Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cheapness, Aesthetics, and Deprivation

Shell and Weber appear to have different ways of defining cheapness. Shell seems to encouraging people to buy quality items that will last for some time, not just investing in something flimsy for temporary gratification. In the long run, buying quality will save money because the item can last for a long time and be repaired. For example, Shell tells the story (p.148) of a friend who bought a wooden bookcase at a flea market; it was somewhat more expensive than a comparably sized-one at Ikea. It was solid oak "sturdy and distinctive" and is still holding books ten years later without its shelves buckling as happens to bookcases made of compressed wood. Since the bookcase is real wood, she can easily strip and refinish it if desired. Although the friend is now wealthy, she has no plans to get rid of the bookcase since it is still so useful.

Weber, on the other hand, seems more attuned to price. She'll walk half an hour to get to an ATM without a surcharge. She reuses tea bags. She worries "If you dine at gourmet restaurants every week, how much will you savor and remember each individual meal?" (p. 264) While writing the book, she "lived on lentils and beans but swore off canned beans (79 cents for four servings) for dried beans ($1.49 for twelve servings."(p.266)

I find this interesting from an aesthetic point of view because tea is literally one of the cheapest drinks in existence, and it tastes terrible if you reuse the grounds. Also, to anyone who is a foodie, it is common knowledge that dried beans taste much better than canned beans. The cooking and canning process destroys much of the bean's taste and texture. Whenever I open a can of beans, I feel guilty not because of the cost but because I am committing a foodie desecration - I am too lazy to plan ahead and boil a several meal's worth of beans.

What is most disturbing is that idea that eating cheaply must be a miserable experience. About a year ago, I read a book called Urban Hermit by Sam Macdonald. Macdonald paid off thousands of dollars in debt and lost over a hundred pounds by eating rice and lentils for a year. His descriptions of his meals, particularly lunch, were the stuff of nightmares. I found myself thinking continously "why doesn't he go to the town library, take out some vegetarian cookbooks from different ethnic cuisines, and stock up on spices at the 99 cent store?" I found myself wondering if any of his co-workers, forced to watch him eat his apparently unappetizing lentil slush during the course of a year, thought of planning an intervention.

Back in the early 1990's, I read "The Unprejudiced Palate" by Angelo Pellegrini. Pellegrini, a University of Washington professor, grew his own vegetables, made his own wine (with someone else's grapes) and advocated living the good life cheaply. In his book "Lean Years, Happy Years," he devotes two pages (p. 79-81) to instructions on how to make an inexpensive and nourishing minestrone with beans and any available vegetables. Earlier in the chapter, he comments that he was

"puzzled at first by such a bland, limited [American] cuisine, I learned later, as a student of American history, the reason for it. Its sobriety, the lack in it, beyond nourishment, of what is pure pleasure, reflected the austere ethic of the early Anglo-Saxon settlers. In that somber view of life, the Puritan ethic, all that contributed to purely sensuous pleasure, such as a glass of wine and pleasantly seasoned food, all that urged one to abandon Calvin and follow Epicurus and seek a measure of redemption in joyous living, was severely censored...So boil the potatos, cook the meat without erotically stimulating seasonings, fill the dinner goblets with water, and let each one rejoice in the austere pursuit of business, the work ethic." (p.64).

For some reason, living cheaply in America has come to mean living joylessly. It has become acceptable (even fashionable) to starve the senses in order to save money.

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've heard of accounts of life during the Depression in which people took basic ingredients and leftovers and managed to have a good time by cobbling them into a humble but enjoyable supper/party. While there is undoubtedly a streak of self-denial and austerity running through American culture, there are plenty of people that have found a way around it during the country's history.

Tracey said...

But they also attempted to make the food taste good. The whole point of Pellegrini's books was that you could cheaply cook great food - you just needed to want the food to taste good. Weber and Macdonald almost seem to want an unpleasant but cheap eating experience.

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