05/30/14

On Real Food and Home Cooking

Empty Shelves

Someday I want to write a cookbook based on the premise that you can eat anything you want, any time you want, as long as you personally cook every bite from scratch ingredients.

You see, I disagree that people “don’t have time to cook” (I kinda have to, right?)…but really, I believe that:

1: people choose not to prioritize home cooking (we all have 24 hours in a day), largely due to social pressures and media influence, and…

2: people with little cooking experience don’t understand that home cooking can be simple, healthy, fast, and affordable… a position of ignorance that corporate food has been more than happy to encourage and profit from.

In our MY KITCHEN program, we teach foster kids, many with ZERO kitchen experience, how to cook simple, healthy meals in classes lasting less than an hour.

Regardless of what Food Network (and their frozen food sponsors) would LIKE us to think…you don’t have to be an Iron Chef to cook real food.

100_4719There’s also the ever-growing trend towards convenience “foods”, again much of it due to corporate marketing, who’s been trying to push their C-Rations on us since they were forced to find a non-military market at the end of WWII.

We’re reaching a critical tipping point in history where it will no longer be a matter of IF I choose to cook from scratch, but that there won’t be raw ingredients available to do so.

Lack of business and ever-tightening “regulations” are putting small farms, farmer’s markets, and artisanal food producers out of business in droves (and not by accident) while corporations are buying up larger tracts of farmland at a historic rate. As the supply diminishes, so does the knowledge, interest, and demand.

Unless something is done to change the trends…our great-grandchildren will be shopping in a food desert, and happily munching their solent green, and never know what they’re missing.

Retailers, of course, have a much more vested interest in moving people toward “meal assembly” than actual cooking.

There’s less waste, it’s easier to stock and store more “high profile” products in less space, and the shelf-lives (ie: the amount of time they have to get it sold) are vastly greater with frozen and pre-packaged foods. I’m not sure what the difference in mark-up is, but with 30% of our fresh produce ending up in the dumpster, the gap has to be pretty marginal.

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Finally, how much responsibility should we place on the TV shows, magazines and food writers of the past decade’s “foodie movement” for possibly widening the rift between “us and them” (ie: people who cook and people who don’t) by making it more about entertainment and “food porn” than practical application?

You’ll note that Food Network (and all the others) may be yapping incessantly about “farm to table” during the shows…but the ad time is filled with pre-packaged garbage and convenience food. Is the underlying message that…

“We both know you can’t do what you just watched Bobby do…but doesn’t THIS look almost as good?”

Change and education are the key to regaining responsibility for our family’s health and nutrition, not conceding to a corporate food mentality that will always, ALWAYS place the security of their shareholders over the health of our families.

Your thoughts?

-Chef Perry
SimplySmartDinnerPlans.com

01/16/13

The Problem with Farm to Table

farm to tableOkay, I know that this title is going to bring some folks here lookin’ for a fight, so before you start sharpening your pitchforks and hurling your organic, fair-trade rotten tomatoes…let’s be clear: I love the farm-to-table concept.

I love my local farmer’s markets, and I take every opportunity to support my local artisan food purveyors; in part because I believe it’s the healthy and more socially responsible choice, but also because the food just tastes better!

However, my love and support for the ideal of farm-to-table does not negate that, in practice, the system is flawed.

Maybe a more fitting title would be “Farm to Table…the missing ingredient“, because the farm-to-table model leaves out a critical step…creating a gap that is not just important, but imperative to fill, for the system to work.

Functionally, the equation is actually “farm-to-KITCHEN-to-table” The kitchen is the bridge (or, unfortunately more often the gap) between the farm and the table.

Farmers-Market-foodsWhat good is fresh, organic, sustainable, fair-trade food, if the end-user (the home cook) doesn’t know what it is, or what to do with it, and so won’t buy it?

Side note: my definition of “cooking” is turning raw, unprocessed ingredients into a finished meal with a minimum of pre-made additions.

Part of the issue, I believe, is that foodies, farmers, and people who cook are often amazed at the extent to which other people don’t cook. When my wife, who did not grow up cooking, says to me, “I’m afraid to cook meat”, my eyes tend to glaze over…but she’s not alone. In fact, she’s not even in the minority!

farm to tableDon’t believe me? Test it.

Take a friend with you (and no cherry-pickin’ one of your foodie friends!) to large grocery store or farmer’s market, and see how many vegetables they can name without looking at the label. Then, if you need further convincing, ask they how’d they prepare the ones they did recognize.

This isn’t just about foodies loving good food, or hippies wanting to save the planet…this gap effects our country’s health, ecology, finances…the list goes on.

HEALTH

Fresh, unprocessed, (what we at hautemealz.com like to call “real”) food is better for us, and better for the environment. Everyone knows this.

(By the way, if you’re enjoying this article, you may want to subscribe to our free newsletter; we’ll send seven amazing dinner recipes and a shopping list to your inbox each week. Plus, you’ll be helping us teach nutrition, shopping, and hands-on cooking classes to at-risk teens!)

The number one most effective method of battling the proliferation of processed foods, obesity, diabetes, celiac disease, GMOs, corporate farming, yadda yadda yadda…is to shop, cook, and eat with as few steps as possible between the dirt and the plate. True healthcare begins in the kitchen, not the gym. Most of us know this.

It takes 10 minutes to grill a pork chop and some fresh veggies. Some of us know this.

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However, just knowing the truth is only the first step in slowing our society’s descent into further slavery to the boxed, processed, artificially preserved, instant, easy-to-prepare corporate food masters.

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We must increase that knowledge and spread it around. Knowledge is power, and we’ve turned much of the power over to the fast-food corporations. If we don’t know how to cook, believe me, they’ll be more than happy to continue to make our lives “easier” by doing the “hard part”.

Why am I picturing Morlocks and Eloi?

These companies, btw, buy from the agri-conglomerates (or own them outright) many of them in other countries, and NOT from your local, small, organic, fair trade farms…perpetuating the spiral.

Which leads us to…

money_burningFINANCES

Where does a pervasive lack of basic cooking skills lead, from an economic standpoint?

Well, at the residential level, it leads to a reliance on instant, processed, or packaged foods or  eating in restaurants, which isn’t financially sustainable for the average family, unless it spirals down to, as it often does, the local drive though dollar menu.

Even then, we’re spending more than we think. The average cost of a “cheap” drive-thru meal here in Oregon, runs between $3-$4 per person. For a family of four “lite-eaters”, we’re looking at $12-$16 dollars. This is 20-30% more then we spend at our house, cooking quick, simple, healthy meals, often with enough left-overs for lunch the next day.

“Value Menu”…really?

fast food garbageOh, and we don’t toss a big bag full of cardboard, paper and plastic in the trash afterwards, either.

On a “broader” scale (pun intended) the nation’s health care tab stood at $2.7 trillion in 2011, the latest year available.

I don’t think I need to say anything more about that.

EDUCATION

This is the crux of this article. Laws, labeling, testing, etc., can all be good things, but they will never,  ever, replace the ability of the educated consumer to “vote with their checkbooks” by knowing what to buy, and how to prepare it for their families.

il_570xN.332591766We’re moving into a third and fourth generation of people raised without a grasp of basic cooking skills or confidence in the kitchen.

In her article, “Bring Back Home Economics in Schools!(Cooking Light, 2012) Hillary Dowdle refers to herself and her generation as “the ‘lost girls and boys’, saying, “Public health experts , nutritionists, and educators are beginning to realize that the lack of basic life skills, like cooking, presents a serious problem: Americans are growing up ignorant about the whats, whys, and hows of eating healthy.”

Basically, if no one cooked at home, today’s young people’s options are to (a) get a job in a “real food” restaurant kitchen (plan 2-3 years, minimum, before you actually cook anything), or spend thousands (or tens of thousands) on culinary school…which is a pretty deep commitment for someone who just wants to feed their kids a healthy dinner.

Where do most folks end up? Right back on the processed foods aisle, or in the drive-thru.

“(Food) is devalued generally in our education system . . . it’s more than just learning how to cook. It’s about food literacy, which means teaching children what foods to eat and why, how to understand food labeling information and how and why we need to prepare and cook food safely.” says Griffith University School of Education and Professional Studies Dean, Donna Pendergast.

This leads me to a personal soap box…

100years-HomeEc1949

In an article titled, “Compulsory home economics essential to fight childhood obesity“, the home economics advocate blog, HomeEcConnect, states: “We are losing basic survival skills.  Home Economics is essential for learning about the basics of growing, transporting, purchasing, preparing, nutritional values, cooking, presenting, enjoying, cleaning up and storage of food.  ‘Food literacy” is about learning food skills as a holistic concept.”

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Dr. Arya Sharma (Director of the Canadian Obesity Network) says “time to bring back home economics” because “the art of basic food preparation and meal planning may be a very real part of the obesity solution”.

Our kid’s need to learn to cook good food. Period.

Budget’s are tight, and school days are long, we know. Frankly, I don’t mind a computer doing my math, or my science, but I don’t want one cooking my food. If we’re going to cut something from the curriculum, let’s not make it the one thing that is at the core of our survival and well-being as a species, shall we?

If my daughter’s lack of proficiency in trigonometry means she might live longer than her parents…I’m okay with that.

Speaking of which daughter started learning to cook at three, now, at five, she is an adept omelet, salad, and sandwich maker, a savvy produce shopper, and could give Chef Gordon Ramsey a run for “kitchen tyrant.” She loves to cook, and is more adventurous and open in her eating than most adults I know.

But, not every child has the (sometimes) good fortune of having a father who’s a chef, who’s father was a chef, who’s father was a chef.

What do we do? We fill the gap!

While, in this author’s opinion, mandatory home economics classes, for both genders, are vital…what do we do to help those who are already out of school; folks who have jobs, and families, and bills, and budgets?

We started hautemealz.com, in part, to help fill this gap. We believe that to help people make responsible changes in planning, shopping and cooking, that those changes, to be effective and lasting, must SIMPLIFY their already too-busy lives, instead of further complicating them.

As our subscribers cook their way through their weekly menus, they learn basic cooking and nutrition techniques and skills, sometimes directly from short video clips, blogs posts, and Q & A, but mostly passively, though the hands-on process of actually preparing easy, non-threatening, nutritious recipes. They are introduced to new vegetables, healthier cuts of meat, etc, and soon have a grasp of what’s available, and what to do with it.

We believe that folks who are already spinning a lot of plates need to love it before they learn it, in other words, they need to prepare themselves a simple, delicious meal, before they need to learn why it’s good for them, and we hear this happening time after time from our subscribers.

We prepare a weekly shopping list of ingredients, organized by aisle, which saves them hours of planning and organizing, and we provide a color photo of each dish, so they know what they’re shooting for.

Mother and Daughter Making a Salad

We also encourage our readers to cook with their families, offering simple steps in the recipes that children of various ages can help with, and, hopefully, educating the next generation.

Lastly, we’re here for them. Professional and home cooks ready to answer their questions, provide options, and give tips and advice for exactly what they’re cooking.

That’s what we’re doing at SimplySmartDinnerPlans.com

Here are four things you can do to bridge the gap:

  • Learn to cook, and to cook healthier
  • Teach you kids, grandkids, or any kids to do the same
  • Become a regular customer of your local farmer’s market and independent food purveyor
  • Fight for mandatory food science classes in our public schools, and volunteer at an after-school program. (Those are your tax-dollars, you should have a say in how they’re spent!)

Bottom line: if we can help home-cooks prepare simple, affordable, healthy meals, in the time they have…we capture their attention, and can lead them towards a healthier, more responsible food lifestyle, one they will be explore with a sense of excitement, not guilt or frustration.

Become an advocate for people knowing their way around the kitchen, and you help bridge the gap between farm and table.

Let’s cook!

– Chef Perry