Photo by Marcia Sloane
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2013)
“Once, during prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.” W.C. Fields
This just in: Ben Affleck, the movie star, is going to try to survive for five days spending only one dollar and fifty cents per day on food. He is lending his celebrity to the Live Below the Line Campaign to bring attention to the plight of millions of people in America and hundreds of millions of people around the world who try to survive on a dollar-fifty or less for food every day of their lives. Several celebrities I’ve never heard of (I’m old and don’t watch television) are joining Affleck along with twenty thousand other Americans voluntarily partaking of the five-day ordeal. The organizers of the event recommend that anyone wishing to attempt this amazing feat spend their entire budget of $7.50 at the start of the five days by purchasing “pasta, lentils, rice, bread, vegetables, potatoes and oats.”
Clearly, these folks don’t shop where we shop. Pasta? Forget it. Largely empty calories and too expensive. Bread? Are you kidding? At nearly six dollars for a decent loaf? Vegetables? Maybe a few carrots won’t bust the budget. Potatoes? Perhaps a russet or two. Oats? No way. Much ado about nothing. Rice? Brown rice. Yes. A big yes. Lentils? Sure, but be prepared for profound farting, and in lieu of lentils, how about pinto beans with that same fart disclaimer.
Eating for $1.50 a day would be a much more meaningful exercise if the well-fed Affleck tried to live on that amount per day for five weeks or five months, but I salute him for helping illuminate the plight of so many of our fellow earthlings. I mentioned to Marcia that Ben was going to be making this incredible sacrifice for five whole days, and she, too, reasoned that rice and beans were the way to go if Ben wants sufficient sustenance for so little money. In surmising how we would try to survive on such a small food allowance, Marcia and I are limited in our thinking by our adherence to buying organic produce, so our $1.50 purchases almost nothing. Yesterday, for instance, I bought three navel oranges, six big leaves of kale, and a little bag of millet flour, and my bill was eight bucks. So…
“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” George Bernard Shaw
When I lived in Berkeley, I worked for a wonderful woman named Helen Gustafson who was, among many other things, the tea buyer at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ famous eatery. I was Helen’s part-time editor and secretary for several years until her death in 2003, her obituary in the New York Times proclaiming Helen to be the tea pioneer most responsible for fine green and black tea being served in the many good restaurants in America now serving such tea.
Helen had carte blanche at Chez Panisse and took me to lunch and supper there on numerous occasions. I would never have taken myself to Chez Panisse because a simple meal in that groovy joint cost as much as I spent on two-weeks-worth of groceries, and if my meal included a glass of wine and dessert, make that three-weeks-worth. Because everything was free to us at Chez Panisse, Helen ordered lavishly and encouraged me to do so, too, but I couldn’t. Knowing that the diminutive ultra-delicious goat cheese salad cost as much as a belly-busting three-course meal at nearby Vegi Food (Chinese) made it impossible for me to order much at all, so Helen would order several appetizers, two or three salads and two or more entrees, and then delight in watching me eat my fill.
The wine I drank at Chez Panisse, the only white wine I have ever liked, cost twenty-seven dollars a glass and induced in me a state of well being akin to swimming in a high Sierra lake after a long hot hike. I am allergic to alcohol, more than a sip of wine usually makes me ill, but my allergy did not manifest when I drank that particular French wine, the name of which I intentionally chose not to remember.
I liked to walk home after dining with Helen at Chez Panisse, the downhill jaunt to the house I rented in the Berkeley flats enhanced by my mild hallucinatory state courtesy of that particular French wine and the delectable comestibles combusting so agreeably in my organically bloated tummy. Helen always insisted I take home the sizeable amount of food (and several handmade chocolate truffles) we had not consumed in the course of our feasting, and it became my habit to invite my neighbors over to partake of the Chez Panisse leftovers that they, too, would never buy for themselves.
Thus there was secondary feasting on the fabulous fare, minus the magic wine, with much oohing and ahing and marveling at the culinary delights usually reserved for the wealthy. One of my neighbors, a great amateur chef who volunteered to cook several meals a month at a homeless shelter, savored each little bite he took of the Chez Panisse ambrosia, attempting to discern the spices and secret ingredients that went into making such delicacies.
“So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being.” Franz Kafka
In 1970, in Mexico and Guatemala, almost every day for six months, my traveling companions and I encountered people who did not have enough food. When it was safe and feasible to do so, we shared our food with these people and gave them a little money, but on a number of occasions we found ourselves in villages where everyone was desperately hungry, and the fact that we had a little food and the villagers had no food made it necessary for us to skedaddle pronto.
One day we arrived in a remote village in Mexico adjacent to some Zapotec ruins we hoped to explore, and were greeted by a group of men who were so hungry their growling bellies sounded like a chorus of bullfrogs. Their leader demanded we pay him a large sum if we wanted to see the ruins. “We are starving,” he said to me, murder in his eyes. “The government promised to send food, but no food has come. We thought your van was the government truck.” I apologized, gave him the equivalent of ten dollars, and we sped away before the angry men could surround the van and keep us from leaving.
I was forever changed by those six months among so many desperately hungry people. Today I know several people who spend their winters in Mexico and Central America, enjoying the warmth and inexpensive food and lodging, but I would not feel right doing that because I know too well that my government’s agricultural and economic and political policies are largely responsible for the massive suffering in those countries. I am also no longer comfortable with culinary extravagance, which always reminds me of the hungry little boys who followed me everywhere in Mexico and Guatemala, starving children hoping I would buy them some bread.
“The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.” Calvin Trillin
My housemate for two of my eleven years in Berkeley was a cook at a popular restaurant. She was unquestionably the finest cook I have ever had the pleasure of cleaning up after. Though she gave me no formal training, I learned many things about cooking from watching her perform in our kitchen. She was an extremely private person and we spoke very little in the two years we lived together, though we shared hundreds of exquisite meals she prepared, mostly late morning breakfasts and late evening suppers. She concocted her dishes using whatever she found in the larder, some of which she bought, some of which she got from the restaurant where she worked, but most of which I purchased. And though she rarely told me what to buy, I knew that if I kept our cupboards and refrigerator stocked with promising ingredients, especially fresh vegetables, she couldn’t help but produce the most delectable meals.
She was a bold improviser and an absolute wizard with spices. She had four frying pans—seven, eight, ten, and twelve inches in diameter—and often employed all four in the making of a dish or dishes to go with the brown rice I cooked. She said I made good rice, and because I considered her a culinary master, her assessment of my rice made me feel talented and worthwhile.
One evening I came into the kitchen and saw that in her smallest pan she was browning almond slivers, in her other small pan she was sautéing diced onions and garlic in sesame oil, in her medium-sized pan she was simmering cauliflower in a red wine sauce, and in the large pan she was fast-frying a great mass of spinach leaves in olive oil and water, all this to be combined with eggs and other ingredients to create a stupendous frittata-like thing. And I remember thinking as I watched her cook: she never hurries and she is entirely free of doubt and fear.
“A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.” W.C. Fields
I hope Ben Affleck is positively transformed by his experience of eating for five days on $1.50 a day. If I could speak to Ben before he begins his five-day experience of Spartan eating, I would say, “Simmer a few cloves of chopped garlic in olive oil and pour that over your brown rice. Don’t forget cumin and ginger and turmeric to make your rice and beans more interesting. And while you’re counting the hours before you go back to dropping two hundred bucks on dinner for two, watch the movies Big Night and Mostly Martha. With luck and skill and inspiration, maybe one day you’ll make a great food movie that is more than a food movie and uses food to open our minds and hearts to the fantastic powers of compassion and creativity.”