The No-Budget Diner's Guide

As the economy sputters, everyone's looking for new ways to save on food. So, we've collected a whole bunch of no-budget meal ideas for those of you daring enough to scrimp.

1. Tree Bark

A classic meal of human desperation, tree bark has become a must-have meal during periods of scarcity. But you don't have to eat it al dente the way termites and beavers do. Inhabitants of the Lapland in Finland, for example, are known to make bread with ground tree bark during cruel winter months, and several Native American groups use tree bark as a dietary supplement. In fact, the Adirondack Mountains derive their name from a derisive term for the Algonquin Indians that means "tree eaters".

Not all bark is equally edible, so you'll have to experiment with your neighborhood flora. Some popular favorites include aspen, birch, willow, maple, and pine -trees common in cities and forests alike. So sharpen your teeth and dig in!

How to Prepare

For the choicest strips of bark, be sure to go for the nutritious, tender inner layer known as the cambium. (Eating the outer bark would be no more pleasant than chomping into your bookshelf.) If some resin or gum oozes out as you pry off the main course, be sure to lap it up for quick energy. Here are a few fun ways to serve tree bark:

Raw. Shred finely and chew thoroughly.

Slice it into strips and boil it to make a rustic pasta. Top with sap, dandelion greens, or insect parts (see entry #2). Alternatively, you can add the noodles to a stew.

Dry and grind into flour. The ground bark is pretty versatile and can be mixed with water into a breakfast gruel, baked into bread, added to soup for extra body, or even guzzled straight like a Pixy Stick.

2. Bugs

With more than 10 quintillion of these creepy crawlies infesting the planet, bugs are a virtually limitless source of protein and flavor. Bug eating exists in nearly every culture; in fact, approximately 10 percent of the protein consumed around the world comes from bugs! There are grasshopper tacos, steamed ant eggs, and even fried tarantulas. In the United States, the FDA permits a limited number of insect parts in commercial foods, such as five fly maggots per pound of pizza sauce. While most of our big eating in this country is unintentional, it doesn't have to be.

How to Prepare

In general, avoid brightly colored bugs, which tend to be poisonous, and always be sure to remove any shells, wings, or other textural offenses. Also, cook them before eating to kill off the inevitable parasites. Beyond that, each bug has its own qualities to consider. Here are a few of the more traditional cooking methods.

Crickets and grasshoppers: First, pluck off the barbed legs, because they can chafe your digestive tract. Then, roast the body for a snack that's both crunchy and nutritious.

Ants: Boil for six minutes to neutralize the formic acid of the stingers. After that, inhale them by the handful.

Caterpillars: They can give you a mouthful of tiny hairs, like licking a kiwi, so bite off the heads and then squeeze the insides into a pot. Boil and serve warm.

Worms: The dirt from the insides must be removed before they can be eaten. This can be done by starving them for one day, or squeezing out the dirt by hand.

3. Leather

Transforming your wardrobe into your pantry is simple. Shoes, jackets, and biker pants make meals both fashionable and filling. In fact, in every era, leather has been enjoyed by the starving masses. Indomitable explorers, stranded pirates, famine-stricken peasants, and even emaciated prisoners have downed a shoe or two. Just two years ago, when Chinese miners in Beijing were trapped underground for nearly a week, they survived on nothing but pieces of paper and a leather belt.

How to Prepare

Before cooking, rinse and dice the (preferably undyed) leather, then pound the pieces between stones to tenderize. For a satisfying soup, you can boil the leather until relatively tender, then add seasonings such as dried worms and nettles. Leather can also be chopped up and roasted to make nutritious chips. And remember to drink plenty of water; leather's generally as dry as a bone.

4. Dirt

No matter how bad the economy gets, there will always be enough dirt to go around. Soil can provide essential minerals. Think of it as a no-budget replacement for your expensive multivitamin supplements. In fact, dirt eating, known as geophagy, is so prevalent in some parts of the world that scientists and anthropologists think that nutritional deficits may bring on the craving. Even in the modern United States, reports persist that poor and rural Southerners still indulge in select soils by the spoonful, a custom that may have been brought over from West Africa.

How to Prepare

The secret to good dirt eating is simply to choose wisely. Soil that is rich in clay tastes the best, and it can be enhanced by adding salt and vinegar. When you find a good source, save some in a plastic bag so you can snack on it all day long. Of course, if you're looking to enjoy the original mud pie, garnishing the meal with a few worms never hurts.


The No-Budget Diner's Guide was written by David Clark and appeared in the Scatterbrained section of the September-October 2009 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

Don't forget to feed your brain by subscribing to the magazine and visiting mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog today for more!

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Eating bark and you leave out Cinnamon?

And how about just plain sawdust, which was used during WWII in some places (eg Paris - French cuisine can make lots of things palatable) for making bread?
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Pretty fun article -- I've seen references to eating leather and tree bark around and was always curious as to how best to perform the tasks.

I must take exception with the instructions on consuming ants: I know that the word "inhale" was not meant to be taken literally, but its use gave me the most unpleasant imaginary feeling of ants in my lungs...
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