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Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should (and Shouldn't!) Cook from Scratch to Save Time and Moneyby Jennifer Reese
Until recently, I never considered making my own peanut butter. Skippy was good enough for me.
Until recently, I never considered buying a frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I hadn’t even known such a thing existed. I first read about Smucker’s popular frozen peanut butter sandwich—the Uncrustable—in a New York Times Magazine article by (of course) Michael Pollan. He wrote, “People think nothing of buying frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their children’s lunch boxes.” I thought: They don’t? What people? What frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? What’s next, frozen buttered toast?
I felt briefly smug in the certainty that I was not so lazy or compromised that I would ever buy mass-produced peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Then I thought, People probably once said that about peanut butter. And bread. And jelly. They almost certainly said it about waffles, and pie crust, and pudding. Not so long ago, people must have wondered who couldn’t fry her own donuts, grind her own sausage, cure her own bacon. Kill her own bacon! The more I thought about it, the more arbitrary it seemed to draw a line in the sand at the frozen PB&J.
Yet drawing and redrawing just such arbitrary lines had become one of my primary preoccupations in recent years. The most irksome decisions I faced as an adult and working mother seemed to be made at the supermarket. Fundamentally trivial, they were nonetheless maddeningly fraught, involving questions of time, quality, money, First World guilt, maternal guilt, gender, meaning, and health. I had only to step through those automatic Safeway doors for the nattering mental calculations to begin: Owen needs cupcakes for school and look, here they are, ready to go, packed in clamshells. Nutritionally irredeemable—but made. Sixteen dollars for twenty-four supermarket trans-fat packed cupcakes? Good grief. I’ll bake. That means I need eggs and the eggs here sure are cheap. But I can’t buy them here because these eggs are laid by debeaked chickens living in cages the size of Tic Tac boxes. If only I’d gone to the farmers’ market on Sunday and bought eggs there … But how do I know that guy treats his chickens well just because the eggs are blue? And honestly, do I even really care about chickens? I can’t believe I’m spending three dollars per pound for these crunchy tomatoes. I should grow them, just like Barbara Kingsolver. How does she find the time to make her own cheese and breed her own heritage turkeys and write books? I need to work harder, sleep less, never watch TV again. Wait, there’s high-fructose corn syrup in Campbell’s vegetable soup? Isn’t that supposed to be a deal breaker?
Every choice I made was loaded, and every choice I made was wrong. The mental conversation was circular and chronically irritating and I couldn’t seem to shut it down.
Then I lost my job.
Instantly, I was stabbed with the predictable financial anxiety, which I attended to by taking an overdue video back to the video store and calling my husband to make sure that he still had his job. It was 2008 and a lot of people were losing their jobs. I made myself a cup of tea and walked out the back door of our house and sat on the steps leading down to our unkempt suburban yard, strewn with deflated soccer balls and broken deck chairs and gravel. The sky had fallen, yet there it was, vast and blue above me. A few end-of-the-season red apples weighted down the branches of our tree. I thought, I should really pick those, before the squirrels get them. I can make applesauce. I can make apple butter. I can make chutney. Who needs a job when you have an apple tree? They didn’t have jobs in Little House in the Big Woods.
Even as I thought this, sitting on my steps, I knew it to be completely ridiculous. A job is more valuable than an apple tree. People can’t live on applesauce and no one even likes chutney. Plus, I hate canning.
And yet a question lodged in the forefront of my mind. Where is that sweet spot between buying and making? What does the market do cheaper and better? And where are we being deceived, our tastes and habits and standards corrupted? Could I answer this question once and for all? I didn’t want an answer rooted in ideology, or politics, or tradition, or received wisdom. I wanted to see the question answered empirically, taking into account the competing demands—time and meaning, quality and conscience, budget and health—of everyday American family life.
And so, over the next months and years, I got some chickens, which I loved; and some ducks, which I loathed; and some turkeys, which we slaughtered. I learned to make cheese and keep bees and worried that the neighbors were going to call Animal Control. I cured bacon and salmon, canned ketchup, baked croissants, and made vanilla extract and graham crackers. I planted tomatillos and potatoes and melons and squash. My son, Owen, joined 4-H and practically moved into the yard, while my teenage daughter, Isabel, refused to step outside the back door at all, especially after the goats turned up. My husband, Mark, rolled his eyes at all of it except the homemade yogurt. That, he ate by the quart. At the height—or maybe it was the depths—of my homemaking experiment, I had pickles lacto-fermenting on the counter and seven varieties of jam, ranging from banana-chocolate to plum, arrayed in the pantry, and absinthe and Taleggio cheese mellowing in the crawl space behind my closet. I was overwhelmed and a bit of a mess, but I had my answers.
PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY SANDWICH
Let’s get back to the PB&J. One day, I bought some Uncrustables, the Smucker’s frozen sandwiches, which come in a carton decorated with a quaint gingham check. Then I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich the usual way, which took less time than finding the car keys to drive to buy the Uncrustables. Unwrapped, Uncrustables do not look like sandwiches, but like dainty white turnovers with sealed, crimped edges. They look wonderful, the bread downy and soft and white as a stack of Kleenex.
I took a bite. The jelly was gelatinous and supersweet, as in a jelly donut, one of my favorite foods. I loved it. The second bite was less delightful—a bit cloying and yet oddly desiccated. By the third bite, I was done. This was a stupid little sandwich.
“It’s like the peanut butter is a solid mass,” said Isabel, then twelve years old, plucking out a flat shard of tan paste and holding it up for inspection. “Look, it’s a thing.”
The homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwich, on the other hand, was luscious and sloppy and extravagant and fresh, and it easily carried the day. If this is the best Smucker’s can do, I thought, civilization is safe.
I assumed that the Uncrustables would turn out to be a bargain. Isn’t the whole point of industrial food that it is cheap? Well, cheap to make, maybe, but not all that cheap to buy. This fact has repeatedly taken me by surprise, though it probably shouldn’t have. Inferior mass-produced food often costs more—and sometimes quite a bit more—than homemade food. The homemade sandwich cost fifty-one cents and was roughly twice the size of the wee Uncrustable, which priced out at sixty-three cents.
There is market research that answers the question of who buys these expensive sandwiches when it is so easy and inexpensive to make one at home. Just to show how loaded this subject of food can be, how much socioeconomic and gender baggage we attach to the shopping and production of what we eat, I’ll describe the “research” that I performed in my own brain while standing in my kitchen. Who buys Uncrustables? I saw a woman in a peach velour tracksuit with a Kate Gosselin haircut loading up her cart at a big-box supermarket. She appeared pouty and spoiled and indolent, someone who would recline on the sofa watching Real Housewives and eating fat-free bonbons rather than make her kids’ sandwiches. A mother who buys Uncrustables: bad mother.
Then I tried to picture a man buying a box of Uncrustables. He came to me just as instantly and fully formed. A widower, he pushed a cart through the IGA after a long day of honest toil, perhaps in the construction trade. He wore a rumpled flannel shirt and looked a lot like Aidan Quinn. He was noble and long-suffering, a devoted dad, out there shopping for his kids’ food when he deserved to put his feet up and crack open a cold one. He needed to meet a really nice woman, someone just like me, except single.
I thought this. I was appalled at myself.
1. Put the peanuts and oil in a food processor or blender and grind until you have a creamy paste. Add more oil if necessary to thin. Make this peanut butter a little thinner than you think it should be, as it will firm up a lot in the refrigerator.
2. Salt to taste. Store in a jar in the refrigerator for several months.
Now what about the bread? What about the jelly? What about all of it?
A few caveats before we get started. First, although, like most people, I think about money, I’ve always been able to clothe my children and pay the mortgage and if I couldn’t, whether I bought or made crÈme fraÎche—or bread, to use a less absurd example—would make no difference. It is frivolous and deluded to think it would. I just wanted to address and answer some middle-class home economics questions that nagged my Michael Pollan-reading, price-checking, overthinking self. This is not a book about how to scrape by on a budget and it is not a book about how to go off the grid.
Second, prices of food vary from day to day, shop to shop, region to region. I did my best to price ingredients consistently and accurately as of late 2010 and early 2011, but the prices you see here might not always reflect what you pay, where you live, today.
When I started this project I had a lot of time on my hands—more than I’d ever had before as an adult. A lot of these projects are very ambitious, and I’ve tried to make clear which are particularly time consuming. But when you’re exhausted and overworked, even the simplest kitchen job—even mixing a jar of salad dressing—can seem like too much. When I say “make it,” I mean that when you have the time and the inclination, the recipe in question is something you can do better, and/or more cheaply, than the supermarket. By no means do I think everyone should make all (or even any) of these foods, all of the time. I sure don’t.
Moreover, if you don’t enjoy messing around in the kitchen, you probably aren’t going to end up making your own Camembert and pancetta, despite the fact that they’re better and cheaper than what you can buy. Nor should you. As my son, Owen, said one day—a little spitefully—while he was reluctantly doing his homework and I was happily stuffing pot stickers, “Mom, I think if you didn’t like to cook we’d eat canned soup every night.”
He is right.
© 2011 Jennifer Reese
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