One summer I subsisted on potatoes cooked over a hot pot. We fried them, we mashed them, we boiled them, and then drenched them in salt and butter. Brooklyn Gas cut us off because we were delinquent with the bill or we hadn’t paid it at all. To say that we lived in fear of the specter that was Con Edison was an understatement. Sometimes our lights flicker and flare out for days–just for fun, just for kicks–and as soon as the money order was mailed and cashed, we hide light. Money was a miracle, the altar to which we prayed. In money we trust. Our father, thou art in heaven. Make it rain, make it hail crisp bills and silver coins. We lived in a perpetual state of white-knuckling; we flipped switches, gripped the knobs of television sets, because once the lights went out it would take an unimaginable sum of money to turn them back on. We were told that men would have to come, although they never did, and these are the consequences of being poor, the kind of poor where you get imaginative with a bag of potatoes and a stick of butter. The kind of poor where you sometimes stayed with friends because the lights were cut again. Apartments were a revolving carousel of light and dark, and back then we tacitly understood that you didn’t fuck with the utilities.
The summer we lived on potatoes my mother made an average of $7 in tips per day in a diner off New Utrecht. Back then, Fourth Avenue was lined with people trying to sell you things that were hot: stolen radios, televisions with foil wrapped around the rabbit ears, and old board games like Monopoly or Parcheesi. One Saturday I stood on Thirteenth Avenue and offered up the contents of our home–the things with which we could depart: posters of flowers in glass frames and figurines purchased in Chinatown. I suspected people bought my wares because I was the small mute girl who blushed and cowered when spoken to, and I remember counting a few bills and feeling the weight of the coins in my terry shorts.
That was also the summer when I wore blue jelly shoes.
When we were flush, when $7 turned to $25, the first thing my mother and I did was go grocery shopping. Someone once asked me if I have any remaining fond memories of my mother, and it occurred to me, only recently, that we shared an affection, an evangelical fervor, for grocery shopping. We loved the supermarket! We loved a fast cart and the gleaming aisles and fresh meat wrapped in plastic. We loved the phosphorescent hues of Cheese Doodles and sour cream and onion chips. And my god, did we LIVE for canned spaghetti and Chef Boyardee. When times were really good and my mother hustled for extra tips, we went to the butcher on New Utrecht and purchased paper thin veal, pork and chicken cutlets–all of which we’d fry up and serve with heaping spoonfuls of boxed mashed potatoes.
Can I tell you the best part of grocery shopping? It was the moment we got home and unpacked the bags and wondered what we should eat first. There was so much food! We wanted a little of everything. A handful of chips and a Chips Ahoy soft cookie. That first night we ate like kings and collapsed in our beds with stomach pain.
While I spent the whole of my adult life trying to escape the kind of life I had and the people we were, I realized that the glee from food shopping has never abated. While I’m privileged to have the means to buy organic produce and grass-fed beef, I still love the ritual of unpacking the bags, storing the food, and eating a little of all of it. Even now, even after all this time. I guess it reminds me of a time when food and electricity were luxuries. We were grateful for what we had when we had it because who knew if we’d go back to bags of potatoes again?
I love how this habit has kept me humble, reminds me of where it is I’ve come–even if I’ve traveled far away from the girl I used to be.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe from the Oh She Glows Cookbook
1 tbsp (15 mL) coconut oil or olive oil
1 1/2 tsp (7 mL) cumin seeds
1 yellow onion, diced
1 tbsp (15 mL) minced fresh garlic
1 tbsp (15 mL) minced peeled fresh ginger
1 green serrano chile pepper, seeded, if preferred, and minced
1 1/2 tsp (7 mL) garam masala
1 1/2 tsp (7 mL) ground coriander
1/2 tsp (2 mL) ground turmeric
3/4 tsp (4 mL) fine-grain sea salt, plus more as needed
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
1 (28-ounce/793-g) can whole peeled or diced tomatoes, with their juices
1 (28-ounce/793-g) can chickpeas, or 3 cups (750 mL) cooked chickpeas
1 cup (250 mL) dry/uncooked basmati rice, for serving
fresh lemon juice, for serving
fresh cilantro, chopped, for serving
In a large wok or saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. When a drop of water sizzles upon hitting the pan, reduce heat to medium-low and add the cumin seeds. Stir and toast the seeds for a minute or two until golden and fragrant, watching carefully to avoid burning.
Raise the heat to medium and stir in the onion, garlic, ginger, and serrano. Cook for a few minutes or so, then stir in the garam masala, coriander, turmeric, salt, and cayenne (if using), and cook for 2 minutes more.
Add the whole peeled tomatoes and their juices and break them apart with a wooden spoon (skip if using diced tomatoes). You can leave some chunks of tomatoes for texture.
Raise the heat to medium-high and add the chickpeas. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes or longer to allow the flavors to develop.
Serve over cooked basmati rice, if desired, and garnish with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and some chopped cilantro just before serving.