Free: It's What's for Dinner

Well, it finally happened. But when you think about it, it was inevitable really. Ever since I got to Ithaca in June and started cooking for myself (not counting, of course, the three years I spent dining in Third World Co-op), I have found it strangely comforting to listen to National Public Radio, a pastime I had previously thought reserved for liberal-news-hungry forty-somethings, like my father. It comes as just the latest in a long line of interests I have adopted from my dad over the years (poetry and photography included). Growing up, it was as simple as fact—when it came time to cook dinner, my dad would crank on NPR, and my sister and I knew that we would be in for an hour-and-a-half of boring (that’s BOR-ing in kid speak) talk radio, stifled only by the sounds of clamoring dishes in the kitchen.

It took some time, but eventually I got used to it—and daresay even came to enjoy it. First, it was Garrison Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon” that struck a chord with me, nothing if not for Keillor’s eminently soothing Midwestern drawl and the rousing “Guy Noir, Private Eye” segment that even as a youngster I found incredibly entertaining. In my teens, my focus shifted to This American Life, thanks in large part to Mr. Kawano, my high school Creative Writing teacher, who played segments in class and put the content of obscure archived shows on our final exam. He long contested that there were only two things one needed to do to be a well-informed citizen—the first was to listen to This American Life, and the second was to read The New Yorker. On long car rides up to my dad’s house in Rosendale, NY from the city, I sat buckled in the backseat, keeping one ear locked on the radio program and the other on my sister, whose weekly gossip spread whisper-soft across the seats.

Nowadays, it hardly matters the NPR program—I find almost any show worth listening to, especially because a lack of TV reception up here prevents ready access to the day’s news. I often cannot work without at least some kind of white noise, even if that simply means putting on a mindless TV show to have playing in the background. I first flipped on NPR’s live webcast hoping that it would serve a similar purpose, but I found it impossible to concentrate on work because I became so engrossed in the program! Finally, I thought I’d give cooking a shot with my computer-turned-radio humming in the background, and it worked like a charm. I love listening to the live stuff (mostly All Things Considered) because it is reassuring to be on the same frequency as other human beings, but with the advent of podcasts, I am constantly checking out other content as well. Above all, I have come to really appreciate Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!—a weekly news quiz show that is as informative as it is hilarious.

It’s so nice to be able to learn something in time that otherwise might go to waste (I assume the same might be said about driving, of which my four-year hiatus prevents me from forming a solid judgment), which is why I imagine my dad started the ritual to begin with. All I can say is that it is one that I will certainly continue to explore here in Ithaca, and will definitely take with me on my culinary endeavors abroad in China.

Cooking itself has been great, even in spite of the somewhat redundant selection of ingredients. Coming from a co-op background, I have been slightly reluctant to change my old ways, which means that weekly grocery trips often net the same basic staples—mushrooms, peppers, broccoli, bok choy (when it’s available), tomatoes, carrots, onions, potatoes, eggs, yogurt, apples, peanut butter, and of course, white rice. But with a more flexible budget, I have been able to substitute out the tofu that I would largely eat en masse for some meat—largely just chicken and ground beef, with the noted exception of hot dogs as elucidated in my previous post. I’m not too big into the “instant” variety of food, but I debated buying some pre-packaged Thai meals just to have on hand, only to wonder whether I would be offending my roommate if I did. A part of me wants to break the mold and start doing some culinary experimentation, but thus far, I have been a little too nervous over the outcome to try.

My cooking abilities are far from refined—owing partly to the fact that I often stray from using spices and seasoning in favor of the food’s natural flavors—but I am perfectly content with cooking for myself. The problem lies in entertaining others, a difficulty that I hope to overcome in the near future. I have, though, cooked for my roommate on a couple of occasions, and thanks to his selection of sauces and spices, I was able to conjure up something decently appetizing. It’s handy to be able to use the various pots and pans he has on hand, not to mention all of his bowls and silverware, because god knows I don’t own any of that myself. Of course, it would help if I used a cookbook every now and then—improvisation, though wonderful, might not be best employed when it’s the only tool in a relatively new cook’s arsenal. I haven’t used one in ages, but I imagine if I actually had to follow a recipe, I would be less scared to try out other types of food and styles of cooking. If anyone knows any good ones, I would be happy to take suggestions.

Pictured throughout this post are some of the various dishes I have made for myself. It was my friend Alisa (much more talented than I, mind you) who first got me hooked on food photography, a hobby I have not put down since, much to my father’s feigned dismay. But it may be catching on with more people that I would have expected. My friend Jannine here at Cornell was described by a mutual friend as “the only other person besides [me] who likes to take pictures of her food.” Even my friend Eric from high school and his brother started a blog dedicated solely to postings of food photos. It’s not even that weird anymore when my roommate walks in to find me hunched over the kitchen table balanced precariously above a plate of fast-cooling chicken. I can only imagine what an amazing job it would be to be a food critic and photojournalist all at once.

In terms of shopping for food, the selection has been great. I’m glad that I don’t have to frequent the local Wal-Mart and can instead hand over my money to other large, thriving, and probably equally corrupt conglomerates located conveniently nearby. We have a Topps and a Wegman’s within easy driving distance and I’m fortunate to be able to call on my roommate if I’m ever in need of supplies. There is also a small Asian market in town—the place where I buy all my Chinese broccoli, tofu, Korean BBQ sauce, and taro tapioca popsicles for dessert. Though I had scarcely ever even heard the name before coming here, Wegman’s has attained a certain cult status in town, as various friends and acquaintances have talked up the great amusement of spending an afternoon (or a Friday night) perusing the seemingly infinite number of aisles, leaving the store with much more than you expected to buy in the first place. And I don’t blame them—the store is set up expertly in terms of food displays and marketing. I heard that a trick supermarkets sometimes use is putting the fruits display right in the front where the customers come in. It would seem pointless as fruits don’t generally make for a huge draw, but when busy customers stop into a grocery store in a hurry to get out, choosing the right fruits takes time, thus slowing down the rest of their visit too.

The trick is to come in with a list—thereby weeding out those aisles you know you can bypass. Of course I have yet to follow my own advice, but surprisingly, I have discovered an unusual source of will power, at least when it comes to buying food. I have seen far too much of it go to waste in my lifetime to know the value of being able to eat something before it spoils, thus saving money and conserving the already scarce resources on this planet. It helps too that I am only buying for myself, and so I know the extent to which I can and cannot eat a given amount of food in a week’s time. Thus far, I haven’t had to throw away a single thing, and I hope that it stays that way.

Which is good news for Shansi, as they are footing my grocery bills for my time at Cornell. In these tough economic times, I am trying my best to stay within my budget— regrettably evading the assorted selection of fine wines, lavish desserts, and fresh-caught Alaskan salmon. Hell, it’s even a splurge when I decide to buy the 90% lean ground chuck over the 80/20. I guess it says something about me that I am even frugal with spending other people’s money. My own economic situation, though, has also been quite interesting. I seem to find few qualms about paying close to $100 to visit NYC for a weekend, but I fret endlessly over whether to buy a green pepper or a red pepper at the store for just a dollar more (of course, I went with the green pepper despite the bitterer taste). Seeing friends in the city has been undoubtedly worth it, and I will definitely have to dedicate a post to that in the near future.

But when I’m not cooking on my own, I eat at Cornell’s dining halls. Their “award winning” food has lived up to its name in many respects. I am actually quite excited to go there every once in a while when I don’t feel like cooking at home. They offer a pretty decent selection to choose from—“chef’s table” specialties, soups, salad, grill, pizza, and a dessert bar. They locally produce some of their food, including select fruits and vegetables, at a student-run farm not unlike George Jones Farm at Oberlin. Cornell also has its own dairy outfitter on campus, which makes everything from milk to lemonade to whipped butter. I say “whipped butter” and not ice cream because Cornell's ice cream is so high in fat that the FDA refuses to certify it unless it goes under that much less flattering pseudonym. As a result, the ice cream is not FDA-approved, but it sure is delicious nonetheless. I wouldn’t be surprised if they also raised cattle on the side—their burgers are quite tasty, if a little overcooked, but you can never be too careful with salmonella these days. They also run their own orchard located on the so-called “Plantations,” which I have yet to visit.

The only downside to the meal plan is the cost. With thirty meals and 200 Big Red Bucks (essentially Flex Points) for $500, it works out to about $10 per meal at the dining halls. Ten bucks is pretty expensive, considering it usually costs me less than $50 to buy groceries for all my meals for a week—and I eat a ton. However, as you might expect, I have devised a way to maximize every meal that I take at the dining hall. With a cleverly discreet backpack, I manage to walk out with no less than the following items after nearly every meal: bananas, bagels, hard-boiled eggs, plums, apples, and a plastic Chinese takeout container’s worth of the day’s specials. It all goes toward my six-meal-a-day diet—having many smaller meals spaced out throughout the day rather than three big ones. I eat a PB&J bagel every morning for breakfast, a banana in between my morning classes, the pre-made take-out container for lunch, and the rest of the food at various points during the late afternoon and evening. Factor all of that food into the cost of a single meal, and the price drops to about $3 or $4 per meal—certainly a much more reasonable cost. Best of all—it’s totally sustainable! I reuse the take-out container, Ziploc bags, and even the plastic silverware I take with me to eat.

Today's leftovers are tomorrow's lunch!

And there are other avenues at Cornell for the discerning freegan. Much like DeCafe, I learned that when the Olin Library Café closes at 5pm every weekday, all of the bagels and croissants are left up for grabs. In addition, I was shocked to learn that Cornell also boasts a co-op housing and dining system. Though much less extensive than Oberlin’s, it has nonetheless found a niche on campus to rival that of the burgeoning Greek powerhouse. I recently reconnected after ten years with my 5th-grade crush (she just graduated from Cornell), who is living in one of the co-ops called 660 Stewart. Walking in to meet up with her was like being plucked back down in Oberlin—communal bulletin board in the living room, Hobarts and giant woks in the kitchen, and labeled leftovers piled up in the industrial fridges. Of course, Ithaca’s certainly got its share of restaurants too, and it would be foolish not to sample some of the many cuisines in the area. With all the money I'm saving, you would think Shansi might even include it in the budget!

A Korean box lunch at "Four Seasons."