The naked fridge, and some thoughts on pound-foolishness


I know, I know, we were tagged ages ago for the “Blogs That Make You Think” list, and I still haven’t posted the nominations I collected from the other Ethicureans. Soon, I swear. But this other meme that’s going around the food blogs seemed like a fun break to take in the middle of a dire freelance story, so I’m doing that one first.

Sam at Becks’n’ Posh started the whole thing by taking a picture of the contents of her refrigerator one morning, with no styling or strategic hiding of incriminating junk food (apparently she has none), then posting the annotated photo for the world to see. Others, including our friends Cookiecrumb and Mental Masala, have followed suit. Navel gazing by bloggers? Maybe. Voyeuristic by viewers? Sure. But I think there’s something weirdly fascinating about seeing what your friends really eat, and even more compelling if it’s people who care a lot about food. Whenever I go to people’s houses for the first time, I wish I could rummage around in their fridge. I’m never tempted to snoop in medicine cabinets, however, like people do in the movies. That seems weird. I confess that I have wished to sneak around in the closets of my fashionable friends, to glean how to build a wardrobe that consists of more than t-shirts from one’s favorite food purveyors and hand-me-down jeans from one’s sister, but I haven’t yet succumbed.

I’ve put an annotated version of the fridge photo above on Flickr (mouse over the fridge to see notes). Some highlights:

  • Top shelf, right: Hibiscus tea (a delicious, calorie-free summer drink brewed from dried hibiscus leaves you can get at a halal grocery) and Claravale raw milk (full fat, of course — who in hell would buy their nonfat? Crazy!)
  • Second shelf, left: Two of the 10 jars of lard I rendered from 25 pounds of fatback leftover from a Clark Summit Farm two-hog-share project (the lard will someday get its own post)
  • Second shelf, right: leftover meatloaf (Marin Sun Farms ground beef and Clark Summit pork, with grated Pink Lady apple and Morelli’s Bread crumbs, served with a mushroom-red wine gravy)
  • Righthand door, bottom: Ancient bottles of salad dressing that we never use and I should throw away. That’s how you know this photo was not staged!

And the last thing I’ll say about this: a few weeks ago, lots of local food bloggers and civilians were participating in the Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge, in which they attempted to eat locally and healthily on the average American family’s meager food budget. I think it’s great that they did this, and that Penny-Wise got lots of press, but the premise did not appeal at all to me: my philosophy is that Americans spend too little on food, and that we should value it higher in our budgets. I was thus documenting our own profligate food spending in what I intended to call the Pound-Foolish Project. Unfortunately, I managed to leave on a plane the little notebook in which I had faithfully recorded all of my farmers market expenditures for the past month. United Airlines has yet to list it in its Lost & Found website, which is a real bummer since lots of other notes are in there that are important to me.

I estimate that every week, my husband and I spend about $120 on food from the Berkeley farmers market (at least $40 of this goes to Fatted Calf bacon, ham, etc), $50 on staples from Berkeley Bowl (mostly dairy, cereal, sandwich bread, and spicy V8), another $50 on wine and beer (no comment, please), and about $200 eating out, primarily at restaurants that serve locally grown produce and ethical meat. Every few months, I also spend several hundred dollars buying large batches of beef, pork, and chicken from local farms. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, this puts us in the top quintile when it comes to food expenditures. But before you start calling me an elitist yuppie food snob, know that I pinch other pennies until they squeal like pastured heritage piglets. I can’t remember the last piece of clothing I bought that wasn’t secondhand. (OK, I can. It was a $15 Fatted Calf t-shirt.) My Honda Civic is 10 years old and has hit-and-run scars on every corner, and I try to do my food shopping on bike to save on gas. I am so cheap that I save rubber bands from asparagus for my office, set aside carrot ends and mushroom stalks for stock in the freezer, and reuse bread bags for cat litter. I will scrape forests of mold off cheese and turn the remainder into a spread so as not to throw it away.

Basically, I believe that real food — food grown greenly, fairly, and cleanly by small farmers — is worth every penny you can afford to pay for it. To me it is worth more than movies, than vacations, than expensive haircuts and big TVs. Now that we are both self-employed, we must start economizing somewhat more, by eating out less often and eating less meat, and I wonder if my Pound-Foolish attitude will change. But I would rather give up cable TV than my $8-per-gallon raw milk (if that wouldn’t mean giving up my husband, too).

P.S. The Ethicurean turned one year old yesterday. We’ve published 792 posts, about a third of them news Digests. Oink!

16 Responsesto “The naked fridge, and some thoughts on pound-foolishness”

  1. meloukhia says:

    I have to disagree with your comment on the Pennywise Challenge, rather vehemently, actually. I feel like the point of the Pennywise Challenge, for many participants, was the idea that people spend too little on food. The idea was not “oh, let’s spend as little as possible on food to demonstrate our thriftiness,” although that was part of it.

    It’s laid out right in the description:

    “It won’t be about who can starve themselves and spend the least amount of money. It’s about a very real cataloging of the expense of eating local so that we can begin to have a conversation about whether eating locally really requires a re-prioritization of family budgets. ”

    I think that a lot of low income participants and observers who cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars on food every week learned that it is, in fact, possible to eat well and eat local on a limited budget. That, to me, is an extremely important issue, because a large number of low income folks eat bad food because they think it’s all that they can afford.

    I think it’s also important to emphasize that current American food spending is not very healthy, and that it is extremely challenging to live on a food stamp allotment, for example. Certainly many Americans who can afford to spend more don’t, and that’s a pity, but I think a large number of consumers spend minimal amounts of money because that’s all they *can* spend.

    I don’t think there is any virtue at all in spending hundreds of dollars on food every month, and I think most of the world would probably agree with me.

  2. Anonymous says:

    >>Basically, I believe that real food … is worth every penny you can afford to pay for it.

  3. Bruce says:

    “I don’t think there is any virtue at all in spending hundreds of dollars on food every month, and I think most of the world would probably agree with me.”

    Meloukhia, I hate to tell you, but you ain’t speaking for me. Nor do I think you are speaking for the rest of the world either. Wait, I see someone out in a corn field in Iowa raising their hand…nope…turns out they just had in itch.

    You’re going to have to count me in as a glutton too then. I spend about the same amount as Ms. DQ on food every week. Pity that it all goes straight into the pockets of the farmers, ranchers, fisherman, and artisans that are struggling to change the food system in this country.

    Damn, and here I thought that feeding my family locally and sustainably raised food was the right thing to do. I guess it’s back to purchasing the cheap, calorie rich food, that’s stacked on the shelves of grocery stores everywhere. ..and you know what that means. Rachael Ray on every box of processed food in my shopping cart, and eventually peaking out of every cupboard in the kitchen. Yum-o!

  4. DairyQueen says:

    Bruce: Play nice.

    Meloukhia — Hmm. I think I might have written that too hastily. Re-reading it, I do sound like the food movement’s Marie Antoinette: Let them eat local, organic cake for $10 a slice! You’re right about the benefits of the Pennywise Challenge, and maybe if I had paid closer attention, or tried it myself, I would have found that I don’t have to spend as much as I do to eat lavishly. Certainly Cookiecrumb over at I’m Mad and I Eat, featured in the Chronicle, cooked far better-looking meals than I do at thrice the price.

    Just to clarify, I am not saying that there isn’t a huge portion of Americans who would like to spend more on fresh food, or any food, but can’t. This is also because minimum wage in this country is not a living wage. And not surprisingly, the people who make the least money are the people who grow our food, process it, and prepare it. This is wrong.

    I just came back from Carlo Petrini’s talk for Slow Food, and he mentioned an ad that was running in Italy about how a bottle of olive oil cost the same as a bottle of motor oil. well, nobody ever complains that the motor oil is too expensive for their fine car.

    I forgot to make the point that Pound-Fools like me, who can afford to right now, should spend what we can in order to rebuild local food systems, and encourage more suppliers to enter the market and pay fairer wages, which with luck will make it easier for everyone to find affordable quality food.

    I didn’t mean to sound as braggaliciously defiant as I did about spending hundreds of dollars a month on good produce and meat, but I also am tired of feeling like it’s something I have to defend, when nobody who buys a 52-inch plasma TV or a new car every four or five years does. Essentially, I think our priorities in this country are skewed.

  5. DQ -

    I’ve been reading your blog for awhile (even linked to it on my blog roll), and have found a lot of resonance, even though I haven’t commented. Thanks for the informative and thought-provoking posts and digests. I’m at the beginning of the learning curve on eating locally and am both challenged and encouraged. Food budgets are an issue for us — even though we don’t live on the poverty line. I’m fortunate to be able to choose how to learn to spend my money differently.


  6. sam says:

    I came to see your fridge (which I love btw – those double opening doors – useful!) and left with a fascinating view of the pennywise project which I didn’t take part in either – and I am not quite sure exactly why – but maybe for some of the same reasons as you. I have been keeping note of my food spends for months – just like you and I do spend quite a bit less on average on food for home but maybe more on alcohol and definitely more on eating out.

    I am still looking into it and wondering about my response t the chalenge. I haven’t got it all straight in my heead yet. Thanks for your stance.

  7. meloukhia says:

    Bruce, I don’t think that was advocating that people should purchase processed garbage. On the contrary, I was trying to point out that it is possible to eat well on a limited budget, if you are willing to push yourself, and I believe that that was one of the points of the Eat Local Challenge. Indeed, processed food tends to cost more, in my opinion, than local food, especially in the long term, even if the cost isn’t immediately factored in at the grocery store.

    I think that before making a knee jerk reaction to a criticism, you might want to read it through all the way. Especially since I said this: “low income participants and observers who cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars on food every week learned that it is, in fact, possible to eat well and eat local on a limited budget.” Where is Rachel Ray there, again?

    I’m not trying to give the DairyQueen, or anyone else who can afford to spend a lot of money on food, shit. I think that people who are able to afford food expenditures like that are an important way to make small farms viable. I was just sort of shocked by her…almost…glee over how much she was spending on food in the post.

    The thing is, Bruce, that some people don’t make as much money as you, or the DairyQueen. It’s not about skewed priorities, it’s about most people barely being able to afford their rent and basic necessities. It’s about a major and rapidly growing class divide in this country, which I think you and I are illustrating very well right now.

    Personally, I would rather spend 3k on good food than 3k on a big TV, especially since, for me, that’s a lot of food, because I do spend my money wisely. Primarily because I don’t have that kind of money to spend. And I don’t see an inherent evil in using what money I have wisely, rather than spending money I don’t have. Not everybody feels that way, unfortunately, and that is a sad thing, but rather than knocking the Pennywise Eat Local challenge, I would think that people like you should be supporting it, since the entire idea was to get packaged processed food out of the kitchen and locally produced great food into it.

  8. Not only an interesting post but an even more educational comment exchange!

    I would like to point out another point. Poor (American) people buy the food that is closest to them. They generally do not have cars or cars that they can afford to gas often. In most poor neighborhoods what’s available to eat and buy is from supermarkets, although most likely liquor stores and “bodegas.” And when those who are poor, and whose family generations have always been poor, shop, they are looking for “name brand” foods the same way every priveledged person does for other products.

    Poor people (and I don’t mean the modern “downwardly mobile” class of folks) do not want to look or feel poor. They pay attention to media, just like evryone else, and shop accordingly.

    Farmers’ markets have only recently begun to show up in (very few, I might add) poorer neighborhoods. And, let’s face it, Kraft has better PR than the average head of lettuce or cucumber or actual juice for that matter. To stock a kittchen with all that’s needed to cook a healthful diet is also more costly than stocking one for a worse diet.

    How people buy and eat, as it has to do with class, is way more complicated than anyone is willing to look at, know, realize, or write about. Mostly because the Internet and beyond, is media driven by, almost exclusively, middle class and higher folks. Let’s face it, if you have a current computer in your own home, it places you in a different class bracket than the ones we’re objectifying here.

    Only if we all came clean about our “white guilt,” our class guilt, our guilt over being American in general, could we maybe talk honestly about eating locally and sustainably.

    Only when the voices we’re seeking and listening to offer a more balanced viewpoint, is there a possible exchange of real information.

    For me, personally, I am so over people of middle class and higher backgrounds telling me about how to eat or spend money or anything else that has to do with access and economy. It’s so easy to talk like this when most of your life you’ve been comfortable.

    It’s great we’re all doing what we can. But let’s attempt to remember that the less access a person has, the fewer choices they can see to make.

  9. leslie says:

    Happy Anniversary, DQ.

    Even when you’re bragging about how much dough you spend on your gastronomic impulses, you’re doing a lot of good for a lot of people.

    Food is one of the few things we spend money on that we would die without, so why not spend some money on it (assuming that you have some)?

    That said, we took the Pennywise Eat Local Challenge here at our office, and as a vegetarian, I found it pretty easy to eat local on a budget–because I couldn’t eat out. It took way more time than I was accustomed to spending on feeding myself, though. What surprised me was how difficult it was to source local food. Even our food coop didn’t really have any.

  10. henny_youngman says:


    Your criticism of DQ seems misplaced. I sympathize with your situation. You apparently do not have the money you would like to have to spend on food but I don’t see anything more (or less) virtuous about your buying habits than DQ’s or Bruce’s or anyone else’s. DQ bared her fridge and her food budget to the world (or at least her readers!) in a single post — I didn’t see it as bragging at all but, if anything, self-deprecating, as well as entertaining.

    DQ’s biggest food expenditure is $200 per week for eating out – should this surprise us that a food writer/critic and her husband dine out once or twice a week? How else can she report food news? I for one am envious because, having three kids, it usually costs $50 for a babysitter if my wife and I want to go out.

    One person may think it a waste to spend a penny on alcohol while another person might spend $50 or more every night. Regardless, The Ethicurian doesn’t seem to be geared to the “average” earth dweller. Not only would the average person not care whether Chez Pannisse switches to tap water, they wouldn’t even have a computer to read The Ethicurian!

    DQ obviously has an affection for food and the skill to write about it. She and her collaborators at The Ethicurean do us a great service by delivering the latest and most important eating news in the digest section, while satisfying our voyeuristic tendencies by putting their own lives on display in various features and articles. The fact that the writers are not exactly like each of us is not a bad thing — it’s probably the thing that keeps most of us coming back for more.

    As for supporting the Pennywise Eat Local Challenge, I think that the entire Ethicurian Blog has done so in a huge way. In fact I first learned about the challenge, and the entire concept, from Ethicurian. DQ’s decision not to participate in the challenge and her explanation of that decision help to raise the awareness of the rationale behind the challenge. Isn’t that the most important thing?

  11. zinnia says:

    To add to commenter #8 above, there is an issue of availability of good-quality produce and fresh food in general in poor urban neighborhoods – it simply may not be there. Maybe there are veggies available, but they may not be as fresh, and most likely not organic or locally-grown. Also, in some urban neighborhoods there may not even be supermarkets, because it is more profitable for those stores to be located in the suburbs.

    I do think it is great to support your local farmers and foragers and producers of edibles as much as you can, but perhaps we can also put some of our resources into supporting community gardening groups or other organizations that can bring locally-produced food to those who otherwise don’t have access. You can’t get much more local than the food you grow yourself!

  12. meloukhia says:

    Oh, my goodness. So much misreading going on here! Good lord, I really hope that the DQ doesn’t think I am criticizing her. I think that the fridge baring meme is awesome, and I love peering into people’s fridges, and the discussion that this has sparked about buying habits and food priorities. Bonnie’s choices have created what I think is a really interesting exchange, despite the personal attacks directed against me.

    Also, I do have the money that I would like to spend on food. I never feel like I am restricted in the grocery store, farmers’ market, garden, or anywhere else because I don’t spend as much as other people do, due to differences in personal choices, income, and profession. Just wanted to make that clear. My comments are not about some sort of strange class resentment complex, they are intended to bring another perspective to the discussion.

    Let me say again, firmly, that there is nothing inherently wrong with spending a lot of money on food, especially as a food critic. I am not telling anyone how to eat, spend money, or live. But I disliked the *implication* made that not spending a lot of money on food was wrong, because I don’t think that it is. I also think that talking about the issues of the Pennywise Eat Local has made a lot of people think, which is excellent.

    And Shuna, you are right on about class differences and access to food.

  13. DairyQueen says:

    Hi everyone — I’ve been hesitant to weigh in again here because a) I’m enjoying the discussion, albeit uncomfortable with having started it this way, and b) I really do feel like an ass for trumpeting my profligacy so …um… gleefully, as Meloukhia put it. I didn’t mean it that way, but I may well have been feeling a tad defiant because of flak I get from friends & relatives, including the better-off ones, over my “pickiness” and “preachiness” when it comes to food.

    Meloukhia: Seriously, I’m glad you put me in my place. I know a bit where you’re coming from, since for a year I’ve been reading your excellent blog (which I was going to put in “Blogs That Make Us Think” but now everyone will believe I’m just sucking up: this should prove our pre-existing relationship, and everyone should read this). I did not feel personally attacked by you, and I’m sorry if you now do instead by others’ comments. I should have re-read the Penny-Wise mission and the accompanying posts from around the country, which were really inspiring and educational, before incorrectly summarizing the challenge from the misty memories of a few weeks later. Both money and food are emotionally charged issues in different ways for people, and I wish I had written more sensitively about the interplay between them instead of sticking my big fat, guilty, foot-shaped silver spoon in my mouth.

    Don’t Eat Alone: Welcome! we’re all relative newbies here too, learning as we go.

    Sam: Our fridge is a Kenmore (Sears) and while I love the top fridge part, the bottom freezer was designed by an idiot. Ice cubes fly everywhere when you pull it out, and the big deep bins are hard to find stuff in. Sorry I deserted you on the fod budget project — I have all the photos of our food hauls for the last few months, but no figures because of the dread notebook loss.

    Shuna: Thank you for the reality check. Food access is indeed a major part of the story — not just local food infrastructure but its egalitarian distribution (or complete absence thereof). I would also add food education. I was talking to someone yesterday who helps get produce into corner stores in Hunter’s Point neighborhood of San Francisco, and he said ensuring both quality and eaters’ interest has been problematic. Basic cooking knowledge is disappearing with each generation. Class is key, and you’re absolutely right, we white middle-class relatively privileged folks — or at least me — have no business making assumptions about what are necessities and what are luxuries, or in telling anyone what to spend or eat. I am all for increasing the choices available to everyone regardless of class and I hope to start backing that up with some personal action on a volunteer basis.

    Leslie: Good for you guys for taking the challenge; I enjoyed reading about it. I admit that meat makes up the bulk of our ruinous expenditures and if I went back to being a vegetarian, I’d probably save a fortune. Although I can’t see doing that anytime soon, I do hope to eat less of it…or at least cut back on my $20 Fatted Calf petit jambons.

    Henny: You’re very sweet to stick up for me like that. (Mom, is that you masquerading as someone with three kids?) I should have pointed out that in our defense, the Potato and I do eat pretty much all three meals at home, plus entertain frequently, and yes, although I am not yet (monetarily) a very successful food writer, I do have to keep abreast of the food scene here. Bay Area restaurants are not cheap, especially if you like to have a glass of wine (or two each) with dinner, and as I have said before, I willingly pay a premium to eat at places that serve local produce and ethical meat such as Pizzaiolo and Pearl in Oakland; Chez Panisse Cafe, Eccolo, Cafe Rouge, and the new Riva Cucina in Berkeley; and Bucci’s in Emeryville.

    Zinnia: More good points, and that’s why I need to get my ass over to volunteer at either People’s Grocery or Spiral Gardens, two urban food-justice endeavors within walking distance of my house. I do hope to start growing more of my own food and not just herbs in containers. Unfortunately, our shabby-chic warehouse in north Oakland has basically a toxic waste dump for a back yard, in which I have unearthed car batteries and syringes, so I have a challenge there.

    Thanks everyone, for caring enough about these issues to chime in.

    —The Dairy Queen, who is temporarily shelving her tiara

  14. chip says:

    At the risk of stating the obvious (one of my specialties) or just being wordy (another), I think that there’s something for everyone to like in any effort to get more people in this country (no matter their class, financial situation, education level, political orientation, etc., etc.) to spend more of their food money on — in the parlance of earlier posts — “good” food instead of “bad” food.

    Historically speaking, our food is so absurdly cheap right now in the U.S. I’m sure that’s little consolation to people who have very little to spend on food. But it is worth noting (and this is how I interpreted DQ’s post and comments) that, relative to our past, people have to spend less of their total income on food than they have in the past. And when we do spend a lot of money on food, we’re usually paying a major premium for where we are (restaurant, ballpark, Paris), for convenience and/or atmosphere.

    Of all our cheap food, much of it is bad food and some of it is good food that is becoming increasingly not-as-good-it-could-be.

    I think we’re now in a place where we (not just people on the Internet or upper-middle class people or people who refers to class struggle in general or Michael Pollan fans or food writers) are trying to figure out how to lock in the good end-result of food being so cheap that people aren’t starving. At the same time, we’re trying to figure out how to get there through better means.

    Lots of people have lots of different ideas about what those better means are and so we have all these overlapping circles of interests. What have traditionally been good foods — vegetables, fruit, grains — are becoming not-as-good foods (or flat-out bad foods) because of where they come from (not nearby) or what they’re sprayed with (anything synthetic) or who picked them (the underpaid oppressed) or what else they’re being used for (gasoline) or who owns the fields they came from (big ag) and so on and so on.

    Sometimes, I think our collective goal as a country or people (or whatever word works to describe those of us in this world who live directly under USDA jurisdiction) is to work towards an ample food supply that, in getting from farm-to-mouth, brings with it as little external guilt as possible. I think that all those overlapping circles of interests are affecting how we grow and make our food, and that’s a good thing for the most part.

    Two of the many reasons I love Ethicurean: 1) it mostly involves itself with questionning the intersection and relative validity of those many overlapping circles of interests; and 2) it does so in such a way that prompts discussions like this on a semi-regular basis.

    I do have a sincere question about the line of thinking that goes something like “talking about eating better is a pasttime of the leisure classes.” I’ve been nagged for a while by some articles Tracy McMillan wrote for City Limits and Huffington Post a while back. They had to do with a program in NYC that is trying to get more (any) fresh produce into the bodegas of certain poor neighborhoods in the city. I found it an odd off note that while inherently praising these programs, she knocked Pollan and Waters for being “lofty foodies.” I didn’t then and I don’t see now how what Pollan and Waters do could be seen as anything other than a complement to efforts such as those in NYC. Outside of whatever real work they do in the community, their work feels more directed at the system of food production instead of the consumers who feed on it.

    And anyway, let’s assume that it’s not just a matter of getting the produce to those who don’t have easy access to it (which, judging by the overall demand for nectarines vs. the demand for Sweet Tarts, it’s cleary not at all just a matter of access — I can speak with some authority about this as I’m eating the latter right now). Isn’t “education” part of the program? Wouldn’t most of the nutritionists and activists actively involved in, for example, getting a produce-in-bodega program set up for poor neighborhoods in NYC qualify as middle class? And if they’re not the ones to be telling others what to eat, who is? And even beyond that, isn’t it more insulting to presume that people with low incomes who live in the inner city are automatically less interested in what Michael Pollan has to say when what he’s saying has to do with what they and we are eating? Class affects the way we see everything, but the fact that Michael Pollan, to stick with the example, grew up reasonably well-off, went to Columbia or wherever he went to college and worked high-cotton editing jobs in Manhattan doesn’t alter the facts of what he’s reported about, for example, our dependence on corn. Nor would it make those facts any truer had he grown up poor and not finished high school.

    One last thing and then I’ll shut up: While I love the eat-local mantra, I’m also lucky enough to live in a farm-rich area that not only has an abundance of just about everything you could need (and all relatively cheap) but also a strong community built around access-for-all to the food from those farms. So it’s pretty easy for me to sing the praises of local. Not as easy as it is for you Californians, though. You’ve got it all. North Dakotans love their plums, too, damnit! What do we do about North Dakotan plum love?

  15. cookiecrumb says:

    I’m a little late here. And I’ll keep it brief.
    I’m so glad I didn’t do any gloating in the article Carol Ness wrote about me and Cranky doing the frugal-local challenge. Of course, it’s not for everyone! Also, it was a gimmick. I do eat that way quite a bit, but it was structured as a challenge to prove that it’s doable for people on a budget. So I’m not all religious about it and I’m definitely not judgmental of others’ eating habits.
    However (and thanks to DQ for noticing) we really did eat well that week. It was fun and delicious, and I guess I just love being dared to take on a little structure once in a while.
    Finally — well, two finallys: DQ, I like the look of your fridge, and I’m in the market, so thanks for the warning about the ice. And CHIP!!! Me, Cookiecrumb — I’m Debby! Hi, pal.

  16. Egads! Your ‘fridge is so clean!