Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Poverty Unit

Most of my adult life I have had to struggle financially. After having and paying for a place for my family to live, putting food on the table while stretching dollars has been the most important skill I acquired. More times than I can count I’ve stood in my kitchen and blessed Mrs. McLean who was my home economics teacher my senior year at Sammamish High School in Bellevue.

Home Ec was not my favorite subject in school. Art was. But in those days a certain number of Home Ec credits were required for graduation and while sewing was torture, cooking was more appealing so I signed up for Creative Cooking with Mrs. McLean. She was young, hip--a bit of a beatnik--and fun. Dressed in sweaters and straight skirts, she claimed that if she ever had children she'd name them "boy" or "girl" and let them choose their own names. Despite the fact that Home Ec was generally the realm of the girls, we had two boys break the gender barrier at Sammamish that year and sign up for Creative Cooking.

Whether or not Mrs. McLean looked into her crystal ball and foresaw the decade we were graduating into or if her own life experience was the source of her curriculum in the form of the Poverty Unit I do not know. Certainly there was nothing about our own suburban Baby Boom childhoods in Bellevue that would have led her to believe that we had our would have need of the lessons we learned in the Poverty Unit, but the gift she gave us was to be able to create a meal, more or less palatable, from what we could scrape up.

Mrs. McLean’s method was simple. She started us out with the fewest ingredients possible. What can you do with just flour and water and a little fat? We looked at each other puzzled. Surely she wasn’t serious. We came up with something akin to a cracker. That was the first day. Over the course of the unit, Mrs. McLean added basic ingredients to our supply list and our creations took on the qualities of recognizable food.

For most of us it took a stretch of imagination to envision ourselves needing the skills we were learning. Certainly for the daughter of a Boeing engineer it seemed like the last lesson I would be in need of, but in two short years I would be a wife and mother with a low enough income to qualify for food stamps for the first time, but not the last, and the confidence that Mrs. McLean instilled in me helped me not be afraid when I stood in a kitchen with little food in the cupboard, praying the mailman would bring the child support check.

Many of today’s youngsters in my community are used to eating out or buying processed foods which will quickly drain a wallet. Getting the most out of my food money is as much of a job as the one I go to five days a week and I’ve brought out Mrs. McLean’s Poverty Unit and dusted it off at some point during nearly every decade of my adult life. She’s with me again in this economic crisis. I just hope that there are other Mrs. McLeans, preparing other young people to feed themselves and their families.

Now I have to climb down off my broom and have our family squish into my little Neon like circus clowns so we can tool down I-5 to a family wedding in Portland. Thank the goddess gas prices have taken a momentary dip to make the trip possible, but then, when family is there, so am I! Thanks to Mrs. McLean I can stretch our food budget far enough to get gas to Portland.


Jo said...

Wish I had had such a practical home ec teacher!

Stephanie Frieze said...

God bless all practical teachers!