Gut Instinct: Recession-licious

Several weeks ago, New York Times food critic Frank Bruni posed a question that pained my cheapskate heart: Is it possible, he posited, to produce a six-person dinner party for less than $50? “I didn’t see how this budget allowed for much strutting,” Bruni clacked, inhaling the Gray Lady’s rarefied air. “I half expected tuna casserole. With a mesclun salad to start—if I got lucky.” In the Times tale, Bruni marvels as two co-workers construct a cavalcade of low-cost edibles—carnitas-stuffed tacos, tile fish ceviche, tomato cilantro soup, Creamsicle floats. Wow, I read between the lines, even poors can eat well.

Perhaps Bruni’s brain is addled by Berkshire pork, turned sideways by truffles, but spending $50 for a dinner party is about as tough as convincing a teenager to smoke pot. For New Yorkers young and old, dining cheaply is an everyday exercise, not an uppercrust experiment. There’s no Fox reality show dubbed For Richer or Poorer, in which foodstamp-carrying contestants sizzle dinner atop a Sterno flame, or even a Dumpster Diving Olympics: Hey, gutter punks, a gold medal for the most Gristedes wheat bread!

Food writers often fall prey to trends, to the dining climate’s prevailing winds. One week everyone’s penning stories about pizzerias run by mozzarella-mad Italians; the next, we’re atwitter—and Twittering— about luscious, fatty Texas brisket. We all surf the same tasty waves. I’d like to believe that food writers are implanted with microchips commanded by a Jabba the Hut–like overlord who rules the edible universe, but the reason for reams of repetitive copy is far more prosaic: laziness.

Churning out fresh, delicious content on an hourly, daily or weekly basis is an endless struggle. Sometimes Sunday night rolls around and, with deadline knocking the next afternoon, I’m stumped on stories. That’s when I reach for a liter of Old Overholt rye whiskey, unbutton my shirt and make the magic happen.

Currently, with the recession withering wallets and purses, the edible press is infatuated with the inexpensive. Time Out New York (full disclosure: I’m a contributing writer) recently espoused cheaper alternatives to high-priced hooch. Last week, New York magazine’s food blog, Grub Street, listed the city’s sweetest $35-and-under dinners. And bloggers joined the cost-conscious chorus: On, three Michigan pals spent March dining for less than $100 apiece—tracking their weight gain and loss, for added-value voyeurism.

Such tales make me want to smash my five-for-a-dollar Prosperity Dumplings. Why are journalists and bloggers treating cheap eating like an exotic creature, a vividly plumaged bird performing stupid tricks? Dining inexpensively should not be a novel endeavor trotted out when unemployment checks no longer buy $17.99-a-pound, ethically raised beef. It’s easy to live well when the going is good.When the going gets bad, nothing should change.

My first few years in New York City, I toiled as a receptionist. I was a terrible employee, dropping phone calls like hot potatoes and treating visitors like lepers. Unsurprisingly, I earned $10 an hour, plus all the staples and toilet paper I could steal. After rent on my roach-infested Astoria apartment, plus a daily infusion of dollar beer, I was left with roughly $90 a month for groceries—a giddying sum. During college, I subsisted on day-old, 60-cent pepperoni rolls: half for lunch, half for dinner, indigestion for dessert.

Ninety dollars a month was winning the lottery. And those few crinkled greenbacks fed me well, as they do nine years later. At Chinatown’s Kong Kee Food (240 Grand St.,at Bowery St.,212-966-1350), I buy four fat blocks of bean curd for a buck; another two bits nets a pound of bean sprouts.

Down on Forsyth Street, between East Broadway and Canal Street, I patronize a sidewalk produce and vegetable market with lights-out deals: In the past, 100 pennies has equaled 5 pounds of broccoli, 3 pounds of ripe mangos or a dozen tomatoes. For seafood, I’ve long loved DeMartino Wholesale and Retail Fish Market (315 Douglass St.,betw.Third & Fourth Aves.,718-522-1119, B’klyn).Visit before 10 a.m. on weekdays for wholesale-price, restaurant-quality scallops, salmon and shrimp. Heck, give me a can of tomatoes, fresh black beans, garlic and onion, and I’ll create a soul-satisfying chili of which even Bruni would begrudgingly approve.

Eating well for cheap is about as difficult as breathing. Drinking well for pennies, now that’s a miracle.