Reduce, reuse, recycle

There has been a lot of talk about food becoming increasingly expensive just as Americans are losing jobs and having less money for necessities. I’ve heard many older people speak somewhat bemusedly about the younger generation acting as though they invented the “reduce, reuse, recycle” approach to resources and “locavorism” as a way of eating: someone on a message board I frequent came out and said, “Wake up – we did that all the time when I was growing up during the Depression – it’s called thrift!”

It seems that the time has come for the current generation of younger adults to finally learn about thrift in the kitchen for real. In today’s LA Times, “Food lessons from the Great Depression” introduces us to some thoughts on pinching pennies in the kitchen – “Sour grass soup, anyone?” asks Mary MacVean.

The question is somewhat humorous, but the point of MacVean’s article is serious and timely. If you track food prices, you’ll know that what is becoming increasingly expensive is processed, packaged food. Prices on dairy and produce are actually holding steady or even falling. Great news for those of us who cook and eat most of our meals at home; terrible news for those who grab something on the go or throw together meals from packaged ingredients and call it cooking.

At a time when Americans face frightening and disorienting economic uncertainty, the Great Depression provides valuable lessons. For many people, putting a meal on the table without turning to processed or takeout foods is no longer something just for a weekend dinner party but a skill they must learn.

[Kelly Alexander, co-author of “Hometown Appetites,” a biography of the pioneering newspaper food columnist Clementine Paddleford] says she recently saw a pot pie recipe that called for precooked pieces of chicken, a premade crust and vegetables from a salad bar – essentially directions for assembling, not cooking. So by appealing to people who are too busy to cook or unwilling to learn, a modern version of a dish invented to make leftovers appealing becomes a collection of expensive ingredients. [Emphasis mine.]

I feel like I’ve found a kindred spirit in MacVean and even a few more in the people she interviewed: come on, America, let’s take back the kitchen – for real, without the cans and boxes and vacuum-sealed packages!

Sadly, some people, including those who are selling us food in conventional stores still aren’t “getting it”:

A spokesman for Ralphs and Food 4 Less says more people are turning to house brands, and Albertsons has seen more sales of “stretcher” products such as Hamburger Helper.

What would really stretch your hamburger would be some good old-fashioned fresh vegetables tossed in, plus some rice or pasta, all of which are still very inexpensive.

Of all places, it seems that food pantries are taking up the cause – yes, those places where you could get a box full of processed, packaged foods are now realizing that many of the people who must use their services simply cannot use the “food” they were being given and are turning to “thinking outside the box,” providing meat, fresh produce, and a healthy serving of human dignity. Check out “From Canned Goods to Fresh, Food Banks Adapt” in today’s NY Times for the full story.

I’ve been challenging myself recently to go even further in reducing waste in my kitchen. As it is, we rarely throw anything out: dinner makes enough to become lunch for 1-4 of us the following day; chicken carcasses go into soup stock; vegetable parings also go into stock. Our Thanksgiving turkey, besides providing us with several reaheated lunches became turkey enchiladas, shepherd’s pie, “impossible turkey pie,” extra gravy for mashed potatoes, and the bones are in the freezer waiting to become turkey rice soup. The other day my husband raved about a pot of broccoli soup. “What is in this soup?! It’s GREAT!” Well, what was in the soup was vegetable broth made exclusively from vegetable parings and ends, broccoli stems (if you freeze them, the skin slips right off!), and for thickener – leftover mashed potatoes. Recycled soup, indeed.

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