I try to get my class back on track as the janitor finishes mopping up and S. finds another seat. Today, in addition to our recipe and end-of-class celebration, we will discuss microwave safety. This is not part of my usual lesson plan, which focuses each week on a simple nutrition concept and related easy, inexpensive recipe. But participants requested we discuss it because the building is plagued with microwave fires.
An SRO unit is typically a small room, perhaps 100 square feet or less, with shared bathroom facilities down the hall. Rooms are intended to house individuals and occasionally couples, but it’s not uncommon to find three or four working men or a small family sharing one in some buildings. Cooking facilities range from in-room sinks and electric burners in some newer buildings to a shared kitchen on each floor to a single kitchen to no kitchen whatsoever. Older buildings prohibit residents from keeping hot plates or other appliances in their rooms, or from cooking at all, due to fire hazard from old wiring and inattention.
“People don’t know you can’t put metal in there,” J. tells me as I pass out a simple flyer I’ve created about microwave safety. She’s a former Marin housewife who often tells stories about the grand house she and her husband used to have. She never says how she got here.
“At least once a month, the fire alarm goes off and we’re all out in the street,” says another participant, B. “Sometimes in the middle of the night, and we have to stand out there in our slippers with all the junkies and street zombies.”
“If it keeps on like this, management could outlaw microwaves in our rooms. Then what do we do?”
I suggest participants might post the flyers on their floors or even ask the social worker to distribute them to all new residents.
“It won’t make a difference,” says S., shrugging. “A lot of people here can’t read.
The No Name Hotel is just a few blocks from Twitter, Uber, Square, and Dolby corporate headquarters, as well as numerous new high-rise condo developments. Currently, it costs about $3,000 a month to rent a market-rate 1-bedroom in this area and about $800,000 to buy one.
Once the oven is preheated, I shift gears towards my Portobello pizza demonstration. As often happens when I introduce a new ingredient or cooking method, participants are politely doubtful and have lots of questions. S. asks where I bought the mushrooms, because the ones she’d seen at the Farmer’s Market were really expensive. (Sprouts market in Daly City, I explain, but only after simple math revealed that the ones they sell wrapped in plastic cost half as much per pound as the loose ones! This leads to a brief review of unit pricing.)
L., a genteel, retired woman from the Philippines who graduated from my previous series but returned for this one because she enjoys the company, explains that she is afraid to eat mushrooms. As always, she passes out my paper copies of the recipes.
“How do you know which ones are poisonous?” she asks worriedly, looking at my baking tray like the food on it might be preparing to kill her.
“The ones in the stores are not poisonous,” I try to reassure her. She is not convinced.
Then we talk about the pizza sauce, which I found at a Grocery Outlet for $1.29. A quick review of the ingredients and nutrition facts reveals that it’s got plenty of sugar in it. I try to put this in context for everyone, explaining that although I generally avoid packaged foods with added sugar, in this case I made an exception because I’m using so little per serving— only about ½ teaspoon worth of added sugar for a 12¢ portion.
Soon my mushrooms are done pre-cooking and I remove them from the oven, beads of sweat dripping down each one. They’ve shrunk considerably.
“How many of those would you eat at once?” S. asks.
“I would eat one or two with a salad,” I tell her. “They are a lot more filling than you think.” She explains that in her gluten-eating days, she could devour an entire pizza at once. Though she rarely got the chance.
San Francisco’s SRO population includes recently emigrated Latino and Asian immigrants, disabled vets, active IV drug users, the mentally ill, and retired folks with no other “affordable” housing options— often all mixed together in any given building.
I layer sauce, sliced bell pepper, shredded cheese, and dried oregano onto the mushrooms, but participants are still doubtful. I offer to make one without cheese for M., a retired African-American woman who lived on the streets for 20 years and says she is allergic to milk products. She declines my offer however. She doesn’t want one at all. Neither does her friend F., who spent years on the street herself as a prostitute and has all variety of permanent bumps and scars to tell the tale for her. She comes to class in a flowing, flowered dress and heels every week.
As the pizzas bake in the oven, the class turns to a lively discussion about whether canned items from the Food Bank are safe to eat. The Food Bank runs a weekly pantry in the building and many items it distributes are past date. Their volunteers distribute literature explaining how to interpret the code dates on packages and that expired foods can be OK, but. residents like M. are still afraid of them.
M. goes on at great length about a bout of food poisoning she experienced years ago, when still on the streets, from canned salmon. I do my best to assure everyone that food from the Food Bank is safe. But I don’t blame them for their vigilance. Without reliable access to fresh food and means to cook it, many SRO residents have horror stories to share about hesitantly eating food that turned out to be spoiled, that wasn’t what it was supposed to be, that broke their teeth, that was just a waste of the last few dollars they had. Then there are the stories I don’t hear— about what happens at the end of the month if money runs out and there’s no food at all.
There is no large supermarket in the neighborhood where the No-Name Hotel is located. Able-bodied residents looking for fresh groceries must walk or take the bus to a FoodsCo in the Mission district. Older residents, and those with disabilities, instead rely on small corner stores selling little more than junk food and liquor. One exception, however, is the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market in Civic Center Plaza, steps from the gleaming gold dome of City Hall. Here residents can buy fresh produce using EBT cards as well as WIC and a variety of other vouchers. Especially enterprising folks know to arrive at closing time, when vendors are more likely to offer unsold items at deeply discounted rates or for free.
M. is still talking about the salmon incident when I take my pizzas out of the oven. She has started to repeat herself, speaking faster and faster as if anticipating someone might try to cut her off, but no one does. Participants in this group have actually come to treat one another quite generously. It’s a nice turn of events since most had never spoken to one another when the series began 6 weeks ago.
I’m not always so lucky. In the first class I taught for SRO residents, just down the block, I had one elderly male participant whose tendency to talk over others— due to a brain disorder— became so frustrating to another participant, herself going through drug withdrawal, that the two got into a frightening altercation in class. What I remember most was that the other participants seemed completely unphased by the fight, instead focused totally on their do-gooder teacher to see how I would handle it. Fortunately the building manager intervened before things got physical and, after asking the group to reflect for a moment on how we could create a safe, respectful space together, I resumed making my black bean pineapple salsa without incident.
F. and J., now sensing that the class conversation has veered off track, affectionately steer M. towards her other favorite topic: things she likes to cook. Unlike most other participants in this class, M. is an avid cook and makes complex meals every day in her room to share with friends in the building. Her specialty is Southern food and she describes in detail how she plans tonight to dredge tilapia in corn flour and lightly fry it in her small electric skillet. I’m thinking I’ll try the same thing when I get home to my run-down, but comparatively luxurious, apartment kitchen. Her mouth-watering description has the whole group transfixed as I distribute my little mushroom pizzas to 5 willing participants. L. hands out napkins.
Today, many of San Francisco’s better-kept SROs are managed by large nonprofit corporations. These corporations are dedicated to preserving low-income housing in what is arguably the most expensive city in America; they buy and rehabilitate old buildings, or build them, and offer onsite programs such as social workers, addiction or vocational counseling, health care, and life skills classes. Some even run vegetable gardens where residents can volunteer in exchange for free produce. Privately-owned buildings are more likely to be dilapidated and infested with roaches, bedbugs, or mice. Though some private landlords take good care of their buildings, others take advantage of low-income residents with few housing options, allowing their buildings to fall into dangerous disrepair.
The group gets quiet as folks begin sampling their pizzas. Finally I hear someone say “Mmmm, this is not what I expected at all. It actually tastes like pizza!” Soon others share their impressions, mostly positive.