I never experienced hunger as a child unless I got so distracted playing that I forgot to return home for the midday meal, or when I insisted on skipping supper, determined to lose that stubborn pound or two that puberty can lovingly bestow. That was the golden age of Yugoslavia, and none of the kids I knew lacked food on a daily basis. The social programs were firmly established and well organized, with free and subsidized school meals.
We ate breakfast every morning, and I am not talking pop tarts or cold cereal. We had sauteed chicken livers accompanied by fresh bread from the bakery around the corner and a glass of milk heated just enough to kill the undesirable germs; thick, golden pieces of French toast slathered with Mother’s homemade apricot jam and mild, barely salty farmers’ cheese; roasted peppers warmed in kajmak served with sweet, plump, summer tomatoes; garlicky sausages hanging off the beam in the pantry quickly fried in lard until their skin crackled and we would dunk them in sharp German mustard, polishing the plate with the last bit of bread crust; pastries, and croissants, and milky yeasted rolls, soft and yielding, followed by a glass of tangy yogurt.
And still, we were silently jealous of the kids who ate their breakfast at school, feeling left out and kept away from this secret club with special treats and perks allowed only to its members. We griped at home, and even though we had a full meal awaiting us at home after school, Mother gave up and let us buy lunches at school for a while. In the beginning, we were elated as we stood in line gripping vouchers firmly, ogling the goods behind the counter, feeling empowered by the right to choose. But we were usually still full from the hearty breakfast, and the food we bought started loosing its appeal after a week or two.
Pretty soon we were overcome with guilt, taught at an early age not to have hungry eyes. We knew better than to waste the leftovers. We offered them to our classmates, sometimes untouched. The novelty wore off, and we eventually realized that Mother was right. Contrite, we decided to skip the school lunch, not willing for a second to take food away from the kids who really needed it.
This recent recession has hit our family hard. As is always the case when life adheres strictly to Murphy’s law, we arrived in California with no disposable income. We had to swallow our pride and get free lunches at school for the Beasties, unable to provide any food until our paychecks started arriving some three or four weeks later. Our youngest has Type 1 Diabetes and it was torture for us when she had to eat inferior school food, instead of my home-prepared fresh lunches to which she was accustomed. But we had no choice. As guilty as we felt, we knew that they were getting some sustenance. The thought of our second and fourth graders going hungry in twenty-first century America was a terrifying thought, exacerbated by the never-ending reports of growing unemployment, foreclosures, and bankruptcies.
As soon as the first money started trickling into our coffers, I took control of our food situation and reverted to the habits that were familiar and comfortable for me. I shopped at cheap ethnic stores, making friends with butchers and produce guys. I cooked every meal painstakingly, recording the expenditures on a dry-erase board, trying to keep the grocery bill to a bare minimum. In time we recovered enough that the girls could stop eating school lunches. The relief was unanimous.
My daughters are as spoiled as I was back then, growing up protected by an overall sense of stability with Father’s job secure and Mother’s ingenuity and creativity at its peak. But the cloud of hopelessness, fear, and despair that we lived under for a while is still too fresh for me to become complacent. I am driven by the feeling of guilt I felt when I could not make a sandwich for the first time in my life, because we could not scrape .99c for a loaf of the worst white bread. I do not care what demons I have to fight at my odious job, as long as my little girls do not go hungry.
When the bake sales for Share Our Strength were going on last year, we were barely making it. I felt that I made a tiny difference when I fed neighbor’s children several times a week, realizing that they had even less then we did. This year, I decided to join the efforts of so many devoted, kind, and giving people all over the country who are trying to end hunger amongst American children one day at a time. It does not matter how little we have, there is always someone who has less.
My kitchen counters are piled high with baking ingredients eagerly waiting to be chopped, mixed, softened, creamed, beaten, and rolled. As I do not see any job offers flying my way for the position of a pastry chef, I have curbed my ambition and chosen to make several varieties of petit-fours from Mother’s and Njanja’s recipe collections.
I will join more than forty food bloggers in the Los Angeles area tomorrow with trays of cute bite-sized morsels wrapped in cellophane and tied with pretty bows. I am excited and a bit nervous, hoping that the event will be successful. I know that not every child will have the chance to experience Mother’s lovingly prepared food, but a bowl of cereal and a glass of cold milk can put a smile on a hungry face.
Thank you, Gaby for organizing the LA Food Blogger Bake Sale. I admire your endless energy and that big heart of yours. To read more about this event and for the list of the participating bloggers, go to What’s Gaby Cooking. I hope to see at least some of you tomorrow!