Fad diets come and go, but when you’re in college, just out of, or broke, or well, let’s face – plain ass cheap, it’s impossible to eat a great meal on a shoe string budget. But recently there’s been a move to change all that. NPR first shed some light on going gourmet for only 99 cents about a week ago.
Unless, that is, you shop at the 99? Only Stores. There are more than 200 of them throughout the West ? not to mention other bargain variations like the Dollar Store ? true to their name, everything costs exactly 99 cents.
Christiane Jory thoroughly embraces this fact in her book, The 99? Only Stores Cookbook. The idea may sound silly, but the book is filled with recipes for gourmet items like gruyere beignets, salmon souffle and Pinot Noir poached pear tarts. Many of the recipes have been adapted from culinary classics like the Joy of Cooking and the Moosewood Cookbook.
Sure, we’ve all sustained on Ramen but can 99 cent food possibly taste any good? It’s hard to say, because I haven’t sunk that low. Yet. It’s not unfathomable that I would sink that low. The NPR article goes on to explain how Jory sunk that low (obvs. it involves wine!) and lived to tell about it.
Taking Jory’s notion one step forward, the NYT’s food critic Henry Alford decided to conduct a week long experiment culminating in a bargain basement dinner party. He used ingredients purchased only from 99 cent stores throughout Manhattan.
The four friends I served dinner to included two who had shopped for food at 99-cent stores and two who had not. Guests were met with an antipasto tray ? pepperoncini, olives, artichoke hearts, crackers, very greasy salami and a hockey puck of Brie that I had softened by baking.
Disparate nibbling yielded several polite, neutral comments. My guests stared off into the mid-distance as if in the throes of Art Appreciation. But the compliments started flying when I served my chilled pear soup ? nothing more than a mixture of Goya and Kern?s pear nectars that I served in beautiful Chinese bowls with star anise floating on top. (Mark: ?I feel like I?m at a chic restaurant.? Heather: ?I?ve cleaned my bowl.?)
Of particular note, is that Alford has to use some cooking ingenuity. Since the inventory at many of these 99 cent stores is constantly in flux there’s more improvisation cooking.
Forced into using whatever ingredients are on hand to prepare something delicious is in a word, stressful.
It’s a method perfected by our ancestors and sadly, lost in the modern world of microwave dinners and pop top soup bowls.
As for that experiment’s legacy?
I will continue to serve my ?pear soup.? I will continue to worship at the altar of Goya?s dulce de leche wafers. I will continue to make my pea soup using frozen peas, particularly as the recipe I devised is so wonderfully easy. (Slice and saut? an onion. Add 3 cups chicken stock, a 1-pound bag of frozen peas, 1/3 cup oats, 1/8 teaspoon cardamom, some salt and pepper. Bring to boil. Pur?e in blender.)
But more important, I will continue to look for incredible value. As I?m sure the folks at Jack?s know, bargain-hunting can be addictive.
Consider the Web site for the national chain 99? Only Store, which proudly displays an Andreas Gursky photograph of endless rows of candy and canned goods called ?99 Cents,? taken at a franchise in Hollywood. The Web site informs us, ?This photograph recently sold for over $1,999,999!?
One man?s penny is another man?s dollar.
Truer words my friend, truer words.