• Food for Thought: The Economies of Food

    by , , and  • May 8, 2012 • Essays • 8 Comments

    One thing we’ve learned over the years is that hungry gamers are grumpy gamers. We’ve also learned that a good food experience makes for a better night than an utterly forgettable one.

    Food for Thought is a series where we talk about food at the table.

    The Economies of Food

    You just had a knot of gamers over and have ruefully decided that next game you need to feed people. But that’s six hungry people you need to plan for and anyone that’s had to feed others, you know that it gets expensive quite rapidly. Drinks, snacks, main, and dessert all cost money and have to be enough to feed everyone.

    Pitching in money towards your chef may be a good idea in some groups, but what do you do when one player has more money or time than others? What do you do when someone really can’t afford to help out with food?

    Here are a few thoughts, stories and suggestions to help you navigate the tricky waters of dealing with expenses and food with as few toes stepped on as possible.

     Kim: Time to bulk up!

    Once upon a time, our food budget was so tight that when my partner dropped a pair of eggs, she burst into tears because we couldn’t replace them. Our food budget hasn’t been that tight in a long time but I still remember what it felt like to wonder if maybe I should eat smaller portions to make food last longer or if maybe skipping breakfast regularly would be a good thing.

    This is not something that you want to bring to your gaming table. You’re there to have fun and enjoy time with your friends, not fret about how eating (an act of survival) that night is going to affect you later. Keep in mind that if you’ve chosen to eat together, then you’re in it together. It might be worthwhile for you to set up a group budget, where people contribute what they can and then figure out food based on that budget. Don’t be ashamed of how much you can add to the budget! Feeding more people can actually be cheaper than feeding one person if you buy in bulk and watch sales. Don’t be afraid to stick to simple recipes. After all, the best accompaniment for your meal is the camaraderie of your friends, not high end mushrooms or imported saffron.

    Finaira: Don’t be a scrooge with your food

    I’ve been poor.

    I’ve been the person desperately trying to come up with a reason I shouldn’t bring food to the game because I know I can’t afford to. I’ve been the person who buys too much or too expensive of stuff because I felt a need to pretend that I wasn’t poor.

    Don’t be that person.

    Don’t let your friends be that person.

    These days I have money and can afford to splurge a little on feeding everyone. So I try to pick the more expensive parts of the meal to provide if I know that I’m playing with others who might not have as much as me.  But it still can make you cringe to look at that receipt and think “I’ve spent how much?!?”

    So plan ahead and think about what you can afford and what you can make. Rice or pasta dishes are cheaper than meat heavy, rare vegetable dishes. Give yourself a budget and plan around that. Do what you would do for most meals. Plan to use things you’ve already got or will use afterwards rather than dropping money on stuff that you have no use for outside of that one dish. Make something simple rather than something complicated.

    But mostly watch out for those who don’t have a lot of money. It’s no good to make them feel guilty for having no money, but offer to pay for things if you are able to. If you show up and there’s no food because the host can’t feed people and you want to order in, that’s fine. But don’t pressure someone into chipping in if they can’t. And certainly don’t prevent them from eating!

    Food is something that is meant to be shared amongst friends. So if you have extra, share with those who don’t. And trust me when I say, it’ll come back around.

    And if you don’t have food? Please don’t be afraid to speak up. Your friends will understand. And it’s a million times better than spending money you don’t have just to impress them.

     Giulia: When in Doubt, Cook (or, My Great-grandma Had a Point)

    Three months ago or so, there was this gaming event literally 5 minutes away from my house. For the last 4 years or so, I’ve been going there with two of my closest friends, and this year, it was just a week before the birthday of one of them – plus, we get a chance to see each other less than once a month.

    Now, I don’t know where you are, but here, last year has been pretty hard – the financial crisis has generally made us poorer, while costs have risen pretty much across the board1.

    Money has always been tight, but this year, one of my friends told me that he couldn’t afford the trip and eating out more than one evening, so they’d be arriving on Saturday morning instead than Friday night. My immediate reaction was to say that I’d cook dinner for them on Friday night, no problem!

    – except that I’d planned a menu that had me buying groceries, cooking and baking for the whole day before. But frankly, it was totally worth it. I made two fantastic quiches (one of which used some really old and seasoned feta I had lying around in the fridge) and I prepared a typical dessert from my mother’s side. We opened this bottle of wine we had lying around the house and had a fantastic dinner. (There was even this moment of absolute hilarity when we started thinking that the feta had gone a bit hallucinogenic.) The rest of the weekend was enjoyable and fun, although I am convinced that we wouldn’t have had the same experience at the con had we met directly on the morning of Saturday, instead than spending some quality time on Friday night.

    Meguey: Food Karma and Stone Soup

    One of the biggest things to consider when looking at food for a gaming group and the economic realities of life is how things change over time. There were times when my whole gaming group was poor college students, so food for gaming was what we could sneak out of the dining commons or dumpster dive from the up-scale market across the field2. We were all in pretty much the same situation, so it was all good.

    After college, some folks had jobs! Decent jobs! Where they could make rent *and* buy food! That’s when food karma started really being a thing in our gaming circles. Like Finaira says up above, there can be real pressure to disguise your financial status, or just a desire to give that makes you over-spend. It’s not smart, but it’s human and it happens. So instead of heading down that path, think about karma instead. Bring what you can. Share what you can. Hopefully, your gaming group is such that you know when you’re financially up, you will bring great food to the table, and that when you are down, others will carry you3. If you’re down and want to help out (or busy and want to help out in a non-food way, which requires some degree of forethought), do the dishes.

    A really easy and cheap way to share food is to make stone soup, also called one-pot stew or potluck soup. Stone soup is always good, never the same twice, and always communal. Host, start with some broth of your choice, maybe some herbs and spices if you have them. Everyone else, bring a can of beans or corn or something, or a couple carrots, or a potato, or an onion, or a cup of grain, or some meat. Whatever. Add all the stuff folks brought to the broth, processing as needed – chop the potatoes and the onion into bits, natch. Add the fresh spinach last, or have it on the side. If you’re in a down phase financially, grab that last onion from the back of the cupboard to add to the pot. If you’re in an up phase, bring meat or meat-substitute (especially if you pre-cut and maybe even pre-cook it at home!) or bread or a fancy drink to add to the table. Don’t sweat it. Enjoy cooking together and eating together and gaming together. The connection and intimacy of sharing food is so ancient, and so interwoven with the idea of shared storytelling and imagination – I’d argue it’s at least as old as domesticated fire, which was recently pushed back to around 1,000,000 years ago. That’s a lot of shared food!

    Words from the peanut gallery

    What are your experiences with the cost of feeding a gaming group? Have you had problems getting fed or feeding others?

     

    1. It’s a bit more complicated than this, but I don’t really think it’s necessary to go into the specifics.
    2. There are whole sections of the internet about freegans and dumpster diving and finding food in an urban setting. Go google it if you’re curious.
    3. This bleeds over into travel as well; if you all know that one member of your group is in a pinch cash-wise, see if you can move the game to their house so they don’t have to drive. Naturally, this goes for other travel-restriction reasons, like having little children or a busted leg or a sick pet or whatever – just be mindful.
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    I'm a tabletop roleplayer, a larper and a video gamer. I run games, play games, remix games, talk about games, critique games, read games and have opinions about games. Sometimes, I do that online. I also have a passing fondness for making food.

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    I am a casual tabletop gamer and occasional larper who likes to hold forth on gaming in general and draws like a crazy monkey who was given coffee by accident.

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    Player of all sorts of games, tabletop roleplaying games publisher, engineer, and amateur designer. Based in northern Italy, I live with a pretty cool artist, a ton of books and too much technology.

    http://giullina.net

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    Meguey Baker has been playing RPGs since 1978. Her most recent game is Psi*Run, a game about people with psychic powers and amnesia, released in 2012. She is currently working on Miss Schiffer's School for Young Ladies of Quality, a game about bold adventurous women scientists and explorers in the 1890s. Meg is also the mother of three sons, a sex ed teacher, and a textile conservation specialist.

    http://www.nightskygames.com/

    8 Responses to Food for Thought: The Economies of Food

    1. avatar
      Michelle Lyons-McFarland
      May 8, 2012 at 17:12

      My husband loves to cook and entertain, so he cooks more often than not for our gaming groups. He really enjoys the show “Chopped,” so he regularly has people bring one ingredient each and he makes a meal/game out of making dinner from whatever he gets. This doesn’t tend to get too crazy, as everyone still has to eat it, but it varies the costs for everyone. Rice/noodles are perfectly valid choices, as is “I’ll pick something and throw in money after payday” and “I’ll eat on my own.” People contribute items more often than not, though, and the food he makes is absolutely fabulous. We also take requests (we had “chicken and waffles night” for last night’s game, but it doesn’t come up that often.

      Another thing we’ll do is pizza night, where he makes the crust and sauce and the bulk bag of mozzarella, and everyone brings a beverage and a topping or two of their choice. Cheaper for everyone than ordering pizza out, and everyone gets something they like.

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    2. avatar
      May 8, 2012 at 20:01

      You already said a lot of awesome things about food, so I’m going to talk about snack economy. That is more of a luxury, but it can be a cheap and affordable luxury. Coming from the land of ‘fika’*, this is important stuff for me.

      My economic snack favorites is loose tea. Making a pot of loose tea is pretty much as cheap as you can get when it comes to drinks, excluding tap water. That even true even if you like me prefer more bit more expensive teas since the cost of a few teaspoons of tea for a kettle still is very low.

      My second favorite is popcorn. Cheap, easy to make and you can vary it a lot using just common household spices.

      My last favorite snack is baking cakes, cookies, buns and other stuff. You can get away extremely cheap, if you use cheap ingredients. If you take turns baking it possible to adapt to a group where people have different budgets. You can bake something using cheap ingredients, or something with expensive ones, and the result can be just as good.

      * Fika! http://www.svensktnaringsliv.se/fragor/utbyteskorrespondenterna/i-prefer-the-swedish-fika_51871.html

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      • avatar
        May 8, 2012 at 22:51

        OMG popcorn! Sooo cheap and easy, and so many many flavor options! I could probably make a customized popcorn for each game i play, and it would be awesome.

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        • avatar
          Kim Lam
          May 8, 2012 at 23:10

          All those in favour of Meg having a mini series of popcorn recipes, say aye!

          AYE!

          • avatar
            May 11, 2012 at 16:48

            Ok, I’ll do it! Probably not in the next two weeks, as I’ll be traveling. But in June – popcorn!

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    3. avatar
      chemrebel
      May 9, 2012 at 02:04

      AYE!!!

      Coming from a group of cardfloppers, finger food can be a bit of a touchy subject if the food in question has a coating of some sort, be it butter or chee-to dust. If you and your group are playing with some more valuable cards, please be conscious of keeping your hands clean, or investing in some card sleeves.

      I don’t recall if this has already been mentioned in the previous blogs so apologies if I’m repeating, but a really good cheap dinner is “breakfast for dinner.” Eggs, pancakes, biscuits and gravy, and whatever breakfast meat is on sale can feed a lot of people.

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    4. avatar
      dfjdejulio
      May 9, 2012 at 15:42

      One way to make cooking seem more palatable is, sometimes you can tie the food to the game. I haven’t done this *often*, but when I have, it’s been interesting.

      When my wife and I hadn’t known each other very long, but discovered we were both Dragonlance fans, one of the first things we tried to cook together was “Otik’s spiced potatoes”. Any Dragonlance fans will probably recall what I’m talking about.

      Similarly, hobbits certainly go on enough about eating mushrooms, so it ought to be easy to tie a mushroom dish into a gaming session that involves halflings. And there’s always room for lembas.

      (This is actually part of the reason I’ve been looking for recipes for the “district breads” from “The Hunger Games”. They’re not a big deal in the film, but in the movie each district has a very distinctive bread. Seems a natural thing to me to want to cook ‘em up alongside kids who are reading the books.)

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    5. avatar
      vickeya
      May 9, 2012 at 19:33

      Food has always been part of my weekly gaming experience.

      One group I was with took turns with a regular menu. That allowed everyone to spend what they felt comfortable with. There were five households involved (two couples, three singles). The rotation was: entree, snack, dessert, drink, off. Every fifth game, someone could simply show up to play.

      My two groups now have taken a similar approach, but because our economic statuses vary a lot more than that of my past group, we have it so that the host serves the entree and everyone else brings something. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the nutshell. Folks can usually put together a couple of bucks for a bag of chips, a container of cookies, or something, even when they’re otherwise strapped. Or, as one of the writers said, they’ll bring something they’ve already had on hand.

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