A Visit to the Philadelphia Flower Show

1 Frames

The theme of this year’s Philadelphia Flower Show, which runs through Sunday, is ARTiculture. Art museums, including the Guggenheim, the Getty, and the Smithsonian, have teamed up to produce spectacular exhibits.

2 Pool

The show is crowded, commercial, expensive ($32 per ticket + parking) and wonderful. There’s snow on the ground in Philadelphia, but landscape and floral designers have brought spring—and all seasons—inside in a series of showy displays. Above, the “ARTiculture Garden” at the show entrance.

3 Competition

The competition section features entries from local horticulturists and garden club members.

4 Chamaecyparis

I was most enthralled by the succulents and the evergreens.

5 MrsAnderson

One of the most touching displays is the collection of blue ribbons won by Mrs. Samuel M. V. Hamilton, described as “one of the most prolific and passionate participants in the Flower Show’s horticulture classes… a fierce competitor who eagerly sought new challenges.” Mrs. Hamilton retired from competition this year, but “generously offered to display some of her favorite specimens,” including her topiaries, flowering trees, orchids, and clivias, which surround her awards.

6 EuphorbiaEsculenta

Current prize-winning plants include this Euphorbia Esculenta (above) and Hart’s Tongue Fern (below).

7 CurlyFern

8 Niche

In the floral design section of the competition, themes are expressed in niches the size of department-store windows.

9 Shopping

And (after watching a few live demonstrations and taking a breath) there is, of course, shopping. The Marketplace consists of twelve aisles of vendors selling fresh plants and flowers, garden furniture, decor, seeds, pottery, jewelry, antiques, vases. Judging by what people are carrying around, a bunch of pussy willows at $3.95 is one of the most popular purchases.

I couldn’t go home without a few wonderful things to plant, and after some deliberation, chose three ferns from Wedgewood Gardens in Glen Mills, PA. A future prize winner in the making?

10 WedgewoodGardens

Then, dinner at Vedge Restaurant on Locust Street. On Saturday, Chefs Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby will be demonstrating their unique vegan recipes in the show’s “Garden to Kitchen” studio.

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The SNAP Challenge, Day 5 (and what I learned)

Yesterday was leftovers day. Breakfast, store-brand rice crispies with half a banana; lunch, leftover tuna pasta salad and an apple; dinner, leftover rigatoni with meat sauce and sautéed escarole on the side.

After another rice crispies breakfast this morning—my last meal on the SNAP Challenge—I survey what’s left over: one apple, a few stalks of celery, a quarter of an onion, an inch of olive oil, a few slices of too-soft, packaged bread, most of the can of the generic coffee.

I told a social-worker friend I was doing this, and he laughed: “Julia Child takes the SNAP Challenge!” Then he started running down all the reasons—that I hope I’ve pointed out over the past four days—why he thought it was a ridiculous exercise: “You know how to cook! You have time to do it. You have a car. You have access to stores like Apple Farm that don’t exist in poor neighborhoods. You don’t have any kids at home clamoring for stuff they see advertised on TV. People on food stamps lead entirely different lives.”

But it wasn’t a ridiculous exercise. No, I didn’t go hungry. The cupboard wasn’t really bare; I just ignored what was in it, and other than a little mayo and catsup, only cooked with what I was able to buy for $5 a day each for two people. All along, I hoped that my descriptions and pictures of food didn’t seem like I was preaching or showing off: “Look what I can make in five days for $50!” Because I grew up with a mom who put nutritious meals on the table for a few dollars every day, I did want to show that with a bit of planning, extreme-low-budget cooking doesn’t have to be all rice and beans.

What did I miss? The stuff that adds color and interest to our food: spices and fresh herbs, scallions, balsamic vinegar, lemons, dried fruit and nuts. Things that come in jars and bottles: roasted peppers, Dijon mustard, olives, pickles.

What did I learn, or re-learn? Discipline. I ate less food, smaller portions, no seconds. No desserts. I ate at regular times. No snacking. Because I didn’t consume a big snack in the afternoon, I ate dinner at 6, not at 9, so I didn’t go to bed with a full stomach. I lost four pounds.

What was most surprising and disappointing was that hardly anybody seemed to care about the SNAP Challenge. My Facebook posts only got a few “likes,” and the only comments on my blog posts were from a guy who wanted to use them as a forum to complain about how people on food stamps cheat the system and eat better than he does. My blog posts, however, about celebrity gardens in the Hamptons and about what a chef went through when he competed on “Chopped” are evergreen. Lots of people are interested in a private garden with an original Richard Serra Tilted Arc sculpture and whether contestants know beforehand what’s in the mystery baskets.

Here’s an idea. Maybe I should get a celebrity spokesperson and re-cast the whole story as The SNAP Diet: Snap your fingers and lose four pounds in five days for only $5 a day. The rules are simple:
- Eat smaller portions.
- No seconds.
- No snacking.
- Other than black coffee, your only beverage is tap water (ice cubes allowed).
- No dining out.
- No desserts, chips, cookies or candy (even on Halloween?).

Oh, and please have compassion for people who live and eat this way, not by choice, but because they have to. Donate to your local food bank. Volunteer at soup kitchens and hunger-relief organizations. Instead of sending your clients holiday gift baskets, donate to Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign in their names.

Your clients will appreciate it, I promise. And so will the kids. Now I’m thinking about lunch. At the local Chinese restaurant … roast duck wonton soup with tofu and scallions …

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The SNAP Challenge, Day 4

Two days to go and I’m out of fresh vegetables and fruit.

Day 4 Breakfast: Store-brand rice crispies with soy milk. Canned pears.

BoringLunch

Day 4 Lunch: Scrambled eggs, cottage cheese, whole-wheat toast. Tomato soup made by blending the contents of a can of stewed tomatoes with soy milk. Without fresh vegetables, lunch looked like a hospital meal. Without curry or dill or other seasoning in the soup, it tasted like one too.

I’m looking forward to tonight’s dinner of rigatoni with meat sauce. What to serve with it? All that’s left in the vegetable bin are a quarter of an onion and some lettuce, which I need to stretch for two days. On Saturday, I’d spent $46.55 of my $50 budget for five days. I have $3.45 left. What can I get?

AppleFarmI go to Apple Farm, about four miles away, which sells produce for less. This shopping trip hits home. For people on a tight budget, there’s a real big difference between buying apples at $1.29 and .79 a pound. You can feed another mouth or get enough for another meal.

I ignore the fresh fish and Italian cheeses and pick up fruit: two apples @ .79 per pound for .80, two bananas for .44. Vegetables: to give color and crunch to salads, one bunch of radishes for .99, one red onion for .36. And then a head of escarole, the cheapest green, for .90. Total $3.49.

Produce2

Rigatoni

Day 4 Dinner: Rigatoni, which had been on sale for .99, with meat sauce made with a base of finely chopped onion, carrot and celery cooked in a little olive oil, then simmered with the rest of the ground beef and canned tomatoes. To make sure the meat wouldn’t spoil before I cooked it, I’d made it the day before while the chicken and vegetables were roasting. The cheapest ground beef, 20% fat, made for a too-fatty burger on Sunday, but the flavor is just right for meat sauce. The radishes and red onion brighten up the wedge salad, made with the last of the head of iceberg. I chop up a few leaves of escarole for bitterness and garnish, saving the rest for tomorrow’s dinner. This is the best meal of the week.

A number of politicians, including Newark mayor Cory Booker, have taken the SNAP Challenge. Many have pointed out that most SNAP recipients don’t have cars and don’t have access to stores like Apple Farm. If you do, is it worth it to drive four miles to save 50 cents on a pound of apples? Usually not, but yesterday afternoon it was.

Even suburban areas like Westchester County, New York, are losing their lower-cost food-shopping options. A large A&P, where many lower-income people shopped, closed more than a year ago. The space is being renovated for a Pet Smart and a Chef Central, which sells high-end cookware. There used to be two excellent produce markets nearby. One is now a Waldbaums and the other is a CVS. Both sell packaged snacks—cookies and chips and candy—not fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs and cheese. As Booker points out, “Folks on SNAP don’t always have an abundance of wholesome food available to them and end up consuming many empty calories.”

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The Snap Challenge, Day 3

The headline in today’s business section is “Twitter Prepares to Feed New Hunger for IPO’s.” My thoughts are about different kind of hunger, that of the millions of Americans who have to feed themselves for less than $5 a day (it’s $5 in New York, about $4.50 in the rest of the country) and aren’t play-acting the role for five days.

FrenchToastBreakfast

Day 3 Breakfast: My French toast breakfast — made with store-brand whole-wheat bread soaked in one egg beaten with soymilk — finally puts me in touch with some of the challenges of the SNAP recipient.

What am I going to cook the French toast in? I’d forgotten about that. I have to cheat and use a pat of butter from the fridge. And what to put on it? I don’t have any syrup. I’d forgotten about that, too. Even made with that too-soft, tasteless bread, it tastes okay without syrup. But what if I were a real SNAP mom and my kids were clamoring for syrup and jam? And for stuff pushed at them on TV, like Cocoa Puffs or Lucky Charms, or Jimmy Dean Breakfast Bowls and Egg McMuffins? What if I didn’t have time to cook anything or even to cut up fruit?

Cooking everything at home not only requires more planning, it requires, of course, more time. Not only the time to cook, the time to clean up, to wash the utensils, the bowls for the cut-up fruit and soaking the bread, the frying pan.

PastaSalad

Day 3 Lunch: Pasta salad. I cook about a quarter of the box of rigatoni and add a can each of tuna and chickpeas, some sliced celery, a few grape tomatoes, a bit of chopped onion and dress it with a teaspoon of olive oil — enough for four servings. I’ll be eating this again.

RoastedChicken

Day 3 Dinner: Chicken thigh roasted with the last of the grape tomatoes and the last of the bag of carrots. Romaine salad. How are the croutons left over from Saturday lunch and stored in a baggie? Inedible, stale and soggy. For dessert, the rest of breakfast’s fruit salad — made with two apples, one orange and one banana.

My mom made that fruit salad all the time. She fed her family of five on a few dollars a day, including making lunches all of us took to school or work in metal lunchboxes. We dined on stews, stuffed peppers, spaghetti with meat sauce, meat loaf, always with vegetables and a tossed salad on the side, bread and butter, pudding or jell-o or homemade cake for dessert. Then I moved out and discovered Gourmet magazine, Julia Child, Balducci’s and Zabars. I inherited the frugality from my Depression-era parents, but like many people these days, I’m a bit spoiled. Salads seem to require arugula and radiccio and frisee. I buy stuff I never had at home as a child: Greek olives, roasted peppers, tamari almonds, dried figs, wedges of Parmesan. I don’t ever have to think: One potato needs to feed two people, or I have to make two meals from one pound of hamburger meat. Usually I’d make two burgers, have some meat left over and throw it away a day of two later. We waste way too much food.

This is a week without waste. I’m planning ahead, not snacking, and limiting portion sizes. Ordinarily, I’d have two chicken thighs for dinner, not one. But to stay within the budget I have to stretch a package of four pieces to two meals, two in Sunday’s chicken soup and two tonight. Is that such a bad thing? We’ve been told over and over that a portion of meat, chicken or fish should be the size of a deck of cards. A dietician once showed me appropriate portion sizes on a chart. “Those are toddler portions!” I said. “That’s all you need,” was her answer. We Americans eat way too much. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of Americans are obese. That’s another thing to think about, even when feeling solidarity with the one in six Americans who are strugging with hunger.

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The SNAP Challenge, Day 2

So far, this is fun. I’m realizing how much money we waste on name-brand food. With a few exceptions, lower-cost products, prepared well, taste just as good. As a design journalist I’ve done several articles on food packaging. And the truth is, most of the time the plain, generic package contains the same stuff.

“It’s been shown for sixty years that the manner in which something is packaged changes the perceived performance of the product. Wine tastes better in a better package, food tastes better, and pain relievers work faster” says Steven Addis, CEO of Addis Creson, a San Francisco area brand consultancy, in an interview for a book I’m finishing about the design business. Several years ago I wrote a piece about the redesign of Treesweet orange juice. Juice that came out of the same vat, reconstituted concentrate, a commodity product, was tested in the existing carton vs. a new carton with a luscious painting of just-picked oranges. The testers thought the juice in the new carton was fresher and more delicious.

Meeting the SNAP Challenge requires forgetting about the carton and concentrating on getting the best value for your money.

Day 2 Breakfast: Generic rice crispies (they are good!) with soy milk and sliced banana.

Coffee

How is the coffee made from the $2 can? Pretty terrible. In this case, I would spend a few dollars more on a brand like Chock Full O’Nuts.

PoachedEggSalad

Day 2 Lunch: Romaine salad with croutons made from yesterday’s leftover French bread topped with two poached eggs, dressed with a bit of the store-brand EVOO with a few drops of vinegar.

Homemade Croutons

It takes less than five minutes to cut up stale bread and sauté it in a little olive oil — much tastier than packaged croutons, which are full of preservatives and artificial ingredients.

OvenFries

Day 2 Dinner: Sunday burger night. I use about a third of the ground beef and garnish the burger with an onion slice and catsup (my second minor cheat) from an open bottle in the fridge; make oven fries with the potato roasted in a teaspoon of EVOO; make a slaw with a quarter of the iceberg lettuce, some celery, carrot. The burger, made with the lowest cost ground beef, is too fatty. Oh, and our beverage. As usual, a tall glass of ice water.

Looking forward to tomorrow (but it would be nice to grab a cookie or two just about now).

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Taking The SNAP Challenge, Day 1

Can two people eat for five days for less than $50?

SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. The SNAP Challenge is a nationwide program during October, “Hunger Awareness Month,” that encourages participants to experience what life is like for low-income Americans, some of whom must live on the newly reduced subsidy of $5 or less per day per person.

That was the challenge Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu, the Upper West Side congregation I belong to, made to his congregants last week. “Take the SNAP Challenge,” he urged us, snapping his fingers. “See what it’s like to survive for a day on less than the cost of a Starbucks Latte.” A number of New York churches and synagogues are participating.

I signed up.

For more than a year, I’ve been entertaining the fantasy of competing on “Chopped.” The SNAP Challenge is an opportunity to do something similar, but with more redeeming social value. The rules are reversed, however. Instead of, “You can use our pantry and fridge,” the rule is, “The “pantry and fridge are empty.” You have to start from scratch.

Is it even fair for me to “compete” at all? As a person who works at home, with a well-equipped kitchen, I don’t have the same challenges as, say, a single mom who rides the subway to a low-paying job and has to grab lunch on the go. But my personal challenge is to prove — like my mom did at our house every day of the year — that for a very few dollars you can make and eat varied, delicious, healthy food with high-quality proteins and fresh vegetables and fruit. No steady diet of rice and beans. No PB&J sandwiches on wonder bread. But there also will be no convenience or snack foods, no deli items, no ice cream or frosted Halloween cupcakes. No second helpings. And no eating out.

Groceries

I did my shopping at the Stop&Shop in Greenburgh, New York, concentrating on house brands and sale items. I bring home everything pictured above for $46.55. Items include a pound of the least expensive ground beef, a package of four Purdue chicken thighs, two cans of chunk light tuna on sale for 89 cents each, a package of three romaine hearts for $2, a $1 loaf of French bread, a 12-ounce can of ground coffee for $2, cans of tomatoes, garbanzos and pears for $1 each, a box of generic rice crispies for $2, an 8-ounce bottle of extra-virgin olive oil for $2.50. Carrots and celery and grape tomatoes for snacks and to be used in several recipes. Because I’m, alas, lactose-intolerant, I also buy regular-price Lactaid cottage cheese for $3.79 and a half-gallon of Nature’s Promise organic soy milk for $2.09.

Here’s what I make and eat:

TunaSalad

Day 1 Lunch: tuna salad with carrots and celery on French bread with fresh veggies.

ChickenSoup

Day 1 Dinner: A quick Mexican-style chicken soup with zucchini, carrots, noodles and lime. Sliced fresh orange for dessert.

I realize I have to cheat a tiny bit: from my own pantry and fridge I use salt, pepper, oregano, a spoonful of mayo in the tuna, and that small handful of noodles (forgot to buy them). Is starting totally from scratch really fair, I wonder; if this were an actual situation you’d buy staples like rice in bulk and have cooking oil, sugar, and other necessities in the house.

And in the interest of full disclosure, my vegetarian husband doesn’t eat chicken, meat or fish. But I make enough of everything for two.

Will my $46.55 take us through Thursday breakfast? Stay tuned…

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Fifth Avenue Vest Pocket Gardens

Yesterday, late afternoon. A walk down Fifth Avenue between a museum visit on 84th Street and a design lecture on 64th Street. Twenty blocks of glorious little gardens. A tiny plot around a street tree. Strips no wider than 9 feet between the edge of building and the beginning of the sidewalk. Inventive layers of color and texture. Gardens designed to survive traffic fumes, pets, and live in a land of doormen, baby carriages, nannies, schoolchildren, dog-walkers, tourists, and business people perhaps too busy to notice.

5 Ave50

5 Ave51

5 Ave61

5 Ave59

5 Ave57

5 Ave562

5 Ave63

5 Ave53

5 Ave56

5 Ave55

5 Ave64

You never know what you’ll see in New York.

5 Ave65

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