Welcome to the Poorhouse: the Fresh and Easy Life

It was good to be back in Henry's. I'd been a regular customer of the yuppified farmers market since it opened in February 2003 on the other side of Costa Mesa's Great Wall of College Avenue that blocks the sights and sounds of the Target store loading docks from my humble abode. Everything changed as my fortunes declined. In fact, you can track my falling finances by simply examining my grocery stores of choice. I went from being a regular at Henry's to Trader Joe's to Ralph's to Stater Bros. to Fresh and Easy to the 99 Cent Only Store--and then back to Fresh and Easy because it's closer than my nearest 99 Cent Only Store, although I do want to go back for reasons explained at the end of this post.

However, on this fine day, I find myself needing some quick ingredients for some concoction I've already started in a pot. I'll take the financial hit on a couple items for the sake of convenience and in hopes I'll make up most of the difference by biking instead of burning gas to more economical stores miles away.

My mood improves and there's a bounce in my step as I get reacquainted with Henry's aisles. I always loved this place, obviously too much considering the number of purchases I made on plastic that have now come back to haunt me. I might otherwise feel guilty even being here since my pay grade no longer affords these everyday higher prices, but I rode over on the same bike, am wearing the same clothes and will stuff my purchases into the same canvas bags as I did when I thought I could afford to shop here, so what the hell?

It was but a fleeting confidence booster. For weekly, cart-filling shopping, I'm much more at home mentally and financially at Fresh and Easy Neighborhood Market. A value-conscious friend in Long Beach was raving about the place for months before I finally stepped foot in one. They are smaller than your average grocery store--think the size of the liquor section in one of those super duper supermarkets. Nothing comes packaged in 120-packs like they do at Costco, which I especially like. But it's the deals - or steals - that make it worth frequenting.

For instance, I really wanted to populate my cart with a pint of butter pecan ice cream one week, but there should be no buying non-necessities when that money could be rightfully going to my debtors. (See how they've got me thinking?) I guess a lot of people were in the same ice cream boat, because the following week the butter pecan pints remained stacked neatly but the price was now slashed to $1.50 each. In the cart you go. Screw the credit card companies, I'd rather this $1.50 hang on my hips. Meats and seafood that are a few days from expiring also have their already reasonable prices slashed considerably. Just stock up and throw them in the freezer when you get home. I learned that from a fellow at a party who was also singing Fresh and Easy's praises before I'd ever been.

I look forward to my next visit, but I did enjoy my brief shopping career at the 99 Cent Only Store next to the former OC Weekly HQ in Santa Ana. I've been back only once since moving out of that neighborhood and see they added a produce section. I watched a lady with a full shopping cart - I'm talking at least 12 plastic bags crammed full of everyday products - get rung up for $43. My only word of advice would be to take care with the frozen entrees, unless the words "mystery meat" appeal to you.

Another reason to go would be to test out the recipes in The 99 Cent Only Stores Cookbook: Gourmet Recipes at Discount Prices. I caught author Christiane Jory talking about her cookbook -- and first book -- on an NPR podcast unlocked from an iPod abandoned in my home. Published last year, The 99 Cent Only Stores Cookbook was born out of necessity and the Los Angeles native's desire to continue enjoying the good things in life while surviving as a starving artist. Through trial and error with the under-a-buck ingredients, she devised 100 gourmet recipes for appetizers, side dishes, main courses, and desserts. These include Artichoke Spinach Bake on Homemade Pizza Bread, Green Beans Au Gratin, Chicken Tetrazinni and Pinot Noir Poached Pear Tart.

One secret Jory shared involved substituting ingredients not found at the store with products that are in stock. So, if there is, say, no nutmeg, she'll make due with curry and other spices to make it work for her. Making it work is becoming crucial these days. I dare wonder where I'll be shopping next if my financial pounding continues. (Coming up: my guide to dumpster diving!) In the meantime, who knew life in the Poorhouse could be so delicious?

Previously in Welcome to the Poorhouse:

Rich Beotch Edition

Relief Agencies Need Relief

The Rise of the No-Tell Motel

Problem Makers Become "Solvers"

From My Bank to Your Ears


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