Frugal foodie? ME?!?! The woman who once read endless restaurant reviews at destinations and dreamed of savoring the cuisine of Michelin-starred chefs? Yep…it happened.
If anyone had told me a few years ago that I’d be walking right past famous, classic, or trendy restaurants, I’d have laughed out loud. Impossible! Ridiculous! Isn’t the whole point of travel to experience the best food that a city or country has to offer? Shouldn’t I research the leading restaurants and make my reservations months in advance?
Here’s my story…
In 2008, the market crashed, taking over one-third of my retirement funds with it. I wasn’t the only one, but I thought I was still safe. I had a good job and a bit of time to recover some of the losses. Until two years later, when I got laid off. At age 62. It was the worst time of my life as I tried to get another job. If you’ve ever sought meaningful employment as a “mature” worker, you know what I mean.
Eventually, I did land a job…but it paid half of what I’d been earning and required an expensive move. I took it. Three years later, that gig ended, too. That’s when I started my full-time freelance career. I was tired of working for someone else. Freelancing is unpredictable, with more valleys than peaks. But, I had no more energy for a futile job search.
The Frugal Foodie is born
Travel is essential to me. I wasn’t able to set out until I was fifty years old. Carving out precious vacation time, I managed to get to France, Italy, Turkey, Spain, Belgium, and Holland. I walked the Camino de Santiago on my first leave-of-absence. Loved every minute of each journey.
Once I was “liberated” from the work force, I had time…but no money. The age-old problem. Single women understand this–there is no second income to pay the mortgage. Basic expenses come first. After utilities and insurance are paid, and groceries are bought, there isn’t much left for jet-setting.
I had to choose: Travel or Gourmet. It was an easy decision. I’d rather explore the world than spend my hard-earned cash at Alain Ducasse’s Plaza Athénée (Lunch menu: 210 Euros) or Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, where the tasting menu price isn’t even listed, but you can add charcoal-grilled Japanese Waygu for only $100 more. That gives you the idea…
In a heartbeat, I became a Frugal Foodie.
Why I’ll never go back
It’s been an amazing experience to cast aside pretentious food and eat like a local. I ask taxi drivers and maids where they like to eat, and I go there. The food is delicious and the wine is affordable. And it’s REAL. So much more fun than oohing and aahing over a plate with two scallops and three asparagus spears, washed down with a $30 glass of Chateau Whatever.
People are friendly and helpful. Waiters point at what others are eating, or they just deliver the daily special, assuming that if you’re there, you’re up for what’s been cooked. Customers sometimes try to practice their English when they hear your pitiful accent. It’s an authentic experience that will never exist in the rarefied air of a place where “the same ingredient is never repeated during the meal.” No one is taking photos of their food. No one.
Need examples? Here are some regional dishes from around the world that aren’t expensive. In fact, they will usually set you back less than $10.
Groceries and Markets: The Frugal Foodie Friends
Then there are the grocery stores. How I love to go and find something for lunch or dinner! Again, this is where everyday people go to find ingredients for their meals. Wander the aisles and discover what’s important to them. In Italy, there is an aisle devoted to pasta. In France, not so much…but the boulangeries and patisseries? Ooh-la-la! Which brings me to the little specialty stores: cheese, vegetables, meat, or seafood. Shoppers happily traipse to each vendor for what they need.
If there’s a Market, make a beeline to join the housewives who are inspecting the fresh produce. Follow them as they buy sardines, olives, nuts, honey, chocolate…all keep well for later eating. Cheesemongers and salumieres (sausage makers) will let you sample before you get a slab for your dinner. Because eating a meal as a picnic or in your hotel is a huge money-saver. Read my article on the Magnificent Markets of Sicily to see what I mean…
Fast Food Feasting
Never pass up street food or fast food found at markets. This is often traditional food, cooked and served quickly. Whether it’s a Lucky Dog in New Orleans or a bowl of pho in Vietnam, it’s a typical food that locals enjoy. Choose a place with lots of customers and get in line. I find that university students know a good value, so I watch for their favorite spots. Whatever it is, give it a try. (As a smart traveler, you’ve received a Hepatitis A vaccination, right? It protects against the infection, which is passed by food and drink.) Fast foods are always affordable and interesting. If you don’t like it, throw it away. But they can be tasty!