The Mercury is a den of gluttony. Wm. Steven Humphrey indulges in weekly $96 New York-sirloin lunches at El Gaucho [see Highbrow/Lowbrow for more affordable steak options]. Ezra Ace Caraeff regularly munches braised, truffle-infused, premium Japanese soy cutlets at his desk, and Matt Davis is always trying to get me to taste his "enormous" imported, gourmet spotted dick, which might be an actual food item or a prelude to a sexual harassment suit.

Last week, Marjorie Skinner nearly poured half a bottle of Dom Pérignon into the office sink because the bubbles weren't "as magical" as she likes. Luckily, I stepped in and suggested my liver might be a good home for the wayward bubbles. "Whatever," she sighed, plopping the Dom unceremoniously onto my desk.

What would this hedonistic workplace do in a world full of breadlines and hobo jungles? They'd perish, and they are far too pretty to perish. So, because I am a caring person, I decided to help them prepare for the worst by means of the Mercury's First Annual Cheap Food Challenge!

The rules are simple: Four teams of two are each given a five-dollar limit and two hours to pull together a meal with as many courses as possible. All food and spices must come from outside their homes. Fast food is discouraged. Drink pairings, encouraged. Above all, food must not be stolen. We are, after all, role models. For whom, I'm not sure, but there must be someone.

Since I am a food critic, my judging criteria put emphasis on taste and presentation. My sadistic desire to teach people a lesson put the rest of the emphasis on cost.

Over two calorie-filled days, I sat in the office like a sultan as my colleges scrambled across the city, doing whatever they could to bring me back a fine meal at a bargain-basement price. Some succeeded. Others did not. But everyone gloated as I ate their fare, smiling politely and making pleased noises.

Now, I reveal my judgment. Let me just say that there are no losers here, just people who have learned a valuable life lesson in thrift and humility.

Ezra Ace Caraeff, music editor
Marjorie Skinner, managing editor


• Absolut vodka with fresh-squeezed grapefruit, orange, and lime
• Spicy herbed mash with fresh local herbs, nutritional yeast, and Secret Aardvark sauce
• Organic broccoli rabe
• Portland's finest grilled cheese with Tillamook cheddar, organic lettuce, and tomato
• Saffron rice pudding with fresh organic grated ginger


I had my doubts about what a fashionista and a rocker might bring to the table. After all, don't fashion people just live on cigarette smoke and imported water? And I am certain Keith Richards hasn't had any protein, aside from tequila worms, since he was removed from his mother's breast.

All of that aside, I have to say these two put in a stunning entry. The main reason they won can be summed up in a single word: booze. These two know the way to my seething alcoholic heart. In fact, much of their budget was spent on a tiny airline bottle of vodka. Mixing this with juice from an organic grapefruit, picked out of a food co-op free box, was a coup. Not only was the cocktail tasty, but it paired well with the organic broccoli rabe, which had a lovely vinegar tang and a slight smoky flavor. The rabe, along with most of their ingredients, also came from the nameless co-op, and I am proud they lowered themselves to begging from hippies.

The potatoes were excellent and chunky and the rice pudding was surprisingly good. However, the grilled cheese was a bit disappointing, mostly due to tough bread and the inclusion of lettuce. Lettuce? On a grilled cheese?

Still, I was enjoying the cocktail too much to care about a sub-par sandwich, or Ezra's incessant reminder that everything was "organic" and "local." Just take your blue ribbon and let papa drink in peace.

Wm. Steven Humphrey, editor in chief
Christine S. Blystone, web editor


• Mozzarella cornmeal puffs
• Pizza puffs (pepperoni, cheese, sauce, and cornmeal puff)
• Banana pancake puff and chocolate éclair puff

COST: $4.50

This was an odd team. Christine is the quiet type, but there is some deadly glint in her eye that gives her away. She is like a jungle cat, sleeping in a tree, just before pouncing on passing prey and ripping it to shreds. Wm. Steven Humphrey, however, is loud and brash, always slapping people on the shoulder and calling them "Old Sport." He is a wild braggart and quite vociferous when on a competitive jag.

To tell the truth, I was worried about these loose cannons. They might have tried to poison me, just for kicks. Instead they directed their sociopathic tendencies toward culinary creativity and provided me with a prescient meal.

I say "prescient" because the courses, served in a series of identical corn pods (or "puffs," whatever) looked like something that might replace all Midwestern food in the near future. It was fun to bite into one of these pods and taste pizza, or cheese, or banana pancakes. Plus, in case of emergency, they would be easy to carry in your little bindle as you flee from danger. On the downside, it was an insane amount of cornbread to consume in one sitting. But aside from the agonizing bloating, everything had a wonderful flavor that worked with the corniness. All of the ingredients were purchased from WinCo's bulk offerings and Fred Meyer.

Extra points for use of pudding, but I was a bit dubious on the use of a specialized Pancake Puffs™ "as seen on TV" puff maker. Still, they tickled my taste buds as well as my imagination and provided three full courses. Now, if Steve would just quit looming over me with a menacing look, we could move on.

Amy J. Ruiz, news editor
Erik Henriksen, film editor


• French toast
• Pan-roasted red potatoes with organic rosemary
• Pacific Village classic pork bacon< br/>• Tanager's Song coffee by Portland Roasting Company
• Organic maple syrup

COST: $2.73

It pains me to put two of the sweetest, most loveable people at the Mercury into third place. I mean, Amy is just so damn wholesome. And Erik... well, every time I see him I have to hold myself back from wrapping my arms around him and burying my face in his aromatic locks. The two are so honest, it hurts. They are also incredibly earnest about everything. Which is why, I assume, they provided me with one of the most honest and earnest meals of the day: breakfast.

Yes, it's the most important meal and mine was delectable. The French toast, made from free bread slices from Great Harvest, was thick and hearty. It tasted like cinnamon rolls and I savored every bite. Huge props for adding the bacon, my second favorite thing behind booze. The potatoes, however, were a bit undercooked and had a bitterness that I attributed to the fresh rosemary.

The rosemary is what brings me to the biggest problem with this meal. Yes, it was cheap, being mainly purchased from the bulk bins of New Seasons Market. But I'm afraid that if the depression hits, New Seasons Market may not be around for very long. And why purchase rosemary anyway? I mean, it should be classified as a weed in Portland. It is everyfreakingwhere. I know these two are honest, but I don't think honesty is going to get you a single dime when things get really tough. Nevertheless, I want that recipe for French toast. It was phenomenal.

Matt Davis, news reporter
Autumn Webring, ad account executive


• Thai lobster balls with lime and a hot chile sauce
• Pork pad Thai
• Mango pudding with warm gingerbread and a sweet crème anglaise
• Fresh mint tea

COST: $4.77

I have to start off by noting that Autumn was at first an innocent bystander, before being pulled into the fray at the last moment. Therefore, I am placing all of the responsibility for this loss on the broad and capable shoulders of Matt Davis. I know Matt can take the heat, because he is a hardboiled newsman with years of experience having the doors of power slammed in his grizzled, careworn face. And I would have thought that Matt, a man on the go, would know exactly where to find cheap delicious food. Certainly he must find the occasional gourmet snack when rooting through trashcans for incriminating documents. Alas, the food presented to me by this storied reporter was found a bit lacking in one major category: flavor.

There were many great things about the meal, which I will attribute to Autumn. First, the presentation was spectacular. Absolutely the best-looking meal by far. Also, the amount of food was incredible. It could have easily fed three people. In fact I only ate a portion of the meal before Matt swooped in to take over. However, the problem began with the lobster balls. I was surprised to learn that lobsters even had balls. Though that surprise was snuffed out when I ate one and realized that it tasted exactly like what I imagine balls would taste like: rubbery and bland.

Next, I dipped into the pad Thai and found that despite the amount of pork, it lacked any of the saucy saltiness I prefer in a good pad Thai. Finally, I hit the dessert. I would expect an Englishman to provide me with pudding, but this mango pudding was very strange and not very sweet at all. However, the gingerbread was quite delightful, even if it had been taken from a Starbucks sample plate. The rest of the meal was purchased at Fubonn market, with spices bought at Pho Saigon for 50 cents.

Again, this was a gorgeous meal, and a wonderful concept, but the execution was lacking. So, I am dropping the ax.

I think the take-home lesson here is that even gluttons can be resourceful. All of these hearty meals came in under $5 and could have fed more than myself. I believe a lesson was learned, and you can learn it by watching us. I guess we are role models after all.