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Make the Bread, Buy the Butter
What You Should (and Shouldn't) Cook from Scratch to Save Time and Money
Table of Contents
About The Book
This unique combination of recipes, memoir, and advice is “pure entertainment in an original, fresh voice” (Mollie Katzen, author of Moosewood Cookbook).
When blogger Jennifer Reese lost her job, she began a series of food-related experiments. Economizing by making her own peanut butter, pita bread, and yogurt, she found that “doing it yourself” doesn’t always cost less or taste better. In fact, she found that the joys of making some foods from scratch— marshmallows, hot dog buns, and hummus—can be augmented by buying certain ready-made foods—butter, ketchup, and hamburger buns. Tired? Buy your mayonnaise. Inspired? Make it.
With Reese’s fresh voice and delightful humor, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter has 120 recipes with eminently practical yet deliciously fun “make or buy” recommendations. Her tales include living with a backyard full of cheerful chickens, muttering ducks, and adorable baby goats; countertops laden with lacto-fermenting pickles; and closets full of mellowing cheeses. Here’s the full picture of what is involved in a truly homemade life and how to get the most out of your time in the kitchen—with the good news that you shouldn’t try to make everything yourself.
Boil peanuts until tender; remove hulls in cold water; mash. Season with butter [sic] and salt; When cold spread between slices of bread. Good for school lunch.
—Los Angeles Times Cookbook, No. 2, 1905
Until recently, I never considered making my own peanut butter. Skippy was good enough for me.
Until recently, I never considered buying a frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I hadn’t even known such a thing existed. I first read about Smucker’s popular frozen peanut butter sandwich—the Uncrustable—in a New York Times Magazine article by (of course) Michael Pollan. He wrote, “People think nothing of buying frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their children’s lunch boxes.” I thought: They don’t? What people? What frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? What’s next, frozen buttered toast?
I felt briefly smug in the certainty that I was not so lazy or compromised that I would ever buy mass-produced peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Then I thought, People probably once said that about peanut butter. And bread. And jelly. They almost certainly said it about waffles, and pie crust, and pudding. Not so long ago, people must have wondered who couldn’t fry her own donuts, grind her own sausage, cure her own bacon. Kill her own bacon! The more I thought about it, the more arbitrary it seemed to draw a line in the sand at the frozen PB&J.
Yet drawing and redrawing just such arbitrary lines had become one of my primary preoccupations in recent years. The most irksome decisions I faced as an adult and working mother seemed to be made at the supermarket. Fundamentally trivial, they were nonetheless maddeningly fraught, involving questions of time, quality, money, First World guilt, maternal guilt, gender, meaning, and health. I had only to step through those automatic Safeway doors for the nattering mental calculations to begin: Owen needs cupcakes for school and look, here they are, ready to go, packed in clamshells. Nutritionally irredeemable—but made. Sixteen dollars for twenty-four supermarket trans-fat packed cupcakes? Good grief. I’ll bake. That means I need eggs and the eggs here sure are cheap. But I can’t buy them here because these eggs are laid by debeaked chickens living in cages the size of Tic Tac boxes. If only I’d gone to the farmers’ market on Sunday and bought eggs there … But how do I know that guy treats his chickens well just because the eggs are blue? And honestly, do I even really care about chickens? I can’t believe I’m spending three dollars per pound for these crunchy tomatoes. I should grow them, just like Barbara Kingsolver. How does she find the time to make her own cheese and breed her own heritage turkeys and write books? I need to work harder, sleep less, never watch TV again. Wait, there’s high-fructose corn syrup in Campbell’s vegetable soup? Isn’t that supposed to be a deal breaker?
Every choice I made was loaded, and every choice I made was wrong. The mental conversation was circular and chronically irritating and I couldn’t seem to shut it down.
Then I lost my job.
Instantly, I was stabbed with the predictable financial anxiety, which I attended to by taking an overdue video back to the video store and calling my husband to make sure that he still had his job. It was 2008 and a lot of people were losing their jobs. I made myself a cup of tea and walked out the back door of our house and sat on the steps leading down to our unkempt suburban yard, strewn with deflated soccer balls and broken deck chairs and gravel. The sky had fallen, yet there it was, vast and blue above me. A few end-of-the-season red apples weighted down the branches of our tree. I thought, I should really pick those, before the squirrels get them. I can make applesauce. I can make apple butter. I can make chutney. Who needs a job when you have an apple tree? They didn’t have jobs in Little House in the Big Woods.
Even as I thought this, sitting on my steps, I knew it to be completely ridiculous. A job is more valuable than an apple tree. People can’t live on applesauce and no one even likes chutney. Plus, I hate canning.
And yet a question lodged in the forefront of my mind. Where is that sweet spot between buying and making? What does the market do cheaper and better? And where are we being deceived, our tastes and habits and standards corrupted? Could I answer this question once and for all? I didn’t want an answer rooted in ideology, or politics, or tradition, or received wisdom. I wanted to see the question answered empirically, taking into account the competing demands—time and meaning, quality and conscience, budget and health—of everyday American family life.
And so, over the next months and years, I got some chickens, which I loved; and some ducks, which I loathed; and some turkeys, which we slaughtered. I learned to make cheese and keep bees and worried that the neighbors were going to call Animal Control. I cured bacon and salmon, canned ketchup, baked croissants, and made vanilla extract and graham crackers. I planted tomatillos and potatoes and melons and squash. My son, Owen, joined 4-H and practically moved into the yard, while my teenage daughter, Isabel, refused to step outside the back door at all, especially after the goats turned up. My husband, Mark, rolled his eyes at all of it except the homemade yogurt. That, he ate by the quart. At the height—or maybe it was the depths—of my homemaking experiment, I had pickles lacto-fermenting on the counter and seven varieties of jam, ranging from banana-chocolate to plum, arrayed in the pantry, and absinthe and Taleggio cheese mellowing in the crawl space behind my closet. I was overwhelmed and a bit of a mess, but I had my answers.
PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY SANDWICH
Let’s get back to the PB&J. One day, I bought some Uncrustables, the Smucker’s frozen sandwiches, which come in a carton decorated with a quaint gingham check. Then I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich the usual way, which took less time than finding the car keys to drive to buy the Uncrustables. Unwrapped, Uncrustables do not look like sandwiches, but like dainty white turnovers with sealed, crimped edges. They look wonderful, the bread downy and soft and white as a stack of Kleenex.
I took a bite. The jelly was gelatinous and supersweet, as in a jelly donut, one of my favorite foods. I loved it. The second bite was less delightful—a bit cloying and yet oddly desiccated. By the third bite, I was done. This was a stupid little sandwich.
“It’s like the peanut butter is a solid mass,” said Isabel, then twelve years old, plucking out a flat shard of tan paste and holding it up for inspection. “Look, it’s a thing.”
The homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwich, on the other hand, was luscious and sloppy and extravagant and fresh, and it easily carried the day. If this is the best Smucker’s can do, I thought, civilization is safe.
I assumed that the Uncrustables would turn out to be a bargain. Isn’t the whole point of industrial food that it is cheap? Well, cheap to make, maybe, but not all that cheap to buy. This fact has repeatedly taken me by surprise, though it probably shouldn’t have. Inferior mass-produced food often costs more—and sometimes quite a bit more—than homemade food. The homemade sandwich cost fifty-one cents and was roughly twice the size of the wee Uncrustable, which priced out at sixty-three cents.
There is market research that answers the question of who buys these expensive sandwiches when it is so easy and inexpensive to make one at home. Just to show how loaded this subject of food can be, how much socioeconomic and gender baggage we attach to the shopping and production of what we eat, I’ll describe the “research” that I performed in my own brain while standing in my kitchen. Who buys Uncrustables? I saw a woman in a peach velour tracksuit with a Kate Gosselin haircut loading up her cart at a big-box supermarket. She appeared pouty and spoiled and indolent, someone who would recline on the sofa watching Real Housewives and eating fat-free bonbons rather than make her kids’ sandwiches. A mother who buys Uncrustables: bad mother.
Then I tried to picture a man buying a box of Uncrustables. He came to me just as instantly and fully formed. A widower, he pushed a cart through the IGA after a long day of honest toil, perhaps in the construction trade. He wore a rumpled flannel shirt and looked a lot like Aidan Quinn. He was noble and long-suffering, a devoted dad, out there shopping for his kids’ food when he deserved to put his feet up and crack open a cold one. He needed to meet a really nice woman, someone just like me, except single.
I thought this. I was appalled at myself.
Until I actually did it, I thought you had to be compulsive and controlling to grind your own peanut butter. But it turns out to be almost as worthwhile as making your own PB&Js. (Though not quite.) Home-ground peanut butter is nubbly, rich, intensely peanutty. Mass-market brands like Jif and Skippy have been sweetened and homogenized to the point where they resemble peanut-flavored Crisco. I still love Jif and will almost surely buy it again, but homemade is better next time you have seven minutes to spare.
Make it or buy it? Make it.
Cost comparison: Per cup, homemade peanut butter is 80 percent the price of Jif.
1 pound unsalted roasted peanuts, shelled and skinned
2 tablespoons oil (preferably peanut)
1. Put the peanuts and oil in a food processor or blender and grind until you have a creamy paste. Add more oil if necessary to thin. Make this peanut butter a little thinner than you think it should be, as it will firm up a lot in the refrigerator.
2. Salt to taste. Store in a jar in the refrigerator for several months.
Makes 2 cups
Now what about the bread? What about the jelly? What about all of it?
A few caveats before we get started. First, although, like most people, I think about money, I’ve always been able to clothe my children and pay the mortgage and if I couldn’t, whether I bought or made crème fraîche—or bread, to use a less absurd example—would make no difference. It is frivolous and deluded to think it would. I just wanted to address and answer some middle-class home economics questions that nagged my Michael Pollan–reading, price-checking, overthinking self. This is not a book about how to scrape by on a budget and it is not a book about how to go off the grid.
Second, prices of food vary from day to day, shop to shop, region to region. I did my best to price ingredients consistently and accurately as of late 2010 and early 2011, but the prices you see here might not always reflect what you pay, where you live, today.
When I started this project I had a lot of time on my hands—more than I’d ever had before as an adult. A lot of these projects are very ambitious, and I’ve tried to make clear which are particularly time consuming. But when you’re exhausted and overworked, even the simplest kitchen job—even mixing a jar of salad dressing—can seem like too much. When I say “make it,” I mean that when you have the time and the inclination, the recipe in question is something you can do better, and/or more cheaply, than the supermarket. By no means do I think everyone should make all (or even any) of these foods, all of the time. I sure don’t.
Moreover, if you don’t enjoy messing around in the kitchen, you probably aren’t going to end up making your own Camembert and pancetta, despite the fact that they’re better and cheaper than what you can buy. Nor should you. As my son, Owen, said one day—a little spitefully—while he was reluctantly doing his homework and I was happily stuffing pot stickers, “Mom, I think if you didn’t like to cook we’d eat canned soup every night.”
He is right.
- Publisher: Atria Books (October 16, 2012)
- Length: 304 pages
- ISBN13: 9781451605884
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Raves and Reviews
“In a time when the pressure’s on to be green, organic and homemade, food fans and cooks will appreciate a book that encourages balance: Make your own hummus, yogurt and dill pickles, but buy sashimi, baguettes and corn dogs.”
– USA TODAY
“A great read for cooks afflicted by curiosity about the do-it-yourself movement in food. Ms. Reese goes beyond jam and chutney into pasta, pastrami and graham crackers. Even her failed experiments, like homemade hot dogs, are entertaining.” –New York Times
"From hot dog buns to Pop-Tarts, she reveals whether it's better to buy it or make it, accounting for the cost, hassle and rate of success. Happily, she dispenses this practical know-how with a crackling sense of humor, making this book a fun read. The scope and utility of this book make it worthy of space in your collection, especially this time of year when you're looking for fast and interesting gifts to make in the kitchen. Plus Reese's honesty is refreshing and inspiring; she goes from a hilarious review of the 1970s Earth-mother bible "Laurel's Kitchen" to making a modern-day case for baking."
– The Oregonian
"Now that Michael Pollan has made us all aspire to be politically correct foodies, a certain angst has cast its shadow over the average American home. One of the big issues is, should I make my own food and thus assure myself that it contains only the healthiest and freshest of ingredients, or is it more practical to just buy it somewhere. Reese tackles this question for a number of common foods and she writes in a witty, conversational style that wins you over right from the start."
– Sacramento Bee
"I'm always interested in what Jennifer says about food, and about how to retain the pleasure of eating it in an increasingly confusing world. Plus, she's convinced me to try making my own Camembert. Jennifer's is a journey I'm thrilled to embark upon."
– Julie Powell, author of Julie and Julia
“I knew this important, original, and necessary book would be informative—and it is, very. What I didn't expect: pure entertainment in an original, fresh voice that will make readers feel they have a smart new best friend. I lapped this up in one sitting, learned a bunch, laughed out loud - and am about to try several of the recipes. You nailed it, Jennifer Reese!”
– Mollie Katzen, author of Moosewood Cookbook
"Here is a book that is going to take a treasured place in my kitchen bookrack. Part memoir, part Consumer-Reports-style testing, this book is chock-full of recipes and good advice in the kitchen. There are a few things Jennifer Reese does in this book that make it particularly indispensable: before each recipe, she tells her story of why she wanted to tackle it. Her recipes are easy-to-follow, and often include diagrams and pictures to get through the more difficult parts. I would highly recommend this book if you are thinking about embarking on the adventure that is backyard chicken raising. Here, Reese offers a humane and very funny look at what that project brought to her family. I would recommend this book if you, like me, spend a lot of time thinking about what goes into your body and wondering where did so many of these so-called "conveniences" come from, and are they really worth it? I've suspected making my own bread is the way to go for a long time, but in this book, Jennifer Reese cements it for me. Her recipes are tried-and-true, her reasoning makes sense to me, and her personality makes it believable. Buy this book, give it to a friend, make these recipes and watch your world get a little better."
– The Tattered Cover
“Her experiences led her to create a great blog, Tipsy Baker, and this awesome book. She’s very sarcastic, which makes me happy. Jennifer tells it like it is, from a simple bread recipe to raising chickens, and breaks everything down by price, reward, and hassle factor."
"I loved this book. In her inspiring and hilarious voice, Reese reminds me why I actually should take the time to make from scratch things that I buy and giving me a pass on those things that I really don't want to make myself anyway. I laughed out loud."
– Carla Hall, Top Chef All Star, Co-host on The Chew, and founder, Alchemy by Carla Hall
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- Book Cover Image (jpg): Make the Bread, Buy the Butter Trade Paperback 9781451605884
- Author Photo (jpg): Jennifer Reese Photograph © Justine Reese(0.1 MB)
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