I open the large envelope, slowly. I know, in general, what I’ll find within: it is not good news but, obsessive/compulsive that I am, I want specifics, so I forge ahead.
Inside the envelope is the latest report on the status of my meager investments. I need to know how dismal things have become. I have, after all, followed the advice of my investment counselor and kept money in the market, based on the assertion that “at some point, things will get better.”
This, I don’t doubt; I know all about up and down, ebb and flow. What I am beginning to doubt, however, is that I will live to experience things getting better.
There is an intro page in the packet, which I skip. There is nothing more distressing than a letter from the president of the company or the bank, acknowledging the difficulties encountered in trying times, promising that the staff is working day and night for my benefit and that of other investors. Well, perhaps there is something worse: when the packet bears a return address for a post office box in the Cayman Islands.
I don’t get past page two of the packet; I don’t have to. Page two contains a graph. The red line on the graph plummets down as it moves to the right across the page. I assume the line then moves off the bottom edge of the page, to my lap, off my lap to the floor, through the floor to the basement, through the foundation, finally stopping somewhere two to three thousand feet below the surface of the earth.
I sit in a large chair in the living room, the document from the investment firm slipping from my spasming hand and fluttering to the floor. I am gripped at that moment by a vision: I am dressed in a pair of bib overalls and I am wearing a large straw hat with several holes in its brim. I stand, hunched over, in the middle of a dusty field, a harsh sun beating down on me. There are a number of troublesome lesions on my forehead; I have rickets due to a lack of Vitamin C-bearing citrus fruits in my diet. I carry a long stick, with which I attempt to unearth mutant, moldy potatoes from the dry soil.
A skeletally thin youngster — let’s call him Clem — limps across the field to my side. His left leg is an inch or two shorter than his right leg and he has attempted, unsuccessfully, to prop up his left side with a wooden block lashed beneath his foot. Clem carries a stick and he also begins to dig. As we work, I regale Clem with stories of the good old days, before bundled bad mortgages and zombie banks, before failed bailouts and golden parachutes, before ruined industries and deserted cities in the Rust Belt, before the Great, Great Depression — the Great Great Depression that followed the Great Recession and the subsequent moves by a wealthy few and their pet legislators to ease restrictions once again, playing the law game for the benefit of huge banks, corporations and Wall Street firms.
I’m thirsty, but I’ve already consumed my day’s ration of a quart of water. The heat is unbearable and the rash on my abdomen itches. I feel things crawling inside my threadbare underwear, I breathe heavily, fluid gurgling in my lungs and I lean on my stick. “You know, kid, there was a time I had a nice house and some money in the bank, but that was before all the small banks collapsed and the government ignored them so it could bail out the giants and the big brokerage firms. Had a car, too, before gas prices got so high you couldn’t afford to drive — back when they still made a few cars here in the USA. Had investments, too.”
“Huh. What’s invesmens?” I notice that Clem has one blue eye and one brown eye. The blue eye is untethered, the unfocused eyeball rolling lazily from side to side in its socket. The brown eye fixes on me. A bit of cloudy drool seeps from the corner of Clem’s crooked mouth.
“Never mind, Clem. Oooh, look, you missed one. It’s little, but the bugs haven’t got to it yet.”
With that, my vision dissolves and I am back to the reality of my situation: a descending red line, money as mere numbers, life in a modern economy in which the rich want to be richer, where the middle class erodes to nothing, where gullible fools watch bought-and-paid-for cable news channels and are convinced by talk show hosts that the rich will allow their wealth to trickle down to hardworking folk below, if only the rich are set free to exercise their stunning creativity. The wealth will trickle down, much as urine and shit trickle down through the drainpipes at the mansion, flowing to the bacteria living in the cesspool buried in the yard.
A tsunami of despair races toward my emotional shore, and I am washed to the grocery store. Whenever I feel down, I go to the market, if for no other reason than bright lights, zippy music and bold colors perk me up.
Food does that as well but, as I wander the aisles toting the baggage of my financial distress, I am more prone than ever to check prices. The Farm Bill, the let’s-grow-more-corn high fructose corn syrup lobby, Monsanto, ConAgra and OPEC continue to push prices higher, and quality down. My despair deepens, and I decide to craft a less-is-more meal, something to be eaten off a microwave-safe plate on a TV tray at the same time a group of Wall Street Brokers fly first class to Japan in order to enjoy a $600-plus-per-diner dinner at Kitcho, in Kyoto.
I come to the store thinking I will cook up a load of snazzy chicken cutlets — the skinless breasts halved, the halves pounded out to a thickness of a quarter inch or so, the cutlets dredged in seasoned flour, dipped in egg wash and covered with seasoned breadcrumbs before being fried. I check the price of boneless chicken breasts and the idea evaporates. Instead, I find a pack of what is, allegedly, ground chicken breast meat — at half the price. That’ll do. It’ll have to.
I check the cost of organic greens. Unbelievable. I find a pack of prewashed slaw blend. Cheap, good roughage. Cabbage, after all, got the Russians through World War II.
Lemons are still reasonably priced. I snag two. Spuds? Why not? After all, I am destined to end my life in an utterly miserable fashion, scratching tubers from the dying soil with a stick, in the company of a kid whose father’s sperm had no tails. I buy two large russets and one large sweet potato. Onions are still cheap. I get one. As I put it my basket I remember my Dad telling me about the onion sandwiches he ate in the ’30s, when times were tough. I’ll make an onion sandwich for lunch the next day.
Everything else I need for this modified Depression-era meal, I have at home. Some of these ingredients — capers and shaved Parmesan cheese, for example — are expensive, and once I use up my stock, they will be mere memories, like profits from my investments. I’ll keep the caper bottle as a souvenir.
When I get home, I take the ground chicken from its sleek petroleum-based plastic tub and put the flesh in a bowl. I add some finely minced white onion, salt, pepper and dried tarragon. There are two problems with ground chicken breast meat: a general lack of flavor (which I mitigate with the onion and seasoning) and a tendency to dry out when cooked. This I deal with in a simple way: I add a couple teaspoons of mayonnaise, one beaten egg and half a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. I sprinkle in some panko breadcrumbs and shredded Parmesan as a binder and mix everything well. Into the fridge the mix goes, for fifteen minutes or so.
In the meantime, I assemble a breading station: a pan with seasoned flour (salt, pepper, some tarragon and a pinch of Espanola red), a pan with egg wash, and a pan with seasoned panko (salt, pepper and a healthy measure of the Parmesan). I prepare the potatoes. I peel the russets then chop them into half-inch cubes. I do the same with the sweet potato. The potatoes are par cooked in boiling, salted water until they can be pierced with the tip of a paring knife, then drained. I chop half a white onion.
I heat a cast iron skillet over medium high heat and, when it is hot, add olive oil. When the oil is hot, in go the potatoes, with some salt. The spuds are spread across the surface of the pan, and left for at least five minutes; they’re turned, spread, and left alone for five minutes more, the surfaces of the cubes browning. I happen to like slightly charred sweet potato — the intense carmelization brings out the sugary quality of the potato. If you are not partial to this, and want to merely brown the potatoes, turn the heat down a bit. More oil is added, if necessary. Finally, in go the onions, and the heat is turned down to low and the pan covered. When the onions soften, I add a clove of garlic, chopped and mushed, a bit more Kosher salt, black pepper, some ground cumin and dried oregano.
Then, it’s on to the chicken. I form large patties, take each patty and dredge it in the flour, dip each patty in the egg wash, then put it into the crumbs, patting it down to ensure an even, heavy coating.
I heat another pan (stainless, not cast iron, because acid is part of the medley) over medium high heat and, when it is hot, in goes olive oil and butter, with the butter browned just a bit. In go the patties and they are fried until they are golden brown on one side, then flipped. When both sides are toasty good, the patties come out of the pan and on to a warm plate at the back of the stove. A touch more oil goes into the pan, in goes half a white onion, minced, and it is stirred constantly until the onion softens (I don’t want it brown). Then I hurl in a couple cloves of garlic, mushed, and deglaze with chicken broth and a splash of dry white wine. I squeeze in the juice of two lemons and reduce the liquid by half. At that point, in go some rinsed and chopped capers, some chopped parsley, a bit of salt and some pepper, and a half cup or so of leftover green peas (waste not, want not). The liquid is reduced a bit more; in go several gobs of butter, and the chicken patties. The heat is turned to low, the patties flipped after a minute or so.
Oh, yeah. The chicken is moist and flavorful (the toasty-tasting and somewhat sodden crust adding a nice flavor undertone) and the sauce is great dribbled over chicken and spuds.
For crunch, the slaw mix, with the addition of a little minced onion, a bit of mayo, a splash of lemon juice, some coarse Dijon mustard, salt and pepper.
While I have cut costs, this meal is not going to come in at less than ten bucks — my hard times maximum. No way. And, with trends continuing, this could be an extravagant meal in a couple years’ or months’ time. Certainly way too expensive for Clem and me.
But, I can tell Clem all about it, right after I regale him with stories of orderin’ that there fancy French wine over the Internet back in the good old days.
“Huh, what’s the innernest?”
“Dig, Clem. Dig. At some point, things will get better.”