Thursday, April 17, 2008

Feeding our Families

As people with full schedules and limited budgets, how do we get everything done? I'm at a reasonable point in life: my kids are grown and out on their own, and it's just me and my husband. He works full-time, I'd like to work that much, but my business is not that busy.

Even so, we have very little free time. People with jobs and kids - whoa. You people are busy!

I remember. I raised 5 children as a single parent, and I went to college and worked full-time while I was doing it. Let's just say I was a bit more - ahem - organized, in those days. And my house wasn't real clean.

I knew a lot less about food back then, but I still knew it was important to cook my own food as much as possible and to use whole grains and limit the soda (my kids hated that!). I refused to buy sweet cereal for my kids. It was reserved for a birthday treat. Five times a year, the birthday kid could pick any cereal they wanted for all of them to eat. It was always a lot of fun to watch them hit the cereal aisle on those days!

I got up at 5:30 and read the newspaper and cooked a homemade breakfast for my kids. And for me, too - breakfast is still my favorite meal of the day. I loved waking them up and watching them sit down to a hot breakfast. I also packed lunches for them - in those days, I didn't know better and we used a lot of Little Debbie snacks. I wouldn't go near that stuff, anymore!

I cooked dinner every night and I was a master at the fast, homemade meal. Of course, we were quite poor too, so we had our share of Top Ramen, which I tried to supplement with leftover meat or frozen vegetables.

All of this is to say that I understand what families are going through. So when I preach about eating whole grains and buying local, organic produce and NEVER using processed foods, yeah, yeah, yeah...

I know what I'm asking you to do. I know it's not easy.

But I also know it's possible.

I have an idea and I'd like some input from women about it. It involves a community kitchen.

The idea is that a group of people - neighbors, co-workers, PTA, whatever - forms a co-op, of sorts. The co-op plans menus, shops for ingredients, and cooks the meals. Members can pick up their prepared meals to take home, or they could eat at the kitchen and enjoy a little social interaction.

This could be done in member's homes and the homes could rotate, so no member is stuck with all the work. Or, the co-op could rent a commercial kitchen for the purpose.

This could be carried a step further and members could grow their own vegetables, too. The co-op could buy from area farmers and ranchers, so members would have the best food available, for a much cheaper price.

There is a kitchen doing something like this in Berkeley: Three Stone Hearth. I buy from them sometimes, and I love what they are doing. I don't know how big the co-ops would have to be to make it viable, but it would be great to have hundreds of these in communities across the country. Small is better, really - so no one is tempted to industrialize the food.

So there it is. Any comments?

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Cost of Food

The shock and awe over food prices continues. It's been in the paper practically every day for the last week.

First, they tell us food is costing more. Then they give us the usual tips on how to save money, which really only work if you have a job and a car.

I don't know why all this bothers me so much. Part of it is the nagging thought in the back of my head that Americans pay less for their food than any other country in the world. We pay less for gas too, but even liberals are complaining these days about the cost of that.

It's all relative, of course. Who cares how much they pay in France or Japan or the Congo? What matters is how much I paid a year ago and how much I'm paying now! But even with that criterian, I have to ask "why is it bothering us?"

May I suggest (meekly and humbly) that it bothers us because we have no control over it?

If you have $10 to spend on anything you want, and what you really want is a new CD of that hot new (whatever - I'm clueless, here) but CDs cost $20, what are you going to do?

You don't buy a CD. You either put the money away until you have enough to buy it, or you get something else. But you can't do that with food. You have to eat. Right?

Well, yeah.

For myself, I ask a couple of questions.

1. Do I really need to eat as much as I do? For me, this is an honest question and the answer is an unqualified "No." I can buy less food because it wouldn't hurt at all for me to cut back. How many of us is this true for?

2. Can I eat less meat? Here again, I realize I can cut back. Meat is expensive. We don't need it twice a day or even once a day. Try going for 3 times a week, tops. And don't be afraid of cheaper cuts of meat. Do you have crock pot? Throw it in there and let it simmer all day. That meat will be tender and delicious by dinnertime.

3. How much am I spending on processed food? The stuff in boxes and cans that's frozen or vacuum sealed. Okay, for me, this is a really, really small amount of money. I just don't buy much of this stuff. Maybe a few cans of diced tomatoes and tomato paste. Some condiments. Occasionally, a bag or two of frozen vegetables. Sometimes I'll buy a can of beans or broth to have in the pantry, but I try not to do that, either.

I've started cooking up a batch of beans and freezing it by the cupful. If I need beans for something, I can grab these from the freezer. Same with broth, although I'm not as consistent about this. I get whole chickens from my CSA once in a while, and I usually roast it. But I'll simmer up the leftover pieces like the back and the wings and any bones and then I'll freeze that, too, usually by the cupful. It's harder to make my own beef broth, so usually I'll buy that if I need it. I'll make vegetable broth when I'm overwhelmed with veggies from the CSA.

I know it can be frustrating for a lot of women with jobs and kids and husbands, to hear about this kind of thing. If you couldn't tear open the cardboard box and throw the container in the microwave for dinner, your family would never eat.

And folks, THAT is a societal problem. We've lost something important with our busy lives and long commutes. One of the results of this is a loss of control. We've turned over responsibility for our food to an Industry, and we are paying for it. With money: with higher prices we can do nothing about; with our health: by eating cheap, unsafe food loaded with salt, sugar, corn syrup, and perservatives; and with our environment: with monoculture and feedlots and collapsing bee colonies.

I know you can't do it all. You need conveniences. But we seriously need to find a better way and I'd really love to hear suggestions. My own ideas are so radical, they'd never get out the door.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Our Meat

There was such a great article in the Times yesterday, that I was almost sorry I had to work and couldn't write about it immediately. Let me make up for that now.

"Meet Your Meat" was the name of the article and the reporter, Jenny Slafkosky, didn't pull any punches. Kudos to her. While a goodly portion of the article was in defense of carnivorism, she also used a lot of space talking about the dangers of eating meat and putting the blame right where it belongs: at the feet of our food industry and Big Ag.

Humans have always eaten meat and for most of our history, we haven't eaten an awful lot of it. For most people, meat was an occasional and lucky thing, enough to make the brain grow and intelligence to evolve, but not so much that we got fat and clogged arteries. A bit more regular meat in our early diets might have been a good thing, health-wise, but what we had was generally enough.

When meat came along, our ancestors used every bit of it. No animal died to provide just a T-bone steak and filet mignon.

We all know what it's like now. Our country is dotted with feedlots filled with sick and distressed animals, shot up with antibiotics and growth hormone, fed corn and muck and the meat of their own kind, until they are big enough to slaughter. Only the "good" cuts of meat are sold to consumers, the rest is ground up to be fed back to other animals.

Animals that don't eat meat. Animals with digestive systems that evolved to eat grass.

For once, a reporter is very clear on all this and clear on its connection to the way we shop and what we eat and the state of our health. Clear on environmental damage done when rivers of feces from the feedlots flow into our rivers or seep into our groundwater supply or nearby crops.

She doesn't shy away from telling us that our generations-long diet of convenience food has separated us from the food we eat and that we are poorer people because of it.

To me, the issue is not whether humans should eat meat or not. We evolved to eat meat, most of us still do, and I don't see the point in apologizing for it. We should eat a lot less than we do. And we should absolutely be aware of what we are doing and do it thoughtfully. We should insist our animals are raised in kindness, eating the food they evolved to eat. We should insist they are slaughtered with care, as much as possible without fear. We should use the whole animal.

I'll admit, I balk at the idea of eating brains. I've had heart, tongue, liver and while they aren't my favorite, I suppose I could have them once in a while. I guess my preference is to find something else we can use them for, like the Inuits use seal oil for their lamps (although they also eat it). I don't know what to suggest, but it's worth thinking about.

Eating less meat would really go a long way toward solving some of this problem. Recent recalls of meat have been in the millions of pounds range. Millions of pounds. And that's just what was recalled. How much meat to we need to slaughter in this country? To me, this is an incredible number.

I think it's all done just because our meat is in the hands of factory farmers. I'm sure there's a point where the market is saturated, but it seems that the more they slaughter, the more we buy. I'd be interested to know how much is thrown away in this country. If thousands of pounds of meat spoils because it wasn't purchased, how do the factory farmers account for it? And does the government (meaning you and I, the taxpayers) subsidize them for it? How accountable do they have to be for every pound of meat they raise and slaughter?

The immediate solution is the same old litany you hear every time: buy local, buy sustainable. Look for a CSA that delivers meat from local ranchers who raise their animals in the pasture. Find a farmer's market that has a meat vendor. Find out which ranchers in your area raise sustainable meat and sell it to the markets. Don't buy Tyson chicken or ConAgra meat or any of the junk in the pretty plastic packages at Safeway.

Be aware.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Food, corn, and money

There's talk about food prices, these days.

They've gone up a bit, haven't they?

I hear some blame is being placed on the ethanol bandwagon and I have no doubt this is a cause. Corporate-owned farmers will plant what will bring in the most money and screw the rest of the planet. This is why some California farmers are selling their water at exorbitant prices instead of growing crops.

But don't let me go there. It's not good for my blood pressure.

So why is the price of corn (the base crop for ethanol) making ALL the food prices go up? If you said, "because corn is in nearly everything we eat" you get a prize!

If you eat processed foods, meaning nearly anything you buy from a store like Safeway, Ralph's, or Wal-mart, you are eating corn. And if you think this is healthy - it's not.

The only way to avoid so much corn, is to buy grass-fed meat, organic, free-range eggs, organic, local produce, organic grains, and do all your own cooking.

If you buy a can of something, it's more than likely got corn in it. It's possible, I suppose, that the organic version of beans or tomatoes or chicken broth, won't have corn in it. But the regular stuff will. Even your milk will give you corn, because that's what they stuff into the cow's feed. So you need to buy organic milk from cows that eat grass.

I almost laughed this morning when I read the article in the Contra Costa Times about food prices. The industry is using corn as an excuse! These are the same people who will never, under normal circumstances, admit that corn is in everything they make. But now they are forced to confess, because people are demanding to know why food is getting so expensive.

Yes, I know. The Real Food has always been more expensive, which is why so many people don't eat it. So now, the Fake Food is catching up with Real Food in price. Real Food doesn't need to raise its price because nothing has changed.

Now which one are you going to eat?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Easy plans

After a night with almost no sleep, I'm running on fumes. So I'm doing what I tell my customers to do: I'm pulling out one of my prepared meals from the freezer and nuking it.

I've got lamb coming up. I'll steam some broccoli since I have a frig full of CSA veggies. That will be about it, folks. My body is begging for rest.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Quick Dinners

Did I tell you about the Italian pork chops?

This is an example of super-easy, super-fast cooking. Moms and Dads can get this meal on the table in 15 minutes.

Break an egg into a bowl and beat it up with a bit of milk. In another bowl mix up some bread crumbs and Italian seasoning.

Heat a skillet on medium-high with a tablespoon or two of olive oil. Dip your pork chops in the egg, then the breadcrumbs. Cook them in the oil for about 2 or 3 minutes on each side (depending on the thickness of the chops).

Serve with a salad and some steamed peas or whatever is in season. I don't think you need a starch, since you have breadcrumbs on the meat, but if you have hungry teenagers, you can serve some warmed whole-grain bread. This will keep you in the 15 minute range.

Oh yeah. Good for chicken, too.

But you know what's really good? Preserved lemons.

I made up a batch of these a few months ago, and oh-my-goodness, they are good! Last night, I found this recipe on Cooking Light. What a marvelous taste sensation! The sweet, salt, tart flavor was a delight. And only a few ingredients!

I ran out of time while preparing this dish, so I left the skillet on the stove and poured the sauce over the chicken and let it simmer for about 20 minutes. The sauce boiled down to a thick, syrupy goodness and delicately coated the chicken breasts. I used boneless, skinless breasts, so there was no need to strain the sauce.

The flavor is just amazing when cooking with these lemons. I recommend keeping a jar in your refrigerator for use any time!