What did you eat when you were broke?

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There is a distinction between being poor and being broke. It’s summed up in this illustrated essay from Erynn Brook and Emily Flake, which explains the completely different grocery-shopping anxiety that occurs when you are truly poor: calculating post-tax prices, remembering down to the cent how much is in your bank account, skipping meals. Broke, then, is a temporary, transitory discomfort, an annoyance that you assume, someday soon, will pass. Being broke means eating cheaper food, not worrying whether you have food to eat at all.

With that distinction in mind, we Takeout writers recently found ourselves not-too-fondly reminiscing about the brokest—and sometimes poorest—times in our lives. We gratefully made it out that other side of that, but not without consuming more sad sandwiches and instant ramen than we’d care to remember. We’re thankful that these penny-pinching meals are in the rearview, and we can now afford to splurge on delicacies like $5 rotisserie chicken and imported gourmet fish. So readers, what are your broke-food staples?

Tear-salted sandwiches, and free Heineken


I had an internship my senior year of college at a fancy, glossy New York City-headquartered travel magazine. Job duties aside, the entire experience made me feel like a fraud: I was the weird intern with her eyebrow pierced who didn’t have the right clothes, didn’t have the right dinner reservations, didn’t even live in New York (Hoboken bridge-and-tunneler, baby). Because the internship was unpaid, I waited tables on the weekends, shared a dingy apartment, and ate a lot of cheap food.

My brown-bag lunch, pretty much without fail, was whatever pre-sliced meat was on sale that week, slapped on some cardboardy bread and smeared with store-brand mayo. Rather than suffer in the office cafeteria next to the staff with their lush salads and $17 sushi, I ate my sandwiches in Bryant Park and nervously contemplated how I was going to scrounge up enough quarters to do laundry. I couldn’t afford to go out for post-work happy hours either—$17 glass of house wine in Midtown, ha!—so other intern friends and I figured out which promotions/nightlife companies offered free happy hours, then tried to consume as much free beer (usually Heineken) as possible within the two-hour time frame before stumbling home to our crusty abodes. Last time I walked past Bryant Park while visiting New York, I could practically taste the slippery, wet turkey. [Kate Bernot]


A diet of leftover room-service toast and Silk Cut cigarettes


As someone who has spent her entire career in the journalism industry, I have often been/am broke. My first job was an editorial assistant making minimum wage—only a few blocks from the Onion office where I now work, actually; life sure is weird. Back then, like Kate and her pals, my twentysomething friends and I would head to the cantina across the street that had a taco bar happy hour. We lived off of single margaritas and free tacos.

But probably the brokest I’ve ever ben was a few years before that, when I took off to England after college and became a chambermaid. As soon as I got there, I realized that the money I’d brought wasn’t enough, and asked my mom to send me more money from my savings account (this is was in the long-ago days before electronic banking). The money was going to take two weeks to arrive, so I carefully averaged out the few pounds I had left to two quid a day. One and a half pounds went to a daily pack of Silk Cut cigarettes, which helped stop the hunger pangs. It wasn’t enough.


So, as chambermaid, I was in charge of picking up the room service trays. They always had toast on them, and the toast was usually untouched. So, while cleaning up hotel rooms and suites, I would ravenously devour those bread pieces with butter and orange marmalade, just like Paddington the bear. That toast made up a lot of my sustenance while I was in Brighton.

When the money finally arrived, I greedily took off to a local restaurant in the Brighton Lanes I’d been eyeing and ordered a lamb-and-apricot pie. Talk about a meal I’ll never forget: My stomach had shrunk so much that when the pie arrived, I could only eat a few bites, even though I was famished. When I came home from England months later, I was skinny and yellow from the bad diet and the cigarettes. Lord willing, never again. [Gwen Ihnat]


Dolled-up instant ramen and community dips


Before diving into the lucrative world of pop culture and food writing [laughs and cries simultaneously forever] I ran a little theater company, worked as a director, acted sometimes, all that stuff, meaning I was rarely home, always tired, and consistently broke. As a result, I got very good at making stuff fast that was cheap and not just a single slice of cold pizza (this is after the era in which I’d order a pizza and make it last four days). My favorite was dolled-up instant ramen, a method passed down to me by my friend Neal: Boil noodles, heat up olive oil or butter in pan, add 1/3-1/2 of the flavor packet, cook whatever vegetable was cheapest (usually broccoli, fresh or frozen) in little chunks, drain noodles, add to pan, cook for a couple minutes, eat and feel just a little less pathetic. I also added a lot of frozen veggies to macaroni and cheese.

But my favorite move was this: I got very good at figuring out when a bar was going to have some sort of free snacks or potluck night and going there to drink one huge beer and nothing else for about an hour. I have had so many community dips. [Allison Shoemaker]