Saturday, August 4, 2012

Cooking As An Act of Economic Disobedience

Wow. I'm reading the book The End of Food by Paul Roberts. Real eye opener and I'm just in the background information bit. It's due at the library and I'm going to have to get it out again or something. Too much information to process all at once. Anyway, the bit that has grabbed me at the moment is the evolution of the food industry. Specifically the convenience food industry. It's not like I'm unaware. It's more that I haven't seen it all laid out in an organized, endnoted, fashion like this. Pretty compelling stuff.

The current food industry, according to Roberts, is dependent on "the continued decline in consumers' ability to prepare or even understand their own food." That's not the only thing, there's advertising, engineered consistent flavors, etc. I can't do much about the other factors. But I can totally cook from scratch and understand food.

 How far removed are we from a time when most American households not only cooked, but often grew, their own food for every meal, every day, all year, their entire lifetimes? I'm thinking "not very" is the answer.

Before Columbus sailed the ocean blue (1492), there wasn't much in the way of a prepared food industry here, though there was some. Dried and smoked fish and meats were traded a bit. Grains were traded, or stolen, a bit after drying which is partial processing or "convenience." Flavoring agents like salt and peppers were traded after some processing too. But really, not much compared to heading to the Quickimart for a hot pocket which you stick in some appallingly spattered microwave while you hit the equally appallingly spattered restroom. (Remind me to do a later blog on the "convenience" industry dealing with the outcome of food consumption someday.)

After the pilgrims landed there was some trade with the local folks for dried or at least harvested grains and vegies and some for meats. But mostly, if you wanted to eat you'd better have a family member or servant dealing with that everyday all day. I guess paying servants is another form of convenience food. We've outsourced servitude. I remember being impressed that my aunt (Hi Marcie!) had servants while she lived in India. She was of the upper social group in her area so that was the accepted social convention. They probably helped cook. We had no servants other than Mom who slaved away on food everyday. But sometimes we got a frozen pizza and there was breakfast cereal, canned soups, and etc. I think I remember her mostly cooking from scratch. I remember epic sessions of canning and freezing foods for winter from the giant garden and going to pick berries.

The big annual family "vacation" was geared around going fishing during blue gill spawning season and bringing home tons and tons...ok, pounds and pounds of frozen filets that we ate through the year. The deep freezer was perhaps our most important appliance. If it failed and everything thawed, we were screwed. Other vacation time was spent hunting. Deer was the prestige food, but we ate other things. Fred still occassionally eats squirrel (barf...greasy little bastards they be).

I remember getting beef from "retired" dairy cows on another aunt's farm. I'll have to ask how often that happened. I also remember weekly trips to the Jack and Jill grocery store (which I assumed was somehow linked to me based on the name).  I estimate, and will ask, that the greatest portion of our food was cooked by mom, mostly from scratch with the exception of bread. There were stints of bread baking, but mostly that was bought. As was the butter. Don't remember her churning any.

 A very large portion of our protein was killed by someone in the family. I think for the folks, it still is. They eat many many fish caught and cleaned by Fred. There is a cleaning station in the garage with hot and cold running water which anthropologically indicates 2 things...the importance of this food source and the desire of Sher not to have fishguts in her lovely cherry wood kitchen (Kitchens By Slugs).

When we lived in the first house in Waverly, there was a very large garden on the neighbor's land in what had been the bottom of the river so probably pretty fertile. During those years, a good portion of our vegies came from that garden but I have no estimate on how much.

 Let's go back one more generation to Gramma and Grampa and their folks. On my mother's mother's side they produced approximately 100% of their own food and much of the neighbors' food and had food based businesses. I remember the stories of the honey production. I think Gramma said her dad had a thousand hives but I'll have to ask again. They sold the honey and made honey vinegar and attempted honey wine though the story goes that Gramma's gramma thought that was sinful to spiked the bottles with a bit of mother of vinegar thereby increasing the vinegar output. Still a saleable product but not worth as much as booze. (Aside: I'm attempting some honey vinegar right now...there are facinating stringy thingies in the jar so here's hoping.) They had chickens, a milk cow, large gardens, and fished the Mississippi. They shared and sold and traded the extra and sometimes what wasn't extra. I'm guessing they would have purchased the flour for bread and will ask.

 I remember Gramma talking about how her mom was on the annual trip to South Dakota to introduce the newest baby to her folks, she'd stay like a month or so, and Gramma's dad decided to get a new stove for the wife. The first one arrived on the train and he declared it not good enough and sent it back. Greatgramma like to sit on the oven door to keep warm and he thought this one was flimsy and would break right off. I think that was a wood stove but not sure. Later, a kerosene stove for summer cooking was purchased. These events were very big deals and meant to increase the convenience of cooking at home. I'll have to ask if they ever ate in a restaurant or bought prepared foods.  They did quite a bit of canning and root cellaring. I'm sure there was hunting as there were several boys and some guns.

So, 1 generation back, my mom, most food from scratch and quite a bit killed or grown or foraged themselves. 2 generations back pretty much 100%, let's go with 90% because of the flour, killed, grown or foraged themselves.

For my sister: She grows the odd tomato after Fred plants her garden. Picks cherries off her tree and eats and jams them. She sometimes cooks from scratch and often uses convenience foods and often eats in restaurants.

 For my brother: Has grown his own beef and turkey. Hunts. Fishes. I suspect that a very large portion of his protein is killed by him. I don't think much in the way of veggies. Right now a large portion of his eating at home is home prepared rather than TV dinner sorts of convenience foods, but I don't know how much is from "scratch" and how much has some convenience food like industrially canned tomatoes.

For me: Lately too much restaurant eating because I don't want to turn the stove on in the summer (a summer kitchen is a priority part of my imaginary cabin). Probably 7 meals a week are restaurant or grab-n-go sandwiches. I have been drinking Zevia gingerale more than my homemade kombucha. And, almost all of the food I eat is grown, killed, or foraged by someone else. I do cook from scratch for the other 14 meals per week and have trained myself to minimize the convenience foods when shopping but do still buy pre-ground wheat (aka "flour"), pressed oils, etc.

I think for all of us we use the "convenience" foods of butter, oils, cheeses (except for me) and the like rather than churning, pressing or cheesing our own. I used to buy pre-fab almond milk but have found that it's actually MORE convenient to make my own from almonds. Since getting a tiny ice cream churn (just 1 pint at a time!) I also make my own sorbets and non-dairy icecreams but I still buy the nuts and berries and sweetener pre-made. In the summer almost all of my vegetables come from my CSA, which is local and not part of the big industrial ag machine, or my tiny wee garden. In the winter, I do my best with preserved foods but sometimes I just want to open a can of soup. It's so damned convenient.

So, all that to say, that those of us who cook from basic ingredients, "scratch," are performing one level of economic disobedience. Every time I grind up my own almonds with water in the blender, that's one more time I don't send money to a subsidiary of a multinational corp for my almond milk. Every time I make my own stirfry rather than buying a bag of prewashed, precut, premixed, pre-whatever frozen sealed in plastic veggies, I keep a little of my own money in my pocket rather than sending it to the half dozen multinational corporations who run the food world.

Think of every bit that you garden, if you garden. Even a pot of tomatoes or basil on the patio or a windowsill takes a tiny bit of money away from Nestle or Kellogg or Birdseye or whatever megacorp (which has personhood now, by the way). Good for us.

The community garden here where people can not only eat food grown right here in river city, we/they learn about how to grow it. We start to understand our food. Just this year I understood that sweet peas picked too late taste like crap and give me the farts. That's good to know. I also learned that they are still edible.

 OK, long way around the topic, but it's so compelling. There are really only 2 big seed companies in the US. That is a monopoly people. Please grow your own food, with seeds from the heritage seed companies or buy from local farmers, preferably those who save and use their own seeds or buy from those heritage seed companies. You keep money in your community, understand your food, increase your food and financial security, and carry on with important elements of being human. Providing your own food and sharing it with others. (Now, off to the store for a big box of Ding Dongs.)