Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


A foodie paradox: It’s expensive to eat poor

posted by Rod Dreher

Lovely story from today’s NYT food section about Darina Allen, an Irish woman who has worked hard to bring back traditional Irish cooking. Excerpt:

“Using elements of native cuisine in a white-tablecloth setting was totally new in Ireland at the time,” said Colman Andrews, the author of “The Country Cooking of Ireland” (Chronicle Books, 2009). (Ms. Allen contributed a foreword.) “The Irish, for many complicated reasons, were not used to being proud of their food.”
For many centuries, the Irish were not able to live off the fat of their land, as landholders exported beef, butter, smoked salmon and other prime foodstuffs to Britain and its colonies. Later, when this was no longer the case, the humble food to which most Irish people had grown accustomed did not seem like something to celebrate. They began to move off the farms and into cities, where they discovered falafel, pizza, kebabs and other delights of international fast-food culture.
Fortunately, Ms. Allen said, the local-sustainable-food movement began to take hold in Ireland before it was too late. Unlike in the United States, most towns still have a butcher, local milk and produce are easy to buy, and even today most Irish people are not more than a generation or two away from the farm. “There is still a built-in appreciation for agriculture,” she said.

More:

Part of her message is based on hands-on knowledge: from being raised in a small village in the 1940s, before Ireland shifted to convenience cooking and fast food; from feeding farm workers during the harvest on her family’s farm in Tipperary; and from Myrtle Allen, who is now 86. (She still oversees the kitchen at Ballymaloe House.)

This brought to mind the cover story in the current issue of Saveur (a magazine you really, really need to subscribe to, if you like food and food culture), which focuses on traditional Roman cooking. Excerpt:

The amatriciana at L’Arcangelo is a paragon of elegance, and this leaves me wondering: Does cucina povera lose its essence when you aesthetisize it? What is more authentic: to eat indifferent food prepared from frozen ingredients at a neighborhood trattoria, or to revel in the newfound respect for tradition at bourgeois places that charge more than 30 bucks for a portion of tripe? As if reading my mind, Arcangelo Dandini tells me that good-quality Roman essentials like salt cod, offal, and fresh vegetables were once dirt cheap and as abundant as water. Now, he says, one has to pay through the nose for that organic tomato. To preserve traditional cooking–this takes research, dedication, and money, he adds.

What a paradox! To eat traditional Italian food of the sort poor people used to eat requires money and leisure time! It’s true in Ireland as well, and here too. My wife and I have joked that we’re interested in the kind of food our grandmothers prepared back in the day when everybody was pretty much poor — but this is now a bourgeois pursuit. Actual poor and working people in the US eat processed crap, in part because it’s cheaper than fresh vegetables of the sort that were inexpensive staples in the lives of country people within living memory, and in part because people have to work so much that there isn’t time to prepare the kind of labor-intensive dishes that the rural poor throughout history have been able to make.



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MH

posted March 31, 2010 at 12:52 pm


Something to keep in mind is that prices of goods don’t move in lock step year over year. For example computers keep getting cheaper, while cars are getting more expensive.
So many of the ingredients (example salt cod) used in old recipes are more expensive now because they are more rare or labor intensive to produce. While processed foods often use cheap grains which are more abundant and can be processed mechanically.
Then there’s the separate issue of the subsidy for growing certain foods which depresses their prices compared to other foods.



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SteveM

posted March 31, 2010 at 2:02 pm


Mary Ann Esposito, the chef of the PBS cooking show “Ciao Italia” once had a guest cook who was half Italian and half Irish. During the course of the food prep, the guest told Mary Ann how much he had learned about cooking from his Italian grandmother.
Mary Ann then asked him what he had learned about cooking from his Irish grandmother. His response:
“Clean as you go…”



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CAP

posted March 31, 2010 at 2:18 pm


it is a crazy paradox.
affluence goes up = food quality goes down.
some of the freshest healthiest food i have ever experienced has been in places of abject poverty and isolation (ex. rural india, cambodia.) in contrast; you go to the market in a typical american (ie affluent) suburb, and it’s practically nothing but unhealthy crap. (but lots of it! and with really fun cool packaging, with maybe a chance to win a vacation cruise or a kitchen makeover.)
you see this happening a lot in mexico. as the rural areas modernize, healthy home-cooked meals are being replaced with plastic-wrapped convenience store food and little mom n’ pop taquerias and bakeries are losing out to domino’s pizza and nabisco.



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elizabeth

posted March 31, 2010 at 2:59 pm


I second the comment about subsidies above. You get what you subsidize. Cut the USDA subsidies, let the farmers go into free fall for a few years and they’ll figure it out. New Zealand did.
And where does the idea come from that food should be cheap? Good food involves work. In this country we find farmers on food stamps – except for the subsidized ones. That’s why they switch to corn and soy – the subsidies.
Secondly, if people are going to eat out they will pay premium prices. Eat at home for heaven’s sake. My husband is in his 3rd year of unemployment and we eat organic, fairly traded, sustainabla and local when possible (this is Minnesota!) all the time. It’s called cooking.
And people have been sold a bill of goods that it is too hard or too time-consuming. Is Facebook, Twitter and the computer gaming really so much more important?



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Peter

posted March 31, 2010 at 3:03 pm


It’s called cooking.
It’s called having someone home and unemployed who can do all the shopping and cooking. Congratulations with that, but it doesn’t represent the experience of most Americans.



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Anti Dhimmi

posted March 31, 2010 at 3:24 pm


Eating well, inexpensively or not, requires planning. It requires someone to plan one or more menues as well as be flexible in shopping. Even today, when the fish market, meat market and vegetable market are all under one roof in the “supermarket”, you still might pass up the fish on sale because they don’t look so good, and therefore move on to the chicken or whatever. The time committed increases, although one can wind up spending less money.
I recall the day that I priced bologna lunchmeat not in terms of the 12 oz. package, but per pound, and discovered that per pound it was as expensive as sirloin steak. I went ahead and bought it anyway, but a bit later I splurged for a ham, which I baked at home. A single person can eat off of a ham for a week, and the price/pound is much lower than any processed lunchmeat, and far below anything from a drive up window. That was one of the first things I really learned at the ‘gut’ level living on my own: price per serving matters more than total cost, within reason.
The closer one gets to the raw materials, the lower the financial cost and the higher the cost in time. Most people are willing to trade off time for cost, not realizing what this does to them in the long run. We may be able to get more money, but time…nope. I gently once in a while remind some women I know with children that a lot of learning comes from children following adults around while things are done. A lot of learning, about thrift, about prudence, about life and how to live, can be accomplished in the kitchen while an adult is cooking.
Different lessons are taught in the drive-through lane. What we do with our time matters, it matters a lot more when other people are living with us.
And with that, I must go and do something else. Duty calls, shrilly.



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Rod Dreher

posted March 31, 2010 at 3:39 pm


For lunch yesterday, and today, I’ve been eating from a pot of delicious red lentil soup I made. Very filling, full of protein, and super-cheap. I bought everything I needed to go into it at Whole Foods. Even counting the spices, the whole pot came it at about three dollars. That’s two big lunches, and two more left over. Mind you, you don’t want to be eating beans every day, but you can cook tasty stuff inexpensively if you’re creative, and just put a little thought into it.



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CAP

posted March 31, 2010 at 3:39 pm


and it’s also called ‘leftovers’.
i know a lot of people who will spend sunday evenings at home preparing ing a smorgasbord of dishes that will be divvied up throughout the week as a grab-and-go all-natural brownbag lunches. it’s more time efficient to cook a lot at once, and it can make for a nice home-and-hearth evening together in the kitchen. (with good music, and maybe a little vino if possible!)



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Rod Dreher

posted March 31, 2010 at 3:49 pm


That’s right, CAP. On summer weekends in Dallas, I would typically grill a lot of meat, enough to carry us through the first half of the next week. On other times, I will devote the afternoon to cooking roasts and stews and things that we can either put in the fridge or freeze for me to take to work for lunch. In our old parish back in Dallas, several of us had the idea to begin Lent by going to the church kitchen, cooking several big pots of various vegan stews, dividing them up into freezer bags and storing them for use throughout the fast, but we never did manage to pull that off. It would have been a lot of fun, cooking and talking together.



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AnotherBeliever

posted March 31, 2010 at 4:06 pm


It’s not that hard to eat real Mexican food cheap. And the advantage of being right across the border, which has always been culturally fairly porous, is that nobody’s very far removed. The vegetables are the only things that will cost you, unless you grow them. But the staples cost next to nothing. Corn meal of varying grades, flour tortillas (or the makings thereof), several types of beans, cilantro, cumin, chili powder, green onions, peppers, fresh white soft cheese, and tomatoes. Meat is slow roasted and not usually served in huge portions. Chicken and weird pork parts are most common, though you can certainly use beef and sea food as well.
The result is nothing like Taco Bell, it goes without saying. My family likes to eat anywhere we see a lot of Mexican workers eating. Alternatively, there are about three good authentic Mexican restaurants in our city, along with a dozen which are more American oriented.
I feel fortunate to have grown up eating like that, at least whenever I was visiting relatives – mother never has been patient enough to cook. My family’s half and half. One cultural difference is that if you want to learn to cook a dish from the Mexican menu, you have to go into the kitchen and watch, or preferably help, paying close attention. Ask for a written recipe and you’ll get a weird look, or something vastly inaccurate. My Iowa grandmother, on the other hand, has index cards full of every recipe you can think of.



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Peter

posted March 31, 2010 at 4:37 pm


“i know a lot of people who will spend sunday evenings at home preparing ing a smorgasbord of dishes that will be divvied up throughout the week as a grab-and-go all-natural brownbag lunches. it’s more time efficient to cook a lot at once, and it can make for a nice home-and-hearth evening together in the kitchen. (with good music, and maybe a little vino if possible!)”
Those people probably don’t live in a small apartment with five people or a single-wide trailer. That’s the reality for a lot of poor people. Yes, they can plan ahead and cook up some lentil soup or a smorgasboard of food, but then they have to store it in their tiny refrigerator or micro-sized freezer.
I think everyone should see the movie “Precious” just so people can begin to understand the kinds of environments poor people live in and have to cope in. They aren’t always conducive to making a weeks worth of vegan soup and homemade bread.



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elizabeth

posted March 31, 2010 at 4:44 pm


“It’s called having someone home and unemployed who can do all the shopping and cooking. Congratulations with that, but it doesn’t represent the experience of most Americans.”
Sorry buddy. We cooked the same way all the years we were both employed and raising a child. My husband does make more sumptuous meals than I had time for as a working mom, but the fact is, we cooked from scratch the whole time.



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Your Name

posted March 31, 2010 at 7:16 pm


fresh white soft cheese (for Mexican food) It’s called Oxaca -pronounced waHOCKa cheese. For you foodies out there, it is the blandest cheese on the face of the earth. You may want to substitute fresh mozzarella, or if you can get to an Arab grocery store, Chicago (yeah, Chicago) cheese.



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stefanie

posted March 31, 2010 at 7:37 pm


Not everyone can eat beans. As Gary Taub pointed out years ago in his article, “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” a lot of people really can’t eat that many carbs (even complex carbs) without gaining weight. And when you look at the glycemic index of even whole grain pasta, rice, etc. (which are way more expensive than the white varieties), it’s easy to see why even whole grains in too large a quantity can cause some to gain, or retain weight.
The sad truth is that for many people, they really need to be eating lots of green vegetables, fish, meat, dairy, and low-glycemic fruits. (Often the low-glycemic fruits, like berries, are the most expensive.) Even whole-grain carbs, including lentils and beans, are *not good for them.* Mexicans who eat a traditional rice/beans/corn diet and who do not have a huge amount of physical activity get diabetes at an even higher rate than Northern-European ancestry Americans. (An MD / physiologist from University of MO/Columbia said that the equivalent amount of exercise needed was that of walking 12 miles/day. NO ONE is going to do that in modern society.)
One reason wild fish is so expensive is 1) overfishing and serious fish depopulation, and 2) because people are becoming aware of how nutritionally bad farmed fish is. (Farmed fish eat corn – which results in low omega-3 fats and high omega-6, as well as farmed fish requiring antibiotics because of infections.) Naturally, farmed fish is cheaper – and wild fish is one of the most expensive things in the store.
People my age have *major* sticker shock, because when we were growing up, foods like fish, cheese, and vegetables were “cheap” or “poor” food. You could even buy organ meats besides liver.
I’m not even getting into the logistics of life as a working poor person, esp. with children.



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AnotherBeliever

posted March 31, 2010 at 9:24 pm


Stefanie, you’re right, you can’t live off nothing but grains, not in today’s society. It’s perfectly doable in places like Nepal where you are literally walking up and down mountains all day, but not in suburban or rural America. You have to balance that out with a lot of veggies. I personally have no problems eating beans, but then again, I literally grew up on rice and beans. If you cook them twice, you’re usually good to go.
Interestingly, though, studies of Pima Indians and Mexicans show a disparity across the border. On the Mexican side, incidence of diabetes and obesity is well below incidence on the U.S. side. Further research will likely indicate the heavy use of automobiles and the “cheap carbs” whose prices are subsidized by the USDA north of the border, but not south of it.



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AnotherBeliever

posted March 31, 2010 at 9:29 pm


And it should go without saying that they are catching up with us south of the border, just as in Asia.



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Sharon Astyk

posted April 1, 2010 at 9:09 am


You’ve put your finger on the original driver for my family moving here and growing our own – we wanted to eat better than we could afford to if we had to buy our own. The only way to do that and not have to work long hours with kids in daycare was to work less and grow our own – and cook our own.
On the other hand, I should observe that those who claim cooking is something that can only be done with one person at home are erasing the fact that thousands of people do it, after work, after long hours. My parents did – they worked full time and came home and cooked real food for us. You do the heavy cooking on weekends. You shop only once a week. But it can be done, and too many do it to pretend that it is impossible.
Sharon



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JB

posted April 1, 2010 at 1:23 pm


Right you are, Sharon, on the issue of making excuses for not cooking. In addition, I truly take issue with the claim that eating healthy is too expensive. It can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Some veggies are costly, others are not. And it is truly bizarre to say that eating carbs always leads to gaining weight. It does only if you eat enough of them to add up to more calories than you burn off. If you’re gaining weight, the answer is to eat fewer calories. That’s certainly easier to do if you can fill up on bulky veggies, but there is not logical reason why simply eating carbs (but smaller servings) wouldn’t accomplish the same goal.



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stefanie

posted April 2, 2010 at 3:16 pm


Actually, JB, it does matter. This article from the Wall Street Journal points to a study which suggests that some dieters benefit from low-carbs, others from low-fat. (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703862704575099742545274032.html)
So no, for some people eating most of their calories from carbohydrates will not lead to gaining weight. For others it will, and these differences are most likely genetic. Fortunately tofu, chicken, eggs, and some kinds of beef and pork are relatively inexpensive, so that non-vegetarians don’t *have* to get their daily intake of protein from grains.



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