Browsing through an old bookshop in the back streets of Bristol, England, I came across a series of books, reprints of old cookery books by historic and well-known food writers from across the globe. One of the books I picked up intrigued me by title alone: “The Campaign for Domestic Happiness,” written by Isabella Beeton.
Mrs. Beeton, as she’s more commonly known in Britain, is considered the matriarch of modern housekeeping. Though her book was written nearly 200 years ago in Victorian Britain, she is still a familiar name throughout the country, and a timeless resource.
Flipping through the pages, I was unexpectedly struck by her words: “Frugality and economy are home virtues, without which no household can prosper.” Growing up in a society with a seemingly endless supply of food and easy access to every possible physical human need or desire, these words shook the structure upon which my consumption habits had been built.
We’ve grown up with the thought that frugality is for the poor, and an unnecessary thought for us above the poverty line. Why restrict yourself, when there is such an accessible abundance? Why clip coupons to save a few pennies, when we’ve got pockets full of them? This was my logic before I began this adventure, but these words have me rethinking everything I previously believed about being frugal and having an edible abundance.
My mind recalled something I heard in a song about permaculture, around a campfire one night on the South Downs trail, sung by a passing Australian musician: “The smaller the better, and I don’t care if it’s bad. I guess I’m the kinda fella who will always be a fringe dweller. Do the best I can with what I have.”
I’ve begin to rethink the challenge of working with limited ingredients on the farm where we are currently living, making do with the stock on hand, as a positive learning experience. With less available, I cut the onion closer to the root end, making use of every edible bit, boiling up the skins and stems of vegetables for soup. And cooking a little less food for each meal, ensuring no cooked food is wasted at the end of the day. We don’t need to be stuffed after every meal, just be satisfied and nourished.
These ideas of frugality go against everything I’ve believed up until this point in my life. Being a hardcore foodie, one of my favorite pastimes is shopping and stocking up at a good grocery store. With only a few months left on our European adventure, I have an aching desire to return to Italy to stock up on my favorite foods to mail home to myself as a treat upon returning. I get instant gratification and much satisfaction with a full grocery cart and well-stocked pantry. But living and consuming in excess is neither healthy nor necessary.
Frugality shouldn’t be an ugly word, used only when the money gets tight. It should be an everyday way of life, making the most of what we have.
A man named Dr. Johnson once said, “He that is extravagant will quickly become poor, and poverty will enforce dependence and invite corruption.” Living with less, be it food, clothes or things in general, is a good way to live. It teaches us to appreciate each and every bit, use up what we have until it’s no longer useable and work less because we don’t need nearly as much money to buy all these extra things — maybe even spending more time with the people we love.
This last year, armed with only the clothes and gear we can carry on our backs, we’ve worn through — for the first time ever — our underwear, socks, pants and shirts. We’ve actually worn them so much they bear holes and tears, but still function as work clothes on a farm. And learning to consume and spend less, we’ve managed through our meager funds for the year, giving us more time each day together as a family, to read books at night around the wood stove, share stories from our day and learn to knit and play ukulele.
Living with less, we’ve found many new ways to make our lives richer without money. Spending more time outdoors, we enjoy walks for entertainment, and gather wild foods along the way for preserving or adding to our meals. Over the summer, we made a lovely hedgerow jelly from a glut of wild blackberries and elderberries. This took some time, but it was well worth the few thorn cuts and pokes, as we are now enjoying some summer sunshine on our toast when the days are grey and rainy.
Autumn brings an abundance of wild mushrooms, assorted tree nuts and lots of under-utilized tree fruit. A clever local girl put an ad in the paper stating that she’d gather unwanted apples from neighborhood trees in exchange for a few bottles of the juice she’d be making. She pressed nearly 500 bottles, from free fruit that would have otherwise rotted on the ground. That’s a beautiful and delicious way to be frugal!
One doesn’t need to go to the extreme of wearing torn shirts or socks with holes as we have, but a simple altered idea of what it means to be frugal, living with only as much as needed, can be a refreshing change in mindset. Frugality needn’t be only for those who cannot afford more, but rather, for all folks, to learn to appreciate the small things and make do with what we already have and enjoy it to the fullest.
Walla Walla chef and nutritionist Melissa Davis and her family are traveling, backpacking, cooking and working on organic farms in Europe. Their adventure can be followed at www.freerangeadventures.wordpress.com.