Thursday, January 19, 2006

A little upper-middle-class austerity

Guest columnist

The background noise of my life, MSNBC, recently caught me with an interview of a rabbi and a minister about the negative impact on local charities of the more focused giving in the aftermath of Katrina.

Neither minister was particularly impassioned about the question. One clergyman suggested that it was time to work more arduously to motivate the majority of Americans who give no charity whatsoever. That solution recalls the observation of the rabbi of Lubavitch that “If we waited to understand the process of digestion before we ate, we would all surely die.”

The other pastor was more candid, if not particularly magnanimous. The disaster, he said, was so immense that needs of other charities would just have to wait a year.

Both my colleagues were wrong.

I can think of at least 10 solutions to the dilemma of how one can meet the needs of horrific tragedy while addressing local demands that are no less horrific, such as homelessness, hunger, family violence ....

This is a suggestion that will take nary a pinch out of us denizens of the upper-middle class. We know it because we personally use it: Let all forms of broader “standard” charity — United Way, house of worship and the like — come directly from the checkbook, a chunk of salary and savings that is the bedrock of annual giving. When special needs like Katrina pull our larger dollars elsewhere, let smaller at-home giving come from “upper-middle-class austerity.”

First: At the end of each day, put all your pocket change into a charity box. Whatever faith you practice, before the Sabbath, do that with all the dollar bills in your wallet, too.

Food is a terrible thief of here-and-there dollars: Store brands and generics are almost invariably as good as high-ticket names. More poultry and less beef. More fruits and veggies and, for God’s sake, not just in salads. A few sliced apples, some brown sugar, a shot of cheap Marsala, a fistful of raisins, glaze in a skillet. The best side dish and dessert, $7.50 in better restaurants.

And speaking of restaurants, don’t stop going; just cut back.

Whirl together mayo, anchovies, garlic, Worcestershire and mustard, serve on romaine: the sanctified Caesar salad. And the simple and frugal delight of homemade soup will always win out over top-of-the-line Progresso.

Do you know how relatively inexpensive salmon and tilapia are? I can find the best of each at $3.99 a pound. Dress them up with a dusting of ground buckwheat or a blob of homemade tartar sauce.

Gastronomists refer to this as “cuisine of necessity.” We call it all that our grandmothers could get out of a chicken (eggs, schmaltz, soup and finally the main course), some matzo meal and a couple of root vegetables, and still eat like royalty on Sabbath and Holy Days.

I’ve stopped taking most of my shirts to the cleaners. I’ve learned to iron. What a concept.

We’ve forced ourselves to stop impulse buying. Kids need to learn a qualified “no” to their goofy extravagances — Not a “no” to everything but what the “no” is about and that you, too, are saying “no’s” for yourselves.

Finally, the key is a little simple accounting. Keep a tally of what you’ve saved by an occasional coq au vin for four at $12, versus the same at $32 a person prepared by Chef D’Jean deMoutarde. Then, the “what you saved” goes directly to at-home charities that might have otherwise been pinched by Katrina.

None of this timid proposal forces a descent into lower-class living. For most of us, it compels barely scraping the edge of the upper-middle class.

Nobody asked me, but that’s how I see it. Write a check and help relieve the suffering of Katrina. Make your own salad dressing, and help wipe out hunger at home.

Mr. Wilson is a rabbi in Greenville. Write to him at

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