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Dining for Dollars

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Living as I do on a limited budget, I rarely go out to eat. My favorite treat, when I get a windfall of $100 for some story I forgot I sold, is to go to Starbucks for a mocha frappuccino and a blueberry scone. It’s a grand social occasion, sitting outside talking to babies in strollers and sad dogs left tied up by their owners while I eat, drink and read the paper.

Otherwise, I put together three meals a day and make my own iced coffee. I’ve been cooking, not just family meals but also formal business dinners and holiday parties, since I was eighteen, so it’s second nature for me to throw a little of this and a little of that into a pot and come up with something frabjous. I especially love building on leftovers; for instance, two nights ago I made one of my standards, pasta with greens and feta cheese, for my son and me (recipe below). Pasta and cheese were left over, but we ate most of the spinach, so yesterday I bought a bunch of green chard, sautéed it with onions, and mixed it with the reheated pasta. Now I have leftover leftovers. I’m proud of my ability to eat on the cheap–though food is so expensive these days, I seem to spend a fortune on it anyway. Still, most dinners, even when my son eats over several times a week, cost under five bucks, more if meat or fish is involved.

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The other night friends who live in the suburbs took me out to Red Lobster. It was a great treat, and I was delighted and appreciative—but. When we first got there the place was nearly empty; by the time we left we had to fight our way through mobs in the lobby. Families were waiting to be seated, families of four or five or six, of all colors and sizes and modes of dress. If we’re living in hard times like I keep hearing, how can these families afford to eat out? Maybe Friday is restaurant night in the suburbs; what do I know? Still, I keep hearing all these stories about people forced to choose between food and medicine—so what’s up with Red Lobster? Most entrées were $15.00, but many hovered in the twenties and beyond. With drinks, appetizers, desserts, tax, and tip, our meal for three was over $100.

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Lobster is my favorite food in the universe, bar none. The first time I ate a whole lobster was on Long Island when I was 22, and since then I’ve had it at fast food places in Maine, by the ocean in Florida, at fancy Hawaiian buffets, on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, and once in a Minneapolis café at a bargain basement price. I rummage through the shells at least twice, sucking out every morsel of flesh; but I took one look at a Red Lobster crustacean on someone else’s plate and decided not to order it—their version did not resemble any lobster I‘ve ever eaten. In fact, most of the food was far inferior to what I rustle up in my own small kitchen. The shrimp was eerily uniform in size, pallid and nearly tasteless. The forkful of lobster I tried from my friend’s pasta dish was deep red and slimy–possibly claw meat, but the menu had touted it as tail. My stuffed sole was actually quite good, but the mashed potatoes would have filled two teaspoons, and the cole slaw was below average. The best part of the meal was dessert: we shared a divine concoction of ice cream and gooey chocolate sauce over a chewy cookie. Of course, there’s more to dining out than food: there were cocktails, good conversation, and laughter, and for someone who hadn’t been to a restaurant in months, it was indeed a treat. I’m not complaining—but.

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For 20 years my mother rented her condominium in Florida. She could have bought the place, as my brother repeatedly begged her to do, but she stubbornly refused: she didn’t want to tie up her money, she wanted access to every penny plus monthly bank interest. Not that she was a big spender–she’d walk around the mall for half a day and go home with a bar of soap. Her only luxury was eating out. Whenever I visited, or she came to visit me, or we met somewhere on the planet with my kids or sister or other kin, she took us out to eat—and not to Red Lobster. I may be po’, but I’ve dined in the finest eating establishments in the USA: Postrio’s, The Redwood Room, The Four Seasons, Chez Panisse, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Tavern on the Green, Max’s in Paris, and numerous others, famous and not, whose names escape me. Most of the meals were delicious, and the outings were fun—when we weren’t fighting, that is, which was about half the time—but after a week of rich food I’d be thoroughly sick of it. I begged my mother to let me cook her a meal, but she wouldn’t hear of it. I wished she’d just give me the money rather than take me out, but to her, every meal represented an opportunity for adventure.

I see my mother’s behavior from two opposing sides: on one hand, she had a right to do with her money as she saw fit, and to enjoy spending it on whatever gave her pleasure. On the other hand, my mother died without leaving one penny, or anything of fiduciary value, not even jewelry. Had she bought rather than rented her condo, we would have sold it and split the profit three ways—which wouldn’t have amounted to a fortune, but in the context of my life would have gone a long way towards improving my circumstances. I have friends whose working-class parents somehow ended up with millions of dollars, their inheritance. They’d bought houses that appreciated greatly during their lifetimes, or they invested wisely, or saved—whatever they did, it was a conscious effort to leave something for their kids. That my mother gave not a thought to my welfare hurts more than just my pocketbook.

images-13.jpegMaybe it’s precisely because my mother frittered her life savings away in restaurants that I shop, cook and wash dishes over and over every day. Maybe that’s why I can’t go out to eat without feeling guilty, and if I do celebrate some milestone in a restaurant, I choose a place I’ve been to before, to be certain it’ll be worth the expense. Because my mother’s money literally ended up in the toilet, I can’t help judging those families on line at the Red Lobster. It blows my mind that these adults would drop one or two hundred dollars on a family dinner. They aren’t wealthy—if they were, they wouldn’t be eating at Red Lobster and driving Hondas. These were middle-class families, the ones that Democrats claim they’re gonna fight like crazy for, the people who can’t afford medical insurance, or gas for the car, or shoes for the kids.

Tell me: am I nuts? Or is it the rest of America?

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Recipe for Pasta, Greens and Feta Cheese


Boil water for pasta. In large saucepan, sauté half a chopped red onion (or any type onion*) in 2 tbsps. olive oil about 5 minutes. Throw in a bunch or 2 of washed spinach, torn or chopped (or chard, mustard greens, kale—mix ‘n match) and cook until wilted. Throw in 6 oz. crumbled feta cheese, mix well, turn heat to lowest and cover. Meantime cook lb. or less of pasta—rigatoni goes well with this. When done, drain and toss into greens-feta mixture. Sprinkle with lots of grated parmesan.

*Omit for onionphobes like my son; I sauté them separately for myself.

1lb. Golden Grain rigatoni = $1.49
Greens = $2.79 (more if you use more)
Feta cheese = $3.99

TOTAL = $8.27 for 4+ servings

“Spinach is the broom of the stomach”

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3 responses »

  1. I have to confess I’m a restaurant fanatic, and would rather have a nice dinner out than practically anything else. So a disproportionate part of my disposable income goes toward eating out, and my heirs will undoubtedly see a consequent reduction in their inheritances. It’s hard for me to feel particularly guilty about that, but I can see it from the other side.

    That said, I am definitely not a fan of Red Lobster, nor of most corporate chain restaurants. Sadly, they have largely taken over the niche that was formerly occupied by a huge number of independent restaurants that were above the diner/coffee shop/burger joint level but below the “fine dining” level. (There are still a lot of those places left, especially in various ethnic cuisines — Italian and Chinese most notably in the Bay Area — but away from the big coastal metro areas they’re getting rarer.)

    The chain restaurants, to me, are just overpriced McDonalds — centrally-planned menus, ingredients centrally sourced, often frozen, usually from industrial food combines, rarely local or special, and, well… they’re usually just not very good. Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Applebee’s, TGI Fridays, Black Angus, etc. — I just don’t see any reason to go to them except when they’re the only feasible dining option (business trips, meetings, other peoples’ parties).

    If I’m in a group and someone proposes a chain restaurant I can usually politely deflect it in the direction of a similarly-priced independent eatery, often ethnic, or perhaps a locally-owned restaurant which might technically be a chain (i.e., multiple locations), but is of good quality — like The Fish Market for seafood, or Izzy’s for steaks.

    Interesting commentary, Michael, especially your analysis of Red Lobster and chain restaurants. Thanks for the, ahem, food for thought.–MS

  2. Marcy, this is one of your best posts ever. Thank you for writing it.

    I both enjoy eating out and loathe it, depending on the occasion. On business trips I’ve eaten in some very fine establishments, but the company was almost always never the company of my choice, and the evenings weren’t enjoyable even if the food was good or even delicious. I must admit I’m amused, though, when some business guy tries to impress our table with how much he knows about wine and orders for all of us. I happen to know a fair amount about wine, and I like to keep my mouth closed on these occasions just for the amusement of listening to an idiot pontificate about something he really doesn’t know much about.

    I enjoy restaurant meals when I’m with my family or friends; the establishment needn’t be fancy or high-priced. The other night I ate with my sister’s family at a mediocre Italian restaurant in a nearby town, and I covered the bill because my brother-in-law had picked it up the previous time. I didn’t care much for the food, but it was a lovely evening, much better than the nights I’ve eaten at high-end places with a bunch of suits. Food and wine can match well together, but throw in love and just about any combination of food and beverage blends into a beautiful experience.

  3. Nice post, good work. I have recently started my own blog so its good to pickup tips from what you have going here. Many Thanks. Carrol Zeilman

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