Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Wednesday's Words for January 21, 2009

I’m a simple woman, and while I hate shopping, I love a bargain. The responsibility for this trait I lay at the feet of my parents. Frugal by nature and by necessity, they taught me how to balance need against want, and how to make a dollar stretch.

My father had a rule of thumb for any decision he might make with regard to spending money. He worked on the assembly line for Studebaker-Packard, and according to my mother, hated it. So if there was something he thought he’d want to buy, he’d calculate how many hours of his labor was needed to pay for the item. Then he’d ask himself one simple question: is that item worth that many hours on the line?

We lived out in the country, and my parents had chickens, and at one point, a pig. They had a vegetable garden, and were not above using every advantage at their finger-tips for feeding their family.

In the early summer, for example, the fields of peas that had been planted by local farmers were ready to be harvested, and trucks would come to carry the produce away into the city to be processed. My father always kept an eye out for the harvest, and when he knew those trucks would be moving, he’d send my sister and I (I would have been five or six, and she eleven or twelve) down the road, each of us carrying a big, empty bushel basket. Often, big strands of vines would fall off the trucks, and of course these vines held lots of pea-pods. But the real bounty always came from the soft hearts of the drivers who, upon seeing two sweet little girls so engaged, would stop their trucks and fill our baskets for us.

My mother taught me how to shop smart when it came to groceries, and how to do amazing things with left-overs.

I’ve carried all these lessons with me, to varying degrees of success. Once, when my oldest was just thirteen, we were driving down our country road behind a truck loaded to the top with cabbages. The truck hit a small bump, and one cabbage fell off, onto the soft grass at the side of the road. I slowed then stopped the car and said to my son, “Jump out and grab that cabbage.” He looked at me with horror-filled eyes and said, “Are you kidding? Someone might see me!” His response did surprise me as this was the same young man who, not that many years before when my beloved was out of work, would accompany me to the grounds of the local car race track in the wee hours of the morning to collect discarded beer and soda bottles that we then turned into bread and milk and other essential groceries.

I wound up getting the cabbage myself that day while my son ducked down so no one could see him.

These days I leave the empty beer bottles and fallen cabbages to those less fortunate, but I still love a bargain. So when I stop at the small grocery store in a village I pass through on my way to get my beloved from work, I always look at their meat counter. Sometimes they have amazing deals: fifty percent off stickers on meat that is reaching its best before date (note: best before means ‘best before’ and not ‘rotten after’). One day last week they had an amazing item not even marked down: an entire leg of pork for under twenty-five dollars.

No question, I grabbed it. Standing in line at the check-out, the gentleman behind me looked at this massive piece of meat, then looked at me. “Wow,” he said, “you must have a lot of people to feed.” You’ll be proud of me. For the most part, I left the sarcasm out of my voice when I replied, “Actually, I think I’ll cut it up and freeze it.”

The surgery was easier said than done. I wish I’d been older when my parents had carved their own roasts, as I know they did. Thank goodness my beloved assisted me, and I’m pleased to report that in the end we ended up with seven roasts and two lots of smaller pieces for stew.

Life is not so bad when you can feed a family of four for under five dollars for the entire meal.

The Lady Makes Three
Available January 26 2008
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