On Being a Foodie in your Twenties

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

This is a bit of what I think is an essay that grazes over some touchy subjects. It's a little discombobulated as it's just a freewrite I sat down and sort of let flow. Still, I like how I felt where I decided to finish what seemed to be a bit of venting so I decided to post it as is with very little revision. Hope you enjoy.

Your twenties are a definitive part of your life, or so I'm told. I'm only halfway through them so there's still plenty of time to figure out exactly all the finer details, but still, it does seem to be the part of my life where I find myself trying to give ME a clear definition. Your twenties are filled with awkward relationships, bad apartments, even worse cars (or at times a lack of one), and jobs that don't pay you enough for epic amounts of shit you put up with, all while you go to school in the attempt to start your first career. It's a chaotic spiral with an uncertain center, where you end up dazed and confused but (hopefully) a bit smarter in the end.

While the world is your oyster and every experience is fresh and new, much of what you want in this world is out of your reach. Or if you find a way to reach it, you end up bending over backwards to obtain some grazing fingerslip of the prize, telling yourself you will have to settle. And settle you do. We console ourselves with reassurances that we are paying our dues, all while we volunteer and beg and cajole what few connections and networks we have. Not to say they are no victories, but they may not be the victories you were expecting.

However, this is what is to be expected in the world. You have to show your worth, earn your keep, prove your prowess to the older and experienced. Those above us are praised, looked up to, envied, and trusted. Still though, it upsets me how far and away some things are still.

This is part of what upsets me about Slow Food. Slow Food, a society of food lovers who promote sustainable and humane eating and agriculture, put on various activities and events throughout the year often raising charitable donations through their events. It's a noble group and I have no real qualm with them. I admire the Slow Food group. In fact I wish to join their ranks.

But I can't. It's financially untenable for me. I work a job in the non-profit sector that allows me to make my own hours (as long as it's 8 every weekday) so that I can go to school at night. The pay is self-descriptive for a non-profit. I work at the magazine, pull in a bit of revenue from ads on the blog, and write recipes and articles for free or for pay for whomever will have them. All of this so that I can have a career as an college English Professor / food writer. I call it paying my dues. Working my way up.

And I'm okay with that. Actually, I enjoy it. My parents raised me well. I know nothing is served on a silver platter, and I would not have it that way. I want to work my way up and learn as much as I can. Still, regardless, some aspect of education in the world of food will be out of my reach for quite some time...

I will continue with my Slow Food example. The price tags for these events make me laugh. I don't have $80 for a wine tasting; I have to pay for my internet and hot water bills. Taste3 is way out of my league with a price tag around $2000, not including your rooming, food, and transportation. The only way I am going is through a very generous fellowship I applied for and a friend who is letting me sleep on her floor.

I know that someday when I am more financially sound that this will all be available to me. It just takes time. Still, it's annoying. A large portion of food culture is cut off from those without money. The culture of good food is a bit classist. Let's all admit it to ourselves. The best food is grown and harvested by lower to low-middle class people and enjoyed by middle to upper class people. I know that statement is loaded and many of you are ready to argue, but lets face it, for a family of four with the bread winners on a low income salary or hourly wage job, it's easier and cheaper to eat from Wal-Mart. Caviar is from Venus, Easy Mac is from 7-11.

Food defines classes. It has the ability to separate and divide and has proven so throughout history. It's a loaded local, organic, heirloom zucchini I'm packing. It is not as readily available as we like to think. Yes, you can get some food cheaper at the Farmer's Market then from the store, and sustain local agriculture. I found cherries for $2 a pound this weekend. A steal from what Safeway would charge for 1/2 a pound! So yes, to some effect, it is doable. However honey, meats, cheeses, eggs, jams... well, it's cheaper elsewhere. And you will go elsewhere when on a tight budget. I'm just lucky I have mad budgeting skills. I can make a penny bleed like a hemophiliac. Still, I keep a box of Easy Mac and a box of frozen corn dogs on hand in case an emergency car repair eats up my paycheck.

But I digress, I have gotten a bit off topic, some aspects of food are beyond my position and means. I pinch and save to go to nice restaurants, I do my best to eat local and organic. Still, I know some of it will require my patience to rise up in the world.

I just have to work through my twenties and pay my dues.

If you agree or disagree, I would love to hear it in the comments section. No worries, I won't be blasting anyone. ;)


  1. It is so true! I don't usually complain about my poor college student food budget because I know that in a few years I'll have a decent job (I hope), but sometimes I just want some decent produce instead of prepackaged, frozen, reheated nastiness.

    But even if I did have the money, Wal-Mart is the only grocery store within 45 minutes of my university, so I suppose I can't gripe too much.

    And people wonder why I plan on going to grad school part time and working full time... it's not the classes, people, it's the food budget!

  2. Thats why I like to hear from sourdough monkey wrangler, he seems to do ok for himself, bartering with muffins at the farmers market and that sort of thing.

    Its wierd for me, I'm currently on a salary that I can afford the odd luxury, but if I actually take the leap into the food industry I'm unlikely to be able to keep up with buying the expensive ingredients and eating at the fancy restaurants that all the foodies are!

  3. Being in my forties, I definitely feel this is my best decade. I've matured, feel comfortable with my life the way it is, my body is in great shape and still attractive, and I make a decent income. But those $80 events are still out of my reach as well. Let's face it. California is damn expensive. To own a home drains most of us. I also live paycheck to paycheck for that piece of the American dream. Thank God I was lucky/smart to buy a home near work so I am spared this gas crisis - I bike. But I do agree that fine food is elitist.

  4. I agree that food culture is very classist. There is also a lot of judgement from those who have means against those who do not.

  5. Hey Garrett,

    As someone in her (gasp) 40's, I still find the pricetag on some of the foodie opportunities formidable. While I could probably cough up $80 for a wine tasting, it would seem expensive to me (that's a whole dinner out!) and I certainly would find it insane to spend $2000 on a food-related activity.

    It does often cost more to eat well, and I'm like you - I find ways to economize on other things so I can afford good food. I have a great job, but I still find it hard to justify buying wine at more than $15 a bottle... and I still buy plenty of $8 bottles.

    I'd love to see a movement for good, affordable food that doesn't cost a ton. So many fabulous dishes are based on "peasant" food... why isn't there a movement that encourages healthy, tasty food at reasonable prices??

    I'd say let's start one, but dang... your hours are insane!

    Thanks for everything you do - I love your blog, your recipes, etc. and I see great things for your future - I'll be watching your star rise!!

  6. I feel your pain. I'm a little under seven months away from 30, in the middle of a non-profit career, and a huge fan of food. But I'm also a big fan of equality and opponent of classism (as well as a variety of other -isms which are inherently linked to food, too).

    But the good thing about this time and these challenging issues are that they allow us to think about broader issues, the ones that keep the food world closed off. Hopefully, people like us will be able to shift that culture over time, to make good food more accessible to more people, to provide less-advantaged kids with the opportunity to enjoy real strawberries, to create more opportunities for people across class lines to break bread together...

    That's the hopeful side of it all, that we'll carry forward the memories of this age to work to expand not just food security, but also food quality to more people. Right?

  7. I'm in my late 20's and only within the past 5 years have I been able to have a decent income to stop buying boxes of Kraft Dinner. To have food is to have money. My parents have always told me that when people come over, show them that you care and taht you have a few luxuries in life by making a big meal for them. (Maybe it's just a Chinese thing... Have you ever had dinner at a Chinese household where there are only 5 people to serve and there are 10 giant plates of food on the table - not to mention the rice and soup that's in the kitchen?)

    Anyway, like I said, I'm in my late 20's and it's an amazing thing to see what people eat. I bunch of my co-workers who are well beyond my years still have things like fried chicken and fries for lunch everyday. Or have popcorn for dinner (and no, they didn't go see a movie at the theatre). It amazes me that I think we've been brough up on fast food and TV dinners that people don't know how to cook for themselves at all. Especially where I live, where food is in abundance - local fresh food. Markets galore providing local and even organic if you choose (aka can afford it).

    So don't feel bad if you can't afford stuff now. You still won't when you're older (not that I'm that much older than you), but at least you can make better choices. Don't tell me that when you hit 40 you decide to stop making cupcakes - that or you've decided to have microwave popcorn for dinner AGAIN.

  8. So true. I really liked this. I struggle with the same issues... How do I eat healthy, tasty food on a budget? I mean, broke people are almost destined for obesity with the prices for twinkies as opposed to fresh veggies. It takes so much effort, budgeting and thought! It's not that I'm bitter, but I am certainly aware of the gap; that's just the way things are, and probably will always be.

  9. I have to agree Garrett. Like casvelyn I am a poor college student and my 'recipes to try' spreadsheet will keep getting longer and longer because I simply cannot afford even the ingredients for 'quinoa encrusted salmon' or 'asparagus gruyere tart', let alone have the time to produce homemade pastas, preserves, etc. As much as I love the foodie community I simply can't afford to be part of it, something that truly saddens me.

  10. I'm nodding my head because after one year I chose not to rejoin Slow Food because all the events were simply too expensive. (And I am in my 50's!) I guess I actually had the money, but it was just more than I wanted to spend on those kinds of things.

  11. Garrett, this is an important topic, which is: How do we who appreciate good quality food manage to actually afford it?

    This is not so much an issue for young people, as I am twice your age and struggle with this every time I buy groceries. I have to compromise and make choices or we don't eat, it is as simple as that.

    Often when my friends discuss eating out, I don't have much to say because we can't afford to eat out very often. It is the rare treat. I comfort myself with knowing I can often cook a meal that is even better at home.

    I'm also priced out of the gourmet crowd events. But I like to think that we "foodies" can band together once in a while to pool our resources and share great food and company.

    Be happy you are developing your taste and can recognize quality. It will serve you well all your life even if you have to choose your food luxuries carefully during your "salad days".

  12. 1. Your 20s are like a really bad neighborhood in Oakland: Run through them, as fast as you can.

    2. I'm 42 and pretty damned successful and I can't afford Taste3. If I've got $2,000 to spare, I'm spending it on a rifle, scope and ammunition so I can bring home pork and venison for decades to come.

    3. I think low-income Americans could eat a lot better with their money if the whole nation hadn't up and forgotten how to cook. Granted, it's still cheaper by the calorie to buy all that crap at WalMart, but you can certainly eat healthy and flavorful meals on a budget - even if you can't try all the recipes that catch your fancy. Can poor people eat well? Imagine if we invested in teaching people to grow gardens, raise a chicken or two, and really cook. Even in apartments - turn over all that pesticide-laced landscaping to pursuits that will feed people.

    4. I think it's about time Hank and I have you over for dinner.


  13. I agree 100% with what you've said, and if there's something the US can learn from many other parts of the world it's that good food doesn't have to be expensive.

    Even in Toronto, where I live, there are wonderful neighborhood markets (Kensington is perhaps my favorite) where one can get very good produce and 'natural' items (i.e., nuts, spices, etc. -- stuff often found in co-ops) at a fraction of what I see them cost elsewhere. Chinatown also has tremendous bargains on what are often very good products. These neighborhoods exist because there is a market for them in the city -- families (many of them immigrants) who like good food, but can't afford to pay a premium.

    And this brings me to my larger point -- good food is expensive in North America because some people seem to be willing to pay more for it, and most people are content to eat junk.

    Compare a farmer's market in the US to markets in small European towns (or, better yet, SE Asian ones). In the rest of the world, that's where everybody goes to buy their food. In the US, it's where yuppies go to feel good about themselves for buying $3/head veganically grown garlic (I pay $.30/head for my garlic, thanks, and haven't noticed a difference).

    To effect change, we need to reflect on our priorities and shopping habits. We have a long history of valuing shelf life and convenience over quality. For as long as this persists, quality will be expensive.

    Just my $.02 -- do others agree?

  14. Good food is, and never was, classist. Haute cuisine and expensive ingredients are, by definition, classist. Bottom line is that those who know how to cook can make magic with little; this is the penny bleeding.

    I put myself through graduate school earning less than those on welfare, and it was there I learned what to do with cheap ingredients like chicken drumsticks, goat necks, simple rice and quinoa and spelt and dozen other cheap, filling things. I grew chiles on my fire escape. It can be done.

    All of this said, there is a certain exclusivity about the whole slow food thing that I find pretentious and distasteful. I would never pay $80 for a wine tasting, and that $2,000 is far better spent cooking and eating and learning in your own kitchen than sitting in a classroom listening to those who do, because you are one who does not.

    Do. And succeed. I have faith in you, Garrett. You will be fine.

  15. I'm not sure that 2K for a food event will ever be "reasonable" for an English professor/food writer. Unless you're ridiculously successful, which has more to do with luck than skill or hard work.

    Because even when you are earning more money, there will be more expenses. While my appreciation of good food has increased with age, my budget to enjoy it has not. If I had 2K beyond my expenses, I'm pretty certain I would max out my Roth IRA contribution before I would go to a Slow Food event.

  16. Garrett~
    I think we're about the same age, mid-twenties, but have a different perspective. Maybe it's because I've never had the chance to eat at the best places and try that style of food, but I do think you can eat well on any budget.

    No, I wouldn't pay $2000 for a food event unless it included everything, up to and including a nanny for a week and someone to do my dishes, but I don't think I'd do that even if I had the money.

    In the meantime, on a tight budget, there's this wonderful thing called "substitution". No, it won't be the exact same as what the 5 star chef serves, but it's better than easy mac.

    I love cooking, I have a garden (and fresh tomatoes while the rest of the nation suffers... my neighbors have been peeking through the fence to see what's ripe) and I can cook just about anything. If I can't find the salmon, well, I can find something else to go under the sauce can't I? It's not a perfect solution but it's healthier than fried foods or fast food.

    I don't know if there's a solution to the classist attitude surrounding food. I think the worst problem is probably (like others mentioned) the ignorance. Some people don't know how to cook! So they live of McDonalds. People are raised on the grease and fat and if you put a beautiful meal in front of them they wouldn't know what to do.

    My advice is to skip Taste3, stock the big freezer with some homemade spaghetti sauce, and go relax. You deserve to treat your body well. :o)

  17. For those who made note: NO, I would never pay 2K for a food event. I am going to this for free, so thank you Taste3.

    I actually do eat pretty well. I have educated myself well, and I have good friends who teach me tricks. (Also having friends who hunt and grow stuff helps.)

    I never blog about my regular meals because most of the time, it's too dark for pictures and I'm too damn tired.

    Honestly, as people who know me can attest to, I eat pretty well. Better than most people my age I would wager, due to my own cooking and ingredient hunting skills and because foodie friends eat together and get invited out sometimes (yay!).

    Still, someday I wish to develop a green thumb and the ability to grow some of my food.

  18. I just had dinner at a famous chef's home and he asked me if I was going to join the local 'Slow Foods' group.

    And I said no, because here in town it just feels like a gimmicky fad right now. And I stress "in town" - and not in general.

    I do what I can. I shop with coupons. I only buy what's on sale. I go to the Farmer's Market when I can - but damn! Some of the prices are outrageous!

  19. Being in my late fifties (!)and a member of Slow Food in the Netherlands - in my opinion SF should be more of an attitude than a costly organisation - your posting took me back to student years, way back then at Leiden University. Poor as a churchrat, a day student, jobs only during holiday season, till I hit lucky and got a small assistentjob at university. All of a sudden I hád a budget ;-). Which meant for a foodie that we in the student house pooled our small resources, at times we made the most incredible Indian dishes and even our own mango chutney, but then - runnig out of money - we would have to eat plain bread with the chutney for weeks. Or very plain pancakes and weak tea. But we survived on that just to afford the luxury of sharing a real good piece of Roquefort and a bottle of wine. Knowing that one day.....
    It's a choice you make, good food and eating is not the only motivator, but going for the job you love is far more important and the result of that choice will stick with you for the rest of your life.
    At this time in my life I'm happy to have chosen the 'hard' road and the days of student poverty make up great stories. Don't get me started ;-)
    BTW: SF in this country has an option for students to become members for a reduced fee. Which I think is very sensible. In my opinion students should get a free membership and only pay a token fee for participating in tastings.
    Keep up, things will only get better! Dream of your kitchengarden, luxury kitchen and the friends to share the fun with! In the meantime, I enjoy your writing very much.

  20. The problem of affordable, good (and honestly REAL) food is one that we as a nation have been and will be experiencing for quite some time, I'm afraid. But I have hope in the future, through organizations and individuals who stress whole food, gardening, re-learning how to cook, and really how to eat. I think it will take a revolution, but that it starts with each person doing what they can to not only change their own habits, but also to help educate others. And really, changing habits can be SO hard. Especially when one walks into a grocery store or turns on a TV and is bombarded by advertisements spouting the latest food product to find yet another use for high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated fats. Slow Food IS a revolution; but revolutions are (hopefully) taking place among those less financially secure which will (if enough people buy into them) change the way we look at (and eat) food. ANYWAY thanks for bringing up this topic, ALWAYS good to hear from people who face the problem of eating well on a budget! Encouraging, too. I've been living on a volunteer stipend for the past year, and it's definitely forced me to become a bit more creative in my food choices.

  21. I really like your blog and this post is really correct. I think that the slow food movement has an inherent luxury quality to it that is hard for those who do not have the budget for it. I grew up on the a farm and we ate those cheap fryer chickens for sunday night roasts because they were cheap. We also ate our own rabbits and vegetables but we still benefited off of cheap food. Most can not afford to by slow food, and 80 dollars for a wine tasting? that is nuts!

  22. Very eloquently written Garrett.

    I agree. Sometimes I wonder if the prices are to keep out the "ruffians."

    AND - I'll admit, I totally love me some Kraft Mac on occasion.

  23. Hey Garrett. Very interesting conversation going on here! One of the reasons we offer fellowships at Taste3 is to be sure that we include people like yourself who could not otherwise attend. Those who can afford it help us make it possible for others. Taste3 is not really a "food event" like what some might envision (aka some hot chef showing how to make fancy stuff). It's a food, wine and art think tank and a place to exchange ideas, find solutions, get both your mind and your palate zinging. Bring this conversation with you when you come and see where it leads. We're looking forward to your spirited participation and I am going to be very interested in what you have to say about your experience afterwards! (BTW, all meals are covered so no need to pack your ramen noodles.)

  24. I work at an incredibly upscale market. The kind of place where people have salt tastings and pay $30 a pound for steak. I am one of the most talented bakers on staff. I have seven years of experience in the field and do most of the difficult and high end work and all of the cake decorating. 8inch cake here=$38
    I make the same wage I did when I was twenty, working as a prep assistant in a small bakery. All I did there was roll and cut cookies and put filling in pie shells. 8inch cake there=$8
    All I can say is, what the hell man?

  25. I'm in my early 40s raising three boys, and I can tell you food budgeting never goes away! In fact our budget will get tighter as our three boys head into the teen years. We have joked that all the boys will have to get part time jobs to help pay the grocery bills!

    Joking aside, I have not signed on with any slow local groups for all the reasons you have said. The events are outrageously expensive and seem to be frequented by people who have way bigger budgets than I do. For my Mother's Day present I went to a moms wine tasting event at a local winery that cost $50 a ticket. That's expensive for us, money that could feed our whole family for a decent restaurant meal; for some people it's a cheap night out for one person. And though I love going to farmer's markets, I've become very frustrated lately because I have to drive about twice as far to get to the farmer's market to buy the "local" produce than I have to drive to any other grocery store. And I cannot justify paying the high prices at the farmer's markets here in Northern Virginia, like $4 for a "local" head of lettuce that I can get at Wegman's for $1.50. Burn a lot of expensive gas and pay more for local produce at the farmer's market? Not.

    The cost of food is one reason why we have a garden, the other is we just like knowing our food has been grown carefully and organically. Even when I was single and living in downtown Chicago, I had tomatoes, peppers and herbs growing on my balcony. It can be done!

  26. I agree. I am in my early 20s and have been struggling for some time with this issue. There are plently of people our age who care about eating well and enjoy food but cannot participate in this movement because at this point in our lives, it just isnt economically feasible. Still, what bothers me the most about Slow Food is that it seems to me that the movement is extremeley elitist. Their message (as it appears to me) is that they want to reform the way our society eats/thinks about food. However, they really havent done much to appeal to and reach out to certain socioeconomic groups. Not only young people, but low-income families who live in under represented areas. In fact, I have made this point to several people who are part of the movement and, I even applied for a job with slow food nation in sf. when I brought up the point about the importance of expanding the movement to include groups that currently, have no presence in this movement, I was completely dismissed. Certainly a movement so focused on being informed about where your food comes from and appreciating what you put in to your body is too important to be restrcited to a very limited part of our society. All and all, it is tough feeling so excluded, but at the same time, I think it is important to recognize that there are other ways to enjoy our love for food that to be part of this so-called "movement"

  27. Garrett. I'm 27 and in Sac. I also work at a non-profit. I've found that there's more to loving food and being a so-called "foodie" than expensive meals. I'm not in school right now and paying relatively little for rent and bills, so it affords me the ability to drop $10-20 on a meal for myself and not feel too bad about it. But we've all been there. Still, some of the best foods are the cheapest. Especially in Sacramento where Mexican and Vietnamese cuisine is so prevalent. I wouldn't let it bother you. As Tony Bourdain constantly likes to remind us, the best chefs come from the poorest circumstances.

  28. All of these food events take a great amount of planning and resources. Even if the participants just try to cover their costs and donate their time the fees still need to be significant.
    Most people do not understand why chefs/restaurants say no to so many events or to doing a lot of cooking classes. The heavy labor and low profit make it unattractive - as you are still open to all the scrutiny. It's like presenting a gift and having the recipients critique it.

    You're left thinking about how much your kids would like you to have more time for them.

  29. Annonymous - Wow, you bring up a very good point. Honestly, I never thought of it from that perspective. Are you a chef yourself? Would love to hear more from this standpoint. =)

  30. Private response:
    Yes, and I do a lot of charity. I even created a a cafe at the Crocker Art Museum run by children serving the public. All proceeds went to art programs. We got 4 stars for food and service in The Bee, but to do that once a month took a month of planning. Couldn't keep it going.
    My name is Dani Luzzatti. Nice to meet you. Been a reader for a while and enjoy you.
    dani at bellalucatering dot com

  31. I remember in my twenties how hard it was to be able to afford to buy "good food" by which I mean a piece of chicken that hadn't been factory farmed or good quality fruit and vegetables. Rubbish food was always cheaper than good food -at least living in a city it seemed hard to track down cheap good food.
    But I wish then that I had your cooking skills because it is a wonderful thing to be able to know how to get the best out of ingredients and have a wider repertoire of dishes to make. Which is why your blog is so readable - it demonstrates such enthusiasm and love of good ingredients.
    I encourage my son Freddie to look at your blog and enjoy the way you write about food.

  32. Great Post.

    I am 55 and did not join Slow Food this year because I'd rather spend money on great ingredients and I don't appreciate the "exclusivity" of Slow Food.

    In my twenties, I was feeding two young children. With my moms help, I grew as much of my own food as I could. I also used inexpensive cuts of meat, etc. and often went vegetarian. I still do that, even when I don't have to. It is rewarding.

    We don't eat out often, as we both love to cook. We splurge at Taylor's once in awhile..for great ingredients. For the most part though, I stay on a food budget..cause I like to go visit my grandkids as often as I can!

    We grew some fabulous tomatoes in a pot..and I am growing cukes in a pot now. I know how busy you are..I know you are dead tired. Maybe your friends can help you get a small container garden going?

    Again, great post.


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