Let’s start with the kitchen basics. Not just the how-to-peel-a-potato basics, although we’ll get into some of that stuff, but the why-does-it-matter kitchen basics.
Processed vs Real Food
I realize not everyone has the advantage of being able to raise much of their own food, to drink raw milk from their own cow, make their own butter and render lard or tallow from their home-grown animals. Many of my recipes and techniques work just fine with conventional foods and suburban kitchens. What you absolutely will not find in here is a recipe that uses packaged ingredients (other than something like spices or pasta, or the tapioca in what my husband teases the kids is “fish-eye pudding”) or an ingredient list that begins with “1 carton Cool-Whip.” I don’t believe in processed food as a regular part of my diet, although I admit I eat potato chips and corn chips occasionally.
Agri-business, Monsanto and the fast-food conglomerates have done tremendous damage to the health of the American public and unfortunately, too many physicians think the way to deal with the problem is to prescribe to manage symptoms and side effects instead of getting to the root of the problem, which in many cases is food without nutrition that is loaded with herbicides and pesticides, animals raised in confinement and fed antibiotics that create superbugs and tons of manure that pollutes streams, rivers and oceans (how’s that for a run-on sentence?).
I’ll give you just one example. Australian aborigines diagnosed with diabetes, who had been eating the “white man’s diet,” returned to eating their traditional diet in a controlled experiment. Guess what? Their diabetes either got considerably better or went away entirely.
Then there’s the issue of what it costs us as a nation to raise and transport our food. Guess what, again? It’s unsustainable. According to data from the US Department of Agriculture, it took 12 calories of energy to produce one calorie of food with conventional agricultural methods in 2002. By 2015, it was more like 15 calories. And that’s consumed foods, so it includes packaging, as well as waste and spoilage. Anyone who passed fourth grade math should be able to figure out that when it takes such a high input for the end results, eventually, something is going to go wrong in a big way. In other words, you use the equivalent of 1.3 gallons of gas every day to feed your face, about what you burn in your car to get around suburbia. And that does not include going to the grocery or the farmer’s market, just the actual apples and lettuce and hamburger you put on the table.
Most fertilizers are derived from petroleum or require large amounts of energy during their manufacture or extraction. Then there’s the little matter of shipping out-of-season fruits and veggies from south of the equator so we can have cardboard tomatoes and plastic lettuce in January. Energy inputs for meat are even higher than for produce and grains. The animals are fed grain raised by highly mechanized farms in feedlots to which they must be trucked or moved by rail.
In addition to the direct costs, consider that much of this system is based on debt financing – you don’t usually buy a $200,000 harvester or an 18-wheeler for cash, and those mechanized monsters are what make our current system work. And, like cars, there is always a newer, bigger, fancier model that costs even more and is heavily hyped by the dealers. Food and fuel prices are linked – when one goes up, so does the other. Now, there are efficiencies of scale; an 18-wheeler can haul a lot more than a pickup truck. On the other hand, the pickup truck may only need to travel 5 miles instead of several thousand.
All of this is a long-winded way of trying to help you understand that it’s important for you to eat local. That means grow everything you can yourself, or buy it locally, from farmers markets or local producers. It’s especially important in terms of meat, eggs and poultry. I’m not saying you can’t have coffee or chocolate. I am saying that Cheetos and Fritos should be a rare treat rather than an everyday snack, and that in December your tomatoes should be canned from your garden or sundried and preserved in oil ditto. Eat melons in July and August when they’re ripe in your area. Maybe you should rethink orange juice for breakfast unless you live in Florida or southern California. Try apple cider – apples can be grown almost anywhere in the US.
When you stop eating the Monsanto-ConAgra-Archer Daniels Midlands way, it means you have to know how to cook. Real cooking, as in peel the potatoes, grate the cheese, sauté the onions. It means you may need to learn how to dry your own herbs or make and freeze pesto when the basil is taking over the garden. You also need to learn how to substitute. Cooking from a pantry means you make do, instead of running to the store for that special ingredient. Out of baking powder? Mix your own from baking soda and cream of tartar. This also eliminates the aluminum common to most commercial baking powders, which is not good for your brain cells. No potatoes? Substitute rice or pasta. Only two apples? Make Waldorf salad instead of apple pie. Or cut the apples into fine dice, saute with cinnamon, honey and butter, and use to top tapioca or rice pudding.
If you do these things – meaning practice kitchen basics, stock your pantry, grow your own, source local foods and cook for yourself – it also means you will be protected when bad things happen: somebody loses a job, you get snowed in for a week or the whole bloody system crashes (and if you think that can’t happen, you haven’t studied enough history and you aren’t paying attention to what’s going on in today’s world). You’ll also save money if you do these things, which makes it easier to keep the larder well-stocked. Raw materials cost much less than processed foods, serve more for the same volume and can be used flexibly.
About Raw Milk
Since I realize we don’t live in a perfect world, and since I’m certainly one of the least perfect people in it, I’m also the first to admit that there are no hard and fast rules. When the milk cow developed anaplasmosis (nasty bacterial infection and she damned near died), it meant no calf and thus no milk for a year. Raw milk is available in our area from two sources. I can buy a cow share from a farmer who lives about 45 miles away. If I do that, my milk will cost me about $12.50 a gallon, plus an annual fee of $60 and a monthly board fee of $60. His cows are mixed dairy breeds rather than Jersey (much less cream), so it means I can’t make homemade butter, cream cheese or sour cream; I’ll have to buy them separately. It also means we add about forty miles and another hour to our weekly trip to town and haul a cooler to keep the milk jars cold until we get home.
Other option: our local health food store sells organic raw milk, cream, butter and sour cream, most of it from dairies in California. The milk alone cost almost $17 a gallon the last time I checked and it comes in a plastic jug. I’m not even a little excited about the idea of storing food in plastic, because it leaches (I use glass jars). After weighing all factors, I pretty much gave up drinking milk until the cow freshened again. I drank a little raw cream in my coffee until the next May, which is when we had a baby calf on the ground. When we have our own milk, I usually drink two or three glasses a day.
By the way, it costs me approximately $4 a day to produce my milk. My cow gives an average of two gallons a day over the course of her 10-month lactation, so my home-grown milk costs $2 a gallon. That cost includes feed, supplements, salt, minerals and one-half to one-third of the annual rent-a-bull cost. Pretty good deal, especially considering I get cream and butter out of that two dollars as well as sour cream, cottage cheese, ricotta and buttermilk. The excess milk and whey is fed to the pigs and chickens, so it also makes pork chops and scrambled eggs and fried chicken. My animals, family and I all eat healthier on raw milk. It also explains why I clutched my chest and nearly had the Big One right there in the health food store when I saw the price of their raw milk. This is the answer to the age-old question: Why keep a cow when milk is cheap? Of course, that question is being asked on a completely different topic than food production, but still…
Sorry, got a little off topic here and moved into the gardening/food production realm (I told you this book would crisscross back and forth!). Ahem, where were we? Oh, yes, kitchen basics. We’ll cover the rest of that topic in the next post.