May 06, 2010, 10:35AM

Cheap food for broke people

For when you're just not sure the paycheck is gonna come soon enough.

So we've all been there: there was an unexpected expense, or you just aren't getting paid enough to live, or you just partied away all your cash. What are you going to eat? You can't even afford a slice of pizza. One of the benefits of living now, in the age of global warming, terrorism and low-level anxiety about enriched uranium is that the cost of food is kept artificially low by bad food conglomerates and you aren't going to starve. Herbert Hoover promised us a chicken in every pot. My friend Zach recently saw a very poor, possibly indigent woman pouring two family sized buckets of fried chicken onto the street by his bus stop.

"What are you doing?" he finally asked.

"Feedin’ the birds!" she shrieked. And in fact there were a few bewildered pigeons pecking uncertainly at the crumbs.

She was probably crazy, but nevertheless illustrates a point: when marginalized members of our society are pouring that much chicken into the street, we are living in a historically unprecedented time of prosperity, illusory or not. You have almost certainly never known true hunger.   

But the fact remains: you have no cash, no wiggle room on the plastic and took all your change to Coinstar last week. What are you going to eat? Kevin Blackstone, peripatetic sound and video artist, gave me a great list of things to eat when you're poor. He writes: "I use peanut butter and water (or milk or coconut milk if you have any) with an assortment of spices including cayenne and curry powder to make a peanut sauce that then goes delightfully over ramen (or any other noodle you may have). With eggs and bread you've got French toast. Frozen vegetables and soy sauce can make a stir fry; throw that on some noodles and hammer some peanuts in a plastic bag and you can have half-assed pad Thai. Rice allows all kind of things including the less obvious—throw some in a coffee grinder you have rice flour; now you can make dumplings or rice tortillas. Wheat flour allows breads, tortillas, and pancakes. Corn meal can increase this variety or add flavor. Curried lentils or dahl [are easy]. Beans: throw in a home-made tortilla with onions, tomato, salsa, sour cream, peppers or whatever you’ve got and make a burrito."  

I like Kevin's list; it's all nourishing and tasty sounding, but doesn't take a lot of time or money to prepare and allows room for poverty of ingredients. He's basically eating peasant foods, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peasant_foods, which are great culinary traditions to tap into if you're chronically cash strapped or just cheap. I once lived for a week on dried beans, a couple of onions, some garlic, some spices, a little cheese, and a sack of corn meal. Italian, Mexican and Southern peasants made great use of cornmeal and I tapped all cultures to keep myself from going crazy. Grits, polenta, hoecakes, Johnnycakes, in all kinds of permutations and smothered in beans all ways you can think of.  

Even if you can't cook, preparing dishes like this is a great way to learn how, since this emphasizes creativity and innovation. Think ahead for emergencies, even if the emergency is just that you spent all your money on pot, and keep some legumes and rice and some kind of ground grain in your cupboard. Keep some frozen veggies in your freezer. Go through your spice rack and condiment shelf and make sure you have everything because Dahl, the traditional food of poor Indians, is insanely cheap to make, but not if you have to run out and buy cardamom.  

Know where to shop. The Whole foods in Harbor East has conventionally grown green split peas for under $2 a pound, but I've found the same peas at Halal stores for $2.99 for five pounds. There's a Whiskey Island Pirate stand in the market at Mill Valley General Store that sells quality spices in baggies for $3 and under.

Another cheap peasant food that people overlook is potatoes. Long associated with their dismal rating in the South Beach diet and the starving Irish, potatoes are ridiculously nutritious as well as filling. The Irish, before the famine, were among the poorest people in the Western world, and lived almost exclusively on potatoes and dairy, but were widely recognized as the healthiest, fattest peasants, with low infant mortality rates.  

But what if you can't cook even a potato? The Peanut Gallery weighs in with their fave poor foods:

Kate: "Chicken Surprise: white rice, cream of mushroom soup, chicken bouillon cube, Kraft singles. The surprise is that it contains no actual chicken.”

Jessica: "Can'o'Veggie Chili: one can beans. One can Mexi Corn. One can stewed tomatoes. Combine, heat and eat. Makes several servings."

Rob: "Egg noodles, frozen peas, ghetto cheap margarine and salt. Store brand Velveeta microwaved with a jar of store brand salsa for 'queso dip.' I threw klassy parties. Fried baloney 'cheesesteaks' with Velveeta."


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