Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Eating Part II: The Spartan Student Cook Book

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2007 the average person spent $6.47 on food a day. After a month and a half of radical living, I’ve calculated that I’m spending an average of $4.71 a day on food, which, given my large appetite, is pretty damn good.

Fortuitously, buying lots of expensive foods isn’t even an option for me. Because I don’t have a fridge, foods like meats, juices, some dairy, and veggies, never make it into my shopping cart.

Instead, I’ve resorted to dry bulk foods, which are oftentimes the cheapest. I picked up large bags of spaghetti, macaroni, rice, beans and oatmeal.

But more than just eating cheap, I wanted to see how far I could push my hunger. If I could eat frugally, just as I shopped frugally, I thought I could save hundreds of dollars over a given year.

My first two weeks were the toughest. I deliberately ate as little as I could: oatmeal in the morning, a sandwich in the afternoon, and then an evening pasta dish.

After the first week I was five pounds lighter and I could start to see my abdominal muscles for the first time in years. As much as I would have liked to one day admire a set of chiseled, baby-smooth abs, I realized (when coming across a bunny on the campus lawn and pondering if I should strike it with a rock and devour it raw) that I needed to start eating more.

Conscious of my nutritional wellbeing, I started to buy cereals, fruits, veggies and a few other items which have become staples of my diet. Now, between frequent visits to the gym and my healthy diet, I might be in the best shape of my life.

In the past month and a half I’ve inadvertently accomplished two personal milestones: 1. I haven’t had meat (the longest streak of my life) and 2. I haven’t had a beer (perhaps the longest streak of my adult life). Between my low-fat, low-sugar and physically active lifestyle, I’ve discovered an invaluable benefit to radical living.

Though I am by no means a talented chef, I find that that the following meals nicely blend my needs for nutrition, economy, and taste.


Bowl of cereal

As you can see, I am passionate about my cereal. I don’t know why, but whenever I shop I feel that I must purchase food in such great quantities as if to prepare myself for an impending nuclear holocaust.

Obviously I can’t keep regular milk, so I have it in powdered form. To be honest, I can’t tell the difference between powdered and real milk. Sprinkle a little powder, mix in some cold water and it tastes like it just came out the supermarket fridge.

Ingredients: Cereal with milk
Cost: 75 cents a bowl


Oatmeal is super-healthy, easy to make, but exceptionally boring and tasteless. I mix in a glob of peanut butter to give it flavor or I just hope that the remnants of my previous night’s dinner give it a little pizzazz. I’ve also found that oatmeal does an incredible job cleaning out the dish, so sometimes I cook it for that reason alone. If anyone has any ideas on how to liven up my oatmeal, let me know!

Ingredients: Oatmeal with peanut butter
Cost: 77 cents



Because jelly needs refrigeration I just subtracted the “J” from a “PB & J” sandwich and eat it plain. Sometimes I’ll stuff a banana in there as I did here. Usually, I’ll take other typical lunch items to campus with me like apples or bagels.

Ingredients: PB sandwich with a banana
Cost: $1.14


Rice and Bean Tacos

I like to have a feast almost every night. My favorite night—hands down—is taco night. I let the red beans soak while I’m on campus and then cook it with rice, wrapping it all in a tortilla usually with some tomato and onion. It’s my theory that anything will taste good in a tortilla. Moreover, anything wrapped in a tortilla with Frank’s Red Hot Sauce will taste exquisite. I could wrap a turd in a tortilla, douse it with a little Frank’s and probably enjoy it.

(If the people of Frank’s Red Hot Sauce Inc. are reading and are seeking an online persona to shamelessly headline a new ad campaign, the Spartan Student will say just about anything for a few cases of that heavenly cayenne nectar.)

Ingredients: Rice, beans, tortilla and Frank’s Red Hot Sauce
Cost: $1.40 ($1.72 with onion and tomato)

Spaghetti Stew

I have a spaghetti or macaroni meal several nights a week. I used to make the sauce in a separate pan but that just creates more of a mess. Instead, I have a spaghetti stew with everything going into one pot. Always a delicious and filling meal.

Ingredients: Spaghetti noodles, seasoning packet, can of tomato paste, and tomato and onion
Cost: $1.95

Peanut Butter Vegetable Stew

Many vegetables won’t last long without refrigeration so after shopping I’ll make a big vegetable stew. It was quite boring until I added a glob of peanut butter, which does wonders for soups. Now I even put it in my spaghetti. I got the bread roll from the discount rack at Krogers, which they were practically giving away for free.

Ingredients: Potato, carrot, onion, green beans, macaroni, Italian seasoning, peanut butter, dinner roll.
Cost: $3.44


Peanut butter and cereal tortilla

Again, anything tastes good in a tortilla. I slather some peanut butter on there and then sprinkle some high-sugared granola cereal on top. Superb.

Ingredients: Tortilla, peanut butter, cereal
Cost: 93 cents

Other meals that I’ve left out: homemade macaroni and cheese, Thanksgiving stuffing tacos, and powdered mashed potatoes and gravy. Feel free to recommend other nutritious and low-price meals in the comment section.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Eating Part I: Cooking in the van

I’ve always had a voracious appetite. My fondest food memory took place about six years ago—during my eating prime—when my friend Jon challenged me to eat the infamous jumbo-jumbo-jumbo taco from a place called Bobbo’s Taco’s—a joint in Buffalo—that used to give the taco free to anyone who could finish it. Upon seeing the chicken-finger taco of all chicken-finger tacos, I felt small and insignificant—the same feeling I get when looking at a mountain range or the stars.

It was a beast—the anaconda of tacos—measuring from the tips of my fingers to just short of my shoulder.

Visibly perturbed by the daunting task ahead of me, Jon gave a last-second piece of advice:

You want to eat it so fast that your stomach doesn’t get a chance to know it’s full.”

Doubtful of his advice, I chomped away anyways, and seven minutes later, with room to spare, I was my rubbing my swollen stomach like a proud mother-to-be.

I love eating and I knew that, more than anything else, putting a stop to my food binges would be the toughest sacrifice of radical living. Apart from the van and tuition, I figured food would be my largest bill, and I wanted to get it as low as I reasonably could.

Just before I bought the van, I came upon a blog about a couple who ate for $1 a day for an entire month by buying cheap and eating little ( If they could survive on a dollar, who says I can’t survive on $3?

But first, I had to figure out how to cook in the van.

One of my most prized possessions is my MSR propane backpacking stove that I bought for $80 several years ago. It’s been a trusty friend ever since. The stove enables me to make actual meals—oatmeal, pasta, soups—that I, of course, wouldn’t be able to make without it. I buy small canisters of propane for fuel; a 16 oz. canister lasts me several weeks. I spent $60 on six canisters—this will be enough to last me for the rest of the semester and beyond.

I cook on top of my storage container and since I cook my dinner meals at night, I park underneath a lamp post so I can see what I’m doing. I’d much rather turn the interior van lights on, but again, I want to draw as little attention to myself as possible. I realize that a giant, creepy-looking van in the middle of an empty parking lot is attention-drawing in itself--but no one, as of yet, has bothered themselves with it as far as I know.

It’s a good temporary set-up, but I recognize between slicing vegetables with a sliver of lamp light, and cooking on top of a 30-gallon tank of gasoline, that I’ll have to make future renovations to ensure safety. But for now, it’s working out just fine.

I carry a water bottle with me to campus. One full water bottle is more than enough water to cook my meals for a day.

I only have 4 utensils—and that’s all I need. My leatherman functions as my can-opener.

I bought a pot and a pan from The Salvation Army for a couple bucks, and I had brought a bowl, which is ideal for cereal. As you can see, I’ve completely done away with washing my silverware and dishes. This may gross you out, as it grossed me out at first. But to wash my dishes I’d need to use precious water, I’d have to waste paper towels, and I’d have to find somewhere to discard my wash water. All of the above are things I don’t want to deal with.

Then I thought, why bother washing at all? I like to think of each meal as a legacy, leaving bits and pieces of itself behind for the next meal. Each coagulated crumb and speck of dried spaghetti sauce are reminders of my meals’ ancestral past, forever seasoning each subsequent dish, sharing its chromosomes like a father passing on genes to his son. Now I don’t give washing dishes a second thought.

But all in all, eating and cooking has been a very easy part of radical living. My meals are economical, healthy, and, unbelievably, delicious.

Stay tuned for Part II: The Spartan Student Recipe Book

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bums and Chums

I’m a little over a month into radical living and I’ve spent every dollar as carefully and as frugally as possible. That is, until today.

I spent $50 to join the University’s “Outdoors Club.” The fee pays for membership for one year and goes towards funding group wilderness trips to nearby parks and allows me to use the climbing wall at the gym every Thursday.

Though reluctant, I opted to shell out the fifty bucks because I’ve realized that, however solitary a person I might consider myself, I knew I needed to create some sort of a social network here. This became apparent when I noticed how I'd been talking to myself more and more frequently. Most times I just mutter some passing thought to myself, or sing a tune stuck in my head—normal things—but today I had an actual fight with myself—aloud—that went something like this:

Me: It smells in here. You should clean up after yourself.

Myself: But baby…

Me: Don’t you “baby” me!

So it was either I pay money to get friends via a school club or I get a volleyball and paint a face on it with my blood.

Because I'm new in town, and because I’m so paranoid about campus security finding out about the van, I’ve been reluctant to reach out to other students. In the time that I’ve been here, I have yet to have one actual, genuine conversation with anyone. Upon meeting someone it seems that finding out where one another lives comes right after trading first names. And each time I find myself souring the conversation with preposterous lies--lies about where I live--that I tell to protect myself.

It’s not that I’m embarrassed about the van—in fact I’m quite proud of my little experiment. It’s just that I’m so nervous that once a few people find out about the van, news will spread and the following events will transpire:

1. A facebook group will be created for “People who’ve had a confirmed sighting of the campus vandweller” as if I was the mysterious Yeti of the Himalayas. (This I wouldn’t mind too much.)

2. Campus security will find out, deem my mode of habitation illegal, and then promptly kick me out of the van and into some conventional and unaffordable style of living.

3. Ken deems it necessary to spend ludicrous amount of money to buy a rug—among other superfluous items—to tie the room together in his new apartment.

But, to be honest, I am dying to tell someone my little secret. The only person who I’ve confided my secret in is a bum who approached me on the street to beg for money. Normally, I recoil from contact with the homeless with the same concerted panic that I do in avoiding a run-in with a pair of well-attired and determined Jehovah’s Witnesses. But this time I greeted the bum like some long-lost high school acquaintance.

He asked me if I was from town as he rode towards me on his bike. Before the begging began his destitution was readily apparent: scraggily blond hair, unchecked facial hair approaching the feral-state, and enough denim to exceed, what is today, fashionably appropriate.

He told me he was new in town, couldn’t find work, and was on his way out, assuring me that he wasn’t a “wino like the rest of them” and that he just needed some money for food. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. But I felt sympathetic and I was sick of all of the spurious conversations I’ve had of late so I tried to establish a common bond between us. I said:

“Yeah, I know how it is man. In fact (pausing with deliberate graveness), I’m living out of my van...”

Expecting that we’d trade declarations of sympathy in the mutual acknowledgment of our beggarly conditions, I was surprised with how indifferently he passed over my admission and continued to prod me for money.

As much as I pride myself in living “on the edge,” I had to admit to myself that I was not homeless in the way that he was homeless. There was a glint of desperation in his eyes. The voluntary nature of my experiment precludes me from experiencing poverty in its most extreme and authentic form. I’m playing with poverty; he’s living it.

I gave him three bucks and he thanked me and said he was leaving town to find work. But only one of us got what they wanted from the transaction.

Just yesterday I heard the same voice yelling in my direction. From amongst his council of homeless comrades, huddled together, warming their hands around a flaming barrel, he yelled, “Hey man! Are you from town?,” which I then realized was the prologue to his standard routine. This time he was audibly drunk and had no idea that I was the one he “fooled” the week before.

I had no sympathy this time around; just disdain, maybe even a strange hint of envy. I ignored him and his subsequent screams.

I continued on towards the library, with a laptop and a lunch packed away in my book bag, while he returned to his friends. This time around, for a moment, I couldn’t quite tell which of us was the poorer.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

What's that smell?

This past Sunday it poured all night. I was warm and dry—content in my vehicular abode—watching the raindrops run down my windows like millions of sperm wiggling earthward. Then I heard something rather disconcerting: “Drop,” then another “Drop,” and then another and another until I was sure that my van had sprung a leak.

As the droplets increased in tempo, I imagined that I’d soon be like a aquatic mammal in a small aquarium, where spectators would come and irritatingly tap on my windows, while I shamelessly performed tricks for day-old fish.

I got out of my sleeping bag and onto my hands and knees to seek the source of the leak. Like a mime trapped in an invisible box, I palmed the span of my ceiling; towards the very back of the van, I found a pancake-sized patch of wetness. Oh no. There is a hole in my ceiling.

The next morning, I went outside and checked the roof of my car. I couldn’t find a scratch, let alone a hole. While a few raindrops inside won’t cause me too much grief, it could contribute to a larger problem that I’ve recently encountered.

That problem is the notable stench in my van. Every evening when I come home, I’m welcomed with a terrible whiff of something… I can’t quite tell what it is. It’s not always bad, but it’s never good. A fourth of the time it’s downright foul.

This is all so disquieting because I have a particularly weak sense of smell. Sadly, little attention is given to those who suffer from the tragic impairment called anosmia—the loss of the sense of smell.

While I don’t quite have that, if there was such a thing as “glasses for the nose,” I’d be wearing them. My point is that if I’m able to pick up on a few odors, then somebody in the county over might be wearing a confused expression that says, “Somebody passed gas in this room and I don’t know who.”

The week before there was a rank tomatoey-metallic stench that could snap Reagan back into consciousness. I noticed that I had left my propane tank open ever so slightly. Problem solved. Or was it? With one scent gone, other latent smells emerged.

I’m terribly self-conscious about being the “smelly guy” on campus. I have no problem with being the “nut in the van,” but for whatever reason, I feel it’s my obligation—as a member of society—to be able to extend my arms and yawn without worrying about sending those people’s noses—near and far—a-scrunchin’. I don’t care if I live in a smelly van; I just care if the van is making me smelly.

I knew I had to take action. Firstly, I made my front passenger seat the laundry area in hopes of segregating my rancid workout clothes from infecting my clean, neutral-smelling clothes. I hang my towel on the passenger seat so it’s directly in the sun during the day where it’ll dry more quickly.

I put a plastic garbage bag over my good clothes to inhibit encroaching smells and to serve as a barrier to any spaghetti sauce that may accidentally be splattered its way.

Lastly, I bought a broom at the Dollar Store for $1.50. I twisted off the handle to make it easier to use in tight quarters. Crumbs had accumulated on my floor to the point that there was an audible “crunch” upon stepping in my kitchen/lounge/dining/parlor (and what I hope will one day be a conservatory) area.

With all that said and done, as well as a fresh, clean load of laundry in the van, there is the same unidentifiable odor. Could it be the water leakage? Is there mold? Or worst of all—is it me?