On Giants' Shoulders

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I Really Do Have a Plan

Frequently my daughter bemoans that she needs to go shopping because there's no food in the house. In her case that may actually be true. Here it rarely is the case. While I may need particular ingredients, there's nearly always something I can throw together from what's in the cupboard, refrigerator and freezer. It may be nothing more than onion soup and bread, or a cheese strata, or macaroni and cheese, tuna wiggle,sausage made from ground lamb, or even peanut butter toast and cocoa, but there's always something. I can nearly always even come up with an idea for a dessert if we need one (even if it's only hot fudge pudding or gingerbread). So why is that? Well it's partly because of the way I shop.

My daughter shops with a specific list and a specific menu. I frequently have a general idea of what we'll have for the week, but I more shop with an eye towards filling the gaps in my staples. So if I'm nearly out of flour, sugar, canned stock, onions, potatoes, tomato paste, or pasta I'll buy them, even if I don't have a specific menu plan for them. When Abby went off to grad school we took her grocery shopping for her first apartment. She took a cart and proceeded to buy the sorts of things that would be on her menu for the week. I took a cart and bought what she considered to be very strange random items (cocoa powder, spices, sugar, flour, vanilla, peanut butter etc). Later that day when we were very far away and she was very homesick I was on the phone with her. She was so sad, and she hadn't had anything to eat. She was so sad that no food even appealed to her, but I knew she'd feel better if she got her blood sugar up. So I suggested she make herself a cup of cocoa (which she could do because I bought cocoa powder vanilla, and sugar). She lived for the next few days on cocoa. She did ultimately adjust to being so far away and she cooked lots of things in that apartment, many of them with the staples I bought for her.

Now she does have some staples in her house, she is learning, and her house has more staples than a lot of other people's. She's a good cook, and she's learning to be a frugal one. However, she still thinks of my way of shopping as strange. It's the same way when we shop for things like yarn. She shops for specific projects, I may buy several skeins that I haven't totally decided on the end use of yet. Eventually they may become hats, or socks, or scarves, but what they are right now is simply raw material.

This week I'm carless. The car is at the mechanic's and it's totally unclear how soon we'll be getting it back. There are some frustrations involved in that, yet yesterday I had a pleasant day finishing a pair of socks, made dinner from stuff in the fridge, the freezer, and the cupboard, read books from my own collection, and contemplated what knitting project to work on today. I've got things to do, food to cook, etc. without going to the mall, or even going anywhere. However, it's the case because I shop the way I do, and keep raw materials around.

Shopping with a menu is one way of shopping with a plan. It's not a bad way to shop. However, shopping with a staples list is another way of shopping with a plan. It's a way of shopping that leaves you laughing in the face of blizzards or unexpected guests or even a carless week. When you live within walking distance of a huge grocery store I suppose you don't need to have such a large store of staples. However, the huge grocery store I shop at is a 20 minute drive away, and the farmer's market where I buy most of my meat only happens once a week. So for me planning ahead is pretty essential. It's just a different sort of planning ahead. I shop this way in part because it's the way I learned to shop. My mother also lived far more than walking distance from the store and her budget was subject to lots of ups and downs (more downs than ups). When I was in high school we lived mostly on what we produced ourselves. So my mother's style of shopping rather did involve buying things like salt, flour, sugar, and baking powder and then getting things out of the cellar, out of the cupboard, out of the freezer. She shopped that way just as her own mother had shopped that way.

I won't say there's anything wrong with having a menu plan. I'm more given to flexibility myself, which is one reason the linguica sausage that was supposed to become part of Kale soup last week hasn't quite made it there yet. However, there's actually another reason for that fact. I was sick the day I was going to have that soup, and no one else has felt like such a spicy dish yet. However, today the Kale soup will finally happen. Because I've got the staples, it's not a problem. I used potatoes, onions, and stock in other dishes in the last few days, but I've got more potatoes, more onions, and more stock. Shopping with a staples list has some real advantages. It means when you have a week where someone throws a monkey wrench or two or three into the mix that you don't end up just having to order in pizza. You may decide to order pizza because you're tired or just in the mood for pizza, but the monkey wrench may inspire creativity. It may inspire popovers and corn chowder, it may inspire chicken pie for unexpected company from the canned chicken in your cellar (it frequently did for my mother), it may inspire tapioca pudding for a delicate stomach. The advantage of a rich store of staples is that you can face that glitch in your week and laugh at it. That's my alternate plan.

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