Wise Bread's Frugal Food Gone Wrong

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I do not like wasting food. Not only is throwing out food wasteful, but it's also financially irresponsible. One of my ever-present goals is to prepare just the right amount of food so that I'm full but not stuffed, and so that I have leftovers, but not so many that they'll make a lovely home for mold in the back of my fridge. (See also: Waste Not, Want Not: Stop Throwing Away Your Food!)

But sometimes, sometimes our desire to eat frugally goes terribly wrong. I started thinking about this the other day while listening to an episode of comedian Marc Maron's podcast (a heads-up if you follow that link — his material can be profanity laced). He had fellow comedian David Cross on the show, and they told a story about how David tried cooking beans, but failed miserably — ending up with an unpleasant-sounding "bean concentrate" that he ate anyway...for multiple meals.

Inspired by that story, today I present tales from some Wise Bread writers that are not for the weak of stomach. From inexpensive outings turned pricey to the inevitable Thanksgiving cooking blunders, I hope that you can learn from our mistakes.

Feeling Chicken

Paul Michael: It's 1 a.m.

I'm woken from my slumber by a pain I know all too well. It's that churning, cramping sensation you get when something you have eaten severely disagrees with you. And I know exactly what the cause of it is, and how much more pain I'm about to be in for. As I fall out of bed and crawl to the bathroom, my mind flashes back to several hours earlier.

We had done grocery shopping a few days before, and my wife had bought a big pack of fresh chicken wings. I'm a lover of buffalo chicken wings, and this time I had plans to make my own from scratch. Unfortunately, the design of my wife's car makes it very easy to miss a grocery bag or two, as there is an under-floor compartment in the trunk. And on this occasion, my wings were in there. The next day, as I was hunting around in the fridge for my chicken, I wondered if we had left them in the store. I checked the old fridge in the garage, usually reserved for drinks. It was not there.

Then I realized where the chicken was.

I opened up the compartment and found my shopping bag filled with my chicken wings. It had been a cold night. Cold enough to keep the wings fine? Yeahhh! I wasn't about to throw away good chicken; that's like throwing away $10.

I prodded and smelled them, they seemed fine. Ish. Maybe a tad off, but as I was about to deep fry these suckers, it would kill anything lingering, right?

I wolfed down 12 of the delicious wings covered in my homemade buffalo sauce. Ahhh, good times. Flash back to me crawling across the bedroom floor. I wanted to bang my head of the dresser for being an idiot. Thank goodness everyone else in the family refused to try them, including my two young girls. After 12 hours of vomiting, dry retching, and general misery, I made a vow to never again take risks with food. And to this day, I cannot smell buffalo sauce without wanting to gag.

(Paul, unfortunately, has multiple stories about terrible eats — check out his curry debacle in When Being Frugal Went Wrong.)

Gravy, Sweet Gravy

Julie Rains: When we were first married, my husband made an unusual gravy for our first Thanksgiving dinner together.

At the time, my husband worked for a paternalistic company that supplied free turkeys to all of its employees for Thanksgiving. I doubt we would have tackled roasting a turkey, preparing gravy, etc. if we had not received this gift, and simply would have enjoyed our parents' home-cooked meals instead.

Since he brought the turkey home, it was decided that my husband would prepare it. He did fairly well, periodically getting instructions from his mother via telephone. Making the gravy was difficult, however. He kept adding flour from a Tupperware bin but could not get the right consistency. Exasperated, he asked his hungry bride (me) for help. I inspected the pan and noted that the gravy tasted like cotton candy. Then I asked where the flour came from, and he pointed to a small bin that contained confectioner's sugar.

As newlyweds, our kitchen was not expertly stocked, so we had sugar but no flour. At the time, we were both disappointed that the gravy was ruined but now laugh at the easy-to-make newbie mistake.

Imperfect Produce

Meg Favreau: My favorite farmers market buys are the bags of slightly damaged fruits and vegetables. I'm more than happy to cut out a few brown spots if it means I get to enjoy a huge bag of juicy peaches for a dollar. Dinged-up apples? Totally ready for pie. Those just-starting-to-shrivel mushrooms? Fine as long as I cook them later that day.

I do get produce paranoid, though, and I always take a thorough look around the outside of the bag to try and ensure that I'm not accidentally buying something really off. One time last summer when I bought a bag of sweet corn, though, I didn't look hard enough. The ears looked gorgeous and felt nicely firm. Once home, I started pulling them out and shucking them one by one. The first two were fine — a couple of slightly shriveled kernels at the end, but otherwise, deliciously edible. Then I shucked the third ear, and saw what looked like stock footage from a dinner-themed horror movie. The ear of corn had a gaping hole in it that was absolutely crawling with tiny worms, all wriggling and spilling out onto my counter.

I yelped, dropped the corn, then immediately picked it up again and put it in the trash with the rest of the ears. I can only hope that the farmers market didn't know about the infestation of crawlies when they bagged the corn up for sale. Gross.

Too Much for Tacos

Nora Dunn: I'll forever be haunted/amused by a night on the town a few years ago where I observed the differences in how a group of fellow travelers approached an outing to a restaurant in Hawaii for "Taco Tuesday." Poor Phil was the victim in this story — he had the least amount of money, but thanks to poor planning, ended up spending more than everybody else. I'm pretty sure we all know somebody like him. His blunders remind me to be conscious of how I spend money on food — and to make sure it's worth it — for me. There is no right or wrong answer; just choices to be made.

What frugal food blunders have you made? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Guest's picture
Guest in CA

FYI, Meg, as someone who used to sell produce at a farmer's market, I have to say your mistake was discarding the entire bag of corn because one ear had a lot of worms. Many ears of corn will have one or two, if not more. I would not have kept that one ear that was teeming (although my DH probably would have just cut off that section), but the others probably were ok. If you don't see the worms when you'r shucking, the boiling water or grill will kill the few that might be there.

My latest frugal mistake has been buying apples at the grocery store based on price, when the lowest price is *really* low. Those apples are old, or much lower quality produce than the rest of the display with prices within a smaller range.