Cugine Corner - The Johnny Meatballs Blog
Cugine Corner - The Johnny Meatballs Blog
Mission Accomplished for the Meatball Family!
The world’s most famous Italian chef, Mario Batali recently asked this complex (and controversial) question on “The Chew” to America: Is $124 per week (the average food stamp allowance) a sufficient amount of money to buy groceries for a family of four? Hmm…it’s an interesting question, but it really can only be answered if you attempt it. Batali is currently making it his mission to try out this challenge for a month. I did it last week, and now I will explain every step in the process along with my personal opinions on this matter in this blog.
Just to be clear, we are only talking about food here, that doesn’t mean pet food or paper goods or toothpaste. Can this amount of money provide seven days’ worth of breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and some snacks for four people?
When I was a kid, my mother always made extra food for dinner and that was my school lunch for the next day along with a few days of coldcut sandwiches. I never bought lunch in school. (I went to Catholic grammar school so we didn’t even have that option except on Fridays during Lent which was “pizza day,” and it wasn’t Ellio’s, it was brought in from a local pizza parlor.) These brown, round chicken patties that school cafeterias serve nowadays bear no resemblance to the crispy, homemade chicken cutlets my mother made. But that’s Jamie Oliver’s department.
Now being in the food business as the owner of Johnny’s Meatballs In Sunday Gravy, I have connections some people may not have. I usually get my meat from a wholesale meat company and as a
I did this mission without using any of my connections or advantages, unless you count utilizing my backyard plants for basil and parsley. My grandparents had a beautiful garden which supplied them with all the herbs and spices that they needed. I don’t have a full garden, but I do recommend everyone get a few herb plants, as this will save a tremendous amount of money. My grandmother’s generation (and even my mom still) practiced the mentality of going to multiple stores to build their meals. One store for the cheese, one for the meat, one for the bread and so on. You can do this easily on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. But to prove a point, I shopped in one grocery store and did not use any
I know there is a lot of chatter in the media about the “slimy” meats sold in grocery stores, but that’s generally specific to packaged meats that have been sitting, which I don’t buy. I always think back to the scene in the classic movie, “The Odd Couple,” when Felix is in the old Bohack grocery store in NYC and asks the butcher for fresh chop meat. The butcher points to the package of meat in the case to which Felix replies, “that’s packaged, I said I want FRESH.” My mother always used that little red rotary phone in the meat department to ask the butcher to get her what she wanted. Anyone can do this; you’ll definitely notice the difference.
I don’t want to turn this political, so I would like to state that whether the hundred and change is from the government or from your paycheck, the point is, you can shop and cook wisely on any amount. All the Italian immigrants made do with what they could find years ago. Those peasant dishes are the true comfort foods and better than anything in some uppity black tie restaurant serving entrées made using molecular gastronomy or these artistic creations dotted with specks of odd items decorated with bubbly creams and morsels of food carrying enormous price tags.Pretentious, food snobs really annoy me and they drain all the warmth and charm from cooking and eating—the two most important things about food! I understand many chefs take this stuff seriously and expect all their counterparts to do the same, but to me, the real cooks who deserve the accolades are not only the culinary grads but the nonnas who used their heart and limited resources to feed their kids—and usually extended family members and neighbors.
My opinion is that any celebrity chef or activist (and this is certainly not a comment directed towards Mario Batali) who turns up their nose at preparing inexpensive comfort food is disrespecting the ingenuity of previous generations who really deserve more credit for starting so many of the popular trends today. If you want only organic or only free range, that’s your privilege (not a right), but that comes out of your own pocket. Same deal if you want wine or that extra block of imported cheese. See for me, I love food so I would rather spend my extra money on that block of cheese as opposed to getting a car wash. I could wash my Cadillac myself with a bucket and a sponge. My immigrant grandparents were not wealthy and fed six kids back in the day on a budget. And they never, ever ate Spam or Spaghettio’s or went to McDonalds. It’s all about cooking with love.
This conversation sparked nearly 150 comments on my facebook page! My wife Megin made some great points by very accurately stating, “All immigrants did this, not just Italian. My mother and father would buy filet mignon and then have hot dogs the next day. It’s all about balance!”
The overwhelming majority agreed with our stance that $124 was a very fair amount of spending money for food. Below are some of my favorite comments from this very passionate discussion…
GERRIANE: I guess my Irish roots take over! Lots of comfort foods and fresh cooking elevates the junk. Buy local. I shop big bulk monthly and usually hit the store every-other day. It works for us.
DAWN: I can mix just about anything with some macaroni and make a meal. A lot of people would also benefit from smaller portions and less meat! Learning how to use leftovers and create new meals from them, and not throwing things away is also key. People waste a lot of food. Stale bread? Make a panzanella salad. Left over broccoli? Macaroni and broccoli. Leftover spinach? Throw it in a frittata. It’s easy to do the challenge. What needs to be done is to teach basic cooking skills to people and teach them how to stretch what they have and how to stretch that dollar.
AMY: I’m not of Italian immigrant stock, but Jewish, and if anyone can stretch a dollar, we can. Take a chicken, a carrot or two, parsley, a touch of salt and pepper, and make a pot of soup. Then take the meat, make some kreplachs (Jewish ravioli), these can be served with or without the soup, and eat the rest of the chicken. Delicious 2-3 meals with 1 chicken...organic or otherwise. And you can render the fat to use on potato and veggies in place of butter. By the way, organic isn’t always the best. Can have some unkind bacteria that can make a person sick on produce if not washed very carefully.
MANDY: Breakfast during the week consists of cereal. Like many other families, it’s not only about money but it is also about time in the morning. It works. We get a big pack of store brand for $3.00. It lasts a week and it feeds everyone breakfast. 2 loaves of bread, sandwich meat, water and a few snacks make up lunch. Not a lot of money spent there either. Dinner is the big spender and even that doesn’t have to be costly. A whole chicken can be made into 3 meals. As a roaster, then a rice or pasta dish, and then as a soup. Pasta is always a good food stretcher. Baked mac & cheese, baked ziti, or lasagna can be combined into 2 meals. It’s all about knowing how to work the kitchen. And, working is not an excuse to run for the TV dinners. Foods can be pre-cooked and frozen on a day off for the week and then they won’t have all the poisonous additives that packaged frozen goods have. People are just lazy and don’t want to put in the effort and are never satisfied.
JOEY: All OUR families had to make it on pastas…They added meatballs or broccoli…or chicken…and they ALL made it past The Great Depression!
I want to thank everyone for all their amazing input!
Ok, so I bet you are wondering what the Meatball family bought and cooked for this challenge? Read on for every detail of how we took on Mario’s mission…
I spent $122 on a variety of groceries at a family run grocery store which, unlike all the chains—offer the best prices around for the highest quality items. That’s right, $122! I thought about just scanning in the receipt to show our shopping list but then I figured I would break it all down to make things crystal clear.
Fruits and vegetables were $25. With that I got fresh strawberries, grapes, apples and pears at $2 or less per bag, a broccoli rabe bushel, a bag of potatoes, corns on the cob, carrots, mushrooms, onions and peppers all at $2 or less per bag, an eggplant for a buck (which fed the entire family for a full dinner and lunch the next day), heads of lettuce and cabbage at also $1 apiece, plus tomatoes, garlic cloves, and a cucumber. Meats for the week also came in at just under $25 and we purchased ribeye steaks, chicken breasts, sweet Italian sausages and a pound of meatloaf mix (veal-pork-beef) for meatballs. Dairy items cost us $18.50 which included a tub of ricotta, grated cheese, a chunk of mozzarella (used in two dinners), a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs for $1.50 (actually it was a special so we got 18 eggs), mayo, cream cheese and butter.
Bread and related bread products cost $11.50 for sliced American bread, 7 semolina rolls for our lunches, 4 bagels (2 poppy seed and 2 sesame), a large seasoned breadcrumbs for $1 (used in 3 dinners), a bag of flour, a package of breadsticks and pizza doughs. As far as beverages, that was only $10 and that gave us a can of coffee, a carton of OJ, juice boxes for our eight year old to bring to school, a 12 pack of bottled water and a 2-liter bottle of 7-Up. The most expensive category is what I call miscellaneous at $32 containing our coldcuts for the week (Genoa salami, mortadella, provolone), 2 bags of dry macaroni, a can of tuna, a box of Corn Flakes, a package of cookies, a package of 8 snack bags of potato chips, Italian ice, olive oil, vinegar, a jar of giardiniera, a jar of Nutella, and a large (#10 size) can of tomatoes for sauce (used 4 times).
So do the math, it can be done! But now you are probably asking yourself, did we eat wholesome, balanced meals? Well you didn’t see any frozen meals and other than canned tomatoes and tuna, we didn’t get any canned meals. No Ramen noodles either. No junk food. Ok, I will let you decide. Here is our menu of what we ate for the week…
-Breakfast- Peppers and eggs, fresh strawberries, juice/coffee
-Lunch- Sunday gravy (tomato sauce) with meatballs, bowls of macaroni, salad, garlic bread
-Dinner- Sunday “dinner” is light for us since lunch is between 2 and 3pm. We will usually share an antipasto platter containing rolled up salami, mortadella, provolone, giardiniera (a medley of pickled vegetables such as carrots, celery, olives), breadsticks, grapes
-Dessert- Stella D’Oro cookies
-Breakfast- All weekday breakfasts consist of either bowls of cereal or toast with Nutella, juice/coffee
-Lunch- Meatball sandwiches (made with leftover meatballs from Sunday)
Please note, I’m only listing the main food in the lunch section. Lunches for the week include a piece of fruit (apple, pear), a small bag of potato chips, bottled water or juice box
-Dinner- Eggplant Parmigiano made using Sunday sauce, a cucumber and cherry tomato salad with oil and vinegar, garlic knots made with pizza dough
-Breakfast- Weekday Breakfast
-Lunch- Eggplant parm sandwiches (leftovers from Monday)
-Dinner- Ribeye steaks with mushrooms, broccoli rabe sautéed in garlic and oil, mashed potatoes
-Breakfast- Weekday Breakfast
-Lunch- Coldcut sandwiches (mortadella, salami), provolone
-Dinner- Chicken cutlets, potato croquettes (made from the leftover mashed potatoes), salad
-Breakfast- Weekday Breakfast
-Lunch- Chicken cutlet sandwiches
-Dinner- Sausage and peppers, bowls of macaroni (with sauce from Sunday)
-Breakfast- Weekday Breakfast
-Lunch- Tuna sandwiches
-Dinner- A grandma style square pizza made with remaining dough from Monday & made with remaining sauce from Sunday (utilized for the fourth time), topped with shredded mozzarella (also left over from Monday eggplant parm), salad
-Breakfast- Bagels with cream cheese, juice/coffee
-Lunch- Coldcut sandwiches
-Dinner- Pork chops on the barbecue, corn and the cob, coleslaw
-Dessert- Italian ice
A few stores in North Jersey which I recommend perpetuating for great deals on great stuff is Corrado’s in Clifton, Wayne and Fairfield, as well as International Food Warehouse in Lodi (no membership required), Compare Foods in Clifton, Aldi’s in East Rutherford, Jerry’s in Englewood, and as I said before, any of the shops on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. The bigger places like Eataly in Manhattan are nice to visit every now and then, as is Fairway, but they are very expensive and you can find a lot of the items they carry in the stores I mentioned.
Well there you have it folks, mission accomplished. Did we eat like kings for the week? I personally feel that we ate meals containing all the food groups and were very well fed, but that’s all a matter of opinion. Honestly, this was not a very difficult challenge for us. While it fluctuates because we do like to eat out in our favorite Italian restaurant once a week, the family food budget ranges between $100-$150 per week consistently, and the $124 figure is right on the money for the average. As I will reiterate, my extra pocket change is always going to go to ingredients which enhance our home cooked meals, it’s not going to junk.
And no matter how rich and famous I get, I will always prefer pasta fagioli over foie gras.
I would be more than happy to answer any questions on my experience with this mission and expand upon my thoughts. Contact me via facebook (johnnydecarlo) or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if Mr. Batali is reading this, I’d love to come cook my one dollar eggplant parm dinner for the entire cast of The Chew!