Growing up in Seattle, salmon was king. Literally. Alaskan king salmon appeared, baked or grilled, at so many special dinners while growing up. And waiting tables in Seattle, I witnessed the hype of the Copper River king salmon, a fish whose journey up an especially cold Alaskan river gives it a touch extra fat and oil, and thus a richer flavor.
Despite these formative salmon years, I’ve slowly come to a place where salmon and fish such as halibut or sea bass do not feature prominently in my seafood world. I’ve come to embrace the other seafoods, to even cook with them in my home. And I think you should too.
Let’s start with the obvious stuff we’ve probably all heard about. We’re overfishing the big seafood. Farmed salmon is corn-fed (usually GMO corn, although organic farmed salmon can be found). Biomagnification means the bigger fish contain higher quantities of dangerous substances such as mercury. But, and here’s the rub for food-obsessed moms like me….seafood continues to be one of the best things a pregnant woman, lactating mother, or developing brain can eat*. What’s a mother to do?
Fortunately, I’ve had good exposure to the “other seafoods”. Oliveto Restaurant in the Bay Area where I worked for a few years after college was one of the best jobs of my life. I started out expediting and waiting tables, but by the end I was regularly spending my Saturdays in the kitchen volunteering my services in exchange for instruction, experience, and confidence that money cannot buy. With Chef Paul’s guidance I made salmon meatballs and sardines in saor, I prepped squid for pasta. I killed my first live food, a tray full of soft shell crabs. I tried my first oyster. And I learned about sustainable fishing practices during Oliveto’s seafood dinners, preceded by a talk with the Monterey Fish Market’s buyer.
Fast forward five years and I’m pregnant and devouring smoked salmon like its my job. And it sort of is. I am concerned about what prenatal vitamins might suggest – that you just take a vitamin and don’t think about your daily diet. Vitamins are necessary for those who lack access to safe, healthy foods, but ideally they should be a complement to our diets. So I took my prenatals and I ate smoked salmon “seconds” (the ends and trim that taste great but look rather sad so are cheaper) and salmon roe regularly. Then I had a kid and became a full-time mom and homemaker with equally deep interests in nutrition and budgets. Here is what I have done and learned over the last few years while I’ve explored other seafoods:
– Mussels are Jamie’s favorite food, hands-down, and Travis is hugely in favor because these can be farmed (read: sustainable, no overfishing) easily and quickly (read: not too expensive) in carefully selected, clean waters (read: safe). At first I was intimidated but I’ve grown to love cooking mussels, and we always have a one pound frozen bag ready to go. I buy mussels frozen from Vital Choice Seafood because I am already ordering other quantities of seafood and because I trust the company. And note: when trying to order 5 1-lb bags of frozen mussels, do not accidentally order 1 5-lb bag of fresh, live mussels. And if you do that, don’t leave the mussels in a cooler where your three-year old can get to them and dump them out all over themselves. You’ve been warned! Alright, back to the mussels themselves…rinse them off, melt onions or shallots in butter, throw in some white wine, dump in the mussels and cover, simmering. They are done when they open up. Throw away unopened ones, garnish with lemon and parsley, and dig in. $14/lb
– Squid, or calamari are another easy source of protein that is surprisingly kid-friendly, assuming you start your kids soon enough. James especially loves the tentacles. The squid from Vital Choice only needs to have the bodies sliced into rings (keep an eye out for the translucent spine that might be left in one or two), and then pat the rings and tentacles as dry as possible, dredge with any mixture you like (my favorite: rice flour, sea salt, and toasted coconut) and then lightly brown in coconut oil. Throw onto greens, rice, whatever. I also tried grilling them, and James was a huge fan of eating them off the kebabs so it was a worthwhile experiment, but I do think the pan-fry is the better way to go. $17.33/lb
– Sardines are a perfect on the go food. I get them canned and just pop them open as needed. James will just eat them as is, or I make a basic pasta sauce of sardines, preserved lemons and olives, or i throw them on a green salad with hardboiled egg, or onto a pizza with wilted arugula. Be sure to get wild-caught sardines packed in good olive oil. $5/4.4oz can = ~$20/lb
– Salmon roe I adopted directly from Nina Planck (Real Food For Mom and Baby). She says: “Without a doubt, my favorite baby food was roe. Roe has it all for mother and baby. It’s fun, like a bright orange pea. Your baby can pick it up piece by sticky piece. When she bites down it goes pop! It’s delightfully salty and of course it’s an exemplary source of iodine and good fats. We buy frozen wild salmon roe from Alaska.” (p.194) $30/6oz container = ~$75/lb
– Lobster & Crayfish are not your average food for most people, but in Maine lobster runs $5-$7/lb and crayfish is free when it comes from Caspian Lake in the summer! For novelty, these cannot be beat. Any three year old that loves to destroy things (read: any three year old) will enjoy tearing into these crustaceans. And cooking them couldn’t be easier, just steam them for a bit and serve with melted butter (and if the butter is organic and pastured, so much the better).
My next seafood adventure will be bottarga (cured tuna or mullet roe; Weston A. Price, dentist-anthropologist-nutritionist extraordinaire, noted that dried fish eggs were available in the Peruvian highlands markets and prized by women for fertility and efficiency in childbearing). Although prohibitively expensive when imported from Italy, there is a more local bottarga available now from Florida ($20/8-lobe sack, whatever that means; I’ll know more after I order it!).
True, these are not the cheapest foods. But think of the nutrients! I’m guessing that, nutrient per dollar, these other seafoods are some of the best deals out there. Certainly a better deal than wild salmon fillets ($44/lb). And that’s something the mom and the homemaker in me values.
*Books to geek out on here include: (1) Real Food For Mom and Baby by Nina Planck, brilliant and readable breakdown of her fertility, pregnancy, and nursing diets, as well as early kiddo foods. Chock full of common sense and science. (2) Having Faith: an Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood by Sandra Steingraber, a riveting and frequently alarming account of the ecology of the womb and the ecology of lactation. All I can say is we owe the Inuit people and other Nothern cultures a really really really big apology. (3) Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin, a great discussion of evolution and embryology. Makes me appreciate Vitamins A & D, and understand why seafood is such a brain and development food. Full disclosure: I did not actually finish this book, but I guarantee it’s worth at least a skim!
I love being in the kitchen. But that doesn’t just mean cooking and eating. I love to buy food for my kitchen – I don’t think I have ever spent less than $20 at a farmers’ market (and I’ve been going steadily to whatever market is closest to me since 2003) and I ought to just set up expense accounts at the food coops I frequent. Even when I don’t really need anything except more eggs I find myself buying the dark chocolate on sale, the bag of dried dates because we are running sort of low, the day-old bread that will be great french toast, and that new brand of peanut butter I’ve been curious about. This started to change when Travis and I got married. Sharing an income with someone, especially when that person brings in the bulk of the income and you have the bulk of responsibility for managing it, brings all kinds of trickiness into the equation. For me, it’s harder to rationalize all that food buying when I have to look at the accounting. It’s taken some time, but I’ve actually come to love this. I still love to spend money on food but I’ve become much more cautious about over-stocking the kitchen and buying just to buy. I use a budget, I stick to it, and I like that.
There, I said it! My name is Riva and a I am a total budget geek. I have spreadsheets, I keep and record receipts, and I had a great time in January reviewing the 2013 numbers and making my 2014 estimates. But this isn’t just about me. It’s about my home and my household and the kind of household manager I want to be. See, home economics is actually a redundant expression – the word economics came into use in the 16th century and originally referred to the science of household management and it is derived from the Greek oikonomikos meaning “practiced in the management of a household or family”; I suspect that adding home to the front of economics has happened as the home has gradually become a site of consumption rather than production*. However, in 2014, I would like to reclaim economics as a household term, and I take pride in learning to be a better and better economist every year. And for me, a huge part of that is the thrifty and effective use of our money.
Although food is one of the most variable and controllable parts of our budget, it is not even close to the largest part of our budget. In fact, Americans have the dubious privilege of spending less on food as a percentage of income than any other developed country: 6-9% depending on which source you look at.
*source: Atlantic Magazine
*yes, the map is hard to read – but Europe is in the upper-middle, Africa is in the bottom-middle… and that tiny speck off to the left above South America? That’s the U.S. (source: Washington State University magazine)
This has not always been true – 30 years ago we were spending 17% of our income on food (Atlantic Magazine). But policies subsidizing large-scale agricultural production and normalizing cheap food have skewed that spending**.
So now, with our personal beliefs about fair prices for farmers, about ending subsidies for large-scale agriculture, and about our family’s health being highly impacted by our relationship to food, Travis and I have decided to spend 15-20% of our income on what we eat. Obviously, this has been great news for me and my food buying addiction! And despite the challenges of making time to keep records, it’s been incredibly fun becoming a better economist. I recommend everyone try it. And in the spirit of convincing you, and of just sharing information that may be helpful or interesting, here are some of our food-financial details from 2013:
- We spent, on average, $734.59 a month on food in 2013. The low was $491.81 in January when I was visiting family in Seattle and Travis was in Ethiopia; the high of $1,377.26 was in October when we had a houseguest for 3 weeks, I bought some things in advance for Thanksgiving, and we paid for several bulk orders of foodstuffs.
- For the months when I started specifically tracking “eating out”, restaurants averaged out to 19% of those monthly food expenses.
- We spent $776.68 on bulk purchases, including $200 on a large frozen fish order from Vital Choice Seafood, $51.68 on a large order of hazelnuts and pecans in the shell from an online nut company, $350 on half a pig raised by a dear friend, and $175 on a grain and bean CSA. This represented 7.4% of our annual food expenses.
- Our annual food expenses were $10,493.54.
- We spent 15.2% of our gross income on food – a little low, but we made our goal!
2013 was more about collecting data and developing a budget strategy. Here’s what we’ve got going forward into 2014:
- Categories aligned with our purchasing habits. This makes tracking our budget easier and more effective. I started 2013 writing down every individual item and eventually gave that up because I found it was actually the categories that I was interested in. Our categories for 2014 food items are groceries, bulk purchases, booze, eating out, and direct from the farm (and for now, anything in large quantity will be a bulk purchase and direct from farm will apply to farmers’ markets and farm-stands). Eventually I would like to know how much we spend on certain staples like eggs, but that’s more for curiosity than actual budgeting and decision-making.
- Planning around the trends. I spend more in October and November with Thanksgiving and lead up to the holidays than I do in the mid-summer months when we grow some of our own vegetables and simply eat less because of the heat. We also spend more on food whenever we have houseguests or dinner guests. Being able to identify which events in our daily lives changes what is normal or average helps me budget for those events in the future. Some months simply have larger food budgets.
- Bulking up the bulk purchases. We only spent 7.4% of our food budget on bulk purchases, and I’d like to increase that this year. Bulk purchases usually reduce the individual cost of the item, it usually saves on the energy required to ship or transport something, and it supports farmers who are not in the business of marketing small quantities of their products. From a financial perspective it does skew the budget – a large purchase is made during one month but is stretched out and consumed over many months. My assumption, or hope, is that we will do this frequently enough to even out the bumps and skews – each month will have its featured one or two “bulk items.” This January, for example, I got 10 pounds of organic lemons from California for fun preserving projects (and yes, those projects will be featured in a blog post this spring). Every August I spend $60-$80 with Carol, my mother-in-law, at our favorite pick your own blueberry farm in Vermont and then I freeze most of what I pick. Tracking 2014 bulk purchases will help me figure out whether I have bulked up the bulk purchasing since 2013 and will help me anticipate budgeting it out in 2015.
- Tracking the eating out purchases. If you’ve read my New Year’s Resolution post you know that we’ve got big plans for eating veggie when eating out unless we’re at a restaurant that features happy meat on the menu. Travis also loves going out to Happy Hour or just for a snack, so I’d like to make room in the budget for that. This will require planning ahead a bit so I don’t have so many leftovers that I resent eating out! We want to be sure our eating out percentage stays low but that we do it regularly, and that when we decide to go out, it’s an enjoyable treat in line with both our budget and our values.
If this is sounding like an interesting exercise to you, great! Start by writing down every food purchase. It’s tedious, I know, I did it for several months before I decided to stop. But it creates a kind of awareness that cannot be created any other way – it’s the same reason weight-loss programs tell you to write down everything you eat. Writing it down makes it real. My mother watched me copy receipts into my notebook one night and asked (reasonably so) why I didn’t just tape the receipts in on the pages? For starters, receipts do fade over time and I like the idea of a historical record of my food purchases. But also, having to actually write your purchases down with your hand does something to you. I found myself reaching for butter one week and then thought, “Wait. I bought butter earlier this week. Do I need to make another pie so much so that I’m ready to write down for posterity how much butter I was capable of purchasing in one week for a family of three?” And I didn’t buy it. Which was good cause we really didn’t need that other pie. I made a crisp instead.
It’s probably clear from this post how seriously I view the topic of food purchases. What we spend on food affects our agricultural system, affects the long-term sustainability of our communities, and affects our health every day. Yes, it’s my soapbox. But that doesn’t mean I’m not on to something here! After all, what could be more important than our families, our homes, and our health? And what could be more empowering than taking charge of our finances and our pantries? I suggest we all take a crack at our food budgets and start reclaiming the term economics.
*For serious and lovely politics about work, home, and agriculture read Wendell Berry’s collection of essays The Unsettling of America. For instance, from pp.31-32: “Once, of course, the idea of a farm included the idea of a household: an integral and major part of a farm’s economy was the economy of its own household; the family that owned and worked the farm lived from it…the household was therefore not merely a unit in the economy of food production; its members practiced essential productive skills….[but over time] the household became simply a house or residence, purely consumptive in its function; the farm ceased to be a place to live and a way of life and became a unit of production – and their once collaborative relationship became competitive.” I love this man. I do.
**People deserve access to affordable, healthy, fresh food. But making processed foods and certain kinds of mass-grown produce cheaper through subsidies is not an effective solution. What about raising salaries? What about rejecting a culture that is built around $150/month data plans for our smart phones while nutrition-based health problems are on the rise? We are not entitled to cheap food, and it didn’t come from nowhere. Read this article in Mother Jones Magazine summarizing Earl Butz and Richard Nixon’s 1970s policies that changed the foodscape in America (and if you’re hooked, pick Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America back up). Then read Joseph Stiglitz’s great article about food stamps and American food policy here. Then call me up and let’s get some (fair trade, fairly-priced) coffee and discuss.