Unemployed and diagnosed with celiac disease, a millennial who must go gluten-free on a shoe-string budget embraces the concept of eating rich, living poor.
(Lowest food bill June 2008 to December 2008: $177)
It started disastrously. Three bare months before my partner and I moved, at the start of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, I was diagnosed with celiac disease. There was no cure, only a strict diet to be followed. No more gluten, which meant wheat, rye, or barley. Those three ingredients seemed to be in everything. No cookies, no crackers, no soups, no bread, no pasta, no potpies. Nothing. I couldn’t even add soy sauce to my stir fry. It was winter and the cold was already taking a toll on me. Long, cloudy months lowered my spirits. Winter cut through my jacket and bit at my bones.
It felt like starvation.
Those last months before moving are a blur, a struggle with rice and tepid ‘tamale’ pies, food tasting like ash under the weight of despair. I struggled saying goodbyes to friends, the comfort of a meal out or a potluck at someone’s house denied to me. I eked out what I could from a job I hated, trying desperately to balance need against meaning. It was snowing when we left.
The difference between March in Washington and April in California was a season. Spring was in full-throated bloom when we arrived, flowers and bird song permeating my mom’s home. Even as we scrambled to find a new place to live, being surrounded by family soothed something in me. The sunlight helped. My mother, who also had celiac disease, helped. The edge of terror that had been sleeping at the edge of my vision faded, melting into hope.
I wish that was the last of it. I wish I learned food again with my mother and then life went smoothly forward. But the spring we moved was the beginning of the economic crash. It took eight increasingly desperate months to find work.
That summer, my tomato sprouts died and we discovered that there wasn’t a single store in town that had enough gluten free food for me to survive on. We took long drives to San Francisco and the co-op there, stocking up a month’s worth of food at a time. I gritted my teeth at liquefying spinach and soft apples, furious at the waste as I bent to beg my family for help. I sweated my way through interview after interview as temperatures topped 100 degrees. Frustration kept my stomach in knots but still, my body healed.
The obsessive heat crushed me. It stole my determined optimism, sucked the heartiness from my spirit. It left me limp sometimes, trying to cover dizziness in interviews for jobs I wasn’t qualified for or had no interest in. I made myself fake it, pulling a mask of perkiness on and dropping it when I left the interview.
Some days, I didn’t want to get up. Some days, I sat at my computer and couldn’t make myself look at one more job site or send off another resume. Do it, I told myself, just do it. I fought the heat with bottles of water and the depression with a teeth-grinding stubbornness. If I didn’t have an interview, I would exercise or meditate or write. I forced myself to do something productive every single day.
Tomato Soup Recipe
1 yellow onion
2 cans of cannellini beans
1/2 cup of white wine or apple juice
1/2 tsp. each of salt, pepper, and oregano
1. Dice the onion and caramelize with
olive oil in a medium frying pan.
2. Cut up the tomatoes and add to the pan. Stir.
3. After about five minutes, pour the wine or juice into the pan.
4. Put the beans in a food processor and blend.
5. Once the liquid has reduced by a third, add the beans to the pan.
6. Add the spices. Taste. Let simmer for another five minutes. Serve.
I didn’t always make it. Some days, I curled up small and miserable. I gave up. I didn’t deny myself those moments; I acknowledged the weight of pain I was carrying. But the next day, I started over again.
Sometimes at the end of a day, all that kept me from crying was a small bowl of ice cream, the taste creamier than anything else I had tried in the years when dairy made me sick. Without gluten, every other food I hadn’t been able to eat was suddenly possible again. The first time I ate goat cheese, it smeared over my tongue and left me blissful with its sharpness. After seven years when a single piece of cheese left me sweating and sick, it broke something open in me to be able to eat again.
As the heat retreated and the first hints of the coming rain teased at the sky, I found work I loved as a tutor.
(Lowest food bill January 2009 to June 2009: $168)
The first Thanksgiving after giving up gluten filled me with gratitude. Living in the same state as my family meant a shared Thanksgiving dinner for the first time in years. I had learned, over the last 10 months, to dread going out. Potlucks no longer meant pleasure but deprivation. While friends feasted, I was forced to be content with carrot sticks. Even the dip on vegetable trays was a dubious mystery that I was unwilling to risk my health on. It’s fine, I told everyone. No problem. I like carrot sticks. Sometimes, I even convinced myself. Determination to make this time different pushed me to try my hand at some baking. I didn’t want to settle.
My apple pie was a two-part affair: the apples, which smelled perfectly like my childhood, and the crust, which flaked disappointingly. It fell apart as it was served, leaving me chagrined but resolved to do better. The gravy was made in a last-minute hurry as the table was set. I stirred the drained juices from the turkey into butter and rice flour; it thickened deliciously. Around the table, relatives blinked in surprise as they took bites of mashed potatoes and turkey. Across from me, my aunt smiled and pointed out the basket of gluten free rolls, the turkey, the green beans and salad, my sister’s butternut squash soup. Mashed potatoes and garlic mashed potatoes and cranberry and three separate pies that I could eat. I almost cried and felt rich again for the first time in months.
That winter was better.
(Lowest food bill July 2009 to December 2009: $139)
Buoyed by my success, I learned how to make vegetable stock from scratch. I filled the house with the smells of onion, carrots, and bay leaves for long days at a time. I read up on cold weather plants and grew sugar snap peas and radishes in the small patch I was cultivating in our front yard. That first taste as I picked them off the vine echoed the air around me: crisp and fresh, but unexpectedly sweet. By the time I pulled the radishes from the ground, I was living less desperately paycheck to paycheck. I poured myself into my work as I did into my garden, tending to struggles with math with the same attention I spent on freeing my geranium from weeds. The care I spent opened a space for something new to grow. My heart filled with young spouts and the sound of a child learning how to read. I was learning to sustain myself.
Growing food from seed was a magical experience. I tested the air and worried over weather reports before picking a day. I pressed seeds carefully into the ground, covering them and marking the spot in my mind. Each day, I pressed a finger into the soil to check for dampness, eagerly observing my cultivated patch. Were there sprouts yet? Was that a weed or the first sign of radishes? The leaves, when they came, were green ovals, easily distinguished from the long strings of creeping grass. I watched with happiness lightening my heart as they grew bigger, daring to pull one after two weeks to check their size. I carried my prize inside, washed it in the sink, and ate the radish raw right there in four quick bites. It left me glowing and accomplished.
Egg and Potato Salad Recipe
1 1/2 lbs. yellow potatoes, cooked and cubed
3 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
1 small red onion, chopped
3/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tbs. spicy mustard
Salt to taste
Combine, cool, and serve.
The year warmed again and I cooked. I taught myself to make bread without wheat or rye, to roast potatoes with onions and vinaigrette, to marinate tofu in spices and sauce. I nibbled cautiously on fresh beets and brought bundles of sweet peas to potlucks. My heart lifted each time someone bit into food I had made or grown and stopped in delight. Spearmint covered my garden and I brought handfuls inside and hung them up to dry. I took a deep breath every time I came home from work for a week solid, and then crumbled the leaves into a jar to keep for loose tea. Fumbling along, I taught myself what foods were in season in the spring and tried arugula for the first time. I tossed fingerling potatoes with a little butter and garlic.
I grew warm-weather food, too. I bought a six pack of tomatoes and planted them. I watched them like a hawk, lingering over the soil, checking for dryness or too much dampness. The sprinkler combated the heavy summer sun. I looked at the tomato leaves and rejoiced at the first small yellow flowers. Then, in June, green tomatoes began appearing in clumps. It astonished me that six plants could produce so much food. For months, I picked two or three tomatoes every week. I ate them on sandwiches and shared them with friends. I stir-fried them, sautéed them into sauce, froze them, roasted them slowly in the oven.
How to Roast Tomatoes
1. Preheat the oven to 425.
2. Cut off the tops and cut the tomatoes in half.
3. Brush the cut side with olive oil. Sprinkle a little salt or pepper on them.
4. Put the tomatoes face down on a cooking sheet and sprinkle on a little more olive oil.
5. Roast for 25-30 minutes until sweet.
This, I knew instinctively, was food done right.
(Lowest food bill January 2010 to June 2010: $110)
After that, the gains came in a flurry. I discovered that the cooperative where I shopped offered a 10 percent discount on any food bought as a case. I turned our unused laundry nook into a pantry and moved food in. Chili and rice cakes and refried beans filled the shelves. Even as gas prices spiked, bringing transportation costs to move food up as well, my food bill dropped. In July, I filled bell peppers with quinoa and roasted them in the oven. I made apple pie in September, and yam fries, sprinkled with parsley fresh from the garden, in November.
I got inspired about local food. Farmers markets, a staple before I moved, entered my life again. I learned that I could walk to our small town market on Saturdays and get food from two towns over. I discovered that there were U-pick farms for berries and peaches, apples and pears, tomatoes and pumpkins, right where I lived. Buying these foods felt like a gift, like an affirmation that food was life. I began to check the labels to find out where food came from, sticking mostly to food grown nearby. California, warm and geographically diverse, kept me fed locally year-round.
Buoyed by my successes, I turned the money I was saving back into my food shopping, the same way I turned compost into the garden and inspiration into the children’s lessons. Bulk foods became a sturdy cast-iron skillet. Ten percent discounts became a case of mason jars. I tried my hand at making strawberry jam and blueberry cobbler and watched with pleasure as it disappeared off the table at potlucks. I asked for a pressure canner and this year, when the harvest ripens, I will put away spaghetti sauce and green beans and anything else I please.
(Lowest food bill June 2010 to December 2010: $118)
It is winter again, everything cold around me, but I am content. Poverty didn’t starve me; it fed me. Soon, I will go outside and prune my apple trees and hope they bear fruit for the first time this year. Soon, I will take the pesto made from rich bunches of this summer’s basil out of the freezer and add them to corn pasta. Soon, I will open the seed catalogue and plan for radishes and spinach, carrots and tomatoes, dill and thyme. Soon, I will give thanks: for the diagnosis and the poverty that led to my DIY eating adventures. The taste of these years explodes on my tongue.
Melissa Welter is a 27-year old writer and gardener. This essay appears in the ebook collection Share or Die: Voices of the Get Lost Generation in the Age of Crisis, which is published by New Society (2012). A free version is available online at Shareable.