Commentary

Do convenience foods undermine the family dinner?

An article in The Atlantic suggests that they do:

Even when all members of a family were at home, eating dinner together was a challenge in many households. Why?

Two less acknowledged reasons for why family dinners were a challenge for the families stand out: convenience foods filling refrigerators and cupboards supplied individualized snacks and meals for family members; and family dinnertime often gave way to intergenerational conflicts surrounding children’s food choices. The consumption of preprepared convenience foods, many of which are packaged as individual meals, stand alongside busy schedules as a root factor in undermining dinner as a family event.

The article, adapted from a book-length study by a pair of UCLA researchers of “dual-earning middle-class families” in Los Angeles, describes families in which the mere fact that kids snack frequently and eat “special” meals makes it difficult for them to grasp, or parents to enforce, shared mealtimes. Oh, and guess what else? Using packaged convenience foods did not save these families time over cooking from scratch. (more…)

The vegetable plate as status symbol

Twenty years ago last fall I made my first purchase at a farmer’s market. I was on my own, in my second week of graduate school, in a new state, a new region, with an empty stomach and an empty refrigerator. On a lark I rode my bicycle, not because I was young (though I was) and environmentally conscious (I wasn’t, particularly) but because I couldn’t afford to get my car fixed, to a market for which I’d seen a sign the previous weekend.

I found myself at a stand owned by a woman with a blonde braided ponytail, middle-aged (by which I mean about the age I am now), chattering cheerfully with customers she’d clearly known for years, idly rearranging the produce to keep it attractive and accessible. Comfortable, she seemed, and welcoming, but it wasn’t she that drew me. It was, rather, the array of peppers on the table: red, orange, yellow, and green; long and short; round and squat and pointed and oblong. I had never seen anything like them. Bell peppers I knew, and jalepeños, but this mad cornucopia of capsici baffled me. I might have asked which were hot or sweet and what their flavor, but I was overwhelmed, and I couldn’t have kept track of it all anyway. So I pioneered the gleeful defense of the introverted gourmet, to which I’ve repaired almost continually in the decades since. I bought some of everything, with not a clue what I was going to do with them. (more…)

Area man still not eating his veggies

Despite pleading and prodding from the feds, kids still won’t eat their veggies. A New York school district has decided to forgo federal funding for school lunches because of complaints about mandated smaller portion sizes and because new rules requiring kids to be served fruits and vegetables was resulting in massive waste:

The school district has decided to not participate in the National School Lunch program, saying recent changes requiring more fruits and vegetables on each tray has resulted in kids throwing the lunches away….

As part of the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, school lunches now must meet strict federal guidelines to address the epidemic of childhood obesity. Some of the rules include: serving larger portions of fruits and vegetables, offering dark green and deep orange vegetables and legumes every week, using whole grains in half the grains served and reducing salt by 10 percent….

[Superintendent Kay] Salvaggio said in her letter that “our school meals will continue to be nutritious and well-rounded” and that while kids can take a fruit and a vegetable, they won’t be required to do so. Portion sizes will also increase, a reaction to the reduced amount of food allowed under the new federal guidelines.

This would be news, I guess, except that the USDA has been telling Americans to eat their veggies for ninety-six years, and we haven’t listened yet. Did we really think putting them on kids’ trays unasked would work? (Especially if they look like the vegetables the school cafeteria served when I was a kid?)

The thing is, the USDA knows, or at least claims to know, what makes a successful nutrition education program, and they’ve known since the Second World War. Here’s what the Food and Nutrition Service says such a program must do: (more…)

How much do Americans actually spend on food? (And how much should we?)

Last week I was trying to figure out what portion of their incomes Americans spend on food. (Why is a long story.) A lot of numbers are bandied about, but usually by people trying to make one political point or another, and it was more difficult than I expected to nail down anything reliable. But I managed to find out not only what people at various income levels do spend on food, but also what they’d have to spend in order to eat a healthy diet. The answers were, respectively, more than I thought… and considerably more than that.

The claim I most often read is that American food is ludicriously cheap. By historical and global standards, it is — but how cheap? The Gates Foundation reported last year that only 6 percent of Americans’ household expenditures went to food, compared with more than 10 percent in most of Europe and 35% in India. Their point is that the world’s poor spend a great deal more of their money on food than we do, which is true, and they intend to fund agricultural research so that the rest of the world can have cheap food like we do. Mother Jones republished the Gates Foundation’s bar chart to make a different point, that Americans spend very little — probably too little — of our incomes on food, and that this cheap food is possible only because we subsidize large-scale agriculture through taxes and externalize costs to the environment, to animal welfare, to workers, and to our health. (Since 1995 we’ve given $277 billion in subsidies to just 38 percent of U.S. farms, including more than $100 billion just to produce cheap corn and soy, most of which goes into various processed foods, most of which are far more caloric than nutritious and are by nearly every standard a major reason so many Americans are overweight.) This is, I think, also true, and we’re paying for those cheap calories through our health care expenses.

But I question this 6 percent figure. It seems impossibly low, and the Gates Foundation’s chart is drawn so vividly that it makes me suspicious. (Why is the bar for India’s food expenditures several times taller than the bar for all its expenditures? Even if the numbers are wrong, the chart is exaggerated for visual effect.) So I dug a little deeper. (more…)

Coffee and craft

Julian Baggini writes in a thoughtful essay that high-end restaurants in the United Kingdom have thrown out the idea of “artisan” espresso and bought Nespresso machines, which use factory-sealed capsules of precision-ground coffee and can be operated with the push of a button. In fact, as Baggini discovered in a blind taste test, Nespresso is consistently better, or at least more consistently good, than “artisan” espresso made by hand. But, he asks, is a cup of coffee just a cup of coffee — just the momentary pleasure it gives us, a mere utilitarian instrument? Or is it something more — the sum of its relationships to other things? (more…)

The idea of a sandwich

A couple of weeks ago I spent the morning with the family at an art museum, and we wanted to stay past lunchtime, so we decided to grab a sandwich at a temporary café they had opened. “Temporary café” is a phrase that makes me nervous. I tried to size the place up. There were some upscale things on the menu that cost more than I wanted to spend. On the flip side, I suspected that anything potentially greasy was likely to be severely greasy, perhaps disastrously so. The only vegetarian option I could see was a kids’ PB&J. So I ordered what looked safe, a turkey and brie sandwich.

Which the guy promptly handed me from a refrigerator case.

The turkey was at least recognizable as roasted turkey. The bread appeared on sight to be some sort of foccacia-like thing, but refrigerated it was just bland and chewy. The brie had no flavor whatsoever. Even good brie served cold is pretty bland; cheaper stuff straight from the fridge might as well be cream cheese or commodity baby Swiss. To make matters worse, the architect of this sandwich had determined curry mayonnaise and chutney to be the appropriate accoutrements. Had the sandwich been toasted, the brie gooey and aromatic, the condiments might have set off the strong flavor of the cheese.. Cold, I couldn’t taste anything but curry. Cold, chewy curry.

The sandwich was, in short, a waste of cheese, bread, meat, and money, all because somebody stuck it in the refrigerator for a few hours. Did I mention this sandwich set me back nine bucks? Did I mention we were a captive audience?

My first impulse at times like this is to gripe about attention to detail. For want of a nail, etc.. They made other sandwiches to order (including a Reuben); why not this one? Why not make the little extra effort to do it right? Or else serve me a decent plate of beans and rice, with which I’d have been perfectly happy.

On reflection, though, I hadn’t paid nine dollars for a sandwich. I paid nine dollars for the idea of a sandwich. (more…)

Scientifically sound? Maybe. But wise?

“Let’s start the new year on scientifically sound footing,” writes Jane Brody in the New York Times (“What You Think You Know (but Don’t) About Wise Eating,” December 31), and quotes “one of Canada’s brightest scientific minds” to the effect that “chemical” shouldn’t be a dirty word, because all food is made of chemicals and there’s chemistry going on everywhere. True enough. Sadly but predictably, she (and, one has to presume, Joe Schwarcz, the scientist she cites) jumps straight to the conclusion that food is nothing more than a bunch of chemicals, and uses it as an excuse to justify industrial food and fling barbs at the alternatives. (more…)

Abundance and want: A thought for St. Stephen’s Day

The beef has been roasted, the cookies devoured, the wine and the eggnog drunk. Bits of ribbon still litter the floor. But there are leftovers, glorious leftovers, and it’s nearly lunchtime on the east coast. Huzzah, indeed.

In between shopping for bigger pants, though, let’s give a thought to those who had too little, or nothing at all, to eat yesterday, and today, and the day after. Better yet, let’s actually do something. Giving money isn’t all that needs to be done, but it is one thing, and thanks to the internet we can do that one thing without even getting off our holiday-sized behinds. (As a dozen emails a day remind me, not nearly all of them charitably.) (more…)

Lessons from Julia

Today is the hundredth anniversary of Julia Child’s birth, and even Google is remembering her. (Although Google has a new home page every day anymore, so I’m not sure this is noteworthy.) What is there to say, really, that hasn’t already been said? When a few years ago I watched The French Chef on DVD, even after two decades of cooking almost every day and reading endless cookbooks I picked up a trick or two from nearly every episode. She was an effective teacher if one wanted to learn and an entertaining teacher even if one didn’t, and the instructional writing in her cookbooks is impeccable. Those aren’t compliments I give out lightly, and they ought to be enough of a commemoration.

In our hyperbolic culture, though, they’re barely noticeable. Witness Julia Moskin in the New York Times yesterday proclaiming the Apotheosis of Julia: (more…)

In further defense of scrapple

Doubtless some readers will have been puzzled yesterday by my use of scrapple as a model of purity. But, you know, there is scrapple, and then there is scrapple. There’s country scrapple and city scrapple, as the distinction used to be drawn, back when country people, or at least country butchers, still made their own. There was country panhaas, made by Pennsylvania Germans, and there was its bastard cousin Philadelphia scrapple. (more…)