I’ve shared bits and pieces of my cooking journey throughout the site, but decided I need a good post that shares my story in one place. While the entire story is big enough to fill a book (hmmm, food memoir anyone?), here are the highlights of how I learned to cook and eat foods rich in nutrition and flavor when I was flat broke.
I grew up on a variety of military bases. My dad was an Army officer and there was never a question of getting the food I wanted when I wanted it. Of course, my mom tried to make us eat healthy food, and did a good job too. When we would grocery shop with her we were not allowed to beg for junk food, but we could each pick out one item from the produce department. I felt like the greatest discoverer in the world the first time I chose a starfruit!
When I was in second grade, I remember asking my mom if we could have crab for dinner. Excited that I wanted to try something new, she bought several crabs and taught me how to cook them. Unfortunately, she was the only one who ended up liking the poor crabs, so our neighbors got a feast that night. Fortunately for me, I have since learned to love pretty much any seafood you put in front of me!
When I was 18 or 19, my family left Hawaii (where we’d spent seven of my formative years) for Washington, and I decided to stay in what I considered my hometown. I was working as a dancer for a company that performed in hotels, malls and cruise ships, as well as touring neighbor islands. I had my first apartment, could surf every day between gigs, and thought life was good.
September 11, 2001 was a shocking day. As I sat in the living room with my roommates, watching the news coverage of the attacks, I got a phone call. I thought it would be a friend or family member, but it was someone from the cruise line I worked for (my steadiest income source). They were calling to fire me.
Apparently some smarty pants in management realized that tourism was going to die, and decided to try and cut their losses immediately. At the time, I didn’t really care, because my world had already fallen out from under me due to the terrorist attacks. That night, I had dinner with a friend at a steakhouse. I think we both wanted to be with someone who felt safe, and since neither of us had family in Hawaii, we were each others’ family. Eerily, the booth our server seated us in had a photo of the Twin Towers hanging on the wall above the table. It was my last hearty meal.
Over the few weeks following the attacks, I began to understand the true damage that was being done to our economy in Hawaii. Unemployment shot off the charts, because thousands of us were dependent on tourism for our jobs. After three weeks of no pay, I realized that I needed to change my lifestyle. Looking at how little money I had in my bank account (about $100, yikes!), I made the decision at the end of the month to move out of my apartment and into my car.
I found a friend who would let me keep my furniture and things in her garage until I “found a bigger place”. But I didn’t tell anyone, friends or family, that I was actually homeless.
While being homeless is never fun, Hawaii is not the worst place to experience homelessness. It never gets cold enough to actually be dangerous, when it does rain it’s usually brief and warm, and there are public showers at pretty much every beach. Of course, there’s also a lot of fear involved. There were a few times that I was woken up by someone pounding on my car window, and had to quickly drive away in a panic. (Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this, I didn’t tell you about the whole homeless thing because I didn’t want you to worry. Let’s just think of it as a great learning experience!)
I think the hardest part of being homeless was the hunger. The only food I bought for an entire month was a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread. At night, I’d look longingly at that loaf of bread, thinking one more piece would be okay, but I knew I needed to ration it. I was able to supplement my meals a little with food I foraged. My church had a grapefruit tree with giant grapefruits the size of basketballs! I actually didn’t like grapefruit but I knew the nutrients were important, so squished up my face and gulped it down. There was also a lychee tree on the property and I would pick a bowl full every Sunday and try to make them last the week.
After a couple months, I was able to get a part time job as a barista at Starbucks. I wasn’t even a coffee drinker at the time, but I was thrilled to get a job! Plus, I could get as much milk as I wanted while working so finally started getting some calcium again.
When I got my first meager paycheck, I was ready to look for an apartment. A friend helped me find a tiny apartment, that actually used to be a storage shed. There wasn’t even room for a bed, and I could brush teeth at the sink and get into the fridge all while sitting on the toilet. As I tried to do the math to determine if I could afford the apartment, gas for my car and a cell phone for work to contact me, I realized that I could, but would only have $7-14 a week for food.
I decided I needed to make that work and moved into the apartment. That was the week I began my fast food diet. In my mind it made perfect sense that if I only had one or two dollars a day for food, the only way I could afford to eat was off of the dollar menu. I would have a chicken sandwich in the morning, and if I had enough money, two tacos in the evening. Yes, that’s right, two whole tacos!
I ate this way for over a year, and it definitely affected my body. I had very little energy, was sick all the time and struggled with depression. Not deep, dangerous depression, just lay in bed all day if I’m not working depression. I knew that what I was putting into my body was not really good for it (seriously, look at the picture below and imagine putting that in your body EVERY DAY!), but I didn’t think I had any other options.
Then, one fateful day, I got a phone call from a friend.
She told me that she and her husband had each gone to the store after work and now they had too many groceries and hoped I would take some off their hands. She was a good friend for knowing that I probably would have made a big stink turning her down if she made it seem like she was trying to help me. Yes, it’s true, I struggled with just as much pride back then as I did shame. But she had the grace to give me a way to save face, and I eagerly took her up on her offer.
Her husband dropped off the large brown paper shopping bag, and as I pulled out item after item, it felt like Christmas. There were glossy bell peppers in a gradient of red, orange and yellow, a luscious head of velvety green broccoli, and a big bag of cheerful sturdy carrots. Below the produce were bags of rice, spaghetti and fettucini. Then came heavy cans of coconut milk, mushrooms, beans, tomato sauce, corn, beans and more.
I can only remember half of what was in that bag, but I’ll never forget the moment of realization at the end of the week when I’d gone six whole days without stopping at a fast food restaurant. I also noticed that instead of having to force bursts of energy when interacting with customers, I could actually get through a whole day and not feel like I needed to go take a nap in my car!
I rushed home from work that day, actually excited to pay my bills and see how much of my tip money I’d have left for food. Since I hadn’t bought any food the week before, I had an “extra” $12 that week. I decided to try something new, and use my week’s reserve to try spending $12 at the grocery store, instead of one or two dollars a day at the drive-thru. I know, brilliant!
I took inventory of what food I had left, things like rice and noodles, 4 bags of ramen, peanut butter and a drawer full of super cheap (as in free) soy sauce and ketchup packets. Then I headed back to the coffee shop, which was walking distance from several grocery stores, and dug out the circulars from the newspaper discard bin. I looked at what was on sale and tried to determine what I could afford and how to turn it into meals. Then I began my first bargain grocery shopping journey.
My cashier at Foodland was a young Filipino woman with silky black hair cut in such sharp angles that it practically sliced through the air as she whipped her head back and forth scanning items. “I’d like a Maika’i card!” I eagerly announced before she scanned my first item. Maika’i (My-ka-ee) means good or benefit in Hawaiian, and it’s the name of Foodland’s club card.
She gave me a slightly puzzled look, I guess because they normally have to ask people if they want one. Perhaps I seemed a little too eager. Her puzzlement increased as I began bouncing with excitement while watching her ring up my minuscule total. I had two bananas, just a handful of grapes, the two smallest apples I could find, half of a cabbage (the helpful produce guy offered to cut one in half for me when I was debating whether or not to buy it. He also offered a date but I turned that offer down) and a bag of frozen green beans.
I gave a shout of “Superstar!” with an accompanying lunge as she announced my grand total of about $3. I ran out of the store with my bounty in tow, barely hearing the cashier mumble to her co-worker about the crazy haole girl.
Next I went to Safeway, which had whole wheat bread on sale. I got their club card as well and grabbed some store brand tuna fish, mayonnaise and pickles to go with my bread (so I could have a sandwich option besides peanut butter). They also offered garlic cloves at half of what the other stores were charging, so I chose the biggest two I could find, digging all the way to the bottom of the bin. Finally, green bell peppers were less than fifty cents, so I bought one and promised myself to stretch it between at least two meals. The Safeway total was $6 and I decided to stop there, hoping I could save the final $3 for next week to buy something exotic like sriracha or hoisin sauce.
I had a lot of fun testing my ideas for recipes that week. Some, like ramen noodles and green beans in a garlic, peanut butter and soy sauce, worked great. Others, like fettucini and bell peppers in a buttermilk ranch sauce, were absolute failures (don’t try it, just trust me on this one).
The next week, the adventure began all over again. As I continued my budget shopping challenge, I really learned a lot. I learned how to cook ramen about 30 different ways, and that the boxed skillet noodle dishes never taste as good as you think they will. I learned that eggs pair well with just about everything and that a little vinegar in milk makes a cheap buttermilk substitute. Eventually I was able to build up a bit of a pantry with condiments and staples that I could get months of use from. Then I decided to move.
That’s right, after years on my own, moving all over the island of Oahu, I decided it was time to be close to family again. Just a few months after moving to Washington, I started dating the oh so handsome and wonderful Eric Johnson. Because of our best worst first date ever, I was on disability and unable to continue working at Starbucks. So I cooked.
It was difficult, and slow, one arm was broken and the other was covered in road rash (That story will come, promise!). But I loved to cook and Eric loved to eat, so he helped with the food budget and I made lunch and dinner for us almost every day. Within a year, we got married, and had a measly budget of just $100 a month for food. Fortunately, that was easy for me to work with and Eric still loves to rave about how well we ate when he was absolutely certain we could only afford rice and beans.
So, the moral of this impossibly long story? You don’t need a ton of money to eat foods rich in nutrition and flavor. It’s a journey, and doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s possible. If you’re struggling with how to eat well on a tight budget, check out some of my budgeting posts. Most importantly, know that you’re not alone, and that there are a lot of us in the same boat here to support each other.