As a writer and graduate student, my income is extremely erratic and misleading. At certain times of the year, thousands of dollars appear from scholarships and student loans, and this amount, like a camel’s hump, often needs to sustain me for a full semester.
While I’m proud of the ways I’ve found to modestly supplement this income with contract work, submitting my poems to magazines and entering writing contests, the payment from this freelancing never arrives when I need it most. My fixation on the mailman’s rounds could be called obsessive. I also have terrible luck with being paid on time. Documents and cheques are lost in the mail, student loans mistakenly believes that I’ve graduated and automatically deducts payments from my bank account, etc. At the beginning of the summer, my mad scramble for contract jobs keeps me from enjoying the warmer weather and the freer schedule. I don’t feel like I have the right to complain about the unpredictable funding and TAship payments; I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to spend most of my days writing and making my poems better.
As a result of my irregular income, I can have in-between periods where I have about $20 a week for groceries. This is feasible only if during times of plenty you lay in a stock of pantry staples, such as olive oil, rice, pasta, a few kinds of noodles, dried beans and lentils, bouillon cubes, grains (organic as possible) such as quinoa, oats and pearl barley, frozen vegetables such as peas and edemame, flour and some baking supplies. I’ve been vegetarian for several years but I occasionally eat small quantities of sustainably caught fish. I also try to have on hand miso paste, sheets of wakame or dried seaweed, which can be reconstituted into a tasty broth, sesame oil, rice and balsamic vinegar, a few tins of sardines, and a good mustard (I like Simply Natural’s Organic Stone Ground Mustard) and maybe a tube of tomato paste, the kind you can find in Italian delis. I like Mark Bittman’s list of pantry supplies which he recommends revisiting each new year, written when he was a columnist for the New York Times.
Stocking up on these items in bulk are a kind of investment, and you can wait until they are on sale to make it even more economical. The other thing you need to be able to eat on $20 a week is to live in a fantastic neighborhood for grocery stores. I avoid big box stores such as Sobey’s, Metro, even Loblaws, as they carry a lot of tempting prepared foods like potstickers (I have a special weakness for these) and frozen flax seed waffles (another weakness), as well, their discounts are best applied when buying in multiples. Instead, you need to patronize your local family-run grocery store, sometimes found in Chinatowns or ethnic neighborhoods, or neighborhoods with a lot of hippie history, such as Vancouver’s Commercial Drive or Toronto’s Kensington Market. Be wary though of the organic or all-natural food stores when you’re on a tight budget, as these have shelves crammed full of all-fixer supplements that promise to improve your colon, digestive system, skin, eyes, hair, libido, etc. Wait until the gift certificates come your way if you need that cold-pressed seed oil to ramp up your sex drive.
In my neighborhood, there are number of grocery stores, as well as fruit and vegetable stands which I’ve classed according to my own system. Top of the list would be Fiesta Farms, the independent grocery store where you can find specialty items like goat cheese, locally grown sprouts, and probably heritage soy-milk fermented and hand-skimmed in oak barrels. This store, along with the organic farmer’s market at Dufferin Grove Park, would be where I shop all the time if I had a totally organic diet and a trust fund. Instead I save these for when I get a tax rebate or have had dental work done and need succour.
For everyday, I frequent a small grocery store run by a Peruvian Chinese family whom everyone in the neighborhood adores, because they carry both Spanish and Asian items that are tricky to find even in Toronto. Their produce is a few dimes per pound above the really dive-y places, but it’s well worth it, as their chilis, bok choy, and other veggies keep fresher longer. As well, Strictly Bulk, a bulk store at the end of my street, where yogurt from Ontario’s Hewitt Dairy is about $2.50 for a large tub. It’s another meeting place in the Bloordale area, and they brew good coffee which is handy on mornings I wake up too late to make it myself. They also carry organic soups and soba noodles, gluten-free breads, a small selection of local cheese, lots of dried fruits and nuts, natural laundry detergent and even Thayer’s Witch Hazel. It’s an amazing place, I swear I’m not being bribed to write this! I can buy oats, coffee beans, rice and lentils for a handful of change each, while saving on excess packaging, which I loathe. A rant-filled entry on excess packaging, TBA.
When I need to save a little extra, I visit a popular fruit and veggie stand in Koreatown, called, I think, Christie Fruits. They’re famous for their low-priced pints of berries, even in winter, but I find that their produce is really inexpensive because it’s at its peak right then– in a day or two, the rapini goes yellow around the edges, the strawberries at the bottom are furry. Best choices are root vegetables, and their herbs, which for $.99 a bag, are the cheapest I’ve ever found for such big handfuls of basil and cilantro. No matter how broke you are, include at least one fresh herb in your shopping, as it can elevate even the simplest pasta or rice dish. With a squeeze of lemon and some freshly ground pepper, the fresh bite of parsley or the sunny taste of basil will instantly help you forget that you still have a week to wait until your next paycheque.
Riskier is a store at the end of my street, next to the bulk store, that I’ve dubbed “the place where vegetables go to die”. The tomatoes seem to have arrived from the back of some nameless truck, from other grocery stores off-loading them because they couldn’t be sold before they went bad. I’ve found good deals here, such as quarts of potatoes and peppers, but they need to be roasted as soon as you get home for sauces or sandwich fillings. This corner store, oddly, also has great samosas, for $.75 you get a big flaky veggie samosa. In the summers a miserable looking tween-age boy advertises smoothies outside by yelling listlessly at passerbys. Further west near Dufferin is a hole in the wall, a purgatory for food. It’s best to avoid leafy vegetables, in case of salmonella, as well as fruits. I’ve stopped shopping here, as it was hard to fathom how a grocery store could be so creepy. However, the place is always full of Portuguese, Italian and Asian housewives, so none of the produce seems to have killed anyone yet.
At the bottom of the hierarchy is Shoppers Drug Mart, which has ten times the space of the Chinese-Peruvian grocery store next door. The truly desperate can find cartons of cream on sale for $.99, white eggs with pale yolks for less than $3 a dozen, dented sticks of salted butter, and an overstock of Dempster’s bread for half price. Notice that I’ve ranked Shoppers even lower than the sketchy wooden troughs off Dufferin; there at least, you can find real food, albeit bruised, like corn on the cob or watermelons in the summer. Shoppers sells stereotypical starving college student food, like Kraft Dinner, Mr. Noodles, frozen pizzas (my roommates buy these in bulk on sale), cans of tuna and Lipton’s soup. I’ve succumbed before to the packets of MSG and the discounted Halloween candy, because feeling like you have to make responsible choices all of the time deprives you in another way. This food is like a shot of adrenalin, a morale booster, depending how you look at it. Like candy given to troop soldiers before they’re going to get riddled with bullets. But it’s not real food and shouldn’t be treated as such. Even simple things here like milk, butter and bread are so full of sodium, colourings, preservatives that their long shelf lives are disturbing. I don’t understand why something called “dextrose” is in the coffee cream, making it taste like plastic. I walked into Shoppers last week, looking for a fix, but came out empty handed (the English muffins weren’t on sale), realizing my $3 could do more with some whole wheat pizza dough from Fiesta Farms and a handful of arugula. I suppose this means I’m an adult.
To get the most of the twenty bucks, I usually buy coffee cream ($1.29), onions ($.99 for a 2lb bag), a few sweet potatoes (less than $2), a cabbage or cauliflower (about $2.50), a squash or a daikon radish ($1.50), a dark leafy green vegetable such as collard greens ($1.89), bananas ($.79 per pound), eggs for protein (the cheapest I’ve found is $3.59 for a dozen large brown eggs), lemons (3 for $1), garlic (4 heads for a $1) and a fresh herb such as parsley ($.99). Maybe yogurt or a block of tofu (about $2.50) if there’s any spare change left over. Cheese, butter and fish are all luxuries during these lean times of my life (although I will often already have a wedge of reggiano, which for about $6-7 dollars can last a whole season).
With these scant supplies, it’s possible to make scrambled eggs and collard greens, or a garlicky pasta with sardines, chili flakes, lemon juice, reggiano, and caramelized cabbage. Mashed bananas with honey in yogurt. If there’s flour in the house, I can make a quick yeasted bread such as the Easy Little Bread on the marvelous 101 Cookbooks blog. Roast garlic, sweet potato and squash soup, with a dousing of olive oil on top. An herby smashed bean salad with cauliflower and mustard. A Korean-style stew with grated daikon, seaweed, cabbage, spinach, tofu, red pepper paste, and a poached egg. Chickpea masala with lots of cumin, and a dollop of yogurt on top. Or from the photo above, red lentil soup, with coconut powder (another pantry staple). Before I know it, a week full of meals has gone by, and my spirits have been bolstered by big mugs of coffee and homemade bread. Just a minute, I think I hear the mailman.