My credit card debt happened in an unremarkable way. I graduated college with no savings — it didn’t even occur to me to have savings — and my first job, at a nonprofit theater, paid terribly. Even with a second job on the weekends, what felt like a normal life had me living beyond my means.
I didn’t notice my debt until it started to scare me, as did the whispered phone calls with my bank made from the office hallway, where I begged for another overdraft fee to be waived. But in some ways, it was a lucky moment in my life, where I had what I needed to deal with this problem (aside from a well-paying job). I had just moved into my own apartment for the first time — at the far northern tip of Manhattan, barely paying more than I’d paid for a third of a shoebox on the Upper East Side. I was newly walking distance from a weekend farmers market, and newly alone, I had so much time to cook. At work, I sat at my desk with a pile of plays that needed to be read, and I read food blogs instead.
I loaded up my Google Reader, finding new favorites through a daisy chain of links which eventually led me to a whole other world of blogs about money-saving and frugality and personal finance. I was looking for cheap and simple things to cook, so it wasn’t a stretch. There I learned to budget, to snowball my debt. I quickly saw that food was where I had room to change my spending — I already didn’t have cable, or a car, or kids. But if I could buy all my groceries for $35 a week, which I did, then I could pay off my credit cards.
In the end, it took me three years, through getting laid off and finding a new job as a receptionist (for fewer hours and better pay than at the theater!). Finally, the month before I started grad school, my debt was gone. But until then, $35 a week.
Rice and beans is a joke of cheap eating, but it’s also the gospel. And the way I learned to love the humble legume, in my own carefully budgeted cooking, was through bodega beans.
The recipe happened to be published on my 25th birthday, a preemptive gift. It wasn’t even the brainchild of the author of the post — first-wave food blogger Adam Roberts, aka the Amateur Gourmet — but a friend he ran into on the subway one night, food writer Rachel Wharton. Roberts was headed home late and hungry, when his grocery store would be closed but New York City’s bodegas, as always, would be open.
“Rachel,” I said, “I want to make a quick, easy dinner with something I can get from my corner bodega.”
“Beans,” she answered.
Wharton’s recipe was hardly a recipe at all: Sauté onion and garlic, add a can of white beans (or any other kind), drizzle with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and sprinkle with cheese if you like. Serve it on rice or toast. That’s it. In his write-up, Roberts doctors his with bacon, carrots, celery, and red chile flakes, but anything other than oil, onions, and beans is really a bonus.
Our intrepid food blogger had never even made beans before, but neither had I, so I happily followed in his footsteps. Bodega beans quickly became a go-to dinner. I’d sauté an onion and a carrot from the farmers market and add in my beans, sometimes with the beet greens I got for free from the greenmarket discards. Served over rice and, I’ll admit it, under a squirt of ketchup, it was the kind of perfectly good, perfectly healthy, unfancy, and unphotogenic meal that would never impress company, but which I was happy to feed myself three nights a week.
It was so good that I kept making it even when I didn’t have to. When I could loosen my belt and let my grocery budget swell to a luxurious $45 or more a week, I still came back to bodega beans. Sometimes with fancier beans or more vegetables — the indulgence of cherry tomatoes! — but it was always the same core nonrecipe. I know cheap beans can’t save anyone from true financial crisis, but to this day they’re my financial safety valve after a month of overzealous spending, and a talisman in the face of a looming lean month. I’ll always be devoted to a quick, easy recipe that has veggies and protein in one pan.
The bodega-availability of the ingredients has served me, too. The first New Year’s Eve that I spent with my now-husband, I came to his apartment with party hats and two bottles of André, ever prepared, but we forgot that the supermarkets would be closing early. I led us out, intrepidly, to the cold streets of Sunset Park. From two or three bodegas we collected a can of chickpeas, a red onion, garlic, cilantro, a miraculously ripe avocado, and small corn tortillas. With abundant paprika and cumin, and plenty of olive oil, our dinner ended up being one of the most delicious things I’d ever cooked.
Near the end of his recipe, Roberts writes, “One bite and I wanted to run down the street to give Rachel a hug. It was AMAZINGLY good. Not just a little good, incredibly good.” That’s the real magic of bodega beans, beyond the magic of cheapness and healthiness and ingredient accessibility — they’re so good. Rich and warm and filling, with plenty of salt and olive oil: a perfect comfort food. Not just the comfort of stick-to-your-ribs cheese and carbs, but of knowing how to feed yourself and save a tiny bit of your financial life in the process. ●
Jaime Green is a freelance writer and editor. She is the series editor for Best American Science and Nature Writing and the romance columnist for the New York Times Book Review.