Real Food Rehab: The Recession Issue

"I am grateful for transparency. Nothing is embarrassing if it's real."

--Aya Kanai

I have never been so poor in my life. There, I said it. That's humbling to reveal, but it's important to me that you know the truth and the truth is I am struggling, too. I took a risk; I left an unsatisfying job that earned me a very healthy living to find work that moved me; a job that used my innate gifts, challenged me to grow and learn and, ideally, paid me well. I was successful for a while; simultaneously trying out two very different paths -- hospitality consulting and interior design -- but neither was quite right. Then the economy tanked and my fiscal bottom dropped out.

Writing this column (which pays me nothing) is ironically, the closest thing I've found to the work I'm meant to do in the world. Discovering what it is you truly desire is work in and of itself -- very rigorous but very rewarding. First, it takes doing away with what you think you should want and, if you've been a pleaser like I have -- doing away with what others think you should want.

There have been so many days when the fear of the unknown has been paralyzing. Paying my bills every month for the last year has been a real nail biter.

But despite how it appears on paper, there's been an upside to all this; it's brought me face-to-face with what I've outlived in my life. Ways of being and thinking and the discovery that there is so much I can happily live without. It's easy to focus on what you don't have, harder to celebrate what you do. That, to me, is paramount to happiness.

Second, I've become more creative and resourceful. Especially when it comes to taking care of myself. And taking care of oneself during a crisis is the key to surviving it. With food, on a small budget, I've had to be more frugal than ever and get to the bottom of what it is I really crave day to day to find satisfaction. I still go to the farmers' market every week -- I buy less but still buy things I love -- this week it was just-picked asparagus and rhubarb. In some cases it has forced me to make changes I didn't want to make but that have worked in my favor, like cutting back on my meat consumption and not drinking as much wine, which has greatly improved my productivity and mental clarity and probably helped stave off depression this winter, too.

It's pushed me to work with what's on sale and to expand my repertoire in the kitchen. This winter I spent a lot of time at Stanley's -- an inexpensive green market in Chicago with a decent organic section. What can I do with celery? What can I do with cauliflower and parsnips? I use everything I buy, and I mean everything. I juice whatever vegetables or fruits are starting to go south.

Perhaps the most important thing I've learned is that lowering my standards is the kiss of death. I was at a function recently where they were serving crepes stuffed with neon orange processed cheese from a major warehouse superstore. Normally, it's something I wouldn't even consider eating, but that day I was gripped with fear about my situation and created some crazy notion that I couldn't afford to turn away free food even though I wasn't even hungry! I ate it and it was neither tasty nor satisfying. In that moment I gave in to my fears and I lowered my standards. For me, it was an invitation to shame and self-loathing and that is something I certainly cannot afford.

I also used to entertain quite a bit and I was not about to let my social life suffer, so I started hosting potlucks. Everyone brings a dish and a bottle of their choosing. I hosted a Mexican-themed brunch one Sunday that lasted for eight hours! We ate and drank, put the food away and brought it back out for a second round five hours later. It's one of my favorite memories of the past year.

I'm also grateful for all the fruit and veggie canning I did last summer. I snacked on those all winter, added them to round out other dishes and gave them away as hostess gifts when money was tight.

Lastly, I've learned how to receive. I've always been a great giver but a lousy receiver. I have been so lovingly supported by friends and family in ways I could never have imagined. I've slowly come to realize that people's kindness is a reflection of my own graciousness in the world, and I am actively working to pay it forward.

Next Week: Ted Turner On Real Food And Authenticity

(c) 2009 Dana Joy Altman, Real Food Rehab, Inc.