The New York Times does Dollar Store

Courtsey of Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

What every human seeks is companionship, the feeling that among all the billions of people on this planet of ours there is at least one person that can see you for who you are and shares common beliefs.

I am not alone.

The New York Times journalist, Henry Alford, has ventured into the world of 99 cent store dining. His aim was to create a meal a night using only ingredients from the dollar store and then end this experiment with a dinner party for some poor souls …. or friends as we like to call them.

Alford found that the dollar stores didn’t have any butter, good olive oil, flour, fresh vegetables. So far so British pound shop. But it seems that American stores have refrigerated sections. Oh the luxury! So Alford made a chicken dish one night (I’ve sampled canned meat but I think I would have to draw the line at 99p chicken…) and made soup with frozen peas (yum) and broccoli.

I was interested to know whether the journalists dinner party was of the same, ahem, calibre as my own dinner. As soon as I read that his first course was an antipasto tray consisting of pepperoncini, olives, artichoke hearts, salami and Brie, I knew the answer. Finding artichoke hearts in my pound shop would be like finding a Christmas tree in the Sahara desert. This course was followed by chilled pear soup with a star anise floating on the top for decoration. STAR ANISE?! Artichoke hearts?! What sort of pound shop was this? The gourmet Upper East Side pound shop? A pound shop in Brunei? My pound shop is in an area of London called Holloway. It would be hard enough to find those ingredients in a local Holloway shop let alone in the pound shop.

To continue to read from Alfords menu would depress me. You can read the results for yourself here.

Suffice to say his pecan dessert looked very pretty and tasty though perhaps it lacked the ‘creativity’ of my dinner party cakes. At least thats what I like to tell myself.

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Sign Language

The peeps at the extinct Bad Gas website did what no-one else has been bored enough to do and collected photos of pound shop signs. Here’s a selection (all following text and pictures courtsey of © Bad Gas 2003-2007)

The pound coin; the word “pound”; the £ symbol. They stimulate a Pavlovian buying reflex in poor people…The unavoidable logic of the Regal-smoking, dole-sucker runs thus: “That shop sells all sorts of crap for a pound; I have some pounds in my pocket; I will buy all sorts of crap.” Tapping into this thought process is the key to clawing back some of your income tax.

As with all successful low-end retail operations, you need a shop front that can lure the blurry-tattooed, pushchair-pushing, burger-munchers away from the daily booze-and-fags run to Budgens. To this end, you need four ingredients: clumsy wording, pound signs, tattiness and tackiness.

Bright colours can be a very useful tool for hypnotising penniless passers-by. But make sure the shop looks dirty enough or they won’t feel comfortable entering.

Remember: the customer always has a choice. But apparently not the choice to pay just one pound. The shifty plus signs lurk amidst the gaily dancing pounds to ensure that the Trade Descriptions Act is obeyed. Clever.

Smash the punter in the face with a big green word. And it works, too. This shop is so popular that people have been stealing pieces of the sign as mementoes.

A hand-painted fascia can give your outlet a personal air. And the sinister coin shape lurking behind the list of items on sale is a consumer psychologist’s wet dream.

There are so many letters missing in this sign that the pound-shopper has to stop and stare to work out what it says. By that stage they are hooked.

Day 5 – Shaped Beef

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It seemed like suitable punishment for my lapse on Day 3 to find the worst possible meal in the pound shop. I had my pick of at least a dozen horrors-on-a-plate but one appealed to me least. Beef curry: chopped and shaped beef with soya mince, vegetables and rice in a cardboard box. Let me repeat that: meat in a BOX. Eurgh.

So I opened the packet of powder and dried meat cubes and simmered in water as instructed. Surprisingly it smelt nice. Nice enough for my brother to be drawn into the kitchen. I think he would have even been tempted to try some until he saw what it looked like. It was gloppy and brown with bits – not dissimilar I imagine to the contents of a baby’s nappy after a particularly enthusiastic go at the milk bottle.

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I knew there was only one thing that could save this meal. One device that every junior chef learns to make a dish attractive. A sprig of parsley.

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Ta dah! A tasty treat indeed.

 

Day 4 – Morganatic Wives

 

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 You know how it is. You go into the pound shop for your usual tin of meat and come out with a novella by 19th Century American writer Henry James.

There were three books to choose from. A guide to French B&Bs (the 2003 edition naturally), a history of BBC Radio 4’s the Today program and The Europeans by Henry James. Since I wasn’t planning to time travel back four years for my next holiday and since I already listen to too much Radio 4 to be reading about it as well, I picked up The Europeans.

I haven’t read any Henry James before despite The Turn of the Screw having sat on my bookshelf for quite a while now.  The pound shop is the Land of Firsts. My first can of corned beef, my first taste of dehydrated ‘shaped’ beef (more on that another day) an now my first Henry James.  The blurb on the back:

Eugenia, an expatriated American, is a morganatic wife of a German prince, who is about to reject her in favour of a state marriage. With her artist brother she travels to Boston to visit relatives she had never seen before, in hopes of making a wealthy marriage.     

 I had to look up morganatic in the OED:  

 A marriage between a man of high rank and a woman of low rank who retains her former status, their children having no claim to the father’s possessions or title.   

So like Charles and Camilla. Will post a review of The Europeans when I finish it.