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What's for Dinner

Image by Gabriel Held

Editor’s Note: In the coming issues, The Rail will be taking a closer look at how we understand the food we eat. By visiting dinner tables around the borough, the series will examine how economics, culture and taste influence what for most remains the principal meal of the day. As a community, we see food as a basic human right, but when nearly 500,000 people in New York City receive food assistance in any given week, it should be asked: do we all have equal access to that right? The poverty rate in New York City is nearly twice the total U.S. rate, and for some local families, paying for food is often displaced by the need to pay for heat or housing. In Brooklyn , 12% of residents did not buy food needed by their household at some time during 2004. In a country that floods the global market with an over-production of corn, 33 million people, including 13 million children, don’t have enough food to meet their needs. And yet for others, deciding what’s for dinner may simply be a choice between dining out and eating in. Our ideology of food can be rational or emotional, and to the quandary of marketers, it is often unpredictable. But it is certainly telling of our social class and values. What’s For Dinner aims to enrich our understanding of the diverse local factors that inform our decisions about the food we eat. These are the politics of the plate.

Jennifer Otero, 33. Cuban, born in New Jersey
Carlos Munoz, 23. Ecuadorian-Colombian, born in Queens
Household Income: $120,000 – $150,000
Neighborhood: South Park Slope
What’s For Dinner: Chicken Helper with canned Hormel chicken, XXX Dessert Salsa, tortillas, sour cream and Tostitos Natural Yellow Corn tortilla chips.

“We actually got it one day on a whim and have been addicted to it,” says Jen of the Chicken Helper. For her and Carlos, what’s convenient is what’s for dinner. The kitchen, where the couple is eating on a Tuesday evening in July, might cause George Foreman-envy. Infomercial appliances crowd the limited counter space: a Toastmaster sandwich maker, a Krups Panini Grill and a Showtime Rotisserie, which Carlos says is “handy-dandy. You just set it and forget it.”

The couple shares the grocery shopping, which mostly takes place at La Dolce Vita Gourmet Deli three blocks away, where a gallon of milk costs $3.59; a 10 oz. jar of pasta sauce, $2.49; whole grain bread $2.29; and a bag of baby carrots $1.69.

At the supermarket nearest their apartment—BD Food, which stocks fewer gourmet products and more bulk items—prices are comparable: $3.99 for a gallon of milk; $3.49 for a 48 oz. jar of pasta sauce; $2.29 for a loaf of whole grain bread; and the store sells only a few perishables: onions, bananas and potatoes. A package of frozen carrots and peas costs $1.29.

“We do a lot of take out—a lot of Thai, Italian and Mexican. We eat Thai a lot,” says Jen, who, with Carlos, might be considered an expert in “home meal replacement,” the restaurant industry’s styled new name for take-out. In the neighborhood, Pizza Plus and Elora’s, a Spanish place about three blocks away, are regular take-out spots for the couple.

Jen and Carlos order-in about four times a week, and KP duty factors largely in their decision not to cook at home. “Well it takes me a lot longer to clean up than it does for me to actually ingest the food,” says Jen.

When they do stay in, Carlos does most of the cooking at home, but for the busy couple what’s for dinner depends mostly on how much time and energy—rather than money—they have to spare. “I think the main thing is how quickly we can eat. For me, I would eat out every day of the week if I could. So it’s not money for me,” says Jen.

“We kind of figured it out. We don’t feel that buying food in a supermarket is going to save you more money than going out,” she says. “I mean, if you do it smart. Obviously if you’re going to an expensive restaurant every night of the week…then okay.”

There are certain food items the couple does keep in stock. “I like my chemicals,” says Carlos. “I must have soda every day. I’m an addict. Now it’s Diet Coke. It used to be Coke.”

For Jen, it’s chocolate. “Dessert is a must,” she says. And for them both, it’s “anything with marshmallows.” The couple has a large plastic bin filled with cereal boxes. Jen’s mother went to a recent screening of ABC’s “The View,” where the topic was cereal and audience members were sent home with a supply of samples, which she passed along to her daughter. The couple doesn’t distinguish cereal as a breakfast food—it’s a snack, a meal, a dessert—and their preference is toward the sweet: “Anything a five-year-old would eat,” says Carlos.

Neither Jen nor Carlos has diet-related health issues, and nor does the couple consider organic or natural food to be a priority in their decision-making. But the dog, Bear, eats “super-gourmet” organic dog food, according to Carlos, who gestures to a carton of Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover’s Soul.

Most meals—take-out or dinner at home—are spicy, and Carlos doesn’t seem to care much for vegetables. “I have a thing where I must eat an animal in my meal,” he says.

At dinner tonight, that animal is chicken—albeit canned—with a little bit of Helper. “It’s a quick, easy meal when you’re tired, when you don’t want to really cook,” says Jen.

“18 minutes,” Carlos pitches in. “This is the only meal Jen makes.”

“It’s a little salty so we don’t have it all the time,” she replies.


Marjory Garrison


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2005

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