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Originally published May 29, 2010 at 10:02 PM | Page modified May 30, 2010 at 5:35 PM

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An unemployed restaurant critic finds a different kind of culinary satisfaction

A former food professional, now out of work, finds a different kind of culinary satisfaction stretching his limited food-stamp dollars.

Video | The Food-Stamp Foodie

A butcher shared with me the advice his dairy-farmer father fed him:

Stay in the food business and you will always eat.

I've worked in the food business for a good chunk of my life — first in my parents' restaurants, then as a food writer and restaurant critic, followed by post-culinary-school stints as a baker and food-marketing consultant, then again as a restaurant critic, and, until this past fall, as publisher of my own website that promoted restaurants and culinary events.

Today, I eat on the fringe of the food business, hungry for work and living on the dole, one of 6 million Americans whose sole source of income is food stamps.

When I was the restaurant critic at the Tacoma News Tribune, from 2004 to 2008, I enjoyed a $1,300 monthly expense account, on top of the middle-class salary that financed a house overlooking Puget Sound. I gave that up to start my own business, and when my entrepreneurial dream fizzled along with the economy, my food budget — my total income — plunged to $200 a month.

As I search for work without success (I've applied for restaurant-critic jobs at alt weeklies in Seattle, San Francisco, Denver; communications jobs with state and city agencies; and jobs as butcher, baker, line cook and carpet cleaner) I find neither shame nor deprivation in food stamps.

"We're all on food stamps here, hon," a pierced-lipped barista at a college coffeehouse told me.

From the florist I met on Facebook to the laid-off Teamster I met on the bus to the university students who work at the coffeehouse where I get free Wi-Fi, the number of people in the United States feeding themselves with food stamps is a whopping 39 million. Twelve percent of Washington's population — about 855,000 people — receives food stamps.

As a professional assignment, writing about a thing such as shopping and eating on a budget is abstract. As a gut-punching, ego-bruising, bank-busting predicament, eating on the food lines is real. After six months of it, I still feel the occasional memory pang of expense-account indulgences gone by, but I don't cry in my cabernet.

By shopping wisely and scrimping compulsively, by cooking and savoring each meal as a blessing, I am sustained. Even that mysterious can from the food bank generically stamped "Pork with Juices" promised culinary communion.

The Electronic Benefits Transfer (food-stamp) card I receive each month as a single person with no dependents buys plenty of groceries — butter, eggs, milk, orange juice, tortillas, cheese, fruit, vegetables, coffee, bread, rib-eyes, spices, olive oil, beans, rice, doughnuts and dog bones. Food stamps can also buy soda pop, potato chips and junk food galore, but not the deli sandwiches and supermarket fried chicken that used to be my regular midday snacks. Even supermarket rotisserie chicken — which I could stretch into three, maybe four nutritious meals — is among the hot prepared foods that can't be bought with food stamps. The logic of the system goes: If you can eat it at the point of purchase, hot prepared food is verboten to buy.

So while my present situation is a challenge, it is not one for survival. Mine is gastronome's quest to eat well, to maintain a nutritious diet, to satisfy my foodie cravings, and to help those who help me.

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THIS ISN'T the first time food stamps have fed me. I have vague memories from the early 1970s, when my parents had one income to stretch and three kids to feed, of my mom paying with food stamps at the grocery store — back when food stamps were colorful paper scrip, as opposed to the ATM-style card that occupies the place in my wallet where I used to keep my expense-account credit card.

Nor am I the first in my family to receive food-bank food. A few years ago, several years after my parents lost their last restaurant to bankruptcy and as their savings went to hospital bills, I learned that my mom and dad relied on a food bank to supplement their Social Security.

It ate at me.

"My parents feed people," I protested. "Not the other way around."

For years, I was fed a steady diet of my dad's stories about growing up dirt poor in Mexico, about the blood sausage that was sometimes the only food on the farm, about cooking scraps for migrant farm workers in California. As a chef and owner of his own restaurants, frugality was ingrained in him. But so was generosity. "Me and your mother can't eat peanut butter because of our diabetes," he said, "but I get it because the kids like it."

By "the kids," he meant the kids in the neighborhood, the ones who didn't have the stable family and three square meals a day that my parents ensured I had. Even while my parents were receiving assistance, they assisted others.

Volunteering at the Spanaway FISH Food Bank is the least I can do to help those who help me. So I eagerly offload pallets of rice and powdered milk, bags of onions and boxes of fresh pears; I sweep and mop the floor with pride. I came to realize there were so many others in greater need than me. I can make it on food stamps alone.

So now when the retired military guys who volunteer at the food bank on behalf of their church ask if I want any food for my effort, I ask instead for dish soap, laundry detergent, paper towels, razors and toothpaste — essentials I can't buy with food stamps. Sundry luxuries when pennies are precious.

LIFE ON THE food lines has not been without embarrassment.

On Christmas Eve, before I signed up at the food bank, I visited Spanaway Lutheran Church, one of four area churches that operate the charity. In the lobby, a shopping cart bearing the sign "FOOD BANK" held groceries. I took tomato soup and canned corn. I went back on Christmas Day for macaroni and cheese.

Three days later, after I'd received ground beef in my first batch of food-bank food, and before I had received food stamps, I remembered there were potatoes at the church. I was making tacos and wanted to stretch the ground-beef filling with potatoes, like I'd learned from my mom when money was tight.

It was after hours. I knocked on the church door.

"May I help you?" a secretary asked.

"I'd like to get food," I said.

"The food bank is closed," she said.

"What about . . . " I pointed to the shopping cart in the lobby.

"That's for donations," she said.

I was mortified.

I'd stolen food from the church.

My Catholic guilt tells me I am tasting karma after a lifetime of eating entitlement. I have never experienced hunger or wanted for food. To me, dining out has been a way of life. Now, it is a luxury — a coveted breakfast or lunch with a friend who picks up the tab, or a towering plate of $4 happy-hour nachos that I'm sure to finish, down to the last black bean.

I THINK ABOUT food constantly. What will I eat today? What will be in my cupboard tomorrow? Answers are not hard. Lessons I learned from my parents and cost controls I learned in working in restaurants serve me well. Discount stores, ethnic markets and liquidation stores are my shopping salvation: organic heirloom winesap apples (3 pounds for $1.50) that the supermarket doesn't stock; pork butt I grind into chorizo; $3 truffle oil I drizzle over instant mashed potatoes. Thanks to my knife skills, each salami I splurge on makes a week's worth of sandwiches.

I am also cost-conscious. A head of celery at the supermarket costs $1.99 a pound, weighs slightly more than 2 pounds and yields 10 stalks. The same number of stalks purchased individually weighs about 1 pound and costs $1.69 a pound — and I don't have to worry about using (or not using) the celery's heavy butt-end for stock. At the supermarket, navel oranges cost $1.69 a pound; one large orange weighs a pound so I buy an 8-pound bag (15 medium-sized oranges) for $4.99, marked down from $7.99.

I relish the creative challenge of making canned food interesting. A can of chicken meat became my own version of Costco's Chicken Bake, with Caesar dressing and Parmesan cheese from the Dollar Store. That can of "Pork with Juices" became my poor-man's rillettes.

Some meals are no-brainers. Sliced ham, eggs and English muffins screamed eggs Benedict with homemade hollandaise.

Other meals are less creative but no less satisfying after a day of the manual labor I perform in exchange for my rent: cans of beef stew and chili on toast, or tomato soup laden with crackers and globs of mozzarella cheese.

After a winter of making canned green beans palatable, I'm thankful that farmers markets are in full bloom. Using my card to buy tokens that are redeemable like cash with market vendors, I load up on local asparagus, pea vines and spinach, not to mention oysters and artisan cheese, feeding not only myself but a piece of the local economy with food stamps.

Riding my bike, I saw people lined up at the food bank before it opened. I was happy not to be among them.

Though it's not without its labors and worries, life on the food lines tastes pretty good, from where I sit. But I know that feeding myself with my own money would taste a whole lot better.

Ed Murrieta is a writer looking for work. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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