The Hungry Man

My Great Aunt Doris is 100 now, and still kicking, still pretty lucid, with a tongue like a whiplash. She’s seen it all — the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, two world wars (and more), prosperity, recession and the like. Her late husband Joe did a lot of work in the labor unions in the early 20th century, organizing and striking; he traveled the railroads, hopping freight cars and living with the hobos at times. Later, when they were married, he and Doris used to set an extra place at the table at every meal. “That’s for the hungry man,” Joe said.

He also told me, many years ago, about hobo signs left on a gatepost or a rock near a home where a footsore traveler could expect food, a barn to sleep in, a friendly smile or a loaded gun. (Visit this site to see some hobo signs). I love that the sign for a kind-hearted woman is a smiling cat. I do think of my kids as my kittens, who need a wash, a cuddle and some milk. I add their friends to my brood. There is enough for everyone.

Well, come back to my world today, tonight, Day 28 in the JFSC.

I can’t really approximate the true experience of living on food stamps, so although I have a few bucks left on my imaginary EBT card, I’m not going to the farmers’ market or grocery store tomorrow. We have enough of this and that. We’ll get there. But…

Today I noticed how much of our diet has already become starchy and sugary. Bread for everyone, cereal, pasta, chips. Simone found a can of tuna and claimed it for her lunches this week. On pain of death, no one is to share this. The rest of us had peanut butter, the rest of the salami, and some cheese today. Everyone is eating sweeter stuff: the desserts, breakfast bars, banana bread, honey and jam. Usually we have some kind of fruit and vegetables to balance it, but besides the salad — made with the last (kind of wilty) lettuce, carrots, a radish, limp cucumber, a spoonful of bean salad, and homemade croutons — and the bitter grapefruit I had with lunch, I didn’t eat any produce today. And tomorrow will be slimmer. We are definitely in that “there’s nothing to eat” category most of my readers would understand — the “good stuff” from the market is gone and we really should go grocery shopping soon. Oh well. No money, can’t go, so we’re making do.

But as for the Hungry Man: one of the kids invited a friend over for dinner and a sleepover, and I said yes without thinking about the food. Then I realized that the guest is a hulking young teen who has gone through early puberty and eats like a man. That was OK until I pulled out the loaf of French bread (free from the bread site) that I was saving to use for dinner, and the entire thing was moldy — it’s chicken food now! I had one more small half a loaf and sliced it thinner than usual. Then in making the salad, I saw how limp and unappetizing it all was. So I did what my father used to call “FHB” in leaner years — that’s the code for “Family Hold Back.” That means serve the guests first, and family second.

Instead of family-style serving with everything on the table, I made special plates for the boys, buttered their bread myself, added the salami slices (counted) and two or three slices of cheese, according to his size. I poured generous glasses of lemonade, and pushed the desserts we have, plus the chips leftover from the BBQ. I can round out their meal, I thought — with not-so-healthy food. But I can fill them up. They won’t go to bed hungry.

I served the young boys first, then my elder daughter, then myself last. That’s how FHB works. I had water instead of lemonade. Just a few slices of salami. No croutons. I’ve been doing it this way for years — eating the ugly parts of the chicken, the crust or the less appetizing portion of the pizza — no problem. That’s what the mom does. But it took on a special significance tonight as I tried to make our supplies last, feed everyone, and — most interesting of all — not let them see the difference. This is key — I was willing to eat whatever, or not eat it if there wasn’t enough — so that my child and his guest weren’t unduly distressed by the lack of food or the drama around it.

This isn’t a martyr act. It wasn’t conscious, and I didn’t feel “deprived” in any sense other than I want a coffee milkshake right now, every day, damn it. But it strikes me as I write this how many mothers and fathers are eating less, especially at the end of the month, or shorting themselves so their kids can eat better, and not notice the lack or the drama. How many parents are going to bed tonight hungrier than their children?

I could talk more about this, but it is simple enough — hungry moms and dads, hungry kids, the unknown Hungry Man. Something — or someone — to think about tonight.

Monday Menu
Breakfast: Julia: yesterday’s coffee, oatmeal. Austin: generic Cheerios and milk. Simone: banana bread, peanut butter and honey sandwich. Ana: homemade breakfast bars. Patrick: oatmeal, hardboiled egg, green tea.
Lunch: Julia: pb&j with the last of the jam, tortilla chips, grapefruit slices; Simone: tuna (mayo, pickles) sandwich, carrots and celery sticks, raisins, hard boiled egg, breakfast bar. Ana: canned ravioli, nectarine, tortilla chips. Patrick: work meeting with lunch.
Dinner: mixed vegetable salad, sliced bread with butter, salami and cheese. Lemonade/water.
Dessert: key lime pie, ice cream, cobbler.
Late snacks (sleepover): popcorn, tortilla chips and salsa.

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4 Replies to “The Hungry Man”

  1. Not hard to understand how obesity/diabetes/heart disease disproportionately affects the poor, huh? Carbohydrates are maximized in the setting of high fat– think Happy Meal. Insulin resistance follows, and the cascade of metabolic derangements associated.

  2. I’m glad you talked about FHB.

    Many of us know about that at some level, either from memories about observing our parents or grandparents, from personal experience with real fear that there won’t be enough, or just that ingrained impulse to direct the first, most, and best to the guests or to the family.

    But how often do we talk about it?

    Fascinating about the hobo signs. You just gave me a powerful image and motivation to redouble my efforts in contributing to our local food pantries. That would be my way of setting a place for the hungry man.

    Great point by Colin about ill health, obesity and the poor. Julia pointed at the issue. Colin’s pretty stark about it, and it’s so true.

    Also, so much of what you’ve written about this month, Julia, makes me think about how our standard of living and food availability isn’t just about how much and how well we can feed our families. It’s about constraints on community.

    If we want to be promote extended family by sharing our table, be part of our kids’ communities and help our kids extend their communities and keep their standing with their peers by adopting their friends into our broods and sharing our foods,if we want to not feel out of place about what or how we eat in the workplace, if we want to nurture and extend our personal friendships around food in our homes or anywhere, if we care to be hospitable in general, we have to have access to an “excess” of food.

    Or we have to make sacrifices (which creates enough “excess” only up to a point), to hide or disguise the truth, and so forth, all of which may not feel damaging up to a point. But after a point, it is damaging not just to the body but to the spirit.

    As access to unemployment is falling off but the need isn’t, these issues are going to be real and sharp to many more people. More will need to use food stamps, and more will need to use food stamps as currency to meet other pressing needs.

    I wish it could become an automatic action, a cultural norm, for all of us who do still have access to some amount of excess to habitually support a food pantry or some equivalent. I don’t mean that it, or any giving, should be dictated, or that anyone is wrong for making whatever personal choices about giving. I just wish it *was* a cultural norm.

  3. I know that your daughter was served after your son because your son is still a kid and your daughter is almost an adult and cool enough to deal with hunger for one night for the sake of the experiment. Since I’ve been in your house, I’m certain that you aren’t preferring your son over your daughter.

    But there is a reason why American women have gotten taller in the last two generations. It’s because women, who were always last served on the FHB systems, are finally getting better access to nutrition in their own homes.

    With so many people having a hard time making ends meet, I wonder how many girls in this country are currently being physically stunted for the sake of their growing brothers.

  4. Note to My Roman Apartment: we always serve youngest to oldest at our house, except if there are guests. Guests first, then youngest to oldest. Somehow, I started serving my husband before me. Now my plate is usually last. If he’s serving, hisplate is always last. It’s the self-effacing Catholic guilt in us, I know. I hadn’t considered the sexism in it — but since 5 out of 7 of us are female in this family, we still rule by estrogen-based-logic. The Boy is just lucky that he’s the youngest.

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