For a while, Melissa Gold’s goal was to feed herself on a dollar a day. With the high cost of living in New York City, that seemed unlikely, but to recognize National Hunger Awareness Month last year this 26-year-old nanny successfully supped for one week on eggs, bread, cheese, and tuna fish, to remind herself of those forced to subsist on rations.
She’s back to a more balanced diet, but some habits stick; the Polish bread she buys around the corner is $1.29, an inexpensive cultural gem in her Greenpoint neighborhood. Most of Gold’s ingredients are sourced locally. She purchases vegetables at a Nassau Avenue market that has no name; only the number 192 is visible on the storefront’s tapestry veranda.
The cost of the materials contributing to tonight’s meal of a tasty tahina, a sesame paste that smells strongly like peanut butter, is $7.50.
After stepping into her apartment, Gold rushes to her room and puts on shorts and a T-shirt, tying up her wavy brown hair to deflect the heat. After teaching English for a year abroad in Georgia (the country, not the state), she picked up some local customs. As soon as Georgians come home, they take off their “work clothes” and put on their “home clothes” so they can immediately get comfortable. This hospitality is offered even to total strangers: “Hey, you hot?” she asks. “If you want shorts, I’ll give you shorts.”
In the kitchen, she reaches into her top cabinet (no need for a stepstool, Gold is 5-foot-10) and takes out a Polish pickle jar to run under the faucet for a drink. As she gulps down the water and goes for seconds, she says, “It’s too hot to cook anything on the stove today. Are you supposed to see what I actually cook like? If so, we need to put on Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.”
To the background noise of game show dings and buzzers, Gold talks about how her cooking style has developed since getting out of the dining hall as an honors student at University of Massachusetts—Amherst. “When I was younger I was vegetarian for a week because I have guilt,” Gold says. “I feel like if I could never take a cow or a pig’s life, do I deserve to eat the animal? But I just end up eating it anyways.”
By chance tonight there’s no meat in the meal. Turning on the stove to cook it would just make the humidity feel thicker. Preparation is light, but Gold moves a knife briskly to chop lemons, parsley, onions, and spices as additions to the tahina. She adds plates of crisp, thinly sliced cucumbers, ripe tomatoes, and crunchy pita chips for dipping.
To some, this may not be much more than a snack, but for Gold it’s a meal, based on one crucial element: the sauce. “I like my food wet, which means lots of sauces. Tahina is delicious with everything,” Gold says. “Even my favorite part of pasta is the sauce. My mom and I will always ask for extra when we’re at a restaurant.”
The ability to share is also what makes tonight’s meal satisfying, she says. Gold says that in Jewish families—she grew up Conservative but now considers herself Reform Jewish—food is love. When someone is sick, you bring him or her comfort food. When someone does a good job, the treat is a meal. When someone dies in a Christian family you bring flowers, but “If you did this during shiva for seven days of mourning, people would ask, ‘Where’s the food?’” Gold laughs.
Spontaneity is a key part of Gold’s cooking style. She throws ingredients together in unexpected combinations, comparing it to seeing all types of New Yorkers and wondering about their stories. She says, “I fall in love on the L train every day.”