A lot of people are poking gentle fun at Gwennyth Paltrow's
attempt to create what she considers a reasonable diet from the SNAP allotment of $29 a week. Her recipes do look rather tasty. They are also impractical.
Look, I'm not the kind of person who derives cheap pleasure from insulting Hollywood celebrities. The low, catty remarks seen here
are not my style. I admire Paltrow's expressions of support for working women. Don't mock her: Mock the Marie Antoinette-types who gravitate toward the GOP. An affluent woman whose heart is in the right place beats an affluent woman with no heart at all.
That said: Paltrow's diet doesn't offer much in the way of calories. Her plan serves up 1000 calories a day. Laborers in Auschwitz got 1700 calories a day.
Paltrow bought seven limes and a head of lettuce. Ridiculous. Poor people don't buy limes, and they rarely buy lettuce.
Poor people do not buy food based on the kind of nutritional concerns that matter to the people in Paltrow's world. Desperate Cookery requires one to think very differently from the way successful people in Hollywood think.
If you are poor, calories are good. Fat is good. Carbs are good. Sugar is good. Meat protein is glorious
. Your job is to get as many calories, fats, carbs, sugars and dead animal chunks into your body as you can, for the least amount of money.
I know these things because I am poor myself, and have often had to feed two or three people on roughly $29 a week. Let's be clear: I'm not talking about $29 per person
, which was Paltrow's challenge. I know how to feed three adult human beings for that amount total
(Plus the dog. Bella ate meat every day. In fourteen years, there were only one or two days when she had to make do with rice cooked in bouillon.)
First and foremost: You need to plan your shopping strategy the way Ike planned the Normandy invasion. Be thorough; be thrifty. Every penny counts
. Seriously: If you can save nine cents on pasta, save the nine cents.
If you're poor, middle class gorcery stores are not for you. If you live in California, what you want are stores that cater to Hispanics. Does the sign feature a sombrero or a cactus? Are customers greeted with a blast of loud mariachi music? Welcome home!
If Store A has a special on veggies and Store B, a mile away, has a special on meat, walk that mile and shop at both stores. I said walk
. Use a backpack.
What you are looking for, first and foremost, are specials on these items: Chicken, potatoes, onions, rice.
Avoid bagged rice. Hispanic markets usually have binned rice that you scoop up and bag yourself, for less than 50 cents a pound.
Keep an eye out for specials on potatoes in ten pound sacks. Remember, you'll probably have to carry those potatoes with you as you walk a mile to get your chicken. Still, if you can get ten pounds for under three bucks, you've done well. Occasionally, stores have incredible deals -- ten pounds for $1.50 or thereabouts.
You're also looking for a bag of onions for a good price. Maybe two bucks.
Look for the cheapest prices on corn tortillas and salsa. Paltrow would have you make salsa yourself from fresh ingredients. Home-made is wonderful, but unless you find some specials (study the marked-down veggies), you'll probably do better to look in the cold foods section for pre-made salsa in plastic containers.
Home-made tortillas save money and taste great, but they do take time.
Your best friend is the humble chicken. Boneless breast meat is great, but don't buy it unless the price is very low -- two bucks a pound or under. Often, you are better off buying whole chickens. Low-end stores often have sales on whole chickens -- roughly a buck a pound.
So let's say five, six, seven dollars for your chicken. That's a feast.
You'll also want some cheap veggies. For poor people, this usually means carrots (unpeeled), Italian squash, canned corn (or on the cob, when in season), frozen or canned peas, or cabbage.
First night: Roast chicken with mashed potatoes. Simple and superb.
It is nice but not necessary to stick a lemon (or an orange or a lime) inside the chicken as it cooks. Swipe the citrus fruit from someone's tree. (Californians have plenty of opportunities.) Do not buy
the fruit: Not enough calories to justify the price. Learn to recognize fresh rosemary that you can scoop up for $0.00.
Preparation is easy: Rub the skin of the chicken with salt, pepper, garlic and any appropriate spices you may have. Cook very, very low for four or more hours. I don't care about crispy skin, but others do. How do you know when the bird is done? What you are looking for is the ability to rotate the drumstick freely, which tells you that the meat inside is incredibly juicy. The "low and slow" method of cooking means that you don't have to be very careful about cooking times.
At the same time, whip up some mashed potatoes. If you're serving three people, five potatoes of varying sizes should suffice. (You can mix real potatoes with the boxed stuff, but don't tell anyone.) Do not use real butter; nobody will taste the difference. Poor people buy large tubs of the cheapest spread available, and they make it last
Use the chicken juices to make a gravy -- a thick, stick-to-yer-ribs gravy, made with a roue (flour and oil) and some milk. You may want to toss in spices and a bit of onion.
Behold, the first night's bounty: Chicken and potatoes with thick, savory gravy -- perhaps with a side dish of carrots (one carrot per person, cooked in oil). This meal is wonderful
. If this is the last meal I have in this life, I shall die a happy man.
Unless the bird was tiny, you'll surely have enough meat left over for chicken tacos the next night. Make these with a can of refried or black beans, some cubed potatoes crispy-fried in oil with onion, and some of that salsa we talked about earlier. Swankpots will top these tacos with sour cream and cheese. If you have those items, great -- but go easy. You have to make these luxuries last.
Reserve some chicken meat to make up a small pot of chicken-and-rice for the dog. This concoction, which offers more meat protein than do most fancy kibbles, would keep my dog well-fed for several days.
At this point, most people would toss out the chicken carcass. Wrong!
Put the carcass (including skin and all of the icky bits) into a big pot of water (but not too
much water). Bring to a boil, then let it simmer for thirty minutes to an hour. This makes a wonderful, useful broth. Use a strainer to separate the broth from the bones, then rinse the carcass under cold water. You'll discover leftover bits of meat that you didn't know were there. Carefully pick these off and set them aside in a bowl: You'll be surprised at how much meat you were about to toss out.
(That bird died to keep you alive, and you dishonor the creature if you waste any part of its sacrifice.)
The third day is soup day.
Make the soup with broth, little bits of chicken, an onion or two, a cup of rice, a small handful of pasta, a bit of roue, and whatever veggies (fresh, canned, frozen) you may happen to have in the house. The pot will grow to a respectable size. Serve with bread, toast, or grilled cheese sandwiches. Yes, this soup is thick and starchy: Dr. Atkins would have hated it. But it fills you up and keeps you going, and it tastes good.
The next day, you'll have leftover soup for lunches.
Now buy another chicken and start the process all over again. You probably won't need to buy the other ingredients.
On the seventh day, serve pasta (cost: $1) topped with canned sauce (cost: $1). If you have some pork or beef to put into the sauce, thank the powers above. Serve with some sort of veggie and maybe some garlic toast.
Other "poor foods" include home-made chili over pasta or potatoes followed by chili-drenched hot dogs the next day. Also consider beef stroganoff (made with ground beef -- easier and cheaper), shepherd's pie, jambalaya, and breakfast-for-dinner. (Make pancakes from scratch. Cheaper than Bisquick.)
One of my favorite poor foods is frittata. You can get fancy-schmancy with frittata ingredients, but all you really need is frozen spinach, onion, a little cheese if you have it, and maybe some tomato on top. (Consider growing your own tomatoes and squash.) Any leftovers in your fridge -- even potatoes -- can slip into a frittata. For the dairy, you can use powdered milk as needed
. (Powdered milk is an important weapon in the arsenal of Desperate Cookery. Real milk often sours before you can use it all, and Desperate Cooks hate to waste even a single molecule.) Avocados on top are wonderful, but they can get pricey.
Some would suggest ramen for lunches. Maybe, but I hate that stuff. I prefer a bowl of pasta noodles served in a spartan "sauce" composed of nothing more than oil, butter, spices and parm (if you have it). A sprinkling of peas won't hurt. For an Asian equivalent, try sobe noodles in a sauce made of chicken broth, a scoop of peanut butter, soy sauce, garlic and ginger. (Actually, regular spaghetti noodles also work in that dish.)
If you must go the boxed mac-n-cheese route -- we all do it, and don't pretend otherwise -- get the store brand for 50 cents a box. Mix two boxes. Stir in butter, milk and real cheese if you have it. Again, peas won't hurt. If you have bread crumbs, use that as a topping and bake for ten minutes.
And that, my friends, is how you feed three
people for roughly thirty bucks a week. I am not skinny, and neither was my dog.