Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Food Pantry on my Mind

I’ve been thinking about food lately.

Fellow blogger and ever-dedicated-to-the-community Franklin resident Steve Sherlock is a board member of our town’s food pantry. He posts updates about the pantry on his Franklin Matters blog. A recent entry caught my eye: it was a list of items that the food pantry is particularly in need of. I skimmed over the list, made a mental note to drop off another bag of groceries for the food pantry. . . and then did a double take. A surprisingly large part of the list was for pre-made items, such as canned pasta, canned stew, or boxed side dishes.

So I asked Steve: wouldn’t it make more sense to stock the pantry with staples that are generally cheaper, and more nutritious? And I wandered away toying with the notion of writing recipes to submit to the food pantry along with donations of such staples - because in all likelihood if people aren’t cooking from staples, it is because they don’t know how.

Steve replied: “Michelle, I understand your desire for more of a healthy food request. We are heading in that direction. The Food Pantry instituted a farmer's market on Monday's last year to distribute the fresh produce we were able to obtain. We are working as part of the Community Gardens project to further that effort this year. By re-doing the Food Pantry website, we intend to incorporate a blog which will also feature healthy recipes. You also give me an idea that we can solicit recipes from the community (like yourself) as well as from other food and health writers. Thanks!”

Well, we certainly seem to be thinking along the same lines! So I’ve started writing down recipes. And not just recipes: I’m sticking to explaining the basics. What do you do with dry beans, uncooked rice, fresh kale, whole chicken, and the like? And perhaps just as important: how to you go about managing the often lengthy process of cooking from scratch with a hectic lifestyle in which the chefs may be working multiple jobs and raising children all at once?

I have read, and enjoyed, the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver, but I found that at the same time as the book made me hungry for her lifestyle, it made me frustrated. The author was able to grow and cook most of her own food because she freelanced from home, and because she had decided to make a major change in her lifestyle that placed food-making as both her major hobby and as her career, in that it was research for her book.
These options simply aren’t available for so many working parents. You can’t harvest or tend a garden well if you aren’t home during daylight hours for most of the week. You can’t build and bake a casserole for your family if you get home at 6:30 PM and have small children to be fed. You and your family, it seems, can eat organic, home-grown food - if you are willing to set aside a fulfilling career in order to be a subsistence farmer and professional cook.

It’s no wonder that so many American families have turned to prepackaged foods. While I learned the foundations about cooking from my mother, I also experienced what happens when a stay-at-home mother goes back to work: boxed side-dishes, canned peas, and shake-n-bake.
But this is not to say that my mother made a mistake. Why did my father not step in and learn to cook, for instance? (He did contribute, but it was with the same convenience foods.) Why should she bear all of the burden for feeding the family, (and cleaning for the family, all on the heels of the inescapable biological duties of pregnancy and breast-feeding) when she also needed desperately to have a life away from cooking and child-rearing?

Our society has been in flux for a hundred years or more. Gender rolls have not yet settled. As a society, we are seeking a balance that gives women (and men) the freedom to choose and swap and reinvent our roles. As the multi-generational transition has rolled along, certain types of historically gender-specific work have been lost to many families, particular those families in economic distress, in the process of liberating us from our historic, crushing roles of reproduction and child-rearing. Subsequent generations have often not known where to pick up where their parents left off, leaving the problem to persist from generation to generation.

For instance, a friend of mine told me about how her own mother had relied on pre-packaged foods, sans fresh vegetables, in a rotation of brands as regular as clockwork. This friend didn’t learn how to cook from anyone else, and limped through her children’s’ younger years in the same manner. Although she has been expanding her cooking horizons recently, one of her teenaged children still refuses to eat anything but hot pockets.

Just yesterday in a doctor’s office I was struck by the contrast of recipes in two magazines. One was a fancy food publication, featuring a recipe for beef Wellington. If you aren’t familiar with the dish, here’s the simple version: an expensive cut of meat, coated first in fois gras, then in a blend of butter and truffles. Then it is wrapped in crepes, and then in puff pastry. On top of that goes a sauce. It represents an absolutely stunning amount of kitchen labor. I’ve never had the stuff, and I expect if I ever do encounter beef Wellington, it will be in a fancy restaurant with a high price tag and a lot of wine.

The other recipe? Doctored-up Kraft mac-n-cheese. This one was in a magazine for parents.
Somehow I can only imagine the beef Wellington being cooked, on rare special occasions, by childless couples who have taken up cooking with the same intensity as those who do Civil War reenacting, or those who build and fly model airplanes. (And all the power to them! Thank heavens someone out there is perpetuating cooking as an art. Please invite me to dinner!) But for families, strapped for cash and cooking in a hurry, even the professional publications can’t seem to get past the boxed-food cream-of-mushroom shortcuts.

Where are the peasant dishes from around the world that feature cheap whole ingredients? Healthful ingredients? Why are we reluctant to eat a cabbage and beans that cost less, fill more plates, and contain more nutrition than cans of ravioli? Is it because we have forgotten that such an option exists, or are we ashamed, still, of eating “peasant food”?

I am ever grateful to my mother for teaching me how to cook, and even more so, now that I see that the gift of cooking knowledge is not one that was handed to every person who ever intended to raise and feed their own family. I can’t feed the world, but I can write, and I can cook the basics, so maybe I can do some small bit of good by sharing my knowledge with those who could use it.

Now who’s with me? Every little bit counts. Get in touch if you would like to contribute a recipe or an article that could help someone who has little money, time, or experience. All contributions will go to the Franklin Food Pantry website - and from there, who knows where they will end up. There is no compensation involved beyond the joy of helping families in need.

Thank you. And thanks for reading!

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