August 31, 2006

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Nashua Publisher's Note: Cheap eats and me
By Jeff Rapsis

This week’s Hippo brings a cover story on cheap eats—specifically, great meals to be had in the local area for less than $10.

Now, that’s a subject that hits close to home. Nobody enjoys a bargain more than I, especially if it’s a chewable one. (Well, maybe my dog.)

Yes, I appreciate a night out in places where the prices on the menu rise beyond a sawbuck, as they so often do. But there’s something about my Catholic upbringing that pushes the guilt button as soon as the price of an entrée reaches double digits.

For instance: My wife and I visited her family in Chicago this past weekend, and in a restaurant my father-in-law casually suggested we share a certain bottle of wine. Because my father-in-law is a retired wine merchant, you generally do what he says in these matters.

My enjoyment of the vintage was a bit spoiled, however, when I leafed through the wine list afterward and found the price of the bottle to be nearly $100

A closer look revealed that I was off by a year, which made a significant difference in cost, but to me the sticker price was still quite high: $31.

A $31 bottle of wine. And there I was, eating bread with it. No wonder the Catholic guilt kicked in. If the nuns at St. Stanislaus could see me now, I thought, I’m sure they’d be reaching for the rulers.

At least the bread was free, so I took solace in that. And it helped me forget about the Catholic church and instead recall the glories of six-for-a-buck packages of ramen noodles that kept me alive during my first reporting job up in Claremont, when my weekly take-home pay was $180.

That would be a quaint recollection if it were long ago, but it was 1990, and the $10 a week I had for groceries went about as far then as it does today.

So besides learning how to write hard news, I also learned some hard lessons about food. Tuna once went on sale for 39 cents a can at the local Grand Union, and I actually borrowed money from my boss to stock up. It turned out to be inedible, and eventually went to my mother’s cat.

At work, I found myself vying for assignments based on the likelihood of free food being offered. I actually carried plastic baggies in my camera bag for the sole purpose of loading up from the cheese platters and taking it home with me.

Back in the newsroom, the staff of impoverished reporters developed another trick. At the time, the local Pizza Hut was offering to give you your lunch free if it wasn’t served in three minutes. It wasn’t the best-run place, and therein lied an opportunity.

We’d arrive as a group at the height of the lunch rush. Standing in separate lines, we’d scan beyond the counter into the kitchen to see what item was running low, and then all order it at the same time, sending the kitchen scrambling.

For insurance, we’d leave the line after ordering and head into the bathroom. More than a few free lunches were scored by this method.

So I have an appreciation of the glories of dining on a budget, which is perhaps only natural, since my formative years were spent eating lunch in Nashua School District cafeterias.

I can drink a $31 bottle of wine today, but somehow it’s just not as satisfying as a cheeseburger and potato puffs served on a round paper plate—for $1.25!


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