When food is being used to transport a message about the low social status or dire life situation of a character.
On one end of the Sliding Scale of Shiny Versus Gritty we have Grapes of Luxury to indicate an upper class environment. On the other end of the spectrum we have Poverty Food for lowlifes, neglected orphans, prison inmates, starving artists, broke college students, and anyone else stuck in a Crapsack World.
Poverty Food is usually portrayed as an unappetizing, bleak and gloppy substance. Truth in Television in the sense that mush-like meals are cheap and easy to make while still being sufficiently nutritious. If it's not gruel, expect poor people to chew on (dried) bread or eat instant ramen.
In Real Life the types of food eaten during hard times often become stigmatized in the times of plenty, turning into a kind of a Stock "Yuck!" in that particular culture. This happens not only because people often resort to eating something they hardly consider palatable, but also because of psychological association of eating certain types of food with poverty.
Supertrope to a number of scenarios wherein characters struggle with the quality of their diet. In ascending order of grossness:
- Stock Medieval Meal: Medieval peasants in fiction consume nothing but stew, bread, beer, and cheese.
- Future Food Is Artificial: Commoners in future settings will have to make do with synthetic food.
- Even the Rats Won't Touch It: An animal reaction is used to convey the distastefulness of the food.
- Dog Food Diet: A fallen-on-hard-times character ends up eating canned dog food.
- Reduced to Ratburgers: A famished character resorts to eating rats or similar vermin.
- Eating Shoes: When nothing is left to eat, a character will turn to anything in sight, most likely shoes.
Compare Mock Meal, Eat the Dog, No Party Like a Donner Party. See Mess on a Plate and Mystery Meat when the focus is on the visual and tasting experience of the food rather than the social implications of a dire meal. See Frozen Dinner of Loneliness for when lonely characters eat convenience food. Contrast Food Porn. Usually used for Poverty for Comedy. May lead to characters craving a Black Market Produce.
- The eponymous Naruto eats instant ramen most of the time, because that's all he can afford. (It helps that he likes it, too.) He considers ramen from Ichiraku's Ramen Stand to be one of "the finer things in life," and is always delighted when someone treats him to ramen from there (or when he can actually afford it.)
- Cowboy Bebop features this trope on a regular basis, due to their Perpetual Poverty. In the first episode, Spike complains that there's no beef in the bell peppers and beef Jet served for dinner, at which point Jet angrily retorts that it's because he can't afford to buy meat due to the money from the last bounty that Spike capture having to go to paying all the damages Spike caused while catching the guy. Another episode highlighted the crew glumly subsisting on self-cooking instant ramen because their funds are so low. Finally, the end of Mushroom Samba (yes, the drug trip episode) has them living off of a duffel bag's worth of dried shitake mushrooms (which their bounty insisted were the fun kind and worth a fortune).
- Asterix: In Asterix The Legionary, Asterix and Obelix join the Roman Legion to track down a fellow Gaul who had gone missing, and at dinnertime, Asterix remarks that armies are renowned for their crappy food, it keeps the soldiers in a bad mood and fierce in battle. Sure enough, they're served a horrific glop consisting of flour, bacon and cheese, cooked together to save time. Asterix sourly notes that he didn't think the Roman army would be quite that fierce. Hilariously, the British Legionnaire loves the food, commenting that it's just like the food back home.
- Lucky Luke: The Stagecoach features this as a Running Gag, where every single rest stop for the titular stagecoach only serves beans and bacon for the poor passengers. The one exception is one cook who serves beef and potatoes, because he's made a deal with the gambler who often taken the same route and bets with the other passengers what dinner will be served at that one stop. Hilariously, this even happens at the celebration banquet at the end, which is supposed to be high class but STILL serves some variation of beans and bacon in every course of the meal.
- Astro City: Quarrel II, the daughter of the original, villanous Quarrel, grew up in the rural Appalachians, and since money was usually in short supply, she would supplement the family's diet with possums, squirrels and other small animals. It apparently didn't taste very good but it kept them all fed.
- Katawa Shoujo: Rumbling Hearts: Hanako is homeless. She has a job but can't currently afford a permanent residence or even much food to eat. Hanako works at a restaurant, where she sometimes eats either leftovers from the kitchen or takeout that is discarded by the delivery people.
- Touch: Roxy grew up eating little but cup ramen and canned tuna thanks to her poor, abusive mother not buying much else.
- Rocketship Voyager, which is rife with homages to classic Science Fiction, includes a reference to zymoveal, a Poverty Food from Asimov's The Caves of Steel (see below). Paris ate it as a child, when his father was unemployed, and learned to doctor it with hot sauce.
- Jebidiah "Cookie" Farnsworth from Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire serves up lumpy ooze to the survivors, who have no alternative except to choke it down. Cookie earlier stated that the four food groups are: "beans, bacon, whiskey and lard," thus dinner looks to be some unholy mixture of those ingredients. Bizarrely, his circumstances are about as far from "poverty" as possible - he's a hand-picked member of a massive expedition being bankrolled by a billionaire - he's just very set in his ways.
- The Kid (1921) has a scene where the Tramp dishes up an undefinable mass from a disgustingly messy pot.
- In The Matrix, the crew subsists on porridge that apparently tastes just like "Tasty Wheat" found within the Matrix. It's one of the reasons why Cypher commits a FaceHeel Turn, so he could once again get to taste delicious food such as steak, if only as an illusion inside the matrix.
- Life of Pi has a grumpy cook (played by Gérard Depardieu) in a sleazy galley serving his gravy-rich stodge to the ship's lower deck passengers.
- Played for laughs in The Grand Budapest Hotel, where the imprisoned gentleman-protagonist wheels a cart around the cell block in the morning, offering mush to inmates.
- Ivan's Childhood is set in a Crapsack World at the Eastern Front during World War II. In one scene we see Ivan and two befriended officers of the Russian army eating a mushy meal out of brass bowls.
- In The Little Rascals short "Mush and Milk", the gang are all living in a boarding school run by an old man who serves mush and (spoiled) milk every day because he doesn't have any money. He's waiting for his pension to come in. Once his pension comes in he treats the kids to a high class meal...which turns out to be porridge.
- The prison inmates in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang get a disgusting dish of grease, fried dough, pig fat and sorghum to eat, day in and day out, which the wrongfully convicted hero has a hard time adjusting to.
- Together is set in a Stockholm commune where cooked porridge is served on a regular basis for economic reasons, much to the kids' dismay. Göran tries to sugarcoat the meal to them by comparing the porridge to commune life:
Göran: You could say that we are like porridge. First, we're like small oatflakes. Small, dry, fragile, alone... but then we're cooked with the other oatflakes and become soft. We join so that one flake can't be told apart from another. We're almost dissolved. Together we become a big porridge... that's warm, tasty and nutritious, and yes, quite beautiful, too.
- Seven Samurai: The poor villagers have to subsist on millet because they're giving all their rice to the samurai in payment for protection.
- Played for laughs in a couple Woody Allen films:
- In Take the Money and Run, it's mentioned that the prisoners are served "one hot meal a day: a bowl of steam".
- In Love and Death, Boris states that with money being scarce when he and Sonja lived together, she "learned to make wonderful dishes out of snow". (Including "a nice, big bowl of sleet" for dessert, which Boris pronounces his favorite.)
- Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory: Willy Wonka is offered a bowl of a slimy substance by an Oompa Loompa chieftain, Wonka grimaces and gags while attempting to eat it. This is perfectly understandable to anybody who's read the original books, where it's explained that the only food the Oompa Loompas had available to them when they first met was a particularly foul-tasting mash of caterpillars, beetles, and bark. In the book, he managed to hire the entire tribe on because he had ready access to what was to them a rare and treasured treat: cacao beans (a key ingredient in making chocolate).
- Trope Codifier (if not Trope Maker) is probably Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist with his three bowls of thin gruel a day.
- Older Than Feudalism in The Bible:
- God provides "manna" to feed the Israelites on their journey out of Egypt. It's described as having the appearance of tree gum and tasting like wafers and honey (though, that does sound pretty tasty). They live on it for 40 years. The Israelites appreciated the manna at first but got weary of eating the same thing all the time. After which, God sends them flocks of quail to supplement their diet. They never stop whining about it either, which is why He's so cross with them.
- In Judaic law, which otherwise forbids the eating of insects, specifically exempts locusts—mostly so that poor people will have something to eat during famines and locust infestations.
- In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie's destitute family subsists on grey "cabbage water" and, when they're really lucky, the occasional loaf of bread. This is why chocolate is Serious Business to him.
- In The Zombie Knight, Colt's cooking is like this, although it actually tastes okay.
Hector: What's in this?Colt: Gravy.Hector: And?Colt: And some other stuff.Hector: What other stuff?Colt: Just be glad I'm good at making gravy.
- In Jill Pinkwater's The Disappearance of Sister Perfect, the heroine infiltrates a cult and is put off by the cheap, institutional food (chipped beef, peas, and mashed potatoes, all described in the most unappetizing terms). It sticks to the roof of her mouth, which is too bad, because cult members are forbidden from drinking until after they have finished their food. The drink itself is described by one character as "instant flavored sugar water — cheaper than juice."
- The companions in The Belgariad generally eat pretty well, even on the road, because Polgara is a Supreme Chef and Silk is an excellent scrounger, but if they get stuck in a seedy inn, or Polgara is absent or out of commission for some reason (or mad at them — that happens a fair bit, too), they get gruel or burnt bacon. In the Malloreon sequel series, they get beans, too.
Silk: I hate gruel.
- In The Caves of Steel and the sequels, the lowest classes have to subsist on some sour-tasting yeast mush. The entire Earth qualifies, in a way, being poor and overcrowded compared to the rich and spoiled Spacers - even natural food, rather than yeast, is always eaten processed, and only in Spacer cuisine does one encounter things like whole apples, eggs with visible yolk, etc.
- In Jane Eyre, the food on Jane's arrival at Lowood is noted as being disgusting: her first dinner there is described as "smelling of rancid fat" and consisting of "indifferent potatoes and strange shreds of rusty meat"; the next morning the porridge is so burnt as to be inedible. It eventually comes to light that the minister who runs the school is embezzling funds and deliberately spends as little as possible on everything, including the food.
- In Matilda, the titular character is visiting with Miss Honey in her home. She's astonished to see Miss Honey using margarine, and concludes that "She must be poor."
- A Song of Ice and Fire: The definitive poverty food in King's Landing is the "bowls o' brown" served to the urban poor. Most soup kitchens' kettles have simmered for years with regular top-ups from absolutely anything at hand — vegetable scraps, offal, rat, pigeon, political dissidents...
- The Stormlight Archive: "Flangria" is a meat substance that's mass-produced by magically transmuting rocks. It's tasteless, textureless, and cheaper than water, and almost everyone who can afford better rations avoids it. Kaladin considers it a major triumph of Herdazian food that it has flangria recipes that are actually tasty.
- In The Hunger Games, the working class of District 12, itself already the poorest district in Panem, subsists mainly on rough bread and mush made from tessera grain, pine bark, wild dog meat, and in the winter, a local stew made from mice meat, pig entrails, and tree bark. Katniss assumes that Peeta, being a baker's son, must be one of the few inhabitants to eat well, but he reveals that the family can't afford to eat their own wares. He could only eat the unsalable mistakes and bread that's already gone stale.
- I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: The main characters are forced to subsist on whatever disgusting scraps they can find, and even that is rare. Explicitly mentioned are some sort of worms, as well as "manna" that tastes like boar urine, and the plot revolves around the group trying to find a cache of canned food somewhere beneath the North Pole. The Master Computer AM could easily provide them with any food imaginable, but only gives them near-inedible things out of sadistic cruelty, since it's intent on torturing the characters for all eternity, and keeping them on the brink of starvation is just part of it.
- In Race to the Sun Nizhoni's dad says that frybread is "crisis food" and that's why he hasn't taught her how to make it. Another character agrees that this is not a traditional Navajo dish, since the recipe was created when the Navajo had only flour, water and baking soda. Still, they can be delicious.
- Ramona Quimby has an example of Poverty Food for pets rather than humans. When the family falls on hard times, they can only afford a cheap brand of cat food called Puss-puddy for the cat, which he hates.
- In Runaway by Wendelin Van Draanen, Holly remembers that when her mom was still alive, they'd always get two boxes of KFC for Thanksgiving dinner. One time, when she asked if they could roast a turkey next year, her mom told her that turkey was actually tough and dry and that nobody actually wanted to eat it, but it's implied she was just trying to make Holly feel better about not being able to afford it.
- In an episode of Johnny Bago, Johnny is forced to join a traveling circus. The ringmaster is a blackmailer who is forcing all the workers to work for him for free, and feeds them leftovers from the previous day's crowd all mixed together. It's served in scoops of brown blech.
- In Lexx the crew primarily subsists on a grey sludge extruded by the titular Living Ship through a rather disturbingly-shaped dispenser.
- The Big Bang Theory:
- Penny, a Cheesecake Factory waitress who makes the least money out of the main cast, claims she often has to eat whatever scraps of food the customers left on the tables.
- Leslie Winkle and other characters have been heard to remark instant ramen fulfills this function when the need for food coincides with a near-total absence of cash.
- Married... with Children: Okay, who wants a Tang-wich? (Sand-like orange drink powder between two slices of bread). Then there's "toaster pickins" (aka toaster crumbs) and Al's toothpaste sandwich.
- In Frasier, when Niles is struggling to make ends meet during his divorce, Frasier finds a baloney sandwich and a fruit cup in Niles' valise, making his poverty food equivalent to a school kid's sack lunch.
- The Beverly Hillbillies: Played for Laughs with the Clampetts, who continue to serve up their preferred backwoods Appalachian fare even after striking it rich and moving to California. Beverly Hills simply doesn't have anything to compare to a good plate of grits with possum gravy.
- On Good Eats, Alton posits that one reason many people dislike cabbage is that for a long time, cabbage was associated with survival during tough times. (The other is that it was often boiled for long periods of time, leaving it mushy and overcooked, and bringing out bad flavors.)
- On The Expanse, MCRN sailors turn their noses up at red kibble, despite Alex's positive endorsement, simply because it's Belter food.
- "The Hunger Within" by Psychostick is a metal song about a man craving various foods but being too poor to eat much besides foods such as dry cereal or ramen.
"I wish I had a taco with plenty of hot sauce, but all that I've got is a box of crackers."
- Kendrick Lamar's "HUMBLE" mentions him having eaten "syrup sandwiches" in the past, which he contrasts to his richer life now.
- Barenaked Ladies play with the concept in their song "If I Had $1000000":
"If I had $1, 000, 000
We wouldn't have to eat Kraft Dinner
But we would eat Kraft Dinner
Of course we would, we'd just eat more
And buy really expensive ketchups with it
That's right, all the fanciest ketchups, Dijon ketchup"
- Dick Gumshoe of Ace Attorney likes eating instant ramen because he's almost always broke.
- In The Sims Medieval, gruel is one of the easiest meals to cook. It costs nothing to create and fills your Hunger need somewhat, but its cheap taste lowers your Focus, which contributes to your Quest Completion reward meter.
- The Satire news website The Babylon Bee note tells of a college student who places a packet of ramen noodles into the offering plate at church. He considers it a worthy offering, because it's all he has.
- Great Depression Cooking was a series where a woman in her 90s recounted what she ate growing up during the Great Depression. They're predominantly quick and cheap foods, such as sugar cookies and coffee for breakfast (only on Sundays) or lentils, rice, salad, and occasionally meat for dinner.
- Life of Boris has done several videos, such as this one, showing viewers how to eat reasonably well on a comically tiny budget.
- Neopets: Omelettes and jelly have this status among players, being available for free once per day, cheap to buy in user shops, and counting as three and two portions of food, respectively. Other cheap-as-dirt foods include stuff gotten from dailies and whatever you can reel up at the the Underwater Fishing Cavern. Your pets will happily eat all of it, though, so some users feed their pets this stuff every day in order to save money for more expensive things.
- Cow and Chicken. In "Confused", Cow and Chicken are sent to military school, where for chow they are served yellowish-brown goop to eat out of their helmets, which Red Guy (as their Drill Sergeant) says is beans and biscuits.
- Dexter's Laboratory. In "Misplaced in Space", Dexter finds himself in an alien prison, where he's served what he accurately refers to as, "a bowl of foul-smelling gruel", but tries to play up his faux gratitude by complimenting the chef. Luckily for him, however, an alien inmate with an insatiable appetite consumes Dexter's bowl for him.
- In one episode of The Fairly OddParents, Timmy wishes for everyone to be the same, including grey mush for food. It chime with the rest of the "everything is grey and homogeneous and boring" theme of the episode.
- Kim Possible: Ron complains about the indeterminate "pudding" served by the school cafeteria, which is contrasted with the fine fare served at the "senior table".
- Johnny Hart's cavemen appeared in an Animated Adaptation of their comic strip B.C.: The First Thanksgiving in 1973. After failing to catch a turkey for dinner, the men had to make do with rock soup. Fat Broad ladled moist rocks onto their plates. It made for one grim meal.
- The Simpsons features this in "Kamp Krusty" where Lisa is at first incredulous that the camp would serve them nothing but gruel. Counselor Dolph explains that it's actually Krusty-brand Imitation Gruel. "Nine out of ten orphans can't tell the difference!" Conversely and unsurprisingly, the counselors eat like kings. When the Fat Camp gets liberated, Martin is starving so badly that he is overjoyed to find a drum of the stuff.
- In TaleSpin, the staple diet of Thembria is "gruel", it looks like something use as glue more than food. When Balou is trapped in a Thembrian prison camp, he's roped into a plot by one of the inmates to blow of Thembria's "Strategic Gruel Reserves".
- Scott from Total Drama grew up on a dirt farm and subsisted almost entirely on this kind of food. He actually prefers foods such as gruel or moldy bread over anything else and will even gladly eat dirt.
- In the Philippines, poor people scavenged leftover or expired food thrown by restaurants and supermarkets from garbage dumps and sites which is called "pagpag". And depending on the condition, the pagpag can be cooked by frying it in hot oil and it can be sold to other poor people.
- The ironically named "billionaire's casserole" is a simple casserole made of whatever inexpensive ingredients you have around the pantry, often franks and beans.
- In the United States, instant ramen is the stereotypical food of choice for people who are trying to spend the absolute minimum of money and effort on food, most specifically college students. It costs less than a quarter per serving, requires no additional ingredients besides boiling water, needs no refrigeration and has a long shelf life.
- "Loser's lunch" is a slice of bologna eaten by itself (optionally pan-fried to class it up a bit). It gained a reputation for being the fallback food of struggling rockers.
- A toast sandwich is a real dish, being a toasted slice of bread between two untoasted slices of bread, for when you've only got bread and water in your pantry. Unfortunately, it's only as nutritious — and appetizing — as three slices of bread.
- A mayonnaise sandwich —as in, bread and mayo, period— is a popular poverty food in Russia ("mayonez" is something of a Trademark Favorite Food with Eastern Slavs, in general).
- In Northern Europe an inner bark of the certain species of pine was long known as being edible, and was often used as a fallback food in hard times. Its main problem was that it was hardly palatable tough, bitter and resiny, so for the most part it was dried, milled into powder and added to the flour when making bread to stretch the grain reserves. It was used on a large scale as late as the Siege of Leningrad.
- In Poland during periods of poverty (like the war), acorns were used as food source. Usually, they are treated as food for pigs, but after certain procedures (soaking for a long time in water), they become edible for humans, although they taste really bad. So they would be crushed and added to flour to make bread—and to make real flour last longer.
- In many rural parts of the world, there are wild plants that are edible but don't taste good and thus end up primarily in the diets of people who have no available alternatives. Some south-Pacific islanders, for example, have plants they refer to as cyclone plants. They're hearty little weeds that are often the only thing left intact on the island after a cyclone, but because they also taste horrible they're only eaten then.
- Inverted on the Balkans with the term "chorbadji" and derivatives, meaning a wealthy man. It comes from "chorba" (soup), i. e. "he who gets to eat soup". That is, soup which isn't this trope, and whenever he pleases.
- Food deserts are areas where large grocery stores refuse to set up shop either because of low return yields, like far flung small rural towns, and safety issues, like the inner cities. As a result locals, instead of eating fresh food, often have to rely on whatever highly processed packaged food they can buy in the nearest convenience store or fast food joint.
- George Orwell in The Road To Wigan Pier wrote "And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you."
- Spam has long held a reputation as being a meat substitute for people too poor to afford real meat, often being associated with rednecks and hillbillies or military rations, at least on the U.S. mainland. It's more popular in tropical places like Hawaii and Guam as well as in Korea for its long shelf life. This has led its producer, the Hormel Food Corporation, to launch a new advertising campaign in an attempt to make it seem classier and more appealing to mainstream Americans.