Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Food History

As Christmas approaches I began pouring over classic recipes in the hopes of a good feast (which looks do able with recent offers of donations), so I thought it would be a good time to look over a few texts of food history to give my feast the sort of traditional depth necessary for creating an atmosphere that goes beyond just seasonal fare. This act of research is something that is miss by many cooks, and home cooks. We are very aware of comfort foods, and the sense memories that come from the smells of certain baked goods and roasting meats. It is also necessary to reach into a deeper history that we may have no previous connection to. This is not only for a branch into an ancestral connection, but into understanding the weight of our food history. As a poor person it is necessary to find this link to the meager fare from generations past to give us guidance toward a more fulfilling diet. In the modern world of convenience things like $.99 items at a fast food joint or cheaply produce frozen meals can be seen as a boon to our ever shrinking food budget, and in the immediate perception of handing over one dollar for a bit of warmth and protein the logic seems to hold. Today I spent a few hours with a friend reading to her from the book, "Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking," and she was amazed by two things we saw in the section on Medieval Britain. First was the shocking numbers on grain consumption by the people (I believe her words were, "Wow, they real did live on bread."), and, secondly, the descriptions of the meals that the peasantry eat seemed lavish and inviting. Yet to the people of the times these were meager meals brought together with what little that had; rye breads, oat cakes, stewed cabbage and baked apples. Her comments where coming from one, though passionate about food and very knowledgeable about food preparations, that saw the ability to eat like that to be something outside of her schedule and means. I have been a huge advocate that this great food revolution that we are currently in (local, sustainable, organic, what have you) needs to be claimed and used for the poor by the poor. Their was a time when the effort to produce bread was not only seen as an necessity to survival, but no idea would have come to them of buying bread to save time. We must looking back to these roots of culinary tradition and reclaim practices of bread and cheese production, curing meats, and learning to cook for our selves.

This is all very necessary for the working and struggling classes to pull out of the dependence on convenience foods, but we must be able to find a emotional connect to these dishes. If we are to eat rice every day in order to survive it helps to know that their is volumes of history of peoples that with little more than rice to live on have aided in the development of civilizations. Several years back I was in a little worse off than now (which isn't saying to much, but with the benefit of mild Southern winters), and living on a diet that doesn't differ to much from now, the exception was a little less cooking knowledge to help stretch out the food, it consisted mostly of black beans and some masa for my tortilla. Around that time I came across the book, "Don't Be Afraid Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks From the Heart: The Story of Elvia Alvarado," Elvia is a labour organizer and activist first brought to US attention during the eighties, in the book there is a wonderful description of the average meal of the compasinos in the area where she was organizing which was, to the letter, the meal I was waiting for to finish cooking. After that I never look grudgingly at my pot of beans or my tortilla, I had a deep connect to the poor on a global level with every smear of bean wipe up with my tortilla, every mouth full of rice, with the cracked coating of dough on my hands will I made my bread. The great problem with programs to help us it that it is often coming from people with a disconnect from our lives and needs. Every food drive calling for canned goods for the poor make me sad; give us flour for our bread, corn to mill, beans to wash and cook. Let us have a connection to our food. If you want to give us something, give us land. Le us look to people like Ledonna Redmond as an example on how we should bring food to our tables.

1 comment:

  1. Seriously, just about every time I read an article about Michael Pollan, Jamie Oliver, the local/organic/slow food movement, or just about how it's better to cook for ourselves, without fail, somebody in the letters to the editor or comments section will say that it's elitist to ask people to cook more, or support local farmers and food artisans. That they just can't afford to cook for themselves. Which of course is preposterous. I'm probably about as poor as you (my income fell about 20% this year from last year), and I cook almost every day. I don't even know how I'd be able to keep myself fed if I couldn't cook.

    What's really mysterious to me is where so many people have gotten the idea that it's more expensive to cook than not to cook, or that real cooking is only for the upper middle class. Or that people who work don't have time to cook. It's ridiculous. I think the Food Network and cooking shows have actually done a great deal of harm in this arena, making it look like you need tons of time, special ingredients, equipment, or unusual talent in order to cook. People have just lost confidence in their own ability to do things for themselves, especially anything involving using their hands and creativity at once.

    And I think television, not just the Food Network, is a big part of the problem. People watch TV instead of being creative. They say they don't have time to cook, but Nielsen reports this year that Americans watch an average of 4-5 hours of TV per day.

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