The NY Times Diner’s Journal posted this question as the title of an article where two coworkers put together dinner parties for six people. The title alone gave me pause.

Once a week I put together a dinner for $30.00 CDN for 5 people. At the cost of $5 a head I’ve served roasts, stews, fancy layered salads, curries, and all manner of dishes. So I’m use to thinking this way. Admittedly the dinners I prepare are not all about the food, but neither is a dinner party. Afterall — the people make the party. Their conversations, their laughter, and even just their presence is what makes the party a special event. That I want to cook something special rarely means expensive; usually it just involves more time and effort on my part.

The NY Times Diner’s Journal article itself does not give menus for the two different 50$ meals, and it doesn’t go into the pricing (for example, does the 50$ count for all ingredients purchased, regardless of how much was used, including pantry items). It seems the cooks went for several small courses rather than the one big meal I typically provide (main, side, desert). The comments provide lots of interesting sounding meals, and also makes a valid point. The article is about dazzling the people for 8.50 a person with at least three courses. Still, many commenters complained that 8.50 a person in this economy is bunk. While the article itself is light and fun to read, the point seemed lost on many readers (myself included); assuming of course that there was a deeper point burried in there somewhere.

When I go overboard for a meal, it’s either truely extravagant (like Tigers and Strawberries Thai Chicken Salad with Peanut Chili Dressing) in the amount of preparation time, or ocasionally special ingredients (like expensive cheeses, well aged italian ham for Chicken piccata, or really good chocolate for a Flourless Chocolate Torte). And even then, keeping it under 8.50 a head isn’t that hard if you have the time to shop around and are flexible.

When I’m truely broke I serve soup made with homemade stock or something featuring a lot of black beans. When I’m flush I get fancy, not expensive. Even Fayfood (one of my many favourite food blogs) has an article about cooking cheaply.

If you cook frugally every night, it shouldn’t be so hard to cook frugally at a party. And if the foods you eat are soulful and filling every night — why would a party change that?

Maybe I’m not looking at this right. I don’t cook with truffle oil, nor do I eat caviar regularly. I try really hard to buy in-season produce (because it tastes better); and believe that simple cooking is usually the best. Granted, I buy expensive romano cheese, organic vegetables, and imported hams and sausages when I can; but even a big meal doesn’t use much of the expensive ingredients I buy and I’m usually willing to do without rather than go over-budget.

I have gone over my self-imposed 5$ limit a few times (usually for some unique ingredient that I spend a month trying to figure out how to finish–some of which still linger in the back of my pantry), but I don’t regretted it. I’ve also made Christmas dinner (Roast turkey stuffed with lemons & garlic, homemade cornbread stuffing with cranberries, green beans, peas, sauteed mushrooms in garlic and red wine, and mashed potatoes) for 5$ a head. The secret? Buy on sale, store stuff in the freezer and buy it frozen if it’s not in season. The leftovers from the meal served we 2 for almost a week.

To most cooks though, these aren’t secrets; they’re guiding rules to planning and budgeting a meal.

This Saturday I’m making beef empanada’s for six. With the leftover money, I’ll probably buy a jar of salsa, some sour cream, and make guacamole.

Next Thursday I’m thinking of making Chicken piccata and serving it over polenta. Maybe I’ll blow the budget and make something truely decadent for desert.

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