Over the last ten years, I think I have eaten enough ground beef, chicken, eggs, Ramen noodles, peanut butter and boxed macaroni and cheese to last a lifetime. However, I live with my mother, who learned many years ago about how to feed a family on a budget, which includes the above staples of a modern working poor diet, along a few other delicious recipes that will make left-overs less depressing.
A trip to the grocery store is a reflection of how tough it's been. Hamburger can be from two to four dollars a pound, depending on where you live. Chicken, which used to be the cheapest meat you could buy, has almost doubled in price. I haven't bought a steak at the store in years, along with beef roast, but shoppers can occasionally find a pork roast on sale. Everyone loves bacon, but the pig is more expensive than ever. Growing up, my dad kept pigs and cows in a barn on our property, and we ate the meat from these animals that we had named and treated like pets. We were carnivores, and it was okay, but I never accompanied Dad to the slaughterhouse, just putting the existence of the animal out of my mind while I ate the meat at the dinner table. To this day, pork is not really my favorite meat, but only because I had to eat so much of it, the pork packaged in white butcher's paper and kept in the big freezer in the garage. Mom would go out there and take out the pork chops, steak, sausage or roast, these cuts thawing in the kitchen sink. I grew so tired of pork chops and pork steak, I wanted to scream.
Dad got the idea of raising cows by the time I was thirteen. By then, I had stopped talking about our barnyard animals at school, knowing any animal in that barn was on Death Row. Dad treated them well, feeding and keeping the cows clean, as well as the pigs. When I was nine, I saw one of the females give birth to piglets. By middle school, my classmates were repulsed by my tales, so I stopped talking about it, many of these kids raised on food stamp grub and fast food, although WIC hadn't come along yet. Our moms worked, so the more convenient the food, the better. My family also ate frozen pot pies and the sliced meat and gravy in the little plastic bags. Mom would cook these in a boiling pot of water before we owned a microwave. She worked and didn't always want to cook a big meal, much to my dad's disapproval.
I liked the frozen stuff, but I still hate Hamburger Helper to this day, but I still eat cold cereal for breakfast. Past all of the nostalgia, my purpose is to provide some of my mother's recipes to feed a family on a limited budget. One of these gems Mom has always called 'Goulash', although there is nothing Hungarian or Eastern European about Mom's version. Some people call it Hillbilly Supper.
16 oz. box of macaroni pasta $2.00-3.00
1-2 lbs. of ground beef (or whatever kind of ground beef on sale per pound, but plain ground beef or ground round is best) $4.00-7.00 dollars, depending on where you shop
I can of stewed tomatoes $2.00-3.00
I large can of tomato juice $3.00-4.00
onion, to taste .99 cents a pound (can also used dried chopped onion)
In a big pot, cook ground beef and onion until beef is done, drain off grease. While doing this, let water come to a boil in another pot. Cook macaroni in boiling water until done, drain pasta. When both are done, combine drained pasta and drained meat/onions in one pot. Add stewed tomatoes and tomato juice (most of the can, or until meat and pasta are covered). Cook for another 15-20 minutes at medium heat, stirring occasionally. If you're feeling extravagant, you can add beans, potatoes, carrots, zucchini, or corn to the pot. You can go vegetarian, without the meat. Get the bowls and bread out and enjoy. I like to add a little butter and salt to my bowl.
Mom's 'Goulash' was a staple, but also a variation on my grandma's post-Depression grub. Grandma was a good cook and baker, but when times were tight, she made her 'spaghetti'; spaghetti noodles mixed with tomato soup. Another gem was her potato soup with dried beef, otherwise known as 'shit on a shingle'. My paternal grandmother was also a good cook, but had a tendency to use the grocery money to buy booze. Like any good alcoholic, she didn't hesitate to sacrifice a variety of foods for her kids if it meant more beer, along with taking my dad's earnings from his after-school jobs, the neglect forcing him to quit high school. My mother's sisters weren't much better. Mom recalls, as a teenager, babysitting at her older sister's house and finding the fridge stocked with beer and a can of beans cooking on the stove, dinner for my cousins. The welfare check went for the beer and nights out at the bar, my aunt probably getting her boyfriend to buy her dinner. These kids were grateful for pancakes on a Sunday morning. No surprise that most them grew up to be addicts. My mom equated good cooking with taking care of the people you love. As a teenager, one of the first meals she ever cooked was a meatloaf. Ah, meatloaf. The two words together-'meat' and 'loaf'-sound sort of repulsive, but there's something about those slightly burnt edges and ketchup top that says 'home'.
2 lbs. of ground beef $4.00-6.00
1 c. of oatmeal (1 minute oats, like Quaker) $1.99 a container, depending
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 c. dried chopped onion or fresh
1 c. of tomato juice
Combine all ingredients thoroughly(don't be afraid to use your hands) and pack firmly into loaf pan, covering with a layer of ketchup. Bake at 350 for one hour.
Meatloaf doesn't have to be complicated. You can use bread crumbs instead of oatmeal. Ketchup is also optional. My paternal grandmother put green pepper in hers. Add mashed potatoes and green beans and it's dinnertime. My dad would take the left-over meatloaf for sandwiches to take to work in his big black lunchbox with the buckles in the front.
I've become nostalgic for old tastes. Maybe it's because I'm forty-one now, and even the smallest memories(such as Dad's lunchbox or how he liked to cook his fried eggs in bacon grease) are important. The 25th anniversary of my father's death is on December thirteenth, his birthday November twenty-third. Mom will be seventy in May and, now that all of my grandparents are deceased as well as an aunt, I'm feeling everyone's mortality, everyone's life stories. Food is a thread through all of our lives, rich or poor, a reflection of our cultures, tastes, and desires. I just read a quote on Pinterest, "If chocolate is the answer, who needs the question?" The same could be said of heroin or alcohol, but let's focus on dessert. I present to you a working poor classic that requires most of the ingredients already in your cupboards. Cocoa is a bit more expensive than it used to be, but you can buy the store brand.
Salad Dressing Cake
(This recipe was from my paternal grandmother and was a favorite of my dad's)
3 c. of flour
1/2 c. of sugar
3/4 c. of cocoa
2 and 1/2 t. of baking soda
1 and 1/2 T of vanilla
1 and 1/2 c. of water
1 and 1/4 c. of salad dressing(Miracle Whip is okay, but not Hellman's, that's mayo, not salad dressing)
Mix ingredients and pour into greased cake pan. Bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes. This cake is dense and rich, but vanilla frosting on top is good. Dad would eat it plain and warm with butter on top.
I hope to provide more working poor recipes in the future. Maybe you can think of a few of your own. If you have the time, please post your ideas at my Facebook page or the comments section here :)