Berkeley is known as a culinary paradise: the food here is not only delicious, but also driven in large part by local, organic, and sustainably-grown ingredients. In addition to the famous restaurants of the Gourmet Ghetto, the city boasts bustling thrice-weekly farmers’ markets that run the gamut of fresh produce, grass-fed hot dogs, and vegan enchiladas. But on a graduate student budget, a prix-fixe dinner at Chez Panisse might be a bit out of reach. Even at the markets, despite the undeniable value of supporting local farmers, a $4/pound price tag can sour even the sweetest organic peach.
So how are we starving students to take a seat at the smorgasbord of Berkeleyan bounty without breaking the bank? There are plenty of budget-friendly options for grocery shopping and eating out: Berkeley Bowl’s produce is a great value, especially for organic items, and many vendors at the farmers’ markets offer attractive deals near closing time or on less cosmetically perfect specimens. Vik’s Chaat House is a good bet for quality Indian on the cheap, and The Cheeseboard’s $2.50/slice gourmet pizza is worth the wait in line. But what kind of fare, dare I ask, can be had for free?
As it turns out, Berkeley abounds in opportunities for free food, and I’m not referring to the stale donuts sitting in your departmental lounge. One option is to gorge yourself on the free samples of those farmers’ market peaches, though you risk dirty looks and the ensuing guilt-driven purchases that effectively negate your entire free-sample strategy. (Or, I suppose, you could just endure the dirty looks.) Instead, I recommend heading over to Memorial Glade and checking out the campus Victory Garden. It’s a small plot and won’t be feeding any armies, but on most days this time of year you can find a few ripe tomatoes, summer squash complete with their blossoms, and, if you’re lucky, a late-season strawberry or two. Anyone is welcome to help themselves to the produce; if you don’t eat it, the worms will. And if you’d like to return the favor to the garden, you can help out with maintenance.
Or, even better, heed Voltaire’s advice and cultivate your own garden. It’s basically free, beyond the minimal initial overhead, and offers the reward of self-reliance. Herbs are probably the easiest to grow; put a pot of basil in a sunny window, water regularly, and you’re halfway to pesto. You can get herbs and pots at farmers markets or any nursery, and at some grocery stores. If you feel like branching out, try dwarf trees (Meyer lemons, sweeter than conventional ones, seem to love the Berkeley climate and produce like mad). Lettuces and other greens also grow well in pots – and can provide a welcome incentive to eat more salad.
Even if you can’t seem to keep your plants alive, super-local produce isn’t necessarily out of reach. On my way home from class, I walk by rampant rosemary bushes, grapevines, lemon trees, and aloe plants (useful not only as a skin salve but also as a digestive tea; the brave can drink the sticky juice straight). Of course, make sure you check with the residents before sampling any fare growing on private property, but chances are they’re having trouble keeping up with all the yield themselves. Or, if your neighbors weren’t planning on eating the fruits of their labor at all, they might appreciate your help: you’re saving them a messy treefull of rotten fallen apples.
So please: do your patriotic part to harvest the Victory Garden, pick up some herbs (and maybe just a few free samples…) at the farmers market, and scope out your neighborhood flora. With all the money you’ve saved up, maybe you can finally afford to eat at Chez Panisse. All you need now is a reservation.