Sharon January 22nd, 2009
One of the questions that comes up a lot is how people who are accustomed to eating mostly high quality, fresh foods adapt to a diet of stored and preserved foods. People are concerned that this means an inevitable shift towards canned, processed and lower quality food than a fresh diet would allow for.
My own opinion is that this is actually a false dichotomy - and not a trade off I’d personally ever accept. The problem, IMHO, is not the issue of fresh foods vs. processed, but of making a real dietary shift that actually means that you are eating the best of your seasonal, preserved and fresh foods, rather than trying to reproduce your old diet. “Foodie” food storage - food storage for people who love to eat and to eat delicious, high quality meals - begins from the recognition that it is truly a way of eating, and one that changes with time and season.
Consider a summer meal - grilled chicken skewered with rosemary, sweet roasted corn with butter, new potatoes with parsley and lemon and lightly steamed green beans dressed with garlic vinagrette. Now imagine, if you can do so without becoming ill, the industrial food storage parody of that meal. Skewered canned chicken cubes, sprinkled with dry rosemary. Aged potatoes steamed and sprinkled with dry parsley. Canned green beans with garlic powder and cream style corn. I suspect all of us have had something like this in a hospital or cafeteria somewhere. This, of course, is the nightmare of all foodies ;-).
But the question must arise - why on earth would you try to duplicate a meal that is fundamentally rooted in place and time - in the garden summer? The same is true about foodie pantry eating - it begins, as all good artistries do, from its limits. Like a sonnet, it is shaped in part by what you cannot do - but the limits can be freeing as well as restrictive, opening new kinds of art that aren’t possible when everything is open.
The weak links in food storage are meat, milk and eggs. Most of the non-fossil powered methods of long term storage aren’t something you want to work with every day - salting, smoking and sausaging result in food products that are extremely tasty, but not really healthy for everyday inclusion in your diet. Powdered eggs and milk taste little like the alternatives.
But then again, it is worth remembering that the peasant cuisines that we base much of our best food upon never contained meat, milk and eggs in the quantities we have them now, never ate them all year round. That is, no one ever ate osso buco nightly, or cassoulet daily. And the cassoulet was born as a way to extend small amounts of meat with beans and other foods. That is, the perception we have of most cuisines is a false one - few societies as disconnected from agriculture have ever eaten animal products as we do - as a universal, seasonless food.
So the first reality of food storage is that we’re headed back to the peasant cusines - as they existed for ordinary people. That means fewer animal products all around - maybe none, since it is perfectly possible to produce brilliant, delicious food without it, or perhaps eaten as we once ate them, as the foods of France, Italy, Turkey, China, and other places evolved. This involves sorting through the perceptions we’ve created of those cuisines - the cookbooks are written mostly for Americans and their huge, seasonless quantities of milk, eggs and meat, and the restaurant menus emphasize these foods that were once special.
This is not a great loss, quite honestly. It isn’t just that the cheap meat available to most of us is a pale imitation of real meat, thin of flavor and not very good for you, but those peasant cuisines were good as they were - we don’t need the sugar and fatted up versions - osso bucco every night is no treat.
Fresh vegetables can continue to be part of your meals, but seasonally so - and that means for those of us in cold climates, learning to love our winter vegetables, and to appreciate the cuisines that evolved around winter vegetables - around kales and cabbages, turnips, appples and squash. This is not a loss, it is merely different.
Diets rich in staple foods - rice, potatoes, wheat and oats are ones where highly seasoned foods shine - and that’s the place for home preservation. The accent of carrot-ginger chutney against the plate of rice, dal and palak paneer, homemade cinnamon-tomato ketchup with baked sweet potato fries, the intense flavors of soy, garlic, vinegars, hot sauces, pickles, kimchi, mint, sweet fruit sauces and chutneys - these are the transformative accents that make simple superb.
One of the reasons I live the life I do is to eat well - we were never wealthy, could never afford all the good things that we most enjoyed - until we began to grow our own and raise our own we could never afford all the raspberries we cared to eat (and that’s a lot). Until I foraged I never had all the morels I could want. In fact, I’ve never understood why it was that people who consider themselves “foodies” so often think of good food as something that you can buy - the truth is that many of the best tastes are things that literally cannot be purchased in most places - parsnips dug in a February thaw, with all their staches turned to sugar, corn picked after the steaming pot of water comes to boil, bread baked in a wood burning oven. The peasant life isn’t just a practical strategy for dealing with less of everything - it is a way of getting more on your dinner plate.
I don’t see any contradiction between being a foodie and storing food - but I do think that the degree to which you extract pleasure from your food storage diet depends on your willingness to shift the foods you are preserving and storing to the center of your meals at the times that suit them. It is one more step in a seasonal diet - the experimentation with recipes that don’t involve eggs when eggs are not abundant, or which do take advantage of your abundant quinoa, your potent dried hot peppers and the very best of your local harvest, preserved in its essence to carry the warmth of the summer season into the coldest, darkest tastes of winter.