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  • Ken Ilgunas

An evening meal with the spartan student

Now that autumn has finally arrived in North Carolina it's become cool enough for me to begin cooking meals in my van again.

I don’t know precisely why, but I’m always struck by the deliciousness of my dinners, which is all the more confounding when you consider how terrible a cook I am and how simple my concoctions are.

Last semester I’d sate my enormous appetite on a mere $4.34 a day. I suspect that my food costs have risen slightly because I’ve been shopping at Whole Foods, but I’m sure I’m still well below the national average.

Here I am cooking with my MSR extra-light backpacking stove with silverware and pots that I bought from the Salvation Army.

My concoction consisted of spaghetti, mushrooms, tomato, half an onion, one-third of a head of cabbage, a few slices of rye bread, a dollop of peanut butter and some mozzarella cheese mixed in for good measure. This was one of my more elaborate creations, though I should note that I tossed in the aforementioned items with little forethought. Any combination of boiled veggies with a little salt can go a long way.

And Voila!

In lieu of a dinner table I sit on my bed. In lieu of china I use the pot. In lieu of washing my dishes, I don’t. In lieu of decorum I eat messily and noisily and enjoyably.

For a moment—after wiping my hands on my chest and letting my runny nose (caused by the steam of my stew) drip into the meal I was eating—I thought I was in a bachelor’s paradise. Then I looked around and noted the dearth of women, alcohol, the absence of an Xbox and all that’s stereotypically male, thus deciding that this was a paradise only fitting for hermits, ascetics, and long-bearded fanatics who are looking for a place to base their mail-bombing operations out of.

I’m not sure how much the meal cost me, but it couldn’t have been more than $5. And it, to me, tasted better than anything I could spend an hour’s wage on at the finest restaurant.

Thoreau spent 27 cents a day on food and he too found something oddly satisfying about his spartan meals. Maybe it’s because we feel like we’re getting away with something. Maybe it’s because a spartan meal, generally, is a healthy meal. Or maybe it’s just a matter of perspective. Thoreau says,

In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely. It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.

I do quite well without meat, dairy and other “staples” listed on food pyramids. And I can think of few professionally crafted meals have ever satisfied me as much as the meals I hastily throw together.


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