Inspired by a poster who mentioned a family vegetable garden during the Depression.
Food and Class highlights the popularity of quality fresh produce, grown on small farms. It has become quite the trendy luxury for the affluent, those simple, honest vegetables from a bygone era. “Heirloom,” they call the tomatoes.
In the topsy turvy world of modern America, it is the rich who are thin and the poor who are fat.
As the article says, “almost unlimited calories” are available to the US poor, but scant nutrition.
The movie “Supersized” highlights the prevalence of bad food, not only available in the fast food restaurants, but in the schools themselves.
When schoolchildren, prisoners, even hospital patients complain about the awful food, they may be talking about the taste. The same “taste” technology used by McDonald’s has not yet been incorporated into the Sexton company’s profit maximization model, but in addition to tasting awful, institutional food is also awful from a health standpoint.
While the poor bear the brunt of McMalnutrition, the phenomenon is by no means limited to the underclass.
For the millions fighting the good fight to keep from joining the teeming hordes, even those who might have more than a dollar to spend on lunch do not have the time to a) go shopping around to the luxury “farmer’s markets” for their designer vegetables, nor the time to prepare them, nor the time to sit down and eat them.
There is a reason that Burger King now sells “chicken fries,” little sticks of fried chicken the size of a Wendy’s fry, sold in a container that fits into the little cupwells of cars and can be eaten with one hand.
It’s an instant hit, because people who have a half hour for lunch, or to get to their second job, if they are going to eat, it is better for all who share the road with them that they be able to use one hand to drive. And remember, this is not the bottom rung of the ladder. These people have cars. The bottom rung eats the double cheeseburger for a dollar. After work.
The choice for parents at the supermarket is not which fresh fruits one will cut up and serve their children along with their yogurt and English muffin, but which cereal bar that the kids will actually eat has the best nutrient count on the label. Again, that is not the bottom rung buying those. They are too expensive for that bottom rung, whose children, if they have any breakfast at all, will have a sausage biscuit from McDonald’s if there is time, or grab a handful of some other empty, sugar loaded calories on the way out the door. Or if they are lucky, their school may be one of the many who now offer breakfast, after study after study pointed out that the reason so many children were falling asleep was simple lack of food. So the schools now provide the “breakfast burritos,” the crunchy flakes, the pastries, and this keeps the kids’ heads off the desk until lunchtime when more institutional filler is served.
And for poor kids, that pretty much covers their food intake. It may be supplemented on weekends, and occasionally in evenings, by the dollar menu at the fast food place, but only if there is time, and a dollar.
Even for those who have the discretionary time and the know-how to prepare them, the alleged fruits and vegetables sold at the large supermarket chains are hardly inspiring. Pallid, hard 100% flavor-free tomatoes, chemical-sprayed greens do not provide much of a reward no matter what you do to them.
Especially annoying are the constant exhortations from those who claim to be concerned about this very subject to eat more fresh fruit. Many Americans do not realize that one of the most common amusements among recent arrivals in the US is a trip to the supermarket to laugh at the fruit. Those hard, sour little balls are not what people, especially from warm lands like subcontinents think of as fruit.
Older readers, and those who have lived outside the US may also be aware of another little known fruit fact – different flavors! That’s right, a peach, a pear, an apple, a plum, a mango, each has its own distinct flavor! Even more incredible, that flavor is not sour. The fruits are supposed to be sweet, and in the case of some, like plums, mangoes, peaches, soft and easy to bite or cut into. This is arcane knowledge that no child will learn at the Safeway or the Kroger or the Wal-Mart.
The improbability of growing your own. Unless you have a sizeable yard, with fertile soil and the discretionary resources of time, money and skill to tend it and the storage space to can and freeze it, the idea of feeding your family by growing your own vegetables is not a feasible option.
You cannot grow corn in a window box, and the amount of beans you can hope to produce in the lawnpatch of an urban condominium or “townhome” might, with luck, yield you a potful or two.
For most urban dwellers, the best they can hope for is to produce a handful of chiles, a few tomatoes, some fresh herbs. All great ideas, but hardly the stuff of self-sufficiency.
Small farming, like bulk buying, either on your own or in neighborhood cooperative endeavor, is a terrific option for folks with the space to pull it off, but a resource waster for those who do not have the various flavors of wherewithal to make it a money saver as opposed to an interesting and expensive avocation.
It’s not a bargain if you don’t eat it. Most self-styled “frugal living” websites and pamphlets will advise families to go to CostCo and buy in bulk to save money. This is not bad advice at all, but it is not for everybody.
First, it is not for people without cars to A) get to Costco, and B) bring the stuff back home.
Second, it is not for people whose living spaces are small. A case of peanut butter takes up a lot of room, and when you add to that a case of cooking oil and a case of toilet tissue, a case of soy sauce or strawberry jam or crackers, you have effectively rendered useless the entirety of a studio apartment or condominium, or one roomlet of a two bedroom townhome. And if your “freezer” consists of a small compartment of your refrigerator, it is best suited for a couple of lean cuisines and a package or two of frozen corn and ice cream, not 10 pounds of chicken wings or a bushel of peas.
And no matter how much space you have, or how cheap it is, at CostCo or elsewhere, if it is not eaten, the money would have been better spent on a smaller quantity of something whose serving dish went clean to the sink.
That may sound like a no-brainer, but if you are truthful, you will have in your life history at least one episode of walking out of a store with 6 cans of something purchased for a quarter each, a something that neither you nor anyone in your family likes or has ever expressed an interest in eating, and there they sit, either on your shelf or on the table, while you rack your brain trying to figure out some way you can disguise or use the stuff up so that $1.50 will not have been wasted. A $1.25 with which you could have purchased a bag of lentils, or beans, and made something tasty that everyone would have eaten, including you.
Or maybe not. Maybe your family does not like pulses, which brings me to another money saving fundamental.
Be honest about what you do and do not like, and will and will not eat. This does not count resolving to learn to like split peas, or wishing that you had children who liked split pea soup, unless you are Mommy Dearest.
If your children only like pizza, try to include more vegetables in their pizza. Chop them fine and put them in the red sauce. Serve the pizzas on flour tortillas, English muffins, naan. Be glad that you have the option of serving them anything at all, as opposed to grabbing a couple of extra dollar burgers on the way home from your second job.
The supermarkets discriminate against single people, childless or one child families.
Suppose you would like to make a dish for two, maybe three, that contains carrots. You must buy a bag of carrots and then either throw away all but the one or two you need, or watch them slowly soften and die in the refrigerator because it will probably be several months before you need another carrot, it is not a vegetable either you or your spouse if any naturally reach for at snack time, and about the best you could hope to do is maybe cook one or two more of them with some butter and ginger as a side dish, after which you will still have almost a whole bag of doomed carrots.
You could give them away. Just go door to door and ask your neighbors if they would like some carrots, or take them on the subway with you and look for a needy looking individual and turn their life around, but you will probably do the wise thing and just throw them out.
Now someone will always pop up at times like this to say, oh the store will sell you a single carrot, you just have to ask. This person does not live in the reality-based dimension. This person is not trying to rush through the supermarket in order to be on time somewhere else, this person has enough time to look around to find someone to ask, who will then go off to find someone else, who will then call a management mini-meeeting, decide that you may purchase the carrot, but a special barcode tag will have to be issued, and in order to do that, yet another functionary must be called, sought, and waited for, and you will be given instructions to ask for Denise when you reach the checkout counter, because she will be needed in order to supply the special code for your special barcode tag, and all those people behind you who are looking at their watches will understand when the call for Denise goes out over the loudspeaker, and who would, after all, begrudge Denise her break, she is a human being, and an underpaid one at that.
The meat shelves are even worse. You must buy a package of six chicken thighs. So much for your desire to be more healthy and economical, and use just a little chicken in your stir fry that you are making for yourself and one other person, instead of cooking six chicken thighs and eating that dish for three days and developing a long lasting aversion to it.
Depending on the quality of your supermarket’s deli and the amount of pungent chiles you like in your stir fry, your best bet might be to request a quarter pound of the chicken breast in one thick slice, take it home and chop it to bits. But it will still taste funny.
Immigrants to the rescue! Depending on country and culture of origin, some poor people are less poor than others when it comes to nutrition, as well as culinary enjoyment.
People from either of the world’s subcontinents can vouch for the usefulness of legumes, the American subcontinent boils dried beans, seasons them simply, mashes them up, or not, and garnishes them with onions, chiles and the tasteless tomatoes, rolls or picks it up with a tortilla or throws it on top of some rice, and obtains more nourishment and pleasure than many of their more affluent counterparts do from their little deck of cards poached fish and broccoli with lemon. And they feel full.
The eastern subcontinent can teach you to make the humble lentil into an endless variety of the most subtle and delicately flavored of dishes; put the dal over rice, add some yogurt and a piece of naan and you have scrambled up the entire food pyramid and feel as if you have dined at a king’s table.
And if you have access to one, your ethnic grocery’s meat department is your friend. These tend to be smaller stores, and the butcher will be much more accustomed to exacting consumers who tell him what kind of meat they want, how they want it cut, and will not think twice about refusing the offering if it is not up to standards. An extra bonus: if you choose a store that sells halal meat, no mad cow worries. Animals sold as halal must be fed a halal diet, that means no ground ancestors in the feeding trough.
Eating to live, or living to eat? Which camp you fall into will depend on many factors, and personality is a major one. Just as you cannot will your children to like brussel sprouts, even if they are on sale, if you are a person who lives to eat, trying to force yourself into the dietary attitude shoes of a Buddhist holy man is probably not going to work, and may be counter-productive.
Food is, for some people, anyway, supposed to be pleasurable, supposed to provide more than merely keeping the body going for a few more hours.
If you have time (that keeps coming up, that time thing) and energy left over at the end of the day, you can and should make the effort to set an attractive table, encourage other family members whose schedules permit to join you, shave your carrots into curls and “plate” them surrounded by little droplets of balsamic vinaigrette like they do on the food channel, and there is a chance that you might enjoy the carrots more, and benefit from the improved aesthetics.
But don’t expect too much. If you hate carrots, or if what you really crave tonight is barbecue, all the styling and refined conversation over the casually elegant centerpiece you threw together from found flowers and fall leaves will not fill the void, and you will finish your carrot curls and still want nothing more than to sink into the softness of the couch as your teeth sink into the softness of slow-cooked spicy beast.
Know when to eat out. Yes, fast food is horrible, and you can make whatever they are serving better yourself. What you can’t do is make that better pizza for less money or time than Papa John can deliver it to you, and if you are still in that barbecue mode, you’d better plan on taking a day off from work. Actually, two. You’ll need one day just to dig the pit.
This is one of the reasons fast food is successful in all neighborhoods, not just the poor ones. Time is as scarce in the suburbs as money is in the projects, and fast food is an unavoidable part of your life.
With that understood, here are some tips for the Forgotten Ones, the singles and couples who have neither the money to hire a private chef, nor the space to become a CostCo mini-warehouse, nor the time or energy to spend the evening slicing and dicing, nor the inclination to eat the same thing every day for a week.
When forced to buy six chicken thighs, open the package when you get home and put each one in a baggie.
That will fit in your freezer compartment and you can thaw them out, one or two at the time to make a small amount of whatever you are making.
Compare the cost of paper plates and bowls to the cost of water and the energy necessary to heat same.
Unless you have a favorite cereal that you will actually eat a whole box of before it goes stale, despite the conventional wisdom, the variety pack may be a better value for you. If you don’t like them all with milk, you can put the others in a candy dish in front of the TV instead of M&Ms or nuts.
Patak makes already mixed and perfectly acceptable spice pastes in a variety of flavors that even after opening, will keep for a scandalously long time in the refrigerator. Tossing a small package of frozen assorted vegetables into a pan with some butter and Patak’s requires no “prep work” on your part, nor does stirring in some yogurt at the end. Even if you are making a curry for only one or two people, you can do that several times with your jar of Patak’s, and vary the flavor by doctoring it up with different spices, instant chicken broth, or coconut milk according to your mood.
The bag of shredded cheese will be cheaper in the long run because most people will grate more than they need. If it is already grated, you will be surprised how many things you will sprinkle it on.
Make your own George Foreman grill by wrapping a brick in aluminum foil. Place sandwich to be grilled on a piece of buttered aluminum foil in a thick skillet, cover with foil, place brick on top.
Keep expectations realistic. All really sublime food takes fresh ingredients, time, and talent, or at least skill. If you are going to spend $20 on ingredients, half of which spoil waiting for you to get home early, to produce only a mediocre version of Mediterreanean Chicken Whatever, just buy the Lean Cuisine. It will be cheaper, and a slightly higher grade of mediocre than yours will.
If you use milk mostly for coffee and cream mostly to add to your Patak curry instead of yogurt, buy half and half. If the butterfat content is really that distasteful to you, buy a pint of half and half and mix it with water. That will be the same as your low fat blue milk, and adding half and half instead of cream to your curry counts as an “eat lighter” act.
Unless you truly are a person who will eat an orange, a handful of granola and some flatbread and spinach dip for lunch, do not buy these things and take them to your workplace. Just get a sandwich. If you want to feel virtuous, get the veggie special sandwich. In that same vein, by the time you buy all the various additives, toppings and dressings to ensure that that bag of salad will provide enough variety for you to really eat it before the expiration date, you will have spent enough to buy yourself a really fancy salad at a non-fast restaurant every day for a week.
Keep a food diary. Not just what you eat every day, but what you buy, how much it costs, the date, and the date you ate it. As well as what you really ate every day while it languished on the shelf. In a few weeks you will have enough information to stop doing this, and admit to yourself that most of what you buy are things you think you should eat, but won’t, things you never eat, but they were on sale, or you had a coupon, or things you bought with a special night in mind, where you will spend the whole evening cooking for 6 or 8 people, a night that might or might not occur before 3 months have passed.
At some point, you will want to take a pantry inventory, to reinforce the lesson of your food diary. How long have you had that little jar of Nigerian spice mix, ideal for a traditional fish stew you have no idea how to make, no time to make, and no one to eat it with save your anti-fish spouse? What, and when, were you thinking of marinating in that dusty bottle of Grandma Cho’s Gourmet Designer Ginger Marinade? Maybe that fossilized half chicken that has been in your freezer since Clay Aiken was on American Idol? Especially if your lifestyle is such that you have not marinated anything since Clay was in first grade, if ever, you should begin at this point to feel the stirrings of a small epiphany.
You may be doomed to bad food, to one degree or another, but you do have some choice in how you fight the battle.
(NB: If you reply to this with recipes, I will not interpret that as being called a troll 😉 )