A place for fast food. December 19, 2010Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
Tags: eating, fast food, locavores, omnivores, Utne Reader, vegetarians
Silence Dogood here. Last night, I rushed home after a busy day of visits and errands. My mission, should I choose to accept it: to make a hot, delicious supper for six people in less than an hour. To say that this was stressful is an understatement, but I was undaunted: I knew I could do it, thanks to modern technology.
Armed with cans of black beans and crushed tomatoes, and several bags of various salad combinations, supper was a snap: Saute several diced onions and green peppers in olive oil with black mustardseed, cumin, oregano, lemon pepper, and Trocomare; toss in a huge can or two of black beans and a big can of crushed tomatoes; add some veggie stock and hot fresh salsa (two of my other favorite grocery convenience foods) and a big splash of lemon juice (I like bottled Key lemon juice); stir, mash, stir, and allow to mellow on low heat. Meanwhile, mix bags of Romaine lettuce and baby greens, add a chopped orange bell pepper, crumbled feta cheese, pepitas, olives, hard-boiled eggs, and scallions. Our friend Carolyn provided salad dressings and hot cornbread, and her brother Rudy brought wine. We brought sour cream and shredded cheese (yet another convenience food) for the soup, and before we knew it, the six of us were sitting down to a delicious dinner.
There are many arguments against prepared foods, and one of them is price. If you’re on a budget like us, spending big bucks for convenience is usually just plain stupid. We have friends who wouldn’t dream of buying canned beans when they could soak a bag of dried beans overnight and cook them for pennies a serving. We have friends we’ve never seen open a bag of prepared salad mix.
I say, keep your eyes open. I patronize a local grocery that often puts greens on sale for 99 cents a package (down from $3.99, and still perfectly fresh). Often, I’ve bought organic baby arugula, baby spinach, and many a salad mix for 99 cents when a head of chemically-grown iceberg lettuce was going for over two dollars. The same store has a “three for $5.99″ section where I’ve bought packages of locally-grown apples, pears, tomatoes, green beans, sweet onions, mushrooms, garlic, new potatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and many another yummy veggie or fruit for a fraction of the price in other stores. They often have big discounts on canned beans, tomato products, and dried pasta, as does another local grocery, so I compare and stock up.
I do consider myself a from-scratch cook. I use basic ingredients, not mixes. I don’t buy fast-food meals from drive-by stores like Mickey D’s or KFC. But I feel no shame about using canned, frozen, and dried whole foods when they’re reasonably priced and save me time.
All this came to mind when I received an e-mail with an attachment for an article called “In Praise of Fast Food” by Rachel Laudan in The Gastronomica Reader, excerpted by The Utne Reader (http://www.utne.com/). Ms. Laudan’s reasons for supporting fast food are different from mine—I suggest you read her article and draw your own conclusions—but the article strongly brought to light the dichotomy between today’s slow-food locavores and the rest of us.
I mention this simply because I often think of the past in terms of creating convenience without guilt. Which is to say, everyone viewed time-saving and shelf life as untarnished positive developments before modern storage, shipping, and globalization made fresh food universally available year-round.
Think back with me to this era of seasonal abundance and seasonal scarcity for a moment. Imagine the thrill of canning or freezing food so it would keep until you needed it! Imagine pickling or preserving food so you could eat it out of season! Imagine making luscious white bread and using white sugar without even a clue about calories or health issues! Imagine buying butter from the store instead of having to churn your own! Imagine the joy of welcoming new developments without ever once thinking, “Is this bad for me?”
To me, this period—roughly from the mid-1800s through the mid-1900s—was The Age of Innocence. The age where we could enjoy food without worrying about its consequences on our health, simply because, with the sole exceptions of gout and obesity, no one had a clue that food was other than healthful. If it tasted good, it was good, end of story.
I can see housewives rejoicing over white flour that didn’t quickly go rancid like whole-grain flours (in the pre-refrigeration era), eggs and dairy products delivered fresh to your door or sitting chilled and conveniently packaged in the refrigerated section of the grocery, canned and frozen foods that stayed good practically forever so you could stock your pantry and freezer and just grab what you needed. I can see them celebrating cake mixes, tea bags, bagged bread, sugar and salt that stayed granular rather than clumping, dried herbs and spices. I can see it all.
Ms. Laudan points out in “In Praise of Fast Food” that the glory days of fresh, seasonal, from-scratch eating were only glorious for the wealthy, who could afford to buy all the food that the peasants produced, leaving them to try to get by on scraps and shavings. She didn’t add, but I will, that in bad years, even the wealthy went hungry as a result of crop failures, and everyone else pretty much starved.
And we’re not just talking about the Middle Ages here. Much as I loved Little Women as a girl—it was probably my favorite book—I was shocked and haunted by the March family’s obvious hunger and lack of even common necessities during the brutal winter that opens the book. Pre-convenience foods, the larder often was empty.
To me, eating locally produced produce and foods that support our neighbors and our local economy seems an appropriate and moral thing to do from every perspective. After all, if someone in my area wanted an expert editing job, I’d certainly appreciate it if they came to me rather than outsourcing their work to New York or L.A. In turn, I could put the money they paid me into other local enterprises, and with everyone’s cooperation, our little community might become more self-sustaining.
But I agree with Ms. Laudan that it’s a luxury, just as my being a vegetarian is a luxury, made possible by an abundance of delicious produce, dairy products, and grains provided daily to our grocery stores by modern technology. I can take the moral high road only because my choice is supported by an abundance of resources, from farmers’ markets and organic CSAs to health-food stores and groceries that stock local products.
Were it not for them, I would be forced to resort to the full range of my omnivore inheritance or starve: eating the squirrels in our trees as well as the nuts that fall from them, raising chickens to butcher instead of coddling them through their long lives and gratefully enjoying their eggs, roaming the countryside in search of edible roots, herbs, shoots, berries, mushrooms, and greens to supplement what I could raise at home. Trying to barter eggs, preserves, salsa, or spaghetti sauce for enough of local farmers’ wheat and corn to provide our friend Ben and me with bread and the chickens with feed. Praying that someone nearby would grow dried beans to take the rest of us through the year, and that the dairy farmers could give us milk, butter, and cheese in return for money or barter.
And what if you didn’t live in farm country like we do? What if you didn’t own a grain mill, yogurt-maker, butter churn, or canning equipment? What if you didn’t have the time to use them if you did own them, because you had a family and (at least one) full-time job?
No, you’ll never see me in a Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, Chick-Fil-A, or Taco Bell, or spot our little red VW Golf in the drive-up line. But yes, I am grateful every day for the fresh, pre-bagged, canned, frozen, juiced, and ground products that make it possible to cook delicious, healthy meals every time without spending all day, every day, trying to make it happen.
‘Til next time,