I’m three days into the United Way Hunger Challenge and I have $59.83 left to spend. Good thing too, since tonight is Jonas’ birthday, and I have to at least make it somewhat special, which led me down an entirely different train of thought. We agreed to do this challenge despite having several events (like a birthday) this week that would be tricky to work around. I recall feeling a bit miffed at the beginning of the week, thinking “couldn’t it have been a different week?” and oscillating over whether to actually go through with it.
Well midway through the challenge I look back at my three-day-ago self with disdain. There are people who have to scrape together for kids birthdays, spouses anniversaries, holidays and the like on the budget I was given for a week only they have to do it 365 days a year. What kind of little princess bitch am I that I mumble and moan feeling sorry for my family when we only have to do this for five days? And we are doing it voluntarily at that? And I’m writing about it and documenting it for my blog, which is an even further luxury? The bright side is that in three short days I’ve learned to be a humbler person, and to appreciate my lot in life. In fact, if everyone like me were to live on slightly more moderate means there would surely be more to go around, but that’s a different matter entirely.
Because I’ve come to this realization, a few other key points struck a chord with me. Namely that in a way this challenge is an unfair game that’s a bit gauche in some respects. It’s kind of like how un-PC it really is to play cowboys and Indians considering our nation’s history with Native Americans. Is it really fair for us armchair enthusiasts to look at something like a limited food budget as a fun game to play for a week, throwing in personal challenges like “let’s make it organic,” and “I won’t support chains”? The fact is, I have nearly $60 left and I have 2.5 days to go, so I know I can do it. The truth of the fact is that while I’ve managed to source many organic ingredients, I’ve deliberately chosen them based on their value, and for a week, sure it’s ok to eat carrots, onions and potatoes, but to do that every single day of every single week of every single year would really suck. What if you notice a pastry in the window of a coffee shop that practically screams your name, but day after day you know you can’t go in and get it because it would mean forgoing dinner for your family that night? Forget the pastry, on a budget like this you can’t even so much as afford a coffee at most retailers in Seattle!
Another big factor that plays into how I can fairly easily conform to this challenge is time. I certainly don’t come from an affluent family, but I have a baby at home and while he is young, we’ve decided that my day job can take the back burner to his rearing. This affords me the luxury of time. Yes, my bacon is cheaper than any you can buy in a store because I make it myself, but I spend hours curing pork belly then smoking it to produce said bacon. Many folks don’t have that kind of time. Or an extra wine fridge in which to cure the pork belly. Or a smoker in which to smoke it. Sure, half my vegetables and all of my herbs come from my outdoor garden and indoor plant windows, but that again takes time, a green(ish) thumb, and space in which to garden. Is it really fair of me to preach that I can easily feed my family on $90 a week and so everyone else should too when I know for a fact that most people on the planet don’t have the impetus or desire to roll out and cut their own pasta thus making it cheaper in raw materials, but more expensive when it comes to labor and knowledge?
That being said, I’m going to stop with the item calculations. Suffice it to say I’m sticking to the budget, eliminating luxuries like side salads, and focusing on one-dish wonders, namely this gnocchi. It was delicious for all intents and purposes, and really couldn’t be easier. I cooked my potatoes in the sous vide machine so they would retain their light texture, mixed with flour, parmigiano reggianno and salt. I then rolled the potato mixture into tubes, cut into individual pieces of gnocchi, and boiled in salted water until risen, et voila. I tossed together a makeshift sauce of cream, peas and bacon and there you go, all under budget, pretty enough for a birthday dish, and extremely satisfying. The satisfaction was made even richer with the realization that our fortunate family has all the things that should really matter on a birthday in spades; namely the pleasure of togetherness, good food, a humble abode, and a sense of security.
This entire exercise brings to mind the “teach a man to fish…” adage. I have enough experience with food to recognize a good deal in shallots, chevre, or cannellini beans when I see one, and I know how to combine that screaming deal with pantry staples in order to make a cheap and tasty dinner. It would be worthwhile to lead market walkthroughs for food stamp folk (yes, Seattle farmer’s markets take food stamps) pointing out great bulk buys that are money-saving measures in the end. Discuss how to use both the beets and their greens, for instance. This concept could be refined further by leading basic cooking classes to teach simple flavor combinations and hopefully inspire a love for quality food. I appreciate the United Way for putting forth this challenge. It’s opened my eyes to the idea that I can make a difference in the milieu I understand most: the world of food.