There are many singular things you can do when you live alone.

Four weeks ago I decided to see how long I could go without shopping for food—cooking and eating simply from the foods I already had stored at home.

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This is an exercise that appeals to the Spartan side of my nature and would not be everyone’s cup of tea.  Still, it’s an interesting activity in self-control and focus.

Let me start by saying that I’m not one of those people who shop with abandon.  Give or take a little chocolate and champagne, I buy only what I need.  However, in late fall, at the beginning of the winter season, I stock up on staples since I don’t plow the long driveway and after the first snowfall, everything has to be back-packed in.  So, within reason, I have a few canned goods on hand:  tomato products, tuna and some pounds of beans, lentils, bulgur, rice, flour, dried milk.  By February this stock is very depleted, but of course, unevenly.  There seems to be a lot of oatmeal left, but I am out of chocolate chips.

The challenge is to design healthy meals for as long as possible with the stuff left on the shelves in the cupboard and in the tiny freezer.  This forces a certain culinary creativity (should you use the one remaining onion to make chili or do you save it for barley pilaf?) and also nudges you to eat those items which may be most nutritious but less appealing, like soy beans.

For instance, there is a wonderful cold curried salad that can be made from soy beans and wheat berries (recipe from  Diet for a Small Planet) but you need to have a good reason to prepare it because it’s time consuming.  If you are playing this game, and you have little left in the house but soy beans and wheat berries, that’s your reason.

It’s also a good reason to tackle the unopened can of sesame tahini that has been lurking in the back of the cupboard intimidating you for months:  you can combine this with chick peas to make hummus.  It’s also a reason to start grinding that bag of coffee beans in the freezer instead of using instant coffee; to sprout the seeds someone gave you two years ago (yes they will still grow and provide you with healthy greens once you’ve run out of vegetables); and to try to use up the four pound box of nonfat dried milk you bought nine months ago.

Not everything works:  reconstituted dried milk and pearl tapioca do not make tapioca pudding; they make something you can only feed to an undiscriminating gerbil.  However, it is possible to bake a perfectly good loaf of bread from a mix of all the flours you have left plus some of that oatmeal—and you can throw in the handful of nuts and raisins that have been lying around for six months too.

Lest anybody think this is the life of the ascetic, let me say it is not.  This plan simply calls for drinking up the quarter bottle if Irish Cream and the bottom three inches in a bottle of sherry before going out to invest in some more wine.

And after you have run out of food or have gotten tired of this game (whichever comes sooner), you can go out and splurge.  After all, the flip side of austerity is indulgence, and having saved a bundle by using up perfectly good foods that might have gone to waste, you can afford it.  But the real payoff here is simply the exercise itself.  To be forced to try new recipes, new combinations of food; to be inventive with the things at hand.  And in our era of abundance and gluttony, of impatience and fast foods, the reasonable husbanding of resources is one way to acknowledge the work and effort which has gone into producing the goods.

My experiment lasted a full three and a half weeks, and a I started with a virtually empty refrigerator and a couple of small bags of dried grains and beans.

And I am convinced that by not being wasteful in my own home, I am making, however tiny, some kind of global impact; that these solitary gestures make a difference, somewhere, somehow.


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