marked down. In many food stores, bruised, nicked, wilted, or otherwise distressed produce is sold at a deep discount. When you find discounted produce that’s no longer at its peak, think about what you might be able to use it for. Could you make apple sauce or apple butter or pancake topping from mushy apples? Could you cut bruises off vegetables and use the good parts to make soup or stock? Would mashed strawberries still taste delicious in a strawberry shortcake or smoothie? Sometimes reduced produce is on the brink of spoiling and still perfectly fine if you use it TODAY.

baguette, bakery, bread#3 Buy marked down bakery items. Bakery items are often marked down before they pass their freshness date. Many large supermarkets with in-house bakeries have a special area for bakery items being sold at a reduced price. Some towns also have bakery outlets where name brand baked goods are sold off cheaply right before or right after they reach their freshness date.

Don’t go overboard with cheap cookies, cakes, and white bread. These items are usually not super healthy, and you probably don’t really need them. You get the biggest savings by not spending money on things you don’t need. You also save money by maintaining your health. However, for a treat, reduced price bakery items can’t be beat.

#4 Buy scratched and dented cans and items past their “best by” date. There are entire grocery stores dedicated to these types of items. You can also look for the clearance section of individual food stores.

The “sell by,” “best by,” or “expiration” date on packaged food is usually only a suggestion. I have eaten plenty of canned beans, energy bars, and corn chips after the date on the package, and I’ve never been sick. Occasionally items with no preservatives or heavy with nuts or oils might taste rancid, but I don’t usually notice that unless an item is more than three months past the date on the package. If I’m skeptical, I’ll buy just one of the item in question, taste it, then make my decision.

I also get good deals on canned goods that have been banged up. Often items in dented cans are not even “expired.” I avoid cans that are leaking or bulging or open, and I’ve never had a problem and have saved a fortune.

#5 Utilize food pantries. Most towns have at least one food pantry. Some require photo ID, proof of income, and proof of address. Some don’t require anything at all. If the food pantry guidelines say you qualify, you qualify, so you don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed. Food pantries are there to help people in need. If you are in need, utilize what’s there to help you.

#6 Qualify for SNAP benefits. Qualifying for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka EBT, aka food stamps) requires jumping through some hoops and sharing lots of personal information but can really help low-income folks buy healthy food.  You can probably apply online.

I feel the same way about SNAP as I do about food pantries: don’t feel guilty or ashamed for using something you qualify for.

#7 Dumpster Dive I once lived in a town with an unlocked dumpster behind a grocery store. My friends and I got so much food out of the trash there. We got enough slightly distressed, but still salvagable produce there to feed ourselves and each other and sometimes strangers many gallons of delicious and nutritious soup. We also got enough junk food to satisfy all our sweet teeth. You probably can’t count on finding food in the trash in every town you roll through, but when you find a good source, you can eat like royalty.

Orange Fruit#8 Trade your labor for food. If you see fruit or nut trees growing in a yard and ready for harvest, ask the person who owns the trees if you can harvest what’s ripe and keep half of what you pick in exchange for your labor. Maybe the owner will say no or look at you like you’re weird. So what? Maybe they’ll agree to share their fresh and healthy food with you if you’re willing to do a little work.

Foraging is related to this idea of eating produce quite literally growing on trees in urban areas. If you’re interested in foraging, check out the Falling Fruit website. The project calls itself

a celebration of the overlooked culinary bounty of our city streets,

and says that while

[o]ur edible map is not the first of its kind…it aspires to be the world’s most comprehensive. While our users contribute locations of their own, we comb the internet for pre-existing knowledge, seeking to unite the efforts of foragers, foresters, and freegans everywhere.

#9 Eat the food people offer you. Say yes if a friend invites you over for a home-cooked meal. Take the box of crackers you family member offers you after trying one and deciding s/he didn’t like it. Again, there’s no shame in taking what is offered to you.

#10 Don’t get tricked into thinking you’re getting a bargain just because everything in the store costs a dollar. Often items I see at Dollar Tree can be had for a cheaper per ounce price at Wal-Mart or a supermarket. Sometimes even the same size item is less expensive elsewhere. Don’t get caught up in an it’s only a dollar frenzy. (I have been caught up in that frenzy many times.) Occasionally I do find a real bargain at the Dollar Tree, like packages of multigrain rice cakes, but typically the food there is over-priced or junk food or over-priced junk food.

What are you tips for eating healthy food while on a tight budget? Please share your best ideas in the comments.

Images courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/cash-coins-money-pattern-259165/https://www.pexels.com/photo/bread-food-healthy-breakfast-2436/, and https://www.pexels.com/photo/orange-fruit-221105/.

 

10 Ways to Stretch Your Food Dollar (Whether You’re On or Off the Road)

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1 Us Bank NoteThe Man is always amazed when I come out of the supermarket and tell him how little I paid for the food in the cart. I get a big kick out of cooking healthy and delicious meals on the cheap. The Man said I should share my money saving ways with my readers, so today I present 10 tips on stretching your food dollar, whether you live in a van, RV, apartment, or house.

#1 Don’t waste food. Don’t buy something if you’re not dedicated to eating it. If you buy food, eat it, even if you don’t particularly like it. Being adventurous is great, but throwing away food is a waste of money.

Often, not wasting food requires planning. You have to eat fresh food before it spoils, which can be tricky if an item is distressed or if you’re on the road and have only a cooler or no refrigeration at all. Before I plan a meal, I take stock of what fresh food I have and what’s likely to go bad in the next day or two. I cook what I’m most in danger of losing.

#2 Be creative with what you can buy cheaply. One time I encountered whole pinto beans marked down to less than 30 cents a can. I don’t particularly like pinto beans with rice or whole pinto beans on burritos, so I turned the beans into my version of refried beans. They were delicious!

If you find something on super sale, think of all the different ways you can consume the item, especially if you have to use it up fast. Maybe you don’t want to eat six cartons of plain yogurt, but maybe you can eat some with berries and crunchy cereal, use another portion in your pancake recipe, and throw the rest in the blender with other ingredients to make smoothies.

#3 Eat what’s cheap, not necessarily what you’re in the mood for. I finally had an oven, so I really wanted to bake a pizza at home. I picked out a jar of pizza sauce and thought about toppings. I knew I had a can of olives (bought for 50 cents at a scratch and dent store) in the cupboard, so I tossed a can of mushrooms into my cart, and figured I could round things out with half a chopped onion. Then I found the store’s cart of reduced canned goods. As I rooted through I found a can of pasta sauce marked 49 cents that I thought would work just as well as something labeled “pizza sauce” (I was right—it worked great) and a can of asparagus spears for 79 cents which became the delicious splurge that made the pizza extra special.

The lesson here is that if I’d had my heart set on artichoke hearts for the pizza, I would have either spent a lot more money, or I would have felt disappointed and lamented my life of poverty. Instead, I got a good deal on something delicious. Also? If I hadn’t found the asparagus spears, the pizza as I originally envisioned it would have still been mighty tasty.

Booth, branding, business#4 Watch for sales.  Check out weekly sales online before you shop or read the sale flyer at the front of the store. You can also just pay attention to prices while you shop. If you see a bargain on something you would use anyway, stock up.

#5 Buy store brands. Store brands typically cost less than name brands and taste as good. (Some people may taste a difference between name brand items and store brand items. I typically do not, except for ‘Nilla Wafers. I don’t know what it is, but ‘Nilla Wafers taste markedly better than any generic vanilla wafer I’ve ever tried.)

#6 Remember that convenience foods typically cost more. As much as possible, cook from scratch. How much time are you really saving by using a cornbread mix or precooked rice? And what do you have more of, time or money? One of the reasons most of us live on the road is so we can have lots of free time. Often more free time means less money. When it comes to cooking, you can often use your free time to save money. If you’re living in a sticks-and-bricks, maybe saving money will mean you have to work less or you can get on the road sooner, if that’s what you’re hoping for.

#7 Don’t eat more than you need to. I frequently make the costly decision to eat when I’m not really hungry. I often overeat because food is delicious and comforting. However, eating reasonable portions means you’re getting more meals for the money you spent on food.

#8 If you’re in a town with a senior center, check into the lunch program for seniors. Even small towns out West offer these lunches. They usually cost $2 to $3 for a complete meal. Age requirements to qualify for the inexpensive meal vary, but I’ve heard of people as young as 50 being considered “seniors” and eligible for the lunches. Younger people are considered “guests,” and their cost per meal is usually around $7

I’m still too young to eat cheap senior lunches, so I’ve never participated. From what I’ve heard, they can often be a good place for socializing and meeting people. Musicians often perform at one senior lunch program I know of in a small southern New Mexico town. Another new program in a small southern Arizona town is promising Bingo.

#9 Investigate free meal options. Maybe the town you’re in has a Food Not Bombs chapter that serves free vegan food in the park. Maybe there’s a Catholic Worker group that serves free meals like in Las Vegas, NV.  Call churches, Catholic Worker Houses, infoshops, radical bookstores, food banks, social service offices, and homeless shelters and outreach programs and ask how to get free meals where you are.

Assorted-color Box Lot on Rack#10 Sign up for supermarket loyalty cards to get discounts, coupons, and sale prices. Supermarkets owned by the same parent company have different names in different parts of the country, but one discount card is good at all of them. I typically shop at stores owned by Kroger, and I save money by using the loyalty card.

If you don’t want a loyalty card, ask the cashier if s/he has a loyalty card s/he can scan for you so you get the sale prices. There was a time in my life when I did not have the ability to keep track of a supermarket loyalty card, so I often asked the cashier if s/he had a card to use for me. I was seldom told no.

I hope these tips have helped you think about ways to stretch your food dollar according to your own personal needs and desires. Want more money saving tips? I’ll offer up 10 More Ways to Stretch Your Food Dollar next Wednesday.

Images courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/1-us-bank-note-47344/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/booth-branding-business-buy-264636/, and https://www.pexels.com/photo/assorted-color-box-lot-on-rack-811101/.

Charity Pie Night

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I should have shared this post on National Pi Day, but I didn’t get it together in time for that. Maybe next year I will have a pi/pie related story prepared for March 14. In the meantime, enjoy this pie related story today.

NOLAgirl and I starting making plans to attend pie night a month before it happened.

She was in Phoenix, and I was house and cat sitting in Murphys, CA. She must have mentioned pie night to me, and I was all in! Pie. Pie is delicious. I love pie.

Pie night is held at a store called Practical Art, located at 5070 N. Central Avenue in Phoenix, AZ. Here’s what Practical Art’s website has to say for itself:

Practical Art is a friendly retail and gallery space featuring 100% locally-made wares in wood, fiber, ceramic, glass, metal, and up-cycled materials. All of our work is produced by Arizona artisans—we have over 100 of them producing work for you. We carry art that is practical in some way—everything from kitchen tools to home and office items, soap, clothing, furniture, jewelry, and more.

Pie night is more accurately Charity Pie Night. The Charity Pie Night page on the Practical Art website says the monthly event has raised over $34,000 since 2011. Past beneficiaries of charity pie nights include Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix Center for the Arts, Area Agency on Aging, Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project, Rising Youth Theatre, and the Animal Defense League of Arizona. The night in December when NOLAgirl and I attended, the beneficiary was the Art Resource Center.

According to their Facebook page,

The Art Resource Center is a non-profit corporation 501(C)(3) whose objectives are to collect reusable discards from individuals and industries and offer them free of charge to schools and other non-profit entities for the purpose of making art.

The Art Resource Center’s website elaborates,

By recycling art worthy materials for creative minds, THE ARC is filling the ever widening funding gap of nonprofits by providing quality materials to continue the passion we call ART.

The Art Resource Center is a wonderful project that I can get behind 100%. However, on that December night, my prime objective was PIE!

NOLAgirl and I arrived right on time, plates in hand. (To make Charity Pie Night more environmentally friendly, Practical Art encourages people to bring plates from home or buy reusable plates in the store. Reusable plates were provided to folks who hadn’t brought their own plate and didn’t want to buy one, but the plates provided were SMALL! I was glad to have brought my own slightly larger plate.)

Here’s how it worked: $5 got a person a slice of pie; $10 got a person unlimited slices. Anyone who knows me (and my love of pie and love of a bargain) will not be surprised to find out I had budgeted $10 for all the pie I could eat.

NOLAgirl and I lined up and waited our turn to step up to the pie table.

The pies were made by Vonceil’s Pies, owned by Karen Olson. The pie company’s Facebook page says,

Vonceil’s Pies is my dream in the making…some day I hope that Vonceil’s will be my own store front bakery in which I can share the wonderful, crazy, beautiful world of homemade pie to the Arizona community.

There must have been a dozen different pies on the table, and they were being served up by friendly young women wearing cute aprons. There were vegan pies made with no animal products. There were traditional pies made with whatever traditional pies are made of. There were berry pies and fruit pies. There were pies containing chocolate and pies containing chocolate and peanut butter and pies containing alcohol. One of the pies had a crust made from crushed nuts, which made it gluten free. How would we ever decide what varieties to choose?

It seemed like bad form to say Give me one of each! and besides, I don’t think I could have fit a dozen slices of pie on my medium-sized plate. NOLAgirl and I each chose four flavors to sample, then went and found a place to sit in the back of the store.

Wow! That pie was good. I wish I had noted which flavors I tried, but alas, I did not. In any case, every type of pie I tried was delicious.

After we finished our first round of slices, NOLAgirl and I walked around the store and looked at all the cool items for sale.

“The Big Robot Show”  by Jordan-Alexander Thomas was in progress at Practical Art during Charity Pie Night. According to the information on the Practical Art website,

In “The Big Robot Show” local mixed-media artist, Jordan-Alexander Thomas exhibits his inventive and sometimes curiously odd robots and sci-fi creations on a grand scale. Using wood and up-cycled found objects, Thomas transforms these findings into whimsical and entertaining creations that are constructed to excite the imagination. Thomas began creating robot sculptures when his passion for indie handmade objects collided with his love of all things science fiction.

The robot and sci-fi creations were wonderful! I loved them but didn’t take any photos. Luckily, you can see some of them on them on Thomas’ website. Really, it’s worth clicking on the link and having a look!

After we looked at everything in the store, NOLAgirl and I shyly asked one another if we wanted more pie. As a matter of fact we did, thank you very much.

We got back in line and patiently waited to get up to the pie table. The pies were dwindling by this point, but we were both able to get slices of four pie varieties we hadn’t tried in the first round. They too were divine.

Once we finished our second helpings of pie, our bellies were full, and we were all sugared up. It wasn’t an entirely unpleasant feeling, but maybe I don’t need to eat eight pieces (even eight small pieces) of pie in one night.

For folks visiting Phoenix, I highly recommend a stop at Practical Art. For folks who like pie, if you can time it right, you really should make your visit there coincide with Charity Pie Night.

 

Fruit Squish ‘Ems!

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Sure, I accept food from food banks. I live my life below the poverty level, so I supplement my diet by frequenting food pantries when I can.

One of the services offered by the Isaiah 58 Project in Quartzsite, AZ is a free bag of food once a week. I partook of their offerings twice while I was in the town last January.

While getting free food is always awesome, what I like best is getting delicious free food I normally wouldn’t buy. I was pretty excited to find Fruit Squish ‘Ems! in my food bag. I have to admit, I’d never even heard of Fruit Squish ‘Ems! but what could be bad about a squeezable fruit pouch?

I’m not a stickler for expiration dates. Usually I don’t even check. Those dates are typically “best by” dates anyway. Most processed and packaged food is so full of preservatives, it would take a LONG time to go bad. Heck, I even buy “expired” food, as long as it’s deeply discounted.

I’m not sure why I even looked for an expiration date. Maybe I did it because I’d been shopping at one of Quartzsite’s temporary scratch-and-dent grocery stores and had gotten in the habit of making sure items I wanted to buy weren’t too old. Maybe my guardian angel told me to do it. In any case, I did look for a date and found it: June 2014. I received the Squish ‘Ems! in January 2017, meaning their “best buy” date had come and gone over two and a half years before.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that date made me a little nervous.

Sure, there was a time when the date wouldn’t have even made me blink, but I’m older now, and a little wiser, I hope.

My sibling has a Mormon friend. The Mormon friend is into food storage. The friend told my sibling that when it comes to wet and dry food, it’s much easier to tell if dry food has gone bad. The wetness of the Fruit Squish ‘Ems! had me a little worried.

(While writing this post, I did a Google search on wet vs. dry food going bad. I found nothing to indicate the Mormon friend is correct. I did, however, find an informative article about food spoilage on the Business Insider website. The article by is called “Expiration dates are bogus — here’s the best way to tell if a food’s gone bad” and covers bread, eggs, fruit, vegetables, meat, milk, and more.)

I wondered if maybe I was just being a wimp. Was squished fruit that had “expired” over two years ago likely to be spoiled? Would it really be “bad,” or just not “best”? Might it make me sick?

I decided to ask for the opinion of my soon-to-be-traveling companion, the man I’d been spending a lot of time with. He’s been a traveler and dumpster diver for the better part of his 46 years. I knew he’d eaten food in a variety of expired and less-than-best states. If he said he thought it would be alright, I’d quit worrying and eat the stuff.

I showed him the “best by” date on the package. I asked him what he thought. He immediately gave me a resounding NO! We did not need to eat that stuff, he told me. I was relieved. He’d validated my fears. If he thought eating the fruit was a bad idea, it was easy for me to go along with him.

I don’t blame the food bank for giving such wildly out-of-date food. I’m sure the pantry gets a lot of donations, and in the haste to get the food to the people, “best by” dates are sometimes overlooked.

I don’t even blame the folks who donated the out-of-date Fruit Squish ‘Ems! They were only trying to help.

I don’t feel the need to blame anyone, but I’m glad I took it upon myself to check the date. Our trip could have been decidedly awful had we sucked down bad Squish ‘Ems!

I took the photos in this post.

Ethel M Factory and Cactus Garden

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These chocolate covered apples were drying during my visit to Ethel M. I love the way the bright green pops!

These chocolate covered apples were drying during my visit to Ethel M. I love the way the bright green pops!

Shortly before my first visit with The Poet and The Activist in Las Vegas, I heard about the Ethel M chocolate factory in nearby Henderson, NV. Wait? What? I could tour a chocolate factory. then eat free chocolates? I was in!

I didn’t make it to the Ethel M factory during that visit, or the next. Finally, on my third visit, The Activist, The Poet, and I made a trek out there.

I had been warned there isn’t much to the tour, but I hadn’t understood how very little of a tour there is. There’s a long hallway visitors can walk down. The Ethel M website calls this hallway the “viewing aisle,” which is a totally

The viewing aisle at the Ethel M factory. The actual factory is on the other side of the glass.

The viewing aisle at the Ethel M factory. The actual factory is on the other side of the glass.

accurate description. On one side of the aisle, behind a wall made mostly of glass, is the factory floor. Sure, I didn’t expect to be allowed to frolic on the factory floor, but i did expect to see some action out there. It was 12:30 on a weekday afternoon and there were no workers on 3/4 of the factory floor. Is everyone on lunch break? I asked The Poet.

The Ethel M website says,

From the viewing aisle, if you time it right, you’ll get a peek inside Ethel’s kitchen where we make pecan brittle by hand every day, as well as prepare our signature small batch fillings like satin crèmes, caramels, and peanut butter…

Also, to ensure that we always deliver on our promise of high quality, preservative-free chocolates, our schedule in the Factory varies. So from time to time, the factory may not be bustling with chocolatiers during your visit. Sorry.

I suppose we didn’t time it right.

Hard to read white letters explain each step of the candy-making process.

Hard to read white letters explain each step of the candy-making process.

We saw an automated machine slowly moving along boxes filled with chocolate hearts. We saw a lone man messing around with a bucket. At the very end of the line, we saw a few more men doing the final steps in the packaging of the candies. Any preconceived notions of Lucy shoveling bonbons in her mouth in order to keep up didn’t last long. Everything on the other side of the glass wall that was moving did so virtually in slow motion.

There were words on the glass, explaining the process in each section of the factory. However, the words were written in white and quite difficult to read. Who thought white letters were a good idea for this application?

When the tour was over, I went looking for my free chocolate.

This sign explaining how chocolate is made is much easier to read.

This sign explaining how chocolate is made is much easier to read.

We’d heard workers offering samples to other visitors, but no one offered anything to us. After asking around, we were directed to the man with the samples on lockdown.

The man gave each of us a chocolate disc about the size of a quarter. I tried not to wolf down my piece. It tasted good, but was not amazing. It was chocolate–of course it was good! But being of the mind that any chocolate is good chocolate, I’ll even eat the cheap, slightly waxy chocolate that comes out particularly at Easter, Halloween, and Christmas. The chocolate bearing Ethel M’s name was better than the cheapest, but not by leaps and bounds. My free sample was decent,

Wow! Small packages of chocolates staring at 20 bucks.

Wow! Small packages of chocolates starting at 20 bucks.

average chocolate.

Based on the prices being charged for the chocolate in the gift shop, one might think Ethel M’s chocolates are favored by the Mayan gods. Everything in that place was out of my budget!

The gift shop area is quite large. One can buy chocolate dipped bananas and marshmallows and apples. One can buy prepackaged chocolates ready to go. One can choose one’s favorites from rows and rows of confections on well lit display and have them boxed up in single or double layers. Ethel M offers a mind-boggling selection of filled chocolates (cherries! caramel! nuts! peanut butter! crème! truffles! crème liqueurs!) and perhaps those are the outstanding candies. Visitors can also purchase souvenir t-shirts, travel mugs, etc. or have a beverage or pastry from the Cactus Garden Cafe.

Everyone working in the gift shop was friendly and helpful in a How may I assist you with your purchases? sort of way. (There were lots of people in there making lots of purchases.) The entire area (including the women’s restroom) was sparkling clean.

Cacti and holiday stars

Cacti and holiday stars

After walking around inside and seeing everything there was to see, we decided to stroll through the cactus garden which was decorated for the winter holidays, meaning Christmas. I didn’t see a single indication of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, Solstice, or St. Lucia’s Day. Well, to be fair, I don’t know what decorations would represent Kwanzaa, Yule, Solistice, or St. Lucia’s Day. Maybe there were representations that I missed. Maybe the fake Christmas trees with the upside down peace sign decorations represented Yule and Solstice.

For someone who’s never seen a cactus (or maybe has only seen a few), the cactus garden must seem incredible, as it’s chock-full of cacti from all over the world.

Holiday Balls

Holiday Balls

I’ve seen plenty of wild cacti in Arizona and Nevada and California and New Mexico, as well as at the The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, so the garden was not extraordinarily interesting to me. More signs with information about cacti in general and the varieties on display specifically might have meant more education for visitors.

Since Christmas means exactly nothing to me, the decorations didn’t add any magic to the area. My friends and

I thought the decorations were kind of dumb. Isn’t it risky for inflatable decorations to be set up near cacti spines? One gust of wind depositing the decorations on a cactus and that will be the end of that. And what’s the point of putting inflated winter wonderland scenes in the desert?  Everyone knows that igloo isn’t real!

Since when do penguins pop out of the roofs of igloos? As a matter of fact, since when are there igloos or penguins in the desert?

Since when do penguins pop out of the roofs of igloos? As a matter of fact, since when do igloos or penguins reside in the desert?

Some of the displays were even weirder than penguins popping out of igloos. There were snowfolks reminiscent of scarecrows. There was an inflated helicopter with a lazily spinning rotor on top. The Santa in the pilot’s chair had fallen over on his side, giving the whole tableau a vibe of copter shot down in Vietnam War. Towering over the copter was a giant polar bear standing on its hind legs. Does the polar bear represent American imperialism? I wondered. Probably not. It probably simply represented poorly thought out American holiday commercialism.

I might have liked the whole exhibit more if I had gone at night and seen all the lights sparkling in the dark. I do have a soft spot for Christmas lights, but alas, it was daytime and the strands of lights simply looked like ropes binding cacti hostages.

As the holiday music blasted through the barely camouflaged speakers, my friends and I agreed we were ready to get out of there. We left the expensive chocolates and the questionable winter wonderland behind.

 

Old Man of the Mountains, one of my favorite varieties of cactus.

Old Man of the Mountains, one of my favorite varieties of cactus.

 

The Ethel M chocolate factory is #58 on the Jen Reviews list of 100 Best Things to Do in Las Vegas.

I took all of the photos in this post.

 

 

Pantry Challenge

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Pantry Challenge sounds like a program from Food Network or Cooking Channel, but it’s not. (If it were a program, I’d probably watch it; I really enjoy cooking shows, especially the ones involving competition.)

According to the Medium Sized Family blog,

a pantry challenge is when you choose not to buy groceries for a set time…Instead, you use up the food in your house until there is nothing left to eat.

For a variety of reasons, I decided to do a modified pantry challenge during my second house sitting job this past November.  (I’m calling it a modified challenge because I wasn’t dead set on not buying groceries until I had nothing left to eat. I just wanted to make big dent in what I had before I shopped again.)

First of all, I was going to spend three weeks in a small town sixty miles from the nearest city. I suspected food prices were going to be high in the little town, and I was right. Since I arrived in town two hours before my appointment with the people I was house sitting for, I browsed at the town’s regular grocery store and the town’s health food/natural food/ hippie food store. The prices at both places were substantially higher than what I’d grown accustomed to paying at the outlet supermarket chain I’d shopped at all summer. I was glad I’d gone with my instinct and stocked up on everything from eggs to zucchini in the city where I was able to get things at a lower price.

Saving money is a big reason people do the pantry challenge. Jessica from the Good Cheap Eats blog says,

By focusing on what you have you will save money in not buying more. You also avoid the grocery store which means you reduce your impulse purchases, again saving you money.

Impulse buying can definitely be a problem for me, so I know Jessica is right that I save money simply by staying out of the grocery store. I can easily imagine myself popping in to the store for just a package of tortillas, then deciding to buy milk, which would mean I needed cereal, and on and on. Deciding to use what I had before I bought anything else certainly kept me away from the temptation to buy items I didn’t really need.

I believe in stocking up, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but can get a bit out of hand. When I was living on the mountain, I didn’t want to run out of staples, like black beans for instance. So every time I went to the discount grocery store, I’d throw five or six cans of black beans into my shopping cart. I knew I wasn’t wasting money because I’d eat those beans eventually, but I had no idea how many cans I was really hauling around. My pantry challenge allowed me to do a much needed inventory of my food supply.

This is my pantry, the plastic tubs that hold my food

This is my pantry, the plastic tubs that hold my food.

The easiest way to manage the challenge was to haul my pantry into the house. My pantry consists of several transparent plastic storage tubs made by Sterilite. I have two large tubs (one for proteins and main dishes, the other for side dishes and fruits and vegetables), two medium tubs (one for my dishes and bowl and utensils and cast iron skillet, the other for breakfast food and tea) and two small tubs (one for condiments and spices, the other for snacks like granola and energy bars).

One reason I chose these particular tubs were the latches that secured the covers. Several of the handles have broken off, so they are less desirable than they once were. On a whim, I contacted Sterilite and asked them if I could buy new latches. A customer representative contacted me a couple of days later and asked where exactly the latches had broken. I explained the situation, and she said while Sterilite does not sell replacement parts, she would send me new latches free of charge. SCORE! I guess it never hurts to ask.

In addition to these transparent tubs, I have three smaller tubs that hold up my bed and serve as backup food storage.

Bringing the tubs inside encouraged me to clean them. The tubs (especially the lids) were really dirty after being in the van all dusty summer. Having the tubs in the kitchen, near the sink, made cleaning them much less of a hassle. I took all of the food (mostly canned goods) out of the tubs, took inventory, organized the items into categories that work for the way I cook, then scrubbed the tubs and lids with soap and hot water. I let them dry completely before I put any food back in them.

Since I was on the cleaning train, I took the opportunity to wash my two small plates, bowl, spoon, knife, three forks, cutting board, collapsible funnel, folding-handle camp cup, and tiny cheese grater. When I’m in the forest, I mostly use the spray-with-soap, spray-with-water, wipe-with-paper-towel, method of cleaning, so it was good to be able to soak everything in hot soapy water, then do a thorough scrubbing.

As I did my inventory, I was able to isolate the food I don’t want to keep. I’m pretty good about eating what I have, but there were a few items I’m going to donate to a food bank or a free pile. I have a couple of cans of cream of mushroom soup I bought on sale 2-for-$1, but didn’t care for when I cooked with one can of it. I have several bags of banana chips that I don’t much like and a can of tomato sauce I can’t think of a way to use. I bet someone will be happy to have the stuff, and I’ll be glad to pass it on.

I’ll head to the land of scratch-and-dent groceries soon. It’s good that I’ve used up most of my canned goods and know what I can use more of, because it’s almost time to stock up again.

You can learn how to prepare for a pantry challenge and learn why one frugal blogger doesn’t do the pantry challenge anymore.

I took the photo in this post.

 

Avocados

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Do you like avocados? she asked me.

Yes, I replied with enthusiasm.

She led me out the door and to the backyard of the house she and her roommate rented. As I walked onto the porch, I saw avocados growing on a tree!

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Sure, I knew avocados grow on trees, but I’d never seen it. Seeing is believing, and wow, this was amazing!

According to Wikipedia,

The avocado (Persea americana) is a tree that is native to South Central Mexico,[2] classified as a member of the flowering plant family Lauraceae.[3]Avocado (also alligator pear) also refers to the tree’s fruit, which is botanically a large berry containing a single seed.[4]

The tree in the backyard was huge. It was taller than the house and had many branches reaching toward the sky. As I looked up, up, up through the branches and shiny green leaves, I saw a multitude of fruit. Is this all one tree? I asked in awe. She assured me it was.

I want to hug the tree! I exclaimed.

I climbed down the steps of the porch so I could meet the tree and embrace it.

I love you! I love you! I told the tree.

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This photo I took of the bountiful avocado tree does not adequately show its great height or multiple branches. The tree is huge and the fruit plentiful.

She moved into the house last year. The avocados were ripe in May. They fell from the tree and she only had to collect them from the yard. She ate all she could, gave away so many to friends and neighbors and coworkers, let the squirrels have their fill, and still there were avocados.

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She’s worried about the avocados this year. It’s November now, and they’re still hanging from the tree. While the fruit is plentiful, she doesn’t know if they will ever be ripe enough for eating. She fears all the beautiful fruit will shrivel on the tree and go to waste.

She’s not sure what the problem is. Maybe the summer wasn’t warm enough or maybe the California drought is taking its toll. In any case, it’s going to be a shame if most of the avocados on the tree turn out to be inedible.

She did eat a couple of avocados from the backyard last week. One was good, but not great. The other was quite stringy.

According to the California Avocado Board (via the Food52 website),

Strings or stringy fruit or the thickening of the vascular bundles (fibers that run longitudinally through the fruit) are generally the result of fruit from younger trees or improper storage conditions. Often times the fibers or strings will disappear or become less noticeable as the fruit (and tree) matures.

While I was hugging the tree and exclaiming over the abundance of fruit, she chose half a dozen avocados for me. When we went inside, she put them in a paper bag, told me keeping them in the bag together would help them ripen.

The aforementioned Wikipedia article says,

Like the banana, the avocado is a climacteric fruit, which matures on the tree, but ripens off the tree…Once picked, avocados ripen in one to two weeks (depending on the cultivar) at room temperature (faster if stored with other fruits such as apples or bananas, because of the influence of ethylene gas).

The avocados she gave me are currently still too firm to try to eat, but I am hopeful they will ripen and turn out to be delicious.

I’m grateful to be the recipient of such a precious treat.

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I was recently alerted to a great article about 14 health benefits of avocados. The article includes lots of information about all the good reasons to eat avocados, as well as four recipes.

I took the photos in this post.

 

Berry Picking

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One Tuesday morning, on my way from my creek sanctuary to the post office, I saw a car parked on the side of the road. Upon looking more closely, I saw two women standing near thick vegetation. IMG_6694

I couldn’t suppress my curiosity. I stopped the van, opened my small, triangle shaped side window, and called out, What are you ladies doing?

Picking berries, one replied.

What kind of berries? I asked.

Blackberries, she said.

Oh! I might come back! I told her.

Come on back, she agreed. There’s plenty.

By the time I finished at the post office, the day was growing hot, and I didn’t feel like talking to strangers, so I drove on by the blackberry bushes and the ladies harvesting the wild fruit.

A week later, I was at the bargain grocery store in Babylon. I found fancy, organic whole-milk yogurt for a really good price. I put the yogurt in my cart and wondered what I could add to it to jazz it up. I had almond slices in the IMG_6705van…that would be a tasty addition. Berries would be good too, but the fresh strawberries and blueberries in the produce section were priced higher than what I wanted to pay.

Then I remembered the women on the road picking blackberries. Fresh blackberries would be good with the fancy yogurt. I decided to risk that the season was over or the berries had all been picked. If there were still berries free for the picking, I’d have hit the jackpot. If the berries were all gone, I could enjoy the yogurt with almonds.

I got to my creek sanctuary after dark and slept to the sound of rushing water.

I was up early the next morning and arrived at the post office moments after it opened.

After picking up my mail, I headed to the blackberry bushes. To my delight, I saw there were plenty of berries for me.IMG_6690

It had been years since I’d picked blackberries. I remembered it was a scratchy activity, but I had forgotten quite howIMG_6688 serious the thorns on the bushes are. I was wearing a filmy, floaty, flowy cotton skirt when I first approached the bushes, and I was immediately ensnared by the thorns. I thought of the characters in the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, a whole community sleeping behind thorny bushes that enveloped the castle. Once I’d extracted my skirt from the real-life thorns, I walked back to the van and put on jeans and a long sleeve shirt. Then I was able to get down to serious picking.

I concentrated on the bushes in the shade. There wasn’t much traffic on the road, so I didn’t feel unsafe. While there were plenty of berries to pick, the plumpest of them always seemed just out of my reach.

In less than an hour, I’d filled my travel mug three times. Each time it filled, I walked back to the van and dumped the berries into zipper bags. Two nearly full zipper bags seemed like plenty.IMG_6685

Back at my campsite, I rinsed the berries with fresh water. Once all were rinsed, it was the moment of truth.

I put half of the yogurt from one container into my blue bowl. Then I added a generous  mound of blackberries and mixed the two ingredients gently. The first taste was sublime. The yogurt was cold and creamy and a little sour, while the berries were sweet and a bit tart too. Yum!IMG_6706

Free food is wonderful. I’ll gladly do a little work out in the fresh air to save a little cash. When free food is fresh and wild and healthy and tasty—well, that’s all the better.

If I had the means to can blackberry jam or a freezer for storage, I would have picked more berries and put them away to enjoy in the winter. Since I have no way to store berries for more than a couple of days, I enjoyed what I picked in the fleeting, delicious now.

I took all the photos in this post.

Bargain Beans

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When I returned to the city nearest to my campground, I was glad to find a new bargain grocery store. The year before, I didn’t like any of the grocery stores in town because everything seemed really expensive.

The new store isn’t a scratch and dent store; I don’t think anything is outdated. However, many items are about to reach their expiration dates, so those items are cheap in order to sell them off quickly.

I’ve gotten 8oz packages of (not delicious) vegan “cheese” shreds for 99 cents, four cans of peas for 77 cents, popchips for 59 cents a bag, two packages of flour tortillas for $1, and two boxes of Stove Top stuffing (name brand!) for $1.

beansThe best bargain I found at the store was a stack of cans of organic pinto beans for 27 cents each. What! Hell Yeah! I scooped up nine of the ten cans on the table. (The tenth can was dented in a way I didn’t like, so I left it.)

Even though I’m not a fan of whole pintos over rice or in burritos, I bought the bargain beans anyway. Why? I knew I could easily mash them up and turn them into my own version of refried beans.

Here’s how I did it:

#1 Heat oil in cast iron skillet

#2 If desired, add minced garlic (fresh or dried) and/or minced onions (fresh or dried) to the oil.

#3 While oil is heating, drain and rinse beans. (I learned recently that drained and rinsed beans cause less gas.)

#4 Add beans to oil IMG_6680

#5 Mash beans. (I use the back of my spatula because that’s what I’ve got.)

#6 Beans will probably be quite thick. Add oil and/or hot sauce to thin slightly.

#7 Keep mashing.

#8 Add water to thin beans even more if necessary. (I like mine rather thin.) Keep mashing and stirring until beans are the desired thickness.

IMG_6684Voilà! Refried beans.

You may think this post is all about beans. It’s not. It’s really about creativity.

Back in the day, when I first read The Tightwad Gazette by the Frugal Zealot Amy  Dacyczyn, the most important thing I learned is that creativity is a crucial component of frugality. To be frugal, one can’t just rush out and buy something to meet every need that arises. To meet a need, one should look at what’s on hand or can be acquired inexpensively. One should try to think of a way to meet the need with what one already has or can get without spending much cash.

The Complete Tightwad  Gazette: Promoting Thrift as a Viable Alternative Lifestyle

The same principle of being creative applies when one finds bargains. One must figure out ways to use what one can acquire inexpensively.

In my situation, I looked at the very inexpensive pintos and thought, What can I do with these beans so I will enjoy eating them? I realized I could mash them and add onion and hot sauce, then eat them in a variety of ways (with eggs and cheese on breakfast burritos, with hash browns and cheese, in bean burritos).

I used creative thinking to turn my bargain beans into deliciousness.

 

 

AZ International Marketplace

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I recently shopped at the AZ International Marketplace on the second day of its grand opening weekend.

First, the particulars.

According to the AZ International Marketplace Facebook page, the store is comprised of

100,000 Square Feet of Groceries and General Merchandise from all over the world…Hundreds of thousand of products can be found in this marketplace.

It’s located at 1920 W Broadway Road in Mesa, Arizona, and is open 9am to 9pm every day.

I went with a friend and we walked down every aisle in the store.

Most of the packaged food seems to be Asian. A lot of the Asian food is highly processed, snacky food.IMG_6021 We saw a lot of crackers, chips, cookies, and candy. In addition to the junk food, we also saw a lot of dry noodles and rice, as well as spices and sauces and oils.

In the middle of the marketplace is a large meat department. If there is a part of a cow or pig you’ve always wanted to cook and eat, you can probably find it in that meat department. My friend is a vegetarian, and I don’t buy and cook raw meat, so we didn’t stay in the meat department long or even look at all the items available. However, I did see cow lips for sale for the first time in my life. There were only a few cow lips left, so maybe they are popular in some dish I don’t know. Next time I have access to pay TV, I hope to see an episode of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern in which cooking with cow lips is explored.

Just past the large meat department is a large produce department. In addition to many fruits and vegetables I am accustomed to seeing in supermarkets (red peppers, yellow peppers, green peppers, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes), I also saw huge jackfruits, tiny bananas, IMG_6039and bundles of cinnamon sticks which looked like doll-sized bundles of firewood and smelled delicious.

A small part of the store (a back corner really) was dedicated to prepackaged food from Africa. (Reminded me of the time I rode the It’s a Small World ride at Disney World and the entire continent of Africa was represented by three brown children and a pink elephant.) In addition to several brands and varieties of red palm oil, we also saw Mama’s Choice plantain fufu mix, bagsIMG_6016 of cassava starch, and Tropiway brand fufu flour in both cocoyam and plantain flavors.

 

 

 

 

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The marketplace also boasts a rather large section of food from East India. Unfortunately, by the time we made it to those aisles, I was in overload and didn’t get any photos of interesting East Indian packaging. We saw huge bags of spices, prepared vegetarian entrées at the good price of $1.69 per serving (I resisted loading my cart with them), cans of gulab jamun (delicious dough balls soaked in sweet syrup), and jars of ghee. I was most interested in the ghee, which looked a lot like the ghee I recently made: solid and pale yellow as opposed to the translucent liquid I was expecting. Maybe my ghee wasn’t a disaster after all.

We were looking at different bouillon powders when my friend picked up a package and declared it penis in a can.IMG_6027

Ok, obviously, that’s a mushroom. The can is even labeled granulated mushroom bouillon. But I’ll be damned if that doesn’t look like a walking penis. Do people in other countries not see that and think PENIS? Maybe Americans (or maybe it’s just me and my friend) have very immature senses of humor.

IMG_6026One of my favorite packages showed these kids carrying a giant peach. I don’t know what kids in rompers or a giant peach have to do with the dried noodles in the package, but I like the illustration a lot.

One of the most impressive parts of the store (at least to me) was the cooler containing tofu. I didn’t count the varieties, and I (stupidly) didn’t take a photo, but there must have been 15 to 20 kinds of tofu in the cold case. Some of the tofu had been pre-fried, and there were an assortment of brands. It’s the most tofu I’ve seen in the same place at the same time.

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I apologize for this washed out photo. I have problems dealing with my flash. I hate taking photos in artificial light.

Maybe because I’m an anthropologist at heart, I’m fascinated by products that seem completely normal in one culture, while closely resembling torture devices in another. Case in point: the ear pick. American culture says it’s dangerous to stick cotton swabs in the ears. Another culture says it’s ok to shove wooden sticks with scoops on the end into the ears.

In addition to aisle upon aisle of “international” food, at least one-third of the store was dedicated to American (as in U.S.A.) or at least North American food. We saw Eggo waffles and Aunt Jemima. We saw Oreo cookies and canned vegetables. I was surprised the store carries food available at any supermarket in the valley, but I guess they want the place to be a one stop shop.

I was most surprised to see that food from Louisiana is apparently exotic enough to have its own sections. Louisiana food perhaps seems less exotic to me because I grew up in Louisiana. But I was not expecting to see an IMG_6024endcap dedicated to Cafe du Monde coffee and chicory. I was also not expecting to see three sizes (including gallon jugs) of Louisiana brand crawfish, shrimp, and crab boil. Where’s the Zatarain’s? my friend asked. IMG_6035Unfortunately, it looked like Louisiana brand had a monopoly on the Louisiana products. There were all sorts of Louisiana brand products available for purchase.

To round out the food selection, the marketplace sells a variety of housewares (throw blankets, bowls, cooking utensils), cleaning supplies, and electrical appliances (rice cookers, teapots). Shoppers can also buy incense, joss paper (also known as ghost or spirit money), and other paper items to burn as offerings to ancestors.

While I did find some bargains at the AZ International Marketplace (on Huy Fong sriracha Sauce, children’s toothbrushes to fit in my little mouth, and sport sunscreen that’s not supposed to run into my eyes), I certainly did not find everything in the store to be inexpensive. Since I hadn’t been shopping at other international markets, I don’t know how the prices at the AZ International Marketplace compare to similar markets in the valley, or if any of the other international markets in the valley can be considered similar to this one. If I lived in the area, I would probably go back and compare prices on items I’ve been buying at other stores, and I would probably take advantage of the good deals in the produce section. I would also probably do some experimenting with all those varieties of tofu. I would not use this store as a one-stop shop or my go-to market. But walking around it did make for a fun afternoon.

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I took all of the photos in this post.