Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Economics of being a Foodie

I recently posted about rising food prices, which is not something that looks to abate soon, and apropos of that, here is an interesting article today in Slate, by Sarah Dickerman, called The Extravagant Gourmet... which touches on a lot of things I've been thinking and reading about food, and my relationship with it. It's a short, and fairly good article, so go read it.

Though not exactly fond of "saffron infused" whatever, my cookbook authors of choice, Cook's Illustrated, are, indeed, completely oblivious to cost. Their focus is on "the best" ingredients for a recipe to fit their vision, and if that means using a more expensive cut of meat then they are more than happy to do it. Being that I am still a novice cook and tend towards following recipes religiously, this means I tend to spend a lot of money when I cook... even when you're cooking la cucina povera(poor food), as the article puts it, Cook's somehow makes it cost at least $30 (granted this can often last several days and many meals, so it's not so bad, but it's also not "budget"). Now obviously, I can get intrigued by $13 dollar chickens, so glass houses and whatnot... can't exactly blame my cookbooks for all my culinary extravagance.

However, beyond that, the article touches on two things I think are interesting and want to explore more in the coming months and weeks:
The time seems right for a mainstream voice (better yet, voices) to marry the pleasures of the table with the reality of a reduced budget, perhaps by using what we've learned from the food revolution. Michael Pollan has already made a big splash this year by recommending that people shy away from packaged products and eat less meat—two steps that are not only a grassroots vote for a new kind of food system but that will help save money. It's possible, after all, to economize without reverting to a freezer full of Tex-Mex lasagna (one of those "mock-ethnic dishes that American dieticians love," as Jeffrey Steingarten puts it). A new home economics could harness seasonal ingredients and real ethnic flavors; it could weave a lusty appreciation of food with a sober appreciation of the grocery dollar.

The first thing is Michael Pollan's new book, which is linked in the above quote, and whose overarching theme of "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."(this is also a great article, but a little long) I find quite intriguing. I'm still waiting in digital line at the library to get my hands on the book, though I am pretty close to breaking down and just buying it, so I don't have much to say about it... but in the linked article, you'll find him rail fairly effectively about how poorly the focus on nutrients, like dietary fat, which WHOOPS! may not make that much difference, has served us. I am sympathetic to this argument, and would like to explore it further once I have finally read his book. In addition, the "mostly vegetables" portion of Pollan's mantra reminds me that, though I live with a Vegan, we haven't been cooking as much together lately, and my diet has been pretty animal protein focused. Something we will rectify tonight with Provencal Vegetable Soup au Pistou... but I really need to start thinking of meat as more of a side dish than I have been.

The second issue, is "seasonal ingredients", which reminds me of Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle which is about a family's attempt to live only on locally produced foods. It is very interesting book, though I admit to getting bored with the proselytizing and never finishing it, that brings up a lot issues about the environmental costs of buying asparagus in December and about how Americans as a group have really no idea where there food comes from and what's involved with getting it on the table. I mean, if you don't have a garden, do you really have much idea of when different vegetables are in season? I don't, at least, but if you are interested in being environmentally and economically responsible, then buying local in season produce is the only way to go. To this end, I am making it my summer project to patronize Cambridge Farmer's Markets(looks like I can start going after we get back from Jamaica at the start of June) and plan to report back here on how it goes.

If you want to put a silver lining on the global crisis rising food prices could cause... at least Farmer's Market produce might seem reasonably priced in comparison... though I assume that's small comfort to a Bangladeshi rioting over the cost of a cup of rice.

Anyway, I'm going to see if I can do my little part and eat locally and nutritionally. We shall see.