We go camping and my mother sets up shop. She spreads swaths of flowered oilcloth on the mossy ground and hangs Mexican shopping bags from a fir tree. She pins signs to each item: Bags $7, Bracelets $10. A basketful of coin purses made out of recycled pop-tops is the centerpiece of our picnic table. This is my mom to the core. We traveled to the Umpqua National Forest for a family reunion, not a swap meet, but my mother can’t resist the thought that some member of our group of 30 campers might be in dire need of a bright Mexican accessory. My mom has spent a good chunk of the last 40 years living on the cheap in Latin America, and she’s developed some distinctly third-world traits: creative moneymaking skills and a certain disregard for regulations. (When I mention that it’s probably illegal to set up a retail shop in a national forest, she pretends not to hear me.)
The pop-top coin purses represent another key to my mother’s character: She despises waste and is gaga for any form of creative recycling. As the proprietor of the small folk art business she and my father started 30 years ago, she gravitates toward merchandise that represents a neat marriage of third-world ingenuity and sustainability: boxes crafted from pop cans, handbags woven of candy wrappers. A core belief ruled my parents’ life: make do and waste not. The subtext: Thrift is not only a necessity, but also an essential wellspring of creativity. They saw opportunism as a virtue and Mexico as a Mecca of thrift. My mother could accessorize with trash and my father could explore his favorite realm: street food. He was a devotee of the church of the whole pig and delighted in eating ingredients that might have been brushed to the wayside in a more prosperous country. “Now that’s creative,” he’d say, fishing a hairy pig’s ear from his bowl of pozole.
Mexico is a big country with a large professional class and a distinctly cosmopolitan upper crust, but my parents were more interested in the backwaters. We spent every winter exploring the mercados of obscure mountain villages. “Look! This guy is selling mattress ticks stuffed with plastic bags!” my mother would say, sounding like she was stumbling upon Botticelli’s Venus for the first time. “Mmm,” my dad would reply, his mouth full of iguana tamale.
At the time, I thought my parents were completely nuts. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the role thriftiness can play in creativity. I would never have discovered some of my favorite dishes if I hadn’t been missing a vital ingredient (say, cooking oil). Other favorites have resulted from my quest to use every part of an abundant ingredient (cooking with radish greens).
Living through this recession has made me grateful for my weird upbringing. My thriftiness has gone from standard (saving bacon grease) to slightly less standard (saving chicken drippings) to somewhat obsessive (attempting to make cat food out of ground table scraps). At times I’ve felt like a Depression-era housewife or a peasant, but something always happens to snap me away from identifying with either set too much. For instance, I doubt many Depression-era housewives were left to wonder: “Huh. What am I going to do with this leftover champagne?”
Celeste (purchaser of said champagne) and I are on our way back from mushroom hunting when we spot pale orange salmonberries and hit upon the answer. The champagne in question is Ballatore (which may explain why we didn’t finish the bottle). The answer to the question is wild berry champagne barbecue sauce. The overly sweet Ballatore will be the perfect foil for the slight bitterness of the salmonberries and the tartness of red huckleberries. We fight our way through the stickery thicket, plucking wet salmonberries from far-flung branches. When we have a cup of salmonberries, we move on to huckleberries, which we pop from shimmering fans of tiny leaves.
With the berry picking out of the way, it takes Celeste under 15 minutes to prepare the sauce. We leave it to sit while we burn hunks of firewood down to coal. A few hours later, we’re pulling dinner from the grill. Celeste’s execution is brilliant: juicy chicken drumsticks, skin glazed to tangy sweet perfection. A garden salad made with mustard greens, lettuce, baby kale, spinach, fresh dill and borage flowers complrments the berry-glazed chicken. The end result is a perfect summer meal that costs next to nothing (about $1.50 per person). Yes, there was a tremendous amount of work involved (gardening, foraging, standing by a hot grill), but I don’t factor in the cost of labor when it serves as a free form of entertainment.
If I’ve learned anything from a childhood in the backwaters of Mexico, it’s that being poor doesn’t need to mean being dreary. Part of my parents’ love for Mexico stemmed from a deep respect for the self-sufficient campesino, who could spin moments of pure delight from lives that were too hard for us to fathom. Poverty is not a virtue, but making the most of your resources can save you from a diet of cereal and water. So while I enjoy luxuries (cheap champagne) foreign to your average Mexican peasant, I still look to the south for inspiration and comfort. Champagne may not be an appropriate ingredient for a column on budget cooking, but for tonight I’ll take a cue from my mother’s playbook: appreciate the cards you’re dealt and use them wisely. Here’s to pop-top fashion and budget cooking with champagne.
Note: Thimbleberries or raspberries would be a good replacement for salmonberries in this recipe.
- ¼ cup of olive oil
- 1 tablespoon of chopped garlic
- 1 cup fresh huckleberries
- 1 cup fresh salmonberries
- ¼ cup spumante champagne
- 2 tablespoons of honey
- 2 tablespoons of ketchup
- ¼ teaspoon of salt
- dash of Worcestershire
- In a saucepan, sauté garlic in olive oil.
- Add remaining ingredients.
- Bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes or until slightly thick.
- Remove from heat; cool.
- Place mixture in a blender; process until smooth.
- Use as sauce over pork, steaks or poultry.