Food Insecurity and….Foodies?

Look, I’m not out to harsh anybody’s Foodie buzz, but I gotta say that the first time I heard the relatively newly-coined term, “Foodie,” was from someone who had lost his multi-million-dollar mansion in Palm Springs in the financial crash.  He ended up being my neighbor in Loafer’s Glory, North Carolina.

I made his acquaintance because of the siren scent of steak-au-poivre wafting from his backyard grill.

If your house was on fire (and I fervently hope it never is!), what would you rush to save?  The contents of your safe?  Family photos (BTW, this takes #1 on most surveys)?  Your pets?  Your children?

How about your ultra-heavy-duty-gourmet backyard grill?

Uh-huh.

This guy, who is incredibly creative but not very bright, forgot to make a few payments on his gigantic mortgage.  He came home from his self-owned business one day to find other people moving into his house.

He also found his assets frozen, so hiring a lawyer was not on the table.

He grabbed his grill, threw it in the back of the minivan that he bought with the fire-sale proceeds of his Mercedes, and fled for the hills of Western North Carolina, where a former client had a house for rent cheap.

And what was he grilling on his precious grill?  Tube steaks?  Nope.  Porterhouse.  I priced them the other day, just for fun, as I was perusing the non-Kosher meat case.  Over $20 a pound, for a Porterhouse steak.  Mind you, these were the grass-fed kind, but that was the only kind this guy would eat.

His menu was worthy of any fine restaurant.  I won’t go into detail because I am feeling lousy today, on antibiotics, and my stomach really isn’t into food at all, but since I have to write this article I will give you the gist of the thing.

I met my first Foodie on my first date with my first husband.

We were both medical students.  We both worked, and had comparable poverty-level incomes.  Let’s start there.

I won’t go into how we met.  That is fodder for another post.  I won’t even go into the fact that he had a steady girlfriend at the time, who wasn’t me.  I found out about her about the time we proposed moving in together.

The important part is that he asked me to come by his place and pick him up for our theatre date.

As I mounted the stairs to his second-floor apartment, I began to salivate.  Something delicious was cooking.  My stomach growled.  I hadn’t thought about eating before this date.  I was too nervous.  And something had happened in the anatomy lab that had put me off food for quite a while.

I wondered who could be cooking this mouth-watering meal.

Meal.  I hadn’t heard that word in so long, I had forgotten all about it.  The word, and the meal, too.

At that point in time, I had never had an actual meal in a restaurant except for a few memorable special occasions.  My idea of restaurant fare was a cup of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, if I was feeling flush; or just the soup, if I wasn’t.  Or more likely, a cup of coffee and a donut.  But an actual meal, with a salad followed by a main course, and maybe dessert?

Less than ten times in my life, certainly.

As I approached my new date’s door the aromas intensified to knee-weakening levels.  I knocked.

The sound of a chair scraping back, footsteps, and the door opened.  He was wiping his mouth with a cloth napkin.

“Come in, welcome, I was just finishing up dinner.”

Veal in white wine sauce, green beans–the skinny, tender rich-people kind, not the hefty, tough Kentucky Wonder pole beans I was raised on–little potatoes drowning in butter and rosemary….and he never offered me a bite, let alone a plate.  I was dazzled and puzzled all at the same time.  And hoping the noises emanating from my now convulsing stomach would not give me away.

Wow.  A man who cooked entire gourmet meals, just for himself!  (And didn’t invite his new date to partake…but having been raised to never ask for anything, that part escaped me for a few years, like, ten.)

I had just made the acquaintance of a Foodie.

The term hadn’t been coined yet, but I noticed after a while that his priorities differed from mine in certain key ways.

For instance, on our first anniversary we made Duck With Forty Cloves of Garlic, a recipe that involved hours of tedium to prepare and mere minutes to eat.  The menu was extensive.  And since it was, after all, our first anniversary, it included a moderately expensive bottle of champaigne.

The air was filled with the electric excitement of anticipation.  I couldn’t wait for the food to be over and the real meal to begin–and end–in the bedroom.

As it turned out, he enjoyed his meal at the table so much, and ate so much duck, and drank so much champagne, that he literally fell asleep with his face in his plate.

I’m sure there are other men in this world who prefer food over sex, but I have never personally met another one.

Here in West Bumfuck, North Carolina (a step up from Loafer’s Glory), there are so many hungry people that the food assistance programs are stretched to their limits to try to keep the most vulnerable populations–children, pregnant women, and the elderly–from outright starving.

The people of these mountains have been proudly hard-working, and self-reliant, for almost three centuries.  When they first emigrated from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales in the 18th Century, they disappeared into the hollows and coves.  They learned to grow corn, sorghum, beans, greens, chickens, pigs, milk-cows, and children.  The latter grew up relatively healthy except for occasional waves of measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, smallpox–giving rise to whole “baby sections” of the old cemeteries.

Things that could not be grown or made–gunpowder, saltpeter for preserving pig meat, salt, pepper, and tobacco–was got by twice-or-thrice yearly excursions over the mountain trails to the settled towns of Tennessee, leading mules laden with sorghum molasses, sourwood honey, dried beans, hams, and other tradable products, work of their hands and sweat of their brows.  And thus life continued until the coming of the roads in the early-to-mid-20th century.

With the roads came the mills and the mines, and with the new days of wages the “furriners” introduced the mountaineers to things that suddenly became coveted necessities–like ready-made clothing and shoes, printed calico fabric instead of natural-dyed homespun, patent medicines instead of the herbal remedies passed down the generations of settlers, and general stores full of all sorts of things that only people with paying jobs could afford.

But the paying jobs weren’t nine-to-five.  They were more like five-to-nine.  And there wasn’t time to raise a big garden and take care of things on the farm.  And the children had to go to school instead of minding the livestock.  So the family farm, and all its bounty, foundered in the wake of sudden prosperity.

Then came the Tobacco Allotment system.  Every family who owned land was guaranteed, by the US government, that if they planted a certain proportion of their land in tobacco, it would be sold at a predetermined price at the tobacco markets in Raleigh, Salem, and Winston, North Carolina.  Now you know where the cigarette names came from.

Tobacco became the chief sustaining cash crop for those who still clung to the old ways–raising a big garden, canning, preserving, “stirring off” a batch of apple butter in the fall–and tending their tobacco allotments all summer.  It was a poisonous job, not only because of the nicotine they absorbed through their skin (and mouths, and lungs, as they became addicted to the plentiful supply), but also because the pesticides required to fend off diseases peculiar to tobacco are particularly poisonous to people as well as to bugs.

I started coming to this mountain country in the 1970’s, seeking out the old ‘uns, the men and women already up in their 80’s, who remembered and still played the music of the pre-Bluegrass era.  I will put some of mine on one of these blogs sooner or later.

My parents eventually settled here, so I had more reasons to come down from the North during breaks.  The first thing I noticed, driving down from the Midwest, was the disappearance of the tobacco fields.  Then the textile mills stood empty with their windows gaping dark mouths.  Then the feldspar mines started laying off people, especially the mid-level engineers.

Where did it all go?

China.

In the place of the jobs and tobacco came first marijuana, a cash crop that grew well and fed families.  Then came the spotter planes and helicopters droning at night, looking for the characteristic heat signature of the marijuana patches, hidden in the hollers, just as its predecessor, the moonshine still, had been.  The crops were sprayed with Agent Orange and their growers, if caught, were hauled off to fill the penitentiaries, leaving their families in poverty and want once again.

Now we’ve got a new cash crop: meth.  It’s easy to make, I hear, and easier to sell.  I hear it brings in enough money to keep a family out of poverty, but there’s a hitch: the meth makers get hooked on their own product.  And the only thing a meth addict wants is more meth.  They will do anything for it, including prostituting their own children.  Including taking the food out of their children’s mouths.

See, the school teachers here noticed that more and more children were coming to school haggard, skinny, dirty, wretched…and their test scores were plummeting.  They were hungry.  They couldn’t learn.

They didn’t have the dollar it now costs for a school lunch, or the fifty cents for school breakfast.

Their parents were trading their food stamps for materials to make meth, and they weren’t hungry because meth takes away your appetite.  So there was no food in the house, and the parents didn’t care.

The community wanted to do something to help these children, so they started the “Backpack Program.”

Each Friday afternoon, the children get their school backpacks (donated, of course) stuffed full of nutritious food, to tide them over for the weekend.  These kids learn pretty quickly how to hide the food, even though they know it will buy them a beating, because otherwise their parents will trade the food for meth.  But at least the kids get to eat, even if they do come to school on what’s called “Black-and-Blue Monday.”

I didn’t really intend to go off on this tangent about the community where I currently live and can’t wait to leave, but there you go.  It’s where I live, and it’s what I see.  I don’t need to read USA Today to get an eyeful of the hunger situation.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, about 15% of Americans are “food insecure,” which literally means they don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

As a pediatrician practicing in this community, I have known whole families who subsisted on dry cereal, the sugary kind you can get in large bags in salvage food stores.  Without the milk, because milk was beyond their reach.  Not even the powdered kind that I grew up on, the watery blue lumpy liquid that I despised and was forced to drink, for my own good.

Lacking the most basic nutrients, the mothers were anemic.  The children were anemic.  The fathers worked two or three low-paying jobs, and were hollow-eyed and anemic.

So here we sit, a country that produces enough food to feed the entire world several times over every year–and one in six people are starving.

But not the Foodies.

Foodies, I have not written this article for the purpose of dumping on you, shaming you, or making you feel bad. You’ve earned your right to enjoy what you enjoy. It’s not like you’re harming anybody or taking food out of anybody’s mouth.

I’ve written it to highlight the truly unbelievable dichotomy between the haves and have-nots that is developing into something resembling a Dickens novel: “Please, Sir, may I have a little more?”

What would happen if, for every Porterhouse we grilled, we put aside 10% of the cost of the meat, to donate to a food assistance program?

How about doing like the religious Jews I lived with in Israel, who fasted one day a week and gave the money they would have spent on food for that day to one of the many food kitchens?  If that’s too radical, why not just donate the equivalent of the money you spend on what you eat for one day each week?

Foodies, and everybody else–when you’re in the grocery store, why not pick up a few cans of vegetables to bring to your local food bank, a bag or two of dried beans, some rice, dried potatoes–staples that will keep and not go bad–a few cans of canned chicken, Pork-n-Beans, stuff that you would probably never eat, but would fill some child’s hungry belly with protein and vitamins so they can grow and their brains can grow and learn and maybe even go to college and get a job and become…Foodies?