It's no accident we use the phrase "belt-tightening" when we talk of efforts to save money. We speak of "lean" times and wistfully remember the days when we ate "high on the hog."
Food has always been a barometer of family finances. With so many of our expenses -- the mortgage, car payments, school tuition -- fixed, the food budget is one area where we still have control.
"People are going back to the basics," says Ansela Dopkin, chief operating officer and one of the owners of the Classic Catering People. "They're going back to meatloaf and turkey loaf. It's nothing new. There are lots of these old recipes. They've all been around for a long time."
But these days it's a little more complex than that. "You can cook a whole turkey and get three or four meals out of it. It's much cheaper than cooking turkey breast. But these days who has time to cook a whole turkey?" she added.
Unlike previous periods of hard times, here in the '90s we find ourselves having to balance shortages of both time and money. Many of the traditional money-saving techniques involve doing more work in the kitchen, something we've been trying for the last decade to reduce.
The traditional ways of saving money on food have been to grow your own vegetables, to buy things in bulk when you find them at a good price and to use less expensive ingredients. But all of these things take time.
Most of the cookbooks that have come out in the past few years -- a good barometer of our interests in cooking -- have focused on saving time rather than saving money, according to Arlene Gillis, owner of Books for Cooks in Harborplace.
All of the money-saving cookbooks from the late '70s and early '80s have gone out of print. But she recommends two new books, "The New Settlement Cookbook" (Simon & Schuster, hardcover, $25), edited by Charles Pierce, and "The Complete Make-a-Mix Cookbook" (HP Books, paperback, $12.95), by Caren Eliason, Nevada Harwood and Madeline Westover.
There are still good economical recipes in ethnic cookbooks. Italian pasta recipes, Chinese stir fries and French cassoulets are all peasant foods that sprang from the need to use the most precious ingredients -- meats and flavorings -- sparingly. These recipes use meat as much for flavor as for a protein source. And they take full advantage of vegetable proteins -- rice, beans, corn.
The time crunch has also meant the demise of many of the local food co-ops, according to George Maroulis, manager of the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market in Jessup. A decade ago a number of church and neighborhood groups banded together to save money by trading a few hours of work each week for a savings on fruits and vegetables. But these have all stopped, he says.
Still, he adds, members of the public can come in for a one-time gate fee of $3 per car and shop in the market from 3 a.m. to 9 a.m. Mondays to Fridays. "People who are interested in canning or who in summertime want to get a lot of roasting ears and watermelons for a cookout can save money," he says.
The Maryland Wholesale Seafood Market, also at Jessup, also allows anyone to shop there. The gate fee is $2 from 4:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. or $1 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when the two retail operations (Capital Seafood and Frank's Seafood) are open. On Wednesdays there is no gate fee from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
(Keep in mind that not all wholesalers will sell to the public. Know your prices to see if you're saving money. Buying in bulk and freezing your purchases will allow you to save.)
Our ancestors brought with them to this country a wonderful heritage of money-saving recipes. "The New Settlement Cookbook" is a collection of recipes originally printed in 1901 in Milwaukee by a community-service group of women who helped new immigrants from Europe adapt to life in America.
Here are two recipes from the book:
Turkey and mushroom meatloaf
1 pound mushrooms, cleaned and cut in halves or quarters
juice of 1 lemon
1 onion, finely chopped
1 medium red pepper, finely diced
1 pound ground turkey
3/4 cup fresh bread crumbs
2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, combine the mushrooms with the lemon juice and the onion. (This might have to be done in two batches. Add 1/2 the lemon juice and 1/2 the onion with each batch.) Process with quick pulses several times, scrape down the sides, and repeat until mushrooms are finely chopped and onion is incorporated.
In a heavy-bottomed, non-reactive saucepan, combine the mushroom mixture with the red pepper and celery. Cook over moderately high heat until mushrooms start to exude moisture. (Mushrooms will give off much liquid. This evaporates quickly and will result in a smooth paste that will help bind the meat loaf.) Stir constantly until mixture is very thick and all liquid has cooked off, about 10 minutes. Empty into a bowl and allow to cool to room temperature before proceeding.