The tediousness of food blogs.

Image source: Flickr/Pierre Metivier

Every couple of days I notice someone on social media complaining about the tediousness of food blogs. The just get to the recipe, I don’t need 900 words about your kids and cat and that one summer you spent in Alsace, Brenda sentiment is pervasive, and it’s true that the form is not always conducive to getting people from recipe to dinner in a timely fashion. Some people really do just want the recipes.

I don’t know if those people have heard of cookbooks.

If you do not have an extensive cookbook collection, or if you can’t find what you are looking for in the books you do have, there are some really great sites that post reliable, well-tested recipes that you can either read about in detail or just go on to make. There are also community recipe sites where recipes are rated and ranked, and you can read user comments for a clear look at what you are getting into.

I understand the urgency of getting to the point, and I understand the urge to tell stories.

There are practical reasons for food bloggers to post long intros to recipes; from Google’s perspective, longer content is more likely to be useful content, and so whatever Google decides is the most useful answer to a search question or keyword is ranked highest in search results. Search engine optimization is no small thing, and for people who make a living off their food blogs it is important that people find their sites. A search for “chocolate cupcake recipe” turns up 163,000,000 results; a search for “chicken soup” turns up 411,000,000 results. In an increasingly crowded arena, it is hard to stand out.

There is also a whole spectrum of people who blog about food, from journalists and authors and recipe developers to home cooks and aspiring writers. The path to published food writing is a difficult one, and for someone with little to no experience in publishing, media or the restaurant industry, it’s not easy to know where to start. The internet made it so anyone could find an audience, and so for those who didn’t or couldn’t take the traditional route to a career in food or writing could establish a voice online.

There are barriers to building a career in writing, particularly financial ones. It certainly helps to start with money because for most people, words are not well compensated. The older you get, the more things like day jobs and kids and the endless heap of laundry get in the way. If you want to make a career in writing or blogging, it helps to have someone covering the bills (at least until you “make it,” whatever that means for you) or to be well-off in the first place. For people with literary or culinary ambitions, no wealthy benefactor, and no idea where to begin, a free little WordPress site with some nice pictures and some SEO-friendly text is not a bad place to start. It worked for me, right?

And while no one likes to read a blog by someone obviously shilling, a not-small percentage of people are writing food blogs because they have a point of view and no other place to share it, at least at first. People will say that memories of cooking with Grandma are done, perhaps done to death, and who needs 900 words on Nonna’s wrinkled hands ahead of a recipe for baked ziti, but I think murder mysteries and science fiction and David Foster Wallace are a little bit boring and overdone. Who cares? Nobody asked.

Nobody asked me, but also of course they didn’t. Food blogging is tedious, and food bloggers are worse. (A couple of them really are but you have to buy me two drinks and a plate of chicken tenders before I’ll dish.) And yet, people keep reading.

The late Josh Ozersky once wrote that MFK Fisher must die. “Everyone has to eat, but to write about food for money in America, you have to fit in a very narrow place, and that place is a chalk outline of MFK Fisher,” he wrote. I don’t believe that is entirely true, but for food bloggers it isn’t wrong either. Not everyone has the skills or resources to venture into a more journalistic approach to food writing, and memoir and personal essay are forms that are accessible to the home cook.

Home cooking is unglamorous. Before we had a network of food programming and one million YouTube cooking channels, home cooking was a chore, like picking up the dry cleaning or ferrying the children to activities – it was something you had to do, whether you found it personally fulfilling or not. You don’t hear a lot about rebellious, bad-girl home cooks. The most famous home cooks are soft, nurturing women with practical, nourishing advice and recipes that always work and mostly use what you have on hand. There is clearly a market for soothing food stories by women who seem nice.

Food blogging is like mom blogging in that it largely operates in the domestic sphere, and the voices are predominantly women’s. There are men who blog about food, of course, just as there are dads who blog about parenting. But if you type “food blogger” into a Google Image search bar, the results are overwhelmingly female. When we criticize the generic “food blogger,” who do we picture in our minds?

The most common critique of food blogs seems to be that these nattering women just can’t seem to get to the point.

By now I think we know what happens when a woman offers an opinion on the internet. When a woman speaks (especially online) many of us don’t listen to what she is saying; we hear how she says it, and it is sometimes shrill or annoying or dull or not as funny or interesting or likable as it would be coming from a man (even if he is saying the same thing). When a male chef writes about taking inspiration from his grandmother’s cooking, it is endearing; when a woman does, we ask her to skip to the part we care about. “No one visits your food blog to hear your dumb voice, Karen.”

Your internets are yours to enjoy how you see fit, and if you find an 800-word screed on getting a kid to try to like tomatoes is off-putting, you are not obligated to read it. But I invite you to think about your biases. Why are you reading food blogs if not for the stories? Google Reader is long dead, so if you’re landing on a chatty food blog it’s because you’re searching for something, and if you don’t care to read 1200 words on how someone felt homesick over a peach, why not skip over to Serious Eats or Allrecipes or the Food Network website to find a recipe that’s just a recipe and move on?

This is not to say that food blogs, like any form of media, are immune to critique; a bad opinion deserves a call-out, whether you’re writing for Bon Appetit or for mostly your mom’s friends. If you’re a high profile blogger doing this as your career, this is extra true. But a bad opinion and a story you find boring are two very different things.

I have a food blog, and with a few exceptions I don’t make a lot of recipes from food blogs. In the old days, food blogs and their lengthy posts were a way to get to know a person, to decide if you liked the same kind of things and if their recipes would be to your taste. There are so many food blogs now, and some of them pop up instantly polished and professional, and so it’s hard to know via a quick Google if they’re written by good cooks or just good photographers.

Maybe the genre is dying, or evolving, or maybe I’ve never really understood it and am very wrong about everything. But we haven’t reached peak food blog yet, and this machine isn’t slowing down anytime soon. So, yes. Some blogs are tedious and some bloggers are tedious and I am tedious and so are a lot of things. But the internet is big and there are so many cookbooks and there is no excuse to shit on Alice because she’s read Laurie Colwin or MFK Fisher or Jackie Kai Ellis and thought she had a story inside her too. As someone who writes both professionally and as a hobby, I can tell you it is a frequently joyless exercise steeped in self-loathing and general malaise. If someone’s taking pleasure in it, let them have that.

I’m bored with the idea that we’ve all got to optimize and shrink and like the same things and get straight to the point. Sometimes the internet is a toilet and I like to pause sometimes and have a moment to read about how you’ve started growing shiitake mushrooms or how you bought a new house and miss your dingy old apartment kitchen or how learning to cook helped you gain control over your anxiety. What is tedious is this expectation that we all have to be influencers now and brand ourselves correctly and be universally appealing all of the time.

Why can’t we just let people have the things they like?

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What I meant to complain about was the cheese.

Pictured: my teen nephew and non-teen child at our most frequented A&W.

It is New Year’s Eve, and in theory tomorrow represents fresh starts and opportunity and the endless possibility of an unsullied calendar. Tomorrow. Tomorrow is for hope. Today is for eating too much cheese and drinking too much wine and one last, little complaint that possibly falls into the “unexamined personal issue” territory I clearly spend a lot of time in.

A&W Canada changed the cheese on its breakfast sandwiches and I am upset.

A&W Canada and A&W in the US are different. They share a history, but they split into distinct entities in 1972 and since then the menus have deviated to appeal to their respective markets. And while A&W in the US is limping, the Canadian arm of the Burger Family stayed together and things have never been better for the brand. In Canada, nostalgia plays a significant factor in A&W’s ongoing success; A&W is a family place, and families have been going to A&Ws in Canada since 1956, when the first one opened in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

In 2012, I was unemployed for a stretch, having been laid off on maternity leave. My severance ran out, and I started temping in the membership office of a local union, a place that could easily have been a figment of David Lynch’s imagination. I was not well-suited to the role, because I am impatient and take work very personally and there was not enough to do. I used to think I was a laid-back, fun person but it turns out I am neither of those things. Nick realized this before I did, but for him it was already too late.

I applied to a job I didn’t know anything about on a headhunter’s website, and she invited me to her office and I performed a series of tests before she revealed that the role I had applied to was a social media manager position at the head office of a local fast food company. I was to present to the Lonsdale Quay-adjacent corporate headquarters of A&W Canada for a screening interview with their HR manager. We talked about restaurants, food blogs, and when I left she handed me her card which had a coupon for a free burger attached.

I made it through to the next round of interviews, which guaranteed me at least another free burger.

In the first interview, the strap on my La Senza bra broke. It was an ugly padded thing, shiny leopard print and black lace, but it was the only bra I had at the time that wasn’t a nursing bra or a sports bra, and I am a professional? The first interview was with a kind, polished woman who looked like the type of adult to whom this kind of thing would never happen. The left cup slid down one side of my torso like a turtle on a mudslide as I answered questions about my core competencies with one arm crossed awkwardly across my chest.

Another two interviews would follow, for a total of five hours with 50 per cent of a critical undergarment in peril.

In the early 90s, we moved to a new neighbourhood with an A&W that was decorated in a way that acknowledged the chain’s history – photos of women in pin curls and hot pants on roller skates holding trays filled with mugs of cold root beer, photos of old cars and the Root Bear mascot, retro A&W ads for whole families of hamburgers printed as if on newsprint and displayed in metal frames – while also suggesting a future that was so bright it sparkled. The ceiling was painted with white glitter and hung with neon Lucite airplanes. It wasn’t the eighties anymore, it seemed to say. Not like that clown’s place down the road, where everything was still brown and beige.

We were an A&W family, but usually just for breakfast. I am sure we went there for dinner; I remember onion rings, at times, and the odd Mozza Burger, and watching Bryan Adams videos over my parents’ shoulders on grainy screens that alternated between Much Music and the news. When I was thirteen, my friends and I would hang out on the patio after school, watching the older boys smoking and jamming gum into the coin slot of the payphone while our skinniest friend drank the Styrofoam cups of gravy that she ordered with her fries.

In the morning at A&W, you can get a plate of bacon and eggs and toast just like any greasy diner anywhere, but the price is better, and so my parents go there almost weekly.

I tried to convey this in my second interview with a man about my dad’s age, who had been with the company for more decades than I had been alive. I wanted him to know I would embody the brand and take it very personally like I do just about everything and that together we would be unstoppable. I told him I know all about Twitter. I told him about my parents, who he would perhaps have things in common with.

“They started going to the one in Coquitlam because it was the best A&W,” I told him, “and now, ten years later, they still go because of the community they’ve found in the people who work there and the people who get breakfast together every weekend.”

“Isn’t that something,” he said. I don’t know if he believed me, because it sounds a little bit like a story even now.

The whole process took most of a day, and though the receptionist – a warm woman with a soft face in a green dress – handed me several handfuls of root beer-flavoured hard candies I was spent, physically and emotionally. The trauma of the bra issue and the pressure of being “on” for five hours and three very successful grown-ups who I assumed I’d never be like and who couldn’t possibly have understood the depth of my despair or lack of credit left to pay for parking left me both hopeful and sad. When I went home to Nick and the baby that night, I told them I didn’t want to talk about my day.

Before the interview, the headhunter told me I was one of two candidates selected for the interview endurance run.

I was getting lunch at a food truck with my friend James on a day I called in sick to my temp job when I got a call that said they decided not to go with either candidate. I didn’t have a job, but I did have four more free burger vouchers, which I redeemed in the food court at the mall near the Lynchian temp job I began to feel doomed to.

In recent years, A&W Canada has been working on changing its brand to reflect a popular preference for Canadian beef and wholesome ingredients. This is fine. Those things are good. Its food is notably different from other local fast food burger places; in his most recent special, Silent but Deadly, Kevin Smith even sings A&W Canada’s praises, describing buying Buddy Burgers and Teen Burgers for the cast of Super Girl. A&W is good. It’s Canadian. It’s an important part of my family’s lives and history.

The Bacon & Egger is/was arguably the greatest fast food breakfast (“arguably” because I will argue with you about it until you give up and move on). And my complaint is so petty I should feel embarrassed, but the new cheese on the Bacon & Egger is so wrong that I almost don’t know if the problem is, as mentioned, from my “unexamined personal issue” cache or if I really, truly am this upset. The taste is all wrong. A fast-food breakfast is good because the slice of processed cheese unites the disparate textures of bun, fried egg, and bacon like a condiment, adding a unifying component that makes the whole thing make sense. If I wanted real cheese on my breakfast sandwich, I’d make that breakfast sandwich at home.

As we close the door on another year and step into 2019, I am ready to accept that there are things I cannot change, even as I hope for something better for us all. Maybe the cheese represents something bigger, or maybe I am just coming into my orneriness.

In 2019, may we all have more productive, more satisfying things to complain about, and the ability to move on from whatever we cannot sustain.

In 2019, I wish you good cheese.

Everything has to be perfect.

It is 6:15, and it is still dark outside, and it will be cold in our apartment for another twenty minutes, until the fireplace has warmed the living room and the heat I just turned on begins to warm the bedrooms. I am baking cookies this early in the morning for the third time this week.

It isn’t just cookies – there were the seven pounds of onions to be caramelized, with a dollop of homemade creme fraiche to be folded into them so that later the whole mess could be spread onto puff pastry for an effortless snack on Christmas day. There is salt cod to soak, sushi rice to make and fold into flaked sockeye salmon which was roasted with a glaze of ponzu and a layer of orange slices, and each fish must be rolled into its own type of croquette. There are fruits and cheeses to buy and slice and serve, there are dips and sauces to make and store for later, there are eggs to boil and peel and bread to knead and bake, there are all of the lunches and dinners we still have to eat around everything else.

Everything has to be perfect.

“Why are you doing this?” my friend Katherine asked over iMessage, when I complained that my feet hurt and there was still so much to do.

“Why are you doing this?” Nick asked as I sighed and sighed and sighed so that he’d notice the effort as he got ready for work around me.

And the truth is, I don’t really know. I think a lot of us have felt the weight of 2018, and like maybe it’s too soon for the holidays, or we’re not quite in the mood. I think a lot of us maybe feel this way every year, at least a little bit. And I think if it was just me, I’d let myself be a little maudlin, maybe drink a few too many rum and caffeine-free Diet Cokes and let myself have popcorn for dinner and watch all the Bob’s Burgers holiday specials in one go. I would never listen to Dominick The Donkey, which some children think is the greatest holiday song in the world.

At 8:15, I will hear a child’s heavy steps in the hallway, and in the entrance to the kitchen, a rumpled boy with puffy, squinting eyes will appear. This place will smell like chocolate, vanilla, and peanut butter if he’s lucky. There will be flour on the floor and the dishwasher will be running and the lights on the Christmas tree will be on, and the living room will be warm and the cat will be there purring, waiting for him. He will eat a bowl of Cheerios and we will argue a little about screen time and he will win because the cookies have to come out of the oven.

It has to be perfect for him.

And it doesn’t, really, and I know that, because everything is new to him and whatever we say is tradition is tradition as far as he’s concerned, because this whole thing is fantastic and wonderful and every day there are treats and special outings and movies about magic and a few new presents under the tree. Even when we don’t much feel like carrying a torch, the light we hold makes the world brighter for other people.

Later, we will bake the cookies to leave for Santa and drink hot chocolate and read Christmas books and draw pictures of Santa’s bum catching fire as he falls down a chimney and watch The Muppet Christmas Carol and eat KFC for dinner because one year we learned that a bucket of chicken is a holiday tradition in Japan and there’s a KFC three blocks away so why can’t it be our tradition too?

It’s Christmas Eve, and you get to be in charge of your own magic. To those who celebrate, Merry Christmas – I hope the day unfolds exactly how you want it to, and that there are cookies. To those who don’t, I hope there are still cookies and you enjoy the warmth and coziness of the season exactly how you like to.

I have to head out to the store one last time, because we’re running low on butter and the reindeer prefer different carrots than the ones we have. “Why are you doing this?” I think to myself, and then I look over at the little goon on my couch in Spider-Man pajamas and I grab my coat, tell him he doesn’t have to change into real clothes because it’s Christmas, and off we go.

Maggi meatball soup.

Maggi meatball soup started out as “groentesoep met balletjes,” or Dutch vegetable soup with meatballs, which I guess it still kind of is? It kind of is. Maggi, the shorthand name for Maggi-Würze, is a sweet, soy-based seasoning sauce Dutch people (and not just Nick) use in abundance, whether a dish needs it or not. It’s actually a rather international thing – Maggi sauce spans continents, and is used everywhere from the Netherlands to the Philippines, from Germany to Pakistan. It’s sweet, very salty, and keeps forever without needing to be refrigerated, and it’s great for seasoning meatballs.

This soup is somewhere between Italian Wedding and plain old chicken soup, with soft, tender meatballs, noodles and veggies in a clear chicken broth. If you are like my mother-in-law, you would serve this with soft, buttered buns and thin slices of deli ham and Gouda; if you are like me, you will retrieve half a loaf of grocery store garlic bread from the depths of your freezer and then burn it under your broiler while you eat half a bag of pre-dinner chips and lose 15 minutes Googling Maggi’s origin story. If you are like my four-year-old, you will drown three handfuls of goldfish crackers in the broth and claim it is too hot to eat long after your small bowl of soup has gone cold.

Anyway, this is good with whatever you want to serve it with, but it’s best with soft white bread in some fashion.

IMG_1872Maggi meatball soup

Meatballs:

  • 1/2 lb. extra lean ground beef
  • 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbsp. Maggi seasoning sauce
  • 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped

Soup:

  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 carrots, quartered lengthwise and then chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, quartered lengthwise and then chopped
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 tsp. coarse salt
  • 2 tsp. yellow curry powder
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 6 cups low-sodium or homemade chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup fine egg noodles
  • 1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, roughly chopped

In a large bowl and using your hands, mush together meatball ingredients until well mixed. Form meatballs about half an inch (1.25 cm) in diameter; you should end up with about 40. Set these aside.

In a large pot over medium-high heat, add oil, carrots, celery, shallot, and garlic, and cook for about two minutes, until colours have brightened and everything’s coated in oil. Add salt, curry powder, and the bay leaf, and cook for another minute or two, until the curry is fragrant and starting to stick a little bit to the bottom of the pot. Add stock.

Bring the pot of soup to a boil, then reduce heat to medium. Drop the meatballs into the pot, stirring gently, and let these simmer for 10 minutes.

Add egg noodles,. and cook for another five minutes or until noodles are al denté.

Taste the soup. Adjust salt to taste. Add lemon juice, and parsley, remove the bay leaf, and then serve.

The cheap person’s guide to the farmers market.

I’ve given a couple of talks lately about farmers markets and how to shop for local, organic produce on a budget – here’s the gist of it, or (more realistically) the bulk of it, since I tend to wander off on tangents and forget myself and my main points midway through every presentation.

From June to part-way through October, there’s a farmers market a short walk from my building, conveniently beside two playgrounds, and they have coffee. Last year, after the market’s pilot year but before its second, my neighbours and I in Mount Pleasant wrote letters to the Vancouver Farmers Market and the city asking to have it return, emphasizing its value. The market came back, and it will come back for a third year this spring.

Living in a (sometimes unfriendly) city means that we don’t always engage with our community or interact with our neighbours in positive, mutually gratifying ways: people are annoying and stinky and inconvenient because we’re all, often, annoying and stinky and inconvenient to each other. We’re not forced to see or hear each other, because cities are busy and people are anonymous and everyone’s just trying to get going or get home.

The benefit of city living, for me, is that my world is simultaneously very big and very small. I have everything I need, but I never have to leave my neighbourhood. The farmers market, then, is less about an errand and more community interaction.

I still buy some of my food, mostly produce, at the farmers market.

This may seem counterintuitive, or at the very least … off-brand? But I think it’s important for people to know that even if you’re on a budget, you can still go to your local farmers market.

Here’s how.

Be ruthless, and do not waver

I take a different approach to my farmer’s market shopping than my regular grocery shopping: I have a firm budget (in cash), but no plan. I like to see what’s available, what’s new and in season, and what’s interesting and sort of create a strategy around that. So, for example, if I have $20 and I see some good-looking greens, some heirloom tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, or something interesting I haven’t thought about in a while like kohlrabi or parnsips, I’ll pick them up and then plan my meals for the week around what I buy at the market and supplement with pantry items or staples I always have on hand. But I don’t exceed my budget, no matter how pretty the other produce is.

Being firm on dollars can be tricky because it’s so hard to turn stuff down. Everything is so beautiful and fresh and alluring – you just want to take it all home with you! At least, this is my problem – I’m basically a bear two weeks before hibernation, but all the time.

Bringing a finite amount of cash also makes me really think about what I can or will use – there’s no sense buying anything you’re going to end up throwing out. Be honest with yourself: even if the turnips are beautiful, does your family like them? Are they just going to go soft in your crisper, and then get tossed? We must all acknowledge that sometimes our loved ones will disappoint us.

 Look for bargains

Are you able to use what you buy right away? Some vendors will have bruised or otherwise priced-for-immediate-sale produce – if you’re ready to can, freeze or eat the produce right away, there’s great value to be found here.

A risky move that sometimes pays off? Head to the market in the 30 minutes or so before it wraps up for the day. Some vendors aren’t booked to sell at other markets that week, and they’ll want to get rid of what they have rather than drive it back home. Sometimes there will not be much left, but sometimes you’ll get a deal, especially on things like greens, herbs, and soft fruits that don’t keep well.

The best way to open yourself up to deals is to be willing to try anything. You may not find a good deal on the most popular items – the heirloom tomatoes, the berries, the stone fruit – but you may be able to get a pretty decent price on something less widely desired, especially root veggies, hardy greens, and some melons.

Treat produce the way you’d treat costlier protein.

It’s true, a single bunch of carrots priced at $3.99 seems like a lot; farmer’s market pricing can be a turn-off for a lot of people. Remember the cauliflower fiasco? Sometimes it does seem a bit ridiculous that these things should cost so much, but it’s also weird that we don’t regard produce more highly.

It’s true that I buy less when produce is expensive, but I also do more with it. You can roast carrots in a low oven for about an hour and they’ll turn meaty. You can make cauliflower a main dish with a bit of pasta, a simple lemon-butter sauce and a handful of nuts. Look at farmer’s market produce as the kind of thing you’d build a meal around, and treat it like steak – only buy what you will definitely use, and then cook it with care.

You wouldn’t leave a roast in the fridge to wither and die and then throw it out – think about produce the same way. You’ll eat more, and waste less.

(If your produce does manage to wither, don’t throw it out! Make stock. Even if you freeze your limp veggies for later.)

Keep your fridge and cupboards stocked with cheap staples

According to the UN, 2016 is the year of the pulse – as such, it’s definitely a good time to stock up on things like lentils, chickpeas and other legumes, many of which we grow in Canada and North America. These will stretch your produce a lot further when you combine them in salads, curries and stews, and even pastas.

I also like to make sure I have a good variety grains (noodles, rice, etc.) and proteins on hand – local tofu, canned fish, seeds and nuts, and cured meats that add a lot of flavour but that you can use sparingly and at a low cost. I’m also a big believer in flavourful condiments; steamed broccoli is steamed broccoli, but steamed broccoli tossed with a chili oil and some fermented black beans or hoisin sauce? Now your broccoli is the star of your plate. Add a few chickpeas and a generous scoop of rice? Yes.

Ask questions

What issues matter to you? Do you care if fruit is organic or GMO-free or picked by people who are paid a living wage? Ask about that stuff. I like to know where the farm is, when they picked the produce, who picked the produce. If I find someone I like, I ask whether they offer bulk buying programs like CSAs. On the rare occasion I’m looking for something in particular, I ask them if they’ll have it and when I can expect it.

What else should you ask about? Find out what the vendor would be buying and turning into dinner this weekend and this week. If you see something interesting and you’re not sure what to do with it – ask!

The people who grow ingredients often have some pretty good recipes as well. This is my favourite way to maximize my dollar and keep from getting stuck buying the same old things. The best thing about the farmers market is getting to talk to the actual producer. There are no stupid questions at the farmers market!

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I win for biggest beet.

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Don’t just go for produce

The farmers market is a great place to check out meat producers and local fisheries. If you’re limiting your meat consumption, this is the easiest way to find ethically sourced animal protein; just keep in mind you may blow your whole $20 on a couple of small items.

However. The farmers market is often a gateway to a whole new world of cheaper good quality animal proteins; check out the bulk buying programs the meat vendors offer, or the community supported fishery shares your local fishmonger might have available. By committing to a relationship with a vendor for a larger purchase or a season (or more), you may find that costs will be lower once you get away from day-of-market pricing.

This approach assumes you’ll have the money up-front. If you don’t, and this is something you want to do, head to the market and get a sense of pricing, then grab contact info for later on. You may be able to purchase larger quantities later in the year, once you’re better able to afford or store it.

An aside: We really have to do better in the way that we talk about food and farmers markets.

For some people, the farmers market will seem or will really be impossible, for any number of reasons. Some places don’t have farmers markets, especially not in all seasons. Some people work on weekends and can’t get to them. For some people it’s not simply a matter of budgeting – for some people, the budget is inflexible and must stretch a lot farther in places where fresh produce is expensive, and sometimes planning a meal around some fancy carrots is a tall order.

Often, the way that we talk about food and farmers markets and how anybody should spend their money ignores the realities of a lot more people than we realize, and in turn alienates them. It’s hard to care if that head of cabbage is organic when you’re not sure if you’ve got bus fare for the week ahead; better to buy the cheaper cabbage than to not buy produce at all.

Food prices, quality and accessibility are political issues and, like all issues in our modern political landscape, they’re also very polarizing and people have a lot of opinions. On the one hand, you should be thoughtful about most of the food you’re putting into your body. On the other hand it’s just food, and food should never be exclusive.

Go to the farmers market because you want to, because it’s a thing that’s happening in the community you are a part of. If you buy one small bell pepper or bunch of Swiss chard – or nothing at all – it feels good to know what’s growing, and to talk to the people who grow the food we eat.

Look for farmers market associations in your area, and find out what they suggest in terms of shopping on a budget – different organizations may have different priorities, but I’ll bet most of them encourage their vendors to offer some items at a discount for people who have smaller budgets.

And if nothing else? Go for the coffee. It’s always good, no matter which one you go to.

No-recipe tacos*.

Think about the meal you want to make. Do you have everything you need? Check the fridge. You are probably out of tortillas, or perhaps you didn’t have them in the first place. Put on your boots, find your shopping bag and debit card, and walk three blocks to the corner store for corn tortillas, preferably small ones because the tacos will be held by small hands. Grab limes, cilantro, and a package of Reese peanut butter cups to eat alone later.

Grab coffee at the hipster café up the road and check your phone. Listen to the ambient rhythm of quiet chatter, and bask in the sweet sound of no one calling your name from a bathroom. Lose yourself on Instagram for 37 minutes.

Think about an alternative taco, because the chorizo might be spicy and the child, aged four years, is sensitive to anything hotter than a bell pepper, despite your best efforts to expand his palate. He likes corn. Doesn’t he? You think he likes corn, and if you caramelize the corn it will start to taste like sugar. You know he likes sugar.

Return home. Kick your boots off at the door. Notice the laundry, and how no one else has noticed the laundry. Do a load of laundry.

Do another load of laundry, and then another. Do three more loads after that. It’s possible that you are some kind of wizard and the washing machine only works for you.

The dinner hour is approaching. Answer “what’s for dinner, mum?” with “tacos” and hear “I like tacos,” which you know to be a lie because the only way he’d like tacos is if tacos were chocolate chip granola bars. Believe in yourself, and in your child, who is learning and growing and becoming a whole person who will one day genuinely appreciate and enjoy tacos. Everyone likes tacos, right? Worry that he’ll grow up to be the one person who doesn’t like tacos. Practice saying things like “he’s just really sensitive” and “I’m not disappointed.”

Mince one onion. Set two pans over medium-high heat. Into one, place a pat of butter; into the other, a glug of oil. Into the butter pan, place a quarter of the minced onion; place the rest into the oil pan. Cook the onions until they are translucent and someone wanders into the kitchen to ask for a granola bar, and to say something accusatory about the smell of onions. “Why are you cooking onions?” “I’m not.” Shoo him away.

Smash and mince one garlic clove and throw it into the butter pan. Mince one jalapeño pepper and throw it into the oil pot. Cook until the onions in both pans have turned brownish. Answer three weirdly specific questions about the male anatomy as it relates to Iron Man, the Hulk, and daddy. Pour yourself a glass of wine.

Drain a can of corn, and throw the kernels into the butter pan. Stir occasionally, until the corn smells sweet and has browned in places.

Crumble a pound or so of chorizo into the oil pan, breaking it up with the backside of a wooden spoon. Cook until charred in spots, but not burned. You’ll know it when you see it. Move the granola bars to the top shelf of the pantry, as they’re becoming a point of contention.

Snip cilantro leaves into a ramekin. Cut a lime into quarters. Make salsa out of mango and apple. Spoon sour cream into a small dish. Open a jar of tomato salsa. Crumble queso fresco into a bowl. Explain that Black Widow is different from Hawkeye in some ways, but similar in others, and we should celebrate those differences and not keep bugging mum about them right now. Explain that granola bars are for lunches. Explain that you don’t care what Grandma would let him have or eat or do. Shoo him away.

Soften your tortillas. Years ago, you would have prepared these individually, and lovingly, but now you use the microwave. Something about wet paper towels and stacks of six and dish cloths and 30 seconds or so on high.

Slice an avocado. Discard overripe avocado. Slice another avocado.

Call your family to the table.

“I was hoping to have … not this,” he says.

“You told me you like tacos,” you say.

“But not this kind of tacos,” he says.

“Just taste them.”

Prepare your tacos. Start with a slice of avocado, then add a little bit of chorizo, some queso fresco, and a few cilantro leaves. Squeeze a few drops of lime juice over each one.

Watch a small hand knead a soft tortilla into a wad. Watch the wad explode into crumbs as he opens his small fist. Hand him another tortilla, and tell him he must eat it. Show him how it works. Watch his small hand knead the tortilla into a wad. Pour yourself another glass of wine.

“Eat some corn,” you say.

“Eat some corn,” you say.

“Eat some corn,” you say.

Shove a spoonful of corn into his mouth.

He is crying. You are mean.

“Drink some milk, and then take another bite,” you say.

He glares at you. “You keep this up and you’re going to bed,” you say.

He will chew his first bite of corn for 20 minutes, during which your partner will eat eight tacos and you will drink another glass and a half of wine.

Send him to bed. “Can I have a granola bar?”

Wine.

Finish your tacos. Bring him back to the table.

“Are you going to eat now?” and then, “good.”

Supervise six further bites of taco and sixty minutes of chewing. Wonder if any part of this constitutes a victory. Think about your friend Grace, with her clean apartment, and about how she probably ate a beautiful meal in appreciative company just six blocks away while you were here saying stern things about corn and avocado and respectful behaviour.

Clear the table. Load the dishwasher. Fold the laundry. Listen to him tell his father a distorted version of what you told him about Black Widow. Listen to his father tell him he doesn’t think she is sad she’s not more like Hawkeye. Listen to them read a story about Black Widow. Wonder what Mexico is like, and how long you could reasonably go for and how many tacos you could eat while you’re there.

Get settled on the couch with the same or maybe another glass of wine and your secret peanut butter cups, and last month’s Bon Appétit. Loud footsteps approach, and you imagine it must sound like thunder to the people in the apartment below.

“I’m still hungry,” he says.

“You should have eaten your dinner,” you say.

“How about I have a granola bar?”

*Individual results may vary.

A cheap person’s guide to buying groceries in expensive times.

Hi, I'm unhinged.

If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s thinking the worst and preparing for disaster. I will overreact to the most non-threatening stimuli, which is what makes me such an excellent marriage partner, parent, and employee. The little one made Lego characters of our whole family from a kiosk in the mall, and mine is the only one who looks alarmed. “It looks just like you!” Thanks.

Depending where you live, groceries are going up for a variety of reasons. Here in Canada, we’re affected by a number of issues, including the California drought and our plummeting dollar. The symbol of the insanity that is our cost of groceries right now is the ten dollar cauliflower; this trendy ingredient is now more expensive than a cello-wrapped package of twelve chicken thighs, and people are pissed.

If you’re ordinarily a tense person and you’re on a budget, you may be inclined to panic.

BUT WAIT. DON’T. And let me tell you, if I am telling you not to panic, you should not.

“But Emily,” you might say. “I saw the Lego you. You look unhinged.” That is true, and generally an accurate depiction of me, but when we’re talking about groceries, a few things are also true.

Yes, many common ingredients are now very expensive and things seem bleak and terrible. As someone who always feels this way, let me reassure you: There are things you can do to get through the winter without blowing your budget or losing your mind.

Side note: There are also very good cook books you can buy to inspire you. Ahem.

Secondary side note: I have tips for the Farmer’s Market too, but I’ll save those for another day this week. Stay tuned.

Think about what’s in season locally

Right now, in British Columbia where I live, apples, cabbage, pears, rosemary, sage, turnips, and winter squash are all in season (source: BC Association of Farmer’s Markets). You can find lists of what is in season in your area online, or pop by your local Farmer’s Market and see what local folks are selling. Potatoes, onions, and carrots that have been in cold storage since the fall are also affordable, depending on where you shop.

Root vegetables, tubers, and squashes are all very reasonable in winter. They make excellent gratins, stews, and soups, which is what you need to be eating right now anyway. It’s cold outside. Squash soup will make you feel good.

Where you shop matters

If you learn nothing else from me, let it be that you should not buy all of your groceries in one place. Is that annoying and occasionally time consuming? Well, yeah. But so are most things in grown-up life, and at least if you have to go to four different places to buy groceries, you’ll earn yourself a long-term sense of what things should cost (or at least, what to never buy full price).

This is a fairly obvious point, but then you find yourself at Save-on-Foods not saving money on any foods and I hope at that moment you think to yourself “WHAT WOULD EMILY DO?” because what Emily would do is haul ass out of that supermarket post haste. I buy my produce at farm markets and A&L or Kim’s Market (both on Broadway in Vancouver) where the prices mean the food turns over quickly and is always fresh.

Convenience is expensive. So it goes.

Try something new

Okay, so lettuce is out of the question because it’s five dollars a head. You don’t get to have lettuce right now (it sucks, but spring is around the corner and then we’ll all eat butter lettuce until we burst). Try ong choy (sometimes labelled “water spinach”) or yu choy; these Chinese greens are abundant in Asian markets and generally very reasonable. Don’t know what to do with them? As a rule, anything stir fried with garlic and chilies or garlic and sesame oil is delicious; if you’re not convinced, check the Google.

Don’t have a market that sells Chinese greens nearby? Make something new out of something familiar – onions have many main-course applications, including soups, bread puddings, or egg dishes; celery can be braised, thinly sliced and served as a salad with green apples, or turned into soup. Carrots can do anything. Garlic? Surprisingly versatile.

Reconsider your meat budget

A lot of the same people complaining about the cost of vegetables are still happily serving meat as a main. I love meat, but I don’t love not having wine money, so we build meals that aren’t focused on protein a few nights a week and we’re surviving just fine, even the diabetic among us.

Tofu, canned fish, peanuts, eggs and pulses (chickpeas, lentils, split peas, beans) will fill your protein requirements in budget-friendly ways; the price of a bunch of broccoli is a lot easier to take once you toss a few costly proteins out of your cart. Some of the non-grain grains, like buckwheat and quinoa, are good sources of protein and are often pretty cheap in bulk or on sale.

Check your flyers and loyalty programs

I load apps (PC Plus, Shoppers Optimum, etc.) on my phone with coupons every Thursday or Friday to save on canned veggies and fish, condiments, and dairy products, which helps me plan my meals for the week around what’s on sale. If it’s not on sale, we don’t get to have it that week. There’s always something on sale, though. Always.

Check the freezer section

And the canned veggies section. There are usually deals to be had here, especially on store-brand products. What is the difference between No Name and regular frozen spinach? Price. Frozen and canned foods are more nutritious than fresh, out-of-season fruits and veggies in the produce section, which I told you to avoid anyway. Get away from there. Too expensive.

Make one dish

Partly because I’m lazy and partly because I have to feed a small child, I am not making multiple dishes on a weeknight. We will have a curry and a rice. Or a stew and some bread. Or a big pile of cheesy pasta with veggies hidden inside. But I am not making three things for a kid to reject and not eat. I only have the energy for one battle per night, and Nick handles tooth-brushing and pajamas.

Make one dish and stretch it. Are you making pasta? Add some chickpeas. Are you making fried rice? Shred some carrots and cabbage into it and fry up a couple of eggs. Make omelettes or a big frittata. Make a curry with squash or potatoes and dissolve some red lentils into it. Blend everything that’s wilting in your crisper into a creamy soup. Make one nutritious thing, and enough of it to make leftovers for lunch, and that’s plenty.

Especially in North America, we have this weird idea that we need to have a meat, a starch, a vegetable, and maybe a salad at every meal. This weird idea gives me hives. In my wallet.

Boost flavour with condiments

Try kimchi – it’s magical and probiotic and makes everything (including your poops) better. Mustard, hot sauce, fish sauce – these will elevate the humble potato or dollar bag of noodles into something worth serving to company and/or Instagramming. Condiments are cheap, used sparingly, and last forever in your fridge or pantry.

Anything with strong flavours will go a lot farther – I buy small amounts of aggressive cheeses, lots of canned oily fish (mackerel, herring, sardines), the occasional cured meat, interesting vinegars, and fresh herbs and put them with very modest ingredients, like eggs, frozen corn, stale bread, or canned tomatoes and dry pasta. I never run out of coconut milk, spices, pickles and capers, or olive oil. Bright-flavoured ingredients make even the simplest dish feel special.

Be adventurous

Now is as good a time as any to branch out and try something new, whether that new thing is a green vegetable you’ve never heard of or a total revamping of what you’re willing to consider a meal. Unless you’ve got specific marching orders from your doctor, the rules of dinner are flexible and up to you, and if you say that your family is having soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner, well, I say they’ll probably love it.

We’ll get through this. We always do.

Do you have money-saving tips? Did I miss anything? Please tell me!