Thursday, April 1, 2010

Economy project

I have long been interested by range of meanings embedded in the word “economy.” Etymologically speaking, the word comes from the Greek oikonomia, or “household management,” (from oikonomos "manager, steward," from oikos "house"). Only in the seventeenth century does the word begin to mean “wealth and resources of a country” (short for political economy).

So, today, at the same time that “economics” primarily suggests the networks or systems for exchanging wealth/goods between large bodies (corporations, nations, etc.), “economic” as an adjective continues to be more broadly applicable: “I can’t go out to dinner tonight for economic reasons.” In fact, in French it’s still reasonable to “make economies” (“faire des economies”); i.e., to restrict or closely manage spending in order to save money.

And in addition to its relationship with money, “economy” also retains a still more general relationship with ideas of management, and especially of ingress and egress. In this sense, economy still relates to “household management” (home economics, anyone?), and it can be used to describe other systems that are not necessarily financial: most interestingly, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the term could mean “The proper management of the body; (also) the rules which control a person's mode of living; regimen, diet” (OED).

All of this is to say, that I’m thinking about starting a project, and when I call it the “kitchen economy project,” I want to be clear about what I mean. Before I describe this project, I present the grounds for it:

I have a ton of staples in my kitchen—different types of rice, wheat berries, bulgur, quinoa, pastas, popcorn, dried beans, lentils, nuts, spices, frozen veggies, condiments, etc. These are just some of the prettier ones:

It is wonderful to have a well-stocked kitchen.  As long as I keep oils, vinegars, spices, some condiments, baking stuff, grains, pastas, and dry beans on hand, I really only need to shop for a few things: produce, nuts, soyfoods.  I can go to the farmers market or the supermarket, buy whatever veggies look good, take them home, and make something out of them—no menu planning, and no big shopping lists based on recipes required.

But some of the stuff in one’s kitchen gets old.  You get stuck in ruts—always making brown rice, while the quinoa sits sadly in the corner of your cupboard.  And while bulgur may actually last forever, most “nonperishables” will eventually begin to lose their flavor and/or nutritional value, or even go bad (for example, many oils and nuts).

Moreover, I might be moving house in a few month, and it would be nice to have less stuff to move.

So, I’d like to see what happens if I declare a moratorium on buying staples.  I did this before I left Chicago, and I was amazed at how little money I spent on groceries.  Of course, I will have to stock up again later, so I’m not sure this will be an “economy” project in the financial sense of the word.  I am, however, interested in the challenge.  Learning to cook vegan made me a more creative cook, and I’m curious to see how I cook when I don’t always have everything on hand.  If I end up making black-eyed peas with oregano, garam masala, and slightly-rancid sesame oil, I can always back out.

Any thoughts about how or when I should do this?  How often do other people clean out their pantries?


Hannah Miller said...

I love finishing the last of anything. If there is not enough of grain/legume A to make a full portion, I cook up grain/legume B and mix it in with A. For example, there wasn't much oatmeal this morning, so I threw in some cornmeal.

myer nore said...

Yes! Critical theory meets the kitchen. I remember the article you wrote (for spurgin?) on economy years ago :) Nice!

I've never (never) cleaned out my personal pantry, nor has it even occurred to me until now. I've always thought that the book / food ratio was so ridiculous in my house that if anything was to go, it was the books, especially considering the probability that I won't be able to access any books I have that I need through the internet, local libraries, or bookstores. Then again, I do live with a living, breathing kitchen efficiency machine; we always have one less pot than would be absolutely convenient because it's not what we absolutely need. Thank goodness! Then again, food rarely lingers in my kitchen; I tend to go through stuff.

I have to say, I'm surprised you're spending grocery money on staples; isn't that a little mis-budgeted?

I find that how one chooses to stock their kitchen is a good indicator of how they express themselves as a cook. If you keep fourteen grains in good supply, then you know not all of them are being used - or at any rate, more things made by mixing are being made. If you keep two or three self-prepared condiments in the fridge that will perish within a week, you know that the kitchen is a realm of improvisation and impulse. A stock is more than a "how long would I survive if WWIII started tomorrow," it's a whole hierarchy of stages of preparation. My grandma has frozen cookie dough prepared in her freezer for when guests or grandkids drop by.

What I love about this conversation is the implied discussion about what the difference is between frugality and economy. If it's cheaper to keep less on stock, does that necessarily mean that less healthful eating is the result?