Pub date November 7, 2007
WriterL.E. Leone
SectionCheap EatsSectionFood & Drink


CHEAP EATS On my last night at my mom’s house, Jean Gene the Frenchman brought over a pile of greens from the garden where my sisters live. It was starting to get dark, so I had to wash and chop in a hurry. No electricity. What once was a hard-working, law-abiding kitchen sink is surrounded by white buckets and rust-tinted glass jars of water.

I didn’t ask where the water came from, just poured a couple of cups into a bowl and washed 10 pounds of greens in it, concocting a brackish sort of health food soup for chickens: all bugs and grit.

While I was working, Uncle Sonny and Cher, my mom’s brother, came over to talk about property. In question: 12 acres of swampy scrubland and prickly woods outside Youngstown, Ohio, the poorest place in America (small-city size and up). The property is worth about 85¢. My uncle uses it for hunting deer and harvesting mushrooms.

He bow-hunts — hasn’t killed anything there for years — but the land is important to him. It’s important to my mom because she lives on it. There’s another brother and another sister. Like me, they all grew up there and have strange, dreamy connections to the weeds and ditches, the crippled trees, the smell of mud puddles, and 85¢ worth of security. My guess is that they are going to need lawyers to sort it out.

"Papa said never sell the property," my mom assures or reassures her brother. "As long as you have the property," she says my grandpa said, "you will never starve."

The night before, for dinner, we ate dandelion greens and chicory. For dessert: purple-tipped clover — sweet but calorically wanting. After, I found some old popcorn in a closet, popped it in olive oil over a propane stove in the garage, and ate it at the wood stove, in the dark. My mom wouldn’t have any, on account of salt. Oh, and oil.

It’s very quiet at night. You don’t even hear frogs or crickets, let alone refrigerators, and I slept like a baby in the bed in the living room, which Grandma had just died in. After three nights on a train, sitting up, I was going to sleep no matter what, but my mom, on the couch, lullabied me with a soft, hypnotically cadenced lecture on the health risks of synthetic estrogen. In a nutshell, I was going to die. Blood clots, breast cancer, liver disease … somewhere between a stroke and a heart attack, I lost consciousness. My dreams were untroubled.

Woke up to my mom’s voice complaining to a local politician over the phone about I forget which chemical in the water. Then I knew that she was going to be OK.

Aunt Sonny and Cher, Uncle Sonny and Cher informed me later that day, is jealous of my hair. I took the greens out to the garage and sautéed them in olive oil with garlic, onions, and hot peppers. I found two dusty bottles of homemade wine, one half empty, the other half full, both long turned to something beyond vinegar. I figured this would either preserve my room-temperature greens for three more days on the train or kill me immediately.

If there is one thing that I would like this column to accomplish, it is to dispel the myth that there is anything to eat on trains. Where did this rumor get started? Johnny Cash? ("I bet there’s rich folks eating in them fancy dining cars / Prob’ly drinking coffee and smoking big cigars.")

Well sir, while Amtrak might be one notch above the airlines, eats-wise, it’s many, many notches below your neighborhood greasy spoon. The burger, whether you get it from the lounge car snack counter or sit-down style in the dining car, starts out frozen. Pizza’s limp and lame. Even the grilled-chicken Caesar salad is prepackaged. Why? They have refrigeration.

I did not have a cooler. Without beef jerky and a bag of apples I would have perished on the way out. For the way back I had this 32-ounce container of preserved greens to keep me alive and, ur, regular. They tasted great until day three, until now. Reno just came into view. It’s lunchtime, and I’m afraid of my greens.

Last night, for the sake of argument, I had a half-chicken dinner in the dining car ($12.50). It sucked. Still, I highly recommend train travel. West of Denver the scenery is spectacular. And you meet people.

Guys are hitting on me, for example. Two guys, currently. One drinks beer for breakfast, and the other is wanted in New Jersey. "Nothing serious," he assures me.

I believe him and am charmed.