Gargantuan grocery receipts got you down? Sick of snarfing ramen? We feel your pain. With the price of gas, housing, movies, clothes, and especially food skyrocketing up, up, up, what we need are imaginative dining solutions, budgetary sustenance to get us through these tough times.
Boy, do we have a fairy tale feast for you.
On a recent Tuesday, this pair of cherubic journalists — so full of life, so empty of morsels — frolicked forth to find free food in Tampa Bay. The rules were simple: For a full day, spend no cent on food or drink, not even water. All edibles had to be procured legally; no lying, cheating, bamboozling or Dumpster diving. No counting ketchup packets as food, no matter what the Reagan administration said about the red stuff being a vegetable.
Rules established, we bravely set out, scavengers in search of that fabled free lunch, leaving behind a curious trail of bourbon chicken, crab Rangoon and Moose Munch. Would we starve? Or would we, a modern-day Hansel and Gretel, meet a horribly fattening fate?
9 a.m. • Panera Bread
2285 Ulmerton Road, Clearwater
Free food: Chocolate chip bagel bites
Free drink: Mini cups of water
SEAN: Light, airy, delicious. If these suckers were stuffed with bacon, it would be like devouring a wee piece of paradise. But I'm still hungry.
STEPHANIE: Don't forget the leather sofas, classical music and free Wi-Fi. Zoinks, I might move into Panera.
10 a.m. • Publix
120 Carillon Parkway, St. Petersburg
Free food: Two slices capicola ham, two chocolate chip cookies. With a concerned scowl, woman in bakery asks, "You mean, you want the free kids cookies?" With a serious look, we respond in unison, "Yes."
Free drink: Nada
SEAN: Did you like that move? How I gazed at the capicola, rubbing my chin, until the deli lady asked if I wanted a sample? Then I hit her with my Oliver eyes: "Please, ma'am?"
STEPHANIE: I'm just glad you didn't gaze at the bologna.
11 a.m. • Westfield Citrus Park mall
8021 Citrus Park Town Center, Tampa
Free food: Two samples of Brownies a la Mode and Bailey's Irish Cream ice cream
Little Tokyo, Pepe's Latin Cafe, Kelly's Cajun Grill, Cafe California
Free food: Two chunks of teriyaki chicken, cup of pulled pork, chunk of chicken in tomato sauce, two chunks honey chicken, one chunk bourbon chicken, two chunks teriyaki and sweet 'n' sour chicken
Free food: Despite the presence of toothpicks for free samples, counter employee refuses to make eye contact with Sean. Stephanie, however, charms her way into a chunk of orange chicken.
Free drink: Zilch
SEAN: That was a tough stretch. I would have gladly sold your soul for a soda. Seriously, my tongue was so swollen from all that salty chicken, I lost the ability to make "s" sounds. How about you, Tephanie?
STEPHANIE: Thut up, Thawn.
Free food: Two small cups Liberty Ice and strawberry dots. DD employee puckishly warns, "You're not going to leave here without buying something." Misunderstanding DD's light-hearted salesmanship, Stephanie panics, unable to enjoy dots.
Free drink: Sigh . . .
STEPHANIE: I don't even like strawberry!
Free food: Two plates of Tyler Florence's ultimate macaroni and cheese with broccoli and bacon, lovingly prepared by an unsuspecting woman who looks like Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island.
Free drink: Saliva, residual
SEAN: I suspect she saw through our clever ruse when you said, "I love Tyler Perry!"
STEPHANIE: Well, I do. Fight Club's my favorite.
12:45 p.m. • A real estate open house for brokers
Wooded corner lot, $340,000, Tampa
Free food: Scallops wrapped in bacon, crab Rangoon
Free drink: Suffering sodium overload, Sean hustles ice water from homeowner and chugs it without offering any to Stephanie, who has begun to hallucinate dancing penguins from dehydration. Stephanie unleashes stink eye on Sean, grabs glass and helps herself to fridge water dispenser, all in front of increasingly suspicious homeowner.
SEAN: This felt wrong. Delicious, but wrong. When they asked if we were brokers, we said no. See? No lying. Instead, we said we were "gathering information." How noble! By the way, thanks for throwing interference on this one, Steph. Your incessantly boring small talk allowed me to machine-gun those bacon-wrapped scallops.
STEPHANIE: I hate you. By the way, those weren't scallops. They were water chestnuts.
SEAN: That's not cool.
1:45 p.m. • Another real estate open house
6-bedroom, 6-bath, $1.7-million, Tampa
Free food: A promised smorgasbord from Macaroni Grill. But alas, no one is home at the million-dollar house. The have-nots, noses pressed against the glass, look longingly, helplessly, in at the haves. Sean's Oliver eyes are powerless.
Free drink: Sweat beads dripping from forehead.
SEAN: If someone weren't such a lousy driver, we would have made it on time. But thanks to Miss Daisy over here, we missed out on how the other half lives.
STEPHANIE: Oh really? I'm not the one who launched a 10-minute Rays stadium debate with the Realtor at the last house. By the way, how are those "scallops" working out for ya?
2:30 p.m. • Sam's Club
15835 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa
Free food: Cheddar cheese, bruschetta with garlic, Activia yogurt. Stephanie, aware of Activia's regulatory power thanks to those creepy Jamie Lee Curtis commercials, giggles as Sean blindly shovels in what is commonly referred to as "poop yogurt."
Free drink: Stephanie collapses on a forbidden crate of Diet Coke. She dies a little inside.
SEAN: That "poop yogurt" joke was only funny for approximately 13.5 minutes.
STEPHANIE: About the time I told you my passenger side window is broken.
3 p.m. • The Fresh Market
13147 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa
Free food: Two Rubik's-sized cubes of marinated steak
Free drink: Four small cups of gourmet coffee. Upon second trip to coffee cart, a watchful employee sizes us up like we're cat burglars. We exit with haste, finishing coffee under the sun in parking lot.
SEAN: Coffee was a bad choice.
STEPHANIE: It felt like that scene in the Star Wars flick where Anakin Skywalker falls into the river of lava. "Luke, I am your steak cube."
4 p.m. • International Plaza
2223 N West Shore Blvd., Tampa
Kelly's Cajun Grill, Suki Hana, Lotus Express
Free food: Two chunks orange chicken, two chunks BBQ chicken, chunk of General Tso's chicken. (Stephanie gives up meat after the first two stops.)
Free drink: Lukewarm water from barely functioning food court fountain.
SEAN: I felt so slimy, like I was sweating Lotus juice.
STEPHANIE: I almost speared you with a toothpick.
Free food: Two joyless cups of red-pepper pasta that resembles pupa of emperor moth. Words "fear" and "factor" are uttered. Two old guys, a la Waldorf and Stadler, chirp, "They're coming out with free snacks!" Ah yes, we remember being so full of hope.
Free drink: Losing . . . strength . . .
Harry and David
Free food: Two tortilla chips with artichoke spinach dip, pretzel crisp with garlic-smoked mozzarella spread, two cups Moose Munch. As we reach for another cup of Moose Munch, an employee quietly snatches the tray. Crazed from lack of fluids, we retreat like ferrets and plot to get more Moose Munch.
Free drink: Two cups pecan-pumpkin frickin' coffee. Would it kill you people to have free Gatorade? Where are we, Russia?!
SEAN: Interesting sociological moment there. I've never hated anyone more than the she-devil who absconded with my Moose Munch. I wanted to tackle her. And then eat her. Yet, with my stomach invaded by a horrific Bacon Beast with Dippin' Dots eyes, I wasn't at all hungry. I just wanted more, like that blueberry chick from Willy Wonka.
STEPHANIE: Oompa Loompa doompadah dee. If you are wise you'll listen to me. Who do you blame when your partner gets fat? Gobbling free scraps like a Bandicoot rat!
SEAN: Impressive. I now hate you more than the Moose Munch lady.
5 p.m • The uncomfortable drive home
Howard Frankland Bridge
Sweaty. Bloated. Annoyed with each other. More groaning than talking. Sean leans back, stomach lapping over jeans. Stephanie stares blankly ahead, unable to bend at the waist. We exchange looks, vowing with our eyes to never again eat anything from a tiny paper cup, unless it's pills from a mental asylum.
SEAN: I think we learned a few valuable lessons. One, not everything wrapped in bacon is good. Two, the real estate market is in trouble if they're happy to see two shady characters schlepping around the Rangoon. Three, if you're resourceful and void of standards, it is possible to eat for free.
STEPHANIE: Don't forget four. I really need to get that window fixed.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857. Her Deal Divas blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/deals.