Updated: May 17, 2020
“There stands a hulk of a refrigerator with enough space to store a winter’s worth of food. I lean against the shiny door, glance away from the grease-spattered stove and the rusty knives, and gaze out the window at the stars shining far away in the night sky.”
--Banana Yoshimoto, Kitchen
I hadn’t planned on not going to the grocery store for almost six weeks. I didn’t do it to save money or lose weight (the former happened, the latter didn’t). It just sort of evolved. And really, this is how I live. My car-free life means that when I do have a car, I shop big, stockpiling stuff from candles and cat litter to canned soup and bubbly. (A woman should always have a bottle of bubbly on hand. It invites a life of celebration.) So I’d done a fairly big shop in early April knowing that grocery shopping is only going to become more of a to-do. Full disclosure, I did have takeout three times (two burgers, one Thai), ordered two delivered meals, and was gifted cookies, lasagna, watercress soup, and rhubarb. Other than that, I did not make any food purchases for 36 days. I vowed I wouldn’t deprive myself of any craving for carbs, sweets, or booze. I said I would go to the store once I ran out of vegetables or coffee, whichever came first. I ran out of both the same day. This is my journey to the center of my cupboard and the depths of my freezer.
Stagger Your Expiration Dates
Stocking up is easy when you choose products for their expiration dates, especially breakfast foods. I usually start with a milk, then do a week or two rotating eggs and yogurt which expire after milk. I like to keep frozen hash browns on hand. For this trip I knew I wouldn’t want to go back to shop for at least two weeks, so I also bought bagels (freezable), cream cheese, and smoked salmon for a ‘morning in Stockholm’ moment. I even bought bacon and Pillsbury cinnamon rolls because, ‘treat yo’self’ and then dusted the rolls with cardamom, also because Stockholm.
Befriend Your Freezer
When I told people I wasn’t going to the store, the most common comment or question was about getting fresh fruits and vegetables. I did some research on the nutritional value of frozen versus fresh. Because vegetables are often frozen at their peak ripeness, they can have the same, if not more, nutrients than fresh. Plus they’re cheaper, and often easier to work with than chopping veggies. I know, you want the fresh. But this is a pandemic, not a trip to Provence. Try forgoing fresh veggies for just a week. You’ll be surprised how creative you can get. I stocked up on frozen berries, corn, and spinach and you’ll see them appear below in all kinds of meals and cocktails.
Let Your Meals Take You Places
I’ve always enjoyed a meal and movie pairing. It enhances the flavor and makes me feel like I’ve both traveled outside my apartment and further within the flavors of the meal. My 36 days started with several Vietnamese-inspired meals. I wasn’t watching or reading about Vietnam, but once I mastered the holy trinity of fish sauce, lime juice, and lemongrass, I poured it over salads, noodles and rice dishes. I was back in the crowded streets of Hanoi in the safety of my apartment. And since I was having so much fun with my little escape to Vietnam, I decided to go to France. First I read Provence 1970 in the arboretum. Then I went home and drenched chicken breasts in a two-year-old bottle of Dijon mustard, coated them in bread crumbs, doused them with wine, butter, and lemon juice, poured myself a fine (boxed) buttery Chardonnay, and hit play on Julie & Julia. Bienvenue en France!
I even went to different countries in one night. Week five I finally pulled out a five dollar pizza from my freezer for a night of back-to-back pizza documentaries. I’d been looking forward to pairing my five dollar frozen pizza with two pizza documentaries so I made an event of it. I remembered reading something about putting truffle oil on pizza, and decided to give my pizza a little drizzle. I opened a bottle of Prosecco and placed three olives and my second to last pickle on a plate. As I started the first documentary on the history of pizza, I was right in the movie. I was smelling the salt water of Marseille, wandering through a crowded alley in Naples, going in Tony Manero’s pizza joint from Saturday Night Fever, and drowning in the warm, red glow of Little Italy. Each slice was like a different country, a different town, and a different pizza shop. I ate tiny thin slice after slice as the cool Prosecco bubbles broke up the hot cheese. It was one of the best pizzas I have ever had.
Movies took my meals and I around the world, from France to Italy to New York and back again. I watched a documentary on Studio 54 the night I made spaghetti carbonara. I knew I had to focus. I’ve made a silky smooth carbonara before, but I’ve also made a curdled one. Focus, Katie. I’d had such a good time with the movie that while cooking I put on a Studio 54 playlist. Then I started grooving to Chic’s “Le Freak.” Oh man, I was rockin’ out. Did the pasta curdle? Of course it did. But my dance moves were like the smooth carbonara of my dreams.
Get Creative with Cocktails
I like to keep a well stocked, seasonal bar. That means bourbon in the winter and gin in the summer. But these are unique times. So I got gin and bourbon because, after all, we are in spring. And then I grabbed a Kraken rum with the hope that it would roll me right into summer. Because I also had juices, seltzers, and syrups, it didn’t take much of any one ingredient. You only need a couple of ounces of each liquid. I even added frozen berries to sangria and Amarena cherries, and their yummy syrup, to old fashioneds and punches. The cocktails were so satisfying, in both taste and the using up of things I’d had forever. I added lingonberry syrup I’d bought at IKEA years ago to a bourbon punch I downed on a jubilant Zoom call. Canned coconut milk that had been hiding in the cupboard found it’s way into a bourbon rum warmer and a slushy passion fruit colada that took me right back to the beaches of Belize. And that bottle of grenadine I’d moved between three apartments? It said farewell in a rum punch on the second to last night. Bottoms up and more room in the fridge!
Don’t Skip Dessert
I told myself there would be no deprivation, and I stayed true to that. I think I had more sweets these 36 days than any other month stretch. In between my dad sending me cookies and my goal to use every last burst of flour, I think I had sweets every day. First I made Duncan Hines cupcakes to which I added cardamom (again, hello, Stockholm). They were ok, freezable, and infinitely better dunked in a tiny dish of Jim Beam. On day 29 I made a half batch of flat chewy chocolate chip cookies because I wanted to ration the flour and eggs. And because halving the recipe was difficult, I eye-balled some of the ingredients. (I know, super baking no, no) It yielded 12 of the most delicious chocolate chip cookies I have ever made. Luck or focus, this recipe was a super win!
Making desserts, like cocktails, reinforced that I didn’t need a lot of any one ingredient to make something that felt decadent. It’s amazing how we forget that food is ingredients. That you don't need to go to the store and buy cookies, but can make them with a little bit of this and that. When I still had a box of Honey Nut Cheerios and no milk, I looked up dessert recipes. The results were delicious sweet and salty chocolate peanut butter no-bake dessert bars. Just melt chocolate chips and peanut butter (This also used up my peanut butter, win!) stir, refrigerate, and slice. Yummy and kid-friendly. I still had dry ingredients though, but when a friend gifted me stalks of rhubarb in week five, I saw possibilities. Not only did the rhubarb crisp I made use up the brown sugar, but—because rhubarb is a vegetable—it bought me another day without shopping. The final night I made cherry JELLO from a box that expired in 2017. It was nostalgic and photographed well but wasn’t particularly satisfying. Proving that unless you’re making JELLO shots, there’s no real reason a single woman needs to have JELLO on hand.
These are my learnings and, to the best of my recollection, what I ate. Many were made in big batches or more than once:
Ingredient I was surprisingly happy to have: bottled lime juice
Ingredient I wish I’d had more of: garlic
Ingredients I still had leftover: booze, pasta, rice, and a whole pork loin (!)
Best space saving ingredient: popcorn kernels
Fresh ingredient that lasted the longest: an orange (four weeks!)
Most versatile ingredient: canned coconut milk (creamer, cocktails, and curries, oh my!)
Special K; honey yogurt with granola, frozen berries, and coconut flakes; smoothie with oj, frozen berries, and yogurt; egg over easy with hash brown; bagel with cream cheese, smoked salmon, and capers; bacon and eggs; cardamom dusted cinnamon rolls; instant oatmeal with berries and coconut flakes; drip coffee; dalgona coffee.
Lunches & Dinners:
Arugula salad with canned tuna; roast chicken with roasted potatoes, asparagus, and carrots; hummus and carrot sticks; green enchilada chicken soup with corn and tortilla chips; Vietnamese carrot and cabbage salad with chicken; Vietnamese rice with ahi tuna and bok choy; chicken, spinach, and artichoke lasagna; pasta with red sauce; mustard baked chicken with corn; coconut curry with chicken and spinach; butter chicken with spinach; bacon spinach artichoke dip with tortilla chips and bagel bites; steak with corn salsa; pesto pasta with salmon; pasta carbonara; chili mac with corn; cheese pizza with truffle oil; canned minestrone and chicken noodle soup; gyoza and watercress soup; Chinese soup dumplings; beans, rice, and corn; meat lasagna; Pad Thai with chicken and spinach.
Kir Royale, Prosecco, French 75, cherry gin smash, gin & tonic (and with lemongrass syrup), old fashioned, bourbon rum warmer, bourbon sour, bourbon punch, rum punch, passion fruit colada (rocks and frozen), red wine, white wine, sangria, IPAs
Brownies, vanilla cupcakes with chocolate frosting, chocolate peanut butter Honey Nut Cheerio bars topped with coconut, chocolate chip cookies, rhubarb crisp, cherry JELLO
What did it teach me? That we have so much more than we think. I couldn't believe how the food started to emerge from the cupboards and the freezer. Like little dancing jars of artichokes, cans of coconut milk, and boxes of lasagna. It was like when I booked my trip to France last spring the objects in my apartment related to France seemed to emerge from the walls. They had been there the whole time. I had just needed a reason to look for them.
Why did I do it? To create. To altruistically be one less body in the grocery store, but also to lazily not have to deal with the masked, wait-in-line experience that is the new normal of grocery shopping. But mostly, I did it to remind myself that I could find fun and creativity within confinement. To show that I wasn’t trapped, that I had boundless choices of what to eat and when. To find supreme joy and deliciousness in foods and drinks that I’d had within my home for weeks, months, and even years. To give myself choices within limitations. And maybe—to metaphorically paraphrase Erica Jong—prove that you don’t need a man to make gingerbread ;)
If no man appeared who would love her
(her face moist with cooking,
her breasts full of apple juice
she would whip one up:
with baking powder
to make him rise.
-Erica Jong, from “The Woman Who Loved to Cook,” Half-Lives