I’m the kind of guy who drives out to the ‘burbs for an on-sale case of canned Progresso soup, which I then proceed to eat for each and every meal until the soup runs out. Sounds delicious, I know. But also a little boring. This is lowest common denominator cheap eating, the kind you do when you can’t think of anything else. It’s obvious. It lacks inspiration. Just because I have no money, must I also have no flair?

I’ve always been struck when people take no-budget dining to the next level, concocting fantastical combinations from the very most mundane ingredients, the stuff buried way, way back in the pantry. The stuff that might already have been in the panty when you moved in. Now, do I recommend you try any of these? Not, really. They’re kind of gross. So I present them in the spirit of creativity. Just three simple episodes from my own life that made me think twice about what might be possible when you’ve got no money, but a sliver of imagination. Three “huh, I never thought of that” moments. Three times the actions of a friend or acquaintance made me think twice about my own stable of ultra-cheap meals (more on those in future columns).

To the following three culinary geniuses, I salute you.

Allston, MA, 1996

Several years into college, and I’m no stranger to eating some form of pasta every night. Ramen or box spaghetti. Jarred sauce or butter and cheese. I believe I’ve already explored the boundaries of what might be accomplished with 75 cents and a pot of boiling water. I am wrong. In a feat of culinary alchemy never before witnessed within our disgusting group home kitchen, my roommate John proceeds to open a can of Campbell’s New England Clam Chowder and dump its contents atop a steaming plate of spaghetti. Instant spaghetti with white clam sauce. I wasn’t around when God created light, but I bet the effect was something like this. 

New York, NY. 2000.

While in the throes of a serious cheap eats love affair of my own—hot dogs sliced up into a bowl of Busch’s baked beans (or mac n’ cheese on special occasions), my co-worker Matthew shakes the foundations of our culinary landscape with a dish that must be considered the cheap eats equivalent of Roger Bannister’s sub-4 minute mile. Eleven years later, I still recall the glee in Matthew’s eyes as he described purchasing a package of hot dogs and a jar of queso dip from the bodega, plopping down on his couch, and shamelessly dipping the hot dogs into the queso. Right from the package! Without heating them up! That, my friends, takes chutzpah. I know canines who won’t take their cheap eating that far. Thank you, Matthew, for pushing the envelope. 

Los Angeles, CA. 2007.    

Add to the list of great reasons to live in LA—a career in showbiz, medical marijuana, fish tacos as far as the eye can see—the perfect climate for stealing produce year-round from your neighbor’s garden. Ah, only in the Golden State does unemployment do nothing to diminish one’s find dining options. Avocados, lemons and limes, the full splendor of nature’s bounty, plucked under cover of darkness from the small plot of land behind my friend Bill’s apartment building. As a life-long East Coaster, my cheap eating has always been defined by the high-processed contents of the grocery aisle. Not in LA, where the only thing that stands between you and free homemade guacamole is your neighbor planting avocados. It really is another world out there.

Three remembrances of my cheap-eating past, all fond in their own special way. I’m sure you have your own. And I would love to hear about them. What is the craziest thing you’ve thrown together? What are your memories of dining on the cheap? Please let us know in the comments below. I’m looking for something to “cook” for my girlfriend tonight.