Friday, February 22, 2013

Budget-Food, Defended

The other day I was at the salon for a Mommy Time-Out, partly because it was overdue and mostly because I had a Groupon. As I waited for my appointment, I caught the conversation between the two women next to me, and it set me a bit on edge.

One of the women mentioned a commercial she had seen where the voiceover suggested a dinner of Campbell's soup poured over rice. "Can you believe it?" she said to her friend. "I mean, these people think they're cooking but they're really not. Can you imagine serving that to your children?"

It made me wonder if she realized that "these people" could actually be the person sitting next to her; in this case: me. I also wondered if she had ever been poor, or even a little strapped for cash. Because the reason that people, the poor misguided non-chefs that they are, serve that to their children is that it costs about $2.50.

I serve food like that to my kids sometimes, not because I cannot cook or because that is all they will eat or because I do not like lovely things like risotto and shepherd's pie or because I have no concept of the amount of sodium in a can of soup. I serve it because we are on a strict food budget, and also, soup mixed with rice or noodles takes about five minutes to make.

I think a lot of us have a pretty good idea of what it is like to eat cheaply from necessity. When Chef Matt was little, his grandma would serve him and his cousins Creamettes with ketchup, and they loved it. When my uncle was laid off, my aunt was feeding her family of four on three dollars a day. When I was broke and living alone in Maryland, I would sometimes eat tortillas with butter for dinner.

Perhaps the lady at the salon had never needed to eat "poor food." Maybe she never had to scheme how to get vegetables and grains and proteins into her kids for a buck or two. Or maybe she could not remember post-college years when one-dollar party pizzas were a daily staple. Lack of first-hand experience sometimes leads us to say things.

It was the assumption that people who are pouring soup over rice are ignorant that bothered me. We cannot assume to understand why everyone makes the food choices that they do, or that people who mix two ingredients for dinner cannot otherwise cook. If we assume anything, it should be that a lot of people are doing the best they can. Sure, some people cannot cook or will not cook or are okay with cooking by means of opening soup cans. But that does not entitle them to disdain.

The frustrating irony for me is that we love to cook and love to feed our kids things like Brussels sprouts, and one of us is a professional whose heart beats first for his family and second for beautiful foods. But we, like so many other people, do what we have to do, and sometimes that means we feed our kids soup and rice.

That lady maybe went home and continued to think that an uninformed public believes they are suddenly Mario Batali the minute they whip out a can opener. To which I say: Whatever. I went home and made tortilla pizzas with spaghetti sauce and shredded cheese. My kids ate it all up, and it cost me about $2.50.

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