January 21, 2005

Minimum Wage Eating

Listen up, internet: You people have to quit writing interesting stuff because I have things to do today. I'm late on writing thank-you letters. I have masses of laundry to be done. I have four bags of trash to take out. I need to vacuum, and I'm out of bread flour. PLEASE STOP WRITING SUCH INTERESTING STUFF.

Thank you.

Now, bread flour . . . that reminds me. I've been thinking about how being poor changes one's food choices for some time now, off and on, but I haven't quite known how to write about it. I suppose if I were a journalist, I would say I haven't quite found "the angle," but (a) I'm not a journalist and (b) I hate journalistic jargon like "the angle."

When my brother came over for New Year's Eve, I made a pizza. I mean I made the dough--all right, the bread machine did that--and rolled out the crust and made the sauce and sliced the toppings--I mean I made a pizza.

I don't really come from a cooking background. My father's relatives cook a lot, but while my mother certainly can cook, she doesn't really like to cook, and so I wasn't exposed much to the art of cooking growing up. Chocolate chip cookies, peeling potatoes, and how to brown a pot roast--that was about it. That's not meant in any way as a slam on my mother, who would probably tell you that I was also pretty lazy about wanting to help in the kitchen, which is true. I got grossed out at the sight of raw chicken or hamburger. I can remember telling her, "I could never stick my hands in that," while watching her form raw ground round into meatballs.

I'm just saying, I didn't do a lot of cooking growing up. The first thing I ever tried to make on my own in a kitchen was stuffed peppers, and I flubbed it--it turns out it's really important to brown the meat first. Yes, I stuffed the peppers with a mixture of raw hamburger, rice, and vegetables.

Hello, E. coli! Thank God my boyfriend at the time took one look at my pitiful efforts and said, "We're not eating that. Get dressed; we're going out."

But back to New Year's. My brother asked, "What got you into this? What turned you into someone who makes pizza from scratch?" And in truth, there are many reasons, but the one I gave my brother is probably the primary one. I said:

"Losing my job."

See, I like to eat well. I love restaurants. But I can't afford to go out to restaurants. No, not even to the chains that run specials now and then. Besides, I'm a snob trapped on a proletarian budget, meaning: I hate the Olive Garden.

I had a choice: I could learn to cook tasty things as cheaply as possible at home, or I could renew my relationship with ramen noodles. I have eaten my share of ramen noodles, people, and as God is my witness, I will do everything in my power never to make ramen noodles a mainstay of my diet again. (I still buy them, for the record. I just don't want to live on them.)

All of this is a long-winded way (do I have any other?) of getting to two articles I've read recently about food and poverty. The first, from Serenity, is actually about much more than that, but it's the topic of food and living expenses I want to focus on here. Serenity is someone who knows the working poor experience in a way that, I'm sorry, too many Republicans remain ignorant, dismissive, or simply downright arrogant about:

That is why so many Americans will pass up [minimum-wage jobs]. Because they can’t fricken live that way. It was extremely difficult for me and I was single, no kids; only had to worry about providing for myself. I lived in a box apartment, I had the absolute cheapest phone plan one could get, (I believe it is a necessity to have a phone as emergencies may arise. This should not be looked upon as a luxury item...and it wasn’t a cell phone), and dined on Top Ramen for much longer than I care to remember. I did not go out, I did not get my hair cut, I did not rent movies, I did not buy things whether I needed them or not. I wore clothes for 10 years despite the fact that they were falling apart from so many washings. I cut open tubes of toothpaste and lotion bottles to get every last bit of residue from them that I could. When I got paid, I would “splurge” and buy Kool-Aid, 10 for a dollar and not only did I drink it without the sugar, (too expensive), I would also keep adding water to it until all the color was gone.

And that is how I lived when my job paid me minimum wage. This is how a lot of people live. A lot of those people have families. They have kids who need new clothes and shoes and a proper diet. So the parents work 2-3 jobs in an effort to give their kids what they need.

I was very relieved to read this because it helped me understand why I just can't seem to lose a little chip I have on my shoulder. I try and I try and I try, but when it comes right down to it, I cannot shake the belief that if you've never had to take a calculator to the grocery store*, you have no idea what you're talking about, and you should be disqualified from all discussions about the minimum wage on that basis alone.

Go on, flame me. Go on. I can take it. I've survived a lot worse than listening to some jackass who's never known rock-bottom living bray at me. Heeeee-haw! That's all I'm going to hear from you until you put your money where your mouth is.

Like this family is doing:

. . . we're tracking our grocery spending this month to see how hard it is for us to stay within the limits of USDA's Thrifty Food Plan, which allows up to $434.40 per month for a family of our size.

For the record, I don't think this gives us a real feel for what it's like to be poor, any more than making teenagers carry around an egg or a sack of flour for a month gives them real insight into what it's like to be a parent. I know that it makes a huge difference not to really have to worry that my kids are going to go hungry if I don't leave enough money for the last week. But it's a useful consciousness raising exercise.

A million thank-yous to feministe for the link. You should read the whole thing; as tempted as I am to give you another excerpt, it would be doing a disservice to the author to do so. Read it. For all I admire the effort, they buy some things I would never buy: Ice cream?--Instant pudding's cheaper. The boxes, of course, not the prepackaged pudding cups. And if you can make muffins and coffee cakes from scratch, graduating to actual cakes should be, uh, a piece of cake. Think how many cakes you can get out of a bag of sugar and a bag of cake flour, versus a box of Duncan Hines. Buying rolls? Buying rolls? Forget it. To someone like me, that is an enormous waste of money.

But normally, when we're making a decent living, we all indulge in enormous wastes of money in our food choices all the time, "time" being the key word there. The tradeoff to making things from scratch, to buying whole roasting chickens instead of boneless, skinless parts, to making your own chicken stock instead of buying bouillon cubes or (shudder) canned broth--the tradeoff to all of this is TIME. What you save in dollars you spend in time. Unfortunately, a family in which one or both parents works multiple jobs doesn't have any more time than they do money. In fact, they may well have less.

There's another article excerpted within the last one linked above that I wanted to talk about briefly. In it, a woman follows a pregnant, homeless teenager through the store as she selects items she'll pay for with food stamps. In particular, this:

I stood, stunned, as she reached for the individual-portion cartons of juice -- with their brightly colored miniature straws -- ignoring the larger, economy-size bottles. No calculation of unit price, no can'ts or shoulds or ought-not-to's, no keen eye to the comparative ounce. By the time her stuffed cart reached the checkout line, my unease was turning into anger. Didn't she know she was poor?
Trust me on this if on nothing else: Poor people know they're poor. What's missing here is an education about choosing food wisely. I know; I was on food stamps for several months. It took me awhile to figure out how to stretch them, because I had no education in that. (I know how tempted some of you must be right now to add, "And, you were dumb." Fine, I was dumb.) My parents had generally (that I could remember, at least) bought whatever they liked, with price being secondary.

On one of my first outings with the stamps, I came home with a package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. At the time, the stores still sold chicken breasts with the bones still in and the skin still on. Boneless and skinless breasts were about $4 a pound. Breasts with bones and skin were HALF that.

The man I lived with at the time had not grown up like I had. The man I lived with at the time had grown up poor. And he saw the boneless, skinless chicken breasts--the package of four of them, because heaven forbid we buy the economy-size pack and save a few more cents per pound--and he pretty much lost it on me. My only defense was, "I didn't know"--because I didn't. I didn't know they listed unit prices on the price labels on the shelves. I didn't know about the time/money tradeoff you need to make when there is less money than time in the house. I didn't know, I didn't know, I didn't know, because no one had ever told me.

But believe me, I know now. I know that the one of the most giddily happy moments of my life was the first time I realized I was making enough money to just throw things in the cart. Anything, anything at all. The store was MINE. Buffalo mozzarella at $9 a pound? Throw it in. Red bell peppers at $2.99 each? I'll take six of those. Frozen dinners? Organic butter? Steak? Throw it in, throw it in, throw it in!

Those of you who have never known any other way to shop: All I'm asking is that you show a little sensitivity. A little gratitude for what you've got would be nice, too, but it's not necessary. Just a little sensitivity will do. You never know who you're talking to or what he or she has been through; you never know. Maybe leave some of the "that's what they get for not going to college" talk out of the discussion? A little sensitivity. That's all I ask.

And for those of you who have at least a nodding acquaintance with the kind of living I'm talking about: What were or are some of your favorite "poor foods?" You know what I mean--the stuff that will stretch and keep and last, the stuff that was both tasty and gave you bang for the buck. (Cheese enchiladas, for example, are one of my favorites.) What do you eat when you've really got to watch what you spend on it?

*Or had to add the dollar amounts in your head. Me, I had to use a calculator, because, I swear this is true, I can work out a triple integral for you, I can solve linear algebra matrices, and I can keep track of pointers to pointers to pointers, but I cannot add or subtract in my head. It is a slow, painful process that invariably either leaves me with the wrong answer--and I mean way off--or having to start all over again from the beginning.

Posted by Ilyka at January 21, 2005 08:28 PM in i don't know you tell me

Fortunately, for me, I grew up in Louisiana. Our most famous dishes were perfected by the poor. Jambalaya, red beans and rice, hamburger steak, and po boys (Originally poor boys) are all foods that anyone can still make the old, cheap way. Those are my faves. Of course, we don't tell the tourists. We'll charge them $13.50 for a plate of read beans and rice even though the locals wouldn't pay more than $3.99 for it.

Posted by: Rob at January 21, 2005 08:58 PM

A few years back, a woman made some comment to me that implied I had no idea what it was like to be poor. I snapped. Some of my "poor" memories growing up: discount grocery places that really were cut rate -- damaged tins, boxes, old stock from other stores. What I remember most is the tinned mutant chickens. Literally, a chicken that had some sort of damage, be it a wing missing, or a chunk out of the side, then it was out in a tin with some sort of liquid gunk. We ate lots of those along with powdered milk. BLEAH! To this day I won't touch skim milk becuase it reminds me of the powdered stuff. I remember the biggest treat was when my aunt would visit and she would bring groceries which included real whole milk.

Ah, those were the days! Things got better then worse, then better again. Now, I cook from scratch partly because I like to cook, and partly because it's hard to pay all that money for prepared foods or to go out to dinner -- which isn't in the budget these days.

Now will you stop writing things that inspire me to make such long-winded comments!?!?

Posted by: Ith at January 21, 2005 09:33 PM

To this day I won't touch skim milk becuase it reminds me of the powdered stuff.

Oh man, the powdered milk, yes--super nasty. It even messes up things you bake with it.

I guess I missed the era of the mutant chicken-in-a-tin, and boy-oh-boy am I glad of that. They sound hilarious provided you didn't have to actually, you know, consume them. :)

Posted by: ilyka at January 21, 2005 09:39 PM

RE: that last excerpt

I've had people make comments to me like this at the grocery store before. The thing is, I was buying things for E to take to school in his lunchbox. Try passing up prepackaged juice with straws after you've had the school call you because his entire lunch was soaked in the juice I poured in a resealable cup from an economy container. Twice.

I'm not a violent person, but it's assumptions like that make me want to fucking hit people.

Posted by: Lauren at January 21, 2005 09:49 PM

Try passing up prepackaged juice with straws after you've had the school call you because his entire lunch was soaked in the juice I poured in a resealable cup from an economy container. Twice.

I figured I had gone on long enough with all this, but exactly, that's the other thing: When people look at you like how-dare-you-buy-that without knowing the whole story (which, of course, they never do).

If I'm working two jobs for example, chances are I'm going to have more instant/prepackaged/"to-go" type things in the cart, because DUH, I don't have time to go home and fix a meal from scratch.

I wouldn't have time to fix meals from scratch now if I didn't make them beforehand, because oh yes, I've got one of those fantastic jobs that thinks a 30-minute break to eat is sufficient. You can't fix much beyond a sandwich (or, yes, good ol' ramen) in 30 minutes, I don't care what Rachel Ray says.

Posted by: ilyka at January 21, 2005 10:07 PM

I have to admit, the mutant chicken in a tin makes a great story now. Especially when your friend's kids whine about what they're eating. Describing the mutant chicken experience is good for a few, "EWWWW"s :) Though nothing can make up for the trauma of being in junior high and having to wear the polyester, elastic waisted slacks that my grandmother would be me by the half dozen -- all in different bright obnoxious colours. Now that was hell. [sigh]

Posted by: Ith at January 21, 2005 11:32 PM

Thanks for the kind comments on my posting (and on the project as a whole). We also drank powdered milk when I was a kid -- I think my mom mixed it half and half with "real" milk so we'd drink it. I haven't tried it in years.

I actually think the cake mix is cheaper than a real chocolate cake would be; although the real cake would be a lot better, I don't think it's worth it for a bunch of 4 year olds.

To be fair to LeBlanc (the author I quoted), the article is precisely about exploring her attitudes towards spending money. In the book she is incredibly non-judgmental towards the families she's reporting on -- more so than I could manage.

Posted by: Elizabeth at January 22, 2005 01:53 AM

You know what I think...

Well of course you don't, but pondering this excellent post brought me to remembering one of my oft-reiterated opinions:

Everyone should take Home Ec in high school.

I mean everyone. Male and female both. This is what Home Ec used to teach you:

How to comparison shop. How to cook a meal. How to plan a menu. How to draw up a household budget. How to balance a checkbook. How to clean the house. How to sew on buttons. How to sew, period.

You know: Survival skills. Your pregnant homeless teenager is an excellent example, and so is your boneless, skinless chicken purchase. People aren't born knowing these things, they have to be taught. More and more, they don't learn this in the home. They have to learn it somewhere.

Posted by: Dr Alice at January 22, 2005 04:35 AM

Oh yeah, almost forgot:

I recommend "The Tightwad Gazette" (you can get it on Amazon, or check it out of the library) for some excellent "poor recipes" and shopping advice. Also the standard advice like buying in bulk on sale, making six meatloaves or recipes of spaghetti sauce, and freezing it for later. You save time AND money!

Posted by: Dr Alice at January 22, 2005 04:41 AM

This is what Home Ec used to teach you:

Provided they use a curriculum like the sample you outlined, I think it could only help. People don't learn this stuff at home anymore.

Me, I had a semester of Home Ec in junior high; we spent a full nine weeks of it sewing oddly-shaped pillows. Because that's what's important in keeping a home--the ability to sew oddly-shaped pillows. Mine was shaped like a lightbulb. My mother ended up having to finish it because I was so bad with the sewing machine. I don't recall learning to cook anything.

I've peeked into the Tightwad Gazette before but haven't picked up my own copy yet. I do have this terrific out-of-print book called The Impoverished Student's Guide to Cookery, Drinkery, and Housekeepery. I can credit it with getting me past doing stupid things like stuffing raw hamburger into peppers, as it breaks things down pretty basically, and pretty flippantly:

Secondly, I should like to introduce the following notation: Rice, before cooking, equal "rice." Rice, after cooking, equals "R*I*C*E." The two are related by the following rule:

RULE: One cup of rice makes three cups of R*I*C*E. I tell you this now, for in more professional cookbooks, reference is frequently made to "one cup of rice per person." What they really mean is "one cup of R*I*C*E per person." To the uninitiated, the results can be quite embarrassing. Rice expands something fierce!

That is all I have to tell you about rice. But it's more than most cookbooks would tell you about rice.

Which last was all too true, until I got a copy of The Joy of Cooking, anyhow. Posted by: ilyka at January 22, 2005 05:27 PM

Potatoes. Mashed, fried, boiled, baked. Lots and lots of potatoes.

Beans, rice, ground beef and eggs. In any and every combination.

Everything was purchased in bulk, of course. Then you cook up a huge amount of food and freeze it in portions in generic Tupperware - disposable freezer bags are way too expensive.

The beverage of choice was water. Lots of water. With a diet like this you need to superhydrate so your colon doesn't explode.

Posted by: Jim at January 22, 2005 07:10 PM

Lots and lots of potatoes.

Oh hell yeah. We kick it Irish-style, yo.

But actually I'm a huge fan of freezer bags. If you get the generic Wal-mart brand they're not too pricey, and it's worth it for the prevention of freezer burn.

I just bagged up and froze an enormous lasagne yesterday, actually. You can almost forget you have no money when you have a freezer full of Lidia Bastianich's lasagne.

With modifications, of course. Ain't no way I'm paying for fresh mozzarella di buffalo, though undoubtedly it would taste even awesomer that way.

Posted by: ilyka at January 22, 2005 07:22 PM

I been at rock bottom before (over a decade). And it really affects your mindset (both positively and negatively). Minimum wage is the poorhouse.

Posted by: Solomon at January 23, 2005 03:16 AM

The Tightwad Gazette is terrific.

The Joy of Cooking is a great reference, but the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book is often better because the recipes are simpler--more stripped-down.

I married the only Irishman in the world who won't eat potatoes. So we eat rice, and lots of recipes that use ground beef and egg noodles.

I try to toggle back and forth between brainstorming ways to save money and ways to increase my income.

And, yes--I love just throwing things into the cart, but we can't do that when our finances are at low tide.

Posted by: Attila Girl at January 23, 2005 07:38 AM

And I happen to like instant Mac & Cheese. If you live near a Trader Joe's, you can get the kind that uses white cheddar without it costing an arm or a leg. Failing that, plain old Kraft is pretty good, food coloring and all.

Posted by: Attila Girl at January 23, 2005 07:40 AM

Ilyka --

I found a copy of that Impoverished Students' Guide at the library (the downtown LA Public Library has an incredible cookbook collection). I loved it!

See, this is my idea of a cookbook - something that is fun to read and gives good advice. I couldn't care less whether a cookbook has pretty pictures or not, I want big dollops of food prose along with my recipes.

Now I've gotta start prowling the used book websites to find myself a copy.

Posted by: Dr Alice at January 24, 2005 02:49 AM

I couldn't care less whether a cookbook has pretty pictures or not, I want big dollops of food prose along with my recipes.

Exactly. Tell me why you made the dish that way and not some other way, all that stuff. Hey, did the library copy you found have the wacky line drawings and illustrations? I love the sketches almost as much as the prose.

Oh, and his recipe for Highly Spikeable Punch? It should be called Highly Spikeable Punch That Will Knock You on Your Rear So Look Out.

Posted by: ilyka at January 24, 2005 10:08 PM

Growing up in an immigrant family, we were very poor for our first few years in this country and lower middle class for about the next 10. However, being a southeast Asian family, you would never know from how we ate that we were not well off. My mom cooked everything from scratch, and fortunately her recipes did not require expensive ingredients. I actually complain now when she tries to gentrify her recipes by using lean, boneless skinless chicken breasts in a recipe that involved braising an entire chicken, chopped up into two bite pieces with the bone still in, in a wonderful garlickly soy caramel sauce. It's just not good without all the bones and the great dark meat.

Now that I'm grown with a family and more money than time, my husband laughs at me when he makes a request for something at the store and I tell him it'll depend on whether or not it's on sale.

Posted by: V.H. at January 25, 2005 05:59 PM

Peanut butter on saltines.

I have subsisted on that many times when I was broke, or too lazy to cook (or go out).

And it still makes a great before-bed snack.

Posted by: diamond dave at January 25, 2005 10:20 PM

I do the peanut butter on crackers thing, too.

Posted by: Rob at January 26, 2005 12:07 PM

Hey, did the library copy you found have the wacky line drawings and illustrations? I love the sketches almost as much as the prose.

Yep, very cute. Looks like his brother or other relative drew the pictures (judging from the title page).

Oh, and his recipe for Highly Spikeable Punch? It should be called Highly Spikeable Punch That Will Knock You on Your Rear So Look Out.

Duly noted. I'll have to remember that one. (Though the illustration that goes with it pretty much implies what you just said.)

Posted by: Dr Alice at January 27, 2005 05:55 AM

I ordered the Tightwad Gazette after reading this thread. We'll see if I can implement anything in it.

Posted by: Lauren at January 28, 2005 01:50 AM

I remember splitting a single hot dog between me and my sister when we were kids. My parents made next to nothing after we moved to Arizona (due to my health as a child no less).

Between that and Ramen we felt lucky when we would get a bologna sandwich or mom would make mac and cheese or goulash.

Most recently, having been a student for five years, I was on the Ramen diet again.

Now, making a semi-decent wage and still being a student (it's a career for me) I can eat the fine foods, like ham sandwiches and many, many salads (mainly consisting of lettuce and cucumber).

I get thrilled when I visit one of my old high school buddies when they are in town and get to eat a real home cooked meal at their parents place. Ah the college life...

Posted by: Hanzo at January 29, 2005 03:30 PM

When I was a kid, we ate a lot of gravy and potatoes. Hamburger gravy, chicken gravy - a little bit of meat and a lot of flour and water to stretch it into a main dish for four. And Ramen noodles. It wasn't until I went to college (and saw what a staple it was in an undergrad's diet) that I learned that most families didn't have Ramen as a regular dinner side dish.

Posted by: kim at January 31, 2005 04:59 PM