When I Was Poor

Back when I could still afford cable, I became obsessed with the Food Network. As I suspect is the case with most fans, not a single of the countless hours I spent plopped down in front of the tube even remotely inspired me to actually cook. No, I just enjoyed watching people more successful than me eat food more delicious than mine. It was voyeuristic and fabulous, watching Bobby Flay pad around his rooftop Brooklyn pleasure palace. Damn, that guy has a sweet patio and great hair, doesn't he? From the darkened confines of my hovel-like studio apartment, I thought to myself, "I wonder what that guy ate back when he was broke?"

Years later, I'm still curious. So much of popular food culture seems predicated on having a big fat wallet. One glimpse of Barefoot Contessa and I'm in bed for a week, lamenting the cruel Hamptons-free state of my existence. Living in a city of glorious cheap eats, I know money and great food don't need to go hand-in-hand. Still, I don't often see anything on TV or in food magazines that even remotely reflects the lifestyle I know. It would be awesome to know what famous chefs and food folk were eating, and what they thought about food, before they hit it big. Right?

And so, to kick off what I hope will be a long-running and unbelievably popular series, Ed Hardy, not the fictional t-shirt designer but the Sous-Chef for Red Rooster Harlem and a frequent Food Republic contributor, answers the initial installment of the "When I Was Poor" questionnaire. Hardy is a Virginia native who graduated from the University of Virginia before moving to New York City and enrolling in the French Culinary Institute.

Ed, take it away...

Can you recall the first pangs of your foodie awakening? Describe your first "a-ha" food moment.

I'll give you two. The first involves actual pangs, not the good foodie kind. While at an apartment grill party circa 1993, I found myself drunkenly staring at a mysterious bottle left out next to the grill. The label had no other marking other than a curious title: "Endorphine Rush." An upperclassman dared me to take a swig. Not one to refuse a challenge, I responded with gusto. I spent the rest of the night huddled next to the refrigerator, chugging cold milk, chewing ice and eating potato rolls. After the pain subsided, though, I found that my curiosity had been awakened about what other food extremes might be out there.

My other foodie awakening happened on late-night cable. Around 1997, I believe. I was flipping channels with a friend when I stumbled upon the original Iron Chef on Food Network. I was completely awestruck. It was like I had discovered buried treasure. The sheer over-the-topness of the production. We watched in silent appreciation, daring only to speak during the commercials.

What was (or is) your go-to money-saving food tip or practice?

I had what you would call an "extended" college career. After nine years of undergraduate "work" I think the university gave me an extra degree just to get me to leave and stop corrupting my fellow students. So, I'm not a bad person to ask about stretching a dollar. During my time there, I figured out all the Alumni Hall events with free food and I joined clubs that consistently had events with free food. Of course, I disappeared before it was time to collect the annual dues.

My favorite money saving tip? Have a backyard grill party. (We Southerners don't say "Barbecue" unless we mean it). I would go out and buy a bag of charcoal and a cheap keg ($50) and as the French say, voilà! My friends would come bearing food and more liquor, and inevitably most of the leftovers would be left in my fridge. A case of unopened frozen burgers, hot dogs, cheese and 5 lbs. of pasta salad would have me set for a week, and the keg was a purchase that kept on giving. All this for what? A small investment in a bag of charcoal.

Did Gourmet Magazine Make You Feel Like A Loser, or Was That Just Me?

My early time in food was definitely an oral tradition. Hushed whispers between college buddies about which recipe might make co-eds swoon. Secret off-the-menu orders at college hangouts, such as grillswith, a secret grilled doughnut and ice cream recipe that only existed in my college town of Charlottesville.

Had I known about the joys of Gourmet I would have used it as a valuable resource. Unfortunately, I thought it was just another magazine for housewives.

So, when when everyone I know was microwaving ramen, what were you eating?

Pasta. Lots of Pasta. Paired, of course, with a link or two from a 10 lb. bulk pack of generic sausage purchased from Sam's Club. Finished with butter, Texas Pete and, if I was feeling like being healthy, a scallion or some sliced garlic. My stomach still hasn't forgiven me.

Also, at every opportunity: Chanello's Cheese sticks. Fantastic in every way, now no longer available as Chanello's in my college town has sadly closed.

Can you leave us with an ultra-cheapo recipe?

Recipe: "Ants Climb Trees"Ingredients: