I was in a Gristede’s a short walk from my apartment late Wednesday evening and thinking to myself, this produce section could tell stories just by taking a one- to two-minute stroll through. In one corner sit a pile of regular, bagged carrots, the kind you have to peel and trim. In another corner are at least two or three piles of baby carrots, the kind that are ready-to-eat. Now, you can make a few inferences from that alone, about the eating habits of New Yorkers who live in this part of Manhattan, without walking through the rest of the place. A mountain of cabbage lies forlornly underneath a shelf laden with orange and yellow bell peppers. Off to one side is an island of tomatoes, potatoes and onions. All of this would appear perfectly normal were it in the middle of summer, except it’s the third week of January.
The rest of this supermarket depresses me, and in some ways, enrages me. Rice pudding costs $3.19 for maybe two cups worth. You can make it for literally pennies, and it won’t have ingredients listed in this order: “rice, sugar, milk, rice starch, eggs, natural flavors”. At the very least, your version will automatically be better, and you won’t have to add more plastic to your trash.
There are aisles and shelves full of crap packaged as food. Some ARE actual food, but most of it is certifiable garbage. When you shop, do you take note of what you see and think about what the supermarket seems to be saying, only not in so many words? Try this exercise out some time. It’ll be illuminating.
A while ago, Michael Pollan wrote a long essay in the New York Times Sunday magazine on the decline and fall of cooking in America, an excerpt of which is below. If you think I’m being dramatic by saying that cooking seems to be on its way out, you have only to step into any supermarket in the United States and look at what is being sold. It used to be that you’d go to the market to obtain ingredients, from which you’d be able to cook a meal or three. Now more than ever, the vast majority of items sold at supermarkets nationwide emphasize speed and efficiency; this is so that you have enough time in your day to do something OTHER than cooking. While “making a sandwich” is technically cooking, it’s not the kind of ‘cooking’ that’s explored at Simple Kitchen Seasons.
I spent an enlightening if somewhat depressing hour on the phone with a veteran food-marketing researcher, Harry Balzer, who explained that “people call things ‘cooking’ today that would roll their grandmother in her grave — heating up a can of soup or microwaving a frozen pizza.” Balzer has been studying American eating habits since 1978; the NPD Group, the firm he works for, collects data from a pool of 2,000 food diaries to track American eating habits. Years ago Balzer noticed that the definition of cooking held by his respondents had grown so broad as to be meaningless, so the firm tightened up the meaning of “to cook” at least slightly to capture what was really going on in American kitchens. To cook from scratch, they decreed, means to prepare a main dish that requires some degree of “assembly of elements.” So microwaving a pizza doesn’t count as cooking, though washing a head of lettuce and pouring bottled dressing over it does. Under this dispensation, you’re also cooking when you spread mayonnaise on a slice of bread and pile on some cold cuts or a hamburger patty. (Currently the most popular meal in America, at both lunch and dinner, is a sandwich; the No. 1 accompanying beverage is a soda.) At least by Balzer’s none-too-exacting standard, Americans are still cooking up a storm — 58 percent of our evening meals qualify, though even that figure has been falling steadily since the 1980s.
Like most people who study consumer behavior, Balzer has developed a somewhat cynical view of human nature, which his research suggests is ever driven by the quest to save time or money or, optimally, both. I kept asking him what his research had to say about the prevalence of the activity I referred to as “real scratch cooking,” but he wouldn’t touch the term. Why? Apparently the activity has become so rarefied as to elude his tools of measurement.
“Here’s an analogy,” Balzer said. “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it.”
I’m fortunate enough to surround myself with people who are interested about food — how we think about food, how to prepare food and what we eat from day to day. When the Internet first came onto the scene, there weren’t that many online food fora where like-minded people could interact. Now there are literally hundreds of sites, from foodblogs to fora such as eGullet and Serious Eats, to e-lists such as the Community Food Security Coalition, a mailing list based in Portland, Oregon. This plethora of food sites gives me hope that cooking is alive and well, that even though childhood obesity and diet-related illnesses are issues which we grapple with every day in America, the conventional wisdom holds that society will not soon forget this most essential of life skills.
So you can imagine my dismay when I talk to people who think I’m crazy when I tell them that cooking is easy, that making chicken stock from scratch is a relaxing activity. They can’t imagine why I would schlep 60 blocks to a farmer’s market downtown when it’s more convenient to go to a corner store across the street. How do you find the time?, they ask. It’s inconceivable as far as they’re concerned.
Sometimes, it makes me wonder what planet I’m living on.
Insalata Uovo e Carne Secca — Warm Salad, with Egg and Pancetta
If you can’t find pancetta, substitute unsmoked bacon instead.
For the dressing:
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon red wine
sea salt, to taste
freshly milled black pepper, to taste
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegars and red wine. Whisk in the sea salt, black pepper and the olive oil. You can use this dressing for any salad, not just the one in this recipe. Often, I’ll turn to this particular dressing if I’m not in the mood for a lemon juice-based vinaigrette (extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt, black pepper, herbs).
For the salad:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon minced mixed herbs (use any combination of fresh rosemary, oregano, thyme, Italian parsley, mint or marjoram)
2 ounces pancetta, sliced and cut into strips
sea salt, to taste
freshly milled black pepper, to taste
2 cups washed, mixed salad greens, torn into bite-sized pieces
2 tablespoons dressing (see above)
Place the olive oil, herbs and pancetta in a large frying pan and cook over medium heat. When the pancetta is transparent (roughly after about 6 to 7 minutes), beat together the eggs, salt and pepper, and scramble them in the pan. The mixture shouldn’t be too dry. If you see that it’s becoming too dry, remove the pan from heat and continue stirring for a minute.
Dress the greens with the dressing. Fold greens into the egg mixture. Toss once or twice, then serve immediately on individual salad plates. This is delicious as is, or with a little shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, as pictured above.
Time: 30 minutes, including prep.