For The Folks Who Have Big Opinions About How Poor People Choose To Eat

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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We hear it all the time. “If poor people would just cook,” someone says, and they trail off, the implication being that if they’d just get off their lazy asses and use the damn stove to make meals from scratch, they wouldn’t be poor anymore.

In fact, there was a meme about this very topic that went viral. Sparkpeople called it the “Twenty Dollar Food Showdown”: basically, what can you get for 20 bucks at a fast food joint, and what can you get for twenty bucks at a respectable grocery store? (In one case, the meme shows what you can afford instead of a case of Bud Light, which is perhaps paternalism and classism at its finest).

The basic message? If poor people would stop buying this shit-ass convenience food, they wouldn’t be fucking poor. Dominos pizza, KFC bucket o’ chicken, Burger King Whoppers, frozen mozzarella sticks? No wonder you’re living paycheck to paycheck and behind on your rent, freeloader. Learn to fucking cook. This will solve all your life problems.

Except NOT.

There are many serious barriers to the “poor-people-should-just-learn-to-cook” argument. And I experienced them in graduate school when I was living in what Fight Club calls the “toxic waste part of town” on a shoestring stipend. We were determined not to ask our parents for money (though we had to, in the end, and a lucky resource they were — something many poor people don’t have is relatives to fall back on). We genuinely wanted to cook. We figured we would cook our meals.

Except we only had basic pots and pans. So we couldn’t make mac and cheese from scratch, the way my husband does — we were stuck with Kraft, because even Velveeta was out of our budget. Cook a whole chicken? That’s funny. When the food bank gave us a small turkey at Thanksgiving, we just laughed and laughed. Because to cook a turkey, you need a whole host of utensils, from aluminum foil to thermometers to carving knives to a container to cook it in.

We had nothing to brine it in so it didn’t end up dry. And even if we had managed to shove the turkey in our tiny-ass oven, we’d have had no room left in there to cook any sides. Like stuffing — which would had been Stovetop, because we couldn’t have afforded all the ingredients for homemade stuffing. Or sweet potatoes, which even we could manage to cook. And forget spices. We’d have had to go out and buy them — all of them but salt and pepper. We couldn’t even mash potatoes. You need a potato masher for that.

Drop those expectations for a kitchen down. Way, way, way down. We were wildly proud of the colander we scored at Goodwill. But Goodwill doesn’t sell good knives, or any other number of titchy kitchen tools in use of a regular basis now. Like a food processor. Or a working, adequate blender (we were too scared to drop money on one only to find it didn’t work).

And we were lucky. Our appliances worked, except for that one back burner on the stove. I once moved into an apartment without a stove, which saw us living out of the microwave until the landlord moseyed a half-broke, ancient appliance over to our place. And in both places, we actually had utilities. Many people in this country have their utilities turned off for nonpayment — and not because they didn’t cook. Because they didn’t earn an adequate wage. Because they lost the job they had. Because they missed work when they were sick and had no sick leave; because they were disabled. These people’s problems can’t be solved by a trip to the grocery store. They’re tied to McDonald’s and Dominos, to cold cereal.

Like many, we were hobbled financially. We were hobbled by our lack of equipment. And we were hobbled by something else: it’s not like anyone ever taught us to cook.

My roommate came from a single-parent household with a mom who worked ridiculous hours to afford all they needed to survive. His dinner was often a solitary bowl of ramen. I had come from a two-parent household in which mom cooked, and cooked well — but usually didn’t have time to cook because she was busy working and going to school at night, or working and then working another job.

Even if my mom did cook a sit-down meal, she cooked while I was doing mountains of homework. So I reached graduate school age without ever having touched raw meat that wasn’t bacon. I didn’t know what the fuck to do with a raw chicken. Or a turkey. So I ate convenience foods out of necessity — I didn’t know what to do with the real thing. And don’t throw the idea of recipe books at me. They would have presumed I had all sorts of gadgets and spices I couldn’t afford. Shit, I didn’t even have measuring spoons.

I also didn’t have time to cook. My husband is the cook in the family now, and we’re comfortable, with a well-stocked kitchen and the budget to shop at upscale grocery stores sometimes. But half the time, even he doesn’t have the time to cook from scratch, because he’s too damn busy with work and three kids and life.

Back then, I was too busy studying, running to my meager, less-than-minimum-wage-job (they can get away with that if they pay you a “stipend”), and hauling my exhausted self to class. Breakfast? Lunch? If I wanted to eat them, they were quick and instant, not slow and from-scratch. I had neither time, patience, nor energy. Just like we often don’t have time, patience, or energy these days. Which is why I don’t begrudge someone for making the same Dominos run I’m calling in to save us all from cooking.

You need money to buy the supplies. You need basic equipment. You need working appliances, and that means working utilities. Hell, you need a damn house, and many poor people are lacking that, or existing in a shared living situation that makes cooking impossible. You need energy and time. And you need some basic cooking knowledge to, well, fucking cook. Suddenly, when your lights are out, that KFC looks real good, doesn’t it? In fact, who hasn’t had a fast food party on the floor while the power’s out and you want to make it seem festive and fun for the kids? Like nothing’s wrong? Like you’re not worried, or scared, or wondering when the hell the lights will come back?

And who hasn’t come home after a long day of work and relaxed with a glass of wine? Poor people deserve their recreation too, be it box wine or Bud Light. No one’s advocating alcoholism, but lots of people like to relax with a glass of alcohol, especially when the rest of your life is gone to shit and your job sucks and you ache all over from said job and your kids are screaming and you just want a break, okay?

Poor people are like you and me. I’m the same person I was when I was broke in graduate school. They’re just — poor. And just like I can’t solve my life problems by cooking from scratch now, or baking my kids cakes instead of feeding them Little Debbies, the poor can’t fix their entire existences by cooking. That isn’t the answer. So get off your classist high horse, look some actual people in the eye, and realize something very important: there but for the grace of God go I.

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