Making Food Real–Making Real Food

To work at a food co-op is to stand at the crossroads where people make serious decisions about food.

For a lot of people, those choices aren’t ones they’ve had to make before. They’re faced with a health crisis (or their child or spouse or partner is), and many of them are utterly confused–sometimes even terrified. That’s the day they first walk in our door.

It’s a huge responsibility to be that volunteer on that day when a mother comes in whose child has been found allergic to some of the most ubiquitous foodstuffs on the planet (along with a few less ubiquitous foods that are common substitutes for the ubiquitous ones). What can I feed my child, she asks? Can you help me feed my child?

Good God, you think, how can I help this woman? And, how can I not? And, what if I make a mistake?

Or the young man who never learned, growing up, to prepare food from scratch, but who must now learn to cook on his own because the food that the corporations have been cooking for him (and for his favorite restaurants) are making him diabetic, or allergic, or deathly ill. Do you know how to make pizza, he asks?

Heading down the road one day, I was listening to an MPR discussion about the Blue Cross & Blue Shield television ads wherein parents come face to face with stark decisions about food, obesity, and the health of their children. One of the guests suggested that many people do not know what to eat, or how to eat in a healthful manner. The host challenged him–that everyone knows, after all, that broccoli is a healthy choice and chips are not.

Well, yes, they do, don’t they? But I don’t believe that’s the problem he was getting at.

The problem is that a lot of people don’t know what the heck to do with broccoli frozen in a package, let alone a fresh head. They might try to do something (like boil the heck out of it–which is how most vegetables they’ve ever come in contact with have been served), and it might (yeah, OK–it definitely will) come out nasty, and they will dump the mess and look in the cupboard for something quick and easy–resolving never again to waste their money and time on that awful green glop.

That’s to say nothing of a fresh, homemade loaf of bread–the kind that comes without a label emblazoned with “low calorie” and “no trans-fats!” and without high fructose corn syrup and wood pulp filler. To a person who has never bakked, creating a loaf of bread or even a pizza dough from scratch is magic (OK–sometimes I still feel that way about bread, even after making hundreds of loaves).

And then you have the constant fear-laden and contradictory messages about food and nutrition coming from every direction: fat is bad (wait, no, olive oil is good, but trans-fats are bad!), carbohydrates are bad (except eat your fiber!), potatoes are bad (no, wait–they’re good!), eggs are bad (no wait–they’re good!), eat chicken (but only eat the skinless, boneless white breast meat!), calories are bad (so drink this zero-calorie, chemical-laden version!).

I thought at first that Michael Pollan’s rule about eating “[real, whole] food, not too much, mostly plants” was a bit simplistic, but that might be just what we need. The other thing we need is to teach cooking again–somehow, some way. Because it’s hard to eat real food if you don’t know how to prepare it. And a lack of food prep skills is especially hard to deal with when various allergies or health issues complicate the equation.

There are times when I’m tempted to simply invite people to come and stay with me for a week (a month? a year?) because it’s the best way I can think of to help them navigate around food and its preparation–as an integral part of daily life.

The next best thing, I guess, is this series of seasonal cooking and preserving classes we started up here in Big Stone County last spring. Tomorrow night, the subject is “getting the most out of your meat budget,” and I’m slow-simmering a pot of stock for it now. We’ll talk roasting birds and making stock (slow and fast versions), meals, recipes, and even some meat-canning basics.

The classes aren’t just for absolute beginners, of course–there is plenty to learn even for those “seasoned” in the arts of the kitchen. If you are interested in attending, drop me a line in the comments, and I’ll e-mail you directions. Either that, or drop by The Granary Co-op in Ortonville tomorrow and pick up a flyer!

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