NEW YORK -- To much of the world, it was Monday. To Mario Batali, it was Day Four.
The chef, his wife and their two teenage sons were eating for a week on the equivalent of a food stamp budget in protest of potential cuts pending in Congress to the benefit program used by more than 46 million Americans.
That’s $31 per person for the week, or about $1.48 per meal each.
Goodbye restaurants, free nibbles on his talk show "The Chew" and all the luxe offerings at Eataly, the high-end New York City market he co-owns. Hello Trader Joe’s, Jack’s Dollar Store, Gristedes and Western Beef, a low-cost supermarket chain.
"I’m (expletive deleted) starving," said Batali, who’s on the board of the food relief agency Food Bank for New York City, which issued the challenge to celeb pals like Batali and anybody else who wants to know what it’s like. The challenge ended last week with Baltalio within his budget.
Batali said his first reaction when asked to join was a big "gulp," then he realized while shopping for the start of the challenge that with a little forethought it wouldn’t be all that brutal.
One lesson: forget organic and anything pesticide- or hormone-free. "The organic word slides out and saves you about 50 percent.
So what’s on the Batali menu? Lentil chili with onion, water and cumin was one dinner that came with a complaint from his wife when he bought two bags of lentils instead of one, until he convinced her the extra cost would mean cheap eats for the next day.
"Rice and beans is in my lunch every day," Batali said. "We got a bag of mini gala apples for $3. We bought a pork shoulder roast for $8 and got two and a half meals out of it. I got a whole chicken for $5, but it was spoiled so I had to return it and got a $7 chicken instead. They were out of $5 chickens."
Convenience also has been sacrificed, like the afternoon his boys, 14 and 15, were running late and the family really wanted to grab hot dogs before a basketball game but couldn’t.
His kids are doing well and didn’t have to be dragged into what Batali described as less of a publicity stunt and more of a conversation starter about what it means to be hungry in America today.
"They’re having more peanut butter and jelly than they’ve had in the last 10 years because bread is inexpensive and peanut butter and jelly, if you buy it at the right place at the right time, is cheap," Batali said.
Also, the boys are eating school lunch, as those in low-income families do for free.
The Batalis were joined on the weeklong challenge by wholesale meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda, who has a new Food Network series, "Meat Men," Margarette Purvis, who heads the food bank, as well as more than 200 others who registered to complete the challenge. And anti-hunger groups in Las Vegas, Philadelphia and parts of Maryland and Ohio have led similar challenges over the last several months.
"Nearly 3 million New Yorkers have difficulty paying for the food they need," Purvis said. "They live in every single neighborhood. We’re not trying to compare the food stamp challenge to the very real challenges people face. We’re just trying to raise awareness that it’s no longer just the homeless. It’s working families who use the food stamp program. It’s seniors. It’s a lot more children, in every single neighborhood."
Any surprises for the chef?
"I thought spare ribs were cheap," Batali said. "Spare ribs this week are $5.95, so I’m making pasta sauce with two pork chops that were $1.39 a pound. It won’t have as many bones to chew on but it’ll have more edible meat, which at the end of the day is probably a better deal."
Subsisting on food stamps, especially when food is made from scratch, is doable, he said, "as a way to live, but certainly not as a way to thrive. You can always have pasta with tomato, but that’s not thriving."