During my past three years of pocket-draining adventures here in Chicago, and also likely due to our city’s charmingly constant atmospheric conditional variances (often inclement, which has frequently left me indoors to cook for myself rather than going out and braving the weather), I made the very fortunate discovery that being fantastically financially unstable will lead to many wonderful food and drink items being created out of necessity. Yes, my lovingly and laboriously concocted feasts are the veritable trash fires of the gourmet world—they do the job, they have unusual smells, and they often contain resourceful (and/or harmful) materials. And to the forcedly thrifty, they are glorious things. Objectively glorious. I mean, who could argue?

Cooking with only the odd ingredients I’ve had left in my fridge and cabinets until pay day (see my previous blog post, The Peter Pancake Syndrome, for an example of past ingredient resourcefulness), I’ve managed to pioneer for myself a whole new, exciting culinary experience using the nourishing and satisfying value of what I affectionately call “hobo meals.” True, it’s probably not technically politically correct, but anyone else who’s ever attempted la vie en rose with very limited fundage—surely you get me here, darlings.

Hobo meals: my gastronomical opus (and please allow me my moment of grandeur, here). Much like penning the elusive Great American Novel, I have perfected the thing I will leave behind as my major worldly contribution after I perish, nourishing all free-thinkers who stumble across it (thank you; that felt good).

And so, for years the kitchenette in each of my adorably dim and small (short, but not too big around) apartment hovels became a delightful bistro for … oh … remarkable originality, culinary … uh … improbability, character-building digestional challenges … and, well, satisfying solitary dining. “What the hell? You don’t want to join me for hobo Dijon tuna rice surprise? Brilliant. Leftovers! This is good for half a week’s meals. A week, actually, if I wish to test the endurance of my stomach and immune system to handle potential E. coli threats. Come on, white blood cells. Don’t crap out on me, now.”

Get it? No? Fine.

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, as Plato quite rightly noted. My resulting cartes du jour of original, sometimes absurdly convoluted, sometimes craftily minimalist items were always an avant-garde smorgasbord of condiments. And garnishes, like sandwich pickles, canned olives, or store-bought guacamole. Or cans of non-perishables, like cans and cans and cans of tuna, condensed soups, anything Franco-American® or Chef Boyardee® (Saint Boyardee, really), or beans. And carbs that take a long time to fuzz up, like crackers. Oh, and food substitutions that were based solely on color: “No sour cream left. Damn and piss. …Hmm. But mayhap ranch dressing works.” “This calls for milk … unless there is no milk. Mayo, it is!” “Kraft macaroni and cheese. Well, last week I used the cheese powder packet for my cheese-flavored condensed mushroom soup Cornflake bake on graham crackers. So … macaroni and mustard?”

The results were innovative and not entirely unpalatable. Frequently. And despite the hearty richness of the description of these meals, my dear readers, they can be crafted for breakfast and lunch, too! Mustard sandwiches are delicious for before you run out of bread. And you can draw faces on them with the mustard. Who doesn’t want to be smiled at by something they’re about to eat? It just kind of makes my day. Or try a sliced turkey pepperoni and sun-dried tomato hummus sandwich. Treat yourself to a fancy lunch in and toast it. Or crack a fried egg on top of it. Or both! And careful not to lose yourself in the positively sinful indulgence of it all.

Now, note this, because it is tremendously profound: bacon is cheap and can be added to anything. Write that down, write that down.

Or revel in the simple brilliance of cooking up all the vegetables you have left —peppers, onions, tomatoes, Shiitake mushrooms, water chestnuts, sprouts, etc.— in any oil or non-sticky stuff you have at your disposal and some soy sauce packets from the Chinese place down the street. Add Tabasco® for a delectable kick. Want chicken with it but don’t have meat? Spice it up with chicken seasoning. Or chop up hot dogs and cook them up along with it. Same thing, really. I mean, who honestly knows what goes in hot dogs? Might as well be chicken. And then serve up this masterpiece delicately on a lettuce wrap. Put a baked potato on the side for a luxurious “full” feeling. Ketchup works beautifully on a potato when you’re out of butter, like putting ketchup on French fries… only fancy. *wink*

And then there are the hobo pastas. These work well for entertaining. Throw on a little Sinatra, light some candles, and prepare a group of like-minded individuals for some culinary sparkle. To begin with, tomato soup or medium salsa are practically the same thing as marinara, and don’t you let them tell you any different. Actually—pro tip: any condensed soup can go on pastas. And if you have any cheeses whatsoever—especially a shaker of grated Parmesan—that goes in there, too. As much as fucking possible.With enough cheese on it, people will eat a leather handbag.

Ooo. Hadn’t considered my handbags yet… Hmm.

Oh, but my favorite is probably hobo rice. Yes, gentle readers (both of you). My darling epicurean thrill-seekers, positively whatever you have in your pantry can go on hobo rice, and therein lies its genius. Pancakes, mustard, hamburger pickles—it’s all gustatory gold. Because, you know. Gold tastes awesome.

Additionally, absolutely anything goes on bread or a wrap, if you have them. And if your meal is too much of a liquid to put it on bread—like soup—never fear! Bulk it up with some crackers until it’s a solid. Now you have something that will stick with you for 12 hours. And on your hips for the rest of your life. Now that’s staying power!

Lastly, hobo drinks can even be beneficial to your health. Don’t have mixers on hand to hide the taste of your bottom-shelf liquors? Search your medicine cabinet for other flavored delights that mix well. For example, I sometimes give whiskey a boost by treating myself to a Theraflu®-toddy (note: actually very much not recommended by the American Medical Association, or my liver). But do try an Airborn® cocktail (with vodka). Who’s getting that office virus? Not you, sir. Not you. Or a Special K® pink lemonade-flavored protein mix cocktail (with gin or vodka). And you’ve got your nutrients for the entire day, my loves. Woo-hoo! Feel the health trashing about in your kidneys.

As an epilogue, I’ve since moved out of my Chicago apartment and back to my parents’ house for a bit (amazingly not due to financial reasons), where there is Oh My God always crazy amounts of food at my disposal to make more traditional meals. Still, it’s hard to break the habit. Beware that once you start out on your frugal meal-innovation experience, it is difficult to ever look at ingredients the same way. Living at my folks’ place, I still occasionally make hobo foods. And sometimes, when no one’s looking… I indulge my lusty thirst for the nostalgic taste of Airborn® cocktails.

At least I never ate a shoe.


Peter Pancake Syndrome

October 30, 2009


I am mostly an adult. When prompted, I will cling onto my rights as a consenting, consciously thinking adult. I do adult-like things. I read the newspaper most of the time, I vote, I pay bills (some of them), I can rent a car or a hotel room, I support myself with a job, I pick people’s babies up and put them on my hip when they’re crawling around my feet at parties, I get served in bars, and I’m damn sure one of these days I’ll be all too aware I can be held accountable for my actions in a court of law. I am an adult. I think.

There are, of course, a few parts of me that still stubbornly cry “I don’t wanna grow up!” with a vehemence that startles people and often leaves whatever room I’m in a mess. First and foremost is the desire to experiment in the kitchen. Note that this is in no way a desire to practice food-making as a gourmet art. It is a desire to mix really messy stuff together—anything will do—and see what I can come up with. And lick the spoon, of course.

(I draw attention to the Great Much-Easy-Mac-Plus-Lots-of-Spaghettios-Equals-EasyMaccios Debacle of ’05. Ill-advised, by the way. Not sure what we came up with in the end, but the two tastes effectively canceled one another out, leaving nothing but an oddly powdery but still soggy, flavorless chewiness.)

Today I decided to make chocolate chip pancakes. Mmmm. Dinner. But to my horror, upon entering my kitchen, I realized that I had no milk and no chocolate chips! (The pancakes weren’t the add-water kind.) Now, for some, this would be the end of Thursday night chocolate chip pancakes. But no, gentle reader, no.

So, I pour some pancake mix into a bowl. Then two eggs. No worries. I have eggs, and I’m pretty sure they’re even still good. They seem a normal color, and neither of them resembles a baby chicken in any way. Two eggs in the bowl. Now it calls for one cup milk. Hmm. I pour in some powdered Coffeemate, a bunch of water, and spray in a shitload of whipped cream. That has to count for milk. It has to.

Now for chocolate chips. Um, um, um. I have a box of brownie mix. This is the same thing as putting in chocolate chips, of course, since chocolate is arguably in both. So I put in a half a box of brownie mix and stir. This might have been all right, if the lack of milk and the addition of half a box of brownie mix didn’t make this thing one big, bowl-shaped solid. Huh. So I add another egg. And some spray in more whipped cream. And add some vanilla. Cause, why not? But it’s still sort of thick. You know what can probably go in there to make it thinner and also much messier? Vegetable oil. So in that goes! Along with some more water, some more Coffeemate, and some more brownie mix.

I now have half-assed ingredients all over the kitchen and mud-brown batter all the way from the sink, across the stove, to the cabinet. And some in my hair, which makes the batter on my face not so ridiculous. I then cook these things up, pancake-style, and—

Oh. My. God. My inner child is a genius. I have invented the best breakfast-for-dinner food ever. It is like cake, but like pancakes. It is pan cake without a cake pan. It is awesomeness in my mouth.

As it turns out, there is a reason parts of me will never grow up. They are meant to make brilliant, delicious messes that no serious adult would dare to make. Pan cakes.

I still have batter in my hair. It’s awesome.