It's been said many a time that I resemble the staunchly cute Rachael Ray. OK, my 5-year-old said it, once, last Christmas, when my hair was longer and I spent an afternoon baking pies. But never let it be said I can't do one thing just as well as she can: find a deal.
Ray's tourist-on-$40-a-day schtick is great, but you still have to fly to some vacation destination to put it to use, which makes it more like $540 a day. So the Indy will do the Food Network one better: a $30 date right here in the Triangle.
First, the demographic: Who embodies low-cost dating better than young people?
Second, the panel: The Indy consulted three local experts with particular insight into the 17-to-22-year-old crowd: Laura Bingham, alumna and president of Peace College; Geoffrey Cooper, editor of N.C. Central University's student paper, The Campus Echo; and best-selling writer Sarah Dessen of Chapel Hill, who has more 1.5 million young-adult novels in print.
Here's what they would do to stretch their dating dollar ... if they were you.
Geoffrey Cooper, halfway through his final year at NCCU in Durham, hesitates for less than a nanosecond when asked about the current economic downturn.
"When I count phone bills and trying to pay for car insurance and just trying to make sure my lights are on, it's really tough. A lot of the things I did last year as a junior, I can't do this year—like I could travel however I wanted to, I could go out to eat almost every Friday."
Dinner and a movie, the longtime standby of coeds, may be in jeopardy, according to Cooper.
"One of my favorite restaurants is Thai Café. My girlfriend and I, we like to go there a lot; it's one of our places we go to just to spend time. It really depends, some days: Can I get enough money [that] I can definitely foot the bill and she doesn't look at me like, You're a cheapskate?
"Averaging that $30 you can spend on two people, we know that we can take that money and go to Kroger and cook up some food in the apartment and we can just have a nice night at the house instead of spending money on a movie and dinner."
The silver lining of having a tight economy is that it may create a generation of wiser, more sober youth.
"We understand the situation we're in right now, we can't take this lightly," says Cooper.
"Regardless of whether or not we live on Wall Street, it affects Fayetteville Street at the end of the day. While we're college students, we need to get hip to what's going on. ... Pretty soon we're going to be out there paying bigger bills and trying to manage a family—some people are already managing families—and trying to take on a whole different spectrum than what [we had] in college.
"You have money? Save it, understand it, and use it to your advantage. Make the money, don't let it make you."
Laura Bingham says the women at Peace College are feeling the crunch too.
"I think they're starting to, in little ways, like maybe not-as-high sales in our Peace Perks, which is our Starbucks coffee area. I think they're probably starting to hear things from their parents who say, 'We've got to be attentive here.' ... I'm sure this is bleeding into their social lives as well."
But Bingham believes that Peace College's location, poised on the edge of downtown Raleigh, provides numerous free options for students' social calendars.
"I like for our students to think about the city as our campus. We're a small urban campus, kind of tucked into this arbor area, and yet every block between here and the performing arts center has something pretty incredible. Last week, we had a lecture at Peace on the Dead Sea Scrolls. If you just think about all the opportunities we have....
"The Research Triangle, because of our colleges and universities, we're like nirvana of free information, ideas, lectures, entertainment. Sometimes I think students on college campuses think if something's on the campus, it's not as cool if they're in a 'date' format, but actually if you think about it, what a great way to get to know one another."
Find a free lecture or show to center your date around, and $30 will buy a lot of coffee and dessert for after. Good conversation is on the house.
If anyone knows the far corners of Chapel Hill, it's Sarah Dessen. The daughter of two UNC professors, she was raised in town, went to UNC, taught at UNC and settled down outside of Carrboro to start a family and write full time.
But years ago, before she could call herself a novelist, she put in time waitressing at the Flying Burrito and surviving on not much beyond rice.
"We were so broke for a while my husband used to make those Lipton rice packs, that flavored rice? If we were really feeling fancy we'd put a slice of American cheese over the top."
Dessen gets a little nostalgic as she recalls some memorable low-cost dates.
"When we were in school, we were always looking for something that was really good to eat that you could get a lot for your money. We were into Mexican food in a big way. You can do a lot with a little. Obviously, Carrburritos, or someplace like Margaret's Cantina, someplace where you can order a lot of food you can share. I think if you're on a first date you're wanting to share as much as you can, you know, get close to that idea of being in something together and having a common experience."
Even today, literally a million book sales later, Dessen has a favorite $30 date she and her husband do: It's a field trip of sorts, suitable for a student or anyone seeking something new at lunch or dinnertime. First, drive out to Dessen's current Mexican hangout, Fiesta Grill, located outside Carrboro on Highway 54. After a satisfying meal, meander up the small county roads to Maple View Farms for dessert. Sounds simple, but there's beauty in simplicity.
"People from in town, they make pilgrimages to Fiesta Grill. It would be a great place to go on a first date because it's really sort of charming in its total lack of charm. They don't have a lot of décor, it's a small place, but the food's fantastic and it's out in the middle of the country."
Knockout cuisine and thoughtful service more than make up for ambiance—as the national magazine Gourmet evidently believes, having devoted three pages in its September 2007 issue to the tiny Fiesta Grill and five other Triangle restaurants, all of whose owners emigrated from Mexico. In the two small dining rooms of Fiesta Grill, Tijuana-born Jesus Bravo, who goes by the more familiar "Chuy," welcomes customers with baskets of thick-cut fresh tortilla chips, two homemade salsas and a deep menu.
Standouts include the chicken and cheese enchiladas rancheras (Dessen's recommendation: Share to save money); pork burrito de chile verde; enchilada with sautéed spinach; fajitas with marinated steak; mojarra, a whole fried tilapia; and anything with mole sauce (Gourmet hails its "haunting cinnamon afterglow"). Saturdays and Sundays, customers line up for the ceviche. Fiesta Grill serves lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday and are closed on Mondays.
Though beer, wine and sangria are available, don't miss out on the superb horchata, a milky-colored nonalcoholic drink made from rice, water and spices—think iced chai or super-thin eggnog. A restaurant's horchata recipe is practically a trade secret, but typically it includes cinnamon, sugar, almonds and sometimes a little condensed milk. If you're offered a taste, don't decline.
The prices are beyond reasonable. A recent lunch for four, sharing three entrées, was $23 including drinks and guacamole, so you can feel virtuous when heading to your next stop: Maple View Farm's Country Store, open daily noon to 9 p.m. Six miles north, in the country outside Hillsborough, the store sells ice cream, butter, milk and soap from the adjacent farm's Holstein cows, as well as a few other local products like fresh eggs. The rich salted butter is a steal at $3.80 per pound, which is a good thing, because you'll be tempted to spread it as thick as cream cheese on your breakfast bread.
Of course, most pilgrims don't cross a county for butter; it's the ice cream that draws them in. You'll find both permanent ice cream flavors and some that make special appearances. November and December bring a round of holiday guests, among them party peppermint; pumpkin pie; eggnog; ginger that is transcendentally pure in flavor; cinnamon that would be great on pie, though bland alone; and an unabashedly dark chocolate cherry whose only flaw was a near-absence of cherries.
Though a mere $2.50 for a generous scoop, one might still wonder: Why venture all this way when gas prices are still moderately high, and there's a freezer full of Häagen-Dazs at Harris Teeter? Dessen tries to convey the Maple View magic.
"It's about going to sit out on the porch ... the romantic drive down Dairyland Road, past all the farms and the rolling pastureland ... then you get out to Maple View and have some ice cream out at the picnic tables."
Stepping away from life and taking a little field trip stops time for a bit—something, says Dessen, today's young people need more than ever.
"The immediacy of the world, the text messaging, the Blackberries, it never really stops, there's never a sense that you're not home, or unavailable. It seems like everything is going very, very fast, compared to the idyllic days [when I was a teen]."
At Maple View, you can check your Blackberry at the door. The store is on the crest of a gentle hill, and a body can gaze for what feels like miles without interruption. A peace descends. It's not just the orderly rows cut into the land, or the massive harvesters motoring by, or the cow-shaped dots in the distance, or the (honestly) great blue heron floating across a nearby field.
It's not just the bale of hay covered in kids, or the secret path through the scrub brush to an open field begging to be explored. It's that, sitting there, perhaps watching a sunset, perhaps naming clouds, you'll understand that land is worth more than the value of an acre, and that such a view can't be bought, for $30 or a thousand times that.