My friend Suzanne requested that I take on this topic, an essay on ease, elegance and economy. The story is that my mother was reading a book from the library, name and author now forgotten, on housekeeping (which activity Mom has never cared for) and the author stated that of the three desirable qualities, ease, elegance and economy, one could only have two of the three. The formula plays out something like this: if you are rich, with endless resources, you can buy elegance and ease. You can have servants to do all tasks you find unpleasant. You can buy the best of ingredients and have them served up on the finest china. You can even hire a chef or a cook to cook your meals for you: if you hire a good one, well-trained, with a fine palate and endless patience and high-dexterity, you can serve vol au vent and pastry swans filled with creme chantilly or whatever your elegant little heart desires.
If you are not rich, you may decide to go for economy and ease. That is the American way of processed foods, the middle aisles of the supermarket containing all of those frozen things in bags and boxes: prepared pies and lasagna and pizza. Coupons in every newspaper and online will help you cut your costs further. The same supermarket features paper plates, paper napkins and plastic cups, as well as disposable roasting pans — you can cook and serve your meals on things you throw away — how easy is that?
If you get excited when you see a recipe for altering your store-purchased roast chicken or cake mix, this way is for you. To be fair, the entry of Trader Joe’s into wider markets has increased the quality and selection of many packaged foods, although many of these items are heavier on salt than they should be. An easy and economical dinner option would be to heat up some Tasty Bites with some rice, or pop open the Prego and make spaghetti, as we occasionally do on nights when no one wants to cook. We all have our favored shortcuts. Just be aware that consistently choosing economy and ease has a high cost to the planet and to your health. Celi of The Kitchens Garden once suggested visualizing everything you discard going into a heap in your yard because, in a big sense, it does.
Then there is the middle way, the one where you strive for elegance and economy. In the absence of servants and cooks, you become the servant and cook yourself. The way to produce elegance out of economy is to work and to learn. With the help of cookbooks and food shows and now cooking blogs you can teach yourself to make puff pastry, croissants, sourdough pain au levain. You can practice flipping crepes and making elegant, seasonal marmalades and jams. You can make your own pestos, rather than buying them. You can make your own pasta and cheese like John from the Bartolini Kitchens. You can raise your own chickens like Suzanne and Scott and run your own sustainable farm like John and Celi. There is no end to the elegance to which you can aspire if you are willing to put in the labor. With this option, you cannot fire the cook, you can only start over and attempt to do better. We have pretensions to elegance and economy around here: we have the economy down and we struggle with the elegance, sometimes gracefully, sometimes humorously. We have learned to know our limits: deep-fried dishes and crepes are beyond my reach, so I reserve those dishes for restaurant dining, currently a rare treat.
Many of you in the food blogosphere do better with elegant tables than I do. We do eat on china and use cloth napkins and I can manage a garnish on a good day, but I am generally more concerned with the taste and texture of the food than I am with the presentation. I do well on economy, although I could do better — I strive to use every bit of food that comes into our household: the Riverdog Farm chicory challenge is a good example of that and I have chronicled the ever-expanding list of things I make each citrus season. Using up all of that food is work and conversations around our house frequently begin with “We need to use up the sour milk” or “We need to think of something to do with the plum jam” or “What are we going to do with seven leeks?” The best starting point I can come from is that of love, when I want to make my own sourdough because I love it so much and can’t be down at the bakery everyday buying samples, when I have raspberries so special that I want to learn to make raspberry caramel to layer into a dessert. The combination of elegance and economy opens the door to challenge: can I make my own winter squash gnocchi? Will it be as good as what I have eaten in restaurants? It isn’t yet, but I have not given up trying.
I confess that I love to spend money on food and that I love to buy special, high-quality ingredients. When I walk through the Farmers’ Market in Berkeley I am often tempted to buy more than I can use easily, especially in the summer and early fall when the choices are so wide. If I had unlimited funds, I would buy more whipping cream, more organic milk and eggs and meat. I would experiment with coconut oil and almond flour and coconut sugar. I would buy raspberries every week during their season and eat them until I was sick of them. I would buy enough tomatoes in tomato season to have dried tomatoes for the other eight months of the year. With the economy I have been taught by my careful mother I scour the shelves at Grocery Outlet for true bargains: looking for great products at reduced prices is part of the work entailed in elegance and economy, as is limiting shopping to one trip a week and relying on creativity to devise appropriate substitutions and menu changes when we have run out of something.
This week I had the opportunity to visit what I affectionately call “the rotting rack” at Berkeley Bowl, the place where they put produce items reduced for quick sale. There I found several pounds of grapes for ninety-nine cents, organically grown fresh strawberries for the same price and a whole green papaya, which will soon become Thai green papaya salad (stay tuned). To find these items, I had to pick through many clam shells of moldy strawberries and under-ripe hothouse tomatoes. To turn these items into meals and snacks, I will have to contribute labor: my friend Elaine and I sat around last night removing the seeds from the grapes and arranging grape halves on the trays of my dehydrator where they became raisins overnight. I also had to sort and trim all of the strawberries to make sure no mold lurked about (There was none).
There are many paths through the maze of ease, elegance and economy. Eating things in their seasons is a good start. While seasonal delicacies such as lobster and raspberries may never become cheap, they are at their best and most plentiful in their time and when the supply goes up, the price goes down. Think of zucchini season when you have to do anything you can to refuse zucchini donations from overzealous gardeners. Good restaurants capitalize on seasonality, buying their produce from small farmers and varying their menus to serve the season’s treasures. Our local Chez Panisse built its reputation on foraging for the best ingredients each week and preparing them skillfully. Not everyone can eat at Chez Panisse, but we can do our best to shop locally, eat fresh food whenever possible and create our own experiences of elegance.
P.S. For the record: I will eat Prego marinara but I always make brownies from scratch.