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Make Some Bread

By Stett Holbrook

I'VE HAD about all the bad economic news I can take. I keep waiting for some authority figure (not you, President Bush) to say things are finally under control and the situation is going to get better, but that seems a long way off. So rather than follow Wall Street's latest meltdown, I'm trying to find the upside to the current financial malaise. (Bear with me, this is a food column, one that even includes a food giveaway!)

While it may be hard to find a silver lining when you're out of a job, losing your house or trying to salvage what's left of your 401k account, I think there are some upsides to the current crisis. I don't know about you, but as the wheels have come off the U.S. economy it's become all too clear to me how important it is to get rid of high-interest debt and to have ample savings for rainy days, because it's really starting to pour out there. Americans have one of the lowest saving rates in the world and perhaps now our credit card culture of spend-now-pay-later is finally about to end. I wish I could say I was debt-free, but I'm more motivated than ever to reach that goal. All the financial uncertainty has also made me examine what I buy.

I feel for retailers as the holidays approach, but Americans spend too much on unnecessary crap. I know I do. Or did. Now I take a hard look at each new purchase and if don't really need it or can't do it or make it myself, I don't buy it. And when I do buy something I look for quality and durability over quantity and convenience.

As part of my new austerity plan, I've taken a closer look at what I spend on food each month, since that's a big source of my discretionary spending. See, I told you I'd get around to talking about food. I was stunned at my grocery bill. It's nearly double what I thought it was. Now it's hard for me to make the case that pinot noir, $6 pints of gelato and Humboldt Fog cheese qualify as staples anymore.

I've gone over my receipts line by line to see where I can save, and as someone who loves to cook, I've decided to make as much food as I can. My first step was to start making my own bread. A loaf of bread costs me about $3.50. But I can spend $5 on a pound of flour and make about five loaves of bread. You do the math.

What's cool is the bread I bake is better than the store-bought stuff.

A Metro reader was kind enough to give me some of his 14-year-old sourdough starter a few months ago and I've been an avid baker ever since. I'm still perfecting my technique but I make a couple of loaves a week. Because of the slowly fermenting wild yeast in the starter, it takes about 24 hours to make a loaf, but I've come to love watching the flour and water slurry transform into a crusty sourdough loaf. Instead of expecting bread from a plastic bag, my 4-year-old son now knows what fresh bread looks and tastes like and he recognizes the smell of a fresh loaf in the oven.

Now that I make my own bread, I've become inspired to make other things that I used to pay others to make for me—beer, sauerkraut, salsa, salad dressing, soup, the list goes on. I'm also planning on turning my front lawn into a vegetable garden. I'd much rather water lettuce and tomatoes than a patch of grass I can't eat.

Growing and making my own food not only tastes better, but I take pleasure in knowing my self-reliance eases the impact that food production and transportation have on the environment. You can't get more local than your own back yard and kitchen.

Now for the special giveaway I mentioned. In the spirit of changing my profligate grocery shopping ways, I going to give away two jars of my sourdough starter just as the generous Metro reader I mentioned gave some of his starter to me. The pasty, slightly sour smelling liquid doesn't look like much, but it's been making delicious loaves of sourdough bread for more than 14 years. Properly maintained it's a gift that truly keeps on giving.

So: I'm offering two jars of starter with instructions to the first two Metro readers who write to explain how the current economic crisis has affected the way they eat and spend money. But here's the catch. The recipients of the starter have to promise to share some with two other people, who must in turn do the same with two more people and so on and so in hopes that jars of starter spread their yeasty goodness and promise of fresh baked bread across the land.

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