Henry Alford of the New York Times writes that sometimes he will “plop a can of chicken broth down on the checkout counter and think, ‘$2.19? For someone to boil chicken bones? I want that job,’” so he decided to try going a week with food from 99 cent stores in New York City. For NYC that means shopping at Jack’s, the Filene’s Basement of dollar stores in Manhattan. The weird nature of Jacks (five aisles of food! freezer cases!) makes his experiment a little hard to duplicate across the country, and after last year’s safety issues we’d be a little worried about antifreeze in everything, but we were still interested to see what he could come up with for a week of dinners.
My first few meals mined the wealth of Jack’s staples. I made rice and beans one night, which we zested up with 99-cent canned jalapeños and sofrito (like enchilada sauce, with a slight burned taste); another night we had penne with cream and some pancetta I found in the gourmet section. Another night, after amassing some brown rice and cans of bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and baby corn at Jack’s, I bought some Chinese broccoli off-site for a big stir-fry. For dessert each night we turned to the slightly wanton charms of the Little Debbie product line, particularly young Debbie’s Oatmeal Creme Pies, whose velvety filling so perfectly captures an imagined marriage between buttercream frosting and Noxzema.
Whenever I hit an obstacle—Jack’s, like almost all 99-cent stores, has no butter, no good olive oil, no flour, very limited cheese and no fresh vegetables—I either supplemented with Gourmet Garage items, or got busy.
What kind of busy? I used frozen broccoli from Jack’s to make cream of broccoli soup (pretty good), frozen peas for pea soup (excellent), and a soybean oil-butter blend called Admiration to make soufflé (awful).