Updated: Jan 19, 2019
" You've got to be poor to eat potatoes"
(Jump to 1:13 to get to the meat of the scene)
It's a line from the Good, the Bad, and Ugly. Or maybe it's some other Clint Eastwood film. I don't know, its hard for me to keep them all straight. I never really paid attention to them, but they were the background noise of my childhood- my dad watching them religiously while he cleaned his guns from his work as a deputy sheriff. But I am willing to find out where its from, so I googled it. Turns out, its an obscure quote, I had to do some digging to find it. But I did. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I was right.
Every time my mom served us potatoes as a part of a meal, or someone ordered it in a restaurant, my dad would quote this line. I guess you could say it's a family joke now. That line from that movie repeated so frequently, that you have begun to expect it. "You've got to be poor to eat potatoes."
I grew up loving potatoes. I would eat baked potatoes every meal. I became kind of well known amongst my extended family for the way I would eat them. I would cut the potato in half, slather each side with butter and sprinkle with some Lawry's seasoning salt. Then I would eat it layer by layer until the potato resembled a miniature canoe. I would then fill my canoe with bacon bits (the real ones from Costco mind you) and cheese and microwave for a minute. I would then eat my delicious potato skins. If I was feeling fancy I would use green onions as well, or dip them in ranch. Potatoes were such an obsession of mine, that I used to carry the necessary Lawry's in my purse. One of the last gifts my grandmother gave me before she died was a handmade bag that you can microwave potatoes in to cook them faster and make them taste like they were oven baked. She made it out of fabric covered with potatoes.
Potato chips too. Oh man were they a weakness. I got my first job when I was 16, and I guarantee that at least 75% of my income between the ages 16 and 18 was spent on potato chips, specifically Lays Limon and Chile Limon flavors. It was really unhealthy.
At some point, I became more heath conscious and stopped eating potatoes all together, except for the occasional french fry that accompanied a meal out, or maybe a potato dish shared with family on a holiday.
Over the years, I changed my diet to be extremely healthy. Fresh meat and green veggies with maybe a rice or pasta side for every meal. I hiked hundreds of miles every summer (although that really began in 2015), but still I was overweight and nothing I did ever made any difference. I still only ever gained weight.
Last March, I was finally given a diagnosis. Among other things, one of my main issues is the way my body processes carbs and other sugars. In other words, because of this syndrome, it doesn't. I was not to eat carbs at all. What do you mean? Eating rice and pasta is what is causing my weight gain? Rice is a sugar? Was it all the potatoes I used to consume that caused this issue? Was it purely genetics? I was left with so many questions. All I know is that I was told to give up all carbs if I wanted to have children someday, or if I wanted to avoid getting diabetes. As it is, this diagnosis means I am pre-diabetic and every day I take my Metformin to hopefully prevent me from becoming insulin dependent someday.
In other words. Potatoes are a huge no no. At least in my world.
If you know or follow me, you probably know that I work for the National Park Service. On December 21st the government shut down. I was furloughed. I now know that at some point I will receive backpay, but for the first three weeks of this mess, I didn't know. Here I was, forced to stay home from a job I loved so much, not allowed to find another job because of ethics considerations and wondering when or if I would finally see another paycheck. I am still wondering that now. We are living off of savings, my husbands measly $1500 a month as a teacher in Montana, and help from family.
"You've got to be poor to eat potatoes"
I have never considered myself anything but poor. I took a job where I knew that I would be lucky someday to make $50,000 a year (I am still nowhere even close to that, even as a perm employee). There is a common saying that park rangers are paid in sunsets, and I know this to be true. I took this job because I am passionate about the places I help protect, because I believed in the mission of the National Park Service, because I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself. I had other options. Time and time again I was offered photography jobs that paid much more. Jobs I never even applied for, but was just offered. But I turned them down. The NPS was where my heart was and that's where I needed to stay. This decision had consequences. There were times in my life when I was employed full time, but I still would walk to a visitor center or trailhead to use the restroom because I couldn't afford toilet paper. I have close to $100,000 in student loans, and until 2017, was making about $12K a year with a college education. That doesn't really add up. Maybe I should have made smarter financial decisions about my college education, but at 18 who really is thinking about that? Who really understands what they are getting into? I certainly didn't. I took out loans thinking "this isn't a big deal, once I graduate I will get a good paying job and pay it off immediately." I didn't fully understand the extent of it.
Things are much better now financially, or at least they were before this mess. I make more money than I used to, and I also have my husband's income to supplement. I still have my side hustle of photography that does earn me some money, but every penny I earn off my photography I try to invest back into it with better lenses and gear. Besides my student loans, and our two car payments, we are debt free. We have no credit card debt or line of credit. We had a lot of medical bills last year between the two of us, and those are all paid off in full. We will never be rich, but we were comfortable. Comfortable enough where I could go to the grocery store and put whatever food I needed or desired in the cart and not have to think twice about it.
That's changed since December 21st. I won't lie and say we are really struggling. At least compared to a lot of my coworkers. We are the lucky ones. My husband still as a job outside the federal government, so we still have some money coming in. Many of those in the NPS are dual career -meaning both halves of the couple work for the parks. This makes sense when you consider the remote location of these places and the lack of jobs in surrounding communities. For them, they have no income right now. We don't have children to feed. We have no credit card debt. I had already paid all my bills through April prior to the shutdown. We are lucky enough to have family in a position to help us financially, and they have. Comparatively, we are unscathed. But not everyone is as lucky as us. Every day I hear stories from my coworkers, and while they are not my stories to share, trust me, many people are suffering. Many of them don't know how they will pay rent, and if this lasts much longer some might be homeless. In Montana, in the winter. I can't fathom that amount of stress.
But those of us in the NPS are service oriented. Its why we chose to be Public Servants. We aren't the "fat lazy government employees" so many like to claim we are. We can't just sit around at home. Even those that are suffering the most. So we have been filling our days with volunteer work. A group of us have been spending our days at the food bank, Habitat for Humanity or the Humane Society (where I am headed later this morning). Its been giving us a chance to give back to our community, reconnect with each other, and distract ourselves from our current situation. The first day we volunteered at the food bank, one of the very first things we were told was "Take all the potatoes you want when you leave." You see, the food bank has a program with a local partner where they match in dollars, how much food is donated in pounds. They quickly figured out that the heaviest food to be donated was potatoes, and so to get the most money from their partner, tons of potatoes were donated. Literal tons. 37,000 pounds to be exact.
"You've got to be poor to eat potatoes"
As soon as I saw the pallets of potatoes, this quote jumped in my head. It made me smile to remember us all groaning and rolling our eyes as my dad once again quoted the movie at dinner. But I also knew in that moment, that I would be taking some potatoes home. You see, maybe I am not supposed to eat them, and maybe we might be comparatively lucky, but until this shutdown ends, I can't afford to be picky about what I eat. We have money now, but if this shutdown continues to drag on, that might not be the case. So in the meantime, I am not in a position to turn them down. We have got to eat something. Even though the food bank offers boxes of other food to us every time we help them out, I don't feel comfortable taking it from someone who might need it more. Someday, I will be paid, I have that to look forward to. They don't. But I will take the potatoes. They have 37,000 pounds they need to get rid of. It will help us both out if I take the potatoes. I take a bag home.
Every day that week I eat baked potatoes for lunch. I have grown now, I have matured. I no longer microwave my potatoes like an impatient child. I cover them with olive oil and salt and bake them in the oven for an hour like the adult I am. They taste more delicious than I remember. I ask myself am I using this shutdown as an excuse to eat poorly? Maybe? Who cares. These potatoes were free and they taste amazing. After one of the volunteer days, I make my way to Costco and splurge on some bacon bits to spice things up. Potatoes every meal. I ask my friends for potato recipes. I experiment, I am pleased with the results. Gosh. How did I live without potatoes in my life this long?
"You've got to be poor to eat potatoes"
The next time we volunteer at the food bank we are asked to sort the potatoes. Pallets and pallets of potatoes from Costco in which there may be one rotten potato per each bag but the rest are fine. We are to pick out the bad potatoes and put them in trash bags for the pig farmers to take home for their troths. We then rebag the potatoes into bags of smaller quantities to give away. We set up four tables in a little square and stand across from each other as hundreds of pounds of potatoes are dumped in middle of the table in front of us to sort. For hours we do this task. We remark and laugh about the awful smell. We joke. We try and find the most disgusting potato. We throw potatoes at each other. We catch up with each other. We check in with each other. We know that we are not alone. It's reassuring. It's comforting. Somewhere in that mess of potatoes, my stress fades away. All I can think about is the people around me and the potatoes in front of me. I forget that it may be months before I see another paycheck.
"You've got to be poor to eat potatoes"
Once again, I leave the food bank with a plethora of potatoes to eat. Only this time, I see a purpose in the abundance. We are attending a potato potluck tonight. The first of what I think will be many among us furloughed NPS employees. We make potato wedges. I try out a new seasoning of smoked paprika, garlic, and chives. It's delicious. I am surprised. Every one else's dishes are amazing as well. Well except for the scalloped potatoes, which I personally did not try, because I had already eaten my fill of the other dishes before they came out of the oven. But the chef said the potatoes didn't cook long enough and they were still hard. The hard scalloped potatoes become a running theme of the evening. The night is filled with potato references. As we play games in the vein of "create your own response", many of our names and answers are potato themed. I laugh until I cry multiple times in the evening. Who knew potatoes could be so funny.
As I watch the clip from the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the scene doesn't end with him saying "You've got to be poor to eat potatoes." He goes on to say "I am rich, but I am lonely. The world is divided into two parts: Those who have friends, and those who are lonely like me."
Maybe we are poor right now. Maybe we will always be poor. Maybe the 800,000 of us suffering through this shutdown are filled with anxiety and dread. Maybe I am poor enough to eat potatoes when I know it could have significant consequences for me. But there is one thing I am not, and its lonely. I am surrounded by an amazing community here in Glacier. A community that supports each other. A community that understands each other. A community that serves and laughs together. A community that helps each other out. And I would rather be poor and eating potatoes with my friends than rich and lonely.