Broke people can figure out a hundred ways to cook potatoes
Strolling through the grocery store with an empty cart is fun because you get to explore and find things to take home and eat — that is when you have money. But when you are walking through the same store, pushing the same empty cart and you only have $5, it’s a completely different story.
In 1986 I was ending my teens in a depressed town in northern New Mexico trying to figure out this adulting thing. I’d left a dead-end job managing a movie theater because my boss was stealing money from my safe. I’d gone to the owners with my fears, but they couldn’t or wouldn’t believe that their flesh and blood would steal from them. Knowing it was a matter of time before they sided with their son and blamed me for the missing money, I took all the proof I had of my boss’s thievery and handed in my resignation.
It had been a well-paying job for an 18-year-old high school dropout, and I hated to leave, but no amount of free movies and popcorn can make up for trying to brand me a thief. I looked for a new job for a few weeks, but it was a small town and as soon as jobs opened they were filled by people with more experience and better education.
I found myself sitting in a showroom, learning how to schlep myself door-to-door and sell Kirby vacuum cleaners to clueless homemakers with more money than sense. It says a lot about how spunky I was that in my first week knocking on doors, I sold two $1000 machines, wowing them with a $20-a-month payment plan at only 24% interest. I made a commission but they told me because I was new it would take a month for my check to arrive.
I only had a lonely crumpled $5 bill in my wallet to feed my new girlfriend and me for the next few weeks. We found ourselves with an empty cart, one wheel flopping around maniacally, cruising the aisles of the Piggly Wiggly for something that would feed us.
Then I saw it: a lone 30-pound bag of Russet potatoes with a red discount sticker that said $4.25! I snatched it up before one of the other hungry, destitute shoppers could claim it and headed for the checkout. I had change left over after tax, so we split an Orange Crush from the machine by the exit doors.
The orange soda tasted like a fine wine because I knew it would be my last one for a while.
The next few weeks saw us learn how to cook potatoes in ways you wouldn’t have thought possible. Fried, mashed, boiled, baked, sauteed — we didn’t even bother taking the peels off most times because we didn’t want to waste them. There was no butter or sour cream — we seasoned them with whatever spices were in the pantry, which after three weeks was only red pepper flakes and cinnamon.
When the potatoes ran out, we went hungry, and a few days later I was so light-headed I broke my cardinal rule and called my dad to ask for money.
It wasn’t as bad as it sounds because I’d been practicing being poor my whole life.
We Were ‘Turkey Neck Soup’ Poor
Growing up, we were dirt poor. There were times when my dad’s health would fail, and we had to get by on a few dollars and the goodwill of the members of our congregation.
It was 1982, and we were in another grocery store with an empty shopping cart and no money. It was summer in central Louisiana, and the temperature and humidity gauge were both stuck at 100. We couldn’t expect any money, because my dad wasn’t working and Social Security ran out. My mom was running her finger along the packages of meat, checking out the prices, and my brother and I were standing close by in the candy aisle dreaming of Snickers bars.
My mom was almost at the end of the meat case when she stopped short and picked up a huge bag of mystery poultry. She looked at the price and smiled, then looked at my brother and me, wondering if she could cajole us into eating whatever was in the bag.
When we arrived home we found out that my mom had scored a monster sack of turkey necks, and though we weren’t convinced a meal could come from the little bit of meat on the bone, we trusted our mom. Also, we were hungry and learned long ago that you never complain about food when you have nothing to eat.
An hour later, there was an enthralling smell coming from the kitchen. My mom had somehow found a few vegetables — celery, carrots, and potatoes — and cooked them with a few of the necks to make the most wonderful smelling soup we could ever dream of. And, as a credit to my beautiful mother, it tasted like heaven and filled our empty stomachs.
We ate turkey neck soup almost every day for a while. Sometimes we would come into money from an odd job or a bag full of groceries from a brother and sister in the faith, but when everything ran out, my mother would find some turkey necks, and we would eat again.
Is It Sad That Free Government Cheese was a Treat?
We were no strangers to commodities. If you’ve never had a grilled cheese sandwich made from a hunk of government cheese, butter, and soft wheat bread, you don’t know what you’re missing. We would get cans of meat and bags of flour and cornmeal. My mom could somehow look at a cupboard of ingredients and an hour later have a meal sitting on the table waiting for us kids to devour.
If my mom had been any other person, we might not have survived those years.
Things eventually did get better, but we rarely made it above the poverty line. It would be ten years into my first marriage before I finally made enough money to change tax brackets.
I’ve been down, and I’ve been up over the years. I’ve gone hungry at times, and at other times was able to give of what I had and help other people. I made over 100k one year, but I’ve never felt rich or even comfortable.
I’ve been married and divorced, raised three boys to be honorable men, and fell in and out of love with God and religion. I’ve met an illness in battle and came out on the other side as a victor. I still fight every single day against my mind for the sake of those I love. I’ve tried to end it all and lived to tell about it. I’ve lived good and bad times, but I’ve always put one foot in front of the other and walked the path to a good life.
It wasn’t until recently that I could call myself rich — not for having money but because I didn’t want for anything. I had a beautiful family in two parts of the world — the Philippines and the States — and there was nothing I wanted that would satisfy me more than that. I am a man who walks around with a smile on his face for no reason — but not all the time, because no one can be happy 24/7 — and I know, no matter how much or how little money I have, I will always have love and that is plenty for me.
What Have We Learned?
Those of you who have been poor know what I mean when I say that growing up without money teaches us what is important in life. It may take a few years to realize it, but when we do it makes all the difficult times we lived through seem like nothing.
When you realize you don’t need to buy things to make you happy, you can finally be free to enjoy life for what it truly is and not be stuck in a constant rat race. Those who realize the truth in the old saying, money can’t buy happiness, have come to a place where we know that money is necessary but not enough to give up your life for.
Sadly there will be those who don’t figure it out until they are lying on their death bed, realizing they can’t take cash or a Rolex into the afterlife, and they have given up the only family that could have been with them in the end for fame and fortune.
Don’t wait until it’s too late to figure out what is important. Love is what we live for, and the only thing that matters in this life.
One day you will realize it yourself, but I hope it’s not because of a bag of potatoes.