Ed Murrieta has always made a living from food: In his parent's restaurant, as a food writer and restaurant critic, as a baker and food-marketing consultant. His longtime relationship with food changed dramatically last fall. He lost his job. Now, he survives on $200 a month in food stamps, with "neither shame nor deprivation."
As a professional assignment, writing about a thing such as shopping and eating on a budget is abstract. As a gut-punching, ego-bruising, bank-busting predicament, eating on the food lines is real. After six months of it, I still feel the occasional memory pang of expense-account indulgences gone by, but I don't cry in my cabernet.
Murrieta recognizes the irony of a food critic on food stamps. He sees his predicament as more challenge than calamity.
I relish the creative challenge of making canned food interesting. A can of chicken meat became my own version of Costco's Chicken Bake, with Caesar dressing and Parmesan cheese from the Dollar Store. That can of "Pork with Juices" became my poor-man's rillettes.
Some meals are no-brainers. Sliced ham, eggs and English muffins screamed eggs Benedict with homemade hollandaise.
Other meals are less creative but no less satisfying after a day of the manual labor I perform in exchange for my rent: cans of beef stew and chili on toast, or tomato soup laden with crackers and globs of mozzarella cheese.
The economy may be on the mend, but the casualties of this recession continue to mount. Countless people who never expected to apply for government help now have no other choice. In his piece in the Seattle Times, Murrieta admits he's one of the lucky ones: "Though it's not without its labors and worries, life on the food lines tastes pretty good, from where I sit. But I know that feeding myself with my own money would taste a whole lot better."