Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Cost of Eating Well

I'd really like some feedback on this one.

In his excellent (and not at all snobbish) food blog "Bitten", which I discovered via Rod Dreher, NYT writer Mark Bittman presents the now - notorious viewpoint of English celebrity cook Delia Smith.

"Delia Smith, probably Britain’s best-known and best-selling cookbook author, says celebrity chefs should stay away from “politics” (which I take to mean everything except cooking) and that the “obsession” with organic produce is counterproductive.

"In her new book, “How to Cheat at Cooking,” she then goes on to advocate tinned mince and frozen mashed potatoes, explaining that her priority is making sure that poor people get to eat rather than worry about whether consumers live up to the standards of celebrity chefs.

"Hmm. I get that poor people don’t need to obsess about organic ingredients; I get that neither poor people nor anyone else needs to cook like celebrity chefs (or, in some cases — television being what it is — the way celebrity chefs pretend to cook). And I get that the gap between — let’s call it upscale — food and junk food is wide, and needs to be bridged.

"But to then draw from this that poor people need to rely on the worst possible ingredients for their cooking doesn’t track for me. Rice, beans, fresh vegetables, maybe fresh meat or fish … these are somehow trickier than frozen and canned foods? Or less widely available? I don’t think so."

Now: look at the war raging in the comments.

Most of the commentors, and to an extent Bittman, miss the point. Today, it is not rich vs. poor-- it is educated vs. uneducated, readers vs. non- readers.

It can be very cheap to eat well-- we do. But we READ, including cookbooks, books like Michael Pollan's, and blogs like Bittman's.

My uneducated Italian grandparents also ate well and cheap-- their orchard and grapes, their enormous garden, rabbits, pigeons, game. So did their generation among the Spanish folks here in NM. (And they worked, hard-- don't give me "no time" as an excuse!)

My much richer parents ate 1950's crap-- a lot of utterly awful stuff, though thank God we had my grandparents, and fresh seafood.

America has lost the habit of eating well in the "vernacular" sense. Educated people, whether rich foodie snobs or poor crunchies, are trying to do things differently. But how do you change the habits of the "masses" without nannyish interventions? The diet eaten by local Native Americans defies belief--bulk commodities, fast food, candy, pop, and beer. Some have told me they will never eat a vegetable. Navajos themselves joke about the 250 -pound "commod bod", and diabetes is rife.

So how to get past this?

I see one fascinating sign right here in Socorro County. The local unaffiliated supermarket, the holdout of old people against Furr's and Wal-Mart, has always been the place to buy carne adovada, sheep heads, and tripe. Now, while keeping such things, they have suddenly added all manner of "natural"food, organic and free- range meat, fresh produce, and other things one would previously have had to drive 100 miles to Albuqueque to get.

They are booming!


Matt Mullenix said...

Steve I think there is evidence of a turning tide---it is never too late to return to normal human behavior, notably eating well. Although we have apparently lost a lot of ground over my 37 years and probably most of my parents' years as well.

Louisiana (esp. South La.) holds a lot of promise. Our state is a sort of time capsule in which many people have been able to maintain traditional foodways, which might be characterized best as the preparation and consumption of food that has travelled the least distance. Kitchen gardens and chest freezers of local fish and game are still familiar sights outside the larger cities in Louisiana.

I'll share this scene, from a trip to a now-destroyed marsh village southeast of New Orleans: We drove down to where the towns are just one street wide and all the houses are (or were, before the storm) on stilts and linked by ropes to boats. We would go for nutria meat to feed the hawks in the summer, and in winter to hunt rails and rabbits in the same marsh with the same hawks.

On one trip, while waiting in the trapper's family home for the man to arrive, we met his wife and little girl, all of them decendants of Canary islanders and still native Spanish speakers. On the kitchen table sat a 5 quart jar of maranading nutria meat (bright pink meat packed in an orange juice maranade), and on the girl's' shoulder sat her pet baby nutria, nibbling on a celery stalk.

"If that don't beat all," as we say in 'da southland.

A little farther north and west, where the land is more stable and the communities larger, many folks still hunt and farm. There are new subdivisions sprouting from old cane fields, but most of the new neighbors have bass boats and bird dogs.

There is something left of an older life here, one that could make a seamless transition forward or backward in time.

The question is, How do we recover that lifestyle (or at least important parts of it), who were not born to it?

One way I know and practice is by initiating and nurturing local friendships---the nearer the better and moving outward from there. We have great friends now in our neighborhood, kids for our kids to play with and adult folks of like minds with whom to chat and drink and eat and share some responsibility.

The principle activity over which our bonding occurs (maybe this is special to La., but I doubt it!) is eating. We cook for and with our friends and try to get together with one or two families a week for a meal. The strength of that fellowship is startling and powerful; it can surprise you if you're accustomed to living a solitary life within the walls of your own home.

Once these bonds are formed, the weaker bonds we have to shopping centers and commercial entertainments can fall away. Making food for friends becomes a gift and a sacrament of the friendship, rather than a harried chore. The satisfaction I have in watching my friends and my friends' children eat food I've prepared for them is hard to describe.

There is something essential in this sharing that needs to be addressed in the more narrow issue of eating well. There has to be a reason and a certain facility to eating well, and friendships foster both.

R Francis said...

1 Delia Smith
I remember her from England maybe 20 years ago, as a frumpy, bourgeois gal who could do the boring mother-in-law Sunday lunch but was not inspired in the kitchen. She wrote the sort of cookbooks that my 88 year old Dad has used since my mother died. She happened before English cooking became even remotely interesting (and laddish).
Then she discovered God and hung out with other absurd TV personalities who had momentary fame in England like the noxious Sister Wendy who channeled a believing connoisseur - think C S Lewis meets Bernard Berenson.
She wrote books about God (A Journey into God, Hodder & Stoughton Religious 1990) and about God and food, viz: A Feast for Advent, BRF The Bible Reading Fellowship, 1996)
‘In this book Delia Smith offers a Bible passage, reflection and prayer for every day from Advent Sunday (27 November) to Epiphany (6 January)’.

She is about to have a new series on the TV and the publicists have been busy. Thus a diverting report in the Daily Telegraph on the Rolling Stone’s Let it Bleed album cover; Delia revealed that she made the cake for the photographer. Ian Martin in the Telegraph speculates: “Just think how different history might have been if Delia had delivered the cake herself and fallen in with the Stones,” he says. “Tempted by Jagger on the road, to take care of the catering, she would have displaced Marianne Faithful as his muse. The formidable Delia would have got Mick in to line in quick order. I don’t see him being brave enough to cheat on her and she would have vetoed his dreadful attempts at a solo career. She could also have restored order at Altamont, which took place only weeks after the album’s release. The Hell’s Angels would not have dared to beat up the hippies with her around.

Ah, so it might have been.”


2 Cooking and the great unwashed

Steve I think has maybe missed the depressing experience of walking into an English supermarket and leaving with more packaging than food. Not like Europe. It is possible that Delia is right about the nutritional value of ‘bad’ food being no worse than ‘good’ food (I doubt it) but the strange class dynamics of England restrict the ‘good’ food to the better class of person. Not necessary but possibly inevitable. And the food has not really improved outside those groups for whom the media offer validation of their good taste and difference.

Same really applies here (midcoast Maine) – we have the same sort of market, good meat produced locally and good seasonal produce, smelts still in season, fiddleheads to come and the lobstah, but ‘it smells’ and there is a lot of bad processed food surrounding it. And the clientele is split between the natives (full of ‘native pride’) who fill their baskets with the worst things and a sort of radical leftover who eschew the chain, and who opposed Walmart. Mediated by a tree hugging standard health food store for the truly revolutionary in a space leased from the regular supermarket. We still need to go to Portland for the Wholefoods experience.

The odd thing is that the lobstermen all have grills on the deck and all grill beef rather than eat their catch – the guy next door promises us monkfish if he catches them and does not need them for bait.

Maybe Steve is right – education now makes the difference.

mdmnm said...

From the comment posted just above Steve's at Bittman's blog: "Walmart food isn’t food it’s poison."

Well, to laugh or to laugh? I suspect this is the sort of person Smith's comments are directed to.

I can't see there being any question that it is possible to eat well and inexpensively. At the same time, it isn't that expensive to eat conveniently and the fact is that a lot of people just don't like to cook. Taking just the example of Smith's frozen mashed potatoes vs. a bag of russets: scrub the potatoes, cut them up (assuming peels on, which I think quite a few folks will object to in their mash), salt the water, boil, then mash with some milk or broth- as opposed to just heating the frozen version. What people who cook by choice might consider an easy preparation suddenly looks like quite a bit of work.

For that matter, I can see where, to many people, the increased time expenditure does not justify the (sometimes) marginal increase in taste. A lot of folks just aren't that picky about their food.

I think some of that has to do with the way people eat in general. I suspect that Steve's grandparents spent a lot of time and effort (on top of working hard) to eat well not only because they grew up when there were few or no other alternatives available for eating cheaply, but because food and meals were a significant thing in daily life. The more important a meal is to your day, the more return you get for investing extra time or other resources into it.I know that I'm guilty of not paying as much attention to enjoying meals as I should, regardless of the fact that I prepare the vast majority of them from scratch. Matt has a something of a prescription for that, at least.

As to "how to get past this?" I would guess that, to the extent that an emphasis on food and eating becomes more popular or fashionable with celebrity chefs and restaurant reality shows and whatever else, there may be a popular trend towards taking care to eat well that will become self-sustaining. Kind of a chicken/egg thing-once fresh/local/organic ingredients are profitable enough to take shelf space away from Swanson's dinners, the price on the former will be dropping and visibility increasing, leading more people to experiment with all this "cooking" hooraw.

Mike Spies said...

Two truths about eating in the UK...

1. Dairy products.

2. Ploughman's lunch in a country pub.

About eating well here at Home (California) -- our family has always enjoyed cooking, but the kitchen gets crowded. We eat a lot of game.

In Jamaica, there are really two classes of food - imported stuff, and those things that are traditional foods. Soused reef fish and roasted breadfruit make a great breakfast, and sharing a baked snapper with lobster stuffing, white yam, rice and peas, and coconut ice cream with friends can lead to a late night swim to shake the food induced stupor.

My younger daughter is a graduate and former fellow at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, NY. I always found it flattering when she would call and ask. "Dad, remember that duck recipe that had the spices and top, roasted, served sliced and rare with a reduction sauce..." She would call to provide the critical review from her instructors and classmates. I always accept her invitations to dinner. My older daughter is just as talented, but without the certificates and medals. They both shop at the same old style Mexican grocery and carniceria in Watsonville, CA - cheaper than the regular markets and soooo many good things.

If one is willing to to arise early on Saturdays, there are many excellent farmers markets near us, and a trip to the wharf gets fresh fish direct from the commercial fishermen.

Hunting, fishing, gardening, gathering and shopping around for food is as enjoyable as preparing and eating it.

Chas S. Clifton said...

My poor tired eyes: I read that as "tinned mice" and immediately started thinking of the ones that I trap in the basement and garage, which are much tastier than the tinned varieties.

R Francis said...

I thought I would check with a food writer friend and foodie in England and he said she's actually recycled the book - same title as her first in 1971. And only for the money. It's the only way she knows to combat her being so very out of fashion. The other things he said could not be repeated in polite company.