Last night I finally managed to make a functional meal for myself, after hitting a wall around 5 p.m. and realizing how much I needed a good dinner, both physically and psychologically. I still had about $10 left in my budget, and chicken legs were $3 for 6 at Safeway with my club card, so I dredged them in a bit of seasoned flour, roasted them up, and served them with some sauteed kale and the now-ubiquitous beans and rice. It was the first meal I'd eaten on the challenge that was truly satisfying, and I started to feel like I was getting the hang of this whole thing. If I had another week, I think I'd be a lot better at planning ahead and understanding how to make leftovers stretch into other meals.
I've been talking with a few of the chefs doing the challenge about their experience, and I'm surprised and gratified to hear that we're all kind of on the same page and having similar experiences, even though we're approaching it from different backgrounds. I've had long, insightful conversations with both Lincoln Carson, corporate pastry chef of the Mina Group (follow him on Twitter and Instagram), and Ryan Pollnow, chef de cuisine of Central Kitchen (follow his adventures on the 20th Street Corridor blog). Though we all think about food more or less all day, every day, none of us have spent much time thinking about the lack of it, and we all described the experience as "eye-opening" more than once.
Both chefs were better prepared than I was going into the challenge, which is hardly surprising. Carson spent Sunday comparison-shopping at Safeway, Whole Foods, the Berkeley Bowl, and a farmers' market in Oakland to find the best deals on everything. He says that Safeway wasn't always the cheapest, surprisingly -- some produce was cheaper and better at Whole Foods, and he bought organic frozen peas at a lower price than Safeway had conventional ones. Carson made a brilliant move in getting a pack of bacon, a $5 splurge that has come in handy. He used it to flavor pasta the first day, in his hoppin' john the second, and in breakfast-for-dinner last night. If I were to do it over again, bacon seems like a smart move as a protein that also can add flavor to the food.
Flavor's something that we're all struggling with. Pollnow pointed out that it shouldn't be called the "Hunger Challenge" as much as something like the "Food Enjoyment Challenge" -- keeping yourself from starving is one thing; keeping yourself from starving while eating stimulating, entertaining, and nutritious food is another thing altogether. On his Instagram of last night's breakfast-for-dinner, Carson echoed Pollnow's sentiment: "Honestly it's been tough trying to come up with food that is tasty, satisfying, and healthy on a SNAP budget."
Pollnow's been doing pretty well though, at least compared to me, in terms of making exciting food. The chef went back to Central Kitchen on Monday, spread out his supplies from the Food Bank, and decided on his menu for the week. He's been building meals around chicken noodle soup, based on a stock from the bones of three chicken legs he purchased at a local market in the Mission, and a rustic beef stew made with a half-pound of the cheapest ground beef he could find. He thought of ways to stretch his food that I didn't, like making a stock out of the chicken bones and pickling the watermelon rind (I threw mine in the compost).
It reminded me of a discussion Carson and I had about where to draw the line at "cheating." Carson said that he easily could have made a pastry out of the Food Bank plums, some flour, and other basic pastry ingredients, but was refraining because he felt that his specialized skills from a career in the kitchen weren't something that the average person would have. Pollnow had the same thought as he pickled watermelon rind. For me, it's mostly been a question of how far to stretch the things in my pantry. Is it okay to use all the spices I have, even if it's expensive sea salt or olive oil, or to use fairly frivolous kitchen items like my immersion blender? The issue is hardly black-and-white, and it's been interesting to see how we're all shading it differently.
I asked both chefs how they thought the Hunger Challenge would change things when they returned to their regular lives on Saturday. "It couldn't not change things," Pollnow says. "I will never go to a grocery store and have the same mentality or mindset that I had before." He's kicking around the idea of teaching cooking classes for people on a budget through Central Kitchen or the Food Bank, covering things like how to use ingredients to their fullest and how to make the most of the small amount of money that's provided.
Carson says that he's worked on several events raising money for hunger-fighting charities, and this experience has deepened his understanding of what his work on those events means. "I realize that though I barely scratched the surface of what so many have to live with and make do with, I have a little more understanding and a lot more empathy with what people are dealing with," he says. "One thing that is certain is it has renewed my commitment to helping to raise both awareness and money to fight hunger issues, through fundraising events like Killed by Dessert [an event co-founded with colleagues Bill Corbett, Michael Laiskonis, Christina Tosi, Brooks Headly, and Francisco Migoya] ... I'd like to get involved with the education aspect as well."
As for me, I'll have to see how the experience plays out when I return to life as a restaurant critic. It's certainly been a reminder that the so-called "cheap eats" that I write about aren't affordable for the 1 in 4 residents facing the threat of hunger in San Francisco and Marin counties (according to the S.F. Food Bank); even $5 for a meal is out of reach for someone who has less than $5 to spend for the whole day. Beyond that, it's reminded me that writing about food comprehensively also means writing about the people who go without, the ways in which our food system is broken, and the ways that we can work together to find solutions.