Thursday, November 12, 2009

Musings on Poverty and Cooking

So this isn't going to be a recipe post. Sorry for those hoping for one! No, this is just me (Emily), sitting on my couch on a Thursday evening, eating apple sauce still warm out of the pot. We had about 10 apples left from a trip to our friend Annika's hobby farm a few weeks back, and most of them were not so great for eating plain since they had a lot of weird stuff on the peels (no pesticides for the Johnson family!). However, these apples were great for saucing and making into pies and stuff. I just used up the last of them and would like to point out that homemade applesauce is so much astonishingly better than the stuff from a jar that it's hardly the same food. Also, I lied about this being a no recipe post, because applesauce is just too easy. No pictures though. So:

Homemade Applesauce


  • 5-10 apples, peeled (or not-- I usually do half and half), cored, and chopped into thin slices or small chunks
  • 1/4-1 cup water
  • cinnamon to taste--probably between 1-3 tsp. Or a cinnamon stick if you've got one
  • brown or white sugar to taste. I usually put in 1/3-1/2 cup, but some people like more or less. It depends on the number of apples and how tart they are.
  • a dash of lemon juice. (completely optional, but I like it.)
  • a little drizzle of molasses (this is useful if you don't have brown sugar, or if you don't want to use brown sugar in your applesauce, since it's more expensive than the white stuff)
  • Put the apples in a pot and cover with the water. I'm bad at judging amounts here, but basically you want it to be enough that you can bring the apples to a simmer. Don't go overboard though, since the apples will produce a lot of water themselves. Throw some of the cinnamon and lemon juice on top, remembering that you can always adjust proportions later. Bring to a simmer and let it hang out for a while, probably 15-30 minutes, until the apples are pretty soft.
  • Use a potato masher or a food processor to mash up the soft apples (I prefer the former, but I like really chunky sauce).
  • Add the sugar, turn the heat up a bit, and let it cook uncovered for a bit. Stir it a lot. It should thicken. If not, dump out some of the excess water and adjust spices. Or you could let it sit longer until the water evaporates, but I'm not patient.
  • And there you have it. Fresh, relatively healthy, pretty cheap, ridiculously tasty applesauce!

And that's just my point really. Fresh food is usually healthier, tastier, and well...I wouldn't say always cheaper, but certainly it's cheaper than buying prepared food of a similar caliber. And it depends so much on what one's hobbies and leisure activities are. For Iain and Bozzie and me, food is a recreational activity. Cooking is a way to have fun. It's a way to come together and enjoy one another's company. It's a way to relieve stress. And, I think in part because cooking is all of that for us, our other pleasures tend to be less pricey. They're, for the most part, simple. We read aloud, we watch movies, we play instruments, we write. Sure, we go out for coffee and all, but much of what we love is close to free. That feels good, and it gives us more excuses to spend on good food.

Our food focus has also affected dramatically the items we make ourselves. For example, yesterday I got home from work, realized that we didn't have any regular sandwich bread, and didn't even think of going to the store. Instead I just grabbed the yeast and mixing bowl. Now I have two awesome wheat loaves, each of which would probably have run me $3-$4 in a bakery and instead cost me a couple bucks tops for ingredients and oven time. Sure, I can buy cheap sandwich bread, but this stuff is hearty, has nothing bad for me in it except canola oil, and tastes so much better. Plus it's great for gifting to people.

Now, don't get me wrong-- I understand that baking takes time. People who have more demanding jobs than I and kids and whatnot don't necessarily have time for all this. But for me, and for my housemates, it's becoming a matter of course. We laugh about it. Pizza for us means homemade dough and tomato sauce. Curry doesn't come out of a jar. A "quick fix dinner" sometimes means thai kitchen or mac and cheese, but it often means omelets and potatoes or something. Whole foods (not the store but real, unprocessed ingredients) make up the bulk of our pantry and fridge. And I'm wondering now how soon that's going to change, or if it will at all. Is that what our society is moving back to? Many of our friends are acting similarly, putting priorities on real food and simple pleasures and a slower life. Not that I plan to give up the internet anytime soon. So is this just what it is to be young and have time, or is this the seed of a greater shift in the way Americans treat food? I hope we are experiencing a shift. Places like the Seward Co-op deserve our patronage, and ingredient labels should be short and ingredients recognizable. At least that's what I think.

I work in an elementary school, and I adore my job, but I noticed the first day that the school lunches come individually wrapped, like airplane food, and the quality doesn't seem much better. There's a 10 day rotation, so the kids go through their entrees quickly before the cycle starts over. Some options, like the pizza and mini cheeseburgers (complete with plastic wrap), seem pretty popular, but there are days where almost nobody eats his or her main course in its entirety because it's just plain unappetizing. There is no cooking at my school; I'm not even sure if there are ovens. Instead everything comes prepared and is zapped before the kids pick it up. I can't comment on the nutritional content of the food, but there's little done to make the veggies appetizing, so more often than not they're thrown away. I do have to give the menu planners some props for including a lot of applesauce, but even that is corn syrup-filled, and some of the other produce options are completely incomprehensible to me. Seven-year-olds do not like raw yellow squash slices, even with ranch (another brilliant stroke as far as getting kids to eat their veggies is concerned). Heck, I don't like raw squash. But that's just it-- the veggies aren't incorporated. They're left out as these strange things that many of the students aren't interested in. And while I think there's great value in veggies as themselves, I first learned to appreciate the variety of veggies on this earth through stir fries and curries and pasta primavera. I hope that these kids will get the chance to do the same.

Maybe I'll continue on this thought sometime, but I think I'm done for now. It's all so interesting to ponder.

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