Once upon a time a friend of mine was so broke she was afraid to go to the market because it hurt her eyes to look at the prices. Then she remembered all the you-kids-don't-know-what-it-was-like stories she'd heard as a girl. She decided to find what techniques her family had actually used when the wolf was at the door.
Her grandparents and cousins-twice-removed were overjoyed to give her the old family recipes. It turned out, though, that all the dishes with names like "Poor Man's Pie" called for things she couldn't afford--a quart of cream, dozens of eggs, a couple of pounds of bacon. They were 19th-Century recipes, and in the 19th Century those things were poverty food because you didn't have to pay cash for what you could get from your back yard.
When the current recession began, we started looking at old cookbooks for hints that might help us today, only to make the same discovery all over: Economy, like poverty, changes its meaning all the time. Lobster used to be the cheapest food in New England--servants complained when it was served more than once a week. On the other hand, for a long time chicken was a luxury food reserved for Sunday dinner (of course, these were older, more flavorful birds than those we can easily find today, and an old-fashioned roasting chicken is still a luxury). It turned out that, basically, the older the recipe, the less likely it was to be useful today.
Still, some basic principles are always the same. Careful buying is one. Scrupulously using leftovers is another. A very important one is not serving the most expensive ingredient--usually meat--as the center of the meal. Instead, you extend it with starches or vegetables--or as we like to say today, when the word "extender" has taken on a somewhat sinister connotation, you "use it as a flavoring."
The old American tradition was to serve your meat and your extender side by side (meat and potatoes) or sometimes one inside the other (pie). This idea was so ingrained that in the late 19th Century some reformers worried about the "unwholesome" immigrant custom of cooking everything in the same pot. Those Italians with their pastas and their troubling habit of eating cheese at every course of the meal, those East Europeans with their goulash and who knew what else--they were all just asking for health problems.
Then came the recession of the 1890s and these knowing preconceptions fell to the ground. Spaghetti with meatballs, and macaroni and cheese became as American as . . . pie. The word casserole entered everyday speech.
The American adaptation of these traditional casseroles was often bizarre, though. For many decades, a lot of Americans thought "goulash" simply meant all your leftovers warmed up together. A lot of cooking that resulted from this turn-of-the-century casserole revolution seems to have been pretty dull. The names themselves--cheese loaf, egg ring, corn and hamburger mold--have a depressing sound, like the equally rootless dishes home economists are still thinking up under names like "ham skillet" and "tuna bake."
But money-saving dishes don't have to be dull. As the cult of the meat loaf shows, if they're well made they can be positively beloved. Here is a selection of money-saving dishes we actually like.
Recipes, in order of appearance, contributed by Kathie Jenkins, Rose Dosti, Barbara Hansen, Charles Perry, Donna Deane, Minnie Bernardino and Ruth Reichl. The listed price reflects our actual cost, but does not include such staples as flour, salt, pepper, oil, garlic, sugar and vinegar.
1 pound ground beef
1 large onion, chopped
1 (15-ounce) can cream-style corn
Saute ground beef and onion, breaking up meat with spoon, about 10 minutes or until meat is browned. Drain off fat. Season meat mixture to taste with salt and pepper.
Spoon meat mixture into bottom of lightly greased 1-quart casserole. Gently spread cream-style corn over top of beef mixture. Spread Mashed Potatoes on top of corn.
Bake at 375 degrees until bubbly, about 20 minutes. Place under broiler about 5 inches from heat source 2 to 3 minutes or until lightly browned. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Note: Pie may be assembled ahead of time, covered and chilled. Bring to room temperature and bake uncovered at 375 degrees about 30 minutes, or until bubbly, then broil about 5 inches from heat source 2 to 3 minutes or until lightly browned.
5 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
1/3 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup hot milk
Place potatoes in saucepan and add water to cover. Bring to boil. Reduce heat slightly and cook until potatoes are tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Drain and transfer to mixing bowl.
Mash potatoes with mixer at low speed (or pass through potato ricer), beating in hot milk and salt and pepper to taste. Beat until smooth and lump-free. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Total cost: $3.39.
Cost per serving: 85 cents for 4, or 57 cents for 6.