• Home
  • About
  • Guest Post

    She might even consider giving up red meat/Man, you’re gonna look back to when your life was so sweet

    So, see, it’s like, I’ve already got the distinguished grey coming in at the temples at a comfortable clip for a 38-year-old, and then along come people like these, apparently doing their best to ensure that the stresses of modern life make me a complete flippin’ silverdaddy by the time I turn 40 (via Hit and Run).

    WTF is a flexitarian?

    Josh Ankerberg, a 26-year-old who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., started getting food stamps a year ago as an AmeriCorps volunteer, a group that has long had special dispensation to qualify for them, and he has continued using them while he job hunts. He uses his $200 in monthly benefits at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and a local farmer’s market to maintain his self-described healthy flexitarian [<--WTF?!–SRK] diet, and notes that two of his roommates — a graduate student in poetry and an underemployed cook, both in their 20s — also started getting food stamps in the past two months, as have other friends and acquaintances.

    I can’t bear to go to the Urban Dictionary and look it up, because I just know it’s going to turn out to mean “vegetarian but with the maneuvering room to eat meat as long as it’s not a majority protein source” or “vegetarian unless you’re trapped in a not-yet-gentrified Billyburg industrial building and only have access to locusts” or some other such nonsense that lets you have both your burgers and your sanctimony.

    Now, of course, that’s not the real story of the Salon.com piece. The real story is that underemployed graduates of hoity-toity colleges are now, often, eligible for food stamps, and they’re using them to dine after the fashion of Alice Waters: on organic, local, artisanal, small-batch, expensive foodstuffs. Vegetarianism is not the only thing they’re flexible about:

    In the John Waters-esque sector of northwest Baltimore — equal parts kitschy, sketchy, artsy and weird — Gerry Mak and Sarah Magida sauntered through a small ethnic market stocked with Japanese eggplant, mint chutney and fresh turmeric. After gathering ingredients for that evening’s dinner, they walked to the cash register and awaited their moments of truth.

    “I have $80 bucks left!” Magida said. “I’m so happy!”

    “I have $12,” Mak said with a frown.

    The two friends weren’t tabulating the cash in their wallets but what remained of the monthly allotment on their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program debit cards, the official new term for what are still known colloquially as food stamps.

    Is it my imagination, or does the reporter leave the distinct impression that these people are both (1) on food stamps and (2) not planning their budget? You know, you walk up to the register at the grocery store and swipe your card, and then you sorta find out you have “$80 bucks” (yay!) or $12 (how’d that happen?!), and you just take it as it comes.

    Perhaps that’s a misrepresentation. But Michael Moynihan notes that the beneficiaries of public largess profiled show little concern for the fact that they’re living on money provided by the labor of other people. (The shame they feel at being on the dole reads as more a status thing than a morally-against-parasitism thing.)

    My father is a steelworker who spent a good chunk of the ’80s laid off, and my degree is in comparative literature, so I am not without sympathy for people who find themselves thrust into dire financial straits or who didn’t choose the college courses that were the most obvious sources of marketable skills. But if you’re going to get all smug about how “creative” you are, how about learning to concoct delicious, nourishing, satisfying meals from the inexpensive ingredients truly frugal people use? Supermarket produce and packaged goods aren’t the easiest ingredients to spin into gold, it’s true, but with all that time to spend on cooking, you have the maneuvering room to exercise a little imagination.

    Added on 17 March: Thanks to Eric for the link and for an apt summation of this whole thing: “God, people suck.

    If I were smart, I probably would have left it at that, but my curiosity got the better of me, and I had to go and look up flexitarian . It’s just as I’d feared:

    Flexitarianism is a semi-vegetarian diet focusing on vegetarian food with occasional meat consumption. A self-described flexitarian seeks to decrease meat consumption without eliminating it entirely from his or her diet. There are no guidelines for how much or how little meat one must eat before being classified a flexitarian. Flexitarianism is distinguished from pescetarianism (i.e., one who eats only fish in addition to vegetarian foods), as well as pollotarianism (i.e., one who eats only poultry in addition to vegetarian foods).

    So it’s sort of like a gustatory unitarianism: you get to feel noble and spiritual without having to cramp your style by following a lot of tiresome absolute rules.

    9 Responses to “She might even consider giving up red meat/Man, you’re gonna look back to when your life was so sweet”

    1. Julie says:

      Feh. A pox on these people. $200 a month to feed one person? I feed my whole family and two large dogs on that amount. Of course, we’re enough inside the working class that we don’t get food stamps, and because of that whole morally-against-parasitism thing, we do what we have to do to make sure we stay there, including sticking to a budget and shopping frugally. I’m a good cook and I regularly turn supermarket produce and packaged goods into gold–gold, I tell you! We garden, too, and my husband hunts and fishes, and I can and freeze mass quantities of food in the summers.

      I read a couple of pieces with similar themes, but I can’t remember where right off the top of my head. One of them was about how people are getting food from food banks and then not eating it, just ditching it at the bus stop around the corner from the food bank or whatever. So, the food bank was asking donors to bring in different types of food that would maybe be more appealing to the recipients. I was shocked. The other piece was about someone who followed some inner-city, mostly African American food stamp recipients around in part to find out why poverty is so darned intractable. Guess what? They weren’t shopping sales or trying to be wise about their food-stamp spending. They just threw whatever they wanted into the cart. Juice boxes, big packs of not-on-sale meat, whatever. This one wasn’t particularly shocking, sadly. It should be.

      Oh, this kind of thing really ticks me off. Sorry if I got all rant-y. I feel absolutely certain that your gray is “distinguished” rather than “old.” I have no idea what you look like, but in my mind’s eye, you are quite dashing.

    2. Sean says:

      No, the people in the article really were immensely irritating, mostly, I think, for their blitheness about the whole thing. It’s always hard to tell what interviewees might have said that got omitted because it didn’t fit the reporter’s chosen storyline, but she seemed to be working pretty hard to paint them as sympathetically as possible, so if any of them had said something like, “Look, I feel horrible taking charity while there are people working backbreaking hours in factories to fund it, but I figure it’s cyclical. When I have a full-time job again, I’ll be happy to kick in money so that other underemployed ditzes with yuppie-ass tastes don’t have to go without white truffles,” it seems as if it would have made it in somewhere.

      But the impression from the article is of people who are just kind of applying for jobs they like and hoping the market comes around to assigning value to what they find fulfillment in doing. Madonna tells of living in junky apartments and eating discarded food while clawing her way toward a recording contract. Marianne Moore said, “To earn a living is needful, but it can be done in routine ways.” I don’t remember the rest of the passage, but the basic idea is that you’re supposed to write poetry (or whatever) because you’ve got something to express, not because people will pay you for it.

      That’s not to say that it’s okay for businesses to exploit their creative workers, or that artists shouldn’t seek the highest market value for what they make. It is to say that if you don’t have anything marketable to sell, you shouldn’t get into a snit about it; find a skill you can be paid for and live off, and make your art a private satisfaction if that’s what you have to do. Defending your use of food stamps by indicating that your palate is too aesthetically acute to soldier through a few months of instant ramen is ridiculous.

      I’m in no position to judge how dashing I may or may not be; I will only say that the grey makes me look less boyish, with the fortunate result that I get less attention from a certain type of gross guy. :)

    3. Julie says:

      Agreed on all points, and I’m pretty sure I’ve had run-ins with similar types of gross guys, so AMEN to that.

      I’m bothered somewhat by their seeming unwillingness to buckle down and find whatever work will support them and their tarragon-loving ways. I am bothered much more by the apparent fact that they can afford food and a lifestyle that many people who work for a living (often at incredibly unfulfilling work, as you know) cannot. There’s a moral hazard in there somewhere, I fear. But that’s me, the dour moralist! Always the life of the party!

    4. Sean says:

      Yeah, what burns me up is less that they don’t want to have to eat dried ramen (who would?) than that they don’t seem to want to have to plan like grown-ups. Did they save money while they were employed? Did they think about fall-back skill sets they could develop in case their arty preferences became unmarketable? The economy really is rough, and I’m willing to believe there are able, credentialed people who planned ahead responsibly and have still eventually found themselves in need of assistance for a few months. But (sorry if this ruins your self-image as a crank, Julie :) ) I don’t think there’s anything dour about pointing out that these particular people don’t seem to be exhausting all the possibilities in their efforts to support themselves. Again, this may be the reporter’s shaping of the story rather than their unfiltered personalities coming through, but the sense I got was that they were dutifully applying for the kinds of jobs they wanted and, beyond that, figured the government may as well keep them in foodie style until suitable employment came along. And yes, it’s galling to think of people like my father doing double shifts at the steel mill to keep them in raw honey.

    5. Julie says:

      Darn you. I am very invested in my self-image as a crank. People think I’m all cute and perky, and then I spring the virtue ethics on them–maybe even a little Kant if I’m feeling testy–and WHAM. Hits ’em out of nowhere. Then I unleash the general misanthropy–with a smile, of course, because I was raised right–and confusion abounds. Don’t even get me started on Utilitarianism and people thinking “happiness” is some kind of right and any kind of suffering is a total violation of their rights.

      Anyway, I like dried ramen. I know I’m not supposed to, but we were fairly poor when I was growing up, and we ate it a lot. We had a lot of cabbage-and-ramen stir-frys. Yum. Ah, still one foot in the trailer park, I guess.

    6. Leslie says:

      Your post and the comments reflect what I have long said—even in the face of people looking at me as if I’m some kind of mean-ee: it’s always the people, never the tool. What’s so maddening about the political conversation of late is that it asserts that everyone who’s in bad shape is in bad shape because of others taking from them and that everyone who’s in good shape is in good shape because they’ve taken from others. This defies reality, but people don’t want reality; they want to live life as they wish it to be. In the meantime, they make strong people weak. This is not a good trend.

      Also, my little girl once told me that vegetarians can eat chicken. I told her, no, by definition, people who eat chicken are not vegetarians. But that’s what the FDA says, she told me. Now, I don’t know if the FDA has some silly policy to that effect (wouldn’t surprise me), but that she no doubt heard this in school makes it even more infuriating to me (the long-term university press editor). As Rose Wilder Lane wrote, when words lose their meaning, watch out!

      Finally, I can attest: Sean is indeed quite dashing!

    7. Sean says:

      “People think I’m all cute and perky, and then I spring the virtue ethics on them–maybe even a little Kant if I’m feeling testy–and WHAM. Hits ‘em out of nowhere.”

      I hear that. I have wide light-green eyes that apparently look innocent, so when I start talking all dyspeptic and stuff about policy, people are surprised. It can be very satisfying. And anyway, I wouldn’t be so cynical if people’s motives weren’t so untrustworthy.

      “What’s so maddening about the political conversation of late is that it asserts that everyone who’s in bad shape is in bad shape because of others taking from them and that everyone who’s in good shape is in good shape because they’ve taken from others.”

      Right. I’m happy to talk about how to address problems, but not if it’s off-limits to talk about how people acquired the problems in the first place. There is such a thing as bad luck, and I think most of us agree that there should be a safety net of some kind for people who are trying to get themselves righted but just don’t, through not fault of their own, have the stop-gap resources they need. But there’s a manifest moral hazard in these cases that needs to be addressed, also.

    8. Julie says:

      “Also, my little girl once told me that vegetarians can eat chicken. I told her, no, by definition, people who eat chicken are not vegetarians.”

      Despite the fact that we’ve always lived in rural, farming and ranching places (and also despite the fact that my stepdad hunts and always has), my mom is a vegetarian. ONe time when we had just moved to a new, tiny ranching town, she called up the local cafe and asked (haha!) if they had anything a vegetarian might eat. They said they had chicken fried steak. When she balked, they said, “Well, it’s chicken. Don’t vegetarians eat chicken?” I’m still curious how people in a beef town didn’t realize that it’s beef.

    9. Sean says:

      When my ex came to meet my parents, they took us to Cracker Barrel for breakfast, and I had to explain to him why “chicken-fried chicken” wasn’t redundant.

    Leave a Reply