The Empty Cupboard Syndrome

By Larissa Phillips

Back in the early 1940s, the food writer M.F.K. Fisher wrote a book called How to Cook a Wolf. It was about surviving in the midst of wartime rationing, when meat and butter were scarce, and the metaphorical wolf was scratching and howling at the door. (Invite him in, and cook him for dinner, she seems to suggest.)

In our times of plenty, most Americans don't worry about starving. We don't have to scrape the flour drawer and save bacon drippings to make biscuits for our hungry children. But that doesn't mean we aren't challenged when it comes to feeding ourselves.

The biggest challenge is what I think of as the wolf - not at the door - but in the cupboard. We don't need to stretch a cup of flour to feed a family of six so much as stretch a weekly shopping trip to last until the next week. Who has time to shop twice a week, after all?

With my tiny kitchen and its dollhouse-sized fridge (or so it seems), I am more challenged than most. I simply cannot fit a week's worth of food into my home. Nor can I make it to the grocery store more than once a week. Historians and foreign-aid workers might shake their heads in disgust at this so-called predicament; and yet, look where a steady diet of pizza and takeout and prepared foods has taken us. Diabetes, obesity and heart disease have supplanted the malnutrition problems of earlier decades. We are no healthier for this abundance of overly convenient foods.

Those end-of-the-week, empty cupboard nights might not ache like real hunger, but they are still fraught with anxiety. On a typical Thursday night, the wolf in my cupboard howls menacingly, and the empty inside of my fridge whistles like a North Dakota plain in the middle of winter. (The wobbly carrots and assortment of half-empty jars of pickles are no comfort.)

In defense against those anxious nights, I have learned a few tricks for coming up with meals on empty cupboards days, when children and parents are hungry, stores are closed and we've already had enough pizza that week.

Families around the world have survived without stacks of takeout menus. Borrowing from other cultures, the most humble ingredients can be made into something sublime. Stock your kitchen with cupboard staples and you won't be stuck at the mercy of that howling wolf. At least not so often!

Recipe: Tortilla Español

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