Corn tortillas were being warmed over an open gas burner, perfuming the kitchen with that taco night scent. A simmering pan bubbled and spat, and I spotted a mounded bowl of shredded jack cheese. Tomatoes, lettuce and onions were arranged like birthday balloons in bright colors, and bottle of crema with a Spanish label lorded over it all, the white-robed lord of the condiments.
I was spending the night at a friend’s, and I was very excited. We had played for hours, and when her mom finally called us in for dinner, we were starving. There was an assembly line, and we could make our own meals. I got to the pan full of shredded beef and looked at it for a minute before getting nudged to get a move on. I was polite and didn’t say anything, but I was very confused.
When I got home, I asked my mom about it.
“So I spent the night over at Yesenia’s.”
“Yeah, I know you did. I met her mom.”
“Her mom made tacos, but she didn’t put any potatoes in the meat.”
“It’s like they weren’t even real tacos.”
She laughed a little and sat me down for one of the first adult conversations of my life.
My mom raised four kids on her own. She worked retail jobs and drove broken-down cars, but we never went hungry. She just got creative. Whenever she made beef, she explained to me that she could extend it with potatoes. They were filling, they’d soak up the flavor of the meat and they cost pennies to keep in the pantry. The more recipes she mentioned, the more I realized that she loaded all of my favorite dinners with the cheapest grains and produce she could find to make more out of less. Cabbage rolls with rice and carrots. Meatloaf that was more than half tomatoes and bread crumbs. Dark meat chicken and the heels of rye bread.
Up until I was 12 years old, I thought fettuccine Alfredo was just buttered noodles with pepper. My mom joked that she never cooked more than a pound of ground beef, even when the table was set for eight.
Poor doesn’t always mean going hungry. There is legitimate hunger in this country, but most of America’s poor suffer from a lack of options. People who grew up like me, on rice and bread and potatoes and convenience food, weren’t starving — we were slowly developing diabetes and gout. Our eating habits were formed early, and I still note the price of ramen noodles, holding steady at four for a dollar in my neighborhood store. However, I am trying to learn from the examples set for me by both Lil Wayne and Junot Diaz. I am trying to retain the parts of my identity that were forged by being poor while shedding the bad habits of poverty. My stories come with me, but the ramen and the purple drank have to be left behind.
The national debate about childhood obesity and the eating habits of the very poor isn’t just political. It’s deeply personal. I remember my friends in grade school who ate uncooked ramen sprinkled with the super-salty flavor packet for lunch every day. Not some days, not bad days, but every day. I remember living in a food desert and choosing between dinner at 7-Eleven or Pizza Hut about five nights a week. My mom made the best choices that she could, but there’s no denying that there is a great deal of privilege that can be read in our diets.
Living in the Bay Area, we have access to a great deal of local and imported produce. We can buy organic every day if we choose — and if we can afford it. Restaurants in this area are prepared to answer questions about the origin of ingredients, methods of preparation and even the moral philosophies of how and why they cook what they cook. Our options are numerous; our standards are high. This is the privilege of people who aren’t too hungry to worry about it.
When I visited home this summer, I could see I wasn’t the only one moving on. Like many women who had children when they were very young, my mom is still growing up and still finding herself. I opened the freezer, expecting the 19-cent burritos I grew up on, but I found it full of frozen quartered squash, my mom’s homemade chicken stock for soup and a couple of whole free-range chickens. She’s stopped using anything processed or artificial in her cooking, and she’s not scrambling to feed a bunch of kids anymore. We’ve both changed our circumstances enough that our choices are dictated by what we like rather than what’s cheapest.
We went out to dinner together and talked about what’s changed, and I think she said it best.
“When you kids were growing up, if we went out, I could only look at the right side of the menu, where the prices were printed. Now I only look left.”
We think back, we look left, we look forward. We keep the good and leave the ramen on the shelf.
Meg Elison writes the Monday column on financial issues affecting UC Berkeley students.Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].