On Being Hungry

by Gretchen Hanson

Chef Gretchen Hanson, executive chef of Hobos Restaurant in Rehoboth Beach, talks about being hungry.

I think about food all the time. From the moment I wake up in the morning until I go to sleep at night I am creating recipes, menus and obsessed with every aspect of the inventive and creative cooking process.

I was born a chef and whatever else I am it is my defining characteristic. Most people plan their lives around their extracurricular activities, entertainment and social events, my life revolves around obtaining new and exotic ingredients and how to present, cook or prepare them. A new juicer will entertain me for weeks. A twelve level dehydrator is more fun than a year of Netflix.

My first date with my husband was a coffee date a at bagel shop. He almost didn't get a second date when he told the counter person "nothing to eat" but I relented and our second date was a punishing road trip to a Korean Grocery store, an over 200 mile round trip. It was the ultimate trial by fire. Most men would rather do anything else than grocery shop all day. He pushed my cart. He actually pretended to be interested in my lecture on the differences between galangal root and ginger and the brilliance of mung beans as a food source. Of course I married him.

Every major event in my life is catalogued by what I cooked or what I ate. I remember the birth of each child by what I craved during the pregnancy and what I was cooking when I went into labor. I remember each holiday by its yearly menu. The Christmas that Holly wanted liverwurst waffle sandwiches for brunch…the Easter that I made strawberry rhubarb balsamic jam and buttermilk scones with black pepper. If Santa thinks I am a good girl this year he will stuff my stocking with only exotic spices, saffrons, and salts.

From the time I started using food as my medium my best creations have come in that half awake stage between night and day when I mentally catalog my larder and cook its ingredients in my head. Bacon and blueberries? Sure. And Halibut with bacon blueberry jam is born. Porcinis and lentils? Turffled lentils and porcini dusted filet goes on the menu. Tamarind and lime? Salmon with a Tamarind Thai Basil Glaze is grilled and served over Vietnamese Rice noodles ….On and on all night I dream of menus and cooking the ingredients in my head. New techniques and combinations are born in the early morning hours so the phrase "eat, sleep and dream about food" it is an accurate statement about my life.

Food is my obsession, my craft and my first true love. Anyone that ever said you can't find love in your refrigerator has never been in mine. When I am sad, I cook. When I am happy, I cook. When I am in love, I cook. When I am out of love, I cook. I cook everything from scratch so the nature of what I do is like a long term relationship. You can't not love the mushroom duxelles that started four hours ago and required about three hours of stirring. You can't not love the gluten free and vegan fruitcake that was reinvented from a recipe dating back from the 1800's.

There is too much time invested in the recipe relationship. Even if it is flawed there is still a work in progress something to revisit another hundred times until I have it just right. I once spent nine months making matzoh balls. Nine months until the fluffy perfection melted in your mouth like a French quenelle. Nine months with my hands buried in chicken schmaltz and a vat of simmering broth on my stove … I was obsessed with perfection and triumphed the month before my first child was born. His birth is a memory of matzoh balls. Fluffy and light and delicate.

With this obsession with food it is going to come as little surprise that I have never faced legitimate hunger in my life. I have dieted and restricted my caloric intake so I would not be as round as the matzoh balls I was making but the reality is that I have never been without food or a pantry that would not carry a small army through the worst nuclear winter.
But true hunger? I had not a clue what that was like. I eat pretty much all day long every day. A taste here, a bite there, sample... taste... bite... taste again... I joke that I eat my body every day in vegetables and yet it really is not that far from the truth.

I found out what hunger was on my smallest child's seventh birthday when I was doing a pizza party in her class. Twenty two 7 year olds clamoring for pizza and cupcakes and one small child was wrapping his pieces in napkins and stashing them in his desk. He was making a cheesy gooey greasy mess that I tried to clean up. I picked it up out of his desk to throw it in the trash and he said to me. "please, Hadyn's mommy, please, can you leave those there, I am taking them home to my brother and sister. They have nothing to eat."

And I was ashamed that in the midst of my obsession with food there was a child, a child the age of my own child, that had no food in his pantry, that had nothing to put in his tummy at night; a child that went to bed hungry. A child that knew what hunger felt like. This was not a commercial on television but a child that sat next to mine every day.

...A child that lived not a mile away from me.

In the midst of the Cape Henlopen School District at last count there are 280 children that are considered homeless. There are 147 families that affected or separated by homelessness. There are 1767 children in our school district below the poverty line, who frequently go to bed hungry and are hungry when they come to school. These children get assistance from food pantries and qualify for school lunches but there are huge gaps in this system. This is not some town in a depressed area that I have heard about on the news, this is my town and your town and our children and our future.

I live in a town where houses along the beach routinely sell for millions and yet we have poverty in our schools that defies comprehension. I serve organic meat and wild seafood in a restaurant that is no more than a mile away from a code purple homeless shelter and a half a dozen soup kitchens.

I wish I could feed the world. I wish I could make sure that every single child went to bed with food in their tummy. I wish that hunger was still something I only thought about when I was trying lose a few pounds.

And here is the pause, the punctuation, the moment that is not defined by food but rather by the lack of it. Here is the moment that for the first time I realized that I could not fix this myself. I needed a village to cook with me. I needed a village to feed our children.

Every town has its food pantries and soup kitchens and code purple shelters. Find yours. Find yours and make the difference.

Find out more about Gretchen Hanson and Hobos Restaurant & Bar at: