My mother sold her house last month. She had lived there for about 42 years. It was the house I grew up in. While it is weird to know that the house is now someone else’s, I do not have any sentimental attachment. In fact, when my mom told me over the summer that she was thinking of moving, I told her to just walk away. I honestly did not think she would break even on her mortgage. See, my mom’s house was in what may have at one time been a nice neighborhood, but the signs were there even while growing up. I remember SWAT arresting one of the neighbors for something drug related. My brother was mugged for his bike down the street from where we lived. We lived in a ramshackle house on a corner lot that had a derelict car parked in an overgrown yard. The front and back door had no less than four locks each. No one ever bothered us at home, but I think that was because we had a lot of dogs. I mean, a lot of dogs. We referred to them as the pack. No one came near our yard even though they were the sweetest dogs to us.
When I first started at my current job, I took a training based on Ruby Payne’s Foundations for Understanding Poverty. Some of the things discussed in her work is that people who are poor are resourceful, they know where to turn for things. People in poverty will trade services for things like babysitting or fixing cars. They know where to get a gun if needed. It was quite eye opening because I saw my childhood.
Growing up, I knew we didn’t have a lot of money. We always seemed to be tight. Arguments over money were a frequent thing in our house. Though we did have privilege. We went to private Catholic schools, but we wore hand-me-down uniforms from family friends. We had a running tab at the local deli because our school did not have a lunch program (this was early 80s), so that is how mom provided us with lunch. My mom would pay up every month when my grandmother got her social security check. Nothing was ever new. My dad would salvage and repair stuff out on the curb by the neighbors, his friends would give us old items they didn’t want, or we would buy used. He would trade computer repair work for things like canned government peanut butter, ham, or cheese. He would get very creative with food. I was sixteen the first time I had someone who wasn’t my neighbor cut my hair. I grew up learning how to stretch a dollar.
Ours was not generational poverty. My mother can trace her family back to some of the founding families in NJ. In fact, they even had a town named after the family, though it has since been renamed. But there were mental and physical health issues present after my parents married and that can lead to situational and emotional poverty. There was a lot of self-destructive stuff happening around us that definitely took a toll. I learned to avoid people and would escape into my own imagination and eventually into stories.
I didn’t grow up surrounded by children’s books, but I did have fairy tales. My father was always making up stories. My school library didn’t exactly have the best fiction selection. So books were very much a treasured gift for me for birthdays and Christmas. When I discovered the public library, I would take home bags of books at a time. I always would gravitate to the folktales and fantasy. Maybe that is why one particular story from my childhood stayed with me…Stone Soup.
There are many versions of the story and the perhaps more famous one is the Caldecott Honor Book Stone Soup by Marcia Brown. The tale is based on a French story about a group of hungry soldiers who arrive in a town only to be told there is no food. It truth, the villagers had hidden their food. The resourceful soldiers then proceed to place a big pot of water on the fire for a meal made of stones. As they cook, they mention all the wonderful things that would make the soup better and the curious villagers unearth those hidden ingredients to add to the pot. At the end of the tale, there is a wonderful pot of soup brimming with all sorts of ingredients. The villagers are amazed that such a tasty soup came from stones.
Since I was old enough to use the stove on my own, Stone Soup is what I would make. It was never the same twice. I would use the ingredients that were on hand in our house. Sometimes it was handfuls of dry noodles, sometimes rice. Sometimes it was chicken broth, sometimes beef. Sometimes it was watered down tomato sauce. Usually, there was very little meat, but lots of different frozen or canned vegetables. No actual stones were used, but it never really was about the stones. It was about being resourceful.
Recently, I saw that a Reddit thread has been trending on the topic of what foods you remember from growing up poor. Stone Soup is one of the foods I will never forget. While my cooking as a child was more adventurous (yellow mustard added to chicken broth really isn’t that bad, honest!), I still from time to time will throw together a pot of whatever I have on hand. Soup is and always will be my favorite meal.
Do you have any examples of resourceful cooking? Please share in the comments.