may 2012 015

Recently, I was fortunate to participate in a panel discussion about eating well on a tight budget. Though I love good, wholesome food and beautiful things, I am, and have always been, a self-proclaimed cheapskate. Compliment me on my brushed camel coat and a demure smile is the last thing to settle upon my lips. Instead I will tell you that I paid the incredible sum of $14 for it, describe the thrift store where this [almost criminal] transaction took place, and how excited I am to have participated. By this point, my husband will have left the room blushing forty shades of red and wondering why he couldn’t have married a nice girl with a department store addiction.

It is a game to me – but a very serious one that has allowed my family to live on one income since our children were born. But as much as I love to practice the joys of extreme tight-waddery, my next favorite occupation is preaching this lifestyle to others who know there must be another way out of our consumer culture, but are still searching for the maze’s elusive exit.

It’s not easy. Over the last fifty years or so, marketers have made it their business to change our eating and lifestyle habits, and this goes well beyond accepting processed, sweetened and extruded corn product as an expected (and expensive) way of feeding our children in the mornings.

may 2012 005One cannot garden without the right gadgets, cook without the right ingredients or decorate without the right shade of sage green. For the average Jane or Joe, this spells disaster. None of us have the staff or adequate budget necessary to create the kind of gardens, dinners and rooms that are deemed successful by your average magazine or lifestyle show.

And, when our garden looks scruffy, our dinner cost a fortune; or, after four changes of color, our walls are still not quite Drizzled Honey or Bottled Beetroot, we feel like failures and give up. How can we feed our families with high quality ingredients if we can’t afford organic, boneless chicken breasts? Why should we grow nutritious vegetables when we’ve almost killed ourselves trying to keep our gardens looking gorgeous? Sadly we never realize that our expectations have been ever-so-subtlety changed by decades-worth of marketing genius.

Those marketers have drilled into us the inability to cook dinner unless it involves a boneless, skinless (flavorless) chicken breast; and given those of us who have moral difficulties with the short brutal life of such an animal, an organic, free-range option at an organic, out-of-range price. It no longer occurs to us that we might not need the chicken breast in the first place and that cutting up a whole, organic chicken from a nearby farm and remembering what chicken actually tastes like could be a life changing experience – and the start of a beautiful friendship with our grandmother’s cookbooks.

And so it is with the garden. I meet a lot of people who are disappointed with their vegetable gardens, prefacing their descriptions of a highly productive plot with “It looks pretty horrible.” When I delve deeper I find it was a banner year for tomatoes or that the Swiss chard exceeded all expectations. Yet their garden was disappointing enough to have them question the point of doing it all again next year. Why? Because it wasn’t pretty and it’s tough to find a garden on TV that isn’t.

“Pretty” is for gardeners that not only adore the produce, but adore the punishing process. If your garden is feeding your family and cutting your food bill, take a minute and pat yourself on the back for a superb achievement. If you wish to take it to the next level of design and dementia, by all means do so, but never let the quest for perfection interfere with the basic goal of production.

may 2012 005Production is the key. When we become active producers in our own home economies instead of mindless consumers of what we are fed, we gain an incredible sense of empowerment and achievement – and a few more dollars in the bank account.

We don’t need boneless, skinless chicken breasts any more than we need a grafted tomato plant. Alter your expectations. Break the habits that have been carefully crafted for you. Make it a game and you’ll find yourself winning far more than a $14 camel hair coat at a thrift store – you’ll win a new perspective, a lot more pennies, and perhaps even a new purpose.