Eating Rich, Living Poor

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Illustration By Naomi Lees-Maiberg
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.

First, Gather Your Fruits

(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
        6 tomatoes
        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

As the heat retreated and the first hints of the coming rain
teased at the sky, I found work I loved as a tutor.

A Gluten-Free Thanksgiving

(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.

Growing Food From Seed

(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.

Eating Local Food

(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.

Eating Rich, Living

(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

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