back to the Black Table

At some point in everyone's life, the dollar store has been a friend. It could have been when you were in college and needed a cheap place to buy soap, shampoo or ramen. It could have been when you were out of a job and needed to stretch your money. Or it could have been the time you were being a skinflinty bastard and decided that $3.50 for a Mother's Day card was just too damn high. Face it: If it weren't for dollar stores, we would be hungry, dirty wretches whose guts our mothers would hate.

Surprisingly enough, there's quite a range of things you can get at the dollar store, from batteries to party supplies to kitchen gadgets. The quality of the items range from good to flimsy as hell, but everything is pretty much the same price.

Since most dollar stores sell some form of food as well, can the same thing be said about their edibles? Can a person actually make a reasonable meal out of food bought at a dollar store? I decided to go to a couple and find out myself. Figuring that all I was going to find was No-Frills Corn Chips and cans of Shasta, I was quite surprised when I turned down the grocery aisle; there was a lot of stuff there. However, in order to make something that constitutes a filling, edible meal, some creativity is still needed. Follow these tips, and you will be feasting away for less than it costs to ride the subway.

#1. Go To More Than One Store.

One of the reasons why dollar stores have the ability to sell things so cheaply is that they buy manufacturer over-runs and discontinued items, usually in large quantities. So this means that if a particular store finds a large quantity of, say, unsold pickled beef hearts, there's a 90 percent chance the store is going to snap them up, figuring that someone will buy them eventually. Of course, this means that different dollar stores (or 99-cent stores, if you're in the mood to shave off even more pennies) find different lots of merchandise. So, if you're in the mood for corned beef hash and one store doesn't have it, look at another store.

The same can be said of the selection in the same store over time; just like a warehouse store, the roster of brands and products is not static. So, if you've been liking a particular type of clam chowder that you've been seeing at your local dollar store, snap up a few of them, since they may not be there next time. It's not like you're spending five bucks a can, for crissakes.

#2. Don't Expect To See Name Brands.

It's not that the store doesn't ever have name brands. As you will see, I was able to pick up some Bumble-Bee Chicken Salad and a bottle of Hunt's BBQ sauce (a squeeze bottle, no less!). When I cruised through my local store, I also saw Heinz ketchup and Libby vegetables. But, for the most part, you're not going to see many recognizable names on the products you're perusing. It's not quite the same as in Repo Man, when everything Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton consumed had a plain white label that simply stated the contents inside ("Beer", "Potato Chips", etc.), but it's pretty damn close. Looking for some Hamburger Helper? You'll get "Hamburger Dinner." Craving some Chicken of the Sea? You'll get "Tuna from the Sea."

The Tuna Helper that I snagged to eat along with that "Tuna from the Sea" is merely called "Tuna Skillet." There is a brand name there somewhere, but it was so small, I almost had to use a magnifying glass to read it. Whoever Chef Karlin is, he needs to fire his PR people, because Emeril, Sylvia and Wolfgang Puck are all kicking his ass.

#3. Not Every $1 Item Is A Bargain.

Think about it for a second. If you can get Pathmark Chunk Light tuna for 69 cents, why the hell would you want to buy "Tuna from the Sea" for a buck? Same goes with pasta; Barilla, some of the best dried pasta out there, often goes on sale at your local supermarket for a dollar. If you're buying "Bob's Vermicelli" at the dollar store for a full dollar, you're getting ripped off big time.

In cases like these, look for signs that say "2 for $1" or, better yet, "20 for $1." At least that way, you're assured that you're getting something for less than you would if you just shopped at the local supermarket. The tuna I bought, for example, was two for a dollar. If it were any more expensive, I would have thrown one of my existing five-year-old cans of tuna into the Tuna Skillet and taken my chances.

#4. Embrace The Vegetarian Lifestyle.

Your edible meat choices at the dollar store pretty much come down to tuna, tuna and tuna. Sure, there are other options, but they consist of meat whose origin, both with regards to location on the planet and on the animal itself, is questionable. Besides the aforementioned corned beef hash, other meat-like products that I did not put in my basket included Vienna sausages, off-brand chili and turkey SPAM.

I did, however, throw some Dinty Moore Chicken Stew in the basket. When I look back on it, I have no idea why. Maybe because it was a brand name. Maybe it was because I've never seen Chicken Stew before. All I know is that I'm too scared to eat it. Knowing how crummy the meat is in a homemade beef stew (it's supposed to be tough, cheap meat that softens up over the hours it's simmering in the stew), I can't imagine what kind of chicken meat is of such low quality that it only is suitable for canned stew. I just stare at the can periodically, wondering what kind of unpleasantness lurks just under that lid.

#5. Dairy Only Comes In Powdered Form.

Don't expect to buy butter or milk at a dollar store. You can't even get margarine. The only thing that came close to a dairy product was the tangy "cheddar" powder that came in my box of Tuna Skillet. To give these mixes half a chance at tasting good, though, you'll have to cheat a little and buy some milk and butter in the supermarket. Of course, that brings up the total cost of your meal, but not by much. Since the Tuna Skillet mix cost $1.00, and the tuna cost 50 cents, the additional ingredients needed to make it still brought the total in under the cost of a ride on the D train.

Also, an addendum: Make sure you have a lot of water handy; none of this food could be so well preserved without tons and tons of salt. The can chicken stew alone provides over 2,000 mg of sodium -- more than 80 percent of your daily requirement -- over two fairly small servings. That's another reason why I don't want to open that can of chicken stew; I can't afford the increased medical coverage needed to eat it.

#6. If You Expect A Flavor Bonanza, You'll Be Disappointed.

The proclamation on the back of the box of Malt-O-Meal Frosted Mini-Spooners I bought screams that they "Taste Every Bit As Good As Frosted Mini-Wheats!" Indeed, the little biscuits look just like the ones in a box of Kellogg's Mini-Wheats, complete with that white sugar-like substance on one side. However, when I poured a bowl, added the supermarket-bought milk and consumed a spoonful of the stuff, I didn't taste the signature sugary flavor that mini-wheats should have. In fact, I didn't taste anything except bland shredded wheat. It makes me wonder just what was in that hardened white gunk on those mini-wheats. Maybe I just shouldn't think about it.

And that Tuna Skillet dinner. As you can see by the picture, it turned out to be a bit of a watery mess, but not terribly out of character for a pre-packaged meal. When I poured some of it on my plate and took a bite, all I could taste was a hint of quasi-cheesiness and the vaguely fishy flavor of the rubbery tuna chunk that was hiding below the sauce. I took another bite, thinking the first one was too hot, and got the same thing. I was disheartened.

Instead of throwing it out though, I looked around my kitchen to see if I could add something to salvage things. When I looked back at the pile of dollar store food, it hit me like I was using The Force: the Hunt's BBQ sauce! It was ingenious; not only was I going to add a hit of sweet hickory goodness to a bland meal, but I was also going to be able to stay within my dollar store milieu. You can see the result in the picture to the right. Yes, it looks disgusting, but it took a meal that tasted like warmed over piss and gave it a recognizable flavor.

If you're creative, you too can make a relatively tasty meal out of a couple of bucks' worth of food. Think about it when you're at the dollar store buying that Father's Day card. Don't worry, I won't tell your Dad that you're a cheap bastard.


Joel Keller is a freelance writer from New Jersey. Next, he wants to see if he can take a woman out on a cheap dinner date without having to go through a drive-thru.