The Moskin/Severson Smack-Down: Is $50 still too much?

March 25, 2009 · 1 comment

This was bound to happen.

Now that the economy is officially in the toilet and everyone (including me) is yammering on about how the hell they’re going to feed themselves and their families, every food writer hither and yon is throwing down cheap-ass challenges to make cheap-ass meals for their cheap-ass dinner parties. On one side of the coin, you have seriously frugal types who understand the concept of making really parsimonious stuff  go the distance in the most authentic of ways; on the other, you’ve got naturally not-so-frugal types who are more interested in maintaining the sophisticated ways in which they’ve always eaten and entertained and are very obviously constrained by the laws of culinary entitlement, which inevitably leads them to disaster and sadness. In my book, authenticity always wins, hands down. My bubbe stuffed every string and shred of leftover brisket she could pull into her kreplach, which was good for at least two more meals. She did not, however toss it with gargantuan amounts of pasta, or serve it in an espresso cup.
If you’re reading this, odds are you opened the dining section of the New York Times today, and there they were: the delightfully marvelous Kim Severson and Julia Moskin going spoon-to-spoon in a Dinner for 6 for Under $50 contest, to be judged by their office-mate, Frank Bruni. Kim made concessions: she typically buys her pork, she says, from her food coop (I’m assuming she means the remarkable and envy-worthy Park Slope Food Coop) or at a farmer’s market, but instead she had to go the Pathmark route because of price. (Alice Waters, take note.)  She made her own tortillas from masa and water (her cost-out lists the price of 2-1/2 cups of masa as 84 cents). Everything was throttled to within an inch of its life in color, texture, and flavor, and I wish I could have been there.
Julia, on the other hand, went the cunningly sophisticated route; she served petite portions of soup in a demitasse. Bruni cited her escarole ($3.58) as being perfectly washed, which to me is a lot like telling your best friend that the guy you just fixed her up with has a really good sense of humor. Her gougeres costed out at $2.30 for eggs and cheese, but butter and flour (key ingredients in any choux pastry) were suspiciously missing, not that I’m being overly critical or anything.
The recipes, so far as I can tell, were inspired by cookbook authors, like Claudia Roden and Tara Duggan; I wonder what would have happened if one of the rules was NO COOKBOOKS, GIRLS, you’re on your own. But that’s neither here nor there, except for one point: without cookbooks, everything would have been far simpler with the exception, perhaps, of the carnitas. (Then again, I’m partial to carnitas.) 
How much does it cost to chop and marinate some fresh tomatoes and serve them topped with a warm poached egg, times 6? Or to buy a few potatoes to go with your pork, shred the latter, and create individual shepherd’s pies (of a sort)? Or to bake an apple stuffed with some raisins and a sprinkling of brown sugar? Or to take one chicken and some vegetables, and make a luxurious chicken in the pot a la Dorie Greenspan (serves 4 people and can be stretched to 3 dishes). I found myself thinking a lot about the way the country French cook (and the Italians, and the Mexicans, and the Asians): bread, cheese, vegetables, olives, meat of some sort (sometimes), more vegetables, maybe some fruit. Open cheap, locally-made wine. End of story. 
At the end of the day, I had to wonder: is $50 still too much, when you haven’t figured in wine? A few months back, I made an $80 shopping trip stretch to 35 dishes comfortably and with absolutely no skimping on anything. 
Of course, I was not making a sit-down, multi-course dinner for six teetotallers. And most likely, neither are you. 

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