This cooking hobby is getting expensive. Well, maybe that is too strong a statement. We have to eat, after all, so I suppose if I had to pick anything for a hobby, cooking is certainly the most useful. And since we would have to buy food no matter what, then I can even kind of cheat and consider that not all of the money I spend on this little venture really goes to the hobby itself. Maybe I should come up with some sort of formula by which I take all the money spent on groceries and cooking magazine subscriptions and the cookbooks I’m trying real hard not to buy, and then allocate a specific portion under the heading of ‘hobby’ and funnel the rest to the ‘groceries’ line item on my budget.
It's the accounting degree talking here. You know how you’ve heard all this talk for the past five or ten years about misstated financial statements and important documents being shredded and, you know, Enron. I bet those problems started just like this, with the accountant making twisted justifications about expenses.
Even though I tend to pinch my pennies until they bleed and cry out for mercy, and I bargain shop and try to get the most bang for each buck, I’m pretty reckless when it comes to the food portion of the budget. Because honestly, we DO have to eat. And if I’m going to have to cook every single doggone day for the rest of my dadgum life, then by golly, I’m going to get good at it and I’m going to like doing it. So I buy expensive cheese without even checking the price tag. And we’ve joined a CSA and shell out a pretty sizeable check to the farm at the beginning of the season. And I spend twice as much on organic produce and dairy products without batting an eye, and I go to the weekend farmer’s markets and pay a premium to both support local farmers and to know that my vegetables were grown just a couple of miles down the road and were picked that morning.
So it is what it is. When cash flow gets tight, I do not try to trim our grocery budget. We can cut corners in everything else, but not with our food. I track all of our expenses – even to the point of grumbling at The Carnivore about the $20 in cash he takes out of the ATM once a month or so (it must be hard being married to me), because then I’m unable to allocate that money on the spreadsheet. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise to me at the end of the year, when I print out the annual income and expense detail reports for us to go over as a family, that we spent an exorbitant amount of money on groceries. I’m the one who does the shopping. I know what is spent each week, and I can do the multiplication in my head fairly easily.
But it was still a shock. I printed out the 2007 report and read through it line by line so that I could pat myself on the back for, you know, barely spending a dime on clothing, for ponying up hardly a pittance on dining out, for paying off the vehicles this past year. And then I got down to the grocery section.
Oops. My bad.
Even The Carnivore, who leaves the financial stuff completely up to me, and who has never complained about the decisions I’ve made about our money was brought up short in his tracks when he got to that line.
Clearly, I was going to have to put things into perspective.
I'd recently read The Amateur Gourmet, a witty and delighfully un-elitist guide for aspiring foodies written by Adam Roberts, a food blogger I adore, and I remembered a Ruth Reichl quote from the book about food costs: “Food isn’t cheap. People used to spend half their income on food. Now they spend six percent.” The quote confused me the first time I read it, and it’s still picking at me. If, like she says, food isn’t cheap, then how is it that people are spending so much less on food than they used to? Obviously, due to the industrialization of agriculture, food has gotten much cheaper over the past 50 years, but that is only if you’re talking about buying straight off the supermarket shelf, rather than buying organic or local. And is she talking about groceries, or is she including the cost of eating out? Because I could swear I’ve read some staggering statistics on how many meals are eaten outside of the home now…
So I gave up and commenced Googling. According to a USDA Economic Research Service report, Americans spent 9.5% of their income on food in 2004. From what I read in another USDA report (which included numbers from 1997, which were obviously slightly different), it looks like the numbers used by the USDA in these reports do include both groceries and restaurant meals, and the income amount they use is after-tax income.
I’m such a nerd. OF COURSE I grabbed my adding machine. And OF COURSE I ran the numbers. Now, we’re self-employed, so we lose a higher percentage of our income to taxes due to there not being an employer to pay half of our FICA, and I’m still procrastinating on preparing our income tax return for last year, so I can only go on the amount that I paid with our quarterly estimates, which should be relatively close (due to nerdism). From what I came up with, it looks like we (argh – I suppose ‘I’ is the operative pronoun here) spent approximately 13% of our estimated after-tax income on food. And no, that doesn’t include the money spent on new cooking gadgets or the afore-mentioned cooking magazines, etc.
I was really hoping we’d be closer to the curve here. Then I wouldn’t have to spend the rest of the day trying to come up with excuses, especially when I have some cooking projects I really want to work on. For quite some time now, I’ve justified our high grocery expenses with assuming we were still spending less than those people who ate out all the time – and I do hate having to admit that I was running on mistaken assumptions there. And I’m sure my mom (bless her) will read this and still find a way to help me devise further justifications – because, you know, I don’t have car payments, so maybe I SHOULD be able to spend more on food…
Or maybe I should just admit I have a problem.
Exhibit One: the following leek and asparagus frittata recipe which has become one of my new favorite vegetarian entrees.
We gushed over this recipe and have fallen back in love with frittatas again. The Parmesan crust adds fabulous texture and delicous sharp, salty flavor. The asparagus is cooked until barely tender, and the sauteed buttery leeks are rich and delicate. Even The Carnivore considers this fritatta worthy of entree status, always my biggest goal when serving meatless proteins to a beef-loving man. And The Big Boy ate a few bites of it himself before he lost interest and wandered off to have an imaginary sword fight. I love it too (the frittata, that is), and will be making it for dinner again tonight, along with Spicy Couscous with Chickpeas and a mixed green salad.
But, more to the point, I shudder to think of the actual cost of this dish. I use free-range eggs ($2 worth in this recipe) and fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano (there goes another $2 - $3). The cup of Fontina cheese adds another $3-$4, and I'd just rather not dwell on the cost of organic asparagus, mushrooms and leeks. And, oh, I almost hate to admit this, but I even buy organic butter now. It's all so mind-boggling. I mean, SURE, I could scrimp on the quality of ingredients and use eggs from abused chickens. And I could get my Parmesan from a can. Instead of Fontina, I could use mass-market mozzarella. But then I'd be sacrificing on taste, and what would be the point of cooking at all?
LEEK AND ASPARAGUS FRITTATA (adapted from Bon Appetit, 4 main-dish servings)
- 2 Tbs butter
- 1 cup chopped leeks (white and pale green parts only)
- 12-oz asparagus, trimmed, cut on diagonal into 1-inch pieces
- 1 cup chopped mushrooms
- 8 eggs
- 1 cup shredded Fontina cheese, divided
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt, plus a pinch more
- 1/2 tsp finely ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Preheat broiler.
- Melt butter in heavy oven-proof skillet over medium heat.
- Add leeks to pan, and saute for 4 minutes.
- Add asparagus and mushrooms to leeks, sprinkle slightly with pinch of salt, and saute until asparagus is just tender, about 6 minutes.
- Whisk eggs, 3/4 cup Fontina cheese, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp pepper in medium bowl.
- Add egg mixture to skillet; fold gently to combine.
- Cook until almost set, and top is only slightly runny, about 3 -5 minutes.
- Sprinkle remaining Fontina cheese, and Parmesan cheese over the top.
- Put skillet in oven and broil until frittata is puffed and cheese has turned golden, about 3 minutes.