When I first moved to California, I lived near a small food market. Right. Next. Door. The fact that food and other sundries were a mere few steps from my own apartment was a bit like stepping into a dream. Growing up rural, the concept of walking a few feet to pick up a solitary pint of Häagen-Dazs was like a fairy tale compared to the reality of my early years of grocery gathering.
In my rural upbringing, the nearest store was 11 miles away, so going to town to stock up was infrequent and needed to be well-planned. It took a good bit of the day for the store and other errands. Weather, too, was a factor. One had to get ahead of the ice and snow, and high-heat trips had to be efficiently speedy (at least the run home) for any items that might melt or perish in other ways.
My frugal parents knew enough about just what was needed and how to keep it so that regular trips to town for groceries were minimal. Of extremely modest means, they still kept the house well-fed — in the pantry, cupboards, freezers and fridge. Foodstuffs and ingredients were never excessive or frivolous (my childhood was, for the most part, free of “junk,” like chips and cookies, which is probably why I learned to bake) just an efficient laying in of provisions needed to survive “out in the country.”
To stay on top of what was needed, they kept lists of what was running low. Along with household items like detergents, paper goods, lightbulbs, etc., my parents’ “basic” edible stores of coffee, canned fruits and vegetables, juices and soups, cooking oils and shortening, baking ingredients (flour, granulated and brown sugars, baking powder and soda, yeast, vanilla, etc.), crackers, dried pasta, beans and rice, bottled vinegars, syrups and sauces, spices, salt and pepper, were always maintained, and the fridge and freezer, stocked with the requisite milk, eggs, margarine and meats. (I’d toss one of their many pounds of frozen bacon into my suitcase as a good luck “talisman” before a return flight.) And the house was rarely without an onion or potato.
They extended the lives of loaves of bread and other goods like spices, cereal and flour by freezing them. Their stockpiling increased as they got older (perhaps sensing town trips would decrease), and the deep freezer became a catch-all — occasionally in need of purging — that held sometimes unidentifiable items, like the mystery mixes from my dad’s phase where he threw away outside packaging to save space.
It’s always been reassuring to know that I could walk into my parents’ house and find enough fixings for everything from a pot of beans or spaghetti to a bread pudding (my mom’s favorite) for dessert.
But becoming a “city mouse” — spoiled by a supermarket within a 5-mile radius — has often made me lose touch with my own frugal sensibilities. My parents’ country larder has always been a humbling reminder of my lapsed efficiency.
Visiting home, I’d get re-acquainted with what my mom aptly called coming “back to the basics,” and my dabbling in recipes of the less-than-basic variety somewhat complicated (and lengthened) our trips to the grocery, crowding her refrigerator accommodations with my “fancy” ingredients, like when I needed both half-and-half and heavy cream, quinoa, balsamic vinegar and both feta and fontina cheeses for recipes I was making for a family gathering.
The country larder teaches the city mouse two important things:
You have to be prepared.
You have to be prepared to do without.
One learns to do without (aka substitute) when one both plans and forgets. Growing up, I learned milk could be turned into buttermilk, flour into cornstarch and saltine crackers into breadcrumbs, among other things.
A recent visit to my mother’s home, all stocked with flour and sugar and shortening and all the needed spices and even apples at the ready, inspired me to make an apple pie. Of course, my favorite pie pastry recipe includes lemon zest, so I “flew to town,” and in my haste to gather up any number of other likely unnecessary products, either the lemons never made it into my grocery cart or never made it into the car for the trip home. I panicked momentarily and thought about another 22-mile round-trip. Instead, I did without. But not without pie! I flavored my pie crust with a little cinnamon, and it turned out just fine.
The full heart that appreciates the full, but humbly basic pantry knows it has always had exactly what it needs.
Bread pudding is a humble-yet-rich, simple-yet-satisfying dessert, perfect for winter and making use of what’s on hand (nothing fancy), like stale or frozen (and maybe misshapen) loaves of bread. I’ve adapted my mother’s recipe for her favorite dessert by adding diced canned fruit. I think baking this pudding in a water bath is key to its moist, creamy texture.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”
Old Fashioned (Pantry) Bread Pudding Recipe