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Food + Cooking

Extreme Frugality: Barter Me This

From turnips to chicken manure, you won’t want to stop ’til you get enough.

Hi, Hodding. I need a favor,” the desperate housewife blurted out suddenly, her voice husky with need.

“It’s gonna cost you. Big time,” I replied just as quickly, seizing this unexpected opportunity. It didn't matter what she desired. I knew I could deliver—and get what I needed in return.

She giggled—was it nervousness or confidence? Impossible to tell over the phone—before revealing what she had in mind. Apparently, she’d been waiting for quite some time.

When she was done, I hesitated a good 30 seconds before responding, hoping to gain the upper hand. “I want a gallon of milk. One-and-a-half percent—not just any old kind. By tomorrow, or it’s no deal. Annnnnd … a box of Froot Loops. Got it? Otherwise, Madeline [her daughter, who I coach on the Y swim team] will not be excused from Monday practices, clarinet lessons or no clarinet lessons. Understand?”

Both the milk and cereal were delivered by hand the very next morning.

God, I love bartering, and, to my happy surprise, so does everyone else. We’ve made four or five exchanges in the past week alone (How was I to know we’d consume five pounds of butter in less than two weeks? What kind of family does that?), and I just heard from someone who wants turnips. Perfect. We’ve got so many turnips that I’d been thinking about using them as landfill.

Until our friend Polly emailed me recently saying she’d be happy to bring over some half-and-half in exchange for chicken poop, I’d been ready to throw in the towel on our zero-spending experiment. Last week, I complained how I couldn’t drink coffee because we’d run out of half-and-half, and even though we had plenty left over after making cod chowder, I have a suspicion that much of that went to feeding the new kitten.

Knowing we needed more than cream, I expounded at length on how great our chicken poop was and how it was worth much more than a mere quart of half-and-half. In the end, Polly brought over three pints of designer coffee ice cream; a fresh, ripe pineapple; both frozen and bottled juices; milk; and the aforementioned cream. When we gave her a five-gallon bucket of manure in return, she flashed the biggest I-just-made-a-killing smile I’ve ever seen.

It’s uncanny. We run out of something, and, the next thing you know, somebody who has heard that we’re fledgling barterers calls for a different something we have too much of—like turnips. It just keeps growing and growing, and I think it’s because bartering is this natural, age-old instinct that stubbornly refuses to die, even after decades of cookie-cutter shopping. All it takes is just one bartering exchange, and you just can’t stop. You don’t want to stop.

The only problem I have is, how many turnips equal a pint of fancy coffee ice cream? Some jerk was so overwhelmed with barter-induced fervor that he ate the entire last pint in the house while his wife and children trustingly watched a movie.

Frugal Tip of the Week

Our kids were bumming out today from a lack of junk food, so we whipped up a batch of homemade tortillas, chapatis, whatever-you-want-to-call-them. A bag of eight can cost anywhere from $2.50 to $5, but making an equal amount at home only takes around 3 1/2 cups flour, 1 1/2 cups water, 1 tablespoon olive oil, and 2 to 3 teaspoons salt, at a fraction of the cost. Make the dough just as you would no-knead bread (slightly drier than usual so you can handle it), roll the dough into just larger than golf-ball-size shapes in your hands, and then either roll out with a pin or use a tortilla press. We have an electric tortilla press, which is a modern marvel. After slightly cooking them in the press, I put them directly over an open flame on the stovetop and flip them over a few times with tongs until they’re lightly browned (or charred, if I mess up). The kids down them, hot off the fire, like candy for breakfast, at lunch, and after school. Better yet, double the recipe, and, after making the tortillas, cut them into small wedges, coat lightly with olive oil, and toast in the oven at 375°F until they’re the desired color and texture—about five minutes for my family. Even if you don’t have a tortilla press (electric or not), give this a try because they don’t have to be shaped perfectly, especially if you turn them into chips.