Several times a week, my mother shows up at my door, often with a problematic electronic device, sometimes with a bag full of leftovers or a few groceries, and occasionally, inexplicably, bearing a single sweet potato: “in case you wanted to cook it with something.” The sweet potato thing goes back to 2014. At the time I had a job as a high school teacher that paid more money than I had ever made in my life1. Up to that point, I had been in college or graduate school, reusing tea bags until they burst and lingering in the shadows of alumni events to feast on any leftover cheese cubes and fruits rinds.
At the time, the only thing I cared about was traveling, so when I finally had a job, I decided to continue living as I always had so I could save enough money to quit the job and travel. I was already putting about 15% of my monthly check into my travel fund. I rarely went out. I didn’t have a Netflix or Spotify account. When I left in the morning, I unplugged almost everything but the refrigerator so they didn’t draw energy I would be charged for. I didn’t even use the air conditioner or heating until it became unbearable and I ran out of clothes to take off or layer on. I got an energy plan that offered free nights, so I turned the lights on, did laundry, cooked, took a hot shower, and charged my devices, all between the hours of 8PM and 6AM so I wouldn’t be charged. I got my electric bill so low that I learned about the existence of the “base charge.”
It got a little out of hand. One day, I sat down and realized that after rent, the biggest chunk of my expenses went to groceries. Growing up in a stable, middle class family, I thought of food as something fun, not so much a necessity. The purpose of food was to keep me alive, well nourished, alert, and healthy. How, I wondered, could I get all the necessary calories and the maximum amount of nutritional value for the cheapest price?
I considered freeganism, but during all my free time in the dark I’d gone on a biology kick and learned a lot about bacteria, so I thew out that idea. Plus, I lived in a small city in Texas where most of what the dumpster offered would’ve been fried chicken and gravy. It was also important to me to eat healthy organic foods, and foods that were responsibly raised. But how could I do that for less than what I was spending?
I did some research and ended up devising a dietary regime that provided (according to my dumbass calculations) the maximum amount nutrition at the cheapest per-calorie price. It was a vegan diet because meat is expensive. In some cultures, I read, sweet potatoes and yams provide up to 90% of caloric intake. The superfoods are full of fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins and have a low glycemic index. They are great for digestion, vision, brain function, heart, and immunity. And best of all, they were affordable, especially if cooked plain. If I boiled them instead of baking them wrapped in foil, I could save the price of the foil. And thus sweet potatoes became a staple of my regime.
Sweet potatoes alone don’t provide all the necessary nutrients, so I did some more investigating to find out how to ensure I got all the necessary amino acids, and I put every penny saved in my food budget into my travel savings account. As it turns out, my plan probably needed a more complicated equation than what my limited arithmetic was capable of.
At the time, I saw my mom a few times a month. When you see someone every day, changes appear gradual. But the time between visits only highlighted my hollowing cheekbones and perpetual struggle to keep my pants up. At first it was just, “you’re little face is just getting so thin!” and then somehow a few weeks later Mom caught wind of my plan and shut it down2.
“Just plain ignurnt!” she called it3. “I believe that’s the most ignurnt thing I’ve heard all day.” Mom is smart. She knew she’d raised a child that floats upstream and that such a proclamation risked causing me to double down on my commitment, so she started sending me home with plates and Tupperware full of leftovers, and when I visited she dragged me to the grocery store where she tossed things into my basket with her jaw set and a look in her eye I hadn’t seen since she’d last threatened to skin me alive.
In retrospect, I’m willing to admit that sweet potatoes were probably the only thing keeping me alive and while Angela Merkel might have appreciated my austerity, it was neither smart nor healthy.
It’s been seven years, but proving to your mother you have a propensity for monumental stupidity is a hard thing to come back from. I’m older and wiser and though I still pinch pennies, I have loosened my grip just a bit. I see my mother several times a week. Now, and she still brings me food and the random sweet potato just in case I want to “cook it with something.”
It is incredibly rare that I have something just waiting to be accompany a sweet potato, so I set them on my counter and eventually, sometimes, they sprout. But nevertheless, the fact that my mom keeps showing up with them tells me she believes in me and sees potential despite everything. One day I’ll live up to that potential and cook a fresh sweet potato with something, but for now, they sit on my counter as a reminder to not be ig’nurnt.
2I thought I was a genius so I bragged about it.
3 “ignurnt” means really, spectacularly dumb.