Extreme Frugality: Make New Friends But Keep the Gold

In this day and age of specialization, W. Hodding Carter is an unashamed generalist. The man is curious about everything, and his books have taken him around the world. He’s followed in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, retraced Leif Ericsson’s journey to the New World in an authentic replica of a Viking merchant ship, and has written about the ecology of the Everglades, the history of plumbing, his quest for Olympic gold, and even how to build your own mackerel smoker with the same single-minded determination. These days, he’s finding adventure of a different kind—living within his means.
living in excess

In an above-average house in an upscale neighborhood of a decidedly well-to-do area, the wine flows, the laughter cascades, and the canapés are politely declined.” This is the lead to a BBC News piece that aired yesterday. It’s about how even the wealthy have resorted to selling gold—jewelry, coins, and, yes, even teeth—and are throwing “gold parties” run much like the classic Tupperware parties of the 1950s. While I love that first sentence and even get some guilty pleasure out of seeing decadent people being humbled, I’m disturbed by the stated reason for these gold sales. These people aren’t parting with cherished treasures, unwanted mementos, and unneeded presents to clean house or to make ends meet but simply to have a little more spending money. In other words, they’re mostly doing it so they can continue to live it up like they did last year. This drives me batty. I can handle someone selling Aunt Stella’s gold tooth to pay a grocery bill or, even more so, to put into savings. But selling it so they can afford a fancy meal (one reason given) or throw a lavish party (another) just seems wrong. There’s no lesson being learned. Or maybe I’ve become a prude. I don’t like their priorities and I don’t like that they can afford to serve wine and canapés.

My sister Finn (pictured above), who is visiting, certainly thinks so. “Y’all have made it a sin if somebody goes out and buys a loaf of bread,” she said a few days ago. “I’m afraid to buy groceries in fear of you grilling me. ‘Why’d you buy that? Did we need it? How much did it cost?’” She’s right, though. Every time Lisa or I walk in with a plastic shopping bag, the other one asks, “What’s that? How’d you get it? Who bought it?” I did that to Lisa yesterday, and it turned out the plastic bag was filled with droppings from our dog, Ginger. Perhaps it serves me right.

I’m not against people having fun, though. I haven’t turned down the salmon pâté and duck mousse that Finn bought once she realized it wasn’t against our rules for her to spend money. (I probably shouldn’t have opened that door. Now she’s telling us we’re cheating because we’ve used the dryer twice in the last two days—somehow, in her mind, this negates the 117 days out of 120 that we haven’t used it.) I even splurged recently by buying duck, lamb, and garlic sausage from our butcher so I could enter our friends’ cassoulet contest. It was their fourth annual cook-off, and since I wimped out last year, there was no way I was going to miss it. Also, I had that mad-hatter Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe. Winning was a sure thing, and it would light a spark of cheer in this long, relentless winter we’re having. Maybe my family couldn’t sell my gold molar, but we could still have as much fun as some rabid spendthrift.

I’m not going to go into minute detail about how for two days I dutifully massaged the duck with an invigorating rub of fresh thyme, crushed bay leaves, mashed garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then after a quick browning, lovingly bathed it at 300 degrees for a few hours in a cauldron of rendered duck and pig fat to make mouthwatering confit. I’ll skip over the steps that followed so I can land us at the cassoulet party itself, where we drank and talked and nervously eyed the 60 or so guests tasting the nine entries. (I love going to parties now: free wine.)

The two men who, in most of the previous years, had taken first place (a chef and friend of the host) and second (the host) had matching pans to level the field between them. Their dishes looked meaty and moist. One used pheasant; the other, sausage made by an artisan. But somehow, the frugal dark horse won the day.

Yes, it might have been because I had the votes of my six family members (Finn came along). But at least six people who were not family members followed suit, and I didn’t vote for myself. I would have the trophy, a statue of a Gallic-looking chef, to prove my victory, except that the host’s mom suddenly realized she’d misspelled the word cassoulet when making it. So instead, all we have is a small gold-painted head of garlic, marked with a black “1,” that had been sitting beside the statue. I wonder how much we’d get for it at a gold party?

Amount Finn spent on food and gifts while here for two weeks: $700

Amount we spent during this period on food, gas, medicine, misc.: $130

Estimated amount we could make selling gold items, including my gold cap: $6,585

Amount we sold: $0

Eggs laid to date: 26

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