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[whitespace] Box Lunch

Neither gourmet nor gross

By Marina Wolf

'TIS THE SEASON to be snarky, fa la la la la. It must be Christmastime because the food-drive barrels are out and the jokes-in-passing are getting tossed around as carelessly as boxes of off-brand macaroni and cheese: "They're going to be eating better than we do."

Yes! I've heard this, and even then I couldn't believe I was hearing it. Sure, the barrels are overflowing, but all that stuff gets divvied up among hundreds of boxes. And when it comes out of a single box, the daily menu is as narrow and pinched as an empty change purse. Crackers. Canned peaches. Tomato chunks. Dry pinto beans. Some food is better than nothing. A body's got to eat, right? But what the hell do you do with this stuff? Would you know?

All I know is, disentangling privilege from provisions is difficult, more difficult than one might think. Look at my basic procedure for a simple pot of beans, the kind I make when I'm "feeling poor": heat up some olive oil in a big pot, chop an onion and throw that in, press in some garlic through a garlic press, and, um . . . See what I mean? I haven't even gotten to the cheddar cheese on top, and already the recipe contains at least five different ways to knock a completely underequipped pantry out of the loop.

If you're not used to cooking this way, it's a real puzzle (though not as much of a challenge, of course, as actually getting used to cooking this way on a regular basis). If you're up for it, visit www.OnTheRail.com, a restaurant industry site that's sponsoring the Dare to Care Recipe Challenge. Recipes submitted will be tested for food-box or food-bank compatibility, and then passed on to Dare to Care, a Kentucky-based food bank that hopes to get its forthcoming cookbook out to low-income households and shelters around the country. Deadline for entries is Dec. 20, and a randomly selected entrant will receive $500 from On the Rail, plus publication of the recipe on its site.

SO WHAT CAN you put in your potentially winning recipe? Not much. Items in a typical food box may include canned juices, crackers, canned fruit, canned soup, canned tuna or meats, canned vegetables, tomato products, dry beans, pasta (yes, including that orange mac 'n' cheese), rice (instant), powdered milk, and maybe peanut butter or sardines. Shelter or group-home cooks have a little more leeway, with such extravagant ingredients as sugar, dried eggs, frozen vegetables, potatoes, limited seasonal produce, and a sprinkling of basic seasonings.

Complete rules are on the Web, but basically you need to be thinking inside the box. Cooks at shelters can spend maybe $1 per person per meal, and food-box recipients may not even know how to cook. On the Rail gave this recipe as one example of the genre:

Chicken and Rice

1 can cream of chicken soup
1 can water
1 1/2 cups instant rice (Minute Rice)

Put the soup and water in a pot and bring to a boil. Add the rice and cover. Cook over low heat for 5 minutes and serve. (Add cooked vegetables like broccoli or peas, if available. Other cream soups like mushroom or cheese may be substituted.)

Simple, with some basic elements of nutrition: it's something to eat, but not much. If this is, in fact, better than what you're eating, talk to your local food bank. But if it's not, then stop joking about it. Because it's not funny.

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From the December 7-13, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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