God, I'm rusty in the kitchen.
A few months ago Tom Sietsema, the restaurant critic for the Washington Post, wrote a great essay about getting back in the habit of hosting dinner parties, and compared cooking to a language he hadn't spoken in a while, one which had fallen out of practice.
Last night, I was made keenly aware of how much my cooking skills had atrophied. Because my job necessitates eating out probably five nights a week, and the other nights I'm busy writing or just tired and go with takeout or something simple like cheese, salumi, and bread. I hadn't cooked a proper dinner for myself for several months, and I'd forgotten how much time and effort it takes to make nutritious and/or satisfying meals.
See also: S.F. Food Bank's Hunger Challenge: Day 1
I planned to eat garbanzo beans and roasted potatoes with soft-boiled eggs on top, inspired by the Amateur Gourmet's recent post about easy chickpeas. So I took the bag of raw chickpeas that I'd bought at Rainbow over the weekend ($2.31/pound) and got to work.
It was a disaster. The chickpeas wouldn't soften, no matter how long I simmered them; as 6 p.m. slipped to 8, the chickpeas were still crunchy and I was getting hungry. I then did two things I'm not particularly proud of: I accepted my roommate's offer of a Campari & soda, and I fried two eggs in olive oil and ate them with fried potatoes. I survived, but yesterday's diet of toast with peanut butter, a McDonald's sandwich (my first in several years), and fried eggs and potatoes was not the most nutritionally sound.
The eggs and potatoes did give me the fortitude to finish the chickpeas, put together a fruit salad, and stew some of the riper strawberries with a pinch of sugar and some orange juice and zest to keep them from spoiling. All in, including cleaning up and prepping this morning (and partly due to my incompetent bumbling), putting my meals together was about three hours of work. I couldn't imagine doing it all juggling two jobs, or with children underfoot.
As my chickpeas boiled last night, I had some time to reflect on my role in the Hunger Challenge. I can't shake the uncomfortable feeling that I'm a tourist in this whole endeavor. My regular lifestyle, as a restaurant critic and single thirtysomething in San Francisco, is ridiculous and indulgent by anyone's standards, and I'm very aware that choosing to live on a limited food budget for five days is nothing like doing it out of necessity. I have a flexible, salaried job that allows me plenty of time to go home and cook; a large, well-appointed kitchen to cook in; and I don't have to worry about making rent or feeding a family. If I forget my lunch or get stranded somewhere, a sandwich is just a swipe of my debit card away. Most of all, I know this is temporary. While the exercise might inspire me to cook a bit more on my evenings off, next week I literally have to go back to eating at restaurants most nights or risk losing my job.
But the Hunger Challenge does seem like a worthwhile endeavor, despite my reservations. More than 200,000 people rely on CalFresh (California's SNAP program) in San Francisco, Marin, San Mateo, and Alameda counties -- that's a lot of Bay Area residents who don't know where tonight's, or next week's, dinner is coming from. Tourism is dilettantism to a certain extent, but it's also a necessary first step to understanding different cultures and ways of living. It beats staying home, unless staying home is the point.
As a food writer, I mostly tell people who have disposable income where to spend their money. But I also try to think about the bigger issues facing food systems and ways to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots. I'm looking forward to exploring that aspect of my job this week.