Cheap Date | Opinion | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Cheap Date 

Dollar Store dinner parties can provide frugal fun in Utah.

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I don’t know about you, but the drumbeat of bad news earlier this year left me bone-weary and grouchy. With our savings evaporating, it would have been a winter of discontent even without the right-wing antics of the Legislature. It came as no surprise to me that the Consumer Confidence Index hit all-time lows in February. When you keep telling people the country is going to hell, they hunker down and stop spending money on anything but 9-millimeter ammo and freeze-dried survival rations. In short order, our consumption-based economy is on the rocks and sinking fast. Warren Buffett called it “a very, very vicious negative feedback cycle.”

About the time I decided to pull out of my own tailspin, up popped Senate Majority Leader Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, with a quiver full of inspirational words. “I prefer to look on the bright side,” he told his fellow Utah senators. “Things aren’t as gloomy as some would have us believe. … We can still eat, we can have homes, we have health care, we have color TV … and most still have jobs.” Damned straight! Thank God for television. What we downcasts needed was a slap in the face—snap out of it!—a John Belushi-style toga party or a comfort-food binge. My neighbor suggested watching The Big Lebowski. I finally decided any smile-inducing enterprise would suffice. Spend a little money and have a little fun. It’s the patriotic thing.

I settled on the frugal fun of a Dollar Store dinner party. Credit a New York Times writer for the idea of whipping up a gourmet dinner with food from the Dollar Store, but that’s what my wife and I did. Truth be told, she took the lead as kitchen alchemist. My sole contribution was dessert.

Before launching invitations, we drove to the bustling Dollar Store complex on 3300 South and 1100 East to see what was available. I was enthusiastic about the tilapia fillets and salmon kabobs I found in the freezer section. My wife was not. “They are from China,” she said, insinuating every package contained a measure of mercury. No fish, then.

An hour later, however, we had found options aplenty. We decided to buy from both Big Lots and the Dollar Store, but we agreed that no single item could exceed $1. We also decided to use ingredients we already had on hand in our kitchen, like eggs, milk and spices, if needed.

We invited two couples to join us. These are people we have known long enough to appreciate their progressive worldview and hair-trigger wit. It would be a compatible group of six: no epicures, no vegans, no Republicans, no strangers to vice.

With the date set, we bought the ingredients for what we hoped would be a toothsome, threecourse meal. From the Dollar Store freezer we chose stir-fry veggies, meatballs and garlic bread. We also bought two boxes of prepared appetizers, “Crispy Creamy Mozzarella Sticks” and “Creamy Golden Mushroom Bites.” On the shelves we found white rice, Duncan Hines cupcake mix, chocolate frosting, corn chips, salsa, cashews and kalamata olives.

We could have bought soft drinks or iced tea and held the cost to under $20, but such a grand occasion cried out for alcohol. So, while my wife worried over recipes, I drove to the wine store on 300 West. No, they don’t stock “two-buck chuck,” a clerk told me, so I prowled the aisles looking for a bargain. I felt 21 again, searching for cheap thrills in a bottle (of cherry vodka or Everclear). In a stroke of good fortune, R. Mondavi’s Woodbridge label was on sale for $3.99 a bottle, so I bought zinfandel and sauvignon blanc. I subsequently added a six-pack of Miller beer as an accommodation for one of the guests.

My wife found a recipe for “sweet-andspicy meatball stir-fry with Asian rice.” It had the advantage of turning our three principal ingredients into a culinary delight embellished with cashews and a splash of teriyaki sauce. I made cupcakes for dessert. I baked two batches of cake mix—one chocolate, the other yellow—taking pains to make all the same size. Then I cut them in half vertically and used the frosting to glue bicolor halves together. Voila! Bipartisan cakes! A perfect dessert for these discordant times.

The guests arrived in high spirits. “I didn’t know the Dollar Store sold food,” one exclaimed.

We opened two bottles of wine and tucked into the hot mozzarella and mushroom appetizers. A f lask of tequila appeared. As our blood-alcohol levels inched upwards, the taste of the breaded appetizers improved apace.

Presently, the three women moved to the kitchen. There, as a pot of rice simmered on the stovetop, they filled a wok with meatballs and stir-fry vegetables from which they had cut away the many broccoli stalks. An extra measure of teriyaki sauce in the hot wok filled the house with a spicy plume.

As the steaming dishes were carried out of the kitchen, I topped off the wine glasses and reminded diners that the objective of the dinner was to create a pleasurable synergy from $1 ingredients. My serving needed lots of cashews and garlic bread to redeem it, but the others ate without complaint.

I would have toasted Waddoups and his vision of the bright side, but the tequila was gone before midnight. The hours had passed quickly. The $36 cost of the dinner was divided equally between food and drink. That’s $6 apiece or less than $9 an hour on the frugal fun meter. Watching television may be cheaper, but it is a stultifying substitute for friendship and laughter.

Private Eye is off this week. John Rasmuson is a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City.

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