Thank you, dear Klatsch team, for that kind introduction.
Hello people. It's time for another no-shopping challenge. Those of you who lived through it last time
around know the backstory, but let me fill everybody in on how a month-long challenge changed the way I buy, cook and think about food, forever.
I never intended to go a week without shopping for groceries, much less a month. It just happened, thanks to a blessed event.
Like many, or perhaps most, people in Western industrialized nations, I shop for groceries at a supermarket once a week, every week. In my case, that supermarket is Fairway on Broadway between 74th and 75th Streets in New York City, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My family has been shopping there since I was a little kid, and ever since I moved back to New York City after graduating from college in Vermont in 1991, I have been going to Fairway every Sunday morning, with few interruptions in that routine. In the past three and a half years, my mother and a recent addition to the family – my son PJ – have become part of this equation. Shopping at Fairway on Sunday mornings with grandma is a highlight of his week, and my wife Ellen gets a couple of precious hours to herself.
I’m a man of habit – even ritual – when it comes to food. I buy bread every week, whether we need it or not. I don’t even stop to think. When there’s extra bread, I put the slices in the freezer, certain that I’ll someday do something with them. A few months later, the freezer is overflowing with bread and I throw it all in the trash. It’s a loop I’ve been caught in for years: grocery shopping every week has been ingrained in me since I was young, just like other Americans. And since becoming a parent myself, our schedule has become even more rigid.
So it was an unexpected disruption one Sunday earlier this year when we had to attend a friend’s daughter’s first communion in New Jersey – and I couldn’t do the grocery shopping. But we had plenty of leftovers, so I made dinner on Sunday (I’m the primary cook in the household) and planned to shop on Monday. Then it rained on Monday and I didn’t want to brave the weather – in New York City we don’t drive our groceries home; we carry them. I found some black-bean soup in the freezer. I heated it up, toasted some of the bread from the frozen stockpile and pulled together a salad: the previous week’s lettuce was still with us, and still in great shape. I put out little bowls of diced red onion, sour cream and salsa to garnish our soup, along with an array of hot sauces. My wife baked oatmeal cookies for dessert. It turned out to be a fantastic meal.
I planned to shop Tuesday. But on Tuesday morning we had to make cookies for PJ’s entire Music Together class, then I had a full day of work, then we had date night and we didn’t think Fairway was date-night material. On Wednesday I had to sit through an all-morning seminar the contents of which could have been conveyed in about half an hour, then I had lunch with an editor, then I had to work late into the night to meet a deadline . . . Before I knew it, the end of the week was at hand, I hadn’t bought any new groceries – and, lo and behold, no harm had befallen my family. My refrigerator, freezer and pantry, I realized, had been overflowing with edible food. Why had I been saving all this stuff, I wondered, when I could have been eating it?
I hadn’t shopped at all that week. Yet, we ate well – and for those of you who aren’t familiar with me let me say: you better believe that. I’m not some skinny vegetarian. I’m a big guy – my member name here isn’t “Fat Guy” for nothing. I write about food and restaurants for a (barely) living, and if you do that, you’ve got to eat often and well. As many of you know, I started out as a lawyer, but I was more interested in my business lunches than in my business, so a decade ago I left the law to devote my life to the world of food. I make no compromises when it comes to food; my girth is my proof.
But that week, because I had to flex my creative muscles to assemble meals from what was on hand, I forced myself to be a more careful cook than ever before. We ate so well that week, it got me thinking. Surely I wasn’t alone in having a freezer and pantry full of food, much of which would get thrown out as it expired over the course of the coming months and years. We live in a small New York City apartment – people with houses, basement freezers and walk-in pantries must have far more stuff lying around. I knew I wasn’t the only person in America who returned from the supermarket and could barely fit the new food in the refrigerator because there was so much old stuff still there. Certainly I wasn’t alone in being able to skip a week of shopping and still eat well. Really well.
So, a few months later, I asked the members of the eGullet Society to join me in a collective week without shopping, starting that day, with no warning and no opportunity to stockpile—just don’t shop, now, I challenged. (To keep it fair, a month earlier, I’d asked my colleague Dave to pick a date and spring it on me without warning; he actually caught me during a week when I was already low on several key provisions.) We would feast on the bounty of our refrigerators, freezers and pantries. “Think about it from an economic standpoint,” I argued. “Times are tough right now. If you spend $100 a week on groceries, this experiment will put $100 back in your pocket quicker than you can say ‘stimulus.’”
I’ll admit to being surprised when my suggestion was met with a chorus of excitement. We declared a “National Eat the Stuff in Our Freezers and Pantries Week.” (I know, it rolls right off the tongue.) A group of approximately 75 people from around the world took the no-shopping challenge that week.
For seven days, it was a fun experiment and we ate surprisingly well – better than in a normal week, because we were really focused on our use of ingredients, and we had to pay a lot of attention to meal planning. Then, at the end of the week, a bigger challenge arose: my family hosted a dinner party. My wife’s cousin Stephanie and her new boyfriend Jason were coming over. We really wanted Jason to marry Stephanie, so I couldn’t serve them a bad meal of old food. I was worried, but my fears were unfounded. I made so many dishes in such quantity that nobody would have guessed it was a no-shopping week. A few weeks later, Stephanie and Jason got engaged.
“National Eat the Stuff in Our Freezers and Pantries Week” was over. But though I had reduced the stockpile in the refrigerator, the pantry and freezer were a different story. They were still so full that every time I opened the freezer, something would fall out onto my foot. My cabinets were packed so tightly that I still had no idea what might be in them. So I decided to go another week, as did many of my co-conspirators in the one-week challenge. And then we went yet another week. In the end, we managed a month without grocery shopping, though some of us made exceptions to buy a half-gallon of milk for our kids.
Not long after we started the challenge, a writer at the New York Times got wind of the project and wrote an online piece about all the crazy people online who were going a week without shopping for groceries. The Washington Post found out and decided to run a similar challenge for its readers. The phenomenon spread. As I was going into my fourth week of supermarket avoidance, a producer from Good Morning America called. A film crew with a mountain of lights and microphones filled every available bit of space in my apartment. (The segment got bumped for a hard-news event, so it may never air – we’ll see.) Oprah did a similar challenge for her viewers.
Somewhere between the time I laid the no-shopping gauntlet down to the eGullet community and the media enthusiasm that ensued, it finally hit me: this challenge was more than just an amusing way to use all of the food I had bought during my weekly pilgrimage to Fairway and save some money. In staying away from the grocery store, I had changed.
In a week I had become sensitive to waste in a way that a lifetime of lip-service to conservation had never achieved. Not that my awakening was a one-shot deal. My don’t-shop-now challenge had resonated with a cross-section of people around the world, but I didn't fully understand why until toward the fourth week, as the challenge evolved from something fun, into something edifying, into something personally, profoundly meaningful.
Each individual who took the challenge experienced it in a slightly different way, but for many of us there was a common thread. We came to understand, through this shared experience, that the way people in the wealthy nations shop, eat and cook is the centerpiece of a wasteful lifestyle that's hard to break out of. While for most of history, humankind struggled full-time to find enough food to survive, in the mid-20th Century the tables turned. In the affluent nations, at least, we now have so much food, and it’s so cheap, that we throw billions of dollars worth of it in the garbage. While doing that, we’ve become a rather pudgy society.
Yet many people in the 21st Century still shop, every week, like they’re stocking up for a hard 19th Century winter. Today’s food abundance has smothered self-restraint. After all, I didn’t just survive the challenge. I was buying less and saving money, but I was also eating better. And it wasn’t just my food life that changed. I reflected on and reevaluated all my patterns of spending and consumption as well as those of society at large. At the end of the month, the challenge was over, but it had changed me forever.
It can happen for you too. I'm going to ask you to take the “Don’t Shop Now” challenge for seven days, starting right now. In taking this journey together we can make a difference. We can change our food buying, cooking and eating habits. And along the way you’re going to pick up more than a few new kitchen skills that have value in every room of the house and beyond. I firmly believe that many people, once they achieve the realization that they can do more with less, can do more than just eat better. They can buy less and dress better, play better, travel better, live better.