I Wasn't A 'Bad' Cook — I Was A Poor One

by Caila Smith
Originally Published: 
I Wasn't A 'Bad' Cook -- I Was A Poor One
Matt Seymour/Unsplash

I’ve always been “that” person who rolls up to barbecues with my infamous store-bought veggie and fruit trays. If I’m feeling really fancy, I might even pick up some Kroger-brand sugar cookies, put them into my own Rubbermaid container like the trickster I am, and call it a day. I guess you could say that I’ve never been one to boast about my cooking or baking skills, because quite frankly, I’ve been led to believe that I have about as much culinary expertise as that of a drunken monkey.

It’s not that I’ve yet to give cooking a real chance, because I have (the many burnt and undercooked casseroles my family has braved their way through is proof of that). It’s just that, up until recently, my family has lacked the time, space, and money needed in order to cook comfortably.

We’ve lived in a “fixer upper” (my gentle way of saying a real dump) for years with the hopes that we could remodel it to sell in the near-ish future. When my husband and I first moved in, we bought our stove and refrigerator secondhand from our neighbors for $50 combined, if that tells you anything about our financial situation. And while I would never judge a person because of something as materialistic as their home, finances, or even the quality of their meals, personally, my cooking and dysfunctional kitchen quickly became a source of shame for me.

Our kitchen was so old that, no matter how many hours we spent cleaning it, it still looked dirty. Plates would shatter regularly because we didn’t have the space for everything, and slicing onions meant sitting on the floor with a raised flat surface and a cutting board. And don’t even get me started on the hell that is hand-washing dishes for a family of six every single day.

Recently, though, things have started to look up for our family. We’ve paid off some debt, increased our income a bit, and my dream of restoring our kitchen has finally become a reality.

Throughout this season, I’ve learned something. After spending so much of my time believing that I was a bad cook without hope, it never occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t “bad” — maybe I was just poor and lacking what I needed.

This isn’t to say that poor people = bad food… not at all. It’s just that, for me, as someone who didn’t have what was necessary to cook in the kitchen, the funds to get me there, or the experience built from a lifetime of growing up with a cooking family, the result of my family’s financial brokenness didn’t allow me the tools required to learn much of anything.

I wasn’t able to afford the spices needed to add extra flavor and a little “zing” to dishes. I didn’t have good-quality meat. I didn’t have a dishwasher or the necessary plates, pots, and pans needed to cook for my big family. The oven was sketchy, the pantry and cabinet shelves were falling apart, and all of this made cooking for anyone feel like a complete impossibility.

My husband and I aren’t “rich” by any stretch of the imagination at this point. In fact, nearly all of our extra cash flow has been directed into renovating our house. We still have a strict budget, take advantage of the clearance section, and have our moments where we stress out over money. I’ll be saving my pitch for the Food Network until a later date — but for now, we’ve finally been able to fix our kitchen up in a way that allows for smooth and stress-free cooking.

To so many of us, food is comfort. Whether it be a holiday, birthday, or even just Gram’s Sunday brunch, we all have at least one memory of how a home-cooked meal made with love made us feel warm and fuzzy. For so long, I wanted to love my family in that way. And now that I’m able to and learning how to do that, I can’t help but wonder how many other families are sitting where I once was — on the kitchen floor, slicing onions and longing to do just about anything to simply cook comfortably and “normally” for their family.

An inability to work “harder” for the change desired isn’t the problem with people who are poor — poor people work hard for the things they have. Please, trust me, lower income families are anything but lazy. The problem is, it’s a struggle to obtain the things we need and desire when we’re constantly trying to catch up from last week.

Living paycheck to paycheck makes it difficult to go to the grocery store and buy more than a few days’ worth of food. Because of this, it makes one cringe to think that you will wind up spending more money on things like gas, transportation and food items of a lower quantity, just because you couldn’t get everything you needed at once.

What so many fail to realize rings true: it costs more money to be poor.

Sure, it’d be more cost-friendly in the long run for families to buy their groceries in bulk, but this is unrealistic when so many parents can’t pull themselves over a financial hump.

Feeding the family can become a day-to-day hustle, one that won’t even allow you to look toward tomorrow because there are hungry kids and an impossible kitchen to work with right now. From the get-go, being poor and cooking for your family can make you feel defeated before you’ve even begun.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Beyond seeing if your family qualifies for government assistance, churches, charities, Craigslist, furniture banks, and organizations such as Freecycle, an online group that allows members of communities to connect with those in need, are great resources available for a little extra help with appliances and everyday cooking needs.

Food insecurity is real, and it hurts. Having a dysfunctional kitchen is real, and it hurts. Knowing you will spend more money in the long run just so your kids can eat today is a real struggle, and it, too, hurts — parents have enough on their minds without worrying about how tonight’s meal is going to go.

We all move forward at our own pace and with a unique set of circumstances. But no matter our financial status, at the end of the day, we are all deserving of a warm, home-cooked meal made with love.

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