Sarah Gilbert is a freelance financial writer; she keeps chickens; and she’s a beginning urban farmer. She lives with her three small boys and husband in Portland, Oregon, and keeps her own blog, Cafe Mama.

Learning to eat without pre-prepared food

‘Paucity is the soul of breakfast’

February 26, 2008

I’ve been coming up with taglines.

My favorite so far is “Privation is salvation.” But I also like “Have not, use not,” or maybe “Have not, waste not.” It all has to do with my pantry.

When I set out my borders for my family’s local-eating adventure, I allowed everything already in our pantry or refrigerator. The problem was that my husband and I excel at the fine art of pantry stocking. Our freezer was packed with big, big bags of corn dogs and corn-fed chicken breasts. There were curious spice blends and soup cans hiding behind corn-syrup-packed fruits and sauces and marinades. I wondered how long I’d had this little jar of mustard? I counted back at least 10 years.

“To have and to hold in your refrigerator door, until death do us part.”

My husband had a way of expressing his frustration with me for my domestic fallibilities by feeding the pantry holdouts to the boys. Kids anxious for breakfast, mama in the shower? I’d come downstairs to see Cocoa Krispies dripping down their chins. Hadn’t made lunch yet at 12:45? Corn dogs would appear in the toaster oven, happily turning into tongue-burning-hot preservative-tubes-on-sticks. Forgot to get bread in the oven for snacks? Suddenly, a can of Chef Boyardee would be bubbling on the stove next to my organic, free-range, local-chicken stock.

“Paucity is the soul of breakfast.”

A new kind of snack in this household.

The answer, it seemed clear, was a purge. That very weekend I got a paper grocery bag (and when that was filled, a box, another bag, and a bucket headed for the compost bin) and started offloading the stuff of my old way of eating. Two cans of Kroger-brand beef stock. Assorted canned vegetables, including corn, green beans, and a veggie mix. Eight cans of Safeway cream-of-chicken soup. Milk in three forms: evaporated, condensed, and dry. Powdered drink mixes ranging from chai to Tang to those General Mills coffee drinks my grandma used to love. Bag after bag of pinto beans and rice, given to us by an acquaintance who regularly visited the food bank but had no intention of cooking anything from scratch herself. They were infested with moths and went into the compost, along with several kinds of pasta, some muffin mix, and a packet of spice rub.

“Show me a woman’s freezer, and I’ll show you her soul.”

I was getting excited. I started scrubbing down the shelves, rearranging what was left: a few cans of organic garbanzo beans, a bottle of Trader Joe’s barbecue sauce that was miraculously free of corn syrup, a couple of cans of applesauce. I could see the back of the cabinet. I could also see into the future, into late August when it would start filling with home-canned tomatoes from my garden, peaches from the farmers’ market, rhubarb and strawberry and blueberry jam. I made a mental note to buy more blueberry bushes, and maybe a huckleberry. I wondered how productive my raspberries would be this year. I put canning jars on the shopping list.

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian ad

“You are what you put away.”

My brother-in-law called. “Do you want some food?” I asked. “It’s stuff that you’ll like. I’m not letting Jonathan have it any more.” Generally, my in-laws eat with abandon, with rarely a glance at the label. My husband’s youngest brother has been known to go for several days on Hostess Fruit Pies and energy drinks. They had seen me frowning at the incursion of a Totino’s Party Pizza (Mexican flavor!) during a recent visit. They may not understand me, but they’ve seen it before.

Michael happily takes two big grocery bags of food away. I am so happy to be rid of it I don’t even stop to take a photo before it’s carried out to his car. I’m free! I spend most of the next two days opening the cabinet and staring at its glorious starkness.

“One man’s trash is another man’s dinner.”

We have eaten all the breakfast cereal. When I can’t fit another can of homemade stock in the freezer, I quickly throw away what’s left of the chicken breasts and corn dogs, along with some highly questionable frozen desserts. Now we’re forced to be creative. I certainly won’t go to Starbucks or Safeway and buy anyone a doughnut or a box of toaster pastries. Not me. Hungry? There are no chips. There is no can of Nalley’s chili. No. But I just made pasta for the first time last night, and I have a bunch in the fridge. How about chicken-noodle soup?

“Freedom’s just another word for ‘nothing left to snack on.’”

It’s hard for my husband to adapt, but for me it’s liberating. For my almost-three-year-old, Truman, it’s a brave new world. When he’s hungry, he now goes to the refrigerator and picks out the egg he wants, and brings it to whoever’s in charge for scrambling. Or grabs the jar of organic peanut butter and a spoon and stands on a stool, happily licking away. For dinner, he contentedly eats forkfuls of local ham, Oregonzola, and homemade pasta. We connect over a bowl of chili made with adzuki beans, local onions, and a little of my weekly roast chicken, one bite for mama, one bite for Truman.

When I am hungry in the late afternoon, I must eat leftovers, cook something new, or go hungry. Now not just the pantry but also the refrigerator is gorgeously empty much of the time. Leftovers no longer languish for weeks until someone discovers how badly they smell; instead, they’re enjoyed within a day or two. I get to the bottom of my oats canister again, and again, and again.

“Eat it, or deplete it.”

By ridding myself of too many options, by removing our culture’s too-easy abundance, I have come again to know the value of my resources. I remember how I scraped the bottom of the honey jar to find enough to make that bread; I recall how long it took me to cut the pasta into linguini-sized strips; I know that I will not be able to afford another chicken until payday.

Right now, I will make soup with a little onion sautéed in butter, a little carrot diced fine, smoked paprika and cumin, chicken broth, chunks of chicken, cut-up pasta, frozen kale. I have seen every ingredient through from beginning to end. I peeled, sliced, mixed, rolled, cut, boiled, roasted, and simmered until this simple winter soup was set free from the limits of some iconic red label. Homemade taste, you say, Mr. Marketing Blurb? Give me a break. I hereby set myself free from the limits of the can. This is my declaration of independence from the pantry of our forefathers and mothers!

“With a firm reliance on the sustainability of divine Cuisine, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Snack Food.”

Give up convenience, America, and you will rediscover the very soul of your culture. Only when we sacrifice nearly everything can we see what we really need.

There are 9 comments on this item
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1. by MamaBird on Feb 26, 2008 at 12:39 PM PST

Fabulous. My freezer is my soul? What if I long for enough space to have another freezer to save stuff in like my farmer’s chickens from my drop and produce from my CSA when in season? I suppose that is cheating a bit, to use that energy. Lucky for me I don’t have space. Love your column and your writing. Love the image of the Chef Boyardee suddenly materializing next to your bone broth. My DD will tell her father “don’t tell mama” if he sneaks her malted milk balls. Smile...

2. by Meadowlarkgurl on Feb 26, 2008 at 12:50 PM PST

Amazing!! While I’m afraid I’m a ways out from where you are (canning? isn’t that where they hit you with bamboo sticks in singapore for littering? Oh, that’s CANE-ing) I too am paring away the “don’t eats” from the “healthy choices”.

Little by little I suppose. Thanks for a great read.

3. by valereee on Feb 26, 2008 at 2:34 PM PST

Maybe we’ll all relearn the joys of cooking from scratch.

4. by Chris on Feb 26, 2008 at 4:56 PM PST

I purged my kitchen a couple years ago and I LOVED being able to see the backs of my cabinets! That’s such a great feeling. We’re so blessed here in Portland, surrounded by so many wonderful farmers who truly care about their soil and our’s been fairly easy to keep our pantry “local” and free of the overly processed. These days, my idea of “convenience” food is canned organic black beans or canned salmon. Still processed, but processed in a way my grandmother would understand. I do a lot of “cooking for the freezer” now, making big batches of (pastured) beef stew or (free range) coq au vin, then freezing in meal-size packages. These “prepared” foods save us on the nights I’m too tired to cook (I cooking this way when I was due with my second child) or know we’ll be too busy to get dinner prepared before the kids’ bedtime.

5. by Lucy Vanel on Feb 27, 2008 at 4:29 AM PST

Excellent essay, Sarah. I wonder what would happen if I defrosted the huge encrustation of unidentified hobgoblins the freezer... Soulful work indeed.

6. by hknapp on Feb 27, 2008 at 2:08 PM PST

Good stuff, Sarah! With no kids in the house, it’s been fairly easy for us to switch from prepackaged snacks to “real” convenience food. Our staples have become quick bowls of oatmeal (toss in some diced apples and walnuts while cooking, drizzle with honey), mashed avocado (with a squeeze of lime and a handful of cilantro for quick guacamole), smashed garbanzo beans (with garlic, lemon, and cilantro for spreading on crusty bread), baked (ok, microwaved) potatoes with greens, tomato, and balsamic on top, tortillas with a scrambled egg and salsa, or even the “boring” old snacks of our childhoods: apples, oranges, bananas, cheese, or a glass of (sometimes chocolate) milk! It all takes 5 minutes or less, and sometimes is sustaining enough to become a full meal. Salt and vinegar potato chips, I hardly miss ye. ;)

7. by littlerissa on Feb 28, 2008 at 4:43 PM PST

“Environmentalism is the new prudery,” says bottleman, who’s sitting here next to me. I read him your entire post out loud while he made dinner.

I am looking forward to canning more, too. And actually this is a good time of year to start because in summer we’ll be craving winter foods that aren’t around.

8. by rae ann on Mar 6, 2008 at 7:27 AM PST

your efforts and changes are so admirable and i have to say that i’m simply striving to make some of the changes you’ve made. i have a long road ahead of me, but it’s reassuring and enlightening to be able to read about your “adventures in foodland.”

9. by Fasenfest on Mar 14, 2008 at 5:28 AM PDT

Hey Cafe Mama,

I’ve been out of the loop. Just read your post. Anytime you want free classes in putting foods by give me a call. And nice to see you little garden plan. Love you spirit and your heart.


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