Having dinner with two friends, Geri and Jared, the first Shabbat after starting the food stamp challenge, under the watchful eyes of a Washington Post reporter and photographer, Teresa and Sarah, turned out to be both a treat and a moment for levity. Eating this way gives one a great need to search for levity.
Friday itself, the second day of the challenge, became challenging as soon as I left the Moskowitz-Rabinowitz home, a family of close friends, who often generously host me when I am in D.C. I was walking to work out and I suddenly wanted to eat a little something. I had 58 cents of my food stamp allotment left over after my shopping at the Capital Safeway on Thursday. The shopping experience had been very difficult, simply because the very idea of gathering everything I could possibly eat for a week at $31.50 for myself was both daunting and stressful, particularly because the press with cameras, other religious representatives, and Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton from D.C. were shopping at the same time. It was a whirlwind.
Back to the pre-Shabbat, Friday, food-seeking. 58 cents does not buy a heck of a lot. Potato chips, pretzels, candy -- you name it -- were out of my economic reach. I finally settled on a banana that weighed in at 40 cents, still having a whopping 18 cents remaining in my food-for-the week account. Thinking about that caused me to realize that I was imprisoned in a funny sort of way, just like millions of poor people in America and in the world. When you cannot purchase a bag of potato chips or a bottle of orange juice, you are suddenly and frighteningly aware that severe limits are upon you -- and this was only the second day of what will be a difficult and complicated week. Imagine living one's life under such a restraint.
Then came dinner. The Post wanted to watch me prepare the food, and they did. The meal consisted of mujadarah and an omelet. Mujadarah is a Middle Eastern dish made up of lentils, rice, and caramelized onions -- quite delicious, quite fattening, relatively healthful and inexpensive but basically a pleasure at least for a few days. The other dish was an omelet -- with four eggs, a third of an onion, and a sliced up zucchini. When I slipped the omelet out of the pan onto a serving dish, I did that in the sink to prevent any spillage on the counter. I never imagined the potential for disaster. My host, Geri, not looking in the sink, accidentally poured water on the omelet causing all five of us to gasp suddenly, worrying that a fundamental part of a not-so-large meal was now inedible. Between the good fortune of a quick response and the fact there was a ready microwave, we saved the day and all was fine. We had a good laugh, in fact kept laughing about the near food catastrophe all through the meal.
What caused us consistent mental consternation, though, was the realization that the problem could have been more severe. The omelet might have been ruined -- not just threatened -- and the recognition that if we actually lived in poverty, that accident might have changed our diet considerably. Even living under the rules of the challenge, I could not purchase any more food. What if I had no more money at all?
The meal went well. We did all the blessings over the candles, the wine [grape juice], the handwashing, and the bread [two rolls]. Both the juice and the rolls were relatively inexpensive. We had a good time speaking with each other. The reporter did what reporters do well, asking insightful questions. All of us laughed a bit, particularly about the water that soaked the omelet.
Two lessons learned in just a day or so about this journey: Eating on a food stamp budget can feel like a form of imprisonment -- being deprived of the basic freedom of choosing the food one could want and having such limited funds means that the normal choices afforded Americans of simply buying on a whim are no longer possible. The other was the precarious nature of eating while poor. One accident, a burned main dish, salting accidentally beyond edibility, spilling water all over an omelet could change the fabric and the nutrition value of an eating experience. What may have seemed quite funny to us could be a tragedy for a family living in poverty. I learned this and I am still just beginning my week-long journey.