Friday, April 20, 2012

Still LIfe With Robin: The Margarine Position

Photo by Littlegun (Wikimedia Creative Commons)
by Peggy Robin

One person’s frugality is another person’s eccentricity -- or possibly cheapness. I was thinking about this the other day when using the the soap I found in the soapdish by the kitchen sink at a friend’s house. “Soap” to me implies a whole bar, unless you're talking about liquid soap in a pump. But the soap I was using to wash my hands was little more than a collection of old soap shards that had been softened and then crushed together to make a ovoid ball of the remains. What was interesting to me about this reuse of every last scrap of soap is that it was found in a dish next to an ultra-high-end sink in a cook’s dream of a kichen, recently renovated to include alll the bells and whistles of culinary technology. So it's clear my friend isn’t hurting for the price of a fresh bar of soap.

I don’t know whether the old soap reflected the teachings of her flinty New England parents, who themselves were children of the Great Depression, or whether it’s the 21st Century spirit of recycling that motivated her. I do know that over the years I’ve often run into frugality in others that strikes me as extreme. A few other examples:

We were at a dinner party where salad was served, drenched in a thick, rich dressing.  At the end of the dinner, as the hostess was clearing off the table, I was a bit surprised to see her putting the leftover greens into a plastic storage container. It seems to me that the dressing on the leftover salad would render it too soggy to eat on a subsequent day. But that’s just me, and I know a lot of others are happy to eat two-day-old salad. That’s not the part I found so unusual. After emptying the large serving bowl of all the leftover salad, the hostess proceeded to add to the storage container all the uneaten salad she found on her guests’ individual plates. In other words, she was saving the part of the salad her guests had already fiddled with and then left uneaten. I thought that was going too far.

I have known a few people who would save a clean piece of aluminum foil, folding it flat and putting back in a drawer until the next time a piece that size was needed. I once had a guest over who, after seeing me about to throw out a clean-looking piece of aluminum foil, stopped me, saying: “Aren’t you going to reuse that?” When I said no, she said, “Oh, well, you won’t mind if I take it home.” (Okay, I should disclose that this is a really old story: It happened before there was household recycling. These days I put my clean but used sheets of aluminum foil in the recycling bin. I am presuming that this acquaintance would have become willing to recycle hers, as well.)

The oddest story I know of a family’s frugality comes from even farther back in time, but it's something that has stuck with me. In the 1960s I went to sleepaway camp in upstate New York, where I became friends with a girl from a seriously rich family from Pittsburgh. After summer camp was over, she invited me to stay with her family for the weekend. I was picked up at the airport by the family’s chauffeured limousine. The chauffeur lived with his wife, the housekeeper in a cottage behind the family’s mock-Norman-castle-style house. There was a backyard pool so large, they used to hire a lifeguard for their pool parties. But when I sat down to dinner with the family, they served margarine, not butter, with their bread. It had nothing to do with the fat content of butter versus margarine; this was before there was public awareness of the health hazards of one type of fat over another. My friend told me her father just hated to spend the extra money on butter, and the one time her mother had put butter on the table for a dinner party, he had very irritably taken her to task about it as soon as the last guest left.

“Your mother has a mink coat,” I observed. “Doesn’t your dad think she could have saved money on a cheaper coat?”

“He says you can see the difference between a mink coat and a cloth coat. He doesn’t see or taste the difference between margarine and butter, so he says there’s no reason to pay more.”

Ever since then I’ve viewed whatever odd instances of frugality I’ve encountered as someone’s “margarine position.” I suppose I must have one or two “margarine positions” of my own, which, of course, I view as reasonable ways to save a little money (or rather, avoid throwing money away –- it’s not quite the same thing!) but I would be mystified if someone else desccribed them as such to me.


Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on www.AllLifeIsLocal on Fridays.

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