Food seems to be as good an indicator of the economy's health as the Dow, and more than one restaurateur predicts the death not only of individual white-tablecloth restaurants but of fine-dining, period. When we eat out at all, it seems, we're going to be eating faster and cheaper. If a great restaurant meal used to be analogous to, say, a long and satisfying evening spent with friends, it's about to be redefined as a culinary tweet: Short bursts of noise of no lasting significance.
Where is the good news here? I ask as someone who lost a percentage of my high-frequency hearing last night at a hip new place that improved my lip-reading skills and discouraged any exchange more complex than "do you want any more bread?"
I ask, I confess, as someone who finds food and conversation a very tasty combo, whether I'm paying for it or serving it up at home.
Home. Famous chefs around the country are dishing up budget recipes for home cooks, in venues that range from People magazine to NPR, hoping both to be helpful and to maintain a tenuous link to their customers until the worst blows over. But budget food too often feels like denial food - and denial, as ex-dieter Kirstie Alley has so publicly reminded us, can often lead to a boomerang reaction that makes things worse than they were in the first place.
Too many nights of meager cuisine and we're going to get cranky, not a helpful mindset in a world that gives us too many credible reasons to be upset. We need sustenance, on a literal and figurative level.
It's hard to hit the home kitchen after so many years of dining out and take-out. We need a new vocabulary, and the first clue is hiding in a chickpea-and-spinach stew recipe -- presented on NPR by Spanish chef Jose Andres. It's not the dish itself, but the use of dried beans instead of canned ones. Lurking in that single suggestion is a world of supermarket smarts, which I was first exposed to long before this economic downturn by a pal, Marcie Rothman, known in some circles as The $5 Chef. Marcie's mantra is "shop the perimeter," because supermarkets traditionally arrange basic fresh ingredients around the edges of the market and load the far-more-expensive convenience foods in the middle aisles. She's devoted a goodly chunk of her working life to helping shoppers avoid the pricey pitfalls of supermarket shopping -- not as glamorous as extolling the virtues of an organic, locally-grown heirloom tomato, but probably more useful to most of us.
We tend to focus on the undeniable virtues of shopping at farmers' markets, but what about those of us who don't live near one or need ingredients our market doesn't sell? We land in the market -- where, according to the little cookbooks offered at www.5dollarchef.com, we waste money without realizing it. If we're really going to survive the recession in any kind of style, food-wise, it's time to re-educate ourselves, to study market forces in the grocery aisles as seriously as economists study market forces on a global scale.
Your local market is easy to understand once you grasp the rules, the prize is more food and better quality for less money, and hey, if you miss the good old white-tablecloth days, you could conceivably save enough for a quiet, civilized, conversationally-rich night out, which is good news, indeed.