Never Hungry: Food, Class & Passing
Recently a good friend of mine wrote about her relationship to food as a class issue. It inspired my own thoughts on the subject. I have a complicated mixed-class background. This work in progress is one small piece of sorting it out. Also, I originally posted on the VanDyke Scribes blog. Revised and reposted on March 19.
I don’t ever remember being hungry, even during those two winters in that trailer without any heat. My mother made sure, at least, that our bellies were full. There was that one week where we had nothing but red beans and rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Other times, it was generic mac and cheese with cut-up hot dogs floating here and there. Frozen broccoli with cheese sauce. White bread and bologna sandwiches. On the side, watered-down grape kool-aid that stained my lips, sweet tea on Sundays.
Sometimes, we had food stamps, and I would hear my mother complain with the other grown-ups in the trailer park: “Damn, we eat better on food stamps than off of them.” She desperately wanted to be off of them altogether. She was ashamed of paying with the little play money stamps, even though most everyone else in line behind us at the neighborhood grocery was doing the same. But “eating better on food stamps” meant the cupboards weren’t bare, meant we didn’t have to eat our cereal with water instead of milk. We would go to the day old bread store, where boxes and boxes of Little Debbies were only fifty cents each. She’d make sure to get the oatmeal cream pies, not just the fudge brownies with walnuts on top that I loved, because “oatmeal is good for you.” “Eating better on food stamps” didn’t make the food much more nourishing; there was just more of it. “Better” meant cabinets stocked with canned vegetables and cheap spaghetti sauce in jars, maybe a bag of apples on sale. I hated apples.
At my dad’s house, there were always fresh, ripe plums, piles of them in the little hanging basket in the pantry alcove. I would sneak these, thinking I would get in trouble for eating too many when I’m sure they were an expensive treat. Every other weekend, my mother would drive me and my brother an hour and a half to the designated halfway point between our house and my father’s. My father had married my stepmother, married into a new class. At the time they were struggling grad students, the temporary, genteel sort of poverty that is for people on their way to becoming professors. My stepmother had refined tastes. She knew how to cook vegetables. She made things no one had ever heard of in the trailer park.
I loved the way these new foods tasted: rice pilaf, hummus, artichoke dipped in aioli, the lime-flavored fizzy water stocked in the fridge. Never the same thing for dinner two nights in a row, and always a salad on the side with homemade oil and vinegar dressing. There was a farmer’s stand on the corner, and that’s where the tomatoes came from. I learned the words “vine ripened.” My brother hated tomatoes and would pick out the juicy wedges from the salad, leaving more for me. I would sprinkle them with extra salt and guzzle them like delicacies.
The fresh vegetables and whole grains came along with rules. My stepmother taught all of us the “right” way to set the table – fork to the left of the plate, on top of the folded napkin; knife to the right, blade turned in. Then napkin in the lap, elbows off the table, mouth closed. I was good at following the rules. We turned off the television. We learned how to have polite conversation.
At my mother’s house, she came home from work, exhausted. My brother and I had let ourselves in hours earlier. Sometimes, when there was enough money, we had a babysitter whose main job was to keep my brother from locking me in the closet. Most of the time, we were alone. Seven, eight, nine years old – my mother would call and give me step by step instructions to make the meatloaf. She’d get home an hour later, would leave a trail of clothes in the living room where she stripped and discarded her pink-collar office drag from her temp job. Her heels always by the door, then her suit jacket on the pale blue recliner, her skirt on the floor next to it, blouse tossed over the worn-out plaid sofa. Finally she’d peel off her pantyhose and pad across the linoleum to finish up dinner in her half-slip and bra. We would eat in the living room off of TV trays, watching Star Trek and the Tracy Ullman Show, laughing and talking between bites of meatloaf and instant mashed potatoes.
I once was married to a man who had grown up comfortable – not wealthy, not by any stretch, but solidly middle class. We were living on one salary, mine, while he was finishing his degree. Now and then he would call us poor. Our budget was tight, it’s true, but we had plenty. I snapped. “You don’t know what poor is.” He didn’t understand why I was so bothered when he ate mac and cheese straight out of the pot. He and I fought over this more often than I’d like to admit. One night I finally spat, “Only poor trash eat out of the pot,” surprising myself with the extent of my rage.
I have absorbed the lessons of my father’s table so well. A well-set table feels like home to me, more than those TV trays I ate off of for years. My favorite foods are stolen from the menus of the every-other-weekend dinners. I thought this was a betrayal of my mother’s memory, of the life she fought so hard to provide for us in the trailer park. But she didn’t want that life. My father taught us one set of rules; my mother another: “We might be poor, but we’re not trash,” she said often enough that it is burned into my memory, with her voice, her inflection still echoing, even though she died years ago. I absorbed her lessons, too, of pride masking shame. Between the two of them, I learned how to pass.
My present lover was raised working class. Late one night, our bodies wrapped around each other in the bed we share, she tells me she is sometimes nervous about eating with other people. This is one of many reasons I feel so safe with her. Dinner parties, meals out, potlucks: so much social activity revolves around food and shared tables. I relate to feeling embarrassed, not always knowing what something is or not knowing if I’d like it. Knowing I’m supposed to like it. Not knowing how to cook vegetables. Not knowing the difference between kale and chard, not knowing what the hell to do with this butternut squash someone gave me from their backyard organic garden. I’m learning. We teach each other. We are growing a mint plant in a pot, in the one sunny spot in the kitchen window, and my lover picks the mint leaves and rolls fresh spring rolls. I steam broccoli, tender carrots, zucchinis from the farmer’s market, serve them over pasta and homemade red sauce. Sometimes we sit at the table. Sometimes we take our plates into the living room and eat while watching television. We always, always talk and laugh between our bites.