Like so many other couples, Chef Matt and I have lately been painstakingly trimming the fat from an already lean budget. We are relatively frugal people already, but the mildly depressing state of the economy has transformed us from a champagne taste on a beer budget to a champagne taste on a generic-juice-box budget. And inevitably, one of the first things to be shrink-wrapped is our food allocation.
Cutting back to one haircut a year and virtually eliminating anything that's not mortgage, fuel or student loans do not induce the sort of panic that a slashed grocery bill does. How many things can I do with a can of refried beans? Is it even possible to stretch a box of rice for four weeks? Can I convince the clerks at Target to give me a bulk discount if I buy them out of spaghetti sauce?
I think every family has times when they alternate between Hamburger Helper and scrambled eggs for dinner, when creativity reigns in the kitchen, and when crickets are practically audible in the pantry. It is just as frustrating to a college student living on work-study and bad beer as it is to parents who go to bed some nights feeling a little too much like Tommy and Gina.
But one of the things my dear husband has taught me, besides the proper way to roast a red pepper, is that allowing yourself to dream can be therapeutic and energizing. For instance, we have a very detailed plan for spending our lottery winnings (our own restaurant, a historic mansion with a batting cage, and a a Tuscan castle, in case you were interested). I figured, then, that it wouldn't hurt anyone, least of all me, to close my eyes to the stacks of canned tomatoes and boxes of penne and envision all the beautiful things I would buy, with a limitless budget, at a lovely neighborhood carpeted market instead of the jumbled mass of humanity that is the discount store.
First, we would never be without a half a dozen delicious fancy cheeses. Imagine a grilled cheese with gouda and gruyere and a fine sharp cheddar! Next, I would stock up on every kind of high-grade meat and seafood available: sirloins, scallops, and a peppery thick-cut bacon for that grilled cheese. I would buy artisan bread, smear it with the creamiest homemade butter I can find, drizzle it with 20-year balsamic vinegar, and follow it up with lobster ravioli from an Italian deli and a creme brulee. I would toss my Campbell's Soup cookbook out the back door, and we would recreate every recipe in The French Laundry cookbook while drinking expensive imported wine.
Perhaps such fantasies are counterproductive; they will not make scallops appear in my refrigerator. But they do make the hot dish taste a little more like an airy souffle, and make me feel a little less like we are livin' on a prayer and more like we are livin' on Summit Avenue with no canned tomatoes in sight.