The 2009 Hunger Challenge Day 5: Unreasonable Facsimile

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I’m taking the San Francisco Food Bank’s Hunger Challenge – trying to feed my husband (the Bottomless Pit) and myself for just $4 each per day. And, newsflash! Thanks to thousands who twittered these hunger facts, Tyson is sending 100,000 pounds of food to the San Francisco Food Bank!

It’s really a no-brainer. Quality ingredients make a huge difference in the final result of a meal. But when you use good ingredients all the time, you just tend to forget how crucial they are. The BP and I each had a slice of bacon ($.14 per person) for breakfast. That bacon should have been a treat – but instead, it was our cheap Hunger Challenge bacon. “This tastes like a piece of paper dipped in oil and rolled in salt,” the BP said. Well put. Fortunately, we each had a perfectly good bowl of oatmeal ($.10 pp), with a shared banana ($.13 pp) and pear ($.12 pp). Total $.49. I should throw in an extra $5 for how annoyed I was at that bacon, though.

Since we both worked at home, we had a bowl of leftover chili ($1.20) for lunch. My general grumpiness toward food today made me decide it was just too much trouble to make carrot sticks to accompany our chili. But we did split a pear ($.12) later as an afternoon snack and I had a piece of not-so-Special Dark chocolate ($.08).

I make Ruth Reichl’s spaghetti carbonara all the time when I need a quick, satisfying meal. I’d been plotting to make that on the Hunger Challenge for a sure-fire success. Those chicken breasts the BP had already grilled on Day 1 would be perfect with it. I put a half-pound of whole-wheat fettucine (oops – mistakenly grabbed that instead of spaghetti at the store, $.75) on to boil and cut up four strips of bacon ($.56) then set them to rendering in a skillet with two cloves of garlic ($.06). I beat two eggs and tossed everything together, along with the rest of the bargain Mexican Parmesan-ish cheese ($1.00).

Yes, that was a lot of cheese – more than ½ a cup, I’d say. But I kept hoping adding more would also add some much-needed flavor. Instead, the tangle of pasta just got dry and gluey. We hadn’t used much of our one stick of butter during the week, so I lobbed a tablespoon of that in. Butter helps everything, right? I took a taste and got an immediate flavor-flashback to a packaged side-dish kit my mom used to make: Betty Crocker Noodles Romanoff. It was the 70s and they were the height of sophistication.

I piled what shall now be known as Noodles Pissedmeoff onto our plates with the chicken ($1.10 pp) and some broccoli ($.15 pp). By the time it reached the table, the pasta had managed to suck up any vestiges of moisture or butter and once again was dry and gluey. Factor in chicken breasts – not the juiciest meat on the planet – and we had to gulp a lot of water to wash this meal down. So the dinner I’d thought would be a sure-thing turned out to be a dud.

What went wrong? The cheap bacon didn’t add that smoky depth of flavor the dish needed and the cheap cheese lacked the complexity of Parmesan. The whole-wheat pasta likely absorbed more moisture than regular pasta, which didn’t help either. A simple dish that normally sings with the right ingredients came out like a drunk slurring at a karaoke bar.

On the plus side, we did have a large quantity of mediocre food. There were even leftovers! Total: $2.43.

What would it be like to work with cheap ingredients all the time? You may never realize how good a dish could actually taste. Or what if you had to leave out herbs and spices because you couldn’t afford to buy a pricey $4 bottle? It’s a culinary ghetto.

A few bites of Extreme Moose Tracks ice cream made me feel better ($.25), until I looked at the truly frightening array of unpronounceable chemicals in the ingredient deck. Well, at least no moose were harmed during the production of my delicious treat.

Total: $4.57. My most expensive day so far, and perhaps my least satisfying.

GET INVOLVED!
♥ Learn about the San Francisco Food Bank.
♥ Read the blogs of people taking the Hunger Challenge. There’s a blogroll here.
♥ Follow the Hunger Challengers on Twitter. There’s a listing here.
♥ Follow the San Francisco Food Bank on Twitter to see how they’re fighting hunger every day.

Gayle Keck
Lowell Thomas Award-winner Gayle Keck has sipped fermented mare’s milk in Kyrgyzstan, dug for truffles in Italy, crafted wine at Napa Valley’s “Crush Camp” and munched her way through every continent except Antarctica, which seems far too focused on frozen food.

She has written for Gourmet, National Geographic Traveler, Zagat San Francisco Bay Area Restaurants 2010, and is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post and other major newspapers.

Gayle has visited 49 US states (sorry, North Dakota) and more than 40 countries - though her favorite trip was a flight from Chicago to San Francisco, when she met her future husband on the airplane. She also blogs at Been There Ate That
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