Feasting in Plan B Nation: How to feed body (and soul) on $40 a week


Peach “sec­onds” from Apex Orchards of Shel­burne, Mass. (now in my freezer)

You think you’re hav­ing a bad week? Con­sider this: Within a sin­gle week in 2009, food jour­nal­ist Robin Mather was laid off from her job at the Chicago Tri­bune and found her­self on the brink of divorce.

Faced with this dou­ble whammy, she retreated to a 650-square-foot cot­tage on a small lake in south­west Michi­gan, where she was—to put things into perspective—eight miles from the near­est street light. There, she embarked on the life now chron­i­cled in her memoir-with-recipes The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a mar­riage, and found my way by keep­ing chick­ens, for­ag­ing, pre­serv­ing, bar­ter­ing, and eat­ing locally (all on forty dol­lars a week)—a book that envi­ron­men­tal­ist Bill McK­ibben calls “charm­ingly subversive—a lovely reminder of, and guide to, the things that really count.”

Mather now serves as Senior Asso­ciate Edi­tor at Mother Earth News—and her per­sonal turn­around  earned her hon­or­able men­tion for Best Sec­ond Act Come­back from the pop­u­lar Sec­ond Act site.

In the guest post that fol­lows, Mather shares what she learned dur­ing the year she com­mit­ted to eat­ing three local homes-cooked meals a day on $40 a week—and describes how eat­ing well in Plan B Nation can be a first step towards bounc­ing back.

photo: Bob Fila

By Robin Mather

I get lots of lovely mail from read­ers of The Feast Nearby. “You’re so brave!” they say. “I wish I had your strength!” they write.

But I am not brave—in the book’s first chap­ter, I write about how fright­ened and fear­ful I was—and I am not espe­cially strong. What I am blessed with, though, is resilience.

When life slugged me, as poet John Cia­rdi describes it in “In Place of a Curse”—one of my favorite poems— you can bet I fin­gered my jaw in painful admi­ra­tion. And then I got up. Because really, what other choice is there?

Resilience isn’t strength. It cre­ates strength. Resilience isn’t courage. It cre­ates courage. Resilience doesn’t change your luck. It makes your luck. Resilience is why some peo­ple sur­vive pain with­out bit­ter­ness, and its lack is why oth­ers become bent and twisted by what’s hap­pened to them. Resilience helps you see that a hard punch isn’t per­sonal, and that the punch doesn’t define you; it’s just some­thing that hap­pened to you.

Resilience is what you need to weather life’s hard­ships, and to come out bet­ter on the other side. So how do you cul­ti­vate it?

Well, I think resilience has to be fed—literally, as well as metaphor­i­cally. I think that cook­ing for your­self, really cook­ing good food, the kind that nour­ishes your spirit as well as your body, builds resilience.

This spirit-building kind of food will never come out of a box, or be passed to you out of a drive-through win­dow in a paper bag. It requires ingre­di­ents as near their nat­ural state as pos­si­ble. These ingre­di­ents remind you of your con­nec­tion to the wide, wide world every time you lay hands on them to cook. And if those ingre­di­ents con­nect you to the per­son who grew them, then they will really nour­ish you, because you have begun to build a community.

A plain bowl of stew-y beans can be a spir­i­tu­ally nour­ish­ing dish, as well as being good eat­ing that costs pen­nies. A roast chicken is the dish I pre­pare for myself when I’m most fright­ened, because a roast chicken pro­vides tan­gi­ble evi­dence that I went to some trou­ble to care for myself. The dishes you pre­pare don’t have to be expen­sive or com­pli­cated. There are nearly 100 recipes in my book for hon­est, sim­ple food.

That I could set about rebuild­ing my resilience—gaining the abil­ity to get up after those hard punches—while spend­ing just $40 a week on food should demon­strate to you that you can do so, too. It’s not about the dol­lars, you see. It’s about the kinds of foods you choose to pre­pare for your­self (and for what­ever lucky fam­ily and friends hap­pen to come your way).

So whether you have $40 a week to spend on food, or $80 or $200, spend­ing it wisely will help you feel stronger and more con­fi­dent. In my expe­ri­ence, cook­ing what you buy—transforming it into truly nour­ish­ing food—gives you a dou­ble return on your food dollars.

As I see it, when we allow other peo­ple to pre­pare our food, we sur­ren­der our resilience—starve it, if you will. Even if you pride your­self on not eat­ing processed food, you have still sur­ren­dered a lot of your con­fi­dence in your abil­ity to feed your­self to strangers’ hands. Just think of all the processed or man­u­fac­tured foods in your kitchen right now, includ­ing things like the peanut but­ter and canned broth in your pantry, the plas­tic tub of yogurt in the fridge, and even the ice cream in your freezer.

Psy­chol­o­gists say that we humans’ most pri­mal needs are food and shel­ter, in that order. Only after those two are met do we begin to think about that other pri­mal need: sex. Food is so impor­tant to our sense of well-being that, until and unless we feel well-fed, we won’t meet our most fun­da­men­tal need.

There’s a fair amount of hub­bub that eat­ing locally is just for the foodie elite. I am liv­ing proof that this isn’t true, and the meth­ods I used to keep good, local food on my table all year ‘round will work for you too. Buy­ing local food in sea­son at a farmer’s mar­ket or farm stand remains the least expen­sive way to pro­vi­sion your­self. Expect to pay more (some­times much more) for locally and sus­tain­ably raised meat; use the sav­ings from your pro­duce pur­chases to buy it. And while you’re at it, if you eat meat or fish, cut back to two or three days a week. Even a very tight bud­get can afford a weekly pound or two.

Here are a few more con­crete tips to help you in your journey:

  • Stop shop­ping on auto-pilot at the gro­cery store. Take a minute to con­sider where each item you’re pur­chas­ing comes from, and whether its sources match up with your values.
  •  If you don’t know how to do can­ning, learn. Know­ing myr­iad ways to pre­serve food, as well as the pros and cons of each method, sus­tains your spirit twice: once in the work of doing, and again in the eat­ing later.
  • Think up 10 dishes you know you love and can pre­pare almost with­out think­ing. Many of us eat the same 10 or 20 dishes in an uncon­scious rota­tion, so it shouldn’t be hard. Then fig­ure out how you can make them with hon­est, whole food—ideally fresh from someone’s nearby gar­den or farm.
  • Know that, like all humans, you’re going to get hun­gry at least 21 times a week, and plan for that. Once you’ve thought that through, you will have break­fast, lunch and din­ner under con­trol, and you won’t be tempted by less nour­ish­ing choices—including those “healthy” organic potato chips you picked up at Whole Foods for a spe­cial treat.
  • Expand your knowl­edge of herbs and spices. Cer­tain herb­snd sea­son­ings “make” a dish French, or Mex­i­can, or Moroc­can, and once you know the fla­vor pro­files of dif­fer­ent cuisines, you can pull an inter­est­ing meal together quickly and eas­ily. There’s tar­ragon, thyme and rose­mary for French; cumin, cilantro and cit­rus juices for Mex­i­can; cin­na­mon, cumin and saf­fron for Moroc­can, and so on.
  • Enjoy the process. Cook­ing is sen­sual, and sen­sual plea­sures also feed your self-reliance and resilience. They remind you that you are indeed human, and that, like all other humans, you are cre­ated to survive.

Because you will. You will sur­vive, no mat­ter how hard you’ve been punched. But you’ll heal faster and more thor­oughly if you have some well-fed resilience on your side.

Note: Robin is kindly pro­vid­ing one copy of The Feast Nearby for us to give away. To enter the draw­ing, leave a com­ment below. The win­ner will be selected next weekend.

In the mean­time, here’s a recipe—one that’s high on my per­sonal list of the many I can’t wait to try.   

Pep­pery Cherry Spoon Bread
from The Feast Nearby, by Robin Mather (Ten Speed Press, 2011)

Serves 6 to 8 as a side dish

2 cups whole milk
2/3 cup corn­meal
2 table­spoons salted but­ter
2 table­spoons dry sherry
3/4 tea­spoon coarse salt, such as kosher salt
1/4 tea­spoon ground red pep­per (cayenne)
2 tea­spoons dried oregano, crum­bled
1/2 cup shred­ded pep­per jack cheese
1/3 cup finely chopped dried cher­ries
4 large eggs, separated

Pre­heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8-inch square bak­ing dish.

Com­bine the milk, corn­meal, but­ter, sherry, salt, red pep­per, and oregano in a saucepan and mix well. Bring just to a boil over medium heat. Decrease the heat to medium-low and sim­mer for 2 min­utes, or until slightly thick­ened, stir­ring fre­quently. Remove from the heat. Stir in the cheese and cher­ries. Let stand for 10 to 15 min­utes, until slightly cooled.

Beat the egg yolks in a small bowl. Stir them into the corn­meal mix­ture. Beat the egg whites is a bowl with an elec­tric mixer on high speed until soft peaks form. Stir one-third of the egg whites into the corn­meal mix­ture until well mixed. Gen­tly fold in the remain­ing egg whites with a few quick strokes; some white streaks will remain. Pour into the pre­pared bak­ing dish.

Bake for 25 to 30 min­utes, until the top is browned and the cen­ter is slightly loose (a knife inserted into the cen­ter should come out clean). Let stand for 5 min­utes before serving.