Because I don’t celebrate Christmas, I had nothing important to do the other day. Because my husband and kids were headed out to a local social event with other Jewish families with kids, and because our van, the only vehicle we own that can get all six of us from place to place is in the shop, I had no choice but to stay home. So I thought I’d cook – specifically, I thought I’d try out three “fast, easy, healthy, local” recipes that were sent to me from a green website that shall remain nameless because I’m not trying to give them a hard time – I appreciate what they are trying to do.
Why? Because my job now is to think about food. That is no hardship – regular readers of this blog will know that the question of how we will go on eating is my great passion. So much so that I’m now working on book #2, co-authored with Aaron Newton, titled _A Nation of Farmers_ and coming out from New Society in spring ’09. The subject of the book is all of the agricultural acts we will need to undertake to survive and thrive in the coming decades – and on how reclaiming food – growing it and cooking it – might preserve or maybe remake our democracy. The title is drawn from Thomas Jefferson’s claim that it was a nation of independent farmers who were best able to create and sustain democracy, because personal independence made it possible for us to make moral and just choices.
My only trouble with my title is that it places so much emphasis on the growing of food, and thus distracts us from something even more central. A lot of people have talked and written about how urgent it is that we change our agriculture, that we move away from the tremendously destructive system and start maximizing production per acre, while reducing the damage of a fossil fueled agriculture which includes global warming (nitrous oxide from industrial fertilizers, methane from industrial livestock production, loss of carbon storage ability in the soil and high carbon levels from energy used in agriculture, shipping, transport, etc… are among the problems), soil and aquifer depletion and a host of other difficulties. I am one of the people writing about these things, and I believe all of us are right to put part of our focus here. But few of us have focused, except in the most superficial terms, on food, cooking and diet as the means to save the world.
And yet I do not think it is overstating things to say that how we grow food will always be secondary to how we cook and eat. If we are to survive the coming crisis, a surprising amount of it will depend on our ability to adapt our diet – and that will depend on our ability to cook and eat differently.
I suspect too many people it seems a small thing to talk about cooking, self-evident that when different things are in the stores or our gardens, we will eat differently. But I think further consideration will show that it doesn’t work that way. Consider the dual problem of hunger and malnutrition in the US. Overwhelmingly, these are problems of poverty, as you would suspect. But also, these are overwhelmingly cooking problems. That is, a number of people have shown that it is perfectly possible to eat nutritiously and cheaply – for example, that a whole grain, vegetarian, even organic and local diet is possible on a food stamps budget. No one in their right mind would rather see their kids go hungry than eat this way. So why is hunger so endemic in the US? Part of it is lack of time – single mothers and their children are among the most likely people to be hungry in the US, and they have little time to cook. Often, as someone noted on this blog recently, older siblings prepare food for younger children, and about all they can handle are boxed mac and cheese. Some of it is dietary preference.
But some of the problem is simply not knowing how to cook cheap foods. For example, my local food pantry observed that flour is one of the last things to leave their shelves – because few of their patrons know how to make their own bread or baked goods. When dried beans are given out, they must come with instructions, and often people don’t seem to follow them.
A large portion of the American poor *DO NOT KNOW HOW* to cook, and because of this, they *GO HUNGRY*. That is, anyone who thinks that when we have different foods available we’ll all just eat them isn’t paying attention to the evidence of their own eyes – in fact, so few of us have cooking skills, particularly skills of the necessary sort, that would allow us to adapt easily to dietary changes. No doubt some of us will – particularly those who are most literate and have the most time to adapt. But the truth is in front of us – people who don’t know how to cook don’t find it easy to learn, even when the stakes are terrifically high.
This brings me back to these recipes. I wanted to test them out because I thought it might be useful to look at the comparatively small class of Americans who do still cook from scratch regularly, and see how applicable what they’ve been learning is to the future. So I took three recipes I’ve recently received from the nameless website – roasted vegetable enchiladas, whole wheat cornbread and apple-cranberry crisp. All were advertised as quick, easy, seasonal and local, a meal to be prepared in 45 minutes or less (I think – I’m not clear on whether the timing was supposed to be cumulative). And I decided to prepare them completely from scratch, using little or no powered equipment, substituting whatever was missing in my home.
Now to be fair, this isn’t really much of a test. Because I store food, I have an extremely well stocked kitchen and all the equipment needed for low power cooking. That is, even if I couldn’t get to the store, or buy much food, it would be a good while before I ran out of ingredients. Still, I thought it useful to describe my experience.
It also isn’t a test because I cook this way every day. I live nearly 20 miles from the nearest grocery store, and in my rural hamlet there are two places that do take out – both make pizza, neither delivers, and my husband and I cook better than either one. We produce 3 meals a day for our family, usually 7 days a week (we do eat out sometimes, but try to keep it to a minimum), and if we run out of something, we don’t go to the store, we make do. But even in my relatively isolated area, I don’t know a lot of people who cook, who cook like I do, like I suspect we may have to. I suspect a disproportionate number of my readers are serious cooks, who do eat and cook as I do - but it can be hard to remember how very unusual that is in our society.
The enchiladas began with roasted vegetables. They called for roasting peppers and tomatoes, neither of which are in season here now, but that was easy, I just left them out. So took sweet potatoes, onions, potatoes and carrots (called for) and added parsnips and turnips (not), tossed them with olive oil and some chili powder and threw them in the wood cookstove. Easy – I could have made these in the sun oven on a warm day, but we haven’t had one of those for a while. The next part was the dried beans, which I’d soaked over night (I’ve left that time out, plus the time getting the woodstove up and hot, plus the time spent splitting wood for kindling), which I put on the stove to boil. The recipe called for canned refried beans, but that’s not the sort of thing I keep around. If I hadn't had oil, I could have roasted the vegetables with water in the pan - I wonder what percentage of the population would know that?
Meanwhile, I set about making the cornbread. I took dried corn and put it in the grinder and ground it by hand. Then I ground the wheat for flour, mixed them together, added water, honey, butter and ooops…out of baking powder. Ok, I’ve got baking soda and somewhere, buried in the back of the kitchen is cream of tartar. It took about 10 minutes to find it, but I finally did, and was enormously relieved I didn’t have to figure out sourdough cornbread or wait until summer for grapes from which I can precipitate cream of tartar… Ok, mix it up, throw it in to the oven – nope, the 475 temp that I have it at for the veggies will not do. So we wait 10 minutes with the oven door open to get it down enough to bake bread. Ah well, probably won’t rise well in the oven, but it will still taste good.
Meanwhile, I’m making tortillas for the enchiladas out of purchased masa (yeah, to be fair, I should grow my own, but I don’t). I don’t have a tortilla press, so they come out a little thicker than I like, and I burn one, but not bad. This is time consuming, however, and I wonder how many people consider tortillas “quick and easy” – but I don’t know anyone making local tortillas. My guess is that the recipe authors exempted some parts from their "local" and "quick" distinctions.
Ok, the apple crisp. Plenty of apples galore, but no dried cranberries. I do have dried blueberries and some dried cherries – which to pick? Well, there are more blueberries, so those. I cut the sugar back by about ¼, because it is designed to sweeten tart cranberries, not sweet blueberries. It calls for lemon and vanilla – no lemon. Should I try cider vinegar to make it tarter? Leave the lemon out? I’ll add a little of the vinegar, and some orange zest to try and make it citrusy. It is supposed to be thickened with cornstarch, but I haven’t got any that I can find (I’m pretty sure there is some, somewhere, but eventually I give up so as not to burn the cornbread) and I don’t much like the stuff anyway, so I go and look up how to thicken with flour without getting lumps.
Roasted veggies and cornbread are done and cooling. Now the streusel topping. Grind more flour to mix with rolled oats – the recipe calls for white flour for the topping, but whole wheat will be good too. No nuts, ignore them (actually, I do have hazelnuts in their shell, but I’ve no intention of shelling them – the recipe calls for chopped walnuts, which presumably come from a plastic bag). White sugar only, but I’ve got molasses, and since molasses is extracted from brown sugar to make white, I mix a bit of molasses in with the sugar, sprinkle it over and off into the oven it goes – but I’d better haul more wood, the oven is cooling.
Now it is into the oven and the last step is to take the cooked beans, fry them with oil, garlic, and spices into refried beans . I mash them with the potato masher, then sauté them. A layer of tortillas goes down in the pan, then the beans, then roasted vegetables, then more tortillas, then a layer of tomato sauce that I’ve mixed with dried chiles and roasted garlic and chile vinegar I made – to me it tastes better than conventional enchilada toppings. The recipe calls for “enchilada sauce” or “bottled local salsa” – the former would hardly be local, the latter is unavailable right now - the only local salsa maker I know of that makes it from local ingredients is me, and my family ran out of salsa two weeks ago. Now cheese. I have local mozzarella, which I use. By rights I should have made it, but the last (and only) time I made mozzarella it didn’t melt very well.
Into the oven again. Ok, I’ve timed the whole thing – 3 hours and 46 minutes for my quick, easy meal. It was excellent, by the way. And of course, the whole thing is a little self-conscious - again, I'm not trying to pick on anyone. But a lot of what we've been trained to do as "cooking" in our quick, easy recipes is use items where someone else did a lot of cooking or processing for us. If we are to imagine a diet that depends on our garden economies, we have to imagine that we are doing the work.
I think about all the times I substituted one thing for another – how many people know that baking soda and baking powder are not interchangeable, but that you can add cream of tartar to make a passable equivalent? How many people do I know personally who believe recipes appear straight from the hand of some deity and would never, ever consider deviating from them? How many times have I posted a recipe somewhere mentioning “to taste” and had six people email me about exactly what I mean by that? How many people who cook based on Martha Stewart Living and Rachel Ray know how to make a quick, easy, healthy meal *really* from scratch, when you are missing half the ingredients? Most of our cooking is grocery store cooking - it requires no substitution, no adaptability, no understanding how ingredients go together and choosing among choices - they simply prescribe a set of practices. But cooking from a garden, without a trip to the store isn't always like that.
Someone once observed that you can tell what decade you are in by how long the “quick and easy” meals take. In the 1970s, a good portion took as much as
Now there are 15 minutes meals in sustainable, from scratch cooking. They are called “salads” – or if you don’t count the time spent to make cheese, can jam or bake bread, maybe a sandwich. Even those who cook on a regular gas range, who have to cook from scratch aren’t going to do it in 15 minutes. That’s not to say there are no quick prep options – a lot of times things take longer, but you don’t have to do anything. I can assemble a pot of vegetable soup in 15 minutes, and set it on the back of the woodstove, ignore it for three hours, and then a meal is provided. Bread takes 10 minutes of attention, max – the rest of the time is rising and baking. If I was pushing myself, I could produce a pot of soup, a loaf of bread and a salad in 20 minutes of actual prep time – but 3-5 hours of advance planning for rising, cooking and baking.
It isn’t that there is no such thing as sustainable, quick food – there are a lot of options there. But there is no such thing as sustainable, *THOUGHTLESS* food – that is, meals we don’t think about until five minutes before we eat them. Either we think about them far, far ahead, when we stock up on pasta and can tomato sauce so that we can have five minute spaghetti come spring, or we think about them that day, when we soak the bulgur, harvest the parsley and tomatoes, dig out the lemon juice we froze when organic lemons were on sale, and sort out a sweet onion for the tabbouleh.
It seems beyond self-evident to say that the ability to cook is tied to our ability to eat, but it has not been in the first world. That is, most of us, except for the 12% who go hungry, have had the money to buy the processed bags of baby carrots, the premade yogurt, the restaurant meals, the canned beans. Now we may not have that money, or we may not be able to get them, or we may not be able to afford the harm that shipping them around does to the planet. And we have now raised several generations of people who do not cook.
And they really don’t – slightly over half of all American houses own a roasting pan. More than 10% do not even own a frying pan. 31% of Americans say they “never” cook. More than half of all thanksgiving meals include premade, restaurant and canned items – the one time of year we cook, we don’t. And this isn’t a class issue – Americans who say they “love” to cook do it slightly less often than Americans who say they are neutral on the subject. One study I saw some years ago (and can’t cite because I can’t find it again) notes that people who own no cookbooks, and people who own 30 or more cookbooks both eat the vast majority of their meals from premade ingredients and restaurants – the only difference is that one group eats at diners and fast food places, the other eats at more expensive restaurants. But neither are cooking, and neither are cooking the way they will need to – even the people who have the best information and who say they love to cook aren’t doing it day in and day out, and they aren’t practiced at the kind of cooking we’ll do in the future.
And even those who grow food have trouble eating it. Bart Anderson, in an essay a few years ago in _Permaculture Activist Magazine_ noted that almost no one has made the connection between *growing* the food and actually eating it. Now I’m growing tons of Jerusalem artichokes and groundnuts too – but they haven’t replaced potatoes as my staple foods yet. If they ever had to, I could do it, and I flatter myself I’m a good enough cook to make it taste good too – but appetite fatigue is a real risk for children, the elderly and the ill. Sudden changes in diet can be so stressful that people simply stop eating – and those who are most vulnerable suffer malnutrition and illness as a consequence. Some even die. It is not enough to say “Oh, I’ll eat like this when I have to.” The learning curve is simply too steep, and the stakes too high.
My own observation is that in many cases, it is harder to learn to eat and preserve what you grow all the time than it is to grow it. That’s even truer as we begin eating less common foods, or moving towards a truly local diet. We are making an enormous change in our diets, and in our society as a whole. Food is more than fuel – It is culture, love, happiness, comfort, a part of who we are. How we eat and what we eat is part of our identity – far more than what we grow. We are about to change our identities in a profound way. And at the root of this transition is the question of time – the quick and easy 3 hour meal requires someone to be around to cook it, watch over it, check on it. With a majority of households working hard to make ends meet, we encounter a bind – we could make ends meet better if we didn’t have to buy our food at restaurants, but cooking quickly and sustainably requires knowledge, experience and the time at least to learn how to do it. Most often, it requires someone at home.
Aaron and I probably won’t change the title of the book, or at most we’ll add “A Nation of Cooks” to the title somehow. But the truth is this – a nation reared on instant and quick and easy is about to make a very hard transition – one that transforms the question of what to have for dinner to “how shall we transform our very society down to its deepest roots." Now the good thing is that I suspect that much of this transition will improve our lives, our health and a whole host of other things. But it will be hard, and harder still until we recognize that as challenging as getting 100 million farmers and gardeners will be the creation of 200 million home cooks.