November 05, 2008

Not Knowing How to Cook, revisited

Not long after writing my "No One Knows How to Cook Anymore" post, I encountered a piece by New York Times writer Tara Parker-Pope on the lure of junk food for poor people.

She zig-zags in the lede a little bit, for she writes that " a billion people around the world live on a dollar a day" or less, but then says people in America spend more, only to zig again to an anecdote about a couple of American schoolteachers who indeed tried to live on a dollar a day.

This fall a couple in Encinitas, Calif., conducted their own experiment to find out what it was like to live for a month on just a dollar a day for food. Overnight, their diets changed significantly. The budget forced them to give up many store-bought foods and dinners out. Even bread and canned refried beans were too expensive.

As I wrote earlier, grain-and-legume based diets will keep you going, although they are boring:

Instead, the couple — Christopher Greenslate, 28, and Kerri Leonard, 29, both high school social studies teachers — bought raw beans, rice, cornmeal and oatmeal in bulk, and made their own bread and tortillas.

And they learned that making these foods takes more time than microwaving something. The slow cooker (Crock-Pot, etc.), available in many second-hand stores, is the tool you want!

Researchers say the experiment reflects many of the challenges that poor people actually face. When food stamps and income checks run low toward the end of the month, they often do scrape by on a dollar a day or less. But many people don’t know how to prepare foods from scratch, or lack the time.

I got food stamps twice in my life for short intervals, both times when I was in my twenties and unemployed or part-time employed. I don't think I ever ran out of food, but I ate a lot of split-pea soup and such.

“You have to know how to cook beans and rice, how to make tortillas, how to soak lentils,” said Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington. “Many people don’t have the knowledge or the time if they’re working two jobs.

Exactly. You have to know. Whose fault is it that you don't? The government's? Mom's?

Last year, Dr. Drewnowski led a study, published in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association, comparing the prices of 370 foods sold at supermarkets in the Seattle area. The study showed that “energy dense” junk foods, which pack the most calories and fewest nutrients per gram, were far less expensive than nutrient-rich, lower-calorie foods like fruits and vegetables. The prices of the most healthful foods surged 19.5 percent over the two-year study period, while the junk food prices dropped 1.8 percent.

I am not sure what Parker-Pope means here by "energy-dense junk foods." Examples would help. I think of something like french fries, but a raw potato would be cheaper, so what is she talking about?

Meanwhile, after a week of restaurant and hotel and Amtrak food, M. and I are back from our Chicago trip. Tonight's supper: soup of red beans, noodles, broccoli, and herbs; home-baked bread, garlic, and olive oil; jug wine. Delicious.


Holly Heyser said...

Oh, I was so hoping you were going to say the Encinitas couple pinged squirrels in their back yard! Of course, legal hunting is expensive too - I don't pretend for a moment that I'm actually saving money eating this way.

The question is, how do we turn this around? I think we have a couple hopelessly lost generations, as far as the kitchen goes. But I fear the only thing that would kickstart the younger generation is an extreme economic disaster that removes convenient junk food altogether.

Chas S. Clifton said...

When people are really hungry, as in besieged cities, etc., small birds and mammals disappear. "Roof rabbit," anyone?

Anonymous said...

Oh Gods! It's been ages since I heard the term roof rabbit! When we lived in Spain, I never bough skinned rabbit meat. For all the obvious reasons.

As for what to do about this mess... Someone is going to have to do some sort of internet blog or site where it is "cool" to cook. Then everyone will discover the "art of cooking". Knitting, spinning and other arcane arts have been revived in this manner.

Between the junk foods and the ADA (American Diabetic Assoc.) diet, I'm not surprised that there are issues with people understanding what is good food. When I discovered I was diabetic, the worst place I looked for information was the ADA. People don't understand the difference between calories and carbohydrates. Nor do they understand basic nutrition. OUr schools have let us down yet again.