>>> Bang for Your Buck
By staff writer David Nelson
October 23, 2005

I think I might be a big fat party animal. That’s not a claim I make lightly; I do happen to be wearing a Hawaiian shirt right now. Now, that may not be an identity to be proud of, but check this out: Despite my hefty appetite, my monthly budget for food is around $50. Yes, for the price of two and a half lap dances, I could theoretically feed myself for thirty days. And for the record, don’t ever get half a lap-dance. Totally not worth it.

Those of you who are not anorexic may be wondering how this can be. Well, I’m going to let you in on my secrets. You can call me cheap (and several of my friends do, adding choice racial slurs), but I’m managing to save a lot of money that will one day allow me to patent my million-dollar idea: a combination midget catapult/clock radio.

The first step to reducing your food bill is something I like to call meta-food. Learn to love meta-food, because it’s going to be your best friend on those empty-cupboard, hungover mornings when you’d kill your own sister just for a bowl of cereal. The best thing about meta-food is that it’s really easy to generate. You’ve got some groceries in your house now, right? Just stop buying new food. Stop entirely. In a month’s time, you’ll no longer have any actual food, but there will a great bounty of meta-food. In other words, meta-food encompasses those items that, by themselves, would never be considered a meal. Things that are usually thought of as additions or complements to food. For example, if you looked in my fridge right now, you would find fairly old lemon wedges, soy sauce, half a jar of strawberry jam, that sort of thing. You wouldn’t see any actual meat, bread, or vegetables usually considered as food.

“It’s definitely harder to mooch food off your friends. Most of my pals are in the ‘meta-meta-meta-food' stage anyway: licking old salsa stains off the table and boiling used napkins for soup.”

Now that you know what meta-food is, my contention is not really all that stunning. Basically, I discovered that you don’t have to be a superhero chef from Japan in order to make this stuff into a meal. Now, if you’re a skilled enough chef to make a gourmet meal entirely of mayonnaise, be my guest, and don’t forget to tip the EMT who revives you. But if you lack cooking skills, you can make up for it by lowering your standards (n.b. this general theory also applies to dating skills, but use at your own risk). Sure, you’ve never eaten a bowl of barbecue sauce with a spoon before, but throw in a handful of croutons and suddenly you’ve got “cowboy soup.”

When you get desperately low on meta-food, there’s always what I like to call “meta-meta-food.” If you haven’t already lost your dignity by eating mustard mixed with chocolate sprinkles, then kiss it goodbye at the meta-meta-food stage. Your toaster? Flip upside-down and shake for a good assortment of mostly-burnt bread fragments, or “toaster leavin’s.” Leftover pizza boxes still haven’t been thrown out? Welcome to mozzarella town. Use your car’s ice scraper to minimize waste. Your microwave may also have some delicious stalactites for you to harvest. Or is it stalagmites? Either way, that’s good eatin’!

Eventually, you are going to be forced out of your home in order to eat. Now, stealing food is wrong, and going through others’ garbage starts you on the descent from cheapskate to hobo. Avoid both. The forgotten art of mooching can offer you a far better bounty. The best mooching targets (if they’re close enough and if you haven’t alienated them already) are your parents. Everything I know about mooching food from your parents, I learned from Theo Huxtable. That’s right. I’m talking about those later years of the Cosby Show, when Theo had gone away to college, little Rudy grew a moustache and was replaced by Rudy v2.0, and every single jazz performer over the age of 60 was somehow a Huxtable grandparent. Theo was an inspiration. He wouldn’t just swing by the Huxtable homestead and grab a pudding pop, oh no. He would take a big basket and actually do his grocery shopping right out of his parents’ fridge. This is totally awesome even if your parents aren’t a doctor and a lawyer. What’s more, he never once acted like he was doing anything out of the ordinary. Like it was his god-given right as a son to steal all kinds of food, despite the fact that it would likely cause his father to make weird sound effects and mug for the camera. You can pull it off too. Just be nonchalant and remember, your parents were morally obligated to feed you as a child, and that doesn’t have to change just because you live somewhere else. But don’t threaten to call Child Services ‘cause they’ll probably call that bluff.

It’s definitely harder to mooch food off your friends. Most of my pals are in the “meta-meta-meta-food” stage anyway (licking old salsa stains off the table and boiling used napkins for soup). Siblings are often good for a meal here and there, but not the kind of sustained feeding you really need. It’s time to get a girlfriend. It has been my experience that a girl you’re seeing will want to feed you rather than see you suffer. At least at first. Believe me, any relationship where the girlfriend is analogous to a zookeeper isn’t going to last. But for the record, I’ve found that Italians tend to bring over the best goodies. Throughout university, I was brought a mortadella sandwich every day so I wouldn’t have to buy an outrageously expensive university lunch. For those of you who don’t know what mortadella is, I’m afraid I can’t help you, even though I ate it every day for year. Some kind of lunchmeat is my best guess. I stopped seeing that girl years ago, and she still brings me food from time to time. Of course, now I have to check it for poison, but that’s a risk I happily accept.

My friend recently hit the jackpot of food-providing girlfriends. She’s Italian, and she works for some kind of crazy food science lab where they get to take home all kinds of stuff. Now, I never thought of food as any kind of science—in one end, out the other, and that’s all I needed to know—but apparently a great deal of research goes into taste and texture and that sort of thing. To which I’m sure my friend says, “That’s great, Copernicus, now bring me more baked ziti.” Actually, the funny thing is, the lab this girl works at specializes in sauces and flavorings and things, so my friend winds up with copious amounts of—you guessed it—meta-food. She once brought him an entire tub of the stuff that goes inside Rolos. As far as I know, that stuff has zero nutritional value, so it’s more likely that he used it as a sexual aid than for sustenance. Either way, I don’t want to think about it.

When the meta-meta-meta-meta-food supply dries up entirely, your parents lock you out, and your girlfriend dumps you for asking to eat caramel off her vagina, it’s time to spend a little money on food. You and I both know that 50 bucks doesn’t go that far these days, but it should get you to the end of the month and started on a new supply of meta-food. That trip to the grocery store should count as a few meals. Try to find a store that is pretty generous with the samples. No tricks or disguises are necessary, the sample lady knows what you’re doing. However, ensconced in her little kiosk, she is powerless to stop you. Pretend to be interested in whatever product she’s selling; you owe her that much. Hit the sample booth five or six times, then wash down your meal with some ice scraped from the freezer section.

Any food that’s out in the open is up for grabs as far as I’m concerned. Bulk bins have stern warnings about how snacking costs everyone, but that obviously doesn’t apply to you. Don’t stop at the bulk food items, there are lots of choices. You should see my mom; she heads right for the olives and takes a huge bag of the fancy, rich-dude kind, and walks around snacking as she shops. When I was younger, I would call her out on it, and she would rationalize her olive theft by citing how loyal a customer she has been. That logic is amazing, and should serve as an inspiration to you. If you don’t like olives, go for maraschino cherries, or dill pickles, or…whatever strikes your fancy really. After all, you’re a loyal customer!

Eventually you’re going to have to justify your visit by purchasing something. But what can you buy that will keep you under budget? Well, as every college student knows, for approximately 40 cents, ramen noodles are an economic source of nutritious hydrolyzed palm-oil and delicious maltodextrin. Free hot water is a different problem altogether (this article presupposes a worst-case scenario somewhere between having no electricity and outright homelessness). If you’re really in a pinch, skip the hot water entirely. It may not feel good having your mouth torn apart by noodle fragments, and the powdered bullion chaser may cause you to go blind, but at least your bowel movements will be memorable.

Now that you have this knowledge at your disposal, I encourage you to make the most of it. College is a special time, and you’re going to need your pocket money for more important things, like booze (especially if you missed my first article). And, since we’re such good friends now, if you’re ever in my neck of the woods, look me up. Lunch is on me.

Essential New Word of the Day:
bargoyle \bar’gojl\ n: A young male, North American animal found at all lively bars and clubs. Bargoyles stake out some corner, never smiling, never even moving except to take a sip of their drink every thirty seconds or so. These dark, humorless creatures of the night can be identified by their stillness, dour expression, and often, backwards baseball hat. We’re talking about the type of rube who would wear stupid suburban camouflage pants to a classy place. Bargoyles probably feel that they’re somehow above appearing to have a good time, and ought to be ridiculed for it. If I'm out at a bar, my drunken carousing will be felt two or three towns over; these idiots simply refuse to talk, move, smile, or otherwise behave like a normal human being. Pity them.