When you grow up poor, a good meal means a lot more than food on the table. That moment of gleeful, wanton excess is a freedom of sorts. It’s a declaration of equality: I can have this, too. We are just like everyone else. It is a bounty of hope as much as it is a bounty of nourishment.
Growing up poor, you likely have a simple palate. If your family has been poor for many generations and no one was an imaginative cook it can be dreadfully unrefined. And then there’s the quality – even if you grow your own fresh fruits and vegetables, as we did for much of my childhood, there’s the matter of the budget cuts of meat and the simple, filling starches.
But I loved those.
Things were tight before my parents divorced and even more so after, but my mom is Italian and feeding people is in her bones. She’s a mediocre, not great, cook (a better baker, which she freely admits) and our meals were simple peasant fare. The difference was that my mom mostly didn’t work when we were young and my parents were married, so she was home making dinner every day. I was spoiled with home-cooked meals and a mother’s loving touch in every simple offering. I had no idea how good I had it until the shocking days of food from freezer boxes and dented tins.
When the freezer meals and cans came along, things went into serious feast-or-famine mode. My mother had never handled a household’s money on her own, and she lacked my father’s frugal artistry. She got paid on the 15th and 30th, and the meals went from buffet-style feasts of overly salty and nutritionally bankrupt foods for three days following a payday to boiled hot dogs and canned peas on the day before the next one.
(And by the way, I get that these are first-world problems. My father refers to what I experienced as a child as “relative material poverty.” He would have made a great monk, my father. Unlike the rest of us, he got that there is distended-bellies-flies-in-your-eyeballs-likely-to-die-of-malnutrition-or-disease poverty and there is food-stamps-food-kitchens-healthy-as-can-be-but-wishing-just-once-for-restaurant-food poverty. We were definitely the latter.)
Sometimes the stars aligned and my mother got paid on a day when she wasn’t working her second or third job (yes, she had three, and yes, she is a saint). On those days her Italian roots had her peeling potatoes for my absolute favorite home-cooked meal, even to this day: sausage and potatoes.
This is a simple recipe. It includes sausage. And potatoes. And a bit of cooking oil to get the potatoes nice and crispy. Three ingredients, unless you’re going to be a stickler and count the salt and pepper. You dice the potatoes and use pork sausage, the kind that comes in a roll. Everything is dumped in a skillet and browned to perfection. It smells amazing and the carb and sodium levels are off the charts. (I would not advise hypertensive or diabetic folks attempt this meal.)
But man, is it good. My mom used to let the potatoes crisp right into the skillet and my favorite parts were the slightly burnt potato edges. They were greasy and delicious and tasted like the sausage. Yum. The sausage was so greasy it was nearly impossible to even brown, and it cooked in these delicious fatty clumps. Add ketchup and that dish is excitement in your mouth.
Watching the Soylent inventor on TV last night I thought of meals exactly like my mom’s sausage and potatoes. I thought of how selfish Americans are as a society that we invent “nutritionally perfect” foods to make the lives of Silicon Valley coders a bit more efficient when people are starving all over the world and eating sodium- and chemical-laden Hamburger Helper right here at home. I had a brief, passionate thought that we could actually feed the world with Soylent, too. Take it around to all the truly starving people at home and abroad and change their lives.
But number-crunching is far removed from how most human beings eat. A product like Soylent may be nutritious, but it provides only a fraction of what meals mean to us; fellowship, family, memories, cultural identity, socioeconomic status provide the rest. There’s the trade-off.
Writing this I realized I’ve never cooked my mom’s sausage and potatoes for myself or my family, not even once. And I’m still working out why that might be.
Because I try to eat healthy? Perhaps.
Because I don’t think I’ll cook it exactly like my mom does? That’s part of it, for sure.
In truth, I think it ‘s because it tasted better when I was truly poor. (Or as my father would correct me and say, “relatively poor by Western standards”). It’s not a bounty of hope anymore. There is no glee, no feeling of a come-up. It’s just a skillet meal. The magic is gone.