By Moses E. Ochonu
Bone is the perfect anatomical metaphor for poverty and lack. Barren, dry, and unappealing, it represents absence, the absence of meat — the absence of desirable, edible flesh, the absence of usable, edifying substance. Bone also represents presence and possibility. Presence because, even in the midst of the barrenness, a resourceful eater and seeker can salvage some meat, some muscle meat, cartilage, fat, or skin from a piece of bone. To the rich and wasteful, bone bespeaks uselessness and futility; to the poor and frugal it represents possibilities.
How can we locate poverty in bone or vice versa? The thing with bone is that when you’re poor, you have a culinary familiarity with it — chicken bone, fish bone, cow bone, goat bone. Unable to afford meat, the bony, cheaper part of the butcher’s ware is the poor man’s option. The bone is a necessity but one laden with opportunity. It is this prospect for salving what little meat is left on the bone that forges the connection between poverty and yearning on one hand, and the metaphor of the bone.
This window of meaty opportunity is possible because bone is rarely completely bare. It often carries little pieces of meat, of protein. Eating bony meat is thus a delight for the poor. It makes him appreciate meat more because getting meat off bone is hard work. With the bone, you earn your meat. You savor it more as a result. You caress the bone, you master salvaging techniques, techniques for denuding bone of any soft matter — muscle, marrow, or cartilage. It is a lesson in resourcefulness; it sharpens your aptitude for problem solving, tenacity, and persistence. Bone eating teaches you not to give up. It teaches you that what seems bare and useless may hold treasures profitable to the patient and determined.
Not to romanticize poverty and bone eating, but there is something alluring about poverty, and bone eating. In the moment, poverty and bone eating may seem like compulsive conditions that no one would willfully embrace, a condition thrust upon the unlucky from which he is desperate to escape. But bone eating, as well as the poverty that often spawns it, acquire a distant, historical charm when one no longer has to eat bone and can afford real meat.
In the moment of poverty, you think bone eating is undignifying but inevitable. You envy those who eat meats and do not have to pick bones clean of their residual flesh — until you too join the meat eating class, until you are awash with meats of every kind and can choose which animal’s flesh you want for dinner. Then bone becomes something you miss, bone eating a rare, longed-for privilege, a privilege that gives you a different appreciation for man’s quest for meaty proteins.
Once you are in meaty abundance or have regular access to meat, you miss the quest for meat, the serendipitous discovery of meat, and the reward you get from probing a piece of bone. All of these pleasures can only come from bone eating, and poverty, not from meat eating and abundance. If you no longer have to work for your meat, meat eating becomes a perfunctory, banal dietary routine, a mechanical observance of the need for protein in one’s diet. Abundance and access are killers of appetites and dullers of palates. Lack and scarcity enable you to savor that which is scarce on the few occasions when you can taste it.
The allure of poverty, along with its quotidian expressions, is not only expressed in the dietary domain, and it is not only those who used to eat bone, who used to eat poor, that now romanticize and glamorize the sights and sounds of poverty. Poverty tourism, whether to the townships of South Africa, Ajegunle in Nigeria, or to the favelas of Brazil, is a feel good, almost nostalgic attempt to connect or reconnect to poverty. Only the well off indulges in this kind of tourism. Romanticized, sexy poverty is a construct of privilege.
Poverty porn comes in many forms. Save-the children commercials on US cable TV requires that poor children and sometimes adults be filmed at the site of poverty, whether this is the Kibera slum of Nairobi or a garbage dump in Guatemala. They also require that poor children be shown to be doing things that poor people purportedly do, including scavenging for food or licking a piece of bone for shards of meat.
Whether we grew up privileged or poor, once we find ourselves as adults in positions of relative socioeconomic privilege, we begin to participate consciously or subconsciously in memorializing the objects we associate experientially or vicariously with poverty. It is as though we resent our current privilege or are haunted by the guilt it produces. Poverty and its quotidian markers suddenly become for us elements of a deeper humanity unmoored to the tyranny of capitalist consumerism, of which we have become a part. Our newfound fondness for the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of poverty is a product, ironically, of cornucopia. From this vantage point of privilege, vicarious poverty and excursions to the emotions and practices we associate with hardship can assuage and edify in equal measures.
For those who grew up in lack, the journey back to romanticized moments of poverty can be particularly satisfying, whether the return is dietary or otherwise.
I grew up eating a lot of bone and cartilage because we could not regularly afford muscle meat except on special occasions — Christmas, Easter, and New Year celebrations, and when we had important visitors deemed deserving of a meaty treat. We counted on the visitor not to eat all the meat on offer and we were almost always right in our expectation.
As children, we dreamt of a time in the future when we would no longer fight with bone to get some meat off it — when we would eat meat boneless and without much effort, and whenever we wanted. In fact we constructed elaborate fantasies of a future of meaty abundance. Poverty has a way of producing daydreams of possibilities. Poverty, I would argue, is perhaps the biggest muse of them all. For when you’re poor, the future and the expectations you have for it become a blank, inviting canvas upon which you can graft all manner of stories that take you away from your present conditions and to an imagined, escapist future.
As a child I had my own fantastical stories actuated by lack and scarcity, and almost all of them were structured by one thing: food. I imagined what foods the rich folks were eating. I fantasized about how I might someday be eating the same things. Fantastical stories of dietary revelry and indulgence flowed with particular torrential fervor when one ate a bone. You never got enough meat off the bone from your striving to satisfy your craving for meat. Fantasies replaced that which was unavailable, filled the gap, the absence. You wished you could get more meat from the bone, so your imagination produced a futuristic fantasy where eating meat would not require the presence or intrusion of bone. Fantasies filled the void of scarcity.
Growing up, I encountered other fantastical stories of poverty, which were told in the binary lexicon of lack and abundance, in the vernacular of scanty eating and gluttonous indulgence. I remember a particular distant cousin of ours who came from the village to live with us for a while. He told a lot of stories, most of them flavored with the tantalizing metaphors of food. Some of his stories were not stories but profound philosophical commentaries on the themes of poverty and wealth. His musings were all borne of poverty, a conclusion I came to in later years. He seemed preoccupied with making sense of his condition relative to that of his imagined, richer and more well nourished Others.
My cousin was older than us and so we gravitated to his stories because we thought they came from a place of experience. Moreover, the stories spoke to our inner anxieties and yearnings. Once, in a moment of hunger, he uttered one of the most melodramatic yet insightful philosophical statements on the relationship between wealth and consumption I have ever heard. It’s much funnier and profound when said in our dialect of the Idoma language, but I’ll give translation a shot. Essentially, my cousin said the rich had so much food and so little appetite that all they did was peck at the food like a bird pecks at grain with her beak. He went on to mention a bewildering variety of foods and meats, including drinks and cigarettes, which he smoked. The rich, he concluded were routinely guilty of under-eating, of wasting food.
My cousin was, of course, projecting his dietary fantasies onto his imagined Others — rich people who did not know how to eat or savor food because they had too much of it. Even as a child the metaphor of the bird’s beak and the meager, reluctant eating it represented made an impression on me. I never forgot the mental image of rich folks pecking at, instead of devouring, their sumptuous plates of assorted foods and meats. It spoke at once to my hopes of reaching a state of abundance where food meant nothing and could be pecked at, and my immediate hope of being confronted with culinary abundance so that I would do to food what the rich could not do to it. I wanted to show the rich how to eat, what to do to food. Pecking at food seemed disrespectful to food and to the fine art of eating. It became one of my goals to get to a station in life where I would at once correct the dietary infractions of the rich and, should I choose to, engage in this strange, rich people’s habit of pecking at food.
Other stories of poverty, lack, and fantastical consumption spiced up my childhood. I remember one distant relative who was about graduating from a teachers college. In those days, graduation from a teachers college guaranteed instant employment as a primary school teacher, hence its popularity among Nigerians desirous of a quick return on their secondary education. This young man was months away from a job and a steady income, months away from escaping poverty and lack, or so he thought. This imminent, imagined financial certainty sparked strange aspirations in my cousin. He boasted that when he became a teacher he would indulge himself by making fufu from egg. Fufu is usually made from cassava, yam, cocoyam, or and other widely available tubers that bind together when boiled and pounded or when their powders are cooked in hot water and stirred until a sticky paste ensues. It is then eaten with a soup of choice.
How the would-be-teacher would make egg into a sticky paste was not the issue. Even as children we knew that egg would not bind together and could therefore not be made into fufu. Even so, my cousin’s boastful pronouncement stoked our fantasies and was a powerful visual metaphor of abundance and dietary indulgence.
We knew that this was a tall fantasy, but two things appealed to us in the egg-to-fufu ambition of our relative. One was the idea that a person, any person, could be rich enough to afford the number of eggs it would take to make egg fufu. Egg for us was a rare, expensive protein of privilege in the mold of meat. Egg was a delicacy we rarely had access to. To be in a financial position to buy enough eggs to contemplate making fufu out of them was for us an audacious, if a little dreamy, statement of affluence. It was an aspirational declaration we could identify with.
It takes a fecund imagination animated by scarcity to visualize the possibility of making fufu from egg. A person of means, for whom egg is a routine dietary ingredient, is incapable of such imaginative construction. Abundance closes off imaginative possibilities and curtails the boundaries of aspiration and fantasy. Scarcity, whether of substance or access, stirs up the imagination. Such conditional imaginations are not reality-bound. They are not constrained by the logic of plausibility.
The second thing for us was that the boast about making egg fufu indicated to us the robust possibility of escaping lack and poverty, of one day being in a position to eat what we liked. Even as children, we recognized the philosophical import of the egg-to-fufu story.
Like our boastful relative, we measured our ambition in food. The transition from one egg every now and then to egg fufu was such a powerful trope of socioeconomic ascendance for us. We envied the teacher-to-be. A few years later, graduation from a teachers college no longer guaranteed automatic employment as a primary school teacher. Inflation ate into the salaries of teachers and their standard of living tumbled. To further confound the food-centered ambitions of the would-be teacher, it became common to owe teachers a backlog of salaries.
We never followed up to see if indeed the teacher was able to make his egg fufu. We were smart enough to surmise that, given the dwindling status and purchasing power of teachers, it was unlikely that he could afford to eat egg frequently, let alone the luxury of making fufu out of it. But when you’re poor, food fantasies and stories, plausible or not, are the anchors for your ambitions, for imagining a different future, and for making sense of wealth and abundance, two conditions with which you have no experiential relationship.
Staying with the egg-as-a-food-fantasy-of-the-poor theme, on one of my visits to my hometown, I witnessed another fascinating egg event. A group of young men were arguing in one of the villagesquares about who would eat the most number of eggs. Some said they could eat ten at a go, others said they could eat as many as fifteen. This was not an egg-eating contest. It was a fantasy, hypothetical egg-eating challenge. The men were too poor to afford egg, hence the fantasy of eating so many at a go.
In the course of this imaginary contest, an older man, a man widely known and mocked as an economic failure who partly survived on the generosity of fellow villagers, arrived the villagesquare and declared giddily that he could consume twenty eggs without de-shelling them! In other words, he would top everyone in the number of eggs eaten but he would go even further to eat the eggs with the shells intact!
Even poor village boys could recognize an unrealistic boast about eating prowess; they could tell an exaggerated eating claim induced by hunger and lack from the competitive macho banter of teenage boys. The boys dismissed the egg shell-eating man, telling him that he could not be serious and that, in his case, it was the hunger talking. The boys were right. Hunger and lack are catalysts for silly fantasies of alternative dietary lives.
Food fantasies do not end when one escapes poverty and lack, when one stops eating bones and starts eating meat.
Since coming into my own financially, I have of course indulged occasionally in my childhood meat eating fantasies, much to the frustration of my fruit-and-vegetable prescribing doctor. It is hard for folks from a background of scarcity to diet or willfully give up what they used to fantasize about. Privileged doctor types just do not understand this and continue to prescribe the same dietary regimen for everybody and insist on holding everyone accountable in the same manner. I don’t enjoy defying my doctor, but I like a sirloin steak now and then.
But I have also done something that is rather counterintuitive. I have gone back to my bone eating ways. When I go to the butcher shop where we buy our meats, I often seek out bony beef, lamb, and goat, and chicken breast is too easy, to meaty for me, so I prefer thighs and wings. Not for me the lump of meat without a bone. Not for me the concept of boneless chicken or beef. For good measure, I have become fond of the soft, chewy bone we used to call biscuit bone when we were children. And one of my dietary joys is to suck out a fatty chunk of marrow I never knew was in the hollow of the bone I was struggling to de-flesh. The surprise of the discovery is a perfect compliment to the taste of the marrow. You can’t get this savory combination when you buy a lump of predictable muscle, boneless meat.
I am not the only one who likes an occasional nostalgic return to my bone-eating days. While at the butcher shop, I see numerous immigrant families, most of them middle and upper class Americans, coming in to ask specifically for bony cuts of meat. So high is the demand for bone that sometimes the butchers run out of it!
Why do we cherish a return to the dietary reminders of a period we associate with lack and poverty? One reason is that capitalist abundance and consumerist excess get boring, bland, and inauthentic. Poverty and its culinary accompaniments are authentic. Once you have exited poverty, you realize how stupid your food fantasies had been and how quickly one gets over meat and other dietary markers of middle class life.
When you get to a point when life’s quest transcend food and the edible, your emphasis shifts to food you can savor, food that is scarce, and you lose your appetite for those foods that are readily available and require no effort to consume. The ethos of scarcity that you left behind along with poverty suddenly becomes alluring, captivating. The bony meat, a symbol of that life of poverty and lack, becomes your preferred animal protein indulgence.
Poverty pimps are drawn to poverty in a way that suggests a valorization of lack and absence as instruments of humanization. Connoisseurs of poverty porn objectify the quotidian signs of poverty and see poor people’s experiences as inherently authentic. But poverty porn is not the only expression of this fondness for real and imagined tropes of poverty. Regular people who had experiential relationships to the objects of everyday poverty tend to return to, crave, and reenact the reminders of that period long after they leave poverty behind, contradicting fantasies and ambitions birthed and nurtured in moments of lack.
The realm of consumption and food is one arena in which we can locate both the fantastical aspirations of the poor and the ironic nostalgia of those who have escaped poverty only to seek to re-experience the paradoxical pleasures occasioned by scarcity. If poverty and lack actuate fecundity of imagination and fantastical storytelling, a willful return to dietary and non-dietary reminders of the moment of poverty has its own logic, its own philosophical ethos, which should complement the vibrant, critical discourses around poverty porn and the objectification of poverty.
Conspicuous consumption breeds a paradoxical craving for the days of meager consumption — for the imagined fulfillments of more laborious forms of consumption. Such austere variants of consumption, stripped of capitalist notions of taste and rooted in man’s primal quest for nutrition and sustenance, can assuage the guilt of vulgar indulgence and give us the illusion of return to a work-reward ethos of consumption.
True satisfaction inheres in the measured, staggered rewards of effort, in the elusiveness of that which we crave, and in an existential and dialectical dynamic in which moments of unavailability make rare moments of availability special and ennobling.
Consistent abundance takes that joy away, reducing consumption to a routinized ritual in bodily nourishment. When we perform the ritual of consuming “poorly,” whatever our motivation, we seek to recover a nobility associated with a type of consumption that is indexed by scarcity and longing. It is not the ethics of minimalism at work. It is the allure of designed, deliberate scarcity.