SOLE Food and Pollan, Practiced

With the economic slide continuing, it was interesting to see a piece on entitled “Can we afford to eat ethically?” in which Siobahn Phillips writes:

Last month, a report from England found sales of some organic food had fallen up to 31 percent. Ethical food advocates have been worrying about a similar trend in this country since the recession began: Just as the need for better food choices became more widely accepted, our economy fell apart, and consumers who once considered free-range, $5-a-dozen eggs a necessity may start eyeing the caged-hens carton for half that price. A recent National Review column argued that organic food was, in fact, “an expensive luxury item, something bought by those who have the resources.”

Phillips decides to go one step beyond the innumerable experiments that have challenged people to live on a food-stamp budget: she ups the ante by trying to do so using only SOLE food: sustainable, organic, local, and ethical alternatives. Her description of the month’s trials and successes is entertaining, but her conclusion is important:

[O]ur four-week hypothetical did provide a feasible way for my husband and me to eat sustainably long-term: When the month finished — with a magisterial $1.20 left in the cache — we decided to stick with most of our experimental changes. We now eat slightly larger quantities of meat, fruit and cheese, and pepperoni pizza is back in the menu rotation. But apart from that pepperoni (and I’m still looking for an ethical source), I’ve yet to purchase any recurring items that aren’t SOLE-justified, and our grocery bills have stayed lean.

And her piece provides an important piece of the puzzle, mostly in the way of a link to another article, this one by Laura Miller, who writes “How to live what Michael Pollan preaches.” Miller’s piece is basically a review of Mark Bittman’s Food Matters, but she brings up an extremely important point:

Of all the challenges confronting the “Food Matters” plan for “responsible eating” – agribusiness lobbying and marketing, the low price of subsidized junk food, even evolutionary factors that attract us to high-calorie foods – probably the single most obdurate is the fact that so many contemporary Americans simply don’t know how to cook. By “cook,” I don’t mean being able to concoct an impressive dinner the one night a month you have guests over while otherwise subsisting on nuked Lean Cuisine. Real home cooking means having a good repertoire of reliable, quick, uncomplicated recipes and understanding enough of the underlying principles to improvise when needed. It means knowing how to stock a pantry and plan your menus so that you shop for groceries only once a week. It’s a set of skills manifested as an attitude, something you can acquire only through regular practice, and it’s the one thing that can make a person truly at ease in a kitchen.

I’m a huge proponent of cooking and eating at home: we normally eat 1 meal out per week (that’s out of 21 meals – our children are still at ages where daily attendance at all 3 meals as a family is required) and during the week all 4 of us take packed lunches to school/work. Yet I know that this is made possible in part by my work schedule (I have worked part-time for the past few years and am currently between jobs as we plan our summer relocation to Michigan) and in part because I have had professional training in culinary school. However, I do spend a minimum of time on cooking during the week (too many after-school activities to juggle!) and I did receive a lot of culinary training from my mother and grandmother.

I have not yet read Bittman’s book, but it sounds like the sort of reading that should help others along the road to being “at ease in the kitchen.” And I love and wholly support Miller’s comment that

[l]ike writing, driving, touch typing and balancing a checkbook, basic cooking is a life skill (not an art or hobby) that everybody needs, and it ought to be taught in public schools as a matter of course. The fact that cooking can also be a craft, featuring a certain amount of self-expression, or that contemporary star chefs have been exalted to a degree far exceeding their actual cultural worth, shouldn’t be allowed to obscure that humbler truth.

I had a good laugh at the farmers’ market this past Saturday when our “crepe man” in his fabulous French accent asked my son, “What are you doing for Mommy for Mother’s Day? Are you going to cook her dinner?” “No, I can’t cook.” “But you make her some pasta – that’s easy: you put some water in a pot, put in some salt, add the bag of pasta, et voila!” A moment of silence, then my son said, “You have to boil the water first.” The crepe man laughed delightedly and said, “You see, you know more than I do!” It struck me then that even at 5 & 9, my children do know an awful lot about cooking, which comes from watching their father and me cook on a regular basis, even climbing on the counter to stir the simmering pots and watch the melting butter, and yes, mom, even licking the batter from the beaters – I know, I know, it contains raw eggs.

So back to the kitchen – and this time with the kids in tow – tell them you’re giving them a gift, not rescinding child labor laws. They’ll thank you when they can indeed cook for themselves and live on a budget!

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