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MCG, a Chicana feminist, for sure, teaches community college English

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Food Stamp Diet

I hated when mom made shit on a shingle. She always laughed when she said the name, but I didn't. The name and the combination of the ground beef and the cream of mushroom soup and all piled on a piece of toasted bread repulsed me -- a steaming pile of dinner. Seeing it on a plate in front of me made me want to cry. Shit on the shingle was a mid-month meal -- when there was still a bit of meat in the freezer and bread in the cupboard. And who didn't have a few cans of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup in the cabinet circa Jimmy Carter. Shit on the shingle tasted worse than it looked cold, so it was best to eat up while it was still hot, but I often stalled around so long before taking the first bite that it would have already started to cool, the toast soggy and practically indistinguishable from the rest of the glop. My brother always asked for seconds, and Mom would go back to the black cast iron skillet on the stove where the rest of the sticky white mass waited for its cushion of crispy toast. 

          "Michelle, do you want more shit on a shingle, she'd ask laughing, as if she had cracked some great joke.
          Sitting there on an old splintery picnic bench for a chair at the old, splintery picnic table where we ate, I'd shake my head, looking down at the white mass still on my plate. I tried to pretend it was Thanksgiving mashed potatoes. I loved mashed potatoes and gravy and the whole Thanksgiving meal.
          "There's one more piece of toast here, if you want it."
          "No, thank you," I said, not wanting her to think that I didn't like it.
          At the beginning of the month, just after mom got her check and a new batch of food stamps, we'd usually have tacos. Mexican-American tacos with ground beef served in a crunchy corn tortilla that she'd cook in oil, folding each one in half and cooking them until they were crispy on each side, lifting each out of the pan with tongs, and letting the oil drain off into the pan. To soak up as much of the remaining oil as possible, she'd place each hot, crispy corn tortilla on a paper bag. She was careful to make sure each corn tortilla cooked in a way that made it possible to stuff with ground beef, cheddar cheese, lettuce, and tomato without breaking to pieces. Tacos were our favorite even though there was a lot of cutting, chopping, grating, and cooking involved. They made us so happy that Amonie and I didn't argue or even talk until our plates were clean.
           Instead of going through all the trouble of cooking the corn tortillas just so, Mom could have bought taco shells, as they were called in the store, but when it came to cooking Mexican food, Mom didn't usually cut corners, and taco shells were expensive. Tortillas were a staple food in our house, corn and flour, even though she knew how to make the flour tortillas by hand.
     When we got older, my brother and I ate a lot of quesadillas because they were easy to make. Mom usually bought a block of cheddar cheese and a block of jack cheese with her food stamps at the beginning of the month, but when that was gone we made our quesadillas with government cheese that mom would get along with a huge box of powdered milk at the welfare office. Government cheese came in a box. It was sort of cheddar, sort of American in taste, and quite rubbery. The block of cheese was about as long as my arm and weighed about as much as a brick. Hit somebody in the back of the head with that block of cheese, and they might not wake up. You had to use two hands to get that sucker out of the fridge because dropping it on your toe was murder -- I had done it. When mom did make flour tortillas by hand, you didn't dare desecrate them with government cheese -- they were too good for government cheese. A homemade four tortilla just off the cast iron skillet, smothered with butter and rolled up neatly so it fit in your hand, that was the best way to eat one of mom's flour tortillas.
          For breakfast at the beginning of the month we ate Life or Kicks, the only kind of cereal we were allowed to get with WIC vouchers. Cereal, in general, was a treat for all of us because it wasn't something that Mom could usually afford to buy on her own, and because it was easy to prepare without Mom's help. The Kicks always went first. Life Cereal was good in taste, but it got soggy fast. It looked so pretty, those toasty brown squares with a modest sprinkling of sparkling sugar on top, but add milk and get distracted by a fly buzzing around the kitchen table, and it quickly converted into a crappy looking appetite-suppressing goo. Since mom had trouble waking in the morning, having cereal in the cabinet was handy, otherwise we had toast or bread with butter and sugar on top.
          Near the end of the month, we were sure to have some kind of legumes: pinto beans, lentils, and in the winter split peas. Split pea soup with a ham hock was good the first day and even better the second, but by the third or fourth day, it wasn't so good anymore. By the third or fourth day it would harden quite a bit, and Mom would have to add water to stir it. If there was any left in the house, even the ends, mom would serve the four day old lentil soup with buttered bread to cheer it up. Mom always got her biggest pot out to cook in at the end of the month, and if she wasn't cooking some kind of legumes, she'd cook some kind of hearty potato soup or chile beans that would last, and last, and last.
I was careful not to complain because I knew what it was all about, but I made sure to have an extra large glass of water with dinner to wash it all down.

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