How to make chili from nothing

All hail to the days that merit more praise
Than all the rest of the year,
And welcome the nights that double delights
As well for the poor as the peer!
Good fortune attend each merry man’s friend,
That doth but the best that he may;
Forgetting old wrongs, with carols and songs,
To drive the cold winter away.

–“In Praise of Christmas,” Anonymous, early 17th c.


Tonight–like so many others–there was nothing for supper. Or breakfast. Tired and overwhelmed at the end of a week of sick children and little time to breathe, I opened cabinets, refrigerator, and freezer in dismay. What could we possibly have for supper?

I’ve been feeling impoverished all week. There’s been a shortage of so many things in the wake of a nearly sleepless night with a child suffering from a stomach virus, followed by a restless night with a child snorting and snuffling like a rampaging buffalo due to a nasty cold. I haven’t had time to write. I haven’t had energy. I haven’t had much time with my husband, who’s in the throes of end-of-semester grading. It’s that tight time of the year–money is tight, time is tight, commitments begin to press in from all directions.

I can handle the big stuff. It’s the little things that make me frantic, that push me past the borders of “dealing with it” into the dark and frightening territory of “meltdown mode.” For some reason, it’s often food that stresses me out–planning healthy meals that everyone will eat, stretching a budget to do the grocery shopping, managing not to burn it all while breaking up fights and cleaning up after a sick dog and answering the phone and dealing with whatever other minor crises simultaneously arise.

Confession–I do NOT enjoy cooking.

I feel like I’m supposed to. Cooking is trendy. The universe is suddenly full of gourmets and foodies and sometimes I feel like I’m supposed to find some kind of ultimate fulfillment in preparing food. I love eating food. I also love growing it. But when it comes to cooking, I’d rather someone else bother. Maybe it’s because, for me, food preparation is fraught with too many other things–managing time, managing money, managing a household with a dog on her second round with cancer and two squirrelly little boys. Maybe I’d enjoy cooking if it was something I did in a vacuum.

So, tonight, feeling like Old Mother Hubbard, I rifled through cabinets, fretting until my husband offered to pick up burgers. I’m definitely not opposed to burgers, but for a mama who doesn’t like to cook, they’re much too tempting, and I have to fight to resist them. I found a random assortment of odds and ends–half a bag of frozen corn, a couple of cans of diced tomatoes, a bag of frozen “meatless crumbles” which, I can only assume, are cobbled together from the bits of veggies that no one wants to think about. With some spices and the creativity born of desperation, I made a sort of minimalist vegan chili and threw together a batch of cornbread muffins. And it was actually tasty.

While the chili simmered and the muffins baked, I mixed oats, flour, butter, and dried cranberries for granola tomorrow morning, since there was nothing for breakfast. And it hit me, there in my cozy if imperfectly stocked kitchen–I am rich. There are mamas and daddies out there who would possibly kill for the ingredients I take for granted, for the chance to send their children to sleep with full tummies. There are mamas who risk assault and death every single day to walk miles through war zones to haul home water and firewood, and I was complaining that there was nothing for supper. I didn’t have convenience food, but I had ingredients and the rudimentary knowledge needed to transform them into a meal.

And I had about a thousand tons of privilege.

More often than I like to admit, I’ve described myself as “poor,” as if I knew anything about what being poor really means. I don’t. I know what it means to stretch a budget, to go without something for a while, to barter zucchini for milk. But my kids have never lived in a car. I’ve never had to make decisions I might later regret in order to feed them. On the salaries of a teacher and a part-time tutor/unpublished writer, we don’t vacation much or buy a lot of Christmas presents, and some months we can barely make ends meet, but we have more than we need.

It’s the dark, cold time of the year. The days grow thin and the night widens, threatening to swallow us whole. I understand, with a bone-deep instinct, why my distant ancestors feared the dark, why they celebrated the sun’s return with wild abandon. Winter is a time of scarcity, and the closer you are to your own food supply, the more you feel it. To take even the smallest step toward your own food independence–by baking, planting a garden, raising chickens–is, ironically, to begin to realize exactly how dependent you are. Living in relationship with the organisms that feed you will flay your heart raw. You begin to cheer for the kale beneath its blanket of snow, to weep over hens you raised from balls of fluff.

“To grow your own tomatoes and can them–that, to me, is rich,” one of my friends once reflected. She was right. I’m wealthy. I don’t have a huge house, but I have the privilege of tending a little patch of good earth. I don’t have money for convenience food, but I have a smart mama who taught her kids to stretch a budget and to cook from scratch. I don’t always have the best attitude, either, but I’m trying. Every spring, my roots go a little deeper, and every winter’s rest brings new reflection. With every seed I place in the ground, a whispered blessing on my lips; with the small warm miracle of every egg, a perfect oval in my hand; with every tiny triumph of life and little tragedy of death on this not-quite-two-acres, I learn a little more about hope, and loss, and compassion.

Too often, I let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I don’t have “enough” time or “enough” energy, so I don’t write. I don’t have enough money. I don’t have enough food. I don’t have enough perspective to qualify what, exactly, enough means. Tonight, as I listen to Loreena McKennitt’s rendition of the old song “In Praise of Christmas,” the first verse resonates over and over in my mind. Are these nights truly as delightful for the poor as the peer? Where are the poor on these cold nights before Christmas? What disservice do I do by claiming to be among them when I’m drowning in my own privilege?

But then comes the redemption: Good fortune attend each merry man’s friend, That doth but the best that he may.

In the end, that is all that I can hope for–to learn from my mistakes. To try until I do better, if not perfectly. To do but the best that I may. So I’m going to check my privilege at the door and stop using the word “poor” in reference to myself. Maybe I also need to stop using the word “enough,” at least in the ways I’ve been using it. Because the truth of the matter is that I have enough, and more than enough. I have enough time to write, though it may not always come exactly when I want it. I have enough energy. And even when there’s “nothing to eat,” there’s still plenty to cook, and a world of experiences with which to savor it. Time to take the raw ingredients I’ve got and get to work. It’s up to me to make something of them.

6 thoughts on “How to make chili from nothing

  1. A few random thoughts prompted by your essay:

    We very much enjoy cooking on those special occasions when we can plan and block out the time for it. The rest of the time it is just a thing that must be done to refuel. And all the more onerous, the more other demands on us there are.

    We saw a BBC show recently about a secret baking club which, in response to the pressure on home bakers from shows like Great British Bakeoff, lets their members bake cakes that are not perfect. Not perfect. What renegades.

    We are very aware of our privilege when “nothing to eat” just means “nothing we feel like eating right now” rather than literally nothing edible in the house.

    Lovely essay.

  2. Brenna, my heart goes out to you with the week you have been having! I hope your younguns feel better soon. And please don’t let me be a part of that list of things to do that can get overwhelming. We’ll get there when we get there. 🙂

    (Confession: I don’t like cooking either. There. I said it.)

    1. I am so glad I’m not the only one!!! 🙂 You’re not part of the overwhelm at all; I’m looking forward to your questions whenever it suits. On weeks like this, it’s really lovely to be able to say to my husband, “Hey, I have this commitment-thingy, so you’re going to have to man the fort here for a while.” 😉

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