ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.
ALEX COHEN, host:
And I'm Alex Cohen. The cost of food is up, way up, everywhere from pizza parlors to your local grocery store.
CHADWICK: And one reason for that is that the price of corn is up about 50% from a year ago. When corn goes up, so does the price of a lot of other things that we buy regularly because corn is in many of them - cereal and soda - and it's also used as feed for chickens and dairy cows.
COHEN: And that's part of the reason the average price of eggs is up about 25%, milk 15% from a year ago.
Mr. JOHN NORRIS (Oakworth Capital Bank): That's with anything. Whenever producers' costs increase, they like to try to pass it on to the consumer as much as possible.
COHEN: That's John Norris. He is the managing director of the Oakworth Capital Bank in Birmingham, Alabama. And why, you ask, is the price of corn so high? Well, one word - ethanol.
Mr. NORRIS: Here in this country we make ethanol use in corn. In other countries they use other products, so there's a lot of speculation that corn prices are going to continue to go up, but apart from the speculation, we are producing more ethanol, so there's greater demand for corn and that's causing their prices to go up as well.
CHADWICK: So high corn prices and other factors in the rising cost of food - higher gasoline prices for one. Remember, food often gets shipped a long ways before it gets to our dinner tables.
COHEN: And on top of that, a weak dollar means U.S. crops are in higher demand on the global market, and as I'm sure you know, when demand goes up, so do the prices.
CHADWICK: So how can we deal with these high prices, those of us eating at home or anywhere else? Well, let's get out of the field of pure economics and into the realm of home economics.
COHEN: These days the idea of making a three-course meal for a family of four for less than twenty bucks seems impossible; unless, that is, you shop at the 99 cent only store. There are more than 200 of them throughout the West, and true to their name everything there costs less than a dollar, including food. Christiane Jory is the author of an upcoming book called "The 99 Cent Only Store's Cookbook." The idea may sound silly, but the book is filled with recipes for gourmet dishes like gruyere beignets, salmon souffle and Pinot Noir poached pear tarts. Curious and hungry, I went to visit Christiane at her home where she prepared this menu...
Ms. CHRISTIANE JORY (Author, "The 99 Cent Only Store's Cookbook"): Chicken pot pies, which I'm really - individual chicken pot pies; we have a scalloped potato, which we're spicing up with roasted diced green chilies; and then a homemade apple pie.
COHEN: It sounds delicious, it smells delicious. I think I can smell the apple pie. So talk us through this. How do you cook a 99 cent meal?
Ms. JORY: Okay. Well, we're gonna start. First, I'm gonna take the pie out of the oven because I planned it just so it'd be ready. I went this morning. I had planned on cooking little tartlets, but they had pie crusts, frozen pie crusts. And I've had these Fuji apples I bought last week that are canned and I thought, oh, there's gotta be a way. And then of course I always go online because they didn't have nutmeg, but it's so easy. You just go to nutmeg substitute and there's a zillion suggestions, so I added of course cinnamon, but then instead of nutmeg there's a little ginger, a dash of clove.
COHEN: It sounds like there's a lot of improvisation involved when you do the 99 cent cooking thing.
Ms. JORY: Yeah, there has to be. When I started cooking this stuff, they didn't even have milk, so you'd get evaporated milk and then add water. You know, you just have to be really flexible, but there's so many ways. You gotta think outside the box.
COHEN: For example, the crusts on the chicken pot pies, they came from a can of refrigerator Pillsbury biscuits rolled out thin and layered into ceramic dishes known to chefs as ramicans.
Ms. JORY: Ten biscuits will definitely, if you use some elbow grease, will give you your four pies. If you want to cut down on calories, you can just cover it with a biscuit, but it's so good with the biscuit all around. And you butter the ramican so they pull away really nicely.
COHEN: For the filling, Christiane uses chicken from a can, spinach from a can, veggies from - yeah, you guessed it - and adds to a base concocted of other 99 cent ingredients.
Ms. JORY: So I have dried diced onions. And what this is, is I soaked them in the drain - the liquid from the can of mixed vegetables which we're gonna use, and then I added three tablespoons of wine, which yes, I'm gonna make you all try a sip before...
COHEN: This is 99 cent wine?
Ms. JORY: Ninety-nine cent wine which I bought, and I haven't opened it because - and I'm glad because now you're here and I needed it for this.
COHEN: In fact it was a bottle of discount wine that started Christiane's career as a truly frugal gourmet. She is not on the 99 cent store payroll, but she has been a loyal customer there for years. At first she went just to by sundries, but then one summer day a few years back, something happened.
Ms. JORY: I was broke and liked my wine. And then I saw this woman buying wine and I was like no way, and she had fancy shoes on. I looked at her. She's like: It's really good. And so I was like - so that's when I bought it a sauvignon blanc and I was like I got wine for the summer, thank God. And that was when I started thinking maybe there's food here too.
COHEN: It turns out there was lots of food, most of it brands she hadn't heard of before, or in boxes that were slightly misshapen or discolored. But what was inside tasted just fine, she says. And with a bit of creativity, Christiane realized 99 cent ingredients could turn into truly delicious dishes.
Ms. JORY: I'm really hoping that people are going to use this as an opportunity. I think the economy is going so downhill and I think there's a way to just kind of keep a smile on your face and find cheap ways to still have fun. I hate it when people say, oh, I don't have money so I can't do anything.
COHEN: How much culinary expertise do you need? Is it good to have some basic cooking backgrounds before you take on the 99 cent cuisine?
Ms. JORY: Why? You know, if you screw it up, what, you like lost 99 cents or five dollars - I mean that's money. I'm not saying that that's not important, but God, when I used to cook and when I lived in New York, it was like if I screwed up it was 30 dollars down the drain.
COHEN: Many of Christiane's recipes come from her own imagination. Others are adaptations from culinary classics like "The Joy of Cooking" and "The Moosewood Cookbook." She says she realizes the low budget nature of her book may not be appetizing to all palates. The 99 cent price tag does have a bit of a stigma.
Ms. JORY: I feel the same way sometimes. I'm a snob, I'll admit it. And so, you know, sometimes if I cook it, I'm like, oh, I'm pulling the ham out of the can.
COHEN: And maybe it's a ham, maybe it's not.
Ms. JORY: Yeah, so my friends come over, I'm like, here, eat it, it's great. But I don't know if I'm gonna eat it. I'll wait to hear if they like it.
COHEN: With that warning I sat down to my meal. The pot pie looked like something Martha Stewart whipped up. And served in her mother's best china, Christiane's potatoes au gratin with green chilies could have been an expensive appetizer at a fine restaurant.
Mmmm, mmmm - oh my gosh, that's really good. It's kind of got like that Tex-Mex flavor to it.
Ms. JORY: I think if you don't add the chilies, I think the chilies just give it that je ne sais quoi.
COHEN: I ate the entire serving, most of the chicken pot pie and a slice of apple pie, all remarkably yummy. To top it off, we poured a glass of that 99 cent vino.
Ms. JORY: Foggy Bay American White Table Wine, cellared and bottled by Iron Oaks Vineyards. Do you wanna toast?
Ms. JORY: All right. Is this your first bottle of 99 cent wine cellar wine?
COHEN: I think it is.
Ms. JORY: Oh my gosh.
COHEN: I think it is.
Ms. JORY: This is a huge day.
COHEN: To cheap dining.
Ms. JORY: Thank you.
(Soundbite of clinking glasses)
COHEN: There is more on Christiane Jory's 99 cent only stores recipes at our Web site, that is npr.org.
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