Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Through the Looking Glass: Culture Shock

I had occasion to travel a bit out of my corner of the state the week before Thanksgiving. It was a great time with friends, but also some culture shock (seeing how the other half lives) when we went for a drive on the Parkway.

Château Morrisette Winery

Château Morrisette Restaurant, photos from their website

We stopped to check out Château Morrisette, and while I was sitting on a bench outside the winery on that gorgeous sunny day, I had the chance to watch folks drive up in their status-symbol imports, town cars, Hummers and fancy SUV's... and leave with multiple cases of wines. Not too many years ago, I might could have been part of that crowd, complete with designer jeans and a fresh manicure (and in the Mercedes I drove).

The exposure and the culture shock of seeing my life "then vs now" really got me to some hard thinking over the last 3 weeks, and to some honest reflections in my mirror. I'm still somewhat of the consumer 'mindset' (minus any credit cards), albeit now more for tools, equipment and other things geared towards survival. AND... I still love good wines and gourmet foods. It's hard to believe I used to think nothing of buying anything I fancied. I freely admit to champagne tastes, only now with a Near-Beer pocketbook. (Do they still make Near-Beer? It was all we could get, or even afford, in college.)

It took me a few days to realize and admit that I still had have some residual internal pique at not having that kind of discretionary income anymore. (Actually I thought only the rich still had much discretionary income in this economic downturn. I guess I don't get out of Dodge enough.)

The reason I am in an economic pit despite having made good money is due to naively believing that economic growth would always continue, that corporations were honest, and that Life was fair. Add in the governments' manipulation of the social security fund and the rules that changed during the few years before I retired, and it reduced my "estimated [by the government] SS income" by 75%... which necessitated bridging the gap for living expenses with my assets until they ran out. The government did not single me out; there were many tossed in the same boat. Factor in the economic crisis of the past few years and you have enough added weight to sink many lifeboats.

I have had to really take a hard look at what I have been doing with my life over the last few years: my goals, and what things give me satisfaction in order to balance out the pique I felt. Would I go back to that lifestyle if I could? I doubt it. Of course, a little extra cash now and then would be nice. :)

I suspect I'll never get over my taste for international and gourmet foods, since I spent most of my whole life traveling, and tasting new foods... but I've worked out how to still have them. As for the wines, designer jeans and fancy cars... pfffffttt. My 20 year old, high-mileage pickup truck gets me where I'm going (most of the time!) and if someone is going to judge me based on what I wear or drive, that's their problem. (Besides that, 2 Buck Chuck can taste pretty good.)

I'm learning that many of the things I love and can no longer afford are things I can make myself; the list is much too long to list here other than a couple of examples below. BTW, I did make some decent champagne this year from wild elderberry flowers; it cost me some sugar, water, yeast... and my time. Not Dom Perignon, but drinkable.

Buying $30-$50/pound cheese is not in my food budget, but I AM learning to make cheese. I may never make cheese anywhere near that good, but I can sure keep trying. Meanwhile, I make lots of tasty, real cheese for the price of some milk, a few small expenditures for cultures, and my labor. I make butter (from 100% Jersey cream) as good as, and much cheaper, than imported butter costing $7.95 for half a pound. Actually mine is cheaper than even American store-brand butter, too.

I buy whole pork belly and season then cure/smoke it myself, and wind up with a tastier product than store-bought organic smoked bacon for a fraction of the price. The pastured, free-range meat I buy isn't cheaper, but it's much healthier and tastier. And I discovered the cheap "odd bits" that most folks never buy (or even see) anymore make some outstanding dishes, equal to or better than imported patés, terrines and rillettes, and much cheaper than buying them.

I plan to try to make pancetta and proscuitto which are not in my budget either; after all someone makes them... how hard can it be to do what average people have done in France, Italy, Spain, and many other countries for centuries?

I find a great taste satisfaction in snapping a tomato right off the vine and eating it while standing in my garden, the juices dribbling down my fingers and chin. You cannot buy that "yummy fresh taste" in a store.

My home-grown herbs, fruits and vegetables are free of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, chemical washes and irradiation. Anything I cannot eat fresh does not go to waste. I have a pantry full of home-canned, lacto-fermented, dehydrated, and frozen goods. Plus I always grow some vegetables that will keep over winter in my root cellar.

However many things I can make, there are still some things I either must buy, or do without... because of my location and gardening zone. Wild Alaskan Salmon is high on the list, as is good olive oil... and spices that won't grow here, like vanilla (a tropical orchid), cardamom and cinnamon. However, I can grow the most expensive spice (herb) in the world, saffron, for the cost of a few fall saffron crocus bulbs (Crocus sativus), which will multiply and give me more fresh saffron every year. Paella, YUM!

In the final analysis, the trade-off is that for every tasty morsel I can make myself, it frees up money in the budget to occasionally buy some goodies I cannot make. Nothing is so wonderful as something sinfully delicious straight from the stove or pantry, even if NOT ALL the ingredients are homegrown.

Who said "back to basics" aka being poor, has to be dull, boring and tasteless?


  1. Hear! Hear! I love your outlook, and I feel the same way.

    Of course, I've never had terribly expensive tastes. I wouldn't know a "good" champagne or a "good" wine if someone put a glass in front of me and said it was the best. I know what I like, and what I like is, more often than not, what we brew here at home.

    I'm a few years away from retirement, but I suspect, when I get there, there will be nothing waiting for me. The social security system and/or our government will be broke, and if I managed to save or invest any money, someone will have found a way to take half of it. So, I'm not counting on having money, which is why it's so important *to me* that I learn these skills I'm learning ... like how to make cheese, how to grow and forage food and then how to cook it, how to mend things, how to brew beer and wine, etc.

    Thank you for sharing your story ;).

  2. Great attitude, Wendy! No matter what happens down the road, those skills will never let you down. =0) The more we learn how to do for ourselves, the more our future is in our hands, rather than someone else's.

    I'm trying making my own oat milk tonight... kind of a slimy process, but additive free! And easy. Tried cashew milk earlier in the week, that came out really fine.

    It's nice to visit the posh side of town from time to time & know one isn't beholden to it or addicted to it. Nice reflection, D.

  3. Wendy... you are always planning ahead but enjoying the moment!

    J, WHY oat milk? Lactose intolerant?

  4. No, just curious. I like the various flavors of all the different milks. Oats are one of the things one can grow around here (I think) & local goat milk is going for $12/gallon. I don't think anyone milks a cow. Which is a shame, 'cause we have a lot of beef cattle which would give enough milk for a small family if a heifer was gentled.

    Anyway, the cashew milk I made last week was wonderful, wonderful for cooking hot cereal in, rather than dairy. I'm giving almonds a break right now, so thought I'd try oats next.

    I'd show you a picture of how the oat milk came out, but I don't think I can do that here.

  5. Hmmmm, interesting... but not high on my list, LOL.

    I don't know how I acquired my expensive tastes, nor my love of classical music and opera. No one else in the family is like that. Maybe I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth... and someone stole it without telling my family?

  6. I recently found your blog (via Surviving the Suburbs - thanks Wendy!) and am truly enjoying it.

    I, too, wondering what, if anything (probably nothing) will be left when I get to retirement age. Of course, I'm full-time mom/garden/permie/wanna-be-homesteader now.

    The hardest thing is convincing the ones we love (ie hubby) that we are not lemmings, and just because everyone else goes on as if nothing is wrong, it doesn't mean it's right. Now, if I could just convince him that it is more practical to take those retirement funds out and pay off the mortgage and take the "penalty", rather than watching the value of both of them plummet...

    Keep up the insightful posts!

  7. Welcome, Marygee!

    It's a conundrum, for sure. I just don't understand why more folks don't get it. My much younger half-sister, who lives in the other half of this house sure doesn't, and she is exposed to my thinking a LOT.

  8. I think the next year is going to be another tough one... global sovereign debt is an ax hanging over our heads. IMO

  9. JMG has a good post today on what we are actually experiencing, whether we acknowledge it or not.

  10. I'll take a look at it, thanks. The fact that European banks are actually doing tests to see if they can withstand the dissolution of the EU... %^\ Even if things fall short of that, there's hell to pay ahead. It's getting harder & harder to kick the can of debt down the road.

    Boy, the oatmeal milk made a surprising cup of hot cocoa... once heated up, it became like pudding! Thick, creamy, hot pudding drink. Now I wonder if it'll do that w/a spot of brandy in it. =0)

  11. Poor????????????? Seems to me that you are extremely rich and getting richer.

    But I know what you mean. Every time we go into Dodge and I see the toys, I get the shakes. Once an [strike]alcoholic[/strike] consumer, always an [strike]alcoholic[/strike] consumer. So I don't go into Dodge much.


  12. Thanks Mike. I DO feel rich in many, many ways!


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